Talk on Anarchism
University of Hawaii, April 26, 1990
George Bush, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi are all stranded on a desert island – who would survive? [Pause] We would, a bit of Anarchist humor.
When people here the word anarchy, the vision which jumps to mind is chaos. When someone says they are an anarchist, you picture a scruffy person, dressed in black, with a maniacal grin on their face, holding a bomb [Mess up hair, grin and pull mock bomb out of bag].
I’m going to try to shatter some of these illusions.
The word anarchy comes from the Greek “without rule“
Anarchists generally believe that governments are fundamentally coercive organizations, drawing there power from violence and that man made laws are a restriction of freedom and therefore both governments and laws should be abolished. Or if you want to look at it in a more affirmative sense, Anarchists seek to:
1) Maximize freedom 2) Minimize coercion
You are probably thinking “Laudable goals, but impossible to obtain without some type of hierarchy to maintain order.”
Let me share with you the experience which first convinced me that there were non-hierarchical solutions to problems.
We were choosing teams for an ultimate Frisbee game, someone said “Find someone of approximately your ability and pair up with them.” after about half a minute we were in pairs “now everyone on the left is on one team and everyone on the right is on the other”. Now normally, captains are selected choices are alternated, w/ ego invested first picks and embarrassing last pick and the whole operation takes much longer. Why do we stick with this hierarchical system, which takes responsibility away from the individual, when it is inferior in so many ways – because it is what we know, what we are taught.
Now you are thinking “Nice trick, but life is not a frisbee game, what about more complex social organizations”
If the structure or “topology”, if you will, of the hierarchy is a pyramid. Then what is the large scale model for anarchist organizations? Why it is the buzz word of the 80′s – networks.
I’ve been involved in three different types of network each sheds a bit of light on how anarchists structure things.
First is collective businesses. Workers make the decisions. Frequently, they will choose to give authority to a manager or project leader. But these are fundamentally different from normal corporate managers, they serve a specific project or until the group replaces them, the workers give them the power to lead and volunteer to follow their instructions. Most collectives use a consensus decision model, borrowed from the feminists, in which problems are worked on until everyone agrees on the solution – this is a very different than a voting model. Typically business collectives don’t grow to be huge, but in my experience they are much nicer places to work.
Secondly are collective houses. I want to focus on a single aspect of a collective house i lived in called Paradox to illustrate a point. Big houses w/ a lot of people (10 in this case) perpetually have problems keeping the place clean. At Paradox we developed a system where post-it notes with cleaning tasks were placed on a big calendar on the date they were last done. When you felt like doing housework, you went to the calendar, found what had not been done in a while, did that task and moved the post-it. Nowhere in this process is your name listed next to your fine work, it is a self policing system. The group having taken responsibility, when things slipped, as they always do occasionally, someone would bring it up in a house meeting and people would generally admit to not having done enuf – this worked better than rigid job wheels in my experience.
The third and last type of network is the political collective. These are important because they deal with the problems of bringing large groups of people together, frequently in short periods to solve specific problems. An affinity group structure is used, usually friends who make decisions using consensus. Often specific tasks are handled by an affinity group, media outreach, writing a handbook, transportation coordination, first aid, food preparation, etc. But the “spokesperson council” will make a decision for the entire group using consensus. Your thinking “It can’t work for a group over a hundred”, I’ve seen it work for several thousand. Not easy but doable.
And you end up with a better quality of decisions.
Now you are thinking “Okay, maybe this stuff works in special cases, but no government, means no police, no military – civilization will collapse!”
My contention is that these institutions do more to foster collapse than prevent it. Consider the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima after the Japanese petitioned for conditional surrender. Consider that 90% of the 2 million killed in Vietnam were civilians. Consider the Reagan-Bush escapades in Libya, Granada, Nicaragua and Panama. Or if you find these uncompelling, consider the Orwellian double think of nuclear weapons “Build more of these world destroying devices and the world will be safer” Sounds like civilization is quite sick to me.
“But we need the police!” you call. I want to do a survey, how many people in this room have been robbed in the last 20 years [about 80% raise hands] and how many of these crimes were solved with the criminal caught and punished [about 5% raise hands]. So what is the solution here, more police? No, the solution is to change the way society looks at property.
The point is that government is a responsibility dodge, we put it there to deal with the things we don’t want to deal with, and once in place it does things we don’t want it to do. Now you are thinking “This guy is dreaming of places which can’t exist”.
