Anarchists in Portland are taking to the streets! But it seems that these particular anarchists are not feeling that old “urge to destroy”. Portland Anarchist Road Care (PARC) is instead filling in potholes; assisting in the maintainence of the city infrastructure. They allege that “state neglect has caused the streets to fall into disrepair” and are consequently taking direct action.
On February 28th, they boasted of a “successful preliminary action” via Facebook; they “patched 5 potholes on SE Salmon between 37th and 39th”.
This Portlandia-style praxis along with daring photos of anarchists in balaclavas behind construction cones has succeeded in generating a lot of press with news reports appearing both in print and online. A small sampling includes: The Portland Mercury, The Oregonian, The Register Guard, US News & World Report, CityLab, AutoBlog, Zerohedge, Reason, and The Stranger.
It’s weird but it’s not parody. Oddly enough, PARC is sincere in their efforts and their stated defenses of the “action” seem to only make things worse:
“Be creating structures to serve the same purpose as state structures, such as our organization, we have the ability to show that government is not necessary for society to function, that we can have a truly free and liberated society.”
I am not sure why anarchists would want to “create structures to serve the same purpose as state structures”. If the State didn’t exist would we really want to invent it?
This is what the Left does and it’s not an attempt to abolish the State but rather to become the State; to take on State functions requires State power. The anarchist critique of the State has to go deeper than demonstrating that the State is failing to maintain city infrastructure to an adequate degree; after all, it’s not anarchists who promise to make the trains run on time.
Remember, the infrastructure does not exist for our benefit even as we are coerced into making extensive use of it. This is akin to prisoners repairing the bars on their cells; blaming the guards for allowing things to fall into disrepair.
But if you really want roads—at least in their modern form—you need something like the State. Consider the fact that PARC’s “successful preliminary action” amounted to patching five potholes which they say they are now monitoring to see how they hold up. The monitoring is necessary because PARC’s cold patching process is technically inferior to the job that would be done by city workers using heated asphalt. There is an issue of scale here that can’t be ignored: the city reports fixing 8,000 potholes every year. Anarchy doesn’t scale up very well.
Nonetheless, PARC doesn’t seem deterred by these numbers. According to The Oregonian, “The group said it’s now exploring alternatives to patching holes, including mobilizing people to fix roads in their own neighborhoods”. To fix 8,000 holes requires more than direct action; it requires mobilizing people in significant numbers but again anarchy doesn’t scale up very well.
It should be further added that filling potholes must be one of the least challenging tasks necessary to maintain a network of roads sufficient for a city the size of Portland. Should we expect PARC to eventually be building new roads from the ground up, adding lanes to existing roads, re-routing traffic with detours, monitoring air quality, and perhaps installing roundabouts at dangerous intersections? And, if they do, will they still be anarchists? To put it mildly: I am skeptical.
On a final note, a spokesperson from the Portland Bureau of Transportation said “We’d like to repair more potholes more quickly, but our efforts have been thwarted by Mother Nature.” With PARC promising more actions, that fight against Mother Nature has gained an ally.
John Zerzan’s recent letter [“Peaceful protest changes nothing,” Feb. 6] had the feel of an obligatory public service announcement or perhaps one of those overly cautious product warning labels. Like those quirky product warnings it compels one to think about the terribly, difficult life of those who genuinely require such elementary advice: the person who hadn’t realize he shouldn’t use his electric iron while under water, eat the silica packet that comes in a pair of new shoes, or place a baby into a washing machine. The warnings strike most of as silly and perhaps even insulting but for a small part of the population those warnings are presumably quite important.
Zerzan’s warning is addressed to those confused folks who are under the delusion that by simply marching a sufficient distance or as part of a big group they will thereby magically bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice and throw off the yoke of oppression. While the number of people attempting to use their toaster as a flotation device is probably fairly small, those who mistake good manners, well-planned marches, luncheons with cops, and letters to politicians for real resistance is embarrassingly large. It’s pathetic that we even need the reminder that Zerzan offers us: peaceful protest changes nothing.
It is probably a truism that the world of a child is smaller than that of an adult. But, paradoxically, the opposite of a truism is often also a truism: the world of a child can be vast and without the limits that regularly constrain adults.
Perhaps it’s my age, a few years shy of forty, or perhaps it’s something else of which I’m unaware but I have been reflecting on my childhood and piecing together memories; attempting to discern the active ingredients from the sum total of those days—to single out those experiences which still resonate, ripple, and influence my adult life.
