Category Archives: Anarchism

Anarchists For Bernie

A Sanders presidency is a long shot — and it might also be our only shot.

Since only recently discovering the social media platform, Reddit, I have been posting various things to various sub-Reddits, depending on the subject matter of whatever I’m posting. Knowing it was possibly going to be considered unwelcome on the very popular Anarchism sub-Reddit, I posted a song I just wrote, called “Bernie 2020.” It got some positive response from some folks, as it did on other platforms. (I haven’t sung it to a live audience yet.) But then it got taken down by the moderators of the Anarchism sub-Reddit, because it’s about electoral politics.

Let me say at the outset, for any of you who are moderators of the Anarchism sub-Reddit, this is not at all a dig at you — I understand these spaces need structure and moderation in order to flourish, and I appreciate your efforts. I already thought my post might be removed, or at least roundly criticized, for liberalism or whatnot. But the experience, along with a conversation I’ve been having with my friend Peter Werbe, an editor of the Fifth Estate newspaper, has inspired me to share some thoughts.

I suppose the intended audience for what I’m saying here are mainly my fellow anarchists, particularly in the US — along with anyone else who might be interested, of course. But especially anyone out there who is generally too far left to bother with voting.

I am an anarchist, or a libertarian socialist, if you like — take your pick of terms. Either of these terms means different things to different people at different times, in different situations, and nothing is ever as concrete as people would like to believe. But for me, and for many others, the term “anarchist” is shorthand for one who believes that society would work best if it were horizontally organized, in the form of collectively-owned and collectively-managed enterprises of all varieties.

It also tends to indicate one who, like me, has a deep distrust in the possibility that severely hierarchical institutions like the US federal government can possibly be reformed. This distrust among anarchists of reformist movements dates back at least to the aftermath of the Europe-wide rebellions of 1848, which saw many reforms in many governments, none of which managed to eliminate the widespread poverty and misery of most of the European laboring classes in the decades following 1848.

Indeed, on every continent save Antarctica, the histories of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries are full of reformers in government with apparently good intentions, failing to deliver on them. History is also full of reformers who did deliver on reform, such that their populations often saw their lives improve dramatically — only for the great leaders of social and economic reform to turn out to be genocidal maniacs, intent on world or regional domination, such as Franklin Roosevelt or Saddam Hussein.

History also gives us some prominent examples of how the failure of social democratic governments to provide for their populations gave rise to fascist movements. Notable occasions include Italy in the 1920’s, Germany in the 1930’s, and right now, in an ongoing process with an undetermined outcome in India, Brazil, the Philippines and the United States, to name four fairly major countries.

But for those of us who have an outlook that we would describe as anarchist or socialist, or for anyone who is most especially opposed to the possibility of fascism, it seems most crucial to me that we note the following: in instances where social democratic rule has been instrumental in maintaining relatively prosperous societies for the past few decades, we do not see fascist movements of any significant size — such as in Denmark, Norway, or Switzerland. In countries with social democratic governments that have more fully embraced privatization and other neoliberal reforms, fascist movements have much more fully taken root — such as, once again, in Italy, along with other countries I’ve already mentioned, particularly my own.

I travel and play music for a living, more or less, mainly in Europe and North America, so I’m also talking from direct, first-hand knowledge here, when it comes to 21st century developments, not just what I’ve processed second-hand.

Our Orangeman was the natural outcome of decades of neoliberalism and austerity. In Europe, it’s common knowledge that the fascist movements got their big boost with the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, which here in the US the media generally refers to as a “recession,” while they refer to our economy as “booming” — in stark contrast to what most people are experiencing, and what most people can see when they look around them, if they don’t live in a gated community.

Point is, there are different forms of governments, much as I’d prefer neither rule by corporations — which make no pretense of representing anyone’s interests but their stockholders — or allegedly representative governments. But as much as there are tendencies toward corruption and all sorts of other problems with representative government, including within the so-called advanced social democracies, all governments are not the same.

In fact, they can be very different. There’s a big difference, for example, between a state that has been completely captured by corporate interests, and a state that hasn’t been. There are big differences to be seen between governments that rule in such a way that their population is able to prosper, as opposed to those that don’t, or can’t.

Given these observations about government, society and history that I have made, my take on the current precipice we’re on is this: we can talk about which wars he’s supported and which ones he hasn’t, which military expenditures he’s voted for and which ones he’s voted against. He is far from perfect. But, as with Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Bernie Sanders is not just the flip side of the same coin. There is no Sanders wing of the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party is a corrupt, captured institution, and Sanders’ campaign is an insurgent campaign to take it over. A Sanders government could — not would, but could — be a qualitatively different sort of government, of the sort that could make a difference in whether we continue our societal march towards fascism or reverse course.

It’s a very, very long shot, to be sure. The entire corporate media, including the supposedly liberal outlets, are virulently opposed to Sanders (just as they are to Corbyn in the UK). The captured corporate leadership of his own party is horrified by his rise, just as the party’s base is more excited than they’ve been in a very long time. Both the corporate and so-called “public” media will continue to trash Sanders at every opportunity, and his own party leadership would actually rather have fascism than even the threat of socialism — they have made this clear over and over again.

And then, if he gets the nomination, he’ll have the corporate media, his own party, as well as all of the resources of the other party, to oppose his election. If he somehow manages to actually get into the White House, he’ll then be opposed by the vast majority of members of both parties of the Congress, and the corporate media will immediately launch a campaign to depict Sanders and his administration as totally inept. The corporate elite will secretly conspire to sabotage the US economy and blame it on Sanders. They’ll arrange shortages, like in Chile and Venezuela. And that will only be the beginning of the opposition to a Sanders presidency.

The only way he’ll even get as far as winning the nomination to be the Democratic Party candidate will be because of a massive groundswell that can’t be ignored by superdelegates and corrupt officials. The kind of groundswell that threatens to disrupt business as usual, and keep disrupting it, until the state has been un-captured.

A victory of any of the so-called “moderate” candidates — the ones who favor a continuation of the neoliberal Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Obama status quo that led us to our current precipice — will guarantee the further rise of the fascist movement that Trump represents, though it might delay it a bit. A Sanders or Warren victory could disrupt the trend enough that it makes a real difference. If, and only if, one of them gets elected, and then gets massive popular support in the streets, to the point that they are able to actually implement any of their social democratic policies, this could be an opportunity — perhaps our last opportunity, not to be overly dramatic — to avoid ongoing and untold suffering for so many societies, including ours.

To be sure, a movement in the streets will be absolutely required for even the remotest possibility of a Sanders nomination. There are no rules, as you may have noticed — the party leadership is making them up as they go along, in order to keep him out of office. It’s not just about voting — mostly not. But that’s one small element of it. So yes, in case my conclusion for this thought process is not already abundantly clear — take to the streets, shut the cities down, stop business as usual, as much as and wherever possible. But also, vote for Bernie.

The Secular Democratic Revolution in Rojava

Building solidarity for social emancipation from the state, capitalism, patriarchy, and theological intolerance across the geographic and ethnic divisions of the MIddle East.

Here in the US, Rojava is known for decentralization of state and patriarchal power. The adoption of community direct democracy, regional confederation, and the organized women’s movement actively dismantling systems of male domination are perceived as models for social transformation. Dr. Zozan Sami Mistefa is a Kurdish physician in Kobani, Rojava, located in northeastern Syria near the border with Turkey. The Turkish military began the latest attacks on Rojava on October 9th this year. In this context, we explore the ideas and actions taken by the Kurdish social experiments that challenge systems of oppression, including capitalism, the state, and patriarchy.

