The following is an informative back-and-forth I had with a friend online regarding reform and revolution:



Friend: you might have seen this already, but I thought I would send it along to you: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/17/world/middleeast/17sharp.html?_r=1&hp

[Shy U.S. Intellectual Created Playbook Used in a Revolution: For decades, the writings of Gene Sharp have inspired dissidents around the world.]



Me: that’s an interesting article. unfortunately, those tactics seem maybe less effective in bringing down our government :(


Friend: Have you read Edmund Burke? I’m not in favor of bringing down our government. Evolutionary reform seems to sharply reduce the possibility of revolution following the well-worn path of ideals leading to a police state in order to enforce the vision.


Me: i haven’t read Burke, but i’ve read about him. i think we’d both agree that whether revolution or reform is better is a pretty complex issue. not all evolutionary reform is good, obviously, like the kind of reform that isn’t reform at all. (like obama) and just maintains a horrific system. just as a crude counter-example, democratic ‘reform’ was also what led the wiemar republic astray in much the same way the russian revolution lead to stalin.
so whether revolution or reform is necessary seems in part to be a empirical question of how bad the current system is, and if it’s bad enough, like it was in egypt, then flatly bringing down the government seems like at least an option.

i could rattle of statistics about this or that US-imposed evil, but i warrant that the influence of the US, more because of foreign policy than domestic policy, is pretty horrific and the instantaneous disappearance of the government would be a pretty good thing for billions of people. (for example, the 925 million people world wide the UN says are undernourished (http://english.aljazeera.net/news/2011/02/20112442413591195.html), the two primary causes being increased temperature irregularities likely caused by global warming and banks betting on food as a commodity market, both of which are spiking prices (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/sep/24/food-crisis-un-emergency-meeting-rome) and are caused by the US more than any other country).

i don’t necessarily think it’s accurate to say that all revolutions lead to police states. those are the ones that are most talked about, but there are also many examples of revolutions that to something good, like the spanish revolution of 1936, the february revolution in russia in 1917,the zapatista uprising of 1994. the former two were rather just and democratic before being crushed by totalitarian forces, while the latter was also extremely egalitarian and democratic, though the mexican government and corporate-funded paramilitary forces have been wearing down the zapatista movement through direct violence and indirect blockades and other attrition.

obviously, these are not perfect examples for how to guide revolution in this country, but i think reform’s track record is also rather sparse. another aspect of reform that i think is worth pointing out is that it’s rather easy for privileged people to prefer it. unlike the 925 million people without enough food to eat, we have plenty of food and waiting for change is really not a difficult thing. by asking for reform though, you’re also asking people dying of starvation, afghan families missing mothers and fathers, iraq mothers bearing deformed children caused by US uranium munitions to all just wait it out while those of us with plenty of food fumble around and see if we can implement some reform.

anyway, social change and revolution are pretty complex things, and i have a lot more thoughts on them, but generally i’d agree with Malcolm X’s speech, “the ballot or the bullet” (http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/065.html): if we try reform, and the powers that be continue to oppress and murder, then some revolution is in order. again, my views on revolution are complex, and it’s not like i’m gonna pick up an ak-47 right now and gonna go out shooting up police stations, but i think it’s worth working up to the point where revolution could happen and have realistic chances of creating a just society afterwords.

wanna grab lunch this weekend?


Friend: I would like to grab lunch sometime, but not this weekend. I’m swamped with work.

I’m skeptical that people in other nations have fundamentally more altruistic human natures and that in the absence of the U.S. they wouldn’t flex their muscles to kill, rape, or maim (think of Bahrain – although the U.S. tightroping on the fence of this issue is pretty offensive).

I also think that, despite all the statistics you provide, you remain firmly committed to revolution as an article of faith. Whenever I talk with you, the word comes up so often it takes on a sense of impending inevitability. Marx was an excellent analyzer of history. But, he was very vague about what the future would entail. (I don’t know about other transformational philosophers, but my impression is that they cling to utopian visions of the future without enumerating a clear path to get there.) While I don’t advocate fearing the unknown, my feeling is that much has been attempted before and not all that begins nobly ends as such.


Me: lunch sometime sounds good.

one thing i’ve been pointing out is that reform as a way to real and lasting social change is as utopian as revolution. to believe in reform i think also takes a great deal of faith. obama, for instance, was the greatest reform project in recent memory and i would argue that he was a complete failure on almost all fronts. so, like revolution, although the reform may have begun nobly, it certainly hasn’t ended so.

being a radical ‘revolutionary’, i can’t help but talk about revolution a lot, haha. but there are some things i think are worth pointing out. unlike leninists or trotskyists or many socialist parties who put all of their eggs in the revolution basket, anarchists are committed to changing the world in the now through creating free, self-governing spaces and on generally educating ourselves and others what it’s like to act freely. so even if a revolution in the US doesn’t happen in my lifetime (or even ever), my work towards immediate local change will have been worthwhile and possibly could lay the base for larger social change in the future.

likewise, i think if one takes the reform route, one should be equally as sober, admitting something like ‘if reform doesn’t happen in our lifetimes…’

also, and you might agree, i think reform is a much dirtier process than it is sometimes portrayed as. for any real reform to take place, it will only come from masses of people making harsh demands of the people in power. people in power will not just reform themselves, they need to be forced into it. reform for mlk jr. meant going out into the streets and getting beat by cops. mlk jr. talked about how he would try to negotiate with city officials to change laws, but that they would never make any concessions until mass rallies and violence against protesters was used and national media attention was on them. so i urge those who are for reform to make the same commitment to action and be ready to take to the streets.

also, i am not against reform as way toward social change, but i think there will, for near future, in the US be an excess of reformists and so i commit myself to revolution for another reason. there’s nothing like a bunch of angry revolutionaries to get a government to cave to more reformist demands, ala Malcolm X and the Civil Rights Movement or radical labor organizing and The New Deal. a bunch of reformists by themselves, without the actual threat to power on the side that revolutionaries bring, are often useless. that being said, mlk jr. among others recognized the dangerous pacifying effect that governmental reform can have in preventing meaningful change from taking place.

another point that i think needs mentioning is that, as i pointed out before about asking oppressed people to wait it out, reform tells people to accept a power over them, a power which may be very dangerous. if a bunch of revolutionaries take to the streets, i hope the genuine reformers will not actively silence them, but remain on the sidelines and criticize the revolutionaries if they must. but if reformers ever actively side with the government against revolutionaries, i think they are complicit in the government’s actions of violent repression. if anyone, whether riot cops, government officials, or reformists, uses their power to violently keep their power, then they run the risk of being the target of the violence of the oppressed against their oppressors. for if the revolution is ever near, i have little doubt that those in power will use all of the violence at their disposal to keep it.


