In addition to conducting independent research, The Rules provides assistance to anti-inequality campaigns including Ekta Parishad. (Image via Ekta Parishad)
The Rules is a worldwide network of activists working to transform the politico-economic structure undergirding global inequality. The network, which actively supports individual social movements while operating as a think tank, advocates radical reform focused on five strategic areas: money, power, secrecy, ideas, and the commons.
Last month, I spoke over Skype to The Rules founder Alnoor Ladha. Ladha filled me in on how The Rules operates on the ground, and on his own journey from reformer to revolutionary. We also spoke about the role of the city in neoliberalism, the part the sharing economy can play in rewriting “the rules,” and why Donald Trump is emblematic of the challenges faced by anti-capitalist activists.
ABM: Tell me about The Rules. What is it?
AL: The Rules is a network of activists, writers, researchers, journalists, coders, hackers, and artists focused on addressing the root causes of inequality, poverty, and climate change. We don’t focus on the traditional development model, which is based on aid, charity, and sympathy. We focus [instead] on the drivers of these injustices, which are things like the tax justice system, the global economic operating system—essentially the rules that ensure that the current state of pillage and destruction is the logical outcome.
We do that in two ways. We have a campaigning arm, that supports and works with social movements from around the world—peasant movements, farmer movements, women’s rights groups, indigenous groups—as well as a think-tank arm, that tries to get more progressive and radical ideas into the mainstream media.
What are your objectives, both short- and long-term?
On the campaigning side, a lot of it is about helping groups articulate how all oppression is connected. So we’re not fighting a lands-rights struggle in India, and a tax-justice struggle in Kenya, and a climate struggle in Venezuela. These are all linked to the same driver—the same nemesis, if you will. Which is the logic of the neoliberal capitalist system.
When we connect the dots like that, from a media perspective, a storytelling perspective, and a campaigning perspective, it helps expose the bigger picture at work. That’s a lot of what the campaigning work is about. And also linking these civil-society groups with each other. We’re trying to build that organizing infrastructure.
What brought you to this work? Did you have an epiphany moment, or was it more of an evolution in your thinking?
You know, it’s funny. I think part of the journey for me has been like a removal of veils.
I was socialized by the Canadian education system. Things are pretty good in Canada for the average person. And no one looks at the historical reasons why that is the case. So I think when you start going on the journey of understanding privilege, you start having these veils systematically removed.
My dad was exiled from Uganda in the early 1970s by Idi Amin. So I was sensitive to power, and interested in understanding political power. But I was never an activist in that traditional sense from a young age. I wasn’t some kind of child prodigy. I was just curious and interested.
As I became more curious, I started to question the structures behind the system. Once you start to understand, for example, that Canada’s wealth is dependent on resource extraction and, historically, is a byproduct of the British colonial system, then you start understanding [why you were] taught this certain version of history.
Going to university in Canada, this idea [existed] that somehow we should be grateful for the jobs we’re given. But [there was] no real explanation of the debt-based financial system that requires us to work these bullshit jobs.
I started as a reformist in many ways, because I believed the Western myth of progress, which is: everything’s getting better, and if we could just make slight tweaks in this current system, things would be better.
I was really interested in the idea of social enterprise for a couple of years. Then when you start to ask, “Who are things getting better for, and in what way are they getting better?” you realize that that Western myth of progress is total bullshit.
Of every dollar of wealth created, 93 cents goes to the top one percent since 1998. You can see why we’re told that the only model for any social change is more economic growth, more foreign direct investment, more GDP increase. Very few people benefit from that, but those are the same people who dictate what economic policy and theory is.
Understanding that every dollar of wealth creates inequality, and every dollar of wealth heats up our planet—because we have a fossil fuels extractive-based system—you realize that there’s no way that reforming this current system is going to change the quality of life for the majority of humanity. Quite the opposite. The more we improve the system, the more we’re keeping in a vampiric system whose logical outcome will be the destruction of the planet.
Let’s go back to The Rules itself. How does it operate on the ground?
