A Manual for Struggles in the End Times

I

The first thing I can
Say about a Manual for
Struggles in the End Times
Is that the last thing
Anyone really needs now is
Another privileged white settler
Explaining what they should
And shouldn’t do in their
Struggles for justice peace well
Being and quite simply—existence.

So let me instead begin
At the end as it were
And say a little about
Why the struggles so many
Are now engaged in are
Struggles in the end times
And I don’t mean this in
An eschatological or millennialist sense
I mean it in an Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change sense—

Or even better—a climate
Justice sense because if the
Planet’s climate continues to erode
As reports currently project there
Will be no place left
For justice to be found
Forged or defended from assault—
Climate change is a social
Justice issue because justice means
A liveable life for all

And an uninhabitable planet means
No liveable life for anyone.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
Or maybe behind the times.
Because the reality is of
Course that climate change is
Here and happening now and
We cannot stop many of
Its effects—they are already
Locked in and the planet

Will continue to warm and
Oceans will rise and acidify
And the pollutants we have
Spilt into the air and
Oceans and the land will
Continue to bring all living
Beings increasing levels of suffering
But my point isn’t that
We need to act now
To stop climate change

Although we do need to
Act now to slow mitigate
And alter the current course—
My point is that justice
Comes through the struggle for
Justice and the struggle is
The point now maybe more
Than ever because of this:
The changes to the planet’s
Climate capitalism and colonialism

Have set in motion will
Take many generations to reach
Their full and terrible extent.
In the meantime we need
To learn at last how to
Collectively and justly weather
The coming storm together.
So what we struggle for now
Is in part a struggle

For the means by which
We will navigate the losses
And reduced conditions created
By the capitalist and colonial era.
The other alternative—more of
The same—more competition more
Inequality more exclusion more
Resource extraction more dispossession
More of the species and human
Populations of this planet sacrificed

Until at long last the chickens
Come home to roost and even
The affluent west can no longer
Avoid the consequences of a
Depleted and compromised planetary system
Looks like the only other
Alternative on the table now.
So the struggles now are
Struggles in the end times
In this no alternative sense.

Our lives will increasingly come
To be defined by struggles
Struggles for basic resources
Struggles for clean water for
Food security refuge and autonomy
And dignity—so what world
Within crisis and struggle will
We create now? How will we
Dwell within crises and struggle
Fashioning new forms of justice there?

 

II

Hmm … just wait a second
Just wait aren’t many people
Already struggling in just
This end-times sense I
Have been describing here?
Haven’t the genocidal waves of
Colonization and the centuries of
Slavery capitalism set in motion
(And which in turn really
Helped set capitalism in motion)

Left shipwrecked and ravaged
Communities all over this planet
With social and cultural end
Times to endure and which
They have endured for centuries
Now struggling continually against
The end of almost everything
They had previously known? OK
I think the time to face
Our end times and learn

How to continue to struggle
In and through them is
Here and I think the
Time to learn at last
How to properly live in
This world is here despite
How much damage we have
Already done—or maybe exactly
Because of how much damage we
Have already done—we need

To grieve—but also to
Continue and we need to
Seek a sort of restorative
Justice in our relationship with
The biosphere which I think
Amounts to saying we need
To “become Indigenous” and that
The struggle in the end
Times will take the form of
A kind of indigeneity where

In this case to be
Indigenous might mean just this:
Continuing inhabitance based in
Cultural practices geared towards
A sustainable and interdependent
Relationship to the natural environment.
But what about this “we”
I seem to be deploying here—
Who is we and who
Gets to say and claim it?

I think of what my
Friend the poet Cecily Nicholson
Has written—we who do
This all the time to
We eroded are legible
Which maybe means there is
Always a “we” performing erasure
And a “we” who resists
And struggles to remain “legible”
Despite all they have sustained

And that sometimes those two
“We”s might find their way
To new forms of solidarity
And as we all of us
Learn to struggle in the
End times we might need
To find a way to tell
Two stories at once: the
Story of our differences and
The story of our similarities

The story of the damages
We have differently endured and
The story of the damages
We are all coming to have
To learn to endure or
What the poet Fred Moten
Calls the coalition of the
Fucked up—he writes from
The black undercommons:
The coalition emerges out of

Your recognition that it’s fucked up
For you, in the same way
That we’ve already recognized that
It’s fucked up for us. I don’t need
Your help. I just need you
To recognize that this shit
Is killing you, too—by which
I take him to mean
That the struggle in the
End times comes when you

Realize it’s fucked up for
You and not just those
Unfortunate folks on the other
Side of history and it
May be that climate change
Is the moment when the
World capitalism and colonialism
Built finally becomes fucked up
For white people too now
How fucked up is that?

 

III

The complications of pronouns aside
I think that the struggles
In the end times will
Have to come out of
Every corner of the land
And every pore of every
Body—the struggle will be
At a blockade on unceded
Territory and the struggle will
Be in a university classroom

The struggle will cross your
Border and the struggle will
Find new homes in new
Lands the struggle will happen
In the downtown east side
And the struggle will happen
In Surrey the struggle will
Wear a niqab and the
Struggle will be called a
Barbaric cultural practice though

It will in fact be a
Struggle against barbaric cultural
Practices such as the maintenance
Of inequality exploitation the
Expansion of fossil fuel extraction
Policed borders criminalized dissent
And one of the oldest forms
Of barbarism of all: the
Violent destruction dispossession and
Displacement of peoples this planet over.

The struggle will not be
Quiet or always polite and
The struggle will come from
The grass roots but also
Sometimes the struggle will involve
NGOs political parties and other
Institutions that despite having a
Structural relation to the state
Can also harbour the struggle
Because in the end times

Where we all now must
Carve out a home the
Struggle cannot be picky the
Struggle cannot be about purity
The struggle must lift its
Dirty scorched and moulting wings
Above the fires scattered across
The territories of our better selves
And soar on the air we
Make and breathe together in struggle.

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When Democracy Becomes Controversial

[My portion of a lecture given at the SFU Centre for Dialogue, with Lynne Quarmby, for the Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy]

1

Our argument tonight, stated as simply as possible, is this: If what Lynne and I have done constitutes anything “controversial,” it is so only because of the problematic state of our current democracy, for all we have done, in our opinion, is exercise “normal” and supposedly long-standing democratic rights of assembly and public speech. Democracy, now, produces a fundamental contradiction which anyone engaging in the political must wrestle with: we feel we cannot help but participate in the current democratic system (there are so many urgent issues to address)—voting, supporting parties and candidates, participating in public debate, even running for office—at the same time, we can have little faith in the ability of our political system, as currently constituted, when it comes to the most pressing issues we face (such as climate change, the geographical displacement of populations, and Indigenous rights and land claims), and so we must also take direct action outside of the electoral and representative apparatus of governance. To live today is to live in a world of such contradictions. Go vote on Monday, but do not stop there, and do not stop demanding, and taking steps to build, a more just, more open, more equal and more participatory political system.

Another way of approaching this: controversy, however figured—along with informed, respectful argument and passionate disagreement, as well as acts that can be seen as confrontational or disruptive, acts which sometimes may involve non-violent civil disobedience—should really be understood as part of the healthy functioning of a democracy. They are evidence of the people taking autonomous control of and responsibility for their lives. If such acts themselves come to be characterized as “controversial,” rather than essential, then something is rotten in the state of our democracy.

Our discussion tonight of what, exactly, might be “controversial” about direct democratic action will pass through the lenses of our personal stories this past year, the particularity of our fields of research, and the critique we are levelling with our words and our actions.

