Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: Looking on from afar

I have an annual tradition that I do around each New Year of publicly reflecting in writing on my personal experience of the year that just ended. Here is my experience of 2011.

The main general theme that I can think of that runs throughout 2011 is “looking on from afar”. The first half of the year I was looking on to my up-coming move to Minneapolis with great anxiety, uncertainty and anticipation. The second half of the year, after having moved to Minneapolis, I looked on to various places, people and situations of my past with nostalgia and sometimes yearning to see them again. My experience with life first-hand has generally been second-rate with thoughts of what might-be, what has-been, and what is going on over-there.

And this year, out over-there has been absolutely amazing! This has been the year of the Arab Spring with the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and the uprisings in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen. This has been the year of the big protests in Spain and Russia, the riots in Greece, Rome and England, and the end of the Iraq War, Osama Bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi. Most strikingly for me as an American radical, this has been the year of the Occupy movement, something that I totally did not see coming and have been totally transfixed with.

However, all of those things have all been stuff that I have observed from afar, as a kind of politically engaged spectator of sorts. The Occupy stuff I have only marginally gotten involved with. I have intentionally kept my distance from it all since I do have some strong reservations about it. I have not really gotten deeply involved with anything this year. If anything this year has been marked by me getting more un-involved with stuff instead of involved.

There have been some things that I have gotten involved with this year, or rather, got RE-involved with once more. One of them is anarchism – I realized that I am now and have always been an anarchist all along ever since I first discovered the philosophy. I have re-gained my comfort with ideologically and socially re-associating myself with things A-word-related. It also became very clear to me as the year progressed how much disgust and aversion I have within me to mainstream contemporary ways of life.

Then there is Vipassana Meditation (as taught by S.N. Goenka). This year I sat another ten-day course, volunteered at another, and then volunteered at the Illinois Vipassana Meditation Center during some periods in-between courses taking place. This is the most involved with Vipassana Meditation that I have been since 2008, which is the year that I first got into it. I have also publicly introduced people to Nonviolent Communication this year, which is something that I had not done for a long time.

There are some other things that I have more-or-less gotten involved with afresh, such as Buddhism. Now, Buddhism is something that I have already been interested in prior to this year, but this year I have studied the subject more than I ever have before in the past. I also took part in a short class on Buddhist history here in Minneapolis, taught by Rita M. Gross, the author of the book “Buddhism After Patriarchy”. That experience was very informative for me, and was quite mind-blowing at some points. Related to Buddhism I also got into reading the works of the Beat Generation, namely Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. The first two were self-proclaimed Buddhists, though they had some different perspectives on the matter.

Gary Snyder’s perspective on Buddhism has been very influential for me this year, for 50 years ago (in 1961) he wrote an essay entitled “Buddhist Anarchism” (also known as “Buddhism and the Coming Revolution”) that I first read this year. Reading this inspired me to write two articles on the subject of “Buddhist anarchism,” to produce a pamphlet about it and to give a public workshop presentation about it. I have been very excited about the possibilities around this semi-new philosophy of “Buddhist anarchism”, yet I have also felt very wary and reluctant around it as well. This latter is because I am afraid of creating a big new Identity around it all. Building up and clinging to some self-constructed identity is what I have done many times previously in the past related to my identity as an “anarchist”. I know first-hand the profound suffering that can come with clinging to a particular identity (or anything else), and it would be of the utmost irony if this occurred related to something with the philosophy of Buddhism! The challenge for me here is to appreciate and cherish something without clinging to it.

I also have to say that all of these things are essentially about ideas – the reading, the writing, the theorizing. These particular ideas have not really impacted my own personal life that much. My actual real-life experience day-to-day this year has actually been pretty dull and bland for me. The dullness of my life has not necessarily been “bad”, it has all been rather nice, and keeping in mind all of the different horrors and atrocities taking place in our world I am very much appreciative of what I have experienced. I also feel very grateful for the continuing relationship that I have with Liz. However, I’ve also had very few close personal friendships with people this year, and these mainly have been with people who live somewhere else and who occasionally I’ve visited with for at most a couple of days. Some of these friends, and family members too, have had some amazing experiences and adventures this year as they traveled to different places and countries abroad. I have only been able to enjoy these experiences vicariously, mainly through reading written accounts about them online and imagining.

Looking back on it my own personal favorite experiences of the year, the ones that most stand out for me are ones that also involved traveling. They were the trips to Twin Oaks and Acorn communities in central Virginia with some other coworkers from Camphill Soltane in March, going to the New York City Anarchist Bookfair and tabling and co-facilitating a workshop there in April, going to the Christian anarchist festival, called “PAPA Fest”, in rural Pennsylvania and giving a workshop there in June, and visiting Camphill Village Copake in up-state New York in July. These were the experiences where I personally felt the most alive, the most free and in integrity with myself this year.

As the year ends I am left with a continuing sense of uncertainty, of not-knowing. In a way I have learned quite a lot this year, and in another sense I feel like I have learned nothing at all. I do not know what the up-coming year of 2012 will bring me or where it will take me. The very best thing that I can think of in terms of finding comfort with the uncertainty and peace with the not-knowing is the philosophy of Buddhism and the practice of Vipassana Meditation. These are some of the reasons why I like them so much and why they have been such important parts of my life this year. I feel grateful that they are there and reassured knowing that I can relate with this proactively instead of just reactively.

One of the things that I learned this year is that you cannot repeat the past when it is something positive and you try to intentionally re-create it. However, you can repeat the past when it is something negative and you unintentionally stumble upon it (again). This to me implies an additional lesson of the importance of going into things with a clear mind, free from preconceptions of “the way things ought to be”, and allowing whatever arises to be there. This way the not-knowing can be an ally and not a menace.

May all beings be happy, be peaceful, be liberated, for the coming year. :-)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Envisioning a Buddhist Anarchism

I see Buddhist anarchism as being important for two reasons. I see Buddhism as essentially being about the individual’s personal liberation from unnecessary suffering. Anarchism I see as essentially being about freeing the world, through a profound social and political transformation, from unnecessary pain. We create all of this unnecessary pain and suffering ourselves.

The distinction between the two is that pain is usually a physical or an "external" thing, such as what you would normally think of with pain. There is also emotional pain, such as what comes with the loss of a loved one. Suffering is the particular kind of agony that comes about by holding onto an idea that something "should not" be happening that is happening, or "should" be happening that is not happening. This turns whatever pre-existing pain into something else, something worse. That's suffering. Suffering is created by our own habits of mind, where we choose to put our attention and what we choose to hold onto. Pain on the other hand is inevitable in life, however the social systems and institutions that humanity has chosen to organize the world with creates more pain for people than is necessary. A Buddhist anarchism would simultaneously be eliminating unnecessary suffering in the psyche and unnecessary pain in the world, and towards more joy and appreciation of life.

The other reason why I see a Buddhist anarchism as being important is that I see the two philosophies as complimenting and completing each-other. It is a union of the personal and the political, the psychological and the social, so to speak. This is ultimately about liberation in its fullest sense – both on the individual personal level and within the larger social body.

The philosophy of anarchism implies that a fundamental shift in the consciousness of people is necessary. In order to have a new world without domination, property or authority, people would need to be accustomed towards living with more benevolence, attentiveness, caring and flexibility with each-other. However, this shift in consciousness is rarely explicitly stated or elaborated upon in anarchist discourse, and the skills necessary for how people can achieve this shift in consciousness are almost never taught within anarchist circles.

The other angle to this is related to the arguments for what is called “Engaged Buddhism”, and that is that far too often Buddhism in practice becomes a means for people to escape from the world, to ignore the sufferings of others, and to blindly contribute to the injustices of the world. If one really does wish for the liberation of all beings, then one would inevitably be drawn to more thorough social engagement for working towards this.

Time has passed

A number of months have elapsed since I wrote my previous essay about this subject. I’ve received a number of different responses to it, all across the board. I’ve had some time to reflect further on the matter. One thing that has struck me is that there really is no pre-existing philosophy that is formulated which goes into depth about “Buddhist anarchism”. Various people have used this label to describe themselves, different articles, blog posts, audio or video recordings have been made, yet there has been no real lineage or tradition established for “Buddhist anarchism” as such.

This term was first publicly noted as being used 50 years ago, in 1961, by Gary Snyder with his essay entitled “Buddhist anarchism”. Given that Snyder is still alive, that means that we are still in the period of the first generation of living “Buddhist anarchists”. The whole thing is still very much in its initial formative stage, which means that we all can still define and lay out what we would like for a Buddhist anarchist philosophy to be. I would like to contribute a few more pieces here about what I would like for such a philosophy to include, this time drawing more from the core tenets of Buddhist philosophy than my previous essay did.

Disclaimers for potential subtlety

One thing that I would like to say right away is that I do not see Buddhist anarchism as being in any way connected with the various tyrannical governments, religious superstition and patriarchal traditions around the world that are associated with Buddhism. The “Buddhism” that a “Buddhist anarchism” is connected to would be the core philosophical tenets of Buddhism. The various outgrowths of Buddhism which are fundamentally at odds with the philosophy of anarchism are not a part of Buddhist anarchism as I see it.

