Polyvalent Power: A Review of the “Power” Issue of “Perspectives on Anarchist Theory”

Originally published on It’s Going Down.

“A Love Supreme,” by Erin Bree of Gallery of the Streets, from issue 32 of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory.

During the height of the movement against neoliberal globalization in the U.S., numerous chants and sayings emerged or were resuscitated, such as, “This is what democracy looks like” or “The whole world is watching.” Fortunately, along with the phenomenon of summit-hopping itself, these utterances have largely fallen into disuse. A particularly nonsensical saying from that moment was “Speaking truth to power.” First coined by Bayard Rustin for a pamphlet he co-wrote in 1955, called Speaking Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence, the notion has been rightfully critiqued by the likes of Noam Chomsky, who stated, “power knows the truth already, and is busy concealing it.”[1] Yet even this does not go far enough, as it maintains the presumption latent in the slogan that there exists a binary between those with power and those without it, or that power as such is a thing one can speak to.

Theorists from Spinoza to Gramsci to Foucault have attempted to wrestle with the question of what power is, arriving at no agreement aside from the fact that power is no one thing. In this sense, power can be understood as being “overdetermined,” a Freudian concept appropriated by Marxist theorists which, as explained by Stuart Hall, allows that “an idea, a symptom, or a dream symbol can itself be the condensation of a set of different chains of meaning, which are not manifest in the way in which the symbol is given.…One has to conceive of it as overdetermined; that is, the same symbol can be determined at different levels, by different kinds of discourses.”[2] The exploration of this discursive malleability of power, as well as the capacity of power to reify certain discourses, is at the heart of the most recent edition of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, volume number 32, published in May of this year by the Institute for Anarchist Studies and oriented around the theme of “Power.”

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Things We Aren’t Supposed to Talk About

Thanks for being real, Jarad. RIP.

Content Warning: Includes discussion of self harm and suicide.

For T, J, T, R, and E

I have the annoying habit of smiling all the time. It’s a defense mechanism. It is meant to make someone like me, to appear friendly, amiable and amenable, and to wordlessly deflect any inquiry into my mood or state-of-being. It’s designed to pacify, to make one not worry about me. It began in childhood and is now reflexive. It takes conscious effort, active thought, and muscle manipulation to not smile. For decades I have heard about my “beautiful smile” and how “Scott is always smiling.”

As related to me by my parents, once I was able to crawl, when I had to cry, I would crawl into an empty room to do it, so as not to bother anyone. Though I can now walk, I still do that today. Smile all the way into the empty room, or car, or bathroom floor, until I can weep freely. Though even that’s not true: I try to avoid making too much noise so as not to attract attention.

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Note from a moment

January 1, 2021

I’m not one to give the new year much significance. It seems an imposed and arbitrary marker. While reflection upon the Earth completing one orbit around the sun does contain an offering of awe, there is no need for a churchly calendar to determine when that happens. And as with all events that once commemorated and reaffirmed the human’s place among the natural, spiritual, and cosmological, the new year has been emptied and rendered into spectacle. Now it is more a reminder of the severing of our beings from that which we co-created over millennia and has been ensnared in a system that demands forgetting, produces oblivion, and sells it in the name of progress.

It rained earlier this week for the first time in months. Heavy and steady. From where I sit, the nearby peaks are coated in snow. The sky is clear; the air is crisp and juniper scented; the birds flit and chatter among the trees. Not long ago, those peaks weren’t visible, as the air was thick with the smoke of numerous fires, and the only rain that fell was ash. While dates are ultimately circumstantial, today carries a feel of cleansing or reprieve from a year engulfed by flames, fears, breathlessness, and losses.

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May 9: “Deciding For Ourselves: Direct Democracy in Times of Disaster” Online Panel

Last month, the anthology Deciding for Ourselves: The Promise of Direct Democracy was published by AK Press. As part of #RadicalMay, an multilingual series of online events organized by the recently formed Radical Publishers Alliance, editor Cindy Milstein and contributors Dilar Dirik, Asbjørn Nielsen, and I will participate in the online panel “Deciding For Ourselves: Direct Democracy in Times of Disaster” on Saturday, May 9 at 3pm EDT/12pm PDT.

