George Orwell on equality in Spain 1936-37.

George Orwell. Homage to Catalonia.

This was in late December 1936, less than seven months ago as I write, and yet it is a period that has already receded into enormous distance. Later events have obliterated it much more completely than they have obliterated 1935, or 1905, for that matter. I had come to Spain with the notion of writing newspaper articles, but I joined the militia almost immediately, because at the time and in that atmosphere it seemed like the only conceivable thing to do. The Anarchists had virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing. To anyone who had been there since the beginning it probably seemed even in December or January that the revolutionary period was ending; but when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and cafe had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. (8).

. . .

I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites. Up here in Aragon one was among tens of thousands of people, mainly though not entirely of working-class origin, all living at the same level and mingling on terms of equality. In theory it was perfect equality, and even in practice it was not far from it. There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilized life –snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc. –had ceased to exist. The ordinary class-division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tainted air of England; there was no one there except the peasants and ourselves, and no one owned anyone else as his master. Of course such a state of affairs could not last. It was simply a temporary and local phase in an enormous game that is being played over the surface of the earth. But it lasted long enough to have its effect upon anyone who experienced it. However much one cursed at the time, one realized afterwards that one had been in contact with something strange and valuable. One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality. I am well aware that it is now the fashion to deny that Socialism has anything to do with equality. In every country in the world a huge tribe of party-hacks and sleek little professors are busy ‘proving’ that Socialism means no more than planned state-capitalism with the grab-motive left intact. But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this. The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the ‘mystique’ of Socialism, is the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all. And it was here that those few months in the militia were valuable to me. For the Spanish militias, while they lasted, were a sort of microcosm of a classless society. In that community where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no boot-licking, one got, perhaps a crude forecast of what the opening stages of Socialism might be like. And, after all, instead of disillusioning me it deeply attracted me. The effect was to make my desire to see Socialism established much more actual than before. Partly, perhaps, this was due to the good luck of having been among Spaniards, who, with their innate decency and their ever-present Anarchist tinge, would make even the opening stages of Socialism tolerable if they had the chance. (101-103).

 

 

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A social networking site could be the internet’s democratic compass.

Imagine a website that could reconfigure the internet –something that could redefine social networking, journalism, democracy, and the internet itself, amongst other things.

Imagine a website designed around allowing anyone to create a portal or page for whatever issue they are concerned about. Attached to each issue portal there could be polls, forums, journalism, and archives of all the statistics and writings which get gathered through this process.

Imagine a website that collected statistics on how many people support or oppose any and all issues. Polling statistics would be gathered from all open sources as well as through the site’s social networking face –which itself serves as a place for people to have their opinions officially registered and archived.

Imagine a website with check-and-balance powers in relation to governments and corporations. The facts of who is fore or opposed to every issue could be contrasted with what governments do in those cases. This site would serve the purpose of giving people a place to go to have their voices heard, archived, and retrievable on any issue.

I am picturing something which can be continuously developed and changed by participants, so it could serve different functions as time progresses and it could be different things to different people. It could be primarily an activism-oriented social network; it could be primarily a new framework for journalism –with stories linked to specific issues which would have discussions and polls ongoing, archived, and accessible for analysis by anyone; it could be primarily about discussions concerning specific issues; it could be primarily about polling; it could be primarily about freedom of information –having the facts of what specific numbers of people think about a vast array of specific issues.  These facts could then be used to petition governments or corporations to change their ways, but just as important would be the use of transparent and freely accessible information as a cornerstone for building new societies. It could also be key to keeping the internet open to such uses as this.

Swarj –no submission and no exploitation.

What does it mean to work together as equals? It involves a shared commitment to resisting the systems of oppression which exist in subtle interactions and glaring power dynamics. It involves resisting the perks of being in a privileged position over others. It also involves refusing to be oppressed by others. In the words of Vinoba Bhave –who carried Gandhi’s torch,

If I am under some other person’s command, where is my own self-government? Self-government means ruling over your own self. It is one mark of swaraj not to allow any outside power in the world to exercise control over oneself. And the second mark of swaraj is not to exercise power over any other. These two things together make swaraj –no submission and no exploitation.    [Domestic values. Quoted in Anarchism Today. The MacMIllian Press. 1971. Edited by B.E Apter and James Joll.]

