Is the “Fight of the Century” Really About Class Warfare?

This was first published on the Anarres site on May 3, 2015

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I didn’t watch last night’s fight (although I did talk about it with a bunch of my neighbors on the street while walking my dogs). I could have watched it for $25 at the soul food place at the end of my block (with some food included), but the thought of giving these billionaires even more money turned me off completely.

Are Mayweather and Paquiao great boxers but bad men? That’s one question to ask, but I think it’s more interesting to consider the relationship between this billion-dollar super spectacle and the fate of athleticism and health generally.

The picture sours immediately if you view it in that light. The “fight of the century” becomes a means for the upward distribution of wealth and promoting a passive relationship to physical activity. Most of the people in my neighborhood had detailed views on who was going to win and why (so did I), but most are growing poorer by the day and couldn’t run around the block, are overweight, and probably have diabetes and other ailments. There’s a relationship between these things.

~ Chuck Morse

The Mission Heirloom Café: Hippies, Cavemen, and Capitalism

IMG_0334Berkeley’s food culture is notoriously overwrought and politicized, but some of this is an echo of the hippie food movements that shook the city in the 1960s. The hippies transformed how we eat when they advocated for a diet of natural foods and an activist approach to cuisine. For them, eating was a relational activity and could be a tool for social change. They forged what historians now call a “counter-cuisine.”

Their legacy made last year’s opening of the Mission Heirloom Café particularly interesting to me. As the area’s only “paleo” restaurant, it relies on the hippie food outlook but breaks with it in pivotal ways. I went to check it out last week with a friend.

The hippie food movement still lives in Berkeley’s “Gourmet Ghetto.” As we walked toward the restaurant, we first passed Alice Walker’s luminous Chez Panisse. Though its prices now put it beyond the reach of ordinary mortals, it pioneered the application of countercultural values to food, with an emphasis on seasonal cooking and local, organic ingredients. We then navigated the crowds waiting for pizza outside of the Cheese Board Collective, a worker-owned business in its forty-fifth year.

The tone changed when we reached the Mission Heirloom Café. Its façade is a wall of plate glass windows framed by steel and painted stucco. The entrance leads you to the main counter, where there is more glass, and then to the central eating area in the back patio. Organized around a long table set underneath an enormous steel and glass pergola, its landscaping has a minimalist, quasi-Asian feel. I noted clubby world music pulsing in the background as I browsed paleo-friendly books and packaged goods for sale throughout the establishment. I felt like I could have been in an Apple Store, although there were gestures to offset the chilly corporate aesthetic. The wait staff greeted us with big smiles, as if we were friends, and old wooden crates lay around the business, suggesting that we had entered a warehouse or some site in which commodities magically travel from “farm to table” (sidestepping the capitalist market). Mexican-style wool blankets rested on the wire chairs—lacking price tags, we could borrow these should we need them. An entire wall had been made into a chalk board and bore traces of half-erased scribbles—there was no chalk, but this conveyed a spirt of informality and flexibility. Continue reading

The Development Without Displacement Report: Some Strengths and Shortcomings

This first appeared on the Project Oakland blog on April 25, 2014.

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1Social discord tends to get people writing. Books and essays become especially vital tools when the world seems out of order and doesn’t work in the way that you think it should.

Indeed, the housing crisis in the Bay Area has unleashed a torrent of writing on housing costs, displacement, and changes in local culture. It seems like new articles on these issues appear daily, if not more frequently. A lot of the work is forgettable, some of it is pretty great, and all of it enriches the massive discussion that we are having throughout the region about how our lives, homes, and the economy interact.

The recent publication of Development Without Displacement: Resisting Gentrification in the Bay Area is a landmark in the maturation of this dialogue. Produced by Causa Justa / Just Cause with help from the Alameda County Public Health Department, it sets a new standard for reflection on gentrification. Attractively packaged in a glossy, four-color binder, it is well-written, thoroughly documented, and full of instructive, compelling graphics. It sets out to explain what gentrification is, how it operates locally, and what can be done to stop it. It is the most comprehensive, insightful treatment of gentrification in the Bay Area to date and will likely serve as a key reference for people grappling with the issue in the years to come.

Like any text, it has strengths and weaknesses. In the interest of encouraging dialogue about it, I will note three of each below.

Three Strengths

  • It portrays gentrification as a social process and, by doing so, breaks with the highly individualistic approach to the subject that is so common among Bay Area leftists. That is, a lot of the discourse about gentrification looks like this: first you identify the “gentrifiers,” then you counterpose them to the authentic “community,” and then you agonize over how these two groups relate to one another. Are the “gentrifiers” being arrogant or insensitive? Should the “community” actually welcome them? And how exactly do you distinguish a real “gentrifier” from a real “community” member anyway? Who gets to decide? Questions such as these drive much of the dialogue about the topic locally. Focused on existential matters of identity, they trigger lots of posturing and handwringing but have little relevance to housing justice. Fortunately, Development Without Displacement dispenses with this approach altogether by zeroing in on the economic forces and government policies that make gentrification possible.

