Filed under: Milwaukee area | Tags: anarchism, anti-austerity, books, class war, communism, crisis, intervention, interview, madison, milwaukee, posters, wisconsin
An interview with an individual involved in Burnt Bookmobile, a blog out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin run by some people influenced by various anti-authoritarian tendencies, including insurrectionary anarchism, left communism, and nihilism, among others.
During the spring of 2011, when the ‘Wisconsin Uprising’ or ‘#wiunion movement’ was in full swing, they put out a number of flyers, leaflets and posters that pushed the occupation or general strike concept forward and contributed to the more militant atmosphere that Madison saw traces of. When I was still in Madison, I tried to stay in touch with at least one person who was involved in running the site, sending updates and perspectives back and forth. Recently I had the chance to make a trip to Milwaukee where they agreed to do an interview.
When was Burnt Bookmobile started and what were the initial thoughts behind it? Have they changed since then?
The Burnt Bookmobile was first started as a distro around 2004 and at the time spent the majority of its activity intervening in the hardcore, punk and counter cultural scenes revolving around the subjects of veganism, a kind of inarticulate post-left anarchism and anti-civ trends of thought. This was an orientation that was largely moral in character, but it would more and more come to reject this for a focus on the question of what constitutes living within capitalism and strategic concerns situated within the struggles which we had found ourselves, such as the end of the anti-globalization era, the anti-war era, consumer politics, alternative identity, and the more general anti-capitalist movement.
Since then the Burnt Bookmobile has been present at wine and cheese festivals, occupied campus buildings, neighborhood block parties, film screenings, lectures, poetry readings, shows, etc. Its mode of intervention has always been primarily through the text, offering things as much as we could for free in the form of zines and posters, and books sold for as much as it costs to restock.
Certainly the content of these texts has gone through different phases reflective of different questions we were thinking through, ideas and practices which resonated with us and which we experimented with. These phases articulated themselves in insurrectionary anarchism, left communism, illegalism, egoism, nihilism, Situationist theory, critical theory and the partisan cannon of philosophy, fiction and poetry. Though obviously contradictory, these traditions form a nexus of ideas that have been useful to us in an effort to think and act out a general antagonism against capitalism.
Do you think the blog has helped introduce local people to communist positions or benefited the projects the local milieu has taken on?
Without a doubt the character of the local projects and the critical tools they employ are indebted to years and years of establishing a more critical and articulate discourse. Whether people read the texts or see the posters, it has produced a certain standard of critical thought within the anti-authoritarian, anarchist, and communist milieu, that must in some way be responded to.
I know this is a big question, but for those unfamiliar, what is Milwaukee like and how does the local situation influence or determine your projects and activity?
I’m no expert on the history of Milwaukee, so these are my reflections. Milwaukee is a Rust Belt city much like other Rust Belt cities and like these cities is a site of former industrial centers of production, the labor of which has been either made redundant through automation, outsourced for cheaper often less skilled labor, or been the subject of more general capitalist restructuring. Milwaukee is also one of the most segregated of the major cities in the US. These are the major dynamics at play within the city. Development in spacial terms certainly happens in Milwaukee, but it happens at a pace much slower than many other cities where value circulation attains a much more ruthless speed. It has a large surplus population pushed into crime and then into the apparatus of law (jail, prison, courts, criminal history, criminalization) that appears extremely racialized.
The Bookmobile responds mostly from the point of the shared positions as points of departure, coming from largely white, heterosexual, middle class, male, student, service industry subjectivities. The project bases its activity within the processes of undoing and active confrontation with these positions in material and symbolic terms. We most easily relate to others who feel ill at ease within these subject positions.
Certainly the question of how to approach those who share a similar disposition of hatred for their conditions and who share similar gestures to respond to them is very pressing. One must assess the risk of vulnerability in exposing one’s antagonistic intentions and activities to a general population to find the active minorities that these practices may resonate with. We agree with others who have said that a shared language is built through shared struggle, as counter to the forced relations which already constitute the language of capital. Certain moments with enough force behind them allow for the space of extreme exposure necessary to breakdown barriers of subjectivity allowing for such a language to develop.
