Join Our Mailing List

Bookmark and Share

  Home > News > Additional Stories

Global Slump on the New Socialist

Global Slump A Crucial Book
By Charlie Post
Sunday, 20 January 2011

In late 2007, over twenty years of global economic growth came to a screeching halt. A financial panic began in the sub-prime mortgage market, leading to the bankruptcy (Goldman Sachs) and near bankruptcy (AIG, GM) of major financial and industrial cor-porations.
While capitalist state bailouts for corporations deemed "too large to fail" stemmed the tide of economic collapse, millions of workers in both the global North and South faced attacks on their jobs, wages, working conditions and, for many, their housing. Unemployment, which had fallen to a "mere" five or six percent in the advanced capitalist countries in the 1990s and early 2000s, quickly spiked.

Underemployment also rose rapidly.

Despite the hopes of many liberals and social democrats, the state bail-outs of failing capitalists did not produce a "return of the state." Capitalist states reverted to neo-liberalism, attacking social services and public sector workers in the name of "balanced budgets" and "deficit reduction." While corporate profits have begun to rise, there has been no new wave of investment and hiring. Unemployment remains at its highest levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and real wages continue to decline. 

David McNally's Global Slump offers a Marxian analysis of the current crisis that is neither an academic tract or, as he puts it "The Crisis for Dummies" (11). This book is both useful for people familiar with Marxian economics and accessible for those new to theoretical discussions. McNally locates the deep roots of the crisis in the most basic dynamics of capitalism -- what he describes as its "manic depressive" tendencies -- to better arm the labour and social movements' resistance to the capitalist onslaught in the workplace and our communities.

After a lucid summary of the course of the global slump of 2007-2008, McNally presents an explanation of the "neo-liberal boom" of the past twenty-five years. Unlike most radical economists (including Robert Brenner, Alex Callinicos, Chris Harman and David Harvey), who equate prolonged capitalist prosperity with the exceptional "golden years" of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, McNally argues that the global slump of the late 1960s and early 1970s ended with the global recession of 1980-1982. Three processes laid the foundation for the restoration of profitability and accumulation. First was a sharp increase in the rate of exploitation -- the relationship of profits and wages. While neo-liberal attacks on social services deprived workers of most alternatives to working under whatever conditions capital dictated, the reorganization of work along the lines of lean production -- fragmentation of tasks, speed-up, outsourcing, the use of part-time and temporary workers, etc. -- increased output while real wages deteriorated. Second was the destruction of inefficient capitals through massive waves of bankruptcies and mergers and acquisitions. Finally, the 1980s and 1990s saw a massive spatial expansion of the world economy -- so-called globalization -- as transnational corporations moved their most labour-intensive operations to low-wage regions in the global South.

McNally locates the origins of all global slumps, including the current one, in falling profits and the over-accumulation of capital. Following Marx, he analyzes how the same mechanisms that propel long waves of expansion -- capitalist competition and investment -- necessarily lead to long waves of stagnation. As capitalists attempt to improve their position in the unplanned, anarchic process of competition, they introduce new labour-saving machinery and technology to cuts costs and prices. While allowing individual capitalists to increase their market share, mechanization displaces living, human labour -- the source of profits. The result is a falling rate of profit -- less profit compared with growing capital investment. As production becomes increasingly capital-intensive, the economy reaches a point of over-accumulation, where masses of capital no longer yield adequate profits to continue the process of investment and growth. While over-accumulation initiates long periods of stagnation, capitalism has "built-in" mechanisms of recovery. The "creative destruction" of crises -- massive bankruptcies that reduce over-accumulation, the reorganization of work and production that increases exploitation, and the spatial expansion of the world-economy -- restore profitability and lay the basis for a new wave of capitalist expansion, at the cost of working-class communities and living standards. Put simply, capitalist solutions to economic crises must come at the expense of working people globally. 

McNally's analysis of the "neo-liberal boom" allows him to offer more grounded explanations of two phenomena that have captured the attention of radical economists in the past thirty years: the growth of the financial sector and the spread of capitalist production in the global South through "accumulation by dispossession." David Harvey is perhaps the best known left-wing analyst of financialization and the spatial expansion of capitalism. He has argued that the uninterrupted stagnation of capitalist production in the global North since the late 1960s compelled capitalists to seek alternative sources of profits. On the one hand, capital was unable to find profitable outlets in the production of goods and services, and has flowed into speculative investment in financial instruments and real estate. On the other, "accumulation by dispossession" in the global South -- the expulsion of millions of peasants from the land to become low wage workers, privatization of state owned industries and services, etc. -- has been, according to Harvey, the only source of steady growth as most productive investment shifted from the global North to the South. 

According to Global Slump, the roots of financialization are found not in speculation, but in the reorganization of production. The end of the "Bretton Woods" regime of monetary regulation (in which other currencies were pegged to the value of the US dollar, which was convertible to gold) opened a period of exchange rate instability that created problems for transnational corporations' increasing their investments in the global South in the 1980s and 1990s. Transnationals, headquartered in the global North, feared that exchange rate fluctuations could reduce their profits earned abroad. The development of exchange-rate derivatives was an attempt to stabilize exchange-rates and guarantee the repatriation of all the transnationals' profits. While the 1990s and 2000s saw a massive expansion of financial instruments, as the extension of consumer credit and "sub-prime" mortgages maintained working-class consumption in a period of falling real wages, the roots of "financialization" are found in the restructuring of production.

McNally also recasts Harvey's discussion of "accumulation by dispossession" in a more classical Marxist framework of the geographic expansion of capitalist production and primitive accumulation. The extension of global boundaries of capitalist trade and production, in particular increased labour-intensive investments in regions with large surplus populations and low wages, has been a counter-tendency to falling profit rates since the late nineteenth century. Claims of a wholesale relocation of manufacturing to the global South are without empirical basis: the vast majority of capitalist accumulation remains in the global North. However, the growth of labour-intensive industries (such as textiles, clothing, footwear and electronics) and operations (such as auto parts) in Africa, Asia and Latin America fueled the "neo-liberal boom." Neo-liberal state policies in the global South have deepened primitive accumulation -- the separation of peasants from the land and the transformation of land and tools into capital -- creating new arenas for investment and masses of cheap labour for transnational corporations. As agriculture in the South has become subject to market-discipline, millions of peas-ants lost their land, and those that survive are forced to cultivate non-food crops to survive. The result has been a massive migration of workers to the global North and rising food prices globally. 

