Oct 10, 2019
I was asked to repost this open letter from the administration and faculty of the University of Rojava and Kobanê. This is a university started by the people of Rojava to create their radical educational institution devoted to serving the needs of the region’s people. You can read more about the University here.
For universities and associated academic and intellectual institutions
These eight years there has been a revolution taking place in Rojava/Northeast Syria, with gains in the areas of democracy, tolerance, a culture of fraternity of peoples, respect for diverse religions and beliefs, gender equality, and individual liberty, a unique example growing in the Middle East. Despite all the radicalism in the region, we can live together, and both support and accept each other. We in the university also want a democratic social order that can strengthen modern science.
We wanted to become a centre of enlightenment and revitalisation of universal moral and social values that humanity has gained over its long history, preparing for free and peace loving future generations. But unfortunately, our university in Rojava, which is a garden of democracy, finds itself under the boot of the armies of the Turkish state and their thugs.
You know that Turkey, for the entirety of the Syrian war, has supported ISIS, and their hand is found in every massacre which has been carried out against the people of Syria. Today Turkey is trying to breathe new life into the Caliphate of ISIS, which had been brought down thanks to the resistance of the people of this region, and this dark force has helped it to organise itself anew.
All the so-called opposition forces of Syria which have a fanatical and radical, the Turkish state embraces them, lets them grow, and supports them so they may be employed as tools of war for them. Most of them are former members of ISIS and al-Qaeda, and Turkey now provokes them and lets them loose against our democracy and our advances.
Doubtless, the ignoring of rights, the censorship of our views, mean the acceptance and approval, the green light of great states such as Russia and America. On behalf of all the states that seek to benefit, Turkey will again carry out a significant massacre against the peoples of the region.
If there is a great threat and danger upon us now, if Islamic radicalism can move forward and amass forces with ease, if Turkey can organise massacres and slaughter as the largest terrorist organisation in the world, it is our belief that a historical role and responsibility rests upon the intellectual and academic communities of the world.
After the massacres of the Holocaust that were committed by Hitler, Adorno, in criticising the lack of responsibility shouldered by the intellectual community of his time, said “Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”.
Now too, in the particularity of Rojava, where the armies of Turkish fascism and Islamic radicalism have brought down every value and virtue of humanity, we hope that the scientific and intellectual community of the world will immediately take action against massacres such as those that have occurred in the Holocaust and in Şengal, which are still occurring, and will uphold their duties and responsibilities to humanity.
In this letter, we are writing to you so that you, among your own people, help resist against these armies which have tasked themselves with tearing down science and the work of the university, in the name of the defence of existence and honour.
Greetings on behalf of the administration and faculty of the University of Rojava and Kobanê
Aug 20, 2019
This year during my vacation in England and France I published almost daily blog posts. My writing was experiment to see if I could maintain a regular posting schedule. I also wanted to create a record of the trip. I went with my parents and son. I am not sure how many more long trips we will be able to take together and I thought it would be nice to have a travel log.
Over the month, I wrote four sets of posts. Each set was composed in one of the places where we were staying: Arles, Paris, Sers, and London. My posts tended to fall into four general, often overlapping, themes. I wrote about art, food, places, and politics. My favorite posts about art revolved around family friends Markéta Luskačová and Libuse Jarcovjakova. I summarized the restaurants we visited with posts about places to eat in London and Paris and paid tribute to Cadenheads in London. I wrote about the streets of Arles, Parc de la Villette in Paris, Chateau d’If off the coast of Marseille, the fascinating Château de La Rochefoucauld, and the disgust I felt at Versailles. I composed a meditation on the relation between fashion and politics as walked the Rue de Turenne and I met with a retired professor of political science, a journalist, and some anarchists to discuss the state of French politics. And I offered some pastoral words in the wake of a wave of mass shootings in the United States.
If the object was create a travel log that I will use to remember the trip, my blogging was absolutely a success. The same can be said if the objective was to increase the traffic to my blog. It roughly doubled over the course of the time that I kept the blog. The five posts that generated the most traffic were: Rue de Turenne (or some thoughts on champagne socialism); Reflecting on the Mass Shootings in Dayton, El Paso, Gilroy, and Southhaven from London; Château de La Rochefoucauld; It is the Job of the Far Left to Organize the Margins; and Europe 2019.
Composing a daily blog was a time consuming labor. It took me between 30 minutes and an hour and a half each day. It is not something that I will be continuing now that I am back in Houston. Instead, my blog will largely return to being a place for me to publish the texts of my sermons, letters to the congregation I serve, and announcements about upcoming events. On occasion, I will post other things but for the moment I will be focusing my non-sermon related writing on my scholarship.