2

For me, my involvement in the Kinder Morgan resistance this past year was unavoidable. I had for a number of years been writing about and participating in social justice and environmental justice grassroots movements. I had been concerned about climate change, social inequality, Indigenous land claims, and our government’s seeming inability, or lack of interest in, doing anything about these issues. When Kinder Morgan came to the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area, to cut trees and conduct seismic testing for their new pipeline last September, they came into my back yard. I have a 20-year relationship with Simon Fraser University, so this mountain is one of my homes, a place where I have spent a good portion of my life, and I care about it, as a place and as a community. I care about local First Nations title to this land upon which I am a settler. And I care about the state of this world, the natural environment upon which we all collectively depend, and the future my and your children and grandchildren and great grandchildren will inherit. “Kinder Morgan,” it may be worth noting, in perhaps not the best German translation, can be taken to mean “tomorrow’s children.” This accident in corporate naming is telling.

I could, on my way to and from work, stop on the mountain and join others keeping watch in the forest. I could, and soon did, play the role of a spokesperson for what people were trying to achieve on the mountain. And I could write—and I did write—as Lynne did too.

For me personally, one of the most instructive, and chilling, moments was having my writing read aloud in the BC Supreme Court, by Kinder Morgan’s lawyers, accusing me of conspiring against their company. “Underneath the poetry,” the lawyer said of a blog I had written (and I quote), “is a description of how the barricade was made”—thereby unintentionally echoing the famous Situationist slogan: sous la plave, la plage (under the paving stones, the beach). It was a good day for poetry—it mattered enough to be cited in court—even if it was a bad day for this one poet.

That one sentence spoken by that lawyer on November 5 2014 continues to haunt and shape my work (including my forthcoming book of poetry, Once in Blockadia). Of course, I’ve always mostly been interested in what was “beneath the poetry”—the Real, the material world of exploitation and repression, and collective struggles for justice and freedom and our complicated social relations. But now that the two-headed monster of the corporate state has tipped its hat—that it, too, is very interested in what’s “beneath the poetry,” and the sort of veiling that literary and other cultural expressions may engage in—well, quite simply I’m still trying to process this new piece of information.

IMG_1355

3

The connection between poetry and politics, poetry and social justice and social movements, is primary to the work I do in my academic field. In a recent publication I referred to the sort of work I do as a form of “embedded poetry”—like an “embedded” journalist, I write from a position within groups undertaking certain actions in the social field. Obviously this is anything but dispassionate, distanced or objective research; it is a committed creative and critical practice. But the literature that doubles as social commentary and in fact at times as a form of social “action” also has a long tradition about which I teach and write, as well as engaging in it in my own creative practice.

This is what I find so useful and fascinating—both as a subject I study and a methodology I employ: poetry, especially, provides the generic wherewithal to imagine ourselves as vocal agents of change and actors on the stage of social transformation. Poetry is still shaped by speech and the oral imaginary. In a poem, we can say public things we otherwise do not have the opportunity or occasion (or perhaps even freedom) to say, and we can address situations, individuals, the body politic and even abstract entities in ways that would not otherwise make sense. And yet, this imaginary by which we speak to that which it is often impossible to speak is a crucial political imaginary too. Democracy, I would argue, is nothing less than a mechanism to allow impossible speech: the collective speech of and between communities, the speech of and to large and abstract forces that affect us all in the broadest, and therefore sometimes decidedly intangible, ways. Such speech is absolutely necessary to our social wellbeing, and while “publicness” seems to be something which has been steadily eroded over the past three or four neoliberal and austerity filled decades, poetry and other literary arts remain a place where the voice of honest indignation (as William Blake called it) is kept alive.

4

Here’s perhaps a bit of controversy: we’re not living in a democracy. Not, at least, if we take seriously the idea that a democracy is a system of rights and freedoms enshrining the self-determination of a community’s constituents. As many thinkers are now pointing out, western democracies in fact function much more like oligarchies than anything else—as a recent Princeton study suggests of the United States:

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.

This is likely news to no one. Consider Bill C-51, a piece of legislation which the majority of legal experts in Canada deride as unconstitutional and, frankly, undemocratic. Consider the “close working relationship” between the current Conservative government of Canada and its “friends” in the fossil fuel industry—to the point at which, as documents have revealed, the government has over the past four years implemented exactly those policy and regulatory changes industry has asked for—down to each dotted i and crossed t. Then of course there is the denial of the will of the city and the majority of the citizens of Burnaby in the Kinder Morgan case on Burnaby Mountain, and the way various levels of government run roughshod over Indigenous rights and title in the rush to approve and develop multi-national fossil fuel extraction, infrastructure and trade deals.

I could of course go on. But consider this: a recent Fraser Institute report suggests that “democratic institutions are not relevant for an enhanced feeling of life control.” The report adds that economic freedom, specifically, “exerts a positive impact on life satisfaction, while democracy remains insignificant.” Here’s where we are heading under the current neoliberal phase of capitalism and governmentality: democracy is “insignificant”; you can find “life control” and “life satisfaction” through economic (as opposed here to social) freedom alone. Interesting. And who, we might ask, has access to this singularly significant “economic freedom”? Hmm…I wonder.

Let’s step back from the brink of democracy’s twilit last gleaming. The era in which modern democratic institutions developed, over the past two to three centuries, is also the era of capitalism’s full and eventually global development. It is also the era of colonialism—if we stretch this analysis back just slightly into the seventeenth century, when the British parliament, at least, began to exert more power, and in which global exploration and expropriation began to expand beyond Europe in earnest. All these socio-historical phenomena—capitalism, colonialism, and what we have come to refer to as “democracy”—are linked processes. They are phenomena unleashed by the drive of elites to increase their influence and wealth—and thus productive forces—supported by a rapidly developing ideology of limitless economic growth and competition—through the private ownership of land and labouring bodies (sometimes the bodies themselves, literally, at other times simply the labour time of those bodies—although it has often amounted to the same thing).

In the historical narrative I’m offering here, democracy—the “granting” of democratic rights and the gradual implementation of a slowly expanded franchise—functions as a “containment system,” intended to corral popular will and opinion—to cordon it off while the important business of colonization and capital accumulation proceeded and expanded (as indeed it continues to proceed and expand, in diverse ways). We might say that the rights and freedoms we do have were “granted” only because of popular unrest and resistance: the commons demanded change, and elites gradually offered various sops and allowances and “privileges” which were eventually stitched into a system (which we have deigned to call democracy), constantly modified, which allowed a semblance of the participation of the “will of the people” while continuing to serve the interests of the accumulation and radically uneven distribution of wealth.

If we, the commons, made some gains in the past through popular resistance, we can do so again. Indeed, I would argue that we have not yet gone nearly as far as we need to in this direction. In this regard, I recall the words of Henry David Thoreau, who in his essay Resistance to Civil Government, wrote: “Is a democracy, such as we have known it, the last possible improvement in government?”

So—maybe there’s something more important here that the word “democracy” obscures. Maybe what we really need to focus on is the demos, the commons, and the ability of the commons to manage and maintain its shared planetary resources. This is the controversial thing Lynne, and myself, and many others did: we stood on the remnant commons of public space and unceded territory and demanded that the commons be heard, be acknowledged, and be followed.