As the capitalist world economy temporarily stabilized in the past two years, capitalist classes and governments around the world have launched vicious austerity drives. While corporations received huge bailouts, working people -- especially in the public sector -- have experienced new attacks on wages and working conditions along with big cuts to social services in a period of rising unemployment and poverty. McNally's analysis of the austerity drive as a means of disciplining workers is perhaps one of the most insightful in the book. While many on the left see the dismantling of social services as primarily a means of transferring income from labour to capital, McNally highlights austerity's role in forcing workers to accept, without question, the terms of work dictated by capital. His insights into the racial and gender dynamics of austerity are a powerful reminder of the need to explicitly address sexism and racism in building working-class resistance to the crisis. 

McNally ends with a sweeping survey of the popular and working-class resistance the capitalist austerity drive has engendered. He moves effortlessly between discussions of the fight-back in Oaxaca, Mexico, Guadeloupe and Martinique in the global South to the factory occupations and "boss-nappings" in the US, Britain and France; from the public sector strikes in France and Greece to the massive immigrant rights mobilizations in the US in 2006. McNally highlights the capacity of working people, including those in the global North, to organize and struggle, usually independently of and often in opposition to the official leaders of their unions, parties and communities. However, he is not a simple cheerleader. He recognizes that few of the current struggles have had the breadth, power and radicalism to reverse the capitalist offensive, no less pose the possibility of an alternative to global capitalism. 

McNally is especially conscious of the generally low level of resistance in the US and the Canadian state, the result of the weakening of "infrastructures of resistance" -- working-class institutions in workplaces (unions and activist networks) and communities (including tenant organizations, political parties and working-class public spaces) that had provided working-class activists with the means of organizing day-to-day resistance to the rule of capital. The capitalist restructuring of production -- in particular the geographic movement of manufacturing within the global North and the spread of lean production -- have made the rebuilding of these "infrastructures" independently of the bureaucratized official leaders of the workers' movement and social movements a central task of a new anti-capitalist left. 

Global Slump is a crucial book for any activist or organizer attempting to build resistance to the current capitalist crisis. It arms us with a theoretical analysis that understands why capitalist crisis is inevitable and why any pro-working class solution must challenge the power of capital. However, there are several points that need greater discussion, debate and clarification. McNally fails to identify the mechanisms that turn increasing capitalization of production and falling profits -- features of a period of capitalist expansion -- into a situation of over-accumulation. Such clarity is important in countering the claims of some on the left about permanent capitalist stagnation. There is also inadequate discussion in Global Slump of the role of the wave of mergers and acquisitions during the 1980s in creating a controlled destruction of inefficient capitals. The creation of high-risk "junk" bonds and other instruments to finance this restructuring of production was another source of the growth of the financial sector over the past three decades. 

Politically, McNally's explanation of the weakening of the "infrastructures of resistance" relies too much on the restructuring of capitalist industry since 1980. The geographic relocation and reorganization of industry is a permanent feature of capitalism. Despite this, activist "militant minorities" were able to persist, passing on traditions of radical politics and organizing to new generations of workers until the mid-20th century. The role of bureaucratic business unionism and the adaptation of much of the independent left to "progressive" trade union and political leaders in the destruction of that "militant minority" need more emphasis. Finally, McNally does not sufficiently analyze the rise of right-wing political movements in response to the capitalist crisis. While he mentions the growth of anti-immigrant politics in Northern Europe, McNally does not discuss the sharp turn to the right in mainstream politics in the US. In a period when much of the left is calling for "unity" with liberals and the official leaders of the labour and social movements to "fight the right," it is crucial that activists are armed with an understanding that such "unity" will only weaken working-class resistance to the crisis and fuel the growth of the right. 

Charlie Post teaches sociology in New York, is active in the faculty union at the City University of New York and is a member of the US socialist organization Solidarity.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Return to Author's Page

South of the Ballot Box

beyond electionsBy Todd Miller

After the midterm elections in November, headlines throughout the United States trumpeted the news of the great Republican comeback. The voters had spoken, and once again it was time to go home and wait until the next opportunity to vote. But what if elections weren’t the exclusive focus of democratic practice? Anyone interested in the question of radical democracy, more in practice than in theory, would do well to watch Beyond Elections. The documentary turns to the urban neighborhoods, rural communities, immigrant organizations, and worker collectives that span the Americas, from Argentina to the Bronx—all of them experimenting with collective decision making in the spaces where they live and work.

The filmmakers travel to many of the same places that Oliver Stone covered in his documentary South of the Border (2009), and their film serves as a good supplement to Stone’s depiction of the Latin American left. Call it South of the Ballot Box: Unlike Stone’s documentary, which is dominated by exclusive interviews with presidents from the region, Beyond Elections focuses on ordinary people, particularly those involved in social movements and organized communities and neighborhoods—the very force of people who brought left-leaning leaders to power to begin with. Democratic practice in this documentary is an everyday affair, involving countless meetings, assemblies, conversations, and arguments.

The film begins in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where community-based assemblies decide on public budgets. Started in 1989, participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre—also the home of the World Social Forum—is a process by which ordinary citizens identify and prioritize community needs such as housing, economic development, infrastructure, health, recreation, and culture, and help allocate public funds to address those needs. Budgets are hammered out not in board rooms, but assembly halls. It isn’t always pretty. These assemblies often bring together more than 1,000 people into crowded assembly halls and gyms and things often get raucous and emotional as communities debate the most pressing and sometimes divisive issues.

The next stop is Venezuela, where the film looks at the communal councils established by federal law in 2006. Since then, tens of thousands of such councils have been established in the country, and critical decisions about projects and development plans are made at a neighborhood level in citizen assemblies, optimally by consensus, however voting is often used. Community spokespeople to carry out the projects are also elected in these meetings, which can involve the participation of as many as 150 people drawing from 400 families in any given area.

