Pandemic Diary – June 1-7
The robot didn’t do it
So a robot takes your job – as in “Staff who maintain the news homepages on Microsoft’s MSN website and its Edge browser – used by millions of Britons every day – have been told that they will be no longer be required because robots can now do their jobs” which was reported in Microsoft sacks journalists to replace them with robots on May 30. Really? A machine without an independent and sustaining energy source, which has to be built and programmed by humans, just ‘woke up’ one morning and ‘thought’ – “I can do those journalists’ jobs better than they can, for much less money. Guess I should send management my CV – I’ll be a shoo-in.”
Robots and automation do not take jobs, and replace humans with machines. The owners and managers of the capital required to create and maintain the robots which replace the workers are the true ‘job-thieves’. It is magical thinking of the worst kind to imagine that robots are alive and have agency separate from those who own and control them. It may seem like that, because like any good stage magic your attention is distracted by the magicians in charge. These are the people who talk about ‘cloud servers’ and point your gaze skywards and not towards the actual servers which occupy huge amounts of ground area and consume vast amounts of energy.
They have lots of similar distracting trickery to make it seem like robots are a force of nature, rather than a force of capital and its use to make more capital, rather than to meet human needs for satisfying work and the means to lead a happy, worthwhile life. The owners of the robots hire top PR firms to maintain the fiction to the public, and there are also plenty of others in positions of influence (academics at top universities, writers for top business papers) who are happy to keep spinning the robot apocalypse myth as part of their regular work. It sure helps distract folk from the actual climate apocalypse which is just getting into gear right now. Which is also being brought to you by the owners of capital and how they choose to deploy it. But that’s another story. For now, just remember – the robots are innocent. But the person who owns the robot that took your job has a name and a track record. Call them out instead. (Hint: some big names to call – Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, Mark Zuckerberg, Eric Schmidt, Elon Musk.)
Non-cooperation and the creation of alternatives
At the end of his brilliant speech at the University of California, Berkeley in 1979, James Baldwin says:
“We can not pick up guns, because they got the guns. We can not hit those streets again because they are waiting for us. We have to do something else. Before each slave rebellion, there was something which I now call ‘non-cooperation’. How to execute this in detail is something which each one of us has to figure out. But we could begin with the schools, and take our children out of those schools. Take them off those buses. Everybody knows, who thinks about it, that you can’t change a school without changing the neighbourhood, and you can’t change the neighbourhood without changing the city, and ain’t nobody prepared to change the city because they want the city to be white … How can you expect a people who can not educate their own children to educate anybody else? This will be – well, contested – nevertheless, one’s gotta start somewhere. I only use that as an example. There are other things I have in mind, but I’m not really a tactician, I am a disturber of the peace. I want you to think about it. Because I know what could happen if you do think about it.”
This quote starts at around 23 minutes, four minutes before the end of the speech. It is worth listening to with the rest of the speech. A transcript can not do justice to Baldwin’s superb delivery, let alone the audience reaction. There are also many other things he says in the speech which resonate with what is happening in the USA right now, forty years on. Very sadly.
In Baldwin’s speech he refers to the black activists murdered in the 1960s and 1970s, and of course that roll call is now much longer, and includes many other black people who were not political activists but were killed by racist murderers nonetheless. Some of the murderers were wearing police uniforms, like the one who killed George Floyd. But as Baldwin says, guns are not the answer, and street protests are not the answer. Black people in the USA were and are, then and now, both outgunned and outnumbered. So alternatives are required, and his proposal regarding not bussing black kids to white schools implies that there will be an educational alternative for black children.
Since the 2000s, as activism in the form of direct opposition to state policies and practices has become less and less coherent with the rise of social media platforms which are increasingly doing more harm than good, and the ‘commodification’ of activism by corporate brands (most recently seen with regard to the Floyd killing – see examples at The Revolution Will Not Be Branded), there has been a concomitant rise in ‘alternativism’. The ‘alter-natives’ are people who are fairly confident (from personal experience and knowledge of history) that the current socio-economic system is optimised for violence and oppression at worst and exploitation and neglect at best, and that this situation has been getting worse, not better, over recent decades. So they have decided that “If you can’t beat ‘em; leave ‘em.” In other words – non-cooperation.
But non-cooperation is not a passive thing, any more than non-violence in its true and deepest sense is passive. It takes a lot of courage and intelligence to face down everything that is out to get you, and ‘build a Heaven in Hell’s despite’. Especially when some of what you do will be, as Baldwin expresses it – contested. Nevertheless, this is what various groupings of black Americans and indigenous Americans have been doing for some time now. They are making a difference in the present, and creating models for the future. Their non-cooperation with the Market-State which uses and abuses them is not individual and private – it is collective and public. It proudly uses the word – cooperative. Jackson, Mississippi is the home of Cooperation Jackson, whose “ … basic theory of change is centered on the position that organizing and empowering the structurally under and unemployed sectors of the working class, particularly from Black and Latino communities, to build worker organized and owned cooperatives will be a catalyst for the democratization of our economy and society overall.
Cooperation Jackson believes that we can replace the current socio-economic system of exploitation, exclusion and the destruction of the environment with a proven democratic alternative. An alternative built on equity, cooperation, worker democracy, and environmental sustainability to provide meaningful living wage jobs, reduce racial inequities, and build community wealth. It is our position and experience, that when marginalized and excluded workers and communities are organized in democratic organizations and social movements they become a force capable of making transformative social advances.”