I want tell you about a place called Twin Oaks, it is an intentional community of 70 adults and about a dozen kids in rural Virginia – they don’t bill themselves as anarchists, but rather they use words like egalitarian, feminist and “embracing diversity” it amounts to the same thing. It is directly democratic (rather than a representative one), workers control everything (similar to the collective business i mentioned before), they don’t use money internally (tho they generate over a million dollars in exports a year), they contract with each other to work the same number of hours a week (writing software is worth the same as doing the dishes or childcare), they have some personal property but almost anything large is owned collectively. From the large list of possible jobs they are free to choose the which ones they like and when they will do them. And guess what, no crime. Probably $10 million in physical plant, equipment, and tools and no locks inthe whole place. Fourteen cars and trucks with the keys in them and only one has been stolen in the last 20 years – doing a lot better than this audience. “Well, they must be very restrictive about who they let in.” you are thinking. Nope, a significant majority of people who apply are accepted.
Now maybe you are thinking “I’m not quite sure what to make of all this stuff, but i don’t think these anarchist ideas will ever affect my life.”
I contend that everyone in this room has been effected by a relatively recent anarchist revolution, the sexual revolution. Not long ago, the church, state and nuclear family had incredible power over our sexual relationships. “Living in sin” was not a joke, adultery was a serious punishable crime. People said “this is fundamentally my choice” and whole scale rejected the external authority. The laws stayed on the books, people just ignored them and they became unenforced and unenforceable. They decided to form a network of lovers, if you will, mostly quite small, but the hierarchy lost it’s control over this issue.
So next time someone tells you they are an anarchist, don’t think about bombs, think about freedom [throw mock bomb to Rez in the audience]
I hope i have shattered some illusions.
[Total time 5 minutes 30 seconds]
From Point A to…
An audacious proposal to form Urban Income Sharing Egalitarian Democratic Ambitious Engaged Communes in the cities of the American East Coast.
The Short Version
We know that a more humane, satisfying, sustainable world is possible. There are any number of theories and plans for transforming society, many of which would likely be better than what we’re doing now. With 7 billion humans and counting and thousands of years of inherited culture and trillions of acres of intensely varied world any plan we dream up will inevitably encounter vast realms of complexity in its implementation no matter how elegant it is in theory. The wait for a cataclysmic revolution might exceed our window of opportunity for saving ourselves and, given the complexity of the project, is ripe for failure (a lesson history teaches us well).
So why wait? If the revolution isn’t coming fast enough then let’s make it where we can (TAZ)! If the solutions we propose are complicated let’s start testing them and working out the kinks (propositional politics). If the status quo is corrosive then let us form membranes around our communities to protect us from it so that we can have the strength and robustness necessary to challenge it (counter-institutions).
The Point A project proposes a network of urban income-sharing egalitarian democratic ambitious and engaged communes as a starting point on the road to a more humane, satisfying, and sustainable world for all. Our goal is social transformation and our actions and forms are aimed at maximizing our effectiveness at achieving that goal as quickly, robustly, and widely as possible.
Unpacking the Adjectives
Urban: Our project is social transformation and that means changing people and how they relate to each other. Currently and increasingly the people and their relations are mostly in the city. Also, the rural commune is a model that is pretty thoroughly explored and proven.
Income Sharing: Pooling the products of our labor, including money income, is how we form the membrane around our community that insulates us from the corrosive and isolating effects of capitalism. Although scary to get into, once established, income sharing makes everything else we are trying to do easier. From each according to their ability, to each according to their need!
Egalitarian: Let go of the idea of justice and deserving. We’re making it all up anyway. What matters is that we’re being taken care of and that so is everyone else. Liberty, equality, community. By basing our economy on equal access to resources rather than equal distribution of resources we celebrate and support differences and eliminate a lot of paperwork on our way to our post-scarcity utopia.
Democratic: No one is better equipped to make decisions about our lives than we are. If we’re trying to meet our needs then we should be in control of the resources and organizations that meet them. Electing your boss or master is better than not electing them, but we can do a lot more.
Ambitious: We’re taking on a big project not only in training ourselves to cooperate well and in maintaining this protective bubble, but in transforming all of society to more cooperative, democratic, egalitarian forms. We need a crack team to establish the first beachheads and we need to acknowledge the scale and daring of our aim.
