Revolution Is Not a Metaphor: A Response to Critics

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A barricade in the Paris Commune. March 18, 1871. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Leftists love youth organizing.

Why shouldn’t they? Contemporary activism descends directly from the youth and student movements of the 60s, so anything that recalls the glory days inspires activists. It gives them a sense that the US’s long rightward drift might be reversed.

No wonder so many of them cheered for March’s pro-gun-control “March for Our Lives” rallies. In the wake of a school shooting, what could be more uplifting than high schoolers coming together, launching a protest movement, and responding to their experience of violence with political organization? How could any leftist not support that?

But the “movement” was stage-managed by the Democratic Party. The protests were choreographed media spectacles focused on boosting Democratic voter turnout in the midterms. Further, the students’ demands were outright reactionary, calling for more police in high schools, the expansion of mass incarceration, and the loss of medical privacy rights for people with mental health diagnoses.

Political substance matters. The form taken by the March for Our Lives (“youth organizing”) drew leftist support, but the actual content was antithetical to everything the Left claims to value.

 


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Émile Friant, “Political Discussion.” Source: Wikimedia Commons

This week, two people have published critiques of my work, using it as a stand-in for the political tendency I’m part of: revolutionary base-building, exemplified by the Marxist Center network, Cooperation Jackson, and parts of DSA Refoundation. Revolutionary base-building means rejecting “activist networking” in favor of organizing the unorganized outside of elections. It involves independent workplace organizations, tenant unions, community self-defense, and mutual aid.

Antonio Balmer argues that base-building is just empty populism. He compares it to the Narodnik movement of 19th-century Russia, which saw middle-class anti-monarchists “go to the people” by moving to peasant villages and occasionally assassinating aristocrats. Balmer contrasts them with the Bolsheviks, who built an organized political party capable of leading a revolution, and suggests that base-builders pay too little attention to Marxist theory and revolutionary leadership.

Shamus Cooke takes a different angle. He quotes Lenin’s pamphlet Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder to claim that I reject class struggle in favor of a depoliticized mutualism. (Mutualism is a flavor of anarchism that calls for worker-owned co-ops to peacefully replace capitalism by out-competing traditional firms in the marketplace.) According to Cooke:

Burns’ gradualist approach ignores the fact that revolutionary situations are often brief, requiring a battle for power at all levels of society. Nearly all revolutions begin as massive, mostly-spontaneous mobilizations, so it would behoove a revolutionary to understand the abc’s of organizing mobilizations. Mass mobilization, however, barely registers as an activity that Burns believes a revolutionary should engage in.

The term class war implies there is an open struggle between the classes. Burns wants us to only engage in guerrilla tactics that don’t attract the attention of the establishment. But if ever such tactics actually succeed in challenging power, the ruling class would aggressively respond, since their economic and political power would actually be threatened, at which point Burns’ approach would be rendered useless, requiring a completely different strategy.

The “completely different strategy” he advocates involves combining base-building methods, electoral work, and conventional activism to shift “the balance of forces” against “the establishment.” What does that look like concretely? Cooke repeatedly cites the city-level electoral and lobbying efforts of his own organization, Portland Tenants United.

Balmer and Cooke agree: revolutionary base-builders are anti-theory, anti-political, don’t believe in party-building, don’t believe in class confrontation, and don’t have a vision for socialism or revolution. Base-building means mutual aid, and mutual aid is another word for depoliticized charity work. Base-builders say they want socialism, but don’t have the stomach to fight for it.

Now, if you reduce revolutionary base-building to mutual aid, you’re misrepresenting it. Workplace and tenant organizing (along with community self-defense) account for much more of what base-builders actually do than mutual aid. But, it’s true that “base-building” is itself not a political strategy; it’s a set of techniques.

So, what defines revolutionary base-building? Is it just methods? Are Balmer and Cooke right – do base-builders really expect to win socialism without a strategy, without the bother of class struggle?

 


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Tools. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Means and Ends

Anyone can base-build.

How does any organization develop a base of support? It organizes previously-unorganized people. It campaigns against their enemies while offering mutual-aid, cultural, and social activities. It puts its own work above networking with the already-converted. Churches, businesses, political parties, and fan clubs all use some variant of the formula. Base-building methods, in that sense, are just how you build an effective organization.

Since revolutionary base-builders use those techniques and most of the activist Left doesn’t, they provide the tendency’s form. They don’t provide its content. Base-building is a tool, nothing more. A hammer can help you make a table; it can also smash a flowerpot. “Youth organizing” can mean the March for Our Lives. It can also mean the Black Panther Party. Without the methodology of base-building, you can’t organize a constituency capable of exercising social power. But who are you organizing? What is that social power for?

We are revolutionaries. That’s literal.

We seek “the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.” That includes the private ownership of economically productive property; the division of labor and benefits according to white supremacy, patriarchy, and empire; and the existence of the capitalist government.

That won’t happen by winning elections or voting for socialism. It won’t happen through one-cooperative-at-a-time mutualism, either. Rather, it means building up revolutionary capacity by cultivating a mass base within the working class. When the conditions are right, it will mean launching a revolutionary uprising to establish a monopoly on the legitimate use of force by participatory-democratic organs of the working class. It will mean restructuring the economy according to a democratic, ecological, and scientific plan based on production for human use, not private profit.

Our ideas don’t make us revolutionary. Ideology runs deeper than the things you think. What’s the long-term trajectory implied by what you’re actually doing? That’s your ideology. We build institutions of class confrontation and mutual aid outside of the state, against the state, and in order displace the state. That trajectory makes us revolutionary – what we are, not what we say. Electioneering, lobbying, and waving signs may well involve revolutionary slogans, taking the form of radical politics. But, they lack the content. What happens when activist leftists have a mass movement? They tie it institutionally to the state, cutting off its ability to exercise social power directly, on its own terms. That road doesn’t lead to collective power – just brokerage within the existing order.