The first place that I can remember living was William Street in western New York. I can still remember the full address and phone number. I had to learn those things in kindergarten along with how to tie my shoes. The house was pale green when my family moved in and we would later paint it a burnt red color; I was allowed to climb a ladder to apply some paint. Climbing the ladder while holding the paintbrush proved slightly challenging as I inadvertently painted the lenses of my glasses before reaching the upper rungs. There was a well behind the house that probably didn’t work given that I can’t remember ever seeing an adult make use of it—it was only kids who ever pumped the handle or poured water down the spout.
But my memories of William Street are not really of the house. With some effort, I can dredge up some mundane details of the interior of the house. But it takes no effort at all to remember the backyard and behind that the woods. It proved to be the landscape of my childhood.
I remember the morning when me, my younger brother, and the kids who lived next door discovered that tent caterpillars had suddenly invaded the apple tree in our yard. The apple tree was a critical landmark and reference point for us. The apple tree effectively marked the start of the transition from backyard to woods. It was a meet up spot and was perfectly shaped for a child to climb. I spent time reclining in the upper branches. It was one of several fruit trees but it was the one everyone had the most affection for—regardless of the fact that the apples weren’t really edible. The invasion of the tent caterpillars had to be resisted. All other thoughts and plans vanished; the day was dedicated to tearing through their silky sticky tents, evicting and eviscerating the trespassers.
I remember the board that laid in the tall grass of the neighbor’s yard. We would sometimes lift the board to check for snakes. If a snake was seen, whoever had lifted the board would immediately drop it and we would all run for our lives before stopping to compare notes about what, if anything, we had just witnessed.
I remember the bridge that crossed the creek. Two utility poles spanned the gap; boards had been nailed between the poles to form a bridge. For all we knew, the bridge had always been there; it was almost a feature of the landscape. Our childhood minds could have more easily imagined a time when the bridge was first discovered rather than imagining it ever having been built. The bridge was aged and in a state of disrepair that made it fascinating and perhaps even slightly dangerous. The boards were not very secure, some merely setting in place with nails that had long since worn loose. Stepping to the edge of the boards rather than walking down the center could—and did—result in a fall into the creek. The board you fell off of might then fall on you but fortunately the water was never very deep.
We established landmarks and named unique spaces as we saw fit and there was no known edge to the terrain we wandered. There were presumably property lines but we were oblivious to them; we cut through neighbor’s yards with a presumed right of way. We could—and often did—spontaneously decide to go somewhere we hadn’t been before. And it would probably be a place our parents had never been before either. Off the map!
I remember we decided to follow the creek to parts unknown wherever it might lead. We set out with a sense of purpose taking long strides through familiar scenery and eyeing the horizon for something new. We got to the bridge and jumped off. At one point the mud got so thick it was pulling our boots off and sock feet were landing in mud. If it were a movie, it would be at this point that someone would plead “go on without me!”
The landscape and one’s sense of the world can potentially expand with adulthood but often it doesn’t. Adults tend to have longer, stronger legs able to span greater distances and the ability to pull their boots free from the mud. But for many, it seems, the world contracts, getting smaller and less interesting. The multitude of landmarks and reference points discovered in childhood all get reduced to “the backyard”. Adults never spent time in the upper branches of the apple tree and they were totally unaware of the tent caterpillars; adults didn’t discover what we called Vine Village where vines were as big around as our arms and could support our weight; adults never fell off the bridge or gathered up their courage to look under the snake board. Adults generally have their decisions made for them by other adults and their days are scheduled well in advance.
If my parents had been asked where my brother and I were during the day they could only have said “in the backyard” or perhaps “in the woods”. They didn’t know what direction we set out in and couldn’t easily find us. The only expectation was that we return home by dinner time or at least by dark. We never left word where we were going because we never really knew. Plans were apt to change and discoveries couldn’t be predicted.
It has been over a quarter of a century since those halcyon days and I am now relying wholly on my memory to reconstruct the past. If I returned to that same expanse today, it’s unclear how or if my memory would align with the facts on the ground. Perhaps the backyard wouldn’t seem quite so vast and maybe the woods wouldn’t feel as though they were a yet-to-be discovered continent. My horizons have expanded with time, experience, and travel but I have also succumbed to many of the trappings of adulthood. I would be hard pressed to say which is greater: that which I have learned or that which I have forgotten since wandering those woods. I am working on remembering.
