Monday, December 22, 2014


Graffiti seen on the streets of Santiago de Compostela, Spain, December 2011

The original Obvious International Manifesto was published in TruthOut on June 3, 2013

Lately I have been exploring the meaning of the word "humane". While it has its roots in the word "human", it refers to compassion and empathy with non-human entities as well ("humane societies" are generally intended to encourage the humane treatment of animals, not people, for example).[i] A quick internet search reveals a graph of the word’s usage over time[ii]; according to this set of data, the adjective "humane" has been on the decline since 1800 (with a brief upward trend in the early 1970s). I can't help but wonder, has the entire concept of humaneness been on the decline too?

Philosopher-physicist Karen Barad routinely uses the word “matter” as a verb. Through the lens of language, she invites us to envision a kind of “post-humanist” world in which humanity along with everything else is not just equal and interconnected, but is intra-connected and ever-becoming – ever-mattering – based on constantly-morphing intra-relationships.[iii] Incensed that it is possible to live in a world in which it is of urgent necessity to point out that #BlackLivesMatter (glaring evidence, if ever there was, that the obvious is in dire need of advocates), it is in this active sense of the word "matter" that I am suggesting that #HumanenessMatters. Active humaneness towards everyone and everything of all colors, genders, species, and even presumed status with regard to “aliveness” or “consciousness” is bound to cause an immediate ripple effect, resulting in a measurable increase in overall planet-wide levels of humaneness.
To humanize someone or something – human or otherwise – is to relate to her, him, or it with compassion, on an equal plane with oneself[iv]. “To humanize” has elements in common with  “anthropomorphize”…to ascribe our own characteristics to things outside of ourselves, such as plants, animals, geological features, or forces of nature. Anthropomorphization is often thought of as a quaint, if slightly risky, poetic device, a handy metaphorical tool, but something that must be used with discretion if we wish to be taken seriously as rational creatures in societies in which it is collectively assumed that humans are different, separate, and superior to everything around us.

On the other hand, to “dehumanize” someone or something is to degrade it, to divorce oneself from responsibility for her, his, or its well-being. Soldiers are trained to de-humanize those deemed enemies in order to fight, kill, or torture them. Imperialists de-humanize pre-established populations in order to colonize their lands. Capitalists often de-humanize labor in order to exploit it. In addition, they may find it necessary to detach themselves emotionally from environments and entities that must be harmed or eradicated in order to maximize profit. De-humanization is routinely employed to justify all manner of predatory behavior.

The ongoing effort to reverse these trends – racism, classism, sexism, speciesism and other oppressive -isms – may be enhanced and accelerated by the radical re-humanization of everyone and everything. A simple mental shift will transform the pigeon in the park or the mountain in the distance from “it” to “him” or “her” (as is standard in many languages other than English). This could be thought of as a kind of “post-anthropomorphism”, the reflexive granting of equal status, respect, and care to every being and every thing. What if we were to begin with the assumption that we are more alike than different and work our way out from there, instead of starting from a position of presumed separateness-until-proven-connected?

Even if you are a scientist, have no fear…this mindset will not permanently impair your capacity for objectivity when necessary, nor will it cause you to do your job less accurately. In fact, you may be able to do it more constructively; empathizing with your specimens could move you to design more humane, ethical, and beneficial experiments. After all, the notion of objective observation is a poetic device too.

It turns out that poetic devices – including our basic assumptions about the ways the world works – can have extremely tangible effects, for better or worse, on the ways we treat each other and the planet we share. By choosing a social imaginary that presumes equality and interrelationship, rather than one that perpetuates exploitation and abuse, our individual everyday lives become re-infused with purpose and meaning. Detachment leads to alienation and nihilism, while caring leads to a sense of cooperation and fulfillment.

In this time when it seems apparent from a cursory glance at the daily news that humans are capable of so much damage and violence, it is important to bear in mind that it is a relatively small percentage of the total population of humans that is causing the majority of the harm[v], whether through extremist acts of aggression or by a seemingly more innocuous form of fundamentalism: excessive consumerism. For those wooed by such ideologies, gravely destructive acts have become normalized.

But it is not too late to stop the spread of destructive -isms and reclaim the spirit of what it means to think and act humanely – with kindness, compassion, and empathy. If “to humanize” means to connect with another in an intelligent, emotional way that feels uniquely human to us, we can approach this fraught moment in history most constructively and with maximum grace by coming to humanize everything.

[i] Curiously, most definitions include a reference to “humane” ways of killing.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Liberty, Equality, Geography: An Interview with John P. Clark on the Revolutionary Eco-Anarchism of Elisée Reclus

(Photo: PM Press)

Social geography is the study of how landscape, climate, and other features of a place shape the livelihoods, values, and cultural traditions of its inhabitants (and vice versa). Frenchman Elisée Reclus (1830 – 1905), a progenitor of the discipline, believed strongly in the rights and abilities of people to manage themselves in relation to their local bioregion, free from rule by a remote, centralized government. His approach to anarchy was unique in its emphasis on the environment – Reclus understood that a mindset that encourages one person or people’s domination over another must, in the race to profit from natural “resources”, also foster domination over nature. Like the social ecologists who have succeeded him, Reclus believed that solutions to ecological crises must involve restoring balance, equality, and a sense of interrelationship between humans and other humans, and between humans and the biosphere.

The first half of the recently-published Anarchy, Geography, Modernity: Selected Writings of Elisée Reclus, edited and translated by John Clark and Camille Martin, forms a comprehensive critical survey of Reclus’ philosophy and political theory, including biographical information and historical context. The “modern” manifestations of oppression (including the concentration of wealth and power, surveillance, racism, sexism, and ecological degradation) that concerned Reclus in late-1800s Europe, the United States, and Central and South America are indeed still strikingly – infuriatingly – present. The second half of the book consists of translations of several pieces from Reclus’ extensive oeuvre, some of which have never before appeared in English translation.

