Month: January 2018

ICE, Detention Centers, and the Commons


Despite the threat sanctuary cities are under, I wish I lived in one. I wish I could support public officials who, politically at least, see noncitizens (whatever their immigration status) and citizens as equally worthy of moral consideration, as equal stakeholders in the community. Wyoming is lucky enough to have a few public officials who see both documented and undocumented residents of the state as part of their community family, but the odds, unsurprisingly, are not in our favor.

Wyoming’s ruling class, its cattle and mineral and real estate interests, often exhibits a uniquely and sometimes brutally indifferent attitude towards disadvantaged people. And although Wyoming has always had a significant Latinix community, it hasn’t been easy for them.

Comes now Management and Training Corporation, an allegedly terrible Utah company, to build an ICE detention facility in Evanston, the Wyoming border town an hour from Salt Lake City. Andrew Graham of the ever-important and brilliant WyoFile, described developments as of last October:

Both Evanston’s city council and Uinta County’s commission unanimously passed resolutions in June to support the Management Training Corporation’s plan to build and manage an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center just outside Evanston city limits. The jail would have the capacity to hold 500 undocumented immigrants detained by ICE while they await court hearings in Salt Lake City.
Uinta officials are uncertain whether they need Wyoming’s five statewide elected officials to approve the project. It is possible a jail holding immigration detainees does not require the same level of approval as other forms of private prisons regulated under Wyoming law, a county official said. Either way, MTC’s efforts to jail immigration detainees from throughout the northern rockies in Uinta County have thus far gone largely without notice in the state at large.

Except they didn’t go unnoticed for long. More on that in a minute, but first more about MTC, which has come under scrutiny for a number of problems that ought to raise red flags in the minds of the public: corrupt officials, riots, prison breaks, sexual abuse by officers, alleged human rights violations, and a number of other charges ranging from concerning to embarassing to horrifying. If even some of these charges are true, that raises serious public policy concerns. MTC also deploys prison labor and I was told by people I trust in this subject matter that it was very likely ICE will utilize detainee labor –practically unpaid–at the facility it wants in Wyoming. I’ve written articles and talked about this before. Extracting surplus value from the labor of the incarcerated is an especially insidious and destructive form of bio-political control.

MTC knows it’s in trouble. Fortunately, ICE is having problems of its own (notwithstanding the Trump administration’s mandate for ICE to behave like literal stormtroopers). Evanston, Wyoming–in Uinta County–is a chance for both corporation and goon squad to do right. Finding willing jurisdictions for building detention centers has been challenging. The hope is that Wyoming, immersed in a downward trajectory of economic insecurity, and highly supportive of unhinged border nationalist Donald Trump, will be a willing partner.

But there’s fierce resistance (partly due to Wyofile‘s coverage) and it’s growing throughout the state. Thanks to groups like Juntos, the ACLU, and the Equality State Policy Center (and many other organizations, churches, groups, and individuals, an organized effort is underway to pursue numerous political, legal, and social pressure-oriented means (check out #WyoSayNo) of stopping the project. I’m helping.

I’m not just helping because immigrants are human beings, detainees are human beings, and we’re all potential aliens and detainees (that’s all true though). I’m helping because our vision of the Commons, of community, and of cooperativism will not work alongside a regime of regulating human movement based on violence. If we are to “regulate” migration, let us do so democratically and cooperatively. That’s the spirit of the Commons appropriate to the tens of thousands of years of cultures migrating, traveling cyclically, escaping bad things and journeying to better places, together. Welcoming the stranger, giving the outsider the head seat at our table, is a recognition of our universal dependence on the Commons. If we have to regulate the way and where we move, we need different criteria, and different voices, in place to exist with and honor how and why we travel across, out of, and into shared spaces.

More later on this, here at C on the C, and elsewhere.

Photo credit:

7 Reasons Your Economic Insecurity Isn’t Your Fault

. . . and why that matters

by Matt Stannard
January 29, 2018

The sobering assessment at the end of 2017 by Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, concerning the 40+ million Americans living in poverty, left a question unasked: Why have there been so few effective grassroots political revolts against inequality and material deprivation in the United States?

