Wayward raconteur, starving artist, social critic, neuro-divergent hell-raiser extraordinaire, unrepentant autonomous Marxist feminist. One of the co-founders of Gods&Radicals, formerly a writer for 'The Wild Hunt', makes clothing and pottery under the name 'Practical Rabbit'. Currently lives in Rennes, Bretagne, usually occupied with making art and trying to keep plants alive.
The primary reason that white people, especially white Americans, appropriate from marginalized traditions is because they’ve been stripped of their own. And if we want white Americans to stop doing that, the best remedy is to encourage them to respectfully and carefully learn about and reclaim their own ancestral traditions.
From Alley Valkyrie
I spend a lot of time reading right-wing critiques of leftist tendencies and behavior. I do this not so much because I’m a masochist, but for many practical reasons. Part of it is the old ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’ adage, especially in terms of what they’re discussing and thinking as it pertains to me and my kin. But more so, underneath the inevitable layers of distortion and exaggeration and hyperbole, there is almost always a kernel of truth in the critique. Very often that kernel of truth concerns a crucial point of error in the thinking or actions of those on the Left. And that error in thinking is so often related to points of nuance….or lack thereof.
The Left’s lack of attention to nuance only validates and strengthens the critiques of the Right.
Let me say that again for the kids in the back: it greatly strengthens their arguments, and as a result greatly strengthens their base. And in case you’ve been asleep for the past few years, their base is already quite strong, ever growing, and rather terrifying.
One of the best examples of this is the subject of cultural appropriation. Let me make the following clear at the onset: cultural appropriation is an actual problem, one incredibly damaging to marginalized peoples and cultures. That is not up for debate, nor would I ever try to debate it. And the general position of the right-wing (and sadly, far too many liberals as well) is that any and all complaints of cultural appropriation are nothing more than the overly-PC whining of “snowflakes”. Which is false. Absolutely false.
However, one of the things that has led the Right to such a conclusion is a very real, very specific, and very damaging behavioral tendency coming from the social justice-oriented Left. It comes more often than not from white people who aren’t actually part of the marginalized groups they are claiming to defend, acting from a sort of ‘purity politics’ as opposed to having an actual stake in the issue. These folks are quick to label pretty much anything as cultural appropriation, often without any historical understanding of what they are calling out and absolutely without any attention paid to detail or nuance.
I witnessed an epidemic of this behavior over the past month, in the form of online discussion going back and forth– almost solely by white people in the United States–regarding Day of the Dead and cultural appropriation. There was a dizzying number of personal posts, shared articles, and “community call-outs” warning all people of European descent to “stay in their lane” regarding “Day of the Dead,” lecturing them on how any attempts to celebrate such a holiday was an act of cultural appropriation that was harmful to Latin American people.
This is the perfect example of where the right-wing is actually quite accurate in their critiques. Such proclamations, especially without any real citations or historical backup, are nothing more than moral righteousness gone awry. They also double as erasure when it comes to the actual history of such celebrations.
When it comes to those of European descent, Americans in general are a people that lack ancestral or cultural ties. The loss of culture that comes with assimilation in the United States is not just a product of isolationism and exceptionalism, it’s also very much a product of our Protestant roots. Related to this is the fact that Catholicism was historically a minority religion in the United States that was often repressed, attacked, and subjected to widespread discrimination, especially prior to WWII.
Protestantism and Catholicism, while both acting in similarly hegemonic manners, with similar goals in terms of domination of thought, belief, and behavior, operate quite differently in their means towards that end. Catholicism has exerted and spread its power by adopting the crucial cultural elements of any given culture that it overtakes, rewriting and re-inscribing those elements into its own narrative. This accounts for why holidays like Christmas and Easter are chock full of pagan symbolism, for why the Romans built temples to Egyptian gods in Germany during the later years of the Roman Empire, and why practically any given ancient church or basilica in Europe was built right on top of a former Pagan sacred site. The Catholic strategy has predominantly been to annex indigenous traditions, and historically speaking it has been a very successful strategy.
Protestantism has often taken a different strategy, one most clearly seen in the birth, growth, and development of what we now call America. Instead of adopting the cultural elements of those they subjugated into their own narrative, Protestantism demanded an abandonment of those elements. It demanded that one forsake their own cultural traditions and assimilate into Protestant culture. This may not have been so painful for those Americans whose ancestors came from Protestant cultures, but for those whose ancestors came from Catholic cultures, it was a great loss. Countless celebrations, rituals, and folk traditions which are still practiced widely in Europe today are mostly lost to Americans whose ancestors came from those very countries and cultures where they are still practiced.
And of course, given how much Protestantism and Capitalism are and have always been close and convenient bedfellows in the United States, Capitalism has always been able to fill the void left by the abandonment of non-Protestant ancestral cultures. This is the primary reason why Halloween is not only considered by the rest of the world to be an American holiday, but within America it is arguably the most popular in terms of mass participation and cultural buy-in.
Despite a small but vocal group of fundamentalist Christians who argue otherwise, Halloween is the most part a secular holiday, one embraced by immigrants and American-born folks alike. It is for the most part focused on fun and consumerism, so much so that the majority of the population fails to recognize the way it acts as a substitute for what, in most cultures of Catholic origin, is a rather somber and reverent time of year, one in which remembrance and worship of the dead is the primary focus.
This takes me back to my point regarding the misguided claims of cultural appropriation. “Dìa de los Muertos” and the much larger concept of “Day of the Dead” are not the same thing. The former is specifically the form that the latter takes in Latin American countries. The latter is a tradition that both historically and currently is recognized across the Catholic world, both amongst colonized people as well as those who have historically been colonizers.
And yes, there are many problematic aspects when it comes to white Americans celebrating the former, especially the way it has been fetishized and commodified. Absolutely no argument there from me: as I said above, I would never argue that cultural appropriation is not a real issue that results in tangible harm. But extending that to referencing “Day of the Dead” as being something that white Americans should not touch is extremely misguided, especially because a significant amount of white Americans come from ancestral backgrounds in which Day of the Dead was and still is widely celebrated.
November 1 in France is what is known as “Toussaint”, or All Saints’ Day. Most businesses are closed. Most people have the day off. Church services on this day are as detailed as they are on Christmas or Easter. Florists work double-time all week to satisfy the number of orders of flowers that people take to the graveyard that day. Beyond the specific aesthetics and traditions that define Dìa de los Muertos, what’s going on in France here today looks rather similar to the former in terms of tradition and ritual.
Why, you ask? Because they have the same origin.
And the same can be seen over the course of the same week in Italy, in Spain, in Ireland, in Portugal, as well as other countries with strong ties to Catholicism. Because Day of the Dead as a whole is a Catholic tradition, one that was mostly lost to the descendants of Catholic immigrants to the United States due to the US being a country and culture conceived in Protestantism, a country which demanded assimilation into a Protestant aesthetic in exchange for the benefits of the ‘American Dream’.
Mind you, it’s important to recognize that the true origins of traditions such as Day of the Dead pre-date Catholicism and have pagan origins. That’s another reason why they are so insistently eschewed and suppressed by Protestants: because the Protestants recognize those origins full well and consider them (as well as so many other aspects of Catholicism) to be evil and “Satanic”.
And while in terms of pre-Christian traditions regarding the dead, “Samhain” is by far the most well-known (and therefore adopted into the majority of modern Pagan traditions), the traditions that currently take place in the aforementioned European countries not only are linked by Catholicism, they are similarly linked in regards to their pre-Christian origins.
When I read and hear this constant righteous lecturing on how and why white people have no business participating in Day of the Dead rituals, I also can’t help but to think back to the three weeks I spent in Mexico in 2010. I was there from mid-October to early November, over the course of the Dìa de los Muertos celebrations. And being a culturally-aware, social justice-oriented type who was always very careful to not engage in cultural appropriation and who wanted to “stay in my lane,” I decided at the onset to adopt the position of an observer throughout the various celebrations and rituals that were taking place.
But every single time that I stood back and chose to watch rather than participate, I was met with looks and gestures that ranged from confusion to hurt feelings. And every single time one of the locals encouraged me to step up and participate and would explain in detail what was occurring and why, as they were always under the impression that I was standing back due to lack of knowledge, as opposed to the fear and/or belief that to do so was inappropriate for a white person. Every single time, it was made very clear to me that not only was I welcome to engage in the ongoings, but that they actively wanted me to do so, that they considered it a matter of hospitality to make sure that I was actively engaged. Not only that, but a few people confided in me that in general, although they knew it was not my intention, it was considered rude not to participate.
And while I’m very aware that there’s a difference between being invited to participate in cultural rituals that are not your own and commodifying and fetishizing said rituals, whenever I see the most extreme versions of “white people cannot do this no matter what,” all I can think of were the reactions of my hosts when I chose to step back.
The bottom line is this: aside from the capitalist influence, which obviously is huge, the primary reason that white people, especially white Americans, appropriate from marginalized traditions is because they’ve been stripped of their own. And if we want white Americans to stop doing that, the best remedy is to encourage them to respectfully and carefully learn about and reclaim their own ancestral traditions. We can’t have it both ways. American identity is in part defined by a cultural hole, one which the shallow creations of capitalism simply cannot adequately fill. And so those who recognize that loss will try to fill it.
And they will likely try to fill it with what is easiest for them to access, which is why erasing the history behind celebrations like Day of the Dead and framing it as though it is solely a Latin American tradition that white people should not touch is a disservice to everyone affected. It does very little to stem the tide of cultural appropriation, it erases the history of Day of the Dead as it pertains to European ethnic groups, and the lack of nuance in such arguments only feeds and adds to the legitimacy of right-wing criticisms.
And so I repeat, once more: specificity and nuance are so fucking important when we criticize and/or judge and/or discuss issues such as cultural appropriation. If you’re going to call something or someone out, do your homework. Know your history. And for the love of the gods, stop sharing un-cited, prescriptive social justice articles that lecture people on what they should and should not do.
Alley Valkyrie is an writer, artist, and spirit worker currently living in Rennes, France. She is one of the co-founders of Gods&Radicals and has been interacting with a wide assortment of both gods and radicals for nearly twenty years now. When she’s not talking to rivers and cats or ranting about capitalism, she is usually engaged in a variety of other projects. She can also be supported on Patreon.
“After my experiences in Europe, that illusion had been shattered, and all I could see was the horrid realities of a deluded nation in which the vast majority of citizens were kept under a spell, believing with all their might that they were living the best lives possible while in reality their average standard of living pales in comparison to most of the Western world.”
On American Exceptionalism, from Alley Valkyrie
I never bought into American ideology, even as a small child. I was that kid that was given detention in the fifth grade for refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. I was also the teenager who was given detention in the ninth grade for standing up in history class and referring to Christopher Columbus as a “genocidal ass.” I read Howard Zinn around that time, had pen-pals from France and Germany, and by the time I left high school I was pretty convinced that the whole “America is the greatest country on Earth” mentality was a load of crap.
Moving to New York after high school and befriending many Europeans only cemented that determination for me. When I was in my early twenties, a girl my age from France became my housemate for six months while interning at a radio station in Manhattan. My friends and I took her to our favorite restaurants, bought the food we cooked from the local farmers’ markets, showed her what in our opinion was the best of the best that NYC had to offer. And so I was rather shocked one day a few months into her visit when she mentioned how surprised she was at how awful the produce was.
“It’s tasteless,” she said to me, almost embarrassed and yet determined in her honesty. “It’s bigger and more colorful than anything I’ve ever had in France, but it’s tasteless.”
I wasn’t so much offended, but I did feel bit of bruising to my pride at the moment. After all, the Union Square Farmers’ Market was nationally famous. Cable television cooking shows always featured the city’s top chefs sourcing their food from that very market. In processing my emotions around her observation, it was the first time that I was able to reflect on the fact that, despite overtly rejecting the idea of American exceptionalism, I still retained the tendency. It was hard for me to accept that the “best of the best” of what New York City had to offer was “tasteless” by the standards of a woman from a small city in southern France.
And yet I believed her. I had no reason not to.
Twelve years later, during my first trip to France last summer, Rhyd and I were sitting with friends around a fire one night, in a deep and humorous discussion about American foods that don’t exist in France and vice-versa. It was one of those conversations that led to a lot of “lost in translation” moments, where the differences were a matter of cultural understandings. After explaining the existence of–and trying my best to justify– such foods as Twinkies, Easy-Cheese, and Kool-Aid, suddenly ranch dressing came to my mind. “Most kids grow up on it,” I said. “Its what parents use so that kids will eat their vegetables,” I said.
“Why would kids need anything to convince them to eat vegetables?” my friend asked in return, confusion in his voice.
I laughed to myself, remembering that in France, the vegetables weren’t tasteless the way they are in America. Carrots, celery, bell peppers – all of these have a deep and distinctive taste that American produce is sorely lacking. I thought back to the observations of my French housemate years back in NYC, and then thought of the delicious produce I had been eating in the last month, which was the tastiest food that I had ever eaten in my life. And once again, in that moment, I swallowed my pride as I felt a stirring of internalized exceptionalism.
* * * * *
It was in another friend’s kitchen in Strasbourg a few weeks later that I was forced to truly come to terms with that stirring.
Rhyd and I were cooking dinner, and as I went to open the window I saw a small machine in the corner that looked kind of like a washer, kind of like a dryer, but not quite like either.
“What is it?” I asked our friend.
“It’s a laundry machine,” she answered.
“Which one?” I asked.
She looked at me, confused. “Is that the wrong word,” she asked me. “Laundry?”
“Yes, the word is laundry, but I don’t understand if it’s a washer or a dryer,” I said.
She looked at me once again, confused. “Well it does both, of course,” she answered.
I stared at the machine, speechless for a moment, envisioning the bulky white stacked washer-dryer combo machines that were typical in small American apartments. I then bent over and examined it for a moment. How can it do both, I thought to myself. And why have I never seen this before in the United States? I then looked up at the window, looking for the big dryer vent tube that came out of every American dryer. There was none. “Where’s the vent?” I asked.
“It doesn’t need one,” she replied, and I could tell by the sound of her voice that she was just as surprised at my ignorance as to how the machine works as I was of its existence. “The moisture goes back into the machine and is re-used in the next wash cycle.”
Why the fuck don’t we have these in the United States, I said to myself as I just stared at the machine, my mouth hanging open. Thinking of how much easier my life would be back home in the States with a machine like this, I suddenly felt rage and shock rumble within me. The conflict between my rational understanding that American exceptionalism was a lie and the implicit programming that I had still taken on in terms of such beliefs was suddenly clear as day.
I shouldn’t have been in disbelief at the fact that there were household appliances that were considered typical and everyday in France but were years ahead of anything that we had in the United States, and yet my internal monologue was stuck in the depths of that implicit programming. How do we not have this in the United States, the inner voice said again, despite the fact that I knew the answer even as I was hearing my inner voice.
I was so caught up in my own emotional conflict that I almost didn’t hear what she said next, which of course made it even worse. “That’s not even such a nice one – that’s an older model. The newer ones are much more efficient and compact.”
II. The Ointment
There’s a Celtic faery tale which I first came across as part of the lore of the Feri Tradition, that is usually known as “The Faery’s Midwife.” There are a few different versions, but the general plot is as follows:
A village midwife hears a knock on the door late at night, the visitor being a strange looking little old man whose wife is about to give birth and is in need of help. She agreed, and they mount his horse which leads them past the village and deep into the woods in a direction she had never been before.
Soon they arrive at a tiny little elven-looking cottage in the woods, where the wife is inside struggling with labor. The midwife helps her through the labor and the baby is born healthy. Right after the baby is born, the mother hands an odd-looking jar of ointment to the midwife and asks her to run it in the newborn’s eyes, stressing that it’s a family tradition. The midwife does so, but out of curiosity, also rubs a bit into one of her eyes when the couple isn’t looking.
Suddenly, out of the eye in which she rubbed the ointment, she saw the funny little cottage transformed into a horrid-looking shack, the couple transformed into hairy, impish-looking creatures that had little resemblance to humans, and the cute little newborn appeared almost as a small animal. The husband, having not noticed what the midwife had done, gives his thanks and then offers her a ride home. She accepts his offer, afraid of what she has seen but pretending that nothing was amiss in fear of what the consequence will be if the impish man finds out what she has done.
A few weeks later, she was shopping at the local market when she saw the impish man, stealing from a fruit cart right in front of the vendor who did not seem to notice. Without thinking, she waved hello to him and asked about how his wife and baby were doing. He looked over at her with a shocked expression that quickly turned to anger. At that moment, she realizes that she is the only one in the market that can see him, but it is too late. He also realized at that moment that she must have rubbed the ointment in her eye.
“By which eye do you see me?” he asks the midwife. She points to her right eye, and he instantaneously draws a blade and stabs her eye out, blinding her and breaking the spell.
A few days after my experience with the laundry machine in Strasbourg last summer, I flew back to the United States, first to New York and then home to Portland. Arriving home, I tried to re-orient myself to life in the States again, but this time something was different. Everything I had previously known and loved and taken for granted had an ugly tinge to it upon my return
All I could think of was the tale of the Faery Midwife, and I realized that those moments in France were akin to getting some of that ointment in my eye. It was impossible for me to see the United States as I had known it before. Despite always knowing on a theoretical level that we lagged far behind much of the developed world, the constant doses of American exceptionalism had still kept me in an illusory state.
After my experiences in Europe, that illusion had been shattered, and all I could see was the horrid realities of a deluded nation in which the vast majority of citizens were kept under a spell, believing with all their might that they were living the best lives possible while in reality their average standard of living pales in comparison to most of the Western world.
