Based on Pamphlet for The Organization for a Free Society
Table of Contents
Introductions: Nice to Meet You
· Hey, You!
· Why This Was Written and What’s Inside
· Some Quick Disclaimers
1. Foundations: Our Tool-Box
· Holistic Politics
· The Basics: Identity, Community, and Culture
· Language: The Ole’ Blah Blah
· Shared Practice: The Things We Do Together
· Institutions: The Actual Stuff
· Space: Where Should We Plant Our Flowers?
· Intention: In Itself or For Itself?
2. Analysis: What’s Wrong
· Warming Up
· Negotiating Identity
· Racism and White Supremacy in the US…Still?
· Immigration (Mainly) in the US
· The Nation: Oppression Of and By
· Religious Communities: Oppression Of and By
· Interlude: A Bit of Holism Can’t Hurt
· Integration as a Solution?
· Fine, Then Separation?
· Multiculturalism and Other Liberal Pastimes
3. Alternatives: Intercommunalism
· Dream a Little
· Dotted Lines
· Identity: Your Choice, More or Less
· Communal Self-Determination
· Autonomy (Within Solidarity)
· [Inter](Nationalism): The Particular and the Universal
· Teeth: Institutions and Space
· Flex That Flexibility
· Intercommunalism: Thinking Big and Summing Up
· In Case This Sounds Vague, Throw Some More Holism on It
4. Strategy: From Here to There
· Vision Before Strategy
· Waking Up
· Organizing: Trust Me, It’s Worth It
· Autonomy Within Solidarity (Yes, We Like to Prefigure)
· Living the Dream
· Taking Space
· Content and Form
Conclusions: If Not Now, When?
· Things Aren’t So Hot Right Now
· But It Ain’t All Bad
· Mission Statement: The Organization for a Free Society
· Some Resources
~ Nice to Meet You ~
Do you have an identity?
Yes. The answer must be yes.
Are you part of a community?
Again, yes. Maybe you don’t feel it, or maybe yours is under attack, or maybe it could use some creativity and intention, but yes…we should talk about it…
Do you have a culture?
This is easy, huh? Yes, you do, even if you don’t think about it much, or it doesn’t strike you as particularly special. Still, you’ve got one.
Anyway, those are three pretty easy ways to convey that this pamphlet is for anyone and everyone, particularly those concerned with questions about community – race, ethnicity, religion, nation, and other community affiliations – in terms of the oppressions people face, how life ought to be instead, and how we might get from here to there.
Why This Was Written and What’s Inside
In this pamphlet, we are going to crash through a pretty dense, provocative, and important field of thought. We’re going to do it in a clear-cut and simple way, because neither you nor I have time or energy to read or write long, academic texts. Let’s just get down to it, ok?
Oppression of people based on their race, ethnicity, religion, nation, or community identity is not a thing of the past, not a thing to read about in history books about the Inquisition, not gone because apartheid in South Africa collapsed. Those oppressions are not just products of feelings nor the individual actions carried out by a handful of white-hooded idiots. They are part of a sophisticated system of domination and exploitation, and they are woven deeply into the fabric of this society and the world at large.
In the next pages, we will try to make all of that clear, by agreeing on terminology and some assumptions that are guiding us, by drawing from countless intelligent and experienced people who have thought and written this before us, and mixing all that with the very obvious practical experiences we have all had. After we clear that out of the way, we’re going to move on to envision an alternative and present a constructive idea of how the world could be instead. After that, we’ll get to the practical stuff: how to get from here to there. We have to know what we want to change in order to figure out what we want instead, and we have to know that in order to figure out how we want to get there. Then we can go and do it.
Some Quick Disclaimers
First of all, I am an individual and I wrote this pamphlet. But I am also part of an organization, the Organization for a Free Society (OFS). I am writing this as myself, but on behalf of a larger group (and informed by thinkers and fighters of all sorts). So, some of the ideas are mine, some are mine shared with others, and some are borrowed. Even my ideas aren’t really mine, because I came to them through listening and seeing and reading a million other things. Sometimes I say I, and sometimes I say we, and even I/we am/are not exactly sure which is more appropriate.
Secondly, and connected to that, I want to be upfront about the fact that since I am a human being (was this obvious?), I have an identity as part of multiple communities, all shaped by the institutions and spaces I come from (we’ll get to all that…). In other words, I am biased – obviously. I suppose we just have to deal with that. Everyone will read this differently, different parts will be more or less relevant to different people, and there’s not much to do about it. As a friend of mine once remarked to me with his thick Brooklyn-Italian accent: “It is what it is what it is – simple as that” Certainly couldn’t have said it more poetically myself.
Next, this is only one pamphlet in a series. This one is about community affiliations like race, nation, religion and so on, but by no means are those the only elements of life that concern us. You won’t find nearly enough on class, gender, sex, power, ecology, imperialism, or those other social spheres in this pamphlet. We think all of those are of equal importance – and we will get to why we think that in a moment – but we did have to buckle down and focus on this particular thing or else this would have been a book and not a pamphlet, and my attention span isn’t solid enough to write a book right now. This is already pretty long (yeah…sorry about that…).
Finally, this pamphlet cannot possibly cover in detail all the things it needs to cover, even in terms of its stated aims. It would be crazy to claim that this is all you need to know about these issues, considering that some of the most intelligent thinkers in history have written volumes on this topic, and some of the most passionate and courageous fighters have spent their entire lives in struggle focused on these issues. The 30-or-so-page pamphlet is only a trigger. Maybe it will get you thinking, or reading more, or writing (even if what you’re writing is an angry email to me). Maybe you will pass it on. Maybe it will inspire you to add to this. Maybe it will convince you to join the fight.
Chapter 1: Foundations
~ Our Tool-Box ~
Even though this pamphlet is specifically about community in its different forms, community is only one of what we consider to be essential spheres of social life. Those other spheres include: class/economy, gender/sexuality/child-rearing/kinship, and power/authority, all wrapped up in this earth and our environment and with an international dimension as well. We think all of these spheres are fundamental to human life, and all bound up with one another, such that you can’t really understand the world by analyzing only one, or by valuing one as more important than the others. We call this complementary holism, and you can find more on that in a book called Liberating Theory, as well as in articles on Z-Net by people like Michael Albert and Chris Spannos.
As far as we can tell, the world is organized in a way that a network of oppressions (capitalism, racism, patriarchy, authoritarianism, environmental degradation, imperialism, etc.) basically produce and re-produce one another, making it impossible (and silly) to think about one without having – at least in the back of our minds – the understanding that the others are contributing to the issue simultaneously. We understand that capitalism works in coordination with racism, that patriarchy plays an integral role in community relations, that the environment is influenced by authoritarianism in government, and so on. Although different oppressions might be more prominent than others in particular contexts, we are certain that we can’t fight only one of them at a time, thinking the rest will disappear on their own. They won’t.
Again, this pamphlet is specifically about one of those spheres, community – encompassing race, ethnicity, religion, and nation – but you should know that we see that as something holistic. That’s where we’re coming from.
The Basics: Identity, Community, and Culture
Let’s be real about this. Humans don’t exist on their own. We are social beings, so every human comes with an identity included, and exists within some sort of social context (let’s call it a community). Even if we each lived by ourselves in the woods, we were all, at the very least, born to someone, and brought up in one way or another. The books we read, the food we eat, the houses we live in, were all made by people in some sort of cooperation, and the things around us look and sound and taste the way they do because they emerge from some sort of community identity, a culture. The idea that we are capable of being pure individuals or breaking off from society is really just an illusion. We are part of something together, and that togetherness creates some sort of culture, whether we like it or not, so we had better be honest and figure all that all out rather than pretend it isn’t true.
It might be interesting to reflect on the very common American capitalist rhetoric that encourages a sort of rugged individualism where people supposedly lift themselves to wealth all on their own, “by their own boot-straps.” If we take seriously the fact that individuals are deeply embedded in their social contexts, then even those rare few people who started out dirt poor and ended up filthy rich stood on the shoulders of everyone who ever contributed to what made it possible for them to succeed – from their mothers and fathers who birthed them, to whomever fed them and clothed them and built the houses they slept in and taught them to read and write. All of those people, too, stood on the shoulders of so many others (the authors of the books, the people who invented the wheel or discovered electricity, etc.) in a chain that makes us all connected to people all over the world today and throughout human history. It’s pretty remarkable, when you think about it. But let’s not get too sidetracked.
We are all part of a community, a collection of people that share some set of cultural practices and institutions. Of course, some of us don’t feel a very great sense of community in our lives, and perhaps some of us aren’t active in our communities, or aren’t consciously aware of our heritage, or what have you. Some of us are told that our communities are “un-cultured” or that the way we look or dress or talk isn’t to be considered in the same field as “culture” in some sort of enlightened European way. Some of us, on the other hand, are told that we aren’t part of communities with cultures – that only darker skinned people or people who don’t speak English are “ethnic” or have a culture. The question of whether we are all aware that we have identities shaped by communities with a culture is an important one that we will deal with soon, but you can’t deny that you are definitely part of something one way or another.
