Author: cowboysonthecommons

I Propose a Rule

Matt Stannard

If you aren’t willing to share the country with those who seek its refuge, security, or economic opportunity, you shouldn’t be allowed to live here. That’s foundationally fair and just.

 
It’s not the people seeking to live here — not in any defensible view of economic and political systems — who are responsible for others’ lack of security or opportunity. It doesn’t work that way. All deprivation and inequity in this country is the fault of its irresponsible and indifferent economic elites.
 
The high-and-mighty argument that “a nation MUST have the right to determine who does and doesn’t come in; it’s the cornerstone of sovereignty and security blah blah blah” assumes what we call our nation has a right to be on this land in the first place, and that we are actually making just and rational decisions about the inevitable human migration that we experience–and which will soon accelerate in response to climate instability. Until we take money out of politics, create more just economic relationships, and come to terms with our settler colonialism, I trust the people in the caravan a thousand times more than I trust our policymakers, and a million times more than I trust the violent fascists at ICE and other police forces.

Want to make a just “movement” policy? Create a just and truly representative body representing all communities impacted by that policy, including migrating people themselves. 

 
I’d rather live next to indigenous people and immigrants from anywhere and everywhere than near settled citizens who would close our borders. We would be better off if we could just replace the former with the latter in some systemic fashion, 1:1, but I’m trying not to be too techno-utopian about this. That would make a great short story though. 
 
In any case, whenever someone asserts that some migrating person(s) don’t have a right to be here, I just counter-assert that person not having a right to be here. 
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Can Racists Be Good Citizens? Should They Be Citizens At All?

by Matt Stannard
October 31, 2018

The title question is derived from “Can Atheists Be Good Citizens?” a dreadful essay published way back in 1991 by Richard John Neuhaus, a leading voice on the religious right, who was as responsible as anyone for conservative Christianity’s turn to militant, and often ruthless, political activism. That activism, and the political structures it built, punched down rather than up and was never about liberating the oppressed. The essay appeared long before “atheism” came to designate the bigotry of Richard Dawkins, et al. It simply denoted proactive nonbelief, which Neuhaus found incompatible with good citizenship, because one could not truly be a good citizen unless one acknowledged the Common Source of Good. That was pretty much it, a “gotcha” argument right up there with “you oppose capitalism but you’re using a computer.”

How incredibly, disturbingly ironic to reread Neuhaus’s article now, at a time when far-right groups are back in the public square calling for the extermination and subordination of nonwhites and non-Christians people, and performing that call with bullets. The idea that atheists are a danger to public order because they don’t share a very particular foundational metaphysics is just fucking quaint.

Tolerance and co-existence get a lot of crap from both the right and left. I get the left critique of liberalism, but I’d like to revisit the necessity of tolerance at least long enough to assert that, at a time when the current presidential administration is enabling and encouraging fascism, along with threats to strip citizenship rights away from some, and deny asylum and freedom of movement to others, while all the while white supremacists are harassing, beating, and killing people and not fearing for their own status or citizenship in the least, it’s time for us to contemplate the legal subordination of racists.

In the abstract, it may be that a willingness to welcome and engage others who are different from us is supererogatory at most–morally desirable but not morally required. If we stop there, we can easily conclude that a racist can never be a good citizen in a society nominally premised upon welcoming difference. This seems noncontroversial to anyone to the left of Donald Trump or Stephen Miller. So the answer to the first question is easy for us, and I suppose we could debate it out with those in the “center” who believe that we need to tolerate intolerance, although those debates tend to go in circles.

But because we are not in the abstract, and because white supremacists in America are doing more than just thinking shitty thoughts, and because there is no abstract, and wherever there is white supremacy there is violence and murder and the closure of public space and incursion of secure private space, I want to move beyond the question of whether a racist can be a good citizen and ask whether racists ought to be stripped of
their citizenship altogether. There is a solid case to be made.

By the way, it’s equally obvious to me that to propose an ethno-state as some counter-antecedent to the “good citizenship” question is to beg that question. To advocate the ethnostate is to advocate racism per se, and that is the battle-cry of contemporary American fascists, although, as I’ll explain a bit below, they often propose such things half-ironically as a rhetorical trick.

