Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Fred Ho as Revolutionary Theorist

Speech by Quincy Saul from Fred Ho's memorial service at BAM Cafe, October 4, 2014

For the last four years of my life, Fred Ho was my mentor, manager, collaborator, comrade, and friend. Together we organized dozens of events, published three books, and co-produced an album. I studied music and politics with him, and we worked together to build organizations and campaigns toward the creative revolution to which he dedicated his life. A couple months before he passed, Fred planned his own memorial, in which he asked me to speak about “Fred Ho as Revolutionary Theorist.”

Our world has lost a master in the realm of revolutionary theory. In this context, I would like to recall the words of Mao Tse Tung, written for the memorial service of comrade Chang Szu-Teh; “All men must die, but death can vary in its significance. The ancient Chinese writer Szuma Chien said “Though death befalls all men alike, it may be heavier than Mt. Tai or lighter than a feather.” From the perspective of the development of revolutionary theory, Fred's death is heavier than Mt. Tai. 
Fred knew that not only is there no revolutionary practice without revolutionary theory, but that that the victory is won in the mind before it is won on the battlefield. Theory for him was not an armchair pastime or an academic career, but a concrete material practice of changing reality. He proved this to all of us and to the world when he developed a strategy based on Sun Tzu's Art of War and Bruce Lee's Jeet Kune Do to outmaneuver and outsmart the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, getting Russell Maroon Shoatz released from solitary confinement in the time of two years, which many if not most believed was impossible.

But what does it all mean, six months after Fred's death? We live in the matrix, and it's easy to forget the meaning of Fred's life and theory. It's easy to get distracted, by the information age, by the culture industry, and by our cell phones, which Fred rightly insisted, are not tools but dependency crutches for the incompetent. “A leaf before the eye shuts out Mt. Tai.” We're here tonight to keep our eyes on the prize.

Fred gave me this advice for public speaking: Never seek approval of the audience. Throw Molotov cocktails. Niceness is blandness. Show up to a meeting like you would show up to a fight. So in that spirit, rather than a comfortable eulogy of Fred as a scholar/intellectual, I offer some distilled theses from the revolutionary theory of Fred Ho:

  1. Fred was killed by capitalism. Cancer and capitalism are the same accelerative malignant process. The only cure for cancer is the wholesale destruction of the capitalist matrix, and its replacement by a revolutionary luddite confederation of ecosocialist maroon societies. Until we achieve this, cancer will continue to murder the strongest and brightest of us.
  2. Your socialism is obsolete and toxic. The project of socialism premised on the unfettered development of the productive forces; the inevitability of Eurocentrism, industrialism and techno-centrism, is a recapitulation of manifest destiny. We have to shut the door on the 20th century, to open the door to a 21st century indigenous-centric cosmovision and mode of existence, an anti-manifest destiny marxism.
  3. Your art is boring! From the stultifying hegemony of 4/4 time and the diatonic scale, to unimaginative fashion, from the mass manufactured mediocrity of commercial pop to the high brow mediocrity of Jazz at Lincoln Center, boring boring boring.
  4. We live in the reign of the regurgitators, in music and in politics. They must be toppled. Including and especially those who regurgitate Fred Ho. The movement is full of lazies, crazies, and flakies. In the face of this, mediocrity and complacency are as toxic as oppression. Innovation is our responsibility.
  5. Cadrification is the key to everything. All you petite-bourgeois radical intellectuals out there are liberals in practice, unless you are concretely building revolutionary organizations and developing new revolutionary leaders.
  6. We are at war. Don't let the matrix fool you. Not just in Syria, but on the cellular level. If you don't understand that we're at war, then you're faking the funk.
  7. We are at war with patriarchy and national oppression. It's not enough to be anti-racist and anti-sexist! What are you for?! You have to be for national liberation – for the reclamation of land – and for matriarchy – the original communism and the return to the producers of the products of their labor. If you're a man or from an oppressor nation, it's not enough to be an “ally”: you have to become a maroon.
  8. The accumulation of reforms does not take us closer to revolution, but draws us further away from it, deepening our colonization to the matrix of modernity. Don't rebuild the welfare state, dismantle the empire! Put revolution front and center in your life and the impossible will become inevitable.
  9. Play 5 octaves, and beyond! Perform and prefigure beyond conventional limits and standards. Insist on the highest standards, and surpass them.
  10. Music is a political practice, whether in the heights of shamanic contemplation and spirit possession, or in the material practice of building an independent means of cultural production, or in bandleading as an allegory and cross-training for armed struggle.

A friend of mine once asked Fred, “what motivates you?” As always, he was immediately ready with an answer: “2 things,” he responded: “Hatred of the empire, and love for the better world that we hear prefigured in music.”

I once sat in on a rehearsal of Fred's big band as they were preparing to record “The Sweet Science Suite.” When the band struggled with a very difficult section, Fred cut them off. “Stop reading!” he demanded, “This isn't preschool anymore. This is about telepathy.” He counted off again and this time around they made it through. “Much better,” Fred praised the band: “next we'll join the extra-terrestrials.”