Cooperation Jackson’s ‘proven democratic alternative’ is not unique to Jackson or to black Americans. It exists in places as different from Jackson, and each other, as Todmorden in Yorkshire (Incredible Edible Todmorden) and the Deccan Development Society in India. Although as culturally different as it may be possible to be, these ‘alternatives’ organisations recognise each other as sharing the same aspirations and using similar inclusively democratic means. They are also aware of, and in some cases connected to each other, via personal and organisational networks.
In 2019 the Indian activists and alter-natives responsible for the Vilkap Sangam/Alternatives Confluence , which brings together four different Indian ‘cooperative non-cooperating’ organisations, and their Latin American counterparts in Crianza Mutua/Mutual Nurturing, launched the Global Tapestry of Alternatives, saying:
“The world is going through a crisis of unprecedented global scale engendered by a dominant regime that has resulted in deepening inequalities, increasing deprivation in old and new forms, the destruction of ecosystems, catastrophic climate change, ruptures in socio-cultural fabrics, and the violent dispossession of living beings.
However, there is an increasing emergence and visibility of an immense variety of radical alternatives to this dominant regime, contesting its roots in capitalist, patriarchal, racist, statist, and anthropocentric forces.
These range from initiatives with a specific focus like sustainable and holistic agriculture, community led water/energy/food sovereignty, solidarity and sharing economies, worker control of production facilities, resource/knowledge commons, and inter-ethnic peace and harmony, to more holistic or rounded transformations such as those being attempted by the Zapatista in Chiapas and the Kurds in Rojava. Alternatives also include the revival of ancient traditions and the emergence of new worldviews that re-establish humanity’s place within nature, as a basis for human dignity and equality.
The Global Tapestry of Alternatives (GTA) is an initiative seeking to create solidarity networks and strategic alliances amongst all these alternatives on local, regional and global levels.”
The GTA’s ‘roadmap’ of actions for 2020 has hit some bumps due to Covid-19, but it made a good start in 2019 with 41 endorsing organisations already signed up in support of the initiative, and 49 individual endorsers. These include Kali Akuno, the Director of Cooperation Jackson.
From little things, big things grow? We’ll see whether and how the time is now ripe – as it seemed it was not ripe when Baldwin gave his speech forty years ago – for alternatives to grow and spread and link up and become a real threat to Market-State dominance of human affairs, and of nature. For this is indeed their purpose. As expressed by Crianza Mutua, it exists to “identify groups that have broken with the dominant regime and taken a new path” and (last but not least) “to inspire the discontent with the current situation by giving visibility to what can be done.”
Inspiring discontent and showing what can be achieved by radical non-cooperation – and radical cooperation. James Baldwin would be rapt that someone(s) are finally thinking about it. Because as he said back in 1979 – “I know what could happen if you do think about it.”
Two centuries of abnormality
In a succinct and incisive summary (‘Normal Is the Problem’) Andrew Nikiforuk describes what has been horribly abnormal about the past two centuries in terms of energy use, economic growth, human population growth, extinction of other species at far above the baseline natural rate, unprecedented levels of air, water and land pollution, etc., etc.
“Let’s face facts”, he says, “… our hi-tech, globalized-trade-anything-for-peanuts world run mostly by tyrants isn’t natural.” After giving some figures on just how bad things are he then looks at where the whole idea of ‘normal’ came from, and how it is only appropriate for things without life. Used in any other way, here is what he says happens:
“The standardized machine system demands normalcy because everything must conform to the right angles of progress, which means endless growth and consumption — all fuelled by the fiction of cheap energy.
Normal really means big-box living and being a slave to machines. It means you’re so distracted by screens, speed and mobility, you can’t pay attention to what matters. Normal means you don’t have any respect for limits or sacred places. Normal means you think you can simply swap fossil fuels with so-called “clean energy” and protect the norm. But it mostly means you have surrendered your capacity to be human and to love this place.”
He then sets out all the reasons why he doesn’t want to go back to that sort of ‘normal’, concluding with:
“I don’t want to go back to a world that doesn’t understand life is a precious miracle composed equally of joy, astonishment, love, tragedy and death.”
If that’s the way you think about life, then you’ll find Nikiforuk’s article an essential read. I have printed off a copy to study and keep.
Since James Baldwin’s words from forty years ago are still so relevant today – and since it seems that no one else has yet appeared who expresses the issues so well – I have been returning to his work and to those who appreciate its value recently. One of the latter is the academic and activist Cornel West. When asked in a video interview in 2017 what his students heard when they read Baldwin, he replied:
“They are hearing someone who refused to allow his fire to be dampened by overwhelming bleakness and darkness, and that’s a beautiful thing… What I love about him is – and as you know I’m mighty suspicious of the discourses of hope, I think that’s too abstract – the question is not having hope, the question is being a hope. Having hope is still too detached, too spectatorial. You got to be a participant, an agent, and keep on pushing, as Curtis Mayfield said. Be a force for good, Coltrane said. “Mississippi god damn!” said Miss Nina Simone. That ain’t having hope, that’s being hope. Courageously bearing witness regardless of what the circumstances is because you’re choosing to be a person of integrity to the best of your ability before the worms get your body.”
It seems that in these dark global pandemic times, which hit the already poor and oppressed hardest, there are now hundreds of thousands of people in America, and around the world, who have decided to be hope with their bodies by joining demonstrations. May they go on to find other ways to continue to be hope – effective hope – when the limits of street protest become apparent to them and the necessity to work on building alternatives from the ground up, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, stares them in the face. Fortunately, they will be in good company, and have lots of good models to emulate and tweak to suit their particular people and their particular place.