Reversing past oppression, Cooperation Jackson builds a better future

If thinking big were all it took to be a success, then Cooperation Jackson would be one of the biggest successes ever seen. It is far too early to know what the future will hold for what must be the most thorough-going experiment in economic democracy in the United States today, but no one can possibly accuse Cooperation Jackson of not having a clear vision nor of not being serious students of history.

The experiment in Jackson, Mississippi, is the intellectual product of many years of experience by seasoned activists and a mobilized community drawing lessons from centuries of enduring racism and state terror, and the communal traditions used to survive the slavery, feudalism and apartheid of the United States South, while at the same time integrating concepts from progressive thinkers across several continents. Cooperation Jackson faces long odds, not least because of the extreme hostility of Mississippi’s conservative state government and the forces of gentrification that are taking aim at their impoverished city, in particular the organization’s neighborhood base.

The history, intentions and current struggles of this most interesting project are laid out in detail in the book Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi.* And although the untimely, sudden death of one of the project’s leaders, Chokwe Lumumba, was a significant blow, by no means has the project come to a halt. That is one of the consistent messages of Jackson Rising, which contains essays by several writers, both participants and sympathetic journalists. It also a project intended for replication elsewhere, for socialism in one city is not possible, of which Jackson’s cooperators are acutely aware.

This is a project rooted firmly in Black struggle. The concept of the People’s Assembly, a core institution of Cooperation Jackson, is drawn from prayer circles organized clandestinely by enslaved Africans and the “Negro Peoples Conventions” that convened during Reconstruction. Black communities struggling for community control and economic self-sufficiency were built during the early 20th century, although these fell victim to continual violence directed against them, and cooperatives were frequently used forms across the 19th and 20th centuries. Traditions of resistance were renewed during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s; peoples assemblies were a common form of organization during that time.

Other historical projects were simply organized to find paths out of deep rural poverty. Two cooperative farms in Mississippi were begun in the early 1970s; local Whites responded by poisoning the Black farmers’ water supply and killing their cows. In Alabama, Black farmers found a market in New York that would pay three times what they had been getting for their cucumbers. The growers’ cooperative rented a truck to deliver the produce, only to have state troopers pull the truck over and hold it for 72 hours; racist Governor George Wallace had declared he could impound any vehicle for 72 hours without explanation. When the farmers got their track back, the cucumbers had been ruined.

Repression is what the activists of an organization calling itself the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika faced. An agreement had been made to buy land from a Black farmer west of Jackson. As hundreds of people walked the road to their new land, they faced an armed phalanx of local police, state police, the FBI and the Ku Klux Klan, telling them they would not be celebrating that day, punctuating their threats with racial slurs. The crowd decided to go ahead anyway, and in a story often told by Mayor Lumumba, the roadblock “opened up just like the Red Sea.” Nonetheless, heavy government repression, including mass arrests, brought this effort to build an egalitarian community to an end.

Building community organizations

Years later, some of these organizers, including Mayor Lumumba, would return. In 2005, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) organized the Mississippi Disaster Relief Coalition in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and in subsequent years the coalition transformed into the Jackson People’s Assembly. The Assembly, according to one of the lead organizers, Kali Akuno, was “organized as expressions of participatory or direct democracy,” guided by committees organized by it but in a non-hierarchal arrangement [page 74]. Doing so was part of an “inside-outside” strategy in which the movement would be based on the widest possible grassroots and community participation while at the same time seeking to gain a foothold in local government. Mr. Akuno wrote:

“MXGM firmly believes that at this stage of the struggle for Black Liberation that the movement must be firmly committed to building and exercising what we have come to regard as ‘dual power’ — building autonomous power outside of the realm of the state (i.e. the government) in the form of People’s Assemblies and engaging electoral politics on a limited scale with the expressed intent of building radical voting blocs and electing candidates drawn from the ranks of the Assemblies themselves. … [W]e cannot afford to ignore the power of the state.” [page 75]

The goal of engaging in local elections is to lessen the repressive power of the state and contain the power of multi-national corporations:

“We also engage electoral politics as a means to create political openings that provide a broader platform for a restoration of the ‘commons,’ create more public goods utilities (for example, universal health care, public pension scheme, government financed childcare and comprehensive public transportation), and the democratic transformation of the economy. One strategy without the other is like mounting a defense without an offensive or vice versa. Both are critical to advancing authentic, transformative change.” [page 75]

The Jackson activists believe that assemblies should engage a minimum of 20 percent of the people of a given geographic area. This minimum level of participation ensures that there are sufficient numbers of people to have the capacity to implement decisions and achieve desired outcomes. There exist three different types of assemblies — united front or alliance-based in which the participants are mobilized members of organizations; constituent in the form of a representative body; and mass assemblies of direct participation by the widest number of people. Jackson’s assemblies tend to be the second (constituent) form but can act as mass bodies during periods of crisis [pages 87-89]. Mass assemblies (such as what was seen at Occupy Wall Street) require vast amounts of time and thus tend not to be sustainable.

Jackson activists have found sustained success with their more constituent model. Work centered in Ward 2, where MXGM and other activists did much of the organizing, although students also played a role and neighborhood churches provided meeting spaces and participants. The Ward 2 assembly began having a positive impact on city issues, and from this work participants decided they wanted an ally on the city council. Chokwe Lumumba was asked to run for the ward’s council seat. He won, and in turn the assembly deepened its inside and outside work. For the next election, he ran for mayor, and won that office in a landslide, replacing a three-term incumbent closely tied to regional business elites seen as unresponsive to community needs.

Organizing for a city government that will be responsive

Kamau Franklin, a veteran activist with MXGM, noted that electing Black officeholders in itself does not necessarily translate into community empowerment. He wrote:

“[T]he majority Black centers in the south are dominated by moderate Black Democratic Party careerists. The political void left by the retreat of the Black social movements in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s was filled by ‘safe’ politicians who did not do much to upset the economic balance of power that favored white power brokers and embraced moderate Democratic Party rhetoric and positioning on governing. As a result, Jackson is in many ways like post apartheid South Africa, where Black electoral power never translated into actual political power, and in the main only supported the Black petty-bourgeois class happy to live off the scraps of the minority white capitalist class that really calls the shots.” [page 70]

Mayor Lumumba, upon taking office, did not forget who he was nor who put him in office. Not only did he pledge “the highest provision” of public services, including economic development, education and transportation, but he also declared a goal of building a “dynamic ‘new economy’ rooted in cooperative development and anchored by green jobs, living wages and strong worker protections. His administration’s policies would be rooted in human rights and driven by community groups that would have a say in city budgeting. [page 99]

The new administration faced serious challenges, including finding the money to rebuild a crumbling and out-of-date water system that was under a federal order to be fixed. The city’s infrastructure was sub-standard and the previous administration had sought to cut an already limited bus system; Mayor Lumumba worked with city residents to secure a one percent city sales tax to help raise necessary revenue. He also gave full city support for a conference at which the grassroots project Cooperation Jackson would be formally launched.

Jackson city center (photo by A W A)

These activities were part of an inside-outside strategy, taking advantage of opportunities, wrote educator and organizer Ajamu Nangwaya:

“More often than not, we are likely to experience betrayal, collaboration with the forces of domination by erstwhile progressives or a progressive political formation forgetting that its role should be to build or expand the capacity of the people to challenge the structures of exploitation and domination. I am of the opinion that an opportunity exists in Jackson to use the resources of the municipal state to build the capacity of civil society to promote labor self-management. … As revolutionaries, we are always seeking out opportunities to advance the struggle for social emancipation. We initiate actions, but we also react to events within the social environment. To not explore the movement-building potentiality of what is going on in this southern city would be a major political error and a demonstration of the poverty of imagination and vision.” [pages 110-111]

Tragically, Mayor Lumumba would die suddenly from heart problems less than a year into his term and on the eve of introducing more radical measures for city council approval. The establishment Democrats retook city government, withdrawing all support for the cooperation project and the conference. Nonetheless, the Jackson State University president supported the conference despite the new mayor’s hostility, and during it organizers formally announced Cooperation Jackson.

The vision of Cooperation Jackson

Cooperation Jackson is a product of the MXGM and New Afrikan People’s Organization, and is “specifically created to advance a key component of the Jackson-Kush Plan, namely the development of the solidarity economy in Jackson, Mississippi, to advance the struggle for economic democracy as a prelude towards the democratic transition to eco-socialism” [page 3]. (“Kush” is a designation for 18 contiguous counties forming a Black-majority region along the Mississippi River and west of and adjacent to Jackson.) Organizers stress that all people are a part of this project, that the resources of society should be equally available to all residents, but as a Black majority region, that majority is entitled to a exercise a majority of political and social power [page 128]. Black residents comprise 85 percent of Jackson’s population but prior to Mayor Lumumba’s administration, Black businesses received only five percent of regional contracts.

Cooperation Jackson has four fundamental ends:

  • To place ownership and control over the primary means of production directly in the hands of the Black working class of Jackson.
  • To build and advance the development of ecologically regenerative forces of production in Jackson.
  • To democratically transform the political economy of Jackson, the state of Mississippi and the Southeast U.S.
  • To attain self-determination for people of African descent and the “radical, democratic transformation” of Mississippi as a prelude to a national transformation.

As Mr. Akuno wrote in outlining the program in Jackson Rising’s opening chapter:

“A population or people that does not have access to or control over those means [of production] and processes cannot be said to possess or exercise self-determination. The Black working class majority in Jackson does not have control or unquestionable ownership over any of these means or processes. Our mission is to aid the Black working class, and the working class overall, to attain them.” [page 5]

The project seeks to build productive forces, break the status quo of an economy based on resource extraction and commodity agriculture for export, and replace that failed economy with one that stimulates self-organization and is environmentally sustainable. Instead of capitalist development by and for elites, Cooperation Jackson instead seeks to enable communities to take the central role in development through autonomous organizations and control over local governments.

Jackson is envisioned as a “hub of community production,” anchored by 3-D print manufacturing for community consumption. There is no short cut in a process that has only begun and has a long way to go, Mr. Akuno writes:

“In the Jackson context, it is only through mass organization of the working class, the construction of a new democratic culture, and the development of a movement from below to transform the social structures that shape and define our relations, particularly the state (i.e. government), that we can conceive of serving as a counter-hegemonic force with the capacity to democratically transform the economy. …

We strive to build a democratic economy because it is the surest route to equity, equality, and ecological balance. Reproducing capitalism, either in its market oriented or state-dictated forms, will only replicate the inequities and inequalities that have plagued humanity since the dawn of the agricultural revolution. We believe that the participatory, bottom-up democratic route to economic democracy and eco-socialist transformation will be best secured through the anchor of worker self-organization, the guiding structures of cooperatives and systems of mutual aid and communal solidarity, and the democratic ownership, control, and deployment of the ecologically friendly and labor liberating technologies of the fourth industrial revolution.” [pages 6-7]

The core institutions of Cooperation Jackson

Four interconnected institutions form the base of Cooperation Jackson:

  • A federation of cooperative businesses and mutual-aid networks.
  • A cooperative incubator that will provide basic training and business plan development.
  • A cooperative school and training center to teach economic democracy.
  • A cooperative credit union and bank.

