Thursday, May 14, 2009

Harjit Singh Gill on Building New Social Relationships

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a brief chat with Harjit Singh Gill

on 05-04-2009

I first encountered Harj after the Feds had rather ceremoniously hauled him out of a Jello Biafra talk a few years back (on charges related to dodging their questions about a series of property attacks related to the war, if I recall). He was contacting his favorite punk bands to see what help they could offer in raising funds for his defense, and... Well, a beautiful friendship has resulted from our contact. Having since spent a good deal of time in each other's presence since, in our respective transcontinental jaunts, his recent addition to the board of the IAS means we're now poised to pass utterly juveinle notes back and forth during board meetings in NYC/Montreal. Arguably one of the rising stars of north american anarchism, Harj recently sealed his status as someone to watch in a panel (in somewhat hostile territory, even) on Prefigurative Politics at the Left Forum, and totally wrecked house. Definitely check out the video below, and follow his writing at Planes for Baskets (he's far better about staying on top of this blog business than I could ever hope to be).

Anyway, somewhere in all of this, we thought it might be interesting to document some of the more recurrent themes in our conversations, and see if any of our babble proved useful. The results are after the jump. As this exchange evolves, it could potentially see print publication, but for now it's here. Enjoy.

So Joshua, we’ve talked about this quite a bit informally over the last few years, from cafes to your couch, and let’s try to make this happen in a more together way, possibly for publishing, and see if we can get these dialogues going more regularly and maybe deepen the level to which anarchists discuss this. I think I pull anarchists specifically because my socialist comrades tend to be quite versed in what we discuss, and at least take them seriously. But I think we are in a unique moment where seriously considering capitalism and how we resist it/organize a movement against it is really our work, and somewhat our obligation to the rest of the world. I want to start off with two points briefly, and see where you take them.

So first, I think it’s imperative anarchists and socialists of all stripes up the ante on their level of understanding with regard to capitalism. Pretending it will collapse while we sit on our hands is naive at best. So far, the free market is actually more of a threat than we are. But let’s remember, despite all the battles our ancestors fought, they ultimately didn’t defeat capitalism. It survived, and we barely did. Why is our side so content with being mediocre in our understanding of how capitalism functions? We socialists (lower case "s" there) need to realize that not knowing the system is only to our own detriment.

When it comes to capitalism, the contradictions are fairly basic and uncontroversial. Just to pick one at random: Capitalism requires a constant supply of new markets, this is what corporate globalization is about, you know? We can get into the details of how and why, but at the end of the day, a system that requires a perpetual cultivation of new markets is fundamentally at odds with the fact that we live on a finite planet. Period. Eventually, you run out of people to sell shit to. All other considerations notwithstanding, it's an ecological nightmare, but it's not like the demonstrably finite capacity of the world is some unlikely contingency, you know? It's a fact. A rather glaring fact. People are shitting themselves with terror over what's happening now that credit's dried up and people are stuffing cash into mattresses. That's just a tendency - at least it's malleable, you know? There are actually still people to sell to, they're just not buying. What happens when it's not a matter of anyone's inclinations towards consumption, and just a matter of reaching capacity? Furthermore, the pursuit of that saturation point has us all producing beyond nominal value to the point of obscenity; which isn't to say that producing more than we absolutely need in order to drag ourselves into the next day is problematic, but as things stand we're effectively selling our lives off in order to produce for production's sake. And again, the finite bit really comes into play when you examine the assumption that the planet can support "raising all boats" to the point of there literally being a global market in a pure sense. It can't. And why would we want to live with the consequences of pursuing such an outright dumb objective? Ultimately, the burden of explaining that is on those proposing this stupidity. We're not obligated to just follow them off the cliff.

And I know you're going to roll your eyes, but this is why people like Derrida are important, if only for the fact that he disputed the going thesis that language is primarily communicatiive; that it functions to transmit novel information from one point to another (one person to another, whathaveyou). What he pointed out was that the vast majority of the time we spend utilizing language, we're not transmitting anything at all -- we're engaged in our own inner monologue, representing information to ourselves in modified ways. After all, you can't tell yourself something you don't already know. So, what happens when we begin organizing our experience so as to derive meaning from it, by way of language bearing rather insidious fingerprints dropped into our consciousness ? What happens when we start thinking to ourselves about sex in terms of identity, rather than say... friction? Opting for one over the other is a political act, whether we like it or not. What happens when we begin to recognize ourselves not in the vocabulary of what we do/create, but what we consume/accumulate? What behaviors flow from that? The same applies to forging a detailed understanding of capitalism; understanding how market logic permeates our inner monologue and constrains the aperture of the possible.

