Organizing and Managing as an Anarchist: Interview with Michael Gilliland

Michael Gilliland

Michael Gilliland

Chattanooga, TN (TFC) – Michael Gilliland is a restaurant manager/ coffee roaster in Chattanooga, TN. He is Board Chair of Chattanooga Organized for Action, a locally-focused nonprofit dedicated to community organizing towards social (racial, economic, gender, environmental, housing) justice.

  1. Tell us a little about yourself.

Well, I’ve lived my whole life in Chattanooga, TN. I grew up, like many folks in the South, in a very conservative Christian household. My father was a Pentecostal pastor for a large part of my youth, and my mom was typically working in service or retail jobs. She worked for Kmart when I was a small kid, then Wal-Mart for about seven years.  Needless to say, we were poor. I have two brothers, and one of us slept on the couch for as far back as I can remember.

I originally went to college at Lee University, a hyper-conservative Church of God school, to pursue studies for missionary work. After the first year there were two things that turned my world upside down. One was traveling out of the country. I was doing a study-abroad stint in Ecuador for about a month and a half, and the amount of culture shock I experienced really did a number on me. The country at that time had agreed to structural adjustment programs and changing its currency to American dollars, and had gone through four presidents in a year. There were some pretty desperate conditions for so many people, but the way folks related to each other– their sense of culture and joy in relationships—forced me to question American society in a way I never had before. It left me a little shaken in my heretofore unquestioned belief in America as the center of the universe.

When I got back to the States, I had a conversation with a few friends and some international students about the state of Israel. Some people outside of a religious background may not understand this, but for fundamentalist evangelicals Christian Zionism plays a huge part in the religious worldview. I thought I was well-informed on the topic, but when the international students started bringing up events like Deir Yassin, the Sabra and Shatila massacres during the Lebanon War, and the conditions in the occupied territories, I was astounded that I’d never heard of them. My friend loaned me a book he’d been assigned in class–Noam Chomsky’s The Fateful Triangle. I read it cover to cover in about three weeks, and then went through another three weeks of pure anger and depression. I felt I had been lied to my whole life, and that everything had just been pulled out from under me. I began to really ask myself: if I was so wrong about something I believed in wholeheartedly, what else could I be wrong about? This crisis of faith started the next few years of study on my part. I poured through books by Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Michael Albert, then onto classics like Goldman, Marx or C.L.R. James…really getting introduced to leftist thought. I got sucked into radical history; something most of us aren’t exposed to at all around here in Tennessee. It fundamentally changed my life, and the way I see myself in the world.

I divide my time now between working in a restaurant as a manager, wine educator, and coffee roaster on the one hand, and political and social activism on the other. I work with two groups currently: Chattanooga Organized for Action (COA) and Chattanooga for Workers. COA is a social justice nonprofit that focuses on community organizing to build working-class power. We look to initiate, support, and connect grassroots popular organizations so that we can win a better future.  Chattanooga for Workers is a loose affiliation of activists and workers that looks to build up and support the labor movement in the city.


  1. What sort of issues do you see as most concerning in our country and the world? 

Is this a real question? Where does one start? How about I just limit my answer to what I think holds us back from building a much better society than we currently have?

We (and by this I’m generalizing Americans) are domesticated.  Most of us don’t fight back in ways that rise above petty rebellion. I think there are huge numbers of people that are really frustrated by the lack of power over their conditions; the inability to connect and participate, and to have a say in decisions that affect them. That frustration comes out in all sorts of different ways. It motivates some folks to scapegoat the “Other”: different races, ethnicities, the unemployed, people who are obviously on a lower rung of whatever this twisted ladder is we’re supposed to be climbing. It motivates others to retreat completely into imagination and pastime diversions: video games, books, TV shows, alcohol, pot, whatever. And it motivates a lot of folks into involvement in community work, whether that looks like church programs, party politics, or activist groups. Yet even then, it seems we rarely spend much time strategizing and acting directly for a different kind of society; and we are very well-trained in not resisting authority. To be fair, there are good reasons: so many of these powerful people are violent, vindictive psychopaths. But I often worry that we are content with our own marginalization.

