Questioning “every tool in the toolbox”

Do we really need “every tool in the toolbox”? [1]

I most recently encountered the argument that we need “every tool in the toolbox” in a debate that emerged from the screening of the film “Food Evolution” at UC Berkeley. This debate was sparked by a critique sent around on various email lists, outlining how the film presents a biased case in favor of the use of Genetic Engineering (GE) technologies in agriculture while claiming falsely to have put aside bias in favor of “the science”. Important to note is that the authors of the emailed critique – students, professors and other food systems scholars (including yours truly) – were not necessarily arguing against GE per se or in all cases.

As might be predicted, UC Berkeley students involved in science with biotechnological applications – who probably felt personally attacked or implicated in the critique – complained and pushed back against the letter. One of them made the argument that we shouldn’t dismiss the use of GE in creating more sustainable agriculture, because we need “every tool in the toolbox”.

But is this an apt metaphor? Does it make sense to see agriculture as utilizing a toolbox of techniques and technologies, in which GE is just one tool that can be brought out of the box and used (and be put back in), as we wish to use it, and irrespective of the rest of the tools? I mean – a toolbox has a hammer, a screwdriver, and a wrench, each appropriate for distinct tasks. Which one is GE? Does agriculture have an equivalent set of independent, alternatingly useful tools? More fundamentally, should we imagine the management of living landscapes to grow food, fiber, or fuel as similar to, say, fixing a car or building a house?

Agricultural technologies such as seeds, soil amendments, machinery, or chemicals do not operate as independent or unrelated factors of production. And only rarely are the problems a farmer faces (say, an outbreak of pests or a steep drop in crop prices) soluble through the simple application of a new product or policy.

How then should we imagine “tools” and our “toolbox”?

Agricultural techniques and technologies emerge and operate within a complex system of cultural, economic, political and ecological forces. These forces both shape and are shaped by the technologies themselves, and their use. Important and left out in ‘toolbox’ conceptions of ‘solving’ humanity’s agricultural issues is that the ‘tools’ are so interconnected that their use is strongly co-determined – by the total set of tools in the toolbox, and the conditions surrounding their use.

Simply put, ‘tool’ is a horrible metaphor through which to analyze the use of GE seed/crop technologies.

In this post, I’ll use examples of GE, the construction of housing in areas facing gentrification, and Barack Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy to show how the “tools in the toolbox” argument ignores the important enmeshed nature of the “tools” under debate, and is an inadequate and inappropriate metaphor at best, and a purposefully deceitful one at worst.

Genetic engineering: the baby and the bathwater.

GE is in a substantial and dominant way a product of the rise of industrial capitalized agriculture. GE seeds became a huge part of the corn, soy, wheat, and factory farmed animal product markets because the technology’s benefits fit well within a system of agriculture that already structurally demanded that farmers “get big or get out”. Getting big entails mechanization and use of agrochemicals in order to reap ever-larger harvests. What the early successful GE technology primarily did was enable seeds to produce plants that could withstand certain agrochemicals, while the unwanted plants that invariably emerged (i.e. weeds) would be killed. These GE seed and herbicide “packages” are by far the largest use of GE technology in agriculture.

Clearly to a farmer who was already part of these grain/commodity circuits, these packages appeared as a more reliable form of weed control. But such GE didn’t solve the issues of chronic overproduction and low prices; or harms from chemical herbicides and pesticides; or pollution related to the scale, concentration and dispersal of volatile fertilizers and manures (all already associated, pre-GE, with production of these few commodities named above). In fact, GE didn’t even really increase yields, even though that was one of the main claims made in its favor. GE simply enabled the continued accumulation of capital by input and output industries in agriculture – pesticide salesmen and grain buyers mainly – while offering farmers something that had short-term appeal given the market and political circumstances.

Many other attempts to apply GE to food production have failed. Drought tolerant varieties are largely not. The very first GE approved for human consumption, the “FlavrSavr” tomato, did not succeed commercially. The practically mythological “Golden Rice” (engineered to contain extra vitamin A) has yet to reach farmers or consumers after 25 years in development—largely because they don’t yield as well as existing varieties. And so on.

Meanwhile, the GE that has been successfully developed and deployed fits right into a corporate capitalist industrial agri-food system, and reinforces it. GE science gets much more research funding than agroecology does, in both public and private sectors. What incentive is there for private profit-seeking actors to invest in agroecological research, when agroecology is largely dedicated to reducing rather than increasing a farmer’s need for bought inputs? As it stands, GE as a complex assemblage of science, industry, policies and values is deeply tied to systems of ecologically and socially harmful agriculture. It also contributes to ongoing inequalities in the ownership of productive resources and the benefits of their use.

This isn’t to say that GE couldn’t be applied well somehow. [2]

It is to say that intervening economic, social, cultural, and political forces are important factors in whether GE is a ‘tool’ that is worth considering, and that living ecological systems do not simply abide lab-based GE dreams.

If we want to solve only the weed problems of grain commodity growing, maybe GE is useful (although extensive use of GE seed/packages has also led to “superweeds” that are resistant to agrochemicals). But if we are shooting for socially just, environmentally regenerative and economically equitable food systems it’s hard to see how GE would help accomplish this goal. As has been pointed out by the Union of Concerned Scientists and others, more traditional breeding methods already are a “proven technology” for improving crops.

Bringing up the ‘tool’ metaphor serves to distract from critiques of the overall system in which GE is embedded, instead drawing our attention to how GE could maybe be used in a different way. As such, it is a go-to strategy for GE proponents to counter critics, by claiming that they are dogmatically dismissing a valuable ‘tool’ in agricultural development. They claim we are essentially ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater’ – but really we are simply pointing out that the bathwater is dirty, the baby was born from this dirty water, and until we clean the water, GE is not a good go-to tool for anything.

Urban housing and gentrification: YIMBYs, political will, and neoliberal argumentation

Everyone wants to solve gentrification, don’t they? These days, even those promoting the development of housing that is financially out of the reach of the vast majority of working people claim that they’re actually working in the poor’s interests. See, because of “supply and demand” – a concept easily understood even if applied with little nuance – the more housing that is built, the less “pressure” there is on the housing market, so logically the price of all housing will drop.

This is the “every tool” argument again, though the same exact words may not be used. It’s simple (to those arguing it): if you’re against any particular development of housing, you must be against any housing, and even worse – you’re the reason why people are getting displaced due to rising housing costs!

The “YIMBY”s (Yes In My BackYards) that I know well are called “SF BARF” (a bizarrely chosen acronym for San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation). But they come in many forms, from ‘pragmatic realists’ to ‘urbanist think tanks’. SF BARF happens to take money from developers and take up a lot of airspace, so they might just be on the more icky end of the spectrum. But they all use the ‘every tool’ argument to bludgeon anti-gentrification activists who dare question high-end developments that benefit those who gentrify.

A softer version of the “every tool” argument is that in places like SF, where laws have mandated minimal set-asides of either units or fees from developers towards more affordable housing, we should embrace any new development because it helps us build a small but meaningful number of ‘affordable’ units. But ‘affordable’ in SF’s case is not really (an ‘affordable’ unit goes for someone making a ‘moderate’ income of between $80-$120K/year). It should be obvious, but gentrification cannot be attenuated by a continued 6 to 1 increase in the number of economic elites into a neighborhood, while that 1 non-elite is not even someone making a typical working class income.

Really, gentrification issues come down to questions of political will, both in terms of housing construction but importantly in other areas as well. Political will to impose truly useful affordable housing requirements on for-profit developers, whether higher percentages, or for units that are actually affordable. Political will to impose limitations on landlords in their use of evictions, intimidation, and other quasi-legal tactics to displace for profit. Political will to completely transform (or disband) police agencies that systematically target the poor for institutionalization (an important and often overlooked driver of displacement).

Using the “supply and demand” argument is a neoliberal fallback position in any debate involving governmental roles in capitalist markets. This position has been debunked time and again. But it seems reasonable to many in contemporary gentrification debates because of limited economic knowledge beyond imposed (neo)liberal ‘common sense’ that suit the interests of those in power.

