‘The Butterfly Prison’ reignites hope for a better, more just world

The Butterfly Prison
by Tamara Pearson
(Open Books, 2015; $20.65)

Tamara Pearson is an independent left journalist from Australia who writes about Latin America. Her novel, The Butterfly Prison, set in Sydney, weaves together three different threads. In the following spoiler-filled review, I discuss each thread.

In the main thread, a young working-class woman named Mella leaves an unhappy home as a teenager, finding herself in an exploitative relationship while working in an exploitative retail job. At the job, she meets a friend, an Iranian refugee named Rafi, who introduces her first to union politics, then to radical politics, before being summarily deported to Iran and never seen again.

Mella has already become a part of an activist network by the time of Rafi’s deportation, so her growth continues without him. We read about Mella’s political awakening, her political education, and her participation in an ultimately successful revolution.

In the second thread, we read the story of an Aboriginal man named Paz as he grows up in a childhood marked by constant police harassment and violence. As a youth, he sets up a house with some young friends in the poor suburb of Macquarie fields, where they support one another and try to get by.

Paz takes shifts at a 7/11, works as an office cleaner for a few months; his friends busk in the subway, gamble for money, and make repairs in the neighbourhood. None of this is enough, as the police constantly return to raid their house, injure them, destroy their property, plant bugs, and make their lives intolerable.

In a (slightly) fictionalized version of the incident that precipitated the actual Macquarie fields riots of 2005, Paz is driving a car from a party when the police begin a chase. Paz loses control of the car, which crashes, killing one of his best friends. Paz surrenders to police and is imprisoned, where he lives the rest of his life, partly in solitary confinement, which destroys his sensitive mind. A fire in the prison sees him escape, but he has no options or hope, and commits a very violent suicide.

In the third thread, the author presents vignettes of incidents from various corners of the world. Inspired by Eduardo Galeano, the author turns a sensitive eye to environmental destruction, wasted human potential, and war, shown as the outcomes of the inequality and violence of capitalism.

The central metaphor of the book, which gives the book its title, is that each person has invisible butterfly wings, and that the system clips these wings and denies people their chance to fly.

Paz’s plot line, and the vignettes of the first few hundred pages, are unrelentingly bleak, violent, and overwhelmingly hopeless. Small acts of kindness, gestures of mutual aid and solidarity, pervade the lives of the characters around Paz, but they are ultimately all overwhelmed by the violence of the system.

Through Paz’s journey and his attempts to do everyday things like make rent, get paid at work, get from one part of town to another, or make a phone call in prison, we are shown in detail the evils of racism and the destructive absurdities of bureaucracy as they play out in Paz’s life and death, and those of his friends.

Mella’s plot line and the sketch of the post-revolutionary society presented in the last 30 pages breaks the hopelessness, presenting some of the possibilities as the “army of the poor,” the revolutionary force awakened at the end of the book, rises. A series of more hopeful vignettes of examples of resistance accompany this late turn in the plot.

Unlike Paz and his friends, who are overwhelmed by the system and can only try to cope, Mella and the group of activists around her are able to act, not solely react.

When Mella fell in with the activists, I had a moment of fear that this would be yet another disillusioning experience, that they would be rigidly and inhumanely ideological, or exploitative in a new way, or cult-like (like the similar group presented in Doris Lessing’s book The Good Terrorist) — but no, this group stays true to their principles. Mella finds education, love, and ultimately, the revolution.

In both plot lines, the author presents us a different way of looking at familiar spaces. We see department stores and shopping malls, poor people’s subdivisions, a refugee detention centre, a prison, an activist office, an activist house, and street protests of different sizes. Most of the book consists of complex images wrought in long, poetic sentences, invented compound words, and original metaphors.

Showing the underside of a first-world city, the novel implicitly critiques the invisible privilege inherent in most fiction today (David Wong’s list on Cracked.com, “5 Ways Hollywood Tricked You Into Hating Poor People,” comes to mind, as The Butterfly Prison falls into none of these traps).

The Butterfly Prison isn’t perfect. It seemed to me that the author tried to encompass every issue, every destructive aspect of capitalism, in the chapters and the inter-chapters. The characters’ dialogue sounded very similar to the author’s voice and weren’t differentiated from one another. More could be done with plot, dialogue, and voice, to match the excellent work done setting the scene and providing description.

A few notes on the character, Paz, are in order. I had hoped that Paz and Mella would cross paths, that they might actually meet and do something together.

And while Paz’s plot line could be read as a parable of the ongoing genocide against Indigenous people in Australia (and Canada, and the U.S., among other places), I thought it unfair that there should be no hope for Paz while there was hope for Mella.

Leslie Marmon’s 1977 book, Ceremony, presented an Indigenous person going back to tradition in order to heal. Books by Indigenous authors from Canada don’t shy away from the violence of the colonial situation, but find strength and possibility in Indigenous traditions and spirituality: Richard Wagamese’s 2012 book Indian Horse, Tomson Highway’s 1998 Kiss of the Fur Queen, Lee Maracle’s 2014 Celia’s Song, all offer examples.

None of these books were easy reads, but I found the horror of Paz’s death after everything he went through in The Butterfly Prison especially deflating and demoralizing.

If the theme of the book is wasted potential, then perhaps Paz’s character is an example of wasted potential. The last 30 pages or so, after Paz’s death, are dedicated to showing some elements of the future society, which has a 15-hour work week, a sprawling education system, participatory councils deciding on production and distribution, and the chance to love, dance, and be close to nature.

Given all this, it is clear the book isn’t devoted solely to brutal realism, but is able to speculate about a better world. Couldn’t some of that speculation have encompassed Paz’s story? Couldn’t Paz have made it here, couldn’t he or other aboriginal characters have contributed to the decolonization of this new world? And what happened to the deported Rafi? Was there no chance of reconnection after the revolution?

A reader reading for plot, or to watch the journey of these characters, will find these loose or cut threads disappointing.

A reader who is looking for descriptions, images, and views of the world from a too-rarely represented political and aesthetic perspective, however, will not be disappointed.

Even in its most painful moments, The Butterfly Prison is a book of hope by a sensitive observer, deeply invested in the world and its people, who wants us to soar, who feels the pain of our clipped wings, and who writes in a way to ensure that we feel it too.

Justin Podur is a writer based in Toronto.

Published on the rabble book lounge: http://rabble.ca/books/reviews/2015/12/butterfly-prison-reignites-hope-better-more-just-world

Why leftists should read John Ralston Saul — critically

John Ralston Saul — author, president of the writers’ organization PEN International, and former vice-regal consort to former governor general Adrienne Clarkson — has had considerable influence in Canada and elsewhere. His unique style of writing can be recognized after just a few lines. He is hyper-educated, filling his work with references from the West in the 1600s to the present day, with the occasional leap back to the ancient Greeks or Romans. He takes a much broader historical sweep than almost any other writer who touches contemporary topics. [1]

Read any of his books, and you will come away with new stories: about a French resistance fighter during WWII named Jean Moulin, about a female contemporary of St. Francis of Assisi named Elizabeth of Hungary, about the 18th-century Corsican patriot Pascal Paoli. You can read about how ancient Greece’s civilization began to flower because of the cancellation of debts by Athenian statesman Solon, or how the current period of globalization looks from New Zealand and Malaysia.

In a series of books about Canada, he has resurrected the history of responsible government and the political leaders Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin, arguing they showed the world that you could “talk your way out of the Empire,” a method that was adopted by dozens of other countries after Canada showed the way.

JRS brings fascinating characters to life, as well as tragic statistics. From one of his books I found out that in some years Alberta brought in more money from gambling revenues than from tar sands royalties, so low were the royalty rates and so high was the stealth tax set up through promotion of gambling among society’s elderly and vulnerable. Elsewhere he describes how Canada entered a health care crisis not because single-tier public health care is unaffordable but because of a decision in the 1990s to lower the number of doctors available to the population.

A central point he returns to in all his work about Canada is the need for Canadians, especially elites, to shed their inferiority complex relative to the United States, United Kingdom, and France. Canada is an interesting place, with a basis to build a better relationship between Indigenous people and those who have immigrated here than exists in most other places. The betrayal of that relationship, and the possibilities for repairing it, the responsibility for which lies on the non-Indigenous population, is the theme of his latest book, The Comeback.

In two major critical tomes, Voltaire’s Bastards and The Collapse of Globalism, JRS criticizes Western society for being out of equilibrium. Balanced humanism, he argues, requires the exercise of six human qualities: common sense, ethics, imagination, intuition, memory, and reason. Our society has held reason above all else, leading to pathologies in every part of life, from politics to economics, from war to the arms trade, from NGO activism to academia.

Part of why it’s so valuable for leftists to read JRS is that he starts from a different place and uses different referents, yet comes to many of the same conclusions. He advocates democracy, inclusion, the public good, and egalitarianism, but eschews what he calls ideology with a phrase he constantly invokes: “whether of the left or the right.” Thinking about these values and ideas and how they relate to leftist values of equality and solidarity, about how his stories relate to the ones we constantly return to, is a valuable part of the kind of dialogue and debate that JRS advocates.
Stories untold

While the absence of almost anything leftist means there is usually a lot in JRS’s work that leftists don’t know about, it also means that he paints an incomplete picture.

The remarkable story of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez includes the exercise of many of JRS’s six human qualities. Chavez worked as an instructor in a military school, attempted a coup against a corrupt neoliberal regime, took personal and public responsibility for it and went to jail, came out and explicitly rejected the armed path to power, and helped lead a movement that has, by any definition, advanced the public good in Venezuela and in Latin America. But JRS dismisses Chavez as a “nationalist populist.”

Cuba, with its extraordinary health care system and genuine south-south solidarity in countries such as Haiti, a place where thousands and thousands of Canadians travel to as tourists every year in defiance of the U.S. blockade, is never mentioned.

Haiti, whose elected government was overthrown in 2004 in one of the most disgraceful operations Canada (and the United States and France) has been involved in recently, is also never mentioned. Nowhere in JRS’s remarkable array of stories appears the astounding history of the indemnity extracted by France from Haiti for the crime of leading the first successful slave revolt and liberating itself. Toussaint L’Ouverture, who led Haiti’s fight for freedom, does not get to be one of the characters JRS brings to light. Neither does Charlemagne Peralte or Bolivar. Too bad for us, because I bet JRS could have made connections that the rest of us missed.

The Zapatistas explicitly used “their word as their weapon,” and their uprising was one of the first and most original and powerful indigenous uprisings to repudiate globalization. The solidarity movement included thousands of Canadians, including many Indigenous people. Yet in his book The Collapse of Globalism, JRS dismisses the Zapatistas as having launched “an old fashioned bloody uprising in Chiapas.” Couldn’t we expect more respect for an uprising that was all about the power of words and the dignity of Indigenous people from the president of PEN, someone who is trying to argue to Canadians that Canada needs to change its relationship with First Nations?

Can a discussion of the collapse of globalism proceed in an informed way without any of these reference points? It evidently does. But there is a great deal lost in the process, and the result, one might say, is unbalanced.
A calculated monstrosity

The ethical imbalance shows up in JRS’s discussion of military issues, which runs through several of his books and was put together in his famous 2004 lecture at Canada’s military college, “A new era of irregular warfare?” Insurgency and counterinsurgency are the mainstream form of conflict in today’s world, he argues, because of the vast superiority of Western armies and the consequent inability of those who face Western armies to meet them head-on. Western armies continue to ignore this and prepare for WWIII, not thinking about how to deal with insurgencies, including addressing root causes and looking at political solutions. (These latter points are more implied than directly made by JRS).

And sure, it is certainly possible that the West’s bloody campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Israel’s wars against the Palestinians and Lebanese, proceeded without careful thought about insurgencies, without much thought at all about the political and human costs of Western actions in those countries.

But it might also be possible that Western counterinsurgents have thought about this a lot and act with indifference to civilian lives, in order to secure their interests in those parts of the world. Reading Eyal Weizman’s Hollow Land, or Breaking the Silence’s recent report about how the Israeli army fought in Gaza in August 2014, you don’t get a sense of people who haven’t thought about counterinsurgency.

You get the sense of people who have thought a lot about how to be aggressive against defenceless populations. You get a sense of people who have applied their minds and their vast resources to precisely that problem, with precisely the monstrous results that we see.

Of course, JRS barely ever touches Israel or Palestine, as to do so would be to drive himself straight out of the mainstream. (He did, in 2013, add his name to an open letter signed by Canadian writers opposed to Israeli evictions of South Hebron Palestinians and Negev Bedouin.) It’s too bad, because his writing on the subject would be interesting.

Applying his values and arguments to the Israel-Palestine conflict might have him arguing for a bi-national state, or an inclusive solution that treats everyone like human beings. He might find obscure stories in Jewish or Arab histories of hope, or examples from other parts of the world of a “positive nationalism” that could override the “negative nationalism” currently deployed to devastating effect against Palestinians.

None of this would help him against the organized pro-Israel forces that would go after him, forces that include most of the Canadian political class including its prime minister and challengers. But as the president of PEN, which advocates for freedom of expression, and as an author who has repeatedly talked about the importance of courage for writers, he could be expected to take a stand, at the very least, against Israel’s very detailed and constant war against Palestinian writers and culture.

JRS, or at least readers who rely on him, ignore Israel and Palestine at their peril. In The Comeback, JRS argues that the inevitability of history is on the side of Canada’s Indigenous people. They are making a demographic, civilizational, and political comeback, and non-Indigenous people can accept it gracefully or disgracefully, but they are going to have to accept it. (This position on the inevitability of history is one JRS made fun of in The Doubter’s Companion, specifically making fun of Marxists, lumping them in with neoconservatives).

But that isn’t true. Canada could treat Indigenous people as a military threat (read Douglas Bland’s novel Uprising for a fictionalized scenario along these lines) and try to contain them, denying their rights while stealing ever more of their land and resources. There was a time when Canada, Israel, and South Africa shared information and ideas of how to suppress indigenous populations. South Africa has exited the club, but it didn’t disband it — and Israel and Canada are closer today than they ever were.

Even if Canada’s approach to Indigenous people does not worsen, JRS’s ideas may be insufficient to make it better. Radical critics of The Comeback, Hayden King and Shiri Pasternak argued in the Literary Review of Canada that while “to a large extent” JRS “gets it,” his proposed remedies at the ballot box and in the courts have so far led mostly nowhere and will continue to lead nowhere for Indigenous peoples unless there is a “Canadian comeback” that allows society to move away from “the mythologies of liberal capitalism.” They contrasted JRS’s ideas with those of Indigenous scholars Glen Coulthard, Audra Simpson, and Leanne Simpson, whose recent books offer a deeper re-envisioning of the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous in this country. [2]

When JRS discusses the Rwandan genocide and the Democratic Republic of Congo, he does so in a fairly schematic way, taking the perspective of Canadian general Romeo Dallaire. He concludes that the West’s slowness to act was the problem. But Alan Kuperman, in his book The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention, argued that a small intervention could have saved lives, but not prevented the genocide. Meanwhile the West’s unconditional support for Rwanda’s ruler, Paul Kagame, since before the genocide was a contributing factor in what happened and the decisive factor in the mass deaths in the DR Congo from 1996 on.

Adding Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, Rene Lemarchand, Mahmood Mamdani, and Fillip Reyntjens to his reading list would round it out enough for JRS to see that the problem was not speed, but an intervention into Rwanda’s civil war and then Rwanda’s proxy wars that was guaranteed to produce mass deaths but which, because it did no harm to Western interests, was, for the West, free of consequence.

JRS’s military analyses have two problems. First, as discussions of whether the counterinsurgency strategies and interventions work or don’t work, they ignore the illegitimacy, the criminal nature, of these interventions and their unavoidable devastation of civilian populations. Second, they lead to some pretty weird political places. Instead of a straightforward anti-war or anti-imperialist view, JRS’s readers might end up demanding of their elected officials improved counterinsurgency doctrine and practice.

Such demands would be to the benefit of no one, the public good least of all.
A fictional view of capitalism

Another imbalance in JRS’s writing is in his discussion of economic matters. Unlike most writers, he is able to discuss taxes with minimal rationality, without the kinds of crazy taboos that surround most discussion of taxes. I think that his persistence in discussing taxes this way over the decades (along with others such as Linda McQuaig) has played a role in the fact that politicians can finally start to make arguments about taxes in public.

JRS criticizes the West for letting the Third World debt continue, despite how simple it would be to write off. He criticizes the West for creating an arms industry for export, creating an economic incentive to feed violence all over the world. He criticizes narrow views of society, what he calls the “economic prism” approach, which see people as essentially self-interested.

In Canada, he criticizes the elite for stealing the wealth of indigenous lands and denying Indigenous people the benefits of that wealth. These failings he attributes mainly to a narrow form of reason and to what he calls managerialism. The economy is run by managers, he says, not by real owners or capitalists.

Capitalists, as opposed to managers, take risks, and with their own money. They expose themselves to the market and to competition. Managerialism has marginalized these real capitalists, JRS argues. But this view of capitalists is fictional, perhaps one of JRS’s “positive myths.”

When JRS quotes such “real owners,” he quotes people like Peter Munk, whose Barrick Gold is currently making fortunes despoiling indigenous territories in various parts of the world, and whose board has a revolving door for Canadian politicians. At one point JRS quotes Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler, who analyze the behaviour and strategies of real capitalists, who are, as theories from two centuries ago predicted, primarily interested in accumulating fortunes at society’s expense, not making useful products, creating wealth, or exposing themselves to competition.

Nitzan and Bichler also analyze what they call the weapondollar-petrodollar coalition, an economic bloc involving flows of weapons from the West, oil from the Persian Gulf, and dollars back and forth, which JRS also has written about in different ways since the 1990s. His criticism of countries including Burma has been stronger and more direct than anything directed at Saudi Arabia. A friend recently pointed out that JRS seems to avoid criticism of Saudi Arabia despite its competitiveness with ISIS for beheadings, its misogyny, its suppression of free expression, and its recent bombing of civilians in Yemen. [3]

This leads to one of JRS’s fundamental points about elites. They can be responsible or not, but in his view, they are always present. But this, too, puts apples in with oranges for comparison.

Leftists, especially anarchists, and indeed any real democrats, seek a society where the only elite is one of esteem, people who might be admired for the exercise of their talents for, well, the public good. Such an elite would be completely different from today’s 1%, with their net worths equal to small countries, pay scales hundreds of times those of the average worker, elaborate webs of deceit to avoid taxes, backhanded benevolence through charity (which JRS rightly criticizes), and ability to influence politics through corruption and patronage.

Calling both of these groups “elites” is confusing and narrows what we might imagine to be possible. JRS would surely not want to limit our ability to use our imagination, to imagine a better, more equal world?
The Supreme Court and Indigenous rights

JRS makes several rebukes against leftists, some of which are well taken. In his discussion of NGOs, he argues that by remaining outside of electoral and democratic contests, NGOs are implicitly arguing that they don’t believe in democratic legitimacy and don’t seek it. He makes an interesting comparison with pre-WWI union-based reformers, who had incredible influence but did not translate it into institutionalized power.

Chavistas in Venezuela, Lavalas in Haiti, Palestinians running for national elections and inside the Israeli Knesset, and the Zapatistas in Mexico have all struggled with this issue intellectually in life-or-death situations. What are the limits of staying outside? What happens when you try to get inside? What is the price of one or the other? Can you keep your integrity?

Another rebuke to the Canadian left and the activist community is the failure to realize the significance of decades of recent Supreme Court decisions that have the potential to change the relationship between First Nations and non-Aboriginal people in Canada. If JRS is right, more of us should be thinking about how to use these judicial decisions as tools to expand indigenous sovereignty. His historical criticisms of 19th-century Canadian leftists Papineau and Mackenzie and their errors are also well worth considering.

An implicit critique comes from JRS’s basic philosophy. Because society is imbalanced, he argues, we have become obsessed with structure instead of content. By content, he means ideas. Most leftists, whether consciously or not, believe in some variation of Marx’s idea that ideas flow from one’s material situation and material interests, and they consequently look for structural problems and solutions.

JRS rejects this view. His books are full of structural critique and, in later books, policy suggestions. But he views bad structures as flowing from bad ideas, while most of us believe the reverse. The difference may not matter very much, since we have to battle with both ideas and structures all the time, but it is there.

JRS has much to offer leftists. The ability to see historical examples in today’s events, to revisit history for both inspirational and cautionary tales, and to weave them into “positive myths” could enrich our thinking. The idea of a balance of human qualities, of egalitarian societies that can bring out the best in all of their citizens — these are as much leftist ideals as anyone’s.

To the extent that his readers can find historical context, or common sense, or surprising facts or stories that help them to resist the mind-numbing propaganda we are all subjected to daily — whether about the latest terror threat or the need for poor people to suffer more to enrich those already wealthy — there is an opening for left values of equality and solidarity to take hold.

So, yes, leftists can learn a lot from JRS. But one of the effects of people like him is to make us look even crazier than we already do. If someone who is willing to criticize everything from the arms trade to the Third World debt to managerialism to our society’s irrational views on taxes, who criticizes the West for its failures in the former Yugoslavia and Burma and Nigeria, who argues for a transformation of Canada into a reciprocal relationship between indigenous and immigrants (and implicitly for an abolition of the settler category), if such a person still won’t criticize Israel, capitalism, Canada’s role in Haiti, or Rwanda’s role in the DR Congo, if such a person can’t see anything interesting in Venezuela, Chiapas, or Cuba, then those of us who do must really be crazy.

Too bad for us? Maybe. But maybe too bad for the elusive public good, too, if leftists and genuine public intellectuals like JRS can’t meet somewhere.

[First published at Ricochet: https://ricochet.media/en/447/why-leftists-should-read-john-ralston-saul-critically]

Notes

[1] Noam Chomsky is an exception. So was Eqbal Ahmad.

[2] King and Pasternak titled their article “Don’t Call It a Comeback,” and in his response JRS didn’t seem to catch the LL Cool J reference. It seems that his encyclopedic knowledge did not encompass Mama Said Knock You Out, an album that came out two years before Voltaire’s Bastards.

[3] There is some indirect criticism though. In a discussion about Ottawa (on pg. 248) in A Fair Country, JRS points out that “Two ugly embassies of dictatorships and one ugly condo… now stand side by side on Sussex Drive with Rideau Hall, 24 Sussex, the National Gallery, Foreign Affairs and the embassies of our closest democratic allies… One of the dictatorships is a particularly fine model of repression when it comes to free speech and women’s rights.” The Ottawa Citizen, reviewing the book, listed Sussex Drive embassies: France, South Africa, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The dictatorships on that list are Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and the “fine model of repression” is almost certainly, by process of elimination, the Saudi Kingdom.

The North American, All-Administrative University

In his 2011 book The Fall of the Faculty, Benjamin Ginsberg, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, gives an explicit institutional analysis that explains what many faculty in North America have been feeling intuitively as their institutions have changed around them. The main change in universities in recent decades, Ginsberg argues, has been the rise of administrators at the expense of the core activities of the university – research and teaching. It matters, he argues, because administrators and professors have different world views. To professors, the university is a means to certain ends, all having to do with knowledge: the creation of it, the development of it, and the sharing of it. To administrators, teaching and research are means to the institution’s ends. They are business lines, which an institution can take or leave, depending on what suits the current institutional goals (profit, or simply the expansion and growth of the administrative part of the institution). In an administrative world view, then, closing down an english department or a math department and allocating those resources to a parking lot is a perfectly rational thing to do.

The tone of Ginsberg’s book is refreshing, and I suspect very deliberately irreverent. Power in an institution depends on maintaining a mystique of insiders who attend exclusive meetings (retreats, seminars, etc.), who are aware of insider language (including particular fads and acronyms), and hierarchies of titles and authority. Ginsberg describes the administration as ‘deanlets’, and pokes fun at their principal activities, including the production of strategic plans, media relations to maintain an institution’s image, travel to seminars and workshops to meet other administrators in person (even if the topics of these workshops is the irrelevance of in-person instruction in the face of e-learning), and of course, the cultivation of relationships with wealthy donors.

The irreverent tone and the damning collection of facts, figures, and some shocking anecdotes describing the rise and effects of the all-administrative university fleshes out a core institutional analysis of how the administration came to power at the university. Ginsberg points to three key developments. First, administration used to be done by faculty who did administrative tasks for a few years before returning to their scholarly and teaching activities. Today, university administration is an alternative career track. Many scholars who go down the administrative path neither plan to nor do return to scholarship, and slowly become what they are surrounded by. Second, administration has developed independence from the faculty in two key ways: independence from faculty’s administrative work was achieved by expanding administrative staff, and independence from the university’s core mission was achieved by expanding the role of private donors. Even if public funds and student tuition still pay most of the bills, a relatively small percentage of money from private donors buys the administration, and the donors, significant control over the institution’s future.

Ginsberg concedes that faculty are far from perfect. “They can be,” he writes, “petty, foolish, venal, lazy, and quarrelsome” (pg. 201) But with administrative power comes new pathologies. Indifference to the university’s core mission means indifference to academic freedom and the possibilities for real creativity, innovation, and social progress that can result; the treatment of research and teaching as business lines comparable to other activities results in shirking, squandering, and outright fraud and corruption; an administrative philosophy emphasizes preparing students for the workplace in low-level vocational and skills-training instead of thinking of the university as a place for human development, where students can grow and challenge and change their own views and, perhaps even come to think about what in the world they could and should change for the better, with their new knowledge.

An interesting chapter, and one I did not entirely agree with, was the chapter on “Realpolitik of Race and Gender”. In it, Ginsberg argues that students from oppressed constituencies strengthen administrative control when they make alliances with administration against faculty. To Ginsberg, academic freedom includes the possibility of discussing and debating matters that may make others uncomfortable. Democratic rules of debate and discussion, as well as of academic freedom and freedom of expression, should be the guide. The administrative solution, however, is to impose such things as mandatory trainings and Student Codes of Conduct – which, having a shaky legal basis, end up being unenforceable. The fact that they are legally questionable is irrelevant, however, because university administrations only apply these codes very selectively (and, I might add, in a politicized way). My disagreement with Ginsberg in this chapter is relatively minor, but I will note it: it is only that students from oppressed constituencies are more likely to turn to (false) administrative solutions if faculty are unsupportive.

The entire discussion is about a key question: who does the university belong to? Here, we might get some help by bringing in another book, Christopher Newfield’s Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (Harvard University Press 2008). In it, Newfield discusses the threat of vast social change posed by the possibility that everyone in society might join the middle class by universal access to higher education. To Newfield, attacks on faculty privileges, on the obscurity of today’s scholarship, on the humanities and basic sciences themselves, on the attempts to use affirmative action and other tools to make the university truly inclusive – all of these were tools to stave off the prospect of a universally educated, multicultural middle class, with the capacity to shape and change the direction of the whole society. The ideas used to help roll this possibility back included: the notion of a meritocracy, in which the talented rose to the top in a society based on competition; the acceptance of inequality as a fact of life; the notion that market and business outcomes were the final arbiter of what was worth learning and thinking about. I would argue that, to the extent that faculty accept these latter ideas, we are undermining our own autonomy, our own academic freedom, and our own ability to contribute to the development of society through our scholarship and the development of our students through our teaching.

Returning to Ginsberg, who has his own ideas about what faculty have done wrong to facilitate the rise of administrative power. First, faculty have become too comfortable allowing administration to be done by others. Too busy to go to meetings? Too busy to take a part-time administrative post for a few years? Someone else is waiting to make those decisions for you. To take control again, faculty have to become more active – at all levels, but especially on boards of trustees. Faculty have to keep control of teaching away from external and administrative bodies. Second, faculty have succumbed to pressures to produce so many PhDs that the powers and freedoms academics were able to negotiate decades ago when PhD graduates were scarce have been eroded, in part because professors lack the power they had when there was no “reserve army” for universities to rely on. Administrations know that for every tenured academic in their system, there are others with PhDs who are struggling in the part-time, by-course system without any academic freedom or the hope of tenure. Ginsberg concedes that this point, and the idea of supporting the reduction or closing of many PhD programs, constitutes “especially bitter medicine”, and he has no obvious solution, only hope that through “regular two-way communication, members of the faculty and university boards might discover a formula for abating this unacceptable state of affairs.” (pg. 215)

To Ginsberg’s suggestions about what faculty need to do differently, I would add one: as a cantakerous bunch, faculty disagree with one another about many things, from curriculum to labor relations to politics in Israel/Palestine. If faculty cannot have these debates openly and according to democratic and academic norms, and instead seek to use administrative solutions on those whose politics they abhor, they are, again, undermining their own place in the institution, as well as the core mission of the university. If we use – and model – academic principles and respect free expression in debates with those we disagree with, we will be in a much better position to defend these principles against encroachment when our own interests are attacked.

Ginsberg’s arguments were built on evidence from U.S. universities, but to anyone working in a Canadian university, almost everything he describes is eerily familiar and frightening. I have been recommending his book to everyone because, as he says, “the university can be a marvelous institution”, and one “well worth protecting” (pg. 219)

First published on TeleSUR English: http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/The-North-American-All-Administrative-University-20150325-0044.html

The Tuition Trap, as discussed by Christopher Newfield

I’ve been thinking about Chris Newfield’s 2008 book Unmaking the Public University a lot lately, and I wanted to reproduce one great quote from page 182, about what he calls “the tuition trap”: how by raising tuition fees, public universities undermine the case for public funding for universities, which shortfall they make up by raising tuition, undermining the case for public funding…:

“The tuition trap goes like this: The public is worried about college affordability, but its public university raises its fees. The university thus implies it does not actually depend on public funding, since it has the private resource of higher tuition at its fingertips. The university may also deepen this impression – that it can do without more public funding – by saying how good it is in spite of public funding cuts. Even worse, it may declare strong public funding a thing of the past in order to justify tuition increases or expanded fund-raising. Taxpayers then reasonably ask, if the university does not need more money, why does it keep raising fees? And since it keeps raising fees, why should we give it more public money?”

He goes on:

“If the university is just another cog in an economic system that is about getting ahead, charging as much as you can, maximizing your returns, and buying your way to the top, why should the general public pay for it?”

Both quotes from pg. 182.

Universities could be very valuable, making huge contributions to the general development of society and accessible to all. For that to happen, public universities have to get out of the tuition trap.

York strikers show the way — now let’s build a truly public university

Protracted labour dispute raises questions of post-secondary governance and funding

The strikes at York University, the University of Toronto, and elsewhere have opened a long overdue debate about student debt, precarious labour in the academy, rising tuition, and, to a lesser extent, university governance. The York University strike offers an opportunity to argue for the continuing relevance of universities as public institutions. The importance of the public in the public university is especially true for York, which, if it embraced its role as such, could tackle a new list of issues and lead the way for other educational institutions.
Precarity, debt, and defensive struggle

York’s contract faculty are the precarious academic labourers whose difficulties have been brought into some public light by the York strike and other labour actions in North America. The contract faculty settled earlier in March. The teaching assistants and graduate assistants had to battle on until the end of the month to win their objectives.

Although the strike ended in a victory, the struggle was mainly defensive. In previous contracts, the union on strike at York, CUPE 3903, won a funding package that includes work as a TA (or, for work outside the classroom, as a GA). The total package offered to a student is usually in the range of $12,000 to $18,000 for the year. Out of this, a domestic student has to pay around $6,500 tuition. International students might get the same package, but their tuition is much higher — somewhere around the size of their whole funding package.

Students are eligible for such funding only if they have full-time status. If they work more than 10 hours per week outside of their studies and on-campus jobs as TAs or GAs, they are ineligible. So, when the administration presented the claim that TAs were getting paid $52/hour, they neglected to add that this was up to a hard limit of about $9,000 for a year. In order to get this $52/hour, students had to figure out how to live on about $30/day (or, for international students, $0/day). Of course, students could take on additional debt, the implicit solution that university administrations continuously try to impose on students.

The union did not go on strike trying to get its members out of this low-wage situation. The union went on strike because management was trying to assert its right to raise tuition while maintaining the funding package at the same rate.

This is the indexation issue that management avoided discussion of for a month, the gain won by the union in previous strikes that management tried and failed to roll back. Indexation means that if the university wants to take more from TAs and GAs in tuition, it also has to pay TAs and GAs more money so that they can pay the university. Losing indexation would have meant that, rather than helping TAs and GAs subsist, their work on campus would merely give them the slightest reduction in the massive debt they would incur while studying.

The U.S. and U.K. systems, in which students at all levels incur ever more massive debt while receiving less and less, and with fewer and worse prospects after graduation, seems to be the model. The striking workers successfully held the line against that erosion.

The academic and the administrative

The York strike also highlighted the problem of a university no longer under academic control. This issue is of more public importance than it may seem on the surface.

Unlike most workplaces that are under the uncontested control of managers, at universities the struggle for academic freedom has been linked to another struggle, that for collegial governance, the idea that academic matters should be under the control of academics (faculty and also students) and not under the control of managers.

Defending collegial governance involves constant battles over policies and procedures, careful readings and debates, and can seem arcane and obscure to the non-university public. But collegial governance, like academic freedom, is an important thing for society to have, and it deserves some public attention — and protection. Let us look at it in the context of York’s strike.

The first way that the administration has strengthened itself has been by moving money. The erosion of the university’s teaching budget has been accompanied by an expansion in the administrative share of the budget. Budgets are contentious and political, and university administrations contest the notion that they are bloated at the expense of the university’s core activities. The analyses are worth looking at: Benjamin Ginsburg describes the growth of university administration at U.S. universities in his book The Fall of the Faculty, and scientist Bjorn Brembs tackles the issue in Germany in a blog post.

York’s faculty union, YUFA, did some interesting analysis of York’s financial statements. While not discussing academic and administrative budgets in detail, it does deal with how to think about the financial statements of a public institution. YUFA also produced a report that described the growth of managerialism.

The growth of the university’s administration at the expense of its academic mission is not solely a matter of money, as Ginsburg’s Fall of the Faculty documents. The growth of “student life” programs under the control of the administrative apparatus has seen students offered more programs in things like time management and study skills, while academic programs in languages, literature, or history are starved of resources. York University has a Senate that is the ultimate authority on academic matters, but the Senate does not have the power to decide what is and is not an academic matter — that is the prerogative of the administration.

Before the current strike, the York community was presented with apocalyptic budget projections (which have since been challenged by YUFA and CUPE) as well as warnings about low enrolments.

York’s administration imposed a process called the Academic and Administrative Prioritization and Review, or AAPR — another management tool that was imposed on other Canadian universities, such as Guelph and the University of Saskatchewan, to destructive effect. Several faculty councils at York repudiated the AAPR and rejected its use in academic planning. Like the strike, the AAPR ended up opening an overdue debate on administrative attacks on the academic mission of the university (see Michael Ornstein’s presentation for a fine example of applying academic criteria to a managerial exercise and Craig Heron’s essay on the consultant Robert Dickeson, whose methodology is used in AAPRs across North America).

Amazingly, in a context of enrolment and budget fears, the York administration walked into negotiations with CUPE 3903 seeking concessions that the union could not accept, and took over a month to make any movement towards an acceptable offer.

As an alternative to bargaining, the administration used a reading of the university’s policy on remediation — intended to provide guidance on how to restart the university after a disruption is over — to start remediating during the strike. The “remediation” ended up making students more uncertain, increasing physical pressure and fear of violence on the picket lines as thousands of drivers tried to cross daily to attend classes that may or may not have been proceeding.

For an administration worried about enrolment, it is difficult to imagine how this could have been anything other than a nightmare scenario — unless low enrolments themselves might provide another tool that administrators could use to discipline the academics?

York, a public university

Like every public institution, universities are changing. They are becoming more hierarchical, more corporate, less accessible, and less free. Defending their role, even expanding it, may not be possible from within their walls alone. But should the non-university-going public care?

Universities cost society massive amounts of resources, and everyone within them, from the administration to the student body, has some relative privilege compared to the many people who never get the chance to go. Scholars’ reputations for obscurity and detachment from the real world doesn’t make it easy for these same scholars to ask the public for resources or for help defending the institution. But public indifference to what is happening at universities only serves the administrators who are eroding them.

And truly public universities could be extremely socially beneficial. Take York again, and consider some 2006 figures that will not have changed much in the decade since. Located in North Toronto, York’s students come from families with a median household income of $55,881, compared to an average of $74,093 for all Ontario university families. The median household income for York students in 2006 was actually lower than the median household income for Ontario in 2005, which, at $72,734, was only slightly lower than the average for Ontario university-going families. Ryerson students came from slightly more affluent families ($56,733) and University of Toronto from slightly more affluent than that ($58,895). The contrast with universities such as Western and Queen’s, with median family incomes above $100,000, is striking.

More than 50 per cent of York’s students commute for more than 40 minutes, and 57 per cent of York’s first-year students rely on public transit to get to school, compared to 32 per cent of Ontario students. Of first-year York students, 60 per cent are female, compared to 55 per cent for Ontario. Of senior-year York students, 72 per cent work for pay off campus, compared to 46 per cent for Ontario; 43 per cent are from a visible minority compared to 29 per cent for Ontario. Where 70 per cent of Ontario students had a parent with post-secondary education, 65 per cent of York students could say the same.

For many decades in North America, universities were designed to train and prepare the ruling class and the professionals who serviced them. But starting after WWII, public universities started to open up and transform into places that potentially everyone could go. York’s demographics present a picture of that kind of public university, a place whose student body looks like the population and not like the rulers.

It may not be coincidental that at the most public of universities, there is a strong emphasis on humanities and social sciences — 53 per cent of first-year students compared to 38 per cent in Ontario, 51 per cent of senior-year students compared to 42 per cent in Ontario. I love science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and I think this type of education is both vitally important and under attack, especially under the Harper government. But social sciences and humanities — philosophy, literature, history, political science, geography, sociology, linguistics, economics — are fields that help students understand power and understand the world they live in. They are fields that give students a chance of shaping the future.

In his 2008 book Unmaking the Public University, English professor Chris Newfield of the University of California, Santa Barbara, argues that the attack on the social sciences and humanities — the devaluing of cultural knowledge — was a part of the assault on public universities and part of the assault on the North American middle class.

The idea of a public university open to everyone, where the cultural knowledge to shape and change society is taught and developed, is a dangerous idea for those who fear the public.

Who is subsidizing, and who is subsidized?

Newfield’s book is full of insights, many of which are highly relevant to Canadian universities and especially to York. One in particular relates to university budgets. Part of a professor’s job, especially in the natural sciences, is to seek external research funding. The grants that professors win in competitions bring prestige to their universities and make it possible to do research. Many believe that these grants help subsidize other parts of the university, but Newfield points out that the grants never cover the full costs of the research, and the university has to provide some matching funds for every grant.

Where do these matching funds come from? From the teaching budget from where most of the students are: the social sciences and the humanities. So, here again, what most people believe is the reverse of reality: it turns out that teaching in the social sciences and humanities subsidizes research in the natural sciences, not the other way around.

In the background of the York strike is the provincial funding formula, which has continued to erode the public part of university budgets. Universities in Ontario responded by following what was done in the United States: they have sought to squeeze more tuition out of students and more funds from private donors.

York’s administration has also sought to expand its science, technology, engineering and mathematics profile and reduce, in relative terms, its social sciences and humanities profile. The fact that the social sciences and humanities faculty and students are among the most “unruly,” the most likely to insist on collegial governance, and highly active in unions, may not be lost on the administration.
Unfortunately university administrations are all alike, and there are no models for creatively managing public institutions.

But none of these strategies will work to the competitive advantage of York, many of whose students will either receive a public education or no education at all. This puts York in an interesting position, as it makes the public option the most strategic one for the institution to survive and thrive. Unfortunately university administrations are all alike, and there are no models for creatively managing public institutions. There are only corporate models of total top-down control, privilege, and power at the top, and obedience and fear at the bottom.

York’s social sciences and humanities programs, which attract huge numbers of students and probably subsidize the rest of the university, will never be shut down. But an administrative vision would see these programs carefully controlled, delivered by insecure teachers with no union protections or academic freedom, and students who pay huge amounts to shut up and study like their instructors, who gratefully accept a tiny share of the budget for the chance to shut up and teach.

It doesn’t have to be this way, especially at York. We could try, instead, to be who we are, instead of trying to be something we are not.

What if York were to lead other universities in the aggressive pursuit of the public option? Embracing its progressive traditions, embracing its diverse and in many cases oppressed student body, and working on a whole new list of problems. What would it take to achieve free tuition? How could we speed up and open up the peer review process? How could we run the university on free software and free information? How could we ensure that everyone who works at the university has a good job at a living wage and the freedom to contribute creatively to the community and to say what they think? How could we have a totally seamless relationship with the non-university public, in which the university becomes a source of knowledge and not a place where knowledge is locked up to be accessed only by those who pay to be within its walls? These are the more interesting problems that we could work on at places such as York.

The alternative is to become another all-administrative university with cowed, indebted students taught by cowed, temporary faculty. York’s TAs, GAs, and contract faculty have shown the way, but the struggle for a truly public university will be a long one.

First published in Ricochet: https://ricochet.media/en/373/york-strikers-show-the-way-now-lets-build-a-truly-public-university

Hacktivism

A review of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: the Many Faces of Anonymous, by Gabriella Coleman. First published at TeleSUR English.

On December 17, independent journalist Barrett Brown, who has been in jail for two years without trial, had his first sentencing hearing (see the report by The Intercept). Barrett Brown was threatened with one hundred years in prison for analyzing documents that were hacked from private security companies HBGary and Stratfor. Brown never hacked anything – he received the documents and was reporting on them.

Interesting points emerge from a posting by Julian Assange of Wikileaks, who reacted to the sentencing hearing. Assange pointed out that the charges against Brown were of two kinds: the first, pertaining to his reporting on the Stratfor documents, which should be protected under free expression. The other, pertaining to things he said when the FBI threatened to charge his mother unless he turned over his source material. The worst thing Brown said about the FBI agent was a tweet that read, “illegally shoot the son of a bitch”. Assange pointed out that this tweet was Brown quoting Fox News’s Bob Beckel, who called for Assange’s assassination. (Assange posted this link as proof.) Beckel has faced no FBI investigation, no legal consequences, no arrests. Barrett Brown, who quoted him, has been in jail for two years and is threatened with many more. Brown and his lawyers have gag orders against them – the prosecution told the court that Brown has shown “intent to continue to manipulate the public through press and social media comments,” thus undermining the enormously powerful government’s right to a fair chance of obtaining a harsh conviction against this independent journalist.

The Stratfor emails got into Barrett Brown’s possession by way of Jeremy Hammond, a hacker who is now serving a 10-year sentence for stealing the secrets of the private intelligence company. Stratfor is a part of a $350 billion security industry that seamlessly links government, police, and private intelligence networks. The Stratfor emails provided, in Gabriella Coleman’s words, “solid nuggets of proof that Stratfor profited from morally dubious practices, such as corporate propaganda dressed as public relations and the monitoring of activists.” One of Stratfor’s founders, Ronald Duchin, devised the “Duchin formula” for attacking movements, published by journalist Steve Horn and quoted in Coleman’s book: “isolate the radicals, ‘cultivate’ the idealists and ‘educate’ them into becoming realists. Then co-opt the realists in agreeing with industry.”

Government and corporate intelligence agencies are extraordinarily non-transparent. What the public knows about them is known almost entirely because of hackers like Hammond and Assange, independent journalists like Brown (and Poitras and Greenwald), and whistleblowers like Manning and Snowden. People like Hammond, Snowden, and Manning took tremendous risks to get these materials to the public, and Hammond and Manning and Brown, among others, are suffering greatly for it.

Neither Hammond nor Manning were caught because they made technical mistakes, even though both of them obtained their data through some technically sophisticated means. Manning’s mistake was befriending someone named Adrian Lamo, who informed on her to the FBI. Hammond was a part of Anonymous, and interacted throughout the hacks with Hector Monsegur, aka “Sabu”, who helped entrap Hammond and many other hackers when Sabu became an FBI informant.

But the arrests and jail terms were not the end of Anonymous. Anonymous’s main twitter feed, @YourAnonNews, has 1.36 million followers. Having maintained a media presence for years, Anonymous is now a powerful media organization in its own right. In addition to the Stratfor hacks, Anonymous can claim credit for exposing abusive police during Occupy, for exposing rapists and rape culture in Canada and the US, and for participating in the Arab Spring in operations against Tunisia’s dictatorship. They are currently highly active against murderous police in the US, in Ferguson and NYC. They have an uncanny ability to land on the side of the oppressed, even where many progressives flounder – as in Israel’s recent massacre of Palestinians in Gaza.

As the arrests and jail sentences show, Anonymous is just as subject to vengeance by the powerful as any other group of activists in history. And yet, Anonymous’s mystique is hard to resist: the Guy Fawkes masks, the idea of some huge number of people everywhere, with extraordinary technical skills, able to frighten the powerful, avenge wrongs, and get away with it. How could anyone begin to understand such a phenomenon?

The starting point would be to do what Gabriella Coleman did for her book, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: the Many Faces of Anonymous: spending time in the Anonymous’s IRC chat rooms, getting to know them, studying what they do and how they do it. Coleman’s methods are anthropological, the same methods she used in her previous book, Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. In Hacker, Hoaxer, Coleman helps her readers make sense of the bewildering array of actions, statements, and reprisals that have occurred in this relatively new field of activism and the unique group that has brought it so much attention.

Coleman shows how Anonymous emerged from what she calls some of the most “abject forms of trolling”, in which people anonymously did bizarre and malicious things on the internet, just for the lulz (a variation of “lols”, or “laughs out loud”). She explains the idea of the lulz the way an anthropologist would: in terms of a universal trickster figure present in most human cultures. The internet trolling done by the precursors of Anonymous, like that done in stories of mythological stories of tricksters, is mischievous, malicious, and not obviously done for any gain by the trickster (or troll). But when the lulz-seeking behaviour was turned against the powerful, what emerged was something very interesting indeed.

It started, as Coleman documents, with a campaign against the church of Scientology – a lulzy campaign that got more serious as Anons learned more about Scientology’s outrages. Anonymous’s Tunisia operations were the next big step, and Coleman immortalizes the IRC chat log of the decision to attack the Tunisian dictatorship’s servers:

: why are we hitting up tunisia?

: Because they’e just passed a law which says the media can’t say what they want and banned them from mentioning wikileaks

: K-rad, thank you! time to own tunisia then

Coleman follows Anonymous through the Tunisia operations, through the formation of specialized hacker groups LulzSec and AntiSec (because not all Anons are hackers), through to the FBI attacks on Anonymous and the arrests of many of its members, much of which was due to entrapment by the FBI informant Sabu.

In addition to the lulzy, trickster aspect of Anonymous, Coleman describes and explains several other fascinating aspects of the Anons. One of the most powerful aspects is the way the Anons eschew celebrity culture and apply severe social pressure to those who try to use Anonymous to become famous or build their own names. This built-in disavowal of celebrity culture, I believe, helps explain Anonymous’s credibility and, despite some of its more “abject trolling”, it also helps explain how a group of tricksters and hackers can somehow become a moral voice on a chaotic, celebrity-obsessed, and increasingly proprietary internet. Exerting effort to be anonymous on the internet is also good privacy and security practice, another issue that Anonymous has brought to light (as have activist collectives like Riseup and non-anonymous people like Lawrence Lessig, Bruce Schneier, and Richard Stallman).

In all of these respects – mischief and trickery directed at the right targets; eschewing celebrity culture; fighting for freedom and for anonymity on the internet – Anonymous shows us all, and especially leftists, things we can learn.

And in this context, Helen Lewis’s review of Hacker, Hoaxer for the New Statesman misses the point. There is much more to Anonymous, and much more to Coleman’s book, than the fact that the Anons don’t know one another, and much more to their exploits than what happened with Sabu and the FBI. Counterposing Anonymous with the “strong ties” cited by Malcolm Gladwell in a New Yorker essay about the civil rights movement, as Lewis does, doesn’t make sense. There have been very strong ties indeed (up to and including marriages, Coleman cites) made in Anonymous. And the FBI has destroyed movements based on personal relationships and strong ties using the same methods they used against the Anons: infiltration, entrapment, suborning people and turning them into informants. Finally, the civil rights movement was a different era. As Lawrence Lessig argued in his lecture about Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide when he faced 35 years for taking journal articles from a university server because he wanted to make scientific research universally accessible (transcript here):

“Compare: Martin Luther King, the civil disobedient, was arrested on scores of misdemeanors. He was only ever charged with two felonies and acquitted by an all-white jury of those two felonies because the basis for the claims were so outrageous. He did jail time, scores of days in jail. Compare him with Aaron, charged with 13 felonies, giving a federal judge the right to sentence him to up to 35 years in jail.”

Given the shocking prosecutorial zealotry in cases against hackers, it is hard to fault Anonymous (or Assange or Snowden) for not wanting to get caught trying to make the world a better place. And, as Coleman points out, even after Sabu and the FBI raids, quite a few Anons never did get caught, and are still out there.

Coleman’s book helps us understand Anonymous by revealing it to be another form of political activism: people coming together to try to fight for a better world, using, in this case, their computers and direct action, sometimes illegally (as people who do civil disobedience do). Their fights – for free expression in a world of suppression, for privacy in a world of universal surveillance, for the non-alienated use of technology in a world of corporate control, against the abuse of power in a world of police and corporate impunity – are not going away. Neither will the system, which depends on people to run it, ever be completely invulnerable against people who develop skills within it and hold on to some semblance of their conscience. There will be a need for Anonymous for the foreseeable future. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, can show you where it came from.

Anti-Authoritarian Current: A Review of Dixon’s Another Politics

First published on TeleSUR 16 December 2014

In Another Politics, Chris Dixon presents a part of the North American left, defining it early on in the book as the “anti-authoritarian current”. A significant part of the book is dedicated to defining this current, its ideology, and its practices. Dixon is explicit about being a part of this current, and while the book raises some of the dilemmas and internal criticisms of the current, it is largely a celebration of the current’s beliefs and methods.

How is the current defined? Dixon identifies three strands: Antiracist feminism, prison abolitionism, and anarchism. Antiracist feminism is Dixon’s summary for what is sometimes called intersectional analysis or anti-oppression politics: the idea that there are multiple oppressions, along lines of gender, race, and class, and that true liberation requires liberation from all of these oppressions. Moreover, in this current, none of these oppressions can be assigned a place of primacy over the others. Prison abolitionism is “a set of politics aimed at the complete elimination of the institutions of incarceration” (pg. 38). On anarchism, Dixon emphasizes that this current is defined by a “reconfigured anarchism”, a bundle of features fusing “consensus decision-making, affinity groups, and direct action”, “a strongly prefigurative movement culture based on working together collectively, sharing resources equitably, challenging power relations, and supporting one another”, “along with a commitment to egalitarianism, mutual aid, and freedom as well as a far-reaching critique of domination.” The “glue that largely held it all together was a shared counterculture and template of activities” (pg. 42).

After defining these three strands, Dixon goes on to further define the current according to four “antis”: anti-authoritarianism, anti-capitalism, anti-oppression, and anti-imperialism. The four “antis” help define what the current is against; a chapter on prefigurative politics discusses the positive aspirations of the current as its members try to redefine relations within their groups as they challenge oppressive institutions in society.

Dixon traces the lineage of the anti-authoritarian current to North American left movements and organizations of past decades. For the book, Dixon interviewed dozens of members of the current across North America and studied dozens of existing organizations (listed at the end of the book pg. 239). Organizations whose work and analysis is given special emphasis in the book include: No One Is Illegal, Colours of Resistance, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. As a member of the political current under study, Dixon states that the research borrows from:

“’ethnography’ (analyzing lived culture by experiencing it), ‘participant observation’ (understanding how and why people do what they do by participating it), and ‘oral history’ (gathering history by inviting and listening to people’s stories). However, none of these methods has fully satisfied me, largely because they still rest on inside/outside distinctions between movements and researchers.” (pg. 12)

As the title of Dixon’s blog (http://writingwithmovements.com/) suggests, Dixon’s interest is in “writing not about or even for but with movements”. (pg. 12)

Dixon’s attempt to remove the “inside/outside distinction between movements and researchers” raises some philosophical questions: what is the role of an individual’s thoughts, or contributions, in the anti-authoritarian current? Another Politics has a high proportion of quotes from members of the current. Dixon’s writing practice is to lend weight to other voices. But it is clear that the interview subjects, the organizations, and the quotes were all selected by Dixon, and the presentation of Another Politics is Dixon’s vision of these politics.

Another philosophical question arises: can someone who writes with movements, who refuses inside/outside distinctions, be critical enough to challenge these movements? Can movement weaknesses and failings be seen from that inside position of a writer who writes with movements? On the other side, can criticisms of movements from the outside be ignored based on their outside origins?

Certainly the book is full of self-criticism, by both the author and the interview subjects. Pitfalls to prefigurative politics mentioned include “getting fixated on particular forms of talking rather than how those forms are connected to practical activities”, as “when organizers… master specialized anti-oppression vocabulary without substantially changing how their organizations function,” (pg. 98) or of focusing “narrowly on anti-oppression politics as a fixed set of behaviors and understandings that we can grasp individually, rather than as a dynamic set of politics, practices, and sensibilities” (pg. 100). What results is “absolutism”, involving “scrutinizing one another’s behavior, creating our own status hierarchies, and excluding those who don’t live up to our righteous standards” (pg. 101).

Pitfalls to the current’s strategic thinking include “a tendency to focus on principles over plans”. Based on “a legitimate concern that radicals may sacrifice our core values in order to win”, “focusing exclusively on principles slips into a kind of magical thinking” (pg. 111). Another strategic weakness is “a tendency to fetishize particular tactics”, especially direct action. Since the 1990s, “a narrow understanding of this tactical approach has gained some popularity among radicals. This mainly involves street protests and confrontations and confrontations with police, often including black bloc tactics.” (pg. 113) While “there is nothing wrong, in principle, with any of these tactics,” radicals can get stuck, “focusing most of our attention on debating the validity of certain tactics rather than on considering how those tactics fit into overall plans to achieve something” (pg. 113). Finally, Dixon criticizes “crisis mode organizing”, a tendency to work on urgent problems at the expense of long-term strategy (pg. 114).

Another Politics offers some thoughts towards addressing these pitfalls. The solution to the problems of prefigurative politics, Dixon proposes, is to remember that “prefigurative praxis… is genuinely transformative only as long as it is part of movements that are fighting to win a new world” (pg. 105). As for the strategic pitfalls, Dixon proposes a “movement-building orientation”, including anti-authoritarian notions of leadership that go beyond patriarchal notions of charismatic (usually male) individuals who lead organizations, and organizations that go “beyond subcultures and service providers” (pg. 139).

In a section about “minding the ruts” (pg. 201), Dixon criticizes traditional left organizational forms: the political party, the revolutionary party, the NGO, and the affinity group – all of which are one or another kind of “rut”. Here, Another Politics admits that organizations that don’t fall into these ruts are “something that another politics doesn’t yet fully have – a way to be critical, conscious, creative and constructive in how we approach organizational structures” (pg. 207).

Another Politics is well-organized and well-researched, a comprehensive look at the anti-authoritarian current in North America. As a result, the book’s limitations are really the limitations of the current itself. I, too, see myself as part of this current. But my assessment of the current’s doctrine and practice is less positive, and less optimistic than Dixon’s.

While I agree with most of the self-criticisms posed in Another Politics, I believe that the problems mentioned in the book (self-destructive internal dynamics and deficits of strategy) have been a major brake on political progress within the current and, thinking in terms of missed opportunities, in the society as well. If, as Another Politics reports, the anti-authoritarian current came into its own in the 1990s, this means that the current has been active for some two decades. In that period, established power has become stronger, inequalities have increased, union organization has declined, the political spectrum has shifted to the right, and US intervention has destroyed several countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Haiti, Libya, Syria). It would be terribly unfair to attribute these declines to a set of small groups of radicals in North America’s major cities, of course. But decades ago, when we were becoming politically active, the anti-authoritarian current defined itself against not only the systems of oppression in society, but also against the established left. Now, the anti-authoritarian current is becoming the establishment: in the two bases of the current, nonprofits and the academy, left politics are defined by the anti-authoritarian current more than any other rival left currents (such as old socialists). Another Politics reflects the anti-authoritarian current’s youthful attitude, arguing on the basis of potential and that the best is yet to come. I fear that our record so far does not match this prediction.

Part of the anti-authoritarian current’s limitations have to do with the lack of a base. The organizational forms mentioned as “ruts”, especially political parties, have been disdained by the activists of the anti-authoritarian current. But before that current even came into its own, the left had been largely kicked out of political parties and then kicked out of unions. Today, most Another Politics-type radicals in North America work through nonprofits or on campuses, both of which have severe limitations. The lost history of radicals in elected office is told in books like Eric Leif Davin’s Radicals in Power (2012), and Lipset and Marks’ It Didn’t Happen Here (2013). Some radical victories through unionism are discussed in Pizzigatti’s The Rich Don’t Always Win (2012). Another Politics devotes pages to discussing the pitfalls of sectarianism and the importance of a non-sectarian approach, but the anti-authoritarian current has been as sectarian as any other left current, which has meant that these other histories have not been incorporated into the anti-authoritarian current’s thinking.

In other words, if Another Politics is based on writing with movements, it could have offered a much stronger challenge to those movements. It is clear to me that there is a great deal to be learned before the left in North America is up to the task it is faced with. We learn more to the extent that we are willing to be uncomfortable. To the extent that Another Politics is celebratory, it makes its movement readers comfortable rather than uncomfortable, and it misses opportunities to make criticism and proposals that could strengthen movements.

Another Politics has a tension within it. On the one hand, it is trying to explain the movement – of which Dixon is a part – to outsiders, with all of its features, many of which are an important part of the author’s political identity. In these parts, Dixon writes like someone who is just discovering these remarkable people and organizations, and who is greatly impressed by them. On the other hand, Another Politics is written for the anti-authoritarian current, trying to show its members what kinds of dilemmas and problems its activists are thinking about. In these parts of the book, Dixon writes very gently and emphasizes that the weaknesses and pitfalls that are raised are in the process of being worked out.

The movement audience for the book could benefit from more discussion of our failures and limitations, as well as Dixon’s own thoughts and speculations about how to get beyond them, even if these thoughts go beyond what Dixon’s interviewees say.

In building up a picture of the common points and ideas of the current, Another Politics also left me wondering about areas of difference among members of the current. Such differences are the seeds of future splits and internal conflicts, and they, too, deserve more space.

Despite these criticisms, Another Politics is an invaluable snapshot of the North American left today. In recent years, a number of studies have attempted to measure the state of the left in North America. Alex Khasnabish’s 2008 book, Zapatismo Beyond Borders, followed North American radicals influenced by the Zapatistas of Mexico. The Ear to the Ground Project (http://eartothegroundproject.org/) is another massive initiative that is still yielding results. Dixon’s Another Politics is an important contribution in this literature. To understand the state of the left in North America, in all its aspirations and its limitations, Another Politics is an important book.

The Power of Crazy Ideas: A review of Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’

A review of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, by Naomi Klein (Simon and Schuster, 2014), 576 pgs.

Review first published at TeleSUR

Sources of misery in the world are difficult to rank, but any short list would have to include inequality, war, and environmental degradation. People who are concerned about inequality and war have historically been called leftists. Those who are concerned about the planet have been called environmentalists. Over the decades, they have distrusted one another, and synthesis has been elusive.

Environmentalists have argued that waiting for “the revolution” in order to try to save species from extinction, or prevent the planet from boiling over because of climate change, is denying the urgency of environmental problems. They have argued that, given the urgency of environmental problems, we have to use whatever mechanisms are available to us, from high-tech solutions to market mechanisms, to rich philanthropists. They point to spectacular environmental failures by the communist governments of China and Russia, as well as to numerous failures by left-leaning social democratic governments. They note how worker’s unions, who try to preserve work and jobs, can campaign to do so at the expense of nature.

On the other side, leftists see environmentalists as willing to displace people from their lands in order to preserve species against human influence and create biological reserves that are, in theory, inaccessible to anyone, but in practice, are usually accessible to elite tourists and scientists. They see environmentalists as willing to accept compromises with elites in ways that ultimately compromise not only left, but also environmental values. They view the concerns of humans as primary, and other species as a much more distant concern, which many environmentalists do not understand.

Some of the views environmentalists and leftists hold about one another are true, others are caricatures, and still others might be true now but could potentially change through dialogue and common action. Such a dialogue is urgent, since the planet, and the people, have the same enemy.

Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything is a step towards such a synthesis. It is interesting that the synthesis came from a writer of the left who spent years studying and working with the environmental movement, and becoming a part of it. Though Klein’s personal journey to meeting and joining the environmental movement, is described in the book, it is fundamentally an analysis and synthesis of the problem of climate change as a problem for social movements (or, in other words, as a problem for leftists).

Klein’s method of writing, which was followed in her previous book, The Shock Doctrine, is to carefully study the words and ideas of those in power, and then to travel the world and see what people are doing, learning from the analyses of movements that are contesting state and private power and combining them, revealing connections that, for those heavily involved in local struggles, can be hard to see. The result, in this book as in The Shock Doctrine, is to reveal a common enemy, to reveal common methods that the enemy uses, and to share methods of resistance that might prove promising.

In The Shock Doctrine, Klein described how the most vicious neoliberal doctrines were thought of as crazy ideas in the decades following WWII. The neoliberals persisted with their crazy ideas, and today we are all living under their heel. In the same spirit, This Changes Everything starts with an analysis of some of the crazy ideas of this moment, presented at right-wing climate-denying conferences which she attended and reports on. The deniers, Klein notes, deny the science of climate change because they don’t like its implications: that in order to prevent environmental catastrophe, societies will have to make massive changes to the economic system, a system that is serving the deniers and their funders very well. Klein argues that in their recognition that deep changes in the direction of equality would be needed to stabilize the climate, the right-wing deniers are not wrong. Indeed, they grasp something that many in the environmental movement fail to grasp: that economic changes deep enough to stabilize the climate are too deep to leave existing inequalities completely intact. In order to tackle climate change, Klein argues, we have to return to many of the social-democratic, Keynesian policies that are so despised by neoliberals: economic planning, regulation, progressive taxation, and redistribution, led by democratic governments playing a major role in the economy, with active movements pressuring them.

To recap: the book observes that the reason for climate denial is not that the political right lacks an understanding of the facts and the science, but instead that they deny the facts because they recognize better than most what the facts actually mean. Building on this observation, This Changes Everything proceeds to try to help readers in the environmental movement discard some bad ideas that have plagued the discussion of solutions to climate change.

The first illusion to discard is that the environment is an issue that unites the wealthy and the poor, an issue that transcends inequality.

“Environmentalists spoke of climate change as a great equalizer, the one issue that affected everyone, rich or poor,” writes Klein on page 52. “Yet all signs are that it is doing precisely the opposite, stratifying us further … divided between those whose wealth offers them a not insignificant measure of protection from ferocious weather … and those left to the mercy of increasingly dysfunctional states.”

But there are many others. Reviewing the record of environmental organizations making alliances with corporations, This Changes Everything finds that compromises beget compromises. The most dramatic example is the story of the extinction of the prairie chicken, whose breeding grounds, after being gifted to the Nature Conservancy, were destroyed by drilling by the Nature Conservancy. This Changes Everything also discards the current fashionable idea that philanthropists can stabilize the climate at the last minute.

The cautionary tale in this section is the story of Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines, who saw the light after watching Al Gore’s powerpoint presentation and proceeded to make grand promises and then to do absolutely nothing of any use for the climate, expanding his highly pollutant industries in the meantime. The brief and completely ineffectual history of cap-and-trade, carbon markets, and other climate market mechanisms that created speculative markets while emissions continued to increase, is also reviewed in the book.

The most terrifying section, however, is a crazy idea that is still sitting on the shelf. However, it’s inclusion in the book is more than merited in order to help inoculate readers before it becomes more prominent, as it likely will: the idea of manipulating the atmosphere directly, spraying toxins into the atmosphere on an ongoing basis to reduce sunlight reaching the earth, instead of trying to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. The risks of this lunacy (it would be insulting to call it a strategy) are catastrophic, and the potential benefits would be extremely unequal. The book notes that, when presented with geoengineering-type solutions to climate change, right-wingers who would ordinarily deny climate change are more inclined to believe in it — another piece of evidence that it is the implications that are really being denied, rather than the facts.

Geoengineering is only one of the high-tech bad ideas that are currently on offer to environmentalists. Bioengineering, carbon-capture and storage, ocean “fertilization,” and, of course, nuclear power as an alternative, are all put forward by one or another environmentalist as possible solutions. Because nuclear is an existing technology and perhaps the least crazy of the options, Klein handles it quite gently, advocating a gradual phase out of nuclear power; “prioritizing fossil fuels for cuts because the next decade is so critical,” she writes on page 138, proposing “a moratorium on new nuclear facilities a decommisioning of the oldest plans and then a full nuclear phase-out once renewables had decisively displaced fossil fuels.”

I agree with her conclusions here, but I believe that nuclear advocacy by environmentalists has been another diversion that has lost us precious time, like the others discussed in the middle section of This Changes Everything.

The problem with all of the bad ideas presented in the middle of the book is that they take for granted the world-view criticized in the book’s first section, a world-view that, following anti-mining activists, Klein summarizes as extractivism. In the third and final section of the book, Klein showcases many examples of resistance to extractivism from all over the world, including Canada, Greece, India, Nigeria, and many other places. Those who are fighting against the destruction of ecosystems, the basis of life where they live, are having to do so without institutional support and find themselves having to build their own systems of community and of survival, drawing on old traditions and on new experiments. In Greece, some of these activists used the term Blockadia, which Klein suggests could be seen as the changing, dynamic network of people resisting extractivism anywhere in the world. This section is a breath of fresh air (atmosphere pun intended). Where most environmental books present packages of policies, technologies, or laws, Klein presents the voices of people who are fighting for the lands and communities they live in and love.

The conclusion of the book is in her own voice, and returns to the Shock Doctrine parable of crazy ideas sitting on the shelf.

“Any attempt to rise to the climate challenge will be fruitless unless it is understood as part of a much broader battle of worldviews, a process of rebuilding and reinventing the very idea of the collective, the communal, the commons, the civil, and the civic after so many decades of attack and neglect,” she writes on page 460.

After so many decades of neoliberalism, the ideas presented in This Changes Everything are the crazy ones. Read them, and when the opportunity arises, as it will, reach for them, and not for geoengineering, nukes, philanthrocapitalists, and climate markets.