It is reasonable and, in the current context of racist violence, desirable, to demand as a condition of citizenship the acceptance of the citizenship, dignity, and autonomy of others in one’s community; and where dignity and autonomy are concerned, such an obligation extend to respect respect for non-citizens as well.

The idea of revoking citizenship is provocative, of course, but it’s far from absurd. Rainer Baubock and Vesco Paskalev’s 2016 article in the Georgetown Immigration Law Journal discusses various grounds for revocation of citizenship, mostly in the context of the European Union, but with much to consider when contemplating a more cooperative and egalitarian iteration of the United States. There are a number of weak reasons why states revoke citizenship, such as service to a foreign state; but there are stronger reasons too, such as the discovery that an applicant had deceived authorities in order to acquire citizenship (although we can ask whether that is an adequate reason). Then, of course, there are those who threaten public security in such an extreme way as to expose as false one’s commitment to the society in which they live. “No right is absolute,” Baubock and Paskalev write, “and in the Hamdi case the U.S. Supreme Court found that grave threats to public security can justify significant limitations of the right to due process. It would not be inconsistent for the Court to sustain abridgment of their right to citizenship on the same grounds too.”

As a general category, “noncompliance with citizenship duties” can go beyond just obeying laws, though. Baubock and Paskalev cite Shai Levi’s speculative argument that citizenship could be revoked for serious violations of the “duty of civic allegiance.” Although Lavi’s argument is in the context of terrorism, which violates a citizen’s “commitment to self-government,” it isn’t a stretch, and may even be more reasonable, to extend that duty to respect for the rights of others to exist (period), and to participate in public life. This doesn’t strike me as a free speech concern, either, since the act of renouncing one’s state is also a speech act–one which denotes an explicit rejection of the foundation of one’s citizenship. I do understand the danger giving the state the power to throw around “duty of civic allegiance” and think such a concept could be replaced with some kind of minimal duty of acceptance of others, a literal duty of non-racism or nondiscrimination applied to those identity categories we currently define as protected classes (plus a couple more that we should so define).

So a simple statement of my hypothetical proposal would be something like “Those advocating discrimination or subordination of other humans on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and expression, religion, ethnicity, nationality, age, or socioeconomic class are subject to revocation of citizenship.” Not unproblematic, but a good starting point for discussion, I think.

The liberal argument against this kind of hard line is most often the marketplace of ideas metaphor, that the solution to racist speech is anti-racist speech. We have to ask: solution for whom? Although we don’t realize this when we’re making the argument, it’s made from the privileged position of those least likely to be killed as a result of bigoted incitement. History demonstrates that allowing racist discourse in public dialogue does not result in the sorting of good and bad ideas through the filter of public choice. Instead, because racists explicitly reject such argumentative ethics to begin with (embracing them only in cruel irony to justify making inroads into such incitement), racism becomes a perennially unsettled, re-presented issue that we re-litigate again and again and again, each time accompanied by spiraling levels of extra-discursive and fatal violence.

And in any event, I’m not arguing for censorship of racist speech or criminal punishment of the racist. My argument is that, in being racist, one fails to meet one’s citizenship obligation threshold. I should be entitled only to such status which I am willing to categorically and sincerely extend to others, with only non-arbitrary exceptions. I should affirm, or at least not actively oppose, the inherent worth and dignity of all people and their right to co-exist in the state and civil society so long as they also affirm the same. If I refuse to do that, then I am refusing to join with others in upholding a basic ethical obligation to those with whom I exist, the violation of which directly threatens others’ security and participation in the state and civil society.

But what about those of us with radically critical views of the state and civil society? Well, I may be “against the state” or large parts of it (e.g. I may be an anarchist or a revolutionary communist), but this doesn’t have to undermine the social obligation to affirm, or at least not actively oppose, the inherent worth and dignity of all people and their right to co-exist in the state and civil society. In fact, this is an important difference between anarchism or communism on one side, and fascism on the other. The former are critiques of the state that do not arbitrarily exclude people from participation and moral status (and actually attempt to propose social orders where all people are truly free to so participate), while the latter is premised upon those exclusions and mandates them in praxis.

