We have passed the moment of NormCore. In vogue among the new upper class is dressing up as an idealized, imagined proletariat. Blue collars and khaki jeans; work boots; the whole lumberjack thing. This reflects a thin, symbolic solidarity with the working class against the 1%, but betrays a deeper resentment—“this is what a respectable worker should look like.”
It’s hard to step out of your NGO’s office and look up at the Boston skyline and not feel complicit in something.
Bolivia and ethics-as-politics
I saw the following three articles about the uprising-turned-coup in Bolivia, in this order:
- La Noche de los cristales rotos
- Un levantamiento popular aprovechado por la ultraderecha (by Raúl Zibechi)
- They are not Evo supporters! They are Alteños, dammit!
All three embody what was, in their moment, the most critical, feminist, anti-racist, anti-statist available position on the events in Bolivia.
Recent geopolitics in Latin America make clear that the capitalist right is well-positioned to seize power wherever the Pink Tide recedes. Opposition to Morales from the left, then, could not have been strategically viable as a road to popular left power.
What unites these articles, then, is a politics of atactical, endless oppositionality. This is a politics in which victory is not an object—that is, it is not interested in bringing about a free, pluralistic, equitable, and just world. Rather, it is centrally concerned with voicing the most ethical position in any situation.
These ethics are centered on the values listed above—freedom, pluralism, equity, and justice—they are ethics that I share. But the practice of changing the world in accordance with these values is the domain of politics.
Politics without tactics isn't politics; it's moralizing. There is a time and place for moralizing, but it isn't on the street, with the right at your back.
Steal Design from the Capitalists
People engaged in non-capitalist organization rarely keep tabs on the latest Silicon Valley business practices, except to point out when they are exploitative. There is a cultural disconnect, and a generalized suspicion that everything salaried professionals in big corporations do is in some way reproductive of oppression. This isn't totally off base, but in this way we do miss out on some tools that can be appropriated for the purposes of solidarity, tools that can be incredibly effective towards that end. As Evan “Rabble” Henshaw-Plath says, we should steal from the capitalists.
For me, user-centered design, including user interviewing, is chief among these. It can be seen as a kind of participatory planning. It should be obvious, but the crux is this: if you’re making something, you should put a lot of time and energy into talking with the people you are trying to make it for. At every stage of the process. Design should involve lots of one-on-one conversations. Of course, if your planning involves a community, you should also have conversations with the appropriate groups of members of that community. But that’s a different topic.
Solidarity is struggle alongside those struggling against oppression. Of course, no such group is homogeneous. Solidarity therefore requires of us a kind of synthesis between our own analysis and the perceptions, analyses, and directives of liaisons—strangers, friends, and comrades. This kind of synthesis is what, in a completely different matrix of ethics and interests, user-centered design was developed to accomplish.
Two years ago I was in a living room with a group of refugee solidarity activists in Turkey, beginning to lay out the plans for a web tool that would help refugees find friendly and reliable services. These were people who interact with refugees on a day-to-day basis, whether in their day jobs or among their friends. It wasn’t until I asked that I realized that no one had actually discussed this with any refugee at any point in time. I asked that each person discuss it with at least one refugee they knew. By the time we finally abandoned the project, the ratio of the time we had spent formulating the mission statement to the time we had spent talking to refugees was probably about 20:1. This was a group of caring, intelligent, and motivated activists, all highly conversant in social theory, all dedicated to solidarity, not having the conversations necessary to actually be practicing solidarity well.
Running Lean and Sprint are two books written entirely in the language of technocapitalists. The former especially is awash in the "big ideas" and "change the world" discourse in which bourgeois and neocolonial interests are now couched (hat tip to Anand Giridharadas for the incredible Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World). But both are essentially providing tools about how to have conversations with people about projects that affect them. It could be a project about public housing. It could be a community health clinic, or a cooperative grocery store, or a mobile library for refugees in Greece.
This isn't to say we should try and run our organizations like start-ups. Much of the antidemocratic and elitist ideology of the start-up world manifests in their structures and methods. These need to be analyzed and critiqued aggressively. But after, we should see what remains for spoils.
Silicon Valley is developing tools and methodologies at a breathtaking pace. It coordinates vast amounts of creativity and labor toward their development, in the breakneck pursuit of capital. If we are concerned with being effective, including being effective at dismantling capitalism, we should pay attention.
(Shoutout to all the Marxist website owners who refuse to use CSS though. Punk never dies.)
Traveling through Guatemala and learning a bit about the history of US imperialism here.