We would love to communicate with those who resort to flash mobs out of boredom, who resort to collective crime as mode of resistance to their conditions. Perhaps we’ll meet someday in the streets warmed by a burning bank building, but until then a great many things prevent such a convergence.
Madison was (and is) sort of a bubble. I kind of had an idea of what was going on in Milwaukee last spring but could you describe what was going on?
Much of what I was involved in was centered on the UW-Milwaukee campus, the prospect of shutting it down to spread the occupations and aid in or initiate a wildcat general strike. The possibility of such a strike seemed more possible than any other time in my life because of all the seemingly unexpected and unprecedented (at least for my time in Milwaukee) activity that was already happening.
The first student initiated rallies were 20 times bigger than anything else I had seen on campus. Many students stopped going to classes, TAs were doing spontaneous sick outs, and everyone was caught in a flurry of going back and forth between the occupation in Madison and Milwaukee. Some teachers, most TAs, and school staff all had the talk of striking or some kind of workplace activity on their lips. The question being posed and discussed by many made the possibility of such a strike and what would be after and beyond a strike all the more tangible. The strategic and immediate importance of what we were doing seemed to carry so much more weight during this moment. It appeared to matter what a couple of extremists were suggesting.
Many people in Milwaukee had already initiated the conversation about campus occupations and had been discussing it since being inspired by the events in California in 2009. Because of this, when the time came to possibly employ occupations here it was mostly a question of strategy and not whether the idea would be accepted by the minority of students and non-students who would initiate it. Student leaders made every attempt to not let the situation get out of their control, but it started out of their control, would have never become what it was if it was in their control, so they found themselves further obsolete. Then, reacting to their obsolescence with further control they were made blatantly absurd by open collective criticism. Out of this occupation would come large discussions on topics ranging from the role of the police to how to support and further strikes, dance parties, many nights spent with little sleep on hard floors, calls for and the planning of other demonstrations, a general sharing of resources and maybe most importantly the collective experience of taking and sharing space. The rest of the occupation was fairly complicated throughout the sixty some days of its stay, and it would take up a lot of room to discuss it, so I won’t. What was important was that it was attempted as an effort to spread the occupations and define space on its own terms different from the pacifying “Madison model.”
Certainly I can’t claim to know much more of what was happening in Milwaukee than what I was in some way connected to or had my ear out for. Other than the university occupation, there was some activity surrounding the end of Good Time within the legislation1, which included an unruly prison demo at which fireworks were shot at the jail in downtown Milwaukee, people chanted anti-prison slogans and made noise for those inside, then minor property damage was done to the building. Afterwards a big swath of wheatpasting covered mostly the east side of the city with a communique of the action. There was a general assembly, in the Riverwest neighborhood where I live, to address the question of how to support strike and workplace activity. There were multiple larger scale lock gluings of the university and other places connected to important dates, as well as other sporadic acts of vandalism and sabotage. Posters and slogans where everywhere. Strangers talked to strangers about what was happening throughout the state. People involved were constantly in communication, meeting, assembling, etc.
At the time, some of the propaganda you all were putting out seemed to me to be 10 steps ahead of the movement. However, since then, I’ve changed my mind about this and think one can “meet people where they are at” and introduce what seem like extremely militant ideas. What are your thoughts on accomplishing this?
Compared to what we felt was necessary and what we desired, we were quite restrained in our interventions into he situation in Madison in particular and there was therefore an obvious tension in placing ourselves within discourses and events that were frankly, shameful. The terms with which to engage in struggle were so vapid that all that had never been problematized within the old workers movement (that of workers identity, progressivism, programatism, etc) was still acting as a web of restraint defining the conditions of activity. We felt at the same time a need to act within these events in order to push them to define divisions and limits within what was said and done, then to act against those limits and further the necessary divisions. We wanted to present and proliferate a collective capacity to do this, however minimal our own capacity for proliferation was.