I do admit that there are many different kinds of Buddhist philosophies out there. There are many different kinds of anarchist philosophies out there as well. Put together, this means that there exist innumerable different ways in which “Buddhist anarchism” can take form and be expressed by different people. My own background that is influencing my perspective on Buddhist anarchism is coming from my experience with Vipassana Meditation, which derives from a Theravada Buddhist tradition, and anarcho-communism which is associated with the writings of the Russian anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin.

Core Components

Despite all of the diversity within Buddhism, there do exist some things that are core to Buddhism and that all of the different traditions have in common. Looking at these core elements, I see a number of parallels and cross-overs with the philosophy of anarchism. Let’s start with the Four Noble Truths.

The First Noble Truth of Buddhism is that suffering exists everywhere. Wherever you look you will see people miserable or in some way experiencing some degree of suffering in their lives. This would then correlate with anarchist philosophy which says that the world that we live in is organized in a way that is fundamentally corrupt and harmful to life. Anarchists everywhere share the commonality of looking around at the world and seeing a society that is deeply and pervasively against life. The world as we know it is really messed up.

The Second Noble Truth of Buddhism says that suffering has a cause, and that is craving, aversion and ignorance. In other words, “having to have” something, having to avoid something, or simply refusing to look at life as it is are the causes of suffering. These three causes of suffering correlate with the anarchist philosophy’s pointing to the institutions of capitalism and the state, and underlying that domination per se, as being the cause for all of the corruption and oppression of the world. Domination at its root is based on craving and aversion for it comes about when those at the top of the hierarchy “have to” have things their way, even at the expense of others, and no other possibilities are tolerated or permitted.

Anarchists frequently decry the ignorance that is prevalent in society as well, seeing that as being a fundamental part of the problem. Anarchists see the social tendency for people in our society to ignore or disregard the various injustices and horrors that exist in our world and instead focus attention on trivialities, superficialities and entertainment. This social dynamic of continuing distractions ensures that all of the injustices and horrors will continue.

The Third Noble Truth of Buddhism is that it is possible to overcome suffering. There exists a psycho-spiritual condition called “nirvana” or “enlightenment” and individuals through their own effort can attain it. The correlation of this with anarchism is that of the vision of a new utopian society which exists without the state or capitalism, without domination or hierarchy, and that instead is based on free people organizing together directly as equals and sharing all of the world’s resources in common. Similar to the Buddhist assertion that it is possible for people to reach this radically different condition through their own efforts, anarchists assert that societies of people can create this radically different world through their own efforts as well.

The Fourth Noble Truth of Buddhism is that there is an explicitly delineated path for people to follow to reach nirvana. This is called the Noble Eightfold Path. I won’t go into each of the points for the Noble Eightfold Path here, perhaps that can be a topic for another article. Instead I will look at the three categories that the Noble Eightfold Path is broken down into: morality (sila), mastery over one’s mind (Samadhi) and experiential wisdom (panna). For the philosophy of anarchism there is also an explicitly stated means for achieving a social revolution that has three different components. This involves practices that are characterized by the principles of prefigurative politics, self-organization and direct action.

The Buddhist concept of morality (sila) is basically that one should not do or say things that will harm others, and that one should work towards doing and saying things that helps others instead. The idea is that if one does or says things that hurt others, one is also at the same time hurting one’s own self psychologically and spiritually as well. I see Buddhist morality (sila) as corresponding with the anarchist notion of “prefigurative politics”, which is the principle that one’s actions and the projects that one engages in now should reflect the kind of world that one wants to see in the future within it. “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” At the heart of an anarchist morality, expressed through a prefigurative practice, would be relationships where the autonomy of each individual is respected, without coercion, and where everyone’s needs are valued equally. Altogether this would mean that one’s actions and projects would be done for the benefit of others as well as for one’s self, and that they are done for the sake of a better future as well as for the present.

Mastering one’s own mind (Samadhi) is about developing the ability to control what thoughts one has on one’s mind at any given time, being able to choose where one places one’s attention, and being able to clearly make decisions and follow through with them. Meditation is a kind of practice that is used to develop mastery over one’s own mind. The anarchist correlation that I see with this is the principle of self-organization, which is where a group of people organize their own affairs together directly and democratically without utilizing social hierarchies or groups outside of them to make decisions for them. I see this as relating in that in order for a group to survive and thrive in a self-organized way, they need to develop means to facilitate what is being talked about, where the group’s attention is placed in a given situation, and to make collective decisions and carry them out effectively. In a way Samadhi and self-organization are both forms of “self-organization”, just one is on the individual level and the other is on a larger social level. Self-organization within a group would require the same kind of cohesion, clarity and self-discipline that are characteristics of Samadhi.

Experiential wisdom (panna) is about experiencing a deeper understanding of the nature of existence personally and directly. This kind of understanding goes beyond what can be read about in books or writings. In fact it goes beyond what can adequately be expressed in words at all. It has to be lived to be understood. I see this as correlating with the anarchist principle of direct action, which is that of meeting needs and making necessary changes without being told to or asking for permission from some form of authority. I see these as relating in that what is learned in the process of carrying out direct action and the kinds of changes that this brings about within people by going through this process is beyond anything that can be learned or gained by writing or talking alone. Direct action brings about a deep fundamental shift in people, very similar to the kinds of shifts that come from panna. These are both shifts on the direct experiential level. Direct action dispels the illusions of authority, panna shatters illusions altogether. When you are able to see first-hand things getting done without authority, you get a sense of what a straw-man authority is. When you experience the truth that is beyond all words, you can see how paltry words are.

Marking a new existence

Buddhism also has a particular understanding of the nature of our world. This is summarized by what are called the “three marks of existence”. Looking at each of these I realized that each can form the basis for an argument for an anarchist world. The three marks of existence are impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha) and no-self (anatta).

The idea behind impermanence (anicca) is that everything is always changing, everything comes and goes, and that nothing stays the same forever. “This too shall pass.” I see this as being an argument for anarchism in that I see the complexities and constantly changing nature of things and situations as being beyond the scope of authority figures or institutional bureaucracies to be able to understand or handle. Things just change too much and too often to keep up. In my view the people who are living and experiencing the changes themselves are those who are in the best position to understand the situation that is going on, and hence are in the best position to be able to deal with it appropriately. For those who are cut off from the situation itself or detached from others who are also experiencing it, the understanding can only be partial.

Suffering (dukkha) was already discussed above as the First Noble Truth of Buddhism. It is that suffering exists and is a fundamental part of the human experience. This in turn relates to an argument for anarchism in that the world that we live in now is filled with immense pain and injustice, and subsequently that this is unnecessary and that we can do something about it.

The third mark of existence is no-self (anatta), which is that there is no essential permanent “self” for an individual. In other words, everything that comprises “you” is so contingent on innumerable different factors and variables, be they biological, social, cultural, material, etc. that there is no basic core “self” which exists independent of all of that. That is, if all of the different contributing influences and components from different sources are taken away, nothing is left.

I see the anarchist correlation to no-self (anatta) as being that all of the notions of property, social status and political power exist as mere social constructs that are comprised by innumerable different factors all coinciding together. The efforts of countless people combined to make a material object that someone considers to be “theirs”. Generations of acquiescence, obedience and the social construction of meaning combined to create what is called a “king” or a “politician”. All kinds of factors reinforced by scores of people created what we have now. No Divine Intervention came and created relationships of domination, nor did capitalism and the state naturally exist since the beginning of time – we created it all ourselves together and it would not exist without us.

Eight Streams Leading to One

It has been said that the entirety of Buddhism can be summarized with this phrase: “Abandon unwholesome qualities, cultivate wholesome qualities, and purify your mind.” Similarly, a take on anarchism can be: “Abandon capitalist and state-based ways of doing things, create and participate in free and cooperative-based ways of doing things, and clean your mind of the mainstream domination-based programming that fills it.” But what does all of this look like in practice? And what would a specifically Buddhist anarchist approach look like?

Towards this end I have identified eight different pre-existing independent practices, projects or sub-cultures which I believe that woven together could form the fabric for what a specifically Buddhist anarchist practice can be. None of these are explicitly “Buddhist anarchist” per se, but they form the beginning foundations for the practical expression of it.

1) Engaged Buddhism: This is where Buddhism and activism formally meet – where Buddhists do activism (or activists practice Buddhism). Under this name, various groups like the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, the Zen Peacemakers and Thich Naht Hanh’s people do the political and social activist work that they do. It could be said that a Buddhist anarchism by definition is a kind of “engaged Buddhism.” The only difference is that the political orientation here is a radical anarchist one.

2) Vegetarianism, veganism, animal liberation: There are some folks, and anarchists and Buddhists are often among them, who say that animals have rights, that animals should be free, and that they should be treated with care and respect. In practice this view-point can be expressed by refusing to eat animal flesh, by abstaining from animal products altogether, or by engaging in more militant actions to free animals from captivity. From an anarchist stand-point this can be justified by the desire to do away with all forms of domination and oppression, and the captivity and killing of animals can be seen as one form of that. From a Buddhist stand-point this can be justified by a desire for compassion for all living beings, by the wish of “may all beings be liberated”.

3) The Public Meditation Project and meditation flash mobs: Anarchists often have the desire to reclaim public space, to open up space for everyone outside of the control of the state or private property. Buddhists often want more people to know about and to practice meditation. Put these two together, and you have the Public Meditation Project. This is an endeavor to have people practice meditation out in the open in public spaces. This can also be done as “meditation flash mobs”, where people semi-spontaneously arrange to all meet up together at the same time and place to meditate in public. Reclaiming public space does not have to be aggressive, in fact no talking even needs to happen at all. It can be done sitting down in complete silence and stillness.

