Transcribed from the 20 April 2020 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:
I don’t want to embrace my own unfreedom, my own removal from the world. I don’t think most people want to. We want to be part of collective life. Right now we’re seeing this beautiful flowering. It’s called mutual aid, and it is people cooperating to get each other what they need.
Chuck Mertz: For decades we’ve been told there is no alternative, that what we have with representative democracy, with capitalism, is as good as it gets, as good as it has ever been and will ever be, and that’s because nothing better has ever been sustained.
Here to help us understand that other worlds are possible, and that they are happening right now, returning to This is Hell!, activist, writer, and editor Cindy Milstein is editor of the collection of essays Deciding for Ourselves: The Promise of Direct Democracy, which features writing from a couple of past This is Hell! guests, Dilar Dirik and Niko Giorgiades. Cindy co-organizes the Institute for Advanced Troublemaking’s Anarchist Summer School in Worcester, Massachusetts, and is also honored when called upon to do death doula and grief care.
Welcome back to This is Hell!, Cindy.
Cindy Milstein: Hey, great to be back. Your title is even more appropriate now.
Mertz: I really enjoyed our conversation back in November of 2017. I’d like to start with some real basic questions, Cindy. A lot of people are looking for alternatives when we’re finally out of quarantine. What is direct democracy? How does it differentiate from the representative democracy we have here in the US? How is it more democratic than what we have here in the US?
Milstein: I don’t know if I would call what we have here in the United States democracy. In this place called the United States, after a revolution over two hundred years ago (which had already dispossessed people: Indigenous people and other folks), there was a revolution within that revolution afterwards to figure out what kind of governance structure to put in place. The folks who wanted more directly democratic or self-governing structures—much more face-to-face, localized, contextualized—lost out in the fight. What we ended up with was a republic system with a very top-down centralized structure, with a president and a congress and ostensibly people who represent folks, but technically a republic.
The term democracy means ‘rule of the many’ or by everyone, but what’s more interesting than the terminology is that humans throughout our history on this planet have always engaged in forms of face-to-face making decisions with each other. I don’t think the alternatives are really waiting right now until we’re out of quarantine. There’s been an enormous flowering of people self-organizing and making decisions for themselves, like how to get personal protective equipment into emergency rooms. The top-down structures aren’t working, so people are turning to each other and asking: how can we do this? How can we make them? How can we find them? How can we figure out ways to actually construct them that are even better than the N95s without having to rely on capitalist infrastructure?
Embryonic right now is people already beginning to decide for themselves, which is how I understand democracy. Unfortunately, because of what has happened in this place called the United States—to me, what is particularly devious about these kinds of structures or systems is that they create such a cover for themselves, they create a mask, and they get people to agree to their own subservience. And people will hang on to being “free” even as they’re not.
Other people have started using the term direct democracy to emphasize that you can’t make decisions about other people unless you’re doing it together. Other terms would be assemblies or councils or face-to-face structures, self-governance. But the terminology to me is less interesting than the actual practices of people doing it, which feel qualitatively different, and by and large get people what they need and desire a lot more effectively.
Setting aside the terms of debate, I think we’ve moved way beyond even a republic right now. I think we’re pretty much in a fascistic, tyrannical regime. People romanticize structures, thinking they’re still there, until it’s too late. These large scale structures are not human beings; as structures they are organisms that grow. With fascistic or tyrannical structures, by the time they fully take hold it’s already too late to contest them. We have a president who says he doesn’t care what anyone says, he’s going to do what he wants—and no one stops him from doing what he wants. We have the beginnings of what look like a civil war. In the last couple of years there have already been white supremacists and police just murdering people when they feel like it, with impunity.
For me the whole thing is sort of irrational. I don’t want to embrace my own unfreedom, my own removal from the world. I don’t think most people want to. We want to be part of collective life. Right now we’re seeing this beautiful flowering. It’s called mutual aid, and it is people cooperating to get each other what they need and what they want and what they’re desperate for right now in terms of housing, food, healthcare. They’re doing it in a way that is qualitatively beautiful, and they find each other and they make decisions together, and they see that it actually works. That’s really what direct democracy is: turning to each other and saying, “Let’s figure out how to get this done.”
Mertz: You start your book with a quote from sociologist John Holloway writing in his 2010 book Crack Capitalism: “Imagine a sheet of ice covering a dark lake of possibilities. We scream ‘No!’ so loud that the ice begins to crack. What is it that is covered? What is that dark liquid that sometimes, not always, slowly or quickly, bubbles up through the crack? We shall call it dignity.”
