Posts filed under Power to the People

In which I accept a challenge.

Every four years there’s a new presidential election in the U.S., and campaign season lasts a good year or so before the election. So for about one out of every four years, you can expect to see an army of people (both professionals and citizen-militias) ready to corral any call for social change into a machine for political campaigning, and to grab hold of the rhetoric and imagery of radicals and revolutions to put it into the service of well-funded, weakly reformist campaigns to elect a Republican or Democrat to office. Just support the right candidate, and we are going to overthrow the powerful, we are going to stand up for the marginalized and oppressed, we are going to change the world together. By electing a better President than the other candidates who are running for the office. A couple days ago, was circulating a joke image on Facebook to make fun of this tunnel-vision defining-down of radical goals to the limited circle of respectable electoral politics:

It has a white activist boldly standing in front of a red-tinted Seattle skyline, wearing a knit cap and holding an iPad and a Starbucks drink in a plastic to-go cup, like in a Cultural Revolution propaganda poster. The caption reads: Revolutionary change? You mean like campaigning for Bernie Sanders, right?

Which, as you might predict, caught a lot of flak from commenters deeply invested in the milieu of Progressive reform politics. One commenter, David STwo, offered a well-worn reply:

Revolutionary change… you mean like posting on Facebook, right?

Well, it’s easy enough to make fun of self-indulgent Facebook political signaling. But I’m willing to accept the challenge. David jokes, but posting on Facebook, for all its limits, absolutely has far more potential to practically contribute to long-term transformative social change than voting for long-shot reformist presidential candidates. The reason being that talking to people online is often self-indulgent and often runs in circles, but like any form of communication, it is potentially a medium of cultural pressure and cultural change. And cultural change, while tricky and partial and always highly imperfect, does a lot more to actually change things from day to day than energy-intensive, practically futile utopian schemes like voting for reformist candidates.

With most Leftists — including most anarchists embedded within the broader Leftist milieu — the standard line is that we are supposed to be looking for radical change in the long term, but in the short term supporting practical reforms. And the way we’re supposed to do that in the short term is by offering critical support or lesser evil votes to reformist candidates. If you take a hard stance against voting or electoral politicking, then you can expect to be met with the routine accusations that you’re prioritizing your radical idealism or purism over real people’s chances to achieve practical, short-term improvements. Those improvements, you will be told, are nowhere near enough, but they matter for people’s everyday lives, and we shouldn’t abandon any hope of making practical improvements until some distant day After The Revolution.

And of course it’s true that partial, gradual improvements on the margin matter for people’s everyday lives, and of course it’s true that they shouldn’t be abandoned for the sake of symbolic gestures. But the problem here is that the standard pro-voting line is a call for symbolic gestures, and offers very little of practical use to making those marginal reforms. The problem isn’t that electoral politics is impure; it’s that it’s impractical. The standard pro-voting line is alluring because of the cultural mystique that surrounds democratic politics in the U.S. But in reality its promise of practical gains through reformist electioneering is nearly the exact opposite of the truth. If significant marginal change is what you want, you are almost certainly doing more good towards that by posting radical political jokes on Facebook than by vocally supporting Bernie Sanders.

Voting for reformist candidates has two basic problems: there is an output problem, and there is an input problem.

The output problem is something I’ve written about a lot before.[1] To justify voting for Bernie Sanders as a strategy for positive social change, you have to have some fairly reliable grounds for thinking that President Sanders will actually govern the way you think he will govern based on his campaign promises and his rhetoric, and that he won’t do anything negative along the way that significantly undermines the positive effects of his platform. I think there are good reasons to consider that hope to be optimistic, or indeed wildly unrealistic. It’s certainly not what the last seven years of Progressive Democratic Party administration would suggest.

But I want to set aside the output problem for a moment. For the sake of argument, let’s grant the most optimistic assumptions, the very happiest hypotheses about how a Bernie Sanders presidency would improve on the status quo in exactly the ways that Bernie Sanders supporters expect.