Vertical supply chains are planned to be created through these networks. As one example, a cooperative farm would supply a café and catering business, the waste from the café would be sent to a yard-care and composting cooperative, which would in turn supply the farm, socializing the production process.

Key to creating this federation of cooperatives is staving off gentrification. The neighborhood where Cooperation Jackson is based has large amounts of vacant lots and abandoned buildings, but because it is near downtown, real estate developers and the city capitalist elite are hungrily eyeing the area. The backers of Cooperation Jackson are buying land to create an “eco village” that is intended to include quality, “deeply affordable” cooperative housing, a grocery and the other coop projects, all powered by solar energy. The larger goal is for the city of Jackson to become self-sustaining through comprehensive recycling, composting, local food production, links to regional organic farms, a city solar-power system and zero-emission public transportation.

Fannie Lou Hamer statute

Integrated with this project is a community-production initiative that will feature education and training to use 3-D print manufacturing technology and other new technologies. Envisioned are development programs to create employment; commercial manufacturing to provide 3-D-printed products, specialty products and tools; and community production to directly fill local needs and further develop technology. None of this will be done in a political vacuum — also envisioned are union-cooperative initiatives to train the “future generation of working class militants”; the formation of a class-based union encompassing all trades; movements to boost worker rights; the unionization of existing businesses; and the building of democratic unions in the cooperatives, in Jackson and across Mississippi.

This can’t be a Jackson-only project in the long run. There cannot be “socialism in one city,” of which the Cooperation Jackson organizers are acutely aware. Organizers hope for this project to be replicated in other cities of the Southern U.S., and for strong links to be developed between urban centers and farms. “We do not believe that socialism, or economic democracy, can be built in isolation on a local level, as it is neither economically viable or ecologically sustainable,” Mr. Akuno noted [page 33]. Economic transformation is a necessity, founded on an explicit rejection of capitalist social relations.

To that end, cooperatives serve an additional function as training grounds for working people to manage without bosses. The relationship among cooperatives in turn must be based on building an integrated system, not competition. As Mr. Akuno and Dr. Nangwaya summarize in a separate article discussing the principals of economic democracy:

“Our character and psychological predisposition have been shaped under undemocratic, authoritarian relations and processes and our possession of the requisite knowledge, skills and attitude of self-management and participatory self-management is uneven. As a result, we tend to demonstrate behaviors that are not unlike our oppressors and exploiters. Critical education is essential to the process of exorcising the ghosts of conformity within the status quo from the psyche and behavior of the oppressed to enable the development of a cultural revolution. … [T]raining and development programs, the constant dissemination of critical information, and mass educational initiatives are central to the goal of preparing the people for self-management and self-determination.” [page 53]

Spaces in a “weak link” of capitalism but difficulties persist

Mississippi is the poorest state in the United States, with one-third of its children living below the poverty line, a line set very low. The state is at or near the bottom in a variety of economic indicators. Top-down economic development may have made a few capitalists rich, but it has done little for the working people of Jackson — almost one-third live in poverty and median household income is barely more than half the U.S. average, according to U.S. Census data.

Yet it is Mississippi’s status as a “weak link” in capitalism that provides the space for a project like Cooperation Jackson, organizers argue. Agricultural and industrial production are constrained by White elites who pursue a strategy of containment to fetter the Black population by curtailing its access to capital and living wages. The long memory of Black repression makes the population in the Black-majority “Kush” region willing to take actions to reverse their situation. A combination of favorable demographics, a mobilized population and elevated political consciousness make the area ripe for a project like Cooperation Jackson, organizers say [pages 229-230].

And although that organizing work primarily takes place at the grassroots level, there will remain the electoral component. Taking office with open eyes, Mayor Lumumba stated that with his election the movement would be engaging with, not wielding, state power. The electoral side of the movement has three components: mass education, preparatory battles (picking issues that can be framed in ways that resonate for multiple communities), and building “operational fronts” that are coalitions in differing combinations depending on circumstance. Thus electoral work is to support movement work, not the reverse. Through continued organizing, the movement was able to retake the mayor’s office in June 2017 when Chokwe Antar Lumumba, son of the former mayor, was elected handily.

But foothold in City Hall or not, Cooperation Jackson remains in its earliest stages. Progress has been slow — as of early 2017, the cooperative café has struggled to get its permits, legal problems have delayed the buying of a building for 3-D manufacturing, raising money has been difficult, and land for the urban farm is polluted and in need of cleaning [page 278]. And the state government remains hostile.

Jackson Rising provides an excellent tool for understanding this extraordinary program, providing several voices, mostly of those involved in the work, and although a work of optimism the book is frank in discussing the problems and obstacles Cooperation Jackson faces. The book suffers from insufficient editing at times; typos proliferate in some articles and that is an unnecessary distraction. But do not let that deter you. Readers wanting to gain a firm understanding of the project, and the breathtaking range of influences it blends, should read this book.

Yes, the odds are against its success. At one point, an organizer acknowledges that criticisms that the project might be “overreaching” might contain some truth. Yet what else can be done but to attempt the impossible? Everybody who believes a better world is possible should be rooting and providing support for Cooperation Jackson.

* Kali Akuno and Ajamu Nangwaya (editors), Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi [Daraja Press, Montréal 2017]

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The Continuation of History: Future Societies in Fiction

As a long-time reader of Ursula K. Le Guin, I was saddened to hear of her passing. The following essay, originally written in 2001 for the literary magazine BigCityLit, examines Ms. Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed in conjunction with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. The ideas expressed and implied in these works continue to be highly relevant for activists wishing to find a path toward a better world.

History has proven it hasn’t ended. The concept should have been too laughable to even been contemplated; the very fact that ever shriller cacophonies of propaganda are hurled at us ought to prove the point, if it needed to be proved at all.

No matter how many times Margaret Thatcher’s “There is no alternative” is pompously declared; no matter how many times Francis Fukuyama is invoked to declare the end of history — a quote sure to be one of the 21st century’s reliable laugh lines — much of the world persists in refusing its assigned role. Unless we’re paying close attention, most of this is yet under the radar, save for the occasional spectacle when the World Bank or International Monetary Fund or a hemispheric “free trade” conference convenes, and we are shown a backdrop of protesters while a befuddled television talking head scratches his head and says “I don’t get it.” If the talking head is planning on a nice career as a media personality, he’d better not get it.

There is a subset of the “no alternative” grouping. Well, yes, maybe capitalism isn’t all wonderful, but look at how socialism failed. Actually, “socialism” did not fail; one distorted version did. The story of how that distortion, solidifying the incredible twists and turns taken by one country weighed down by the horrors of its absolutist history and further bent out of recognition by a single-minded dictator, is fascinating for those with much patience. That country, if we care to be precise, was never close to achieving socialism. Nonetheless, that country, which also faced relentless pressures from the West, including an invasion by 14 countries as soon as they could stop fighting World War I, had its uses. Western anti-Marxists didn’t want people to think there could be an alternative to capitalism. They still don’t.

We’ve begun the 21st century. Stalinism is dead. It will remain dead. Still, the desire for a better life remains. But what? It’s too easy to say “we don’t know.” We don’t. But whatever is next, it’ll have to be built on top of present-day society. It’ll have to be built, at least in some part, on a critique of capitalist society. We already possess that critique, and so it is bound to be at least a starting point. It is therefore not surprising that when we cross from the real world into the world of fiction, those starting points come with us.

There are as many socialisms, or potential future societies if socialism is too scary a word, as our imagination will allow us. It would be natural for those fiction writers of the future, science fiction specialists, to explore many of these potential futures. Oddly, despite the countless dystopian novels out there, this is actually highly rare. Science fiction is actually a genre that, when we take an overall sampling, is parched for ideas. I say this as a regular reader of science fiction. So much of the genre consists of fetishized military engagements and thinly veiled technology manuals masquerading as stories. Even the dystopias usually consist of the author taking a single idea and seeing how far she can run with it.

The rare exceptions, then, tower above the field. Rarer still are those who attempt to create a truly different society based on recognizable characters. Two of these authors are Ursula K. Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson. Both winningly attempt to work out new worlds, but in very different ways. Ms. Le Guin is an anarchist who sketches out societies either in the far future or someplace far from Earth. Mr. Robinson, who writes from a Marxist perspective, sets his stories on Earth or elsewhere in the solar system and in the near future. Whether or not it is agreed that the societies sketched out are plausible, these stories are the works of authors realistically wrestling with the full range of human emotion and human interaction with huge, impersonal forces, forces that nonetheless are human created. Both do this with a variety of vivid characters and subtle interplay that make much of their body of work flow well outside of the usual confines of science fiction.

Contrary to orthodox Soviet myopia that shrilly proclaimed the creation of a “workers’ paradise,” real life comes fully equipped with contradictions. If it is not a full-blown contradiction it is certainly an irony that an anarchist, Ms. Le Guin, understands this basic Marxist assumption while Soviet political leaders were unable. Ms. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, published in 1974, wears this right on the cover; the novel’s subtitle calls it an “ambiguous utopia.”

An “ambiguous utopia”

The ambiguous utopia is the world of Anarres, the marginally habitable moon of the Earth-like planet Urras. Although Urras is not Earth and is not inhabited by humans (although they are very much like humans), its political, social and economic systems are very recognizable to the humans of present-day Earth. This “coincidence,” however, is quite forgivable. Urras is dominated by two countries, one an United States-style capitalist state consumed by greed and the other a secretive Soviet Union-style state. Urras is a world with technology and environmental awareness far beyond Earth’s 20th century, political development at the level of Earth’s 20th century and a social system of the 18th or early 19th century rooted in profound sexism; it is an utterly male-dominated society.

Urras’ hounded anarchists of the past were allowed to leave Urras and settle on the moon Anarres, used as a mining colony. Life on Anarres is life on the margins. A dry world that is desert except for small areas of moderate rainfall, the anarchists continually are on the verge of disaster. Only by being a completely collective society, by cooperating with each other, can they survive. With resources so limited, a competitive capitalist society would fail quickly — U.S.-style inequities would not simply create poverty, they would create mass starvation and rapidly deplete the limited natural resources. Such a place would shortly descend into hopeless chaos and implode.

Anarres is far from perfect, being an “ambiguous utopia.” It is an anarchist society without government, yet it must ensure resources are used where they are needed, that men and women with the right skills are sent where they are needed and that the basic necessities of life are available for everyone. There are no jails or coercion, yet peer pressure must be sufficient to deter the potentially uncooperative. Freedom of decision and personal life choices are paramount, yet people must be sent to new locations when emergencies occur.

