Category Archives: Transcribed

Anarchists in Ukraine Against War

Anarchists in Ukraine Against War

"No War Between Nations! No Peace Between Classes!” A mural in Moscow promoting Autonomous Action.
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On Thursday, February 24th, I spoke with Ilya, a Russian anarchist living and organizing in Kyiv, Ukraine. We spoke about the relationship between Russia and Ukraine, the Maidan uprising and war in the Donbass, resistance to the invasion of Ukraine and the Putin regime, conspiracy theories about Ukraine promoted by Russia and Russian-aligned media outlets, critiques of the Ukrainian state, and anarchists choosing their own path of self-defense and revolutionary mutual aid in the face of invading armies.

You can learn more, following anarchists organizing resistance on the ground in Ukraine and find out how to donate to their initiatives and share your solidarity by visiting https://linktr.ee/operation.solidarity .

To hear interviews about resistance and repression in Russia from the last decade, check out our past interviews. You can also find an interview from the period of the Maidan protests as well as experiences from Belarus.

We’re releasing this episode a little early to get this voice out at such an important moment. No war but the class war, y’all!

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Featured Track:

Лютая погодка by Граница from their 2012 album Знамя Цвета Ночи (written by Fedir Shchus of the Revolutionary Insurgent Army of Ukraine / Makhnovichina)

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Transcription

TSFR: Would you please introduce yourself with whatever name, preferred gender pronouns, location or political affiliations that make sense for this conversation?

Ilya: Yes, my name is Ilya . I am an anarchist from Russia, currently living in Kyiv and staying in Kyiv.

TSFR: I’d like to ask you a bit about what’s been going on in Ukraine for the last few months, with international tensions. But I kind of feel like a brief rundown of the sort of the relationship between Ukraine historically and with Russia would be kind of helpful. Could you speak a little bit about the historical relationship? Or the Soviet Union as it was at one point? What sort of like emotional or nationalist claims does Russia make for occupying Crimea or for occupying Ukraine?

Ilya: Oh, yes, sure, we have some, like big tensions at least from the autumn. But it also happened through past several years, several times already, where some threat of war was believed to be in the air. But as we see only now, it really came into reality at full scale.

So this is… how to say, this strategy of blackmailing and of pressure, which was made by the Putinist government on the local authorities, also on the local system. And the relations are very bad between the two countries since 2014. Since after Maidan protests of 2013-14 and removal of the pro-Russian President Yanukovych, Russia invaded Crimea and annexed it and also invaded the Donbass region, using some more loyal parts of the local population to Russia. So historically, I guess maybe it doesn’t making a lot of sense to go really deep into the historical context. So we can say briefly that in the very old times, maybe around 1000 or 700 years ago who are today Ukrainians and Russians (then just Eastern Slavic peoples) were a part of common political entity and also have common linguistic group. We are all still in the Eastern Slavic group, both Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians, which speak pretty close languages. But then their historical ways, they really separated for some reasons. And then by the end, it started already in 17th century and finished in late 18th century, when the territory of modern Ukraine was incorporated into the Russian Empire. And since then, we can speak actually about colonization of local territories by the Russian empire. With the Soviet revolution, labels changed, the equality of peoples was declared and also internationalism as a main policy, but still actually we can say that Soviet Union in many aspects, was still a very imperially designed state, with the center in Moscow with the predominance of Russian language. And in many different ways centered the political and economical system of Moscow, of Russia.

So after Soviet Union collapsed, all the republics which constructed the Soviet Union in general, they got actual state independence. But then after Putin came into power in 1999, he started this, I would say, neo-imperialist or neo-colonialist organizational politics of restoring the Russian State influence on the former Soviet Union area. His politics about helping pro-Russian presidents to come into power like with Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine, and then harsh reaction in situations like when these presidents were overthrown, especially by the popular uprising, such as the Maidan uprising. It was even not electoral protest process, it was a really popular movement which threw Yanukovych out of power and kept him out. Since then, I think we can count the start of the modern stage of Ukrainian-Russian relations, since 2014 with the Yanukovych ousting and Crimea annexation.

TSFR: There’s definitely some people in the quote unquote anti imperialist left in other parts of the world that are saying that the territorial integrity of Russia and its border is being threatened by the de facto participation of Ukraine in the EU or relationship to the European Union or relationship to NATO, as if Ukraine is necessarily it’s either a part of the Russian Federation in the restoration of historical Russia or historical Soviet Union of the Stalin era, or it is gobbled up and controlled as a puppet state by the European Union and and by NATO, by Western capitalist powers or imperialist powers. I’m sure a lot of our conversations going to sort of play with that idea and break it down. But can you talk about that idea, or how that relates to the the Maidan movement and the annexation of the Donbass and Crimea, and what what’s happened in those territories?

Ilya: Yes. So maybe first we can touch on this nationalist sentiment, which you mentioned previously. Because our peoples, Ukrainians and Russians are historically close and also linguistically and culturally close. It’s also because of years of some imperialist role that there is widespread of usage of Russian language around here, especially eastern and southern parts of the country. They speak predominantly Russian. And this gives space for speculations that actually we are one people as, for example, Putin likes to speculate. And that there is some somehow historical reasons for our so called “geopolitical integrity.” Which is, of course, just a propagandistic tool for some authoritarian power with some geopolitical ambitions to use these historical and cultural toys for their own benefit to make some speculative ground for their invasions.

So if we then jump to this problem of NATO and the EU, bringing Ukraine into their zone of influence by NATO and European Union. Of course, it’s really it really takes place, especially since 2014, because new authorities which came into power after the Maidan uprising. They were clearly pro-Western and its’s also hard to deny that a lot of locals have some pro-Western sentiment. Because for people in Eastern Europe, and in all post-Soviet nations, the Western world still creates a role model of lifestyle. I would say, because European Union is very close [geographically] and is not that culturally distant. And still they have this, how to say, nice and comfortable Western life. And many people think in our regions, not only in Ukrainian, Belarusian in Russia, as well, in every corner of post Soviet space… People dream about having a life like this. And this is also a matter to be used by some political manipulators of so called pro-Western orientation. And Ukraine is not excluded or even a bright example of that. However still, any expansion of NATO and European Union is actually superficial, because there were not really even any suggestions or proposals for the Ukraine to join these organizations.

So this, let’s say, very chimerical, artificial threat for Russian statehood is once again used as a tool to justify pressure and invasion. These attempts to make, as you said already, Ukraine [into] a puppet state for Putin’s regime, or to wage war, as we see today.

TSFR: You‘ve mentioned that there are more people in the east and the south who speak Russian, maybe are in the Orthodox Church, or, in some ways identify with Russia. Can you say a few words about the quote unquote People’s Republics in Donetsk and Luhansk. And their relationship to Russia. The Duma just asked Putin to recognize the independence of these states and he said that it was years late, that he should have done this before. But to your understanding, is there any truth that these are republics?

Ilya: How to say… Ukrainian society is a very multi layered in the cultural aspects. So linguistic affiliations, as well as religious affiliations, they don’t necessarily at all construct some political loyalties, especially in terms like pro-Russian or pro-Western. Yes, southern and eastern regions, they are very much Russian speaking. But in no way at all does the majority of the people or even a considerable number of the people support the integration with Putinist Russia. No way! It’s just not like this. Also the Orthodox Church here is separated into different factions. We have here both the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and also Ukrainian branch of Moscow Orthodox Church. This separation somehow influence the political loyalties, but also not totally. Even if a person is Russian speaking, and go into Ukrainian branch of Moscow Orthodox Church, it doesn’t necessarily mean that this person is loyal to the Russian government. But still yes, in Crimea, and in eastern and southern regions, there are more sympathizers for Russian state and also for the Putinist regime. And for example, so called Oppositional Platform, the party which is still present present in Ukrainian parliament, holds clearly pro-Putin positions, and still mostly supported in southern and eastern areas. But by no way by the majority of the population.

So what I want to say briefly that a lot of people who speaks mostly Russian here, they still don’t want to be integrated in some new Russian new empire, or to be subjugated by Putin’s regime.

And about the political nature… Crimea is another story. A lot of people, I would say, actually associated themselves with Russia in this territory. But it is also far from being the social consensus in Crimea. For example, the indigenous people of Crimea, the Crimean Tatars, are a large part of the population and are really unhappy and disloyal to the so called new [Russian] authorities in Crimea. And they even try to resist it somehow. So there is also a split within Crimean community, I would say, would be correct to say.

About so called to popular Republic’s, of course, they are not Republic’s at all, they could never exist without direct support from the Russian state, both in economical conditions and more important by military conditions. So of course, we need to say that there is some support from the grassroots for this republic, but is not not even nearly enough to hold any anti-Ukrainian separatists insurgency. So this is not an authentic, separatist movement. Actually, this is totally orchestrated by Russian state and military. These are not republics at all. Actually, I would say, they’re criminal quasi-states, ruled by some sort of mafias, which is called governments of this so called “republics.” And these mafias hold the power, since they are fully controlled and fully loyal and fully manipulated by Kremlin.

TSFR: In the past month, and particularly, it’s been escalating, you’ve seen more than 100,000 Russian troops along the eastern border with Ukraine, the participation in impromptu drills and war games involving 10s of 1000s of aligned Belarusian troops to the north, naval deployments in the sea south of Ukraine, and the activation of troops in occupied Moldova. There have even been nuclear training exercises in recent days. And as I’m hearing, there’s been shelling already in the Donbass, but I’ve heard that shelling has actually started in other parts of Ukraine, the parts that aren’t occupied.

There’s also this this issue that Western governments and the Ukrainian government saying Russia is going to do a “false flag” activity to claim a reason to do an invasion. And there was in fact, a car bomb of the head of security forces in one of the quote unquote People’s Republics that Russia was claiming was a terrorist act and an activity by the Ukrainian government. I guess we’ve sort of already talked about how this is just Russian expansion.

Is there any sort of activity any sort of truth to these, what’s been called false flag activities? Or or the claims of active genocide in the eastern part of the country against Russian speaking peoples, which the Putin administration regime has been using as an argument of why they needed to defend them?

Ilya: First of all, you’re absolutely correct. Today, early morning, we got up because every parts of Ukraine were actually bombed by heavy airstrikes from the Russian side. As far as I can estimate up to now, their main targets were both civil and military airports, and also other military targets. But they bombed pretty near to the civilian inhabited places, and as far as I know, up to now dozens of civilians already killed by Putinist forces from the sky.

About your question… In no way do I want to whitewash the Ukrainian state. First of all, I would not call Ukrainian state “super nationalist”, even though this is, of course, a classic nation state, actually, with all its obvious shortcomings. And also with some politics for ethnic and national unification, which is unjust, of course. So what else should be said about it? This is also very neoliberal and poor state, providing continuously and extensively neoliberal reforms which are reducing social help and safety for the working people, for the poor people of this country. And some nationalist sentiment, of course, is present in this society. Some people believe that people here should speak only Ukrainian language, because the Russian language was absolutely the colonizer’s language. But this is, of course, nonsense, from my point of view, because millions of Ukrainians prefer Russian language. All this creates splits within this society, and creates tensions and create a space for some political advances of certain political forces.

But of course, there is no ethnic cleansing, there is no genocide. This is absolutely over-exaggeration, which is used consciously by Russian forces, by Putinist forces, I would prefer to say, to play this card of military invasion and of their political expansion. There is no, how to say, forcing people to speak another language, for example, and there is no really repression and violence against people who may not fit well into Ukrainian nation state frame. There are certain problems, of course, but what we see today, is just an attempt to over-exaggerate all the problems and to instrumentalize these problems for clearly imperialist aggression.

Just now curfew is declared in Kiev from 10pm, but we still have a lot of time before it. Okay?

TSFR: Okay. So we see with the air raids, with the bombings that are happening, it’s clear that Russia is not just about saber-rattling, which a lot of people were proposing beforehand… that it was more about getting international attention and proving itself that it can destabilize the Ukrainian economy and bring a lot of other world powers to the table. This was kind of an assumption of Putin’s logic. But at this point, obviously, it’s it’s more than that. A lot of people were saying beforehand that it didn’t seem likely that the Russian regime would end up invading because the military force that they could muster probably wouldn’t be enough to actually occupy Ukraine. Between all of the aid that’s been coming internationally, the buildup of NATO and US troops and neighboring countries, the training of the Ukrainian population in Civil Defense forces that seem to be preparing for the possibility of guerrilla warfare against an occupation… But all of that aside, Russia’s doing what it’s doing right now.

Did trying to figure out what was going on with the Russian administration and where their decision making was.. was that helpful, do you think or was that kind of a distraction, to actually preparing for the real possibility of what we’re seeing now?

Ilya: Well, if I understood your question correctly, I would think that the Russian government… I am far from thinking that they are like stupid or crazy or something, but somehow they are really going wild. Because they feel that they are somehow facing the final battle now. They have lost popularity within Russia actually, and they need some more doping, I would say, to make it increase again, internal popularity. They also feel that the so-called “international community” is actually a weak and fragmented and they try to use these holes within the international community, and with this world establishment consensus, to make some game change and to provide their authoritarian interests. I think we can compare it fairly well with the behavior of Turkish state, which has their own, let’s say, “popular republics” in Syria, for example, and also extending their influence abroad its borders. So I think these two new imperialist states, they make actually very similar politics.

So for me, it seems that they understand… And also we need to do remember that since 2014, when European sanctions were imposed, the economical situation in Russia has been worsening from year to year, which also contributes to a growing unpopularity of this regime, in Russian minds, I would say. Because of this, I think that the Russian authorities feel themselves still very powerful, and they are actually, but at the same time they feel themselves a little bit like in the “Ragnarok” film, like in some final battle for them to protect their privileged position and their full control over the country and abroad. And that is the reason why I think they play such wild games, both inside Russia and abroad.

TSFR: Are you aware of anti militarist opposition inside of the Russian Federation, like this building conflict has been simultaneous to Russia aiding suppression in Belarus by Lukashenko as well as putting down the Kazakh unrest?

Ilya: Oh, yes, I am. I know that a lot of people in Russia don’t like war at all. I know this, I’m pretty sure about this. This is obvious for me. At the same time, you need to know that all political opposition, from liberal, far right, and anarchist and leftist side were extensively smashed during the last year’s. For example, you probably heard, even in the the US about the so called “Network Case” against Russian anarchists, and a lot of different cases like this were going on. So they also killed opposition leaders, like Liberal leader Boris Nemtsov, they have imprisoned Alexei Navalny, who is one of the biggest populist liberal leaders in Russian opposition.

So they did work well to destroy all the opposition forces. Since 2011, we had several sparks, I would say, sparks of a resistance, of really broad protest movements. But they didn’t succeed finally, they were more or less co-opted or smashed by the state or they just died because time passed away and they still gained no results. And after each of these sparks, the government use their opportunity to suppress more and more the opposition. One big last increase of the protests we saw last winter in January 2021 when this populist Navalny returned to Russia and many of his supporters. But also even more of just people unhappy with the situation in the country, they really came to the streets in many, many Russian cities to protest Putin’s politics. But they are all were suppressed. And then repressions became even harder and dozens of people were imprisoned. So now human rights defenders, speak about at least of 1,000 political prisoners in Russia. And we need to know that actually, there are many more because human rights defenders, they do not recognize all the people who are being imprisoned for their political activities.

Because of this now, there are a lot of unhappiness with this war in Russia, but there is no organizational tools, some movement tools, which could mobilize the people of Russia to protest against it. We already saw today, several separate actions against the invasion and against the war in Russia in different cities of Russia, but it’s still not a massive and organized movement. For example, we see no big demonstrations, as far as I know. I still hope to see them and maybe if war continues it will happen. But up to up today, it doesn’t exist, because this government made conscious work to destroy an internal opposition. But still for example, it is interesting that when Coronavirus, vaccination started, this anti-vax movement, they gained also big grounds in Russian society. And authorities even had to go several steps back with this vaccination and certifications programs. You hardly expect from Putin and from Russian authorities to have to go any steps back, but at that time they had to because they really saw a large unhappiness growing within the population. So I’m still far from thinking they are almighty, even internally, not at all. There is some, how to say, some ghosts of protest and revolutionary movement within Russia, which still didn’t take its forms. But it definitely is present. It definitely exists. And this is one of the factors which is making the Putinist government wild enough to make such initiatives, let’s say, as they are today.

TSFR: I kind of a side note, and a question that I have in relation to COVID in Russia is… In the West, media has represented a lot of protests around COVID to be around a distrust of the quality of the shots that the Russian government was making. And maybe that’s a misrepresentation. And maybe it actually is antivax overall, in similar conspiracy-theory-ways that we have in the West too, but is that is there any truth to that? What do you think was motivating the antivax movement in Russia?

Ilya: Well, I think there is actually a lot of how to say, this so called COVID skepticism, and a little bit of being skeptical about medicine, as well as which we can treat as some sort of ignorance which actually exists within the population. But at the same time, another portion of this antivax motivation, which may differ from what we have in the West, but I’m maybe mistaken, is that Russian population highly doesn’t believe the authorities, it doesn’t believe that any good will come from above. They want to resist any invasion of the state programs within their private lives, because they know that the write a lot of lies, going from TV channels, and from the heights persons of the state. They have experienced many tricks from there and because of that they just don’t believe the authorities. And this was one of the factors for why antivax sentiments blossomed in in Russia.

TSFR: So as I understood, the Maidan protests, in part were a push against the rule by Ukrainian oligarchs, although maybe it was in favor of some oligarchs over others. And they had vast control, in many ways parallel to the Russian oligarchs, who Putin rules alongside. Some people, at least, who are arguing against the Russian invasion are positing it as supporting Ukraine, you’ve already laid a critique that it’s a poor neoliberal state, a capitalist state. Can you can you talk a little bit more breaking apart these ideas of being against the invasion and in favor of self-defense of the population versus supporting Ukraine as a political project or state?

Ilya: Yes, I do it with pleasure, actually, because this is, I believe the most important point.

But first of all, some preliminary words. Actually, the Russian system and Ukrainian systems are very different because all the Russian oligarchs are more or less subjugated to this unified authoritarian rule of Putin and his clique, which originates more in former Soviet secret services of which Putin is a former member of. So this is a pretty unified model of control from one center, which is this, we call “Silovic.” I know that even in the West, this word is in usage now, like with this secret services set as the political center. Now in Ukraine situation is another there, there is really competing oligarch clans struggling for power and for bigger zones of economical and political influence.

You’re absolutely correct. Maidan uprising had a lot of anti-oligarchical intention, because this oligarchy rule is really something which makes this country very poor and vulnerable. At the same time, surprisingly, both countries are absolutely neoliberal. Even though Putin has some social populism, year after year for decades now already, he has provided neoliberal reforms. And also, the strengthening social vulnerability of the working people of the ordinary people. And the Ukrainian society is still much less state controlled. That is an important point. The Ukrainian state is not better than other states. But it just has much less tools to control and to subjugate its own population. This is still somehow pluralistic, absolutely unlike the Russian situation. And I would say there is still a much more free atmosphere around here. This is not a coincidence that, for example, many comrades from Russia and Belarus they find shelter exactly here. Because much less political repression and state violence is present here. So here, we still see a lot of grounds for making some grassroots initiatives, direct democracy projects, and any, I would say, even social revolutionary developments. While in Russia, we see just this authoritarian hammer, I would say, which smashes everything which it meets in its way. So this is one of the big reasons why it needs to be confronted. The Ukrainian state has a lot of disadvantages. But the Ukrainian society really should be protected from this totalitarian threat that it faces today and that it has actually faced already for decades, since Putinist expansionist politics are starting to be implemented.

So this is exactly our reason, or why to participate in it. We believe in radical social changes within Ukrainian society. But for this, exactly for this, and not for protecting some state sovereignty, which doesn’t make sense for us. Exactly for the possibility for positive social changes should the Putinist invasions should be severely confronted. And I would say that this is the moment of truth, because in worse situations the grassroots very often is killed off. And self-organization, solidarity, mutual aid really take ground within the population, especially when elites betray the population. Several days before the invasions, many politicians of Ukraine, they just flew away on their private jets. So we see pretty clearly that the state is not a friend at all for the Ukrainian people. So this is our fight! Our fight is for the people is for protecting the grounds for the future revolutionary changes, which is now being deadly threatened by the Putinist threat.

TFSR: So one of the conspiracy theories that has been promoted by authoritarians in the so called “anti imperialist left,” often not promoting leftist values on social justice, but often aligned with Russian regime and others viewed as being oppositional to the USA, has been that the Maidan movement was a CIA operation to promote the far-right groups such as Pravyi sektor or Svoboda into taking power in a bloodthirsty drive to ethnically cleanse Russians in the Donbass. Can you talk about this view of what happened or this view of the Ukrainian state or culture in terms of the far-right influence?

Ilya: Yes, well as the good teacher of the authoritarian propaganda, Göbbels, said that if you want your lies to be believed in, you should use some kernals of truth in it. So yes, the far-right, had a strong presence in Maidan uprising, because they were organizing pretty well before it, like for four years before it. And it was also somehow affiliated with the authorities, with the secret services as far as we can estimate, and also with some criminal business and so on. Because of this, they faced this Maidan uprising on a pretty good footing, which gave them an opportunity to develop somehow their organizations within Maidan upgrising and after it.