I believe wholeheartedly in the motto of the World Social Forum: “Another World Is Possible.”  It’s inevitable, actually. But tyranny takes many forms.  If we want it to be a world that reflects our values, we have to engineer it, foster it, and plan ahead. The only thing that is guaranteed is struggle.

So for starters, I don’t think we have anywhere near the number and types of popular organizations in place to help us grow into that world. Where are those institutions that empower us to exercise what Paul Goodman called the “infinite responsibility” of the individual? So take water, for example. What are the institutions we are trying to build that allow us to participate in the management of water resources, outside of property claims? And does the institution qualify us, by the use of power, to make decisions together? Do I understand the workings of the water utility sufficiently to make a decision on what is best for us as a community? It is kind of hard to think of this as a secondary issue, given that water is the bedrock of life, but it is possible we should be working fervently on other institutions first. What are they? What has the greatest likelihood of creating participatory, free power for a community that can also be leveraged as a stepping stone for greater participation? Or to put it another way, what are we fighting for? If it is freedom, how is that freedom exercised?

Not to say there aren’t plenty of examples of institution-building. I’m heartened to see the creative work going on around community land trusts for affordable housing, worker cooperatives, workers’ centers, mass protests in the South like the Moral Mondays in North Carolina and Georgia and “Put the People First” in Tennessee, and the recent activity around InsureTN. There is a group in Birmingham called the Magic City Agriculture Project that is working to address racial inequalities through the development of a cooperatively-based food system.  Rad stuff.  We just need to develop the skills necessary to bring more people into building and supporting these efforts. I’m saying this as a person trying to develop these skills for myself.


  1. As an anarchist, how do you deal with the alienation, sometimes inherent hypocrisies, and uphill struggles we have in front of and around us?

Well, I think some folks’ natural inclination on realizing the filth of the world, understandably, is to try to reach some level of positional or lifestyle purity. I don’t really see much point in trying to get completely dry in the middle of a storm on a sinking ship. The most important thing is to save the ship. So we all have a little grace with each other, knowing that we’re all getting wet while we work to stay dry. I’m a restaurant manager who doesn’t believe in management. Trust me; I understand contradictions. My ideal workspace would be trying to balance community responsibility with worker self-management; something like Black Star Brewpub in Austin. But we have to create the opportunities that don’t exist right now, while keeping in mind that the ultimate goal is the greatest amount of freedom for all. The most important question is “How are we pushing the Movement for social justice forward?” And how do we situate ourselves within that movement and understand it?


  1. What do you see as effective in terms of tactics to help bring about a better world?

One of the greatest strengths of anarchism and anti-authoritarian politics is its creative diversity. The types of actions that prove successful in a given context can be broad to the point of confusion. We should be asking ourselves what actions we think motivate people towards working for autonomy and solidarity. What encourages a rebellious spirit, and how do we create the avenues for people to plug into concrete work that affects the material conditions of those who are struggling? For instance, what support and training do local workers need to feel comfortable with taking greater risks? How do marginalized communities develop community plans they can begin to implement?

We should also be studying the successful organizing of rebellion, how the seeds grew into strong movements. The organizing of protests in Brazil against austerity and the World Cup, their landless workers movement that has won such amazing gains and spearheaded participatory municipal budgeting, the worker takeovers in Argentina, the radicalizing of the student movement in places like Chile and Quebec. And we should surely be informed about the history of radical direct action in our own communities, such as the freedom riders and boycott campaigns in the South. Do we know enough of our own history to situate ourselves in community struggles?

I also think that in terms of community-led development, we should be paying attention to the work being done at and the Democracy Collaborative. Their fostering of worker-owned green jobs with the support of ‘anchor institutions’ in poverty-stricken neighborhoods could have a profound influence in Cleveland, OH. The Evergreen Model, combined with community-led efforts like the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, give us fantastic examples of development that fights gentrification rather than fostering it.


