Cyber-resistance is often viewed as a hacker thing — but if embraced by mass movements it has great potential as a prefigurative liberation strategy.
It was a time when the unthinkable became the thinkable and the impossible really happened…”
– Arundhati Roy
Digital technology is often seen as a curiosity in revolutionary politics, perhaps as a specialized skill set that is peripheral to the hard work of organizing. But the growing trend of “cyber-resistance” might hold more potential than we have given it credit for. Specifically, the popularized use of encryption gives us the ability to form a type of liberated space within the shifting maze of cables and servers that make up the Internet. The “web” is bound by the laws of math and physics before the laws of states, and in that cyberspace we may be able to birth a new revolutionary consciousness.
The use of open source encryption allows for the oppressed to take control of the means of communication, encoding a worldwide liberated zone within the fiber of the Internet. Cyber-resistancei has been viewed (or ignored, or derided) as a hacker thing, something undertaken by those with science fiction equipment in their basement. But if it is embraced by mass movements, it has great potential as a prefigurative strategy for liberation.
Prefiguration is vital for radical and progressive forces in the current moment. The building of prefigurative spaces — spaces that model revolutionary values and resist state violence — is crucial for successful movements from both the anarchist and Marxist traditions. As the old saying goes, revolutionary movements use prefiguration to plant the “seed of the future society in the shell of the old.”
Internet interactions are often juxtaposed with interpersonal interactions, so the idea that cyber-resistance could be prefigurative might seem counter-intuitive for a humanistic revolution. However, cyber-resistance might well hold the key to vibrant prefigurative struggle in the 21st century.
Popularized in the 1970s and 80s, prefigurative political struggle has experienced an upsurge in the 21st century. It has been experimented with in the “Arab Spring,” in the squares of Spain with the indignados, and in the Occupy movement, as activists seized public space and held it in common while building political consciousness and fighting for structural changes in the system at large (differences between and problems with these models notwithstanding).
Prefigurative methods are also deployed by many left-wing armed forces. From the Zapatistas in Mexico to the Naxalites in India and the Kurdish militias in Syria and Turkey, building prefiguration into armed struggle has been effective for many groups facing intense repression. In fact, an argument for building cyber-resistance as a form of prefiguration for socio-political struggle can be found in an unlikely source: Maoist guerrilla warfare strategy.
A Prefigurative Lesson from Guerrilla Warfare
Many militant leftists have criticized certain attempts at prefiguration, often for good reasons. But the logic behind it — that in order to build a revolutionary future we must practice a revolutionary present — is essential for all liberation movements. And although it is less often emphasized, that logic has worked very well in modern guerrilla warfare.
Many rebel forces have developed strategies of protracted popular armed struggle, but since the early 20th century this method has been primarily linked to the military strategy of Mao Zedong. The strategy of a “protracted people’s war” was laid out in Mao’s famous guerrilla war manual, written in the context of Chinese resistance to Japanese occupation.
While Mao himself certainly has a dubious legacy, the protracted people’s war strategy has been embraced by millions of people in the past century and has been used effectively to build revolutionary movements all over the world.
When it is dissected into its strategic components, people’s war has a lot to teach us in our 21st-century moment. The strategy is composed of three overlapping phases. The first is “strategic defensive,” where rebels establish base areas in remote regions. The second is “strategic stalemate,” where the base areas are developed into a liberated zone. Finally, there is a “strategic counter-offensive,” where insurgents engage and defeat the state in conventional warfare.
For the first phase to begin at all, it is crucial that the base area be established in a secluded region with rugged terrain that is difficult for the state to access, since the rebel fighting force is not yet equipped to confront the enemy head on.
Building has to begin in the state’s blind spots. Once an area is identified, insurgents focus on political education and grassroots organizing, providing medical care and other services to grow consciousness and mutual trust in order to develop the proverbial “water” in which the revolutionary “fish” will swim.
In the second phase, as the insurgents become more entrenched, they gradually establish their own institutions and form a revolutionary government based on a combination of community traditions and communist ideology. As they gain legitimacy, rebel institutions such as schools, clinics and courts expand and interconnect to replace the state in rebel-controlled areas.
This creates a “counter-state” (or, arguably in more libertarian versions, an anti-state), called a liberated zone. The liberated zone is a contested, semi-sovereign area organized into associations that are characterized by radical values — for example equity, minority ethnic rights, and feminism — where people live the revolution and where the rebels can rest, organize, train and develop resources.
In this way, people’s war can be seen as the construction of dual power, where the institutions of the state and the liberated zone coexist and compete for legitimacy. Today, many dual power strategists advocate the building of alternative institutions in the global “center,” within the cracks and fissures of the existing state, as we simultaneously attack oppressive systems with social movement mobilization.
However, this has proven difficult in many cases, as alternatives are vulnerable to state repression. What makes the prefiguration of people’s war so powerful is that it creates an area that the state cannot reach and in which alternatives can be safely constructed.
Most Maoist insurgencies never succeeded in (or even entered) the third phase, but historically the people’s war strategy has been very successful in creating stalemates — that is, in creating vibrant, stable, liberated zones. Politically, this has resulted either in a negotiated settlement with the government, as in El Salvador and Nepal, or intractable conflicts, as in India and the Philippines.
The fact that Maoist guerrilla strategy thrives in the second phase is instructive. The brilliance of this strategy might be not in the war-making, but in the prefiguration-building. The strategy is effective in large part because it forcefully opens up social and psychological space to experiment with radical systems and to embody the revolution in practice. It opens up space not only to see a revolutionary world, but to touch it, to be it. It wins people with practice as much as with ideas. This element of Mao’s strategy demonstrated the power of prefiguration long before that term was coined or popularized.
The Strategic Importance of Shadow
The single most important environmental condition required for people’s war is the existence of remote areas where connections to the central state are weak. At early stages of struggle, these are the only areas that are eligible to build autonomous systems, since the presence of the state forecloses on many possibilities for alternative practices.
Areas of operation must be out of the state’s sight in order for the revolutionaries to make alternatives visible to themselves and to the people. In other words, the state must be blind in order for the people to see one another as revolutionaries.
There are few unseen regions left in the 21st century world, and fewer still in the Global North. In the US, there is hardly a nook or cranny that is not mapped by satellite or categorized by title law, instantly accessible by drone and wiretap.
Proponents of dual power increasingly focus on creating prefigurative spaces, but they also tend to draw inspiration from armed struggles such as the Zapatistas in Chiapas or the Kurdish rebels in Rojava, which are taking place in areas that conform more closely to the formal liberated zone model.
Of course, this is not to say we cannot learn a great deal from those fronts, nor is it to say allies should not support these crucial struggles in any way we can. But most organizing in the Global North takes place in cities, and the conditions in western Kurdistan and the mountains of southeast Mexico bear little resemblance to those in the urban United States or Europe.
Not only is there a lack of secluded physical space in which to build a liberated zone, there is decreasing psychological space in which to build liberated minds. In the industrialized countries, modern state control has gone far beyond mapping physical space to mapping our very individualities. Today, their visibility extends beyond the physical.
Mass Surveillance and Panoptical Control
In order to assert their control, less developed state-forms used to publicly execute dissidents via torture or lock them in a dungeon and throw away the key (some still do). These practices obviously have devastating effects on the target individuals and their families, but the possibility of constant surveillance with the threat of punishment has a greater effect on a society’s behavior at large. Michel Foucault famously recognized Bentham’s “perfect” prison, the panopticon, for its political implications in this regard.
In contrast to dark, linear dungeons, Bentham conceived of a bright, open, circular prison, with a watchtower in the center and inward-facing cells around the periphery. Each cell would have a window to the outside that would back-light it, making the prisoner’s body visible to the tower. The tower, shaded by design angles, would be dark to all prisoners.
The effect is simple: at all times a prisoner is aware they could be watched by the guards, but they will never be able to know for sure when. This hierarchical arrangement of bodies in space — a few in the tower watching, many in the cells being watched — carries with it a power dynamic that effectively modifies the behavior of everyone subject to it.
In this arrangement, Foucault says, the prisoners, who are isolated and unable to communicate or act without being seen, begin to police themselves. The more the prisoners internalize this dynamic, the less actual force needs to be used to maintain order. In its extreme, the theory goes, an entire population of docile prisoners can be self-policed with no coercion whatsoever. Prisons around the world have since adopted aspects of this principle into their architectures.
