Thursday, January 31, 2008

Nader, Ron Paul and the Election

For some reason Ron Paul supporters are angry about Nader's entrance into the race. Take this comment I found on the subject:

Thats it, Nader is a Shill. He promoted and endorsed Edwards, and now wants to take the limelight from Ron Pauls potential "Independant" position

Something wrong with this man, I think he is there just to swing votes
I have to say I don't believe Nader's a "shill" in the slightest. Anything, or anyone, who challenges the current two-party system should be praised for at least injecting another voice into the conversation. Ron Paul, for all his faults (which there are a laundry list to be sure) deserves to be in the Presidential race. I find his economic philosophy of "free markets" akin to mumbo jumbo, a worldview that would collapse under its own destructive avarice over time. For more on the dangers of Paul's Austrian school of economics see the Adam Curtis documentary "The Trap". Ralph Nader has spent a lifetime limiting the cruel effects of unrestrained capitalism. For this great work he should be revered, not maligned. To think many who support Ron Paul for President don't want the competition. How ironic.

Ralph Nader enters US election race
Thu, 31 Jan 2008 12:06:16

darbandsari20080131081020468US political activist Ralph Nader sets aside memories of previous losses and bows into the presidential race as independent candidate.

Nader, who has come under fire from Democrats for costing them the 2000 election, said he was planning a new bid for the 2008 elections.

Frustrated by the leading democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Nader told AFP that he has decided to "jump into the fray."

The 73-year-old hopeful said he is appearing in order to tackle the injustice and deprivation that the candidates are ignoring.

Democrats once pinned the blame on Nader for losing the 2000 election, but Al Gore was edged out in Florida by George W. Bush in a vote count. Nader rejects the "spoiler" title.

Monday, January 28, 2008

“Socialism is Illogical and Irrational”

From the January 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Free-market capitalism, left to its own chaotic and predatory devices would self-destruct in very short order.

I've been told this on a number of occasions when attempting to discuss the pros and cons of socialism and capitalism . . . not that the proponents of that view can offer any evidence that the present system of free-market capitalism is either rational or logical. Theirs is the response of the semi-secure, semi-comfortable, and semi-informed; they sit within the bubble that the system allows them, observing the world through the reversed telescope of capital's media machine. What they see, hear and read "informs" them and shapes their world-view. When compared with much of the rest of the world their semi-existence looks infinitely better than that of the vast majority of humankind. Better not to rock the boat, better not to question, better to be satisfied with one's lot, better to follow the advice of our leadership, after all, didn't we elect them to take the difficult decisions in our name? Following the crisis of "9/11" didn't Bush suggest that the best contribution the citizenry could make was to kick-start the economy back into top gear? Don't think, don't question – consume!

The capitalist system is rather like an onion. At the centre sits the elite controlling the system and drawing to themselves the fruits of the labours of the rest of us. From this centre each skin or layer gets progressively bigger with those nearest the centre being granted the largest share of the remunerations and benefits that form a part of the "overhead costs" that capital incurs, and those at the outside who are deemed to be totally non-productive by the elites, receiving nothing – not even the right to exist.
Whilst those who are near to the centre refuse to see the faults and failures of the system, there are two groupings who recognise the failings only too well – those on the outside who are robbed of everything, often even their lives, and those at the centre – the thieves and murderers themselves, aka the elites.

We are conditioned to believe that the free-market capitalist system has always been around and because it's the only system that actually works, will always be around. First, it actually doesn't work. Free-market capitalism, left to its own chaotic and predatory devices would self-destruct in very short order. Second, there really is no free-market capitalist system in the developed world – the "free-market" is reserved for the rest of the world, the people and resources that are there to be exploited and plundered.

In the developed world the elites have established a system of protectionism and state intervention through subsidies that pass as government contracts; the defence industry with its associated satellite firms is perhaps the definitive example. Through these and similar routes the elites can regulate their economies in an attempt to balance the short-termism that is inherent in the "maximum-profit-now-regardless-of-consequences" free-market. Whilst scorning "big government" in public the capitalists are creaming off vast amounts of money from the so-called public purse through government contracts and through bail-outs for "vital" industries where greed, fraud and ineptitude has resulted in the likely collapse of part of the capitalist's empire. Witness the revolving door that allows the so-called Captains of Industry or key managers within the bureaucracy to be "fired", handed huge severance payments and then immediately rehired somewhere else on even higher remunerations. Could there be a better indicator that the elites recognise that there really is no skill in "working" the system, only chance. As long as you are a paid-up member of the free-market masonic club there will be warm hand shakes and even warmer hand-outs as you head off for your next boardroom appointment.

The logic and rationale of socialism is that at its heart lies the principle, not of maximising profits for the few, but of meeting the needs of everybody on the planet. From that it follows that exploiting people or the environment upon which they depend for the short-term benefit of a few chosen individuals is purely illogical and irrational. Witness that illogicality, that irrationality of capitalism in the following comment by Noam Chomsky in conversation with David Barsamian, "Keeping the Rabble in Line" on a news item in the business section of the New York Times (7 February 1992) about a report prepared by Lawrence Summers, chief liberal economist at Harvard, for the World Bank setting out its position for the Rio conference in June that year:

"The idea is that the rich countries should take the position, led by the World Bank, that the problem of pollution is that the poor countries, the Third World, don't follow rational policies. 'Rational' means market policies. Many of them are resource and raw material producers, energy producers, and they sometimes try to use their own resources for their own development. That's irrational. That means that they are using resources for themselves, often at below market rates, when there are more efficient producers in the West who would use those resources more efficiently. That's interference with the market. Also, these Third World countries often introduce some measures to protect their own population from total devastation and starvation, and that's an interference with the market. It's an interference with rational market policies. The effect of this Third World irrationality is to increase production in places where it shouldn't be taking place, to increase development where it shouldn't be going on, and that causes pollution. So if we could only convince those Third World countries to behave rationally, that is, to give up all their resources to us and stop protecting their own populations, that would reduce the pollution problem. This document was produced with a straight face" (author's emphasis).

The same day on the same page of the New York Times there was another unrelated article, reproduced from Economist magazine, about a World Bank internal memo, written by the same Lawrence Summers, which had leaked. The NYT included an interview with Summers in which he claimed that the article was meant to be sarcastic. Chomsky commented:

"The World Bank memo added to what had been said in the article about Third World irrationality. It said that any kind of production was going to involve pollution. So what you have to do is do it as rationally as possible, meaning with minimal cost. So suppose you have a chemical factory producing carcinogenic gases that are going into the environment. If we put the factory in Los Angeles, we can calculate the number of people who will die of cancer in the next forty years. We can even calculate the value of their lives in terms of income or whatever. Suppose we put the factory in Sao Paulo or some even poorer area. Many fewer people will die of cancer because they'll die anyway of something else, and besides, their lives aren't worth as much by any rational measure. So it makes sense to move all the polluting industries to places where poor people die, not where rich people die. That's on simple economic grounds."

Summers did point out in his memo that there might be some counterarguments based on human rights and the right to a certain quality of life. But he further points out that if we allow these arguments to enter into our calculations, then just about everything the World Bank does would be undermined.

In the fifteen years since that report there is plenty of evidence of its principle thrust, the export of hazardous production processes to poorer areas of the world, in action. The same principle works in all areas of production. Capital is international, it goes where the profit is and in the process it undermines the position of the workers in the areas it leaves behind opening them up to greater exploitation as wage and benefit costs are driven down ready for whatever menial service jobs may be introduced for some in the next stage of the capitalist merry-go-round. Capital has no conscience and neither do those who function at the higher levels of the system who benefit from it.