Cindy, what is the likelihood that dignity can bubble through the cracks of the way we live, due to COVID-19? Can this be one of those times capitalism cracks and dignity bubbles up? And if so, why can this happen during a global pandemic? What does it say about that kind of transformation when a global pandemic might be able to bring it about?
This moment uncovers the individualist fiction, lays it bare, and makes us realize that we all have an impact on each other. We always do. But COVID-19 makes that really clear.
Milstein: Hopefully no one would wish a global pandemic on us. I don’t want to use language of “opportunity,” because I don’t feel at all that it is. But what a global pandemic shows is increasing forms of capitalist-fueled climate catastrophe—that is where this pandemic comes from. It’s yet another impact of ecocide that’s being promulgated by capitalism and backed up by states who have let capitalism do whatever it wants. We’re now seeing yet another ramification of climate change. Climate change remove the hubris of some humans who think they can control everything or everyone, and it seems to say we’re actually all on this thing called the Earth together, and we’re just creatures like any other creature on this planet that are super interdependent with each other, need ecosystems, need each other to survive and thrive, and it’s really humbling. It should be, or could be, a humbling moment when we realize this deep interconnection again. Especially in a place like the so-called United States, which more than almost any other place in the world has been so structured by hypercapitalism and individualistic ethos. The mythology of the founding of the United States—that the lone individual is going to take care of themselves—is just fictional to begin with.
This moment uncovers that fiction, lays it bare, and makes us realize that we all have an impact on each other. We always do. But this makes that really clear. What we choose to do in this moment, whether we choose to try to stay spatially or physically distanced from each other, but socially connected—that’s what is going to allow fewer people to suffer and die, and also improve the quality of life for more people, if we can do it well.
A really good example of that is we have by far the largest prison system in the world—unequaled—and really brutal and very disproportionate in terms of who gets put into prisons: by race, gender, economic class, and so on. Now we’re having this moment where everybody inside a prison has basically been handed a life sentence, because you can’t physically distance within a prison. Many radicals have been advocating for a long time that prisons are not a way to resolve social conflict, they’re not a way to deal with things that happen in society, especially since the vast majority of people in prisons are not there for the examples that people always point to (“What are we going to do about the serial killers?”). Most people in prison are not there because they are serial killers. In this moment, there have been a lot of people—not enough, but a lot—released from prisons and jails.
People are looking at the structure of this society and asking if it actually makes any sense right now, when we think about the interrelationship that we have with each other, interdependence, dignity, a sense of care for each other, and common good. It really brings those things to the fore.
Another aspect of it is the way to flatten the curve and slow the virus in order for it to be dealt with in any remotely reasonable way within healthcare structures and institutions that take care of people after they die, and all these other things. In order to do that, people need to physically distance. That means closing down most things that people think of as part of their daily life and as their identity. When you ask people here what they do, they usually tell you what they do to make money—which is not what I do. I do what I care about and what I’m passionate about and what I want to do. How I make money is the least interesting part of myself. But it’s pretty defining for a lot of people; what they do or what they buy or where they go to entertain themselves all involve this commodified relationship to themselves, and suddenly vast majorities of people are being separated from all the ways they were used to defining themselves.
This is a huge emotional loss: forms of grief and material impoverishment and a whole host of awful things. I don’t want to minimize what that does. People can lose their jobs, they can lose their house, they can lose a whole bunch of other things. But I think it gets down to us having to look at ourselves and say: without all these other structures around me, who am I? What am I inherently worth? Who are the people I love? It’s one of those global moments where we’re experiencing collective grief. When people face their own mortality and their selves laid bare, what’s really worth it when it comes down to it is who I love, who I care for, my own dignity, the things that make me me without this apparatus of capitalism and the state.
Both grief and necessity are compelling people to figure out ways to take care of each other. Mutual aid, again, is nothing but the common sense of people cooperating with each other, and when they cooperate there’s a far better chance they will not only survive but thrive. We’re seeing that in mutual aid projects that are emerging: if left to capitalism and the state, there would be so many more people in prison dying and so many more healthcare workers dying and so many more people going without food because they can’t get out of their houses. Mutual aid is stepping in to say we can figure out a way where some of us can cook, and we can deliver food to people so people don’t have to go out. We’ll be careful about that but we’ll figure out ways to make sure everyone in our neighborhood can eat, and we’ll figure out ways to get protective equipment to people who need it, whether they’re delivering mail or they’re in an emergency room. I really think we’re getting back to the basics of what really matters in life on this imperiled planet.