It has been important for us to realize that there was no movement in particular. This idea which acts to enforce and impose the most empty, vague identity, “We Are Wisconsin“, upon the mass of angry people who were affected by the event in Wisconsin acted as a means to curtail and defer any modes of resistance beyond the most pacified symbolic acts, calls for legitimacy, family values, and other normative frameworks that are generally always more operative for capitalism than they are for any resistance. A lot more could be said about the function of such an imposition. More than just within the specific event of the Madison occupation we felt a need to provoke and communicate in a way that opened up means of acting rather than defining and containing them; not being any model in particular, but instead spreading that disposition to act and take collectively. This was generally the intention with the posters and activity we were involved in. More so, what we wrote and said was lost in the suppression of event or erased by the victors of the struggle which appear now to be democratic politics. At the time we attempted to offer critical tools to understand and surpass barriers to self-organization outside of the limits of syndcalism, “politics”, democracy, work, etc etc. Amidst the now apparent failure of our interventions, they now appear to us to be far too mild and timid.
From far off, it seems Occupy has either not taken off much in Wisconsin or has been absorbed into the recall effort of the Governor. Is this accurate? What has Occupy been like in comparison to what you know of other places?
I’m unfamiliar with what is happening or has happened in Madison regarding the occupy movement, but this has been accurate for Milwaukee, and I assume much more so for Madison. The specter of the recall campaign continues to haunt Wisconsin with counter revolution at a time when much of the rest of the country is experiencing the awkward becomings of open contestation of space and a more generalized resistance to the crisis.
What future ‘ruptures’ or openings do you see in Milwaukee or the state as a whole?
Frankly I don’t see anything interesting coming out of Milwaukee or the state as a whole that resembles anything like what happened in Madison. It will be a surprise when it does, just as the event last spring. It wouldn’t have been an event if we would have expected its coming. But the series of crises that are coming won’t be resolved easily, won’t be swallowed we hope without a fight, so for now we’re forced to keep our ear to the ground and be ready for the next round.
Thanks for making time for an interview.
Definitely. Thanks for asking.
Filed under: Milwaukee area, war-machine | Tags: anarchists, anti-capitalism, austerity, conference, crimethinc, intervention, look to wisconsin, madison, milwaukee, occupation, students, wisconsin
Some notes and reflections made by Crimethinc on the Look To Wisconsin Conference, which took place in Milwaukee last month (these are conclusions made by individuals from Crimethinc, and not some consensus made by the conference attendees):
On May 20-21, anarchists and fellow travelers gathered in Milwaukee for a small conference about the ongoing crisis of capitalism. In the final discussion, people from around the US compared notes on recent anti-austerity protests, focusing chiefly on the student movement in California and the recent protests in Wisconsin. We’ve summarized some of the conclusions here in hopes they can be useful in the next phase of anarchist organizing.
So far, anarchists have not been very successful in contributing to anti-austerity protests in the US. Starting in December 2008, anarchist participation in school occupations was instrumental in kick-starting a student movement, but by March 4, 2010 this movement was dominated by liberal and authoritarian organizing; it subsequently ran out of steam. More recently, anarchists participated in the occupation of the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin in protest against anti-union legislation and occupied a university building in Milwaukee, without substantial impact on the course of events.
It’s troubling that we’ve had such limited success in a context that should be conducive to our efforts. Eleven years ago, during the high point of the anti-globalization movement, anarchist participants were essentially the militant edge of an activist movement addressing issues that were distant from many people’s day-to-day needs. Today, the livelihoods of millions like us are on the line; people should be much more likely to join in revolt now than they were a decade ago. If this isn’t happening, it indicates that we’re failing to organize effectively, or that the models we’re offering aren’t useful.
European anarchists have had more success, but they benefit from a richer and more continuous lineage of social movements. In the US, the birthplace of the generation gap, our task is not just to intensify ongoing struggles, but to generate new fighting formations—a much greater challenge. We seem to go through one generation of anarchists after another without any gains. Although our predecessors rightly caution us against measuring our efforts in purely quantitative terms, we can’t hope to overthrow capitalism by our own isolated heroics, turning the world upside down one newspaper box at a time.