Jul 27, 2019
We left Paris for a week in Sers, a small village outside of the southwestern city of Angoulême. We will staying with our friend Gilles Perrin and Nicole Ewenczyk. They just finished building a country house and studio there. It is so newly constructed that all of the furniture is yet to arrive. Everyone gets their own bedroom but I get to sleep on the floor.
Here’s the list of my blog posts in Paris:
It is the Job of the Far Left to Organize the Margins
The Failure of French Socialism and Future Tasks for the Left
Rue de Turenne (or some thoughts on champagne socialism)
The New French Right: a Conversation with Pascale Tournier
I will be writing a long post about food in Paris over the next couple of days while we’re in Sers. No trip there is complete without a meditation of the city’s cuisine.
Jul 20, 2019
Like a lot of other people, I enjoy shopping in Paris. Unlike the United States, there are only big sales twice a year—in July and January. I have learned that if you know where to go you can get some pretty extraordinary deals. As a minister and an academic I routinely show up in all sorts of circumstances wearing a suit and tie—or at the very least a sports jacket and nice slacks–and professional clothes cost a lot of money. A nice suit can easily set me back several hundred dollars.
The summer sales in Paris are good enough that it is possible to actually save a fair bit of money. The place I like to go is Rue de Turenne. It is a famous area for men’s shops in the Marais, a neighborhood in Paris that is a center for Paris’s Jewish and LGBT communities, fashion, and art. A lot of the men’s shops are small boutique designers or custom tailors. When the fashion seasons turn over they dramatically reduce their prices.
Three places I like to go are Johann, where I have bought several suits, Sam Daniel, which has wonderful light weight slacks, and Danyberd, where I have bought some nice shirts. The real deals are generally to be found on the suits. Both Sam Daniel and Johann typically have summer sales where they sell their suits for significantly less than I might be able to get them in the United States. Johann, for instance, sells Ermenegildo Zegna for about 25% of the price it would cost in the United States. This year I got a couple of nice suits from them and a really fantastic sports jacket. The pants and suit I got at Sam Daniel would have cost probably two or three times as much in the United States.
This brief rundown of my favorite men’s shops in Paris might come as a bit of a surprise to some people who know me well. An interest in high end men’s fashion and a commitment to Left radicalism don’t usually go together. In fact, there’s a variety of pejoratives that are sometimes hurled at people like me for the hypocrisy often supposed to be found in enjoying quality things and partaking of a privileged life—radical chic or champagne socialist to offer two. There is truth in those critiques, but hypocrisy is a fundamental condition that anyone with a moral compass must suffer under capitalism. Though Marx was thinking of the labor process when he wrote about alienation, I think that his insight that alienation is central to capitalism was a crucial one. In a capitalist system, based on consumerism and the exploitation of labor, we are all, in some way, alienated.
One example of this is the way in which churches have to function. Many religious communities aspire to be outside of the capitalist system. Many Unitarian Universalists are to some extent anti-capitalist. Yet in order to run a congregation of any scale, congregations have to hire employees—administrators, sextons, religious educators, musicians, ministers, and the like. As soon as they do this, they become employers and are forced to operate within the logic of capitalist employment schemes. Productive workers—those who further the mission of the congregation—need to be kept happy so that they won’t go somewhere else. Unproductive workers—those who don’t further the mission—have to be encouraged towards greater productivity or fired. But as all of this is happening congregations espouse, struggle to uphold, and advocate for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Except, when it comes to an employment situation under capitalism, they can’t. The logic of the system requires that workers in a church be treated by the church like workers in any other industry—as a means to an end. This a fundamental contradiction that cannot be overcome and it creates an alienation, a distance, between the values of the religious community and the community’s actions.
This brings me back to the question of men’s clothes. My choice is ultimately how I am going to position myself to best advocate for the transformation of the system. As I have written about in the past, I have a certain amount of privilege. One way I can leverage this privilege is by dressing a certain way—wearing a suit and tie for instance. Over the years, I have found that a lot of upper middle-income white people will be more accepting of radical ideas—and might even begin to adopt them—if I present myself as well educated, integrated into upper middle-income culture, and well dressed. My Minns lectures, for instance, both offer a blistering critique of progressivism and liberalism while advocating for Unitarian Universalism to draw more from anarchist, anti-fascist, and radical sources in articulating a theology to oppose the rising neo-Confederate totalitarianism of the current President. So, I buy nice cloths knowing that by putting on a certain persona I can better reach a certain segment of the population. Is this hypocritical or manipulative? Probably, but no more so than anyone else—be they performer, banker, or organizer--who adopts, consciously or not, a persona—a set of cloths, a particular aesthetic—to communicate that they are part of a particular community or advocate for a certain set of politics. Call it champagne socialism, if you like, but it’s the best I’ve got at the moment and it seems to make me more effective.