Much discussion regarding social change proposes the question of whether or not seizing state power, either through the ballot box or armed insurrection, is an effective strategy. The recent history of seizing state power does not offer confidence in positive outcomes. Coups and ballot box politics has yielded political changes ranging from the replacement of one authoritarian power with another, whereas voting has a history of producing marginal reforms to capitalism.

Furthermore, the global state system includes a small number of dominant power which do not allow states with formal legal autonomy to function autonomously. State sovereignty is a myth. For example, Canada possesses all the formal trappings of a UN-member state, but in reality it’s it functions as a client state, serving the interests of the US Empire. The planet is ensconced in a global struggle against the tyranny of the corporate state system. State sovereignty without nuclear weapons is a fleeting thing. The truth of the matter may be complex such that under particular political conditions, the general strike may be a tool of particular utility. Whereas, other political contexts might warrant the application of Dual Power resistance in which the social relations are created on a small scale inside the dying shell of the dominant corporate-state system.

The Rojava movement of northeastern Syria, and the Zapatista autonomous region in southern Mexico are two of the most important political movements within the past 200 years. The Spanish Anarchist revolt of 1936-9, and the Paris Commune of 1871 lasted less time, combined, than the span of eight years in which the Rojava social reorganization was made possible by the collapse of the Assad Syrian government.

True democracy and autonomy are not welcomed or supported anywhere on this planet by the capitalist-state system of power. Resistance to the old ways may be most effectively achieved through a struggle to unify across state borders with intent to dismantle the corporate-state from the inside out. The crumbling of Syria is only the beginning, a harbinger of things to come across the globe. The systems of state power are collapsing.

The Rojava Revolution is far more important than the Bolshevik Russian Revolution of 1917. Rojava and Zapatistas are the most important political events perhaps in the past five thousand years. Far more important than Cuba, Vietnam, China, the former USSR, and the other patriarchal authoritarian state capitalist systems that have carried the false banner of communism.

Rojava is a model for the planetary human future, if we have a future.

*****

Mark Mason: Every social movement has a particular local historical context. Would you describe the major historical events and ideas that lead to the current women’s movement in Rojava?

Zozan Sami Mistefa: Thank you for trying to communicate the voice of truth to all people and thank you for your efforts in spreading reality.

Well, Kurdish women throughout history have had a distinguished and respected place in her society. She was a fighter, a leader and a lover. We have a lot of models that we can cite from Ms. Adela Khan to Mrs. Elham Ahmed. Adela Khan ruled the province of Halabja from 1909 to 1924. There is also Ms. Khanda Sultan, who ruled the areas of Hair and Souran in Erbil between 1623 to 1640. There is also Fatima Khanim fighter and leader Hikmat Kahraman Or now known as Marash located southeast of Turkey Also in the Yazidi regions, Mian, also in the modern era, Ms. Humayil Khatun, wife of the late Kurdish leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani, was riding her horse and leading the fighting on the front lines. Also in the nineties of the last century, the activist Laila Zana in Diyarbakir, and more recently in Rojava, Ms. Elham Ahmed, co-chairperson of the Executive Board of the Syrian Democratic Council. Also, fighter Areen Mirkan and Beretan, Barin, who was martyred in the recent war against the Islamic State terrorist organization. The Kurdish women throughout history and to this day had a leading position in her society, was educated and in the leadership, and also a housewife. It is not new for Kurdish society to share women in all spheres of life, as you can now see the results and actions that these women are doing at all levels in our modern history.

MM: Social movements move by means of organized actions. What actions were taken by women to assert their economic and political rights in the home and the community?

ZM: For the measures taken to affirm the economic and political rights in society and at home, in all existing institutions there is a joint administration, i.e., the head of the pyramid. There are two people headed by a man and a woman, whether in social health institutions, political and others. In addition to all this, there is a separate institution called the House of Women, which takes care of all issues of women at all levels. Also, the Kurdish man has old qualities that require respect for women and this is something we do not see in Eastern societies. Kurds remain conservative in their culture, Indo European, where there is no violence, marginalization or coercion of women.

MM: As the largest stateless ethnic and religious group, the Kurdish people have sought to resist the imposition of four state powers: Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. The Kurdish people have been in a political situation which emphasizes daily the problem of the global state system. For the past 300 years, globalization has meant the imposition of the state system currently comprised of about 200 patches of land characterized by violently defended arbitrary borders. Although some modern states claim to be managed democratically, all states are controlled by a centralized, concentrated and hierarchical political power. As we can now envision the coming collapse of the global state system, the people of Rojava have experience and knowledge of managing their affairs through decentralized power. The identity of a people in a particular region may shift from identification with the state to identification with the land, the bioregion, and the local community. Would you help us understand this way of living without allegiance to a state bureaucracy?

ZM: For the way of coexistence with the forces imposed on the Kurds and divided on four countries, this is not easy to divide your land between four countries with different nationalities. Absolutely, but speaking of Rojava, the Kurds have embraced all the components in the region without discrimination or racism: Kurdish, Arab, Syrian, Assyrian, Muslim, Christian, Yazidi, and others. When dealing with people like the Kurdish people who have been subjected in advance to all kinds of violence, it is impossible to do these inhumane acts towards others, we tasted the pain and we will never let other people test what we [have] already tested. We respected all groups and this was mutual and the democratic experience that got the biggest example of the success of what we were doing. There are many Arabs and Syrians now in QSD (Syrian Defense Forces).

They are also members of this land and many of them prefer to remain under this wonderful experience.

MM: A universal feature of the modern state is private property and corporate-capitalism. A truly democratic society would shed itself of the violence, divisions, and ecosystem plunder which are inescapable components of a capitalist economy. What steps have been taken to shift the economy from capitalist to worker and community control?

ZM: Well, I did not understand what this question exactly, especially today you deal with a people who were deprived of all rights as a citizen by the ruling authorities. They did not allow the Kurds to build factories or setting up a commercial market or even doing a private industry. All was all forbidden. You speak today of an environment that was poor and all that we have reached today was from the people and to the people from workers and to the workers the people have built themselves by themselves. What can you say to people who love music and love freedom?

MM: The Turkish government launched military attacks against. Kobani in recent days. What can you report to us about the situation?

ZM: Yes, this is true actually; yes, they attack the center of the town and the village around we have five people they have been killed and more than 34 wounded and all records in our files they shut in Kobani hospital. But there are no injuries thanks God they shut the hospital even though they know that it is for civilian people.

MM: What, if any, efforts are being made to build support from other resistance movements which oppose tyrannical states? A massive uprising is ongoing in Lebanon, Iraqis are revolting against their government, and the Palestinians continue to be battered by the Israeli government. The Kurdish people span four countries. What are the possibilities of building unity among the Kurdish people themselves? Little support has been offered from Kurds in neighboring Iraq.

ZM: Well, for us Kurds, of course, we will be with all the people who want their freedom from tyranny and oppression, but in my personal opinion, the situation is different from Rojava and other countries such as Lebanon and Iraq, these countries have sovereignty and they have their independence; there may occur some things that need to be changed, but in the end they live under one flag and one nationality. But the situation in Rojava is completely different. We Kurds were forbidden to speak our language. We were forbidden to celebrate our national holidays such as Eid Nowooz. We were forbidden to call our children Kurdish names. Many of us were not given Syrian nationality, so you can’t go to the universities and can not do anything. We are subjected to great repression and tyranny that is why the Rojava revolution was a comprehensive revolution and we still to this day believe in the political solution to this matter.

As for the unification of the four parts of Kurdistan, it will be prevented by the four dominant governments; they will do everything to destroy us. So it is a difficult question to answer, even though we, the landowners, have the right to live in dignity, and it is still a distant dream.