Like Brazil’s participatory-budget assemblies, Venezuela’s communal councils are elected within neighborhoods and directly oversee policies, projects, cooperatives, and work committees, while coordinating with and receiving funding directly from different levels of government. “We are the ones who know the problems in our community,” says Cecilia Rodríguez, a communal council member from Caracas, “so who better than us to organize the community and to improve our community and do our own projects?” The film’s coverage of this localized version of participatory democracy, promoted by the Venezuelan federal government, offers a good dose of nuance to the North American view of Venezuela as autocratic.

Beyond Elections also examines labor democracy. Borrowing footage from The Take (2004), Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis’s film about an Argentine work cooperative, it documents factories taken over by workers, who not only share the work of managing the factory but also the profits. “We’ve formed a democratic business,” says José Abellí, a leader in the recuperated factory movement in Argentina, “a business of people, not capital.” In New York, the filmmakers talk to the Green Worker Cooperatives in the South Bronx, which are geared toward creating worker-owned and environmentally friendly cooperatives as a response to the area’s chronically high unemployment and history of environmental racism. The filmmakers also interview members of immigrant organizations such as the Movement for Justice in El Barrio, which started by fighting gentrification in the East Harlem neighborhood in New York, but now are confronting some of their most difficult problems in the United States—particularly draconian immigration laws, low wages, and wage theft.

While most Latin American countries have had electoral democracies at least since the 1990s, “people really didn’t have real decision-making power—not for the future, not in the planning, nor in the development of the country,” according to Venezuelan Adalnel Pantoja, community social worker for the Caracas mayor’s office. But now many communities, towns, cities, and even countries have sought not to reject electoral democracy, but to move beyond it and build people power—what they insist is true democracy. This is inevitably a small-scale effort, at least for now. As Brazilian political science professor Leonardo Avritzer says in the film: “The question today in the southern countries is how to think about the democratization of things like the budget, health policies, education policies, urban policies, and the democratization of life where you live.”

Beyond Elections plunges into the rowdy realm of popular democracy, where opinions clash and people take the idea of consensus so seriously that they are willing to engage in long, painstaking meetings. The filmmakers omit no opinions from the debates they cover, taking the time to show participants explaining the projects under discussion, providing very little narration. The film reflects the ambitious vision of the democracy it depicts, making the film rather lengthy, almost two hours. Although the film sprawls a bit, this is also the film’s beauty—the close attention it pays to the wide-spanning locales where new concepts of democracy are arising and being worked out.

In doing so, comparisons with U.S. notions of democracy are inevitable. Without describing the U.S. political system in much detail as a point of comparison, the film will nonetheless come across as a critique of it. Electoral democracy, so triumphantly glorified and even promoted abroad, is not only insufficient but also a betrayal of democracy “in the name of democracy,” as Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano says in the film. Indeed, the United States has created a monopoly on the definition of democracy, says Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos. “But in reality,” he says, “democracy is a work in progress.”

Buy the DVD now

A Pint and a Molotov Cocktail: An Interview With George Berger

Crass 3:am Magazine
by Andrew Gallix
September 2007

3:AM: How did you get into punk? 

GB: Seeing the bizarrely-dressed head-turners strolling around Bromley and surrounding areas really turned my head. Clothes and hair and a way of walking that just said “fuck off” to everyone, and straight society in particular. I don’t remember the individuals individually, just the feeling of seeing unrepentant weirdos expressing themselves via their appearance. I’d imagine this was before the word ‘punk’ came into popular use, but it doesn’t really matter either way. Seeing similar—or perhaps the same—people then interviewed on the London Weekend Show by Janet Street Porter, and then on "Young Nation" on Nationwide turned my head yet further: they were sullen and obnoxious and that confused my hormones. I can’t say I liked the look of them, but it opened a door in my mind that had previously been locked and marked "no entry." Finally, the famed Bill Grundy interview drew a line in the sand as I watched it with my outraged parents, trying to conceal my glee. This was clearly a step beyond their affectionate mock-outrage at glam rock.

"No more apologies," as Morrissey later described it so beautifully. My zits cleared up almost immediately, perhaps because I wasn’t scared of them anymore. Freedom of feeling, the feeling’s appealing. In other words, punk pushed the right buttons by opening the right (mental) doors at the right time. The music was often great, but was never the point.


3:AM: Your band, Flowers in the Dustbin, were part of the anarcho-punk scene, so you wrote this Crass book as an insider…

GB: Is there any self-respecting anarchist who would admit to being such? I wouldn’t know…

Being part of the London anarcho-punk-goth-crazy-coloured-fools-with-no-rules scene certainly informed the perspective that the book is written with of course, because it meant my early experience with anarchist thought and practice wasn’t limited to Crass. A sense of perspective, as Tap philosophised. But I’m not so sure FITD as a band were as much a part of all that in the way it’s now remembered. There’s a book about anarcho-punk coming out called The Hippies Now Wear Black — we were innocent on both those charges!


3:AM: To what extent did the members of Crass help you with your research and how have they reacted to the book?

GB: The members of Crass—Andy Palmer excepted—were as helpful as anyone could reasonably be expected to be, and in the cases of most, well beyond that.

The Crass members were also strikingly, unusually, generous and kind in a way that prods your conscience into examining its own parameters. Whatever happened to the members of Crass in their respective life-journeys at the time, it seems to have left an indelible urge to be kind and generous. Perhaps that was the energy that originally attracted so many towards them. In fact, I’m certain it was.


3:AM: In another interview you said: “I always felt a bit sorry for the people who bought into Crass at the expense of everything else”. However, when you read the book, it is obvious that the Ants/Crass dichotomy still seems to rankle after all these years. Crass offered a whole lifestyle that was difficult to reconcile with non-anarcho punk bands like the Ants or UK Subs. It was a bit like joining a fundamentalist sect, wasn’t it? Do you think you might have been attracted to this aspect of the band because of your Catholic upbringing?

GB: Meaning Crass were a part of the whole and people who bought into the sideshow "anarcho-punk" often missed out on the other colours of the rainbow—Killing Joke, Bauhaus, Swell Maps, Au Pairs, Slits, etc etc… I don’t think it was a dichotomy at all in the early days, but sadly neither side could resist the bitching that subsequently became one of anarcho-punk’s main characteristics.

