Anarchism and Comics: V for Vendetta (Stone Soup Presentation)

by on November 21st, 2014

Used for the flyer!

Introduction – Defining Comics, Defining Anarchism

 

Introduction-ception

 

My name is Nick Ford and I am a huge comic book enthusiast, in other words a huge nerd. I write for the Center for a Stateless Society and edit their Youtube videos and maybe make a buck or two while I’m at it.

I consider myself an individualist anarchist or mutualist anarchist. Mainly in the tradition of people like Benjamin Tucker, Lysander Spooner and more contemporary folks like Kevin Carson. I also sometimes just simply consider myself an anarchist without adjectives via Voltairine de Cleyre who was a late 19th and early 20th century anarchist. She was a brilliant writer, poet, critic and an all around amazing person. I’m happy to rant about her to you after the presentation is over.

I am also a member of the Alliance of the Libertarian Left of New England (ALL-oNE for short). We’re tabling at the Boston Anarchist Bookfair this year (it’s our fourth!) and I encourage you to drop by, check out our dirt cheap pamphlets, fancy smancy books and chat!

Finally, most of my writings these days can be found at my site, abolishwork.com. I’ll be speaking about anti-work at the Boston Anarchist Bookfair on Sunday from 4:45 to 5:45 PM. If you want to know more about the site, my opposition to work, my presentation at the B(A)B or anything else related to this come talk to me after the presentation is over!

This presentation will be focused around a case-study of anarchism and its relation to comics. I will be specifically focusing on the character from V for Vendetta, V.

I fully acknowledge in this particular presentation that I’m using one of the biggest or most notable examples and that there are also probably others I could speak about. I spoke at last year’s book fair about the DC character Anarky and the Image character Scarlet so this is me wrapping up the rest of that presentation by focusing solely on V. But I’m sure I could work on other anarchist or anarchic comic book characters so if you know some other characters I should check out please let me know after the presentation is over.

 

What are Comics?

Now, before I get started let’s lay out some quick and basic definitions of comics and anarchism.

For comics, I’ll be using Scott McCloud’s seminal work Understanding Comics (1993) for my definition of comics which builds on Will Eisner’s book Comics and Sequential Art. (1985). McCloud first gives us Eisner’s basic definition of comics as sequential art but wants us to be more specific.

He asks from a comic book looking audience for suggestions and eventually comes to this definition:

com.ics (kom’iks) n. plural in form, used with singular verb, 1. Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer. (p. 9)

 

McCloud’s seems more specific and more comprehensive but Eisner’s seems much more poppy and easily integratable into casual conversation. So it’s a matter of context in some aspects of this definitional dispute.

But for my purposes I’ll be using the following to define comics:

Sequential art that consists of juxtaposed static images.

I think this is a fair combination of Eisner and McCloud’s definitions. I think it’s punchy enough to be at least somewhat memorable while at the same time being “academic” enough for my own purposes. It’s also leaving the same possibilities that McLoud leaves open.

It doesn’t dictate that comics must include the already overly-saturated market of super-heroes, nor does it box it into any particular genre like horror or comedy. Nor that there must be words for it to be a comic or a certain philosophy must be abided by. Or that a certain tool, method or material must be used for a comic book to be a comic book.

So as opposed to some definitions that you may hear I think my combination of Eisner’s classic definition with McCloud’s, coupled with my own little tweaks makes for a fairly succinct but also pretty accurate definition that also leaves many possibilities open.

 

Defining Anarchism

I know that many here are already familiar with anarchism but I also recognize that there may be a few here that aren’t terribly familiar with it or perhaps even a few who may not mind a quick refresher. So at worst, hopefully this’ll just be a welcomed refresher of stuff you already know.

Now, the trouble with defining anarchism is that there are many more definitions for this word than with the word comic books. From the typical misinformation of it being a society that lacks rules, structures or order to the better definition of a truly voluntary society and order.

With anarchism I find the main commonalities to be a focus on a few things: the voluntariness of the society, the cooperativeness of a given society and the lack of governmental forces in a society.

I think the voluntariness in anarchism’s definition means that society must mainly hinge on actions and relations that form, which take shape and exist because people will them to be so. Because external limits are not artificially imposed on the individual and instead they are free to do what they want so long as it does not harm others.

For cooperativeness I believe this implies things like mutual respect (for cooperative affairs mainly rely on respect) and a sense of egalitarianism (your mileage may vary in how far this is taken via your chosen school of thought). And also given that anarchy comes from the Greek anarkhos which meant “without chiefs” we can also (at least etymologically) see an opposition to hierarchy or at least the implications of such.

Finally, notice the phrase governmental forces. I’m not just saying the government here; I’m also suggesting any institution or group of people who act like the government. So for example anyone who acts like they can exert their authority over others and oppress them such as bosses and to one extent or another bigots.

Here is my own definition of anarchism for the purposes of this talk:

Anarchism: A political philosophy that demands the end of governmental forces in society and in its stead a society based on voluntary order and cooperative relations.

With this definition that includes both cooperative and voluntary I am trying to raise the possibilities of radical equality between individuals and in institutions and between those institutions that these individuals create as well.

Using the term order specifically, I am trying to demonstrate that structure is not necessarily being opposed. It just so happens that many of the structures of the day are things we oppose and want to abolish.

For anarchism I’m trying to rely on challenges, concerns and goals as opposed to concrete positions, distinct histories or certain individuals in the “anarchist canon”. I think this, like the McCloud and Eisner inspired definition of comics leaves us up to plenty of possibilities while still allowing for memorable and approachable identifications of the terms we want to use. This definition probably isn’t the best possible but I think it will suffice for our purposes and hopefully give any newcomers here the basic gist of what anarchism can be about, if nothing else.

 

Case Study: V

Alan Moore. The name alone should conjure something for you. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Killing Joke, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, Swamp Thing and of course Watchmen.

Whatever you’re familiar with you’re probably also familiar with his graphic novel V for Vendetta. We’re going to put the movie adaptation to the side (I’m sure Moore would approve) and focus mainly on Moore’s original work.

So first let’s try to figure out exactly how anarchist V is as we piece together who V was conceptually and how he turned out.

For the first part we’re going to have to look at an article that first appeared in Warrior #17 (which was a British comic anthology) written by Alan Moore called Behind the Painted Smile in 1983.

Believe it or not, V for Vendetta started out as a sort of mystery strip, then into something more based on a thirties pulp strip and finally went back to an earlier idea that Alan Moore had had.

The character was originally named “The Doll” who was fighting against a totalitarian system and given Moore and David Lloyd’s shared political pessimism it worked as a base outline. Eventually Moore came up with the name “Vendetta”, shorthanded it to “V” and tried to find ways to get anything he could find associated with it. Finally, a man named Dez Skinn and his partner at Graham Studios had come up with the perfect name: V for Vendetta. From there the ideas started flooding through. Moore came up with V being a psychologically damaged escapee from a government concentration camp and Lloyd coming up with an idea for making him a resurrected Guy Fawkes (who will get to later) type character.

The rest, as they say, is propaganda, or history, whichever.

From early on both Moore and Lloyd had political pessimism on their mind and that’s very important to the story. It helps set the stage for the larger tale and its background: England has been taken over by a fascist party called Norsefire via a global nuclear war in the late 1980s. Norsefire have been doing some “population control” through exterminating “undesirables” like blacks, gays and so on.

I want to first underscore the importance of V for Vendetta. Because it’s not just some ravings of an anarchist or an anti-system so-called “loony”; it’s a serious critique not only of fascism but abuse of political power in general and an important cry for freedom. It not only speaks to our basic conceptions of what we regard as necessary parts of being free like having our privacy, not being subject to abuse, being able to speak our minds with reasonable certainty we wouldn’t be oppressed for doing so and so on. But none of these things exist in the world of V for Vendetta. Instead you have cameras everywhere, widespread police abuse, the media controlled by the government and freedoms infringed every day.

Now why does that sound familiar?

And that’s the other reason why this work is such a masterpiece. Like 1984 or other political dystopian works it has a sense of predictive power when it comes to telling us what has actually happened within society. A lot of our technology is not safe. We have phones by Google, computers that can be hacked, wires that can be tapped, conversations that can be listened on and we can be assassinated via the president…but only theoretically, of course. Plenty of the things that makes England an undesirable place to be, in V for Vendetta, are some of the same things that make today’s political order an undesirable place to be around. While I am in no way saying that it’s equivalent I am suggesting similarities and certain tones and actions that seem familiar. Especially when you think about the way modern society functions in many places (let’s just say the US and the UK for our present purposes) and the way the “future” is presented in V for Vendetta.

Past that, the writing is brilliant, the artwork holds up remarkably well considering it was started in 1982 and ended in ’89. Speaking of how old it is, if it wasn’t obvious I’ll be spoiling the plot here and there. Especially considering that it’s over twenty years old, you’ve most likely either read the book or seen the movie or you vaguely know the plot either way.

The gist of the story is that a “terrorist” named V has elected to take on Norsefire and convince the people of England via his violent struggle that they should rule themselves. Alan Moore being the anarchist he is doesn’t pull many punches when it comes to saying that V considers himself an anarchist and that his mission is an anarchist world free from the likes of Norsefire. So the question here isn’t whether V has anarchist intentions or considers himself one but whether he’s any good at said intentions through his means and his vision of what comes next.

V’s mission is for England to reach “The Land of Do-As-You-Please” which he believes is an anarchistic society, a society based on voluntary order (p. 195). Anarchism for V is a society in which people have become their own boss and taken control of their own lives (p. 114, p. 245). V also makes sure to keep it clear that there are distinctions between anarchism and chaos. That anarchy means no leaders and not a fundamental lack of rules. He also points out that the riots and chaos that happens towards the end of the book is not anarchism but chaos. But for V this is purposeful chaos. This chaos gives the people a voice and it is all the more powerful to him because of the silence that preceded it under the iron fist of Norsefire. He believes that the chaos will make Norsefire remember just how loud and powerful the voice of the people can really be. And from this chaos a much more organized and voluntary society will be formed. Anarchism will be a society that loves the sweet music of peace and cooperation and be able to do away with “our destroyers” and explosives that give rise to anarchy.

But how did we get to the chaos to begin with?

V’s story starts off saving a young woman named Evee from being raped by what are called “fingermen” and kills them. He then proceeds finish the work of Guy Fawkes and blows up the House of Parliament.

Guy Fawkes, for those who don’t know, was a member of the provincial English Catholics who planned and failed to blow up the house of parliament in 1605. He wasn’t doing this for some sort of anarchist reason, by the way. He was doing it to do a little thing called restoring the Catholic monarchy. To me, the glorification of Fawkes to me seems similar to the sort of praise John Wilkes Booth gets.

Even though V was successful because the explosion happened during the night, no one was killed.

From there, V takes Evee to his hideout and tells her a little about his place, and from there he proceeds to keep killing others in Norsefire. Like in 1984 we have things like “ministry of X” but instead of that exact title for the different divisions within Norsefire they are named after body parts. So one is called The Eye (for surveillance), another The Nose (for detectives) and the Ear (for auditory wiretapping) and so on. Of particular interest is David Finch who leads the nose. Right from the get-go the reader may notice something peculiar about Finch: that he doesn’t suck up to the leader of Norsefire, Adam Susan. Susan, on the other hand is in love with his computer, Fate…literally. And throughout the novel his mental state degrades further and further down while V’s path of destruction continues and only keeps getting bigger. Susan pulls out all of the stops of course, he tries to corner V through his fingermen, he tries to send Finch after him (which eventually backfires in some pretty interesting ways) and he tries to overpower V with a showing of brute force but none of this works. V outsmarts him, overpowers him or uses Evee in some way to get past Norsefire’s defenses.

Speaking of Evee, she’s a rather important and controversial figure within V for Vendetta not for necessarily anything that she does but what V does in relation to her. In one of the most famous and probably most discussed part of V for Vendetta (whether it’s the film or the graphic novel) is the torture scene with Evee. V tricks Evee into thinking that she’s been captured and manages to have all of her hair cut, waterboards her and make her survive on very little food. He does this until he builds up her resolve to the point that she refuses to give up what she knows about V and instead says she’ll elect to die. At this point she’s released from the “torture facility” and it’s all revealed to be a sham. V has been behind the torture the whole time.

One thing that wasn’t a sham however, was a note that Evee read by a woman named Valerie. In the note, Valerie tells of her life, how she got to the torture facility that she presumes Evee is now in and that she loves her. She says that she grew up in Nottingham and became attracted to girls early in her school years, her parents were aghast, particularly her mother.

Valerie grew up wanting to be an actress and eventually became one. Starting small and then getting into bigger roles as time went on. This is where she met Ruth and she lived with her for three years among many roses before the war began in 1988. But once the war began there were no more roses for anyone. Ruth was eventually taken away while looking out for food and was tortured into giving up Valerie’s name and saying that she had been seduced. She killed herself soon after. Valerie says Ruth killed herself because she gave up that “last inch” that keeps us still intact and gives us something to fight back against. Valerie concludes her letter saying that she doesn’t know who the person is who is reading her note but that she still wishes she could kiss them.

This is really one of the most powerful moments of V for Vedetta for me. It’s hard (at least for me) not to tear up at Valerie’s words and the images that go along with it. The indescribable feelings of loss and torment knowing that the person you love is gone and that you know that you’re next. The feelings of being absolutely alone and being powerless the knowledge that this is all in the past and that there’s nothing Evee can do for Valerie now. It’s then easy to see for me why V would use this to motivate Evee. So she won’t give up that last inch like Ruth did or lose it like Valerie did when she died. Instead she’ll keep fighting no matter what the conditions are and will continue to fight against the fascist system that V is also fighting against. V does this for sympathy, he does it for empathy and understanding, so Evee can understand what V himself probably went through to some extent or another. But more importantly to what Valerie went through so Evee can now not only fight for herself and for V but for people like Valerie as well. People who have already been lost to Norsefire, who have been kidnapped or killed or tortured or any number of things. For the people that have given up or let Norsefire take away that last inch of themselves. V wants Evee to do better than that.

There’s lots of ways you could take this method of getting Evee on V’s side but overall I don’t believe that it was moral, necessary or very anarchistic of V.

First off does V need to torture Evee to understand his point of view? Is it necessary? Was there no other way he could get her to understand? I could understand his point of view just from reading the letter. I personally didn’t need any torture to understand what V was saying. But then perhaps I’m a bit privileged in that I’m the reader and Evee is just a participant. Still, the torture scene is probably the biggest blight against V being an anarchist or at least a good one.

Granted, he doesn’t kill many innocent people. He kills mostly fingermen who are trying to either kill him or others who, while they aren’t actively trying to kill him are employed in the business rather explicitly (though I’ll be careful to note here that that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily okay to do much less advisable but it’s at least more arguable). When he blows up the various buildings in London there’s only one incident where anyone dies and it appears to be implied that the person who was in there wasn’t an intentional target of V. Though, on the other hand, this shows the perils of engaging in widespread violence against a system: innocents may get hurt.

And Evee is nothing but if not an innocent. Someone who didn’t deserve nor, I think, need the torture that V gave to her. Of course, V seems to think so, but why? V reasons afterwards that he did it because he loves Evee, he wants her to be set free, he was willing to do whatever it took to get her to understand his point of view, that being free and understanding freedom is much more important than being happy and so on.

But let’s backup and question an implicit assumption in all of this: is V really a good guy to begin with? After all, being the protagonist and being a good person aren’t synonymous.

The torture of Evee isn’t the only reason to question it. Alan Moore has made the point that he tried to make the novel morally ambiguous and not just black and white. He could have said here are the Nazi bad guys and here’s the anarchist good guy but it doesn’t look like he did that. Given that I’m not so sure V is really a good guy or meant to be even viewed as such to a certain extent.

He certainly has his charms, he has wit, he is skilled with various sorts of combat and stealth and he seems to care a great deal about the concept of freedom and for other people. But on the other hand he uses emotional blackmail and psychological torture to convince Evee to join him. He still kills plenty of people and via the chaos of the riots leads to at least the death of a little girl who tries to emulate the rebellion she sees going on her.

Does V take responsibility for this as well as the chaos? We never get an answer.