4) Dharma Punx: Since the late 1970’s and early 1980’s the philosophy of anarchism and punk rock music have been strongly associated with each other. The anarchist sub-culture often blends into the punk rock sub-culture, and vice versa. Because of the efforts of authors such as Noah Levine and Brad Warner, and others, a new sub-culture has come about of Buddhist punks, or “Dharma Punx”. While not explicitly “anarchist”, Noah Levine’s writings at least often make casual reference to how what he is advocating is “revolutionary” and “radical”. Often-times the Buddha himself within this sub-culture is referred to as being “the rebel saint. This particular sub-culture has probably done the most to help develop a Buddhist anarchist culture.

5) Nonviolent Communication and the Consciousness Transformation Community: Coming from the self-help scene is a practice called “Nonviolent Communication”, or “NVC” for short. This is a series of conceptual and interpersonal tools that can be applied to help with resolving conflicts between people, developing personal clarity or sensitively listening to others. From a Buddhist perspective I see this as in many ways being a kind of “applied Right Speech”. From an anarchist perspective the principles and theory underlying NVC explicitly rejects relationships of domination, and NVC is viewed as being a way to help overcome it. Most recently something has emerged from NVC that is called the “Consciousness Transformation Community”. The CTC is based around a set of 17 “core commitments” which basically summarize the kind of consciousness that NVC aims for. In the realm of interpersonal relationships, NVC and the CTC can be viewed as tools and a framework for practicing Buddhist anarchism.

6) Radical political straightedge: In the hard-core punk sub-culture there exists a tendency called “radical political straightedge”. This is a kind of social intersection where people are into punk rock music, hold radical political views, and abstain from all forms of alcohol consumption, recreational drug use and intoxication in general. Within the Buddhist morality (sila), there is a precept where one who wishes to develop along the Buddhist path vows to abstain from all forms of intoxication. Radical political straightedge can be seen as one step on the Buddhist anarchist path within a (sub-)cultural context.

7) Buddhist atheism and Critical Buddhism: There is an author named Stephen Batchelor who is a former Buddhist monk in both the Tibetan and the Zen traditions who has renounced his monk-hood. He has recently been writing about what he calls “Buddhist atheism”. This approach is basically where all of the metaphysical ideas within Buddhism such as the notions of rebirth and reincarnation, as well as beliefs in deities and “higher” and “lower” cosmologies, are stripped away from Buddhism.

Similar work has been taking place in Japan with something that is called “Critical Buddhism”. This has been the work of some Japanese Buddhist scholars to modernize Buddhist beliefs to make it all more relevant and applicable to a contemporary audience. Given that most anarchists are atheists (ie, “no gods, no masters”), or at least come from a Western secular outlook on life, such forms of Buddhism would be the most appropriate for a Buddhist anarchism.

8) The Gift Economy: This is a way of arranging economics where all goods and services are offered freely as a gift. With this nothing is offered with a price-tag or as a part of a trade or exchange. Everything is given without any strings attached. People may give things to the original giver, but that is done so as a gift in itself, not as “payment” or “reimbursement”. A number of different anarchist events and projects operate as a gift economy, as do a number of Buddhist events and projects as well. Within the Buddhist context the practice of operating with a gift economy is connected with the virtue (Pāramitā) of “Dāna”, or “generosity”. Within the anarchist context, the gift economy would form the basis for an anarchist-communist society. There is much potential within the gift economy to be explored.

Letting Go For Freedom

Perhaps the most succinct to-the-point summary of Buddhism is this one quote that has been attributed to Gotama the Buddha: "Nothing whatsoever should be clung to." Clinging to ideas of the way things should be, what should be happening, what people should be doing, etc. is one of the sure ways to ensure that one will experience suffering. Likewise, for anarchists, clinging to ideas of how the world should look, how projects should be carried out, ideas of identity or ideological purity have also caused a lot of suffering. I believe that one of the biggest contributions that Buddhism can make for anarchism is precisely this peace of mind which comes from not clinging. Without clinging, desperation, anxiety and putting demands on one’s friends and comrades goes away. Instead, projects can be carried out with calm, clarity and a sense of inner spaciousness. This in turn can set the tone for the kind of world that we would like to live in.

Taking Up Responsibility

Having said all of this, I want to emphasize - anarchism and Buddhism are not the same thing. They are two separate traditions. They are two traditions that complement each-other like two sides of the same coin of true and total liberation. Buddhist anarchism is something new, even though it has very long and ancient roots. My hope with writing all of this is to help to make space for this something new to emerge further. Both traditions emphasize responsibility, individuals taking responsibility for themselves in the fullest way possible. The same goes with the future of the philosophy and practice of Buddhist anarchism. If we want for it to grow, develop or evolve, the responsibility is up to us. As with everything, when it comes down to it, it is always up to us.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A remarkable man, a remarkable book

I recently read a book that in a sense I have waited for years to be published. The book is entitled Revolution and Other Writings: A Political Reader, and it was published last year by PM Press. The book is a translation and collection of writings of Gustav Landauer by Gabriel Kuhn.

I have been interested in the work of Gustav Landuer for years, since pretty much around the time that I first discovered the philosophy of anarchism. However I have never before actually read any writings by Landuaer directly. My experience with Landuaer has been through reading various descriptions written by others of his work, his philosophy and his life. Plus, there is one well-known quote that is attributed to him that I have always loved and held dear to my heart, and that is:

"The state is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another."

There are quite a number of different parallels between the philosophy and outlook of Gustav Landuaer and my own. For one, Landuaer was an anarchist-communist, a pacifist, and a spiritual mystic. He advocated the creation and proliferation of intentional communities and other forms of alternative institutions to meet people's needs so that folks can start living a new socialist way of life right now, as opposed to waiting for a revolution to create it. As he put it:

“If you want socialism, i.e., if you want to live in communities of justice and solidarity, then create it! Look for the cracks in capitalism and find ways to escape the economic war. Figure out how to no longer produce for capitalism’s commodity market, but to satisfy your own needs. This is a collective process: the more that individuals are able to unite their needs, their creativity, and their lives, the more effective they will be.”

And, as that afore-mentioned quote demonstrates, he emphasized and insisted on an anarchist outlook that really focused on social relationships per se and how they reproduced authoritarian structures or not. As he put it:

“It is indispensable to distinguish material realities like the land and its products from complexities like the state and capital. Without such a distinction, neither real understanding nor real action are possible. The state (and the same goes for capital) is a relationship between human beings; it is a form of (active and passive) doing and enduring that has been passed down from generation to generation.”

Reading this book of Landuaer's writings I was struck by how many other ways Landuaer's views dove-tails with my own. From the very beginning, he outlines very clearly and succinctly what all of this "anarchist" stuff is all about to begin with, why it is so important to him:

“Anarchism’s lone objective is to end the fight of men against men and to unite humanity so that each individual can unfold his natural potential without obstruction.”

That being said, he also makes a point to say that this and other such labels are not important to him, and what really matters instead:

“I could not care less whether one calls me a radical or not. I can easily do without labels. Neither superficial garishness nor garish superficiality are indications of radicalness. The same goes for smashing fanfares. ‘Radical’ is not, as it is often claimed, the opposite of ‘moderate’, but of ‘superficial’.”

This search for "depth" that he speaks of is related to his spiritual beliefs, and the importance that he places on people, everyone, actively engaging in sincere self-reflection and striving for an authentic personal spirituality. This is, as he put it, the “…the even more important, yet slow and gradual work of freeing and creating spirit…” This is because, as he said:

“Socialism has to be constructed from an inner desire and requires the awakening of a new spirit.”

To do this work he said that it is important for people to occasionally take the time to pursue active spiritual retreat. As he said:

“Since the world has disintegrated into pieces and has become alienated from itself, we have to flee into mystic seclusion in order to become one with it again.”

At times, when speaking of this kind of spiritual or "inner" work, Landuaer even mentions the kinds of "parts work" that various self-help/emotional healing modalities talk about, such as the Inner Empathy process and Inner Relationship Focusing. Doing this kind of work, and finding peace and harmony with the various aspects of one's self is actually a pre-requisite for finding peace and harmony with others. As Landuaer says:

"Once individuals have transformed themselves into communities, then they are ready to form wider communities with like-minded individuals. These will be new kinds of communities, established by individuals with the courage and the need to separate from the dullness of superficiality."

Coming from an understanding and acceptance of all of the difference aspects of one's self, one can likewise be in a better position to see and accept that society as a whole is also comprised of many different varying perspectives. As Landuaer said:

"Our world can only be understood if we understand the several parallel supplementing perspectives by which we have created it."

Likewise, Landuaer explicitly took steps to avoid painting specific individuals as being the enemy. As he put it, “I felt disgust with society way too early to still feel fury or hate towards individuals.”

Concepts of "us vs. them" as a whole were rejected by Landuaer, and he chose to focus on what the specific behaviors were that people were engaging in instead. As he said:

“I refuse to divide people into those who are the masters of the state and those who are the state’s servants. Human relationships depend on human behavior. The possibility of anarchy depends on the belief that people can always change their behavior.”