I have no doubt that Fred is with them now. If he could send us a message by ansible from whatever aquatic planet he is exploring in a distant solar system, I think this is what he might say:

The whole world is just a hair's breadth from something completely different. The only limits are the limits of your imagination. Free your mind and your ass will follow. It is right to rebel.  

¡Planeta o Muerte, Venceremos!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Reflections and Review

July 4, 2012

Like the shock wave of an explosion, the coming catastrophes of global climate change empty the current world of meaning, of purpose, of poetry. Standing in Columbus circle in Manhattan after seeing this visionary film at the Lincoln Cinema, surrounded by the metropolitan beacons of this global ecocide, there is no air to breathe; it has been forced out by the shock wave of the coming storms. What light can we find for anything in the shadow of the end of everything we know? Perhaps Nero was right to play the fiddle; the most conscientious and skillful statesman could not have prevented the fall of Rome.

What is to be done before everything is undone?

The prevention of catastrophic climate change would require the most industrialized nations in the world to immediately reduce their economies, as measured in GDP, by 80 to 90%, within the next three years. This is the price for achieving a carbon emissions peak in 2015, which is the minimum necessary to prevent a catastrophic 4 to 7 degree Celsius warming by the end of the century.

This accomplished, Mother Nature would not put on a spectacular show and say thank you. People would have to simply accept and adapt to the dire necessity that the capitalist industrial system and all its amenities can never ever return again.

What possible scenario could result in this miraculous feat; the greatest collective action, in quantity and quality, ever conceived in human history? By definition none of the existing political structures could accommodate this scale of transformation. A priori it would have to be a people's revolution.

But will they do it? Will the self defined First Worlders collectively struggle and sacrifice in order to ration, to collectivize, to transform (and by their definition “reduce”) their cherished “standard of living” to one in balance with all their fellow beings, human and non human? Will they do it in the next three to five years? Will they overthrow not only their nationalist, classist, racist and sexist attitudes and institutions, but also their anthropocentric hubris? Will they turn off the coal plants (for a start) and start to ration electricity in the cities? Will they shut down factory farms and agribusiness? Moreover, will the workers in polluting industries lead the struggles to end these industries, and make the necessary sacrifices?

Alas, it would be foolish to assess it as anything other than extremely unlikely. The revolutionary political groups of the USA in particular are immature, scattered and confused, not to mention severely lacking in ecological consciousness. Perhaps they have a chance in the long term, but certainly not within the next three to five years. The picture is better in Europe, but not by much! The movements are not to be disparaged, of course they must be encouraged and supported wholeheartedly! But also assessed. And it's not looking good. We have barely begun to understand the corrupting and and corrosive force of capitalism on consciousness and so-called subjective conditions, which has saturated the so-called advanced and developed world for centuries.

So here we are in the shock wave of apocalypse. We cannot solve the current crisis by avoiding looking at it in the face, as so many do, learning the awful facts only to hide them away in an unused corner of their minds, together with guilty fantasies and advertising jingles. We must be ruthlessly honest in preparation for ruthless conditions. We must recognize the central organizing force of this apocalypse as capitalism, and understand the holistic immensity of its deadliness. We also cannot avoid looking ourselves in the face, and assess the extent to which we are unprepared and uncommitted to the necessary revolutionary transformation. (The extreme degree of our collective lack of preparation is evidenced by the fact that not a single one of the raving reviews of this film in popular media organs even mention climate change!)

With apocalypse comes revelation. They are the same word in Greek. Yet in the so-called First World we are far more familiar and comfortable with apocalypse than with revelation. It is easier to close our eyes and cry in the smoke than to summon the vision to see through it.

Like Marx said of revolution in North America, awareness of this apocalypse and revelation “appear only as vanishing moments,” in films like this one, easily enough forgotten and buried by the culture industry, lost in the raucous rush of cosmopolitan consumption, or simply immobilized in the shock wave of its own story.

What room is there for politics in this shock wave? Perhaps even more than politics, what is needed is prophecy. To see beyond the event horizon of the shock wave, into and through the coming explosion, and beyond... to speak to the future, to prepare the ground for its transformation. This seems at the moment more important and lasting than debating the sand castles of party lines while the waters rise.

This vision is not hopeful or optimistic, but it has the virtue of being at least honest. And in honesty there is meaning. It is this honesty that gives the fictional characters and plot of this film more meaning than the prevarication that is 99% of the culture industry, it is this meaning which forces this industry to acknowledge this film's high quality (even as they ignore and deny its implications), and it is this honesty alone which can give our lives meaning in this grotesquely unique period of planetary history.

Welcome to the real which is not yet a desert or under water. As Werner Herzog in his most recent film The Cave of Forgotten Dreams compared humanity in our current planetary moment to mutant albino crocodiles, in Beasts of the Southern Wild we are compared and contrasted to the Aurochs, driven to extinction by climate change. Whatever our long-term future, the whole species is at stake, and our path and choice are clear enough: apocalypse and revelation; prophecy or prevarication. 