III. The Deprogramming
Sociologists make an important distinction between “racism” and “implicit bias,” and that distinction has everything to do with intent and conscious thoughts versus social programming and subconscious messaging.
I was raised knowing that racism was wrong, that Blacks and whites were equal in ability, intelligence, and potential, and that discrimination was unethical. And yet, being born and raised as a white person in a white supremacist society, racist ideas and concepts seeped into my subconscious mind nonetheless. It wasn’t until I was in my late teens when I first moved to a mostly Black neighborhood that I first ever began to realize that, despite being morally and ethically opposed to racism, I nonetheless had implicit bias issues that I needed to work through. And for the past two decades now I’ve been unraveling those biases, shining light on them and tackling them head-on, realizing more and more as the years pass that such a task is a lifetime’s work.
Over the past year, I have come to understand that American exceptionalism works in a similar way to implicit bias. Despite forcefully rejecting it on the surface for most of my conscious life, it wasn’t until I spent a month in Europe last summer that I realized how much I had internalized the ideas of exceptionalism. When I returned to the United States and started to talk about my experiences with others who had been abroad, I quickly found that every person I spoke with had the same reactions and realizations.
And returning to France this past spring, this time for three months where I still remain as I write this, has only furthered my understanding of how deep-rooted such exceptionalism runs.
IV. “The Greatest Country in the World”
Here in France, I am more aware than ever of the level to which I’m still deprogramming myself from the ideas of American exceptionalism, and that process, combined with the day in and day out exposure I have to French culture, has made me more critical of the insidious nature of American exceptionalism as well as the flaws and pitfalls of the American way of life compared to everyday life in Europe.
And I’m not quiet about such realizations. Frankly, I air them as often as I observe them, sometimes on a daily basis.
And I must admit that if seeing the truth for the first time was akin to getting some of the ointment in my eye, the reactions I often get from airing those truths is not much different than others trying to smother that vision and poke my eye out.
Not only are Americans taught from a young age both explicitly and implicitly that America is the greatest country in the world, many are often taught to militantly defend that belief through their words and actions. In a country where one of the reasons we are supposedly the greatest is because of “freedom of speech,” it often seems that the only kind of speech that is truly untolerated is speech that questions America’s greatness.
“Don’t like America?” Go somewhere else then. Love it or leave it.”
Never mind the fact that actually leaving the United States permanently is incredibly challenging due to the restrictive immigration laws of most other nations, such a sentiment also demonstrates a notable fragility inherent in those who put it forth. One of the reasons that “love it or leave it” is so often a default response to criticism of America is because American exceptionalism is mainly built on ideology. There is very little tangible evidence available to back up the beliefs and claims as to America’s greatness.
There was a brief time in American history in the years immediately following WWII where at least a certain segment of the population (white, male, middle-class) could claim that they were experiencing the greatest standard of living in the developed world. But in the past several decades, especially in the time since the adoption of neoliberalism, any and all claims to America’s greatness in terms of facts and statistics has evaporated, leaving us with nothing but ideology to cling to. Nowadays there is indeed many lists of statistics in which America comes in as “#1”, but absolutely none of them are anything to be bragging about. We have been far surpassed by the rest of the Western world in nearly every conceivable positive category.
Most Americans are kept in the dark about this, however, not only because of the constant barrage of messaging about how we are indeed the greatest, but, in part due to our high levels of poverty as well as our tendency towards isolationism, very few Americans have ever left the United States to see how life is actually like abroad. Americans are full of stereotyped opinions about places like Europe, but for the most part those ideas are not based in reality.
With so little exposure to other cultures and societies, combined with the omnipresent belief that their own country is the greatest on earth without question, the ideology and egregore of America’s greatness is able to stand strong with few challenges. When it is challenged, the true believers run quickly to the front lines in its defense.
And yet, despite being the recipient of such angry defenses on a regular basis, I sympathize ans understand it nonetheless. American exceptionalism is deeply tied to American identity, an identity that like exceptionalism itself has little to prop it up once you scrape away the layers of ideology.
After all, if America isn’t the best, if we’re not “#1”, what and who are we?
Alley Valkyrie is an writer, artist, and spirit worker currently living in Rennes, France. She is one of the co-founders of Gods&Radicals and has been interacting with a wide assortment of both gods and radicals for nearly twenty years now. When she’s not talking to rivers and cats or ranting about capitalism, she is usually engaged in a variety of other projects. She can also be supported on Patreon.
“In the absence of an equally compelling counter-narrative, a significant portion of the masses will also embrace fascism, and history will be left to repeat itself.”
Political and aesthetic theory, from Alley Valkyrie
Quotations are useful in periods of ignorance or obscurantist beliefs.
– Guy Debord
One of the first things I noticed upon arriving in France last summer is that battles were being waged on multiple fronts.
There was the most obvious battle, the one that the media was covering, a nationwide uproar over a set of controversial labor reforms that were widely viewed as a betrayal of the working class on the part of a supposedly left-wing government.
There was a secondary battle playing out alongside that uproar, a guerrilla battle against capitalism and international finance waged by leftists and anarchists in the form of smashed bank windows and repeated violent confrontations with police.
And then there was the battle for the imagination, the battle of dueling narratives that leftists and fascists alike were waging on every blank surface imaginable, from street poles to mailboxes to the walls of boarded-up buildings. As opposed to the aforementioned battles, the battle for the imagination was one that the leftists were obviously and solidly winning.
The words and imagery that adorned pretty much every conceivable surface passionately and effectively reflected the world that could be, the world that they were trying to build. With stickers and graffiti and street art, those who believed that ‘another world is possible’ were successfully appealing to the hearts and minds of the populace.
That success was reflected not only in the physical presence of a leftist culture, but in the widespread public acceptance of many of their ideas and visions and how those ideas manifested in the physical world. Actions that would be almost universally condemned in the United States, such as the repeated destruction of ATMs, were met with an attitude that ranged from indifference to gleeful acceptance.
Even those who disapproved often expressed their sympathies with the sentiments behind such actions, even when criticizing the actions. They understood why the battle was being waged, and their understanding was in part closely connected to the consistent anti-capitalist messaging that they were exposed to on a daily basis.
Politicizing the Aesthetic
“The distracted person, too, can form habits. More, the ability to master certain tasks in a state of distraction proves that their solution has become a matter of habit. Distraction as provided by art presents a covert control of the extent to which new tasks have become soluble by apperception. Since, moreover, individuals are tempted to avoid such tasks, art will tackle the most difficult and most important ones where it is able to mobilize the masses.”
– Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’
In the above-quoted essay, arguably his most well-known and influential work, Walter Benjamin characterized a primary component of fascism as the politicization of the aesthetic and argued in favor of the revolutionary potential of art. Written in 1936, and grounded in his observations of the role of aesthetics as employed in Hitler’s rise to power, Benjamin detailed the transformation of art as a medium through the technologies of reproduction.
He explained how such modernization had created the potential for the utilization of art as a means to influence the masses, but also pointed out how that potential would be used for repressive and totalitarian purposes when the means of reproduction was concentrated in the hands of the few. When the means of reproduction were democratized, art could hold the same power as a tool of resistance that it held in Germany as a tool of manipulation.
While his point had always resonated with me, the truth of his statements became plainly evident after my interactions with the countless propaganda-covered street poles that I constantly encountered throughout France. But there is American precedent for this too.
“More than anything, Hillary [Clinton] forgot that Obama owed his first victory to an image, to an idea.”
I heard the comment as I walked past an art student, talking on the phone as he was waiting for the bus outside of PNCA in northwest Portland. I knew immediately what he was referring to: Shepard Fairey’s iconic ‘HOPE’ poster, which was a near-ubiquitous image during the 2008 presidential campaign.
While his actual campaign promises and proposed policies were undoubtedly a factor in his success, one cannot underestimate the degree to which his victory was on account of his winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of a disillusioned populace through the ideas of ‘hope’ and ‘change.’ The strength of Fairey’s image and the resonance of the message inspired voters to hit the polls in record numbers.
It was many of those same voters, especially those from rural areas, living in poverty and once inspired by the ideas of ‘hope’ and ‘change,’ who switched parties and voted for Trump eight years later.
They flipped in large part because the changes that they had hoped for and expected did not materialize for them, and their hearts and minds were then subsequently captured by a very different but equally captivating message.
But this time, instead of abstract concepts like ‘hope’ and ‘change,’ this message provided not only concrete promises but definitive scapegoats.
The Intoxication of Narrative
“The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing formation of masses are two aspects of the same process. Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.”
– Walter Benjamin
Among other factors, fascism gains its traction on account of a compelling narrative.
Fascism takes advantage of crumbling social conditions, evokes a false nostalgia for the ‘good old days,’ and frames the current material conditions as a ‘fall’ from that greatness. It then scapegoats specific parties as the cause of the fall, and promises a restoration to greatness if and only if the people place their trust in an authoritarian leader and give that leader free rein to rid us of the scapegoats that are responsible for the ‘problems.’
To its credit, liberal democracy also presents a compelling narrative. The promise of ‘freedom’ and ‘prosperity’ and ‘rights,’ especially as it is contextualized within the idea of the ‘American dream,’ has captured hearts and minds for generations now. While it is a narrative that realistically has only ever applied to certain segments of the population (mostly able-bodied white people), over the past few decades the promises of that narrative have repeatedly failed even those who had previously been granted that dream .
The ideology of fascism was birthed out of the ashes of World War I, birthed of the anger of a generation in which working-class people throughout Europe were brutally slaughtered in a war that was mainly fought in the interests of the ruling classes and in the name of democracy. It was the betrayal and failure of the narrative and the promises of liberal democracy in Europe that caused large segments of the population to embrace the narrative of fascism.
Although its been mostly forgotten in the mainstream retelling of history, the present turn of events in the United States is not the first time that the narrative of fascism has captured the interest of the American public. Fascism first rose in America in the years after the Great Depression, the last time that the narrative and promises of liberal democracy were proven to fail en masse throughout the North American continent.
While there were multiple factors that were able to overpower the pull of fascism in America that first time around (such as the effects of the New Deal), it was ironically the economic boost that came from the war against fascism in Europe that acted as the nails in the coffin for the power of the fascist narrative in America.
Out of that war came the resurgence of liberal democracy in even greater forms, from the recognition of the United States as a global superpower to institutions such as the United Nations and the European Union.
It is the crumbling and decline of those powers in the present day which has ushered in the current wave of fascist tendencies. History demonstrates very clearly that when the contradictions of liberal democracy start to weigh heavily enough to crack the foundations of that system, those who have profited from that system and its contradictions will inevitably embrace fascism in order to secure their wealth and their safety.
In the absence of an equally compelling counter-narrative, a significant portion of the masses will also embrace fascism, and history will be left to repeat itself.
Il est interdit d’interdire (It is forbidden to forbid)
– Situationist slogan, May 1968
In the summer of 1968, revolutions and revolutionary tendencies echoed throughout the Western world, with varying degrees of success and lasting power. Among the most well-known uprisings of the time was the series of events in May of 1968 in France, which at its peak brought the entire French economy to a standstill and nearly toppled the national government. While history generally characterizes the French uprisings as being fueled by violence and physical resistance, the underlying current which sustained the uprisings was based in artistic expression, most notably the tactics and aesthetics of the Situationist International.
The SI was formed a decade earlier, a fusion of libertarian Marxist ideas and the ideologies and aesthetic expressions of the surrealist and dada art movements. Arguably the strongest idea to come forth from the situationists was the concept of the ‘spectacle,’ which Guy Debord described and defined as “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”
The concept of the spectacle was in itself a deep critique of capitalism, specifically the ways in which commodity fetishism had shifted society away from social relations based on direct experience and instead created an arena where individual expression was primarily exercised through the consumption of commodities. The aim of the SI was to reverse that trend, to prioritize and emphasize direct experience and to replace the manufactured desires of capitalism with actual and authentic desires.
This philosophy was central to the artistic and symbolic expressions that fueled the uprisings of May ’68. The emotional appeals of the SI, which stressed personal freedom, social authenticity, and political liberation, created a climate in which many believed that a new world was truly possible. Despite the eventual failure of the uprisings to foment an actual social revolution, the ideas and tactics of the SI left its mark on an entire generation of French youths, who continued with and passed on those ideas into the modern day.
The propaganda and messaging that is currently seen throughout every major urban area in France, as well as the understandings and philosophies behind it, is a direct and often obvious descendant of the imagery and emotion that characterized the SI and the events of May ’68.
Fascism: Liberal Democracy’s Shadow
When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labeled “made in Germany;” it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, “Americanism.”
– Halford E. Luccock, as quoted in the New York Times, 1938.
Many tend to position liberal democracy and its inherent values as the antidote to fascist tendencies, just as they consider the same system to be inherently opposed to the narrative and the promises of fascism. The values expressed in fascism are framed as the antithesis of democracy, and it is stressed that it is the failure to uphold the values of democracy that inevitably will lead to fascism.
Liberal democracy is the clothing we put on to hide the obscene nature of the body exposed, so to speak. When the actualized brutality and obscenity that is necessary to uphold liberal democracy is revealed, such as the violence recently witnessed at Standing Rock, it is demonstrated for all to see that the emperor is wearing no clothes.
In that moment, liberal democracy is then maintained and upheld by the portion of the populace that continues to praise the emperor on the beauty of his garments.
“The system is broken,” they say, when the actual truth is that the system is being exposed for its true and brutal nature, momentarily stripped of all its trappings and distractions.
It is in those moments that fascism and anti-capitalist leftism are actually in agreement, united in contradiction to the liberal democratic narrative, that in fact the system is working exactly as intended. The fascist praises and encourages the mechanics of empire as a justified means to an end, while the leftist argues that the means do not justify the ends and that the only ethical response is to abolish the system altogether.
When the lies of liberal democracy are exposed for what they are, when the child comes forth and finally points out to the crowd that the emperor is naked, it is the narrative of either the fascist or the leftist that holds the potential power to define what is accepted as reality.
Which side actually gains power in that moment is dependent on many factors, but among the strongest factors is the ability of their respective narratives to capture the imagination.
Logical arguments do not hold much sway in those moments. Instead it is a matter of which side wins the hearts and minds of the masses.
Absurdity and Spectacle
The spectacle cannot be understood as an abuse of the world of vision, as a product of the techniques of mass dissemination of images. It is, rather, a Weltanschauung which has become actual, materially translated. It is a world vision which has become objectified. 6. The spectacle grasped in its totality is both the result and the project of the existing mode of production. It is not a supplement to the real world, an additional decoration. It is the heart of the unrealism of the real society.
— Guy Debord, ‘The Society of the Spectacle’
While most corporations and retailers used Black Friday as a way to convince people to buy tangible items at rock-bottom prices, the folks at Cards Against Humanity had a different idea.
They decided to dig a literal hole in the ground for three days straight, with an appeal to the public to pay for the digging by the minute. They had a live video feed of the hole, and a running tally that looked no different from any other crowdfunding campaign.
Despite its absurdity, the stunt resonated with people on several levels, not only as a commentary on consumerism and the existential bleakness of the modern day, but as a painful and arguably hilarious example of what people were willing to actually spend money on. Excerpted from the website’s FAQ:
What do I get for contributing money to the hole?
A deeper hole. What else are you going to buy, an iPod?
Why aren’t you giving all this money to charity?
Why aren’t YOU giving all this money to charity? It’s your money.
What if you dig so deep you hit hot magma?
At least then we’d feel something.
In the same country where thousands are dying on the streets without aid and thousands more are suffering from lack of medical care, after three days, the ‘holiday hole’ brought in over $100,000. As has been shown countless times before this one, the plight of the suffering has nothing on the draw and the temptation of the spectacle.
Aside from the obvious resonance in terms of the current sociopolitical climate, my first thought was of Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies showering Wall Street with dollar bills and then laughing while the hapless traders on the floor abandoned their tasks in order to scramble for every dollar, disrupting the machine of capitalism with the very substance that fuels it.
While such tactics and stunts owe an certain debt to the situationists and the idea of the spectacle, its important to recognize that the theatrical tactics of the American ‘New Left’ were arguably responsible for replacing and displacing the last vestiges of actualized radical struggle in the United States. Once political theater became mainstream in terms of both public acceptance as well as expectation, militant tactics were for the most part abandoned by the mostly white, college-educated left in the United States. This eventually led to a massive loss of political power and social capital, which contributed to the rise of neoliberalism and the post-civil rights era conservative movements that now dominate the political landscape and control much of its discourse.
Moreover, the movements and organizations that did not abandon militant radicalism, such as the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement, were left standing alone and subsequently targeted and destroyed from both within and without by the likes of COINTELPRO.
While the humor of such political theater doesn’t lead to direct and actualized change, the potential effect that such humorous spectacles can have on the masses should not be understated. Cards Against Humanity just proved that to the tune of $100,000, and while part of me winces at that reality, another part of me wonders if and how that tendency can be manipulated in favor of a spectacle that creates an actual means to an end.
Towards a New Propaganda
“Propaganda is a soft weapon; hold it in your hands too long, and it will move about like a snake, and strike the other way.”
– Jean Anouilh
We tend to interpret the word ‘propaganda’ as information that is inherently untrustworthy. We refer to “Soviet propaganda” or “anarchist propaganda” with the understanding that those folks likely aren’t telling the ‘truth.’
Historically, propaganda was generally regarded as a neutral force, holding true to its Latin roots. ‘Propaganda’ derives from propagare, meaning ‘to propagate,’ and propaganda was recognized as a powerful weapon that could be wielded in the name of countless agendas. It was only with the rise the phenomenon that Benjamin observed, of authoritarian governments that disseminated mass propaganda through the means of mechanical reproduction in order to manipulate the public in favor of repressive tendencies, that the word took on a permanently negative connotation.