This then leads into Landuaer's perspective of how a new society, a socialist/anarchist society, would be primarily based upon a kind of nonviolence. As he said:

“True socialism is something entirely different from the fight of a social group against another. Being unable to enter the ranks of the rich – as a result of both external and internal circumstances – does not make you a socialist. Being a servant to a master or to your own reflexes and instincts does not make you a socialist. Socialism is not a war between people. Socialism is first and foremost a struggle of man against himself; secondly, it is a war against war.”

This view inevitably lead to a great deal of difference and antagonism between Landuaer and others within the anarchist and socialist milieu of the time. As he once lamented:

"Within all this calculating bleakness one longs for a word from the heart. However, no such word can be found; let alone a word that leaves behind the paradigm of war and heads for the true foundation of socialism."

Likewise, he considered all of the revolutions that most people thought about when they used that term as being “little more than champagne to a patient who is slowly and painfully recovering from a deadly disease.” As a result of this, instead of advocating for a "revolution" per se, he considered it to be vitally important to instead work for the "preparation and creation of spiritual and economic foundations for a stateless society of societies.”

The kind of work that Landauer is advocating I would say could be described as being a "Person-Centered" way of being. As Landauer put it:

“We must not forget that the masses have been turned into what they are over hundreds of years. The individuals who are different show themselves because we approach all individuals as if they were different – this is how we find it possible for them to join us. This is an apt and well-tested strategy: if you want to awaken reason and energy from dormancy you have to assume that they are not dormant.”

I find the whole thing to all be quite astounding. Through reading this, I feel as if I have found a tradition that is associated with the A-word that I can more whole-heartedly identify with, compared to most everything else out there that goes by that name. It is a shame that this lineage was pretty much entirely wiped out in 1919. But that is a topic that will be covered in another book

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A new kind of communism

I have come across a lot of sentiments lately from well-meaning peace-loving Nonviolent Communication-oriented folks, in response to the Occupy Wall Street movement, about how they want to overcome the divide between the 99% and the 1%. The idea is that this kind of language is an "us vs. them" language, with the 99% being "us", and the 1% being "them". The implication is that if a series of mediated dialogues could take place between the two "sides", then we can have a new era of peace and harmony as a new unified "100%".

I don't buy into this.

The way that I see things is that we live in a class society, and that capitalism makes this the case. The 1% is another way of saying "the capitalist class". In other words, they have all of the wealth and the power that they have because of their ownership of capital. Their money makes them money, and a lot of it too. The 99% is "the working class", ie, they have to work for their money, and if they don't then they die because of the lack of things that money can buy. The labor of the working class goes to support the capitalist class, for the working class makes it possible for the capitalist class to have all of the wealth and the power that they have. All of this was thought up of and talked about long long before the current Occupy movement got started.

I am going to take a bet here that everybody who will read these words is a working class person, a 99% person, regardless of what your political views may be. In fact, I would go so far as to say that chances are that you have never even met a person who is a part of the capitalist class. These people keep themselves socially and culturally separate from working class people and (with the exception of those who have jobs as butlers, waiters, chauffeurs, security guards, etc. who are directly employed to serve them) we never come into contact with these people. We may see a few of them from time-to-time on TV, but then one can see a lot of different crazy stuff on TV, so it's best to not take that too seriously.

Recently I have seen a few signs of folks in the Occupy movement saying that they have inherited some money, so they are actually a part of the 1%, and yet they still stand in solidarity with the 99%. I don't believe these people. The way I see it is that the working class includes a broad and diverse bunch of people, folks from all kinds of different backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities, etc. These people may come from relative privilege, ie, they are more well-off than most people, but as long as they still have to work for a living and they can not totally rely on their money to make money for them so much so that they can comfortably survive, then they are still working class, and hence, they are still "the 99%". A feeling of personal guilt over one's relative privilege does not change one's class status.

A few Nonviolent Communication folks have occasionally mentioned from time-to-time that they would be into having "both sides come together", they they would be into giving empathy to "both sides", that they would like to overcome all of the "us vs. them" language, etc. Here is my take on this. As far as I am concerned, there is only "us" - the working class. The working class makes everything within this society possible. The working class makes everything "work", it runs the gears, operates the computers and harvests the fields of our society. The working class is by and large operating within a frame-work of capitalism, that is, we have capitalist models within our heads and we act accordingly, hence we all live in a capitalist world. If we had a different frame-work that we worked with, a different model in our heads, and different actions as a result, then we would not have capitalism, we'd have something else. The thoughts and actions of the working class determines all of this.

What I would like to see is a complete social revolution that abolishes capitalism. I would like to see spaces and things occupied and used in different ways under different models and paradigms. To the extent that one believes in what is called "property", then what I am talking about here is collective "expropriation", but in a massive revolutionary context. What the "capitalist class" or "the 1%" think or feel about this does not concern me. This is because I see capitalism as such as being a social system that inherently, by it's very nature, utterly disregards and is destructive towards all life. Humans and animals, physically and spiritually, mentally and ecologically, within the U.S. and internationally, capitalism is a negative force that has got to go.

This inevitably will involve a degree of coercion, however this can be worked with in a compassionate way. As I see it, the 1% / capitalist class are like people with a mental illness, completely delusional about these notions of "property" and various things that they supposedly "own". Similar to people with mental illness, we usually are kept apart from them and we do not see them or interact with them. However, unlike with mental illness, we reinforce their condition by saying and doing things that encourage their delusions. By our very thoughts and actions we are encouraging a mad world. If someone were walking around pointing to various different buildings and things saying "that's mine, I own that", we would think that that person is crazy. However, if that person were wearing a suit and had a piece of paper that we call "a deed" or "a title", then we would reinforce these ideas they have. We don't have to do this, these are all choices that we make.

If there were to be a revolution, I would want the health and well-being for what is called "the capitalist class", as well as for everyone else. The capitalist class would probably have experienced coercion, they would probably be going through emotional pain and suffering as a result, however this can be worked through with care and sensitivity. Given my experience working with people with developmental disabilities and mental illness, I know first-hand how people can be completely delusional, how their personal attachment to their delusional ideas can cause emotional suffering for them, and how other people can do things to help them to experience more calm and peace as well as to work towards more social integration and productive harmony within society as well. This is the same process that I'm talking about here, just with different specific details.

Ultimately what I am wanting is communism, but a different kind from all of the stuff that has come before with that name. The old communist dictum is "from each according to their ability, from each according to their need." To have this along with ensuring the presence of the qualities of care, compassion, consideration and participation, I would amend that phrase to be this:

"From each according to their ability and willingness, to each according to their needs and feed-back."

I do find it very inspiring to see that behind this current international Occupy movement there is a living practice of various forms of decentralized, non-hierarchical decision-making. The consensus process, direct democracy, as well as networking and ultimately federations, this is how I would like to see a new kind of communism to be organized - not based on the decisions of elites or top-down models.

Another thing is the idea of needs, as in, "to each according to their needs" - I would like to see the whole conceptualization of needs be changed around. I do appreciate Nonviolent Commmunication in that it brings to the fore an understanding that we all have a variety of different kinds of needs - mental, social, spiritual, intimacy-related, as well as the more traditional physical needs that we usually think of when we use that term. With capitalism, huge swaths of people are starving in a whole wide variety of different ways, it's not just the lack of material food. A new kind of communism would actively address all of the different needs for all of the different people.

I really don't want to gloss over or overlook the vast differences and diversity of people out there. Cultural (and sub-cultural) differences between people can really make the differences seem like we all come from different planets. However when it comes down to it what I think should be actively looked at in terms of implementing the kinds of fundamental social changes that I am talking about here can be broken down to these questions:

1) Where are people spending their time?

2) Who are people spending their time with?

3) What are people talking about?


4) How are people talking with each-other?

A change towards a more directly democratic, non-hierarchical, egalitarian, sharing-based society would address these very questions and try to answer them as objectively as possible. To have power together in our society we would be talking openly about the things that concern all of us together. The general tendency towards individual isolation and the common banter about topics without any real meaning or relevance to us is totally antithetical to this. The idea of the "General Assembly" that is used with the Occupy movement is a step in the right direction for this change that I am wanting.

The way I see it, "we are the 99%" is a mnemonic device to help us to all remember that we all have more in common with the social situation that we are in than we have differences. I do not see this as a divisive thing for in the end "the 1%" is irrelevant. It is us who make this whole social system that we are in possible, and it is us who can make a new one too. The important thing is to continue moving in that direction.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Other "N-Word"

For a number of years now I have noticed quite a disdain among people who identify as anarchists towards the philosophy and practice of nonviolence. Just mentioning the word "nonviolence" among anarchists pretty reliably will result in setting some people off. The idea seems to be that advocates for nonviolence want people to basically be human punching-bags, willing victims, lambs waiting for the slaughter. There also exists an idea that advocates for nonviolence are highly judgmental, extremely moralistic, and are willing to call the cops when somebody crosses the stark moral lines that they have drawn on the sand. In a number of different instances, this in fact has been the case.

For myself though, I have always had a sense that I have somehow walked right into the middle of this raging battle going on between the "nonviolence" advocates and those who think otherwise. This all has been going on long before I arrived, and I have never felt like I was really a part of either one side or the other. At the same time, I have always felt at least intuitively drawn to nonviolence, but in my own unique way.

