June 2013

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The day that I finish writing a piece about how difficult it is when people have different ideas and intentions about winning, this awkwardness happens:

Here in Guatemala, the whole family is gathered in the living room after enjoying some amazing homemade tacos. All 23 of us are crowded there, laughing and gossiping. The twins are finishing up a game with the chess board that we gave them and I taught them how to play. Somehow the talk gets around that my brother-in-law–a 40-something manager of a large coffee finca–knows how to play chess. He confirms it, and I’m excited! Usually, the rural Guatemalans I’ve met are wicked skilled at checkers, but don’t know chess.

The family starts rallying us to face off each against each other. They set the board up in the middle of the room. Some of the boys start taking bets. Who’s gonna win? “It’s a battle of the minds,” one of my sisters-in-law says.

The tension is high, the whole family is staring. I make my first move, a pawn two spaces forward. He concentrates. Moves his pawn…diagonally?

I pause. The twins–who have been enforcing the correct movement rules on each other for days in order to get them memorized–look at me with their heads cocked. What’s going on? I ask him how his understanding of chess’ rules allows him to move like that. He giggles and takes the move back. Honest mistake.

Except it continues. Knights moving diagonally. Pieces double-jumping other pieces. Even pieces capturing my pieces from halfway across the board.

He’s playing checkers with the chess pieces…at least some variant of checkers.

I don’t know what to do. There is a growing history here of Glendi and I having to step in and help their family make ends meet–helping cover debts, pay for hospital visits, bringing gifts that he can’t afford to give his kids. There’s embarrassment there about needing so much help, as a man responsible for his family.

He claimed proudly that he knew chess. I really don’t want to embarrass him right now, with all his kids watching, betting, cheering–to pause and explain how each piece is supposed to move, or to tell him he’s playing a totally different game. Instead, we awkwardly play this hybrid monstrosity, chesskers. And before it get’s too painful to figure out what winning actually means, I choose to make a series of silly moves and then resign with the shake of his hand. The family won’t let me live it down. “You got beaten!” “Our dad crushed you!” Later, the twins whisper, “That wasn’t actually chess, was it?”

What was I supposed to do? Usually I prefer being blunt in the face of cultural misunderstandings like this, but when it’s so built up, so tied up in being about our intelligence and level of education, and when there is already a touchy power-dynamic developing given our roles in the world, I didn’t know what else to do. Letting him win and letting them chide seemed like the best of all the awkward options.

Top-level play and throwaway play

I want to draw attention to two genres of competitive video games that demonstrate a huge spectrum of player behavior, from silly and casual, to embarrassingly, nerdily intricate: fighting games and real-time strategy games (including the sub-genre known as multiplayer online battle arenas—MOBAs). I’ll break them down really quickly here:

Fighting Games: Usually 1-on-1 battles between a diverse array of characters who fight each other in martial arts or street-fighting type competitions. Each player selects a single character or a small team of characters. The characters usually have a certain amount of health, and they fight each other until one player or the other’s health is depleted. What makes these games strategic is that each character has a very specific set of attacks, ranging from simple weak punches, kicks, and slashes, to highly powerful special moves (often with magical or supernatural effects like fireballs or huge explosions), and massive chains of combination attacks. Good players need to master the ins and outs, the strengths and weaknesses of not only their characters, but also all the other characters they might match up against. Example video games, for those who care: Street fighter, Tekken, Soul Calibur, Marvel vs. Capcom, Mortal Kombat, Super Smash Bros.

Real-Time Strategy Games: Can be 1-on-1, 3-on-3, or 5-on-5 battles between larger forces of units who are fighting on a battlefield. Each side has a base which provides safety or defense, and which sometimes generates resources to buy improvements for the players’ forces. One side wins when the other side’s base is destroyed. The strategy comes from knowing how to make quick decisions to manage the resources that are coming in while also mastering the nuances and subtleties of each individual fighting unit. Like fighting games, these units often have options between basic attacks and more flashy and specialized abilities—and even sometimes highly powerful “ultimate” abilities—but the more powerful abilities usually have big limits to how often they can be used. Good players know how to manage these factors of resources and unit composition, while also paying additional attention to the specific terrain of the map or battlefield. Example games: League of Legends, DOTA, Starcraft, Warcraft, Command and Conquer.