But still, in first approach, this is the lie that the Ukrainian far-right took more grounds for ethnic cleansing of the Russian speaking population, because there is still no actually ethical cleansing of this population. And also, really far-right nationalist parties are not even present in Parliament. Because, honestly, I don’t give a lot of shit who is present in Parliament. But more important for me, when I participated in Maidan uprising, I saw by my own eyes 100,000s of just ordinary people, of grassroots people rebelling against the oligarchical rule, against their humiliation imposed by the uncontrollable criminal President Yanukovych. Of course, many powers tried to intervene and tried to influence this. Not only from the Right, it was Liberals, some fake opposition parties created by different local oligarch clans, which we already mentioned today. All of them tried their best to influence the movement. And I would say, oligarch Poroshenko, which became next president, was pretty successful in it. And we can say that Maidan is once again a betrayed revolution, like a revolution which was stolen from the people by the oligarchs. But the Maidan uprising itself was definitely less of a nationalist movement and much more of grassroot popular movement against the authorities, against the government. This I would say.

TFSR: Yeah, and that, I mean, that makes absolute sense. When I think to something similar in the United States, like the Occupy movement, in some areas it was all sorts of different people coming for their own political reasons to be in that space because they had shared experience of misery under capitalism and alienation. And in some places, the Democratic Party was able to harness some of the energy. It definitely tried all over to either harness it or destroy it, if it couldn’t. And also, yeah, the relationship between the far right and and security forces is ubiquitous and international.

So, on the same topic, can you talk about the participation of groups like Azov battalion and fighting in the war in the Donbass that’s been happening since 2014, the training of far right foreigners and in paramilitary skills and the allowance of their existence in or alongside of the armed forces in in the Ukrainian military?

Ilya: Oh, yes, Azov voluntary battalion was formed soon after Maidan and really was a Nazi initiative to intervene in this conflict in Donbass. Soon after, they became a regular regiment of Ukrainian army and somehow integrated within the military hierarchy. So, now, they are not clearly “political” because as a part of the army which, it must be declared to be apart from any politics. But of course, it was a Nazi-originated, Nazi-built structure, these people, these Nazis, still really have a core presence in there and leadership within it. I have no strict information, but I heard many rumors but from believable sources that yes, lots of Western Nazis came, and also Russian Nazis actually, even more Russian Nazis, they came here to participate in Azov and also to train. Yes, this really exists and not only Azov battalion, they organize their civil branch which is called a National Corps Party which intervenes actively in Ukrainian political life but is also is very much discredited because its affiliation with criminal activities and also affiliation with the Interior Ministry of former Interior Minister Avakov. And all this is called Azov Movement, which is a pretty far right movement even now, even though they’re now trying to play somehow that “we are not Nazis, we are not fascists, were just conservative nationalists.” But from origin, they’ve been Nazis. They are really in. Still I honestly honestly no information about any ethnic cleansing performed by them, surprisingly!

There are many Nazis here, for example, Dmitro Yarosh from Pravyi Sektor you mentioned, they originate, or many of National Corps. Dmitro Yarosh is from Dnipro city, and many of National Corps leaders, they’re from Kharkiv, from eastern cities, which are predominantly Russians-speaking. So here you can have a lot of Russian-speaking Nazis actually. So when somebody tries to portray that this is Ukrainian-speaking population against Russian-speaking population, this is a pure hoax and tricks.

So yes, as I said already before, Nazis are present a lot in local political life, this is true. But they are still much more weak than for example, just Oligarchical forces. Like, they are visible, they are horrible, but when somebody tries to manipulate that Ukrainian somehow a “Nazi state,” or a fascist state, this is of course, this is just a lie. This is just not true. And this is just a tool of manipulation for pro-Putinist forces, which unfortunately, too, grounds also in Western so-called “Anti-imperialist Movement,” because, a really anti-imperialist movement needs to be today with us here confronting this purely imperialist aggression.

TFSR: It seems like the opportunity is present, with the recognition that Nazis have been able to organize, far-right has been able to organize, and also that the Putinist forces are simultaneously trying to, they’re taking ground quite literally… It seems like an opportunity for anarchists and anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalists to reach out to their neighbors, provide alternatives, offer what you mentioned with mutual aid and also coordinating. Obviously, people tried to do that during the Maidan and got outflanked, basically.

Can you talk about the situation of anarchists and anti-authoritarian movements in Ukraine at the moment? I just saw messages this morning on social media of many anarchists, who had had to flee Belarus, for instance, to Ukraine deciding to stay and to try to defend the population against invasion. And it seems like a lot of people are sort of hunkering down and making that decision to stay. Can you talk about what that anarchist movement looks like?

Ilya: Yes, of course, I would say that Maidan was a really hard blow and the source of depression for the anarchist movement, because it provided a lot of splits about attitude and position about Maidan. Some comrades took one ground, other comrades took another one. And this provided a lot of quarrels. But even more was the negative influence that Maidan actually appeared as this “betrayed revolution,” as I already said before. Some people really believe that it would lead to some positive political changes, but it hardly led to any good changes within the society. So the anarchist movement, and I would say leftist movement in general, found itself in depression in Ukraine for years. But in the last few years, I think, we can speak about restoring movement because a lot of old participants and also new participants as well, are really making some analytical work around what needs to be done for the movement to reconstruct itself, to organize better and which alternatives we can provide for the society.

Of course, we need to confront a lot this nationalist sentiment, like about “our state of Ukraine,” this national sentiment, of course, is widespread within the society. This pro-Western sentiment I already mentioned about people dreaming of a good Western-like life. This is something we really need to work with and fight against. But this is possible. And of course, this, how to say, this “gray zone of Europe,” this weak state… Because Russia looks pretty stable, even though I believe that it’s not like this, actually. I don’t know, good English words for it, but the Russian Putinist regime is something super big which will collapse very quickly finally, i believe. The European Union, of course, looks as well pretty stable. And Ukraine is not like this. So of course, this is naturally the ground for the grassroots organizing and for some really very different political alternatives to be developed and presented, including our ones.

TFSR: So I guess in your view, and I know you’ve kind of addressed this already, but how have anarchists abroad been reacting to these developments? Not knowing what’s coming, for sure. But I mean, since the shellings already started, it seems kind of clear, but the situation might change… What forms of solidarity would you like to see coming from abroad?

For instance, Crimethinc just put out a tweet about calling for tonight at 7pm or 6pm everywhere for there to be demonstrations at Russian embassies. Is this one of the things that you’d like to see, is there more than that, that you’d like to see?

Ilya: Oh, yes.

First of all, I want to greet my comrades in Moscow, which yesterday held their actions against the invasions. It was anarchists who organized them and several were arrested. It means that actually anarchist comrades and some anti-war actions there actually already exist in Russia.

So the situation here now is actually first of all, a challenge for us… Will we be able to develop the narrative, the concept of libertarian participation, meaningful participation in this anti-imperialist resistance. It needs to be anti-imperialist resistance with some really social-revolutionary goals and prospects. Also, the next challenge to us if we will be able to form our structures, both in terms of self-defense, and of civil organizing, and as long as we will be able to do it, we need growing support informationally, and also by the actions of solidarity, and also maybe by some material support, of course, from our Western comrades. So any expression of solidarity already now is extremely appreciated and extremely needed throughout all the world.

If you want to make graffiti, do it, if you want to make demonstration against Russian or Belarusian embassy, do it. This is also a good point to support anarchists political prisoners, of which there are a lot of in Russia and Belarus. If you want to collect some money, do it, if you want to spread our information (which I hope will be extensively translated, like published first and translated into English as well), this is also a very good way to express your solidarity. So I believe solidarity actions are media and information will help. And also providing material support an infrastructural support for us, for anarchist movement here, for libertarian movement here, would be really good grounds for us to rely on.

TFSR: I guess one more question is… So, I’ve seen this discussed a little bit, not not the perspectives of people in Ukraine, but other anarchists elsewhere, talking about the difficulty of being engaged in or around official State organizations of defense, while keeping autonomy and keeping an anti-state, pro-social perspective. Can you talk a little bit about that balance? And what sort of discussions, anarchists and anti-authoritarian leftists in Ukraine are having about that?

Ilya: Yes, I think I can do it. Of course. Especially, this is the hard question in terms of self-defense because every authorized self-defense is coming from the state, more or less. So there is a challenge, like if we want to have self-defense and not be confronted on every front as we are a very few, so we need to collaborate somehow with the state military structures. And the question is, how not to assimilate to these structures, but still collaborate somehow having some sorts of autonomy and our own vision and perspective.

Well, I don’t want to lie to say that we have a perfect plan how to do it, but definitely we realize this problem and we will work and find some, I would say, tricky ways to do it to really have self-defense as independent from the state structures as possible. And I think this is what really political movements should do, like we see it a lot in Kurdistan, for example, this maneuvering to protect their own perspective and sovereignty. And this is at least in much less chaos than in Kurdistan, but in principle is the same as we are trying to do here.

Another important problem is, I will say ideological assimilation to the State discourse, because many people even who associate themselves with the anarchist movement, starting to say, “okay, we are not now just need to defend our country.” Well, in this situation to defend your country is pretty good, but this is not enough at all for the anarchist revolutionary. You need to develop some perspective for changes, like some ideas on how you want to influence political and social situations within the country. And this is also the matter of discussions of, somehow even very hot discussions, and our continuous thinking here. But more or less , most of us agree that we need within this struggle, anti-imperialist struggle, our participation in it. We need to express, to develop and express our anarchist narrative and program and ideas.

TFSR: Thank you so much Ilya, for having this conversation with me. And we’ll be sure to provide the the links that comrades in Ukraine have shared to keep up and I hope that this conversation helps get more people in the streets and good luck.

Ilya: Thanks a lot to you. Good luck. We’re staying in contact.

TFSR: Please. Yeah, and solidarity and share my love with the people there. I’ll let you go now. But take care.

Ilya: Yeah, thanks a lot. We are now here with the comrades finding out ways to do and we say greetings to you. Thanks for your support.

TFSR: Solidarity. Ciao.

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.

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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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!

Anarchist Struggle in Rojava

Anarchist Struggle in Rojava

TA members educating YPG members on tourniquet use
Download This Episode

Anarchist Struggle, or Tekoşîna Anarşist in Kurmanji, is an anarchist combat medic collective operating in Rojava since the time of the war against Daesh / Isis, though its roots go back further. For the hour, you’ll hear a voice actor sharing the words of a member of TA calling themselves Robin Goldman about the their experiences of Asymmetric Warfare waged by Turkey and its proxies in the TFSA, the culture of TA right now, the medical work they’re doing, queerness in Rojava and other topics.

You can find TA online on twitter at @TA_Anarsist as well as their website TekosinaAnarsist.NoBlogs.Org. Members of TA suggested that folks interested in queer and trans organizing in Rojava support the group Keskasor, Kurdish for rainbow and based in Diyarbakir, Turkey. It can be emailed at heftreng.keskesor@gmail.com, found on twitter via @Keskasor_lgbti or on instagram at @KeskesorLGBTI, though their social media presence was last updated in 2020.

Some Formations Related to TA:

Groups mentioned ala Rojava:

Announcements

Zolo Azania

Former Black Panther, political prisoner and BLA veteran Zolo Agana Azania is seeking help. Since being released from prison and returning to the streets of Indiana in 2017 after more than 35 years behind bars, he has poured himself into organizing solidarity and support for other former prisoners. He still has not received his 2020 covid relief funds, likely impacted by his housing precarity, and is trying to purchase an inexpensive house to offer him stability in his later years. If you’d like to help, you can cashapp Zolo at $ZoloAzania5 . You can hear an interview with Zolo from 2018 plus his participation in an IDOCWatch panel at our website, linked in the show notes.

Eric King’s Mail Ban Temporarily Lifted

That’s right, you can send mail and books to anarchist and anti-fascist prisoner, Eric King! You can find his writings, art and updates on his case at SupportEricKing.Org, you can find his amazon wishlist there as well and you can send him letters via:

Eric King #27090-045
FCI Englewood
9595 West Quincy Avenue
Littleton, CO 80123

Asheville Continues To Attack The Homeless

In a last minute addition to these announcements, according to a leaked email by a local, Asheville-based non-profit serving houseless folks, Asheville’s City Council may be considering passing an ordinance based on the failed Ft. Lauderdale, Florida ban on the sharing of food in public spaces, which in the Asheville case appears to be based on a suggestion by Asheville Police Captain Mike Lamb. An article just published on the Asheville Free Press explains the context, what the non-profit group Beloved is suggesting as next steps, which includes applying pressure at the upcoming January 25th City Council meeting. This comes on the heels of a wave of knocks, warrants and arrests of people engaged in protests against homeless sweeps here in freezing temperatures at the end of last year. Keep an ear out and toss support for legal fees to the Blue Ridge Anarchist Black Cross legal defense fund at ­ or you can donate to the final straw’s payment methods with a note that it’s for legal defense and we’ll pass it off.

Fire Ant Journal #11 is Out!

You can find the latest edition of Fire Ant Journal, featuring writings and art by Thomas Mayer-Falk, Eric King, Pepe and info on Sean Swain, Jennifer Rose and more via Bloomington ABC

BAD News #52 is Available!

The monthly episode of the A-Radio Network’s English podcast includes Črna Luknja with a member of CrimethInc on the fire at their publishing house recently, A-Radio Berlin brings words on the attack by leftist bro’s on the queer anarcha-feminist Syrena squat in Warsaw, Elephant In The Room gives a brief round up of the uprising in Kazakhstan and comrades at Free Social Radio 1431 AM in Thessaloniki talk about the eviction of Biologia Squat.

Support

Here are a few ways you can give back to The Final Straw

  • You can subscribe to our podcast on various platforms, follow and share our materials online as well as give us feedback via links found at TFSR.WTF/Tree
  • To support our transcription work and wider project, you can subscribe to us via Patreon.com/TFSR, buy some merch or find donation methods at TFSR.WTF/Support
  • Find those transcriptions and zines for distro’ing, mailing into prisons, or translating at TFSR.WTF/Zines
  • And you can get us onto radio stations in your area with info at TFSR.WTF/Radio

. … . ..

Featured Tracks:

  • Yasin  is a remix by Rizan Said of this song (original version based on an Arab folk song from the Hesekê region featured in the film “Darên bi Tenê” or “The Only Trees”)
  • Şervano by Mehmûd Berazî (an article about the song, often played at funerals)

. … . ..

Transcription

TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself to the audience with whatever names, preferred gender pronouns, affiliations, or experience, as you would like (to help the audience orient itself)?

RG: Yeah, so you can call me Robin Goldman. I use they/them pronouns. I am in my 30’s. I’ve been in Rojava for a couple of years now. I have a background in a couple of things in computer work, and then also in healthcare work. And yeah, that’s me in a nutshell.

TFSR: Cool. Thank you, again, for having this conversation. Could you give listeners who may not be familiar with the Rojava revolution, like a brief synopsis of its kind of trajectory that you think people should know for this conversation?

RG: So I’m absolutely not qualified to give a full synopsis of the Rojava revolution or anything, but the very bare bones for somebody who’s not familiar at all, the reason that it’s known as RO-ja-va, or Ro-JA-va, it’s pronounced both ways, is because that’s the Kurdish word for “west”, and Kurdistan as an area the way that it’s historically understood was divided into four regions. So Bakur, meaning “north”, is the part that’s in Turkey; Rojhilat, meaning “east”, is the part that’s in Iran; Başûr, meaning “south”, is a part that’s in Iraq, and Rojava is the part that’s in Syria.

So when we talk about the Rojava revolution, we’re talking about the western Kurdistan portion of Syria. And in 2017, there was the final push to to defeat ISIS and it’s sort of self proclaimed capital of Raqqa, that kind of completed around 2018 and they’re still, like, sleeper cells and Daesh carriers out bombings and stuff but for the most part, they’re not holding any significant territory anymore.

In 2018, Turkey, and its proxy forces invaded Afrin, and in 2019, they invaded Serê Kaniyê. So over the last couple of years, before I came, there was a big shift from the way that the fighting happened and the type of combat and the type of diplomatic situation and everything, from kind of the images that Americans got used to seeing of a person on foot with an AK in their hand, like fighting Daesh, which was very much the image from kind of the Daesh war. Now, a lot of the fighting involves like drone strikes on the part of Turkey, and it’s become much more asymmetrical.

Now we’re in a situation for the last couple of years ever since the Serê Kaniyê invasion, which was a very quick invasion that Turkey did, that took a big swath of territory towards the end of 2019, that Serê Kaniyê a meta-stable situation where there’s ongoing aggression. There’s shelling pretty regularly along the front line, which is like the new border between the area that’s occupied by Turkish proxy forces and the area that is still held by the SDF, which a lot of people who are referred to as “the friends”, so if I refer to area held by the friend, see if that’s that’s usually what that’s what I mean, I might kind of forget and refer to them that way, cause that’s the vernacular. And now, the issue is there’s this constant brinkmanship from Turkey- well, I can get into later because I guess there’s more questions about this stuff. So that’s kind of where we’re at now.

Ideologically it’s based on a lot of ideology that comes from 40 years of armed struggle by the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK, which originated in Bakur and the Turkish portion of Kurdistan and originally had the characteristic of like a national liberation struggle as a lot of sort of post-Soviet post-colonial struggles did. But over time, the main thinker of the party, Abdullah Öcalan, who was imprisoned in I believe, 1999, he did a big shift in ideological orientation from an authoritarian, communist, classic Marxist Leninist type of strategy to one that is much more democratic and much more compatible with anarchist ideals, in particular. And he exchanged letters with Murray Bookchin. And this got the name of the new paradigm and it’s based on three pillars, which is ecology, women’s liberation and democratic confederalism. So that’s the ideological basis of the society that’s being built in the autonomously administered area now.

TFSR: Cool, thank you very much. Yeah and I’d like to talk about some of those other specifics of what’s been going on a little bit later. So could you talk a little bit about – and please correct me if I’m wrong on this pronunciation – but Tekoşîna Anarşist, “Anarchist Struggle”. For folks who aren’t familiar with the project, like how long has it been around and what are its goals? How does it operate?

RG: So I haven’t been around since the beginning so I can’t get a super detailed description of the origins, but Tekoşîna Anarşist, which is just Kurdish language for “Anarchist Struggle”, has existed in its current form for I think, between three and four years at this point. And it started as a part of I know people have seen these logos and these groups with names like IRPGF, and IFB. The IFB, the International Freedom Battalion, was something that was, during the time of the Daesh war, a group of sort of various internationalist organizations that had militants – *cat meowing in the background* sorry, my cat is joining this. Our cat Shisha wants to join this interview.

TFSR: Hello Heval cat.

RG: *laughs* So those those were like a coalition of the different sort of internationalist groups that had militants here at that time. And they were like cooperating together – because some of them were kind of smaller groups – and there were multiple groups that have English as the common language, or were otherwise kind of not using mainly Kurdish or mainly Arabic, like a lot of the groups *more cat meowing*. who were from here were doing. And so there’s still a lot of people from that struggle in that time around, but I wasn’t around yet then, I was still in the states then. So I can’t give like a real detailed history. But yeah, we started kind of under this umbrella and eventually kind of became more autonomous. And we’re now an autonomous collective that is doing work with different partners, like we’re involved with both the military work under the SDF, and also like the health committee kind of work. So we kind of have two bosses now at this point *chuckles*.

TFSR: And you described as a collective right? Is it it’s made up of people that are over in Rojava under the autonomous administration? Or is it like international? Or is that a thing that you can talk about? And like how do decisions get made, just collectively among the body of membership?

RG: Yeah, we’re really decentralized in the way that we make decisions, we try to embody our anarchist principles, which means different things to different people too so it’s something that we’re constantly working on within our organization. We’re constantly evaluating our organizational structure and frame and debating about whether we want to change our decision making protocol, or how much protocol we want to have at all. You know, the same sort of things that any anarchist organization is going to be familiar with *laughs*. It’s uh, always a bit of a struggle, but we’re committed to putting our ideals into practice in terms of radical democracy and trying to root out the patriarchy and other oppressive dynamics, not just in society, but within ourselves and within our organization, as a continual process.

TFSR: So would you say that as to the goals of TA that TA is about like supporting the Rojava revolution and challenging it to be more radical and some of its conceptions?

RG: Yeah, I mean, we’re a really small group – the number of us here at any given time is typically less than 10 – and so our purpose and our mission kind of evolves also, as the conditions change, but it offers a place for people that might not fit into another structure really well, like in particular, in terms of queer identity issues. Of course, ideologically, I think we’re definitely not the only anarchists involved in this revolution, there’s people in pretty much every international structure, you know, there’s people of different anarchist ideals that have been or are currently in different groups and different types of work. So we’re not claiming to represent all anarchists, by any means, but um, you know, to people who ideologically want to participate in the work in this particular frame, and to have these types of organizational discussions as they’re, you know, participating in the work.