I should point out that I wasn’t attracted to Crass so much as fascinated by them, i.e. I was massively drawn to the idea of somewhere like Dial House working for decades as an open house, but could never quite reconcile the difference between the harsh Crass rhetoric and the gentle people in Crass. Frankly, you’d expect Crass to be aggressive and confrontational as people, but they were—and are—lovely. Delibrate dada contradictions? Maybe.

The Crass image encouraged the fundamentalist thing, which I would suggest was due to some kind of archetype hangover from the hippie times (where sects flourished of course). The Ants, Subs etc were far more healthy in this respect, I’d say, as they weren’t playing the parent. Saying ‘be yourself’ is great (Ants / Subs / punk), but the minute you start defining what that self should be, albeit unintentionally, you’re risking straying into a difficult place. The Crass output became self-conscious and "preachy" once they got an audience—I felt sorry for the people who were perhaps young and encountering Crass/punk for the first time at this juncture and so bought into an opinion as though it was a reality. The map is not the territory.

I was repelled by the perceived fundamentalist aspect of Crass, not attracted to it. Whether or not this was connected to being brought up a Catholic, I’ve really no idea.


3:AM: Crass’s obsession with political freedom was so extreme that it enslaved some members. Steve Ignorant actually describes leaving the band as a liberation from the band’s politically-correct shackles: “I couldn’t look at the barmaid’s arse without being branded sexist. I couldn’t have milk in my tea without being called a bastard cos I wasn’t a vegan”. He also told you that if he’d been a 16-year-old punk at the time Crass’s rhetoric would have put him off and he would probably have been an Exploited fan. Even Penny Rimbaud, the band’s éminence grise, admits that they were “too serious”. It’s a double-edged thing, though, isn’t it? Crass meant so much because they were for real, but that purity also implied a po-faced, puritan zealotry…

GB: I don’t think Crass came across like that initially (before Penis Envy, if I’m forced to draw a line in the sand). I’m also not sure Steve is right—I don’t think that whatever took him to Dial House would have otherwise taken him to the Exploited; just a glib quote possibly out of context here. (In book interviews, Steve just spoke his mind whereas some other members of Crass pondered for literally minutes before replying to questions—which is quite unnerving but simultaneously inspiring).


3:AM: Your book often reads like a demystification of Crass’s political correctness. Whereas at the time, they appeared so self-assured—with their black uniforms, military backdrops and corporate logo—here, they come across as far more human and vulnerable. Steve and Pete admit that they knew little about anarchist history; Eve Libertine explains that she had qualms about “Reality Asylum” because of her Christian upbringing; Steve wrote “So What” as a kind of childish dare “to see if there’d be a bolt of lightning” when he sang the blasphemous lyrics… Did all this change the way you perceived the members of the band and the Crass phenomenon or were you conscious of this vulnerability at the time?

GB: I didn’t know the band well enough as people at the time to be sure of the vulnerability. I’d wager few, if any did.

With the book, I wanted to try and find the people behind the image / wall of anynomity. Demystification hits the nail on the head. Whilst Crass were always approachable back then as "Crass," the individuals behind the job were often impossible to discover. Even to themselves, it would appear. At the time, I thought this was counter-productive to ideas that "anyone can do it," so with the book I tried to show that the people that made up Crass and did/didn’t change the world (delete as your reality tunnel dictates) did so without being special and without access to any privilege that you or I haven’t got. And surprised myself with my findings…


3:AM: The more I read your book, the more contradictions appeared. Crass avoided the star system through anonymity but this very anonymity inevitably created a mystique of its own. But the paradox doesn’t stop here as the band were also one of the most accessible ever…

GB: Were they? On one level yes: you could go meet them, chat to them, even visit their house. But as I’ve said, getting to know the real people was out of the question for fans. Still, they did draw the line in a very different place to the stars of the day, even the punk rock stars.

Did they avoid the star system? I’m not so sure—accessibility is surely only one aspect of stardom. People looked up to Crass and looked to them for guidance. By the time they were getting big, they appeared to want to give it, albeit way more responsibly than most of their peers.


3:AM: A couple of other contradictions highlight the band’s unique nature. Politically, they were caught between the old school anarchists and the pacifists; financially, the more records they sold, the more money they lost.

Crass created a massive grassroots anarchist movement, for the first time in British history. They invented their own brand of anarcho-pacifism. They were also the only political band to practise what they preached which is why they sold records by the truckload without any advertising. I remember an interview with Joe Strummer, in the early 80s, in which he said that wherever you went, even in a remote Greek village, you’d see graffiti of the Crass symbol. He was gobsmacked and clearly envious. The band’s achievements were huge, but until your book came out their story went largely unrecorded—weird, isn’t it?

GB: Weird yes, but what Crass were offering was so beautiful—yet so fragile—that it was only ever going to appeal to the demographic who considered it a possible reality.

You’re wrong about their losing money on records—that only happened with “Reality Asylum”—otherwise they made a lot of money. Then showed an inspiring amount of integrity by returning it to what they considered ‘the movement’ and simultaneously arguable tactics and taste in the way they did this by releasing records by a plethora of copyists (not all of course, but many).


3:AM: Crass are obviously still influential and will continue to be so, but they were also very much of their time, weren’t they? I don’t know if you remember, but a few years ago, David Beckham was photographed sporting a T-shirt bearing the Crass logo: I’m sure he had no idea what it was; it didn’t mean anything anymore. I don’t think Crass would have been as influential in a prosperous, post-Thatcherite Britain, do you?

GB: I believe that T-shirt was a Jean-Paul Gaultier creation, but don’t quote me on it. The Crass symbol never meant anything beyond ‘Crass’ and it wasn’t even designed to mean that in the first place.

Crass were of their time, obviously. Our job is to be of ours… I think Crass would have got nowhere without punk, but then neither would so many bands, or any of the rest of us for that matter — it’s all so many ifs and buts.

I’d also mention that I don’t think we do live in a post-Thatcherite age yet.


