Category Archives: Autumn 2004 (11/19/04)

Berkeley’s Got its Ass in its Head

In June of 2004 ex-president Bill Clinton came to Berkeley for a book signing. Shame on Berkeley for welcoming him, the war criminal, to Telegraph Avenue. I showed up outside Cody’s Books at noon sharp and slick willie was yet to arrive. The young student/berkeleyite/ street people/yuppies from the hills/visitors from the valley crowd was 100% Berkeley. A thousand or more, both rich and poor, all waited in quiet anticipation for a world leader who is not sophisticated enough to have illicit sex outside of government buildings or with anyone other than his own staff.

It was a lovefest to say the least. As far as the crowds reaction to criticism of their beloved bubba, I have heard infinitely more intelligent counter-comments from pro-war pro-Bush crowds. At least their comments are sometimes rational. The hatred that I got from the Berkeley crowd was seemingly from Mars. I displayed a big sign reading “IRAQI HOLOCAUST -by BILL CLINTON NOT WELCOME WAR CRIMINAL” and addressed the crowd with unhappy news about the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who perished under Clintons’ policies, the bombing of Sudan, the bombing of Yugoslavia, and more generally unpleasant topics of conversation for this crowd that could have been mistaken to be at disneyland or a baseball game.

No less than a constant stream of Telegraphs local nutpies showed up five feet behind me to try to yell me down with entirely nonsensical statements, mostly about George Bush and some other generally absurd and incoherent ranting. The horror on the faces of the middle-aged middle-class Berkeley women when they saw my sign was enough to make my day. I never knew Democrats were so sensitive to criticism of their presidents or candidates. I did hear that Al Gore’s activist group beat a guy up outside of a Las Vegas showing of Fahrenheit 911 for saying that Republicans and Democrats are the same. I calmly tried to respond to every insane person who came up to me to ask me why I was not attacking George Bush. Several ladies could only yell over and over ‘what about george bush?’, ’what about GEORGE BUSH?’ I replied to all alike “I have attacked George Bush for the past 365 days nonstop, and now everyone’s doing it, there’s even a major motion picture, but Bush didn’t have the balls to come to my neighborhood, Clinton did, he’s got a big hand in this war too, the American led aggression on Iraq has not ceased for the last 13 years, it has continued, and so I gotta let Mr. Clinton have it. No comfort for the terrorists, right. No welcome for the war criminals, not if you call this the home of the free speech movement.”

I was within a stones throw of Peoples Park and the mural of Mario Savio and I was attacked by countless liberals and locals for pointing out the obvious and egregious crimes of Bill Clinton. Many people were clearly puzzled by any criticism of Bill in light of Bush who they think is satan, but most intriguing to me was the handful of people whose concern was that this thing be pulled off without a glitch, with no evidence of protest or opposition. There were middle-aged ladies walking around with John Kerry clipboards and blocking camera lenses from catching my sign, people were asking the police ‘can we file a noise complaint?’, and the police were lecturing back over and over again ‘free speech is protected’. I have never experienced as much distraction or so-called ‘running interference’ in any demonstration ever. If that is what it takes for them to pull this bullshit off then it makes me happy. I am one person and I feel like my voice had an effect on people and on the authorities.

I reminded a lot of people that this man participated in a massive amount of death worldwide, a fact that many of them had simply conveniently forgotten. I just wish more lefties would get creative together and shame more of these politicians, and confront those who need to be confronted and speak intelligently in public in spontaneous ways and continue to use all of our energies when possible to continue to speak out against this BULLSHIT! What liberal Berkeley and liberal America have failed to come to terms with is the fact that liberal politicians suck so much that they can in fact be worse than the clowns that the Republicans put into office, and they invariably end up killing more people globally, all the while lulling the world and the american public into a deep sleep.

How Heavy Metal and Science Fiction Saved My Life

There are many methods one can use to express their unique, heartfelt beliefs in an increasingly materialistic, conformist society. Some dye their hair blue or pierce their septum; some might grow dreadlocks or lose themselves in drugs or some novel new religion where you realize the spark of divinity within yourself and the universal oneness of all things; while others may become environmental lawyers, politicians, or write scathing political/ideological critiques of modern society from ivory towers.

What did I do to “break the chains,” to express myself? I started smoking dope, listening to death metal, and reading sci-fi books. At this point, some of my more educated, tasteful readers may be thinking this essay sounds a bit low-brow.

You’re goddamn right.

And I plan to stay that way till the distinction between “high” and “low” culture disappears. I am rooted in this “low” culture, and coincidentally, I strongly believe that this is where the real seeds of social change lie.

I did not begin to put these roots down until Junior High School nearly stripped me of every shred of uniqueness, imagination, creative thought, and dignity I possessed. I’d come from a relatively “normal” family and had lived a relatively “normal” twelve years of American life. I had a lot in common with those I considered friends: we all wore name brand clothes, played sports and video games, listened to gangster rap, and mocked those who were even vaguely “other.”

While at the time, I couldn’t even imagine another way of life, I knew that this one left me feeling vaguely unsatisfied. My Junior High was a social hierarchy dominated by good looks, athletic ability, social skills, and brand name clothing, yet I was painfully average in all these respects. Wanting only to be at the top of the food chain, I hadn’t yet realized there was an escape…

My best friend was no exception to the associates I described, yet going to his house was different than many of my other friends’ houses in that he lived in a large mobile home estate where most parents worked long hours, leaving us to do whatever we wanted. The Medford Mobile Estates were the place to watch R-rated movies, fool around with girls, smoke cigarettes, drink, get high on household products, and smoke low-grade pot out of aluminum cans.

These experiences changed me drastically, and the drug culture in particular opened many new doors to me. At my middle school, not too many seventh graders were doing these things, so the ones that were tended to stick together. It didn’t take long before I’d grown my hair out, purchased or stolen gigantic pants from the local Goodwill, and began skipping school with the “bad kids” to smoke cigarettes and listen to angry music on the railroad tracks behind the school.

This “angry music” ranged from punk rock, to goth, industrial, or heavy metal, but all of it expressed disenchantment, angst, and pure, simple, anger. What was I angry about? Hell if I knew…I was a rebel without a cause. I could make some grand statement now about what I was doing, but at the time all I knew was that I hated everything I’d been, and everything I was supposed to be. I had, essentially, dropped out of mainstream society into a realm where nothing mattered but pure hedonism.

My mind state at this point is best described by the opening lyrics of Pantera’s Goddamn Electric. This was a heavy metal band whose angry, aggressive music catapulted me into a world of heaviness:

“There is a part of me that’s always sixteen, I’ve found the secret of eternal youth. Some get high on life or money, but there’s an escape…drop out of the race. To walk through the world by one’s self you can’t be protected. Your trust is in whiskey, weed, and Black Sabbath…the changing is goddamn electric.”