Friend: I guess what I’m trying to say is that since revolutions often entail a lot of bloodshed, it’s important to analyze whether they are justified in terms of realistic long term gains in equity and rights. Tsarist Russia seemed so bad that it seems revolution was not only the only option, but also a good one by comparison. By contrast, in the US you would have to hope for such economic hardship and government mismanagement in order to foment rebellion that I’m not sure it’s something worth hoping for.

Also, I take issue with your implying that the US is at the root of malnourishment. If that were true, then a number of obvious facts about the world would not be true.
1) Malnourishment has always existed
2) Malnourishment has actually decreased since the early 1950s (the zenith of US hegemonic power) (even counting the recent food riots your article mentions)

Instead, while some policies in the US exacerbate malnourishment, they have, in most cases, a peripheral effect on the problem. Malnourishment is a more complex problem resulting from environmental problems, overpopulation, poverty traps, wars, etc.

The guardian article is really fascinating. You know, in my forecasting class last semester, we looked at how the price of orange juice had fewer fluctuations (as a result of weather – ie freezes in Florida) as food commodity markets developed because futures contracts allowed oj producers and distributors to agree to prices that moderated weather’s involvement. It would be interesting to see specifically why it is exacerbating the problem now.


Me: i think i’d stick to my guns in saying that the US (in collaboration with corporations and pro-corporate governments everywhere, but the US is still the biggest player) is directly and indirectly responsible for most of the undernourishment… in the world.

malnourishment has always existed, BUT the means to end malnourishment haven’t. my guess would be that while the absolute number of people malnourished today is greater than in 1950, the % of the global population that is malnourished has surely dropped. the global population in 1950 was around 2.5 billion, and so i doubt that nearly 40% of them were undernourished (though i suppose i could be wrong).

as evidence for an indirect yet still completely blameworthy US cause of malnourishment, in the year after the stock market crash of 2008, 100 million people were added to the global undernourishment estimates of the UN, which was the fastest such increase in recent history. insofar as the banks and the US pro-bank, pro-corporate government was responsible for the economic crash (in my opinion it was by far the biggest player), the US was mostly responsible for the undernourishment of 100 million people.

the oj commodity market example you bring up certainly exemplifies how people say commodity markets should work, and when they do work that way, i guess they are a useful thing.

however, when certain economic players control large parts of the system, the system is obviously vulnerable to manipulation. this short news piece shows how one hedge fund spiked global chocolate prices recently by buying 7% of the world’s cocoa (http://english.aljazeera.net/video/europe/2011/02/2011217204028299430.html). the people interviewed say that similar things are happening in grain and other staple food markets.

i’m sure you’re aware of this, but when a resource becomes rare, it makes economic sense for people to buy up all of it so that the prices will spike further and give them higher returns. when this happens with diamonds (De Beers owns 90% of global diamond production which keeps prices artificially high) i could care less. but when that keeps food from poor people, it’s a problem. this is, i think, what the above al-jazeera video and the guardian piece on the UN are pointing out.


Me: revolution may involve a lot of bloodshed, but so does reform. waiting for reform in this country leads not only to the undernourishment of 100s of millions of people, but also to virtually every other global problem, whether it’s environmental problems, extreme poverty, supporting brutal dictatorships, US wars in the middle east. so maybe it’s just an empirical question of, taking the US at this point in history, what’s the approach with the highest chance of leading to expansive social change with the least possible suffering. again, i tend to error on the side of revolution, though, if on the way to revolution, everything is gotten through reform, that would be nice. (also, i think, though am not at all sure, the kind of society i envision might be considerably more radical than the one you envision and thus would also seem to make reform an unlikely choice for me.)

and still, there is a very important part of my views on revolution that i have not articulated yet, but since i’m on a roll, i figure i might as well say now.

i think when people hear talk about revolution, they think revolutionaries mean that tomorrow they will take down government. as good a thing as i think that might be, it’s not really what any realistic revolutionaries have in mind nor is it at all possible like that. when i speak of revolution, i mean that we should work up to the point where a massive change occurs and people are aware enough of how to run their own affairs. this necessitates giving people the opportunity to partake in egalitarian, self-governing social structures like housing cooperatives, workers councils, community councils, non-hierarchical organizations that deal with activism, freedom schools, etc… Because in normal everyday life, people aren’t permitted this kind of participatory aspect in society because any power people might attain would mean corporations and governments would lose power, and such institutions are just not in the business of losing power.

this gradual education of radicalism is what lead up to the 1936 revolution in spain. since the 1870s, there had been a growing awareness of anarchism and its practices and ideas, to the point that when the opportunity presented itself, people spontaneously took over the institutions of society and the economy and were able to run them fine without politicians or bosses and were able to enjoy the kind of truly free society that can exist without politicians or bosses. creating true democracy in the present is a necessary precursor to having true democracy after a revolution.

George Orwell, after arriving in anarchist controlled Catalonia, Spain, later wrote: “when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags and with the red and black flag of the Anarchists … Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized … There was much in this that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for … so far as one could judge the people were contented and hopeful. There was no unemployment, and the price of living was still extremely low … Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom.”


Obama came to USC’s campus recently to talk about “moving forward” and driving the metaphorical car that is supposedly the people’s government. The use of the car analogy is revealing: only one person drives the car and the rest are passengers who are more likely than not being taken somewhere they do not know about or would much rather not go.