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Like a Dull Knife: The People's Climate Farce

by Quincy Saul

(This article first appeared on Truthout on September 16, 2014)

On the eve of what is being advertised as "the biggest climate march in history," we might reflect on Malcolm X's experience of the March on Washington, as recounted in the Autobiography of Malcolm X:
"'Farce in Washington', I call it. . . . It was like a movie. . . . For the status-seeker, it was a status symbol. "Were you there?". . . . It had become an outing, a picnic. . . . What originally was planned to be an angry riptide, one English newspaper aptly described now as "the gentle flood". . . . there wasn't a single logistics aspect uncontrolled. . . . They had been told how to arrive, when, where to arrive, where to assemble, when to start marching, the route to march. . . . Yes, I was there. I observed that circus."
Of course, not everyone present concurred with Malcolm X about the March on Washington - and even in a top-down format, one hopes the upcoming march could draw much-needed attention to the climate movement. The question is: At what cost? In this vein, what follows are a few reflections on the buildup to the September 21 People's Climate March in New York City, to provide some concrete analysis of concrete conditions, and propose some solutions.


The climate justice movement has an expiration date. If the tipping points in the earth system are passed, and the feedback loops begin their vicious cycle, human attempts at mitigation will be futile, and climate justice will become an anachronism - or at worst a slogan for geo-engineering lobbies. Thousands of scientists have come to consensus on this point, and many years ago gave us a deadline: A carbon emissions peak in 2015 followed by rapid and permanent decline.

In other words, we have roughly four months to work for climate justice. The world is literally at stake; all life on earth is at risk. Never has there been a more urgent or comprehensive mandate.

Even the guardians and gatekeepers of the ruling class, from politicians to scientists, are forthcoming on this point. Listen to Al Gore: "I can't understand why there aren't rings of young people blocking bulldozers, and preventing them from constructing coal-fired power plants." He said that in 2007. It is in this context that we must seek to better understand and analyze the People's Climate March.

"An Invitation to Change Everything"

The People's Climate March has a powerful slogan. It has world-class publicity. But the desire to bring the biggest possible number of people to the march has trumped all other considerations. The results are devastating:

No Target: The march is a U-turn through Times Square, beginning at a monument to genocide (Columbus Circle) and ending . . . in the middle of nowhere. Here in New York City where the ruling class of the whole world has made their diverse headquarters, the march will target none of them. The march will not even go near the United Nations, its ostensible symbolic target.

No Timing: The United Nations will convene leading figures from all over the world - several days after the march. The march does not coincide with anything, contemporary or historic.

No Demands: Again, to attract the largest number of people, the march has rallied around the lowest common denominator - in this case, nothing. Not only are there no demands, but there is in fact no content at all to the politics of the march, other than vague concern and nebulous urgency about "the climate," which is itself undefined.

No Unity: While a large number of people are sure to converge on Columbus Circle on September 21, the only thing they will have in common is the same street. The revolutionary communists will link arms with the Green Zionist Alliance and the Democratic Party, and compete with Times Square billboards for the attention of tourists and the corporate media.What is the binding agent for this sudden and unprecedented unity? Fifty-one years later, the words of Malcolm X still ring true: "the white man's money."

No History: Instead of building on the momentum of a decades-old climate justice movement, this march appears to be taking us backwards. Here's what Ricken Patel of Avaaz, one of the main funders of the march, said to The Guardian: "We in the movement, activists, have failed up until this point to put up a banner and say if you care about this, now is the time, here is the place, let's come together, to show politicians the political power that is out there on there."
It is as if the massive mobilizations outside the United Nations meeting in Copenhagen (2009), Cancun (2010) and Durban (2011) never took place, let alone the literally thousands of smaller, more localized actions and gatherings for climate justice. At all of these gatherings, activists convoked the world to demonstrate the power of the people, under banners which were far more radical and transformative than anything we have seen so far for this march.

No Integrity: The invitation to change everything has been permitted and approved by the New York City Police Department. This permit betrays a lack of respect for the people who will be making sacrifices to come all the way to New York City to change the world, and a lack of integrity among those who want to change everything, but seek permission for this change from one of the more obviously brutal guardians of business as usual. This lack of integrity sets up thousands of earnest souls for an onset of depression and cynicism when this march doesn't change the world. This will in turn be fertile soil for everyone and anyone hawking false solutions.

No target, no demands, no timing, no unity, no history and no integrity amounts to one thing: No politics. The whole will be far less than the sum of its parts. The biggest climate march in history will amount to something less than Al Gore.
In discussions over the past month with a wide range of people - UN diplomats, radical Vermonters, unionists, professors, liberal Democrats, etc. - the same thing has been repeated to me by everyone: "If we get a huge number of people, no one will be able to ignore us." "The mainstream media will be forced to cover it."

So what is being billed and organized as The People's Climate March, and An Invitation to Change Everything, turns out to be a massive photo op. The spectacle of thousands of First World citizens marching for climate justice, while they continue to generate the vast majority of carbon emissions, brings to mind the spectacle of George W. Bush visiting New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

So what are we left with? James Brown knew, when he said:  

"You're like a dull knife; Just ain't cutting. You're just talking loud; And saying nothing. Just saying nothing. Good luck to you; Just allow you're wrong. Then keep on singing that; Same old money song . . . You're phony, you're phony, I said, I said, you're phony!"