Engaged: The problems we are identifying and confronting are social and often global in nature and therefore demand social and often global responses. To retreat into our fortress and build a good life for ourselves in isolation is to admit defeat and to abandon our fellow humans and the whole living world. It is a failure of compassion, and then what sort of Bodhisattva would we be?
[Edited by Judy Youngquest]
Occasionally, some intellectually leaning person will try to make the case against hope. They will tell you things are bad and that it is important to be realistic, and the cards are terribly stacked against us and you should not delude yourself, and you should prepare for things getting worse, and really this is the reasonable and prudent thing to do. Nonsense, i say.
For if you were reasonable, you might well just give up on Baltimore. The city has seen a 30% decrease in population since 1950, collapse of infrastructure, a high violent crime level, a spike in heroine use, food deserts and more. The folks at the Baltimore Free Farm (BFF) however are nothing like discouraged, taking every piece of abandoned property as they possibility can for a guerrilla urban garden or more.
When you arrive at the Ash Street community gardens you are met with the above sign. It is the only “security” the garden has, asking people to be respectful and only to pick things if they have been involved in planting there. Our enthusiastic tour guide Billy says it seems to work pretty well.
The Free Farm gives away food it grows and recovers every Wednesday. BFF also has a big warehouse, which it got control over when they agreed to fix the leaking roof. Inside they also run a kitchen which supports the efforts of Food Not Bombs on Sundays. So it is not just a “free farm” in name; in practice people are supplementing their diets with locally grown organic fruits and vegetables that they do not need to pay for. For the neighbors and for the economically disadvantaged, this is a significant direct improvement in their quality of life.
For me what makes the BFF crew so inspiring is their willingness to take risks. The tool library is a classic example. There are racks of shovels and leaf blowers and all manner of hand tools. They are in a shed which is unlocked. No librarian, but there are slips for people to sign out when they take things. And they mostly do. Billy tells me that they have lost very few items from the tool library. And he tells me he has never paid for a tool in the library. People give him shovels and other hand tools, and he often sharpens or fixes them and then they return to the public wealth.
One day someone will walk off with most of these tools and leave no note. On that day i am confident the BFF folks will pull together some other tool donations, take some more risks and restart the library, perhaps after some cursing.
The above photo is a salvaged pizza oven which has been retrofitted with high temperature rocket stoves. I am told by a mostly reliable source that they can get this oven hot enough to cook a pizza in 2 minutes – and it has that nice almost burned crispy bottom that so many people like.
What Billy points out is that if you know you are going to have a lot of people, due to this speed and the ability to cook multiple pizzas at once, you can feed a tremendous number of activists, musicians, volunteers, revolutionaries, traveling circus performers, homeless people or whoever else might be over that day for food.
BFF is not vegetarian. They have chickens and meat rabbits (whom they also use the pelts from). The structure of the rabbit hut is a mushroom shaped concrete hat which is on the ground and has fencing all around it, including underground so the rabbits don’t flee (or get attacked). This concrete mushroom has holes in it so the rabbits can get under and burrow, but can’t go through the fencing under it. The rabbits seem quite happy and they are quite large.
A huge fraction of the material infrastructure at BFF is salvaged materials. The entire greenhouse GPaul is depicted in above is made from recovered materials. Including all of this huge gauge plastic tubing that would not break short of a full on ice age. It would cost a pretty penny to build this from materials purchased at a hardware store. But the resourceful folks at BFF use their salvaging talents and patience in place of cold cash and the results are impressive.
The fancy dinner is another success story. For the last 3 years they have had one large fundraising dinner per year called “the Fancy Dinner.” They go out of their way to make nice food and purchasing organic, and from local sources as much as possible. In past years they have used their own inputs as well as buying from health food stores. The event now has something of a reputation and it has grown in both attendance and in the size of the meal. This year Whole Foods approved their donation request and gave them $850 worth of food.
More comically, Billy and some of his comrades went bow hunting three times for deer so that they could have venison for the fancy dinner. They failed three times.
On the drive back after the last failed attempt, Billy pulled up next to a hunter with a pickup truck filled with deer he had recently killed. Billy rolled down his window and said “Can we have a deer?” The hunter paused for a moment and said “sure,” then took the deer off his truck, called in the tag to the police so Billy could transport the deer body legally.
When Billy explained what they needed it for and tried to offer money to the hunter, he declined saying, “When you asked me if you could have a deer, I figured that you must have really needed one.” And thus there was venison at the Fancy Dinner as well. This year they had 120 people buying sliding scale tickets between $25 and $50. That is a chunk of change for an event with very low costs and all volunteer labor.