A number of students on campus have been appalled at the current administration’s policies and actions and protested Obama’s speaking at our campus. We handed out fliers, held up signs, and performed a mock waterboarding torture scene. This article is an explanation of why we think having Obama in the driver’s seat is a very bad thing. I’ll start by examining Obama’s grand victory of supposedly reforming the health care system and then move on to discussing the president’s policy on detention, each of which fit the respective general pattern of Obama’s domestic and foreign policy.

Obama’s health care legislation is trumpeted as his greatest achievement, but an investigation into who the legislation benefits tells a different story than the one he is so eager to tell. While guaranteeing health insurance to millions of uninsured is undoubtedly a good thing in itself, put another way, the government is gift-wrapping millions of customers for the health insurance industry that has emerged largely untouched from the new legislation.

The huge industries that operate ‘health’ services in our country are by far the least cost-efficient in the world. In 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) found that the US spends the 2nd most per capita on health care, behind only East Timor (1). In 2000, the WHO rated the US health care system 37th in the world in overall performance and 72nd in the world for overall health (2). Looking at the new legislation, very little has been done to alter the way health services are actually administered or paid for.

New statistics for the health care system after the implementation of new legislation will not be ready for some time, but I remain skeptical because of the reform’s failure to alter the underlying operating principles of the system. As the New York Times reported, a couple of government studies were done using the same “economic and demographic assumptions” and differed from each other only in regards to whether or not Obama’s legislation was accounted for (3). The studies calculated that with the legislative overhaul, health expenses in 2019 would amount to 19.6% of the GDP, or $4.6 trillion. Without the legislation, the projected health care costs of 2019 was expected to be 19.3% of GDP, or $4.5 trillion. The differences between the predicted outcomes are so trivial that one puzzles at the what the “largest piece legislation in a generation” is really achieving.

Worst of all, there’s some evidence that points out that this is the kind of minimal, surface-level change Obama was aiming for all along. In an interview on MSNBC recently, New York Times reporter in Washington D.C. David Kirkpatrick stated that a Obama made backdoor deal with the health care industry—not reported at all in the mainstream media but often discussed in alternative media outlets and blogs—similar to the widely criticized hidden-from-public deal he made with the pharmaceutical industry that guaranteed their modus operandi would be left alone in exchange for minor discounts:

“That’s a lobbyist for the hospital industry and he’s talking about the hospital industry’s specific deal with the White House and the Senate Finance Committee and, yeah, I think the hospital industry’s got a deal here. There really were only two deals, meaning quid pro quo handshake deals on both sides, one with the hospitals and the other with the drug industry. And I think what you’re interested in is that in the background of these deals was the presumption, shared on behalf of the lobbyists on the one side and the White House on the other, that the public option was not going to be in the final product.” (4)

Obama effectively killed the public option before the public debate even started in spite of wide public support; among others, a 2009 NBS/WSJ poll found that 76% of the public that having a choice between public and private health insurance options was “extremely” or “quite” important (5). Maybe this is all part of Obama’s masterly political maneuvering, or maybe it’s an example of his pandering to powerful interests at the expense of hundreds of millions of people’s desire to live a healthy life.

As with everything that happens in Washington, the tentacles of corporate campaign contributions are no less prominent with Obama at the head of American politics. Liz Fowler, the primary architect of the new legislation who was also just hired by Obama to implement the legislation, is former vice president of health insurance giant WellPoint (6). This contradicts Obama’s campaign message to end the “revolving door” between government and corporation executive boards. It has also been revealed, though hardly reported, that Max Baucus and other key members of the health care committee were not only receiving massive amounts of campaign cash throughout the crafting of the legislation, but that much of it went unreported to the Federal Election Commission due to legal “bundling” loopholes (7). These circumstances call into serious question who the legislation was by and for. (Personal side note: my health insurance has only gotten more expensive since the legislation was passed.)

Other horrifying aspects of the American health care industry that remain untouched include: 62% of bankruptcies are caused by medical debt, of which 75% of those are people with (inadequate) insurance (8); two Harvard studies revealed that health insurance companies collectively own $4.5 billion in tobacco companies (9) and $1.9 billion in fast food companies (10) in what appears to be a pair of twisted mutually beneficial relationships; the 15 million people who remain uninsured under the new legislation.

Obama’s health care legislation is comparable to his entire domestic policy approach including financial reform, immigration reform, energy reform: if he addresses the issue at all, he just makes a few minor alterations to the surface of the problem, doesn’t address any of the fundamental issues that underlie the big social problems, and waves the flag of political success.

With an issue as complex as the American health industry, there are indeed many outlets to get information and many ways to interpret the data, but I’ve tried to stick to the most Obama-leaning, mainstream-trustworthy sources (New York Times, World Health Organization, Harvard) to level my critiques against the president. Still, I understand the skeptics (Obama’s believers) might dismiss the above arguments as too simplistic or not being relevant to the messy nature of American politics.

Continuing onto foreign policy, particularly regarding the detention of “enemy combatants,” Obama’s actions are more defined—in the sense that executive power is much less hindered by congressional power in foreign affairs—and perhaps less open to opposing interpretations. It’s revealing, I think, that Obama’s foreign policy is in even starker contrast to obvious public well-being.

The central pillar of Obama’s campaign platform was his promise to change America’s image in the world after 8 years of decline under Bush. Indeed, the initial international response to Obama’s campaign promises were euphoric, but now in office, Obama has failed to maintain any substantial difference between himself and the former president on matters of international affairs.

