Archive for the Activism Category

And now I shall make the masses….disappear!!!

Posted in Activism, Apocalypse Porn, Philosophy, Political Theory, structuralism, The Internet, U.S. Politics on October 31, 2008 by traxus4420

Well, here’s a fun little blip:

I have been struck by the absence of collective protest over the actions of those in the financial industry. Free market advocates have been rendered impotent; why aren’t they up in arms that their belief system has been forever invalidated? Leftists watch as our elected leaders hand over the oversight function to the very companies that caused this mess; why aren’t they taking to the streets?

Talk shows and blog postings reveal plenty of individual anger, but there hasn’t been much collective expression. Why is this? And what forms of protest and outcry would be legitimate?

At the risk of being accused of inciting mass violence, I’d like to know whether people would be justified in using the riot at this particular moment in history. More broadly, under what conditions is the riot a rational (and/or justifiable) response to injustice?

Sociologists love the riot, of course, because it offers an opportunity to test theories regarding mass behavior and individual tolerance for oppressive conditions.

Having observed a few riots, I know that they can also be caused by trivial factors: For example, I watched looters take over streets on the South Side of Chicago after the Bulls won their second consecutive basketball championship — hardly an “oppressive” situation.

But in general, riots are responses to fairly serious issues, like the rising price of commodities, police brutality, assassination of political leaders.

So the federal government is now sending $700 billion of taxpayer money to free market scions who, I remind you, spend millions on collective protest (“lobbying”) against any form of government aid — especially to the middle class, to the poor, and to foreigners.

Scandalous! Taxpayers of the world unite, I say!

Here is my theory as to why the riot has gone the way of the Sony Walkman — an appendage of an earlier era:

1) The iPod:

In public spaces, serendipitous interaction is needed to create the “mob mentality,” which by its nature is not rational or formed through petitions. Most iPod-like devices separate citizens from one another; you can’t join someone in a movement if you can’t hear the voices of its participants. Congrats Mr. Jobs for impeding social change.

2) Prescription drugs:

What is the social function of anxiety reduction if not to increase the capacity of individuals to tolerate their social predicaments? Q.E.D.

3) Debt:

This is a tricky one. In the short term, debt straps individuals into society and makes them fearful of acting out: failing to pay could land them in jail, in bankruptcy, etc. But in the long term, they may feel life has become intolerable and there is little to lose — so, why not tear down the walls? (This kind of thinking, by the way, is partly at the root of our current mess. Those who bought second homes walked away from their investments, accepting bankruptcy, when they realized they were never going to make payments in the long term.)

4) “Hey, things could be worse.”:

Riots require collective recognition that a threshold (of oppressive rule, inequity, etc.) has been surpassed and there’s little hope for improvement. In matters of social oppression, apart from a political assassination, it is rare that mass audiences will agree that such conditions hold. Things have to be downright awful, and we haven’t reached that stage yet. Yet.

5) No enemy in sight:

Rioters usually attack symbols of oppression. For example, in a riot in Chicago in 1992, protesters tore down streetlights, broke lamps, burned school buildings, and otherwise attacked government property. In Los Angeles, in the aftermath of the so-called “Rodney King affair,” non-black stores were attacked.

What might be the target of mobs violently responding to the financial mess? Maybe Midtown Manhattan? How about the Milton Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago?

A general rule is that contemporary rioters do not travel, so they would need to find symbols within their own communities: currency exchanges, banks, the offices of Congressional officials who voted “yes” on the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, etc.

It goes without saying that I miss a good old-fashioned riot. But my malaise hardly compares to others who are suffering in these times.

For example, I often pity the poor souls who took out property insurance with A.I.G. and other insurers. In the event of a riot, they might be next in line for a government bailout. Will there be anything left in the $700 billion for them?

Some highlights from the peanut gallery:

Forget a riot, how about a simple mass protest?

— Posted by Andrew M


You raise an interesting question. I refused to be completely forthright in the previous discussion of corruption just for that very reason- as not wishing to cause harm. I think the truth does help so long as it does not knowingly cause others great pain and suffering. There is the matter of knowledge and the use to which it is put. Perhaps sometimes it is better to let sleeping dogs lie. Honesty is not always the best of policies.

