We all want progress…but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. We are on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back, going back is the quickest way on. – C.S. Lewis (via Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Purchase and Watch Your Every Move)
It is not that they are bad men. They are not men at all. Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void. Nor are their subjects necessarily unhappy men. They are not men at all: they are artefacts. Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man.
It is the magician’s bargain: give up our soul, get power in return. But once our souls, that is, ourselves, have been given up, the power thus conferred will not belong to us. We shall in fact be the slaves and puppets of that to which we have given our souls. It is in Man’s power to treat himself as a mere `natural object’ and his own judgements of value as raw material for scientific manipulation to alter at will. The objection to his doing so does not lie in the fact that this point of view (like one’s first day in a dissecting room) is painful and shocking till we grow used to it. The pain and the shock are at most a warning and a symptom. The real objection is that if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be: not raw material to be manipulated, as he fondly imagined, by himself, but by mere appetite, that is, mere Nature, in the person of his de-humanized Conditioners.
We have been trying, like Lear, to have it both ways: to lay down our human prerogative and yet at the same time to retain it. It is impossible. Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own `natural’ impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.
If we compare the chief trumpeter of the new era (Bacon) with Marlowe’s Faustus, the similarity is striking. You will read in some critics that Faustus has a thirst for knowledge. In reality, he hardly mentions it. It is not truth he wants from the devils, but gold and guns and girls.
The Abolition of Man: Chapter 3
Men Without Chests: A Dystopian Future
Lewis criticizes modern attempts to debunk natural values (such as those that would deny objective value to the waterfall) on rational grounds. He says that there is a set of objective values that have been shared, with minor differences, by every culture “… the traditional moralities of East and West, the Christan, the Pagan, and the Jew…”. Lewis calls this the Tao (which closely resembles Confucian and Taoist usage). Without the Tao, no value judgements can be made at all, and modern attempts to do away with some parts of traditional morality for some “rational” reason always proceed by arbitrarily selecting one part of the Tao and using it as grounds to debunk the others.
The final chapter describes the ultimate consequences of this debunking: a distant future in which the values and morals of the majority are controlled by a small group who rule by a perfect understanding of psychology, and who in turn, being able to “see through” any system of morality that might induce them to act in a certain way, are ruled only by their own unreflected whims. The controllers will no longer be recognizably human, the controlled will be robot-like, and the Abolition of Man will have been completed.
In a small, windowless room in the basement of IBM Corp.’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Dharmendra Modha is building a simulated monkey brain using images projected on flat-screen TVs.
Modha, the lab’s manager of cognitive computing, urged Big Blue to back his pet project, which combines advances in nanotechnology, supercomputing and neuroscience. If successful, the effort could help computers “think” like the human mind.
IBM green-lights proposals from Modha and other researchers at the lab because some of the gambles can spawn significant business. Since the 1990s, advances in how data are stored, managed and analyzed have helped generate millions of dollars in sales. Yet even lab directors concede that chances are slim that any one breakthrough will make a sizable addition to IBM’s almost $100 billion in annual revenue.
“We have no way of making money off of this – unless a miracle happens and we figure out how to make better computers,” said Laura Haas, director of computer science at Almaden and the lab’s second-in-command, who wears a “Question Authority” button. “We’re different. It takes a different kind of craziness here.”
While IBM may move at a slower pace than West Coast startups, it tries to give Almaden researchers as much leeway as their Silicon Valley peers, said Winfried Wilcke, senior manager of the lab’s nanoscale science and technology research.
“If you think of us as dinosaurs, then think of us as velociraptors,” he said, referring to the nimble predators of the Late Cretaceous period. “The freedom we have here is great.”
Silicon Valley labs have a mixed record of getting a high return on investment from their discoveries. While IBM was able to capitalize on Almaden’s invention of the disk drive and relational database, many of Xerox Corp.’s early innovations at its Palo Alto Research Center – such as the Macintosh-style graphical user interface – brought more benefit to other companies.
“Making some bets that are unlinked to specific outcomes is important, but if it’s all kind of curiosity-driven research, the (return) on innovation investing may not be that high,” said John Kao, chairman of the Institute for Large Scale Innovation in San Francisco.
The Silicon Valley version of IBM fosters a freer attitude and more of a startup mentality than headquarters in Armonk, N.Y. While the century-old IBM is known for white shirts, dark suits and a buttoned-down attitude, the staff at Almaden tackles oddball research projects and unwinds by holding sack races and tug-of-war competitions.
Located on a hill in a 1,600-acre wildlife preserve, the Almaden lab is painted a custom dark green derived from leaves and grass that employees gathered. The lobby boasts a 5-foot-diameter digital display globe that was purchased after researchers saw a similar device at a Denver museum and thought it would be cool to have one.
“New York was like, ‘You crazy scientists can do this, but come August, you have to show us results,’ ” said Julia Grace, a social and collaborative computing engineer. The globe was used to plot last year’s swine flu outbreak and more recently to show the location of people sending messages via Twitter during World Cup soccer matches.
Almaden’s projects include an electric battery for automobiles that could run 500 miles on one charge, a filtration system for desalination and a program that shows changes in geographical data. Researchers can shake up an industry, even if they don’t make a fortune, Haas said.
‘Change the world’
“You’re not going to get rich, but you can change the world,” she said. “IBM is a big ship, and you need a certain amount of patience to turn the wheel. But if that ship turns, the wake in the industry is enormous.”
Employees at the lab consider themselves “wild ducks” for working on projects that don’t fit in with what headquarters in New York wants to pursue, she said.
Of IBM’s nine research centers, Almaden is the only one to hold an annual Olympics-style event, where IBM Fellows – the highest technical honor a researcher can receive at the company – compete with interns in athletic events. Competition for the first-place trophy is so fierce that research team directors taunt each other in self-directed videos by breaking wooden boards with their hands or donning “Star Trek” uniforms.
Even with its renegade spirit, Almaden is under growing pressure to produce results, said David Patterson, a computer science professor at UC Berkeley.
“People expect more product impact from their research labs than they did 20 to 30 years ago,” he said.
In the 1990s, Almaden developed a method of encryption for media content. Used in memory cards and Blu-ray discs, this technology has earned IBM millions of dollars in licensing fees.
Giant magnetoresistive heads, introduced in 1997, helped hard disk drives increase their data-storage capacity fortyfold. A query system developed at Almaden in the late 1990s, named Garlic, integrates data from multiple sources and has earned IBM hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. More recently, the lab developed a file-management system that IBM now adds to its archiving, networking and cloud-computing products.
Still, technology companies continue to fund research without knowing where it will lead. Mountain View’s Google lets its workers spend 20 percent of their time working on personal projects.
“We’ve found that people are more productive when they are working on projects that really excite them,” said Jordan Newman, a Google spokesman. Products including Google News and Gmail began that way.
At IBM, some projects don’t pan out. In the early 1990s, Haas and IBM’s database-management team wanted to figure out a way to search the World Wide Web, something that hadn’t emerged yet.
‘Missed the boat’
“If we did it right, we might have invented search before Google,” Haas said. “But we had the wrong model, and we totally missed the boat. We were thinking about librarians.”
Modha, the researcher working on the monkey brain, quit IBM a decade ago to work on his own startup. After a short time, he realized he didn’t have the financial acumen to run a business and returned to Almaden.
“We have a 100-year history,” he said. “The challenge is, how do we usher in the next 100 years?”
A 1989 Bohemian Grove program depicting the noted Cremation of Care Ceremony.
A Lexus-Mercedes caravan of privilege disturbs the sylvan stillness along a Northern California back road, motoring under an honor guard of redwoods that have no choice in the matter. In defiance of nature’s odds, every driver is a man.
This can only mean that it is time again for the annual Bohemian Grove encampment, where, for more than a century, thousands of men have shed wives and cares to hike, listen to lectures, drink, discuss current events, celebrate the arts, drink, share frat-boy traditions, enjoy boon companionship no woman could understand, and drink.
A teary-eyed toast, then, to this wooded womb, followed by soulful consideration of one’s connection to greatness while urinating beside a skyscraping redwood. Who knows what titan of industry, what head of government — what Bohemian! — has relieved himself in this very spot?
Herbert Hoover? Henry Kissinger? Art Linkletter?
To quote the sacred script of the grove’s notorious Cremation of Care ceremony, which includes the requisite summer-camp assembly of robed men, a 40-foot concrete owl, and a body burned in effigy (conspiracy theorists note: it is not a real body):
Once again, midsummer sets us free!
But some of the ritual is missing. For most of the last 30 years, protesters by the dozens and hundreds have agitated outside this dark-wooded lair, denouncing it as a networking opportunity for the male elite, where valuable connections are slyly made over gin fizzes and bra-strap adjustments
Brian Romanoff, a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, was a lone protester last week in Monte Rio, Calif.
before the next performance in drag.
