Review: A Beautiful Resistance

beautifulfirefrontcoverA 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.

 

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Review: Why Hope?

why-hope-460x746Why Hope? The Stand Against Civilization
John Zerzan
Feral House, 2015, 136pp., $13.00

John Zerzan could be described as defiantly hopeful. In a time when a seed of nihilism has been germinating in the anarchist milieu, Zerzan has published a new book in which almost every essay has an element of hope. Whereas pessimism and despair are currently fashionable postures, Zerzan’s more optimistic perspective is both refreshing and vitally important.

The first and largest section of the book is titled Origins–a topic central to Zerzan’s larger body of work and critical to his general methodology. In the book’s opening essay, titled “In the Beginning”, Zerzan writes that:

“Without interest in [Origin], without a conception of what is involved, there is less of a sense of possible arrival. Origin can liberate the future insofar as it retrieves our relation to what has come before.” (3)

That is to say, that to seek out, uncover, and examine our origins–both the origins of our species and the origins of our oppressive, crippling civilization–provides grounds for hope. And not merely naive wishful thinking but hope solidly grounded in the knowledge that our current situation is a gross aberration and not representative of the wide swathe of human experience. We within civilization have effectively been denied the human experience in the same way that animals confined in a zoo are denied a genuine experience.

It should be noted that while anarcho-primitivists may frequently be accused of being unrealistic, they are somewhat unique in not seeking a heretofore unknown utopia but instead aim at what statistically may be called normal human life. Likewise, anarcho-primitivists are accused of wanting to turn back time but the hope in Zerzan’s book is definitively forward-looking with an eye toward future possibilities for resistance. Seeking a return to health when “dis-ease is the fact of modern life” (128) should not be construed as a nostalgic attempt to turn back time simply because it would constitute a return to a more desirable condition.

Yet, for many, to inquire into origins is taboo but the inquiry allows Zerzan to confidently and credibly make statements such as:

“civilization is failing on every level, in every sphere, and its failure equates so largely with the failure of technology” (94)

“the global system now shows itself to be failing at every level, shows itself to have no answers at all” (134)

It is declarations of this sort that provide ample grounds for hope or perhaps where his hope is most clearly on display. In an essay titled “Arrivederci Roma: The Crisis of Late Antiquity” Zerzan explains that “a climate of futility and decay could not be dispelled by government” and that “a sense of decline had long been underway, along with a lurking fearfulness” (46). Fast forward to the present and flip ahead to Zerzan’s “What Does it Mean to be Healthy?” and it is noted that the current empire suffers in similar ways as “passivity and a sense of doom have settled on modern industrial society” (128). While Rome was in “just one more civilization that came and went” (54) it provides insight as to why the now global civilization is ailing and how it might be vulnerable to attack. It is threads such as this that knit together Zerzan’s wide-ranging collection of essays into a whole.

Amongst my personal favorites in Why Hope? are the essays “Faster! The Age of Acceleration” and “Animal Dreams”. “Faster!” accurately describes the lived, nightmarish experience of finding oneself in an ever-accelerating civilization where “[t]ime cracks the whip and mocks everything that doesn’t keep up” (89); where “the always faster colonization of life by technology commands an ever-fluctuating environment in which the self is destabilized” (90). Works such as this one are important because it validates the anxiety and discomfort that many of us routinely feel, bringing it to the forefront, and explaining where it comes from. It asserts that life doesn’t have to be like this and, in fact, hasn’t always been like this. “Animal Dreams” provides a path out explaining, in one of the book’s most memorable lines, that “We are lost, but other animals point to the right road. They are the right road.” (106). Animals who come into contact and under control of the civilized are subject to cracking whips but those who have resisted domestication do not know the lash.

Hope is necessarily entwined with meaningful, effective resistance for it makes possibilities visible that pessimism and despair obscure and deny. Hope keeps us looking for ripe moments, feeling for points of vulnerability, and ready to exploit any cracks in the armor. Civilization aims to project an image of invulnerability; those who oppose civilization should not be so credulous as to believe it.

Cybernetic Revolutionaries

Note: this was originally published in Fifth Estate #394 (Summer 2015)

Cybersyn control roomCybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile
Eden Medina
MIT Press, 2014, 344 pp., $20

Eden Medina’s Cybernetic Revolutionaries provides an account which is sympathetic to Chile’s Project Cybersyn. She uncovers and details the largely forgotten and extraordinarily fascinating history of how information and communication technology was seized upon as a way to realize President Salvador Allende’s socialist aspirations.