The Free Farmers are scrappy fundraisers. They have done two successful crowd sourcing projects. One to buy vacant land and one to repair the roof of the warehouse. They were both successful, and $12K went to purchase two small plots of land which are now urban gardens.
But these kids don’t always wait for money to move. They will find abandoned vacant lots and start planting on them, even if they don’t own it. Sometimes the land owner will come and tell them to leave and they may even lose some stuff. But what happens almost all of the time, is that the land owner is happy to have someone maintaining the land in any capacity, because it reduces their costs. Or they don’t care what happens to their land.
So you can sit with your intelligent hopeless friends and pontificate about the giant potholes and endless junkies of Baltimore. Or you can pitch in at the Free Farm and actually build a better world.
[Edited by Judy Youngquest]
My dearest friend Joan Jr altered me to this Indiegogo campaign for scholarships to the eco-village training course in Missouri. As with most good crowd-sourcing pitches they have created a compelling video which i would ask you to take a couple of minutes and review.
While this is an international project, it has a strong set of local roots and a commitment to investing mostly locally. This text from the Indiegogo project description.
Your contribution does much more than to help bring a student from the other side of the world to Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in mid-America. Your contribution has further impact by growing our local economy and local currency system. Last year, 87% of our budget was spent within five miles of our community. EEUS and Dancing Rabbit model the power of local economy 365 days a year using our alternative local currency, ELMs. Scholarship contributions help immerse students in our community and continue to strengthen our local economy long after the students return home.
Please feel encouraged to help this scholarship fund crowd sourcing appeal.
When games masters (GM) have players who do something they don’t expect and they have to figure out how to respond, i call it “playing off the page”. Because the GM has to make up what happens then, without the pre-designed script. Robust games masters design elaborate worlds with many secret hatches and passage ways, so that characters who stroll off the page can gently wrap around and come back onto the page again. Lazy GMs live off the page and just always wing it. You can guess where i land.
In my somewhat unusual prepping today for the Heroes educational fantasy role playing game i decided i wanted to put in a bunch of questions about MLK. The form was to get the players to identify the one thing on the long list which was something which was not a characteristic of King. For example, i choose these quotes:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.
But the quote which spoke to me most powerfully was:
In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.
[From Brainy Quote]
Before my little research i did not know King had won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album in 1971. But more importantly i did not know that the New York Times reports that the US government has been convicted in the conspiracy to kill King, including paying a Memphis cop $100K to assassinate king and make sure there were no police on the site.
But even more important than all this was the way he changed the lives of African Americans in this country. And for this he deserves at least a holiday.
I have long believed that the key to successful political organizing is building the better party, not a political one, but a social one. For if organizers are honest, especially in these times we are a social movement first and a political one somewhere after that. I don’t just like organizing parties, i think when it is done well it is transformative.
And i had such a feeling tonight as a scruffy group of Acorner party organizers wandered with me through the Seed Palace (which some of us are calling the Arc, because of the way it appears from the outside). We talked about the ideal location for the ball pit and sound system. Where there might be a kissing booth and a cuddle space. There are rooms for writing love letters and another for dancing. There are fantasies of a room with Cards Against Community.
The piece i am most excited about is the Pocket Party of Prizes, Puzzles, Pranks and Poems. And presumably things that don’t start with P. Participants are encouraged to wear clothes with many pockets. They are also encouraged to bring odd presents and pranks to put in other people’s pockets (there were quite some charged moments in the planning meeting around banning glitter). Pick pocketing is also encouraged.
For people poor at preparation there will be pre-formatted love letters with check boxes and curious graphics with options like “i would like to dance with you” and “we should wrestle in the ball pit” and “you could sing me a song”. Some of the cards will be appropriate for kids (though we don’t expect any kids there) and some will be banned in 23 states. You will have supplies to create clever notes and micro artistic expressions to slip into people’s pockets. If you don’t bring enough pockets we have additional garments with pockets for you.
Despite a small budget, an impressive array of snacks and decorations have been organized and the Ark is a beautiful large building with as many possibilities as there are rooms in it.
This party on New Years Eve Eve (Dec 30) at Acorn is in some ways like a practice party for New Years Eve at neighboring Twin Oaks. You could come to the first party (assuming you had a host) and stay up late, then sleep late and stay up even later on New Years (assuming you had a different host at the other community).
And if we get it right, we can see the revolution from here.
[Edited by Judy Youngquest]