AS: Can you describe how anarchy – specifically the kind based in mutual aid and environmental responsibility in service to a greater good illuminated here by Reclus, and by you in your book The Impossible Community, differs from other conceptions (or misconceptions) of anarchy, and how it might (as contrasted with other ideologies) be useful to us now?

John P. Clark: The world is rife with misconceptions about anarchism.

The most historically and theoretically grounded definition – the one that goes back to classical figures like Elisée Reclus – is quite simple: anarchy consists of the critique of all systems of domination and the struggle to abolish those systems, in concert with the practice of free, non-dominating community, which is the real alternative to these systems. Anarchy is the entire sphere of human life that takes place outside the boundaries of arche, or domination, in all its forms – statism, nationalism, capitalism, patriarchy, racial oppression, heterosexism, technological domination, the domination of nature, etc. It rejects the hegemony of the centralized state, the capitalist market, and any hybrid of the two, and seeks to create a society free of all systematic forms of domination of humanity and nature. It envisions a society in which power remains decentralized at the base, decision-making is carried out through voluntary association and participatory democracy, and larger social purposes are pursued through the free federation of communities, affinity groups, and associations.

Anarchism is not merely about a transformation of social institutional structures, however. As further discussed in my book The Impossible Community, it also encompasses a fundamental transformation of the social imaginary, the social ideology, and the social ethos. Communitarian anarchism assumes that social transformation, to be successful, must encompass all major spheres of social determination. It recognizes that there are ontological, ethical, aesthetic, psychological, and spiritual dimensions of anarchy or non-domination. According to Reclus and other communitarian anarchists, these are not just vague ideals to be achieved in some future utopia; rather, such a transformation is immediately realized here and now wherever love and solidarity are embodied in existing human relationships and social practice. Anarchism is strongly committed to “prefigurative” forms of association, and to the idea of “creating the new society within the shell of the old.” In fact, the communities of liberation that we create here and now do more than “prefigure” the ultimate goal; they are actual “figurations” of our ideals, actually giving a form, or a face, to them in the present.

By demonstrating that the most deeply rooted social order arises not out of coercion, oppression, and domination, but out of mutual aid and cooperation, communitarian anarchism is a truly revolutionary project. In working to regenerate community at the most fundamental level, it seeks to reverse the course of thousands of years of history in which relations of solidarity have been progressively replaced by market relations, commodity relations, bureaucratic relations, technical relations, instrumental relations, and relations of coercion and domination. The ecocidal and genocidal effects of such relations compel us to consider whether we will remain on history’s present catastrophic course, or seize the opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the flourishing of both humanity and the whole of life in the biospheric community. In the work of Reclus we find universally accessible, immediately implementable alternatives.

Reclus cites some of the anarchic forms of human community that have made up much of world history, and remarks that “the names of the Spanish comuñeros, of the French communes, of the English yeomen, of the free cities in Germany, of the Republic of Novgorod and of the marvelous communities of Italy must be, with us Anarchists, household words: never was civilized humanity nearer to real Anarchy than it was in certain phases of the communal history of Florence and Nürnberg.” Today we can add the names of many movements that span the century since Reclus: the collectives in the Spanish Revolution; the Gandhian Sarvodaya Movement; the global cooperative movement; the rich history of libertarian intentional communities; the Zapatista Movement; radical indigenous movements throughout the world; the global justice movement; and recently, the “horizontalist” practice of the Occupy Movement.

AS: In his 1898 essay “Evolution, Revolution, and the Anarchist Ideal” Reclus reflects on “the spirit of the strike” and various kinds of cooperative associations (such as bartering of goods and services, collaborative communities, and consumers’ associations) as effective ways to build solidarity. He claims that it is “in struggling for a common cause” together that we form the bonds necessary for the ongoing project of social revolution. In an 1895 letter to Clara Koettlitz he advises the aspiring anarchist to “work to free himself personally from all preconceived or imposed ideas, and gradually gather around himself friends who live and act in the same way. It is step by step, through small, loving, and intelligent associations that the great fraternal society will be formed.” Can you speak on the transformative power of the process itself? Can you recommend some constructive immediate steps for today’s revolutionaries?

JPC: The spirit of the strike, which means essentially the spirit of active and creative resistance, has enormous significance in the everyday life of any person who is committed to liberatory social transformation. In our present epoch of looming ecocidal and genocidal catastrophe, each person must make a basic decision. It is a “living, forced, momentous option,” to use William James's famous terms. Each must answer the question, “Am I a resister or am I collaborator?” This is as true for us today as it was for anyone living in Vichy France in the early 40s. We must decide either for solidarity with humanity and nature or for betrayal of both in the struggle against domination. For this reason we might say that authentic anarchists are not merely an-archists but anti-archists. To be an “an-archist,” one who is “not an archist,” might imply something like “domination just isn’t my thing,” or “I’m not comfortable with domination.”  But the true spirit of anarchism, that is, anti-archism, implies that “domination is an intolerable thing,” that “when I see domination in any form I become indignant.”

I agree with Reclus’ contention that “small, loving and intelligent associations” are the key to breaking out of the cycle of social determination and regenerating free community on the larger social level. Such micro-communities are “small” in the sense that they are the locus of primary, intimate, face-to-face relationships, they are “loving” in that they are founded on the practice of solidarity, mutual aid, compassion, and cooperation, and they are “intelligent” in that they are self-consciously transformative, awakened to their own meaning and purpose, the primary social space in which theory and practice converge. As primary communities of solidarity they are the only basis on which a solidarity economy and a larger solidarity society can be created. Reclus believed that these “small, loving and intelligent associations” should not isolate themselves, but on the contrary should develop their lives together in close relationship to their larger communities, always considering their role in the evolution of the whole society toward “the great fraternal society” of the future.