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5

I return to the question of controversy. Is it really controversial to act to protect our shared natural environment? Is it really controversial to place ecological values ahead of economic ones, or to demand economic practices that are in harmony with ecological values? IF it is, then we are truly in a bad way. And certainly legislation such as Bill C-51 attempts to mark out those who stand in the path of the economic’s triumphant parade over the body of the ecological—especially Indigenous land defenders—as controversial, deviant, even terrorists.

If Lynne and I have indeed participated in a controversy, it is largely, to my mind, a controversy centered on one aspect of our work as academics. It is not our research that is necessarily controversial, nor is it our teaching. Rather, it is our public outreach and service to the wider community—our functioning as “public intellectuals” (if such beasts are not yet extinct), and our taking of SFU’s mantra—engaging the world—perhaps a little more literally than intended. Advocacy is often a part of what academics do, both from within and outside their respective fields. You might also characterise what Lynne and I have done as to take our social analysis and critique—our understandings of the functioning of the physical and social worlds—and put them at the service not just of our disciplinary community, but at the service of the wider community as well. This is perhaps another form of “embedded” cultural practice—embedding knowledge production and dissemination not in the rarefied and disciplinarily bound institution alone, but in the very communities that are struggling for social change from below—and further, to actually form that knowledge in a collaborative and grassroots milieu.

We have without question desired to be of service. But again I have to ask, what here is controversial or even exceptional? In the kind of political life that I would see as living up to the concept of democracy—of real, participatory democracy—such “engagement,” such direct collective social action, would neither be controversial nor extraordinary. It would be expected. It would be a normal part of daily life—and indeed we would have to reconceive daily life so that it allowed and supported a more fulsome participation in a more autonomous, localized, and engaged form of community self-governance (a topic of discussion, perhaps, to reserve for another occasion). Now imagine—if engaging the world was taken to mean direct and active participation in our own collective self-governance, as well as the attendant ascendancy of the rights and responsibilities of citizens over corporations, we might have to redefine engagement—we might in fact have to rebrand SFU as having a new, more radical mandate—one of revolutionizing the world.

 

 

 

 

SFU Faculty Letter in Support of TSSU

Dear President Petter,

We are faculty members who strongly object to the Administration’s threat to end the health benefits for TSSU members. As we understand it, this will include terminating Medical (MSP), Extended Health (EBH) and Dental benefits for all those now receiving them, or will require that the employees themselves pay these premiums if they are to be covered.

This move directly threatens the health and well-being of TSSU members and their families, and is therefore a very harsh imposition on professional workers at SFU who are already in precarious working conditions.

While we understand that this may be legal because the contract has expired, it also constitutes a tremendous abuse of power during contract negotiations.

We would urge the Administration to rethink its position and return to bargaining with TSSU.

Sincerely,

Ian Angus (Humanities)

Ronda Arab (English)

Yıldız Atasoy (Sociology and Anthropology)

Alison Ayers (Political Science/Anthropology/Sociology)

Kumari Beck (Education)

Sabine Bitter (Contemporary Arts)

Nick Blomley (Geography)

Enda Brophy (Communication)

Clint Burnham (English)

Wendy Chan (Sociology and Anthropology)

David Chariandy (English)

Elise Chenier (History)

Allyson Clay (Contemporary Arts)

Susan Clements-Vivian (School of Interactive Arts and Technology)

Marjorie Cohen (Political Science/Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies)

David Coley (English)

Stephen Collis (English)

Lisa Craig (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry)

Lucas Crawford (Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies)

Dara Culhane (Sociology and Anthropology)

Sheila Delany (English)

Jeff Derksen (English)

Peter Dickinson (English and Contemporary Arts)

Nicky Didicher (English)

Milena Droumeva (Communication)

Noel Dyck (Sociology and Anthropology)

Marla Eist (Contemporary Arts)

Susan Erikson (Health Sciences)

Mónica Escudero (Humanities)

Andrew Feenberg (Communication)

Samir Gandesha (Humanities)

Tom Grieve (English)

Rick Gruneau (Communication)

Shane Gunster (Communication)

Rebecca Goyan (Chemistry)

Robert Hackett (Communication)

Atousa Hajshirmohammadi (Engineering Science)

Robert Hogg (Health Sciences)

Matthew Hussey (English)

Adel Iskandar (Communication)

Chris Jeschelnik (Communication)

Sharalyn Jordan (Education)

Dal Yong Jin (Communication)

Sharon Kahanoff (Contemporary Arts)

Christine Kim (English)

Paul Kingsbury (Geography)

Mark Leier (History)

Frédérik Lesage (Communication)

Carolyn Lesjak (English)

Geoff Mann (Geography)

Jennifer Marchbank (Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies)

Laura Marks (Contemporary Arts)

Jan Marontate (Communication)

Janice Matsumura (History)

Kirsten McAllister (Communication)

Sophie McCall (English)

Eugene McCann (Geography)

Gary McCarron (Communication)

Arlene McLaren (Sociology and Anthropology)

Cari Miller (Health Sciences)

Marina Morrow (Health Sciences)

Roxanne Panchasi (History)

Chris Pavsek (Contemporary Arts)

Anthony Perl (Urban Studies)

Stacy Pigg (Sociology and Anthropology)

Evelyn Pinkerton (Resource and Environmental Management)

Erika Plettner (Chemistry)

Stuart Poyntz (Communication)

Cheryl Prophet (Contemporary Arts)

Deanna Reder (English and First Nations Studies)

Gordon Rose (Psychology)

Kathleen Slaney (Psychology)

Margaret G. Schmidt (Geography)

Jamie Scott (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry and Health Sciences)

Patrick Smith (Urban Studies/Political Science)

Kendra Strauss (Labour Studies and Geography)

Janet C. Sturgeon (Geography)

Tim K. Takaro (Health Sciences)

Gary Teeple (Sociology and Anthropology)

Ann Travers (Sociology and Anthropology)

Barry Truax (Communication)

Ker Wells (Contemporary Arts)

Aaron Windel (History)

Jin-me Yoon (Contemporary Arts)

Habiba Zaman (Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies)

Kirsten Zickfeld (Geography)

Dear Common – Democracy

Dear commons
that means everybody
soon as you can
conceive it
not a house of
but a space between
everybody’s anywhere—
can we ask again
what a democracy is
or what it looks like?
We know you are busy
all the everythings
you are up to
on some glowing
page or site or
at work or at home
(if those are still
distinct places
you careen between)—
but guess again
at the outside
of polling stations
characters in debate
mostly acting like
they’ve imagined we
imagine we want
them to act for us—
ignore them as
best you can
they are the fallen
angels of the polis
panders of influence
and money’s more
indecorous gestures

Now let’s imagine
ourselves as actors—
here’s a stage we found
call it wherever you are
call it whoever you’re with
(they are actors too)
the script is how to
get everyone home safe
get everyone a home
get everyone what they need
get everyone involved
in the decisions that
most directly affect them—
health of the land
an open future
refuge and respect
for difference
which is the delight of being
access to the means
of our collective subsistence
autonomy by no other name

Turns out it was
always all talk anyways
but talk we make together
as we walk together too
not elections and not
even rights which were
made to infringe or just
float in the foul soup
of official discourse
like flags and songs
no one remembers
the origins of
except it was likely
theft blood and fire—
let’s call them instead
responsibilities
to each other and
to the earth
to the ways we all make
being the waymakers
we all are as
the demos daily
undoes every harm
touching loving local
hand to beloved
local root—
come here we say
in our best stage whisper
let’s make democracy
ordinary and strange
once again—let’s
make it what we do
every day and let’s
make it what scares
the living shit
out of the living shits
who have been trying
to keep us down
but who we now
run out of town
having figured out
what democracy is
and what it looks like
in this very act which it is

From the Refugee Tales

The Lawyer’s Tale

[Note: the following poem was written for and performed during The Refugee Tales, a project organized by the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group in England this past June. I was asked to respond to a specific tale in Chaucer’s 14th century Canterbury Tales.]