— Posted by science minded


Not saying I totally support this idea, but it is a thought I had; is it possible that the lack of riots could be credited to the internet and blogging? Rioting is a way of letting the community know that you are, well, really pissed off and want change. It is a way of venting. With the advent of blogs, myspace, facebook, etc. people are able to (as we are doing know) share their feelings with the “world” and believe, rightly or not, that it will somehow bring about change.

Added bonus: No police. No riot gear.

— Posted by dave


Our societies have been very successful at socializing us that “violence is always wrong” (unless, of course, it’s used by the monopolist of violence, our government) and that if we want to change the system we need to do so from within.

Convincing the overwhelming majority of the population of the evils of violence has been a phenomenal achievement that is all-too-often overlooked. Those in power control the levers of power, and they’ve convinced the rest of us that if we want change, we need to use those same levers. In the words of Leonard Cohen, “There’s a war between those who know there’s a war and those who don’t.”

Society’s ability to “rule out” violence as a legitimate forum of social change has had an impact throughout society. The possibility of violence, preferably never acted upon, helped labor throughout the first half of the 20th century.

Negotiating in the shadow of violence has now been replace by negotiating in the shadow of the law, and the law is a predictable tool of power.

— Posted by Boldizar


There was a protest of the bailout. The media didn’t care to cover it:

— Posted by Matt


My guess would be that the urge to riot is being sublimated into the election.

— Posted by Victor Kava


IF or when Obama’s election is sabotaged, a’la 2000 and 2004, you can perhaps expect to see shocking replays of the fires of Newark, Detroit and Watts.
“Burn, Bay, Burn!” is simply a bottled-up reaction waiting to be ignited — it is not something antiquated. It could get very ugly, and the worst of Euro-Americans will emerge. Excess has its price, and that price is the implosion of the flimsy empire.

— Posted by Frank Little

Ah, democracy. This sort of thing strengthens even further my admiration of J.G. Ballard’s rewriting of the bourgeois psychological novel as its apparent opposite, apocalyptic science fiction. Pundit and basement-dweller alike mind meld over vistas of rubble, the utopian vision of suburb and shantytown coming together in an orgy of violence, the rule of melancholy survivalists, and the binary moral choices so amply generated by these exciting scenarios.

The pundit is of course much more polite about it. The fantasy of the revolt of the masses is posed as a good-natured interactive thought experiment. This is possible because its subject is invisible. And so (where else could it go) the impulse to riot, justified of course, though repressed by the efficiency of 21st century commodity culture, is in the last account explicitly connected with the author’s middle-class “malaise.” Our responsibility, you see, is to avoid violence when it might cause the innocent to suffer, especially members of that unseen, amorphous mass capable of serving all our rhetorical needs. No matter how much we might want to break shit. Oh, we’re so naughty!

The number of commenters capable of recognizing the difference between riots and protests without a prompt is reassuring, at least.

The sad thing is that this convenient anthropology isn’t limited to being a pastime of MSM columnists. I’ve heard and read active and inactive leftists read their own actions in these terms. It’s a comforting fantasy, perhaps even a dominant one, to assume the reasons for collective failure or marginalization can be found in individual neuroses, consumer products, or the favorite modernist lament, lack of the new. The one ‘social’ condition given in the article, debt, is accompanied by a friendly reminder that despair at one’s circumstances is both narcissistic (based in excessive consumption — second homes) and “partly at the root of our current mess.”

It’s undeniable that there is a problem with left politics in America, or even independent politics. The obvious side of the problem is a failure to organize. Here it’s put in rigidly psychological terms, as the psychology of a population, or in at least one jargon, the ‘collective unconscious.’ The problem is therefore conceived in terms of a set of speculative, in this case mostly arbitrary conditions on this unconscious. Just for a moment, however, let’s permit ourselves to take seriously this rather limited context. The fundamental problem is prior to all this fanciful mapping out of opportune and inopportune conditions, and is rather what enables that conundrum to appear in its usual form as amusing intellectual puzzle: subjectification, or the failure to become a political subject.