V also psychologically tortures Susan by taking control of Fate and emotionally manipulates Susan into madness. Now, I’m not shedding any tears for Susan here. I don’t think he’s a good guy, that’s for sure. But I do want to show that V is pretty much willing to do anything that it takes to get to where he wants to go. Does this make him good or bad based on that alone? It’s not easy to tell but given his actions throughout the book it’s certainly not an easily arguable case that V is just the good guy and that’s it.

There’s another thing worth considering that I don’t think I’ve ever really see anyone tackle: V has the ability to spy on the whole mass of England (p. 220). When he takes over Fate it’s worth noting that Fate has control over the surveillance in England and Evee exclaims that V can see all of England with his TVs. V responds that he can only get the “riot soap opera” and “bad disaster films” but on page 228 we can clearly see V watching (at least for a moment) while a few party members are in bed.

In the next panel he turns it off but both the possibility and the capabilities have been shown off and clearly V has used and is using them to spy on people. If it wasn’t okay for Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight to do this and be called a fascist for it then why can V get away with it?

Now, part of me can’t blame him because it’d probably be necessary on some level to know how to counteract Norsefire on some larger systematic scale. But another part of me still seems struck by how willing V is to go against his own principles just so he can make the world a better place, or at least the place he perceives as being better.

In terms of V’s means he considers “The Land of Take-As-You-Wilt” to be the intermediary of the society in which V for Vendetta starts until we’re eventually to “The Land of Do-As-You-Please”. But is this an anarchist point of view? As far as I know most of us wouldn’t be comfortable with causing a whole bunch of chaos tomorrow just for the vague possibility that somehow anarchism would come from it. Granted, it’s not like V doesn’t do some education via taking over the broadcasting of Norsefire. He does two speeches to the public to educate them a little bit about who he is and what he wants out of them. But he mostly speaks (as he typically does) in riddles and contrived language and I’m unsure how effective that really is for the general public. Past that it’s not like V really communicates to the people on the streets but then again it’d be impractical to try, most likely. And he’s not exactly a public figure except when he either makes a speech or blows stuff up. And I personally don’t find all of this a good enough basis for some sort of anarchist revolution.

But then his tactics alone don’t disqualify him from being an anarchist, perhaps.

Again, most of the things he blows up harm no one, almost all of the people he kills are either immediate threats to him or to others and even when they are not they’re surely systematic threats to people on a nearly constant basis. Now, again, that doesn’t mean it’s a good tactic or it’s morally legitimate, but it’s certainly a whole lot less problematic in moral terms than just killing random people or killing the postman because their tangentially related to the state.

In general though I don’t think V really understands anarchist tactics or how an anarchist would go about creating a better world. For someone who claims anarchism isn’t equivalent to chaos I think he does a pretty poor job proving that it’s not. And he only makes the “faces of anarchism” clear to Evee, explaining that they are both destroyer and creator. He rightly points out the creator is more important which he puts into terms of “sweet music” but still suggests we should celebrate the bombers, the bastards and the people who are “unlovely and unforgivable” (p. 222). V seems to relish in destruction and chaos at one point saying that “the chaos progresses splendidly” (p. 217) and seems to think it’s the best way to get to anarchism.

But perhaps it’s just hard to understand V’s point of view here because although we certainly do not live in good conditions under the present government they’re not exactly committing genocides, rounding up gays and blacks, etc. Perhaps V’s response is valuable in some way or another if the scenario that plays out in Moore’s novel actually happened (or something like it). But even in this case I’m still unsure.

More broadly speaking I think the topic of violence and so on is a thorny issue and of course just talking about it a risky thing. So this is a topic that should be handled with care but that doesn’t mean the discussion shouldn’t be had at all. The issue of violence and anarchism is a complex one and one that’s necessary to hash out and sometimes that means out in the open air. It should be done carefully mind you, so as not to give anyone in the ruling class any excuses, but I still think it should be done when and where people feel comfortable. But when it comes down to it I don’t think most of us here want a violent revolution. I know that I don’t at least. I’d prefer society to gradually change towards more and more freedom via radical measures including direct action, building alternative institutions and more.

But violence isn’t really in my repertoire in those radical means. It’s not something I’m very much interested in and despite the lovely visuals Lloyd and Moore have given us in V for Vendetta I’m still not really impressed or satisfied, much less convinced, that violence is the answer to the present social order. Now, granted, I don’t really know that either Moore or Lloyd are convinced of these things either. I remember reading in an interview that Moore isn’t fond of the killing that V has to do in order to achieve his goals (though strangely he thinks the torture is a more complex matter that he aligns more sympathy with) so clearly Moore himself isn’t that interested in violence to one extent or another. And while I can’t really speak for Lloyd I’d suspect a similar position from him.

Now, perhaps we could argue that violence in response to the ultra-violence prone fascist led society was V’s only reasonable choice. Is that possible? Perhaps. I’m not a pacifist and I think self-defense is a perfectly fine thing and I also think owning things for protection is perfectly fine too. But of course V wasn’t just getting himself involved in self-defense. Plenty of his actions were initiatory and aggressive towards known government agents. But even if V’s response was rational that doesn’t mean the way he went about it was possible. After all, the story is fictional…mostly. And being fictional and being the huge epic story it is, there’s bound to be plenty of holes in the plot (like how did V get such unrestricted access to the subway tunnels for so long?). And those plot holes and the fact that it’s fiction makes for a somewhat unrealistic expectation that we’re all just going to pull a V on the oppressors of society while waxing Shakespeare.

But even so I think, just like with our other case studies that V is good intentioned and can be a great source of empowerment and if nothing else wonderful discussions about anarchism, power and politics. I don’t really think V is a very good anarchist all things considered and honestly making him so associated with chaos, violence and destruction probably does more damage than good in my opinion. But V is still a fascinating and complex character that while perhaps some sort of anarchist (he seems to be pretty vague about his goals and what they may look like) is, as I said, still not a very good one. I say that because of his tactics, his association with chaos and violence and because of his general lack of understanding of anarchist praxis.

But that doesn’t mean he’s not worth reading about. Indeed, I think V for Vendetta is required for any comic book fan, let alone an anarchist comic book fan. Which means that my recommendation goes double for the anarchist comic book nerds in the room.

 

Conclusion:

There was something interesting I noticed about all of the case studies I looked at and with V I think his wit and his manner of perceiving the world is one of the most interesting things. I think his amount of smarts and the way he deals with right and wrong are fascinating to take a look at.

I think V is, at best some sort of hypocritical anarchist who doesn’t really understand the means of anarchism even if he understands some of the goals of anarchism. I don’t think he has much of the spirit or passion either because most of that is tied up with revenge and not liberation. I’m not saying these two things are always mutually exclusive but V for Vendetta is named such because the main point of V’s mission isn’t just personal and collective liberation for all of England. It’s also a vendetta he has against the ruling class for personal wrongs they’ve committed against him in particular.

The ways he deals with Evey and trying to get more people involved in the movement, namely psychological, mental, emotional and even physical manipulation is to be looked down on as far as I am concerned. So are his ideas of the means. But the words V uses and the wit he uses to formulate his plans, to plan a few steps against Norsefire are important elements of being an anarchist (again, not really saying anything about his means here which I largely disagree with). Because if we’re going to liberate society and ourselves we’re going to need to have our heads in the game and we’re going to have to be able to plan and be a few steps ahead of the obstacles in our way.

More broadly speaking in terms of comics and anarchism we shouldn’t be afraid to look into other mediums for either creating or finding better ideas about how to configure a better society. And when it comes to television, movies and music, anarchists certainly have taken their fill of people, ideas and so on. But when it comes to comic books I say we have a lot more work to do. Not only is it discouraging to just even try to look up a basic Google search for the key terms comic books and anarchism but the fact that I think I could probably only write a handful of these essays, each featuring three case studies is the most discouraging of all.

Perhaps even more discouraging than that is the lack of work done on analyzing these comic books and the characters that inhabit them as well as placing them within anarchist lens and seeing what we can get from them. Maybe it’s not even something useful for you and perhaps everything I’ve said so far is garbage as far as you are concerned. And if so then that’s fine. But I’d rather have us find that out and try than just ignore things like comic books.

To anarchists credit we’re always still building and comic books is one of the major mainstream forms of entertainment that still feels underground in some ways. It’s like the progressive rock band Coheed and Cambria. They’re a massively successful band and have had even a few radio hits here and there but their following is still pretty cult like…in a good way. You could say the same thing about Rush. Sure, everyone knows Rush (well “everyone”) for Tom Sawyer but do people know any of their albums or their other songs (besides the radio hits)?

Comic books despite being mostly inhabited by nerdy white kids who start plugging their ears and stamping their feet at the word “sexism” are still a somewhat underground and cultish kind of activity. They’re very resistant to change and also very nostalgic (two things, in my opinion that is killing the comic book industry’s standard of what makes a good comic) and they can also be very conservative. Indeed, some of the landmark texts of the comic book industry Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns can be read (in some parts if not overall) as a fairly conservative piece or involving conservatism in some of its parts fairly obviously. Now given Watchmen is written by Moore, I’m not trying to accuse him of doing that for some personal ideological reason. But it’s still worth noting either way.

I think things like this only means anarchism has its work cut out for itself. And if we want to change industries, impact markets and get people to have their views challenged and eventually changed for the better then we’re going to need to get some starting material. We’re going to need a good foundation of where to come at them from. If they want to see anarchism in action where are they going to look? What should they read? What authors should they pay attention to? What if there isn’t any more anarchist materials at all in the next five years and what if comic books are barren and need some form of radicalism in one way another? What then?

Well then I say is the perfect time (as I think it is now) for us to take a much closer look at comics, recognize the art form behind it and try to change it for the better. If you’re not seeing the next great anarchist or anarchist themed comic then go make one.

In terms of what lies ahead for future installments I can think of some who I’d still like to analyze or analyze within an anarchist context.

For example I can think of Mr. Nobody from Doom Patrol, a situationist inspired villain turned sort of anti-hero from what I understand. I can also think of radical elements in comics like Animal Man, which I’ve been told at one point references ALF (the Animal Liberation Front) and promotes things like veganism and so on.

There’s also a character in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman who disavows his position of authority and that could be interesting to analyze too. I think all of these things and more could be analyzed within anarchist contexts. And if you’ve read Anarchist Studies: October 1997, which you can find at the library here you’ll know that some of these already have been analyzed!

So I don’t think this’ll be the only presentation I’ll do about anarchism, anti-authoritarianism or radicalism more generally in comic books.

Hopefully this is just the start of something beautiful.

“Element of Crushing Mass”, Unknown (The Match, Issue 110)

by on November 18th, 2014

THE MATCH! Issue no. 103, 2005

Taken from The Backwoods Heretic

…Laboratories have discovered the heaviest element yet known to science. The new element, Governmentium, has one neuteron, 25 assistant neuterons, 88 deputy neuterons, and 198 assistant deputy neuterons, giving it an atomic weight of 312.

These 312 particles are held together by forces called morons, which are surrounded by vast quantities of particles called peons.

Since Governmentium has no electrons, it is inert. However, it can be detected because it impedes every reaction with which it comes into contact. A tiny amount of Governmentium can cause a reaction that would normally take less than a second, to take from four days to four years to complete.

Governmentium has a normal half-life of two to six years, but it does not decay. Instead it undergoes a reorganization in which a portion of the assistant neuterons and deputy neuterons exchange places, some forming an isotope called Bureaucratium which accretes mass over time.

The total mass of Governmentium/bureacratium doubles in a 10-year period, since each reorganization will cause more morons to become neutrons.

This characteristic of morons promotion leads some scientists to believe that Governmentium is formed whenever morons reach a critical concentration. This hypothetical quantity is deferred to as critical morass…

–Source unknown. We found this story in THE MATCH!, issue no. 110. This magazine is available from: THE MATCH!, P.O. Box 3012, Tuscon, AZ 85702. It’s nice to send a donation.

In Defense of Libertarian Communism, by Kerry Thornley

by on October 2nd, 2014

 

(This essay was originally published in Strategy of the New Libertarian Alliance #2, May Day 1982-3, with comments by Samuel Edward Konkin III at the end.)

 

Kerry Wendell Thornley

 

For many years I accepted without question the prevailing opinion on the libertarian right that communist anarchism is “anti-market,” that it was espoused principally by people who objected unconsciously to the idea of having to work and that it preached excessive violence. During the summer of 1975 I read Alexander Berkman’s What Is Communist Anarchism? and confirmed a suspicion I’d been nurturing since 1969 that the last two of these charges, at least, were wholly in error. Berkman, like his comrades Emma Goldman and Rudolph Rocker, held views similar to those developed by Peter Kropotkin – except that Berkman was exceptionally eloquent and quotable in his expressions of them, while at the same time confining himself in What Is Communist Anarchism? to simple, working-class language.

All during his brief, tragic life he worked incessantly and tirelessly in support of all revolutionaries – including, in the early stages, the Bolsheviks in Russia and, later, all the anarchist dissidents, including Stirnerites, in Lenin’s prisons, without ever claiming to share the predominant views of either. Needless to say, his support for fellow communist anarchists was unstinting.

As for the notion that revolutionary communist anarchists are bloodthirsty individuals, it is adequately refuted in the chapter in What Is Communist Anarchism? on violence. Berkman compares the social revolution to a fragile flower that must be cultivated gently. Believing that some violence is necessary, he argues that it is like rolling up one’s sleeves before beginning the actual work of revolution, asserting also that when great thinkers like Bakunin and Malatesta ranted about destruction they were referring to the destruction of institutions, not of human beings.

But the charges that libertarian communism ignores the laws of the free market do not simply result from ignorance of its doctrines, but comprise instad an intellectually formidable position. In the first place, Berkman failed miserably to comprehend the significance of monetary mutualist ideas about central banking – blaming the warlike nature of capitalism upon the overproduction of goods and the consequent necessity to find new markets, unaware that in a free society stored overproduced goods could become a basis for mediums of exchange. Moreover, he failed to see that the prospect of war is needed by multinational banking corporations and failed to realize that credit monopolies such as central banks virtually thrive upon the misery and destruction that create debt.

Beyond that mistake, however, his thesis does not express an ignorance of free market principles, but instead depends upon a view of human nature that differs from that of most Conservatives and laissez-faire capitalists. Conservatives accept Original Sin and libertarian rightists assume that the laws which result from present economic values will always prevail, although those values result in turn from centuries of authoritarian conditioning.

As Hagbard Celine points out in the Illuminatus! Trilogy, left anarchists disagree with right anarchists only in their predictions as to how people will behave in a free market – the leftists believing that cooperation will take the place of competition, the rightists assuming that people will remain as competitve as ever. In other words, while authoritarian economics are proscriptive, libertarian economics are predictive – a realization which facilitates left-right unity among anarchists and libertarians.

Libertarians tend to agree with Marxists that economics usually determine politics, that economic forces are more basic to the structure of society – but neither seem to take into consideration how much prevailing human values determine human choices. An ignorant society composed of ignorant people will make foolish purchases and thereby become a market for junk merchandise and/or enormously destructive weaponry designed to wipe out foreign civilian populations instead of its own domestic and multinational oppressors.

Unfortunately, ignorance tends to feed on itself. Spencer thought universal literacy would culminate in the solution of all of most of society’s problems, but as Aldous Huxley observed he did not anticipate that most people would opt to read trivia – escapist fiction, inaccurate propaganda, advertising, etc. – instead of consciousness-raising materials and scientific papers. When television was in its infancy all kinds of optimistic predictions were made that it would eliminate war by establishing global communication between people of all cultures!

Of course, the economic and political requirements of the status quo tend to reinforce precisely those values that will maintain the established order, so there is some validity in the Marxist view of economic necessity, but the Russian and Chinese experiments have shown that a political takeover of society aimed at changing economic conditions does not suceed in significantly altering the economic substructure or in transforming personal values – and all libertarians understand the reasons.

But if, by libertarian methods, authoritarian values and the ignorance that they require are at a future point in history eradicated, what then? Will communist anarchism remain an anti-market philosophy or will the so-called laws of the market, being nothing mroe than descriptions of observed human behavior, change in accord with a proliferation of economic choices that result from psychologically liberated and informed values?

Like most higher mammals, human beings are herd animals, or tribalists. But the theological conceit that they are not mammals at all, but creatures “a little lower than angels,”causes them to behave in a way that alienates them not only from their own bodies, but also from their own emotional and social needs.