Back when I first discovered the philosophy of anarchism and got into it all, I initially considered myself to be an anarcho-pacifist. I've since dropped that phrase, and at different times I have stopped talking about the question of violence altogether. Instinctively, though, I have always been into the idea of a nonviolent anarchism. The reason for this is that as I see it anarchism as a philosophy advocates for people to not use force, coercion or domination within social relationships or organizations. Anarchism instead advocates for a new society based on voluntary cooperation, free association, and people coming together as equals. As I have always seen it violent acts are by their very nature is an instance of coercion, domination, and one person (at least) exerting force over another. I've never seen it as being possible to have a true anarchism be anything other than nonviolent.

Conversely, I have never seen it as being possible to have a philosophy and practice of nonviolence without it being a form of anarchism. As I see it, institutions like the state and capitalism inevitably entail the use and threat of institutionalized violence. What are things like prisons, militaries, and police forces if not organized groups of people committing or threatening violence? Creating social or political change while at the same time keeping those groups of people around is maintaining a steady and constant presence of large-scale violence. Placing the label "nonviolent" on oneself while at the same time overlooking the presence and actions of these institutions have never made sense to me.

For a period of time I openly distanced myself from "nonviolence" and such ideas, and in retrospect that very much was related to my own sense of distrust and exasperation with people and the possibility of real social change. At one point I discovered the practice of Nonviolent Communication, and that re-introduced me to nonviolence in a whole new and different way from what I was familiar with before.

Nonviolent Communication speaks of, and provides tools to work towards, a whole other way to perceive and relate with life in general. It is based on the idea that all human beings share the same fundamental human needs which motivate everything that is thought, said or done. Ideas of "right" and "wrong", "good" and "bad" are abandoned, and in their place are assessments of whether particular actions or ideas are really meeting people's needs or not. Using this perspective, nobody needs to be blamed or judged, and no matter how scary or different the actions of somebody may be. Everything can potentially be understood through empathic listening and dialogue, if the skills and the determination to do so are present.

That is the basic idea behind Nonviolent Communication - in practice it has not been used that much so far in actual social struggles and political campaigns. However, the potential behind it still does excite me. As far as I can tell, the majority of the history of nonviolence has indeed always had a strong sense of moralistic judgements and condemning others who think and act differently than oneself. People had the best of intentions while doing that, but those actions did take place, thereby creating unnecessary barriers and obstacles.

More recently, coming out of the Nonviolent Communication scene is a set of 17 core commitments for living a life of nonviolence. As I see it, these core commitments form a written expression of how nonviolence can be seen and lived in a way differently from what has been the norm before. This particular articulation of nonviolence very explicitly includes a rigorous practice and commitment to things such as empathic presence, authenticity and loving no matter what. This is important because this enables real deep-rooted change to take place.

I say this because I view social dynamics as being inextricably tied together with psychological dynamics, and that social change is very much interwoven with psychological change. Society is after all comprised of people, real human beings with their own individual lives and personal psyches, as well as broad social forces and institutions. Based on this, I have been deeply informed by the work of the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers. Carl Rogers had the notion that real and substantial change within people takes places when at least three factors are present within an interpersonal relationship - authenticity, empathic understanding and what he called unconditional positive regard. Without those things present, behaviors such as defensiveness, abstract intellectualizing, and a more superficial examining of one's life will be the kinds of behaviors that will be the norm. As I see it, those kinds of behaviors are the norm in the world that we live in now, but they don't have to be.

Authenticity, empathy and caring can not only serve as a force for positive change, but also can be at the root for nonviolence and anarchism. We don't want people to be hurt, killed, bossed around or dominated because those things completely work against heart-felt authenticity, empathic understanding and true caring being present in relationships. This all then calls for a radically different kind of nonviolence than what we are used to or what we have generally seen in the world up until now. This kind of nonviolence emphasizes things like caring, sensitivity, and deep personal expression. These kinds of things are more the norm in social circles like psychotherapy and self-help, but are not at all the norm in circles based around radical politics and activism. This can be changed.

One way to help to implement a change towards this direction is to intentionally create new social situations where people can openly express and actively listen to one another with care and empathy. To use the parlance of Nonviolent Communication, the appropriate social "containers" need to be created, with the presence of skilled facilitators, where people can be "held" in such a way that people feel safe and secure enough to speak more honestly and candidly about themselves and about life. This in effect is a series of actions that can be taken to more consciously humanize people and relations with each-other.

Dehumanization and depersonalization are two tendencies that have contributed greatly towards both the domination and the violence that exist in our society, and this can be counter-acted by establishing new and public social forms where people can be more openly human together. This is something that can be done, involving skills that can be taught and learned, and it all begins with a choice and a decision to do so.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Back to the Future: modern-day utopian strivings for tomorrow

by some forward-thinking anarchists

[We were recently asked to describe our vision for the year 2021, ten years into the future. Here’s our best-case scenario. We're not saying that this is this future is likely. We're presuming there will be no technological singularity, no disclosure about extraterrestrials, and neither a New Age mystical ascension nor doomsday in 2012. This may not be the best nor last such piece we write. It’s not everything we would like, but it’s headed in that direction. If you think you could do better, please write your own and post it.]

A general paradigm shift has emerged over time regarding how people view the nature of humanity itself. People increasingly have moved away from relating based on static labels and moralistic judgements towards instead seeing all human beings as having the same basic and fundamental needs. Increasingly there is also more open acknowledgement that each person is responsible for the choices that they make, that the choices each person makes affects others, and that healthy social relationships are necessary in order to survive. Subsequently there is more of a generalized respect for the autonomy of each person, and for the sake of healthy relationships there is less reliance on coercion, intimidation or manipulation. Because of this, new forms of group facilitation are created and gaining new interest, facilitation that can be said to be more "person-centered", as opposed to the old more "agenda-centered" ways of having conversations and meetings.

With this form of group facilitation gaining popularity as the preferred approach for running formal meetings as well as informal gatherings of people, both the character of organizations as well as for the culture at large begins to change as well. More and more people try to relate with each-other in ways that prioritize empathic understanding, honest self-expression and valuing everyone's well-being. This change is having it's effect on how people address conflict towards more restorative justice and mediation as opposed to the traditional punitive justice. Romantic relationships gradually shift towards becoming more free-form and focused on open and direct dialogue. Parent-child relationships become more non-coercive, creative and cooperative. Family structures become more open, pluralistic and affinity-based. Overall, voluntary cooperation and mutual partnerships are becoming more of the favored mode for social relationships.

Government as we had known it is clearly on the way out. A large majority of people have realized that they were not served by the left/right split which was largely concocted by the rich and powerful to keep the masses divided and fighting among themselves. Dialog and deliberation methods have become popular and Citizens’ Deliberative Councils with randomly selected members are temporarily convened to arrive at consensus about all the contentious issues of the day, producing breakthrough solutions that divisive party politics was never able to achieve. Politicians who once pandered to corporate special interests are now bending over backwards to rubber-stamp the proposals of the Citizens’ Deliberative Councils, lest they lose what little public credibility they have left. A large, growing minority is loudly questioning what we need these politicians for at all, and it looks like the era of representative democracy is drawing to a close, in favor of something much more participatory that works for everybody.

A Truth-and-Reconciliation Commission has been formed in which members of the intelligence establishment, military-industrial complex, Wall Street, and the corporatocracy confess their crimes and publicly discuss their impact on others in exchange for immunity from prosecution. People who've been involved in running corporate and political structures are beginning to talk about their pain, and listen to affected people talk about their pain as well. In awkward fits and jumps, the crypto-fascist regime that has ruled since World War 2 and before is seriously in the process of unraveling in the face of an informed and determined public unwilling to tolerate its continuance. The wars have ended, the foreign military bases have closed down, and returning soldiers have been deprogrammed, rehabilitated, and reintegrated into supportive communities.

Much more food is grown cooperatively and locally where people live. Nowadays pretty much everyone agrees about the importance of local food independence, organic methods, and composting. All genetically engineered seeds have been safely destroyed and replaced with heirloom varieties.

Most people have come to understand the value of unplugging from the mass media and corporate culture. TV, movies, video games, glossy magazines, and pop music only have a shred of their former audience and big mass media companies are going bankrupt. Grass-roots autonomous culture has risen up to replace it, and people who were once made to feel isolated, inadequate, and powerless by the onslaught of advertising and corporate and government propaganda, are now enjoying a new depth of meaning and thrill of empowerment as they begin symbolically representing their own lives and struggles in art and music.

Traditional models of education (both childhood and higher education) are seen are irrelevant and not worth the resources that people used to put towards them. For learning people form informal small groups to study, discuss and experiment together. Occasionally skilled facilitators are sought out to stimulate and guide the interest of these groups to get past problems or stuck spots. Mentorship relationships also flourish between people with more knowledge and experience in given areas and those whom have an interest in learning in that area. When wanting to work in a certain area, people openly talk about what their own personal strengths, weaknesses and interests are without shame, and what they would need to learn in order to effectively carry out the necessary tasks.