  1. What are your views on deep ecology?

Depends on what you’re talking about. The basic belief that our environment has a value more important than its “usefulness?” Absolutely. We have to make sure that ecological problems are informing us, and act with that knowledge in mind. I don’t want to wade into the philosophical debates around what this means for populations and production, like those between social ecologists and deep ecologists. Ecology is probably the most general context in which we are all working, with climate change and environmental destruction severely limiting our possibilities for the future. Every aspect of social justice work–from anti-gentrification to feminism to the labor movement—is going to need to develop not only a consciousness around the environment, but action steps about how to proceed. We are nowhere near this.


  1. You’ve studied alternative workplaces quite a bit. Tell us about what you’ve learned and how it could be applied? 

Well, perhaps “alternative workplace” is a bit too broad. I mean, telemarketing from home could be an alternative workplace. The question for us is: how far can we empower workers to take control of the economy, instead of investment bankers and company owners? Employees sharing in profits is not enough. Profit-sharing at Publix doesn’t mean that the workers have control of the company; quite the opposite.  It’s used as an incentive to get people working harder. Workers need a say in both their working conditions and work life, as well as in the profits of their labor. So there are two parts to this: worker ownership and worker self-management.  I’ll focus on the latter.

A number of major companies are trying to experiment with the greatest amount of freedom for employees within the institution. Valve Corp., the multiplayer game developer, is a very interesting example. Valve operates without bosses or any sort of defined hierarchy. Workers have complete and total freedom on what projects they work on, and how long they work on them. They are free to float between projects if they choose. The essential idea is that self-directed work is not just an individual good; it can be a societal or industrial good as well. Valve even had a political economist on staff studying and explaining the model until he left to become the Finance Minister in Greece! Some of Mr. Varoufakis’ interviews and essays about the spontaneous social organization within the company are great introductions to the topic.

Now we should recognize and appreciate the degree of internal freedom for workers at Valve while not exaggerating the societal effect. For one, it is easier for game developers to self-manage, since there are relatively few onerous tasks involved in the work. What about work that no one wants to do? The entire digital industry is built on a supply chain of exploited workers; look at the mining of coltan in the Congo, hardware manufacturing in China, or the wage-fixing cartel of U.S. tech companies.  Then there is a host of less-rewarding but necessary work that makes the industry possible: trash collection, cleaning, repetitive construction work, assembly. Not all necessary tasks are as motivating as cutting-edge games. So how do we change the dynamics of the economy so that necessary work is valued and the burden shared among people benefiting? Participatory economics (Parecon) offers a way to think about this through the idea of a balanced-job complex: workers agreeing to a combination of relatively onerous or undesirable duties with relatively rewarding ones, so that within workplaces or industries no one is left holding the bag of terrible job duties. Experimentation is going to be required.

Secondly, individual enterprises are still constrained within the market. This happens in a number of ways. Labor costs, which when balanced should really be seen as one of the major purposes of any enterprise, are molded in an environment in which exploitation becomes a competitive advantage. Imagine the competitiveness of the restaurant industry, where new restaurants have a 60% failure rate within the first three years. Without pressures to increase wages and power across an industry, individual workplaces that promote living wages and worker control have an even more difficult time surviving the competition. So cooperatives benefit from social environments where broad workers’ movements are fighting for improved conditions.

Third, one of the greatest constraints to cooperative expansion is the lack of access to capital. Co-ops all over the world run into this problem. The largest cooperative in the world, Mondragon in Spain, created its own bank to fund its expansion. Regulatory measures put in place since the 1970’s make this option unlikely for the future. Investors look for an internal degree of power within organizations they invest in, and public resources aren’t put to work for cooperative expansion. We have to change this if we hope to significantly impact the working world.

