Staring Down the Precipice: An Interview with Richard Oxman

By William Hawes

Richard Oxman is an educator living in Santa Cruz County, California. After talking both on the phone and by email with him the past few months, he has already become a dear friend to me. As someone interested in revolutionary politics, peace, and in providing a livable world for our children, I grew more and more interested as he began to share his plan for social change in his home state, which he calls Transforming our State of California (TOSCA). The following are excerpts from our ongoing (never-ending!) conversations.

William Hawes: Hey Richard, can you start by telling us a little bit about your past in academia and activism, what you are up to now, etc.?

Richard Oxman: First of all, I’d like everyone to know that I’m dedicating my part in this exchange to Arundhati Roy, who — I know — loved Howard Zinn and his work. In the name of possibly getting the word to her that I want to delineate the nuts and bolts of the “proposal for action” which I’m about to reference, a new paradigm for moving ahead in solidarity which Howard approved of; her “involvement” could create a watershed in history. If nothing else, hearing about the proposed “game plan” would, I’m sure, gladden her heart (and the hearts of many others we both respect).

I’ve been a professor and worldwide educator on all levels for half a century. I’ve taught Dramatic Art, Speech Arts, Comparative Literature, English as a Second Language, all sorts of subjects under the auspices of English departments, Cinema History, U.S. History, Creative Writing, Poetry, and Journalism at many different institutions, including Rutgers – The State University of New Jersey, Long Island University, Seton Hall University, New York Institute of Technology, St. Giles College, and Bronx Community College. In addition, I’ve volunteered the last nineteen years as a tutor and mentor for youngsters in middle schools and high schools all along the demographic spectrum. Here and abroad.

Working in communities of so-called “people of color” has been a special focus of mine, ever since I became an activist at the age of seven in 1949. Following WWI pilot Eugene Bullard almost getting beaten to death a few feet in front of me by a racist, “patriotic” crowd at the Peekskill Riots got me started. It was at a Paul Robeson concert where Pete Seeger was also on the bill, and where his children were almost killed too. So-called “law enforcement” enabled the horror to occur, and — in fact — I saw members of the local police and state police actually enthusiastically participate in the abominations taking place. That experience embedded itself in my blood and bones, and I buried it for decades, not talking about it even with people who I was most close to. That said, it’s always been a current running underneath all I’ve done.

I can’t go through my entire “career” as a proactive concerned citizen, but I should underscore something truly significant about the activist realm today, something I’ve experienced over the last dozen years or so. That is, that the most well-meaning, highly educated and deeply experienced souls have given up on the so-called Big Picture. Just about everyone is resigned to not being able to do anything on the macroscopic plane in meaningful solidarity. Look at how few writers on our alternative media outlets even give their contact information out… to get a taste of what I’m talking about here. They write their piece, they have their piece posted… and, the value of their work notwithstanding, they return to their treadmills. The same is true for the many who meet occasionally to march in circles with placards in Washington, D.C., the minions who mix it up now and then with obsolete forms of protest which come and go with no sense of hope regarding the Big Picture. No authentic interaction about their personal sense of impotency. Or, from another angle, no sense of the feebleness of the form of protest they’ve embraced.

There’s a lot of fighting the good fight going on, of course, but it’s taking place in tiny little corners, with no one and no organization effectively addressing what Derrick Jensen called the “source of the bleeding” not too long ago. He offered up that image in a Counterpunch article “Confronting Industrialism”, which had medical professionals rushing a stabbed patient into an operating room on a gurney, while the guy who stabbed the patient ran alongside the wheeled stretcher continuing to stab his victim. His point was that no one was really dealing with that source of the bleeding, the so-called madman. Which, in the final analysis, is us, and our lifestyle.

WH: Our political and civic climate here in the US seems to be disintegrating in front of our eyes. How has our social landscape become so fractured over the past 50-plus years? Also, can you explain why today’s activists, social justice groups, and protest movements are not getting through to those in power?

RO: Permit me to work backwards in responding. With regard to “not getting through to those in power,” one must acknowledge — as a very first tiny baby step in the name of participating in meaningful activism — that career politicians (by definition, too self-serving for the Collective Good) are never going to do what “protest movements” are — on bent knee, essentially — asking them to do. They are no longer built of the stuff that’s required to do the right thing. That doesn’t mean that activists shouldn’t ask. But the begging must be supplemented. Everyone is familiar, I believe, with Frederick Douglass’ mantra about power never conceding anything without a demand being made. Well, yes, demands and requests should be made. The “kicker”, though, is that these days that cannot be our primary or exclusive means for bringing about change, the radical institutional changes which are now necessary. In short, we must secure reins of vital decision-making capacity vis-a-vis our collective crises. People with heart, head and soul in a healthy place must be in the driver’s seat. Power knows “the truth”… and, though there’s value in repeating it for them, that must — now — not be one’s only contribution. Speaking truth to power is no more effective in terms of the Big Picture than having one’s head bashed in at the barricades, or participating in a candlelight vigil.

I was at Riverside Church in 1967 when Martin Luther King delivered his “Beyond Vietnam” speech. He called for a “radical restructuring of society” at that juncture, a year to the day before they killed him for crying out against what he called the three evils of poverty, racism and militarization, the latter being the main reason that they got rid of him. Well, it’s half a century later, and — on virtually all scores — things have gotten infinitely worse. The two students who stood by me at Riverside, poor kids from the South Bronx who I had gotten off the streets and got into Bronx Community College and Long Island University dropped out of school shortly after the speech for economic reasons, and were both killed in Southeast Asia in 1970. That dynamic, youngsters joining the military and parents giving their offspring over to our war abominations, not only continues fifty years down the road, it has increased immeasurably. Anything written by David Swanson, by the way, you can count on being spot on on this score.

And so… why are we still looking to the career politicians and compassionate corporate heads (that pull the power strings and scams) to be open to our getting through to them? Prestigious UCSC is in my backyard in Santa Cruz County, California, and I can tell you definitively that they and their counterparts nationwide — having been taken over by corporations — have a helluva lot to do with our continuing to compound such ignorance with ignorance. Henry Giroux is worthwhile on this count.