At any given moment, we have the ability to stop and say "I can do this differently." We just have to accept that it necessarily entails some degree of exertion. Much of the most visible self-identified anarchist milieu in this country was produced by the punk scene. And the punk scene largely provides what is a generally age-appropriate politics of negation. It's necessary, at a certain stage, to say "no" or (better yet) "fuck you" to any number of traditions, institutions, etc. that get hoisted onto us. Straighedge, veganism -- things that have served me quite well, mind you -- are effectively a politics of what one doesn't do. They line up nicely with the purity/athenticity debates that result when perfectly reasonable skepticism about co-optation devolves into mindless pablum. But eventually, one has to come around to grapple with what one is willing to say "yes" to. The longer we extend that period of adolescence, the more that politics of negation becomes an excuse for not grappling with what we're willing to build or create. We celebrate and reward that at our own peril. "30 is the new 20" isn't necessarily good news, you know?

Well, I’m not going to roll my eyes wholesale, because I think Derrida is quite useful in this moment. That is to say, yes, of course we mainly function in an inner monologue. Most of the way in which capitalism works is because market logic becomes common logic (as has been said before, capitalism is in fact, a social relationship). The State almost becomes unnecessary on a fundamental level; because we do it to ourselves (to borrow a reference from Radiohead) and that is why it really hurts. Or to reference another iconic riff, to kill the inner cop in us (which I think is relevant to the Derrida reference, or I think Strike Anywhere might think so at least).

I'm going to stop you, for a sec -- since I know you're generally not a fan -- cause what you're describing here is effectively the thesis of Discipline and Punish. In fact, I think the sentiment of that lyric -- nearly word for word -- appears in Foucault's introduction to Anti-Oedipus. What you're describing is the manner in which institutions (States, etc) have shifted from exacting control over the physical body, to convincing us to police ourselves (this is what Foucault was describing with the term Panopticism). What's sort of interesting about stumbling onto that theme here is the furious debate it inspired (especially among Second Wave feminists, marxists, etc), and what Foucault's response to it was. In short, a lot of people hammered him over his analysis seemingly resigning us to this fatalistic vignette of our being "docile bodies" shaped and cast about by various forces, with no real agency of our own with which to resist or counter the ways we're regulated/disciplined by discourse. That wasn't actually what he was saying, but that's how it was reduced. His response was to write the final two volumes of The History of Sexuality which (while rushed, and not his best work) attempted to lay out a course of resisting those forces by way of what he called an Aesthetics of Living (or of the Self). And what he meant by that was precisely what we're talking about here: Living differently, deliberately; as though our lives ought to be cultivated and curated in the ways we might approach a work of art. Not in this atomized, individualistic way that typically serves as a both start and end point for many young anarchists, but even looking at (say... ) the life of a community, and how that might be reshaped and reorganized with different objectives, priorities, etc. If you look back over the whole of the classical anarchist tradition, you see its literature fully anticipating this. Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta, Goldman, Landauer... They all were very clear about the holism of the transformation they were proposing; it wasn't this compartmentalized thing, at all.

But to continue on my previous point; not knowing capitalism is to our own downfall, not theirs. I think the lack of anarcho-wallersteinism (haha) is a terrible thing: We don’t even know the thing we think we hate. Wallerstein (and Marx, for that matter) are social theorists who understand/understood capitalism; and can help us see what is coming. When we don’t bother to actually learn what it is we are against, it makes it difficult for anyone to take us seriously.

I’d rather have 20 be the new 30, or 40 honestly. I think one of the problems, and I hope we get into this more later, is that we look at things in a burnout mode. We only have so much time, it’s a sprint! We must work endlessly, quickly - sleep is for the sellouts.This is even true of cops. As a social worker, I interact with them a lot unfortunately; but one thing an older officer told me was “These young kids, they are so high strung cause they think that it’s going to be over by 35, so they live like it, they act it out in their existence, when they hit 40, they are lost and confused.” And I, interestingly, worry about that in terms of the left. Just ask yourself, ‘What happens to anarchists when they turn 40?’

