Get to Know a Steward: James Anderson

j_andersonFor the ninth installment in our Get to Know a Steward series, the GAU Communications Committee asked our very own James Anderson, Steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts, as well as Co-chair of the GAU Legislative & Political Action Committee, several questions about his life, growing up in Illinois, love of journalism and Amy Goodman, Noam Chomsky and rumors about James’ intentions to run for GAU Vice President of Communications when elections roll around.

GAU Communications Committee: Where are you originally from, and what brought you to SIU?

James Anderson: I’m originally from Greenville, Ill., which is about 45 miles east of St. Louis. I came to Carbondale from Springfield, Ill., after getting a master’s in communication at the University of Illinois Springfield. (I received a bachelor’s from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.) I came to SIU to get a doctorate in mass communication and media arts and to get teaching/research experience as a Graduate Assistant.

GAU: Talk more about growing up in Illinois. Who were the major influences on you during your early years?

Anderson: I spent most of my formative years growing up in a small rural town. It was somewhat cloistered, but not in the privileged way associated with certain suburban areas in the Chicagoland area, or like the affluent parts of some urban areas after gentrification. Greenville is in many ways a rural working class town. It also has pockets of affluence, partly attributable to the small Christian college in the town. And it has some abject poverty – some rural precariat.

My mother taught eighth grade literature at the junior high school in Hillsboro, Ill., which is about 20 miles from Greenville. She helped foster in me at a young age an appreciation for pedagogy, love of learning and passion for reading. Although not radical by any stretch, she was also a member of the teacher’s union when she taught. Ma encouraged me to be active as well, and gave me the necessary freedom when I was a lad to try some things that in retrospect might have been a little life threatening – like back-flipping off the roof of our shed onto a trampoline.

My grandmother, an extremely well-read woman who will turn 83 in mid-May, was another major influence. Along with loans, a University dining services job, a little aid and assistance from mom and dad, she helped me pay for college when I was an undergrad.

My sister and I also watched a lot of television growing up. For example, “The Simpsons” first premiered when I was about 5 years old, and I grew up with the show. So I’m sure the sarcastic repartee of Bart Simpson was a major influence.

Similarly, I read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and George Orwell’s “1984” in junior high around the time I started listening to the music of Rage Against The Machine, Public Enemy and other groups with similar outlooks to those two, which radicalized me in different ways.

GAU: You’re pursuing a doctoral degree in journalism. Can you help us understand, why such a poor life choice? Haven’t you heard journalism is dying? Kidding! But really, why?

Anderson: I’m actually getting a PhD in Mass Communication and Media Arts, which is broader. But point taken.

Let me provide some more background on my intellectual work in order to explain the way journalism and media function in contemporary society.

For my master’s thesis, I used the “propaganda model” (PM) outlined by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in their book, “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media,” which suggests institutional filters (e.g. concentrated ownership, reliance on advertising revenue) help ensure mainstream media coverage remains within narrow ideological parameters reflecting elite consensus. So debate can rage and divergent views can be reported, but through omissions and framing, the coverage that would challenge hegemonic assumptions (e.g., critiques of capitalism, reporting on US war crimes, double standards in foreign policy) get filtered out or marginalized. Insofar as mass media remains a capitalist institution – and as a result major media conform to the postulates of the PM, which is not difficult to demonstrate – then robust journalism, in the main, is a near impossibility. As media ownership consolidation continues apace, and the Internet is making the old advertising model insufficiently profitable for many media organizations, journalism takes an even heavier hit. With new Federal Communications Commission rules that militate against a free and open Internet by privileging agglomerated private power that stands to benefit by being allowed to pay more for faster content delivery, communications systems suffer and journalism is indirectly, adversely affected.

Even so, there are at present burgeoning alternative media projects that challenge conventional journalistic norms and push beyond capitalist institutional constraints in exciting ways. Amy Goodman, my always and forever unrequited love, hosts Democracy Now, an independent grassroots global news hour, covering significant stories corporate media ignores while also often offering a level of context and analysis necessary for understanding.

