Posts Tagged ‘Social Change’

Howdy from Tucson, where the final day of Spring came in at (depending  on which forecast you believe) somewhere between 112 and 114 degrees F (45 degrees C for you furriners). (Update: it was actually 115 F.)

It’s supposed to be even warmer tomorrow (make that in a few hours). (Update: It was warmer: 116 (47 C) ; in Phoenix it was 119. As I write, the high today was a mere 115, and we’re in for a major cooling spell this weekend, where the highs won’t get much above 110.)

About three weeks ago, after our first string of 100+ degree days, one of the local weathermen (Kevin Jeanes on KOLD — and sorry for the political incorrectness, that should be “weatherperson” or “person of weather”) with, shall we say a dry sense of humor, commented that the temperature was “all the way down to 99, and it’ll be even cooler tomorrow at 97.” (Again, for those of you who use a rational temperature scale, that translates to 37 C and 36 C.)

For those who haven’t been paying attention to U.S. climate models, they predict that this region, the desert Southwest, will be the hardest hit of the “lower 48.” And indeed it has been. We’ve been in a prolonged drought for nearly 20 years (broken last year by “normal” rainfall), and two of the last three years, 2014 and 2016, were the hottest on record. We just experienced the second warmest Spring ever, with the hottest March (high and mid 90s temperatures starting around March 1).

So, yeah, global warming is a “hoax.” We need to burn more coal. Donald Trump is an intelligent, honest, compassionate human being. And the unfettered greed inherent in capitalism isn’t a death sentence for the planet.

Things seem bleak, but we’re not totally screwed. There are things we can do individually and collectively to adapt and to counter global warming.

One thing damn near everyone can do is to plant trees. If done on a mass scale, this can reverse desertification. Even on an individual scale, it’s one of the best things we can do.

Gardening is another individual approach that makes sense. It involves far less expense than transporting food for thousands of miles, and involves far less waste. It also yields health benefits via relaxation, if nothing else.

Another individual approach, in arid regions, is to use xeriscaping, using native plants and a carpeting of rocks in place of lawns and non-native plants. This saves water — a lot of it, and it looks better than lawns.

Then there’s water harvesting — again, something damn near everyone (at least every property owner) can do at reasonable cost that will be amortized in a relatively few years. Even if you’re just channeling rain water from your roof and patio into wells for your fruit trees (as I am), it helps.

And then there’s passive solar heating (just think big picture windows facing south with an overhang that cuts off the sun in the summer months) and solar hot water heating (ultra easy — I built a solar hot water heater out of two old hot water heaters painted flat black [stripped of their external metal jacket and insulation], plumbing fittings, an old window, and scrap plywood and 2X4s about 20 years ago — a friend is still using it).

Then there’s ultra-insulation. Think straw bale and rammed earth construction. These energy-saving approaches can be used almost anywhere, and will often result in extremely energy-efficient dwellings.

To go even further on the individual scale, basements make a hell of a lot of sense in desert areas. Temperatures in them are a good 25 degrees F below surface temperatures, and there aren’t even seepage problems in deserts. The only reason they haven’t been adopted on a mass scale in the sprawlopalises  of the Southwest is that land, historically, has been so damn cheap that builders have foregone them in place of slab construction, which yields better short-term profits. If you’re having a place built in this area, think about adding a basement.

As for societal approaches, they’re so obvious that I’ll mention them only in passing. First and foremost, a direct tax on carbon emissions — screw carbon “offsets”: they’re a recipe for fraud; massive public investment in clean energy; energy-efficient transport and appliances; mass investment in public transit, including bicycle projects; tree planting on a mass scale; and subsidies for individual clean energy projects, passive-solar retrofits, water harvesting,  and energy-efficient construction.

Why do I think all of this is important? There are a couple of reasons.

One is that if adopted widely all of this would help save the planet (or at least make the lives of our children and their children better). The other is that it would keep people involved, and at least marginally hopeful. People without hope are easy to control and manipulate. Real, positive change is possible only when people have hope.

If you haven’t already done so — even on the smallest individual scale — please join those of us trying to create real change, please join those of us creating hope.




Dummy 3 flat 72-small


(From The Anarchist Cookbook, by Keith McHenry with Chaz Bufe — an actual cookbook written by anarchists which includes accurate information about anarchism and “recipes” for social change.)


The popular graffiti tag “Anarchy is love” speaks to the roots of revolutionary action, action taken by those seeking to make anarchism real. As we seek to replace coercive, hierarchical organizations with positive life affirming projects such as info shops, community gardens, worker-managed collectives, free schools, and other do-it-yourself efforts, we must often organize against coercion, exploitation, and domination in all their forms.

Nonviolent resistance and noncooperation are probably the most effective ways to achieve long-lasting, positive social change. There is dignity in nonviolent resistance, a dignity needed to sustain change. To be effective, it is often necessary to have large numbers of supporters and to be persistent. Your intentions should be clear to both the institutions resisting change and the people you intend to attract as supporters. Honesty and truth are your most important allies. While often difficult, compassion and respect for your opponents, combined with truth and honesty, are essential to undermining the power of even the most ruthless and inhumane institutions. The longer and more violent the repression, the harder it is to remain compassionate, but by retaining your integrity in the face of extreme conditions you will often attract increased popular support and weaken the resolve of those hired to stop your efforts. Participants in nonviolent resistance will increase their feelings of empowerment and pride the longer they remain dedicated to nonviolence.

