Remembering the Centennial of the German Revolution

Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg on a 1949 Stamp issued by the German Democratic Republic

By Ben M

(Remarks given at November General Meeting for the Boston Democratic Socialists of America)

This month we commemorate not just the ending of World War One, but also the revolution that brought about that peace. A week ago, the 11th, marked the centennial of the signing of the armistice that ended 4 and a half years of unmitigated carnage and destruction. Nearly 10 million soldiers died in the Great War, as well as millions more civilians, all essentially for nothing. There was no great cause, no great meaning to their sacrifice, just the callous interests of empires and capitalists re-carving the world. Trenches, bombing of civilians, mustard gas, tanks, genocide, and artillery barrages characterized this the great meat grinder that they thought to call the Great War. And those aforementioned capitalists and imperialists had every intention to continue the carnage till nothing remained of Europe but ruins if it weren’t for what Trotsky would call, “the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.”1

Last year there was a lot of talk and discussion about the centennial of the Russian Revolution, we here in Boston DSA had some reading groups and discussions ourselves. One of the many features of that event was it took a revolution, technically two revolutions, to pull Russia out of World War One. Truth be told it wasn’t the best of exits, Soviet Russia would be made to suffer for its willingness to obtain peace at any price, but it set the stage.

For in all of the mainstream articles and talk this past week about the centennial of the end of World War One, a particular fact is often absent. It wasn’t the diplomats, politicians, kings, presidents, emperors, generals, admirals, or well-meaning liberal journalists that finally ended the war. It was the soldiers, sailors, and workers of Germany who ended it by throwing down their weapons and refusing to die anymore for the Kaiser. In doing so, to quote Chris Harmen, “the Prussian monarchy had reigned for hundreds of years. It ruled the whole of Germany for half a century. Now it collapsed in a few short days and hardly a shot was fired in its defense.”2

So I am not going to give a quick play by play run down to the end of the Prussian Monarchy and World War One, and the start of the German Revolution 100 years ago this month:

In the weeks prior to the revolution, socialist and communist (technically the Independent Social-Democrats and the proto Spartacus League, respectively) had been agitating and even preparing for an uprising to bring to the end the war and empire. But it was at the German naval base in Kiel on November 3rd where 20,000 sailors refused to fight any longer for a pointless war that couldn’t be won. The German Navy, which had largely stayed out of the war till now with the exception of the U-Boats, decided it was time to go down fighting. Literally, the admiralty thought it was best to send the fleet out to certain death at this stage, going down in the blaze of glory, which, interestingly enough, would involve no admirals getting killed. The sailors thought this was a terrible idea and mutinied in the 10s of thousands.

The sailors and dock workers quickly formed elected councils of soldiers, sailors, and workers to plan the revolt. Socialists and Communist joined the movement. With the fear of reprisals, again they were all mutineers at this point, the only choice was to spread the revolt and by November 7th sailors were travelling along the railways freeing prisoners and recruiting more soldiers and workers to the cause.

The City of Bremen fell to the council of workers, sailors, and soldiers on the 9th, Kiel on the 7th, the provincial capital of Bavaria also on the 7th, City of Efrut on the 8th. To quote Pierre Broue, “The news from every part of Germany on the night of 8-9 November confirmed it: here the sailors and there the soldiers organized demonstrations, whilst workers came out on strike. Workers and soldiers councils were elected. The prisons were attacked and opened. The red flag, emblem of world revolution, floated over the public buildings.”3

On the November 9th revolution came to Berlin. To quote E.O Volkmann, “the day Marx and his friend desired all their lives had come at last. The Revolution was on the march in the capital of the empire. The firm tread, in step, of the workers battalions echoed in the streets.”4

Some army officers tried to organize resistance at the universities, libraries, and the Reichstag building, but they were all swept aside by the crowds without firing a shot.

At the Imperial Palace, now taken over by the crowd, Karl Liebknecht, the revolutionary socialist who was a parliament member but was sent to jail and then the front, spoke from the balcony to the crowd, proclaiming a German Socialist Republic. He said; “The rule of capitalism, which turned Europe into a cemetary, is henceforward broke. We now have to strain out strength to construct the workers and soldiers government and new proletarian state, a state of peace, joy, and freedom for our German brothers and our brothers throughout the whole world.”5

But at that same moment, just a 27-minute walk according to google maps away at the Reichstag building, the moderate and pro-war socialist Friedrich Ebert had just reluctantly proclaimed the “German Republic.” Not a socialist or workers republic, just a regular republic.

This contradiction, between the vision of a workers socialist republic, and a more moderate “normal” republic, would battle for the soul of Germany for the next five years through multiple mass strikes, aborted revolutions, attempted coups, and more. In the end it would culminate not with a republic of any form, but the rise of Nazi totalitarianism.

But that is a longer story. Regardless, on November 10th the Kaiser had already abdicated and was in exile in the Netherlands, on the 11th World War One was over. It took all of a week from the first mutiny to bring the whole war and the whole war making edifice down.

For those who want to read more on this subject I would suggest:

And with that I will give the last words to Rosa Luxemburg: “The great criminals of this fearful unchained chaos – the ruling classes – are not able to control their own creation. The beast of capital that conjured up the hell of the world war is incapable of banishing it, of restoring real order, of insuring bread and work, peace and civilization, justice and liberty, to tortured humanity. What is being prepared by the ruling classes as peace and justice is only a new work of brutal force from which the hydra of oppression, hatred and fresh bloody wars raises its thousand heads. Socialism alone is in a position to complete the great work of permanent peace, to heal the thousand wounds from which humanity is bleeding, to transform the plains of Europe, trampled down by the passage of the apocryphal horseman of war, into blossoming gardens, to awaken all the physical and moral energies of humanity, and to replace hatred and dissension with internal solidarity, harmony, and respect for every human being.”

Fundamentals of Ecosocialism

by Becca M, Chris H, Michelle Y & Nafis H

On Ecosocialism

On Wednesday, August 22nd, about 50 people gathered at the Cambridge Public Library to hear four members of Boston DSA speak on an introduction to ecosocialism.This article is a recap of the concepts discussed at the panel and discusses the central tenets of ecosocialism, and ongoing ecosocialist struggles within DSA nationwide.

Basics of capitalism, socialism, and ecosocialism

Marx described society as divided into two classes – the bourgeoisie who own and control the means of production and the proletariat (worker) who sell their labor in exchange for wages (source). The wages paid to workers are always less than the value of the labor provided to ensure capitalist accumulation on behalf of the owner. While today, many of us cannot imagine a society without capitalism, this system of economic and social organization hasn’t been around for most of human history.

Capitalism was, in part, pioneered by the Spanish and Portuguese through their genocidal colonization of the Canary and Madeira Islands in 1400s. Madeira was uninhabited, but the Canary Islands were home to the Guanches people who were either killed or enslaved by the colonizers. These islands initially served as sources for timber that would be sent to European mainland; in late 1400s, African slaves were brought to Madeira for sugarcane farming. Madeira quickly became the leading sugar producer for Europe, peaking at 2,500 tons in 1506. However, by 1530, output had dropped by 90% due to the depletion of the island’s natural resources (wood, soil), indicating the boom-and-bust nature of capitalism. Madeira served as one of the earliest examples of capitalist exploitation, and this model would be repeated by colonial powers in the New World (source).

madeira capitalism
Courtesy: https://daily.jstor.org/madeira-the-island-that-helped-invent-capitalism/

So how do we fight modern day capitalism that is driving us towards extinction? According to Michael Lowy, one of the leading proponents of the school of thought, ecosocialism is defined as “a current of ecological thought and action that appropriates the fundamental gains of Marxism while shaking off its productivist dross. For ecosocialists, the market’s profit logic, and the logic of bureaucratic authoritarianism within the late departed “actually existing socialism”, are incompatible with the need to safeguard the natural environment.” (source)

Simply put, ecosocialism envisions a transformed society that is in harmony with nature, and the development of practices that can attain it. Such practices are also aimed at dismantling socially and ecologically destructive systems such as fossil-fuel based economy, racism, patriarchy, homophobia, and ableism among others. An ecosocialist strategy recognizes that “a future reconciled with nature and the essence of humanity requires a radical change of perspective, a radical democratic change in certain means of production and consumption which puts in the central position of life the people’s basic needs, which should be determined democratically and in accordance to the biophysical limits of the planet.” (source).  

Examples of ongoing ecosocialist struggles

From North Dakota to Puerto Rico to Palestine, communities are rising up in ecosocialist struggles to protect their environment.For example, Standing Rock was a indigenous-led resistance against the construction of the $3.7 billion Dakota Access Pipeline, whose planned route was half a mile from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Standing Rock was more broadly a movement to oppose neo-colonialism and extractivism on stolen land that lasted from April 2016 until February 2017. Coordinated efforts between Energy Transfer Partners, the North Dakotan government, local police, private security forces suppressed the movement, including the usage of militarized “counterterrorism” tactics (source). Since the movement began, there have been over 50 anti-protest bills introduced across the country, including ones painting/tampering with infrastructure facilities as domestic terrorism, introduced by Republicans and Dems alike. The fight against new fossil fuel infrastructure continues in the US, Canada, and abroad including fights against the Bayou Bridge pipeline in Louisiana which is part of the greater DAPL system.

Puerto Rico is a case study in disaster capitalism post-Hurricane Maria, which ravaged the island in September 2017. The government has treated the post-hurricane context not as an environmental crisis, but as a way of accelerating certain austerity measures, like the privatization of practically all public services (e.g. water distribution, public utilities, education). Additionally, the government has been courting capital investors and entrepreneurs through low taxes. Note that most of Puerto Rico is still in a deep electric power crisis as recovery has been drawn out after the hurricane. In terms of pushback against disaster capitalism, PR residents and unions have been staging protests/work stoppages against austerity. For instance, the UTIER is a radical union operating the electric power authority. They are fighting against reduced pay, safety regulations, etc. and have consistently denounced the ongoing privatization, while calling for public control over energy and water utilities. There are also several anti-capitalist organizations and coalitions based in PR working to fight disaster capitalism (source).