Jul 18, 2019
This morning my parents and I had breakfast with John Ambler. John is a member of my congregation and a retired professor of political science. He spent his career at Rice teaching about and researching French politics. He and his wife Joyce spend part of each summer in Paris. Since we were all in town at the same time, we thought it would be nice to meet up, though Joyce ultimately wasn’t able to join us. We ate at a delightful cafe in the Marais—fresh orange juice and a croissant for me and my parents, a coffee for John and my father, and hot chocolate for my Mom. Our conversation touched on a number of personal topics and then turned to French politics and the global political situation.
I shared with John my account of my conversation with the CNT-SO militant FD yesterday. He offered his perspective on the yellow vest movement. He said that it was comprised of people who felt that they had been left behind by French society—primarily rural people and those from small cities. He also said that while it was not allied with the Left it had not been captured by the Right. Instead, it operates outside of the traditional categories of French politics.
We also spoke about the failure of French socialism. In his view, the central problem was that even when they won power the French socialists still had to operate within a global capitalist system. When François Mitterrand came to power in 1981, he set about nationalizing a number of industries. Banks and capital writ large responded by engaging in a capital strike—they began to remove money from France and took business away from the country. The economy took a severe beating and, as a result, Mitterrand was unable to live up to his promises. A similar thing happened, John said, when François Hollande came to power—the external power of capital prevented the socialist government from pursuing any sort of anti-capitalist program.
John’s account reminded me of the old debate between Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky. Stalin argued that socialism is possible in one country. Trotsky countered that the strength of global capital is such that in order for socialism to succeed it must pursue the complete destruction of global capital and a situation of permanent revolution. Otherwise it will succumb to capital.
The history of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries seems to suggest that the actual answer to this question is... it depends. Anti-capitalist communities can survive, it appears, in particular situations on the political, economic, and social margins. The Zapatista movement and the Rojava commune both have managed to create space for mass anti-capitalist communities whose internal economic, political, and social structures are far more radical than anything the French socialists could muster. However, they are so far from the centers of economic and political power that they appear to pose little structural threat to capitalism—which would not be true of France if Mitterrand had succeeded in his socialist project. The mere scale of France would have proved a significant challenge to capitalism if it had successfully created a socialist economy.
From there our conversation wandered to cover two more points. The first was another challenge that the Left faces: How to deal with automation? The second was about weakest point in the global economy, transit. Automation opens up all sorts of questions about what work is, how much work is available, whether working people will be able to have middle income jobs, and economic productivity. It has proven to be a significant challenge to the labor movement and provided capitalists with a crucial tool in undermining unions. Transit—particularly shipping—is central to the current itineration of capitalism. Most of manufacturing is built on just-in-time shipping. This means that transit workers have the power to significantly disrupt factory work by quickie strikes rather than protracted struggles. This is a possibility for working class resistance to capital that has largely been unexplored.
John is in his mid-eighties. We more-or-less ended the conversation with him telling me that it was up to me, my generation, and those younger than me to figure out if it was possible to find answers to the questions of socialism in one country and automation. Those are my words, not his, but I think that they capture the essence of our conversation.
Jul 18, 2019
Today I met up with two anarchists to discuss French and American politics and social movements. I first met MN almost fifteen years ago when we part of the organizing committee for the Industrial Workers of the World Centenary in Chicago. He is currently splitting his time between Paris, where his partner works, and the United States. He is no longer a member of the IWW but he remains active in radical politics. He works as a house painter.
I met FD three years ago when I was in Paris on my way to an academic conference in Toulouse. He is a militant with the French anarcho-syndicalist union CNT-SO. He is a teacher and is currently finishing a PhD in philosophy.
Both MN and FD are about my age and, like me, both men started participating in the anarchist movement when they were in their late teens or early twenties. Much of our conversation focused on the present state of the French anarchist movement and the overall political situation in Europe and the United States. We also spent a little time discussing common acquittances or our previous collaborations.