Before I go any deeper into game land here, I have to make a critical disclaimer. Although I will be using some of the language and concepts from the competitive communities that play these games, I have no interest in endorsing these games or their communities in any way at all. I’m not suggesting that people go out and play these games, and I am not saying that we should be like these communities. The games—though I sometimes guiltily enjoy them—can often be violent and filled with stereotypes or exaggerated and objectified portrayals, especially of women. The competitive communities themselves would likely even be hostile to us and our politics. Unfortunately, a big chunk of competitive gaming scenes are dominated by proudly elitist attitudes, misogynist and heterosexist bro cultures, and regressive positions around ideas like anti-imperialism, anti-racism, or any of the other values that we want to uphold. My goal here is merely to see some of what they say about winning, and about unhelpful elements that disrupt winning strategies, and leave things at that.

Even though these games are all focused around silly street fights and fantastical battle scenes, what makes them applicable to anti-authoritarian movements (beyond the startling preponderance of masked dudes with dark clothes and menacing gazes) is that core element of strategic games that I spoke of earlier: the judicious use of limited resources and options. The top-tier players of these games—some of whom play as full time jobs, living off sponsorships and tournament winnings—intimately know the minutiae of what is and is not possible in any given situation. They know the wild powers and huge offensives that they are capable of, but they also know the drawbacks and weaknesses that are constantly pushing back against them. They know what pacing is appropriate for what kinds of match-up with their opponents. In team games, these players know the unique roles that they are able to play in supporting the overall team strategy, and they also know when they are capable of flexibly changing roles in the face of what’s happening from moment to moment. If you read their articles or watch their online videos, these players have vocabularies and theories about their games that casual players of the very same games can’t really access at all. Why? Because they have broken down their games to the very basic systems level—often to the point where they are paying attention to things as mundane and technical as individual frames of character animation or specific pixel glitches on a map or battlefield.

If we’re going to win, our movements need similarly sophisticated levels of strategic understanding, with a granularity of detail about what we’re facing and what we’re capable of. We need to understand the array of tactics and strategies that are available to us, and in what situations each is most useful—not just most spectacular. Further, we need to better recognize and manage our limitations—what our activities cost us, in terms of time, resources, and positioning in relation to the systems of oppression that we’re fighting.

I think our movements are a long way from achieving a high level of strategic mastery, and current global developments suggest that we’d better hurry up. However, in contrast to competitive gaming, I don’t think this requires all revolutionary-minded people to become full-time, elite strategy experts or anything. I think the mass and grassroots character of movements makes the strategic work that we need to do potentially far more accessible and horizontally distributable—a form of radical crowdsourcing—if we are willing to set up the kinds of participatory organizing structures that would help us do it efficiently. To make this happen, though, requires some very judicious, focused, and coordinated use of our precious few resources.

The troubling thing is, it’s quite hard to be judicious, focused, and coordinated when we’re stuck in the anarchist clown car that is the Pacific Northwest scene. Insurrectionist, anti-civ, nihilist, and other similar tendencies are distracting, disorienting, and they sap many of the few options and resources that we have. They practice patterns of discourse and behavior that aren’t just bothersome for their own scenes, but they tend to throw all of us off our game.

Competitive gamers have generalized some archetypes that can help me explain what I’m talking about.

Trolls

Many people who are familiar with the toxicity of online political debates are probably already versed in this one. Trolls are players who enter into a game—especially team games—with the explicit intention of screwing around with everyone else and trying to get them angry and riled up, all for their own amusement. They use in-game chat channels to spit slurs and insults, all while sabotaging the actual game play. They join a game and pretend to be committed and then, when things get tough, they disconnect from the game and throw off the whole balance of a match. They especially love to call out serious-minded players for hurting a team, when they are the ones actually being least helpful.