Water in Palestine is almost entirely controlled by Israel, per the (supposedly temporary) Oslo Agreement of 1993, which stipulated that 80% of water from a joint Israeli-Palestinian mountain aquifer would be allotted for Israeli use, and 20% for Palestinian use. However, in reality water usage by Palestinians is closer to 10% due to problems with water infrastructure. The agreement also stated that Palestine can purchase an allotted amount of water from Israel – so water is not a shared resource, but a commodity and a means of control (source). Additionally, the water crisis is exacerbated by Israeli bombings of power plants, which have destroyed (among other things) water treatment capabilities. Israeli authorities often block construction of water infrastructure and sometimes even demolish existing infrastructure. As a result, much of the water that is available to begin with is polluted (source).

There are many more ongoing ecosocialist struggles than there was time to discuss, but it’s clear how environmental issues are extremely political, and used as weapons of oppression and of upholding capitalist interests. The relation between capitalism and imperialism is perhaps best encapsulated by The Belém Declaration, announced at the Ecosocialist conference in Brazil in 2009.

Environmental Ideologies

There exists a few different schools of environmental thought that include liberal environmentalism, ecomodernism, ecofascism, and degrowth as a means to ecosocialism. Understanding these schools of thought help contextualize the above ongoing struggles.

Liberal environmentalism

Liberal environmental organizations include groups like the Sierra Club, 350, or Audubon and World Wildlife Fund. They typically focus on campaigns with fairly narrow scopes that can be pursued by pressuring officials or passing legislation, with recent examples in Massachusetts that include campaigns to convince Governor Baker (R) to pass carbon pricing legislation, to pass a bill that would protect bees, or to ban the use of plastic straws. The movement to ban plastic straws, which some consider to have originated after a 2015 video showing a straw lodged in a sea turtle’s nose and has recently been championed by Starbucks, is a perfect example of this orientation. Banning plastic straws affects individual’s consumption habits and experts ranked straws 13th out of 20 plastic items in terms of danger to marine life (Wilcox et al, 2016). For comparison, fishing gear was ranked the most dangerous and comprises about 46% of the of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (Lebreton et al 2017). This singular focus on a winnable campaign around banning one consumer item has also ignored protest from people with disabilities who frequently have no good alternatives to single use straws and are already marginalized by our society.

In addition to typically favoring market driven and legislative approaches to problems, liberal environmentalists also have the perspective that humans are separate from nature, and pursue species and land conservation that isolates one from the other. In reality, indigenous people who use or manage a quarter of the Earth’s surface are more twice as likely to keep lands “natural” compared to other lands [sources – summary and Garnett et al, 2018]. When enacted as policy, this separation of humans from nature can cause displacement when land that is being used is turned into a conservation area if land tenure had not been established or if access to land is considered part of the commons. Enforcement of these conservation zones may require “special bodies of armed men” or other punitive measures. For example, park rangers shot and killed a man from the Batwa tribe in eastern Congo who had been looking for medicinal plants. The Batwa tribe had used this land for generations but had lost rights when a German-funded national park was put in place for species conservation.

Ecomodernism

John Bellamy Foster, in his review of the Jacobin climate change issue, wrote the following; “What is remarkable about the contributions to Jacobin‘s special issue on the environment and related works by its writers and editors is how removed they are from genuine socialism—if this involves a revolution in social and ecological relations, aimed at the creation of a world of substantive equality and environmental sustainability. What we get instead is a mechanistic, techno-utopian “solution” to the climate problem that ignores the social relations of science and technology, along with human needs and the wider environment. Unlike ecological Marxism and radical ecology generally, this vision of a state-directed, technocratic, redistributive market economy, reinforced by planetary geoengineering, does not fundamentally challenge the commodity system.”

ecomodernism
Source:http://www.ecomodernism.org/

Ecomodernism is the theory that our climate and environmental problems may be solved with little to no changes to our behavior because we will invent technological solutions (e.g nuclear, carbon capture and storage, afforestation, geoengineering, etc.), or what climate scientist and IPCC author Kevin Anderson calls a “shameful litany of technocratic fraud”. These technological solutions are purported to “decouple” GDP and carbon emissions, or more generally, GDP and environmental impact. As the Indigenous Environmental Network report on these methods describes, carbon offsetting, “clean development”, and cap and trade are market mechanisms that have not worked yet and often cause harm under capitalism with market forces.

Ecofascism

Back in 1798, in “An Essay on the Principle of Population”, Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus theorized that exponential population growth with a fixed growth of the food supply would result in catastrophe unless preventative measures were taken. These preventative measures include methods of birth control or suppression, which as you can probably guess usually ends up with race, gender, and class based oppression. Karl Marx was a critic of Malthus, calling him a “lackey of the bourgeoisie” who blamed workers for capitalist excess.

The belief lived on as society became dedicated to the idea into the late 1800s to early 1900s, partly thanks to the rise of eugenics and racism against non-white people. The discovery of the Haber-Bosch process that produces synthetic nitrate used in both bombs and fertilizers, and the resulting “Green Revolution” that industrialized our agriculture, cast doubts on the theory of linear food growth. Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book, “The Population Bomb” revived the idea of population control. Written at the recommendation of the director of the Sierra Club at the time, Ehrlich connects population with environmental impact . He also advocated for forced population control and was one of the influences behind forced sterilization programs. Otherwise, the legacy of Malthus’ concern over population is commonly manifested in “eco-nationalists” or “eco-fascists” who are very concerned with birth rates, immigration, open borders, reparations, or emissions reductions. We should all know this originates from xenophobia and white supremacy, and as socialists that see the connectedness of struggles against oppression and the threat of fascism, we should be in the forefront of countering these eliminationist ideologies [example].

ehrlich book

Ecofascism is even prevalent in liberal discourse. The United States, which remains “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world”, considers climate change to be a “threat multiplier”. Under Obama, the Department of Defense released a report that said climate change will, aggravate existing problems — such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions — that threaten domestic stability in a number of countries. In other words, climate change will make it harder to uphold American imperialism that enables our unethical consumption.

Ecosocialism through degrowth

Is the earth’s balance, for which no-growth – or even degrowth – of material production is a necessary condition, compatible with the survival of the capitalist system?’” – André Gorz (1972)

In advanced capitalist economies there is a strong correlation between increases in GDP and carbon emissions. Decoupling is the idea that GDP can grow without increased CO2 emissions because of things like increased efficiency. However we can’t just count on efficiency gains, because as the Jevons Paradox [reference] suggests we might simply use more energy/resources as efficiency increases. For first world countries, degrowth means the intentional downsizing of our economy by limiting energy, material, and labor inputs, and by shutting down socially unnecessary or harmful industries. Degrowth means a shift away from growth as a strategy of developing or organizing society.

In her article “Living, Not Just Surviving”, Alyssa Battistoni argues for reorganizing society to promote traditionally feminized type of labor, which also happen to be low carbon intensity, including care, education, and creative work. Much of this work is currently non-compensated or made invisible by gender relations. This means that degrowth in an ecosocialist, feminist society also needs to recognize and re-work gender relations. The vision of a society practicing degrowth is actually richer, with more time to do what you want to be doing (cooking, art, music, dance, seeing family, hiking, etc). For socialists in the imperial core, degrowth is an important component and first step toward climate reparations. For the Global South, degrowth means being allowed to choose their path. Right now global markets forces control their choices to a large extent. Examples like “Buen Vivir” from Andean indigenous culture (Aymara & Quechua) reject development through growth, and envision a fulfilling and radically democratic way of living.

Liberal environmentalism, ecomodernism and eco-fascism all fail to realize the solution to climate catastrophe cannot be individual change alone. Only through system change will we address the root cause of climate change.

How does the DSA practice ecosocialism?

The DSA has several ongoing ecosocialist projects across the country, particularly around divestment, public banking, and energy justice. Divestment and reinvestment campaigns aim to get rid of fossil fuel sponsorships, stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are morally ambiguous from state/union pension funds, university funds and religious institutions that use these funds to generate income to keep operations running. In New York, for example, Mayor Di Blasio announced in January 2018 a plan to divest $189 billion worth of retirement funds from fossil fuel corporations within five years, and to sue oil companies. This only happened with intense pressure from environmental groups, and it remains uncertain what the funds will be re-invested into. NYC DSA climate justice group was a coalition partner on work to divest from Wells Fargo and defund DAPL.

mazaskatalks
Graphic showing major financial investors in three key pipelines in North America (courtesy: mazaskatalks.org)

A public bank is a financial institution owned by the government, funded with taxpayer money, and is directly accountable to elected officials and civil servants. They offer a transparent alternative to private banks, lower debt costs to city and state governments. There is currently only 1 in the US, the Bank of North Dakota; the bank loaned the state $6 million for law enforcement at DAPL protest site. Public banks are not a radical idea, they are a large part of the financial sector of developed nations like Germany and Switzerland. In Massachusetts, the BDSA Ecosocialist working group did some research around a public banking bill but ultimately decided against endorsing/putting energy and resources towards moving it forward because the bank can fund capital projects including new police stations and there are few transparency measures to keep the bank accountable to the public instead of industry.

#NationalizeGrid

ProvDSA NG
Image Courtesy: Providence DSA

More than 90% of Rhode Island is served by National Grid, which serves 3.3 million people for electricity, and 3.4 million for gas (source). The state’s public utility commission (PUC) is the only regulating body that keeps it in check. The PUC is made up of three appointed commissioners and serve to set the terms of debate around utility rates, tariffs, tolls, and charges, as well as the power to approve or reject proposed rate increases and infrastructure projects (source). Essentially, the PUC functions to ensure the profits of National Grid and give green lights to their projects.

Providence DSA started a chapter-wide campaign in 2017 to fight back against National Grid’s atrocious business practices. Providence DSA partnered with George Wiley Center on the campaign, given that the Center has been working on utility justice for over 30 years. Providence DSA and the George Wiley Center began doing research on the RI energy market and started organizing people from low-income communities to show up at town hall meetings hosted by the Public Utility Commission (PUC) to protest against National Grid’s rate raises and meter installment plan. Over the past year, the campaign has developed the following short term strategies: address the shut-off crisis due to smart meters by writing petitions to the PUC, joining the Wiley Center’s effort to reinstate Percentage Income Payment Plan, and engaging in militant and disruptive lobbying tactics at the PUC hearings against National Grid’s utility-rate hikes.To achieve this, Providence DSA canvassed South Providence about rate increase and upcoming public hearings to increase participation in the energy system. As a result of these efforts National Grid’s proposed rate increase was reduced by 75% and National Grid will be subjected to closer oversight of their grid modernization efforts (source). National Grid was also compelled to adopt a more robust low-income customer discount (source).