France has a long anarchist history but in recent decades its anarchist movement has been relatively small. The General Confederation of Labor, or CGT, is effectively France’s largest labor union. It was originally founded by anarchists in the late nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth century it was dominated by the Communist Party. The CNT-SO, or National Confederation of Labor, Workers Solidarity, is one of two anarcho-syndicalist labor unions in France today. Both are small and both exist because of a split in the historic French CNT which was formed in 1940s by anarchists who left the CGT and Spanish exiles.
The split in the French CNT occurred within the last fifteen years. It was over the issue of whether or not the union should have paid staff. This is a controversy that was emerged in almost every single anarcho-syndicalist union with more than a few hundred members over the last twenty years. The people who went onto form CNT-SO believed that paid staff were necessary to do certain kinds of work—legal work, for instance—while those who formed CNT-France rejected paid staff of any kind. I believe that in advanced capitalist economies paid organizers are a necessity for radical organizations to exist and sustain themselves on any kind of scale. That, however, is another blog post for another day.
During our conversation, FD told me he thinks that French society as a whole has moved significantly to the Right in the last twenty years. He also said that the radical Left is largely moribund or bereft of new ideas. The May Day parade in Paris, for instance, might attract tens of thousands of people but they all follow the same parade route that they have followed for the past fifty years. More concerning, he felt that the socialists and the anarchists were mostly without new ideas. The Socialist Party is rapidly losing influence with French politics and, he argued, many contemporary Leftist political leaders were no longer anti-capitalist—they look to American style liberalism as an inspiration rather than social democracy or the broader socialist tradition.
We spent a lot of time discussing our personal histories with the IWW and CNT-SO. I made the point that the IWW has increased in size over the last two decades. It has grown from a few hundred members to perhaps as many as three or four thousand. Despite a troubled history of interpersonal conflict, significant structural and cultural challenges, and its small size it has been an innovative force within the American labor movement. Its campaigns at Starbucks and Jimmy Johns proved that fast food workers could be organized. And its Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee has not only proved that imprisoned workers can be organized, it has helped coordinate some of the largest prison strikes in United States history.
MN shared his reasons for no longer belonging to the IWW—I can’t, as the senior minister of a congregation with twenty employees, I am no longer eligible for membership. He said that his repeated experiences of interpersonal conflict within the union had led him to believe that the IWW would never overcome its structural issues. He also said that he gained invaluable skills from his time with the IWW and that his experiences with the union had helped him to grow into an effective organizer in other contexts.
FD had a different perspective. He said that his experience with the CNT-SO had taught him that anarcho-syndicalism was probably never going to be a mass movement in France. But he had learned that it was the job of the far left to organize the margins. Anarchists are best suited to organize people who other groups—be they labor unions or political groupings—are not willing to organize. They have the most success organizing amongst those who are the farthest margins of society. In France, this has largely meant organizing the migrants who in hotels and in the hospitality industry. He shared with me that at the moment there is a strike organized by migrant hotel workers who are members of CNT-SO in Marseille. It has been getting a significant amount of press and bringing some good energy into the CNT-SO.
Jul 8, 2019
The rest of July and through early August I will be traveling in Europe with my parents and son. My son and I are tagging along on my father’s study abroad class for Michigan State University. He has taught the course on-and-off since 1980. My mother has accompanied him all but one time. When my brother and I were children we went together with my parents as a family. Since graduating from high school, I have joined my parents on four of their trips to Europe. One of these trips was with both of my children and my then wife. Another was with just my son. My daughter has also traveled with her grandparents on her own.
My father’s class is on photography. As a professor of journalism and a photographer, he has taught two generations of students photography through a combination of portfolio projects, gallery and museum visits, lectures and tours. The lectures and tours are frequently given by leading European photographers--many whom became, over time, some my family’s dearest friends.
This summer my son and I are again joining my parents. My son is now twelve which means that he is old enough to really appreciate aspects of such a trip in ways he wasn’t able to before. Along the way we will be visiting many of the family friends that we have made over the years. These will include artists and art critics, friends of mine from my time at Harvard, childhood friends, and members of the international anarchist community. After reading Mark Lilla’s article in the New York Review of Books on the French New Right I attempted to contact a number of people he describes. So, there’s a slim chance I might also connect with some young French right-wing intellectuals.
This year, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to publish excerpts from my journals on my blog. My blog posts will generally be unpolished first drafts--taken almost straight from my journal. They will include not only my reflections on the trip but my thoughts on what I am reading and, possibly, both the profound ecological, economic, political, and social crisis humanity is in the midst of and my thoughts on the role that the Unitarian Universalist church might play in confronting it. In general, when I write about people who are public figures, I will use their names. When I write about people who are not, I will use initials.
