May Day, Stephanie McMillan
News and Opinion
Roger’s note: it is, of course, a good thing that criticism of the capitalist economy has broken even into the mainstream. And on the political left trashing capitalism has become pretty much the in thing. Nevertheless, a critical understanding of what capitalism (or, for that matter, what capital is) is a rare occurrence, even in the so-called progressive Blogosphere. Since the deepening of the word wide crises (war, economic disparity, environmental disaster, etc.) has become more and more evident, and because everyone knows that we live in a capitalist world (private, state and mixed), it takes no great leap of logic to realize there is something very much wrong with capitalism.
But what is almost universally lacking in analysis is a rigorous and historical understanding of what capitalist economy is, much less an understanding of the revolutionary nature of the struggle to go beyond capitalism, and even much less a philosophic context that takes into account the very nature of human existence and the notion of human freedom. I am no great revolutionary scholar, but what I have learned I have learned through a lifetime of participation in the struggles for social, political and economic justice and informed by a study of capitalism via the writings of and organization formed by the founder of Marxism Humanism in North America, Raya Dunayevskaya (www.newsandletters.org).
The work of Stephanie McMillan, of which I became aware from the article below, is a welcome exception to the usual analyses of capitalism from the left, which tend to be either disappointingly reformist or corrupted by a nihilist and defeatist attitude, largely a result of the gross failures of the various 20th Century Marxist revolutions.
When she became aware of flagrant injustice and felt the need to take action, McMillan was advised in essence to work “within the system,” to lobby and write letters to politicians. She soon became aware of the futility of such a strategy and began to dig further. Like most of us who have benefited by North American education and economic prosperity and who live relatively comfortable middle class lives, the truths that we discover when we are serious about investigating are difficult to adopt, “inconvenient,” if you will (for me, I was hit over the head with this reality as a 20 year old university student spending a summer in various Latin American countries). It implies a break with a world view that has always served as an emotional safety net; that is, the notion that if we follow the rules and work hard at uncovering and exposing injustice, then our democracy has the capacity to adjust and correct. The problem, of course, is that it doesn’t have that capacity because democracy in a capitalist economy is more symbolic than real, and it only serves to mask the deeper source of injustice. We are left with no choice. We either abandon our comfort zone in a revolutionary way, or we consciously or unconsciously rationalize a reformist strategy (Communism didn’t work, so we can only try to reform capitalism), one that is doomed from the beginning to fail, the kind of failure of imagination for which William Blake coined the phrase “mind forged manacles”.
My only criticism of McMillan, from what I have read in this article, is her use of the first person plural (we, our) in such a way that implies that those who come to a better understanding of the problem are the ones who are going to have to resolve it. Naturally, activist philosophers are essential to revolutionary struggles, but the subjects of revolution are the various classes of oppressed peoples, and without them no amount of intellectual acuity or vanguard “leadership,” can lead to meaningful change; rather the notion of Praxis, the intertwining of thought and action.
One cannot deny how bleak things seem. But the essential truth is not that there is no other option than cancerous capitalism, rather there is no other option than its destruction and replacement with a humanistic and democratic form of socialism.
Oscar Wilde wrote, “The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” He was discussing a personality type, but in doing so he came close, if unwittingly, to encapsulating the very essence of capitalism.
If capitalism keeps chugging along, we’re all in big trouble. That’s the prognosis of Stephanie McMillan, an award-winning political cartoonist and author of the new book, Capitalism Must Die! A Basic Introduction to Capitalism: What It Is, Why It Sucks, and How to Crush It.
The most urgent reason to stop capitalism in its tracks, according to McMillan, is its prominent role in harming the planet. Capitalism possesses an inherent growth imperative. This means that the normal functioning of capitalism is causing water shortages, ailing oceans, destroyed forests and ruined topsoil.
But even if an ecological catastrophe weren’t upon us, capitalism would still need to be dismantled because it’s based on exploitation, McMillan said in an interview. “There’s no reason why the social result of production needs to be in private hands and that only a few people should own what everybody produces,” she said.
McMillan uses her book to introduce and popularize basic concepts of revolutionary theory. “I wanted to provide something that was accessible to people, that people wouldn’t be afraid to pick up,” she said. But once they pick it up, readers will find a “doorway into deeper levels of theory because we always need to learn more about the system,” she explained.
Overturning capitalism, according to McMillan, will require getting as many people as possible — liberals, socialists, communists, anarchists, environmentalists and unlabeled people — on the anti-capitalist bandwagon. And once they’re aboard, the goal will be to educate them on the complex and long history of capitalism.
A serious weakness among activists in movements for social change has been a lack of understanding of the true nature of the system they live under. Instead of naming capitalism as the problem, McMillan writes, activists often use vague populist terms like “the 1%,” “the rich,” “banksters,” or “greedy corporations.” But the problem runs much deeper than the corruption of any particular individual or institution, according to McMillan. “It lies in the structural foundation of the entire way of life that currently dominates the globe,” she writes.
“Capitalism Must Die!” also serves as a guide to fighting back because, according to McMillan, now is a better time than ever to get organized. “Capitalism is in a huge crisis,” she said. “We need to understand how it works and what the nature of the crisis is and the nature of the different moments that it passes through so that we can identify its vulnerabilities and weaknesses.”
Something will inevitably happen to capitalism as the crisis deepens. “It will probably have to restructure itself and it could become fascism or it could lead to a civil war between the representatives of different factions of capital or some horrible things that don’t actually improve anything,” she said in the interview. “Or we can organize and get rid of them.”
Indeed, McMillan hopes people will use what they learn from the book to organize in their communities, workplaces and schools. “Theoretical clarity for its own sake is pointless intellectualism; instead, it should be a guide for action,” she writes.
After decades of neoliberal supremacy, critiques of capitalism have sneaked into mainstream debates, with Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate as notable examples. Both authors, however, approach capitalism from a reformist stance and hold up social democratic versions of capitalism in Western Europe as viable alternatives.
McMillan doesn’t believe Western European capitalist models — the ones that offer stronger social safety nets and more enlightened views on environmental issues — are worth defending. Capitalism, in whatever form, is inherently destructive because it converts the natural world into commodities. And it’s inherently exploitative because profit always comes from the exploitation of workers. “It doesn’t matter if you give them healthcare or a higher salary; you’re still exploiting them for private gain,” she said.
While still exploitative, Europe’s form of capitalism may in fact be less harsh than in the U.S. because the rising capitalist class in Europe had to deal with a feudal class. “They had to make some concessions to the masses in order to get their system in place,” she said in the interview. “Whereas in the U.S., they came over here and slaughtered everyone and took the land. There was no concession made. There was no feudal class that they had to fight against or deal with.”
Even with the publication of the books by Piketty and Klein, the supremacy of capitalism still remains unquestioned in the mainstream media. “It’s the framework that everything else exists within. The debate has to be inside that framework. Nothing can exist outside. It’s like what Margaret Thatcher said, ‘There is no alternative,’” explained McMillan. “It’s hard for people to imagine that there could be any alternative. People think, ‘I guess this is all there is. This is the only way humans can behave.’ Capitalism is naturalized.”
Right now, the level of political consciousness within the working class is very low. And that didn’t happen by chance. “That is by design and it’s by indoctrination and conditioning,” she said. “But it is a problem that we have to deal with.” The capitalists and their representatives in government are adept at finding new ways to squash and tamp down threats to their control. “We have to keep evolving our tactics as well,” she added.
The Occupy movement provided a glimpse at what’s possible. It made people realize they can rise up and take collective action. “It was very inspiring to people for that reason,” McMillan said. “There was a broad base of support for something like that. So many people got involved so quickly and there was so much discontent. It made people feel good that they weren’t alone and it showed the potential of what could happen.”
But Occupy also was a learning experience. “It showed the weakness and the need to be stronger. If we’re actually going to go up against the system, it can’t just be a spontaneous gathering of a bunch of people. It has to be organized — planned and strategic,” she emphasized.
It’s Our Only Shot
McMillan knows that eradicating capitalism is a long shot. “But I feel like it’s our only shot. The reason that I keep doing it is because there’s nothing else — the only other alternative is to give up and die or accept things the way they are and end up in a worse situation,” she said.
Anybody who really understands what’s going on cannot stand idle, according to McMillan. “It’s our historical responsibility,” she insists. “It’s a matter of human dignity.”
Accepting things the way they are would mean allowing 10 million children under the age of five to die annually because, under the normal functioning of global capitalism, it’s not profitable to save them, she writes in the book, citing a study by the nonprofit group Save the Children. It would mean continuing to accept racism, which has always been central to capitalism’s expansion and has been used to excuse the ultra-violent policies — from genocide of indigenous people to slavery and now the “war on terror” — that serve the accumulation of capital, she explains.
McMillan understood what’s going on when she was in high school and a relative urged her to read Jonathan Schell’s Fate of the Earth, a 1982 book about the destruction of life on Earth from nuclear war. She was reluctant to read the book. “I instinctively knew that if I read it, then I would have to then deal with the horrible issues that were going to be in there. I didn’t want to disrupt my comfortable existence. I understood that I would have to do a lot of hard things,” she remembered.
But the relative kept prodding her: “You’ve got to read this. It’s the biggest issue. Reagan is going to destroy the world. We can’t let this happen and you have to read this.” McMillan eventually relented and opened the book. As she expected, it was horrifying and upsetting. She realized humans couldn’t go on living with the possibility of nuclear war hanging over their heads, which seemed very possible at the time.