MM: The United Nations is under US and European colonial control through the Security Council, and Kurds seem divided among themselves. What are the possibilities for Kurdish unity? What are the possibilities for a united global anti-capitalist, anti-statist democratic front that would make the United Nations obsolete? The global south is exploding with dissent. Uprisings against the state system are active in Chile, Honduras, Ecuador, Haiti, Iraq, Hong Kong, Catalonia Spain, Iran, India, Gaza, and Kashmir. The existing economic and political systems are crumbling. The global state system and global capitalism are collapsing. Rojava is both a particular local conflict, and also the threshold between the old systems and the new giving birth. Shall we call Rojava the womb of hopeful possibilities?

ZM: Well, we believe in Kurdish unity. There are a few minor differences, but they can be solved. As everyone sees now, General Mazloum is communicating with the Kurdistan Regional Commander, Nejirvan Berzani so we believe that the best is coming soon.

MM: What can people outside Rojava do to support the democratic revolution in solidarity with the Kurdish people? What actions in general, and in particular, would benefit the movement? How can people support the urgent medical needs in Rojava?

ZM: I call on all people to show solidarity with us and to push their governments to act against this terrorist project by [Turkish president Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan and everyone who supports it now they are now attacking us in Rojava, but tomorrow they will be in your country they will kill and destroy everything is a new face of ISIS and we all should stop them not just the Kurdish all over the world.

And for medicines there are a few organizations coming to help but we need everyone to stand with civilian people at the moment. We have no more drugs and everything gets worse.

What is Property?

All power structures are rooted in ideology. A shared belief in this ideology is what keeps the structures of power in place. Under capitalism, the edifice of social control is built on the collective illusion of private property, and the sanctity of the so-called “free market.” Any moves taken to challenge this logic will therefore provoke pushback from the system’s indoctrinated cheerleaders, and will certainly catch the attention of the repressive and recuperative functionaries of the state. But as the saying goes… you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. And you definitely can’t overthrow capitalism without messing with people’s stuff.

So… what is property, anyway? And what do anarchists have against it?

Land and Freedom

From the genocidal aftermath of Columbus’ accidental “discovery” of the New World, to the ever-deeper encroachments of Israeli settlements into the West Bank — five hundred years of European colonialism has cast a long shadow over this world. Colonization, in its supreme arrogance, carved up the globe according to the imperial logic of accumulation, imposing artificial borders on foreign lands and seeking to subjugate restive native populations through religious indoctrination and force of arms. But despite their military superiority, ideological warfare and constant recourse to savage brutality, colonial regimes have consistently failed to crush the will of colonized people to fight back. And the reason for this is simple. Occupation breeds resistance.

Anarchists, especially those of us who have never experienced the sharp edge of colonization, have much to learn from those waging this resistance. We also have a principled imperative to align ourselves with those facing acute forms of state violence and dispossession. To this end, this episode of Trouble draws on two examples of contemporary anti-colonial struggle – those waged by the Palestinians and the Mohawks of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy against their respective oppressors, the Israeli and Canadian settler-colonial states, in hopes of drawing out lessons and increasing our capacity for producing meaningful solidarity.

The End of Anarchy and The Solidification of the Global Class

There once was a world where state actors operated in an anarchic international environment, where maximizing their overall power was their goal, and war was their means of achieving it. That world is now dead.

In its place we have the current spectacle of what were known as the “great powers” who are now, at least, formally if by no means fully, democratic and economically interdependent on one another and informally, if firmly, coordinated by transnational elites.

However, lest we be confused by their seeming historical similarities, this situation is very different than the one the world found itself in during the last quarter of the nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries.

Then, the world was both far from being even formally democratic and world capitalist elites were only beginning to form and more importantly were locked in lethal competition with older more parochial elites representing the still powerful aristocracies, militaries and agrarian concerns. For anyone who might want to learn more, Arno J Mayer’s classic The Persistence of the Old Regime is an excellent guide to this period.

Although much has been written about the “democratic peace”, a doctrine at least as old as Thomas Paine and Immanuel Kant, we might wonder how much the current era also known as the “long peace” is a product of an increase in the total number of democratic or semi-democratic states, especially the most powerful ones or is rather the semi-surreptitious erection of an overarching system of global elites united by their global economic interests and disciplined by the military/state security apparatus of their universal pay master or locus primaria: the United States.

After the classical world of power politics gasped its last (1945), the United States found itself in an unprecedented world historical situation: it could mold, coerce, cajole, and most importantly penetrate an exhausted world economically, militarily, politically, and culturally. This it did with unexampled speed and skill relying in part on its aura of victory over Fascism. It built both visible and, most importantly, invisible bonds to its long term interests which both quickly and over time also became the core interests of its new client states and their local/”national” elites.

The second phase of American Hegemonic Expansion occurred throughout what was known then as the “second” and “third” worlds; the communist and non-aligned states. Through a careful policy of coercion and corruption (the use of criminal organizations often went hand in hand with the use of security forces) the United States was able to convince and ultimately co-opt much of the world’s remaining elites in their lucrative and superficially attractive skein of capitalist production and consumption and cosmetic democracy. It was and is the world’s most effective formula for world domination to have ever been devised. It is the very life-blood of Pax Americana.

Interestingly, and not surprisingly, the regions of the world that are not under firm American Hegemony such as some parts of the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa are the locations of the most violent conflicts. In part, these regions are still operating under the old Hobbesian conditions of anarchy and war. They either “suffer” from not being of sufficient interest to Superpower or are locally too costly to integrate into the world system at present. This, of course, could change at any moment when and if transnational elites hit upon novel ways of making these “war-torn” countries of benefit to themselves. The historical record says they, ultimately, surely will.

Thus, unlike the nineteenth century, the world system is far more stable under a tightly knit regime of interdependent elites dedicated to the pursuit of their own personal interests which are well served by their collective organization by Superpower or Empire. Ancient anarchy has been therefore drained from the international system, and as Negri and Hardt have pointed out in their books on Empire all conflict within the system is more of a local civil war rather than an ultimate challenge to the whole system.

It should not be totally surprising that the current international system represents the ever increasing homogenization of the interests of a group of people since the world is both materially and culturally expressed in the power of a Hegemon.  American hegemony reproduced itself through the expert use and production of Baconian power and knowledge (and some geographic and historical luck). It is a totality that came of age when the old elites (remnants of the feudal ages) were militarily eliminated and new elites (primarily communist and nationalist and oftentimes both) were unable to be successfully born. In a world of mass surveillance, hegemonic power, elite interdependence, sophisticated consumption, and democratic ideology; what contradictions, if any, could liberate humankind from the sweet bondage of ever growing economic prosperity and, at least for the Great Powers, international peace through the solidification of the directory of the Great Global Class of the Twenty-First Century?

Plutocracy V: Subterranean Fire

Plutocracy V: Subterranean Fire, written and directed by Scott Noble, continues the run of quality documentaries by Metanoia Films. The film provides the historical context that allows the viewer to understand why inequality reigns while social justice and peace lag today. The, at first blink, curious title stems from a quotation by the American labor leader August Spies, who was one of four anarchists hanged in 1887 after being found guilty in the bomb explosion that wounded and killed several policemen and civilians in what became known as the Haymarket affair.

Said Spies to the court:

But, if you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement—the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil and live in want and misery, the wage slaves, expect salvation—if this is your opinion, then hang us!

Here you will tread upon a spark, but here, and there, and behind you, and in front of you, and everywhere, flames will blaze up.

It is a subterranean fire.

Subterranean Fire documents historically how the capitalist class have nefariously accumulated wealth and power for selfish purposes by depriving working people of dignity and rights.

