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).



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.

Transcending gender.

In this short video Judith Butler explains what it means for gender to be performative and how that relates to how gender identities are forced onto people through hetronormative reactions by people who observe others interacting with the world around them.

In the following video the good folks at the PBS idea channel further extrapolate on the performative phenomena of gender.

Next, a blogger going by the name queersocialistdave expresses the need to rebel against hetronormativity.

Androgyny or genderqueerness is about the liberation of the body and mind from the constraints of heteronormative patriarchal capitalist society. It is a way of rebelling against the norms laid down by this oppressive social order and refusing to live one’s life in conformity with them. It is about being a more balanced, whole person, able to draw upon all aspects of one’s character, whether these be labeled masculine, feminine or otherwise. It is about not limiting oneself to an artificially fixed role. It is about not living in a role that is a socially constructed straight-jacket. It is about fulfilling one’s potential as a sexual being. Patriarchy oppresses both women and men in different ways, heternormativity oppresses both “straights” and queers in different ways, and capitalism oppresses the vast majority of us on every level. We all should feel free to dare to break out of this bourgeois-hegemonistic view of gender and sexuality that controls us, just as we should all dare to break free of every aspect of the hegemony imposed upon us by the ruling class. As well as class warriors, we should dare to be gender rebels, transgressors, subversives – in short, revolutionaries. When we dare to do this we will see there isn’t one among of us who isn’t a little bit queer.  queersocialistdave, from the post, Androgyny and Gender Performativity in Queer Identity Politics

I will add to all this that the responsibility to rebel against patriarchal order lies not just with those who identify as queer, bisexual, transgender or any other norm-diverging gender, but with everyone who cares about being part of the solution rather than part of the problem, with everyone who wants to be free of the illusion-creating matrix of systematic oppression. Being free of patriarchal conceptions of gender is key to spiritual liberty as well. What gender is detachment? What gender is Buddha-nature? In Transmission of Light, Keizan (1268-1325) wrote, “If you are not detached from appearances of maleness and femaleness, whatever you do is mundane activity, not buddha work.”

In an interview with Liz Kotz, Judith Butler states, “I don’t believe that gender, race, or sexuality have to be identities, I think that they’re vectors of power.” This image of gender and race as vectors of power visualizes the mechanics for a matrix visualization of systematic oppression. These vectors of power function through groups and individuals projecting identity stereo-types onto other groups and individuals and in the process pushing people into positions of having to counter stereo-types with their own version of their sense of identity. This process divides people, fracturing all sense of unity, and puts people unwittingly in collaboration with systems of oppression. Perhaps  steps towards de-powering the vectors of power which reinforce systematic oppression are to not identify with patriarchal conceptions of gender or race and to view gender as variable, multiple, and as unique as each human.

Africville Relocation Report and the sale of St. Pat’s

The #9 bus picks up passengers in the part of Halifax formerly known as Richmond, near what once was Africville, and drives along Barrington Street towards downtown. On the way it passes the Irving Shipyards and a navy base. Across the harbour, on the Dartmouth waterfront there are three huge red and white striped smoke stacks of a gas burning power plant and near the harbour’s mouth sits the borg-like maze of pipes which is an oil-refinery. Each morning when I take that bus to work downtown I’m conscious that everything which is wrong with the world is present right here in little old Halifax.

The military-industrial complex occupies the majority of Halifax’s waterfront. Side by side they sit: the navy who, under Stephan Harper’s command, have awarded a huge contract to their neighbour Irving Shipyard to build fleets of warships. It was largely through the growth of these industries that the black community which had been established here two hundred years ago was forced to move into ghetto housing while their homes were torn down and paved over.

Recently I stumbled on “The Africville Relocation Report” by Donald H. Clairmont and Dennis W. Mcgill in the Halifax North Memorial Public Library and spent a couple afternoons reading it, learning a lot about how the decision was made to appropriate that land. The situation looked like this: the north end of Halifax near the Bedford Basin had been set aside for everything which the ‘fathers of Halifax’ did not want in their neighborhoods: a garbage dump, a prison, and a hospital for infectious diseases. Though a black community had been there almost since the time when British soldiers had built a fort here in 1749 and gradually extended a city around this military outpost, city council had done nothing to provide services for them from that time till 1962 –when council began to seriously debate what to do about ‘the slums by the dump,’ as a Halifax counsellor referred to what former residents emphatically remember as a thriving and loving community.  In the late fifties there had been talk of needing to appropriate more land along the harbour and basin for industrial purposes –building warships and another shipping port.