It doesn’t matter, because even if you assume away the output problem, you still haven’t dealt with the input problem. Whether or not you can count on the output of a political mechanism, even if we assume that a Social Democrat presidency would improve some things over the status quo, you still need to give me some realistic grounds for thinking that my actively supporting Bernie Sanders’ candidacy will somehow, practically, contribute to Bernie Sanders being elected in the first place. I don’t think that anyone doubts that that outcome is still a pretty long shot at best. And whether it is a long shot or a close race or a sure thing, you are going to need to think through the actual practicalities involved in campaigning for votes here, not just bake in a bunch of civics text-book mythology to the effect that Every Vote Is Sacred, Every Vote Is Good.[2] Realistically speaking, a lot of people in the United States can’t vote at all. An electoral campaign offers no practical opportunities to undocumented immigrants, who cannot vote. It offers no practical opportunities to most documented immigrants. It offers no practical opportunities to disenfranchised felons. It also offers no practical opportunity to me. Any given person’s vote is almost certain to have a statistically neglible effect on the outcome of a big national race. But in my own case, it’s more than just statistical neglibility. In my own case, the practical, real-world situation is that I live in a small, fairly conservative town in east Alabama, and no matter who I vote for, or don’t vote for, I can predict with 99.999% confidence right now that the state of Alabama will still break about 60-40 in favor of whoever the Republican Party happens to nominate, and all of the electoral votes for the state of Alabama will go to that Republican. It’s not just that my vote makes a small contribution to the outcome. It’s that it makes literally no contribution to the outcome. If Bernie Sanders has a shot at winning the election, then I cannot possibly improve his shot by swinging my vote. Even if I convinced every single one of my neighbors for a fifteen mile radius in every direction to vote for Bernie Sanders, I still couldn’t improve his shot at winning the presidency. If he has no shot at winning the election, no matter how hard I might vote in Bernie’s favor, I certainly can’t do anything to chip away at that impossibility from where I am.

It might be nice to indulge in what-ifs about what Bernie might do if elected, but, functionally, telling me to support his campaign is telling me to devote a great deal of my limited time, attention and activist energy to a long-shot political campaign that offers no policy change whatever if it should fail (as it probably will), and whose chances of success or failure my vote cannot possibly influence in the slightest, even if it should succeed. It is not a practical recommendation for me, and it’s not a practical recommendation for any of my neighbors. It is like asking me to campaign against a hurricane hitting Mobile, or voting in favor of Auburn winning all their football games this season. Sometimes rooting and cheerleading are enjoyable ways to spend your time. But if so their value comes from the enjoyment they offer, not the practical advantages they convey, and my support for the Sanders campaign would be, practically speaking, an impractical, purely symbolic gesture in favor of an improbable utopian fantasy.

Now I am an anarchist. I have no problem per se with indulging in symbolic gestures in favor of improbable utopian fantasies. I am accustomed to long shots and unrealistic, utopian dreams. It may be that nothing I could do really accomplishes much, because radical change is hard. But then if I am going to take the time to make a symbolic gesture in favor of an improbable utopian fantasy, then why should I waste my symbolic gestures on hypothetical support for the lesser-disaster virtues of a more liberal state and another Progressive Democrat presidency? I would at least like to make a symbolic gesture in favor of an improbable utopian fantasy that I actually believe in.

Whether or not I should wish for Bernie Sanders to be elected, my supporting or not supporting Bernie Sanders will have exactly a 0% chance of helping Bernie Sanders get elected. Until you have some concrete way of improving on those odds, my view is going to remain that social protest, direct action, honest debate and day to day little pushes on the margin towards radical cultural change are not just more idealistic or pure, but really seriously immensely more immediate, immensely more practical outlets for whatever activist energy I have than cheerleading for yet another long-shot presidential campaign.

Practicality doesn’t come for free with a ballot. Ignoring that doesn’t make you a hardnosed realist, it just makes you another dreamy devotee of American civic religion.