Well, there are two things at work there, no? One is your latter point. The blind sprint. I don't entirely have a response to it. And it's something that requires a real candor and caring attention. What I do know is this: Nine years ago, on the heels of the Seattle uprising, we were organizing against the IMF/World Bank here in DC, and it was this massive array of people, organizations, etc. And part of what made that so vibrant was the intersection of various generations. I had stellar mentorship, and furthermore the democratic quality of the organizing meant that older, more experienced folks constituted real boundaries for some of my more impulsive moments. Which isn't to say that I wasn't listened to in those moments; I was. But there was a spectrum of varying wisdoms, I guess. And there was an expectation that I was going to respect the people around me enough to do my homework and form substantive arguments for my proposals. And as the post-Seattle energy really hit its zenith that summer and into even Bush's first inauguration, a lot of people were saying "Look, this mass action thing -- it's sexy and all, but if we're serious about this shit, we need to nix the summit hopping and invest that energy/passion/creativity in building transformative institutions and infrastructure to sustain resistance in our own communities." And that was said so frequently that it became the cool thing to give lipservice to, even if one wasn't actually committed to doing it. Many of us didn't even know how to do it, or where to start. But we knew it kinda had to happen, even if we stumbled some. I think anyone who witnessed the most recent anti-IMF organizing here in DC would shudder, when holding it up to that history. That mentorship, that spectrum of folks I had to push/pull with in forging strategies, actions, objectives, visions... That was all fundamentally uprooted and removed entirely. It was evident in the numbers that turned out, and it was evident in generational participation, the perspectives represented, and the (sub)cultural homogeneity right out front.

Which gets me to the first of your two points: I'm going to go ahead and own that my inclination is to name that evasive engineering as a conscious strategy. And not because I'm confident that I'm necessarily correct, but because I think that -- tactically -- it offers a number of corrective levers. The terms of the conversation need to be less about the righteousness of hedonistic and individualist impulses, and more about our collective responsibility. Not understanding capitalism, not being able to name our proverbial enemy in any meaningful way -- that's not happenstance; it's a conscious reflection of intellectual laziness, and just laziness generally. It's an excuse for people to continue playing swords in the backyard, and calling it "action". It's an excuse for people to dabble in self--contained logical/ethical frameworks largely indistinguishable from your run-of-the-mill messianic cult or Dungeons & Dragons, and calling it "primitivism" or "eco-defense" (or even "post-left"). I think we can still honor people's basic dignity, without taking the batteries out of our bullshit detectors. And I think there's a real role for shame, here -- which I realize is pretty loaded. But let's not shit ourselves. Part of what sustains the boundaries that move us forward in terms of combatting racism, patriarchy, or heteronormativity is what we learn from the shame we feel at hurting others, or engaging in oppressive behavior. And that's healthy. We wouldn't tolerate some asshole wandering into our movement and arguing for homophobic positions on the professed merits of opaque, theological arguments. We don't have to tolerate selfish, lazy arguments from people whose privilege has allowed them to be taken seriously without having to formulate credible, thorough positions, either. I think we need to be more willing to call bullshit and hold each other accountable to a more honest, and more demanding relationship with our stated aspirations. If for no other reason, it ultimately makes us a more formidable force against prevailing institutions and/or trends. But it also makes us a more healthy collective body unto ourselves -- more equipped to creatively unpack and resolve our own problems and contradictions.

I think you’re particularly right on with this first point we started with. Capitalism is at odds fundamentally with the reality of the planet and the reality of social organization as well. I feel like a moment could be coming; not far off, were the markets are full of brand new flat screens, and no one’s buying them. And I wonder what that will feel like. I mean, on some level, it’s already happening. If one turns on the news, people talk of “downward shopping” where former Nordstroms shoppers go to Target, former Target shoppers are at the dollar stores, and no one speaks of those who used to go to the dollar store but had their homes foreclosed and are now not quite shopping at all.

Interestingly though, free market capitalism is actually being deemed ‘at fault’ and we've essentially got nothing to say to it. I think 10 years back and go “shit, a moment were the news is demonizing CEO’s for being too greedy? Someday…" Well, that day is here. But what do we have? With a left in infancy really, and now it’s (and we are by default) starting to look real bad, I mean, really really bad. Because, we are just following them off that cliff to borrow your metaphor. At the moment, we are stepping right onto that ledge as a society by continuing to believe that a system built on profit motive is ultimately sustainable. It’s a bit like continuing to buy cheap socks that rip, but because the company says it’ll use stronger material, we just keep buying it. And the left? We’re too busy thinking that militant posturing is going to win it all; that if we just turn everything into a militant street demo it’ll happen, or at least get us on the news.

And you know, just in the last few days, Naomi Klein was making precisely this point in an interview. She basically said "Look, this moment is ours to lose". And she's absolutely right. I mean, to be totally real about it, Jon Stewart's basically serving it up for us, you know? You've got him reaching god knows how many people, making comedy of the ways in which the White House economic team is comprised of folks from the very firms that have benefited from the bailout. But we've spent so much time cultivating and basking in a condescending and visceral disdain for people at large... We don't even have the points of contact at our disposal to really harness that emergent shift in consciousness. We've royally fucked that up.