These arguments are not just incorrect, they are effective modes of de-politicization, by distracting political discourse and action away from important questions about what policies are and are not in place, and why (in whose interests?); away from looking at displacement within a larger framework of institutional factors (from the prison industrial complex, government-sparked centers of technological innovation and capital accumulation like Silicon Valley, generalized and ascendant income and wealth inequality, among others which are all themselves racialized and gendered); and away from the ways in which some people are more to blame than others in gentrification’s processes.

Gentrification is not the fault of people calling for more justice-oriented housing policies, and the “all tools” people are cynical in trying to blame them.

US Energy Policy: Climate change and political centrism (i.e. ‘capitalist realism’)

Climate catastrophe is upon us. It’s been only additionally confirmed by Donald Trump’s aggressive fossil fuel agenda. While mainstream liberals find value in Obama-era regulations on parts of the fossil fuel industry (particularly coal) and his support of expanding renewable energy, the reality is that in the USA, when it comes to a fossil-fuel driven economy dedicated to growth no matter the costs, business as usual continued from before Obama and through his administration.

The 2010 BP Gulf spill is likely the best but certainly not the only emblem of this approach.

Justification for the continuation of fossil fuel extraction and combustion (not to mention the environmentally indefensible corn/ethanol policy) came through Obama’s classic rhetorical maneuvers: tell people you care about something, but do what you need to do to appease the powerful elite you’re actually dedicated to serving. This came for energy policy in the form of what Obama called his “all of the above” energy approach. “Sure, we must expand renewables” … “but we also must continue with what we have, whether fracking, oil pipelines from the Tar Sands, or deepwater drilling for oil in sensitive habitats”.

“All of the above” means keeping political structures intact, economic elites happy (particularly the fossil fuel sector), and economic growth going (as much is possible in the terminal economic contraction that no one wants to admit is happening).

In general, many people see these approaches to governing and legislating (again in a ‘common sense’ way) as the only “realistic” option. This “capitalist realism” thinking precludes there being any alternative worth thinking about, much less advancing, when it comes to energy policy (among other things).

Yet ultimately, the only thing that is ‘realistic’ in terms of seeking a future we can survive as a species is to contract the economy suddenly—to stop extracting and ramp down the burning of fossil fuels—to avoid climate catastrophe. Since that seems unlikely to happen, due to path dependent capitalism, it at least would be prudent to save valuable energy stores to deal with the now inevitable challenges to human survival when they come.

But these sorts of perspectives are left out in the “reasonable” discussion of a “using every tool in the toolbox” platform for energy.

Conclusions: the “master’s tools” include the toolbox metaphor

The tool/toolbox metaphor is a common argument detrimental to sophisticated thought and the generation of useful conclusions. Be suspicious when it is used, and notice how it is leveraged to avoid structural or radical critiques.


[1] Thanks go to Maywa Montenegro for her particular suggestion of Obama’s energy policy as an example of ‘all the tools’ political argumentation, and for her general awesomeness.

[2] Though there are valid concerns that – put simply – genetic ecology is so complex that any claims of control or predictability are false. It is true that our understanding of interactions between genes, between genes and organism, between organism genes and environment is incomplete, and that so far GE applications have been challenged by many unintended effects.

Also, GE is not simply “a technology”. It is a suite of technologies representing different lab and field processes, each technology with different possibilities and constraints. For example CRISPR-Cas9 is a newer ‘gene editing’ technique that doesn’t utilize transgenic cellular invasion to accomplish its ‘engineering’ (like the older forms of GE). Engineering virus resistance into a papaya is different than engineering a corn plant to manufacture an insecticide internally. Engineering algae is different than engineering more complex organisms like mammals. A wise discussion of GE then would start by looking at the specific GE, intent and context, rather than seek to end the conversation by declaring falsely a “consensus” that GE is “safe”.

Critique is not dismissal

It happened to me (and I’m guessing something like this has happened to you, too): I was pointing out something wrong with a post on Facebutt that the poster had obviously supported. In this case, John Oliver’s debt relief stunt where he bought up and eliminated $15 million of medical debt. You can watch the 20-minute clip here:

Thing is, I wasn’t and am not ‘against’ John Oliver. I didn’t say anything about him being irrelevant, irredeemable, or speak about his work or person in generalities. I just shared information that complicates (and maybe implicates) his behavior in this instance. Yes, it’s a good thing he drew attention to the horrors of debt from his position of relative influence as a well-known comedian – good on him! – but maybe it’s not a good thing that in doing so he directly took from the work of radical activists, didn’t give them direct credit for it, left behind their structural critique, and profited from it personally (for further explanation see footnote [1]). Others may think differently, but I do think there is something worth questioning here.

For posting this article in response to the original FB post and an accompanying comment, I was attacked (luckily, not by the poster, who is a friend but one of their friends) in what I’m finding is becoming a usual fashion: I was accused of being “rude” with the implication that I was a purist for not accepting things that are good as good. Basically I was treated like an asshole for bringing in this critique.

In dealing with people who I’m close to, I feel justified in being able to critique behaviors without critiquing them as a person. “Hey, could you wash the dishes more promptly?” does not mean: “I think you’re a lazy inconsiderate asshole” (although maybe sometimes it does!). People and actions aren’t the same, and critiquing someone’s particular behavior is not the same as dismissing that person or their overall value.

Perhaps I feel defensive of the act of criticism because I’m now indoctrinated into the ways of the ‘academic’. Academics critique all the time. It doesn’t mean they are against or dismissive of the thing they are critiquing. In fact, almost all of the people I know who study social justice-oriented social movements academically are supportive of those movements (and often do movement work themselves) while they spend intellectually energy poking at these movements and asking tough questions about their functionality and issues.

In this sense, critical means questioning for purposes of improvement, it does not mean dismissing. But to so many social media commentators claiming “Left” concern, to critique is automatically to tear down.

Part of the response to my posting was to accuse me of ‘armchair politics’ – i.e. “what are YOU doing about this issue?” I totally relate to this critique of critics, because too often in critique there is the smacking of self-righteousness, of people seeming to claim a moral high ground compared with others. The fact that so much activism now is simply “virtue signaling” makes for fertile ground to get angry at critics of left(ish) action.

This is probably why they thought I was rude: my comment implied (to them) that I thought my friend the poster was an imbecile for thinking well of John Oliver. But I meant no such thing. As my comments indicated, my only concern was for how the propaganda effect of the piece was not as awesome as it might have been, if Oliver had truly gone out on a limb and pointed out the need to dismantle the entire edifice of debt, rather only than presenting a charity-focused solution that he could enact due to his well-resourced social position.

Someone might likely argue that my desire is unrealistic, that Oliver did what he could within his constraints and this was ‘better than nothing’. But if Oliver can buy this much debt and relieve it, why is it hard to let the Debt Collective – whose idea and work Oliver straight-up copied – have a say in the political message of the segment? (This is similar to an emerging ethic for engaged scholarship, where scientists doing studies with communities don’t simply ‘extract’ knowledge from informants, they partner with them to co-produce knowledge and keep promises of accountability from start to finish.)

My point is not to dwell on the specifics of this John Oliver case, but to point out how there seems to be a lack of imagination on the Left when it comes to contradictory beliefs. Can someone believe something (a movement, a book, a film, a comedy routine) is worthwhile, even if they question certain parts? Can someone contribute great art to society that has major positive social impacts, but be a flawed imperfect human being who has hurt others? Can electoral politics be seen as an inadequate or sham form of democracy, but still be worth participating in (that is, by voting)?

To me the answer to all of these questions is yes. I can think you are a good person but that you have room for improvement. I can critique culture without implying it is irredeemable. I can criticize without it being for purposes of virtue signaling. I can see the contradictory nature of certain people, things, actions, and philosophies, but still find value in them.

And so can you!

[1] Oliver starts off the segment stating “if you have debts you should pay them if you can”, which implies that the mass of debt is legitimate and stems from personal failings. Oliver only counterpoises this seconds later to the idea that some people are in debt for “no fault of their own” (in particular, medical debt), and this is the debt he’s tackling in the segment. This is quite a liberal/half-way critique of debt relations in modern society. At the end, he calls for “oversight” into the most inhumane forms of debt collection, and that’s it for proposed solutions. He never even mentions debt jubilee or debt resistance, though these are clearly deeper and more longterm solutions.