We don’t base-build for the sake of base-building. Our practice flows from and, in turn, shapes our revolutionary agenda. We are not cultivating an electorate for “movement” politicians. Revolutionary base-building is a process of preparation for collective self-government, for the seizure of power by the working class. Sure, delivering here-and-now gains does matter, but it’s never the point. Socialism means more than “a chicken in every pot.”

 


 

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A line in the sand. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Drawing Lines

Government socialism can’t end capitalism. Structurally speaking, the capitalist state can’t be separated from its function; it serves the ruling class, bottom to top. Expanding it doesn’t advance socialism. At best, it just rearranges exploitation (while institutionally tying the Left to the survival and success of the state). The impulse to deliver real gains, even if they’re small, make sense, but government socialists squeeze the revolutionary essence, the political content, out of socialism.

Protest militancy isn’t up to the task either. Small-group heroics don’t make history. Organized power does. Confrontational protests feel “more revolutionary” to their participants because they’re more disruptive. But do they lead to oppressed people becoming organized in a durable way? Do they increase their long-term capacity to exercise collective power?

Government socialists want tangible benefits and ignore or defer revolutionary ideas. Protest militants treat their ideas as a substitute for mass organization. Revolutionary base-builders, though, synthesize organizing for tangible gains with the long-game commitment to literal revolution. That synthesis doesn’t mean talking like protest militants and behaving like government socialists, though. Rather, it’s built into the process of organizing the unorganized to change their own conditions and confront their enemies themselves, rather than mediating it through the nonprofits or the state. (Indeed, the Marxist Center network takes its name from the course between those two possible distortions.)

Base-building methods aren’t conventional activism. That matters, if only because “base-building” is another word for “organizational techniques that actually work” – but revolutionary base-builders are after more than just a social base. No matter what Bernie Sanders says, political revolution means replacing the government, not reforming it.

The point is to create organizational structures through which power can be transferred from the few to the many, from the ownership class to the dispossessed. That transfer doesn’t happen piecemeal. It isn’t a gradual process where reforms (or mutualist co-ops!) stack on top of each other until one morning, you wake up to find that capitalism is gone. The capitalist state can’t not uphold the rule of the capitalist class. Base-building just to create another electoral or activist constituency, without that revolutionary goal and opposition to the state, has nothing to do with socialism. It doesn’t weaken capitalism. It just creates another avenue for capitalist politics, even if you call it “socialism,” even if it takes the form of base-building.

And for revolutionary base-builders, that will never be enough.

 


Sophia Burns is a polytheist and communist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/marxism_lesbianism

No Individual Solutions

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Source: University of San Francisco

When my partner and I walk down the sidewalk, we know people will sometimes shout that we’re “fuckin’ dykes.” When a straight couple goes out in public, they know they won’t get called “fuckin’ breeders” – they have that privilege.

Mainline social justice acknowledges that. It doesn’t pretend that straight and lesbian couples get treated equally, and it condemns the position of privilege enjoyed by heterosexuals relative to LGBT people. However, recognizing the need to end something is only half of a political position – you also need a way to make that change happen.

Social justice promises just that. Its strategy against not just straight privilege, but privilege in general has two prongs: anti-discrimination legislation on the one hand, and individuals changing their conduct on the other. People need to own up to their privilege; then, they must relinquish it.

But how, specifically, do you do that? Although social justice proponents are often light on the concrete details, one widely-shared article has an answer: if privilege is letting you do something, don’t do it.


 

If you have access to something and you recognize that you have it partly because of privilege, opt out of it.

Mia McKenzie

Now, that implies more than it says. This analysis begins with the experiences of individuals: this couple faces street harassment, that one doesn’t. Then, it generalizes those experiences to larger social groups (Black people, men, bisexuals, and so on). However, it never lets go of its initial individualistic assumptions – the experiences of a group are the experiences believed to be shared by its members.

From there, “opting out” follows logically. Is oppression about individuals being treated unequally because of their demographic position? If so, anti-oppression means working towards equal treatment. Is privilege is the sum of many individual acts of oppression (stacked, like the hierarchy of needs, from microaggressions all the way up to genocide)? Then ending those acts ends privilege. Some can be outlawed (hate violence, for instance). For others, though, you have to convince people to change their behavior. You couldn’t feasibly have a law against not taking women’s opinions seriously, for instance.

So, those with privilege must give it up. Not making use of it seems a reasonable starting point. The article quoted above, for instance, gives as an example not attending a conference that refuses to accommodate wheelchair users. You “opt out” of the benefits, and privilege weakens. To stop privilege, stop participating in it.

In practice, though, that doesn’t work.


 

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Source: GVSU Feminist Voices

But doesn’t fewer people taking advantage of privilege mean fewer people reinforcing it? Even if “opting out” isn’t sufficient by itself, isn’t it a necessary tool?

 

On the ground, “opting out” fails for two reasons:

  • “Opting out” is undesirable. When anti-oppression types say “privilege,” what concrete things are they talking about? Sometimes, they mean getting away with things no one should do – committing sexual assault with impunity, for instance. At least as often, though, they mean less-privileged people not getting to do neutral or positive things that the privileged take for granted – not acts of violence, but things that everyone should be able to do. My partner and I risk homophobic harassment when we go outside. Straight couples don’t. Should they “opt out” of leaving the house? After all, they can do so without being bothered by homophobes – that’s privilege. “Opting out” would mean never stepping out of their front door.
  • “Opting out” is impossible. My partner and I don’t choose to be harassed. Straight people don’t choose not to be. When some people get treated better than others, is it because they somehow control how strangers behave towards them? Should a straight couple say to everyone who walks by, “I know we’re heterosexual, but please treat us no differently than you’d treat lesbians”? If they did, would a homophobe answer, “Oh, happy to oblige! You damn dykes”? If individuals could just will these structures out of their lives (as “opting out” implies), this whole system would have died a long time ago. But that’s not how it works. The social order precedes and transcends the individuals within it.

