Monday, April 17, 2017

Anarchism, Paganism, and Resistance

Anarchism, Paganism, and Resistance

By Brenan Daniels

Below is a recent interview I had with Rhyd, the editor of the website Gods & Radicals, where we discuss the origins of the organization, paganism, and religion in anarchism.

1. What led to the creation and found of Gods and Radicals? How did the entire group get together?
Gods & Radicals was started by myself and my friend Alley Valkyrie two years ago. We're both anarchists, the self-educated 'street-variety' as it were, living much of our lives working with homeless and other mostly-invisible victims of capitalism. And we also talked to other mostly-invisible things, like trees and dead people and land spirits and gods. So we were the self-educated street-variety of Pagans, too.
For us, our anti-capitalism and our Paganism seem to flow into each other seamlessly. Our desire to protect the natural world and our desire to protect the vulnerable were both rooted in the same soil. And we knew lots of other Pagans who were also anarchists, and lots of other anarchists who were also Pagans, but noticed that few were ever talking about what seemed pretty self-evident to all us. Because of the overwhelming response we got after a presentation together at a Pagan conference in California, we realized there was massive desire to talk more about this. So we started the site, named it after the presentation we gave, and put out a call for writers, and we got flooded pretty quickly with offers to help. It was pretty amazing.
2. Tell us about the journal A Beautiful Resistance. What led to its founding and what is the goal of the journal?
Gods & Radicals is both a website and a non-profit publisher, and A Beautiful Resistance is one of our publications. The idea behind the name is pretty simple: we tend to forget what we're resisting for in the midst of all thing things we're resisting against. Resistance can be ugly, exhausting, full of sorrow and misery and pain. It can also be beautiful, and should be, because we're not just struggling against capitalism, against patriarchy, against racism, and against authority. Instead, we're resisting for something, for ideas and for people and for ways of being that are beautiful.
Also, we wanted to challenge an unchallenged idea in both anarchist and Pagan publishing: we wanted to pay all our writers, to re-establish writing and art as labor that must be compensated.  With A Beautiful Resistance and our other publications, we split all the revenue after costs 50% with all the contributors, with the other half going back into the organization to start new publishing projects. We've been pretty successful so far on this.
3. How did you personally come to paganism and what exactly is paganism as it doesn't seem to be well understood in the general culture?
I can't and won't define Paganism for everyone, but I'll happily tell you how I define it for myself.
Paganism is the moment I lose my words at the sight of wildflowers breaking through sidewalk cracks in the poor areas of a city; the resurgence of the wild into the disciplined misery of the oppressed. It's the body that doesn't fit into the machine, the dream of buried rivers and streams under pavement. It's the tears I shed and the rage I feel when I see a river poisoned by an oil spill or see a mountain blown to bits to get at the coal underneath.
For me, it's all about relation to not just the human-world but the other-than-human world. The mountain that gets blown apart so industrialized capitalism can grind on, the river that gets poisoned so people can have cars—I'm in relationship with them. Just like when a trans friend is harassed or a Muslim neighbor is terrorized, I cannot stand by and accept that violence, because we are related, we relate to each other, and our existence is all bound up together.
I've always been like this, I think, but I didn't always identify the way I relate with the world as “Pagan.” Animism and witchcraft also describe it just as well. The words matter less to me than the worlds of meaning they attempt to describe.
4. Many anarchists reject any religion, especially organized religion. How do you square your anarchist political beliefs with your paganism?
I've always wanted to answer this question. More often than not, the question I am asked is how I square my pagan beliefs with generally atheistic anarchist political theory.
First off, I—and Gods & Radicals—strongly rejects clericalism. Anyone who sets themselves up as a mediator between humans and the world is trying to control people. In fact, most of our political systems derive from earlier religious-authority forms, evolving from priestly-control of society to king- or politician-control with the advent of monotheism. What both secular Liberal Democracy and theocratic empires have in common is authority: that others (priests, kings, politicians, bosses) can and do have the authority to define the world for you. We reject that in all its forms.
Traditionally, atheist anarchism and Marxism make the mistake of defining non-European, non-white, and indigenous spiritualities as 'superstitious' or even primitive. Post-colonialists like Dipesh Chakrabarty have helped unravel that as European exceptionalism, the continued notion that mostly-white leftists are somehow more superior in their atheist views because they've progressed past religion. They're enlightened, the rest of the world is not, and all that.
So I see the insistence that leftists must always be atheists to be little more than that same European exceptionalism that led to colonial suppression of indigenous beliefs in the Americas and Africa. Re-embracing our own spiritual existences—and our ability to create new ways of being outside Capital and the state—is a key to our own liberation and also ongoing anti-colonialist efforts around the world. Otherwise, we're no different from the French in Haiti who tried to suppress indigenous African beliefs so the Blacks would make better slaves, or the Spanish and English who tried to wipe out First Nation's beliefs to 'civilize' them.
To use an anarchist term, we're expropriating our meaning back, or in Marxist terms, we're seizing the means of the “production” of meaning.
5. In what way does Gods and Radicals create and change the narrative surrounding paganism, as a religious belief, and anarchism as a political belief?  What are the unique/new ideas or ways of thinking that G&R brings to the table?
Our primary influence has thus far been within Paganism, and it's also where we get the majority of our critics. There are racist elements in American Paganism particularly that don't like us. Also, our anti-clerical stance has made us a few enemies with the plastic-shaman, media-hungry elements that see us as a threat to their greed. And we've helped expose a few charlatans and leaders sympathetic to fascism and the alt-right. So, lots of enemies, but even more friends: we get emails weekly from people who thought they were maybe the only Pagan anarchists around. I like those emails a lot.

I think the way we change the anarchist narrative is precisely in what I mentioned earlier: we are undermining the European exceptionalism that crept into anarchism, and reminding people we can all create our own meaning.

