Z Media Institute Blog
By Garrett Graham at Jun 07, 2010
Monday, June 7th, 2010
The first day of classes isn't even over yet and already I feel like a new person. A transformed and evolved thinking mammal ready to use new tools to change my environment. I woke up before my alarm went off, perhaps a sub-conscious desire to get started, and we were treated to the best breakfast I've had in a long time. They gave us meal cards so that we can eat at the cafeteria of the oceanographic institute next to the Z House. The food was fantastic and the company even better. If the fresh air has rejuvenated my body, the buzz of revolutionary discourse and mutual excitement about working for a better future has rejuvenated my mind.
Everyone I've spoken too is wonderful, compassionate, generous, humorous, intelligent, and all of them are hell bent on subverting capitalism by any means necessary. Every conversation is refreshing, enlightening, and immediately relevant to my own experiences as an activist. Even just listening in on the conversations of others, I feel the negativity and cynicism melting away among talk of revolution from people who know what they're saying and why. Michael Albert and the rest of the Z Staff ate with us, always stimulating discussion without necessarily dominating the conversation.
The first class was held in a climate-controlled shed in the back of the Z House next to the lake. It was Michael Albert talking about Radical Theory. There are two parts to this class. I won't paraphrase my notes here, but Michael illuminated for us in deliberately plain language the difference between “concepts” and “theory” and how they interact with each other. We broke down the major concepts of Marxism, Feminism, Ethnicity, and Anarchism; revealing them all to be theories, or what Michael likes to call “tools in our toolbox” with the objectives of dismantling oppression caused by different social institutions; exploitation within the economy, family/kinship/gender, race, and political power respectively. These are like the four food groups of revolutionary discourse, with emphasis on a healthy diet that incorporates each without excluding the others. We interrogated each of these theories to reveal their ideological limitations (which they all have) and were introduced to the idea of “Complimentary Holism” which I suspect will be expanded on in latter lectures.
Next was Class and Classlessness taught by Chris Sommers. Whereas Michael's was more of a lecture with frequent questions, this class was much more of an informal conversation about class. We hammered out the properties of class and why class consciousness is necessary before you can have class struggle. Most of this was pretty elementary for us, and he solicited a lot of responses from everybody. Then the conversation turned towards how we can envision a classless society. He started talking about how we can remunerate people for labor in a society without owners or bosses. I immediately recognized the vocabulary of Parecon, and sure enough he steered the conversation towards an introduction to the core values of Parecon, with the objective of classless self-management: Solidarity, Diversity, and Equity.
The first two were easy enough to explain and advocate, but the concept of equity was a bit trickier. This is where the idea of remuneration according to effort as opposed to output comes into play, as well as remuneration according to sacrifice meaning that dangerous or onerous work should pay more than the comfortable and risk-free ones. The key, however, is that no one should be doing only comfortable empowering work or only onerous dangerous work. Balancing the empowering work with the “shit work” is known as a “Balanced Job Complex”. Although only a few people had read anything about Parecon (Although one of the students, Antti Jauhiainen, had translated Participatory Economics into finnish) everyone seemed to be on the same page by the end. Chris gave us a Z-Net article that he wrote in December of 2009 entitled Foundation for Classlessness. I'll have to read that later.
After another terrific meal at the cafeteria of the Oceanographic Institute it was off to the fire station, now a converted public community space, to talk about the State of the Alternative Media with Lydia Sargent. She was delightful to talk to and regaled us with stories of the early days of Z Magazine and the founding of South End Press. There were only four of us attending, but I actually liked the more intimate atmosphere, especially since this was one of the issues I cared the most about. She only spoke for a few minutes before prompting us to think critically about what kinds of media projects we would like to see in our communities. The four of us were already very interested in alternative media, although I seemed to be the only one with any professional media experience, so she didn't need to spend much time convincing us that the state of the mainstream media is dire and the need for alternative media has never been greater.
I pitched to her my idea about creating an open-source template for campus-level activist media networks combining print and online content, this time including the previous evening's suggestions of combining this with the infrastructure of Z-Net. She was very responsive and seemed to really like the idea. I could tell because as I was talking she began writing my name down on a small notepad with fevered scribbles. She said we should definitely talk more, but she had cautionary words and mild skepticism about the financial side of the equation, and she re-emphasized how difficult and crucial sustainability is with projects like these. I nodded and agreed. I was convinced after hearing her stories that she knew what she was talking about, but I stressed to her how much I believed the idea could work and how people in Denton were already committed to trying it. I can't wait to talk to her further.