Nonviolence is not just a theory; it means responding to injustice with action. Nonviolence should not be confused with inaction. Withholding support and refusing to cooperate with institutions and policies of violence, exploitation and injustice is a principal technique of nonviolent resistance.

Just because participants are dedicated to nonviolence, you can’t expect the authorities to restrain their violence. Often the state will increase its violence if it believes your campaign is becoming successful, but as repression grows so will your support. What might seem like months, maybe years of failure can change suddenly.

San Francisco Food Not Bombs (FNB) persisted in sharing food every week for seven years of near daily arrests that became violent due to the police; and, in 1995, the local media, which had been very critical of FNB, finally started ridiculing city officials for wasting money and resources on stopping our meals for the homeless. Their reports reflected the perspective of their corporate owners and politicians in San Francisco who came to see it was not possible to stop Food Not Bombs. Our persistence and dedication to nonviolence attracted public support. Our volunteers would not give up, knowing that, if we did, future efforts to silence Food Not Bombs groups in other cities were more likely.

The San Francisco police officers hired to arrest and beat us withdrew their support for the campaign against Food Not Bombs and started to see themselves as allies of our volunteers against those ordering the repression. Seven years of building relationships with the officers caused the department leaders to first issue an order to “stop fraternizing” with our volunteers, and once it became clear that they could not count on their patrol men and women to continue arresting and beating us with enough enthusiasm, they called off the whole project. The officers grew to see we were honest, caring people and not anti-American criminals bent on disobeying the law out of self-interest, as they had been told by their superiors.

Corporate and government leaders ended their repressive campaign in order to protect their illusion of control; worried that if it became clear to the public that our persistence and relationships with the police had worked, more sectors of the community might have withdrawn tsupport for their authority. Imagine if the patrol officers were perceived by the public as refusing orders. What would be next?

It is extremely important that we act in a manner which is consistent with our values. We want a future safe from violence and exploitation. It is never in our interest to use violence against the police or others.

Campaigns of violence, even against the most unethical opponents, can be very disempowering and, even if successful at overpowering the opposition, they install a new institution that relies on violence to protect its authority. If power changes hands after a campaign of nonviolence, it is more likely that the new institutions will have popular support and maintain their power through consent of the people.

On the practical side, the dominant power usually can muster significantly more violent force than we can. The authorities strive to engage their opponents in a realm where they have the advantage, such as armed conflict. But, more philosophically, we don’t want to use power for domination in our efforts for social change. Imagine if San Francisco Food Not Bombs adopted a strategy of throwing rocks at the police when they came to arrest us. Instead of the public understanding our message that the government and corporations are intentionally redirecting resources toward the military while letting thousands go without food, the impression would have been that the police were justified in using violence to protect themselves and the community from criminals who have no respect for the public, let alone for the police. (The media reported extensively for years about how violent our volunteers were after several frustrated activists tossed bagels over a line of riot police to hungry people blocked from getting to the food.) We want to create a society based upon human rights and human needs, not dependent on the threat and use of violence. We do not want to dominate. We want to seek the truth and support each other as we work to resolve conflicts without violence.

University of Denver political science professor Erica Chenoweth, co-author with Maria J. Stephamn of the book Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, was surprised to find that “campaigns of nonviolent resistance were more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts.” She. like many others, assumed that the most effective way to topple dictatorships and other repressive regimes is to use military tactics. Chenoweth’s and Stephan’s research showed that “uprisings were 50 percent more likely to fail if they turn to violence.”

Washington Post reporter Max Fisher put it like this:

Political scientist Erica Chenoweth used to believe, as many do, that violence is the most reliable way to get rid of a dictator. History is filled, after all, with coups, rebellions and civil wars. She didn’t take public protests or other forms of peaceful resistance very seriously; how could they possible upend a powerful, authoritarian regime?

A nonviolent uprising can evolve into long lasting change since its power comes from popular support and participation of a substantial number of people. It was once believed that it would take at least the participation of 5% of the population to force change, but Chenoweth and Stephan found that in most uprisings since 1900 it took only 3.5% of the population to bring down a dictator.

Their research also showed that when a government changed hands through the use of violence, the new government turned to violence to stay in power. Using violence to take power often reduces popular support.

Chenoweth believes that “a violent uprising is more physically demanding and dangerous and thus scares off participants, but I’d add that violence is controversial and can engender sympathy for police and soldiers at the other end of dissidents’ rifles.”

She tells the Washington Post: “The data shows the number may be lower than that [3.5%]. No single campaign in that period failed after they’d achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5% of the population.” She adds, “But get this: every single campaign that exceeded that 3.5% point was a nonviolent one. The nonviolent campaigns were on average four times larger than the average violent campaigns.”

Public support for Occupy Oakland was at an all time high after 26-year-old Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen was nearly killed on October 25, 2011 by Oakland police who deliberately fired a tear gas canister into his head. The Oakland City Council even scheduled a special meeting to vote on a proposal to endorse the occupation.

Support vanished overnight after people claiming to support “diversity of tactics” vandalized Whole Foods and several local small businesses on November 2, 2011.