One thinks of the way anti-Enclosure resistance movements in England and Wales adopted Pagan language and mysticism in their resistance: the Luddites, for instance, claimed to be led by a ghostly 'captain' who lived under a hill in a forest. That's a land spirit. Likewise, the Whiteboys in Ireland gave eviction notices to landlords in the name of an ancient land-goddess, and the Rebeccas claimed to have gotten their costumes from an ancient crone in the mountains. The narrative of those resistance movements is remarkably similar to the spiritual stories of indigenous and slave resistance in the Americas. Likewise, the ritual to Erzuli Dantor at Bois Cayman which sparked the Haitian Revolution, or the women's resistance to factory owners in Cambodia through possession by land spirits call the Neak Ta—resistance to oppression has very often been spiritual as well as physical.

By telling those stories, and by telling our own, we open up more space for these kinds of resistances, and also challenge the insistence that European-secular atheism is the natural, final evolution of humanity.

Such a view also helps us navigate away from the appropriative nature of Western spirituality. The capitalist creation of whiteness stripped people of their relationship to land and culture. “Hurt people hurt people,” as they say, and that whiteness manifests now in a voracious theft of the culture and spiritual expressions of others. Dismantling that whiteness and healing the damage that was done (and that it does) will require creating new relationships to land and culture in which everyone engages in their own meaning-making.  

Also, we're trying to provide a bulwark against the alt/new/fascist right. They gain power significantly by playing to that lost sense of meaning; they've been able to make so much headway on this precisely because many leftists demean spiritual expression. We're trying to fix that.

6. How can people support G&R and are there orgs/groups that G&R is allied with?

A few ways. First, we are always excited to meet new writers and artists. We pay for writing on our site now, and welcome as many diverse voices as want to write with us. Secondly, we are a non-profit and accept donations to help us pay our writers. Buying our books helps a lot as well—that's how we pay our print writers. And sharing our stuff, of course, is always really helpful, especially now that most social media sites throttle views in order to get their users to buy advertising.

Other groups that we work with but aren't affiliated with directly, groups that might be of great interest to others, are Heathens United Against Racism and Appalachian Pagan Ministry, both of which are doing a lot of work to fight fascist organizing within Heathenry. And we have great relationships with quite a few Pagan communities elsewhere in the world fighting these same struggles, particularly against fascists.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Chasm

The Chasm: State Socialists and Anarchists
By Brenan Daniels

Below is an interview I had with both Tom Wetzel and two members of the Facebook page Anarchist Memes discussing the history between state socialists and anarchists, with the above individuals representing an anarchistic view of the situation. Part 2 will discuss the same idea from the view of state socialists.

  1. It is well known that there was a split between Marxists and anarchists at the First International. However, how were relations between Marxists and anarchists before the split and how did this split affect relations generally speaking?

JA: Despite the first international or the Hague conference a decade later or even Krondstadt, the attack on Makhno’s forces or the ‘37 may-fighting in Spain...I think the overall tone and relationship between anarchists and Marxists has been one of comradery and socialist kinship.

That said, I think that anarchists are well aware of the fact that Marxism is not homogeneous - not least because anarchists (in my observation) tend to have been Marxists first before adopting anarchism. The tendency is not to hold all of Marxism responsible for the opinions and actions of “tankies”.  We are aware that the POUM fought with the CNT in the aforementioned may-days, we are aware of the Pannekoeks’, Luxemburgs and Lukacs’s within Marxism and hold these people and Marxists like them in high-esteem.

OM: I would generally say, that as soon as these two tendency formed from early Socialism, there were elements of both hostility and cooperation. The problem is that, historically, there has been a tendency by some Marxist currents (Leninism and its Maoist/Stalinist derivatives) to prefer a reactionary victory over the victory of a competing leftist tendency in any given conflict. With other tendencies of Marxism though, like Left or Council Communism, the relationship was much more harmonious and cooperative, as mentioned by [JA]. Today, both of these histories seem to inform Marxist-Anarchist relationships in varying measure, while I see the current resurgence of ultra-authoritarian Marxist tendencies seen among young activists today as a problem.

Wetzel: The label anarchism wasn’t really used by the libertarian socialists in the International Workingmen’s Association. Bakunin referred to his politics as “revolutionary socialism.”  The main disagreement was over Marx’s advocacy of building labor political parties “to win the battle of democracy” (as he put it) through gaining government power. This was the beginning of the party-based strategy that has always been central to Marxism.
The libertarian socialists put the emphasis on building mass union organizations, and their potentially revolutionary role. Thus, the libertarian socialists in the first international were in many ways precursors of the type of revolutionary strategy that was called syndicalism in the early 20th century. Marx’s statement “The emancipation of the working class is the work of the workers themselves” was strongly endorsed by the syndicalist militants of the 20th century. Libertarian socialists have been influenced as well by Marx’s analysis of how capitalism works.

  1. In the US, it is known that anarchists and state socialists supported labor in their fight against capital, but how close was the relationship between the two groups at this time?

JA: The relationship between anarchists and Marxists in the United States has been overwhelming close, intertwined, and copacetic. Marxists and anarchists in the late 19th century and early 20th century shared common-causes and worked closely with one another - often co-mingling in abstractly socialist organizations like the knights of labor or the IWW (which is still welcoming to both anarchists and Marxists alike) and/or coming out to protest/agitate/strike etc. in defense of workers, marginalized, or imprisoned and/or executed Marxist/anarchist comrades.

OM: Not being from the US, I can add little to the situation there. In Germany, many radical leftists ID only as vaguely “radical left” without identifying fully with either Marxism or Anarchism, though.