On the campaigning side, we’ll do everything from research and policy work [to working with] media. For example, the landless people’s movement in India, Ekta Parishad, asked us to support them at a key moment when they were fighting the Land Rights Act. [Likewise], Kenyans for Tax Justice, a coalition based in Kenya trying to fight a regressive VAT tax.
In situations like that, we will help them convene other groups in this space, we’ll do the research and policy work for them as needed, we’ll do the media work and try to get their stories in the global media. We’ll do some social media and digital organizing.
We’ve created tools for groups. We’ve created a tool called /Crowdring, which is a missed-call tool. Anybody with a first-generation handset can dial a local number, instead of having to go online to sign a petition. Local posters would have this number, you ring once and it automatically hangs up, and your mobile number’s registered as a petition. Then we can text you back, with no charge. It’s a more democratic version of the online petition, a more tech-accessible version.
So we’ll build tools as well. Then we’ll help with some of the political strategy, and even trainings, workshops, capacity-building as needed.
That’s more of the nuts and bolts of the capacity-building work. How people find out about the organization, is really a mix. It’s almost like politics of association. [We attract groups that] are interested in connecting the dots between how student debt in the US is related to the World Bank’s land-rights policy and systematic displacement of hundreds of thousands of people around the planet, with the Goldman Sachs speculation, growth-based investment model.
It’s people who think in terms of structures and systems and do that kind of organizing. We call it the constellational world view. It sounds theoretical and abstract, but at the end of the day it’s a local community is being displaced by the World Bank’s land-rights policy.
Unless you can tell the broader story of why the World Bank believes that displacing poor people and smallholder farmers to support big agricultural businesses is a good idea, you’re missing the major motivation. We try to fill in that part of it and tell that global story. Which is: these things aren’t happening because the World Bank cares about poor people, or is actually interested in the work of development.
These things happen because there’s an ideology, which is the background condition. And this ideology is called neoliberalism. The ideology is that we need to grow the economy at all costs. We need to prejudice corporations because they’re job creators. And the market is the ultimate arbitrator, and arbiter, of morality, and our definition of the good life.
This model has been discredited for over thirty years. But because a small group of people benefit from this model—and that’s the same group of people who are writing our economic textbooks and deciding on central bank and federal bank policy around the world—there are people who actually work in these institutions who still believe this. And they come from a Western-centered perspective.
And people like [at] the Gates Foundation who believe that because there’s more microwaves in people’s houses, that’s somehow an indicator of increase in quality of life. Even though there are more people living in poverty with higher levels of inequality and injustice than there’s ever been.
I think this is why this type of work, this sort of systemic structural work, is important in connecting the dots between various forms of injustice that are happening.
On the think-tank side, a lot of this is: Well, how do you popularize this type of thinking? Not just this type of thinking, but the alternatives. One of the things that keeps us in place is this belief—you know, Margaret Thatcher’s famous line, “There is no alternative.” And that’s, of course, ridiculous.
The global capitalist monoculture wants us to believe that there is no alternative, and everyone has to have Microsoft Office and eat Monsanto GMO foods and listen to Miley Cyrus. That’s a ridiculous model in every sense.
The more this model of globalization takes hold, the more other alternatives are actually sprouting up and fighting against [it]. This is essentially a battle between life and death, the battle between corporate centralized power and decentralized power of people.
So part of what we’re trying to do in the think-tank arm is document these struggles, and these wins, and these alternatives and show not just that another world is possible, [but that] many worlds are possible.
What particular obstacles to change do you find in cities, in particular?
That’s an interesting question. I know Shareable is doing a lot of work in the cityscape, and thinking about urban environments. I’m really torn on the city-based model.
As we all know, we’re increasingly becoming a more urban species. Seventy percent of the world’s population’s going to be in cities by 2050. But I think we have to look at the motivation of why people move to cities. The main reason people move to cities is access to capital, and access to jobs.
If we step back for a second and we look at the broader economic system, we are stuck in this growth-based, debt-based capitalist system. We have to grow the global GDP at three percent a year, according to the World Bank, or we’re essentially in a recession.