While our tendency is to distrust anything that we consider to be propaganda, we place a rather impressive amount of trust in the great corporate propaganda machine known as advertising. The assumption is that the unsanctioned graffiti or flyer or poster is trying to pull one over on us, but we tend to accept that four out of five dentists recommend Crest without much thought or criticism. We generally grant the benefit of the doubt to the claims made by advertising, despite widespread knowledge of the degree to which that medium is manipulating us.
And yet, just as the only true difference between ‘militarism’ and ‘terrorism’ is legitimatization on the part of the state, the only difference between what we consider to be ‘advertising’ and what is disparaged as ‘propaganda’ or ‘graffiti’ is legitimatization on the part of society and our acquiescence to the various ways in which the state and capital control the commons. Our trust in one over the other is rooted not in fact or substance but in our cultural programming, in our tendency to trust authority.
Those who condemn political graffiti generally do not reserve the same criticism for corporate and/or political advertising, and in that inconsistency they further strengthen the power that capital has over the commons and by extension over our thoughts and our minds.
The ubiquity of advertising in modern society and the tight control of access to that medium and the spaces it inhabits act as a current reflection and confirmation of Benjamin’s observations concerning the effects of the means of reproduction when concentrated in the hands of the few.
While the idea of ‘reclaiming the commons’ is usually centered on occupying public space and ‘commoning’ activities such as community gardens, reclaiming and rewriting the messages that currently define the modern commons is an overlooked and necessary component of creating a narrative that has the potential to challenge that of the status quo.
If fascism relies on the aestheticization of politics, fascism needs to be fought by politicizing the aesthetic.
Imagine a city where graffiti wasn’t illegal, a city where everybody could draw whatever they liked. Where every street was awash with a million colours and little phrases. Where standing at a bus stop was never boring. A city that felt like a party where everyone was invited, not just the estate agents and barons of big business. Imagine a city like that and stop leaning against the wall – it’s wet.
Alley Valkyrie is an writer, artist, and spirit worker currently living in Rennes, France. She is one of the co-founders of Gods&Radicals and has been interacting with a wide assortment of both gods and radicals for nearly twenty years now. When she’s not talking to rivers and cats or ranting about capitalism, she is usually engaged in a variety of other projects. She can also be supported on Patreon.
After a longstanding stranglehold on the political system, the two major parties are quickly disintegrating. Arising from those ruins are three presidential candidates:
A charismatic far-right candidate, originally thought to be a long shot before gaining huge support by openly espousing fascist ideals and consistently dog-whistling to racists and nationalists,
A centrist candidate, trying desperately (but failing) to downplay various ties and allegiances to the current system,
A leftist candidate, first thought to have no chance whatsoever, who ‘out of nowhere’ has inspired a huge movement of followers, whose sudden surge in the polls, threatens the chances of the centrist (who was thought to be a shoo-in.)
It sounds like the United States in the summer of 2016. And it is, for the most part, save for the fact that Bernie Sanders is only really a “leftist” by American standards. But what I am describing above isn’t the United States last summer, but instead what is happening in France on the eve of the first round of the 2017 French presidential elections.
The similarities between the two scenarios are striking, but what is also just as striking are the differences.
* * * * *
Similar to the American system, the French political system is often referred to as a “two-party” system; unlike in the United States, the parties in France have gone through various manifestations, alliances, and name changes. But for many decades now, the winner of Presidential elections in France have come from either the Republican Party (the dominant center-right party) or the Socialist Party (the dominant center-left party).
While the American political system (both in terms of structure as well as maneuvering on the part of the corporate powers that control it) allows little to no power or voice for any other than the two major parties, France uses a parliamentary system in which power-sharing is built into the structure, allowing smaller parties with much less power to also participate.
This is evident in the composition of the legislatures in the two countries, but in light of the current presidential election cycle in France and the presidential election cycle that recently concluded in the United States, it’s also important to note how this manifests in the participation in presidential debates.
In the United States, any third-party candidate who wishes to participate in presidential debates faces many barriers. Over the years, numerous third-party candidates have been excluded from the presidential debates on account of not polling at high enough numbers to qualify. Last summer, once the major candidates were decided through the primary system, the presidential debates only included the candidates from the Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, and Green Parties, despite the fact that there were nearly two dozen candidates running for President of the United States.
On the other hand, in the French presidential debate held last week, otherwise known as Le Grand Débat, there were eleven candidates on stage debating each other in front of a national audience. Of those eleven candidates, three of them were overtly anti-capitalist. The candidates were as follows:
Emmanuel Macron, from En Marche! (On the Move), a centrist party founded by Macron which claims to represent ideas from both the Left and Right.
Marine Le Pen, from the Front National, a far-right party founded four decades ago by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Benoît Hamon, from the Parti Socialiste, the center-left party of France’s current President, François Hollande.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, from La France Insourmise (Unsubmissive France), a new left party founded by Mélenchon last year, formerly of the Parti de Gauche, which was also founded by Mélenchon nearly a decade earlier.
Nicholas Dupont-Aignan, from Debout la France (Arise France), a right-wing party which he founded in 1999.
Nathalie Arthaud, of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle), a Trotskyist party that traces its roots back to 1939.
François Asselineau, of the Union Populaire Républicaine, a right-wing nationalist party that advocates a strong anti-EU stance and was founded by Asselineau in 2009.
Jean Lassalle, of Resistons!, a centrist party that he founded last year which concentrates on rural issues.
As an American, it is inconceivable to me that we would ever witness a presidential debate in which not only one, but three separate candidates were not only avowed anti-capitalists but openly identified as Marxists or Communists. And yet, in France, such a scenario is de rigueur.
* * * * *
Unlike American elections, there are potentially two rounds of voting in the French presidential elections. In the first round, voters have a choice between all listed candidates. Assuming that no single candidate accumulates more than 50% of the total vote, the top two candidates then face off in a second round of voting a few weeks later. This year, the first round of elections is being held on April 23rd, and the second round will take place on May 7.
Under this structure, voters are free to vote for the candidate that they actually prefer, as opposed to being stuck in the ethical quandary that so many American voters find themselves in, such as in the last election where “a vote for Jill Stein is a vote for Trump.” And historically, once the first round is over, the supporters as well as the parties of the candidates that do not advance align with each other as a coalition in order to defeat the candidate which poses the greatest threat to their beliefs and positions.
While political commentators and the public alike have assumed for months that no candidate would amass 50% of the vote and that the runoff would consist of Marine Le Pen versus either François Fillon or Emmanuel Macron, in the past few weeks the popularity and accompanying polling numbers of Jean-Luc Mélenchon have surged. This is in large part to the effects of Le Grand Débat, where Mélenchon arguably outperformed all of the other candidates while Le Pen, Fillon, and Macron were seen as performing poorly.
Similar to the rise of Bernie Sanders in the American primaries during the summer of 2016, the supporters of Jean-Luc Mélenchon are quickly mobilizing with the realization that their candidate has a chance to pull an upset. But unlike in the American system, the major parties in France do not have the opportunity or ability to suppress that surge.
Adding to the chances of Mélenchon’s success is the fact that France has strict broadcast rules requiring that equal time be given to all candidates and all views. While such laws exist in theory in the United States, in reality there are so many exceptions that the law holds no real strength. However, in France, where the law is strictly enforced to the point where dozens of government employees monitor all television stations and measure the amount of time given to each candidate to the second, the equal time law has allowed Mélenchon to reach a national audience in a manner that a candidate like Bernie Sanders could have only dreamed of.
Marine Le Pen
The candidate that has gotten the most attention by far, both in France as well as internationally, is Marine Le Pen, who within the course of a few years has transformed the Front National from a formerly fringe party into a mainstream contender.
The Front National (FN), founded in 1972 by Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, is rooted mainly in a rejection in the values of the French Revolution and a deep anger over Charles de Gaulle granting independence to Algeria after the conclusion of the Algerian War, in which Le Pen was directly involved. Throughout most of its history, the FN has been openly anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, fascist, anti-immigrant, and isolationist. In the nearly forty years in which Jean-Marie Le Pen ran the FN, he was prosecuted several times by both French and German courts for Holocaust denial, incitement of hatred against Muslims, and a physical assault against Socialist presidential candidate Annette Peulvast-Bergeal in 1997.
When Le Pen stepped down from FN leadership in 2011, his daughter Marine was elected as FN’s new leader. Marine Le Pen quickly began to soften the image of the FN, obscuring the far-right views that were a hallmark of the FN in more neutral rhetoric in order to garner greater public support. This strategy culminated in her expelling her own father from the party in the fall of 2015 after further controversial statements regarding WWII. Since the expulsion of her father, Marine Le Pen’s popularity and her public profile has greatly increased.
Marine Le Pen’s strategy closely echoed the same strategy that the Republican Party of the United States embarked upon four decades earlier, cloaking its formerly overt racist rhetoric and reframing those views into policy positions that had the same effect in practice but on the surface were racially neutral. And the effects of those strategies mirror each other in the present day, where the mainstream success and support of such positions is in large part dependent on the ability to deny the inherent racism.
Le Pen’s FN is also quickly filling a vacuum created by the simultaneous crises that have befallen the mainstream political parties. France’s current president, François Hollande of the Socialist Party, is the first president in the history of the Fifth Republic to not seek a second term. Hollande’s popularity has plummeted in the past few years, in part due to the fallout from the intensely unpopular labor reforms (Loi travail) that he attempted to push through the French legislature last year, which was perceived as a massive betrayal of the leftist base that was responsible for his victory in 2012. By the end of 2016, with an approval rating hovering around 4%, he announced that he would not seek re-election, and Benoît Hamon nabbed the nomination a few months later after defeating current Prime Minister Manuel Valls in the primaries, whose popularity also greatly suffered in the aftermath of the Loi travail.
Even by French standards, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s platform and proposals are somewhat radical. He is calling for a 100% income tax on those who make more than 360,000€ a year, an expansion of the already generous French welfare state, a reduction of the work-week to 32 hours from its current 35 hours, a withdrawal from NATO, and a voter referendum on France’s membership in the European Union.
And perhaps his most radical proposal of them all, Mélenchon is calling to abolish the Fifth Republic altogether, on the grounds that it is inherently corrupt beyond repair, and to start anew with a Sixth Republic founded on principals much more reflective of Marxism and direct democracy.
Another of Mélenchon’s more striking proposals is a proposition to establish a maximum wage scenario. From Mélenchon’s website (translated):
“I propose to do away with these indecent “rewards”! For this, I propose to act and not just wait for self-limitation and other well-known ethical codes! How? By fixing by law a maximum wage. That is to say, a maximum difference between the lowest wage and the highest wage in a company. I propose to fix this maximum difference at twenty times the lowest salary. This measure was implemented in Ecuador by President Correa. I mention that in France, in the social and solidarity economy, such a principle already exists and allows only a gap of one to seven. But note the arrogance of the caste which overwhelms those who demand a raise of the SMIC (minimum wage) while defending its own. For the powerful, the wages of the young are always too high.
So I suggest beating them at their own game and returning the argument to them. With my proposal for a maximum salary, if Carlos Ghosn wants to earn 7.2 million euros for his role as CEO of Renault, he will be able to. But on one condition: he must increase the employees of Renault so that the least paid makes 360,000 euros per year or 30,000 euros per month! If Carlos Tavares wants to earn 5.2 million euros a year, the board of directors will be able to decide this way. Provided that the lowest paid employee of PSA is paid 260,000 euros per year or 21,000 euros per month!”
* * * * *
While Jean-Luc Mélenchon has surged post-debates, the mainstream candidates have stumbled. Marine Le Pen found herself the subject of great controversy last week after publicly stating that the French were “not responsible” for the infamous ‘Velodrome d’Hiver’ deportation of 1942 in which French police rounded up approximately 13,000 Jews in and around Paris, the vast majority of whom were then sent to Auschwitz and murdered in the camp. The comments were widely interpreted as echoes of the FN’s stance during her father’s reign, and signaled to many that the FN has not distanced itself from such beliefs nearly as much as Le Pen has tried to portray.
Meanwhile, François Fillon has been mired in controversy over multiple financial scandals, both allegedly misusing public funds to pay his wife and daughter as government employees, as well as for failing to disclose a 50,000€ loan in violation of French law. And last month, Emmanuel Macron, who has been trying desperately to appeal to both the left and right as a centrist candidate, managed to alienate many supporters on both sides within a matter of days. He infuriated much of his right-wing base by publicly proclaiming that he believed France’s colonial rule in Algeria to be a “crime against humanity,” and then offended many on the left after voicing support for those opposed to gay marriage.
As it stands at this moment, it’s truly anyone’s election. And regardless of how it plays out in the end, the results will likely shake up France to the core and reverberate for years to come.
Alley Valkyrie is an writer, artist, and spirit worker currently living in Rennes, France. She is one of the co-founders of Gods&Radicals and has been interacting with a wide assortment of both gods and radicals for nearly twenty years now. When she’s not talking to rivers and cats or ranting about capitalism, she is usually engaged in a variety of other projects. She can also be supported on Patreon.
Last January, a group of armed white ‘patriots’ overtook the Malheur Wildlife Refuge located on unceded Paiute land in eastern Oregon. They illegally occupied it for over a month in order to protest various grievances against the government, including the conviction of two ranchers who had set fires on federal land. They successfully drew attention to their cause, as well as their anti-government ideology, one that seeks to privatize “public lands” held by the federal government.
This ‘occupation’ took place 173 years to the month after the land’s rightful occupants were forcibly marched off the land to a reservation in Washington State. After 41 days. the occupiers were arrested and jailed on federal charges that included conspiracy and firearms violations.
Throughout the occupation, federal, state, and local law enforcement had adopted a hands-off policy, to the point of meeting with the occupiers and allowing them free rein of the neighboring areas without interference. This approach was a sharp contrast when compared to how law enforcement has historically treated Black armed militia movements, as well as leftist and anti-capitalist protest movements such as Occupy. Contrast was also painfully evident when compared to the issues highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement, and the reality of how Black people are currently treated by law enforcement, armed or not.
Three months later, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe established a camp on reservation land in North Dakota in order to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. This pipeline is to be built through Sioux land, and would directly threaten both water sources and sacred sites. The camp grew steadily over the next several months, and by late September there were thousands of resisters from all over the country camped across several sites.
Like the Malheur protesters, the Standing Rock protesters also maintain that the land in question does not belong to the federal government. They both also insist that the federal government does not have authority to control the usage of the land. But unlike the Malheur protesters, who tend to use ‘free market’ and ‘sovereign’ arguments to justify their right to public land, the Sioux’s argument is based on treaty rights and ancestral possession. Their claim to the land is not based on settler entitlement or capitalist ideology, but on the fact that it has always been their land, and that they have a sacred duty to protect it.
As the Standing Rock protests progressed and strengthened, the police repression intensified, and over the past several weeks there has been a series of brutalities and arrests. This repression built up to a law enforcement offensive on October 27th, where police used tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets in order to clear protesters from a specific area, arresting 141 people in the process.
On that same day, October 27th, the Malheur occupiers were found “not guilty” by a jury of their peers, cleared of all federal charges against them. The timing and contrast between the violence wrought against the Standing Rock protesters and the acquittal of the Malheur occupants exposed what many interpreted as a “flaw” in the system. Most focused on white privilege as the sole reason for both the Bundy acquittal and the disparities in treatment between the Malheur occupiers and the Standing Rock protesters.
Race is undeniably a factor in these disparities. However, in focusing solely on race, one fails to account for the role that capitalism and state power also play in the differing treatment, especially when it comes to state violence. In that regard, Standing Rock has commonality with Black Lives Matter: the level of repression experienced by both groups is not only due to both historical and current systematic racism by the police, but is also influenced by why they are protesting in the first place in relation to capitalism.
Ammon Bundy, the leader of the Malheur occupation, is the son of Cliven Bundy, a successful cattle rancher who grazes his cattle on unceded Paiute land in Nevada. His father has been engaged in a longstanding dispute with the federal government for well over two decades over grazing fees on land that neither party has a legitimate claim to. The federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) holds title to the land, but Cliven Bundy maintains that the land belongs to the state, not the federal government, and that BLM does not have authority to collect grazing fees. This specific stance is based on the one of the core beliefs of the sovereign citizens movement – the idea that the federal government has little to no authority and that local law supersedes federal law in most instances.
The dispute culminated in an armed standoff between federal agents and militiamen rallying behind Bundy’s cause over an attempted cattle seizure, an incident in which federal agents relented and returned the cattle. This militia ‘victory’ over the government strengthened and legitimized the Bundys’ movement, and empowered many of those who then went on to occupy the Malheur refuge. The recent acquittal of the ‘patriots’ who occupied the Malheur refuge further serves to legitimize their positions and ideology.
While the Malheur occupiers and patriot movements in the West position themselves as anti-establishment, heroes of the working man who is sick of government overreach, that does not change the fact that much of their beliefs and ideologies are aligned with those of the ruling classes and the State itself. They are in favor of privatizing and selling off public land in the name of profit, a position which is of great benefit to numerous subsets of business and industry.
If the patriot movement were to succeed in their goal regarding land rights, it’s not the working man who would benefit: rather, it’s big business. The growth of the patriot movement, and the increasing adoption of their ideology is of great benefit to all of those who wish to privatize the vast amounts of BLM land throughout the West for profit, whether it be cattle ranchers or mineral and oil prospectors.