Currently, I put my trust in much more than weed, whiskey, and Sabbath, but this initial act of “dropping out of the race” was an important step for me. Unfortunately, a lifestyle based on inebriation, and utter disregard for the rules, unless correctly executed, can land you in a lot of trouble.

It landed me in a lot of trouble. My desire for total freedom had backfired, and I was forced into a world with less freedom than most adolescents have the misfortune of experiencing. By the time I was fifteen, I’d been expelled twice, ran away from home, was arrested for shoplifting, smoking, alcohol, pot, assault, and more probation violations than I can possibly remember. I’d been through drug classes, anger management, alcoholics anonymous, urine analysis, lie detector tests, community service, house arrest with a tracking beacon strapped to my ankle, four trips to juvenile hall, a halfway home, and two drug treatment centers.

These things made me very angry.

While alone in a cell, I had time to dwell on this anger, and eventually work some of it out. I also had time to read quite a bit. Since my only choice of reading material consisted of young adult novels where the bland criminal protagonist was saved by Christ, or movie novelizations, the choice seemed clear: I began to read novelizations of the Star Wars trilogy. These were movies that had always fascinated me as a child. The basic plot consisted of a small group of rebels fighting against the overwhelming forces a tyrannical empire, along with a mystical force that surrounded and penetrated all things, and a restless, oppressed teenager discovering his destiny and becoming a man throughout the course of a fantastic adventure.

What more could a disenchanted fifteen-year old want in a novel?

These novels rekindled the imagination I remembered from childhood, which Junior High had nearly stripped me of. After being transferred to a boys and girls home/rehab center in Eastern Oregon, where we occasionally had access to the public library, I began to broaden my horizons to the science fiction genre as a whole. Being repulsed by young adult novels, and lacking any interest in “literature,” I read authors like Frank Herbert, Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Leguin, Isaac Asimov, George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Ayn Rand, and Phillip K. Dick voraciously.

While my fellow delinquents snuck outside to smoke cigarettes, fought, swapped medications, huffed markers, and had sloppy, unprotected sex in the closet, I found solace on faraway planets, in other galaxies, and in the distant future.

By the time my six months were up, I had once again pulled a 180. Interestingly, besides intensifying my anger, then taking me away from my family and friends and placing me in an environment with people far more “troubled” than I was, the legal system had little effect on me. I’d mostly withdrawn from the facility’s social life, speaking to the staff only when spoken to. Even then it was only to regurgitate the mindless platitudes crammed down our throats about “serenity” and “one day at a time” and “God grant me the courage…” so that I was able to graduate in record time.

Strangely, I’d never given much thought to not smoking pot or drinking after getting off probation, nor did I yearn to smoke or drink. It seemed clear that my problems were not in any mind-altering substances, but in integration with mainstream society. I was no longer a rebel, at least not in the traditional, relatively mindless sense. I had a passion: reading and writing science fiction.

I can remember a particular Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, not long before the legal system loosened its grip on my life. It was very important, in AA, to have a higher power, something that kept you from drinking or doing drugs. Though in theory, your higher power could be anything you wanted, the only acceptable choices were Jesus, God, or Nature. I knew what was going to keep me out of trouble, however, and on a whim I actually answered honestly that day when asked about my higher power. I told them it was science fiction. This elicited a round of laughter all around the table. Confused by the fact that I hadn’t chosen from AA’s holy trinity, the chain-smoking, coffee chugging AA veteran facilitating the meeting chuckled and regurgitated another tried and true AA aphorism: “Keep coming back, buddy.” To this day, I thank my higher power that I have never been forced to set foot in one of those meetings again.

Besides merely occupying my time, science fiction taught me a variety of things during that phase of life. In addition to opening the wider world of literature and writing, as well as expanding my vocabulary and my ability to articulate my thoughts, it gave me a very interesting perspective on social critique. Science fiction is able to deal with philosophical, sociological, anthropological, and of course, scientific concepts in ways that traditional fiction, or “literature,” does not. Science fiction is not time-specific, or even xenologically specific. Though the time period in which it was written is inherent in the work (1984 for example) it is free to discuss not just where we are, but where we are going, and what it might be like once we get there. It often spans generations, describing the rise and fall of grand civilizations and empires, agonizing over mysteries that will never die, and the fact that we are currently determining what the rest of humankind’s existence on this planet will be like.

Cultural relativity is ever present in good science fiction. If you can empathize with the protagonist, even bad science fiction can teach you love and respect for those different from you. Science fiction has blessed me with universal love for all living things, especially humans, no matter how ignorant, destructive, and cruel we are. As a side note, if the concept of universal love sounds like some hippie drivel to you, I strongly urge you to rethink your conception of the meaning of life, if you have one. If your religion or philosophy is fundamentally based on anything but universal, unconditional love for your fellow humans, you are, and I mean this in the kindest way possible, essentially wasting your life and serving no worthwhile purpose on this planet.

Science fiction is rooted in low culture. In the first half of the twentieth century, men with too much time on their hands wrote novel new stories about muscle bound space captains who saved disproportionately shaped women from the horrifying space monsters from the far off planet of Mars. The audience for these stories consisted of adolescent boys who read them in secret when they weren’t popping zits, or building model rocket ships.

While science fiction’s readership hasn’t changed much, besides a little gender diversity, the genre itself has. One can take just as much from any great work of science fiction as any great work of literature, and the line between the two is far blurrier than most lofty literary critics would have you believe. When a work of science fiction reaches a large enough group of people over a long enough period of time, and the basic premise for the story isn’t too dependent on scientific concepts, it is co-opted into the world of “literature.” Examples of this include 1984, Brave New World, and works of Ayn Rand, Ursula K. Leguin, or Kurt Vonnegut. People frequently try to tell me that these works “transcend the medium” of science fiction, but I argue that the medium of science fiction “transcends” their conception of it.

There are, however, many conventions in the older “pulp sci-fi” or mainstream sci-fi, and I won’t argue that you should look for answers in Star Trek, Star Wars, Battle Star Galactica, Stargate, or any other TV show/movie with the word “star” in the title. I do see the value in them, however, in that their fans are engaging in a form of social deviance, and that they provide a gateway to the larger world of science fiction.

I believe that heavy metal is valuable for the same “drop out and tune in” reasons. The genre of heavy metal has a wide spectrum, stuff I consider valuable, and what is simply mindless negativity, or the “rebel without a cause” music I listened to as an adolescent. The anger, frustration, despair, and general emotional intensity often associated with heavy metal has often been misused by bands who stand for nothing, or worse yet, things like racism, violence, or Satan.