The major driver for this is [that] in a debt-based system your growth has to exceed your interest rate in order for that money to be valuable, in order to pay that money back. So you basically have private federal reserves that are run by banks, that are printing money at debt from [the] beginning. Then we’re all forced to grow our businesses, our countries, the global GDP at three percent a year. And we’re told that this is a good thing.
But just in 2015, a three percent growth on a GDP of around $70, 80 trillion is about $2.5 trillion. That’s roughly 1970s GDP. It took us from the beginning of civilization to 1970 to get to about a $2.5 trillion GDP. And now we need that just in the delta, so the house of cards doesn’t collapse.
So I think we actually have to step back from the city awhile and be like, “You know, we’re driven to cities in order to increase GDP and have our access to capital because the only way we can buy goods and services now, through the globalized model, is debt.” But we used to have many ways to access goods and services: we used to fish, and barter, and trade, and have a gift economy, and have strong resilient communities and self-sufficient farming. But that’s all been destroyed by the global monoculture in order to make us dependent on a global supply chain that’s easier to fulfill when you’re living in cities.
Most people are moving to cities and living in slum urban environments. I live in Cape Town, South Africa. There are maybe 4.5 million people in this city. And only half a million people live in the city proper, and four million are living in the outskirts slums, [and] are essentially servicing the people in the city. They’re taking two-hour commutes into the city, and two-hour commutes out of the city, in order to have access to some capital as cleaners, as retail workers, as servers in restaurants.
The latest inequality stats that show that the top one percent now has more wealth—not income, wealth—than the bottom 99 percent of humanity. So for the first time they have over 50 percent share of global wealth. And 62 billionaires have as much wealth as the bottom 50 percent.
This is no accident. These things don’t happen because somehow these people are smarter. These things happen because the game is rigged. What globalization resulted [in] is the corporate exploitation of labor in the cheapest places.
That was the first thing. That’s what the big globalization trend of the ’60s and ’70s was about. The second is tax havens. Corporations have opted out of the social contract. They don’t pay tax. Corporations like Google and Facebook pay like two percent effective tax price outside the United States. They do this through transfer pricing, mispricing, and all sorts of financial black magic.
Of course, the people who are benefiting from this—besides the corporate executives—are the ranks of the apparatchiks, the bankers, the lawyers, the accounting firms. These are the people who are getting really wealthy, who live in these cities, and who dangle the financial carrot to all the rest of humanity, which comes into these cities in exploitive, low-paying, low-quality service jobs. And nobody can compete with them, because they’re exploiting human labor, and they’re not paying tax.
Of course they coopted the third in the troika—they have bought our democracy. In the US, research by Larry Lessig at Harvard has shown that every dollar invested in lobbying Congress has about a $220 return on investment. Why would they put their money anywhere else, except to subvert and hijack the political process? [That money] has a 220,000 percent ROI.
So nobody can compete with them, and [there is] this flywheel effect. They just get richer and richer, and more powerful and more powerful, and as they do their advertising propaganda machine becomes ever more powerful, and we all buy into this illusion that if somehow we move to cities there’s going to be this social mobility, and we’ll all become the exploitative Goldman Sachs banker, or KPMG accountant. Or, in [Silicon Valley], the startup billionaire or the Google exec. The reality is that that social mobility is an illusion. It’s nonexistent. You have the occasional black swans, and you have an educated one percent who have access to these things, and the rest of us are screwed.
I think we somehow need to figure out how we create self-sufficient communities that grow our own food, and have distributed energy, and opt out of the debt-based capitalist system en masse. This is a long-winded answer to get to this place. But you’re asking my perspective on cities, and I think, actually, this massive migration into cities is playing into the capitalists’ ability to exploit the majority of humanity.
