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.

~

Insurgent Mexico

(From The New Formulation, June, 2002)

Review by Chuck Morse

Mexico under Siege: Popular Resistance to Presidential Despotism By Ross Gandy and Donald Hodges London: Zed Books, 2002

Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico By Bill Weinberg New York: Verso, 2000

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Everyone knows that Mexico has a long and vibrant revolutionary tradition. This fact is easy to discover, whether you read Wall Street preoccupations about Chiapas or crack open any given left-wing magazine.

What is more challenging is to understand the inner logic of the tradition, both historically and in its contemporary manifestations. It is also essential: U.S. activists need to develop a substantive grasp of this tradition to build meaningful alliances with comrades south of the border as well as a movement in the United States that embodies the best aspects of the political traditions brought by the millions of Mexican immigrants.

Ross Gandy and Donald Hodges’s Mexico under Siege: Popular Resistance to Presidential Despotism and Bill Weinberg’s Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico provide excellent points of entry into this topic. Both books offer a comprehensive introduction to the Mexican revolutionary tradition and thus should be read by all U.S. activists seeking to develop a more international perspective. Their problems are also helpful because they indicate some of the difficulties we will face while envisioning a revolutionary movement in the Americas. These books should be especially attractive to anarchists given that the authors all share a genuine connection to the anarchist tradition. Weinberg is a longtime participant in New York’s anti-authoritarian milieu, and Gandy and Hodges have their own links to the movement; for example, Hodges is the author of Mexican Anarchism after the Revolution (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995), and Gandy describes himself as a participant in anarchist collectives (among other things) in the “About the Authors” section of Mexico under Siege.

Mexico under Siege: Popular Resistance to Presidential Despotism

Mexico under Siege chronicles the popular opposition to the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), the party that governed Mexico through a web of violence, corruption, and deceit for seventy years under the pretense of democracy. (This mix of authoritarianism and democratic fiction led Mario Vargas Llosa to label the PRI’s Mexico as the “perfect dictatorship.”(1)) Mexico under Siege can be read profitably as a companion to Gandy and Hodges’s Mexico, the End of the Revolution (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002), which analyzes the course of the Mexican Revolution from its beginning in 1910 to its disappearance from the political scene as marked by Vicente Fox’s election in 2000. Continue reading

The White Bicycle

[Originally published on December 14, 2007]

Today, white bicycles are used to designate the site of a fatal collision between an automobile and a cyclist. For example, the one in the photo to the right identified the place where a hit-and-run driver mowed down Jen Shao, a 65 year-old grandmother, in New York City’s financial district in 2005. Memorials such as these are sadly a common sight in American cities, if not elsewhere. Their colorlessness suggests the grief one feels when the world is drained of a loved one’s flesh and blood and, by disrupting the conventional iconography of the city, they register a protest against the irrationality of our transportation practices. They express outrage, sadness, and loss.

However, the white bike had a very different meaning in the 1960s and 1970s, thanks specifically to the Provos and their anarchist adventurism. At that time, it was a counter-cultural icon that conveyed adventure, defiance, and fun. One can see this in the following three music videos, which also document a curious example of anarchist influence on popular culture.

The psychedelic rock group Tomorrow recorded the following song in 1968 under the inspiration of the Provos:

Nazareth plays their cover of the Tomorrow song:

A snippet of Caterina Caselli’s “Le biciclette bianche” (1967):

The Dutch Provos: Burlesque Neo-Liberals or Anarchist Utopians?

[Published on December 14, 2007]

In the mid-1960s, a loose band of artists, hippies, and anarchists burst onto the political stage in the Netherlands. Known as the Provos (as in to provoke), they led a mini-rebellion against the established order that rattled elites and left behind an inspired legacy of anti-authoritarian activism.

Richard Kempton documents this legacy in his recently released, Provo: Amsterdam’s Anarchist Revolt, the first book-length history of the group in English. He traces the emergence, highpoints, and decline of the Provos, in addition to providing tangential but interesting appendices on topics such as the relationship between the Provos and the Situationists, the history of anarchism in Amsterdam, and others. He does a good job at placing the group in the context of the radical currents from which it emerged and at relating the Provos’ trajectory to some of the political peculiarities of the Netherlands. While a deeper examination of the group’s ideas and internal organization would have enriched the book, I found it to be thoughtful, informative, and fun to read. (For a quick introduction to the Provos, you may wish to check out this article as well as this one.)