It’s true that I read, and listen to, much more than science fiction and heavy metal these days, but I will never forget how they opened my eyes to a much wider world, how their influence at that particularly impressionable age saved me from a life of drugs, jail, or worse yet, a career in sports marketing.

I continue to relish their presence in my life…after all, I firmly believe that if humankind’s mindless death-march ever changes course, it will not come solely from idealistic young politicians, environmental lawyers, writers, or even activists; it will come from the disenchanted, dispossessed masses; the homeless, the dishwashers, the prostitutes, the sci-fi geeks, and the metal heads. It is they who will bridge the gap between high and low culture, between high and low qualities of life.

The Occupation Continues (to fail)

After two years of war and occupation in Iraq, the senseless loss of both American and Iraqi lives continues on a daily basis, and it seems hard to imagine any action the people of the world can take to stop the madness. Despite our uncertainty, now is the time to redouble our efforts to end the occupation, because it increasingly appears that those in charge have no idea what to do about the present situation, either. Bush’s rhetoric about Iraq has increasingly retreated into a fantasy world — every day he makes glowing statements about the liberation of the Iraqi people, how Iraq is becoming a stable democracy, how America will prevail, and how the Iraqis are about to elect their leaders. Back on planet earth, things look a bit different.

We must assume that someone in the Bush regime knows what is actually going on and that the absurd statements coming from the White House are sort of like a cry for help — a sign of profound weakness and impotence in the midst of a war spiraling out of control. In short, while it sometimes appears to those of us in the street as if there is no way to stop the war and the occupation, we may be watching it all collapse from the inside, brought down by its enormous weight and internal contradictions, together with the efforts of the insurgents.

More than 1,000 US soldiers have been killed in Iraq so far, perhaps 15,000 Iraqi civilians and an unknown number of Iraqi combatants — the US regime refuses to keep track and no one in Iraq really to knows. This war, like most wars, has a way of acquiring its own internal logic — the US rulers must continue to fight so that those killed so far have not died in vain. What is the point, or are there only justifications left?

Bush first claimed the war was to seize weapons of mass destruction or stop terrorism, but with these excuses exposed, he switched to saying the war was to liberate the Iraqi people from a brutal dictator.

What is most striking now is how life under the US puppet Iraqi regime is beginning to look as bad as life under Saddam Hussein. After at first disbanding the Iraqi army, the occupation forces have increasingly been working with former members of Saddam Hussein’s regime in order to reorganize Iraqi security forces and “maintain order.”

Interim Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi, who was the head man for Hussein’s Bath party in Europe before he split with Saddam and worked for the CIA, has cracked down on Iraqi freedom since taking office. In August, he closed the Baghdad offices of Arab TV network al-Jazeera in a move widely seen as an attack on press freedom in Iraq. Falah al-Naqib, Iraq’s interior minister, explained “They have been showing a lot of crimes and criminals on TV, and they [send] a bad picture about Iraq and about Iraqis and encourage criminals to increase their activities.”

Allawi supported reinstating the death penalty, has formed a new secret police force reminiscent of Saddam’s secret police, has reportedly recruited former torturers to serve in the new secret police, and has threatened to declare martial law to quell unrest. The supposed liberation of Iraq, like the grounds for the war, is a fraud.

This is hardly surprising — the US is always happy to support a tyrant as long as he is our tyrant and so long as fundamental US interests — in this case access to oil supplies — are at stake.

The other point repeatedly pushed by Bush is that Iraq is the front-line in the war on terrorism. But terrorism is a tactic, whereas wars must be fought against a foe, or perhaps an ideology. How can any physical location be a front-line in a war against a tactic? Terrorism is essentially the use of violence by a powerless group, whereas identical violence used by the state is considered “legitimate military action.” 3,000 people died in the Twin Towers attack — how many times that number of equally innocent civilians have been killed by the US in Iraq? None of these killings by either side are justified — we must stand for a world in which all senseless killing is unacceptable.

The Iraqi people are struggling against an occupation of their homeland by a foreign power. If the occupation were to disappear, the conflict might not end totally, but its character would shift dramatically from an occupation to perhaps a civil war. Iraqis would have space to determine their own fate and could get about the business of reconstructing their society. Increasing the US military pressure will only increase the resistance and the waste of lives. As understanding of this reality expands, including amongst US troops stationed in Iraq, Bush’s ability to continue the occupation will increasingly be threatened.

Folks in the United States must continue to demand an end to the occupation and an end to the senseless violence — employing whatever powerful and creative tactics we can devise. The people of Iraq and the people of the world are depending on those of us within the belly of the beast, for we are the most able to strike against the US war machine. Bush’s patriotic claims must be exposed as a lie — he is callously sending American troops to their death for nothing other than his own pride. In these times when the occupation looks the most desperate, we must remember that the darkest hour comes just before the dawn.

Zapatistas Denied Access to Water

Somewhat secluded in the green central highlands of Chiapas is a small community named Jechvo, where being a Zapatista means that the water that you drink must fall from the sky. Jechvo is one of four communities in the municipio, or county, of Zinacantan, along with Elambo Alto, Elambo Bajo and La Paz, where a decision was made last December to deny a small portion of their residents, namely those which identify themselves as Zapatistas, all access to the town’s communal water source. The decision to do this was made under extreme pressure exerted over non-Zapatistas by behind-the-scenes advocates of two powerful political parties, the PAN and the PRD. The people who affiliate with these two parties were told that they had to “deal to the Zapatistas” and that an assault on their water source would be a good way to discourage “unpopular” political beliefs.

On my way to Jechvo to be an International Human Rights Observer for two weeks, I noticed signs and posters throughout Zinacantan about the recent alliance between these two parties. This obviously political maneuver didn’t strike me as particularly fair, but its real implications didn’t sink in until after I arrived. During my first day in Jechvo I learned that in this community of at least a 150 adult non-Zapatistas, there are a mere 41 Zapatista adults (about 30 families) left. Compare this to what it must have looked like 6 or 7 years ago, after the ë94 uprising, when practically every person in Jechvo was a Zapatista. The steady and, unfortunately, steep decline that followed is directly the result of cutbacks, threats and unfair economic policies posed by other political parties deliberately designed to undermine Zapatismo. From the way I heard the story told by people in Jechvo, most families didn’t have the nerve or the perseverance to continue in the struggle to the present day; but it was largely because they feared that they wouldn’t be able to make it economically, or that they would be putting themselves and their families in danger, not because they didn’t want to. Now the remaining few are collecting rainwater in large plastic rotoplas as their only method of survival, their children aren’t allowed to go to school, and if you don’t think that’s bad enough, after April 10th of this year it got a lot worse.