Anarchism is one thing and democracy is another. The two are not synonyms; indeed, they are not even compatible. If one exists, then the other does not. Consequently, anarchists should be not be expected to promote, strengthen, or applaud democratic institutions. Democracy is one tactic or organizing principle that a state may use to secure its power and neutralize resistance.
Anarcho-primitivists are often at great pains to point out that “civilization” has a substantive meaning and is not simply an honorific; it does not denote considerate behavior, good manners, or artistic accomplishment. Likewise, the term “democracy” has a substantive meaning and should not be mindlessly applied to all political arrangements that strike one as generally fair or seemingly just. For one thing, democracy generally involves voting which is the turning over of power to someone else who may or may not adequately represent your interests (assuming such representation is even possible). Voting is one means that the state can use to transform dissidents into defenders of state power.
In wake of the recent election and the somewhat surprising result, there is incredible acrimony over who voted and who didn’t, why and how come. If you’re keeping score, Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore voted for Clinton; Hulk Hogan and Tom Brady voted for Trump; Colin Kaepernick and Kanye West didn’t vote (although Kanye has suggested he would have voted for Trump had he voted). Partisans on all sides are rushing to either take credit or assign blame for the results.
And amongst anarchists, there is of course endless discussion about the appropriateness of voting at all.
At this point, I will turn to an unlikely source for an anarchist to rely on: President of the United States Barack Obama. Grant me this liberty as sometimes the words of those in power can be revealing in ways that they do not necessarily intend.
Yesterday in Berlin, at a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Barack Obama inadvertently provided solid grounds for anarchists and others who abstain from voting. The italicized lines from this point onward are all from Barack Obama:
“do not take for granted our systems of government and our way of life”
Despite historically unprecedented unfavorable ratings, the two major party candidates still managed to win upwards of 90 percent of votes cast. This means that a very large number of people voted for a candidate that did not appeal to them. And at least from my own observation it seems that even votes for third party candidates were often not enthusiastically cast but rather were default options taken by those who for whatever reason felt compelled to vote for someone.
To actively vote for someone who you actually disapprove of must require a severe cynicism, an awfully bleak outlook, or at least a lack of imagination. The bars on one’s cage must seem unshakable; our systems of government and way of life completely unalterable. It is these voters who “take for granted our systems of government and our way of life.” It is their continued oppression that they are taking for granted. “Given that I have no real power, I will vote for _______.”
“In the United States, if 43 percent of eligible voters do not vote, then democracy is weakened.”
Obviously not intended as such, the above statement from Barack Obama provides strong grounds for not voting if one is an anarchist. Low voter turnout is appropriately interpreted as a lack of faith in the institution. Low voter turnout weakens the claims of elected officials to be governing with the consent of the governed. Low voter turnout can pierce the “We the People..” propaganda that is so important to this empire. The People, in large measure, did not vote or did so only grudgingly.
In a society in which institutions exist to perpetuate and further our domestication and servitude, anything that weakens those institutions—including democratic institutions—is a good thing. Weakening people’s faith in the legitimacy and the perceived invulnerability of such institutions is of vital importance.
“If people…are unwilling to compromise and engage in the democratic process…then democracy will break down.”
This is simply another way of saying that state power is likely to break down. Obama naturally considers such a possibility to be a disaster; it is why he is now all but campaigning for the president-elect despite having described him as “uniquely unfit” for the presidency only a little more than a week ago. Those in political power require, if not the consent, the tacit cooperation of those being governed.
If democracy exists, then anarchism does not. Anarchists are right to do what they can to attack and weaken democratic institutions such as elections.
“Factories that work for Old Uncle Sam /
Run on the power of the Grand Coulee Dam”
-Woody Guthrie, “Song of the Grand Coulee Dam”
Seventy-five years ago, folk singer Woody Guthrie signed a contract to write songs for the federal government. The recently created Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) needed to generate enthusiasm and support for massive hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River most notably for the Grand Coulee Dam. The Roosevelt administration envisioned the dams providing cheap electricity and irrigating farm land—creating “green pastures of plenty from dry desert ground” as Guthrie would put it.