Rebecca Solnit’s November 2011 essay, “Throwing Out the Master’s Tools and Building a Better House: Thoughts on the Importance of Nonviolence in the Occupy Revolution,” describes her decades of activism and her direct experience of radical anarchist successes being derailed by macho acts of violence.

Solnit participated in the protests that blockaded the World Trade Organization Ministerial Summit in Seattle in 1999. She writes, “To shut down the whole central city of Seattle and the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting on November 30, 1999, or the business district of San Francisco for three days in March of 2003, or the Port of Oakland on November 2, 2011—through people power—is one hell of a great way to stand up. It works. And it brings great joy and sense of power to those who do it.” She could have also mentioned the week-long blockade of the San Francisco Federal Building in January 1990 during the first Gulf War, which she also participated in.

Anarchists in places around the world, including Zagreb and Manila, have asked me if I participated in the “heroic Black Bloc” assault on the windows of Starbucks and Nike during the 1999 Seattle protest. They were surprised to learn that we shut down the WTO summit despite those “heroic” assaults. They had never heard of the years of organization, the Direct Action Network, its pledge to take nonviolent action, and the months of nonviolent preparations that went into shutting down the WTO meeting.

Anarchist and New York Times best-selling author Starhawk wrote an essay called “How We Really Shut Down the WTO.” She writes about seeing news of the protests after having been freed from the King County jail:

“The reports have pontificated endlessly about a few broken windows, and mostly ignored the Direct Action Network, the group that successfully organized the nonviolent direct action that ultimately involved thousands of people. The true story of what made the action a success is not being told.”

Food Not Bombs organized the UnFree Trade Tour in 1997 visiting 60 cities in North America explaining the dangers of the WTO and advocating a mass mobilization to shut it down if it ever held a ministerial meeting in North America. A year later the WTO announced it would meet in Seattle in November 1999, and the organizing started in earnest with formation of The Direct Action Network. Organizers came to consensus to present a pledge to participants to take nonviolent action. Activists agreed to “refrain from violence, physical or verbal; not to carry weapons, not to bring or use illegal drugs or alcohol, and not to destroy property.”

Starhawk notes:

We were asked to agree only for the purpose of the 11/30 action–not to sign on to any of these as a life philosophy, and the group acknowledged that there is much diversity of opinion around some of these guidelines.

She goes on to say:

In the weeks and days before the blockade, thousands of people were given nonviolence training–a three hour course that combined the history and philosophy of nonviolence with real life practice through role plays in staying calm in tense situations, using nonviolent tactics, responding to brutality, and making decisions together. Thousands also went through a second-level training in jail preparation, solidarity strategies and tactics and legal aspects. As well, there were first aid trainings, trainings in blockade tactics, street theater, meeting facilitation, and other skills.

Rebecca Solnit’s response to the Black Bloc attack on local businesses in Oakland in 2011 comments on the literature within the anarchist community glorifying violence. She writes:

Crimethinc, whose logo is its name inside a bullet, doesn’t actually cite examples of violence achieving anything in our recent history. Can you name any? The anonymous writers don’t seem prepared to act, just tell others to (as do the two most high-profile advocates of violence on the left).

Solnit continues:

Crimethinc issued a screed in justification of violence that circulated widely in the Occupy movement. It’s titled ‘Dear Occupiers: A Letter from Anarchists,’ though most anarchists I know would disagree with almost everything that follows. Midway through it declares, ‘Not everyone is resigned to legalistic pacifism; some people still remember how to stand up for themselves. Assuming that those at the front of clashes with the authorities are somehow in league with the authorities is not only illogical . . . It is typical of privileged people who have been taught to trust the authorities and fear everyone who disobeys them.’ . . .

[D]espite the smear quoted above that privileged people oppose them, theirs is the language of privilege. White kids can do crazy shit and get slapped on the wrist or maybe slapped around for it… [Those with skin of a a different] color face far more dire consequences.

As do families with children and older people who are in danger when the Black Bloc provides the opportunity for the authorities to use violence–with the blessing of a public disturbed by images of rampaging thugs.

Anarchists dedicated to nonviolent direct action are not opposed to all forms of property damage. It can be an effective strategy if the decision to do it involves all participants, the target chosen is one that will guarantee no one who is not part of the action could be injured, and the method used does not frighten the public. If those participating also take credit and have destroyed property that is clearly injurious, that sends a clear message to both those who are being targeted and the public; that type of property damage can be empowering to those participating in it and can serve as an inspiration to those you want to join you.

A simple example is the Food Not Bombs actions taken the night of August 19th and at lunch time on August 20, 1981. Food Not Bombs shared vegan meals outside a weapons bazaar at Boston University the day after we spray-painted the outline of “dead” bodies on the ground, stenciled mushroom clouds with the word “Today?” and wheat-pasted “War is Murder for Profit” posters along the route that the weapons buyers and sellers would take from their hotel to the conference hall. We stood outside the conference holding poster boards with the mushroom cloud image that we had stenciled dozens of times outside the Student Union and along Commonwealth Avenue, taking credit for hundreds of dollars in graffiti damage to Boston University’s property. Who did this frighten into the arms of the state? No one.

Solnit explains anarchist support of property damage this way:

I want to be clear that property damage is not necessarily violence. The firefighter breaks the door to get the people out of the building. But the husband breaks the dishes to demonstrate to his wife that he can and may also break her. It’s violence displaced onto the inanimate as a threat to the animate.