What cities are providing us—the infrastructure they’re providing us, the jobs they’re providing us—are all not necessary. And actually, they’re making us deeply, deeply unhappy, and exposing us to all sorts of risks: crime risks, health risks, psychological Even the people that are doing well within this structure are deeply unhappy. This is what all the happiness economics data shows, that in places where [GDP is] increasing, especially in the West, depression levels are spiking, antisocial behavior is spiking, use of antidepressants and other forms of drugs is spiking. I think that the entire model, the global capitalist model, especially cities as a core hub of exploitation, needs to be totally rethought.
Do you have a conception of how the sharing economy fits into your own work?
Sharing and the gift economy is going to be a central pillar of the post-capitalist world. Let’s face it: the Western way of living has maybe a 20-year expiry date on it. Thirty at most. All the climate science points to the fact that we cannot continue as we are. People are celebrating what happened in Paris, and there’s this naive belief that reducing global emissions by a couple of percentage [points] a year is a decent strategy.
The reality is that, as we said in the beginning, the global economy by definition congeals capital, destroys the planet, and creates this monoculture and all sort of dependencies. Those dependencies are totally going to unravel. And as they unravel, a secondary economy based on gift, based on barter, based on generosity is going to take its place as the dominant way of exchanging goods and services.
Now the question of how this transition happens—that is the $100 trillion question. Because if we leave it to tech companies—we’ve seen where that leads. Silicon Valley culture is parasitic, right? It’s based on the debt-based venture capital system.
You have people like Paul Graham. He’s one of the Y Combinator founders. He wrote this atrocious, quite pathetic essay seemingly trying to get a pat on the back from other psychotic one percenters in Silicon Valley. With this argument that somehow inequality serves this Social Darwinian purpose. It’s essentially like economic eugenics. And it doesn’t look at any historical factors, the fact that this country—the United States—was built on black slave labor, that there was this 500-year head start or 400-year head start given to people like Paul Graham.
Even the fact that most of the technology that’s being created, whether it’s something that has some social function like Facebook, or something that has no social function like the People app, because it’s dictated by the market, [it is assumed] that it’s somehow useful.
I think that this is what has happened to the sharing economy. Because it’s been folded under the aegis of the market, it’s essentially an extension of that psychopathic, parasitical logic of the market. We have to disintermediate the logic of the market from sharing—that’s the only way sharing’s going to be useful.
The only way that we’re going to do that is by having strong, resilient communities. And the only way we’re going to have strong, resilient communities is by localizing power. That should be the role of government: to decentralize and localize power. When we decentralize and localize our economies, then all of a sudden we’ve created the environmental conditions that will allow a sharing economy to thrive.
But if we think that we can stay in our high-rises, mediated by technology, and the occasional sharing of a luxury apartment, or a BMW Mini, constitutes the sharing economy, we’re as deluded as Paul Graham.
How about “mystical anarchism”? I’d like to hear more about the concept, which you explored in a provocative essay in Kosmos.
The idea came from examining the failure of the traditional leftist movement. If you look at Marxist movements as the archetypal anticapitalist reaction, they’re highly atheistic. Of course, Marx believed that religion was the opiate of the masses. What ends up happening is that there’s no sense of spirit, there’s no metaphysical worldview in the Marxist ideology.
It’s based on historical materialism, and a highly materialist, reductionist understanding of human relations, interrelations, community, what we aspire to, etc. You can see the remnants of this in many of the social justice movements, including the climate movement. The climate movement is highly rationalistic, fighting for the most falsifiable facts against an irrational denier contingent.
That game’s a fool’s game, because rationalism is part of the problem. The limited, Cartesian worldview is why we’re in this mess in the first place. This is why you have crazy things like the World Wildlife [Fund], valuing the oceans at [$24 trillion]. It’s ridiculous on so many levels, from the fact that you’re commodifying the ocean, to the fact that you’re putting a price on it, which essentially just incentivizes the continued pillage of the ocean.
These people call themselves conservationists, but they don’t understand what they’re doing, because they’re stuck in the materialist, rationalist argument. It’s been this huge failure of imagination on the part of the left. But what it’s also done is it’s alienated the majority of people from wanting to interact.