I periodically cover social movements, protests and heterodox challenges to dominant ways of doing for Truthout, an independent media outlet providing in-depth investigative reporting and critical analyses. Truthout is one of several sites breathing life back into, stimulating and transforming journalism today. ZNet, Counterpunch, Toward Freedom, Truthdig, Inter Press Service, the Independent Media Center network and The Intercept – a new media venture started by Jeremy Scahill, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras – are just a handful of others trying to do that as well.

GAU: How and when did you get involved in GAU?  Why are you passionate about union work? Why are you on fire for economic justice?

I met with Jim Podesva, former GAU president, as soon as I started my first semester at SIU back in 2010. Unions have traditionally been what economist John Kenneth Gailbraith called a “countervailing power” – a potent force protecting working people from the ravages of a system predicated on private control of productive property, exploitative expropriation of surplus value and ceaseless accumulation of capital at the expense of democratic self-management and life, generally.

Whether the university is value-generating in the capitalistic sense is up for debate. (David Harvie – not to be confused with geographer David Harvey, who teaches Marx’s “Capital” and offers free video lectures from the course online – has an interesting journal article, “Value production and struggle in the classroom: Teachers within, against and beyond capital,” arguing that labor at university is in fact value-producing.)

But the university is indubitably a site for struggle and contemporary contestation of injustice. Academia is rife with hierarchy, which I consider a violent (or oppressive) form of power relations. That hierarchy is institutionalized. The violence is exacerbated by the business model approach to education and the authoritarian structure that entails. It’s also reflected in part by egregious administrative pay – our incoming president is poised to make $430,000 when he starts in July – co-existing alongside near poverty level wages for grad assistants who pay about two months of their salaries back to the university in fees each year. It’s also apparent in the coercive work relations that exist between graduate students who work under professors who, despite pretenses of radical democratic ethos, too often contribute to the super-exploitation of GAs so as to reduce workloads for themselves. Without neglecting the increase in precarious academic jobs writ large, many professors are still in a position of privilege. It’s unjust that they should be able to make 10 times as much as those working underneath them make – if not a lot more – and still shift the burden of work onto grads, as surely happens more often than we like to admit. The positions of power some professors are in all too often – but expectedly – engenders apathy, indifference or complicity in the violence done to GAs.

Even as adjunct positions replace tenure-track jobs and GAs increasingly provide cheap labor allowing the university to eliminate tenured professor spots, the cowardice and complacency of some professors in positions of privilege impinges upon graduate student struggles for fairness.

The student-worker union at the University of California, UAW local 2865, went on a two-day, system-wide strike in early April because of ongoing intimidation from the university and the administration’s refusal to negotiate certain work conditions. Malcolm Harris wrote an opinion piece for Al Jazeera America assailing the attitudes “of faculty members who are too cowardly to stand in solidarity with the people who make their work possible.” As Harris explained, famed critic of neoliberalism, Wendy Brown, ironically sent an email critiquing students for inveighing against a 32 percent fee increase. “Such people clearly have nothing to teach about labor struggle; they have more in common with the right-wing cartoon of ‘radical’ professors who preach Marx during the day and return to their houses in the Berkeley Hills at night to sip merlot and complain about their gardeners,” Harris wrote with hilarious veracity apropos the irony.

I reported on the strike for Truthout. Covering the story, I got the sense that disgust with factions of the faculty at UC has been pervasive. Sadly, I have seen similar disconnects between those of us struggling to survive in the neoliberal university and the sensibilities of professors. Cowardice and callous indifference are traits among certain sections of the professorial class not limited to California. I have no respect for professors in California, Illinois or anywhere else that support, if only tacitly, covert privatization (in the form of tuition hikes for undergrads and fee increases for all students), privation of graduate students and undue stress on grad student workers through excessive workloads, which always comes on top of tough coursework, making it that much harder to hang in there. By virtue of their positions, many professors have a kind of agency, which could be used as part of a praxis oriented around socioeconomic justice. Some exercise their agency in that way, but not enough.

Part of that has to do with the stratified institutional structure within which they are ensconced.  Those institutional roles characteristic of the administration and some professors reinforce relations of “power-over,” which I also consider a kind of structural violence. More broadly, I’d argue structural violence is a necessary part of the capitalist world economy. But it’s not a necessary feature of human organization.