So, there you have it, on the one hand the rationality and logic of free-market capitalism, a world devoid of humanity in every sense. Corrupt, polluting and choking to death on the consequences of its own greed and immorality. On the other hand you have the rationality and logic of socialism, a world where humanity can thrive, where the challenges of meeting the needs of every human being on the planet are balanced against the needs of the planet. Where everyone, including Mother Nature, has a voice and a place at the table, where there are no weak and poor, where there are no needy, where there are no outsiders . . . and no money. The choice is ours; we have to want change enough to bring it about. We have to build socialist thinking one brick at a time, spread the message one person at a time. Last November pundits were predicting the "Perfect Storm" economic collapse scenario due to the convergence of high oil prices and the credit crisis. Both of these events were triggered by the logic and rationality of capitalist greed and corruption; the first through an illegal attempted grab of resources and the second through greed for the easy money to be made out of sub-prime mortgages and the subsequent selling on of re-packaged and concealed risk to other greedy "suckers". In both instances the capitalists are making vast fortunes or are being bailed out from the "public purse", screened from the consequences of their greed and crimes. Some might feel that this "event" will provide a window of opportunity where the masses will suddenly get the socialist message by osmosis. Don't hold your breath! Socialism is about spreading the truth, about making socialists and only socialists can do that. Socialism is logical, rational, pro-people, pro-environment, and above all + pro-active.

Alan Fenn

A humble reminder about the Constitution


There's a little "trick" interviewers like to play, most recently Stephen Colbert, on right-wingers advocating the display of the Ten Commandments in public spaces. They ask these nearsighted evangelicals to simply name them. All ten. It's a fair enough question. If these precepts are literally gospel truth you shouldn't have too much trouble memorizing them before shopping them around to everyone else. Yet, as Colbert revealed, they can't do it. The same goes with politicians and the Constitution. If a candidate evokes our Nation's most esteemed document in an interview or on the campaign trail one of the first questions that should be asked is can you name the Bill of Rights? I doubt if McCain or Romney could. Obama and Clinton probably, although I doubt if they believe in them. I guess that's the general difference between the two parties in a nutshell. The majority of Democrats pay lip service to the Constitution. The majority of Republicans do not.

But this is a new phenomenon, right? If we take a trip in the way-back machine we'd find a true reverence for the Constitution. Or will we? Was Woodrow Wilson worshiping at the feet of the first amendment when he championed the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act? Or did FDR embody personal freedom when he interned the nation's Japanese-American population (but not Germans or Italians)? How about our third President, John Adams, who, out of paranoia over Irish Immigration and the French Revolution, passed the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798? These are some of the most famous examples, but there are vulgar violations through out history, often committed without remorse.

In fact, the Bill of Rights was a controversial addition to the Constitution in the first place. Alexander Hamilton opposed it saying the Constitution was enough and did not restrict anyone's freedom. But the people fought for its inclusion. Maybe that's why those first amendments have been so flexible in the minds of our leaders. The body of the Constitution, which defines governmental powers, inspires a little more obedience. Freedom of speech and assembly are beautiful concepts with pretty words, but when the Constitution grants the Congress the power to tax or to honor voluntary contracts or to suspend habeas corpus these passages by comparison are divine and immutable.

It was in the interest of the Framers -- white, land-and-slave-owning rich men -- to first liberate themselves from King George then create a solid federal government in order to secure foreign investment. Madison and Monroe, for example, wanted to buy land from the Indians but didn't possess the start-up capital. No foreign investors, such as France, wanted to take the risk of lending money because no mechanism like a judicial branch existed to ensure the cash would be returned. But the Founders couldn't do it alone. They needed to acclimate the middle class to there revolution. They needed soldiers and a buffer from the property-less poor who had carried on a protracted campaign of rebellion against our ruling class. Their solution was to include language of liberty, equality and protection.

Even a cursory glance tells you they didn't mean it. The wealthy doesn't want equality, especially during the time of the Constitution's writing. Black men were property, Indians were something less than human and so were women. You couldn't vote unless you had property which means the interest of renters were rarely represented.

This is why the Constitution provides for a republic and not a democracy. Madison distanced the decision-making powers from the people after looking at how uppity we get when charged exorbitant prices or denied paper money. Madison wrote:

"In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. The Senate, therefore, ought to be this body."

It is obvious who the minority was, and Madison along with many of the Founding Fathers, didn't have any use for the functions of democracy with its system of discussion, proposal, counter-proposal, decision and dissent. They preferred an electoral college and representation of the remaining number of men who were allowed to participate in the system.

It took centuries of blood to enjoy the luxuries of today. The Bill of Rights set the standard and we have yet to achieve its ideals. A great companion to the Constitution is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The language of the Constitution may have been insincere but it remains a terrific destination. Remember, no piece of paper gave you your rights, no matter how many times you're told just that in the year to come.

See also:
A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Anti-Bush Facebook Group Hits Million, Massive Book Giveaway

Thanks: Lo

The Facebook group "I bet I can find 1,000,000 people who dislike George Bush!" will reach one million members soon. As a proud member and bestselling activism author, I will give away free downloads of my books for two weeks to encourage ongoing "armchair activism."

Note: this isn't just for Facebook members.

Here is the link for the book giveaway:

"Kropotkin Was No Crackpot" by Stephen Jay Gould (1997)

kropotki IN LATE 1909, two great men corresponded across oceans, religions, generations, and races. Leo Tolstoy, sage of Christian nonviolence in his later years, wrote to the young Mohandas Gandhi, struggling for the rights of Indian settlers in South Africa:

God helps our dear brothers and co-workers in the Transvaal. The same struggle of the tender against the harsh, of meekness and love against pride and violence, is every year making itself more and more felt here among us also.

A year later, wearied by domestic strife, and unable to endure the contradiction of life in Christian poverty on a prosperous estate run with unwelcome income from his great novels (written before his religious conversion and published by his wife), Tolstoy fled by train for parts unknown and a simpler end to his waning days. He wrote to his wife:

My departure will distress you. I’m sorry about this, but do understand and believe that I couldn’t do otherwise. My position in the house is becoming, or has become, unbearable. Apart from anything else, I can’t live any longer in these conditions of luxury in which I have been living, and I’m doing what old men of my age commonly do: leaving this worldly life in order to live the last days of my life in peace and solitude.
But Tolstoy’s final journey was both brief and unhappy. Less than a month later, cold and weary from numerous long rides on Russian trains in approaching winter, he contracted pneumonia and died at age eighty-two in the stationmaster’s home at the railroad stop of Astapovo. Too weak to write, he dictated his last letter on November 1, 1910. Addressed to a son and daughter who did not share his views on Christian nonviolence, Tolstoy offered a last word of advice:

The views you have acquired about Darwinism, evolution, and the struggle for existence won’t explain to you the meaning of your life and won’t give you guidance in your actions, and a life without an explanation of its meaning and importance, and without the unfailing guidance that stems from it is a pitiful existence. Think about it. I say it, probably on the eve of my death, because I love you.

Tolstoy’s complaint has been the most common of all indictments against Darwin, from the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859 to now. Darwinism, the charge contends, undermines morality by claiming that success in nature can only be measured by victory in bloody battle – the “struggle for existence” or “survival of the fittest” to cite Darwin’s own choice of mottoes. If we wish “meekness and love” to triumph over “pride and violence” (as Tolstoy wrote to Gandhi), then we must repudiate Darwin’s vision of nature’s way – as Tolstoy stated in a final plea to his errant children.

