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strategic nonviolence

Workers vs. the Coronavirus Depression

By Jeremy Brecher - Labor Network For Sustainability, September 17, 2020

The COVID-19 era has confronted workers with unique threats and problems – and they have turned to unique strategies to counter them. The previous commentary, “Striking in the Coronavirus Depression,” described how workers in hundreds of workplaces conducted strikes and other forms of on-the-job action to demand safer working conditions and hazard pay in the pandemic. These were primarily self-organized wildcat strikes with little or no union backing. This commentary describes two “mini-revolts”–the Strike for Black Lives and the recent strikes and strike threats by teachers–that also show new forms of organization and action, often with union support.

Living As If Another World Were Possible: Goodbye, David Graeber!

By Daniel Fischer - New Politics, September 9, 2020

Having grown up hearing his father recount experiences in Anarchist-run Barcelona as a Lincoln Brigade volunteer, David Graeber, a renowned anthropologist and organizer, lived according to a lifelong belief that a far fairer world was possible. His father and his mother, a garment worker who was briefly the lead singer in the union-produced Broadway musical Pins and Needles, were Jewish working-class bookworms who filled their shelves with books about radical possibilities. Graeber, born in 1961, recalled:

“There were a lot of books around the house when I was growing up, but almost no books of critique. I mean I’m sure my parents had Capital, at least volume one, but very few books about how awful the world was. They had lots of science fiction, lots of history, and lots of anthropology. I think their attitude was ‘I spent my nine to five working, experiencing how this system sucks for myself; I don’t need to read about that; I want to read about what other ways of existing might be like.’”

This is interesting, because as a public intellectual (who taught at Yale and London School of Economics), Graeber was probably most well known for his social critiques. Heavily influenced by the autonomist Marxist tradition, Graeber viewed neoliberalism as primarily a political project masquerading as an economic one, and he exposed the system’s convoluted methods of keeping people demoralized, resentful, and hopeless about building a better world. These instruments of hopelessness included debt (Debt: The First 5,000 Years), corporate bureaucracy (The Utopia of Rules) and pointless work (Bullshit Jobs: A Theory). Graeber aptly described that last book as “an arrow aimed at the heart of our civilization.” It argued that most of our working hours are not producing anything useful, and that the workweek could easily be reduced to fifteen or even twelve hours if it weren’t for capitalists’ drive to keep us perpetually busy. “The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger,” he wrote, “Think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the sixties.”

To me, however, Graeber’s more inspiring works focused on discovering and building alternatives. He had a keen eye for spotting utopia in seemingly unlikely places. During field work in highland Madagascar in 1989 to 1991, he found that the IMF-weakened state performed only nominal functions, and communities actually governed themselves with consensus decision-making on most matters. His study of the Iroquois League’s Constitution challenged notions that democracy, feminism, and anarchism are of exclusively European origin. And in contrast to the mass media’s dismissal of “incoherent” U.S. protesters, Graeber’s Direct Action: An Ethnography and The Democracy Project explained how the horizontal structure of the alter-globalization and Occupy Wall Street movements prefigured the world they sought to build. Over the last few years, Graeber championed the direct democracy experiments in Northen Syria (Rojava). And, with co-author David Wengrow, he dismantled the widespread assumption that early civilizations were uniformly hierarchal. To the contrary, “Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace.”

You can read in other obituaries how much of an intellectual giant he was. Within his field, Maurice Bloch called him “the best anthropologist of his generation” and his advisor Marshall Sahlins called him “the most creative student I ever had.” When Yale decided to end his contract in 2004, it was clearly due to his involvement in radical direct action, not the quality of his scholarship and teaching.

I am Not a Criminal; The Air Polluters are the Criminals

By Allan Todd - London Green Left, January 28, 2019

In Milton Keynes, on Friday 25 January, I was one of 24 Greenpeace activists found guilty of ‘aggravated trespass’. All those (myself included) without any previous criminal convictions, were given 12-month conditional discharges, with damages and court costs of £105 each. Those who had got previous convictions were, in addition, fined £200 each.

Our case arose from a Greenpeace ‘air pollution’ action back in August 2018, which peacefully locked-down VoltsWagon's (VW) UK HQ in Milton Keynes for most of one day - according to VW, this prevented 960 employees from getting into work, costing the company £166,000.

After the verdicts, I was minded of what the Ancient Greek playwright, Euripides, wrote: 

‘Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.’

The background

Many companies - such as Volvo - have already committed to phasing out the production of diesel vehicles. However, the VW ‘stable’ - which is responsible for 1 in 5 of all new diesel vehicles being put on UK roads today - had refused, for over a year, all Greenpeace requests to discuss this issue.

But, on the very day of that Greenpeace action, VW finally agreed to discuss the issue; and, 3 months later, have announced they will phase out all diesel production by 2040.