Iroquois democracy

The following quotation is from a statement presented before a U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing  (on Senate Resolution S. Con. 76) in 1987 to recognize the Iroquois origin of the U.S. Constitution, spoken by the Honorable Oren Lyons, speaker for the Onondaga Nation. Found in, “Putting Power in its Place: Create Community Control!” Edited by Christopher Plant & Judith Plant. New Society Publishers. Philadelphia, Pa and Gabriola Island, BC. 1992. (70-73)

Early history, prior to the coming of the white man to this continent, receives little attention in the history books. But it was in these early times that the development of democratic processes came about on this land.

Upon the continent of North America, prior to the landfall of the white man, a great league of peace was formed, the inspiration of a prophet called the Peacemaker. He was a spiritual being, fulfilling the mission of organizing warring nations into a confederation under the Great Law of Peace. The principles of the law are peace, equity, justice, and the power of the good minds.

With the help and support of a like-minded man called Aionwatha, whom some people now call Hiawatha, an Onondaga by birth and a Mohawk by adoption, he set about the great work of establishing a union of peace under the immutable natural laws of the universe. He came to our Iroquois lands in our darkest hour, when the good message of how to live had been cast aside and naked power ruled, fueled by vengeance and blood lust. A great war of attrition engulfed the lands, and women and children cowered in fear of their own men. The leaders were fierce and merciless. They were fighting in a blind rage. Nations, homes, and families were destroyed, and the people were scattered. It was a dismal world of dark disasters where there seemed to be no hope. It was raging proof of what inhumanity man is capable of when the laws and principles of life are thrown away.

The peacemaker came to our lands, bringing the message of peace, supported by Aionwatha. He began the great work of healing the twisted minds of men. This is a long history, too long to recount here. Suffice it to say it is a great epic that culminated on the shores of the lake called Onondaga where, after many years of hard work –some say perhaps even 100 years –he gathered the leaders, who had now become transformed into rational beings, into a Grand Council, and he began the instructions of how the Great Law of Peace would work.

The Peacemaker set up the families into clans, and then he set up the leaders of the clans. He established that the League of Peace would be matriarchal and that each clan would have a clanmother. Thus, he established in law the equal rights of women.

He raised the leaders of each clan –two men, one the principal leader and the second his partner. They worked together for the good of the people. He called these two men royane, or the good minds, the peacemakers, and they were to represent the clans in council. Thus, he established the principles of representation of people in government.

Henceforth, he said, these men will be chosen by the clan mother, freely using her insight and wisdom. Her choice must first be ratified by the consensus of the clan. If they agree, then her choice must be ratified by full consensus of the Chiefs’ Council of their nation. Then her choice must be ratified and given to over to the Council of Chiefs who then call the Grand Council of the Great League of Peace, and they will gather at the nation that is raising the leader, and they would work together in ceremony.

He made two houses in each nation. One he called the Long House and the other he called the Mud House. They would work together in ceremony and council establishing the inner source of vitality and dynamics necessary for community.

He made two houses in the Grand Council, one called the Younger Brothers, consisting of the Oneida and the Cayuga Nations and later enlarging to include the Tuscarora. The other was the Elder Brothers, consisting of the Mohawks with the title Keepers of the Eastern Door, the Onondaga, whom he made the Firekeepers, and the Senecas, who were the Keepers of the Western Door. Now, he made the house, and the rafters of the house were the laws that he laid down, and he called us the Haudenosaunee: the people of the Longhouse.

Now, the candidate for the clan title is brought before the Grand Council and will be judged on his merits, and they have the right to veto. If they agree, then he may take his place in the Grand Council. But before that, he is turned back to the people, and they are asked if they know a reason why this man should not be a leader and hold title. Thus, the process is full circle back to the people.

Thus, the peacemaker established the process of raising leaders for governance, and, by this process, a leader cannot be self-proclaimed. He is given his title and his duties, and his authority is derived from the people, and the people have the right to remove him for malfeasance of office.

He established the power of recall in the clanmother, and it is her duty to speak to him if she is receiving complaints from the people concerning his conduct. The clanmother shall speak to him three times, giving sufficient time between warnings for him to change his ways. She shall have a witness each time. The first will be her niece, in other words, a woman. The second shall be the partner of the chief in council or the principal leader, as the case may be. And the third and final warning comes with a man who holds no title, and he is coming for the chief’s wampum and for the chief’s emblem of authority, the antlers of a deer. Thus he established the power of recall vested in the people.