You can register and read more about it here. It is free, but any donations will go to Mutual Aid Disaster Relief. From the event listing:

In this time of coronavirus-related disaster, people everywhere are looking for solutions. It’s clear that neither governments nor the capitalist economy can provide them. In almost every respect that matters, we’ll have to deal with this mess on our own. But how?

A better world through self-determination and self-governance is not only achievable. It was already happening before this pandemic, in urban and rural communities around the world as an implicit or explicit replacement for hierarchical social control. In this panel discussion, participants in such projects will share their insights and lessons, applying them to the situation we’re facing today. Diverse forms of direct democracy offer us not only a way to organize in times of crisis but also the best chance of creating the worlds we dream about, because they allow us to determine together, dynamically over time, what we need and want in our own distinctive contexts. Let’s build and dream together!

The Haunting Gaze of the Pandemic

Also reposted on Gods & Radicals Press

Sleep comes fitfully if at all anymore. In this I know I am not alone. At their due hour, the yawns, lethargy, and drooping eyelids make their appearances. Yet slumber comes not. Pills of concoctions both chemical and herbal are consumed in conjunction with pleas to Hypnos. But to no avail. Unlike past episodes of sleeplessness, there are no fiercely ruminating thoughts. Oddly, the mind is relatively quiet. All the same, consciousness will not abate. As I lie amidst the passing hours, a restless presencing inhibits the transition to sleep. Invading both body and mind, but perhaps most powerfully agitating the soul, it seems best described as a haunting.

Contemplating this experience, I’m drawn to a passage in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, where Carl Jung recalls the events immediately precipitating his writing of the gnostic Seven Sermons to the Dead:

It began with a restlessness, but I did not know what it meant or what “they” wanted of me. There was an ominous atmosphere all around me. I had the strange feeling that the air was filled with ghostly entities. Then it was as if my house began to be haunted…. The whole house was filled as if there were a crowd present, crammed full of spirits. They were packed deep right up to the door, and the air was so thick it was scarcely possible to breathe.

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Out Now: “Deciding for Ourselves: The Promise of Direct Democracy”

While it emerges in the midst of tragic and difficult circumstances, I am excited for the release of the anthology Deciding for Ourselves: The Promise of Direct Democracy, edited by Cindy Milstein and to which I contributed the chapter “The Bonfires of Autonomy in Cherán.” As we make our way through this time of loss and uncertainty and begin to think about what comes next, I hope it may offer some insight and inspiration.

It’s now available for a short time on a “Pay What You Can” basis from AK Press.

As the book description reads, “A better world through self-determination and self-governance is not only achievable. It is already happening in urban and rural communities around the world.” This is what Deciding for Ourselves dives into, a theme that couldn’t feel more pressing and necessary.

My contribution looks at the indigenous P’urhépecha municipality of Cherán, located in Michoacán, Mexico. For the past nine years, Cherán has operated under a form of autonomous communal government after a popular uprising removed cartels, local police, politicians and political parties from the area. While the story of the rebellion and its immediate aftermath have been well documented, the chapter takes an in-depth look at how the communal government functions and meets the daily needs of Cherán’s residents, why the government took the form that it did, and how life has changed and is experienced in a place where community and government are woven into a shared communal fabric.

If mutual aid, solidarity, autonomy, self-determination and collective liberation are ideas that interest or resonate with you, this book is worth picking up. And at up to 75% off, it’s a great deal that also helps support an independent radical publisher.

Farewell, George

In fond and rebellious memory of George Salzman, who passed on at the age of 94 in Oaxaca, Mexico, on January 27, 2020. Intended to be shared at a memorial for him today in Boston, now cancelled due to the coronavirus.

When I heard you died, first, I froze. Then, I wept.

Next, I dug out old memories, questioning their veracity but wanting so badly to see your face I gladly indulged them.

I went to a park, walked a looping trail in a field sparsely populated by ponderosa pine.

When I last saw you, you said you didn’t do much walking anymore. But that you still tried to climb the stairs to the Guelaguetza auditorium to get some exercise.

I think you would’ve been able to join on this walk. Had you not renounced your US citizenship.