And also, yeah, to try to find ways to respectfully challenge the revolution, like you said, to push it to remain as what we understand is more radical and more revolutionary, as well as learning from them. I mean, Öcalan also has published critiques, specifically of anarchists, and you know, not saying that anarchism is wrong or bad, but his critiques I think, are actually quite the same as ones published by Malatesta many, many decades ago. So, engaging with these critiques we’re in a unique position because we are not just reading anarchist theory or trying to embody anarchist theory in small collective in the midst of a capitalist economy like collectives in the US, for example, we’d be doing, but we’re in the midst of a messy revolution, full of contradictions and really understanding what that means and seeing how the rubber hits the road, so to speak.

TFSR: Cool and if you feel comfortable, if you don’t, but if you feel comfortable, I’d love to hear a little bit about what inspired you to go over and to join and to, like, participate in this struggle that is, like difficult to get to and also dangerous.

RG: Yeah, for sure. So I’ve been interested in, ever since 2016, when I met with somebody who had been here with YPG and he was just giving a question and answer to some anarchist groups about his experience and he was being really candid about it. And to me when I read about it, and then also, when I heard about it from him, it’s that it really reminded me and a lot of ways of, I was also reading a lot at the time about the Spanish revolution of 1936. It’s something that a lot of anarchists, I think, will be really familiar with, really inspired by. And seeing kind of the similarities there and, you know, when I was reading about 1936 Spain, and thinking like, “oh, you know, if there was something like this in my lifetime,” you know, and then realizing there is! And not only Rojava, Rojava is not the only revolutionary project in the world right now, but it’s one that I was lucky enough to have some contact with. And I was able to join a Kurdish language class, which I didn’t learn very much from at that time, but I, it got me started.

And then so over time, as I was also doing work before I came here with organizations that were inspired by a lot of the same ideas of this movement. I was really getting into ideas inspired by Murray Bookchin’s ideas about municipalism, and social ecology, Democratic confederalism. These sort of ideas were interesting to me, not only at a theoretical level, but because I was working with groups that were trying to implement them, and that were already themselves inspired by hearing about the things that were happening here and other places, with setting up communes and decommoditizing the necessities, communization theory, dual power.

So I was working with groups that were republishing stuff that was being published by the movement here and stuff from Make Rojava Green Again and other groups that were here, and we were, you know, trying to put tekmîl, this critique and self-critique that’s inspired by sort of a Maoist practice originally, you know, we were using some of these tools that came to us through this movement and things that they published.

So we really were curious about, if we could learn more from this revolution, and if we had anything to contribute to it. So yeah, for all those reasons, I came here to see what I could see, see what I could bring back to my organizing back home, and to see what I could possibly contribute, also, to moving the revolution here forward.

TFSR: Can you talk a little bit about how TA, or Anarchist Struggle fits in and relates to the broader constellation of groups in the Syrian Defense Forces – the SDF – and with the Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria, the long name for AANES, I guess, another name for Rojava? Is that a good way of putting it?

RG: So like I mentioned, TA is one of many groups that are existing for internationalists, some of which are kind of involved with SDF military works, and others are more purely civilian. A lot of people who want to come here they go directly to talking to YPG, YPJ, because they don’t know that non-military works exist. Or then a lot of times people contact us because we’re the only group besides YPG that they’ve heard of that internationals can join.

So I just wanted to like put out there that there’s also quite a few others. For civilian groups there’s the Internationalist Commune, and there’s Jineoloji International, which is studying the women’s movement and I think that one’s only open to women and nonbinary folks. So on the military side, there’s YPG and YPJ. Various communist parties have a presence here that are sometimes bringing internationals from certain places, and sometimes not, I don’t know so much about their…and they range from classic Marxist-Leninist/Stalinist organizations to other ones that are more Maoist inspired. So they have like, even within, you know, having in common that they’re authoritarian communist, they have quite an ideological diversity, as well as tactical diversity among them.

And then there’s also media groups, there’s the Rojava Information Center, which is a great source of information, and also people are coming and working with them in a journalistic capacity. There’s Heyva Sor [A Kurd], which is the Kurdish Red Crescent, which is the civilian medical work that has a huge project of like trying to set up basically a functioning health system in what is now kind of a chaotic systemless soup of various health services.

So those are the words that are available to internationals. And then as well as our relationship to the SDF, we are responsible to the SDF- the way that the SDF works is it’s sort of administered by local military councils. So like, each area has a military council that serves for the defense of the area. Mostly, this was kind of set up, I think, during the Daesh war and continues to function during this phase of the war, that like, for example: in a region where we’ve got a Kurdish community, an Assyrian community, an Armenian community, a Syriac community, there will be both military and civilian sides to the defense so there’ll be like a local community defense which people are familiar with HPC, which got the nickname “grannies with guns”. So it’s like the sort of civilian side of the community neighborhood defense and then the military council is the other side of that. That’s the military side of the regional defense.

So there’s, for example, the Khabour Guards are the Assyrian community, and they speak an Assyrian language, it’s different, it’s not Kurdish, it’s not Arabic. There are quite a few Arabic speaking groups that are participating in the military council. So the military council of a city or of a region will have representatives of all these types of groups that are functioning for the defense of these communities in the area and they’ll coordinate together to coordinate the defense for the region. So we work with the one in the area where we’re operating.

So that’s how the SDF is structured. So when I say we have a relationship to the SDF, that’s how that works. And then in terms of the health structure, there’s a military hospital system that is free for members of the military. So that’s like, where we get our health care from directly, like if we need care. And there’s also civilian hospital systems, and there’s private clinics. Because it’s a time of relative peace a lot of our work is civilian health work. There’s a big epidemic of cutaneous leishmaniasis, which is a skin parasite that’s spread by these little biting insects which requires a lot of injections to get rid of it and there’s been a huge problem with overcrowding in the clinics. So we’ve been assisting with the effort to give injections to people, both civilian and military to get rid of this parasite. So that’s been taking up a lot of our time recently. That’s just an example of the type of work that we have.

TFSR: Awesome. Thank you for that there’s a lot in there, I’d like to also get back to the some of the medical issue and the work that you do a little bit later. In the meantime, in November of 2021, there was a major fear that Turkey would be escalating, like creating a new offensive across the Syrian border into Rojava. Could you explain kind of what happened there to your understanding, and is that still looming danger?

RG: It’s always a looming danger. It seems like Turkey was hoping to get the go ahead from the US and or Russia to launch a full scale invasion and they didn’t get it. They didn’t get the permission they wanted. The impact that this had on us here was that people were really convinced that there was like an imminent full scale war about to happen. We really ramped up preparation, getting extra hospital space ready. And the fact that it didn’t happen…these kinds of things – this was more pronounced example – but these kinds of like “an invasion is about to happen” feeling occurs pretty regularly, and so we’ll ramp up the activity for a little while, and then we don’t really ever, like let our guard down. I mean, I don’t think there’s a feeling that the danger is past, just postponed.

TFSR: So the last time that The Final Straw spoke with members of TA it was before Turkey’s 2019 incursion into Rojava – which, again, correct me if I’m wrong on these points that I’m making – but which seem to end up in a large stretch of territory along the border within Syria’s borders, falling under the control of the Turkish state. I know that TA was heavily involved in the resistance to Serê Kaniyê, but can you tell us a little bit more about this? And have you heard about the Turkish state using the so called “buffer zone” that they put in to demographically shift the area, like pushing out Kurds and other residents from the region and resettling Syrian refugees that they had been taking from Europe within their borders?

RG: Anything that Turkey is doing in terms of resettling people, officially, any information we would have about that would be from the same sources that y’all would have. So I don’t really feel like I can comment on that. I do know there’s been a lot of human rights violations by the occupying forces – the mercenaries and the Turkish state – in particular in Afrin and Serê Kaniyê regions there have been a lot of kidnappings of civilians, there have been a lot of reported rapes and there’s been desecration of graves. There’s been a variety of human rights abuses, there was a year end report that was published by the SDF about this topic. So yeah, people can…I don’t have the exact numbers off the top of my head, but people can look into that.

Another way that they’re using the Serê Kaniyê region and the Afrin region in particular – the reason they chose that region in particular to take – is because it has resources, it’s very difficult to conduct life without. So in particular water the word Serê Kaniyê, I think – I could be wrong about this, my language skills aren’t great – but I think it means “the head of the spring.” It’s where water comes from, or water comes through, Serê Kaniyê, and Turkey has really been using water and dams and the ability to shut off access to water, as well as shutting off access to other resources to try to wage war of attrition and really damaged the civilian morale by making it difficult to come by the necessities of life, really tryna starve us out. They cut so much water the past summer, the Xabûr river, basically completely dried up. Crop harvests were just a tiny fraction of what they were the previous year, especially with the grain. So there’s going to be a huge problem with the grain shortages for the next year. We’re looking at, like, potentially, like massive food shortages because of this, and there were massive water shortages last year. It was pretty grim.

So Turkey’s strategy with this is not only to use the space to demographically create a buffer, which also was Syria’s official policy prior to the to the revolution to the war. [Bashar al-] Assad was also doing this, he was trying to create a green belt of Arab populations through sort of a combination of targeted gentrification and more direct repression of Kurdish inhabitants of the area, to try to cut the unity of the of the Kurdistan geographical region.

TFSR: That’s terrible, I’m sorry. I mean, is part of the goal – besides just starving out and pressuring people – also to make them sort of identify the difficulties that they’re facing with autonomous administration? Or is it a little less subtle than that?

RG: Yeah, no, I think it’s less subtle than that but I think also that’s happening. And I mean, there are people that stayed and fought through years of war that now we’re in relative peace, and they’re just, maybe they have children, they’re just experiencing so much poverty.

A lot of people have family members that have gone to Europe to work to send money back, and more and more family members are having to leave to go to make money to just survive, that like people who are really ideologically and personally connected to their land and to their cultural identity, they don’t want to leave, (but their) finally getting close to throwing in the towel because of the shortages and economic difficulties, even though they weathered the storm of close to a decade of war.

So that’s something that’s like really, also a huge part of the fight that like as we lose civilians, if we don’t have civilian populations, the population become sparsely it becomes much more difficult to defend the land.

TFSR: So you’ve already said before about stuff that goes on in Turkey, you may not have a more immediate connection to but I’m gonna ask the question anyway and you can give me that same answer if you want. But over the last number of years, Turkey’s economy has been sliding into a crisis that’s worsened dramatically – specifically, over the last few months – has this tension spilled over the border in any way that you’ve experienced? And, just speculating, do you think that this could mean the end of the 20 year AKP rule and its neo-Ottomanist push?

RG: I have no idea what this means for specific political parties in Turkey, but the way that this is affecting us is that like everything that goes wrong in Turkey, everyone wants to point the blame onto a different scapegoat. So he’ll blame the Kurdish movement in Turkey, you know, the guerrillas in the mountains there, or he’ll blame Rojava, and he’ll, you know, cut resources. He’s got different alliances with Iraqi Kurdistan, and political parties there. Like, right now, the borders closed between Iraq and Syria, the Semalka Crossing, that’s like the sort of unofficial crossing, that’s been the main one that we’re able to use for the last few years.

It’s estimated it’ll be close for two months, it’s, we don’t know when it will open again. There’s been shortages of sugar, which is a big deal, because people put like, they have half chai, half sugar in there, in their cup of chai. So like, not having sugar for their chai is like a really huge issue for people’s morale, culturally, it’s very important to have, you know, these resources. You know, they’re not letting cigarettes go across, just things that are designed to like, make people’s lives miserable here, they’re doing this to make up kind of political points that they’re losing in Iraqi Kurdistan or in Turkey respectively. So I think Rojava economically kind of becomes the scapegoat or the you know, the whipping post for failing economies in the neighboring countries.

TFSR: So to kind of keep on the Iraq question, like there’s been a lot of conflict in south Kurdistan and Iraqi Kurdistan between the Turkish state and PKK elements that are there with the Kurdish Democratic Party. The more conservative Barzani-led administration, they’re siding with Turkey. For instance, there are allegations also a Turkish use of chemical weapons, but this hasn’t been making news in the US so much. Are you aware of this? And has this affected things in in Rojava?

RG: I’ll be honest, I can’t I don’t really know of an answer to that question. I’m not knowledgeable about that.

TFSR: Cool, I appreciate that honesty. Back to TA a little bit: can you share a little more about the medical work that y’all do? And why this was chosen as a focus? As I understand in 2018 or 2019 y’all got an ambulance, for instance, that enabled y’all to do combat medic work during that time. How widespread was or is this among SDF, I guess the practice of ambulances and mobility, and what’s the general response to your work been in the area?

RG: In the time that I’ve been here, which again, I came after the Serê Kaniyê war, so there hasn’t been a full scale war in the time I’ve been here. We do have an ambulance, we had one already when I got here, I’m not sure when we got it. I know during the time of the war, they were using it to evacuate wounded, to evacuate people from the hospital in Serê Kaniyê out of the city, and that kind of thing, to protect civilians as well as wounded military members. I know that there were members of TA that were here at that time that did very heroic things and saved a lot of lives.

I think that the space for that kind of work opened up because a combination of the disinvestment over decades in this region, plus the brain drain of, you know, 10 years of war, resulted in a situation where there was just like, really a huge lack of people who were both trained and willing to go into dangerous areas to do kind of emergency medical work. And I know, like, for example, I heard from people who were in the time of the Serê Kaniyê war they were giving out tourniquets and, like, there were people who were arriving at the hospital with wounds that they would have been saved by a tourniquet, from people that were their people in their unit or wherever had been given tourniquets, and they weren’t using them. Where people would get these individual first aid kits and just empty it out and use the thing that they came in to carry stuff.

So there was a big gap in understanding or seeing the value in this kind of work. I think that coming from a Western perspective, and also with more of an understanding and experience of how state militaries work, there was more of a value placed on this type of preparation. So seeing how that went down, there’s been a big work not only in our group and other groups as well, to do like education, we’ve been teaching the different military groups about how to use tourniquets, how to improvise tourniquets because we don’t have a good supply of premade tourniquets but you can make a pretty great one from you know, a torn piece of T-shirt and the cleaning rod of your rifle, for example. Giving education on how to stop massive bleeding, how to do chest seals for something that’s punctured a lung, basic stuff for just keeping people alive long enough to get them to the hospital.

We’ve been really shifting our focus from providing the care directly to providing education to people on how to do this kind of care. And like I said, we’ve been doing work with the civilian medical system as well, to try to improve and develop our skills and stay ready when we’re not in a situation of having to provide emergency medical care. There were also reports – and I don’t know how official these are or whatever – but I heard more than one person talking about feeling at least like Turkey had been targeting ambulances, or that marked ambulances were a target. And a lot of times now, especially with the drone strikes and stuff, when people are injured they’re not waiting for an ambulance to show up, they’re being thrown in the back of a pickup truck or a logistics van or something that can go faster than an ambulance can over the shitty roads here and get to the hospital as fast as possible.

So having people that are able to stop massive bleeding or you know, keep their lung from collapsing or whatever, while they’re in the back of their of their Hilux, or whatever, I think we’re seeing that that’s going to make more of a difference than having an ambulance. I mean we do still have the ambulance and we make visits around places where maybe other other ambulances aren’t willing to go. But it’s become more of a mobile clinic for the time being. Like, not a real clinic, but like, you know, we go and we make checkups, we give the injections for leishmaniasis. If people look really sick, and their commanders aren’t letting them go to the hospital, we’ll write them a note and sometimes that carries an extra authority. We give them advice for like if they’ve got a cold or something you know how to take care about and not get sick or this sort of thing.

TFSR: That’s awesome. That’s super insightful. I really appreciate that answer. So how have you seen COVID-19 experienced in Rojava, as far as like how it’s spread, or access to tests, vaccines, and PPE, any of this sort of stuff?

RG: With PPE, it’s really not widespread. Some people are wearing masks now. It’s become not super strange to wear a mask. I would say it’s not normal, like most people aren’t wearing masks or practicing social distancing or anything but at the beginning, like if you didn’t shake people’s hands and give everyone a hug, it was super rude. Whereas now people have started a little bit, if you do like a little bow or a wave instead of shaking hands, or if you are wearing a mask, people don’t think that’s super weird. They started to understand what that is and what it’s about. They still don’t give a lot of attention to COVID, although they it’s been really inconsistent. Because they built a new hospital for COVID but it’s been pretty much empty because people aren’t going to the hospital when they have these symptoms. And people have definitely died of COVID here, a lot of people have gotten COVID, people in our group have gotten COVID and have mostly recovered thank God. So like people are seeing that it’s existing, but sometimes there are tests, we had PCR tests for a while, then we had the rapid antigen tests, and now I guess they don’t have any test? So they’re saying that there’s no COVID anymore like it’s done, just because, I think it’s because they ran out of tests.

So it’s a really inconsistent response, like and they got a vaccine, we got the first dose of the vaccine, but then we couldn’t go on time and get the second dose. And then by the time we went to get the second dose, they didn’t have it anymore. So now we’re trying to figure out if there’s some other city where we can go to get the second dose, it’s really, it’s really a mess. There have been some lockdowns, but they’ve been really inconsistent. It’s been different, like, from city to city and a lockdown pretty much means that you just can’t go in or out of the city for usually like a week or two. It’s been it’s been really inconsistent.

TFSR: Yeah, that doesn’t sound disimilar, actually, to a lot of other places, just maybe on a different scale. But yeah, a lot of the same problems are pretty, seem pretty ubiquitous, as far as accessing testing and the social spreading of like what knowledge there is to protect oneself from it.

This is off topic, but I just heard an interview the other, I think earlier this week on Democracy Now with folks at the Texas Children’s Hospital that had developed an open source and copyright free vaccine and were distributing it, like they were working with a manufacturing infrastructure in India and a few other parts of the world to just get it as widely distributed as possible. That’s pretty hopeful for me, as far as that one specific, like, you were mentioning those bite vectored infections that y’all are helping to inject folks against, but as far as the COVID thing, I don’t know.

RG: Yeah, I mean, part of the issue with the COVID thing here, too, is like, I think part of the reason that they didn’t keep the vaccines around, it’s not like there was so much demand that they were going like hotcakes, I think nobody wanted them.

TFSR: Because they didn’t see it as an actual threat or because they’re, they don’t like vaccines?

RG: I think it’s a combination of as much of health literacy is an issue everywhere, it’s like very, very much an issue here. People aren’t trusting the countries that are manufacturing these vaccines, they’re also occupying forces. Like it’s all coming from either the US or Russia. So there’s like political mistrust, as well as like, kind of the attitude towards you know, after 10 years of war, people are kind of, a lot of people have this sort of like, “you can’t scare me,” like “COVID, I don’t care” kind of attitude. So it’s a combination of things.

TFSR: Yeah, that’s that sounds kind of common also the people that I’ve talked to imprisoned in the so-called US, they’re like, “I don’t want to catch this, but they’re trying to kill me every day and have been over this whole sentence, so whatever. Something’s gonna get me or it’s not.”

RG: Yeah, it’s really, really difficult to fight against this kind of fatalism and this kind of mistrust, because it’s not wrong. Like, it makes sense.

TFSR: Yeah, yeah, for sure. You’ve mentioned with like, ambulances being targeted by drone strikes and I kind of wonder what it’s like being engaged, even though you’re not currently engaged in hot and regular and heavy war with Turkey – even though the threat is constantly looming, and there are things like drone strikes – what’s it like being engaged in such an asymmetrical warfare against the state power was such advantages in terms of resources, weaponry, like drones, and airstrikes and border fortifications, and the ability to organize assassination attempts, notably against leaders of the Turkish Left in Rojava. And I know it’s a big question, but also being party to a conflict that is facing off against in this complex mess between like, Turkey as a NATO force and the second biggest military in NATO, and the US at some points, acting as a support in some parts of the conflict also, as a NATO state, you know, this sort of thing.

RG: I mean, I can only speak for me in terms of like, what it feels like, to me. To be honest, it’s terrifying. It’s very scary. When I first got here, especially for the first few months, I was just conscious constantly of the fact that like, we could all die at any moment. I guess you kind of get used to it, you focus on what you can do. You get to be able to kind of recognize how far bombs are by what they sound like. I don’t know. I don’t have a good answer for that. You just, you try to focus on on what’s in front of you, and you try to have an eye on the long game, you know. To know that nobody knows what’s going to happen, that there are more important things, there are there other determiners of victory rather than who has the biggest guns.

TFSR: I think that I already kind of asked the thing about what is TA working on right now, or you answered it through a lot of the medical discussion. Do you do want to sort of wax philosophical about the future of TA and what directions that might go?

RG: Yeah, like I mentioned, we’re talking about our questions of organizational form. We’re having debates right now about some readings that we did about the Makhnovists platform and we’re talking about platformism, we’re talking about decision making strategies and consensus and you know, a lot of the same things that any kind of anarchist organization struggles with. Because as we grow, and as we develop over time and have different organizational needs, we have to sort of refine our approach to the concept of structuring ideologically and practically what that means for us.