3:AM: I’ve always thought that anarcho-punk was killed by the fans. All the bands were banging on about peace while the fans were beating the shit out of each other — there was such a contrast between rhetoric and reality…

GB: The anarcho-punks were generally peaceful. Trouble at anarcho gigs was invariably from skinheads, usually right-wing and preying on pitifully-easy pickings. The inherent aesthetic contradiction between the ranting aggressive anarcho noise and the ‘peace’ lyrics was bound to attract a percentage of people who liked the former to the point where they didn’t care about the latter. I’d say the lack of trouble at Poison Girls gigs illustrates that.

Of course, to treat anarcho-punk as a music scene is to ignore the much more pervasive and lasting political movement that included the popularisation of animal rights, the peace camps, the birth of the anti-capitalist demonstrations etc.—you can beat the shit out of a few people at a gig, but you can’t kill the spirit.

3:AM: You write that “If the Buzzcocks wanted a generation of kids to turn up the volume to annoy their parents, Crass made you turn it down so they couldn’t hear the blasphemy.” Maybe that was also part of the problem: over the years, Crass’s righteous anger seemed to turn into a permanent tantrum…

GB: Yes, I’d say so. They weren’t like this at all as people, so one can only conclude that they’d got too stuck into ‘punk’ as cliché and failed to follow their own advice. What seemed so vital and loyal to ‘the cause’ at first ended up feeling reactionary to me, particularly as newcomers appeared to buy into the scene as some kind of rule-book.

3:AM: Another big problem was the old class thing. In spite of the anarchist rhetoric, a class divide remained within the band—in particular between Steve Ignorant, the geezer who wanted to wink at the girls in the front row, and Penny Rimbaud, the public-school educated hippie intellectual…

GB: Actually, I don’t think there was any personal divide between Penny and Steve, but I do think that going on about classlessness against a backdrop of the biggest war of the 20th century in the UK against the working class caught them a bit short.

3:AM: It’s interesting that both Steve Ignorant and John Lydon were influenced by Brighton Rock, which they both read at school…

GB: I bet they’d love a drink together—Steve, Johnny and Pinky, getting leathered in Horatio’s at the end of the pier! I’ll get the first round in: mine’s a pint and a molotov cocktail!

3:AM: When Penny Rimbaud claims, for instance, to have seen flying tribesmen in Africa, do you ever think: this guy is a nutcase not a visionary genius?

GB: I’m amazed people haven’t picked up on this more. If Penny was deliberately winding me up saying this, then he was doing so with an intensity that would put him up there with Brando and De Niro as one of the greatest actors of all time.

Nutcase/visionary genius—as Penny himself has asked on many occasions regarding Wally Hope, where do you draw the line? I think Penny Rimbaud’s whole life appears to be lived as polemic, which may give a clue here, as may his interest in existentialism.


3:AM: On the hippie vs punk debate, you claim that “Crass was right and Malcolm McLaren was wrong”. Obviously, there was continuity as well as rupture, but wouldn’t you agree that punk was the first movement to create a generation gap among youth itself? The hippies were the first generation to refuse to grow up, then punk came along with Sid Vicious stating that he couldn’t remember the Summer of Love because he was too busy playing with his Action Men…

GB: I’d say that there was a generation gap between teds and hippies, mods and teds (rockers) etc

Sid was a great comedian for the zeitgeist one-liners and I’m sure a generation knew instinctively where he was coming from with lines like that. But I think to pick up on generational trivia is to miss the point, particularly in hindsight.

3:AM: You seem to agree with Stewart Home that Crass took the fun out of punk…

GB: Yes, I do. But maybe half the fun was the incredibly broad church punk produced—seeing as that would have disappeared with or without Crass, it’s possible it would have gone anyway. Look at some of the others around then: Six Minute War, Crisis, Pop Group, Discharge, Au Pairs etc: hardly a laugh a minute. Maybe it was something in the air.

3:AM: You have described the composition of this book as an “intense experience”: did you need to write it in order to put this whole period behind you?

GB: Not the period itself—that’s already and unavoidably behind me. This was the period I became a vegetarian and turned the teenage angst into something more structured in my head. But, yes, there is a definite sense of catharsis in writing this book—I still find myself referring to ‘punk’ attitude all the time with a nagging sense that I must sound like an old ted. So I hope that all this "30 years of punk" lark will help me draw a line somewhere if I’m honest. Not with the attitudes it imbibed me with, but maybe with the word itself.


George Berger’s latest book is The Story Of Crass. His previous one was a biography of the Levellers. His next one is under contemplation. He also fronts Flowers In The Dustbin and writes a blog from there.


Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Return to Author's Page

The Story of Crass: A Review


I was never a fan of Crass. I found their music dull and probably the only thing going for them for me were their stunts, which were hilarious. The infamous "Reagan/Thatcher" phone conversation really got up some peoples noses and was even talked about in parliament. Still, that wasn´t the only stunt and many of these are talked about in this book.

Humour aside, there was also much serious stuff talked about and that really hits home when you start reading about Crass around the Falklands conflict. You really start to think how the authorities were worried by Crass. Steve Ignorant admits in the book that once they were drawing attention from the authorities, he was ready to back off quickly. That comes as no surprise as everyone who read "Last Of The Hippies" by Penny Rimbaud will know just how far the authorities will go to silence you!

Then there´s the bits about Crass as a band. The full history from start to finish including the lyrics/music/records being talked about and how they came about. Plus the idea of where the idea of them dressing in black came up! Then most importantly their backgrounds are talked about and how they all met etc. Some very interesting pieces there.

There´s just so much in this book that it would be hard to fit in one review! However one surprise to this book are comments from Garry Bushell and I can see what he is saying regards Crass and the Anarchist moment. Even Steve Ignorant felt that way about many people in the movement especially his commments towards many of the folk at the Autonomy Centre in Wapping.

I could go on all day about this book as it is a great read. I read it in one sitting and couldn´t put it down as George Berger has done such a great job keeping it flowing from start to finish. I can´t think of one book written on a band that has held my interest as much as this one has. That´s not bad for a band I never liked!

What else I liked about how George Berger has written this book is the fact that he hasn´t grovelled to the band. This shows throughout this book but becomes more apparent when you read the epilogue.