Imagine, as one example, belonging to a voluntary extended family of twenty-five individuals, children included, that lived in the same village neighborhood, labored in the same workplace, and enjoyed the same recreations together. Assume that these individuals had located one another through a computer matching service and taht therefore their lifestyle values were very much alike. Such a group might be further bonded in multilateral marriages, or it might be monoagamous and bonded vicariously in collective autoerotic sharing, or it might be sexually monogamous but held together by strong religious convictions or nonmystical values. Would such a group necessarily function in a manner that was anti-market? Even if it was organized internally for the equal sharing of what it produced?

Contrary to popular belief, human beings like to work, as the biography of many a millionaire will attest. What makes labor alienating under present social conditions is that it is organized after the military model, wherein participants are told when to work and when not to work, how to dress and what relations to maintain on the job with their fellow workers. With such a distorted notion what is necessary to production it is no wonder that the average person suspects that if working conditions were controlled directly by the workers themselves everyone would sluff off! Or that a few would work and all the others would sit back.

A peculiarity of my own background is that I come from a Mormon family, and from ages twelve to sixteen I was intensely active in the church. Mormons are famous for contributing untold hours of free labor to their church, and it works that way because, for them, work is a social occasion. As Alan Watts would say, they have managed to break down the dichotomy in their church activities between work and play.

That communist anarchists are by and large ignorant of free market principles is simply not true. For while their choices of words are different from those of the libertarian right and they therefore seldom use the term “free market,”, it can be seen from a close reading of either Peter Kropotkin or Alexander Berkman that they recognize, as one example among many, that economic values are subjective, although they did not know this would become known among Austrian capitalists as the “law of marginal utility.” In keeping with their contrasting view of human nature, the anarchists use marginal utility concepts to justify equal rations, since subjective value also implies that it is impossible to ascribe an objective value to anyone’s labor.

Evidence that the communist libertarian view of human nature tend to be the more correct one is contained in A.S. Neill’s Summerhill, where it is observed that in an environment of complete freedom children tend to be self-regulating and to master their subjects in the absense of any immediate rewards for so doing. That the resentment generated by compulsory measures is also absent in such a milieu seems to go a long way to explain why bribery, or reward, also becomes unnecessary. Further evidence is to be found in abundance in the study of anthropology, the Hopi Indians being only one very conspicuous, very extreme example of how far cooperation can develop in the direction of eliminating competition without crippling productive activity.

A logical political compromise between communist anarchism and libertarian capitalism would seem to be individualist anarchism of the kind espoused by Josiah Warren and Benjamin Tucker – for it makes the least number of assumptions in either direction about human nature and developed from experience with both utopian communist communities and the laissez-faire capitalism of teh last century.

Instead of making metaphysical assumptions about the nature of human beings in a free society, it asks: With people as they are how can we arrange social institutions to allow for the optimum in both individual choice and useful cooperation?

Once we construct our alternative institutions with that question in mind, generations of human beings will begin to grow up in genuine freedom – and no past or present communist anarchist or laissez-faire capitalist can predict with certainty what will happen after that, but it seems to me they should be able to agree that this is where to begin.

For libertarian capitalists that means becoming aware of communist anarchist doctrines, and realizing that they are based not so much on ignorance of economics as on unlimited optimism for the potential rationality of genuinely free people. —KWT


 

[We await discussion in SNLA #3’s letter section. So that it will not be derailed from the central subject – relations between various Anarchists – let me quickly correct some minor points which are simply errors of presentation of the market-libertarian positions by Kerry.

First, his use of “libertarian right” should be taken as specialized for this article, since it is inconsistent with Libertarian Left and Libertarian Right used in other N-NLA publications.

Second, while the Libertarian Right (our sense) may assume “that the laws which result from present economic values will always prevail, although these values result in turn from centuries of authoritarian conditioning,” the Libertarian Left (agorists) believe the operation of true economic laws are distorted and repressed by centuries of statism and will be unleashed after the abolition of the State. The basic agorist position could be crudely put, to use Thornley’s terms, that many people will be freed to “become more competitive than ever.” That is, they will become entrepreneurial and less drudge-like. The speculative agorist view that this author holds (see brief discussion with Rothbard in SNLA #1 on the New Libertarian Manifesto) is that Labor will asymptotically be abolished, replaced by “smart” drudge devices, machines, production systems, and so on.

Nor is it just “popular belief” that is opposed to the one that “human beings like to work.” Ludwig Von Mises takes it as an axiom of praxeology – and I agree. Of course, what is “work” is open to debate; I consider creative and artistic endeavors to be forms of entrepreneurialism and think most agorists have similar views.
The Mormonoid method of mixing subjective-reward play with work is in no way inconsistent with agoric activity. The “Law” of Subjective Value of Mises is not the same as that of Marginal Utility; fortunately, Thornley’s arguments do not depend on that misidentification.

Finally, Thornley would be better off comparing, as I assume some are ready to write in challenges to this effect, “utopian communist communities” with “utopian” agorist communities (i.e., the Counter-Economy) rather than “laissez-faire capitalism of the last century” with which only the far right of Libertarianism can find any affinity with.

Let the letters come on, now! —SEK3

“Anarchist Individualism in the Social Revolution”, by Renzo Novatore

by on September 26th, 2014

(Nick’s Notes: This piece by Novatore isn’t online anywhere so I’ve done the honors)

Renzo Novatore

 

Il Libertario, volume VXII, #738, 739, November 6, 13 1919

 

1.

Anarchist individualism as we understand it – and I say we because a substantial handful of friends think this like me – is hostile to every school and every party, every churchly and dogmatic moral, as well as every more or less academic imbecility. Every form of discipline, rule and pedantry is repulsvie to the sincere nobility of our vagabond and rebellious restlessness!

Individualism is, for us, creative force, immortal youth, exalting beauty, redemptive and fruitful war. It is the marvelous apotheosis of the flesh and the tragic epic of the spirit. Our logic is that of not having any. Our ideal is the categorical negation of all other ideals for the greatest and supreme triumph of the actual, real, instinctive, reckless and merry life! For us perfection is not a dream, an ideal, a riddle, a mystery, a sphinx, but a vigorous and powerful, luminous and throbbing reality. All human beings are perfect in themselves. All they lack is the heroic courage of their perfection. Since the time that human beings first believed that life was a duty, a calling, a mission, it has meant shame for their power of being, and in following phantoms, they have denied themselves and distanced themselves from the real. When Christ said to human beings: “be yourselves, perfection is in you!” he launched a superb phrase that is the supreme synthesis of life.

It is useless that the bigots, theologians and philosophers do their utmost with deceitful and dialectical sophisms to give a false interpretation to Christ’s words. But when Christ speaks this way to human beings, he disavows his entire calling to renunciation, to a mission and to faith, and all the rest of his doctrine collapses miserably in the mud, knocked down by he himself. And here, and here alone, is Christ’s great tragedy. Let human beings open their misty eyes in the blinding sun of this truth, and they will find themselves face to face with their true and laughing redemption.

This is the ethical part individualism, neither romantically mystical, nor idealistically monastic, neither moral, nor immoral, but amoral, wild, furious and warlike, that keeps its luminous roots voluptuously rooted in the phosphorescent perianth of pagan nature, and its verdant foliage resting on the purple mouth of virgin life.

 

2.

 

To every form of human Society that would try to impose renunciations and artificial sorrow on our anarchic and rebellious I, thirsting for free and exulting expansion, we will respond with a roaring and sacrilegious howl of dynamite.

To all those demagogues of politics and of philosophy that carry in their pockets a beautiful system made by mortgaging a corner of the future, we respond with Bakunin: Oafs and weaklings! Every duty that they would like to impose on us we will furiously trample under our sacrilegious feet. Every shady phantom that they would place before our eyes, greedy for light, we will angrily rip up with our daringly profaning hands. Christ was ashamed of his own doctrine and he broke it first. Friedrich Nietzsche was afraid of his overhuman and made it die in the midst of his agonizing animals, asking pity of the higher man. But we are neither afraid nor ashamed of the liberated Human Being.

We exalt Prometheus, the sacrilegious thief who stole the eternal spark from Jove’s heaven to animate the man of clay, and we glorify Hercules, the powerful, liberating hero.

 

3.

 

Pagan nature has placed a Prometheus in the mind of every mortal human being, and a Hercules in the brain of every thinker. But morality, that disgusting enchantress of philosophers, peoples and humanity, has glorified and sanctified the vulture exalting it as divine justice, and divine justice, which Comte humanized, has condemned the Hero.

The Human Being of furrow and the thinker have trembled before this baleful phantom and courage has remained defeated under the enormous weight of fear.

But anarchist individualism is a brilliant and fatal torch that casts light into the darkness into the realm of fear and puts to flight the phantoms of Divine justice that Comte humanized.

Individualism is the free and unconstrained song that reconnects the individual to the eternal and universal pan-dynamism, that is neither moral nor immoral, but that is everything. Nature; and Life! What is Life? Depths and peaks, instinct and reason, light and darkness, mud and beauty, joy and sorrow. Disavowal of the past, domination of the present, longing and yearning for the future.

Life is all this. And all this is also individualism. Who seeks to escape Life? Who dares to deny it?

 

4.

 

The Social Revolution is the sudden awakening of Prometheus after a fall into a faint of sorrow caused by the foul vulture that rips his heart to shreds. It is an attempt at self-liberation. But the chains with which the sinister god Jove had him chained on the Caucasus by the repugnant servant Vulcan cannot be broken except by the Titanic rebel Hero, son of Jove himself.

We rebel children of this putrid humanity that has chained human beings in the dogmatic mud of social superstitions will never miss bringing our tremendous axe blow down on the rusty links of this hateful chain.

Yes, we anarchist individualists are for Social Revolution, but in our way, it’s understood!

 

5.

 

The revolt of the individual against society is not given by that of the masses against governments. Even when the masses submit to governments, living in the sacred and shameful peace of their resignation, the anarchist individual lives against society because he is in a never-ending and irreconcilable war with it, but when, at a historical turning point, he comes together with the masses in revolt, he raises his black flag with them and throws his dynamite with them.

The anarchist individualist is in the Social Revolution, not as a demagogue, but as a inciting element, not as an apostle, but as a living, effective, destructive force…

All past revolutions were in the end, bourgeois and conservative. That which flashes on the red horizon of our magnificently tragic time will have for its aim the fierce socialist humanism. We, anarchist individualists, will enter into the revolution for an exclusive need of our own to set fire to and incite spirits. To make sure that, as Stirner says, it is not a new revolution that approaches, but rather an immense, proud, reckless, shameless, conscienceless crime that rumbles with the lightning on the horizon, and beneath which  the sky, swollen with foreboding, grows dark and silent. And Ibsen: “There’s only one revolution I recognize – that was truly, thoroughly radical – … I’m referring to the ancient Flood! That one alone was truly serious. But even then the devil lost his due: you know Noah took up the dictatorship.  Let’s make this revolution again, but more thoroughly. It requires real men as well as orators. So you bring on the roaring waters, I’ll supply the powder keg to blow up the ark.”

Now since dictatorship will be – alas! – inevitable in the somber global revolution that sends its bleak glow from the east over our black cowardice, the ultimate task of we anarchist individualists will be that of blowing up the final ark with bomb explosions and the final dictator with Browning shots. The new society established, we will return to its margins to live our lives dangerously as noble criminals and audacious sinners! Because the anarchist individualist still means eternal renewal, in the field of art, thought and action.

Anarchist individualism still means eternal revolt against eternal sorrow, the eternal search for new springs of life, joy and beauty. And we will still be such in Anarchy.

written under the name of Mario Ferrento

Anarchism in the Classroom!

by on September 11th, 2014

This is a loose transcript of a “talk” I gave for my partner’s mother at Worcester State University to her communications 101 class.

The Modern School in NYC (Circa 1911-1912)

Hi, my name is Nick Ford. I run a site called AbolishWork.com and work for an anarchist organization called C4SS or, the Center for a Stateless Society. We can be found at C4SS.org.

So Alta asked me to be here so I could jazz you guys up about the different economic systems and how they relate to Marxism and the internet. I’ll mostly tackle the different economic systems.

To start, Marxism is based on the ideology of the German thinker and philosopher Karl Marx. This doesn’t mean the ideology is limited to Marx .For example leaders of the USSR like Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin and other added on to Marx’s theories and made them a bit different than they were before.  So Marxists don’t live and die by Marx, but of course many take great inspiration from his thought. And particularly from his large tomes called Das Kapital.

Marxism argues that capitalism is actually (or at least can be) a transitionary stage to freeing ourselves. To an anarchist this would be tantamount to saying that slavery is pretty cool for a while as long as it results in some sort of freedom for the slaves, eventually. But either way to many Marxists capitalism is a necessary part of development in the world to get to real democracy. Lenin even used state-capitalism as a way to supposedly get to the a classless and stateless society. Of course, if you know even basic history of Stalin then you know how well that went.

But what exactly is capitalism?

Some refer to capitalism as just an economic system wherein the means of production are privately owned. Or a system where property and exchange is freely done without regulations by the government.

I object to both definitions and refer to Kevin Carson, a contemporary anarchist thinker in his “Capitalism: A Good Word for a Bad Thing”,

…it is rather odd that “capitalism” was adopted  as the conventional term for a society based on private property and free exchange. There’s no obvious reason, in seeking a name for an economy in which all factors of production are ostensibly equal and enter into free contract as equals, that capital should be singled in particular out for special emphasis.  The choice of “capitalism” suggests some special ideological agenda, as if the system were run of, by and for capital as distinguished from other factors of production.

And that is exactly what capitalism is.

Capitalism, as it has historically existed is a system whereby the means of production (that is, the tools necessary to produce goods, e.g. factories, certain sorts of machinery, etc.) has been concentrated into a certain class’s hands as opposed to the lower class. So the private ownership of the means of production (or POOTMOP) is certainly relevant but I don’t know that it’s defining. In any case, this higher class tends to be the management or the elites who are able to make good with politicians due to their connections.

As Marx points out this condition was largely done by violence and one of the most major locations of this violence was England during the enclosure acts. Where, according to Kevin Carson, many peasants had small and fully functioning communes with healthy and stable economies that allowed work but also allowed leisure and good rewards. It wasn’t perfect by any means but it certainly would beat being forced into factories via state-capital collusion.

But if Marxism is aiming for real “democracy” then we must understand what that means as well.

To go at this from an etymological level the word literally means people-system as in, a system powered directly by the people involved. Sounds great but people can take “people” to mean anything. So in a “representative” democracy the people “directly” involved have a voice…it’s just not theirs. And in more “direct democracies” like Sweden for example the public may have a stronger vote on certain things directly but it still has to go through a larger parliamentary system.

So both of these sorts of democracies interpret the “people” to be the ruling class or the state.

The sort of democracy that Marx would particularly favor when all is said and done is a classless and stateless society.

That is to say a society where no particular group of people (e.g. politicians, capitalists, etc.) has a distinctly higher advantageous claim over another with the means of production or the ability to make decisions over ones own life.

And a society wherein things are stateless, which is to say no government or centralized authority on the role of violence in a given society. These things would be determined by localized councils that network and federate with other ones to discuss and decide important issues.

Anarchists that are more favorable to communism (which is another word for Marx’s desired end) may be okay with this end. But the means are questionable. Marx is well-known for his “dictatorship of the proletariat” which typically has anarchists at least skeptical. To be fair to Marx what he meant by a “dictatorship” was coming from a German language and a much different time. So by this he more or less meant the supremacy of one group over another and not necessarily a totalitarian state or something along those lines.

Nevertheless I believe the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, for example, predicted how this would turn out:

“They [the Marxists] maintain that only a dictatorship—their dictatorship, of course—can create the will of the people, while our answer [the anarchists] to this is:

No dictatorship can have any other aim but that of self-perpetuation, and it can beget only slavery in the people tolerating it; freedom can be created only by freedom, that is, by a universal rebellion on the part of the people and free organization of the toiling masses from the bottom up.” (Statism and Anarchy)

 

We can see then that at least with fairly orthodox or classical Marxism the anarchist and Marxist they may agree on the opposition to capitalism and the approval of certain forms of democracy do not agree on how to get there or what it would look like, etc.

 

Where as the Marxist merely wants to change hands of who has supremacy the anarchists wants not supremacy at all.