Kempton illustrates the Provos’ extraordinary ability to expose the contradictions of the liberal democratic society in which they lived while making authorities look absurd in the process. Of their many feats that he records, their “White Bicycle Plan” is surely the most famous. It began as a response to the traffic jams and air pollution plaguing Amsterdam: instead of passively accepting the automobile’s toxic domination of urban life, the Provos pressed the municipal government to give out vast numbers of unlockable, white bikes throughout the city. These cycles–easily identifiable due to their color–would be available to any passerby who felt like riding one. He or she could take it to his or her destination but, once there, would be obliged to leave it for other citizens. This ingenious plan was clearly a sensible, low-cost, and environmentally friendly way to meet at least some of Amsterdam’s transportation needs.

The Provos distributed fifty bikes at their own expense to jump start the program but immediately ran into problems with the police, who objected to their attempt to socialize the means of transportation. In fact, the cops impounded the bikes furnished by the Provos on the pretext that doling out unlocked bicycles “encouraged theft.” In other words, they took bicycles to prevent them from being taken!

The Provos were naturally delighted to find the police offering Amsterdamers such a concrete lesson in the bankruptcy of the criminal justice system: thanks to their unintentional complicity in the Provos’ scheme, the city became a classroom in which attentive residents could learn a lesson normally buried in obscure anarchist pamphlets and disquisitions: the cops’ primary objective is not to serve the people but rather to protect the status quo, no matter how noxious and irrational it might be.

The “White Bicycle Plan” was one among multiple Provo “plans,” all designed to push people toward cooperative, ecological solutions while undermining the legitimacy of the established order. They outlined many of these in a brochure entitled What the Provos Want , which they released in 1966, shortly before successfully competing for a seat on Amsterdam’s City Council (“Vote Provo for a Laugh!” was one of their campaign slogans). Kempton summarizes key points:

* The White Bicycle Plan: In an effort to address traffic congestion in the center of the city, white bicycles would become the common property of all the people of Amsterdam. Automobiles would be excluded from the center of the city.

* The White Chimney Plan: A mandate that chimneys have special built-in incinerators to combat air pollution; with fines for infractions.

* The White Chicken Plan: Amsterdam’s police force should be recast as unarmed friendly social workers with candy and band-aids in their pockets.

* The White Dwelling Plan: In an effort to ease the city’s housing shortage the city government would publish a weekly list of empty buildings so people without homes could squat them.

* The White Wives Plan: Developed by Irene Donner-Van der Wetering, this plan called for sex education for young people. Among other things it mandated information on contraception, medical clinics for young girls, and teaching family planning.

* The White Schools Plan: Students would have a say in expanding opportunities for democratically organized study and discussion.

* The White City Plan: Amsterdam would become the first urban area committed to implementing Constant Nieuwenhuis’s New Babylon.(1)

After reading these “plans,” I found myself surprised to realize that today, approximately forty years later, many of their demands (“plans”) have become non-controversial elements of mainstream social policy. For example, numerous cities have experimented with free bicycle programs (such as Portland, Madison, and Barcelona), and bike paths and restrictions on vehicular traffic are common in American cities. Likewise, controls on air pollution are pervasive; young people often receive some degree of sex education; and students frequently play a role in setting academic policy at the college and sometimes high school level. Obviously, aspects of their program remain unrealized–I know of no city that publishes lists of squatable buildings, for instance–but, nonetheless, much of the Provo platform has lost its controversial, provocative quality.

This raises a difficult question about the meaning of the Provos’ legacy. What if the Provos (and corresponding groups like the Yippies in the United States) ultimately need to be understood less as anarchist instigators than as the avant-garde of a more lenient, culturally flexible, and ecologically friendly capitalism? While it’s true that they set stodgy authorities into a frenzy four decades ago, it may be that those authorities were simply anachronistic obstacles and that the Provos actually helped modernize capitalism by undermining their legitimacy.

Issues such as these are beyond the scope of Kempton’s book and, for that matter, most works on the history of anarchism. However, I believe that they are worth pursuing and I hope that the publication of this long overdue book on the Provos indicates that a more serious, complicated engagement with our past is on the horizon.

1. Richard Kempton, Provo: Amsterdam’s Anarchist Revolt (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2007), 81.