Drawing such a line in order to retain one’s status as a citizen is also desirable because the classical liberal line of protecting racist speech while outlawing violent action is a line that fascists have learned to blur through an elaborate system of ironic practices such as the use of outrageous statements that the speakers deny being serious about when called on them. This quite often appears as “We should kill all of you. Stop, stop, I’m joking. Maybe.” “We need a white ethno-state. Perhaps I am only being ironic.” Fascists can and will make endless versions of these statements, mixing them with conspiracy theories and non-actionable discourse advocating racial hierarchies and appeals to the desirability of ethnic cleansing and eradication. As long as they aren’t calling for specific acts of violence against specific people, there are no real consequences for such speech acts even when they inspire actual violence. My hypothetical proposal recognizes this limitation and suggests that the requirements for citizenship in a just democratic society ought to be heavier than simply being able to claim one was only joking about the desirability of slavery and genocide.

Similarly, racist conspiracy theories about marginalized people serve as a subsidy to those with a political agenda served by marginalizing potential opposition. Fox News can assert, with no legal consequences, that powerful Jews are responsible for people of color being mad at police. The ability to do such things is similar to the ability of corporations to create (and avoid paying for) negative externalities like pollution. A social cost is extracted and paid by others for the profits of the polluters. My hypothetical proposal says that the polluters should pay the costs of those externalities. Rejecting my proposal wouldn’t make those externalities go away; it just ensures that innocent people, and the state, will continue to pay for them. Those rejecting the proposal ought to provide a counterproposal for how those costs will be paid, one that solves for the fact that they are externalized on innocent victims now.

The last two years of public life in the United States, filled with spiking numbers of racist violence, open fascist activity, and the occupation of the White House by white nationalists devoted to turning the United States into an ethno-state (or perhaps more accurately, preserving it as such) makes Richard John Neuhaus’s 1991 piece on atheism and citizenship even more disgusting in retrospect than it was originally, as if nonbelief in God threatened the safety of vulnerable people and the body politic in any way comparable to white supremacy, an ideology very compatible with conservative theism and which, in totality, carries no possible consequences other than to subordinate, hurt, or kill other people.

Racism, particularly manifest in fascism, serves another nefarious role: It’s invoked to preserve the existing socioeconomic order through violence and intimidation. I believe the existing socioeconomic order threatens to destroy all life on earth, but even if it didn’t, racism prevents public deliberation rather than facilitating it. White supremacists, racists, and fascists produce metaphysical justifications for murder, arbitrary hierarchies, and structural violence, and in doing so, not only pose direct threats to people’s safety, but also long-term threats to democratic participation in public life. That they are allowed to do so is a political anomaly caused not by America’s unwavering commitment to free speech, but America’s antecedents in material hierarchy and ideological bigotry. Because we want to put such antecedents behind us, racists ought not feel safe, let alone affirmed, in the United States. They ought to fear for their citizenship and social status. One could even reasonably argue for the social utility of them fearing for their personal security and safety, since they knowingly create climates where others fear for theirs. But at the very least, they should not feel at ease about their relationship with the state and civil society. Racists should be afraid to be racists.

Matt Stannard is operations director at Solidarity House Cooperative. His latest article at Occupy.com is “After Rahm, Can Chicago Create a Cooperative Economy?” The opinions expressed in this essay are solely Matt’s. 

The Classism of “You Get Out of It What You Put into It” and other reflexives

by Matt
September 17, 2018

Assuming people have a nanny for their kids; assuming people can just get something taken care of “professionally;” assuming people can just pick up another of whatever they break, lose, or run out of; assuming “go to the doctor” is situationally good advice; these are all manifestations of classism that I’ve overheard one time or another.

Here’s an insidious kind of classism: “You get out of this [church/group/political org] what you put into it.” How often do we hear that and not think, wait, that kind of morale booster falls very differently on someone whose material situation leaves them with neither time nor money to give, but who nevertheless really needs the services, networking, or support that church or group gives them?

Hopefully, the more aware we are of how life’s inevitabilities land in very different places for different people, the more transitive our own material comforts will seem, and the less we will feel our desserts outweigh the fact that nothing is really ours.