While ambivalent towards, and even skeptical of, the role of small cooperatives and intentional "communes" or "colonies" separate from the local community, Reclus believed that an indispensable part of the process of social transformation is the creation of institutions that embody a growing spirit and practice of solidarity at the most basic levels of society. He stressed the importance of the development of a “spirit of full association” in which local communities collectively take on many cooperative projects. He looked to already-existing practices of mutual aid and cooperation as a kind of material basis on which further developments could be grounded. The Reclus family’s life, which was pervaded by love and cooperation, was described by Elisée’s nephew and biographer Paul Reclus as “putting communism into practice.” Thus, Reclus’ own family was in effect a libertarian communist or communitarian anarchist affinity group, his most immediate evidence of what is possible in a future society. 

In The Impossible Community, I refer to “communities of liberation and solidarity,” but these have gone under many names, notably, the “affinity group” in the anarchist movement, the “base community” in Latin American social justice movements, and the “ashram” in the Gandhian Sarvodaya Movement. In all of these cases, the fact that they have been integral parts of transformative social movements has helped protect them from the pitfalls of self-obsession and self-marginalization that Reclus saw in some intentional communities. Rather than one-sidedly turning inward, they turn both inward and outward simultaneously, and act as the foundation for larger federative activity. We might call them the material and spiritual base for social evolution and social revolution.

Reclus’ insights into the “spirit of full association” are desperately needed by today’s anarchists, anti-authoritarians, and all those who are concerned with liberatory social transformation.  On the one hand, many of those who have the most far-reaching visions of social change remain trapped in marginal projects and relatively isolated subcultures. On the other hand, almost all those who are most actively engaged with local communities are in the end co-opted into single-issue politics and innocuous reformism. Reclus urges activists, (who must be, he says, at once “evolutionists” and “revolutionists”) to become deeply engaged in the struggles of actually-existing communities, focusing on the needs and aspirations of ordinary people, while at the same time helping to create new expressions of communal solidarity that are a revolutionary challenge to the existing system of domination.

AS: The caption to an illustration of the globe being held up by two hands that appears in the preface to Reclus’ 3,500-page masterwork L’Homme et la Terre (reproduced in this edition of Anarchy, Geography, Modernity) contains one of his best-known maxims: “L’homme est la nature prenant conscience d’elle-même” – translated here as “humanity is nature becoming self-conscious.” Do you think (or might Reclus have thought) that humans are the only biological creature that is an artifact of nature becoming conscious of itself?

JPC: Human beings are certainly not the only form of nature’s consciousness. Of course, all consciousness is nature’s consciousness, and since the objects of this consciousness are also nature, there is a sense in which all consciousness is nature’s self-consciousness, as I’m sure Reclus would agree. But the idea that humans are self-conscious nature in a strong sense means that not only do we possess consciousness, we are capable of knowing that we have this quality and guiding our actions accordingly. There is a degree of self-consciousness that makes possible a sense of wonder at the natural world and a sense of responsibility concerning it. It is this self-consciousness that makes possible a narrative understanding of our place in the natural world.

We are only now beginning to see the way in which Reclus’ thought made a major contribution to the dawning awareness of humanity’s place within a larger story of the earth. His conviction that “humanity is nature becoming self-conscious” belongs to certain wide-ranging tendencies in Nineteenth Century thought. On the one hand, German idealist philosophy (Hegel, Schelling) and Romantic literature (Wordsworth, the transcendentalists) reinterpreted all of reality as aspects of a Universal Spirit that encompasses humanity and nature, and was becoming conscious of itself in history. But these insights stayed largely on an idealist and aesthetic level, and Spirit remained largely divorced from scientific and material realities. Marx’s historical materialism contributed much of what was lacking in such idealist accounts, in that it interpreted history as the story of the alienation of humanity from its own life activity and productive processes, and of the overcoming of this split and the ideologies that mystify it. This account was in many ways a great advance, in that it was grounded in material reality and took seriously the insights of modern science. Yet it tended toward a reductionism that ignored many of the dimensions of nature and spirit that idealism and Romanticism uncovered. Reclus’ thought was the first attempt at a real synthesis and transcendence of these two perspectives. In his work, Hegel’s story of “Spirit” and Marx’s story of “Man” are raised up (aufgehoben) to the level of the “Earth Story”, a narrative in which humanity is seen as developing in dialectical relation to nature, and in which the opposition between spirit and matter is overcome...or, minimally, that the project of overcoming it is posed seriously.

Prior to the late twentieth century, broad, encompassing, synthesizing conceptions of the global and of “globalization” had not pervaded the general consciousness. Yet, well before the end of the Nineteenth Century, Reclus had already begun developing a theoretically sophisticated historical and geographical conception of globalization, one that encompasses the geological, geographical, ecological, political, economic, and cultural spheres. Reclus is thus a crucial figure in the emergence of a conception of globalization that remains more advanced than the ones that predominate even today. He urged us, long before this language even existed, to overcome the “centrisms” that have doomed us. He attacked the egocentrism that raises one individual above others and the anthropocentrism that subordinates the natural world to humanity. But not least of all he challenged his age to overcome Eurocentrism and adopt a truly global perspective. He asks, “Hasn’t it become obvious to members of the great human family that the center of civilization is already everywhere?” [AGM, p.  222]. In the end, Reclus is a visionary and prophet of earth-consciousness and world-consciousness in their deepest senses, senses that are still only beginning to dawn on humanity.