Chaucer’s The Man of Law’s Tale is as narrative of sea migrations, of exile and refuge and exile yet again. Sea journeys are signs of rejection, betrayal, treachery, homelessness. Constance, our heroine, is driven by forces she has little control over—across the Mediterranean, out into the Atlantic—and back again. Systems of state and patriarchal power enclose then reject her; her freedom is fleeting, false—a ship in which They han hir set, and bidde hir lerne saille, or in which she arrives at a straunge nacioun, where she may yet again be bounde under subjeccioun.

Agamben: “It is almost as if, starting from a certain point, every decisive political event were double-sided: the spaces, the liberties, and the rights won by individuals in their conflicts with central powers always simultaneously prepares a tacit but increasing inscription of individuals’ lives within the state order, thus offering a new and more dreadful foundation for the very sovereign power from which they wanted to liberate themselves.”

Chaucer’s Man of Law tells us precious little about the law, or himself. The General Prologue only notes his desire for property: Al was fee symple to hym. It is not clear what Constance’s story means to him, either personally or professionally. The Man of Law remains terra nullius, a spurious empty zone to claim, desire stretching its hands out towards the unclaimed lands of claimants from their own lands torn.

*

The lawyer
looking out to see
croons April in
cruellest soliloquy
ship that fleteth
in the Grete see
—to make submissiouns
in courts of peine and wo

knowing the truth
one does not always
remain intact
nor does the truth
always remain intact
and the borders
are no longer
at the border

but move as magnets
amongst iron filing statutes

*

Because of a complicated relation to borders, we are trying to figure the boundaries of our present age. I don’t particularly like the term Anthropocene—isn’t the anthros what we are trying to—navigate away from? Call it geophysical capitalism: the era in which our economic activities have come to affect the entire geosphere—all ecosystems, all species.

If we blame everyone, we blame no one
we give the guilty
—free passage—
and we bear burdens we did not bring on ourselves

Some have said the industrial revolution. Some have said the deepening dependence upon fossil fuels coeval with the industrial revolution. Still others have said it’s the bomb—the atomic marker registered in isotopes the world over. But the first time human activity impacted the entire planet—changing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere in the course of a single century—was during North American colonization, when the deaths of some 50 million Indigenous inhabitants of Turtle Island was registered in a world-wide decline in CO2—swallowed up by the forests that filled in the farmland the Indigenous worked before they were suddenly—swallowed up.

In the Mediterranean
fishermen sometimes
pull up skulls and bones in their nets

It’s estimated there could be 50 million climate refugees by the year 2020, displaced by disasters including droughts, desertification, and floods. No matter how colonial the calculus, 50 million for 50 million is no book’s balance, no ledger’s line item.

*

we were in motion
complicating
the empty category
—“we”—
moving north
sand and sea swept
in a ship al sterelees
the carapace of a beetle
blue blue-black
midnight blue blue
of Nut and never
carried for thousands
of miles in fragile hands
to seken straunge strondes
and leave life’s evidence there

the lawyer notes:
his village had been raised to the ground
he’d never been far from his home
until he wound up in London
refused asylum because they
didn’t believe that he was from the tribe
he said he was from
or that his brother could be his brother

*

In 1816, the restored French monarchy sent a small fleet of ships, led by the frigate Medusa, “to retake possession of the French establishments on the African coast.” Captained by the incompetent but loyally royalist Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, on July 2 the Medusa runs aground on the notorious Alguin Bank, off the coast of Senegal. 147 colonists and crew are set adrift on a hastily constructed raft, from which a mere 15 barely living survivors are rescued two weeks later. Madness, infighting, cannibalism, starvation, the sacrifice of the weak, and the stormy sea took the rest.

Jump ahead two centuries. On April 18 2015, a massively overloaded fishing boat carrying possibly as many as 900 migrants capsizes and sinks in the Mediterranean, some 60 nautical miles off the coast of Libya, while making its way north to Italy. Only 28 survivors are pulled from the sea. Hundreds of African migrants, we learn, were locked in the submerged hold.

“Border controls are most severely deployed by those Western regimes that create mass displacement, and are most severely deployed against those whose very recourse to migration results from the ravages of capital and military occupations” (Harsha Walia, Undoing Border Imperialism).

“I am between hell and the deep blue sea.”

*

we were in motion
emptying the category
—“we”—
moving south
serenading sinecures
in hand-made hopes
and crushing blows
an empty box
that might be filled with spice
an empty ship
that might more lightly go
if sweet and light
it could more crudely show
the underside
of the undercommons
locked deep in the hold
of the ship slipping below

*

In some historical situations a fire, say, is set in a building where some quarry, let’s call them, has holed up, and when the quarry comes running out of the burning building they have sought, let’s call it, refuge in, they are shot dead by those lying in wait who have themselves set the fire in the first place. Those who set the fire, let’s call them hunters, claim the setting of the fire and the shooting of the quarry are two separate and unrelated events. They claim the quarry, whom, they accuse, were somewhere they should not have been, came running at them, and that they were therefore forced, is how they put it, to shoot them in self-defence, as they call it.

But the quarry know the direct and systemic connections between the setting of the fire and their being shot upon seeking to escape the fire—indeed, their becoming quarry, and taking refuge in the building in the first place, was the result of the hunters “hunting.” They know this is the hunter’s game, and that in this and many similar historical situations, they have so often been named quarry, and that justice is a world without hunters and without quarry, a world where fires are not lit and shots are not fired and “the world is its own refuge.”

*

sea’s blue
leaps out a bird
leaps out a hand
skyward to jets
to ward ships
from the shore

the lawyer
briefed and briefly
docs the
deep dislocation
in the Sahel
as rainfall patterns
floods and droughts
disrupt the
climatic fact

that the world
was born yearning
to be a home
for all

 *

While the Medusa was not charged with the task of re-engaging in the slave trade, that was nevertheless the end result of the re-establishment of the French colony at Saint-Louis in Senegal, as the new governor conveniently turned the proverbial blind eye. “By the end of June 1818 a French patrol route had been set up in an attempt to intercept and arrest slavers but, perversely, the inconvenience of eluding capture made the trade more difficult and therefore even more profitable for those who escaped the authorities.”

2015—the latch locks on the darkened hold as fighter jets scramble to fishing ports. “Immigration restrictions and the crackdown on smugglers are part of what turned the migrant crisis into a humanitarian disaster. Instead of deterring migrants, these laws make smuggling operations more profitable, more professional and far more brutal.”

Alexandre Correard, survivor of the raft of the Medusa and author of The Shipwreck of the Frigate, the Medusa: “Readers, who shudder at the cry of outraged humanity, recollect, at least, that it was other men, fellow countrymen and comrades, who had placed us in this abominable situation.”

*

—declarations of rights—
whose subtle inscription
of natural life
is the ordinary figure
in this juridical order
exception made law
and life made bare

it’s Zoe told me this
as we careened
through a dull day—
you can build an office
in your home
but you can’t build a home
in your office

I write to the lawyer. I stare at the reproduction of the Gericault painting on the cover of Jonathan Miles’s The Wreck of the Medusa, its greeny tones deepening in time. A mirror that turns you to stone. The energy feeding the lamp I read by. Can you really tell which bodies are white, and which are black, on the dust jacket reproduction? I scan on-line pictures of blue boats bobbing in the Mediterranean, a diver dragging a blue jean-clad body up through clear water, dark hands hanging loose at its sides. I walk on the beach near my home, looking at ships and water-bound borders.