The bottom line: You can’t be a human without an identity, you can’t have an identity without a community, and every community has a culture.
Language: The Ole’ Blah Blah
Part of what makes up a community’s culture, I think pretty indisputably, is a shared language.
A language can be a lot of things. A language can be a standard, recognized one, like Spanish, Urdu, English, Swahili, Thai, etc. It can be a Brooklyn accent, a Quebecois French dialect, or slang from the South Bronx – anything that can identify someone as from a certain place or culture. It can even be, I would argue, a set of conversational norms – like swearing, or talking about sports, or a practice of speaking only when spoken to. In other words, language is a mechanism that a community uses to convey and create its culture.
On one hand, language reflects the social norms of a group. For example, languages that have many different words for different kinds of rain reflect a certain social reality that comes from living in a rainforest; languages that don’t draw a distinction between “like” and “love” also reflect something formative in the group’s culture. Another example is languages in which certain words are gendered, or in which the standard reference to a person is “he.” This also, clearly, reveals something about the culture of the group speaking.
On the other hand, language also creates culture. It sounds pretty safe to assume that languages in which “people” are referred to as “man,” create and reinforce a certain consensus about who is and who isn’t the important, active agent in society. Languages that have words infused with religious connotations reinforce something too, and so on.
On an a broader note, groups maintain their identity as separate by protecting their languages, understanding that speaking a language in and of itself is a tool to create and re-create community.
Shared Practice: The Things We Do Together
Another criterion of community is a shared practice, a set of shared customs or rituals that make up, reflect, and reinforce a certain way of life.
There are a great many different kinds of cultural practices. Maybe the most prominent examples that come to mind are religious ones – like going to church on Sundays, or celebrating Shabbat on Fridays, or saying the Muslim prayers five times a day, and an endless list of other examples. Certain groups have certain diets, some have a specific set of beliefs about the spirit or the body or the world, some do drugs ritually, some abstain from sex, while others indulge in sensual pleasures, and on and on.
I would go further and say that many rituals and customs go unrecognized because they aren’t part of an organized religious or ethnic grouping. Watching football on Sundays, for example, is a custom a lot of Americans practice that may serve as a serious pillar of their social lives. The kids who congregate around the basketball court after school every day, they guys who go for a beer together after work on Wednesdays every week, the bingo fanatics at the community center, all the people I know who won’t stop talking about the last season of “Lost” – they are all, in a way, partaking in a social custom that makes them part of a community with others.
These customs, rituals, and practices serve as markers – physical, spiritual, or temporal markers – that bring people in a certain group together. They create a communal environment, give us distinction and character as people, focus us inwards, and bring us together to share something with others. They also set us apart from the universal as something particular.
In many cases, these rituals themselves are the reason to be a community; in other cases, they are tools for the maintenance of a community identity. In most cases they are both.
Institutions: The Rules and Boundaries
Institutions shape the way we live in a very serious way, and at the same time, we create and reproduce them ourselves. Sometimes the institutions around us are ones we have come up with, and sometimes they are imposed on us. Sometimes we love them, cherish them, and participate in them actively, and sometimes we consent to them out of desperation (or without thinking), or try to fight them and replace them with others.
Institutions come in a variety of different forms. Some institutions are relational, a sort of set of norms that serve as foundational to a group, or that set boundaries. Marriage is a good example of a community institution like that. These sorts of institutions are really just agreements between people, acting as a sort of silent consensus. Make no mistake, while these sorts of institutions aren’t made of brick or cement, they are heavy as hell, and they make up something essential in a community.
Then, of course, there are physical institutions, which are basically the stage on which we play out our theatrical piece (life). We are not only the actors, but also the set-builders, although it is often difficult to remember that, and some people have much more say over the way the stage is built than others do (we will get to that later). An example of this type of institution might be a temple, or a community center. These buildings aren’t meaningful in and of themselves, they are meaningful when used as a sort of home in which to carry out the relations we’ve agreed on. A temple is a temple because of the consensus about what takes place inside of it. But the fact that a temple is a building, and not an institution without a physical foundation, makes it important in a different way than a relational institution.
Bottom line, though, institutions of all sorts are vital to the life of a group. Communities – with their languages, their shared practice, their collective identities – cannot exist without institutions, which are basically material and social frameworks or arrangements that make it possible to carry out culture and life in general and also uphold certain norms.
Space: Where Should We Plant Our Flowers?
Flowers – much like people with identities, submerged in communities with cultures – need space in which to grow. Communities are made up of people who speak to one another a certain way, who share certain norms, who possess institutions that give them the material basis to carry out lives that are shared in some way. It would seem intuitive to assume that this requires a space, a geographical territory, where people of a specific community can be together, where they can live alongside one another, where their institutions are set up.
The first examples of what we mean by spaces are the ones connected to what we wrote above, about institutions. So some examples of spaces are school buildings, temples, community centers, even Grandma’s house or a local bar. These are frameworks where it is possible to live out a culture, by inserting into it a group of people with a language, shared practice, and institutions.
But let’s think bigger. Nationalism was and is a movement in which people see themselves as a nation (community) and, generally, fight for independence in a space, or demand power over and autonomy within a particular geographical location. Most nation-states (some random examples – Germany, Venezuela, Singapore, etc.) are examples of communities that have autonomy in a particular geographic region – even though it should be clear that those groups are not entirely coherent and that there are many smaller groupings also within those. On that note, there are also examples of national groupings that exist as semi-autonomous groups within states (like the Quebecois French in Canada).
It gets a little more complicated when some groups consider themselves deserving of a space like this but don’t have it or aren’t given it (like the Kurdish people). It gets even more complicated when a group sees itself as a nation but isn’t recognized as such by others (the Jewish people throughout history might be a good example, or perhaps the Black Nationalist movement in the US in the 60s). It’s complicated in a different way when we note that some groups are, de facto, geographically communal and sharing a space, but not necessarily in an empowered way or by choice; Black people in urban ghettoes across the US, Sudanese refugees in Tel Aviv, Thai Migrant worker communities in Saudi Arabia – these are all examples.
Now, to be fair, many would argue that territorial solutions to national problems have negative consequences, and that nationalism (which has been the primary vessel carrying most of these kinds of ideas for some time) is divisive, destructive, and can easily get out of hand. German nationalism in the 30s and 40s is an easy target, but really history is littered with that sort of thing. That’s definitely true, and we will deal with that in the coming pages. Some would also argue that a physical space is unnecessary, and that plenty of groups manage to maintain some sort of collective identity even across other communal boundaries. The communities made up of avid video gamers, for example, congregate across the borders of their local or immediate communities just by playing together, or attending gaming conventions and things like that, without all living in communities made up of video-gamers. An overwhelming number of people, to push it even further, experience community over the internet without ever needing to leave their homes.
However, I would argue that examples of communities that don’t need shared spaces are few and far between, and that they also generally refer to communities that do not serve as primary identities (although I would admit that this is not a rule). It seems that most groups who don’t have some sort of physical space in which to grow together are either destroyed and wiped out, or end up growing in a bunch of different directions and, ultimately over time, becoming a number of different communities with a similar heritage, but not one coherent community. I think if you look around at which groups have a more stable collective identity, it is almost invariably those that have the space in which to autonomously build the institutions that facilitate their shared culture.
The idea here is that it’s very hard to carry out culture without a safe space in which to do that. People need a space to meet and congregate, somewhere to have community dinners or pray or play basketball, or a region where everyone speaks the same language or a section of the city where there is food from the region one came from. Our enemies know the importance of this too, which is why when people with power are attacking our communities, they don’t only call us names, or pass laws about us, or starve us, but they also burn down our temples, trash our offices, or raise our rent. Wars and military occupations are examples of this same process on a national scale.
Intention: In Itself or For Itself?
I suppose we can borrow a bit from Marx on this – not because he is necessarily that wonderful, but because he did something pretty interesting that serves our purpose here. With regards to the economy, Marx drew a distinction between what he called a class in itself, and a class for itself. As he put it, the working class is inherently a class in itself just by existing the way it does, but it only is a class for itself when it has consciousness as a class, when it knows it exists and is aware of itself within a productive process and history, when it is self-reflective.
We can use this in our context and say that there are two kinds of communities when it comes to intention: communities in themselves, and communities for themselves.
The first, communities in themselves, exist even though they don’t know they do (or at least, we think they do). For example, I would argue that the youth I teach in high school are a community, even though they often don’t realize it. They have a shared language – they all speak English, most of them speak the same-sounding English, they share much of the same slang, and so on. They have a shared praxis – from going to class together, to often hanging out on the same front stoops during their free periods (the cops call it “loitering” apparently), to hanging out in the park or at the basketball courts after school. They generally share institutions and a space – they all live in the same region, can travel to one another, and borrow from and rely on many of the same cultural frameworks (from those steps and basketball courts I mentioned, to the deli on the corner or the school itself). Still, much of the time, they don’t practice any intention in their communal relationship, and they often aren’t aware that they even have it. They are a community de facto, because of all these things they share, but they aren’t self-conscious or intentional about it. They are a community in itself (although, to be fair, the hours I have forced them to spend talking about issues like this have definitely put them on a process of becoming an intentional community).