A small fire demands constant tending.
A bonfire can be let alone.
A conflagration spreads.
We have to figure out how to connect with everyone else who is suffering and angry. To that end, here are some observations and proposals derived from the conversations in Milwaukee.
—The anti-austerity protests in Wisconsin are not the last of their kind; on the contrary, they herald the arrival of a new era. It is paramount that we learn from our early failures to develop a more effective strategy for engaging in these conflicts.
—In Madison, anarchists largely focused on establishing infrastructure for the occupation. This is not the first time anarchists have contributed their organizational skills to an essentially liberal protest. At the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, about 100,000 people participated in demonstrations; this included thousands of anarchists, many of whom limited themselves to logistical roles. Afterwards, this was recognized as a tremendous missed opportunity—hence the efforts to take the lead in planning actions at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Our task is not just to facilitate protests of whatever kind, but to ensure that they threaten the flows of capital—that they create a situation in which people abandon their roles in maintaining the current order. To this end, we have to seize the initiative to organize actions as well as infrastructure. Clashes with the state will be more controversial than free meals and childcare, but this controversy has to play out if we are ever to get anywhere.
—A wide range of sources concur that the occupation of the capitol building in Madison was undermined one tiny compromise at a time. First the police politely asked people not to be in one room—and they were being so nice about everything that no one could say no. Then they gently asked people to vacate another, and so on until the dumbfounded former occupiers found themselves out on the pavement. This underlines an important lesson: the first compromise might as well be the last one. Whenever we concede anything, we set a precedent that will be repeated again and again; we also embolden our enemies. We have to be absolutely uncompromising from the beginning to the end.
In popular struggles, anarchists can be the force that refuses to yield. We can also pass on our hard-won analyses to less experienced protesters—for example, emphasizing that however friendly individual police officers might be, they cannot be trusted as long as they are police. To do these things, however, we have to be in the thick of things, not looking on from the margins.
—A common complaint from the more combative participants in the Madison occupation was that leftist organizations had already gained the initiative and determined the character of the protest. Anarchists were afraid to act, taking the leftist control of the narrative as an indication that there was nothing they could do. Indeed, after the end of the occupation, liberal organizers channeled the remaining momentum into a recall campaign confined to the electoral sphere.
In fact, in circumstances like the capitol occupation, there’s nothing to lose. The solutions promoted by authoritarian leftists and liberals don’t point beyond the horizon of capitalism; even when they aren’t utterly naïve, they’re no better than the right-wing agenda, in that they serve to distract and neutralize those who desire real change. Where the field is split between left-wing and right-wing, we may as well disrupt this dichotomy by acting outside of it. Even if we fail, at least we show that something else is possible.
—One Wisconsin anarchist proposed that we should distinguish between two strategic terrains for action. Some events, such as the occupation of the capitol building in Madison, function as tremendous spectacles; the most we can hope to accomplish is to interrupt them, forcing a more challenging narrative into the public discourse. Other spaces that are under less pressure, like the occupation of the theater building in Milwaukee, offer an opportunity to develop new social connections and critiques.
In the latter, we can create new channels for discussion and decision-making that will serve us well in subsequent confrontations. We can measure our effectiveness by how well we accomplish this, not just by the material damage inflicted on targets or the numbers of people who show up to demonstrations.
In upheavals such as the one in Wisconsin, we can unmask authoritarian domination of resistance movements and debunk the idea that the democratic system can solve the problems created by capitalism.
—At no point during the buildup to the protests of March 4, 2010 or the occupations in Wisconsin did anarchists establish an autonomous, public organizing body to play a role such as the RNC Welcoming Committee played at the 2008 RNC or the PGRP played at the 2009 G20. This was a strategic error that enabled liberal and authoritarian organizers to monopolize the public discourse around the protests and determine their character and conditions in advance. In the Bay Area, the word on the street was that anarchists had established some sort of back-room deal with public organizers that the latter reneged on. This betrayal should come as no surprise: without the leverage afforded by public organizing of our own, we can always expect to be hoodwinked and betrayed by those who don’t share our opposition to hierarchical power.