The unverifiable but assured possibility of surveillance represents the epitome of state control. In its most advanced form, those in power not only have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force; they come to never need to use it to maintain their legitimacy. Foucault acknowledged that panopticism was directly applicable only to populations small enough to be arranged within the prison architecture, but he believed its logic could be applied to society at large.
Technology has evolved so that mass surveillance can psychologically take the place of the physical arrangement of bodies. Today the average American citizen spends over 11 hours a day engaging with electronic media. The public is increasingly reliant on the Internet, smartphones and social media for daily life, and we have become accustomed to omnipresent cameras, satellite photographs and wiretaps.
In 2013, the NSA completed a facility in Bluffsdale, Utah where the agency can store 1,000 times the data of the entire Internet, a “Yottabyte” of data. In order to fill this facility with information, the NSA is currently tapping most of the key fiber optic cables that make up the worldwide web and accessing the servers of all major Internet companies. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know just how comprehensively state security forces collect this data.
This content and meta-data collection involves the capture and storage of all messages, with the goal being complete visibility of digital communications. Ultimately, the attempt is to tie all those communications to geo-location, physical data and relational meta-data; in other words, where you are, what you’re doing, and who you’re doing it with.
Of course the NSA does not necessarily examine all of our digital conversations. But they could. And you have no idea if they are. You probably don’t really understand how they can, but you are vaguely aware that they can. It is a paralyzing feeling, and that is the essence of panoptical control.
In an era of increasing global control, pushing back against oppressive systems and liberating physical territory to prefigure our own alternative institutions is increasingly necessary, but it is difficult in full sight of the state’s forces. Knowing we are being watched, we aren’t even aware of the degree to which we police ourselves into docility. In the context of the surveillance state, creating the space to discuss and plan and grow the struggle is a prerequisite. When state control is a spotlight, revolutionaries need to create shadows.
Wikileaks, Encryption and Cypher-Shadows
To date, Wikileaks has been the most effective group in casting an electronic shadow. The NSA documents leaked by Snowden show that as early as 2010, Julian Assange and the human network that supports Wikileaks were on the NSA “manhunting” target list for extreme no-holds-barred surveillance. Even through this level of surveillance, Wikileaks has maintained their nine-year track record of never giving up a source.
In 2015 alone, Wikileaks have published NSA intercepts, drafts of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, 600,000 cables from the Saudi embassy, and judicial gag orders — without ever having been implicated in outing a source. Wikileaks accomplishes this by effectively creating a shadow that even the most sophisticated government eyes cannot see into, and they do this through the use of open source encryption technology.
Most people already use encryption every day, and just not in their personal communications. Encryption is used in many common applications, from garage door openers to online money transfer sites, but the technology has been tightly controlled by the state, first through arms regulations and later through proprietary standards and funding restrictions.
Encryption sounds fancy, but it really just means writing in code. Current encryption programs apply advanced mathematics to the basic process that all people engage in when creating languages or dialects. Most importantly, the best programs are free and anyone can do it.
Current applications of this technology allow for any person with access to a computer to create encryption so advanced that it cannot be broken by all the computer power in the world. To quote Snowden: “Encryption works. Properly implemented strong crypto-systems are one of the few things that you can rely on.”
Due to its strategic importance, states have historically declared cryptographic skill and science to be theirs alone. But in 1991, as an act of resistance in support of anti-nuclear protesters, a coder named Phil Zimmerman released an open-source encryption program called PGP onto the Internet for free. When Snowden released the NSA’s own documents from 2012, they show that the agency is unable to break PGP (and other) open-source encryption even after more than 20 years.
Proprietary software like Microsoft and Apple operating systems impose legal and technical prohibitions on users and engineers that prevent them from viewing the codes that make the computer programs run. Open-source software like Linux or Debian allows for software engineers and users to fully control all aspects of a computer system.
Among other things, open-source programs mean transparent and verifiable software improvements. These improvements are not dependent on a closed group, which could be collaborating with, for example, the FBI or NSA. They are also free to use and distribute. Many countries, including the governments of Uruguay, Ecuador, and Brazil, are now running most of their information technology on open-source platforms.
Open-source encryption programs allow for free access to “end-to-end” encryption. These, as well as encrypted texting and talking phone apps like Signal and Redphone, are becoming more accessible and popular by the year. Free open-source programs — like PGP, OTR, Tor, and Tails OS — offer encrypted document creation, sharing and web research on any modern computer, and their use is increasing rapidly.
The journalists working with Snowden have reconfirmed the security of these tools through action, as open-source encryption has allowed them to effectively hide the documents Snowden leaked to them from governments that desperately wanted to destroy them.
Beyond the primary benefit of keeping organizing information hidden from authorities, using open-source encryption to “shadow” our connections, our work and our transactions from the state may enable us to create a digital liberated zone on the Internet, a form that transcends physical geography.
We can begin to create this by expanding our capacity and moving to make the use of these tools our default, first for radicals and progressive allies, then for communities and nations.
A Call to Cryptographic Arms
Discussion of encryption feels alienating to many folks. A lot of people think it is over their heads or they find the techno-babble obnoxious (the self-described hacktivist who once mansplained all this to you probably doesn’t help). Nevertheless, because the US and other governments are engaging in global mass surveillance, we find ourselves in a situation where encryption is necessary for the security of even basic organizing — it is usually unwise to invite the police to action planning meetings.
Beyond the security aspect, it holds massive potential.
Global South activists in Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, and elsewhere are now facing the full repressive capacity of imperial violence — but some of those areas remain at least somewhat shrouded from mass surveillance technology. The US and other neo-imperialist governments are currently interested in popularizing use of the Internet and social media to areas of the Global South who have yet to “go digital” to enable corporate profit in those untapped markets.
In addition to the capitalist motive, the techno-colonial project would bring the entirety of the planet within view of imperial centers of control. This provides us with a window of opportunity where Global North governments are more engaged in expanding their digital empire and encouraging the Global South’s adoption of their technology than they are in unleashing the full arsenal of mass surveillance on their own populations.
It is critical that we exponentially increase the use of encryption in both the Global North and Global South during this period. Growing the use of open source encryption could be the most powerful instrument in securing revolutionary potential for generations to come, as they can enable us to safely communicate across blocks and borders. The tools are already there; all it takes is our foresight, will and passion for freedom to make their use into a reality for all.
Guerrilla liberated zones are highly effective in opening physical prefigurative space in an isolated area. At the same time, they are also limited by that isolation and by barriers to participation in guerrilla war.
Cyber-resistance does not offer the physical space that liberated zones do, but digital liberated zones are not constrained by geography or borders, and the barriers to use of encryption are surprisingly low. The combination of encryption basics with open-source hardware (and perhaps cryptographic currency, like Bitcoin-based Freicoin) has the potential to grow into a network of direct working-class control of the means of communication, production and exchange on a global scale.
This network can be used as a weapon to create a sort of liberated e-zone that is beyond state control despite being physically located within oppressive states. The more resistance is hidden from the state, the more imperialism must rely on its most base method of control: coercive force. Though it is the state’s foundational tool, the naked use of violence erodes the state’s legitimacy.
As the state must increasingly rely on its most violent capacity for control, online liberated zones could facilitate both the desire and capacity for resistance. Human surveillance and infiltration such as the use of informants and agent saboteurs can be highly destructive for individuals and movement groups, but nowadays even these rely heavily on digital information gathering.
As the state becomes blinder, it increasingly becomes more desperate. And when it gets desperate, its moves tend to backfire. Meanwhile, as our vision brightens, so does our spirit. Through cyber-resistance we can strengthen existing liberated zones and prefigure new ones, growing revolutionary values and practice even inside the cities of the attempted panopticon.
Our secure communications, leaks and skill-shares could eventually create a chain reaction of interconnected revolutionary upsurges on the scale of the “Arab Spring” of 2011. But instead of being based in popular control of public space alone, they will now also be prefigured in the collective control of a truly liberated space, from the means of communication to the totality of society.
i A note on terminology: While we say cyber-resistance here, more accurately we are talking about cypher-resistance. Cyber refers to anything digital, while cypher is a process that can encode any language, encryption is a general term for that process, and cryptography is the scientific study of the two. Sometimes the root crypto is used to modify other words as well, such as “crypto-currency.”