The Launching of Solidarity House Cooperative, and Our Communal Space

by Matt
September 14, 2018

In July of this year, the Solidarity Collective acquired, through a personal loan and the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time, the property known as Holliday Mansion, consisting of the large house shown in the picture (11-12 rooms in the main house depending on how you count them, a tower room, and a 3-bedroom basement apartment), a large Quonset hut, four additional apartments (one adjoining and three adjacent) and some small storage sheds. The house was built in 1878 and was a neglected (and over time, abused) historical treasure. Beyond the significance of its acquisition for our mission, its restoration will be a service to Laramie and Wyoming.

Those who have been following our progress in the last two years via our Facebook page and my earlier post here know that the purpose of getting this property was to create an egalitarian intentional community–a commune for shared living space and cooperative work space, food production, and a place where people could ground their activism and creativity in promotion of a better world.

It is significant that we’re doing this in Wyoming. As far as we know and as far as the Fellowship for Intentional Community reads, we are the only egalitarian/left community in the state. Two other intentional communities in early stages of formation, one in Cheyenne and one in Casper, are non-egalitarian; still, it’s interesting to see them cropping up at a time when Wyoming’s fossil fuel economy is in near-freefall and the political culture of the state is becoming more heterogeneous. We think there is a place for our radical cooperative model in Wyoming, but recognize that it needs to be materialized and lived so that people may see its possibility.

Although we’re pluralist about this cooperative economics and culture thing, we bring some basic agreements into Solidarity Collective:

  • we’re committed to cooperation and resource sharing, are practicing partial income-sharing now with a commitment to full income-sharing when all the elements are in place for it
  • we’re feminist, queer- and trans-positive, supportive of everyone’s gender and sexual identities
  • we’re committed to anti-racism and anti-fascism and we also incorporate our own reading of the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism (and the proposed 8th Principle on anti-oppression), although only some of our members are UUs.

There are about twelve people working high-gear on restoration and the financial maintenance of the property–these include core members, family of core members, active supporters who intend to become core members, and active supporters who are just really happy to know we’ve materially actualized a commune here.

That work is formidable and will be a long-term project. The large house has been through many cycles of ups and downs over the past 130 years, and to put it diplomatically, the previous owners and residents left us much work to do. The entire property needs to be re-painted, there is a long list of carpentry work to be done, individual rooms need detail work, parts of the plumbing system need replacement, and even the dirt on the grounds (there is a large pasture are in back) needs to be cleaned of years of being treated like a waste disposal facility.

Until we can do some soil remediation, our food growing systems will have to be independent of the pasture. Planning for vegetable operations and a greenhouse is underway. We have six laying hens now, and hope to raise as many as 40 more next spring, with other animals joining the farm as opportunity grows.

The end goal is a thriving collective, likely through conversion to a trust, but in any case the house and structures and land will exist to provide low- and no-cost, ecologically sustainable living and work space for as many people as it makes sense to live here.

We’ve also launched Solidarity House Cooperative, a worker-democratically-owned and operated production company. Support for our work through this production cooperative is one of the foundational structures of the communal system we are building.

The purpose of Solidarity House Cooperative is to create content, and help others create content, for the promotion of cooperative economics, law, policy and culture. We have initially created three separate podcasts, between which we will produce 8-10 new episodes every month.

Solidarity House: Besides interviewing advocates and activists from all over, we also let the audience into the house to hear about our restoration, governance, and commune-building efforts, our day to day life in an intentional community, and our music! Pilot episode is here and on Podbean.

Cowboys on the Commons: In-depth interviews on cooperative law, economics, policy, and culture. Pilot episode will be released in four days and will be updated here.

Solidarity Wyoming: News and interviews about Wyoming politics and culture. This isn’t your parents’ Wyoming. Pilot episode is here and on Podbean.

We emphasize cooperative economics, law, policy, and culture, through research- and interview-based content. We produce and record original music, and have the capacity to produce podcasts for other organizations and individuals (I have been doing this on contract for three different organizations over the past three years), and seek collaborative relationships with other cooperative content producers and organizations.