With the advent of neoliberalism, a public pedagogy promoting an ethic of market worship in conjunction with a political project for concentration of political and economic power wrapped in ideological rhetoric of equality and freedom, unions have been under systematic attack. The idea that working people should have a say in the work that they do simply cannot be tolerated. Democracy, which to me means a process whereby people have a say in the decisions being made in proportion to the degree to which they are affected by those decisions, just cannot be allowed in the economic sphere.

But in addition to being the driving force behind basic aspects of economic justice like the 8-hour work day, weekends, adequate remuneration, employment grievance procedures, etc., unions have historically also played an underappreciated role in democratizing workplaces and society. There’s a whole radical history of unionism that needs recuperating.

For instance, the Knights of Labor recognized back in the 1880s that the working class would suffer if divided, so the integrated union included both black and white members in projects to promote worker and farm co-operatives for a 10 year period, as Jessica Gordon Nembhard documented. In her new book, “Collective Courage: A History of African-American Economic Thought and Practice,” Nembhard describes how organized labor complimented the highly efficient forms of mutual aid found throughout black communities throughout history. Likewise, in Spain throughout the 1930s, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (National Confederation of Labor; CNT), an anarcho-syndicalist union, augmented a libertarian collectivism ethos and helped create a short-lived comunismo libertario society for several months at the onset of the Spanish Civil War. The CNT catalyzed decentralized, direct democratic collectivized ownership of farm land and cooperatively self-managed workplaces, even abolishing money in some areas, until the revolution was crushed by the combined forces of Francisco Franco’s fascist army, the Moscow-controlled Spanish Communist party, foreign capitalist “democracy” and the war effort.

More recently, the United Steelworkers have connected struggles across time and space, and are working with the Mondragón Corporation, a half-century old worker-owned enterprise located in the Basque region of Spain, to create a string of unionized worker co-operatives throughout the US. And after two occupations led by a union, UE Local 1110, at the Republic Windows & Doors factory, the first of which took place back in 2008 in Chicago, the workers bought the factory collectively. Kari Lydersen, a Chicago-based journalist, covered the story extensively as it evolved, and later published “Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What It Says About the Economic Crisis,” a book that developed from her reporting on the occupation and take-over. The place is known now as New Era Windows, and it’s worker-owned and democratically controlled.

Historic and contemporaneous examples alike illustrate potential for revolutionizing existing-institutions in emancipatory ways through unionization and collective action that can take us beyond oppressive mainstays of the capitalist mode of production. Richard Wolff, professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, advances this sort of “social movement for a new economy,” termed “democracy at work,” which articulates one vision for deepening economic democracy. Wolff advocates for worker self-directed enterprises (workplace arrangements wherein those who produce a surplus democratically decide how it is distributed).

Capitalism – and education that reproduces it – is incompatible with economic justice, so these are the sorts of developments and ideas everyone concerned with economic justice should think through. The role of union activism in such a movement is still very much open.

It’s worth pointing out too that worker co-operatives at this stage are still producing for a market, and market systems have serious in-built problems that do violence to humans. To be sure, economic democracy at the enterprise level ameliorates some of the alienation associated with selling labor power and producing goods for their exchange value – and it helps militate against the super-exploitation that gets normalized by commodity fetishism. But, when worker co-operatives face market competition it can result in a kind of collectivized self-exploitation. Market-based exchange also generates externalities. That is, actors in an exchange take into account the cost and benefits to themselves pertaining to the transaction, but not necessarily the effects on others. So, due to a profit squeeze, corporations might disregard externalities like severe environmental degradation that stem from production, consumption or allocation of the commodities exchanged.

There are ways to mitigate effects of externalities in a primarily market-based economy. Gar Alperovitz, author of “America Beyond Capitalism,” and proponent of a “Pluralist Commonwealth,” model, discusses how to democratize wealth and ownership through networked worker co-ops buoyed by the purchasing power of anchor institutions, like universities. A report from the Democracy Collaborative, “Raising Student Voices,” shows ways in which students can mobilize to democratize the university and the economy based on community-oriented procurement.

