When I caught a glimpse of a better world
reflects on the lessons learned in a camp kitchen at Standing Rock.
THE WHOLE world knows that the mass mobilization and solidarity organized by water protectors who gathered at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota were the essential ingredients in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' decision to deny the permits needed to continue construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).
But few know about how this mobilization was organized and the transformative impact it had on the many thousands who made it possible.
I went to Standing Rock to participate in this historic effort to defend Native sovereignty and to protect our planet from the ravages of fossil-fuel extraction and climate change, and that was moving, in and of itself.
But I also gained a newfound understanding of how a world built on the foundation of solidarity carries the potential to transform everything that's wrong with the current world, even something as fundamental as the nature of work itself.
In just nine months, the three encampments spearheading the DAPL resistance--Sacred Stone, Oceti Sakowin and Rosebud--grew to become North Dakota's tenth-largest city with a combined population of 11,000. The largest camp, Oceti Sakowin, where I was, runs its own school, sanitation system, medical and mental health clinics, security operation and eight public kitchens to nourish and sustain the ongoing peoples' struggle.
Those at Standing Rock formed an impromptu society of volunteers run entirely on the commitment to stand together in defense of the rights of Mother Earth and her inhabitants.
Within the camp, there exists a leadership body of democratically elected headsmen and elder mentors. While specialized councils have emerged to coordinate services for the community, day-to-day administration of camp life is largely decentralized. Particularly as the cold of winter approached, the Standing Rock Solidarity Network issued a statement that read in part: "Listen, observe, and offer to help with projects. Don't wait to be asked. While you need to follow the guidance of Native people about priorities, there is plenty of work to do."
With this tenet in mind, I offered my time and service to the one of the larger food halls known as Lower Brule, or the All-Relations Kitchen. The kitchen originated just three months prior, when two women named Rachel and Maria gained a reputation among water protectors for making really great campfire coffee. In the tradition of generosity, hosting coffee quickly turned into hosting meals under a humble 20-foot-by-20-foot tarpaulin supported by wood boards.
BY THE time I arrived at the camp, the kitchen filled two large army tents equipped with stainless steel prep tables, two big broiler/smoker ovens, a full grill range, a separate flattop range, four propane burners and a three-bin sink. With generous food donations coming in from across the country, Rachel, Maria and a handful of dedicated volunteers provided three nutritious meals a day to more than 700 people.
One evening while washing dishes, I marveled at the sense of cooperation and camaraderie that took place while helping to prepare dinner. Despite the enormity of the task, the kitchen crew worked energetically and with joy.
I've personally worked in restaurants for almost 15 years, so I'm not at all new to this kind of work. But never before that night had I felt such satisfaction in serving a meal.
It was also my first time attempting to boil snow in -5 degree weather for dishwater. But oddly enough, I took pride in something that would typically be considered tedious or menial work.
As I wondered aloud, "Is work here always this enjoyable?" a volunteer named Wyatt Nelson turned to answer my question. Wyatt had been helping in the All-Relations Kitchen for more than a month and was eager to confirm that labor here at Oceti Sakowin was fundamentally different than it was back in his hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska.
With keen insight into the role of labor under capitalism, he described how the most distinctive character of his work at Standing Rock was that it wasn't alienated--neither from his own sense of humanity, nor from that of others around him.
Here in this kitchen, Wyatt's work was his own. "Everything I do here is because I want to," he said. "I am doing it out of my own heart. I'm putting my love into it. It's mine. When we put out a dish, and I see people eat it, I feel really good. I feel like my energy went directly to that person. You know, we're going up to the frontlines in their bellies."
For Wyatt and other kitchen volunteers, labor at Standing Rock represents something vastly new and unfamiliar. Removed from the yoke of capitalist production, people's skills were genuinely valued, no oppressive boss monitored our every move, and work was a vehicle for contributing to something greater than just scraping together rent money.
WHAT DISTINGUISHES humans from animals is the ability to act consciously on the world--to step back from that activity, assess it and improve on it.
But back home, and in capitalist society generally, working people like Wyatt are routinely denied control over their productive activity and are forced to subordinate their creative instincts to a supervisor who imposes a preordained role on them. This role is determined by what will generate the most amount of profit to the company's owner--not by what would be most fulfilling to an employee, or what would produce the greatest benefit to consumers or society generally.