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Assuming Hillary Clinton runs for president in 2016, much of her popular support will be based on her image as an advocate of women’s rights. During her 2008 candidacy, the National Organization of Women (NOW) endorsed Clinton based on her “long history of support for women’s empowerment.” A group of 250 academics and activists calling themselves “Feminists for Clinton” praised her “powerful, inspiring advocacy of the human rights of women” and her “enormous contributions” as a policymaker.Since then, NOW and other mainstream women’s organizations have been eagerly anticipating her 2016 candidacy. Clinton and supporters have recently stepped up efforts to portray her as a champion of both women’s and LGBT rights.Such depictions have little basis in Clinton’s past performance. While she has indeed spoken about gender and sexual rights with considerable frequency, and while she may not share the overtly misogynistic and anti-LGBT views of most Republican politicians, as a policymaker she has consistently favored policies devastating to women and LGBT persons.Why, then, does she continue to enjoy such support from self-identified feminists? Part of the answer surely lies in the barrage of sexist attacks that have targeted her and the understandable desire of many feminists to see a woman president. But that’s not the whole story. We suggest that feminist enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton is reflective of a profound crisis of U.S. liberal feminism, which has long embraced or accepted corporate capitalism, racism, empire, and even heterosexism and transphobia.
Making Profit and War
All issues of wealth, power, and violence are also women’s and LGBT rights issues. For instance, neoliberal economic policies of austerity and privatization disproportionately hurt women and LGBT individuals, who are often the lowest paid and the first workers to be fired, the most likely to bear the burdens of family maintenance, and the most affected by the involuntary migration, domestic violence, homelessness, and mental illness that are intensified by poverty.
Hillary Clinton’s record on such issues is hardly encouraging. Her decades of service on corporate boards and in major policy roles as First Lady, U.S. Senator and Secretary of State give a clear indication of where she stands. One of Clinton’s first high-profile public positions was at Walmart, where she served on the board from 1986 to 1992. She “remained silent” in board meetings as her company “waged a major campaign against labor unions seeking to represent store workers,” as an ABC review of video recordings later noted.
Clinton recounted in her 2003 book that Walmart CEO Sam Walton “taught me a great deal about corporate integrity and success.” Though she later began trying to shed her public identification with the company in order to attract labor support for her Senate and presidential candidacies, Walmart executives have continued to look favorably on her, with Alice Walton donating the maximum amount to the “Ready for Hillary” Super PAC in 2013. Walton’s $25,000 donation was considerably higher than the average annual salary for Walmart’s hourly employees, two-thirds of whom are women.
After leaving Walmart, Clinton became perhaps the most active First Lady in history. While it would be unfair to hold her responsible for all her husband’s policies, she did play a significant role in shaping and justifying many of them.
In her 2003 memoir she boasted of gutting welfare: “By the time Bill and I left the White House, welfare rolls had dropped 60 percent” — and not because poverty had dropped. Women and children, the main recipients of welfare, have been the primary victims. Jeffrey St. Clair at Counterpunch notes that prior to the welfare reform, “more than 70 percent of poor families with children received some kind of cash assistance. By 2010, less than 30 percent got any kind of cash aid and the amount of the benefit had declined by more than 50 percent from pre-reform levels.”
Clinton also lobbied Congress to pass her husband’s deeply racist crime bill, which, observes Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, “escalated the drug war beyond what conservatives had imagined possible,” expanding mass incarceration and the death penalty.
Arguably the two most defining features of Clinton’s tenures as Senator (2001-2009) and Secretary of State (2009-2013) were her promotion of U.S. corporate profit-making and her aggressive assertion of the U.S. government’s right to intervene in foreign countries. Reflecting on this performance as Clinton left her Secretary post in January 2013, Bloomberg Businessweek commented that “Clinton turned the State Department into a machine for promoting U.S. business.” She sought “to install herself as the government’s highest-ranking business lobbyist,” directly negotiating lucrative overseas contracts for U.S. corporations like Boeing, Lockheed, and General Electric. Not surprisingly, “Clinton’s corporate cheerleading has won praise from business groups.”
Clinton herself has been very honest about this aim, albeit not when speaking in front of progressives. Her 2011 Foreign Policy essay on “America’s Pacific Century” spoke at length about the objective of “opening new markets for American businesses,” containing no fewer than ten uses of the phrases “open markets,” “open trade,” and permutations thereof.
A major focus of this effort is the Trans-Pacific Partnership involving twelve Pacific countries that is now being negotiated secretively by the Obama administration with the assistance of over 600 corporate “advisors.” Like Bill Clinton’s NAFTA, the deal is intended to further empower multinational corporations at the expense of workers, consumers, and the environment in all countries involved. Lower wages and increased rates of displacement, detention, and physical violence for female and LGBT populations are among the likely consequences, given the results of existing “free-trade” agreements.
Clinton’s article also elaborated on the role of U.S. military power in advancing these economic goals. The past “growth” of eastern Asia has depended on “the security and stability that has long been guaranteed by the U.S. military,” and “a more broadly distributed military presence across the region will provide vital advantages” in the future.
Clinton thus reaffirmed the bipartisan consensus on the U.S. right to use military force abroad in pursuit of economic interest — echoing, for instance, her husband’s Secretary of Defense William Cohen, who in 1999 reserved the right to “the unilateral use of military power” in the name of “ensuring uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies, and strategic resources.”
In the Middle East and Central Asia, Clinton has likewise defended the U.S. right to violate international law and human rights. As Senator she not only voted in favor of the illegal 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq — a monstrous crime that has killed hundreds of thousands of people while sowing terror and sectarianism across the region — she was an outspoken advocate of the invasion and a fierce critic of resistance within the United Nations.
Since then she has only partially disavowed that position (out of political expediency) while speaking in paternalistic and racist terms about Iraqis. Senator Clinton was an especially staunch supporter — even by the standards of the U.S. Congress — of Israel’s illegal military actions and settlement activity in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
As Barack Obama’s Secretary of State, she presided over the expansion of illegal drone attacks that by conservative estimates have killed many hundreds of civilians, while reaffirming U.S. alliances with vicious dictatorships. As she recounts in her 2014 memoir Hard Choices, “In addition to our work with the Israelis, the Obama Administration also increased America’s own sea and air presence in the Persian Gulf and deepened our ties to the Gulf monarchies.”
Clinton herself is widely recognized to have been one of the administration’s most forceful advocates of attacking or expanding military operations in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria and of strengthening U.S. ties to dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco and elsewhere. Maybe the women and girls of these countries, including those whose lives have been destroyed by U.S. bombs, can take comfort in knowing that a “feminist” helped craft U.S. policy.
Secretary Clinton and her team worked to ensure that any challenges to U.S.-Israeli domination of the Middle East were met with brute force and/or various forms of collective punishment. On Iran, she often echoes the bipartisan line that “all options must remain on the table” — a flagrant violation of the UN Charter’s prohibition of “the threat or use of force” in international relations — and brags in Hard Choices that her team “successfully campaigned around the world to impose crippling sanctions” on the country.
She ensured that Palestine’s UN statehood bid “went nowhere in the Security Council.” Though out of office by the time of Israel’s savage 2014 assault on Gaza, she ardently defended it in interviews. This context helps explain her recent praise for Henry Kissinger, renowned for bombing civilians and supporting regimes that killed and tortured hundreds of thousands of suspected dissidents. She writes in the Washington Post that she “relied on his counsel when I served as secretary of state.”
Militarization and Its Benefits
In another domain of traditional U.S. ownership, Latin America, Clinton also seems to have followed Kissinger’s example. As confirmed in her 2014 book, she effectively supported the 2009 military overthrow of left-of-center Honduran President Manuel Zelaya — a “caricature of a Central American strongman” — by pushing for a “compromise” solution that endorsed his illegal ouster.
She has advocated the application of the Colombia model — highly militarized “anti-drug” initiatives coupled with neoliberal economic policies — to other countries in the region, and is full of praise for the devastating militarization of Mexico over the past decade. In Mexico that model has resulted in 80,000 or more deaths since 2006, including the 43 Mexican student activists disappeared (and presumably massacred) in September 2014.
In the Caribbean, the U.S. model of choice is Haiti, where Clinton and her husband have relentlessly promoted the sweatshop model of production since the 1990s. WikiLeaks documents show that in 2009 her State Department collaborated with subcontractors for Hanes, Levi’s, and Fruit of the Loom to oppose a minimum wage increase for Haitian workers. After the January 2010 earthquake she helped spearhead the highly militarized U.S. response.
Militarization has plentiful benefits, as Clinton understands. It can facilitate corporate investment, such as the “gold rush” that the U.S. ambassador described following the Haiti earthquake. It can keep in check nonviolent dissidents, such as hungry Haitian workers or leftist students in Mexico. And it can help combat the influence of countries like Venezuela which have challenged neoliberalism and U.S. geopolitical control.