McMillan started going to meetings with peace and justice activists in her native South Florida. They would tell her to write letters to her congressperson, write letters to the editor of local newspapers and sign petitions. Even as a newcomer to political activism, McMillan knew these steps were not going to be sufficient. “And I would ask, ‘Is there anything else?’ and they would say, ‘No, that’s it.’”
But then McMillan met a guy wearing a purple hat who was talking about revolution. He was standing outside a screening of a movie about nuclear war. “It was like a light bulb, ‘We could actually have a revolution now.’ I thought it was just a historical thing that happened in the past, like the Declaration of Independence,” she recalled. “I didn’t know we could have another one.”
The guy with the purple hat gave McMillan a copy of a newspaper filled with words she didn’t understand: the proletariat, the bourgeoisie. “I came home really excited and told my dad, ‘I think I’m a communist! This is going to solve everything,’” she recalled. “And he pounded his fist on the table and he goes, ‘What’s the labor theory of value.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know.’ And he said, ‘How can you call yourself a communist if you don’t even know what the labor theory of value is, one of its basic concepts?’”
McMillan immersed herself in study and quickly learned that the labor theory of value means that the exchange value of a product is based on the socially necessary amount of labor power — measured in time — that is generally required to produce it. But under capitalism, one of the key ingredients is surplus value. And under capitalism, the buyer of labor power — the capitalist — appropriates the surplus value generated in the process of commodity production.
You Can’t Be Neutral
Mastering political theory is tough enough. But putting it into action is even harder. Along with decades of organizing and activism, McMillan has worked as a cartoonist, drawing the popular daily comic strip Minimum Security and the weekly editorial cartoon Code Green, where she seeks to propagate her ideas through crafty drawings and funny dialog. She has received numerous awards for her cartoons, the most notable being the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for Editorial Cartoonists in 2012.
As a working journalist, McMillan has learned that reporting is never objective. “There is no such thing. It’s never neutral. It’s never non-partisan. If somebody is involved in an issue and they acknowledge it in the article — you know where they are coming from — then it actually has more credibility because they have a deeper level of understanding of the issue because when you just dropping into something like a tourist, you can’t really understand it deeply,” she explained in the interview.
Many of the journalists who reported on the Occupy movement, for example, were unfamiliar with it. “They just observed the surface, the spectacle. They didn’t know all the dynamics. They didn’t know all the people, all the different political trends, all the different tendencies within it. They’re just reduced to describing the surface imagery,” she recalled.
McMillan also has written several books with political and environmental themes such as “As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial” and “The Beginning of the American Fall.” Since the publication of “Capitalism Must Die!”, people have told McMillan that the book brought them clarity and a comprehensive understanding of capitalism. They also appreciated how the cartoons helped to make the concepts clearer.
Going forward, McMillan believes anti-capitalists will need to work with liberals and reformists, even if it often can be an exercise in frustration. Anti-capitalist organizations should only engage in common work with reformists, though, when they are organized enough to insist that their politics are represented, she writes.
If and when anti-capitalist groups make headway, the dominant class will respond with ever-increasing violence and, as it has repeatedly shown, will not hesitate at committing massacres on any scale using what McMillan describes as the “capitalists’ accumulated forces of lies, wealth and arms.”
“But we are potentially stronger than them,” McMillan writes. “We outnumber them, and we have right on our side.”
Mark Hand covers energy issues. You can reach him at email@example.com , or follow him on Twitter at @MarkFHand.
Roger’s note: you can purchase Ronald Sheppard’s pamphlet at http://www.remarxpub.com
The question of who ordered the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. is a vital one, and thousands of pages have been written on the issue. Those who dismiss the notion that the United States Government would engage in assassination (by characterizing those who believe this as ‘conspiracy nuts’) willfully ignore the 1975 Church Committee Report (that exposed covert, illegal government activities) and the many CIA-orchestrated assassinations and coups d’etat from Africa to Latin America.
The CIA’s experience with overseas assassinations has given it more than enough expertise to conduct domestic assassinations, with the added advantage of having control over investigating agencies at the local, state, and national levels.
Deciding criminal guilt is largely based on proving means, motive, and opportunity. When it comes to political assassination, the key question is motive.
Powerful government institutions possess, or can easily obtain, the means and the opportunity to conduct an assassination and divert attention to “a lone gunman,” or a patsy like Lee Harvey Oswald. The mainstream media conveniently forget this fact as they rush to legitimize wacky theories that take the heat off the CIA, FBI, NSA, and police.
In Why the U.S. Government Assassinated Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., Roland Sheppard exposes the U.S. Government’s motive for assassinating Malcolm X in New York’s Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965 and Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968. The fact that Sheppard is one of the few remaining eye witnesses to the assassination of Malcolm X adds a note of immediacy and authenticity to his analysis.
Sheppard describes the unusual absence of security on the day of Malcolm X’s assassination, and he recounts his personal observations of what happened in the crucial moments. He tells of a second suspect apprehended that day by the New York Police, a man whose existence later disappeared from the official version of events. However, when Sheppard was interrogated at the Harlem Police Station, he saw this man walking freely into one of the offices. Sheppard recognized him as the assassin.
In 1999, the King family launched a civil suit in 1999 to expose the facts surrounding the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“After considering all the evidence, a Memphis jury ruled that someone other than James Earl Ray had been the shooter … that the City of Memphis, the State of Tennessee, and federal government agencies were all involved in the assassination.”
The heart of Sheppard’s work is his analysis of the motive for these two government assassinations.
There is nothing more threatening to the U.S. corporate elite, the government, the military, and the mass media than the prospect of revolution. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. were developing beyond their original Black liberation philosophies. They were emerging as powerful advocates and organizers for revolutionary change in the American economic and political system.
In his final years, Malcolm X expanded the fight against racism to include the fight against poverty and war. In 1962, he supported striking hospital workers in New York City. And he was the first mass leader in the United States to publicly oppose America’s war against Vietnam.
In his speech at the Oxford Union in 1964, Malcolm X gives Shakespeare a revolutionary twist. He begins with the famous question: “Whether it was nobler in the mind of man to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take up arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them.” His answer, “And I go for that. If you take up arms you’ll end it, but if you sit around and wait for the one who’s in power to make up his mind that he should end it, you’ll be waiting a long time.”
The U.S. Government also feared Malcolm X’s growing international stature and the political connections he was making in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Sheppard reminds us that Malcolm X met with Che Guevara and the Cuban delegation to the United Nations in New York, in December of 1964. He was invited by Ahmed Ben Bella, the leader of the Algerian revolution, to participate along with Che and other independence movement leaders at a conference in Bandung beginning March 3, 1965. He had also arranged for the issue of human rights violations against Afro-Americans to be considered on March 12, 1965, by the International Court of Justice at the Hague. His assassination put an end to all of this. (Ben Bella was assassinated just four months later.)
Fighting words Martin Luther King, Jr. was also beginning to challenge a political system that profits from racism. Sheppard cites King’s speech at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Convention in August 1967,
“Why are there forty million poor people in America? … when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth … you begin to question the capitalist economy.”
King pointed out that the Northern Liberals, who had given moral and financial support to end Jim Crow laws in the South, would not support the effort to eliminate economic segregation. As Sheppard states, “Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated to subvert the Poor People’s Campaign. King was building a mass movement against poverty, and those who profit from poverty were determined to stop him.”
King’s opposition to the U.S. war against Vietnam sent shivers down the back of the military-industrial complex. In his historic sermon at the Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, sometimes referred to as the greatest MLK speech you never heard of, King exclaimed:
“Money that should have been spent on Johnson’s War on Poverty was being lost in Vietnam’s killing fields … A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death … We are taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.”
King called for a coalition of labor, anti-racist, anti-poverty, and anti-war activists; and a united movement poses the greatest threat to the status quo.
In his books on Malcolm X, George Breitman states, “Malcolm was not yet a Marxist.” A reviewer of Breitman’s work added, “Not yet! But it was only a matter of time.”
Malcolm X wrote:
“It is impossible for capitalism to survive, primarily because the system of capitalism needs some blood to suck. Capitalism used to be like an eagle, but now it’s more like a vulture. It used to be strong enough to go and suck anybody’s blood whether they were strong or not. But now it has become more cowardly, like the vulture, and it can only suck the blood of the helpless. As the nations of the world free themselves, then capitalism has less victims, less to suck, and it becomes weaker and weaker. It’s only a matter of time in my opinion before it will collapse completely.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., may not have been as far along the road of rejecting capitalism for socialism. Nevertheless, I believe that this was also a matter of time. In a 1966 speech to his staff, King explained: “… something is wrong … with capitalism … There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”
“Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated to subvert the Poor People’s Campaign.”
The U.S. Government was determined that neither of these fighters should be allowed to have that time. However, before moving to assassinate them, it tried to “neutralize” them.
Sheppard describes the activities of COINTELPRO, the FBI’s program to infiltrate, disrupt, and destroy the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-Vietnam-War movement, and any other threat to the status quo.
FBI boss, J. Edgar Hoover, called King “the most dangerous Negro” and tried to blackmail him into silence. To discredit Malcolm X, the FBI paid an informer inside the Nation of Islam. When these efforts failed, assassination was the final option.