Reclus summarizes his project in his two great works, The New Universal Geography and Humanity and the Earth (which together run to nearly 20,000 pages) as “the attempt to follow the evolution of humanity in relation to forms of life on earth, and the evolution of forms of life on earth in relation to humanity.” [Élisée Reclus, Leçon d’ouverture du cours de Géographie comparée dans l’espace et dans le temps. Extrait de la REVUE UNIVERSITAIRE, Bruxelles, 1894, p. 5, my translation]. It is for this reason that he deserves recognition as a founder not only of social geography but also of social ecology. In fact, his rich, detailed development of social ecological analysis makes most of what has gone under that rubric since his time seem amateurish in comparison. We need to reinvigorate social ecology today with the kind of scientific and historical grounding found in Reclus but with a theoretical rigor that goes far beyond his efforts.

Reclus’ announcement that “humanity is nature becoming self-conscious” is a quite momentous one, and is certain to become even more fateful as global climate catastrophe accelerates and as we move more deeply into the Sixth Mass Extinction of life on Earth. We need to ponder what is at stake today in the question of whether humanity can actively assume its role as self-conscious nature. Reclus was confident that it would succeed in doing so, and in the process demonstrate that another world is possible beyond the limits of domination. Today, in our much less optimistic age, it is much more difficult for many to believe that such an “other world” is at all possible, despite the fact there are ever stronger indications that the present one is becoming less possible day by day. This world’s ultimate impossibility, even if it is inevitable, remains implausible. For its productive powers, imaginary powers and ideological powers are all seeming testimony to its insuperable reality, and these powers continue to expand.  In reality, we have good reason to ask whether, if another world does not rapidly become possible, any world at all will remain actual. The impossible community, the Reclusian community of love and solidarity, is a practical and dialectical answer to this more than theoretical, more than rhetorical question. In the midst of a world-destroying epoch, the impossible community presents itself as a world-making and world-preserving community. In the midst of egocentric cynicism and moral paralysis, it is a charismatic community of gifts and of the gift. It is an ethos that inspires and reawakens the person, sweeping him or her into a new realm of deeper reality and more compelling truth. It is our ultimate hope for the world.

Alyce Santoro’s interview with John P. Clark on his book The Impossible Community: Realizing Communitarian Anarchism published in Truthout on June 9, 2013 can be found here. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

speech for president obama on the environment, written in 2010 during gulf oil disaster

i wrote this a bit less than a year ago as the speech i wanted to hear president obama give during the gulf oil disaster. it could easily be adapted to reflect current catastrophes:

Uniting Towards a Sustainable Future: A Speech for the President

My Fellow Americans, I stand before you tonight wishing that I could tell you from the bottom of my heart that everything is going to be all right. But that would be dishonest, and you have been lied to enough. You have been lied to by politicians, by CEO’s, and, the sad fact of the matter is that we have been lying to ourselves. We all know that our system is broken – that rampant borrowing is unsustainable, that voracious, wasteful consumption of non-renewable resources is unsustainable, that a culture based on greed and fear is unsustainable. Everywhere we turn, we see evidence of muck rising to the surface, muck we sensed was lingering just out of view, but chose to ignore. Citizens cannot go on pretending, and nor can the government. The time has come for us to look ourselves and each other in the eye and ask the question, “What really matters? What are the things that bring real happiness?” For most of us, family, community, health, and security might come to mind. And yet many of us feel that these things are in jeopardy. How did this happen? When we take a moment to think about it, we may realize that at some point we simply stopped nurturing the things we value most. We mortgaged away our most precious assets, bet them against some artificial notion of future success. When did the American Dream become something that very few can afford, with many others so caught up in the struggle just to get by that they have no time to tend to the things that matter most?

In the April 3, 1944 issue of LIFE magazine, there is an article on page 93 titled “OIL – U.S. Must Drill 20,000 More Wells to Get Enough in 1944.” In the same issue, almost every advertisement – from aftershave to shoes - alludes to the motto of the day, “Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make It Do…or Do Without”. On page 130 there’s a full-page ad from the “War Advertising Council” with a list of things you can do “if you want to be able to enjoy the good things of life in the peaceful days to come…if you want to speed victory and thus save the lives of thousands of fighting men.” The first item on the list is “Buy only what you need. Take care of what you have. Avoid Waste.” Another point urges the reader to “Pay off your old debts – all of them. Don’t make new ones.” Next is “If you haven’t a savings account, start one. If you have an account, put money in it – regularly.” Last, “Buy and hold War Bonds. Don’t stop at 10%. Remember – Hitler stops at nothing!”

How different would our current wars and other crises be if our leaders asked us to contribute, to collaborate with them, all of us working together to do our parts? During WWII self-sufficiency in general was encouraged. Citizens were asked to grow “Victory Gardens” in order to limit the burden on trucking and railroad supply lines and other industries. A national “Victory Speed” of 35 miles per hour was enforced. Gasoline was rationed according to necessity, and for almost a year, anyone with an “A” sticker – those for whom driving was deemed non-essential – were allowed only 4 gallons of fuel per week. Since rubber was in extremely short supply, citizens were asked to contribute old raincoats, shoes, garden hose, and tires to the recycling effort.