As well as gaining an awareness of a band that influenced so many people you will also get something else from this book. It will make you think about how you go about doing things and for all you serious politico´s out there - Crass say it´s ok to have a sense of humour!!

The only downer was Andy Palmer didn´t want to contribute to this book. It would have been great to read his thoughts on Crass as the other band members did. Maybe he´ll do something in the future and I think when he reads George´s book he´ll probably be disappointed he didn´t take part.

Maybe they could have featured some of the Crass artwork in the book too?! Still, you get some photos from the Dial House Collection but I´m sure the main core of people reading this book would have preferred some artwork! Still the quality of the photos is good and the author has made sure the photos don´t flood the book unlike other band biographies.

A great read and a must for everyone in to Punk Rock! Nuff said!

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Return to Author's Page

The gospel of Crass

Crass The gospel of Crass
By Tom Hodgkinson
Independent on Sunday
22 October 2006

In the late Sixties, two young artists rented a tumbledown cottage near Epping in Essex. Inspired by Lennon, Kerouac, Camus, RD Laing and other counter-culturals, the pair had no interest in commercial art or indeed the commercial world as a whole. So they changed their names, becoming Penny Rimbaud and Gee Vaucher, and set about creating a bohemian household, growing their own vegetables and living simply. Rather than a commune with strict rules, the idea was "open house".

Over the next 40 years Dial House would be home to scores of adventurers, outsiders, artists, musicians, writers and assorted Bohemians, and out of it would emerge a series of radical creative projects, the best known of which is the punk band Crass.

The Crass project was conceived as a reaction to the anarchic outbursts of punk and the Pistols. Using the medium of punk, Crass would go out there and get their message across. And the message was: look after yourself. Do it yourself. Take responsibility. You are in charge of your own life. With their fantastic symbols and art and straightforward rage, Crass found a huge audience among a generation alienated by Thatcher's policies. It affected even this writer as a 13- year-old: I remember listening to Stations of the Crass on holiday in France with my friend Simon. Back home we wore black jumpers and bought CND badges.

Crass defiantly refused to sell out, and that meant running their own business affairs. Crass members sat at home with a Gestetner machine and made all their own sleeves. They also set up their own label and encouraged artists as diverse as Bjork and Chumbawumba in their early days. Derided by some as hippies, they were in truth existentialist bohemian anarchists for whom punk music was a means of communication. Penny Rimbaud certainly is more at home sitting on the porch with a Gauloise, an espresso, Walt Whitman and Schoenberg than pogoing, gobbing or getting pissed on lager. Indeed, his more earnest approach was sometimes criticised by Steve Ignorant, Crass singer, who wasn't above having a laugh and drinking beer. Not that he wasn't above reading Walt Whitman either.

In creating a self-sufficient exstence where they grew their own vegetables and kept goats and chickens, they were actually doing what punk had suggested people do, which was to create anarchy in the UK. By anarchy, I am of course not talking about smashing up bus stops - although that has its place - but responding to the practical ideas of thinkers like Kropotkin, who argued that to be free we need to make work something meaningful and to "look after ourselves".

Crass were hugely influential, and turned on a generation to the possibilty of creating a life for oneself that was outside the restrictions of conventional 40-hour a week employment. In one aspect Penny is disappointed: in creating an open house, a place of refuge and inspiration that would be open to all, he imagined that he would inspire the creation of a network of such houses across the UK, each within a day's walk of each other, something like the monasteries of old which would dole out hospitality to any passing traveller. That has not quite happened yet. But there is still time.

But, by 1978, when Crass was formed, Dial House already had a 10-year history of radical projects. Penny Rimbaud had been involved in the creation of the Stonehenge Free Festival. He became sickened by the medical establishment when his friend Wally Hope died following some kind of hellish One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest type psychiatric treatment. To this day, he claims that Wally was murdered by the State, an idea argued in his book Shibboleth. There was also Exit, an experimental art group that handed out packets of seeds and prints by Gee at their gigs, which were always free.

In creating a space for outsiders, Dial House and Crass are in a tradition that stretches right back to the Middle Ages, According to historian Norman Cohn, the 13th and 14th centuries saw the flowering of a movement called the Brethren of the Free Spirit. To the pure of heart, they said, all was pure, and therefore you could sleep with your sister on the altar and it wouldn't be a sin. The followers of this cult were drawn from all walks of life, and women found it particularly liberating as an alternative to domestic life.

Much later, the Industrial Revolution and the extreme Protestant individualism that accompanied it led freedom-seeking artists and writers to recoil in horror from the "dark Satanic mills" and attempt to create their own communes and retreats. Coleridge and Southey dreamed of establishing a "Pantisocractic" community of labouring philosophers living the simple life.

The later 19th century is peppered with attempts to create utopian set-ups. John Ruskin established the St George's Guild, and Edward Carpenter, inspired by Tolstoy, set up a shared house at Millthorpe. Charles Kingsley worked on plans for an ideal community. In the 20th century, Eric Gill and others lived in a creative commune at Ditchling where art, craft and working the land were combined. There was a movement called Guild Socialism where Catholic writers resurrected the old idea of the medieval craftsmen's guild as a way of organising work and reuniting art and life. More recently, we have the example of Charleston, home of the Bloomsbury set. In fact, Penny believes that Dial House's recent court case, where the house was nearly lost to property developers, went their way partly because the judge could see that here was a Bloomsbury Group sort of set-up, a comparison which perhaps justified the venture in his mind.

Many of these rather self-conscious experiments in living were short-lived, but the remarkable thing is that Penny and Gee have actually achieved success. It is perhaps the lack of rules and the free nature of the place that has ensured its longevity. It is perhaps also the commitment of the various residents, as life there is not exactly easy. Apart from the hardships of living on little money, there are the inevitable conflicts of living with other people.

Although Crass were famous for their denunciation of the patriarchal nature of Christianity, there is undoubtedly something of the monastery about Dial House. The latest building project is a wooden chapel at the bottom of the garden. It's a place that offers spiritual sustenance. I've been a visitor for some years now and conversation there is always of the highest quality. Yet Dial House can be a challenging place to visit and a challenging place to live. Penny and Gee love debate to the point of aggression, and you have to be made of pretty stern stuff to cope with the constant piss-taking.