Another thing I want to talk about is a point you made at a meeting in DC recently, that I want to see expanded. Let’s talk seriously about what it means for anarchists to, for lack of a better term, get more professional about things, to step it up a bit. What I’m not suggesting or presupposing is that stepping it up means engaging in illegal acts, or clandestine activity. In fact, it may actually be quite the opposite. What the left may need to do is to step into the light, out of our scenes and be very above ground to allow ourselves to be seen and understood. Sometimes, quite often actually, the hardest work is the talking, the waiting, the building. But I am wondering where you want to take this.

Essentially, it's taking seriously what Pavlos said during that meeting -- we've got to (to borrow from capitalist vocab) "build a better mousetrap". And frankly, at the moment, there's more to that than merely winning an argument. People are fucking starving for a better mousetrap. I make my living in a worker self-managed collective with an altogether different "bottom line" than your traditional market enterprise. And while everyone was holding on for dear life in 2008, watching their portfolios shit the bed while queuing up for unemployment, our respective incomes went up (more than) ten grand, we secured health benefits, opened an office, and I spent two out of twelve months on paid vacation in Mexico... All with (as one of our clients put it) "not a kissed-ass in sight." Which isn't to say that what we do constitutes a model from which anyone and everyone can extrapolate a new lease on life. We District residents happen to live in an economy driven by the one institution that isn't likely to leave the scene anytime soon (the State), and we specifically work in an industry with such negligible overhead that we've never so much as uttered the words "line of credit". But even in our industry, people are getting laid off, fired, etc. at more conventionally-configured companies, and we're surviving. It's one thing to elaborate a model that offers an ethics, or a reconstructive vision. Those things are certainly central to my commitments. But I think it betrays a recklessly stupid and disingenuous attitude for anyone in our milieu to be prematurely dancing on the grave of capitalism without any sort of seriousness about salvation. If we mean business, we ought to be able to pragmatically begin to collaboratively solve some of our own problems, on our own terms. The rubber's got meet the road at some point, you know?

I dropped out of highschool when I was 16. I did some college thereafter, but ultimately dropped that, too. My day job (as it currently manifests) is one of those "you got peanut butter in my chocolate!" sort of collisions, between my reconstructive vision/political self-education, and my having spent five years in a particular trade; both as an employee and a freelancer. At a certain point, I knew that trade well enough that I could speculate (with some modicum of confidence) that I might be able to do it better, with an eye toward the more general "better". And I opted to roll those dice, with a few accomplices. What's sort of shocking to me is that so many of my peers who identify with the anarchist tradition undertook (and continue to undertake) training in any number of disciplines (usually in the form of undergraduate education) as a sort of half-hearted formality for entering the traditional labor market. And that's the capitalist design -- hook, line, and sinker. Don't bother mastering anything, just jump through this hoop. And we're seriously killing our movement, that way. We piss away all our passion, energy, and ingenuity swinging at the fences until we're desperate enough to capitulate and settle for after-hours advocacy or (worse) the occasional quaint sentiment over coffee. When the next generation rolls through, we've left them little to nothing from which to build; they're stuck reprising the same exhausting (largely) unrewarding schtick. It conjures (for me) a line from a Kind of Like Spitting song: "All hail the joke we're getting away with / I've got the check, but I'll have to postdate it." Why aren't we mastering socially necessary disciplines, toward the end of expropriating them from the market, while providing for ourselves (and each other!) on something that at least approximates our own terms? Why aren't we seizing our own forms of power, in the spheres we inhabit day to day? Why aren't we busy acquiring the tools that might enhance our prospects at that? It begs real questions about how seriously we take our own capacities, our own politics, our own dreams. And makes of anarchism the very sideshow for which most of the world takes us. I'm not saying that everyone ought to run out and do exactly the same thing. But goddamn, you know? Are we really so skeptical of our own talents?

I think we are. We never really expand our talents and seem to care to fulfill our own potential. To borrow a reference from football -- we never draft a quarterback (an idea, a dream, a vision) and nurture it on the bench, let it be endowed with a playbook (theory), and then put it into action with the prefiguration needed to be successful. We often don’t bother to come up with the idea at all.

I took a very different route to this place. I graduated college, got a masters, and now another one focusing on clinical counseling. I’m a bit obsessed with the work I get to do, because I get to be among the people but also working towards healing with people. I think it’s really incredible what I get to do; but part of it is an obsession with excelling. Call it the over-achiever South Asian stereotype; but I don’t see a point in doing this and not being the best at it. What always fascinated me was that the anarchists/leftists were the best carpenters, the best at everything they did. That’s why people respected them enough to care what they thought about things and trusted them enough to struggle alongside them. Who pays attention to what the lazy guy who you always have to cover for thinks? We’ve all been in groups where one person really slacked, slept in, never did their share. So why would you trust that person with anything really serious, like the job that at least puts food on the table?