Being a Zapatista in Jechvo means making a lot of sacrifices. They live surrounded by enemies who were once their friends. But being a Zapatista also means that when a situation goes down, like the one in Jechvo.Öyou are never alone. When it became clear that this conflict wasn’t going to be resolved easily, the Junta de Buen Gobierno (Good Government Committee) in the regional headquarters or Caracol of Oventik, organized a march on April 10th to San Cristobal to protest and make public the blatant inhumanity of people trying to parch their own neighbors into submission, as if thirst alone could make them stop living for what they believe in. But luckily, water falls from the sky, and so do Zapatistas. Three thousand people marched that day, they came home exhausted but it wasn’t time to rest yet. They came home exhilarated but it wasn’t time for celebration. Nothing happened when the marchers passed Zinacantan, nor the neighboring Pastel, but there were rumors, and when the march entered Jechvo, literally hundreds of “enemies who were once friends” from Jechvo, Pastel and other local communities, were waiting to attack them. The people of the PRD/PANista alliance blocked the road so that the marchers could not enter, then they threw loud and dangerous fireworks at their feet to frighten and disperse the crowd. The aggressors were armed and ready to “acabar (put an end to) los pinche Zapatistas.”

The result was 36 wounded, and 446 Zapatistas had to flee immediately to the mountains to hide out. A young man of 12 that I got to know during my time in Jechvo told me that at the time of the attack his leg was still hurt from falling off a horse months before and his uncle and his father had to take turns carrying him the whole way. No one had time to bring food, blankets or any provisions and many of the wounded went without care. They waited for 3 to 4 days “under the trees” before other Zapatistas could find them. Then 11 more days followed, in and surrounding an abandoned shack, doing the best that they could to make tortillas on the cold, impassive rocks.

I asked my friend’s father if he didn’t sometimes think about taking the bribes and cutbacks that the corrupt political parties had to offer, if he didn’t ever think about giving into the pressure, the danger and alienation and joining the majority in his community. I asked him how his wife, who spoke no Spanish and could not answer me herself, felt about it. He said that they would never give up the fight, that he warned his wife long ago that it would be hard, but that they were never going back to their old ways (as Pristas). “My youngest sons have been Zapatistas all of their lives,” he said, “they are very proud.”

The local elections are coming to Zinacantan in October, the PRD and the PAN have high hopes that their joint candidate will win. During winter months in the U.S. it is dry and hot in the highlands of Chiapas. The people in Jechvo and the surrounding communities aren’t sure what they will do when their water runs out. This, coupled with a state-wide decrease of “peace campers,” as some like to call us, over the last couple of years, is making a lot of Zapatistas in Zinacantan pretty anxious. The Junta de Buen Gobierno (Good Government Council) in the local Caracol has promised that when the rains stop, there is no way these Zapatistas are going to be forgotten; but specifics as to how water relief is going to be brought to these communities have not yet been disclosed.

At the end of the 15 days in the mountains, when the 446 refugees returned to their homes, they were greeted by much destruction. They were also greeted by reporters from all over the world eager to hear their story, by members of civil society (including six peace campers) as diverse in color and form as the corn that they themselves grow. The people of Jechvo feel safe because they know they are not alone, that the future that they struggle to obtain may not be “popular” amongst those that seek to destroy it, but that it is popular nonetheless to people all over the world who share similar struggles and will not fail to turn their heads in the direction of Zinacantan when there is trouble in the air.

Please contact the Chiapas Support Committee if you are interested in traveling to Chiapas in the form of an International Human Rights Observer. We have been offering trainings and certifying people since 1998. Email us: cezmat@igc.org or call 510-654-9687.

The Ties that Bind

NYPD policy of protest pre-emption lands Slingshot theatre troup in jail for “being silly with intent to be ridiculous”

“Cuff ‘em,” I heard someone above me say. I felt an instant of surprise, and then realized I was about to get arrested. Seconds later, I felt my arms grabbed and I was led across Seventh Avenue surrounded by cops. It was around noon on August 31 — the “day of action” during the protests at the Republican National Convention in New York City. My group of Slingshot collective members from the West coast had come to New York on a kind of multi-purpose field trip — protest the obscene power structure which has never met a form of hierarchy, of state violence or of environmental destruction it didn’t like — and get to hang out in NYC with amazing people. Before the day of action, we had decided to be very careful to avoid getting arrested. We decided to do a very safe action — an absurdist street theater skit in which gender queer dominatrixes treated George Bush to a little BDSM. I was playing George Bush wearing a white shirt, a tie and a cheap mask that might have actually been of the first President George. By the time we got busted, we had performed the skit without incident about a dozen times near various hotels where delegates were staying. The police had told us to move across the street sometimes, or in one case to keep moving (we performed while walking in circles) but because we were performing on the sidewalk and being careful not to block foot traffic, we didn’t think we would be arrested and we were feeling pretty comfortable and safe.

After hitting most of the hotels around Times Square, we got tired of performing near RNC hotels and decided to head south down Seventh Ave. We hadn’t seen any other protesters out, and I kind of wanted to see some action or have some sense that Tuesday actually was a day of action. We even called the legal line to see if they knew where we might find some action. They told us they were bored too — so bored that they would send us two legal observers. At noon on Tuesday, our 7 person skit was the action.

The legal observers arrived an hour later right before what was to be our final performance. The corner wasn’t near any delegates, and the police even watched the entire show before the bust. It wasn’t until the end — when the doms offer George a pretzel and he chokes on it and falls to the sidewalk — that I had any idea we were in trouble.

But we were assuming that the “normal” urban rules applied — that if you didn’t do anything illegal, you wouldn’t be arrested. We were wrong — the police had their own rules, but they hadn’t bothered to tell anyone.

Civil disobedience: yesterday & today

My first political arrest was in 1985 — I was 16 years old and the anti-nuclear arms race movement was in full swing. Over the last 20 years, I’ve seen what I consider to be kind of an evolution of protest tactics. My first arrest was of the purely symbolic type — a large group of us sat on the railroad tracks in Vancouver, Washington to block a train carrying nuclear weapons from reaching the nuclear submarine based on the Coast. We knew in advance that we would be arrested, and we knew the train would ultimately reach its destination, if perhaps a little late. The idea, I guess, was that by putting our bodies on the line and forcing our own arrest, we would attract media attention and bring attention to the issue. I did a few arrests like that in those days — building occupations, sit-ins on roads, climbing over fences at military bases literally into the arms of military police.

We weren’t that interested in causing disruption or chaos or making it difficult for the wheels of oppression to operate. If we had been, we would have been more aggressive — playing hide and seek on the train tracks, finding a spot on the fence without any soldiers. This kind of symbolic action still goes on, but more recently, a lot of “action” has moved beyond the purely symbolic to more serious attempts at disruption and direct action.

Whereas in a symbolic “action” the participants actually want to get arrested and so they figure out a way to require their own arrest, in a disruptive action, the point is to disrupt business as usual. Such an action may result in an arrest, but in general the longer you can escape capture, the longer the disruption will go on and the more effective it will be. When I do disruptive action, I’m trying hard to avoid arrest and I feel like getting arrested is pretty unfortunate, if not a failure of the action. In Seattle, many activists turned from a focus on a symbolic protest to an attempt to actually disrupt the activities of those oppressing us and the Earth.

Preemption

After September 11, president Bush announced that henceforth, the USA would employ a military strategy of preemption — rather than only using military force to repel an attack (i.e. the old fashioned idea of self-defense) the USA would use force to pre-empt an attack. Any group or government that was a threat could be attacked, under this doctrine, or even any power that might become a threat. The USA would strike first. As part of this toughened US stance, US treatment of those captured became more openly harsh. The idea that those who oppose US power could be held indefinitely, without charge or access to Courts, lawyers or public scrutiny is now official US policy.

In the relationship between the state (police) and dissidents inside the USA, Seattle was the police’s September 11. During every large protest since Seattle, the police to a greater and greater degree have adopted a strategy of preemption towards demonstrators, coupled with a willingness to hold protesters outside of the normal criminal process.

The protests in New York represented the most dramatic slide yet in this direction. The police made a conscious decision on August 31 to preemptively arrest people who appeared to be protesters — not necessarily because they were doing anything particularly illegal or disruptive at the time of their arrest, but because they might later engage in disruption or illegal acts. Once arrested, the police used every trick and stalling tactic to keep people off the streets for a long time. People arrested for a violation who might normally be given a ticket and released were subjected to a full booking process including fingerprints — held overnight or longer with no access to legal process.

There are two ways to look at this. On the one hand, what’s the big deal? The US government dishes out far more oppression to almost every person or creature on earth — even defenseless plants and rocks — on a regular basis. People in Iraq are being killed by the hundreds; during the RNC, the NYPD kept at its “normal” job — suppressing the poor and communities of color.

The other way to look at it, however, is to realize what this means to future chances for dissent. If just by standing on the sidewalk at a legal political demonstration a person risks arrest and confinement for a few days, the number of people who will dare leave their teevee sets and hit the streets will be very limited indeed. While the police want to justify their policy of preemption by pointing (ad nauseam) to the few windows broken in Seattle and the need to maintain order, the rulers understand that if preemptive arrests stifle political involvement — limiting it to those young enough or secure enough to take risks — their unjust authority is safer. We accept preemptive, illegal arrests — just because the state often uses far harsher methods against its enemies — at our peril.

Guantanamo on the Hudson

Out of our group of 7 street performers, the police only grabbed three of us — George Bush and two of the three dominatrixes, C and M. At first, all three of us thought the whole thing was so ridiculous that surely the police would just take us around the block, give us a ticket or a warning, and cut us loose. But again, we were assuming reality was as it normally exists — not the parallel universe of New York during the RNC. For weeks, the NYPD had been hyping the protests, claiming there would be “violent anarchists” there bent on destroying New York. They had gotten tens of millions of dollars in federal money to protect the Republicans. And so they put on a good show — hordes of police everywhere you went, huge barricades for blocks around midtown Manhattan. The cops had converted a bus garage on Pier 57 on the Hudson River to a temporary holding station complete with chain link enclosures topped by razor wire — it looked strangely like Camp X-ray at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The problem was “where are the violent anarchists?” Finding none, the police had to do their best to improvise so they wouldn’t look like fools.

My two friends and I stood in a little police sub-station with metal handcuffs on feeling so full of emotion, so close to each other and for just a moment so deeply alive. Sometimes you feel like you’re stuck in your life — repeating boring patterns, working too much, playing not enough, not feeling enough intensity, feeling lonely and longing for human connection. We had been talking about it the night before — how can we really feel? How can we be fully alive given all the complexities of our lives? But in that station, we knew we were alive. We felt our existence very intensely — my eyes grew teary not out of fear, but out of joy at being this alive. We all kissed and they had tears in their eyes, too.

It isn’t fun getting arrested — we were pissed off at the injustice of it, pissed at having our freedom taken from us, worried about what would happen next, trying to figure out how to manage this new reality. I felt particularly worried about C and M — they were wearing skimpy, sexy outfits — fishnet stockings, tight see-through stuff, leather. They had no identification, no money, and no keys to the place we were staying.

After searching us, the police put us in a van and drove us to Pier 57. On the way, we used our affinity groups’ call “WHOOOP” to penetrate the thick plastic separating the men from the women.

When we got to the Pier, we were surprised to see the vast place basically empty, with tons of cops just standing around waiting for something to happen. After being searched again, they started the grim process of paperwork. At one station, they counted the money in my wallet over and over because there was too much and they had to put some of it into “checked baggage.” They called a supervisor over to make sure the paperwork was right. They worked on this for what seemed like an hour. It felt highly symbolic of life in the US that the cops would take 1 second to deprive us of our freedom, but would spend an hour dealing with $71 — in America, money is always taken far more seriously than freedom.

Finally, I got locked in the big chain link cage. The police had taken my necktie so I couldn’t hang myself with it while I was in the cell. The line from Alice’s Restaurant ran through my head “Officer Obie, did you think I was going to hang myself for littering?” Taking my necktie seemed really silly given that all around the cell there were signs warning us to be careful of cutting ourselves on the razor wire. Anyone wanting to kill themselves in that cage would have had an easy time of it.

As much as it pissed me off to be locked up for nothing, I have to say that in retrospect, I feel lucky to have met the people I shared the cage with. They were all from a group that had allegedly thrown a little party on Wall street earlier in the morning. Apparently, their small group was far outnumbered by undercover cops who grabbed all of them, drawing blood in a number of cases. They were a great group — creative, fun and smart. One guy was walking the Appalachian trail and had taken a break from his walk to come to the RNC. Another had just taken the bar exam to be an environmental lawyer. We exchanged all kinds of stories over the course of the next almost day long ordeal.

A lot has been made of the dangerous health conditions at the converted bus garage — an oily substance coated the floor which was supposedly mixed with asbestos or worse. A guy in the cage was using a rolled up dollar bill as a paint brush to create a political t-shirt on his plain white shirt — the oil on the floor was his paint. I touched the floor to see if it was safe to sit down — my finger turned solid black. We were lucky, because only a few of us were in the cage during the middle of the day. Later in the evening when the police arrested over 1,000, I am told that the cells were stuffed and avoiding contact with the filthy floor was impossible.