The most obvious examples of trolls in our movements are informants, snitches, and agent provocateurs. I certainly don’t believe that all insurrectionist types are agents of the state, and I’m not about to throw out that accusation. However, we know that our movements are full of these professional destabilizers, and there should be no doubt that they are going to be concentrating their energy on the most outspoken, explicitly militant segments of our movement—the insurrectionists. No surprise then, that insurrectionist heavy discussions are absolutely painful to participate in—especially online. They are filled with classic trolling behavior: name-calling, circular logic, more-radical-than-thou accusations, straw arguments, and chest-puffing, all flitting anonymously this way and that. It seems the favorite targets are any anti-authoritarian radicals who dare suggest more tempered positions in a struggle or who in any way seem more “liberal” than their self-proclaimed anarchist standard. For just one example, read the discussions on Puget Sound Anarchists about those anarchists who wanted to raise money for some broken small business windows after the 2013 May Day—troll feeding frenzy. You would think that if only the cops and informants were doing the trolling, they would easily stand out so that we could shine light on them, but the fact that the general tone and manner of insurrectionist discourse—at least in writing—so closely matches troll-type styles, it’s hard to tell one’s enemies from one’s friends.

What’s unhelpful about this? Well, it contributes to a climate of distrust and disorientation, and it makes more sensitive folks—like me—doubt ourselves whenever we posit something different than whatever the most blustery, judgmental voices are saying. And because those loudest voices tend to be goading us on toward more polarized, militant, and mean-spirited positions, it also creates a snowball effect that can have even more serious consequences…even including entrapment.

Button Mashers

When people don’t have experience with complex strategic games, or they are uninterested in getting better, they tend to do something very predictable: they just quickly, randomly hit buttons and throw out whatever flashy attacks they can muster, with little regard to the strategic value or consequences of what they are doing. They will repeatedly mash on the same single attacks for game after game, becoming painfully predictable to even novice opponents. They will use their most powerful super abilities as soon as they have accumulated the resources to do so, without thinking about appropriate timing—for example, focusing on only one target when the ability was designed to take out four. They will never hold back to block in a fighting game, or they will only use the one row of punch buttons without ever even noticing the three kick buttons that are right there. Because their game play is so fast and random, they actually do win some times, and can thus create an image that they are better than they actually are. Because these kinds of players are really usually just looking for some quick fun, they are fine with superficial understandings of the way the game works—they just want to see all the bangs and crashes and colored lights that shine when they mash those buttons.

I think insurrectionists provide a picture-perfect model of button mashing. They are friggin’ everywhere, mashing out wheatpasted posters, flyers, and newspapers; smashing in ATMs and bank windows; mashing up newspaper boxes at marches; mashing, mashing, mashing. They are prolific, they are fast, they occasionally hit really effectively in a way that impresses everyone, but mostly they just seem to be flailing around at every possible target…usually with the same flashy attacks each time. Reading their writing, even by their more influential intellectuals, is like watching a brand-new strategy game player who just keeps shooting off the same huge ultimate attacks in the middle of an empty battlefield, waiting for their resources to charge up, and then doing the same thing again. Why? Well, you know, total liberation now! Flames this, flames that, everything in flames! No subtlety, no pacing, no base-building. Just rupture, rupture, rupture. The volume is always at maximum. Fundamentally, insurrectionist seem to have forgotten that the anti-authoritarian game controller doesn’t just have a row of “disruptive attack” buttons—we also have 3 or 4 additional “building constructive power” buttons. Who knew?

What’s unhelpful about this? A number of things. Because they are so fast and so prolific, they confuse people—even longtime anarchists like me—into thinking that they are playing the game correctly. When they occasionally do something cool with their militancy and spectacle, they fool us into thinking their path might actually bear fruit. It won’t. While the militant tactics and the powerful rhetoric that these folks employ really are useful in the context of a powerful, massive movement, insurrectionists are usually using them way outside of a strategic context. With the limited time, resources, and options that we have, and our small numbers, every time we hit the attack button when we should be hitting our build buttons is a huge strategic waste. Huge. Moreover, when the fun and spectacle wears off, when things get dirtier, harder, less anonymous, when the amorphous “some @narchists” settle back into being very real parents, coworkers, partners, bill-payers, we will end up losing a ton of the people who got caught up in rush of the button-mashing, because they will have burnt out without having ever seen how much deeper, how much more enriching, diverse, and powerful the movement could have been. It’s a one-note kind of radicalism, it’s a one-riot stand, and it doesn’t make very many people stick around for the long-haul—especially since part of that button mashing includes moving and traveling from place to place all the time!