The U.S. Government assassinated Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. because they rightly came to understand and challenge the capitalist economic system, its social impact (war, poverty, injustice, environmental disaster), and its reliance on racism to divide-and-conquer.
Sheppard concludes with an appeal to action; we must learn the truth about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. so we can carry their vision forward and conclude the struggle they so bravely began.
Roland Sheppard describes himself as a retired Business Representative of Painters Local #4 in San Francisco, a life long social activist and socialist. Prior to being elected as a union official in 1994, he worked for 31 years as a house painter. Roland Sheppard’s Daily News is accessible athttp://rolandsheppard.com/
Roger’s note: As with MLK’s more radical anti-war, anti-American speeches vanish (whitewashed, pun intended) from official history, so do genuine revolutionary radicals like James Baldwin, Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) and Amiri Baraka (born Leroi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, my birthplace). It is no coincidence, rather a conscious amnesia. In the same week celebrating the 90th anniversary of Baldwin’s birth, the US Supreme Court upholds racist anti affirmative action state law. This week also saw the passing away of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the prize fighter who spent 19 years in prison based on racist prosecutions and verdicts in Patterson, New Jersey (my beloved home state).
By FELICIA R. LEE
APRIL 24, 2014, New York Times
James Baldwin’s 1953 novel, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” about a Harlem teenager’s search for meaning, quickly became a classic, along with his searing essays about race published a decade later in the book “The Fire Next Time.” But in recent years Baldwin’s presence has diminished in many high school classrooms.
In a year that marks the 90th anniversary of his birth, educators offer different reasons for Baldwin’s faded presence there, from the concern that he is too controversial and complex to the perception that he has been eclipsed by other African-American voices. Collectively the explanations illustrate how attitudes about race have changed, along with the way the high school literary experience has evolved according to currents in the field.
“Baldwin is still there, but he’s not there in the way he was,” said Jocelyn A. Chadwick, chairwoman of the secondary level of the National Council of Teachers of English, pointing out that while in the 1960s and ’70s students would study Baldwin’s essays, short stories and novels in their entirety, today they often encounter his work only in anthologies.
Isaac Asante participates in a discussion of “Sonny’s Blues” in Ms. Brantley’s class.
Now teachers, scholars and other Baldwin fans are seizing on the anniversary of his birth in Harlem to inspire what they hope will be a revival of a younger generation’s interest in the work of one of the country’s most gifted writers and major voices on race and morality.
The New York Live Arts festival “James Baldwin, This Time,” which began on Wednesday and continues through Sunday with performances and events across disciplines, is an extensive commemoration of the writer, who was black and gay and died in 1987. The festival kicks off a yearlong, citywide consideration of Baldwin at several places, including Harlem Stage, the Columbia University School of the Arts and the New School’s Vera List Center for Art and Politics.
Additionally, some of Baldwin’s books are being reissued this year, and there are new appraisals of his work as well as new work inspired by him. “Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems” (Beacon Press), with an introduction by the poet Nikky Finney, came out this month. Vintage reissued “Giovanni’s Room” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain” last year. Already the attention has prompted a broader conversation about Baldwin’s legacy.
“I think he’s not taught as much anymore on the high school level because he’s incendiary and, for some, inflammatory,” said Rich Blint, a Baldwin scholar and associate director in the Office of Community Outreach and Education at the Columbia University School of the Arts. Paradoxically, the belief that the county is somehow postracial, Mr. Blint said, has shut down some discussions about race. “Think about how impoverished our racial conversations are now,” he said.
Educators also cite poor reading habits, censorship and Baldwin’s absence from the list of works suggested for Common Core standards as reasons his works are not studied regularly. And since the late ’70s and early ’80s, as school districts have scrambled for more diverse subject matter in the classroom, Baldwin has had to share space with a new crop of black writers, especially women: Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. Over the years, some parents and schools have also challenged what they saw as the sexual material, violence and profanity in Baldwin’s work. Sex — interracial and intraracial, gay and straight — is prominent in his fiction. His raw dissections of race also raised concerns.
Long before it was fashionable to argue that race was a social construct, Baldwin famously said, “Insofar as you think you’re white, you’re irrelevant,” during a 1979 speech in Berkeley, Calif., a sentiment he repeated in his writing and public appearances. Racism was not a stain on American exceptionalism, Baldwin argued, but a deliberate feature of a country that he said routinely terrorized black people. He moved to France in the late 1940s to evade racism, but he returned home often, and he helped to articulate the pains of the civil rights movement.
“He was one of the fiercest critics of the American race problem who ever put pen to paper,” said Khalil G. Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. A historian, Mr. Muhammad has taught Baldwin to students as young as eighth grader to help them understand history and to articulate and communicate the conditions of their lives, he said. In his travels around the country, though, he does not find nearly enough young Baldwin readers, he said.
In the words of Walter Dean Myers, an award-winning children’s author, in an interview, “It begins with the fact that the students are not reading that well at all, the teachers shy away from complex issues, and the parents are not making demands.” While it can be difficult to generalize about a vast universe of schools, high school students who do read Baldwin are more apt to attend elite or high-performing schools, said Mr. Myers, who in 2012 and 2013 traveled to dozens of libraries, schools and community centers around the country as a national ambassador for young people and literature.
Nevertheless, in some quarters Baldwin remains a vivid part of adolescent lives. In a classroom decorated with Baldwin quotations at the Frederick Douglass Academy 1 in Harlem, students in freshman English one recent morning recited poems inspired by “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin’s short story about a jazz musician whose demons include heroin.
“In a dark place is where my soul lays/one parent dead and the other missing,” went two lines of “Stanley’s Blues,” by Stanley Anisca.
Shawnakay Shaw recited, “Living in the hood ain’t no joke/especially when you’re broke selling dope.”
To include young people in the new considerations of Baldwin, students from the James Baldwin School, a Manhattan high school, will join such prominent artists as Ms. Finney, Suzan-Lori Parks, Marcus Gardley, Vijay Iyer and others in reading and discussing Baldwin’s writing at a Live Arts noon program, “Jimmy at High Noon,” at the New York Live Arts Studio every day during the festival.
For some Baldwin fans, those events are a bright spot on a generally dull landscape. “On one hand, he’s on a U.S. postage stamp; on the other hand, he’s not in the Common Core,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University. “A lot of public high school students will not have heard of him, and that’s a tragedy. The burden of protecting James Baldwin’s hugely important legacy is on teachers of English.”
Baldwin’s name and books are not listed in the appendix of the Common Core State Standards, a set of learning goals adopted by more than 40 states and the District of Columbia. (Richard Wright, for instance, is included.) Its proponents argue that the core’s “exemplar” list of books and writers is just a guidepost, not definitive and not reflective of a canon or a curriculum. Many canonical titles are not on the list, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain being one example.
Susan Pimentel, a leading writer on the standards for English language arts and literacy, said in an email message that it would be heartbreaking to think that a great story like “Sonny’s Blues” would be overlooked just because it was not on the list. However, she said, “It simply was not the aim of Appendix B to create a list of important authors to read and wade into the canonical arguments of the 1980s.”
At Frederick Douglass, there was no doubt that Baldwin would be in the canon and the classroom. Joseph D. Gates, the principal, said his school has the latitude to create the curriculum with the staff and to include work that will be relevant to students. The school has a reputation for sending all its seniors to college, including some to Ivy League schools.
“I think Baldwin presents a perspective that is uniquely Harlem,” Mr. Gates said. “Many of the struggles the students face are the same: self-identity, racism, drugs and alcohol, even though the times have changed.”
Roger’s note: I find it interesting that journalists cannot write positive things about Marx with a caveat to show, I guess, that they are not slavish ideological Marxists. Marx did not consider himself to be a prophet or a maker of blueprints for the future. If so much of what he projected has come to be true it is because of his profound intellectual and analytic digging and not because he was some kind of a seer into the future. First of all Marx was a philosopher, not an economist. More specifically a philosopher of human liberation. He realized that he needed a complete understanding of the history of human development and economics (he read and absorbed every one of the political economists of his day, from Adam Smith and Ricardo and Malthus to names you and I have never heard of) in order to develop a philosophy that contained the theory and practice for human individual and social liberation. Furthermore, it is not untrue but rather misleading to state that “Most of his writing focuses on a critique of capitalism rather than a proposal of what to replace it with.” With a particular reference to the Paris Commune, he often wrote of a future of “freely associated labor.” He wrote about the “withering away of the state” and, of course, his most profound “vision” of a future classless world was described in his classic: “from each according to his/her need; to each according to his/her ability” (I added the gender neutrality of which Marx would have approved). I found the best introduction to Marx was through his so-called “early writings” or “economic manuscripts” (I have the old Bottomore edition); and for a deeper understanding of Marx, the writings of Raya Dunayevskaya, the founder of Marxist-Humanism.
There’s a lot of talk of Karl Marx in the air these days – from Rush Limbaugh accusing Pope Francis of promoting “pure Marxism” to a Washington Times writer claiming that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is an “unrepentant Marxist.” But few people actually understand Marx’s trenchant critique of capitalism. Most people are vaguely aware of the radical economist’s prediction that capitalism would inevitably be replaced by communism, but they often misunderstand why he believed this to be true. And while Marx was wrong about some things, his writings (many of which pre-date the American Civil War) accurately predicted several aspects of contemporary capitalism, from the Great Recession to the iPhone 5S in your pocket.