Wetzel: In the period from early 1900s to World War 1, the growing revolutionary syndicalist movement of that era was influenced by both Marxist and anarchist ideas. There were a number of cases where Marxist and anarchist groups cooperated in building highly democratic worker organizations. In the IWW in the USA Marxists associated with the left wing of the Socialist Party cooperated with anarcho-syndicalists like Jack Walsh and Carlo Tresca. The important factory council movement in Turin Italy in 1919-20 was developed as a joint project of Antonio Gramsci’s Socialist Party group and the Turin Libertarian Group. This was an independent shop stewards council movement based on stop work assemblies in Fiat and other factories. The councils were developed independently of the bureaucracy of the CGL (Socialist Party trade union).

This Marxist-syndicalist alliance was broken with the development of the Communist International in the early ‘20s. The Leninist parties insisted on working towards party hegemony in labor movements. Although the American Communist Party continued to adapt and use many syndicalist tactics and ideas in their organizing in the ’20s and early ‘30s (such as elected negotiating committees, agitation around the flat incompatibility of working class and employing class interests), they were not opposed to top-down forms of labor organization in their ideology, and this became obvious after the turn of the Communist Parties to the Popular Front approach in 1936.

  1. Talk about the situation between anarchists during World War 1 as it doesn’t seem that that is too much discussed.

JA: WWI for anarchists was marked by controversy, activity, and suppression. Throughout Europe and the US, anti-war anarchists were incarcerated en-mass and hounded endlessly. Pushed further underground, many escalated their militancy (i.e. Galleaninists in the US who actively bombed targets and assassinated officials), while others waged free-speech fights and took part in all manner of anti-war and anti-capitalist activism. The rule that anarchists opposed the war was excepted by notable anarchist luminaries such as Kropotkin  - and in turn, this support was denounced by others (and the majority) i.e. Goldman, Berkman, Malatesta.

OM: The rather marginal German Anarchist groups were heavily oppressed by the state, so they devoted relatively little time to internal controversy. Activities in general declined markedly, with military authorities often sending known Anarchists, along with other radical leftists, on suicide missions during WWI. Additionally, Anarchists lacked ideas and strategies for dealing with the war, being driven by events rather than taking on an active role.

Wetzel: Let’s take each country separately. During the Russian revolution there were a variety of anarchist and libertarian socialist groups. Two groups that worked in an alliance during the revolution were the Union of Socialist Revolutionaries-Maximalist and the Russian Anarcho-Syndicalist Confederation. For example at the time of the October revolution the alliance between these two groups controlled the important soviet in Kronstadt and provided armed sailors to overthrow the Provisional Government. The October 1917 revolution occurred when the Soviet Congress took power and overthrew the unelected Provisional Government.

All the anarchist and libertarian socialist groups supported this move.  However, the Bolsheviks got the Soviet Congress to let them centralize power in a new state via the Council of People’s Commissars. The syndicalists and maximalists opposed this but continued to give “critical support” to the revolution because they believed they would be able to still organize for their view in the factory committees, soviets and unions. By 1921 however the militants of these groups were in prison and they were completely suppressed.  Between 1918 and 1920 the Communist government also eliminated the last elements  of worker collective control in industry and converted the soviets into rubber stamps of the party…including the overthrow of soviet elections that went against them.

The syndicalists and libertarian socialists of the ‘20s and ‘30s came to understand that Bolshevik policies and program had led to the creation of a new ruling class in Russia, based on the party and state bureaucracy…the industrial managers, elite planners, military officers, and the power of the party bureaucracy. The working class, in their view, continued to be an exploited and subordinated class.

In Spain the anarcho-syndicalist labor organization, CNT, was the majority union, especially in the industrialized regions of Catalonia and Valencia which contained 80 percent of Spain’s manufacturing.  Because of the long history of anti-labor violence and repression in Spain, both the CNT and the UGT (union shared by the Socialist and Communist parties) had armed groups.  CNT had an organized system of clandestine armed cells in Catalonia, used for protecting workers in strikes. When the army attempted to seize power to crush the labor movement in July 1936, this clandestine armed organization smashed the army in Catalonia. CNT then built its own “proletarian army” with about 100,000 members and UGT built an armed militia also. Under cover of this armed power, the workers of Catalonia and other areas proceeded to engage in the most widespread direct worker seizure of capitalist property that has ever occurred…almost the whole of the economy in northeast Spain. Both the CNT and UGT farm labor unions had a revolutionary program and proceeded to collectivize millions of acres of farm land, creating more than two thousand collectivized village communities.

CNT proposed to replace the Republican state with a joint defense council of the UGT and CNT unions and a unified militia. They also proposed that the entire economy should be socialized under worker management. This was veto’d by the state socialists…the Socialist and Communist Parties. This was based on the Communist’s naïve view that somehow they could get the capitalist “democracies” to let the anti-fascist forces buy weapons even though it was clear that a proletarian revolution was underway. So if they “respected government legality” this would protect the “international legitimacy” of the Spanish Republic. This didn’t work.

The Communists in Spain pursued a strategy of trying to get control of the state through control of the police and army. After street fighting between CNT armed defense organizations and police in Barcelona in May 1937, the Communists were able to consolidate power in the national state and in 1938 began to nationalize the worker-managed industries, moving to create a managerialist type of bureaucratic class as they did in Eastern Europe after World War 2.

Various anarchist tendencies in the CNT also contributed to this result. At the outset of the revolution anarchists and syndicalists in the CNT were divided over the question of consolidating political or society-wide power. Some thought the decentralized and uncoordinated system of local committees was enough.

A minority wanted the CNT to take power in the regions where it could. This is what they did, under support of Buenaventura Durruti’s large militia organization, in eastern Aragon in September 1936. The economy was coordinated via a regional congress of delegates and the village assemblies elected a defense council to replace the old state authority. But they failed to do this in Catalonia and Valencia which were the core industrial regions of Spain. Durruti thought they could negotiate with Francisco Largo Caballero (prime minister and head of the UGT and left wing of the Socialist Party) for an acceptable solution if they held their ground and went as far as they could in consolidating working class power.