Its arc is like this: Jorge Ubico, backed by the United States, wins an uncontested election in 1931 and becomes a famously brutal dictator. All the land which had been publicly or collectively owned is sold off, mostly to large international agribusinesses. In 1944, labor power and popular protest oust Ubico. Elections are held and a moderate is elected. In 1951 Arbenz, who aside from his strong land reform policies could be a socialist only by US standards, is elected. He begins a process of redistribution of unused land, granting land to about 100,000 families disenfranchised by Ubico regime. In 1954 the CIA engineers a military coup, instating a new military dictatorship and undoing the land reforms. Dictatorship devolves into a civil war that lasts until the 1990s.
Over the course of the 1990s the political situation stabilized. But this time it was without labor power or a popular left movement, both of which were devastated during the war. In 2015, a quarter of political campaign contributions came from business interests and organized crime each. The candidates with the most support, including Jimmy Morales (who won), were those who sought to discontinue the prosecution of former military officials for war crimes.
What do we mean when we talk about democracy? Here we see two answers at war. Liberal democracy, which is what we typically mean in the US, has to do with individual empowerment. A situation is liberal-democratic insofar as it permits individuals to express their political will and organize, within the God-given constraints of neoliberal capitalism. What’s notable is that the actuality of political organization isn’t taken into account—only its potential. Actual political organization may occasionally even be opposed to personal liberty, as in the disjunction between scabbing and worker’s solidarity.
Organized labor is not, in US discourse, considered as a lever of people power constituting democracy. Guatemala under Arbenz and Guatemala now can be seen as being on similar footing with respect to democracy only with such a hobbled definition of democracy. The US has shucked off meaningful popular power from the brittle and bureaucratic thing it calls “democracy.”
Markets Love Your Independence in Old Age
I just cracked into Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. It's already fantastic. I have a beef though.
Gawande tells an interesting story about the development of old-age lifestyles. He starts by describing his great-grandfather's experience of old age. He lived to be very, very old. Throughout his latter years he was surrounded by generations of family, among whom he was held in the highest honor. He continued to conduct business and lead a stubbornly normal life just about up until he died.
This is implicitly contrasted with the version of old age that would be familiar to most US American and European readers, wherein the old try to live independently as long as possible, until medical reasons force them into the care of some institution or another.
Gawande identifies this as a shift correlating to the development of societies. One argument to this effect points out that the wisdom of the old is much less valuable in modernized labor than it is in non-industrial society. Neither I nor any of my siblings are in the same trade as my parents, or our grandparents, and even if we were those trades are probably dramatically different than they were thirty years ago. There's not a lot of useful information my grandpa can offer me about software engineering.
Perhaps more interestingly, he cites that people who have the resources to afford themselves independence in their old age have tended to do so, independently of other factors. This would appear to mean that people have some inherent drive towards greater independence. That something in our psychology makes us prefer being old and alone to being old and surrounded by family.
Of course, to stop here would be to fail to break the surface of an analysis of how economics relate to culture. It is not merely the case that economics might permit the wealthy to express their will to independence. Rather, capitalism marketizes our independence, as that independence is expressed in our own real estate, our own furniture, our own cars—our very own replica of all of the necessities of life that would otherwise be shared with others. I think it's prudent to be skeptical of claims that human nature drives us towards something, when at the same time the logic of capital is demonstrably driving us towards that same thing.
I doubt that this effect that markets have on families and independence is demonstrated anywhere more clearly than in Turkey. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has since its rise in 2002 made heavy use of construction and infrastructure development as economic stimulus, effectively as a core economic policy. As a result, roads have widened, and projects to build dams and bridges and mosques and a gigantic airport have sprung up all over the country.
And, critically, huge apartment complexes. The claim is that Turkey is way behind in housing, that it has nowhere near enough housing for all the young Turks coming into the world. Of course, the birth rate in Turkey has been going down just like everywhere else in the world, and this has never been a problem before. The splitting up of extended family structures, which have been the atom of Turkish society since forever, is a necessary part of using massive construction projects as economic stimulus. Independent people require more independent units in which to live, requiring more money to pay for them. So people have to make more money, so that they can pay it to the developers (who are making buckets of money), and this is what we call economic stimulation, and the end result is that everyone lives alone, and dies alone. Maybe somewhere deep down that really is what we want, but I'm hesitant to reach for that conclusion.
Somehow we've found ourselves categorizing groups of people in the most reductive ways first. People aren't anti-racists; they're protesters. They aren't male chauvinists; they're trolls. They aren't Kurdish leftists; they're terrorists or freedom fighters, depending on who you ask.
This is a result of the ideology of tactics essential to liberalism. This ideology says that tactics are ethical only when they are legal. So of course Antifa are on the same moral footing as Neo-Nazis. They're both Protesters.
When we talk simply about rioters, guerrillas, or terrorists, and fail to ask about their context or perspective, we reproduce the language of liberalism. This hegemonic language is not just biased toward liberalism. It is politically reductive, and impinges on the analytical, contextualizing, and humanistic possibilities of discourse at large.