My son and I arrive in Paris on July 8th. We will be spending our first night in France at the Paris apartment of family friends Gilles Perrin and Nicole Ewenczyk. On July 9th we meet up with my parents and travel to Arles for the Rencontres d'Arles. I have been to Arles once before and I am particularly excited about this year’s festival because family friend Libuse Jarcovjakova’s work is being highlighted. On Friday it was featured in the New York Times and Guardian. On the 16th we head back to Paris for ten days. We will be visiting with a host of folks there before heading on July 26th to Sers, a village in Nouvelle-Aquitaine where Gilles and Nicole have a home. We will be there until August 2nd when we fly to London. We will spend six nights in London, including my 43rd birthday, before flying home to Houston on the 9th. I am back in the pulpit on the 11th with a question box sermon.
Jul 29, 2017
Yesterday the New York Times brought news that famed photo editor John Morris died at the age of 100. Morris was the photo editor of the New York Times during the Vietnam War and made the decision to publish two of the most famous images of the war on the newspaper’s front page--the informally titled “Napalm Girl” by Huỳnh Công Út and Eddie Adams's "Saigon Execution." He made sure that these images appeared on the top fold of the paper, which meant they were seen even by people who didn't build the Times. He was Robert Capa’s photo editor for many years and the founding photo editor for Magnum Photo. You can read the Times’s obituary of John Morris here. They've also made a nice video tribute.
John was a long time friend of my parents. I believe they met him through their friends Nicole Ewenczyk and Gilles Perrin--my father collaborated on a book with them a few years ago. Last summer, while I was visiting them in Paris, I had the pleasure of attending one of his lectures. John’s talk focused on his century of experience as a photo editor. He spoke about his commitment to pacifism and his belief that photo editing could be a kind of anti-war activism. The selection of images that highlighted the horrors of war, he hoped, could engender empathy for the victims of violence and inspire people to oppose their government’s involvement in international conflicts.
After John’s lecture we all had dinner at the little bistro across the street from his studio. I was seated next to him and we talked about the civil war in Syria. A few years ago I penned a piece for the Huffington Post arguing against military intervention after the Assad government used chemical weapons. I have since had some ambivalence about the question of military intervention and come to support, in principle, the Kurdish anarchist movement, Democratic Union Party. I have never been convicted of absolute pacifism and, as in the case of my longstanding support for the Zapatistas, believe that organized violent resistance to various forms of fascism and totalitarianism can sometimes be the only way to arrest them.
John did not agree. After his experiences in World War II, he felt that violence always beget further violence. Any support of a military movement in Syria, he believed, would only extend the conflict and cause further suffering. I suspect that his position was also tempered by his Quakerism.
Unfortunately, the bistro was too loud for us to converse more in-depth. Nonetheless, it was a memorable experience. It deepened my already deep respect for the photographers, and their editors, who strive to document our world as political and ethical acts. Social documentary photography is an art form and art in all its forms can be a powerful act of resistance to the viciousness of human brutality.
Aug 28, 2016
Note: I recently have become involved with the Industrial Workers of the World's Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. I am serving as their contact person for faith-based organizing. It is a volunteer role and one of things that I am doing as part of it is preaching some in support of the September 9, 2016 National Prisoner Strike. The following sermon was the first I preached in support of the movement. I presented it at the First Parish in Needham, Unitarian Universalist, on August 28, 2016.
It is a pleasure to be with you this morning. Your congregation features prominently in one of my favorite books of contemporary Unitarian Universalist theology, A House for Hope. John Buehrens, your former minister and the co-author of that book, has something to do with me being here today. He was a strong advocate for youth ministry when he was the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I had the good fortune to meet him when I was sixteen. He encouraged me both along my path to the ministry and my path to the academy. I also have fond memories of the worship services your present minister Catie Scudera led during her time at Harvard. And I congratulate in calling someone who will no doubt be one of the guiding lights of the next generation of Unitarian Universalists. So, there is a strange way in which even though I have never spent a Sunday with you before I feel as if I already know you a little.
Such familiarity, I suspect, is rather one sided. Most of, maybe all of, you just know me as the guest preacher. The last in the long line of summer preachers trying to bring a little spirit to Sunday morning before your regular worship services resume next month.