The longer term goal of energy justice work is to decarbonize, democratize and decommodify the energy grid and its generation sources. This would result in a statewide, publicly owned, decentralized, and democratically controlled utility. There is growing interest in energy justice work throughout DSA. Boston DSA’s ecosocialism working group has proposed a similar campaign as a chapter priority, and has been researching the landscape for several months. It is an especially poignant time for a campaign of this style in Massachusetts since members of two United Steel Workers unions’ local chapters have been locked out by National Grid for over three months and the recover from the Merrimack Valley gas disasters is ongoing. San Francisco DSA is currently working against a potential bailout of Pacific Gas and Electric after their inadequacy started the Camp wildfire.

To conclude, it is important to recognize that the struggle for ecosocialism must operate in solidarity with the struggle for indigenous sovereignty, anti-imperialism, and workers’ rights.

DSA_ecosoc

On the Need for Energy Democracy

by Anonymous

The capitalist exploitation of nature and labor are two sides of the same coin. The labor process is always something in which humans and nature participate1. It is in the very fibers of nature that labor becomes congealed as value that can be captured by capital, the commodity becoming a vessel through which labor-power is quite literally extracted from human bodies. Yet, just as humans come to see themselves as distinct from the natural world, we also come to see capitalism as distinct from the extractive economies through which it feeds on the planet. This is especially true of capitalist energy systems2.

Take for instance the small town of South Fork in Cambria County, Pennsylvania. Today, it’s population hovers around 1000 people. The land here has long provided the resources upon which the prosperity of cities along the eastern seaboard like Philadelphia, Boston and New York were built. From the 1850s, its principle product was lumber: pine for ships’ masts, hemlock bark to make the tannins used in the leather industry, and oak for barrels to carry sugar and molasses from the West Indies. More recently, it has had the fortune to miss out on the shale boom engulfing the northeastern and southwestern corners of the state thanks to a bit of geological coincidence: the section of the Marcellus formation upon which it is situated is “overmature” having been exposed to too much heat and pressure over the preceding 400 million years to hold retrievable amounts of oil or gas.

However, the swamplands that covered the area in succeeding periods deposited plenty of biological matter that would eventually become the bituminous coal seams that, along with access to iron from the Lake Superior region, attracted vast amounts of capital and workers to the region in the last decades of the 19th century. For over a century, coal has been dug from beneath the Cambrian hills to be baked into coke for US Steel’s steel mills in Pittsburgh, burned in coal-fired power plants for electricity or, when ships were still powered by coal, shipped straight to the coal bunkers of New York City and Boston.

south fork pa
South Fork, PA as pictured on a map of coal deposits produced by the Works Progress Administration. Even in its most liberal modes, the capitalist state has often rendered the region as an internal resource colony. See https://digital.libraries.psu.edu/digital/collection/wpamaps/search/

At the peak of the Western Pennsylvania coal industry in the 1910s, the half square mile strip of land at the confluence of the Little Conemaugh River that makes up South Fork was home to over 4000 people making it as dense as Somerville or Chelsea. My father’s family were among them arriving sometime in the 1880s and 1890s from France. Four generations would live and work along the Little Conemaugh laboring either in the mines or for the railroad. All would die relatively young—coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (“black lung”) and a variety of cancers 3—their damaged bodies and the mountains of coal refuse that blend into the surrounding hilltops composing a tiny fraction of the negative externalities of the extractive economies that underlies capitalist modernity.

South Fork and the surrounding valley continue to bear the scars of extractive capitalism. Coal mining remains important to the local economy, even if the numbers it employs in the entire district are only a few hundred. Remediation, too, has gone hand in hand with continued extraction. In 2012, the PA DEP permitted Rosebud Mining Co. to build a water treatment plant to treat the acidic water that had been pouring out of an abandoned mine shaft since the 1960s in exchange for permission to access the coal seams underneath the site. A pilot remediation project started in 2015 across the river in Ehrenfeld saw $13 million dollars awarded to the same company to haul the 3.2 million tons of coal refuse that towers above the town to their nearby facility in Portage for processing4As of March 2018, the company planned to add 175 acres to the facility to accommodate more coal refuse. Scattered along the ridge above the facility, sit 40 wind turbines that make up Alleghany Ridge Wind Farm. They are owned by GE Power, a subsidiary of General Electric. One of their other subsidiaries, Baker Hughes, is reliably in the top 3 largest offshore drilling and oilfield services provider marketing its fracking technologies across the globe5In fact, Baker Hughes has been a major player providing the drilling equipment and expertise at the heart of the state’s shale gas boom. In short, the waters of the Little Conemaugh are no longer fluorescent orange and wind turbines dot the skyline but the cycle of boom and bust that typifies capitalist expansion continues unabated.

little conemaugh river
The Little Conemaugh River, before and after the completion of aforementioned treatment plant. Courtesy of Rosebud Mining Company

The challenge facing us today is a difficult one. How do we dismantle the infrastructures that tie us to the combustion of fossil-fuels while at the same time making sure the infrastructures we build in their place not only do not replicate a social system premised on exploitation and extraction but also repair the harm both to communities and ecosystems of centuries of past exploitation and extraction?

Part of the difficulty is that energy is especially amenable to commodification because of its already abstract nature. You never see energy: you only witness its effects.  When I turn on a light switch, if I’m not behind on my payment to Eversource, the light turns on. Where did this energy come from? Who had a hand in bringing it from its source to my apartment? Hell, at least with enough effort, you could literally follow an article of clothing from sweatshop to rack at H&M. A quantum of electricity? Except on an aggregate level, it is nigh impossible to make any claim about where it came from. In short, the additional layer of abstraction in which energy is entangled make its extraction all that more effectively divorced from our experience of it.

ISO NE graphic
Snapshot from ISO NE geographic system diagram representing the electricity grid around Boston. See https://www.iso-ne.com/about/key-stats/maps-and-diagrams/

The fact of climate change has pierced that veil to some degree. It is becoming more common thanks to the work of environmental activists to have a choice, limited as it is, about how some of the energy an individual consumer or municipality consumes is extracted from the natural environment. However, the binary nature of this choice—fossil-fuels vs. renewables, bad vs. good—does little to clarify the social and ecological effects of these choices. This is especially true when one takes into consideration that the industrial-scale renewables often touted as a solution to climate change require massive amounts of fossil fuel and mineral resources for their construction and operation6. When someone talks about wind turbines, most people’s first thought isn’t Bayan’obo Mining District in Inner Mongolia, even though it accounts for a significant portion of the rare earth minerals needed for industrial-scale wind farms. Neither is corporate land-grabs, especially of indigenous land, and the ecological disruption caused by levelling land for projects7. Nor, for that matter, does the term renewable energy suggest to most people trash incinerators like the one operated by Wheelabrator in Saugus8 or the Pinetree Power Fitchburg wood-burning generator. Biomass and municipal waste comprise two-thirds of Massachusetts renewable portfolio  and, in the case of biomass especially, are a major loophole in current carbon accounting schemes.

One answer to the challenge is energy democracy. Energy democracy is a broad concept that has emerged around a broad set of grassroots experiments and collaborations. At its center is the goal of achieving a shift to 100% renewable energy sources through means that resist the expansion of fossil-fuel infrastructure, reclaim public control over energy, and restructure energy infrastructures to better support social justice and democratic processes9. At a time when many segments of the environmental movement, especially those comprised by large nonprofits, have long settled for the sake of their continued relevance on a politics of majoritarian demands that everyone—including, a significant number of CEOs and politicians—can agree, energy democracy presents at the very least a framework for moving beyond demands on existing capitalist institutions, including the state, to building a world we can all inhabit.

Part of the novelty of energy democracy is its recognition that the sociotechnical systems that comprise the fossil-fuel economy stifle democracy by concentrating power, both figuratively and literally, in the hands of the wealthy few. Therefore, any transition must decentralize control of the energy system and put it under community control so that it can be restructured along more sustainable and equitable lines. In a more specifically socialist framing, as Providence DSA’s #NationalizeGrid campaign puts it, decarbonize, democratize and decommodify. Yet, perhaps, the most powerful argument for energy democracy is its ability to place power directly in the hands of communities, especially frontline and fenceline communities who have suffered the most from the extractive economies over which the modern world has been built. The power to choose how energy is produced and consumed is central to how power is exercised in any society, capitalist included.

Of course, wrestling the control of the current energy system away from capitalist institutions and placing it into the hands of communities, is only one step. (We want to dismantle that energy system, after all.) Supporting communities in building new energy systems that will be completely within their control is the other. If you want to help us build those, come join Boston DSA’s Ecosocialism Working Group. Reach out to ecosocialism@bostondsa.org or come to one of our monthly meetings, every first Thursday 7-9pm (rotating locations).  

Degrowth: Building People Power to Oppose Capitalism and the Climate Crisis

by Karry M

There is a widespread problem in capitalist nations within the Global North, of conflating GDP with “standard of living”, and equating possessions and access to technology with personal well-being. Economic growth, in practice, means growth for the few privileged individuals and growing inequality for the rest. It is an obvious moral obligation to mitigate the destruction wrought by growth-induced climate change for vulnerable communities and future generations. We must rethink the modern meaning of the words “needs” and “well-being” in order to imagine a revolutionary post-growth future.

Examples of unnecessary waste caused by the growth obsession are all too common in our daily lives: consider phones that must be replaced every couple of years, single-use coffee cups, endless empty luxury apts, Amazon one-day delivery, and rush hour traffic. Cities, in particular, are centers of growth. With the rise of globalization, the carbon footprint of our collective consumption has grown exponentially, as consumer goods and the raw materials used to create them are shipped around the world. This necessitates a cultural shift as well as an economic and political shift. It challenges our deeply-entrenched Western ideals of individualism, property, and economic prosperity, which we name “success”. It is predicated on resisting the neoliberal “TINA” (there is no alternative) paradigm.