This charge against Darwin is unfair for two reasons. First, nature (no matter how cruel in human terms) provides no basis for our moral values. (Evolution might, at most, help to explain why we have moral feelings, but nature can never decide for us whether any particular action is right or wrong.) Second, Darwin’s “struggle for existence” is an abstract metaphor, not an explicit statement about bloody battle. Reproductive success, the criterion of natural selection, works in many modes: Victory in battle may be one pathway, but cooperation, symbiosis, and mutual aid may also secure success in other times and contexts. In a famous passage, Darwin explained his concept of evolutionary struggle (Origin of Species, 1859, pp. 62-63):

I use this term in a large and metaphorical sense including dependence of one being on another, and including (which is more important) not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny. Two canine animals, in a time of dearth, may be truly said to struggle with each other which shall get food and live. But a plant on the edge of a desert is said to struggle for life against the drought.... As the mistletoe is disseminated by birds, its existence depends on birds; and it may metaphorically be said to struggle with other fruit-bearing plants, in order to tempt birds to devour and thus disseminate its seeds rather than those of other plants. In these several senses, which pass into each other, I use for convenience sake the general term of struggle for existence.

Yet, in another sense, Tolstoy’s complaint is not entirely unfounded. Darwin did present an encompassing, metaphorical definition of struggle, but his actual examples certainly favored bloody battle – “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” in a line from Tennyson so overquoted that it soon became a knee-jerk cliche for this view of life. Darwin based his theory of natural selection on the dismal view of Malthus that growth in population must outstrip food supply and lead to overt battle for dwindling resources. Moreover, Darwin maintained a limited but controlling view of ecology as a world stuffed full of competing species – so balanced and so crowded that a new form could only gain entry by literally pushing a former inhabitant out. Darwin expressed this view in a metaphor even more central to his general vision than the concept of struggle – the metaphor of the wedge. Nature, Darwin writes, is like a surface with 10,000 wedges hammered tightly in and filling all available space. A new species (represented as a wedge) can only gain entry into a community by driving itself into a tiny chink and forcing another wedge out. Success, in this vision, can only be achieved by direct takeover in overt competition.

Furthermore, Darwin’s own chief disciple, Thomas Henry Huxley, advanced this “gladiatorial” view of natural selection (his word) in a series of famous essays about ethics. Huxley maintained that the predominance of bloody battle defined nature’s way as nonmoral (not explicitly immoral, but surely unsuited as offering any guide to moral behavior).

From the point of view of the moralist the animal world is about on a level of a gladiator’s show. The creatures are fairly well treated, and set to fight – whereby the strongest, the swiftest, and the cunningest live to fight another day. The spectator has no need to turn his thumbs down, as no quarter is given.

But Huxley then goes further. Any human society set up along these lines of nature will devolve into anarchy and misery – Hobbes’s brutal world of bellum omnium contra omnes (where bellum means “war,” not beauty): the war of all against all. Therefore, the chief purpose of society must lie in mitigation of the struggle that defines nature’s pathway. Study natural selection and do the opposite in human society:

But, in civilized society, the inevitable result of such obedience [to the law of bloody battle] is the re-establishment, in all its intensity, of that struggle for existence – the war of each against all – the mitigation or abolition of which was the chief end of social organization.

This apparent discordance between nature’s way and any hope for human social decency has defined the major subject for debate about ethics and evolution ever since Darwin. Huxley’s solution has won many supporters – nature is nasty and no guide to morality except, perhaps, as an indicator of what to avoid in human society. My own preference lies with a different solution based on taking Darwin’s metaphorical view of struggle seriously (admittedly in the face of Darwin’s own preference for gladiatorial examples) – nature is sometimes nasty, sometimes nice (really neither, since the human terms are so inappropriate). By presenting examples of all behaviors (under the metaphorical rubric of struggle), nature favors none and offers no guidelines. The facts of nature cannot provide moral guidance in any case.

But a third solution has been advocated by some thinkers who do wish to find a basis for morality in nature and evolution. Since few can detect much moral comfort in the gladiatorial interpretation, this third position must reformulate the way of nature. Darwin’s words about the metaphorical character of struggle offer a promising starting point. One might argue that the gladiatorial examples have been over-sold and misrepresented as predominant. Perhaps cooperation and mutual aid are the more common results of struggle for existence. Perhaps communion rather than combat leads to greater reproductive success in most circumstances.

The most famous expression of this third solution may be found in Mutual Aid, published in 1902 by the Russian revolutionary anarchist Petr Kropotkin. (We must shed the old stereotype of anarchists as bearded bomb throwers furtively stalking about city streets at night. Kropotkin was a genial man, almost saintly according to some, who promoted a vision of small communities setting their own standards by consensus for the benefit of all, thereby eliminating the need for most functions of a central government.) Kropotkin, a Russian nobleman, lived in English exile for political reasons. He wrote Mutual Aid (in English) as a direct response to the essay of Huxley quoted above, “The Struggle for Existence in Human Society,” published in The Nineteenth Century, in February 1888. Kropotkin responded to Huxley with a series of articles, also printed in The Nineteenth Century and eventually collected together as the book Mutual Aid.

As the title suggests, Kropotkin argues, in his cardinal premise, that the struggle for existence usually leads to mutual aid rather than combat as the chief criterion of evolutionary success. Human society must therefore build upon our natural inclinations (not reverse them, as Huxley held) in formulating a moral order that will bring both peace and prosperity to our species. in a series of chapters, Kropotkin tries to illustrate continuity between natural selection for mutual aid among animals and the basis for success in increasingly progressive human social organization. His five sequential chapters address mutual aid among animals, among savages, among barbarians, in the medieval city, and amongst ourselves.

I confess that I have always viewed Kropotkin as daftly idiosyncratic, if undeniably well meaning. He is always so presented in standard courses on evolutionary biology – as one of those soft and woolly thinkers who let hope and sentimentality get in the way of analytic toughness and a willingness to accept nature as she is, warts and all. After all, he was a man of strange politics and unworkable ideals, wrenched from the context of his youth, a stranger in a strange land. Moreover, his portrayal of Darwin so matched his social ideals (mutual aid naturally given as a product of evolution without need for central authority) that one could only see personal hope rather than scientific accuracy in his accounts. Kropotkin has long been on my list of potential topics for an essay (if only because I wanted to read his book, and not merely mouth the textbook interpretation), but I never proceeded because I could find no larger context than the man himself. Kooky intellects are interesting as gossip, perhaps as psychology, but true idiosyncrasy provides the worst possible basis for generality.

But this situation changed for me in a flash when I read a very fine article in the latest issue of Isis (our leading professional journal in the history of science) by Daniel P. Todes: “Darwin’s Malthusian Metaphor and Russian Evolutionary Thought, 1859-1917.” I learned that the parochiality had been mine in my ignorance of Russian evolutionary thought, not Kropotkin’s in his isolation in England. (I can read Russian, but only painfully, and with a dictionary – which means, for all practical purposes, that I can’t read the language.) I knew that Darwin had become a hero of the Russian intelligentsia and had influenced academic life in Russia perhaps more than in any other country. But virtually none of this Russian work has ever been translated or even discussed in English literature. The ideas of this school are unknown to us; we do not even recognize the names of the major protagonists. I knew Kropotkin because he had published in English and lived in England, but I never understood that he represented a standard, well-developed Russian critique of Darwin, based on interesting reasons and coherent national traditions. Todes’s article does not make Kropotkin more correct, but it does place his writing into a general context that demands our respect and produces substantial enlightenment. Kropotkin was part of a mainstream flowing in an unfamiliar direction, not an isolated little arroyo.