This topic is an official area of philosophical inquiry which is unfortunately too important for me to get away with summarizing here. My point for now is that a certain type of speculation — social theory as the projection of various myths onto a people or even another person — seems to me delegitimated if one understands subjectification in politics as an unavoidable necessity of social life. Even if a collective product, the myth is applied by someone, irreducibly an attempt by the one to determine the many. Whether luxury or crime, existence beyond the walls of the subject (the obvious fantasized escape) would then be restricted to a temporary, anomalous, or precarious state, brought on by, among many other things, a certain theatrical posture toward writing. ‘Abstract’ discourse about society and Man is then damned to oscillate between fiction and autobiography, with history caked under the fingernails.


Foibles of the Commentariat

Posted in Activism, Media, U.S. Politics with tags , , , , on August 31, 2008 by traxus4420

Reading Glenn Greenwald’s reportage on the recent preemptive strike on RNC protesters in Minneapolis (thanks Gerry for the link), and then going on to his commentary and analysis, I was impressed and, to my slight moral discomfort, reassured, by his articulate, informative, impotent anger:

As the recent “overhaul” of the 30-year-old FISA law illustrated — preceded by the endless expansion of surveillance state powers, justified first by the War on Drugs and then the War on Terror — we’ve essentially decided that we want our Government to spy on us without limits. There is literally no police power that the state can exercise that will cause much protest from the political and media class and, therefore, from the citizenry.

Beyond that, there is a widespread sense that the targets of these raids deserve what they get, even if nothing they’ve done is remotely illegal. We love to proclaim how much we cherish our “freedoms” in the abstract, but we despise those who actually exercise them. The Constitution, right in the very First Amendment, protects free speech and free assembly precisely because those liberties are central to a healthy republic — but we’ve decided that anyone who would actually express truly dissident views or do anything other than sit meekly and quietly in their homes are dirty trouble-makers up to no good, and it’s therefore probably for the best if our Government keeps them in check, spies on them, even gets a little rough with them.

After all, if you don’t want the FBI spying on you, or the Police surrounding and then invading your home with rifles and seizing your computers, there’s a very simple solution: don’t protest the Government. Just sit quietly in your house and mind your own business. That way, the Government will have no reason to monitor what you say and feel the need to intimidate you by invading your home. Anyone who decides to protest — especially with something as unruly and disrespectful as an unauthorized street march — gets what they deserve.

Isn’t it that mentality which very clearly is the cause of virtually everyone turning away as these police raids escalate against citizens — including lawyers, journalists and activists — who have broken no laws and whose only crime is that they intend vocally to protest what the Government is doing? Add to that the fact that many good establishment liberals are embarrassed by leftist protesters of this sort and wish that they would remain invisible, and there arises a widespread consensus that these Government attacks are perfectly tolerable if not desirable.

Any rational person planning to protest the GOP Convention would, in light of this Government spying and these police raids, think twice — at least — about whether to do so. That is the point of the raids — to announce to citizens that they best stay in their homes and be good, quiet, meek, compliant people unless they want their homes to be invaded, their property seized, and have rifles pointed at them, too. The fact that this behavior is producing so little outcry only ensures, for obvious reasons, that it will continue in the future. We love our Surveillance State for keeping us safe and maintaining nice, quiet order.

The anger of “this behavior is producing so little outcry” reinforces the causal connection made at the end of the first paragraph between elite opinion and popular opinion: “There is literally no police power that the state can exercise that will cause much protest from the political and media class and, therefore, from the citizenry,” and is clearly directed at those whose constitutionally guaranteed free speech also has the powerof legitimacy. But the implied attribution is contradicted by expanding the determining agent to “we,” “any rational person,” whom Greenwald proceeds to speculatively psychologize.