So What Are We Going to Do About It?
This is not the place to complain, but to propose solutions. If we are unsatisfied with this march and its leadership, we have to provide an alternative. As James Brown knew, we "have to pay the cost to be the boss." Here are some suggestions for starters:
  1. We are going to stop lying to the people. This is the primary and cardinal rule of revolutionary politics. To invite people to change the world and corral them into cattle pens on a police-escorted parade through the heart of consumer society is astoundingly dishonest. From now on, we will stop lying to people. Climate justice requires nothing less than a global revolution in politics and production; it requires a historic transition to a new model of civilization, which will demand great sacrifice and creativity from everyone.
  2. We are going to stop making demands of anyone or anything but ourselves and each other. The powers that be are deaf, dumb and deadly, and we will waste no further time trying to pressure or persuade them. We are going to stop speaking truth to power and start speaking truth to powerlessness. Either we are going to become the leaders we have been waiting for, starting now, or we are going to resign ourselves to the inevitability of catastrophic climate change and the sixth mass extinction.
  3. We are going to return to the source. This means three things: (A) Return to the common people from the delirious heights of symbolic protest politics, with dedication to concrete local work, to divorce food, water, shelter and energy systems from capital. (B) Return to the livelihood and wisdom of our ancestors, the indigenous peoples of every continent, who have lived for thousands of years in harmony with nature, and who still possess the knowledge and skills to restore balance. (C) Return to the sun - a second Copernican revolution and a heliocentric energy policy. Either we return to a subsistence perspective that has prevailed for the majority of human history, or all future development of productive forces must be based exclusively on solar energy.
  4. We are going to get arrested! The only thing that we can do to meet the deadline for climate justice is to engage in a massive and permanent campaign to shut down the fossil fuel economy. But we have to do this strategically, not in the symbolic cuff-and-stuffs that are a perversion and prostitution of the noble ideals of civil disobedience and revolutionary nonviolence. So we are going to shut down coal plants; we are going to block ports, distribution centers and railway hubs where fossil fuels are transported; whatever it takes to keep the oil in the soil. We're going to put our bodies between the soil and the sky.So let's make sure that the call to "Flood Wall Street" on September 22 is the "angry riptide" it should be, and not "the gentle flood."
  5. We are going to join the rest of the human race. For 200 years too long, citizens of the United States have been parasites and predators on the rest of the world. To prevent climate catastrophe, we are going to leave our imperial hubris behind, and join with the revolutionary ecosocialist uprisings that are sweeping the global South.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Ultimate Weapon

January 2, 2014

The forever
is whenever
you want it,
your cosmic backup
for any contingency.
The inner music,
always and nowhere,
invincible, bullet-proof,
deeper and older
than your petulant passions
which are vulnerable
to manipulation.
The heart of your mind
beats faster, beats stronger
than you know.
What would happen
if you stopped holding yourself
Breathe this music,
recognize its freedom,
feel its living pulse,
hear its truth,
more convincing than all
your tribulation,
bearing proof of
countless generations
that have your back
in the spiral of struggle
between the source
and the horizon.
Beauty has your back
when you sacrifice
and screw up and redeem yourself,
with every moment
of blessed life,
unalienated life,
life that is not
always pointing to death.
The ultimate weapon
is on our side
in the war against
It is ahimsa,
and photosynthesis:
proof of greater
proof of harmony
we are only beginning
to hear, again.
You heard this before,
in the womb you heard
the music of the spheres,
the silence and the crescendo
of the universe preparing
you and your destiny.
Hear it now once more,
the call of the wild imagination.
You have mistaken 
your cosmic anchor
as a toy kite,
if you do not revere
and celebrate the divine
vessel which is your
It is
the truth,
the weapon
that can win
the war
against extinction.
It is the destiny weapon,
green in the mind's
eternal joy spring,
it is the cosmic forever,
whenever you want it,
and whenever you make yourself 
worthy to join
all your relations
in the illustrious lineage
of ancestors, united
across time and melody,
rhythm and space,

Thursday, February 13, 2014

"Rusted with a Vile Repose"

Reading Lord Byron in Frackville, PA
by Quincy Saul
February 2014

1. Reading Byron in Frackville

Lord Byron’s poem The Prisoner of Chillon has opened the minds and hearts of thousands to the plight of a prisoner, and posed profound and unanswered questions about the meaning of security and society, of fraternity and freedom. He helped us to consider, in the deep way which only poetry can, “the fate of those / To whom the goodly earth and air / Are bann’d, and barr’d – forbidden fare.”

Today, reading Byron's poem in the waiting room at the Frackville penitentiary, we must reconsider these questions. If the early European dungeons have marked our collective consciousness and imagination with indelible dread, then today’s penitentiaries have not yet been understood.

Our society still does not understand where its prisons come from, does not understand their lineage from the time “Since men first pent his fellow men / Like brutes within an iron den.”

2. Seamlessness
The difference and distance between this society and its prisons is smooth, seamless, spotless. One arrives at a prison just like one arrives at a shopping center or a school. They are neither hidden as some dungeons were, or on display like the Bastille, or Chillon. Prisons are simply another ubiquitous institution, and its aids and ministers attend to and comport themselves with no greater sense of purpose or sanctity than any other modern employee. To visit a prison reveals this seamlessness of freedom and captivity. Muzak plays in the waiting room. The staff joke about the working day, sports, and pop culture.