We’re all to blame, but some more than others.

We’re all to blame, but some more than others.

This is my mantra lately. I keep it in mind because I sense a danger in taking on too much guilt around the many fucked up things going on in the world. It’s true we’re all to some degree implicated in many of these things, and so I acknowledge there is also a danger in not feeling responsible for some of the negative aspects of the state of the world. But responsibility is not the same thing as guilt, and guilt is a worse foundation for action of the two feelings.

An example that’s very present from my life is in gentrification. I grew up in San Francisco, and sure enough, due to the “hypergentrification” the City has gone through, I no longer live there due to being displaced from my last apartment.[1] Displacement is something I know experientially—it’s not some abstract thing. Most of my friends from growing up and early adulthood can no longer live in the city.

I spent my youth coming up in arts, punk music, and urban farming scenes. All three of these areas of urban activity—and those involved in them—have been called out as contributing to gentrification. You may recall the basic argument: generally white(r) populations move into down-and-out areas of disinvested cities, making them “nicer” by dedicating their time to (generally non-paying) pursuits like making art, green space, social/cultural spaces. Their hip tastes and whiteness attract new and wealthier residents who now feel “safe” and welcome where they once didn’t. … Soon rents are going up, and the original residents are forced out by elevating prices or by efforts to get them out (e.g. evictions), since there is more profit to be made serving the newer, richer and whiter populations.

I’m not saying this narrative is completely untrue. But as I’ve covered elsewhere, the narrative ends up placing blame on and directs attention to those who are in a “buying” position in the economy. These are not the people who drive gentrification through choices of investment, disinvestment, and policy-making, but those who play an important but subsidiary role. Neil Smith and others have made this point before.

Another sphere where we’re all responsible, but some more than others, is as regards the state of “the environment”. As Utah Phillips (supposedly) said “The Earth isn’t dying, it’s being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses”. Yes, I myself have killed the earth by eating take-out, by driving occasionally, by taking planes, by throwing things “away” in a landfill (somewhere)—guilty as charged. You probably kill the earth too, on a daily basis. But we are not meaningfully in control of the underlying material processes that lead to this impact: the extraction of minerals from the earth’s crust, the extraction of fossil fuels and their processing and trading, the financing of these processes, the policy-making that fails to constrain these processes or prevent their damaging impact. We too are in buying positions, which are important but not central.

It seems nonsensical to put you, Exxon CEO/U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and me on the same plane in any political analysis of the environmental problem. A political vision that focuses too much on individual behaviors risks forgetting how much these behaviors are structurally determined, and thus could misdirect political energy away from those are more so responsible for structuring such behavior.

A similar argument can be made regarding the continued harmful white supremacy that pervades everyday life. Certainly, as critical race theorists and antiracist activists have pointed out, white supremacy is “re-inscribed” in everyday life by the individual actions of “everyday” people. We can see this in the overt racism and outward hate emboldened and made even more visible in the post-Trimp era, as well as the more subtle forms of white supremacy common among self-identified “liberals”, like microagressions (forms brilliantly parodied in the smash hit movie “Get Out”).

But just as important are the actions performed by individuals who play vital roles in organizations that structure white supremacy into our lives and enforce it: political bodies, corporations and companies, policing and war-making organizations, and so on. This form of racism is less about individuals and their personal attitudes as the function their (daily) activity fulfills.

I’m thinking for example of government officials (whether executive, legislative, or judicial) making policy, and the decisions made by heads and stockholders of profit-making companies. Politicians make white supremacist laws and police enforce them. Companies pollute and exploit communities of color and get away with it. Real estate investors and their friends in planning departments make plans to displace communities of color in favor of the profit-making opportunity of neighborhood “revitalization” (i.e. gentrification). Individuals in these positions are key points where white supremacy is maintained, even if none of them show outward attitudes of racism.

Sure, we all play a role in these complex political, economic, and ideological processes that lead back to white supremacy—and so we all need to play a role in resisting, subverting, or redirecting these processes. Yet, simply stating “we are all responsible” tends to downplay that some people operate in positions of relatively greater capacity to shape the lives of others. Recognizing this greater capacity should inform more targeted and perhaps strategic political intervention. We can and should fight white supremacy in all its forms and embodiments, but we might want to prioritize fighting against people and organizations that are the most implicated.

Doing so also leaves more space for the uncomfortable and long-term process of changing the everyday ideologies and behavior patterns of people away from white supremacy. That is, if we approach everyone as part of the problem, we have a much harder time gathering a meaningful force towards solutions. This would go for environmental and anti-gentrification movements too. Sometimes, this process is difficult, as those who form the cutting edge of gentrification and white supremacy are sometimes masked by their identities and powerful “it’s not me” defenses.

The case of the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD) in L.A. is instructive here: in response to obvious indications of arts-led gentrification, with art forming a wedge by which to force open the neighborhood to new colonizers, BHAAAD targeted galleries which were investor’s playthings, but were fronted by queer and otherwise self-described ‘marginalized’ people. While not sparing any harsh words of critique for the process, BHAAAD made it clear: if these gallerists involved wished to avoid being implicated in this unjust process, they needed to close their galleries and leave the neighborhood.

Offering history to explain the gallerists’ role in displacement (unacknowledged by the gallerists, or possibly just too uncomfortable to recognize), BHAAAD explains this role in terms of investment, capital, and (collective) political power—not just individual behavior based on individual “values”. Thus they leave the door open for implicated folks (who were not necessarily “the most responsible”) to choose sides and see themselves as political actors with potentially better choices.

We need to hold a space for self-critique and calling out negative patterns we experience in our immediate environment (e.g. school, home, workplace, social life, etc), but we need to focus our political analysis and oppositional efforts on the structures that are primarily responsible for material conditions, and the people who are directing those structures. To the great middle—those participating in but not directing injustice—activism must be critical, firm, but offered with a structural analysis that leaves an opening for those targeted to be self-reflective and align their actions with their stated politics.

[I suppose this piece needs an accompanying one to explain why police, politicians, and investors should not be considered part of this ‘great middle’, and should be treated instead as the enemies they are. Next time.]

[1] I have things pretty good, relatively speaking: I received a buy-out payment for my eviction, and my mom was lucky enough to buy one of the last affordable houses in the 1990s so I now benefit from that class privilege.


Despair + Parenting = Desparenting?

Parents have long worried about the world they raise their children in. How can you feel good about bringing a child into the world when world conditions seem so shitty? Worse, say you’ve already procreated, and expect future conditions to worsen rather than improve: how could you not worry?

Of course this parental existential worry varies: Being relatively privileged within a socially stratified society, you may have little to worry about other than your child turning out to be an asshole or drug addict. But if you were or are a Dalit in India, a Native American in the USA, or any living example of the global precariat, you might have very immediate reasons for concern, such as finding the next meal for your child, or escaping the harsh mistreatment that awaits them.

In the modern era, it might seem unsurprising that parents would worry about the future, as we’re living through some of the worst generalized environmental destruction and social injustice the world has seen, and this destructive injustice does not seem to be improving much. (Don’t believe Steven Pinker’s Eurocentric panglossian spin, please). In addition, many know more about all this horribleness outside our doors and across the planet because information about it is readily available. Many also experience it directly—ask a climate refugee or mine worker.

I’ve been worried about (generalized) environmental destruction throughout my life, aside from anything related to parenting. For the most part, I’ve never fallen prey to hopelessness given the circumstances. I’ve taken seriously the Gramscian suggestion of “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”, and been able to mobilize this through a belief that it matters how I live my values, not just that I accomplish my particular aims of social change.

My current condition of “desparenting” no doubt is related to this previous concern for environmental issues, but it’s really the recent U.S. presidential madness and resulting political turmoil that has brought this on. The usual feeling of doom has now combined with the increasing sense that they are winning, that we cannot stop them, and that even my own ostensible allies are weak liberals who are resigned to fight for crumbs and validate the systems that are destroying us—I’m just really down about it all, quite often these days.