Some of Bush’s head advisers, administrators, and supporters have expressed ecstatic admiration for Obama’s “continuity” of Bush’s programs. Michael Hayden, Bush’s CIA and NSA chief who oversaw Bush’s torture and surveillance policies, said, “by and large, there’s been a powerful continuity between the 43rd [Bush] and the 44th president [Obama]” (11) and just two months ago praised Obama in an interview with the Washington Times:

“You’ve got state secrets, targeted killings, indefinite detention, renditions, the opposition to extending the right of habeas corpus to prisoners at Bagram [in Afghanistan],” Mr. Hayden said, listing the continuities. “And although it is slightly different, Obama has been as aggressive as President Bush in defending prerogatives about who he has to inform in Congress for executive covert action.” (12)

James Jay Carafano, an analyst on homeland security at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said:

I don’t think it’s even fair to call it Bush Lite,” he said. “It’s Bush. It’s really, really hard to find a difference that’s meaningful and not atmospheric. You see a lot of straining on things trying to make things look repackaged, but they’re really not that different.” (13)

Obama’s reception from the progressive side of American politics has been much less welcoming. When Obama met with human rights groups last spring, the New York Times reported that, according to the people in the room, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Anthony Romero, appealed to Obama, “Look, you’re the only politician I’ve ever believed in … When I was a gay Puerto Rican growing up in New York, I never thought I could identify with a political leader the way I identify with you” (14). Just a couple of weeks ago, after 18 months of Obama in office, Romero had this to say:

I’m disgusted with this president … Guantanamo is still not closed. Military commissions are still a mess. The administration still uses state secrets to shield themselves from litigation. There’s no prosecution for criminal acts of the Bush administration. Surveillance powers put in place under the Patriot Act have been renewed. If there has been change in the civil liberties context, I frankly don’t see it.” (15)

In campaigning for the office of president, Obama was always quick to mention that he would reverse Bush’s policies of detention, including shutting down Guantanamo Bay by the end of his first year in office. It’s been more than 18 months now and there has yet to be a serious proposal from the Obama administration for the release of Guantanamo detainees.

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson served as Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002 – 2005 and has become an outspoken critic of Guantanamo policy: “the vast majority of Guantánamo detainees were innocent” (16). Not only were most of the prisoners innocent, but the prison’s purpose of extracting information from detainees has largely failed: “[I]t has never come to my attention in any persuasive way — from classified information or otherwise — that any intelligence of significance was gained from any of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay other than from the handful of undisputed ring leaders and their companions, clearly no more than a dozen or two of the detainees, and even their alleged contribution of hard, actionable intelligence is intensely disputed in the relevant communities such as intelligence and law enforcement.” That all of this happened under Bush is unsurprising, but that Obama has not wavered from his predecessor on Guantanamo is to many a betrayal.

Col. Wilkerson notes that it’s hard for Democrats to close Guantanamo, but this is only because of the purely “political realities involved,” in other words, it would make them look weak on national security (though this is debatable considering Obama’s victory riding on promises to change the US’s foreign policy), “But in terms of the physical and safe shutdown of the prison facilities it is nonsense.” Col. Wilkerson is only the highest government official to have stated these opinions, but he has been one among a chorus of voices that have all pointed to Obama’s unjustified and immoral continued detention of largely innocent people without access to civilian trials.

Learning about individual cases of injustice at Guantanamo is revealing. I encourage you to look into Omar Khadr, who is a Canadian citizen who was captured in Afghanistan for allegedly fatally wounding a US soldier with a grenade (17). He has been held in Guantanamo for 8 years since his capture even though Amnesty International, Unicef, the Canadian Bar Association, and the Federal Court of Canada have demanded Khadr to be returned home. Mohammad Hassan Odiani was captured from his college housing in Pakistan at age 17 and has since spent more than a third of his life (the last 9 years) in Guantanamo, despite a Federal Court ordering his release upon finding that the evidence “overwhelmingly supports Odiani’s contention that he is unlawfully detained” (18). The U.S. Government itself has consistently admitted and found that “We don’t have anything on this kid,” and yet Obama has argued repeatedly not to let Odiani be released (19). The Washington Post reported how Abdul Rahim Abdul Razak al-Janko was tortured by Al-Qaeda, imprisoned by the Taliban, and then held in Guantanamo for 7 years without access to a trial (20). Despite the Obama administration’s relentless but unsuccessful attempts to keep Janko in a cage (21) even though US District Judge Richard J Leon said that Obama’s case for holding Janko “defies common sense”, Janko has since been released. Other notable cases worth looking up include the heinous physical torture of Binyam Mohamed by US agents and Obama’s attempt to have his case thrown out (22)(23), the probable deaths of three Uighurs while being tortured even though the government claims suicide (24), the repeated beatings and life sentence given to Aafia Siddiqui according to the most unbelievable of evidence (25), the seven-year imprisonment of Al Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj (26). These are among a few of the most dramatic and absurd stories of detainees in Guantanamo, but Obama has been steadfast in his commitment to continue to hold many innocent people without charges in the most notorious prison in the Western Hemisphere.

Moving on to what is now possibly the most notorious prison in the Eastern Hemisphere, Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, which is home to an estimated 600 – 800 prisoners, or 3-4x as many as Guantanamo. Obama has successfully lobbied for even less legal oversight and international rights for the prisoners kept there. A New York Times editorial relayed how an appellate court, under pressure from the Obama Department of Justice, “ruled that there was no right to federal court review for the detainees, who say they were captured outside of Afghanistan, far from any battlefield, and then shipped to Bagram to be held indefinitely in harsh conditions” (27). I’ll let the reader think for themselves about what other rulers in history these words evoke.

The Open Society Institute came out with a report on the situation at Bagram, having interviewed 18 former prisoners, half of whom were in the prison while Obama was president (28). The report found that detainees were routinely subjected to excessive cold, sleep deprivation, inadequate food, very loud and continuous noise, and denied access to by the International Committee of the Red Cross. That Obama sought the power (and won it) to be able to detain people “indefinitely” and subject them to these conditions without access given to journalists or human rights organizations is horrifying and in defiance of the Geneva Conventions and international law.

