Stephanie McMillan is an important voice. She is doing her part to make this a better world through her activism and her comics. And, fortunately for us, those two passions turn into some very compelling work. Her latest collection of comics, “The Minimum Security Chronicles: Resistance to Ecocide,” is published by Seven Stories Press. This book is a 160-page trade paperback priced at $12.71 and is set for release on October 8, 2013. Be sure to visit our friends at Seven Stories Press here and visit Stephanie McMillan here.
The following is an extensive email interview that I hope you’ll enjoy and be inspired by. What really motivates our actions? What sort of world do we accept and what sort of world could we aspire to? These are some of the ideas up for discussion in this interview.
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Stephanie, thank you for doing this interview. You are an activist, a journalist, and a cartoonist. You have created significant work, like “The Beginning of the American Fall,” which gives readers an inside look at how the Occupy movement came into existence. You have an ongoing comic strip, “The Minimum Security Chronicles,” that combines humor and discourse on being an activist. Your background is very interesting. You studied film and animation and you’ve always been an activist. Would you give a look at how you came to use words and pictures?
STEPHANIE McMILLAN: My artwork has always been political, with the purpose of delivering a message. My first public illustration was in 1982 for my high school newspaper, accompanying an article I wrote on the dangers of nuclear war. It was a drawing done in blue ballpoint pen of a screaming family being incinerated in a nuclear blast. From that point on, as I became politically active, I drew many images on banners and leaflets, and as graffiti and murals.
After college, I realized the process of animation, which I’d studied there, was too slow to say everything I wanted to (it was all done by hand in those days, and it could take a year to make a 3-minute film), and the audience was very small. In the late 1980s there was no internet, and only one annual showing of short animated films at a New York art theater. And when Reagan cut the NEA it became much more difficult to be an independent filmmaker. I didn’t want to work in advertising or for Disney, the only other viable options at the time, so I gave up my childhood dream of being an animator. In 1992 a newspaper editor suggested I draw regular editorial cartoons, and gave me a venue to do so.
HC: We are both from Generation X. And while these are generalities, I do think there’s something to be said for the fact that our generation grew up with a distinctive bent towards being alienated, ironic, and cynical. Do you think that this mindset, among other factors, contributed to the lack of any robust protest movements for so many years?
SM: Absolutely, it has. And this is not accidental. These are the attitudes corresponding to postmodernism, an ideology that has knocked out our class consciousness like a brick to the head. This has been decades in the making, and has severely damaged our capacity to fight capitalism. Deconstruction, an element of postmodernism, started out as a progressive initiative in the universities during the late 1960s, as a challenge to the dominant eurocentric, white-male-dominated ideology and culture. But like so many other things that start out combative, it has been tamed by capitalism and harnessed into its service.
Postmodernism asserts that meaning is not inherent in anything. What has emerged from this is the notion that each person’s—or subject’s—perception of reality, and their response to this perception, is equally valid. But when we live in a situation of ideological domination, where the majority of the population doesn’t recognize capitalism as our enemy, this approach (whatever its initial intent) can only end up serving the existing system. It opens the door only far enough for cynicism and irony to get through, but not class struggle.
We must reclaim our ability to judge, and to make assertions according to our class interests. Not everything is equally valid. Not everything is acceptable. There is right and wrong. There is reality and illusion. There is truth and falsehood. There are some ideas that serve life, and other ideas that facilitate exploitation and murder. We have to be able to strongly assert that for the broad masses of people and for life on the planet as a whole, capitalism is evil.
HC: I do remember there having been a brief anti-nuclear movement after Three Mile Island but nothing took off. There were protests of some significance against the invasion of Iraq. The WTO protest in Seattle, which I witnessed, was a sign of things to come. And, like you’ve written, it wasn’t until Occupy that we came to see something bigger emerge. Do you think a fresh energy coming from the Millennial Generation is a big factor in this new protest movement or is it more a case of so many chickens having come home to roost?
SM: This young generation has been thrown to the wolves, sacrificed to finance capital. They’ve been offered no way to make a living, much less to pay off the enormous debt they’ve been burdened with. The promises about the future lifestyles they expected to enjoy have evaporated, and they face nothing but economic hardship and ecological catastrophe. Occupy was mainly an initial response to the shock of facing this reality.
The protests have been an important, necessary step. But if we are to actually build the kind of revolutionary movement that can challenge the domination of capital over us, then we need to go much further. We need to go beyond “protest mode,” and build the kind of organizations strong enough to actually take power and run society.
HC: The one key factor that you return to in seeking a solution to our current state of economic dysfunction is to completely destroy global capitalism. But how would we ever accomplish such a thing? That, Stephanie, would be my main question to you now and in any future interviews–because I’m sure it is a question with an evolving answer.
First, what do you mean when you refer to global capitalism? Are we talking bad capitalism vs. good capitalism? Multi-nationals vs. small family businesses? We need some form of capitalism, don’t we? I mean, we need to keep brining in some sort of income for ourselves to function in society as we know it.
SM: I’ll answer these two questions together, since our response to a problem is determined by our understanding of that problem. We need to thoroughly understand capitalism if we are going to be able to overcome it. And everything we’re taught from the day we’re born is designed to thwart our understanding of it and cement our allegiance to it.
These are the two fundamental questions of our current era: what is the nature of this system, and how do we destroy it? Marx laid the foundation for understanding capital, and countless others have offered their analysis and opinions about the system and about what to do. But there are no formulas. Theory is a living process, developing and constantly changing along with reality itself.