These goals have long motivated U.S. hostility toward Cuba, and thus Clinton’s recent call for ending the U.S. embargo against Cuba was pragmatic, not principled: “It wasn’t achieving its goals” of overthrowing the government, as she says in her recent book. The goal there, as in Venezuela, is to compel the country to “restore private property and return to a free market economy,” as she demanded of Venezuela in 2010.
A reasonable synopsis of Clinton’s record around the world comes from neoconservative policy advisor Robert Kagan, who, like Clinton, played an important role in advocating the 2003 Iraq invasion. “I feel comfortable with her on foreign policy,” Kagan told the New York Times last June.
Asked what to expect from a Hillary Clinton presidency, Kagan predicted that “[i]f she pursues a policy which we think she will pursue, it’s something that might have been called neocon.” But — he added — “clearly her supporters are not going to call it that; they are going to call it something else.”
Women’s & LGBT Rights, Narrowly Defined
What about Clinton’s record on that narrower set of issues more commonly associated with women’s and LGBT rights — control over one’s reproductive system and freedom from discrimination and sexual violence?
Perhaps the best that can be said is that Clinton does not espouse the medieval view of female bodily autonomy shared by most Republicans, and does not actively encourage homophobia and transphobia. She has consistently said that abortion should remain legal (but “rare”) and that birth control should be widely available, and when in office generally acted in accord with those statements. She has recently voiced support for gay marriage rights. These positions are worth something, even if they are mainly a reflection of pressure from below.
But nor does her record on these rights merit glowing praise. In addition to partly capitulating to the far-right anti-choice agenda in Congress, with disproportionate harm to low-income parents, Clinton and other Democrats have also actively undermined these rights. Some observers have argued that Clinton’s repetition of the Democratic slogan that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare” reinforces the stigmatization of those who choose that option.
Her narrow definition of reproductive rights — as abortion and contraception only — does not allow much in the way of material support for parents or young children. She insists that abortion must remain “rare,” but has also helped deprive poor expecting parents of the financial support they would need to raise a child (for instance, through the 1996 welfare reform and the fiscal austerity regarding social programs that has become the bipartisan consensus in Washington). She has supported the further militarization of the Mexico border and the arrest of undocumented immigrants, undermining the reproductive rights of women who give birth in chains in detention centers before being deported back to lives of poverty and violence.
Regarding non-discrimination, Clinton’s record is also worse than her reputation suggests. Her old company Walmart, widely accused of discriminating against women employees, was recently praised by the Clinton Foundation for its “efforts to empower girls and women.”
Clinton has given little serious indication that she opposes discrimination against LGBT individuals in the workplace (which is still legal in the majority of U.S. states). Her very recent reversal of her opposition to gay marriage came only after support for the idea has become politically beneficial and perhaps necessary for Democrats. At best, Clinton in these respects has been a cautious responder to progressive political winds rather than a trailblazing leader.
Clinton’s foreign policy record is even more at odds with her reputation as a champion of women’s and LGBT rights. Her policy of support for the 2009 coup in Honduras has been disastrous for both groups.
Violent hate crimes against LGBT Hondurans have skyrocketed. In mid-2014, leading LGBT activist Nelson Arambú reported 176 murders against LGBT individuals since 2009, an average of about 35 per year, compared to just over one per year in the period 1994-2009.
Arambú located this violence within the broader human rights nightmare of post-coup Honduras, noting the contributions of U.S.-funded militarization and the post-coup regimes’ pattern of “shutting down government institutions charged with promoting and protecting the human rights of vulnerable sectors of the population — such as women, children, indigenous communities, and Afro-Hondurans.” Clinton has been worse than silent on the situation, actively supporting and praising the post-coup governments.
In a review of her work as Secretary of State, Middle East scholar Stephen Zunes concludes that while “Hillary Clinton has been more outspoken than any previous Secretary of State regarding the rights of women and sexual minorities,” this position is “more rhetoric than reality.”
As one example he points to the U.S.-backed monarchy in Morocco, which has long occupied Western Sahara with U.S. support. Two weeks after Secretary Clinton publicly praised the dictatorship for having “protected and expanded” women’s rights, a teenage girl named Amina Filali committed suicide by taking rat poison. Filali had been raped at age 15 and then “forced to marry her rapist, who subsequently battered and abused her.”
Although Clinton’s liberal supporters are likely to lament such details as exceptions within an impressive overall record (“She’s still much better than a Republican!”), it is quite possible that her actions have harmed feminist movements worldwide. As Zunes argues:
“Given Clinton’s backing of neo-liberal economic policies and war-making by the United States and its allies, her advocacy of women’s rights overseas…may have actually set back indigenous feminist movements in the same way that the Bush administration’s ‘democracy-promotion’ agenda was a serious setback to popular struggles for freedom and democracy….Hillary Clinton’s call for greater respect for women’s rights in Muslim countries never had much credibility while US-manufactured ordinance is blowing up women in Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
This summary of Clinton’s “enormous contributions” (Feminists for Clinton) is just a partial sampling. On almost all other major issues, from climate change to immigration to education to financial regulation, President Hillary Clinton would likely be no better than President Obama, if not worse.
As with Obama, it is of course necessary for Clinton to “call it something else,” in Robert Kagan’s words. The stark disjunction between rhetoric and policies reflects a well understood logic. Mainstream U.S. political candidates, particularly Democrats, must find ways to attract popular support while simultaneously reassuring corporate and financial elites.
The latter, for their part, usually understand the need for a good dose of “populism” during a campaign, and accept it as long as it stays within certain bounds and is not reflected in policy itself. One former aide to Bill Clinton, speaking to The Hill last July, compared this rhetorical strategy to threading a needle, saying that “good politicians — and I think Hillary is a good politician — are good at threading needles, and I think there’s probably a way to do it.”
Hillary Clinton faces the challenge of convincing voters that she is a champion of “people historically excluded,” as she claims in her 2014 memoir. The Hill reported that “Clinton is now test-driving various campaign themes,” including the familiar progressive promises to “increase upward mobility” and “decrease inequality.”
Her memoirs, for those who dare to suffer through them, include invocations of dead leftists like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman (“one of my heroines”), and Martin Luther King, Jr. (referenced nine times in Clinton’s 2003 book).
This public relations work requires that her past record be hidden from view, lest it create a credibility problem. Here Clinton has enjoyed the assistance of many liberal feminists. One former Obama staffer, speaking to The Hill, notes Clinton’s successful efforts “to co-opt the base groups in the past eight years.”
Rhetoric is not totally meaningless. The extent to which politicians like Clinton have been compelled to portray themselves — however cynically — as champions of the rights of workers, women, LGBT people, and other “historically excluded” groups is an indication that popular pressures for those rights have achieved substantial force. In the case of LGBT rights this rhetorical shift is very recent, and reflects a growth in the movement’s power that is to be celebrated.
But taking politicians’ rhetoric at face value is one of the gravest errors that a progressive can make.
The Feminists Not Invited
Liberal feminists’ support of Hillary Clinton is not just due to credulousness, though. It also reflects a narrowness of analysis, vision, and values. In this country feminism is often understood as the right of women — wealthy white women most of all — to share in the spoils of corporate capitalism and U.S. imperial power. By not confronting the exclusion of non-whites, foreigners, working-class people, and other groups from this vision, liberal feminists miss a crucial opportunity to create a more inclusive, more powerful movement.
Alternative currents within the feminist movement, both here and globally, have long rejected this impoverished understanding of feminism. For them, feminism means confronting patriarchy but also capitalism, imperialism, white supremacy and other forms of oppression that interlock with and reinforce patriarchy. It means fighting to replace a system in which the rights of people and other living things are systematically subordinated to the quest for profits. It means fighting so that all people — everywhere on the gender, sexual and body spectrum — can enjoy basic rights like food, health care, housing, a safe and clean environment, and control over their bodies, labor and identities.
This more holistic feminist vision is apparent all around the world, including among the women of places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran, whose oppression is constantly evoked by Western leaders to justify war and occupation. The courageous Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her feminist advocacy, has also criticized illegal U.S. drone attacks for killing civilians and aiding terrorist recruitment.
Yousafzai’s opposition to the Taliban won her adoring Western media coverage and an invitation to the Obama White House, but her criticism of drones has gone virtually unmentioned. Also unmentioned are her comments about socialism, which she says “is the only answer” to “free us from the chains of bigotry and exploitation.”