Here are five facts of life in 2014 that Marx’s analysis of capitalism correctly predicted more than a century ago:
1. The Great Recession (Capitalism’s Chaotic Nature)
The inherently chaotic, crisis-prone nature of capitalism was a key part of Marx’s writings. He argued that the relentless drive for profits would lead companies to mechanize their workplaces, producing more and more goods while squeezing workers’ wages until they could no longer purchase the products they created. Sure enough, modern historical events from the Great Depression to the dot-com bubble can be traced back to what Marx termed “fictitious capital” – financial instruments like stocks and credit-default swaps. We produce and produce until there is simply no one left to purchase our goods, no new markets, no new debts. The cycle is still playing out before our eyes: Broadly speaking, it’s what made the housing market crash in 2008. Decades of deepening inequality reduced incomes, which led more and more Americans to take on debt. When there were no subprime borrows left to scheme, the whole façade fell apart, just as Marx knew it would.
2. The iPhone 5S (Imaginary Appetites)
Marx warned that capitalism’s tendency to concentrate high value on essentially arbitrary products would, over time, lead to what he called “a contriving and ever-calculating subservience to inhuman, sophisticated, unnatural and imaginary appetites.” It’s a harsh but accurate way of describing contemporary America, where we enjoy incredible luxury and yet are driven by a constant need for more and more stuff to buy. Consider the iPhone 5S you may own. Is it really that much better than the iPhone 5 you had last year, or the iPhone 4S a year before that? Is it a real need, or an invented one? While Chinese families fall sick with cancer from our e-waste, megacorporations are creating entire advertising campaigns around the idea that we should destroy perfectly good products for no reason. If Marx could see this kind of thing, he’d nod in recognition.
3. The IMF (The Globalization of Capitalism)
Marx’s ideas about overproduction led him to predict what is now called globalization – the spread of capitalism across the planet in search of new markets. “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe,” he wrote. “It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.” While this may seem like an obvious point now, Marx wrote those words in 1848, when globalization was over a century away. And he wasn’t just right about what ended up happening in the late 20th century – he was right about why it happened: The relentless search for new markets and cheap labor, as well as the incessant demand for more natural resources, are beasts that demand constant feeding.
4. Walmart (Monopoly)
The classical theory of economics assumed that competition was natural and therefore self-sustaining. Marx, however, argued that market power would actually be centralized in large monopoly firms as businesses increasingly preyed upon each other. This might have struck his 19th-century readers as odd: As Richard Hofstadter writes, “Americans came to take it for granted that property would be widely diffused, that economic and political power would decentralized.” It was only later, in the 20th century, that the trend Marx foresaw began to accelerate. Today, mom-and-pop shops have been replaced by monolithic big-box stores like Walmart, small community banks have been replaced by global banks like J.P. Morgan Chase and small famers have been replaced by the likes of Archer Daniels Midland. The tech world, too, is already becoming centralized, with big corporations sucking up start-ups as fast as they can. Politicians give lip service to what minimal small-business lobby remains and prosecute the most violent of antitrust abuses – but for the most part, we know big business is here to stay.
5. Low Wages, Big Profits (The Reserve Army of Industrial Labor)
Marx believed that wages would be held down by a “reserve army of labor,” which he explained simply using classical economic techniques: Capitalists wish to pay as little as possible for labor, and this is easiest to do when there are too many workers floating around. Thus, after a recession, using a Marxist analysis, we would predict that high unemployment would keep wages stagnant as profits soared, because workers are too scared of unemployment to quit their terrible, exploitative jobs. And what do you know? No less an authority than the Wall Street Journal warns, “Lately, the U.S. recovery has been displaying some Marxian traits. Corporate profits are on a tear, and rising productivity has allowed companies to grow without doing much to reduce the vast ranks of the unemployed.” That’s because workers are terrified to leave their jobs and therefore lack bargaining power. It’s no surprise that the best time for equitable growth is during times of “full employment,” when unemployment is low and workers can threaten to take another job.
Marx was wrong about many things. Most of his writing focuses on a critique of capitalism rather than a proposal of what to replace it with – which left it open to misinterpretation by madmen like Stalin in the 20th century. But his work still shapes our world in a positive way as well. When he argued for a progressive income tax in the Communist Manifesto, no country had one. Now, there is scarcely a country without a progressive income tax, and it’s one small way that the U.S. tries to fight income inequality. Marx’s moral critique of capitalism and his keen insights into its inner workings and historical context are still worth paying attention to. As Robert L. Heilbroner writes, “We turn to Marx, therefore, not because he is infallible, but because he is inescapable.” Today, in a world of both unheard-of wealth and abject poverty, where the richest 85 people have more wealth than the poorest 3 billion, the famous cry, “Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains,” has yet to lose its potency.
NEW YORK (AP) — Buoyed by his characteristically soaring spirit, the surging crowd around him and a pair of canes, Pete Seeger walked through the streets of Manhattan leading an Occupy Movement protest in 2011.
Though he would later admit the attention embarrassed him, the moment brought back many feelings and memories as he instructed yet another generation of young people how to effect change through song and determination — as he had done over the last seven decades as a history-sifting singer and ever-so-gentle rabble-rouser.
“Be wary of great leaders,” he told The Associated Press two days after the march. “Hope that there are many, many small leaders.”
The banjo-picking troubadour who sang for migrant workers, college students and star-struck presidents in a career that introduced generations of Americans to their folk music heritage died Monday at the age of 94. Seeger’s grandson, Kitama Cahill-Jackson, said his grandfather died peacefully in his sleep around 9:30 p.m. at New York Presbyterian Hospital, where he had been for six days. Family members were with him.
“He was chopping wood 10 days ago,” Cahill-Jackson recalled.
With his lanky frame, use-worn banjo and full white beard, Seeger was an iconic figure in folk music who outlived his peers. He performed with the great minstrel Woody Guthrie in his younger days and wrote or co-wrote “If I Had a Hammer,” ”Turn, Turn, Turn,” ”Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.” He lent his voice against Hitler and nuclear power. A cheerful warrior, he typically delivered his broadsides with an affable air and his fingers poised over the strings of his banjo.
In 2011, the canes kept Seeger from carrying his beloved instrument while he walked nearly 2 miles with hundreds of protesters swirling around him holding signs and guitars. With a simple gesture — extending his friendship — Seeger gave the protesters and even their opponents a moment of brotherhood the short-lived movement sorely needed.
When a policeman approached, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger said at the time he feared his grandfather would be hassled.
“He reached out and shook my hand and said, ‘Thank you, thank you, this is beautiful,'” Rodriguez-Seeger said. “That really did it for me. The cops recognized what we were about. They wanted to help our march. They actually wanted to protect our march because they saw something beautiful. It’s very hard to be anti-something beautiful.”
That was a message Seeger spread his entire life.
With The Weavers, a quartet organized in 1948, Seeger helped set the stage for a national folk revival. The group — Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman — churned out hit recordings of “Goodnight Irene,” ”Tzena, Tzena” and “On Top of Old Smokey.”
Seeger also was credited with popularizing “We Shall Overcome,” which he printed in his publication “People’s Song” in 1948. He later said his only contribution to the anthem of the civil rights movement was changing the second word from “will” to “shall,” which he said “opens up the mouth better.”
“Every kid who ever sat around a campfire singing an old song is indebted in some way to Pete Seeger,” Arlo Guthrie once said.
His musical career was always braided tightly with his political activism, in which he advocated for causes ranging from civil rights to the cleanup of his beloved Hudson River. Seeger said he left the Communist Party around 1950 and later renounced it. But the association dogged him for years.
He was kept off commercial television for more than a decade after tangling with the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. Repeatedly pressed by the committee to reveal whether he had sung for Communists, Seeger responded sharply: “I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American.”
He was charged with contempt of Congress, but the sentence was overturned on appeal.
Seeger called the 1950s, years when he was denied broadcast exposure, the high point of his career. He was on the road touring college campuses, spreading the music he, Guthrie, Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter and others had created or preserved.
“The most important job I did was go from college to college to college to college, one after the other, usually small ones,” he told The Associated Press in 2006. ” … And I showed the kids there’s a lot of great music in this country they never played on the radio.”
His scheduled return to commercial network television on the highly rated Smothers Brothers variety show in 1967 was hailed as a nail in the coffin of the blacklist. But CBS cut out his Vietnam protest song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” and Seeger accused the network of censorship.
He finally got to sing it five months later in a stirring return appearance, although one station, in Detroit, cut the song’s last stanza: “Now every time I read the papers/That old feelin’ comes on/We’re waist deep in the Big Muddy/And the big fool says to push on.”
Seeger’s output included dozens of albums and single records for adults and children.
He appeared in the movies “To Hear My Banjo Play” in 1946 and “Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon” in 1970. A reunion concert of the original Weavers in 1980 was filmed as a documentary titled “Wasn’t That a Time.”
By the 1990s, no longer a party member but still styling himself a communist with a small C, Seeger was heaped with national honors.
Official Washington sang along — the audience must sing was the rule at a Seeger concert — when it lionized him at the Kennedy Center in 1994. President Bill Clinton hailed him as “an inconvenient artist who dared to sing things as he saw them.”
Seeger was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 as an early influence. Ten years later, Bruce Springsteen honored him with “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” a rollicking reinterpretation of songs sung by Seeger. While pleased with the album, Seeger said he wished it was “more serious.” A 2009 concert at Madison Square Garden to mark Seeger’s 90th birthday featured Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Eddie Vedder and Emmylou Harris among the performers.