 

The anarchist alternative to the dictatorship is the IWW tactic of building the new society within the shell of the old. Building alternative organizations based on mutuality, voluntary association, horizontal organizing and so on. This can include things like housing cooperatives, food collectives, forming powerful but autonomous unions that are not involved with the state and so on.

The idea is to build these organizations and network them so that you can eventually start building autonomous localities, neighborhoods and full blown autonomous towns if possible. All the while having means to defend yourself and handle inner-disputes in these communities through peer to peer arbitration or established community courts for more serious things.

Instead of perpetuating the models of capitalism and the state through a hierarchical placing of one class over the other (in this case the proletariat over the bourgeois) and risk perpetuating the bourgeois state we shall instead destroy it from within the society by creating a new one.

In other words the anarchist relies not on any panacea or use of an iron first via a proletarian state but rather an invisibile Molotov to quote the Director of C4SS, James Tuttle:

 The Invisible Molotov embraces emergent orders, not as the pious desire to embrace their deity, awed by its power or grace, but as the readied aikido master, observant of its flow and eddies, prepared to turn, adding its force to our own or using its inertia to deflect its fist into the ground.

As William Gillis explains,

“For those of us interested in resisting and undermining coercive power, the issue is less how a truly freed market might one day improve our lives, but rather how the faint sparks of freedom in the market today are already working against hierarchy, banditry and the concentration of power and how those sparks might be stoked. Therefore our interest is not the market’s invisible hand, per se, but the invisible molotov it carries.”

In conclusion Kevin Carson steels our resolve,

“Our goal is not to assume leadership of existing institutions, but rather to render them irrelevant. We don’t want to take over the state or change its policies. We want to render its laws unenforceable. We don’t want to take over corporations and make them more “socially responsible.” We want to build a counter-economy of open-source information, neighborhood garage manufacturing, Permaculture, encrypted currency and mutual banks, leaving the corporations to die on the vine along with the state.

We do not hope to reform the existing order. We intend to serve as its grave-diggers.”

 

Some Brief Thoughts on Tax Evasion and Corporations

 

Recently, the headquarters of Burger King decided to move to Canada and out of the US for tax reasons. Relatedly Amazon has gotten in trouble for tax evasion in the UK and tech giants Apple and Google have been accused of the same.

Should we take these occurrences as something positive? Something that shows that companies are taking their own business into their own hands and not letting governments or bad tax code get in the way?

Or should we see this as a negative? Perhaps this shows that corporations are far stronger than governments and that these sorts of actions means more regulations on corporations or stricter tax practices with big corporations.

It’s worth noting that corporations aren’t somehow the masters over the state. At least, not in any absolute sense. Like any other power struggle over a given society the top classes who are in line push and shove and fight each other sometimes. And sometimes one even dominates another for a period but fundamentally speaking the state and the corporations have many similar interests.

Roderick Long, a philosophy professor at Auburn University made a comparison to the Star Wars universe:

 The main plotline of the Star Wars prequel trilogy concerns an apparent conflict between the central government (the Senate) on the one hand and a coalition of mercantile interests (the Trade Federation, the Commerce Guild, etc.) on the other. As events unfold, however, it quickly becomes obvious to the audience (though much less quickly to the protagonists) that the conflict is largely a ruse, with the leadership of the two sides (Chancellor Palpatine and Count Dooku, respectively) secretly working hand in glove.

Which isn’t to say that all is rosy between them. Each wants to be the dominant partner; witness Dooku’s failed attempt to betray Palpatine in Episode II, and Palpatine’s successful backstabbing of Dooku and his corporate allies in Episode III. Still, the partnership is stable enough to succeed in manipulating the protagonists into unwittingly undermining the very liberty they have been seeking to protect. As the pseudo-conflict escalates, there are, in the words of Episode III’s opening crawl, “heroes on both sides” – but the good guys on the two sides have been duped into fighting one another, each side grasping the evil of the other side’s leadership but not yet that of its own.

We can see this fictional situation happening in reality in a lot of the work by New Leftists like Carl Oglesby and his talk of “corporate liberalism”. As well as New Left historians like William Appleman Willaims and Gabriel Kolko. Kolko is most known for his historical work on railroads and his book “The Triumph of Conservatism” which revealed the interlocking power dynamics of corporations and governments. Libertarians like Butler Shaffer also highlight this in his book “In Restraint of Trade” and argue that often the heaviest and most so-called “damaging” regulations were actually crafted in part by the top executives and CEOs because it minimized their competition.

The smaller businesses would pay the price of the regulations and the big businesses would just largely absorb the costs and externalize them through state-granted privileges or friends in political office and so on.

Given all of this what sense does it make to treat these tax avoidances as the coming of a one-sided relation? Or to see more regulations as the answer?

Now, multi-national corporations have plenty of power (economic, social, etc.) but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t come from somewhere. The charters of incorporation are fundamentally a state privilege and if you remove this privilege (more or less an insulation from price mechanisms and the flows of the market) then the corporations have much less of a leg to stand on.

On the other hand, I don’t think tax evasion from these corporations makes these corporations particularly heroic. As much as I believe that taxation is illegitimate and inefficient way of organizing society I wouldn’t just blindly call anyone who rebels against them my friend or say I supported them. And besides, for Burger King this is purely an economic move as far as I am aware. It’s not a political statement, or at least not intentionally.

But even if it was, I feel no obligation to celebrate when corporations are able to go through legal loop holes or invalidate the state’s laws in some important sense. While I don’t lament it in the same way some people would I also don’t think it’s inherently a good thing to stick it to the man when you are part of the “man” too.

Too quote professor Long once more,

We might compare the alliance between government and big business to the alliance between church and state in the Middle Ages. Of course it’s in the interest of both parties to maintain the alliance — but all the same, each side would like to be the dominant partner, so it’s no surprise that the history of such alliances will often look like a history of conflict and antipathy, as each side struggles to get the upper hand. But this struggle must be read against a common background framework of cooperation to maintain the system of control.

 

Do I think tax evasion is ordinarily a good thing?

Yes.

Do I think Burger King doing it is in some non-nuanced way good?

No.

The synthesis of these positions might look something like:

Down with corporations and the government and down with certain classes of people having the privilege to evade taxes while others do not.

In other words, let us all aim to be the next Burger King, just without the corporation part.

 

Piketty, Social Reform and the New Left

Finally, I just want to briefly comment on social reform and the idea of a New Left and suggest that the New Left already exists. A New Left that doesn’t task itself with pleading with Washington or regressing to corporatist apologetics. This New Left would take seriously the critiques of both state and capital and resolve that social reform can’t be anything less than revolutionary. This doesn’t mean it needs to be immediate or violent; a revolutionary movement can be one that builds as it destroys through beautiful creation of vibrant and meaningful alternatives for the larger society. We don’t need to appeal to politicians with our votes or favors but nor do we need to appeal to corporate giants with our money and our apologetics.

We can oppose both the state and big businessin meaningful and interesting ways by taking from radical libertarianism (e.g. I have in mind Murray Rothbard’s market anarchism of the 60s and 70s) with something like anti-authoritarian leftism (e.g. David Graeber, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, etc.).

What I’ve gathered from Piketty is that he thinks (for some reason or another) the gaps and inequality can be undone by not only appealing to state and capital but by concentrating these two very mutually cooperative (and antagonistic to be sure) parties in some sort of wordly fashion and imposing some sort of global tax on everyone.

I don’t have all of the specifics on this proposal but the logistics of this sound insane and way too farfetched for me to really take seriously. I’d sooner take Luxemburg seriously that, “The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.” Then Piketty’s, “The counter-revolution is its means and the counter-revolution is its aim”. Because that’s all I’m really seeing here.

I certainly agree with Alta that we shouldn’t just disparage Piketty and we should take his claims of inequality seriousness or at least his concerns about this topic even if his statistics aren’t right (I’m not sure myself having not read it, but I’ve heard mixed things). Even so though that doesn’t make his solutions particularly attractive even if some of his underlying premises make total sense.

With that in mind, sure, let’s create a New Left but one that’s aiming for a revolutionary gradualism. Gradually building the new world within the shell of the old.

Or as Pierre Joseph Proudhon, one of the first people to call themselves an anarchist said:

“To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system, by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great

Some notes on Cathy Reisenwitz’s, “Why Facebook Should Embrace Polyamory”

by on July 17th, 2014

Cathy Reisenwitz

Also see my interview with Cathy, here!

You can find Cathy’s article in question, here.

As much as I like that new gender options are becoming available through Facebook, I do get nervous when people put their eggs in a basket. When they try to rely on these social media networks for defining them or helping them define themselves. To a certain extent I don’t think that’s necessary and I don’t want people to think that they need these things to define themselves as who they feel most comfortable with. That should come more from their individual selves, friends, loved ones and so on more so than any one social network.

Which isn’t to say that these social networks should be seen as unimportant or that the fact that more gender identity has been allowed isn’t great because it definitely is. I just think there’s some nuance to be had here in any case.

I feel similarly with the poly community and it trying (or its allies trying) to get more mainstream recognition of it. On one hand I understand the appeal and definitely agree that polyamory should be better understood. At the same time, I feel like there are also benefits to being considered culturally deviant or even criminal to some extent. It breeds distrust of the current system and encourages groups to act out for themselves and what they love rather than what the system tells them.

That doesn’t mean I want everyone to be regarded as criminals. But again, nuance is needed and I think the struggle (for example) for queers getting more gay marriage is, as the historian Thaddeus Russell has suggested, a fairly big blow to the history of the Gay Liberation movement.

“People assume that to be faithful, you have to be monogamous…”

Yeah, definitely agree. There’s apparently no way one can see other people without their significant other’s consent and happiness involved.

To be faithful, you have to be honest. Faithfulness is measured in degree based on the couple. The faithfulness is not to the individual. It’s to the contract that you’ve made to that individual.” The idea is that as long as you’re open and honest with your partners, and they’re comfortable with the terms of the arrangement, you are faithful, no matter how many people you sleep with.

I totally agree with this. Though I am less interested in strict contracts than loose, fluid verbal agreements. I don’t like feeling leashes on me, well…

So instead of promising yourself to your partner, you’re promising to obey the rules you’ve decided on with your partner.

I want to agree and caution that “obey the rules” can be fine in some circumstances but shouldn’t be taken de facto okay either (not that you were saying this). Plus I value my partner more than I value social agreements. So if they endanger themselves via some foolish rule I may be tempted to disregard their rule. Especially if it may hurt them.

I guess another way of possibly expressing this is relationship anarchy. Which I’ve only read a little bit about admittedly. But it sounds like something worth investigating at any rate.

Polyamory, a subset of ethical non-monogamy, refers to multiple concurrent sexual relationships, and is generally differentiated from open relationships by long-term, emotionally involved, and/or committed “secondary” relationships. Some poly relationships involve hierarchy, with primary, secondary, (and so on) relationships. And some are non-hierarchical, with no partner being more important than the other. In some poly relationships, “metamours,” as partners of partners call each other, have romantic relationships. In others, partners either don’t know about each other (Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell) or remain friendly but not romantically involved.

I really like this definition!

The main arguments against polyamory center around whether…

Although I know this is a bit of a cop-out I loathe the institution of marriage and don’t want children (I don’t loathe children though!). So this main argument against polyamory isn’t all that interesting to me, personally. I am skeptical of this concern nonetheless.

But the concern is certainly warranted, especially because as Cathy pointed out…

However the studies also revealed some drawbacks, particularly “the discomfort of having partnerships between adults dissolve and the resulting emotional trauma for children who may have been very attached to a departing partner.

Of course you could say this is true for any family. Would it be more potent in a bigger family? That’s definitely possible. I can’t deny that.

Conservative columnist Jonathan Rauch makes an interesting case against polyamory when hepoints out

The Reason article that Cahty links (that sadly doesn’t work) is really its own separate article due to how much I could go on about it. But by god is it terrible.

Why I am Not a Communist, by Karel Čapek

by on May 29th, 2014

Nick’s Notes: This article is not by an anarchist but I like it for its anti-communism and the way it is written. And most importantly it is hard to find online. So I figure I will make it a bit more accessible. That is the anarchist thing to do!

Karel Čapek

Why I am not a Communist (December 1924)

Karel Čapek

Translated by Martin Pokorny

This question appeared out of the blue among a group of people who were normally inclined to do anything else rather than to busy themselves with politics. It is certain that nobody among the present would raise the question “why I am not an Agrarian”, or “why I am not a Social Democrat”. To be no Agrarian, by itself, signifies no definite view or life belief; however, to be no communist means to be a non-communist; to be no communist is not a simple negation but rather a certain credo.

For me personally the question brings relief, since I have been under great need, not to start polemics with Communism, but rather to defend myself in my own eyes for not being a communist and why I cannot be one. It would be easier for me if I were one. I would live thinking that I contribute in a most intrepid way to the redemption of the world; I would think that I stand on the side of the poor against the rich, on the side of those in hunger against bags of money; I would know what to think about this and that, what to hate, what to ignore. Instead, I am like a naked man in a thorny bush: with my hands bare, not covered by any doctrine, feeling my impotence with respect to helping the world and often not knowing how to protect my conscience: If my heart is on the side of the poor, why the heck am I not a communist?

Because I am on the side of the poor.

 

*

 

I have seen poverty so painful and undescribable that it has made bitter to me everything I am. Wherever I have ever been I ran from palaces and museums to see the life of the poor, in the humiliating role of a helpless spectator. It is not enough to see and it is not enough to sympathize; I should live their life, but I am afraid of death. This biting, inhuman poverty is not borne on the heraldry of any party; as for these terrible slums with neither a nail to hang oneself nor a dirty rag to lay on, communism tries to reach them with its cry from a careful distance: the social order is to blame; in two years, in twenty years, the flag of the Revolution will unfold, and then –

What, in two years, in twenty years? Are you capable to admit so indifferently that one should live like that even two more winter months, two more weeks, two more days? Bourgeoisie that cannot or does not want to help here is a stranger to me; but equally strange to me is Communism that, instead of help, brings the flag of the Revolution. The final word of Communism is to rule, not to save; its gigantic slogan is power [moc], not help [pomoc]. As Communism sees them, poverty, hunger, unemployment are not unbearable pain and shame but rather a welcome reservoir of dark powers, fermenting by lots of anger and resistance. “The social order is to blame.” No, rather all of us are to blame, whether we stand over human poverty with hands in our pockets or the flags of the Revolution in our hands.

Poor people are no class, they are precisely the declassed, excluded and unorganized ones; they will never dwell on the steps to the throne, whoever sits on it. The hungry ones do not want to rule but to eat; with regard to poverty it is indifferent who rules; the only thing that matters is how we, human beings, feel. Poverty is neither institution nor a class, it is a disaster; looking for an appeal to immediate humane help, I find only the cold doctrine of class rule. I cannot be a communist because its morality is not the morality of help. Because it preaches abolition of the social order [rad] and not abolition of the social crime [zlorad] that is poverty. Because if it wants to help the poor at all, it does so conditionally: first we have to rule and then (perhaps) it will be your turn. Unfortunately, not even this conditional salvation is guaranteed by the writ.

 

*

 

Poor people are not a mass. A thousand workers can help one worker in his struggle for existence; but a thousand poor people cannot help one poor to get even a piece of bread. A poor, hungry, helpless person is absolutely isolated. His life is a history for itself, incompatible with others; it is an individual case because it is a disaster, though it is similar to other cases like a rag to a rag. Turn the society whichever side up, the poor will fall to the bottom again, most often joined by others.

I am not a scratch of an aristocrat but I do not believe in the value of masses. After all, nobody, I hope, maintains seriously that masses will rule; they are just a material instrument to attain certain goals; they are simply political material in a much harder and more ruthless sense than the party-members of other colors are. It is necessary to press people into a kind of shape so that they become a mass material; it is necessary to give them a uniform made out of certain cloth or certain ideas; unfortunately, one can seldom take the uniform made of ideas off after eighteen months. I would begin to respect communism deeply if it came to the worker and told him honestly: “There´s something I ask of you but I do not promise you anything; I ask that you be an item, a unit, a material for me, just as you are an item and material in the factory; you will obey and remain silent, just as you obey and remain silent in the factory. As a reward, you will one day, when everything changes, remain what you are; you will fare worse or better, whether this or the other I cannot guarantee; the order of the world will be neither more generous nor kinder to you, but it will be juster.” – I think that most workers would quite hesitate to accept this offer – and yet it would be supremely honest, and who knows whether for highly moral reasons it might not be more acceptable than all offers presented so far.