Subterranean Fire details at the outset how strike actions and popular revolts were put down by corporations through their cronies, including police, private detectives, vigilantes, and even the National Guard. In the Homestead strike of 1892, after workers had defeated the Pinkerton agency’s private army, the National Guard was brought out.

According to data cited in the film, in 1929, 60 percent of the population lived well below the poverty line. Despite large increases in productivity, there was no trickle down of profits. Neither was there a social safety net.

Labor historian Peter Rachleff tells how organizations like the Red Cross and Salvation Army were enmeshed in the capitalist pattern, categorizing the poor into deserving and undeserving of assistance based on what their “interrogations” uncovered about one’s life style. The unemployed were often blamed for being without employment.

Violence against workers was rampant, and the government was complicit in the violence. The über-rich industrialist Henry Ford hired armed guards to crush disenchanted workers. These armed guards shot and killed hunger marchers from the River Rouge plant.

Finally in 1935, unions were legalized. There was hope. A crafts union, the AFL was formed; also formed was an industrial workers union, the CIO. These two were to merge years later into the AFL-CIO.

Subterranean Fire informs how unions sought to end prejudice — an obvious sine qua non in the battle between the moneyed power of the capitalist class and working class.

A message that is compelling and clearly conveyed is that government (and hence “democracy”) is not a force for the masses of workers. Especially prominent in pushing for the dignity of labor were communist leaders.

Communism and Social Justice

Rachleff identified the communists’ goal as developing workers as human beings.

Of particular importance to communists was the inclusion of the Black masses. The KKK, who were supported by state power, warned against Blacks attending communist meetings.

The Scottsboro Boys surrounded by Alabama National Guard, 20 March 1931

Communists played a prominent role in the scathingly egregious example of racism meted out to the Scottsboro boys. African-American Studies professor Carol Anderson lays out how nine Black teenagers were falsely accused of rape by two White prostitutes. This raised temperatures to boiling among racist Whites. In a one-day trial, eight youths were sentenced to the electric chair and the other youth to life imprisonment. Eventually one woman recanted her false testimony, but it was 17 years before the last prisoner was released for a crime never committed.

Immigrants were also targeted for exploitation.

Stoop labor, such as farm labor where the worker was often stooped over while working in the fields, was considered undesirable. This provided work opportunities for those more desperate; Mexican workers were attracted by the opportunity for work. As immigrant labor, they were without rights and often mistreated. To avoid a labor shortage during WWII, the US-Mexico had reached agreement on the Bracero program, a massive guest worker program that allowed over four million Mexican workers to migrate and work temporarily in the United States from 1942 to 1964. Scandalously, many Braceros still seek to collect unpaid wages from that time. As Justin Chacon, author of No One Is Illegal points out, this form of captive labor has continued into the present. The current backlash against immigrants supported by the Donald Trump government augurs back to the Bracero program.

Resistance in the Arts

Artists, writers, and actors were centers of unionization and resistance against exploitation of people. Such artistic expression was opposed by the capitalist class.

Subterranean Fire features an excerpt from director Tim Robbins’ movie Cradle Will Rock, where the capitalist Nelson Rockefeller is questioning the artist Diego Rivera who was commissioned by Rockefeller to produce a fresco for the Rockefeller Center in New York city. However, the pro-communist display was too much for Rockefeller to stomach; he subsequently had the fresco destroyed.

Diego Rivera, Man at the Crossroads, 1933, Rockefeller Center prior to destruction

The Importance of Solidarity

In Flint, Michigan, autoworkers occupied factories and conducted sit-down strikes. Historian Sharon Smith points out the ingenuity of such a tactic: while factory owners were readily willing to use violence against workers, they were loathe to damage their own factories.

Women of the epoch played an important role in supporting the labor rights actions of the men. Women auxiliaries sneaked food into the men; they broke windows to prevent men from being overcome by gas attacks; and they served as a distraction to police.

The strikers reached out to fellow autoworkers across the country and fostered much unity. These tactics helped workers win demands from Big Auto.

Sit-down strikes spread across the country. The film tells that in 1937 almost 5 million workers took part in sit-down strikes. It was a heady time for workers.

However, in the end, the grassroots organizing power of workers was undermined by the union leadership which sought an alliance between labor and capital. The Communist Party of America also failed the working class.

In another blow to workers, the Supreme Court ruled sit-down strikes illegal in 1939.

The demonized state of workers was epitomized in the summer of 1937 when Chicago police shot at a parade of striking steelworkers and their families. Fifty were shot and 10 died. President Franklin Roosevelt sat on the fence and blamed both sides for the violence.

Later, however, FDR appeared to have a change of heart, and in 1944 he backed a second Bill of Rights for all. Among the rights were such basics as “a right to a useful and remunerative job,” “the right of every family to a decent home,” and “the right to adequate medical care.” According the the documentary, FDR was no true friend of labor, and his expressed views were in anticipation of the United States entering WWII. Nonetheless, FDR died a year later.

Demonizing Workers and the Left

Capitalists, with media in tow, demonized communists and anarchists. The Alien Registration Act of 1940 aimed to preserve the status quo. Japanese-Americans were interred. Communists were targeted.

The FBI was involved. Edgar Hoover had leftists monitored and surveilled by tactics including wiretaps and break-ins. The anti-leftism was so extreme that a section of corporate America supported fascism. The fascists supported Nazi Germany in WWII.1

Post-WWII the top income tax rate was 91% until 1964. One-third of workers belonged to a union. From 1940 to 1967 real wages doubled. Living standards doubled.

However, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 would attack workers, banning many types of strikes, closed union shops, union political contributions, communists and radicals in union leadership, and the compelled payment of union dues. The Supreme Court upheld Taft-Hartley, and it remains in force today.

The film also examines McCarthyism, a witch hunt against communists or communist-leaning types, as a psychological attack against Americans. No one was safe. Blacklisting was in vogue and among the first blacklisted were the so-called Hollywood 10 for either communist sympathies or refusal to aid Congress’ House Un-American Activities Committee investigations into the Communist party or having fought for the rights of Blacks and workers. The list expanded much past 10. One celebrity given in-depth prominence in Subterranean Fire was singer Paul Robeson who refused to back down before Congress, stated he was for Negro and worker rights, and accused Congress of neo-fascism.

McCarthyism hit hysterical heights as exemplified by Texas proposing the death penalty for communist membership and Indiana calling for the banning of Robin Hood.

McCarthyism was foiled when it bit off more than it could chew. When McCarthyism took on the establishment, in particular the military, its impetus ground to an inglorious halt. The Alien Registration Act was ruled unconstitutional, and the First Amendment right to political beliefs was upheld.

Subterranean Fire notes that the damage to the labor movement was already done. A permanent war economy was established: overtly through the military and covertly through the CIA. Come 2001, union membership had dropped to 13.5%. Radicals were disconnected from their communities; union democracy was subverted by a top-down leadership which avoided the tactic of striking for collective bargaining; the court system was heavily backlogged with labor-management issues, which usually were ruled in favor of management.

Some outcomes noted in the film,

In the early 21st century, Americans took on the dubious distinction of working more hours than any other country….

There is no single county in America where a minimum wage earner can support a family.

The Rise

Grotesque income and wealth disparity signifies the current state of neoliberalism. Yet Subterranean Fire finds glimmers of change for working men and women.