This Russian school of Darwinian critics, Todes argues, based its major premise upon a firm rejection of Malthus’s claim that competition, in the gladiatorial mode, must dominate in an ever more crowded world, where population, growing geometrically, inevitably outstrips a food supply that can only increase arithmetically. Tolstoy, speaking for a consensus of his compatriots, branded Malthus as a “malicious mediocrity.”

Todes finds a diverse set of reasons behind Russian hostility to Malthus. Political objections to the dog-eat-dog character of Western industrial competition arose from both ends of the Russian spectrum. Todes writes:

Radicals, who hoped to build a socialist society, saw Malthusianism as a reactionary current in bourgeois political economy. Conservatives, who hoped to preserve the communal virtues of tsarist Russia, saw it as an expression of the “British national type.”

But Todes identifies a far more interesting reason in the immediate experience of Russia’s land and natural history. We all have a tendency to spin universal theories from a limited domain of surrounding circumstance. Many geneticists read the entire world of evolution in the confines of a laboratory bottle filled with fruit flies. My own increasing dubiousness about universal adaptation arises in large part, no doubt, because I study a peculiar snail that varies so widely and capriciously across an apparently unvarying environment, rather than a bird in flight or some other marvel of natural design.

Russia is an immense country, under-populated by any nineteenth-century measure of its agricultural potential. Russia is also, over most of its area, a harsh land, where competition is more likely to pit organism against environment (as in Darwin’s metaphorical struggle of a plant at the desert’s edge) than organism against organism in direct and bloody battle. How could any Russian, with a strong feel for his own countryside, see Malthus’s principle of overpopulation as a foundation for evolutionary theory? Todes writes:

It was foreign to their experience because, quite simply, Russia’s huge land mass dwarfed its sparse population. For a Russian to see an inexorably increasing population inevitably straining potential supplies of food and space required quite a leap of imagination.

If these Russian critics could honestly tie their personal skepticism to the view from their own backyard, they could also recognize that Darwin’s contrary enthusiasms might record the parochiality of his different surroundings, rather than a set of necessarily universal truths. Malthus makes a far better prophet in a crowded, industrial country professing an ideal of open competition in free markets. Moreover, the point has often been made that both Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace independently developed the theory of natural selection after primary experience with natural history in the tropics. Both claimed inspiration from Malthus, again independently; but if fortune favors the prepared mind, then their tropical experience probably predisposed both men to read Malthus with resonance and approval. No other area on earth is so packed with species, and therefore so replete with competition of body against body. An Englishman who had learned the ways of nature in the tropics was almost bound to view evolution differently from a Russian nurtured on tales of the Siberian wasteland.

For example, N. I. Danilevsky, an expert on fisheries and population dynamics, published a large, two-volume critique of Darwinism in 1885. He identified struggle for personal gain as the credo of a distinctly British “national type,” as contrasted with old Slavic values of collectivism. An English child, he writes, “boxes one on one, not in a group as we Russians like to spar.” Danilevsky viewed Darwinian competition as “a purely English doctrine” founded upon a line of British thought stretching from Hobbes through Adam Smith to Malthus. Natural selection, he wrote, is rooted in “the war of all against all, now termed the struggle for existence – Hobbes’ theory of politics; on competition – the economic theory of Adam Smith. ... Malthus applied the very same principle to the problem of population. ... Darwin extended both Malthus’ partial theory and the general theory of the political economists to the organic world.” (Quotes are from Todes’s article.)

When we turn to Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid in the light of Todes’s discoveries about Russian evolutionary thought, we must reverse the traditional view and interpret this work as mainstream Russian criticism, not personal crankiness. The central logic of Kropotkin’s argument is simple, straightforward, and largely cogent.

Kropotkin begins by acknowledging that struggle plays a central role in the lives of organisms and also provides the chief impetus for their evolution. But Kropotkin holds that struggle must not be viewed as a unitary phenomenon. It must be divided into two fundamentally different forms with contrary evolutionary meanings. We must recognize, first of all, the struggle of organism against organism for limited resources – the theme that Malthus imparted to Darwin and that Huxley described as gladiatorial. This form of direct struggle does lead to competition for personal benefit.

But a second form of struggle – the style that Darwin called metaphorical – pits organism against the harshness of surrounding physical environments, not against other members of the same species. Organisms must struggle to keep warm, to survive the sudden and unpredictable dangers of fire and storm, to persevere through harsh periods of drought, snow, or pestilence. These forms of struggle between organism and environment are best waged by cooperation among members of the same species-by mutual aid. If the struggle for existence pits two lions against one zebra, then we shall witness a feline battle and an equine carnage. But if lions are struggling jointly against the harshness of an inanimate environment, then lighting will not remove the common enemy – while cooperation may overcome a peril beyond the power of any single individual to surmount.

Kropotkin therefore created a dichotomy within the general notion of struggle – two forms with opposite import: (1) organism against organism of the same species for limited resources, leading to competition; and (2) organism against environment, leading to cooperation.

No naturalist will doubt that the idea of a struggle for life carried on through organic nature is the greatest generalization of our century. Life is struggle; and in that struggle the fittest survive. But the answers to the questions “by which arms is the struggle chiefly carried on!” and “who are the fittest in the struggle!” will widely differ according to the importance given to the two different aspects of the struggle: the direct one, for food and safety among separate individuals, and the struggle which Darwin described as “metaphorical” – the struggle, very often collective, against adverse circumstances.

Darwin acknowledged that both forms existed, but his loyalty to Malthus and his vision of nature chock-full of species led him to emphasize the competitive aspect. Darwin’s less sophisticated votaries then exalted the competitive view to near exclusivity, and heaped a social and moral meaning upon it as well.

They came to conceive of the animal world as a world of perpetual struggle among half-starved individuals, thirsting for one another’s blood. They made modern literature resound with the war-cry of woe to the vanquished, as if it were the last word of modern biology. They raised the “pitiless” struggle for personal advantages to the height of a biological principle which man must submit to as well, under the menace of otherwise succumbing in a world based upon mutual extermination.

Kropotkin did not deny the competitive form of struggle, but he argued that the cooperative style had been underemphasized and must balance or even predominate over competition in considering nature as a whole.

There is an immense amount of warfare and extermination going on amidst various species; there is, at the same time, as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defense.... Sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle.

As Kropotkin cranked through his selected examples, and built up steam for his own preferences, he became more and more convinced that the cooperative style, leading to mutual aid, not only predominated in general but also characterized the most advanced creatures in any group-ants among insects, mammals among vertebrates. Mutual aid therefore becomes a more important principle than competition and slaughter:

If we ... ask Nature: “who are the fittest: those who are continually at war with each other, or those who support one another?” we at once see that those animals which acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest. They have more chances to survive, and they attain, in their respective classes, the highest development of intelligence and bodily organization.

If we ask why Kropotkin favored cooperation while most nineteenth-century Darwinians advocated competition as the predominant result of struggle in nature, two major reasons stand out. The first seems less interesting, as obvious under the slightly cynical but utterly realistic principle that true believers tend to read their social preferences into nature. Kropotkin, the anarchist who yearned to replace laws of central government with consensus of local communities, certainly hoped to locate a deep preference for mutual aid in the innermost evolutionary marrow of our being. Let mutual aid pervade nature and human cooperation becomes a simple instance of the law of life.

Neither the crushing powers of the centralized State nor the teachings of mutual hatred and pitiless struggle which came, adorned with the attributes of science, from obliging philosophers and sociologists, could weed out the feeling of human solidarity, deeply lodged in men’s understanding and heart, because it has been nurtured by all our preceding evolution.