To feed poor people with promises is to rob them. Perhaps life is easier for them when you paint fat geese on the willow for them;1 but in practical respets, today just like one hundred years ago the sparrow in one´s fist2 is better than a pigeon on the roof3 of the government building and a fire in one´s oven is better than the red cock on the rafters of palaces which are, moreover, much less numerous here than what would think a person who is being forced to accept class consciousness instead of one´s own eyes – since, apart from a few exceptions, we are, as to life standards, a not very well-off nation, a fact one usually fails to mention. Usually one says that the poor have nothing to risk; but on the contrary, whatever happens the poor are those who risk the most because if they lose something they lose the last bit of bread; with the poor´s bread one should not experiment. No revolution will be realized on the backs of a small number of people, on the contrary – it will be on the backs of the highest number of people; whether it is war or currency crisis or anything else it is the poor who bear the earliest and heaviest consequences; quite simply, there are no limits and no bottom to poverty. The most rotten thing in the world is not the roof of the rich but the roof of the poor; shake the world and then look and see who it is that has remained in the rubble.

So what is to be done? As for me, I do not take much consolation in the word “evolution”; I think that poverty is the only thing in the world that does not evolve but rather just grows chaotically. But it is not acceptable to postpone the issue of the poor until the establishment of some future order; if they are to be helped at all, one has to start right away. It is open to doubt, however, whether the world of today still possesses sufficient moral means for that task; communism says it does not; well, it is just this refusal in which we differ. I do not mean to say that there are enough perfectly just people in this social Sodoma; but in each of us Sodomites there is a bit of the just and I believe that after some sustained effort and some substantial waving of hands we could agree on quite decent justice. Communism says, however, that an agreement is excluded; apparently it doubts the human value of most people as such, but of that thing I will treat later. The present-day society did not tumble down when it brought about some or other protection of the unemployed, aged and sick; I am not saying that it is enough but the important thing for both the poor and me is that that much has been possible to do today, on the spot, without irritated waiting for the glorious moment when the flag of the Revolution will unfold.

To believe that the issue of the poor is the task of the present and not of the upcoming order means, however, to be no communist. To believe that a piece of bread and fire in the oven today is more important than Revolution in twenty years is the sign of a very non-communist temper.

 

*

 

The strangest and least human element of communism is its weird gloominess. The worse the better; if a biker hits a deaf granny it is a proof of the rottenness of the present order; if a worker sticks his finger in between the wheels of the machine, it is not the wheels that will mash his poor finger but rather the bourgeois, and will do so with bloodthirsty pleasure. Hearts of all people who for some or other personal reasons are no communists are beastly and repulsive like an ulcer; there is not one smittereen of good in the entire present order; whatever is is bad.

In a ballad of his, [the communist poet] Jiri Wolker says: “In your deepest heart, you poor, I can see hatred.” It is a horrible word but the curious thing is that it is completely improper. At the bottom of poor people´s hearts there is rather an amazing and beautiful gaiety. The worker by the machine will crack a joke with much more enjoyment than the factory-owner or the director; construction workers at the site have more fun than the building-master or the landlord, and if there is a person singing in a household then it is definitely more often the maid wiping the floor than her mistress. The so-called proletarian is naturally inclined to an almost joyful and infantile conception of life; the communist pessimism and melancholy hatred are artificially pumped into him, and through unclean pipes. This import of desperate gloom is called “the education of masses towards revolutionarism” or “strengthening of class consciousness”. The poor, having so little, are being bereft even of their primitive joy of life; that is the first payment for a future, better world.

The climate of communism is ghastly and inhuman; there is no middle temperature between the freezing bourgeoisie and the revolutionary fire; there is nothing to which a proletarian could dedicate himself with pleasure and undisturbed. The world contains no lunch or dinner; it is either the mouldy bread of the poor or the gorging of the overlords. There is no love, for there is either the perversity of the rich or the proletarian conceiving of children. The bourgeois inhales his own rottenness, the worker his consumption; thus, somehow, the air has disappeared. I do not know whether journalists and writers have persuaded themselves to believe this absurd image of the world or whether they consciously lie; I only know that a naive and inexperienced person, such as the proletarian usually is, lives in a terribly distorted world which really is not worth anything else for him than to be undone and uprooted. But since such a world is just a fiction, it would be very timely to undo and uproot this ghostly fiction, for instance by some revolutionary deed; in that case, I am enthusiastically supportive. There is no doubt that in our tearful valley there is far too much undescribable disaster, excess of suffering, not quite enough well-being and very little joy; as far as I am concerned, I do not think I am inclined to depict the world in too rosy colors but whenever I come across the inhuman negativity and tragic of communism I feel like shouting in an appalled protest that it is not true and that in spite of everything it does not look like this. I have met very few people who would not deserve a crumble of salvation for an onion; very few of those onto whom the Lord, being just a little sober and generous, could spit fire and sulphur. The world contains much more narrow-mindedness than real vice; but there is still sympathy and trust, friendliness and goodwill enough so that one cannot break the stick over the world of humans. I do not believe in perfection of either present or future humankind; the world will become a paradise neither by persuasion nor by revolution, not even by annihilation of the human race. But if we could somehow gather all the good that is, after all, hidden in each of us sinful human beings, then, I believe, one could build on this a world kinder yet than the one so far. Maybe you will say that it is just a simpleton´s philanthropy; well yes, I do belong to those idiots who love human beings because they are human.

It is very easy to say that, for instance, the forest is black; but no tree in that forest is black, rather it is red and green, because it is simply a pine or a fir. It is very easy to say that the society is bad; but go and find some essentially evil people there. Try to judge the world for a moment without brutal generalizations; after a while, there won´t be a grain left of your principles. One premise of communism is an artificial or intended ignorance of the world. If someone says they hate Germans I would like to tell them to go and live among them; in a month´s time I would ask them whether they hate their German landlady, whether they feel like cutting the throat of their Germanic radish-seller or strangling the Teutonic granny who sells them their matches. One of the least moral gifts of human mind is the gift of generalization; instead of summarizing our experiences, it simply strives to supplant them. In communist papers you cannot read anything else about the world but that it is worth nothing through and through; anyone for whom opinionatedness does not represent the peak of knowledge won´t think this quite sufficient.

Hatred, ignorance, essential distrust – this is the psychical world of communism; a medical diagnosis would say that it is pathological negativism. If one becomes a mass, one is perhaps more easily accessible to this infection; but in private life, it is not sufficient. Stand for a moment next to a beggar at the corner of the street; try to notice who are the pedestrians that most likely spin out the penny from their pockets; in seven cases out of ten they are people who live themselves on the border of poverty; the remaining three cases are women. In all probability, a communist would deduce out of this fact that the bourgeois has a hardened heart; but I deduce something more beautiful, namely that the proletarian has usually a soft heart and is substantially inclined to kindness, love, and dedication. Communism with its class hatred and resentment wants to make this person a canaille; the poor does not deserve such a humiliation.

 

*

 

The world of today does not need hatred but rather good will, readiness to help, consensus and co-operation; it needs a kinder moral climate; I think that with a bit of simple love and sincerity one could perform wonders. I defend the present world not because it is the world of the rich but because it is also the world of the poor and then also of those in the middle, of those who nowadays, ground between the mill-stones of capital and class proletariat, maintain and save, with more or less success, the largest part of human values. I do not really know those proverbial upper ten thousand, thus I cannot judge them; but I have judged the class which is called bourgeoisie in such a way that it has brought me the indiction of dirty pessimism. I say it so that it gives me more right to defend, to a degree, those to whose failures and crimes I am certainly not blind. Proletariat cannot substitute this class but it can enter it. Despite all programmatic swindles there is no proletarian culture; nowadays there is on the whole no folk culture either, no aristocratic culture, no religious culture; all that is left of cultural values depends on the middle class, the so-called „intelligentsia“. If only proletariat claimed its share in this tradition, if only it said: Okay, I will take over the present world and manage it with all the values that are in it – then perhaps we could shake hands and give it a try; however, if communism pushes forth by immediately refusing, as useless camp, everything that is called the bourgeois culture, then goodbye and farewell; then everyone with a bit of responsibility starts to take into account how much would go wasted.

 

*

 

I have already said that real poverty is no institution but a disaster. You can reverse all orders but you will not prevent human beings from strokes of bad luck, from sickness, from the suffering of hunger and cold, from the need of a helpful hand. Do whatever you like, disaster presents human beings with a moral, not a social task. The language of communism is hard; it does not talk of the values of sympathy, willingness, help and human solidarity; it says with self-confidence that it is not sentimental. But this lack of sentimentality is the worst thing for me, since I am just as sentimental as any maid, as any fool, as any decent person is; only rogues and demagogues are not sentimental. Apart from sentimental reasons you will not hand a glass of water to your neighbor; rational motives will not even bring you to help and raise a person who has slipped.

 

*

 

Then, there is the issue of violence. I am no spinster to make the sign of the cross whenever I hear the word “violence”; I admit that sometimes I would quite enjoy beating up a person who produces a series of wrong reasons or lies; unfortunately it is impossible because either I am too weak to beat them or they are too weak to defend themselves. As you can see, I am not exactly a bully; but if the bourgeoisie started to shout that they go hang the proletarians then I would certainly get up and run to help those who are being hanged. A decent person cannot side with the one who threatens; whoever calls for shooting and hanging disrupts human society not by social revolution but by offending natural and simple honesty.

People call me a “relativist” due to the singular and apparently rather heavy intellectual crime that I try to understand everything; I spend my time with all doctrines and all literatures including negro tales and I discover with a mystical joy that with a bit of patience and simplicity one can reach some agreement with all people, whatever their skin or faith. It seems there is some common human logic and a reservoire of shared human values, such as love, humour, enjoying good food, optimism and many other things without which one cannot live. And then I am sometimes gripped by horror that I cannot reach agreement with communism. I understand its ideals but I cannot understand its method. Sometimes I feel as if I spoke a strange language and its thought was subjected to different laws. If one nation believes that people should tolerate each other and another nation believes that people should eat each other, then this difference is quite pictoresque but not absolutely essential; but if communism believes that to hang and shoot people is, under certain circumstances, no more of a serious matter than to kill cockroaches, it is something that I cannot understand though I am being told it in Czech; I have a terrible feeling of chaos and a real anxiety that this way we will never agree.

I believe till this very day that there are certain moral and rational chuttels by means of which one human being recognizes another. The method of communism is a broadly established attempt at international miscommunication; it is an attempt to shatter the human world to pieces that do not belong to each other and have nothing to say to each other. Whatever is good for one side cannot and must not be good for the other side; as if people on both sides were not physiologically and morally identical. Send the most orthodox communist to handle me; if he does not knock me down on the spot then I hope I will reach personal agreement with him on many things – as long, however, as these do not concern communism. But communism principially disagrees with the others even in points that do not concern communism; talk with communism about the function of the spleen and it will tell you that this is bourgeois science; similarly there is bourgeois poetry, bourgeois romanticism, bourgeois humanism and so on. The firmness of conviction that you find in communists in every detail is almost superhuman: not that the conviction were that exalting, rather that they do not get fed up by it at the end. Or perhaps it is no firmness of conviction but rather some ritual prescription or, after all, a craft.

But what I especially regret are exactly proletarians who are thus cut off from the rest of the educated world without getting any other substitute than the attractive prospects of the pleasures of the Revolution. Communism shuts down a cordon between them and the world; and it is you, communist intellectuals, who stand with colorfully painted shields between them and all that is ready for them as the share for newcomers. But there is still a place for the doves of peace – if not in your midst then above your heads, or directly from above.

*

I feel lighter after having said at least so much, though it is not all; I feel like after having confessed. I do not stand in any herd and my argument with communism is not an argument of principles but rather of personal conscience. And if I could argue with others´ conscience and not with principles I believe it would not be impossible at least to understand each other – and that, by itself, would be a lot.

1 I.e., when you promise something attractive but irreal.

2 I.e., the lesser but real reward.

3 I.e., the bigger but illusory reward.

The Case of Woman vs. Orthodoxy, by Voltairine de Cleyre (1896)

by on May 8th, 2014

(With thanks to the now out of use Voltairine de Cleyre Tumblr)

The Case Of Woman VS. Orthodoxy -Voltairine de Cleyre (1896)

“I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children, and thy desire shall be unto thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.”

Thus descended the anathema from the voice which thundered upon Sinai; and thus has the curse gone echoing from away backthere in the misty darkness before the morning of history rose upon men. Sorrow, sorrow, sorrow—and oh! how many million voices wail, wail endlessly.

“Sorrow is my portion and pain is my burden; for so it was decreed of the Lord God, the Lord God who ruleth and whose creature am I. But oh, the burden is heavy, very heavy. I have been patient; I have borne it long; I have not complained; I have not rebelled; if I have wept, it has been at night and alone; if I have stumbled, I have gone on the faster. When I have lain down in the desert and closed my eyes and known no more, I have rebuked myself. I have remembered my mother, and been patient and waited, waited. But the waiting is very long.”

This is the cry of the woman heard in the night of the long ages; ghostforms flitting through the abyss, ghost-hands wrung in the ancient darkness come close and are laid upon the living, and the mournful cadence is reintoned from the dead by the quick, and the mournful, hopeless superstition which bound the hearts and the souls of our foremothers, lengthens out its weary chain and binds us, too. Why it should be so, why it has done so for so long, is one of the mysteries which a sage of the future may solve, but not I. I can see no reason, absolutely none, why women have clung to the doom ofthe gods. I cannot understand why they have not rebelled. I cannot imagine what they ever hoped to gain by it, that they should have watered their footsteps with tears, and borne their position with such abnegation. It is true that we are often offered explanations, and much force may be in them, but these explanations may serve only to account for the position. They do not account for woman’s centurian acceptance of, and resignation to, it. Women are, we know, creatures of their environments, the same as are men; and they react on their environment in proportion to their capacities.

We know that women are not now, and, with some few tribal exceptions,probably never were, as strong as men are physically. But why in commonsense sorrow should therefore be their lot, and their husbands should rule over them, and why they should uncomplainingly accept this regime, is one of the, to me, incomprehensible phenomena of human history. Men,enslaved, have, to speak expressively, “kicked”—kicked vigorously, even when the kicking brought to them heavier chains; but we have never, till very recently, had anything like a revolt of women. They have bowed, and knelt and kissed the hand which smote them. Why? Notwithstanding all of its pretensions to be the uplifter and the glorifier of women, there ever has been, there never will be, anything for them in orthodoxy but slavery. And whether that slavery is of the sordid, gloomy, leaden, work-a-day sortor of the gilded toy-shop variety, whether it be the hard toil and burden of work women or the canary-bird style of the upper classes, who neither toil norspin, the undertone and the overtone are still the same: “Be in subjection;for such is the Lord’s will.” In order to maintain this ideal of the relation of master and of subject between men and women, a different method of education, a different code of morals and a different sphere exertion were mapped out for women, because of their sex, without reference to individual qualifications. If a horse is designed to draw wheels because it is a horse,so have women been allotted certain tasks, mostly menial, because they are women. The majority of men actually hold to that analogy, and without in the least believing themselves tyrannical or meddle-some, conceived themselves to be justified in making a tremendous row if the horse attempted to get over the traces.

That splendid old veteran of Freethought, George Jacob Holyoake, in a recent article, one of a series running in the Open Court, has pertinently observed that the declaration that thought is by its very essence free is an error, because as long as speech, which is the necessary tool of thought, is not free, the intellect is as much hampered in its effort to think as a shoemaker without tools is in attempting to make a pair of shoes. By this same method, viz., the denial of the means of altering it, was the position of woman sustained, by subordinating her physical development to what was called delicacy, which ought to have been called by its proper name, weakness, by inculcating a scheme of morals which made obedience the first virtue, suppression of the will in deference to her husband (or father, or brother, or,failing these, her nearest male relative) the first deduction there from, by a plan of education which omitted all of those branches of knowledge whichrequire the application of reason and of judgment, by all of these deprivals of the tools of thinking the sphere was circumscribed and guarded well. And by the penalties inflicted for the breaking through of these prescriptions,whether said penalties were legal or purely social and voluntary, the little spirit which was left in woman by these limitations was almost hopelessly broken. It is apparent, therefore, that if in all these ages of submission have hopelessly accepted that destiny, if they have never tried to break these forbidding barriers, they will not do so now, with all of theiradded centuries of inheritance, unless the relentless iron of circumstance drives them across. (Later, it will be my endeavor to show that this iron is already pressing down).

