Taking Ourselves Seriously (IAS) – Part II

Sometimes I just want to hug!
Sometimes I just want to hug!

Criticism and Framing

I am hesitant to even offer my thoughts, in the way of analysis, of the IAS event. The feedback that I received to Part I (offline) was typical of what my worst expectations would be for the effort. I was corrected, copy editor style, and reprimanded for not truly being a neutral reporter of the event. I find this kind of “meta-framing” to be fucking obnoxious and exemplary of something I see a lot in anarchist circles. If I am talking about you (your project, your effort, your ideas) that means that I am paying attention to you. Imagine all of the things that I could be talking about that I am not. My time is precious and I am choosing to spend it on reviewing an IAS event. I will never be a member (or invited) to the IAS. I will never be funded by or published by the IAS. I don’t share a lot of affinity with the politics of the group, as I understand them, and yet here I am, caring enough about the project to think about it and sharing those thoughts publicly. To parse the IAS to an audience that would otherwise ignore them (perhaps rightfully).

Instead of feeling complimented, or even honored, the response is that I am somehow “out of box” because my perspective of the IAS, and their presentation, is not the one that they have of themselves or that they would prefer the public to have of them.

This kind of feedback, this suffocation, is exactly why people who have disparate world views tend to avoid one another. Why reinvent the wheel with every person you meet? Why argue about why criticism may be healthier and more useful than nodding your head in agreement? Why use public forums to talk about ideas where they will be “reality checked”? Why explain yourself when you are doing someone a service that may not be particularly helpful to them but may be helpful to others?

Frustration aside I will honor the IAS, and the other people who are interested in the IAS event, through my (!!!) editorial lens, with the rest of my thoughts about their event last weekend (now a couple weekends ago).

What was done well and not so well

The panel was well attended. Probably 60+ people who were engaged and didn’t interrupt the presentation in a way I usually would expect from a Bay Area event. I think the organizers of the event did a good job of “Internet outreach” which worked surprisingly well. There was representation of at least 1/2 of the Bay Area anarchist tendencies which is a pretty good showing of the popularity of the panelists and lack of general distain of the IAS by the Bay Area Anarchist fighting factions (BAAFF).

The presenters did not seem to ramble very much and completely filled 2 hours with words. This was one of the reasons that there were no interruptions is because the 3 people up front actually talked the entire time. They didn’t appear that they would have even stopped if it weren’t for the self-imposed time limit. This “east coast” style of the presentation was probably so shocking to the audience generally that they were stunned into silence. I doubt a second panel like this one would go as smoothly.

Instead of having a Q&A session they gave the audience 30 minutes to “share their thoughts” which was also a great technique of crowd control because instead of the rambling incoherent thoughts of people being directed at the three people up front (who may or may not have handled them well) they were diffused into the crowd, for long enough for the next person to start speaking.

There was surprisingly little hostility expressed from the crowd toward the presenters which I give credit to the IAS members for. By not engaging directly with potential and probable hostility (mostly by ignoring it), by talking the audience into submission (thought their own endurance and lack of breaks), and by leaving very little time for the drained audience to even respond they were successful in holding an event without acrimony. Perhaps also without the discussion they claimed to want, but definitely without rancor. These are all successes, of a sort.

What they didn’t do well was also what they did do well. This was not a discussion about anarchist strategy, this was a presentation of “the IAS approach” to strategy.

What does all of this mean?

At the end of the day the IAS approach is more like a category (or approaches) rather than a specific approach. It is humanist. It is dialectical. It is leftist. I say these terms not as pejoratives, although perhaps it is fair to say that they are that too, but as clarification to what would otherwise be a little confusing for me. I don’t exactly understand when I am listening to the arguments of the IAS members WHY I don’t feel comfortable with what they are saying but I really do. Not quite idiot shivers level of discomfort but something is wrong here and I search for the words. Right or wrong these three seem fair.

Bear with me while I work through something here, history of ideas style, relating IAS ideas and Murray Bookchin’s breaking down of of nature into first and second nature. The story goes that we (humans) are natural and part of biological evolution (aka first nature) but we (humans) are also unique (says Bookchin) in our social awareness and this is second nature. When I hear social ecologists, or really just people in the left who aren’t particularly deep green talk about the environment I usually wonder what in the hell they are talking about. This is why.

At the end of the day it just seems like they are interested in policy or the metaphysics of justice. I guess that is fine, not my thing, but just fine. I don’t understand the connection, it literally escapes me. Nature is just a word, sure, a metaphysical concept. That concept, that word, is a study, a concern totally unrelated to how we do, could, or should live in the world (natural or not). My sense is that the verbage. The terminology has fascinated a certain body of thinkers for too long and that they are confused about where the study begins and ends and where relationships are, and are not, mappable to that territory. More on this another time.

Next point. Humanism. I don’t consider humans to be at the center of my understanding about power relationships or at the center of my view of a better world. I understand that the conflict we are in is with humans but that just informs my understanding of humans as the enemy, not as the center. Anarchism as a humanist project feels like a poor fit. It makes sense if you want to leverage disciplines like social work, cooperatives, and social ecology into a form that is useful for anarchist analysis, or perhaps better said for analyzing anarchists and anarchism, but they continue to feel like projects with their own biases that are not commutable to the project of freeing us from hierarchy, power over, and the domination of exchange relationships.

Final point. Democracy. Democracy is not Anarchy. They are different political positions and the only reason one would try to conflate them is if ones goals are propagandistic, political (as in a politician) or (self)deceptive. I don’t understand why this is even a discussion. Actually it isn’t.

Taking Ourselves Seriously (IAS) – Part I

Before I dig into the event itself I’ll make a few introductory remarks. One, I like the presenters from the IAS. I personally find them to be engaged, interesting, and respectful people who I am going to try very hard not to slam in this report back because I don’t actually feel badly or angrily toward them. Their ideas are another matter.

In part one of this report back I am going to try to give a neutral report back of the events that transpired the evening of November 14th 2009 at Station 40. In part II I will try to analyze what I think the IAS did well, and not so well, on what I believe are their own terms. Finally, I will present my own analysis of the proposals, strategies, and opinions presented.

Starting around 7:15 (for a 7:00 event) the IAS members spoke for nearly two hours straight with almost no feedback from the crowd. The three presenters were Harjit Singh Gill, Joshua Stephens, and Cindy Milstein who spoke in this order. Harjit is a popular (in the social sense of the term) anarchist who has been active in the Bay Area for at least half a decade. Joshua is out of Washington DC and his most recent activities there have been around building a self-managed workplace (that walks dogs!). Cindy is a recent transplant to the Bay Area from Vermont where she is known as a protege (although she will probably find this unfair) of Murray Bookchin and organizer of the RAT Conference.

The questions that they asked and answered during their two hour presentation were (and these will be rough approximations because they only said them once (and quickly) and the questions weren’t entirely obvious to me from the answers):

1) What does it mean to take ourselves seriously? (as anarchists)
2) What is a theory of strategy that makes sense for anarchists?
3) What are specific examples of democratic strategies?

(here I will share notes rather than full writeup for sake of brevity and to prevent too many sidebars)

Question One

– Serious
Harjit: Defined socialism broadly and anarchism as part of socialism. Spoke to the faith required to be an anarchist when there are so many examples of human failure. Also spoke of the ethical obligation to action rather than sitting on the couch and watching Lakers games. Described this kind of inaction as “nothing to it (anarchism)”. Concluded by saying that “With great power comes great responsibility”.