But the second reason is more enlightening, as a welcome empirical input from Kropotkin’s own experience as a naturalist and an affirmation of Todes’s intriguing thesis that the usual flow from ideology to interpretation of nature may sometimes be reversed, and that landscape can color social preference. As a young man, long before his conversion to political radicalism, Kropotkin spent five years in Siberia (1862-1866) just after Darwin published the Origin of Species. He went as a military officer, but his commission served as a convenient cover for his yearning to study the geology, geography, and zoology of Russia’s vast interior. There, in the polar opposite to Darwin’s tropical experiences, he dwelled in the environment least conducive to Malthus’s vision. He observed a sparsely populated world, swept with frequent catastrophes that threatened the few species able to find a place in such bleakness. As a potential disciple of Darwin, he looked for competition, but rarely found any. Instead, he continually observed the benefits of mutual aid in coping with an exterior harshness that threatened all alike and could not be overcome by the analogues of warfare and boxing.

Kropotkin, in short, had a personal and empirical reason to look with favor upon cooperation as a natural force. He chose this theme as the opening paragraph for Mutual Aid:

Two aspects of animal life impressed me most during the journeys which I made in my youth in Eastern Siberia and Northern Manchuria. One of them was the extreme severity of the struggle for existence which most species of animals have to carry on against an inclement Nature; the enormous destruction of life which periodically results from natural agencies; and the consequent paucity of life over the vast territory which fell under my observation. And the other was, that even in those few spots where animal life teemed in abundance, I failed to find – although I was eagerly looking for it – that bitter struggle for the means of existence among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of struggle for life, and the main factor of evolution.

What can we make of Kropotkin’s argument today, and that of the entire Russian school represented by him? Were they just victims of cultural hope and intellectual conservatism? I don’t think so. In fact, I would hold that Kropotkin’s basic argument is correct. Struggle does occur in many modes, and some lead to cooperation among members of a species as the best pathway to advantage for individuals. If Kropotkin overemphasized mutual aid, most Darwinians in Western Europe had exaggerated competition just as strongly. If Kropotkin drew inappropriate hope for social reform from his concept of nature, other Darwinians had erred just as firmly (and for motives that most of us would now decry) in justifying imperial conquest, racism, and oppression of industrial workers as the harsh outcome of natural selection in the competitive mode.

I would fault Kropotkin only in two ways – one technical, the other general. He did commit a common conceptual error in failing to recognize that natural selection is an argument about advantages to individual organisms, however they may struggle. The result of struggle for existence may be cooperation rather than competition, but mutual aid must benefit individual organisms in Darwin’s world of explanation. Kropotkin sometimes speaks of mutual aid as selected for the benefit of entire populations or species – a concept foreign to classic Darwinian logic (where organisms work, albeit unconsciously, for their own benefit in terms of genes passed to future generations). But Kropotkin also (and often) recognized that selection for mutual aid directly benefits each individual in its own struggle for personal success. Thus, if Kropotkin did not grasp the full implication of Darwin’s basic argument, he did include the orthodox solution as his primary justification for mutual aid.

More generally, I like to apply a somewhat cynical rule of thumb in judging arguments about nature that also have overt social implications: When such claims imbue nature with just those properties that make us feel good or fuel our prejudices, be doubly suspicious. I am especially wary of arguments that find kindness, mutuality, synergism, harmony – the very elements that we strive mightily, and so often unsuccessfully, to put into our own lives – intrinsically in nature. I see no evidence for Teilhard’s noosphere, for Capra’s California style of holism, for Sheldrake’s morphic resonance. Gaia strikes me as a metaphor, not a mechanism. (Metaphors can be liberating and enlightening, but new scientific theories must supply new statements about causality. Gaia, to me, only seems to reformulate, in different terms, the basic conclusions long achieved by classically reductionist arguments of biogeochemical cycling theory.)

There are no shortcuts to moral insight. Nature is not intrinsically anything that can offer comfort or solace in human terms – if only because our species is such an insignificant latecomer in a world not constructed for us. So much the better. The answers to moral dilemmas are not lying out there, waiting to be discovered. They reside, like the kingdom of God, within us – the most difficult and inaccessible spot for any discovery or consensus.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Noam Chomsky: The Government in the Future

Government in the Future

Chomsky's influence on the way we think about practically everything cannot be overstated. He's been mentioned in the same breath as Aristotle and Thoreau, and has tirelessly championed the cause of the people against illegitimate authority. In this famous lecture a young(ish) Chomsky pulls back from targeting specific centers of power and defines the direction he feels societies must move in order to survive. According to Chomsky, out of the four prevalent types of governments - classical liberalism, state capitalism, state socialism and libertarian socialism - the latter is the only way humanity can achieve justice and sustainability. As always, his approach is academic, building arguments from the ground up. Love him or loathe him, this remains a work of intellectual greatness.

00 - Introduction
01- Four Possible Roles of the state in Advanced Industrial Society
02- Classical Liberalism
03- Humbolt on Human Nature and Labor
04- Marx on Human Nature and Labor
05- Humbolt's Lack of Foresight on Effects of state capitalism
06- The Third Necessary Emancipation
07- Humbolt on Human Bonds
08- Classical Liberalism Summarized
09- Libertarian Socialism
10- Socialism Predicates Anarchism
11- William Paul on Socialism
12- Revolutionary Action
13- Communist Councils
14- Libertarian Socialist Revivalism
15- U.S. Possibilities
16- A Tactical Debate
17- Anarchist Communes
18- The Problem of Power
19- A Strategic Advantage in U.S. & Russia
20- Libertarian Socialism Summarized
21- Two Arguments Against a Free Society
22- The Human Nature Argument
23- The Soulful Corporation
24- The Efficiency Argument
25- State socialism & state capitalism
26- The Political & Economic Systems of state capitalism
27- Democracy & capitalism
28- McNamara on Hierarchy
29- The Communist Threat
30- U.S. Permanent War Economy
31- The Cold War for an Ideology of Empire
32- Necessary Challenges

Monday, January 21, 2008

Real Time with Bill Maher I January 18, 2008 (116th Episode)

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian by Kurt Vonnegut (Audiobook)

Kurt Vonnegut Angel

Ever wonder what famous people would tell us from beyond the grave? Kurt Vonnegut, with the aid of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, satisfies our curiosity through a little elbow grease, investigative journalism and several controlled near death experiences. In this collection of essays, Vonnegut interviews Eugene Debs, Adolph Hitler, Isaac Newton and many more for National Public Radio. It is to our benefit and immense delight Vonnegut was able to finish this off-beat work before passing away. Kurt may be up in heaven but he did us the small courtesy of writing some of the best fiction of the 20th Century for us to read while we fart around down here on Earth.

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17

The words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. you won't hear on this evening's news

The one sound bite everyone will be hearing all day will be MLK's "I have a dream" speech. And while it encapsulates the good doctor's optimism it fails to portray his revulsion toward American Imperialism. He despised aggression of every stripe and wasn't afraid to focus on issues beyond Segregation, speaking out against the Vietnam War and poverty. My thought is if Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hadn't been assassinated he would have become a fiery class warrior whose voice wouldn't have made it on late night television let alone lend itself to a national holiday.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Giants of Philosophy: Baruch Spinoza (Full Audiobook)

SpinozaChuck Heston

"I do not know how to teach philosophy without becoming a disturber of established religion."