So in ideological terms, we’re doing that. We’re working a little bit on our image, I think, especially early on with the nature of the Daesh war in particular, and the demographics of the group, that it got a bit of a bro-y image. We’ve gotten critique for that, we’ve taken this to heart. We’ve really tried to focus on not only questioning the patriarchal values that get embodied in military works, and the way that we do that, but also focusing more on the women’s liberation in the ecology, pillars of the revolution that we’re involved in.

We’ve gotten more involved in society works, like, we’ve gotten to know people, both civilian and military people kind of in other groups or who aren’t officially affiliated, but are just supportive, that we interact with in the villages around us. We visited some kind of cultural activities, in particular, like Armenian cultural revival. There’s a lot of Armenians in Syria, who ended up here as a result of the genocide. There was a huge forced march of Armenians to Deir ez-Zor. Also a lot of Armenian women and children were kidnapped and sold or adopted by Kurdish and or Arab families.

TFSR: At the beginning of the 20th century, the Armenian genocide by the Turkish state you’re referring to? Or is this something during Daesh war?

RG: No, no, this is the 1915 genocide. So there’s a big effort as part of this, I think that Öcalan calls it “xwe nas bikin”, and it means like, “know yourself”, meaning like, know your roots, know your heritage. There’s a big push for sort of cultural pride among Armenians, Assyrians, people who are kind of cultural and religious minority groups here. So there’s a council that’s doing Armenian language lessons. So we’re trying to get involved with learning about this kind of things, and learning more about the history and the cultures of the area. And try not to have like a white savior complex or anything like this, where we kind of just come in and like do our work, which was sort of, I think, earlier on, there was less opportunity to do anything that wasn’t immediately necessary because the situation was the way it was. But now we have a lot more opportunities.

So yeah, just being more connected and more involved in the many, many facets of this revolution that aren’t immediately obvious, or things that we’re necessarily already thinking about, from the way that – in particular from America – like what we, what we see. And a lot of the news and the image that we have this place, I think in America in particular, is like at least three years out of date at any given time, because we don’t have such strong ties to here the way that Europe has a much more lively exchange of people between this region. And in for example, Germany and England both have big Kurdish movements.

Sorry I’m getting a little bit off topic. So the question what is TA working on now and in the future…so yeah, we’re working on that, we’re trying to bring more people, especially we’re prioritizing bringing women comrades, gender nonconforming comrades, trans comrades. There’s a lot of contradictions on on queer issues in the movement generally, but in terms of our ability to exist an organized as queer internationals, we have been very lucky. We have the space to exist and challenge some of the beliefs and assumptions that people have. So that’s something that we really value as an opportunity we want to make the most of.

TFSR: Yeah that’s awesome. Yeah, in the past, the Kurdish movement in Rojava has been somewhat unwelcoming to gay, lesbian, queer and trans folks. It’s our understanding that the Kurdish movement in Bakur, in Turkish occupied northern Kurdistan, has historically been amazingly pro LGBTQ but because of some local attitudes in shorter time for building up support in the region, the movement has been really impacted by holders of conservative social mores. That said, over the past years, the women’s movement was starting to slowly try and shift that attitude. How do things stand now, if you all have insights on this?

RG: There’s a lot of really contradictory things going on. My experience has been that, especially as internationals, we can get away with a lot more than people from here can in terms of this kind of stuff. Especially because, I mean, they consider it as weird to be vegetarian as they do to be gay, for example. Like, *laughing* we’re just freaks in general like so they kind of just shake their heads and let us get away with being weird. Whereas for a person from here who’s queer, they, they face a lot, a lot of difficulties, a lot of danger that we as internationals are privileged to be largely exempt from.

That said, I think within the movement, there are people who see queer issues as part of the struggle against patriarchy, and there are people who don’t. You get a variety of attitudes, ranging from you know, “homosexuality is a social disease of capitalist modernity”, to you know that it’s just simply doesn’t exist, you know, to people who, like I said have a much more progressive attitude towards it. The comrades from Turkey or from Bakur do tend to have a much more informed and accepting attitude, I would say, in my experience.

We are not the only group by any means that has out vocal queer members. And I think that we’ve gotten more careful and respectful and strategic since the days of the, you know, TQILA banner, if anybody saw that photo, which was a great photo, but it caused huge, huge problems. Especially with like, for example, the more socially conservative tribes that the autonomous administration needs to try to bring into its project and win some goodwill with. There’s just a lot to balance. Because on the one hand, we’re pushing to try to, you know, advance social attitude towards the concept of gender, the concept of sexual orientation.

On the other hand, you know, we had friends that were working in a women’s health clinic, and one of the questions for women that were having various health problems was, “how often do you have sex with your husband? How often do you want to have sex with your husband?” And some of the women were like, “Want? What do you, what do you mean, want? Like, what does this want that you’re talking?” It just, depending, there’s just such a huge range of attitudes and experiences related to gender and sexuality here that it’s a complicated situation.

TFSR: Thank you for that. The broader Kurdish movement has a heavy focus on the ideological aspects of the struggle and the Rojava revolution being part of military training, with studies of Öcalan’s work and structured collective life considered as or more important than the combat related training. What sort of commonalities does life at TA have with the way life is structured in the broader movement? And are there ways in which an anarchist perspective causes it to diverge?

RG: Yeah, that’s a good question. And I think it’s been different at different times in TA’s history. I think for the time that I’ve been here, at least, the last year especially, we’ve had a lot of emphasis on the ideological development. Not only within our organization, like when we did military training, we allocated ample time for discussions of patriarchy, patriarchal dynamics, how we can engage with the realities of our situation without unnecessarily advancing sort of patriarchal values. And we talked a lot about the role of sport, our relationships to our bodies, competitiveness, you know, whether it’s good to be competitive, the destructive nature of competitiveness, toxic masculinity.

So we’ve made time in our training schedule to really intentionally sit down and discuss these aspects, discuss our relationship to the concept of hierarchy, being you know, in a military situation versus in other situations. As well as at various times we do reading groups, discussions on topics that are, as we get time – lately we’ve been really busy – but when we get time we do a rotating seminar where someone will kind of prepare an hour or two discussion about a topic related to women’s revolution, gender liberation, some aspect of anarchist history. We did one on understanding antisemitism, just a variety of topics. We’re a bunch of nerds at heart to like, we’re all always reading things. I’m in like a signal group of people who are reading the book, The Ghetto Fights right now, which is about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

I think one of the things we did for a while, it’s a kind of a common practice that we adopted from other groups is when we have our list of who has night watch duty and people take like an hour or two shift for security in the night, and there’s a list and it’s really common to put like an inspirational revolutionary quote on the list, so whoever’s making the list has to like constantly be reading more stuff and finding new sources of inspiration there.

And we don’t only do these kinds of education’s in our own group, we’ve also participated in more formal education with other internationals from other organizations that were coordinated to come together for like a month long, you know, learning about the history of this movement, the history of philosophy in the Middle East, readings and discussions like an intensive 10 hours a day of lectures and discussions and movies about relevant topics, so. As much as we get time for we really we really do take seriously the ideological development.

TFSR: Can you share with us a little about your understanding of the Kurdish movements approach to autonomy and statehood? Do y’all have any insights into the possibility of, I guess the TEV-DEM, or PYD, formalizing an autonomous region with Bashar al-Assad’s government?

RG: Um, as far as the relationship between the autonomous administration and the Assad regime I don’t understand it, and I can’t comment on it. As far as kind of summarizing my experiences or my discussions that illustrate some of the wide variety of opinions within the quote unquote “Kurdish movement”, I would say that – saying “the Kurdish movement” implying that there is just one, or even just several – like, I don’t know. The discussions I’ve had with people, just like random people on the streets sometimes even, like I talked to one guy, this one old guy I met in Qamişlo who was saying he was really supporting the PKK for a long time, and he’s a, he described himself as a Stalinist and he really was pro USSR and but then, when the new paradigm happened and the split in the party happened, he started to support the model of Başûr Iraqi Kurdistan, he became a Barzani supporter. Because to him, a state was just so important. Like even though he called himself a communist, communism was like nothing compared to having a state. So that was a wild ride of a conversation.

So I mean, there’s people you know, that range from, there was like a really, bit irreverent, but quite illustrative meme that was going around of like a political compass of people within the Rojava movement, too, and there was the PKK boomer who doesn’t know that there’s a new paradigm. Like a bit making light of the wide variety of ideological orientations you find towards the concept of statehood. But in terms of how it’s actually being implemented, it seems like there’s a big, almost US-style democracy, I say, “almost”, is something that a lot of just regular people are supporting, as far as I can tell. At least from what I hear from friends, for example, in Rojava Information Center who know a lot more about this than I do, so this is all like third hand information.

But yeah, in terms of like the approach to statehood, there are some people that are like really still hardline, like we need our own state. There are some people that ride around with pictures of Saddam Hussein on the front of their motorbikes because they’re the same flavor of Islam that he was and they see this cultural identification is the most important thing to them. It’s a huge variety of opinions. And what is happening within the more ideological oriented discussions is maybe not completely reflective of what the general everyday man on the street kind of person’s gonna think as well.

And also to call it “the Kurdish movement”, like again, at least in the area where we are there’s a lot of Assyrians, there’s a lot of Armenians, there’s a lot of Arabs. There’s definitely a lot of Kurds as well, but to describe this movement at this point as “Kurdish” is a, it’s Kurdish inspired, it’s Kurdish led but it’s not a “Kurdish movement”.

TFSR: In a recent interview that Duran Kalkan of the Kurdistan Democratic Communities Union, which was conducted by the group peace in Kurdistan, Duran Kalkan spoke about his view that while Western governments like the US may strategically partner with the SDF under Rojavan command in the fight against Daesh or ISIS, they’re not committed to the project of democratic and federalism but only destabilizing Turkey and opposing Russian and Iranian influence in the region. It’s a proxy situation.

This specific radio show and podcast is based in the US, you’ve mentioned that a number of people involved as internationals are from the US, and a lot of our audience, most of our audience, is based in the US, so I think this, this is why I bring up this question: can you talk about the US relationship to Rojava, the illegalization of the PKK and the KCK, and what impact that has on the ground in areas controlled by the autonomous administration of north and east Syria? As I understand many internationals who come back from Rojava face difficulties from the various states that they live under because of some of these are similar illegalizations?

RG: Yeah, I think Americans have a bit easier time than some of the people from other places, I think Brits have quite a difficult situation now, the laws that have been passed in the last couple years are horrific. As far as the criminalization of the PKK, I know that increasingly different countries, including I think England recently, most of them haven’t changed their evaluation, but have at least reopen the debate into a classification of PKK and whether it’s the terrorist organization or not. I don’t know the history of how the illegalization happened, or, you know, I can’t really comment on that, as far as just anecdotally, like I know, I’ve had friends that have come back from Rojava to different places, and in the US, some friends have kind of gotten follow up from the feds, but I don’t know of anybody who’s really faced heavy repression because of it.

However, the issue is there have been some people who have been accused of unrelated things, but then had their prior involvement with this region used to kind of intensify the repression they face for other things. So the repression is there and it’s definitely important to be conscious of it, and for individuals who participate to be careful, but also for people who care about this revolution, or who just care about freedom generally, to fight against the criminalization of the PKK, the criminalization of participation in this revolution, the criminalization of you know, even travel to this region for some people. As far as the impact on the ground for people here who aren’t internationalist, I don’t know that there’s a quantifiable simple like impact, it just makes things generally harder. But I think the impact, as far as I’m at least able to comment on this, you know, is mostly to people going to other places, working in other places….

TFSR: And for listeners who are interested in more on the lasting effects of repression in the US, they can check a couple of episodes ago to our interview with some supporters of Dan Baker, who formerly had participated in the Rojava revolution, and is facing a few dozen months in prison, not for that directly but that was definitely brought up in his court proceedings.

RG: Yeah, he is the one that put something on Facebook, no? And, and it was sort of connected somehow, abstractly?

TFSR: Well he was, yeah. Definitely that has something to do with it, yeah. He basically had said, after the January 6 events in DC, he was in Florida, and he said, “Hey, Trumpists in Florida are threatening an arm siege on the Capitol, antifascist should come out with weapons and like keep them from attacking the general population”. And it had been brought up since he had come back from Rojava, like he had, he was doing some medical work at The CHOP Seattle, and after a shooting had happened had been approached by the FBI. But then also, yeah, his participation in Rojava had been brought up during his court proceedings for calling for people to show up at the Florida capitol to act as a community defense, not a defense of the Capitol, but act as a community defense against armed Trumpists who are trying to commit a putsch.

How can listeners learn more about TA and the social revolution occurring in Rojava, or the struggle going on in Rojava? And how can they get involved or support the communalist movement and aims from where they’re at?

RG: Well I’ve mentioned earlier on this list of different organizations that people can do work with here. So knowing that if people are interested to come here, it’s not only military connected work that’s available to them, their civilian work for internationalist as well.

There’s also, you know, the need for solidarity work in people’s home countries, in the US, in particular, like pressuring lawmakers to reduce the repression on on not just people who come here, but also to remove the PKK from this international terrorist list. There’s a push to have a no-fly zone for Turkey to limit Turkey’s ability to make incursions into the area. There were some boycott movements on companies such as Garmin that were manufacturing drone parts that Turkey was using, which Turkey is also now supplying drones to Ethiopia to suppress the resistance to the genocide in Tigray as well, so that’s worth noting the connection there.

As far as learning more about TA in particular, we have Twitter, we don’t update it super often, our internet’s not super reliable all the time and media isn’t our top priority. And we do answer our email when we can. So if people have questions for us, we can be contacted that way. And as far as supporting Rojava generally: inform yourself, follow the news and the history. There’s a really great book that I read called A Road Unforeseen by Meredith Tax. I know she, Meredith Tax, has done speaking tours with Debbie Bookchin, I believe, who runs the Emergency Committee for Rojava. They have events that you can get involved with, you can educate yourself, you can connect other people. So yeah, Emergency Committee for Rojava is usually a good place to find stuff.

TFSR: I can put links in the show notes to some of the texts that you’ve brought up. There’s, for instance, the one about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising., there’s like a free PDF on the publishers website, which is really helpful. If you have any other links that you want to share, too, we can happily put those in there. Is there anything that I failed to ask you about that you’d like to share?

RG: I think one of the most valuable things that I’ve quote unquote, “learned” from the revolution here in my time here, and just from the society and seeing the effort, and the slow and steady pace of building the communes and the cooperatives and all of the issues that they’ve run into, and starting over that they’ve had to do, and the perseverance that they’ve had to have, is that the work that that I see a lot of my friends, in particular anarchist, but not only anarchists, doing in the US, and in Canada and other places like it – and I’m talking about like housing cooperatives, land trusts, tenants unions, connecting the tenants unions to labor unions – any kind of organizing like this with the people, that is with the eye to, not just to win a concession from the boss or the landlord, but to further connect the people to their community and to each other and going to city council meetings, doing things that that may seem pretty unrevolutionary and unglamorous at the local level…that’s the quote unquote, “real work”.

Like I think American anarchists suffer the most from a belief that the real revolution is always somewhere else, that the real revolutionary possibilities and activities are always somewhere more exciting. That anything we do is, you know, we like to call each other “cosplayers” or kind of put down each other’s work or our own work, and I think that the most valuable thing that I’ve learned from being here is, is this is the real work, the work that we’re doing here is not significantly different than the work that revolutionaries, I’ll use that word, are doing in the US, are doing in Canada, and that especially those connected to land struggles for Indigenous people, I think that is absolutely the right track. And we should have more faith in ourselves, we should take ourselves more seriously and we should have more of an appreciation for the ways in which the conditions are good for us to do this work, the material resources, the access to knowledge that we do have, and to, to support each other in this and to really see the potential.

TFSR: Yeah, I appreciate that. Thank you. And thank you, Robin, thank you so much, after long days and in the middle of your busy schedule to take the time to, to communicate your views and your experiences. I really appreciate hearing him and I’m excited to share him with the audience. Thank you.

RG: Yeah, thank you for taking so much time to talk to me and being patient with all this, tech issues and everything. *chuckles*

TFSR: *laughs* Blasted technology. And pass my love and appreciation to TA please.

RG: I will do that, thank you

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.

The Battle for Abortion and Reproductive Autonomy with Bay Ostrach

The Battle for Abortion and Reproductive Autonomy with Bay Ostrach

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

Illustration by Marne Grahlman

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

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

Good sites:

Citations for two shared documents co/authored by Bay:

Another document we can’t easily share:

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

Announcements

Anti-Abortion & Fascist Over in DC

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

Sean Swain Support

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

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

More contacts at SeanSwain.Org

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

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Transcription

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William C. Anderson on The Nation on No Map (new book)

William C. Anderson on The Nation on No Map

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This week we are really pleased to feature Scott conducting an interview with author and activist William C. Anderson about his new book The Nation on No Map: Black Anarchism and Abolition which is out now from AK Press. In this interview they speak on the book and its many facets, and Black anarchism more broadly, some of the failures of euro-centric and white anarchism, and many many more topics.

If you would like to see more of Anderson’s work you can visit https://williamcanderson.info

To see his books The Nation on No Map and As Black As Resistance, you can visit akpress.org and search his name, or visit firestorm.coop and do the same to support a queer and trans run anarchist book store in Asheville <3

Some works and people mentioned by our guest, in order of appearance:

. … . ..

Transcription

(see links above for more context of some of the people and documents mentioned)

Scott Branson – TFSR: I’m very excited to get to talk to William C. Anderson today, whose new book The Nation on No Map: Black Anarchism and Abolition was just published by AK Press. Thank you so much for spending the time to talk to me today. If you want, can you just first introduce yourself with your pronouns and any affiliations or background that you would want to share with the listeners?

William: Yeah, my name is William C. Anderson. I am a writer, activist, and just a person from Birmingham, Alabama. My pronouns are he/him/his, and I’m really excited to be on the show with you today, I’m happy to be talking with you.

TFSR: Likewise. I think this book is a really important contribution. I want to just delve into it. In the book, you’re locating Black anarchism as a practical development in revolutionary action, both in the history of movement work, but also I think, individually, in individual consciousness. I think that’s a super helpful intervention and contribution, thinking about our history, and also strategizing for the future. So I want to talk about both of the moments, movement stuff and individual stuff. I also just want to acknowledge and appreciate that the book is clearly grounded in your own experience. It doesn’t seem like top-down theorizing that often happens. I’m thinking sometimes of ways that white leftist anarchists use Afro-pessimist texts to talk about blackness without being grounded in movement work.

Okay, first, what do you mean by Black anarchism? I see you using this in relation to the legacies of Black Liberation movements of the 60s and 70s. I just want to use this quote, because I think it’s really important. You say “Black anarchism is a break away from the revolutionary Black Power movement, as opposed to simply being an effort to diversify or revise classical anarchism.” I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about this development in Black revolutionary thinking and why it often gets overlooked for the different ways that the Black Power movement gets represented?

W: Well, this really all starts with Martin Sostre introducing Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin to anarchism in 1969 and federal detention in New York. Lorenzo was a Maoist who fled to Cuba after hijacking a plane where he was imprisoned alongside other Black radicals who were fleeing during that time. He was essentially deported to Czechoslovakia, where he was imprisoned again. Then he fled to East Germany, where the federal authorities caught up with him. He was fleeing originally to Cuba because he had trumped-up charges against him. It was a frame-up for being accused of threatening to bomb a KKK judge. So he decided to flee, he goes to Cuba, he’s in prison there, he goes to Czechoslovakia, he’s detained there, he flees to East Germany, and he’s detained again. He’s tortured in East Germany, too. He is sent to New York. In federal detention, he is clearly upset by his experience with the state socialist governments he had gone to look for a safe haven. With that frustration, he meets Martin Sostre, who is a famous political prisoner at the time, he’s an imprisoned intellectual. He’s a jailhouse lawyer who is repeatedly suing the prison system and actually creating new reforms and gaining new rights for imprisoned people. Through his lawsuits, he completely transforms conditions, almost single-handedly through his litigation. He is talking to Lorenzo about his frustrations and he tells him there is more than state socialism. He tells him, it’s not the only form of socialism, he tells him about stateless or libertarian socialism, which we know is anarchism. Lorenzo starts doing the reading.

A decade later, he writes Anarchism and the Black Revolution. That is the real start of this development in many ways. Other former Panthers and members of the Black Liberation Army are also becoming interested during this period. They’re all thinking about their frustrations within the Black Power movement, with the Black Panther Party, with Marxist-Leninism, with Maoism, etc. They’re all writing and moving accordingly and asking questions. So I don’t think that you can exactly place a location and a time on the birth of Black anarchism because I don’t like to think about history in that way. I think that history is a lot more complicated than trying to place official stamps on things. But that’s really a great way to think about its beginnings with Martin and Lorenzo. You can also complicate that a little bit more if you want to bring in someone like Lucy Parsons, who was obviously doing a lot of writing and speaking about anarchism much earlier, in the early 1900s, late 1800s. This is a formerly enslaved Black woman. But I think what makes a person like Lucy distinct is also that her relationship to her blackness, and to race was a bit more complicated. When we’re thinking about Black anarchism, we’re really thinking about this break away from the Black Power movement, in terms of questioning and disturbing this idea that revolutionary Black nationalism and state socialism together were the only solutions in terms of ways to think about pursuing Black liberation.