As I see it, this demonstrates two phenomena: a) a general uncertainty over how to reconcile “popular opinion” with the producers of that myth, the media and political establishment, and b) another reminder that free speech is worthless without power. As Greenwald suggests, there is nothing much more to do in the realm of commentary than to state facts, make a few connections, and deliver it all with the indignation and disgust that these events so obviously deserve. The efficacy of such public statements is determined as much by their relative position in the mediasphere as by their content, which is more or less given, a set of facts that just about any middle-class person can figure out and be enraged by. Anyone with a modicum of writing ability, Internet access, and an hour or so of free time can take the “right stand” — thousands of bloggers and blog commenters are doing it right now, if not over this particular outrage then certainly over some other one. The failure of those whose job it is to respond to the obvious is the only “meaningful” aspect of this situation, the only thing worth “insightful commentary.”

Not because the reasons why are any less obvious.* Really the opposite — it’s all too apparent that we live in a country that has normalized violent overreaction, against which the First Amendment alone is ineffective. There’s no mystery here. The problem is more that the right to be widely listened to is a class privilege, and straightforwardly recognizing certain uncomfortable facts, like that commentators are not separate from their object of analysis, or that “audience” is their own creation, might undermine its legitimacy. These days telling the truth is a good way to ruin a journalist’s or an intellectual’s reputation. The importance of the wider access to media offered by blogs and other platforms isn’t that they “allow more voices to be heard” but that they make individual opinions superfluous, unless they are about other opinions, or the production of opinions, or the relative worth of opinions. But especially valuable is the ability to convincingly gauge “public” opinions.

Another case in point: political commentary by liberals on their favored candidates, by which I mean Obama, is almost all armchair image management, as if these self-styled observers were his private advisers and not his constitutents. What will this cartoon make people think about Obama. How will his race affect his chances. How many big words should he use. This goes in hand with minimizing the importance of the commentator’s actual principles and even knowledge, since they obviously don’t include themselves in the conjectured audience for Obama’s political theater, that same unpredictable gang of bigots and morons who don’t understand things like irony and not being racist. On blogs and message boards, others are invited to join in the debate, casting their vote whether they think some faction of the vox populi will take some element of Obama’s vast media presence “the wrong way.” Speeches are picked over to verify that Obama is presenting himself well, that his vocally imperialist VP pick is “the smart choice.” Whatever else, it’s a defense of their own “right to choose” in the form of ratifying the choices of the powerful and glamorous.

(McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin for his VP is the act of a man who assumes precisely this form of reaction — and doesn’t seem to have included any other considerations)

Approaching media with the general assumption that “Your Opinion Doesn’t Matter,” a sensible one for anyone who isn’t a professional pundit, has the effect of minimizing the distance between facts and human agents; this is disconcerting if taken seriously, but liberating even if not.

* achieving scientific detail of how media distortion systematically occurs is not the same as broadly identifying causes, in the same way that an MD isn’t necessary to identify vital organs

Dispatches from the American Left (part 3)

Posted in Activism, Environmentalism, U.S. Politics with tags , , , on June 12, 2008 by traxus4420

Part one

Part two

“They know what they’re doing is wrong. I waited tables for 15 years, I’ve waited on these people, they know, even the miners know it’s wrong.” This is Mariah Gunnoe, who’s accrued a reputation as one of the most intense and dedicated movement leaders in the contemporary battle against strip mining, speaking to an audience mostly made up of young, middle-class students and activists, myself among them. Once again, she spoke with the ecstatic fury of a preacher, her voice swollen to a dramatic peak, body leaning toward us, hands outstretched and grasping as if to physically tear out our reservations. “You are the future — you have to do this!” She was right. No ordinary response is adequate to her story. To that voice, wavering in unresolved struggle between wail and command. Her war, to protect her home and family against strip mining coal companies, is a necessary one. It was never a question of choice. How can it be otherwise for those who fight wars?


“So how did you get involved?” is a question I was asked more often than I would have liked. What was I doing there? What would I do when I left? The question I might have wanted to ask, “what is the nature of the environmental movement?” quickly fell apart when I recognized the obvious, that today it includes everyone, such that politicians, CEOs, environmentalists, political activists and agitators, seem forced to engage each other on the same physical and ideological terrain. Socialists can’t challenge capitalists apart from the debate over the development and use of ‘alternative’ energy sources, which like their fossil fuel counterparts are owned by the capitalists. Activist organizations that seek expand and establish themselves beyond single issues have to face the same set of compromises as any NGO. Shopping for environmentally conscious products intensifies capitalist domination of the planet and our lives — most of us don’t own the means of survival, much less production. The worst suffering in the world is not everyone’s fault, but we are dependent on many common ‘mediators,’ whether they be ecological or, as is the case now more than ever, economic. We’re all involved, but not all committed. I mean that in the most universal sense.


One of the camp’s visitors was a political science academic, coming off a study of corporate boardroom culture to do an ethnography of activists. “There are some similarities,” she told me. “The free rider problem, for one thing.” She explained to me that good corporate citizens can resolve almost all difficulties (not necessarily to everyone’s satisfaction, obviously) by referring to the mathematically determined bottom line. If someone is suspected of free-riderism, any investigation will be supported by solid criteria even if the relationship in question was temporary. But because of their necessarily greater openness, in activist organizations free riders are harder to expose. I asked her what anyone could possibly get ‘for free’ out of, say, a volunteer camp like the one we were attending. “Well, the sense of camaraderie that a close social environment like this one can foster, maybe. That’s the problem, it’s less well-defined. These camps, for example, they’re difficult and time-consuming to manage, they depend on creating new activists. You’ll notice as the week draws to a close there’s more pressure to attend workshops, more discussion of future organization. More insistence that you explain yourself. People are watching each other more carefully.”


When I do media work, I periodically ask myself, “what am I doing in this situation to not be a tourist?” I’m rarely satisfied by my answer.

During morning circle one day, someone raised a complaint about the presence of cameras. There were two teams of documentary filmmakers shooting all week long, and their subjects were starting to have intimacy issues. “I don’t want this to become like Real World MJS,” someone said. “Having a camera present changes the dynamic of any situation. What happens when we’re trying to plan actions?” No one said anything about the two local newspaper reporters scribbling in their notebooks, but regardless of medium, all ‘media people’ were forced to wear handmade red MEDIA badges, to keep them apart and “protect the camp” (the sole exception being the sketch artist, whose Faces of Katrina project made him sort of a celebrity and who incidentally didn’t allow himself to be photographed). One of the photographers, a college student about the same age (and race) as most everyone there, gave an apology on the verge of tears, with a plea that “we’re just like you. We care about this issue, we consider ourselves part of this movement.” It seemed well-received, but nevertheless, for the rest of the week, every workshop began with the organizer asking “are y’all comfortable being filmed?”

Preview of Francisco DiSantis’ Appalachian voices project

There are of course excellent reasons for caution around ‘media people,’ even if they aren’t (and these weren’t) agents of some massive corporation. As media effects theorist and environmental activist Julia Corbett puts it, “the media role in social protest is primarily one of stability and conflict control.” Much has been made about the distorting effects of mass media attention (or lack thereof) on protests, the Miami debacle being only one prominent example. But the problem goes deeper than corporate funding. Journalistic ethics dictate that the observer not be a participant. Though this line is often blurred in individual cases, the distinction between observation and participation is not. And since there are no disinterested observers, it’s not hard to see why the distinction between media and activism tends to be maintained (culture jamming, propaganda, and off-the-grid ‘zines and blogs aside). No one likes a narc, and the history of social movements in the U.S. is full of them.

Near the end of the week, I talked to half of the film crew from Canada — they were just a couple with a camera, but older and with a distinctly professional demeanor. It turned out that he was indeed a veteran of political and social documentaries, and he entertained me for a while with stories about his work with various celebrity filmmakers. I asked him how he felt about being chastised by the group for being too invasive. He said of course he understood emotional uneasiness around cameras, but excessive paranoia about the motives of ‘media people’ among activists isn’t uncommon either. After having worked with resistance movements all over the Americas, getting involved with everyone from Argentinian factory workers to ghettoized blacks in Toronto, he eventually concluded that “Americans wear the specter of the law more heavily than anyone else.” As a friend of his put it, “in America, they put the cop in your head. It’s frightening to me as a Canadian, and I imagine it’s frightening for them, too.”