Some anarchists in the CNT were confused about the concept of “power”. Based on what happened in the Russian revolution, they thought of “taking power” as meaning that some new bureaucratic group would hold top down managerial power in some state. But “taking power” could also be interpreted as collectivizing power, via things like worker delegate congresses and coordinating councils. This would depend upon accountability to the masses via the base assemblies in the workplaces and neighborhoods. By rejecting the  solution of building worker political power via workers councils in Catalonia, they found themselves forced into the hopeless situation of participating in the Popular Front government, where they were essentially captive to the socialist parties with their Popular Front strategy.

  1. During World War 2, what was the situation in Spain and Russia, respectively, in which anarchists and state socialists found themselves on the same side or against one another? How did anarchists threaten the cause of state socialists or vice versa? How does this affect present relations?

JA: I don’t think the present is affected by the internecine socialist fighting in Spain or during WWII.  These historical episodes and the debates that still take-place about them, are not (as far as I can tell) having any negative impact per Marxist/anarchist coordination.  Backing up a bit, I say internecine because Trotskyists and anarchists during this period often shared a similar fate and fought/died together - in Spain and Greece most notably.

Wetzel: I think there are several essential strategic goals that the radical left needs to work at:

First, there needs to be a revival of disruptive, collective strike actions by workers. Strikes are very important because workers have the power to shut down the flow of profits to employers, or shut down operation of government agencies. Doing this helps to change the mindset and outlook within the working class because it changes the situation from one where people confront their employers as powerless individuals to a situation where people can think in terms of “we”. Strikes are learning experiences because people will learn how they confront all the institutions of the society – the media, the courts, the police, the union bureaucrats, the politicians. It develops “class consciousness” because people tend to think more in terms of “us” versus “them”.

Workplace organizing is also important because the workforce has become much more diverse than in an earlier era and thus building mass worker unions with a democratic character means working to build bridges across the various differences in the working class and taking account of the different ways that groups in the working class are oppressed. This is another way in which a revived era of mass worker struggle would change the labor movement.

Rebuilding a real labor movement is not going to be an easy or simple task, partly because the inherited American unions are so intensely bureaucratized and controlled from the top. Back in the ‘30s radicals generally understood workers have to control their own unions. I think that rebuilding an effective labor movement is going to require building new unions outside the inherited bureaucratic unions of the AFL-CIO.

It’s also more likely that working people will become more identified with unionism, if they are not so limited as they’ve been in their aims and not so controlled by staff and paid officers from HQ but are more authentically organizations workers form and run themselves. There have been various periods in the past where workers in the USA built organizations from below like this on a large scale, as during 1915-21 and 1933-35.

Secondly, and related to my first point, we need ways for working at training and supporting people who make the commitment to stick at the project of rebuilding worker organization and action. This would mean forms of public education outside academia developed by and for working class people. In rebuilding the “militant minority” in the workplace we’re laying the groundwork for the radical left to once again have an actual presence and influence in the working class.

Third, for a long time there has been a general understanding by many on the left that fragmentation is a serious weakness. This takes various forms, such as single issue movements, or separation into a myriad of different kinds of movements – climate justice, Black Lives Matters, immigrant rights, tenant movement, each union focusing narrowly on its struggles with its employer, and so on,.

From a strategic point of view, I think we need to think in terms of developing a coalescing of forces into a kind of class front or working class social movement alliance. But I tend to think of this as a grassroots, horizontal kind of linkage, not via bureaucracies of unions and non-profits. This would be reflected in movements supporting the aims and struggles of other movements. There is some of this going on, but it will need to develop further.

  1. It seems that due to the right wing onslaught in the 70s and 80s that much of the left has retreated to the academy. What are your thoughts on this and can it be reversed?

JA: I agree with your premise that the left has retreated to the academia and inward after defeats in the 60’s and 70’s.  I don’t know that this will be reversed any-time soon, but I am optimistic. I sense the youth of today are more politicized and enlightened than my generation (generation x), and that gives me hope. As well, the uptick in anti-fascist militancy (unfortunately, an uptick in fascism concomitantly) and propaganda-of-the-deed of late also gives me a sense (although, perhaps it’s inflated or a product of my social-bubble) that an episode marked by a more tangible praxis is nigh.

OM: I would agree that there has been a retreat into the academy, but shortly followed by another retreat into subculturalism. With regards to reversal: Where I live, academic Anarchism has largely died out already (except for a few people in deep cover), while the subculture is slowly drying out due to self-isolation and increasing, self-imposed irrelevance. At the same time, I see a lot of discontent with Capitalism and popular demands for alternatives. At least theoretically, we should be able to build on this for a resurgence.

  1. How is anarchism making a comeback today?

JA: Relative to our recent marginalization, I think so. My sense is that more people of know what it is and/or have some sympathy for it.
OM: If us Anarchists can get it together enough to publicly propose viable and attractive alternatives, I consider a comeback not only possible, but actually likely. The demand is there, but we need to deliver. For this, we need to abandon subculturalism and academic obscurantism and actually work in a more strategic and popularly appealing fashion.

  1. How is state socialism making a comeback today?

Wetzel: With the Bernie Sanders campaign the concept of “democratic socialism” was widely popularized. This refers to a social-democratic perspective that doesn’t really aim at replacing capitalism with a new socialist economy, but aims to use elections of people to state office to create laws and programs to restrict the predatory behavior of corporations and provide some benefits that would be of benefit to the masses, such as Medicare for All health insurance.