In light of all of these difficulties, we should recognize the limitations of what might be called the “bourgeois cooperative:” a model with an end goal in itself, whose purpose is limited to participants within the enterprise. This isn’t to say that even a bourgeois co-op wouldn’t be beneficial to workers or even community members as opposed to traditional workplaces; only that it significantly limits its relevance in terms of power. So to take Valve as an example again, numerous people in the company point to anarcho-syndicalism as the basis for its model. Yet traditional anarcho-syndicalism (otherwise known as revolutionary unionism) had as its goal the liberation of all workers from the relationship of wages and control. Such a stated purpose leads directly to action towards solidarity and mutual aid with an ever-extending network of workers both in one’s own industry and community. The point here is that I think co-ops need to be rooted in the labor movement for their relevance as a societal force to really make waves. I believe very strongly in the goals and possibilities of a cooperative economy, but also in being realistic in what it is going to take to get there. We need to rekindle the goal of the “Cooperative Commonwealth.”


  1. You study wine and coffee. What sorts of radical thoughts have you drawn from your historical pursuits into these beverages?

Most goods have a dual history of free production and slavery going back centuries. Wine is certainly no different. The oldest surviving Latin text, “De Agri Cultura,” written by Cato the Elder, is a manual for slaveowners in wine fields on how to get the most out of their slaves. It includes precise calculations of how much slaves should be fed to keep them working. In fact much of the history of the wine trade, especially in Europe over the years, can be seen as a battle between farmers, winemakers and owners on questions of freedom and control.

The Champagne riots of 1911 are a wonderful illustration. Because of the cost associated with sparkling wine production, large Champagne Houses expanded in the 19th Century to shoulder these costs and reap the benefit. They would negotiate with the grape growers for the produce, but the changing dynamics of this model had a damaging effect on the livelihoods for the farmers. As growers started organizing for a more economically sustainable system, the Houses secretly began buying up produce on the cheap from other areas across France. The goal was to undercut the bargaining power of the farmers. When the news came out, the grape growers stormed into the urban centers of Champagne and dragged the House owners out of their homes, even setting their homes on fire. The gendarmes were called out to put down the rebellion and force a negotiated settlement between the farmers and owners. This negotiation dragged on throughout World War I. Part of the result is that since that time, a wine labeled Champagne must be sourced completely from grapes grown in the region.

There are just so many examples of these hidden stories. Self-organizing farmers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries across Europe were influenced heavily by Proudhon and the labor movement. There was a major push to create organizations where the farmers themselves could control production together: the cooperative. Their gains have created a lasting legacy. Many established cooperatives produce some of the best wines of their regions, such as Chateau Grenouilles in Chablis, or the Cave Vinicole de Pfaffenheim in Alsace. Others have increased their scale to produce for larger economic zones. The cooperative Settesoli in Sicily is a combination of 2,300 or so farmers from around the region. Italy is the largest producer of wine in the world, and somewhere near a third of that production comes from co-ops. This is surely not something that is much discussed in the United States.

We could talk about Spain. Wine production in Andalusia in southern Spain had by the middle of the 20th century hardly changed since the Roman era. The model was still based on the Roman latifundium, or agricultural plantation. The region was the most desperate in the country. The land had been concentrated for millennia in the hands of a small coterie of huge estates, while the masses of inhabitants were controlled as day-laborers. It is no accident that Andalusia became one of the epicenters of anarchist organizing in Spain. Early anarchist militants like Fermin Salvochea were often revered as saintly figures, apostles of the Revolution. The level of respect for the agitators was itself a rejection of the values imposed on workers by the landowners’ Catholic churches. Migrants from the south displaced to Catalonia were an integral part of the radical actions in the region.

Just listen to this story of the conditions and resistance of agricultural workers in Jèrez:

“…In 1932, the minister of the Interior said once that he would ‘place a policeman near each corn stalk’ to safeguard the harvesting. That year the laborers actually worked under the bayonets of the civil guard. In spite of that there were successful strikes in the rural districts, one of the most remarkable taking place in the environs of the famous wine city of Jèrez in the spring of 1933. Here the workers in the vineyards walked out to improve their living and working conditions. After the strike had lasted more than a month, the C.N.T. inspired all labor organizations in the city of Jèrez to show their solidarity by a general strike. This was carried out; no newspaper appeared, no bread was baked, all cafes were closed in Jérez. The vineyard workers won their point; their daily wages were raised to 9.75 pesetas, working hours were shortened to six hours and fifteen minutes, and one hour each for breakfast and lunch, and six recesses called ‘cigars’, consisting of fifteen minutes each, were allowed.”