Although the patriot movement panders—and widely appeals—to the working class, the Bundys themselves have much more in common with the upper classes. Ammon Bundy may dress like a rancher, but he’s a businessman, owning several companies in Arizona including a car fleet. Cliven Bundy is also a successful businessman, and much of his wealth has been dependent on subsidies from the very government he opposes. Even before he refused to pay his grazing fees, the percentage he was paying the government was a fraction of the fees charged by owners of privately held lands.
Bundy benefits from the same types of corporate welfare that so much of the ruling class depends on to further inflate their wealth.
Profit is also central to the Standing Rock protests, but this time the protesters are not fighting in the name of profit but are instead indirectly fighting to impede it. The Dakota Access Pipeline is a $3.7 billion dollar project that will then enrich the profits of oil companies for many years to come once it is completed. While the opposition to the pipeline is rooted in water rights and protections of sacred land, the protests themselves are a disruption of the capitalist machine and a victory would be an even greater blow.
To oppose the pipeline is to stand in the way of enormous profits, profits that benefit the State as well as capitalism itself.
Beyond the direct and actual economic impact, the differences in the overlying ideologies that frame the two scenarios also play a role. The patriot movement is a movement in favor of dismantling the commons in the name of profit. They seek the right to declare and enforce private property rights on land that theoretically belongs to the “public.” Their interests may be personal, but enclosing and selling off the commons is an essential function of capitalism.
Any and all attempts to protect or restore the commons is a potential threat to profits. Movements that fight for the commons are acting in direct contradiction with the needs and logic of capital. The indigenous-led movement opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline is explicitly fighting to maintain clean water and protect the commons on behalf of the people. They also speak of ‘sovereignty’, but the meaning of that for them is based in community and collective sustenance, as opposed to the ideology of individualism. The desire for profit is not a factor in their resistance. Their resistance is based in their very survival.
It is not just the physical and economic effects of the resistance that are a threat to capitalism. The collective power and shared values that tie the pipeline resisters together—and the deepening of those values and connections over time as they continue their resistance—is an egregoric threat to capitalism in itself. This is true even when completely detached from the actualized impact of the protest, which also potentially factors into the disproportionate government response. As can be seen from the violence against the labor movement to the Black Panthers or Occupy, the modern State has a long and detailed history of enacting violence against and attempting to destroy movements that seek to dismantle capitalism and/or challenge the social order.
The contrasting values of the two areas of land are also an important factor in terms of the urgency of the state response. The Malheur refuge, while “valuable” for reasons related to environment and biodiversity, is not of value to capitalism in its current state as a federally protected area. The occupation of the property, regardless of who had been occupying it, was not affecting anyone’s profits on a significant level, as the land itself does not and cannot create potential income. The occupation of such a parcel may be an inconvenience for law enforcement and a drain on public funds, but its not a threat to profit or the capitalist machine as a whole – at least not at this point. But it is the very fact that places like the Malheur refuge cannot be exploited in the name of capital which is what the Bundys and their followers seek to change.
Unlike the lack of profit value of the wildlife refuge, the land in the path of the Dakota Access Pipeline is indescribably valuable, especially to those who stand to profit of the building and operation of the project. In response to the growing protests, the corporations behind the Dakota Access Pipeline have been openly calling on the federal government to protect their “property rights,” calls which have been answered on multiple occasions in the form of police violence. The pipeline’s parent company stated that it was working with police in order to clear the camp just prior to the October 27th arrests.
The stark difference in the way that law enforcement treated the Malheur occupiers and the protesters at Standing Rock should not come as a surprise, but merely as a confirmation that the purpose of law enforcement is not to “protect and serve” the “people,” but instead to protect and serve the interest and the property of the ruling class. The more valuable any given piece of property is to either business or The State, the more violently it will be defended by that business or that state.
The response to the Standing Rock Protests taps into a much deeper wound, being the latest in a long and painful history of the federal government forcing Native people off their rightful land in the name of economic expansion and progress. It is a repetition of the very primitive accumulation and accompanying violence which founded the colonial settlement that became America. It is also the continuation of a struggle on the part of indigenous communities that has yet to cease since the first European contact.
These disparities between how the Malheur occupiers were treated and the Standing Rock protesters were treated is not a result of a “flaw” in the system. If anything, what is being witnessed is that the system is responding so rapidly and so effectively that it can no longer mask its intentions or its contradictions. That exposure is in turn feeding an ever-increasing awareness amongst the masses as to how racism and state violence actually function. It’s also exposing the futility of reform.
Racism and private property rights are two of the most vital necessities in order for capitalism to function. Whether it’s Black Lives Matter bringing attention to police violence and systemic discrimination, or it’s the Standing Rock protesters bringing attention to illegal takings and the need to protect the commons, the police violence used against them will always be disproportionately severe when compared to those whose grievances and actions, even if illegal, do not challenge the interests or mechanics of capital.
Alley Valkyrie is a social activist, writer, artist, and spirit-worker living in the Pacific Northwest. She currently divides her time between Portland and Eugene. Alley has spent the past several years working with homeless and impoverished populations in Oregon. She is also a freelance visual artist and photographer, and produces a clothing line called Practical Rabbit. She is a co-founder of Gods&Radicals.
Pagan Anarchism, as well as our other great publications, can be ordered here.
According to the United Nations, there are currently more displaced people on the planet than at any other time in recorded history. Nearly sixty million people have fled or have been driven from their homes on account of war, violence, political destabilization, or severe economic conditions, compared to around 38 million a decade ago. 1 out of every 122 humans on this planet is currently a refugee, and 9 out of 10 of them are in regions considered to be underdeveloped by international standards. While the Syrian war is currently the largest contributor to such displacement, displaced people hail from every corner of the world, from Haiti to Pakistan to Senegal to Colombia.
More than half of the world’s sixty million refugees are children.
“you only run for the border when
you see the whole city running as well…”
Refugees flooded into Europe in record numbers last year, comprising the largest influx of migrants from outside the European continent in modern times. While the majority of refugees fled from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, they came from every corner of the world; from Haiti, Mali, Senegal, Eritrea, Pakistan. The vast majority of them landed on Greek shores, but they also flooded into Hungary, Italy, and Turkey, desperately hoping to eventually reach Northern Europe.
They are fleeing civil wars, sectarian conflicts, and widespread poverty caused by both natural disasters and social forces. They are leaving their homes, their ancestral villages, and their families, with many never to return, risking their lives in an attempt to reached a promised land of safety that in reality is often quite harsh and unwelcoming. While the conflicts and tragedies that drive them from their homelands are varied in both complication and scope, nearly all are bound by the common roots of imperialism and colonialism.
In response to this “migrant crisis,” the affected countries of the European Union (mind you, the very same countries that have financially benefited for centuries off the same imperialist meddling that is at the root of the current conflicts) have recently moved to close borders, restrict free movement, and otherwise thwart the attempts of the refugees from reaching Northern Europe.
The rhetoric employed by both government and media throughout Europe in order to justify these actions follows the same tried-and-true scare tactic formula that immigration foes have effectively used throughout recent history: dire warnings that the migrants will “game the system,” “refuse to assimilate,” “steal jobs,” as well as contribute to “moral decline” on account of their differing “culture” and “values.”
American lawmakers and media personalities have also similarly politicized the refugee crisis, using both the aforementioned rhetoric as well as fears of “terrorism” in order to turn an easily manipulated populace against the idea of supporting refugee resettlement in the United States.
Their tactics are no different from the rhetoric of a century ago, even two centuries ago. The exact same dire warnings were once used by American “settlers” against the Irish, and later the Italians, Chinese, Greeks, Portuguese, Hungarians and Jews. Nowadays they are used against immigrants from both Latin America and the Middle East. And both then and now, such arguments only further benefit the ruling class at the expense of the oppressed.
“go home blacks,
dirty immigrants, asylum seekers,
sucking our country dry
…messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up…”
But while this rhetoric negatively affects the level and effectiveness of humanitarian efforts, it obviously does nothing to stem the tide of people fleeing their homelands. Well over a million refugees flooded into and moved through Europe last year, comprising the largest influx of migrants from outside the European continent in modern times.
“the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off…”
A hundred years ago there were also a million people per year moving through Europe. But instead of risking their lives to reach Greece, Hungary, and Italy, they were risking their lives to migrate from these very countries, in many cases due to sociopolitical conditions very similar to those that are triggering the current migration crisis. They fled war, poverty, natural disaster, starvation, and religious persecution, embarking on perilous voyages across the sea only to arrive in a foreign country that was harsh and unwelcoming, treated them with great prejudice, and often subjected them to severe exploitation.
Where did they flee to, you ask?
They fled to America.
“you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay…”
When it comes to why refugees are currently fleeing Iraq or Syria, the basic answers are readily at the tip of everyone’s tongue. War. Conflict. Terrorism.
But ask the average American why their own ancestors came here, and they tend to respond with either or both of the following vague answers: they either came for “religious freedom” or for “a better life.” And while these answers are not necessarily untrue, they painfully oversimplify and sanitize the myriad of complex factors that triggered massive waves of immigration to America.
Immigration functions as a “push” or “pull” phenomenon: in short, those who migrate from one place to another are either being pushed out of a specific region due to specific negative sociopolitical factors and/or they are being pulled into a specific region due to specific positive factors, factors that frame the belief that immigrating to said region will allow for “a better life.” The standard American narrative around the immigration journey emphasizes and glorifies both the pull of America in terms of its religious freedom and promise of prosperity while stressing the great sacrifices that our ancestors made coming to America.
But what is often overlooked and forgotten in that narrative are the very reasons that so many made such a sacrifice in the first place. The pull factors are stressed, but the push factors that led to large-scale immigration to America are minimized and rarely ever summarized beyond the simple statement of “a better life.” Which then leaves unanswered the specific question of why thirty million people fled Europe over a span of a hundred years for a better life in the first place.
And in ignoring that question, we ignore both our roots as a nation as well as the struggles of our ancestors.
One of the most crucial and yet most overlooked aspects of white American identity is the fact that with very few exceptions, we are all descended at least in part from people who fled from war, persecution, starvation, and/or poverty, and who risked their lives and left everything they knew behind to do so. We categorize them as “immigrants” or “pioneers,” but in reality so many of them were refugees, no less refugees than many of those currently fleeing the Middle East for Western Europe.
“you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land…”
In November of 1913, sixteen year old Sofia Manossadakis arrived on Ellis Island after a three-week journey at sea. Sofia and her three siblings were among nearly a million immigrants that arrived that year, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe. For her, a better life meant the chance to escape the sectarian violence and political instability that had characterized her homeland of Crete for well over two centuries.
The Ottoman Empire took possession of Crete in the mid-1600s after several hundred years under Venetian rule, and the Greek Christian population of Crete spent the next two hundred and fifty years consistently and actively resisting Turkish rule, culminating in several notable revolts and rebellions. From the Daskalogiannis Revolt in 1770 to the numerous Cretan revolts throughout the 1800s, the island was consistently destabilized by violence. Uprisings and riots in the mid-1890s culminated into the Cretan Revolt of 1897, which directly coincided with the Greco-Turkish War being fought on the Greek mainland, a war fought over the possession of Crete. The overlapping of these two conflicts and the resulting violence led to an intervention by the great powers, who declared the Cretan state an autonomous territory under Ottoman suzerainty.
It was also in 1897 that Sofia Manossadakis was born in Livaniana, a tiny settlement high in the mountains of Sfakia on the south-west coast of Crete.
Sfakia had been a stronghold of Christian resistance against the Ottomans since the Daskalogiannis Revolt, which originated in the mountains of Sfakia in 1770 and was brutally suppressed by the Turks. The village of Livaniana itself had lost nearly half its population during the uprisings of 1821, and had suffered further violence in the subsequent uprisings throughout the rest of the century.
By the time Sofia was born, the population of Livaniana as well as the surrounding villages was significantly dwindling, with more and more peasants either fleeing for mainland Greece or risking the voyage to America in order to escape the violence. The autonomous designation of the Cretan state did little to quell the chaos, with sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims breaking out throughout the first decade of the twentieth century. Revolts in 1905 prompted another intervention by the great powers, and the Young Turk Revolution in 1908 prompted Crete to declare union with Greece. The international community refused to recognize the union, triggering yet another series of revolts. A few years later, the Ottoman Turks went to war with Italy over control of Libya and were easily defeated, a defeat which prompted the members of the Balkan League to then declare war on a weakened Ottoman Empire.
It was against this backdrop, with seemingly no end to the violence and hostilities, that Sofia, her two sisters, and her older brother sailed for New York on the RMS Carpathia, which departed for New York from Trieste on November 5, 1913. Their passage was paid with help from their oldest brother, who had established himself in Massachusetts after immigrating a few years earlier and who they planned to reunite with in America. Their parents stayed behind in Crete, never again to see their children.
A little over a week later, while the Manossadakis siblings were partway across the Atlantic, the Greeks and Ottomans signed a treaty officially ending the hostilities between them, at which time the Cretan union with Greece was finally recognized. Only a few days after the Carpathia docked in New York Harbor and Sofia was legally admitted to the United States, the Greek flag was finally raised at Firkas Fortress in Chania, Crete after centuries of struggle.
“no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck…
feeding on newspaper unless the miles traveled
means something more than the journey…”
Nobody will ever know for certain how Manuel Cardozo made his way to America, but by far the most plausible scenario is that he smuggled himself to New England on one of the countless whaling ships that came through the Azores on their way across the Atlantic.
Thousands of Azoreans made their way to port cities in New England via whaling ships in the late 1800s, most notably Bristol, Rhode Island and Fall River, Massachusetts. Those who could leave the Azores freely usually sought employment on the ships in exchange for passage to America, but those who could not leave freely had no choice other than to travel as a stowaway. And Manuel Cardozo could not leave freely.
Uninhabited when claimed by Portugal in the early 1400s, the Azores were first settled by Portuguese prisoners under the direction of Prince Henry the Navigator. “Free” settlers soon followed; peasants from the Algarve and Madeira, Sephardic Jews and New Christians who were expelled from Spain and Portugal under the Catholic monarchs, former Moorish slaves and prisoners exiled from the Portuguese, as well as peasants and merchants who migrated from war-torn Flanders. The islands were established as series of ports serving the Portuguese crown, and for the next five hundred years the Azores were treated similarly to many other colonial possessions in that they served a dual purpose as a source of profit for the mainland and a convenient place to exile the unwanted and dispossessed. The well-being of the peasants themselves was rarely an afterthought.
For the next five hundred years those living on the Azores suffered through poverty, starvation, famine, and a series of wars initiated by both the Spanish and Portuguese crowns. With a terrain inadequate for sustaining the population in even the best conditions, and a land-ownership system that prevented peasants from ever attaining any sort of upwards mobility, many Azoreans started to again migrate beginning in the 1600s, most often to the newly-founded Portuguese colony of Brazil.
Those who stayed continued to suffer for generations, and a series of crop failures combined with natural disasters in the mid-to-late 1800s once again spurred a wave of migration driven by desperation and poverty, this time to the New World. However, while so many of the impoverished and oppressed throughout Western Europe were able to migrate via steamship to Ellis Island, the illiterate peasants of the Azores faced unique barriers to “legal” immigration, given that it was the most impoverished region in Western Europe.
Not only was the cost of and access to a steamship voyage to America financially unfeasible for most Azorean peasants, but males who had yet to complete the mandatory period of military conscription required by the Portuguese government were legally barred from leaving the islands unless they posted the equivalent of $300 as bond, a figure ten times higher than the $30 average steamship passage that was already out of reach for most.
As a result, the whaling ships functioned as the primary means of immigration for Azoreans, whether legal or illegal, whether as employee or stowaway. And at sixteen years old, Manuel Cardozo had every reason to take his chances as a stowaway rather than spend the next four to eight years of his life helping to expand the Portuguese empire only to then to be forced back into a life of ever-worsening poverty and starvation with absolutely no hope for mobility.
Manuel arrived in Bristol, Rhode Island around 1899, established himself and found work amongst the Portuguese community in Bristol, and a few years later married a woman of Portuguese descent who “legally” came to America by way of Hawaii. And despite lifelong illiteracy and a lack of fluency in English, Manuel supported a family of sixteen through hard work and determination, finding employment in factories and second jobs as a night watchman throughout the first half of the twentieth century.
He lived and died as an “illegal alien” in this country, having never received a single benefit throughout his entire life, but his sacrifice and hard work (along with the magical powers of “assimilation” and “whiteness”) ensured that his children and grandchildren had the opportunity to both contribute to and benefit from the “American Dream.”
On one hand, it can be fairly stated that people have been driven off of land through actualized or threatened violence since the beginning of recorded history. But the specific geopolitical and economic forces and conditions that triggered both the colonization of the Americas as well as the eventual push of mass migrations of Europeans to the New World were dependent on a very specific process known as “primitive accumulation.”
Primitive accumulation is the process of seizing land that was previously regarded as commons for the purpose of commodification, a process that first developed in Europe during the Middle Ages and was central to the transition from feudalism to capitalism. In Karl Marx’s words, primitive accumulation was “the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production.” Those displaced producers, generally known as peasants, are then reliant on the market for survival, which tends to force them into urban areas seeking wage-labor jobs, leading to industrialization due to the sudden and enormous pool of desperate workers.
This process, which echoes and repeats clearly and continuously from 12th century Flanders to the effects of NAFTA in the late 1990s, still continues to this day in places such as Nigeria and the Amazon, triggering the same consistent patterns of violence and displacement that have been fueling migration for hundreds of years. Waves of primitive accumulation throughout Western Europe from the 16th to 18th centuries not only drove direct emigration, but also triggered a cascade of socioeconomic conditions that led to later waves of migration, most notable the thirty million immigrants that came to America between 1850 and 1934.