Quietly eradicating experimental GMO crops or pulling up mining claim stakes is generally like the firefighter. Breaking windows during a big demonstration is more like the husband. I saw the windows of a Starbucks and a Niketown broken in downtown Seattle after nonviolent direct action had shut the central city and the World Trade Organization ministerial down. I saw scared-looking workers and knew that the CEOs and shareholders were not going to face that turbulence and they sure were not going to be the ones to clean it up. Economically it meant nothing to them.

French farmer and anti-globalization activist José Bové provides several examples of using property damage to farther campaigns of nonviolent resistance. Bové declared, “I am an anarcho-syndicalist. I am closer to Bakunin than Marx. My references are the Jura Federation in the First International in the last century and the Spanish CNT of 1936.”

Bové participated an a nonviolent direct action destroying genetically engineered maize in a grain silo in Nérac in the department of Lot-et-Garonne, France. He testified that:

Today, I am present in this court together with Rene Riese and Francis Roux, accused of committing a serious crime according to the law. The alleged crime is the destruction of sacks of genetically modified maize (corn). Yes, on January 8, I participated in the destruction of genetically modified maize, which was stored in Novartis’ grain silos in Nerac. And the only regret I have now is that I wasn’t able to destroy more of it.

On August 12, 1999 Bové participated with activists from the Confédération Paysanne, the second largest farmers’ union in France, in the “dismantling” of a McDonald’s franchise that was under construction in Millau, Aveyron, France. Bové was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for his role in the destruction. He was imprisoned for 44 days and released on August 1, 2002. The actions of the Confédération Paysanne helped bring global attention to the policies of the World Trade Organization and neoliberal structural adjustment/economic austerity programs. Over 40,000 people attended the trial of Bové and his co-defendants.

Anarchism is fundamentally about collective action using the non-hierarchical process of consensus in the decision-making procfess to include all those affected. Actions such as those taken by the Black Bloc cannot by design be agreed to by all those who are impacted. Rather, they’re imposed on other participants in actions.

Solnit writes:

The euphemism for violence is ‘diversity of tactics,’ perhaps because diversity has been a liberal-progressive buzzword these past decades. But diversity does not mean that anything goes and that democratic decision making doesn’t apply.

I participated in the protests against the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008. While staffing the Food Not Bombs table I witnessed two white vans arrive to Civic Center Park in the early evening of August 25, unloading twelve buff men in black Obama for President t-shirts, black pants, and black bandanas covering their crewcuts. Two of these men had a knapsack. The vans drove away leaving the 12 “Black Bloc” men. They divided into two groups, one headed to the west side of group of protesters preparing to march to the convention and the other six went to the east end of the gathering. I followed those walking to the west side and was joined by a reporter from the Denver Post. He asked me if I thought they were policemen. I told him that I just saw them get out of two vans driven by uniformed officers. Before long the “Black Bloc” on the west side was taunting the riot police. Then all of a sudden they turned and rushed into the crowd and seconds later the riot police started firing pepper spay, mace, and other crowd control weapons into the protesters. Riot police surrounded the march along a one-block stretch of 15th Street between Court and Cleveland. A total of 96 people were arrested that evening. I spoke with a woman that watched the protest on her local Fox TV station, and she felt the arrests were justified because of how violent the Black Bloc had been, throwing stones through windows and taunting the police. When the arrests started I returned to the Food Not Bombs table. The twelve “Black Bloc” men arrived soon after and stood before me talking. After about ten minutes the two white vans returned and the “Black Bloc” climbed in and the vans drove away from Civic Center Park. (This is not to say that the Black Bloc are police agents, just that their tactics make it very easy for police provocateurs to impersonate them and disrupt demonstrations.)

Some people who were not police agents joined them in their provocations. The domination, exploitation, and destruction of capitalism is brutal and it is not difficult for the state to encourage sensitive people to buy into the romantic vision of “revolutionary” resistance personified by the Black Bloc.

CrimethInc published a personal account of the Denver protests from a young person who attempted to join the Black Bloc:

Donning a black shirt and jeans, I raced down the street on my scooter, wind in my face, to catch up to my friend. It was the first day of the Democratic National Convention and we were running late for the black bloc protest in Civic Center Park. Having grown up in Denver, an overlooked bastion of liberalism in the Rockies, I never thought I would be able to get involved in a nationally publicized protest without moving to Washington D.C. or New York. This was the first major political action in which I had the chance to participate, and I wasn’t about to miss it.

Solnit’s essay on Occupy Oakland’s assault on Whole Foods is pertinent here: “This account is by a protestor who also noted in downtown Oakland that day a couple of men with military-style haircuts and brand new clothes put bandannas over their faces and began to smash stuff.” She thinks that infiltrators might have instigated the property destruction, and Copwatch’s posted video seems to document police infiltrators at Occupy Oakland.

One way to make the work of provocateurs much more difficult is to be clearly committed to tactics that the state can’t co-opt: nonviolent tactics. If an infiltrator wants to nonviolently blockade or march or take out the garbage, well, that’s useful to us. If an infiltrator sabotages us by recruiting for mayhem, that’s a comment on what those tactics are good for.