TFSR: That’s really helpful. I like how you’re grounding it also, specifically in the material conditions, like the people at that moment were like this, we need something else to look towards. But also the way that you frame it in your book, you’re saying that they’re not just taking on European anarchism, but actually, you make this really telling statement that Black anarchism represents a failure of the anarchist movement in terms of the European tradition of anarchism. I have my understanding of this as what you also talk about in the book, is that Black anarchism isn’t a diversity and inclusion effort of a white anarchism or something like that. It’s actually a critique of anarchism that Black anarchism delivers. So I was wondering if you could expand a little bit on what you see as a failure of European anarchism, and then how a Black anarchism would add what you call “precision”. I really like that word.

W: I could talk about this all day. Historically, I think European anarchists have been self-involved and focused on how they were/are right about the nature of the state in a way that actually limited their appeal. It may be arguable that state socialists were much more effective and thoughtful about bringing Black people and oppressed people of the world into their efforts. Now, that’s not to say that Black people were not met with hostility for bringing up historically what’s known as the race question or the Negro question. There were certainly confrontations that had to be had around race and class that required Black Marxists to challenge conventional white state socialism and Marxism. So I consider, actually, those efforts are part of the legacy of Black autonomous radicalism too. That’s why I draw from an autonomous Marxist like C.L.R. James and my writing. Classical anarchism was not as effective in wrestling with that and it didn’t develop in the same way.

Now, there’s also the factor of the Russian Revolution and other revolutions that were claimed by state socialists, that global impact can’t be ignored in terms of influence. So all of that has to be considered. But Black anarchism isn’t a diversity effort or an effort for inclusion, because it draws influence from the experiences that precede it. Lorenzo was a former Maoist, Martin was a nationalist, former Black nationalist member of the Nation of Islam. Ojore Lutalo had been wrestling with Marxism before Kuwasi Balagoon brings him to anarchism. They didn’t completely discard classical anarchism. Lorenzo, for example, revises it in a way that we can observe parallels, the way that Marxism is revised in the Black radical tradition. What makes it so special is that Black anarchism does that with Marxism too. That’s an important thing to know: it does that with Marxism, with Black nationalism, and with anarchism.

So, in my opinion, because of the way it challenges all of those forms, it transcends the left almost entirely. It rises above conventional leftism. That makes it special. That’s how I’m reading it in this book, it is one of the only places on the left where this confrontation and these revisions happen in so many ways that it actually creates something transformative that shows us how to rise above conventional historical leftisms, and dogma and orthodoxy, to think about creating something completely new. I think that that’s really beautiful. That’s why I’m so just blown away by the writings of Black anarchism, the thinking and the way that they were approaching the left, and the way that they were approaching Black Power and thinking beyond. I think that that’s a beautiful example.

TFSR: What you just said makes me think of this line you have towards the end of the book, which is: “Talking about Black anarchism, it looks at the whole of history and works to uproot oppression by asking the most basic questions about what power is and what gives anyone the right to control or oppress others, even those we share space with. The question is simple, but its implications are vast, influencing the totality of our lives, from race to gender to class and all the many aspects of existence into which power insinuates itself.” I thought about that when you’re talking about these basic questions about our life that anarchism is addressing, but it has this more expansive vision in a way than other approaches. I thought that was really helpful. What you said resonated a lot with that to me. I look to Black feminist writings, and I see versions of anarchism in there that aren’t necessarily called that. That’s something that you talk about in the book, too, that Black thinkers and movement workers have done anarchist work without necessarily calling it that.

I wonder if you want to talk a little bit about what that term means or claiming anarchism or Black anarchism? What value there is in that? Because I know you have a particular relationship to the word itself.

W: Well, there’s a couple of things there. I think the first thing to address is the fact that I have an interesting relationship with the label “anarchist” because I’m not attached to it. I say at the beginning of the text that is not something I run from, and it’s not something that I run to. I’m actually appropriated that from Modibo Kadalie. Because I think that Modibo gets called an anarchist a lot, but that’s not something he necessarily lays claim to. One time I was talking with him, and he said, “I don’t run from anarchism, but I don’t run to it, either.” I adapted that as my outlook. What I mean by that is anarchism, for me, even Black anarchism is not the point. The point is liberation. I think that Black anarchism has amazing insights, that give us important direction to try to come closer to liberation. So, with regard to Black people, Zoé Samudzi and I wrote The Anarchism of Blackness. That led to us writing As Black As Resistance, which leads to this book. What we were talking about in The Anarchism of Blackness, at least one of the core insights of that essay was the fact that Black people have always engaged in these anarchistic, anarchic struggles across the Americas and across the world. That is something that doesn’t require people to lay claim to anarchism as a set of politics.

People have made movements, organizations, and waged fights that didn’t require them to lay claim to anarchism or have some ideological devotion. Many of those things precede anarchism as a political ideology. So, when we look at it that way, it tells you that claiming anarchism is not something that has to happen in order for people to do that work or to do things that are going to make conditions better. I think the most important thing is creating movements that have the principles of anarchism, not laying claim to anarchism as an identity. The last thing I would want to do is try to encourage people to have this rigid, unbending loyalty to dogma and to doctrine, rather than the principles that make those things appealing in the first place. So I think that that’s what’s most important.

TFSR: One of the ways I relate to anarchism is that it teaches us to let go of things that don’t serve us or aren’t useful to us and teaches us how to dissolve things. I think that would have to include anarchism itself as a label. When I was listening to you talk also about the European tradition, it made me think about today, where there’s another blind spot for, say, white anarchists in the inclusion of analysis of racial capitalism, of the history of Black struggle, anarchists are so often wanting to dissolve identities as this effective liberal / neoliberal state, and yet cling to this idea of anarchism as an identity, and to such an extent that it excludes people being able to find an entry point into the work itself. Yes, exactly. In a way, it seems like some of those blind spots from the classical anarchism that you were talking about persist, just in the new form of us.

W: Yeah, they do.

TFSR: Going back to history, you differentiate Black anarchism from other Black Power movements, but you’re also drawing the connections between them. One of the things you talk about in the book is Black nationalism, also Black capitalism. And these are two attempts to find empowerment for Black communities. Now, your book is totally critical of nations and states, but you also caution against just dismissing Black nationalism, or Black nationalist movements, and also specifically try to differentiate between Black nationalism and the white supremacist state and that nationalism. What are your thoughts about what role Black nationalism plays? How there might be potential collaboration? If you want to talk to just about the threat of nationalism more generally?

W: There are different types of nationalism. When we’re thinking about Black nationalism, you have revolutionary nationalism, and you have reactionary nationalism. I think that both need to be wrestled with, I don’t make a distinction between them in the book because I find troubling currents in both. However, I don’t compare Black nationalism that utilizes troubling and even homogenizing rhetoric in any form to white supremacy, that it does it in response to. So for example, I talked about [Marcus] Garvey in the text, and he said that he was the first fascist, he said that Benito Mussolini got fascism from him. Even though he said that he was the first fascist, did he do what Benito Mussolini did? No, he didn’t. I don’t think that Black Fascism is impossible or non-existent. There are certainly Black fascists now and there have been historically. But it’s important to observe what they’re responding to, and what their intentions are. There are parallels and distinctions. I wrote about this some years back, actually, with regard to the Nation of Islam, and I’m thinking about the Nation of Islam’s Black nationalism, specifically. The Southern Poverty Law Center used to have them, I’m not sure if they still do, I think that they took them off, but they used to have them on their hate group listing. I always found that disturbing, because white supremacists have always run this country. You can’t compare that and equate it with Black nationalisms that develop using rhetoric and reasoning that is similar to white supremacists.

In the book, I’m arguing that before it gets to that point, we have to stop now and observe history. We have to not glorify everything and depart from this idea that we’re all going to fall under the form or formation of a nation. The nation and the state are different things. But what many Black nationalisms lean to is the idea of a Black nation-state. That’s not something that comes with no risk for violence, because there’s no essential innocence, as Paul Gilroy says in his paper “Black Fascism” that makes this endeavor holier just because we’re Black. I quote Aimé Césaire in the text as well saying, “one of the values invented by the bourgeoisie in former times that went throughout the world was man.” He says, “we’ve seen what happened with that,” he said, “the other was the nation.“

This idea that the nation, and this idea of the state, even in a Black form, that these things are going to liberate us, this isn’t ours, it’s not ours to say that this is something that we can even use in this way, it is destructive. We’re talking about trying to lay claim to ideas and to forms that we really shouldn’t be trying to own. So, if we look at history, and we even study post-colonial independence movements, it helps us see the atrocity that can occur even in the name of self-described liberatory state-socialist ventures and nation-building is not something that is just this, “hey, this is going to work. This is always good.” It’s not that simple. I’m bothered by people who treat it that way without being honest about a lot of the history and atrocity and really horrific things that have been done in the name of nation-building and state-building. We have to observe that honestly.

TFSR: Yeah. One of the things that you iterate in your book in a few different places is that the stuff that we do has to not only serve survival but struggle against capitalism in the state. We could think that Black nationalism and Black capitalism, both as things that come out of Black movement organizing, have also been not necessarily, like there have been white people in power who’ve been like “Yeah, that sounds okay. It’s not as big a threat as something that’s fully autonomous from those power structures,” which I think is in line with what you were just saying, about not owning those terms.

But on the other hand, when you’re looking at Black capitalism, in the book you talk about how the limited forms of autonomy that have existed within Black communities in the US historically, – specifically you talk about the massacre in Tulsa in 1921, – that the state just will not allow that to persist because to a certain extent, it is completely inimical to the nation itself. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about Black capitalism historically and how it shows up today because it comes up a lot. People like Killer Mike and Beyonce are spouting it. They also claim some affinity for leftist movements in certain ways. So I’m just wondering if you could expand a little bit on the role of Black capitalism?

W: Black capitalism really comes from Nixon. It’s this idea that Black people can utilize capitalism to achieve some betterment, some freedom that we wouldn’t be able to attain otherwise without capitalism. So I think it connects with what I was just saying, in the sense that we’re talking about trying to lay claim to ideas, and two forms of violence that shouldn’t be ours to try to lay claim to, to try to make use of. Black capitalism is connected to the state and this form of violence, that we know is doing us a lot of harm. To try to say that we’re going to make use of it and to achieve our liberation that way is all a part of the bigger picture I’m trying to illustrate using Black anarchism. It’s to say that you cannot reform and change the inner workings of violence that has been structured against us historically and then make it work for us.

That’s the truth with the state. That’s the truth with capitalism. We’re not going to get free by saying we just need to take this pre-existing form of violence that was not created to serve us and paint it black, or paint it red, or whatever the case may be, and say that it’s going to be different, and that is going to be liberatory that time, the gears and the mechanisms that are built into it are going to do what they are intended to do. With regard to the state, that means having a monopoly on violence that is always self-preserving. With capitalism, we know that means an unfettered, unrestricted desire for accumulation and exploitation. So those are not things that are going to help free us, and putting a Black label on them doesn’t do any good for us either.

TFSR: Yeah, and again, your looking to post-colonial Africa shows that clearly. One of the things I’m hearing what you’re talking about now, and this connects to another question I had prepared was the way that blackness gets used often as this monolithic or single-minded thing. But one of the chapters in your book talks about this rewriting of Black history in a relationship to a lost history, of history that is stolen through a mythology of what life was like for people in Africa.

You also connect this to a critique of celebrity, which is slightly different, but I was really excited that you took these things on in your book. But one of the things that I’m really interested in is that you allow for history to be complex and messy, right? You talked about African people who participated in the slave trade knowingly, they didn’t perpetrate the same institutions that the European colonists did, but it isn’t this Black-and-white thing easily. So I was just wondering if you talk a little bit about this mythological use of Africa and the cultural imaginary or if you want to talk about the cult of celebrity, too? Also, how do you think we can not keep simplifying everything or flattening everything out?

W: I think the narrative that’s been created around the slave trade that you can actually see historically and in many forms of white nationalism, that we are royalty fallen from grace, and that we need to reclaim that royalty. It feeds into iterations of Black capitalism that we see now. That’s why I bring both up. Because I don’t think that you can separate the two. You have someone saying that we’re descended from kings and queens and that we come from royalty. What they’re doing is they’re feeding into the idea that wealth and royalty are what gives someone worth and value. So that’s not something that you can separate from Black capitalism now, which argues the same thing in many ways, saying that by accumulating or having large amounts of wealth, we’re going to be free, and that we’re going to be liberated.

I think that it’s important to disrupt this idea that, even if we were descending from kings and queens, that that makes us good, or that makes us better, or that’s why we’re deserving of respect as people. I think that we have to push back against that. So when I look at that connection, it leads me to say, we have to complicate history a little bit more and be a little bit more honest, if we’re going to disrupt it. We do that by looking at what actually took place during the slave trade, which is very complicated and very complex.

There were a lot of different tensions, there were a lot of different relationships between African people that show us that it wasn’t just as simple as many would hope to make it. I think that people give European slave traders too much credit. They were not as efficient as I think some narratives might make them, and not as intelligent as many narratives might make them. So I bring up the example in the text of Liberia and the formation of Liberia. I talked briefly about the fact that formerly enslaved African people went back to the continent and engaged in some heinous, very disturbing things that included using the backing of the US state to acquire land, to force servitude, and to expand a settler process on the continent, in the name of forming a Black nation. You can’t separate that history from this idea of trying to form a Black nation now and say that it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t compare. There’s something there and that history that has to be looked at closely and observed in terms of what it means for Black capitalism, but also what it means in terms of Black nationalism. So those are things that I like to bring up because it’s these overlooked aspects of history that I feel would help people challenge this automatic response of just embracing what conventional leftism has told us, and conventional radicalism has told us is the way to go.

TFSR: That probably comes back to the quotation from Gilroy, I mean, even just proclaiming that innocence in a way evacuates, empties people out of the way that they actually operate in the world, which is not just one thing or the other.

W: And something that it does, too, that’s important to note, is that it actually, in my opinion, takes away from looking at Black people as people. It’s like when you try to create this myth of this essential innocence and make Black people into this uncomplicated homogenous group, you’re actually doing something that is really disrespectful to Black people. That’s an important takeaway here: by trying to make Black America into this exceptional group that is innocent and incapable of doing anything harmful, you’re actually feeding into another sort of violence and disturbing rhetoric against Black people.

TFSR: Right. Because in the end, that’s not even super different than some of the racist stereotypes that have been imposed upon Black people historically in the US. This might actually be a good place to pivot to this question I had about popular culture because you talk about celebrity and stuff, but I just wonder what your thoughts on how we relate to pop culture, because it clearly is inspirational to a lot of us, but it’s also super captured by the structures of capitalism, individual gain, there’s a hierarchy. You made a really amazing playlist that goes along with your book, for example, there’s a lot of political music on there, too. But I’m just wondering, how do we engage with this cultural production from an anarchist lens. The history of American pop culture is a history of a lot of theft of Black cultural production. But it’s also a place that historically, I think, Black improvement has been relegated to and the way that white consumers relate to it is another version of this flattening out, which you see also in writing and stuff. James Baldwin talks about this a lot. So I just wonder what your general thoughts are on pop culture, because it’s there, it’s inspiring, and it also has problems?

W: I think the relationship that we have with celebrity culture is also tied to the critique I make of Black capitalism and Black capitalistic rationale. So much of the value that people put on celebrities has to do with the wealth that they’ve acquired, the visibility that they’ve acquired, and these forms of capital that people seek out in social ways. When we’re thinking about celebrity culture and what fame means, a lot of times that feeds into this disturbing interruption that occurs within our movements, because activists end up becoming famous organizers, they become celebrities. That ends up being a distraction and a counter-revolutionary seed in our movements because it becomes more about what this one famous person, who’s a famous activist has to say and what they think because they are the leader.

Black anarchism, I think has a lot of really great insights, obviously, with regard to the historical critiques around hierarchy, and vanguardism, and the way that those things are problematic in our movements. That’s one aspect of it. But there’s also the way that people who are famous for other things, be it music or sports or whatever entertainment, the way that those people are viewed automatically as leadership and the Black vanguard or as someone who has some expertise on activism just because they’re famous. So fame also generates this idea that there’s an inherent intelligence and understanding that comes with the ability to accumulate. So it’s to say that this person is famous, so they must know what needs to be done, they must know what we should do, we should go to them. You end up having these celebrities who are commenting on things that they know nothing about, that they have no understanding of, with regard to movements and politics. It’s really absurd and really dangerous for our movements because you end up having people following the words and the direction of someone just because they’re famous, when they have no clue what should be done, no clue what’s happening on the ground, what is happening in communities.

So, Black autonomous radicalism, Black anarchism helps us to see that the people who know what needs to be happening are the people who are in those conditions, the people who are actually in their communities. It’s not just about the famous activist, it is not just about the celebrity. It’s not just about the famous revolutionary. That’s another point I try to make the text because I think that a lot of leftists would have a critique of a celebrity in “stan” culture and these cultish relationships that people have with certain celebrities, but they have those sorts of relationships with dead revolutionaries and people who they’ve turned into saints, and people who they’ve turned into infallible politicians and leaders of the past. They look at these people, and they have a fandom of their own, with regard to the way that they view history, and they treat their favorite historical figures as perfect, flawless characters that are unquestioned because of their historical fame and their noteworthiness with regard to revolutions of the past and efforts and fights of the past, that also escape critique because of their fame and the way that we regard them in this fantastical, mythological way.

TFSR: It makes me think, if we relegate our politics to the politics of representation, which was a huge response by corporations to the uprisings of last year, George Floyd uprisings to be Netflix Bookmarks series, we really get politics to that. Then also the representation that comes from having Black artists, Black actors, Black creators of culture be the spokespeople, like you said, ends up reifying that monolithic version of the race that is what the struggle is to destroy, right? By saying that someone could speak for a whole people, that are identified by this power structure as belonging together. So representation gets talked about a lot as a route of freedom, but it ends up being such a trap so often. As a teacher, I always get caught up with people who really stick to these things. Megan Thee Stallion is a feminist or something like that. Because we have such a simplified view of what it means to be political, it is just doing some basic form of empowerment.

W: I hope that people will understand that I’m not saying that a famous person can’t contribute to a movement. I’m also not saying that a person who’s a celebrity has nothing to give or nothing to offer or can’t know what’s going on or have an informed analysis. That’s not the case. I bring up Paul Robeson as a historical example of someone to look to that actually had a lot of amazing things to contribute to movements and had done a lot of work that is actually really impactful historically. But rather than thinking that fame is something that we should use to try to build movements, I’m saying that it’s actually a problem because it feeds into a lot of hierarchical arrangements, and a lot of disturbing notions of leadership and vanguardism, that we need to move away from, in my opinion. After all, I don’t think that we should be looking for some elite to guide us, be it a revolutionary elite, be it an entertainment elite. I think that what’s happening amongst everyday people who are self-organizing, who are building autonomy, and who know their own unique conditions, that is who needs to be focused on. The actual people doing the work in their own communities, in their own neighborhoods, and understanding their own conditions better than anyone else, would try to tell them that they should be understood under the guise of whatever ideology they might do that.

TFSR: One thing I hadn’t really thought about a lot, but I heard you saying is that it also connects to the ideology of capitalism, that there’s a meritocracy, like the people who we know, we’ve heard about are there because they deserve to be there rather than whatever luck brought them there. I think that’s really important to keep in mind also. Whatever becomes super mainstream and popular isn’t going to give us the full story. If it’s so popular, it can totally be a threat anyway. In that line, I want to go to the way that you talk about the legacies of Black freedom movements of the mid 20th century, and how they’ve been rewritten into a nationalist story, and I’m gonna quote you say that “it’s been made into a singular struggle with one line of thinking”, and that you call a state project that attempts to give Black people a stake in the violence of the US. So what is called Black history becomes everyone’s story. Then a source of pride for the US, not shame, for example. I was just wondering about that process and how it affects Black people, Black radicals differently than white radicals who are trying to struggle against racial capitalism and the state, too.

W: The way that this plays out, and has played out for some time now, historically, is that the state is able to absorb the Black struggle, by making it into something that is a necessary gear or mechanism to make it better. What I mean by that is I’m saying that the way the state has absorbed and taken the story, for example, of the civil rights movement, and made it about an overarching effort to just reform, the intention, and the direction of the US state, that’s something that has completely been normalized. That’s what we get in education in school and grade school, we’re taught that from the earliest moments that we enter into the education system. We look at that and see how the state is using Black history to maintain itself by saying that Black people have only ever wanted to make the state more efficient and more inclusive and better, rather than looking at the whole of Black History, where we can come into a much deeper understanding that that’s not the case.