We need public, participatory calls and organizing structures, both to offer points of entry to everyone who might want to fight alongside us and to make it impossible for authoritarians to stifle revolt by arranging the battlefield to be unfavorable for it. Public organizing can complement other less public approaches; often, it’s necessary to render them possible in the first place. Compare the 2008 RNC and 2009 G20 to March 4, 2010.
—As capitalism renders more and more people precarious or redundant, it will be harder and harder to fight from recognized positions of legitimacy within the system such as “workers” or “students.” Last year’s students fighting tuition hikes are this year’s dropouts; last year’s workers fighting job cuts are this year’s unemployed. We have to legitimize fighting from outside, establishing a new narrative of struggle. Who is more entitled to occupy a school than those who cannot afford to attend it? Who is more entitled to occupy a workplace than those who have already lost their jobs?
If we can accomplish this, we will neutralize the allegations of being “outside agitators” that are always raised against those who revolt. Better, we will transform every austerity conflict into an opportunity to connect with everyone else that has been thrown away by capitalism. Our goal should not be to protect the privileges of those who retain their jobs and enrollment, but to channel outrage about everything that capitalism has taken from all of us.
—Anti-austerity protests may offer a new opportunity to resume the practice of convergence so important in the anti-globalization era. Anarchists could respond to upheavals like the one in Wisconsin by converging on these “hotspots” to force things to a head. But this would require local communities to be ready to host visitors—to have the necessary resources prepared in advance. These resources include food and housing, but also a relationship with the general public and leverage on the authorities, such as the Pittsburgh Organizing Group built up in the years leading up to the successful demonstrations against the 2009 G20.
—Between peaks of protest, we can attempt to connect with social circles that could be politicized. Punks entered the anti-globalization movement with a preexisting anticapitalist critique and antagonism towards authority, thanks to two decades of countercultural development. This enabled them to escalate the situation immediately, shifting the discourse from reform to revolution. The more people enter anti-austerity struggles thus equipped, the less time will be wasted relearning old lessons.
—In addition to exacerbating the contradictions inherent in the financial crisis, we should undertake to make life in upheavals more pleasurable and robust than workaday life. Those who participate in wildcat strikes and occupations should experience these as more exciting and fulfilling than their usual routines, to such an extent that it becomes possible to imagine life after capitalism. As many anarchists live in a permanent state of exclusion, making the best of it despite everything, we should be especially well-equipped to assist here.
In this regard, there is a real need for infrastructures that can provide for the practical needs of those who wrest themselves out of the functioning of the economy. But these infrastructures should not be simply ad hoc protest logistics; they must demonstrate the feasibility of radically different systems of production and distribution.
There is probably some new way of engaging, some “new intelligence” appropriate to this era that we haven’t discovered yet; the formats we retain from the past may not serve us now. There is much experimenting to be done. Dear friends, may you succeed where others have failed.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: communism, form-of-life, french, IEF, intervention, introduction to civil war, theory, tiqqun
According to a well established source, Introduction to Civil War which appeared in the journal Tiqqun is being translated as a whole and made into the fifth book of the Semiotext(e) intervention series, of which The Coming Insurrection was the first.
Here is a zine designed by the IEF of the translated fragments.
11. “War” because in each singular play between forms-of-life, the possibility of a fierce confrontation—the possibility of violence—can never be discounted.
“Civil,” because the confrontation between forms-of-life is not a confrontation between States—those coincidences between a population and a territory—but between parties, in the sense this word had before the advent of the modern State. Because we must be precise from now on, let us say that they confront one another as partisan war machines.
“Civil war” then, because forms-of-life are indifferent to the separations between men from women, political existence from bare life, civilians from military;
because to be neutral is to take sides in the free play of forms-of-life;
because this play between forms-of-life has no beginning or end that can be declared, its sole end being the physical end of the world that no one would be able to declare;
and above all because I know of no body that is not hopelessly carried off into the excessive, and perilous, course of the world.