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The Disease of Modernity: Coronavirus and the Myth of Institutional Failure

Originally posted on It’s Going Down

Last week, in a class I teach, we were discussing the concept of “posthuman suffering,” which can be understood in two different ways. In the mundane sense, it is the experience of a negative emotion resulting from our dependence on technology and especially when a technology fails. For example, if you must complete an online task for work or school and the internet goes out, you may feel frustrated, irresponsible, or inadequate, despite the fault of the situation and your resulting emotional experience of it lying completely with the technology and not with you. In a deeper sense, posthuman suffering manifests as “ontological angst” brought on by the awareness that we are biological entities dependent upon technology in order to survive, to know ourselves, and to know the world around us. This awareness has implications for the construction of our sense of self as human beings when simply to be is contingent on a technological other distinct from us. As class was ending on that point, a student shared that the college just announced a temporary halt to in-person classes due to the coronavirus.

It is not difficult to see posthuman suffering play out in the face of this pandemic. In the US, we have seen test kits that don’t work or don’t exist, systems of technology that spread misinformation or fear, access to medical technologies denied to those who are or may be sick, etc. This is amplified by the emphatic, ever-present reminder of our biological fragility, the gaze toward technoscience to save us, and the worry and helplessness upon realizing that it might not – indeed, that it already has not for thousands of people.

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Support the upcoming book “Teaching Resistance: Radicals in the Classroom”

Teaching Resistance: Radicals, Revolutionaries, and Cultural Subversives in the Classroom is an impressive anthology coming out next month from PM Press incorporating a wide variety of voices examining the practice of radical education both inside and outside the classroom. I’m honored to have a piece included in the collection that chronicles and analyzes the militant 2016 teachers’ strike in Mexico which occurred across several states, was met with severe state repression, and led to broader popular rebellion, particularly in Oaxaca. (Here’s a piece from 2016 providing a brief snapshot of some of the events of that struggle.)

In order to print and distribute as many copies as possible, PM Press is running a Kickstarter campaign through which folks can pre-order the book. There are ten days left on the campaign and I encourage you to support it if you’re able and please help spread the word. Here’s more info on the book:

Teaching Resistance: Radicals, Revolutionaries, and Cultural Subversives in the Classroom is a collection of the voices of fierce, activist educators from around the world with a focus on those in and around DIY/punk subculture who engage inside and outside the classroom from pre-kindergarten to university.

More than just a book for teachers, Teaching Resistance is for anyone who wants to explore new ways to subvert educational systems and institutions, collectively transform (and re-imagine) educational spaces, and empower students and other teachers to fight for genuine change. Topics include community self-defense, Black Lives Matter and critical race theory, intersections between punk/DIY subculture and teaching, ESL, anarchist education, Palestinian resistance, trauma, working-class education, prison teaching, the resurgence of (and resistance to) the Far Right, special education, antifascist pedagogies, and more.

Thanks for supporting radical education and radical publishing!

Four years without justice “in this country that is no longer ours”

A few words of introduction:

Four years ago, on July 31, 2015, five lives were taken in a Mexico City apartment. They were Nadia Vera Pérez, Yesenia Quiroz Alfaro, Mile Virginia Martín, Olivia Alejandra Negrete Avilés, and Rubén Espinosa Becerril. Their torture and execution-style killings received international attention, in particular because Nadia Vera, a social justice organizer and human rights defender, and Rubén Espinosa, a photojournalist, had fled to Mexico City from Veracruz following attacks and death threats due to their work. Before her murder, Nadia stated that should anything happen to her, it would be Javier Duarte who was responsible. Duarte was then governor of Veracruz and is now serving a nine-year sentence for corruption after he fled the country and was extradited from Guatemala. During his rule, widespread human rights abuses were the norm, including the assassination of journalists and political opponents.

While a few people have been detained for the murders, the state’s investigation has been egregiously irregular, incompetent, and disrespectful to the victims and their families. Over the course of four years, it has offered a variety of narratives – from a robbery gone bad to a cartel settling of accounts – yet, unsurprisingly, has assiduously avoided investigating the most likely scenario, that it was an extrajudicial assassination ordered and organized by state actors.

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