What has changed? In 65 years, how did we go from a culture eager to share responsibility and involvement to one of selfish obliviousness? After 9/11, George W. Bush advised us to go about business as usual, act like everything is fine and leave it to him to annihilate “evil”. Well, it turns out that, unlike Hitler’s army, this far less tangible and insidious enemy could not be annihilated with aggression – in fact, hostility and hatred are the very food on which it thrives. After 9/11 we were justified in our anger – but we did not clearly define our adversary before we began the battle. The people of Iraq and Afghanistan were not our enemies. Brothers, fathers, mothers, children, homes, schools, farmland, ancient relics – all destroyed because violence was used as the first resort instead of the last one. Our crusade to root out and destroy evil has wreaked havoc on countless families, livelihoods, and traditions in the cradle of civilization – and here on our own soil as well. In our vain attempt to destroy the enemy, we have lost no small part of ourselves.

But it’s not too late to begin now to do what’s right.

This starts with the understanding that there are bad seeds and extremists in every land, but this does not justify unbridled aggression. We must trust what we know in our hearts to be true: that most people, regardless of their religion or nationality, yearn for a peaceful existence, and hold out hope for a better life for their children. We must focus on that which we have in common with our neighbor, rather than seek out and exaggerate our differences. After WWII, Americans were viewed as heroes who made great sacrifices to come to the aid of forces fighting on the side of good. In stark contrast, our current wars have caused us to be seen as lone vigilantes, serving only to isolate us and ignite disgust and disdain for the United States around the world.

These wars have cost too much in every sense of the word, in lives as well as dollars. WWII was a boon to our economy because we manufactured goods that were sold to our allies. We stopped making cars and made airplanes instead. In contrast, our current wars provide few benefits to our domestic economy, with the majority of funds going into the coffers of war profiteers who have proven time and time again to favor their own bottom lines over the safety and well-being of those they have been charged to protect. The biggest winner in the war on terror is the oil companies themselves. More petroleum is purchased by the Department of Defense for use by the U.S. military than by any other singular entity in the world. If the oil companies had their way, we’d be at war until our tanks came to a grinding halt on the battlefield, having run out of last drop of fuel on planet Earth.

Which brings me to the subject I came to speak with you about tonight - the torrent of oil currently gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. I wanted to speak with you first about the wars in order to make something amply clear: we are not fighting over religious differences, or to retaliate for the attack on our soil on 9/11. The unspoken truth is that we are in these battles for the sake of a substance that controls our every action. We have been led to believe that we cannot survive without it, and the fear of not having enough of it compels us kill or die for it.

We can and must end these wars, but doing so as quickly, efficiently, and humanely as possible will require us to first understand the real reasons we began them. As a nation, we must come to realize that the true enemy is our dependence on oil, and collectively agree that the appropriate way to fight it consists of each and every one of us doing our part to simply use less of it. These wars – and the system that supports them - will cease to exist the moment we reduce our reliance on oil. We need to bring our energy and our efforts back home to help protect the things that are in danger here on our home soil. Our men and women abroad are needed here on our own shores to join a new and very different kind of battle.

This will necessitate immediate legislation and, in the longer term, the development and implementation of technologies based on harnessing renewable resources, such as solar, wind, geothermal, and hydropower. This is your government’s responsibility. We have subsidized the oil industry, provided astronomical tax breaks, and given it free reign on the shortsighted premise that our economy will continue to require more and more oil - and only oil - in order to thrive. We have put ourselves in the precarious position of having no back-up systems, no safety net. Rather than accept oil’s limitations and begin to scale back our reliance on it, we’ve developed a culture based on ever-expanding markets and increasing dependence.

Let me be clear: BP is fully to blame for the Deepwater Horizon disaster – they will be held financially and personally accountable for the reckless, irresponsible decisions that caused its equipment to fail and put its employees, the Gulf of Mexico, and countless lives and livelihoods at stake. But there are painful truths that must be faced – first we need to understand that all the money in the world is not sufficient to clean up the oil that is choking sea life from plankton to birds and is seeping into sand and marshes. We will try everything in our power to restore the Gulf to its former glory, even strive to make it better than it was, but a clean up could take years, or even decades.  The most difficult truth to face is that, directly or indirectly, we encouraged and participated in a system that cut corners and allowed this catastrophe to occur. Now we must leave behind these obsolete and reckless ways, and instead concentrate our efforts on new, sustainable means to thrive. The government can and must facilitate these changes in any way it can, but the fastest route to change will be through the actions of the people. Your help is urgently needed. We must act immediately if we wish to enjoy the good things of life in the peaceful days to come, if we wish to live healthier, less wasteful, more sustainable lives, if we wish to share the burden with our soldiers abroad. If we have any hope of leaving the world a better place for our children, we must make changes necessary – today, not tomorrow. The fate of our families, or nation, and our world is in our hands. Our greatest resource has been and always will be the determination of our people, our resolve, and our ability to do what is necessary in the face of challenge and adversity. 

It seems there is a lot of fear around change – many people argue that changes will take too long and cost too much. The hemorrhage of oil into the Gulf is the most tangible evidence our country has ever seen that we have no choice – we cannot afford NOT to change. This isn’t only a matter of the perilous state of the economy of the Gulf – this is rapidly becoming a matter of health and safety on a global scale.

American citizens constitute 5% of the world population, and yet we consume nearly a quarter of all the world’s resources.  China has a billion more people than the United States, and yet the Chinese consume less than a third of the resources we use. So much of what we Americans consume is simply wasted – water down the drain, lights left on, disposable packaging, inefficient automobiles, appliances, and architecture. By reducing waste and maximizing our efficiency, almost without noticing we could cut consumption of resources – and costs - by 50%. During World War II, citizens were asked to “Use it Up, Wear it Out, Make it Do, or Do Without.” I must ask this of you again today.