My ancestors came to the “new world” as a new climate comes to a region that is soon warming. Coal miners, we were ourselves largely carbon, affecting other carbon, through the release of still more carbon. “We” (things that are living) are all carbon-based beings, but “we” (active and passive participants in waves of economic violence) don’t all do unto others as “we” would accumulate various and unequal wealths and debts to ourselves.

*

under immigration powers
held prior to deportation
on hunger strike until
we could prove that he was
who he said he was
from people who could speak
his language
who could confirm that he’d
been met in the village before

     This was the commune
     vois of every man

he lived a cold winter
sleeping in a phone box
ate food from the floor
the street market left
at the end of the day
he always asked me
about my family
even though he knew that his was gone

the law has this lingering human shape
that from its metal workings must be scraped

*

April 24 2015, Senegalese writer Fatou Diome on French television, an older white man on either side of her, and her gallant white, male host trying throughout to interrupt her: “You see on the headline the flow of African migrants arriving in Europe but you don’t speak of the Europeans going to Africa. That’s the free flow of the powerful, the ones who have the money, and the right kind of passports. You go to Senegal, to Mali, to any country around the world… Anywhere I go, I meet French people, Germans, and Dutch. I see them everywhere around the world, because they have the right passport. With your passport, you go anywhere around the world, and act like you run those places, with your pretentious demeanor. Stop the hypocrisy. We will all be rich together, or perish together.”

*

the earth’s crust
titling under shift
of waters and ice
melt over mantle
pressing earthquake
to drought lips

this kiss for
refuge a greeting
or a goodbye

the law sits
a hooded falcon
on whose arm
privilege preys

*

What if complicity is a form of relationship—of negative connection—the realization that we are all in (or near) the same drunken boat? It’s just that some of us own the boat, some of us built the boat, some of us work on the boat—some of us have boarded the boat by choice, some because we felt we had no choice, others who were given no choice at all. Still others haven’t even heard about the boat, or they watch it idly, crowded and listing on TV, as waters are roughed by hovering helicopter blades. Complicity, like privilege, then, is when we find our relationship to the boat and find we were not exactly forced, that we can yet choose otherwise. Gather at the stern. Organize the disembarkation into unkempt regions of permanent asylum.

*

—asylum seeker—
the lawyer coughs—
beneath its hood
the law startles
bells on talons jangling

accounts
can sometimes vary
and this is seen as
inconsistent
there can be different accounts
from different members of a family
and this can be seen as
inconsistent

if the information is
inconsistent
it can’t be true

then there is turbulence
somewhere between
the jail and the endless sea

*

1819: The painter Theodore Gericault begins work on his masterpiece, The Raft of the Medusa, in a studio in suburban Paris. “Gericault who, from the outset, craved facts about the catastrophe and assembled a file full of related documents”—painting severed limbs, hands and heads in his noxious studio—“a tangle of limbs that recalls the human debris strewn about the raft”—“the painter spent days in charnel-houses studying decay”—“we can attribute to these paintings and drawings of severed limbs the role of stimuli in his living with the raft”—“I will set myself adrift on a difficult sea,” Gericault proclaims.

October 24, 1848. In the Louvre. “A mason’s ladder punctured The Raft of the Medusa, damaging some sky and the side of the hand of the sailor waving for rescue”—“the controversially placed black signaller at the apex of all their hope.”

“What we see in the distance is not a rescue vessel, it’s nothing but a part of the same state machinery that is responsible for our present plight.”

*

—dear accomplice—
my anomic drive
is lodged in the very heart
of the nomos
—sing out from the
stays and spars
of fraught voyage—

we shal [not] drenchen in the depe
we will be as soft merchants
we will prune and tame
gardens
no flowers will field us
oysters
the times will be
incipient
a chorus of groans
will mark all our small
tragedies
no one will see the eyes
we do not possess
we will not repatriate
value
value will be the heat
in our hands as we
reach out to another
and pull them onto the
common shore

*

One smuggler was a former oilrig technician. “For the short term at least, international companies have good reason to hunker down in Libya. The country’s crude is abundant. It is also generally light and sweet—that is, low on density and sulfur, a favorable formula for importers and downstream operators—and easy to access.”

The Raft of the Medusa was painted in sombre, monochromatic tones, and has grown even darker as it has aged. This the result of Gericault’s experimental use of “bituminous paint.” Bitumen: “a naturally-occurring, non-drying, tarry substance used in paint mixtures to enrich the appearance of dark tones. Bitumen became very popular as a paint additive in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth. However, because it does not dry it eventually causes severe darkening and cracking of the paint.”

*

—shapeless future—
we steal our way
far from press releases
to fish on rocks
to one side of the nothing
power does not
already oversee
practicing another mode
of gasping—intake stardust
infinitesimal drops of
water—oil
drops by turns
turned out
turning spheres colours
green turning blue
turning out

*

Libya has two seas: the Mediterranean to the north, and the Sahara to the south.

Judie, wearing a red headscarf, is from Eritrea. Aged 25, she is already a widow. She first went to Khartoum and was smuggled into Libya from there. She was caught while crossing the desert. “Yes, it’s dangerous. I know I can die. If I get a chance to live, OK, better. But if I die, that’s also OK. I cannot go anywhere else to change my life.”

“The four months that we stayed there—do you know what death is like? Several times they said: we’re leaving. But we didn’t. Twice we reached the shore but were turned back. Once we reached the boat—but then they said there’s no more space.”

It looked like a fishing boat, but it was a strange time of day to go fishing. “I will make you fishers of men,” someone somewhere once said. The ships are pointed roughly towards a certain oilrig, not far from Lampedusa. The expectation is that if the boat is not spotted earlier, the employees of the oilrig will call the Italian or Maltese coastguards to pick it up.

“Many people would go on the boats, even if they didn’t have any rescue operations.”

He only turned to smuggling because he could not find work as a lawyer

and we turn away quickly in the gallery
damaging some sky
                     and the Grete See seen from below
ripples ever outward

 

 

 

 

The Kropotkin Poems

“The Kropotkin Poems” is a book or sequence of poems about the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin that the Canadian poet Phyllis Webb did not write; they exist only as a 1967 grant proposal and several fragmentary poems (some titled “Poems of Failure”) that lie in the long gap between Webb’s 1965 Naked Poems and 1980’s Wilson’s Bowl.

I go to see Phyllis—the first time in almost a year, which is too long a gap, when someone is 88 years old. Up early bus to first ferry the grey sea chopping against the causeway—November in August, the power still out at home—lowering and layered sky of various charcoals torn to shreds.

I’ve tried many times to write about poetry and anarchism—it’s too easy to fall into simply associations (the improvisational anarchy of contemporary “free” verse)—or to celebrate heroic figures—a problem Webb found herself up against with Kropotkin and his “saintly” image, the contradiction of “centralizing” anarchism’s history and ideas into an identifiable corpus.

I take the bus from Fulford Harbour to Ganges. Salt Spring Island is green in this storm despite the season’s long drought. Phyllis, too, is the same as ever, seeming not to have changed much over the 12 years I have been visiting. She is sitting in her chair, books and paintings all around her. By chance or clairvoyance, Kropotkin’s Memoirs of a Revolutionist is on the table at her side. “I don’t know how it got there…” she says.

