To social ecologists, environmental issues are, at their core, socio-economic issues. The same sense of separateness that justifies our exploitation and domination of one another makes possible similar acts of violence against nature. As long as we remain oblivious to underlying flaws in our collective logic (i.e.: that it is reasonable to endlessly consume non-renewable resources on a finite planet; that peaceful, just societies can emerge out of competitive, hierarchical frameworks) any responses we could devise will be insufficient to significantly alter our current course. A social ecological approach to “saving the environment” would require balancing relationships between humans and other humans, and between humans and all other phenomena. It sounds like a tall order…and it is. In light of the obvious destructive effects of systems within which we are obliged to strive for quantity of goods for one over quality of life for all, we are now faced with two choices: pull off the impossible, or perish.
John P. Clark, a social ecologist/cultural theorist/activist operating out of Loyola University in New Orleans, specializes in the “…potential of apositive practice of social transformation and social regeneration based on nondominating mutual aid and cooperation” ; In other words, tall orders. His latest book, titled The Impossible Community: Realizing Communitarian Anarchism, outlines historical cooperative political/social/ecological movements, provides examples of successful initiatives currently in progress, and suggests that the present and future wellbeing of all life on earth is dependent upon grassroots revolution of thought and action.
Alyce Santoro: Are you suggesting that social transformation can happen now, without waiting for radical change in the dominant political structure? Do you see “the impossible community” as a viable next phase in the evolution of the OCCUPY movement?
AS: It seems the words “libertarian” and “anarchy” can be broadly interpreted; “communitarian”, on the other hand, seems somewhat less ambiguous. Can you provide some basic definitions/current context for these constantly-morphing terms?
JPC: Libertarians are people who are dedicated to defending and expanding freedom. However, “freedom” is a floating signifier, a flexible concept that can be appropriated for diverse and often conflicting purposes. It’s also a master signifier, in that it has a kind of ineffable charismatic power that everyone wants to latch on to. So the big question is what we mean by freedom.
The “Third Concept of Liberty” that I discuss in the book proposes that freedom has several crucial dimensions. One of these, the one that seems almost intuitive for Americans, is “negative freedom,” or freedom from coercion, often epitomized as “not being told what to do.” This idea must be developed into a larger conception of freedom from all forms of domination. While domination functions through overt force and the threat of force, it also (and more usually) operates through other diverse strategies and tactics of control. The second dimension of freedom is personal and communal self-determination. This means, above all, that we are able to live in a community that is a collective expression of our social being and our social ideals, rather than being an obstacle to them. Finally, and most significantly, freedom means personal and communal realization or flourishing, the achievement of the good in our personal and communal lives.
The term “libertarian” was invented in New Orleans in the 1850’s by the French anarchist philosopher Joseph Déjacque. While he was here, Déjacque wrote his most important work, L’Humanisphère, and an important letter to Proudhon, the most famous anarchist thinker of the time. Despite their agreement in opposing the centralized state, Déjacque harshly criticized Proudhon on two grounds, first, for his sexism and support for patriarchy, and secondly, for his belief that the contribution of each individual to the value of a product could be determined. For Déjacque, true freedom requires the abolition of all historic forms of domination, including, obviously, the age-old system of domination of women by men. It also requires that production and distribution be designed to fulfill the needs of all, rather than being based on a spurious individualist theory of value and entitlement. Déjacque concluded in his letter that because of Proudhon’s acceptance of patriarchy and economic injustice, he was not a true libertaire or libertarian.
Déjacque’s analysis also explains the meaning of anarchism in its deepest sense. This is discussed in the chapter of The Impossible Community entitled “Against Principalities and Powers.” Anarchism is not merely an opposition to coercion or to any particular form of domination, such as the centralized state. Rather, it is the quest for freedom from all forms of domination—capitalism, the state, patriarchy, racial and ethnic oppression, bureaucratic and technological domination, gender and sex role oppression, and the domination of other species and of nature.
Which brings us to “communitarianism.” In the United States, this term usually has a relatively conservative connotation, and is juxtaposed to liberalism in mainstream political thought. In South Asia and Britain, it’s a more popularized term, often with pejorative undertones, and is linked to strong ethnic and religious identification and group conflicts. As I, and many others, use it, it is an affirmation of the age-old tradition of free, self-determining community. This might also be termed “communism,” and often has been, though unfortunately this term has been co-opted by the forces of domination, just as the word “libertarian” has.
Nevertheless, I like to pose the seemingly paradoxical question: “Why is communism so good in practice, but it never seems to work in theory?” What most people think of as “communism” has not been communism at all, but rather a form of oppressive state capitalism or techno-bureaucratic despotism, justified through an ideology (a theory that doesn’t work) that disguises it as “communism.” Such a system has often been very effective as a form of domination, but not as a free, just or humane form of social organization. We might call it “authoritarian communism,” but in reality, not only is it not really communism, it is in a very precise sense a form of anti-communism, the negation of communal autonomy. Historically, it has always feared real communities, taken power away from them, and done its best to crush or dissolve them.
There is, on the other hand, a long tradition of libertarian communism, which is the form of organization taken by communities of solidarity and liberation. It has been practiced in indigenous societies, in intentional communities (such as the most radical early kibbutzim in Israel and the Gandhian ashrams or cooperative eco-communities in India), in the self-managed collectives during the Spanish Revolution, in affinity groups, in base communities, and in many families. It has constituted communism, in the sense of the autonomous self-determination of the community. It has often worked quite well.
We can also call this form of social organization “communitarianism.” I find this term to be politically crucial today, above all, because I see the key step in personal and social transformation to be at the level of the person-in-community and each person’s moment-to-moment practice within that community. We show that another world is possible by making another world actual. We need to rethink politics as world creation, though it is equally a process of world preservation. I think this is why much of the most effective communitarian anarchist practice has come from groups with a strong spiritual basis that generates an all-encompassing ethos. This is true of groups that come out of long traditions, like the Catholic Worker Movement, the Gandhian Sarvodaya Movement, engaged Buddhism and Daoism, and indigenous people’s movements. But it is also true of small groups that draw on many communal and spiritual traditions and the great libertarian communitarian heritage, while finding their own way.
The emphasis on the primary community in no way excludes the need for simultaneous action at every other level. The quest for direct participatory democracy, for worker self-management, and for liberation from imperialist occupation, for example, cannot wait. However, the only way that these struggles can avoid cooptation is if they are rooted in liberatory transformation at the personal and communal level.
AS: On page 17 of your book you say, “What emerges out of traumatic marginalization and exclusion is liberatory communitarian potentiality, not any historical necessity.” Could you talk about disaster-as-catalyst and about New Orleans as a particularly striking model of the inherent interconnectedness of the social and the ecological?
JPC: We can be in the midst of crisis without noticing it. Disaster came to New Orleans long before Hurricane Katrina, but its true severity wasn’t noticed. Before Katrina New Orleans was already the incarceration capital of the world, it had one of the highest murder rates in the country, the education system was devastated, medical care was a disgrace for a large segment of the community, and there were growing ecological threats such as massive coastal erosion–we had already lost an area of wetlands the size of the state of Delaware. Before Katrina, one saw bumper stickers that said “New Orleans: Third World and Proud of it.” After Katrina, we understood better what it means to be “Third World,” or more accurately, to be on the Periphery, on the margins of Empire. The awareness is more akin to horror than to pride.
In New Orleans, as in the world in general, we have been faced with the tragic problems of denial vs. disavowal. Denial is the inability to allow an idea to enter consciousness, though it always enters in strange, distorted forms. Disavowal is the inability to keep in one’s mind what one knows. It’s the problem of the elusive obvious. People often can remember everything except the most important thing. These mechanisms often occur in families that have major problems such as violence, sexual abuse, betrayal, victimization. Sometimes the problem cannot even be recognized. Sometimes everyone knows but learns how to forget that they know. The same mechanisms work on the global level. In fact, the single most important development taking place on our planet is met with denial and disavowal.
At the beginning of each semester I tell every one of my classes, no matter what the topic of the course may be, that I want to mention one thing: We are living in the sixth great mass extinction of life on earth. If an extraterrestrial came to visit the Earth and went back to report on what was happening here, this would certainly be the number one item. News from Earth: “They’re going through a kind of planetary disaster that has only happened six times in several billion years!” Yet, when I go through this routine, I find that most of my students had never been told this news in their twelve-plus years of formal education. Denial and disavowal reign supreme.
One thing that I learned from the Katrina experience is that the traumatic event can sometimes undo processes of denial and disavowal and awaken us to the gravity of our predicament. Such trauma can result in regression, which can be expressed in fundamentalism, reactionary movements, racism, nationalism, fascism, and the clamor for an authoritarian leader. We saw this in post-Katrina New Orleans, in the form of racist vigilantes, police repression, and prison atrocities. Or, it can result a new breakthrough, a new awakening, a new inspiration to act creatively and communally.
The Katrina disaster was the most devastating experience I have lived through, but also the most uplifting and inspiring one. Post-Katrina New Orleans was a horrifying, heart-breaking and post-apocalyptic world in many ways. But the communities of compassion and solidarity that developed in the wake of the disaster were the closest thing to my social ideal that I have ever experienced. I feel fortunate to have spent a significant period of time living and working with groups of people devoting themselves fully to serving the real needs of people and communities. In such times of communal solidarity, we can see the emergence of that “Beloved Community” that Martin Luther King spoke about. This experience was a major inspiration for what I described in the book as “The Impossible Community.”
Many traditions have recognized the importance of the traumatic breakthrough. In the Buddhist tradition, the primary teaching is that one must be shaken out of complacency and come to the shocking realization of the universality of sickness, aging, and death, if one is ever to attain wisdom and compassion. In the Jewish tradition, a break with everyday reality and the traumatic experience of the sacred is described the beginning of wisdom. In the vision quest of indigenous traditions, extreme stresses are part of the path to a spiritual breakthrough. Both Western and Asian mysticism describe a traumatic “dark night of the soul” that is part of the path to spiritual awakening. Finally, dialectic is a kind of philosophical vision quest that works through traumatic challenges to all stereotyped thinking. In each case, trauma releases the ability to look at the gaps in our supposed reality and the incoherence in our conventional accounts of the world. Trauma is an encounter with death, but it is also an opportunity for rebirth. It helps us to see the possibility of the impossible and to think the unthinkable.
For further exploration of these ideas, please see also John Clark’s articles Ecopolitics as a Politics of Spirit, and The Political Imagination of Beasts: Reflections on Disaster, Domination, Community, and Liberation. Please click here for a discount form to order The Impossible Community.
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