To complete this assignment, Guthrie traveled through the Pacific Northwest along the Columbia River Gorge and wrote 26 songs in a month’s time. Some of the songs were destined to be amongst his most well known such as “Pastures of Plenty,” “Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done,” and “Roll On, Columbia”; these are songs that would enter the folk music canon and the American psyche.
With the benefit of hindsight, Guthrie’s zealous support for the Grand Coulee Dam project has been the subject of some debate and much scrutiny: defended by some and condemned by others. In his recently released book 26 Songs in 30 Days, Greg Vandy writes:
“By today’s thinking, it can be difficult to understand why a folksinger like Woody Guthrie, who proved willing to walk away from good money based on principles before, so vociferously endorsed a project like the Grand Coulee Dam. It killed salmon, took away tribal land, and powered war industries—all factors well understood by Guthrie at the time.” (74)
But the explanation for Guthrie’s support is quite simple. The project aligned incredibly well with his leftist politics. As Vandy explains, from Guthrie’s perspective “the dams were the answer to the ills of his time and the path forward for his people” (76). In short, “the dam project was [Guthrie’s] idea of democratic socialism realized” (89). It was capital-p Progress.
We never arrived at Guthrie’s intended destination. Indeed, in A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia River, Blaine Harden writes:
“The river was killed…and was reborn as plumbing. The place where this fateful murder and curious resurrection took place was up the Columbia at the Grand Coulee Dam.” (75)
Flash forward to the present.
Last August, a private company, Deepwater Wind (not to be confused with Deepwater Horizon), completed construction of the nation’s first offshore wind farm—the Block Island Wind Farm—off the coast of Rhode Island. It’s scheduled to begin operating before the end of the year. The news was received with great enthusiasm amongst many environmentalists, liberals, and leftists.
Like the Grand Coulee Dam, it’s a massive project. The surface area of each individual blade is roughly equivalent to the surface area of a football field and the turbines themselves penetrate 200 feet into the sea floor. The turbines are nearly four miles offshore and stand 260 feet tall. There are only five turbines but this is widely considered a test run for much bigger operations.
Writing about wind power generally 350.org founder Bill McKibben has said: “We need a new aesthetic for the 21st century—one that looks at a turbine blade spinning as a sign that we’re finally getting our act together. I can’t think of anything lovelier than the breeze made visible.”
Regarding Block Island Wind Farm specifically, the Sierra Club enthusiastically explained: “Block Island isn’t just an offshore wind farm, it’s also a starting gun…the success at Block Island proves that investment in offshore wind is viable.”
A column in Grist states: “The potential for offshore wind power is enormous. The Department of Energy thinks offshore wind could one day deliver twice as much electricity as Americans used to keep the grid stable last year.”
The New York Times editorial board published an op-ed titled “The Unlimited Power of Ocean Winds”
Unlimited power! To listen to the hype, it seems offshore wind could be the biggest thing man has ever done.
While not as lyrical as Guthrie, the Department of Energy explains that “offshore wind technologies…can capture wind resources”. The technology is introduced and sold as a way to combat global climate change and quickly becomes about “unlimited power” and capturing resources. It’s the very same process that transformed the Columbia River from a wild, living river into mere plumbing. Instead of commanding humanity’s respect it now takes humanity’s commands. It became something to be harnessed just as there is now talk of harnessing the wind.
Guthrie’s song “Grand Coulee Dam” makes the point explicit:
“Roll along Columbia, you can ramble to the sea /
But river while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me.”
A Beautiful Resistance #2: The Fire is Here
ed. Lorna Smithers
Gods & Radicals, 2016, 120pp., $15.00
From the outset the title—A Beautiful Resistance—intrigued and excited me. The mere combination of beautiful with resistance raised my expectations to perhaps an unrealistic height. The short phrase defied a commonly imposed binary between so-called serious political work and supposedly indulgent savoring of what there is to savor in a world that despite such deep wounds remains beautiful. In my mind, A Beautiful Resistance promised to be neither self-abnegating nor passive and quietistic. The former attitude is often a trademark of the self-consciously heroic political Left; the Left that speaks of people as masses longing to be put to work. The latter is a commonplace of a lot of organized religion and New Age spittle.
The foreword written by Emma Restall Orr quickly lowered my, admittedly high, expectations. I am somewhat familiar with Orr having read her excellent book The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind, and the Self in Nature. Orr’s book was significant in opening my mind to the possibility of an intellectually defensible spirituality and I feel somewhat indebted to it and to her. Indeed, I have come to the position that a spiritual understanding is perhaps requisite to any meaningful resistance and any viable anarcho-primitivism. So the fact that Orr is the first voice one encounters was initially encouraging but the content of her foreword was fairly underwhelming.