Poetry and anarchism becomes another take on poetry and the political generally. Many poets (myself included) have been writing about this difficult nexus of late. Problems can arise when poets tell other poets exactly how this is to be done, how they are doing it wrong. Struggle is a particularity we each figure out alone or in small groups. Though I think what we all want is the material, the street, real change—not escape into poems, but poems as avenues into the fight and fray. Thing is—one size never fits all, and difference is the difficult days we each must live, often or in large alone.

Phyllis says, off-hand, anarchism brought “messages for my poetry” (channelling William Butler Yeats). It’s not always so simply the poem’s proximity to action/activism that matters; often, it’s the passage walked in both directions between, the nature of the network, the relays that form an array between authors, ideas, movements, and yes, “actual” “actions.” We can become so mad for acts to replace words, for words not to supplant acts. Porosity is what I want in the relationship between art and politics. I want to go back and forth, as needed.

In her failed fragments of Kropotkin Poems, Phyllis writes of the “Insurrectionary wilderness of the I / am, I will be”—a temporal and transformative process that ends in being “something other.” Poetry pulls in the direction of such transformations, and it’s such insurrectionary wildernesses that keep pulling me back to it.

Phyllis and I decipher some of her marginal notes in Kropotkin, look at other books, a bright abstract painting (hers) we haven’t paid attention to before, order pizza and drink beer. With each of us holding a copy of her new Collected Poems, me asking something about Kropotkin, Phyllis suddenly remembers a poem where someone is wearing a red hat, and we are both off searching for it, neither of us remembering. We find it at the same exact moment, working our way through the book from opposite ends.

What keeps drawing me back to Phyllis? Her strength to remain alone (which I lack), her resolute withdrawal, her ability to dwell in the glare of her fragments and failures. It’s as resistance that she continues. Islanded. Bulwarked. But open, curious. What a barrage she had to endure—as a single, unaffiliated, unrepentant intellectual woman in her day (I think of Anne Boyer’s incredible comments on struggle from an interview with Amy King posted today).

I come to Phyllis for the possibilities of despair, for endurance, for the potentiality that remains in determined resignation (I can’t go on / I will go on). And for her poems on Lenin and Kropotkin and the persistent and potent failures of our revolutionary dreams.

Her failures and refusals are fashioned from a position painfully honed in the negative space around the western patriarchal colonial forward pushing and acquisitive arrow through time. Charles Olson: “it is unfinished business I speak of….” Webb: it is the business of not finishing I speak of—the western and European urge to do, to make, to identify and dictate what is to be done that she undercuts, abandons. Her question is: what is to be undone? It’s a question for the anthropocene—for this age of geophysical capitalism.

It is a luxury and privilege to visit her. At just this moment—with the planet careening on its warming arc, spilling storms out of its darkening oceans, an election in the works that may, or may not, make much of a difference, and the Unist’ot’en Camp, where Indigenous land defenders are holding the line in the path of numerous pipelines punching their way into the unceeded heart of these mountains and rivers without end—it hardly seems the time to escape to an island to visit a solitary and aging former poet. But I do, as I must—holding to the resistances that I can.

Just before I leave, Phyllis mentions that she is getting rid of books, lightening her load. I ask about Kropotkin’s Memoirs, on the table between us. No, she says, I don’t think I can part with it yet. I leave soon after, with George Woodcock’s The Anarchist Prince: A Biographical Study of Peter Kropotkin (Boardman 1950) in my bag. It’s a good second prize.

Refugee Tales and Common Rights

At first, my trip to England this June was mixed up with occasional thoughts of ancestry, of the vague awareness that my forebears had called this place home, had wandered this green land, restlessly moving about, looking for work. Eventually they came to Canada, to work in mines or marry coal miners. But in whatever sense my life has been shaped by migrations, it was nothing compared to the precarious and shifting sands walked by the people I travelled with for a week across the county of Kent.

What I was doing was this: walking across eighty miles of the south of England, from an “immigration removal centre” in Dover to another near Gatwick Airport. It was Refugee Week in the UK, and the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG), an English charity, had organized “The Refugee Tales”—a walk in solidarity with detainees and refugees. Loosely anchored in Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th century poem of pilgrimage, The Canterbury Tales, each night different authors (myself being one of them) told contemporary tales based upon interviews with former detainees, asylum seekers, and others traumatized by their experiences of displacement and the equally chilling confrontation with borders and detention. In the UK, as in Canada, there are no time limits on the detention of so-called “illegal” immigrants, and their lives become a nightmarishly endless limbo. The GDWG is calling for a maximum 28-day limit on detention. This would be a start.

What I was really doing was this: walking with a number of refugees, former detainees and asylum seekers—as well as many of their supporters—people whose company I will never forget. It was this—that we were together day after day—that we were humans together, laughing, touching, sharing meals, telling stories—that great burdens weighed down upon these people—but that we were able to share those burdens for a few days, and walk inside each others’ stories—this is what it was really all about. It was an extended visit with people for whom the entire world was a vast and Kafkaesque detention centre—where it should have been a refuge for all in need of shelter.

IMG_2363

I can only say so much about the refugees themselves. They suffered incredible persecution in their home countries—imprisonment, torture, beatings, attempted murder, the persistent terrors of war and precarity—only to arrive in the UK and find themselves once again jailed in closely surveilled solitary confinement, for months and sometimes for years. Or else they had been many years—in some cases even decades—living and working in the UK, integrated and contributing to society, only to have their “legality” called into question, at a border or through an “anonymous tip.” Detention and the loss of everything—jobs, homes, freedom, etc.—swiftly followed. Now they were in a perpetual limbo, unable to travel or work, forced to appear every other week to be fingerprinted, scanned, their identities confirmed—and then sent back to continue awaiting a decision that never seems to come.

One man was terrified of dogs met on the path we walked, so several of us would surround him every time we passed a dog walker. It didn’t matter how large or small, calm or excited the dog was. I was hesitant to ask what the source of this fear was. He would smile afterwards, but his brow would be furrowed from worry, his expression conveying embarrassment, helplessness, and an inability to talk about the situation.

What else can I say? They are the human wrecks of globalization, washing back up on Empire’s shores. But they are also some of the most human people I have ever met, their humanity laid bare through what they were enduring—their vulnerability, their need for friendship and hospitality, for a haven in the storm of their lives. They laughed easily, teasing each other. They were worried about hair loss and love. They wanted, more than anything else, to help, to be useful, part of a common cause. I found myself deeply admiring each and every one of them.

IMG_2498

One lunchtime break on our walk, sitting amongst tombstones on the grassy lawn of a medieval church, I spoke about the commons, past and present. I noted the close link between the drive to acquire and extract resources and the displacement of people from their traditional lands. I also noted the fact that this was happening not only in former colonies, but often now even in the heart of Empire, as evidenced by recent reports of the discovery of a large shale oil deposit under the Weald Basin, right under the “garden of England,” an area we were currently overlooking from our perch on the North Downs. One report noted that

The government … wants to speed up shale companies’ ability to get access to land. The current process is “time-consuming, uncertain and costly”. It says: “If we did nothing to address this issue, the commercial exploitation of shale gas and oil in Great Britain is unlikely to develop in a timely manner, or at all.”