Decoupling, the eco-modernist idea that economic innovation can overcome the rapidly growing carbon footprint of economic growth, has no basis in truth. It is becoming more and more obvious that resources are finite, and that a few individuals and corporations consume FAR more than they need at the expense of the many. As the environmental justice movement has taught us, indigenous and traditionally marginalized communities are known to suffer the worst effects of this unchecked growth. Truly sustainable development under capitalism is a myth, availability of resources simply can’t keep up with cycle of unending growth and competition demanded by capitalism. Consumption will inevitably overtake any energy resources provided by “clean” green energy technologies, which are not even completely clean and green because they require huge swaths of land to create enough energy to meet current demands, and rely on manufacture, maintenance, transportation, that in turn require mining and fossil fuel consumption. In order to scale up production of wind, solar, and other renewable sources of energy to levels necessary for continued growth, space required for the necessary infrastructure will eventually force displacement of people and may require destruction of forests, which act as carbon sinks. Forests, which mitigate climate change through natural processes that require little to no human intervention, should be preserved and expanded if at all possible. Another possible factor in the energy savings calculation is Jevon’s paradox, which postulates that increases in energy efficiency will drive down cost, and thus increase use in a proportional manner, resulting in no net change in energy expenditure. As of yet, there are no climate change mitigation technologies that can save us from the damage that growth has already created. Solar geoengineering, for example, may seem appealing to some as a potential inexpensive solution, but its merits are unproven, and experts warn that implementation may cause an increase of droughts, flooding, and dangerous natural disasters in areas that are already hardest hit by climate change.

Degrowth, which stands in contrast to ecomodernist solutions to climate change, is an international academic and activist movement. It is also a rapidly growing branch of discourse emerging in popular ecological academic circles around 2001 (though it was first defined by French intellectual André Gorz in 1972) which aims to create a society that consumes less, so that there is more to share with those who already have less, while simultaneously decreasing total consumption. This may be accomplished at a large scale, through government and corporate controls, as well as on small community and individual scales. The Latin American concept of Buen Vivir or Sumak Kawsay, an idea that incorporates indigenous traditions of living cooperatively, with respect for the surrounding land, has informed the degrowth movement. There have been a number of degrowth conferences in Europe since 2008, and the movement is starting to spread to the U.S. Degrowth emphasizes “well-being” as defined by more equal human-to-human and human-to environment relationships. The degrowth movement can be seen as an ally to the environmental justice movement. Dismissed by some as utopian, because it requires such a dramatic shift of so many established systems in our society, degrowth requires rethinking “needs” as they currently are defined, and realizing which of these are not needs, but desires incubated by the capitalist culture of growth; “Degrowth is a deliberately subversive slogan1.

Degrowth puts forth the radical idea that we should have more free time, time best spent appreciating and caring for one another, and our natural surroundings, rather than constantly working, driving, or consuming energy as a means of entertainment. Many of us on the left already realize that true happiness may be more easily achieved by decreasing work time, and instead of using all of it to pursue individual pleasures, using a portion to act for the mutual benefit of ourselves and others around us. These are the very foundations of the ideas of solidarity and comradeship. Think about things we do and enjoy that require little to no consumption—playing outdoors with children and animals, backyard gardening, hiking trips, reading groups, playing board games, listening to live music, and creating art. In an ideally degrown economy, we would have more time to participate in these activities because we would need to work fewer hours to meet the consumer needs of others. Degrowth is a voluntary, democratic, equitable set of ideas and practices that will build mutually supportive local communities in order to turn economic growth on its head.

Simply delineating the vision of a degrowth economy is often enough to get other left-leaning ecologically-minded individuals on board, hoping, plotting, and scheming with us. There is no universal consensus on how to achieve these goals, but degrowthers are a democratic bunch, and welcome the sharing of new ideas. In fact, sharing is the main point of degrowth. Advocates of degrowth believe in pooling our resources and sharing them as a community, instead of focusing on individual accumulation and ownership of property. This type of sharing, rather than competing for necessities, could be imagined to have a positive impact on mental health, as the oppressive pressure to endlessly perform and produce would be lifted. A deeper appreciation for our natural resources could develop while getting our hands dirty, through gardening, hiking, building, and expanding the do-it-yourself movement. Learning the skills to create the things we need causes us to respect their value and use them wisely.

There have been various theories about how best to get the degrowth movement off the ground. To begin, there have been proposed changes in the workplace, including universal basic income and/or maximum income, and a jobs guarantee with reduction in each individual’s work hours to help ensure jobs for more people. Some have suggested that job growth be more focused on public services such as education, public transit, libraries, and healthcare. The military and prison industrial complexes, which use almost unimaginable amounts of money and resources that many of us would deem unnecessary, could be slowly phased out. Global corporations, and the advertising industry, may also be scaled down and eventually abolished. We may replace private banks with public banking, and use funds raised by these banks to meet public needs. This could be paired with a widespread debt jubilee to eliminate the interest-as-growth dynamic.

An important step toward strengthening local communities is the reestablishment of the commons, a traditional structure of collective stewardship of resources outside the purview of the state or the capitalist economy. In a commons, resources are managed in a manner that ensures that everyone gets what they need, and no one person takes more than their fair share. The process of establishing a commons is essentially the opposite of privatization or commodification. For example, common goods such as water, seeds, and land could be shared by a community. The commons could then eventually replace industrial farms, creating agricultural spaces that use resource management techniques mimicking self-sustaining natural systems, such as those used by indigenous peoples. Public ownership of resources may make it possible to create local self-reliant communities that render growth even more unnecessary. Building local communities, which function through social connections to ensure the well-being of all members, is much more important than building local economies.

Empowerment of degrowth communities may also include the expansion of public housing, and community child-care associations. Local economic structures may include more worker-owned co-ops that utilize profit-sharing with their worker-owners. Time banks, in which community members trade their skills with others who are in need of those skills without using capital, are another potential facet of a degrown economy.

Less popular, but probably necessary, are individual actions include decreasing the use of cars, which would become easier as most jobs become localized. Another individual degrowth choice would be switching to a less carbon-intensive, more plant-based diet. Degrowthers would likely also encourage use of second-hand clothing and shoe repair. People would not be asked to give up consumer goods altogether, but we would place emphasis on creating goods made to last, and caring for them. These individual actions alone, however, are simply unable to create a significant economic shift of the type we need to combat climate change and loss of biodiversity; they must be paired with community- and large-scale actions.

As we can see, the degrowth transition could combine a number of bottom-up and top-down strategies. Recruitment of advocates and willing participants would be much easier to achieve if anti-capitalist and ecosocialist ideas become widely popular and gain traction. But even among leftists, we must concede that this is not the fully-automated luxury space communism we were promised. A major goal of degrowth is establishing a general sense of well-being and empowerment created by the ability of communities to function autonomously outside of traditional capitalist economic structures. Degrowth must become a large scale movement against the dominant capitalist agenda in order to achieve success. We have the power to seize this momentum, to rethink our collective lifestyles and values now, and avoid being forced to change by ecological collapse.

Successful models of degrowth require complex thinking far outside the proverbial box, which can be very challenging for those who have been taught that such ideas are utopian and unrealistic. If we are utopian, we are also pessimists when addressing the ideas of green growth and technological climate change mitigation, and realists when it comes to the scale of changes needed to achieve our aims. The planning stages of a degrowth transition require input from experts in environmental science, and political science, as well as economists, and anthropologists. Degrowth advocates realize that is is more essential than ever for the intersection of these fields of study to be understood and accepted by experts and lay people, and for everyone to comprehend what is at stake in order to make the truly democratic large-scale changes that are necessary for the transition. Optimally implemented, degrowth will result in true equality, sustainability and prosperity.

For more on Degrowth, check out this zine

What Socialists Can Learn from Community Lawyers

By Edward P

Thursday, Nov 8th, 2018, in a classroom at Harvard’s Wasserstein Hall, the Harvard chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG)1 hosted a “Law for the People” event on the Housing crisis gripping the Boston area. The panel speakers, all NLG members, were Jeff Feuer and Lee Goldstein of Goldstein & Feuer, and Nadine Cohen of Greater Boston Legal Services. Jeff and Lee are also both involved with City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU) and have provided legal workshops to CLVU members as well as legal services to tenants and activists.

The panel discussion seemed mostly pitched to law students. They discussed how one can make a career in providing community legal services and how legal education pushes people away from that path towards big law and government. The panelists all offered students at the event to do clinical work2 with them. However, there were a few points that were applicable in a broader context.

The Housing Crisis Disproportionately Affects Women

Jeff began his talk by breaking down the statistics of the housing crisis in Boston. Renters are the poorest and most racially diverse segment of Boston’s population. Over 40,000 renter households have incomes less than $32,000 a year — about half the area’s median income — and most of those household receive no state subsidies for their housing. Over half of such renting households are Black, Latinx, or Asian.This economic precarity puts poor renters at constant risk of displacement. And this burden falls doubly hard on women tenants according to Nadine.

Nadine pointed out that sex discrimination in housing has often been overlooked in US law. It took years, after laws prohibiting racial  discrimination, for Federal Housing discrimination laws to include sex as a protected class. Women are also more likely to be evicted than men –  women are evicted at 18% higher rates because they are less to likely to strike deals with the landlord, or because a landlord finds having children at a property undesirable, or because women as a class are paid less than men for the same work.

Sex discrimination also includes problems beyond refusals to rent. According to Nadine, one in ten poor women reported having a landlord or maintenance worker demand sex as a quid pro quo for rent relief or required maintenance on their rented units. Other women face sexual assault or harassment from landlords or other housing providers.

Being the victim of domestic violence can also lead to a woman’s eviction. While states like Massachusetts prohibit evictions because a tenant called police or other reported domestic violence, landlords often use police responses as a pretext to evict tenants regardless of the law.

Around the US, the housing crisis profoundly affects poor women as a group. Any work done around it needs to recognize that this crisis is largely a crisis affecting women.

Working in Contradictory Spaces

Lee opened his pitch for a career  in community law practice by discussing what he saw as the characteristics of community lawyering – being part of the community, aware of the context, having an agreement with the community, viewing works holistically, listening to clients, acting as a connection between the community and client, and encouraging non-lawyers to act as legal advocates. Lee noted that some of those are not so different from what one would be doing at a big law firm — simply substitute community for corporation. The difference, Lee said, was in three things:1) not being neutral, 2) developing a distinct legal persona, and 3) understanding you’re working in contradictions.