Petroleum has begun phasing out of our lives and we’ve risen to the challenge of coping with this shift gracefully. We’ve relocalized our production and drastically simplified our consumption patterns. Fuel rationing is being handled by neighborhood committees, reserving gasoline for the most vital transportation, such as ambulances and moving food. We’re clustering into fewer homes in the winter in order to burn less heating oil. All the nuclear plants have been shut down for the sake of public safety. Wind and solar has made up for some of the shortfall, but mostly we’re making due with less and creatively stretching out what’s left.

The economy has taken an unexpected twist as the GDP and average per capita income has taken a nose dive while surveys of subjective life satisfaction are soaring. Widespread unemployment combined with massive shocks of inflation and deflation has lead the market to distrust money in general, so monetary exchange as a means to get what one wants is falling into disuse, replaced by decentralized volunteer groups coordinating labor and food distribution on an ad-hoc basis. New intentional communities are springing up everywhere as it becomes common knowledge that we need to come together in a spirit of cooperation if we are to survive. Few people have real jobs or income any more, but willing workers voluntarily contribute their talents to the greater good, guided by needs-and-wants bulletin boards and consensus town meetings to set priorities. Consumerism has fallen into ill repute as many have realized that once basic needs are met, materialism produces diminishing returns, and that nothing is more satisfying than pitching in to make one’s community a better place to live for everyone.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Community done intentionally

Ever since I discovered the existence of intentional communities I been a stronge supporter of this way of living and I have known that I want to live in one. For me, the very name says it all - to have community and to do it intentionally. Usually communities come about unintentionally, comprised of whoever happens to be around in a given situation. Things don't have to be that way.

The kind of intentional community that I have always been in favor of is the structure of an income-sharing commune, where people both live and work there and where everything that it's members need is provided for by the community itself. This way of living is a part of my ideal for a future society, and it is possible to implement in small-scale forms right now.

This is a very close-knit way of living, people are all up in each-other's business all the time, and frequent meetings are necessary in order to navigate through all of the matters that are affecting everyone. Despite all of this, I say that it is worth it. For one, social needs are met through this model, such as meaningful interactions with others and belonging to something greater than one's self. Also, people always affect each-other all the time regardless of which social models and structures they live within, so having an intentional community structure in place simply provides a way for people to come together to openly talk about this. Pretending that webs of inter-relation and interdependence do not exist makes social fragmentation so much easier to occur.

More importantly, the intentional community format, in particular an income-sharing commune, provides a clear and explicit basis for mutual support. Instead of each individual being left on their own, or even each couple or family being on their own, you have a whole group of people (which includes individuals, couples and families) who are working together to ensure the well-being of everyone. Instead of abandoning people to chance, people explicitly have each-others' back and are looking out for one-another. This is an incredibly strong form of social "safety net" or "insurance", stronger even than what is normally thought of with these words, given that what we're referring to here are people whom one lives with and sees and interacts with every day. Paperwork and relationships of buying and selling can not even compare to that.

The Camphill model for intentional communities intrigues and inspires me in particular. This is because Camphill communities take all of the collective strength and wealth that are created by the pooling together of resources into an income-sharing intentional community and uses that to support people who are in need of special care. I like this, because it ensures that nobody is overlooked, that nobody is left out. On top of that, Camphill adds a dimension of awareness of spirituality and mindfulness that does much to enrich the quality of life that one can experience in community.

What originally inspired me to write this here is my reading of a recent blog post by a friend of mine. The post is The Problem of Sociability. I agree with what he says there about social fragmentation, and the investment of time, space and people as the way to remedy that. In particular these three sentences stand out to me:

"I have seen in Europe that the strongest political groups begin with groups of friends whose political life looks like a daily life that includes each other. This looks like intentional living and daily meetups in public space. In the US we are together, as radical subjects, only as long as our shared living space or clubhouse lasts and no longer."

Based on this, I then think about Camphill Village Copake, where I am currently visiting. This is a place that is an income-sharing intentional community that this up-coming September will be celebrating 50 years of being at this location. However, it started out as a group of friends who previously knew each-other, spent a lot of time together and were committed to this project regardless of what specific physical space was available. This kind of investment, I believe, helped to make this project such a long-lasting endeavor.

The thing is, Camphill communities are not really a "political" project in any way, which is something that I am OK with. Perhaps this is something that reflects my own tendency towards the kind of "puritanism" way (as spoken of as a "wrong" approach in that previously-mentioned blog post) in which I have approached radical leftist politics. At the same time, I am a strong believer in the need to integrate "personal" and "political" work together, as I have talked about here previously. This leads me to wonder how "political" a person I really am, even though I believe that our world needs to radically be changed top to bottom, and every which way.

One project that I have been following recently is Shut Down Rise Up, based in Minneapolis in response to the recent "government shut-down" there in Minnesota. This project, in my eyes, is an attempt to create more "intentionality" and mutual support among pre-existing communities of people. This project also can very easily be said to be a "political" project. The problem with this kind of thing, however, is that when the specified time elapses people then relapse back into "unintentionality" and isolation. Structures need to exist more permanently, more ongoingly.

My ideal situation would be that of combining all of these different elements: income-sharing intentional community, supporting people in need of special care, recognizing & appreciating the spiritual aspects of life, integrating "inner" work and personal change with more "outer" social change, and, at the same time, making efforts to invite the general public to learn more about and participate in ways to create mutual aid, local self-sufficiency and intentional living.

I am at a place in my life now where I feel like I have a lot from my own past experience to draw from, while at the same time I am unwilling and unable to create the kind of life and projects that I want to engage in on my own. I am looking for comrades, networks and social structures that are in alignment with all of these things that I am wanting. At the same time, my suspicion is that what I am wanting is not all the different, on a fundamental level, from what most people are wanting. The question is to navigate through all of the particulars, and to talk about what we want consciously. This is something that we can choose to do together.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Reflections on a Buddhist Anarchism

I suppose that all of this basically comes down to a deep dissatisfaction with life and the world that we live in. After years of grappling with this, trying on different approaches, lifestyles, ideologies, drugs, traveling, I now have come to see this world and my life in it in a particular way. My well-being, and the well-being of everyone in the world, basically comes down to our own choices that we make. Our choices have consequences. We can be happier, healthier, and live more fulfilling lives if we learn how to make wiser more skillful choices. This is what I call Buddhist anarchism.

What’s in a name

Writing all of this I have a concern that I am merely contributing another label, another –ism, another ideology to a world that is already saturated with these. I do not want to add another set of words and ideas to fight over, but rather I want to tie together some historical streams of thought and practice that I believe can be quite beneficial and mutually reinforcing.

When I say “anarchism” what I’m referring to is a social philosophy based on an understanding that leads away from domination, top-down hierarchy and coercion, as exemplified by institutions such as capitalism and the state, and towards greater social freedom, voluntary cooperation and sharing of resources. Two slogans best summarize this worldview: "No gods, no masters" and "liberty, equality, fraternity".

Buddhism to me is a philosophy of the mind based on an understanding that leads away from delusional thinking, attachment or trying to hide, and instead leads towards greater ethical conduct, control over one's mind, and experiential insight. The phrase that best summarizes this worldview is: "Discern what helps; refrain from harm; purify your mind."

Both of these philosophies emphasize a profound sense of freedom, community with others and with life in general, and a sincere goodwill being the motivating force behind people supporting each-other. I believe that both of these approaches are necessary in order for us to have real, meaningful and lasting change in this world.

The Buddha once said “even ignorant people look for a pathway to reality. But, searching for it, they often misunderstand what they encounter. They pursue names and categories instead of going beyond the name to that which is real.” My goal in writing all of this is to hopefully provide a few more useful guide-posts in the ongoing search for that which is really real in our world.

No separation from the personal and the political

Anarchists have long said that the "personal is political", that dynamics of authority and domination manifest themselves within interpersonal relationships and mindsets as well as in the larger institutions of our society. As a result, the choices and actions carried out within one’s life in relationship with others has been viewed by anarchists as being just as important an area to focus one's attention on as capitalism and the state at large. As the German anarchist Gustav Landauer put it, "the state is a relationship between human beings, a way by which people relate to one another. One destroys it by entering into other relationships, by behaving differently”.

Buddhist belief holds that there is no real separation between an individual person and other people, and the rest of life, around them. The idea is that our very nature is so inextricably tied together, so bound by various processes of cause and effect occurring between us, that there is no meaningful way to draw a boundary from where a person begins and ends. To quote the famous anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, “Man becomes conscious of himself and his humanity only in society and only by the collective action of the whole society".

This is one of the core ideas behind Buddhism, the concept of "no self", or “anatta”. One is to have compassion and kindness towards all sentient beings because, to use an anarcho-syndicalist phrase, "an injury to one is an injury to all".

Coming out of this understanding of "no self", there is the Mahāyāna Buddhist ideal of the "Boddhisattva". This ideal is such that the individual who chooses to go down this path does not achieve Enlightenment until all sentient beings achieve it first. A similar sentiment was expressed by Mikhail Bakunin when he said "I am truly free only when all human beings, men and women, are equally free."

Accepting the Path

The end goal for all of this is Enlightenment and a utopian society. Enlightenment would be when one is fully aware, at peace and free from all suffering. The utopian society in question would be where the world has no more relationships of hierarchy and domination, and all human activity is carried out freely, as equals, and all collective decisions and resources are shared together in common. Both ideals can seem distant and unattainable, but the path towards attaining these goals is in itself fulfilling, in both regards.