Feeders

It’s one thing when people’s actions just set themselves back or just disorient us, but it’s something entirely worse when their actions directly strengthen the opponent. In the sub-genre of strategy games called Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas (MOBAs), there is a phenomenon called feeding. When a player rushes in too hot too quickly, or when they make lazy mistakes, they end up getting themselves killed by the other team, which then makes the other team significantly stronger. When the same players keep doing this over and over, their teammates will likely scold them as feeders. Whether intentional or not, they are serving more to feed and nourish the opponent than they are helping their own side. Because they are so busy dying and feeding, dying and feeding, they not only neglect their own in-game evolution, they force everyone else on the team to step in and defend them and carry them through the game.

Folks can deny it all they want, they can denounce my opinion as sectarian, they can trot out whatever pre-fab justifications about the state that they’d like, but I will argue that insurrectionists are feeders. Through hyper-militance and adventurism, they absolutely feed the state and other opposing forces. Of course, the state will seek to disrupt any movement that it deems a threat, so we should always blame it before blaming comrades for whatever repression it causes. However, before we’ve even reached the point of actually being a threat, insurrectionist antics give the state the pretext to pre-emptively marshal huge numbers of resources to repress us. When that repression comes down, it doesn’t just come down on the loudest, it comes down on all anti-authoritarians, creating a chilling effect on our activities, sowing paranoia, and siphoning off time and money into legal defense for actions that do not actually move us any closer to our goals. At this stage of the game, how are black bloc smash-fests building the movement we need, in proportion to the heat they bring down on us, the public fear they generate (and they do generate fear if you actually talk to non-anarchists), and the legal defense fundraisers they require—which could have been fundraisers for actual, sustainable anarchist counter-institutions? I love considering strategic arguments to the contrary, but watching the difference between the systemic responses to the 2012 and 2013 May Days, for example, all I saw was a state that has become nicely fed, while the constructive anti-authoritarian impact in the Pacific Northwest has drastically declined. Stop feeding, please.

What do we do with this?

I have no illusions about this piece changing the outlooks or behavior of insurrectionist types. I am not a sectarian and I can understand that they will keep doing what they are doing. Apparently they think they have good reasons. I don’t want to spend my own precious resources and options trying to stop them; I don’t want to be the movement police. But I don’t have to be quiet about how unhelpful I think they are, and I don’t have to hide the fact that I would love to outnumber them so much that their ideas become as marginal as I think they should be.

But the way to get closer to a winning direction is not to stomp and whine and ask these folks to stop. The only way is for more strategically oriented anti-authoritarians to come forward—boldly, publicly, militantly—with a different kind of politics. We need to show new ways of pressing anarchism’s buttons, in fresh, innovative, and coordinated ways. We need to delve deeper into how revolutionary conflict actually works, and what winning actually looks like, and we need to share this with each other using increasing levels of detail, sophistication, and accessibility. Once again, we win by judiciously using those few, precious resources and options that we have in order to build dynamic, flexible mass movements. So let’s do just that.

In practice, I think this looks like slowing down for awhile, while building strength to really speed things up in the future. I think this looks like a big increase in strategically oriented local writing and discussion events. It looks like a flourishing of popular education projects to evenly disperse valuable skills across our communities. It looks like developing our abilities for healthy communication and debate, so that we can isolate and expose the trolls. It looks like putting down long-term roots in neighborhoods and communities where we will experiment with anti-authoritarian possibilities for the long-haul. It looks like honoring the courage and creativity that militant anarchists do show to all of us, while pushing that militancy to be more visionary, more diversified, more sustainable, and more rooted in large-scale grassroots power than the current tendency toward clandestine, lone-wolf attacks. It looks like a lot of things that folks, even some of the people I complain about, are already doing—but doing it with more strategic focus and coordination.