The last thing he told me about was a series of observations on activist group behavior passed on to him by Allan King. Apparently there is a rule about proper timing for filming activist groups (of any size or scale). Exactly halfway through the shooting process, they will question their relationship with the filmmakers, and by reflection, their own motives. The question “what are they here to film?” becomes “what are we doing here, really?” “What does authentic commitment entail?” is preceded by “how should it be presented to others?” The camp’s moment of self-questioning did indeed occur — precisely — at the halfway point. “I didn’t believe it either,” he went on. “But that’s how it happens. Every time.” At three quarters of the way through the shooting period, the pace and intensity of the group’s planning and organizing escalate. Anxiety mounts. Passions rise. “You’ll be shooting the whole time. The earlier footage might be nice, but it’ll be fluff. These last few days, this is when you’ll get the bulk of your material.”

I expressed skepticism that the 3/4 mark was a consequence of being filmed and not just collective awareness of the meeting period’s finite duration, but he seemed pretty convinced of the power of his camera. “Most of the people here get what we’re doing and why it’s necessary. It’s just, you know, when you’re in your 20s you think this little cabin in the woods is going to change the world. But when you’re past 30, and you’ve seen a little more the magnitude of what you’re going to have to deal with, you know that to accomplish anything that big you need a really long reach. And you can do it yourself with a little handicam, or you can work with people who have, you know, done this kind of thing before.”

Dispatches from the American Left (part two)

Posted in Activism, Environmentalism, U.S. Politics with tags , , , on June 2, 2008 by traxus4420

That camp I went to is directed at outside recruitment and PR, and, as is historically typical of the Greens, most (not all) of the participants were white, middle-class 20-somethings from other regions. Locally based, single-issue activism depends on external support and national media pressure in order to offset the massive power differential between huge corporations and those most heavily exploited. That latter position is shared by mute Nature and her children, a group of people cast as ‘stupid victims’ by media stereotyping, in this case “hillbillies,” “mountain people,” “white trash,” etc.

The way this plays out, resource extraction and social oppression with the complicity of local political leadership (not to mention a thriving black market), is similar enough to neocolonialism that there are debates within Appalachian Studies about whether to call Appalachia an internal colony or a peripheral region within the imperial center. The role of outside activists would then seem to match up with that of international aid workers; both involve a somewhat conflicted relationship with the local community they’re supposedly there to assist. The chief difference is that unlike aid workers, or Americorps, or Teach For America, an org like MJS lacks the resources to create substitute institutions (education, health care, etc.) for local communities to become dependent on — and anyway, especially given in its environmentalist stance, tends to reject the usual justifications for such things — decontextualized abstractions like “helping people” — as valid.

Instead, the camp functioned more like a school for the outsiders, with occasional visiting lecturers from the territory. Community activist Teri Blanton, for example, showed us around her hometown of Dayhoit, KY (a Superfund site since ’92), and explained the consequences of having a coal power plant and some abandoned coal sites within a few hundred feet of inhabited neighborhoods: the depletion of drinking water and poisoning of what’s left, widespread cancer and other illness, and the seemingly endless battles she and others have had to fight, with everyone from the county commissioner to coal company executives, the MSM to the EPA, in order to get the tiniest bit of consideration. “Most of my friends, the people I grew up with, are dead,” the middle-aged Blanton told us, in the even, practiced tone of someone who has related this story many times before. As of a few years ago the rest of the country started listening. Erik Reece’s award-winning piece in Harper’s can be found here.

According to Reece, desire for “an ecological education” is what motivated his investigation of strip mining. What sort of education would this be? Not a ‘communion’ with Nature in the hope of excavating some spiritual truth (as it was for the Transcendentalists), but the re-orientation of humanity and civilization according to their position within an ecological framework. How to accomplish this for others? This is the question not only of a the more holistic versions of environmentalism, but of any sort of education that depends on more than just adding information to the archive, that wants to stage a revolution in thought, overturning the subject’s old understanding of ‘the way of the world’ and insisting that the world was always thus — in short, any theory that would become a movement. Regardless of which ’causes’ which, you can’t have a revolution in social consciousness without a revolution in social action.

