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social ecology

The commons, the state and the public: A Latin American perspective

An interview with Daniel Chavez - TNI, August 2018

What are the commons and what is their political, social and economic relevance?

Against Deep Green Resistance

By Michelle Renée Matisons and Alexander Reid Ross - Institute for Anarchist Studies, August 9, 2015

The Radical Turn?

For a book that advertises itself as a “shift in strategy and tactics,” Deep Green Resistance (DGR) has an overwhelmingly dispiriting tone, and is riddled with contradictions.[1] While DGR provocatively addresses many pressing social and ecological issues, its opportunistic, loose-cannon theoretical approach and highly controversial tactics leaves it emulating right-wing militia rhetoric, with the accompanying hierarchical vanguardism, personality cultism, and reactionary moralism. By providing a negative example, DGR does us the service of compounding issues into one book. Take it as a warning. As we grasp for solutions to multiple and compounding social and ecological crises, quick fixes, dogmatism, and power grabbing may grow as temptations. By reviewing DGR, we are also defending necessary minimal criteria for movements today: inclusivity, democracy, honesty, and (dare we suggest) even humility in the face of the complex problems we collectively face. None of these criteria can be found in DGR, and its own shortcomings are a telling lesson for us all.

It is instructive that the group based on DGR has become geared almost exclusively to outreach, not unlike a book club. At certain times, they claim to forbid their members from participating in illegal activity after having attempted a short-lived attempt to generate a grassroots, direct action network. At other times, DGR members claim to be involved in nonviolent civil disobedience. The ambiguity of their attempt at organization stems from the muddled ideas of two of the book’s authors, Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith, who forced out the main organizer, Premadasi Amada, as well as their other co-author, Aric McBay, over the question of inclusive gender policies.[2]

DGR’s organizational body (distinct from the book, but modeled after it) leads us to agree that they have been rightly accused by former members of acting like a cult rather than as part of a larger movement. They seem much more interested in lionizing their leadership than in taking direct action.[3]

DGR’s approach is purely ideological; they intend not to form their own groups or cells to carry out direct action, but to teach the need for direct action to the supposedly ignorant masses. Such an attitude of approaching from above, rather than joining in solidarity, is degrading to peoples’ ability to self-organize. We must equally lead and be led by engaging in struggle, not standing outside of it. Our ultimate conclusion is that DGR’s goal of “civilization’s” destruction through “underground” attacks against infrastructure manifests both an ideological and strategic misdirection, foreclosing the potential for participatory democracy and direct action as it veers into intellectual dishonesty and irreconcilable political contradictions.

After the Climate Movement: Ecology and Politics in the 21st Century (1/2)

By Javier Sethness Castro and Alexander Reid Ross - CounterPunch, September 15, 2014

This is part one of a two-part interview. The next part is forthcoming:

Edited by CounterPunch regular Alexander Reid Ross and newly published by AK Press, Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab assembles a formidable collection of articles and reports written by scholars and activists from North and South alike who are concerned with the distressing acceleration of massive land-expropriations executed by capitalist interests in recent years. Otherwise known as the “New Scramble for Africa,” the “New Great Game,” or the “Global Land Rush,” the global land grab has involved the acquisition by foreign power-groups of anywhere between 56 and 203 million hectares of lands belonging to Southern societies since the turn of the millennium. The corporations responsible for this massive privatization scheme hail from both wealthy and middle-income countries: India, South Korea, Israel, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, China, and the U.S., among others.

In part, the global land grab can be explained by the progression of ecological degradation, particularly through climate change, as combined with the desire of the ruling classes of these countries to ensure food security for their populations—the fate of local populations in the countries whose lands are colonized for export-oriented production be damned. Another factor has to do with the vast concentration of wealth in the hands of the transnational financial aristocracy, who are lending out capital less readily now during the Great Recession than before, such that they have more capital on hand with which to invest in overseas land ventures. However, not all the territory which has been usurped by corporations and banks of late is to be dedicated exclusively to food production; much of it instead will be directed toward the cultivation of agrofuels (biofuels) that are slated to replace petroleum to a limited extent as a base or transitional fossil fuel, with this being a situation that can be expected greatly to exacerbate food insecurity and starvation in the countries whose governments welcome (re)colonization. The scale of investment in agrofuels is truly staggering, in light of plans to occupy almost 6 percent of the territory of Liberia and 10 percent of that of Sierra Leone with African palm plantations; a similar if more immediately acute dynamic is unfolding in Indonesia and Malaysia, whose vast swathes of tropical rainforests are being expeditiously torn down in favor of palm oil crops. Summarized briefly and correctly by Sasha and Helen Yost, this process is one whereby land-based communities are dispossessed in order to “feed the industrial nightmare of climate change.”