Communities for themselves are different. My living collective is a good example. We also speak the same language (English and some other languages thrown in, similar accents and so on), share many customs and rituals (for example, we spend an evening every week learning together), have institutions together (like our collective bank account), and reside in a geographical space together (our communal apartment). The difference, though, is that we are acutely aware of this. In fact, we chose it, and had to make massive efforts to actively create a shared praxis and to take possession of institutions to help us do it. We did it because we wanted to be a community, which automatically made us a community for itself, not only in itself.
Now, part of me wants to say that one isn’t better than the other, that communities that exist merely because they do, even if they don’t consider it, are just as strong and capable of surviving as those who intentionally produce something together. But I’m not sure I believe that.
Let’s go back for a second and look again at the example of my students, or of the average students who hang around together as part of a community. It is very clear to me that once they graduate high school, many of the institutional realities that make their shared culture possible will disappear. The institutions that pull them together – from the school itself to the stoop they sit on to the basketball courts – will not be organically shared institutions, so the customs they carry out in them (joking around in the hallway, smoking cigarettes on the steps, playing ball, etc.) will not happen naturally anymore as a by-product of their organic institutional circumstances. Without intentionally going out of their way to create new ones, they might not have the material necessary to make the maintenance of culture possible or desirable. They can continue to be a community, but only with intention, only with an actual effort to transition from a community in itself to one for itself, which will demand a serious effort in the face of a lot of material realities (such as the cost of rent in a certain neighborhood, the job market, time, etc.).
To zoom out now to some more macro examples, all sorts of groups, are constantly under attack, such as the Palestinians in Gaza or the Roma in Hungary, and find themselves facing the destruction of the institutions they need in order to survive. Many groups, like the Massai in Kenya or the Jews in Iran or the Hmong in Vietnam, often find themselves forced to intentionally organize a space or set of institutions in which to carry out a shared culture, in order to combat the threat of dissolution in the face of a more powerful majority culture. They would be unable to do so without the consciousness that they are a group, a unit worth maintaining, developing, and protecting.
In other words, while communities in themselves are many, and they are some of the strongest out there, communities in themselves that are under crisis have a much harder time surviving than those that are self-conscious and intentional, communities for themselves. The communities that are intentional can confront head on the challenges that face their members, and really choose, as opposed to being carried away by the realities around them.
Interestingly, communities in themselves are often the dominant majorities, which aren’t particularly threatened, and so don’t find themselves needing to struggle to preserve themselves. Communities like that tend to be less intentional. Many white protestants in the US, for example, don’t even think they have a culture, yet of course they do, for all the reasons I outlined above. It might sound strange to name that as a group that needs special attention, considering how relatively less oppressed it is in comparison to some of these other groups we’ve rattled off, but it really is worth noting. Powerful groups like that might not be under the same sort of threat like some of those other communities, a fear of assimilation or destruction, but they experience a different kind of threat: meaninglessness. It is certainly arguable that the very same strength and comfort that allows many communities in themselves to exist, actually leads to them being complacent about their cultures, contributing to the incredible amounts of alienation we see in today’s society. Perhaps a little bit of intention would do good for communities like that, as well.
Chapter 2: Analysis
~ What’s Wrong ~
Now that we have done our best to set out a sort of framework for thinking about this stuff, it’s time to really dig in. In this section, we will touch on some of the ways in which the community sphere is not as it should be. We are not going to spend as much time on this as we could, because there is a lot out there about all of this. We are putting it out here because it’s impossible to think about where we want to go and how to get there without a reasonable assessment of where we are right now.
Just to give you a hint, where we are right now in terms of race, nation, identity, community, religion, ethnicity, immigration, and everything else that fits in this sphere, is pretty messed up. Brace yourself.
The way I presented identity in the beginning makes it sound as if it should be a pretty automatic thing. We are people, so we have identities. Turns out, it isn’t that simple.
Day in and day out, many of us also face the dilemma of having to struggle to negotiate our identity with others, because of the complexities of our identities, and because we are trying to share space with others. We have to choose which parts of our identity to amplify (here I am more Jewish, there I am more radical, there I am more American, and so on). Sometimes we do it by choice, and sometimes we do it because we are threatened or coerced.
Aside from the usual existential drama of trying to figure out who we are, we also live in a society that is constantly trying to sell us a whole new us. We are offered easily digestible, simplified consumer identities, and we are told what to buy and how to speak in order to be part of a particular community and blend in with its culture.
We are constantly putting on and taking off different kinds of masks, trying to negotiate identity. Some of that, it seems, is a natural part of human life in that we have a lot of different overlapping identities that we emphasize or play down depending on our social context, mood, the place in our lives, etc. Some of it, though, is a conflict that comes about in a capitalist, racist, xenophobic society, where firm (often violent) lines are drawn between people, and we are targets of an endless pursuit of profit carried out by the already wealthy elite among us.
Let’s try to get a little more specific.
Racism and White Supremacy in the US…Still?
Racism has many shapes and sizes.
I don’t need to point out that the KKK is racist. I don’t need to point out that a lot of the Americans who marched in the Tea Party protests, carrying signs of the president as a monkey, are racist. I don’t need to point out the centuries of brutal, unimaginable violence – the enslavement, genocide, torture, and rape of people of color all over the world – on which this country and many of the other powerful and wealthy countries are based. Those all seem pretty obvious. I might point out that it would be silly of us, really naïve actually, to think that a country that spent its formative few centuries as a slaveholding, openly racist, systemically racially oriented country has somehow shaken off its racism. It clearly hasn’t. Racism isn’t something that can be shaken off like dust – it is at the very roots of the systems that make this society run.
But where, then, do we see racism today? It might not be so obvious, especially depending on where you live and what color your skin is. I’ve definitely had white students of mine who don’t notice racism. I’ve had Latino students of mine who think there are racists out there (wherever “there” is), but not around here, in the Northeastern United States, not in their communities, and so on. I’ve met a lot of people who can agree that some people are racist, but that it’s an issue that people have to deal with, not institutions. Institutional racism, even some of my African-American students will say, died along with segregated schools.
The most obvious racism is the kind we see and hear slung around us. Your neighbor’s Grandma is racist, for example, and you can tell because of the awful words she uses when describing people who have a different skin color. But hey, she’s from another era, right? Well. Think again.
Grandma isn’t the only one crossing the street thinking that the Black guys she was about to walk by were more likely to commit a crime against her than the white kids she sees doing whatever they’re doing (even though it’s statistically untrue). Grandma isn’t the only person who is just as likely to give a job to a white high school graduate as she would be to a person of color with a college degree (also statistically proven). She certainly isn’t the one making up the zoning laws that keep black communities impoverished. No matter how often she says whatever disgusting words she says, she isn’t the only one around who makes it truly uncomfortable for a person of color to walk through an all-white neighborhood. And at the same time, it isn’t her fault that it might be equally uncomfortable for a white person to walk through an all black neighborhood.
No, Grandma isn’t the only racist around here. Grandma might be sentimentally racist, but she doesn’t govern all the institutions that reinforce racism. Even her racism is created, perpetuated, reinforced, and reproduced by institutional racism. White males with high school diploma are as likely to get a job as Black males with college degree. Blacks, Latinos, and Indigenous people are paid, on average, 10-25% percent less than their white counterparts. If you take a map of the poor and working poor neighborhoods in New York City, and then you put a map of Black and Latino communities in New York City over it, you will see that it is almost exactly the same map. That was the thing that, when I showed it to my students who were telling me that racism is “down south” or “in the past,” convinced them of institutional racism; it blew their minds, and mine too. That can’t possibly be a coincidence, and I find it impossible to believe that it’s a consequence of genetics, so there is no way around that this is part of a system.
How does it happen? What institutional systems are in place to perpetuate those kinds of numbers? Education is a good place to start, right? An easy example: schools in many states are given resources based on the residential taxes of their districts. Suburbs are predominantly white and rich, so their school systems are well off. Urban ghettoes are predominantly made up of poor people of color, so their school systems are under-resourced. So one conclusion we can draw here is that people of color have fewer opportunities growing up, and that leads them to be more likely to commit crimes. Well. Pause there for a second.
At this point, we’ve got to reassess what it is we consider a crime. For example, it’s pretty obvious that rich white people have caused quite an enormous amount of pain and suffering to other people – from oil spills, to the production of unsafe consumer goods for profit, to tax fraud, to state-sanctioned war. But, somehow, the working class immigrant from India who robs a 7-11 gets jail time while the presidents responsible for hundreds of thousands of lost lives at the hands of American military aggression get seats on the boards of major businesses, and the businessmen who defraud us get seats in government. Funny how that works.
But hold on; you should set me straight. Even so, you ought to say, still Black and Hispanic people are 2/3 of the prison population in this country, right? We can say they didn’t get a fair shot because of a broken educational system, and we can even say that the way we define crime is all wrong, but we can’t say that these people aren’t carrying out a disproportionate amount of the crime carried out in this society, right? Well. Think again.
