Archive | August, 2012

Chronic disease

24 Aug

I would like to give a new meaning to chronic disease. The usual one is, roughly, an illness that cannot be treated and does not go away. But I would like to redefine it as a chronic unease, a refusal or incapacity to remain impermeable to reality. Today I listened to a radio interview with Susan Rosenthal who does not believe in mental illness. She says that the mind cannot be sick, but rather, social relationships are sick. The effect of a sick society on an individual is mental suffering, not mental illness. The fact that health problems are strongly related to oppression and social unequalities has been known for over a century and basically ignored. Systems of domination create anger and intense suffering, which cannot be treated at the level of the individual.

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire says that “When their efforts to act responsibly are frustrated, when they find themselves unable to use their faculties, people suffer”. How often do I find my efforts to think for myself and act according to my convictions censured? I will soon write about some of these situations and why I react so strongly to them, but the fact is that I see a desperate need for social change, for social justice, for equality, not only on a global scale but in the all-pervasive structures of dominance which institutionalize violence and oppression, thus preventing us from truly connecting with one another, from expressing our creativity and our humanity, and from having a real effect on the world we share.

And it makes me sick. I am physically sick and it’s not because I cannot deal with stress, it’s not because I haven’t meditated today, it’s not because I need therapy,  it’s not because I should pull myself together, it’s not because I’m bourgeois and lazy. It’s because the world is sick, because I confront that fact every day and am asked to stay calm and let things follow their course while I wait for them to change in small increments, over time, in ways that will appease public opinion without challenging the status quo until, one day soon, we can all be happy in a wonderful world. I cannot believe in this mythology. In a situation like this, believe me, it’s only healthy to be sick.

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Anarchism Gathering 4 – Lecturing and participation

21 Aug

Following up on an older post, Xavier Renou did make some mistakes. Earlier in the day, he had led an interactive workshop in which he asked participants to signal their opinion about particular acts of civil disobedience by positioning themselves in a room divided into four intersecting poles: “violent”, or “non-violent”, and “would do” or “would not do”. He then used participants’ interventions in order to articulate the politics adopted by his collective. The approach was constructive in that it helped us understand how the approach of non-violent direct action works in relation to our own personal standpoints and to discern clearly which issues it is aimed to address. However, the workshop was not meant to enable the exploration of alternative strategies together but only to affirm Xavier’s experience with civil disobedience as valid. A woman interrupted his demonstration of the way one can wriggle around policemen to slow down arrest and expressed her concern with the technique presented. She said that while it might be useful in Western countries where police violence is seldom used, it does little to help activists who experience serious confrontation with armed forces. Xavier’s reply was that his approach entails that by the time direct action is taken, mainstream media will be present and popular opinion won, so that police will avoid using violence. While this is a valid response within Xavier’s own framework, it did not encourage discussion and effectively silenced the woman and her friends, who left as soon as he resumed his demonstration.

The discrepancy between Xavier’s intention – to introduce us to civil disobedience as defined by his collective – and participants’ expectations – to create a space in which tactics of violence and non-violence in direct action could be discussed – led to very tangible tensions the same evening when Xavier lectured about his politics of civil disobedience with the help of a powerpoint presentation. By postponing the possibility of discussion to the end of his talk, he tried to make sure not only that he would not be interrupted, but also that his position could be voiced in priority and then by reaffirmed during the question session. This unequality between a speaker placed in a position of power and listeners placed in a position of passivity is not caused by Xavier in particular but by lecturing in general. The lecturer necessarily endorses an authoritative role and knowledge is imposed on the audience rather than constructed by the people present. Perhaps it was a little naive to assume that a bunch of anarchists would be willing to sit and listen (also some of us certainly were). But more importantly, anarchists need to reflect on what knowledge means and in what conditions learning can take place, and then give speakers the means to attain these goals.