Cabrillo College is very close to where I presently live. If you go onto campus there you’ll find a bust near the Quad of MLK. The caption under his head says something about him being a fighter for civil rights, but says nothing about his stance against our military abominations or their relationship to poverty and racism. Well, our “social landscape” — to a great extent — has been shaped by our institutions of so-called higher education, and when our mainstream media outlets confirm all the misconceptions that are taught in those hallowed halls… well, our political and civic disintegration could be said to be, in part, a function of such dynamics. I mean, is there anyone out there who doesn’t get that corporations are calling the shots with our mainstream media outlets?

In middle schools and high schools — public ones and the charter variety — all still think that a student reading daily, say, The New York Times represents quite an advance. Well, it’s great to encourage reading, but there’s no critical thinking going on among the educators who are compounding ignorance with ignorance among their students by shilling for such tripe. What one gets from the Washington Post and its first cousins with the way such publications are handled does more damage than good. Way more.  And, please, I’m not foul-mouthing a particular publication here. Rather, I’m saying that ALL our common sources of news — the ones most prized in Santa Cruz High School and Stanford University (and their East Coast and Midwest counterparts) are contributing to what you’re calling our fracturing.

WH: Let’s talk about your proposal for your home state, which you call Transforming our State of California (TOSCA). How would it work?

RO:  First of all I want to underscore that — by design — whatever I spell out here in public is not the whole kit and caboodle. One of the huge problems these days in the activist realm is that groups which have something they’re keen on immediately pick up megaphones and make use of social media to tell the powers that be exactly what they intend to do (in full)… and where and when. The “element of surprise” is dispensed with completely with 98% of our activism. Aside from that, though, another reason for intentionally holding back on select nuts and bolts is that providing a telegraphic sound bite inevitably makes red flags spring up for everyone. This or that mentioned on the fly — condensed — begs for in-depth Q&A. And that’s what I’m seeking in agreeing to do this interview.

In short, however, I want to help ordinary citizens (not people interested in a career in politics) secure significant reins of vital decision-making power in California (or any state or country). ASAP. In  the so-called Golden State that means, securing the Sacred Seat of Sacramento, the gubernatorial office. I want the person who is elected to campaign — essentially — on a zero budget. And I want that person — at the very beginning of her/his political campaign — to make it clear to the voting public that — if elected — he/she will serve on an equal basis with eleven other “ordinary” citizens. Meaning, the governor would have one vote out of twelve as the gubernatorial coalition made decisions respecting our collective crises. And all interaction related to our collective crises, among members of the gubernatorial coalition, and between them and lobbyists et alia, would be totally TRANSPARENT. In addition, I want to have the gubernatorial coalition (with top alternative/advocacy journalists) provide “the news” for the Golden State (and beyond) — early on, via their own media outlet — with the idea, in part, of replacing our mainstream media outlets for the general public. This latter point is crucially important for the governor to be able to walk concerned citizens through the necessary direct action steps required to bring about personal transformations and the radical restructuring of society… which petitions to the powers that be will never achieve, as things stand. Please note that I’m not talking about an executive leader with a cabinet at work. I’m talking about what people no longer believe in: Something new under the Sun. I ride on Rocinante all day long.

WH: In the past few weeks we’ve witnessed absolute horrors, from Baghdad, to Orlando, Istanbul, Dallas, and now, Baton Rouge. Also, police killings and brutality against minorities is continuing unabated. How can we fight the terror and counter-terror of the corporate state, which is turning the world into a killing field? And how can a movement like TOSCA lead us to the Promised Land?

RO: It’s necessary to deal — first — with the apathy, cynicism, resignation, ignorance, complicity, bad habits and the inclination to (increasingly) live atomized lives. Among both the general public, and within the ranks of proactive concerned citizens (with their high tech gadgets in hand) To do that, it will be necessary to provide unprecedented inspiration with a singular stirring up of the creative juices of one and all. And that can’t be done with a book or posting or through any presentation taking place on the lecture circuit.

There needs to be an undermining of the myth that money is necessary to secure influential power, so that people can embrace the notion that they can pull off the miracles now necessary without the fruits of Moloch. Without money. Miracles don’t require money, they demand something else. And so… by achieving the miracle I’m proposing vis-a-vis the Sacred Seat of Sacramento without money (HOW having to be another discussion at another time in confidence), the gubernatorial coalition (represented by the governor who has heart, head and soul in an authentically healthy place) can inspire common folks, help them to rise above the psychological and spiritual hole they’ve dug for themselves. Such a sweet soul could help one and all to self-educate and walk them through the steps necessary to “influence” the gangster politicians to pass the appropriate legislation down the line… by encouraging unprecedented direct action. Nothing now will be accomplished which is worth the heartbeats without blending unique direct action with the electoral effort I’m advocating… in a way that the world has not witnessed to date. And this, again, is part of the reason why I’m not delineating all the nooks and crannies of TOSCA here. By the way, TOSCA is just a working title of sorts. I’ve been tweaking it with lots of grassroots input over the last decade plus, and — not too long ago — some local Hip Hop activists recommended that I use 12 Citizens instead. I know that that resonates with you, Will, and it’s fine and dandy with me; the number twelve has all sorts of wonderful references.

The members of the gubernatorial coalition could literally get on their knees and beg out loud in public for forgiveness for what they’ve been complicit in, what we’ve all contributed to. Which is something Hollande should be doing at this very moment with the victims in France, and, arguably, more importantly, with a message to the victims of France these days. The TOSCA/12 Citizens governor could make it very, very clear on her or his own media outlet that such apologies are absolutely necessary for starters. That owning the past that one is complicit in — something career politicians can never do — is essential to taking Step Number Two, which has to do with stopping the killing, as per the pleas of the late Daniel Berrigan. Which translates in my Golden State into the gubernatorial coalition making sure that animal torture on UC campuses is terminated. That the University of California’s relationship to Lawrence Livermore Labs is seriously undermined. That, perhaps, the BDS Movement be given a shot of adrenaline. And on that latter note, why do students continue to beg the Head of the Regents to do the right thing when they could be the Head of the UC Regents? The Regents appoint the President of UC, you know.