Solnit quotes Oakland Occupier Sunaura Taylor: “A few people making decisions that affect everyone else is not what revolution looks like; it’s what capitalism looks like.”

Peter Marshall’s book on the history of anarchism, Demanding the Impossible, points out that “The word violence comes from the Latin violare and etymologically means violation. Strictly speaking, to act violently means to treat others without respect … A violent revolution is therefore unlikely to bring about any fundamental change in human relations. Given the anarchists’ respect for the sovereignty of the individual, in the long run it is nonviolence and not violence which is implied by anarchist values.”

* * *

Keith McHenry is the author of Hungry for Peace: How You Can Help End Poverty and War with Food Not Bombs.


Anarchist Cookbook front cover(from The Anarchist Cookbook, by Keith McHenry with Chaz Bufe, Introduction by Chris Hedges, scheduled for October 2015)


When Americans think of means to change, labor organizing tends to be well down on the list, if it’s there at all. There are good reasons for this.

There have been no mass membership revolutionary unions in the U.S. for nearly a century, and the only type most Americans are familiar with are the business unions of the AFL-CIO. As “business” implies, these unions are purely in the business of selling their members’ labor. in other words, they serve as bulwarks of capitalism, not challengers to it.

As you’d expect, they’re run along traditional hierarchical lines, often quite undemocratically, with highly paid executives who are out of touch with those they supposedly represent. Also, as you’d expect, many of those executives have been markedly reactionary, two notable examples being former Teamster’s president and Nixon buddy Frank Fitzsimmons, and former AFL-CIO president George Meany, a supporter of the Viet Nam War who was completely indifferent to organizing the unorganized.

Given all this, how did the AFL-CIO become the face of labor? It did so with major assistance from the U.S. government. In the period 1905 through the early 1920s, the AFL faced a radical rival, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). (The CIO emerged in the 1930s and merged with the AFL in 1955.) While the AFL was a federation of craft unions, interested only in its own members’ wages, and always presented itself as being a partner with business–there are photos of AFL founder Samuel Gompers at an elegant dinner with the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce–the IWW was practicing militant unionism, attempting to organize all workers, and had as its goal the elimination of capitalism and a democratically controlled worker takeover of the economy.

The government found this intolerable, and subjected the IWW to continual harrassment (often in the form of mass jailing of its members) in the years prior to World War I.

When Democrat Woodrow Wilson broke his campaign pledge and involved the U.S. in that war, the AFL supported U.S. involvement, and the IWW opposed it. As a result, repression of the IWW intensified, with many IWW members jailed for expressing opposition to the war, and many others jailed for refusing to be conscripted. In the red scare that followed the war, many states passed “criminal syndicalism” laws, which banned unionism of the IWW type. As a result of all this, thousands of IWW members were imprisoned, often for years, during World War I and its aftermath. And the government all but succeeded in totally destroying the IWW. (Today, the IWW survives with perhaps 5,000 members.)

The AFL (and its later partner, the CIO) stepped into this void and emerged as the only kind of union entity most Americans know, or can even conceive of.

The percentage of American workers represented by the AFL-CIO has plummeted from its high point of 34% of nongoverment workers in 1940 to under 7% today. And that percentage is still falling. (Today, the bulk of the AFL-CIO’s members are government workers, with its unions representing over 35% of them.)

Why has the percentage of nongoverment workers fallen so far? AFL-CIO backers would (correctly) point to the laws passed since World War II that hamstring the union movement (notably “right to work” laws and the Taft-Hartley and Sherman Acts–laws which among other things prohibit secondary boycotts and allow the government to order striking workers back to work.) AFL-CIO backers would also point to lack of enforcement of laws protecting workers who try to organize; because of that lack of enforcement, employers have fired organizers with impunity for decades.

But there’s another reason too: the very nature of the business unions (hierarchical, often undemocratic, often corrupt), and beyond that their utter lack of an inspiring vision. Many invite noninvolvement of members–just pay your dues and leave the rest to us. And having no goals beyond selling your members’ work lives for the highest amount you can get simply isn’t inspirational.

So, is labor organizing ineffective as a means to change? Not necessarily. In the 1930s in Spain, revolutionary unionism of the IWW type, as practiced by the anarchist Spanish Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo (CNT), did lead to a genuine revolution and social transformation in approximately half of Spain, including Catalonia, its major industrial region. That social transformation lasted approximately two years, until it was crushed by the anarchists’  Communist “allies” and the combined military forces of Spanish, Italian, and German fascism. This, however, does not take away from the achievements of the Spanish anarchists. And it provides evidence that revolutionary labor organizing can lead to fundamental political, social, and economic change.

The hallmarks of such organizing are direct democratic  control by members, horizontal structure, decentralization, no paid officials, rotation of all offices, and immediate recallability of all (unpaid) officials. And, importantly, having a motivating vision. That of the CNT was elimination of capitalism, elimination of government, and direct democratic control of the economy by those who work.

In the United States there’s very little such organizing going on at present. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing.

(from The Anarchist Cookbook, by Keith McHenry with Chaz Bufe, Introduction by Chris Hedges, scheduled for October 2015)Anarchist Cookbook front cover


Both consumer and producer co-ops have a long history, dating back to at least the 19th century, when there were active co-op movements in both England and the U.S. The aims of those founding co-ops varied. The aims of some, especially consumer co-ops, were simply to reduce costs for their members. The aims of some producer co-ops were sometimes more ambitious: many founders and members of producers co-ops (and some members and founders of consumer co-ops) saw them as a means of transforming the economy into a federation of co-ops.