One of the largest contradictions is in how people are to serve this society, in normal times and during crises. This problem is embodied in the main character, Shevek, a brilliant physicist. Can Shevek best serve Anarres by continuing his research? He is so far beyond other scientists that no one on Anarres can fully understand his work. Only a handful of physicists on Urras can, and they are interested in exploiting him for their own (national) interests. Although it is assumed that Shevek’s esoteric work will have applications some day, it has no practical use now. Or, particularly during the crisis of a severe drought that leads to deprivation around Anarres, is it in the dry world’s interest that Shevek drop his research and perform practical work that will help Anarres marshal its meager resources for survival? Can he go back and forth depending on conditions?

It is the very fact that Anarres is a collective society that enables individuals to flourish in a difficult physical environment. Yet can those individuals do what they want, or must that individuality be set aside for the greater good? There is no easy answer, or even single answer, to this question. Neither Shevek nor his society can formulate a solution. Yet the struggle over this question on Anarres is vastly different than the contradictions inherent on Urras, where the two dominant countries still regularly fight proxy wars in other countries against each other and where the “free” United States-style nation proves to be much less free than it appears. The tenuous relationship between Anarres and Urras has its own set of contradictions.

The society of Anarres, based on cooperation without even the concept of money, is so different from the modern neoliberal state built on pitiless competition with power rooted in economics as to be seemingly an impossible transition. And, indeed, Anarres is not the transformation of any society, even if it was conceived on Urras. The Anarres anarchist society is constructed in a place that was empty, except for a couple of mining settlements where nobody lived permanently. It is created out of nothing, not out of a pre-existing society. On Urras, from where the original Anarres settlers escaped, the traditional nation-state forms still exist, intact, two centuries after new Anarres settlement is closed.

Can a radically new society, based on values far different from existing society, be created in the same country? Are pre-existing societal pressures too powerful to be overcome? Can a radically new society only be created on a blank slate? Is a radically new society needed to be created somewhere else before it can supplant the existing order? And if so, does the lag period have to be decades, even centuries? Now we’ve leaped from contradictions on a personal scale to contradictions on a national or even global scale. The Dispossessed does not purport to attempt an answer to these questions and for the most part does not even ask these questions. But it does stimulate thinking about these questions, and this alone raises it into very select company.

How to organize in the absence of a state?

If we dig down into Anarres society, it is, theoretically, a world of “pure” anarchism, although some Marxists would argue that such a society would be the end result of communist development. Anarres is a world of true common ownership — there is no state, not even a government, to own productive property in the name of the people. The only global organization is a bureau that links people with jobs that need to be filled.

The bureau has no coercive powers; any man or woman is free to accept or decline a posting. But in times of crisis, such as the long drought Anarres goes through, peer pressure is very strong to accept a post, even if it is in a remote location and it requires the acceptee to be away from his/her partner for a long period of time. Housing, cafeterias and other needs are always available, wherever a posting takes a person. This also makes Anarres a mobile society, as there is no private property to be left behind, freeing men and women to move around the moon as they like. It is also a society totally without hierarchy, class distinctions or gender roles. Puritanism is also erased; a full sexual freedom exists with the elimination of sexism and gender roles.

These liberating social conditions are inseparable from the economic freedom of Anarres. It is, again, a place with true common ownership, different from an anarcho-syndicalist economy, in which the members of small collectives would together own their workshop or production facility. It is also distinct from the concept of the state owning property in the name of society as developed in Soviet Union. But even this concept is, in theory, a stage of development in which the end result is a withering away of the state which, again in theory, might result in an economic design not much different than the concepts of the anarchist society of Anarres.

Anarres is able to maintain its society through isolation. There is no contact between it and Urras, except for freight ships that mostly transport minerals to Urras, but also carry other goods, even books, in both directions. Anarres is completely closed to Urras, with nobody from the freight ships allowed to leave the small port. It is unthinkable for any Anarres citizen to go to Urras. Governments on Urras ruthlessly suppress any groups that wish to implement Anarres ideas, but the countries of Urras make no attempt to interfere with Anarres itself; Anarres continues to ship minerals to Urras and, from the Urras point of view, remains a mining colony.

The people of Anarres, who deeply believe in their project, are allowed to continue to develop their society with no interference thanks to the hundreds of thousands of miles that separate it from the warring nation-states of Urras. But what if there was no such separation; what if the capitalists of Urras saw a threat in Anarres? Would Anarres have the freedom to develop its egalitarian society? Can a radically new and different society exist next to or nearby societies that continue to use traditional, hierarchal forms? These questions do get raised in The Dispossessed, and of course asking these questions brings us back to Earth.

In our solar system, Earth’s moon is not capable of sustaining life; alternative societies will need to take root here on Earth. But is it possible for a radical society — an egalitarian society that provides an adequate standard of living, materially and in all the other ways — that, by its very existence, provides a superior alternative to capitalist society, to have the time to create itself? Is it even possible for such a society to take root with more powerful neighbors ready to suppress it?

Revolution when there is the (physical) space for it

Ursula Le Guin, the creator of an “ambiguous anarchist utopia,” is not optimistic on these questions. Neither is Kim Stanley Robinson, the creator of a Marxist-inspired revolution on Mars that succeeds against great odds. Unlike the anarchists of Anarres, who have a world essentially handed to them — authorities on Urras apparently decided this would be a way of getting rid of their troublemakers — the Martians of Mr. Robinson’s Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars) have to overthrow oppressive colonial rule to create their better society.

But just as Anarres benefited from its distance from Urras, Mars’ distance from Earth is what gives the revolutionaries the space to create their new society. And the Martians, too, must compromise. Anarres must continue to supply Urras with minerals or face the possibility of an invasion; the revolutionary Martian government must continue to accept a continuous stream of colonists from Earth and maneuver its way around the colossal economic power of Earth’s biggest corporations and the puppet political institutions the corporations control.

In the years of the 21st and 22nd centuries, capitalism continues to develop; that is, economic power is concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. About 20 corporations have a stranglehold on the world’s economy and dominate Earth. The economies of all countries except the 11 comprising the G-11 grouping (expanded from the present-day G-7) are dwarfed by those 20 corporations; indeed, most countries of the world are directly controlled by one of the top corporations. The United Nations is the gendarme of this corporate domination. The UN organizes the colonization of Mars on behalf of its corporate masters; the intention is to exploit the resources of the Red Planet and to, over time, export some of Earth’s overpopulation.

Some colonists are willing to go along with this program; many others want to create a better world than what they left behind on Earth. This increasingly bitter divide is complicated by an environmental divide between “Reds” (those who wish to leave Mars as it is) and “Greens” (those who wish to terraform Mars into an Earth-like environment). The divide between willing colonists and independent-minded social builders does not coincide with the environmental divide; although there is wide support to break free of Earth’s grip and build a better society, there are more “Greens” than “Reds” on the environmental question. At any rate, during the colonial era, the decision is out of the Martians’ hands as the UN and the corporations behind it seek to create an Earth-like Mars. Terraforming begins with the first colonists and there is far too much economic muscle applied from Earth for the process to be slowed, much less stopped.

A further fracture in the developing Martian society, which ultimately adds to political tensions, is the huge social gap between the younger men and women who are born on Mars and the waves of colonists who continue to flood the planet. The intention of the independence-minded colonists is to create a better society, not only in terms of dispensing with the rapacious economic determinism of Earth, but in other realms as well. These colonists want to create a non-hierarchal society free not only of class distinctions but of ills such as sexism, racism, nationalism and cultural arrogance.

To the men and women who are born on Mars, this is not only natural, but easy to express because to them the hideous stratifications and exploitation of Earth are revolting and unimaginable. Counter-pressures come on economic and colonial questions from the colonists who see Mars as a natural colony of Earth and from the large number of colonists who come from more repressive cultures and seek to replicate the backwardness they left behind.

Creating the future when so much of the past is present

On this fictional Mars created by Mr. Robinson, we have something of a hybrid between a society trying to create itself next to existing, hostile societies and a society free to create itself out of nothing in isolation from hostile counter-pressures. Mars is of course barren of life before the arrival of the first trickle of colonists — the Martian population starts in the hundreds and rises to the tens of millions — so it has the potential to create itself out of nothing. But in reality, it is a colony controlled by Earth, regularly sent new colonists who don’t share the lofty ideals of the independence-minded or “native” Martians, and who act as forces to create a replication of Earth. Here we have a different contradiction, that between the huge distance between the planets that should provide the space for a new society to create itself and the very powerful forces that bind the new, and still developing, society to the old.

For a long time, those powerful forces overpower the native energy that seeks to create a new Martian society; a society that would be different and more advanced than what can currently exist on Mars. The Martians don’t have the option to isolate themselves — even if they could reach a consensus on that issue — because they aren’t strong enough to stop the UN from following whatever policies the UN wishes to follow. Gradually, repression is strengthened until the movement for independence is forced underground. During this time, underground resistors can create small hidden pockets where new societies can be created, but they are politically impotent.

Mars, still red (Image created by NASA via Hubble Space Telescope)

Unlike the “ambiguous utopia” of Anarres, where there was freedom to create something entirely new in a political vacuum, the Mars of Mr. Robinson’s Mars trilogy has real pressures acting on it, external and internal. Far from political, social or environment unity, this Mars has wide ranges of opinion on all questions, and vastly different, even irreconcilable, cultural experiences. It has to find a way to juggle and allow expression to all these forces, assuming it can even find a way out of its colonial status.

None of the other issues can be tackled until the first issue of independence can be solved. Even then, Mars will not have full freedom of action. A well-timed revolution, launched just as Earth enters into a sudden global environmental crisis, enables the Martians to overthrow the direct rule of the UN and Earth’s corporations, but does not remove the power that still exists on Earth. There are those on Mars opposed to the revolution; they are politically neutered now but won’t necessarily remain so. There are socially backward elements who can only cling to what they left behind on Earth. Among the majority pro-revolution opinion, there are a variety of conflicting interests and differing political ideas. The environmental split between “Reds” and “Greens” still exists; the Reds are losing that battle and know it, but still seek to at least slow down or somehow halt progress on terraforming.

At the start of a revolutionary period, all things are possible. How will the possibilities be sorted? How can all reasonable opinions be represented? How and who can decide what a reasonable opinion is? During this period of tremendous change, which will eventually come to a close, how radical a break from the old society can there be? How fast and how far can the revolution go in building a new society? Can an accommodation be made with many conflicting areas of opinion while retaining the revolutionary impulse to create a new society? Can competing interests co-exist long enough to build lasting institutions, or must one group begin to dominate other groups? Can the unique circumstance of tens of millions of miles of space between the planets allow a radical break from the past that would not be possible on Earth?

