Interview of Dr. Chris Hables Gray by Hank Pellissier
Should California, Scotland, Catalonia, Hawaii, Kurdistan and other regions secede for independence? Should today’s 193 nations divide into 1,600?
“Yes (sort of),” says Chris Hables Gray, a “pragmatic anarchist feminist revolutionary” who works as a lecturer of Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He believes “devolution” of large nations into smaller regions will improve democratic decision-making.
Is ‘global devolution’ attracting adherents? A recent survey of futurists predicted “Abolition of Government” in the next 100 years, with an additional 15% foreseeing “Thousands of Small Fractured States.”
I interviewed Dr. Gray via email on this controversial topic. Our e-dialogue is below:
Hank Pellissier: Hi Chris – can you tell us a bit about your family background and upbringing?
Dr. Gray: I was born in Bishop, California in 1953. On my mother’s side I’m a direct descendant of Jose Francisco Ortega, pathfinder of the Portola expedition, a number of other Spanish and Catalan explorers and, in two cases, of the Native California women they married. But I don’t claim any real indian heritage; these women’s real names are lost. But I did grow up thinking of myself as Spanish and Catalan (my great-grandmother who raised my mother lived in an adobe in King City), my favorites of the 23 nationalities that my parents have documented in my background.
How do you define yourself politically and how did you reach that position?
Dr. Gray: I’ve been an anarchist since I was 14 and a revolutionary feminist since I was 18. As a frosh at Stanford in 1971 I was arrested and beaten (not for the last time) during an anti-war protest and as I became an organizer, I realized that feminist process, consensus decision-making, and anarchist organizational principles were what I believed in. For people interested in the anarchist-feminist perspective I strongly recommend the autobiography of Emma Goldman, the fiction of Ursula Le Guin (especially The Dispossessed), and also the writings of Alexander Berkman and Colin Ward. I am a pragmatic revolutionary, working toward the logical conclusion of the saying (popular with American revolutionaries such as Thomas Jefferson): “The government is best that governs least.”
What’s your career history?
Dr. Gray: I have had many jobs, including over a decade doing blue collar and white-collar work as I organized and took part in nonviolent direct actions around the Vietnam War, US support for apartheid, union organizing, the American Empire, nuclear weapons and nuclear power.
Currently I lecture on the cultural studies of science and technology at the University of California, Santa Cruz (where I got my doctorate in 1991 in the History of Consciousness) and I teach remotely for NYU’s “Technology, Culture, and Society” department of the Tandon School of Engineering. My book Postmodern War (Guilford Press, 1997) is free on my web site (http://www.chrishablesgray.org), my other academic books are still for sale (Cyborg Handbook (ed.); Technohistory (ed.); Cyborg Citizen; and Peace, War and Computers) and I put my memoir of my 19th year on-line (http://issuu.com/chrishablesgray/docs/19thyear), as well as a punk magical realism novel I wrote in the 80s (http://www.scribd.com/doc/76210205/It-Could-Be-Magic) while living in San Francisco.
Do you support all separatist movements, or just the ones that aim for certain ideals?
Dr. Gray: For me to support a movement for independence (I think this is much more positive framing than separatist) the intended new nation must have democratic processes and equal rights for all, whatever their gender or ethnic or religious identity. There must be a Bill of Rights. I think it is also fair to insist the movement recognize the reality of climate change. This threatens everyone in the world. Why support, even marginally, people who aren’t working to solve the worst crisis humanity has faced? One could make this argument about inequitable wealth distribution. Not only is it bad for democracy; it is bad for the planet.
The movements I’m totally in harmony with are Scotland, Wales (up to 25% support or so now), Cataluña, Euskadi (Basques), Rojava and other democratic expressions of the Kurds, and Tibet. Hawaii, Vermont, and California are the only independence movements in the USA that I totally support. Texas people who want independence are, not to put too fine a point on it, racist assholes.
Would California thrive if it seceded from the USA?
Dr. Gray: The United States as we now know it will not last forever. In the long term I am working toward an autonomous California that will be part of an American (North) Union, not unlike the European Union but with much less bureaucracy and most of the power at the local level. Empire is the enemy of democracy and as long as the US is an empire, we will see our democracy erode. California (Alta) has more in common economically and culturally with California (Baja) than with Alabama. We share a bioregion and culture with Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia while we share much less with Missouri (where a majority of people don’t even accept the reality of evolution).
Humans are profoundly social, and so I believe in belonging to many different associations. It certainly makes sense for California to keep relations with places such as New York and Chicago. A looser system, think of the Articles of Confederation with a Bill of Rights made stronger by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is what I dream of.
California is a net exporter of federal taxes to other states. In fact, in general, Blue states send money to the whiny Red states who bleat about hating the central government while they take money from California, New York, and New England. While the West and East Coasts and the civilized parts of the Midwest are becoming more cultured, more tolerant, more ecologically aware, other sections of the United States are grimly holding on to their racism, trying to enslave women’s bodies to their old Testament-style Christianity (which has nothing to do with the Jesus who preached the Sermon on the Mount), promoting an economy of greed and a relationship to nature that is as stupid as it is dangerous to our survival. I have traveled all over the world, hitchhiked 100,000 miles (10 times across North America, for example) and lived in New England, Montana, Oregon, Catalunya, Spain, Ireland, Greece, and Vietnam and I cannot abide small-minded, fearful, hate-filled people. They not only disgust me, they threaten my freedom and my very survival.
What are your long-term ambitions in terms of world governmental structure?
Dr. Gray: Decades ago, Peter Berg argued that politically we should move toward what he called devolution. Basically, as much as possible, decision-making power should be vested in the smallest units that make sense and grow weaker the higher up the food chain it goes. But it is one world, and we need one world governance system, although at the highest levels it should be very, very weak—a network really. Bioregional and cultural realities should underly political organization. Democracy to be real must be as direct as possible.
The thing about anarchism is that it is very complicated and varied. For every window-breaker there are dozens of more nuanced anarchists working at the grassroots to bring power back to our communities and to empower ourselves by defending our freedoms of thought and action. Now this doesn’t mean that the Black Block (to use a well-known example of a certain type of militancy) is always wrong. I have supported many strong actions (tearing down the Seabrook nuke in New Hampshire, for example, which twice I tried to do with a few thousand other wonderful people). I don’t believe destroying property is always a violent act, and I am not a pacifist although I am committed to the most nonviolent social change possible. But it isn’t hard to see that much of the energy of some actions, such as trashing small businesses in Oakland or Santa Cruz, is unthoughtful masculine anger and has no real political analysis behind it.
The ends cannot be divorced from the means and the appeal of violence, especially to young men, must be contextualized in any useful strategic or tactical analysis. In some cultures, armed defense makes sense (as with the wonderful Zapatistas). In others, taking the streets involves strong (yes violent) actions. But here in the US, now, these things make no sense at all. Taking over empty buildings, shutting down ports during general strikes? Yes. Throwing rocks at police or smashing shop windows and running away? No. Grow-up.
How many nations do you think it would be ideal for the world to divide into? Entities of 5 million or less? The result would be 1,600 nations. Does that seem right?
Dr. Gray: The “small is beautiful” idea has much to recommend it. Peter Berg (devolution!) made this argument very strongly. I am in sympathy with it and support the smallest governments with the most power as is reasonable. But with three major caveats.
a) As Peter Berg argued, we have to be very aware of bioregions. It makes no sense to carve up the SF Bay Area, for example, just because it is more than 5 million people. Some coherent local bioregions will just be more people, that is just the reality of overpopulation and urbanization. And at the far end, there has to be some sort of World Alliance (a reformed UN might work). It is one Earth.
b) That said, I think it helps to think of government in layers. The most power must be local with less power going up the food chain. This is what Federalism is supposed to be in the U.S. with all powers not handed over to the governments in the hands of the people, states with more power (that should be handed down locally) than the Federal govt. and so on. But the Iron Law of Bureaucracy is powerful. The higher levels of govt. must be tightly constrained, or they become dangerous as the EU (in many ways a model for a future N. American Confederation) has by proliferating government by administrators and regulations. I am in the strange anarchist position of advocating more (but weaker!) governments, with most power (constrained by a strong Bill of Rights) locally, perhaps even in New England village direct democracy. But that’s just me.
c) Technology can play a major role in linking people, alleviating wealth differences, living in harmony with the environment. Bookchin’s Post Scarcity Anarchism (so popular in Rojava!) is full of insight on this issue.
Do you think California would evolve in a different way than the rest of the USA if it seceded?
Dr. Gray: California is evolving in its own way even without independence. Cultures live and change just like other organisms. When California has more autonomy, we won’t really be “without” the other states, it will just be that we won’t be hobbled by their stupider tendencies and decisions and we can grow closer to the parts of Canada, Mexico, and the rest of the world that are more sympatico.
How could California secession be accomplished?
Dr. Gray: We should campaign for a US Constitutional Amendment that would allow the renegotiation of the relationship of States to the Federal Government including the right to withdraw from the United States with a supermajority vote (55%? 60%?). I believe enough rightwing States would support such an amendment to make it possible, along with support from blue states such as Hawaii and Oregon. Then, in California, Independistas have to rethink government and show how we can catalyze a better, decentralized government that brings more democracy to key areas of life, especially work. It will be, and should be, a process that takes some years.
Did you read Ecotopia? Would you want Oregon and Washington to join us or are we just better off alone?
Dr. Gray: Ernest Callenbach’s novel Ecotopia certainly has been an influence, although I supported California autonomy years before I read it. The focus on bioregions is wonderful and the specificity of his vision is fascinating. Another great book I love is Starhawk’s novel of a post-collapse San Francisco, The Fifth Sacred Thing. But neither of these are exact models for what to do. The great thing about the future is how surprising it is. I don’t want to move to the next level of political development through violence or even the threat of violence. I’d look to Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest for a model of nonviolent change before I try and steal nukes or hope for apocalypse.
Does fear of China or other world powers keep the 50 states together? Strength in numbers?
Dr. Gray: No, it isn’t fear, it is tradition. And, for all its racist imperialist history the United States of America has been a great revolutionary nation that has been an improvement over most of the large-scale political organizations of the past. But not so much anymore. Empire eats at our democracy every moment. It is getting time to move on.
The Chinese Empire is a much less coherent political entity than the US and it will devolve before the US. We can only hope that as its various subjugated people achieve autonomy and independence politically, and as the kleptocracy that runs the Chinese Empire finally loses power, the whole world won’t be drawn into a terrible bloodbath. With the technology we have today, fundamental political change has to be as peaceful as possible or there will be horrific consequences, not just for humans, but for the whole planet’s ecosystem.
Any books that you recommend reading?
Dr. Gray: Besides David Graeber’s Debt, the other great books I have read recently are John Keane’s The Life and Death of Democracy and Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Between them they demonstrate that the struggle for a better world goes back to the very origins of humanity and much progress has been made. Democracy is an ideal that has been advanced by many different cultures throughout human history. I learned so much from Keane’s careful scholarship. Pinker’s wonderful analysis proves that the struggle for democracy, for freedom, for tolerance and for enlightenment has produced a better, less violent life, for people today. For all the problems of the empires of today, of the philosophies of greed, of the damage they do to us and our environment when combined with our incredible technoscience, things can change.
Things can get better. Things must change. Things must get better or we are lost. Real Democracy is possible and necessary. A better world is possible and necessary. And we can win it if we are brave and persistent. If we live, in the words of my friend Carl Harp (murdered in Walla Walla prison by the State) with “Love & Rage”.
Below are some basic principles put together by some anarchist/feminist friends and I (we call ourselves the Syndicate for Initiative). This is part of a longer Manifesto…
A Better World is Possible 1.2 — the better world is based on principles, not prescriptions
* Commons — land and knowledge
* Nature — bioregions, sustainable, active
* Cultures — autonomous, sustainable, actants
* Markets — controlled by individuals, families, and syndicates
* “Thin” government — many democratic institutions at many levels. (The more governments, the less government.)
* Property — individual, family, syndicate, NOT corporate.* Syndicates — affinity groups, unions, alliances, NOT corporations.
* Families — Based on complexity, life, choice, and tolerance, not nuclear ideology.
* Work — Those who do the work, decide.
* Labor — If it is alienated, it is oppression.
* Economics — Profit is not policy, efficiency, or “natural”.
“The Future is not yet written.” — Sara O’Connor, The Terminator