The focus of Grabbing Backas the title suggests, however, is not exclusively to analyze the machinations of global capital, but rather much more to investigate a multitude of forms of resistance to the land grab, from militant ecological direct actions to port strikes and land occupations (or decolonizations). Bringing together such dissident writers as Vandana Shiva, Silvia Federici, Benjamin Dangl,Andrej Grubačić, Noam Chomsky, Max Rameau, scott crow, and Grace Lee Boggs, Grabbing Back presents a number of critically important perspectives on resisting the land grab in particular and global capitalism in general. It is with great pleasure, then, that I have had the opportunity to interview Sasha on the magnificent volume he has edited.

Sasha, your editorial introduction to Grabbing Back frames the collection of essays within a tour de force overview of what you see as the most important factors driving the global land grab. You list these origins—quite rightly, in my view—as climate change, financial speculation, the “Great Recession” of 2008, resource scarcity and extractivist policies and orientations, as well as established imperialist history. Of these, I would like to examine the last of these concerns, in light of the clearly neo-colonial implications of mass-capitalist land expropriations today.

Given that empire is yet to be abolished, analyses of past experiments in European colonialism are quite germane to the present predicament, as you observe, like Hannah Arendt did before you in The Origins of Totalitarianism. The madman capitalist Cecil B. Rhodes, who sought to found a “Red” (or British) Africa from the Cape of Good Hope to the Nile Delta, is famous for his saying that he would “annex the planets if [he] could.” The domination and enslavement of peoples of color seen in formal colonialism, coupled with the mass-suffering, deprivation, and super-exploitation of said peoples for which neoliberalism and the “Mafia Doctrine” are responsible, has severely constrained the latitude which Southern societies have been able to exercise in terms of alternatives to capital in the modern and postcolonial periods.

Within the schools of political economy and critical development studies, this problematic is known as the “path dependence” imposed by historical circumstance:1 for humans “make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances already existing, given and transmitted from the past” (Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon [1852]). Please discuss examples of resistance to the imposition of thanotic capital, as examined in Grabbing Back and beyond.

The three discursive positions of the Mafia Doctrine, Dependency Theory, and Marxism that you cite are extremely important in breaking down, or attempting to understand, the critical movements against land grabs around the world, and they each encircle one another in a growing overview of the processes at work. I think we can approach this triad with a claim that resistance to the Global Land Grab, and the capitalist process of accumulation outlined above, might counter the dominant paradigm with a three-part response.

1. From what I have observed, virtually every position against the current swathe of land grabs formulates itself as a small community-led movement, linked to one another by a generalized refusal of the schema of globalization. Not every movement has achieved the kind of generality necessary to comprise a mass rejection of the system, as with the People Power movements that swept through the Asia Pacific in the 1980s and the rise of Latin American populism in the late 1990s, but they all reject the position of North Atlantic hegemony.

2. Neocolonial dependency is at the heart of the Global Land Grab, which is essentially becoming a hegemonic struggle over resources between the growing BRICS sphere of influence and the NATO bloc. As has been shown in the Central Africa Republic, both during the Scramble for Africa and today, Imperialist countries are perfectly happy to watch a country implode, as long as their resources stay out of the hands of Imperialist rivals. Resistance to the Global Land Grab, therefore, can emerge within a developmentalist paradigm as a kind of radical synthesis of a movement that is antithetical to globalization. This is what we see in Bolivia and Ecuador today, where Indigenous peoples are rising up against the developmentalist model forwarded by governments who seek to remain independent from the North Atlantic, but cannot maintain their integrity as sovereign nations without making concessions to capital.