 

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Source: Feminist Hulk via Comics Alliance

But if “opting out” is impossible, why does the idea persist?

Well, social justice’s individualism allows for no other conclusion. If privilege boils down to individual actions and individual experiences, then individual choices must be both the problem and the answer. Sure, social justice pays lip service to “structural issues” and “systemic oppression.” But the nitty-gritty of what it means by that always falls back on individual complicity. How “systemic” can a critique be when it doesn’t acknowledge that social organization is more than the sum of the individuals inside it? If “structural” oppression just means that every member of a better-off group is individually complicit in their privilege, doesn’t that reduce oppression to “bad apples?” The bad apples may number in the tens or hundreds of millions, but the essence is still there – the problem is rotten people making rotten choices. It’s still about each person’s individual moral failure. However, there is no mechanism by which you can stop being complicit. So, for social justice, there is no solution. There’s only condemnation without end.

 

Luckily, though, this framework doesn’t line up with reality. Oppression isn’t the sum of millions of immoral decisions. Liberation is possible. But, it takes something that social justice hates even more than privilege.


 

Only when men see our work as work-our love as work-and most important our determination to refuse both, will they change their attitude towards us. When hundreds and thousands of women are in the streets saying that endless cleaning, being always emotionally available, fucking at command for fear of losing our jobs is hard, hated work which wastes our lives, then they will be scared and feel undermined as men.

But this is the best thing that can happen from their own point of view, because by exposing the way capital has kept us divided (capital has disciplined them through us and us through them-each other, against each other), we – their crutches, their slaves, their chains – open the process of their liberation.

Silvia Federici

Privilege leads to unequal treatment, but that’s not where it comes from.

Capitalism involves more than fast-food chains and stock exchanges. It’s an all-encompassing division of labor. Every single task through which humanity continues to exist gets parceled out to one group or another. That’s the material basis of social categories that, at first glance, look either natural or merely cultural.

The “common sense” belief that race and gender are bio-cultural phenomena just masks what they really are: ways of assigning different work to different people, carried out under different conditions. Those divisions are then enforced by institutional discrimination, “common sense” ideas (promoted through media, education, and religion), and – should those fail – physical violence. “Woman” as a cultural category both emerges from and reinforces the way that certain people are expected to do care work and housework (mostly unpaid). The category “white,” similarly, both comes from and continually recreates the fact that some workers tend to have better conditions, jobs, and pay, a cultural sense of superiority, and de facto segregation from other workers. Through gender, capitalism gets a lot of necessary work done for free. Through race, it prevents certain workers from uniting with the rest of their class against the system by giving them relative advantages within it. So, privileged workers benefit in the short term. But in the long term, their privilege just prolongs their own exploitation.

Social justice will never realize that. Why should it? The activist subculture is mostly middle-class, not working-class. So, it reflects middle-class ideas and middle-class interests.

Do middle-class and ruling-class men and whites have a long-term stake in abolishing their own privilege? No – it gives them an unambiguous competitive advantage in the professions, management, and business. Why else do middle-class people from less-privileged demographics frame their politics in terms of unjust disparities and ethical imperatives? Without a shared material stake in ending privilege, moral self-sacrifice is all that’s left.

Middle-class and ruling-class reformers, though, find themselves in a contradictory position. On the one hand, lacking privilege makes their lives tangibly worse. But on the other, their class position depends on the continued existence of privilege, because the capitalist division of labor depends on it and they depend on capitalism.

So, they end up with equally-contradictory politics. Social justice has no way out.


 

On more than one occasion, Black workers have forced the employer to open a new job area to them, only to run up against the rigid opposition of white workers.

White revolutionaries must understand, and help the masses of white workers to understand, that the interests of the entire working class can only be served by standing firmly with the Black workers in such cases.

Noel Ignatiev

Does that mean that privilege will never go away? If social justice can’t overcome oppression, what can?

Class struggle.

Internal divisions notwithstanding, the working class as a whole carries out all of the tasks of human existence. Without workers, there is nothing. But, the working class doesn’t decide the way in which it does that labor. The ruling class of capitalists does – the investors, executives, and business owners who control the physical and social infrastructure through which all work happens (the “means of production“).

Capitalists dictate the social order and exploit the working class, accumulating wealth at workers’ expense. The working class has the ability to overthrow capitalism (since capitalists need workers, but workers don’t need capitalists). It also has an interest in doing so – replacing it with a system in which workers (paid and unpaid) control everything. Obviously, capitalists have good reason to oppose that. So, whenever workers try to collectively pursue their interests, the ruling class opposes them however it can. That ranges from shaping “common sense” to relying on state violence.

The division of labor within the working class both creates and relies on privilege. In doing so, it makes it harder for the working class to effectively struggle against its oppressors. Privileged workers are less likely to side with the rest of their class because, due to privilege, they’re comparatively better off. But, that’s only a short-term interest. In the long term, their interests are the same as other workers’.

So, there’s a material basis for workers to come together and organize against the ruling class – and when they do so, specifically fighting against privilege is ultimately good for them all, even if some are benefitting from privilege at the moment. But, to make that happen, working-class politics has to focus on the long-term goal of ending capitalism and exploitation. It needs the analysis that your privilege here and now is the enemy of your liberation in the future. In other words, if it sticks to “achievable” short-term reforms, it can’t effectively do that because it’s dropped the long-term aim. After all, you can’t focus on long-term interests if you don’t acknowledge them. Moderate socialism isn’t any more useful against privilege than social justice.

What can end privilege?

Communism.


 

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Communism can end privilege. Liberal social justice can’t. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Individuals can’t “opt out” of privilege because privilege isn’t individual. It’s built into the class system itself. To get rid of it, get rid of class.

But social justice is scared of that conclusion. Its social base is upper-class and middle-class – they’re either at the top of the pyramid or close enough to imagine themselves getting there. They need the class system, but the class system needs privilege.

Fortunately, abolishing privilege doesn’t depend on them. The working class can do it. No one else can. So, if you really want to see the end of privilege, don’t listen to social justice. Build institutions of working-class power.