For those anti-authoritarians who agree, who are also interested in building revolutionary movements that can win: we should get together and play.

Note: Reading this again, it looks like I was in the mood for a polemical tone. If you happen to be a new reader here, please note that I’m not trying to hate. I think disagreement, even polemic, can be healthy. If you think I’m being too mean or sectarian here, go ahead let me know. No use talking about the unhelpfulness of something by doing so in an unhelpful way.

I feel like anti-authoritarian revolutionaries in the Pacific Northwest just can’t get a break. In the 90’s and early 2000’s, we had the anarcho-primitivists running around spitting nonsense and flashing their arrogance, strutting as if they owned the movement—even while they shouted everyone else down by saying that we didn’t own the movement. Now, thanks, it seems, to some Californian winds that have blown north—which themselves seem to have blown in from entirely different European climates—we have new currents of nonsensery causing anti-authoritarians like me to stare at the ground, saying nothing, for fear of the denunciations that will surely come. Insurrectionism, anti-civilization anarchism, and even nihilism seem to be ruling the day around here—at least in terms of public expressions and articulations of revolutionary ideas. If you aren’t down with those politics, it can feel mighty lonely sometimes.

But I feel too old for this. I want to win, and I believe that anti-authoritarian politics, that anarchism, has powerful tools to offer toward that purpose. The problem is, all these bad ideas keep hogging anarchism for themselves. I’ve grown tired of sitting quietly and waiting for each self-righteous and noisy fad to wind down, so that anarchism might have some space to breathe and blossom in the positive directions that I think it might go. The fads just keep coming, they keep anarchism stuck in the same ruts year after year, all the while hoarding and suffocating so much of our best language, history, tactics. I’ve had enough of that.

I want to win, and it is this sentiment that I keep circling back to when I get all into a huff like this. I want to win, and I think these tendencies are mostly unhelpful, and often actually harmful to our chances of winning. This owes in large part to the fact that many of these tendencies have very different ideas about what winning even means, or they eschew the idea or possibility of winning altogether. Fine, fine. They should believe what they want, but let’s at least be real about the ways this screws things up for the rest of us.

In this piece, I want to help explain why I think current insurrectionist-heavy tendencies are unhelpful to those of us who actually want to win a social revolution. To do this, I’m going to make an analogy to something that is almost as strange, subcultural, and insular as anarchism itself—competitive video games. I recognize that this analogy might not feel fitting or useful for all readers, but it’s been exceptionally helpful for understanding my own approach to radical strategy, so I’m going to indulge it here. Let’s see what it can show us.

What is the game and what is winning?

As so many of us self-serious, fist-clenched revolutionists have told ourselves so many times, social revolution is not a game. As playful as it can sometimes be, as much dancing as our revolution might need, it is also certainly ugly, painful, real. People go to prison. People burn out and lose all hope in life. People die. There are incredibly important things at stake here; I know this well, with my own emotional scars to show, and I’m not about to be dismissive about it.

Nonetheless, there are definite, instructive parallels between strategic games and the conflicts that anti-authoritarian revolutionaries are engaged with against systems of global oppression. Those who are charged with maintaining those systems of oppression know this, and that’s why military and intelligence forces regularly run war-game scenarios, why economists run all sorts of simulations using game theory, and corporate strategic literature is rife with references to sports or board games like chess or go. Games have things to teach us. In imaginary play situations, they can give us practice at the kind of strategic thinking that can actually make a difference in real people’s lives.