My son is no doubt a light in this darkness. It’s a trope of parenting: young kids are amazing. They are positive about life in a way that is difficult if not impossible for adults. They are innocent of what is really going on in the world. They see a bird and are impressed. They see an airplane and are not concerned about the climate change implications. They aren’t yet figuring out how to adopt themselves to capitalist life. My son in many ways inspires me, and that’s great.

But he’s only 2 years old. I can’t imagine dealing with what’s to come in any positive way, to make sense of this to him when I can’t even make sense of it myself. To find a sense of agency and capacity in a time when the non-elite individual is atomized, ignored, surveilled, dismissed, disenfranchised and suppressed into impotence. It makes me want to move “back to the land”, an escapist paradigm I encountered and adopted in my teens, then rejected in my twenties. Now in my thirties, I sense a cycle.

In writing this post out, I’ve experienced something that often happens to me: I don’t know exactly what I’m trying to say. I have no pithy words of wisdom. There isn’t a clear path forward for me, much less advice to offer others.

All I can say for sure is that at times like these, it’s clear that I need a stronger, more consistent community to exist within and maintain hope alongside. Communities—of practice, of ideas and ideals, of coexistence through space and time—are effective tools for feeling less hopeless in trying times. I’ve always known a lot of folks, but real “community” (an overused and ill-defined term if there was one!), or communion, is something that takes time and effort. For many parents, the first year or two isolates you from whatever social world you inhabited previously. This was definitely the case in my experience.

Good thing I lost my job recently: more time for community, and spending time with my son while he’s still like this!



The Liberal/Radical split in Post-Election Organizing

This’ll be a hard post to make short, or sweet.

I’ve been struggling since the election’s results to reconcile feelings I have as an “antidogmatist” interested in a strong and broad anti-systemic social movement to remake our political-economic system.

My struggle is mainly between two issues: my longstanding positioning as a “radical”—meaning someone interested in addressing the root of political issues (namely, capitalism) and not merely reforming oppressive systems to make them “less bad”; and my commitment to keeping an open mind with folks who don’t have radical analyses, take radical positions, or participate in radical action—that which I truly believe is necessary to make any substantial transformation in society.

These ideas are coming into conflict because throughout this election and since the election of Trump, U.S. liberals (i.e. non-radicals) around me and in cyberspace have remained stubbornly committed to their existing politics—politics that not only have proven unable to make progressive change, but are also (at least in part) responsible for the horrible situation we find ourselves in, and are now even endangering an effective response to Trump and his ilk.

For those who might identify with the term liberal, and are confused how it might be getting thrown around as a pejorative, please understand that I am using the term in a specific way. I’m not referring to those who believe in the right to maintain and uplift social diversity (e.g. gender, sexual, racial, age, etc). I’m not really referring either to those who abide by the conventional (i.e. British-origin) definition of liberal: those concerned with individual liberties, and a politics based on the notion of individuals converging and hashing out differences in the public/governmental sphere (although that version of liberal definitely overlaps with the one I’m talking about).

Courtesy Flikr account djandywdotcom
Courtesy Flikr account djandywdotcom

What I’m talking about is the liberal who essentially is invested in the political-economic system we have. Liberals believe this system perhaps requires some tweaking in order to achieve more robust outcomes of justice, but ultimately is “the best of all possible worlds”—largely because revolutionary change is dismissed as impossible. Liberals rejecting revolution often also downplay criticism of capitalism and oppose (or at least fail to participate in) action that moves beyond established channels of social choice-making (such as voting, government, or consumer choice).

The liberal I describe is someone who (in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., a go-to for liberals in many an argument, even if many don’t bother to read him directly or understand his history or analysis):

is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro [read: any activist] to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.

It is high time that liberals start trying to deepen their understanding of radicalism. In this time of Trump and reactions from below—when violent state suppression is likely to increase and responses from the frontlines likely to radicalize—to hold on as a liberal to liberal thinking is to take sides with the status quo.

I’m over trying to act as a peacemaker between liberals and radicals: this is a time to choose sides and fight, not to have an endless and useless discussion where liberal assumptions are made the baseline (e.g. elections are democratic) upon which radicals have to defend our vision, perspective, and approach. This is the bulk of what I see on “Leftbook”—liberals who don’t actually listen, don’t actually question their own assumptions, don’t seem to read (critical) histories, and don’t seek to look themselves in the mirror.

And please consider: I’m not arguing these are character flaws. I certainly like many of the people who are posting entreaties to convince the Electoral College to change to Clinton, or to demand a recount, or what have you. I’m not saying these people suck—I’m saying their politics are wrong and ill informed, and quite possibly their efforts move counter to their stated values.

As many smarties have said: don’t do the same thing over and over and expect different outcomes.

For those who might think of themselves as liberals but interested in or inching towards radical, I’m offering up below some resources I’ve recently found. The biggest push back I’ve gotten from liberals is the argument that there are not alternative, effective ways of action beyond their suggestions. This is not true, if you’re willing to do the research.

There’s more of this out there than these two links, of course, and I am not vouching for everything within (I’ve barely been able to read much in either link), but these two lists of resources are good starts for those who want to understand radical historical analysis, radical tactics and strategy, and the radical rejection of liberalism.

#TrumpTheRegime: Resources and Ongoing Resistance to Trump and the Far-Right

An excerpt from the latter:

“WE studied and pursued methods for revolutionary social change before Trump came to power, and our core focus remains the same: abolishing the ever-enlarging systems of hierarchy, control, and environmental destruction necessary to sustain the growth of capital. With the ascendance of White nationalist ambition to the upper echelons of empire, we have given special attention to struggles waged and endured by marginalized people for whom the fight against capital has always been a concurrent fight against Anglo-Saxon supremacy.

Although there are bleak times ahead, we must remember that for most of us America was never paradise. Democrats and liberals will use this time to revise history. They will present themselves as the reasonable solution to Trump’s reign and advocate a return to “normalcy.” But their normal is a country where Black people are routinely killed by police and more people are imprisoned than any other place in the world. Their normal is a country where millions are exploited while a handful eat lavishly. Their normal is the opposite of a solution; it’s a threat to our lives.”

I want to believe that liberals can become radicalized. At least, I’d like to see a more concerted “inside-outside” strategy that aligns more radical movements with more liberal ones. But I’ve been seeing that even in this historical moment—with the apparent non-functionality of “democratic” politics, the continued rule of a political-economic elite class, a climate crisis that capitalist states refuse to confront, and the resurgence of populist ideas—liberals don’t seem to be changing much, and are instead largely clamping down on bad ideas (like voting for lesserevilism and continual investment in Democratic Party politics).

More disappointingly, many liberals are into gaslighting radicals as “unrealistic”, “naïve”, “foolish” and “unsophisticated” whenever they present alternative views or critiques. This belittling position, coming often but not always from people of relative privilege in society, is what compels me need to write this blog. In opposing violence (i.e. resistance from underclasses) “on principle” such liberals allow state-sanctioned (e.g. anti-black) violence to go on unimpeded. In redirecting righteous anger back towards reformist avenues that do little to nothing to change the structure of society, liberals prevent the change they supposedly desire. In blaming the victim (often the poorest, the black and indigenous, the most marginal in society) for the outcomes of failed electoral efforts, liberals consolidate the rightward drift of U.S. politics.

In particular, now that Trump has won, emboldening the radical right of white supremacists, xenophobes, and other reactionary social forces, we need more unity to push back from “the Left”. But if “the Left” remains dominated by liberals who oppose street actions, direct actions, protests that interfere with business as usual, property destruction, strikes, occupations, and so on, this push back will fail.

We anti-capitalists and radicals can count on the government to suppress uprisings and dissent, but with liberals as agents of the state, “peace policing” such dissent and insisting on a “more reasonable” return to business as usual, we need even more than ever to assert radicalism and deny the “poverty of liberalism“.

I sincerely hope that some ex-liberal friends join in this effort.

Courtesy Wikipedia
Courtesy Wikipedia

On Agroecology and its (Potential) Co-optation

I’ve not been able to update the blog lately, but have been working on some writing for further down the line (i.e. later book sections). I kind of got sick of posting the negative “what is wrong with the food system” stuff, and I hope I can speed through those sections and get onto solutions soon.

In the meantime, here’s a preview of some of the later sections. I wrote this book section probably 3 months ago, and in the meantime, Eric Holt-Giménez and Miguel Altieri beat me to the punch, writing up this blog that describes some of the same issues I was trying to raise. Namely, they and I are concerned with the potential for agroecology to lose its key politics in being translated to contexts of the industrial “Global North”.

I’m currently working on this issue very directly, through my work with a large, national environmental NGO, while working at the same time with scholars involved in agroecology (like Miguel and Eric), and movements of farmers and farmworkers on the ground in different parts of the USA. I will say, there is certainly lots of tension at this historical moment, lots to do, lots of potential, and lots of danger.

I’m excited to see what happens in the next 2-3 years. In the meantime, here’s the post (which will be put in the Guide later on):

As mentioned, agroecology is a knowledge-intensive rather than resource-intensive method of production, involving practices that regenerate ecological systems and utilize ecological principles and processes. Agroecology is not simply a set of practices that compose a method of production. It is also a science to improve those methods, and a social movement spearheaded by the traditional groups that have crafted and advanced them, and which (importantly) foregrounds those groups’ rights to produce agroecologically—against a failing industrial system that would displace them.

Agroecological practices apply readily available fertilizers like animal manures and compost to create and maintain healthy living soils, which in turn support healthy crops. Since it is the soil that feeds the plant, soil is treated with respect and conserved. Agroecology uses crop inter-planting and rotations: a diversity of crops in space and time—instead of “mono” (i.e. single) cultures, it uses “poly” (i.e. many) cultures—avoids major pest and disease pressures. When pest control is needed, agroecological farms seek biological solutions (for example, by planting crops that deter a particular pest) rather than chemical ones. Although all farming uses water, agroecological methods seek to reduce water needs and avoid wasteful water use.

The practices of agroecology are important, but it’s important to keep in mind that they are based on principles rather than hard and fast rules about what practice is the “right” one. Agroecology is essentially about creating place-based farming systems, appropriate to particular social and ecological conditions.

At the same time, the science of agroecology is about applying these principles using scientific research to understand these conditions well, and combining this scientific knowledge with the experience-based wisdom of farmers themselves, and other ecologically minded stewards of the land and sea (especially indigenous people).

Leading and early proponents of the science of agroecology acknowledge this debt to indigenous and peasants, and in fact have defined agroecology not simply as a science, or set of practices, but as a science, practice, and social movement. This is because some of the most successful means for spreading agroecology have come not from scientists in the academy or development organizations, but from movements of farmers and producers themselves. They have used “farmer to farmer” models of horizontal training and awareness building to spread agroecological practices when governments and corporate interests have lacked interest.

The social movement that has most advanced agroecology has been that of peasants proclaiming a vision of “food sovereignty”. Denying the benefits of capitalist, industrial agriculture as the foundation for an equitable sustainable food system, these movements (especially those originating in Latin America) have promoted agroecology among its members, developed the science alongside scientist collaborators, and fought for policies to protect and enhance food producer communities’ abilities to practice agroecology.

The result of these efforts has been a partial mainstreaming of agroecology as a concept, wherein even bodies like the UN Food and Agriculture Organization are considering it a viable method towards sustainable food systems. However, with this mainstreaming comes the strong risk of co-optation: particularly, the paring back of agroecology simply to a depoliticized agronomic concept of applying ecology to farming.

This is especially dangerous to the movements who have advanced agroecology on the ground, as they risk being subsumed by the same interests who already hold so much power in the food system. Large landowners, food and agrichemical corporations, and state governments all have an interest in bolstering their own legitimacy (and simultaneously undercutting that of their opposition) by adopting non-threatening components of agroecology (i.e. the agronomic techniques aspect).

For this reason, it is of crucial importance to keep agroecology within/alongside the concept of food sovereignty, and to promote its existence as not simply a “science” or set of practices, but also a movement with aims to regain control of the food system by farmers and non-elites.

Decolonizing Political Ecology, De-dogmatizing Decoloniality

(image courtesy

I had an interesting conversation recently with a friend who is exploring in his PhD studies (and of course his activism) the relationship between Political Ecology (as a scholarly discipline) and Decolonization (as a political project). This piqued my non-dogmatic interest, as each of these trends can be mired by certain dogmas (dogmas which are by no means found in every example of either trend, but appear enough to associate with them).

On the political ecology end, a focus on the “systems” that weigh down upon environmental injustices (namely, capitalism and nation-state-based governance systems) and the interpretation of these through Marxist and anarchist/populist political economic lenses can lead to inadvertent ignorance of other axes of oppression and ecological destruction, which do not always or necessarily stem from states or capitalist economic classes. Political ecology can thus be overly structural; it can end up leaving out alternative forms of analyzing environmental issues (for example, dismissing spiritual dimensions or a gendered analysis of resource access). [1] The influence of Marxism in particular on political ecology can at times be extremely Eurocentric in its categories of analysis.

Decolonization (especially as an emerging academic subfield) has I think the opposite problem: it wishes away real categories of social power and social existence, like economic class, governmental policy, or democracy, based on their historical association with the long march of racist, capitalist, state-led colonization. That is, some fans of decolonization seek emancipation only in terms that have been completely “decolonized” from Eurocentric/Euro-originated concepts. (I myself have been called to task by decolonial academics for proposing “autonomy” as a concept that could apply universally to all human beings—I was accused of reproducing colonial thinking in assuming an individualism that these critics associated with my use of the concept of autonomy.)

The thing is, both projects—political ecology and decoloniality—are so crucial for reaching towards a better world: we need to understand the (often systemic) problems that create dysfunctional human/nonhuman relations—i.e. environmental degeneration—in order to confront and transform those systems. And we need to pursue strategies that actively decolonize the beliefs and habits of colonized and colonizer alike, while fundamentally undermining the structures of continued colonization (as in unequal North/South market relationships, climate change inaction, concentrated land ownership and control, and so on).

But either project on their own is limited, and potentially alienating when pushed to describe or resolve all struggles everywhere. That is why I really appreciated my friends’ interest in finding a way of melding these two paths to change making.

This friend also introduced me to other people he’s found to be on that same path. Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui is one such person—an anarchist, feminist, and historian from Bolivia. Reading this interview with her, I found many things to love about this woman!

One of the most pertinent quotes is where she describes the idea of a “trivalent logic”—coming from the Aymara indigenous people of Bolivia, Peru, and Chile—which she understands “as opposed to Aristotelian binary logic”.

Aymara philosophy is based on the “included third.” A is not B, and B is not A. But there are things that are A and B at the same time. In binary logic, one excludes the other. But when you have the logic of inclusion, you have enormous possibilities of intercultural action.

Throughout the interview, Silvia shows herself to live and speak and dream an antidogmatist radicalism, by embodying this inclusive, trivalent logic. This isn’t same as “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” either, because it holds space for the contradictions that come with an “included third”. It is not a settlement of dichotomy, but a working through it. If we realize that few people in modern society could accurately be described as mere colonized or colonizer, perhaps we can start building a movement of “included thirds”, a movement that pushes past such counterproductive compartmentalization.

For example, Silvia does not dismiss her own European ancestry as hopelessly “colonial”, while pursuing indigenous justice and the development of an indigenous worldview. She sees the contradictions inherent in being herself, a product of colonization and an opponent of it, and lives through these contradictions in a positive and humorous light. She says “We live the contradiction with joy”. She is not less indigenous because of her mixed heritage, nor is the European aspect something she seeks to reject or subsume in the name of “decolonization”.

Similarly, Silvia also does not dismiss markets as hopelessly colonial, as some of my self-proclaimed anti-capitalist/anti-state friends do. Instead, she explains how (within the Bolivian context), she sees the indigenous markets as resisting the dominance of capitalist markets—acting she says “like a vaccination” against them! Much of the “peasant populist” literature in critical agrarian studies (and critical agrarian movements!) shares this analysis, seeing peasants’ sales in local markets as means towards greater autonomy, and against subservience to the global market.