In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Karl Marx defined this loss of control as a key aspect of what he calls "alienation."
In basic terms, Marx's theory of alienation asserts that within class society, and particularly under capitalism, working people are alienated in four distinct ways: from the products they create with their labor; from the process of production; from fellow working people; and ultimately from their "species being," which is the essence of what makes them human.
Denied the ability to engage in free, conscious and creative work, work is no longer the fulfillment of the human drive to transform the environment in the production and reproduction of human life. Instead, labor is turned into an instrument to produce profit--for the benefit of the employer, not the worker.
Since capitalism is an economic system built on the basis of class divisions, finding a "good job" won't save you from this reality. As a worker, even if employed in an industry you enjoy, by a boss you don't completely hate, your labor is still "alienated" in the sense described by Marx more than 150 years ago: What you produce and how you produce it is dictated by your boss, the product belongs to your boss, and you are forced to compete with other workers for the "privilege" of keeping your job.
To help them swallow this bitter pill, workers are bombarded with messages designed to convince them that no alternative is possible. We are taught from an early age that it is our "human nature" to be competitive and selfish. True cooperation isn't possible or desirable because without competition, goes the argument--our creativity and invention would stagnate.
FROM OUR workplaces to our systems of government, we are told that ordinary people are incapable of running society on their own. Instead, we need a qualified supervisor, or an enlightened set of politicians to make decisions on our behalf.
At Standing Rock, I witnessed exactly the opposite. All of that self-serving, ruling-class ideology broke down in the face of the immense goodness, cooperation and connectivity that thrived in the camp. As Wyatt put it beautifully:
This is a pretty amazing dichotomy. Up on that hill, there's the spotlights, bulldozers, machines, police; everything that system represents. And down here, it's the complete contrary. We're saying we don't have to live that way. We can live in a human-oriented society.
This camp is living proof that you don't need money, you don't need bosses, and you don't need hierarchy. You can work together out of the goodness of your heart, and it works. It's happening right now. We're feeding hundreds of people a day, we're stopping this multibillion-dollar pipeline by this company that has committed so many illegal, anti-human actions. They've trampled on people's rights, sprayed and beaten people. It's part of the same pattern that these corporate entities have been contributing to for hundreds of years.
I was a guest at Oceti Sakowin for just a few short days, but felt fortunate to be part of the high level of productivity that pulsed through the camp. In lending a hand with various tasks, I was struck not only by the intense amount of labor required for the survival of this community, but the nature of the relationship between people and their labor. Unlike the larger society from which we came, the act of engaging in work at Standing Rock seemed to be, dare I say, gratifying.
From the construction of shelter to the direction of traffic, those who chose to participate organized tasks within the camp collectively. By design, all efforts were volunteer-based and approached in the framework of humility and service. There were leaders, but no bosses. There was labor, but not drudgery.
When donations arrived at camp, no group of elites took a disproportionate share before privately deciding how to dole out the rest. On the contrary, resources were distributed according to need.
If I had to sum it up, I'd describe the culture of work at Oceti Sakowin as life-affirming. Despite having limited resources, a mindset of abundance, not scarcity, prevails.
Examples such as the one at Standing Rock are important because they can remind us that life as we know it under capitalism isn't the only possible way society can be organized. Examples throughout history such the Paris Commune of 1848, and the Russian Revolution of 1917, show us that another world is possible. Just because capitalism is all we've ever known, doesn't mean it's all we can ever have.
But this will require wresting back control of society's resources from the capitalists who currently use it to enrich themselves--no matter the cost to the workers who produce the wealth or the earth that sustains life in the first place.
If there's one thing I learned from my trip to Standing Rock, it's that thousands of people are already committed to this fight, and struggling together to push it forward. If we are wise, we will take these lessons with us to the frontlines of our struggles in 2017. A better world is possible.
Many thanks to Wyatt Nelson, who took the time to talk with me about these issues. Thanks also to the volunteers at Oceti Sakowin, who literally give life to the struggle and who inspired me to write this article. For those who wish to read more on this topic, check out Paul D'Amato's article "Can workers run the world?", Leia Petty's talk "What is alienation?", and Todd Chretien's article "Rekindling the human spirit."