3. The problem with transforming the diplomatic relations of a nation state lies in the continuing failure of the model of the nation state, itself, which is what Marx points to in the 18th Brumaire. So the last position that I would say that many resistance movements take to the Global Land Grab is one of tacit refusal, not only of globalization and of developmentalism (or extractivism), but of the idea of diplomatic relations as they stand today. It is as impossible for the idea of the nation state to move “beyond capital” as it is for the modern field of geo-politics (developed at the turn of the 20th Century by German nationalists) to recognize alternative forms of power. For this reason, I would argue, many formations of resistance to the Global Land Grab share characteristics of what Maia Ramnath calls a kind of “decolonizing anarchism.”2

So this triad of (1) resistance to neoliberalism, (2) formulation of alternate diplomatic articulation, and (3) rejection of the geopolitical paradigm is somewhat interpenetrating, moving, it would appear, from generality to particularity in one perspective (generally against globalization, specifically towards the slogan “a new world is possible”) and then in the opposite direction from another perspective (specifically against globalization and generally in favor of what Chatterjee calls “timeless” liberation outside of historicity).3

Mobilizing for Justice in the Anthropocene: Autogestion, Radical Politics, and the Owl of Minerva (2/2)

By Javier Sethness Castro and Alexander Reid Ross - Notes toward an International Libertarian Eco-Socialism, September 18, 2014

This is part II of an interview on Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press, 2014). Read part I here.

In the interviews you hold with Chomsky and Hardt in Grabbing Back, both thinkers point out the irony whereby the so-called “socialist” governments that have been elected throughout much of Latin America in recent years—Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Uruguay, for example—notoriously have in fact been engaged in a significant intensification of the extractivist trends which their neoliberal precedecessors oversaw. This developmentalism has inexorably brought these “Pink Tide” governments into conflict with indigenous peoples, and it certainly has not been auspicious for nature, however much posturing Rafael Correa and Evo Morales like to advance in terms of the “rights of nature.” The fate of Ecuador’s YasuníNational Park is emblematic in this sense. As editor of Upside-down World, Grabbing Back contributor Benjamin Dangl has written at length on these tensions. How do you see indigenous concepts like sumak kawsay (“living well”) as realistic alternatives to State-capitalist depredation?

I think the implications of Dangl’s analysis of extractivism is as important today as, say, Rosa Luxemburg’s work on the Accumulation of Capital in the 1910s or David Harvey’s work on the Limits to Capital in the 1980s, and it fits with some really important thinking going on by people like Silvia Rivera CusicanquiRaúl Zibechi, and Pablo Mamani Ramírez. The Pink Tide governments are interesting to me, because they show how rhetoric centered around land can lead to a kind of fixation on natural resources and infrastructure, which precludes the Prebisch-style development of the Third World. So I wonder, does the focus on “the land” come about through the export-based economies that were generated by the annihilation of industrial infrastructure vis-à-vis globalization, and does it also reflexively work to thrust into power a so-called populist leadership that makes gains in the social wage by simply speeding up the process?

It seems strange to me that so-called neo-Peronism (if there ever was a populist moniker, that was it) could dismantle and sell Mosconi’s YPF, a highly technical model of a nationalized energy industry, to the former colonial power, the Spanish oil giant Repsol, for pennies on the dollar while basically forfeiting huge gas fields despite the resistance of the Mapuche, whose land they are destroying in the process. Former Argentine President Carlos Menem became one of the most despised figures in the Latin American Left, but now Kirchner is selling off the Patagonia oil fields to North Atlantic powers and Malaysia while bringing in Monsanto. What if the “populist wave” has just ridden an exuberant surplus of popular political involvement, and is returning to the kind of elite populism expressed by people like Menem? We might say, “let us not be so hasty in condemning the governments of Latin America, because look at what happened with Manuel Zelaya and deposed Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, let alone the Central African Republic. They have to work with global hegemony, and that means either bringing in Chinese investors as in Ecuador, or US investors as in Argentina.” But we should not concede the reality and the basis of what made “¡Que se vayan todos! such an important global position.1

In contradistinction to these problems, there is the Indigenous idea of sumak kawsay, as you mentioned, which places spirit and land along the same axes, and is epistemologically less driven to accept the division and privatization of land. It will be interesting to see changes in the ways that this concept is used over the next decade or so. Mahmood shows how the Islamic concept of dawa changed over generations to become tools of more general liberation—both from neoliberalism and from strict gender norms. But signifiers can be hollowed out through capitalism as well, so I think that it’s also important not to separate concepts from the people who produce them; for example, the ayllus that form Indigenous “microgovernments,” as Pablo Ramírez calls them, are profound structures that provide an interesting example of popular representation as opposed to the general diplomatic-discursive field of “geopolitics.”