I should insert here that I’m citing UC-related matters because the governor of the state — as Head of the Regents of the UC system — can unilaterally and virtually overnight transform life throughout California. Athough he/she has to vote along with other members of the Regents by law, in terms of de facto influence as Head of the Regents, the Governor could actually create a watershed in history on UC’s 26 campuses. I could give you a list of what could be done unilaterally (and post haste) if you want (which would include being able to serve the homeless in historic fashion), but perhaps I should underscore instead what could be done in an off-of-the-campus context. I’ll give one monumentally important example. The Guv can — without as much as even having a conversation with the gangster legislators who are only into self-serving action — pardon thousands of the incarcerated. Virtually overnight. Using any one of a number of approaches to pull that off without a hitch. And in doing so he/she would be reinvigorating the lives of the presently incarcerated souls, and — simultaneously — doing so for their loved ones while inspiring the members of all their communities throughout the state to embrace a Don Quixote attitude about what is possible. Getting everyone onto Rocinante.

The Executive of the State of California could — for the first time in history — call a shovel a shovel. It’s particularly important to do so when that shovel is being used to bury one with. And that would mean being very clear about how rotten U.S. politics and culture is at its very core. The terror sponsored and inspired by the corporate state can only be countered by radically restructuring society as per the pleas of MLK. And that really means revolution. The business of taking over the Sacred Seat of Sacramento to do so is motivated by my desire to have that “revolution” be as nonviolent as possible. The leader of California would have a shot — having secured the gubernatorial office on a zero budget — of grabbing and maintaining public attention long enough to help citizens to self-educate about what role their personal transformations must play in bringing about institutional changes. Would have enough unprecedented respect from the public to get people to (maybe) really get down with, and (maybe) get rid of the bad habits they’ve personally embraced. The ones that prop up the status quo. Runaway consumerism and waste cannot be dealt with without someone pushing the envelope on that score. To say nothing about… much more.

All of the inevitable questions which arise from my saying what I’ve just said beg to be addressed leisurely, not on the run. The red flags and points which people will tend to be dismissive with out of hand must be talked about in great depth, and that’s absolutely essential. None of this can be accepted or rejected wisely or legitimately unless a discussion of what’s here gets into gear leisurely. And everyone’s on the run these days with the fighting the good fight that they’re doing in tiny, tight little corners… having given up on politics, or embracing the electoral arena in obsolete fashion. California’s going to have to be led to do something that’s tantamount to secession of a sort. For no one’s dealing with what I call our frayed cables.

Imagine our getting on to an elevator. I usually use a metaphoric eleveator to make my point, but to save time I’ll invoke a literal elevator here. We get on and we notice that someone’s on their knees in the corner on our left. And they’re wearing a t-shirt which reads Do Not Disturb. They’re feverishly fighting the good fight with their back to us, circulating a petition, calling their elected rep, maybe preparing to get arrested in some nonviolent confrontation with the police. Engaged in some obsolete form of protest which begs for a supplement.  We look to our right and we see a counterpart of that person on the left. Also on their knees with their back to us, wearing the same t-shirt. I turn to you and whisper something. I whisper because soon in this country it’ll be illegal to say what I’m going to say, and do what I’m going to do. I quietly say, “Look up.” And I point to a hole in the ceiling of the elevator. Through the ceiling you can see the cables, and — clearly — they’re frayed. Well, I can tell you definitively — and I have the documentation at home to back this next statement up — that no one in the country — no individual, no organization — is presently up on that ceiling effectively engaged in repairing those cables. No one is addressing that Big Picture. The “documentation” I speak of comes from my having interacted with well over 15,000 concerned citizens during the last dozen years nationwide. And I don’t believe anyone else in the country has come across what I’ve learned about how citizens are thinking and/or working on those cables. Regardless, I’d like the chance to share what’s been so instructive for me. See, what I’m trying to do — bottom line — is to get a handful of proactive citizens to come to the center of the elevator so that we can climb on one another’s shoulders to simply have a chance at dealing with those frayed cables. I haven’t been approaching people as if I have THE answer. Rather, I’ve been all about merely wanting us to have a shot at repairing the cables before it’s too late. And the first step in doing so has to be an acknowledgement about the fact that no one’s up there. There’s no need for everyone to take time out from their tiny little corners. Just a select few who can do it; some people are locked into very necessary work in those corners. I’m already actually on a few shoulders (of people from my past, like Lorraine Hansberry, Jimmy Baldwin, Iris Chang, Adrienne Rich and Howard Zinn) already, and it wouldn’t take many more to make it possible for someone to get up there.

WH: Can you comment more on most of today’s activists, who can be categorized as “reformers” and “progressives”? Most of whom quite simply want to advance social well-being, but do not see the connection to the industrial-corporate state, which must be dismantled for revolutionary change to occur. Which is to say, even if you get that $15 an hour wage, or end homelessness, or kick Halliburton out of one country, those actions will not cut it in today’s interconnected world. You speak wisely about the need to stop working in tiny corners, while no one is seeing the Big Picture. The train has no conductor, and our civilization is headed for a precipice. Can you expand on that?

RO: See, the challenge is this. Someone can lead by having the public change from one brand of toothpaste to another, but what’s needed is tantamount to getting folks to stop brushing their teeth. No one’s slated to do something that’s not in vogue, as things stand.

To bounce off of a chess analogy, the task is not to replace a white rook with a red one, or to substitute a black bishop with a — forgive the pun! — a green piece. Our collective challenge would be to upend the uneven, toxic game board on which we’re being played (on which we’ve been splayed forever), and to do so legally and nonviolently. The pieces, then, would be picked up — ideally — by “ordinary” folks, and placed back onto a brand new board as they see fit. That’s what’s called revolution. Radical change.

It seems the height of insanity for, say, a local organic farmer being content with being exclusively engaged in carving out inroads to grow healthy produce, distribute food nearby regularly, offer some products gratis and/or fighting for proper organic standards with legislators (and helping the public to self-educate about their diets). To not be engaged whatsoever in proactively/directly dealing also with matters like nuclear waste storage, nuclear weapons proliferation, incompetency with regard to nuclear-related control, and the increase in money spent for nuclear reactors, or the ongoing operation of dated nuclear facilities. Any citizen who’s not involved to some degree with addressing such matters — and there are many such matters to deal with, of course — is either not being clear-headed about what’s happening, or having no clarity on what’s headed our way. Kind of like my lovely first born who’s living in New York near Indian Point.