Seeger was a 2014 Grammy Awards nominee in the Best Spoken Word category, which Stephen Colbert won.
Seeger’s sometimes ambivalent relationship with rock was most famously on display when Dylan “went electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.
Witnesses say Seeger became furious backstage as the amped-up band played, though just how furious is debated. Seeger dismissed the legendary tale that he looked for an ax to cut Dylan’s sound cable, and said his objection was not to the type of music but only that the guitar mix was so loud you couldn’t hear Dylan’s words.
Seeger maintained his reedy 6-foot-2 frame into old age, though he wore a hearing aid and conceded that his voice was pretty much shot. He relied on his audiences to make up for his diminished voice, feeding his listeners the lines and letting them sing out.
“I can’t sing much,” he said. “I used to sing high and low. Now I have a growl somewhere in between.”
Nonetheless, in 1997 he won a Grammy for best traditional folk album, “Pete.”
Seeger was born in New York City on May 3, 1919, into an artistic family whose roots traced to religious dissenters of colonial America. His mother, Constance, played violin and taught; his father, Charles, a musicologist, was a consultant to the Resettlement Administration, which gave artists work during the Depression. His uncle Alan Seeger, the poet, wrote “I Have a Rendezvous With Death.”
Pete Seeger said he fell in love with folk music when he was 16, at a music festival in North Carolina in 1935. His half-brother, Mike Seeger, and half-sister, Peggy Seeger, also became noted performers.
He learned the five-string banjo, an instrument he rescued from obscurity and played the rest of his life in a long-necked version of his own design. On the skin of Seeger’s banjo was the phrase, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender” — a nod to his old pal Guthrie, who emblazoned his guitar with “This machine kills fascists.”
Dropping out of Harvard in 1938 after two years as a disillusioned sociology major, he hit the road, picking up folk tunes as he hitchhiked or hopped freights.
“The sociology professor said, ‘Don’t think that you can change the world. The only thing you can do is study it,'” Seeger said in October 2011.
In 1940, with Guthrie and others, he was part of the Almanac Singers and performed benefits for disaster relief and other causes.
He and Guthrie also toured migrant camps and union halls. He sang on overseas radio broadcasts for the Office of War Information early in World War II. In the Army, he spent 3½ years in Special Services, entertaining soldiers in the South Pacific, and made corporal.
He married Toshi Seeger on July 20, 1943. The couple built their cabin in Beacon after World War II and stayed on the high spot of land by the Hudson River for the rest of their lives together. The couple raised three children. Toshi Seeger died in July at age 91.
The Hudson River was a particular concern of Seeger’s. He took the sloop Clearwater, built by volunteers in 1969, up and down the Hudson, singing to raise money to clean the water and fight polluters.
He also offered his voice in opposition to racism and the death penalty. He got himself jailed for five days for blocking traffic in Albany in 1988 in support of Tawana Brawley, a black teenager whose claim of having been raped by white men was later discredited. He continued to take part in peace protests during the war in Iraq, and he continued to lend his name to causes.
“Can’t prove a damn thing, but I look upon myself as old grandpa,” Seeger told the AP in 2008 when asked to reflect on his legacy. “There’s not dozens of people now doing what I try to do, not hundreds, but literally thousands. … The idea of using music to try to get the world together is now all over the place.”
Associated Press writer John Rogers in Los Angeles and Mary Esch in Saratoga Springs in contributed to this report.
Roger’s note: William Blake coined the phrase “mind forged manacles,” the shackles we impose upon ourselves that prevent our imagination from envisioning a world other than the shitpot we live in. When a skeptic alleges that human nature will never allow us to be free or to govern ourselves in a truly democratic way, we can and must point to the Paris Commune and the Zapatista Revolution as living proof that it can be done. I have read some who insist that the Mexican government will inevitably one day wipe out the Zapatistas. Maybe so, maybe not. As Marx said, the lesson of the Paris Commune was its living breathing existence. Unless we are ready to fall into cynicism and despair, we must never lose faith in these living examples of human freedom and dignity.
The mantra of ‘democracy, liberty, and justice’ has informed the Zapatista movement for more than twenty years. (Photo: Flickr/David Apellido/Falso Handala3)Growing up in a well-heeled suburban community, I absorbed our society’s distaste for dissent long before I was old enough to grasp just what was being dismissed. My understanding of so many people and concepts was tainted by this environment and the education that went with it: Che Guevara and the Black Panthers and Oscar Wilde and Noam Chomsky and Venezuela and Malcolm X and the Service Employees International Union and so, so many more. All of this is why, until recently, I knew almost nothing about the Mexican Zapatista movement except that the excessive number of “a”s looked vaguely suspicious to me. It’s also why I felt compelled to travel thousands of miles to a Zapatista “organizing school” in the heart of the Lacandon jungle in southeastern Mexico to try to sort out just what I’d been missing all these years.
The fog is so thick that the revelers arrive like ghosts. Out of the mist they appear: men sporting wide-brimmed Zapata hats, women encased in the shaggy sheepskin skirts that are still common in the remote villages of Mexico. And then there are the outsiders like myself with our North Face jackets and camera bags, eyes wide with adventure. (“It’s like the Mexican Woodstock!” exclaims a student from the northern city of Tijuana.) The hill is lined with little restaurants selling tamales and arroz con leche and pozol, a ground-corn drink that can rip a foreigner’s stomach to shreds. There is no alcohol in sight. Sipping coffee as sugary as Alabama sweet tea, I realize that tonight will be my first sober New Year’s Eve since December 31, 1999, when I climbed into bed with my parents to await the Y2K Millennium bug and mourned that the whole world was going to end before I had even kissed a boy.
Thousands are clustered in this muddy field to mark the 20-year anniversary of January 1, 1994, when an army of impoverished farmers surged out of the jungle and launched the first post-modern revolution. Those forces, known as the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, were the armed wing of a much larger movement of indigenous peoples in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas, who were demanding full autonomy from their government and global liberation for all people.
“A popular uprising against government-backed globalization led by an all but forgotten people: it was an event that seemed unthinkable. The Berlin Wall had fallen. The market had triumphed. The treaties had been signed. And yet surging out of the jungles came a movement of people with no market value and the audacity to refuse to disappear.”
As the news swept across that emerging communication system known as the Internet, the world momentarily held its breath. A popular uprising against government-backed globalization led by an all but forgotten people: it was an event that seemed unthinkable. The Berlin Wall had fallen. The market had triumphed. The treaties had been signed. And yet surging out of the jungles came a movement of people with no market value and the audacity to refuse to disappear.
Now, 20 years later, villagers and sympathetic outsiders are pouring into one of the Zapatistas’ political centers, known as Oventic, to celebrate the fact that their rebellion has not been wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men.
The plane tickets from New York City to southern Mexico were so expensive that we traveled by land. We E-ZPassed down the eastern seaboard, ate catfish sandwiches in Louisiana, barreled past the refineries of Texas, and then crossed the border. We pulled into Mexico City during the pre-Christmas festivities. The streets were clogged with parents eating tamales and children swinging at piñatas. By daybreak the next morning, we were heading south again. Speed bumps scraped the bottom of our Volvo the entire way from Mexico City to Chiapas, where the Zapatistas control wide swathes of territory. The road skinned the car alive. Later I realized that those speed bumps were, in a way, the consequences of dissent — tiny traffic-controlling monuments to a culture far less resigned to following the rules.
“Up north,” I’d later tell Mexican friends, “we don’t have as many speed bumps, but neither do we have as much social resistance.”
After five days of driving, we reached La Universidad de la Tierra, a free Zapatista-run schoolin the touristy town of San Cristóbal de Las Casas in Chiapas. Most of the year, people from surrounding rural communities arrive here to learn trades like electrical wiring, artisanal crafts, and farming practices. This week, thousands of foreigners had traveled to the town to learn about something much more basic: autonomy.
Our first “class” was in the back of a covered pickup truck careening through the Lacandon jungle with orange trees in full bloom. As we passed, men and women raised peace signs in salute. Spray-painted road signs read (in translation):
“You are now entering Zapatista territory. Here the people order and the government obeys.”
I grew nauseous from the exhaust and the dizzying mountain views, and after six hours in that pickup on this, my sixth day of travel, two things occurred to me: first, I realized that I had traveled “across” Chiapas in what was actually a giant circle; second, I began to suspect that there was no Zapatista organizing school at all, that the lesson I was supposed to absorb was simply that life is a matter of perpetual, cyclical motion. The movement’s main symbol, after all, is a snail’s shell.
Finally, though, we arrived in a village where the houses had thatched roofs and the children spoke only the pre-Hispanic language Ch’ol.
Over the centuries, the indigenous communities of Chiapas survived Spanish conquistadors, slavery, and plantation-style sugar cane fields; Mexican independence and mestizo landowners; racism, railroads, and neoliberal economic reforms. Each passing year seemed to bring more threats to its way of life. As the father of my host family explained to me, the community began to organize itself in the early 1990s because people felt that the government was slowly but surely exterminating them.
The government was chingando, he said, which translates roughly as deceiving, cheating, and otherwise screwing someone over. It was, he said, stealing their lands. It was extracting the region’s natural resources, forcing people from the countryside into the cities. It was disappearing the indigenous languages through its version of public education. It was signing free trade agreements that threatened to devastate the region’s corn market and the community’s main subsistence crop.