This has of course been the tactic in Canada too (where extraction recently came home to roost for many settlers in the form of Kinder Morgan’s pipeline surveying in suburban Burnaby): change regulations in the name of economic expediency, double down on the process of enclosure, align everything so that extraction can proceed as swiftly as possible. In this moment of Geophysical Capitalism—the stage at which the globally organized accumulation of wealth negatively affects the entire Earth System—the capitalists will even dig up their own back yards. There can be no home anymore, not for anyone, anywhere.

At least, that’s where we are heading. For refugees and detainees, for Indigenous people living on top of or in the path of resource projects, that situation already exists. Peter Linebaugh, in Stop Thief!, directly connects the enclosure of land and bodies: “The commons is destroyed in two ways, by imprisonment and privatization. … Restorative justice therefore must include both the restoration of the commons and the restoration of liberty to the prisoner.”

Speaking in that churchyard in rural Kent, I connected these two processes through a call for two new and hypothetical forms of common right: common of refuge and common of future.

Common of refuge: the right of movement and resettlement; the right to claim refuge when driven from one’s homelands by social or economic persecution or environmental distress.

Common of future: the right to enjoy as healthy and sustainable an environment in the future as people have in the past; more generally, the right to a liveable future environment.

These are ideas and ideals that would obviously need to be fleshed out in full. But the reality is that the people arriving at the borders of “developed” nations are driven there by the wars, economic policies, and environmental degradation, sometimes indirectly but more often than not directly caused by those same “developed” nations. With climate change this will only continue and expand. Building walls is no option. We have to re-think the relationship between human beings and the land we live on, sometimes must travel across, and will require the support of in the future.

IMG_2486

I find myself drawing again and again upon what I continue to learn from Indigenous peoples. The idea for a common right of future, for instance, might be elaborated from the sort of language currently being deployed in Canada to define Aboriginal Title, specifically that land “cannot be … encumbered in ways that would prevent future generations of the group from using and enjoying it. Nor can the land be developed or misused in a way that would substantially deprive future generations of the benefit of the land.”

Indigenous protocols for entrance to their traditional territories might also be scaled up to help facilitate a common right of refuge. I am cautious here of appropriating certain aspects of Indigenous cultures, but I am also convinced that the wider human culture needs to learn sustainable practices from people who have long practiced them. I think this can be done in ways that avoid appropriation.

Walking in England, with people driven from their homelands and now forced into internal exile in the country they had sought refuge in, I wondered what, as a practice or mode of being, “Indigenous” might be taken to mean. Working from the example of Indigenous peoples around the world, I would in part define the word this way:

Long-term, multi-generational inhabitation of a territory, based on cultural practices geared towards a sustainable, interdependent relationship to the natural environment of that territory.

By this definition, almost no one in England (or any other capitalist country) has been “Indigenous,” despite countless generations of habitation, for several centuries now: a key part of the development of capitalism was the severing of long established ties to land, and the conversion of all lands into commodities (with attendant laws developed to protect such landed property—whether private or “national”). This occurred, as Marx argued, in waves of displacement: enclosure of common lands, the seizing of colonies. We cannot now go back—but we might yet pursue new relations to the earth (and each other) by picking up on paths that many abandoned (or were forced from) long ago. “The victory of the commons must bring with it new kinds of human beings,” Linebaugh argues. Such new human beings will only come into view once we can see our way to a new, nurturing, refuge-providing and sustainable relation to the lands we necessarily share.

 

 

Morning Poem on Sincerity for Lisa Robertson

I will make a present
will shy from the scaffold
of false presents as in the
presentation of rigged-up
collectives first person
plural presents the present
as a tense fabric or sheet
draped over the presence of
the body where the body is
never just “the body” but
the presence of a very
particular historical body
the past iterations of which
are present too and somehow
amidst confused and cluttered
grasping for a something
that knows it is present
picking up a stone to throw
at the raccoon right now
threatening the house cat in
the back garden the presence
of this whatever it is becoming
will one day be present at the
unambiguous pronouncement of
a “we” that is actually present
in the presentation of its
sincerity which will be a
real present for all there who
remain giving in their
shared state of receiving
which is to say relational
which is to say we proclaimed
this at that very moment then
and walked away amidst
uncertain light together
towards what we still had to call
“the open”

 

After Burnaby Mountain (Part 3)

From diversity of tactics to a dual power movement

David Graeber offers a useful taxonomy of political “action” in his book Direct Action, covering a spectrum of “anything from leafleting in front of a supermarket to shutting down a global summit” (359). Graeber’s taxonomy includes:

(1) marches and rallies, which in most cases are not technically direct actions at all … (2) picket lines, (3) street parties, (4) classic civil disobedience (blockades and lockdowns), and finally (5) Black Bloc actions (361).

This gives one range of what we might call a diversity of tactics—from the more non-confrontational and indirect forms of action to the more confrontational and direct forms of action—and success, as Graeber and others maintain, depends upon “a combination of several different kinds of action” (360).

Diversity of tactics does not mean “anything goes,” and it does not necessarily include actions that can legitimately be called “violent.” Indeed, going by everything I know of, say, in the past five years in Canada—from Occupy to Elsipogtog, Idle No More to Burnaby Mountain—I would not call any action taken by activists or indigenous land defenders “violent”—though certainly there were moments of state violence carried out by the police. I would, however, note that most of these moments of resistance deployed a diverse range of tactics—and the more impact the moment had, the wider or at least more apparent the range of tactics tended to be.

The choice of tactics and actions taken is contingent upon the people and communities involved and the goals they have. Thus, another way of explaining diversity of tactics is by noting that political action is context-based (what do people need to do in a given context? What are they capable of/prepared to do? What is likely to succeed in this context?). There is no one-size-fits-all option, and no universally “better” tactical approach to social change—in part, as I argued in Part 2 of this series, because of the unevenness of contemporary democracies (there are some contexts in which our current system “works,” or can be made to “work,” and many others in which it very clearly does not).

Harsha Walia, in her excellent book Undoing Border Imperialism, also notes that “the question of whether a tactic is effective or not is entirely contextual” (187), and adds two very important details to any discussion of diversity of tactics: first, that it means “respecting a range of tactics”—I’m emphasizing the aspect of “respect” here—and, second, “maintaining communication to ensure comfort and alerting others” (186). I think, diversity of tactics can be claimed as a boon to social movements only when it involves a basic respect for difference—difference of experience, contextual difference that shapes a given community’s choice of action—and clear communication about those differences and the different tactical choices they lead to.

Switch back to Burnaby Mountain this past fall. Using Graeber’s taxonomy, we can clearly identify BROKE, as I did in Part 1 of this series, as employing less direct and less confrontational tactics—largely determined by the context of that community (an older, suburban resident community). The group often referred to as the “Caretakers,” by contrast, employed more direct and at times more confrontational tactics—again, I would argue, something that should largely be understood contextually: the “Caretakers” were generally younger, more socially marginalized, and many had had prior experiences with state violence, thus limiting their “faith” in the existing system and its likelihood of responding to their “peaceful protest.”

Again, as I noted in Part 1, these two groups tended to be critical of their different approaches, and only the intensity and speed with which events unfolded prevented either a complete break between the groups (though it came close), or a potential reconciliation between them.

My question is intentionally simplistic and perhaps naïve: what if these groups had respected their differences, openly acknowledged and discussed them (as being rooted in different social and community experiences), and found a way to allow room for their different tactical approaches? What would this take? What if, on September 13 2014, the groups planning a rally in Burnaby Mountain Park, and those planning a lockdown at the gates of Kinder Morgan’s Westridge Terminal, had respected their different approaches, and communicated and coordinated closely so that neither group felt like the other was “stealing their thunder”?

