Monthly Archives: May 2012

Prison is a place where people struggle a lot with issues around purpose, death, life, loss, and spirituality. Though I consider myself an atheist, it is more a title of mourning than celebration, more a loss than a liberation. I know this isn’t something a “good” atheist is supposed to say, but to be honest, I’m a terrible atheist. I’m fine with that.

“I was lying in my cell tonight wondering what passion, love, laughter, etc. are and why we ave evolved these characteristics. I think they are ways for self-conscious creatures to cope with such a heavy burden. Anything that had to struggle with self-realization but couldn’t laugh or cry or love or be moved by beauty would off itself. It would just be too empty and pointless without these things. I think spirituality is the same thing. It is a way for us to cope with mortality, not by removing altogether the fear of death, but by creating a framework for life that makes death bearable, acceptable.

Faith is about life, not death.”

Prison is a pla…

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Prisoner’s Vanguard

This was a piece I wrote inside with an eye towards using it to actively organize inside prison:

    With almost 2.5 million people incarcerated within the U.S., the crime epidemic is both shocking and undeniable. The Land of the Free has more of its citizens locked up per capita than any other Western nation, and perhaps even the world. The consequences – social, political, and economic – are far reaching.
    But why such an explosive boom in incarceration rates? Could it be because there is a sudden, inexplicable rise in “bad” people? Or could there be a logical, materialistic way of looking at it that can help expand our understanding of not just this increase in criminality but also shed some light on the way our whole society functions?
    To begin, it is important to understand the role of prisons in societies generally. Are they simply to keep the bad people away from the good? Well, maybe partially. After all, murder, rape,  and assault have pretty much always been illegal, right? But haven’t prisons also been used against people that, looking back now, had no business being incarcerated? Think of the heretics of the Spanish Inquisition or Soviet or Chinese dissidents. Surely we wouldn’t consider these people in the same thread as murderers, right? So what is it that murder and dissent, even non-violent dissent, have in common?
    Well, imagine any society that had people running around murdering and raping with no recourse to control that small segment of the population. People couldn’t go out for fear of attack, social trust would disintegrate, and the society would be completely destabilized.
    So now if we think of a repressive theocracy having heretics running all over questioning the power of God or the Pope, then we can start to see a common characteristic. The same is true with a one-party dictatorship. It simply must control dissent or it will become destabilized. Prisons exist to provide stability to the respective system in which they serve.
    If this is true, then the U.S. must have a huge destabilizing force working within it. What is it? Let’s look at the make-up of the prison population and try to find out.
    U.S. prisons are full of all kinds of people committing all kinds of crimes. There are, of course, violent criminals: murderers, rapists, and the like. These are “classic” criminals and, as we went over previously, would be tremendously destabilizing if not controlled. Now, whether prison or mental health would be the best ways of “controlling” these elements is a different, although very important, debate, but goes beyond the scope of this essay. The fact is, it has to be controlled one way or the other and prisons serve that job today.
    Our prisons also contain perpetrators of white collar crime: securities fraud, Ponzi schemes, and embezzlement. Even though we live in a capitalist system and many of these criminals are from the capitalist class, the rules that keep capitalism flowing can’t be broken. This would also destabilize our social system.
    But the great bulk of our prisons are filled with neither “purely” violent nor white collar criminals. Our prisons are primarily filled with drug-related and immigration-related criminals and the extreme majority of these are poor and working class people. Here we begin to hit at the heart of the matter. In a capitalist system, where the poor and working class are the most potentially destabilizing force through their own self-organization, prisons serve as a mechanism to control society by controlling the poor.
    Also, by looking at prison statistics, we can see that the working class isn’t one big blob that’s the same all the way through. It is divided. It is divided in many ways, but one of the deepest and most prominent, as well as being one of the most vital to understanding our situation, is race. This is reflected by the wildly lopsided incarceration of Black and Brown people in the United State. Though each group makes up a minority of the U.S. civilian population, both groups overwhelmingly fill out our prison ranks. This can only be explained two ways: either both Black and Brown people are genetically predisposed to commit crime or the institutions in our society are built around racism.
    Even though scientific, genetically-based racism has been thoroughly debunked by the 21st century, let’s quickly go over where science now stands on the issue. The fact is, genetic studies of humans have shown that there isn’t nearly enough genetic diversity to properly divide humans in to neat little racial groups and what diversity that does exist is spread broadly, not categorically. This means genetically and scientifically, no one can point to a specific genetic point and say, “This is where ‘Black’ begins and here is where it ends. Here is where ‘White’ begins and here is where it ends.” We just aren’t designed like that.
    What we call “races” are more accurately defined as “clinal variations.” Instead of sharp, defined categories, humans function on a gradient, like grayscale on a computer. Clinal variations are just characteristic changes in the same basic human model. Race is a social and historical creation, not a genetic one. All racial divisions are created by social forces and must be learned. They are not inherent to the human condition.