Back in the 70s, radical feminists had a saying:

There are no individual solutions to social problems.

Privilege is a social problem. You can’t “opt out” of it. So, stop looking for individual solutions.

Fight for a collective one instead.


 

Sophia Burns is a communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/marxism_lesbianism

Solidarity with the People of Tunisia

A statement written by friends and endorsed by people in Tunisia.

street art tunisia

Editor’s note:

Below is a letter written by freedom of information activists which aims to broaden our network of resistance against class oppression and State violence. Tunisia has been seen by the West as an Arab Spring success-story, after the 2011 revolution that brought an end to the country’s dictatorial regime. Since then, the country has been on a road towards ‘Democracy’ that has exposed a whole new breed of brutality, one which lies beneath this so-called new-found ‘freedom’. Unemployment, sky-rocketing price of food, police brutality, concentrated wealth and power are some examples of the obstacles Tunisian people have faced in the past 7 years. [TW: violence] Poverty has literally lead people in Tunisia to set themselves on fire. All of this after even winning a Nobel Peace Prize for Democracy-building efforts. What kind of “peace” is this? Perhaps a Western capitalist neoliberal perspective of it. The systems of oppression that cause these atrocities engulf all of us, all over the world. Far reaching solidarity is crucial, and this is why we want to share this with you. Alerta!

Friends from all over the world stand in solidarity with the People of Tunisia. We demand that the Tunisian security services immediately release any remaining political prisoners and drop all criminal charges against demonstrators. The Government of Tunisia must respect the People’s right to free expression. The Government of Tunisia must immediately reverse all austerity measures. We, friends from all over the world, will accept nothing less.

Due to pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Government of Tunisia has passed tax increases and austerity measures on January 1, 2018. The People of Tunisia have taken to the streets to demand their dignity and to protest this oppression. In response, the Tunisian security services have beaten and tear-gassed the people wishing to exercise their right to free expression. The Tunisian security services have arrested and brought criminal charges against more than 700 people.

On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi doused himself in petrol and lit a match. Bouazizi later died from his injuries. Earlier in the morning, a local government official harassed Bouazizi for a bribe. The local government official claimed that selling fruit and vegetables required a permit, which was a lie. Unable to pay the bribe, the local government official had Bouazizi assaulted and had his produce cart confiscated. The people took to the streets to protest the corrupt government and to demand their dignity. On January 14, 2011, the dictator of Tunisia, Ben Ali, fled to the country. In Tunisia, this is known as the Dignity Revolution.

The People of Tunisia continue their struggle for dignity, and it is our duty to stand with them in solidarity!

We pledge love, mutual aid, and solidarity with the People of Tunisia. More people are needed to translate statements and videos from Tunisian Arabic into other languages used around the world. Please share and republish this statement of solidarity.

The People will have bread and freedom!

فاش_نستناو #

#Fech_Nestannew

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” Is Revolutionary Agitprop

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Credit: starwars.com

We are the spark that’ll light the fire that’ll burn the First Order down.

Poe Dameron in The Last Jedi

Star Wars has always had a reactionary streak.

George Lucas mythologizes an eternal struggle between Good and Evil, expressed primarily through physical combat. While his protagonists wrestle with temptation, fall from grace, and find redemption, Lucas’s main interest is elite individual heroics from both Good and Evil leaders. He’s fascinated with the sacred Skywalker family bloodline, and while the overarching plot is ostensibly political (will the galaxy be a republic? Will it be an empire?), his battles aren’t decided by armies. They’re won by lightsaber duels and space dogfights between Skywalker family members – and by the refusal of his heroes to succumb to (even righteous) anger.

Lucas’s imaginary history is driven by individuals, not by masses of people. He shows crowds cheering when the Emperor is killed, but they play no part in either his rise to power or his overthrow. Star Wars embraces the conservative “Great Man” theory: history is a series of extraordinary individuals, imposing their will on basically passive populations.

This conservatism finds itself mirrored in the broader social dynamics of the Star Wars fandom. Geek culture self-consciously embraces commercialism, its participants gaining social capital by accumulating games, toys, and collectibles. Star Wars, of course, was always designed for toy merchandising, but its core fans aren’t children. Instead, they’re (largely male) adults who grew up playing with Star Wars toys and want to buy some nostalgia.

When JJ Abrams made The Force Awakens in 2015, he knew his audience. Nearly every scene re-staged something from one of the previous movies, to the point that he literally hired the same actors, 40 years later, to reprise their action-hero roles. As The Force Awakens ends (with Luke Skywalker making his entrance), Abrams sets up the plot to continue in the same vein for as long as the audience is willing to pay.

But that’s not what The Last Jedi delivers.

In every corner of the galaxy, the downtrodden and oppressed know our symbol, and they put their hope in it. We are the spark that will light the fire that will restore the Republic. That spark, this Resistance, must survive.

Vice Admiral Holdo in The Last Jedi

What’s the heart of revolutionary politics?

It isn’t liberalism’s nominal commitment to tolerance (otherwise, every HR manager would call themselves a revolutionary). It isn’t simply hostility towards capitalism, either (after all, plenty of fascists share that attitude).

Instead, to be a revolutionary means to “trust the masses.” Revolutionaries believe that the people make history themselves, without needing “Great Men” (or benevolent warrior-priests!).

The Last Jedi is radical because it uses reactionary source material to say “trust the masses.” Its main plotline follows the outnumbered remnants of the Resistance on a “long march” through space, pursued by their enemy, the First Order. Chafing under what they call a “cowardly” strategy, three characters (Finn and Poe Dameron from The Force Awakens and a new character, a mechanic named Rose) hatch a clandestine plan to sabotage the First Order’s flagship and allow the Resistance to escape. It’s the kind of long-shot heroism that, in another Star Wars movie, would have saved the day. In The Last Jedi, though, it fails – and when it does, it allows the First Order to discover and subvert the Resistance’s patient, unglamorous, and fundamentally sound escape strategy.