Other than the last question, these questions apply to all revolutionary situations. The uniqueness of revolting on a separate planet does give the Martian revolutionaries the space to create lasting institutions locking in a radically new society; but even here, Earth’s need to deal with its environmental catastrophe keeps it occupied. Otherwise, any attempt at revolution likely would have been doomed. Indeed, a first attempt is mercilessly crushed by the UN.

Freedom from economic coercion at the base

The political institutions the new Martian government creates are not necessarily a vast departure from previous government styles; but it is different enough to allow radical changes in other spheres of life, especially social and economic. The government is nominally a multi-party parliamentary system on a global scale; but government exists only at the city and global levels. There are no countries or subdivisions. Economic freedom and equality is enshrined in the new Martian constitution; all workplaces are collectively owned by the people who work there. The new society is stripped of inequality and all hierarchy; with full equality among all citizens, a full and exuberant sexual freedom for all genders blossoms with the elimination of sexism. Anything less is incomprehensible to those born on Mars free of the horrors of Earth.

Perhaps all this happens rather too easily, but the buildup to the revolution and the pre-revolutionary work of creating a new world lasts several decades and involves three generations, so it by no means is a sudden change. Unlike the “ambiguous utopia” of Anarres — rather conveniently allowed to happen on an empty moon — Mr. Robinson’s Mars trilogy takes the realistic approach that old hierarchies can only be removed with considerable effort. Along the way, the characters struggle with the weight of history, and argue history’s lessons.

There is no doubt that further lessons need to be learned from history, and it is clear that both Ms. Le Guin and Mr. Robinson have not only studied, but learned, history. Their fictional worlds, and the very real and interesting characters who inhabit them, are all the richer for this. But can these worlds — the stateless anarchism of Anarres and the Marxist egalitarianism governed through parliamentary consensus of Mars — be brought into existence on Earth? Would we want to, or would a better world be different that these ideals? Can a truly egalitarian society, allowing a full scope of economic as well as other freedoms, come into being, or would hostile capital-dominated countries inevitably overwhelm it, as the 20th century’s socialist experiments were overwhelmed?

What the planets created in these fictions have in common is that the inhabitants have full freedom — starting with economic freedom, without which most other freedoms are illusions. (Unless your idea of democracy is choosing what cola you can drink.) Whatever the future has in store for humanity, it will certainly be different from the future societies sketched in this review. But the future will have to include a full range of freedoms similar to that enjoyed by the books’ characters. That won’t happen under capitalism — by definition, it can’t — and it won’t happen under a monolithic party that doesn’t understand its own doctrine. It won’t come under an ephemeral “third way” that is just capitalism with a thin veneer of sweetener layered on the top.

Humanity will have to find a way forward, somehow, or face catastrophe. I won’t pretend to have the answer. But it is nice to have stimulating fiction that works not only as a fine read, but allows us to think about the possibilities along the way.

Creating a participatory system of economic democracy in Rojava

Out of repression has emerged one of the world’s most interesting experiments in democracy. And by democracy, what is meant is not the formal capitalist variety of elections every few years in which consumption of consumer products is substituted for participation in societal decisions.

Surrounded on all sides by hostile forces intent on destroying them, in a part of the world that Western pundits claim can only be ruled by dictators, the Kurds of Syria are intent on creating a society more democratic than any found in North America or Europe. This is not simply a matter of creating institutions of direct and communal, as opposed to representative, democracy but, most importantly, democratizing the economy. In the words of the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, “In self-government, an alternative economic system is necessary, one that augments the resources of society rather than exploiting them, and in that way satisfies the society’s multitude of needs.”

The many sides of that equation are explored in detail in Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan,* a study of Rojava’s experiment in radical democracy by three activists who spent months in Rojava studying the society being constructed, and who themselves have been involved in Rojava in various capacities. One of the authors, Anja Flach, spent two years in the Kurdish women’s guerrilla army. Her co-authors are Ercan Ayboga, an environmental engineer, and Michael Knapp, a historian. Although the three authors make clear their sympathies for the Rojava revolution, their book is not hagiographic, but rather a serious analysis of a developing process.

The Kurdish people are split among four countries — Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey — and have long suffered persecution in each of them. Their persecution in Turkey is well known; successive Turkish governments have attempted to disrupt organizing, obliterate Kurdish culture and ban the Kurdish language through waves of lethal military crackdowns. Mr. Öcalan escaped Turkey after a military coup that led to hundreds of thousands of Kurds thrown into jail; he and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) he leads were granted asylum in Syria. In the late 1990s, under Turkish pressure, Syria expelled the PKK, and a year later, Mr. Öcalan was abducted from a Greek consulate (a kidnapping believed to be a CIA operation) and has been imprisoned in Turkey since.

But that the Syrian régime found the PKK a useful lever against Turkey for a time did nothing to ameliorate ruthless repression against the Kurds of northern Syria. The Ba’ath Party of the Assad family implemented a policy of “Arabization” against Kurds and the other minority groups of the areas now comprising Rojava. Kurds were routinely forcibly removed from their farm lands and other properties, with Arabs settled in their place. Bashar al-Assad, in contrast to the misplaced hopes that he might institute a thaw upon succeeding his father in 2000, instituted a harsh neoliberalism. Mass privatization, suppression of unions, the shredding of the social safety net and a channeling of investment capital into tourism and away from production had a particularly devastating impact on Rojava.

After the uprisings in Syria against the Ba’ath régime began in 2011, the struggle quickly became militarized. The Kurds avoided being overrun by the Syrian army or the various Islamist forces because of their own organization. Grassroots organizing had been done steadily since the 1990s, and when local government collapsed following the 2011 uprisings, that organizing, a nascent council system and the formation of militias enabled the carving out of an autonomous territory. People surrounded government buildings, demanding the surrender of all arms while guaranteeing the safe passage of all Syrian government officials. This tactic worked, quickly sweeping through all three “cantons” of Rojava. (A canton is a portion of a province, perhaps bigger than a U.S. county or French department but smaller than a U.S. state or a French region.)

The aim here was to create a democratic territory through peaceful means. This takeover was accomplished nearly without bloodshed, although Rojava’s militias have had to repeatedly repulse attacks from Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other hostile forces, as well as fend off the sometimes active hostility of the Turkish government, which has allowed Islamic State terrorists to freely cross the border and re-arm themselves. Sadly, Rojava has also been subjected to periodic blockades and political harassment from the two corrupt parties that control Iraqi Kurdistan, which borders Rojava to the east.

The system of democratic autonomy

The basic units of Rojava’s organization are councils and commissions. These constitute the building blocks of Rojava’s system of “democratic confederalism.” The authors of Revolution in Rojava explain this concept in this way:

“Democratic Confederalism aims at achieving the autonomy of society, that is, a society that administers itself through small, self-governing decentralized units. It entails a permanent social revolution, reflected in every aspect of social structure. All institutions are self-organized and self-administered.” [page 44]

Concurrent with that concept is “democratic autonomy,” which is defined as “the autonomy of the commune” in an “anti-centrist, bottom-up approach.” The commune is the basic unit of self-government, the base of the council system. A commune comprises the households of a few streets within a city or village, usually 30 to 400 households. Above the commune level are community people’s councils comprising a city neighborhood or a village. The next level up are the district councils, consisting of a city and surrounding villages. The top of the four levels is the People’s Council of West Kurdistan, which elects an executive body on which about three dozen people sit. (“West Kurdistan” is the portion of Kurdistan that lies within Syria.)

Integrated within the four-level council system are eight commissions — women, defense, economics, politics, civil society, free society, justice and ideology — that work with councils at all four levels; in turn commissions at local levels coordinate their work with commissions in adjacent areas. There is also a ninth commission, health, responsible for coordinating access to health care (regardless of ability to pay) and maintaining hospitals, in which medical professionals fully participate. Except for the women’s commission, all bodies have male and female co-leaders.

Taking with upmost seriousness the full liberation of women (also expressed in the all-women’s militias that fight on the front lines the same as men’s units), the women’s commissions are tasked, inter alia, with adjudicating cases of patriarchal violence and forced marriage. An umbrella women’s movement organizes women across Rojava, taking on activities including educational work, publishing a newspaper, pushing for legislation, and investigating and documenting domestic violence. This work has roots in the 1990s, when PKK women organized door to door. When organizing by men was heavily suppressed after 2004, women organized clandestinely, giving them experience.

Making women’s participation central is of course a glaring contrast with the Islamist groups and the so-called moderate groups of the Free Syrian Army. Every organization in Rojava must include at least 40 percent women. Asya Abdullah, co-chair of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, Rojava’s largest party, said the revolution is conscious of not repeating the mistakes of the past, in which women’s liberation was often put on the back-burner. She said:

“We’re a still long way from achieving our goals. … But we’ve learned from the failed revolutions in the past. They always said, ‘Let’s carry the revolution to success, and then we’ll give women our rights.’ But after the revolution, of course, it didn’t happen. We’re not repeating that old story in our revolution.” [page 70]

Creating a new justice system

As with many governmental functions, the judicial system has had to be rebuilt from scratch. Peace committees seek consensus through dialogue at the commune and neighborhood levels. The goal is rehabilitation rather than punishment. Most cases are settled in peace committees, but felonies and those cases not adjudicated in the peace committees are assigned to district-level people’s courts. There are separate women’s peace committees that handle cases of male violence against women in which all-women panels hand down decisions.

Parallel to these systems of democratic self-activity is the Democratic-Autonomous Administration. This is essentially a dual government, created primarily for foreign governments. Because Rojava’s councils have been ignored elsewhere, the DAA was created so that world’s governments would have a government they could recognize. Each of three Rojava cantons has a DAA, which includes an elected parliament and ministries that are distributed among the various political parties so that each has at least one minister. These, however, rely on the earlier-established council system and work with the councils. The division of labor between the councils and the DAA has yet to be worked out, nor how to reconcile a dual-government structure.