"I call him free who is led solely by reason. "

"I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them. "

-- Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677)

Historian Will Durant once said you must first become a Spinozist before becoming a philosopher. Baruch Spinoza applied the rules of logic to the human experience in ways no other thinker had before. He gave us an airtight rational method of thought which resembles mathematical proofs, and after his contributions the mind, social organization and, most importantly, God would never be viewed in the same way again. Spinoza's brand of Western pantheism seduced both men of science, Einstein being the most renown, and starry-eyed poets like Goethe. Here, Chuck Heston of "Damn Dirty Apes" fame leads us through this simple philosopher's life and penetrating ideas with crystal clarity.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Emma Goldman: A Dangerous Woman (Full Lecture)


Howard Zinn gives a whistle stop tour of feminist anarchist Emma Goldman's life. Zinn does a superb job of introducing Emma's personality and commitment to her principles to the uninitiated as well as holding the attention of those more familiar with her work. By the end it is evident that Goldman was uncompromising, ungovernable and unrivaled - and rarely wrong. She advocated free thought, birth control (when it was illegal) and direct action. It is easy to see how Goldman was the most dangerous woman of her age.

1. Historical Education
2. Finding Anarchism
3. Make Some Connection
4. Cigar Strikes and the Gilded Age
5. Haymarket
6. Manhattan Cafes
7. Homestead
8. Direct Action
9. Assassin
10. I'll Talk When I Damn Please
11. In Love With The King Of The Hobos
12. On Trial
13. In Prison and the U.S.S.R.
14. Exile

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Friday Flashback: John Lennon & Chuck Berry - "Memphis Tennessee"

Revolution of the Snails: Encounters with the Zapatistas

by Rebecca Solnit
(view original)

I grew up listening to vinyl records, dense spirals of information that we played at 33-1/3 revolutions per minute. The original use of the word revolution was in this sense — of something coming round or turning round, the revolution of the heavenly bodies, for example. It’s interesting to think that just as the word radical comes from the Latin word for “roots” and meant going to the root of a problem, so revolution originally means to rotate, to return, or to cycle, something those who live according to the agricultural cycles of the year know well.

Only in 1450, says my old Oxford Etymological Dictionary, does it come to mean “an instance of a great change in affairs or in some particular thing.” 1450: 42 years before Columbus sailed on his first voyage to the not-so-new world, not long after Gutenberg invented moveable type in Europe, where time itself was coming to seem less cyclical and more linear — as in the second definition of this new sense of revolution in my dictionary, “a complete overthrow of the established government in any country or state by those who were previously subject to it.”

We live in revolutionary times, but the revolution we are living through is a slow turning around from one set of beliefs and practices toward another, a turn so slow that most people fail to observe our society revolving — or rebelling. The true revolutionary needs to be as patient as a snail. 0116_06a

The revolution is not some sudden change that has yet to come, but the very transformative and questioning atmosphere in which all of us have lived for the past half century, since perhaps the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, or the publication of Rachel Carson’s attack on the corporate-industrial-chemical complex, Silent Spring, in 1962; certainly, since the amazing events of 1989, when the peoples of Eastern Europe nonviolently liberated themselves from their Soviet-totalitarian governments; the people of South Africa undermined the white apartheid regime of that country and cleared the way for Nelson Mandela to get out of jail; or, since 1992, when the Native peoples of the Americas upended the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in this hemisphere with a radical rewriting of history and an assertion that they are still here; or even 1994, when this radical rewriting wrote a new chapter in southern Mexico called Zapatismo.

Five years ago, the Zapatista revolution took as one of its principal symbols the snail and its spiral shell. Their revolution spirals outward and backward, away from some of the colossal mistakes of capitalism’s savage alienation, industrialism’s regimentation, and toward old ways and small things; it also spirals inward via new words and new thoughts. The astonishing force of the Zapatistas has come from their being deeply rooted in the ancient past — “we teach our children our language to keep alive our grandmothers” said one Zapatista woman — and prophetic of the half-born other world in which, as they say, many worlds are possible. They travel both ways on their spiral.

Revolutionary Landscapes

At the end of 2007, I arrived on their territory for a remarkable meeting between the Zapatista women and the world, the third of their encuentros since the 1994 launch of their revolution. Somehow, among the miracles of Zapatista words and ideas I read at a distance, I lost sight of what a revolution might look like, must look like, on the ground — until late last year when I arrived on that pale, dusty ground after a long ride in a van on winding, deeply rutted dirt roads through the forested highlands and agricultural clearings of Chiapas, Mexico. The five hours of travel from the big town of San Cristobal de las Casas through that intricate landscape took us past countless small cornfields on slopes, wooden houses, thatched pigsties and henhouses, gaunt horses, a town or two, more forest, and then more forest, even a waterfall.
Everything was green except the dry cornstalks, a lush green in which December flowers grew. There were tree-sized versions of what looked like the common, roadside, yellow black-eyed susans of the American west and a palm-sized, lavender-pink flower on equally tall, airily branching stalks whose breathtaking beauty seemed to come from equal parts vitality, vulnerability, and bravura — a little like the women I listened to for the next few days.

The van stopped at the junction that led to the center of the community of La Garrucha. There, we checked in with men with bandannas covering the lower halves of their faces, who sent us on to a field of tents further uphill. The big sign behind them read, “You are in Territory of Zapatistas in Rebellion. Here the People Govern and the Government Obeys.” Next to it, another sign addressed the political prisoners from last year’s remarkable uprising in Oaxaca in which, for four months, the inhabitants held the city and airwaves and kept the government out. It concluded, “You are not alone. You are with us. EZLN.”

As many of you may know, EZLN stands for Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Army for National Liberation), a name akin to those from many earlier Latin American uprisings. The Zapatistas — mostly Mayan indigenous rebels from remote, rural communities of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost and poorest state — had made careful preparations for a decade before their January 1, 1994 uprising.

They began like conventional rebels, arming themselves and seizing six towns. They chose that first day of January because it was the date that the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect, which meant utter devastation for small farmers in Mexico; but they had also been inspired by the 500th anniversary, 14 months before, of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas and the way native groups had reframed that half-millenium as one of endurance and injustice for the indigenous peoples of this hemisphere.

Their rebellion was also meant to take the world at least a step beyond the false dichotomy between capitalism and the official state socialism of the Soviet Union which had collapsed in 1991. It was to be the first realization of what needed to come next: a rebellion, above all, against capitalism and neoliberalism. Fourteen years later, it is a qualified success: many landless campesino families in Zapatista-controlled Chiapas now have land; many who were subjugated now govern themselves; many who were crushed now have a sense of agency and power. Five areas in Chiapas have existed outside the reach of the Mexican government, under their own radically different rules, since that revolution.

Beyond that, the Zapatistas have given the world a model — and, perhaps even more important, a language — with which to re-imagine revolution, community, hope, and possibility. Even if, in the near future, they were to be definitively defeated on their own territory, their dreams, powerful as they have been, are not likely to die. And there are clouds on the horizon: the government of President Felipe Calderón may turn what has, for the last 14 years, been a low-intensity conflict in Chiapas into a full-fledged war of extermination. A war on dreams, on hope, on rights, and on the old goals of the hero of the Mexican Revolution a century before, Emiliano Zapata: tierra y libertad, land and liberty.

The Zapatistas emerged from the jungle in 1994, armed with words as well as guns. Their initial proclamation, the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, rang with familiar, outmoded-sounding revolutionary rhetoric, but shortly after the uprising took the world by storm, the Zapatistas’ tone shifted. They have been largely nonviolent ever since, except in self-defense, though they are ringed by the Mexican army and local paramilitaries (and maintain their own disciplined army, a long line of whose masked troops patrolled La Garrucha at night, armed with sticks). What shifted most was their language, which metamorphosed into something unprecedented — a revolutionary poetry full of brilliant analysis as well as of metaphor, imagery, and humor, the fruit of extraordinary imaginations.