There is, I think, a new kind of terror in this arrangement. The seamless aesthetic distance between prison and the outside world places us all in an ambiguous precariousness to our own freedoms, of movement, of thought, and of spirit.

On the inside, you know what to expect. On the outside, you are free to come and go from the visiting room, but there is an eerie feeling that next time you may not be able to leave. Yet the waiting room in prison is also somehow like the waiting room in the bank, the school, or the office. Where before and still prison invokes in us the fear of captivity, now we must also reckon with the anxiety of the thin transparent line between inside and outside, to which all our choices must attend.
As long as you are on one side of the counter you are free to go, but also suspect and suspicious; safe but insecure. The difference between one side of the counter and the other is not the arbitrary decree of a monarch of course. Today it is a massive institutional system, based on hundreds of years of legal precedent. But the relation of your average prisoner or prison guard to this judicial system is equally distant as the king was to his subjects. Your average citizen can't dream of representing themselves in court, whether this be a court of the kings and generals, or of judges and lawyers. The appearance of a secular democratic process conceals a relationship of captive and captor which is no different in the essentials from the castle of Chillon and its famous prisoner.

3. Society is the Target

Make no mistake that it is society and not just the prisoner, that is the target. The authorities are open about this. “The purpose of the Marion control unit is to control revolutionary attitudes in prison and in the society at large,” said Marion prison warden Ralph Aarons, one of the architects of modern solitary confinement. If medieval prisons tortured individuals, today’s prisons torture society. It is done slowly, surely, on present, past and future generations, with an air of normality which would terrify a 19th century executioner. With 1 in 3 black men going to prison, and with 7.5 million under carceral custody, and everyone under close surveillance, the scope of this prison system, since man first pent his fellow man, has widened to include and contain all of society. What Byron told of a group of brothers, we may now say about our wider brotherhood in this society:

Our voices took a dreary tone
An echo of the dungeon stone,
A grating sound, not full and free,
As they of yore were wont to be:
It might be fancy – but to me
They never sounded like our own.

We, born and raised in a prison society with few poets heir to the conscience and craft of Byron to awaken and ask more of us, do we recognize our own voices? To the extent that we identify ourselves and our accomplishments as part of this society, do we identify with our prisons as well? 
The visiting room and entrance are decorated with certificates of accreditation, photos of volunteer dinners (!?) and award ceremonies. Portraits of the state secretary of prisons and staff have replaced the monarch’s regalia. We are reminded of our own complicity, as a poster reminds us “Homeland Security is Everyone’s Responsibility: Get Involved!”(Also on the walls: the employee recreation association1, employee of the quarter, and the mission statement, gilt framed above the desk.) 
On the other side of the bars, prisoners no longer contend with the damp moldy dungeons full of rats; with the organic qualities of being buried alive which tortured the prisoner of Chillon. Now it is all spotless and hygienic. But they are buried alive no less, not with manacles, but with 24/7 fluorescent lights and cable TV. Is society buried along with them?

4. Buried Alive and Dead

The brothers of the prisoner of Chillon die in confinement, and are buried in the dungeon with him. Byron describes the horror of his brother's eternal captivity, and his restless soul, as his captors would not even bury him above ground, “even in death his freeborn breast / In such a dungeon could not rest.”

While we have no team of Byrons equipped to tell the tale, this is not an obscure story but the common fate of thousands in our own times who have died in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Like the brothers of the prisoner of Chillon, they are kept captive even in death, buried on the prison grounds. (Read “From the Bottom of the Heap” by Robert Hillary King for details.) Our pleas for justice or even simple dignity have gotten us no further against today’s dungeon masters than in Chillon:

I might have spared my idle prayer
They coldly laughed – and laid him there
The flat and turfless earth above
The being we so much did love;
His empty chain above it leant
Such Murder’s fitting monument!

Who has been murdered? Whose chain has become a monument?

Or in our most efficient of societies, is the chain already in use elsewhere, the second skin of another captive? Or is it being prepared for us, who dare tread this uncomfortable and heavily guarded ground of thought and feeling?

Do not look to the age of reason, it has not dawned among those captors. Now as much as in Byron’s times, they are “inured to sights of woe.” Only now this conditioning is not the crude mix of punitive retribution, pure brutality, and vague notions of God, King and Country. Today there is an entire culture industry, including an all-pervasive mass media matrix, to lend the veneer of legitimacy and the common good to this ancient sadism.

5. Solitary Confinement

Byron taught us about the torture that is solitary confinement. He recounts the relief and succour that the brothers of Chillon found in each other;

Twas still some solace in the dearth
Of the pure elements of earth
To hearken to each other’s speech
And each turn comforter to each…

But when only one brother remains the dungeon takes on another, utterly more terrifying character…

There were no stars, no earth, no time
No check, no change, no good, no crime
But silence, and a stirless breath
Which neither was of life or death;
A sea of stagnant idleness,
Blind, boundless, mute, and motionless!

Today in the USA according to official Bureau of Justice statistics, on any given day there are 81,000 prisoners of Chillon, neither alive or dead, in solitary confinement.