Civil society associations also play large roles in Rojava. These groups perform educational work, organize grassroots activity and place representatives on the councils. Many of these associations are occupation groups. In contrast to what the Kurdish movement sees as the state existing as a means of extracting profits for favored social groups or classes and inculcating a fixation on authority, civil society is substituted for a state. The authors write:

“The Kurdish movement, in its anti-statism, thus draws on [Antonio] Gramsci’s concept of civil society in proposing to strengthen civil society for the purpose of overthrowing the state. In contrast to the abortive Bolshevist strategy of seizing state power, Öcalan posits, like Gramsci on the ideological, political struggle for civil society, a ‘war of position’ beyond military confrontation. Through empowerment, a civil society tries to free itself from the hands of the state and its religious, economic and administrative structures and so to build a counter-hegemony and to activate individual parts of the society to represent civil society in councils and communes.” [pages 122-123]

Economic development on a democratic basis

This democratic concept extends to the economy. Food and fuel prices are controlled, working conditions are negotiated among several interest groups, workers’ rights are defended and the pursuit of profit maximization is blocked to avoid the destructive tendencies of capitalism. The principals of the “communal economy” are described in this way by the Union of Civil Society Associations:

“The state system exploited the society’s labor power and trampled the rights of workers. Under Democratic Autonomy, civil society associations solve problems according to principles of moral politics and an ecological society. The unity of society is the foundation. These associations hold society together. They ensure the unity that is needed to satisfy everyday social needs. Of course, they do this as part of democratic, communal life. They are how society organizes itself.” [page 124]

Rojava, the authors write, was a “quasi-colony” under the Ba’ath régime. There was an enforced agricultural monoculture with no local production allowed. Oil, gas and agricultural products were shipped out, and canned food and finished products from elsewhere shipped in. Not even trees were allowed to be planted. So although there is much productive farmland, Rojava could not come close to self-sufficiency in food as all farmers were forced to raise wheat or cotton. Farming is now being re-oriented toward local needs so that a much higher percentage of food can be produced locally; this is partly a necessity as the area is often blockaded by neighbors.

The city of Qamishli in Syrian Kurdistan

The councils, already in existence, organized the economy to prevent a collapse after Rojava’s liberation. Price controls, measures against hoarding food and medicine, agricultural diversification, planting fruit trees, and building grain mills and industry were implemented and are ongoing projects. Rojava’s economic underdevelopment is seen locally as a disadvantage and an opportunity. It is the latter because, the authors write, it “allows the traditional social collectivism of the Kurdish people to be channeled positively to build a new, alternative economy.” [page 197]

Much of this new economy rests on cooperative enterprises. Cooperatives are required to be connected to the council system; independence is not allowed. Cooperatives work through the economics commissions to meet social needs. Much of this cooperative production is in agriculture or small shops but there are plans to create more industry to meet local needs. Thirty percent of all coop proceeds must be given to local self-government administrations. And this is seen as a route to eliminating unemployment. The authors write:

“The cooperative system is solving the problem of unemployment. ‘Through the communes and cooperatives and the needs-based economy,’ explains [Afrin University chair] Dr. [Ahmad] Yousef, ‘each person can participate in production in his own way, and there will be no unemployment. Where communes are established, it will become clear that unemployment is a result of the capitalist system itself.’ ” [page 206]

Such a system can’t work without an educated population:

“To ensure that society is able to make decisions about the use of water, soil, and energy, information about the society’s needs are taken out of the hands of the experts and socialized. Education is critical for this purpose. ‘We school the people in how cooperatives can form a social economy,’ says [Union of Kurdish Communities leader Cemil] Bayık. ‘We are establishing economics academies to advance this.’ ” [page 207]

Surrounded by a hostile world

All this is at odds not only with the existing institutions and state organizations surrounding them, but with the capitalist powers as well. How can Rojava’s experiment possibly survive in a such a hostile world? The authors of Revolution in Rojava strongly urge the building of Left support sufficiently strong to influence North American and European governments. The people of Rojava, the authors stress, are in need of material support from the West at the same time they are acutely aware of the dangers of a U.S. embrace.

The idea that Rojava’s acceptance of Western aid is a “betrayal” is called “naïve” by the authors, drawing parallels with Republican Spain of the 1930s. Describing Rojava as an “anti-fascist project,” they note that the capitalist West turned its back on the Spanish Revolution, allowing fascism to triumph.

The danger of U.S. material support, of course, can’t be underestimated, given that a communal economy oriented toward people’s needs rather than private profit is anathema to U.S. corporate and government power, which have teamed up to throttle many a revolution attempting to transcend capitalism or simply assert independent development. Moreover, the U.S. wrongly classifies the PKK, which seeks to implement the same system as their fellow Kurds in Syria, as “terrorists” and has long supported Ankara’s scorched-earth repression of Kurds.

In the short term, material support from the West is needed if Rojava is to successfully defend itself from Islamic militants and the Turkish government. Syrian (and Turkish) Kurds, who see their model as one that can be expanded across Syria and the entire Middle East, have their eyes open to the narrowness of the path that must be thread through these contradictions. Nor are their eyes closed to their unsolved problems of pollution, water, waste management, and the stop-gap use of diesel generators that is causing serious environmental problems.

The book ends on an optimistic note, readapting Rosa Luxemburg’s famous phrase to declare the future is “communalism or barbarism.” Although brief discussions of Thomas Jefferson, Luxemburg and Gramsci (who was no opponent of the Bolsheviks) are poorly argued and their views misstated, this is at most a minor irritant in a work ably presenting the first comprehensive study of Rojava’s inspiring experiment in mass-participation democracy. Revolution in Rojava is an excellent introduction to a revolution that is not yet well known but should be.

* Ercan Ayboga. Anja Flach and Michael Knapp (translated by Janet Biehl), Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan [Pluto Books, London 2016]

Analyzing the failures of Syriza

So many put their puts hopes into Syriza; so many were bitterly disappointed. Greece’s Coalition of the Radical Left proved wholly unable to resist the enormous pressures put on it and it is Greek working people who are paying the price, not excepting those who voted for Syriza.

How should we analyze the depressing spectacle of what had been a genuinely Left party, indeed a coalition of leftist forces from a variety of socialist perspectives, self-destructing so rapidly? The simplistic response would be to wash our hands and condemn Syriza as “opportunists,” but we’ll learn exactly nothing with such an attitude. If we are serious about analyzing Syriza’s spectacular failure — including those who expected this outcome in advance — digging through the rubble is unavoidable.

There were many currents coursing through Syriza, in addition to other Left tendencies outside. Nor were there shortages of people who feared what the fate of Syriza might become, including leaders inside it, before it took power, reminds Helena Sheehan in her new book The Syriza Wave: Surging and Crashing with the Greek Left.* Written in exhilaration and sorrow, Professor Sheehan, a veteran of solidarity work with the Greek Left, rides those tides as she recounts the anticipation and optimism before, and the depression and shock afterward, inside Greece and among Syriza’s allies across Europe.

The prologue to this failure is well known, but Professor Sheehan takes us through it in a “you are there” style reflecting what was happening then and her own optimism. That we know how this story will end does not detract from this writing style; rather it heightens the emotions as we re-live what at the time appeared to be the imminent first serious blow against global austerity and the ever tightening grip of finance capital. This was not a pollyannaish optimism, for no one serious had doubts about the immense task facing Syriza should it be elected. Certainly Greece could not be a small socialist island in an immense sea of capitalism — Greece’s problems then and now can have only European and international solutions.

Still, someone has to go first. The international Left saw hope in Syriza, and Syriza economists worked on solutions. There was much political seriousness as Syriza was seen as the last hope; that fascism might well be next given the growing menace of Golden Dawn focused minds.

Professor Sheehan sets this stage, opening her book in 2012, a year in which a second memorandum is signed, forcing more harsh austerity on Greeks, and in which Syriza rose from a minor parliamentary presence to finishing a close second to Greece’s main party of the Right, New Democracy. Providing the analyses, hopes and fears of a variety of Greek activists gathered on repeated visits, she recounts Syriza’s strong efforts to engage social-movement groups (in contrast to the Greek Communist Party’s sectarianism) and for Syriza to be inter-generational in its leadership.

Tip-toeing to the election by backtracking?

Nonetheless, there was Left criticism that Syriza was “watering down its wine” or wanting only to manage capitalism instead of creating socialism. Syriza officials vigorously denied this, saying they would reverse austerity cuts, restore wages and pensions, and re-distribute wealth and power. This would not yet be socialism, but “was intended to open a new path to socialism for the twenty-first century.” One danger sign, however, was that the party was split on whether to remain within the eurozone, even if the euro and the European Union as a whole were seen as a site of struggle. Some within Syriza, such as Costas Lapavitsas, argued that Syriza should be prepared for a break with the European Union. Despite these warnings, no systematic preparatory work on any “Plan B” was formulated.

Austerity might have been coming down harder on Greeks than elsewhere in Europe, but this was no aberration specific to one small country EU officials saw as easy to bully. This was not a local battle, Professor Sheehan writes:

“These cuts to pay, pensions, and public services, this privatization of public property, this redistribution of wealth from below to above: these were not temporary contingent measures. These were integral to a systemic restructuring of capitalism. … Where there were once experiments in socialism in the east, there were now oligarchies. Next on the agenda: advances achieved by the labor movement in the west were to be stripped.” [page 58]

Yet no success in a single European country will be sustainable unless it is followed by similar successes in other countries.

“Yiannis Tolios, an economist, also elected to the [Syriza] central committee, articulated the problem starkly, but with a different stress: ‘If having socialism in a single country is considered hard, having socialism in all countries at the same time is nearly impossible.’ Greece needed to forge ahead, whether the rest were ready or not, but it was perilous path.” [page 59]

Syriza would reconstitute itself as a unified party, with its previous constituent groups, including its largest, Synaspismos, dissolving themselves (although some remained outside). One-quarter of the central committee were members of Left Platform, an organized faction advocating reversing austerity by any means necessary, with the central committee majority heterogeneous but pro-Alexis Tsipras. Internal critics complained that too much power was being concentrated in the hands of the party leader and his inner circle, nor was concern that Syriza was moving too far toward the right confined to the Left Platform.

Most active members of Syriza believed capitalism was the problem and socialism the solution, the author writes, but had “stopped dreaming of storming winter palaces.” She writes:

“They were not holding out for an all-encompassing insurrection, which would destroy capitalism one day and inaugurate socialism the next day. They were planning for a protracted process, which would include winning multiparty elections, entering into difficult negotiations, agreeing to unattractive alliances, undoing damage done, building the new inside the shell of the old.” [page 85]

Winning an election, but not necessarily power

Anticipation grew as Syriza prepared to take office, but the party’s 2014 Thessaloniki Program was seen by many as a significant retreat. Was Syriza watering down its wine even before the next election? Whatever the strength of the wine, Syriza won the election of January 2015. The “troika” of EU institutions and the International Monetary Fund that had been dictating austerity to the previous Greek governments wasted no time in tightening the screws on the new government in what was seen as an outright attempt to humiliate Syriza. Negotiations dragged on, and amidst much international solidarity, Prime Minister Tsipras called a referendum that summer to supposedly buttress his negotiating position.

Greeks responded by heavily voting “no” to further austerity. The Syriza government then did a remarkable about-face. Eight days later, Prime Minister Tsipras signed an agreement even more unfavorable that what had been demanded by the troika. More than half of Syriza’s central committee signed an opposition letter and most Syriza members were furious. This was ignored.

View of Vikos Gorge, Greece (photo by Skamnelis)

Some Syriza officials offered public justifications for this turn of events, arguing that the party was in a marathon and not a finished race, and that the party retained scope for maneuver and to continue to be a Left party through links with solidarity networks. Others, however, argued that the new agreement was a disastrous capitulation. One alternative path to austerity was to exit the eurozone. The counter-argument was that the analysis supporting a eurozone withdrawal was correct but nonetheless such a road should not be taken due to the balance of forces tilted heavily against the Greek economy.