There are both internal and external reasons this transformation never took place. One can look to such matters as capitalization and economies of scale, but other factors were and are also at work.

Perhaps the most important of those factors is that co-ops exist in a capitalist economy, and they usually become co-opted; sooner or later they begin to act like typical capitalist businesses, distinguished only by ownership being spread out among their members rather than in the hands of individual owners or shareholders.

The wave of co-optation of food co-ops from the 1970s is a case in point. (I’m quite familiar with those co-ops, having worked off and on as a paid staffer at such a co-op for seven years.) Those who founded those food co-ops often had rosy visions of a cooperative economy gradually supplanting corporate capitalism.

Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Instead, the 1970s food co-ops that survived, for the most part, have evolved into high priced health food stores with an uninvolved membership and a traditional management structure. (The last I heard, the co-op where I worked had followed such a path, and had branched out into selling high end wines, with some bottles selling for several hundred dollars.) This isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it certainly falls short of revolutionary change.

Producer and service-provider co-ops can be both far better and far worse. At their absolute nadir, such co-ops can become simple vehicles for exploitation of nonmember workers. The taxi co-ops in many U.S. cities are a good (actually horrifying) example. Many have evolved to the point where the owner-drivers have become pure owners (and no longer drive), mercilessly exploiting non-owner drivers who often make less than minimum wage.

At best, producer and service-provider co-ops can and do operate along directly democratic, self-managed lines, and serve as models demonstrating that such an operating structure is viable. The rub is that such co-ops exist within the capitalist economy and are subject to the same relentless pressures as any other business.

One such problem is the pressure to expand (“Expand or die,” to quote a capitalist proverb). When co-ops do expand, they often hire nonmember workers, and this inevitably sets up a two-tier structure within their work force. Even when pay remains the same for members and nonmembers, nonmembers are normally the first ones fired when an individual co-op’s business worsens or the overall economy slumps. It’s also pertinent that nonmember workers are just as powerless over their jobs as unorganized workers in any other business.

As well, almost all co-ops above a certain small size adopt a traditional management structure. Some draw managers from their work forces and compensate management less lavishly than in typical corporations, but the fact remains that their workers are managed.

Another pressure on co-ops is that of keeping costs to the minimum, in order to keep their prices competitive. This pushes co-ops to buy from the cheapest sources possible, which often involves buying from suppliers who exploit labor and/or have dodgy environmental policies.

But within these limitations, co-ops can do good work. The example co-op advocates typically cite is the Mondragon Corporation, by far the largest and most successful co-op federation, which consists of 289 cooperatives worldwide with revenues last year of over $14 billion Euros (equivalent to about $19 billion).

Within Mondragon co-ops, top management earns only 3 to 9 times the wages of the lowest paid workers, and members own the co-ops. On the down side, not all workers are owners, competitive pressures to keep costs down are a constant, and there is still the traditional capitalist division between workers and management (even though managers are drawn from the work force in many co-ops and managers receive relatively modest compensation).

In other words, the co-op movement is reformist, not revolutionary. It will not and, by its very nature, cannot lead to fundamental change.

One very relevant piece of evidence that this is so is the origin of the Mondragon co-ops: they began in the 1950s in the Basque region of Spain, with the permission of Spain’s government, headed by mass-murdering fascist Francisco Franco. The Franco dictatorship ruthlessly suppressed all forms of dissent, and anything else it deemed even remotely threatening. And it allowed the Mondragon co-ops; it didn’t see them as a threat.

This is not to say that co-ops are useless. Far from it. Within their limits, they can bring significant benefits to their members. But they’re reformist, not revolutionary.

Even if it succeeded globally, the best the co-op movement could deliver would be “capitalism with a human face.”

Front cover of "The Heretic's Handbook of Quotationsby Chaz Bufe, publisher See Sharp Press

A couple of weeks ago an acquaintance (who I’ve know for roughly 20 years) was very excited about the article on reparations (for African-Americans) in The Atlantic. He called me to talk about it (of course he hadn’t read it–I hadn’t either), and I said something to the effect of “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” I added that it’s a given that black people have been, and still are being, screwed over mercilessly in this country, but that I thought reparations demands were a really dumb idea, unless they were very specifically targeted against institutions that have exploited black people (e.g., banks’ and their “red-lining” practices).

He didn’t want to hear my reasons for saying that.

Those reasons are 1) blanket “reparation” demands–with “reparations” presumably financed by the government–divide working people along racial lines; 2) political goals and demands should be along economic lines, the 1% versus the rest of us (which unites people); 3) “reparations” demands are not demands for fundamental change–they implicitly accept the current corporate-capitalist political and economic set-up; 4) they reinforce the scarcity mentality that’s a huge stumbling block in the path of real social change–they reinforce the idea that there’s not enough to go around, and that the only way to reimburse some victims is to take from other victims. (And please, let’s not start playing the “who’s more oppressed?” game. If you want to divide and depress people, that’s a great way to do it.); and 5) there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell of blanket “reparations” becoming reality any time soon–the primary effect of such demands is to drive the white working class into the arms of the Republicans.

