Monday, July 30, 2012

Bourdieu on anarchists and Mills on being a Wobbly

Pierre Bourdieu: "In the arguments which I develop, it seems to me that the anarchist tradition has a role to play. I consider that all who are inspired by anarchist thought, or who are close to that way of thinking, are precisely the sort of people I want to reach. Alongside others, anarchists seem to me to be particularly suitable to enter into the new international political movement which is being organized."

C. Wright Mills: "Over the last several years I have become quite aware of a certain mixture of personal and political and professional factors which have come together to determine such intellectual roles as I play, and even such intellectual and moral work as I have done and am doing. All these factors, to put it briefly, have constructed in me the ethos of the Wobbly. You’ve asked me, “What might you be?” Now I answer you: “I am a Wobbly.” I mean this spiritually and politically. In saying this I refer less to political orientation than to political ethos, and I take Wobbly to mean one thing: the opposite of bureaucrat. (I want to tell you this in order that you may understand my own values as fully as possible and hence be able to better control your understanding of my letters to you.) I am a Wobbly, personally, down deep, and for good. I am outside the whale, and I got that way through social isolation and self-help. But do you know what a Wobbly is? It’s a kind of spiritual condition. Don’t be afraid of the word, Tovarich. A Wobbly is not only a man who takes orders from himself. He’s also a man who’s often in the situation where there are no regulations to fall back upon that he hasn’t made up himself. He doesn’t like bosses— capitalistic or communistic— they are all the same to him. He wants to be, and he wants everyone else to be, his own boss at all times under all conditions and for any purposes they may want to follow up. This kind of spiritual condition, and only this, is Wobbly freedom."

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

What Human Nature Isn't

(From September 2003)

Actually this title is deceptive. There's a lot of things that “human nature” isn't, but there's a lot that it is, too. That's my point: human nature is a subjective thing that someone applies to selective human behaviors for their own reasons. Human beings are so complex, diverse, and creative that monolithic explanations are very tough to swallow.

Many believe that personalities and social characteristics are determined by a unique mix of “nature” and “nurture”. That is, that someone's genetic makeup is combined with their child raising and socialization experiences. Still, that is only half of an explanation. People can self-correct their behavior and tendencies in life, many times over. Men can stop cheating on their wives, bullies can stop picking on the weak, the obese can reformulate better eating and exercise patterns, and so on.

According to the political lie that is “human nature” (i.e. claims made to serve a political or ideological purpose) there are many cynical ways of viewing our behaviors: humans need strong leaders to guide them through life, children need to be strongly disciplined when growing up, people will always be at odds with people who are different than them, people are selfish and will steal from others if they can't earn something themselves, etc.

Of course, many of these “truths” can be easily refuted. Do the strong parents of families deprive their children of food? We view it as distinctly dysfunctional when parents deprive their children, not as “human nature”. When your friends get together, is there a boss who orders people to get food, drinks, a video, respectively? Such people would not retain friends, obviously, and humans easily self-organize themselves to share their resources for collective benefit.

Many would agree that, yes, the bonds of family and friends have a strong tendency towards compassionate relationships. But, what of the average stranger on the street? Scholars have pointed out repeatedly that the chances of being killed by a serial killer are so minuscule as to warrant nearly no consideration. The same goes for stranger rape and kidnappings. Think of sporting events or other large public gatherings like parties or clubs: how much violence occurs here, although you have diverse and otherwise (presumably) hostile people? When violence breaks out, it is viewed as an anomaly; most do not appreciate their leisure and free time being marred by such things.

Do people normally cut in lines with disregard for others waiting?

Instead, consider the chances that someone would stop to help someone with a flat tire or in a car accident. Or how people hold doors open for complete strangers. Or how frequently hitchhikers can get rides to go where they need to. Most people take as fact that humans have a right to food, shelter, and clothing, and will act accordingly by donating money, clothing, or food, and will openly praise those who work in such service capacities.

That said, there are many problems that humans have, including many Americans: apathy, indifference, self-centeredness, aggressiveness, brusqueness, and so forth. But, does this mean that even people who fit this description will always behave in such ways? Perhaps these problems are pathologies derived from our dog-eat-dog economic system or our disconnected form of government?

There are many times that such cynical people can break out of their socialized behaviors and act with compassion, mutual aid, solidarity, good will, honesty, and justice. In blizzards people routinely pull over to help those who go off the road in their cars. They offer their warm cars and cell phones to help others out. In flood situations, communities pull together putting in long days to sandbag dikes to protect houses and buildings from intruding water levels, with no thought of reimbursement or self-gain-- and easily self-organize themselves to get the job done. In massive power outages or after the attacks upon the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001 people pull together and take care of each other. They are kinder, more patient and respectful, talk to those who need consoling and a friendly ear, and give generously of themselves to help out their fellow humans.

In the case of natural (and unnatural) disasters such as these, the best potential of humans can be seen. Thus, we can have hope that “normal” behavior of a self-destructive kind is in fact the “deviant” variety, that destroys the collective human spirit, and causes paranoia, greed, megalomania, jingoism, and violence. To do so, we must pull out the roots of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and overcome the push to worship economic, political, and cultural authorities and “leaders”.

Humans are infinitely creative and resilient. We can conquer our darker side if we only make the effort to do so. In the process we will be confronted with systemic forces that create resistance. We must have the determination and vision to see past these obstacles. Remember that wars are created by humans and wars can be stopped by humans. We hold the power to change our lives, and in doing so to even change our world.