In parallel, Rey (from The Force Awakens) persuades a reluctant Luke Skywalker to give her Jedi training as she prepares to confront the main antagonist, Kylo Ren. Communicating telepathically, Ren convinces her that he knows who her long-lost parents are. But when she faces him in person, The Last Jedi gives them an exchange that no other Star Wars film could:

Kylo Ren : Do you know the truth about your parents? Or have you always known? You’ve just hidden it away. Say it.

Rey : [in tears]  They were nobody.

Kylo Ren : They were filthy junk traders. Sold you off for drinking money. They’re dead in a pauper’s grave in the Jakku desert. You come from nothing.

Although Rey has been characterised as Ren’s “equal in the Light,” she isn’t a Skywalker. The Last Jedi repudiates the sacred bloodline. Rey has no aristocratic lineage or ancient prophecy about her birth, but for the first time in a Star Wars film, that doesn’t matter.

The saying, “A single spark can start a prairie fire,” is an apt description of how the current situation will develop. We need only look at the strikes by the workers, the uprisings by the peasants, the mutinies of soldiers and the strikes of students which are developing in many places to see that it cannot be long before a “spark” kindles “a prairie fire.”

Mao Zedong

As a film, The Last Jedi sometimes finds itself in an awkward middle ground. On the one hand, it has to maintain continuity with The Force Awakens (and the franchise in general). On the other, though, it offers an incompatible ethical and political sensibility. Staying true to the source material while turning it on its head doesn’t always lend itself to elegance, and at its weakest The Last Jedi makes unfortunate concessions. While it never reaches the depth of pandering of The Force Awakens, it still wastes too much screentime on “Easter eggs” and sequences rehashed from earlier Star Wars movies. Plus, since JJ Abrams is writing and directing the sequel trilogy’s third installment, The Last Jedi‘s innovations will likely be scrapped. Star Wars 9 seems likely to be another fan-pleasing, boilerplate nostalgia trip.

However, The Last Jedi has still pulled off something special. As the film ends, a group of enslaved children (who had earlier assisted Rose and Finn on their mission) tell each other about the survival of the Resistance. But the hope they draw from that isn’t a passive desire for rescue. The guerrillas of the Resistance depend on them, not the other way around. History belongs to the people.

That’s what The Last Jedi brings to Star Wars. That’s what we should let it teach us.


Sophia Burns is a communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon.

Curse Your Boss, Hex The State, Take Back The World!

“This book will get you in trouble, and make you want to cause more trouble, and find others who want to cause trouble too, until next thing you know you’ve seized the means of production or successfully turned a riot into a revolt.”

Rhyd Wildermuth, from the foreword

Gods&Radicals is thrilled to announce our latest publication:

“Do you want to be exploited forever, to die a beautiful soul trapped in a body-turned-machine, or will you rise in armed joy?”

In Curse Your Boss, Hex The State, Take Back The World, Conjurer and anarcho-communist swamp-dweller Dr. Bones unravels the Spectral Cage in which we–even magic-workers–find ourselves trapped. The State, Capitalism, Society, and Media all enmesh not just our actions but our very perception both of this world and the Other, and Dr. Bones shows you how to forge the keys to freedom.

But unlike the pulp pablum pushed out by mass-market magic publishers, this book won’t tell you how to get that car you saw in the commercial, or how to get a raise or find inner peace. Instead, Dr. Bones offers you rituals and theory to change the entire world, to free not just yourself but others, and issues a revolutionary call to take up magical arms against Capital and the State.

Production, Distribution, and Sale Information

Curse Your Boss, Hex The State, Take Back The World is 144 pages, 6X9 inches, perfect bound, B&W with a matte cover.

To order this or any of our other publications, go here.

A sample chapter is available here.


 

Gardens From Ruins

In her short story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, Ursula K. Le Guin describes a near perfect society built on happiness and equality. Everyone is well fed, there are no soldiers in the streets, no secret police, no bombs. Technology advanced to the point that only what was non-destructive, what was useful, abounded. Public transit, sexual freedom, an end to barbaric wars over religion, even an end to rule by the powerful and the rich:

…there was no king. They did not use swords, or keep slaves. They were not barbarians.

Omelas should be recognizable by any in the Capitalist, Democratic West. This land of peace and happiness, of wealth and security, this utopia of enlightenment, of progress–it’s the dream of Liberal Democracy.

And like Liberal Democracy, it has a dark secret:

In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room….

In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect.

…The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes-the child has no understanding of time or interval – sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes…

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

Like those in Omelas, we in Liberal Democratic societies depend upon a miserable child in a basement. Miserable children, actually–many of them, human and non-human, literal and metaphoric.  Many of these ‘children’ have been discussed in previous essays in this series, but let’s open the door to that basement and look in again.

Rights

The rights and benefits guaranteed by Liberal Democratic governments have never really been extended to all, even within their own borders. In the United States, access to property and other wealth, freedom of movement and speech, the right to bear arms or to due process has always been, first and foremost, reserved for the dominant (white) majority. For Blacks, for First Nations, and for other non-dominant peoples within America, the Progress of Liberal Democracy has never been Progress at all.

Wealth

The wealth enjoyed by the dominant classes actually comes at the expense of those minorities who were dominated as part of the process Marx called primitive accumulation. People from the continent of Africa were hauled over in chains to serve as (enslaved) labour for European Capitalists. Much of the wealth these slaves produced for their owners created the Capitalist class in the first place.

Slavery wasn’t the only way they got their wealth, though–the land these Capitalists control was seized violently from First Nations and indigenous people who then, landless, fell into abject poverty and misery. And while the former British colonies bear much of the weight of this guilt, Europe is hardly innocent. In fact, without all this stolen wealth, European societies could never afford the social programs they give to their people.