I couldn’t see C and M, but at various points we whooped signals back and forth to each other across the vast, noisy, hanger-like Pier 57. Finally, after cooling our heels for a long time, the police let me out of the cage and a school bus with prison bars pulled up. C, M and I stood facing a fence. The police always marched us around telling us to face the fence or the wall, etc., getting off on their power trip. We were surprised when we boarded the bus and discovered that we had the whole thing to ourselves! The bus pulled out of the pier and what followed was the wildest ride I had in New York — even better than the Cyclone I rode at Coney Island a few days later. The huge, empty school bus (except for us and the arresting officer) sped through Manhattan, running red lights, with a police car escort running ahead of us. All this for street theater?

Wingnuts in the Tombs

When we got to the “Tombs” — Central Booking — I had a naive optimism that we would soon be released. When we had reached Pier 57, an officer had said “this will just take 2-3 hours.” I felt like that meant it would take 6 hours, maybe 8 hours. Since we were now pretty sure very few protesters had so far been arrested, and since the Courts were open and available, and we were entering the court building, this assumption appeared reasonable.

In the days after August 31, the police have defended the long period of time (hundreds of people were held for 48 hours) it took them to “process” and release detainees on the grounds that they were “flooded” with arrests on August 31. (No matter that this flood was their own doing as they swept up innocent people.)

Our experience at the Tombs proves that this police claim is a lie. When we got there, they had only arrested a couple of dozen people all day. The police were sitting around waiting for something to happen. It took a few minutes for them to offer me my phone call, and a few more to finger print me. Then, I figured I would wait around a little while and then be released. Instead, I was taken downstairs, very thoroughly searched again, and then put into a cell with other unlucky folks. There was one other holding cell that had people in it — so called “regular” arrestees — the police kept the RNC detainees separate from the normal population.

Aside from those two cells, there were huge numbers of empty holding cells. We sat and sat and a tiny number of us were gradually taken up to Court, but mostly we were held. There was a pay phone in the cell and we began to hear that out in the real world, mass arrests were happening. But we didn’t see the folks getting arrested for hours. Maybe around midnight they started bringing the first group in — the peaceful Fellowship of Reconciliation march that had been arrested at 4 p.m. for walking on the sidewalk near Ground Zero.

If the police couldn’t process the “flood” of arrestees in a timely fashion because they were a flood, that doesn’t explain why the police couldn’t deal with two dozen arrestees from early in the day in a timely fashion. Of course, the answer is that the police had made a conscious decision to move protesters through the system slowly. Some day, as the lawsuits over the RNC protests are resolved, we may learn more about who made this decision, but anyone who was there could plainly see what was going on.

As the night passed away in jail, more and more folks got brought over from Pier 57 until eventually, all the holding cells were full. There was insufficient space to lie down, so mostly we stayed up chatting, making friends, feeling outraged, feeling our bodies grow increasingly exhausted. As it turned out, I was one of the lucky ones — I got release in only 17 hours at about 5:30 a.m. I got to see the rising sun shining on the Brooklyn bridge — a beautiful sight in a beautiful city — and freedom had never tasted so sweet. But also so sour, because I knew that hundreds more were still locked away, and because I knew that none of us can ever be really free under this system. And I knew that the cops were probably going to get away with the whole thing — arresting people for nothing other than daring to hit the streets to oppose those in power, intentionally holding us for long periods, and harassing us with dirty conditions at the Pier, sleep deprivation and disrespect.

My friends C and M and been released a little before me, and between my affinity group and the fantastic legal support teams outside the jail, they were okay despite their skimpy clothing, lack of money and lack of ID. C and M had been arraigned and had their charged adjourned contemplating dismissal — in other words if they don’t get arrested for 6 months, the charges will be dropped. My situation was more annoying — I would have to return to New York from my home in California in three weeks to attend a court appearance. When I returned, I got an ACD, too. The National Lawyer’s Guild lawyer told me that of the 1,800 people arrested, about 1,200 would have to return for a court date. Two-thirds of those arrested lived outside New York. Perhaps this was a way to promote tourism?

RNC Intro

500,000 people protested the Republican National Convention — its wars abroad, assaults on the environment, and crackdowns on workers — in New York City in late August and early September. From the massive, mellow march the day before the convention to hundreds of confrontations in which small groups hassled delegates, to the 1,800 arrests, was the week of protests a success? The RNC underlined the limits of protest. Outside of New York, news about the protests was hard to find. Massive police presence in New York curtailed our ability to disrupt the delegates’ work.

Yet the protests made it much harder for Bush to use New York as a prop for his war on terrorism message. Things would have been worse if he had come to New York and no one had hit the streets. The protests showed that not all Americans are united around Bush and his agenda of fear and violence.

In deciding to hit the streets, you can never be sure that it will be “worth it” — that it will help promote change. But you can always be sure that if you decide not to hit the streets, you’ll loose a chance for progress. It’s up to the opponents of the system to make the effort to show up wherever those in power gather if there appears to be any chance it could make a difference.

What I Didn’t Learn in New York City

I didn’t go to the protests at the Republican National Convention for many reasons. I was totally broke, and had no idea what to do when I got there. But none of this had tended to stop me in the past. What was different this time was my reservations about mass protests at major party conventions. In the year 2000, the series of mass protests that had shaken the WTO and the World Bank/IMF seemed to hit a wall at the R2K in Philadelphia and D2K in Los Angeles.

One reason was that our protests expose things, and the presidential horse race is already designed to flaunt itself in a year long super-distraction. We don’t come to these things just trying to prevent some ghastly new development in the global terror super state; we try to get in the way of business as usual which has a bit more momentum.

So I was sitting in a house, a very comfortable sublet by I Steve standards, watching the play by play on NYC Indymedia. I had been at actions like this before, so I feel the day after day of exhausting non-stop demonstrations, camaraderie, commotion, arrests, solidarity. . . But now, even though I could almost smell the pepper spray I could blink my eyes and I was back in a quiet room in sunny California. Where I could without adrenaline look at MSNBC, The New York Times, Newsweek, and try to figure out how all this protest measured up to the evil Republican media spectacle.

I knew that if I was there, I wouldn’t care so much about how much the protests were suppressed in the corporate media, which reported that only 100,000 people marched on Sunday, and mostly ignored everything else. The New York Times reported a bit more, because for them it was local news, and they’ve been surprisingly aware that Bush and his oil gangsters are destroying corporate civilization. Anywhere else one would really have to dig for convention protest stories; there was more regular coverage earlier about how the authorities were preparing for the upcoming protests.