The seeming lack of class consciousness is even more surprising when we consider that economic insecurity doesn’t just affect those below the poverty level: over 215 million Americans–which I count as 66 percent of the population–couldn’t cover a $1000 emergency with the money in their savings account. That’s over five times as many of us who technically live in poverty, and it suggests that economic insecurity is now an intrinsic feature of the American identity.

This knowledge alone, that there are well over 200 million people just like us, should help temper the feeling of failure that Americans tend to feel about their economic insecurity. But the cultural and rhetorical forces of capitalism are strong. The billionaire class invests a lot in teaching us that our material insecurity is our fault. That unique capitalist apologia has an illustrious history.

Such shaming, along with the condition of economic insecurity itself, extracts terrible tolls on our health, and makes us less effective in fighting the underlying socioeconomic and political conditions responsible for the difficult conditions so many of us are in. The shame of economic insecurity demoralizes and weakens us and makes it less likely we will join in struggle with others against unfair economic conditions.

So I actually hope that if you are economically insecure–whether in poverty or swimming a few days above it, as you read this short article, your shoulders will feel less tense, you’ll breathe more deeply, and let go of the guilt that the oligarchs and moralists want you to carry. Then, I hope you’ll find the strength and love to become more resolute in your determination to help create a world without this kind of abuse, and with the opportunities that come from egalitarian, cooperative security–the kind of world that, frankly, the majority of the world wants and has always wanted.

Here goes: This is a meditation. Your economic insecurity is not your fault because:

1. . . . wages aren’t under your control

Wages haven’t kept up with productivity gains or inflation over the last several decades. The work you are doing now could very likely have been enough, on its own, to support you and a few others, and own a house and car. Even low-income work could sustain a decent apartment. None of that is true anymore. The elites have many reasons for wanting to keep wages low in most sectors of the economy, including protection of their profits, but other reasons too. I’ll just let Richard Wolff explain it:

Capitalist enterprises keep moving their operations (first manufacturing, now also many services) from high to low-wage regions of the world to raise their profits. Departing capitalists leave their former host communities with unemployment and all its social costs. Such conditions force desperate competition for jobs that drives down wages and guts job benefits. Public services decline as government budgets suffer. Capitalism no longer delivers a rising standard of living in the regions where it began and developed first: Western Europe, North America and Japan. Instead of goods, capitalism delivers the bads.

Wages suck, the wage economy is designed to suck for most of us, and none of that is your fault.

2. . . . capitalism is like a roller coaster

Our economic system is subject to periodic crises. During those crises, people who’ve been “doing the right thing” all their lives are often ruined. A haunting Wikipedia page, “List of economic crises,” traces economic crisis from first century Rome to the present. The crises proliferate over time, with one crisis in the 14th century (it was a banking crisis), eight in the 18th century (including the Bengel Bubble Crash and the collapse of French enterprise on the Mississippi) to twenty five in the 20th century. Every economic crisis devastates countless lives and re-boots generational economics. Those devastated lives are then dehumanized further by public discourse blaming working class and poor people for the state of the economy.

3. . . . capitalism reproduces itself in social relations

Although pointing this out makes postmodernists cringe, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that the way a society produces and distributes its goods, and the patterns of mass scarcity that may result from inequality, influence the way we interact with each other vis. institutions and cultural behavior. We can debate about how much, but it seems to me that economic determinism is more true the poorer or more insecure you are, which is another way of saying that scarcity “overdetermines” the cultural expression of economic relations.

A description of the important anthology Millennial Capitalism and the Culture of Neoliberalism lists those various relational themes:

how the triumph of the free market obscures rising tides of violence and cultures of exclusion, and the growth of new forms of identity politics. The collection also investigates the tendency of neoliberal capitalism to produce a world of increasing differences in wealth, environmental catastrophes, heightened flows of people and value across space and time, moral panics and social impossibilities, bitter generational antagonisms and gender conflicts, invisible class distinction, and “pariah” forms of economic activity.

4. . . . a few powerful entities could make the system work for us all but won’t do it

Although pointing this out makes revolutionary socialists cringe, a few basic reforms –far from the new paradigms of ownership cooperativists ultimately advocate — could solve many, if not all, current manifestations of economic insecurity. A reasonable regime of taxes on capital and the recovery of the trillions of dollars hidden in tax havens could eliminate the effects of poverty and economic insecurity, if not the root causes. All that would take is a tiny group of Americans deciding to end their intransigence on just taxation–but we all know this is unrealistic.