There were arguments both for remaining in and for leaving the eurozone, but anti-austerity advocates on both sides recommended strong steps such as renouncing the debt, nationalizing the banks and imposing capital controls. These were not considered — Syriza never had a “Plan B.”

Staying in the eurozone was favored by a majority of Greeks, a factor undoubtedly an influence on the party. But by taking office without an alternative plan to negotiating with the troika, in particular EU officials completely cold to any Greek argument, Syriza had boxed in itself. Excuses by Syriza officials for why, rather than reversing austerity, they had agreed to its intensification were just that, excuses. Professor Sheehan challenges those excuses sharply:

“It was one thing to allude to a gun to the head and to admit to defeat, but another to turn around and to claim a great moral victory and to aim the attack on anyone who said otherwise. There was much violation of elementary logic, evasion of empirical evidence, and denial of ethical culpability. … The point about conceptualizing contradiction is not to affirm it and to wallow in it, but to struggle to resolve it, to transcend it, to create a new synthesis from it. As if intensified economic expropriation and political capitulation were not bad enough already, they added intellectual obfuscation and moral degradation to the dreadful reality unfolding. … You cannot build a left when you trash the very basis of our beliefs. It came from a mix of blatant opportunism, genuine confusion, psychological distress, and postmodernist sophistry.” [pages 133-134]

Syriza, despite all the bustle of the previous three years, had taken office unprepared. And, bizarrely, holding a belief that the troika could be reasoned with.

A suicide mission followed by a purge

Next was a “suicide mission for the Left” — Syriza introduced into parliament a 977-page bill to be voted on immediately with no time to be read. The Left Platform voted no as a unified faction and a separate Syriza parliamentary faction, the 53+ Group, complained about the stifling of party democracy, yet Syriza overall voted yes and the new agreement was approved with support from most other parties. “I do not believe that you can do bad to do good,” is the author’s succinct appraisal.

In the wake of shameful capitulation, rather than call a party congress, Prime Minister Tsipras decided to call a snap election, which he would use to purge Syriza of its left wing. He distinguished this campaign by attacking the Left and international supporters. The Left Platform members of parliament resigned to form a new party, Popular Unity, but with little time and no resources it failed to reach the 3 percent vote threshold. Syriza won again.

Defections from Syriza and attempts to build a new Left party have continued since as not only is no debt relief in sight despite one humiliating concession after another but Syriza lurches right in foreign policy and the prime minister falls to his knees in front of the church. It had taken Syriza only six months to travel the path that the former socialist party, Pasok, had traveled in 20 years but without the genuine reforms that Pasok had implemented early in its time in government. Implementing and expanding expropriation in order to end it is not dialectical; it is nonsense, Professor Sheehan points out.

So why had Syriza taken such a road? No one answer could suffice, but the author, in a wide-ranging survey, explores several opinions offered by various Greek activists. In short form these include:

  • That Syriza’s actions constitute a retreat, not a betrayal, as transformation is a painful marathon with many retreats.
  • Syriza had no coherent program but its left was too focused on a transformation of the state.
  • Syriza failed to contest the narrative of “there is no alternative” and should have renounced the debt, nationalized the banks and elaborated an anti-capitalist narrative.
  • Syriza’s failure is rooted in its class compromises and constant reassurances to the Right since 2012.
  • Popular Unity has a future despite “messing up” its first election.
  • It is impossible to control the economy inside the eurozone.
  • The power of money destroyed Syriza.

Helena Sheehan has written a most useful study of Syriza and in particular the range of platforms and outlooks, and the evolution of these, as the party prepared to take power and then found itself unable to manage, let alone solve, internal and external contradictions. That this is a “you are there” document from a personalized standpoint does not at all mean that The Syriza Wave is anything other than a serious political analysis. The work could have been strengthened in two ways: one, a deeper discussion of the economic issues, including the ramifications of staying in (or exiting) the eurozone, and, two, a discussion of how virtually every euro of the troika loans are going to creditors and banks rather than to the Greek people, a topic barely mentioned in passing only once. These are topics that would have added to the narrative.

Nonetheless, a reader wishing political analysis and to understand what activists and leaders in Syriza were thinking and doing, including ministers before and after taking up their posts, would do well to read this book. Professor Sheehan, despite the appropriately bitter denouncements of the party’s performance in office in contrast to her earlier support, ends on an optimistic note. We are, after all, supposed to learn from defeat so we can do it better in the future, yes?

* Helena Sheehan, The Syriza Wave: Surging and Crashing with the Greek Left [Monthly Review Press, New York 2016]

Conceptualizing cooperatives as a challenge to capitalist thinking

As capitalism lurches from crisis to crisis, and a world beyond capitalism becomes a possibility contemplated by increasing numbers of people, finding a path forward becomes an ever more urgent task.

That path is likely to contain a multitude of possibilities and experiments, not all of which will prove viable. Psychological barriers will surely be a major inhibition to overcome; possibly the biggest roadblock given the still ubiquitous idea of “there is no alternative” that has survived despite growing despair at the mounting inequality and precarious futures offered by capitalism. In short, a viable alternative to the capitalist structure of enterprises and society is urgently necessary.

cooperatives-confront-capitalismCooperatives represent a “counter-narrative” to the idea, inculcated in us from our youngest ages, that a small group of bosses are naturally entitled to exert leadership and thus are the only people with the capabilities of running an enterprise, argues Peter Ranis in his latest book, Cooperatives Confront Capitalism: Challenging the Neoliberal Economy.* Putting to use his considerable knowledge of Argentine and Cuban cooperatives, and combining that with a challenging argument about the possibilities of worker cooperatives in the center of world capitalism, the United States, Professor Ranis argues that the cooperative form can indeed posit a challenge to capitalist hegemony.

In his opening chapter, in answering his own question “Why worker cooperatives?,” in the context of working people building a Gramscian “counter-hegemony,” he writes:

“This requires a working class movement that moves beyond wages, hours and working conditions and into the realm of owning and maintaining production that leads to controlling local economies that demonstrate working-class capacity for impacting on societal economies and, by extension, politics and the concomitant public policy. Cooperatives would, indeed, be the key ingredient to a proletarian hegemonic outcome. … What worker cooperatives provide is a counter-narrative to the one that assumes that only owners and managers can provide leadership and function effectively in the world of production.” [pages 15-16]

It is indisputably true that counterposing living examples of working people’s successful self-management is a prerequisite to breaking down current capitalist cultural hegemony. But, in contrast to more traditional ideas that state ownership should be the alternative, Professor Ranis argues that it is the cooperative form, because workers there assume all management functions, that can build an alternative. His argument, however, is not pollyannaish by any means — cooperatives face serious challenges at the hands of capitalist governments not to mention the direct hostility of capitalists themselves.

No easy path for Argentine cooperatives

For all the success of Argentina’s cooperatives in providing a better standard of living and vastly superior working conditions to their members, the road has been a hard one — and those cooperatives still constitute a minuscule portion of the Argentine economy. Moreover, not all those in Argentina who formed cooperatives necessarily wished to do so — converting the recovered factories into state-owned enterprises with worker control was often the original goal and in some cases that is still the hoped-for outcome. (Although at the moment, given the harsh neoliberal policies of the new government of Mauricio Macri, that is off the table for now.)

Cooperatives Confront Capitalism does not hold back from discussing the difficulties. These cooperatives formed when the former capitalist owners decided to close down production and/or had not paid the workers for long periods, sometimes months. Forced to take matters into their own hands, workers occupied their workplaces and physically defended themselves, with the help of the surrounding communities. Argentine law was not on their side — bankruptcy codes heavily favor creditors, assets are quickly sold and judges have too much arbitrary power. Nor is there a national law facilitating this process; a patchwork of provincial and municipal laws, with varying terms, prevail. New coops face difficulty obtaining loans and credit, and are often forced to pay for supplies in cash.

The taken-over Zanón ceramics factory, now known as FaSinPat, or Factory Without a Boss (photo by Guglielmo Celata)

The taken-over Zanón ceramics factory, now known as FaSinPat, or Factory Without a Boss (photo by Guglielmo Celata)

The route to survival for coops has been involvement with local communities, making donations, becoming involved in others’ struggles and fostering the idea that cooperatives can’t survive on their own but must be part of a struggle for socialism. Leaders are rotated, positions of day-to-day management have set terms and all major strategic decisions are made collectively in meetings of all members. Coop salaries are higher than salaries in capitalist enterprises and working conditions are far safer. This sense of solidarity is a principal — Professor Ranis quotes a leader at the FaSinPat ceramics plant (the former Zánon factory) in this way:

“When we have to support another struggle, we stop production because it is a social investment, a sowing that we reap in the future.” [page 66]

Thus struggle does not stop at the factory gates. Professor Ranis elaborates:

“The Zánon workers see their factory as being at the service of the community and not the market, and that attitude has been translated into countless acts of solidarity, for which they have been compensated by the community in five attempts by the provincial police to take over the factory. … They argue that an effective state must take responsibility for creating jobs while allowing workers to control production and extend its surplus to the whole community.” [page 68]

An easier path in Cuba?

Cooperatives have become a steadily growing experiment in Cuba. There, cooperatives have a firmer footing because they are being formed with government support. This, however, is mostly a top-down process, with most coops being formed at government insistence by converting state-owned enterprises. Cooperatives Confront Capitalism does not shy away from critiques of this process, noting the top-down decision-making, that although there is considerable input from below it remain consultative, and that bureaucratic barriers impede the formation of coops created from scratch.

The self-employed sector remains larger than the cooperative sector, and most Cuban workers continue to work in the state sector as the coops are concentrated in services. Professor Ranis also points out that inequality is returning to Cuba. Only some have relatives elsewhere who can send home remittances, and the re-sale of goods bought in the U.S. is highly profitable, and thus another source of inequality. The author argues that a movement from below is necessary to re-establish egalitarianism, especially as ration books are likely to be phased out for all but the poorest.

Nonetheless, he argues Cuban coops are a positive step forward and have a much better chance at success than do coops in Argentina or the United States. They are one of the best ways to democratize and de-centralize Cuban society, and also provides a path for fallow agricultural land to be put back into productive use. Neither private capital nor the state sector can meet workers’ needs; a worker-centered approach can defend against capitalist and state socialist forms, he writes.

Professor Ranis, in the middle of the book, makes a case for a great increase in the use of the cooperative form in the United States, where coops remain rare. Although most readers will likely find at least some of his prescriptions controversial, he does make them effectively. Arguing that capital that relocates should pay penalties for a “broken contract” with the local community, he calls for the use of eminent domain to block such moves. In what could be seen as a partial misstep, he argues that the controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision Kelo v. New London provides a legal precedent that can be used for worker and community benefit.