There are many ways to support Solidarity Collective, but the easiest and most mutually beneficial way is to subscribe to Solidarity House on Patreon for $5.00 or more per month. Subscriptions directly support the restoration of the house and land and its conversion into an egalitarian ecovillage whose facilities will be available to all cooperative activists regardless of what personal resources people have.

For those wanting to take a deeper dive into support for our group, mission, and principles, Yana Ludwig offers courses and workshops on many of the principles that guide us: conflict resolution, guerrilla consensus, cooperative economics and culture (I lend a hand with the classism stuff), and starting an intentional community. Both in-person and, in some form, remote options exist for these workshops, so if you’re interested, contact Yana, who’s been doing this stuff for a long time. Her book Together Resilient: Building Community in the Age of Climate Disruption was the Communal Studies Association’s 2017 Book of the Year and is available here.

Please consider this my personal ask. Producing, and helping others produce, content promoting cooperative policy and culture is my life work. When I’m not doing it, I don’t feel right. When I am doing it, I can work all day with a smile on my face. My job is to help show that humans can share their stuff, take care of one another, and take care of the earth. After several years of doing this work for other organizations, I think I’ve found a way to turn it into a democratically-owned enterprise, and support many people’s work. I would love your help!

This post is also a call for interested people to send us inquiries about membership in Solidarity Collective and residency on our communal land. The easiest way to connect with us to that end is to join our Facebook group, but if you don’t Facebook, we are still pretty easy to find.

Beyond all that, this post heralds the news that we are landed, active, and unstoppable. It’s time to create an alternative system in the middle of a place that desperately needs one. We’re here and we’re doing it.

Don’t Make Demands on Wage Workers

by Matt
July 27, 2018

So the other day I was having lunch at a restaurant and the service wasn’t good. Non-attentive, took a long time, never asked how I was doing or whether I needed anything. So do you know what I did?

. . . Nothing.

I didn’t stiff the tip. We shouldn’t even have tipping. It encourages harassment and dehumanizes service workers. But as long as it’s a thing, I’ll tip what I can afford regardless of the service.

I didn’t complain to management. That could have gotten a young person in trouble or fired and who knows what effect that might have on their safety or security? Reporting a wage worker to their boss is pretty much like calling the cops on your noisy neighbors. Don’t do it.

Confront the server? Why? If they were occupied with other parts of their job because it was busy there, how would that do anything but make them feel bad? If they were just resting or daydreaming, well good. Wage work is terrible. I have no problem buying them 5 minutes of freedom.

In this world of hierarchy and exploitation, sermons about the “value of hard work” or the “decline of good service workers” are not sensitive to the political and economic realities of our time. My only regret is that I didn’t leave my server a pamphlet about organizing their workplace. Next time.

Don’t discipline wage workers, folks.

Rhetoric, Materiality, and Pants

May 25, 2018

When you point out to orthodox Marxists that they engage in analyzable rhetorical strategies, they act like you’ve just peeped into their living rooms where they’re walking around without pants.

When you point out to non-materialist rhetorical scholars that the artifacts and situations they analyze are grounded in materiality, they act like you’ve just suggested they remove their pants and walk down a crowded street in broad daylight.

(Just an observation by Matt.)

Matt’s Public Banking Series at Occupy.com

by matt on May 14, 2018

Occupy.com is publishing my ten-part series on public banking, “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of the movement, as I told editor Mike Levitin. Here are Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart Four, and Part Five, which was just published today.

Main themes: Public banks are tools, not ends in themselves. It matters how we message them. Thus far, technocratic and even conspiratorial rhetoric has dominated the contemporary movement, although historically, successful public bank advocates (the Non-Partisan League in North Dakota, the Quakers, and even the medieval clergy, have been motivated by strong visions of economic justice. Money, debt, interest, sovereignty–these are all ways of describing material relationships. The foremost question of political economy, and the most important policy question in creating a just banking system, is to co-create and meet needs in sustainable ways. Public banking is an important step on that journey. Again, it matters how we issue all the demands and create all the things.