The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) has equally opposed the Taliban, U.S.-backed fundamentalist forces, and the U.S. occupation. While liberal groups like Feminist Majority have depicted the U.S. war as a noble crusade to protect Afghan women, RAWA says that the United States “has empowered and equipped the most traitorous, anti-democratic, misogynist and corrupt fundamentalist gangs in Afghanistan,” merely “replacing one fundamentalist regime with another.”
The logic is simple: U.S. elites prefer the “bloody and suffocating rule of Afghanistan” by fundamentalist warlords “to an independent, pro-democracy and pro-women’s rights government” that might jeopardize “its interests in the region.” Women’s liberation, RAWA emphasizes, “can be achieved only by the people of Afghanistan and by democracy-loving forces through a hard, decisive and long struggle” (RAWA.org). Needless to say, Clinton and Obama have not invited the RAWA women to Washington.
A group of Iranian and Iranian-American feminists, the Raha Iranian Feminist Collective, takes a similar position in relation to their own country. In 2011 it bitterly condemned the Ahmadinejad regime’s systematic violations of women’s rights (and those of other groups), but just as forcefully condemned “all forms of US intervention,” including the “crippling sanctions” that Hillary Clinton is so proud of her role in implementing. The group said that sanctions “further immiserate the very people they claim to be helping,” and noted that few if any genuine grassroots voices in Iran had “called for or supported the US/UN/EU sanctions.”
In Latin America, too, many working-class feminists argue that the fight for gender and sexual liberation is inseparable from the struggles for self-determination and a just economic system. Speaking to NACLA Report on the Americas, Venezuelan organizer Yanahir Reyes recently lauded “all of the social policy” that has “focused on liberating women” under Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, those evil autocrats so despised by Hillary Clinton.
Reyes emphasized the importance of independent feminist organizing: “Women from the feminist struggle have effectively brought to light the importance of dismantling a patriarchal system,” thus pushing Chavismo in a more feminist direction. “It is a very hard internal fight,” says Reyes, but “this is the space where we can achieve it” — under a government sympathetic to socialism, “not in a different form of government.”
This tradition of more holistic feminisms is not absent from the United States. In the 19th century, Black women like Ida B. Wells and Sojourner Truth linked the struggles for abolition and suffrage and denounced the lynching campaigns that murdered Black men and women in the name of “saving” white women. In contrast, leaders of the white suffrage movement like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony refused to include people of color in the struggle for citizenship rights.
Unfortunately this history continues to be distorted. In 2008 Gloria Steinem, the standard bearer of liberal feminism, said that she supported Clinton’s campaign over Obama’s in part because “Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot.”
The assumption that all women are equally oppressed by patriarchy (and that all men are equal oppressors) was fiercely challenged by U.S. women of color, working-class women, and lesbians in the 1970s and 1980s. Feminists of color analyzed their gender and sexual oppression within the larger history of U.S. slavery, capitalism, and empire.
In New York the women of the Young Lords Party pushed their organization to denounce forced sterilizations of women of color, to demand safe and accessible abortion and contraception, and to call for community-controlled clinics. They redefined reproductive rights as the right to abortion and contraception and the right to have children without living in poverty.
In recent years, a radical LGBT movement has fought for reforms like marriage equality while also moving beyond marriage and condemning how the state, from prisons to the military, is the biggest perpetrator of violence against gender and sexual non-conforming peoples, particularly trans women of color and undocumented queers.
These queer radicals reject the logic that casts the United States and Israel as tolerant while characterizing occupied territories, from U.S. to Palestinian ghettoes, as inherently homophobic and in need of military and other outside intervention. They condemn U.S. wars and the Obama administration’s persecution of whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning (who helped expose, among other U.S. crimes, military orders to ignore the sexual abuse of Iraqi detainees and the trafficking of Afghan children).
A more robust vision of feminism doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t defend women like Hillary Clinton against sexist attacks — we should, just as we defend Barack Obama against racist ones. But it does mean that we must listen to the voices of the most marginalized women and gender and sexual minorities — many of whom are extremely critical of Clintonite feminism — and act in solidarity with movements that seek equity in all realms of life and for all people. These are the feminists not invited to the Hillary Clinton party, except perhaps to serve and clean up.
Kevin Young is an independent historian and journalist based in El Salvador. Diana C. Sierra Becerra is a doctoral candidate in history and women’s studies at the University of Michigan.
Black Americans aren´t just an oppressed racial group, but an internal colony, whose formation was grounded in the institutions of European settler-colonialism and slavery.
On August 9, eighteen-year-old Michael Brown’s body lay dead, riddled with bullets fired by police officer Darren Wilson, on a street in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown, a recent high school graduate, was two days away from starting college with hopes of working as a heating and air conditioner repair technician, before police ended his life. For several hours, police allowed his corpse to lie in the street as blood streamed from his body, and disbelief transformed into outrage as the people gathered. It was not long before a highly militarized police force, equipped with advanced weaponry used by U.S. counterinsurgency forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, stepped in to contain and suppress the spontaneous uprising – overwhelmingly restrained and nonviolent – of the people of Ferguson. The police unleashed dogs – German Shepherds no less – and the racist violence of America, supposedly long overcome, once again reared its ugly head in the public spotlight.
In the face of such blatant disregard for Black life, James O. Pasco, Jr. of the Fraternal Order of Police had the audacity to state that “to suggest that police officers are a marauding, white occupying army out there to deprive minorities of their civil rights is at variance with common sense.” However, when examining the evidence, one cannot help but scoff at such a claim. What is at variance with common sense is viewing America’s increasingly militarized police forces as the protectors of the rights of the people, when every 28 hours there is an extrajudicial killing of a Black person by police forces, private security guards, or vigilantes; when the U.S. has the world’s largest prison population, with the prison incarceration rate of Black men being six times higher than that of white men; and when Black communities have the highest poverty rate – 27.4% (with Latino communities close behind at 26.6%) – in the country.
Ferguson is emblematic of the state of Black America: 67% of the population are Black, 22% of the total population live under the poverty line, and the majority white police force (only 3 out of 53 officers are Black) has a history of taking despotic actions against the population. As recently revealed by The Washington Post, several fellow officers of Darren Wilson are facing civil rights lawsuits for a variety of allegations, including “killing a mentally ill man with a Taser, pistol-whipping a child, choking and hog-tying a child and beating a man who was later charged with destroying city property because his blood spilled on officers’ clothes.” In all of these cases, the majority of police officers involved were white, and the majority of victims Black. While some would like us to believe such heinous crimes are the result of “mismanagement” or “a few bad apples,” such commonplace human rights violations are manifestations of a deeper problem. From the murders of young Black youth by police to the neglect of Black communities devastated by natural disasters, from the massive prison population to overabundance of low-wage, non-unionized jobs, it seems clear that persistent injustice is systematic, deeply rooted in the structure of American society.
Perhaps we should revisit the work of Jack O’Dell, former editor of the progressive magazine Freedomways and one of the great but often forgotten voices of the Black Liberation Movement in the 20th century. O’Dell spoke of the situation of Black Americans not simply in terms of their status as an oppressed racial group, but as an internal colony, whose formation was grounded in the institutions of European settler-colonialism and slavery, and whose oppression coincided with that of the indigenous First Nations and Chicanos. O’Dell challenged orthodox conceptions of colonialism that viewed the colonial relationship purely in terms of an “overseas territory and strange, unfamiliar people living on that territory.” Rather, O’Dell argued for a dualistic analysis of colonialism: “A people may be colonized on the very territory on which they have lived for generations or they may be forcibly uprooted by the colonial power from their traditional territory and colonized in a new territorial environment so that the very environment itself is ‘alien’ to them.” While the former situation applied to the indigenous First Nations and Chicanos, the latter situation was unique to Africans who were “forcibly removed from their traditional territory of African societal development and transported to a new territory unfamiliar to them, colonized and enslaved. They were not permitted to enter the mainstream of institutional life in the new environment (America), but instead were forcibly excluded from participation by a system of mechanisms established by those who owned the land and other means of production in the new territory.”
Even after the overthrow of chattel slavery during the American Civil War, the status of Black Americans as an internal colony was maintained, primarily through the reversal of the revolutionary program of Reconstruction (1863-1877), whose completion might have enabled the construction of an alternative historical legacy. However, the persistence of “the mechanisms of colonial rule” – such as land monopoly, forced labor, political disenfranchisement, and apartheid – ensured continued subjugation.