It may not be flattering to have this conviction thrust upon us; but it may be less disagreeable if I explain what I mean. In former times, when people trod upon the toes of gods every time they turned about, moral ideals and social ideals were looked upon as things in themselves descended from on high, the gift of the gods, Divine patterns laid down without reference to climate, to race, to social development, or to other material things, matters of the soul without relation to bodily requirements. But now that gods speaking the tongues of men have vanished like vapors at sunrise, it is necessary, since it is evident that morality of some sort exists everywhere,of very different sorts under different conditions, to find some explanation of these psychic phenomena correlated with the explanation of physical phenomena. For souls are no longer perceived as monarchs of bodies laying down all manner of laws for the bringing into subjection of the physical members, but rather soul, or mind, or whatever name may be given to the psychological aspect of the bundle called an ego, is one with the body, subject to growth, to expansion and to decay, adapting itself seasonably to time and to circumstances, modified always by material conditions, intimately connected with the stomach, indissolubly related to the weather, tothe crops, and to all other baldly commonplace things. In contemplating this revised version of the soul one will, according to the bent of one’s nature,regard this view as a descent from spiritual heights, rendering things coarse and gross, or, on the other hand, he will see all things clothed in the gloryof superb equality, he will not say: “I am sunken to the indignity of a cabbage,”but “this common plant is my brother and the brother of things greater than I, serving equally well his part; there is no more or less, smalleror greater; Life is common to us all.”

Now, therefore, upon this basis, the basis of the perpetual relation between physical foundations and ethical superstructures, it is seen that if this be an acting principle now, so it has ever been, and will be as long asmind and matter constitute reality. Hence the ethics said to have been delivered by Jehovah upon Sinai was truly the expression of social ideas compatible with the existing physical conditions. Not less so the ethics of bees, of ants, of birds, and of the Fiji Islanders; and not less so the ethics of to-day, which, despite the preservation of the outward shell of the decalogue,are indeed vastly changed.

The conclusion to be drawn from the foregoing in regard to the status of woman is this:—Material conditions determine the social relations of men and women; and if material conditions are such as to make these relations impossible of maintenance, they will be compelled to assume others. This is the explanation of the expression, “driven across the barriers.” What no amount of unseasonable preaching can accomplish material necessity will force even in the face of sermons to the contrary. Not that I undervalue the service of the advance guard, the preaching of new thought. On the contrary, the first and best of praise is due to the “voice crying in the wilderness.” And I say that such a voice is the first faint vibration of the world-soul in response to the unease of world-body created by the shifting of conditions,—whether it so proclaims or not, whether it cries wisely or not. I say that those who call for the breaking of the barriers will always precede the general action of the masses; but I add that were it not for the compulsion of material necessity the preaching would be barren. What I wish to express in order to illustrate my point clearly is, first, that the orthodox view of the ethics of woman’s relations and her social usefulness was a view compatible with a tribal organization, narrow geographical limits,the reign of muscular force, the necessity of rapid reproduction; second,that those conditions have given place to others demanding an utterly different human translation.

Before the invention of the means of transportation, when, according to the story, it took forty years for the Israelites to explore a tract some 300 miles in length (though one may perhaps venture to credit them with better time than they credit themselves with), when, at any rate, a high mountain was a serious obstacle and a good-sized river a natural boundary for tribal wanderings, people were necessarily very ignorant of the outside world. Within the limits valuable pasture and farm lands were debatable grounds, debatable by different tribes, in terms of hue and cry, of slingshot and arrows, and other such arguments. War was a constant condition, the chief occupation of men. Now we who are evolutionists know that those tribes and species survived in the world which obeyed the fundamental necessity of adaptation; and it is easy to see that with a rapid rate of mortality and anon-correspondent rate of increase a tribe must have rapidly gone to the wall. Any nation which might have put its mothers up in battle would have been weeded out simply because the part played by the mother in reproduction requires so much longer a period than that played by the father. To produce warriors—that was the chief purpose of a woman’s existence! Nothing in herself, she became everything when regarded as the race preserver.Therein lay her great usefulness; and in reading the sometimes nauseating accounts of the behavior of women in ancient times in Judah, the phase of human development in its entirety should be borne in mind. The mothers of Isaac and of Ishmael, Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah, the daughters of Lot, should never be viewed from the standpoint of nineteenth century morals, but from that of the tribal organization and the tribal necessities, which forced upon them the standard of “Multiply and replenish the earth” as the highest possible conception of conduct.

Yet, singular to observe, co-existent with this very ideal and with the very polygamous practices of the patriarchs, are found records of the most horrible punishments inflicted upon women for the breaking of the seventh commandment. As may be seen in the story of Tamar and Judah, the punishment to be inflicted upon her was burning alive, though nothing is said of Judah’s. The Talmud has many accounts of tests by “the bitter water” for women, while men were subjected to nothing more than a fine. (Bitter water was simply poisoned water; the innocent were supposed not to be injured, the guilty to fall dead in the market-place, exposed to the public gaze.) Nevertheless, such was the stringent necessity for rapid reproductions that women defied danger and instinctively continued to fulfill that race-purpose, though the law of Moses, already codifying the conditions of peace (not as yet existent), recognized war and its accompaniments as transient, and giving place to a stricter moral behavior.

As I said before, I do not perceive for the life of me what the women saw in all of this for them; I don’t see why they should have been interested in the tribal welfare at all, or in the dreary business of bearing sons for other women’s sons to slay. But since the war-environment was the one underwhich they were born and reared, since no other purpose for them had ever been thought of, by either the dead or the living, it is not surprising that they did not see matters at all as I do. Nowadays, that the majority of English and of French speaking peoples at least see that the requisite ethics is the limitation of population within the means of subsistence, these direct descendants of the Judaic ideal are subject rather to a jest among the enlightened of their own race. Thus Zangwill, in the “Children of the Ghetto,” puts this speech in the mouth of one of the Jewish grandmothers: “How is Fanny?”inquired the visitor. “Ah, poor Pesach! He has never done well in business! But blessed be He. I am soon to have my seventh grand-child.” How fearfully potent is the force of heredity may thus be seen, since to this day these women walk through your streets, wan, faded, humped, distorted, hideous women—women all bone and jaw and flabby flesh, grotesque shadows from the past, creatures once trim and beautiful, but whose beauty went long ago to fulfill the order of the Lord of Sinai.

The primal division of labor is thus seen to have been one of sex. The business of men was to fight, of women to produce fighters. To men were the arts of war; to women were those of peace. Later in the time of Solomon, when material conditions among the Jews had already altered, we see the effect of the continuance of this division beyond the epoch which created it. Already monadism has been abandoned; and the settled mode of life has been begun. The conditions of war, though still often maintaining, bore no comparison to former prevalence; and the aforeward warrior was hence frequently idle. Was it thus with woman? Oh, no,

Men may come and men may go,
But she goes on forever

With her work.

Listen to this delectable account in Solomon, said to be the opinion of King Lemuel concerning a truly blessed woman; behold how her duties have gone on increasing. ’Tis the thirty-first chapter of Proverbs; and let no one with an appreciation of the humorous miss it. It begins rather inconsequently with something about wine-drinking, and runs into the question at issue in the tenth verse; just why, no one is able to understand. It bears no relation to what has preceded it. Here it is:

“Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.”(You’ll be convinced of that before you’ve done;—diamonds either.)

“The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil.” (They don’t generally need much of that if Lemuelmeans the sort of “spoil” which most modern husbands get.)

“She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.” (That’s in general; what follows is specific.)

“She seeketh flax and wool, and worketh willingly with her hands.”(So much for clothes; victuals now.)

“She is like the merchants’ ships; she bringeth food from afar.” (Goes where she can get it cheap, of course.)

“She riseth also while it is night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens.” (Careful that they should not overeat andget sluggish. It is well to keep the girls tolerably hungry if you want them up before daylight.)

“She considereth a field and buyeth it; with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.” (Trades, too, see?)

“She girdeth her loins with strength and strengtheneth her arms.”(Nowadays she’d do that with a bicycle instead of a plow.)

“She perceiveth that her merchandise is good; her candle goeth notout by night.” (That means that she works all night, too; for she wouldn’t burn candles for nothing, being economical.)

“She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff.”(The woman is all hands!)

“She stretcheth out her hands to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.” (Hands again!)

“She is not afraid of the snow for her household, for all her household are clothed in scarlet.” (How Mephistophelian the whole household must have seemed.)

“She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple.” (The woman must have had forty days in a month and thirteen months in a year.)

“Her husband is known in the gates when he sitteth among the elders of the land.” (I thought that he’d be up somewhere about the gates! I thought that he wouldn’t be having much to do but to sit with the elders! I thought that he’d not be stopping about the house much!)

“She maketh fine linen and selleth it, and delivereth girdles unto the merchant.” (I should think that she might send him around delivering.)

“Strength and honor are her clothing, and she shall rejoice in time to come.” (There is certainly not much chance for her to rejoice in the time which has already come.)

“She openeth her mouth with wisdom, and in her tongue is the law of kindness.” (Verily, I should have expected her to be shrewish.)

“She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.” (This paragraph was unnecessary; we had reached that conclusion before.)

“Her children arise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her.” (Well, in all conscience, ’tis as little as he could do; and heought to do it well, since there is a deal of fine rhetoric usually going about among the elders and around the gates; and he has plenty of leisure to “get onto it.”)

“Many daughters have done virtuously; but thou excellest them all.”(“Sure.”)

“Favor is deceitful and beauty is vain; but a woman that feareth theLord, she shall be praised.” (That is to console her for getting ugly with all of that work.)

“Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.” Oh, thou who hast bought and planted and reaped and sold, spun and woven and girdled and clothed, risen and travelled and gathered and given, borne all, done all, ordered all, saved all, we will “give thee of the fruit of thy hands,” and prate about it up at the gates! Verily, verily, the woman is far above rubies.

But alas for Lemuel and for Solomon, conditions then were also mutable. And perhaps a friend of mine who has expressed herself upon this passage, is right in her judgment that, as men never exalt a thing until it is beginning to wane and to vanish away, therefore it must have been that this sort of woman was on the decrease before Solomon began to repeat Lemuel. It does not lie within the scope of my lecture to trace the economic development which multiplied the diversion of labor, creating classes having separate and conflicting political interests, which will continue to clash until the process has either, by being pushed to its extremity,destroyed itself and reaccomplished independent production, or until some more correct political solution be found than any at present existing. What I wish to observe is merely that up to the dawn of the Revolutionary period this manifold splitting of humanity’s occupations did not affect the primal division of the complementary labors of the sexes. Within the limits set by the original division, however, classes did arise. Among women these classes were principally two; the overworked drudges of the poor, andthe pampered daughters of wealth. Is it not possible to say whose condition was the most lamentable. For to both was still maintained by preacher, by teacher, by lawyer and by doctor the old decree: “Thy husband shall rule over thee.” Of the latter class there were but few previous to the Revolution. The rugged condition of pioneer life in the New World afforded small opportunity for the growth of a purely parasite class; that has arisen since. But in the Old World the women of the landed aristocracy, as likewise those of the developing mercantile class, constituted, though not a majority, yet a good percentage of the whole sex. So large a portion, in fact, that a whole stock of literature, which might have been labelled, “The Gospel of Jesus specially adapted to the use of society women,” arose and flourished; preachers busied themselves with it; doctors wrote scores of verses on the preservation of the beauty and the delicacy of the lazy; rhetoricians frilled and furbelowed the human toy by way of exercising their art; lawyers rendered learned opinions upon “lovely woman”—they all took their turn and they all did her a bad turn. The entire science of life, as laid down in this literature for these women, was to make husband-traps of themselves. Their home training and their educational facilities were inline there with. Nothing solid, nothing to develop or even to awaken thelogical faculties, everything to develop the petty and the frivolous. The art of dressing, the tricks of assumed modesty, the degradation of intellect by continually curbing and straining it in to fit the patterns of God and of his servants—that the servant said that is was God’s pattern—such was the feminine code.

About this time there arose the inevitable protest which conditions were bound to force. It was all very well for the dumb drudges and the well-fed toys; but society has ever between its extremes a middle product which fits in nowhere. This is recruited from both sides, but, at that time mostly from the upper classes being squeezed down into the ranks of the non-possessors. There were women, daughters of the formerly well-to-do, incapable of the very laborious life of the lowly, unable to reascend to their former superior position; upon these were forced the necessity of self support. Most of them regarded it as a hard and bitter lot, and something tobe ashamed of. Even literature, now considered a very fine source of support for women, was then a thing for a woman to keep still about if she engaged in it. The proper thing to do was to lay hold of an honorary sort of husband, support one’s self and him, and pretend that he did it. So disgraceful was social usefulness in woman! Such was the premium on worthlessness!

Now, out of this class one who did not do the proper thing, one who protested against the whole scheme arose,—the woman whose name many now delight to honor as the author of the “Vindication of the Rights of Women,”—Mary Wollstonecraft. One of her biographers, Mrs. Pennel, states that she was the first woman in England who openly followed literature as a means of livelihood. (It is worthy of note that Mr. Jonson, heremployer, was one of the Freethinkers of the time, Paine’s printer, as well as Mary Wollstonecraft’s.)

Nowadays the idea conveyed by the expression, “Women’s Rights” is the idea of casting a ballot. Then it meant the right to be treated as serious beings having some faint claim to comprehension. The orthodox code never had, never has, admitted, and never will admit, anything of the kind until it is forced to do so. It is not surprising, therefore, to know that this woman was not orthodox. She found out that if ever a woman expected to have rights she must first pitch the teachings of the priests overboard. And not only priests, but their coadjutors, men of the scientific “cloth” indeed,who see that priestcraft is all wrong for them, but all right for women—men who hunt scientific justifications for keeping up the orthodox standard.

For a long time the seed sown by the author of the “Rights of Women” lay on seemingly barren ground; and the great prophet of the coming woman was, as usual, maligned, travestied, hissed and hooted, save by the select few. The reason for this is now apparent. Conditions had not so far developed as to create a class of women having none to depend upon except themselves; there were only sporadic specimens here and there, thence the old traditions fortified by the ancient possibilities remained firm. But now that the irresistible tide of economic development is driving women out of the corner wherein they lay drifted for so many thousand years, the case is different. And I, for one, bless the hour when a stinging lash drove women forth into the industrial arena. I know that it is the habit of our labor reformers to bewail the fact that men can no longer “support their wives and their daughters”; it is held up as the chief iniquity of the capitalist that he has broken up the poor man’s family life; the “queen,” poor tinsel queen, has been taken from her realm, the home, into the factory. But while I credit the capitalist with no better motive than that of buying in the cheapest market, I bless him from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot for this unintentioned good. This iron-shod heel has crushed the shell of “woman’s sphere”; and the wings will grow—never fear, they will grow. No one will accuse me of loving the horrors of modern society, no one will suppose that I want them to continue for one moment after the hour whenit is possible to be rid of them. I know all of the evils resultant to woman from the factory system; I would not prolong them. But I am glad that by these very horrors, these gigantic machines which give to me the nightmare with their jaws and teeth, these monstrous buildings, bare and many windowed, stretching skyward, brick, hard and loveless, which daily swallow and spew out again thousands upon thousands of frail lives, each day a little frailer, weaker, more exhausted, these unhealthy, man-eating traps which I cannot see blotting the ground and the sky without itching to tear down, by these very horrors women have learned to be socially usefuland economically independent—as much so as men are. The basis of independence and of individuality is bread. As long as wives take bread from husbands because they are not capable of getting it in any other way, so long will the decree obtain: “Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee,” so long will all talk about political “rights” be empty vagaries, hopeless crying against the wind.