In Europe the old social democratic or socialist parties have been rotted out by commitment to neo-liberalism and austerity. This has led to either new left parties or things like change of leadership in the UK Labour Party, with an aim to pushing back against austerity and rebuilding support for the stronger social-democratic policies that were characteristic of Europe in the post-World War 2 era.

But this isn’t really a comeback for the concept of socialism as state-management of the economy or centralized state planning. To the extent that “democratic socialists” or electoral socialists think beyond capitalism at all, they tend to think in terms of building worker cooperatives which would still operate in a market economy. So market socialism, in one form of another, has become the dominant vision for many socialists.

  1. Can anarchists and state socialists ever work together? It seems that that would be so since they agree on so much.

JA: We excel in cooperation where specific issues are concerned...police violence or some local outrage etc. - what I think is difficult is getting socialists abstractly, together under a big umbrella that can connect our groupuscules up and harness our collective potential.
OM: In my experience, cooperation with anti-authoritarian Marxists (like leftcoms) is possible and productive, having participated myself in this. With the more authoritarian variants, only partial/punctual cooperation, usually on defensive issues like anti-fascism, seems practical.

Wetzel: They could work together I think in practical organizing projects such as building unions or cooperatives or tenant organizations or climate justice protests, etc. There have been state socialists as members in syndicalist unions like the IWW for example.

However, there may still be disagreements or conflicts in these areas. These disagreements are likely to happen over the question of how mass organizations are to be run. Libertarian socialists want mass organizations to be self-managed, that is, they want them to be controlled in a direct way by the rank-and-file members. They would oppose concentrating power in an executive body. Social-democrats and Leninists are likely to still favor some strategy of “boring from within” – changing leadership – in the inherited unions, rather than building independent worker committees, and grassroots unions apart from the inherited labor bureaucracy.

Dialogue might suggest areas where there can be agreement in relation to some goals or programs. But there is still the fundamental difference in how libertarian socialists and Leninists (and other state socialists) think about what socialism is. Workers self-management – and complete worker mastery of production -- is, in the libertarian socialist view, a necessary condition for working class liberation from the class system. It’s not adequate to limit this to simply control of a coop or individual workplace but has to be generalized and coordinated throughout the economy, from a libertarian socialist point of view.

There is the related problem of how we view working class political power or society wide power. Even if libertarian socialists would support particular reforms in the context of the present system (such as Medicare for All in USA), in the end the old state has to be dismantled for the working class to be freed from its subordinate class position. That’s because the state is based on top-down structures of managerial control that have the boss/worker relation of subordination built in. The state represents the concentrated defense of a system of class domination and exploitation, and the forms of inequality tied in with this. So working class political power would have to be based on some form of delegate democracy consistent with worker self-management everywhere and be accountable to the masses at the base, through workplace and neighborhood assemblies.

A form of direct communal power by the masses (via neighborhood and workplace assemblies) is also going to be essential to have a solution to the present worsening environmental crisis. The people need to obtain a very direct control over what gets put into the atmosphere and water through the economic system. So we can think of the socialist goal as having both a worker control and communal control dimension. But both require replacing the present hierarchical institutions – corporations and state – that dominate society.

Historically socialists have often defined socialism as democratic worker and community control over the political economy. Libertarian and state socialists have differed in working out the details.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Question of Hierarchy

The Question of Hierarchy
By Brenan Daniels
This is a recent email interview I did with Hampton Institute founder and Social Economics Dept. Chair, Colin Jenkins on the nature and problems with hierarchical structures, which he discusses in his article entitled Deconstructing Hierarchies: On the Paradox of Contrived Leadership and Arbitrary Positions of Power.

1. Some people would argue that hierarchies are needed as people aren't really capable of leading themselves or that if they did, we wouldn't have a stable modern society. What is your response to that?

First, I would ask where this “stable modern society” is? And I would question this definition of “stability.” For a majority of the world’s population, life is incredibly unstable. For many, life is dire. Even in a so-called “advanced” society like the US, tens of millions of people suffer from homelessness, food insecurity, joblessness, a lack of reliable and affordable healthcare, and with no means to feed and clothe their children. Tens of millions must rely on government assistance. Tens of millions do not receive adequate education. Tens of millions live paycheck-to-paycheck and can’t pay their bills. And millions are terrorized by police forces and government agents in their own neighborhoods. Most Americans have less than $1,000 in savings, if any, and studies have estimated that more than half of all working Americans are one paycheck away from being homeless. And even those who appear to be getting by just fine are actually buried in debt, with credit card debt averaging $16,000 per household, mortgage and car payments that are barely doable, and student loan debt averaging at $49,000 per borrower, many of whom are in no position to ever pay that back. Our collective existence, despite a general appearance of comfort, is extremely fragile. And this economic reality doesn’t even begin to touch on the compounded social realities lived by historically marginalized sections of the working class – people of color, women, immigrants, etc… The US is a ticking time bomb on the verge of exploding at any moment. Stability is a mirage.
Second, the idea that “people aren’t capable of leading themselves” stems from a need to maintain fundamentally unequal societies where a very small percentage of the population controls most of the wealth and power. This has become part of the dominant ideology of most of the modern world. When a very small percentage of a particular population controls everything, there must be various ways to justify and enforce this control.
One way is through brute force or the threat of such force, which the modern nation-state holds a monopoly on. This is accomplished through the mere construction of a criminal justice system that has laws and ways of enforcing those laws. Over time, these laws become equated with some vague form of morality that is not questioned by most. You see the effects of this everywhere. For instance, when people try to condemn political struggles for doing things that are “illegal,” they have subconsciously bought into the idea that written laws which have been drawn up by millionaire politicians, who are directly influenced by billionaires, should be revered as some sort of moral code. In reality, many of these laws are constructed to keep our extremely unequal society intact, and are directly tied to protecting those who own this illegitimate wealth and power. They are designed to keep most of us powerless and stuck in our increasingly precarious lives. Under such a society, a person who does not have access to food for themselves or their family is punished for taking food. A person who is homeless is punished for squatting in an abandoned building. A person who does not have medical care is punished (financially, if not criminally) for seeking medical attention. So on and so on… and all of this takes place in a very strict hierarchical arrangement where the appearance of “stability” remains at the forefront. It’s an inherently unjust arrangement for so many, and the threat of force is constantly held over our heads to maintain this façade of stability.
Another way to justify and enforce this control is through what Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci referred to as “cultural hegemony,” or dominant culture. Ruling classes throughout history have relied on both formal and informal channels to mold a dominant culture (ideology) that supports their rule. This can be established through a formal education system, through media sources, through organized religion and churches, etc… Under capitalism, this doesn’t have to be done in a conspiratorial kind of way because the basic inequities stemming from the economic system create a sociopolitical structure that mimics and protects these inequities through social, cultural, political, and “legal” avenues. One of the results of this is a widespread, conditioned belief that we are not capable of caring for ourselves, our families, and our communities; and thus need so-called “extraordinary” people to do this for us. It is a lie.