It is also important to take note of Simon Sedillo’s excellent work tracking the mapping projects underway by Geoffrey Demarest and the Department of Defense in Colombia and Oaxaca, which are defined by this bizarre concept of “geoproperty” that mixes old English and Jeffersonian ideals of private property with contemporary land-titling strategies developed by economists like De Soto.2 Geoproperty is the conceptual artifice of a rather brutal strategy that deploys paramilitaries in order to separate Indigenous peoples from their lands, and it works both on a level of what Mignolo calls “geography of reason3 and a level of pragmatic force (defoliation, paramilitaries, and militarization). Connecting neoliberalism to geography, James C. Scott notes how, during the commercialization of the ejidos in Michoacán, “the first task of the state has been to make legible a tenure landscape that the local autonomy achieved by the revolution had helped make opaque.”4

It’s here that Guillermo Delgado-P’s article in Grabbing Back becomes so crucial, because it takes back the notions of territory and land, and provides a kind of alter-anthropology that thinks Indigenous cultures with agrarian polyculturalism and a kind of negotiation between the popular concept of the commons and Indigenous practices of conservation. So the challenge for local activists is, perhaps, to create growth from within the “Pink Tide” by learning from those who have always existed in a kind of threshold of state practices, and to do this in such a way that is, perhaps, illegible to the “great powers” in order to dodge the military incursions and counterinsurgency strategies while protecting increasing amounts of land. I find the more autonomized urban structures that sparked the mass movements in Chile in 2012 to be very inspirational along these lines, and in conversation with some of their organizers, I was told that they do have a relatively high level of respect and solidarity with the Mapuche. At the same time, these movements are different on several fundamental levels, and solidarity also becomes a question of recognizing ones limits, keeping the borders open, but understanding that the urban organizer is not the savior of the Indigenous peoples or the rural campesinos. In a sense, this is an inversion of politics in the classical sense, which relies on the polis for its basic way of thinking in Plato and Aristotle, but that is why anarchism today manifests a fundamentally different method of thinking than is possible within a strict adherence to the tradition of Eurocentric thought.

It's here, and it's growing: the self-assembling Coalition of the Radical Left

By Alexander Reid Ross - The Ecologist, March 6, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

In January, I went to the Oregon coast to get away from the city, clear my mind, and have some fun. While walking down the beach, though, we noticed a horrible sight.

Thousands of dead young birds, called cassin's auklets, littered the sands, strewn amongst the bottles and random plastic like so many discarded dreams.

Scientists are baffled as to the reason for the die-off. National Geographic called it "unprecedented... one of the largest mass die-offs of seabirds ever recorded." Between 50-100,000 birds as of the end of January.

The most direct explanation is simply starvation. The natural food of the birds has gone away this season, and it fits in with a larger trend of mass die-offs on the Northwest coast. It could be that ocean acidification is creating an ecological collapse, a lack of oxygen in the water, perhaps, but the main theory places the blame on the warming oceans.

It is climate change that is causing this death, just as climate change induced drought have led to the wars in Syria and Mali. It is killing our young; the entire planet is in grave peril.

Something must be done. But what?

The political party in power in Greece is called Syriza, an acronym meaning Synaspismós Rizospastikís Aristerás (Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς) or 'coalition of the radical left'. Their organization is not what one could possibly call a conventional political party: it is more of a work of rethinking politics and its relationship to the state.

They formed in 2004 as an anti-establishment party, and surfed into power on the waves of riotous discontent incumbent on austerity programs and police repression. Although they have found turbulent times amidst negotiations with global financial institutions, Syriza has shown the North Atlantic the possibility of taking hegemony from the core economic and political powers of neoliberalism.

Municipalist syndicalism: organizing the new working class

By Alexander Kolokotronis - ROAR Mag, September 9, 2017

A municipalist revolution is impossible without the support and cooperation of labor unions. In some cases, labor unions might themselves take the lead in promulgating a municipalist shift. To effectively pursue this path, the left must grapple with the diverse composition and structure of the working class — joining calls for union democracy with nascent municipalist movements. Experiments in participatory democracy can then be tried and tested at the intra-union level, nourishing possibilities for subsequent municipal-wide implementation.