Here, in 1942, the Manhattan Project was conceived. Here, in 1967, Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan were said to have settled on who would first seek the presidency. And here, in 1981, Caspar Weinberger, then the secretary of defense, gave a “lakeside talk” that seemed to hint strongly of the military buildup to follow.
Down with the military-industrial complex!
Yet the ritual on this day includes only one protester, bearded, lanky Brian Romanoff, 28, who has been working mostly alone since the two-week encampment began on July 16. He says he has adopted a nonconfrontational approach, better to spread the truth about the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings.
Two words: controlled demolition.
Mr. Romanoff says he prefers working alone; it’s less threatening. But as late-model cars growl past his al fresco office, he holds up his pamphlets in vain. Men in a blue Mercedes convertible wave in frantic, mock friendship, but do not stop. One driver does slow down, but only because he mistakes the protester for a grove employee.
“Welcome,” Mr. Romanoff says. “Check-in is right up ahead.”
But why has interest flagged in the goings-on at Bohemian Grove, where the likes of the singer Jimmy Buffett, Colin L. Powell and former President George W. Bush are said to assemble? Perhaps we should ask the encampment’s mascot, the owl of wisdom (and no, conspiracy theorists, the owl does not represent a demonic idol or any potato-chip concern):
O! Owl, prince of all mortal wisdom, we beseech thee: What gives?
The answer, boys: Mary Moore, 75, the area’s silver-haired earth mother of activism, is focused on other matters. So it’s just not the same.
A former beauty queen from San Luis Obispo, Ms. Moore moved to a wooded Sonoma County enclave in the mid-1970s. Although active in liberal causes, she knew nothing of the annual elite-male getaway in her community until she read “The Bohemian Grove and Other Retreats: A Study in Ruling-Class Cohesiveness,” by the sociologist G. William Domhoff.
Before you could say O Great Owl of Bohemia, everybody knew of this two-week sleep-away camp for about 2,500 members and guests of the Bohemian Club, in San Francisco.
Predominantly white, affluent and Republican, they stage theatrical acts, enjoy like-minded company, and imbibe, amid mature redwoods and old posters from past gatherings. Some of the 125 camps within have their own valets, and there is even a gift shop.
The opening Cremation of Care ceremony, an elaborate production in which hooded characters burn “Dull Care” in effigy at an altar, is meant as a cathartic release of life’s worries. And the club’s motto, “Weaving Spiders Come Not Here,” reflects the prohibition against any conducting of business.
Call them crazy, but the protesters still believed that if you corral thousands of privileged men and throw in some fine wine and a few s’mores, they cannot help but make valuable connections and, occasionally, public policy.
Ms. Moore and other Northern California activists gleefully exposed the private encampment. They publicized the membership lists. They held Resurrection of Care ceremonies. They helped to slip in reporters; some returned with reports of drunken, gray-haired sophomores, while at least one saw evidence of the Trilateral Commission, the Illuminati and Beelzebub himself.
The protests waxed and waned over the years, but always with Ms. Moore at the fore. “Bohemian Grove allowed us to build coalitions,” she recalls. “Because whatever your issue was, someone in there was making money off it.”
The protests prompted the secretive Bohemians to hire a public relations consultant, Sam Singer, who patiently explained that members come from all walks of life; that the two-decade waiting list for membership could be expedited for those with unique talents (“If you play the violin, let me know”); that there is no human sacrifice.
According to Mr. Singer, who was invited to join the club three years ago after representing it for 12, the annual event creates hundreds of local jobs, uses local wine and food, and culminates with a celebrity-studded variety show in Monte Rio that raises money for local causes.
“This is two weeks, over the course of a year, when a group of gentlemen enjoy close friendships, current events and theatrical productions,” Mr. Singer says. “Without needing to see it on the front page of The Times or The Post.”
And another thing. “There is nobody wandering around with no clothes on,” Mr. Singer says, although he does admit to one Bohemian habit. “People do urinate on redwoods,” he says — not as part of any ritual, but “as the need becomes necessary.”
Ms. Moore was never bothered much by the urinating, or the drinking, or even the Cremation of Care nonsense. She was mostly concerned with the corporate influence on government, and what she most wanted was for this silly boys’ club to make public the transcripts of the “lakeside talks” delivered by the Weinbergers of the world.
Not going to happen, Mr. Singer says.
Ms. Moore no longer protests outside Bohemian Grove. Partly because she has dedicated herself to other issues, like police brutality, but mostly because her daughter died a few years ago, and she wants to spend more time with her grandchildren.
Besides, she says, it is time for younger people, like Brian Romanoff, to stand outside the gates, mulling the security cameras. And the Internet has helped to spread the word about Bohemian Grove, which was always the point of the roadside protests.
As late-model cars wend through the redwoods five miles away, Ms. Moore stays home, where her archives of activism — 50 years’ worth of pamphlets and books, posters and ephemera — fill two small buildings.
Much of it will be donated one day to the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, and to the Sonoma County Historical Society.
A Shirley Chisholm for President poster. A file labeled “Overcoming Racism in Sonoma County.” A pair of platform shoes. And various items from Bohemian Grove that reek of the musty woods.
Eugene Sukup, 81, visits the grave of his parents and grandparents at the Hillside Cemetery in Sheffield, Iowa.
Eugene Sukup: ‘You don’t know whether to commit suicide or keep on living and working’
It has come to this: Congress, quite by accident, is incentivizing death.
When the Senate allowed the estate tax to lapse at the end of last year, it encouraged wealthy people near death’s door to stay alive until Jan. 1 so they could spare their heirs a 45% tax hit.
Now the situation has reversed: If Congress doesn’t change the law soon—and many experts think it won’t—the estate tax will come roaring back in 2011.
Not only will the top rate jump to 55%, but the exemption will shrink from $3.5 million per individual in 2009 to just $1 million in 2011, potentially affecting eight times as many taxpayers.
The math is ugly: On a $5 million estate, the tax consequence of dying a minute after midnight on Jan. 1, 2011 rather than two minutes earlier could be more than $2 million; on a $15 million estate, the difference could be about $8 million.
Of course, there is a “death incentive” whenever Congress raises the estate tax. But it hasn’t happened in decades; the top rate has held steady or fallen since 1942, according to tax historian Joseph Thorndike of Tax Analysts, a nonprofit group. In fact, the jump from zero to 55% would be “the largest increase in a major tax that we’ve ever seen,” Mr. Thorndike says.
Death or Taxes
Six notable people who died this year—possibly leaving behind tax-free estates for their heirs. Had they died next year, the result could have been far different.
TV host Actor Art Linkletter
Actor Dennis Hopper
Taco Bell founder Glen Bell
Novelist Louis Auchincloss
Real-estate developer Walter Shorenstein
Author J. D. Salinger
That possibility presents a bizarre menu of options for wealthy older people—and their heirs. Estate planning was never cheerful, but now it is getting downright macabre, at least for the tax averse.
“You don’t know whether to commit suicide or just go on living and working,” says Eugene Sukup, an outspoken critic of the estate tax and the founder of Sukup Manufacturing, a maker of grain bins that employs 450 people in Sheffield, Iowa. Born in Nebraska during the Dust Bowl, the 81-year-old Mr. Sukup is a National Guard veteran and high school graduate who founded his firm, which now owns more than 70 patents, with $15,000 in 1963. He says his estate taxes, which would be zero this year, could be more that $15 million if he were to die next year.
Advisers say the estate-tax dilemma is especially awkward for heirs. “At least in December 2009, people wanted to keep their relatives alive,” says Ronald Aucutt, an estate-tax attorney with McGuire Woods in the Washington area. Now he and others are worried that heirs may be tempted to pull plugs on Dec. 31. Economists might call the taking of a life to reap a tax advantage a “perverse incentive.” District attorneys might call it homicide.
Taxpayers trying to cope with such surreal situations need to understand how they came to be. The roots go back to 2001, when Congress cut the estate tax rate to 45% from 55% and increased the exemption gradually over a decade. From its 2001 level of $675,000, the exemption rose to $3.5 million per individual by 2009.
Thanks to legislative sausage making, the rules got extreme after that: The tax disappeared altogether in 2010, but was programmed to revert in 2011 to a $1 million exemption with a top 55% rate.
Few Washington insiders expected Congress to allow the tax to snap back so sharply next year. So why, with nine years to act, didn’t it fix the problem? Political wisdom holds that estate tax changes can’t happen in election years for fear of angering voters, and Hurricane Katrina derailed a 2005 opportunity. Late last year, the House of Representatives passed an extension of the 2009 estate tax, but the Senate didn’t act.
Compounding the problem, lawmakers didn’t hammer out a fix early this year, as many had expected. Extending the 2009 law retroactive to the beginning of 2010 would have made a seamless transition and resolved issues taxpayers are now facing. Instead, the estate tax has been in limbo all year.