This point on contradictions was the most important. Lee talked about the law not being neutral. It’s part of the systems of social reproduction that perpetuate inequality and that have led to the current housing crisis. In order for it to be useful as a tool a social reproduction, the law sometimes has to deliver fair outcomes to people it would otherwise aid in disenfranchising. As an example, during his talk, Jeff pointed out that the US Supreme Court, in Lindsey v Normet, ruled that USians enjoy no right to housing.

So a lawyer, who is working towards broad social change, has to understand that working within a system of social reproduction existing in contradiction with attempting to dismantle that system. All of us, who are working towards broad social change, exist in that same kind of contradiction. Capitalism is an inescapable totalitarian system, and everyone’s lives are bound up in its system of reproduction.

However, people who are privileged by these system — not just lawyers, but tech workers, academics, media personalities, politicians — must reckon with the fundamental contradiction between how their skills interact with the system and the goal of changing the system when they attempt to use their skills for movement. Without this reckoning, we will inevitably end up reinforcing capitalist social reproduction rather than overturning it.

We Must Be Led By the Movement

The resolution to these contradictions, according to Jeff, was to allow yourself to be led by the movement and by putting your skills at the service of the community. The place for lawyers in the housing struggle is to give support where and when they are invited by a community.

Jeff and Lee’s relationship with CLVU largely follows this model. Lee discussed how it was important to use the law to help tenants stay in their homes by using any technicality to get evictions thrown out or to force a landlord to deal with maintenance issue. However, as Jeff talked about, winning the fight because a landlord or police officer didn’t fill out a form correctly might not be the point. You can have the most airtight, brilliant legal argument to help someone, a tenant or a person arrested in a direct action, but it may not address the goals of the movement.

Instead the appearance in court can be an opportunity to advance the movement’s points to get its belief and arguments out to the public. In that case your ego as lawyer — your desire to prove your legal mind or protect your winning record — must take a backseat to the needs of the movement. You have to put yourself fully in service to the people you’re working for.

Likewise, when you’re in a space where community are discussing how to respond to issues facing them, you, as a lawyer, may know some sound legal strategy that can help fix the issues, and you should share your expertise. However, it’s not your place to insist that your expertise gives you insight into the only solution to the problem. People working together for their community’s interests are capable of immense creatively. We shouldn’t narrow our possibilities based on our understand of capitalist systems.

This fits with our understanding of our tasks as socialists. As Huey P. Netwon put it in his 1968 interview with The Movement, our goal is “…a people’s revolution with the end goal being the people in power.” Socialism is the people in power — not lawyers, coders, politicians, or union bureaucrats. Those us of us that have the privilege of working within and understanding the various systems that support and reinforce capitalist rule cannot win socialism through use of those skills alone. We have to use those skills to serve the people, not to advance our own position in the movement.

On Gun Violence

by Cam W. 

According to the online Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit organization that tracks all gun-related activity in the United States, there has been 37,000 shootings and deaths in America thus far in 2018 alone. While this number in itself is absurdly high, gun violence is only a culturally relevant discussion topic after mass shootings. Think of Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas, and, most recently, Parkland. The public discourse is always the same, with conservatives defending gun rights from any legislative action, while liberals demand gun control. Something needs to be done to address mass violence, but conservatives (embodied by the Republican Party) do not care and only make vague and meaningless gestures to addressing mental health issues. Thus, our attention will be placed on liberals, embodied by the Democratic Party, and their ideas.

In the buildup to the 2018 primaries, and even since the election of Donald Trump, liberals and centrists alike have been flooding social media with calls to vote. One of the main problems voting will fix, they emphasize, will be gun control. But, presupposing voting will solve or even address gun violence, who will we vote for? We assume they mean to vote for the Democrats, but will the Democrats disarm the police state in America, where the police essentially have military-grade weapons, so that people of color don’t have to fear for their lives everyday? How would gun control, which simply bans weapons only for citizens, affect the lives of those like Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, and so many others who have felt the cruel and fatal effects of police brutality? Furthermore, would the Democrats, who sanction and support imperialist wars, suddenly turn back and denounce these same policies, which violate the autonomy of the global south and leave them constantly subjected to death, starvation, and Western domination? The Democratic Party’s history, past and present, tells us that they will address none of this. Inserting new individuals into the system, when the system itself is the issue, will not fix anything.

Thus, when people command us to vote to end gun violence, it is clear to us that they only mean ending gun violence for a specific class of people, in specific areas of the country. As socialists, we recognize that as long as capitalism exists, the culture of violence in this country will not be addressed. Capitalism necessitates imperialism, which includes wars and sanctions. It also necessitates that the repressive apparatus (the police, courts, etc.) reinforce the relations of production (bourgeoisie and workers). This is why the bankers that destroyed the economy in 2008 were never prosecuted and were actually bailed out by Obama. This is why those that have been murdered by the police have yet to find justice, and police officers are rarely ever held accountable. This is also why women who have been raped or sexually assaulted rarely find justice. In other words, overhauling the justice system, is unbearable to the ruling classes because it entails a radical change in society which would hold those in power accountable and fundamentally change the social order in America.

Of the 37,000 gun incidents thus far in 2018, only 241 of those have been mass shootings (the Gun Violence Archive qualifies a mass shooting as a gun incident where at least five people are injured). That leaves almost 36,800 gun incidents in this year alone that were not mass shootings. We must shed light on the real victims of gun violence. Every year, about 45,000 Americans commit suicide, and in half of those cases, the victims use a gun to end their life. Thus, about 22,500 people commit suicide every year in the U.S with the help of a gun. Every month, about 50 women are murdered with a gun by their partner, and in total almost one million American women alive have been shot or shot at by an intimate partner. Furthermore, in 2018 alone the police have shot and killed 798 people in the state’s campaign to terrorize the masses and people of color and leave them in a state of fear. Thus, the major gun incidents in everyday life are suicides, domestic violence, and police brutality.

While we believe the change that we need cannot happen under capitalism, this does not mean we will sit idle and do nothing. Now that we’ve shed light on the major victims of gun violence, we can begin to look for real solutions that go beyond banning the tool that enables this violence.

To address gun violence, we must address toxic masculinity and many other conditions that lead to domestic abuse. Toxic masculinity creates the patterns of abuse that women must endure, but part of the reason women can’t escape these abusive environments is that they would have nowhere to go. Due to the capitalist system in America where rent is very expensive, fleeing toxic situations would often mean becoming homeless or living in a precarious state. Thus it is understandable why many women have to endure abusive relationships. There is also the fact that there is little accountability or punishment for abusers. As we have seen in the case of Judge Kavanaugh, the justice system protects abusers and doesn’t believe women even when they do come forward.

To address gun violence, we must address mental illness, alienation, and the consequences of an individualistic society where many people have no support. This means enacting universal healthcare to ensure that any person can receive adequate treatment for mental illnesses. This means rejecting capitalism’s toxic individualism that enforces the idea that if you don’t succeed in the system, whether it be socially or financially, that it is your fault and not of a system that only rewards a small class of people. Furthermore, this means building relationships in our communities, where we support each other and a build a collective strength to make these changes. It also means eliminating the economic conditions that lead so many to have to struggle to survive, and where suicide can appear to be the only way out of a dreary existence. The victims of suicide encompass our entire society, with middle aged white men being the most common, and indigenous peoples being the second highest (a whole other issue that can be discussed elsewhere). There are so factors that can lead to suicide or suicidal thoughts, but fundamentally humans are social beings that thrive off the support of each other, but capitalism eats away at these relationships.

To address gun violence, we must address police violence, where police killed 1,147 people in 2017, and 25% of the victims (about 300) were black despite comprising only 13% of the population. We must not only hold the police accountable (they are rarely ever prosecuted for their crimes), but we must also work to demilitarize and abolish the police itself. The police has grown into a domestic military force, which is evident any time a protest (think Ferguson) breaks out and riot squads are called in. In order for there to be meaningful gun control, the police and military (who we haven’t even talked about here) must be considered in the process.

Real gun control would address the class positions and culture that create gun violence in the first place. Real gun control would address the nature of U.S. imperialism, police brutality, and the justice system. Socialists must address gun violence in a meaningful way by confronting all of these issues. Interestingly enough the only time gun control was ever bipartisanly supported was when the left, led by the Black Panther Party, advocated bearing arms. As Michelle Goldberg points out in her article on the Socialist Rifle Association, the left bearing arms has historically scared the Republicans and forced them into gun control measures. It’s clear that the state is only ever scared of guns when the groups who actually threaten power structures, socialists and communists, decide to use them.

An earlier version of this article was published on the Fenway Socialists blog. 

Psychology for Socialists, Part 3: Know your enemy.

by Jonathan K

“Psychology for Socialists” is a multi-part series designed to introduce people to findings and theories in Psychology that are relevant to socialism and activism. The things I will be presenting aren’t exclusively relevant to those topics. In fact, they apply to almost every facet of our lives. What I will be doing is presenting them in relation to the work we do as socialists.

Let me start with a couple of disclaimers. The first disclaimer is that findings in psychology are (almost) never absolute. We can capture general patterns or describe the most likely behaviors or reactions, but there will always be exceptions. So, for everything I’m about to describe, remember that it doesn’t apply to everyone or every situation. The second disclaimer is that psychology is an imperfect science. One way Psychology is imperfect is that, like many sciences right now, it is struggling with a replicability crisis. The findings I will present will be ones I have confidence in, or I will be clear that they are still unsettled. However, even for the ones I have confidence in, the ideas behind them could be overturned at some point in the future.

In another sense Psychology is imperfect because, like many sciences, it has suffered from a lack of diverse perspectives, and more than other sciences it has suffered from a lack of diverse data. Many of the findings I will be discussing are based on studies of mostly upper-middle-class and mostly white college students, and conducted by mostly white researchers (though somewhat less overwhelmingly cis-male than other fields). In the last two decades the field has become more aware of this and made efforts to self-correct, but it will take some time for us to be confident that these findings apply to all of humanity.

In parts 1 and 2 of this series, I focused on ourselves and our organization, and how we could do our work better. Now I’m going to turn to less pleasant topics: Knowing the threats to our organization. The topics I’m going to cover are going to do double-duty. As it turns out, some of the psychological phenomena that are likely to tear our organization apart are closely related to the propaganda engines of the fascist right. The tools that fascists use to stoke fear, sow division, and demand obedience are taking advantage of aspects of the human mind that, without any malicious intent or really any control at all, can shatter friendships, schism organizations, and lead to types of toxic behavior we see in leftist organizations.