Some numbers to get you going: 60% of violent crime committed in this country is committed by white people, but whites are only 23% of people locked up for it. 74% of illegal drug users are white, but they make up only 10% of those in prison for drug abuse. A person of color is more likely to be stopped and frisked by police, but white people are four times more likely to be carrying narcotics on them.
If that is the case, you would have to wonder why the hell that would happen. The only way to explain it – and it sounds like a damn good explanation to me and anyone else who has ever walked through a Black working class neighborhood as opposed to a white working class one – is that racism is so deeply embedded in the state policy of this country that a disproportionate amount of resources are spent policing, patrolling, locking up, trying, convicting, and imprisoning people of color. It simply must be the case, or else the statistics have to be wrong. They aren’t (by the way, a lot of this comes from Tim Wise, one of the most serious experts on all of this, and his work is backed up by easily accessed public research).
So if all this is true, what is Grandma supposed to do? Grandma is told that 2/3 of the American prison population is made up of people of color, and it’s the truth. She isn’t told all the institutionally racist reasons for that, so of course she is going to have certain opinions. Grandma is told that violence is an issue in Black communities, which – in a way – is true. She isn’t told the rest of the story, which is that only crime committed by people of color is framed that way, while things like school shootings and wars (overwhelmingly carried out by white people more than anyone else) are never framed as a problem that is particularly white, if it is referred to at all as a problem.
Given all this, is it such a surprise that Grandma crosses the street when she sees a group of what are often referred to as “Mexican Gang-bangers”? Is it such a surprise that she forms opinions along racial lines, and that those opinions affect her behavior? Is it such a surprise that her behavior contributes to the institutional racism still bound up with the way the state and economy work? Is it a surprise that she is contributing to that cycle, which is then acting back on her, all in the context of hundreds of years of the most aggressive, overt, violent, brutal, murderous forms of racism ever perpetuated?
Well, it shouldn’t be.
Immigration (Mainly) in the US
People move around from place to place. Sometimes people move because of language, because of their heritage, or because of some ideological reason. Sometimes people move out of preferences about climate, or people they want to be near, or style of community life (I once considered moving to Thailand for the food, for example).
I think it’s safe to say, though, that most people move because their either have to, or because they have a greater chance of material success (even survival) in another place. Those two things aren’t actually so different. Refugees fleeing (American-backed) government repression in Haiti, for example, aren’t so different from many of the more than eight million Mexicans displaced by NAFTA who ended up coming to the United States. It’s not altogether surprising that the wealth and power that make the US so dangerous to the rest of the world, and so responsible for many of the economic, social, and military processes that happen elsewhere, also make it one of the most desirable migration destination for those people it impoverishes.
But the oppression doesn’t stop when people get here, especially not when they are undocumented immigrants. These people are systematically denied rights, exploited in the workplace, and targeted by police. Statistically, undocumented immigrants pay more taxes than they will ever get back in services. Arizona’s new immigration law, SB 1070, is a good example of the oppression immigrants have to face in the US (sorry, this is getting long, so just look it up).
So, sure, there are people who want to get rid of immigrants because they are racist and some of the immigrants have brown skin. Maybe they think Mexicans are criminals, and it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise considering that major news networks spend an outrageous amount of TV and radio airtime convincing us that they came over here smuggling drugs, or that Arabs (as in, anyone brown) are coming here with bombs. Maybe they think the growth in immigration is threatening the idea of what this country is supposed to be according to some people – some sort of white, Protestant paradise (perhaps they would do well to remember that unless they are indigenous Native Americans, they too are immigrants, and probably not that many generations ago). Maybe people have been convinced that if the subclass of immigrant labor leaves the country, we will all magically get raises, that the surplus labor won’t be replaced, that class oppression will whither away (which is ridiculous, by the way). Maybe some of these people don’t actually want immigrants to leave – maybe what they want is for people to be illegal; after all, then they really can’t say shit if we pay them less, right?
Either way, this is one of the brutal ways that communities today are under attack, whether being forced to relocate from their homes (from the towns in Honduras thrown into poverty to the neighborhoods in Flatbush being gentrified), or suffering attack while trying to protect those homes, or in the insecurity and different forms of slavery after leaving them.
The Nation: Oppression Of and By
Zoom out. Different nations have clashed all throughout human history, partially perpetuated by nationalism as an ideology, or by the quest for material wealth, or racial supremacy, or religious fanaticism. The list goes on. Beyond conflict, which is sort of ambiguous as to who is really in control, there is also a history of imperialism, colonialism, and other forms of violent national oppression that stretches pretty far back. The empires we learn about in school – Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Chinese, etc. – were forged out of military conquest.
The United States is today’s resident empire. Throughout the course of history, this government has – either directly through its military, or indirectly through backed proxy armies – overturned just about every government in Latin America at least once, had its hand in most of the Middle East, and spent quite a time massacring people all across Southeast Asia. It’s also not over. The United States has troops in about 80 countries around the world, and some of them are engaged in catastrophic wars as we speak.
But the United States is certainly not alone. Just about every nation in Europe participated in colonialism and imperialism in the past, advancing the Global North at the obvious expense of the Global South. If you want to trace back part of the reason that the Global North is rich and the Global South is poor, you don’t have to look too far. Today, many of those trends are being perpetuated (some would say advanced) by political and economic institutions (the WTO, IMF, World Bank, etc.) controlled by the very same powerful countries.
Just as powerful nations attack weaker ones on a global scale (like the United States and Iraq, for example), this also takes place within national groupings, where more powerful nations control the mechanisms of the state or economy and use them to keep other groups down. The number of groups that have been pretty much wiped out by this is countless. The many groups currently fighting for the right to self-determination and the institutions and space necessary to make it real, may soon suffer the same fate, from First Nations (Native Americans) all over Canada, to Kurds in Turkey, to Chechens in Russia, and the list goes on.
Religious Communities: Oppression Of and By
On one hand, we see the oppression of specific groups based on their religions beliefs, and this has been a theme throughout history. But today as well, religious minorities are constantly threatened: The Christians massacred in the Sudan, the Buddhist artifacts destroyed in Afghanistan, the Muslim-owned grocery stores with bricks thrown through their windows in Newark, the synagogues vandalized from Hungary to Venezuela.
At the same time, we see oppression carried out by religious groups against people in their communities. Some religious groups use scripture to keep women subservient, or to repress homosexuality. Some use their temples and schools to raise children in fear of authority, or to inculcate hatred of people who look or sound or worship a different way. Throughout history, people have been castrated, raped, and murdered in the name of religion – obviously religion gone wrong – and this list, too, can be drawn out to be much longer and include customs taking place around us today.
While some groups or individuals use religion to carry out the worst crimes imaginable, so many around the world are prevented from freely expressing it and controlling the space and institutions that allow the development of their cultures. Like the nation, and like the other frameworks for communal life and culture, religion can be either a source of oppression or a source of liberation, and it has proven throughout human history to be one of the major centers of communal life for an enormous number of people.
Interlude: A Bit of Holism Can’t Hurt
I’ve tried to cover here some of the more prominent forms of oppression we see in the community sphere, dealing with race, immigration, nation, and religion. These are not, by any means, the only relevant threats to our ability to be free people in developing communities and identities and cultures and institutions. They are not, either, the only things standing in the way of us being free in a more general sense, from the many other oppressions working in coordination to exploit and dominate.
As we move on, we have to remember the interplay between different forms of oppression –the patriarchy we find in some religions, or the way that capitalism’s ever-growing demand on us to sell our labor for more and more degrading hours of the day is one of the things that leaves us unable (tired, drained, stressed, threatened, impoverished) to have active communal lives. We need to keep in mind the ways that environmental ruin destroys indigenous communities, and how imperialism fosters racism and xenophobia. We’ve got to keep in the back of our minds the fact that authoritarian governments can be traced in authoritarianism of the “traditional” family, yet another way the state and culture interact. We’ve got to note how the constantly growing manufacture of culture as a way to make profit has destroyed communities and erased cultures.
We will go on to start dealing with solutions. On the way to that, though, we’re going to try to address some ideas that have been framed as potential solutions. Turns out, they are more like problems.
Integration as a Solution?
Integration is the idea that we should all sort of meld together, stemming from the belief that a lot of the differences between us are socially constructed. That is, there is no such thing as Black in any meaningful way, because genetically there is much more difference between different black people than between black people as a group and white people as a group (which is the case for all racial groupings, by the way). So, if there is no such thing as Black people, and no such thing as White people, then there certainly won’t be such a thing as one of them oppressing the other, right? So difference is the problem, and then “tolerance” is the solution.
Well, there are a few problems with that. First of all, culture is partially shaped by surroundings (institutions and space, as we put it earlier), and people live all over the world, in different climates and geographies and so on. It would be impossible for us to integrate to the point that we would have one, coherent culture.