Because these movements, how can they talk about the post-capitalist world when they don’t really have a point of view on what our spiritual lives will be like, what our community life will be like, what our relationship with nature will be like?
Then you look at the New Age movement on the other side, and there’s this huge swell of interest in Eastern practices and traditions like yoga and ayurveda and Buddhism. But as Slavoj Žižec points out, all it’s done is make them better capitalists. They can do their yoga in the morning, and then they can go do high-velocity training in the afternoon and feel slightly more flexible and balanced.
And the New Age movement—even those people who have rejected the logic of neoliberalism, who have opted out of the system, they essentially are engaging in a form of spiritual narcissism. I’m talking about the Burning Man set. They have the financial means to go to their vipassana meditations and take ten days off, and go to Esalen, and fly to Bali. They’re doing the inner work. But that inner work has not translated into the shift of material reality for the majority of humanity.
So the left suffers from a failure of imagination, and the New Age community suffers from a failure of altruism and generosity of heart, and understanding that none of us are free until all of us are free—as the old abolitionist saying goes.
“Mystical Anarchism” was an essay we wrote for Kosmos journal. It [tries] to bridge both of these understandings—to say, “Look, the mystical impulse is the same as the anarchist impulse.” And that’s an impulse about disintermediation.”No gods, no masters” is the famous tagline of the anarchists. But even mystical traditions, like Sufism and Islam, Gnosticism and Cabalistic thinking, and Zen Buddhism, and all forms of esoteric Buddhism—even the Western alchemical tradition—have been based on this gnosis, this direct relation with source, creator, with the transcendent.
That impulse is the same impulse as the anarchist impulse of “No gods, no masters.” When you start seeing the world from that perspective, you start to recognize that that impulse is necessary to bring about the coming post-capitalist age. Capitalism is a social arrangement. Debt-based currency is a social arrangement. As soon as we say we’re no longer going to pay back the debt that we owe, for example, the entire capitalist house of cards would collapse. Because there’s a 12 to 20 times leverage of every dollar. And at a certain point that leverage stops, and people say, this dollar isn’t going to translate into $20, because people aren’t going to pay the debt on it. [Then] this arrangement deconstructs.
What we’ve always been told is that we needed the sun god, or we needed the emperor, or we needed our feudal lords. And now [we’re told that] we need the capitalist one percent, or, as Paul Graham says, “Who’s going to create the jobs?” When we tap into the mystical-anarchist impulse to realize that we are our own creators, and our own sources of wealth, and the community is where these social arrangements should be created, and should be negotiated, then we don’t necessarily have to fight the system. [It’s] the old Buckminster Fuller tradition that we create a new system by contracting new social relationships and make that other destructive cannibalistic capitalist system obsolete by that very act.
So part of “Mystical Anarchism” was trying to unite leftist thought and the New Age impulse, but also to say that both mysticism and anarchism are sort of necessary preconditions, if you will, for the revolution.
The revolution doesn’t have to be a violent, historical, dialectical, traditional revolution [as] blueprinted by white academics. It can be multifaceted, and multilayered, and exist in simultaneous realities.
Protesting UN-REDD. (Image via The Rules)
Where do you feel like you’ve made the most progress?
That’s a tough question. I try not to think of progress in a linear [way]. I come from a place of quantum ethics—that all there is is entanglement. Within this entanglement, the question is: How do we behave as individuals? How do we form relationships amongst our community, and how do we contribute at a societal level to affect the rules that are governing the outcomes?
I think, from an individual level, that that work is never done. I think the spiritual is the political, and that flow keeps on going, and the more we understand about indigenous wisdom, and the original wisdom, and go to plant medicine, and work on our historical-ancestral physical healing, I think that has an impact, on the community level and on the societal level. Of course, unlike New Age thought, I don’t believe that is useful in and of itself.
At the community level, what we’ve seen is this huge shift of people that we work with who are seeing that capitalism is just a story. That debt-based currency is just a story. That hierarchy is just a story, patriarchy is just a story. That we can reconstruct and reconstitute new sets of relationships. I think that hope, at least amongst the immediate community we work with, is one of the things that I’m most proud of.