First, I’ll discuss intergroup conflict, which is definitely the greatest threat to DSA of any topic I’ve discussed in this series. Then I’ll discuss the strange phenomenon of “loss aversion”, and the dangers of authority and conformism. Each of these appears most obviously in fascist messaging and practice, but also has some relevance within DSA, mostly as lessons of what to avoid.

I. Intergroup conflict

Both historically and in the present, fascism depends deeply on defining an “other”, making it a feared enemy, and demanding obedience in order to destroy it. This should not be news to any of you. It also shouldn’t be surprising to many of you that much of DSA’s internal strife comes from the exact same features of the human mind.

Humanity is, for whatever reason, extremely good at breaking the world down into “us” and “them.” It seems to be a nearly universal tendency.

When this happens, the consequences are very predictable. You will treat “us”, in technical terms your “in-group”, very well. You will be more generous, more trusting, and generally think of in-group members more as individual people with thoughts, feelings, and diverse opinions. For someone in another group, an “out-group”, you will do pretty much the exact opposite: Giving less, being less sympathetic towards out-group members, and thinking of out-group members as being “all the same,”1 both in the form of stereotypes and ascribing the opinions or actions of one member of the group to the group as a whole.

The most extreme and visible form of these group effects is bigotry. However, notice that there are many different forms of bigotry that use completely different ways of defining in-groups and out-groups, some of which seem to be built on largely cultural constructs (for example: race, religion, national origin) rather than any kind of objective or intrinsic trait. This hints at the bigger problem: Humans can make in-groups and out-groups out of anything, no matter how trivial, and once those groups have formed any trivial disagreement can become a major conflict.

One of the classic demonstrations of this is Muzafer Sherif’s “Robbers Cave” experiment. This was an experiment conducted in 1950 with 20 white middle-class assumed-male 12-year-olds in the US. It took place at a summer camp named Robbers Cave. The children didn’t know each other, and before they arrived, they were randomly assigned to one of two groups, neither group knowing that the other even existed. The groups were allowed to pick their own names (they chose the “Eagles” and the “Rattlers”). For the first week, they did cooperative team-building exercises, and again, neither group knew that the other group existed. Then, in the second week, they were told that the other group existed, and the two groups were put into light competition with each other. Immediately, they started throwing insults (including some extremely racist language), fighting, raiding each others’ cabins, and basically putting on the best imitation of war that 20 twelve-year-old boys at a summer camp could produce. (The third week was spent breaking these groups down and trying to undo this hostility.)

The basic conclusion is that you can get all the behaviors of bigotry and hostility with any arbitrary grouping. Nobody has done a study exactly like this since Sherif (for a number of reasons), and because of the extremely narrow sample it’s more of a good example than a revolutionary insight into human nature, but psychologists have found similar effects pretty much everywhere in the world (though some studies report less out-group hostility in certain cultures). Even without the self-defined identity and cooperative team-building (which really strongly build up group identity), you can get versions of the same in-group/out-group effects just by giving people different color t-shirts. This is described as a “minimal group”, a grouping defined by exactly one completely arbitrary trait. Minimal groups still give you pretty strong in-group and out-group effects. If you want a quick summary of the entire literature, this comic pretty much nails it.

Fascist propaganda constantly exploits this feature of human nature. They actually use a kind of triple-whammy to make these effects terrifyingly strong. First, they clearly define an in-group and an out-group, from emphasizing white cis-male flag-waving “American” identity, to defining out-groups by whatever terms happen to be convenient for their purposes at the time (“blacks”, “illegals”, “the libs”). Second, they push the idea that the in-group is in competition with the out-group(s) (“stealing our jobs”, “threatening our way of life”). Third, they use the language of disgust. I could write a whole separate article on the dangers of disgust, but the short version is that disgust is an incredibly visceral and foundational human emotion that has moral weight. If something is disgusting people will treat it as immoral. However, with a few exceptions, what is disgusting varies between cultures2, and you can deliberately make something (or someone) disgusting without too much difficulty. Furthermore, if you want to bring about widespread hostility and even outright genocide, the fastest way to get people on board is to make the out-group disgusting. The Nazis famously described the Jews as being “smelly” or “dirty” in children’s books. Currently, in the US, you see the same language constantly leveled against marginalized racial, sexual, and economic groups from the right-wing media.

In organizations like DSA, these intergroup conflicts take a different form. First of all, people typically call it sectarianism. Second of all, everything else is exactly the same.

We define a lot of little in-groups in DSA, caucuses, working groups, etc. Most of the time it’s not an issue, but the moment there is even the tiniest amount of competition or disagreement that can be framed in terms of groups, things get ugly very quickly. This problem ties back to things that I discussed in my last article, most notably attribution and saving face. People are more likely to make dispositional attributions about out-groups (“that’s just how they are”).

Again, that only makes the problem worse: it’s much harder to assume good intentions in someone who is from an out-group, and easier to assume good intentions in someone who is in your in-group. In some cases this works in our favor. It’s how DSA as a whole holds together, at least in theory. But, when group identities within DSA come into play, and those identities become stronger than the broader group identity of being in DSA, we have trouble working together. You also save face on behalf of other members of your group, which can turn an individual disagreement or simply a mistake into a group-wide conflict.

Avoiding this kind of sectarian conflict isn’t easy. There’s a lot more that I could say about the intergroup conflicts that have arisen in Boston DSA alone over the last couple of years, but that’s a whole separate article unto itself. Even so, there are a few things we can do that will stop intergroup conflict from damaging our work.

One thing you may have noticed is that group identity is flexible and multi-faceted. Everyone belongs to many different groups at once. When it comes to group conflict, the issue is typically which of those group identities is highlighted at any given time. The effects of even a temporary group identity can be quite dramatic. Creating a minimal group with t-shirts can temporarily override racist biases, at least towards people wearing the same color of t-shirt. Marx and his successors understood this to a degree, highlighting the identity of the working class over and above any other group identity. In terms of how to counteract this aspect of right-wing propaganda, the approach is clear: make people conscious of their class identity, and who that class is really in competition with.

For conflicts within DSA, we have a convenient pre-made unifying group in DSA itself. Highlighting our shared membership and shared goals over other labels will support more respectful discussion and productive interactions. To be clear, I don’t think we need to disband the caucuses, and I do think they serve a positive purpose for their own members. That said, we must be extremely vigilant that we avoid framing any discussion as pitting one group against another.

Our best defense against this is to think of each other as comrades first and above all. It sounds cheesy, but it’s simply the truth. If you think about people in terms of their caucus or their working group or some other subdivision in DSA, you will be more likely to think of them as an individual, and not treat them as an “other.” Conversely, when you go to present ideas that are your own ideas, make clear that you are presenting them as an individual rather than as a member of any group to which you belong. If a disclaimer is not provided, we should make a habit of asking whether something is an individual position or a group or caucus position. There is nothing to be gained from ambiguity, and people will assume hostility given the chance.

II. Loss aversion

Exactly one psychologist has ever won a Nobel Memorial Prize, and his name is Daniel Kahneman. He won the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics for a simple insight that mainstream economists found revolutionary: People are irrational, and they are irrational in predictable and quantifiable ways.

One of the phenomena that Kahneman discovered is called “loss aversion”, and it is brutally simple: say someone offers you a mug for sale, and asks you to estimate what you’d pay for it. Let’s say $3.50. Then, later, someone gives you a mug, you own it, it is yours. Now someone asks how much they would have to pay you for you to give them that mug. Most people will say about $7.

That’s loss aversion in its simplest form: You value something roughly twice as much if you think of it as yours. That’s without changing anything about what the thing is, what it can do, how it looks, whatever. As soon as you think of it as belonging to you, you value it more. It is a deeply irrational bias.

Loss aversion shows up in all kinds of interesting forms. People will take bigger risks to acquire something than they will to risk losing it. There’s an intuitive way to think about this: You might be willing to buy a lottery ticket with a one in millions chance of giving you a billion dollars, but if you had a billion dollars, you’d never take a risk on something that had a one in millions chance of letting you keep it. That’s an extreme example, but the basic idea works anywhere. The entire idea of “opportunity cost,” the price of not doing something, is an attempt to employ the power of loss aversion to things that we would typically think of as gains, because loss aversion motivates people so strongly.

A lot of right-wing messaging uses loss aversion to drive up various forms of bigotry. As I mentioned in the last section, one of the classic anti-immigrant arguments of the right is “they’ll take our jobs”. Note that this message always uses the verb “take.” That’s because it implies that you will lose something. If you look at any right-wing propaganda, you’ll find something phrased in terms of “loss,” and that’s explicitly to make people treat the group “taking” something as the enemy, and valuing whatever it is they might “lose.”

Loss aversion also plays a big role in right-wing economic messaging too. The right has successfully framed taxation as “taking” something that would otherwise belong to you. They frame social programs as “taking your tax dollars” and giving them to someone else, and try to give you a sense of ownership over money that was never yours to begin with. It works, too. People are less willing to pay taxes when it feels like a loss.

Even within DSA loss aversion will sometimes rear its head. Any time any action is framed as taking something away, there is resistance to it. It’s a tried and true way to spin up opposition to anything, and we should be careful to ask when something is truly a loss, and when it’s just being framed that way. Listen carefully next time a contentious issue comes up for debate, and you will likely hear someone suggest it’s losing something or taking something away from the organization, resources, character, whatever. That’s not because they’re being disingenuous, by the way. More likely than not it’s an honest assessment of how they view the issue, and why they feel strongly about it. It’s just that whether something is a loss or not can often be a matter of perspective or opinion rather than an objective fact.

The upside of loss aversion is that it means that some gains for economic justice are almost impossible to reverse once implemented. The Affordable Care Act might have been unpopular when it first showed up, but the first whisper that you might “lose” your health insurance and public opinion almost completely flipped. In any country that has universal healthcare, trying to undo it is politically implausible without extreme antidemocratic efforts. The few places that have some form of universal basic income? Same deal. It’s a fight to create a Universal Basic Income system anywhere that doesn’t have it, but anywhere that has UBI will fight tooth and nail against anyone who tries to take it away.