Some of their current stickers and t-shirts — the Zapatistas generate more cool paraphernalia than any rock band — speak of “el fuego y la palabra,” the fire and the word. Many of those words came from the inspired pen of their military commander, the nonindigenous Subcomandante Marcos, but that pen reflected the language of a people whose memory is long and environment is rich — if not in money and ease, then in animals, images, traditions, and ideas.

Take, for example, the word caracol, which literally means snail or spiral shell. In August 2003, the Zapatistas renamed their five autonomous communities caracoles. The snail then became an important image. I noticed everywhere embroideries, t-shirts, and murals showing that land snail with the spiraling shell. Often the snail wore a black ski mask. The term caracol has the vivid vitality, the groundedness, that often escapes metaphors as they become part of our disembodied language.

When they reorganized as caracoles, the Zapatistas reached back to Mayan myth to explain what the symbol meant to them. Or Subcomandante Marcos did, attributing the story as he does with many stories to “Old Antonio,” who may be a fiction, a composite, or a real source of the indigenous lore of the region:

“The wise ones of olden times say that the hearts of men and women are in the shape of a caracol, and that those who have good in their hearts and thoughts walk from one place to the other, awakening gods and men for them to check that the world remains right. They say that they say that they said that the caracol represents entering into the heart, that this is what the very first ones called knowledge. They say that they say that they said that the caracol also represents exiting from the heart to walk the world…. The caracoles will be like doors to enter into the communities and for the communities to come out; like windows to see us inside and also for us to see outside; like loudspeakers in order to send far and wide our word and also to hear the words from the one who is far away.”

The caracoles are clusters of villages, but described as spirals they reach out to encompass the whole world and begin from within the heart. And so I arrived in the center of one caracol, a little further up the road from those defiant signs, in the broad, unpaved plaza around which the public buildings of the village of La Garrucha are clustered, including a substantial two-story, half-built clinic. Walking across that clearing were Zapatista women in embroidered blouses or broad collars and aprons stitched of rows of ribbon that looked like inverted rainbows — and those ever-present ski masks in which all Zapatistas have appeared publicly since their first moment out of the jungles in 1994. (Or almost all, a few wear bandannas instead.)

That first glimpse was breathtaking. Seeing and hearing those women for the three days that followed, living briefly on rebel territory, watching people brave enough to defy an army and the world’s reigning ideology, imaginative enough to invent (or reclaim) a viable alternative was one of the great passages of my life. The Zapatistas had been to me a beautiful idea, an inspiration, a new language, a new kind of revolution. When they spoke at this Third Encounter of the Zapatista Peoples with the People of the World, they became a specific group of people grappling with practical problems. I thought of Martin Luther King Jr. when he said he had been to the mountaintop. I have been to the forest.

The Words of the Third Encounter

The encuentro was held in a big shed-like auditorium with a corrugated tin roof and crossbeams so long they could only have been hewn from local trees — they would never have made it around the bends in the local roads. The wooden walls were hung with banners and painted with murals. (One, of an armed Zapatista woman, said, “cellulite sí, anorexia, no.“) An unfinished mural showed a monumental ear of corn whose top half merged into the Zapatista ski mask, the eyes peering out of the corn. Among the embroideries local artisans offered were depictions of cornstalks with Zapatista faces where the ears would be. All of this — snails and corn-become-Zapatistas alike — portrayed the rebels as natural, pervasive, and fruitful.

Three or four times a day, a man on a high, roofed-over stage outside the hall would play a jaunty snippet of a tune on an organ and perhaps 250 of the colorfully dressed Zapatista women in balaclavas or bandannas would walk single file into the auditorium and seat themselves onstage on rows of backless benches. The women who had come from around the world to listen would gather on the remaining benches, and men would cluster around the back of the hall. Then, one caracol at a time, they would deliver short statements and take written questions. Over the course of four days, all five caracoles delivered reflections on practical and ideological aspects of their situation. Pithy and direct, they dealt with difficult (sometimes obnoxious) questions with deftness. They spoke of the challenge of living a revolution that meant autonomy from the Mexican government, but also of learning how to govern themselves and determine for themselves what liberty and justice mean.

The Zapatista rebellion has been feminist from its inception: Many of the comandantes are women — this encuentro was dedicated to the memory of deceased Comandante Ramona, whose image was everywhere — and the liberation of the women of the Zapatista regions has been a core part of the struggle. The testimonies addressed what this meant — liberation from forced marriages, illiteracy, domestic violence, and other forms of subjugation. The women read aloud, some of them nervous, their voices strained — and this reading and writing was itself testimony to the spread both of literacy and of Spanish as part of the revolution. The first language of many Zapatistas is an indigenous one, and so they spoke their Spanish with formal, declarative clarity. They often began with a formal address to the audience that spiraled outward: “hermanos y hermanas, compañeras y compañeros de la selva, pueblos del Mexico, pueblos del mundo, sociedad civile” — “brothers and sisters, companions of the rainforest, people of Mexico, people of the world, civil society.” And then they would speak of what revolution had meant for them.

“We had no rights,” one of them said about the era before the rebellion. Another added, “The saddest part is that we couldn’t understand our own difficulties, why we were being abused. No one had told us about our rights.”

“The struggle is not just for ourselves, it’s for everyone,” said a third. Another spoke to us directly: “We invite you to organize as women of the world in order to get rid of neoliberalism, which has hurt all of us.”

They spoke of how their lives had improved since 1994. On New Year’s Eve, one of the masked women declared:

“Who we think is responsible [for the oppressions] is the capitalist system, but now we no longer fear. They humiliated us for too long, but as Zapatistas no one will mistreat us. Even if our husbands still mistreat us, we know we are human beings. Now, women aren’t as mistreated by husbands and fathers. Now, some husbands support and help us and don’t make all the decisions — not in all households, but poco a poco. We invite all women to defend our rights and combat machismo.”

They spoke of the practical work of remaking the world and setting the future free, of implementing new possibilities for education, healthcare, and community organization, of the everyday workings of a new society. Some of them carried their babies — and their lives — onstage and, in one poignant moment, a little girl dashed across that stage to kiss and hug her masked mother. Sometimes the young daughters wore masks too.

A Zapatista named Maribel spoke of how the rebellion started, of the secrecy in which they met and organized before the uprising:

“We learned to advance while still hiding until January 1. This is when the seed grew, when we brought ourselves into the light. On January 1, 1994, we brought our dreams and hopes throughout Mexico and the world — and we will continue to care for this seed. This seed of ours we are giving for our children. We hope you all will struggle even though it is in a different form. The struggle [is] for everybody…”

The Zapatistas have not won an easy or secure future, but what they have achieved is dignity, a word that cropped up constantly during the encuentro, as in all their earlier statements. And they have created hope. Hope (esperanza) was another inescapable word in Zapatista territory. There was la tienda de esperanza, the unpainted wooden store of hope, that sold tangerines and avocados. A few mornings, I had café con leche and sweet rice cooked with milk and cinnamon at a comedor whose handlettered sign read: “Canteen of autonomous communities in rebellion…dreams of hope.” The Zapatista minibus was crowned with the slogan “the collective [which also means bus in Spanish] makes hope.”

After midnight, at the very dawn of the New Year, when men were invited to speak again, one mounted the platform from which the New Year’s dance music was blasting to say that he and the other men had listened and learned a lot.