    This means the shocking difference in incarceration rates can only be explained by understanding our social institutions. We mentioned earlier that we live in a capitalist society and it is divided into the capitalist class – also known as the business class – and the working class. The whole history of our social institutions is the history of the struggle between these two classes, and between the divisions that exist within these classes, like race or gender. The business class is always trying to keep the working class under control, often through those racial or gender divisions, so they will always have workers to build roads, work in cubicles, wait tables, or raise the next generation of workers. This is how the capitalist class makes its profits and maintains itself from generation to generation.
    The working class is always trying to find ways out of this relationship. Slaves revolted, workers formed unions, students rebelled, and people of color marched, sat in, and took up arms. Sometimes the working class even formed its own organizations and parties that had total revolution of the system as their goal. But so far, the capitalist class has unfortunately found a way to hold them in it.
    Often, the way capitalists accomplish this is by using those divisions in the working class to work out a deal with part of it and brutally repressing the rest of it. A recent example of this, and one very relevant to understanding our prison system today, was the struggle for Black Liberation in the ’60s and ’70s.
    Before the Civil Rights struggle, Blacks were specifically and systematically oppressed by the law. This didn’t just hurt Black people, but also working class White and Brown people too. This is because the capitalist class used – and continues to use – racial alliances to create vertical alliances between the capitalist class and part of the working class. This gives one section, almost always the White section, a few more privileges than the rest of the class that isn’t White, but then prevents the working class from creating the important anti-racist alliances that strengthen the working class struggle to break out of capitalism.
    The Black community fought hard and bitter battles to end this legal oppression. The capitalist class, recognizing the powder keg on which it was sitting, ended the legal oppression but couldn’t end the over all social conditions that continued to cause the Black community to rebel. The creation of advanced technology in factories created higher unemployment rates overall, which more harshly affected the Black community. This is because the business class must provide Whites with the privilege of getting hired first and fired last in order to maintain the uneasy class alliance.
    Black people began to move towards a class conscious understanding of the racial situation in the United States. They build revolutionary organizations that were breaking the racial alliances between the classes and creating anti-racist working class alliances. By far the most popular example of this was the Black Panther Party. Strength to break out of the system was building rapidly.
    Since the capitalists couldn’t provide jobs that didn’t exist, it ahd to find a way to replace the wage in working class Black communities to break their rebellion. It also needed a way to destroy alliances and control Black people. Thus the War on Drugs and our modern prison system was born.
    Started officially under Nixon in the ’70s, it was dramatically escalated throughout the ’80s under the Reagan administration. Drugs served as the perfect solution to the business class’s problem Poor Black people stopped struggling for access to well-paying jobs the system couldn’t provide when their communities were flooded with highly destructive and addictive, but extremely lucrative, drugs. This broke the alliances that had developed within these communities and they collapsed into chaos and violence.
    Further, by harshly criminalizing these dangerous and destructive drugs, the potentially destabilizing force – the rebellious Black community specifically and the entire working class generally – could be more easily and dramatically controlled.
    The White working class, with its class allies in the Black community broken, couldn’t escape the attack the capitalist class turned on them. Throughout the ’90s, trade agreements around the world led to a further contraction in available work as even more high-paying manufacturing jobs were shipped out of the country, where labor is much cheaper. Meth began working its way into the White community in the same way crack destroyed the Black community, with the same highly criminalizing effects. Brutal violence and criminality began to take over poor White communities.
    With the flood of new cases in the legal system, a strategy to cope with them had to be devised. Sentences were dramatically ramped up to put pressure on defendants to sign plea deals and avoid trials. High mandatory minimums were assigned to drug crimes that are the hardest to beat, namely conspiracy. The “substantial assistance” statute, or 5k.1 in the Federal system, was made the only way to get below the harsh mandatory minimums, often 10 years for first time felons. This highly incentivized incriminating testimony, even false or embellished testimony, which only deepened the fractured relationships within the working class communities.
    By understanding prisons and the Drug War from an historical class perspective, we can understand not only why the system functions the way it does, but also some things we can do to fight against our current crisis. It’s important to understand that inmates need an organization to be strong. Many smart and capable people turn away from positive revolutionary struggle to negative, self-destructive activity like drug dealing or gang violence because they don’t feel they can do anything alone. And it’s true. Alone we are weak, but by organizing ourselves we can become strong.
    This is the purpose of Prisoner’s Vanguard: to help people turn away from self-destructive activity to positive revolutionary activity. Prisoner’s Vanguard wants to break the racial alliances that keep our captors strong and us locked in fruitless battles. It aims to build strong, positive class alliances within the U.S. prison system. Prisoner’s Vanguard wants to give prisoners the opportunity to gain knowledge and perspective that helps them struggle and fight against the conditions that keep them locked inside and struggling outside. Prisoner’s Vanguard aims to build revolutionaries that will transform the system that builds the prisons that destroy our communities, our families, and our lives. Nothing short of this will do.