Despite relating the historical trampling of the working class, the film concludes on a sanguine note. Union strength appears to be on the rebound with solidarity being a linchpin. Labor strikes were on the upswing in the US, with teachers leading the way. Fast-food workers are fighting for a decent wage. Labor, which has seen real wages stagnate in the age of neoliberalism, is fighting back worldwide. Autoworkers in Matamoros, Mexico are striking and colleagues in Detroit, Michigan have expressed support for their sisters and brothers. The Gilet Jaunes in France have been joined by labor. A huge general strike took place in India. The uptick of resistance was not just pro-labor but anti-global warming in Manchester, UK; Tokyo, Japan; Cape Town, South Africa; Helsinki, Finland; Genoa, Italy; and, Nelson, Aotearoa (New Zealand).

All this, however, must be considered through the lens of the current political context. A virulent anti-socialist president and his hawkish administration occupy the White House in Washington. Despite the nationwide strike actions, the right-wing BJP and prime minister Narendra Modi won a recent huge re-election in India. The purportedly centrist Liberal Party in Canada, rhetoric aside, has been, in large part, in virtual lockstep with the US administration.2

The Importance of Metanoia Films

Today, people with access to the internet have little excuse for continuing to depend on state-corporate media sources. Why would anyone willingly subject himself to disinformation and propaganda? Not too mention paying for access to such unreliable information and the soul-sapping advertisements that accompany it.

It is important that we be cognizant of the search engine manipulations of Google, the biased opinions parlayed by moneyed corporate media, and the censorship of social media data-mining sites. The corporate-state media nexus wants to limit and shape what we know. The current war on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange is proof positive of this. Assange and WikiLeaks exposed horrific war crimes. It is a no-brainer that a person should be congratulated for bringing such evil perpetrated by the state to the public awareness. Instead the establishment seeks to destroy WikiLeaks, the publisher Assange, and Chelsea Manning who is accused of providing the information to WikiLeaks.

Given the corporate-state power structure’s ideological opposition to WikiLeaks and freedom on information as well as the preponderance of disinformation that emanates from monopoly media, it seems eminently responsible that people seek out credible independent sources of information. Metanoia Films stands out as a credible source.

There are plenty of independent news and information sites that provide analysis that treat the reader/viewer with respect by substantiating information provided in reports and articles with evidence, logic, and even morality. The reader/viewer who seeks veracity has an obligation to consider the facts, sources, and reasoning offered and arrive at her own conclusions.

Metanoia documentaries lay out a historical context that helps us understand how we arrived at the state of affairs we find ourselves in today. It is an understanding that is crucial to come up with solutions for a world in which far too many languish in poverty, suffer in war zones, and are degraded by the cruelties of inequality. It is an understanding that is crucial for communicating, planning, and organizing the establishment of new societies in which all may flourish and of which all may be proud.

Independent media is meant for independent thinkers and those who aspire to a better world. Watch Plutocracy V: Subterranean Fire and the first four parts in the Plutocracy series and become informed.

  1. For an in-depth history, read Jacques R. Pauwels, The Myth of the Good War (Toronto: Lorimer, 2015), a book which exposes US motivations during WWII as serving corporate interests.
  2. Note Canadian prime minister Trudeau’s stand on Assad in Syria, Maduro in Venezuela, Huawei and the extradition hearings on Meng Wanzhou, antagonisms with China, and antagonism with Russia’s Putin. Also consider Canada’s poor record on effectively taking on climate change. These actions differ little from president Trump south of the border.

Re-forming the Reformers

Further to previous articles,1 on the Marxist Impossibilist tradition it must sound rather bizarre to modern ears that there exist political parties that do not make demands upon the present capitalist system and its protector, the State. For many people it seems common-sense that a socialist party should advocate for something right now. Labor and left-wing parties have over the years issued manifestos listing their immediate demands, formulating platforms for various minimum programs and promoting their particular menus of transitional reforms. Amelioration of conditions by palliative changes has been the bread and butter of elected politicians for generations and, in contrast, here are the Impossibilists of the World Socialist Party of the United States and the Socialist Party of Canada declaring that they stand for socialism, only socialism, and nothing less than socialism. Yet they express the original authentic view of the Marxists. It was after the dismal results of a French election in 1881, that saw a group arise which began to advocate a more pragmatic policy, declaring “We prefer to abandon the ‘all-at-once’ tactic practised until now…We desire to divide our ideal ends into several gradual stages to make many of our demands immediate ones and hence possible of realisation.” Describing themselves as the Possibilists, they regarded socialism as a progressive social process. Those who still regarded capitalism and socialism as mutually exclusive systems and refused to budge from the revolutionary position of what has become known as ‘the maximum program’ were henceforth labelled as Impossibilists.

Those Impossibilist parties, such as the WSPUS and SPC do not deny that reforms won by the working class have improved living and working conditions. Indeed, they see little wrong with people campaigning for reforms that enhance the quality of their lives, and some can be viewed as “successful” such as public education, housing and sanitation. They also acknowledge that the “welfare” state, socialized healthcare, unemployment payments and so on, made living standards of the working class better than they ever had been under free-market, laissez faire capitalism. Nevertheless, these “successes” have, in reality, done little more than to keep workers fit for the treadmill and their families in working order and while they may have taken the edge off problems, they have rarely managed to eradicate problems completely. The theory underlying the Impossibilist case against reformism is that a revolution is the work of a class which has gained political power in order to transform society to suit its interests; a reform is carried out only within the framework of the social system. Reforms cannot end capitalism; they can modify it to some extent, but they leave its basis untouched. To establish socialism, a revolution — a complete transformation of private property into common property — is necessary.

Impossibilist socialists do not oppose reformism lest it dampens revolutionary ardor, nor because they think that capitalism cannot deliver on any reforms but because the continued existence as property-less wage-slaves undermines whatever attempts is made to better our lives through reforms. The objection to reformism is that by ignoring the essence of class, it throws blood, sweat and tears into battles that will be undermined by the operation of the wage-labor system. All that effort, skill, energy could be instead turned against class society, to create a society of common interest where we can make changes for our collective mutual benefit. So long as class exists, any gains will be partial and fleeting, subject to the ongoing class war. It is much like medics on a battlefield, all they can do is to keep slamming in the morphine, slapping on the bandages and hope that somehow the slaughter might cease.

What Impossibilists are opposed to is the whole concept that capitalism can be tamed and made palatable by the proper reforms. They do not claim capitalist reforms stand in the way of achieving socialism. If they did, they’d logically have to oppose them — which they don’t. They actively encourage workers to fight back against employers but don’t propose or advocate reforms, and don’t oppose them if they genuinely do improve workers’ lives under capitalism. Impossibilists say that palliatives are merely irrelevant to achieving socialism and that a socialist party should not advocate reforms.

If a pipe bursts and the water is flooding the house, one can start bailing the water out while it continues to flow in, or one can turn the water off, and then start bailing it out. It may take a while to find the tap, but unless the water is turned off, the water will continue to rise and bailing is rather pointless. Human tragedies occur daily, by the millions, and generate thousands of social activist groups trying to stem the tide. The Impossibilists urges people to find the tap and turn it off.

In the history of the working class movement a variety of different parties have been following and vacillating between four different roads:

1 ) The insurrection of a small determined group which would hold on to power until the majority were converted to socialist ideas – Blanquism/Leninism
2 ) The seizure of the means of production and distribution by some form of economic action – Syndicalism/Industrial Unionism
3 ) The accomplishment of ever more sweeping reforms until capitalism had been reformed out of existence and society had become socialist – Reformism/Gradualism
4 ) The conquest of power by a majority of class-conscious workers imbued with the single aim of abolishing the capitalist ownership of the means of production and distribution – Impossibilism

In the history of the working class movement a variety of different parties have been built, some following one or other of the above roads. Endeavoring to change capitalism, or reformism is the route that has been taken by most who have wanted to improve society. Reformism has some attractions over revolution – especially if you lack imagination, don’t like confrontation, prefer to think only in the short term, and don’t want to be accused of not living in the real world. You are also assured of being in good company because large numbers of people think as you do that capitalism can be humanized. What is needed is for the class which is poor to dispossess the class which is rich so that we may have a society in which we will all live in a condition of security and equality.