2. In a social sense, why do you think that social hierarchies and larger societal norms still reign when we don't seem to need them anymore? (Social norms were important in the early days of humanity as if one wasn't part of the group, they often wouldn't survive, but now it is rather easy to flourish alone or find people who you link with.)
I think social hierarchies still exist because they are a natural extension from the more tangible/structural economic hierarchy. The dominant culture in this type of society needs such social norms. The Marxist theory of base and superstructure is useful in this regard, and I think I get into some of this in the piece. A materialist conception of history tells us that society is constructed on an economic base, or is based on the modes of production, because it is this fundamental arrangement that ultimately determines how people fulfill their basic needs. Everything else builds off of that arrangement. In a capitalist system, a large majority of the population is forced to rely on wage labor. This is an incredibly fragile and unstable existence because we are at the complete mercy of a privileged minority that we are forced to rely on to fulfill even our most basic needs. This is why Frederick Douglass recognized that a “slavery of wages [is] only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery.” Hence, Marx’s focus on exploitation and alienation. This structural oppression created by capitalism explains the need for a Welfare State, because societal unrest would be inevitable without the state supplementing these inherent and widespread inequities.
So, according to this analysis, there is a superstructure that builds from this unequal base, and this includes social, cultural, and political realities. Naturally, the superstructure mimics the base, while it also helps to maintain it. In doing so, these corollary developments tend to take on the same characteristics as the base, which, as already noted, consists of a high degree of alienation and exploitation. This basically means that social systems stemming from an inherently exploitative base tend to become exploitative themselves. One of the best examples of this is white supremacy, which is an artificial system of valuing human worth based on skin color. White supremacy is a modern cultural phenomenon that extends throughout the superstructure in both overt and undetected or insidious ways.  And it is a valuable tool used by the capitalist/ruling class to create division within the working-class majority. Other cultural phenomena like patriarchy and homophobia work the same way. These things easily catch on within the working class because they are a source of empowerment for an otherwise powerless group. We’re all economically disenfranchised, but poor and working-class white men can still grasp on to whiteness, “manliness,” misogyny, and homophobia as sources of power and social dominance. You see this psyche develop not only in white people, but also throughout the working class. Some black men, despite their own intense structural oppression, will become misogynistic or homophobic as a source of empowerment. A particular immigrant community will dehumanize another immigrant community as a source of empowerment. American workers across the board will target and dehumanize immigrants. So on and so on. What we’re seeing here is the formation of social hierarchies within the working class, all of which mimic the hierarchy created by the economic base. Tragically, this perceived power over others within the working class is easily accessible, and it’s a cheap and toxic source of empowerment. But it is a good thing for the capitalist class… as it keeps working-class angst within its own ranks and directed away from the real culprits – the rich. It’s the ultimate distraction.
On a related note, these social hierarchies are worthy of examination to all of us who oppose the capitalist system. When we look at developments within the superstructure, we can strategize and build liberation movements that will ultimately break them down, which will in turn allow us to build a formidable resistance against the economic base. This is why intersectionality is crucial. But intersectionality only works if it is based in a fundamentally anti-capitalist orientation. Because if we don’t approach this with the ultimate goal of attacking and destroying the economic base, it won’t matter in the end. We’ll find ourselves in the same position, only under a multi-cultural, multi-sex, non-gender-descript boot, as opposed to a “white, cisgender, male” boot. And this is the pitfall that identity politics fall into. Capitalism has the ability to accommodate these types of political movements by simply allowing individuals from hyper-marginalized sections of the working class to assume positions of power within these hierarchies. This approach is only about assimilation; and because of this, it only demands that that the power structure become more inclusive, not that the power structure be eliminated. Capitalism can and will easily appease this kind of tokenism without changing its inherently authoritative and exploitative structure.