Anchor institutions, like universities, cannot just pick up and offshore production, leaving a de-industrialized wasteland as evidence of growing global labor arbitrage. With the network co-op and anchor institution structure characteristic of Alperovitz’s model, those most affected by the decisions often have some say, albeit an institutionalized one, in making them. The networked relationship strengthens the democratic thrust of worker-ownership, potentially limits externalities and protects against precarious labor.

Another germane model is Michael Albert’s “Participatory Economics,” an envisaged system of participatory planning with worker and consumer councils (instead of markets) and balanced job complexes to eliminate the hierarchical structures of both capitalist and state socialist economies characterized by the presence of a “coordinator class” – including doctors, lawyers and some college professors – who monopolize the creative and empowering work. Parecon seeks to address coordinatorism while also removing mechanisms, like markets, which trample upon the very values and conditions of solidarity many of us would like to promote.

Perhaps some important work could be done extending the general critique of the coordinator class, along with the broader vision for a properly participatory society not extricated from our fundamental social relations, and relating it to education.

And rather than just promoting a predetermined blueprint for posterity, it’s imperative to recognize cracks in the edifice of domination as well – the micro-political ways in which people refuse oppressive conditions of coerced abstract labor, and the evidence of desire for greater self-determination regarding the fundaments of our social reproduction.

Those cracks and straight-up collective resistance – like the two-day UAW local 2865 student-worker strike at the University of California in early April – should both be recognized as singularities in a shared struggle for economic justice.

Theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, argue in “Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire,” that the older form of trade unionism “is no longer sufficient,” and must be transformed so as to go beyond traditional industrial divisions. Drawing on the work of Kim Moody, they suggest a new mode of “social-movement unionism,” merging unions with powerful social movements as part of an initiative “to create labor organizations that can represent the entire network of singularities that collaboratively produce social wealth.” Examples include, the “piqueteros,” movement of unemployed workers in Argentina, which Marina Sitrin discussed in “Everyday Revolutions,” in relation to the emergence of horizontalidad after the economic crisis hit the country hard in 2001. Sitrin, another unrequited love and intellectual crush of mine, recently wrote “They Can’t Represent Us!” with Dario Azzellini. The book reflects a lot of the work Sitrin and Azzellini have done documenting burgeoning direct democratic organizational forms corresponding with the tendency and movement of significant portions of society toward rejection of liberal capitalist democracy and disavowal of the associated, demobilizing hegemony of representative democracy. As Sitrin explained in a talk she gave with Azzellini at Central European University on March 26, unions usually are not the driving force behind this recuperation of agency through collective self-organization in assemblies and participatory forums from Greece, to Spain, to Occupy in the US. But, she noted, there are exceptions.  And perhaps we should be creating more spaces of exception — and “moments of excess,” of over-flowing, ec-static processes of projecting beyond what is —  to challenge the dominant mode of doing things while also doing what we can to eliminate exploitation and to take care of each other without appeals to concentrated power.

“In any case,” Hardt and Negri averred in their co-authored book, “a union worthy of the name today—and worthy of the legacy of labor struggles—must be the organized expression of the multitude, capable of engaging the entire global realm of social labor.”

In my view, the movement must be explicitly pedagogical, and unions within the educational sphere will play an important role. Activists in the Chicago Teachers Union just recently helped create the Network for Social Justice Unionism. Michelle Gunderson, a CTU member involved in the new NSJU project, said in an interview that a more militant unionism extending to the social and political realm, has piqued interest of “many higher education unions,” who have championed these aims because “when you start wanting democracy for yourself, and when you actually experience it, you want it for your students as well.”

And as Cornel West told GAUnited backstage after his April 17 lecture in Shryock, the university is “absolutely” still a site for contestation, transformation and unionization.

At SIU, that contestation can take the form of fighting for a fair wage for GAs and some agreement ensuring we don’t pay an inordinate amount of our salary back in fees just to work at the university. We need some agreement ensuring quality control, so GAs cannot simply be told to “work quicker,” or “grade faster,” so that the university can suck up more surplus value from our ever-exploited biopolitical labor – that is, our labor involving all facets of human life, the whole terrain of our species-being and affective, creative capacities.

Long-term, I’d like to see unionization lead to thorough democratization of the university; I’d like us to create conditions for a student-teacher-researcher-worker run place of de-commodified learning and cooperative creating/producing. This should absolutely also mean our union embraces a social movement orientation. This means recognizing the struggle of everyone fighting against injustice and for democratic control as part of our own struggle.

This entails, in my view, GAU solidarity with assemblies against debt on campus, the first of which took place April 10 outside the Student Center. That’s why as co-chair of the Legislative and Political Action Committee I pushed for GAU to support it. If we truly want a formative democratic culture on campus, replete with healthy dissent and direct democratic organizing outside our own institutional contexts – the kind of culture conducive to continual conscientization – then we should absolutely be supportive of assemblies and marches against the insidious social relation of debt and the system that supports it.

GAU: You are the main contributor to the GAU Advocate.  Can you talk about your vision for the Advocate? What role do you see it playing in the mission and work of GAU?

Anderson: The Advocate, our union e-newsletter delivered to GAs via email once per month, functions as a form of public pedagogy. We feature lists of upcoming events, union-related news stories, articles on union activists, analytic pieces and commentaries on both campus-specific struggles and broader socioeconomic justice issues. My hope is that the contextualization and incisive writing supports conscientização (critical consciousness raising) among members. Contributions are always welcome from GAs or other interested persons, so it would be great if that public pedagogy became more dialogue-oriented.

I’d also love the public pedagogy to pervade the cultural realm. One prominent historical example would be the myriad radical weeklies in Spain during the anarcho-syndicalist revolution, like Solidarida Obrera, Solidaridad Proletaria, Unión Obrera, Sindicalismo and Revista Blanca. Those publications featured everything from scathing critiques of concentrated power, to recipes for vegetarian cooking, to information on treatment for sexually-transmitted diseases.

Of course, the CNT actualized a rich public pedagogy beyond the pages of rebellious publications. The union supported literacy and education, and organized day-long excursions where people would hike, read and debate politics all day.

These lessons are not lost on us. GAU organized a hike over spring break that was well-received. The communications work with The Advocate should be part of a larger praxis-oriented approach.

GAU: Give us the skinny on your doctoral research. Do you have the capacity for brevity?

Anderson: The working title for my dissertation is “Cracking the World System,” and I intend to do a genealogical problematization of critical junctures in modern world-system history to pose as problems – and open question-concepts about the contingencies and conditions of possibility for – the public pedagogies of social movements (and media) in a time of world system structural crisis.

GAU: I’m interested in how history informs your vision for the future. Who are your intellectual heroes? Who is doing contemporary work that you’d like to emulate?  What’s so great about Amy Goodman and Noam Chomsky?

Anderson: Goodman is both my unrequited love and intellectual hero. From covering US-backed genocide in East Timor, to interviewing hip-hop artist Immortal Technique at Zuccotti Park before the eviction of the Occupy Wall Street encampment, she gives voice to the stories silenced by corporate media. And I love her.

I mentioned Chomsky’s critique of the mass media before, which is still relevant. And in addition to his unapologetic critiques of US foreign policy, for which he is perhaps best well known, his articulation of the left anarchist tradition is also one of his major contributions, in my view. His conceptions regarding the anarchism-derived Libertarian Socialism are still worth referring to.

Anarchism has been long debauched in mainstream culture, probably because of the tradition’s historic challenges to concentrated power. As Chomsky explains, the main thrust of left anarchism has long been identification of structures of hierarchy, domination, oppression and control, deciding democratically then if they are at all legitimate, and if not, proceeding to disassemble them and create something different from below.

Drawing on some of his linguistic work and thoughts on human nature – discussed in part in his 1971 debate with Michel Foucault – Chomsky conceives anarchism and its expression in anarcho-syndicalism and similar praxis as thought and action for human freedom. This is freedom not as “an abstract philosophical concept, but the vital concrete possibility for every human being to bring to full development all the powers, capacities, and talents with which nature has endowed him, and turn them to social account,” as anarcho-syndicalist historian Rudolf Rocker wrote and Chomsky quoted in the introduction he wrote to “Anarchism: From Theory to Practice,” a book by French anarchist thinker Daniel Guérin.

Chomsky gave a talk not long ago “On Anarchism,” in which he suggested both anarchism and the labor movement might be reinvigorated together. I happen to agree and hope he is right.

As far as how history informs my visions for the future, I’ve explained that in sufficient detail I suppose. With regards to other intellectual influences, I’d point to philosopher Paulo Freire, whose conceptions of critical, problem-posing pedagogy still resonate with me and countless others interested in education for social transformation.

The late Andre Gunder Frank – uncompromising contrarian, economist, historian, dependency theorist, world system analyst and social movement scholar – continues to inspire with the legacy he left behind.

John Holloway, Marxian poet and theorist of changing the world without taking power, writes in such a humanistic way and with an affective potency that moves me. His recuperation of negative dialectics for going against and beyond capital without recourse to the oppressive state is an approach I am keen on.

Holloway, who teaches at the Autonomous University of Puebla in Mexico, draws inspiration from the Zapatistas. Similarly, the poetry and prose of the Zapatista’s Subcomandante Marcos fuses incisive critical insight with expression of dignified resistance. Marcos also brought back romance! We all could use a little more romance in our lives. I know I could.

An Eros of the political is desperately needed. Following Marcos and others, I’d like to contribute to and cultivate that without sacrificing intellectuality or dumbing down theory.

GAU: What the hell are prefigurative politics and why should anyone give a shit? Why is public pedagogy an important tool to fight dogmatism and unreflective ideology, power politics and unfettered capitalism?

Anderson: Wini Breines popularized the term “prefigurative politics” in her book, “Community and Organization in the New Left, 1962-1968,” referring to it as the attempt “to create and sustain within the live practice of the movement, relationships and political forms that ‘prefigured’ and embodied the desired society.” Although the idea antedated the New Left and has been synonymous with many currents of anarchist praxis, social movements in the 1960s who practiced participatory democracy within their organizations really advanced that effort of trying “to embody personal and anti-hierarchical values in politics,” as Breines wrote, expressing “the desire to create a sense of wholeness and communication in social relations,” through “non-capitalist and communitarian institutions that embodied such relationships, for example counter-institutions” – and anti-institutional relations as well, I’d add.

Prefigurative politics were a big part of the Global Justice Movement, or alter-globalization movement, around the turn of the millennium. Occupy Wall Street embodied a form of prefigurative politics with the consensus-based decision-making practices used in the General Assemblies – a mode of direct democracy. Echoing elements of Breines’ explanation, David Graeber, a self-identifying anarchist who helped organize OWS at its inception, wrote in “The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement,” that prefigurative politics puts into being “the idea that the organizational form that an activist group takes should embody the kind of society we wish to create.”

This is not altogether different from the call of the Industrial Workers of the World, an international revolutionary industrial union organization, which used to advocate forming the structure of a new society in the shell of the old.

Importantly, trying to prefigure a more just society has the potential to transform people and our relations to one another in the present. Those prefigurative practices create cracks in the predominant hierarchical and exploitative structures – cracks from which another world might emerge. The relational transformation brought on by prefigurative political action is inseparable from the revolution. If we wish to revitalize unionism, prefigurative politics should become a central aspect of our movement.

A public pedagogy that recognizes the educative (often hegemonic) functions of institutions and entreats critical reflection regarding those functions can be a powerful force for democratization. People’s power-to that gets institutionalized in frequently oppressive ways can be re-appropriated as part of a pedagogical project for prefiguring truly democratic, affective relations on a broader scale.

GAU: To what do you attribute the recent and dramatic increase in GAU’s membership over the past year?

Anderson: Some of it surely has to do with our fledgling social movement unionism, as well as our critical public pedagogy – from our work on The Advocate to organizing of social events and support for other activist projects – involving an approach to learning not content with existing social relations.

GAU: Rumors are afoot that you might run for Vice President of Communications for GAU next year. Any truth to that?

Anderson: There are still many things up in the air. Kevin Taylor, who currently holds that office, is also running again, and he’s done a phenomenal job in the position thus far.

 

 

 

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