This last example may be a minor one (nothing that happened on September 13 altered the course of future events much—but it did sow the seeds of disagreement between the two main groups organizing resistance to Kinder Morgan’s work on Burnaby Mountain). Nevertheless, I think it is indicative of the larger problem: how are we going to alter the course of the current socio-economic system? How are we going to stop a pipeline, begin the transition to renewable energy, and ultimately do something about climate change? Again—I don’t believe any one tactic or approach will do it on its own, and what we need is respect for a range of tactical approaches, and better communication and coordination between our diverse actions.

Not very sexy, I know. This probably won’t make anyone happy, but I’m tired of desperate calls for “direct action,” couched in criticisms of those who are not leaping into the fray (without any consideration of why others might not be), and lacking a sense of wider strategy/goals—just as I’m equally tired of the vast majority of people (and I mean here people who acknowledge climate change, inequality, and that “something is wrong” with the status quo) doing nothing impactful enough about the massive, systemic problems we currently face (perhaps simply because their privilege shields them from the immediate effects of these systemic problems). There has to be another way forward—and I think it’s the sometimes uncomfortable way of allowing room, and even respect, for our different experiences—communicating and coordinating together—even when this means those differences seem (depending on your position) more “radical,” or more “liberal,” than you’d normally be comfortable with.

I’ll conclude with one final way of defining diversity of tactics. And this is by mapping diversity of tactics onto the idea of dual power. A dual power movement is one which pursues two seemingly contradictory paths at once: one aimed at short term “reforms” or adjustments to the current system, using the existing channels a democracy affords, and one aimed at the longer term goal of building a “new society in the shell of the old” (as the IWW used to say). Dual power acknowledges what I have called the unevenness of contemporary democracy: there are instances and contexts in which the given system can in fact be used to achieve justice (though this will often involve things like rallies, street marches, and acts of civil disobedience); but there are other instances in which injustice is very much part of the system’s “normal” functioning (think—structural, often racially deployed economic inequality, fossil fuel driven climate change and industrial pollution, expropriation and dispossession of land and resources, often, again, along racial lines, etc. etc.)—thus, what we really need to achieve is system change: an end to “market fundamentalism,” our reliance on fossil fuels and large-scale resource extraction, corporate influence over the political system, etc. etc.

System change takes time. But we don’t have a lot of time. So we need to use the tools at hand to effect shorter-term change (for instance, voting, organizing in opposition to certain policies, proposals, pieces of legislation, etc.), and we need to explore and invent new tools to effect longer term, structural change. We need both. And we need them both now. So we need diverse social movements, where some are working the tools of short term and limited change, and others are working towards systemic change at a very deep level. And we need to acknowledge and respect these different goals and their attendant tactics and actions.

Maybe this is too much to ask. Personally, I want the revolution tomorrow. But I’m not so deluded that I think my wanting it will bring it, or that we are going to find the silver bullet tactic we can all get down with here and now. And I’m not willing to see people thrown under the bus while we figure the revolution out—not if there are means of alleviating injustice at our democratic disposal right now. Activism isn’t an all-or-nothing situation. Social change is messy, uneven, filled with uncomfortable compromises, and often confusing. But it’s also life-affirming, inspiring, community-building, and what we desperately need more of—in all its diverse forms.

After Burnaby Mountain (Part 2)

On Civil Disobedience

I’m in the midst of facilitating a special interdisciplinary graduate course and lecture series at SFU (with fellow former Kinder Morgan civil suit defendant Lynne Quarmby) on civil disobedience. Good timing, no? And what I find I’m being reminded has more to do with the limits of civil disobedience (CD), its necessarily constrained definition, and the larger question and range of “actions” and tactics into which CD fits as one potential mode of resistance.

The first speaker in our series, Dr. Kimberly Brownlee, noted that CD is characterized by “civility” (nonviolence), and that it is “communicative” (it’s intention is to be seen/heard, for a “message” to be delivered). CD is not something you keep secret: the dissenter gives themselves over to the state (via arrest), as a way of conveying the message that a particular law or situation is unjust, and so the breaking of the law, and subsequent arrest, are undertaken in order to draw public attention to the injustice. Typically, the person engaging in CD openly announces their intention in advance (I am reminded here of Lynne Quarmby’s speech to the media before she crossed the Kinder Morgan injunction zone and gave herself up for arrest: she did so declaring that she was striving to be “the best citizen I can be”). There is no subterfuge here—everything is out in the open.

A few things are already clear: CD can be distinguished from more militant/radical forms of resistance. It is often noted that CD, strictly speaking, is an act that accepts the state’s legitimacy to set laws, make arrests, and determine consequences, generally; it is a particular law or situation that is the focus of CD—not the system writ large or the state as such. Indeed, the democratic state is being appealed to in CD, and the person(s) engaging in CD often continue to think of themselves as “good citizens” making legitimate “asks” of a system that should, if functioning correctly, respond to their demand for justice. David Graeber, in Direct Action, notes that this is very much the democracy that evolved in the 18th and 19th centuries—while direct citizen participation in governance was limited via systems of representation, the freedom to challenge and lobby representatives was enshrined as a “right”: “public speech and assembly became inalienable rights at the moment they were definitively rejected as a means of actual political decision making.”

Thus, CD is very much part of how contemporary democracy, in principle, “ought” to function. But it makes less sense to refer to the actions of militants and radicals in terms of CD if they have, by definition, rejected the legitimacy of the state and current system of governance. No appeal is made here for the state to “fix” what is wrong; the state, as a tool and manifestation of capitalism and colonization, and despite its democratic pretences, is what is seen as wrong.

In reality, I would argue, life in a contemporary democracy is a constant negotiation with those parts of the democratic system that seem redeemable and (at least in principle or potentially) just, and those parts of it which seem to be beyond repair, or chronically unjust. And this essential unevenness is reflected spatially, across democracies, as well as (and indeed especially) according to the specific position and experience of communities and individuals within democracies (i.e., privilege: in some cases the system seems just, if you are white and gainfully employed; it is clearly unjust, and for the most part systemically so, if you are a recent immigrant, First Nations, poor, etc.).

There are contexts in which we might choose to appeal to democratic mechanisms to change local injustices, while there are simultaneous contexts in which we find ourselves compelled to challenge the entire character of the system and its ingrained, even foundational injustices. It’s for this reason that we need the idea of a diversity of tactics and dual-power forms of organization (which I will turn to in part 3 of this series of blogs): sometimes CD is the right tactic, because there are potential channels in the existing system to adjust/change/respond to the injustice in question. But sometimes we need to be more radical in our demands, because the injustice is a systemic one the current system simply cannot redress adequately, because the injustice in question is constitutive of the current system.

The context for the course on CD at SFU is climate change and climate justice. A question that needs to be asked is this: is the current socio-economic system’s reliance on fossil fuels and industrial extraction something that can be adjusted through popular social movements employing tactics like CD? Or is the system so totally enmeshed with the wealth, power, and infrastructure of the energy sector that it has become entirely unresponsive to democratic processes like CD? In other words, are we facing an adjustment to the system, or system change?

And while part of what I have suggested above is that the very unevenness of contemporary democracies makes the one-size-fits-all approach of many activists problematic, it is becoming more and more difficult to access the mechanisms of justice when not only are “citizens” abilities to participate in the decision process increasingly constrained (the NEB process being a case in point), but the freedom to seek redress through CD is also under increasing attack.