  1. [1]See for example: Progressive Politics, Direction of Fit, man 5 reformism, Change You Can Believe In, War Speech, etc.
  2. [2]Every vote is needed in your neighborhood.

man 5 reformism

Liberals always think that the process of getting their favorite policy enacted is just like this, simple:

$ patch < reform.diff

But that is never how it works. Your reform is not written up in the right format. This will just get you an error message. Actually, what you’re doing is always, necessarily, going to be this:

$ cat reform.txt | nationalism | patriarchy | gender‑binary | racial‑fear | paternalism | party‑politics | plutocratic‑interest | entrenched‑bureaucracy | regulatory‑capture | patch

But what you get at the end of all those filters is always something quite different from what you were hoping for. Or if it was just what you were hoping for, your hopes and dreams are kind of terrible. In either case, it’s questionable whether this actually counts as the more practical approach to social and political change. In either case, you should broaden your horizons. In Anarchy, there is another way.


Progressive Politics

Shared Article from The Huffington Post

Obama Delays Immigration Action Until After Election

WASHINGTON (AP) — Abandoning his pledge to act by the end of summer, President Barack Obama has decided to delay any executive action on immigration…

Of course, this is a shameful move from Barack Obama. Immigrants’ lives and families are being sacrificed, yet again, over and over and again, to opportunism and to crass political calculation. The careers of Democratic politicians are not more important than people’s lives and livelihoods. What makes it worse is that this move is as completely predictable as it is morally grotesque.

Progressive electoral politics is like building a vast, extraordinarily expensive, Rouge River-scale machine plant to build cars. Then, after the ribbon is cut, the plant opens to great fanfare, billions of dollars are spent, and a couple of go-karts are rolled off the line as a test, the manager up and tells you that there won’t be any more cars for the time being — because all the wear and tear on the machines would destroy their ability to make more cars, some day in the future. So until then you’ll have to wait. All the while the machine whirs along, drawing more power and costing more money all the time, but no more cars ever come off the line, because every time there might have been some output, it was sacrificed to make sure that the machine itself would keep idling smoothly. But it is so perfectly polished.

Devour Borders: Mexican food as revolutionary praxis

From Jeffrey M. Pilcher, The Rise and Fall of the Chili Queens, in Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food (2012):

. . . Mexican food [from worker-owned street vendors] was also seen as a threat to white workers, both through unfair competition and labor radicalism. Nativist opponents of immigrant workers claimed that the Mexican diet of tortillas and chili, like the Chinese staple rice, undermined the nation’s standard of living. . . . Mexican food was also associated with anarchism and union organizing. Tamale vendors were blamed for the Christmas Day Riot of 1913, when police raided a labor rally in Los Angeles Plaza. Milam Plaza in San Antonio, where the chili queens worked in the 1920s, was a prominent recruiting ground for migrant workers. Customers could eat their chili while listening to impassioned speeches by anarcho-syndicalists of the [Industrial] Workers of the World[1] and the Partido Liberal Mexicano.[2]

–Jeffrey M. Pilcher, The Rise and Fall of the Chili Queens
in Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food (2012), p. 113

So I just stumbled across this passage today; it’s kind of like a perfect addendum to the Xenophobia and Anarchophobia / U.S. vs. Them section of my old No Borders / No State presentation, reheated, perfectly seasoned and cooked up together with everything I have to say about worker-owned, informal-sector food vendors and disruptive social and economic agoras.

See also.

  1. [1]Original mistakenly reads International [sic] Workers of the World, a distressingly common mistaken expansion of the I.W.W.’s initials.
  2. [2]A Mexican anarchist revolutionary group, whose founders included Ricardo Flores Magón, among others. After a series of strikes and uprisings they played a major role in the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution and briefly liberated Baja California from the control of the Mexican national government in 1911, with cross-border assistance from hundreds of I.W.W. anarcho-syndicalists from the U.S. After being defeated by the Mexican military and expelled from Mexico, members lived on in exile in southern California and central Texas.

Translation of “One comrade from Mérida sounds off: Oh I’ve got the desire” (Viento sin Fronteras, in EL LIBERTARIO)

Here is another translation from Venezuela, once again of a one-compa-sounds-off article, this time from Viento sin Fronteras (Wind without Borders) in a rural area of Mérida, a state in western Venezuela. The article was reprinted by the Venezuelan anarchist newspaper EL LIBERT@RIO. Inline links and editorial notes in footnotes are added by me. As always, the same caveats apply: I’m a nervous translator trying to keep up with a lot of regional references that I don’t always know, and moving through a lot of material coming out more quickly than I can translate it; this is a working draft; if you notice any mistakes or mangling please feel free to point them out in the comments, and I’ll attach a note or a correction to the text here. Again, there are lots of different Anarchists in Venezuela, and this is one compa’s view; there are many with different views about the attitude that Anarchists should take towards the protest. (See, for example, this previous translation of a commentary by Victor Camacho. Viento sin Fronteras is, let’s say, significantly more hands-on.)