In an era when creative production has become for many simply a career option, it is fantastically inspiring to have in our midst proper artists, who in life and work constantly and continually demonstrate that there is another way of living and working.

And the work goes on to this day. There are now four full-time residents at Dial House, and it is run as an arts centre, hosting weekend workshops and debates. Gee has a major show of her work opening soon in New York. Penny and Bronwen Jones - Crass's Eve Libertine - perform poetry with avant-gade jazz under the name Last Amendment. A recent arrival at the house is the writer Jay Griffiths.

George Berger's book is an engaging, useful and well-researched if somewhat scrappily finished account of the Crass years and Dial House before and after. It is largely an oral history and there are some very fine photos. It shows brilliantly the intellectual and artistic conditions that led to the creation of Crass and also the events that have folllowed since Crass finished in 1985.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Return to Author's Page

BUY THIS BOOK and derange your senses

Crass The Story of Crass

By Alistair Livingston

September 2006

Shock and awe. Got the book and read it last night. Then couldn’t sleep. Just like after reading Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming - the book manages to transmit the intensity of that which it describes. Which is brilliant. But now I am exhausted. Do I read it again? No, I can’t, today being Friday, I have to rest and relax ahead of a weekend of full on being a carer for a disabled person. 

So I am listening to the ATV/ The Image Has Cracked/ 1978 not Crass...Viva la rock'n'roll...Arthur Rimbaud spoke to me through New York’s new wave ... letting the disorded fragments of my mind re-assemble after the derangement of my senses. Which makes me think of Kenneth Grant as well as Penny Rimbaud.

Certain fugitive elements appear occasionally in the works of poets, painters, mystics and occultists which may be regarded as genuine magical manifestations in that they demonstrate the power and ability of the artists to evoke elements of an ultra- dimensional and alien universe that may be captured only by the most sensitive and delicately adjusted anntennae of human consciousness... [This] would sem to require that total and sysematic derangement of the senses which Rimbaud declared to be the key to self knowledge ... "The soul must be made monstrous ... The poet makes himself into a seer by a long, tremendous and reasoned derangment of his senses... This he attains the unknown; and when, at the point of madness, he finishes by losing the intelligence of his visions, he has beheld them!"

This formula of derangement was for Rimbaud, as for some of the greatest artists and magicains, the supreme key to inspiration and the reception of vivid images such as those which flash and tremble upon the luminous canvases of a Dali or an Ernest.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Return to Author's Page

Modern punks needed

Crass By Richard Cabut
The First Post
September 2006

We need more rebellious music to match our inflammatory times, says richard cabut
Contemporary political rock culture is characterised by the image of Bob Geldof with his arm thrown cosily around the shoulders of Tony Blair.

The music scene wasn't always so servile. In the 1980s, the anarchist punk band Crass railed against authority rather than embracing it. So articulate were Crass in their espousal of anti-consumerism, self-rule and - against the background of the Falklands War - peace, that questions were asked in parliament.

They sold a phenomenal 2 million-plus records which, it is said, helped to inspire everyone from the anarcho-punks to the anti-globalisation movement.

So where, in these inflammatory times ripe with the necessity for action, has that good old anarcho spirit gone? Where are the songs and gigs screaming about Iraq/Iran, or about the sheer boredom of celebrity culture?

Crass, as a new biography by George Berger reminds us, politicised a whole generation - but unfortunately not this one. This lot are happy to leave it all to sanctimonious, self-publicist Geldof and Bush-toady Bono - although how these people, who show their love of the world by flattering those who are busy messing it up, retain any credibility is something of a mystery.

Then there's Coldplay, whose turgidity gives singer Chris Martin's favourite worthwhile causes a bad name by association, and eco-dabblers like Damon Albarn and Radiohead's Thom Yorke. Meanwhile, Mercury Prize winners the Arctic Monkeys are happy to take punk's spikey lustre, but have decided its ethos doesn't look good on the dance-floor.

In the light of such limpness, what we need is a committed, oppositional and, yes, anarchic, rock culture to kick up a rebellious stink once more. Arise, kids, you've got nothing to lose but your chainstores - which, I suspect, is the problem in a nutshell.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Return to Author's Page

Burn Collector on PMR

Burn CollectorBy Simon Czerwinskyi
Political Media Review
January 1, 2011

The fractured nature of the zine dictates it be ingested in small doses. Due to most zine’s thematic schizophrenia, this is the case the majority of the time. However, when collected, some zines are able to communicate an overarching theme. The recent reprint of Al Burian’s Burn Collector (which collects issues 1-9, and exists as a depressing postcard from the 1990s) transcends the usual scattered fare of the punk zine, and read all at once, is a solid block of wallowing introspection.  Burian weaves an intricate labyrinth of belly-aching, existential complaints, wry observation, and general punk pathos over the course of the nine issues collected here. And I felt a little wrung out after trudging through the contents of Al’s brain.

Burian was ahead of the curve in regards to hardcore burnout. Punk in the ‘90s was filled with many divergent musical genres, radical politics of all stripes, and the feeling that perhaps it would all brim over into something sustainable and useful. 

Such was not the case and Burian accurately—and painfully—articulates the malaise and disillusionment many punkers felt after the radical scene dried up; as a result, a good number of hardcore acolytes went on to wedge themselves into the straight world. The marked difference here is that Burian articulated all these feelings and regrets before the bottom fell out. In that, there is a historical importance (and personal relevance) to any stalwart of 90’s hardcore and punk. If you came out the other end feeling jaded and deflated, the book will definitely strike a chord.

That being said, music and “The Scene” are rarely addressed in Burn Collector. Burian burrows deep into his personal history, various rag-tag living situations, and failed relationships. While the meat of it doesn’t involve specific reference to punk, the approach and attitude most certainly spring from a personality bred by punk. There is much sarcasm to be had here, and there are many passages of Burian dissecting seemingly irrelevant minutiae (a common punk rock pastime).