One of the examples that I bring up in the texts, as I talk about Lucy Parsons, again, a formerly enslaved Black woman, who’s an anarchist, and she’s arguing against voting at a time where she doesn’t even have the right to vote. She couldn’t even vote and she said, this is worthless. She couldn’t even do it. You look at an example like that and you say, “That’s amazing for Lucy to have had that insight into the symbolism and the emptiness of US electoral politics at a time when she couldn’t even legally engage in it. That history really pushes against this idea that Black people were just a single movement, Black radicalism was just a single movement full of people just trying to fight to be included and treated better by the state. That’s not the case. So, we obviously see what this can turn into when people lean into that reasoning. You know, we have things like the 1619 Project, which said Black people made the US a democracy or something like that. But it’s not a democracy, it is not a project that is even doing what it claims to be doing in terms of, again, for example, voting. We still don’t have a guaranteed right to be able to cast votes as Black people in the United States. To say that Black people made the US a democracy and to feed into this idea of a more inclusive US project is actually doing a disservice to our movements by saying that the state is something that is redeemable, and that can be fixed if we just keep pushing and trying to make it better.

Now, whether people want to talk about it or not, that’s happening also from the left. And when we look at it in a more global context, what a lot of the politics that we see from many versions of state socialism are saying is that we need to just have a better state and that there are states that we need to be trying to be more like, because if we’re able to reform the state to a socialist economy, that’s going to solve all of our problems. Then, traditionally, obviously, there’s been a line that the state will wither away, and then we’ll have a stateless society, and that’ll be communism. But again, when we’re truthful about history, and we see what has happened historically with state socialist projects, you cannot just lay blame for everything going wrong at the hands of the imperialists and empire. There have also been betrayals, there’s also been atrocity, there’s also been corruption, there’s also been a lot of horrible things that have happened, that have contributed to why those projects haven’t done and achieved what we’ve been told by the conventional leftist narrative that what we’ve been told that they were supposed to do. So, when we look at those things in a much deeper way, we can begin to actually start to create and craft movements that think beyond the state, that think beyond trying to reform and fix all of these really dangerous structures that people are trying to wrestle with and lay claim to. In the context of us nationalism, so much of that takes place in really insidious ways, whether it’s the classroom, the museum, or television, popular culture, we are always being told that we can lay claim and reform what’s oppressing us and what’s killing us. I’m trying to write against that idea across the entire spectrum and say that these things are not for us. They’re not going to free us. People have already been trying to do this for long enough for us to say, “this is not working” and for us to do something that transcends the left and all of our ideas of movement and left radicalism entirely and historically.

TFSR: One of the convenient things about the narrative that we’re talking about that makes it something that’s over, which obviously, as you point out, contradicts the material reality of people’s existence, that struggle for freedom is over. Or even if it was just limited to voting, while the Supreme Court or whatever could say, “there’s no longer a threat to Black people voting”, that is clearly not true.

W: One thing I would add to that, too, is that for me to say what I just said, for example, about state socialism and how the promises of liberation are not completely achieved by just transitioning to a socialist economy. What I’m saying there is, again, similar to looking at the history of the civil rights movement and of reform and of legislative efforts. Because what is true is that there have been gains that have been made, of course, with state socialism. But there have also been gains that have been made through reformism and through some of the liberal efforts of liberal activists in the civil rights movement. I’m not saying that reform has never achieved anything. But what I’m saying is that it’s not enough. I’m not saying it’s never done anything. I’m not saying that Black nationalism has never done anything. I’m not saying the state socialism has never done anything. I know that they have, I recognize it much. But what I’m saying is, we have to be honest about the limitation when we see, the patterns that have occurred historically and push for something greater. That’s the point that I’m trying to make. So you say these things and people get defensive because they know about gains that have been made. But I’m saying let’s push for something much greater than the table scraps of liberalism. Let’s push for something much greater than the limitations and the violence of the state.

TFSR: Yeah, whether it’s from a performance perspective, or the authoritarian left, or the statist left, there’s this “realism” that gets invoked against our aspirations of freedom. But what you say in the book is that there have been some gains, right? I like the way you say “liberalism’s table scraps”, but they’ve also been gains that plug us in further to this killing system that’s continuing to kill at the same time.

W: Exactly. Because when you make those gains be a complete totality of everything, and when you overemphasize them to such an extent, you end up feeding into the system in such a way that you start working to preserve the system rather than exceed it and go beyond it. So when you overemphasize what has been done, you might start to lose sight of what could be done. You can look at the history of the Civil Rights Movement, or the Black Power movement, or any movement and act like it was perfect, and then just that it just needs to be mimicked. Because it’s not good to start getting caught up in this idea that that was it, that’s what we need to do again. Because when you’re doing that again, and again, and again, you’re not working to break free of it.

TFSR: Yeah. I think that was beautifully said. One thought that came up, a connection that I hadn’t made before. There’s something that I think is a really important connection that you make in the book is that you take a look at the great migration historically as a continuation of a diaspora that’s ongoing and connected to gentrification. I’m thinking about this also in relation to the statist leftists who can’t deal with the fact of stateless people, if their solution is the state. You use the migrant status of Black people within the US and also around the world as a point of solidarity, and you even talk about your own radicalization through migrant defense work. So I wonder if you want to talk a little bit about your reading of the great migration, because I think it’s something that maybe needs to be spoken about more, and also how you see that fitting into the current moment and in places of solidarity in the ways that the state is threatening most vulnerable people.

W: Yeah, the interesting thing is that that actually played a lot into my interest in anarchism, too. I was really frustrated with the left, but I also was thinking about anarchism because I was doing this organizing work that made me think a lot about citizenship and the state. In the immigrant rights movement, I’ve gotten involved because I understood that I was not a citizen, I was taught that growing up, my parents told me, you’re not just a second class citizen, you’re really not considered a citizen at all. I internalized that in a way growing up that became a part of my politics now and my understanding and thinking around statelessness, and the ways that Black people experience it across the Americas. With regard to all of that, I know that in the immigrant rights movement, there is a lot of subtle and overt racism against Black people. Black people are not the face of the immigrant rights movement. Despite experiencing disproportionate rates of deportation and incarceration, Black people are not seen as undocumented, or immigrants, or as migrants. What that ends up doing is it takes away from a type of solidarity and a type of struggle that could be built, it actually undermines that movement significantly. I used to try to point that out in that movement, where people didn’t really have a lot of understanding of why I was participating. I was trying to find a language to explain this back then. But it didn’t always come out the way that I can express it now, because I had to take a lot of time to think and develop the understanding that I now can claim. But you hear people talk about migration struggles, and they totally neglect the Great Migration.

To be more specific, they neglect the Great Migrations, there was more than one that has occurred with regard to Black America, forced and otherwise. They’re all forced in the sense that I’m talking about migrations of Black people who had to leave because maybe they got priced out or gentrification happened now. And historically, you had migrations during enslavement, whereby people were forced to move en masse to other places in the country because of the demand of the slave-holding class and what their desires were for agricultural production. When you look at that history and pay attention to all of the times that Black people have had to move and have been pushed out of places and forced around this country, it creates a pretty stunning example of what we can see on a global scale that’s happening domestically, which is there is no real place to run to find this absolute safe haven and asylum that we can lay claim to that’s going to protect us from state violence.

When you bring that into the history of Black anarchism, you see someone like Lorenzo, who’s fleeing to other countries, looking for that asylum and not finding it. Lorenzo’s story is one of many. I highlight his specifically because I’m talking about Black anarchism. But there have been plenty of other times where Black people have historically gone to other countries looking for liberation, looking for freedom, and did not find them, including under state socialism. That’s something that’s happened both domestically and internationally. I’m trying to draw that connection there. Obviously, domestically, we’re talking about under the oppression of the US state. But then when you start thinking outside of the US state, there’s a discussion to be had about what Black people and migration tell us about the state generally, here within the US context, but also outside of the US. There’s something there that needs to be unpacked very much, needs to be observed deeply and internalized.

TFSR: I appreciate it in the book that you draw the connection that those conditions that force Black migration within the United States aren’t different in kind that forces the other migrations around the globe, whether it’s Black people or not, but it does include Black people, and, as you rightly point out, that’s often overlooked. But building on that idea that you said came from your parents, too, in terms of your relationship to citizenship as a Black person in the US. That’s something that is going back to your work with Zoé Samudzi, the idea of Black and anarchy, that being Black in the US positions someone into being potentially this internal threat to the coherence of the state, that doesn’t necessarily translate into radical organizing or radical consciousness.

But one of the things that I see you really working on in the book is how do you move from that space of being potentially a threat by definition from the state to actually working towards generalizing that ungovernability or whatever a process of that radicalization is; how do we get people to see those conditions and then politicize their actions. You frame this also just in terms of the Black Panther survival programs, which weren’t just like feeding people, but also politicizing them. So I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about what insight you’ve gained about individual radicalization from a position of blackness, and also how to frame the survival programs that you talked about Black people having been doing historically for generations and centuries even, but like how to frame those as explicitly antithetical to the state.

W: I think that one of the best things that we can do is discourage people from positively identifying with the US project. We can do that by illustrating all of the different times that state violence has targeted Black people historically. We can do that by talking about statelessness. We can do that by talking about how Black people have been positioned as inherently seditious, inherently “alien”, or inherently criminal. Those sorts of realizations help us highlight that this is not something that is going to be fixed through reformism. When we were writing The Anarchism of Blackness and talking about the way that Black people have had to work and think outside of the state and engage in anarchistic practices without laying claim to anarchism as a set of policies, necessarily, what we are saying there is that highlighting those examples historically and talking about how they occur repeatedly throughout history, even today, that is telling us and that is informing us about what the state actually is and what it means with regard to Black people. So rather than trying to reform it, or seize it and lay claim to it and reform it, we’re discussing what we can actually do to delegitimize it in our minds and move away from trying to make it ours or make it better or make it more efficient. It’s important to advocate for that, in my opinion. Because if you get caught up in this idea that you can actually reform the state, what ends up happening is you get this overarching patriotism, that creeps in there and starts encouraging people to try to find value in what it is they’re putting efforts towards reforming and trying to fix. If you’re doing all that work, you might start saying, “Well, this is something that’s redeemable and it’s something that can just be adjusted.”

That’s one of the things I think is really important for anarchists to challenge specifically because you hear a lot of conversations among anarchists and around mutual aid, you hear a lot of people saying, “I’m not trying to let the state off the hook, or I’m not trying to fill in the gaps for what the state should be doing.” But I think that what we were trying to get at back then with The Anarchism of Blackness was saying the state is not on the hook. The state is not malfunctioning, it’s not doing something wrong when it commits state violence against us, that is a part of its core function. It has a monopoly on violence. It creates a system of haves and have-nots. It has a ruling class, it has core intentions that tell it to do what it’s doing, that give it instruction and give it life through doing those things. So rather than trying to fix them, we should actually be encouraging people to remove ourselves from the idea that it has something for us in it that we just haven’t discovered yet.

TFSR: Do you have any thoughts on how to make our mutual aid projects not co-optable? Because they do fill in the gaps in terms of making people survive and I’m thinking in disaster relief, and particularly in the long COVID period where there’s been a lot of survival programs put in place by people, and they may be done by anarchists, but I don’t necessarily see how they’re a threat. A lot of disaster relief work around hurricanes and stuff could be claimed by the state after the fact. I mean, that’s something you talked about in the book, that that’s something that we need to do. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on that.

W: Well, I think that one of the most important things to observe is the history of revolutionary intercommunalism of the Black Panther Party. That’s one of the reasons I’m bringing that up in the text. And that’s where we get survival programs. That’s where that comes in. So survival programs and mutual aid are obviously distinct, and they have different meanings. I’m not trying to conflate the two. But one thing I’ve been saying when I talk about this book is that these are both things that work. They can complement one another. Because of people’s dedication to dogma, to ideology, to doctrine, they look past things that could work to their benefit. So the intercommunalism of the Panthers and the survival program is something that offers a lot, a lot, a lot of valuable, good history, good organizing, good work that can be done to actually be much more effective now. I don’t think that people have a real deep understanding of what it was that the Panthers were doing with intercommunalism and what the survival program was.

What needs to be done is going to be specific. First and foremost, I want to say that it’s going to be specific to every community, and I’m not going to try to be a person that is doing exactly what I tried to speak against, saying that there’s a one-size-fits-all approach that is gonna save everybody, I’m not going to talk like that, or at least I want to try to avoid talking like that. But one of the things that we can see with the survival program, for example, was that Panthers were creating a systemic approach to meeting the material needs of people and communities across the country and doing things that were absolutely necessary to sustain everyday life for Black people. They were not just doing it to just be doing it. That’s an important thing to note there. Because you can have a program, or you can have a mutual aid group, and just give out food, or give out clothes or do whatever the case may be. But if you are not politicizing that word, undermining capitalism, talking about state violence, and rejecting and fighting back against it while you’re doing that work, and through that work, then that takes away from what you’re doing. If I give somebody some groceries, and say, “Hey, here’s some groceries, I know that you need some food,” it is not the same as giving somebody some groceries that have some propaganda in there, that say, “I’m giving you these groceries because of this capitalist system creating a problem where you don’t have access to them in the first place oppressing you.” Those are two completely different things.

So, you can be giving someone groceries every week. But if you’re giving groceries with that intention, and with the political education, and the radical information you can distribute with it, it’s a much different thing. These efforts have to be politicized and be radical in a way that actually is doing the work, which makes it a threat. The Panthers were targeted because their work was a threat. What is going to make our work threatening, what is going to make us ungovernable, to quote Lorenzo, a lot of that has to do with the political intention to actually undermine the state and to undermine the efforts of the state to maintain power. So, you can’t just do it just to be doing it. There has to be that intention behind it. I think that that’s one of the most important things, and when you look at different Black anarchist approaches, one of the things that’s going to come up is “Okay, if everybody does start doing it with that intention, where do we go from there?” Again, that’s going to be a different answer depending on who you’re talking to, or depending on who you’re reading in terms of Black anarchists historically. But if you talk to somebody like Lorenzo, Lorenzo is going to talk about dual power, he’s gonna talk about building dual power.

Again, that takes us back into the history of Black anarchism drawing from that which informed it, but that which it also critiques. So that dual power that’s coming from Lenin, and I will tell you right now, Lorenzo has plenty of criticism for Lenin. But he’s drawing from dual power. You can talk about Pierre-Joseph Proudhon outlining dual power before Lenin. You can keep going back with the history there, that it’s more complicated, but Lorenzo’s conception of dual power, he’s drawing from Lenin and talking about building a complete economy, a complete network that is taking these efforts to actually counter the state and making them so effective, that it is actually posing as a real challenge because it’s connected. It’s not just happening on these individual bases, sprinkled throughout the country and isolated. It’s being connected in a way that begins to actually pose a challenge to power. That has to happen globally, too, when we’re thinking about this, this isn’t just about what’s happening within US borders.

TFSR: And that’s how you pull on Huey Newton’s intercommunalism as a replacement for internationalist thinking as a way of linking struggle without that nationalist idea. I think that’s really important. I’m grateful to you for teaching me about that. I’m going to characterize this as a white leftist utopian idea that defers revolution to another time, but also it’s always thinking about catastrophe is impending, not here yet. But when you listen to the Black anarchists, indigenous anarchists, there’s this awareness that we’re in the middle of it, right? It’s not it’s not about to happen. It’s been happening. You say in the book that the race war isn’t coming, we’re not just looking at white supremacists and Nazis preparing for the race war, it’s here through the state. So, I’m wondering if acknowledging that survival-pending revolution doesn’t mean the revolution is always to come, but it means that we’re in the midst of it right now, maybe. How does that help us reframe these dual powers, mutual aid, survival programs as more effective at the moment rather than preparatory to something that’s going to come?

W: I’d say, if we’re being honest about conditions and what has to happen, there’s no real choice other than to be building these programs. Because if we don’t, people are going to perish and people are going to suffer. If we’re honest about the fact that the state is not for us, it’s not serving us, it’s not benefiting us, then there’s a core truth that comes with that, that this system which is ruling over our everyday lives is a part of the crisis that people seem to have this cinematic idea of. It is a part of this crisis at the current moment. It’s not something that is a destination that’s far away. It’s something that is here now. It’s connected to our everyday lives in this present moment.

So, rather than trying to portray it as something that is this end-of-the-world apocalyptic moment, we have to look at what’s occurring on a day-to-day basis. I would encourage people to read Professor Bedour Alagraa’s work because her writing on catastrophe has been pretty influential around my thinking here. But it’s not something that we can just look at as a final event that’s going to take place and just fall on our heads. It’s something that’s playing out day to day. And for us to actually work against it and to fight these systems that are dropping terror on our lives regularly, we have to recognize as much and try to undermine and work against this repetition that is playing out in this destructive way, rather than treating things as if they are going to play out in this cinematic film-like fantasy way that there’s just this one explosive thing that’s going to happen. A lot of the history and a lot of the events that we think of as a part of that film-like fantasy are things that have already occurred before and are things that are going to occur much sooner than would happen in that play in our heads.

TFSR: The subtitle of the book is Black Anarchism and Abolition, and one way you define abolition is that it is one step within a larger project of the revolution. How you’re talking about this makes me think that it changes the timeline of revolution, like abolition is this thing that we’re doing right now within this larger horizon. I wonder if you want to talk about how you see abolition, and how it relates to a Black anarchist project, too, because those words get linked, but they’re also seem to be distinct, right?

W: When I was talking about abolition, I was talking about it because, obviously, abolition became much more widely discussed in a very quick amount of time. I wanted to take abolition beyond the state for more people. Because I think that what abolition meant to a lot of people when it became so much more widely discussed and embraced, the way that it did during the uprisings of 2020, I think what abolition meant for a lot of people was no more police and that’s it. I was trying to complicate it in this text by saying that the police are just one aspect of state violence, they are not the entirety of it. Ultimately, if you want to get rid of state violence, you need to get rid of the state. Black anarchism is already been having that conversation for a long time now. So I was just trying to bring abolition to that point for some people who may not have been there yet.

TFSR: It’s so important, I think always to include the state in our project of abolition, not even just police and prisons because they all uphold each other in a way.

W: Even if you were to get rid of the police, that’s just one form of policing. That’s just one form of systematic violence that the state uses to inflict terror on people domestically and globally.

TFSR: Exactly. One thing that comes up for me is going back to migration, diaspora, and the relationship of diaspora and indigeneity. I’m Jewish, I am from a diaspora position, and specifically, as a Jewish person I’m against Zionism as the solution to diaspora or something, because it’s another violent settler state, a racist settler state. But I’m also like a settler in the US. So I was just wondering, from a Black anarchist perspective, how you might relate the conditions of diaspora and the support of indigenous struggle, without turning them into some argument between the two, which I see also happening sometimes. Because a distinction that has been drawn between the conditions of blackness and conditions of indigenous people in the US is like landlessness and stolen land or something like that. I’m just wondering what you think are connections of support and solidarity between a Black anarchist perspective and support of indigenous struggles in the US and worldwide? I was framing it through a question of diaspora because diaspora and indigeneity could be seen as some oppositional position. If it doesn’t really make sense to you, that’s fine. I’m struggling a little bit with how to articulate it, it was something I’m interested in.

W: There’s this thing that happens that people don’t see Black people as indigenous people. In a way, that parallels what I was describing with the way that Black people are not seen as migrants or immigrants. I think to put them in proper conversation, you just have to recognize that Black people can occupy that category and do occupy that category, and to have a more complete understanding of indigeneity, rather than trying to make blackness and indigeneity mutually exclusive. So, when I’m talking about bringing a more full and complete understanding to Black people and blackness and migration, then what happens is you start doing the work of getting away from undermining what could be a stronger movement when you have that more comprehensive understanding of all of the intricacies that can take place under that term. In the same way, I was talking about how the immigrant rights movement undermines itself by excluding and having racism against Black people, rather than seeking to be included and to diversify, just being honest about what is actually taking place. It’s not just about including me in this movement and making me a part of it. I’ll have representation rather than saying, “Why is this movement not including and why is it not recognizing this,” and then trying to do better and go beyond and push for more. I think that the same thing could happen for sure with indigenous and anarchisms, rather than having this conflict around inclusion.

TFSR: The other thing that I would love to hear you talk about is the title of your book because I think it’s a really beautiful, evocative title. You’re critical of the nation, but in the title and in your writing, there’s this idea of a nation beyond the state, and map, too, has been a tool of colonialism, but also holds some mystery. I’m just wondering what you’re saying with the title and what your inspiration here and how that phrase “the nation on no map” frames blackness in relation to the state?