Part Three is a little bonus story-within-the-story: How a whole lot of California public banking and cannabis activists, and a small organization (Commonomics USA) helped evolve the State Treasurer’s Cannabis Banking Working Group into a test case of arguments for and against public banking–and ultimately a proponent of the paradigm. This was a big deal in my mind, because John Chiang began his leadership of the Working Group by saying its goal was to provide to the cannabis industry the same private banking service other industries get, and has wrapped it up by calling for the exploration of a public banking system that would run across the state’s gargantuan economy while staring the DOJ in the face. That’s some evolution. It’s hopeful stuff.

If you’re interested in all of this and have stuff to say, let’s think about getting some discussions on a podcast–yours, someone else’s, mine, whatever. And, as you might imagine, these ten articles gotta be compiled after the series, so look for whatever package that ends up becoming.

Mug Shots and Bankruptcy Proceedings

May 11, 2018
Matt Stannard

The other day I stumbled upon this example of the practice of publishing people’s bankruptcy proceedings. Declare bankruptcy at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Spokane, and the Tri-City Herald will publish your name, address, total debts, and total assets.

They’re a matter of public record, of course, but one’s conscience asks why such painful information needs to be publicized in this way (if there are public policy-oriented reasons for disseminating bankruptcy information, surely there are better ways to do it), even as one’s legal mind may understand the theoretical reasoning: Bankruptcy is the public legal forgiveness of debt.

But as I cited in a recent public banking article over at Occupy, debt itself is a political and sociological invention.

In his 2011 book Debt: The First 5000 Years, anthropologist David Graeber chronicles the transition from communal systems of sharing – including shared obligations – to capitalism’s assimilation of all relationships into a system that generates profits for investors. Integral to that process is the individuation (and demonization) of debt, one of the many relationships that are stripped away, often through literal violence.

 

In addition to Graeber, in that article I also cite Linda Coco, a law professor and innovative legal clinician concerned with how debt and financial distress damage us. I learned about Professor Coco’s work when I read her 2016 article on bankruptcy as discipline in the Wyoming Law Review. Concerned with how bankruptcy court procedures construct and reinforce a narrative of fiscal failure, Coco concludes:

The bankruptcy petition codes [petitioner’s] financial life according to a legal and procedural logic found in the bankruptcy legal world . . . [their] financial lives and their identities are properly rendered into a recognizable pattern. Their information is fixed within the grid of the schedules and organized over time in the Statement of Financial Affairs. Their financial life is organized and controlled. It becomes legible in two-dimensional space. It is clearly analyzed and rendered for and in the bankruptcy process . . . a normalizing force in American social and cultural life. The internalization by disciplinary techniques of these dominant discourses results in the collective doxa of a group in which “more and more people must attune their conduct to that of others, the web of actions must be organized more and more strictly and accurately, if each individual action is to fill its social function. Individuals are compelled to regulate their conduct in an increasingly differentiated, more even and more stable manner.’  Therefore, discourses of economic utility and individual responsibility create the standards by which individuals compare themselves to each other, the manner in which individuals distinguish themselves, the way that individuals rank and measure each other, generate ideas of good and bad, and ultimately decide what is normal and abnormal behavior. The social group views individuals experiencing over-indebtedness and financial distress as aberrant. Financial failures are people who have not mastered the requirements of economic productivity and utility. According to the economic utility models, individuals experiencing financial difficulty are believed to be unable to exercise restraint and self-control.

Professor Coco’s article is a profound exposition of an insidious ideological machine. Another law professor, similarly concerned, is Mehrsa Baradaran, whose recent prolific work effort proposes that we create supportive, rather than adversarial, relationships with our financial structures. For Baradaran, this reformation includes a more authentic and class-conscious interpretation of the Bank Holding Company Act’s public benefits requirement, and the creation of postal banks with a mandate to provide credit and liquidity to the economically marginalized.

Those would be relatively modest reforms, if we’re being honest with ourselves. But conventional American economic thinking sees such proposals as pretty much Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism. If such a reconciliation of Americans’ material vulnerability with the building of democratized and compassionate financial utilities is difficult to conceive in the present moment, one reason for this is the not just the ritualized discipline of financial failure, but also its ritualized spectacle. These newspaper bankruptcy notices are a manifestation of that spectacle. They are like, although perhaps not completely like, “mugshots” magazines available for sale (because people buy them) in gas station convenience stores across the Midwest.

