Recently, I decided to take a small break from researching critical pedagogy and start looking at the world of anarcho-journalism. This wasn’t intentional; I’d found my way into it as I was researching anarchism in Latin America and the Caribbean, hoping to find glimmers of information about anarchist educational projects that started there.
But I started reading about the Cuban anarchist newspaper iTierra!, which was being published between 1902 and early 1915. As one of the widest reaching and longest lasting anarchist publications in the Caribbean, it just made me so curious. It helped Havana become a ‘hub’ to anarchists wanting to spread information about movements in the region, but why? What made that possible?
And then I saw what it was that intrigued me and had been on my mind after reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed. They had built a network of information that relied on community-based correspondents to report information and events happening around them; they connected the rural workers with the urban workers, they brought different workers’ movements together throughout the region, and they encouraged readers to engage with whatever was published as equals.
It was truly an anarchist publication throughout its whole structure, but it was also a space that enabled people to genuinely learn about both their situation and that of others.
To show how this one anarchist newspaper made me think of Paulo Freire, I need to quote two specific sections. First, in discussing depersonalisation, division, and how these ideas are used to more easily manipulate people, he wrote:
“Unity and organisation can enable [the oppressed] to change their weakness into a transforming force with which they can re-create the world and make it more human.”
However, Freire continued his explanation of why the oppressor ensures that people aren’t ‘allowed’ to be united in the footnote for this sentence, saying:
“For this reason it is indispensable for the oppressors to keep the peasants [rural workers] isolated from the urban workers, just as it is indispensable to keep both groups isolated from the students. The testimony of the rebellion of the latter (although they do not sociologically constitute a class) makes them dangerous in the event they join the people. It is thus necessary to convince the lower classes that students are irresponsible and disorderly, that their testimony is false because as students they should be studying, just as the factory workers and the peasants should be working towards the ‘nation’s progress’.”
This paper found their way around those issues, whether it was intentional or not. The editors who resided in Havana curated a newspaper that enabled people from across the island of Cuba to send information about issues and events where they were; it enabled rural workers to cultivate connections to urban workers and vice versa, giving them a space to connect in ways that were very much discouraged. These rural workers were able to show the urban workers that they had similar struggles, highlighting issues related to healthcare and workers’ rights and safety; both were able to share stories about how industrialisation was impacting them and their safety. It built connections between the people who manufactured goods as cigar rollers and those providing the raw materials from tobacco plantations.
It made it clear to the readers that they were connected. They shared some of the same problems, even if they took a different form.
But this extended to places farther than just areas of Cuba. Anarchists from Puerto Rico, Panama, and Tampa. Anarchists from all over would write and send resources, particularly money, to support the paper. From Puerto Rico, they described the government situation and working environment; they critiqued those who aligned themselves with the Spanish-speaking section of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) for aligning themselves with imperialists while simultaneously discussing movements on the ground. Writers in Panama described the atrocious working conditions under the United States’ canal commission, explaining that they had felt deceived into going to the isthmus for work and begging the editors of iTierra! to send copies to Spain in hopes that they could prevent the misery of their comrades. People in Tampa sent stories lamenting the apparent complacency in the worker movement and feeling trapped by having one union available: the anti-anarchist AFL, who would sabotage efforts made by anarchist groups throughout the region.
This connection not only helped keep people informed of what was happening within the region and abroad, but it let them know what to expect should they migrate to one of these regions for work, which was quite common among anarchists.
Of course, a major reason for this specific structure was that the editors couldn’t take time off their regular jobs to frequently go visit other locations. The necessity of relying on local correspondents helped iTierra! to reflect anarchist values such as having a decentralised organisation, a participatory democracy, and encouraging the readers to communicate with the movement intellectuals as equals.
But it also created motivation for people to keep writing, subscribing, and donating to iTierra! because they knew that their reports would be widely read by people near and far. It created a positive feedback loop that helped grow networks of support that governments and capitalists were honestly afraid of.
Motivation is probably one of the most important elements that keeps a movement going, but it’s also something we rarely focus on. We often talk about aspects like burnout and frustration, and we discuss all the ways in which people can get involved and participate in causes. Yet, we sometimes seem to forget that people, particularly those who feel lost and overlooked, need to be motivated and to know that they’re seen and heard.
And not in the performative “We see you, we hear you” garbage of our political elite who may see and hear us, but they are more than happy to show us that they most certainly do not care about us.
As a teacher, I know exactly what it is to be both overlooked in my profession despite the amount of time I’ve spent advocating with my students and colleagues for more supportive school structures; I know that a lack of attention has been one of the main drivers of decreasing motivation in people, even those who try their best to fight for what they believe in. I’ve watched colleagues who I thought were the most beautiful forces just stop fighting because they felt unheard, invisible, and unsupported. I’ve worked with students who just gave up on community projects they sincerely believed in and had developed because they were tired of fighting to be seen and watched resources be unfairly allocated to programs that no one asked for.
It’s heart-breaking because so many worthwhile projects get tossed to the side all because people cannot maintain the same motivation to fight, and I can’t really blame them for that. They don’t feel they have a network of reliable people, and they grow exhausted from having to support both themselves and the project.