3. People seem to be (at least somewhat) against hierarchy, from having an intense dislike of their bosses to wanting a level playing field. Why do we not see more people moving away or speaking out against hierarchy? So many times, it seems that the very people at the bottom are the ones who argue in favor of it.
Yes, definitely. This is a form of cognitive dissonance that we all experience from time to time, and I reflect on it briefly in the piece: “…organizations are often able to stoke a cognitive dissonance among its workforce, which simultaneously puts forth a healthy dose of faith in the ‘team approach’ by day while complaining about the incompetent and overbearing bosses by night.”
This particular line refers to the contradictions we feel in the workplace. The daytime mentality is one that is a product of constant conditioning, which tells us that hierarchies are needed, that we are naturally dependent on bosses, and that we would be lost without them. The nighttime mentality is more natural and will creep into our heads at times, causing us to question everything we’re conditioned to believe during the day. Daily interactions with bosses often plant the seed for these realizations, as we recognize their incompetence or at the very least their lack of exceptionalism. This will inevitably bring us to consider that maybe we don’t need them, maybe we are just as (if not more) competent, that there really is no meritocracy, and that if they happened to suddenly disappear one day they probably wouldn’t be missed.
This is, of course, true. We don’t need them. But the conditioning that we are subjected to in most aspects of our lives tells us otherwise, and this makes it difficult for many to realize that truth. To consider the very notion of “supervision” and “management” as anything but insulting is truly amazing, when you think about it, yet most struggle with this dissonance. And understandably so, since the conditioning is intense and begins at such a young age. This reminds me of the notion of “bullshit jobs” that David Graeber has talked about in length, and is in the process of writing a book about. His angle is more focused on working-class jobs throughout the system, but I think this same line of thinking can be applied to jobs that fill the hierarchy just for the sake of filling the hierarchy.
In addition to this conditioning, there is also a mentality that becomes fairly prevalent among those who exist on the lower end of the hierarchy, and it speaks to the old adage, “if you can’t beat em, join em.” It is the mentality that creates the toadies for bullies, that creates house slaves for the master, etc… it forms whenever someone has been psychologically beaten into submission. These are the folks who have given themselves completely to the system, to the powers, to their bosses and overseers because, quite frankly, they simply have no fight in them, no self-esteem, and no dignity left. They are the first to dish the dirt to the bosses, the first to scab during a strike, the first to call the police on their neighbor, the first to serve the powerful with whatever is needed, and always at the sake of their class peers on the lower end of the hierarchy. These folks will always argue in favor of hierarchy, despite their lowly position in it, because they’ve decided that it’s easier to accept it, support it, and invest in it, rather than fight it. And, in many respects, they’re right. Fighting power isn’t easy. It often has disastrous personal consequences for those who partake in it. As the Russian anarchist Sergey Nechayez wrote in the opening of his famous Catechism of a Revolutionary, “The revolutionary is a doomed man.” There is a lot of truth to this.

4. How do people reinforce hierarchy in their everyday lives and how can they fight back against it?
I think basic daily human interactions reinforce these hierarchies. There is an ongoing debate within the Left about the power and usefulness of language. This debate is intimately connected with things like “privilege discourse,” “political correctness,” “call-out culture,” and identity politics. Many leftists who are loyal to materialist analysis, and who spend a lot of time railing against post-new left discourse, minimize the importance of language. Many younger leftists, who are more inclined to intersectionality or who enter the Left through a lens of identity politics, place a premium on policing language. While I realize the dangers that are associated with this type of “post-new left discourse” (primarily when it is not based in anti-capitalism), I also agree that there is something to language and how it reinforces the hierarchies that we are ultimately seeking to bring down.
Dominant vernacular is rooted in dominant culture, no? If we are to believe in historical materialism and the reciprocal relationship between the base and superstructure, then it seems consistent to also believe that all of the societal norms that development within this cultural hegemony stem from this same base. Because of this, language tends to be misogynistic, homophobic, white supremacist, and classist. This is reflected in media, Hollywood, advertisement, talk radio, and sports, and as well as in our daily interactions with one another.
It can be very subtle. Using the n-word reinforces white supremacy. Using the f-word reinforces homophobia. Claiming that someone has “no class” reinforces bourgeois culture. Using the term “white trash” reinforces white supremacy by implying that “trash” is defaulted as being non-white. Calling women “hoes” and “whores,” while at the same time basing their human value in attractiveness or sexuality, reinforces patriarchy. Praising someone as being “like a boss” reinforces capitalist hierarchy. Worshipping celebrities reinforces a capitalist culture that determines human value based in wealth, or the lack thereof. Being absorbed in consumerism reinforces a culture that determines human value on the brand of clothing or shoes one is wearing, or the kind of car they drive, or the house they live in.  These types of things quite literally place varying degrees of value on human lives, thus reinforcing various forms of social hierarchy. And something as simple as language, or the ways in which we interact with one another, emboldens the power structure(s) that we as leftists seek to destroy.

5. In what ways do you see hierarchy expanding or intensifying now that the US has moved to a 'service economy,' apparently in which there will be an increase in hierarchical authority, compared to when the US was a manufacturing nation? How has the dismantling of unions aided (as of current) or helped to dissuade (in the past) workplace hierarchy?
I am not sure the service economy will necessarily expand or intensify hierarchical arrangements in any structural sense. But you’re right in suggesting that a move away from an industrial/manufacturing economy has made workers more vulnerable and powerless within these hierarchies. Service-sector work is much more precarious, is typically low-wage with very few benefits, and often does not include any kind of healthcare coverage or retirement plan. And the service-sector environment leaves workers on a virtual island, in that it doesn’t offer the same potential for collectivization as the traditional shop floor once did. Without collectivization, workers are basically powerless.
The dismantling of unions went hand in hand with the offshoring of manufacturing jobs. Since the neoliberal revolution that was ushered in by Reagan, the share of workers who belong to unions in the private sector has fallen from 34 percent to 7 percent. I believe 1 in 3 public sector workers are still in unions. Overall though, union membership has plummeted in the US, which is a very bad thing for the working class. Under capitalism, our only leverage against capital is either (1) the government, or (2) labor unions. The government is now owned by capital, and thus acts solely in its interest. So that’s effectively out of the equation. And unions have not only eroded, but many that have endured have taken on a corporate hierarchical structure themselves, where union executives are often completely out of touch with membership. Union leaders tend to be in bed with corporate politicians, an arrangement that is contradictory to the purpose of unions.
We see this contradictory nature when unions routinely endorse corporate Democrats who represent capital. We see it when unions agree to no-strike clauses. We see it when so-called leadership gives concession after concession, year after year, until there’s virtually nothing left to bargain for. And we see it in this bureaucratic, corporatized union culture of today, where demands have been replaced by requests.  Unions will often take reactionary stands that defy international and universal solidarity. We saw this recently with the AFL-CIO endorsing the Dakota Access Pipeline. You see it with police unions or prison employee unions, all of which side with capital and the social hierarchies that extend from capital, ultimately oppressing large sectors of the working class.
With the erosion of authentic labor unions, we’ve become much more vulnerable to these extreme hierarchies as a whole. And without these types of unions, workers simply have no chance against the powerful interests of capital. So, yes, the degrees to which we are smothered by these hierarchies will only intensify in this environment, especially if we continue to place our hopes in the government, politicians, and corporatized labor unions.