Peace

Liberal Democracies are violent societies, though the more you resemble the dominant class, the less likely you are to see the violence. Business owners, tech-workers, lawyers, politicians–we don’t read of them being gunned down or beaten up by police for looking suspicious, especially if they’re white. Instead, it’s those with darker skin, be they Arabs and Africans in Europe, aborigines in Australia, or Blacks and First Nations people in the United States and Canada.

Those on the outside of Liberal Democracy suffer even worse fates, as they continue to be part of the process of primitive accumulation. The resources of their land stripped, their attempts at self-determination crushed by superior foreign militaries, their local economies destroyed by brutal trade deals–the rest of the world find themselves not only with fewer rights and less wealth, but no chance to gain them.

Technology

In no discussion of freedom in the period since the Enlightenment was there ever any awareness of the geological agency that human beings were acquiring at the same time as and through processes closely linked to their acquisition of freedom.

Dipesh Chakrabarty, The Climate of History

All the advances of Capitalist societies have another child in the basement we do not like to look at–environmental destruction. The climate is changing rapidly, species are going extinct at frightening rates, and the resources we rely on to have our Enlightened societies are dwindling quickly.

All our technological advances rely on easy and abundant access to petroleum and coal. Our need for energy to power our lives and have our ‘free societies’ not only destroys the environment but causes wars, starvation, and destruction of human lives as well.

walking awayWalking Away From Empire

Liberal Democracy must be called what it actually is: Empire. We in Europe and the Anglophone world sit within the gates of imperial cities; even the poorest and most oppressed amongst us become complicit in the oppression of those outside our walled gardens.

Liberal Democracy is not worth saving. While may of us in ‘the West,’ in so-called civilized Capitalist societies, have enjoyed great wealth, comfort, and apparent freedoms, these have come at great cost to others. We have all seen the child in the basement, starved, imprisoned, treated horribly, beaten.

The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked, the eyes disappear. The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good,” it says. “Please let me out. I will be good!”

They never answer.

We within Liberal Democracies–whether we benefit most or little–have been too long content with staring at the horror upon which are societies are built and giving no answer. Now, as Liberal Democracy is shattering around us, abandoning its own illusions about equality and sustainability, we must answer.

Le Guin ends her story on a note of hope, though a strange one, an ambiguous one.

At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home.

…They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

In the previous four essays of this series, I discussed the current crisis of Liberal Democracy, and its apparent end. In this essay, which ends the series on Liberal Democracy and also begins a new series, we’ll look at how to walk away from Omelas, and where we might go next.

While the dissolution of Empire brings with it chaos and the threat of Fascism, while the journey to build new societies may seem daunting, and our histories littered with crushed rebellions and failed revolutions, we shouldn’t fear.

In fact, the crisis of Liberal Democracy we’ve discussed opens much more ground for new ways of being, new modes of existence, and new attempts at resistance and revolution. The States who rule over us are in danger of falling into ruins, and Capitalism is threatened with the mortality that faces every thing that has ever lived. Rather than prop them up, rather than try to save them, we should let them die, compost what remains and garden in those ruins.

“What Should We Do Instead?”

Every anti-capitalist has heard these words, usually uttered by someone quite Liberal, quite concerned about the state of the world. Perhaps the conversation started with a discussion about child labor in Asia, or about the relationship between Capitalist technology and the rising oceans. Maybe it was about the systematic violence against Black people in the United States, about the causes of the refugee crises sweeping Europe. Maybe coal was discussed, or the way laws in Liberal Democracies protect the rich and ensure the rest of us have no choice but to sell our time for wages

At some point, they answer with an exasperated, frustrated question. “What’s your plan?” or “But how will we feed 7 billion people?” or even angry retorts about failed revolutions, or the horrors of State Communism. And sometimes they’ll just throw their hands up in the air, or shrug, and say, “we can’t change this.”

This demand for one perfect solution is actually one of the first problems we’ll need to overcome if we’re to transform our societies into something more equal, more sustainable, less violent and less destructive. There cannot be one solution that can fit 7 billion people.

In fact, it’s precisely the idea that any one solution must apply to everyone that gives Liberal Democracy so much power. As discussed in my first essay, Liberal Democratic societies see themselves as the end-point of history, the final evolution of political forms, as close to utopia as humanity can ever get.  And it;s through this idea that Capitalism and the State remained unquestioned: the only resistance most of us ever engage merely tries to make Liberal Democracy work a little better.

The demand for one, universal solution probably comes from the authoritarian elements of Christian monotheism anyway, which was just as much a form of governance as it was a form of belief.  The same totalitarian urges which arose when distant peoples adapted Christianity to their own culture (say, in Ireland and Wales, or the egalitarian cults in mainland Europe), repeated themselves in the Soviet Republics and today through Liberal Democratic institutions (like the IMF, World Bank, United Nations, European Union, and World Trade Organization).

The ‘one true way’ is a trick of Authority. We must resist this at every turn. No ideology can apply to every situation, no solution can ever be final.

And anyway, there’s an even bigger problem that comes with demanding a perfect answer or a grand program of revolution. We abdicate our own responsibility and our own power, either refusing to act until such a plan comes along or demanding others tell us what to do. The first functions as an excuse never to change, and the second is an invitation to Fascist and other eager Totalitarian leaders.

“But How Will We Still…”

Many of the problems we encounter already have multiple and obvious solutions anyway, but they involve apparently losing something we currently value or think we really need. And thus, any attempt to radically address the problem becomes abandoned or fiercely fought because it will result in a major change to society.

The murder of Black people by police in the United States is a good example of this. The most obvious solution to stop this is to get rid of the police. Police exist within Liberal Democracy as agents of State violence, and getting rid of the police takes away the power of the State to perform that violence.

This solution is almost always met with protest. “We need the police,” most say. “How will we enforce laws? How will we keep criminals from killing innocent people? How will we stop thieves?”