Primitive accumulation also factors prominently in the accumulation of the land the eventually became America in the first place. This accumulation, which came at the price of around 100 million indigenous people, quickly developed into an economic powerhouse due to its investment of 20 million African slaves, which in itself can be seen as another form of primitive accumulation.
Going back even further, it was in fact primitive accumulation that financed the “discovery of America” and sparked the colonial era in the first place.
In the sanitized version of history propagated mainly through American public school textbooks, Christopher Columbus discovered America while sailing under the flag of Spain. This narrative is problematic for many reasons (most of which others have elaborated on much better than I ever could), but aside from its sanitization of details and pro-colonialist framework, it is also most often problematically presented as having occurred in a vacuum.
While such a voyage, whitewashed or not, may have signaled the “birth” of the New World from a European colonial perspective, the voyage occurred at a pivotal moment in European history, standing as a symbolic consummation of a fledgling power that came to be known as Spanish Empire. The rise of that power, a victorious culmination of hundreds of years of warfare, would not have been possible if not for the sudden and consistent influxes of wealth generated through what was arguably the very first instance of what came to be known as primitive accumulation.
In 711 AD, Moorish armies invaded the Iberian peninsula, establishing what would eventually be known as the kingdom of Al-Andalus. Within a decade, the vast majority of the peninsula was under Muslim rule, and the various Christian kingdoms in Iberia spent nearly eight hundred years fighting to reclaim Iberian territory from the Moors.
This campaign, known as the Reconquista, gained strength in the 9th century with the alleged discovery of the remains of St. James in Galicia, transported and then enshrined in a town that came to be known as Santiago de Compostela. This discovery sparked a pilgrimage route through northern Spain that quickly became the most popular medieval pilgrimage route through Europe. The influx of pilgrims across what became known as the Way of St. James was of both financial and social benefit to the Christian kingdoms of northern Spain, who were able to strengthen their position and finance further mercenary armies to reconquer Iberia from the Moors.
The Moors, meanwhile, had imported merino sheep from North Africa into Iberia, and as the kingdom of Castile gradually retook land from the Muslim kingdom, the Christian aristocracy recognized the potential for merino wool as a lucrative cash crop that could reliably fund the Reconquista.
Common lands throughout Castile were then seized for the purpose of sheep grazing. The Castilian crown quickly prospered and amassed significant wealth due to the demand for wool in northern Europe at the expense of the peasantry who were displaced en masse and left to starve. Unlike the later cycles of primitive accumulation that affected England, there were no industrialized cities desperate for exploitable wage labor for the peasants of Iberia to flee to. In many circumstances, the only viable (and bitterly ironic) alternative to starvation for Iberian peasants was to join the very armies that were funded by the commodification of the lands they once lived on.
By the mid-1300s, the crown of Castile controlled the majority of the Iberian peninsula, and a hundred years later the marriage of Isabella of Castile to Ferdinand of Aragon created a consolidation of power that would bear fruit in 1479 when Ferdinand succeeded his late father as king. The combined union of the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon then successfully conquered the last Muslim kingdom of Granada thirteen years later, in January of 1492.
It was only weeks after the fall of Granada in 1492 that the court of the kingdom of Castile agreed to finance Columbus’ voyage. Columbus had been presenting his case to the Spanish court for a few years at that point, but the completion of the Reconquista meant that the profits from Castilian wool were no longer needed to fund armies and mercenaries. That wealth could now be used to fund “exploration” with the purpose of acquiring further wealth.
And so as peasants faced the choice of migration, starvation, or conscription while sheep comfortably grazed on their former lands, Columbus set sail for what he thought would be the Indies financed by the profits derived from those sheep. The voyage, as we know, did not lead him to the Indies, but instead he landed on the shores of an island known to its Taino inhabitants as Guanahani.
The Italian explorer and his crew expressed their gratefulness towards Taino hospitality by committing horrifying atrocities against the Tainos and by seizing several Tainos as slaves that they then took back with them to Spain, an action repeated by Columbus on subsequent voyages, as well as by Amerigo Vespucci a few years later. By the time Columbus left what was by then called Hispaniola for the last time, the Taino population had been reduced from eight million to less than 100,000. Not long after, slaves from other islands had to be imported to Hispaniola from other possessions of the Spanish crown as the native Taino population had been decimated by murder and exploitation to the point of extermination.
The taking of both land and slaves for the sole purpose of exploitation and profit eventually progressed into the accumulating genocidal force that we know today as global imperialism, and those takings are the foundation on which the United States was built.
A hundred years after immigration peaked at Ellis Island, the New World that once provided a remedy for the intertwined issues of land and scarcity in Europe is now the epicenter of an end-stage crisis that is a direct continuation of the same cycle that produced America in the first place.
The crisis is most often coded in the languages of development, policy, and economics, deliberately isolating it from its historical roots or patterns, but it is neither a new process nor one confined to the terrain of cities or the field of urban planning. While one was obviously a much more physically violent and bloody process, especially on American soil, overall there is little difference between the mechanisms of gentrification in America and those of colonization as a whole. The specific modes and methods of violence and oppression differ greatly, but both are processes sparked by the intertwining forces of scarcity, commodification, and speculative profit, the same processes that have been driving displacement and migration for centuries and that forced so many of our ancestors to leave their homelands for the New World.
In turn, several generations after the completion of the massive land grab that was America, the descendants of that massive wave of immigrants are now learning the hard way that the limits of the “American Dream” are congruent with the physical limits of available, affordable and viable land. But unlike a century ago, this time there is no viable pull, no newly colonized landmass for the current crop of landless peasants to settle on and continue the cycle of oppression.
In the fall of 2007, I sold nearly everything I owned, packed what I had left into my van, and drove across the country from New York City to Oregon. I had little to no connections in Oregon, no job prospects, and no concrete plan on how I would survive. But despite these unknowns, I knew that the possibilities that lay before me on the other side of the country still held more promise than what I was leaving behind.
I was an economic migrant, driven from NYC at the height of late-stage gentrification. I could not find an affordable piece of land to live on, which forced me to leave my “homeland” in order to seek out “a better life” on the West Coast where land was not as scarce and in demand.
I was the first American-born member of my direct lineage to make such a journey. Neither my parents nor my grandparents ever needed to migrate for socioeconomic reasons, as the privileges we call whiteness, assimilation, and citizenship allowed them to generate wealth and stability through the American Dream of property ownership. But my journey into adulthood was congruent with what’s now been referred to for at least two decades as an “affordability crisis,” and property ownership is now out of reach for a significant portion of my generation due to a manufactured scarcity of viable housing.
This scarcity of available and viable places to live combined with job scarcity and depressed wages has not only led to a newly proletarianized white middle class (in as much as the opportunity to generate wealth through land ownership has been newly denied to them), but it has also led to widespread migrations from economically saturated urban areas as a result of inflated housing prices. And those migrations inevitably result in triggering the cycle of gentrification in the areas that they settle.
A decade later, three thousand miles from my homeland, I myself am a part of and am witnessing this very effect. The same cycle of gentrification that drove me from New York a decade ago has now thrown my adopted home of Portland in crisis, erasing any potential of a better life in terms of economic security. And yet, despite this crisis, I am still in an infinitely safer position than some of my fellow economic migrants, whose lack of privilege in contrast to my own has resulted in their being forced to exist in some of the most dangerous and squalid conditions imaginable.
* * *
Across the street from my building in downtown Portland, a homeless camp slowly but steadily formed over the past several months. While homeless camps have been sprouting up with frequency throughout America for at least a decade now, the growth of a camp literally in my front yard in tandem with the growing refugee crisis in Europe made the similarities and shared causes and circumstances impossible to ignore.
In technical terms, “refugee” is reserved for displaced people who cross a border seeking refuge. Those who do not cross a border but are still displaced are referred to the UN as “internally displaced persons.” And while the UN may not categorize the ever-growing population of homeless in the United States as internally displaced persons in terms of their reports and statistics, there is little difference between the sociopolitical forces that produced the camp across the street and the sociopolitical forces that produce many refugee camps around the world. Once we strip away the specific signifiers (“homeless,” “bums,” “travelers,” etc.) that we use in our culture in order to characterize them, they are simply landless peasants, displaced persons, economic refugees and migrants.
One of the great myths that drives homeless policy on the municipal level in the United States is the belief that the majority of homeless people in any given area are not actually local but from somewhere else, and that they migrated to the city in question because it’s somehow better for homeless people there than wherever they came from. Often presented as incontestable truth by both local politicians and business owners, the myth is used as a justification for not funding services or shelters, as it is stressed that doing so will “enable” and “attract” these supposed masses of migrants from elsewhere.
That this idea is myth as opposed to truth is incontestable: federal data consistently shows that the majority of homeless persons within any given urban area are local to at least the county if not the city itself. And yet this myth is still consistently and successfully wielded as a weapon as it serves the ruling class on multiple levels. Not only does it exploit the same fear-of-others tendency that is also central to anti-immigrant rhetoric, the myth also serves to placate and flatter the citizenry and to create a false impression of economic stability within the community. By positioning the community at issue as a “draw,” the myth reinforces the idea that the community is such a desirable place to live that homeless folks would travel from all over the country to take advantage of the quality of life that the taxpayers enjoy, as well as create the false assumption that poverty is not a severe issue in their community.
If the visibly poor are conveniently regarded as being from elsewhere, denying and/or hiding the severity of poverty in any given community becomes much less of a challenge. Poverty itself becomes the other.
Such inaction, combined with criminalization, only exacerbates the problem of homelessness. While the federal government estimates around 600,000 homeless people currently living in the United States, that number is widely regarded as a dramatic undercount due to the federal government’s narrow definition of homeless combined with a significantly flawed data collection process. When the definition of homeless is expanded enough to include those living in cars, motels, and those who are temporarily living with family and friends, the number of American displaced persons and economic refugees rises to well over eight million people.
Though not (yet) as severe in its scope, the “homeless crisis” is to present-day America what the “refugee crisis” is to present-day Europe, and the myth of the other, the “migrant” seeking to “take advantage” of local communities echoes with eerie similarity throughout the politics and rhetoric around both crises and across two continents. And of course, that rhetoric is no different from the rhetoric that so many of our ancestors in America once faced.
It is for these reasons that I can’t walk past the camp without thinking simultaneously of the refugee camps of Europe, of my own economic migration, of the journeys of my own ancestors, and of the cycles of accumulation and displacement that lies the root of all of it.
“It is the basic contradiction in our entire history as a nation. The first European settlers who landed on these shores saw themselves as creating a great new experiment in democratic government. Yet they were enslaving a whole population of human beings, Africans, and committing genocide against the indigenous peoples of North America. As a nation, we have never really dealt with this contradiction. We’ve only picked around the edges of it.” – Anne Braden
On one hand, I am undeniably a child of empire, born and raised on unceded Lenape land that colonial occupiers renamed “New Jersey” after driving the Munsee out in the 1600s. I am a product of the same American Dream that is theoretically afforded to everyone under the protection of this empire, and despite my lack of access to land ownership I am the recipient of an immeasurable amount of privilege purely on account of my European ancestry.
On the other hand, while raised in relative stability as the descendant of two generations’ worth of landowners, once I step back any further in my family line I am a descendant of refugees and illegals. And those ancestors, who suffered through war and poverty before leaving everything behind to come to America, were in turn descended from countless generations of landless and exploited peasants.
It is variations of this contradiction that most white Americans cannot escape, the often coterminous roles of oppressed and oppressor. And in facing that contradiction we also must face our ethical obligations and closely examine our actions and attitudes towards both historic and present victims of oppression. For whether it’s the homeless already in our back yards, or the refugees risking their lives to reach our borders, to turn our backs and other them is not only a refusal of basic decency and hospitality in the face of suffering, but a painful hypocrisy given the histories of so many of our own ancestors.
When we deny hospitality and safety to the displaced, when we refuse and dismiss those begging at our door seeking safety and relief from war and poverty, we in turn deny our own past, we dismiss the trials of our ancestors, and we erase our own truths.
A few weeks ago, the camp that had built up over months across from my building was suddenly and harshly evacuated by law enforcement, with dumpsters and personnel on hand to confiscate and destroy any trace left after the residents were forced to leave. A few days later, the refugee camp in Calais known as “the Jungle,” one of the oldest and largest refugee camps in Europe, was also bulldozed and evacuated.
In both cases, those displaced were given nowhere to go. They are without land, without possessions, once again victimized by a cycle of displacement that has been benefiting the few on behalf of the many for nearly a thousand years.
A cycle that will never end for as long as the value of land carries a higher worth than the value of people.
This piece is dedicated to the estimated 2,500 refugees who died at sea trying to reach Europe in 2015, and was originally posted at The Wild Hunt.
It was written under the guidance and with the persistent urging of my own ancestors, most notably my maternal great-grandfather and paternal great-grandmother, whose stories I shared in this piece.
What is remembered, lives.
The italicized quotes running throughout this first half of this piece are excerpted from ‘Home’ by Warsan Shire, a Kenyan-born Somali poet currently living in the United Kingdom. The poem in its entirety can be found here.
Alley Valkyrie is a social activist, writer, artist, and spirit-worker living in the Pacific Northwest. She currently divides her time between Portland and Eugene. Alley has spent the past several years working with homeless and impoverished populations in Oregon. She is also a freelance visual artist and photographer, and produces a clothing line called Practical Rabbit. She is a co-founder of Gods&Radicals.
“I have so many places I want to take you,” she said to me, pointing to her gas meter. “But I’ve only got 200km worth of gas left in my tank, and all the gas stations are closed today.”
We were traveling through southern France with an old friend of mine who lives in Perpignan, who once spent a summer living with me in Brooklyn while she interned at a production company in Manhattan. During that summer, I helped to introduce her to the best of what New York had to offer, and ten years later she was returning the favor, driving us around to show us the beauty of the land where she was born and raised.
“As you know, the trains are down,” she continued. “The power plants were also shut down yesterday. I don’t know how long the strikes will continue, but I just hope the gas stations open up soon.”
It wasn’t just her words, but the casual and accepting nature in which she said them, which really drove it home for me how accustomed and accepting the French tend to be towards general strikes, or as the French say, la grève générale. Her words came out in a combination of frustration, amusement, and resignation, and while she spoke I couldn’t help but imagine how the average person in the United States would react if they couldn’t access any gas stations for a day or more.
Over the past four months, France has exploded in a series of strikes and violent protests over the proposed labor reform law, or Loi travail, that President François Hollande‘s Socialist government is trying to pass.
And while the strikes have been covered somewhat by the French media, overall the international coverage of these events–especially in the United States–has been sorely lacking to the point where many are referring to it as a ‘media blackout’. Alternative international media outlets such as teleSUR, Al-Jazeera, The Guardian, and RT have been reporting on the violence, but even those outlets have almost solely focused on the protests themselves, rather than on an accurate understanding of the issues and history behind these strikes.
For the past month, Rhyd Wildermuth and I have traveled throughout both southern and northern France, spending several days at a time in four separate French cities. Throughout our travels, I have been witnessing and educating myself as to both what is occurring in France and why it is occurring. What I have learned and observed about these complex events is as follows:
France is no stranger to general strikes, in stark contrast to the United States which saw its last significant general strike in 1946. And unlike American workers, who often work multiple jobs for long hours for low pay and few protections, French workers enjoy a long list of labor rights:
a 35-hour work week before 25% overtime kicks in,
a mandated 10-hour maximum workday with breaks ever 4.5 hours,
2.5 days of paid leave per month worked (which adds up to five weeks of paid leave per year),
eleven paid public holidays per year,
sixteen weeks of paid maternity leave per child,
strict protections from being fired without just cause,
and generous severance payments if one is laid off due to their job becoming obsolete.
These rights are a direct result of both the historic and current willingness of the French to fight, often violently and in defiance of the law, for protections that they consider to be an integral part of their way of life.
The modern-day workers’ rights moment in France initiated with a series of general strikes in 1936. These involved more than a million workers, and led to an agreement known as the ‘Matignon Agreements’. These agreements guaranteed French workers the legal right to strike, a 40-hour mandated work week before overtime, two weeks’ paid vacation and the right to collectively bargain.
The second round of workers’ rights that the French enjoy today were won in the midst of the May 1968 crisis. Known as the ‘Grenelle agreements’, out of the civil unrest came a 34-hour work week (down from 40), the establishment of trade unions within every industry in France, and protections that prevented workers from being fired without just cause.
Since the ’68 unrest, the workweek had been briefly raised to 39 hours and then dropped again to 35, where it remains today. In 1995, proposed work reforms initiated by newly-elected right wing President Jacques Chirac, which included restricting the right to retire at age 55, were met with general strikes involving more than 6 million strike days (calculated by the number of days that each worker struck).
As a result, the proposed reforms were retracted. In 2006, President Chirac’s government attempted to pass an ’employment contract’ law which would have allowed employers to easily fire workers without reason within the first two years of their employment, but the proposed law was again rescinded in the face of massive protests.
A year later, newly-elected President Nicolas Sarkozy attempted to reduce retirement benefits for public employees engaged in hazardous professions, and was again met with massive protests. And once again, the proposal was rescinded. Since then, France’s code du travail has remained strong and secure until early this year.