The Buddhist path is comprised of three aspects: ethical behavior, control of one's mind, and experiential insight. Ethical behavior includes things like refraining from telling lies, stealing, killing, taking intoxicants, sexual misconduct, or in any other way harming people. This is not to be viewed as a kind of moralistic list of "do's and don'ts" to use to judge people, but rather as a kind of guiding framework that one can choose to adopt for one's life to aid in creating more personal stability and grounding from which to work from.

Controlling one's mind comes about as a result of a regular ongoing practice of meditation. Ordinarily our own mind is scattershot, fragmented, jumping around from topic to topic, and in many cases it is actively working against us. Very often we do not even know our own mind, let alone control what it does and where it goes. Various forms of meditation practice exist in the world, and simply by choosing one or a few of them and sticking with them as a regular ongoing personal practice, eventually one's mind will find greater clarity, coherence and sensibility.

Experiential insight comes about when one knows something not merely in an intellectual or abstract way, but because one has had direct personal experience with it. Through your experience, insight occurs. This is not merely a mental occurrence of conjuring up a memory of something, but a kind of bodily-felt experience where that which you know is felt and understood directly. This kind of thing can never be told from one person to another, each person has to come to it themself. Words that are spoken about this can at best be a guide towards personally coming to this kind of experiential insight. Unfortunately words can often be a distraction away from this as well.

The anarchist path towards social revolution could also be characterized as having three aspects: direct action, self-organization, and prefigurative politics. Direct action means doing something without asking for permission or waiting for an official stamp of approval. This is related to the goal of coming out of authority-based ruler/subject relationships, and instead finding one's own personal power to take action directly one's self without being told what to do.

Self-organization means that groups of people who do something together also have the role of organizing that activity together as well. Instead of having one group of people doing an activity, and another group of people doing the organizing work and decision-making for that activity, everything is all carried out by the same group of people. Where direct action can be viewed as people finding their own personal power, self-organization can be viewed as groups of people finding their own power together as a group.

Prefigurative politics means that the activities carried out and the ways of organizing and relating within them all reflect the kind of society that one wants to live in. This is in effect eliminating the separation of "means" and "ends", or as Gandhi put it, to "be the change which you want to see in the world". In practice this would mean establishing and spreading various social systems and structures to meet people's needs within our current society. Whether these needs are for food, shelter, clothing, transportation, sanitation, medical care, child care, education or skill-building, all of people’s needs can be met through social means that are cooperative, voluntary, egalitarian and free.

The point with all of this is to not get tripped up by focusing too much on the end goals – personal Enlightenment and a utopian society. The goals are wonderful, but we are living our lives in the here-and-now. Therefore more focus should be placed on walking the path to these goals, because that is where we are now, taking one step at a time. When done right, each step on the path towards these goals are fulfilling in and of themselves, regardless of when and if we get there. This is all about improving our lives, personally and socially, and the process in itself is worth the effort.

Taking Responsibility

In common with both Buddhism and anarchism is the whole notion that one ought to take responsibility for one's own life. With anarchism, there is a change of social structures and relationships towards recognizing and respecting each person's ability to make their own choices for their own life. With Buddhism there is a kind of investigative search towards locating one's core sense of choice, and from there consciously deciding upon one's own actions, words spoken, and even the thoughts that are held in mind. The psychologist Victor Frankl expressed the later sentiment well when he said: "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

In a way, these two approaches towards looking at individuals taking responsibility for their own lives are two sides of the same coin. The anarchist approach is "from the outside-in", meaning that it focuses on how the community, the social structures and the relationships that a person is surrounded with can best acknowledge and support the individual in taking responsibility. The Buddhist approach is "from the inside-out" in that it focuses on the sense of choice coming from within an individual and extending outwards towards one's thoughts, onto one's words, and finally expressing itself in one's actions.

To have a Buddhist anarchist approach would be to acknowledge and support each-other in making our own choices and decisions, to make decisions collectively and cooperatively when they pertain to group or community matters, and to always keep in mind that we can and should continue to develop greater wisdom, maturity and skill in the choices that we make.

Developing good qualities

“Abstain from all unwholesome deeds,
perform wholesome ones,
purify your mind -
this is the teaching of the Buddhas.”
- from the Dhammapada

At various points over the years that I have considered myself to be an “anarchist” I have felt discouraged, disillusioned and disappointed with the words and actions coming from different people who also consider themselves to be “anarchists”. These behaviors have ranged from very hurtful things that are written or spoken to one-another, to petty theft, lifestyles emphasizing intoxication, sexual assault, and other forms of violence. I have been astounded by this behavior, and at times have wondered if I really belong to the “anarchist community”, given that these kinds of behavior are not what I associate with anarchist values or the kind of utopian society that I want to live in. In other words, this is not what I signed up for.

Then I think about my own life, and how I myself have done various things that I regret and am not proud of. I remember how within my own mind when I was carrying out those actions, I felt quite agitated, confused, and in turmoil. My mind was not clear, composed and at peace with itself when I did those things. I recall the Buddha’s exhortations to “purify your mind”, and I think – what a remarkable difference that would have made in terms of providing the foundation for different, more beneficial actions to take place.

What strikes me about Buddhism is how seamlessly integrated the whole process is. The ethical framework that is provided is directly related to the mastery of one’s own mind, which is also related to developing one’s ability for concentration. Seen from this perspective, it is not surprising that such behaviors are found in the anarchist community, or other communities of people, because the perspective of the whole person is missing, as is the explicit commitment to positively developing one’s capacities.

A commitment to personal growth

I believe that the more one is genuinely committed to improving one’s self, developing inner strength and mastering one’s own mind, the more one is in a better position to contribute towards meaningful social change. The Sufi writer Idries Shah put it well when he said:

"The individual, and groupings of people, have to learn that they cannot reform society in reality, nor deal with others as reasonable people, unless the individual has learned to locate and allow for the various patterns of coercive institutions, formal and also informal, which rule him. No matter what his reason says, he will always relapse into obedience to the coercive agency while its pattern is with him."

In other words, we often produce and reproduce relationships of domination, authority and submission without even realizing that that is what we are doing. We are so accustomed and conditioned to these ways of being that we often are not even aware that they are happening. Cultivating greater self-awareness in the present moment can aid us in noticing this taking place. Buddhism provides various tools to assist in this. A real personal commitment to doing the ongoing necessary inner work of developing in these areas has to be present; otherwise “anarchy” would end up being the kind of nightmare situation that people usually associate with that term.

Intoxication and seeing clearly

Within countless anarchist circles I have come across there are problems that exist with drugs and alcohol. A lot of the time the using of drugs or alcohol is one of the factors contributing to instances of sexual assault and other forms of violence, as well as unnecessary run-ins with law enforcement. Overall the time, energy and money spent on the procurement, consumption and dealing with the after-effects of intoxication within the anarchist scene seems to me to be something that could be more productively put in other places.

From the Buddhist perspective of developing greater self-control, mastery of one’s mind and concentration, the act of getting intoxicated pretty much defeats the purpose. One of the goals with Buddhism is to see reality as it is, without delusions and confusion. The adding of the element of intoxication is contributing one more unnecessary barrier to achieving this desired clarity.

Part of seeing reality clearly also involves facing directly the reality that exists inside of you. This means not hiding from that which is unpleasant, and not craving that which is pleasant. Intoxication is a way to induce pleasant experiences, and to escape unpleasant ones. The more time that one spends with one’s self, directly and unobstructed, the more one eventually finds personal acceptance and comfort with one’s true nature.

Related to the anarchist punk rock scene there is “straight edge” (or “sXe” for short), a movement of people who abstain from drugs and alcohol. These folks have already elaborated on the draw-backs to intoxication, particularly as it relates to the effective carrying out of social change work. Many straight edge people tie their abstinence to their religious or spiritual beliefs, the most notable of which being Christianity and Hare Krishna. I would say that Buddhist anarchism would also have ties to straight edge (as well as “posi-core”, given the focus on positive values).

Selfless service

Turning the focus now from one’s self towards others (to the extent that there is a distinction between the two), I will say that one of the important aspects within Buddhism that has most struck a chord with me is what has been referred to as “dhamma service”, or “dharma service”. This is the voluntary giving of service for the benefit of others without expecting anything in return. This is to be done out of a spirit of love, compassion and generosity, with a sincere wish for the peace and happiness of those you’re serving. I have found this to be a very personally rewarding experience, which is ironic given that this activity is done out of a spirit of focusing on serving others, not yourself. That this kind of experience would be personally fulfilling makes the “giving” in fact be a kind of “receiving”. (To me this is an example that high-lights the principle of “anatta” or “no self”)

In the world of activism, the profession of those who want to change the world, I have been struck by the amount of anger that exists towards other people. I believe that this stems from a mindset of wanting to change other people. I do not see that perspective as going anywhere. Because when it comes down to it, each person is responsible for changing themselves, for determining their own future through their own actions. The mindset that I instead would like to use when approaching matters of social change is not the “activist” mentality, but rather that of selflessly serving others – dharma service.

The simplicity of giving

Another aspect of Buddhism, related to dharma service, is something called dāna. This is generosity and giving without any strings attached. It is giving simply to give, for the benefit of others. In societies that have an old history of institutionalized Buddhism, this virtue has enabled the profession of Buddhist monks and nuns to exist and be sustained over centuries. Because of people regularly giving to monks and nuns, they end up living more simple and austere lives themselves, in addition to the monks and nuns who live with very little material things to begin with. This results in a more simple life all around.