Joshua: Argues that the points of encounter should move from direct confrontation with authority and against the idea of “transformation on the barricades”. Instead argues that communication with clients (as a dog walker) is a more productive point of encounter in terms of sharing @ ideas. Is concerned with many of “our” ideas being co-opted, especially by the moderate left, like directly democratic decision making, perhaps being cherry picked by groups and people more mature than anarchists themselves. Told the story of a client who argues that the @ notion of transformation on the barricade goes against sense as our current condition reflects generations of socialization, ideological formation, trauma, etc. This client them makes the claim that economics is the study of human behavior as groups and provides better answers to questions about human potential and activity than anarchist triumphalism.

Cindy: Begins with the claim that our entire society are in a horizontalist period and we need to reclaim the term. Also argues that anarchists have a constellation of values that makes our “political offering” distinct (against capitalism, hierarchy, being holistic) and this begs the question…

Are we relevant? What is our message? What do we want to say?

Cindy’s answer seemed to be that we (@) need to problematize cracks as part of our strategy for winning.

Question Two

– A Theory of Strategy

Harjit: Is a social worker who is paid by the county. Explains a theoretical underpinning to social work in the form of the 5 stages of change. They are

  1. pre-contemplative – unaware problem exists with no intention of changing behavior
  2. contemplative – becoming aware of problem but uncommitted to change
  3. preparation – intend to change but without specific goal
  4. action – when behavior changes and goals are attained
  5. maintenance – consolidation of gains and prevention of relapse

His strategic observation is that if our goal is to win then we are best off being efficient about how we approach our goal. Most anarchists shoot themselves in the foot by trying to organize other anarchists who are often (usually?) in the pre-contemplative stage and not the action stage. The better strategy is to organize people who are already in the action stage, along anarchist lines, but who aren’t necessarily anarchist themselves. Put another way we should be organizing beginning with behaviors rather than opinions.

Joshua: Re-iterated Harjit’s point about behavior > claims of belief. Discussed an idea of “social capital” that was claimed to be the motivation of many (most?) anarchists who participate in “the scene” or the subcultural aspects of @ (dressing, food not bombs, WWW1). Reiterated Cindy’s message about the importance of our messaging especially when we do actions that aren’t comprehended easily (spectacular Whole foods expropriation or dumpstered food sharing as examples). Finally is concerned with the dominance of the “idols of the tribe” aka infoshops, FNB, Critical Mass, etc.

Cindy: Food is great but not a differentiator for @. We should work on projects that re-inscribe use value (exact quote). Examples have problems but…
1) Toronto’s use it or lose it bylaw campaign that would see abandoned buildings expropriated by the City redeveloped as affordable housing or community infrastructure along socially just lines. (editorial here

2) Time banks – exchange goods and services without using money. Instead, our members buy and sell services for Community Credits, a time-based currency.

3) Greece people’s park project (no link found) where an event was scheduled for land that transformed it into a multi-use park. “Taking things in common”

Question Three

– Examples of action

Harjit: if the goal is to democratize strategy then

  1. Lesson from anti-colonization struggle of Guinea-Bissau: There needs to be a disciplined strategy of specific infrastructural replacement (1:1). Medical personel were used as the primary example. Local lesson: gain skills
  2. Lesson from RAC-LA: equality of action, go to people with the things they need (boxes of food), localism.

Joshua: Argued for starting a business (worker controlled) as a useful strategy. Business is the place to exploit the discursive vulnerabilities in capitalism (direct quote) regarding

  • self-determination
  • Dignity
  • health care

This business can offer a reconstructive vision of

  • cooperation
  • sustainability
  • health care
  • serving as an example
  • becoming specialized
  • freelancer (immaterial labor) unity

Cindy: Says that the best strategy is strategies. Perhaps a wiki? Anarchists are very good at try, try, try & fail. We should hold an anarchist (strategy) summit where we call the shots. There may be oppression but it would be them coming to us and perhaps we could do something interesting about that. We should hash these ideas out with Discussion Bulletins (aka disco bull in L&R era). We need to work on our branding by being distinct, not apologizing, and looking good.

End notes.