There are those who contend that once the strain and the stress of commercialism are over, women will resume their ancient position, “natural,”they call it, of child nurses and home-keepers, being ruled and protected.I say, NO: the broken chain will never be re-forged. No more “spheres,” no more stops or lets or hindrances. I do not say that women will not be nurses and home-keepers at all; but I do say that they will not be such because they have to, because any priest so reads the ancient law—because any social prejudice checks them and forces them into it rather than allowing full, free development of natural bent. I say that the factory is laughing at the church; and the modern woman, who grasps her ownself-hood, is laughing at the priest. I say that the greater half of the case of Orthodoxy vs.Woman is won—by woman; through pain, and misery, and sweat of brow and ache of hand, as all things worth winning are won. I don’t mean that nothing remains to be done; there is as much in pursuing a victory as in winning it in the first place. But the citadel is taken—the right of self-maintenance—and all else must follow.

From the aforetime sterile ground the seeds are springing green. This is the season to pluck life from the tombs, the time of transfiguration when every scar upon the earth changes to glory, when before the eyes of man appears that miracle, of which all traditions of resurrection and of ascension are but faint, dim images, figures passing over the glass of the human mind, the projection of man’s effort to identify himself with the All of Nature. This miracle, this blooming of the mold, this shooting of greenpeas where all was brown and barren, this resurrection of the sunken snowin tree-crowns, these workings, these responses to the knocking of the sunlight, these comings forth from burial, these rendings of shrouds, these ascensions from the graves, these flutterings, these swift, winged shadows passing, these tremolos high up in the atmosphere,—is it possible to feel all of this miracle and not to dream? Is it possible not to hope? The very fact that every religion has some kind of symbolic festival about the returning time of the green, proves that man, too, felt the upspringing in his breast—whether he rightly translates it or not, ‘tis sure that he felt it, like all organic things. And whether it be the festival of a risen Christ, or of the passage of Judah from the bondage of Egypt, or the old Pagan worship of light, ‘tis ever the same—the celebration of the breaking of bonds. We, too,may allow ourselves the poetic dream. Abroad in the April sunlight we behold in every freedom-going spark the risen dead—the flame which burned in the souls of Hypatia, Mary Wollstonecraft, Frances Wright, Ernestine L. Rose, Harriet Martineau, Lucretia Mott, that grand old negress, Sojourner Truth, our own brave old Lucy N. Coleman, and all of the beloved unknown whose lives ingrafted on the race what their tongues spoke. We, too, proclaim the Resurrection.

Deconstruction and Reconstruction in Shrek

by on April 2nd, 2014

A poster for the movie

Deconstruction and Reconstruction in Shrek

Analyzing Shrek? Really?: Really Really!

A common refrain when analyzing popular media (especially media like animation which is mostly associated with children) is to accuse the analyzer of elitism. The accusations mostly center on the analyst being some sort of elitist who wishes to push their ideological or “worldly” values on everyone else and take the “fun” out of the movie. Further, they’re discrediting themselves, the movies and their audiences by subjecting themselves and others to their foolish ways. It just doesn’t make sense to spend so much of our time thinking about things we weren’t meant to think about in the first place.

Now, there’s a lot going on here with these sorts of arguments and I want to say in the interest of fairness that I can see where this sometimes comes from. Often when we want to enjoy the magic of something and someone just comes up to us stone-faced and explains everything in such detail that nothing is a mystery anymore, things might then seem stale.

In fact, this sort of thing reminds me of how some people contest that things like science stifle creativity or imagination and the like because it demystifies the universe and what goes on in it. But I think as with the science example the thing about explaining things (no matter the method) is that it never really closes the book. Often times explanations can lead us to wanting more from the person explaining. For more preludes and conclusions and most importantly (at least in terms of story) everything that happens in between that defines these two thing and links them together. In other words neither science nor analysts of movies take away the magic. They can sometimes lessen the enjoyment for others but the “magic” is never really lost. And in the best case scenario it can actually be deepened and enriched.

Explaining any one or three of these things in various ways isn’t inherently harmful to our psyches. Sure, sometimes spoilers can ruin our days or some jerk can walk up to us and explain who really killed JR from Dallas and take away our train of thought or thought process about the mystery. But these things are momentary and the people who take those things away from us can just as easily give us a lot more if we put our minds to it. Taking the example of a mystery being solved for you and without your permission can certainly be a troubling thing and not something I think should be the tone analysists should stick to.  But even in this worst case scenario I’d contend that there’s still plenty to be had by thinking about how other people figured it out. What did you miss? What did they get? What would be useful to pay attention to in the future? And where’s the nearest 2X4 so I can wack that guy who ruined the mystery for me?

All of these questions (particularly the last one in this case) are important ones to ask ourselves and sometimes they won’t be asked unless we get a good kick in the butt. But nevertheless that’s not what I think someone should do if they want to explain. If you’re watching a kids film and want to enjoy it as just that and ignore the themes that it brings out, that’s fine. There’s nothing really wrong with enjoying entertainment for its own sake. But at the same time I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to grapple with themes and ideas that these pieces of entertainment give us so long as we try to make it an edifying and positive experience. And we can do that by first respecting those around us and not reinforcing the macho-elitist mindset that some may accuse us of. I think one of the important things for that is to speak our own language. To analyze something I don’t think you need to use ten academic words per second. I think that, in a lot of cases at least, you’re just as fine using your own language. And if that means being a little wordy then that’s fine too, as long as it’s genuine.  For me, that’s the important thing.

But more to the point, I’m of the opinion that when we do look into movies that seek to give children and adults some amount of pleasure and critically and culturally succeed in some respect that they’re of particular note. Shrek is just one good example of that. And there’s plenty of themes and ideas to go around. In this short essay I’ll just focus on a few though. First and mainly I want to focus on Shrek’s greatest achievement as a piece of cinema which is reconstruction and deconstruction. Then I want to focus on the themes of identity and acceptance and how Shrek deals with these themes in a fairly satisfying way. Finally I want to address the ways that Fiona is used as a character in the movie and how it works and why.

“That’s what all the other knights did!”

Upon re-watching Shrek, I instantly noticed that Donkey, Fiona and Shrek were all archetypes or certain members of the theater’s audience. Donkey was for the children, obviously. He was constantly cracking jokes, typically either not grasping the situation or trying to make light of it to deal with it and he was very loud and chatty. And while the film is a comedy and Eddie Murphy’s character couldn’t be called comedic relief per se’ because of that he’d still probably be the most deserving of such a title. Fiona was the classical section of the audience. Those who still really loved and cherished the traditional fairy tale roles and stories and would’ve been reacting the same way as Fiona does when she is first rescued. Then there is Shrek. Shrek to me refers to everyone in between. Those people who don’t really buy the fairy tale stuff or do in their hearts but can’t manage to. The Donkey types in the audience typically will get the heart of it (at least somewhat) but won’t grasp the larger picture and the Fiona types will be too wrapped up in the heart of it to see how silly it can be from a logical standpoint. Shrek then stands as a middle ground for these two viewpoints and deconstructs both sides of the discussion in both funny and interesting ways.

One of the most apparent and immediate ways that Shrek deconstructs the genre of fairy tales and the expectations of the audience is being a slightly amoral character who would probably normally be the villain in a traditional fairy tale. He lives in a secluded, smelly and small swamp and is a huge monster that constantly scares people and lives a private life. He clearly wouldn’t be the hero in most fairy tales. But he immediately becomes more relatable as we see his everyday routine and what he does with himself. He eats, he showers, he warns villagers to run after he shouts at them (the typical villain would not do this) and so on. This makes Shrek first and foremost a very powerful deconstruction of one of the biggest tropes in fairy tales: the monster is the bad guy. And that’s sort of funny when you realize that most fairy tales are made up of monsters and the only real differentiation between the one and the other is the morality of their characters. And whether they’re ogres or trolls or whatever is more so incidental than anything else and Shrek himself is a great example of this fact.

To further humanize Shrek he’s given a much more naïve, friendly but often times not as seemingly in-the-know friend in Donkey. Donkey and Shrek both complement each other well because of how obviously different they are from each other. This is not only made apparent but constantly highlights in the movie for great laughs.  Shrek is more realistic, cynical and private while Donkey has more of his heads up in the clouds, wants friends and is fairly happy-go-lucky most of the time. In this way Shrek is able to easily use Donkey as a caricature of some of the faults that fairy tales have in them and deconstruct them in often pretty witty dialogue that can also keep children entertained. I don’t mean to imply, however, that no children would get Shrek’s humor. I am of the opinion that children can be a lot smarter (and often times are a lot smarter) than some parents or adults give them credit for. Given that I think it’s more of a spectrum than an absolute declaration of all children being the character of Donkey, I am working with archetypes and approximations not hard and fast rules.

Further, once Fiona is introduced she immediately reminds the audience (if they haven’t figured it out already that is) that something is terribly wrong with the way this is working out so far. Shrek isn’t handsome, he’s not hard working, he hasn’t earned the title of knighthood from any honorable authority and he certainly hasn’t slain any dragons. All of this leads to one of the biggest deconstructions in the entire movie. When Fiona finds out that Shrek hadn’t slain the dragon before he rescued her she exclaims that the situation isn’t right and that he wasn’t doing it the way the other knights had done it Shrek responds:

 “Yeah, right before they burst into flames!”

As he says this as they pass a skeleton of one of the other knights who had done what Fiona would have wanted Shrek and Donkey to have done.

Here we see the ultimate deconstruction of the fairy tale myth for it shows the logical fallacy of trying to outpower a dragon with simply some armor and a sword. Instead trying to outwit the dragon via either cowardly sneaking around it or trying to just avoid it all together seems like a much more rational way to do it. After all, the point is to rescue a human being. What does slaying the dragon matter besides some bravado of machismo? If there’s any worth in it Shrek would  laugh at it and say that getting his swamp back from Lord Farquaad was what was important, not risking his life just so he could “heroically” slay a dragon. And when you look at the track record of anyone else who tries, which would normally be a boon to the hero for his litany of reasons for trying against his “mighty foe” Shrek uses this as a perfectly reasonable reversal. This reversal of Shrek’s not only deconstructs the over abundant trope of the hero’s journey but also reestablishes his own journey in its stead: the journey of the more logical and less fantastical.

Because, of course, if Shrek was just deconstructing things like fairy tales and all of the typical tropes, ideas, concepts and themes that typically come out of such things than Shrek wouldn’t be a very fun movie at all. But when you add Fiona and Donkey as characters who can both help in and fill the other sides of the discussion and hence balance out Shrek then the movie makes a lot more sense and is a lot more enjoyable as a result. Without Donkey, Shrek would just be a brooding lonely creature who’d scare other people away and would just live alone. And without Fiona, Shrek may have Donkey but he still would only grudgingly accept the world outside him and accept the idea that he can find happiness outside himself. Fiona is the one who helps Shrek reconcile those fairy tale dreams he has in his heart with reality. Because the reality is that sometimes people aren’t who they say they are but sometimes that’s okay.

Identifying Identity in Layers

Another one of the themes that Shrek deals with is the issue of identity and acceptance. These two issues make up some of the pivotal things that help Shrek reconstruct the fairy tale world around himself in a more positive light. Without the proper handling of these issues Shrek would once more fail as a movie because it would leave us for nothing to take with us, only things for us to remove. But instead Shrek helps us understand ourselves not only in relation to ourselves also to others and how we should be accepting of others and look for friendship where acceptance can be found.

Acceptance is one of the biggest parts of the relationships in Shrek. Without Donkey’s initial acceptance of Shrek  as not just a “big, stupid, ugly ogre” but someone deserving of friendship because he went out of his way (though probably for the sake of convenience than an invitation for friendship)  to protect him. Although this is somewhat naïve because Shrek’s heart wasn’t exactly in the right place for Donkey to invite himself into Shrek’s life, Donkey’s methods of friendship with immediate acceptance work great with Shrek in the future because that’s what Shrek specifically needs. Shrek comments again and again in the movie how he’s typically seen as scary or ugly or nothing but someone who they should be afraid of even though people don’t even try to get to know him. It’s no wonder then that Shrek is for much of the movie grumpy, cynical and only barely clinging to the ideals of the fairy tale story that we might normally associate with this sort of movie.

Fiona on the other hand goes through a rollercoaster of acceptance and lack thereof. She is at first very accepting of Shrek but not because he’s an orgre but because he’s her rescuer and through fairytale rules that makes him automatically acceptable even if he’s a bit unorthodox. But Fiona reveals the folly of this sort of trope when she demands to know what Shrek looks like and Shrek knowing better than this fairy tale trope attempts to decline. Fiona however gets her wish and Shrek takes his helmet off which causes an instant switch in Fiona’s mood as she declares upsettingly that he’s an orgre and that this is all wrong. She then attempts to fulfill the logical extension of this kind of logic against monsters in fairytales by preferring to starve (it’s not stated explicitly she’d starve but I can’t really imagine Fiona would be able to survive long, especially with the dragon so close) than go with Shrek and wait for her true rescuer. This changes the dynamics of the relationship and Shrek reverts back to the typical monster role of the kidnapper. Shrek even affirms this role rather explicitly when Robin Hood and his Merry Men try to “save” Fiona from him. But of course the audience knows better and Robin is instead made quick work of by Fiona herself (and we’ll get into that soon).

Fiona’s ogre form that happens after sunset is another big part of identity and acceptance in the movie. It’s a big part of contention for Fiona herself who thinks she’s nothing but an ugly creature which just shows that Fiona still has, in the end, chosen to internalize the tropes and ideas that most fairy tales traditionally say about “creatures” like her. Throughout her adventure with Shrek and Donkey it is seen at various points that part of who Fiona is is her ogre personality. The belches she does in the forest, as well as the killing of the bird through singing…and then…killing its young… (Seriously, that’s some pretty messed up stuff when you think about it…) and eating traditional swamp food with Shrek. All of these things and more suggest that the ogre part of her is a legitimate form of her identity but because she has internalized the typical fairy tale ideas of what beauty is and is not she cannot accept this about herself. Donkey tries to convince her otherwise in their talk in the shed before Farquaad comes but it’s of no use. Shrek, mishearing the conversation as slights against him gives up on his then obvious romantic attraction to Fiona, having been rejected once more.

From here we have what Doug Walker, better known as the Nostalgia Critic, calls the “misunderstanding” trope or “liar revealed trope”. This is where something is either misunderstood or misheard and the characters have to spend some time being depressed (usually) before figuring out it was a misunderstanding, clearing up the misunderstanding and moving on with the plot.

To Walker’s this is often times a huge waste of time, doesn’t move the plot forward in any meaningful way. And Walker finds himself constantly frustrated with the fact that most of the time these things could be solved by just telling the truth but for some reason this either doesn’t happen immediately or sometimes not for a long time. Thankfully Shrek only falls pretty to this trope a little and while I agree with Walker that this trope is overplayed I don’t think Shrek overly-abused the already overly-abused trope just for the sake of showing the consequences of being rejected. And while the scenes were fairly pointless, the constant linking up of pictures to characters was a really nice touch and kept me engaged and interested even if I sympathize with Walker’s critiques of this trope.

In the end of course, Fiona reveals to Shrek what she really is, he accepts her while Farquaad doesn’t and Donkey and the fire-breathing dragon (who turned out to be a female fire-breathing dragon) appear to be dating as well. In all of these relationships acceptance is an important thing here too with Shrek telling Fiona that she is beautiful in his eyes when she’s an ogre. This leads to a probably over-simplified but good enough conclusion to the arc of identity and acceptance in the movie. Going back to the themes of deconstruction and reconstruction and tying it into acceptance and identity Shrek has done such a good job with Fiona that he replaced her fear of herself with acceptance of herself. And this is a fairly powerful message, especially for people who don’t believe in themselves or how they look. It’s not an especially new viewpoint and even the way it’s presented probably isn’t that unique either but what matters to me at least is that it works.

 Stopping the Music: A Quick Analysis of Fiona in Shrek

First and most importantly we see Fiona kick the pants off of the “damsels in distress” trope in some ways and reinforce them in others.

At first she certainly not only reinforces them but goes as far as to talk like she is living in such an era where that was still the norm. And as I said before she immediately accepts Shrek with very little disregard to who he may be on the inside and rests her acceptance solely on the fact that he rescued her and nothing more.  And also as I said before she then immediately rejects Shrek after he reveals his true identity as an ogre. This reveals the inherent one-dimensional aspects of the trope of the damsel in distress. The fact that Shrek may have been a bad guy should have been enough to deter Fiona from immediately throwing herself at Shrek. But instead she disregards this mysterious man who she knows nothing about, knows neither his motivations nor his origins and doesn’t even know his name for the first few minutes of being rescued (by which time she’s already made some moves on him).