The leader must be free from any crime against a woman or a child. He cannot have killed anybody and cannot have blood on his hands. He must believe in the ways of the Longhouse. His heart must have great compassion for his people. He must withstand the accusations, slander, and insults of the people as he goes about his duties for the people. He has no authority but what the people give him in respect. He has no force of arms to demand the people obey his orders. He shall lead by example, and his family shall not influence his judgement. He carries his title for life or until he is relieved of it by bad conduct or ill health. He now belongs to the people.

At the first council, there were 50 original leaders, and their names became offices to be filled by each succeeding generation. So, it continues up to this very day. The Great Peacemaker had established a government of absolute democracy, the constitution of the great law intertwined with the spiritual law.

We then became a nation of laws. The People came of their own free will to participate in the decision-making of the national council and the Grand Council. Thus, the Peacemaker instilled in the nations the inherent rights of the individual with the process to protect and exercise these rights.

If for no other reason, this has relevance for re-interpreting history so as to include buried narratives.

Beuys and Böll’s free school manifesto.

For this entry I am quoting in full the “Manifesto on the foundation of a “Free International School for Creativity and Inter disciplinary Research” written by Joseph Beuys and Heinrich Böll in 1973.  This is a particular sort of initiative which I am interested in reviving.

Creativity is not limited to people practicing one of the traditional forms of art, and even in the case of artists creativity is not confined to the exercise of their art.  Each one of us has a creative potential which is hidden by competitiveness and success-aggression.  To recognize, explore and develop this potential is the task of the school.

 Creation—whether it be a painting, sculpture, symphony or novel, involves not merely talent, intuition, powers of imagination and application, but also the ability to shape material that could be expanded to other socially relevant spheres.

 Conversely, when we consider the ability to organize material that is expected of a worker, a housewife, a farmer, doctor, philosopher, judge or works manager, we find that their work by no means exhausts the full range of their creative abilities.

 Whereas the specialist’s insulated point of view places the arts and other kinds of work in sharp opposition, it is in fact crucial that the structural, formal and thematic problems of the various work processes should be constantly compared with one another.

 The school does not discount the specialist, nor does it adopt an anti-technological stance.  It does, however reject the idea of experts and technicians being the sole arbiters in their respective fields.  In a spirit of democratic creativity, without regressing to merely mechanical defensive or aggressive clichés, we shall discover the inherent reason in things.

 In a new definition of creativity the terms professional and dilettante are surpassed, and the fallacy of the unworldly artist and the alienated non-artist is abandoned.

 The founders of the school look for creative stimulation from foreigners working here.  This is not to say that it is a prerequisite that we learn from them or that they learn from us.  Their cultural traditions and way of life call forth an exchange of creativity that must go beyond preoccupation with varying art forms to a comparison of the structures, formulations and verbal expressions of the material pillars of social life:  law, economics, science, religion, and then move on to the investigation or exploration of the “creativity of the democratic.”

 The creativity of the democratic is increasingly discouraged by the progress of bureaucracy, coupled with the aggressive proliferation of an international mass culture.  Political creativity is being reduced to the mere delegation of decision and power.  The imposition of an international cultural and economic dictatorship by the constantly expanding combines leads to a loss of articulation, learning and the quality of verbal expression.

 In the consumer society, creativity, imagination and intelligence, not articulated, their expression prevented, become defective, harmful and damaging—in contrast to a democratic society—and find outlets in corrupted criminal creativity.  Criminality can arise from boredom, from inarticulated creativity.   To be reduced to consumer values, to see democratic potential reduced to the occasional election, this can also be regarded as a rejection or a dismissal of democratic creativity.

 Environmental pollution advances parallel with a pollution of the world within us.  Hope is denounced as utopian or as illusionary, and discarded hope breeds violence.  In the school we shall research into the numerous forms of violence, which are by no means confined to those of weapons or physical force.

 As a forum for the confrontation of political or social opponents, the school can set up a permanent seminar on social behavior and its articulate expression.