And instead of focusing on preventing the burnout and frustration so many of us feel, we focus on how to cope with that burnout and frustration. The latter is important, but we need to work on preventing it and creating structures that enable us to pool and move resources more efficiently; we need to see that things are working elsewhere in order to keep going where we are, and we need to be able to share that information.
This is where I think a revival of anarcho-journalism can work as one strategy to combat demotivation.
Decentralised platforms of information make it possible for more voices to be heard and seen. Instead of centralising into a handful of editors and journalists, many of whom do not reside in the places they write about and do not directly participate in the movements they publish stories on, we should start creating newspapers and ‘zines that publish reports of people on the ground.
Along with publishing these reports, we need to start showcasing our visions of history, the present, and the future. Publishing stories, plays, poems, and other forms of art that highlight different visions and perceptions could lead to having a better understanding of both ourselves and friends in other places, in finding possible solutions to problems we’re facing, and generally improving morale because we have a space that includes both the reality of a situation and what we hope it can become. Creative spaces are largely morale boosters, and we need that more than ever.
This could even lead to the development of a few attached structures:
First, to get distribution going, a small open printing collective could open up to help move information from online spaces to offline spaces and vice versa, making it possible for people to access the newspapers and ‘zines in more accessible formats. This would create a space where people could start learning skills of publishing and distributing, including working with the disabled community to ensure they have access to the same information and the opportunity to publish their own work in the same spaces.
In the past, some places acted as ‘information hubs’, like Havana did for the many people who wrote to and received copies of iTierra!. This is because they had access to publishing spaces, were located in a major city that had a lot of people travelling through it, and had fewer regulations and censorship issues to deal with than other locations in the Caribbean. These small print shops could act as local hubs of information, passing out the newspapers and ‘zines to the people around them, while also functioning as nodes of exchange, passing information and work between different communities.
Working in this way could also potentially lead to other useful tasks and structures:
Communities could start taking ownership of their schools and libraries, making them true community spaces and ensuring that their resources are made freely available. These open print collectives provide wonderful opportunities to learn necessary skills in a range of areas, making different avenues of communication possible. This could pull together screen-printing, book-binding, and poster design with opportunities to extend these skills farther.
People could work on liberating information and research from behind paywalls, making it widely available to as many people as possible. This work can be done with the assistance of ‘radical’ librarians and archivists who work to create both decentralised structures and ‘homes’ for all information. We have some models for this in online spaces in the way that both torrents and the Internet Archive work, giving us somewhere to start from when we’re thinking about how to make it available across an online network.
For new research, we can look at open source journals as a starting point for how they can be structured. Working in conjunction with newspapers and ‘zines, the information can be disseminated through them and passed through the different ‘nodes’ on the network while still being open to critique and further elaboration by others either within the same community or in different ‘information nodes’ responding to explain their particular situation.
But this needs to be an effort that brings together many people who are often disconnected as a way to support each other, much as Freire suggested: students, rural populations, and urban populations need to be connected. The more information they have from each other, the better able they are to learn about the realities of their situations, those of other people, and how they may intersect.
None of these ideas are inherently new; it’s a collection of things I’ve seen, that people have told me about, or things I know existed at some point. Some of print collectives still exist. For example, in Southern Ontario, the Aphikona Distro functions much in this manner, bringing their community a range of information and being a space where members of their community can submit work, among other things.
Much of this came to mind as I was reading about how this ‘information hub’ in Havana made it clear what work was going on in different places as I also started seeing people on Twitter lament that they didn’t know what was happening either where they were or knew very little of the work others were doing. I caught a lot of people who said they felt as if they were constantly doing work that had already been done, trying to put together ideas that others had already figured out. They felt a sense of urgency to do something but also felt completely lost because of all the obstacles in their way, not knowing where to go to make connections with others.
I’ve felt this, too. I’ve often felt as if whatever I can do in my current situation is nothing more than shouting into a void, even as I look for spaces where I can organise with others or figure out what little I can do (all while navigating confusing COVID restrictions that seem to change every time I check the news, doing it entirely in a language that I’m still learning).
It’s exhausting, it’s frustrating, and it’s demotivating.
And perhaps creating these anarcho-journalism spaces and open print collectives could help alleviate that, help bridge some gaps, and help bring people together who otherwise couldn’t find each other. Maybe it might be a way to make what’s ‘underground’ more accessible to people who want to see it thrive.
Freire, Paulo. 2018. Pedagogy of the oppressed: 50th anniversary edition. Old Saybrook, Conn: Tantor Media.
Shaffer, Kirwin R. 2011. “Contesting Internationalists: Transnational Anarchism, Anti-Imperialism and US Expansion in the Caribbean, 1890s-1920.” Estudios Interdisciplinarios de América Latina y el Caribe 22, no 2 (June): 11-38.
Shaffer, Kirwin R. 2009. “Havana Hub: Cuban Anarchism, Radical Media and the Trans-Caribbean Anarchist Network.” Caribbean Studies 37, no. 2: 45-81.