But let’s play along for a second. Sure, it’s true that race was socially constructed, and that “Black” was a made-up category, as integrationists might say. Yes, it was true. I’m not sure it’s true anymore. At this point, after a few centuries of everyone acting like there are races, and not only that but there are racial hierarchies, Black certainly exists, and I would be kidding myself if I said I wasn’t white in most of the contexts I will ever be in. The fact that Black people are treated differently in this society, are relatively disempowered, are oppressed, and so on, is proof of that. Dismissing that reality as “socially constructed” is actually pretty oppressive. Mixing a powerful group with a disempowered one doesn’t make the lines go away, it just continues to oppress the oppressed group, and sometimes it’s even worse because it looks like everything is fine and all the lines have gone away. For example, what we call “American culture” often turns out to just be white, protestant, patriarchal, capitalist, consumer culture, which is peddled off as “American” as if it isn’t any one group’s particular identity but a mixture of all of ours.
Since it’s true that groups are actually different (and if race is a questionable category, then language, religion, shared history, and so on, are not), what’s to say it’s desirable to mix them all together? Integration sort of assumes that if we could all just be one thing, that would be best. On one hand, that sounds incredibly oppressive for the same reasons as stated above – of course not everyone will get represented in this amalgamation, and the dominant groups will get to set the norm, as they do already in this society. On the other hand, it’s oppressive also on another level, in that it strips all of us of the ability to express the beautiful, meaningful differences between us.
So what if our differences are socially constructed? That doesn’t make the differences less meaningful or important to cultivate. We are, after all, social beings. Isn’t that the point? I mean, music is socially constructed too isn’t? Music was a pretty good idea…
Integration means granting the powerful groups the ability to set the narrative of what our shared culture should be. Beyond that, it’s boring.
Fine, then Separation?
The opposite of integration, separation, has also been proposed time and time again. It is a gut reaction to the idea that we should all be the same. It is a sort of recoil – hell no we shouldn’t all be the same! I am different, proud of being different, and you are threatening my ability to be that way! If we get together, you’ll get to keep yours, and I will lose mine – my language, my way of dressing, my morning rituals, my distinct institutions, and so on. So, in defense against oppression or assimilation (and sometimes out of national or communal chauvinism), people separate. They pull out of that “integration” scheme, and go to the other extreme, where different groups have full sovereignty over their community lives. This, they reason, is the only way to preserve their separate cultures in the face of this enormous threat to just be absorbed and wiped away.
Well, again, a few problems.
First of all, as my high school history teacher used to always remind me, there are two sides to everything. A part of me thinks, sure, separatism makes perfect sense for people who have been beaten up and oppressed throughout human history, for the people who are under the threat of either conversion or conquest. But if we want to go with separatism as a blanket rule, those aren’t the only groups who get to have it. You might like community control of education in a black community where, for the first time in history, the federal government can’t say a word about what they teach, so they can finally teach black history. But do you like community control of education in the rural south in a racist community where that will be used to teach (again) that different races should be treated differently, or that dinosaurs never existed, or that the Holocaust is made up? I don’t.
Secondly, even if the idea of separatism has something going for it, which is that it allows people to really maintain their different identities, it doesn’t say anything about how they will share them. It says something only about the particular, and not the universal. Unfortunately, that’s not enough, since we are very march part of something bigger. Just as an individual isn’t anything without a community, so too a community isn’t anything without something bigger, and something bigger than that, and so on until it includes all of us in some way or another.
Well? Do we really have to agree with either? Maybe there is something sort of in the middle.
Multiculturalism and Other Liberal Pastimes
Now, I don’t want to say anything too nasty about multiculturalism, because actually the theory behind it isn’t necessarily the problem. As far as I can tell, the idea behind multiculturalism is that people are different, they should be allowed to express that, and they should be validated as equal. And all jokes aside, multiculturalism is a pretty enormous advancement in human society. As silly as I think it is that the world cup is touted as proof that we are one big happy human family (even while all of the oppressions I’ve listed and more still exist), it’s certainly a huge step forward from the enslavement of an entire race of people.
So multiculturalism is better than nothing, but it is ultimately a very simplistic, problematic expression of liberalism. Some multicultural positions are a little in one direction – people should celebrate diversity and so on. Other multicultural positions veer the other way – that we should sort of rub off on each other and be together and so on. This is the supposedly titanic battle between the American “melting pot” and the Canadian “salad bowl.” Wow, an epic battle indeed.
Ultimately, they are saying different versions of the same thing, which is that people are different, but they also should mix with each other. Now, that doesn’t sound so bad at all. In fact, it is remarkably similar to what we will propose in a couple of pages (which we call Intercommunalism, as I’m sure you’ve gathered by now). But something is missing: Teeth.
Yes. It’s all very nice that we should be diverse. It’s very nice that there is black history month. But Black History month doesn’t change a damn thing about Black Ghettoes. It’s all very nice that people are technically free to worship whatever religion they want to in the United States, but the fact that that’s written in the Bill of Rights doesn’t change the fact that the only President ever elected in this country who wasn’t a protestant was shot. It’s very nice that people are free to choose how they want to be and where they want to live theoretically (which dictates, in large part, their identities and communities), but that doesn’t mean much considering that most people can’t afford to live in places other than the ones they do, and many communities at risk are being pushed even out of those spaces.
The point I am trying to make here is that multiculturalism, and liberalism in general, has a lot of nice ideas about the interplay between individuals and groups, but those ideas are not represented materially. Multiculturalism, even if it sounds kind of nice, is hollow, because it doesn’t have anything to say with the social order around it, with the institutions that govern our society. It doesn’t say anything about racism both institutional and social, nor about capitalism which informs where we work, live, eat, play, etc., about patriarchy which tells us who to marry and how to raise our kids, about power which is now held in the hands of a few (generally rich, white men from the Global North). If we want to be serious about this, we are going to have to transcend the platitudes about melting pots and salad bowls.
Let’s just level with one another here: There is a lot more to talk about. Look at the sources at the end of this pamphlet. Listen to Malcolm X’s demand for freedom for everyone or freedom for no one, read Black Elk’s description of the systematic murder of his entire people at the hands of American colonialism, or check out a poem by Mohammad Darwish describing life in a Palestinian refugee camp. Look back into the history of this country and so many others, the foundations of which lay on top of the suffering of an enormous amount of people at the hands of imperialism, ultra-nationalism, genocide, slavery, institutional racism, religious tyranny, and even our beloved multiculturalism. Consult your own experiences, or those of your friends, and maybe those who are totally different from you, those who live in neighborhoods where there is a mysterious correlation between poor people and black people, where many of the dads are away because they are in jail, where the taxes are so low because the income is low so the funding of the schools are low. We gave a good crack at describing the crux of all that, we think, but ultimately, you don’t need this pamphlet for that stuff. It’s all there.
But it’s not enough to know what’s messed up. If we are serious about changing things, we need an institutional vision of what things should look like instead.
Chapter 3: Alternatives
~ Intercommunalism ~
Dream a Little
The logical response to someone who spends a few pages railing on this system of oppression that dominates, exploits, enslaves, and subjugates is: Well, fine, but what do you propose? That’s the fair question to ask. If you didn’t ask it, I would be worried. If we didn’t have a vision of what the world should be instead of the way it is now, I wouldn’t have the right to blah blah about what’s so wrong now. So that’s one side of it.
But more to the heart of the issue, we really can’t accomplish much without a vision. Without a vision, we can’t inspire people, can’t ask people to take risks, can’t experiment with alternatives, can’t design a strategy for struggle, can’t expect people to want something badly enough to fight for it. Without a vision, we are just whiny.
So, let’s stop whining and start dreaming. Just a little.
In this section, we are going to work through and describe what we call Intercommunalism. The place to start in all of this, then, is values. If we can agree on values, they will guide us in thinking up institutions to support them.
Identity and community means drawing lines. There. I said it.
Yes, having something of your own means drawing lines, making borders, setting boundaries. It means saying “us” for a particular group of people and “them” for another, just like it means saying “me” or “I” as opposed to “you.” It means, if you want to get philosophical about it, othering. And that’s ok. Drawing lines, setting things apart, distinguishing between me and you, these people and those, apples and houses, is completely natural, and it’s unavoidable. You are not me, and I am not you – maybe unfortunately, depending on who you are. Farmers from Alberta are not the same as people from the highlands of Tibet. Frat-Boys from Arkansas are not the same as the Dalits in India. That’s wonderful! It’s something to embrace, not lament!
Really, though, it’s amazing, and something unique about our species. If we were all the same, life would be boring, not to mention oppressive as hell, because we would have to settle on just one thing while it’s so very clear that so many of us want to have and be so many different things. We would have nothing that was just ours, no choice about how we want to live, and also nothing of our own to share with others, no way to trade and scrape up against each other and learn and grow.
Lines between people are not inherently wrong; they are wrong when the lines are made of concrete and barbed wire, when they are used to keep people out or push them aside, when they encourage individuals or groups to hate or undermine one another, to fight or oppress one another. But they don’t have to be that way. Lines can just as easily allow freedom inside and freedom between. They can be solidaristic, cooperative lines, rather than antagonistic, violent lines. The lines between us don’t have to be sharp and jagged; they can be squiggly and dotted instead.
