Take The Power Back (Against Puget Sound Energy)

“The efficient management of society rewards those who exploit power and privilege for personal gain. The very structure of hierarchy perpetuates the climate crisis as a tiny minority of individuals — corporate executives and politicians — make decisions on behalf of billions of people, rendering communities powerless over those issues that most impact their lives. This is at the heart of the deep cynicism in politics. People correctly understand that existing institutions are not built to serve them, nor run by individuals that care to do so.”

At the same time anarchists seek to tear down hierarchy and exploitation, we work to build a free and equal world from the ground up. Of course, these goals complement each other. When we push back against the wealthy and their enforcers, we gain space to revive and experiment with different ways of living; and as we grow our capacity to survive independent of capitalism, we have more time and resources to fight back.

The tension between our exploitation by capitalism and our independence from capitalism exists in every part of our lives: our food, housing, work, learning, transportation, even our social lives. Capitalism hawks many solutions to this tension. Someone who works hard enough and is born to the right circumstances can eat healthy food, drive a Tesla, live in a green luxury home in an “urban village,” put solar panels on their roof, and send their kids to a Montessori school. The rest of us get food deserts, public schools, long bus commutes, and high rents, or no home at all. The capitalists don’t really offer freedom or solutions, only indulgences for those who can afford them.

The state is in the pocket of capitalists, and does not want us to develop our independence. Housing assistance, rather than helping people establish their own housing, is a multi-billion dollar subsidy to landlords. Food stamps, rather than helping people build the capacity to feed themselves, is a multi-billion dollar subsidy to grocery chains, JP Morgan Chase, and Big Agriculture. Welfare programs are not meant to help poor people become self-sufficient, but to transfer vast amounts of public wealth to capitalists and keep people dependent on the state.

quest-ebt-card

We need cooperation among ourselves, and resistance to the rulers. Around the world, people get together to plant community gardens and orchards on unused land, and share the fruits of their labor. People pool their resources to open cooperative houses, or simply crack open vacant houses, and open these homes to their communities as social centers. Bicycle cooperatives help many people cheaply build and maintain their own means of transportation. Workers occupy shuttered factories and run them on their own terms. Projects across a city, region, or even around the world can form federations or networks to coordinate their work.

I want to discuss one aspect of our needs, energy. Imagine we get rid of capitalism and the state. Okay, how do we stay warm in the winter? You may have had the pleasure of living with a wood-burning stove. Living with candlelight and firewood is pleasant to some, and that is a good option in areas where people can sustainably collect the materials for it. But rejecting capitalism and the state doesn’t necessitate an Amish lifestyle. We should ask ourselves, in the places we live, what energy sources can we sustainably use? And what technologies do we want in our lives? Ursula Le Guin suggests, “Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive. In the middle category, however — that of the unnecessary but undestructive, that of comfort, luxury, exuberance, etc. — they could perfectly well have central heating, subway trains, washing machines, and all kinds of marvelous devices not yet invented here, floating light-sources, fuel-less power, a cure for the common cold. Or they could have none of that: it doesn’t matter. As you like it.”

In a capitalist society, the wealthy make decisions about the energy sources we use, and any profitable technology is fair game, consequences be damned. But to many people, the precautionary principle is simply common sense: if an action possibly risks causing harm, and there is disagreement about whether an action is harmful, those who wish to take the action must show proof that the action will not be harmful. In an anarchist society, each community would make their own choices, as long as the choices don’t infringe on other communities. In turn, energy systems could be coordinated across regions.

And yes, an anarchist society can maintain a regional electric system. In 1936, fascists in the Spanish military attempted to overthrow the Spanish Republic, starting a three year civil war. For a year, anarchist collectives self-organized life in the city of Barcelona and the surrounding region of Catalonia. Infrastructure, farms, and factories were self-managed by workers, with no need for bosses or executives or stockholders. Workers elected administrate committees, and workplaces coordinated among themselves across industries, Barcelona, and Catalonia. Electricity in Catalonia came from hydroelectric dams, which were taken over by their workers. This system functioned throughout the Civil War. Sam Dolgoff summarizes in The Anarchist Collectives, “The principles of workers’ self-management and federalism were tested successfully in undertaking the task of the immediate and efficient restoration of the everyday necessities of life — food, clothing, shelter and public services.”

streetcar

It is nice to imagine, though unlikely, that capitalism and the state will be swept away tomorrow. How do we get from here to there? Socialists propose that we nationalize or municipalize the energy industry, making it government-owned. For example, Seattle City Light operates as a department of the city government. But Seattle City Light was not created by a top-down decree, as socialist politicians advocate. Before 1905, Puget Sound Traction, Power & Light (PSTP&L) — which later became Puget Sound Energy (PSE) — had a private monopoly on electricity and streetcars in Seattle (in spite of the local name, it was owned be a national conglomerate). Fed up with these monopolies, Seattleites voted to build a municipal hydroelectric plant at Cedar Falls, at first to power the city’s street lights.

A letter from the municipal archive describes how workers pushed the private monopoly out of Seattle: “In the early days employees took a personal interest in developing City Light, much as if it were their own business…[PSTP&L] was unfair to organized labor for 15 years and the linemen’s union helped City Light greatly. A group of linemen would go to a saloon and drink, and talk the owner into taking City Light. Then they would call up [Ormand] Watson in the middle of the night to come over to the saloon and write a contract. The Linemen’s Union sent representatives around to all union shops to get them to switch over to City Light…This spirit was very real in the original group of employees, many of who were never rewarded by any high position — and no one in City Light ever got much salary that I know of.”

