Ronald Creagh interviewing John Clark
Centre Ascaso-Durruti, Montpellier, France, October 27, 2015
I’m happy to introduce John Clark, who was Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University in New Orleans and was and still is a very important andwell-known activist . . . . So, welcome John Clark, I’m very happy to listen to what you are going to tell us about Louisiana and your interpretations of a world which is, as we know, today, in a complete movement of change.
I’ll be interested also in what might happen. I might begin with a little biography, perhaps. I began working in the anarchist movement in the nineteen-sixties. For many years, I was very active in the cooperative movement, working in childcare, education, food and worker co-ops. Central to my vision of what anarchism is about is an interest in everyday life, an interest in the minute conditions of existence. “Ethos,” we might say. “How you live.” “Living your life” as someone once said.
In the 1970s I became involved in a movement called social ecology, which had a profound intellectual effect on me. I discovered dialectical philosophy and radical social ecology. Just to be very brief about the transformations, in the 1990s I spent a decade working with issues of the Papuan people [who live] on the island called New Guinea by Europeans and Papua by the indigenous people. Since then, indigenous thought and indigenous experience have been very central to my view of anarchism. I’ve also worked with Tibetans for ten years and that has had a profound influence on me also – spending time in India.
However, I would say over a period of say, fifty years, 2005 was a very decisive point in my life, because it was the year that Hurricane Katrina hit and my city was flooded. Eighty percent of the city was flooded. Fifteen hundred people died. Almost the entire population went into exile and a hundred-thousand people have never returned. So it was a great traumatic event for me, for my family, and for my own local culture, which is central to my life.
When the hurricane hit, I was in India. I was setting up a program for students in India which has been going for the last ten years. So I was outside the city. I remember thinking, as my friends and I watched the images of the destruction of our city, “Who would it be who would do what was necessary for the community at that time?” And I thought: I was active in the Green Movement. Would it be the Green movement? I knew a lot of groups like the Quakers. Would it be the Quakers? I knew it wouldn’t be the State. I knew it wouldn’t be the corporate order. I doubted if it would be the political parties, liberals, etc. But I thought that maybe some of the groups that I had worked with – the ecology movement, that sort of thing -- would come to New Orleans and be an important force in saving the city.
I was a bit skeptical about the anarchists being that force. But in fact, that’s what happened. A friend of mine named Malik Rahim, who was a former leader of the Black Panthers in the nineteen-sixties, and a long time activist in the Green movement, was the major inspiration for a group called “Common Ground.” Also, other people I knew got involved in it. Over a period of years, tens of thousands of people, mostly young people (probably thousands of young people influenced by anarchism) came to the city. And they acted with great dedication, with a certain sense of self-sacrifice, but also with a lot of joy, because they were with a lot of other people who were engaged in the same struggle.
I personally worked with a small group for the short period of time between the two hurricanes, Hurricane Katrina and HurricaneRita, that hit us. It was a small anarchist group in which we lived together and worked together twenty-four hours a day, primarily fixing food and distributing food to the people who were still in the city, but also helping people in any way they needed, cutting down trees that had fallen on their houses, giving them transportation to the hospital outside the city (since there were no hospitals in the city that were operating), or doing whatever else people needed. And we were together, based on common values of solidarity, and, basically, love for the community.
At that point, I decided that practice was the most important thing. Theory was essential, but theory without practice was empty. So, since that time, I’ve devoted more of my efforts to helping create something at the grassroots level. In fact, one of my books, The Impossible Community, which is very theoretical in part, but also very historical and practical in large part, was very much inspired by the experience ofpost-Katrina and working with small groups at the local level.
About twenty-fiveyears ago I started buying land. I originally bought thirty-two acres, which is about twelve hectares, with the idea of starting a community, starting a land trust, where people would move out to the land. And that never happened. I planted a lot of trees. I planted thirty-five hundred trees. And we have had a lot of activities on the land. And I continue to buy land, and I now have about thirty-five hectares [eighty-seven acres]. We’re beginning to create an Institute [La Terre Institute for Community and Ecology] and a few people are beginning to move out on the land. We’re doing a permaculture project. There’s a group of young people who have a collective house in one of the most devastated areas of the city and they do permaculture on the land. We’re beginning to do a solar energy project. We have celebrations such as solstices and equinoxes. We just had fifty people who camped out on the land for either a week or a weekend. We do seasonal celebrations.
Obviously, we’re very ecologically oriented. The place is called “Bayou la Terre” which is “the land” or “the Earth”, so we have a very land-oriented and Earth-oriented focus, but one of the inspirations of the work that was done after Hurricane Katrina is the idea that everything that we do has to be rooted in the community, which means our little community of people working together, and the local community, and the regional community, and ultimately, the whole Earth community. So we want to avoid creating a little isolated island of hope and freedom in the midst ofa sea of hopelessness, nihilism and oppression. In back of me there’s a poster on the wall saying “Tierra y Libertad.” And that’s about it ! [Laughs] That’s the idea! That we focus both on the land and the Earth, and on liberating human beings and the Earth at the same time, since the two are inseparable.