There isn’t one right way to decide for ourselves, to self-determine and self-govern. There are as many ways as there are different communities and cultures and issues and desires, and people figure out what they need for where they live.
Then there’s the flipside of it. This moment is an opportunity, in the worst sense, for political parties, fascistic heads of state, the far right, and white supremacists. They’re pouring out, saying “We’re not going to socially distance, we’re going to crowd together with swastikas and other racist symbols in front of state houses, and think about armed insurrection.” As much as I despise their worldviews and don’t have any sympathy for them, they are also part of this same collective interdependence. I’ve seen a lot of people say, “Let them go catch it.” But they are out in the world too. They are doing things. We’re all interconnected. If they decide to do that, it impacts other people. The sad part about it is: in a few months when they start getting sicker and needing to go to hospitals and needing those care workers and needing to get groceries delivered to them, they’ll realize.
It’s not a lovely moment to think about. But we really do have this contest right now, and I don’t think it’s a given that mutual aid will win out. It’s a contest that involves all of us making a choice at this crossroads. Do we want to turn to each other and make social connection right now? There are a lot of ways we can do that even if we’re staying in our houses: going outside, leaving notes—I’ve seen all kinds of examples in public. Do we want to make the choice to turn to each other and say we can decide this world for ourselves and it can’t go back to how it was before? And it shouldn’t?
What would it look like if we don’t rely on crappy paid jobs that don’t pay the rent, because most people can only barely survive anyway? What would it look like if we don’t rely on a state that isn’t remotely meeting people’s needs? What does it look like if we say white supremacy and patriarchy aren’t really working? What would it look like if we moved towards social solidarity and collective care and deciding for ourselves at this moment?
Other people are saying, what would it look like if we tried to grab power and put fascism in place so when people emerge from their homes it’s too late, they’re already under our control? Those things are both real possibilities right now. But I think each of us needs to take a hard look at ourselves and ask which choice we want to make.
Mertz: You point out another thing form Holloway’s Crack Capitalism. He discusses the shortcomings of activism when it is centered around a strategy that resembles a typical job you could find in any business today. Holloway writes, “The real detriment of society is hidden behind the state and the economy. It is the way in which our everyday activity is organized, the subordination of our doing to the dictates of abstract labor—that is, of value, money, profit. It is this abstraction which is, after all, the very existence of the state. If we want to change society, we must stop the subordination of our activity to abstract labor and do something else.”
Must activists change their activity to change society? Do we have to organize in ways that do not resemble an office or a store or a restaurant or a factory to change society? And why don’t those structures work in changing society? Because we already have that kind of structure in place. We understand those kinds of structures. So why don’t those structures work in changing society?
Milstein: I’m not a big fan of the word activist, because it’s a reactive mode, like you just run around and be active and reactive. I think we’re organizing a new world together, and that’s about us changing our social relationships to each other. A lot of the institutions you mentioned are a relationship of one person serving another person; one person has power over another person. In other cases it’s a form of charity, not solidarity. But at the heart of all those structures there are really intense power imbalances, and a very small minority of people—increasingly small—make vast amounts of money off of that and live really well, while the vast majority of people are so impoverished right now that they aren’t able to pay one month’s rent if they lose their jobs. The vast majority of humans don’t have any extra money sitting around. If we left it up to those in power, they don’t care if there are more people on the street, more people in prisons. The number of people who have been turned disposable has already been increasing.
What would it look like to not think of each other as disposable? To think of us each as having inherent worth, and then trying to figure it out together? What I really love about this anthology is there isn’t one right way to decide for ourselves, to self-determine and self-govern. There are as many ways as there are different communities and cultures and issues and desires, and people figure out what they need for where they live, relating to the ecosystem and what they can grow, and what the weather is like, what kind of shelter they need. That looks different everywhere.
In this moment, the emperor’s new clothes are being pulled off of capitalism and the state, and it cannot go back. In another month, people will be facing what under the prior system, before COVID-19, would have been immediate eviction because they’ve failed to pay their rent. Would it be possible to evict the majority of people from their houses at this point? You would need an army to do that—that’s one option, or white supremacists with guns could do that, which is another option. Or: the other option is people realize housing as a commodity is a pretty recent invention in human history; housing has often been, and still is in places, something that people get together and build themselves, and share and use until they don’t need, and then let someone else use. We have enough housing for everybody to have a roof over their head. So maybe when the emperor’s new clothes come off, we’ll realize there have got to be different ways to structure this.