Senators are divided among three possible solutions. Some favor the pre-Bush rate of 55%, while others advocate a 35% rate (with a more generous exemption). A third group prefers the old 45% rate.
Many Washington insiders are betting Congress won’t act this year because of an overflowing to-do list, the fall election and fewer than 40 working days left in 2010. At least one near-deal has failed the Senate this year.
Pressure to act will likely grow following the November elections, when Congress is expected to address many other expiring Bush-era tax breaks, including income taxes and capital-gains rates.
Meanwhile, the living and their relatives face a complex calculus with unknown variables. The Internal Revenue Service has yet to issue guidance explaining current estate-tax law, and no one knows if Congress will include retroactive elements when members deal with the tax.
“Not only is the future uncertain, but the past is also. We have no idea what the law is,” Mr. Aucutt says.
So far in 2010, an estimated 25,000 taxpayers have died whose estates are affected by current law, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. That group includes least two billionaires, real-estate magnate Walter Shorenstein and energy titan Dan Duncan.
Another unknown is whether—assuming lawmakers act—changes will be retroactive to the beginning of 2010, and if they will be mandatory. Experts say a pure retroactive extension might be constitutional, but they doubt one is feasible at this late date.
“Enough very wealthy people have died whose estates have the means to challenge a retroactive tax, and that could tie the issue up in the courts for years,” says tax-law professor Michael Graetz of Columbia University.
Whatever the outcome, few see the zero-tax regime persisting for very long because of the nation’s stratospheric debt and deficits. “I don’t see how Congress can get out of this without creating winners and losers,” says Beth Kaufman, an attorney at Caplin & Drysdale in Washington.
Estate planners and doctors caution against making life-and-death decisions based on money. Yet many people ignore that advice. Robert Teague, a pulmonologist who ran a chronic ventilator facility at a Houston hospital for two decades, found that money regularly figured in end-of-life decisions. “In about 10% of the cases I handled at any one time, financial considerations came into play,” he says.
Struggling to Live
In 2009, more than a few dying people struggled to live into 2010 in hopes of preserving assets for their heirs. Clara Laub, a widow who helped her husband build a Fresno, Calif., grape farm from 20 acres into more than 900 acres worth several million dollars, was diagnosed with advanced cancer in October, 2009. Her daughter Debbie Jacobsen, who helps run the farm, says her mother struggled to live past December and died on New Year’s morning: “She made my son promise to tell her the date and time every day, even if we wouldn’t,” Mrs. Jacobsen says.
In New York the lapsing tax spawned a major family conflict, according to one attorney. As a wealthy patriarch lay dying at the end of the year, it became clear that under the terms of the will his children would receive more if he died in 2010, while his wife (not the children’s mother) stood to benefit if he died in 2009. The wife then filed a “do not resuscitate” order and the children challenged it. The patriarch lived a few days into 2010, but his estate, like Mrs. Laub’s, remains unsettled given the legislative uncertainty.
Mr. Aucutt, who has practiced estate-tax law for 35 years, expects to see “truly gruesome” cases toward the end of the year, given the huge difference between 2010 and 2011 rates.
Without knowing what the estate tax is, has been or will be, advisers say it is difficult to offer counsel that applies broadly, as techniques that work under one version of the law backfire in others.
Eugene Sukup: ‘You don’t know whether to commit suicide or keep on living and working.’
Whatever happens, advisers say people who might be affected should take a careful look at their power-of-attorney documents. Under last year’s law, large gifts before death sometimes made sense, depending on the state of residence. This year they could be a terrible move.
Advisers also suggest paying attention to health-care proxies. Who will be making choices, using what factors? Anne L. Stone, an attorney in McLean, Va., has an elderly female client who recently instructed her to write a provision into a health proxy directing her children to take estate taxes into account when making end-of-life decisions.
What about the options for taxpayers who are so eager to reduce their heirs’ tax burden that they are considering ending their lives? Three states—Oregon, Washington and Montana—allow versions of the practice. Oregon’s law took effect in 1997 and Washington enacted a similar one in 2009. Montana’s Supreme Court recently ruled that nothing in the state constitution prohibited doctors aiding patients with dying, but voters haven’t yet specifically authorized it.
Still, states strongly discourage what’s becoming known as “suicide tourism” with elaborate residency and documentation requirements.
Similarly, some countries, such as Switzerland and the Netherlands, have long allowed physicians to aid patients in dying. But only Switzerland extends this benefit to foreigners.
Doctors and hospice professionals, meanwhile, say moving terminally ill patients to places with so-called aid-in-dying laws is usually a bad idea because it adds stress at an already difficult time. “Many people are thinking about [the estate tax], but the truth is that committing suicide is not a normal way of ending your life,” says Porter Storey, vice president of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine.
The uncertainty of the legislation is causing stress even for relatively healthy taxpayers like Art Nickel, who is 78 and lives in the Denver area. He owns a substantial sum in low-cost stock accumulated during a 35-year career as an IBM systems engineer. Like Mr. Sukup, he started with nothing and worked his way up, putting himself through the University of Wisconsin and serving in the Air Force.
“I plan to keep living,” Mr. Nickel says, “but I don’t know how to plan until Congress straightens this mess out.”
“I HATE the truth!” Lady Gaga yelled somewhere in the middle of the second of her three sold-out dates at Madison Square Garden this month. Conveniently, it hates her back.
No one in recent pop memory has been a greater enemy to the authentic than Lady Gaga. In her somewhat un-meticulously constructed universe, there’s nothing that can’t be rewritten, refigured, revised or reborn. Not long ago she was playing confessional piano music in tiny New York rooms. Now she’s the biggest pure-pop-music star of the day, a mercurial talent lurking beneath an orgy of mirrored balls and bubble clusters and vinyl curtains and sticky lace.
Lady Gaga has become successful by adhering to the belief that there’s no inner truth to be advertised, or salvaged: all one can do is invent anew.
It wasn’t that long ago when artifice appeared to be on its last leg. In the mid-to-late-1990s female performers especially were in a confessional place, a movement captured and branded by Lilith Fair, the summer tour package founded in part by Sarah McLachlan that ran from 1997 to 1999.
On Saturday the revival of Lilith Fair limps into the New York region (at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J.) after a challenging summer. About one-third of the original dates have been canceled, reflecting a soft concert market but also shifts in mainstream tastes.
That Ms. McLachlan and Lilith Fair executives would choose this summer to bring back the tour was perhaps a doomed decision from the start. Everywhere you look, pop has gone Gaga.
It’s Halloween-costume empowerment, sure, but her fingerprints are all over the revised images of Christina Aguilera, Rihanna, Katy Perry and Beyoncé; and on new artists like Kesha, Janelle Monáe and Nicki Minaj. These performers might not cite Lady Gaga as a direct influence, but the work she’s done since her 2008 debut album, “The Fame” (Cherrytree/Kon Live/Streamline/Interscope), has nudged loose conventional boundaries. The space for women in pop to try out new aesthetic identities hasn’t been this vast in some time.
This new feminism is more about the opportunity to make choices than about any specific choice itself. And it’s freeing, this expansion of musical liberation into spaces visual as well as sonic, instinctual as well as intellectual, performed as well as lived.
By contrast Lilith in its prime — when it was a major summer tour — trafficked in a very specific brand of feminism: organic, direct, unadorned, intimate. There were attempts to expand the festival into a bigger tent, especially in 1998, when Queen Latifah and Missy Elliott were among the performers. But in the main Lilith prized urgent singer-songwriters with readily perceptible left-leaning politics.
The last couple of years have seen the first wave of 1990s nostalgia, which might explain in part why Lilith was resurrected this year. But Lilith aesthetics haven’t aged well. There’s a mild strain of its legacy in current popular music, for example the chipper, quirky pop of Ingrid Michaelson and Sara Bareilles, both of whom performed on some of this summer’s Lilith dates. (Lilith also made some less predictable selections this year, including the Mexican banda singer Jenni Rivera, the Disney pop star Selena Gomez and the dance-punk outfit Gossip.) And you could make a case that Taylor Swift, the sincerity princess of pop country, owes something to the Lilith generation, or at least she will once she and her material mature a bit.
But in the recent pop mainstream these female artists are far outweighed by the eccentrics, the freaks, the adventuresome. For them performance and exteriority are central to their self-presentation, far more so than any lyrical message.
In many ways it is a bastardization of the Madonna model. From the start of her career Madonna was a savvy pop trickster, using outrageous imagery as a distraction while smuggling ideas about religion and social politics into her music. Most of the Gaga generation, however, is interested in distraction as an end in itself.
The age of Gaga actually began a decade ago, with the arrival of Britney Spears and Ms. Aguilera. At the time it felt like the assassination of Lilith ideals: these singers were young, they were visually ostentatious, and they gave little away emotionally. Purists complained that they were fabricated — a dull gripe. More important than the debates about authenticity they inspired, though, was that they helped restore a sense of theater to pop — in a way that male performers of the day rarely achieved — setting the groundwork for a decade of the same.
Lady Gaga has taken that movement to its logical end, almost removing the music altogether. She’s an often great singer; that she hides that so well is one of her many tricks. (But she’s not much of a dancer, which for someone so interested in seamless performance is a real weakness, and a rarely discussed one.) And her songs are perfectly blank, mere skeletons to drape herself around.
Furthermore, the thing that most separates Lady Gaga from the bubblegum sirens of a decade ago is that her capacity for seduction has been neutered, recontextualized. Near the end of her recent Madison Square Garden show she emerged onstage with sparklerlike contraptions on her chest and crotch, spitting out tiny, angry, smoldering bits. “You tell them I burned the place!” she shouted. It was a straightforward repudiation of hypersexualized imagery. There was nowhere to touch without getting hurt.
In this Lady Gaga has an unlikely analogue in Katy Perry, who spent most of her first album in coy tugs-of-war with boys and girls. “California Gurls” is the first single from her new album, “Teenage Dream” (Capitol), which is to be released this month. Its video finds Ms. Perry frolicking in a candy fantasyland, pinup-girl style. But toward the end she’s shown dancing with cupcakes on her breasts, quickly followed by a scene in which she attaches a pair of whipped cream dispensers to her bra and fires away, leveling an army of Gummi Bear rapscallions. What it means is anyone’s guess, but the license to create such absurdist, post-sexual theater feels particularly Gaga-esque.
Ultimately, though, Ms. Perry is too perky to achieve Lady Gaga’s heightened state of absence from her own art. Ms. Aguilera is better equipped for that task. She’s always been a malleable singer, osmotically absorbing whatever style and attitude she was presented with. Given that flexibility, “Bionic” (RCA), her fourth studio album, which was released in June, held promise. From a distance it appeared that Ms. Aguilera was attempting to make an album of ideas — cloaked ones, perhaps, but ideas nonetheless — by working with the post-riot grrrl electro-punk group Le Tigre and the singer-rapper Peaches, as well as M.I.A. (who has an unexpected Gaga-reminiscent song on her new album “/\/\/\Y/\” (N.E.E.T./XL/Interscope).
Like Lady Gaga, Ms. Aguilera is willing to be molded, but in the case of the wildly uneven “Bionic” she may have found her limits, dulling both her and her more thoughtful collaborators. The album quickly faded, and Ms. Aguilera canceled her summer tour, citing other priorities. Part of the problem may have been that beneath her distressed mask is a true vocal talent that she has a difficult time suppressing.
Kesha, though, has no such obstacle. Like Lady Gaga she expresses herself wholly through her exterior. But if the very abrupt rise of Kesha — whose first album, “Animal” (Kemosabe/RCA), had its debut at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart in January — has proven anything, it’s that performance doesn’t always equate with art. In her most adventurous moments Kesha has looked as if she were dressed for a “Saturday Night Live” parody of Lady Gaga. Her secondhand quirk doesn’t work.
Perhaps the most Lady Gaga-like of all contemporary artists is one who has almost nothing in common with her musically. Unlike Lady Gaga, the rapper Nicki Minaj doesn’t shy away from sweat in her lyrics. She’s not aiming for abstraction or distance.
Her image, though, is another thing, endlessly pliable, a site for bizarre experimentation. (She also appears on Ms. Aguilera’s new album, but can’t save it.) There’s not a hair color, outfit, shoe or makeup color she won’t try. Rarely has a woman in pop — and certainly in rap — been so aggressive about constantly revamping her appearance. What’s more, she repeatedly alters her vocal delivery, rightly understanding that while the words that come out of her mouth have meaning, they’re also sounds to be played with. It’s a spectacular thing to hear.
If Lady Gaga has had direct impact on anyone, it’s been, most surprisingly, Beyoncé, who has spent the majority of her career impervious to influence from her peers. Yet in the last year, in the wake of a pair of collaborations with Lady Gaga — “Telephone” and “Video Phone” — she appears to have come alive. The videos for those songs showed her to be far more humorous than ever before. And her most recent video, “Why Don’t You Love Me,” in which she portrays several versions of a dissatisfied midcentury housewife, is one of her best, and one of her most vivid. It’s as if Lady Gaga swooped in and infected Beyoncé with a bug, a vampiric chain of events.
But has Lady Gaga been giving too much style away? “Alejandro,” her current single, initially appears to be one of her least ambitious. Its lyrics are especially vague; its Madonna borrowings are multitudinous. There is expected excess in the video, but what’s most notable are the moments between the extremes. At times the singer, almost never seen without an outfit that suggests the creation of a mad inventor, appears only in flesh-tone bra and panties, platinum-blond bangs, red lips and porcelain skin. On her, the simplicity is radical.
It was also revisited on the cover of Rolling Stone last month, where she posed in a bra with machine guns attached to it — similar to one she wears in one part of the “Alejandro” video — brandishing them at some invisible enemy. It’s provocative, but for Lady Gaga, perhaps a mite too ideological. Really, the only person Lady Gaga is at war with is herself.
The guns aren’t what’s important, though. Mostly what you see is skin. It’s not a salacious display, but it is a significant one.
In the Rolling Stone article, speaking about stripping down in the “Alejandro” video, Lady Gaga said, “It’s just me, and people will see that what’s underneath everything is still me.”
It’s probably the first time Lady Gaga has acknowledged that there’s a living, breathing organism beneath the hyperstylized exterior, that her flesh has any instincts of its own. Maybe she’s expended so much time and energy building up her outer shells that they’ve begun to reinforce her inner self too. This nakedness, this new assuredness — a Lilith ideal, perhaps — is a real step toward feeling. Or maybe the skin’s just another costume.
- 911saverelationship on Redefining Our Relationships: An Interview with Wendy-O Matik
If you’re too busy on the barricades to write your own insurrectionary manifesto, cut yourself some slack and head to objectivechance.com for some instant revolutionary rhetoric.
Be sure to click on the “why+code” link on the bottom left of the page for the machine’s rationale and—for the more technically inclined among you—the code that makes it whir and spew.
“From a certain point onward, there is no turning back. That is the point that must be reached.”
– Franz Kafka.
For us anarchists the questions of how to act and how to organise are intimately linked. And it is these two questions, not the question of the desired form of a future society, that provide us with the most useful method for understanding the various forms of anarchism that exist.
Insurrectionary anarchism is one such form, although it is important to stress that insurrectionary anarchists don’t form one unified block, but are extremely varied in their perspectives. Insurrectionary anarchism is not an ideological solution to social problems, nor a commodity on the capitalist market of ideologies and opinions. Rather it is an on-going practice aimed at putting an end to the domination of the state and the continuance of capitalism, which requires analysis and discussion to advance. Historically, most anarchists, except those who believed that society would evolve to the point that it would leave the state behind, have believed that some sort of insurrectionary activity would be necessary to radically transform society. Most simply, this means that the state has to be knocked out of existence by the exploited and excluded, thus anarchists must attack: waiting for the state to disappear is defeat.
Here we spell out some implications that we and some other insurrectionary anarchists have drawn from this general problem: if the state will not disappear on its own, how then do we end its existence? Insurrectionary anarchism is primarily a practice, and focuses on the organisation of attack. Thus, the adjective ‘insurrectionary’ does not indicate a specific model of the future. Anarchists who believe we must go through an insurrectionary period to rid the world of the institutions of domination and exploitation, moreover, take a variety of positions on the shape of a future society – they could be anarcho-communist, individualist or primitivist, for example. Many refuse to offer a specific, singular model of the future at all, believing that people will choose a variety of social forms to organise themselves when given the chance. They are critical of groups or tendencies that believe they are ‘carriers of the truth’ and try to impose their ideological and formal solution to the problem of social organisation. Instead, many insurrectionary anarchists believe that it is through self-organisation in struggle that people will learn to live without institutions of domination.
There is also another, more specific usage of the term ‘insurrection’ – one that comes from the distinction Max Stirner, a 19th century German philosopher and individualist, drew between insurrection and revolution. To Stirner, revolution implied a transition between two systems, whereas insurrection is an uprising that begins from an individual’s discontent with their own life and through it the individual does not seek to build a new system but to create the relations they desire. Both of these general conceptions of insurrection have informed insurrectionary anarchism.
In this article we will first explore some of the general implications of these two conceptions of insurrection. Then, as these ideas have grown out of the practice of struggle and from concrete experiences, we will explain these ideas further by putting them within the historical context of their development. While insurrectionary anarchists are active in many parts of the world at the moment, we are particularly influenced by the activities and writings of those in Italy and Greece, which are also the countries where insurrectionary anarchists are the most active. The current, extremely varied Italian insurrectionary anarchist scene, which centres around a number of occupied spaces and publications, exists as an informal network carrying on their struggle outside of all formal organisations. This tendency has taken on the ‘insurrectionary anarchist’ label to distinguish itself from the Italian Anarchist Federation; a platformist organisation which officially reject individual acts of revolt, favouring only mass action and an educational and evangelistic practice centring around propaganda in ‘non-revolutionary periods’ – and from the Italian libertarian municipalists who take a largely reformist approach to ‘anarchist’ activity.
The state will not wither away, as it seems many anarchists have come to believe – some are entrenched in a position of waiting, while others even openly condemn the acts of those for whom the creation of the new world depends on the destruction of the old. Attack is the refusal of mediation, pacification, sacrifice, accommodation and compromise in struggle. It is through acting and learning to act, not propaganda, that we will open the path to insurrection – although obviously analysis and discussion have a role in clarifying how to act. Waiting only teaches waiting; in acting one learns to act. Yet it is important to note that the force of an insurrection is social, not military. The measure for evaluating the importance of a generalised revolt is not the armed clash, but, on the contrary, the extent of the paralysis of the economy, of normality. If students continue to study, workers and office employees to work, the unemployed to solely strive for employment, then no change is possible. We could look to the examples of May 1968 in Paris, Italy in the 1970s, or the more recent insurrection in Albania for inspiration.
Sabotage and Other ‘Modest Attempts’
As anarchists, the revolution is our constant point of reference; no matter what we are doing or with what problem we are concerned. But the revolution is not a myth simply to be used as a point of reference, it should not be thought of as inhabiting an abstract future. Precisely because it is a concrete event, it must be built daily through more modest attempts that do not have all the liberating characteristics of the social revolution in the true sense. These more modest attempts are insurrections. In them the uprising of the most exploited and excluded of society and the most politically aware minority opens the way to the possible involvement of increasingly wider sections of the exploited in a flux of rebellion which could lead to revolution. Over the last year, we have seen the beginning of this process at work in Argentina. Yet struggles must be developed both in the intermediate and long term. In other words, it is still possible and necessary to intervene in intermediate struggles, that is, in struggles that are circumscribed, even locally, with precise objectives that are born from some specific problem. This may be direct actions to resist the building of military bases or prisons; fights against the institution of property, such as squatting and rent strikes; or attacks on particular capitalist projects, such as high-speed railways, genetically modified crops or power transmission lines. These should not be considered to be of secondary importance; such kinds of struggles also disturb capitalism’s universal project.
For these events to build, they must spread; insurrectionary anarchism, therefore, places particular importance on the circulation and spread of action, not managed revolt, for no army or police force is able to control the generalised circulation of such autonomous activity. Paying attention to how struggles have spread has led many anarchists to aim their critical focus on the question of organisation, for whereas centralised struggle is controlled and limited (one only needs to think of the examples of the many revolutionary movements in Latin America that until recently were controlled by ‘The Party’ to understand this), autonomous struggle has the capacity to spread capillary-style.
Therefore, what the system is afraid of is not just these acts of sabotage themselves, but also them spreading socially. Uncontrollability itself is the strength of the insurrection. Every proletarianised individual who disposes of even the most modest means can draw up his or her objectives, alone or along with others. It is materially impossible for the state and capital to police the whole social terrain. Anyone who really wants to contest the network of control can make their own theoretical and practical contribution as they see fit. There is no need to fit themselves within the structured roles of formally organised revolt (revolt that is circumscribed and controlled by an organisation). The appearance of the first broken links of social control coincides with the spreading of acts of sabotage. The anonymous practice of social self-liberation could spread to all fields, breaking the codes of prevention put into place by power.
In moments when larger scale insurrections are not taking place, small actions – which require unsophisticated means that are available to all and thus are easily reproducible – are by their very simplicity and spontaneity uncontrollable. They make a mockery of even the most advanced technological developments in counter-insurgency. In the United States, a string of arsons of environmentally damaging projects, some claimed under the name Earth Liberation Front, have spread across the country due largely to the simplicity of the technique. In Italy, sabotage of high speed railways has spread uncontrollably, again because anyone can plan and carry out their own action without needing a large organisation with charters and constitutions, complex techniques or sophisticated knowledge.
In addition, contrary to the mathematicians of the grand revolutionary parties, it is never possible to see the outcome of a specific struggle in advance. Even a limited struggle can have the most unexpected consequences. The passage from the various insurrections – limited and circumscribed – to revolution can never be guaranteed in advance by any method, nor can one know in advance that present actions will not lead to a future insurrectionary moment.
Roots of Insurrectionary Anarchy
As insurrectionary anarchism is a developing practice – not an ideological model of the future or a determinist history – insurrectionary anarchists do not take the work of any single revolutionary theoretician as their central doctrine: thus insurrectionary anarchists are not Bakuninists, for example, and feel no need to defend all his writings and actions. Yet Bakunin was historically important to the development of an anarchism that focused its force in insurrection. Unlike Marx, who built his support in the First International, mostly within the central executive structure, Bakunin worked to build support for co-ordinated action though autonomous insurrections at the base, especially in Southern Europe. And since Bakunin’s time insurrectionary anarchists have been concentrated in Southern Europe.
In the responses to the Paris Commune of 1871 and in the conflicts of the First International one can see the formation of insurrectionary anarchism’s basic concepts. Whereas Marx believed that the new political forms of the Commune (forms of democracy and representation) would advance the social revolution, Bakunin argued that political and organisational forms had held the social revolution back. Also influential to later insurrectionaries, Bakunin argued that it was one’s actions that would spread the revolution, not words. In 1871 Marx and his supporters allied themselves with the followers of Blanqui – from whom the concept of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” came – to cut Bakunin and his supporters out of a special conference of the International held in London. Bakuninists held their own conference in Sonvilier, arguing that hierarchical and political means could never be used to gain social revolutionary ends. As the Sonvilier circular states, it was impossible “for a free and egalitarian society to come out of an authoritarian organisation.” Marx pejoratively termed the Sonvilier conference “anarchist,” and those in Sonvilier called the London conference “Marxist” to mark its authoritarian attempt to control the International. In 1872, Marx succeeded in expelling Bakunin from the International and requiring all member organisations to advocate the conquest of political power as the necessary prerequisite to revolution.
Social and Individual Struggle
Another issue that has caused a lot of debate within anarchist circles is the supposed contradiction between individual and social struggle: again, this is a question of the organisation of struggle. This is a debate that has gone on and still goes on within the insurrectionary anarchist circles; Renzo Novatore stood for individual revolt, Errico Malatesta for social struggle, whilst Luigi Galleani believed there was no contradiction between the two.
Novatore, an Italian anarchist who died in a shoot-out with the police in 1922, wrote, “Anarchy is not a social form, but a method of individuation. No society will concede to me more than a limited freedom and a well-being that it grants to each of its members.” Malatesta, also an Italian and an active insurrectionary his whole life, was an anarcho-communist for whom anarchism was based in the organised attack of collective struggle, especially of the labour movement; yet, he was still very critical of any form of organisation that could become authoritarian. This was the basis of his 1927 disagreement with the Russian Platformists – who attempted to create a centralised and unitary revolutionary organisation.
Malatesta critiqued the proposal of the Platformists – who put forward their program in response to the victory of the Bolsheviks in Russia – for attempting to discipline and synthesise struggle within a single organisation. In his critique of the proposal he stated, “in order to achieve their ends, anarchist organisations must in their constitution and operation, remain in harmony with the principles of anarchism; that is, they must know how to blend the free action of individuals with the necessity and the joy of co-operation which serve to develop the awareness and initiative of their members.” While many social anarchists of today critique insurrectionary anarchists by claiming that they are against organisation as such, it is worth noting that most social anarchists and anarcho-communists active in the beginning of the last century did not view organisation and individualism as a contradiction, and that few anarchists have ever been against organisation as such. Maltesta’s 1927 statement on the subject bears repeating: “Judging by certain polemics it would seem that there are anarchists who spurn any form of organisation; but in fact the many, too many, discussions on this subject, even when obscured by questions of language or poisoned by personal issues, are concerned with the means and not the actual principle of organisation. Thus it happens that when those comrades who sound the most hostile to organisation want to really do something they organise just like the rest of us and often more effectively. The problem, I repeat, is entirely one of means.”
Galleani, who emigrated to the United States in 1901 after facing arrest in Europe edited one of the most important US Italian anarchist journals, Cronaca Sovversiva, and was critical of formal organisation. In his articles and speeches he merged Kropotkin’s idea of mutual aid with unfettered insurgency, defending communist anarchism against authoritarian socialism and reformism, speaking of the value of spontaneity, variety, autonomy and independence, direct action and self-determination. Galleani and his followers were deeply suspicious of formal organisations, seeing them as likely to turn into hierarchical, authoritarian organisations. The critique of formal organisation has become a central concern of most insurrectionary anarchists ever since. Galleani saw no contradiction between individual and social struggle, nor did he see a contradiction between communism and anarchism. He was firmly against authoritarian communism, which he saw as growing out of collectivist ideologies – the idea that production and consumption must be organised into a collective in which individuals must participate. Galleani is one of main influences on those who today call themselves insurrectionary anarchists.
Why we are Insurrectionary Anarchists…
by Alfredo Bonanno.
The debate about the relation between individual and social struggle, between individualism and communism, continues today. Some insurrectionary anarchists argue that insurrection begins with the desire of individuals to break out of constrained and controlled circumstances, the desire to re-appropriate the capacity to create one’s own life as one sees fit. This requires that they overcome the separation between themselves and their conditions of existence – food, housing, etc. Where the few, the privileged, control the conditions of existence, it is not possible for most individuals to truly determine their existence on their own terms. Individuality can only flourish where there is equality of access to the conditions of existence. This equality of access is communism; what individuals do with that access is up to them and those around them. Therefore, there is no equality or identity of individuals implied in true communism. What forces us into an identity or an equality of being are the social roles laid upon us by our present system. Thus there is no contradiction between individuality and communism.
The insurrectional anarchist project grows out of the individual’s desire to determine how one will live one’s life and with whom one will carry out this project of self-determination. But this desire is confronted on all sides by the existing social order, a reality in which the conditions of our existence and the social relationships through which our lives are created have already been determined in the interests of a ruling class who benefit from the activities that we are compelled to do for our own survival.
Thus the desire for individual self-determination and self-realisation leads to the necessity of a class analysis and class struggle. But the old workerist conceptions, which perceived the industrial working class as the central subject of revolution, are not adequate to this task. What defines us as a class is our dispossession, the fact that the current system of social relationships steals away our capacity to determine the conditions of our existence. Class struggle exists in all of the individual and collective acts of revolt in which small portions of our daily life are taken back or small portions of the apparatus of domination and exploitation are obstructed, damaged or destroyed. In a significant sense, there are no isolated, individual acts of revolt. All such acts are responses to the social situation, and many involve some level of complicity, indicating some level of collective struggle. Consider, for example, the spontaneous, mostly unspoken organisation of the theft of goods and the sabotage of the work process that goes on at most workplaces; this informal co-ordination of subversive activity carried out in the interest of each individual involved is a central principle of collective activity for insurrectionary anarchists, because the collectivity exists to serve the interests and desires of each of the individuals in re-appropriating their lives and often carries within it a conception of ways of relating free of exploitation and domination.
But even lone acts of revolt have their social aspects and are part of the general struggle of the dispossessed. Through a critical attitude towards the struggles of the past, the changes in the forces of domination and their variation between different places, and the development of present struggles, we can make our attack more strategic and targeted. Such a critical attitude is what allows struggles to circulate. Being strategic, however, does not mean there is only one way to struggle; clear strategies are necessary to allow different methods to be used in a co-ordinated and fruitful way. Individual and social struggle are neither contradictory, nor identical.
Critique of Organisation
In Italy, the failure of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s led some to reassess the revolutionary movement and others to abandon it all together. During the ’70s, many Leninist groups concluded that capitalism was in the throes of its final crisis, and they moved to armed struggle. These groups acted as professional revolutionaries, reducing their lives to a singular social role. But by the 1980s they came to believe that the time for revolutionary social struggle had ended, and they thus called for an amnesty for movement prisoners from the ’70s, some even going as far as to disassociate themselves from the struggle. This separated them from insurrectionary anarchists who believed that a revolutionary struggle to overthrow capitalism and the state still continued, for no determinist history could name the correct moment to rebel. In fact, determinist history often becomes an excuse for not acting and only pushes a possible rupture with the present further into the impossible.
Much of the Italian insurrectionary anarchist critique of the movements of the ’70s focused on the forms of organisation that shaped the forces of struggle and out of this a more developed idea of informal organisation grew. A critique of the authoritarian organisations of the ’70s, whose members often believed they were in a privileged position to struggle as compared to the proletariat as a whole, was further refined in the struggles of the ’80s, such as the early 1980s struggle against a military base that was to house nuclear weapons in Comiso, Sicily. Anarchists were very active in that struggle, which was organised into self-managed leagues. These ad hoc, autonomous leagues took three general principles to guide the organisation of struggle: permanent conflict, self-management and attack. Permanent conflict meant that the struggle would remain in conflict with the construction of the base until it was defeated without mediating or negotiating. The leagues were self-generated and self-managed; they refused permanent delegation of representatives and the professionalisation of struggle. The leagues were organisations of attack on the construction of the base, not the defence of the interests of this or that group. This style of organisation allowed groups to take the actions they saw as most effective while still being able to co-ordinate attack when useful, thus keeping open the potential of struggle to spread. It also kept the focus of organisation on the goal of ending the construction of the base instead of the building of permanent organisations, for which mediating with state institutions for a share of power usually becomes the focus and limiting the autonomy of struggle the means.
As the anarchists involved in the Comiso struggle understood, one of the central reasons that social struggles are kept from developing in a positive direction is the prevalence of forms of organisation that cut us off from our own power to act and close off the potential of insurrection. These are permanent organisations, those that synthesise all struggle within a single organisation, and organisations that mediate struggles with the institutions of domination. Permanent organisations tend to develop into institutions that stand above the struggling multitude. They tend to develop a formal or informal hierarchy and to disempower the multitude: power is alienated from its active form within the multitude and instituted within the organisation. This transforms the active multitude into a passive mass. The hierarchical constitution of power relations removes decision from the time such a decision is necessary and places it within the organisation. The practical consequence of such an organisation is that the active powers of those involved in the struggle are stifled by the organisation. Decisions that should be made by those involved in an action are deferred to the organisation; moreover, permanent organisations tend to make decisions based not on the necessity of a specific goal or action, but on the needs of that organisation, especially its preservation. The organisation becomes an end in itself. One needs only to look at the operations of the many socialist parties to see this in its most blatant form.
As an organisation moves towards permanence and comes to stand above the multitude, the organiser appears – often claiming to have created the struggle – and begins to speak for the mass. It is the job of the organiser to transform the multitude into a controllable mass and to represent that mass to the media or state institutions. Organisers rarely view themselves as part of the multitude, thus they don’t see it as their task to act, but to propagandise and organise, for it is the masses that act.
The Opinion Factory
For the organiser, who takes as their motto ‘only that which appears in the media exists’, real action always takes a back seat to the maintenance of the media image. The goal of such image maintenance is never to attack a specific institution of domination, but to affect public opinion, to forever build the movement or, even worse, the organisation. The organiser must always worry about how the actions of others will reflect on the movement; they must, therefore, both attempt to discipline the struggling multitude and try to control how the movement is represented in the media. Image usually replaces action for the permanent organisation and the organiser.
The attempt to control the vast image and opinion-making factories of our society is a losing battle, as if we could ever try to match the quantity of images put forward by the media or get them to ‘tell the truth’. Thus, many insurrectionary anarchists have been very critical of carrying on the struggle within the capitalist mass media. In Italy, this has put them at odds with organisations such as Ya Basta! who see the media as a key vehicle for their movement; in other parts of the world, the question of how anarchists should relate to the media has been a focus of debate in recent years – especially since 1999 in Seattle – and it is therefore important for us to spell out the critical position of some insurrectionary anarchists.
On a basic level, we need to ask, what is opinion? An opinion is not something first found among the public in general and then, afterwards, replayed through the media, as a simple reporting of the public opinion. An opinion exists in the media first. Secondly, the media then reproduces the opinion a million times over, linking the opinion to a certain type of person (conservatives think X, liberals think Y). Thirdly, as Alfredo Bonanno points out, “[An opinion] is a flattened idea, an idea that has been uniformed in order to make it acceptable to the largest number of people. Opinions are massified ideas.” Public opinion is produced as a series of simple choices or solutions (“I’m for globalisation and free trade” or “I’m for more national control and protectionism”). We are all supposed to choose – as we choose our leaders or our burgers – instead of thinking for ourselves. It is obvious, therefore, that anarchists cannot use the opinion-making factory to create counter-opinions, and hopefully anarchists would never want to operate on the level of opinion even if we could somehow exert control over the content spewed out of the factory gates. Anyhow, the ethic of anarchism could never be communicated in the form of opinion; it would die once massified. Yet, it is exactly on the level of opinion that the organiser works, for opinion and image-maintenance are the very tools of power, tools used to shape and discipline a multitude into a controllable mass.
Instead of moving power and decision making into an organisation, most insurrectionary anarchists recognise the need to organise in a fashion that lacks the formality and authority which separate organisers and organised; this is called informal organisation. Because the organiser’s nature is to plan and control, they often privilege the perpetuation of the organisation over other goals. Informal organisations, on the other hand, dissolve when their goal is achieved or abandoned; they do not perpetuate themselves merely for the sake of the organisation if the goals that caused people to organise have ceased to exist.
As in the case of the Comiso leagues, informal organisation is a means for affinity groups to co-ordinate efforts when necessary. We must always remember that many things can be done more easily by an affinity group or individual, and, in these cases, higher levels of organisation just make the decision making process cumbersome – it stifles us. The smallest amount of organisation necessary to achieve one’s aims is always the best to maximise our efforts.
Informal organisation must be based on an ethic of autonomous action; autonomy is necessary to prevent our active powers from becoming alienated, to prevent the formation of relations of authority. Autonomy is refusing to obey or give orders, which are always shouted from above or beyond the situation. Autonomy allows decisions to be made when they are necessary, instead of being pre-determined or delayed by the decision of a committee or meeting. This does not mean to say however that we shouldn’t think strategically about the future and make agreements or plans. On the contrary, plans and agreements are useful and important. What is emphasised is a flexibility that allows people to discard plans when they become useless. Plans should be adaptable to events as they unfold.
Just as an informal organisation must have an ethic of autonomy or it will be transformed into an authoritarian organisation, in order to avoid the alienation of our active powers, it must also have an ethic of no compromise with respect to the organisation’s agreed goal. The organisation’s goal should be either moved towards or abandoned. Compromising with those who we oppose (e.g. the state or a corporation) defeats all true opposition, it replaces our power to act with that of our enemies.
The scraps handed down to appease and divert us by those we oppose must be refused. Compromise with any institution of domination (the state, the police, WTO, IMF, ‘The Party’, etc.) is always the alienation of our power to the very institutions we supposedly wish to destroy; this sort of compromise results in the forfeiture of our power to act decisively, to make decisions and actions when we choose. As such, compromise only makes the state and capital stronger. For those who wish to open the possibility of insurrection, for those who don’t wish to wait for the supposedly appropriate material conditions for revolution, for those who don’t want a revolution which is merely the creation of a new power structure but want the destruction of all structures which alienate our power from us, such compromise is contrary to their aims. To continually refuse to compromise is to be in perpetual conflict with the established order and its structures of domination and deprivation. Permanent conflict is uncontrollable autonomous action that does not compromise with power.
Revolutionary solidarity, another central practice of insurrectionary anarchism, allows us to move far beyond the ‘send a cheque’ style of solidarity that so pervades the Left, as well as solidarity that relies on petitioning the state for relief or mercy. One example of revolutionary solidarity was Nikos Mazotis’ action against TVX Gold in December 1997. Many people in the villages around Strymonikos in Northern Greece were struggling against the installation of a gold metallurgy plant in their area. In solidarity with the villagers, Nikos placed a bomb in the Ministry of Industry and Development that was intended to explode when no one was in the building; unfortunately, it never went off at all. Nikos was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, but is now free. TVX Gold is a multinational company whose headquarters is in Canada, there are thus many points at which revolutionary solidarity with the villagers of Stryminikos could have been enacted. Fundraising on behalf of one’s comrades is necessary and surely appreciated, but this can be combined with more active forms of solidarity with those who struggle against our common enemies. Revolutionary solidarity communicates the link between the exploitation and repression of others and our own fate, and it shows people the points at which capitalism or the state operate in similar ways in very different places. By creating links between struggles against the state and capital, revolutionary solidarity has the potential to take our local struggles to a global level.
Moreover, revolutionary solidarity is always an active attack; it always involves the recovery of our own active powers that multiply in combination – in solidarity – with the active powers of others. Many insurrectionary anarchists have been involved in the resistance against the FIES prison regime (Ficheros de Internos de Especial Seguimiento – Inmate Files for Special Monitoring) in Spain. This is a revolutionary struggle because it is not only aimed at a mere reform, but ultimately its goal is the disappearance of prisons, which involves a radical social change. It is a self-organised struggle, in which there are not any leaders or representatives, neither inside the prisons nor outside, but only solidarity that grows between exploited people both from inside and outside the walls.
One of the primary strengths of informal organisation is that it allows anarchists to intervene in intermediate or specific struggles without compromising principles or demanding uniformity of action and politics. Informally organised struggles may be composed of affinity groups with quite different political perspectives from each other. Some people may wish to open the possibility for insurrection, while others are only concerned with an immediate goal. There is no reason why those who share an immediate practical aim but diverge in their long-term goals might not come together. For example, an anti-genetic engineering (GE) group could form and decide to co-ordinate the tearing up test crops and to circulate anti-GE leaflets. In this case those who want an insurrectionary rupture with this social order and those who merely hate genetic engineering could easily work together towards this immediate goal. Groups that take a more insurrectionary approach to action, however, often end up in conflict with other groups working around similar issues. The Earth Liberation Front, an informally organised set of groups which have taken a position of attack on those they see as destroying the earth, have been vilified by the mainstream environmental movement. At the same time, they would probably be critiqued by many insurrectionary anarchists for focusing defensively on the protection of the earth and ignoring the social aspect of revolution. What is important to allow different groups to work together is co-ordination with autonomy.
For those who wish to open the possibility of insurrection, such co-operation will not close the door on their dreams. Informal organisation, with its ethics of autonomy and no compromise, does not control struggle, and uncontrollability opens the possibility for an insurrectionary rupture with the present social order..
1) See The Ego and Its Own by Max Stirner (Rebel Press, London, 1993) ISBN 0 946061 009
2) ‘Anarchists’ who generally turn their back on direct action, and use local politics to try and gain reforms and establish ‘anarchist controlled’ towns.
3) See Albania: Laboratory of Subversion by Anonymous (Elephant Editions, London, 1999) No ISBN
4) See A Strange and Outcast Poet: The Life and Writings of Renzo Novatore (Venomous Butterfly Publications) See: http://www.geocities.com/kk_abacus/vbutterfly.html
5) A Project of Anarchist Organisation by Errico Malatesta (1927) See: http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/6170/malatesta_project.html
6) The Anarchist Tension by Alfredo M Bonanno (Elephant Editions, London, 1998) No ISBN
7) When arrested Nikos refused to recognise the authority of the whole legal system. He made a radical anarchist statement to the court during his trial, giving the reasons for the bombing, and explaining his insurrectionary hatred for the state and industry. He’s now released.
Wilful Disobedience, PO Box 31098, Los Angeles, CA 90031, USA.
Many insurrectionary anarchist writings can be obtained from Elephant Editions publications. These, mainly pamphlets, can be ordered from them at: Elephant Editions, BM Elephant, London WC1N 3XX, England. Many of them can also be found on the web at: http://www.geocities.com/kk_abacus/ioaa/ioaa.html
For insurrectionary anarchist texts in Spanish check out the Palabras de Guerra website at: http://flag.blackened.net/pdg/
When Will it be Time for Insurrection?
I have a theory. My theory is that every time the government or some corporation commits an act of destruction to the wild or humanity; if every time a corporation’s oil tanker pollutes a coastline, or they mangle, plunder and destroy a wild place; if every time they do this, I take my anger and I place it in a certain compartment inside my brain, when it comes time for the insurrection I will be able to access those pieces of anger that I stored.
So I spend my days patiently continuingly attempting to stop the madness which drives the governments and corporations, and each day I hear of new atrocities. I go on another A to B demonstration, shout some slogans, and then at the end of day I again open up this special compartment and put the anger of some new atrocity in it, all in anticipation of the day when I shall need this anger to bring the Empire down.
But a new fear has overcome me. I perceive my anger calling me from inside this compartment, I hear the door unlatching from inside, and this new terrible question approaches me:
How shall I know when it’s time for insurrection?
Will it be when the next river or lake is destroyed after being needlessly polluted? When logging companies have destroyed another eco-system and driven the native peoples from the land?
Is then the time for insurrection?
Or is it when a government or NATO or the UN bombs a country and murders thousands of people? When another multinational is complicit with the murder of indigenous tribes so another of the earth’s natural areas can be plundered?
Is then the time for insurrection?
When your local factory exports another shipment of arms designed and destined to kill people like you and me? If corporations continue to wreak havoc upon the ozone layer, if ecology is cast blindly aside in favour of profit? If certain parties proceed in a manner which is clearly imperilling the lives of a multitude of glorious and beautiful animals and plants on our planet?
Is then the time for insurrection?
Or do we carry on simply demonstrating, handing in petitions, hoping the system will realise its faults and change, or hope for a future revolution when we’ve got the masses on our side and we will then be able to put everything right? Do we hope for this whilst the system carries on destroying us and the planet to such an extent that the world may not be worth living in when we finally get round to doing anything about it?
Do we carry on waiting and waiting until things get critical? Is it then the time for insurrection?
Or will it be too late…?
The shocking rates of infant mortality and cancer in Iraqi city raise new questions about battle
Dramatic increases in infant mortality, cancer and leukaemia in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, which was bombarded by US Marines in 2004, exceed those reported by survivors of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, according to a new study.
Iraqi doctors in Fallujah have complained since 2005 of being overwhelmed by the number of babies with serious birth defects, ranging from a girl born with two heads to paralysis of the lower limbs. They said they were also seeing far more cancers than they did before the battle for Fallujah between US troops and insurgents.
Their claims have been supported by a survey showing a four-fold increase in all cancers and a 12-fold increase in childhood cancer in under-14s. Infant mortality in the city is more than four times higher than in neighbouring Jordan and eight times higher than in Kuwait.
Dr Chris Busby, a visiting professor at the University of Ulster and one of the authors of the survey of 4,800 individuals in Fallujah, said it is difficult to pin down the exact cause of the cancers and birth defects. He added that “to produce an effect like this, some very major mutagenic exposure must have occurred in 2004 when the attacks happened”.
US Marines first besieged and bombarded Fallujah, 30 miles west of Baghdad, in April 2004 after four employees of the American security company Blackwater were killed and their bodies burned. After an eight-month stand-off, the Marines stormed the city in November using artillery and aerial bombing against rebel positions. US forces later admitted that they had employed white phosphorus as well as other munitions.
In the assault US commanders largely treated Fallujah as a free-fire zone to try to reduce casualties among their own troops. British officers were appalled by the lack of concern for civilian casualties. “During preparatory operations in the November 2004 Fallujah clearance operation, on one night over 40 155mm artillery rounds were fired into a small sector of the city,” recalled Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster, a British commander serving with the American forces in Baghdad.
He added that the US commander who ordered this devastating use of firepower did not consider it significant enough to mention it in his daily report to the US general in command. Dr Busby says that while he cannot identify the type of armaments used by the Marines, the extent of genetic damage suffered by inhabitants suggests the use of uranium in some form. He said: “My guess is that they used a new weapon against buildings to break through walls and kill those inside.”
The survey was carried out by a team of 11 researchers in January and February this year who visited 711 houses in Fallujah. A questionnaire was filled in by householders giving details of cancers, birth outcomes and infant mortality. Hitherto the Iraqi government has been loath to respond to complaints from civilians about damage to their health during military operations.
Researchers were initially regarded with some suspicion by locals, particularly after a Baghdad television station broadcast a report saying a survey was being carried out by terrorists and anybody conducting it or answering questions would be arrested. Those organising the survey subsequently arranged to be accompanied by a person of standing in the community to allay suspicions.
The study, entitled “Cancer, Infant Mortality and Birth Sex-Ratio in Fallujah, Iraq 2005-2009”, is by Dr Busby, Malak Hamdan and Entesar Ariabi, and concludes that anecdotal evidence of a sharp rise in cancer and congenital birth defects is correct. Infant mortality was found to be 80 per 1,000 births compared to 19 in Egypt, 17 in Jordan and 9.7 in Kuwait. The report says that the types of cancer are “similar to that in the Hiroshima survivors who were exposed to ionising radiation from the bomb and uranium in the fallout”.
Researchers found a 38-fold increase in leukaemia, a ten-fold increase in female breast cancer and significant increases in lymphoma and brain tumours in adults. At Hiroshima survivors showed a 17-fold increase in leukaemia, but in Fallujah Dr Busby says what is striking is not only the greater prevalence of cancer but the speed with which it was affecting people.
Of particular significance was the finding that the sex ratio between newborn boys and girls had changed. In a normal population this is 1,050 boys born to 1,000 girls, but for those born from 2005 there was an 18 per cent drop in male births, so the ratio was 850 males to 1,000 females. The sex-ratio is an indicator of genetic damage that affects boys more than girls. A similar change in the sex-ratio was discovered after Hiroshima.
The US cut back on its use of firepower in Iraq from 2007 because of the anger it provoked among civilians. But at the same time there has been a decline in healthcare and sanitary conditions in Iraq since 2003. The impact of war on civilians was more severe in Fallujah than anywhere else in Iraq because the city continued to be blockaded and cut off from the rest of the country long after 2004. War damage was only slowly repaired and people from the city were frightened to go to hospitals in Baghdad because of military checkpoints on the road into the capital.
It would now be timely to move away from the figure of Man toward that more central figure in Marinetti’s work, the machine. I wish to examine here the functioning of the Futurist machine in its specifically political implications, in order to understand whether, and how, a metaphysics of presence asserts itself in Marinetti’s work at the political level
Of course, given the model of aestheticization of political life framing the work so far, it is impossible to isolate the political as a realm somehow sealed off from the aesthetic. However, before limiting our examinations to the perspectives opened up in Benjamin’s analysis, it is important that we situate aestheticization as a socially and culturally potent ideology. At face value, aestheticization might be taken to mean a displacement of social, political and ethical concerns as the guidelines for political action and a replacement of these values by aesthetic criteria: for example, a political action is judged in terms of its beauty rather than its goodness or even efficacy. This displacement of the ethical by the aesthetic – if that is all that aestheticization might be taken to mean – begs the question of the constitution of ‘the beautiful’ itself, as a category replacing ‘the good.’ If aestheticization is to be understood on a purely semantic level – that is, as a replacement of one set of values by another – then it is incumbent upon theorists of aestheticization to provide some content to the notion of the aesthetic itself.
Influenced, perhaps, by the fascist predilection for spectacle and its tendency toward cultural philistinism, those who work with this model – including Benjamin, as previously I argued – generally assume that ‘the beautiful’ means what it had always meant in the nineteenth century; that it dictated a reliance upon falsified principles of harmony, organic totality, and unity. On the one hand there would be decadence – the dark side of progress, as it were – and on the other simple philistinism. The fascist predilection for regimented spectacle, the adherence to nineteenth century aesthetic standards that, in light of the avant-garde, can surface only as kitch – all of these things tend to confirm the critical desire to equate fascism (as aestheticization) with cultural philistinism. This conflation of political and aesthetic tendencies might stress the importance of outmoded notions of aesthetic harmony and balance to fascist notions of the organicist State. Aesthetic resolutions would serve to paper over cracks and fissures of an increasingly fragmented and noncohesive social totality. Thus, from a broadly leftist perspective ‘the aestheticization of political life’ comes to mean the masking of class struggle under a facade of aestheticized social unity.
Fascist Modernism: Aesthetics, Politics and the Avant-Garde
by Andrew Hewitt.
John Yoo, the UC Berkeley law school professor who gave legal sanction to the Bush administration’s views on torture, has been on a national image-rehabilitation tour, presenting a softer, more human side than is generally accepted by his critics.
For instance, before a relatively small gathering Tuesday at a Sacramento Press Club luncheon, he joked about the lively dinner table discussions he has with his father-in-law, the former CNN wartime correspondent Peter Arnett. And he boasted that he’d bested Jon Stewart in an appearance he made on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” earlier this year.
But his core message served to undergird his role in one of the most scrutinized wartime epochs in U.S. history — President Bush’s prosecution of the war on terror. At all turns, Yoo insisted that American presidents have always had the ability to expand their powers during times of war.
And he continued to maintain that the administration did not authorize torture and that he did not consider waterboarding torture. Waterboarding had been designated a war crime as late as 1983.
As deputy assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel after 9/11, his memos gave what his critics call legal cover to torture suspected terrorists.
“No torture was authorized,” he said after his presentation.
In his memos, he wrote that only treatment that inflicts suffering equivalent to organ failure “or even death”
constitutes torture. He has also suggested that nothing — no law or treaty — could stop the president from ordering torture if the circumstances required it.
Yoo has also claimed that his memos allowed interrogators to go up to the line of torture without crossing it. And he has defended Bush’s unilateral approach to the war on terror.
“Presidential power is really designed to expand during periods of crisis brought on by foreign threats and national security concerns,” Yoo said.
Yoo recounted how after he helped draft the Iraq war authorization, he heard complaints from U.S. senators who did not want to have to vote on whether the country should go to war.
Yoo took a shot at President Barack Obama, saying he had flipped on its head the founding fathers’ vision of the presidency.
“The framers didn’t really think the presidency would play a big role in domestic policy,” he said. “What you’ve seen in a year and a half is Obama is extremely hyperactive in domestic affairs and he has put in an amazing effort at restructuring the economy and health care. He’s taking the lead in pushing Congress, rather than restraining Congress.”
On the other hand, in foreign affairs, the first thing Obama did, Yoo said, was to try to take the issues of terrorism and war “off his plate and defer those issues to other branches.”
He did credit Obama, however, for backing down on his pledge to quickly close Guantánamo Bay detention camp for suspected terrorists and to stick essentially to the Bush administration’s timeline in departing from Iraq.
Contact Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101.