A Look at Nothing: the politics of possession

As anarchists, we all hate capitalism and we all want to do away with traditional property relations. We all want to change in some pretty fundamental ways how we relate with†the material world and among one another. I figured that it would probably help to make some clear distinctions between the different alternatives to traditional property relations that are out there. If we want to live and experience a way of living and organizing that is very radically different, I think that being quite clear, articulate and up-front about what exactly we would like to see can go a long way. So, here are some of the different alternatives that I see out there that we could explore. This is not a definitive exposition, just an initial volley to get us started in explicitly thinking about how we would like to relate outside of traditional property relations. All of these are not only approaches that society can use after a massive anti-capitalist revolution, they are also practices that we can to some extent apply to our own lives right now.

Gift Economy – This is the notion that when the need arises, people will spontaneously contribute “gifts” towards the end of getting something accomplished (acquiring sustenance, giving one’s labor, paying rent, etc.). Behind this concept is still an entrenched and unexamined notion of property. Logically speaking, in order to give a gift one needs to own something to give first. Gift economy then boils down to a different more informal form of charity work and humanitarian aid to others. It is the unconditioned transferring of ownership of something over to another person.

Sharing – Sharing is basically on one’s own initiative expanding the sphere of those who access and use a certain resource without expecting any compensation in return. For example, if you owned and were eating a sandwich, a hungry person with no food came along, and you let them eat the sandwich along with you, then that would be an example of sharing. It is expanding the field of use, but not the field of control, within a relationship of ownership.

Collective Ownership – This is the concept that a certain group of people has equal or cumulative ultimate say over how certain resources are used. It is shared control, but not necessarily shared access. It is a concept of property where certain people have ultimate say over it together.

Partnership – This is a concept of both shared control and shared use taking place within a context of property relations. In the business world this takes place in the form of “business partners”, in romantic relations the term “partner” usually connotes such a relation taking place in regards to material objects, and the less-than-revolutionary nature of most of the talk about the “partnership paradigm”(by authors like Raine Eisler, Daniel Quinn, Marshall Rosenberg, etc.) seems to hold such a notion as well, that is, still maintaining property relations but in this new form.

Stealing – This is a transferring over of ownership of something against the will of one of those involved. The concept of property relations is maintained, it is just that this is an instance of disruption of the code of conduct surrounding how property relations are to take place in a civil and respectful manner.

Natural Giving – This concept/phrase is one that I first came across in the work of Marshall Rosenberg, the originator of Nonviolent Communication. The concept is that when people have all their fundamental†needs met, they engage in “natural giving”, that is, joyfully contributing towards the well-being of others without keeping tallies or expecting anything in return. The theory goes that this is the natural state of people, and that through the rise of Domination systems and life-alienating thought processes humanity became educated out of engaging in this way of acting.

In many ways ”natural giving” dove-tails with the famous anarchist theorist Peter Kropotkin’s notion of Mutual Aid, that is, humanity being programmed in it’s very intrinsic nature to naturally help one another out and support each other in order to continue to get people’s needs met and survive as a species. Natural giving is a needs-based form of compassionate action that does not necessarily have to exist within a paradigm of “ownership”.

Non-Possession – More than anything, this is a personal attitude and approach to life that an individual can take towards the world. This concept dove-tails with the Buddhist concept of “non-attachment” in that one is not attached to considering other objects, or people, “theirs”.

Likewise, this concept also crosses over with polyamory as well, seeing “possession” and “possessiveness” as essentially being the same fundamental experience and internal process.

Thirdly, I see this view as also having ties with what the author Frederick Mann calls EF-Prime. EF-Prime is an approach/belief that we distract ourselves from factual reality with different stories of authority, conformity and obedience to collective abstractions – that essentially what we call the “government” is in actuality a mass psychosis that millions of people are experiencing together, and playing off each other with, all at once. Non-possession does not recognize any invisible lines or chains between people and objects or other people – each is taken in, appreciated and respected in it’s full uniqueness and individuality while not being statically tied to anything else.

I personally hold the most affinity with this last concept, what I call “Non-possession”. I see this as being the approach that is the most deeply, genuinely and fully liberatory and authentic. I also see it as in many ways opening the door for an anarchic spiritual journey as well, if one were inclined to take such paths.

I see the concepts of “natural giving” and “mutual aid” as being approaches that could potentially be seamlessly integrated with that of “non-possession”. “Non-possession” could be seen as one’s internal, personal approach to life whereas the other two are what happens in interpersonal relations.