In 1928, Washington State Grange farmers and unions put Initiative 1 on the ballot to create Public Utility Districts (PUDs), to achieve rural electrification and sweep out private monopolies. Today, in most counties in the state, voters elect PUD commissioners and have much more say in the utility’s operations. PSE, now owned by international investors, still has a monopoly on gas heating in Seattle and on electricity in much of the Puget Sound area. Most of this electricity is generated by burning methane gas and coal. State politicians, the Sierra Club, and PSE are negotiating for PSE to close its Montana coal plant, but any deal would put taxpayers and ratepayers on the hook for closure and cleanup costs. PSE is also trying to build new high-tension powerlines across King County, which would seize many homes through eminent domain and cost ratepayers $300 million. The project, “Energize Eastside,” isn’t necessary for local energy needs; it would expand an electric transmission corridor between Canada and California, so PSE can sell electricity out-of-state.

energize pse

In the 1930s, New Deal Democrats made public electricity a key platform issue. FDR created the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), and the government spearheaded dam construction across the region. The dams produced far more electricity than anyone needed and wrecked local ecosystems, pushing Northwest salmon to the edge of extinction and devastating Native communities. The state government created Energy Northwest to build even more dams and nuclear power plants, a project that was environmentally and financially disastrous. The BPA is now building another destructive swath of high-tension powerlines through southwest Washington, again not to meet local energy needs, but to expand their electric transmission corridor to sell hydropower to California.

In Washington State, people successfully fought the electric monopolies and started to build a decentralized, community-owned electric system. But the movement was derailed when social democrats in the state and federal governments intervened, pushing centralized infrastructure and creating another destructive, entrenched bureaucracy.
People are taking the power back, by several means. The Yakama Confederation created a municipal utility in 2005, Yakama Power, to build renewable power projects and train Confederation members as utility workers, and are now generating hydropower from existing irrigation channels. In 2008, Jefferson County voters kicked out PSE and are now getting cheaper, cleaner energy from the county PUD. A small group of people mobilized neighborhood associations in Portland, Oregon, to form Solarize Portland, which has weatherized and installed solar power on about 1000 houses. Solarize Northwest has organized neighborhood associations to install solar panels on over 800 houses in the Seattle area, as well as on community centers and at Jackson Place Cohousing.

Renewable energy cooperatives are groups of neighbors who identify the best places in their area to install renewable energy systems, pool resources to buy parts cheaply, coordinate installation, and share the energy generated. This way, renewable energy isn’t restricted to wealthy homeowners. The group can have a barn-raising event to install systems, or hire a worker cooperative. Every neighborhood could have a solar cooperative. Denmark and Germany get a large portion of their electricity from solar — while getting less sun than the Northwest!

Solar cooperatives and existing neighborhood groups can be the beginning of a local energy system. These groups could form neighborhood energy unions, associations of all the electricity users in the area. These unions can carry out direct action campaigns — in both the sense of building independent, local infrastructure, and the sense of confronting capitalist control of energy. They could build community solar systems, district heating networks (like the one used by the University of Washington and in many parts of Denmark and Sweden), geothermal and wind facilities where there is potential for it, cooperative housing, and remodel buildings for energy efficiency.

These projects would reduce the neighborhood’s reliance on the utilities, while building relationships between electricity users and utility workers, so they can support each other’s campaigns against the capitalists. Like tenants unions organizing rent strikes, neighborhood energy unions can organize utility bill strikes, and defend each other against shutoffs. People can use this leverage to demand utilities facilitate and even fund community energy projects. In the 1970s, the PCC grocery chain funded Seattle’s network of community gardens. Neighborhoods could tap credit unions and other cooperatives to fund energy projects. The Black Panther Party picketed corporate grocery chains and liquor stores to demand funding for their Survival Pending Revolution programs. People could similarly demand community project funding from the likes of Amazon, Whole Foods, or Uncle Ike’s.

In areas monopolized by PSE, people can create PUDs or tribal government utilities (if on a reservation). Neighborhood energy unions can demand municipal utilities withdraw from contracts with the BPA and Energy Northwest, and campaign to democratize municipal utilities, so they are directed by recallable delegates elected by utility workers and electricity users. Or, neighborhood energy unions and utility workers can create a regional network to supersede the utilities.

There is much to do to end exploitation, oppression, and ensure our long-term survival. We can start almost anywhere. Decolonization must be a priority — supporting Native communities in regaining independence. The dams must go.

The capitalist template of single-family homes and single-occupancy vehicles is unsustainable and unrealistic. We need walkable neighborhoods for everyone, not just for wealthy urbanites. Squatting, tenants unions, community land trusts and cooperative housing can help keep affordable housing in the city — which, combined with remodeling for energy efficiency, have an immense potential to reduce energy usage. We can make bicycles available to everyone, build good bicycle infrastructure, and demand free, comprehensive public transit; this is another huge piece of reducing energy usage.

Perhaps you disagree with parts of this vision — then you can get together with people and make your own plan! Or start somewhere and figure it out as you go along. Whatever you may imagine, we need to get the state and capitalists out of our lives. Otherwise, they will go on exploiting us and destroying the planet

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