“Of all capitalism’s tricks,” I wrote in the Occupy article, “the trickiest is convincing people that debt, credit and currency have an objective existence and power beyond what we give them.” Marching debtors out naked onto the public stage while their debts and assets are called out as dry, existing things is one way to reinforce that topos.

Featured image: Philip Nicholas Bankruptcy Proceeding, signed by John Quincy Adams as Commissioner.

200 Red Balloons

He seems older to me.

Whatever else you want to say about Karl Marx (and there’s a lot to say, he doesn’t actually seem like someone I’d have wanted to be friends with), he had a profound, unprecedented critical sensitivity:

    • he possessed an empathy with the excluded periphery of the material and political world,
    • he was capable of finding the classist metaphysical assumptions, the cruel theology, in conventional assumptions about economics, and
    • he spotted, with precision, the ways in which symbolic, legalistic, institutional reforms failed to address the underlying problems they set out to reform.

Materiality always seems to have the last word, even though materialists have a mixed record on understanding oppression holistically. But you can’t get oppression without understanding how wealth, the generation of wealth, differences in wealth, control of systems of production large and small, contextualize it.

While I won’t defend those who insist that economics always comes first, it seems like the more pressing challenge always is convincing people it comes at all. There is a great material interest in obfuscating materiality.

Just search “Marx at 200” today and you’ll find many interesting reads, but a few that stand out are Andrew Hartman’s “Marx at 200: Just Getting Started” and Nigel Gibson on “why the workers’ way of knowing still matters.” Gibson writes:

In his last years, after the Paris Commune of 1871 when working people rose up against the capitalist state, he became interested in alternative paths to socialism. In his Ethnological Notebooks compiled in 1881, he critically read ethnographers, praising the freedom that the Native American Iroquois women had compared to women in “civilized” societies. It was live human beings and their reason that remained essential – not the mechanical materialism that Marxism is often reduced to. Marx was a revolutionary humanist, open to – and inspired by – the new passions and forces that spring up and open new avenues to a truly human society.

But he was also a materialist, and I think we have to be both and more.

matt

 

Guns, Public Spaces, and the Arming of the Commons

by Matt Stannard
March 31, 2018

How should those concerned with economic justice orient ourselves to the discussion about school shootings and the availability of firearms? Many vocal revolutionary lefties have taken the position that “if the cops and white supremacists have guns, we need them too,” and although I don’t necessarily disagree with the principle of revolutionary self-defense (and support oppressed groups defending themselves by whatever means they think necessary), I think it’s important to reflect on the kind of world we are trying to build, as well as the way gun proliferation manifests itself in the capitalist political economy.

Public conversations about safety and security are not exactly self-conscious of their own kierarchic biases; think of how the silly “free range parenting” debate ignores the condition of communities of color, for whom there are often no “free ranges” where children are not in danger of being harassed or murdered by police. Likewise with the debate about whether to allow lethal weapons into public spaces. Liberals will ignore how gun laws hurt oppressed communities. Conservatives will ignore how the weapons industry and the myth of the armed white savior celebrate racist violence against those same communities. I also agree that all laws, including the regulation of firearms, fall harder and more capriciously on people of color—and are often constructed with that very aim. So I’m not looking to extend the hand of a deeply corrupt (even if occasionally redemptive) state onto those communities. At any rate, I’d prefer to debilitate or eliminate the private arms industry rather than punish individuals for possessing guns.

The reason my wrath is reserved for the arms industry is that they make a hell of a lot of cash while lobbying for the wholesale saturation of public and private spaces with guns. Gun lobbyists want guns to be an intrinsic facet of the very structures of everyday life. Besides being an overwhelmingly lethal vision of life, the arming of the Commons is contemporaneous with the privatization, the enclosure, of the Commons. Spaces ruled by the constant threat of lethal violence can be neither free nor cooperative. In the privatize-and-arm paradigm (for the forces behind privatization are absolutely allied with the agenda of the NRA and gun universalists), each affluent home is a well-armed fortress, less-affluent homes depend on the good graces of the wealthier classes (for whom they work anyway), businesses are all lethally armed, able not only to eliminate individual, pathologically disaffected worker-assailants, but also to intimidate workers from collective actions like strikes or slowdowns. In a world where no spaces are unarmed, and people cannot exist in mutual vulnerability, there are no truly public spaces.