So out of that comes my passion for being the best at what I do. It isn’t perfectionism, it’s just a realization that what I do is important, and I should respect my skill enough to want to be damn good at it. Because of that, my co-workers actually care what I have to say and their respect gives them trust in me not only on work matters, but to talk politics, and they at least consider what I think is probably at least relevant.

What I think is dangerously "punk" of us is that we do seem to be content with mediocrity, which is a terrible mindset to have. It’s one thing to set goals high and be willing to settle half way down. It’s another to set your goals so low that you don’t even try. For some reason some of us think that while we're sitting back, it’ll just fall all around us. I’ve called it the ‘revelationification’ of our culture; that we think everything is just going to hell (literally) anyways, so why not. What is funny to me is it’s all so utterly Christian. That bothers me less, as I don’t particularly have a problem with religion, just people on the religious right (be they Christian, Buddhist, or what have you) but it interests me that I see such a fundamental misengagement with anarchist politics. Anarchist politics is about putting out a reconstructive vision of the world, one in which we eliminate hierarchy by being so good at what we do, and so willing to do it in a form of mutual aid, that we make the State irrelevant. In order for that to happen, we’d need to be able to take those roles over, or be connected enough to where it could possibly happen. I don’t think that would be all that hard to do. Anarchism was once a part of the majority working class, made up of immigrant workers, and it could be again very easily. It means being us, and being next to the people we want to build this new world with. It means building dual power on a mass scale. We need everything from bicycle co-ops to community health clinics; from farms to factories, and we need to continue on the old adage that if we build our new world here in the shell of this old one (IWW), we can see the changes we want to see.

I mean, praxis is theory+practice+revision, and we learn through that exercise. But again, we’d have to actually do in order to judge its effectiveness. If there is no action, we have no real movement, we have a bunch of reading groups. I have a real faith in us all and humanity to posit positive solutions to solve our real problems. I mean, are we so afraid of succeeding that we refuse to really try? Are we more content with anarchism being a club? Why is it that we prefer to know an anarchist when we see one (IE, one with a good set of patches or in a fashion)?

Again, I think it's a conscious strategy; one of evading any obligation to learn about what we don't know, or venture into territory where we might stumble or even fail. More importantly, I think it's a bluff. Which means any of us can call it, in precisely the same ways we might call the bluff of liberal politicians or apologists for some or another form of oppression. I'm relatively confident that the number of genuine assholes in the world is modest; it's the sea of cowards in which they swim that we need to be worried about. We can be one more body in that room of people that watches the heroin-addicted friend stumble in, and avert our eyes or pretend everything's normal. Or we can tap him on the shoulder and say "Friend, I believe you have a problem." I don't think there's any credible obligation we bare to mince words about that or coddle people who've already had life effectively handed to them, by global standards. The outcomes matter enough that we ought to have recourse to candor, and really -- the moment's ours to lose, right now.

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Our Inner Monologues

By: David (Guest ) on 05-05-2009

This is a great conversation. My thought though is that we should be extremely self-aware as to how deeply capitalist ideology does permeate our "inner monologues."

Something that's useful about punk rock is the rejection of the capitalist standard - the emphasis on excess, production, profitability. We shouldn't settle for mediocrity, but we SHOULD be sure that the "professionalism" we strive for isn't defined by a capitalist mindset.

It's capitalism that drives people to be perfectionists and workaholics and I'd hate to see that become the standard for a prefigurative anarchist movement.

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Hmmmm, indeed.

By: Joshua (Guest ) on 05-05-2009

Right. And gagging on the shaft of caricature histories (care of the State), while gently fondling its nutsack doesn't make you David Horowitz; it just means you have the anarchist tradition confused with that of the CIA.

"I must tell you, first of all, what Anarchism is not.
It is not bombs, disorder, or chaos.
It is not robbery and murder.
It is not a war of each against all.
It is not a return to barbarism or to the wild state of man.
Anarchism is the very opposite of all that."
- Alexander Berkman

You know, that guy who did 14yrs for the attempted assassination of H.C. Frick.

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By: Joe Schmoe (Guest ) on 05-05-2009

Referencing Wiki's and understanding everything in society is linguistic doesn't make you and anarchist, it makes you a critic. Real anarchists plot assassinations and plant bombs.

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