Developments in the United States and Spain are showing that municipalist participatory platforms can win. Examples include the mayoral election of Chokwe Lumumba Jr. in Jackson, Mississippi on a three-pronged platform of building peoples’ assemblies, a solidarity economy and a network of progressive political candidates. A number of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) candidates are running on platforms of expanding participatory democracy and the workers’ cooperative sector. Municipalist movements are proliferating as a means of resisting Donald Trump and a rising far-right.

This comes at a time when labor unions are in decline, with internal democratization needed for revitalization. To raise their appeal, stimulate favorable public opinion and extend their influence, labor unions must also provide and act on a political vision. This is a vision of attaining power at the municipal level, and working to transform it.

Should the left build an alternative energy commons?

By Patricia S. Mann - Climate and Capitalism, September 12, 2017

What could ignite a massive grassroots struggle to replace our fossil fueled capitalist system with a sustainable and just postcapitalist system? According to Marx and Engels historical materialist analysis in The German Ideology, a radical theory, and the revolutionary practices it supports must originate in the historical and material conditions of daily life, and specifically in the lived contradictions of daily life.[1] Such an analysis in the 19th Century supported their theory of a revolutionary proletariat and workplace struggles seeking to seize control of existing means of production.

However, a 21st Century application of historical materialist methodology supports a new theory of mass struggle, grounded in some very different lived contradictions in the daily lives of 21st Century fossil fuel users and abusers. As well as in new technologies capable of addressing these lived contradictions.

Contemporary Marxist theorists readily acknowledge some 21st C developments in capitalism. Sam Gindin suggests that contemporary capitalism rests on three legs: neoliberalism, financialization, globalization.[2] I would simply add that contemporary capitalism can only be comprehended if we recognize that it rests uneasily on a fourth leg, as well, catastrophic, fossil fuel-based climate change.

A Marx-inspired anticapitalist Left acknowledges climate change as the preeminent contradiction of capitalism today. (Capitalism will end, in either a catastrophic climactic 6th extinction, or in our last minute achievement of a sustainable post-capitalist society.) This Marx-inspired Left also embraces new technologies enabling a grass-roots politics of microproduction and sharing of renewable energy.

This microproduction and sharing of renewable energy should become the foundational dynamic of a global struggle for a post-capitalist commons, a sustainable energy-based post-capitalist commons.

Emphasizing the many sources of cheap renewable energy – not just sun and wind, but also hydro, geothermal heat, biomass, ocean waves and tides – Jeremy Rifkin maintains that with minimal capital investments in individual homes and local buildings, current technology could enable millions of people globally to become microproducers of renewable energy at “near zero marginal cost.”[3] Moreover, it will be a simple matter for microproducers of renewable energy to connect with others over an energy internet, creating local, regional, ultimately global networks of energy producers and consumers, sharing sustainable energy produced at minimal cost within the networks of energy producers and consumers.

Rifkin argues that these new technologies of renewable energy production, in combination with technologies of internet communication create the basis for a paradigm shift. Our contemporary system of capital-intensive, centralized, profit-generating fossil fuel energy production and distribution can be replaced by networks of individual microproducers and sharers of renewable energy. Rifkin’s analysis highlights democratizing, collaborative features of a decentralized, peer-to-peer, laterally scaled, renewable energy network of microproducers and consumers, supportive of a post-capitalist commons.

However, without a mass movement, without a Marx-inspired anticapitalist politics, seeking to develop a renewable energy commons off-the-capitalist-grid, these new technologies of renewable energy, and the internet grids for sharing it, will simply be absorbed by capitalism, commercially enclosed by capitalist energy grids. Transforming capitalism rather than displacing it.

Without a replacement strategy and a mass struggle to create and maintain an alternative grid, there is every reason to think the new technologies of green energy microproduction will simply contribute to a new form of what Jason Moore has called “cheap energy,” providing capitalism with a much-needed new source of surplus value.[4] And subsumed within a profit and growth based dynamics of global capitalism, these new technologies will not enable us to avoid catastrophic climate change. – Bechtel, typically the first in line for government subsidized corporate investments, has already made a huge investment in solar energy in the Mojave Dessert.[5]

There is no time to be lost. Capitalist commercial enclosure of this new sustainable energy commons will be rapid, at some not so distant point in time.

On Consumerism, Capitalism, and Ecosocialism

By Sebastian Livingston - Hampton Institute, March 29, 2018