Continue reading

SPUR comes to Oakland: expect three things

Originally posted on the Project Oakland blog on November 17, 2015

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The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association—or SPUR—will open its Oakland branch at 1544 Broadway this December. SPUR has had a huge influence on San Francisco’s politics over the years and will probably have a big effect in Oakland too.

What can we expect?

Dr. Robert Ogilvie, director of Oakland SPUR

SPUR’s mission is to promote “good planning and good government in the San Francisco Bay Area.” To them, this means championing government policies focused on ensuring a dynamic and stable capitalist economy in the region. They pursue apparently “progressive” goals like “transit oriented development” (think: bike lanes) and resist things like strong unions or other assertions of working class power. Made up mainly of planners, architects, academics, lawyers, and real estate people, SPUR advances its agenda through research, education, and advocacy— reports, ballot recommendations, and public forums on development issues. They have already released a study on downtown Oakland and have begun holding regular talks.

I suspect that they will impact Oakland in the following three ways:

First, SPUR will shake up the dominant political class. SPUR’s people are professionals who specialize in being professional—their fancy reports and declarations are usually coherent, well-argued, and fact-based (even when wrong politically). As such, they will put pressure on Oakland’s politicians, who have gotten away with loads of buffoonery for decades. Thanks to SPUR, we will be less likely to see things like Jean Quan’s totally invented “100 block” crime plan, Rebecca Kaplan’s vapid cheerleading for the Raiders stadium, or Mayor Schaaf’s ridiculous ban on nighttime protests. Continue reading

Progressive Urbanism and its Discontents in Oakland

This post first appeared on Project Oakland on September 5, 2012.

From Blacks to Brown and Beyond: The Struggle for Progressive
Politics in Oakland, California, 1966–2011
by Robert Stanley Oden
Cognella Academic, June 2012, 352 pages

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Oakland’s recent history is rich in contradictions. When voters elected Lionel Wilson—the city’s first Black and Democratic mayor—in 1977, they took a decisive step in the ouster of the white, Republican, pro-business regime that had run Oakland as an exemplar of American municipal apartheid for decades. Wilson’s ascendency was part of a vast transformation in the composition of local political elites, who now largely reflect the political and racial background of the population that they govern. Indeed, since then, most of Oakland’s mayors have been “minorities,” all have been Democrats, and several have had roots in social movements. Similar claims can be made about those who have occupied the posts of City Manager, Chief of Police, Economic Development Director, and Port Director, to cite only the most significant positions. In many respects, there was a revolution in city affairs, one that we can analogize, with some justice, to the 1994 defeat of apartheid in South Africa.

And yet, despite these momentous changes, the city has been and remains a site of profound inequality, bitter racial hierarchies, state violence, and environmental breakdown. Although people of color and Democrats sit in every level of local government, Oakland is a profoundly brutal, unfair, unjust, and crisis-ridden place.

How is this possible? To answer this question, and work our way toward a more comprehensive emancipatory politics, we must explore how such apparently antithetical processes could unfold simultaneously in the course of the city’s history. And this is why the recent publication of Robert Oden’s Blacks to Brown and Beyond is an event to celebrate. Despite some weakness, it has much to offer this inquiry and will hopefully become a point of reference for Oakland activists. Continue reading

Interview with Chuck Morse by the Anarres Projects for Alternative Futures

This interview with Anarres Project for Alternative Futures was published on October 14, 2014. It is here.

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Chuck Morse is an American anarchist, academic, translator, editor, and writer. He founded the Institute for Anarchist Studies and The New Formulation: An Anti-Authoritarian Review of Books. Morse was the editor of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory and taught at theInstitute for Social Ecology.

In 2006, Morse completed a translation of the classic biography of the revolutionary Buenaventura Durruti by Abel Paz, titled Durruti in the Spanish Revolution, published by AK Press. In 2007, he published “Being a Bookchinite,” a controversial account of the years he spent working with American anarchist, Murray Bookchin. In 2010, he completed a translation of Juan Suriano’s Paradoxes of Utopia: Anarchist Culture and Politics in Buenos Aires, 1890–1910, also published by AK Press. He has published widely in leftwing journals and blogs. (Source: Wikipedia)

How did you come to anarchism as a viewpoint that made sense of the world for you?

I was born in 1969 and came of age at a time when the white, American middle class was consumed by existential doubts about its place in the social order and its future. Although my family was very staid and restrained, with an attitude rooted more in the 1950s than the 1960s, I vividly remember the eruption of things like yoga, jogging, EST, and encounter groups (etcetera) into my white, suburban world. These practices, which emerged from the counterculture and later became mainstream, helped people address anxieties about their identities and how they fit into a larger context.