But please tell us more about how our inability to rent one-bedroom apartments in Denver and San Francisco is our fault.

5. . . . “money” is a construct

The increasing realization among scholars and activists that “fiat currency is a social construct” could not have come at a better time. Economist James Galbraith calls the axioms of Modern Monetary Theory “factually uncontroversial.” Governments choose to order and symbolize their financial endorsements the way they do. Both governments and banks create what can be called money, and the real questions are how to manage that process, how to incentivize social goods and ameliorate social bads and deal with other actors, like workers, businesses, and consumers. As Atossa Araxia Abrahamian explains:

The decisions about how to issue, lend, and spend money come down to politics, values, and convention, whether the goal is reducing inequality or boosting entrepreneurship. Inflation, MMT’s proponents contend, can be controlled through taxation, and only becomes a problem at full employment—and we’re a long way off from that, particularly if we include people who have given up looking for jobs or aren’t working as much as they’d like to among the officially “unemployed.”

Irrespective of what money “is” in either a metaphysical or practical sense, the value of your money is not under your control. When our parents accused us of “not knowing the value of a dollar,” they were more correct than they knew.

6. . . . “work” is a construct

I remember sitting with activists at a community center in Detroit in a snowy January in 2014, talking about their revolutionary approach to inner-city unemployment. The reemergent phrasing was that there’s no jobs but plenty of work. This truth has been pointed out all over the country. Anyone looking around immediately sees things to do–things that would improve life for everybody, things that could make the planet happier, busy work, dirty work, dignified work. Under our current wage-based paradigm, “jobs” are what private shareholders want to extract from us to increase their profits, and whatever public and nonprofit work can be painfully extracted from these powerful interests. As our crumbling infrastructure and shrinking social service networks testify, there’s plenty of genuinely valuable work not being done.

Moreover, a “work week,” a reasonable number of hours to work in a day, the way differently-abled and differently-privileged people are capable of arranging their work lives? You guessed it: all arbitrary and a function of what economic elites want the extraction of your labor power to look like. For this caprice and myth of order, we’ve been shamed for our inability to always do the kind of work they want us to do.

7. . . . “personal responsibility” is a construct

Even if personal responsibility exists, a person can incur neither credit nor blame for endowments they possess or lack. Even if you can trace your financial mistakes–a job you fucked up, a bad marriage, a criminal record, these mistakes fall differently on different people. The late John Rawls caused a stir among philosophers of “moral desert” when, in A Theory of Justice, he argued that people cannot claim moral credit for their natural endowments and tendencies. Sure, Rawls argued, people can expect to get paid well for doing good work, but that doesn’t mean we deserve or do not deserve good things in a general sense based on what we’re good or not good at.

People resist this because they think personal responsibility is important. But, like the foundational assumptions of MMT, the assumptions of Rawls’ dismissal of moral desert are perfectly reasonable, and their consequences are dependent upon what we do with the understandings we have of our moral, material, and political agency. The real question isn’t whether you are genuinely or absolutely culpable for your individual economic condition (have I mentioned you aren’t?), but what we can do, acting together, to achieve real moral agency, which is control over our material lives.

The think tanks and spokespeople deeply invested in making you feel guilty for not having enough money to live are also deeply invested in systems of production and finance that ensure it will stay that way. As we stop feeling guilty, we’ll find new layers of energy with which to defeat and bypass them.

Should you hold yourself accountable for bad choices you made when you know you can “do better?” Sure, if you think it will help you do better. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t. But we’re all part of a larger set of systems. We’re smart enough to understand that responsibility is dialectical. It’s just that we’ve been pushed so far in the direction of absolute moral desert that we are, per Kenneth Burke, “rotten with perfection.” We should try forgiving ourselves and each other and moving forward together to overthrow the existing economic order.

Matt Stannard is a legal and policy advocate for sustainable farming and cooperative economics.

Image: The Panic – Run on the Fourth National Bank, No. 20 Nassau Street. Illus. in: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1873 Oct. 4, p. 67.