How can we comprehend this? How are we, and how can we be moved by the poetry of Byron in a society that has turned what was once an peculiar epic legend into a mass produced banality of daily life?

6. Institutionalized

Byron, as many prison poets before him, made us question the difference between inside and outside. When the prisoner of Chillon had been confined long enough, the dungeon had become a part of him, to the extent that the outside world was already lost to the prisoner’s imagination. He finally concludes,

And the whole earth would henceforth be
A wider prison unto me. . . .
It was at length the same to me
Fetter’d or fetterless to be. . . .
My very chains and I grew friends
So much a long communion tends
To make us what we are: -- Even I
Regain’d my freedom with a sigh.

What was a subtle and chilling riddle for the times of Byron has become an apocalyptic ultimatum for a society which contemplates with calm and taxes the daily devouring of the lives of 10s of 1000s of prisoners of Chillon.

What has our long communion with this society made of us? This question is not metaphorical. Recidivism rates are at steadily high levels and prison populations are growing. Prisons have become a structural outlet and containment mechanism for a surplus population whose labor the political economy does not require, and whose desires and expectations it cannot provide for.

Ours is a society in which incarceration has become so ubiquitous, seamless and normal, that we may not even recognize freedom, given opportunities to regain it. 

We therefore reach the unavoidable conclusion that freedom is no longer outside the walls of the prison, but outside of society itself. Does this awaken an anxiety in you? Do you disbelieve it? Do you believe in the possibility of real freedom in a society that keeps 1% of its population locked down and 100% under surveillance?

7. A Frantic Feeling, When we Know? Or Rusted with a Vile Repose?

Even if our immediate consciousness does not reveal and condemn and indict the brutality and horror of this prison nation, freedom survives. It survives in ways we don’t always recognize, but which we must learn to recognize and weave together, if we are to answer Byron’s modern ultimatum.

When you get locked up, or when someone you know gets locked up, or when you let yourself really feel and contemplate the confinement of another, when you find no reason or justice in this, when you work to make a difference, and encounter a bureaucratic edifice every bit as impenetrable as Chillon, you encounter what the prisoner of Chillon did: “A frantic feeling, when we know / That what we love will ne’er be so.” Hold onto that feeling. Explore it. Embody it.

Love alone cannot bring us freedom, but the struggle to find it can. This struggle can only begin and proceed in earnest, when we realize how much we have already lost.

And haven’t we? Like the prisoner of Chillon, don’t we feel free as we pace our dungeons, at the inscrutable will of nameless captors? “It was liberty to stride / Along my cell from side to side.” 
Georg Hegel in his famous essay about Masters and Servants, talked about “a type of freedom which does not get beyond the attitude of bondage.” Like the prisoner of Chillon, don’t we look out the window into the wild and beautiful world beyond (a world of danger and unpredictability), only to retreat from the window, in need of rest for our eyes?

Yet our plight is much more profound, as we find ourselves on the outside, looking in, looking all around, no more sure of the meaning of freedom or our purpose on this planet than the one who has dreamed of nothing but freedom for unnumbered years only to finally fear it and lose its meaning. We can’t lose its meaning. 
This is the dangerous and urgent lesson of reading Byron in Frackville. Because we are losing it. In muzak and vending machines, in control units and mission statements, in Homeland Security and employees of the quarter; we are losing the meaning of freedom in the dull aching anxiety and ambiguity that this system has elevated into a way of life. We are losing the meaning of freedom on the outside, perhaps even more than on the inside. Our “limbs are bowed, though not with toil, / But rusted with a vile repose.”

8. For Tenets they would not Forsake

 Some on the inside know all this better than we do. Like Byron’s prisoner, the 15-16th century libertine monk Francois Bonivard, they are there not by simple accident, but indeed because they have refused to forsake the principles of real freedom.

These political prisoners – about 100 of them in the USA by the most conservative count – are all heirs to the prisoner of Chillon, all deserving of another Byron. They have suffered and suffer still in an anonymity which is perhaps the cruelest punishment for those who sacrifice all for others. Why are they locked up?

But this was for my father’s faith
I suffer’d chains and courted death;
That father perish’d at the stake
For tenets he would not forsake
And for the same his lineal race
In darkness found a dwelling place.

While there is no shortage of freedom loving martyred fathers from whom we can trace lineages, perhaps the most obvious referent is Jesus of Nazareth. Also a several-time fugitive political prisoner, Jesus and his followers' role as an anti-imperialist political prisoners, as prisoners of war and prisoners of love, is all but forgotten between Christmas and the collection plate. But from empire to empire, the lineal race of those willing to perish for tenets they refuse to forsake, holds strong.

Today darkness has been replaced with electric light. Byron's Prisoner of Chillon has met with Orwell's Winston Smith in 1984 – in the place with no darkness.

Our society has scrapped crucifixion in favor of more quiet and more total control, replacing torture of the body (for the most part) with torture of the mind. But there is an unbroken line from the crucifix to the control unit. It is a line drawn by kings and CEOs, and a line we are all walking, inside and out.