Some Notes On Mass Refusal: Kim Kelly Interview with IGD

By staff - It's Going Down, January 25, 2019

Recently, It’s Going Down was asked by Kim Kelly (who we have interviewed on our podcast) to talk about the history and impact of general strikes within the United States, as well as the possibilities of its current applications for an op-ed in the pages of Teen Vogue. You can read the finished article here. What follows is our complete responses.

KK: Historically speaking, how successful of a tactic is the general strike?

In the American context general strikes have historically been very important, leading to not only the winning of key demands or beating back this or that attack, but also in fundamentally changing society, and at times, creating a potentially revolutionary situation, as workers have used them as a staging point for the taking over of cities and regions, and large sections of industries, and running them themselves.

One of the most successful general strikes, as noted by Black liberation and socialist author W.E.B. Du Bois, was when millions of enslaved Africans during the Civil War in the American south left plantations en masse and headed for the North, crippling the economy and the war machine. This, coupled with mass desertion of poor white Confederate soldiers, led to a crippling of the Confederacy, as many poor whites refused to die for the rich, white planter class, who was excused from fighting if they owned enough slaves. This combined desertion and mass general strike, played a key role in the collapse of the Confederate State, and also highlights the power of mass refusal under a neo-colonial power structure that thrives on a regimented caste system.

In the contemporary period, in 2006, a wave of wildcat strikes and school walkouts began in response to HR-4437, a bill that attempted to criminalize both undocumented people but also anyone that willingly offered them aid; for instance teachers at school could be charged if they did not turn in undocumented students. Starting from schools and growing to include strikes at workplaces, this mass movement that was largely self-organized and not led by political parties and unions, culminated in a massive May 1st demonstrations that saw a general strike of immigrant workers under the banner, “A Day Without An Immigrant.” The legislation was defeated soon after.

The immigrant general strike of 2006 also revived in the US popular lexicon the importance of May Day, which began as a celebration of the anarchist Haymarket Martyrs, who were executed by the State for their role in strikes in support of the 8-hour work day and against violent attacks on strikers. In this struggle, a variety of tactics were used, including mass strikes, which finally secured the right to the 8 hour work day.

But beyond simply attacking unjust legislation or as a means to win a reform, general strikes have also been the kicking off point for workers in the US to go about seizing the means of existence; in some cases, entire cities and regions.

Resisting the Criminalization of Dissent: A Conversation With Iowa Activist David Goodner

By Sarah Jaffe - Truthout, February 9, 2017

It can be easy to despair, to feel like trends toward inequality are impossible to stop, to give in to fear over increased racist, sexist and xenophobic violence. But around the country, people are doing the hard work of fighting back and coming together to plan for what comes next. In this ongoing "Interviews for Resistance" series, we introduce you to some of them. Today's interview is the eleventh in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Activists in Iowa are currently organizing to stop a draconian criminalization of dissent bill at the Iowa State Capitol. In this interview we speak with Iowa community organizer David Goodner -- a member of the Iowa City Catholic Worker Community and a member of an ad hoc organizing group that has loosely been called the "Kill the Bill Organizing Committee" -- about criminalization-of-protest bills, tactics and organizing in rural "middle America."

Will science go rogue against Donald Trump?

By John Steele - Socialist Worker, February 6, 2017

IN THE age of Trump, the person writing those words has much to teach us about the impending scientific struggles of our own time.

So spoke Salviati on day two of his debate with Sagredo and Simplicio in a hypothetical discussion imagined by the great scientist and astronomer Galileo Galilei, for his book Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems, published in 1632.

In the Dialogue, Galileo puts forward his heretical view that the Earth and other planets revolve around the sun in opposition to the Catholic Church-sanctioned Ptolemaic system in which everything in the universe revolves around the Earth.

Galileo hoped that by adopting a conversational style for his argument, it would allow him to continue his argument about the true nature of the universe and evade the attentions of the Inquisition, which enforced Church doctrine with the force of bans, imprisonment and execution.

However, Galileo's friend, Pope Urban VIII, who had personally authorized Galileo to write the Dialogue, didn't allow sentimentality to obstruct power. Galileo was convicted of heresy and spent the rest of his days under house arrest--the Dialogue was banned by the Inquisition, along with any other book Galileo had written or might write.

Typically portrayed as the quintessential clash between religion and science, Galileo's conflict with the Papacy was, in fact, just as rooted in material considerations of political power as it was with ideas about the nature of the solar system and our place within it.

Amid parallels to today's conflict between Donald Trump and the scientific community over funding, research, unimpeded freedom of speech and the kind of international collaboration required for effective scientific endeavor, neither situation exists solely in the realm of ideas.