The argument for using eminent domain to take over enterprises that would otherwise be moved by their capitalist owners certainly is intriguing, and merits the exploration that Cooperatives Confront Capitalism provides. But an expansion of the Kelo decision runs the risk of becoming pyrrhic. The Supreme Court found constitutionally legal a plan by the city of New London, Connecticut, to tear down a neighborhood to build a speculative complex intended to attract shoppers and tourists; a move that backfired when the pharmaceutical company Pfizer did not in fact expand there but instead moved from the area.

The author paints the Kelo decision in a more positive light than merited by asserting that the city government had a well thought out plan that would have benefited the displaced community when in fact it was to benefit corporate interests. He also, without being specific, mentions a Brooklyn eminent-domain case as an example of positive development. I do not know what example the author had in mind, but the most prominent example of this activity in Brooklyn is the destruction of a neighborhood to build an unneeded basketball arena (there were already four in the metropolitan area) and luxury housing too expensive for the people of the surrounding area to afford. That is not the sort of “development” any community needs.

The creative use of eminent domain in the U.S.

Thus eminent domain risks being a tool for corporate plunder rather than the hoped-for tool to save jobs. Professor Ranis argues that the Kelo decision provides a legal cover for the taking of property for “the public good,” but doesn’t mention that the judge who wrote the decision, John Paul Stevens, was clearly uncomfortable and took the unusual step of advising state governments in how to circumvent the ruling. On the other hand, that such a decision went against the personal preferences of the ruling judges does admittedly boost the author’s argument that Kelo provides a possible route to expropriating runaway capitalists. In this reading, Kelo provides the legal basis for a government to take over an enterprise that would otherwise be moved and turn it into a cooperative, and should even become the “default option” to combat a closure.

Notwithstanding issues we might have with specific examples, the author does advance his case well:

“We need to use eminent domain for development purposes much as we use the legislative rights to tax and spend, zone for economic purposes, and regulate for consumer and environmental protections. … When workers occupy factories and enterprises they are not really taking something. They are trying to keep something that is already theirs, through their work, through their production of important goods and services, through allowing capital to be invested, and supplying the community with their taxes, their consumption expenditures and their everyday involvement in the civic life of their community.” [page 109]

Regardless of the route to their formation, government support and early subsidies are necessary for the coop sector to flourish. Such support is not currently the case; as an example, New York City provided $3 million in subsidies for 44 cooperatives while the New York state government gave $70 million to one capitalist aluminum factory to keep it from relocating. Without government help and access to low-interest credit, the odds of success are not high, given the capitalist headwinds that are inevitable, although the author notes that, for one example, Canadian coops survive at a higher rate than traditional enterprises.

But those that do make it provide a sterling example, superseding the “simplistic idea” that private property belongs only to the owner — “workers cannot be separated from the capital they produce.” [page 116] The book concludes with a call for “human development”:

“Cooperatives are basic to human development because their success depends on the emancipation of the whole worker rather than what the erstwhile capitalist wanted of them and determined for them.” [page 155]

However we might quibble with this or that specific passage, Professor Ranis has provided a well-reasoned argument for cooperatives as a form that shatters the tired, self-serving shibboleths of capitalism, when advanced in tandem with militant social movements at community and national levels. Demonstrating to ourselves that we can run the enterprises we work in is indispensable, and his book is thus a strong step forward.

* Peter Ranis, Cooperatives Confront Capitalism: Challenging the Neoliberal Economy [Zed Books, London 2016]

Consumer detritus and the elevation of “freaks”: A reconsideration of Susan Sontag’s On Photography

I wrote this in 2005, after seeing an excellent exhibit of Diane Arbus’ photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As she is in the news again with another show of her work, the themes of this article seem to me still very relevant.

To say a photograph is worth 1,000 words is to repeat the hoariest of clichés. Does that make the statement completely wrong? Consider that the most unwavering of the Bush II/Cheney administration’s censorship efforts is the suppression of photos. United Statesians are not allowed to see coffins of dead soldiers nor even injured soldiers, not the carnage wrought by their invading military in Iraq, and most certainly not the horrific destruction of Falluja. The corpses of the four mercenaries hung on the Falluja bridge were shown; it was the easiest way to raise a sufficient crescendo of indignation to create the political space needed to carry out the vengeance-inspired massacre that the pitiless logic of invasion required.

By the same logic, the Bush II/Cheney administration and the Pentagon can’t be completely upset by the Abu Ghraib torture photos. Although word of mouth goes a long way when it comes to torture, the handful of leaked photos did demonstrate to people in developing nations around the world just what they can expect should they get in the way of multinational corporations’ asset acquisition programs.

On Photography coverPunishing the enlisted personnel who carried out their orders rather effectively — and what, after all, are enlistees for from the standpoint of the corporate elite and their governmental and military hirelings? — provides a nice public relations opportunity and also underscores that the actual crime was the releasing of the photos and not the torture itself. At any rate, the U.S. corporate media quickly tired of torture and abuse photos; intra-media competition forced torture into the news temporarily, but there soon was a tacit understanding that we had seen enough of these photos.

But however ubiquitous photography is, it has its limits. Humans see what they wish to see, which Susan Sontag amply demonstrated in On Photography, although she demonstrated that principle more than she intended. Ms. Sontag’s book is a collection of six essays written for The New York Review of Books during the 1970s, as the Vietnam War was winding down. The Pentagon certainly has taken a lesson from that war, taking strong measures to censor photography and videography today. But the military, and the economic interests for which it serves, is more than capable of using photography for its own purposes. This is not new, Ms. Sontag notes:

“The photographs Mathew Brady and his colleagues took of the horrors of the battlefields did not make people any less keen to go on with the Civil War. The photographs of ill-clad, skeletal prisoners held at Andersonville inflamed Northern opinion — against the South. … Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one — and can help build a nascent one.”1

Ms. Sontag also noted the propaganda value that a photo can have, although a photo can be so iconographic that it transcends it political use value.

“The photograph that the Bolivian authorities transmitted to the world press in October 1967 of Che Guevara’s body, laid out in a stable on a stretcher on top of a cement trough, surrounded by a Bolivian colonel, a U.S. intelligence agent, and several journalists and soldiers, not only summed up the bitter realities of contemporary Latin American history but had some inadvertent resemblances, as John Berger has pointed out, to Mantagna’s ‘The Dead Christ’ and Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Tulp.’ What is compelling about the photograph partly derives from what it shares, as a composition, with these paintings. Indeed, the very extent to which that photograph is unforgettable indicates its potential for being depoliticized, for becoming a tireless image.”2

Pastel portrait of Susan Sontag by Juan Fernando Bastos

Pastel portrait of Susan Sontag by Juan Fernando Bastos

Her argument here is that photography unnaturally beautifies what it captures, even “the small Jewish boy photographed in 1943 during a roundup in the Warsaw ghetto” with “arms raised in terror.”3 Ms. Sontag’s lament (critique would be too strong a word) is in contradiction to her themes elsewhere in the essays when focused on cultural analyses. This contradiction is most sharply in focus in her unwarranted criticisms of Diane Arbus, which frankly say much more about Ms. Sontag herself than Ms. Arbus. Ms. Sontag, with an air of disapproval, claimed that Ms. Arbus’ work

“lined up assorted monsters and borderline cases — most of them ugly; wearing grotesque or unflattering clothing; in dismal or barren surroundings. Arbus’s work does not invite viewers to identify with the pariahs and miserable-looking people she photographed. Humanity is not ‘one.’”4

A “freak” is in the mind of the viewer

To be sure, Diane Arbus’ work took a dark turn in her final works, a collection grouped as “Untitled, 1970-71” in the retrospective organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that showed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in spring 2005. But her mental health must have been a factor during this period; she committed suicide in 1971. Her skill, fully put to use prior to her final series, was to bring out the humanity in her subjects and to coax out their personality. Ms. Sontag’s repeated reproaches to Ms. Arbus for showing “victims” who are “pathetic,” “pitiable” and “repulsive,” in which “everybody looks the same,” only paint Ms. Sontag as uncomfortable with ordinary people even as her political sympathies were clearly with them. “Anybody Arbus photographed was a freak,”5 citing, as one of several examples, a boy waiting to march in a pro-war march wearing a “Bomb Hanoi” button.

But why is this earnest young man a “freak”? The picture is of a naïve, fresh-scrubbed boy, rather typical of the 1960s, and shows the young man as he is. His politics, undoubtedly the product of teaching from a conservative family, are horrible. We can recoil at the ignorance of wishing to bomb people for the crime of resisting an invasion; we can be amused at the absurdness of the sight (we can easily feel both), but this falls far short of reaching the status of “freak,” especially as plenty of United Statesians, sadly, supported the Vietnam War.

Portrait of Diane Arbus by Beppe Devalle

Portrait of Diane Arbus by Beppe Devalle

One picture in the Arbus retrospective that particularly stands out is “The 1938 Debutante of the Year at Home, Boston, 1966,” a picture of an extremely privileged woman well into the transition from middle age to seniority smoking in her bed. Every pore of this woman exudes privilege, captured in astonishing clarity by Ms. Arbus, a perhaps unequaled master of technique. This woman, like most of those whom Ms. Arbus photographed, was said to have loved the photo. Why not? It certainly captured this woman brilliantly. This woman most assuredly would not have considered herself a “freak.”

One photo that Ms. Sontag did specifically mention in her catalogue of horror is the “human pincushion” of New Jersey, a middle-aged man who, while demonstrating his specialty, nonetheless is very proud. The privileged once-debutante and the circus performer are both far removed from the life experiences of most people, but both, as are most of Ms. Arbus’ subjects, clearly are comfortable with themselves and thus in front of the camera. That they are “freaks” because they are different, or simply comfortable with their differences, is a terribly elitist attitude, and a misreading of Ms. Arbus’ work.

On the larger terrain of consumerist culture and national privilege, Ms. Sontag was on firmer ground, although her dismissal of Surrealism is jarring. She wrote:

“Surrealism is the art of generalizing the grotesque and then discovering nuances (and charms) in that. No activity is better equipped to exercise the Surrealist way of looking than photography, and eventually we look at all photographs surrealistically. People are ransacking their attics and the archives of the city and state historical societies for old photographs. … The Surrealist strategy, which promised a new and exciting vantage point for the radical criticism of modern culture, has devolved into an easy irony that democratizes all evidence, that equates its scatter of evidence with history. Surrealism can only deliver a reactionary judgment; can make out of history only an accumulation of oddities; a joke; a death trip.”6

Reactionary? Pressing ahead with this ultra-left phrasemongering, Ms. Sontag wrote:

“Surrealists, who aspire to be cultural radicals, even revolutionaries, have often been under the well-intentioned illusion that they could be, indeed should be, Marxists. But Surrealist aestheticism is too suffused with irony to be compatible with the twentieth century’s most seductive form of moralism. … Photographers, operating within the terms of the Surrealist sensibility, suggest the vanity of even trying to understand the world and instead propose that we collect it.”7

Photo of a Iraqi prisoner in Abu Ghraib

Photo of a Iraqi prisoner in Abu Ghraib

Photography as a privilege

Susan Sontag’s argument was part of her larger point that the ubiquity of photography is a function of the privilege of capitalist nations and that a culture based on consumerism necessarily produces photographic detritus as it does other consumer products. True enough. But consumer culture, none more so than the U.S. variety, is based on the reduction of freedom to the free choosing of products and the active trampling or co-optation of any artistic expression that does not extol consumerism, while Surrealism arose as artistic expressions in opposition to mechanized, mercantile society.