At their core, here’s what strategic games—be they sports, board games, or video games—are: they are specific scenarios of conflict, between forces with opposing aims, who must judiciously utilize their limited resources and options to outmaneuver, overpower, subvert, or outlast their opponent(s). This is a pretty good match for what revolutionary anti-authoritarians are trying to do. We have our forces, those of us who want a world built around solidarity, freedom, and ecological justice. There are the myriad opposing forces, who, either out of indoctrination, coercion, or malice, are in the business of defending current oppressive social systems—capitalism and imperialism, the state, patriarchy and heterosexism, white supremacy, ableism, religious oppression, etc. The conflict takes place in concrete times and places: our workplaces, schools, government institutions, neighborhoods, homes, forests and oceans, bodies, and even our minds. Thus we have our conflict, we have our forces (or teams, or players), and we have our scenario (or board or playfield). I think we can agree that the game analogy holds so far.

But I think the fact that there is a conflict (or conflicts) between different forces is beyond debate. I think the really sticky question is whether we can accurately carry over that all-important game concept of victory conditions; that is, games are usually designed to have winners and losers, but is a revolutionary conflict something that can actually be said to be winnable? When I say that I want to win, what in the hell does that mean, and how might my understanding differ from other anti-authoritarian tendencies?

I’m just going to come out and say what I think winning means. I believe that we win when a majority of the billions of people, on this planet are immersed in social systems where they can live and work in dignity, where they can participate equally in the decisions that affect them, where they have access to their proportional share of social and natural wealth, and where surrounding species and ecosystems are respected as well. This means ecological, democratic socialist or communist economies; free and open cultural and gender structures; and deeply participatory, community-based decision-making systems. It could—and probably should—mean thousands of different variations on these themes across the globe, but all of them guided by those key, participatory and liberatory characteristics.

I should emphasize that winning doesn’t have to mean achieving a perfect functioning of all these new systems. Winning doesn’t have to mean perfect lives for 100% of all people. For me, winning means getting at least to the point where the current systems—based on hierarchy, exploitation, and oppression—no longer hold sway, where the powerful have been pushed to lose or disperse their power, and where our fledgling liberated social systems are sufficiently established that they are spending more time evolving and improving themselves than simply defending themselves from threats. In short, I believe we win when the “game” changes from being primarily a competitive conflict against forces that want to uphold oppression, into a cooperative challenge where the majority of social forces are working together to face the trials of building new, far-from-perfect systems. Winning doesn’t mean an end of challenges, it means the creation of a dynamic, cooperative new context in which our society faces those challenges—with limited danger from the oppressors.

So, yeah, I want to win this. Moreover, I believe that this kind of winning is possible. In fact, I actually believe that, as bad as things are right now in the world, we still have a fair shot of achieving this. But if we’re gonna make it happen, we have to speed up our learning curve. We’ve gotta sharpen up our strategies. We need a good, solid “team” of highly diverse and flexible mass movements. And, well, the current crop of insurrectionist, anti-civ, and nihilist tendencies that are so loud and proud right now are just so unhelpful in this regard.

Of course, if folks disagree with my idea of winning, then they have no reason to care about being helpful or unhelpful. Why should they? But that is the biggest issue here. If anti-civilization people don’t even want complex social systems to exist after the fall of the current system, then they certainly have a different idea of winning and they don’t want to help design better social systems. If insurrectionists think that mass movements and long-term revolutionary strategies are the presumptuous territory of an obsolete old Left, then their ideas of victory will tend to be very individualized, spontaneous, or even non-existent. And, nihilists…well…I guess they don’t believe in winning by definition. I get it if they aren’t thrilled about helping to build a massive anti-authoritarian movement that they don’t even believe in.

All these different ideas about winning are fine, and non-sectarianism should be a watchword every day, but the problem is this: even though we might have radically different ideas about victory or its possibility—or even the right to desire victory in the first place—we are still here in the same game. We are struggling within the same context of conflicts, forces, and scenarios. Not only that, but we’re actually all essentially claiming to be on the same team, with the same colors, flags, mascots, etc.

Now, have you ever played on a team with people who have totally contradictory hopes and intentions for what winning or losing looks like? Those two teammates chasing each other in circles in the corner? That one person who keeps stepping away to check text messages? The kid who got frustrated about a missed opportunity so just threw the rest of the game so the other team could win? How fun was it, for how long?