To put this another way, if you want to get rid of corporate capitalism, don’t play into the hands of the corporate capitalists. If you’re going to make reformist economic demands, make demands that unite low and middle income people (increased minimum wage, increased taxes on the 1%, etc.), not divide them along racial lines.

My acquaintance didn’t want to hear any of that, and wouldn’t even let me articulate it–he kept interrupting me, and started playing the “who’s more oppressed?” game, among other things belittling the experience of my illiterate immigrant grandfather who worked for 40 years in a foundry before dying a horrible death of silicosis. When I took strong exception to that, he asked me, “Are you a racist?” At that point, I went ballistic.

Here’s why:

1) The “question” “Are you a racist?” is dishonest. It’s a trap, not an honest question. The person asking it is not seeking information, they’re not interested in your answer. They’re setting you up. If you say “yes,” they win. If you say “no,”  they’ll “enlighten” you by reciting standard PC talking points about how all white people are “privileged” and “racist.”

2) “Are you a racist?” is an accusation, not a question. There’s no way to win when someone asks you that, if you fall into the trap of answering “yes” or “no.” But there are two ways of handling that “question.” The first, as Jim Goad recently pointed out, consists of asking the person implying racism on your part to define racism. As Goad notes, that almost always “flummoxes” them.

The second way to handle that question is to in turn ask the world’s most offensive question: “Do you have sex with your mother?” (Just askin’, you know? What’s the harm in asking a simple question?) Goad’s way of dealing with the racism “question” is probably better, but this is probably more gratifying.

3) Asking someone “Are you a racist?” is condescending. The accuser invariably assumes that you are a racist,  that you need to be tricked into hearing the accuser’s prepared pearls of wisdom, and that you’re dumb enough to fall for it.

4) The PC use of  “racism” trivializes the term. The painfully earnest PC types who label every white person a “racist,” simply because they’re white, use exactly the same term to describe those who say disgusting things about and commit violence against people of other races. There’s a major difference between what you project is in someone’s head simply because of their race (white) and violent physical assault. So, please, stop trivializing the terms “racism” and  “racist.” Reserve them for those who say and do hurtful things based on race.

And don’t ever ask anyone that stupid, insulting question again. Stop using verbal traps. Be honest. Openly say what you mean–not hide behind “questions” that are accusations–and only ask questions if you want information, not as transparent attempts to set people up.

Anarchist Cookbook front cover(from The Anarchist Cookbook, by Keith McHenry with Chaz Bufe, Introduction by Chris Hedges, scheduled for October 2015)

All-action revolutionary types often criticize educational work (books, bookstores, infoshops, discussion groups, web sites, videos, theater, music, graffiti, stickers, flyers, posters, etc.–but especially almost any type of  analysis) as being “useless,” “all talk, no action,” or even “cowardly.” Some extend this to other types of political action, such as nonviolent street demonstrations, the building of model communities, workplace organizing, and even nonviolent civil disobedience, and reject them all. In their view, the only real revolutionary action lies in confrontations–in general, the more violent the better–with the authorities, especially the police.

Neglecting the reductionist (and macho) nature of this all-action approach, and its conspicuous lack of success, let’s look at whether it has any validity in regard to educational work.

One reason that many people become impatient with educational work is that the immediate payoffs from doing it are few and far between. It’s entirely possible to spend one’s life doing educational work and to have nothing tangible to show for it.

As an example, a friend of mine has spent nearly four decades working as the unpaid, de facto manager of an anarchist bookstore. During that time, the store has sold hundreds of thousands of books and pamphlets, has served as a free meeting place for innumerable discussion and organizing groups, and has spawned many other projects. Yet the revolution hasn’t happened in my friend’s lifetime. So, have the thousands of hours he’s spent doing unpaid educational work been a waste? Those who hold the all-action approach would say “yes.” I’d say “no.”

One obvious thing all-action types overlook is that those engaged in educational work almost invariably advocate other kinds of political/social change activities as well as education, and often engage in them. Virtually no one advances the view that educational work in itself is enough to bring revolutionary change.

Another obvious thing all-action types overlook is that educational work (often in conjunction with noviolent direct action and, sometimes, even electoral strategies) can lead to incremental reforms. Often these reforms are of the ten-steps-forward-nine-steps-back type, as with reproductive rights, and sometimes they come more suddenly, as with the current tidal movement to end drug prohibition. Again, virtually no one argues that such reforms will bring revolutionary change. Such reforms do, however, tend to make people’s lives better in the here and now, and every step toward greater freedom tends to delegitimatize belief in coercive authority.

But the most obvious thing that those who dismiss educational work miss is that thought precedes action. In insurrectionary situations, one of the key questions–very probably the key question–is what ideas, what beliefs, are in the heads of the people in the streets?

Do they still hold the old beliefs in civil and religious authority? Do they still believe that such authority is “inevitable” and that they (and everyone else) should be subject to it, and that all that’s needed is “better” people at the top? Do they still believe in hierarchy and competition-based economics?

Or have they rejected capitalism and religion but still believe in coercive authority, and simply want to give it to a new “revolutionary” class?

Or have they (at least a sizable conscious minority) rejected hierarchy and coercion in all their forms and want to build a new society based on voluntary cooperation, mutual aid, egalitarian distribution of wealth and labor, and direct democracy?