 The founders of the school proceed from the knowledge that since 1945, along with the brutality of the reconstruction period, the gross privileges afforded by monetary reforms, the crude accumulation of possessions and an upbringing resulting in an expense account mentality, many insights and initiatives have been prematurely shattered.  The realistic attitude of those who do survive, the idea that living might be the purpose of existence, has been denounced as a romantic fallacy.  The Nazis’ blood and soil doctrine, which ravaged the land and spilled the blood, has disturbed our relation to tradition and environment.  Now, however, it is no longer regarded as romantic but exceedingly realistic to fight for every tree, every plot of undeveloped land, every stream as yet unpoisoned, every old town center, and against every thoughtless reconstruction scheme.  And it is no longer considered romantic to speak of nature.  In the permanent trade competition and performance of the two German political systems which have successfully exerted themselves for world recognition, the values of life have been lost.  Since the school’s concern is with the values of life we shall stress the consciousness of solidarity.  The school is based on the principle of interaction, whereby no institutional distinction is drawn between the teachers and the taught.  The school’s activity will be accessible to the public, and it will conduct its work in the public eye.  Its open and international character will be constantly reinforced by exhibitions and events in keeping with the concept of creativity.

 “Non-artists” could initially be encouraged to discover or explore their creativity by artists attempting to communicate and to explain—in an undidactic manner—the elements and the coordination of their creativity.  At the same time we would seek to find out why laws and disciplines in the arts invariably stant in creative opposition to established law and order.

 It is not the aim of the school to develop political and cultural directions, or to form styles, or to provide industrial and commercial prototypes.  Its chief goal is the encouragement, discovery and furtherance of democratic potential, and the expression of this.  In a world increasingly manipulated by publicity, political propaganda, the culture business and the press, it is not to the named—but the nameless—that it will offer a forum.

Reprinted in Energy Plan for the Western Man:  Joseph Beuys in America, Writings by and Interviews with the Artist, compiled by Carin Kuoni.  New York:  Four Walls Eight Windows, 1990.

 

How systematic oppression hurts everyone involved.

James Baldwin aptly sums up the point I want to bring out in this post, which supports what was said in another post.

It is a terrible, an inexorable, law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own: in the face of one’s victim one sees oneself. (Nobody knows my name, 78)

In this post I have a few more quotes to share which shed further light on how systematic oppression hurts everyone involved. Even if, in a clear example, slave owners believe they are profiting from owning slaves, they are doing harm to their own humanity. Frederick Douglass gives a stirring account of this happening through his own experience of being sent as a slave child to live with a young couple who had never owned slaves before.

My mistress was, as I have said, a kind tenderhearted woman; and in the simplicity of her soul she commenced, when I first went to live with her, to treat me as she supposed one human being ought to treat another. In entering upon the duties of a slaveholder, she did not seem to perceive that I sustained to her the relation of mere chattel, and that for her to treat me as a human being was not only wrong, but dangerously so. Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach. Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of those heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness. The first step in her downward course was in her ceasing to instruct me [to read]. She now commenced to practice her husband’s precepts. She finally became even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself. She was not satisfied with simply doing as well as he had commanded; she seemed anxious to do better. Nothing seemed to make her more angry than to see me with a newspaper. She seemed to think that here lay the danger. I have had her rush at me with a face made up of fury, and snatch from me a newspaper, in a manner that fully revealed her apprehension.  (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. 81-82)

While traveling in Africa in 1965 Malcolm X arrived at a new insight about the way in which a racist atmosphere sinks into the psychology of individuals.

I told him, “What you are telling me is that it isn’t the American white man who is a racist, but it’s the American political, economic, and social atmosphere that automatically nourishes a racist psychology in the white man.” He agreed.

We both agreed that American society makes it impossible for humans to meet in America and not be conscious of their color differences. And we both agreed that if racism could be removed, America could offer a society where rich and poor could truly live like human beings.

That discussion with the ambassador gave me a new insight –one which I like: that the white man is not inherently evil, but America’s racist society influences him to act evilly. The society has produced and nourishes a psychology which brings out the lowest, most base part of human beings. (The Autobiography of Malcolm X. 371)

The last quote I want to relate to these others is from Michel Foucault.