So on January 1, 1994, the day the North America Free Trade Agreement went into effect, some residents of this village — along with those from hundreds of other villages — seized control of major cities across the state and declared war on the Mexican government. Under the name of the Zapatista Army for National Liberation, they burned the army’s barracks and liberated the inmates in the prison at San Cristóbal de Las Casas.
In response, the Mexican army descended on Chiapas with such violence that the students of Mexico City rioted in the streets. In the end, the two sides sat down for peace talks that, to this day, have never been resolved.
The uprising itself lasted only 12 days; the response was a punishing decade of repression. First came the great betrayal. Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, who, in the wake of the uprising, had promised to enact greater protections for indigenous peoples, instead sent thousands of troops into the Zapatistas’ territory in search of Subcomandante Marcos, the world-renowned spokesperson for the movement. They didn’t find him. But the operation marked the beginning of a hush-hush war against the communities that supported the Zapatistas. The army, police, and hired thugs burned homes and fields and wrecked small, communally owned businesses. Some local leaders disappeared. Others were imprisoned. In one region of Chiapas, the entire population was displaced for so long that the Red Cross set up a refugee camp for them. (In the end, the community rejected the Red Cross aid, in the same way that it also rejects all government aid.)
Since 1994, the movement has largely worked without arms. Villagers resisted government attacks and encroachments with road blockades, silent marches, and even, in one famous case, an aerial attack comprised entirely of paper airplanes.
The Boy Who Is Free
Fifteen years after the uprising, a child named Diego was born in Zapatista territory. He was the youngest member of the household where I was staying, and during my week with the family, he was always up to something. He agitated the chickens, peeked his head through the window to surprise his father at the breakfast table, and amused the family by telling me long stories in Ch’ol that I couldn’t possibly understand.
He also, unknowingly, defied the government’s claim that he does not exist.
Diego is part of the first generation of Zapatista children whose births are registered by one of the organization’s own civil judges. In the eyes of his father, he is one of the first fully independent human beings. He was born in Zapatista territory, attends a Zapatista school, lives on unregistered land, and his body is free of pesticides and genetically modified organisms. Adding to his autonomy is the fact that nothing about him — not his name, weight, eye color, or birth date — is officially registered with the Mexican government. His family does not receive a peso of government aid, nor does it pay a peso worth of taxes. Not even the name of Diego’s town appears on any official map.
By first-world standards, this autonomy comes at a steep price: some serious poverty. Diego’s home has electricity but no running water or indoor plumbing. The outhouse is a hole in the ground concealed by waist-high tarp walls. The bathtub is the small stream in the backyard. Their chickens often free-range it right through their one-room, dirt-floor house. Eating them is considered a luxury.
The population of the town is split between Zapatistas and government loyalists, whom the Zapatistas call “priistas” in reference to Mexico’s ruling political party, the PRI. To discern who is who, all you have to do is check whether or not a family’s roof sports a satellite dish.
Then again, the Zapatistas aren’t focused on accumulating wealth, but on living with dignity. Most of the movement’s work over the last two decades has involved patiently building autonomous structures for Diego and his generation. Today, children like him grow up in a community with its own Zapatista schools; communal businesses; banks; hospitals; clinics; judicial processes; birth, death, and marriage certificates; annual censuses; transportation systems; sports teams; musical bands; art collectives; and a three-tiered system of government. There are no prisons. Students learn both Spanish and their own indigenous language in school. An operation in the autonomous hospital can cost one-tenth that in an official hospital. Members of the Zapatista government, elected through town assemblies, serve without receiving any monetary compensation.
Economic independence is considered the cornerstone of autonomy — especially for a movement that opposes the dominant global model of neoliberal capitalism. In Diego’s town, the Zapatista families have organized a handful of small collectives: a pig-raising operation, a bakery, a shared field for farming, and a chicken coop. The 20-odd chickens had all been sold just before Christmas, so the coop was empty when we visited. The three women who ran the collective explained, somewhat bashfully, that they would soon purchase more chicks to raise.
As they spoke in the outdoor chicken coop, there were squealing noises beneath a nearby table. A tangled cluster of four newly born puppies, eyes still crusted shut against the light, were squirming to stay warm. Their mother was nowhere in sight, and the whole world was new and cold, and everything was unknown. I watched them for a moment and thought about how, although it seemed impossible, they would undoubtedly survive and grow.
Unlike Diego, the majority of young children on the planet today are born into densely packed cities without access to land, animals, crops, or almost any of the natural resources that are required to sustain human life. Instead, we city dwellers often need a ridiculous amount of money simply to meet our basic needs. My first apartment in New York City, a studio smaller than my host family’s thatched-roof house, cost more per month than the family has likely spent in Diego’s entire lifetime.
As a result, many wonder if the example of the Zapatistas has anything to offer an urbanized planet in search of change. Then again, this movement resisted defeat by the military of a modern state and built its own school, medical, and governmental systems for the next generation without even having the convenience of running water. So perhaps a more appropriate question is: What’s the rest of the world waiting for?
Around six o’clock, when night falls in Oventic, the music for the celebration begins. On stage, a band of guitar-strumming men wear hats that look like lampshades with brightly colored tassels. Younger boys perform Spanish rap. Women, probably from the nearby state of Veracruz, play son jarocho, a type of folk music featuring miniature guitar-like instruments.
It’s raining gently in the open field. The mist clings to shawls and skirts and pasamontañas,the face-covering ski masks that have become iconic imagery for the Zapatistas. “We cover our faces so that you can see us” is a famous Zapatista saying. And it’s true: For a group of people often erased by politicians and exploited by global economies, the ski-masks have the curious effect of making previously invisible faces visible.
Still, there are many strategies to make dissent disappear, of which the least effective may be violence. The most ingenious is undoubtedly to make the rest of the world — and even the dissenter herself — dismissive of what’s being accomplished. Since curtailing its military offensive, the government has waged a propaganda war focused on convincing the rest of Mexico, the world, and even Zapatista communities themselves that the movement and its vision no longer exists.
But there are just as many strategies for keeping dissent and dissenters going. One way is certainly to invite thousands of outsiders to visit your communities and see firsthand that they are real, that in every way that matters they are thriving, and that they have something to teach the rest of us. As Diego’s father said in an uncharacteristic moment of boastfulness, “I think by now that the whole world has heard of our organization.”
Writing is another way to prevent an idea and a movement from disappearing, especially when one is hurtling down the highway in Texas headed back to New York City, already surrounded by a reality so different as to instantly make the Zapatistas hard to remember.
The most joyous way to assert one’s existence, however, is through celebration.
The New Year arrived early in Oventic. One of the subcomandantes had just read a communique issued by the organization’s leadership, first in Spanish, then in the indigenous languages Tzotzil and Tzeltal. The latter translations took her nearly twice as long to deliver, as if to remind us of all the knowledge that was lost with the imposition of a colonial language centuries ago. Then, a low hiss like a cracked soda can, and two fireworks exploded into the air.
“Long live the insurgents!” a masked man on stage cried.
“Viva!” we shouted. The band burst into song, and two more fireworks shot into the sky, their explosions well timed drumbeats of color and sound. The coordination was impeccable. As the chants continued, the air grew so smoky that we could barely see the fireworks exploding, but in that moment, I could still feel their brilliance and the illumination, 20 years old, of the movement releasing them.
Roger’s note: In my opinion the Zapatistas are the most important humanist revolutionaries our time. They have shown us that the notions of individual dignity and communal responsibility are not in opposition to one another. As revolutionaries they have avoided the pitfall of vanguard-ism and dogmatism. From the beginning Zapatista women have struggled for and won equality within the movement. By all traditional logic they should have been wiped out by the U.S. supported democratically elected undemocratic Mexican governments. But through determination and having captured the imagination and support of freedom loving peoples around the globe, they not only have survived but continue to maintain authority over various Chiapas regions. They are a revolutionary example and inspiration for all of us.
Mexico’s Zapatistas, one of the world’s most unclassifiable revolutionary movements, celebrated the 20th anniversary of their movement with high hopes for passing it on to the next generation. (Photo: Void Network / Flickr)
There are two tests of social change movements: endurance and regeneration. After two decades, Mexico’s Zapatista movement can now say it passed both.
Thousands of Zapatistas turned out this month to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 1994 uprising of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). At the New Year festivities in the five Caracoles, or regional centers of Zapatista autonomous government, veterans and adolescents not yet born at the time of the insurrection danced, flirted, shot off rockets, and celebrated “autonomy” — the ideal of self-government that lies at the heart of the Zapatista experience.
The Zapatistas came out by the thousands for their anniversary parties, surprising some. Their death, it turns out, had been greatly exaggerated. Accustomed to the face of politics as a white man talking, the press and the political class began writing obituaries for the movement when Subcomandante Marcos retired from public view in 2006.
Although Zapatista communities have continued to emit a steady stream of communiqués denouncing military and political attacks, land grabs, and the presence of paramilitary forces in Zapatista communities, the media has ignored them. It smugly predicted that the movement was moribund and would soon merit nothing more than a folkloric footnote in the history of the inexorable advance of global capitalism. The return of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to power in 2012 seemed to reaffirm the idea that Mexico was “back to normal.”
When nearly 50,000 Zapatistas marched in silence on December 21, 2012, they challenged the official line that their movement had all but died. The EZLN communiqué was brief and to the point: “Did you hear that? It is the sound of your world crumbling. It is the sound of ours resurging.”