I’ve wrestled with these questions for my entire adult life, and have made many mistakes and wandered onto dead end paths. I believe I’m on a more productive path now, but history will tell. As part of my own effort at clarification and applying theory, I’ve written another new book (with text and cartoons) that I’m just finishing up now, called “Capitalism Must Die!” It will be out soon. It has two sections. One defines capitalism and explains how it works, and why it’s inherently expansionist and irredeemable. The other part talks about class struggle and how to organize to defeat capitalism.
But here are some short answers for right now:
Capitalism is a specific historical mode of production in which labor is a commodity, sold for wages. Workers produce more value (called surplus value) than the amount they are paid. This surplus value is appropriated by capitalists, who own the means of production (factories, raw materials, land, etc).
Surplus value is reinvested as new capital. Capital has the tendency to accumulate and expand, and has become an integrated world system.
We don’t need capitalism at all, in any form. There’s no “good” capitalism. It’s all evil. It’s destroying us. Families who survive by running small businesses suffer in this system too, and are almost always eventually out-competed or eaten up by larger capitalists.
We do need, as your question addresses, a way for us to reproduce ourselves, a way for our society to exist from one day to the next. We need to produce food, clothing, shelter and other necessities. There’s no reason whatsoever that this has to be done under the domination of capital. In fact, for the vast majority of people, it could be more easily and better accomplished without such domination. Our species has managed to thrive—and to avoid destroying the Earth—without class divisions, and specifically without capitalism (the current form of class-divided society), for most of our existence.
The fundamental contradiction of capitalism is between capital and labor. The entire capitalist economy, including speculation and banking and everything else, is built on the surplus value stolen from workers in the process of commodity production. So the working class is in a unique position: their interests are fundamentally in opposition to capital, and they are placed strategically at the point of production. If they refuse to work, surplus value—and thus capital—doesn’t’ get produced.
So the most direct way to destroy capitalism is for the working class to seize and control the means of production, and to run it for the benefit not of capitalists, but for society as a whole. For this to happen, we need a revolution of all the popular classes in an alliance against capital, led by the working class.
We can accomplish that by starting organizations wherever we are: in schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods. Plus, we need to appropriate working class theory. With these elements we can build our collective capacity to resist and weaken capital, with the ultimate goal of overthrowing it.
HC: What, at this point in your research and thought, would you describe as the ideal way of living, locally and globally? Is an activist thinking in terms of one lifetime or generations?
SM: We should be thinking in terms of the long-term future, the opposite of the capitalists’ restless and destructive quest for short-term gains. Of course for human society to be sustainable, production must be completely transformed so that it’s not net extractive, and instead beneficial for the health (measured in thriving biodiversity) of the planet overall. A new way of life can only be determined and built collectively, by society as a whole, as we break down class divisions. We’ll make that path as we walk it.
HC: This is a bit morbid, but isn’t everything rather a moot point as long as we have the threat of nuclear weapons all over the world? We can enjoy rich, healthy, satisfying lives but those in control will…well, remain in control, won’t they? There’s global warming is keep us busy fighting against and then there remains the whole nuclear issue.
SM: Indeed. Both the ecological crisis and threat of nuclear weapons are effects, or consequences, of capitalism. If we focus our fight on these (or other) effects, then we’ll never win. Capitalism is extremely innovative and dynamic. It can always absorb losses and go around them. For example, while everyone’s attention was focused on stopping the Keystone XL pipeline, energy companies developed enough rail capacity to transport even more tar sands oil than Keystone would.
We need to strike at the core of capitalism, its engine, rather than keep trying to puncture its tires. That means we need to push its fundamental or central contradiction, capital vs. labor, forward toward a rupture.
HC: Well, there is no end to the struggle. What would you suggest in the way of reading and participation, to move closer to a better world?
SM: First, observe reality and think critically. How is capitalism manifesting itself currently, and in various places? How is resistance struggling to come into being, how are the masses expressing their interests, and what can turn that into a social force? How do we organize when there is such an overall low level of combativeness and consciousness? We can only learn these things by participating in struggle. It’s like learning any other skill. You can’t learn how to play a guitar by reading about it; at some point you have to pick one up and start plucking the strings.
If there are no organizations where you are that are addressing these questions effectively, then it’s your responsibility to start one. It starts with you and one other person. Then one more. But someone has to take that initiative.
Read lots of history and political theory, of all types and from all sources. This is how we begin to think critically, to analyze, to learn from all the many and diverse experiences of our class. We have to do this on our own, in spite of all the institutions (schools, mainstream media, religions, entertainments) that work so hard to keep us ignorant.
HC: I am sure it’s rewarding to discuss these big issues in your comic strip, “Minimum Security Chronicles.” The latest collection is out October 8, published by Seven Stories Press. Are the any final thoughts or new projects on the horizon?
SM: Yes, I do always like to discuss the big issues. We all need to be engaged with them, if we are to have a future at all. We have to have our priorities straight, and not get caught up in trivialities. There isn’t anything more important than emancipating the world from the omnicidal system of capitalism.
I’m hoping to have the book “Capitalism Must Die!” done in the next month or two. I’m also presently working on a series of comics about the struggles of workers in the global garment industry. After that, I have a book in mind on revolutionary proletarian ideology. All of this is secondary to, and in service of, my actual political work. At the revolutionary level, I’m participating in a project called Idées Nouvelles, Idées Prolétariennes (New Ideas Proletarian Ideas) (look here). At the intermediate/mass level, I work with an anti-capitalist/anti-imperialist group called One Struggle (look here). If you or anyone reading this is interested in either one, I’d be happy to discuss them further (firstname.lastname@example.org).
HC: Stephanie–thanks so much. I hope these questions stir up some good discussion.
SM: Thank you, Henry! Please feel free to follow up on anything you’d like to continue talking about.
HC: Thank you, Stephanie! We will definitely continue this discussion.