Now me, I am something of circuit rider. Right now I preach at more than a dozen congregations a year while I am finishing up my PhD at Harvard. As I travel around I have the privilege of getting something of the breadth of our Unitarian Universalist tradition. I think since I started in the ministry more than a decade ago I have lead worship at close to a hundred Unitarian Universalist congregations in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Those congregations include the some of the largest and some of the smallest in our tradition.
My peripatetic career causes me to divide Unitarian Universalism crudely into two wings: the liberal and the abolitionist. Unitarian Universalism is occasionally called a liberal religion. This label refers to our understanding of human nature. Historically we have understood human beings to contain within them, in the words of William Ellery Channing, “the likeness to God.” As contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker has explained, this does not mean that we think human beings are necessarily godlike. Instead, it suggests that rather than being born innately flawed or depraved, as orthodox Christianity has long taught, we are born with the capacity to choose and to become. Reflecting upon the suffering that we inflict upon each other Parker writes, “We are the cause and we can be the cure.” In this sense liberal religion means a recognition that much of what is wrong in the world was wrought by human hands. By joining our hands and hearts together we can, and we do, heal much of that harm.
I am not thinking of the liberal religion of Channing when I say that Unitarian Universalism can be crudely divided into two wings. I suspect that if you are here this Sunday morning your view of human nature is at somewhat similar to Channing’s and Rebecca Parker’s. Whether politically you are a Democrat or a Republican, an anarchist or a socialist, a liberal, libertarian or a conservative, if you are a Unitarian Universalist are a liberal religionist.
My division of our community into the abolitionists and the liberals focuses on our attitudes towards social reform. The majority liberal tradition believes in incremental and pragmatic social change. The social institutions and practices that exist, exist. When confronted with the intractable problems of America’s justice system liberals think the key question is: how can we make this system work better for everyone? How can we ensure that police are not racist? That everyone gets a fair trial and that prisons are humane?
Abolitionists demand the impossible. Rather than seeking to reform existing institutions they dream of creating new ones. Instead of asking how existing social institutions and practices can be reshaped they ask: what are those social institutions and practices for? In the face of a justice system that appears patently unjust they ask: Why we do have the system in the first place? What is its essential social function? Is it meeting this social function? Is this social function something we want met?
I place myself in the abolitionist camp. The essential difference between the two wings is that abolitionists see social institutions and practices as historically constituted while liberals take them as more permanent. A less fancy way to put that is that abolitionists think that the things we do and the institutions we create come from somewhere, will only last for so long, and will eventually be replaced by something else. Liberals focus on fixing what is now. Abolitionists imagine what might be.
This morning I want to talk with you about supporting the upcoming nation-wide prison strike. Prior to today, how many of you had heard about it? On September 9th people in prisons across the country will refuse to work. By withdrawing their labor from the prison system they hope that they will be able end prison slavery. They use the words prison slavery intentionally to draw attention to the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. That is the amendment that outlawed chattel slavery. It states “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party has been duly convicted, shall exist in the United States.”
The bold hope is that by challenging prison slavery prisoners can challenge the prison system itself. Prisons in the United States rely on prison labor to exist. Consider the following. There are about 2.2 million prisoners in the United States today. Of these, about 1.1 million, or roughly half, work in prison. They serve food, do janitorial work, and labor in offices. They also maintain public parks and roads and manufacture products for both the government and for private industry. The United States military, Victoria’s Secret, Walmart, Starbucks, Whole Foods, and McDonald’s all benefit from prison labor. All of the license plates in the state of Alabama are made by prisoners. They are paid as little as 15 cents an hour.
Prison labor is exempted from most labor standards. Prisoners are not afforded the same rights to safe workplaces that you and I enjoy. They do not get vacations or unemployment benefits. They do not accrue Social Security. The federal courts have ruled that prisoners wages can be set at any level, including zero cents an hour. Not only do they not get minimum wage. They can be made to work for nothing.
All of this means that without the labor of prisoners, prisons will not run. It is the brave hope of the organizers of the September 9th national strike that by withdrawing their labor they can radically challenge, transform and perhaps even abolish the American prison system.
Now, I just gave you a lot of information. You might feel a little overwhelmed by it. You might also think the situation is justified. Prisoners work for nothing, you could think, because they owe a debt to society. They are in prison to repay that debt and their work is part of their repayment.
I want challenge that logic. I could challenge it, as so many have, by pointing out the gross inequities of the prison system. I could point out that black men are imprisoned at roughly seven times the rate of white men or that Hispanics are two and a half times more likely to be in prison than whites. But that is a liberal logic and it suggests that the fundamental problem with the prison system is that it is unfair.