In terms of counteracting right-wing messaging, there are a few ways to approach the problem. As far as I know, you can’t beat loss aversion outright, there’s no way to “turn it off” that anyone has published. Psychologists have some ideas about when it doesn’t show up, but no generally applicable way to use that information.

One strategy is to use loss aversion in our own messaging, whenever we can. Yes, it’s a propaganda technique, but it’s one that preys on how people subjectively value things rather than changing an objective truth. If you can honestly frame something in terms of a loss, that’s no less accurate than framing it as a gain, and it will resonate more with people. Another area to look for chances to use it is in policy proposals. That article I linked earlier found that a tax structure that deducts money before people ever see it and is guaranteed to give a refund is much more welcome, and creates much more compliance, than one in which people have to pay more out of their pockets when they’re doing their annual taxes. Keep that in mind if we ever find ourselves in a position to make policy.

For internal discussions, the primary resource that we have to lose is decision-making power or the work we have invested into various projects. These each take different forms. Decision-making power is the most obvious: if we are faced with a proposal that would reduce our ability to influence the decisions our chapter or working group or organization makes, our first impulse will be to push back on it. At first glance it might sound like I’m talking about things that are simply anti-democratic, in which case the loss aversion is good, but it’s more complicated than that.

Think of it from the perspective of the members of any DSA chapter prior to summer 2016. The members at that time were used to accounting for huge percentages of any vote. If your general meeting needs only ten attendees to make quorum, each person accounts for a full 10% of the decision-making power of the entire chapter. Then, the chapters grew to have hundreds of members, and any general meeting that made quorum now needed to have triple-digit attendance, and each person in attendance accounts for less than 1% of the decision-making power. That’s a form of loss. In some chapters (thankfully not so much in Boston) we saw leadership committees that were increasingly reluctant to cede power to their membership, partly because of that loss of power.

More generally, we need to recognize in ourselves when our reaction to something is governed by our own loss aversion, and ask whether that reaction is appropriate or not. To create a socialist world, we’re all going to end up giving up something. We have to be willing to look at ourselves and ask what we’re really willing to lose, and when the time comes to lose it, we must be ready for how strongly we will want to resist it.

III. Authority and conformism

Following World War II, psychology as a field turned a lot of attention to figuring out how the civilians of Nazi Germany could become servants of fascism and commit some of history’s greatest atrocities, and most of all whether humans in general could be driven to the same extremes. By the 1960s, the answer was clearly that it wasn’t a unique occurrence. The Nazis had exploited some very straightforward features of the human psyche that could be found anywhere. Any country in the world can fall under the sway of a fascist regime. Some of the tools required I’ve already covered, but when it comes to fascism there are two other necessary pieces: The psychological power of authority and conformity.

Psychology is such a new and rapidly developing field (compared to other sciences at least) that it’s relatively rare to find work from the mid-20th century that holds up today. However, two studies in particular have held up, and are guaranteed to show up in every introductory course: Milgram’s work on authority, and Asch’s work on conformity.

The Milgram Experiments are so (in)famous that the wikipedia entry for them is actually a reasonable source. The setup was simple: The participants — middle-class white people from New Haven — came into the lab and were told they would be doing a task with another subject. The other subject was actually what’s called a “confederate,” an actor employed by the experimenter. The subject would be reading math problems to the confederate, who would be in a different room and could only be heard via intercom, and the subject would deliver progressively stronger electric shocks every time the confederate made a mistake. The subject got to experience a low-level version of this shock themselves, and it was quite painful.

During the experiment, the confederate would make several pre-arranged mistakes, and make increasing noises of agony with the increasing power of the shock (they were acting; the confederate was never actually shocked, but the participant didn’t know that until after the experiment ended). Eventually the confederate would mention having a heart condition, then plead for mercy, and eventually just go silent. If the subject asked to stop, an experimenter in their room, wearing a white lab coat and holding a clipboard, would first say “Please continue.” The second time the subject asked to stop, they would say “The experiment requires that you continue.” The third time they asked, “It is absolutely essential that you continue.” The fourth, “You have no other choice, you must go on.” If, at that point, the subject insisted on stopping, the experiment would stop.

Only 14 of 40 subjects insisted. The rest continued to the end.3

The point of Milgram’s experiments was that authority, manifested as a white lab coat and direct commands, is an incredibly powerful thing. Almost two-thirds of that group  were willing to apparently kill someone, just because they were told to do so by a man in a white lab coat holding nothing more threatening than a clipboard.

The power of authority is a necessary tool of fascism and authoritarianism. There are no limits on what someone with absolute power can get others to do even without explicit threats. Note that it isn’t just authority to some great leader, either. The Milgram result works on a very small scale, with a very specific and narrow kind of authority. Police take advantage of this all the time. Their threat comes in part from force, in part from the law, and mostly from the simple fact that their uniform represents both. A police officer can order someone to do almost anything, and merely because it’s coming from someone with a particular uniform, they’ll often do it.

DSA’s structure is resistant to developing this kind of authoritarian power within itself because of the primary authority of the membership to collectively overrule its leadership at any time. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not at risk. The Danny Fetonte incident was a close call with authoritarian power, specifically in the context of the Austin chapter in which he effectively single-handedly took over a general meeting, but also, to a degree, the NPC. The management of the DSA weekly blog recently got shuffled around because of a similar episode involving a member of the NPC. It takes some effort to contradict someone yelling orders in any context, and not everyone is willing to do it.

It is something we must always be vigilant against. Never obey a command simply because it is a command.

In fighting the power of authority in the broader world, it’s important to know what does and does not work. Follow-up studies found that seeing someone else defy authority actually doesn’t make people more likely to defy it themselves, even if there are no consequences for doing so. However, people who feel more agency in themselves, and people who feel more empathy towards others, are both more likely to resist orders to hurt someone else. It’s not easy to make people feel more agency or more empathy, but DSA actually excels at it. We emphasize doing things to make the world a better place, and we emphasize comradeship and compassion. That’s actually one of the big reasons I joined DSA: It really has the tools to stand up to the effects of authoritarianism.

The other half of fascist power is conformity, and again there is an experiment that has stood the test of time and is so famous that wikipedia is a reasonable source. Solomon Asch, in 1950, put a bunch of white middle-class men in a room. Only one of them was a subject. The rest were confederates. The group was asked to do a task in which they matched line lengths: they were given a sample line, and asked to say which of three other lines matched it. On one of the trials, every confederate in the group favored an obviously wrong answer. About a third of the time, the subject would go along with the group.

There’s an important upside in Asch’s work: Two-thirds of the time, people were willing to defy the group. Simple, objective facts are not that easy to distort. However, 75% of his participants did conform at least once. That’s more of a problem. These are obviously extreme and Orwellian examples, but the power of conformity is far stronger for things that are not objective facts.

Authoritarian regimes rely heavily on conformity to induce obedience without even needing to use the power of authority, and again this is not a surprise to anyone. Combating it is usually a matter of being the voice of dissent. If there is no unified opinion within whatever you see as your group, then it’s easier to defy a majority view. If everyone who dissents is removed from your group, conformity becomes harder to resist. The modern GOP is a nearly perfect case study of this: Inasmuch as there were ever “moderate” republicans in our lifetime, they were chased out in favor of a homogeneous whole that marches in lockstep with the directives of a sole leader.

For DSA, what this means is that debate is good, differences of opinion (discussed respectfully) are good, and we should make sure we continue to be a multi-tendency organization. That’s not to say that consensus is bad, by any stretch, but there is a difference between having some clear points of unity and enforcing a conformity of opinion from our members (which certain other socialist organizations do explicitly). The ability to support internal debate keeps us from falling into the trap Asch found: We will not change objective facts to conform for its own sake, and we should make sure that never happens.

IV. Conclusions and reflections

That brings us to the end of Psychology for Socialists, for now. In these three articles, I’ve tried to give a simple introduction to some ideas that I think are truly essential to our work. The goal of this, more than anything, was to make all of us more aware of the nature of our own minds, the biases that we are prone to, and the mistakes we can make as a result. There’s so much more I could have talked about, and maybe I will at some point in the future. The human mind is a complex piece of work and psychology as a science is still in its infancy. However, the nature of democracy is that in order to succeed it must understand how people think, both as individuals and in general. Without that, democratic socialism will suffer the same fate as Esperanto: A nice idea, but implemented in a human-incompatible way.

For Workers and Patients, not Greed and Profits: Vote Yes on Question 1

by Socialist Nurse

For 4 months now, we’ve been waiting for management to fill an open nursing position in our department. The word from the nursing manager is that there are “very few applicants” none of whom appear to be a “good fit.” Insert your bromides about the nursing shortage here, if you’d like, but be prepared to put your foot in your mouth: It is no big secret that the biggest chunk of any hospital’s budget is labor and, therefore, payrolls which are the first to see cuts when CFOs go looking for ways to trim costs. (For some reason, building a new half billion dollar campus is not a cost, but an investment. Pity they don’t value their workers in the same way as buildings or profit margins.) Just over two years ago, our hospital management decided that the best way to cut costs would be to get rid of the most experienced and, therefore, most well compensated workers via a buyout offer. The offer was extended to 9% of the total workforce. Two nurses on our unit decided to take the package: both were nearing retirement and, in part, were made to fear for their benefits if they did not accept. I had been hired to replace one of them: a nurse with almost a decade of experience replacing a nurse with nearly four decades under her belt. It took several months for the department to fill the other position. That person has since left the position as has another recently hired nurse. Both referenced the heavy workload and stressful conditions caused by chronic short-staffing as reasons for leaving. That’s four nurses–all well-qualified–any of whom could have filled the current position.

There is no lack of studies pointing to how more adequate staffing leads to both better patient outcomes and worker satisfaction (for example, see this study looking at effects of the nursing ratios implemented in California; for more, see here). What does short-staffing look like? Well, for me, it is mostly stress-filled days punctuated by an unending chorus of ringing phones with anxious patients on the line and a full waiting room of patients waiting to be seen. However, the stress and burnout that result from short-staffing also  negatively affects the quality of care my colleagues and I can provide our patients. If you speak to any nurse, they could recount numerous situations where either their safety or that of their patients have been put in jeopardy because of short-staffing. The mandate put in place by Question 1 would allow nurses to provide the safe, timely and compassionate care that we want and have been trained to provide our patients. As it is now, we are often forced to choose between our well-being and that of our patients–skipping lunch, working past our shifts or rushing through safety protocols to make sure that we can meet their needs. This, as you can imagine, negatively affects our ability to continue providing the kind of care we want resulting in a vicious circle of overwork and diminishing outcomes across the board.