Or — perhaps — not having compassion for the future of children and all of Mother Earth’s lovely creatures. That organic farmer I invoked is not just subject to the horrors being perpetrated by neighbors embracing Monsanto’s products. He/she is also an increasingly likely victim of nuclear holocaust courtesy of NATO. Tiny little corners won’t cut it anymore. Feeling personally good about oneself, and fighting the good fight as per one’s personal passions is no longer enough. The Great American Mantra of Do Your Own Thing has absolutely infected the entire realm of activism. Joseph Campbell would turn over in his grave, I believe, if he knew how his Follow Your Passion had played out down the line.

One wouldn’t want to support someone in WWII Germany who was, say, fighting for having a moratorium on the use of gas chambers for gypsies in 1943 exclusively. Or which was only focused on giving a year’s reprieve to the jews or homosexuals. And yet in Santa Barbara there are lots of well-meaning, highly educated and deeply experienced concerned citizens spending their activist heartbeats on the agenda of the A Year Without War. It’s a well-meaning organization, just like the organic farmer is likely a sweet, hard-working soul. But none of that expenditure of time and energy is enough now. Anyone who doesn’t see the need for new collective action on the macroscopic plane vis-a-vis the potential of pandemics, nuclear dynamics, climate change and medical access/cost/quality — to name only four of four hundred crises plus — simply isn’t paying attention. The only problem with saving the world is expecting someone else to do it. Well, right now no one’s doing it. And a fresh paradigm for doing so is being begged for.

WH: You often bring up Derrick Jensen with me, an amazing author and ecological thinker. As he and others have pointed out, the domination of man over man is intimately connected with the idea of man’s superiority over nature. For an egalitarian culture to flourish, respect for the non-human world must increase immensely and unconditionally. Can you address the suffering, the loss, the sense of grief many of us bury and repress, that comes with the environmental and social devastation our culture produces? How can we stop, as you say, “compounding ignorance with ignorance”?

RO: Derrick Jensen’s new book (The Myth of Human Supremacy) should be read, by the way. All of what he puts on the table for our kind consideration should, whether or not we agree with every nut and bolt he uses to put together his passionate pleas in his many articles, books and speeches. And I say the same respecting Noam Chomsky. His new Who Rules the World? provides enough for anyone to get busy with moving in solidarity along effective lines. In addressing environmental issues in that work, he underscores that the only folks who are really getting down with what must be done to deal with the powers that be and the horrid momentum they’ve created by having citizens embrace abominable habits and maintaining exclusive control on decision-making are indigenous people.

Once one tunes into exactly what indigenous folks are doing these days to fight, say, extraction of fossil fuels, it’s clear that Noam is tactfully touching upon the need for revolution. Indigenous people, typically, are infinitely more in touch with Mother Nature than the vast majority of U.S. citizens. The reasons for that are multiple, and we need not beat that horse to death right now, I think. Rather, our focus should be on the fact that each of us must start on a very personal note here. How can we do this? How can we do that in solidarity? How about starting with the injunction of Rilke’s (from “Archaic Torso of Apollo”) which goes, “You must change your life.”

A non-politician governor could help citizens immeasurably respecting that monumental challenge potentially. The right person pushing the individual and collective envelope would give people a chance at least of being motivated to go out of their firmly ensconced personal comfort zones… which no politician ever gets into. And — at the same time — send positive ripples nationwide and worldwide concerning exactly what’s needed to blend with Mother Nature and to not go over the precipice. It’s not even being talked about presently in any way that is slated to translate into action. People say, Be the Change You Want. And they say this and that.  But they’re missing the Big Picture of what’s happening and not happening with the frayed cables. There’s talk talk, not walk talk, for the most part. And the walking the walk that is taking place is moving at the pace of an arthritic snail with no real sense of deadlines and/or with no potential for delivering the knockout we need. We have to floor the powers that be. We are in a toxic ring with them, and they won’t let us out. The fight as it’s being waged must end. But most of our activist pugilists have given up on securing a new venue.

WH: Why is TOSCA better poised to make an impact at the state level, than say, a new iteration of the Occupy movement, or a grand coalition of Independents, Socialists, Black Lives Matter, Greens, Libertarians, etc.?

RO: First of all, it’s important to acknowledge that no “new iteration” of Occupy is gathering steam; any form of the Occupy movement — in terms of what’s needed in the Big Picture — is presently marginalized, not moving toward securing the kind of decision-making power on any level that is slated to make a big enough difference soon enough. And there is absolutely no acknowledgement of the “deadlines” I’ve been referring to among any of the groups you’ve cited. Lots of talk is going on, but — at best — the whole kit and caboodle is involved with the application of necessary tourniquets. Much of the work that many individuals within those organizations are doing is praiseworthy and essential in this or that tiny corner. But all the folks you’ve cited are permanently marginalized respecting their being able to secure significant reins of decision-making power.

Let’s take any third party. None of them tell their members that even if their candidate for a major office (like a governor’s office in a given state) were to legitimately win sufficient votes to take office, the powers that be would undermine the victory so that that person (if they were radical along the lines I’m saying is necessary, intending to radically restructure society) would never take office. They have a Plan A, which is focused on securing a sufficient number of votes, but they don’t have the necessary Plan B in gear. Meaning, they don’t really see that the powers that be would either assassinate their candidate, or make sure that electoral fraud kicked in. They’re kind of like the non-profits that are spotlighted in Cowspiracy (fighting climate change). Those organizations — the top ten which are addressing Climate Change are intentionally not mentioning (animal-related) methane matters as a major factor in their battle. Over 50% of the problem. Why? Because they do not want to jeopardize fund raising by raising attention to the need for people to personally transform. Easier to rally folks for contributions if one is not asking them to change their diets. Calling a shovel a shovel in the electoral arena and the realm of activism may lose you members, numbers, money, but that envelope has to be pushed (along with the one that asks for financial support).