And of course, that’s the idea of social ecology: that systems of domination among human beings are interrelated with systems of domination over the Earth, and over the land. Where I disagree with my ex-mentor Murray Bookchin is that he always said that the domination of nature is rooted on the domination of human by human. My own view is that it’s much more dialectical than that; that there are deep roots of domination which we have to tie to every aspect of the human metabolism with the Earth, the interaction with the Earth, with plants, with animals, with human beings, so that there’s a mutual interaction, so that the ways in which we are interacting with other species, with the land, mutually determine the ways in which we act toward one another. So I think that these forms of domination emerged together, in many ways, unconsciously, as our forms of production evolved. We won’t get into that [now], it’s a bit theoretical, but I think that what we can take from that is that just as forms of domination evolved, in interaction with one another, forms of liberation have to evolve – through an interaction with human relationships, our relationship to nature, our relationship to technology and all the other parts of the total system.
These are important issues, of course, the relations of human beings with nature and between themselves, and I think that you are pointing to something which for me is relatively new, the intersection of the different forms of domination which are too often just limited to human beings and we have to go much beyong all those aspects. You have also mentioned that one of the first experiences was in Papua – and I think in former conversations we discussed about what seems to you at present very meaningful in the struggles that are occurring in the world. Can you tell us something about this?
I think that my approach has been to find inspiration in both what is very close and also what seems to be very far away. And, in fact, in the end the two are not separable, because the distant is also very close in many ways. For instance, the way I got involved in the struggle of the Papuans was through the struggles in my own city, because the corporation that has devastated West Papua, the Freeport McMoRan Corporation, had its headquarters in New Orleans. And it was attempting to throw radioactive material in the Mississippi River, low-level radioactive waste into the ecosystem of the Mississippi River, which is the source of the water supply for New Orleans. They were doing other heinous acts in New Orleans and other places. So I got involved in that struggle against the corporation.
In fact, the same ten years or so that I spent fighting for the Papuans, I was fighting against what they were doing in my own city. But when I started studying the actions of the corporation I found that even though they were very destructive in my community, which is a relatively poor community in North America, when you look at what they were doing in the global South, in the so-called Third World, it was so much more destructive. They were allies of the Suharto dictatorship, which was engaged in genocidal activities (cultural genocide, actual genocide) and they were engaged in ecocide, destruction of rivers, destruction of the landscape, etc., because of their vast mining activities. So the whole engagement arose out of moving from the local to the global, while at the same time remaining at the local level.
At that time, the Papuan people sued this large corporation. So there were two suits for $5 billion, which were in courts in New Orleans. They sued in federal and state court, for, basically, the value of the corporation. They wanted to put the corporation out of business. Of course, they lost, but over the years, tribal leaders and representatives of the Papuans came to New Orleans. So I was able to work with them directly for that reason. One of the things that came out of that was that I learned a lot about Papuan culture and history, the history of imperialism, the history of neo-imperialism, the way in which Javanese imperialism succeeded Dutch and other forms of imperialism in that region. I learned about the role of institutions such as the World Bank, such as international insuring agencies, and other elements of the global economy that are an essential part of neo-imperialism and neo-colonialism today.
I also learned about the ecological dimension of Papuan culture, that the Papuans are people who have for the last ten thousand years had a relatively benign relationship with the natural world, and have learned modes of cooperation. Even though they are well-known as a very warlike people, there has always been a high degree of solidarity and mutual aid within groups and also a capacity to live in relative balance [with] and non-domination of the natural world. So that was a very important lesson for me. Part of it is learning about the living traditions of solidarity and living traditions of, in effect, the gift economy and the commons, which we talk about as something we would like to “ recapture.” But there still are cultures in which people continue to live these traditions as part of their everyday life. So that [lesson] was extremely important to me.
I might also say that one of the most important influences in my life is spending many years as a single parent. One of my children has had serious psychological problems, addiction problems, and some physical problems. So I’ve spent many years performing the function of a single parent. And this has helped me a lot to understand the world and to understand the nature of many people’s lives. One of the central concerns that communitarian anarchists have is the domination of patriarchal values and the fact that most people do not know how to care. They’ve never been entrusted with the care of other human beings. This has traditionally been relegated to women as an inferior activity, when in fact it’s the most central activity in human life. I began to develop an interest in this when my children were very young and I worked one day a week in a cooperative day-care project. In fact, my ex-wife taught every day in one co-op and I worked one day a week in another co-op which my children were in.
So I’ve had a lot of interest in this since the early 1970s, and child care and taking care of members of the family has been very central to my life. It’s not a lesson that I have entirely chosen voluntarily, but it’s something that has been very important to me. I think that the question of care is at the center of anarchism. In fact, it’s more important in a sense than what we call “freedom.” What is freedom ? Ultimately, our conception of freedom is not the conception of freedom of the right-wing libertarians, the “free-market” people. “Freedom” [for them] means “being left alone.” “Freedom” is not being coerced. “Freedom” is not being told what to do. In a certain sense, that’s a male adolescent conception of freedom. The human conception of freedom is the freedom to develop as human beings, the freedom of all species to develop as life forms, the freedom of the Earth itself to develop and unfold according to its potentialities.
So freedom and care are inseparable. We don’t think of the anarchist movement as a group of people out in the streets with signs saying : “Care!” “We are for care!” “More care!” “Give us care!” “We want to give care !” Many people would think this would be stupid. You know, it’s not militant enough, or something like that. But, in effect, it’s the most radical claim, because one thing that capitalism cannot do, and the state cannot do, is to give human beings, and other beings, the kind of care that they need. As a result, we live in an era of nihilism. The most fundamental values of human beings, that is, to value our own kind, [and] to value other beings, has been lost and other kinds of value (exchange value, even use value) have replaced the value of things in themselves and the care for things in themselves. This is a critique even of the Marxist idea [that] is often, “We have to replace exchange value with use value.” In a certain sense, we need a critique of civilization itself, which has said that using things is our relationship to things. We have to go beyond use.
What do you mean ?
To use is to see a thing as an instrument. To use is to see a human being as an instrument. One of the most insidious aspects of late capitalism is that we collect experiences as a kind of accumulation. So we see our relationship to other human beings (even if we don’t necessarily value just having a certain amount of money in the bank like in early capitalism) people look at their own experience as a kind of accumulation, accumulation of status, accumulation of prestige, accumulation of hipness, accumulation of coolness. It’s a kind of accumulation in which we’re still using the other being. This is so central to our psychology. This is the whole psychology of civilisation. So we have to be very careful that we don’t fall into another transformation of, we might say, the ontology of things as things to be used.
Okay. And how would you see the world today, do you see any movements, which seem to you very significant, that can give us lessons on how we should proceed to change ?
A very good question. In other words, why don’t I really answer your [earlier] question? [Laughs] I started with Papua, but the rest of it is important. I think we have to look everywhere in the world that we can, to find inspiration. I find some inspiration in European societies, in North America, but I find much more inspiration in the rest of the world. I find a lot of inspiration in the Zapatistas, in Chiapas.
Well, first, they have liberated municipalities, which I think is very important: that the community itself be reorganized according to a different vision of reality, a different vision of human life, and that each community has a school in which all kinds of activities take place. So there’s a center of the community in which people focus on development of the human being. I would like to see, for instance, if there’s an anarchist movement (in New Orleans, for instance, there are hundreds of anarchists who identify [as such], maybe more than that), I wish that we had many schools in neighborhoods, where neighborhoods would be transforming themselves.
Another part of the Zapatista movement that I think is really important is that there’s a lot of poetry involved. There is myth, in fact. If you read the documents of the Zapatistas [you find that] they create stories which give people a new vision of who they are, or not necessarily a new vision, but [which] bring out a certainaspect of the vision they have, of who they are, where they come from, what the world is about, what life is about. So the sort of poetic, mythic, narrative dimension of a movement, I think, is very important. It’s very much related to the possibility of hope. You know, tying together our history, our present activity, and our hope for the future.
I’m very much inspired by Rojava and Kobane in Syria, and as everybody who’s interested knows, some of the practice in Rojava has been inspired by Bookchin’s idea of libertarian municipalism. I’ve been very critical of using libertarian municipalism as a political program, in making municipal assemblies the priviledged form of social organization, but I agree absolutely that it’s a central part of social reorganization. I think that the liberated municipality and municipal assembly have to be part of an entire cultural and social transformation. For instance, in Rojava this is part of it: there are schools set up to trainpeople, to educate people, for a new society. And also, one of the amazing things about Rojava is that patriarchy has been confronted directly, much more than it was when I knew social ecology through Bookchin’s version. A lot of people are inspired by the role of women in the militias and also in the community in general. So I think it’s a great advance, a great inspiration.
I’ve also been inspired very much by traditions in India. Maybe I should mention just one more [example]. The Gandhian Movement is very important to me. Westerners know a little bit about the “Gandhian Movement,” which is actually not called “the Gandhian Movement.” It’s not named after one person. It’s called “Sarvodaya,” and means “the welfare of all.” It was called a “movement for the common good,” basically. And it was an all-encompassing vision of the transformation of society in which there would be a village assembly, a village council in every village of India. Land would be owned collectively. There would be cooperative production. There would be a so-called “Shanti Sena,” a Peace Army, people would be trained to mediate disputes so that non-coercive alternatives would be created, alternatives to the state. There would be a vast corps of Sarvodaya workers, who would be trained to work in each village. And, perhaps most important, there was the institution of the ashram, which most people think of as a religious community, but in the Gandhian sense meant a kind of ecovillage that would be established in every village in India, so that those who have been socialized into the movement would begin to practice a new way of life at the center of the village or the town or the neighborhood, so that people could learn about what it means in practice and could copy it, and the movement would proliferate in a kind of organic way. And this is very inspiring to me.
In fact, it is the Sarvodaya Movement that inspired a movement by the same name in Sri Lanka [Sarvodaya Shramadana] which has had five million people active in it. It has been a major force in the peace movement in a very war-torn society, has created most of the pre-schools in the country, and has done innumerable water projects and road-building projects in villages that had a need for these kinds of projects. I take inspiration from all of these kinds of movements. The Sarvodaya Movement in Sri Lanka was started by one teacher and five of his students fifty years ago, and has grown to a movement that has incorporated five million people over the years. I’m also inspired by the self-management movement, Mondragon in Spain particularly, which has created the largest worker cooperative, as many people know, with almost a hundred-thousand workers in a federation of co-ops. And that was started by one person, a Basque priest with five young people also, who started a training organization for work in co-ops. The thing that inspires me is that in both cases it was about six people who started movements that have become significant on the global level, and have also been very transformative in the local area, in one case, in Sri Lanka, in the other case in the Basque country in Spain. So these are some of the inspirations of my own view of what community means and social transformation means.
Thank you. I’d like to ask a last question and we have perhaps a small minute for it. What do you think about immigration today which is a big issue in Europe Why is there such an immigration in your opinion and what are your suggestions, if you have any?
The first thing I think of in relation to migration is that my daughter-in-law migrated from El Salvador to New Orleans and when she first tried to do it she ended up in prison and she had to return to El Salvador and come back. She ultimately marriedmy son but she still had to go back to El Salvador again, and he had to go and visit her for months before she could come to New Orleans. And I have a grandchild who’s from El Salvador and I have two grandchildren who are half Salvadoran, so it’s a very personal question to me. Thirty percent of the people from El Salvador are in the United States. One-third of the country is in the United States now. And the reason why they are in the United States rather than El Salvador, is because the United States government and military supported a brutal dictatorship and death squads that killed innumerable people, and devastated the economy. And, of course, even going back beyond that, the reason why that existed is because a few landowners were able to take over all the land in the country and create a vast number of poor people, and social conflicts emerged in which dictatorship and repression were the obvious response on the part of the powerful.
To understand migration, you have to understand the reason why there is migration. After the country was devastated by war and death squads, a large percentage of young people ended up in Southern California (also from Honduras, a large percentage of young people were in Southern California) who were very poor, displaced, got involved in gangs, brought gang activity back to Central America. Now, Central America has some of the highest murder rates in the world (I think Honduras has the highest), and there are gangs with as many as twenty thousand members. So these are highly disrupted societies in which unemployment is extremely high, so that there are refugees from this disruption and ultimately, this injustice, and they need to find jobs. So many of them come to North America. I talked about North America. We could talk about the Near East. We could talk about other areas. Central American migration is closest to me.
There’s a great irony. I mean there’s a political lesson that’s related to this, which is [about] global trade policy. So capitalism promotes “free trade.” But what does “free trade” mean? “Free trade” means that commodities have the right to cross borders without restriction, but human beings and their labor do not have the right to cross borders without restriction. Ifcapitalists really believed in “free trade,” they would allow all migration, which, of course, they don’t. It’s complex, because some of the capitalists would like to have a cheap labor supply, which they can exploit, while other capitalists would like to keep out labor. Nationalist capitalists want to defend the national economy in certain ways. So it’s a complex issue.
To conclude, what do you think of the situation in France ? What suggestions would you make to French anarchists today ?
[Laughs] Well, I have spent a whole week here, recently! My suggestion to French anarchists is to immerse themselves in their own community, their own community as it really is. Who do they live with? Who lives a block away? Who lives in the next street? What’s going on in the neighborhood ? I find that the more immersed you become in the local, the more you can deal with the global problems. So what are the relationships between, say, North African migrants or Sub-Saharan African migrants and anarchists in Montpellier? How many anarchist groups are there among Sub-Saharan Africans or North Africans? Have the movements communicated anything? Of course, this is the problem also. There’s no way of “taking the truth” to someone, because the person already has a truth. So there have to be modes of communication in which people share their truths with one another and find out what they can learn from others. The real question is, “What do the anarchists have to offer in Montpellier?” What do they have to offer?