Then it was back to the Z Shed to finish up Michael Albert's course on Radical Theory. The first half of the lecture was a little hard to follow, and I'll have to go over my notes more thoroughly to fully absorbed what he was trying to say. I got the feeling that the rest of the class felt the same. He was really challenging us to re-think a lot of our identity politics and the dangers of viewing revolutionary struggle through an exclusively Marxist, Feminist, Racial, or Anarchist lens and how this can cause movements to lose focus and fall apart. This is what allowed Vanguard Marxists to centrally plan the economy, thus crowning themselves as the new “coordinator class”, without seeing that they were the new oppressor making decision for the working class. This is what allows Anarchists to shoot themselves in the foot by never taking power or having a plan for the economy.
This is what allowed S.D.S. and the anti war movement in the 1960's, made up largely of Marxists and Anarchists, to be so militant in their opposition to the war in Vietnam without seeing or addressing the sexist oppression they were inflicting on their sisters within the movement. It's also what initially prevented well-meaning white college students from seeing that ending segregation and winning rights for black people should not be contingent on the organizing and good graces of white middle class men. Black people needed to be able to organize their civil rights movement themselves without white Marxists and Anarchists telling them how they should resist their own oppression. And of course, even within the civil rights movement and the Black Panthers specifically, you have all kinds of blatant and systemic sexism and heterosexism.
All of these movements have their merits and demerits. The problem seems to arise when a movement organizes exclusively against the oppression created by the economy, the war, sexism, racism, or political power. The people in those movements then assume ideologies and identities. Are you a Communist? An Anarchist? An Anarchist-Communist? What kind of Anarchist? Are you a Feminist too? What do these labels mean when we adopt them as our identities? I don't know the answers to all of this, and I still don't feel like I fully understand “complimentary holism”, but I think I understand the phenomenon Albert is describing. It doesn't mean that we just take all of the revolutionary theories in equal portions and throw them into our toolbox at face-value. (In my opinion we can forget about Stalinism, Egoism, Anarcho-Capitalism, Maoism, Primitivism, etc.) but it does mean that we need to think of ourselves more as scientists testing a hypothesis than believers having faith in a particular dogma. We have to, at all times, reserve the right to evolve.
I learned a new word from one of the students; “Peter Pan-archists”. She offered it up as an example when Michael asked us if we knew any people looking at the world exclusively through one of these lenses in a really counter-productive way. I took it to mean the kind of individualist anarchists who are predominantly white middle-class males (like myself) who believe that they can change the world without ever having to leave their Punk Rock Neverland of spray paint and broken windows. Not all “anarcho-punks” behave this way, but it is a common theme. It's a cultural culdesac that excludes a great many people in favor of D.I.Y. fashion and “lifestyle” anarchism superseding the need to organize class struggle in a way that is strategic and likely to win. The revolution has to be for everybody, not just those that can afford to pull off a lifestyle designed around a particular scene of music as opposed to a future classless society.
After our classes we had a social hour. Nothing terribly structured, just a cooler full of beer and an hour to sit around and chat. Some people continue serious discussions indoors, others choose to lounge outside and tell stories. I still can't believe how nice it is outside. I practiced a little yoga by the water. Everyone is smiling in the sun. This place feels too good to be true.
Every evening after classes we will be retiring to the basement of the local library to hear a special guest lecture. Tonight we will be hearing Ron Daniels talk about the Haitian revolution. I didn't take notes for this one because I was afraid my typing would be distracting and because I expected a lot of his talk to be a review of Haitian history. Earlier that year I had helped organize a special forum on Haiti with several guest speakers and presentations on Haitian history and culture. I learned a lot from it, and by the end of it we raised something like $1,500.00 to aid in the relief effort. I was glad to hear a lot of stuff I already knew, if only because it reassured me that I had done my research with some measure of competence. I would have been very embarrassed if I discovered that I had gotten it all wrong. Ron Daniels was a charismatic speaker with a lot of style. I wish that he had been available to speak at our event. Some of our speakers were a bit sub-par. Ron really brought the Haitian revolution alive for everyone. I am excited to hear that he is going to be teaching the class tomorrow on institutional racism. I'm looking forward to it.
Later I went and had a beer with some of the guys. I wasn't expecting to. I rarely ever drink in bars. It's just not my style and not my scene, but then I realized why; all of the bars in Denton are occupied by obnoxious frat boys at all hours of the day. This is a tiny village full of fisher-folk and scientists. So I decided to go. I only had two beers. We talked about the pros and cons of the Zeitgeist films, the state of the left and alternative media, and then got a little serious when the subject of Israel and the recent deaths of several human rights activists with the Free Gaza Movement when the IDF attacked their flotilla in international waters, but then the subject changed and we started poking fun at Alex Jones and the New World Order crowd. Crazy shit man. I walked back to my hotel room a little drunk. That was expensive beer. Maybe they knew we were out-of-townees.