Do we really need police, though? The majority of laws in Liberal Democracies protect property (theft, burglary, shoplifting) and disproportionately punish the poor, while laws against rape, domestic assault, molestation and murder are often not fully enforced against the rich or whites. The police protect that inequality, as well as murdering Blacks, First Nations, and other minorities at shocking rates.  Why keep them around?

Worse, when we insist that the police must exist, we are like those in Omelas, staring at the humiliated and abused child in a basement. We know that the protection of property and the security we get from the police is impossible to have without those murders. But then we try to convince ourselves otherwise, buying in to the utopic dream of Liberal Democracy, assuring ourselves that one day no more poor will be imprisoned, no more Blacks will be murdered. Like evangelical Christians hoping one day for the return of Jesus, we tell ourselves things shall eventually get better, and so the suffering the police cause now is a tolerable sacrifice for our own comfort.

The same is true for solutions to stop global warming and extinction. We know that burning fossil fuels is changing the climate, polluting the air and water and land, melting the ice caps and drowning the villages of indigenous people. The obvious answer is to stop burning them, but then the question is asked, “how will I get to work? How will we transport food and consumer goods? How we power our smartphones and light our homes at night?”

Why would we think the destruction of the environment is less important than the apparent benefits we gain from fossil fuels?  What we (that is, those of us in Liberal Democracies) gain–private, personal transportation, strawberries in winter, cities illuminated at night, mass-produced disposable goods, cheap and abundant electricity, quick global flights, Pokemon Go and internet porn–comes not just at the cost of our environment, but at the cost of everyone else trying to live within it.

flower concrete

Nature’s Lessons, Nature’s Revolt

There are important questions we ought to ask ourselves in all these cases, though. Because Liberal Democracy has been the dominant form of government for the last two centuries, because Capitalism has been the primary mode of exchange for the last three hundred years, and because the State has become so pervasive and powerful in the last century, we’ve had a long time to forget how to live without certain things, and very little experience on how to come up with new ways of living.

But for that, we fortunately have Nature to teach us.

There are five metaphors from Nature that provide a good framework for a revolutionary strategy. Each of them can unfold for us methods of resistance and teach us how to approach the problems we face as Liberal Democracy collapses. They are ways that nature renews itself, sometimes with human help, sometimes against human effort. Rather than forming a program of revolution, they instead offer a framework for revolutionary action.

They are as follows:

  • FiresWildfires: Forests and grasslands sometimes burn. Dry, desiccated scrub and undergrowth fuel vast conflagrations, setting alight and destroying towering trees that seemed likely to last forever.  Yet soon after, new life takes root, the ashes of the old fertilizing the new. In fact, some plants and trees can only germinate after the extreme heat of forest fires. But oftentimes we stop these fires to protect property. Our radical strategies must keep in mind that things just sometimes need to burn down, that creation is born from destruction, and violent uprisings by oppressed people will be part of any revolution.
  • Ripe,_ripening,_and_green_blackberriesBrambles: In North America, Blackberries are an invasive species and choke out other life. But removing them wholesale from an area can cause even worse damage: since they often take root where the land was already damaged, they provide protection and food for small animals and birds, as well as erosion control. Just as some things need to burn down, our radical strategies must also acknowledge that some problems are deeply rooted, thorny, and uprooting them too quickly can lead to great–and unnecessary–suffering.
  • 800px-Seed_bomb_aka_Seed_ball_(Guerilla_gardening)Seed bombs: A seed bomb (or seed ball) is a form of guerilla gardening. Mixing clay, compost, and a diverse variety of seeds, they are dried and then thrown onto impoverished or wasted land. When it rains, the clay soaks up and holds enough water to let the seeds sprout, and from these balls, land that was forsaken and even poisoned can be revitalized. Individual actions can make a massive difference, and any revolutionary strategy must acknowledge this. It must also acknowledge that for small, local actions to matter, they’ll fail without diversity, intention, and the resources to survive on their own.
  • 800px-2008-06-28_Broken_sidewalkRooted upheaval: In many urban environments in Europe and North America, chamomile and other tiny flowers grow in the cracks and gaps in pavement. Tree roots degrade and destroy concrete and asphalt. None of these plants require human effort to sprout there; in fact, it’s exactly the lack of human intervention which gives them the space to grow. While many environmental movements have seen cities and ‘civilization’ as a thing to be fought, the urban is also a primary site of resistance to Capitalism. Any revolutionary strategy must acknowledge that the poor, the immigrants, and all those seen as enemies of Liberal Democracy have the power to crack, degrade, and finally overthrow the structures which bury them, and this upheaval might not look like what we think it should.
  • NurselogNurse Logs: In the temperate rainforests along the Salish Sea are a phenomenon called Nurse Logs. When a tree falls, many of them hundreds and thousands of years old, it begins to decompose quickly in the relentless rain. Very soon after, mosses, mushrooms, lichens, and other small plants and fungi grow in the rotting wood, followed not long after by the saplings of other trees.  These nurse logs, sometimes hundreds of feet long and many yards in diameter, become the foundation for new life. While much of the infrastructure, the institutions, distribution networks and technologies that we have now were created through Liberal Democracy, some of them can serve as foundations of new ways of being.

In the next essays in this new series, we’ll use these processes from Nature to understand the immediate problems caused by Liberal Democracy’s crisis, and we’ll examine how we might be able to use them to build the sort of world we want to live in. Again, no one strategy will fit, and the worst thing we could possibly do–besides try to save Liberal Democracy–would be to demand one solution to all these symptoms.

It’s time to walk away from Omelas. Staring one last time at the horror upon which our rights, privileges, technologies, wealth, and security is built, it’s time we say ‘enough.’ We may not know what the future will be, or even be certain there’s a better world past the world we know.

But that does not matter. And anyway, humans have walked away from horrible things before, overthrown tyrants, endured famines and plagues and wars, and tried over and over again to create something new.

It’s what we do. If there’s anything truly unique to humans, it’s that we know how to conceive new worlds, to change the conditions of our existence, to dream new ways of being. It’s our magic, our witchcraft.