The message and the questions are too deep to be measured with any specific contemporary call to action. On the contrary our answers must be total, embodied, existential. 
We now contemplate what must be done on tiptoe, glimpsed through the bars of a dungeon we may be only beginning to recognize. Most of us, like the prisoner of Chillon will return to the comforting darkness, the communion of chains, in which we now all sit, “rusted with a vile repose.” Will you?

If we really want freedom for society and ourselves, we must suffer chains and court death, and find solidarity and honor in the lineal race of heroes who today still deserve your permanent mobilization and heartfelt support.

1 One of the guards was out “hunting bambi” that morning, I overheard. Incidentally, we saw over 10 dead deer, and dozens of other road kills in the 2 hour drive on the highway from New Jersey to Pennsylvania on the way there.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Bourgeois Feminism and the Case Against Tarun Tejpal

by Quincy Saul with editorial assistance by Kanya D'Almeida
January 2014

Throughout the media circus now known more or less universally as “the Tejpal Assault Case” there has been much talk of feminist principles. Everyone from the alleged victim to Tarun himself have invoked these principles, declaring them valuable and important enough to live or lacerate by; but few have dared to elaborate on what they are, where they came from, and where they are going.

Instead, most have chosen the easier route, of scoring quick ‘feminist’ points by jumping on the Tarun-bashing bandwagon. At the sight of the BJP protesting Tejpal at the airport, all we can say is, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” But this is clearly bigger than Tejpal. What's on display and on trial here is a patriarchal society trying to reckon with itself, through the distorted kaleidoscope lens of a massive celebrity scandal. So let's examine these “feminist principles,” in the hope of rescuing them from the toxic wasteland of this media spill, what one unusually astute commentator has called “an exploitation of feminism for media profits.” (Vidyut)

Very few people in today's world would deny the truth: that there is an economic, social and cultural apartheid between men and women, an apartheid born of tradition, nursed on modernity, enforced first with blows and then by laws, anointed with custom and sanctified by all the gods.

Women have always resisted patriarchy; look no further than that famous image of Kali standing over Shiva! In the 20th century, the ancient movement for the rights, dignity and integrity of women took on the name “feminism.” Today there are feminists in power – from authoritative heads of state to humble representatives of the United Nations. They all speak at great length about “women's empowerment”, and have created an uncountable multitude of organizations, initiatives and programs on behalf of women, focusing on education, law, economics, and more.

For these leaders, feminist principles are seen in isolation from the wider world. It is “the woman question,” and “the feminist perspective.” The woman's question is seen as apart from the larger human question, except insofar as women try to fit into a man's world. The goal is to “fix the error”, to achieve so-called “gender equality” by opening the doors of patriarchal institutions to women (schools, churches, corporations, governments) and appointing women to positions of power within these same institutions.

We can call this mode of thinking bourgeois feminism in the sense that it replicates the overall bourgeois outlook on society – society as an aggregate of discrete individuals, each rationally maximizing their utility according to their preference functions. As the bourgeois scientist looks only at her science, as the bourgeois artist sees only his art, and as the bourgeois economist sees only money, so bourgeois feminists do not understand how women's oppression and exploitation today is an integral expression of a historically produced political, economic, and cultural system.

The ideas of the ruling class are the ideas of the whole age: You don't have to be bourgeois to get caught up in bourgeois feminism. You just have to believe that women’s empowerment can be sponsored by the same corporations that run sweatshops, or that it can be created by the same structural adjustment programs that force developing countries into debt. You have to believe that women’s rightful place will be won through the gradual reform of the existing system, driven by powerful female individuals. Here the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Condoleeza Rice and Indira Gandhi can stand at the head of the feminist parade.

Throughout history, women like Emma Goldman have rained on the parade: “Six million women wage-earners; six million women, who have the equal right with men to be exploited, to be robbed, to go on strike; aye, to starve even. Anything more, my lord? Yes, six million age-workers in every walk of life, from the highest brain work to the most difficult menial labor in the mines and on the railroad tracks; yes, even detectives and policemen. Surely the emancipation is complete.”
Like Emma, millions of others have another take; a different set of feminist principles. They, too, want to tear down the gender apartheid. These are the “third world feminists,” (though many do not identify with the term feminism at all) the women of revolutionary movements around the world, who do not talk of “equality of the sexes”, but call for and practice a politics that breaks firmly and decisively with the whole capitalist modernity project.

These women don’t understand their oppression in isolation from the wider economic/social/cultural system, because they understand women's oppression as precisely the historical, economic, and cultural cornerstone of the entire model of civilization, culminating in present day capitalism. This very simple historical perspective is utterly distinct from bourgeois feminism. And yet those who don't think this through can suddenly find themselves making alliances with strange and dangerous allies, under a popular front banner of “feminism” that has little specific content or explanatory power.

Watch bourgeois feminism unfold in the case against Tarun Tejpal: the alleged victim has been clear in her statement about what should be done: "It is not the victim that categorizes crimes: it is the law.” It is not up to the alleged victim or rapist to define or resolve what happened. It's up to the legal system. So the answer is simple: hand Tejpal over to the state.