Then, at a societal level—I wouldn’t want to claim in linear, Newtonian fashion that x caused y—but I think that there’s been this major shift since we’ve been doing this work even in the discourse of inequality, that five years ago was nowhere to be seen. In the US, Occupy contributed to that, and, globally, the popular dissent that’s come from the global justice movement, and the Indignados in Spain, and Idle No More in Canada, the fare-hike protests in Rio, the anti-corruption movements in Russia and India. All of these have contributed to this growing swell that the status quo is no longer acceptable, and that the existing set of relations are rigged.
I think that understanding is probably the most exciting thing. Because until we understand that there is no point in playing the game on the terms of the power elites—once that happens, that is the precondition to all sorts of major shifts.
The Western media—obviously it’s not in their interest, given who owns them—they’re essentially perpetuators of the status quo. But what’s happening is there have been dozens of African awakenings, various African cities where there’s been popular social uprising. You’re seeing it in the US with Black Lives Matter, and you’re seeing it all across Latin America. What happens is they get billed as these one-off things: these are anti-austerity movements, and anti-rac[ism] movements. But the reality is, all oppression is connected. And the global operating system of late-stage capitalism—these are the logical outcome of that set of rules.
People are starting to understand that. All of these movements, all of these popular uprisings, all of this dissent, all of this unrest is totally connected. It’s totally connected with the fact that inequality is rising, that the police state is rising, that military spending and the war machine that is necessitated by capitalism is destroying life, that our global economy is destroying life.
From a global perspective, from a societal-shift perspective, the fact that people are connecting the dots is the most exciting thing that can possibly happen. It’s where we spend a lot of time in our work: How do we start getting these types of ideas into the mainstream?
I think what will come from that is a suite of beautiful alternatives. The fear progressive movements have always had is that they had to present the alternative with all the i’s dotted and all the t’s crossed. The reality is: no blueprint exists. There is no perfect alternative crafted by the best minds. What’s going to happen is that as this system crumbles—as it is crumbling around us, faster boom-and-bust cycles, and 2008 was the equivalent of the Berlin Wall coming down for late-stage capitalism—as that happens, these beautiful alternatives are going to spring up all around us. The faster that we realize that all of our problems, whether it’s race, whether it’s patriarchy, whether it’s climate change, are the logical outcome of the current set of rules— when that clicks, the speed at which these alternatives, the speed at which opting out of this current system is going to happen, is going to be tremendous.
That’s the thing that we’re most excited about, and the thing that we’re most proud to be contributing to.
What challenges do you face?
I think when you get to a place like where we’re getting to know, where the very edifice of the system is crumbling around us, we’re going to see elites get even more desperate, and even more psychotic. A lot of the research points to this. The fact that we have, anecdotally, the comedic modern Mussolini in Donald Trump is testament to that.
The fear that comes with disruption can also bring out a negative embodiment of the human spirit, and that risk exists. From the perspective of the elites—they’re becoming even more acquisitional, they’re dispossessing even more people.
If you look at what is happening from a global policy perspective, you’re having these massive global trade deals. Like TTP—these are unprecedented deals, these are the global versions of NAFTA, essentially, that lock us into a corporate state. They’re brazen acts, they’re acts of desperation. They’re trying to carve up the world before it collapses.
There’re record private submarine sales. These people aren’t stupid; they know what’s happening. They’re becoming increasingly more desperate, and increasingly more callus.
The UN-REDD Programme is an example of this. It’s essentially a carbon-trading scheme. It’s allowing corporations like Shell to buy up major swaths of the African continent, of Asia, of the Latin American continent. REDD-like deals will increasingly do this so they can continue to pollute, and get tax breaks in perpetuity.
These types of big, global, binding, trans-government—it doesn’t matter who’s in power, these deals are long-term structural deals—we’re just going to see more and more of this type of behavior. We’re going to see increases in CEO pay, we’re going to see an increase in private militia, we’re going to see an increase in the police acting as private body guards for the elite one-percenters, you know, assassinating poor people in the streets, as is happening in the US. We’re going to see the prison pipeline be used as a way to remove the obstacle of human beings as they would see it—so they’re going to privatize the prison complex.