Many activists in the United States, in contrast, seem attached to dualistic black-and-white thinking, e.g. the many anti-capitalists who reject all NGOs as part of the “non-profit industrial complex”, or mission-oriented business as “neoliberal”—without considering seriously what these NGOs and organizations actually do. The very important and useful critique of NGOs (of INCITE!’s book “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded”) has at times been used to justify a dogmatic rejection of all efforts to create (certain kinds of) organizations as vehicles for change.

Decolonial thinking might cause me to question anything that emerges from coloniality, including organizational forms with suspect histories. But only with a truly informed political ecological analysis of who does what, who gets what, and what are the effects on non-human nature and human-human relations, can “decolonial” critiques go beyond dogma, and become more grounded in the realities of what is causing harm, what is mitigating it, and what can be done to decolonize.

I hope to see greater emergence in the coming years of an “included third” of political movements informed by but not limited to both decolonization and political ecology ideas. These movements, by acting from thoughtful analysis and concrete social positions, will likely dismantle the theory-driven limitations of decolonization and political ecology as scholarly pursuits: it is praxis that brings out the best of both worlds and creates new possibilities for liberation.

From Wikimedia

[1] I must say in its defense that political ecology has already evolved much in its first 30 years as a field of study, as has decoloniality over its years of scholarship and practice. Both fields are fields of scholarly inquiry, and fields of action. Perhaps it goes with out saying, butI have found those who trend more on the “action” side to be less dogmatic in their interpretations of each respective framework, and in their analyses that emerge from their interpretation.

Disruptive Action and the Food Movement

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of disruptive action in affecting political change, and how this might relate to “the food movement”.

What I mean by “disruptive action” is masses of people disrupting the established order. Strikes, blockades, sit-ins, riots, occupations and so on are manifestations of people power that do not follow the guidelines for “acceptable action” set by political/economic elite classes. As such, these manifestations are far more threatening to those classes than other forms of action, and are more effective in bringing about social change (in the substantive sense).

The emblematic examples of disruptive action in recent US history are, of course, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and #Black Lives Matter (#BLM). These movements have been uncontrolled by a central leader or organization, exist primarily out on the streets and in confrontations with powers-that-be (whether police, politicians, or white supremacy broadly), and have truly disrupted the idea that business-as-usual is a viable option.

Both OWS’s and #BLM’s effects have thus far been more so on our society’s ideas and discourses than its policy or institutions. However, “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and neither is social change. Often, changes in discourse prefigure a larger shift in culture and commitments, by contributing—alongside various disruptive courses of action and construction of on-the-ground alternatives—to pushes towards change “at the top”.

This is what the history of the early 20th century into the New Deal shows: the ascendance of organized and disruptive labor power legitimated the working class’s rights to a greater share of social wealth and threatened the existing elite management of society. New Deal policy changes (the kind that are now considered “socialist” in Fox News discourse) were the outcome of this crisis of legitimacy.

disrupting powerIt is my contention (and certainly there are others who have thought this before or written entire books upon the thesis) that disruptive forms of action are far more effective than reformist working “by the books” or “inside the system”.


This isn’t to say no one should do reformist things, or that they are useless point-blank. It’s more to say that, in the absence of disruptive action, and in the presence of a corrupt political system profoundly skewed towards elites, insider efforts are very unlikely to lead to substantive change. Instead, they lead to co-optation of change energy, and milquetoast reforms that do not really challenge the status quo.

Another way of saying this is that insofar as your desired political changes would truly upset the entrenched power of economic/political elites, the more disruptive power must be manifested to achieve them.

So what does this have to do with “the food movement”? Well, for lack of a better term to describe an amorphous thing, “the food movement” has gained lots of discourse traction (i.e. the idea that food systems should change has become widely acknowledged)—but it doesn’t tend to exert the disruptive muscle that movements against economic inequality and political corruption (i.e. OWS) and structural, endemic, murderous racism (i.e. #BLM) have manifested. The food movement’s adoption of disruptive tactics is limited (I am guessing) by the kinds of people that compose the movement, and the kinds of problems it faces.

Hippies went “back-to-the-land” in the mid-20th century, becoming landowners but failing to shift land use patterns writ large. Environmentalists have floundered in addressing industrial agriculture’s impacts via litigation, policy, or market change campaigns. Food security groups have barely made a dent in rates of hunger as poverty progresses, securing (at best) the continued existence of food banks, while food justice groups have elevated the importance of social justice in food movements, but haven’t gained much more than gardens and jobs programs. Small farmers are marginalized economically and politically, and sustainable agriculture (at least judged by the imperfect proxy of “organic” certified farming) constitutes less than 1% of farmland, or 5% of sales value.

I certainly don’t mean to disparage of these efforts! Yet I would argue that too little disruption by most aspects of the movement has led to too little success in bringing about transformative food systems change.

As an example of the food movement’s limited policy influence, see the 20+ years of work by sustainable agriculture advocates for more support through the US Farm Bill: while achieving small incremental victories of funding here and there, advocates have failed to derail the existing direction of massive public funds towards agribusiness profit enhancement. The Farm Bill continues on course, bolstering the “bad food” system while undermining the possibilities of transitioning to a good one. No one in the USDA, Congress, the FDA, or any relevant administration seems scared or willing to challenge the established order. What should be simple, uncontroversial asks (for example, that sustainable agriculture research be funded at levels equivalent to its market share or demand for sustainable foods) are largely kept off the table.

Yet why would we expect this policy-focused part of the food movement to act disruptively anyway? Certainly there are other facets to the food movement, but those parts that are composed of educated, middle class environmentalists, professional nonprofiteers, and urbanite foodies are less likely to participate in (or even approve of) disruptive action. As some more revolutionary-minded analysts have argued (in relation to “class struggle” which is similar but not equivalent to disruptive action):

People … engage in class struggle because they can no longer continue living as they did before. When the risks of taking confrontational and militant actions are relatively low compared to the consequences of continuing life as normal, then people are pushed into class struggle.

Unjust and racially inflected police shootings are not new by any means—yet for those living their lives under constant threat of such violence they have passed the limit of tolerability. As such, many people experience (and talk about) these shootings as an acute issue. The 2008 debt-sparked economic crisis was likewise viewed as an acute historical moment of crisis, though it had plenty of historical precedents and lead-up. One should see these crises as moments reflecting chronic (i.e. long-term) problems, though they are noteworthy for how their acute manifestations commanded attention and sparked disruptive responses.

In contrast, most problems in the food system (and as we’ve seen, there are many!)—environmental damage, social injustice, ill health—tend to be more chronic in their nature and appearance.

Type II Diabetes doesn’t happen suddenly, but takes hold over the years of eating unhealthy foods. The poverty that so many folks experience is painfully chronic, and is less often experienced as a sudden change, or seen as directly related to food systems issues. [1]Non-point source pollution” (like nitrogen runoff from thousands of over-applications of fertilizers on thousands of farms) is less acute than, say, the effects of fracking operations, which have led to multiple local activist responses. And for many examples, there are no clear responsible parties who would be obvious targets of disruptive action: the system is too large and diffuse.

My question for this piece, then, is: are there avenues towards a disruptive set of tactics for the food movement? What examples might we build from?

The “Fight for $15” movement, started by fast food chain workers (but since expanded well beyond) might be one of the best recent examples of labor organizing in the food system that involves elements of disruption. While the Fight also takes it to company boardrooms, legislators, and other power brokers, its main element has been directly organizing workers in fast food chains and organizing with them walkouts, strikes, protests, and other displays of social force. The effect has been clear: multiple state and local governments, and even a few companies, have committed to the $15/hour minimum wage.

More on the illegal side has been the widespread use of the tactic of burning GMO experimental test fields as way to prevent GMOs’ spread and success, and as a registering of dissent to the researchers and companies that profit from their existence. These direct actions have not made apparent damage overall to the pro-GMO project, which continues. But according to a quote from the above-linked article (which is unsympathetic to the “vandals” it studies), “most researchers have been discouraged by anti-GMO activists destroying field trials”: disruption adds additional financial and social cost to the process of GMO development. In addition, these actions inspire those who are directly impacted by and opposed to GMO crop development.