Using less would also go a long way towards resolving another problem – pollution.  There’s been a lot of debate about global warming, about whether it exists and if we should trust the scientific data. The fact is that it doesn’t really matter if humans are causing global warming. Clearly, humans are causing pollution. Pollution causes cancer, lung disease, birth defects, and a whole host of ailments too numerous to list. We now know better than to eat lead paint chips, drink the effluent from a factory, or breathe the air in a sewer. We need to learn to be more conscious stewards of the home we share, this small and miraculous planet Earth. We don’t need scientists to tell us that all the oceans are connected, or that the air we breathe here in the United States is the same air that people in China or Australia or Europe are breathing. Poet John Donne said, “No man is an island.” No war, no environmental catastrophe is an island either. All of these events are interrelated. Decisions we make today will determine not only the future of our own families, but the future of families on the other side of the world.

This is why today I am proposing the following:

1. A permanent moratorium on all deep water drilling for oil.

2. A national campaign for every citizen to USE HALF of all non-renewable resources to begin immediately, with greater emphasis placed on those who have had the luxury of using the most. The new American way of life will not be one of wasteful excess, but one of thoughtful, sensible, comfortable efficiency. Constantly striving to streamline our habits will make the transition to alternative energy sources easier and cheaper – the less energy we require, the smaller and more affordable the system needed to sustain our lifestyles.

3. The establishment of an independent non-profit Sustainability Advisory Council to develop guidelines for the transition to a more sustainable society. This council will design programs for corporations, government offices, families, and individuals to assist in maximizing efficiency and eliminating waste. The American government will serve as an example, beginning immediately by converting the White House and all buildings in Washington to renewable energy. These guidelines will be considered when taking into account future government contracts, purchases including supplies, vehicles, and buildings, and other government spending. Non-essential plane and automobile travel will be eliminated or discouraged, with as much business as possible being carried out via Internet and electronic technologies.

4. A 5% tax on fossil fuels with all monies going to fund development of renewable technologies, green jobs training for those in the fossil fuel industry or other industries such as fishing which have been put at risk by non-renewable resource mining and drilling, improving and construction of new national train infrastructure and improving efficiency for other ground transportation systems, rebates and incentives for those who build new homes and businesses that utilize renewable resources, and retrofits for existing structures.

5. New utilities billing practices, with the greatest discounts given to those who use the least. This new more-you-use-the-more-you-pay model will make it especially desirable for the largest consumers to develop ways to maximize efficiency and reduce waste.

6. New efficiency standards for all vehicles and appliances, and incentives for the development and implementation of technologies that maximize efficiency from foot-pedal operated faucets to chest-style refrigerators that require a tenth of the energy of upright models. The age of planned obsolescence, disposable everything, and shoddy workmanship to save a dime in the short run and lose dollars in the long run is over.

7. A “Victory Maximum Speed Limit” of 55 miles per hour on all roadways, with 65 being allowed on major interstates only.

8. The establishment of a “Peace Advertising Council” to encourage “Using It Up, Wearing It Out, Making It Do, or Doing Without”, promote green entrepreneurialism, and distribute information on gardening, permaculture, and food forestry for homes, parks, college campuses, community developments, and industrial complexes.

This is just the beginning. With your help, this horrific catastrophe will become an opportunity to unite the people of our United States of America towards a common goal. Together we can strengthen and heal our families, our communities, our society, and our world. In this way, the suffering of our Gulf of Mexico and all affected by this tragic disaster will not be in vain.

Thank you and good night.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


To social ecologists, environmental issues are, at their core, socio-economic issues. The same sense of separateness that justifies our exploitation and domination of one another makes possible similar acts of violence against nature. As long as we remain oblivious to underlying flaws in our collective logic (i.e.: that it is reasonable to endlessly consume non-renewable resources on a finite planet; that peaceful, just societies can emerge out of competitive, hierarchical frameworks) any responses we could devise will be insufficient to significantly alter our current course. A social ecological approach to “saving the environment” would require balancing relationships between humans and other humans, and between humans and all other phenomena. It sounds like a tall order…and it is. In light of the obvious destructive effects of systems within which we are obliged to strive for quantity of goods for one over quality of life for all, we are now faced with two choices: pull off the impossible, or perish.

John P. Clark, a social ecologist/cultural theorist/activist operating out of Loyola University in New Orleans, specializes in the "...potential of a positive practice of social transformation and social regeneration based on nondominating mutual aid and cooperation”; In other words, tall orders. His latest book, titled The Impossible Community: Realizing Communitarian Anarchism, outlines historical cooperative political/social/ecological movements, provides examples of successful initiatives currently in progress, and suggests that the present and future wellbeing of all life on earth is dependent upon grassroots revolution of thought and action.

 AS: Are you suggesting that social transformation can happen now, without waiting for radical change in the dominant political structure? Do you see “the impossible community” as a viable next phase in the evolution of the OCCUPY movement?

JPC: Change can only happen now. That’s when we do all our living, thinking and acting. So, we need to focus on how we can be most effective in creating forms of social transformation now. We need to rethink the temporality of change and also the spatiality of change. This means rethinking the old cliché “think globally, act locally.” The challenge is to think and act locally and globally at the same time.  In fact, we can’t avoid acting locally and globally simultaneously, since global phenomena are largely made up of local ones and the magnitude of the global impacts of local action are constantly increasing. But there’s another crucial dimension to this issue.  

We need to continue to occupy, in the sense of truly liberating putatively public spaces, but we also have to consider carefully the ways in which we are occupied, in the sense of being dominated. To change the dominant structures, we need to find a way to break free from their dominance, which is not only institutional, but also ideological, imaginary, and practical. Our lives are determined powerfully by our shared systems of ideas, our collective fantasies, and our common forms of social practice, or ethos.  The only effective way to short circuit this order of determination is to create, and then live, moment-to-moment, other institutional, ideological, imaginary, and practical realities—realities that embody freedom, justice and solidarity. To be effective, this must take place above all on the level of our most basic, primary communities. 