Identity: Your Choice, More or Less
People’s identities are overlapping, and they change all the time. I am a young person, a New Yorker, a secular Jew, and a whole bunch of other things, and my identity changes all the time. When I was younger, being Jewish wasn’t as important to me, but it is now. When I grow older, being part of youth culture will probably not be part of my identity anymore. When I am traveling, being an American is part of my identity, but when I am at home, being a New Yorker or the son of Israeli parents is much more a formative part of the way I see myself.
Take a sheet of paper. Draw a small circle in the middle of the page. Draw another circle around it, and another around that, and another around that and so on. Then fill the lines in with your community affiliations (for example: my family, my religions group, my country, etc.), with the most important ones closest to the center. That is one way to look at your community identity, in concentric circles. First you are part of this group, then another group, then another, and so on, in a sort of linear way.
Take another sheet of paper. Draw a circle in the middle of the page. Then draw another in the corner. Then a sort of funky blob in another corner, a square between those two, a squiggly formation overlapping a few of those, a jagged line through the middle, and so on. You get it. Overlap. You’re part of this group, but also this group at the same time, and sometimes that group, all within the context of this larger group, and so on and so forth. That’s another way to look at identity.
Maybe for you, identity is a linear process. It’s clear to you what identity is most important to you, what community you are most part of, and then what institutions and spaces are most essential in your life. Maybe it’s more of an overlapping process, relying on context, time, place, mood, and so on. Either way is legitimate, it seems. As far as we’re concerned, you should get to choose how you want to identify. More or less. That is, people should be able to call themselves whatever they want, and orchestrate their community lives around that to the greatest extent possible, so long as that doesn’t conflict with other peoples’ participation in that identity and community.
Some examples: It is important that if a Pakistani immigrant to this country wants to identify as an American and participate in the institutions that facilitate American culture, she should be able to. If French person wants to identify first and foremost as a Muslim, for another example, then he should be able to do that. If a Chinese person in Thailand wants a mechanism to express being Chinese, she should have it. We might say, on the other hand, that a white kid from the suburbs who wants to identify as a Black Nationalist might have some problems being accepted into that community, and justifiably. We must be able to draw the line between empowering people to identify the way they want to, and preserving space for people to protect their identities.
But the point should be clear. In terms of values, we understand that people have a lot of different ways to look at identity, that they may or may not have a number of overlapping identities, that those identities can change over time, and that to the greatest degree possible, peoples’ choices about their identity (and therefore, their community), should be honored, supported, enabled, facilitated, and protected. People should have the right to choose how they want to identify along cultural, communal, religious, ethnic, national, or other lines to the extent that that’s possible. People should be allowed to freely associate, and to emphasize the parts of their identities that they choose.
What I described above for individuals should also apply for groups, and in that case, we call it communal self-determination. All groups should have the right to assert their communal identities, and they should have the space and tools to do that. We will get to the space and tools part, but we need to be clear about this.
A group is a group if it wants to be one (with some stipulations to be discussed in a coming section), and groups should be allowed to express their cultures, just as individuals should be allowed to express their identities. That goes for just about any group I can think of – from Palestinians to Jews, from hipsters to skater-kids, from the Yoruba in Nigeria to the Nigerians all together.
Autonomy (Within Solidarity)
Autonomy is a tricky one. We don’t believe in a boundless autonomy, which implies a sort of disconnectedness from the things around you. Considering some of our foundational assumptions that we’ve already covered – namely the fact that people are connected one way or another, whether we like it or not – to disregard the interconnections and pretend we are isolated and therefore limitlessly free is a dangerous mistake. It can hurt people, both the individual and the group. We believe in autonomy within solidarity.
On the communal level, we think self-determination means that groups should be allowed to choose how they want to express themselves with minimal constraints. We think people should have freedom and sovereignty over their language, praxis, institutions, and space. But no freedom is without obligation and responsibility. These groups should be free to do what they please, but within the boundaries set by society at large – meaning that groups should be allowed to do what they want, as long as they don’t violate the fundamental and universal rights everyone in society ought to have – most obviously equity. In addition, the gates in and out of these communities should be open enough to allow people to freely join and leave if they so choose.
On the individual level, it’s pretty much the same. Groups either implicitly or explicitly have contracts that individuals are essentially making with one another. That is, being part of this community means behaving in such and such a way, eating such and such foods, speaking such and such languages, and so on. When we are members of communities, we are expected to act in solidarity with that community. That’s nothing new. What we need to emphasize here, though, is the autonomy people are able to express in choosing how to associate. For example, while most people can theoretically choose not to be in a certain community if they think it violates their personal rights or human rights at large (or simply doesn’t suit them), in reality many people don’t actually have the material means to tear themselves free. Again, we will get to institutions later, but this is where we want to assert that individuals should be free to choose to be or not to be part of communities, that they should be autonomous, but not without solidarity.
All in all, then, we think people should be autonomous enough to choose what groups they want to be part of, and solidaristic in their actual participation in the group. We think groups should be autonomous enough to decide how they want organize themselves, but in solidarity with the universal laws, norms, and spirit of the society at large – one based on fundamental equity.
[Inter](Nationalism): The Particular and the Universal
A lot of people see the assertion of self-determination to be contrary to universalism – that nationalism contradicts internationalism, for example. But that doesn’t make any sense. As many a wise person has said before me, you can’t have internationalism without nations. Without the “nationalism” part, you don’t have anything to add the “inter” to the front of. You can’t have the particular without the universal, nor the universal without the particular.
The particular doesn’t make much sense divorced from the universal, because that means basically deleting from consciousness a huge fact, that we are all connected to one another, that we can learn from one another, that we have a lot to share, and that our actions affect people across the globe. But at the same time, the universal on its own is a totally meaningless term. The universal is made up of the particulars – the particulars couldn’t be wiped out even if we tried (and some of the more brutal people in human history have, in fact, tried), but if that did succeed, it would be just about the ugliest universalism imaginable.
Teeth: Institutions and Space
It should be clear that up until now, we have talked about vision in a theoretical way, dealing mainly with values. We have gone over the principles that should guide us in forming different community relations. In a way, we have done a lot of the work of imagining an alternative, but we still have to say a few words about the material world, as pesky as that world is.
None of the above means a damn thing without institutions to support it. We can say all we want that groups should have the right to express their identities how they see fit, but if we don’t provide a material basis for that, it is meaningless. In fact, that’s exactly the thing with multiculturalism. It says a lot of (kind of) nice things about the way people might live in cultural harmony, but it doesn’t provide any institutional foundation for how that will happen. That means actual resources – wealth, space, and so on. It means real mechanisms for honest deliberation between groups. It means a viable way for groups to democratically ensure that individuals’ rights are protected, and to hold one another accountable.
Same deal with individuals: we can say people should be able to freely associate with whatever communities and should be free to leave them if they feel abused, but that doesn’t mean anything without the material foundations to make that possible. That too, is something that a lot of oppressive communities say – that people are free to leave if they like – but we know full well that a single mother of eight children in an orthodox Jewish community in Crown Heights isn’t going anywhere if it means that now she is going to have to feed that whole family without the help of the rest of the community. That woman’s right to free movement can only be ensured by structures that materially provide for her.
If we think people should be able to choose how they want to live their lives, and if we think that groups should have the ability to produce and maintain their culture, we have to provide for it. That’s why we think that intercommunalism means inherently something material as well. Intercommunalism means not only a vague sort of respect for diversity, the way liberal society sets it forth. It means an honest, equitable division of society’s resources to be able to allot different communities what they need in order to build those institutions that manufacture culture. It means the reasonable division of space in which people can congregate, concentrate their institutions, and produce their culture – ultimately, the material and the space that make communities what they are. It means the democratic reorganization of society and egalitarian relations in all other spheres as well.
Just as we covered above, identities are communal, and communities have some sort of shared culture (made up of a language and praxis). And just like we covered above, that culture is based on, created by, reinforced within, a set of actual institutions, and often – although not always – those institutions are concentrated in a geographical space. It’s not just in our heads, it is also on the ground.
Flex That Flexibility
Different people have different needs, desires, abilities, etc., and the same thing is true for groups. What we mean is that intercommunalism, in order for it to work, has to address those different needs beyond its general principles.
We have to be honest about the fact that we’re not all in the same place. Five hundred years of systematic genocide against your people, or centuries of colonialism on your homeland, or a couple of hundred years of slavery, or exile from your homeland, or a few of generations spent growing up in a refugee camp under occupation will do fucked up things to you. Sounds pretty obvious. People and groups need to be given the tools to pull themselves out of those holes, and that might mean that we can’t split up everything evenly, but rather than we need to – in an honest, reasonable, and sophisticated way which we, as humans, are certainly capable of – consider peoples’ difference and diversity in needs, desires, and capabilities, and make material provisions for it – from more resources for housing, to more space for settlement, to more training for education.
It also means not everyone gets to make the same decisions. For example, we can support one community’s desire to sort of separate into itself in order to grow and develop the tools to be able to participate in the rest of society, while at the same time denying that right to groups who we – as a larger community – could reasonably assume would use that space to be oppressive. It sounds fishy, and it kind of is, but yeah, that’s what critical thinking and flexibility is about. We don’t have to lay down blanket rules if those blankets don’t make sense. Humans are creative and intelligent enough to decide things as they emerge as different from a standard.