But this is just at first. Within time Fiona carefully peels back the “damsel” persona and seems fully capable to live by herself without Shrek or Donkey if that’s what it takes to find her “real savior”. This may not be an exact cry for independence but at least it shows Fiona is willing to deal with the hand she’s dealt and deal with it in a way that’d require significant physical and mental will on her part. I think that this shows at least a partial growing of her as a character which is only further sped up by the forest scene where she trashes Robin Hood and his merry men single handedly. Shrek is immediately impressed and Fiona nonchalantly replies that she had plenty of time on her own to develop the skills necessary to survive. This once again throws a big wrench in the gears of the damsel trope. After all, why wouldn’t the damsel train themselves with that much time to themselves so they ensure they aren’t captured again? It sure would be nice to see Peach or Zelda pick up some classes…

Fiona not only acts confident the whole time she’s wailing on her captors but remains cool about it the whole time and afterwards, like it isn’t a big deal. And this is a key thing right here because it shows an attempt at normalizing the conception of damsels being a pretty silly concept and the notion of women being able to fend for themselves given the right circumstances just like anyone else. It also develops her character further to see her in action (which she seemingly doesn’t put to good use in the climax, but then to be fair although Shrek gets off a few hits he’s ultimately powerless too and it’s ultimately Donkey and the dragon’s time to shine) and taking an active role in shaping where she goes in her journey and ultimately deciding to go with Shrek. Whether it’s because the music was just annoying or because she saw something in both Donkey and Shrek (and more so Shrek) this movie certainly had its moments of giving Fiona her time to shine.

Are you a believer?

Ultimately the aim of Shrek is reflected in the song at the end, “I’m a Believer” by Smash Mouth (and originally by The Monkees): trying to make you believe.

Believe in what? Well mainly it seems to be in yourself, in who you are, not who others say you are. I think it’s also trying to teach us understanding that there are layers to all of us and not just the prejudgments that people sometimes make about us because how we appear on the outside. It’s about looking for friends in the places that we feel the most accepted and cared for and not in the places that are disingenuous or dangerous for one reason or another. And finally it’s about recognizing other people in the same way we’d like to be recognized and not just instantly and forever stamped by bad judgments. Ultimately Shrek helps promote positive messages from both reality and fairy tales and brings the best of both worlds to the audience. This is a big part of why I think Shrek works so well as a movie. Shrek isn’t perfect and it certainly has its problems but overall I think it really succeeds where it needs to and makes it so you’re hard-pressed to dislike the characters you’re supposed to like and vice versa.

If Shrek’s goal as a movie was to make me think that fairy tale movies can still work while adopting some post-modern realism (or perhaps its cynicism) then consider me a believer.

Don’t You Think That It’s Boring how People Analyze Pop Stars?

by on March 3rd, 2014

Lorde

Don’t You Think That It’s Boring how People* Analyze Pop Stars? 

A Response to Thaddeus Russell on Lorde and her “Attack” on the Pleasures of the Poor

*This is a reference to Lorde’s song Tennis Court

What’s in a Lineage?

Lineage denotes a linking that is not necessarily of our choosing. Being linked to something biologically and socially doesn’t necessarily add up to the intentions that typically go on with most of our day to day existence. So when claiming someone has a certain ideological lineage it can especially get tricky. In this case it is when the individual in question and the things they believe and individuals and beliefs of the past intertwine in some interesting and important ways. But do these interstices really make for a clear cut case for a “lineage” being continued?

This question is especially interesting within the context of Thaddeus Russell’s article “The Progressive Lineage of Mackelmore’s And Lorde’s Attacks on the Pleasures of the Poor”.

The first thing you should do is notice the wording. Both Lorde and Mackelmore are attacking the pleasures of the poor. They aren’t giving light-hearted ridicule or self-indulging to any extent. Nor does it sound very likely that they have anything else but bad intentions in mind. When you see the word “attack” in the context of how someone approaches a subject you are thinking about hammers and nails, us and them and so on.

And so it goes with Thaddeus’ article. On the whole I agree with Thaddeus that the left (if we can include progressives in this category that is) are largely anti-consumerist. For example, because I run a site against work I am often looking for articles by people about work who are talking about how it sucks. And often for these people it goes back to the issues of money, how the poor spend their money, materialism, consumerism and more. There are exceptions but they seem to be outliers most of the time.

Given this I can definitely where Thaddeus is coming from. Unlike many of the commenters on Reason I think this is a worthwhile article not only to write but it is on a topic and in such a way that should be kept on being done. So kudos to Thaddeus for that.

But his examples in this particular article, Lorde and Mackelmore seem to fall short of a good case.

Due to relative interest in one figure as opposed to the other I will chiefly focus on Lorde in this article and leave Mackelmore for others to defend if they so choose.

It should be noted that as a fan of Lorde and her music I am biased but I am using that bias here to hopefully dig more into what is actually going on with Lorde then I think Thaddeus figured out.

“Royals” as a Single

My case at its simplest and least complex is just a look at “Royals” as a single and nothing more. There is no context of the larger album to look at. Nothing to notice about its commonality and thematic tones and settings. And certainly no lyrical similarities and overarching messages to send to the listener.

Because both Thaddeus and I detest the left’s inatuation for being Ventriloquists for the Powerless or more generally speaking for others when there is little evidence they actually feel that way, let’s take a host of interviews, quotes, analysis and more to see what we can find.

The first thing to note is in a biography from FasterLouder.com which calls itself “definitive”.

In it, the author Duncan Grieve interviews Lorde and at one point she says:

“I mean, I was 15 when I wrote that song,” says Ella, a little sadly. “I wasn’t thinking about anyone’s cultural aspirations. I was being a bit silly. I don’t know. I can understand [the response] now, and it’s probably not my place to even comment on it. It’s just one of those kind of uncomfortable grey areas.”

Her age is certainly a factor. As Lorde says herself the transition from 15 to 17 was momentous and much has changed for her in those two years. But why would Lorde have been considering those cultural factors when that wasn’t what she was writing about?

Thaddeus is correct that Lorde’s inspiration came from hip-hop and thus the aspirations (or infatuations) of many African-Americans. One point keeping in mind though is that a lot of the hip-hope Lorde listens to (like Kayne and Drake for example) are people who are already rich and who are relishing their wealth as status and not as a consumer good.

But even so, what were Lorde’s intentions? According to Lorde herself the song is meant to be “lighthearted” and taken as a “humorous” jab at a lot of the normality that we take for granted within the hip-hop genre and its display of wealth being the way to figure out whether you are actually worth something or not.

But at the same time Lorde is making these light-hearted jabs and remarks Lorde continues to listen to hip-hop and adore it. She has spoken well of everyone from Kayne West (and has also covered his song, “Can’t Handle My Liquor” as well as used his song “Dark Fantasy” as an inspiration for her song “Bravado”), Nicki Minaj and Kendrik Lamar. She speaks of wanting to work with Kayne and in a recent Reddit Ask me Anything thread highlighted a video of Minaj talking about double standards in agressiveness with relation to the sexes. So even if Lorde sees problems with hip-hop as it stands she clearly still has a big vested interest in it.

It is also helpful to note that “Royals” isn’t all about hip-hop music even if a lot of it is aimed there. The main chorus names “gold teeth”, “diamonds on your dimepiece” and other things commonly associated with modern hip-hop. But it also talks about tigers on a gold leash, trashing hotel rooms, private jets and so on. So the song isn’ just a critique of hip-hop but of the larger cultural obsession with power, status and commodities.

And that’s a key word right there: obsession. Notice how in “Royals” Lorde says “we aren’t caught up in your love affair“? To me this signifies an emphasis on the unhealthy obsession some people have with commodities not with an interest in it per se’.

Another important line to suggest that Lorde isn’t in any meaningful sense “attacking” the interests of people who want commodities is her line, “we’re driving cadillacs in our dreams”.

This is right in the middle of the chorus and could potentially signal a few things.

One of these being that just dreaming about wealth is good enough for Lorde and the other people she is talking about (more on that in a bit). It could be that even though she isn’t obsessed with it in the ways she thinks others are she still wants it or desires it somewhere deep down in her heart (more on this later as well). Or perhaps it’s something else altogether. Either way this is an important line that I think puts a dent in Thaddeus’ argument.

What is also worth noting is that Lorde herself says the song was not meant to be anti-consumerist. And we can argue about whether her intentions in the end change the consequences of the song or what you get out of it. But in the end her intentions about the song matter and to speak for her and insinuate that this was her message anyways at this point could be a show of ventriloquism on anyone’s part.

It’s true she thinks some things in modern hip-hop are “some bullshit” and she felt she needed to say it. But that doesn’t mean her saying it only means that her song could be construed as an attack. And look at Lorde herself. Does it look like she’s against buying things? Lorde is very much into fashion as a personal pastime and I doubt you would see her scolding others for doing much the same. Again, it seems to come down to obsessions and over-exuberance rather than a clear cut matter of principle. Hence why Lorde herself admitted in retrospect that this is a “grey area”.

Another grey area is what the song in the end means by itself. Some will say it screams of a privileged white girl from a foreign country talking up her ass about cultural matters she doesn’t understand. Others will say it is a cry against US imperalism. Still others will say it’ perpetuating or not perpetuating racism, whatever else it may mean. Most have adopted it as an anti-consumerist song and as Thaddeus points out the New York Times believes the song to be a “deeper” song and given the title of their article on Lorde a class conscious one to boot!

So which is correct? In the end I have a few solid conclusions about Lorde though I don’t claim that it’s the final word by any means or that my interpretation couldn’t be off.

But as a single I believe Lorde’s song is: Not racist, not about US imperalism, not about consumerism and not about bashing the poor for wanting the riches the upper class has.

To me, the song represents a cold distance. A distance between how some people view the world and how others actually live it. Lorde speaks of growing up in a postcode she isn’t proud of in a rough neighborhood. The video of “Royals” is notably mundane. It’s just boys fighting and talking and laughing and being themselves. Lorde does nothing but sit around and appear in the music video every once in a while (which is intentional) and all and all there’s no grand story to tell. It’s just life and it’s just life from a point of view that has a realistic take on the division between fantasies and lived realities.

Which means Lorde isn’t telling us to stop consuming, she’s telling us to stop fantasizing, obsessing and distancing ourselves from reality. Instead we should recognize our current conditions and ask ourselves that if we want more (“we drive cadillacs in our dreams”) at what cost do we do it? Obsessions have their cost and they have their price and taking away the mundane and “boring” parts of life or ignoring them can’t make them any better.

Thankfully Lorde put the record straight and I believe we’re all the better for it.

Royals as a Song in “Pure Heroine”

So far I’ve only countered within the context Thaddeus used. And to that extent I don’t think it’s enough because in my opinion treating Royals as just a single with no overlapping message with the other songs on Lorde’s album “Pure Heroine” is a big mistake.

First, who is the “we” and “everyone” in Royals that Lorde is talking about? Thaddeus may be tempted to say that Lorde is just speaking for the dis-privileged but as I’ve pointed out, Lorde wrote this when she was 15 and was certainly not wealthy at the time. She had no real money coming in from her deal with Universal at least none that I am aware of.

So at least, within the context of the song she is speaking from a dis-privileged position as it is. But this point hardly counts for much when you realize it’s fairly easy to see who she means when she says “we”. Who does she feature in the Royals video? Is it everyday people in New Zealand? Does she try to speak for the working class of New Zealand or try to focus on them in even the slightest? No, not in the least.

The only people Lorde seems to be concerned with are a few young boys who are fighting each other, riding buses and having a good time just being themselves. But who are these boys?

Lorde explains:

“this song means a hell of a lot to me, and to others, and i guess what i tried to do is make something you could understand. a lot of people think teenagers live in this world like ‘skins’ every weekend or whatever, but truth is, half the time we aren’t doing anything cooler than playing with lighters, or waiting at some shitty stop. that’s why this had to be real. and i’m at that particular train station every week. those boys are my friends. callum’s wearing a sweater that used to belong to me.”

Though even if you hadn’t read this or hadn’t listened to the rest of the album it seems obvious due to some of the lyrics:

And I’m not proud of my address,
In a torn-up town, no postcode envy

My friends and I we’ve cracked the code.
We count our dollars on the train to the party.
And everyone who knows us knows that we’re fine with this,
We didn’t come from money.

These lyrics in particular highlighting not only who may be in the video but also what the larger environment is. Other songs in the album also reference “my boys”,

From Tennis Court:

And my boys trip me up with their heads again, loving them

From Team:

Now bring my boys in
Their skin in craters like the moon

Another thing notable about all three of these songs that feature Lorde’s friends in the lyrics is that all three of them are also the singles she chosen. Not to mention the music video for Royals and Team both focus on boys Lorde’s age. In the latter case I don’t know if they are actually her friends but in Royals she has made it clear that they in fact are. In Tennis Court she is the sole focus of the video after scrapping an earlier and as of now unreleased or recovered version of it.

This makes sense when we see that her influences are the things that immediately and heavily impact her.

As far as place or location which is something not many pop artists typically concern themelves Royals makes it clear Lorde is discussing New Zealand or somewhere in it. She isn’t discussing macro situations or the situation in the poor neighborhoods of the US. She is talking about how distant her reality is from what people talk about in songs sometimes. Given that she holds a fairly solid grounding and position to say what she does.

Other songs like, “400 Lux”, “Team”, and “White Teeth Teens” all reveal tiny bits of the people, popular ideas and so on that make up Lorde’s place. That she isn’t talking about America for the most part and even the stuff on pop culture, hip hop and obsessions with material goods are spoken of as if she is more so puzzled and baffled than upset. Lorde isn’t class conscious she is suburb conscious.

And finally, what is Lorde’s actual relation to materials and products?

Given her interest in fashion as I’ve mentioned earlier I don’t think she’s actually anti-consumerist. Then again she says says as recently as a few months ago that the only “ridiculous” thing she has bought is a queen size bed. And Lorde has consistently noted the irony that Royals has made her money, given her plenty of royalties and now affords her the privilege to buy the things she mocks.

But I think her basic idea of commodities come from her song Tennis Court:

Because I’m doing this for the thrill of it, killin’ it
Never not chasing a million things I want
And I am only as young as the minute is full of it
Getting pumped up on the little bright things I bought
But I know they’ll never own me

Lorde celebrates hedonistic impulses and buying products, but just not letting her become obsessed or be “owned” by them. What being “owned” by them actually means is never explained but I think we can probably assume Lorde is fine with the poor buying stuff to their heart’s content. So long as they recognize the reality of the situation versus the fantasy of others.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly to Thaddeus the lines about “being queen” are ones that I interpret as another lighthearted jab against traditional notions of power and status. That would make sense why she frames it as a “fantasy” and talks about it in Royals. Trying to claim that this is somehow a real desire on her part in line with historical progressive paternalismm (which is a real thing) seems like grasping at straws to me.

As she says in Tennis Court:

Baby be the class clown
I’ll be the beauty queen in tears
It’s a new art form showing people how little we care (yeah)
We’re so happy, even when we’re smilin’ out of fear

Everything’s cool when we’re all in line for the throne
But I know it’s not forever

Her constant denigration of status and power in society makes it unlikely she has any interest in being a queen or even sees much value in it.

And she even says in White Teeth Teens:

I’ll let you in on something big
I am not a white teeth teen
I tried to join but never did
The way they are, the way they seem is something else, it’s in the blood
Their molars blinking like the lights, in the underpass where we all sit

Lorde doesn’t consider herself a part of any group that is better than others. She feels so distant from people who view themselves like that so as to think that they are biologically something else entirely compared to her. Sure, maybe in the past she tried to get in but it certainly hasn’t proved successful and in the end she doesn’t see to want to be involved anyways.

One of her single, Team is all about an outsider’s perspective of the cliques and social power that goes on within society and the strangeness of it all. Not the uniqueness of it or the glamour or the ways in which it may help someone. She doesn’t think it is pretty or important, she mostly sees it as an outsider: perplexing, disorientating and not inviting.

Her song “Glory and Gore” is a really harsh look at how the life of people who are “queens” live. They are constantly desperate for attention (“Dropping glasses just to hear them break”), fighting each other (“we’re the gladiators”) and not really in control of anything the whole time (“We let our battles choose us”).

But hey maybe after getting one million sales Lorde doesn’t need to have any interest in commanding.

The people have already chosen.