How to Bring Down a Dictator: Reading Gene Sharp in Trump’s America

By Rafael Khachaturian and Jeffrey C. Isaac - Dissent, February 4, 2017

If it wasn’t clear before, it has become all too clear after two weeks that the Trump administration poses a serious threat to liberal democracy.

What we have witnessed since January 20 has little precedent in U.S. politics. A raft of commentary since the election—from Masha Gessen’s “Autocracy: Rules for Survival” to historian Timothy Snyder’s “20 Lessons from the 20th Century on How to Survive in Trump’s America” to a recent op-ed by Miklos Haraszsti, the Hungarian former anti-communist dissident, likening Trump to Hungary’s current authoritarian-leaning leader, Viktor Orban—has fittingly sought to explain and confront Trumpism by turning to authoritarian regimes abroad.

Many political scientists share these writers’ concerns. As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt recently wrote, a well-designed constitution alone cannot constrain authoritarian tendencies. Daniel Nexon has summarized the threats that existing domestic and international institutions now face. And political economist Daron Acemoglu has suggested that civil society must act as the last line of defense against the autocratic tendencies of the Trump administration.

Meanwhile the Trump administration continues to issue disturbing executive orders at a furious pace, setting in motion the promised Mexican wall and Muslim ban, reorganizing the National Security Council to replace the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs with white nationalist Stephen Bannon, and continuing to wage war on the independent media.

We will surely see a proliferation of resistance movements over the next four years. The nationwide women’s marches of January 21 were the first sign. The rapid upsurge of protest against last week’s immigrant ban is another. Protests, marches, and rallies have been key channels for resistance to hybrid-regime autocrats such as Turkey’s Erdoğan and Russia’s Putin, and the United States has its own long history of civil disobedience. Progressive voices from Frances Fox Piven to Robert Reich have already begun putting forward ideas of how resistance to the Trump administration can be organized.

Surprisingly, one name has been largely absent from these conversations: Gene Sharp. A longtime and prolific theorist of nonviolent direct action, Sharp first came to international prominence in 2000, when Serbian democratic activists inspired by his ideas helped to depose Slobodan Milosevic, as portrayed in the powerful documentary Bringing Down a Dictator. Sharp’s name resurfaced in 2011, when the activists of the Arab Spring found inspiration in his books and pamphlets, and CNN referred to him as “a dictator’s worst nightmare.”

Until now, Sharp’s ideas have largely been applied in authoritarian contexts abroad, whether in the Middle East, post-Communist Europe, or elsewhere. But under Trump, Sharp’s ideas have become all too relevant to the contemporary United States. What insights could American activists today glean from his work about the possibility of resisting the Trump administration?

Sharp has codified an approach to nonviolent civil resistance that draws on the lessons of Gandhi, King, Havel, and others. Sharp’s theory of power emphasizes that authoritarianism is premised upon the obedience of the population and the collaboration of individuals with those in power. His basic point is that concerted nonviolent resistance can strip the moral and political authority of an authoritarian regime.

Compliance is key to the legitimacy of any regime, and Sharp offers a handbook for how to effectively withhold it. His compendium of 198 Methods for Nonviolent Action presents a wide range of techniques—from letters and speak-outs to boycotts, strikes, sit-ins, blockades, and slowdowns—that citizens can employ to refuse an illegitimate authority. When coupled with more traditional forms of protest, these tactical disruptions of the normal functioning of the system can place immense pressure on dictators. Sharp treats authoritarian regimes as fragmented coalitions held together by a tenuous obedience to authority. Once the perception of invincibility is removed, such regimes can rapidly disintegrate.

If Machiavelli’s writings envision an “economy of violence” (per Sheldon Wolin), then Sharp can be considered Machiavelli’s heir, in form if not in content. Sharp’s work is organized around an economy of nonviolence, understood as a political praxis that, when wielded by committed and organized groups, can radically change the distribution of power in a society.

While drawing from the moral tradition of pacifism, Sharp’s appeal to nonviolent resistance is a pragmatic one: he largely sidesteps normative discussions in favor of a sober, one could say realist, analysis of the dynamics of political power. Concerted nonviolence, he finds, is simply more effective in challenging authoritarian regimes than armed uprising.

Since the 1990s, Sharp’s ideas have spread rapidly. His From Dictatorship to Democracy, first published in English and Burmese in 1993, was soon translated and circulated in over forty countries. It influenced figures like Srdja Popovic of the Serbian group Otpor, which helped depose Milosevic, and activists of the “color revolutions” of the early-mid 2000s, Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution of 2005, Iran’s Green Movement in 2009, and the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions of 2011.

Sharp’s notoriety has made him enemies across the political spectrum. Though Sharp’s Albert Einstein Institute is a wholly independent operation, his books have become important resources in the repertoire of U.S. “democracy promotion.” Autocrats have accused him of propagating revolutionary (or “counterrevolutionary”) ideas. Left critics claim that his work assists U.S. clandestine efforts to promote soft regime change abroad, though Sharp denies the latter point, with figures including Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn coming to his defense.