A comrade from Mérida sounds off: Oh, I’ve got the desire

Viento sin Fronteras

This is a little chronicle many are certainly familiar with. Yesterday I got up at 6 a.m. so I could get ready to go to work. I arrived at work around 7:30 am and I spent the whole day over there. At 7pm I went back to my house. When I got home I had to go down to the nearest bodega (I live in a rural area) to buy stuff for making dinner or lunch in the coming days. Well O.K., so a purchase that consists of some three potatoes, two cans of sardines, three tomatoes, an onion, laundry soap,[1] a box of cigarettes and a few cookies, comes out to 170 bolivars [≈ US $27]. Up to this point everything seems normal but it isn’t. My daily salary is 200 bolivars [≈ US $32].

Clearly, they are 200 bolivars and this leaves me only just 30 bolivars [≈ US $5] to save for paying the rest of my expenses, like the rent for example. Or the fare for public transport, if I weren’t walking to work I’d have to take 10 bolivars off these 30 that are supposed to be left over for me.

Besides this, I remembered that the last time that I went without natural gas nearly a month passed before that commodity came back to my house. And I my house, of course, a little house of 38 square meters [≈ 409 sq. ft.] where the water shuts off every day for an hour or two, with a rent that’s equivalent to nearly half the minimum wage I work for. It brings to mind that house from the housing project[2] that that the showboat[3] of the Communal Council[4] built (great affiliate of PSUV[5] certainly and an ideological reference for many here) and which was empty until two weeks ago, which he managed to sell, for no less than the discreet sum of 700,000 bolivars [≈ US $ 111,250].

Something comes into my mind, and my nerves get hotter. I spent 10 years of my life in college. I have an undergraduate degree, a master’s, and I left my doctoral thesis half done when I lost interest. And O.K., it’s not that I believe that I deserve a Ministry salary, but for some reason, and this reason for some other reason always ends up being my fault; it has been impossible for me to find a job that, without being exactly the thing for which I supposedly studied at least would permit me (and that’s what college is supposedly about) to give back to society or to whoever, a little bit of that intellectual or technical material that I supposedly acquired in those years. At times, they then give me some moments of clarity and I say: clearly, it’s that to get hooked up you have to know whose balls to yank.[6] Or I think and I swear[7] about how to set up that writing project with the ever sacrosanct words: Eternal Commander, Fellow Comrade, the Little Bird, Our Process, the Economic War, the Eternal Giant, the Legacy.[8] All this without a doubt adds to the degree of a feeling of frustration that’s growing.

And with that, what comes into my head are the contracts for the Guasare coal, the Deltana Plate, the three billion dollars that Chevron loaned us, the concessions to Chinese timber companies in the high Caroní, the death of the Sabinos, the criminalization of the Wayuu, the Red Fascist wall shooting dissident unionists, the armed forces of the government holding old women with their pans at gunpoint, ordering them to be quiet, the dead of Uribana, the 400 dying every year in prison, the intellectual authors of the massacre of El Amparo placed in the government designing the anti-terrorism laws. And so on. And so I think that late or early, me, and many people who aren’t identified one bit with the spokespeople of the opposition parties, including folks who come from the Chavista movement, are getting out into the streets to protest. And I’ll be over there, if country life lets me, handing out pamphlets to anyone who has eyes to read them. Without falling into naivete, I know that there will be plenty of imbecile fanatics for Pérez Jiménez[9] or Leopoldo Lopez[10] there with their slogans and believe me that I’ll fight them right there. Right there I’ll show that they’re the same as the others.