The Current Controversy:
The new labor reform law, introduced in February and dubbed the “El Khomri law” after French labor minister Myriam El Khomri, aims to do away with many worker rights including reducing overtime for those who work more than 35 hours a week, reducing pensions, and making it easier for employers to fire workers without just cause. These changes were proposed with the intention of reducing public spending, reducing unemployment, and making France’s labor market more flexible.
The law was met with strong public opposition, starting with the “Nuit debout” movement. Nuit debout, which has been compared to both Occupy and the Indignados movement of Spain, began in March and has quickly spread to over thirty cities in France. Not only is the anger over the law itself, but unlike the attempted reforms of the Chirac and Sarkozy governments, which were right-wing, the fact that the left-wing Socialist party has proposed these reforms is seen as a harsh betrayal.
Paris’ ‘Place de la Republique’ was occupied by thousands of Nuit debout supporters for twelve days straight, and the movement received a high level of public support.
A month later, after facing opposition from several MPs French Prime Minister Manuel Valls decided to push the labor reform law through the lower house of the Parliament without a vote, using a rare provision in the French Constitution to bypass the normal democratic route.
In response, France has exploded in protest, with a coordinated shutdown of public industries that has continued for several months now.
The majority of the strikes in France are being coordinated by the CGT (Confédération générale du travail), which is one of five major trade union confederations in France and arguably the most powerful. The country’s largest trade union confederacy in terms of voting power and the second-largest in terms of membership, the CGT has been integral in securing workers’ rights in France for nearly a century, having brokered both the reforms of ’36 and ’68 and playing a significant role in every general strike since then. The CGT openly supported Hollande during the last election and encouraged members to vote for Hollande, so the feelings of betrayal are particularly strong amongst the CGT membership.
Other trade union confederations involved in and/or supporting the strikes include SUD (Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques), CFTC ( Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens), and FO (Force Ouvrière), while the more moderateCFDT (Confédération française démocratique du travail)is mostly in support of the proposed labor reforms.
Over the past few months, these strikes have shut down several major industries throughout France, some for several days at a time. In the time that Rhyd and I have been traveling through France, there have been rolling strikes involving the national railway system (SNCF), the local metro in Paris, several bus systems, air traffic controllers in several cities including Paris and Marseilles, gas stations, and nuclear electric plants.
The largest concentration of strikes had been announced for June 14th, in part with the intention of disrupting the Euro 2016 football tournament that is taking place throughout several cities in France, set to attract upwards of three million tourists.
June 14th was also the date that the upper house of Parliament was set to start deliberations on the proposed reforms.
Among those who announced they will strike were the following industries:
Transport, including buses, taxis, national railways, air traffic controllers, and maritime workers;
Public service workers, including those working in libraries, post offices, sanitation, and non-emergency fire department and healthcare workers;
Private sector workers, including those working in banks, hotels, private transportation, media, fashion, and the mail-order industry;
Educational workers, including those working in preschool through high school.
On the Ground: Arles, May 23-26:
Upon our arrival in Arles, signs of resistance and organizing around the general strikes were immediately evident. Nearly everywhere we looked, posters hung on billboards, street poles, and mail boxes, both expressing anger at the Loi travail as a whole as well as specific calls for demonstrations on set dates. Both gatherings organized by the Nuit debout movement as well as protests organized by smaller, local groups were occurring in Arles on a near-daily basis.
Even more prevalent than the posters were countless stickers, plastered everywhere one could imagine, ranging from those from trade unions to much more explicitly leftist and anarchist propaganda.
Walking around Arles, which is a rather quiet, sleepy, Medieval-era town best known as the later residence of Vincent van Gogh and the subject of many of his later paintings, one could constantly hear both residents and tourists discussing the shutdowns and the protests that were occurring both in Arles and throughout France.
Every word I heard from the locals was in opposition to the Loi travail and in support of the uprisings, with one woman ironically remarking that although she supported the strikes, she hoped the transit issues would be resolved in time for her upcoming month-long vacation.
The buses and trains both went on strike on two consecutive days while we were there, but altogether the effects they had on travel were minor.
Perpignan, May 27- May 30:
Unlike Arles, Perpignan is much more of an urban center, a city of just over 100,000 residents which serves as the capital of the Pyrénées-Orientales region of southern France. Perpignan has a reputation for being a right-wing town with a significant National Front presence, but when we arrived the presence of the CGT and Nuit debout was much more prevalent and obvious than any right-wing elements.
On our second day in Perpignan, I stepped off the bus in the centre-ville and literally walked right into a CGT rally taking place in one of the major town squares. The square was filled with various tents which were distributing industry-specific information about the Loi travail and the various forms of resistance against it. In one corner was a stage with a band playing, catty-corner to the stage was a tent serving beer and sandwiches for only 2€ each, and the atmosphere was unusually light-hearted and festive considering that there were several transit-related strikes taking place that very day.
Further down the main boulevard in Perpignan that same afternoon, several Nuit debout folks were flyering in support of the latest round of strikes while also handing out information about their weekly meetings. A few blocks away, several punk-looking activists were rather covertly using what appeared to be wheat or rice paste to affix Nuit debout posters to any and all available surfaces. Nearly everyone who walked by them voiced their support for their presence on the street and/or the strike in general, with several folks erupting in chants as they walked by.
Toulouse, May 31 – June 2:
While physical organizing and leftist presence was more evident in Perpignan, the expressive side of the recent uprisings was much more evident in Toulouse, which lies approximately two hours northwest of Perpignan and is a major city with a population of over a million residents. Instead of the resistance being dominated by the presence of the CGT and Nuit debout, the resistance in Toulouse was much more a product of the people themselves.
Block after block throughout the city was covered in posters, graffiti, and stickers. One could not look in any direction without coming across an uncountable number of messages, both printed and scrawled by hand, not only protesting the labor reforms but announcing daily meetings as well as the nationwide strikes planned for June 14th.
At the same time, the city was gearing up for its role as one of the hosts of the Euro2016 tournament, which the strikes were set to interrupt, and the tension between police and activists was evident.
Rennes, June 3 – June 13:
Despite the wide variety of people, protest, and propaganda that we had observed and witnessed in the previous three cities, nothing had quite prepared us for Rennes.
Unlike the previous cities we had visited, Rennes is in the north, in the heart of Bretagne, where hostility towards French authority has both simmered and exploded for hundreds of years. Rennes is a distinctly Leftist and anarchist city, with a deeply-rooted Breton independence movement, and many of the residents here are quick to tell outsiders that “Bretagne is not France”.
The Breton language, though endangered, is still spoken in Rennes, and over the past few decades a concerted effort has been made to revive the Breton language, much to the chagrin of the French government. Dual-language schools are common in Rennes, and many of the street signs and informational placards are in both French and Breton.
And those dual-language signs were pretty much the only surfaces in town that were spared, and the messages went far beyond protesting the Loi travail. Nearly every square inch of space was covered in protest signs, anti-police and anti-capitalist stickers and graffiti, posters and flyers and every type of leftist propaganda imaginable. It was obvious that in Rennes, the anger is not just aimed at Loi travail, but at capitalism itself.
There was also an pervasive element in Rennes that we had not seen in force in any of the other cities we had traveled to – the presence of the federal police, or gendarmerie. We had seen a few in Toulouse due to the upcoming Euro2016 games, but the gendarmerie presence in Rennes was much more prevalent, despite the fact that Toulouse is a much larger city in Rennes.
But their presence was not without reason. For in Rennes, nearly every single bank in town has been smashed.
Later on, we learned from our host that violence has been breaking out in the city on a near-daily basis, with leftists and anarchists clashing with police throughout the centre-ville. Protests and demonstrations have been banned on account of the violence, but that does not deter the leftists. They are out daily, in force, facing police violence, withstanding clubs and pepper-spray, and many end up in the emergency room. And yet the next day, they are out again.
In Rennes, the anarchists not only have taken over several public squares, but when the federal police drive them out, they protest such actions with a call for a ‘re-enchantment of place’. Messages of love and inspiration jump out from every wall, every signpost, every street corner, every bathroom door. It quickly becomes obvious to anyone who pays attention that the folks here fight not just out of anger, not just against the Loi travail, but because they truly believe that another world is possible.
And while the gendarmerie may be out in full force, it’s obvious that they do not hold the true power in this city, especially in the hearts and minds of the citizens here, whether leftist or not. Based on the comments, gestures, and facial expressions of the citizens, utter disdain for the presence of the gendarmerie is nearly unanimous, regardless of age or social class. They may be feared by some, but they are not respected by most.
Unable to contain the resistance and violence in Rennes, protests and demonstrations have been banned until further notice, a ban which included the annual Gay Pride festivities on the first weekend in June. But even such a drastic step had next to no effect. Despite the prohibition, folks came out for Gay Pride, and amongst the most visible presences at the festival were the trade union confederations, even the one that is not participating in the general strikes. Hundreds of people, gay and straight alike, attended the festivities despite the ban and without fear or hesitation.
They danced and celebrated in joy and merriment, and the gendarmerie simply stood back and allow it to occur, knowing full well that to try to break it up would only result in violence and further demonstrations. Judging by the expressions on the faces of the gendarmerie, it was obvious that while they had the arms and the weapons, they knew full well who actually held the power.
Grève générale: Rennes, June 14:
Despite the numerous pleas and attempted actions on the part of the French government to avoid a nationwide strike on June 14th, the trade union confederations held their ground and made it clear that they would not back down. And as promised, on the morning of the 14th, as the Senate started to deliberate the provisions of the Loi travail, striking workers held demonstrations throughout every major city in France.
When I woke up the morning of the 14th in Rennes, and the first thing I found in my email box was an email from the US Embassy, advising me to stay away from all protests and demonstrations related to the general strikes. I laughed and headed downtown to the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, which had been renamed the ‘Place du Peuple‘ bu the Nuit debout movement, where the strikers were set to gather at 11am.
When I arrived at the plaza, I saw that police had fenced off the entire exterior of the plaza. I laughed again, knowing from what I witnessed at Gay Pride the week before that such an action would have absolutely no effect.
And the fences sure didn’t stop them; they simply took the streets instead. For over four hours, strikers and their supporters marched throughout the city by the thousands, back and forth, over and over, occasionally stopping for breaks and then starting right up again. For a town with a population of just over 200,000 people, and despite everything I had seen up to that point, the sheer size of the manifestation left me in utter shock.
As I marched and took photos and at times simply stood there staring in amazement, I constantly checked my phone for updates from the rest of the country. And what I was witnessing in Rennes was being echoed all throughout France. Flights were cancelled nationwide as both pilots and air traffic controllers went on strike. Buses and trains throughout the country were stopped in their tracks. In Paris, taxi drivers blocked the streets and the Eiffel Tower was even closed for the day. Violence between police and protesters also erupted in Paris, although in Rennes the police merely stood by and blocked off roads leading to the old city as strikers marched down the main drags.
And as opposed to America, where even temporary blockages of highways often result in anger and threats from commuters, those who were inconvenienced in Rennes that day were overall extremely supportive despite the fact that they were sitting in cars or buses for long periods of time while protestors took to the streets. Commuters on buses waved, folks in cars honked their support, and only a very few expressed any sort of anger or grievance at the strikers. It was widely understood that the temporary inconvenience that commuters were experiencing was an acceptable sacrifice in the name of what the strikers were fighting for.
Work and the Way of Life:
“Now, when we check out, look at the cashier, and tell me what you notice, what’s different,” Rhyd said to me as we shopped for groceries at a Carrefour market in Arles. “When you figure it out, its going to blow your mind.”
It was only my second full day in France, but already I was blown away by the various differences between the French way of life and what I was accustomed to in America. Checking out our groceries, I closely studied the cashier, a young woman with what I perceived as an unusually pleasant demeanor for someone working in a grocery store. And perhaps it was my tendency to concentrate on the small details instead of the obvious, and perhaps it was still being distracted and overwhelmed by the food I was surrounded by, but when we exited the store I still had not caught on to whatever it was that Rhyd was trying to get me to notice.
“I think I missed it,” I said as we walked out. “Unless it was the super-cheap flasks of nice liquor hanging behind the cashier’s head.”
And then as I turned back to glance again, I noticed it at the exact moment that the words came out of his mouth.
“They’re sitting,” he said with a wicked grin on his face. “Retail cashiers in France are all allowed to sit.”
I stared back into the store in shock, overwhelmed with disbelief and anger all the same as I noticed the comfy, padded chair that the woman who checked us out was sitting in. Immediately I thought of the long hours on their feet that Americans in the retail industry are forced to endure, hours that often lead to chronic pain, sciatica, and irreversible foot and ankle damage. And then I thought of my own circumstances, as someone who is unable to work retail jobs due to chronic pain and sciatica, and who lives in poverty partly as a result. I looked back at the cashier, realizing that I could actually work that kind of job in the United States if I was allowed to sit, and immediately felt a rush of anger rise up inside me.
And over the next few weeks, I went into countless grocery stores and other retail outlets, and found the same – nearly everyone I saw behind a cash register was sitting down. Not only are they sitting down, but ringing up your groceries is all they do. They do not even attempt to empty your basket onto the conveyor belt for you. That’s your job. They also do not even attempt to bag your groceries for you. That’s also your job. They sit, they ring up what you buy, and they make at least €9,67 an hour doing it, or around $10.92 in American dollars, in addition to all of the benefits that I elaborated on earlier in this article.
At one point, while checking out at a Carrefour in Rennes, I got into a short conversation with the cashier, who spoke a decent amount of English. When she asked me what I thought of French grocery stores, I mentioned to her that in the United States, all retail cashiers must stand, and she looked at me like I had two heads.
“That’s inhumane,” she said to me in disbelief. “That’s torture.”
“Yes, yes it is,” I replied.
The fact that she referred to the fact that American retail workers must stand as “torture” carried an additionally weighted meaning to me, as I mulled on the starkly different cultural attitudes that the French and Americans hold about work.
One could ponder various arguments as to why these differences are so prominent. For example, the United States, as a nation that was stolen and settled by Pilgrims and other Protestant-derived factions, has embraced the Calvinist ideology around the virtue of work since its earliest days. France, on the other hand, had a long history of intolerance towards and forced expulsions of Calvinist Protestants. And while the Huguenots were eventually granted equal rights as citizens after the French Revolution, France has been much more significantly shaped by culturally Catholic attitudes than Calvinist ideology throughout its history.
These differing histories are reflected in the cultural attitudes that define the two nations. America’s most famous (and most insidious) ideology, known as the ‘American Dream’, not only stresses the importance of work but falsely promises success to anyone who works hard enough. France, on the other hand, is a culture that has always put great value in ‘la belle vie‘, the good life, and has a long history of valuing health and happiness over the supposed merits of working oneself to the bone. French culture emphasizes the need for rest, relaxation and self-care, to the point that running one’s lawn mower on a Sunday is a violation of municipal codes in many cities, as the loud noise is considered to be disruptive to those who wish to rest and take it easy.
But while those points are significant and valid, perhaps an aspect of how such differences are shaped is as simple as the power of words themselves, specifically the power which is held and reflected in the etymological meaning of the word ‘work’ as it is expressed in the French language as opposed to English.
The English word ‘work’ comes from the Old English weorc, meaning ‘something done’, which itself comes from the Germanic word werkan, which derives from the Indo-European root werg, meaning ‘to do’.
In French, however, the word travail derives from the Medieval Latin word trepalium, meaning ‘instrument of torture’, which itself derives from the Old Latin words tres and palus, meaning ‘three stakes’.
Let me repeat that again for effect: the term ‘work’ in French literally means an instrument of torture. And in a civilized society, nobody would dare consider torture to be a virtue.
The cashier at Carrefour was absolutely correct when she characterized standing for hours at a time for no reason as ‘torture’, but its a form of torture that most American workers accept without much thought or question.
One thing that is quite apparent after spending nearly a month in France is that French workers are not nearly as miserable as American workers are, and most don’t seem miserable at all. They do not hate their jobs as Americans do, regardless of profession. The smiles that one sees on their faces are not forced. Their kindness and courtesy is not an act. They are truly happy to help you and to serve you. They do their job with pride and they do their jobs well. Even the employees at McDonalds carry themselves with a level of pride and satisfaction that I have never seen amongst fast-food workers in the United States.
The attitudes of workers in France is a strong testament to the belief that if you treat workers well, if they make enough to not only survive but thrive, and if they are given ample time off and have the opportunity for regular leisure time with friends and family, they are simply better workers. And when the workers are happy, the customers are happy too. Everyone wins.
Closing Observations: La belle lutte
“So we call these things demonstrations, right?…Why are they demonstrations? Well, they used to demonstrate the power that we had to shut down industry. They used to be like, this is a bunch of people on the street. It’s only a demonstration, it’s not the actual thing that we’re gonna do. It’s just the threat. But now, with spectacle becoming center stage, it was the thing. That was it. Get people into the streets. And it made it seem like that’s what you had to do. …All you have to do is get in the streets, and we’ll shame the people in power.” – Boots Riley
The ‘spectacle’ that Riley refers to in the quote originated with the tactics of the New Left in the United States, born out of a fusion between the politics of the Frankfurt School and the various American hippie movements of the ’60s and ’70s. One can fairly argue (and many have) that despite their good intentions, the New Left abandoned and/or destroyed any remaining shred of effective and militant radicalism in the United States, at least in terms of the strategies and actions of college-educated white folks whose ideologies and actions have historically drowned out those of marginalized peoples.
This shift arguably set the stage for the loss of power on the part of the Left and the severe shift to the Right that the American political spectrum has undergone in the last four decades. The idea that citizens can simply shame the people in power is still a dominant ideology in both liberal and radical circles, and despite the complete and utter ineffectiveness of such a strategy, such strategies are still undertaken and lauded as though they actually produce results.