Reforms can be defined as political measures brought forward to amend the operation of capitalism in some way. Because in a class-divided system like capitalism, it is the State which is the institution operating this entire process. By extension, reformism is the attempt to seek support so that political power and influence over the state can be obtained to enact reforms. The role of hegemony – that powerful combination of ruling ideas filtered through the mass media is important in understanding how reformism is actually carried out. Concerned as they are to maintain the profit system, reformists persuade themselves to do what is best for “the economy.” Reforms are implemented by political parties that seek and get a mandate to run capitalism. Politicians’ logic prevails:

1. Capitalism is terrible.
2. We must do something.
3. Reforms are something.
4. Therefore we must enact reforms.

While political and economic measures are often intertwined, without their political character, they can’t be reformist. So the key issue for Impossibilists is not to advocate nor seek political support for reform programs, as this is reformism. It is for others such as trade unions and the many one-issue activists to engage with the State for the purpose of gaining relief from the effects of capitalism.

Important to note (and perhaps the most common mistaken criticism of them) is that Impossibilists do not accept the view that nothing but socialism are of concern and accept that a non-revolutionary phase of the struggle between the classes is as inevitable as the revolutionary. When the worker acquires revolutionary consciousness he or she is still compelled to make the non-revolutionary struggle, fighting in the here and now, where they can and how they can. Opposition to everything that does and can happen in capitalism in the guise of being true to socialist principles would be ridiculous. Impossibilists argue that while the working class should organise for socialism, it doesn’t mean that nothing can be done this side of the revolution. Such things as basic healthcare and education came into being because the working class fought for them. Without the threat of action we would never have won such concessions. Industrial action helped to improve wages and working conditions. We have the ability to change things if we act together. The power to transform society lies in the hands of those who create everything – the working class. This is the source of our power, should we eventually use it. It is the class power not to make a few reforms, but to change the whole system, to make a social revolution. Leading the workers along the path of reform is not equipping them for their revolutionary role.

Those convinced that political parties promising reforms deserve support should consider the following points. The campaign, whether directed at right-wing or left-wing governments, will often only succeed if it can be reconciled with the profit-making needs of the system. In other words, the reform will often be turned to the benefit of the capitalist class at the expense of any working class gain. Any reform can be reversed and eroded later if a government finds it necessary and we are witnessing that from all the recent austerity measures happening from Scandinavia to Spain. Reforms rarely, if ever, actually solve the problem they were intended to solve. One can pick any single problem and find that improvements have taken place, usually only after a very long period of agitation. But rarely, if ever, has the problem actually disappeared, and usually other related problems have arisen to fill the vacuum of left by the “solution”. Impossibilists choose to use their time and limited funds to work to eliminate the cause of the numerous social problems. They hold the opinion palliatives and ameliorations will be offered and conceded by a besieged capitalist class in a desperate attempt to retain ownership rights if the working class were demanding the maximum program of full and complete appropriation and nothing less. To stem the socialist tide reforms now derided as Utopian aspirations will be two-a-penny in an attempt to fob off the workers. Governments do not feel threatened by appeals to it to act on single issues – even if those appeals take the form of mass protests. A government feels a sense of power and security in the knowledge that the protesters recognize it as the supreme arbitrator to which all appeals must be made. As long as people are only protesting over single issues they are remaining committed to supporting the system as a whole. But a government will take a very different view when people confront it not to plead from a position of weakness for this or that legislative change, but to challenge the whole basis of the way we live – in other words to question the inevitability of buying and selling and production for profit, and to actively work from a position of political strength for its replacement by the socialist alternative. In such circumstances, the governments’ aim will be to buy off the growing socialist consciousness of workers. In other words, reforms will be much more readily granted.

Finally, another reason the Impossibilists resist the siren song of reformism as some sort of tactic to gain support from workers, is that people who’d join a socialist party because they are attracted by its reformist tactics would eventually turn it into a pure and simple reformist organization, constantly working on the terrain of capitalism. History shows the fate of the social democratic parties, which despite a formal commitment to socialism as an “ultimate goal”, admitted non-socialists and sought non-socialist support for a minimum reform program of capitalism rather than the maximum socialist program. In order to maintain their non-socialist support , they were themselves forced to drop all talk of socialism and become even more openly reformist. Today the social democratic parties are firmly committed to capitalism in theory and in practice. Impossibilists say that this was the inevitable result of the admission of non-socialists and advocating reforms of capitalism. That is another reason why they have always advocated socialism and declines to call for the reform of capitalism. A socialist party advocating reforms would be the first step towards its transformation into a reformist party. Regardless of why or how the reforms are advocated, the result is the same: confusion in the minds of the working class instead of growth of socialist consciousness. The Left always wish to have the ear and confidence of the working class and will say to fellow-workers “Carry on with your reformist struggles. We’re with you all the all way” even though it is known that this is a recipe for failure and so, in the end, the Left actually helps to weaken not strengthen the working class by tying it ideologically to capitalism, fostering the illusion that capitalism can be run in the interests of workers and entrenching their dependence on capitalist governments to do it for them. It is far better to say what you really think and feel to be the case however unpopular or out of touch it might might make you seem at the time. Workers will not thank you for trying to lead them up the garden path and you will certainly not gain their confidence as a result.

  1. Here and here

Human Hierarchies, Competition, and Anarchism

New Yorker

If dominance hierarchies are an outcome of natural selection, and if early Homo sapiens were naturally selected (they were), and if humans are genetically inclined to procreate thereby ensuring their genes continue in future generations, then, to the extent that status confers reproductive advantage, humans should be genetically predisposed to challenge for the highest placement within a hierarchy. Yet, modern humans have made substantive inroads in understanding and manipulating genetics, controlling the environment, and eliminating and curing disease. While there is evidence still pointing to natural selection having influence in shaping human evolution, human advances have curbed natural selection and artificial selection has become more prominent. Moreover, if dominance hierarchies genetically prevailed over humans, then anarchists must represent some kind of evolutionary dead end. Nonetheless, anarchists have made great contributions to societal and political-economic thought.1 Probably the greatest anarchist contribution has been to work toward a classless, anti-authoritarian, co-cooperatively based society in which there are no permanent hierarchies.

In particular, Petr Kropotkin’s well-researched landmark work, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, posits other than biological determinism; the ideal society is anti-hierarchical, anti-dominance, and anti-authoritarian.

I obviously do not deny the struggle for existence, but I maintain that the progressive development of the animal kingdom, and especially mankind, is favored much more by mutual support than by mutual struggle…2

Karl Polanyi’s seminal book, The Great Transformation, describes how early forms of human society were based on cooperation rather than competition. That the social order was transformed to a capitalist market economy was criticized by Polanyi: “[T]o separate labor from other activities of life and subject it to the laws of the market was to annihilate all organic forms of existence and to replace them by a different type of organization, an atomistic and individualistic one.”3

Polanyi’s thought is a logical reflection of Marx’s core theory of Value and the role of capitalism in eroding the value of labor.

Based on the historical and anthropological record, Polanyi held that the economy is bound up in the social relationships of humans.