In short, what hospital executives mean when they say there is a nursing shortage and that it is too costly for them to hire more nurses is that they value profits over both workers and patients. Full stop. They’ve even put a number on it: $19 million–that’s how much hospital executives have been willing to spend to defeat Question 1 through misleading and deceptive ads designed with the singular purpose of stoking doubts and uncertainties among voters about “rigid government mandates” or “closure of small community hospitals.” Neither of these are based in facts. For example, at present, nurses have no say in the type of care they provide nor do they get assignments based on their knowledge and experience. Rather than a rigid government mandate, Question 1 would require healthcare facilities to develop, in partnership with their nurses, tools for measuring acuity to help determine appropriate staffing per unit based on the needs and condition of patients. I think many people would be surprised to find out that such things didn’t already exist. At present, nurses have little to no say in what appropriate staffing levels should be or how much time and care our patients need. These decisions are decided by executives and administrators; in other words, by something even more rigid than any government regulation (hint: it’s profits).

Safe patient limits are both a public health and a labor issue. If Question 1 passes, it would result in dramatically improved patient outcomes and working conditions for nurses in Massachusetts. It won’t solve all the problems facing healthcare today but it will improve healthcare access and health equity in a largely problematic system driven by profit margins and corporate greed.

#DonateYourVote2018 and AACC Endorsements

This year, members of Boston DSA have participated in the #DonateYourVote campaign through Emancipation Initiative‘s Ballots Over Bars campaign. The #DonateYourVote campaign partners an incarcerated person who has had their voting rights stripped away by the state, and a freeworld volunteer who will vote as their partner would. This year, 165 people volunteered to donate their vote, and 143 incarcerated participants were paired. The African American Coalition Committee at MCI-Norfolk has also produced a list of endorsements. If you were not paired but would still like to participate, consider voting in solidarity along the AACC endorsements where you are able. The AACC 2018 Endorsements are as follows:

State Elections: Tuesday, November 6th
Voter Registration Deadline: Wednesday October 17th
For more information: www.wheredoivotema.com

Statewide
1. Lt. Governor
Quentin Palfrey (D) – “We imprison too many people, for too long, for doing too little, and race has way too much to do with who ends up in the criminal justice system.” (EI Voter Guide 2018)

2. Attorney General
Maura Healey (D) – “We cannot incarcerate our way to a healthier, more productive state.” (EI Voter Guide 2018)

3. Treasurer
Jamie Guerin (G-R) – “We must eliminate mandatory sentencing and reduce the use of incarceration as punishment.” (EI Voter Guide 2018)

4. Auditor
James Stamas (G-R) “I fully support ending life without parole & full voting rights for all incarcerated people.” (Twitter)

5. U. S. Senator
Elizabeth Warren (D) – “We need criminal justice reform…we need reform of the whole system.” (EI Voter Guide 2018)

Regional
County District Attorney
Rachael Rollins (D) for Suffolk County – ”Black people are dying in the streets. That is why I’m running. It’s not a joke.” (Bay State Banner 2018)

Please have family and friends visit the Emancipation Initiative Facebook page and click the LIKE button under AACC’s Endorsements to show they’re voting in solidarity with us this election. Our goal is to reach 10,000 LIKES.

For any questions or comments about AACC’s 2018 endorsements please call: 617-869-2773, or email: emancipationinitiative@gmail.com
THANK YOU FOR SUPPORTING THE AACC!

Environmental Justice is as Much Social as It is Scientific

By Jibran M.

For those that know me well, I spent a lot of time outside this summer. Although I grew up in Maine, it hasn’t been until recently that I’ve made an earnest effort at connecting to nature. However, at best I’ve only managed to scrounge up time for a few weekend sprints up 4,000 foot peaks, before being called back to work at the job that enables me to sustain my way of life, among other things.

However, a certain dissonance rings within me when I attempt to connect with nature. This discomfort stems simply from the fact of how I, and the majority of other folks in our society, tend to treat nature. For most, there is this vaguely romantic idea of “The Great Outdoors” as something of an escape, an event that needs to be “experienced” and documented as an “adventure” on Instagram, Facebook, etc. It’s as if our occasional sojourns lead us to some level of abstraction where we can extract ourselves from the mundanities of modern society to arrive at some profound conclusions about ourselves; a god’s-eye view or Archimedean Point, if you will. However, this is the planet we live on – surely place and experience aren’t commodities from which some value can be extracted? Why is it that we are so fascinated with nature?

The young Karl Marx investigated man’s relationship with nature in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. For Marx, the increased objectification of labor under capitalism leads to a “loss of realization for the workers objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.” In other words: the product of a worker’s labor only serves further alienate them from their peers. Unlike in his later writings, young Marx includes thoughts on an estrangement from nature as well. Marx explains,

“The worker can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world. It is the material on which his labor is realized, in which it is active, from which, and by means of which it produces.”

While man cannot create without nature, he is separated from the immediacy of it by simply acting upon it,

“Thus the more the worker by his labor appropriates the external world, sensuous nature, the more he deprives himself of the means of life […] Nature is man’s inorganic body – nature, that is, insofar as it is not itself human body.”

We are only able to perceive the natural world through a filtered and processed lens through the labor we undertake. Our organic connection to nature is stripped from us.

Our fascination with the great outdoors is born from the fact that the natural world that surrounds us is as alien to us as the deepest reaches of the ocean or the furthest stars in space. This state of individual alienation is exacerbated by the fact that this condition is shared by all our peers, “every self-estrangement of man, from himself and from nature, appears in the relation in which he places himself and nature to men other than and differentiated from himself.”

With its intersecting alienations, capitalism not only demands competition between our peers, but it demands a contradiction between nature and society or culture.

Could this contradiction, this conflict between man and society contribute to a sense of dread concerning the state of the environment? Perhaps climate justice must not only proselytize the science behind impending peril, but must also lead a project to reconceive the relationship between man and nature to bring an end to this mutual alienation. Unfortunately, Marx pretty much ends his analysis there. Good thing we have Engels! For all the benefits the sciences have to offer, he argued, its microscopic dividing-up of nature has only served to reinforce our anxiety towards it.

As Engels writes in his Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, the analysis of Nature into its individual parts, the grouping of the different natural processes and objects in definite classes, the study of the internal anatomy of organized bodies in their manifold forms — these were the fundamental conditions of the gigantic strides in our knowledge of Nature that have been made during the last 400 years. But this method of work has also left us as legacy the habit of observing natural objects and processes in isolation, apart from their connection with the vast whole (emphasis mine); of observing them in repose, not in motion; as constraints, not as essentially variables; in their death, not in their life. And when this way of looking at things was transferred by Bacon and Locke from natural science to philosophy, it begot the narrow, metaphysical mode of thought peculiar to the last century.”

For decades, the popular discourse on the environment, thanks to neoliberalism, has been the domain of mechanistic thought, as opposed to the rigors of dialectical thought, which would serve to expose to the natural contradictions between society and the natural world. Examining ecological phenomena from a purely deterministic standpoint, or in purely physical terms, renders the outside world as a great “other” — in one sense, “primitive.” However, it is undeniable that the current state of the world, and its climate, is anthropogenic, chiefly originating from humanity’s exploitation of the Earth. Since humanity emerged we have always been, at least in the context of the development of western civilization, estranged from the planet itself.  As Engels brilliantly writes in his Dialectics of Nature:

“Man alone has succeeded in impressing his stamp on nature, not only by shifting the plant and animal world from one place to another, but also by so altering the aspect and climate of his dwelling place […] step by step with the development of the hand went that of the brain; first of all consciousness of the conditions for separate practically useful actions, and later, among the more favoured peoples and arising from the preceding, insight into the natural laws governing them.”

Essentially, the more great scientific discoveries are made, the more we are alienated from nature’s original context as our understanding becomes more microscopic. The more microscopic nature becomes, the more we are callously alienated from it.

The conditions for mankind to flourish require that we have a somewhat antagonistic relationship with nature. In order to survive and thrive, humanity must expropriate its bountiful resources. However, the way capitalism has presented itself, and how quickly it has spread like a virus throughout the world obviates the need for the proletariat to engage in the opposing relationship between the natural world and society through dialectical materialism, to think more carefully about the consequences of our actions. Marx and Engels highlighted the dangerous path humanity has progressed without this kind of dialectic,

The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. […] It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.

Without a proper dialectic, nature is simply a problem to be conquered. When nature is simply something to be conquered, and when our understanding of it is microscopic and mechanistic, we seek to break it down even more with even bigger displays of expropriation. With the bourgeois firmly in control, a society has been built that subsists on toxic gas spewing automobiles; that is nourished on the sale of even more dangerous weapons. Even so, we can still sense how alienated we are and preserve “artifacts” of nature in zoos, museums, and natural parks. Theodor Adorno laments this in his Minima Moralia,

The more purely nature is preserved and transplanted by civilization, the more implacably it is dominated. […] . The rationalization of culture, in opening its doors to nature, thereby completely absorbs it, and eliminates with difference the principle of culture, the possibility of reconciliation.”

We participate in this grand illusion of uncritical domination through our dates to botanical gardens, our Instagram-worthy hikes, and our family camping trips. So, if we can’t forge a proper connection and respect for what’s natural through the integration of our current culture, does this mean the proper solution is to hike the Appalachian Trail for 6 months? Should we fully capitulate to nature? What I hope we’ve come upon through this analysis is to realize that there were various discrete historical events related to the development and spread of capitalism (from the so-called “enlightenment” and the industrial revolution, to the imperialism of Baconian science) which has brought us to this inflection point in the development of humanity and nature. The very fact that climate change is such a political issue necessarily exposes it to dialectical examination.

However, instead of pushing for milquetoast legislation such as “carbon tax credits” or an encouragement to simply regress to a “primitive” state, we must, as socialists, pursue a radical transformation not only of our social relations with each other, but with nature as well.

What we need is a global revolution which totally eliminates the very concept of “capital.” It is only then we have even a possibility of forging a more collaborative existence with the world around us. When we unite as the proletariat to forge the world according to our “own taste,” then we can have a better shot at saving the planet from climate disaster and finally “connect” with nature.