W: The title of the book comes from Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem about the gang that was once called the Blackstone Rangers. She has this line in the poem where she says “their country as a nation on no map.” When I first read that poem, it really stuck out to me, it was so beautiful, the way that she constructed that. It was something that I included in As Black As Resistance when we’re talking about the complexities of gangs in that text. Part of what’s being said with the title is that there is an acknowledgment of that statelessness that is there and that phrasing “the nation on no map”, but there’s also another thing that I’m trying to do, which is to say, what if we’re not only a nation on no map, what if we’re not a nation? And what if we’re not on a map? Because we know that those things are not for us. It’s really about acknowledging our position but letting that lead to more questions about why that position is what it is in the first place. So I’m not trying to advocate for nationhood in any way, I’m actually questioning it with that title. So I appreciate Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem as well because I think that gangs and organizations that formed on the streets have a lot to say and form a lot of my thinking about how things could potentially look in the future in terms of the way conflict I feel is going to play out in this country. I think that a lot of the left ignores and doesn’t recognize gangs, and doesn’t think and try to approach gangs in the way that needs to happen. But there’s a lot of revolutionary history there. So much of this is about overlooked history. There’s a lot of evolutionary history there that has to be acknowledged, and I wasn’t trying to go back down that path, because I felt like it was already covered a lot in As Black As Resistance. But I was trying to bring back that thread.

TFSR: I think that’s super important to look at gangs and how it gets overlooked. Thanks for breaking that down. In the book, you also have included photographs, and I just wonder if you can talk about how you see them interacting with the text. They are beautiful and haunting clearly. How you chose them or what their role is in that text?

W: Those are just all my photos. I took those photos over years. There were just a lot of different moments, when I was writing this text, that I saw something and I took a photo, and I was writing the text and thinking about how those photos and what I was taking an image of how it relates. For example, somewhere within the chapter where I’m talking about the narrative around kings and queens and the mythology and the way that history is mythologized to make Black people into all descendants of African nobility, I thought about that with regard to a Slave Rebellion Reenactment that I attended in Louisiana, and I took a picture of one of the re-enactors on his horse. I put it in that chapter because I think that is absolutely connected to what I’m saying. I wrote an essay about that, that also exists on Hyperallergic. I wrote that, but I thought about it and its connection in the sense that the way that I was seeing this idea that by glorifying this former slave rebellion, it will restore a certain pride and a certain revolutionary spirit in Black people. It made me wonder about the connections between the past and what we tried to communicate through emphasizing certain history. I thought that it was really interesting to witness that at the Slave Rebellion Reenactment that I went to. So I put that picture there, just because I thought it was connected. I didn’t go into the detail, obviously, that I went into just now, but it’s just something that I was thinking about when I was there.

Many of the photos in that text… I talk about bombings, I talk about Dynamite Hill, I’m from Birmingham, so I took a picture of Angela Davis’s childhood home on Dynamite Hill in Birmingham, and also took a picture of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, which was also subject to that violence. They’re just there to illustrate connections. But they’re also there because I like to include as much imagery with my writing as possible. I try to be very thoughtful about images, whether it’s an essay or a book, there are no images in As Black As Resistance. But I definitely will try to put images wherever I can, because I think that they make it easier to read. I think that people like to look at things and see images while they’re reading. I think that it also helps try to take away from this idea that the type of writing that I’m doing has to be really plain and not interactive. So I’m trying to make it more fun to read something that’s not necessarily a fun subject, if that makes sense. Maybe fun isn’t the right word, but at least just make it more interactive for people.

TFSR: I totally get what you’re saying. I really appreciate you unpacking that particular connection. But it’s almost an invitation to the reader. Because it sparks your imagination and be like “Well, what is this picture? What is it doing here? How does it relate to the text?” It invites interactive reading.

W: I write about photography, a decent amount. I have multiple essays out there in the world about photography that I’ve done with Hyperallergic and the British Journal of Photography. So photography is really important to me as an art form, but also as something that can be violent, and used for really horrible and disturbing purposes. So I think about photography a lot. It’s always something like music, it is just a big part of my life and my work and I try to interact with it whenever I’m doing these things.

TFSR: You’ve entertained a lot of questions, and I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me and think about all this stuff and present some of the ideas from your book to the listeners. Is there anything else that you’d want to talk about or cover that we didn’t get a chance to?

W: Not at the moment, just want to say thank you for this interview and for reading the book. Thanks to anybody that’s listening for listening or reading the book or thinking about reading the book. I’m really grateful for all of it. Everyone that’s listening, be safe and be good in your community and try to do what you can, and solidarity.

TFSR: I really appreciate your thinking and your work and I think it’s a huge contribution. Thank you for taking the time and we’ll include in the show too, how people can connect with your work and you if you want.

W: I appreciate that.

Housing Struggles in Asheville

Housing Struggles in Asheville

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

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Announcements

Sean Swain’s Transfer

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

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

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

Biologica Squat in Thessaloniki

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

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Featured Track:

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Transcription

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Papi: We could make plans for it.

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

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

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

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

Papi: It was really nice.

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

TFSR: Like storage containers?

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

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

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

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

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

Papi: If art is controversial…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Papi: They will listen.

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

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

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

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

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

Papi: And it’s boring!

Onion: It’s super bad. Yeah.

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

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

Onion: Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doug: A loaf of bread is almost five dollars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doug: And when it breaks, it’s gonna be not good.

Onion: Something’s got to give.

TFSR: It has to stop being us.

Doug: I’m 45 years old. I got an apartment with my girlfriend who… she got some issues going on there and I love her to death, but she can’t really work. But even even with her, if I got an $1,100 security check, and she got a little $1100 security check. It’s 2200 bucks, that’s really not much. We get over $500 a month in food stamps. And usually about five days, six days at the end of the month, we’re not shopping. That’s plenty of money to be a lot of food. I have no day of the month that we don’t have any food.

If I get a job, it’s gonna be part time. All these places are hiring. They say they’re hiring, but you fill out an application online. somebody like me who didn’t graduate high school doesn’t have no really real education on paper it just gets tossed out. It’s just deleted right away. So if I went and sold myself to the company, got the job, still would only be &350 a week.

Papi: Yeah, it’s like they want it both ways. They want to own their restaurants and pay you a pittance and still make their big profits. The result from their decision making, which is that we don’t have housing, and we are on the streets. They won’t accept us on the streets. And so they sweep us. So they want to have their cake and eat it too. And they don’t understand that this is something that they’ve manufactured.

Papi: Oh, and also with COVID with a lot of places hiring, as well as not being paid enough. People are getting long haul COVID. People are getting sick and employees are not letting us have time off. They don’t care about us. And what are we supposed to do? I remember seeing these things and hearing things of like “oh, like nobody wants to come to work or anything like that”. It’s like, “No, it’s because you don’t pay enough. You don’t give us sick time. You don’t give us time off.” And it’s like we have to be there constantly like 45-50 plus hours of our lives working and giving your time and energy. And then once we have the money, it goes right away to rent or living necessities. We don’t have the energy to do anything else. We don’t have the energy to come out and into the park and make art. We don’t have that energy.

Doug: You can’t even go to the Chic-Fil-A and get yourself a chicken sandwich because you earned it.

TFSR: There’s been a push, it’s a North Carolina wide push. And I think it’s backed by the SEIU. But the NC Essential Worker Movement and the Fight For 15 has really been pushing around North Carolina. I think the Burnsville Bojangles has been striking because of the conditions around people getting infected with COVID and not being given time off. And the managers not paying attention to safety standards inside of the place in terms of customers coming in without masks and co workers without masks.

Plus people tell their stories on the social media of like people working 80 hours a week between two jobs and having a kid and not being able to afford to make ends meet. But these little franchise fast food shops make hella money. And it’s not even like the fancy restaurant that Papi works in downtown. That’s that’s one end of the scale, but even places you don’t have to go in a white shirt or whatever. It’s yeah.

Doug: The Chocolate Shops downtown. I don’t have clothes nice enough to go in that damn shop. Like they must make a million dollars off of chocolate. That’s crazy.

Onion: Yeah, that’s another thing because that place got off to its start by having the community kind of sponsor them. They were like we pay a living wage. We’re community supported business. And what? Two years later? They changed that to where they were not paying a living wage. And they put all the money that they made into capital resources to build a factory so that they can manufacture their own chocolate and they’re paying worse than they used to.

And that’s really familiar in Asheville to have businesses start out as like, “Oh, we’re socially responsible, small businesses” and then they become these engines of pure exploitation. And so everyone that I know that has worked at that place is like “it’s the worst place to work in town. It’s so exploitive, it’s transphobic it’s disrespectful, the clientele is horrible. It’s it’s a terrible work environment.”

Papi: Or stuff like a decade ago was claiming to paying a living wage or whatever. They were claiming that a part of their, they were paying medical to people by giving them kombucha for free. Yeah, their own product.

Onion: Pay a living wage with parking space. They consider that part of the wage.

TFSR: Or like when you consider the tips getting figured into it.

Papi: Exactly. Yeah. And then there’s no enforcement. So it’s not really a thing. It’s not a real thing.

Onion: I love riots. I’m tired of being like, palatable. I don’t care to be looking nice, being pretty and telling people like “Oh, can you give us this pretty please?” No, I’m gonna scream. I’m gonna yell until you give me what I want. Like, give me more money, stop having rent like this. Stop killing our friends in the streets. I’m ready. I’m already screaming.

Doug: We’ve ain’t even gotta get more money. We just got to stop your price of things going up.

Onion: I mean, all of it. You know? It’s time for us to call the shots. I remember during the uprising here, when downtown was full of anger and we took downtown and the cops couldn’t handle. You were there? Well, there’s a lot of video. And so it was pretty amazing. Because downtown, which is always full of tourists, like completely dominated. Like 95% of people from South Carolina or Atlanta or Knoxville or some shit. Well they were gone. It was just us. And you would never see the surface of the… what’s that hotel called the IRIS? It’s a big fancy new hotel in the center of downtown that spared no expense. That shit was covered. It was covered in tags and people were having a time of their lives. Windows did get broken.

TFSR: So much anti ICE graffiti.

Onion: It was a happy group of people until we got tear gassed.

Doug: I would have been helping y’all smash things and loot and carry stuff out. (laughing)

TFSR: in Minecraft.

Doug: Our buddy got caught in that riot and he ended up dying in Buncombe County Jail. Yeah, shout out to Jacob Biggs. He was a good guy. He just gets lost like most of us. We fall. Some of us stumble and we get back up. Some of us fall and we’re like, “I’m still falling. I can’t get up.” And we don’t need much. Just like hope, like a job, paycheck or something to look forward to. Like the promising of a house. I finally maced somebody at AHOPE because he was threatening me, he attacked me. And that same day is when they told me I had an apartment.

Because if you go through floating like regular “Hey everything is cool” you’re not in danger, your life is not at risk. But if you go in there stressed out every day, and you’re suicidal, and you want to kill the dog you want to kill and you start being irate they will move you up faster. And I don’t see how one person’s life is more or less than another one’s. Some people just lose their minds in the streets because they’re waiting for housing.

Papi: For housing. Yeah. For years.

Doug: I just want a roof over my head.

Onion: That’s the thing at this point. The city doesn’t understand where we’re coming from, which is that we’re not leaving the park. We’re not stopping. You’re not going to push us out. We’re not budging. So, you know, they’re going to have to find some way to compensate and open up their wallets and deal with us because we are here to stay. We have nowhere else to go.

TFSR: Yeah. And the “not in my backyard” approach doesn’t work anymore when people won’t stop being pushed away. Yeah. So y’all are holding space, you’re doing direct action by holding space publicly. You’re inviting families. You’re making art, taking the opportunity to make public art and make statements about it. We’ve already talked about how city council and county commissioners will do their best. People are trying to engage it, but they’ll do their best at silencing people actually making any changes and the city manager calls the shots anyways who is an unelected official. Do you want more people to show up at the park? What do you want people to bring? How long do we expect y’all are going to be out there? What’s the next stepping stone that y’all are reaching for?

Onion: We’re out here, you know. So by the time this airs, Friday will probably be over but it’ll be after Christmas. We’re going to have a big Christmas party and with lots of music and stuff like that. So this is ongoing. And yeah, I think that by the time people hear this on the air, they can just come on out at any time. We’re oftentimes picking up the festivities around four o’clock.

Doug: Yeah, if they don’t have anything… They can come with nothing. They can come with themselves or something, but just as support. They don’t have to bring sodas. A lot of people bring donations. Great. Because we can use them, but if you don’t have anything still show up. A big crowd is better than a little one.

Papi: It’s a nice big park. So there’s space for really a lot of people.

Doug: You play pickle-ball and tennis. They took the tables out. So we need a picnic table.

Papi: We got to bring tables in. But yeah, like anybody’s Welcome. Come over. You don’t have to bring anything. Everyone brings a little bit something. If you have the means and the money, yes, bring something, bring furniture. We people like to sit. We like to be cozy. Bring that. Drinks are always appreciated. Hot warm food. Very appreciated. Of different varieties, please, not all of us can eat everything.

Doug: Bring your Christmas tree.

Onion: Yeah, we like to like build things too, we get really crafty. And so we usually build structures every day. Engineering and stuff like that. And so we go high up in the trees, and we make our art and it’s really a cool scene.

Doug: Yeah, we want to make a birdhouse.

Papi/Onion: Ladders, you want to donate a ladder? Give us a ladder.

Papi: Bring a ladder, bring your client climbing gear!

Doug: We can go get a ladder tonight. I got a big one. Well, I think it stretches. Tools! Bring ingenuity. Bring a good attitude. Just be genuine and sincere to be there helping some people that need housing. Don’t just come for the show. Cuz you’re gonna love that.

TFSR: Musicians bring their instruments DJs bring their setups. It seems like a lot of the more inspiring things that I’ve seen in town around housing… I feel excited having conversations like this with people, because it’s just real that living in the city is much more difficult than it needs to be. And there’s people on the top that are skimming off. And then there’s tons of bureaucrats and cops and whatever and middle management in the middle that make their money off of keeping us out of empty buildings and keeping us from getting the food that we deserve.

And not only that, but also because this city sometimes feels like it doesn’t have actual community. It’s got the drum circle on Fridays, maybe. Especially during pandemic, the uprising felt to me, like the first time for a bit in that year that I felt a real sense of community and inviting people out to a space to share music to share food to be inspired by each other. That’s amazing. Personally, I feed off of that.

Doug: Yeah, and it’s not just in Asheville, it’s a lot of cities. A lot of big cities, small cities, it’s happening everywhere. People need to pull together and get it right. And because if we don’t, then not just us, we’re all gonna be a load of crap. I don’t know how people don’t see it. It’s totally gotta be flipped. Put us in power and power underneath us. I love people that want to challenge people to come out here with us for an undisclosed amount of time. Depending on their attitude they can leave tomorrow go home, are they can leave in 30 days.

You have an undisclosed amount of time of how long you are going to be in the streets like we are. You’re stripped of your whole life and put on the streets and you’re homeless. And then what? Anybody can survive if they know they are going home within a week. Like I can last all week. But if there’s no hope for tomorrow, no, stale sandwiches or nothing. You really get down and hate life. And I would challenge them to come see how we do it. We don’t want to live like this. To see how hard it is to survive some situations.

It’s cold. I don’t know if any of y’all have been outside all day in the winter, but I hated it. I was warming my tent. Because I don’t like the cold. I moved from New England, because I thought it was cheaper here. And when I came from Connecticut here, the only thing that was cheaper was cigarettes. Meat was the same price. It was terrible. I had $1,000 month rent up there, it was a two bedroom. Everything was $1000 month, pay utilities, all your bills to come here and be homeless.

Onion: We also want to make the explicit invitation of people that have nowhere to go to come and visit if they can and see if there’s anything there for them that they want to build with us. So it’s hopefully a space that welcomes people that really don’t have anywhere else to go right now.

Doug: You see our community. See how we shoot, we love each other. How we try to look out for each other. I’ve given people the shirt off my back out here. The food off my plate.

TFSR: Well, I guess if you’re new to town and having difficulty keeping up on stuff. It’s a good place to come and meet people and also to find out about resources that are available. And Doug mentioned ASP before, that seems like a cool place to interface with that with the street side of ASP or the Free-store.

Doug: They talk to us with sincerity, not condescending. I love this group. Like, I’ve never met anybody like that, the people from ASP. I guess that would be me too, I volunteer to help. They’ve taught me a lot. I learned a lot. They keep me in check. I’m grateful for them. Grateful for everything that we do,

TFSR: Where can people keep up on this if they’re not in the area and they want to apply pressure. Or if they want to get involved, but maybe don’t want to show up immediately? I know there’s some Instagram accounts that have been broadcasting news about when police have been coming in or the really cute flyers that have been being made. Yeah, how can people find out more?

Papi: It’s kind of an autonomous group that is forming this project, but it’s being supported by a coalition of collectives and groups. And so you could go to any of those pages to find out about what’s going on. Those could be Asheville Solidarity Network that has a Facebook and an Instagram. There’s Asheville Survival Program. Same thing Asheville For Justice. DefundAVLPD – the movement to defend the police here. So yeah, check those out. And that’s a really good way to get in touch and plug in and find out what we’re doing.

TFSR: Cool. Is there anything that I didn’t ask about that y’all want to bring up and mention?

Papi: I do have something. I remember asking some folk because I’m pretty new to just a lot of stuff. So I was like, anybody want anything to be said, and someone brought up about just what happens when when sweeps happen, and friends and family are displaced Is that you no longer know where your friends are. You no longer know where your family’s at. And it just makes it a shit ton harder to get yourself okay. And shit around you okay. If you’re constantly being removed from your area, and you can no longer make appointments, and you can no longer take care of your dog or go to doctor’s appointments, or go to school or anything like that. And the main thing that someone had told me that they were really thinking about was how you can no longer find your friends and family. And that’s very scary. Fuck sweeps. Fuck DOT.

Onion: I think I wanted to say Fuck them all. Yeah, definitely echoing that. I wanted to say that, to city council, we see you. We see what you say and how what you do doesn’t match up with it. And so we’re coming for you. There is not anybody that’s safe sitting on the city council, because the furthest left member of city council on the first day of Code Purple, when there was no shelter, put up a Facebook post saying “it’s my birthday. Oh, it happens to be Code Purple. What you can do is donate to this tiny nonprofit who doesn’t even do emergency housing support. Give them money, because the city can’t handle our shit.”

And basically, that’s the furthest left that it gets in Asheville is like passing the buck. And so we see you passing the buck. Kim Roney. We’re here watching what you do every day. And you haven’t shown up at Aston Park yet. And we see you. So there’s an invitation for city council to open up your wallet of the city coffers, and give us what we need. Or we will come for you.

Papi: For city council to come down and to shut up and not say anything and hear houses folks and hear them at every single thing they have to fucking say. Everything.

Doug: We want your routing numbers! To your bank accounts,

TFSR: And do a damn thing about it, not just show up and listen and go back to their heated offices, right?

Doug: No, I want them to just come and listen. They’ll hear something but they just come and they’re not listening.

Onion: They hate having to listen to us. They hate it.

Doug: When you’re able to put up a tent and be homeless. That means you’re comfortable there, it’s feel like a safe spot. And then when the police come and sweep it or tell you to move, it’s like you’re being evicted from your home back to first time being homeless. Every single time. I went through 18 tents in two years. That’s ridiculous. You know, police take them down or weather. it just sucked. Fuck the police.

Onion: Yeah, and how many campsites have been burned down in the past couple of years. People need a safe place to go where we have folks watching out. There’s just been a lot of danger for people living outside in every every kind of way.

Doug: Unfortunately when there happens to be like an OD or something. And they shut it down. Like take the OD and deal with it, and not police it but support. Not just beat us down and make us want to go get high. Iv’e been clean for a couple weeks now. It’s a struggle. When they get on me and bad days, I’m gonna want to go out there and you know, do that bad thing. Stay warm.

When I was homeless, I ain’t gonna lie I got high everyday. Because I needed that to get through to get up and get my food for the day, my clothes, my shelter for the night. Take care of my girlfriend’s dog. God they don’t understand. Sometimes you wait 4 hours for a shower at AHOPE. And for lunch, more time. We’re not just sitting around doing nothing with our time, twiddling our thumbs. So this is the south and we are in the Bible Belt, right? This is the holiday season. We need some love like Jesus from these people. I hate to bring religion into it, but show us where your hearts are.

TFSR: Congratulations on keeping sober.

Doug: It’s a little easier with an apartment I can just stay in there and eat and not have to go outside. But I hate it for people who don’t have housing. I was just there not too long ago. And I could be there again. If things were bad, but I’m gonna do my best not too.

TFSR: I guess any of us could. It’s kind of the point, right?

Doug: Most of us are one paycheck away from it. me. Me and my ex-wife we we’re doing fine, two jobs, kids in schools, both the cars, and then both cars died. We were off the bus ramp. But then, here we are. Yeah. Well, she’s not here anymore. She’s here but not here.

Papi: Yeah, I was living outside to after leaving an unsafe relationship. And I had an infant. And so I was in a really precarious situation. And so I was living in a vehicle for a while and you know, it can happen to any of us.

Doug: People lived in a tent with their children. It was okay.

TFSR: Yeah, thank you all for the work that you’re doing and for being willing to come on this and talk about it. And I really hope that it it gets more folks out there. And yeah, thanks for sharing your perspectives.

Papi: Thanks for having us.

Doug: Yeah. Thanks, man.

Onion: Thank you.