The 20th anniversary and New Year celebrations this month marked a second moment in that resurgence. The festivities were a family affair. Press was banned, and although a series of articles by Subcomandante Marcos came out before the events, the organization put out no public documents on January 1st, the day of the anniversary itself. It was a time for Zapatistas to pat themselves on the back, an internal affirmation more than a political statement.
It may have been “just family,” but the Zapatistas have a wide extended family. Thousands of supporters and students, mostly youth from Mexico and abroad attending La Escuelita (the Little School), fanned out to theCarcacoles to join in ceremonies and all-night dancing.
The Little School was launched in August to teach “freedom according to the Zapatistas.” Students paired up with tutors from among movement members and were placed in families throughout Zapatista territory. Classes consist mostly of accompanying Zapatista families during their daily chores and long talks over beans and tortillas.
The experience opened up the Zapatista experience to outsiders, who were encouraged to ask questions of their host families. It also enabled the organization to hold up a mirror to itself — to see itself through the eyes of the students, reflect on the ground covered, and get to know other communities.
On New Year’s Eve, many of the 4,000 students attending the school’s winter sessions went out to Oventic, a foggy village in the highlands close to the city of San Cristobal de las Casas, or remained in more remote communities with their host families to join in the sports competitions, music, speeches, and dancing.
(Photo: Clayton Conn)
The anniversary sparked a debate on the movement, two decades after thousands of masked Mayans came out of the jungles and mountains in military formation to take over municipal seats in the southeastern state of Chiapas.
Subcomandante Marcos published a series of his characteristic communiqués, weaving meditations on death(“it’s not death that worries us and keeps us occupied, but life”) and biography (“historiography feeds on individualities; history learns from peoples“) with reflections on the organization and a story from a beetle named Durito.
Critics rushed to point out that poverty still exists in Zapatista communities — a fact not denied by the organization and obvious to the many visitors. Journalists and pundits invented and then passed around statistics on the number of Zapatista adherents, or lack thereof, as well as on the extension of Zapatista territory and on living conditions in autonomous regions. Many pronounced the world-famous uprising dead or dying for failing to resolve problems or maintain its high profile.
What reporters missed as they snuck into celebrations closed to the press is the significance of “autonomy.”
Zapatistas say the word with pride, much as you’d talk about your children or grandchildren. These communities have moved steadily off the traditional power grid. Disappointment at the Mexican government’s betrayal in rejecting its own signature on the San Andres Accords of 1996 led to a decision to de-prioritize pressuring institutions and instead build from below.
Imagine communities where local officials rotate to avoid accumulating power, political parties have no role or presence, and state and government programs — long used to buy off advocates for a more equal society — are banned. Much of the food is produced by the community, cooperatives do buying and marketing, and decisions are made collectively rather than being imposed by a state. The Zapatistas have attempted to resurrect this model, practiced for centuries in indigenous Mexico prior to the Spanish conquest.
Comandante Hortensia addressed the crowd in Oventic. “We’re learning to govern ourselves according to our own ways of thinking and living,” she said. “We’re trying to move forward, to improve and strengthen ourselves — men, women, youth, children, and old people.”
She added that 20 years ago, when the Zapatistas first said ¡Ya basta!(“Enough!”), “there wasn’t a single authority that was of the people. Now we have our own autonomous governments. It may have be good or bad, but it’s the will of the people.”
The Zapatistas acknowledge that progress in improving material conditions has been slow and hampered by obstacles and errors. But they express deep pride in what has been built, in “their” organization. Local health clinics — often poorly stocked and precariously staffed — use natural medicines made by community cooperatives and have special areas where trained midwives attend childbirth. Schools with rudimentary equipment teach in the indigenous languages of the communities, focusing on understanding the world the children live in and basic concepts of freedom, equality, and cooperation. The organization of defense and production in the communities shows discipline and commitment.
The anniversary revealed that at 20 years old, this military-political organization that defies easy categorization is what a democracy should be: an ongoing effort at building a better life collectively. When Zapatistas came together from communities throughout their lands to celebrate, the main achievement they marked was the survival of the organization itself — after 20 years of attacks, they’re still there, running their own communities, raising new generations of Zapatistas, and carrying on the dialogue with the outside world that has enriched both sides.
Communities have survived the moment in a long distance race when the runners pass the baton. Youths make up a large part of the Zapatistas’ base, representation, and more and more, leadership. Educated in the Zapatista school system and raised in Zapatista communities, a new generation is beginning to take on positions of authority. Their eagerness to assume the collective identity of their organization is another mark of the staying power of the autonomy experiment.
The role of women has also transformed visibly — not just in the number of women in leadership positions, but also in aspects of daily life, such as increased male participation in housework and childcare, and sanctions against violence towards women. The shift from downtrodden alienation to indigenous self-government makes a huge difference in their lives, even as poverty remains.
In evaluating the two-decade experience, most criteria ignore these subjective factors. By opening up the communities to participants in La Escuelita, the Zapatistas did something governments almost never do: let the people publicly evaluate the experience themselves. Returning studentsrecounted the experience enthusiastically, describing how their hosts revealed a world that wasn’t perfect by a long shot, but a world where each person mattered and each effort, each achievement, and each mistake was their own.
(Photo: Clayton Conn)
As the Zapatistas celebrated their accomplishments, vowed to correct their mistakes, and honored their dead, they also enjoyed more traditional New Year’s activities like setting off bottle rockets and dressing up in their finest. The solid continuity of Zapatismo was joined by a portent of change, the sense that yet another phase of one of history’s most unclassifiable revolutionary movements had begun.
As visiting students from all over the world joined together with veterans of the movement and younger members of the community, new possibilities shimmered under the moon of a new year. Contact with a new generation of supporters proved that the indigenous autonomy movement continues to attract people from all over. For now, the schools will continue. The Zapatistas have also jump-started the dormant National Indigenous Congress, holding an event in August where hundreds of indigenous representatives described the situation in their lands.
Amid mud, guitars, vivas, fireworks, and embraces, thousands of Zapatistas welcomed 2014. The debate on whether the movement is dead or alive, victorious or defeated, was left behind along with 2013. It wasn’t just the alcohol-free festivities that made people optimistic; it was a feeling of collective accomplishment, under tough conditions. A feeling of finally having a future.
“I know you don’t care,” Subcomandante Marcos noted in a missive to his critics, “but for the masked men and women from around here, the battle that matters isn’t the one that’s been won or lost. It’s the next one, and for that one, new calendars and grounds are being prepared.”
Roger’s note: I hope you find this correspondence as fascinating as I did. The left/progressive blogosphere these days is publishing more anti-capitalism analyses than ever. I am a life-long Marxist Humanist, so the notion of capitalism is something I have been thinking about for years (decades, actually). What I find troubling is that very few writers either attempt or demonstrate a precise understanding of exactly what capitalism is. Capitalism is not simply an ideology, although there are more than enough capitalist ideologues; and capitalism is not primarily about so-called free markets, nor is state ownership anything less than pure genuine capitalism (prime example: China). To understand what a genuine transformation of society will be, it is important to have a historical understanding of how capitalist economic relations developed. More important is the need to understand exactly what capitalist economic relationships ARE, and that has to do with the basic structure under which goods and services are PRODUCED (again, not marketed). Karl Marx discovered an entire new continent of thought that takes us into the heart of notions of human freedom and exploitation via capitalist economic relations. Much too complex for me to go into here; I just want to point out that being anti-capitalist is necessary but not sufficient. The dialogue below is a good example of revolutionary activist thinking, striving to understand in order to transform.
I hope you have been able to organise your life in prison around small rituals that make it tolerable, and that you have time to read. Here are my thoughts on your predicament.
John Jay Chapman, an American political essayist, wrote this about radicals in 1900: “They are really always saying the same thing. They don’t change; everybody else changes. They are accused of the most incompatible crimes, of egoism and a mania for power, indifference to the fate of their cause, fanaticism, triviality, lack of humour, buffoonery and irreverence. But they sound a certain note. Hence the great practical power of persistent radicals. To all appearance, nobody follows them, yet everyone believes them. They hold a tuning-fork and sound A, and everybody knows it really is A, though the time-honoured pitch is G flat.” Isn’t this a good description of the effect of Pussy Riot performances? In spite of all accusations, you sound a certain note. It may appear that people do not follow you, but secretly, they believe you, they know you are telling the truth, or, even more, you are standing for truth.
But what is this truth? Why are the reactions to Pussy Riot performances so violent, not only in Russia? All hearts were beating for you as long as you were perceived as just another version of the liberal-democratic protest against the authoritarian state. The moment it became clear that you rejected global capitalism, reporting on Pussy Riot became much more ambiguous. What is so disturbing about Pussy Riot to the liberal gaze is that you make visible the hidden continuity between Stalinism and contemporary global capitalism.
[Žižek then explores what he sees as a global trend towards limiting democracy.] Since the 2008 crisis, this distrust of democracy, once limited to third-world or post-Communist developing economies, is gaining ground in western countries. But what if this distrust is justified? What if only experts can save us?
But the crisis provided proof that it is these experts who don’t know what they are doing, rather than the people. In western Europe, we are seeing that the ruling elite know less and less how to rule. Look at how Europe is dealing with Greece.