We could go on to talk about the amazing organizing efforts of the United Farm Workers, who were able for a time to bring questions of exploitation, racism, and control of agriculture production to center stage in America with their grape boycott campaign. But I think these stories point to the truth that there is much more to wine than the commodity fetish of the upper classes, which in many countries like ours translates to an equating of wine with privilege and decadence. Such complaints are incidentally unlikely to be heard in many of the European countries where anarchism achieved mass movements of support: places like France, Spain, or Italy. On the contrary; they are the three largest producers of wine in the world, and there is cultural support to the idea that wine is a luxury to be enjoyed by all; the sharing of the good things. I find this perspective much healthier than the grey Stoicism of discipline and abstinence, which I think is better left to the Leninists.

If you can believe it, the history of coffee is more sordid. Although the coffee trade is much younger than wine, the strong ties of coffee production to plantations, colonialism and empire is horrifying. For North Americans, it could perhaps be related to as something akin to “drinking cotton.” The plant grows in the tropics, and its value as a cash crop was used by every major European power to make sure that indigenous peoples could be doing productive work for their oppressors. Dutch control in Indonesia, the French in Haiti, British in Jamaica and Kenya, the United States in Central America…researching the production of coffee is like taking a boat ride into the heart of darkness.

Think I’m exaggerating? Take a look at El Salvador. Although a tiny country, the elites of El Salvador have earned a distinction for a concentration of power that stretches back centuries. Loosely referred to as the “Fourteen Families,” the country’s oligarchs placed their fortunes in plantation production in the 19th century; they declared their country to be a “coffee republic.” What that meant for the largely indigenous workforce was a destitute and perilous existence. When coffee prices worldwide plummeted during the Great Depression, the president recommended some minor reforms to support starving workers. A military coup ousted him, of course. Workers in the western part of the country rebelled, taking over transportation and supply lines as well as a few towns. The military responded with what has come to be known as “La Matanza:” the Massacre. Although over the course of fighting the workers are thought to have killed around 100 people, the military quickly put down the rebellion and began systematically killing somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 of the country’s poor. It was an eradication campaign; soldiers would enter villages suspected of supporting the rebellion and kill every male child over 12. Let’s just say that the oligarchy survived, and continues to this day.

Guatemala is another case study. People are I guess relatively familiar with the history of United Fruit Company’s part in the overthrow of the democratically elected President, Jacobo Arbenz, in a U.S.-supported military coup in 1954. Yet U.S. foreign policy was very much influenced by the fears of American coffee plantation owners as well. Foreign-owned coffee production actually controlled more of the country’s land than United Fruit, and the State Department was conducting meetings with fearful coffee executives throughout the early 1950’s on what should be done about the calls for land reform. Arbenz’s overthrow began a civil war in Guatemala that by the 1980’s had resulted in over 200,000 deaths, but coffee’s role in the economy continued. Today, human rights groups identify Guatemala as a hotbed of coerced labor and child labor; plantations locking up migrant workers like slaves throughout the harvest season and throwing them out once the harvest is done.

I guess people stopping by their local coffee shops on their way to work usually aren’t aware of just how big the Big Business of coffee really is. Coffee is the second most widely traded commodity in the world, only surpassed by oil. In 2010, the worldwide coffee trade accounted for $15.4 billion. It is the livelihood of over 26 million people in developing countries. And thanks to the market control of commodity trading (the price of coffee is largely decided by the trading of reserves on the New York Commodity Exchange), six major conglomerates control the vast amount of the world’s produce. The same multinationals that are hoarding water resources in drought-stricken areas have dominated the coffee market; just take a look at the diversity of holdings for Nestlè.