After his election in 1970, Allende led Chile on what he described as the “Chilean road to socialism” which was to differ from the revolutionary path charted by figures such as Fidel Castro in Cuba. In contrast to the Cuban example, the democratically elected Allende aimed to use already existing institutional channels to peacefully introduce socialist policies to his country. His plan was offered as a third way that did not explicitly align Chile with either of the two superpowers that were waging their Cold War and using smaller countries as pawns.

Similarly, Chile’s road to technological prowess was to differ from what conventional wisdom suggested. The generally accepted path forward for small lesser-developed states was to make big friends and then import modern technology and expertise from them. Instead, Allende took an interest in the emerging field of cybernetics as a way to more creatively think about how to use the computer technology they already possessed—which was far from the most advanced—to create systems that even the superpowers could not yet accomplish. They set out to build something akin to a nationwide internet before the existence of the internet.

With the help of eccentric British cybernetician, Stafford Beer, Chile launched Project Cybersyn to create an information network that would make a state controlled economy both feasible and efficient.

Those involved in Project Cybersyn sought a way to capture and manage the flood of information needed to be processed in real-time so that state officials could make informed decisions about how to most efficiently run the economy.

The current obsession with real time information was effectively being pursued in 1970s Chile. State officials would know if productions goals were being met, if raw materials were being delivered, if a work stoppage was interrupting their plans, and vast amounts of other such quantifiable data pertaining to the economy. They wanted models predicting how the economy would respond in the future based on current data.

With such information delivered in real time, the state could theoretically be able to shift and adapt so their desired end targets were achieved. Production quotas could be altered, raw materials could be rerouted, difficult workers could be circumvented, and so on. According to cybernetic theory, the state needed to be as homeostatic and as responsive as a living organism.

The political aspect of the project was highlighted in Allende’s intention to solve the dilemma between maintaining a stable state and allowing for personal autonomy. Individuals needed to have the freedom to live as they chose while at the same time not jeopardizing the stability of the state. Beer and his Chilean colleagues believed that cybernetics could ease this tension by creating a more dynamic state that could allow both. Medina’s book, however, fails to point out that this, in reality, is a sleight-of-hand trick which allows the individual to do as they wish provided the state can easily neutralize their efforts. One can do anything provided it is without consequence.

Since the Allende government defined its policies as socialism, it was also important to at least pay lip service to the notion of worker participation. The operations room of Project Cybersyn in Santiago was supposed to be accessible to even the uneducated rank-and-file. It included screens but only a few buttons. It included chairs but no tables and no paper.

Information was to be displayed graphically so it could be readily understood and acted upon. Keyboards were out because their presence would have implied secretarial work (and bureaucracy) which in turn implied the presence of women in the operations room which is not how the rank-and-file were generally pictured. Indeed, a gentlemen’s club was proposed as one aesthetic model for the design of the operations room. In hindsight, the completed command center has drawn comparisons with the War Room in Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove.

Yet as novel as Allende’s political supporters thought his road to socialism was and as innovative as the cyberneticians considered their system, the message of Medina’s book, when read from an antiauthoritarian or anarchist perspective, is that these are but nuances on the organization, development and administration of the industrial system on which a new label was tacked.

Although Allende may have dreamed of a different road or path, his cybernetic industrialism had more in common with Fordism and Taylorism than it did with humanity’s emancipation.

The 1973 U.S.-backed coup that ousted Allende from power and installed the Pinochet dictatorship prevented Project Cybersyn from ever being completed. This fact allows supporters of the project to keep their dreams intact as to what might have been if it had been free from interference. Even Medina seems to occasionally resist criticism in this fashion. But to advance this line of thought, to defend the project in this way, requires that at least some sympathy for its goals of a highly coordinated industrialism. It may have been wildly successful if it had proceeded unimpeded, but in a process which was fundamentally flawed.

Allende, like Marx, thought that socialism could modernize and ultimately be more productive than capitalism. But if that is not the desired destination, it is of little consequence which ideology will purportedly get there faster.

Capitalism and socialism are essentially two different strategies both seeking to make mass society possible. There is nothing radical about simply picking one side over the other; rejecting capitalism only to embrace socialism. The project of mass society needs to be rejected outright.

Domesticated Animals & Us

Note: This article first appeared in the current issue of Fifth Estate (#391 Fall/Winter 2014)

creatures of empire

Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America
Virginia DeJohn Anderson
Oxford University Press, 2006, 336 pp., $19.95 paperback

 

 

Civilization is a lie. Its images mask violence and its logic is that of genocide. Even the most banal scene of grazing cattle, while seemingly serene, portrays a weapon a war.