So, what does O’Dell’s theory of internal colonialism have to do with recent events in Ferguson and the continuing struggle for the liberation of all oppressed people? For starters, it offers a radical analysis that goes to the root of the problem of racism in America by examining its structural characteristics in historical context. Such an analysis understands the oppression of Black Americans as more than an informal policy of discrimination, but part a deeper historical process of dispossession and subordination arising from colonialism (whose development itself is integrated with the systems of capitalism and heteropatriarchy). This analytical perspective highlights that it is not enough to simply change the face of the President or police, but that deeper structural inequalities – such as the relationship of dependency between oppressed nationalities and the oppressor state – must be understood, uprooted, and superseded by emancipatory social institutions and relations.
This analysis could constitute the foundation for the development of a revolutionary vision of intercommunalism, itself a component part of a broader participatory socialist vision, in which a new historical legacy between communities is constructed based on self-determination and mutual aid. This analysis and vision could inform an internationalist perspective in which the liberation struggles of internal colonies is connected with the struggles of oppressed people globally, from Gaza to Ferguson, from Kurdistan to New Orleans. And finally, as a means of getting from the oppressive present to the liberated future, we must develop a program for self-determination, such as the Every 28 Hours Campaign of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM), which supports the formation of self-defense networks to monitor and resist police terrorism, waging campaigns to institute police control mechanisms, and building people’s assemblies as a means to develop community self-management and self-sufficiency.
It is the duty of all revolutionary and progressive forces throughout the world to support the struggle against colonialism in all its varieties, be it white supremacist internal colonialism at home, or neocolonial wars of aggression abroad. What we require is an organization of revolutionaries, united in a shared analysis, vision, and strategy, bringing together oppressed nationalities, women, LGBTQ2GNC (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Two Spirit, and Gender Nonconforming) people, and the working class, to aid the development of One Big Movement for the liberation of humanity and the planet. From Gaza to Ferguson, Let Freedom Ring!
Holism and Dual Power
A holistic view of the world demands that we be agile in our organizing toward societal transformation. Holism demands that we understand the problems of our world as interconnected. This interweaving of spheres informs our vision for something better as well. The strategy that we use to get from where we are to where we want to be must also be shaped by our holistic position, and further emphasis on our movement’s strategy is a necessity.
When we view the world through a holistic lens, the world can become confusing. Issues blur into one another. For example, economy becomes intertwined with community, while politics and interpersonal relationships become indivisible. All of the models that we use to organize our perspective(s) begin to climb on top of one another and create an interesting and confounding mess in our minds. Holism may seem intricate and elaborate. Because the world is complex, our movement must have a complex understanding of the challenges we face. There is, however, a fairly simple way of framing all of this.A holistic analysis of the world as it is today creates a web of issues, touching on economy, politics, community identities, human relationships, and environmental sustainability. These spheres are useful to imagine as an aid for envisioning solutions to the problems that we, as a society, face. We often speak of dual power as a model for getting from the present to the future. Dual power emphasizes the importance of creating both alternative institutions and counter institutions in order to move towards our vision. Briefly, alternative institutions are those which embody the spirit of our vision for a better world. Counter institutions play three roles: They protect the alternatives that we build, challenge the oppressions that surround us, and attempt to convince ever widening circles of people that our holistic vision is on the mark.
Dreams and Experiments
Our task is to engage in building a movement towards a society that is participatory, democratic, equitable, and just. This can be done by building toward our visions today (alternatives), and by cultivating partnerships and changing minds, struggling against inequity and injustice, and protecting our visionary structures (counters). We need to be able to describe these institutions with a bit more specificity than the above broad strokes offer. Alternative institutions can fit into one expansive category for now. These alternatives are the structures, organizations, unions, and communities of the future, but now. Alternative institutions can be egalitarian worker collectives in factories, classrooms, and office buildings. They can be food co-operatives, which provide healthy sustenance in our many food deserts. They can be experimental, democratic schools. They can also be participatory community councils. These don’t cover all the possible alternatives that we can begin to build right now, but they are a few examples of institutions that can start to bridge the gap between the real and the ideal.We need to be building towards our visions and experimenting with our dreams right now. Alternatives, if it is not already clear, are supposed to exemplify the world that we want to live in. The alternatives that work will eventually cease to be alternatives. Instead, they will become mainstream institutions as we succeed in our work. Believe it or not there are thousands of beautiful examples of alternative institutions all over the continent and around the world. Some of them are becoming the norm in their societies. We need to continue to build radical media outlets, participatory councils in our communities, collective workplaces, and democratic day cares and schools.
Making change happen takes more than experimenting with building our visions for the future in the present. A sustainable movement needs to address the very real need to support and protect the alternatives that we build. Counter institutions are meant to defend the alternatives and draw people toward our movement. A public alternative school program that is under attack from the political Right needs people who are willing to protest cuts to education budgets and occupy the school board building. Ensuring that access to reproductive health care is safe and legal requires political advocacy and education for communities. Changing the way we interact with our environment demands us to gather together millions of people in order to educate ourselves, change our policies, and stop those who would put profit before life.
Three Paths to Action
Counter institutions safe guard our alternatives and engage people in our movement in three ways:
Advocacy encompasses activities such as political action in elections, encouraging people to vote, lobbying, and even meeting potential funders for our movement (yes, the non-profit model perpetuates capitalist oppression as much as the next model, but as we move forward we will find ourselves moving away from it). Advocacy is an important example of working for non-reformist reforms. To put it simply, we work for achievable change while keeping our eyes on the prize. Non-reformist reforms are about working for the small wins, while being explicit about our larger goals and vision.
Advocacy, to some extent, can be defined as working within current power structures. It is an important part of our movement because, without people working for reforms within mainstream institutions, we can never hope to pull the mainstream toward liberation. While we work for reform through advocacy in the short term, we recognize that it is certainly not enough. Advocacy ensures that we enjoy wins as we walk the path toward revolution.
Communication is another way of saying education. Communication involves writing, art, teaching, journalism, and any other way that you can think of to get our message out into the world for people to see, read, hear, and think about.
Communication describes the act of engaging in dialogue with individuals, organizations, communities, mass movements, and society at large. The art we make, the writing we do, the media we post online, and the groups we educate are all opportunities for us to allow people to engage with our ideas and join our movement.
Without communication we can’t expect anyone to agree with us or join us. More importantly, communication allows the world to know that we exist, we are committed, and we are building something better.
Direct action can include occupying a space of strategic or symbolic importance, workplace strikes, street demonstrations and even self-defense. Direct action is exactly what it sounds like. When a movement can engage in meaningful direct action it means that there are a significant number of people who are ready to protect an idea, one another, or an alternative institution, or to stand up against an injustice in their midst.
These kinds of actions can inspire more people to join the movement, because good direct action utilizes advocacy and communication in support of itself. An editorial in a newspaper, video posted on a social network, having access to a legal team through fundraised resources, or having a slightly more thoughtful politician in office are all potential ingredients in the success of an action; the more people who know about and support a movement, the more potential there is for an occupation, demonstration, or strike to have an impact.
An organized movement might arrange a strike for unfairly treated workers, a bank occupation to ensure that homes are not foreclosed on, or a demonstration in front of a police department headquarters when the police are used to violently attack people who are seeking to change the status quo.
What do we do?
Counter institutions promote and protect our movement. Advocacy challenges the flow of money and power. Communication challenges the way we think and interact. Direct Action challenges our notion of what is possible here and now, and shakes the hierarchy of our society from the ground on up. The above three categories are each useful in different (though often overlapping) contexts for convincing more and more people that we truly have a vision for a free society. They are also essential in protecting the alternatives that we build. They each support and protect our movement.
You may have noticed that there aren’t any professions described in the above. That’s because these categories transcend career type. A lawyer may find herself communicating political ideas through visual art, while lobbying her senator to clean up the toxic waste in the nearby river. A teacher may find himself leading a general strike and running for office. A factory worker may find herself writing a blog, lecturing at universities, and occupying a bank.
Arranging counter institutions into these three groupings can help us understand what needs doing. It can also help us to understand what each of us wants to do. Many of us don’t have access to communities and partners with the space, time, and means to create alternatives right now. This means that the broadest movement that we can build will include huge numbers of people who don’t necessarily build alternatives right now, but who do engage in one or more of the above streams of pushing the mainstream toward those alternatives.