The New Left in Europe, on the other hand, birthed the May ’68 uprisings in France in addition to many other uprisings across Europe and set the tone for the philosophies and tactics that are still being successfully staged here in the present day. The rallying cries of the Situationist Internation set the stage for a movement that nearly toppled the French government, and its reverberations were not only never forgotten, but consistently built upon while never losing their militant edge. The Situationists utilized spectacle as well, but did so in addition, not as a replacement for general strikes and violent confrontations. In short, they never forgot the true intent of the demonstration.
In observing what is present and effective here in France, one also notices what is absent, especially in contrast to how citizens attempt to both institute and fight proposed reforms in the United States. Amidst all the waves of general strikes throughout France, the marches, the protests, the graffiti, the rallies, the acts of property destruction against banks, there are two things that are notable absent: lobbying and petitions. The idea that one can enact change within the system, which is still the dominant strategy of the American ‘left’, is not only all but absent in France but truly laughable as far as the workers and strikers here are concerned.
While Americans sign petitions protesting the Wall Street bailouts, the French simply smash the banks. While Americans bemoan the ever-increasing decimation of unions in their country, the French trade union confederations are arguably the most powerful political force in the country. And while a good percentage of the American public is still convinced that they can vote their way out of the effects of late-stage capitalism, the French know that the only way to enact true change is to take it into their own hands.
For the French, it’s a fight to the end, and a violent fight at that. But their own history clearly demonstrates that only by fighting will they succeed, only by fighting will they retain what they have successful fought for in the past, and those rights are so deeply cherished that they will most likely keep shutting down industry until the government once again cedes to their demands.
Its a fight, but as many are quick to point out here, its ‘the good fight’, that will hopefully result in protecting and retaining a way of life that Americans could only dream of.
An extensive collection of photos from the June 14th strikes can be found here.
Alley Valkyrie is a writer, artist, and spirit-worker living on occupied Chinook territory in a city popularly known as Portland, Oregon. She is one of the co-founders of Gods&Radicals, and has been interacting with a various collection of gods and radicals for over fifteen years. When she’s not fighting Capitalism, Alley works with homeless folks, creates an assortment of art and pottery, and writes for The Wild Hunt.
“Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.” – Herman Melville
I. Perception and Ideology
Standing on one corner of an intersection on a main drag in Eugene, Oregon, a young man with earbuds dances around while waving and twirling a “Little Caesars” sign in the shape of an arrow that’s pointing toward the restaurant. He stands out there most days from 9 to 5, and most likely makes $9.10 an hour, minimum wage in this state. One only has to stand and observe the dancing sign guy on the corner for a few minutes to notice the reaction to his presence is mostly positive. People wave from cars driving by; others honk,and some give a thumbs-up. The dancing sign man returns the energy as well as the friendly hand signals. He not only receives praise but obvious showings of empathy, especially on a hot day like this one. “You must be sweating!” one woman yells. “Be careful out there!”
On the other corner, a man also stands with a sign. He has earflaps instead of earbuds, however, and its pretty apparent that his physical condition doesn’t allow him to dance. His sign says, “Unemployed, Homeless, Anything Helps.” And, one only has to observe him for a few minutes to notice the reaction to his presence is opposite to what the dancing sign man across the street receives. I watched drivers who refused to make eye contact; others who muttered ‘get a job’ under their breath; others who yelled ‘get a job’ quite loudly; one woman who honked at him, and a car full of frat boys who rolled down their window as though they were going to give him money only to then to roll up the window laughing and drive away quickly as the man walked towards their car. I watched for fifteen minutes or so and saw him take in one dollar and some change, which puts his hourly take-in at well under the $9.10 an hour that the dancing sign man across the street receives.
We live in a society where a person who stands on a street corner doing absolutely nothing other than waving a sign advertising for a business is not only perceived as legitimately ‘earning a living,’ but also receives empathy, praise, and positive reaction from passers-by. And a person who stands on a nearly identical corner with a sign advertising their own personal state of misfortune is not treated kindly but treated as worthless, is yelled at to get a job, and is subjected to repeated public humiliation.
Not only is the panhandler mistreated and derided, but the very act of panhandling is considered to be so offensive that many municipalities have attempted to ban the practice outright; an attempt which often fails due to free speech protections. And in many cases, it’s the same kinds of businesses that hire folks to hold signs on the corner that are instrumental in pressuring local governments and police departments to remove those other folks with those other signs through legislative attempts or simply police harassment.
Call it tragic. Call it inhumane. Call it the sign of a crumbling civilization. Call it what you will. It’s the inevitable result of a society indoctrinated into an economic ideology which judges the literal worth of a human being by their ability to ‘produce,’ by their ability to ‘earn,’ by what they are ‘worth’ under the system of capitalism. The sign-waver for Little Caesars and the panhandler are engaged in the same physical activity, but it is the designation of one as a ‘worker’ who is earning a ‘wage’ in contrast to the other which results in empathy and praise toward one and judgment and mistreatment toward the other.
Actual worth is judged by perceived ‘worth’ under the arbitrary standards of a structure so pervasive and encompassing that few can see through its ideological fog, few question the legitimacy or humanity of such a system. And with this comes the acceptance and promotion of a flawed and arbitrary set of standards, determining how and why we assume some have ‘worth’ (or are the ‘worthy poor’), as opposed to those who are expendable, the throwaways–the ‘unworthy poor.’ Our acceptance of these standards is why we tolerate – even actively ignore – the millions of people, including women, children, and the disabled, sleeping on the streets of our towns and cities every night in America. Worse, we often blame them for their situation and believe that they are not deserving of even the most basic of dignities.
Bread line in New York City, circa 1910. [Public Domain]
While independent studies and government data both make it clear that most of the poor who are able to work are either already working or actively job-seeking, the overwhelming perception in America is that the poor are lazy; that they are ‘takers’ and that they don’t want to work, preferring to live off welfare. Such attitudes are most often stressed by conservative politicians who claim Christianity as the moral basis for their beliefs, which is often countered by liberal and/or progressive Christians who point to the words and teachings of Christ as contradictory to such a position. And while the liberal-minded Christians have a point regarding the words of Jesus, the conservatives are correct about the Christian origins of their ideological stance regarding the poor. For while this attitude generally manifests as an outgrowth of the ‘American Dream,’ (i.e. that hard work equals success), which implies that if one is not successful than they did not work hard, the attitudes concerning the poor – parroted by conservative politicians and citizens alike – are rooted in the days and ideas of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the Protestant Reformation. That is, the era in which the landless underclass was first created and identified.
History is too-often recited as specific events in isolation without their proper context. This reduction of historical upheavals makes it easy to ignore that neither the transition from feudalism to capitalism nor the Protestant Reformation happened in a vacuum. In fact, they were coterminous and codependent. Feudalism claimed its legitimacy based on the divine right of kings, with lord and peasant as a divinely decreed, unquestioned hierarchy. It wasn’t until the emergence and rise of the first ‘middle class’ of laborers and merchants in the years after the Black Death that such claims to legitimacy showed wear. The status and experiences of this emerging class during this economic upheaval, along with the creation of a class that ‘labored’ as the poor had yet enjoyed many of the luxuries of the upper-classes gave rise to a new ethic. The “Protestant work ethic” or the “Calvinist work ethic”, i.e. the belief that ‘hard work’ is not only divinely prescribed but will be divinely rewarded, perfectly matched this new class.
The peasant classes also looked to the ideas of the Reformation for their claim to freedom. The Peasants’ War in Germany, less than a decade after Martin Luther published his 95 Theses, was a direct result of the collision between the Enclosures and the Reformation. The peasant class in Germany was stripped of the right to the commons in the early 16th century, and were forbidden from freely hunting or gathering wood by the feudal lords who had taken control of the land. The loss of their economic freedom combined with the rhetoric of the Reformation ignited a series of revolts in 1524-1525, which spread throughout Germany like wildfire and were backed by many Reformation priests, although Luther himself opposed the revolts despite sympathizing with the peasants’ plight. The aristocracy met the peasants with a level of force that nowadays could only be wielded through the legitimacy of state power, and in the onslaught approximately 100,000 peasants were slaughtered to maintain the social order.
Peasants surround a knight during the Peasants’ War. Illustration circa 1539. [Public Domain]
The Protestant work ethic was essential in shaping a rapidly changing society in the midst of the Enclosures. Peasants were forced off the land into the cities and factories, which created an inevitable underclass of ‘paupers’ and ‘beggars.’ From the crisis of poverty that hit the cities came the Poor Laws, which first carved out the distinctions between the ‘impotent poor,’ the ‘able-bodied poor,’ and the ‘idle poor,’ distinctions which set the stage for the role of the State in the criminalization of poverty, a role still enacted to this day. The philosophy and implementation of the Poor Laws is the direct predecessor to both the modern welfare states in both the United States and Europe as well as to the ideological position regarding the poor that conservative politicians express.
Whether one solely focuses on medieval Europe, or expands their view in order to look at the horrors and ravages of colonialism from a global perspective, the scale of the continuous violence and oppression of those who lack economic power and/or a ‘work ethic’ is everywhere. In Western society, the welfare state and the criminalization and dehumanization of poverty are anything but mutually exclusive.
In reality, the war on the poor is nothing new, if anything it is a war that’s been continuously waged for over five hundred years.
III. Privilege, Disability, and the Exception
It took me well over a decade as an adult to recognize the extent of a significant superpower that I possess, a completely unearned and unacknowledged advantage that allows me to experience day-to-day life in a way and manner that I don’t “deserve” and I haven’t “earned.”
It’s a superpower best described as middle-class privilege.
For I am one of “those people,” one of the “dependent” poor, having lived in poverty for nearly a decade now without any real expectation that my situation might change anytime soon. But I am a poor person who was raised middle-class, poor due to what one would categorize as ‘circumstance’ as opposed to birth, and despite my poverty I retain all the advantages that a middle-class upbringing entails. This middle-class façade grants me an indescribable amount of entrances, exceptions, clearances, and privileges that those who appear as poor do not have. My everyday life experiences and ability to survive are hinged upon and rooted in the fact that the gatekeepers to the worlds I inhabit instinctively assume that I am one of them. I “pass” as middle-class and, therefore, I am largely exempt from most of the harsh words, cruel judgments, and discriminatory treatment that the average poor person faces; treatment that’s even worse if one is deemed ‘unworthy’ poor.
My appearance, my mannerisms, my speech, my cultural references and sense of humor act as signifiers, broadcasting a subconscious suggestion to those in my presence that I am other than poor. I appear to be a person of means, one who earns a wage, one who creates value through production, one who has worth within the context of the capitalist system. Yet, none of those things are true. I pass without effort based solely on factors that I had no part in and did not ‘choose’ or ‘earn’.
Class privilege is a matter of culture as much as a matter of economics, and it’s a misleading oversimplification to define class differences by wealth and wealth alone. Our society is deeply coded along class lines, lines that have existed for hundreds of years between rich and poor, lines which have become blurry due to the advent of the modern ‘middle-class’ and yet reveal themselves much more fixed in the face of a change of fortune. Similarly to white privilege, class privilege is hard to see while one is protected within its embrace; just as fish can’t see water, one often cannot see the boundaries of the bubble in which they live until they are unexpectedly yanked outside of it.
I grew up in a low-crime, affluent suburb, was raised by educated parents, went to top-rated public schools, always had access to quality medical and dental care, and was shielded from nearly all of the brute realities of poverty. It was always assumed that I would go to college and end up living a similar middle-class suburban life as that in which I was raised.
I rebelled against that expectation – I ran off to live in the city in my late teens, forgoing the idea of college with the idea that I could ‘make it’ on my own. I learned quickly what it meant to work for a living, that ‘making it’ meant forever selling one’s time in exchange for money, and that time/money equation varied greatly depending on the task. Selling my time to a retail store earned me $7 an hour. Dogwalking earned me $10. Cleaning houses; $12. Waiting tables; $15. Art modeling; $25. Bartending. I could pull in around $30 an hour on a decent night.
I knew from the very beginning that the game was rigged, and I learned pretty quickly the myth that ‘hard work equals success’ was greatly dependent on what kind of ‘work’ one could find. But it took me a bit longer to see my own advantages in the game; to figure out that I was able to score many jobs that others could not simply by virtue of my being white, able-bodied, and middle-class. Over time, it became more apparent to me that what I was “worth” was not being measured by what I actually knew or could accomplish, but by arbitrary standards that had more to do with perception and class signifiers than anything else. I also knew that I worked much harder cleaning houses for $12 an hour than I did sitting still in a room full of art students for $25, and that most of the women whom I cleaned houses with would never be considered for the art modeling gig.
I worked a varied assortment of those jobs throughout my late teens and early twenties, while painting on the side and making plans to attend college. Then, fate intervened without warning – an accidental event that left me with permanent physical and neurocognitive injuries. Practically overnight, I went from identifying as a self-sufficient ‘worker’ whose time had always been worth money on the open market to having to learn to navigate life as a person with various ‘invisible disabilities’ which largely precluded me from holding down even the most basic of jobs. As a person who had neither health insurance nor a safety net of any kind, I had to quickly accept that I was being relegated to a life of poverty from that point forward.
With that realization came a sudden torrent of denial, shame, and feelings of worthlessness. It also gave me a newly critical eye toward an economic system that arbitrarily determines the worth and value of a human being by their ability to earn money and/or create surplus value. Not until I found myself removed from the worker pool did I understand that disability in our society is defined by how much one can produce, by one’s worth as a worker under the capitalist system.
(This, by the way, is why any disability claim hinges on being able to ‘prove’ one’s worthlessness in terms of one’s ability to earn an income. It is also why those who cannot meet that burden of proof yet cannot earn an income to support themselves are simply left to suffer, discarded from our society, ‘othered’ as the ‘unworthy poor,’ and left on street corners holding signs.)
The loss of self-sufficiency, the loss of economic freedom that I suddenly faced, combined with the physical and cognitive challenges I had not yet accepted or learned to handle, sent me into a downward spiral that took several years to emerge from. It took a cross-country move, a fresh start from scratch, and an eventual confrontation with my own unseen privilege before I was able to come to terms with my feelings of worthlessness and recognize that I was actually in a limited position of power.
* * *
The aforementioned confrontation took place on a beautiful spring morning in downtown Eugene, Oregon, a day in which I was riding my bike from my house to the library as I had done nearly every day. I was riding on the sidewalk, as I always did. As I approached an intersection, I noticed that the officer who usually waved at me on my bike every morning was writing a ticket to a homeless-looking man also on a bicycle. I stopped and observed the interaction from a few feet away, and when it was obvious that the officer was finished I asked him what had happened.
“He was riding his bike on the sidewalk,” the officer told me. “This is at least the third time I caught him doing that.”
“But I ride on that sidewalk every day,” I replied. “And you’ve seen me many more than three times.”
He looked me up and down, and paused before carefully replying. “I suppose that’s true, but you aren’t causing any problems. You’re just on your way to work. He’s just a bum who hangs out downtown all day.”
I repeated his words in my head, a knot forming in my stomach as I took in what he had said. You’re just on your way to work. He’s just a bum who hangs out downtown all day. Looking at myself up and down as the officer had just done, I realized I looked exactly like the type of person who was off to work, unlike the man on his bike. Thoughts raced through my head. He thinks I have a job. He thinks I’m one of them. He doesn’t realize that I hang out downtown all day as well. He thinks I have money, he thinks I ‘pay my way’. He thinks that I have ‘worth’ and the man he just ticketed does not. I get a ‘pass’ and he does not. He looks poor and I do not.
I stared at the officer, eventually nodding, trying as hard as I could not to show my anger and disgust at what I had just witnessed. It had been years since I’d ever considered myself to be middle-class, but I realized then and there that I still had middle-class privilege and that such privilege was a potential source of power. I learned at that moment what it truly meant to not look poor, and realized the only way I could reconcile the feelings of nausea and rage was to shine light on what I had just experienced. I would have to expose those biases, both for their inhumanity as well as their arbitrary nature. I suddenly realized my privilege was a shield, and my perceived lack of ‘worth’ under capitalism quickly faded once I discovered an entirely different kind of ‘worth’ and ‘value’: I would use my time to point out and fight the biases that both myself and the man on the bike just experienced.
I spent the next three years viewing the downtown as my ‘workplace,’ positioning myself as the proverbial thorn-in-the-side of local government – specifically the police department’s pattern of biased policing against the visibly poor and homeless. I didn’t do so out of guilt or charity, but rather out of obligation and empathy. I did so as someone who struggled as a member of the ‘other’ while regularly passing as one of the worthy ones. I was determined to use that assumption against those in power who arbitrated and enforced those standards.
Throughout that time I was regarded as an equal by middle and upper-class folks alike; few suspected or could even conceive that I was anything other than how I appeared. Nobody ever asked me if I went to college, they asked me where I went to college. Very few asked or even wondered why I was able to devote myself full-time to obviously unpaid volunteer work. It was simply assumed that I had money, and it was evident that it did not matter where that money came from, nor whether I had ‘earned’ it or not. I fit the image so well, in fact, that I often was party to discussions and debates in which “those people” were brought up, where the ‘unworthy poor’ were demonized and dehumanized to my face. Supposedly well-meaning businessmen would take me aside in confidence, first to thank me for my work but then to talk to me privately about ‘those people.’
I can remember several times where, in a moment of bravery, I interrupted the conversation to inform them that I was one of the very people they were talking about. Each time, the conversation went like this:
“Oh, please don’t take that personally. I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about real poor people, the ones that you look at and you just know they can get a job, but they choose not to work and they just want to live off the system.”