Within the anarchist sub-culture I have noticed a similar dynamic taking place. Anarchists regularly give and offer what little resources they do have to others, to comrades in need, projects worthy of support, and people who are in legal trouble. A culture of selfless giving is often the case within anarchist circles, and this often goes unacknowledged. I find this to be a very beautiful thing and something worthy of praise.

The delusion of ownership

Related to this notion of giving, I would like to propose another idea – that nobody really owns anything to begin with. In contrast to this, I would say that things exist, they move around and change, and eventually they go away. That’s the extent of it. The moment that the identification with a material object takes place, that the concept of “mine” enters the picture; the stage is then set for suffering to occur (and for systems of institutionalized domination, such as capitalism, to eventually come about).

From the Buddhist perspective, suffering comes about from craving things, from trying to avoid things, and from delusional thinking. To me, the concept of ownership has the seeds for all three within it. The craving part seems obvious – “I want what belongs to me”. The avoidance is evident in that there are certain thoughts and feelings that one is trying to escape confronting. In other words, what exactly will be there when you have “nothing” to hide behind? What are you left with when you do not have your stuff?

The delusion of ownership is evident in that the material objects that one considers to be their “property” inevitably breaks, get lost, or stolen. These material things are usually not physically attached to one’s body, so in a way they have a life of their own and wind up wherever. To consider material objects “yours” does not match reality, because they will go wherever they go, irrespective of your wishes. To think otherwise is to invite suffering.

The delusion of controlling others

Similar and related to the idea of controlling material objects is the idea of controlling other people. People will do whatever it is that they do, and to think otherwise is to invite suffering. Offering of suggestions, advice and support can be made to people, that is different from attempting to control. However it must always be kept in mind that in the end it is up to each individual to take it upon themselves to change in a more positive direction, if that is what they want.

To try to control people is to set one’s self up for disappointment - by the other people not following through, not fulfilling the vision that was anticipated,by resisting or rebelling, or by holding a resentment that will show itself as retaliation in some future time. Real peace of mind is neither present in the person in the position of being the controller nor in the person being controlled. To find peace of mind one needs to create social harmony, which means establishing cooperation between people as equals; always with an understanding that everything is impermanent, that change is a constant.

Practicing Nonviolence

As I see it, a common goal that both anarchism and Buddhism have is fostering social harmony. To foster social harmony there has to be nonviolence. This means actively making the choice to not harm others, even in the face of injustice and aggression. Instead of retaliation and harm, one seeks to support understanding, empathy and love. In order to maintain an active nonviolence, it is important that one remain clear about one’s values, authenticity, and to openly expresses these.

There are traditions within both Buddhism and anarchism of nonviolence; although nonviolence is not exclusively practiced within either one. To have a Buddhist anarchism, I believe that nonviolence needs to be a unifying principle - given that nonviolence emphasizes that a goal in common to all of this is real peace. Both personally and socially speaking, peace is what we seek. It is important that we remain as consistently in integrity with these values as possible, every step of the way.

Extending the Love

Common to both anarchism and Buddhism is vegetarianism (although this is not always the case). This is usually done for the same reason for both – an ethical conviction that it is wrong to kill animals for our own consumption. When striving to extend our compassion and care to others, no line is drawn between humans and animals. Animals can feel both joy and pain, hence they are seen as worthy of our concern and consideration when deciding on the kind of lifestyle we want to live and the kind of world that we seek to create. For this reason, Buddhist anarchism would include having a vegan, plant-based diet.

Nonviolence within Buddhism, and dharma service and dāna/generosity in general, all come out of a particular state of mind (or rather, a quality of heart). This is called “metta”, which means “loving-kindness”. This is a real opening of the heart, a loving no matter what, a sincere wishing of the best of everyone. The ideal is to have this quality be the motivating force behind all of the actions that one does in the world. Various meditative practices exist within Buddhism to help with developing metta. Having the ability to bring about sincere loving-kindness throughout one’s activities of daily life is tied together with cultivating personal happiness in life.

Compassionate communication

Coming out of a sense of both nonviolence and loving-kindness is a related practice that does not necessarily originate from either anarchism or Buddhism per se, but which I believe is essential for a real living Buddhist anarchism nonetheless. I am referring here to compassionate communication, also known as “Nonviolent Communication” or “NVC”. Briefly put, this is a system of tools to help people to communicate with more empathy, personal authenticity and caring, as well as translating judgements of people into a deep understanding of what is actually taking place. Compassionate communication is practicing in listening, with expressing, and also in terms of one’s own thinking. It is a tool to be used when addressing conflict situations, as well as a kind of “talking meditation” that can be used in the interactions of daily life.

I see compassionate communication as being a great tool to help one in practicing what in Buddhism is called “Right Speech”, which is a part of the “Noble Eightfold Path” towards the liberation from suffering. Within anarchist circles, I have seen countless projects, relationships and gatherings of people break down because of communication difficulties and how conflict is dealt with. This is an area where I believe some real skill-building is needed. Learning compassionate communication is one way to pursue building these skills.

Small is beautiful

Within Buddhism the goal is for one to live a life characterized by the renunciation of material things, making a living through ethical means, being moderate in one’s eating, and having patience, hard work and equanimity. Within the anarchist ideal of a utopian society, production and consumption would take place in a decentralized way through local small-scale face-to-face communities of people. The goal is to have everybody being nourished by local organically-grown food where everyone knows the people who grew it and the land that it was grown on.

These two goals to me seem to fit together like hand-in-glove. Taken altogether, one would live a simple small-scale life, hard-working and modest, living together with others whom you know, make decisions and share with. This is a goal which one does not need to wait for a distant future to achieve; this is attainable in our lives right now.

New kinds of social organization

Within the community of Buddhist practitioners, particularly the monks and nuns, the Buddha gave specific suggestions for how the organization of this community could best be carried out. The term for the community of practitioners is “sangha”, and here are two quotes that are particularly relevant when considering a Buddhist anarchism. These come from the book “An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World” by Pankaj Mishra:

“The Buddha was confident that ‘as long as the monks hold frequent and full assemblies the sangha will prosper, and not decline’. He did not think of himself as leading the sangha. Nor did he encourage any of his disciples to assume the burden after his death. He saw consensus as of the utmost importance to the life of the sangha. The Buddha also stressed the need for each local sangha to remain united. He allowed for differences of opinion, but he did not wish them to undermine the structural unity of a sangha and vitiate the experience of everyday life. Controversy, whenever it arose, could be settled by the method of the dissenting individuals removing themselves and forming a new group.”

This reflects a number of anarchist values, namely, that of including everyone’s voice and allowing for each person to have their own opinion, prioritizing a group consensus process, and ultimately making room for group self-determination and free association.

Mishra then goes on:

“The Buddha encouraged individual monks to become exemplars for the society of laymen; he may even have wished the organization of the sangha to become a model of a higher politics and morality. With its rules and its respect for consensus and tradition, the sangha does seem a prototype for the close-knit political organization – something that could conceivably serve as an alternative to the unmanageably large states in which two new human categories were coming into being; the rulers and the ruled.”

This then brings up an intriguing question – what could a Buddhist anarchist sangha look like? In our current era of digital technologies, globalization, and ecological crises, where the social categories of rulers and ruled have existed for quite some time now, how can we create an anarchist sangha that realistically addresses the needs of people where they are at? I feel that both the traditions of anarchism and Buddhism have a lot to offer in terms of beginning to answer these questions. However, in the end it is up to us and our own ingenuity and effort to come up with some answers.

Step by step

Both anarchism and Buddhism offer unique ways to look at the world to dispel all of the illusions that are cast around it - to see life as it really is. The reality is that we are all deeply enmeshed in different kinds of power relationships. This results in some people being placed on top of a social pyramid as a privileged ruling class, while most people are simply following the orders and expectations that are handed down to them from above. These relationships are created and reproduced by the choices and actions that we take, both internally and externally. We are ultimately responsible for our own suffering, both personally and socially. This suffering is ultimately unnecessary. We can find liberation from all of this.

To find true liberation, we need to face the reality that is before us without any illusions. We need to take full responsibility for our own lives. If we see and acknowledge that we are inextricably connected with one-another, and determine that we want to work together to create different kinds of relationships for a radically different kind of world, then we must learn how to communicate, share, and love without any reservations. Doing all of this takes practice. This is an ongoing process of development, and luckily the various tools that can aid us on our way are already before us. As a famous monk once said:

“Liberation is the inevitable fruit of the path and is bound to blossom forth when there is steady and persistent practice. The only requirements for reaching the final goal are two: to start and to continue.”

Further resources

There are various websites, people and organizations who are out in the world doing things of a Buddhist anarchist nature. Here are few:

Buddhist punks

Against the Stream Meditation Society:
Hardcore Zen:
Dharma Punx:

Buddhist social change stuff

Buddhist Peace Fellowship:
International Network of Engaged Buddhists:
Zen Peacemakers:

Learning Buddhism

D.I.Y. Dharma:
Vipassana Meditation:

Secular Buddhists

The Secular Buddhist:
Confession of a Buddhist Atheist:

Compassionate Communication

The Center for Nonviolent Communication:
Consciousness Transformation Community: