Join Our Mailing List
Email:

Bookmark and Share


  Home > News > Additional Stories

Catastrophism: A Review in Socialist Studies

By Thomas Cheney
Socialist Studies
Summer 2014

The essays in this timely volume are built around the theme that the politics of fear, or catastrophism, are ultimately unproductive and even reactionary. In her introductory essay to Catastrophism, Sasha Lilley cautions that a left alternative to capitalism — one that can respond adequately to a series of contemporary crises, including environmental and economic ones — cannot give in to fear and the 'logic of catastrophe.' She warns, "the politics of fear ... play to the strengths of the right, not the left" (p. 3). Each chapter confronts catastrophism in different and complementary ways. Eddie Yuen describes the failure of catastrophism for the environmental movement. Lilley offers a history of the dangers of catastrophism in leftist politics, while James Davis chronicles the history of right wing fear-mongering and apocalypticism. The concluding essay by David McNally connects the cultural phenomenon of zombies with the catastrophes of everyday life in capitalism.

Yuen's essay challenges the environmental movement to adopt different and more productive narratives about climate change and possibilities for its reversal. While not denying that a catastrophe is indeed impending, Yuen points to the paradox that increased individual knowledge about climate change does not result in increased political engagement. The problem, he holds, is that mainstream accounts of global warming "follow compelling evidence for ecological collapse with woefully inadequate injunctions to green consumption or lobbying of political representatives" (p.19). Yuen's alternative begins with jettisoning the Malthusian logic that penetrates so much of contemporary ecological thinking. He rejects the idea that ecological and social crises are the result of scarcity as an ideological construction that ultimately reinforces the status quo. By transcending the idea that it is a unified 'us' that is responsible for climate change, Yuen suggests that the class and geographical dynamics of ecological devastation and its burdens may come to light. Yuen's contribution provides a pragmatic assessment of the failures of contemporary ecological movements, while also maintaining optimism that an eco-socialist politics can provide an alternative to capitalist alienation and environmental destruction. Refreshingly, Yuen does not rely on productivist mystifications, arguing instead that a better life can be had with less consumption.

Shifting focus, Lilley's chapter offers a critique of what she terms the "left catastrophist dyad" (p. 44). While each side of this dyad represents deep political despair and an insistence that a better future can be born only out of complete collapse, they differ insofar as one is deterministic, the other voluntaristic. The former, writes Lilley, is premised on the notion that capitalism will "inevitably collapse under its own weight..." (p. 46). Not only is this conception untrue to Marx's analysis of capitalism it also results in both adventurism and quietism at the expense of an emphasis on class struggle. The voluntaristic pole of the dyad, Lilley argues, is characterized by the idea that "the worse things get, the better they will be for revolutionary prospects" (p. 54). This counterfactual notion has been mobilized by leftists throughout the 20th century — from the Weathermen, to primitivists such as Derrick Jensen, to the eccentric Trotskyist Juan Posadas — without political success. As an alternative, Lilley suggests taking seriously Theodor Adorno, who warned against "seeing the world in such grim terms that only an exterior force could change it" (p. 75-6).

In his contribution, James Davis argues that the notion society is headed for some sort of collapse — be it environmental, economic, social or spiritual — characterizes right wing catastrophism. This essay centres on a distinction between those catastrophists who see collapse as the disease of progressive and democratic advancements such as feminism and multiculturalism (Leo Strauss, for example) and those who take the argument a step further and see total collapse as the necessary cure (the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik). Taking up Lilley’s warning about the politics of fear, Davis examines the ways that the state manipulates fear to increase its power. He concludes with the warning that in a conjuncture saturated by catastrophic discourses, the right can use this hysteria to its benefit while for the left catastrophism is far less productive.

McNally’s essay takes the analysis in a more creative direction, exploring the cultural obsession with zombies. According to McNally, this fixation is the reflection of a class politics that debases workers’ bodies. In the 21st century, two representations of the zombie come together in a dialectical encounter: “In... the maniacally insatiable flesh-eater, we find the capitalist zombie, driven to relentlessly consume human beings. [I]n the image of the zombie labourer we encounter the reality of the global collective worker reduced to a beast of burden who keeps the machinery of accumulation ticking” (p. 123). This chapter is much less explicitly about catastrophism, and appears to wander much further from the main theme of the book than do the others. However, McNally is not so much concerned with doomsday scenarios as he is with the “catastrophic texture of everyday life” in capitalist society (p. 126). The cultural preoccupation with zombies reveals this ‘catastrophic texture.’ In this way, McNally’s optimistic conclusion provides a fitting culmination of the book: “We need... to uncover the social basis of all that is truly horrifying and catastrophic about our world, as part of a critical theory and practice designed to change it” (p. 127).

The essays in this book each present a sophisticated and nuanced analysis of the politics and discourses of catastrophe. While the message is that the left must not succumb to catastrophic panic and the politics of fear, the authors do not deny that we do indeed live in a catastrophic age. It is not the time, however, for the left to indulge in apocalypticism, to resign itself to the notion that a better society will arise only from the ashes of the current barbarism. This insistence reflects the sober optimism offered by this collection of essays. Accessibly written and rich in analysis, this volume has much to offer any student of contemporary politics.

Book Review: Catastrophism – The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis (PM Press 2012)

cataCatastrophism is a collection of essays addressing the use of dooms day predictions in the environmental movement, the left, the right as well as in popular culture. The four chapters are authored by Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis following conversations within the Berkeley-based Retort collective guided by Iain Boal (who led an excellent biking oral history tour in Dublin as part of the Prosperity Project in May).  This book is meant as ‘a political intervention, designed to spur debate among radicals.’ (4) I have taken this as an invitation for discussion.

Firstly, what is catastrophism? Sasha Lilley offers the following definition in the introduction:

‘Catastrophism presumes that society is headed for a collapse, whether economic, ecological, social, or spiritual. This collapse is frequently, but not always, regarded as a great cleansing, out of which a new society will be born. Catastrophists tend to believe that an ever-intensified rhetoric of disaster will awaken the masses from their long slumber—if the mechanical failure of the system does not make such struggles superfluous.’

Seeking a clearer understanding of what the writers meant by catastrophism, I listened to a podcast where Lilley explains that they are discussing an ideology around collapse and rebirth which assumes a new society will be born out of the ashes of the old. This kind of thinking, they argue, results in people waiting for the collapse rather than organising. They further claim that catastrophism is based on fear which works very differently for the right where it is mobilising, than it does for the left where it is paralysing.

Eddy Yuen begins by voicing a critique of the environmental movement. The central argument he puts forward is that the environmental movement is failing to mobilise because of its catastrophic discourse and an ‘apocalyptic narrative’ that presumes this will lead to political action. He is concerned that ‘dooms day scenarios’ don’t have a politicization effect and suggests environmentalists should find better ‘narrative strategies’.

Catastrophism, here, refers to the warning of environmental crisis. Dissemination of information, according to Yuen, does not lead to action. He claims the environmental movement has caused fear induced-apathy in the population. Yuen pins this to a deeply held conviction about politicization apparently held by environmentalists – if people have the facts they will act. While this may be the case for some, Yuen does not address the importance of understanding the dynamics of climate change and their consequences as a vital precursor to action. In the same way that knowledge of starving children in your city does not lead most people to take action, so knowledge about climate change does not necessarily lead to action. This phenomenon is not unique to the environmental movement.

Yuen makes the assumption that the environmental movement cannot mobilise because it uses catastrophic language. This line of argument ignores the complexity of psychological and sociological factors contributing to inaction. Kari Marie Norgaard has done some excellent work on social movement non-participation and speaks about strategies people develop to avoid having to deal with difficult emotions. This indicates that, like with other bad news we get, there is a need to support people while dealing with these difficult emotions. 

Yuen rightly criticises false solutions like green consumption proposed by Al Gore. It seems like Yuen sees Al Gore as a spokesperson for environmentalists. This is not the case and should have been clarified. Al Gore is probably the most visible advocate of ecological modernisation in the US. Ecological modernisation theory (EMT) argues that the institutions of modernity, including multinational corporations and governments, will increasingly give more importance to ecological concerns. It is the neo-liberal belief that the crisis can be solved through far-reaching reforms, without the need for radical social change. Leftists concerned with climate change however, argue that social change and an alternative to capitalism are needed.

He further argues that the catastrophism of ‘many left-leaning greens’ is ‘Malthusian at its core’, points out a ‘shocking deficiency in the movements understanding of history, capitalism and global inequality’ and a simplistic analysis which places the blame on ‘the human race’. Surprisingly, he does not mentioned groups and networks on the left dedicated to building a climate justice movement which addresses the above concerns. This movement, like Yuen, rejects false solutions. It argues that climate change is not a problem of overpopulation but overconsumption/overproduction by and for the global north and elites in the global south. Climate justice activists speak about capitalism and point out the ‘contradictions between infinite accumulation of capital, and life on a finite planet’. It would have been more stimulating if he had discussed shortcomings of the environmental left, rather than criticising neo-liberal environmentalism.

Communicating climate change is difficult. Most people (including many on the left) do not want to hear about the topic because it makes them feel uncomfortable and there are no easy solutions. Climate denial, sponsored largely by the fossil fuel industry, is distorting reality. They want us to believe that climate change is not man made or that it is nothing to worry about. My concern with this chapter is that it could be used by some to further silence environmental activists.

In the second chapter, author and Against the Grain (which is well worth checking out) radio host Sasha Lilley distinguishes between two types of catastrophism on the left: determinist and voluntarist catastrophism. The former is a belief that capitalism will collapse under its own weight while the latter refers to the idea that worsening conditions will lead to a revolution. Catastrophism leads to the paralysis of the many and the vanguardism of the few and results from a politics of despair.

Lilley writes that the belief that capitalism “will come crashing down without protracted mass struggle is wishful thinking.’ (44) Are there really people on the left who think the sudden and uncontrolled collapse of capitalism would be a positive event? Surely the suffering would be enormous in such an event. She then looks at thinkers including Rosa Luxemburg and Immanuel Wallerstein whose analyses predicted that capitalism will collapse. Lilley disagrees. In her view capitalism will not come to an end due to internal contradictions. (136) The consequences of assuming collapse, it is further argued, leads to “adventurism (the ill-conceived actions of the few) or political quietism (the inaction that flows from awaiting the inexorable laws of history to put an end to capitalism)”. (52) Lilley asserts that we cannot rely on external forces to do the work of ending capitalism for us and that political organising is crucial. Unfortunately she has not presented convincing evidence that deterministic catastrophism is a phenomenon that requires discussion.  The sources she quotes do not take the position that we can sit back and wait. To the contrary they argue for the importance of organising a new society before capitalism collapses.

The second type of catastrophism on the left, voluntarism, is more common, according to Lilley. What ties determinism and voluntarism together is “a deep-seated pessimism about mass collective action and radical social transformation.” (45) Immiseration and state repression then are tools for politicisation leading to an assumption that “radicals should do what they can to make things worse.” (54) It is the idea that state repression can lead to the growth of movements. That the KPD (German Communist Party), one of her examples, made very serious mistakes has been discussed since 1945. Attempting to demonstrate that the KPD believed state repression would bring them to power in three paragraphs, while taking quotes out of their historical context, does not do the situation any justice.

Speaking about state repression and revolution, the next section examines war, which ‘has long been seen on the left as the midwife of revolt, often patterned in the trinity of crisis-war-revolution’. That revolts can follow war is a historical fact. To argue, however, that the left sees war as ‘midwife’ is a serious misrepresentation, at least of the European left which associates nothing positive with war.

The sub-chapter ‘Heightening Contradictions’ discusses militant groups like the Weathermen and the Red Army Faction arguing that insurrectionism is a misguided tactic, while the last part discusses anti-civilization.

James Davis, Irish writer and film maker, looks at catastrophism on the right and introduces the disease-cure binary of catastrophe. The catastrophe for the right is the threat to privilege and political power. The left is the catastrophe for the right, the left is the disease. Civil rights, feminism and social democracy are trends the right wishes to reverse. One approach to this is cure catastrophism, a subset to disease catastrophism. Acts which could contribute to a reversal in power won by social movements might be sparked by right wing terror and could then take the form of a ‘race war, insurrection, Armageddon, civil war, or in its purest form biblical apocalypse, and rapture.’ (78)  Actors explored in this chapter include the media used as a tool for propaganda, individual acts of terror on the right, small groups on the radical right, conspiracy theorists and the religious right. Catastrophism, Davis argues, “has a long history on the right and both the state and the organised far right understand it and wield it skilfully to achieve political and propaganda goals.” (106) It was unclear how this chapter relates to the previous two.

The final chapter takes a look at catastrophism in pop culture. David McNally, Professor of Political Science at York University, firstly discusses the relationship between capitalism and body panics by linking the rise of early capitalism to body snatching. The commodification of the body and the emergence of a corpse economy created fear among poor and working people, during the 18th century, that their bodies would be lost to medical experiments after their death. This also led to an increase in murders and grave robbing. McNally then discusses the historical origins of monsters, such as Frankenstein, who was constructed from dead body parts of humans and animals, and zombies, the cannibalistic consumer on one hand and the living-dead labourer on the other. McNally argues that the truths about social dynamics embedded in these tales about monsters need to be redeemed and translated into “languages and practices of social and political action.” (126)

The book’s key dilemma is that there is no clear definition of catastrophism as a concept. In a way this problem is reflected by a paragraph in the introduction where Lilley explains that “an overarching logic might be harder to place, since these movements and ideas are driven by different impulses, from above and from below (and in the case of the greens, both). In that sense, it is hard to talk about a catch-all catastrophism, without specifying whether it is of the left, right, green – or liberal – variety.” The definition offered by Lilley in the introduction as well as the scene set by the title – The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth is misleading. It suggest the authors are speaking about an ideology that assumes a collapse, be it economic, ecological or social, and is followed by a new and better society, which will be born out of the ashes of the old. Apart from the the religious right, which is mentioned in the third chapter, there is no evidence of collapse being viewed as a positive event.

- See more at: http://www.irishleftreview.org/2014/01/28/catastrophism-apocalyptic-politics-collapse-rebirth/#sthash.AOOGp2NJ.dpuf

Book Review: Catastrophism – The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis (PM Press 2012)

cataCatastrophism is a collection of essays addressing the use of dooms day predictions in the environmental movement, the left, the right as well as in popular culture. The four chapters are authored by Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis following conversations within the Berkeley-based Retort collective guided by Iain Boal (who led an excellent biking oral history tour in Dublin as part of the Prosperity Project in May).  This book is meant as ‘a political intervention, designed to spur debate among radicals.’ (4) I have taken this as an invitation for discussion.

Firstly, what is catastrophism? Sasha Lilley offers the following definition in the introduction:

‘Catastrophism presumes that society is headed for a collapse, whether economic, ecological, social, or spiritual. This collapse is frequently, but not always, regarded as a great cleansing, out of which a new society will be born. Catastrophists tend to believe that an ever-intensified rhetoric of disaster will awaken the masses from their long slumber—if the mechanical failure of the system does not make such struggles superfluous.’

Seeking a clearer understanding of what the writers meant by catastrophism, I listened to a podcast where Lilley explains that they are discussing an ideology around collapse and rebirth which assumes a new society will be born out of the ashes of the old. This kind of thinking, they argue, results in people waiting for the collapse rather than organising. They further claim that catastrophism is based on fear which works very differently for the right where it is mobilising, than it does for the left where it is paralysing.

Eddy Yuen begins by voicing a critique of the environmental movement. The central argument he puts forward is that the environmental movement is failing to mobilise because of its catastrophic discourse and an ‘apocalyptic narrative’ that presumes this will lead to political action. He is concerned that ‘dooms day scenarios’ don’t have a politicization effect and suggests environmentalists should find better ‘narrative strategies’.

Catastrophism, here, refers to the warning of environmental crisis. Dissemination of information, according to Yuen, does not lead to action. He claims the environmental movement has caused fear induced-apathy in the population. Yuen pins this to a deeply held conviction about politicization apparently held by environmentalists – if people have the facts they will act. While this may be the case for some, Yuen does not address the importance of understanding the dynamics of climate change and their consequences as a vital precursor to action. In the same way that knowledge of starving children in your city does not lead most people to take action, so knowledge about climate change does not necessarily lead to action. This phenomenon is not unique to the environmental movement.

Yuen makes the assumption that the environmental movement cannot mobilise because it uses catastrophic language. This line of argument ignores the complexity of psychological and sociological factors contributing to inaction. Kari Marie Norgaard has done some excellent work on social movement non-participation and speaks about strategies people develop to avoid having to deal with difficult emotions. This indicates that, like with other bad news we get, there is a need to support people while dealing with these difficult emotions. 

Yuen rightly criticises false solutions like green consumption proposed by Al Gore. It seems like Yuen sees Al Gore as a spokesperson for environmentalists. This is not the case and should have been clarified. Al Gore is probably the most visible advocate of ecological modernisation in the US. Ecological modernisation theory (EMT) argues that the institutions of modernity, including multinational corporations and governments, will increasingly give more importance to ecological concerns. It is the neo-liberal belief that the crisis can be solved through far-reaching reforms, without the need for radical social change. Leftists concerned with climate change however, argue that social change and an alternative to capitalism are needed.

He further argues that the catastrophism of ‘many left-leaning greens’ is ‘Malthusian at its core’, points out a ‘shocking deficiency in the movements understanding of history, capitalism and global inequality’ and a simplistic analysis which places the blame on ‘the human race’. Surprisingly, he does not mentioned groups and networks on the left dedicated to building a climate justice movement which addresses the above concerns. This movement, like Yuen, rejects false solutions. It argues that climate change is not a problem of overpopulation but overconsumption/overproduction by and for the global north and elites in the global south. Climate justice activists speak about capitalism and point out the ‘contradictions between infinite accumulation of capital, and life on a finite planet’. It would have been more stimulating if he had discussed shortcomings of the environmental left, rather than criticising neo-liberal environmentalism.

Communicating climate change is difficult. Most people (including many on the left) do not want to hear about the topic because it makes them feel uncomfortable and there are no easy solutions. Climate denial, sponsored largely by the fossil fuel industry, is distorting reality. They want us to believe that climate change is not man made or that it is nothing to worry about. My concern with this chapter is that it could be used by some to further silence environmental activists.

In the second chapter, author and Against the Grain (which is well worth checking out) radio host Sasha Lilley distinguishes between two types of catastrophism on the left: determinist and voluntarist catastrophism. The former is a belief that capitalism will collapse under its own weight while the latter refers to the idea that worsening conditions will lead to a revolution. Catastrophism leads to the paralysis of the many and the vanguardism of the few and results from a politics of despair.

Lilley writes that the belief that capitalism “will come crashing down without protracted mass struggle is wishful thinking.’ (44) Are there really people on the left who think the sudden and uncontrolled collapse of capitalism would be a positive event? Surely the suffering would be enormous in such an event. She then looks at thinkers including Rosa Luxemburg and Immanuel Wallerstein whose analyses predicted that capitalism will collapse. Lilley disagrees. In her view capitalism will not come to an end due to internal contradictions. (136) The consequences of assuming collapse, it is further argued, leads to “adventurism (the ill-conceived actions of the few) or political quietism (the inaction that flows from awaiting the inexorable laws of history to put an end to capitalism)”. (52) Lilley asserts that we cannot rely on external forces to do the work of ending capitalism for us and that political organising is crucial. Unfortunately she has not presented convincing evidence that deterministic catastrophism is a phenomenon that requires discussion.  The sources she quotes do not take the position that we can sit back and wait. To the contrary they argue for the importance of organising a new society before capitalism collapses.

The second type of catastrophism on the left, voluntarism, is more common, according to Lilley. What ties determinism and voluntarism together is “a deep-seated pessimism about mass collective action and radical social transformation.” (45) Immiseration and state repression then are tools for politicisation leading to an assumption that “radicals should do what they can to make things worse.” (54) It is the idea that state repression can lead to the growth of movements. That the KPD (German Communist Party), one of her examples, made very serious mistakes has been discussed since 1945. Attempting to demonstrate that the KPD believed state repression would bring them to power in three paragraphs, while taking quotes out of their historical context, does not do the situation any justice.

Speaking about state repression and revolution, the next section examines war, which ‘has long been seen on the left as the midwife of revolt, often patterned in the trinity of crisis-war-revolution’. That revolts can follow war is a historical fact. To argue, however, that the left sees war as ‘midwife’ is a serious misrepresentation, at least of the European left which associates nothing positive with war.

The sub-chapter ‘Heightening Contradictions’ discusses militant groups like the Weathermen and the Red Army Faction arguing that insurrectionism is a misguided tactic, while the last part discusses anti-civilization.

James Davis, Irish writer and film maker, looks at catastrophism on the right and introduces the disease-cure binary of catastrophe. The catastrophe for the right is the threat to privilege and political power. The left is the catastrophe for the right, the left is the disease. Civil rights, feminism and social democracy are trends the right wishes to reverse. One approach to this is cure catastrophism, a subset to disease catastrophism. Acts which could contribute to a reversal in power won by social movements might be sparked by right wing terror and could then take the form of a ‘race war, insurrection, Armageddon, civil war, or in its purest form biblical apocalypse, and rapture.’ (78)  Actors explored in this chapter include the media used as a tool for propaganda, individual acts of terror on the right, small groups on the radical right, conspiracy theorists and the religious right. Catastrophism, Davis argues, “has a long history on the right and both the state and the organised far right understand it and wield it skilfully to achieve political and propaganda goals.” (106) It was unclear how this chapter relates to the previous two.

The final chapter takes a look at catastrophism in pop culture. David McNally, Professor of Political Science at York University, firstly discusses the relationship between capitalism and body panics by linking the rise of early capitalism to body snatching. The commodification of the body and the emergence of a corpse economy created fear among poor and working people, during the 18th century, that their bodies would be lost to medical experiments after their death. This also led to an increase in murders and grave robbing. McNally then discusses the historical origins of monsters, such as Frankenstein, who was constructed from dead body parts of humans and animals, and zombies, the cannibalistic consumer on one hand and the living-dead labourer on the other. McNally argues that the truths about social dynamics embedded in these tales about monsters need to be redeemed and translated into “languages and practices of social and political action.” (126)

The book’s key dilemma is that there is no clear definition of catastrophism as a concept. In a way this problem is reflected by a paragraph in the introduction where Lilley explains that “an overarching logic might be harder to place, since these movements and ideas are driven by different impulses, from above and from below (and in the case of the greens, both). In that sense, it is hard to talk about a catch-all catastrophism, without specifying whether it is of the left, right, green – or liberal – variety.” The definition offered by Lilley in the introduction as well as the scene set by the title – The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth is misleading. It suggest the authors are speaking about an ideology that assumes a collapse, be it economic, ecological or social, and is followed by a new and better society, which will be born out of the ashes of the old. Apart from the the religious right, which is mentioned in the third chapter, there is no evidence of collapse being viewed as a positive event.

- See more at: http://www.irishleftreview.org/2014/01/28/catastrophism-apocalyptic-politics-collapse-rebirth/#sthash.AOOGp2NJ.dpuf

Buy this book now | Download e-Book now
Back to Sasha Lilley's Author Page
Back to David McNally's Author Page
Back to Eddie Yuen's Author Page
Back to James Davis's Author Page




Jobs with Justice: A review in Labor Studies Journal

By Debra W. Kidney,
Labor Studies Journal
January 22nd, 2015

In 2011, as Jobs With Justice (JwJ) leaders discussed how to celebrate the organiza- tion’s upcoming 25th anniversary, this book—an oral history—was one of the out- comes. Like all of JwJ’s projects, it is a collaboration of the communities and individuals who make up this diverse group, from national founders to the first orga- nizers at the local level to rank-and-file members who fought and won with Jobs with Justice at their side.

In each slim chapter the person being interviewed relays his or her experiences, joys, challenges, and victories beginning when JwJ was born out of the Eastern Airlines strike in Florida in 1987 to its current national structure with 200,000 supporters made up of unions members, clergy, students, and community allies fighting for workers’ rights and an economy that benefits all. As Jobs with Justice says on its webpage, “We are the only nonprofit of our kind leading strategic campaigns and shaping the public discourse on every front to build power for working people.”

Without a doubt the shaping of public discourse happens in places with the most vibrant JwJ chapters—Detroit; Chicago; New York; San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; Cleveland; Missouri; and central Florida to name a few—and in conjunction with groups like the New Orleans Center for Racial Justice, SLAP (Student Labor Action Project), the National Immigration Law Center, and Pride at Work. JwJ’s gift and goal is to build long-term relationships in the community in order to sustain the fights, and this book celebrates those goals.

I found 25 Years, 25 Voices to be an inspiring reminder of where we’ve been and a look ahead to where we need to go. It is not necessarily a cover-to-cover read but one to dip in and out of, sampling the stories, lessons, and fun and creative actions gener- ated through JwJ campaigns. It is also a reminder that while this now 25-year-old organization seems venerable, in the early days it was viewed with suspicion and mistrust by the established labor movement. It was only through hard work, successes, and careful relationship building that JwJ has moved into the labor lexicon as the place to go to drive economic and social justice forward. Individually and collectively this book reminds us to uphold the Jobs with Justice pledge: “I’ll be there at least five times a year for someone else’s fight, as well as my own.”


Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Eric Larson's Page



Speaking OUT in Curve Magazine

Curve Magazine
January/February 2015

What does it feel like to be young and queer today? A new book of 65 color portraits, Speaking OUT: Queer Youth in Focus presents portraits of the queer Millennial Gen- eration. Award-winning Philadelphia-based photogra- pher Rachelle Lee Smith gives LGBTQ youth an outlet to speak for themselves through her in-your-face, funny, warm, and powerful images of queer youth. The white space of the color portraits are filled with first-person text, giving self-expression to a diverse group of young people, aged fourteen to twenty-four, who identify along a range of sexual orientations and gender expressions.“I have never had a mullet, I am not a man hater, I don’t listen to KD Lang, I am not butch, I don’t drive a truck, I am not a fem- inist...What kind of lesbian am I?” writes JoEllen, one of the subjects featured in Speaking OUT. From GLSEN to the It Gets Better Project, our community attempts to provide resources for queer youth. But it’s hard to address the inequities created by race, class, sexual orientation and gender identification without hearing from young people themselves and addressing their spoken needs. Be inspired by these images, these words, and
the young people behind them. This is our youth. (rachelleleesmith.com/speakingout)




"If you enjoy concise writing and mordant humor, you’ll enjoy TVA Baby."

By Zeke Teflon
See Sharp Press

While preparing to write this review, I was musing on how many good small press books fall through the cracks, and how many execrable books from major publishers sell well. (Don’t worry, we’ll get to TVA Baby eventually.)

A recent example of that is the dreadful California, which Stephen Colbert enthusiastically pushed on his show, and which was issued by a major publisher, Hachette, not coincidentally also Colbert’s publisher. (He was open about this.) The book sold tens of thousands of copies and in July reached #3 on the New York Times bestseller list.

This is a somewhat special case, due to Colbert’s heavy promotion, but it’s also symptomatic of the inherent advantages held by major publishers.

What creates those advantages? A number of things. First, major publishers have more money for promotion than small presses, often much more. Second, major publishers have on-staff publicists who already have good contacts with the television industry and print media. Third, almost all major publishers are based in New York City, and there’s a very real New York bias in important parts of the media. (If you’re a small, non-NYC publisher, good luck on ever getting a review in The New York Times or The New York Review of Books; also check out the publishers of the authors who appear on The Daily Show and Colbert Report. In fairness, the standard book industry review journals–notably Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Booklist–are good about giving small press books a fair break; but this doesn’t cancel the NYC bias in other parts of the media. )

In contrast, small publishers usually have small advertising budgets, few if any contacts in major media, and have to hire outside publicists (if they can afford it–many can’t) who’ll put in nowhere near full-time work.

Recent trends in the bookselling industry have only exacerbated this problem. Half a century ago, before the rise of the national chains and then Amazon, booksellers by and large were independent bookstores. Such stores routinely would order books and leave them on their shelves for a good three to six months, sometimes a year, before returning them. This ensured that books that received few if any reviews would be seen by large numbers of possible book buyers, and so would have a chance of selling well eventually due to word of mouth. No more.

Independent bookstores currently account for only 10% of book sales, and they have to be lean and mean, so no more leaving books on the shelf for six months. The chains? B. Dalton, gone.

Waldenbooks, gone. Borders, gone. And Barnes and Noble has been cutting the number of its stores for years, and even more drastically cutting the number of titles its stores carry. And the length of time new books are on the shelves is down to perhaps four to six weeks. So, goodbye to the word-of-mouth ray of hope for small publishers. And goodbye also to the gatekeeping function independent bookstores  used to provide. (The independents tended not to carry poorly written, poorly edited, and poorly produced books.)

Compounding matters, over the last decade or so it’s become very easy and very cheap to publish both print-on-demand (paperback) books and e-books. This has resulted in a huge increase in the number of available titles, many of which are awful. Combine this with the current predominance of online bookselling, with its near-total lack of gatekeeping, and it becomes very, very difficult for even the best small press books to rise above the noise.

Then add in the tanking economy (for most people–Wall Street is doing fine), with its continuing unemployment, low-paying jobs, and declining median income (down an astounding 12% since 2001), and times are tough for small publishers and their books (which many financially stretched potential buyers regard as luxury items).

Which brings us to TVA Baby. It’s one of the deserving small press books that have fallen through the cracks.

It’s a collection of 13 short stories by longtime science fiction (and nonfiction) author Terry Bisson, and it covers a wide variety of topics and genres. Stories in it range from noir (“Charlie’s Angels”), to purely comic (“Billy and the Circus Girl”), to ’30s pulp sci-fi (“Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”), to sappy (“A Special Day”), to hallucinogenic (“TVA Baby”).

In most of the stories, Bisson’s dark humor is at the forefront, particularly in “TVA Baby,” which is grotesque but laugh-out-loud funny. Other standouts include “Pirates of the Somali Coast” and the other stories mentioned above, except “A Special Day.”

As with nearly all short story collections, there are some “hits” and some “misses” in TVA Baby; but the ratio of hits to misses is higher here than in the average collection. So . . . . .

If you enjoy concise writing and mordant  humor, you’ll enjoy TVA Baby.

Recommended.

(TVA Baby‘s publisher, PM Press, is having a 50%-off sale on all titles through December 31. To get the discount, just type in the coupon code HOLIDAY at checkout.)

Buy book now | Download e-Book now | Back to Terry Bisson's Page




Excerpt of David Gilbert's Love and Struggle on Transformation

By David Gilbert
Open Democracy.net/Transformation
December 26th, 2014

From Weather Underground activist to life in prison

Even in a just war we need to feel the pain and tragedy of losses on the other side. And in the Brink's robbery our own mistakes and failings led to unnecessary casualties. An extract from Love and Struggle: my life in SDS, the Weather Underground and Beyond.

David Gilbert is a former member of the Weather Underground Organization, currently serving a prison sentence of 75 years to life for his role as a getaway driver in the robbery of a Brink's armored car on October 20, 1981. The robbery, carried out by members of the Black Liberation Army with the May 19 Coalition, led to the deaths of two police officers and a Brink's guard. At the trial Gilbert, along with Judith Clark and Kuwasi Balagoon, represented themselves as anti-racist freedom fighters involved in a necessary struggle against US imperialism, and refused to recognise the authority of the court to try them.

David Gilbert at the Colombia University strike against war and racism, 1968. Credit: Love and Struggle/PM Press. David Gilbert at the Colombia University strike against war and racism, 1968. Credit: Love and Struggle/PM Press.

“Mr. Gilbert, do you understand now?”

“Yes, Judge Ritter, I understand you. You know, the plantation owners used to sit on their verandas, sipping mint juleps, complaining about how lazy the slaves were. The U.S. Government, which broke virtually every treaty it ever signed with Native American nations, coined the term ‘Indian giver.’ The same people who stole the northern half of Mexico claim that all Mexicans are thieves. In that tradition, your ruling makes perfect sense to me.”

Looking back at my own series of court statements, they seem to become progressively more rhetorical and hardened as time went on. My sentencing speech in particular spilled over from healthy defiance to crass insensitivity. 

Trying to show that life sentences didn’t deter revolutionaries, I declared that the issues that motivated us to fight—the depth of racism in the US and the millions of people killed each year by the economies and wars imposed by imperialism—were much larger than three lives. I meant the three of us facing life in prison. (Because I included Mtayari [Sundiata], who was killed three days later, I thought of the this confrontation as having cost four lives.)

But when I said “three lives,” I caught a glimpse of a woman in the court who flinched as if I had struck her. Only later did it dawn on me that she was a relative of one of the men killed on October 20, thinking, feeling, that those three lives were the ones I was dismissing so cavalierly. 

How could I have become so insensitive? I, at one time a pacifist, had come to ally with national liberation movements under fire. Not only were New Afrikans engaged in a just struggle, but it was a war that had been forced upon them by the murderous assaults on legal dissent, while so much of the white Left looked on passively.

The Black Liberation Army (BLA) never shot anyone who wasn’t an armed professional and always took great care to avoid civilian casualties—a far cry from government forces who killed civilians on a grand scale and later came up with the dehumanizing euphemism of “collateral damage.”

Yet, even in a just war, as the Vietnamese had showed us, we need to feel the pain and tragedy of losses on the other side. And in this particular encounter our own mistakes and failings had led to unnecessary casualties. 

Even though the government’s aggression was the source of the conflict, these particular individuals working as enforcers of the rule of capital didn’t at all see themselves in a warfare situation. If I had been more of a revolutionary, more fully rooted in humanism and less anxious to show my mettle, I would have expressed, in addition to my commitment to the struggle, sadness and regrets about the lives lost and the families shattered.

We became more embattled as the two years of court confrontations progressed. Three basic issues led to our being removed or, more often, our walking out. One was the treatment of our supporters, such as the attack on Ahmed Obafemi...who had been very visible as NAPO’s [New Afrikans Peoples' Organization] main public spokesperson around our case and was seated right by the aisle. When the judge entered, and our people did not rise to honor him, the sheriffs immediately pounced on Ahmed, hitting him with clubs. When three nearby friends tried to protect him, all four were dragged out and arrested.

The worst incident was life-threatening. A carload of people, two adults and three children, barely avoided a serious accident when the front wheel came loose as they were returning home from a visit with us. When they took the car to a mechanic, he said that someone had removed a cotter pin. Since there was no problem on the way up, it had to have been done in the jail’s parking lot.

Our major frustration in terms of the conduct of the trial was the way we were consistently blocked from discussing racism. We weren’t allowed to conduct a searching inquiry of potential jurors for bias; we were stopped every time we tried to present the situation of New Afrikans and other people of color within the US; discussion of relevant international law was forbidden; and we were blocked from bringing up COINTELPRO and other well-documented illegal government programs that had driven previously nonviolent activists into underground resistance.

Our most telling obstacle was our inability to have the legal meetings needed to prepare our defense. When the court was in session, the only time we could meet was at night. Orange County Jail, which had previously allowed nighttime legal meetings, changed the rules to prohibit them.

...

Given the cotter pin incident and other threats to our supporters, which we had described to the judge for the record in court, this public release of personal information was a chilling effort at intimidation. The lack of meetings and preparation, more than any other issue, occasioned our walkouts and boycotts.

We spent most of the trial in holding pens underneath the courtroom, in three separate cells, surrounded by law enforcement personnel. There was no one in the courtroom representing us, and the proceedings were piped in via a speaker. We were told that at any point we could return to the courtroom as long as we promised not to be “disruptive”—in other words, insist on talking about forbidden topics. 