The idea of “the impossible community” is that the community of solidarity and liberation appears as an impossibility within the confines of these structures of domination. So, the only viable alternative is to create—here and now—those impossible communities. We need to stop demanding the impossible and simply do what is impossible. The strongest evidence for the possibility of something, including the impossible, is its actual existence. So, to begin with, we have to do some serious anarchaeology, uncovering the rich history of free community that lies under layers of domination and the ideology of domination. But, above all, we have to get in touch with the practice of free community that is very much alive today, so that these living traditions can be nurtured and realized further.  

I have in mind, historically, the enormous legacy of cooperative community, including many tribal traditions, the caring labor of women and traditional peoples, historical practices of local direct democracy, movements for workers’ self-management, the vast history of intentional community, and the multitude of experiments in cooperative production, distribution, consumption, and living. This history continues today, especially on the margins of and in the gaps within the system of domination, and thus provides the “ethical substantiality,” the realized and embodied social good, that is our best source of hope, guidance, and inspiration. 

Occupy is part of the process that I am describing. I devoted a lot of time to Occupy, and believe that, whatever its limitations, it has been enormously significant in engaging large numbers of people at the grassroots level, and giving them experience in participatory, directly democratic and consensual forms of decision-making. This kind of experience is invaluable to the kind of libertarian communitarian project described in the book. In such a project, the primary focus is on the regeneration of communities of solidarity and liberation through such specific forms as affinity groups, base communities, and intentional communities. At the same time, it requires expanding our efforts horizontally, through complementary cooperative projects in spheres such as the workplace, education, media and cultural creation, and vertically, through federative efforts at successive levels from the local, through the regional, to the global. Protest, occupation, and various forms of direct action must of course continue. But the creative, regenerative dimension must become our primary focus. Bakunin said, famously, that “the urge to destroy is a creative urge also.” There is truth in this; however, we need to avoid lapsing into the leftist pitfalls of reactivity and the culture of permanent protest. Above all, we must not forget that that “the urge to create is a creative urge also.”

AS: It seems the words “libertarian” and “anarchy” can be broadly interpreted; “communitarian”, on the other hand, seems somewhat less ambiguous. Can you provide some basic definitions/current context for these constantly-morphing terms? 

JPC: Libertarians are people who are dedicated to defending and expanding freedom. However, “freedom” is a floating signifier, a flexible concept that can be appropriated for diverse and often conflicting purposes. It’s also a master signifier, in that it has a kind of ineffable charismatic power that everyone wants to latch on to.  So the big question is what we mean by freedom. 

The “Third Concept of Liberty” that I discuss in the book proposes that freedom has several crucial dimensions. One of these, the one that seems almost intuitive for Americans, is “negative freedom,” or freedom from coercion, often epitomized as “not being told what to do.”  This idea must be developed into a larger conception of freedom from all forms of domination. While domination functions through overt force and the threat of force, it also (and more usually) operates through other diverse strategies and tactics of control. The second dimension of freedom is personal and communal self-determination. This means, above all, that we are able to live in a community that is a collective expression of our social being and our social ideals, rather than being an obstacle to them. Finally, and most significantly, freedom means personal and communal realization or flourishing, the achievement of the good in our personal and communal lives. 

The term “libertarian” was invented in New Orleans in the 1850’s by the French anarchist philosopher Joseph Déjacque. While he was here, Déjacque wrote his most important work, L’Humanisphère, and an important letter to Proudhon, the most famous anarchist thinker of the time. Despite their agreement in opposing the centralized state, Déjacque harshly criticized Proudhon on two grounds, first, for his sexism and support for patriarchy, and secondly, for his belief that the contribution of each individual to the value of a product could be determined. For Déjacque, true freedom requires the abolition of all historic forms of domination, including, obviously, the age-old system of domination of women by men. It also requires that production and distribution be designed to fulfill the needs of all, rather than being based on a spurious individualist theory of value and entitlement. Déjacque concluded in his letter that because of Proudhon's acceptance of patriarchy and economic injustice, he was not a true libertaire or libertarian. 

Déjacque’s analysis also explains the meaning of anarchism in its deepest sense. This is discussed in the chapter of The Impossible Community entitled “Against Principalities and Powers.” Anarchism is not merely an opposition to coercion or to any particular form of domination, such as the centralized state. Rather, it is the quest for freedom from all forms of domination—capitalism, the state, patriarchy, racial and ethnic oppression, bureaucratic and technological domination, gender and sex role oppression, and the domination of other species and of nature.

Which brings us to “communitarianism.” In the United States, this term usually has a relatively conservative connotation, and is juxtaposed to liberalism in mainstream political thought. In South Asia and Britain, it’s a more popularized term, often with pejorative undertones, and is linked to strong ethnic and religious identification and group conflicts. As I, and many others, use it, it is an affirmation of the age-old tradition of free, self-determining community. This might also be termed “communism,” and often has been, though unfortunately this term has been co-opted by the forces of domination, just as the word “libertarian” has. 

Nevertheless, I like to pose the seemingly paradoxical question: “Why is communism so good in practice, but it never seems to work in theory?” What most people think of as “communism” has not been communism at all, but rather a form of oppressive state capitalism or techno-bureaucratic despotism, justified through an ideology (a theory that doesn’t work) that disguises it as “communism.” Such a system has often been very effective as a form of domination, but not as a free, just or humane form of social organization. We might call it “authoritarian communism,” but in reality, not only is it not really communism, it is in a very precise sense a form of anti-communism, the negation of communal autonomy. Historically, it has always feared real communities, taken power away from them, and done its best to crush or dissolve them. 