TOSCA is all about trying to secure significant reins of power on the gubernatorial level on a zero budget, so finances are not a concern whatsoever. And it has a Plan B to supplement its Plan A. Its approach is not — as is the case with the others — to secure numbers, members by bonding on a superficial/passing basis, as the vast majority of Bernie supporters did recently. As Jill Stein’s followers are doing, their wonderful intentions notwithstanding. As all participants in traditional third parties do as a rule. The “bonding” is not ever very deep, and so any movement in solidarity that’s generated comes and goes. I’m not saying that lovely seeds aren’t planted, but I am saying that what they’re planting — these groups you’ve cited — is not slated to bloom in time. Again, I’m talking about collective deadlines, which the groups you’ve cited are not acknowledging in meaningful action whatsoever. Greens will be quick to say that they are meaningfully engaged in doing something. But not a single Green nationwide has been willing to discuss that with me one-on-one without watching the clock. That dynamic — which is not just limited to the Greens — enables them to hold onto their delusion. And I invite any reps from any of the groups you’ve cited, Will, to engage with me on the score I’m spotlighting leisurely. To test the waters. To allow themselves to be truly challenged. I’m not talking about debate. I’m talking about getting down to relaxed/detailed interaction which does not include anyone judging the exchange.

The TOSCA approach is all about bonding — first — one on one. And instead of using social media to quickly secure great numbers of like-minded souls, it embraces the notion that the only way to proceed initially (in spite of the fact that we do have serious deadlines looming) is to urge someone who you bond with (over what needs to be done) to go to their loved ones, people who trust them… with the prayer that additional bonding will take place. Neither flyers nor appearances with appeals on shows, nor use of films or social networking are important means for getting the ball rolling. None of what’s usually relied upon. Mitch Hedbert, the late great comedian, once told me, “When people come up to me with a flyer, it’s like they’re saying, ‘Hey, you throw this away for me!'” That’s got it’s counterpart within the realm of social media.

The apathy, resignation, cynicism, ignorance, complicity and atomized living cited earlier all preclude any “grand coalition” from coming together at present. Look at the depth of the ignorance for a moment of the Sanders campaign. Again, I’m not saying that valuable seeds weren’t planted. I’m saying that everyone should take a good hard look at how many heartbeats were spent on the four-year extravaganza which regularly distracts citizens from doing something together that must be done. The word “revolution” was bandied about cavalierly for the entire campaign, but no one still seems to get the fact that the federal level is lost to us. The offices and the agencies, everything at this juncture related to it is not worth devoting so many heartbeats to. The activist realm cannot afford to have so much time and energy focused on any presidential race. Vote, as you please, but get down (with the vast majority of your heartbeats) with others who are truly involved in bringing about a radical change.

TOSCA asks citizens to use their imaginations respecting what kind of impact securing a gubernatorial office on a zero budget would actually have. I’m riding on Rocinante with that one, I know. But what’s the alternative? To shoot for what people refer to as realistic? In every quarter — including the engaged realms of people you cited — concerned citizens are embracing dated approaches. We need to transform our “state” as we engage in citizen action in solidarity. Meaning, both our psychological and spiritual states must be dealt with as we address the political state. In California, the acronym TOSCA could translate as Transforming Our State of California. Or, from another perspective, Taking Over Our State of California. To secede from the so-called Union. Not to “take over” a public place as per activism that’s in vogue. Take over The Commons permanently. The groups you cited all believe that it’s still possible to be part of the U.S. and be morally and spiritually okay. It is not. We are embedded in something which is rotten to the core. And the celebrities in all quarters who serve as models for our youth are whores. I’m rhyming here to drive home the note that we have to call a shovel a shovel on many levels. Which we are not doing, except with marginalized activist talk talk in tiny corners. It amounts to mental masturbation in groups.

WH: What a novel idea, using our imaginations! It’s all we have, after all! Here’s the thing. Political imagination, converted into action, seems to require a collective scene of artists, workers, and intellectuals, who are informed about history, radical theory, charity for the poor, and world solidarity. This is missing in the frontier, barbaric ethos of US political thought. In Germany Bassam Tibi uses the term “Leitkultur”, which can translate into “leading culture”, or “core culture”. This entails a high European sociological worldview, with respect to human rights, democracy, secularism, universal values, etc. In France, to cite one example, it was the political imagination of the Dadaists, Surrealists, and later the Situationists who opened the world up to new possibilities of social organization. Is it realistic that a movement like what you propose can take hold here in the US, with such flimsy cultural roots?

RO: Yes, even though the culture and the politics here are abominable, imaginations can be stirred up, tapped into. Your wondering how that might be possible, I believe, has to do with being on automatic about numbers. Everyone jumps (prematurely) to a concern about securing the participation of a critical mass when they discuss making a difference in either the electoral arena or the realm of direct action. That’s a huge, common death knell of a mistake. A mental deal breaker, if you will. Meaning, again, the way to proceed has to be one-on-one initially. Contrast that contact with how activists go about stirring up movement in solidarity right now. Let’s get a crowd together that feels abused and scream bootless cries! [Only, exclusively.]

Use your imagination respecting viable options for embracing the more intimate approach. Yes, all is not lost. But how one secures the intimate interaction is daunting; it will require knocking on doors incessantly; standing outside with infinite patience. Meaning, what a given activist will have to go through to come across a single soul who’s open to such exploration will demand many heartbeats. The hopeful note to hang on to, I believe, is that once a core group comes together miracles can be performed. Think of what a handful of women accomplished on that hot summer day in 19th-century upstate New York. With numbers and delusions of all kinds aligned against them.

Regarding imagination, when I ask people to imagine what the impact would be of securing a gubernatorial office on a zero budget, they go blank on me, as a rule. Or they take what I’m throwing out as a red flag, and they prematurely dismiss TOSCA/12 Citizens out of hand. They can’t handle, it seems, being asked to imagine how things could be different with such a new ingredient injected into the activist mix. And tackling that challenge is the kind of thing activists have to get down with, the reality presented by each and every concerned citizen they encounter. Working with that… paying close attention — like a curious child (without answers) — to what emerges from the intimacy. Not being concerned, at first, with numbers. Not embracing cookie cutter ways of proceeding. Preparing for the next meeting in a hurry, harried with flyers in hand.

The documentary Inshallah, Kashmir has a shot of a broken down schoolhouse which has a beautiful set of words scrawled on its crumbling outside walls: Children are God’s way of telling us He hasn’t given up on us. Something like that. That’s what we have to lock into as we engage with one another now, next. The child in one another who has — embedded in his soul — the new paradigm which begs to be implemented. THE answer. I conclude by quoting from E.E. Cummings’ “Children guessed, but only a few, and down they forgot as up they grew.” Something like that. Something far from what adults are practicing. Something that might look lyrical to the likes of little ones. Standing at the opposite end of the spectrum from the end-of-the-world thinking and actions of prosaic adults.

