Are We There Yet? A Conversation w/Alexander Baretich about Bio-regionalism and Late-stage Capitalism.

The system is collapsing — and responding by pretending everything is normal.

By Anatole d’Ecotopia

We’ve previously touched on the idea of “Cascadia” in this space (Favoritism, Fatality, and the Failure of Federalism) — the idea that The Pacific Northwest has a bioregional and cultural uniqueness, an identity that extends past the U.S./Canadian border into British Columbia — an identity that, for some “Cascadians”, transcends their identity as either U.S. or Canadian citizens.

Portland activist and organizer Alexander Baretich has and continues to play a significant role in shaping the idea of Cascadia. He was kind enough recently to join us to discuss this and related topics.

(this conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity)

Let’s start with a quick rundown on your bio. Of course, the Cascadia Flag is what you’re most widely known for– what else should we know?

I was born and raised in Portland. I am a teacher of — well, “human geography” is what they call it now. My background is political geography, geopolitics, and history — specifically Eastern European and Islamic / Middle Eastern history. I’ve lived in a few various countries. That’s about it, really.

You were actually in Eastern Europe when you came up with the idea for the Doug flag, right?

Yeah. That was in 1995.

For the benefit of those not familiar, the Doug Flag is the flag of Cascadia. It turns up regularly at Portland Timbers games, turns up on beer labels from all over the region. A lot of people who have seen it don’t even necessarily know what it is, but they kind of know what it’s about. And it’s your work.

Yeah, and it definitely gets around. Last night somebody posted a variation of it on Reddit so close it basically was the Cascadia Flag and I wound up spending a lot of hours getting it pulled for copyright infringement. Luckily, I’m having issues with insomnia right now anyway. It’s not like I had anything better to do.

What was your previous involvement with the local activist community?  

Oh gosh, I was part of Occupy Portland. Before that, I’d been teaching free classes on nonviolent transformative change. I taught a class on “memetic Cascadia”, how to spread memes around. And that was in 2011 right before Occupy happened. 

So the class was wrapping up and Occupy was starting, there were rumblings about things like occupying the parks of Portland. And a lot of my students and friends joined that. And we brought the seed idea of Cascadia into Occupy Portland. I kept on saying “we need a radical revolutionary movement to incubate this movement. 

And even though I’m against Chinese made flags, a friend ordered a thousand Chinese made Cascadia flags at that time. And they were delivered right on time for Occupy. So there were lots of Cascadian flags in there. 

Prior to that, I’d been involved in other activism. I remember being there that one time Dick Cheney showed up one time in Portland and–

And rapidly figured out he was in the wrong place.

Actually, not so much. This was back in the Indymedia days, and even though the call went out, only about ten of us showed up. And there were maybe hundreds of riot cops around the hotel he was in. So I’ve seen some pretty horrible actions. But I’ve also seen some great actions as well.

Occupy, as much as some people thought it was a disaster, really did change the national narrative. And in Portland, we were able to spend 30 days feeding homeless people and helping people deal with drug abuse issues. And feeding people may not have been a complete solution– but it was more than the city was doing.

So let’s talk about bioregionalism– who actually coined the term?

It was actually Allen Van Newkirk, a radical revolutionary poet and performance artist from New York in The Sixties who shared the concept with Peter Berg, who was one of the founders of The Diggers in the same time frame in San Francisco.

Berg’s approach was more ideological — I like to describe it as the “decolonization of cartography” — the removal of of those dominant lines, like the lines between Oregon and Washington or that straight line between California and Oregon… removing those lines and looking at demarcation or space from a watershed, geologic point of view and including that biotic and human layer to it. 

But then you put into the context that these people were not the new left in the 1960s, they were the anarchist version of it. And they were about stopping the establishment, they were pro-peace. They were anti-war. And they started feeding people. 

And so when you put The Diggers as the seed of bioregionalism — yes, we need to be anti-capitalist, because that’s what they were, we need to be anti-war because that’s what they were. That’s the source of bioregionalism. 

So for me, it’s very frustrating. My flag gets co-opted at all times — not not by the Timbers — which is fairly harmless — but by other groups, or by people not knowing the origins of the movement. And then the thing is, we have a real crucial issue here, and that is capitalism, the neoliberal economic structure. And when I say “neoliberal”, I mean globalization, where the chicken you’re going to eat is actually being sent onto a ship in the middle of the sea to be cut up by Chinese labor and sent back to you,  or all your clothes are made in China from materials sourced somewhere else and sent back to you or they’re logging your trees to be sent, again, to another market to make products that get sent back to you.

Which is great until you have something like a pandemic, and all those “just in time” delivery systems fail. And the food that you were counting on being processed somewhere else on the planet to make some corporation a buck is no longer accessible, or the mask that you would want to wear in public to not be a victim of the pandemic takes weeks for delivery. At least we finally have people manufacturing masks locally.