Anarchism helped me address some of these issues. Filtered through the lens of punk rock, it gave me a vocabulary with which to connect personal feelings of alienation to larger social processes, and it did so without the saccharine boundarylessness characteristic of the trends that I just described. Its insistence that ends and means should coincide resonated with the New Left idea that the “personal is political.” While I now see that my “anarchism” had more in common with democratic strains borne of the New Left than the classical anarchism of a Bakunin or a Kropotkin, it helped me place my experience in a broader framework and offered me tools with which to engage it.

Can you talk about what lead you to develop the Institute for Anarchist Studies? What were your hopes with this institute?

I founded the Institute for Anarchists Studies in 1996, during the early stages of what was an explosion of intellectual work by anarchists and about anarchism. I had been involved in the anarchist movement since 1982 and, at the time, was a frustrated graduate student in the philosophy department at the New School for Social Research. I really hated academia and desperately wanted to link my intellectual pursuits to a broader community of engaged, radical scholars. Continue reading

Gentrification, colonialism, and bugs? The Calavera restaurant in Oakland

Photo credit: Calavera

It was a big deal when Calavera opened last August. It is Oakland’s only high-end Mexican restaurant and one of the few in the region to specialize in Oaxacan cuisine, which is world famous for its complexity and pre-Hispanic elements.

Also, as an anchor tenant of The Hive, Signature Development’s new live-work complex in “Uptown,” its launch was a vote of confidence in the gentrification of the area—signaling that people with money expect it to remain a place for people with money. Even more interestingly, the restaurant engages major traumas in the city’s history: although it is often considered a Black city, its lands were once Mexican and Indigenous before that. To serve Oaxacan food in Oakland is to evoke these chapters in its past as well as the brutal colonization that closed them.

I had these issues in mind when a friend and I visited Calavera last Saturday. How did it navigate them? Did it do so while tasting good?

The Scene
The restaurant was nearly full when we arrived at 6:00 PM. The hostess whisked us to our table and our waitress greeted us immediately thereafter. Both had the hip, casual-cool style typical of Bay Area food service workers, who are expected to perform physically demanding labor and also to be cosmopolitan. The staff looked mostly white to me; the bus boys being the only obvious Latin Americans among them. The clientele seemed like well-paid professionals, largely but not exclusively white. I did not hear any Spanish spoken. Continue reading

Review: Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin by Janet Biehl

Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin
Janet Biehl
Oxford University Press, 2015

This book review first appeared in Perspectives on Anarchist Theory
on November 23, 2015

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Murray Bookchin was a pivotal, polarizing figure in the post-WWII history of anarchism. He put ecology and democracy on the anarchist agenda in a way that was as novel as it is enduring. As a polemicist, he spent decades at the center of crucial debates about history, strategy, and foundational ideals. Even his critics must acknowledge that he made major contributions to the growth and clarification of the anarchist perspective.

Something shifted in the movement when he died in 2006. For the preceding fifty years, his writings had been a point of reference through which we could clarify our views, even when we disagreed with them, whereas now that he was gone we had to make sense of him. Who was he and how had he lived? These are compelling questions for those who had worked with him and for anyone who wants to understand contemporary anarchism.

Janet Biehl’s Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin (Oxford University Press, 2015) will help us here. The first (and probably last) biography of Bookchin, it is well-written, exhaustively documented, and invites readers to traverse the full arc of his life, from his earliest days in New York City to his last in Burlington, Vermont. But it is more than a biography. Biehl was Bookchin’s lover, collaborator, editor, researcher, advocate, and (finally) nurse for two decades and this text is also a memoir of their time together.

Ecology or Catastrophe tells a tragic story. Biehl portrays Bookchin as an irrepressible, profoundly creative and intelligent man who threw himself wholly into radical movements, set out to untangle some of history’s most challenging problems, but who ended his days feeling isolated, abandoned, and despairing.

Biehl narrates his life through his participation in the revolutionary Left—swinging back and forth from a depiction of the Left broadly to his response to it. His political history begins in New York City in 1930 when the precocious nine-year-old Bookchin joined a Communist Party youth group. The international communist movement was very much a mass, revolutionary movement at the time and his experience within it left a permanent imprint upon his political identity. It was emotionally important for him too. Biehl says that the Communists helped him compensate for his dysfunctional family (a physically absent father and emotionally absent mother). They “rescued Murray,” she says, “by becoming his surrogate parents. . . . They educated him . . . [and] provided him with stability and validation.”(7) Continue reading

Sam Mbah (mini biography)

(First published in Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Vol. 3 – No. 1 Spring, 1999)

Born in 1963 in Enugu, Nigeria, Sam Mbah embraced anarchism shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union while studying at the University of Lagos. Like many radicals, he entered a period of deep politi cal reflection after the break down of the Eastern Block, one that prompted him to re examine his previous Marxist commitments and ultimately led him to the anti-statist, anti-capitalist politics that is anarchism. North American publications such as The Torch and Love and Rage were especially important to this process.