Like privatized public spaces, armed public spaces substitute physical force for mutual deliberation, making hierarchies inevitable and participatory governance impossible. So it’s especially disturbing that advocacy of firearm security is focused on turning the “soft targets” of public schools (an especially vulnerable and valuable part of the Commons) into “hard targets.” The construction of the fearful student, the existentially insecure youth, is a fast track to the commodification of life. By defining the lack-of-firearm as a condition of insecurity, we invite the incursion of a warrior class into our already materially overdetermined class relations. All of this makes sense against a backdrop of creeping incipient fascism and neoliberal privatization economics. “Whether wielded by heavily armed police, mass shooters or right-wingers,” Sean Larson writes, “the sheer volume of guns in the U.S. serves to militarize underlying social conflicts.”

That political economy of weaponization is manifest across many current points of the gun debate. So when the White House and Department of Justice promise to aid in the training of armed teachers, they will undoubtedly award firearm training contracts to for-profit gun school cronies. A cluster of banks with proven records of racism and/or criminality–Bank of America, Deutsche Bank, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Fifth Third Bank–are providing financial support to arms corporation Remington, as it slogs through bankruptcy. Other banks have refused to do so, citing public perception and general decency. Conservative lawmakers, put off by insurance companies’ risk market-based reluctance to insure schools where teachers carry firearms, are considering forcing those companies to provide the insurance, an irony several layers deep. Here in Wyoming, gun manufacturing businesses prop up a piece of the state’s conventional economy, and business groups welcome the prospect of new gun manufacturers setting up shop in the Cowboy State.

All of this is part and parcel of an economy based on extraction and exploitation. Citing Pamela Haig and Richard Hofstadter, Sean Larson’s amazing article traces the gun market to the desperation of arms manufacturers when wars end. It begins immediately after the Civil War, when

major gun manufacturers were faced with a dilemma: how to create a civilian gun market when the major demand from the military had fallen off sharply . . . in the 1870s, Winchester advertised its Model 66 as useful for “Indian, Bear or Buffalo hunting.” These early links between gun sales and imperial expansion, however, were nothing compared to the cultural campaigns launched a few decades later . . . During the [First World] war, contracts for the U.S. and allied militaries drastically expanded gun production facilities. But planners were already anticipating the postwar problem of, as Haag puts it, “too many guns and too much capacity for too little demand.” Looking ahead to an era of mass production and diminishing practical need for guns, sales and marketing teams set out to construct and reinforce an ideal gun consumer . . . gun manufacturers took the opportunity to monetize racism and fears of radicalism by advertising “riot guns” to business owners looking to protect their shops from “disturbances, either racial or political,” and promoting their firearms as the only surefire way to protect the “industrial life of the nation.” Such overt efforts to militarize existing class conflicts were part and parcel of a broader plan that Winchester called “the biggest and most carefully planned national advertising campaign ever undertaken by any firm of gun makers in the world.”

And so has it continued and evolved.

It’s impossible for me not to see the entire conversation around the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shootings, and the rash of similar shootings, through this lens of capitalism, privatization, enclosure, and militarization. Thinking about how the warrior culture is embedded in materially hierarchical societies, I think about how the gunman, Nikolas Cruz, was a member of the Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program, as were some of his victims. That program’s Parkland-based marksmanship team was partially funded by the National Rifle Association, meaning that gun lobbyists essentially helped train the assailant and wish also to help train those who try and deter or kill future assailants. I can’t even view stories about the non-responsive, seemingly paralyzed sheriff’s deputies who didn’t even try to stop Nikolas Cruz, without wondering whether they were deadened to the danger of the lethality of Cruz’s weapon, or aware of that danger to the point of being terrified, even as LEOs. There are no good decisions in lethalized spaces, and a society wishing to incentivize good decisionmaking should not saturate such spaces with deadly weapons.

Illustration: The Gun Factory, by Joseph Pennell – Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, Public Domain