Sharp’s work furnishes a practical toolkit for organizing resistance to Trump’s authoritarianism. Nonviolent resistance has a long history in the United States, and Sharp is above all a pithy synthesizer of widely circulated movement wisdom. Many recent initiatives across the country, from Black Lives Matter to the water protectors’ camp at Standing Rock, have already put to use the tactics Sharp advocates. Leaders of the NAACP were recently arrested for sitting in at the office of Senator Jeff Sessions in protest against his nomination as Attorney General. Immigrant-rights groups linked to the sanctuary movement are preparing to practice civil disobedience in response to a threatened crackdown from the Trump administration.

Whether and how these various protest initiatives can coalesce is an open question. Sharp’s work is useful for thinking not just about the tactics of resistance but about a strategy centered on the regime itself. While Sharp’s advice is relevant to all forms of citizen action, it is most relevant to thinking about challenging dictatorships rather than “flawed democracies.” But if Gessen and others are right, and if the furious trend of the past weeks is any guide, then we are closer to authoritarianism than most previously suspected.

The distinctive features of the U.S. constitutional system will hopefully furnish us with opportunities unavailable to citizens of Russia, Hungary, or Turkey—though we can no longer take this for granted. Regardless, seizing what opportunities remain will require an upsurge of democratic citizen action. And if such a civic uprising is going to succeed, it will require savvy attention to the themes highlighted by Gene Sharp.

The Evolution of ELF After "Operation Backfire"

By an anonymous IWW Member - ca. 2010

Media reports claim that several alleged ELF eco-warriors turned snitches, including Briana Waters, Chelsea Dawn Gerlach, William Cottrell, Darren Todd Thurston, Ian Jacob Wallace, Jacob (Jake the SNAKE) Ferguson, Jen Kolar, Kevin Tubbs, Lacey Phillabaum, Lauren Weiner, Stanislas Gregory Meyerhoff, Ryan Lewis, Kendall Tankersley, Frank Ambrose, Zachary Jensen, Suzanne Savoie, Aaron Ellringer and Katherine Christianson.  They reportedly all caved in and "cooperated" with authorities.  But, more than twenty ELF activists did not have to lose their freedom in order to wage an effective battle defending the Earth.

They could have learned by another person's experience:  Thirty six years ago, in 1977 (around the time when Chelsea Gerlach was being born), an arrest occurred which showed that arson and the use of explosives is counterproductive to the environmental movement.  John Hanna of Santa Cruz, California, was the first ELF "ecommando" to be arrested for underground guerrilla actions done in defense of the environment.  He ended up facing a federal judge in 1978 where he was convicted of placing fire bombs on seven crop dusters, sent to prison and spent years rebuilding his life.

The General Strike (Ralph Chaplin)

Introduction - (from the 1985 republication of this pamphlet):

Thousands of thoughtful and class-conscious workers in years past have looked to the General Strike for deliverance from wage slavery. Today their hopes are stronger than ever. Their number has been increased with additional thousands who are confident that the General Strike, and the General Strike alone, can save Humanity from the torture and degradation of the continuation of capitalism and the misery and privation of its recurrent wars and depressions.

The General Strike is the child of the Labor Movement. It is Labor's natural reaction to a system of society based upon the private ownership of the machinery of production. It is Labor's ultimate attitude in the class struggle. It is Labor's answer to the problem of economic disorganization.

Logically enough the General Strike has become the rallying-cry of millions of persons the world over who favor it simply because they do not wish to see the highly industrialized modern world sink into chaos, and human society sink to the level of savage survival.

The idea of the General Strike is here to stay. It came into being with the perfection of the machine process and the centralization of control which made it possible. And it will remain as a constant challenge to capitalism as long as the machinery of production is operated for profit instead of for use.

What is the General Strike?

When Ralph Chaplin wrote this pamphlet in 1933, fascism was on the march in Europe and America. He saw the general strike not just as a broad work stoppage, but rather as the occupation of industry by the workers themselves. It was his belief then that only worker control of industry could combat fascist repression and insure world peace.

 This conception of the general strike influenced the stay-in strikes of the '30s here and was modified by Japanese workers after World War II when they occupied the industries to make sure they were kept running. More recently, in the 1980s, workers in Bolivia, the Phillipines, Poland and South Africa have militantly taken up the tactic. It remains to be applied on a mass level once and for all to do away with the dangerous foolishness of private or State ownership of production. It is an idea both revolutionary and constructive, with a tremendous future.

Current IWW literature urges that workers the world over need to reach an understanding among ourselves as to what we will make, where we will ship it, and how we will distribute it in order to make optimal use of our skills and Earth's productive resources without either raping the Earth or making slaves of her people.

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