We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

Ursula K. Le Guin


Rhyd Wildermuth

InstagramCapture_37ba565d-4170-4912-a207-ca5e5f5ddbf9Rhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s been trekking about Europe for the last two months, with more to go. His most recent book is A Kindness of Ravens, and you can follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.


A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here has a lot more essays, poems, and art like what you see on Gods&Radicals. Order it here.

 

Dread of a Revolution

By Anthony Rella

behead-poolI dream that a friend of mine is leading a ritual to teach us about capitalism and its damages. The ritual is bizarre and colorful. After, I see a group of elders heading toward a table, complaining about how they don’t understand what was happening, expressing their anger at my friend. I tell another person about this, who says, “They’ve forgotten the role of fear and trembling in religion.”

Sometimes I think it’s enough for me to live a life that is simple and useful. No big drama, no public persona, no extremes of wealth or fame, simply showing up every day to be of service and lighten others’ burdens as best as I can. When I look at what’s in front of me, what it’s within my skills and capacity to do as a therapist, I feel a sense of ease and purpose. Being present in a room with someone, trying to listen and understand them deeply and help them to listen to and understand themselves deeply, feels powerful and satisfying and I know it improves quality of life and quality of relationships.

Yet often I wonder whether a simple and useful life is enough for the world. Is my service too myopic? Am I retreating to the comfort of believing myself powerless when I fail to speak out against mass incarceration, against rampant inequality, against the decimation of our environment? I may never have to experience some of these problems directly, yet I believe we all suffer from their existence. To live in a city in which one’s condominiums were built on a site that formerly housed 160 low-income families who have to find somewhere else to live that they can afford—itself built on a site colonized and annexed from its earlier inhabitants—no matter how noble I think I am, no matter how much money I give or how I pay lip service to the right slogans, at heart I know that my lifestyle includes evil. Not an obvious, movie villain kind of evil; an evil that quietly kills joy, exploits the land and living people, and grinds hope to dust.

I know that the iPhone that adds convenience to my life also includes evils of worker exploitation and environmental degradation. Riding a car, even riding a bus, my lifestyle depends on fossil fuels and energy consumption that includes evils of war and the pollution of air, water, and soil. The culture in which I never needed to consider why most important historical figures, writers, scientists, and artists all look like me is the culture that inflicts evil on people of color, assaulting and diminishing self-esteem and dignity, justifying disproportionate incarceration and state-endorsed murder. There is no opting out of this system.

We need more than personal change to create just, joyful, resilient, life-affirming cultures. I know that I cannot fix all these things myself. What I am best able to do is show up daily and support people, one by one, in being their best selves and creating better worlds. In my life, huge transformations have come when I simply kept showing up for daily practice and the work that was in front of me. That answer feels incomplete. Even when I meet individually with the people experiencing these harms and help them to become more resilient, more self-possessed, and more joyous, they still return to a system set up against their well-being.

To be honest, the idea of revolution terrifies me, as I suspect it terrifies anyone who has privilege, who benefits from the world as it is today. In The Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard says of anxiety that it is “a desire for what one dreads.” One source of fear is the real possibility that revolution will leave people more oppressed and spiritually impoverished. Another source of fear is the belief that change will likely involve pain, at the very least discomfort. White people’s terror of Black people’s anger, I believe, is because deep down we know it’s warranted and just. We imagine how we would feel if the roles were reversed. We know that our ancestors benefited from the brutalization and exploitation of people of color. My Irish and Italian ancestors, at one point non-white in this country, might have once found common cause with people of color in protest. Instead, we got the “upgrade” to Whiteness, which was deliberate and strategic as explored by Noel Ignatiev in How the Irish Became White, and we’re now stakeholders in White privilege.

So I see in my heart the anger and resentment when people speak up about their oppression and it implicates me. I practice setting aside my defensiveness to listen, but still part of me wants to silence the oppressed, shame them, dismiss them. Part of me wants to pretend their stories aren’t real, their anger isn’t justified, or somehow exempt myself from the conditions that oppress them. Once I’ve begun to dismiss and silence, I’ve committed another crime against humanity. I’ve numbed the drive for justice and integrity. I’ve chosen to swallow the pain of life as it is and avoid the possibility that we can make things better. I’ve chosen to abdicate my power to make change and simply pretend that incomprehensible forces beyond my control made things the way they are, instead of humans making human choices.

While writing this piece, I encountered this quote from John Michael Greer:

It occurred to me the other day that quite a few of the odder features of contemporary American culture make perfect sense if you assume that everybody knows exactly what’s wrong and what’s coming as our society rushes, pedal to the metal, toward its face-first collision with the brick wall of the future. It’s not that they don’t get it; they get it all too clearly, and they just wish that those of us on the fringes would quit reminding them of the imminent impact, so they can spend whatever time they’ve got left in as close to a state of blissful indifference as they can possibly manage.

I don’t know the answers, or more likely I’m terrified by the answers in front of me. What I know is that we need those on the edges: the radicals, the queer, the marginalized, the ones who speak up and remind me of what I’d want to ignore. These are the voices that see we are the Titanic plowing heedlessly into the ice and shouting for us to stop. We need these voices if we’re going to survive the changes that are already happening.

Meanwhile I continue to show up to my spiritual practice every day, and show up to my life trying to seed connection and joy. If I am to continue, however, I must also own and nurture the part of me that feels anger, that pushes for change, that strives for a world in which everyone has a warm place to sleep, enough to eat, and does not live in fear of being harmed by the people who are supposed to protect them. Survival is not enough. Comfort is not enough. Fear is not enough. We must be whole, passionately loving this earth and our humanity, and striving for justice.

Anthony Rella

09LowResAnthony Rella is a witch, writer, and therapist living in Seattle, Washington. Anthony is a student and mentor of Morningstar Mystery School, and has studied and practiced witchcraft since starting in the Reclaiming tradition in 2005. Professionally, he is a psychotherapist working full-time for a community health agency and part-time in private practice.


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