The issues in which Burian escapes himself, such as an interesting piece about his visit to a recently re-unified Berlin, are certainly the best. Here, Burian examines a burgeoning youth culture of scrappy proportions. He witnesses ad-hoc dance clubs, ramshackle speak easies, and kids generally excited about their new-found freedom. And the final piece in the book, detailing Burian’s interaction with former President Ronald Reagan, is as punk as it is entertaining.

 The thematic consistency (Al feels bad about existence) is the main failing point here. The redundancy of a morose Burian is hard to take in such a concentrated form. Spread out amongst issues and read every couple months, Burn Collector might retain its freshness and poignancy. However, as a collection, it just weighs too much. The terminally beleaguered Burian simply wears the reader out. The subject matter changes, but the bleak perspective stays the same, and any potential a new topic might have of straying from the repetitive path is smothered by Al’s depressive mental heft. Burian is a fine writer who is limited by his myopically grim vision. As a whole, Burn Collector is impressive in its single-mindedness—a single-mindedness that, unfortunately, leaves little breathing room or variety for the reader.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Return to Author's Page

Teun Voten Interviewed in Working Class Magazine

By Luke Koz
Working Class Magazine
Issue XII: The Outlaw Issue

As a war photographer, journalist and anthropologist, Teun Voeten has courted extreme circumstances. For How de Body, he traveled to Sierra Leone to report on child soldiers just in time for a ceasefire to end, leaving him stranded in the Bush, hiding from warring rebels. His work in progress focuses on the drug war in Mexico. To write it, Voeten’s spent much of his recent time in the most dangerous areas of conflict. His A Ticket To is a catalogue of his experiences through photographers, featuring images from conflict zones throughout the world. War has featured prominently in most of his work.

However, war does not factor into one of Voeten’s most enduring works, Tunnel People, though extreme circumstances do. In the book—recently translated, updated and reissued by Oakland-based publisher PM Press–the anthropologist chronicles his time spent underground during the mid-1990s in New York City’s tunnels. Over five months, Voeten photographed, studied, interviewed, and became part of a small group of homeless people who decided to live in the tunnels beneath the City.

Working Class caught up with Voeten at The Half King, where he was scheduled to read from Tunnel People. However, rather than a reading, Voeten treated his audience to a photograph showing and interview session that more closely resembled a director’s casual Q&A than a formal event. He shared anecdotes about Bernard, one of the central figures in Tunnel People, and discussed some lessons he learned living in the tunnels (short version: don’t leave a bag of cookies in your rat-prone bunker). He spoke with humor and an earnest energy one would think impossible for someone who has spent decades documenting war zones. We spoke with Teun about his work, his approach and the update of Tunnel People.

WC: So, we hear you’ve been working in Mexico lately, correct?

Teun Voeten: I’m working now on a new project. It’s about the drug violence in Mexico.

WC: Where specifically in Mexico have you been?

TV: The Northern part, the border with Texas, Ciudad Juárez, Culiacán, Michoacán, many states—basically, the hot spots in the war on drugs, though actually the whole country is influenced by it.

WC: Where does the violence take precedence?

TV: It takes place on the Mexican side. Ciudad Juárez for example it borders El Paso. El Paso had like three killings in a year while Ciudad Juárez had thousands.

WC: Is it fair to say your work showcases an embedded or personally integrated approach?

TV: You could call it embedded or you could call it anthropological. I’m basically an anthropologist. Actually, I just interviewed a friend of mine who has been embedded with the military for a book. I asked him, “is this journalism or anthropology,” because of the integration. You see, anthropology is a science, and journalism and science are the same, except a journalist presents findings in an easy to read way. But journalism is founded on research and observation [like science]. In anthropology, there is also participant observation, in which you act like one of the group—or become one of group.

WC: Does the anthropological approach account for your voice?

TV: Well, that’s also my personal style. I wrote a book about Sierra Leone and it was basically following my own personal experience when I was nearly killed. It’s good to structure a work around your own experiences. Although I do think your own experiences should be put in perspective, because it’s a book about other people. I’m not writing about myself, but I’m writing about a situation in which I’m a participant.

WC: Tunnel People, even though it’s a fundamentally different subject from war, there seems to be similarity. What attracted you to that subject?

TV: I have an interest in people living and surviving in extreme circumstances at the edges of the human condition, be it in a war zone or be it in a tunnel. I’m also interested in sociopolitical phenomenon and of course war is a sociopolitical phenomenon and poverty is another.

WC: It’s been over a decade since you wrote Tunnel People, yes?

TV: It’s been thirteen years and I’ve now done the update.

WC: How was going back to it? What did you do for the update?

TV: Last year, I was able to track down most of the people I mentioned in my book. Actually, with Bernard, the main character, I was still in touch with him. He is a smart, funny guy.

WC: He was sort of like the mayor of the underground in a way …

TV: Yes, but it’s a little bit relative. He was one of the most intelligent and eloquent individuals I met there.

WC: How is he?

TV: He’s doing fine. Today is his birthday. We’re going to have lunch tomorrow. He has been working at the Parks Department and he’s getting his degree to become a security guard. He’s taking care of his sick father. He has strong ties with his family and he’s never broken with his family: his mother, his brothers, his children. He was a little bit of an exception. He has it well together. He stopped doing drugs. Once in a while he has a beer and that’s it.

WC: It’s been thirteen years, for some reason it seems people keep returning to Tunnel People. What do you think explains it?

TV: People have a huge fascination with homeless people living underground in one of the wealthiest cities in the world. When I wrote the book, New York was high amongst the very most expensive cities. Right now, Abu Dhabi, Tokyo, and Moscow might be more expensive. It’s very fascinating though that homeless have literally become invisible in such a place. It’s a very telling metaphor. And of course, people love creepy New York stories. There was that book, The Mole People. It was very sensational and not so accurate, but it’s still a bestseller. Or this for example: my friend Marc (Singer) made a movie, Dark Days, and people are still seeing that movie and they love it.

Buy Book Now
| Download Book Now | Back to Author Page

video embed attempt











Quick Access to:



New Releases

Featured Releases

A Soldier's Story: Revolutionary Writings by a New Afrikan Anarchist, Third Edition

The Unknown Revolution: 1917-1921