Untitled

i dream of bright blue skies like bright blue eyes,
dabbed with weightless cottonpuff sketchpads for the imagination,
of rolling green mattresses that make you
itch all over when you lie on them just so you know
they weren’t made for you.
it’s important to know none of it
was made for you

or cosmic dreams of
black construction paper flecked with countless glittering points,
shimmering blue and white and red so faintly
that you probably aren’t seeing them properly.
but if you stare deeply into the blackness,

through it,
all the way to the end of it,
don’t worry because
as that overwhelming sense of smallness washes over you,
insignificance envelopes you in its inescapable embrace.

let your breath escape
with a heaviness that
carries the weight of your burdens
because if you don’t matter,
none of it matters,
everything will be okay.
no matter what.

those dreams bear the fruit of Christmas-morning happiness.
dreams of undulating light gently lapping at wet toes,
held in earnest conversation with the wind in the trees.
it’s very good conversation because the wind never shouts.
it just murmurs its points quietly and moves on.

soon enough, dawn-crack morning light
will burn up these gossamer dreams.
i’ll be able to wake up to her bright blue eyes,
the bright blue skies, and philosophizing trees,
with these flat grey walls
fading away instead.

The Rupture of Value and the Crisis of Housing

This is a writing I found that had no title and only one out of eight pages. What I found though seems really interesting in light of the current development and the fact that I wrote this in ’09 at the latest. I was reading a lot of Cleaver and old Negri (Marx beyond Marx) at the time. I really wish I could find the rest of it:

    Within housing, we see the dialectical relationship between exchange and use value not as static unity but as dynamic struggle, class struggle. This dynamic struggle must be contained by capital through force, the State. During times of “stability,” capital’s command contains working class struggle over affordable housing through State planning – social spending – and to a lesser degree the police. However, when capitalism’s inherent crisis deepens to catastrophe, planning breaks down and violence becomes the primary means of control. In our current situation, the foreclosure rate is too high and grew too rapidly for the State to respond. The Obama administration is struggling to get a handle on the situation so planning can replace the police eviction.
    This rupture contains revolutionary possibilities because it is the explosion of the relationship between values and thus classes. A concerted effort of foreclosure resistance through popular civil disobedience seizes on the moment’s revolutionary potential by directly breaking capital’s forced domination of exchange value. It deconstructs capital’s economy and opens space for immediate economic reconstitution.
    These two parts of our overall strategy, deconstruction of capital’s economy and destabilizing capital’s political regime, bring forth the underlying logic within the working class of separation from capital. The logic of the working class is not to perfect or rationalize work, the imposed work of capital, but to abolish it. The goal of workers is to cease to be workers altogether. Only by abolishing work and with it capital can productive activity become redefined and reorganized under the principles of free association and democractic planning.

Introduction to The Dialectical Method

Introduction

The word dialectic is closely related to the word dialogue. If you can imagine an argument or debate, then you can basically understand dialectics. To begin any argument, there must be a disagreement between two parties. In dialectics, this disagreement is called a “contradiction.” Contradictions are central to the dialectical method. In the same way a dialog is the method of understanding disagreements, dialectics is the method of understanding contradictions.
Just as a disagreement has two distinct sides, each contradiction has two sides as well. The primary, or positive, side of a contradiction is called the “thesis.” The thesis is the main idea or status quo. It contains within itself the inherent contradiction or contradictions which give rise to the second side of the process, the “antithesis.” As the name implies, the antithesis is the exact opposite of the thesis. Just like any argument, even the best argument, every thesis contains flaws and contradiction which are manifested in the antithesis.
But like any good dialog, there is a dynamic tension and force between these two sides. They are not static. So also like a dialog, the purpose of the dialectical method isn’t to remain frozen between two points, but to reach new conclusions. This new conclusion is called the “synthesis.”
The synthesis is like the agreement reached at the end of the argument. It takes the positive aspects of the thesis and resolves the contradictions of the antithesis, creating something better, higher, and more accurate. However, even this new conclusion will contain contradictions because nothing stands still. Thus, the synthesis becomes the new thesis and the whole process starts again. Now we can ultimately see that dialectics is the process of growth and development.

Dialectics is made up of three laws:

Law 1: The Law of Unity of Opposites
Law 2: The Law of Quantitative and Qualitative
Law 3: The Law of the Negation of the Negation

The Law of Unity of Opposites

This first law asserts that in any contradiction, the two sides are both the exact opposite of each other, as well as mutually dependent upon each other for existence. There can be no up without down. Good is meaningless except in relation to bad.
In our society, you can see this unified opposition in many different ways. One of the most common and fundamental can be seen in the relationship between business owners, or capitalists, and their employees, or workers. The interests of the capitalist is to work their employees the hardest and longest they can while paying them the least amount possible because this increases their profits. The interest interests of the worker are the exact opposite; to work as lightly and as little for the highest wages possible. Their interests are exactly opposite.
Yet in capitalism, capitalists need workers to do the work in their businesses and workers need capitalists to provide jobs. The survival of each is dependent on the other. Therefore, they are unified.
Another example can be found in the current economic crisis. Throughout the ’90s, there was a global economic boom that created billions and billions of dollars in more wealth, increasing what This American Life called the “Big Pool of Money.”
But there was a problem, a contradiction. The owners of all this newly created wealth needed somewhere to invest it, because A) they can’t put billions of dollars under their mattresses and B) they wanted to invest it so they could get a return on it.
The problem was, though, pretty much all the available investments had been taken. There was simply too much money and not enough investment opportunities.
So now we can see the opposites of too much and not enough and we can also see that each side of that is meaningless without the other. You can’t have too much unless you also have not enough. You can’t have too much hunger unless you have not enough food. You can’t have too much clothing unless you have not enough closet space. Now we can, in a real world example, the Law of Unity of Opposites.

The Law of Quantitative and Qualitative

The second law of dialectics is that of the relationship between quantitative change and qualitative transformation. While these two words may sound cumbersome, they are really quite straight forward. Quantitative means the quantity of a thing, such as how much, how many, or to what degree. Qualitative means the quality or nature of a thing.
As an example, imagine liquid water. If you heat it up, this is a quantitative change because it is just a change in the temperature. The quality of water remains liquid, at least to a point. Eventually though, the quantitative energy can’t be contained and there is a rapid jump in the nature of the water. It begins to boil and transform into a gas. This is a qualitative transformation. Quantitative changes are slow and build energy. Qualitative transformations are rapid and release that built up energy.
This law can also be demonstrated in the current financial crisis. The creation of more and more wealth was quantitative. Nothing fundamental changed nor was anything particularly new created. This went on, building energy as more and more wealth was created with fewer and fewer places to put it. Suddenly, there was a qualitative transformation: the creation of mortgaged-backed securities.
These new securities were created for the express purpose of finding new places to begin investing all that newly created wealth. Previously, mortgages were too big of a hassle for large investment banks to deal with. They were left mainly to smaller commercial and community banks.
The drying up of investment opportunities put tremendous pressure on the investment banks to create some type of solution. They found it by devising a way to buy up individual mortgages from the smaller banks and package them into securities. These securities were then sold as major investments with highly profitable returns. The problem had been solved with this qualitative transformation and energy was released as profits soared.
This is the law of quantitative change and qualitative transformation.

The Law of the Negation of the Negation

The third and final law of dialectics is the negation of the negation. This law in instrumental in understand dialectics as a process of development.
As stated earlier, the resolution of the contradiction between the thesis and the antithesis is called the synthesis. This synthesis, however, also contains inherent contradiction. Thus the synthesis becomes the thesis, which creates a new antithesis based on the new contradiction, which is resolved with a new synthesis. This is the negation of the negation. The synthesis is the negation of the first contradiction, which is then negated by the synthesis of the next contradiction.
The process is a cycle but it never arrives back at the point it began. It’s like a spiral with each resolution higher than the last. This is what makes dialectics developmental.
Imagine the seed of a plant. You plant it and it grows. When it is mature, it creates more seeds and then dies. This is the negation. The plant doesn’t just create one seed to replace the original though.. It creates many more seeds. So we see the original grows to become greater than itself. These many new seeds grow and create new plants, which negates the negation. These new plants create more seeds and process is repeated, creating more and more plants. It is a process of cyclical development.
This final law can be applied to the economic crisis as well. We already saw that mortgage-backed securities were the synthesis to the contradiction between too much wealth and not enough investments. But these new securities contained contradictions as well. To create them, there had to be enough individual mortgages to package up.
This wasn’t a problem at first and all the mortgages packaged up were the type backed by good credit. and responsible lending. These securities were so popular and profitable that banks began lending more mortgages in order to create more securities, creating a quantitative change in the number of mortgages and securities.
When the good mortgages had all been lent out, banks began issuing riskier and riskier ones. Before too long, you didn’t even need a job to get a mortgage. This wasn’t a problem as long as housing prices kept rising.
But we already know that nothing stands still and everything contains inherent contradictions. The problems started when houses kept being built but all the mortgages had been lent out and people began defaulting on bad mortgages. The contradiction became obvious that there were too many houses and not enough people to buy them.
Suddenly, housing prices plummeted. Banks began writing off billions in losses. Evictions ran at record numbers. The Dow dropped like a rock, erasing the record profits of the last decade in a matter of weeks. The Federal government, in concert with other governments around the world, had to intervene in their economies in ways never before seen. A qualitative transformation of the global financial system had begun. The negation was being negated.

Conclusion

Taken together, these three laws make up the basic method of the dialectical process. By understanding them, the dialectical analysis can be used like a tool in a tool box. Like any tool, it can’t be used for every problem, but if used properly then it can be key to understanding the interconnectedness and development of our social world. It is not mystical and cannot allow a person to see into the future. It is simply a logical process that allows a person to untangle the threads of the past and make the best decision in the present to move into the future.

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