This line of attack is at least consistent with Ms. Sontag’s attack on Ms. Arbus, but is even more off the mark; the combination of squeamish cultural conservatism and “more revolutionary than thou” psuedo-radicalism makes for a creaky Stalinist muddle. Ms. Sontag had brilliant observations to make; it is difficult to understand these sorts of sojourns that only detract from her larger points.

Ms. Sontag began to develop her central themes in the opening pages, displaying the vast knowledge of photographic history that she was known for. Sontag posited that taking vacation photos, for many people, is a way of ameliorating feelings of guilt for not working and that travel is reduced to becoming a strategy for accumulating photographs.

“The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic — Germans, Japanese, and Americans. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and are supposed to be having fun.”8

Debord coverOf course, that was written before the rise of video recorders, which frequently replace the camera. This sense has only escalated with the notion that something did not happen if it wasn’t on television, and is a natural outgrowth of a hyper-consumerist society—the “society of the spectacle,” to use Guy Debord’s famous phrase. How can United Statesians be distracted, and therefore be content to buy things as a substitute for meaningful participation in their own society, unless there is a cornucopia to catch their attention. Pictures provide a part of this distraction.

Ms. Sontag took this a step further, noting that “photography is acquisition in several forms,” as a surrogate possession, a consumer’s relation to events, as an acquisition of information and furnishing knowledge independent of experience.9 But photography’s utility extends to the nation as a whole, she declared:

“A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit natural resources, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats. The camera’s twin capacities, to subjectify reality and to objectify it, ideally serve these needs and strengthen them.”10

Of course, the camera can point more than one way, and is a convenient tool of demonstrators and others — the police generally don’t attack when the cameras are watching. Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that there are no evil technologies, only evil uses of technology, however much we may quibble with it, rings true in regard to the camera. If the U.S. bourgeoisie ever decide to go completely to the dark side, they will surely not want the counter-revolution to be televised. Or photographed. The ubiquity of cameras would work against them, caught in a consumerist contradiction that we, Surrealist or not, can appreciate.

1 Susan Sontag, On Photography [Picador, New York], page 17
2 ibid, pages 106-107
3 ibid, page 109
4 ibid, page 32
5 ibid, page 35
6 ibid, pages 74-75
7 ibid, pages 81-82
8 ibid, page 10
9 ibid, pages 155-156
10 ibid, page 178

We can dream, or we can organize

The swift rise, and swift crumbling, of the Occupy movement brings to the surface the question of organization. Demonstrating our anger, and doing so with thousands of others in the streets, gives us energy and brings issues to wider audiences.

Yes spontaneity, as necessary as it is, is far from sufficient in itself. For all the weeks and sometimes months that Occupy encampments lasted, little in the way of lasting organization was created and thus a correspondingly little ability to bring about any of the changes hoped for. Nor is social media a substitute for mass action.

Organization, specifically a party, is the missing element, Jodi Dean argues in her latest book, Crowds and Party.* Leftists who want to create a better world have to get past their criticisms of the party form, and not become trapped in their own self-critique or allow critiques of specific parties to become a universal rejection of the party form. The party is a permanent body that can channel the crowd’s promise of justice into organized political struggle, she argues.

Crowds and Party coverWith a sustained, organized movement, real change is not possible. How then to sustain the enthusiasm of a spontaneous “crowd,” such as Occupy? Through a more structured form capable of organizing activists toward concrete goals worked out through mutual discussion, distilling practice and experience, and providing the necessary scale. The ideology of individual autonomy is a product of capitalist ideology; a Left that promotes individualism is a Left that is reinforcing capitalist ideology.

Professor Dean argues that to do so is to accept markets and the capitalist state as a given; focusing on individuals is a substitute for focusing on necessary revolutionary transformation. She writes:

“The realism in which the Left has been immersed in the neoliberal decades has meant that even when we are fully conscious of the deep inequality of the system in which we find ourselves, we confirm and conform to the dominant ideology: turn inward, enclave, emphasize the singular and momentary. … [W]e found ourselves participating in individuated, localized, or communicatively mediated activities without momentum, duration, or a capacity for political memory. Or we presume that we have to focus on ourselves and thereby redirect political struggle back into ourselves. In a brutal, competitive, and atomized society, psychic well-being is so difficult that success on this front can seem like a significant accomplishment. Trying to do it themselves, people are immiserated and proletarianized and confront this immiseration and proletarianization alone.” [pages 71-72]

The ‘beautiful moment’ is a start, not a culmination

What Professor Dean calls the “politics of the beautiful moment” represents a beginning, not an end. By this “beautiful moment,” she refers to a spontaneous outburst of popular action, such as Occupy, and the tendency among some to see such spontaneity as an end in itself. The “crowd,” as she terms this spontaneity, provides an opportunity for an emergence but the party is the form for meeting the challenge of maintaining the fidelity of an event. Those who mistake an opening for the end,

“treat organization, administration, and legislation as a failure of revolution, a return of impermissible domination and hierarchy rather than as effects and arrangements of power, rather than as attributes of the success of a political intervention. The politics of the beautiful moment is no politics at all. Politics combines the opening with direction, with the insertion of the crowd disruption into a sequence or process that pushes one way or another. There is no politics until a meaning is announced and the struggle over this meaning begins.” [page 125]

The imposition of the popular will over the National Guard at the dawn of the Paris Commune is an example of a “crowd event,” Professor Dean argues, but this event did not create the Commune — the Commune was pre-figured by earlier attempts. The overlap of the Commune form and the “crowd event” created the space for emancipatory egalitarian politics. Similarly today, the crowd is not an alternative political arrangement, it is an opening for a process.

Without targeting the capitalist class, there can be no end to exploitation. Movements inevitably run up against state power — how can a movement sustain itself in the face of repression? An unorganized movement can’t, and indeed Occupy withered once the Obama administration, the federal security apparatus and local police forces combined to suppress it.

Or, to put it another way, you can ignore the state all you want, but the state will not ignore you.

Centralization and hierarchy have been problems in Left parties of the past, but this is nothing unique to the Left; all political organizing runs this risk. Political organization unavoidably creates a gap between the few and the many, and organizing means creating differentiation, but, Professor Dean argues, this gap need not be permanent nor with set divisions. This gap is also a social space where the crowd’s association creates space for an alternative perspective to arise. The effects that arise when large numbers of people organize can’t be avoided and to believe otherwise is to indulge in “the fantasy of the beautiful moment.”

Opponents of parties and formal organization are incorrect in charging that workers were excluded from Left parties and that the leaders of those parties believed that an intellectual vanguard held all knowledge. This is a misreading, Professor Dean writes:

“Lenin’s point is that political consciousness comes from outside the economic struggle, not [outside] the class struggle. The economic struggle takes place between particular interests within the field of capital. The terms of the struggle are set by capitalism. The political struggle—for communists—is over the field itself. When ‘we’ is used as the designator for the subject of a politics it asserts more than a collective will. It announces a will to collectivity, a will to fight together on terms that challenge rather than accept the given. Class consciousness is not spontaneous. As [Slavoj] Žižek emphasizes, what is spontaneous is misperception—the perception that one is alone or that one’s circumstances are unique. The political ‘we’ of the party ruptures this immediate consciousness to assert a collective one in its place.” [pages 198-199]

No going forward if we erase the past

Anti-party critics seek to have nobody hold political knowledge, the author charges, and that is a serious failing: Erasure of the past is renouncing revolutionary power. The collective space of struggle creates the conditions for new perspectives to arise, and the party establishes this space.

Professor Dean, in the last two chapters, provides several inspiring examples of communist activists finding power in their collectivity. The young Jewish woman who finds the courage to stand up to her tyrannical father because she feels the power of her party comrades behind her; the impoverished Black laborer who enters the Communist Party illiterate because of his poor schooling yet becomes a strong organizer and eventually writes a book; the organizers who do far more than they ever thought possible and continue to push themselves forward. When a new recruit had to have basic concepts explained to him, he wasn’t ridiculed or made to feel inferior; instead, the more experienced took the time to patiently explain in detail.

There is no transformation without organization, the author argues:

“To reduce the Party to its excesses fails to recognize its indispensable capacity to generate practical optimism and collective strength. Such a reduction likewise reduces the world, contracting possibility into what can be done instead of forcing the impossibility of what must be done. … The party continues the moment of belonging, intensifying and expanding it in solidarity purpose.” [pages 247-248]

Here, however, the author could have strengthened her argument with a discussion of those excesses. Communist parties did have weaknesses (as all parties do). She touches on some of this, briefly, in the introduction, pointing out that the authoritarianism of Left parties in the East, the surrender to capitalist assumptions of Left parties in the West, and the failure of Left parties to incorporate identity politics as reasons for so many turning their backs on the party form.

Why was this? One reason was the imbalance between theory and practice; practice with too little theory behind it leads to practice that spins its wheels in place. For all the good that the British and U.S. communist parties achieved in the lives of people it reached, particularly in the 1930s, that activity did not lead to an ability to grow beyond small followings. The extreme policy zigzags of alternately denouncing all other organizations with tailing those groups previously denounced, and embarrassing episodes such as Lysenkoism, demonstrated not only fatal over-centralization but an organization in which theory had disastrously fossilized into incontestable dogma.

Parallel to this is the concept of the single party: Why can’t there be multiple organizations working toward a goal of full human emancipation? No organization, much less an individual leader, has all the answers. Regardless of how we see this question, however, there is no escaping that organization and learning from the past are critical to sustaining any movement that purports to bring a better world into being. The answer is to learn from past mistakes, not to throw out the past. “To advance, we need to organize,” Crowds and Party correctly concludes. “We need a party for the people in the crowd.”

The title Crowds and Party is carefully chosen. Professor Dean has linked these two, and given us a powerful defense of organization, of demonstrating that only as part of collectives, rather than as individuals, can we hope to overcome the mounting horrors that capitalism unleashes on the world.

* Jodi Dean, Crowds and Party [Verso, London 2016]