Virginia DeJohn Anderson’s Creatures of Empire is an important work for many reasons. It restores agency to domesticated animals and recognizes their vital role in a key period of American history; by recognizing the role of livestock Anderson’s work contributes to a more complete understanding of the European invasion of North America. It also provides a compelling case study of how civilization has been spread and genocide carried out; while tactics may have shifted according to convenience and circumstance, the goal was always to eliminate Indians as such either by transforming individuals into pseudo-English Christians or simply through physical removal and extermination.

Anderson focuses on seventeenth-century releations between English colonists and two groups of Algonquian-speaking Indians: Indians of southern New England and Indians of the Chesapeake region of colonial America. Animals—both wild and domestic—often served as the intermediaries between colonists and Indians prompting both short-term cooperative efforts to minimize disputes as well as intense violence. Animals became tertiary targets of violence often being killed simply to send a message from one group to another. Anderson argues that toward the end of the seventeenth-century the fact “that animals could help incite a war between human combatants was eminently clear” (p. 232).

Even before direct contact between colonists and Indians, the two groups often encountered animals that would challenge their conventional understandings of human-animal relations. Indians would encounter domesticated animals such as cattle and pigs brought by colonists from Europe; animals that were deemed property. For people with a comprehensive and intimate knowledge of the landscape, encounters with unfamiliar animals must have been incredibly shocking. Furthermore, virtually all animals in the Indians’ experience were wild and no living animal was considered an individual’s property. Likewise, colonists would encounter wild animals who would prey on their livestock, destroy their crops, and generally make highly-controlled, English-style agriculture close to impossible.

Both groups—colonists and Indians—would regularly encounter feral animals that blurred conceptual categories. For Indians, feral livestock most closely resembled wild animals that could legitimately be hunted. And yet to the English, “livestock could no more become [wild] than colonists could become Indians” (p. 138). For the English, any animal that was deemed property would necessarily always be property regardless of how far the animal wandered or uncared for the animal was; any resemblance to a wild animal was superficial and for another to kill that animal would invite harsh sanction.

Initially, when Indians were in a dominant position and colonists were simply struggling to survive, the colonists’ civilizing agenda took a superficially cooperative or ideological approach. It was not only prudent to preserve peaceful relations with valuable trading partners but the English believed that they could distinguish themselves from Spain by adoption of “an ideological approach [to colonization] that advertised their nation’s moral superiority (p. 78). It would be a way to make up for the fact that Spain was farther ahead of England in the race to secure colonies.

Furthermore, “[c]olonists took it for granted that Indians would recognize the superiority of an English agrarian regime once they saw how it worked,” and so violence may not even be necessary (p. 171). The effort was not only to turn Indians into sedentary agrarians but into Christians as well. For the English, owning livestock was strongly invested with a normative component; indeed, it was deemed a hallmark of civilization. The fact that native populations had failed to domesticate animals was considered clear evidence of a serious deficiency on their part. To English eyes, the landscape was made for livestock and awaiting improvement. But in fact, as Anderson points out, there was little benefit to be gained from domestication and the species on the North American continent were not of the sort that would readily submit to domestication.

This “ideological approach” was evident when in 1656 the Virginia colony adopted a policy of rewarding Indians who killed a sufficient number of wolves by giving them a cow. The heads of eight wolves could be exchanged for one cow. It was a plan intended to eliminate wolves which threatened English livestock while simultaneously introducing the concept of livestock ownership to native peoples. Similarly, an effort in Rhode Island involved taxing colonists’ cattle to raise funds to assist Indians in building fences around their cornfields. This was to minimize disputes involving animal intrusions while shifting the burden onto Indians rather than animal owners. Once fences were built, Indians would be required to maintain them if they were to have their grievances heard and be considered for compensation.

But by the middle of the seventeeth century, the civilizing agenda shifted from a strategy of assimilation to outright aggression and “depredations against livestock came to be seen as…acts of war” (p. 178). The fences that Indians were pressured into building were on several occassions burnt down by colonists who then proceeded to let their cattle roam through Indian cornfields; “roaming livestock acted as the advance guard of English settlement.” (p. 243) It was thought that such routine harassment could compel Indians to simply leave and cede the land to colonists. Disputes that would have previously been treated as delicate diplomatic issues to be navigated with caution—when the colonists were weak—were now simply regarded as a matters of law enforcement and handled with force.

Anderson’s concludes by saying that “livestock enabled the English to extend their dominion over the New World with remarkable speed and thoroughness” (p. 242). Livestock would advance, Indians would retreat, colonists would move in, and then the process would repeat itself as many times as necessary.

For anyone looking to better understand the specific mechanisms by which civilization encroaches and genocide is carried out, Anderson’s Creatures of Empire should be treated as required reading.