True to ecological principles, despite the loyalty of MJS to a single issue, the idea that total revolution urgently needs to take place was pretty widespread among the week’s participants. That they should consider themselves allied to the anti-capitalist, anti-globalization left may be less obvious, but was also (largely) true. MJS exemplifies the activist model for ‘social change,’ leftist code for the overthrow of capitalism (the number of times I heard the phrase “revolutionary practice” casually tossed around made me think I was back in grad school). A basic assumption of left activism in the U.S. (which is largely based on anarchist or autonomist principles) is that capitalist society’s accepted critical institutions, the media and the university, involve a particular sort of training tailored to the production or consumption of commodified product. Subject to the same pressures as any other capitalist organization, they can maybe be critical (provided there’s a market for criticism), but no real challenge to the system can come out of either as they currently are.

reclamation site

Thus, organization is volunteer-based and ‘horizontal’ (non-hierarchical), completely dependent on the commitment of its members. Camp workshops included a mix of issue-specific education, direct action training, organizer education, and entertainment. One could call the outcome ‘committed eclecticism.’ A historian ran an excellent seminar on the history of the opposition to strip-mining, arguing that in many ways the real precursors to the mainstream environmental movement (generally held to have begun with Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring in 1962, and been preceded by figures like Thoreau and Muir) can be found in the labor movement and working class culture (his book can be found here). Workshops were offered in climbing (useful, I’m told, for banner drops), ‘primitive skills,’ the ethics and strategy of non-violence, ecology, community economics, environmental philosophy, and much else. Taken together with evening musical performances, film screenings, and non-official activities like campfire circles, and the pressure to attend even the most frivolous thing that always seems to follow gatherings of idealistic strangers, there was an overriding sense that, for this week at least, and for better or worse, play and work had indeed become the same thing.

The heart and soul of activism is of course self-reproduction, organizing, ideally taking the single issue to the national stage and keeping it there. Though workshops were disproportionately geared toward college campuses, there was plenty of desire to connect with other communities — as one organizer put it, the match of privileged students with ample free time to the problems of overworked, underpaid, underrepresented local people is a “revolutionary combination” — but only vague ideas of how to do so. The better ideas came from those working with groups already involved in a struggle of some kind, usually a housing, labor, or pollution issue. Otherwise proposals tended toward community service (depoliticizing unless transitional), as a self-legitimating supplement to action mostly directed at university policy (i.e. getting the administration to adopt clean energy). Those not intimately connected to universities, specifically their undergraduates, whether as students themselves or as part of a larger activist organization with student ties, were basically left out of discussion. SDS redux, RAN, Rising Tide, Earth First, Greenpeace — I’m not sure any org was represented that didn’t revolve around the college campus and environs.

Fortunately, the situation at hand — strip mining in Appalachia — worked to moderate disagreements and exclusions. What might seem from the point of view of an anthology to be an unwieldy, ‘undertheorized’ conglomeration of ‘leftisms’ — anarchism, socialist democracy, labor, social justice, deep ecology, social ecology, etc. — was not at all divisive in practice. A few people I think were basically Republican conservationists (almost all from in-state, or those whose lives are directly impacted), but even they were clear on the ‘root causes’ of strip mining and what, at least initially, should be done about it.

The question of what should be done was organized around the following problems: a) how to help locals organize against their oppressors without undermining their own interests, b) how to organize and publicize at home, both for this issue and others and c) the methodological controversy over organizing vs. publicizing, or to put it crudely, politics vs. media.

Two added complications. One, I got the sense that over the years it’s become increasingly unclear what role outsiders are actually supposed to play in putting a stop to strip-mining. As I tried to suggest already, even if the unions have sold out, community activism in the Appalachians is extremely strong and getting stronger. The odd direct action aside, within Appalachia MJS has limited itself to holding these camps and doing, as someone put it, “a lot of listening.” One woman I talked to, an Appalachian from a working-class family who was fortunate enough to go to college and now works on this issue in between semesters, told me she’s starting to think local activists would benefit more from donations than help with organizing.