Some ideas aren’t neat and tidy, and are hard to fit into a sleek blueprint. Ideas like that are uncomfortable, sometimes problematic, and always annoying for those of us who like to shout about what’s right and wrong. But they are also the best kind of ideas, because they are honest and principled, but not only theory divorced from reality. Sorry to complicate things; couldn’t resist.
Intercommunalism: Thinking Big and Summing Up
As I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, we call all of this intercommunalism.
Intercommunalism is a system in which groups have the right to self-determination, and can decide autonomously how they want to organize their lives in a cultural way, and how they want to use their institutions and spaces to do that. It is a system in which those different communities are linked to one another, in which they are bound together and overlapping, in which they have their own freedom but still share a set of universal values and norms together.
Intercommunalism is a way of life in which individuals have the right and the ability to choose how they want to identify and what communities they want to be a part of, with the understanding that this has limitations, as well as communal obligations. It is a system where the boundaries between communities are flexible and fluid, understanding of peoples’ needs to move in and out of them as they grow and change.
Intercommunalism is a form of community in which people have structures both political and economic that empower them to deliberate, decide, and enforce autonomy within solidarity. It goes beyond values; it means something about institutions. It means that the resources we have as a society must be distributed such that they allow individuals and communities to set up institutions that support the flourishing of their identities and cultures.
An intercommunalist society is one in which there are boundaries between people and between groups, but that at the same time, there are circles also around them, grouping them together – so that the universal honors the particular, and the particular is part of the universal.
Throw Some More Holism on It
This is where complementary holism comes in again. We can’t fully understand how intercommunalism would look without also dealing with the political sphere. In the end, the way people will deliberate and discuss, the way people will make decisions, the way people will enforce them, will be dealt with there. In the same way, we can’t fully describe intercommunalism without also dealing with the economic sphere, since that is what will dictate the way resources are produced and distributed, how labor is divided and organized, how those decisions are made. We can’t fully break away on intercommunalism without dealing with the kinship sphere, which very often dictates how we are to be educated, how we are allowed to partner and with whom, how we will raise our kids, and so on.
We think we need to seriously change all these spheres, and as we said before, they are all interrelated. We want an economy that is participatory and democratic, self-managing and solidaristic, where there are no markets, but also no central planning bureaucracies, where the economy is planned by democratic councils that are truly plugged into neighborhoods and workplaces alike. We want a political system in which people make decisions on things that affect their lives, in which we are all part of councils that are directly connected to our homes, then our neighborhoods, then our towns, our regions, and so on, that are responsive to us not because they want our votes, but because they are us. We want a kinship sphere that is truly liberated, in which people are free to express whatever genders and sexualities they want, where they can partner in a variety of different ways, in which they raise their children to live in an open, egalitarian, solidaristic society.
Yes, that was a lot for one paragraph. I warned you. This is a pamphlet about community, written by a person in an organization that believes that it’s impossible to write about that without also at least slightly considering (and reminding/nagging) that this is related to a whole lot of other things, like power, economy, gender, sex, the environment, and so on.
And yes, it means a massive reorganization of the way the world is right now. I never said it was going to be easy. But it’s definitely possible, so let’s get to it.
How are we going to pull this off?
Chapter 4: Strategy
~ From Here to There ~
Vision before strategy
I would say the first step in developing a strategy is a identifying a vision. Since we’ve just done that, and since I explained why I was going to do that before I did it, I think we’re covered. Next.
One of the first steps in movement building and organizing is raising people’s consciousness, which means reaching out to one another, talking, listening, reading, writing, arguing, agreeing, struggling alongside one another, and building together. It means engaging people on what is fucked up about this world, convincing them it could be different, educating them. That is, in a way, what we are tying to do with this pamphlet (uh oh…cat’s out of the bag…).
We have to write, talk, teach and learn from one another. We have to engage in political struggles that teach us on the ground realities. We have to confront ideas we’ve never confronted, and imagine alternatives. We’ve got to reach out to people we haven’t organized with, whose social realities are different from ours. We have to educate ourselves and others to the point that we are in the position to fight for a new society, and to the point that we would be able to actually live in it.
But now is a good time to point out, that’s going to take a hell of a lot more than thinking and talking. We have to build movements.
Organizing: Trust Me, It’s Worth It
It would be nice if we didn’t have to work that hard to make meaningful social change. It would be nice if all we had to do was write essays or books about it, attend lectures, and sit in cafes. Then maybe we could all just be academics, or we could all sit on porches and have conversations while watching the sunset. Or, conversely, for those of us who are into the action of it all, it would be nice if all we had to do was make some fiery speeches, rally everyone together, and march somewhere, throw something, take over a building for a few days even. It would be pretty awesome if revolution looked the way they make it look in history books, with a bunch of tough folks on a mountaintop with a flag billowing, having defeated their enemy.
Well, unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. Revolution is not an event, but a process. The events that make up a revolution – even the really big, special moments everyone remembers, the ones that are crystallized in history – are sandwiched between years, decades, even centuries of grass-roots organizing. I’m sorry to have to break it to you, because I know leafleting, talking to people, having meetings, coming up with internal structures, going to conferences, doing dozens of reformist actions, losing sometimes, winning others, and so on, doesn’t sound sexy, but it’s part of organizing, and that’s what it takes. Even when the time comes to really rise up, and those opportunities do in fact come around every so often, they aren’t worth very much if there isn’t a movement, an organized group of people, willing to participate in that moment knowing full well that afterwards, they will have to carry the energy forward through a dozen more boring meetings in order for it to translate into real, lasting change.
I don’t mean for it to sound like such a drag, even though I was brought up in this society of instant gratification and seven minute abs. Organizing is difficult, and it takes a long time, but being part of a movement is perhaps the most fulfilling feeling there is. Reaching someone deeply is one of the most gratifying experience an organizer can have. Winning a fundamental gain and having a movement to protect it and propel it forward is the most exciting feeling on earth. Those feelings, and the feelings of long-term solidarity and hope, only come about when we build movements.
If we can agree on that, then we should start to figure out what our movements should look like, no?
Autonomy within Solidarity (Yes, We Like to Prefigure)
Yes, you’ve heard it before, earlier on in this pamphlet when I was discussing the way an individual relates to a community, and the way a community relates to the larger society. It’s not a coincidence that the way we think communities should look is also the way we think our movements should look. We should, at every step along the way, be building the structures needed for the society as we think the world should look, starting with our organizations struggling for change. They should be democratic, egalitarian, self-managing, solidaristic organizations. We call this kind of work prefigurative – but more on that later.
In the meantime, staying true to the title of this section, we should deal with the idea of a movement made up of autonomous but solidaristic groups. The Left has seen a lot of different kinds of processes towards social change. There are, of course, the major political parties, and those that try to contend with them (like the Greens, for example). There are more obscure parties, revolutionary parties, aiming to organize people and compete for political power in the long-run (the Socialist Party, for example). There are organizations dealing with specific issues, many of them community-oriented – fighting gentrification here, educational reform there, student struggles at this university, workers rights groups in the restaurant industry, etc. Finally, there are people who are off creating alternatives, like food cooperatives, eco villages, queer communities, democratic schools, etc.
We think the movement we build should have to answer the same standards as society. We want a society where each community can autonomously decide how it wants to organize its culture, as long as that community’s actions are in solidarity with the universal principles of the society at large. In the same way, we want organizations, unions, community groups, eco-villages, political parties, and whatever else to have the space to autonomously decide what they want their focus to be, while simultaneously being in solidarity with something larger.
In the case of the aims of this pamphlet, the particular might be all sorts of organizations that either establish alternative cultures, or those that fight to resist the attack of the more powerful culture against the diversity that exists. The particular struggles in this case might be fighting imperialism, opposing war, or fighting for the national self-determination of an oppressed group. It might be agitating for community control of education in a culturally oppressed community. It might be educating people on race and racism, and combating the parts of it that exist in our society, or standing up for minority groups who are threatened by xenophobia, targeted by the criminal justice system, exploited for their cheap labor. The list of particulars is endless, and each sphere has its own.
The universal, the thing the particular needs to be in solidarity with, the something larger that brings all these groups together, should be a vision for how the world should look. We don’t have to prioritize one sphere (in fact, we must not do that), and we don’t all have to do one thing. But we do have to have each others’ back, and we do have to understand that in the long-run, we are working towards a shared vision of what the world should look like – an egalitarian, solidaristic, self-managing, and diverse place.
We obviously need to get more into this, but the easiest thing to do is to get your hands on one of the pamphlets we’ve written about one of the other spheres of social life. Mix that all up in your brain and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what we mean.
In the meantime, what should this movement be doing? We can start with what we call dual power, which is the idea that we ought to be simultaneously developing the alternative way of life, while actively fighting to make that alternative the norm. (Probably the best explanation of idea comes from Brian Dominick – look him up…)
Living the Dream
Let’s deal first with the alternative institution part of a dual power.