WH: How can interested souls reading this learn more about TOSCA, take action, and get involved?

RO: They can write to aptosnews@gmail.com. And I do hope that someone does. And soon. For we are documenting, debating, demonstrating, diverting and delaying ourselves to death in lieu of doing something new in solidarity that stands to make a big enough difference in time, as one of my home schooled youngsters  has said. I almost didn’t agree to do this interview because of that dynamic, but I’m glad I took advantage of this opportunity. Those who are sensitive to our being the United States of Abominations understand that they are surrounded by bullies in the playground. Bullies, partially blind people and — for the most part — folks fussing about themselves in the mirrors they hold (most dear to their hearts). This interview should be taken as an invitation to rendezvous to create the watershed in history which will enable us to have fun in the playground once again.

William Hawes

is a writer specializing in politics and the environment. You can find his e-book of collected essays here. His articles have appeared online at Global Research, Countercurrents, and Dissident Voice. You can email him at wilhawes@gmail.com

Revolution At The Witching Hour: The Legacy of Midnight Notes

by James Lindenschmidt

It is no great surprise to me that Silvia Federici‘s book Caliban & The Witch has gained so much traction in the Pagan community in recent years. When I first read the book more than a decade ago, I knew it would be important for Pagans, simply because it told our story, our history, from the most complete and insightful historical and theoretical perspective I had ever seen. I am on record as saying it is the most important political book yet written in the 21st century, since it deals with the story of the transition to capitalism, with all the violence, blood, fire, and greed that accompanied and forced the transition. But since I have been a Pagan for nearly 30 years, I tended to see the subject matter less in terms of the transition to capitalism, but rather more in terms of the final transition away from Paganism, in the multitude and myriad of ways various paganisms were expressed before they were crushed and assimilated into the new mechanistic worldview of capitalism.

But Silvia Federici is not a ‘Pagan,’ despite the great service her work has been to our community. The context of her work, however, can be just as valuable to us as Caliban itself has been. Three or four decades before that book was published, a few groups of thinkers, writers, students, and teachers began working together. Two of them were the feminist Wages For Housework movement, as well as the Zerowork Collective. Both are worthy of investigation and further study. But by the end of the 1970s, a new group had emerged, which will be the focus of this piece.

A Brief History

History tells us that the Midnight Notes Collective began in the late 1970s with discussions between Monty Neill, Hans Widmer (aka p.m.), and George Caffentzis, with John WiIlshire Carrerra and Peter Linebaugh getting involved early on. Indeed, the membership of the Collective has been quite fluid over the years, both because people naturally tend to come and go over the years, and also because there were years when they intentionally remained anonymous to avoid overt harassment and repression form the establishment, an important strategy of self-preservation for a group demonstrating a “commitment to revolutionary possibilities.” They also wanted to avoid the “rock star” cult of personality, which was common in academia at the time. In addition to the people directly involved with Midnight Notes (including the above as well as Silvia Federici, Dan Coughlin, David Riker, Vasilis Passas, Johnny Machete, and Michaela Brennan, among others ), there were also various friends & associates over the years, including Steven Colatrella, John Roosa, Harry Cleaver, and Massimo de Angelis.

Despite the fluidity of the group, there was an important coherence to their ideas, expressed in a variety of publications over the years, starting in 1979 and running through the Reagan Years into the Bush era, all of which are now available online:

  1. Strange Victories (1979)
  2. No Future Notes: The Work/Energy Crisis & The Anti-Nuclear Movement (1979)
  3. The Work/Energy Crisis and the Apocalypse (1980)
  4. Space Notes (1981)
  5. Computer State Notes (1982)
  6. Posthumous Notes (1983)
  7. Lemming Notes (1984)
  8. Outlaw Notes (1985)
  9. Wages — Mexico — India — Libya (1988)
  10. The New Enclosures (1990)

These earliest publications from Midnight Notes are worth checking out, as a great glimpse into the political climate of the Reagan/Bush years, as the transition of capitalism from Keynesianism to Neoliberalism was cemented.

After these original issues, there were several more publications, some of them book-length, from the group:

Midnight Oil: Work, Energy, War, 1973-1992 (1992, Autonomedia)
This anthology is an analysis of the “energy crisis” of the 1970s, which they framed as a “work/energy crisis,” as well as a look at the evolution of capitalism in the 1980s. It contains several of their previous writings from earlier publications, namely The New Enclosures and The Work/Energy Crisis And The Apocalypse, with other articles written to fill in some of the theoretical gaps, additional analysis, and history. This book might be the best overall introduction to the thought of Midnight Notes in general. While in some ways it is dated from the 2015 point of view, it is my personal favorite analysis of the transition from Keynesianism to Neoliberalism, and broadened my understanding of today’s capitalism.

Auroras of the Zapatistas: Local & Global Struggles of the Fourth World War (2001, Autonomedia)
This book is an anthology of writing, using the Zapatista uprising in Mexico as the focal point for anti-capitalist, anti-neoliberal, and anti-globalization theory and history. Midnight Notes saw that this uprising was “a luminous crack in a clouded sky,” the first “movement that consciously pitted itself against global capital and at the same time was rooted in a territorial reality.”

Promissory Notes: From Crisis To Commons (2009)
This much shorter piece, published in 2009, is an analysis of the 2007-2008 “Great Recession” or global financial crisis. It also showed that the crisis was largely yet another “apocalypse” or evolution of capital from the neoliberalism from the 1970s through the early 2000s, and represented neoliberal “capital’s flight into financialization,” or the “attempt to ‘make money from money’ at the most abstract level of the system once making money from production no longer sufficed.”

After barraging you with so many links to their writings over the years, I will now attempt to distill their writing into a few of what I perceive to be their key ideas over nearly 40 years of writing.

3 Key Ideas

I remember when my own political outlook begin to evolve away from mainstream partisan politics in the US and toward a more radical outlook, I felt a dearth of information. Most of this was getting used to where information comes from: learning how to disengage from the received dialogues and worldview propagated by the capitalist media and the prevailing cultural outlook I grew up with in suburbia, and toward more obscure, alternative sources was a challenge. To this day, I think that truth discernment is arguably the biggest challenge facing alternative thinkers in the information age. In some ways it’s even more challenging these days, since you can encounter just about every possible viewpoint articulated somewhere on the Internet.