Our analysis, vision, and strategy need to be holistic. This means that we need to understand that the challenges we face, our goals, and the paths we build to get there are intertwined and inextricable. The above strategic categories are not separate pieces of the puzzle. They lay over one another similarly to the spheres that we use to organize our view of the world.
Not every person has the will, ability, or desire to make change in every way, so we work together in multiple, and very often fluid, roles. Our organizing needs to address the alternatives that we want to build, as well as advocacy, communication, and direct action as types of counter institutions. The strategy that we build needs emulate our analysis and vision by being layered, interconnected, and holistic in scope. Each of us needs to engage in multiple paths toward action, and when we do we will find that all of the paths lead to the same place.
A. Daniel Roth is a writer and photographer working to develop a critical relationship with, and honestly document, our world. Daniel has been an educator, facilitator and activist for nearly 2 decades. He is an organizer with movements for justice, equality, and peace including the All That’s Left: Anti-occupation Collective, which he co-founded. Daniel is the co-founder of Achvat Amim – Solidarity of Nations and the Without Walls Educators’ Collective, as well as This is Not an Ulpan. Daniel holds an MA in Education, Community, and Social Change and lives in Tel Aviv where he is the lead Economy Magazine correspondent on i24news.
We have had more than our fair share of messianic figures over the past 18 days at Occupy Toronto. St. James Park has become a spiritual occupation zone for some who give sermons at the gazebo, meditations, and impromptu livestream speeches. We have also seen collective leadership emerge through dialogue and participatory democracy. We’ve seen organizing in new ways. We are taking part in the beginnings of a new way of building a movement. We haven’t seen this before.
At Occupy Toronto we’ve seen yelling matches and worse. We’ve also seen hugs between strangers and a multitude of late night conversations; the kind that change your life. We are ready for something better, the messiahs, organizers, witnesses, and enjoyers of Occupy Toronto all know it.
Throughout all of this we have been collectively waking up. Many of us would say that we have been awake from a long time, but it is now that we are collectively, around the world, waking up. We are seeing the seasons through the lens of revolutionary change: Spring, summer, fall, and winter have taken on new meanings in 2011 as we rise up for change at the roots, which is shaking the branches at the top.
I have spent time at Occupy Wall Street, and lived at Occupy Toronto. I have been digitally involved through social networks, writing, and watching this rising global movement. Days from now I will be going to join in the movement that is burgeoning in Israel. I will be joining the vital struggle for self-determination for all peoples who share that space. I feel as though I am in several places, and I am. My heart is here right now, at St. James Park, but I haven’t forgotten my mission over there. It is part of this worldwide movement. It is part of the profound shift that we have sparked together. I’m not going anywhere. We are everywhere.
Incredible things are happening here in our tent city. We have occupied a space and given ourselves time. This space has allowed us to organize a near constant barrage of actions, which challenge the ills of our communities, cities, and world. We have begun the hard process of re-analysis toward understanding the roots of the oppressions that we face, and we have begun to take truly radical action to dismantle them. We have done this by engaging in relief work with our partners who are hungry, freezing, addicted, and facing a world in which our ability to take care of ourselves and one another is diminishing. We have also done this by establishing the basis for a revolutionary movement. We are facing down the daily assault on human rights, and building an essential new way of living.
As we collect our analyses and build a collective perspective, we are pioneering a new vision for a better world. It’s a vision that is being developed in the media tent, the logistics centre, the medical yurt, the hillside, and at our general assemblies. It is a vision that we find as we sit-in at banks and speak our minds at city hall.
We know a great deal right now. We know that capitalism instills a culture where profits come before democracy, sustainability, and even human rights. We know that racism, classism, sexism, and able-ism are perpetuated through our systems of education, communication, and law. We have the foresight to know that our relationship with our planet must be sustainable. We know that we want to participate in the decisions that impact our lives.
Representative democracy has ceased to represent anyone but those with the cash to pay for representation. We know that we have the will and ability to outlaw poverty and hunger and to create a new charter for our society that includes health and education as human rights. We know that all peoples deserve the right to self-determination, and that our society should facilitate each of us reaching our full human potential.
We know that the oppressions that we are facing down are interconnected. For example, we know that racism is reinforced by capitalism. In many low income communities of colour consistent divestment in infrastructure and education, and police brutality perpetuate high unemployment, hopelessness, and a lack of access to material wealth. Resources are hoarded by the few, never to be shared with the rest. That the status quo is fine is a lesson taught in our schools and reinforced by our media. We know better. We know that there is a deeper wealth in our communities. The wealth of knowledge and solidarity, and the wealth of vision and strategy to build something better is what we have. This is why we have seen fit to come together, occupy space, and take the time to rebuild our sense of a better world. We are beginning to understand that a total systemic shift is not only necessary, but within our reach. To be clear, we are on a long path. Genuine change comes through multiple means. We make reforms on the road to revolution, never taking our eyes off the prize, and never losing focus on the important changes that we make here and now.
Already, we have made enormous strides. Occupy Toronto has come together to establish very real agreements on the implementation of safer space for the movement. Through participatory democracy, collective work, and serious reflection we have found a collective desire to have a space that is free of abuse, whether it is verbal, sexual, or the abuse of substances, we have agreed to work against discrimination and marginalization, and we have agreed that our occupation is a non-violent space. We began as strangers, and together we have built collective understandings on which to base our movement. The participatory nature of this agreement allows us to take responsibility for it together, equally accountable in this forward motion.
We have not only looked at the structures that we need for the internal functioning of our movement. We have also found common ground on which to begin the process of imagining a better world, which challenges oppression in radical ways. We have reaffirmed that sustainable relationships with our planet, our environment, our resources, and one another are the root of justice, peace, and life. We have found participatory democracy to be the best form of sharing power and making decisions about the things that affect our lives. It allows us to take responsibility for one another. We have found a deep desire to create egalitarian structures for human connection, and self-determination for all peoples. We recognize the rights of indigenous peoples who have gone without justice for so long. We also believe in the power of the individual as a unique member in a larger collective.
As we experience this process, we are experimenting with a new kind of strategy. Our non-violent direct action is informed by, and balanced with, the building of an alternative kind of social interaction and exchange. We are participating in our democracy and our economics; we are learning to organize our society on a horizontal plain. Ideas are shared and inspired. Building towards equity is truly a beautiful experience.
We must take all of this seriously. As we practice direct actions that inspire those around us, and reach out to those who may not know what to make of this movement, we should remember that if we are willing and able, we are going to accomplish our goals, push forward, and win. We are in a process of building equity through the assemblies and systems of interaction that we have created at Occupy Toronto. We are turning up the heat on our ability to shake the oppressive systems of the past and present. We are writing our future. It’s a new story. We haven’t seen it before, and we are only on the first pages.
This is only the beginning. What we are witnessing right now is the birth of a global movement. It is taking shape right now. We are taking part in the early stages of profound societal transformations. The conversation has already shifted. We have begun to change the way we engage with the world and interact with one another. The exchange of ideas has already yielded wins. Just look at those in the US who, in recent days, have started to vote for the rights of workers in Ohio and women in Mississippi. We are beginning to choose equity instead of greed. Around the world, we are taking our votes to the streets and choosing justice. The system may use violence to attack us, but we aren’t going anywhere.
This wave of change is growing, and will continue to gain momentum if we work for it. We are standing at the edge of a sea of unrest. We are ready to dive in and begin the long journey across. If we adjust our lives to focus on this movement building process and the task at hand, we will succeed. We are building something that hasn’t been seen before. We are ready to re-imagine our systems, our species, and our planet.
A. Daniel Roth is a writer and photographer working to develop a critical relationship with, and honestly document, our world. Daniel has been an educator, facilitator and activist for nearly 2 decades. He is an organizer with movements for justice, equality, and peace including the All That’s Left: Anti-occupation Collective, which he co-founded. Daniel is the co-founder of Achvat Amim – Solidarity of Nations and the Without Walls Educators’ Collective, as well as This is Not an Ulpan. Daniel holds an MA in Education, Community, and Social Change and lives in Tel Aviv where he is the lead Economy Magazine correspondent on i24news.
The Organization for a Free Society stands in solidarity with fellow students and workers to protest the New York State budget in Albany.
The proposed budget balances a $10 billion deficit on the backs of students and working families—disproportionately affecting women and people of color—while implementing billions of dollars in tax relief to the wealthy. It is our belief that access to quality education, transportation, health care, and housing are fundamental human rights. New York is the state most unequal state in the US, thus attacks on public services represents a heightened attack on democracy itself.