Of course, the rules are created in such a way that if you’re a poor person of color, you’ll be thrown in jail. But if you’re a white banker who gets caught with cocaine, you will not be thrown in jail. These types of policies are not subtle. And they’re going to increasingly become less subtle, and more blatant, and more brazen, until we don’t accept it any more.
As Marx said, the capitalists are their own best gravediggers. So the risk is, on the side of the majority of the multitudes, it’s going to be fear and fear-based reactions. On the side of the elites, it’s going to be to pander to that fear, and to manipulate us and create these structures that carve up the world before collapse and increasingly bring on a more dystopian version of neoliberalism.
What lessons have you, personally, learned since inaugurating The Rules?
One is: Linearity does not exist. The idea of cause and effect, or how we’re forced to tell stories in the Western media or in milestone reports for philanthropists, is a cartoon version of reality. All there is is actually entanglement. And if there is only entanglement, we have to be as conscious of as many layers of that entanglement as possible.
At a very basic level, I’m always trying to think at the level of me as an individual; at the level of community; and at the level of the superstructure. That’s been a key lesson.
The second is the fact is that when we start recovering the root causes—we keep on going back, and we say, “The root causes of inequality and poverty and climate change is this brand of capitalism called neoliberalism.” Well, what’s the root of neoliberalism? The root of neoliberalism is this idea of debt-based currency, and the market determining all aspects of our life. Where does that come from? That comes from our separation from nature, when we became sedentary during the neolithic revolution and stopped trusting the earth to provide for us.
It also comes from Enlightenment rationalism, the idea that the human mind is the pinnacle of all of evolution, and that we can, using a certain type of Western axiomatic logic, understand everything. The entire world is reduced to the atom, the atom is reduced to the proton, neutron, and electron, and we’ve figured it all out. What’s interesting, when you start looking, is: the root causes are always psychological and spiritual and psychosocial. They’re not just economic—of course they’re not.
Economic problems, political problems have roots in a deep-seated humanity. In order to change the world we have to understand where that separation comes from. We also have to find that within ourselves, which is why the anarchist path is essentially the same as the mystical path, whether we want to believe that or not.
To me, that’s the second major lesson in the work. It’s related to the third, which is: There’s a one percenter in all of us.As the left, as an anarchist, as a revolutionary, as soon as we think that we are somehow holier than our “enemies,” I think what happens is we become hubristic, we become moralistic.
That is a huge blinder for the social justice movement. The benefit of seeing that there’s a one percenter in all of us is we understand the primacy of context, we know that in any context we can reproduce this behavior. All the social science points to this, that we’re highly contextual beings, whether that’s the Good Samaritan studies, or the famous Stanley Milgram experiment where people in a white lab coat tell us to shock someone to death and we will, simply because they appear as an authority figure.
When we understand the primacy of context, we can organize better. We know what kind of context to argue for, to create, to build, and we can empathize. If we don’t empathize, and understand that even the one percent are not happy under this current configuration—they’re becoming more desperate, they’re becoming more psychotic, they think that if they don’t maintain their power and privilege that the world will be a terrible place—that delusion of theirs could actually be the thing that destroys the planet. We have to find a way of understanding that, because if we don’t understand that, the very act of fighting the system could contribute to the further destruction of the system.
I have a friend, a great writer/thinker named Bayo Akomolate. He always says, “Maybe the way we’re responding to the crisis is part of the crisis.” I think that’s something we have to take seriously. And then, related to that, but sthe last thing I would say on this is, there’s a great W.H. Auden line from “Age of Anxiety,” where he says—it’s the motto of the one percent—”We would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment and let our illusions die.”
I think it’s important to understand that there’s a one percenter in all of us, to also understand our own nihilistic, self-destructive, consumptive, acquisitional habits. Because that lays at the root of our collective crisis.