In the late 90s, I was lucky enough to begin studying philosophy at the University of Southern Maine, where George Caffentzis was a teacher. It was a small department, so if you hung out at the philosophy house it was easy to get to know some of the folks who taught there. I was intrigued by George’s ideas and thoughts right from the beginning. There are a lot of great teachers there, but I knew right away that I had a lot to learn from George. I remember early in my freshman year, he did a senior seminar on the philosophy of money, and being really bummed that I was nowhere near far enough along in my philosophy study to be able to take it. So I began to poke around for some of George’s writings, and before long I discovered Midnight Notes. This was in the early days of the Internet, before the writings were available online. I began to read them, and they were definitely challenging. I hadn’t yet read Marx or really any other radical political writings, and in retrospect Midnight Notes served as not only a fabulous introduction, but also an enduring foundation for my radical political thinking. I am grateful for this bit of serendipity that brought me to Maine at this point in spacetime.

Having studied Midnight Notes over the past 15 years, I think these are the most important ideas to glean from their writings:

1. Capitalist Crisis/Apocalypse Is Always About Class Struggle

Automobiles lining up for fuel at a service station in the U.S. state of Maryland in the United States, in June 1979.
Automobiles lining up for fuel at a service station in the U.S. state of Maryland in the United States, in June 1979.

This idea was first articulated in their 3rd issue: The Work/Energy Crisis & The Apocalypse, written in 1980 after the so-called “energy crisis” of the 1970s had been underway for the better part of a decade, peaking in both 1973 and 1979. I was a child in the 1970s, and I remember seeing the long lines for gasoline, complaints about OPEC and Jimmy Carter, but very little about class struggle. Interestingly, this was also the last decade where labor strikes were common, since strikes were more or less wiped out by the Reagan administration starting in 1981 when he fired the air traffic controllers who had unionized under PATCO and voted to strike. Their argument is quite detailed, but the essence of it is that

Capitalist crises stem from a refusal of work…. The term “energy crisis” is a misnomer. Energy is conserved and quantitatively immense, there can be no lack of it. The true cause of capital’s crisis in the last decade is work, or more precisely, the struggle against it. The proper name for the crisis then is the “work crisis” or, better, the “work/energy crisis.” For the problem capital faces is not the quantity of work per se, but the ratio of that work to the energy (or labor power) that creates it…. Through the noise of the apocalypse, we must see in the oil caverns, in the wisps of natural gas curling in subterranean abysses, something more familiar: the class struggle (Midnight Notes, The Work/Energy Crisis & The Apocalypse).

2. The New Enclosures

Arguably the most important insight that came from Midnight Notes’ writings is the notion of the New Enclosures. Before this insight, enclosure, or “primitive accumulation” in Marxist terminology, was largely seen as a historical artifact from the beginning of capitalist society. Midnight Notes showed that enclosures

“are not a one time process exhausted at the dawn of capitalism. They are a regular return on the path of accumulation and a structural component of class struggle. Any leap in proletarian power demands a dynamic capitalist response: both the expanded appropriation of new resources and new labor power and the extension of capitalist relations, or else capitalism is threatened with extinction.” (Midnight Oil, 318)

Midnight Notes then argued that the New Enclosures took five forms:

  1. Ending communal control of the means of subsistence
  2. Seizing land for debt
  3. Make mobile & migrant labor the dominant form of labor
  4. The collapse of socialism
  5. Attack on our reproduction

They — both the collective itself, and several of the writers working outside the collective — have continued to develop these ideas of enclosure since then.

3. Commons & Commoning

The last idea I think is the most important to come from Midnight Notes is reclaiming the notion of the Commons and Commoning. This idea is the logical extension of their insights about Enclosure, since the Commons is the very thing that is being enclosed. These insights came later in the Midnight Notes, particularly through their admiration and analysis of the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico beginning on January 1, 1994, the day that NAFTA went into effect. Midnight Notes argues that these struggles represent

on one side, capital’s attempt to form a new level of global superstate and economy and, on the other, an anti-capitalist struggle moving from a multiplicity of localities to large-scale confrontations like the “Battle of Seattle” in late 1999. The Zapatistas have aptly named this struggle “the Fourth World War.”

Commoning is at the center of this struggle, since the commons provides subsistence for resistance, and “this power to subsist/resist is exactly what capital wants to eliminate throughout the world.” In general, and to some degree, capital is always enclosing, whereas the working class is always commoning, and commoning is central to resistance against capital.

Caffentzis, Federici, Linebaugh: 3 Contemporary Thinkers

After this all-too-brief look at the Midnight Notes Collective itself, I now want to turn to 3 new books, published by PM Press, from three of the most important voices within Midnight Notes. While George Caffentzis and Peter Linebaugh have been involved with Midnight Notes from its earliest days, it is important to note that Silvia Federici has remained a bit more aloof from the collective over the years. While she was part of the collective for a few of the later original Midnight Notes publications (namely The New Enclosures), and her writings appear in Midnight Oil and Auroras of the Zapatistas, she is not listed as a member of the collective in either of those books. While I do not pretend to be privy to the undercurrents of interpersonal dynamics and ideological differences within the group, I suspect that Silvia’s unwavering commitment to feminism is at the root of the aloofness. And I should also point out that George Caffentzis conveyed to me in a conversation that for the most part it was Midnight Notes responding to Federici’s work rather than vice versa. All three of these books are anthologies of writing from the careers of each writer, to which I now turn.

In Letters Of Blood & Fire: Work, Machines, & the Crisis Of Capitalism

George Caffentzis, In Letters Of Blood & Fire: Work, Machines, & the Crisis of Capitalism
George Caffentzis, In Letters Of Blood & Fire: Work, Machines, & the Crisis of Capitalism

Of the three, George Caffentzis is the most traditional, albeit radical, “philosopher of the anticapitalist movement.” In Letters Of Blood & Fire is divided into three sections. Part 1 is Work/Refusal, Part 2 is Machines, and Part 3 is Money, War, & Crisis. Part 1 begins with the aforementioned “The Work/Energy Crisis and the Apocalypse,” which remains foundational to much of Caffentzis’ subsequent work. These analyses contain wonderful insights, such as this analysis of the relationship between capital’s production, value, and prices:

The hand of capital is different than its mouth and its asshole. The transformation of value into prices is real, but it also causes illusions in the brains of both capitalists and workers (including you and me!). It all revolves around “mineness,” the deepest pettiness in the Maya of the system: capital appears as little machines, packets of materials, little incidents of work, all connected to us — its little agents of complaint, excuse, and hassle. Each individual capitalist complains about “my” money, each individual worker cries about “my” job, each union official complains about “my” industry; tears flow everywhere, apparently about different things, so that capitalism’s house is an eternal soap opera. “Mineness” is an essential illusion, though illusion all the same. Capital is social, as is work, and it is also as pitiless as Shiva to the complainers, whose blindness capital needs to feed itself. It no more rewards capitalists to the extent that they exploit than it rewards workers to the extent that they are exploited. There is no justice for anyone but itself.

Part 2, on Machines, is a more technical analysis of the place of machines within capitalism, and particularly within the Marxist analysis of capital. Central to his arguments is the piece from 1997, “Why Machines Cannot Create Value: Marx’s Theory of Machines,” whose argument is self-contained in the title.

Part 3 contains a very short and succinct piece, which I recommend as the briefest and most coherent introduction to Caffentzis’ work overall. “The Power of Money: Debt & Enclosure” is a very brief look at money in the human experience:

For most of human history, money either did not exist (before roughly the seventh century BC) or it was of marginal importance for most people on the planet (until roughly the nineteenth century AD). Why is it so important now?

He then articulates the “economist’s fairy tale,” which is the received story about the function of money simplifying exchange as compared to barter, as well as “lowering costs” of trade. He points out that money, too, has its transaction costs that mostly go overlooked by capitalist economists.

All in all, these writings convey Marx’s image that the story of the origins of capitalism, and its reproduction, are written “in the letters of blood and fire used to drive workers form the common lands, forests, and waters in the sixteenth century.” I highly recommend this book for readers interested in the most technical analysis of capitalism, from a detailed philosophical perspective.

Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, & Feminist Struggle

Silvia Federici, Revolution At Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle
Silvia Federici, Revolution At Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle

As previously stated, Silvia Federici is the feminist of these three thinkers. Revolution at Point Zero, an anthology of her work over the past 40 years, all of which explore the “zero point of revolution” which is where “new social relations first burst forth, from which countless waves ripple outward into other domains.” It, too, is divided into three parts. Part 1 is Theorizing and Politicizing Housework, containing her earlier, foundational work such as “Wages Against Housework” from 1975, as well as “Why Sexuality Is Work” and “Putting Feminism Back on Its Feet.” Part 2 is Globalization and Social Reproduction, and contains 4 essays including “Women, Globalization, and the International Women’s Movement.”

Part 3, Reproducing Commons, has her most recent work including “Feminism and the Politics of the Common in an Era of Primitive Accumulation” from 2010, which contains the powerful argument that there is an “oblivion” in “our blindness to the blood in the food we eat, the petroleum we use, the clothes we wear, the computers with which we communicate.” For Federici,

Overcoming this oblivion is where a feminist perspective teaches us to start in our reconstruction of the commons. No common is possible unless we refuse to base our life, our reproduction on the suffering of others, unless we refuse to see ourselves as separate from them. Indeed if “commoning” has any meaning, it must be the production of ourselves as a common subject. This is how we must understand the slogan “no commons without community…. community as a quality of relations, a principle of cooperation and responsibility: to each other, the earth, the forests, the seas, the animals.

Federici’s writings here concentrate on “social reproduction,” which is the ways in which society and the people in it reproduce themselves. It is the food we eat, the social relations we share outside the work environment, our basic needs down to clean water & air, shelter and clothing. All of these things are “the most labor-intensive work on earth, and to a large extent it is work that is irreducible to mechanization.” It is also work that is largely unwaged, and exists in the context of capitalist enclosure. I highly recommend this book for those interested in not only a feminist perspective, but also in very practical, day-to-day ideas about how we can be commoning and resist capital.

Stop Thief! The Commons, Enclosures, & Resistance

Peter Linebaugh. Stop, Thief! The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance
Peter Linebaugh. Stop, Thief! The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance

Finally, Peter Linebaugh is the historian and storyteller of the three. He is an engaging writer, and the stories he tells need to be heard and retold. Stop, Thief! is divided into five sections. Section 1, The Commons, is the best primer I know of to exploring what Commons & Commoning is. Start with “Some Principles of the Commons,” which is a very short introduction, showing us that the commons “is best understood as a verb,” and then “Stop, Thief! A Primer on the Commons & Commoning” fills in one’s understanding that the commons “is not a thing but a relationship” as it applies to various modes of living & knowing.

Part 2, “Charles Marks,” are some of Linebaugh’s contributions to Marxism in history. Part 3, The “UK”, are looks at English History including “Ned Ludd & Queen Mab,” which shows us that the Luddites were not technophobes but rather were cross-dressing warriors, “anonymous, avenging avatars who meted out justice that was otherwise denied.” Part 4, The “USA,” contains “Introduction to Thomas Paine” and “Meandering at the Crossroads of Communism and the Commons,” which take a look at the vast commons that existed in pre-colonialist North America. This analysis is continued in Part 5, “First Nations,” with its three essays, “The Red-Crested Bird and Black Duck”, “The Commons, the Castle, the Witch, and the Lynx,” and “The Invisibility of the Commons.”

Of the three, Linebaugh’s writing might be the most readable. I agree with Robin Kelley, who wrote about an earlier book from Linebaugh that there is “not a more important historian living today. Period.” I highly recommend this book for people who want to broaden their understanding of the Commons and Commoning, through the voice of a master storyteller, an engaging and agile writer.

The Witching Hour Legacy

These three thinkers, as well as The Midnight Notes Collective and all who have participated in it over the years, represent a vast treasure trove for anyone wishing to broaden their understanding of capitalism, crisis, resistance & class struggle, enclosure, commons/commoning, and revolutionary possibilities in the 21st century. These writers and ideas were foundational to my own development as a radical thinker and writer, and I remain grateful for their work.