The problem with the system is that it exists at all. I want to let you in on a secret. Many, perhaps most, maybe even all of us are potential prisoners. The primary difference between me and someone on the inside is not that I have not committed crimes. The difference is that I have not been caught. Everyone I know has broken some law or another. Plenty of people, including Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama, have flouted this country’s drug laws at some point. Most business owners I know have skirted regulatory. And I rather suspect that the majority of middle income and upper income middle people out there make somewhat dodgy claims about portions of their tax returns. It is virtually impossible not to. Our society is so codified that actually following all of the laws cannot be done. If you doubt me try to follow every single traffic law exactly next time you drive. In April make your way through all 74,608 pages of the US tax code to make sure you are properly taking all of your exemptions.
We also know that the majority of white collar criminals never go to jail. No one has yet been imprisoned for causing the financial crisis of 2008. Yet it is common knowledge that corporate criminal malfeasance was a root cause of the Great Recession. When workers die because CEOs flout workplace safety laws CEOs rarely serve jail time. Even if they do their punishment is light in comparison to the punishments society metes out to other prisoners. Don Blankenship, who as CEO of Massey Energy was held responsible for the preventable deaths of twenty-nine miners in the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion, was sentenced to one year in prison. If the social function of prisons is to protect society they clearly fail in doing so.
All of us are potential prisoners. Many of us are not in prison simply because we have not been caught doing something that has been deemed illegal. For a moment, I want you to imagine yourself a prisoner. Imagine that when you were a college student you were caught with some of the drugs you were experimenting with. Imagine that you made an honest but significant mistake on your taxes and somehow ran afoul of the IRS. Imagine that there was one time when you had one drink to many. Rather than taking a taxi home you recklessly decided to risk it. You were pulled over by the police and wound up in jail. Whatever the case, imagine.
Imagine spending a year or two years or five in a controlled setting. Told when to wake up, when to sleep, when to work. Imagine only eating prison food. If you are lucky it might be a roll, a piece of fruit, some peanut butter. Maybe the prison has a proper cafeteria. Maybe you are really unlucky. The prison contracts its commissary out to a private company. What they feed you is unfit to eat, full of insects and rodent droppings.
Imagine witnessing the daily brutality: routine beatings; men and women extracted from their cells by trained dogs; and persistent sexual violence. Every year one out of ten prisoners is sexually assaulted, half of them by prison guards. Many of the practices exposed in Abu Gharib are routine practices in American prisons that were simply exported aboard.
Imagine that the courts and the legislatures have fallen silent to your many pleas for justice. Imagine that the media rarely reports what happens to people inside prison walls. If you can imagine these things then you might begin to understand why prisoners have called for a national prison strike. The words of prisoner organizer Kinetik Justice may have resonance for you. He said, “These strikes are our method for challenging mass incarceration. As we understand it, the prison system is a continuation of the slave system.”
And like a nineteen-century abolitionist you might say it is time to end the slave system. The time to end it is not tomorrow, or next year, or in the next decade but today. Perhaps we will have to replace it with something. Perhaps we believe that there are some people who must be removed from society for sometime. Perhaps that sentiment is wrong. Whatever the case, the nineteenth-century abolitionist position was not to ask what will come after chattel slavery? It was say that chattel slavery must end. The abolitionist position today is the same. It is not to ask what will come after the prison system but how will the prison be brought to an end.
Whether you consider yourself an abolitionist or a liberal, let me offer you a few things you can do to support the September 9th national prison strike. You can educate yourself and others about the history and function of prisons. Either in your congregation or on your own, organize a group to read books like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Caught: the Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics by Marie Gottschalk, and the Golden Gulag by Ruth Gilmore. Contact the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee and begin corresponding with prisoners, offering them expressions of solidarity. Donate or raise money for the above groups. Invite former prisoners to speak to your congregation. And, finally, consider passing a congregational resolution in support of the prison strike. It is likely to be but one in a wave of many.
As you consider these actions, let us remember that we are all potential prisoners. In the hopes that we might do so, I offer these words from the great Eugene Debs when he sentenced to prison for war resisting. He said, “...years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
May we hear these words in our hearts. Amen and Blessed Be.