The second complication is that under capitalism local problems with resources of any kind are inevitably reduced to examples of a larger tendency. The state of coal has obvious importance for everyone, even if taken as a whole it seems impossible. The lure for the generally more privileged outsiders can’t be reduced to individual psychological states like altruism or narcissism. Like any self-respecting ponderer, I look for the structural explanation. Rather than a rotating staff of humanitarians, the temporary concentration of activists in ‘problem areas’ can almost be understood as a microcosm of the concentration of labor in the cities, or students in the university town. But unlike those examples, neither capital nor production are direct incentives. The closer model is vacation spots.

So where is the fine line? We have only one way of measuring it. The site, regardless of its importance for inhabitants, would not be on the map were it not also a potential stage in the formation of a potential movement. Utopian forms of community are experimented with, long-distance connections are made in a coming together of strange bedfellows otherwise engaged in all sorts of interests and activities, concluding with the exchange of email addresses, facebook IDs, and promises. And then…dispersal.

A deficit in experience, maybe, but I could find no simple, practical reasons for us outsiders to have spent that week together. If we have problems with practical solutions, ours are ‘local’ too. For while a ban on strip mining may someday be achieved, maybe even as a product of our labor, it will have little to do with the visions of social transformation many of us write, dream, and sing about. The currency of our altruism, they amount only to a promise in the name of a possible future, the latter nothing more than a product of the former. No draw for us but the prospect of ‘social capital‘ and ‘knowledge production,’ seductive for having rejected their material guarantors, reaching out for a new ground that does not yet exist, a ground no one seems to know how to build except by more reaching.

This is a source of enormous tension for everyone involved.

More to come…

Dispatches from the American Left (part 1)

Posted in Activism, Environmentalism, U.S. Politics with tags , , , , on May 29, 2008 by traxus4420

I really had no business attending this, but I did anyway. The posts that follow contain my report and analysis.

Mountain Justice Summer’s (MJS) loose, unofficial organization is based on a single issue: ‘mountaintop removal,’ or the strip-mining of mountains to more cheaply extract coal. Figures vary, but around 50% of U.S. electricity comes from coal-fired power plants, while more than a third of that coal comes from the Appalachian mountain range, at once among the most beautiful and the poorest regions in North America. The history of Appalachia is also the history of labor’s militant resistance to exploitation, the most famous instance being the ‘Redneck War,’ fought by the United Mine Workers and supporters and culminating in the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921. The one time in history the U.S. government bombed its own people in its own territory, that event triggered the eventual nationwide establishment of the eight-hour working day, medical benefits, paid leave, worker’s comp, etc. All of which we are now steadily losing.

But though terrain and tactics have changed, the war has never really ended. Surface mining has been a major site of resistance since the ’50s, and right on through its escalation in the early ’70s as (ostensibly) a response to the petrol crisis. The process of destroying the mountain devastates the local ecosystem, causing flash floods, rockslides, poisoned headwaters, destruction of farmland, and eradication of a dizzying array of plant and animal species; it also devastates the local economy through massive job loss (being easier to automate than underground mining), the weakening of unions, and widespread health problems. The upshot of ruining hundreds of thousands of acres of (populated!) land is increased profits for coal companies and the supply of somewhere around 5% of U.S. electricity demand.

Of course, this image is prior to legally mandated “reclamation.” The options for the land’s future use tend toward more civilized pursuits.

Twisted Gun golf course, WV

The U.S. Geologic Survey considers the Appalachian reserves (the highest quality coal in the country) good for one to two decades at current production levels. When taken together with the recent spate of “clean coal” propaganda, Bush’s elimination of “buffer zone” laws intended to protect mountain streams (a major national source of drinking water) from mining pollution, and the co-optation of both Democratic presidential candidates, it seems pretty clear that Big Coal is on a intensive disinformation campaign to wring the last bit of profit from a dying industry regardless of ‘external’ cost. The idea would presumably be to speedily accumulate the rights to all remaining reserves, then maintain national dependence on coal as long as possible through its inevitable decrease in supply. Maximize profit, drag out the pain.

More to come…