No wonder, then, that Pussy Riot make us all uneasy – you know very well what you don’t know, and you don’t pretend to have any quick or easy answers, but you are telling us that those in power don’t know either. Your message is that in Europe today the blind are leading the blind. This is why it is so important that you persist. In the same way that Hegel, after seeing Napoleon riding through Jena, wrote that it was as if he saw the World Spirit riding on a horse, you are nothing less than the critical awareness of us all, sitting in prison.
Comradely greetings, Slavoj
Once, in the autumn of 2012, when I was still in the pre-trial prison in Moscow with other Pussy Riot activists, I visited you. In a dream, of course.
I see your argument about horses, the World Spirit, and about tomfoolery and disrespect, as well as why and how all these elements are so connected to each other.
Pussy Riot did turn out be a part of this force, the purpose of which is criticism, creativity and co-creation, experimentation and constantly provocative events. Borrowing Nietzsche’s definition, we are the children of Dionysus, sailing in a barrel and not recognising any authority.
We are a part of this force that has no final answers or absolute truths, for our mission is to question. There are architects of apollonian statics and there are (punk) singers of dynamics and transformation. One is not better than the other. But it is only together that we can ensure the world functions in the way Heraclitus defined it: “This world has been and will eternally be living on the rhythm of fire, inflaming according to the measure, and dying away according to the measure. This is the functioning of the eternal world breath.”
We are the rebels asking for the storm, and believing that truth is only to be found in an endless search. If the “World Spirit” touches you, do not expect that it will be painless.
Laurie Anderson sang: “Only an expert can deal with the problem.” It would have been nice if Laurie and I could cut these experts down to size and take care of our own problems. Because expert status by no means grants access to the kingdom of absolute truth.
Two years of prison for Pussy Riot is our tribute to a destiny that gave us sharp ears, allowing us to sound the note A when everyone else is used to hearing G flat.
At the right moment, there will always come a miracle in the lives of those who childishly believe in the triumph of truth over lies, of mutual assistance, of those who live according to the economics of the gift.
I was so pleasantly surprised when your letter arrived – the delay made me fear that the authorities would prevent our communication. I was deeply honoured, flattered even, by my appearance in your dream.
You are right to question the idea that the “experts” close to power are competent to make decisions. Experts are, by definition, servants of those in power: they don’t really think, they just apply their knowledge to the problems defined by those in power (how to bring back stability? how to squash protests?). So are today’s capitalists, the so-called financial wizards, really experts? Are they not just stupid babies playing with our money and our fate? I remember a cruel joke from Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not to Be. When asked about the German concentration camps in occupied Poland, the Nazi officer snaps back: “We do the concentrating, and the Poles do the camping.” Does the same not hold for the Enron bankruptcy in 2002? The thousands of employees who lost their jobs were certainly exposed to risk, but with no true choice – for them the risk was like blind fate. But those who did have insight into the risks, and the ability to intervene (the top managers), minimised their risks by cashing in their stocks before the bankruptcy. So it is true that we live in a society of risky choices, but some people (the managers) do the choosing, while others (the common people) do the risking.
For me, the true task of radical emancipatory movements is not just to shake things out of their complacent inertia, but to change the very co-ordinates of social reality so that, when things return to normal, there will be a new, more satisfying, “apollonian statics”. And, even more crucially, how does today’s global capitalism enter this scheme?
The Deleuzian philosopher Brian Massumi tells how capitalism has already overcome the logic of totalising normality and adopted the logic of erratic excess: “The more varied, and even erratic, the better. Normality starts to lose its hold. The regularities start to loosen. This loosening is part of capitalism’s dynamic.”
But I feel guilty writing this: who am I to explode in such narcissistic theoretical outbursts when you are exposed to very real deprivations? So please, if you can and want, do let me know about your situation in prison: about your daily rhythm, about the little private rituals that make it easier to survive, about how much time you have to read and write, about how other prisoners and guards treat you, about your contact with your child … true heroism resides in these seemingly small ways of organising one’s life in order to survive in crazy times without losing dignity.
With love, respect and admiration, my thoughts are with you!
Has modern capitalism really overtaken the logic of totalising norms? Or is it willing to make us believe that it has overpassed the logic of hierarchical structures and normalisation?
As a child I wanted to go into advertising. I had a love affair with the advertising industry. And this is why I am in a position to judge its merits. The anti-hierarchical structures and rhizomes of late capitalism are its successful ad campaign. Modern capitalism has to manifest itself as flexible and even eccentric. Everything is geared towards gripping the emotion of the consumer. Modern capitalism seeks to assure us that it operates according to the principles of free creativity, endless development and diversity. It glosses over its other side in order to hide the reality that millions of people are enslaved by an all-powerful and fantastically stable norm of production. We want to reveal this lie.
You should not worry that you are exposing theoretical fabrications while I am supposed to suffer the “real hardship”. I value the strict limits, and the challenge. I am genuinely curious: how will I cope with this? And how can I turn this into a productive experience for me and my comrades? I find sources of inspiration; it contributes to my own development. Not because of, but in spite of the system. And in my struggle, your thoughts, ideas and stories are helpful to me.
I am happy to correspond with you. I await your reply and I wish you good luck in our common cause.
I felt deeply ashamed after reading your reply. You wrote: “You should not worry about the fact that you are exposing theoretical fabrications while I am supposed to suffer the ‘real hardship’.” This simple sentence made me aware that the final sentiment in my last letter was false: my expression of sympathy with your plight basically meant, “I have the privilege of doing real theory and teaching you about it while you are good for reporting on your experience of hardship …” Your last letter demonstrates that you are much more than that, that you are an equal partner in a theoretical dialogue. So my sincere apologies for this proof of how deeply entrenched is male chauvinism, especially when it is masked as sympathy for the other’s suffering, and let me go on with our dialogue.
It is the crazy dynamics of global capitalism that make effective resistance to it so difficult and frustrating. Recall the great wave of protests that spilled all over Europe in 2011, from Greece and Spain to London and Paris. Even if there was no consistent political platform mobilising the protesters, the protests functioned as part of a large-scale educational process: the protesters’ misery and discontent were transformed into a great collective act of mobilisation – hundreds of thousands gathered in public squares, proclaiming that they had enough, that things could not go on like that. However, what these protests add up to is a purely negative gesture of angry rejection and an equally abstract demand for justice, lacking the ability to translate this demand into a concrete political programme.
What can be done in such a situation, where demonstrations and protests are of no use, where democratic elections are of no use? Can we convince the tired and manipulated crowds that we are not only ready to undermine the existing order, to engage in provocative acts of resistance, but also to offer the prospect of a new order?
The Pussy Riot performances cannot be reduced just to subversive provocations. Beneath the dynamics of their acts, there is the inner stability of a firm ethico-political attitude. In some deeper sense, it is today’s society that is caught in a crazy capitalist dynamic with no inner sense and measure, and it is Pussy Riot that de facto provides a stable ethico-political point. The very existence of Pussy Riot tells thousands that opportunist cynicism is not the only option, that we are not totally disoriented, that there still is a common cause worth fighting for.
So I also wish you good luck in our common cause. To be faithful to our common cause means to be brave, especially now, and, as the old saying goes, luck is on the side of the brave!
In my last letter, written in haste as I worked in the sewing shop, I was not as clear as I should have been about the distinction between how “global capitalism” functions in Europe and the US on the one hand, and in Russia on the other. However, recent events in Russia – the trial of Alexei Navalny, the passing of unconstitutional, anti-freedom laws – have infuriated me. I feel compelled to speak about the specific political and economic practices of my country. The last time I felt this angry was in 2011 when Putin declared he was running for the presidency for a third time. My anger and resolve led to the birth of Pussy Riot. What will happen now? Time will tell.
Here in Russia I have a strong sense of the cynicism of so-called first-world countries towards poorer nations. In my humble opinion, “developed” countries display an exaggerated loyalty towards governments that oppress their citizens and violate their rights. The European and US governments freely collaborate with Russia as it imposes laws from the middle ages and throws opposition politicians in jail. They collaborate with China, where oppression is so bad that my hair stands on end just to think about it. What are the limits of tolerance? And when does tolerance become collaboration, conformism and complicity?
To think, cynically, “let them do what they want in their own country”, doesn’t work any longer, because Russia and China and countries like them are now part of the global capitalist system.
Russia under Putin, with its dependence on raw materials, would have been massively weakened if those nations that import Russian oil and gas had shown the courage of their convictions and stopped buying. Even if Europe were to take as modest a step as passing a “Magnitsky law” [the Magnitsky Act in the US allows it to place sanctions on Russian officials believed to have taken part in human-rights violations], morally it would speak volumes. A boycott of the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 would be another ethical gesture. But the continued trade in raw materials constitutes a tacit approval of the Russian regime – not through words, but through money. It betrays the desire to protect the political and economic status quo and the division of labour that lies at the heart of the world economic system.
You quote Marx: “A social system that seizes up and rusts … cannot survive.” But here I am, working out my prison sentence in a country where the 10 people who control the biggest sectors of the economy are Vladimir Putin’s oldest friends. He studied or played sports with some, and served in the KGB with others. Isn’t this a social system that has seized up? Isn’t this a feudal system?
I thank you sincerely, Slavoj, for our correspondence and can hardly wait for your reply.
• The correspondence was organised by Philosophie magazine in cooperation with New Times. Longer versions can be found in German at philomag.de or in French at philomag.com. Tolokonnikova’s letters were translated from Russian by Galia Ackerman