This COVID moment is already pointing to that. Those who can—people are also in refugee camps or detention centers or prisons, or living on the street—but a lot of those who are told to stay at home are thinking about who they want to stay at home with, and how they want to rearrange how we live together and what kind of living situations feel good.
Another thing that’s skyrocketing right now is people being beaten or sexually assaulted by the people they supposedly love within their homes. Home, often, is not necessarily a healthy environment to stay in. Maybe people will take this moment to start rethinking what we have allowed patriarchy to do to us. Are these structures of heteronormative relationships where one person has supreme control over another because of a marriage document or because they’re male (or whatever the reasons are)—maybe we want to think about different ways of living together and taking care of each other.
Some mutual aid projects are pointing to that: ways to figure out getting people alternative shelters, when we need to socially distance from each other, that allow them not to be beaten or sexually assaulted or have to live in the street. These projects aren’t big enough, they’re not meeting everyone’s needs, but they’re the beginnings of people asking that question in the place that they live. They’re the beginnings of people saying, “Hey, how about we do things together to keep healthy, to enjoy ourselves, to engage in things that would make us feel pleasure in the world…”
We see a re-emergence of people biking and running and dancing and writing poetry on sidewalks with chalk, or making sculptures for people to see, or putting signs in their windows, or walking. There’s a re-emergence of people, when they don’t have what capitalism tells them they need to entertain themselves, figuring out there’s a real pleasure in walking, there’s a pleasure in reading, there’s a pleasure in tending to a garden. And there’s a pleasure in growing your own food so you don’t have to be reliant on grocery stores running out, or grocery stores being too dangerous to go into.
Grief is a profound human emotion, and in a way it opens up space for us to feel the beauty of what we love, because we only grieve things we love. Even the emotion of grief right now is telling us what we really love, what we really care about. We’re all having this moment to recalibrate what we want the new world to look like.
There’s a profound shift happening. People are having to look at their lives and say, “Wow, it actually feels qualitatively nicer to go for walks every day. It feels horrible to be stuck in my house, away from people I love and want to hug and all the other social relationships, but I think I ought to hang on to that walking every day. How can I do that in a way that would feel different when we come out of this?” Coming out of this is not going to be fast, and it’s going to call all the structures into question, and the people who are good at answering that question, again, are the totalitarians. Their answer is, “Stay in your houses, we’ll control you, we’ll make your lives bleak and miserable. If a lot of you have to die, who cares?”
That’s one answer. The other answer, when capitalism and the state and all these other things are starting to crumble, is that we’re already doing the answer right now, so how could we do that more? How could we think about sharing? There are so many mutual aid groups. It’s been really beautiful; people are saying, “I’ve run out of this, who has that?” There’s a sharing of things people have too much of; many people do. We’ve also seen a real outpouring of people saying, “I have a knowledge, a wisdom I could share with you. I have a skill I could share with you. I have listening to share with you because you’re hurting and I can be there for you.”
All these gifts we have! I think people are looking at themselves and thinking, I don’t have this apparatus that tells me who I am. Now I have to struggle with who I am without all of that, and who I am, maybe, is a really caring person who is really good at listening to people after they’ve had some loss in their life, so I’m going to do that for people right now. Or my gift is that I’m really good at drawing so I’m going to draw these really beautiful pieces of art and post them around my city so that people can remember that there are other ways to live. Or I’m good at gardening so I can teach all the people in my neighborhood how to grow their own food.
We have the capacity. The reason that the fascists, many of whom are contiguous with the people who own vast amounts of wealth right now—I’m using the term fascism very loosely, but I would call them mostly fascists or hyper-authoritarians—but a lot of them are also profoundly wealthy, and they’re like, “Get back to work!” because their wealth is built on everybody making the world. If people don’t want to go back to making that world, we can make something else.
What kind of healthcare would we make in place of the structure that’s not meeting the needs of the amount of sick people right now? There are all sorts of people who have a lot of skills, in homeopathic medicine or herbal medicines or nursing skills. Some friends of mine who are retired nurses have come back and helped their neighbors. There are all these people re-imagining what healthcare could look like too.
I’m not hopeful—but I see the cracks and the possibility in us re-imagining who we’ve been. To turn to the anthology again, it has so many examples of that. You mentioned Dilar wrote a piece about Rojava. She looks at the magic of what it means to create a space of three million people self-governing in a very feminist way, taking care of each other, meeting each others’ needs in the midst of war, in the midst of fascism. There are other pieces that talk about people taking care of each other in beautiful qualitative ways in the midst of gentrification and lack of housing and homelessness. There are other pieces talking about doing it in the midst of colonial devastation stealing their lands.