Do not regard power as a phenomenon of homogenous domination –the domination of one individual over others, of one group over others, or of one class over others: keep it clearly in mind that unless we are looking at it from a great height and from a very great distance, power is not something that is divided between those who have it and hold it exclusively, and those who do not have it and are subject to it. Power must, I think, be analyzed as something that circulates, or rather as something that functions only when it is part of a chain. It is never localized here or there, it is never in the hands of some, and it is never appropriated in the way that wealth or a commodity can be appropriated. Power functions. Power is exercised through networks, and individuals do not simply circulate in those networks; they are in a position to both submit to and exercise this power. They are never the inert or consenting targets of power; they are always its relays. In other words, power passes through individuals. It is not applied to them. (Society must be defended, lectures, 14 January 1976)

In all of this I see the importance of forming new networks so that power can circulate in liberating ways rather than oppressive ways. The problem with systematic oppression is that the oppressive system is within –and functions through –each individual. It is not just the 1% who are to blame for perpetuating this system. Each person relays power through everyday interactions. How can this situation be changed? In my opinion an important change happens when individuals choose to give power to each other –share power through solidarity –rather than exercise power over each other.

Howard Zinn’s vision

 

From the chapter, “The coming revolt of the guards,” in Howard Zinn‘s A People’s History of the United States.

Let us be utopian for a moment so that when we get realistic again it is not that “realism” so useful to the Establishment in its discouragement of action, that “realism” anchored to a certain kind of history empty of surprise. Let us imagine what radical change would require of us all.

The society’s levers of powers would have to be taken away from those whose drives have led to the present state –giant corporations, the military, and their politician collaborators. We would need –by a coordinated effort of local groups all over the country –to reconstruct the economy for both efficiency and justice, producing in a cooperative way what people need most. We would start on our neighborhoods, our cities, our workplaces. Work of some kind would be needed by everyone, including people now kept out of the work force –children, old people, “handicapped” people. Society could use the enormous energy now idle, the skills and talents now unused. Everyone could share the routine but necessary jobs for a few hours a day, and leave most of the time free for enjoyment, creativity, labors of love, and yet produce enough for an equal and ample distribution of goods. Certain basic things would be abundant enough to be taken out of the money system and be available –free –to everyone: food, housing, health care, education, transportation.

The great problem would be to work out a way of accomplishing this without a centralized bureaucracy, using not the incentives of prison and punishment, but those incentives of cooperation which spring from natural human desires, which in the past have been used by the state in times of war, but also by social movements that gave hints of how people might behave in different conditions. Decisions would be made by small groups of people in their workplaces, their neighborhoods –a network of cooperatives, in communication with one another, a neighborly socialism avoiding the class hierarchies of capitalism and the harsh dictatorships that have taken the name “socialist.”

People in time, in friendly communities, might create a new, diversified, nonviolent culture, in which all forms of personal and group expression would be impossible. Men and women, black and white, old and young, could then cherish their differences as positive attributes, not as reasons for domination. New values of cooperation and freedom might then show up in the relations of people, the upbringing of children.

To do all that, in the complex conditions of control in the United States, would require combining the energy of all previous movements in American history –of labor insurgents, black rebels, Native Americans, women, young people –along with the new energy of an angry middle class. People would need to begin to transform their immediate environments –the workplace, the family, the school, the community –by a series of struggles against absentee authority, to give control of these places to the people who live and work there.

These struggles would involve all the tactics used at various times in the past by people’s movements: demonstrations, marches, civil disobedience; strikes and boycotts and general strikes; direst action to redistribute wealth, to reconstruct institutions, to revamp relationships; creating –in music, literature, drama, all the arts, and all the areas of work and play in everyday life –a new culture of sharing, of respect, a new joy in the collaboration of people to help themselves and one another.

There would be many defeats. But when such a movement took hold in hundreds of thousands of people all over the country it would be impossible to suppress, because the very guards the system depends on to crush such a movement would be among the rebels. It would be a new kind of revolution, the only kind that could happen, I believe, in a country like the United States. It would take enormous energy, sacrifice, commitment, patience. But because it would be a process over time, starting without delay, there would be the immediate satisfactions that people have always found in the affectionate ties of groups striving together for a common goal.  (638-640)

What would Howard Zinn have to say about new possibilities for global revolution now that the world has changed so much since Zinn’s death about a year ago? I think he would expand on the vision articulated above, applying it to global networks of local communities, pointing to the joy and community spirit felt in Tahrir and other squares where people stood together in solidarity as examples of how new kinds of struggles can lead to new mentalities of cooperation.