Ecological Uprising, Antifascism and Anarchist Organizing in Serbia

Ecological Uprising, Antifascism & Anarchist Organizing in Serbia

Crowds block a bridge in Belgrade, Serbia during the December 2021 Ecological Uprising
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Serbia has been rocked by recent, mass blockades in the streets to challenge changes to the Law of Expropriation which would allow the state to take farm lands and other private property to open space for constructing mega projects and extraction like the proposed Rio Tinto lithium and jadarite mine in the Jadar Valley. This is building off of earlier ecological protests in 2021 against the building of private mini hydroelectric power plants along rivers in Stara Planina (aka the Balkan mountain range) threatening access to and health of drinking water. These protest in December forced the 12-year ruling right-neoliberal SNS Party to backtrack and modify plans for the Expropriation and public Referendum laws and put an undefined pause on Rio Tinto’s mine.

For the hour, we speak with Marko about those protests, the influence of western NGOs in politics, the Linglong Tire Factory scandal, labor and solidarity organizing with the Anarcho-Syndicalist Initiative of which hes a member and which is a part of the Internatioal Workers Association IWA-AIT and challenges faced by leftist anti-authoritarian organizers in former Yugoslavia. He also speaks about his experience of the covid pandemic in Serbia, the politics of anti-lockdown protests, anti-vaxers and the far right in general around Serbia, the impact of US-born neo-nazi Rob Rundo of the Rise Above Movement and Media2Rise who has returned to Serbia despite being deported to Bosnia and has been organizing fight clubs, international ties and solidarity between various fascistic groups around Belgrade.

Covid Mutual Aid in Serbia

Belgrade 6

Ecological Uprising

Labor Issues

Anti-Fascism

Announcements

B(A)D News Episode 51

The 51st episode the the A-Radio Network’s monthly anarchist news roundup is online and ready to hear. Check it out!: https://www.a-radio-network.org/bad-news-angry-voices-from-around-the-world/episode-51-12-2021/

Phone Zap for Rashid

New Afrikan communist and Minister in the Revolutionary Intercommunal Black Panther Party, Kevin Rashid Johnson is being punished at Nottoway CI in Virginia and there’s a call-in & email campaign starting on Monday, December 20th to get him:

  1. That he be released from segregation and be given access to general population property and privileges
  2. That he be put in an actual quarantine unit if quarantine is legitimate
  3. That he not be subjected to a retaliatory transfer AND that his classification level NOT be raised as retaliation for beating the write ups/charges.

More at bit.ly/rashidzap122021

Phone Zap for Comrades Easley & Turner

Hunger Strike: December 17th, 2021: Calling all comrades. Easley & Turner will be going on hunger strike at ToCI due to the fact that Warden May is holding them beyond the policy associated with Restrictive Housing & Level E Status. Policy in question is DRC POlicy 55-SPC-02, e,(6)

Call-in request for David Easley #A306400 & Frasier G. Turner #A753786 at Toledo CI in Ohio as they begin a hunger strike beginning 12/17/2021. Folks are asked to call Warden Harold May & ask why he is not following ODRC policy pertaining to Easley & Turner and others being held in ToCI Restrictive Housing Units beyond the policy associated with Restrictive Housing & Level E Status. Policy in question is DRC POlicy 55-SPC-02, e,(6)

Warden Harold May, ToCI(419) 726 7977drc.toci@odrc.state.oh.us
ODRC Headquarters contact form: www.odrc.gov/family

ODRC Director Annette Chambers Smith
(614) 387 0588

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Transcription

TFSR: Would you please introduce yourself with whatever name, gender pronouns, political identity, or affiliation that you’d like for the audience? And tell us about where you’re based.

Marko: Okay, I’m Marko, from the Anarcho-Syndicalist Initiative, IWA section, International Workers Association. I am from Belgrade, Serbia. And I have lived here pretty much all of my life.

TFSR: I do want to ask about the Anarcho-Syndicalist Initiative. But first, just because it’s universal, how has the pandemic been in Serbia? Have you had vaccines available and accessible? Has the government imposed lockdowns? Is there much in the way of either right-wing anti-vaccine movement or left-wing social mutual aid projects to fill in where the health infrastructure hasn’t?

Marko: At the beginning of the crisis, of course, our government is a bit similar to Trump, it reacted as if it is something not so serious. We even had doctors who were approaching this problem as not serious. They saw it as something not so dangerous. But when it came, it was pretty much panic, as I guess, the whole world was more or less in panic. Even in our structures, or some imaginary free society, we will have the same difficulties to handle all these situations. I think it is a challenging situation for humanity. Also, it is a populist government that likes to be connected with the West but also with the East policies. And the only good thing about the government is that we got all vaccines from all over the world, even much more than some other Western countries in Europe. It happened that at one point, even people from Western Europe were coming here to get vaccinated. On the other hand, here, people are not used to getting vaccinated. In this sense, it’s pretty bad.

We have also these conscious anti-vax people. In the beginning, we had a lockdown. We had a state of emergency. It was pretty tough because the state apparatus could practice all these authoritarian principles in the highest manners. But on the other hand, [an emergency response] was something that was needed, but it’s different when the state does it and it looks pretty bad. In April, we had the first lockdown which lasted till May in 2020. In June, we already started to open up little by little, and then these protests came up with the far right-wing people that are anti-vaxxers. But the thing with this is that this just started as the anti-vax protest. Other people protested against police repression. And a lot of people that are not anti-vaxxers came out to protest against police repression. We cannot say that it was an anti-vax protest, there was just a minority in the beginning. At one moment, the leftist groups and anarchist groups took over the protests, a lot of far-right people were defending the police. They wanted to say “We are antivaccine but don’t attack our police”, and para-police and fascist forces were trying to make a group that is protecting the police. But at one moment, some anarchist groups started to throw things at the police and everybody accepted this, and the far-right groups were defeated in a way. I see this protest as our victory because we were able to organize in real action. It was direct action and we practiced organizing there. Later, there were a lot of events under this far-right protest, but not as you see in France or other countries, even in the Balkans. In Croatia, Slovenia, there are a lot of big anti-vaxxer protests. With anti-vaxxers we have here, the scene is big but poorly organized. The far-right groups are not organized in an anti-vaccine way. In this sense, we didn’t have a problem.

The other thing that you asked about, the mutual aid, we had a solidarity kitchen and it’s still going. It is a leftist initiative that was made for people who are homeless and hungry people. During the pandemic, these groups organized mutual aid actions, bringing food to the elderly who couldn’t go out. And that was during the whole pandemic, even with lockdowns, those people were pretty busy with this and they’re still active in different struggles. But all of them are connected either with minority groups, elders, and even the last one was with some workers, like those at Linglong Factory, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. It was a big scandal that the government accepted a Chinese policy that made a big company that is making tires for cars. And they have Vietnamese workers there in very bad working conditions, some of them are forced to work like complete convicts that were brought there to work. This solidarity kitchen also contributed to the struggle against the repression of these people.

TFSR: To clarify that, is it that there were people from Vietnam, that got certain visas that allowed them to work for this company on Serbian soil in a “free trade” compound? It’s basically an off-site Chinese manufacture that employs imprisoned Vietnamese people in Serbia?

Marko: Yeah, but those visas are not actually working visas, they are just travel visas. If you’re from Vietnam, you need a visa to stay in Serbia. I think it is not even a visa, they took their passports, they didn’t even have visas. The Chinese company stole their passports so they cannot go home. It was a big scandal. The government didn’t react at all, it was pretending that this is normal.

TFSR: That’s terrible. That must be so scary for those people, even if you get out of that place, then unless you happen to speak Serbo-Croatian or maybe English, or German, some other language that’s in the region is a general economic language, where do you go?

Let’s talk a little bit more about the labor organizing work that you’ve been doing there. You mentioned that you were involved in the Anarcho-Syndicalist Initiative in Serbia. Can you talk about the work that you all do? What are some of the campaigns going on? We’ve had guests in the past who have affiliated with other networks, like Anarquismo or the Federation of Anarchist Internationals, but I’ve never talked to someone from the IWA-AIT. Could you tell me more about that as well?

Marko: With ASI, IWA-AIT member organization, I recently joined, but I participated in actions for a long time. A lot of people from there were my friends from the past. ASI gained full membership in IWA-AIT in 2004. But it was originally established in 1999 or 2000, I’m not sure. ASI was very active as an anarcho-syndicalist movement concerning the workers’ problems, but also, it was active in university blockades, which is one of the things that is actually where maybe 80% of the left scene in Serbia originated from. It was three students blockades in which ASI introduced direct democracy principles. In this sense, ASI was very important.

Also, I was involved with some ASI members and some other people in a political scandal before I was a member. We were arrested. It was a solidarity event for an arrested guy from Greece, Thodoros Iliopoulos, arrested for an uprising when Alexis Grigoropolous was killed. We got arrested for international terrorism and they were trying to charge us for 15 years or something in prison, but these charges failed. They accused us of attacking the Greek embassy but it was politically instrumentalized action and they didn’t have any proof that we did it. All these claims failed and everybody was released. After that, I was from time to time active in organizing with those comrades, but just last year I joined the organization.

TFSR: One of the things that you mentioned that ASI is doing is to help to coordinate campaigns to get people’s stolen wages back.

Marko: This was something that was actually announced, I think, by the Polish sectionn last year or two years ago. For different contexts, different places the idea work differently. We have a lot of trouble organizing, motivating people to organize on their workplaces but this action was pretty successful. We made some announcements on social media that we are doing these actions, helping people to get their wages back and a lot of people contacted us. We were surprised, really a lot of people. We managed to deal with a lot of these problems, not all, we are still working on some, but a lot of these problems are actually very easy to solve. Usually, we contact the owner, we just contact with the letter, seriously written, with all kinds of threats. Of course, there is a legal way but we also say that we are going to picket in front of their stores, or whatever, but most people who contacted us are restaurants, the service industry. Those problems are very easy to solve. It’s looked funny how owners tried to avoid always, they didn’t answer and in the end, they would say, “No, we were answering, we wanted to pay this worker, but she quit and didn’t call us.” But we record the whole thing. They admit in the end, when they say they want to pay the worker back and we always return to this working place with the workers so that they cannot get manipulated. We see that they are ready to pay the back wages, the owners agree that they will pay the salary, they really want to avoid our threats. Each time we had success, and this success is mainly because we have these threats that we are going to protest in front of their stores. In the past, ASI did such protests, and it was successful. Before this last event that Polish comrades announced, we had experiences doing this. We are pretty sure that we can manage to convince the owner to pay the salaries in this way, and we’ve improved in our writing, how to write a good message to the owners. We have to protest less often these days.

TFSR: That sounds like my experience here in the US of Solidarity Unions, not necessarily labor formations, but you’ll go to a landlord, you’ll go to a boss, and say, “Do you want to be embarrassed publicly? Because we know that you did this, and you’re going to lose friends, you’re going to lose customers.” It’s amazing how much embarrassment it can actually do, and it’s also so poignant how when someone is isolated, either as a worker who hasn’t gotten their wages, or that isolated worker going to the workplace afterwards, when the boss is, “Oh, yeah, just show up, we’ll give you the money.” That’s so good that you make sure they’re not isolated because they can be intimidated so easily.

Marko: Exactly. This is our focus. But in terms of a sense of business, I used to live in the US in 1998-99. But it’s pretty much different because Serbia doesn’t have capitalist history. It was a very long period when we were socialist. So the owners are not sure… In the US, I know “the customer is always right” but here, it is not like that. In these terms, the US has much bigger potential in these protests. It’s easier to convince the owner. I know there are some other problems for sure. But in this sense, even in syndicalism, the US has much better potential than Serbia.

TFSR: I hope that people in the audience in the US hear that.

Marko: Also in Chicago, there is one section that is about to be accepted by IWA. I hope that will be soon.

TFSR: Is that the IWW?

Marko: No, not an association, just some section group.

TFSR: Oh, cool.

Marko: IWW is a separate association. But this is a group that is going to be a full member of the IWA.

TFSR: In November and December of 2021, we’ve seen tens of thousands of people taking the streets to block traffic and cities across Serbia. Can you talk about the ecological uprising? What’s inspiring it, who’s participating and what the limits are, and what’s happening now?

Marko: In this ecological uprising, in the beginning, there were several problematic cases. For example, micro electric river dams being built that are destroying the streams, smaller rivers [in the Balkan Mountains, Stara Planina]. And the first initiatives were established on those struggles. And then later, mining companies came up. In the beginning, it was small organizations, local organizations. They united and made bigger organizations and alliances. They’re usually NGOs but there are different organizations. These groups and their motivations can be hard to understand. Here, a lot of people from the left have trouble recognizing those struggles as worker struggles, because it’s an environmental thing. But also, a confusing thing with this last struggle was that the government wanted to introduce neoliberal capitalism, because the government was about to announce a new law for the appropriation of private property, which is not abolishing private property, but expropriation by the state in order to give the land to bigger private companies. So they wanted to appropriate smaller farms from people so they can give that to the mining companies. In this sense, I think the struggles are really anti-capitalist. A lot of people were organizing because of the environment. But I think we should recognize those struggles and be in solidarity with those people because they’re also anti-capitalist struggles.

TFSR: Just to step back a little bit. The hydroelectric dams that were being proposed on some of the rivers would have flooded people’s farmlands, would have damaged the water tables, would have forced villages to move probably. What was that power production for, was that for domestic use, or was that for export to another country?

Marko: That was small private companies that are making small river dams that destroy the whole water infrastructure in terms of drinking water, but also the biodiversity, animal and plants. A lot of these dams were also going to be built in protected areas for biodiversity [noted in the Red Book published by Biologia Serbica journal from the University of Novi Sad]. But because corruption is very big, this is nothing for them, the government never mentions this.

TFSR: You may not know this, but in the US we have a thing called Eminent Domain where the government comes in and appropriates people’s private property or the apartment building where people live, gives them a “fair payment” and then gives it over for the development of another capitalist project. That sounds like what you mention.

Marko: It’s kind of like this, but when I compare Chilean appropriation, I can see this. Because in Chile, you have something similar was happening and at the end of the 70’s, when they announced a whole package of new agricultural laws, they announced the appropriation law, which was announced not for appropriating and distributing property to everybody. It was an appropriation for the distribution to private companies, that now own the whole drinking water. All these multinational companies own water sources in Chile. This is something that I recognize here also with this new law and probably what’s in the US, it might be something similar.

TFSR: Yeah. You were saying there was resistance from a lot of local farmers to the micro dams and then to the wider Law of Expropriation. That was coming on the books. Can you talk about some of the mining initiatives that have been especially bringing a bunch of people into the streets, because of the pollution that would be coming alongside them?

Marko: This last one was about Rio Tinto, it’s one of the biggest companies in the world owned by Australia and maybe Canada. They have a history of making a mess in a lot of countries. Probably somewhere, they didn’t make a mess, but in the end, those are the ones who get profit, not the people. Even some Western countries like France didn’t allow them to mine and here, the government allows those companies to mind because it sees opportunities. Not only opportunities in the sense of making some money out of it, but the whole infrastructure, then invest in infrastructures. They are building roads, they paid for big roads in advance. They didn’t even get permits to build on this mine, but they already invested in building roads. I think the government also sees opportunities in this sense.

There were a lot of people bothered by it in the last struggle. A lot of people came out. And there were threatening the government that people would block the streets. Of course, the government didn’t bother, they were even laughing. But when they blocked the streets, the government changed their mind. The problem with our government is that much of their support base are working class, often not the people we see in ecological protests. And they saw that a lot of working-class people were out in the protests, so they had to change the policy. They froze the law, but they didn’t totally stop it. Probably, they will start it back up. But right now something is happening, I don’t know in which direction it will go. They announced plans for a real reorganization of this area in which the mining industry was supposed to be built but just yesterday or the day before, they put down this plan of reorganization. We shall see.

Pretty much a lot of leftist people in some sense are not aware of the importance of this struggle. And a lot of leftist people see it as a middle-class struggle and this is a symptom of the 90’s because, in the 90s, people were betrayed by the new government after the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević. Everybody was expecting something to happen when we overthrew socialist populism but actually, liberals came and privatized everything. There is a lot of this fear in the leftist scene that NGOs are instrumentalized by Western countries and are taking over the narrative with these environmentalist ideas, Green ideas because here in Europe, there are a lot of Green parties, the German Green party has their affiliations here also. I even know some people in organizations that are running for the campaign and they are directly affiliated with the German Green Party. They claim they are left also, but the German Green Party was in coalition with different far-right groups. In this sense, there is a lot of fear that people who came out will be instrumentalized for the parties again. But in reality, it’s not like that, because a couple of times, even some of those people who are members or leaders of these parties showed up in those protests, and they were boo’d out. So I cannot say that this makes sense.

TFSR: I don’t know how much that theory that the Western EU liberal establishment is trying to control is a product of the ruling party, the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). Aren’t they also saying that the protests are a product of…

Marko: Yes, but those two narratives are compatible. The opinion of some of the leftist people is almost the same as the ruling party’s view. In this sense, it’s problematic. But I think also, that even if there is a narrative like that, even if it’s true that some Green Parties or some Western establishment want to use this protest, we shouldn’t recognize that as their struggle. It is our struggle, and we should fight and take it, not pacify ourselves with this idea.

TFSR: There was another law alongside the Expropriation Law. That was another point of contention that the government seemed to back down on, that concerned popular intercession in the process. Wasn’t there a public mandate?

Marko: That was a referendum. The problem with this Law of Referendum is when this referendum is legal, and when it is not? If there are only 100 people, they can make a referendum, it doesn’t matter if other people are boycotting the referendum. And that is a problem. But the biggest problem is the idea to pass the Appropriation Law. I think this is an introduction to the neoliberal economy.

TFSR: Again, tens of thousands of people in the streets, the government laughed and said, “this isn’t going to happen”. But in fact, Belgrade and tons of other places were shut down for hours at a time. It seems like quite a victory for pushing back the appropriation law, but is Rio Tinto still hovering as an option?

Marko: To make it clear, the blocking of the streets was only two weeks. It was two weeks’ weekends. It was not two months, but before that, there were different protests in the streets. In the end, the government saw it as a danger because they saw their target groups are involved also in this protests, not only, as they thought, the western and liberal citizens but there are also working-class people. And they have the vocabulary of the working class when they are talking to the people. They saw it as a danger because elections are coming in April. They stopped it immediately. There is still potential that something will come up. People aren’t stopping. Some organizations stopped, but still, a lot of people are protesting. We will see what will happen at the end.

TFSR: Fingers crossed.

Could you talk a bit about the work of resisting the far right in Serbia? What sorts of formations are around? And what sort of problems do they make?

Marko: We have a couple of pretty problematic groups. We have a lot of small groups that don’t have big political danger, but they are still dangerous in terms of attracting people. We also have this organization that was running for elections and they now they accepted some new strategies to introduce the far right, like animal liberation, etc. That is something new here in Serbia because it’s a more traditionalist country, which is used to engage in socially accepted struggles, but now these far-right groups introduce Western ideas, because I saw it in the West, here I’ve never seen it before. One of the dangerous groups is Leviathan/ Levijatan, which is an animal protection and a Nazi group that has lots of opportunities to go on state media. They have opened doors to state media and they use it well. They have pretty bad language, they have a mafia style of talking. Some of these groups are connected to the mafia, historically, it was also like that, all Nazi groups were connected with the mafia and with some social struggles. They are introducing this mafia language, which is interesting to some kids, how they talk, how to be tough, which is dangerous in a way. On the other hand, they have an intellectual limitation and they will fall apart pretty soon, even though they have existed for five or six years.

TFSR: Can we stick to that for just a moment? Because it’s interesting, the Leviathan movement is an interesting thing. Being an animal rights organization that is distinctly anti-human immigration? It seems like maybe they have this idea that there’s a Pure Serbia, where humans and animals and plants, it’s like the ecological fascist crossover.

Marko: You can say that. You are right, when you say these groups are anti-immigrant, they’re pretty much active in marching and hunting immigrants around the city. They have an idea of animals, pure race, things like that. They were even going to some minority groups like Roma groups, taking their dogs with a pretext of them not being treated well.

TFSR: Do they participate in the anti-vax movement also?

Marko: The Leviathan group was in coalition with one of the most famous anti-vax parties, but as themselves, they don’t talk too much about it. There are other far-right groups. Leviathan is no longer in this coalition. The grandfather or the leader of the group was a famous internationalist partisan, he participated in the Spanish Civil War. He was a member of the German Communist Party and Yugoslavian Communist Party. He was also a publisher, before World War II he owned bookstores all around Serbia. With the privatization, his grandchild got it all back. All these companies were appropriated by the state and were used for the public good in the socialist era. But after socialism, they had to give it back so this guy has a lot of money.

TFSR: Did he get that big communist publishing money?

Marko: Yeah. [laughs] And he claimed he never saw his grandfather as a communist. He has a very strong stance against communism. The other thing, his family is a very famous Jewish family, and he’s also a Jewish guy who claimed that he’s not Jewish, he was baptized in Orthodox Church, and he changed his beliefs. This is maybe something psychological, which all Nazi people have in common.

TFSR: Thanks for going with that. You were gonn