All the other alternatives to traditional property relations, to me, just do not have the kind of expansive freedom, choice, flexibility, and variety of possibilities that I see the natural giving and non-possession approaches as offering. All the other forms I see as either as being dependant upon the happenstance “generosity” of others, is chained into the obligation of asking for permission before-hand, or is based on a profound alienation between people. With both natural giving and non-possession, one in some sense “has to” understand one another in a profound way simply in order to live. When the illusions come off, what it really means to “live” becomes very clear.

Tearing Down the Walls Between Us

building understanding through communication

One of the greatest ironies out there is that while anarchists claim to value cooperation, mutual aid, sharing, individual responsibility and respecting autonomy, all too often one finds incredible in-fighting, contention, controversy, ideological sectarianism, splits, name-calling, poor group dynamics, denial of responsibility and distrust within the anarchist scene. Anarchists claim to want a sweeping global social revolution based in local grass-roots organizing, yet it is well-known that anarchism as a coherent body of thought largely stays within a narrow sub-culture of activists, theorists and punks. I believe that there is a way out of these problems, and I believe that Compassionate Communication (also known as “Nonviolent Communication,” or “NVC” for short, I use all three terms interchangeably) can serve a vital role in us getting out of this mess. NVC is not a new way of policing how we speak, nor does it require two or more people practicing it in order for it to work. I’ve seen people use NVC to help themselves get really honest and vulnerable with other people, to help facilitate great compassion, caring and understanding among people, and I would really like to see anarchists and anti-authoritarians engage in this way of relating as well.

Compassionate Communication can be explained as series of tools, understandings and a framework that helps us focus our attention on whatever is really important and fundamental to others or ourselves in a given moment. One of the things that initially drew me to NVC was the many obvious similarities between it and anarchism. For example, NVC literature and materials repeatedly speak of eliminating relationships of domination, hierarchy and power over people. NVC emphasizes the importance of autonomy, cooperation, individual responsibility and interdependence, and many NVC proponents express a desire for a global social change to where a critical mass of people are living their lives based on voluntary cooperation, mutual aid, real democracy, and respecting one another’s autonomy.

NVC also appealed to me because I saw the cross-overs between it and my appreciation of the writings of the 19th century anarchist philosopher Max Stirner, what with NVC’s exhortations to not act out of guilt, shame, fear, duty or obligation but because you clearly see how it can meet your own needs or because you see how you can enjoy contributing to the well-being of others. While cross-overs with anarchism initially piqued my interest I soon discovered that there is a lot more to NVC as well.

I see NVC in many ways picking up where anarchism leaves off. I see anarchism as providing a broad social framework, envisioning a world without capitalism, patriarchy, the State or other forms of hierarchy and domination while also providing a coherent set of positive principles through which to live and organize by. I see NVC, in turn, as both providing a useful guide in how to apply anarchist principles to our lives and organizing as well as how to reach out to and genuinely connect with other people who are not anarchists or radicals. This can help us to both live our values, as well as to grow and spread our movement to social revolutionary proportions.

NVC itself can be described in two ways, the NVC model and the NVC consciousness. The NVC model is but a mere guide, a useful framework, that will hopefully aid in one achieving the NVC consciousness. The NVC model is broken down into four parts: observations, feelings, needs and requests.

Observations are clear, factual things that we experience in some way. It could be something that we see, hear, touch, etc., or it could even be a specific thought or memory that goes through your head. NVC makes sure to not mix observation with any form of evaluation, judgment, or interpretation. It seeks to keep the observation as pure and factual as possible. The observation is just something that happened, not what we or others think about something that happened.

Feelings are a clear physical or emotional thing that one experiences. NVC makes sure to not mix feelings with evaluation or judgment and only keep it in the realm of what one is directly experiencing. For example, some feelings would be “excited”, “overwhelmed”, “confident”, or “irritated” as opposed to “cheated”, “patronized”, “unwanted” or “ridiculed” which are feelings mixed with evaluations or judgments.

Needs are the fundamental motivating reasons for why we do the things that we do. Needs are universal, everyone has the same fundamental needs, and they exist independently of a certain person doing a certain thing. Needs are not just physical, psychological, or social. What NVC considers to be needs are things that are needed for a human being to have a really meaningful, enjoyable and fulfilling life, as opposed to just physically surviving. NVC makes a clear distinction between needs and strategies to meet needs. For example, “money” and “status” are considered to be just strategies to meet needs, whereas food, safety, autonomy, and appreciation are considered to be fundamental needs. Needs being met or not met are the cause of ones feelings, whereas the observation that one experiences is the stimulus for the feelings.

Requests are clear and doable things that we can ask to meet our needs. Requests are distinctly different from demands, things that one is asked to do and will be punished for if one does not carry them out. NVC strives to have people ask requests and carry them out not out of a hope for a reward, nor out of fear of punishment. NVC hopes to have people fulfill the requests of others purely out of a desire to contribute to the well-being of others or one’s self.

So, to put these steps into the NVC model with the intention of expressing one’s own state of being, one would say something like: “When I see you get high” I feel “conflicted” because I am needing “to stay away from drugs right now”, would you be willing to “refrain from using in front of me?” Likewise, if one is to use the NVC model to guess at what someone else might be experiencing, one would say something like: “When you see your house mates argue” do you feel “upset” because you are needing “to feel safe”, and would you like me to “talk to them for you or schedule a house meeting where we can talk about this?”

A lot of people see the NVC model as being the entirety of NVC, and as a result come to a conclusion that NVC is just some kind of stilted formula for how to speak with people. It is for this reason why I consider it to be very important to be mindful of the NVC consciousness, which is the end goal that the NVC model is supposed to aid in one achieving.

The NVC consciousness is a certain mindset, a certain way that one views and approaches both one’s self and others. This includes staying aware of the four components of the NVC model in one’s dealings with others and with the thought processes that pass through ones own mind as well. However, unlike the NVC model, the consciousness of NVC is by no means sequential or formulaic, it is an awareness, a focus that one keeps in mind. The NVC consciousness also keeps in mind other things as well, like that one is not the “cause” of another persons emotions – peoples needs are the cause, that people are responsible for their own actions and choices that they make, that it makes more sense to connect with the needs behind what people do rather than punishing or rewarding them, that we are all human beings rather than labels, roles or enemy images, that in the long run it meets our needs in a more authentic and sustainable way to find solutions that meet the needs of all involved rather than just meeting our needs at the expense of others.

Miki Kashtan, coordinator of the NVC Social Change Project, elaborates on this last point: “When we use force, blame and self-righteousness instead
, even if we manage to create the outcome we want in the short run, we distance ourselves from those whose actions we want to change. Success in the short run does not lead to the transformation we so wish for, neither in ourselves nor in those we are trying to change. Sooner or later, those with more power will prevail, and we are left bitter and defeated. This cycle is a major cause of ’burn-out’ among activists.”

This brings me back to the application of NVC to anarchism and activism. I see a lot of in-fighting, controversies, splits, and general contention within the anarchist/activist scene, and I think that a lot of this stems from how we view and relate to one another and ourselves. For example, when we call people “selfish”, “reactionary”, “authoritarian”, “sexist”, “lazy”, “close-minded”, or “bourgeois”, we are not referring to a clear observation that we are reacting to, nor are we referring to what we are personally feeling, needing or what actions we would like to see. Labels such as these serve to project enemy images on those we are referring to, it is the automatic drawing up of “sides” with the implication being that the side that is labeled such is the “bad” side that deserves to be punished somehow.

I would like to see instead of this, an empathic interplay. When someone says or does something that you are triggered by, first you can check in with yourself, see what you are reacting to, see what you are feeling and needing, and what specific action you would like to see the other person do. Then you can express this to the other person, and if they respond by saying something that triggers you, you can repeat this process with this new stimulus. Another option is to empathize with the other person who is doing something that you do not enjoy. What is this other person feeling and what are their underlying needs behind what they are doing? You can guess at this and ask the other person for clarification on whether this is true. This can in turn be another kind of dialogue that you can have to help resolve this situation.

I tend to find it the most useful to engage in a mix of these two processes, both checking in with myself to see what is going on within myself as well as empathizing with the other person to try to discover what is going on within them and why they are doing what they are doing. It does not help to jump into a situation with an immediate goal in mind that one wants to see come about, I find it far more useful to make sure that a clear mutual understanding is established. Only once I am certain that we are all very much aware of which feelings and needs are active for everyone involved do I go about a process of creatively strategizing to find ways to meet the needs of all those involved.

NVC has great potential to be used in community outreach and organizing. Often, anarchists and radical activists exist in a very unique and marginal sub-culture, which makes it hard for us to truly understand those we regard as “mainstream” or “non-political”. NVC can be used to help us dissect what exactly is going on with those whom we do not understand, with those that we are alienated from for various cultural reasons. “Mainstream” and “non-political” people all have feelings and needs as well, and it is through the use of NVC that we can bridge the gaps between us and help us bring about clear mutual understanding while simultaneously allowing them to understand us.

When I first started seriously looking into Compassionate Communication, it took me a while to really get it and apply it to myself. For me, it was just such a different paradigm than what I was used to. I was used to labeling, judging and evaluating myself and other people. I was very stuck in my own head, part of which was because of the anarchist arguing culture that I came from. Soon I started understanding it more and more, until one night I had an epiphany that a lot of the conflicts, problems and unhappiness within the anarchist scene that I had experienced, I had actively contributed to myself. I realized that failed projects and friendships in my life could have developed differently if I knew and practiced NVC back then.

NVC has helped me connect with my own humanity and the humanity of those around me. I was able to stop viewing other anarchists as “reactionary”, “authoritarian”, “incompetent” or any other negating label, and instead was able to see them as actual human beings, striving to meet various needs of theirs in the best way they know how. The same goes for apolitical people. I stopped seeing them as “clueless”, “consumerist” and “short-sighted” and was able to see them as the fragile, scared and fallible human beings that they are, trying to get by in this world. Sure, all too often I lose the NVC consciousness and go off on labeling and judging myself or others, but at least now I know that a deeper understanding and way of authentically relating to other people without domination and hierarchy is indeed possible right now.

I would like to invite you to learn more about Nonviolent Communication. I suggest that you check out these books/pamphlets:

“Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life” by Marshall Rosenberg, a pretty thorough introduction to NVC.

“Don’t Be Nice, Be Real” by Kelly Bryson, an introduction to NVC with some broader social analysis thrown in as well.

“The Heart of Social Change” by Marshall Rosenberg, a pamphlet on applying NVC to social change activism.

“Punished By Rewards” by Alfie Kohn, an explanation how motivation and systems based on rewards and punishment does not help us in the long run.

Or you can check out these NVC web-sites:



www.baynvc.org for NVC events that take place in the Bay Area.

I would also like to invite you to join me and NVC trainer, Miki Kashtan, for a free introduction to NVC at the Long Haul infoshop Sunday March 7th, 7-9PM.

Youth Liberation

You can tell a great deal about a society if you look at how they treat their children and their elderly. In our society both children and the elderly are often disconnected from other age groups and forced into institutional settings; schools for children and nursing homes for the elderly. Children are brainwashed into the system and the elderly are forgotten and faded out once their ability to produce and spend capital wanes.

It is because of this that I believe in radical youth liberation. Some people have a hard time fully understanding this. “How does ageism compare to the brutalities of imperialism/capitalism/the state?” they ask me. “Ageism”, the mere prejudice and discrimination of people based on their age, may not be as big a problem as capitalism/the state, I agree. To look at youth liberation in terms of just “ageism” is to miss the point. “Gerontocracy”, or, the ongoing and systemic domination of kids* by those older than them is my focus.

One important thing to always keep in mind is that kids are human beings, just like the rest of us. People do not suddenly become human when they turn a certain age – they are born that way. With this being the case, kids have the inherent human ability to learn, grow, develop and direct their own lives as they see fit, just like anybody else. Kids do not understand everything, kids make mistakes, and kids need help and support but all of this can be said of every human being.

The often unspoken notion that adults are omniscient, infallible and not dependent upon the help and support of others while kids are very much the opposite is a distortion of reality necessary to construct the social hierarchy of adults over kids. This all becomes very apparent if one reflects on how a proposition to systematically dominate people who are physically ill, injured, ignorant, ill informed, or intoxicated (all of which are also temporary conditions) would be universally laughed at and dismissed.

With this being the case, let’s call it like it is – kids are slaves in this society. Kids cannot freely disassociate without fear of their parents or the state somehow hunting them down and dragging them back. Kids are forced to go to concentration camps (we call them “schools”). Kids cannot deny or receive medical care at their own will – an adult has to decide for them. Kids do not have ultimate say over their own time, bodies, activities, behaviors and choices – some parental or other adult figure has to determine it for them. This is slavery, pure, systemic, out-right slavery. It is slavery based upon the widespread use of violence, the threat of violence, and by emotional manipulation, intimidation and brainwashing.

The spirits of kids are continually beaten down by authority, particularly adult authority, in order to crush their wills, to break them of their individuality, spontaneity, creativity, curiosity and comfort with their own autonomy. Kids are constantly faced with various kinds of parental authorities, school authorities, state institutions, and a mass culture all intended to mold them, to get them to jump on command, take orders, and do what they’re told.

As I see it, the domination of kids is not just a horror because of the sheer lack of autonomy, respect and dignity that all these unique young human beings experience, it is also an integral part of the greater social system of domination, control and alienation – civilization itself. The domination of kids breaks the wills of people and inserts authoritarian programming so that they can later reproduce institutions such as the state, capitalism and gerontocracy when they get older themselves.

The domination of kids contains within it the very same fundamental dynamics of authority and control that as anarchists, we should actively be opposing. The very act of being subservient, the very act of compliance and submission, the very act of rule and bossing are all at play within the dichotomy of “parental authority figure” and “child”, and it is because of this that we need to decisively condemn and attack this horrendous relationship in favor of relations based upon mutual respect, autonomy and free association.

Striving for the liberation of kids is not just some single-issue cause, it is not some guilt-ridden “identity politics” thing, and it is not some radical past time totally disconnected from the greater struggle against the System. The domination of kids is a form of real-life slavery that goes on all around us, it acts to reinforce and reproduce the state, capitalism and other institutions of control, and it contains within it the same fundamental relations of authority and domination that are entirely antagonistic with anarchy and true liberation. If we are serious about bringing down this disgusting global system of control and hierarchy then we need to attack it wherever it manifests itself – and this includes within our own relationships, lives, behaviors and mentalities as well as the more traditionally “political” arenas.

Youth liberation is not a new idea, a lot of people have written about it and articulated it in different ways. There are already a number of people out there practicing, or at least trying to practice, autonomy respecting ways of relating with kids. Something new that I would like to see is a consistent, coherent and passionate defense of kids by the anarchist community. Every person goes through being a kid and that’s usually the first time the spirit is broken by authority. With this being the case, it only makes sense for anarchists to have youth liberation fully integrated with the rest of the anarchist perspective. Gerontocracy needs to be right up there with capitalism, the state, patriarchy, and white supremacy as institutions of social control that, as anarchists, we aim to destroy.

* I use the word “kids” in this article because “young people” can mean people over the age of 18, a group of people which do experience prejudice and discrimination but does not have to deal with the out-right slavery that those under 18 face. I do not use “children”, because I see that word as being an equivalent to the N-word in this context. “Childish”, “child-like”, etc. usually have very negative or derogatory connotations. “Kids”, however, usually refers to those under 18 and has positive connotations; hence, I use that word here.

Anti-Militarist Anarchy

War is a fight for domination. One state is trying to violently seize power and control over another.

Backing up the military apparatus necessary to carry this out is the intense alienation between people. People need to see one another as just roles, labels, “enemies”, and interchangeable cogs in massive institutional machines, in other words, complete dehumanization. This alienation is reinforced by capitalist consumer culture and authority itself, both of which need to dehumanize people in order to function.

Alienation also leads to us not being able to help one another out, support one another, or accomplish great new things together. Alienation leads us to think that it is not possible for us to work together to meet ALL of our needs.

Dehumanization makes it possible to kill, maim and torture fellow human beings. One does not concern one’s self with the destruction of mere foreign objects.

Authority makes it possible to deny the inherent self-directing and self-realizing nature of human beings. Authority is the delegation of all self-responsibility. “I was just following orders”, “I’m just doing my job” and “I had to do it” are the true rallying cries for authority.

The State is the organized institutional apparatus that makes it possible to commit the genocide that we call “war” and to put people in the soul-killing cages that we call “prisons” and “jails”, all the while denying our own complicity and responsibility in making it happen.

And war, war is the culmination of all of this. War is the final herd-mentality push that keeps the industrial factories running and that keeps the violent gangs of thugs that we call “the police” from being overwhelmed by the passions of everyday people. War is what keeps up the mass violence, death, carnage and destruction needed to crush our hopes for a world and life of voluntary cooperation, harmonious mutual aid, and creative beauty.

As anarchists, we understand this; we respect our inherent human dignity; we respect our vast potential and possibility for joyous living; we respect that freely helping one another out is our most natural and healthy state of affairs as human beings.

With this being the case, we recognize that our resistance must be complete and total. We recognize that not only must war and militarism be opposed, but the State and capitalism must be opposed as well. We recognize that not only must nationalism and jingoism be opposed, but all authority and domination must be opposed as well.

This is not just radical fanaticism and utopian dreaming, this is an understanding of what it means to be human. Our resistance is not just dreaming of overcoming the impossible, it is a reaffirmation of our own inherent power as individuals and the unstoppable force of mutual aid and cooperation.

There is a war going on, but Iraq is just one battlefield of it. This is indeed a fight of life and death proportions, but the “life” that I am talking about entails the fullest sense of the term. The kind of life that I am talking about can only thrive in TOTAL ANARCHY!!

“Every second that I spend working is a denial of the kind of life I really want to live.” – from “Temp Slave”