To counter the overwhelming evidence showing Obama’s reversal of nearly all of his campaign promises regarding detention, the president has been engaged in relentless efforts to keep such things from the public eye. Last October, despite promises to do the opposite, Obama extended Bush’s policy of suppressing photos of US torture under the pretenses that they would help the terrorists (29). Before that, the Washington Times reported that “the Obama administration [said] it may curtail Anglo-American intelligence sharing if the British High Court discloses new details of the treatment of a former Guantanamo detainee” (30). Obama’s attempts at coercing the British government to bend to its will and suppress information about a British citizen who was tortured defies all the expectations the world had about the new American president not bullying the rest of the world (31).

Obama’s attacks on the spread of information has also included the censoring and forced removal of journalists from areas with sensitive information, seriously compromising his pledge to lead the most transparent administration in American history. Four journalists—Michelle Shephard of the Toronto Star, Steven Edwards of Canwest, Paul Koring of the Globe & Mail and Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald—were barred from returning to Guantanamo after they allegedly printed the name of an interrogator whose identity was supposed to be kept secret (32). However, the name of the interrogator had already been entered into the public record of the court proceedings and was by no means confidential any more (33). It appears then that the Obama administration found an excuse to ban four of the most diligent journalists reporting on Guantanamo in an effort to silence the news of the atrocities taking place. The whole episode created a huge outcry within the media establishment and the ban on the four journalists returning to Guantanamo was lifted, but the message from Obama’s administration was clear: this is what will happen if you disagree with us.

Obama’s policy on detentions is abysmal but is by no means an aberration in his approach to foreign policy regarding the War on Terror, or the “overseas contingency operation”, as it’s now called. Other noteworthy policies include Obama’s signing off on Patreaus’s black ops, or “secret wars,” in countries around world (34)(35); the authorization of a cruise-missile strike using cluster bombs in violation of international humanitarian law in which 14 al-Qaeda were supposedly killed—this remains unconfirmed—in addition to 41 Yemeni civilians who were “collateral damage,” including 14 women and 21 children (36); the New York Times confirmed that the Obama administration has targeted US citizen and radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki for assassination, adding “It is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for an American to be approved for targeted killing” (37); according to a January Washington Post article, there are at least 3 US citizens being targeted by the US government for assassination (38), while Obama’s top anti-terrorism adviser John Brennan hinted later in an interview that the number may actually be in the dozens (39). In this last respect, Obama has far exceeded anything the Bush administration has been found guilty of and in the other above-mentioned cases, the president has held fast to the Bush strategy.

Bush seems to have been right about one thing at least: The New York Times: “Just as Eisenhower on the campaign trail criticized Truman’s policies in the early years of the cold war only to essentially adopt them after taking office, Bush anticipated that his successor would preserve most of what he had put in place” (40). The claims of Obama supporters that he needs “time” to change things around glosses over the reality that in detention policy and secret military operations, the Obama administration acts virtually unhindered and of its own will.


If I am to be merely a passenger in the car of America, I’d rather be an unruly one. Many close their eyes and get high off the music of “change.” Some incessantly ask, “Are we there yet?” and are passively disappointed that the answer is always no. Some yell and scream from the back seat that the map they were shown is not where they’re going. Others will insist that only if we had a different driver, the trip would be a good one. A few us might get together and try to disable the car. Maybe we’ll make a lunge for the steering wheel in hopes of directing the car into the nearest ditch or tree. Perhaps then we may leave the wreckage and each of us forge our own path in life.


Sources Cited









































One aspect of how an anarchist society would work that is not easily graspable to non-leftists is how it would deal with criminals.  Like all social mechanisms, the ‘justice’ system anarchists imagine would be vastly different from our current models.  The primary difference between crime in our society and crime in an anarchist society would be that in the latter, there would just be much less ‘crime’ in the first place.

This may seem counter-intuitive; “‘no authorities, no government, no police force with guns?  How that possibly create less crime?”  The principle difference is that in a society without inequalities of wealth, or relatively minuscule ones, the impulse to commit crime would be much less prominent.

Employment and Crime

What percentage of crimes are committed out of lack of wealth to pay for life’s necessities like food, rent, and clothing?  In a society where everyone had access to work and where work was organized with the specific goal of making it enjoyable and rewarding to the extent possible, unemployment and resulting crime would be much lower, if not gone completely.  For those people who couldn’t work for various reasons, like physical or mental disability, severe injury, looking after newborn children (which is also work of course), a social safety net could easily provide the means to give these people good lives.

For those people who choose not to work, I am of the opinion that they should still be supported by the social safety net.  Naturally, if the primary goal of the whole society was to make work productive AND meaningful, I don’t think there would be a very large residue of the population that would avoid work altogether out of laziness and whatever small percentage there was, I think could easily be supported by the rest of the population.  Conversely, if a society refused to provide necessities to those who didn’t work but were otherwise benign, it might motivate those people to become criminals.

I’ve seen a number of sociological studies that provide an obvious illumination of where crime comes from in our society (unfortunately, I can’t find any links to them off-hand, but I hope the commonsense logic involved is persuasive enough for now).  When surveying people in prison for violent crimes, the vast majority of them come from the same 10-square block areas in every city.  These are the neighborhoods of extreme poverty and unemployment, poor schools and social services, and rampant gang activity.  I think this is potent evidence for the claim that crime is the direct result of a society’s structures and not the result of some surface-level analysis concerning ‘a few bad apples.’

Social Comparison

The reasons are many why some people carry out crimes that afford them more much more money than necessary to live on. White-collar crime and its various Ponzi scheme variants possibly involve the stealing of wealth on a scale hundreds of times larger than all the crime committed by people from low-income backgrounds.  From Bernie Madoff, to drug kingpins, to Enron accountants and executives, to serial bank robbers, I’d guess that the central reason these people do these things is for the social prestige and material comforts that wealth brings.

Again, it is not difficult to imagine why this sort crime would be vastly reduced if not dissolved completely due to an equalization of wealth.  If there aren’t yachts or mansions or sports cars to buy, why would anyone steal large sums of money?  How could they even steal such wealth if there was never very much of it concentrated in any particular place?  That such a society would look down upon unnecessary accumulation of wealth would be a further deterrent.  Even accepting that crimes of theft would still exist, in a society where everyone had comparable levels of income, it would be rather easy to spot someone who started consuming more than their share.  This person could then be subject to some kind of ‘anarchist justice system.’

Rules and Justice

Every society, including totalitarian and anarchist and everything in between, has rules that function to order society.  As in any society, someone who breaks the rules in an anarchist society will be subject to some form of social response.  One anarchist thread post outlined five motivations for legal code backed up by coercion that I find useful in thinking about justice: retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, compensation, and rehabilitation.

Retribution, in the sense of revenge and “you hit me, I’m going to hit you back,” should not have any role in a just legal system.  The death penalty is just the most heinous manifestation of legal retribution, but this payback underlies much of the sentiment at the base of legal ideology.  There are many other ways that are immensely more constructive and effective at addressing social deviance.

Deterrence is maybe the primary reason given to justify contemporary penal codes, but as an anarchist I think it is missing the point.  Not to say that deterrence as a legal motivation should be avoided entirely, but it seems to me to be a secondary concern at best (will get to ‘the point’ in a minute).

Incapacitation is also at the root of much ‘justice’ in our society.  Putting people in steel and concrete cages should really only be used as a last resort and not used on people who go to anti-war protests or who do drugs.  In an anarchist society, I imagine that incapacitation might be used against the .00001% of people that have the neural hard-wiring that renders them completely indifferent to empathy and who become serial killers.  I can’t really imagine another way to humanely deal with this, though I would surely be against using the death penalty in such cases.  An anarchist justice system might differ from our own by trying to give this kind of person as fulfilling a life as conditions permit while being kept in solitary confinement. This would not be with the intention of changing him, but just out of a simple respect for human life that everyone deserves.

The other instance where incapacitation might have to be invoked is for that kind of person that might just be intolerable to a community.  If someone is lazy and doesn’t work but is otherwise pleasant, I would have no problem providing him with some food and shelter.  But if someone doesn’t contribute to the workforce and has a general disregard and malevolence about him, I think that a community, after repeated attempts to find a solution some other way, might have to resort to something like ostracism or in extreme cases solitary confinement.

Compensation is a fair way of dealing with some unjust losses at the hands of another person.  If for some reason, someone steals your bike, I think it’s fair to ask that person to reimburse you for it.  I can’t imagine why anyone would want to steal someone’s bike if there were plenty accessible for communal use, but there’s probably some possible scenario.  However, compensation as a system in our current society usually strikes me as profoundly unfair.  If a poor person steals my bike to sell it to feed himself, I don’t think I have any right to demand he pay me back.  It should be him who demands that society make life livable and bearable and open to the possibility of happiness.

Rehabilitation should be the primary force behind legal affairs in an anarchist society.  If someone commits an offense against another person or against the community, there is probably some underlying reason that needs to be addressed, either in community at large or in the offender.  The point is that society as a whole, and the legal apparatus as part of this, should be orientated towards making people’s lives meaningful in harmony with each other.  Justice should be concerned with resolving conflicts, not with inflicting suffering.

The most prominent kind of crime that I see as not being mostly dissolved by egalitarian means would be crimes stemming from personal disputes.  Again, I think a society that rearranges its values would likely decrease this kind of crime, but maybe it wouldn’t decrease dramatically.  Crimes between people who flatly dislike each other or caused by romantic jealousy seem unavoidable.  It also might be these kinds of crimes are the least capably addressed by a strict set of laws and punishments.

There is some debate among anarchists as to whether have codified laws at all.  Some argue that instead of applying a small set of laws to an infinite variety of possibilities, each case should be taken as it is and addressed in its unique context.  I don’t really have a strong opinion on this matter and I think this is just the kind of thing that will have to be gradually worked out through trial and error as to whether to have a rigid set of laws or not.

The Process: Courts and Juries

Like all forms of anarchist social organization, the system of justice should be run on the principles of direct participation on the part of the community.  I don’t feel like I have much to say with respect to details about how the process would work, but it would no doubt be very different from courts of law as we know them.

There would still probably be juries and trials and even some modified roles of lawyers and judges, but these latter positions would not be endowed with the ultimate power of today’s courts.  The position of jurors would still likely rotate.  Maybe the plaintiff and the defendant would together decide on a judge for the case based on his or her history so as to avoid having a judge with a preformed opinion of the matter.

Maybe the court system would be federated up to higher and more regional areas so as to deal with larger disputes and to handle appeals.  Though these ‘higher’ courts would not have the power to change the law of entire regions by themselves, as such power should ultimately remain under the direct influence of the community.

Police and Guns

With the vast majority of crime dissolving under conditions of wealth equality, law enforcement would probably take a very different form than today’s police.  Maybe each community would have a number of general public service employees who could each be trained in things like firefighting and stuff (I can’t think of that many tasks right now).  Maybe each community would have one person trained in police-like-things, though I imagine that would not take up much time and ‘policing’ would really be a small part of his job.

Having guns in society at all is one which I think could and should be avoided.  Having a gun gives one so much power that it should be avoided unless absolutely necessary.


The kind of crime I’ve been speaking about here is the crime I presume most people mean when they ask me about how it will be dealt with under anarchism.  However, much of what is considered acceptable behavior in society is behavior I would consider criminal, from dumping waste into oceans, to most things Goldman Sachs does, to the US wars in the Middle East.  Of course crime means different things to different people, but I hope the outlines I have illustrated above are useful in imagining how justice might be dealt with in an egalitarian manner.

Most importantly, justice and crime are not issues separate from the organization of society as a whole.  I’m no huge fan of RFK, but I think this quote is accurate: “Every society gets the kind of criminal it deserves.” As US has the highest incarceration rate in the world and some of the highest crime rates, I think this speaks to the overflowing tensions between most of the people and the powerful interests in our society.

Out for a while

Hey, I got a temporary job working full-time as a summer school teacher and between my activism and just having moved, I haven’t had and probably won’t have much time to commit to this hear blog regularly for maybe the next month.

I’ve been reading David Graeber’s Direct Action: An Ethnography and I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Basically is about direct action, anarchism, anthropology, activism, the anti-globalization movement, and tons of other great stuff all tied together in an intriguing ways.

One point of Graeber’s that I really like is that he argues that it’s wrong to see anarchism as an ideology in the same vein of Marxism or Leninism.  He argues that anarchism has always been about practice and creating new social forms in the present whereas other leftist strains have been more intent on theorizing and presenting their analysis as the correct one.  Of course anarchism is an ideology (with many subsections within it), but it is not an ideology of the typical kind of all-encompassing, monolithic world view.

An excerpt:

“What I would liek to argue is that ‘anarchism’ is best thought of, not as any one of these things–not as a vision, but neither quite as an attitude or set of practices.  It is, rather, best thought of as that very movement back and forth between these three….  It’s when the three reinforce each other–when a revulsion against oppression causes people to try to live their lives in a more self-consciously egalitarian fashion, when they draw on those experiences to produce visions of a more just society, when those visions, in turn, cuase them to see existing social arrangements as even more illegitimate and obnoxious–that one can begin to talk about anarchism. Hence anarchism is in no sense a doctrine.  It’s a movement, a relationship, a process of purification, inspiration, and experiment.  That is its very substance. All that really changed in the nineteenth century is that some people began to give this process a name.”

I think that Graeber’s views on anarchism express my own sentiments and that the above passage somewhat overlaps with my much simpler arguments that anarchism is just people’s taking control of their own lives.  I go through these phases of being obsessed with a particular academic (Chomsky, Zinn, Russell) and now I’m flying through the Graeber zone.

As an anarchist, some people who I talk to about politics tend to not disagree sharply with my ideas, but sometimes express dislike for the label ‘anarchism’.  They say, “You’re not about throwing bombs or killing people, so why do you have to take the word ‘anarchism’ that is popularly associated with such violence?”  There are both pros and cons for self-identifying with ‘anarchism’, and I think it’s worth discussing them and why I think the term is the best one for myself and the wider movement.

That the word ‘anarchism’ is associated in the public consciousness with violence and chaos is very unfortunate, especially considering how generally opposed anarchists are to those things.  At my work, with my non-immediate family, and with friends I haven’t known for long, I rarely bring up my views on politics for fear of being misunderstood even though it might be relevant to the conversation and I generally like talking about politics.  The public misunderstanding of the word sometimes keeps me from expressing my ideas and this is certainly a drawback to embracing the term ‘anarchism’.

However, since my anarchist friends and I are genuinely concerned people who spend much of their time advocating for peace and true democracy, when others hear that we’re ‘anarchists’, it jolts and confuses them.  They think of the term ‘anarchism’ and mentally recall all the bad things associated with it and then look at what we’re doing, and they naturally feel the tendency to clarify in their minds what’s going on.  They might ask what we’re doing.  We’ll explain that we’re protesting war and suffering or advocating for human rights.   They might then ask what we mean by anarchism and we’ll explain our reasonable ideas on freedom and exploitation.

The kind of cognitive dissonance that the word ‘anarchism’ raises in others a curiosity in our actions and beliefs that might not otherwise be there if we went by a different name, such as ‘direct democracy’ or ‘extreme egalitarians’ or whatever other label we could use that corresponds generally to our beliefs.

For example, some of my anarchist activist friends and I attended an academic labor studies conference recently.  Our student group was part of a panel of student groups from other universities and we each talked about our organizations and experiences working with labor rights.  Our group was last and as anarchism is central to our beliefs and approach regarding labor rights, it only seemed natural to speak of it in the context of our group.  So when it was my turn to speak in the presentation, I said that we were anarchists and all of the air seemed to have been sucked out of the room.  I guess the other 30 people in the room expected me to spend the rest of the time ranting or being angry or something.  I talked for a couple minutes about anarchism meant to us and how it informed our actions and people again became comfortable again.

Talking with one of the other student presenters afterwords, she said it was interesting how we ‘flipped’ the term ‘anarchism’ to mean something different.  It was encouraging to hear that she liked what we meant by the term, but I also pointed out that anarchism, especially for the last 80 years, has always meant what we said and that it was the media that ‘flipped’ the term’s meaning.

Hypothetically, if some anarchists decided decided that they no longer liked their label but were still strong believers in its general principles and so just changed their name it would probably not have the desired effects.  First of all, whatever new name they chose, it would instantly be recognized as ‘anarchism’ by anyone familiar with leftist politics and the name change would just be confusing.  Secondly, those who bash anarchists in the media would do continue to do so against the new name.  Thirdly, anarchism and its adherents have a long and rich history of struggle, theory, and experience that anarchists like to identify with through using the same label.  Changing the name that anarchists go by would not really have any tangible benefits and would just create a lot of confusion and disunity.

Most of all, anarchists have an extreme distaste for the state of status quo politics in this country and the name does well at articulating how we feel about government, militarism, corporatism — we want to wipe it all away and put positive and democratic institutions in their places.

Overall, I think it’s best that anarchists keep their name and continue to fight for peace and democracy.

Anarchism is about people making decisions about their lives and collectively making decisions about society as a whole.  This simple idea is so important and is just so hard to disagree with.  I bring up this concept of anarchism constantly in my discussions with others because it answers a good deal of the questions that people have about anarchism.  Whether I’m wrestling with a question I have about an anarchist society, writing on this blog, or answering a friend’s question about anarchism, the idea that people should have control over their lives is immensely powerful and important to imagining any better society.

This idea encapsulates all of the values necessary for a moral society:  the freedom to participate in decision-making;  the equality of giving everyone equal influence in society; the justice of having everyone collectively deciding who deserves what.

After accepting this idea, the rest of anarchist thought really just consists of ironing out the details.  What form of decision-making will be used?  How will people be grouped together or apart?

Anything less than a trust in humanity that trusts people to take control of things together results in taking away that right from some people.  If you give one person decision-making power, you have totalitarianism.  If you give a few people power, you have an oligarchy.  If you give a class of people power, you have an aristocracy.

How many people have decision-making power in a liberal democracy such as the US?  Well, at the most it appears to be around 80%, because most US citizens older than 18 have the right to vote.  But maybe it’s only about 50%, because that’s about how many people feel empowered and educated enough to vote in presidential elections (the % is much smaller in more local elections).  Maybe it’s the 25%-30% of the population whose presidential candidate wins the ‘popular’ vote.  Maybe it’s only the 5% of the wealthiest people in the country, because they represent the overwhelming majority of people who hold political office because few other people have the resources to run a campaign.  Maybe it’s the wealthiest 1% of the population who has more wealth than the rest of the bottom 95% of the population combined and who provide most of the money used in campaigns and lobbying.

So maybe only a very small percentage of the population has influence over the public sphere.  Also, the vast majority of people in this country don’t have a democratic input into the places they work.  Workers at a factory almost never have the formal ability to vote on something.  Unions address this desire for economic democracy to a certain extent (and to whatever extent they do, they should be supported), but even they are often self-interested bureaucracies.

Defenders of government often see it as necessary to avoid what they call ‘mob rule.’  Widespread chaos might ensue, they say.  Well, I’d argue that the fewer number of people who have influence and decision-making power in society, the more unjust that society is according to the spectrum that might loosely flow from fascism to aristocracy to representative democracy to anarchism.  This quote by George Orwell sums it up:  “‘Anything,’ he thinks, ‘any injustice, sooner than let the mob loose.’ He does not see that since there is no difference between the mass of rich and poor, there is no question of setting the mob loose. The mob is in fact loose now, and – in the shape of rich men …”

As a society, you can either decide to give everyone the freedom and dignity to partake in decision-making, or you can restrict it with increasingly devastating effects to the well-being of all.

When talking to people about the underlying goals of American policy, there are always at least two explanations: 1) that the US government did this for the good of its people and 2) the government did this out of self-interest and at the expense of its people.  One can apply these arguments to every episode, say, for example, Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan.  A democrat might argue that Obama made that decision to root out the scourges of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and increase security and democracy in the Middle East and in the US.  A leftist would argue that he did so under the political and corporate pressure for a number of reasons, including securing control of an area of vital importance of oil pipelines and access to upwards of $1 trillion of lithium deposits, to further enrich defense companies with large contracts, to rally the country around a patriotic cause in otherwise hostile circumstances (the economy), to keep the region destabilized so as to prolong the conflict for the previous three reasons.

When assessing the worth of each side of the argument, what determines which viewpoint is correct?  Surely, if any person knew the full extent of all the facts, he would likely be able to determine which argument is more accurate.  Admitting that a single person knowing everything is impossible, one way to test each perspective is to apply it universally and see if it is consistent with the evidence.

If the US government were malevolent, what would its policy look like?  By which I mean, if the state is controlled by special interests and corporations that seek their own gain, doing so at the expense of the public good increases net-suffering intentionally and is thus malevolent.

Abroad, the US would attack those countries where the most corporate benefit could be gained.  Where are the greatest resource deposits in the world that are not already under US control (Saudi Arabia’s resources already are)?  Iraq.  Afghanistan is a crucial area for the pipelines that would transport oil to US control.  But the US would not just weigh the benefits of a potential invasion for resources, but also the costs.  Which countries of the countries with plentiful resources are least able to defend themselves?  Iraq and Afghanistan could offer hardly any coordinated, large-scale resistance to US armed forces.

Where would the United States not interfere abroad?  They wouldn’t take notice of the massive human rights violations occurring within countries that are resourcefully strategic.  Saudi Arabia has a long history of terrible human rights abuses, but is virtually never condemned by the US government.  Uzbekistan is involved in some of the worst, continuing violations of human rights in the world, but the US is courting its government so as to gain access to its large oil deposits.

What would the US do domestically to maximize the benefits of US corporate interests?  It would try to limit citizens’ rights so that the system as a whole could ‘check’ on those whom it finds unsatisfactory.  The Patriot Act of Bush and the policies of Obama have done a wonderful job at this.  The US government would expand corporate power and corporate rights, for example their ability to influence public elections.

The government would not spend money on programs that would have broad social benefits and that have broad social support, but would spend money on programs where corporations benefit.  Money would be spent on increasing surveillance and spying operations and turning the operation and profiting of such operations over to private control.  Money would be cut from areas like education and appropriated to areas like war.

How would the government deal with occasional massive outrage against these policies?  It would make as few concessions as possible to maintain wealth and power and then erode those gains as soon as possible.  When public protest reached a pitch in the 1930’s over the stock market crash, the New Deal was created to quiet the disturbance while maintaining the basic power structures.  As we are faced with today, FDR later decreased funding for jobs programs and social welfare in 1937 in response to corporate desires to see money spent elsewhere.

The government would allow those reforms that didn’t challenge their power but that quieted social unrest.  Can the rich still be filthy rich if blacks and women can vote?  Sure.

The brilliance and weakness of this perspective is that any example that looks like it contradicts the model can be explained away as a necessary concession to selfishly maintain corporate power or acquire more votes.  The pro-American government perspective has the same tools at its ready.  Whatever instance where the government looked to act indifferently could be explained away as a concession towards the republicans or internal pressure.

So we’re back where we started.

However, there are some instances that are so naked in the governments’ support for its own power in opposition to public opinion that I can’t see how it can be explained away.  The prison on Guantanamo continues to hold hundreds of prisoners without giving them access to fair trial.  Maybe they’re all terrorists.  Well, some of them are actually widely held to be completely innocent.  Obama’s promise to close Guantanamo within one year of becoming president was one of his most popular claims, and yet he has completely reversed on this.  Obama has consistently (and so obviously self-servingly) called his administration the most transparent and accountable in American history, yet he has repeatedly threatened to veto any bill that allows the most minimal scrap of congressional oversight of his intelligence programs.

I’m largely rehashing here what I’ve written here before and I know it’s probably less interesting to many of you than other topics I write about, but I feel this kind of stuff needs to be said on a regular basis.