Another example: you also mentioned Niko’s in Greece, where capitalism failed earlier than it has here—or at least people understood it failing earlier there—and people built a really intricate solidarity network to take care of each other. All the examples in this anthology aren’t about ideal laboratory conditions where everything is perfect. I really wanted to show examples in the present day that are in places that are highly imperfect and are dealing with serious dilemmas, and show how people have carved out space for large numbers of people to decide for themselves. None of the pieces say it’s perfect. They’re very beautifully honest and vulnerable about the dilemmas they face, how they deal with them, what happens to these structures when we don’t allow certain things to happen in our community.
But they describe different value systems, value systems of maintaining people’s dignity, and thinking about a person being able to—somehow, hopefully—come back into the community, and wanting to care for each other even if someone has done wrong to the community. All these communities do that in ways that are different, and every piece, no matter how hard it gets for them to do that, you see them all saying—implicitly or explicitly—our lives feel qualitatively better. There’s no question. There’s less human suffering, and there’s more joy and beauty and dignity and empathy and compassion and people have what they need and what they desire.
That’s pretty profound, right? To come into this moment where we have the chance to recalibrate based on ethics, and—we’re all experiencing a range of emotions. Grief is a profound human emotion, and in a way it opens up space for us to feel the beauty of what we love, because we only grieve things we love. Even the emotion of grief right now is telling us what we really love, what we really care about. We’re all having this moment to recalibrate what we want the new world to look like.
Deciding that together—I really want to emphasize: that’s the key. Everyone who’s listening to this: I can only get one tenth of what I want to do, done each day. I don’t know what it is, but I think it’s grief. I think it’s the weight of uncertainty, the anxiety, not having human contact. We need each other. We’re social creatures. I really keep asking people, think about what gift is inside you that you want to give, and give it to whoever you can give it to right now, in the smallest or the biggest way. Think about what beauty you can put out there. When we link up all those beautiful things, you notice it.
I walk a lot. You notice it in the landscape. Every day I’ve been writing these little picture posts under #FuckCOVID19. Every day on my walks I notice something different. Kids getting the idea from each other somehow, maybe on social media, to get outside with chalk—they’re chalking all these games that people can play at a social distance from each other, to encourage you to dance, or to sing, or to hop or run or skip or act like a bird and fly. And then another day I’ll walk around and see all these beautiful images in windows, people trying to encourage people in different ways—some of them too hopeful, some of them just beautiful and poignant.
There is a way we’re putting our gifts out there already. You see someone else do it and you think, Hey, I can do that too. It’s not so hard to make a sign and put it in my window. It’s not so hard to sew some masks and put them out in a little box in front of my house or turn a little library into a little food distribution center. Whatever your gift is. That is the beginning of us deciding for ourselves, because we see our neighbors doing this, I could decide to do that too—and maybe I want to talk to my neighbor!
A poignant moment might also be May first. For those who don’t know the history, it’s basically an anarchist holiday, because anarchists were murdered by police in Chicago, the Haymarket martyrs, look up the history of May Day. But May Day has always been a day when people have celebrated those who don’t go along with society: the feminists, the witches, the queers, the rebels, the people who have asked for a world in which we all fit. So I hope this May Day that we put out into the world what we want the world to be. There are all these calls globally for us all to say together that we can’t pay rent. None of us can afford to do that anymore. Let’s all say we don’t want to go back to work and the way it was. We don’t abide by capitalism anymore. Let’s all say we want something different.
Even symbolically, I hope that day becomes a celebration of a direction we want the world to go.
Mertz: Why do we abandon that social good when it’s “normal” again? Why do we have the social good only in times of crisis?
Milstein: I think people get scared of the uncertainty. People hang on to what they know because they’re scared of what they don’t know. But right now we’re all collectively facing a moment of not knowing what’s coming. So maybe this time…
Things don’t always happen the same. There have been other pandemics and epidemics in human history where nothing went back to normal. People lived in qualitatively better ways for decades or centuries afterward until power structures crushed them. We have to fight to keep open this space of caring for each other.
There’s no guarantees with any structure. The fascists are battling it out with us. We have to keep that space open as long as possible. I’m really proud of this anthology because it shows there are spaces that have survived for ten years, for thirty years, for fifty years. Maybe it’s not forever, but more people live better lives, fewer people suffer—isn’t that the goal, always? For as many as we can make possible, let’s do it.
Mertz: Thanks for being back on our show again, Cindy.
Milstein: Thank you, I’m really grateful for you having me a second time.
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