Jun 15, 2016
A few years ago I included a piece titled “It Takes More Than Direct Action” in the column I used to edit for the Industrial Worker called “Workers Power.” The good folks who edit Solidaridad, the Spanish language blog of the Industrial Workers of the World, have seen fit to publish a translation of it: “Se necesita más que la acción directa.” It’s the first text of mine that’s been translated into another language, which is kind of fun. The piece, incidentally, started as the charge to the congregation at the ordination of Julia Hamilton; think of it as evidence of the long arm of liberation theology.
Oct 21, 2014
Recently Juan Conatz put a copy of my 2007 article "The Chicago Couriers Union: a lesson for IWW solidarity union organizers" up on libcom. The piece appeared in the Industrial Worker and served as the basis for my “The Chicago Couriers Union: A Case Study in Solidarity Unionism,” which was published in Working USA. You can read the Industrial Worker piece here.
Dec 21, 2013
This past summer I had the opportunity to spend a few days with members of the Confederación General del Trabajo in Barcelona. With a membership of about 60,000, the CGT is the largest anarcho-syndicalist labor union in the world. It split with the more famous Confederación Nacional del Trabajo in the late 1980s over the issue of participation in government sponsored works councils. Without getting into the details, this means that the CGT can be thought of as the more reformist minded of the two unions. Its members see themselves as trying to build an anarcho-syndicalist capable of threatening 21st century capitalism.
The people in CGT that I met with were generous enough to give me a rather large pile of their literature. I’m hoping to translate some of it into English over the next couple of weeks, while I am on break from my studies. My initial offering is the CGT’s 2013 platform of demands in response to the financial crisis in the European Union. I speak, read and write pretty good Spanish but I am not an experienced translator. I apologize for the bits of the translation that aren’t super clear.
The CGT’s Proposals and Alternatives to the Crisis
Repeal all legislation and reforms that take away rights from the population (Labor Reform, Easy Firing, Collective Bargaining, Pensions, Constitutional Reform, Immigration Law, the projected law about abortion...)*
Divide the wealth. Economic protection, including a social salary, sufficient for the millions of unemployed persons to live with dignity.
Protection from the evictions. A moratorium on them until the end of the crisis and the creation of a social program that guarantees access to housing. Assistance for the social spaces of autogestion.**
Divide the work so everyone has work. Reduce the working day, reduce the age of retirement, prohibition of the EREs, of contracts and subcontracts, of overtime, piecework and grants that hide jobs. Elimination of the ETTs.***
Autogestion for the workers in the factories recuperated from capital.
No to the privatization of Health, Education, Transportation, Communication, Energy, Water... Expropriation of the factories that were public before and that provide the basic needs of society.
Guaranteed universal access to the public services to all people with and without papers. [i.e. whether or not they are citizens or legal immigrants]
The right for all people to move freely.
Equal distribution of municipal civil work. Development of the help to the dependencies.****
The right to free time and a balance between work life and family and social life.
Financial reform for those that are paid the most and who have the most. An increase on the taxes on large businesses and those with great fortunes. Persecution of financial fraud. Reduction of IVA.*****
A public bank owned and under social control that allows families to have access to its resources.
No payment of the debt or its interest. Audit of the debt by a participatory process under civic control with a first step to the annulment of all of the illegitimate debt. Demand of penal responsibilities for those that caused the crisis.
Use of public money for meeting the needs of the people and not for rescuing the banks.
The closing of the financial casinos and tax havens.
Liberty for all militant syndicalist or anarchist political prisoners. No to repression and criminalization.
Their model of democracy is not good for us. Our position is for a new model of direct democracy, participatory and from below.
Rejection of the European Union with its institutions that drive the politics and policies of neoliberalism.
Abandonment of a political economy aimed at the unlimited growth. It needs to be replaced by another that follows the limits of the planet’s natural resources.
A solution to energy, climate and biodiversity crisis that threatens the survival of millions of people.
*This is a list of laws that have been passed that reduce the rights of the population in response to the economic crisis. I didn’t translate the phrase “exigencia de las 35 peonadas para cobrar el subsidio” because I am not sure exactly what it means. I think it refers to a reduction in guaranteed wages or minimum wage.
**Autogestion is a word with no exact English equivalent. It could loosely be translated self-managed. But it implies an act of self-creation as well. The last sentence of this paragraph might alternatively be translated: Assistance for self-managed social spaces or self-managed cooperatives.
***ERE is a particular aspect of Spanish labor law. Here, I think, it refers to laying people off as redundant. ETTs are Spanish temporary agencies.
****Not sure of the last sentence. The original reads: Desarrollo de las ayudas a la Dependencia.
*****IVA is value added tax. It is kind of like sales tax.