The drone of the speaker, amid the buzz of a swarm of hostile guards, as the link to the pomp and pretense of the court was all a bit surreal. Going to the bathroom became truly bizarre. I (or Kuwasi or Judy) would be chained hand and foot and taken to a large room with a toilet on a raised platform in the middle to pee while still chained and closely watched by five guards.

At one point I could make out from the speaker some testimony by an FBI lab technician, who said that glass particles had been found in my clothing that could only have come from the windshield of the Brink’s truck. I was astonished because the prosecution knew full well that I’d never been within a mile of the truck. For a moment I had an impulse to go back upstairs to contest this fraudulent “evidence.” But what could I say to refute this highly credentialed FBI technician? And what good would it do?

...

Such tactics dovetailed with a systematic media campaign to dehumanize us. The Black comrades were always portrayed as thugs—despite the reality that Kuwasi’s and Sekou’s histories were fully and deeply political. The media didn’t mention that they had been part of the Panther 21 case—who could have more justification for moving into clandestine forms of struggle?

The white defendants, who had attended elite universities, weren’t depicted as thugs but instead as psychopaths—a standard method going back at least to John Brown of discrediting whites “crazy” enough to throw their lot in with people of color. These portrayals were visually reinforced with the artists’ sketches of us in court (no cameras were allowed). Even the Correctional Officers commented that in person we didn’t look anything like those newspaper portraits.

How could I—with so much experience that taught that clandestine work can only be built on the basis of full political and strategic understanding—have allied on such a high-risk tactical level with so little knowledge of the political context? 

The answer lay in my own form of corruption. Drugs and money had no allure for me, but ego did. Especially after the collapse of the Weather Underground Organization, I was anxious to reestablish myself as a “revolutionary on the highest level,” as “the most anti-racist white activist.”

What better way to validate myself in this way then to work closely with the most revolutionary Black group going? If the political and strategic terms weren’t clear to me, I would quietly make myself useful until trust and a higher level relationship developed. 

Not only is this a terribly wrong way to build solidarity, but also the “exceptional white person” mentality usually undermines any serious effort to organize other people against racism—a fundamental aspect of developing solidarity and working toward revolution. When some friends told me that this unit of the BLA had “used” me as a resource, my reply was that I had used them as well, to be my source of validation. 

The recognition, under these difficult life circumstances, of my corruption of ego did not prove shattering to my core beliefs and commitments. I had observed many times how movement leaders, who started with the most idealistic motives and who had taken great personal risks, later got blindsided by their egos. While it’s much easier to see such behavior in others, why should I be exempt? Each of us is raised in this society.

I couldn’t expect to simply anoint myself a “good guy” and miraculously be 100 percent pure from then on. What was required instead—the essential challenge of being a revolutionary—was an honest, ongoing process that involved both serious introspection and constructive collective discussions. It’s not like we’re adrift on a featureless, turbulent sea. We’re deeply rooted in the solid ground of the needs and aspirations of the oppressed.  

This extract is reproduced with permission from PM Press. All rights reserved. Copies of Love and Struggle: my life in SDS, the Weather Underground and Beyond are available for purchase in hard copy and as an e-Book.



Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to David Gilbert's Page



Hardcore, D.C., documentaries on

By Christina Cauterucci
Washington City Paper


You can’t be what you were.

How many ways can the D.C. punk icons of yore retell their tales of all-ages basement shows and subverting the ever-hungry maw of the capitalist music industry? After this year, add two more well-sourced volumes to the record: Salad Days: Punk in the Nation’s Capital and Positive Force: More Than a Witness, both documentary films that premiered on the same November weekend. Whether D.C. needs two more rehashings of the white-dude-heavy, MacKaye-Rollins glory days is up for debate (there’ve been plenty of films made on the subject before, including a 1991 doc about Positive Force, profiles of Fugazi and Bad Brains, and a forthcoming doc on the ’70s roots of D.C. hardcore), but the punk scene’s impulse toward nostalgia seems as healthy as it ever was.


Buy the DVD now | Back to Robin Bell's Director Page




Capital Gifts 2014: The Ultimate D.C. Punk Collection

by Tori Kerr
DCist
December 4th, 2014

Maybe you’ve got a young sibling who just discovered punk. While her Ramones t-shirt is cute, you want to point her in the right direction so she doesn’t become a Hot Topic mallrat. Or, perhaps your dad is an old-school punk enthusiast who didn’t “get” your pop-punk posters in high school. Or, you know your boss went to high school in the D.C. area in 1984. Cover your butt for each of these scenarios with an array of items, creating the ultimate D.C. punk gift bonanza.

Among D.C.’s multiple musical personalities, none has been part of a larger cultural conversation as much as punk and hardcore. Between @FortRenoRumors, the D.C. Public Library’s new punk archive, and approximately one million (actually three) documentaries, it’s safe to say that punk won D.C. this year. A great way to commemorate that is with Fugazi’s First Demo, a “new” release from the incomparable Dischord Records. The album features 11 of the rawest tracks we’ve ever heard from one of D.C.’s greatest bands. The best part is that no matter if your gift receiver is a new or old Fugazi fan, First Demo will either complete his collection or get him started at the beginning.

Follow that with documentary Positive Force: More Than A Witness, which chronicles the history of the legendary activist coalition. The film explores Positive Force's early days: hosting a “Revolution Summer,” protesting Apartheid; taking on the riot grrrl movement; and through it all, creating real change in practical, inspiring ways. The DIY ethic that runs through punk music’s veins also sustains Positive Force, its founder, Mark Andersen and the film’s director, Robin Bell. All proceeds from the film benefit the We Are Family senior outreach network. When you gift this, your gift benefits not only your loved one, but hundreds of seniors throughout The District.

Top off this punk cornucopia with the Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation's Capital, a written history of D.C. punk, by Andersen and journalist Mark Jenkins. The authors trace the scene from frustrated teenagers’ homes in suburban Georgetown to the (original) 9:30 Club, to the Reeves Center, to the West Coast, and beyond. The authors chronicle the good and the bad, treating both with equal intrigue: the rise and fall of Bad Brains; straightedge; bloody fights between D.C. punks and out-of-towners; and the struggle against homophobic and fascist punks who threatened to topple an otherwise progressive movement. It’s a must-read for any punk fan, especially one who lives in the area.