This is all really just one side of a story of oppression and resistance, however. There are always efforts at developing counter-power to change the imbalance. In Colombia a massive struggle against austerity is being waged by workers and communities across the country, and it was largely started by a radical union of coffee workers, Dignidad Cafetera. The coffee-growing regions of Mexico are cradles of radical rebellion: Veracruz, Oaxaca, Chiapas. In Veracruz, an organization called AUGE, Desarrollo Autogestionario (Self-Managed Development), is creating the institutions that grassroots communities need to take control of their own local economy. And again, producer cooperatives in developing countries have been enormous supports for the workers themselves. With the trade relationships forged through the international Fair Trade movement (in essence, a mutualist trade organization in many respects), the co-ops have played a huge role in the increase in quality for specialty coffee. One of the many questions for Fair Trade is how to scale up beyond the relative fringes of the market to affect the dynamics of trade; but having said that, the gains it has made are impressive.


  1. What art has affected you the most, radical or otherwise? 

I’m a fan of the early socialist idea expounded by people like William Morris in England that the end goal of the labor movement is to elevate all work to the level of art. When workers control their own work, subjectivity and aesthetics are sure to play a part. So I find myself drawn to what I would call the “art of everyday life;” those elements of craft that are closest to our lives. Architecture, landscape design, fashion, furniture crafting…the fashioning of the world around us. I love it, and I love learning to respect the work and experience it takes to produce things we take for granted. The immense difficulty of plasterwork in housing construction, for example. I had a friend recently who explained to me how people apprentice for years learning how to evenly plaster walls, and it is a job that requires the mastering of technique. So when I walk into a house that has a perfectly plastered wall, I see there is someone who deserves respect for their work. It’s a worthwhile exercise to consider what “elevation to art” might mean in the million contexts of work life.


  1. Anything you’d tell young radicals and revolutionaries as inspiration for the future?

For those who haven’t yet, I would say that the best way to jump into the work is to plug into existing organization in the fight, or to start them yourselves. Collective action is a part of collective learning; we grow exponentially in our understanding as we work together. And although all principled action is good, we are going to need radically-oriented organizations that are around ten to twenty years from now. We have to be growing power together, not be merely content with the outpouring of episodic anger.

I would also warn against two things: activist bubbles, and what Chomsky has called “the pathology of marginal forces.” We have to be very careful not to isolate ourselves among the folks who share our perspectives. Many of the people who you find vast disagreements with in some areas can work with you towards other goals. Recognizing this is not necessarily a contradiction of principle, but an acknowledgment that we meet people where they are to help influence them in the right directions. This is especially true for the vast majority of the population who are completely divorced from politics and any understanding of power struggles. It takes time, and we are all trying to walk down that road together if our goal is meaningful democracy.

By “pathology of marginal forces,” I mean the tendency to treat former allies as bitter enemies. The dynamic is pretty endemic, unfortunately. Folks working to build grassroots powers where none really exist run up against feelings of powerlessness or hopelessness pretty often. And since there isn’t the ability to take it out on the architects of our current system, we sometimes end up slitting the throats of the person next to us after heated disagreements. Each of us has to figure out how we are going to handle disagreements and divisions in principled ways that don’t end up with us regarding former allies with greater disdain than we display for Donald Trump. Our movements need grace.


  1. Any shoutouts or promotions you’d like to make?

I’d point out the awesome folks doing the everyday work on the frontlines of the class war in the South. People should be aware that the South isn’t just some monolithic caricature of “Dixie.” It never has been. In Nashville, Dignidad Obrera is a worker center bringing the fight against wage theft and exploitation to the city’s largest hotels. And they’re consistently winning. In Memphis, people should just check out the Vance Ave. Collaborative and their amazing efforts to protect the last remaining public housing community. MidSouth Peace and Justice Center in Memphis is one of the strongest social justice organizations in Tennessee. SONG (Southerners On New Ground) is working to redefine LGBT action in the region. In Chattanooga, Mercy Junction’s Justice and Peace Center opened at the beginning of this year, and their presence creates much-needed space for activists in the city. Concerned Citizens for Justice is organizing to combat our city’s legacy of white supremacy and police brutality. A new group, SAFE (Student Activists for Equality), is organizing on the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s campus to support the groundswell of activism for the school’s neglect in abuse cases. And for interested folks, check out Chattanooga Organized for Action on the web (