It is this brand of feminism that is short-sighted enough to celebrate a patriarchal state when it dresses up as feminist. It believes the accumulation of high profile cases like this one will one day open the horizon of women's liberation. It will send five-star hotels running to install CCTV cameras in their elevators, giving the international “security” establishment the perfect opportunity to inform the good citizens why constant surveillance is actually a logical and useful undertaking (even though CCTV footage of a woman being hacked with a knife inside an ATM in Bangalore has not spurred the media into a frenzy, or ensured any justice for the victim). It is the same bourgeois feminism that will count it as a victory when Tejpal goes to jail, and Tehelka is ruined in the process. These adamantine principles decree that it is worth it to ruin a magazine that has done more for women than many others in recent Indian history, in order to take down a single individual who may have in some way violated another.

Indians should know better. Remember when the British used sati to justify colonialism? Decades from now, will we look back and wonder how we stood by bleating for Tejpal's blood while the journalistic conscience of a nation was ransomed for the imagined purity of an anonymous girl?

Meanwhile, this alleged victim has the attention of the nation and the world. She's clearly smart – composed, articulate, determined. What an opportunity: the media hawks will publish far and wide anything she says. She seems to be seriously misunderstanding this moment and its implications, with devastating consequences that will eventually come back to haunt her. With each day that passes, each email she leaks to the press that prolongs the circus, she loses the opportunity to speak for the millions of women who have no such privileges of publicity, or to condemn those who are trying to hijack their cause for different ends.

If we are to avoid the pitfalls of this bourgeois feminism, who is to judge the validity of the girl’s claims and the gravity of Tarun’s trespass? A real commitment to women's liberation would not see any victory or justice in throwing Tarun in jail to the cheers of the BJP, or any victory in driving a good magazine into the red – the same magazine that put its trust in an outspoken female journalist to cover a beat that most other publications ignore.

 Are there, then, living, breathing examples of a “not-so-bourgeois” feminism that answers the question of “what is to be done?” Luckily, this scene is set in India, where there are always as many solutions as there are problems. If the goal is to move away from patriarchal establishments, then why not deliver Tejpal into the hands of the Gulabi Gang? This group of matriarchs, founded in 2006, does not use the word “feminism”. Perhaps it is not a helpful concept in Bundelkhand, where child brides are the order of the day and domestic violence is so acute that few women live to the tell the tale. These women trust their justice neither to the courts nor to the media, but to the community, to the place and people that gave birth to both the aggrieved and the aggressor.

Not only would the Gulabi gang give Tarun the people's tribunal he deserves (and not the media circus that no one deserves) -- but they would likely speak the real truth about this case. In a country where men routinely thrash their wives, a country where women are raped and murdered in public on a more or less regular basis, a country where brides are married before they reach puberty, and moreover a country on the brink of a civil war and an ecological apocalypse, would the Gulabi Gang have the time for Tarun? Perhaps they would make him run their laathi gauntlet. But more likely they would remind us that, whether or not the allegations against Tejpal or true, every day, there are far more gruesome crimes being committed with impunity. That the middle class and elite have turned what is at most a small tragedy into an epic multi-million dollar parasite, an out-of-control organism that will not rest until it has sucked every drop of scandalous life out of the Tejpals, Tehelka, and the victim herself -- all in the name of “feminist principles,” but accomplishing nothing for women.

For many years, Tarun Tejpal has been calling for a middle class renaissance in India, for the return of the enlightened elite, the golden age of Nehru. Ironically, this media carnival has once and for all demonstrated the impossibility of such a renaissance. In fact, the Indian middle class is so fickle, so hopelessly adrift on the bloody winnings of proto-imperial capital accumulation, that it will turn against its own champions on a dime. While the Himalayas are melting and the biggest revolution in the world is churning in the forests...

From all of this we learn: for the future of women's liberation, we will have to look outside of bourgeois feminism, outside the middle class, and outside the framework of Indian civil society which has been the template for its leadership and development since independence.

Women's liberation will not be won by entrusting the defense of rape victims to the central institutions of patriarchal rule. Women's liberation will not be won by the reflexive regurgitation of a commitment to “feminist principles” which are neither theoretically nor historically explained or grounded. Women's liberation will not be won by destroying Tarun Tejpal, who despite any problems and failures, has done more for women than many if not most of those accusing him. Women's liberation cannot be won by the bourgeois feminists or by Tehelka, or by any other reformist gesture of a nobly intentioned middle class. This is the real uncomfortable lesson of the “Tejpal Assault Case,” which history will tell but the present sadly cannot see.

In the meantime, however, in the short-run, it is imperative that anyone and everyone who values independent journalism comes to the defense of Tehelka. Unless, that is, you want the future of Indian media entrusted to those who call Tarun's request for a fan in his cell “breaking news,” and a trip up and down an elevator “investigative journalism.” (In case you hadn't noticed, throughout this crisis, Tehelka has continued to report breaking news and analysis, because the world indeed does go on despite the society of the spectacle's best efforts.) Regardless of what Tarun Tejpal did or didn't do, or how we feel about him and men like him, we owe it to the future to defend a magazine whose name means “the tumult provoked by a daring act.” In this case the daring act must be our own, ready to enter the fray to defend a magazine whose mission is truth and transparency, ready to challenge bourgeois feminism, and ready to expose all those who are hiding behind it with less noble values and motives.