With this trifecta complete, your grateful gift-receivers will be happily busy for weeks, engaging in a sort of ethnographic study of one of the strongest facets of this city’s heritage.



Buy the DVD now | Back to Robin Bell's Director Page




Positive Force: More Than a Witness on Stereo Killer

Stereo Killer

Actors: Mark Andersen, Fugazi, Anti-Flag, Bikini Kill, Nation of Ulysses, Seven Seconds

Synopsis: Examines 30 years of the DC-based Positive Force with performances from Fugazi, Anti-Flag, Bikini Kill and more.

Robin Bell brings us a documentary that looks at “the relationship between D.C. punk and do-gooderism. Seamlessly situating a musical moment within the larger cultural context of Reaganomics, the rise of riot grrrl feminism, pacifist protest and other issues.” Positive Force DC came into being in 1985 and was born as part of the local scene by Bad Brains, Minor Threat, and Rites of Spring, a handful of young activists. They drew inspiration from UK anarcho-punks Crass and the original “Positive Force” band and are now thought to be one of the most long-lasting and influential exponents of punk politics.

Director Bell skillfully mixes rare archival footage (including electrifying live performances from Fugazi, Bikini Kill, Rites of Spring, Nation of Ulysses, Anti-Flag, and more) with new interviews of key Positive Force activists including co-founder Mark Andersen (co-author of Dance of Days) and Jenny Toomey (Simple Machines, Tsunami) as well as supporters such as Ian MacKaye, Jello Biafra, Dave Grohl, Ted Leo, Riot Grrrl co-founders Allison Wolfe and Kathleen Hanna, and many more. The film covers thirty years from the origins in Reagan-era origins, the creation of its communal house, FBI harassment, and the rise of a vibrant underground that burst into the mainstream amid controversy over both the means and the ends of the movement. Positive Force has persisted through all of this, remaining deeply rooted in their hometown, reaching out to those in need and building bridges between diverse communities.

At the same PF regularly brings punk protest to the front doors of those in power. It is an all-volunteer group has helped to nurture several generations of activists. In the best punk fashion, PF has applied creative DIY tactics and radical critiques to issues of homelessness, hunger, racism, corporate globalization, sexism, homophobia, war, gentrification, and animal/earth liberation, while struggling to constructively address conflicting dynamics and visions within the group itself.

It is important to note that the filmmakers’ portion of the proceeds from the sale of the DVD will benefit the We Are Family senior outreach network.



The DVD includes the following extras:

Wake Up! A Profile of Positive Force (28 min., 1991)

Green Hair, Grey Hair (28 min., 2008)

Punks, Votes, Riots (21 min., 2014)

Live at Positive Force (34 min. of bonus performances by Fugazi, Seven Seconds, Chumbawamba, Anti-Flag, Soulside, The Evens, and Beefeater).



Buy the DVD now | Back to Robin Bell's Director Page




Positive Force: More Than a Witness on PopDose

by Rob Ross
PopDose
December 18th, 2014

VERY interesting and intriguing historic look at the Positive Force organization, which began in Nevada, but has thrived and stayed the course in Washington D.C. from 1985 onward.  Led by D.C. co-founder Mark Andersen, Positive Force ran parallel to the socially conscious punk movement (the majority of bands recorded for Dischord Records), which by 1985 had begun to widen its spectrum and become, itself, more politicized.  The rawness of the punk anger and ethos began to be pointing toward constructivity, rather than negativity and destruction, and found itself moving in a socially, morally and politically upward (and left-leaning) direction.  As seen in the documentary from director Robin Bell, Positive Force acts upon its words with deeds – from delivering groceries to those in need (especially the elderly) to holding benefit concerts to raise money for various causes, to orchestrating protests.

This documentary is filled with news footage and interviews from the participants themselves – D.C. founder/director Mark Andersen, Dischord’s Ian MacKaye, Dave Grohl from Scream, Jenny Toomey from Simple Machines and Positive Force and so on – and at no time does it come off as being preachy or biased.  It is an honest and direct look at a group of people that have actually done good – “talked the talk and walked the walk” so to speak – and continue to do so to this day.

It isn’t often one has the chance to see and hear something so refreshing and meaningful without feeling preached at – Positive Force: More Than A Witness; 25 Years Of Punk Politics In Action is worth the time invested in watching.

RECOMMENDED

http://morethanawitness.com/

Buy the DVD now | Back to Robin Bell's Director Page




Fugazi Perform at 1991 D.C. Protest in Clip From Positive Force Documentary

Pitchfork
December 9th, 2014

More Than A Witness also features Bikini Kill, Dave Grohl, Ted Leo, Nation of Ulysses, Rites of Spring, more


Fugazi Perform at 1991 D.C. Protest in Clip From Positive Force Documentary

Positive Force: More Than a Witness; 30 Years of Punk Politics in Action is a new documentary about the Washington, DC punk activist group Positive Force. Directed by Robin Bell, the film tells the story of the group's campaigns against homelessness, racism, corporate globalization, sexism, war, and more. It features interviews with prominent artists as well as archival performance footage. Watch a clip from the film of Fugazi playing a 1991 D.C. protest below via Pitchfork.tv.

The film also features live footage of Bikini Kill, Nation of Ulysses, Anti-Flag, Rites of Spring, and others. Kathleen Hanna, Ian MacKaye, Dave Grohl, Ted Leo, Allison Wolfe of Bratmobile, Jello Biafra, Jenny Toomey of Tsunami, and more are interviewed.

More Than a Witness is out now on DVD and through Vimeo. It will be premiered in New York City on December 19, where a Q&A will be conducted with Bell after a screening.




Buy the DVD now | Back to Robin Bell's Director Page



Search

Quick Access to:

Authors

Artists

New Releases

Featured Releases


Anarchists Never Surrender: Essays, Polemics, and Correspondence on Anarchism, 1908–1938

Birth of Our Power