“The ones you look at and just know can get a job?” I countered. “You mean the ones who look like me?”
“Again, I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about those other people.”
They were so eager and insistent on distinguishing me as the exception to further elaborate their stereotype that they completely missed the point that I had attempted to make each time: “those other people” inscribed in their minds were manipulated abstractions, and despite being well-spoken and well-dressed I was not the exception at all.
* * *
It’s liberating and also an obligation to throw of my facade to illustrate this point. I am a poor, disabled, uneducated member of the American underclass, who was able to build a reputation for initiating a public discourse around the myths and realities of being poor and homeless in America. It was and is a reputation that relied on my audience believing they were listening to a middle-class, able-bodied, college-educated person. Very few ever figured out who they were actually interacting with: a member of that same ‘undeserving,’ ‘lazy,’ ‘entitled’ underclass that they demonized on a daily basis, a member of that underclass speaking from personal experience. Though I’m not trying to downplay my ability to speak truth to power, nor my skills in the public arena, I can say with confidence that I’d never have been able to do so based only on my own merits.
Alley Valkyrie speaking at the Eugene City Club, October 2013
I am no more “deserving” than the man on the street corner begging with a sign. I have done no more to “earn” the respect I am given nor the power that I wield than any of the folks who spend their days at the library and their nights sleeping on the riverbank. Yet, not only is it immediately assumed I’m a person deserving of respect and an audience, even when I fully disclose my situation I am distinguished as the exception. I am arbitrarily deemed ‘worthy’ rather than a throwaway, based only on aesthetic and cultural factors. Meanwhile those who cannot pass are thrown under the bus by the same people who have invited me to the table.
IV. The Tower and The Mirror
“Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime.” – Aristotle
Whether the American Dream is clinically dead or still technically gasping for air may be up for debate, but the belief that ‘anyone can make it’ and that ‘hard work equals success’ has a very tenuous grip as of late. The inability of much of the middle-class to recover from the last recession may be the final nail in the coffin of the belief that anyone can make it in America if they simply work hard enough.
If anything, it can be argued that the rise of the middle-class in medieval Europe shattered the façade of the ‘divine right of kings,’ similar to how the crumbling of the middle-class in America has shattered the façade of the American Dream. The ‘work ethic’ that serves as a bridge between these two moments in time still stands firm, the ideological ghosts of John Calvin and Martin Luther still hovering close, just as they have haunted Western society for half a millenia. Even as the masses become more aware that the game is rigged, those deeply ingrained attitudes around work, worth, and poverty are clung to more strongly than ever by politician and citizen alike.
The poor in America are invisible for many reasons. They are hidden away, shamed into submission, their existence is minimized, simply not talked about, and outright denied by so many. But they are also invisible to you because they are hiding amongst you, especially those who have experienced downward social mobility within their lifetimes, having found the ability through class-based signifiers to shapeshift between the world in which they were raised and the world in which they are forced to inhabit.
The poor as “other”, as stereotype, as abstraction, these are the methods and tools that the ruling class uses to manipulate us into erecting physical and psychological barriers between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ So much time and effort goes into demonizing an abstract stereotype, that most fail to recognize that many who are poor and struggle with little hope are not reflecting that stereotype but a striking similarity to themselves, their poverty hidden within the familiarity of that reflection.
And as the poor are invisible, their anger is invisible to most as well. But their anger and desperation is growing and nearing a breaking point. The welfare system, which has always acted in tandem with the criminalization and dehumanization of the poor, was never intended to truly ‘help’ the poor or pull them out of poverty. It is and has always been a stopgap measure, designed to prevent revolts like the Peasant Wars that spread throughout Germany in 1524. And now, with ever-rising socioeconomic inequality–combined with assaults on welfare benefits for the poor – it is only a matter of time before the oppressed classes once again are pushed to revolt.
The ultra-wealthy know this full well, and have already started planning their escape routes, and yet the upper-middle, middle, and working-classes are still blinded by the fog, the same ideological fog that has convinced them that they poor are lazy and worthless and that hard work leads to success.
It is only in seeing through that fog that one can catch a glimpse of the Tower that looms.
My own experiences thankfully lifted that fog for me long ago, and I survive on the periphery, ever vulnerable and yet blessed with clarity, haunted by the constant reminder that behind my façade I have very little to stand on. Regardless of what I may signify to the world, regardless of what people may assume based on my clothes or my mannerisms, that edge always looms, and no matter how much I may distract or deceive myself, I am at risk of slipping over at any moment. Which is why every single time I walk past someone on the street who has obviously been pegged as a throwaway by society, I remember that they are a mirror, reflecting my own possibilities and potentials. But for privilege, but for luck, but for perception, but for the grace of the Gods goes I.
Not a moment goes by where I am not sharply aware that I am only one life event away from having to stand on that street corner myself, and despite the assumptions that others may harbor regarding my abilities and worth, the harsh reality is that I would not be dancing with a sign for money on behalf of a corporation, I would be begging with one for my very survival.
And if you ever saw me out there, Gods forbid? You would not be staring at a familiar stereotype, you would be staring at a reflection of yourself, for none of us are exempt from the potential fate of the throwaway. No matter your level of privilege, no matter the strength of your denial or the firmness of your bubble, it only takes a single life event, a single moment in time, to suddenly find yourself on the other side.
[This piece was originally written for The Wild Hunt on April 24, 2015]
Alley Valkyrie is a writer, artist, and spirit-worker living in Portland, Oregon. She has been interacting with a collection of gods and radicals for over fifteen years. When she’s not fighting Capitalism, Alley works with homeless folks and writes for The Wild Hunt.
The Willamette Valley stretches over 200 miles north-to-south along the Willamette River in Western Oregon. Cradled by mountain ranges to the east and west, the valley branches out northwards from the mountains outside of Eugene up through Salem and then past Portland, where the Willamette River meets the Columbia River at the Washington border. The valley is renowned for its rich and fertile soil, a result of volcanic glacial deposits from the Missoula Floods at the end of the last ice age, and the area is world-famous for its lush, old-growth forests as well as its agricultural output.
The Willamette Valley is also world-famous for its prevalence and severity of hay-fever allergies. The valley registers the highest grass pollen counts in the nation on a regular basis, and it was recently stated that Eugene in particular has the highest grass pollen counts in the world. The severity of the pollen varies seasonally as well as yearly, but its especially high throughout May and June, and on the worst days many do not even leave their house due to breathing difficulties. Visitors to the area are often surprised to find themselves violently sneezing out of nowhere, especially if they don’t normally suffer from hay-fever back home where they live. Local residents enjoy pointing out the fact that nobody is immune from the effects of the pollen. Many are often quick to share a well-known local myth in order to drive home the severity of allergy season in the Willamette Valley.
I initially heard the myth on my very first visit to the Pacific Northwest, long before I ever called the Willamette Valley home. I was sitting at a counter in a restaurant just outside of Eugene, my backpack sitting next to me. I started to sneeze profusely, and the man sitting next to me glanced over at me in my sinus-based misery. “You know, ‘Willamette’ is an Indian word meaning ‘valley of sickness’ or something close to that,” he said to me. “The allergies were so bad here that when white folks first came over the [Oregon] Trail, the Indians warned ‘em not to settle here. They thought that we were crazy for doing so.”
The story immediately sounded suspect to me. At the time, I knew nothing of the history of the Willamette Valley, but I did know that far too often, “history” that references Native people is anything but truthful or accurate. As a product of American public schools, I was taught for years on end that Columbus “discovered” America and that the Pilgrims and Indians gathered for a happy Thanksgiving feast. Growing up in the NYC area, I was taught as accepted “fact” that Peter Minuit “purchased” Manhattan from a local tribe for $24. Stories such as these are accepted as “history” to many, and yet they are well-known to be heavily sanitized and mythologized in order to de-emphasize the oppression and colonialism that are central to their true history. I had a hunch at that moment in the restaurant that the “valley of sickness” tale I had just been told was nothing more than sanitized mythology in the same vein as Columbus or Minuit, and yet it was obvious by his telling of the tale that the man next to me believed it as factual truth and fully expected me to believe it as well.
A few years later, after I moved to Eugene, I immediately started to hear variations of the “valley of sickness” tale on a regular basis, told by people from all walks of life. There were many slight variations of the myth, as might be expected with any folklore. Often I heard it told as the valley of “death” as opposed to “sickness”. Once in a while, someone would say that “the Indians nicknamed this the valley of sickness”, as opposed to claiming that the word “Willamette” itself literally translates as such. In some versions, the Indians left and/or didn’t want to live here because of the pollen, and other times they just warned white settlers not to settle here. The basic story is always the same, however. And as opposed to commonly-held beliefs around Columbus, I never heard anyone refute nor even question the “valley of sickness” tale.
After hearing several versions of the tale within the first few months of my living here, it occurred to me more and more that not only was this tale most likely false, but that I was quite disconnected from the history of this valley that I chose as home. Prior to moving to Oregon, I had lived my entire life within a 100-mile radius of New York City, and I was quite well-versed in the history of the New York area, from the landing of the Mayflower through the present. That knowledge, especially as it relates to the land itself, became central to my spiritual exploration and practice when I lived on the East Coast. Researching and examining the history of place in relation to the activities, energies and present tendencies within that place was a source of constant fascination for me, and became essential to my practice in terms of navigating a dense urban landscape from an energetic perspective. Here in Oregon, however, while I had a decent understanding of the local culture, I knew nothing of the actual history of either Eugene in itself or the Willamette Valley as a whole. I felt a need to connect to both the timeline-based history of this valley as well as to the land itself, and I decided to start educating myself in local history using the “valley of sickness” tale as a starting point.
“I knew nothing of the actual history of either Eugene in itself or the Willamette Valley as a whole. I felt a need to connect to both the timeline-based history of this valley as well as to the land itself.”
I broke down the tale in order to identify the basic alleged facts within the story. If any or all parts of the tale have any truth to them, then any or all of the individual facts within the story need to carry some truth:
That high pollen counts were an issue in the 1850s.
That the native people who inhabited the land prior to white settlement were adversely affected by the pollen.
That “willamette” is a native word that translates to “valley of sickness.”
And/or that “willamette” does not specifically translate as such but the native inhabitants also gave the valley another nickname that translated to “valley of sickness.”
And/or that the native inhabitants discouraged white settlers from settling in the area due to the pollen.
That the native inhabitants left because of all the pollen and related sickness.
And/or the native people never lived here in large numbers in the first place because of all the pollen.
With this outline as a guide, I immersed myself in both the history of the Willamette Valley as well as its present conditions. And indeed, I learned quickly that the “valley of sickness” tale was a multi-layered falsehood that among other things served to deny and mask the injustices done to the native inhabitants of this area. The truth itself did not surprise me as much as how easy the truth was to find for anyone who cared to look for it. A few books combined with a few conversations gave me all the answers I needed.
Prior to white settlement, the Willamette Valley was originally inhabited by the Kalapuya, a semi-nomadic tribe who migrated within the valley for centuries before Europeans ever set foot in Oregon. Lewis and Clark first passed through the Willamette Valley in 1806, and the fur trappers and missionaries came through the area soon thereafter, bringing with them smallpox, measles, and other diseases that the Kalapuya had no immunity to. These diseases ravaged the Kalapuya population through the mid-1800’s, with some sources estimating that over 90% of the Kalapuya had died by the time that the first wave of white settlers came through the Willamette Valley from the Oregon Trail in the early 1850’s.
The remaining Kalapuya referred to the Willamette Valley as the “valley of sickness” after the settlers came, but it was due to smallpox, not hay-fever. Some of the remaining Kalapuya may have migrated elsewhere on account of the widespread sickness, but the rest were removed to a reservation in 1855. The word “Willamette” itself derives from a Chinook word, and there is no definitive record as to its precise meaning. Most historians and scholars agree that it most likely referred to the water and/or specifically the river, and that the word pre-dates the smallpox epidemic and has nothing to do with sickness or pollen.
The pollen issue itself is a separate piece of the puzzle, where the changing terrain of the land itself comes into play. Most significant in terms of disproving the “valley of sickness” tale is the fact that the highly elevated pollen counts that cause such severe allergies in the Willamette Valley are a modern phenomenon that is the result of widespread industrial agriculture as opposed to a natural product of the native ecosystem.
The native terrain of the Willamette Valley was mostly composed of prairie-savannas and wetlands, with a mix of surrounding coniferous forests. The Kalapuya were hunter-gatherers, not farmers, and did not plant or cultivate crops. Various histories of the Kalapuya make no mention of excessive pollen or hay-fever, and there is nothing specific that stands out in the botanical and/or ecological composition of the Willamette Valley prior to white settlement that would give cause for the excessive pollen counts, especially such excessive pollen from any one plant source such as grass.
In contrast, the present-day Willamette Valley is a major agricultural center, and commercial non-native grass seed is by far the most prevalent crop. Grass seed production in the Willamette Valley was introduced in the 1920’s, and currently the valley produces nearly two-thirds of the nation’s grass seed. Production in acreage recently peaked at nearly 500,000 acres, and currently nearly 1,500 farms are devoted to grass seed, many of which are owned by national and multinational seed companies. The highest grass pollen counts in the world and the subsequent hay-fever allergies are essentially a direct result of a $250 million-dollar industry that is significantly shielded from blame by the widespread proliferation of the “valley of sickness” tale. But due to the commonly-held belief that residents of the Willamette Valley have been sneezing nonstop since the 1850s, a typical sneezer in Eugene is often completely unaware of the fact that the elevated pollen levels that cause such severe allergies are mainly caused by commercial grass seed production as opposed to by the local trees and plants in the immediate area.
As an outsider in this community, it was initially hard for me to understand why the myth was so prevalent and widespread despite easily accessible information that disproves the story entirely. It was also hard for me to understand the mindsets of several people I encountered who were very aware that at least one or more core factual elements of the tale were untrue. When I asked them if they ever corrected people on the facts, most of them admitted that they did not. “The story is appealing”, one woman told me, defending her silence. “I don’t want to be the bearer of bad vibes.” I disagreed strongly with her stance, but over time I understood her point more than I wished to admit. In a town full of back-to-the-land hippies and leftist intellectuals who are often all-too caught up in a culture of positive affirmations and passive-aggressive niceties, nobody wants to be the one bringing up genocide in the middle of a barbecue.
But over the years, when I look deep into the eyes of the myth itself time and time again, as well as into the eyes of the people who tell it, I have come to understand its appeal within the context of the local culture, especially given the fact that most of those who tell it are white, middle-class folks who are either the descendants of pioneers or transplants from other parts of the country. The myth serves as an easy explanation for the pollen issues, and it connects modern inhabitants of the Willamette Valley with the native people who lived here before them. There’s a sense of comfort inherent in the idea that even indigenous tribes hundreds of years ago suffered from hay-fever as people do today. Many also feel that the myth demonstrates the wisdom of the native inhabitants, and they feel that by telling the tale they are honoring that wisdom. “The Native Americans were right,” a friend said to me recently, in the midst of a hay-fever spell during one of the highest pollen measurements on record. “They warned us not to settle here, and man were they right.”
And yet, the myth is oppressive and damaging on many levels. The myth falsely explains away the modern suffering of those who benefited from colonialism at the expense of the truth behind the suffering of those who were oppressed by the colonizers. Not only does the “valley of sickness” tale dishonor the legacy and memory of the Kalapuya by whitewashing the truth of their history and suffering, but the myth also dishonor the spirits and ancestors of this valley that lived and experienced that truth. The fact that the myth also protects multinational agribusinesses whose profit-driven actions wreak havoc on the health of the people in addition to disrupting the native ecosystem is simply the icing on the cake, especially in an area where local values tend to be left-leaning and anti-corporate in principle.
Deconstructing this myth taught me many lessons, and gave me many insights into the local history and culture that have been invaluable to me ever since. More importantly, my questions regarding the myth not only revealed to me my own disconnect with the history of the land, but the fact that most who live here are ignorant of their own history, both the history of their ancestors as well as the history of this valley itself. My disconnect was due to being an outsider, and to some extent it is the outsider’s perspective that inspired me to develop the relationships and understandings that I have with both the land and the culture of the Willamette Valley. Researching the myth also brought me in contact for the first time with the energies and spirits of this land, a relationship which has not only greatly deepened over time, but one that has become essential to my work as a community activist and amateur historian.
“Researching the myth also brought me in contact for the first time with the energies and spirits of this land, a relationship which has not only greatly deepened over time, but one that has become essential to my work as a community activist and amateur historian.”
It’s currently allergy season, and I’ve heard the “valley of sickness” tale twice this week alone. And while I can’t prevent its telling, nor can I necessarily deflate its ubiquity, I can strongly dent its armor in subtle ways. But rather than lecturing people on genocide, oppression, and whitewashed history, I’ve found that the most effective method of drowning out such sanitized mythology is to simply tell a new story, one based in truth and fact.
And so I have become the awkward guest at the dinner party, so to speak, but I keep it short, sweet, and easy to digest. Whenever I hear the myth mentioned in my presence, my response has become almost automated. “That story is bullshit. The Kalapuya were sick with smallpox, not hay-fever, and pollen wasn’t an issue in the valley until agribusiness moved in. If you don’t like the hay-fever, blame the grass seed companies, but retelling that story only serves to disrespect the original inhabitants of the valley.”
Once in a while, in the midst of debunking the myth, I often sense something in the wind. I take it as a reminder that the land is always listening.
Alley Valkyrie is a writer, artist, and spirit-worker living in Portland, Oregon. She has been interacting with a collection of gods and radicals for over fifteen years.
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