Orr writes that “civilization, colonialism, consumerism, conservatism – are all led by capitalism.” (1) This strikes me as being precisely backwards. Civilization preceded capitalism and may very well exist long after capitalism vanishes or fizzles out all while being no less onerous, oppressive, and life-denying. Capitalism is but the current skin; it wasn’t always there and it could be easily shed.
Orr says that it was the prominence of the term “anti-capitalism” that resonated with her and motivated her to quickly agree to write the foreword (1). I have found that an exaggerated focus on capitalism specifically can often serve as a red flag.
But with additional reflection I realized that I might be being less than charitable in this initial, surface level interpretation. After all, to criticize a book because it doesn’t address a problem in one’s preferred set of terms is, at best, short-sighted and unproductive. And I am regularly frustrated by what often seems like a deliberate refusal in the anarchist milieu to read texts charitably.
One must be particularly vigilant in this respect when one is outside the presumed target audience. This book is a project of Gods & Radicals and is aimed largely at pagans and polytheists and so I am outside looking in.
On further consideration, I suspect that in many instances in this book the term “capitalism” could easily be replaced with “civilization” without altering the intended meaning; among this collection of passionate anti-capitalists is likely to be found many (although certainly not all) who would readily identify as being anti-civilization. That is to say that the term “capitalism” may have been chosen simply because it is the the current, dominant form of civilization. The person who complains about the boot on their throat isn’t necessarily unaware or unconcerned about the foot within that is applying the pressure.
Far worse than this semantic concern, Orr seems to have a muted idea of resistance betraying the very title of the book she is kicking off. She writes that “it is easy to dummy-spit with outrage” and explains “that listening-learning-talking-sharing is the greatest weapon against capitalism” as if the ongoing horrors were all a a big misunderstanding that might best be settled over tea (2). It seems absurd but it’s a common mistake. For example, Black Lives Matter organizers in Wichita, Kansas recently held a cookout with the local cops. BLM activist A.J. Bohannon said the purpose was to “get on the same page”.
Fortunately, I don’t believe this watered-down notion of resistance is representative of A Beautiful Resistance as a whole.
Despite these criticisms, the book contains many great pieces. In “We Are the Rude,” Rhyd Wildermuth starts with the commonplace experience of being uncomfortably crowded on a public bus or commercial flight and derives conclusions about the process of transforming peasant farmers into factory workers, the consequences of an artificially imposed morality, and widespread alienation from our bodies. He writes: “we have become like caged and severely disciplined animals punishing each other for taking up too much space in an increasingly Enclosed world.” (59) Wildermuth’s ability to identify and articulate the political dimension in commonplace experiences is an incredibly valuable skill for reaching an audience that might not already share his point of view.
Likewise, Alley Valkyrie starts with a widely circulated misconception regarding hay-fever allergies and pollen counts in the Willamette Valley. According to the myth, this has always been a problem to such an extent that the Kalapuya people referred to the Willamette Valley as the “valley of sickness”. Valkyrie exposes how this seemingly benign misinformation has served to cover over the genocide of the Kalapuya people and how smallpox (not pollen levels) decimated the population. Valkyrie writes that “in the midst of debunking the myth, I often sense something in the wind. I take it was a reminder that the land is always listening.” (18)
Sean Donahue’s contribution “Plant Magic” is explicitly aimed at “magical practitioners” but like many of the contributions in A Beautiful Resistance it is relevant to a far wider audience than it purports. Donahue criticizes the tendency to view plants as “inert objects” and condemns our culture for its “denial of the living intelligences of the other than human world.” (66)
There are too many valuable contributions to A Beautiful Resistance to single them all out but it would be an unforgivable omission not to mention at least one poem in a volume that contains several. Nimue Brown’s “Song of Swollen Cells” grapples with the impossible dilemma of how we viscerally engage a world that is already poisoned; considers how to love when the world is both life-giving and increasingly toxic. “How can I be Pagan and not / Raise the tainted cup to my lips” (24). Indeed, how can one be human?
If one is not a Pagan or a polytheist it might seem easy to dismiss this project as irrelevant. That would be a mistake.