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.