Teaching at a private school

18 Aug

According to Jeff Schmidt, work is political because “it affects the distribution of power in society” (video). Of course, as an employee, you have to protect the interests of your employer, and thus reinforce the system of domination that provides our unequal society with “justice and order”, including your own oppression. But who has the most blood on their hands, the working class murderers who end up in jail or the traders and lawyers to whom I gave language classes? Many of the employees I met in large companies were clearly discontented with their job conditions. I find it hard to imagine being led from country to country at your employer’s whim only to realize ten years later that the promotion you were hoping to get was meant, from the start, for the colleague who went to the same prestigious business school as your boss. Good job, doggy, good job! Now go back to work and sacrifice the rest of your life unless you’d rather be fired. The employees I had as students also voiced how mindlessly they entered the vicious circle of needing a job after college in order to make money, then getting an apartment and a car, then getting married and buying a house, and then realising that you need to stay at the mercy of your employer until retirement just to maintain your material privilege and the social status that goes with it. Of course, the system of domination which allows entire populations to be trampled on for the economic interests of large companies operates through the same logic of systemic violence when it disregards employees. How workers manage to deal with their conscience, how they convince themselves to adhere to the company’s ideology, how they put their mind on “business as usual” in the face of so much violence is beyond me. Unless, perhaps, they do it through the very same process that enabled me to work for this private school for over two years?

Anarchism Gathering 3 – tensions

17 Aug

In the evening, we crammed ourselves into a small, unventilated room to hear Xavier Renou talk about civil disobedience and violence/non-violence. Given the title of the talk, some participants were clearly expecting a debate on the use of violence versus non-violence in activism, when instead they found Xavier standing next to his Powerpoint slides to advocate the practices of his collective, “Les Désobéissants“. When it became clear that there wasn’t going to be any interaction until the question and answer session scheduled for the end of the talk, some started to protest. In front of the roomful of anarchists asking whether they could participate, Xavier said something like “I am going to explain what I mean by civil disobedience first and then we will have a discussion”. Tension started to mount ostensibly: interruptions manifesting discontent became more frequent, participants who wanted to hear the presentation were irritated, and Xavier became more anxious since the remarks he had to address lengthened his talk, thus leaving less room for discussion at the end. When he did finish, the situation was a mess: some wanted to have the discussion out of doors so that other people could join, others were already voicing their discontent right there. All constructive talk became impossible, and unsurprisingly the few individuals who were heard were white males, because they shouted louder than others and knew how to take control of the space. It was just my idea of the popular stereotype of anarchism as chaos.

Before that, there had been intelligent interventions, but they were not taken into account. Someone suggested that since this talk was clearly not intended as a conversation, and since it had been pointed out that there was no space to discuss violence at the gathering, an assembly could be organized the following day in order to remedy the situation. Another participant asked why this presentation had to be interrupted when many such talks had been allowed to be conducted before. But their words were lost, partly because the space was crowded and consensual decision-making would have required a moderator, and mainly because, as a result, a few individuals managed to impose on the conversation and voluntarily made it escalate. I left soon after that: there was no way I could have made myself heard and I no longer felt safe.

In order to work, anarchism needs flexible structures of organisation, but more than anything it requires that all types of domination be acknowledged and addressed, especially within the movement. According to Uri Gordon in Anarchy Alive!, the movement is not impervious to the dominant structures of power: “patterns of domination in society are imprinted on interactions within it – uncovering dynamics of racist, sexist, ageist or homophobic behaviour” (52). If anarchist politics promote the adequation between the means of the revolution and its desired outcome, then challenging unspoken assumptions of unequality must become a priority. Otherwise we’ll only be fighting one another.

Reimagining queer community

15 Aug

“What makes the so-called queer community so incredibly exclusive that almost nobody ever seems to feel as though they belong? I was […] curious as to what exactly everybody in my group was looking for in the ideal queer community.” Rachel

I read Rachel’s perzine on the train to the anarchist gathering last Saturday, and it helped me reflect on the notion of alternative communities as home over the day. Queer communities, but also other subcultural communities in my experience, nurture the ideas that a deep sense of connection unites their members and regularly use the words “home” or even “family” to describe such ties. However, like Rachel, I have often felt like I wasn’t elligible for this particular kind of belonging, or perhaps that I didn’t know the proper code for entry. I have sometimes attributed this failure to the fact that I am part of a bisexual group which occasionally has trouble being acknowledged as viably “queer” by other LGBTIQ people. However, Rachel questions the very foundations of these assumptions by asking: “If this so-called queer community were accessible, why do all the queer-identified people in my life keep telling me that they don’t feel as though they are a part of it?” Interestingly, she admits that what has helped her develop a sense of validation in such spaces was to write and distribute zines that give her a voice and provide recognition. Further, what I understand from the rest of the zine is that by the same logic, leaving aside identity politics in order to resist assimilation into corporate culture makes us more powerful and leads queer communities out of their self-referential questioning. “Our Pride is NOTE for sale”, she claims, and I take it to mean that fighting side by side brings a stronger sense of solidarity which, perhaps, could redifine queer participants as comrades struggling together rather than as brothers and sisters in an idealized family controlled by corporations or the state.

Anarchism Gathering 2 – anarcha-feminism

14 Aug

One of the first things I did when I arrived was to attend a meeting on anarcha-feminism. Although the programme called it a round table it was really an assembly. I soon understood that there were many problems with misogynistic behaviour at the camp, which is why a women-only meeting had been called to discuss a chart which we hoped to distribute at the gathering to draw attention to pressing gender-related issues. It was a bit of a shock to realize that there is such a thing as macho anarchists (I will come back to this in a future post), but the assembly I took part in was extremely interesting since it was my first direct experience of anarchist decision making. First, translators volunteered for four languages and a moderator was appointed. Then, the chart prepared by a work group was presented and discussed, using a few hand signals in order to facilitate consensual decision making without any interuption. A microphone was passed to women who wished to contribute to the discussion. We were sitting in a half circle, which made it fairly easy to see what was happening among us and react to it. Once it was clear that we were going to print out the chart as it stood, someone volunteered to translate it into Spanish and money was collected to cover the costs. Then, at the request of a group of women who had encountered problems the previous night – and with the support and concern from other women in the group – the discussion turned to their experience. Finally, another meeting was scheduled for the same day as a follow-up.

The organization of the anarcha-feminist meeting was far from perfect: the topic jumped back and forth at times, everyone couldn’t see everyone else, I volunteered to translate into English but never found out for whom I was supposed to translate, and some hands were raised longer than others before receiving a microphone. The meeting was effective but far from seamless. Still, it showed me exactly how a consensual decision is reached in a large group, how everyone can get heard, and how to make the most of the resources at hand. More importantly, I realized how willing I am to take part when I feel truly included. I had only just arrived and didn’t know anyone, and yet I was able not only to sit and understand but to participate actively in the process. It gave me faith that self-management is very effective when it is properly structured, and that everyone can be involved in decision-making.

Anarchism Gathering 1 – inclusiveness

13 Aug

On Saturday I went to St-Imier in the Swiss Jura to take part in the first international anarchism gathering in almost 30 years, which took place in the region where the very first Internationale was hosted by Bakounine in 1872. I wanted to see the principles of anarchism in practice, test some of my ideas on reality, and observe where the movement is heading. The crowd was varied in terms of age, gender, race, and nationality, the small town was quiet and the weather beautiful. It was fun to see anarchists everywhere on the streets, more numerous than the inhabitants venturing outside. I walked around town, saw an arts exhibition, bought zines at the book fair, read outside by the river, listened to traditional anarchist songs, went to a workshop on civil disobedience, participated in an anarcha-feminist assembly, attended a lecture on non-violent action, and chatted with an Austrian who has recently discovered anarchist politics.

Like other alternative gatherings I have been to (such as BiCon), it was both extremely stimulating and a little overwhelming. You get to see an alternative world in action: free prices, vegan food, cooperation, creativity and plans for a revolution become the norm. For a short time, society follows a different set of principles and organises itself around other values according to self-management. Instead of wondering if I’m competent, I found myself volunteering. Instead of asking someone for permission or confirmation, I realized I could enact what I wish to see. I forgot to wonder whether I fit in and started taking an active part in the event. Personal boundaries and assumptions were thus questioned and sometimes directly challenged. I hope that the experience will inform my daily life in the future so I can keep this alive. If you have been to the gathering, I would love to hear from you!