The maintenance of social ties … is crucial. First, because by disregarding the accepted code of honor, or generosity, the individual cuts himself off from the community and becomes an outcast; second, because, in the long run, all social obligations are reciprocal, and their fulfillment serves also the individual’s give-and-take interests best. Such a situation must exert a continuous pressure on the individual to eliminate economic self-interest from his consciousness to the point of making him unable … even to comprehend the implications of his own actions in terms of such an interest.4

It is arguable that in disregarding immediate, long-term, or status-enhancing selfish gratifications, the individual is safeguarding her own future economic self-interest. In a society where individuals care for the needs of all members, that individual also belongs to the protective web of such a society. Since no one can be certain of avoiding future ill health or disaster, such a society acts as a safety net for all its members. Even some capitalist societies recognize this fact but all too often fail to adequately provide coverage and care to vulnerable sectors of society. And such welfare programs can fall victim to self-serving capitalistic procedures and tendencies based on immediate cost reductions because of a short-term focus on profit accumulation. While the provision of employment and health insurance is integral to those marginalized within capitalist society, such programs can be diverted to the profit-making interests of capitalists.

For Polanyi, the very fact that production was organized around buying and selling adduced the “extreme artificiality” of the market economy.5 Polanyi saw abandoning the natural way for the market system to be dangerous:

Robbed of the protective covering of cultural institutions, human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure; they would die as victims of acute social dislocation through vice, perversion, crime, and starvation. The natural world would be reduced to its elements, neighborhoods and landscapes defiled, rivers polluted, military safety jeopardized, the power to produce food and raw materials destroyed.5

In his meta-analysis of the literature on competition versus cooperation, educator Alfie Kohn, echoing Petr Kropotkin,6 contended that “competition is an inherently undesirable arrangement.”7 Moreover, performance based on cooperation was found to be superior across fields of endeavor.8 Given the preponderance of the evidence, one would more reasonably conclude that at the societal level, cooperatively based groupings would be selected over competitive arrangements.

A Consensual Economic Model: Parecon

What kind of world is it that most people want? Dog-eat-dog capitalism or everybody looking out for each other? One economic model called participatory economics (parecon for short) was developed based on the core values of equity, solidarity, diversity,9 efficiency, and self-management. Parecon features balanced job complexes, remuneration based on effort and sacrifice, and decision-making empowered in all the workers. Grassroots planning that converges on a consensus outcome will replace the highly inefficient capitalist markets.10

Cooperatism also offers an interesting economic model wherein job complexes are run by workers for workers and not workers being dictated to by a board of directors for the profit of shareholders.11

Peterson argues that dominance hierarchies are based on competence, ability, and skill — not power. “This is obvious both anecdotally and factually,” writes Peterson.12 He gives the example of people wanting the best surgeon when stricken with brain cancer.

Yes, of course, patients want a good surgeon. However, how many patients would ask for a ranking of their surgeon? Wouldn’t most patients assume that a person by virtue of being a surgeon had successfully completed the training to become a surgeon and would, therefore, be competent in her vocation? Others might refer to this as specialization rather than a hierarchy. Most people tend to excel in certain areas and not as much in others. This is obvious both anecdotally and factually. If you are scuba diving for the first time in a challenging tidal channel with extreme current flows, do you want to dive with the experienced dive guide, a rookie dive guide, or with the brain surgeon? The brain surgeon does what she does well within her bailiwick, and the dive guide does what he does well within his field of expertise. And within the field of surgery some surgeons will have more expertise and competence in performing certain surgeries and less skill to perform different surgeries. This is normal in situations calling for specialization. The same goes for scuba diving. Some dive professionals will have greater knowledge of the dive sites and be better able to navigate and explore sites familiar to them. However, the competence and skills demanded do not necessitate the formation of a dominance hierarchy.

  • Read Part 1.
  • Part 3: analysis of Peterson’s views on religion versus science, Wikipedia as a trusted source, and his antithesis to revolution
  1. See, for example, the works of Leonid Tolstoy, Mikhail Bakunin, Noam Chomsky, Petr Kropotkin, Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Emma Goldman, Murray Bookchin, Robin Hahnel, Michael Albert, and many, many others. It should be noted in the anarchist context that the contributions arise from the masses.
  2. Petr Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, A Public Domain Book, 1902: loc 221.
  3. Karl Polyani, The Great Transformation, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957): 163.
  4. Polanyi, 46.
  5. Polanyi, 73.
  6. Kropotkin, “Better conditions are created by the elimination of competition by means of mutual aid and mutual Support.” loc 962.
  7. Alfie Kohn, No Contest: The Case Against Competition, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986): 9.
  8. Alfie Kohn, “Is Competition More Productive?: The Rewards of Working Together” in No Contest: 45-78.
  9. Since Jordan Peterson seems at odds with diversity, a definition is in order. Diversity is merely the state of being different, and such difference must not face discrimination. Diversity does not mean forcing others to like or agree with the differences. It means live and let live.
  10. See Michael Albert, Parecon: Life After Capitalism (Verso, 2003).
  11. See Chris Wright, Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States (BookLooker.com, 2014).
  12. Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, (Penguin Random House UK, 2018): loc 5370.

The Utility of Rules and Hierarchy

The overzealous politically correct-speech crowd has triggered a backlash. One person who took exception is Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto who rocketed into the spotlight for his courageous dissent against compelled speech. I support that stance taken by Peterson. Peterson also has a youtube presence, and this year his book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Crisis (Penguin Random House UK) was published.

Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life contains plenty of wisdom, but also plenty of bias, often ill-supported by facts or reason. Yet an anarchist physics professor finds, “Peterson is having an impact because his important words are true and because oppressive false words have gone too far.” Peterson, says the anarchist, is “fighting for reason and objectivity and against ideological madness.”

Indeed, rational people will agree that discovering what best captures or approximates truth is important, as is exposing false narratives. Who cannot help but support “fighting for reason and objectivity and against ideological madness.” Yet Peterson can also be accused of ideological bias. Since 12 Rules for Life is a best seller and since Peterson’s views are garnering widespread attention, Peterson’s viewpoints on truth, falsity, anti-communism, ideology, and so on, as expressed in his book, call for a critical analysis.

The Need for Rules

Peterson claims that “without rules we quickly become slaves to our passions—and there’s nothing freeing about that.” (location 50)

This is an assertion, and it seems that Peterson is imprecise, or taking liberty, with language since what he calls slavery is more correctly termed addiction. An addiction usually starts as a choice, a choice that turns out to be bad as the addict has lost self-control.

There are several other points when considering rules and whether to adhere to them. First, it has been compellingly argued that rules lead to a dreaded, bloated bureaucracy.1 Second, there are good rules, and there are bad rules. Third, who is it that decides what the rules are or should be and which rules are good or bad? Does the common man decide or the uncommon woman? Does the colonizer decide or the dispossessed Indigenous person? Cree lawyer Sharon Venne made the legal and moral argument that “colonial laws are ‘rules and regulations,’ but not laws in the true sense of the word. Colonial laws are made to be broken.”2

When rules are devised and imposed on the masses with little or no input from the masses, and without genuine acquiescence from the masses what does this signal about the validity and legitimacy of said rules?

Regarding rules, in general, I propose: don’t become a slavish follower to a bad rule, instead seek its abolition. Likewise, in cases where rules are a necessity and are legitimately enacted by moral actors among the masses and having garnered the acceptance of the masses (without unduly impinging on the rights of a minority), then apply common sense: don’t be selfish and break laws that are scripted for the good of the wider society. Bad rules, however, can, and probably should, stir up a passionate resistance.

The other side of the argument is specificity. For instance, suppose a rule is valid. Is it universal though? For instance, if an Israeli accepts a rule, would a Palestinian accept the same rule knowing that his condition does not allow him to be generous in accepting such a rule? In the Canadian context, should First Nations accept that their culture and laws are subject to and inferior to rule imposed by a colonial-settler structure?