Though the Africville Relocation Report makes it clear that council already had eyes on Africville to open the land to industrial usage, connect roads, and extend the city’s urban plan, much of the debate in council between 1962-64 was framed altruistically as being concerned for what was best for the residents of Africville. Members of council argued that since most of the houses were in poor condition; since there was no sewage, running water, or electricity; since there was a network of paths between houses rather than a grid of streets; and since many of the claims of property ownership were unclear and problematic, that it would be best for the residents to be moved to a new location instead of providing basic services to those citizens in their chosen homes. Africville residents themselves surely did not want to move. They just wanted warm homes, clean water, to be able to sing in their own church and swim at their own beach.

Now, two hundred years after the British promised American slaves that they could be free on their own land if they fought in the War of 1812 –which was when many of the ancestors of Nova Scotian black people settled here, Halifax’s black community is again being slighted by Halifax Regional Council. A school which was built to educate the uprooted children of Africville near the ghetto they were forced into has been closed and sold to a developer –after three community groups, the North End Community Health Clinic, the Mi’kmaq Friendship Centre and the Richard Preston Centre for Excellence, appealed the sale saying that it was in violation of one of council’s own policy which says that community groups should be given opportunity to propose a use for abandoned schools before they are offered up for sale. In an article published this morning, Tim Bousquet clearly outlined the situation. It is unbelievable to me that council would rather change their own rules, which they voted to do two days ago, rather than listen to the people they claim to represent. This is not what democracy looks like.

If it is alright for city council to whimsically change their rules, why can’t Haligonians get them to change more about the way the local political system functions so that citizens can play a part in deciding what is to happen, or at least so that council is accountable for breaches of their own policies?

Bertolt Brecht’s interpretation of “The Buddha’s Parable of the Burning House.”

Bertolt Brecht‘s poem, “The Buddha’s Parable of the Burning House,” relates a parable of the Buddha’s, found in the Lotus Sutra, to not fearing the changes which a revolution would involve.

Guatama the Buddha taught
The doctrine of greed’s wheel to which we are bound, and advised
That we shed all craving and thus
Undesiring enter the nothingness that he called Nirvana.
Then one day his pupils asked him:
“What is it like, this nothingness, Master? Every one of us would
Shed all craving, as you advise, but tell us
Whether this nothingness which then we shall enter
Is perhaps like being at one with all creation,
When you lie in water, your body weightless, at noon,
Unthinking almost, lazily lie in the water, or drowse
Hardly knowing now that you straighten the blanket,
Going down fast –whether this nothingness, then,
Is a happy one of this kind, a pleasant nothingness, or
Whether this nothingness of yours is more nothing, cold, senseless and void.”
Long the Buddha was silent, then said nonchalantly:
“There is no answer to your question.”
But in the evening, when they had gone,
The Buddha still sat under the bread-fruit tree and to the others,
To those who had not asked, addressed this parable:
“Lately I saw a house. It was burning. The flame
Licked at its roof. I went up close and observed
That there were people still inside. I entered the doorway and called
Out to them that the roof was ablaze, so exhorting them
To leave at once. But those people
Seemed in no hurry. One of them,
While the heat was already scorching his eyebrows,
Asked me what it was like outside, whether there was
Another house for them, and more of this kind. Without answering
I went out again. These people here, I thought,
Must burn to death before they stop asking questions.
And truly friends,
Whoever does not yet feel such heat in the floor that he’ll gladly
Exchange it for any other, rather than stay, to that man
I have nothing to say.” So Gautama the Buddha.
But we too, no longer concerned with the art of submission,
Rather with that of non-submission, and offering
Various proposals of an earthly nature, and beseeching men
To shake off their human tormentors, we too believe that to those
Who in face of the rising bomber squadrons of Capital go on asking too long
How we propose to do this, and how we envisage that,
And what will become of their savings and Sunday trousers after a revolution
We have nothing much to say.

This was published in 1949 in “Kalendergeschichten”, a collection of stories and poems which Brecht had written while in exile during the war. In English, “Tales from the Calendar,” translated by Ivonne Kapp and Michael Hamburger, London: Methuen, 1961.