Alternative institutions might be cooperative workplaces that employ people from the community, neighborhood councils where people come together to think of strategies to keep developing and protecting their neighborhoods, or educational institutions representing the culture of a particular group. In any industry or realm of life, we can dream a bunch of these up (and we need to).
But also, in the case of what we are talking about now – community – we can think of a lot of perfectly good institutions that already exist: community centers geared towards addressing the needs of marginalized cultural communities, or schools that teach in a few different languages, or places of worship that serve as hubs of community life. We don’t have to reinvent the world. Sometimes we need to create cultural institutions that don’t exist; other times, we need to grow the ones we support, fight for them to have more resources or space, protect them from attack, or change the way we live other parts of our lives (like gender, class, etc.) so that we can actually participate in them.
Living or working within an alternative proves to others that we are serious, demonstrates to supporters the physical manifestation of our vision, provides us with the experience we need in actually practicing those alternatives, and – last but not least – makes our lives better. Bottom line: people don’t join movements that don’t answer their needs. If our needs are that we have space to actively practice our culture, then we need movements that place a serious emphasis on creating that space.
One obvious place to create that is within the organizations we use to change the world. If we want to build a movement the fights for the right of different cultural groups to self determination, then we have to actively create that within our organizations. On top of that, we have to be active in the communities we come from, the communities we claim to represent, building institutions that reflect the kind of world we want to see.
But that’s not enough.
Onwards to what we call counter institutions.
Alternative institutions, if alone, will either be co-opted or destroyed. We can create beautiful communities where people are beginning to express their cultures and so on, but without having something to defend them, to win them the resources they need in order to function, they are at risk of being broken up, bought off, or violently crushed. This has happened enough times throughout history to say it authoritatively, and if we look now at the state of the cultural groups seeking self-determination, we can see that their existence as a group alone is not enough to secure them the means to continue existing. They also need to fight, to take space.
That’s what counter institutions are about. They are the fighting force that creates the possibility for the alternative to grow, and defends it from being wiped out by the dominant groups and classes in society. A counter institution might be a community group fighting against gentrification, or groups of people who protest racist police shootings, a political party to represent the interests of a particular group, or even a national liberation army.
The practical side of it is that it has been proven throughout history that alternatives that are hopeful, successful, and inspiring enough, are threats to the status quo and are then subsequently attacked. They need to be protected. Beyond that, we can’t expect this intricate system of racism, imperialism, white supremacy and so on, to collapse on its own, merely because some of us are living or working in a way that is alternative. Alternatives that play within the rules of the game are more than are welcomed and co-opted (like our toothless Black History Month), and those that don’t play nice are attacked and murdered in their beds (like the Black Panthers). We need to be ready to struggle any way we know how – from electoral politics to direct action, from community organizing to political struggle, from writing letters to taking back streets and buildings.
We need to take space – to fight for the pots of soil in which we can grow our flowers.
Content and Form
Revolution should not only be in content, that is, in our ideas, in our slogans, in our platform. It should also be in form, the way in which we struggle. The movement should look like our lives. It should be open and democratic, critical and flexible, creative and fun. It should be diverse and understanding, determined and proud, hilarious and fearless. Our struggle should be a reclaiming of space that belongs truly to us, not in protest, but in the service of creating in those spaces a life the way we know it ought to be lived.
We are not only fighting for our grandchildren, but also for ourselves, and not all of the social transformation we are fighting for must wait until the state, capitalism, patriarchy, racism and so on finally collapse. There are ways to work, live, consume, fight oppression, and treat one another that can propel us closer and closer to winning the world we wish to live in, that grant us more humanity as we fight.
After all, the struggle, too, must be beautiful.
~ If Not Now, When? ~
Things Aren’t So Hot Right Now
It’s a pretty special time.
The earth’s climate is in shambles; we are right around peak oil and will only have less than we need pretty much from now on unless we make some big changes. Capitalism has experienced another titanic crash that will only worsen and perhaps in epic proportion. People are losing their jobs, losing their homes, losing their pensions, losing their savings; everyone is in debt. The United States is potentially losing its footing as the world’s superpower, and the wars it is managing are very obviously enormous ethical and strategic catastrophes, as are a whole host of other wars of aggression, military occupations, human rights abuses, and so on (many of them perpetuated or financially backed by the class that finds itself most at home right on Wall St.). An enormous number of people of different skin colors, ethnicities, religious groups, nationalities and other communities around the world are under attack, unable to express their identities, control their own cultural institutions, enjoy their right to self-determination, or live freely, safely, and happily in their homes.
But It Ain’t All Bad
All over the world, there are people taking control of their communities, fighting for tenant rights, organizing against gentrification, fighting union battles. All over, there are people creating alternatives – alternative living spaces, alternative workplaces, alternative ways to produce and consume and govern, alternative ways to organize culture and empower themselves to carry it out. All over the world, workers are taking control of factories, students are taking control of schools. In some places, indigenous people have even taken over governments, finally reclaiming that which is theirs, and taking control of the tools that will help them build institutions for their cultural lives. Maybe one day not so far from today, those different parties, organizations, institutions, and communities will become a movement made up of autonomous groups in solidarity with one another.
But beyond that, there is a very simple hope, that the silent, titanic majority being kicked around, that diverse array of colors and genders and sexualities and classes and interests and dispositions, will grasp that another world is possible. More and more people are believing that every day, but most people of them have never been presented with an alternative, have never been empowered to act on their own behalf. Most people out there have never even really been asked if they can imagine another world, a better one.
It is time to ask.
OFS Statement: Our Mission
The Organization for a Free Society envisions a world characterized by solidarity, equity, self-management, diversity and ecological balance.
We are committed to building a movement for social liberation. We aim to transform the governing values and institutions in all spheres of social life. Through study and struggle, we have come to understand that systems of oppression condition our lives by mutually defining and reproducing our social relationships. We work to break down all systems of inequality and injustice and to create a participatory, democratic, and egalitarian society.
We are dedicated organizers from diverse backgrounds who work within grassroots movements to build, take, and decentralize power in society. We believe in raising consciousness and awareness through education. We seek to build alternative institutions that challenge and undermine exploitation and domination, and instead embody in the present the values of the future. It is essential for us to live and organize as close to our vision as possible and to transform ourselves as part of the struggle for a free society.
OFS Statement: What We Believe
- Social revolution. We recognize the need to fundamentally transform the governing values and institutions of society. We need to approach the root of the problem to make a lasting change.
- Holistic politics. We commit to analysis and action in all areas of social life, including race, community, the economy, gender, sex, sexuality, age, ability, and authority, without elevating any but instead recognizing the intrinsic important of each, their interconnection, and the need to confront the totality of human oppression.
- Vision for all spheres of social life. We envision a truly democratic and participatory political system, a classless and participatory economy, a liberated and egalitarian kinship, intercommunalist community relations, international relations that foster autonomy within solidarity, and social and economic organization that can ensure sustainable ecology.
- Embodying in the present the values we want to see in the future. We strive to organize, struggle, and lead our lives in a way that exemplifies the change we wish to see in our society and the world. We seek to build institutions that reflect our values and meet real needs in the present.
- Self-management. We believe everyone should have a say in the decisions that affect them, and the resources on which they are dependent, in proportion to the degree to which they are affected. We strive to actualize this principle in our organization, movements, and society. We reject structures that embody authoritarian and inequitable relationships, including hierarchical divisions of labor and authoritarian decision-making structures.
- Strategic action. We work within movements in order to fight for meaningful change in the present towards the path social transformation. We believe in building power through the creation of viable alternatives in all spheres, and by unifying alternatives and struggles in a common challenge to the current system.
This is just to get you started. There is a lot more out there…
- Huey P. Newton, “Lecture on Intercommunalism,” http://www.itsabouttimebpp.com/Huey_P_Newton/pdf/Huey.pdf
- Justin Podur, “Life After Racism?” http://www.zcommunications.org/life-after-racism-by-justin-podur
- Tim Wise, “Pathology of White Privilege” lecture. http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=tim+wise+pathology+of+white+privilege&search_type=&aq=0&oq=tim+wise+patho
- Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (Preface by Sartre)
- “The Black Panther Party Platform,” http://www.blackpanther.org/TenPoint.htm
- Justin Podur, “Polyculturalism and Self-Determination,” http://www.zcommunications.org/polyculturalism-and-self-determination-by-justin-podur
- Justin Podur, “Race, Culture, and Leftists,” http://www.killingtrain.com/racecultureandleftists
- Robin Kelley, “People In Me,” http://www.zcommunications.org/people-in-me-by-robin-kelley
- Ber Borochov, “The National Question and the Class Struggle” http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Zionism/Borochov_NationalQuestion.html
- Chip Smith, The Cost of Privilege
- Michael Albert, Leslie Cagan, Noam Chomsky, Robin Hahnel, Mel King, Lydia Sargent, and Holly Sklar. Liberating Theory
- Brian Dominick, “Real Utopia Left Forum ’08 [Dual Power]” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jk68DbFdDx8&feature=related
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