Mbah currently makes his living as the Lagos correspondent for Enugu’s Daily Star newspaper. He is also very active in the Awareness League, an anarchist organization committed to the libertarian transformation of Nigeria. The Awareness League is active in political education, various social campaigns, and environmental protection. It presently has 600 members and eleven branches throughout the country.

Mbah and I.E. Igariwey (the co-author of African Anarchism) ore currently working on their next book. This will be an anarchist critique of military dictatorship in Africa, which they intend to complete by the end of 1999 (see page 1).

Mbah sites two Nigerians when asked to recommend other African authors he finds particularly sympathetic to anarchism: Ikenna Nzimiro and the late Mokwugo Okoye.

You can contact the Awareness League at: AL, POB 1920, Enugu State, Nigeria

(by Chuck Morse)

 

African Anarchism: Interview with Sam Mbah

(Published in Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Vol. 3 – No. 1 Spring, 1999)

3africananarchismAfrican Anarchism: The History of a Movement (See Sharp Press, 1997) by Sam Mbah and I.E. Igariwey is the first book-length treatment of anarchism and Africa. The authors argue that anarchism provides a coherent framework with which to comprehend and respond to the multiple crises afflicting the continent. I met with Mbah on November 4, 1998 at the beginning of his North American speaking tour. ~ Chuck Morse

You state that “the overall tendency in the development of human society has been toward social equality and greater individual freedom.” Do you share Marx’s belief that capitalism is a progressive development in world- history and a necessary precondition of more adequate social forms?

The Marxist position is not completely accurate. Capitalism was a progressive development during its own epoch: it provided the grounds for the radicalization of the working class, which was not possible under feudalism and definitely a step ahead. It was based on this that the struggle against capitalism and the state-system intensified. How ever, I do not think every country or society must pass through this process or that capitalism is a precondition for human progress or development.

I also do not think that human history is predictable or can be tied to sequences developed by historians and writers. I believe that the capacity of ordinary people in a given society is so great that it can almost propel them to take destiny into their own hands at any point in time. It does not have to wait until capitalist development has taken root or the working class has been formed. The peasantry, for example, can also take destiny in their own hands if their consciousness is raised to a certain level. I do not believe in the compartmentalization of history into stages: I believe in the capacity of the ordinary people to struggle on their own and free themselves at any point in time.

Your book is grounded in anarcho- syndicalism, a tradition derived primarily from European historical experiences. What distinctive contributions can the African experience make to anarchism as a whole?

We attempted to point this out in our book. Although anarchism is not complete without the Western European contributions, we believe there are elements of African traditional societies that can be of assistance in elaborating anarchist ideas.

One of these is the self-help, mutual aid, or cooperative tradition that is prevalent in African society. This society is structured such that there is reduced individualism and a collective approach toward solving problems and living life: reduced to its essence, I think that is what anarchism is preaching.

African traditional societies also offer some things we should learn from. For example, leadership—especially in societies where feudalism (and thus chiefdoms) did not develop—was horizontal and diffused, not vertical. Almost everybody in a given community or village took part in decision-making and had a say in anything that involved them. Even the elders would ordinarily not declare a war against the next village except if there was a consensus, which was really the binding force of African society. Also, the extended family system, in which your nephew could come live with you and your wife, is definitely something we recommend to anarchism. So, these are areas in which we think that African ideas could also be incorporated into anarchism. These ideas are enduring, almost in human nature as far as Africa is concerned.

The inability to combine a coherent critique of the state and capitalism with a critique of racism has exacted an enormous toll on anarchism. In what sense must an analysis of racism and white supremacy complement a class analysis?

The capitalist system we inherited thrives on the exploitation of workers and other non-dominant classes and also exploits racial differences. It has instituted a permanent racial dichotomy among workers, where there is a group of privileged workers and another, not so privileged group. There is a double exploitation: an exploitation of the working class in general and an even greater exploitation of the non-white working class. This was not properly addressed even by Marxism, because it assumed a unity of interests among the working class without reference to the specific kinds of exploitation and deprivation faced by workers.

Racism is a key factor in this world and any working class analysis that seeks to deny this is only being escapist. Racism is simply endemic in capitalism.

It is for workers to comprehend this, as a basis for unity within their own ranks and to move forward. This must be recognized by anarchist activists and social movements, so as to integrate blacks and whites to face a common enemy, which is capitalism and the social relations of production that it put in place.

~