So I started to really wonder about protest culture again. This worldwide network of people engaged in figuring out things we don’t like, such as George Bush, prioritizing them, and responding to the most important things by protesting against them. For a while, we had this idea of “direct action,” and the slogan, “from protest to resistance,” indicating that rather than just protesting, we were going to actually obstruct the things we don’t like. But more often than not, the result of this strategy was that we used this obstruction to protest more dramatically, rather than use protests to obstruct. In retrospect, what we were really doing was protesting against the fact that all we do is protest.

In New York, a half million people decided in various ways to deal with their feelings about the Bush administration by protesting against it. As far as I can tell, while most people in this horde had no ties to the anarchist movement or the Kerry campaign, like these two groups they weren’t oriented toward winning anything.

Bush is bad and protesting him is fine of course. But I think there would be less existential frustration if we realize a couple things. First, that this idea of vigorous protest, around which our protest culture revolves, is based on our vision of grassroots, direct democracy. In this democracy, the collective decisions of society are the synthesis of the deep self-expression and actions of the people.

Second, that we do better protesting things that are simply undemocratic than protesting the mainstream system of democracy, which is based on majoritarianism. For them it’s democratic if when 2/3 of the people want to put left-handed people in labor camps, we turn in ourselves or the left-handed people we know, even if we’d rather not. In countries that don’t have even representative democracy, like Indonesia under Suharto for example, people seem to have better luck bringing down the government with mass protests.

Radicals usually address this problem by attacking and discrediting majoritarian democracy. We usually attempt this discrediting in years that are divisible by 4. What I’d like to see happen is that we, from 2005-2007, figure out how to get the basic idea of direct democracy, and how it differs from majoritarian, representative democracy, into the heads of all Americans. Then in 2008, when we go out and protest, both we and everyone else will know what we’re doing.

Book Review

The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul

The Technological Society gives the reader insight into the emergent properties of our economic system. Without resorting to value-based language, or improbable conspiracy theories, or the existence of extraordinarily inhuman world leaders he explains the nature of our system based solely on individual people functioning out of motivation for their personal benefit within the constraints imposed on them by the economic environment they find themselves in. Jacques Ellul shows how the resulting system tends toward greater interdependence, the collective will imposing itself over the individual will, and the inevitable merger of all control agents (corporations, administrators, politicians, technicians) into a single technical totality. The entire book is an exposition of technique, the generalized character of the means to an end. It is the know-how, the application of knowledge for a purpose. The primary economic purpose of technique is to adapt the capricious and irrational nature of humans to the rational, linear, predictable nature of the machine, and to orchestrate that society to function like a machine. The application of knowledge (technique) is a normal human behavior, but it becomes the primary motive force of change in our world when it is coupled with machines, which through their access to non-sustainable energy sources have a functionally unlimited ability to multiply our labors, resulting in efficiency.

The human tendency towards efficiency has always existed; it represents our striving to get the largest benefit from the least amount of work. It can be called innate laziness. This is done through the application of planning, reason, and organization. “Work smarter, not harder.” The sudden applicability of science in the Industrial Revolution resulted in an exponential increase in the number of machines being built. Their ability to tap fossil fuels reinforced and amplified their production. Due to non-centralized resource and labor distribution, complex machines like the steam engine were most efficiently produced by many specialized industries. Thus the coordination of those many industries was essential to the success of the whole economy. In that situation technical standardization must be enforced by administrative organizations, i.e. the government (or unions, or corporations), whose scope encompasses the entire industrial complex, lest the entire production system collapse. To access the greatest general productivity the freedom of the production system must be reduced to its absolute most efficient form, “the one best way, that makes the most ‘sense,’” which is necessarily tin conflict with individual industries and individual workers. Ellul stresses that whether the regulating entity is capitalist, communist, socialist, fascist, or a corporate state, it has the same totalitarian effect on the individual caught in it.

The effect on us is especially dehumanizing because the production-consumption cycle functions more efficiently if the demand and/or production can be fixed, predicted, and/or manipulated. All three techniques then are used to their fullest capacity by the regulating bodies, and within each specific industry. Statistics are gathered, models are computed, and human techniques are implemented. These are directed at the individual’s life, leisure, body, and mind. Propaganda and regulatory laws are the primary human techniques, and like all techniques integrate successively into every aspect of the individual’s economic life. Propaganda can motivate people to buy commodities or products for which demand is lagging or doesn’t exist yet, thereby regulating the economy, or it can enrapture people to a state of war, and war in the technological society occurs for primarily economic purposes. Ellul speaks of total integration where the individual is the target of a barrage of coercive techniques (the most effective techniques are those unnoticed as such by the people under their influence) from all sides. Also, any individual technician can justify the invention and imposition of new human techniques because each technique does pragmatically function for the immediate benefit of individuals. Techniques make us temporarily more efficient of comfortable, but since the individual is subject to “beneficial” techniques from a multiplicity of technicians, and other forms of indirect economic persuasion, the system as a whole is totalitarian and compulsory to the individual. It is totalitarian as well, and can only become more so, for the only method of change is through technical means. No utopia or novel political-economic “solution” can be implemented unless it has a practical means of out-performing the current system. Agents of change are constrained not by the viability of their ideal but by their technical means of coming into existence (a revolutionary idea is limited not by its functionality, but by its ability to bring people into action). Thus the power-of-change will be successively consolidated into those agents that have the broadest access to the means of change. This is why the economic system tends towards totalitarianism. Ellul supports these statements with exhausting historical and contemporary facts and a thorough argument.

The Technological Society leaves the reader with an intense disappointment because Ellul makes it very clear that only technical solutions can be solutions to technical problems. He suggests that no ideology has any value until it applies itself. This is the core of the ethical problem activists meet everyday when faced with the problem of, “do the means justify the end, if they are in violation of the values of the end?” Ellul would suggest a dismal view that if your values are in violation of the most effective means of implementing them, then your values are doomed to impotence.

However, in a related essay, “Anarchy from a Christian Standpoint” Ellul gives the reader some hope for a way out of the technical complex. He suggests anarchy as a solution. He says anarchy is the only ideal that fully implies political-economic non-participation, a practical method of change, because it implies non-competition. He says he has no faith in a functional and stable anarchist society, but he agrees that if people were constantly striving towards one, the world would be a much better place.

I would like to note that, as many a reader has already guessed, the efficiency Ellul speaks of is not actual thermodynamic efficiency, but only a measure of human work in, versus human benefit out. The measurements do not take into account the actual production and maintenance costs of the technological society, namely the consumption of fossil fuels. Our machines are actually extraordinarily inefficient compared to biological systems, they just currently have access to a convenient but temporary non-biological energy source. If non-sustainable energy sources were eliminated or didn’t exist, then techniques would not create an inhuman and totalitarian system, it would reflect the control methods of ecological systems. That world would be tuned to perfectly adapt the human for the human’s sake, rather than adapting the human only for sake of the machine’s top performance.