Decency and social cohesion points to the preeminent rule being some form of the Golden Rule: treat others as you would wish to be treated.

Regarding Peterson’s 12 rules, they are very reasonable and something all persons interested in their betterment should consider embracing. Importantly, they are rules one should set for oneself and are not meant to be imposed from outside; hence individual autonomy is sanctified. Individuals are empowered and are challenged with responsibility for their actions. In this vein, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote,

The proud knowledge of the extraordinary privilege of responsibility, the consciousness of this rare freedom, of this power over himself and over fate, has sunk right down to his innermost depths, and has become an instinct—what name will we give to it, this dominating instinct, if he needs to have a word for it? But there is no doubt about it—the sovereign man calls it conscience.3

Dominance Hierarchies and Determinism

Petersen writes of the dominance hierarchy,

It’s permanent. It’s real. The dominance hierarchy is not capitalism. It’s not communism, either, for that matter. It’s not the military-industrial complex. It’s not the patriarchy—that disposable, malleable, arbitrary cultural artefact. It’s not even a human creation; not in the most profound sense. It is instead a near-eternal aspect of the environment, and much of what is blamed on these more ephemeral manifestations is a consequence of its unchanging existence. (loc 688)

Peterson writes that the dominance hierarchy is ancient, as is the part of brain that tracks position.

Nonetheless, many people take umbrage at the idea that one could seemingly extrapolate from lobster behavior “up” to humans and also that dominance hierarchies among humans are fuelled predominantly by biochemistry. Such a view points to biological determinism. It hearkens to sociobiological theory which, in a nutshell, is that humans are genetically driven to pass their genes into future generations. The entomologist Edward O. Wilson, author of Sociobiology, came to this theory based on observations of ant colony behavior which he compared to animal behavior along the branches of the evolutionary tree. Yet sociobiology has problems adequately explaining evidence contrary to theory, for example, couples who choose not to have children, homosexuality, or engaging in behaviors that would diminish chances at passing genes to the next generation — such as alcoholism.

Peterson’s view of an “unchanging existence” runs contrary to the several qualities/changes that distance humans from animals, for example, the human conception of morality.4 The moral principle popularized by Star Trek that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one would argue against sociobiology, and also indirectly against a dominance hierarchy.5

Peterson’s amoral view (he does not state that dominance hierarchies are good or bad, just that they are), however, appears more nuanced; he does not appear to adhere strictly to a deterministic outcome. Ideally based on intrinsic human values, people must (or should) have by inalienable right free choice. If this happens, then clinical psychologists can help distressed people through therapy to bring about changes in their life.

As for the animal kingdom, there are salient studies that call into question the pervasiveness of a dominance hierarchy. The great apes called bonobos are known for positive emotional attributes, a lack of aggression, and a relatively deemphasized hierarchy.6

Another study suggests the importance of the environment, pointing to the lack of a dominance hierarchy among chimpanzees in captivity.7

Besides, sometimes being an alpha is not all it’s cracked up to be, as the underlings will knock off their despised alphas.8 Humans, by and large, also do not appreciate bullies (a type of personality who covets a top-dog position obtained through violence or threat of violence).

Quite revelatory was a longitudinal study of a baboon troop by Robert Sapolsky and Lisa Share. They chanced upon a surprising result following the die-off of alpha males after eating tuberculosis-tainted food at a garbage dump. Subsequently, the stress levels of the remaining troop diminished, and the troop behaved much more amicably toward one another.9

The neuroscientist Sapolsky also appears in a documentary where he speaks to the recultured baboon troop and what it implies for human society:

Another one of the things that baboons teach us is if they are able to, in one generation, transform what are supposed to be textbook social systems, sort of engraved in stone, we don’t have an excuse when we say there are certain inevitabilities about human social systems.10

In conclusion, the documentary’s narrator pointedly asks: “And so, the haunting question that endures from Robert [Sapolsky]’s life work: Are we brave enough to learn from a baboon?”10

Plenty of evidence exists for the non-expression of a dominance hierarchy in the animal kingdom. This does not, however, preclude the manifestation of dominance hierarchies among humans. And, indeed, dominance hierarchies do exist in human societies. But are they wrought by evolution? Or are they shaped by features of the environment? Or perhaps a combination? Are they pervasive across the spectrum of behaviors and networks? Are they an inevitability?

The chicken-and-egg conundrum speaks to determinism. Does physiology precede topping a hierarchy or does top ranking bring about changes in physiology? What about environmental factors? What about socioeconomic factors?11 Sapolsky writes, “When humans invented material inequality, they came up with a way of subjugating the low ranking like nothing ever before seen in the primate world.”12

Sapolsky notes there are similarities in human and animal hierarchies,13 but humans are “totally different.”14

Dominance hierarchies do exist, and there are multiple hierarchical scenarios that humans can take part/compete in. Therefore, most people are likely to rank higher and lower across myriad fields of endeavor. Many humans can also choose their pond; being a big fish in a small pond or a little fish in a big pond.

Moreover, there are the drawbacks of clawing one’s way to an hierarchical apex. What is the actual utility of hierarchical supremacy if reaching the pinnacle requires one to become a despised asshole? If one has to spend inordinate hours working (being a slave to one’s job or addicted to work?) instead of spending leisure time with family and friends? And what if one cannot determine whether those who surround you are sycophants or genuinely care about you as a person?

Sapolosky wrote, with easily perceived sarcasm: “Hurrah for clawing your way to the top, for zero-sum, muscular capitalism.”13

It seems eminently preferable to be an anarchist, work and play with others at one’s leisure, and refrain from undue concern about chasing rankings because in your mind all are equally human beings.

  • Part 2 examines further the nature of hierarchies among humans and whether competition is preferable.
  1. See David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2015): loc 2166.
  2. Sharon Venne, Our Elders Understand Our Rights: Evolving International Law Regarding Indigenous Rights (Theytus Books, 1998) cited in Tamara Starblanket, Suffer the Little Children: Genocide, Indigenous Nations and the Canadian State (Clarity Press, 2018): 24.
  3. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic (Edinburgh: T.N. Foulis, 1913): location 661.
  4. There is evidence for behavior guided by morality among animals. However, the reasoning behind such moral behaviors is qualitatively different from among humans. See Robert M. Sapolsky, “Morality and Doing the Right Thing, Once You’ve Figured out What That Is” in Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (New York: Penguin Books, 2016): 478-520.
  5. Individual differences and situational cues influence how human subjects indicate they would respond in such scenarios. See Robert M. Sapolsky, “Morality and Doing the Right Thing, Once You’ve Figured out What That Is” in Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (New York: Penguin Books, 2016): 478-520.
  6. See Paoli, T, Palagi, E, and Tarli, SB (2006), “Reevaluation of dominance hierarchy in bonobos (Pan paniscus),” American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 130: 116-122. doi:10.1002/ajpa.20345
  7. Funkhouser, JA, Mayhew, JA, and Mulcahy JB (2018) “Social network and dominance hierarchy analyses at Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest,” PLoS ONE, 13(2): e0191898.
  8. See Rowan Hooper, “Gang of chimpanzees kills their alpha male,” New Scientist, 6 March 2013.
  9. Robert M. Sapolsky and Lisa Share (2004) “A Pacific Culture among Wild Baboons: Its Emergence and Transmission,” PLoS Biol, 2(4): e106.
  10. Stress, Portrait of a Killer,” National Geographic, 24 September 2008.
  11. Sapolsky: 443.
  12. Sapolsky: 442.
  13. Sapolsky: 429.
  14. Sapolsky: 429. Sapolsky expounds on factors affecting hierarchies: choice of leaders, political orientation, intelligence, affect, conformity, and obedience: 442-470.