These are crucial questions, and the answers to them in large part determine the outcomes of revolutionary situations.

Look no further than the Iranian “revolution” to see the results of a mass revolt in which a large majority of those taking part held reactionary beliefs, and still accepted religious, governmental, and capitalist authority. Look no further than the Russian “revolution” to see the results of a revolt in which the most active of those taking part had rejected capitalism and religion but retained faith in authority, and belief in the need for a directing new class of “revolutionaries.”

Look to Spain (1936-1939) for a real revolution. There, the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists had engaged in decades of mass union organizing and educational work prior to the outbreak of the revolution. They abolished government and capitalism, and brought workplace democracy, community democracy, and egalitarian economics to millions of Spaniards in large regions of Spain. That they were stabbed in the back by the Spanish Communists and crushed by the combined forces of Spanish, German, and Italian fascism does not diminish their achievements.

And those achievements point to an important lesson: thought precedes action, and the content of thoughts determines actions.

Educational work in itself is not enough to produce revolution. But without it, no revolution is likely to succeed.

* * *

We’ve already looked at voting, vanguard parties, and “simple living” as means to change. Over the coming weeks we’ll look at street demonstrations, urban guerrillaism, union organizing, and housing occupations, workplace occupations, and public-space occupations as means to change.


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Anarchist Cookbook front cover

(from The Anarchist Cookbook, by Keith McHenry with Chaz Bufe, Introduction by Chris Hedges, scheduled for October 2015)

Vanguard parties (i.e., any of the 57 varieties of leninist parties–marxist-leninist, maoist, stalinist, trotskyist, etc., etc.) have a long and sordid history. Their goal is always the same: seizure of the state apparatus in the name of the people. The leninist term for this is the oxymoronic “dictatorship of the proletariat”–as if an entire class of people could somehow be a dictator. But no, the dictator is, of course, the ultra-hierarchical vanguard party itself, as the expression, somehow, of the “will of the people.” (Transubstantiation perhaps?)

The Bolsheviks provide the most prominent early example of a vanguard party. The results of their power seizure are well known: over a hundred thousand prisoners murdered by the Cheka (secret police) under Lenin, over ten million more murdered or starved to death under Stalin, a one-party state, suppression of civil liberties, elimination of independent unions, dictatorial control of workplaces by the party/state apparatus, tens of millions in gulags, purges, show trials, secret police, personality cults, and the rise of a new party/government elite–a “new class” that took the place and the privileges of the old elite.lenin-small

Where vanguard parties have taken power since the Bolsheviks, the results invariably have been bleak, from the surveillance state of Honecker’s DDR (East Germany), to the mass murder in Mao’s China (among other things, the murder of three million landlords–although, sad to say, that does have a certain appeal) and the subsequent transformation of the leninist state there into a fascist state, to the nightmare of North Korea, where millions starve while the state lavishes the proceeds of their labor on a bloated military, nuclear weapons, and grotesque spectacles–all in the context of a “people’s state” that is in effect a hereditary monarchy.

In fact, the record of vanguard parties that have seized power is so uniformly awful that there’s little point in examining them at length. They’re simply failures–all of them. Examining their ideologies, structures, and theories is of interest only as an exercise in forensic pathology.

At this point, some readers will say, “What about Cuba?” Well, what about it? Even after over half a century of dictatorship, many American leftists still have a soft spot for the Cuban Communists. They’ve bought into a false dichotomy: that the only choice is between U.S. imperialism and the “Communist” dictatorship. Their attitude seems to be, “Well, we wouldn’t want that here, but it’s for the best there, so, we support Fidel (now his brother Raul).” To put it mildly, this is paternalistic and smacks disturbingly of what one might charitably call hero worship.

Decades ago, a maoist friend told me about his experiences in Cuba as part of a Venceremos Brigade in the 1970s. (Venceremos Brigades were bands of American leftists who traveled to Cuba to work in the cane fields in support of “the revolution.”) At one point, Fidel himself showed up where they were working in the fields. My friend told me that he found the reaction of his fellow brigadistas sickening, that their reaction was like that of 14-year-olds at a Beatles concert. And this at a time when the Castro regime was still executing political prisoners in droves. (That regime is, of course, secretive about this; as a result, estimates of the number of those executed vary widely, from a low of a few hundred to a high of over 30,000.)

If you think a one-party state, suppression of civil liberties, government control of the media, suppression of independent unions, replacement of capitalist bosses by “Communist” bosses, secret police, prisons, executions, a network of neighborhood informers, militarism, and a personality cult are a good tradeoff for the Cuban people in exchange for good health care, free higher education, and a guaranteed low-paying job, by all means support the Cuban dictatorship–and support a vanguard party here.

But if you want individual freedom, democratic control of communities and workplaces, voluntary cooperation instead of coercion, and equality in place of domination and submission, vanguard parties are an absolutely terrible idea. On a personal level, they’re a bottomless pit of self-sacrifice, and on a societal level their results are invariably catastrophic.
* * *
Over the coming weeks we’ll look at other possible means of social change, from the worse than useless to those that show real promise. They’ll include personal lifestyle/consumption changes, urban guerrillaism, traditional street demonstrations, educational work, utopian communities, union organizing, public space occupations, housing occupations, and workplace occupations.