Election: Choose Your Poison

No matter who wins in November, the struggle for liberation will continue on November 3 because both major candidates are running to serve the same basic interests and to promote the same basic type of future — one based on hierarchy, consumerism, environmental irresponsibility and the status quo. After the election, those interested in human values, instead of corporate interests will oppose whichever candidate wins the election. While both of the candidates want ever more industrial production, consumption, spending, economic growth and jobs, we seek a world in which human beings, cooperation, sharing, beauty, pleasure and the earth are the highest goals. Social institutions need to serve these goals, not abstract accumulation of wealth for the few.

The most important opportunities for social change lie in opposition to the dominant culture — in the streets, in communities, in a million small interactions — including opposition to the system’s electoral hoax. Every four years, the wheels of the electoral political machine spin to convince society that voting is the only or the best way to change things — and every four years, this is a fundamental mistake. Changing the leader of the US is like changing the head of a corporation — at the end of the day, you still have a corporation, and it still functions to serve its own goals and interests at the expense of its workers and the earth.

In view of the foregoing, it might seem a bit strange that I’m planning to vote in the upcoming election anyway, and for you know who. While it is clear to me that the major candidates are the same on what I consider the “big issues” (continuation of capitalism, industrialism, the basic framework of the status quo), it is equally clear that they are not precisely identical on every issue. My vote shall be a vote for the lesser of two evils.

The idea of the lesser of two evils means two things. First, it means you have to be keenly aware that either way, you get evil. That means that after the election, no matter who wins, I’ll be out in the streets and working in whatever way I can to address the mess this society is creating. That involvement is far more important than my vote, or conversely, any decision not to vote. The idea of the lesser of two evils also means that the real social struggle after the election may have a different character depending on who wins — some things aside from the “big issues” will be different depending on who wins.

In deciding to vote, I’m employing a cost benefit analysis. If the cost of voting is very, very small, then the benefit can also be pretty darn small, and it will still be worth it. My analysis of the cost of voting is that it takes a few minutes, and that is the only cost. I don’t find the idea that the mere act of voting itself somehow ratifies and endorses our oppressors very convincing, thus I don’t consider this a “cost”. Millions and millions of people don’t vote in each election — sometimes almost as many as do vote — and this non-participation in no way endangers the state or corporate power structure. The small degree to which non-voting may threaten the legitimacy of the state apparatus is far outweighed by the other ways in which the power structure ruins its own legitimacy every day by killing the planet while compelling most humans to live an empty life working meaningless jobs.

Though the benefit of voting may also be small — after all, one of the rich guys is going to win either way, I only have one vote, and the real struggle isn’t about electoral politics anyway — there is a measurable benefit if the election comes out one way, rather than another. In general, I think radicals spend a lot of time arguing about whether voting will help or hurt the situation — time that could better be spent doing something.

Capitalism vs Red vs Green

There are quite a few misconceptions about development and ecological degradation that shape the First World’s policies on the “development” of Third World nations. These countries are often used as scapegoats for environmental degradation, due to their lowered environmental regulations and large populations. It is commonly believed that by simply putting more money into the economy of these countries, by developing their economy into a model similar to the U.S.’s, these ecological problems will gradually diminish. This idea equates poverty with environmental degradation, when in fact, prosperity is the real problem in terms of the environment.

There are many different approaches environmental theorists take when thinking about these problems. One important approach is “ecologizing the economy,” which means making economic processes less environmentally destructive, of trying to remedy our existing problems. Another is “economizing the ecology,” or putting a price tag on nature. While these may sound like good ideas, “greenwashing” big business or advancing the technology of Third World countries will not halt, or even significantly slow, ecological degradation.

These theories of ecological modernization promote “sustainable capitalism,” but they do not question the underlying logic, and contradictions of capitalism. They do not take into account that capitalism and ecological sustainability are inherently at odds, and ignore that capitalism cannot ever stand still; it needs to constantly grow, but it cannot grow indefinitely.

The notion that capitalism is the “natural” economic system of any modern society is inherent. It is a common assumption that capitalism was born and bred in the city, and that any city is by its very nature capitalistic from the start. Only cities that had the “wrong” religion, type of state, or some other ideological, political, or cultural “problem,” could keep from becoming capitalistic, in other words.

In actuality, capitalism was born in the country as “agrarian capitalism.” For most of the time that humans have worked the land for material needs, we have been divided into classes: those who worked the land, and those who appropriated the labor of others. Even when there is no strong division between appropriators and producers in the Marxist sense, the market still perpetuates itself, ever expanding. Once established, it requires that everyone remain dependent on the market for their means of subsistence. Even when workers do own the means of production, individually or collectively, they are still forced to respond to these market imperatives.

These imperatives are pressed upon Third World countries by the developed world, as is the idea that they need to make their country more environmentally friendly. It is ironic that they are simultaneously being pressured by multinational (though ultimately, in terms of profit, American) corporations to lower their environmental and labor laws as much as possible to be considered potential bases for economic development.

Multinational corporations have shown us that if you control someone’s economy, you also control their politics. Economic policy usually shapes political policy, and if you are dependant on external forces to put bread on the table, you must be willing to sacrifice quite a bit. Third world countries must exploit their people and environment on a market where they don’t have any influence, where the buyer holds all the power, in order to satisfy needs that aren’t being satisfied internally. Capitalist market imperatives insist that companies constantly find new ways to maximize profits, so naturally the labor and materials must be procured as cheaply as possible. Lowered environmental regulations and sweatshops all over the world illustrate this concept precisely.

The idea that everyone should, or even could live as we do is preposterous. It is empirical fact that in order for the U.S. to enjoy this level of prosperity – this quality of life – the Third World must be denied prosperity.

The underlying conditions of a capitalist system cannot be ignored in any environmental movement. Compassion for, or understanding of the working class aside, we will never be able to “save the earth” while ignoring class issues. Hopefully, it will soon become clear to the environmental movement that our current economic system is inherently at odds with the environment, and cannot even conceivably be reconciled.

George Bush Sr. clearly articulated the imperialistic policies of the US at the 1992 global environmental summit conference. Representatives from many Third World countries asked him to reconsider the consumption habits of the United States, arguing that a major part of the current ecological crisis was the enormous demand for consumer goods from the U.S. and other industrialized nations. They felt it was unfair for them to be asked to manage their natural resources to the immediate detriment of their economy in the name of environmental sustainability, when relatively minor environmental demands were refused by the richer industrialized nations. Bush Sr.’s reply to these requests was simple, and to the point: “The American way of life is not up for negotiation”

Perhaps the labor and environmental movements would both be more effective if they acknowledged the capitalist economy as their mutual enemy and worked together towards solutions.