And this brings me to competitive video games. See, video games are designed for a whole range of interests and intentions. There are what are called casual players, who are just occasionally messing around to purely have fun at a superficial level, there are more serious players, who would like to win in their local circles, and there are competitive players—who are committed to spending huge amounts of time to learning the nuances and contradictions of the game so that they can definitively win. What’s interesting is that all these different types of people can be playing the same game, but they have totally different approaches to it, approaches which totally don’t mix in actual play. Playing for a quick fun time, playing to screw around with people after a few drinks, and playing to win a tournament or something brings out totally different decisions…totally different uses of the limited resources and options that each player or team has. That is exactly what we see in the anti-authoritarian movement. A completely messy mix of all sorts of intentions and tendencies, dominated—in my view—by folks who are either uninterested in or unprepared to think about winning.

Competitive video game players, players who want to win, have come to notice and understand some patterns of players who are less strategic or who have explicitly anti-strategic intentions, and they have names for some of those patterns. I think these apply to insurrectionist-heavy ideas and behaviors that we see in the Pacific Northwest today.

I’ll be exploring these soon enough in the conclusion of this piece.

Ah, I see what you did there, Karl!

Almost 17 years now of radical politics, and I confess that I’ve never read more than a few excerpts from the writing of Karl Marx. I think my anarchist pride provided me a sturdy shield from the intellectual intimidation that I always felt when reading his stuff. Sure, I’ve read dozens of analyses and summaries, listened to a heap of lectures, but I’ve never actually read much of his work.

Well, what a start to my Guatemalan summer…I’m reading Capital. I’m about 1/3 of the way through and…man, Marx sure was a clever chap.

It’s like a suspense story. A slow, quiet build up with careful and calculated exposition, Marx introducing his characters: use-value, exchange value, commodities, money, labor. They dance around each other, doing all their routine things, everything looks so pleasant and serene, so stable, so status quo. Then…the twist. What’s this profit thing doing here? This surplus-value? This little apostrophe after the M? Something just doesn’t add up, something isn’t right. When we look again, look more closely, the status quo is…wait for it…the scene of a crime! Enter his analysis ripping capitalism to shreds. Seriously, when I got to that chapter about labour-power as the source of surplus-value I dropped the book and went, “Oh no you didn’t, Karl!” It’s a tough sell, I know, but after the first couple of chapters, Marx’s Capital becomes a page turner!

Not to say that I’m completely convinced. I’m not. There’s nothing so far that’s making me want to shout from the rooftops that I’m a Marxist and that I embrace the “Marxian method.” Still, intellectually, I’m impressed and engaged, and it’s making me think all sorts of things about movement building.

Capital is making me want to get back to my ideas about accumulation and dual-power that I’ve written about before. The way that Marx understands the congelation and accretion of labor–>into commodities–>into capital–>into power is so useful. I think it’s actually the most useful thing about Marxism, so far in my view. Of course, Marx’s ideas help us understand how the capitalist system works, and potentially what can destabilize it (although those predictions have not borne much fruit for long-term movement gains), but they can also help us understand how labor (human activity) could also be accumulated and transformed outside of market transactions…this interests me far more.

Guatemala and its abundance of muses…

Finally, I get the greatest perk of being a teacher: my summer break. One of the biggest factors in choosing to teach was the 2-3 months I would get each year to be with family, and it feels so good to make good on it. I get to be in Guatemala for a whole two months, with Glendi, Amanecer, and the other 21 members of our family down here!

As is usual, the emotional turbulence of being here–the culture shock, the intimacy of both joy and conflict, the constant discomfort that comes with being a privileged person having to share in poverty, the exhaustion of always thinking in Spanish–are giving me plenty of things that I want to write about, starting with the things I already mentioned in a previous post. Of course, internet access is spotty, but I’ve been reading every day and writing in my notebook, so hopefully some stuff will make it to this site soon enough.

In the mean time, people are mostly okay down here–though we have some more chronic health problems looming–the baby loves it here and is almost walking, and, for me, the first week is always the hardest but I feel like my grumpy attitude is turning around.

Looking forward to a summer that is both intense and refereshing!

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi