Mark Corske and The Engines of Domination

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Washington, DC (TFC) – Mark Corske calls himself “a homegrown anarchist political philosopher.” Born in 1951, he studied mathematics and physics at the University of Colorado and taught those subjects for 35 years. He is the author of Engines of Domination: Political Power and the Human Emergency, an original argument for anarchism. With filmmaker Justin Jezewski, he produced a documentary summarizing the book’s essential ideas (Mark Corske’s ENGINES OF DOMINATION).

What got you into social justice?

In my view, social justice is a natural consequence of egalitarian communities organized around cooperation and mutual aid for the common good—in other words, anarchist communities. Real social justice is impossible in communities dominated by privileged elites and institutions of armed central authority, though it’s certainly an ideal we should struggle toward to alleviate the suffering such authoritarian communities inflict on their members. So to tell you what “got me into social justice,” I have to explain how I arrived at my own version of anarchism.

It was a long journey that began in my childhood. I grew up in a middle-class conservative Republican family amid the last years of the House Un-American Activities Committee terrorism and the first years of nuclear terror, watching newsreels of hydrogen bombs and ads for fallout shelters on TV, watching “Duck and Cover” cartoons and practicing duck and cover drills at school. Even as a child, nuclear weapons and a world where they existed terrified me, and I felt certain this was fundamentally wrong.

My next step on the journey was a few years in my late teens when I fell under Ayn Rand’s influence, my first experience of philosophy and a catalyst to focus my attention on political power. I broke free from Rand convinced that armed central authority was disastrous and unnecessary, and with a lifelong love of philosophical thinking.

But I soon realized that philosophy alone was powerless to change the world, that much stronger forces than mere ideas were behind armed central authority. After a detour into studying math and physics, the crucial step came when my spiritual adviser instructed me to contemplate the newspaper every morning. I’d been ignoring world affairs and indulging myself in math and physics, and was shocked to find that I couldn’t understand what was going on—wars and death squads, 70,000 nuclear weapons, grand-sounding official explanations that I knew were nonsense. I decided I had to figure the world out for myself, and began a ten year process of hard thinking that finally resulted in my original anarchist theory of political power.

Social justice would be one consequence of anarchism, possibly realized in many different forms of voluntary community, along with eliminating the violence of war and the destruction of the habitat. As I said, we should certainly struggle against social injustice as we strive to abolish armed central authority, but never overlook the deeper long-term goal of anarchism.

What are some organizations and communities you see as most effectively working toward anarchism? What tactics do they use that others could replicate?

I wish I knew enough to answer that question well. My work thinking, writing, and producing films keeps my attention far from most of what’s happening today. I’ve heard some very promising things about Rojava and the separatist movements in Spain, and of course there’s the inspiring and instructional example of the Spanish Revolution. But here are some thoughts on organizations and community working toward anarchism.

There seems to be a great resurgence of anarchist thinking today, probably the greatest since it peaked in the 1930s. Anything to further that resurgence through education and setting examples of cooperation will help. So will anything that alerts people to the disastrous nature of political power—police brutality, for-profit prisons, debt-indenture, “austerity” programs, corporate control of governments and destruction of the habitat, the financial interests that profit from war, etc., etc., etc. And on the constructive side, every form of community organization that brings people together working to improve conditions of life can set examples of how an anarchist world might function, from community gardens to squatters movements, activism like that of Food Not Bombs, even possibly free universities like those of the Sixties and Seventies. Creative artists of all kinds can produce inspiring and provocative work that educates, informs, and shakes conventional thinking.

But “working toward anarchism” can’t mean working toward abolishing just one system of armed central authority, it will have to be a coordinated worldwide struggle to abolish a worldwide system. The potential for worldwide organization exists now, and there are hundreds or thousands of groups working toward similar goals in different ways. I think organization is the essential step, people merging their time, energy, and talents to accomplish something worthwhile. Once organizations exist, they can form tactical coalitions. And the organizations have to be non-hierarchical, further examples of anarchist community practicing internal mutual aid and finding ways to resolve internal conflicts peacefully and creatively. This won’t create an anarchist world, but it will create “pockets” of grassroots power that can effectively work toward abolition.

More importantly, and sadly, I believe the real impetus to abolish armed central authority will only come when disasters electrify great numbers people into urgent action, disasters like those to come from global warming, economic crises, possibly even deliberate or accidental nuclear war. People rise to new heights when facing life-and-death challenges, and on a foundation of pre-existing organization, a kind and scale of uprising that’s never been possible before could bring the ruling elites to their knees.

After that depressing thought, a more heartening one. Modern domination relies on thought-control to an unprecedented degree. Thought-control has never operated so flagrantly and on such a massive scale as today. Although it’s proven highly effective so far, it’s actually the weakest part of the power structure because if it failed, the entire system would falter. I have some hope that thought-control is overstepping its bounds, becoming unstable, propagating a version of reality so far from the truth and maintaining behavior so outrageously destructive that it may suffer breakdowns soon. The more people who know the truth and act contrary to the established norms of wage jobs, consumption, entertainment, etc., the more likely a breakdown. And exactly the kind of community organization and activism I mentioned before would bring larger numbers of people outside the thought-control system’s reach and could help cause such a breakdown.

Which writers, artists, and thinkers inspired your work the most?

I mentioned Ayn Rand’s influence earlier. Although I disagree with almost all her ideas now—in fact I think they’re very dangerous—and I don’t believe in philosophical system-building like hers, she did inspire my love of philosophical thinking and my hatred of political power.

My biggest influence and inspiration was Karl Popper, the renowned philosopher of science and creator of the idea of critical rationalism—his absolutely clear writing (in a second language too!) and insistence that philosophy should strive to solve real problems, not simply construct beguiling but empty ideas. I think his theory of knowledge as conjectures that can be refuted but never proven true is absolutely right, and essential for avoiding authoritarian ways of thinking. And I love his later work about all life as problem-solving, about what he called the “open universe” in which real human freedom exists, not just cause and effect, and his theory of “World 3,“ the world of human creations and ideas being just as real as physical reality.

12166307_774880219301112_2094616602_nBut Popper’s social philosophy is reactionary, and my anarchist thinking was entirely original. I never studied the anarchist literature or social theories except the works of the French anarchist Jacques Ellul. Ellul mostly inspired me by showing that a very different approach from mine could come to some similar conclusions. While formulating my theory, I did read some early works in deep ecology, Dolores LaChapelle in particular, which convinced me that any valid approach to understanding political power had to begin with an understanding of humanity’s place as part of the habitat.

The only other important inspiration is that I love Taoism, an elegant and very beautiful philosophy, and possibly the earliest record of anarchist thought. “Rule a large country as you would fry little fish”—meaning leave them alone, or you’ll ruin them. Though it’s not widely known, much of the Chinese establishment’s suppression of early Taoism was because Taoist peasant communities resisted the empire. Taoism emphasizes accord with nature, and allowing nature to take its course—human nature and the habitat—rather than forcing them into some design. And it mocks the empty values and conventions of imperial civilization. To find this way of thinking in such an ancient philosophy affirmed my belief that it’s close to the truth.

What are your thoughts on sectarianism?

It’s obviously a grave threat to movements that challenge power. “Divide and rule.” And a threat that those in power would naturally exploit to neutralize us. Since I’m not familiar with most of what’s going on in activism, I’ll just answer in terms of anarchist sectarianism.

One of anarchism’s strongest traits is its diversity. How can you oppose authoritarian society by clinging to a single “true” anarchist philosophy and conception of a better world? By the early twentieth century, many different forms of anarchist thought had emerged, and the diversity increased throughout that century. But it’s also a vulnerability. Anarchism is the greatest threat to political power, so you’d expect power to defend itself in some way. Apart from surveillance, infiltration, provocation, and persecution of revolutionary anarchist organizations, the best defense would be to exploit that diversity by arousing conflicts between anarchist schools of thought, maybe even creating or nurturing schools of thought that caused further divisions. I’m afraid it looks to me like this is taking place. I’ll focus on one such division that I think is most important.

The American “libertarian” movement grew out of the right wing of the Republican Party and its Young Americans for Freedom in the early 1970s. I saw this first hand in southern California and Kansas. The very name is an affront, before then it meant anarchist or something very close. Among the movement’s supporters were the Coleman fortune and the Koch Foundation, and it led to influential think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute. Drawing on Ayn Rand’s ideas, the movement sells “free market capitalism” as “freedom,” and makes “big government” the enemy, so libertarians often oppose reforms that would limit corporate power or ease the suffering of people it oppresses. The so-called anarcho-capitalist movement emerged from among these libertarians. Convinced that private ownership of land and the means of production is natural and morally right, and that communities organized around a monetary economy are ideal, the anarcho-capitalists take anarchism to merely mean opposing the existence of the state, not a more general movement against all forms of oppression and authority, including such private ownership. In practice, this puts them in the same camp as the libertarians and totally neutralizes them as anarchists, in my view. But much worse, by their large numbers and the appeal of their ideas—a vision of fixing the world without endangering their own privileges—they’ve caused a significant sectarian division among anarchists. Lots of energy goes into debates between “ancoms” and “ancaps,” and many people in the United States only know of anarchism through anarcho-capitalism. I’m not suggesting that this situation was masterminded by some machiavellian elite, but I’m sure it was encouraged as it developed, and continues to be partly funded by those who stand to gain from it.

So what can we do? How can we reconcile the need for solidarity in struggle with such a division? I wish I knew. Some of my friends are anarcho-capitalists, or something similar. I know they’re sincere good-hearted people who only mean well, and some of them work very hard and creatively at spreading their ideas. Yet solidarity means striving together for a common goal, and I don’t see how goals like mine and the anarcho-capitalists’ can be reconciled. We can certainly remain on friendly terms, try to build bridges, try not to waste time in fruitless debates, keeping focused on our own goals. Once when I saw Howard Zinn speaking, someone asked him what activists could do when they were stalled on disagreements. In his beautiful quiet kind way, he said, “We have to remember that there’s something more important.”

What are your thoughts on tactics such as economic sabotage? either earth liberation front or anonymous style? How do we move forward conversations about diversity of tactics in such a high security state?

I think sabotage is very dangerous and counterproductive, and holds no prospect of causing enough damage to bring the system down. Maybe I’m underestimating the ingenuity of the saboteurs, but it seems to me the countermeasures are obvious and decisive. Militarize the wilderness with air and satellite surveillance (private or state), restrict access to industrial sites by armed guards, barricades, etc., cut communications by censoring cell and internet traffic, block transportation . . . and start using extrajudicial detention and torture on domestic “terrorists” and sympathizers, even assassinations. Anything up to martial law, if that’s what it takes to stop the sabotage, the “war on terror” against the local population. The establishment has anticipated this threat, and I think it’s prepared to take such actions long before significant damage could be done. That would wipe out any possibility of nonviolent organization and confrontation, and drive all resistance underground.

All that aside, even if sabotage could bring the system down, two further issues arise. First, it would cause mass death through starvation, since the system has become our means of life-support. Are the saboteurs really prepared to take responsibility for killing hundreds of millions or billions of people? And if so, what are we to think of their morals? Second, how would bringing the system down create a new one? Why should we expect better institutions to arise from the rubble? Building toward a better world will take more than demolishing the old one, and amid a struggle for survival, the divisive and possessive traits inculcated by the old system could easily dominate over mutual aid and cooperation in the new one. Also, a breakdown wouldn’t necessarily be total or irreversible, so political power might regroup and start the cycle of destruction over again. I think I understand the rage and sense of urgent necessity that motivates many of the saboteurs, especially those trying to save the habitat from further destruction, but I really believe they’re dangerously mistaken.

As for moving conversations about a diversity of tactics forward in a high-security state, we’re doing that right now in what I think is a closing window of opportunity. Unless genuine populist grassroots political movements rein in and reverse the growing surveillance and security state, these may be the last years when worldwide communication and cross-fertilization of ideas is possible. We can only exploit the time we have to the fullest, never delaying until “someday” things we can accomplish now—and support those grassroots movements vigorously and relentlessly in whatever form they take.

What are your thoughts on automation? Will this lead to a post left anarchist solutionand away from anarchosyndacalist solution?

I’ve never thought about it carefully. My intuition says the prospects of automation are less rosy than many people believe. Certainly a great deal of labor could be done by automation, even the labor of building the automata, but the whole production process would still have to be managed and overseen by people, which would require some kind of cooperative organization. Also, automation is ultra-high tech, and I don’t see how that could fail to adversely impact the habitat, especially if implemented on a global scale. I’d love to see routine, arduous, and dangerous work done by machines. On the other hand, genuinely productive work that benefits those who do it is a vital part of human communities, probably engrained in our nature. I suspect many people would rather work in a community garden than have robots do the planting, weeding, watering, and harvesting.

I don’t believe in progress, the potential of technology to solve all human problems, the idea that we’re necessarily advancing toward a better future. “Post-left” seems to embody this idea. I have a feeling that lots of the enthusiasm for automation is an expression of a belief in progress, and more a romantic fiction that supports research and development for private profit than a real trend that’s going to greatly benefit human life—a fiction that also supports the status of privileged technocrats today while the world’s masses still toil as before. So basically I’m skeptical, but it’s not a well thought out position.

More generally, while I think we should try our utmost to imagine how an anarchist world could work—anarcho-syndicalism, whatever—that prospect is secondary to finding out how to reduce and eliminate armed central authority. It will be a blessed day when we can begin the experiment of anarchist living and finally learn how it can be done.

What can we learn from indigenous struggle about ending the central armed apparatus?

If comfortable relatively-privileged activists like us in the so-called developed world acted with the courage and determination of indigenous people’s movements, the battle would be won. They have an advantage we sorely lack, their intimate bonding to their land and one another. They’re fighting against more than specific abuses—fighting for their lives, livelihood, traditional way of life, and habitat. Maybe if we can deeply realize that the same applies to us in more subtle ways, we can muster something of their fighting spirit. In any case, their example should certainly both humble and inspire us. Some kind of coordinated action between our struggles and theirs could have a powerful combined effect.

What are your thoughts on Bernie sanders?

I’m greatly encouraged by the amount of support he’s won so far. Despite his record on foreign policy and military appropriations, I believe he’s basically an honest man of principle, totally unlike the other candidates who are nothing but corporate props puppeting what their PR experts feed them. His support proves that a large proportion of the US population is outside the thought-control system’s grasp and very angry about the massive injustices of corporate power. They can clearly distinguish a real person acting out of conviction from those props. He’s already brought issues into public debate that couldn’t have been voiced before. Earlier I mentioned a possible breakdown of the thought-control system. The contrast between the stereotyped trashy way the other candidates are being marketed and Sanders’ campaign is dramatic, unmistakable. The PR experts could be stuck in an outdated formula of marketing that will self-destruct, or at least waken many more people to the game.

It may be wishful thinking, but I even have a feeling he’ll win the election if he makes it through the superdelegates in the primaries. Those in power may think a temporary step backwards for the elites is timely, to restore faith in the system and blunt popular outrage by a prospect of reform. Popular anger is at a dangerously high level and rising. Such tactical concessions have often worked in the past, followed by even greater advances in power. Certainly a Sanders presidency would have negligible effects on the fundamental institutions, at best, but it might alleviate some of the increasing suffering in the States today, by a less predatory healthcare system for example. It would also keep that change in public debate going. Many anarchists shun electoral politics on principle, or believe no one running for high office can be trusted. I disagree. I don’t completely trust Sanders, though I’d be shocked if he ended up betraying the trust people have put in him, as Obama did. Electoral politics won’t change the fundamental institutions, but it is a real means of partly controlling those in power, and so far, the Sanders campaign is promising a rare or unique opportunity to exercise at least a little of that control.

What was the work like creating engines of domination? What tips would you give young writers activists and filmmakers that you learned through that process?

Working with Justin Jezewski on that film was one of the most thrilling and gratifying times of my life. Incredibly hard work, and a major learning experience. At first I had doubts about a documentary presenting an hour-long train of thought, but Justin’s filmmaking brilliance opened my eyes to a whole new medium of communication. I’d written the script a year earlier as a talk called “Human Nature and the Human Emergency.” Justin did all the editing, selected all the music. We constantly consulted back and forth via Facebook, sharing clip uploads to YouTube. The work was very intense, increasingly so till the day of the release, striving to match the imagery to the concepts in a compelling artistic way. I’d never collaborated on a creative project before and it was an incredible privilege to do it with someone as talented as Justin.

The project began by pure chance—the kind of chance that makes me believe in destiny. He happened upon my book on Amazon when the automated “you might also be interested in” feature popped Engines up. After he’d bought it and started reading, he contacted me through Facebook and suggested a collaboration. So in terms of tips for young writers, activists, and filmmakers, I’d say first off, “Sieze the opportunity!” If something promising comes your way, go for it. And then give it everything you’ve got to make it as good as you possibly can. The mathematician George Polya wrote, “The open secret of real success is to throw your whole personality into your problem.” That’s exactly what Justin and I did. Coming from totally different backgrounds and having totally different skills, we made Engines into something we both loved, and now tens of thousands of people have loved it too.

We’re collaborating on a new film called “Provo! The Great Anarchist Happening of Amsterdam” about the Provo movement there from 1965 to 1967. That whole-hearted creativity was the secret of Provo’s success. A small group of anarchist thinkers, artists, and activists got together in a playful creative spirit, and through a combination of publications and surrealistically funny street happenings they had a major impact on Dutch politics and culture. Don’t look for formulas for success, don’t fall into stereotyped routines, dare to follow your own muses and trust that they’ll lead you to things you can’t imagine.

One final tip: Learn to cooperate and pool your talents. Neither Justin nor I alone could have done anything like Engines. The creative powers multiply, not add. And every collaboration not only increases your powers, it makes you better able to collaborate in the future.

Any final thoughts you’d like to share or shout outs you’d like to give?

We’re facing the greatest crisis since our species began a quarter of a million years ago, trying to solve a problem that’s never been solved—how to abolish armed central authority and save the world from being destroyed. According to my theory, political power isn’t an expression of human nature like wolf packs or anthills. It’s an innovation that was created about 6000 years ago when our traits of tool-making and harnessing external sources of energy were turned against our own kind by small factions of men who discovered how to domesticate entire communities. A tool for making tools of human beings, an engine that converts human energy into action that serves the power and privilege of the rulers. It took great determination and ingenuity to create this tool, and no single mastermind created it in a stroke of creative genius. Like most great innovations, it developed through many people’s efforts in a long process of trial and error, and since its creation, it has been brilliantly refined by the same kind of process. The unintended consequences of this tool in action have brought us to what I call the human emergency, the crisis we’re confronting today.

This view of political power suggests that a comparable creative effort may solve the problem of abolishing it. Not a single brilliant stroke like Luke Skywalker’s little missile up that unguarded portal in the Death Star, but a creative effort of trial and error by great numbers of people trying their best, learning from their mistakes, and trying again. I don’t know whether we can solve the problem, or whether we have enough time to find the solution before the human emergency destroys us. But when I compare the extent and level of awareness today to that in the Sixties, I see an astronomical increase in numbers of people and in the accuracy of how they understand the problem. If we don’t understand the problem, we can’t solve it. I also see the same kind of increase in people’s outrage and determination to confront the powers oppressing them and destroying the habitat. The creative effort is underway around the world in many forms, working toward many different specific goals.

While sometimes I feel things are hopeless, other times I feel that if enough people realize that political power itself is the problem, not bad rulers or bad systems of power, the problem will be solved. Since human ingenuity created the engine, and since I believe human nature is fundamentally ingenious and cooperative, I believe a determined effort can abolish it given one condition—organization. The men who created political power were highly organized. Organization gives human action a superhuman power. Earlier I discussed the importance of organizing, and I can’t stress it strongly enough. Whether it’s a handful of people collaborating on a single project or groups of thousands taking action on some issue, the act of organizing is powerful in itself. And what I said earlier about projects like making the film applies even more strongly to activism in general. Go for it, throw your whole personality into the work, give it all you’ve got and make it as good as it can possibly be. The future is counting on us.