6. How does your argument regarding hierarchy creating a lack of trust square with this modern idea that work places need to be 'open areas' so that people can 'bond?'
That’s a good question. We read a lot about this new-age sort of workplace organization stemming from Silicon Valley, Google, Apple, etc… This idea that workplaces should be more carefree, less constrained. I’ve read about such experiments where workers can take naps, bring their pets to work, have access to fun activities directly in the workplace. And when you look at workplace organization in some European countries, you see that many companies have attempted to do away with traditional hierarchical structures to make workers feel more “at home” in a relaxed environment.
The fact that companies are experimenting with these ‘open areas’ confirms, at the very least, that they are aware of the archaic and inhumane nature of traditional hierarchical workplaces. This move also reflects some studies that have been done regarding productivity, which have suggested that workers are more productive in environments that are less constrictive, and that workers typically are only productive for a few hours a day. So, if anything, it’s an attempt by companies to adjust with the times and do away with old forms of organization.
Unfortunately, attempts like these only tend to create more internal contradictions to capitalism. Attempting to mask the inherent nature of capitalism only goes so far. And the “open-office model” that Google became known for is not really an effort to make hierarchical structures more horizontal. It is concerned only with literal workspace, not with the ways in which the hierarchy operates on a structural level. And while it may appear to be benevolent on the surface, it often has more insidious motives. A 2014 WaPo article by Lindsey Kaufman touched on some of these issues, pointing out that “these new floor plans are ideal for maximizing a company’s space while minimizing costs,” and that “bosses love the ability to keep a closer eye on employees,” with less physical barriers obstructing them. Studies cited in the article suggested that these open-office experiments were not beneficial to workers, at least from the workers’ point of view. A study found that many workers are “frustrated by distractions” and lack of privacy, both sound and visual. And workers reported that these new floor plans did not ease interactions with colleagues, as intended, because this was never viewed as a problem to begin with.
With these results in mind, it seems such attempts have been a failure. And it makes you wonder why they were attempted in the first place. Was it really to create a “friendlier” atmosphere, or was it rooted in something more sinister? Understanding the way capitalism operates, it’s safe to assume the latter. Either way, despite the motivations, the capitalist structure still remains – which means that most workers are creating massive amounts of wealth for executives and shareholders in exchange for wages and salaries that do not equal their contribution. If they make enough to lead comfortable lives, they may be more willing to overlook this structural exploitation. But it still exists. Bosses still remain, and workers are still treated as commodities, no matter how glossed over the physical workplace appears. There are still those who make more, in many cases a whole lot more, for doing much less (the pursuit of “money and idleness” that I referenced in the piece). And some who rake in large amounts of money for doing absolutely nothing, and without even stepping foot in the workplace. That is the fundamental nature of both capitalism and hierarchies. No amount of makeup can change this.

7. What is your take on the literature and ideas surrounding employee relationship management? What do you think is the actual idea around it on a structural level?

This type of literature is designed to address the inequities by essentially covering them up as best as possible. Their purpose is two-fold:  to teach bosses how to get the most from their workers; and to get workers to buy into a “team approach” that convinces them they’re vested in the mission in some way. This is accomplished basically through propaganda, or a conscious effort to downplay the coercive nature of this relationship. On the one end it provides bosses, supervisors, and managers with tools and tactics rooted in persuasion, to get workers to think, behave, and perceive themselves in a way that is detached as far from reality as possible. Since human beings don’t typically react well to being treated and used as tools, to be manipulated, prodded, directed, etc.

So this type of literature is designed to give bosses ways to obstruct this reality. To interact with their workers in ways that mask the coercive power they wield over them. And they tend to be very successful in doing this… so much so that many workers truly believe they are vested in the businesses they work for, or at the very least will rep that business in a positive way to friends and family, if only to mask their shitty realities to themselves. A shitty reality that basically amounts to us spending most of our waking hours in a place we do not want to be in, doing something we would rather not be doing, so we can get a paycheck every few weeks, so we can pay our bills, so we can scrape out a living for another few weeks. For most of us, it’s a never-ending cycle that we’ll never escape. It’s a miserable, inhumane existence where life is lived a week at a time, or two weeks at a time, essentially from one paycheck to the next. And the best we can hope for is to stay afloat until the next paycheck, so we can start over again. And to add insult to injury, we’re told that we “should feel lucky to even have a job.” That’s the world capitalism brings us.

So this workplace literature, and the management tactics that come from it, plays into the cognitive dissonance that I mentioned earlier. On a structural level, the idea is merely to keep things churning by creating alternative realities that workers can be proud of. To use the plantation analogy, it really is a way to instill the house-slave mentality in each and every one of us. It won’t work for some, but it works well enough for most. Even those struck with this cognitive dissonance will often lean toward that which makes them feel vested, secure, proud, respected, appreciated, etc… even though these feeling are not consistent with reality. It is a form of coping for many, and corporate literature will certainly exploit that and drill it home. And we as workers, stuck in our miserable realities, will often accept it if it helps us cope. Because we need that paycheck.