This revolution is neither perfect nor complete — mutterings about its various shortcomings weren’t hard to hear from elsewhere in Mexico or the internationals at the encuentro (who asked many testing questions about these campesinas’ positions on, say, transgendered identity and abortion) — but it is an astonishing and fruitful beginning.

The Speed of Snails and Dreams

Many of their hopes have been realized. The testimony of the women dealt with this in specific terms: gains in land, rights, dignity, liberty, autonomy, literacy, a good local government that obeys the people rather than a bad one that tramples them. Under siege, they have created community with each other and reached out to the world.

Emerging from the jungles and from impoverishment, they were one of the first clear voices against corporate globalization — the neoliberal agenda that looked, in the 1990s, as though it might succeed in taking over the world. That was, of course, before the surprise shutdown of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999 and other innovative, successful global acts of resistance against that agenda and its impact. The Zapatistas articulated just how audacious indigenous rebellion against invisibility, powerlessness, and marginalization could be — and this was before other indigenous movements from Bolivia to northern Canada took a share of real power in the Americas. Their image of “a world in which many worlds are possible” came to describe the emergence of broad coalitions spanning great differences, of alliances between hunter-gatherers, small-scale farmers, factory workers, human rights activists, and environmentalists in France, India, Korea, Mexico, Bolivia, Kenya, and elsewhere.

Their vision represented the antithesis of the homogenous world envisioned both by the proponents of “globalism” and by the modernist revolutions of the twentieth century. They have gone a long way toward reinventing the language of politics. They have been a beacon for everyone who wants to make a world that is more inventive, more democratic, more decentralized, more grassroots, more playful. Now, they face a threat from the Mexican government that could savage the caracoles of resistance, crush the rights and dignity that the women of the encuentro embodied even as they spoke of them — and shed much blood.

During the 1980s, when our government was sponsoring the dirty wars in Central America, two U.S. groups in particular countered those politics of repression, torture, and death. One was the Pledge of Resistance, which gathered the signatures of hundreds of thousands who promised to respond with civil disobedience if the U.S. invaded Sandinista-run Nicaragua or otherwise deepened its involvement with the dictatorships and death squads of Central America. Another was Witness for Peace, which placed gringos as observers and unarmed protectors in communities throughout Central America.

While killing or disappearing campesinos could be carried out with ease in countries like El Salvador and Guatemala, doing the same to U.S. citizens, or in front of them, was a riskier proposition. The Yankee witnesses used the privilege of their color and citizenship as a shield for others and then testified to what they saw. We have come to a moment when we need to strengthen the solidarity so many activists around the world have felt for the Zapatistas, strengthen it into something that can protect the sources of “the fire and the word” — the fire that has warmed so many who have a rebel heart, the word that has taught us to imagine the world anew.

The United States and Mexico both have eagles as their emblems, predators which attack from above. The Zapatistas have chosen a snail in a spiral shell, a small creature, easy to overlook. It speaks of modesty, humility, closeness to the earth, and of the recognition that a revolution may start like lightning but is realized slowly, patiently, steadily. The old idea of revolution was that we would trade one government for another and somehow this new government would set us free and change everything. More and more of us now understand that change is a discipline lived every day, as those women standing before us testified; that revolution only secures the territory in which life can change. Launching a revolution is not easy, as the decade of planning before the 1994 Zapatista uprising demonstrated, and living one is hard too, a faith and discipline that must not falter until the threats and old habits are gone — if then. True revolution is slow.

There’s a wonderful passage in Robert Richardson’s biography of Thoreau in which he speaks of the Europe-wide revolution of 1848 and says of the New England milieu and its proliferating cooperative communities at that time, “Most of the founders were more interested in building models, which would be emulated because they succeeded, than in the destruction of the existing order. Still American utopian socialism had much in common with the spirit of 1848.”

This says very directly that you can reach out and change the state and its institutions, which we recognize as revolution, or you can make your own institutions beyond the reach of the state, which is also revolutionary. This creating — rather than simply rebelling — has been much of the nature of revolution in our time, as people reinvent family, gender, food systems, work, housing, education, economics, medicine and doctor-patient relations, the imagination of the environment, and the language to talk about it, not to speak of more and more of everyday life. The fantasy of a revolution is that it will make everything different, and regime revolutions generally make a difference, sometimes a significantly positive one, but the making of radical differences in everyday life is a more protracted, incremental process. It’s where leaders are irrelevant and every life matters.

Give the Zapatistas time — the slow, unfolding time of the spiral and the journey of the snail — to keep making their world, the one that illuminates what else our lives and societies could be. Our revolution must be as different as our temperate-zone, post-industrial society is to their subtropical agrarianism, but also guided by the slow forces of dignity, imagination, and hope, as well as the playfulness they display in their imagery and language. The testimony in the auditorium ended late on December 31. At midnight, amid dancing, the revolution turned 14. May it long continue to spiral inward and outward.

The last time Rebecca Solnit camped out on rebel territory, she was an organizer for the Western Shoshone Defense Project that insists — with good legal grounds — that the Shoshone in Nevada had never ceded their land to the U.S. government. That story is told in her 1994 book Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West, but the subsequent inspiration of the Zapatistas is most evident in the book Tom Engelhardt helped her to bring into being, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. She is 11 chapters into her next book.

Copyright 2008 Rebecca Solnit

Zapatista Woman

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Mike Gravel: Weed Safer Than Booze, Fox Doesn’t Think So

Big thanks: Lo

I think in a way Gravel is correct. How many people die from OD on Marijuana compared to how many die from OD on Alcohol.

But for Ben Ferguson to compare smoking pot to murder or slavery is just insane.

Just seems Fox wanted to sling some mud at Gravel for wanting to legalize pot. Think of the money they could get off taxing pot, also the biggest part for the war on drugs would be cut out, saving probably billions there also.

Plenty of countries have pot legalized, yet crime actually goes down, the government brings in more tax revenue. You still can get a DUI, so where did Gravel ever say, just because pot is legal means you can drive around all day high?

Added: January 14, 2008

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Moral Instinct


Which of the following people would you say is the most admirable: Mother Teresa, Bill Gates or Norman Borlaug? And which do you think is the least admirable? For most people, it’s an easy question. Mother Teresa, famous for ministering to the poor in Calcutta, has been beatified by the Vatican, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and ranked in an American poll as the most admired person of the 20th century. Bill Gates, infamous for giving us the Microsoft dancing paper clip and the blue screen of death, has been decapitated in effigy in “I Hate Gates” Web sites and hit with a pie in the face. As for Norman Borlaug . . . who the heck is Norman Borlaug?

Yet a deeper look might lead you to rethink your answers. Borlaug, father of the “Green Revolution” that used agricultural science to reduce world hunger, has been credited with saving a billion lives, more than anyone else in history. Gates, in deciding what to do with his fortune, crunched the numbers and determined that he could alleviate the most misery by fighting everyday scourges in the developing world like malaria, diarrhea and parasites. Mother Teresa, for her part, extolled the virtue of suffering and ran her well-financed missions accordingly: their sick patrons were offered plenty of prayer but harsh conditions, few analgesics and dangerously primitive medical care.

It’s not hard to see why the moral reputations of this trio should be so out of line with the good they have done. Mother Teresa was the very embodiment of saintliness: white-clad, sad-eyed, ascetic and often photographed with the wretched of the earth. Gates is a nerd’s nerd and the world’s richest man, as likely to enter heaven as the proverbial camel squeezing through the needle’s eye. And Borlaug, now 93, is an agronomist who has spent his life in labs and nonprofits, seldom walking onto the media stage, and hence into our consciousness, at all.

Here's the rest