Even more risky, in that the disruptive action in question cannot be done in the cover of night, is what one might call “massive forced retail redistribution”, a.k.a. group shoplifting for Robin Hood ends (the link is to a video of such an action by union organizers and the mayor of a small town in Spain). Such groups have stolen food goods from large corporate chain retailers, and distributed them for free among sectors of the poor. These actions are sometimes accompanied by rhetoric aimed at corporate control not just of food production but also its distribution, and the need to see food as a human right rather than commodity.

Another example of food/farming-related disruptive direct action I know well is the “Occupy the Farm” action and campaign that started in spring of 2012. Coming off the heels of OWS, Occupy the Farm was a great example of directing the Occupy energy towards tangible goals of increasing community access to urban farm land, while also pushing for changes in discourses about food systems and their problems/solutions. The group illegally occupied a piece of land threatened with development, successfully pressuring the University of California (the land’s “owner”) to change plans and convert the land into an agroecological learning farm.

I’ve written about OTF extensively elsewhere, but the lesson is clear: sometimes, land occupations by cadres of activists—when mobilizing existing histories of community demands for land and placing decision-makers in uncomfortable positions—can win local demands and change the story.

Perhaps the key is to pair the right disruptive action with the right target, both structurally (who is in charge? what structures can be changed?) and in terms of the particular policy/issue demands. For example, Occupy the Farm targeted university plans to develop the farmland instead of using it as an agricultural resource (as was the University’s “land grant” mandate)—they didn’t just occupy any ol’ coveted piece of privately owned land. The action focused on the issues of community land access, urban farming, sustainability, and food sovereignty, through action focused on a particular piece of land with relevance to these issues.

Similarly, direct actions against GMOs could take it to the fields, but also the offices of agrichemical corporations. Direct action could disrupt the hubs of the grain/feed/livestock nexus, by shutting down the grain silos and interrupting the train lines that deliver key feeds from farm fields to factory farm CAFOs.

Direct actions for farmworker rights include the recent Driscoll’s berry boycott, and the sometimes-referenced legacy of the Safeway grape boycotts (and strikes). These more “traditional” forms of worker organizing—pickets, boycotts, and consumer education—might be made more powerful through deeper labor/consumer alliances. What if many eaters came out to support direct actions by workers or farmers? Would it be possible to organize and finance land, factory, or building take-overs that could employ the unemployed and reclaim food-related infrastructure?

How can we scale up food-related direct actions so that they are truly disruptive—so disruptive and widespread that people must talk about them, the way society has been forced to discuss income inequality, political corruption, and state violence against Black bodies?

Or perhaps there is a different way to build up disruptive capacity?

Maybe “food movement” people need to join existing disruptive (“non-food”) movements, like #BLM? By doing so, we could support such movements with our resources and time, and learn the skills, challenges, and processes of “doing disruption”. Additionally, cross-sector solidarity could be built. And perhaps through this solidarity-based engagement, more food-systems-focused ideas and strategies would be integrated into those networks? [2]

At the least, there are some hopeful indications that large environmentalist mobilization groups (like and Friends of the Earth) see the important connections between disruptive mobilization and achieving social justice, and are increasingly willing to support campaigns like Fight for 15 and #BLM (at least rhetorically).

I’m by no means settled on these ideas of strategy. I’ve simply been thinking about them, they are just initial ideas, and am curious to hear your thoughts.


[1] Although the food riots of 2007/2008 show how much poverty can manifest in disruptive action related to food, when desperation is high enough.

[2] There certainly is an existing overlap between #BLM and land/food justice work: many Black-led organizations are pioneering decolonization/organizing frameworks for organizing in their communities, including garden projects. But I’d argue that not enough non-Black “food justice” organizations and projects are engaging directly and publically supporting #BLM actions.

[Post script: it seems the most active “direct actionistas” of the food movement are the animal liberationists. A web platform called “Direct Action Everywhere” says it all. Sadly, I can’t say I support this particular form of food movement disruptive action, if only because I find their arguments about animal liberation unconvincing and dogmatic, and their approach to solutions moralistic yet indefensible ecologically. I’m all for an end to factory farming and animal exploitation, but I don’t think we get there by equating all consumption and use of animal products as “speciesist”.]

On Dogma, Nuance, and Commitment

It’s easy to be against the idea of dogma, when you confront the presence of dislikable dogmas—or dogmas held by people you dislike. Considering a dogma as “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true”, there are (no doubt) many dogmas to complain about.

Leftists for instance have no problem railing against the racist dogmas perpetuated by the white working classes in the United States. In this instance, it’s quite easy to argue, “(Their/racist) dogma is bad”.

But I am almost equally perturbed by dogmas on the left: the dogma that the U.S. white working class is regressive, for example; or the dogma that “liberals” (whatever that means) must vote for the lesser of two evils in any presidential election where no truly progressive candidate exists (that is, all presidential elections in my lifetime); or the dogma amongst the even further left anarchist/autonomist-types that voting only validates “the system”.

These dogmas I also find problematic because they don’t allow that (respectively), (1) the U.S. white working class has been at times and could be again a part of a broad based leftist political movement, (2) the lesser of two evils strategy has failed repeatedly to advance any leftward policy change, or social change more broadly, and (3) at times election outcomes truly matter to specific constituent groups, and elections can form part of a larger “inside-outside” social movement strategy.

These are only some potential counterarguments to the dogmas I’ve presented; the point is that dogmas of many kinds miss out nuances, which—if given attention—can improve our understanding of the world and our strategies towards making social change.

That is, really, why I started this blog.

However, perhaps one can follow this antidogmatic path too far; an endless call to “nuance” our understandings of the (political) world might end up invalidating any political belief system. This is perhaps part of what this guy Kieran Healy is pointing to, in his critique of “actually existing nuance” in the field of American Sociology. His critique (entitled “Fuck Nuance”) is more about the academic world, but his point that nuance is not “practically successful” applies to the world of action as well.

Certainly, one need not nuance a commitment to racial justice, right? Should a commitment to environmentally regenerative principles of agriculture, supporting arguments against existing and destructive industrial farms, be required to withstand critique as dogmatic? Where is the line, then, between having political commitments, and believing in and perpetuating dogmas?

If you’ve spent a life studying the workings of states and capitalism, and come to the conclusion that they are antithetical to advancing social justice, should you have to accept that sometimes governments do not act according to political theory, or that capitalism isn’t a single thing? A friend argued on facebutt that arguing for nuance in these sorts of contexts is like saying, “Let’s not talk about dominant institutions, because really they are all made up of people”. I see his point: reducing all theory (aka generalizations) to nuance reduces the power of that theory to explain the world, and (maybe) with it, our own power to change that world.

Might antidogmatism be its own form of dogma, that if harped upon too much, makes for an impotent form of politics that always points to the exceptions, the particularities, the differences within the broad patterns of society we see? And in doing so, avoids making strong enough statements about the world that can motivate action and be rallied behind?

I do think this is a danger. Just not a very big one.

Why? Because we can be nuanced within our generalized commitments. We can defend beliefs and commitments from moral and empirical positions, while still subjecting those beliefs to critical scrutiny.

Sure, institutions are “real” insofar as the institution of policing, or the state, or capitalism (or whatever) has real structuring force on people who are touched by it and act within it. Police are pushed strongly by various institutional forces to be racist and anti-poor, no doubt in my mind about that—from both a theoretically informed and lived experience. State actors (in offices and agencies) are pushed to respond to capitalist state imperatives—which they have little to no way of directly shaping themselves. Capitalists must compete, grow, exploit, and so on, or risk business failure.

I can believe these things, yet still hold that in particular situations at particular times (and with particular other forces at play), the agency of the police officer, the state actor, or the capitalist might differ from the norm or the expected. This might be a small difference: the officer might choose not to arrest someone when they could. But it could be a pretty substantial difference, with a substantial (or as yet unknown) effect.

