You Might Stop the Party But You Can’t Stop the Future

December 12, 2011

The acid house explosion provided an inspirational moment for the London underground, participants in which were taking squats and throwing parties amid the sensorial atmosphere enhanced by new technologies, music, and drugs. Under a novel soundtrack and mindscape, these were adventurous times in which a bizarre range of disused government and industrial buildings were occupied. Circus Normal held several huge events in 1990 in a bus garage in Camberwell reputed to be endowed with the largest single-space roof in Europe. Circus Lunatek broke into and occupied a NatWest bank in New Cross and a Barclays in Brockley, South London, in 1991. They would even occupy a police station garage in Elephant & Castle, South London, with Jiba, Vox Populi, and Bedlam sound systems in 1992, and admitted themselves to a ballet school in Kent with Bedlam and others in 1993.

-Graham St John, Technomad: Global Raving Countercultures

While the Occupy movement excavates its history of successful political actions, as Julie McIntyre points out we should also incorporate into this narrative the “libidinal disruptions” and cultural productions that characterize interventions into militarized space. The golden age of rave is over (many claimed it was over by the Nineties), but squat raves persist, while sloughing off some of the more carnivalesque trappings of old. Whereas the early squat ravers’ militancy was mostly semiotic, in the language of their flyers and track titles, a generation growing up under the militarized police forces of neoliberalism often take things a step or two further. Attendants at this 2010 squat rave successfully repulsed attacks by riot police.

The soundtrack is stripped of any new ageism of early rave, just caustic beats with the repeated refrain of “fuck the police.” As we all know, this slogan was popularized by N.W.A., whose own militant aesthetic arose from the then-extraordinary military-style repression that characterized the LAPD’s pursuit of the “War on Drugs.” An earlier L.A. rap song on this topic, Toddy Tee’s “Batterram” from 1985, had a more bemused tone than NWA, but served as a nationwide warning call to ghettos across the U.S.: “New York, it’s coming. Detroit, it’s coming. L.A., it’s coming – no, it’s here!” over the diesel churn of LAPD’s military hardware.

Another song of similarly striking prescience is IDC’s “This Is Not A Riot” from 2009, which begins with a clip from “V for Vendetta,” which, through the use of its imagery by the hacker collective Anonymous, has become associated with the #Occupy movement. The track samples another police military device, the Long-Range Acoustical Weapon (LRAD) used at the protests in Pittsburgh of that year’s G20, and more recently during the raids on occupations in Boston and New York. It splices this with protester chants of “Disobey your orders.” These were directed at the cops breaking up the protest, but their decontextualization in the song destabilizes the command: it is now free-floating injunction to refuse. The shrill chirping of the LRAD melds into the oscillations of the Roland TR-303 synthesizer which characterized acid house. The music had anticipated militant sonics and had been preparing us.

At the front lines of squat raving, Spiral Tribe faced enormous police repression. In 1992, when riot police amassed outside their party space — an abandoned UniChem warehouse in London — ravers barricaded themselves inside. The police broke through the wall, not with a battering ram, but with a JCB Digger. A witness recounts a scene that echoes contemporary Oakland, Manhattan, Boston:

At this point, there were about 750 people in the building – all trying to escape the vicious onslaught from the police. A panic started as people tried to crush through one small exit. Instead of alleviating the crush, the police pushed up hard behind everyone, hitting out and forcing everyone face down to the ground. Some people were singled out and given further severe beatings. The police then started on the equipment that had been lent or donated destroying it needlessly.

The local hospital reported up to 700 casualties amongst the party goers with one policeman injured. 5 arrests were made – for assaults on police officers and for breach of the peace. No charges were made against Spiral Tribe.

One of those casualties was a teenager who was thrown off the roof by officers, breaking both his arms and legs. As arrestees were marched past the police, a man with an American accent boasted that in the States, his squad would have emptied the building in twenty minutes. Police forces were colluding on an international scale in cracking down on rave. A Spiral Tribe communique pondered, “Why should a ‘civilized nation’ wish violence upon its youngest citizens for listening to a stigmatized beat? The question baffles most police constables and ravers alike. No-one can see what the problem is. Unless of course for reasons known only to themselves, the archaic powers that be feel the stability of their regime threatened by the strange music and dancing.” Their apparent bafflement comes from analysis that has just missed the mark: it wasn’t the music that mattered to the powers-that-be, and it wasn’t the dancing, not exactly. What’s becoming clear in 2011 is that what really threatens the archaic powers that be, what invites police violence out of all proportion, is engaging in collective social practices independent of state and market, rejecting capitalist commerce and openly mocking property rights. May we continue this proud, global, collective tradition. As Detroit’s Underground Resistance puts it — illegally, using MLK’s copyrighted enunciations for a decidedly non-nonviolent purposes — “Now is the time.”


New content…

November 23, 2011

…up at the also-new Viewpoint Magazine, which contains a lot of in-depth, theory-informed analysis of the political moment. My report on the recent building occupation undertaken by Occupy DC:

Occupy Franklin and Never Give It Back

Report from October 6 #OccupyDC and #OccupyKSt

October 7, 2011

While I like to do theory and analysis, I also think it’s really useful to read first-hand account of things, without any kind of angle packaged alongside it. So here is my report from events in DC yesterday (October 6).

Yesterday I went to both rallies sporting the #occupy brand here in Washington D.C. Yes, there are two separate events, located a few blocks from each other. Here’s a report, for what it’s worth. Not using names, because I never found them out or I forgot them, or maybe people don’t want their names out.

Stop The Machine AKA #occupydc AKA october2011 was at Freedom Plaza. From what I can figure out, it was a previously scheduled antiwar protest to mark the 10-year anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan. It then added on an “occupy” signifier to get media attention. (The first thing you learn about demonstrations is that the biggest issue for organizers is getting media attention). The crowd was what I’ve come to expect as a “standard” left demo crowd: aging hippies and college students. A few anarchisty-looking people, a few Ron Paul supporters (including, bizarrely, some in Code Pink shirts), a few silly costumes. Folk songs and spoken word antiwar performances from a stage. People had set up some tents too, but this was actually not designed for an occupation. It was a typical rally with a stage, PA system and a permit. The use of “occupy” had worked though — there was lots of media, including foreign press. The numbers when I was there — noon to 1:30 — I’d put at about 500 tops.

I’d done my homework, so I knew that the actual occupation was at McPherson Square. This was Confusing — clearly two orgs were competing over twitter accounts and webpages. I walked over with some friends. The weather was beautiful. At the park, maybe 30 people were milling about, and some more were sitting in circles in meetings of some sort. Almost all were in a demographic you might call “college/post-college.” Several people with “punk” looks. I recognized a couple from a Wisconsin solidarity rally a few months back, where we occupied a lobbyist building for an hour. People like me, I suppose — hear the call, show up. I asked how the occupation was going. Immediately someone there asked if we could help get a WiFi hub for the square. We couldn’t do that, so he asked if we could help in other ways. My friends didn’t seem sure, but I said ok (maybe we should have done a consensus finger-waggling thing), and the guy ushered us into the Starbucks across the street to do a “social media assault.” We didn’t have any computers, so the guy borrowed a notebook computer from someone sitting in the circle. When we got there, he asked what each of us were good at, which is kind of a weird question. We were all Ph.D. students, so of course we can’t do anything! I offered that I could do social media, and got on the notebook to send some tweets. I noticed the guy was very conscientious about listening to each person and made an effort to demonstrate that what people said was being considered. It turned out he was some kind of professional organizer from Boston. I asked if local businesses were involved. A couple pizza places were donating food. I said we could try to get stores to donate art supplies, and maybe get some books and start a library. There was an Utrecht nearby, so I wrote down their contact info in my (paper) notebook. I asked if they had reached out to any DC community groups, but they hadn’t. I looked up the info for a few groups and wrote them down as well.

A couple more of who seemed to be organizing stuff came into the Starbucks. One asked if we had patronized the shop, which we had. The other guy said “I think they like us here, anyway.” He took his notebook computer back and borrowed a pen and my notebook and started talking to people on his phone. Someone mentioned some unions wanted to come by. A couple of my friends had to go; one stayed behind and went on the Utrecht mission. I was tasked with starting up another Twitter account — they couldn’t find the person running the @OccupyKSt or the @Occupy_DC twitter accounts, and didn’t have contact info for them. There was definitely some annoyance at how the protest had taken some of the best twitter handles and hashtags. I started the account, but ended up misspelling “McPhersonSq” as “MacPhersonSq.” I sent some tweets anyway. I was using the Boston guy’s iPad at this point — my first time really using one, even though I’d been designated the social media person at that point. Weird, especially since Steve Jobs was taking up all the headlines that day.

I received a tweet from a friend who works for an activist group in DC that a march was going on at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce a couple blocks away. I suggested we try to get some people from there to join us in the square. People were involved in other things though, or just didn’t know what to do. Before we could figure something out, the march came down K Street, right past the square. The Boston guy and I went out of the Starbucks to hail the march, and let them know about the occupation they were walking past. A middle aged guy in a suit asked if he could spend the night there. I said yes. He then asked me how to do it and I told him I didn’t know, I had just gotten there an hour before, but he could ask some other people. This turned out to be a pretty common occurrence: people asking for info, being directed vaguely about. This is to be expected from the Occupy Together tactics, and I wouldn’t categorize it as a liability necessarily. But a lot of people get pretty uncomfortable when there isn’t a clear organization “in charge” of things. Or at least providing information. The occupation didn’t have any committees at that point, but an information table would have probably helped.

A day-labor organizer stopped to talk; she held ESL workshops pretty close to where I live, so I got her contact info (how DC!). I asked her if she thought day laborers would want to come to the occupation. She said no, not at all. I told her I wasn’t sure about being part of a movement that’s all college kids. She didn’t think the occupation would really get beyond that.

My friend came back from Utrecht with markers, posterboard and butcher paper. He had to go, but he said the store was pretty enthusiastic about donating supplies. It seemed like a good strategy to follow up on — soliciting donations from local small businesses — and I was kind of surprised no one at the occupation had tried to do that beyond pizza places. I met some people who had come from #OccupyWallSt in New York to help set up a livestream for DC. Their cameraman was back at Freedom Plaza though, and, once again, no one had his phone number. After getting a physical description and his location, I biked over. There weren’t too many people with bikes, and it seemed like having cavalry to forage and courier would be useful. I couldn’t find the cameraman, but I found two other occupation people also looking for him. I said I would bike back to say we couldn’t find them. I gave one guy my phone number so he could call me and I could let them know what was happening at the square. He wrote it down on his hand. He never called.

I went back to McPherson Square. This was just before 5, so I got to enjoy some nice downtown traffic riding, which I actually enjoy. The cameraman was there, and the New York guy told me to talk to him about setting it up. So I did. He said everything was already set up. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do after that — would the occupation run it itself somehow? Did they have cameras? Did I just become the head of the media team? I tried to find the guy who borrowed my notebook, since it had all my school notes and papers in it, and because he seemed to be in charge. Not that he was commanding people, necessarily, but he was definitely leading stuff up and more involved than other people. The whole “leaderless” thing seems like more branding to me, some people do more organizing and seem to have more experience and others defer to them, but it didn’t seem undemocratic or hierarchical.

At around 5 we set off on a march for the Newseum. In DC you don’t need permits to march, just notify the cops and they block off streets. Which they did. The march had maybe 100 people, and went by the Freedom Plaza event, where we got high fives, raised fists, and a few extra marchers. We chanted things like “Banks got bailed out / We got sold out” and “We! Are! The 99%!” A few times I changed “we” to “you” because that made it seem like the spectators — of which there were many, armed with camera phones — were involved. It made the chants ring a less petulant and more inclusive tone, I think.

It’s interesting to me that so many people take pictures of marches, but don’t feel like they can join in. I remember when I took a class on a field trip to a May Day march in Chicago. My students were actually nervous, like they thought people would be upset that they were there for some reason. Like they didn’t belong. Really, the thing every demonstration needs, more than media attention, is people. Bodies on the ground. I’ve never seen a demo that turned people away. I wonder if any of those students went to other demonstrations afterwards. A lot of them seemed to have fun.

It was about 20 minutes to get to the Newseum. The cops blocked several intersections for us to walk past. A guy, professionally dressed, carrying the main banner, thanked the police at each intersection. At times the march took up the sidewalk and a lane in the street. I wondered if it was a good idea to mess up people’s rush hour commutes, though we did get a few honks of support. A WASP couple brisked through with the lady sneering, “We’re trying to walk here!” I thought I should say “Yeah, well, we’re trying to establish democracy here!” but didn’t. At the Newseum there was more chanting. The guy from New York said that Dick Cheney was inside doing some think tank event, and that we should have the General Assembly there, to have a People’s Think Tank. I wasn’t sure if he wanted me to do something or if it was just chatting. I looked for the Boston organizer guy to see what he thought, but he was on the other side of the crowd, leading chants. An older man on a bike started chanting anti-war slogans, but the crowd pointedly did not take them up, instead tittering a bit. Another guy pointed to all the day’s headlines (the Newseum displays the day’s papers from every state and around the world out front) and saying that the Wall Street Journal hadn’t said anything about the occupations. Someone started unrolling the butcher paper and people started writing on it in chalk. I didn’t see what it said beyond things like “love” and “peace.” Before I could get a better look, they rolled it back up and began marching back to McPherson. We had been in front of the Newseum for maybe 10 minutes. I figured it was to get the scheduled general assembly rolling. Nevertheless, I was pretty confused. I didn’t really know why we went to the Newseum at all. I was tired and hungry, having not eaten anything all day. Since I was closer to where I live than back at McPherson, I biked back home instead of following the march. I didn’t tell anyone — I just left. Maybe I should have said I was going. I got home around 6:15 and let my dog out.

Piracy is Looting — And That’s OK

August 29, 2011

If you support piracy, you should support looting.

I say this as a supporter of piracy, one trying to come to a consistent position on property as a whole. Plenty of people defend piracy, plenty more pirate secretly, and usually they will have an excuse, like “Pirates buy more music” or “I’m going to the show, so I’m supporting the artist” or “I don’t have money, so the company wouldn’t have gotten me to pay anyway.” They draw boundaries between the good or neutral piracy that they practice, and the bad piracy and theft that others practice. Instead of creating a preserve where the things that I and my friends do is ok, I’m more interested in expanding categories so we can see how what we do is aligned with what others do too.

So what is piracy? It is the deliberate violation of the current system property rights. Our system states that corporations can buy, sell, and own the exclusive right to copy music recordings, films, and books. Anyone else who does so is a criminal. Even though many people possess the means to easily copy and distribute intellectual property, they aren’t allowed. So what happens? We do it anyway. We torrent, we join password-protected communities, we Google music blogs, we upload to YouTube under disguised names, we rip and burn, we violate the laws of property willingly, continuously. We do this because we can. Because it’s easy. Because we know the media companies are greedy exploitative bastards. And because many of us don’t have the disposable income to blow indiscriminately on records, movie tickets, DVDs, and books.

And pay is indeed an important, if neglected, component of piracy. As the SSRC report “Media Piracy in Emerging Economies” states,

Media piracy has been called “a global scourge,” “an international plague,” and “nirvana for criminals,”1 but it is probably better described as a global pricing problem. High prices for media goods, low incomes, and cheap digital technologies are the main ingredients of global media piracy. If piracy is ubiquitous in most parts of the world, it is because these conditions are ubiquitous. Relative to local incomes in Brazil, Russia, or South Africa, the price of a CD, DVD, or copy of Microsoft Office is five to ten times higher than in the United States or Europe. Licit media goods are luxury items in most parts of the world, and licit media markets are correspondingly tiny.

It’s piracy or nothing. Or to appropriate someone else’s words, Share or Die.

So what about looting? Looting is the widespread theft of goods on a mass scale. Looters violate property laws, but many people, including pro-piracy people, will tell you it’s different, that taking a pair of sneakers isn’t the same as downloading an mp3. That seems true on the face of it, but it relies on some faulty claims.

First of all, shoes cannot be shared the way I share an mp3 — it benefits only the person who possesses it at the time. In economic jargon, shoes are “rivalrous.” Now, while it may be true in a limited metaphysical sense that shoes are rivalrous, in the context of the actual world (from which all analysis should proceed), we know that vast quantities of shoes are produced. In fact, if you had $100 to spend, you could go to the store right now and pick out one pair of shoes among many. Very few, if any, readers reading this right now face an actual scarcity of shoes available for purchase. However, we might not be able to afford shoes at any given time. I myself have had to put off replacing worn-out shoes until I could amass enough money to get new ones. I knew that once I had the money, I would have no trouble buying the shoes. Even if other people bought shoes, it wouldn’t prevent me from getting the exact same, or a nearly identical, type of shoe. So this kind of overproduction of mass-produced goods, combined with the widespread inability for many people to pay for these goods, renders the point about rivalrous goods moot.

Now to get that shoe for free, to steal it, would require committing a crime that seems very different from downloading an mp3. In the eyes of the law, in both cases you have violated someone else’s private property rights. But stealing a pair of shoes requires a different kind of physical activity to pull off. Illegally downloading an mp3 just means I sit behind a computer and type, the same way I check my email or do my taxes. I could do it in a cafe without disturbing a single person’s enjoyment of their latte. But looting will probably entail damaging some property — broken locks, smashed windows, and the like. Some people will find this a tad impolite. They think someone who entertains thoughts of violating property laws — laws governing physical property, they have no problem burning a CD for a friend — morally flawed. It creates a mess. In fact, Rudy Giuliani gentrified New York City using the belief that messes were worse than other types of crimes. People who think this way would prefer that you and I walk around unshod rather than make a mess. In fact, as long as you don’t make a mess, they don’t really care about whether you have shoes, food, healthcare, or anything else you need to survive. That, in my book, is some fucked up priorities, revealing, for all their peaceful coffee-sipping, a profound flaw in moral thinking.

So looting says the same thing that piracy says: we can take it and, by coordinating masses of others, we will. If we could torrent clothes and food using Starbucks WiFi, we would, but until then, we can loot from the vast stores of stuff that’s already been produced. Either way, we damage the industries we take from. And that is good, because these industries are terrible, greedy, inhuman industries that exploit their workers and cheat their customers. You could ask Steve Albini, or you could ask any of these women in a Nike sweatshop.

In the London riots, a warehouse owned by Sony housing materials to be distributed by Pias was burned down. Thousands of DVDs and CDs were lost. My first thought was, “Oh no, independent artists will be hurt!” My second thought was “Who was going to buy all that shit?” In fact, the fire could be a boon to some of the affected parties, since they’ll get insurance payout on stock that a decent internet connection renders worthless, unsaleable. Just a bunch of flat shiny discs that fewer and fewer people want, that fewer and fewer people can pay for. Isn’t this the world of pirates, the world where art doesn’t need factories and warehouses and sweatshops, where everyone can pay according to their ability, where the giant corporations who suck income from us at every turn end up looking like this? This is what our piracy, our looting can do.

Holding up the “indie labels” was a way to try and make us feel bad, to think that looters were hurting nice little companies run by nice indie people. It functions the same as this picture:

A nice old man, rummages through the wreckage of his shop. “I’ll probably have to close because I haven’t got insurance,” and we are supposed to imagine the terrible looters who took “a number of small items, including his kettle and cotton wool” from this poor old man. How could they do this? And we forget that the reason people rioted was not that they hated this old man, but because the police murdered yet another one of them, and then roughed up a teenager at a peaceful demonstration against the killing.

While we don’t know what this man’s relationship was to the people who stole his kettle, we should be aware that looting, like piracy, can harm people who we don’t think deserve it. We can pirate independent art and loot independent businesses as easily as the big name stuff, even more easily. Some music fans adopt an ethical stance, saying they support artists they like in various ways — promising to buy the CD, paying for a ticket, purchasing a T-shirt. There’s no reason looters can’t have the same ethics, against hurting people and against destroying the property of those who contribute to the community. I suspect many already do.

An NPR story about looting (related to Katrina hysteria, where we discovered that white people never loot), argues there can be ethics of looting. “Who could let their child or grandmother go hungry in a catastrophic emergency not of one’s own making simply to preserve the ethical rule against stealing?” Anita Allen asks. These silly conditionals are a middle class affectation, designed to obscure the fact that it doesn’t take a catastrophic emergency for needs to go unmet. Take that part out. Who could let their child or grandmother go hungry simply to preserve the ethical rule against stealing?

The people that say information wants to be free don’t say that shoes want to be free. Or that iPhones want to be free. Or that food wants to be free. Information doesn’t want to be free. Information doesn’t want anything. To say so is to disavow the truth: we want information to be free, because we know that is the way it should be. That art, knowledge, and formulas to life-saving medicines shouldn’t be commodities, but should be available on different terms, not exclusively on something as capricious as our ability pay. This is not some special preserve of art. This is true of clothing, of food, and of gadgets. It is true of survival, and of pleasure too.

Pirate Capitalists will tell you there are new business models out there, that piracy can reinvigorate a moribund media production and distribution system. I think they are wrong, that they are mostly hucksters, and that very few people will end up profiting much from a pirate media economy. But very few people benefit from capitalism at all, though for a while we fooled ourselves into thinking that plenty of people would do just fine under it. Our task is not to find new business models for the current system. What we need to do is realize that the art and social relations we want cannot be supported by the current system, and that the current system needs radical change. This change will come from the gravediggers that the current system of private property produces, the people who don’t benefit from it and have the power to destroy it. Pirates. Looters. Us.

Tenured Radical Can’t Find Any US Riots (Not That She Wants To)

August 9, 2011

A Tenured Radical wants to know where the U.S. riots are.

It seems a little bit of bad faith to me to critique the lack of riots in the U.S. and then say “Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to see cities burn.” Well, ok, I won’t “get you wrong,” you want some kind of middle ground between weekend recreational protest and, um, cities burning. Got it. Whatever that is. But obviously watching cities burn holds a kind of fascination, especially if it’s not your city, and that oppressed people are giving a big fuck you to their incompetent and corrupt minders can’t help but give a bit of cheer to anyone of left-of-center sympathies.

But TR is definitely keeping those complicated desires at bay — don’t get her wrong! — and instead shifting discussion to the safer terrain of, I don’t know, complaining about a lack of a general strike or whatever. This vague idealization of a nebulous ideal of an “activism” (a word that continually strikes me as a bit pathetic, at least etymologically) that is never quite right goes along with other cliches of thinking that radicals, whether or not they are tenured or have sufficient stock investments to be “a bit concerned,” should perhaps avoid, unless they want to come off rather more like Tenured Liberals.

First of all, your words. TR has dashed off this timely missive for her Chronicle column, so we can forgive a few infelicitous phrasings that could lead the reader to “get her wrong.” But really, do we want to characterize UK Uncut protests from earlier this summer as “a riot” and cite Time Magazine of all sources? The word “riot” easily slides into the kind of meaningless depoliticized “thuggery” we already see at work in the media framing of the uprisings in the UK. Why would a self-professed radical undercut the movement she herself calls for with this language? Why wouldn’t she point out the violent kettling techniques of the police, which have proven to cause injury and death? Might I recommend a new news service, such as Al Jazeera English, surely available on one of her 180+ cable channels.

Secondly, let’s not sell ourselves short. TR is rehearsing another trope, apathy, particularly student apathy. If you want to read endless griping about the condition of American college students, The Chronicle is your best bet.

This has all caused me to reflect on the extraordinary passivity of Americans, and of American students, who respond to reduced access to education by studying harder, getting better grades, and stepping on the people who can’t — or aren’t in a position to – compete any longer.

Well, maybe this is what happens at Wesleyan, where our Radical is Tenured, one of the “little ivies,” set in picturesque Middletown, CT. She might find something different at large urban campuses and public universities, where the response has certainly not been studying harder and getting better grades. Maybe it would have been more appropriate for TR to reflect on the passivity of American academics, who are responding to reduced access to decent jobs by… working harder, publishing more papers, and bitching in the pages of the Chronicle.

Pundits have a bad track record for predicting uprisings. These things can be hard to predict, surely, but especially if you are removed from the people getting hit with the most oppressive features of neoliberalism, or if you only interact with them in a classroom, as an authority figure, discussing academic topics. K-punk’s similar assertions of the passivity of British students (reprinted in his tract, Capitalist Realism less than two years ago) have been shown up. May we all hope TR eats her words soon. As Darcus Howe is at pains to explain, if you’ve been there, if your friends and family have been repeatedly victimized, this kind of thing isn’t really unexpected at all:

p2p music sharing…

February 23, 2011

…captured on video:


Adam Smith and Collective Bargaining

February 18, 2011

Adam Smith, for all the considerable flaws in his thinking, wasn’t stupid. He understood the class conflict inherent to the economic system he was describing.

What are the common wages of labour, depends everywhere upon the contract usually made between those two parties, whose interests are by no means the same. The workmen desire to get as much, the masters to give as little as possible. The former are disposed to combine in order to raise, the latter in order to lower the wages of labour.

He also understood that this wasn’t an even match-up. Under 18th Century capitalism, not only were most workers living hand to mouth, organizing was expressly forbidden by law. It’s pretty clear that Smith thought this was an unfair state of affairs.

It is not, however, difficult to foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into a compliance with their terms. The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorizes, or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen. We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work; but many against combining to raise it. In all such disputes the masters can hold out much longer. A landlord, a farmer, a master manufacturer, a merchant, though they did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two upon the stocks which they have already acquired. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment. In the long run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him; but the necessity is not so immediate.

Of course, workers organized and fought anyway, were beaten, killed, thrown in prison, and vilified in the capitalist press. But their “masters,” the owners of the factories, organized themselves as well. These organizations operated with the consent of the law to do what it is masters always do, the very aspect that unites them as a class: lower the wages of the workers. But this operated out of sight.

We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate.

“As ignorant of the world as of the subject” is a phrase I’ve had occasion to deploy more than a few times today. Smith realized that part of the invisibility was ideological. Implicit to the capitalist system was that owners would try to pay their workers as little as possible, so it didn’t seem worth remarking upon. He also saw how this secrecy was a great asset to owners, who could maneuver out of sight until they were in a better position to thwart worker aims. So they worked behind closed doors.

We seldom, indeed, hear of this combination, because it is the usual, and one may say, the natural state of things, which nobody ever hears of. Masters, too, sometimes enter into particular combinations to sink the wages of labour even below this rate. These are always conducted with the utmost silence and secrecy, till the moment of execution, and when the workmen yield, as they sometimes do, without resistance, though severely felt by them, they are never heard of by other people.

The Wealth of Nations, Book 1 Chapter 8

So Smith would have understood what is happening in Wisconsin right now, and he would have expected most news to look like this. The “masters” are trying to revert back to those glory days when workers had no right to organize because it will allow them to better lower those workers’ wages. Why? Not to balance the budget, but to shift wealth — in this case, public funds — into the hands of those in the ruling class. And Adam Smith knew what the result of that was:

Many would not be able to find employment even upon these hard terms, but would either starve, or be driven to seek a subsistence either by begging, or by the perpetration perhaps of the greatest enormities.

Or as Krugman says:

The whole budget debate, then, is a sham. House Republicans, in particular, are literally stealing food from the mouths of babes — nutritional aid to pregnant women and very young children is one of the items on their cutting block — so they can pose, falsely, as deficit hawks.

A Response to Jonathan Simon on UC Strikes [Update]

December 2, 2009

I recently had the pleasure of hearing Jonathan Simon, criminologist and anti-prison advocate at UC Berkeley, speak at a colloquiam. His ideas were bold and interesting, although I wasn’t always sure if he could link them into one overarching project as he was attempting. I won’t summarize the talk, since it’s his next book idea, but he’ll no doubt discuss its ideas on his blog, which is definitely worth checking out.

However, I feel the need to respond to a recent post about the strikes at his workplace (which is also his alma mater), which he simply cannot support. Why? Because they should be protests about prison reform instead.

With a heavy heart I am not joining many of my students and colleagues who are striking against classes and educational activities at UC Berkeley and other UC campuses across the state beginning tomorrow (and through Friday the 20th). We ought to be united in mobilization to save higher education in California. But in choosing to make the fight a convenient and ideologically satisfying (but for the most part phony) story about privatization, down-sizing, and pernicious, corporate minded university leadership, UC’s unions and their student and faculty allies are missing a historic opportunity to engage our fellow citizens in a critical dialog about our state’s future.

That future has been mortgaged to expensive dysfunctional prisons and a bipartisan law-enforcement establishment that is committed to mass incarceration at any price. But across three decades in which that project of exiling tens of thousands of largely poor and minority Californians to a prison archipelago of mammoth proportions (which yet remains grotesquely overcrowded) has been constructed, the supporters of higher education in this state have remained silent, assuming that the incarceration of people who don’t go to college anyway is not our problem. Now the chickens have come home to roost.

First of all, I think he is simplifying the reasons for student activism in California (and nationwide — sorry, worldwide). They aren’t merely neutered critiques against corporatization of the university, they related to larger critiques of capitalism — that the generation coming of age now must shoulder the burden of debt-fueled neoliberalism come asunder. Essentially, the buck stops with Generation Y. Simon’s disdain for the strikes is barely concealed, shocking when you think of how his interests in making detailed, critical scholarship are threatened, as education becomes stripped down to professional training. Perhaps law/criminology people haven’t felt the acute pinch like humanities folks, but he’d probably change his tune if he had 4/4 loads of composition classes.

Simon’s bigger oversight is that he poses these problems in an “either/or” false choice. You either protest the privitization of schools (wrong) or you protest prisons (right). What he doesn’t understand is that movements start in a grassroots way, addressing local concerns. He really should have understood this, since the Free Speech movement at Berkeley (itself inspired by the civil rights movement) grew into a much larger youth movement, protesting war, capital, racism, essentially against a constricted version of the American future. Students are natural starting points for radical protest, and their earliest protests are likely to be about school issues. In the same way, workers start protesting their own labor conditions first. The drastic measures happening in California (and really at every public institution in the U.S.) have been met with vehement student response, containing a strong anti-capitalist element. What Simon should do is see this as an opportunity — you want an anti-prison movement, then make it a part of the movement happening right now! That’s where the energy is. He has the background to incorporate a critique of the prison-industrial complex into what the student movement is already geared up about: in addition to being immoral, our justice system is a drain on the economy, which affects all public spending. But he has to take positive action, take the time to make the argument, instead of sniping “where were you when the state built thirty prisons and enacted laws like 3-Strikes?” Well, Jonathan, I was 12 when Three Strikes went into effect; most of these students were younger. Where were you?

This sarcastic tone belies Simon’s obvious envy of the student movement’s enjoyment. This is why he writes absurd things about missing “three precious days” of classes — I’m guessing people learned more by engaging in protest and battling cops than sitting in classrooms. Perhaps it’s generational, perhaps it’s structural due to Simon’s privileged postion in the university system. But if he really wants to start an anti-prison protest movement — and I hope he does — this activism is the exact place he should start.


I just attended a panel discussion on student organizing. Victor Sanchez, president of the University of California Student Association, the representative body for the entire UC student population, mentioned college funding in context of prison funding. Twice he brought up that California is #1 in prison funding nationwide, and attributed this to the powerful prison guard lobby. They are planning a march on Sacramento with faculty and administration in March. Dr. Simon, the door is officially open.


September 27, 2009

One of the settings on the Long Range Acoustic Weapons deployed at the G20

sounds just like the ants from Them! (1954)

whose sounds were taken from recordings of the bird-voiced treefrog.

Or, you know, a car alarm.

agents provocateurs

October 19, 2008


“Yes, sir?”

“You certainly think I consider you a born policeman because I see you hiding from view, obeying the basic law of police behavior, as you imagine it, of course: camouflage oneself, mimic the environment, remain unnoticed at any price. Correct?”

“Yes, sir,” I assert dejectedly. “That’s exactly what I had in mind.”

“You didn’t have anything in mind, Rutkowski. Nothing at all! Because if you had, you’d have known that a good policeman does precisely the opposite. He insists on being noticed. He does everything to elicit a reaction, not avert one. He knows the real bullshit can never be prevented, only put off. Rutkowski, the police is obligated to be the yeast, and not the retardant of popular fermentation. Only a weak police limits itself to the quelling of insurrections. A good police is their catalyst, fermenting agent, instigator.”

“And the very best?”

“They organize and lead them.”

Borislav Pekic, How to Quiet a Vampire (1977)