The New York state legislature should force the rich to pay their fair share of taxes, invest in the public sector to create jobs, demand that Washington stop funding imperialist wars that drain our economy, and push for bold federal stimulus funding!
To address economic injustice we need to ask ourselves how we got here. Decades of cuts, the privatization of the public sector, the Wall Street bailouts, and an expanding military budget, all demonstrate a priority of profits over people. This calls into question not only the role of the state, politicians, and Wall Street in furthering this crisis, but also the way resources are distributed and decisions are made.
We must fight back – in our cities and towns, at our schools and workplaces, in our capitol and all across the state – alongside our partners all over the world, from Madison to Cairo. And as we fight back, we must think forward. This struggle is only one in a long list of them ahead. We will continue to fight, not only to defend the gains others before us have already won through decades of bitter struggle, but to win something new – an economy, political system, and society as a whole that is democratic and participatory at its core, egalitarian and solidaristic at the roots, liberating and fulfilling in all aspects of social life – a free society.
Yes. We will fight the budget cuts, and we will win;
and as we fight back, we will look forward, prepared to struggle
in a way that strengthens us to win the world we
deserve to live in.
We will do it until we are truly free.
Organization for a Free Society
Toward an Alternative Vision of Economic Justice in New York:
There is money, and there are alternatives; since the wealthiest New Yorkers have the money, targeting the public sector rather than the rich is a political and moral choice
New York, like the United States more generally, is awash in money and capital, but the wealth is very highly concentrated. The wealthiest 5 percent of New Yorkers receives 49 percent of all income, while the bottom 50 percent receives just 9 percent. New York is the most unequal state in the nation, and New York City the most unequal major city.
Taxation in New York is also highly regressive: as the Fiscal Policy Institute observes, “the wealthiest 1% of households pay a much smaller share of their income in taxes than do all other New Yorkers, even with the temporary income tax increase” passed in 2009. Households making between $33,000 and $56,000 pay a larger percentage of their income than anyone else in the state (11.6 percent). The poorest 40 percent of New Yorkers—those who make less than $33,000—pay a higher share of their income in taxes than the richest one percent.
The wealthiest New Yorkers, particularly Wall Street bankers and corporate executives, are enjoying record profits at the expense of ordinary people; they can and should bear the costs of economic recovery. A wide range of fiscal policy measures is available at the state level. The two most common-sense policies are 1) the extension of the income-tax surcharge (the “Millionaire’s Tax”) on the richest 5 percent passed in 2009 and due to expire at the end of this year (Cuomo has vowed to let it expire), and 2) the implementation of a stock-transfer tax. The first applies to those individuals with incomes over $200,000 and families that make more than $300,000. Extending it would raise $6 billion in extra revenue over two years—about 60 percent of the state budget deficit, and over three times the amount that Cuomo would cut from public education at the primary, secondary, and post-secondary levels. Even a modest tax on stock transactions and speculation—a solution recommended by Nobel Prize-winning economists like Paul Krugman—would generate $3.2 billion. Additional alternatives are numerous and would save the state hundreds of millions of dollars each year. See www.fiscalpolicy.org.
Cutting social spending in order to cut taxes for the rich is a job-killer; taxing the rich to fund public spending is a much more efficient means of job creation and economic stimulus
Tax cuts for the rich will lead to the creation of some jobs. The key question is whether they will create more jobs than alternative measures like increasing unemployment benefits, increasing funding for public schools, or cutting taxes for the working and middle classes by an equivalent amount. The answer to this question, established and confirmed by dozens of economic studies over the years, is a resounding NO. The main reason is that working people channel a greater proportion of their income back into the economy, thus stimulating demand and further job creation to a greater extent than the wealthy, who tend to save a greater share of their money. Taxing the wealthy in order to fund social investment is the best means of facilitating overall economy recovery (in addition to being the more moral choice).
US militarism impedes economic recovery, and is thus both inefficient and immoral.
The most obvious negative connection of US militarism to human welfare is the fact that US weapons kill innocent foreign peoples on a daily basis—in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Colombia, Mexico, Egypt, and the dozens of other countries that hold major military aid and arms deals with the United States. But US militarism also impedes economic recovery and social welfare here at home. Nearly half (currently 48 percent) of US discretionary spending, or $1.37 trillion a year, goes toward war and the military. By reallocating that spending to other areas that serve human needs, the government could easily provide for the basic needs of every person in the United States (and have much left over for foreign aid). The amount of money that the US government spends on the military each second would cover SUNY tuition for seven students. A mere 19 hours of military spending could provide all 465,000 SUNY students with free tuition.
Like tax cuts for the rich, military spending is also a relatively inefficient means of stimulating job creation and economic growth when compared to public investment in infrastructure, public education, and health care. Militarism is thus both immoral and inefficient.
State action alone is not enough; bold federal stimulus spending—yes, deficit spending—is imperative to facilitate economic recovery
State action alone is insufficient. The federal government has fiscal resources at its disposal that state and local governments do not. Most importantly, it can borrow large amounts of money and is not required to pass a balanced budget each year. In times of recession, it is imperative that the federal government engage in bold stimulus spending, including providing financial relief to state governments. The current emphasis of politicians and pundits on the need to “cut the deficit”—and the implication that doing so will somehow lead to economic recovery—is sheer illusion at best, and deliberate dishonesty more likely. The 2009 Obama stimulus bill definitely mitigated the effects of the current recession, but as Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz points out, it was far too small to bring economic recovery.
The assault on the public sector is an assault on the principle of equal opportunity and on democracy itself
Government slashing of public services like education and health care not only channels more wealth to the richest sector of society, but further undercuts the promise of equal opportunity that is central to a functioning democracy. The current assault on unions, social spending, and workers’ rights is an assault on democracy itself. If “democracy” means that people have the opportunity to fulfill their basic needs and to have a say in the decisions that affect their daily lives and work, then the battle for the public sector is most certainly a battle for democracy. People all over the world seem to understand this connection, evident from the expressions of solidarity for Wisconsin workers coming from Egypt, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in recent weeks.
 James Parrott and Frank Mauro, “FPI Responds to the Partnership for New York City: Can New York Depend on a ‘Millionaire’s Tax’ to Solve the Budget Crisis?” (Fiscal Policy Institute, document updated February 14, 2011), 3 (see www.fiscalpolicy.org). Current income figures are from 2007; tax figures below are from 2009, and reflect the impact of the temporary income-tax surcharge (the “Millionaire’s Tax”) passed in 2009. For 1980 figure and the comparison of New York to the rest of the nation see James Parrott, “As Incomes Gap Widens, New York Grows Apart,” Gotham Gazette (January 2011).
 Parrott and Mauro, “FPI Responds,” 4. In Wisconsin, just before Governor Scott Walker issued his anti-union proposal, he pushed through $117 million in corporate tax cuts—illustrating just how sincere Walker and his ilk are about fiscal solvency. See Tom Juravich, “U.S. Recovery Might Need Public-Sector Unions,” Business Week, February 27, 2011.
 Parrott and Mauro, “FPI Responds,” 2.
 Krugman, “Taxing the Speculators,” New York Times, November 26, 2009. The stock-transfer tax has been on the books since the early 1900s, but since 1981 has been nullified by a 100-percent direct rebate to its payers. The figure of $3.2 billion is based on a (very modest) reduction of the rebate to 80 percent (FPI, “Revenue-Raising and Cost-Saving Options,” 2).
 For a long list of alternatives compiled last year by the Fiscal Policy Institute, see their “Revenue-Raising and Cost-Saving Options,” at www.fiscalpolicy.org.
 See the “Federal Pie Chart” produced annually by the War Resisters League, available at www.warresisters.org/sites/default/files/FY2012piechart-bw.pdf.
 Stiglitz interviewed in “Nobel Economist Joseph Stiglitz on Obama’s Stimulus Plan, Debt, Climate Change, and ‘Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy,’” Democracy Now! February 18, 2010.
 Noam Chomsky, “The Cairo-Madison Connection,” Truth-Out, March 9, 2011.
 “‘We Stand With You as You Stood With Us’: Statement to Workers of Wisconsin by Kamal Abbas of Egypt’s Centre for Trade Unions and Workers Services,” February 20, 2011 (www.michaelmoore.com/words/must-read/statement-kamal-abbas); Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers, “We Afghans Are All Bouazizi,” February 24, 2011 (www.warisacrime.org).