Oh, I’ve got the desire[11] to go out hurling stones when the police car crosses my path. Because they are some thugs and some cheerleaders.[12] Oh, I’ve got the desire to take all the trash that they aren’t capable of managing and set it all on fire in the doorway of the Mérida state government. Oh, I’ve got the desire to smash the windows of the supermarket and leave all those products tossed on the floor that I have to wait in line for on my weekend days. Oh, I’ve got the desire to catch an ATM[13] alone and try once and for all to see how the fuck you can withdraw all the money with a sledgehammer.

I’ve got the desire to give thanks in person to the folks who set SEBIN’s trucks on fire[14] because they’re a murdering intelligence agency that tortures and persecutes political dissidents. I’ve got the desire to go up to that student leader, who’s really an ally of PJ,[15] and tell her to shut her mouth, that she’s a wanker,[16] that it’s her fault (and that of those mamelotracios[17] that she obeys) that the protest — which could have been a good way to lock up the pigs[18] and a place where we’d all recognize that all these demands are the vindication urgent for EVERYONE — was converted instead into a slogan, pretty much belonging to their own partisan interests.

The year is just beginning and it doesn’t promise to be a year for calm ones. Well, let the storm come.

— Ganas no me faltan (21 Feb. 2014). Very imperfectly translated by Charles W. Johnson

  1. [1]Lit. jabón azul, a specialized kind of soap used especially for laundry (although it can also be used for household cleaning or for personal hygiene).
  2. [2]misión vivienda, a huge public housing construction project launched as part of the Bolivarian Missions sponsored by the government, and administered through government-approved community councils.
  3. [3]Cantamañanas, more accurately, someone who promises to do something and never does it.
  4. [4]Orig. Spanish: CC, i.e., Consejo Comunal, a local council which, among other things, administers government funds granted under the Bolivarian Mission programs.
  5. [5]United Socialist Party of Venezuela, the current ruling political party.
  6. [6]Venezuelan slang, jalar bolas, lit. to pull balls, fig. to flatter or sweet talk with an ulterior motive.
  7. [7]Ambiguous: reniego, meaning either potentially reneging, cursing, detesting, renouncing a religion, or, significantly given the context, uttering blasphemy.
  8. [8]comandante eterno, compañero camarada, el arañero, nuestro proceso, la guerra económica, el gigante eterno, el legado, all nicknames or honorary phrases associated with the Bolivarian Socialist government and especially with the cult of personality around Hugo Chávez.
  9. [9]Presumably Marcos Pérez Jiménez (1914-2001), right-wing military dictator of Venezuela 1952-1958. A few of the more right-wing opposition groups explicitly identify their goals with perezjimenismo.
  10. [10]Leopoldo López Mendoza, leader in the right-wing political opposition party Voluntad Popular, arrested earlier this month and imprisoned on terrorism charges after the outbreak of street protests in Venezuela.
  11. [11]Ganas no me faltan, common phrase, meaning I don’t lack the desire or I don’t lack the urge.
  12. [12]Matraqueros, lit. those who use matracas, a kind of spinning noise-maker popular with diehard Latin American sports fans.
  13. [13]Cajero del banco, which can refer either to an ATM or to a human teller. From the reference to smashing with sledgehammers, I assume (hope?) from context that this is referring to smashing up a machine to get at the cash inside of it.
  14. [14]Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional, the main national intelligence agency and political police force in Venezuela.
  15. [15]Primero Justicia, a center-right party in the political opposition, run by Henrique Capriles, a right-wing opposition leader who has condemned the street protests.
  16. [16]Pajua, from paja, lit. masturbation or fig. wankery, in the sense of talking bullshit.
  17. [17]Original Spanish, untranslated. I don’t have a good idea of what this means, even after consulting with native speakers from South America. (It’s not in any slang dictionaries I have access to, either.) Our best guess is that it’s probably a portmanteau profanity of some kind and that it’s probably intended to suggest something like cocksuckers.
  18. [18]I am not at all sure that this is a correct translation. Orig. Spanish: que podría haber sido una buena tranca de cochina. Tranca is a lock or a door-bolt, cochina literally means sow, but cochino/a are also used as the masculine and feminine forms of an insult meaning nasty or dirty. This phrase, taken as a whole, doesn’t seem to be an idiomatic expression, or at least, does not seem to occur anywhere else on the Internet.