Walter Wangerin Jr.’s The Book of the Dun Cow and Imagining Contemporary Evil

Matt Stannard
Jan. 21, 2018

This afternoon, after several months of periodic readings, my kids and I finished Walter Wangerin Jr.’s The Book of the Dun Cow. I had, with only minimal resistance, proposed to read it out loud to my teen, tween, and ten year-old, in partial recognition of having read the Great Brain series, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, and a few others to them when they were much younger. Those were sweet days.

I’d rediscovered, or spontaneously remembered, Wangerin’s epic novel, that some have called a “Lord of the Rings with Farm Animals” (although Wangerin’s prose is far more pleasing to read out loud than Tolkien’s, in my opinion), decades after first finding it when I was about 13, reviewed in an issue of Dragon magazine. I enjoyed the book then and learned a lot about the form of the Christian allegory in literature from it. Some might try to call it a “Christian Animal Farm,” and that would be clever but not really accurate. Orwell’s novel was really, really cynical compared to Wangerin’s story of a basically innocent, decent, somewhat emotionally immature rooster being charged by God, through the whispering voice of the Dun Cow, to fend off an attack from the manifest evil coming from a coop and farm far away, and created by a giant devil-worm that lives deep in the earth.

And it is unapologetically Christian, although it’s a Christianity that admits to and celebrates doubt, doesn’t promise happiness to believers, and invests even the simplest characters with a lot of personal autonomy–at least in terms of letting each farm animal set their own route to fighting the great evil that threatens the farm. There are no humans in the book, but there is a chicken coop and hints of other artifacts, presumably implying some now-distant human intelligence. But it’s the animals who are entrusted with defeating the evil animal-gods and demigods put before them.

It’s the nature of that evil, though, that inspired me to read the book with the kiddos this time around. Some of it is chaotic evil, to put it in RPG terms: the evil rooster demigod, the mirror-image of the hero rooster except much more physically powerful and able to create millions of tiny poisonous snakes with its vomit or something, reminds me of both wannabe and real Nazi trolls today, with their performative brutality, their deliberate use of low-grade irony, and simple self-declared mission to destroy all who aren’t them. Some of the book’s evil is lawful evil, a giant wyrm in the earth who believes its very presence and size entitles it to rule and who tries to seduce the hero with promises of power before opting to try and destroy anything that opposes it (that’s what the billionaires do–first they try to buy you and then if they can’t they must silence you at whatever cost).

I’m aware that these are Christian images too, and I don’t know anything about Walter Wangerin’s politics, but if he is an orthodox Christian, his politics are probably pretty different from mine. But I also have to say that my concerns with the alt-right and the billionaire class are more than just “political” in a conventional sense. The important thing is that Wangerin knows that the violent exercise of asymmetrical power and dishonest manipulation of good people are bad things, and his animation of them produces beautifully hideous and revolting villains that, like the heroes in the book, are essentially cartoon characters, but not shallow caricatures. That takes some skill and aesthetic vision.

So as I read the book to the kids a couple of hours at a time over a period of months (I can’t quite remember when we started), I wanted to speak the voices of good, imperfect beings fighting back against others who either wanted to eradicate them for existing (the gratuitous racist violence that’s irreducible to just wealth acquisition), and those who would seek to manipulate or destroy others for the sake of economic gain. These are the twin evils, I think, represented by a large part of the current political order and culture. But my hope is they’d get something more than just politics out of hearing a story about how good, imperfect, mistake-making beings hold their own against those who want to exploit or destroy them.

There are two more books in Wangerin’s Dun Cow series. If you’ve read them, I’d love to hear what you think. I told the kids (who enjoyed the book and admitted on their own they miss sitting around hearing me read to them, I swear) that if any of them wanted to read the other books I’d buy them. I think I’m good with just this one, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t beautiful in every way–the incredible wordsmithing, the very deep and emotional development of the characters–and, where it was a tiny bit traditional-gender-roles, easily bracketed and deconstructed (at least I felt so, but obviously could be wrong. Christianity is what it is, unless Wangerin were UCC, which as an M.Div from the Lutheran Christ Seminary-Seminex, I will guess he’s not).

But I want to thank him for doing a very good job representing bravery amid moral frailty, destructive and manipulative evil, depression and self-loathing, vulnerability and forgiveness, even the ineffable tragedy of losing family members, all in a fantasy novel about rooster warriors and farm animal armies.

The drawing above is by Abby, and was inspired by the book.