Because our knowledge is always limited, as is the predictive power of social “science” and studies of the past; because the current moment is always a unique conjuncture of events with new and emergent possibilities; and because the world changes in chaotic fashion, driven by the agency of many individuals and groups interacting with the structures that ground the historical moment; we should not hold onto hard dogmas about how to make change.

We can promote general theories based on our available understanding, and work based on this understanding, but we should always be ready to challenge and change our own thoughts about what is possible.

Beyond Bernie

I am surprised that so many people I know are “feeling the Bern”. I’m especially surprised that I am.

I’ve never supported lesser-evil corporate Democratic Party candidacies, so it took me some time to warm up to the idea of actually voting for someone who is a Democratic Party candidate. But I voted for Bernie in the Move-On endorsement poll, and I’m even planning to change from my Green Party voter registration in order to be eligible to vote for him in the Californian primary. I still won’t donate money to or volunteer for the campaign—there are limits to how much I can allow myself to buy in to federal electoral politics in the US.

Blind Black PresidentSo maybe it’s a mild 1st degree “bern”, but I’m definitely feeling it. Sometimes I even get excited about Bernie Sanders’ candidacy. Why?

Because I find it hope-inspiring that as this avowed socialist [1]—who doesn’t take dirty money for his campaign and has a pretty consistent record on many progressive and pro-working class issues—campaigns, the more people hear about him and his positions, the more they seem to support him. I see Sanders as soaring upwards on an upwelling of bottom-up energy for major social change, and that energy excites me. And some argue that he could actually win in the general election.

As Nivedita Majumdar says in Jacobin,

Sanders doesn’t offer anything close to a comprehensive solution for the myriad problems facing the poor and oppressed, and some parts of his political agenda are genuinely backward. But when we place his candidacy in the context of the challenges the Left faces, the orientation of his political rivals, and the incredible enthusiasm he has generated in a climate of general defeat, the attacks on him from the Left become harder to justify.

I was already interested and thinking about the potential outcomes of the nominating conventions this coming summer, when I read this article, stating it is “Time to Transform Bernie’s Campaign Into a Permanent Organization”.

An interesting idea, I thought—depending on what the author (Miles Mogulescu, “an entertainment attorney/business affairs executive”) means by “organization”, and how they conceive of this organization and its potential political effect. But right away, I knew the article would fail, when Miles proclaims that the choices for the campaign are either to create a “permanent organization that can carry his political revolution forward in the long-term; or whether, like Occupy Wall Street, it will quickly disappear.”

This statement shows a classic liberal position that does not take seriously the lessons of histories of social change. Social change at the level of nation-state behavior—major social change—has always been the result of disruptive and mass action “from below”. Piven and Cloward make this argument forcefully (about the United States in particular) in their book “Poor Peoples’ Movements”, and in Piven’s more recent book “Challenging Authority”.

I won’t rehash their arguments here, but the lesson is that Occupy Wall Street, the Ferguson-related uprisings, the anti-fossil fuels/climate change direct actions happening around fracking, pipelines, and fuel transport infrastructure, the “Fight for $15”, and many other movements from below are what made Sanders and his message viable in the first place. Without these movements, which the article author would dismiss as having “quickly disappeared”, there would BE no Sanders movement to build an organization off of.

Pushes from outside of power centers (like the federal government) are absolutely required to gain concessions from elites—no matter who is in office. If you add to this the lack of real power in the presidency—with regards to the formal and informal nodes of power in federal government; that is, the corrupt election finance and lobbying networks, the entrenchment of the military industrial complex, and the structural (and mostly ignored) conservatism of the Supreme Court—you’d see that angling for the presidency is perhaps the LAST thing that “progressives” should be spending their time and energy on.

Building social movements that create disruptions, change the public discourse and “common sense”, gain allies from existing elites in positions of power, build their own forms of non-state power, and yes, at times work to put new “better” elites into power through electoral campaigns, is the key task for the Left.

This is decidedly NOT the same logic as Mr. Mogulescu prefers: “If Hillary is the nominee, the initial task will be to critically support her and prevent Trump or a Republican from taking the White House.”

I’m sorry but I will not support Hillary, and existing polls indicate neither will about 1/3rd of Bernie’s supporters. I like to think this is because these people are wise to the game of corrupted, dynastic politics like those represented by Clintons and Bushes—and we want no part of it.

I agree that we need to think “beyond Bernie”, but not in the way outlined by this article.

We need to radicalize the analyses being offered in public (e.g. to offer solid racial and class analyses of the issues working class people face), while combining sustained strategies of institution building with disruption and service to the most marginalized. We need to think of creating new—and sustaining the existing—broad-based movements that will continue to disrupt, while creating alternatives that work on the ground.

This might be a “network”, sure. But it certainly should not be one that saps movements’ energies towards running for office (much less federal office), and that orients towards creating a professionalized cadre of “organizers”. Those organizers—if we follow the schema described by the white, middle (upper?) class author of the article—will very likely be white, middle class, and end up simply recreating the structures of political organization that haven’t actually changed, and won’t actually change, society.

The fact that Miles is willing to lay out an entire program for how this organization should be rolled out is emblematic of the fact that people like him refuse to let “the people” organize themselves; liberals believe in the state and the power of strong leaders to make movements and states “successful”. Radicals, in contrast, believe in the power of people themselves, to lead and to struggle.

The energy created by Bernie’s campaign should go back to the people themselves, and the movements that are already doing “the work” of the (non-electoral) Left. Certainly someone will take advantage of the political interest generated by the campaign: the small donation based fundraising efforts that have worked for Bernie could (theoretically, but probably not easily) be channeled into the many forms of movement organizing work. But not if they are simply channeled into an organization that essentially mirrors and replicates the Democratic Party.

So back to predictions, what might happen, and how might an expanded organizing effort look beyond the nomination and election?

If Bernie loses the nomination and throws support to HRC, I hope to see riots in the streets. But more likely, there’ll be a lot of fighting and moral castigation between lesser-of-two-evil’ers and rejectionist voters, and it’s possible that few enough will hold their nose and vote for Hillary such that the Republicans might win. Not a happy thought, but then again, the thought of Hillary winning is absolutely no comfort to many in the US and outside it. (For sure, Hillary’s fandom of fracking is indication that climate change will continue unabated if she were elected.)

If Bernie loses the nomination, but runs as an independent, he could win, and even is even more likely to if Trump also decides to run independently after failing to win the nomination (some argue that there is no way the Republicans will nominate him). If this were the scenario, Trump would draw many voters from the Republican Party, while Independents who don’t like Trump would likely go with Sanders. Independent-identifying voters especially prefer Bernie to Hillary. Hillary is the most disliked of the bunch, followed by Trump. Bernie is generally liked (and like I mentioned, the more people hear his platform and speeches the more they like him). This scenario would be total chaos, and I’d like to think it would shake up the political imaginary a bit, since it might be the first time both entrenched parties have substantial competition beyond themselves.

Say Bernie wins the nomination. Yay! Celebrate and then organize? Join the electoral revolution?

As Majumdar argues:

We need to understand that it’s ultimately not about Sanders. It’s about the political moment the campaign has created and its possibilities. Sanders’s anti-corporate, pro-working-class electoral campaign, has against all odds electrified millions. Whether the Left rejects or chooses to take advantage of this opening may well define its trajectory for a long time to come.

Perhaps we should be more cautious about a Bernie victory. Aside from the problems he’d face inside the political system, think about what has happened to other recent Left electoral victories: Evo Morales in Bolivia, selling out the country’s natural resources and indigenous people as he champions himself a “socialist”; Greece’s Syriza, who turned on the population that elected them to oppose austerity, when forced into an uncomfortable position by the EU and creditor elites. The fact is, creating substantive change at the nation-state level is exceedingly difficult against structural constraints—no matter who is leading the party.

So prepare to be disappointed by Bernie, if he is elected. Or better, know the limitations that will be placed on him, and organize for change as though it didn’t matter who was president. As I’ve tried to emphasize, movements are what cause change. Elections channel change energy, not very effectively. Yes, let’s think “Beyond Bernie”, but not towards an election-focused movement, but towards a transformative one.

[1] Even though he’s not really, he’s a social democratic capitalist statist, albeit one who strongly favors redistributive welfare measures.