There is, on the other hand, a long tradition of libertarian communism, which is the form of organization taken by communities of solidarity and liberation. It has been practiced in indigenous societies, in intentional communities (such as the most radical early kibbutzim in Israel and the Gandhian ashrams or cooperative eco-communities in India), in the self-managed collectives during the Spanish Revolution, in affinity groups, in base communities, and in many families. It has constituted communism, in the sense of the autonomous self-determination of the community. It has often worked quite well. 

We can also call this form of social organization “communitarianism.” I find this term to be politically crucial today, above all, because I see the key step in personal and social transformation to be at the level of the person-in-community and each person’s moment-to-moment practice within that community.  We show that another world is possible by making another world actual. We need to rethink politics as world creation, though it is equally a process of world preservation. I think this is why much of the most effective communitarian anarchist practice has come from groups with a strong spiritual basis that generates an all-encompassing ethos.  This is true of groups that come out of long traditions, like the Catholic Worker Movement, the Gandhian Sarvodaya Movement, engaged Buddhism and Daoism, and indigenous people’s movements. But it is also true of small groups that draw on many communal and spiritual traditions and the great libertarian communitarian heritage, while finding their own way.

The emphasis on the primary community in no way excludes the need for simultaneous action at every other level.  The quest for direct participatory democracy, for worker self-management, and for liberation from imperialist occupation, for example, cannot wait. However, the only way that these struggles can avoid cooptation is if they are rooted in liberatory transformation at the personal and communal level.

AS: On page 17 of your book you say, “What emerges out of traumatic marginalization and exclusion is liberatory communitarian potentiality, not any historical necessity.” Could you talk about disaster-as-catalyst and about New Orleans as a particularly striking model of the inherent interconnectedness of the social and the ecological?

JPC: We can be in the midst of crisis without noticing it.  Disaster came to New Orleans long before Hurricane Katrina, but its true severity wasn’t noticed. Before Katrina New Orleans was already the incarceration capital of the world, it had one of the highest murder rates in the country, the education system was devastated, medical care was a disgrace for a large segment of the community, and there were growing ecological threats such as massive coastal erosion–we had already lost an area of wetlands the size of the state of Delaware. Before Katrina, one saw bumper stickers that said “New Orleans: Third World and Proud of it.” After Katrina, we understood better what it means to be “Third World,” or more accurately, to be on the Periphery, on the margins of Empire. The awareness is more akin to horror than to pride.

In New Orleans, as in the world in general, we have been faced with the tragic problems of denial vs. disavowal.  Denial is the inability to allow an idea to enter consciousness, though it always enters in strange, distorted forms. Disavowal is the inability to keep in one’s mind what one knows. It’s the problem of the elusive obvious. People often can remember everything except the most important thing. These mechanisms often occur in families that have major problems such as violence, sexual abuse, betrayal, victimization. Sometimes the problem cannot even be recognized.  Sometimes everyone knows but learns how to forget that they know. The same mechanisms work on the global level.  In fact, the single most important development taking place on our planet is met with denial and disavowal. 

At the beginning of each semester I tell every one of my classes, no matter what the topic of the course may be, that I want to mention one thing: We are living in the sixth great mass extinction of life on earth. If an extraterrestrial came to visit the Earth and went back to report on what was happening here, this would certainly be the number one item. News from Earth: “They’re going through a kind of planetary disaster that has only happened six times in several billion years!” Yet, when I go through this routine, I find that most of my students had never been told this news in their twelve-plus years of formal education. Denial and disavowal reign supreme.  

One thing that I learned from the Katrina experience is that the traumatic event can sometimes undo processes of denial and disavowal and awaken us to the gravity of our predicament. Such trauma can result in regression, which can be expressed in fundamentalism, reactionary movements, racism, nationalism, fascism, and the clamor for an authoritarian leader. We saw this in post-Katrina New Orleans, in the form of racist vigilantes, police repression, and prison atrocities. Or, it can result a new breakthrough, a new awakening, a new inspiration to act creatively and communally. 

The Katrina disaster was the most devastating experience I have lived through, but also the most uplifting and inspiring one.  Post-Katrina New Orleans was a horrifying, heart-breaking and post-apocalyptic world in many ways. But the communities of compassion and solidarity that developed in the wake of the disaster were the closest thing to my social ideal that I have ever experienced. I feel fortunate to have spent a significant period of time living and working with groups of people devoting themselves fully to serving the real needs of people and communities. In such times of communal solidarity, we can see the emergence of that “Beloved Community” that Martin Luther King spoke about. This experience was a major inspiration for what I described in the book as “The Impossible Community.”  

Many traditions have recognized the importance of the traumatic breakthrough.  In the Buddhist tradition, the primary teaching is that one must be shaken out of complacency and come to the shocking realization of the universality of sickness, aging, and death, if one is ever to attain wisdom and compassion. In the Jewish tradition, a break with everyday reality and the traumatic experience of the sacred is described the beginning of wisdom. In the vision quest of indigenous traditions, extreme stresses are part of the path to a spiritual breakthrough. Both Western and Asian mysticism describe a traumatic “dark night of the soul” that is part of the path to spiritual awakening.  Finally, dialectic is a kind of philosophical vision quest that works through traumatic challenges to all stereotyped thinking. In each case, trauma releases the ability to look at the gaps in our supposed reality and the incoherence in our conventional accounts of the world.  Trauma is an encounter with death, but it is also an opportunity for rebirth. It helps us to see the possibility of the impossible and to think the unthinkable.