Yeah, finally — and hand sanitizer. It’s not that we didn’t have the resources, it’s just that the distribution lines weren’t set up for it. Neoliberal economy is distribution lines.  

So, is it possible to begin to organize along lines of bioregionalism regionally, under an existing capitalist system that hasn’t quite ended yet?

Yes, 100%. That’s why I tell people: “grow food”. Right now we need to make sure that we have enough food because people who are starving don’t think about the environment. People who are starving, don’t think about other people’s rights. They don’t think about — I don’t want to say “democracy”, in the sense of American democracy. People don’t think of democratic principles when they’re starving or when they’re in desperate situations. They think about themselves. They think about their family. So, yeah — grow food now

Eventually, when we know that we have enough food to feed people, then we need to start thinking “okay, well, what kind of plants are we growing, what kind of system are we creating? And what can we do to be more in tune with this specific bioregion.

Is a continuation of a Trump presidency enough of a wake up call for enough people?

That’s the major question.

Because his getting elected in the first place was not. Yeah, in the immediate aftermath of the election there were riots in the streets of Portland that have been portrayed ever since by Fox News as just our natural state of existence. 

I blame a certain amount of this on myself for not doing a better job of getting the word out. And I’m trying now to work on a book — not all the details of the history of bioregionalism, just a very short booklet that could be put in every “little library”, spread around as much as possible. Something that people would look at and say “Ah, yes– that makes sense.”

Something like a second Whole Earth Catalog?

Maybe. I’m thinking more like just kind of bullet points. Not sure I understand.

I’m thinking of the role the original Whole Earth Catalog played as a primary information source, pre-information society. Back then, print was what you had.

Maybe something like that would be a good secondary thing to add with it.   

So, we’ve been having Cascadia Movement meetings for about the last two weeks now. They’ve gone well, but I’m also frustrated with them at the same time — and that’s not because of the people putting them on. It’s just simply, you know, zoom meetings, and all that. 

So, what we’ve decided to do within a smaller circle is create a Cascadian radical discussion — and when I say “radical”, I mean in the original sense as the Latin word for “root” In other words, looking at the issue in a systematic way and saying “where’s the root problem? And how do we change that root and replant ourselves back into the ground to grow out from that?” So, that’s why I use the word “radical”.

Just don’t use it with a general audience.

Oh– no, no, no (laughs). This is only for us.

So anyway, we’re trying to get together to have a group meeting to at least guide the Cascadian Movement back to its original roots, stripped of all the ideology and terminology. If you look at its original roots, it’s about localization. Can you feed your community? Can you live with your community? Can your community live with the environment? And I think that by itself, minus all the ideology and the terminology, living with your community has a good resonance that could make sense to most people.

I look at prospects for the near future, and it isn’t good. The single most likely outcome is an effective dictatorship supported by a surveillance state, but I think there is also the possibility that the U.S. could go the way of the U.S.S.R.

Right.

No one ever thought the Soviet Union would collapse until it did. No one ever thinks that the United States could ever fall apart — except it sort of already is.

There’s a documentary that came out in 2016, right before the elections, by Adam Curtis, called HyperNormalisation. That’s a term from the Soviet collapse. What it refers to is realizing that the system is collapsing — and responding by pretending everything is normal. The idea that we’ll get out of it eventually from just the mass numbers of us pretending its normal.

In some ways that we’re doing here. The American system collapsed years ago, it became predatory years ago, and we all pretend this is just normal. And this little virus has really kind of revealed how unnormal all this is. Homelessness is a real issue. That the average American worker was working paycheck by paycheck paying rent every month and having nothing left after that is a real issue. So, yeah — I think we are heading towards a collapse. But also that doesn’t necessarily mean the system’s gone. I agree with you. We could end up with a Chinese model where there’s a barcode in front of every house or apartment so that the police can check on you. That’s what they do in China. Actually, we already have a system of surveillance. It’s called Facebook. It’s called Zoom — what we’re on right now.

These networks are more easily compromised than most people ever care to think about. Most of them already are.

Within the Cascadian Movement, there is the original core of bioregionalism, but there is also a neoliberal technocrat stream. And that includes people like Jay Inslee and Bill Gates. They would love to see Cascadia as an independent, neoliberal country. Kind of like Hong Kong was back in the 1980s, where it was this free market outside of China, but in this weird connection with China. 

In a lot of ways, the region is already headed that way. The question is, can we turn it around? Those two streams of thoughts have had a conflict already. And that was 1999. The WTO and Seattle was that conflict, where the people up in the buildings, the neoliberals, were making decisions, and there were people down the streets protesting on behalf of labor or women’s rights or protesting against GMOs. And both the Neoliberal Technocrats and the Bioregionialists can trace their origins back to the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s. So we live in interesting times.

And that’s probably as good a note as any to end this on. Many thanks for your time. Let’s do this again sometime.

Yes. Talk to you later. Thank you very much.

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