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Pirates and the uses of history

By Martin Parker
Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organization
Volume 10(2): 194-198

When research, teaching and writing about history is being done, it is usually justified with reference to the problem of induction. Though induction is called a ‘logic’, it is really a guess about probability. If the sun has risen every day for all of my life, then it will probably rise tomorrow. There is no necessary reason implied here, no deduction from principles, simply a guess based on spotting a pattern and then predicting it into the future. So the largely descriptive practice of history becomes articulated as a search for patterns which trail from then to then, from the crow’s nest of now. Not always, because it could be justified as a literary or cultural practice which is being done for its own sake, or for commercial reasons of selling books and TV series, but when a loftier reason is called for it would usually be about ‘learning’ from history. If you don’t know your past, you are doomed to repeat it. How can we know where we are going if we don’t know where we’ve been?

In theory then, when it comes to wars, revolutions or financial collapses, we can go back and look at what happened and use it to shape our actions now with the benefit of hindsight. Is the collapse of 2008 like that of 1929, or 1837? There is no certainty in such analogies, and no time is exactly the same as any other, but it’s probably better to have this information than not. Just as telling the story of the holocaust might warn us about what happens when economic crisis meets nationalism, so might the story of the great depression being addressed by the New Deal encourage us to think hard about the possibilities of Keynesian economics as an intervention in the current crisis. In the language of the classroom, the past teaches lessons, and so we need historians to translate the voice of history into stories with morals for policy and politics today.  

There is a second variant in this strategy, one that encourages us to look back so that we can look forward, but by opening possibility rather than suggesting probability. This is the history of things that authors think were rather better then than now, a history that doesn’t so much to explain the present as contradict it. Let’s call this utopian history – the search for reasons why the present doesn’t have to be as it is and the future can be something altogether more exciting.

That is mostly why Gabriel Kuhn is interested in Golden Age pirates from the late 17th to early 18th centuries. He sees them as an example of a proto-democratic and anti-imperial practice, and wants to suggest that we can learn from this past in order to open a different future. Rather than ‘this happened in the past so it is likely to happen in the future’, Kuhn says (against an implicitly neo-liberal present) that ‘this happened in the past so it can happen in the future’. It’s almost the opposite of induction in terms of probability. It’s like suggesting that there was a solar eclipse yesterday so there might be one today, or that the dice will roll snake eyes for the seventh time. Rather silly, you might say, but perhaps also rather important in a historical context where policy makers and politicians assume a broad consensus that global capitalism is the end of history.

Market managerialism and the efficient markets hypothesis then become, ceteris paribus, the answer, and the only interesting thing about history is how long it took us to get there. (Or perhaps merely to distract us on long aeroplane journeys.) Historicizing the present in such a smug contemporary context then matters, but for rather different reasons. If you don’t know your radical past, you are doomed not to be able to repeat it. Or, how can we know where we can go, if we don’t know where we have been? Utopianism is easy enough to criticise of course. Castles in the air seem pretty pointless when compared to real castles, but we’ll come to that in a while. Utopian history is a slightly different matter though, because it must be (in part) judged as history. If you claim knowledge of the 1837 depression, then you need a grasp of the facts that can be known. You need to be able to footnote dusty sources in forgotten corners of libraries, and to claim that you have spent a long time turning pages and bending over desks.

So, if you claim knowledge of pirates, your sources matter here. Kuhn’s book has a problem with this, because the sources are a problem. Though we can infer something about pirates from contemporaneous court records, newspaper accounts, travel books, broadsides and popular ballads, the pirates are always being spoken for in such accounts. They almost never speak themselves, with even their gallows speeches being written by moralists of radical or conservative stripe. Demonized by states and merchants, but glamorised by the common people and those who wished to sell stories, pirates are effectively constructed by the interference patterns between these different sources of representation.

Their reality largely died with them, sunk in blue Caribbean bays or hanging raven-pecked from gibbets. Such lack of evidence hasn’t stopped people from making money by telling their story for three hundred and fifty years. The glamorous rogue of Pirates of the Caribbean has been sold many times, as has the violent psychopath who commits atrocities that are described in detail and then condemned with vehemence. Even the gurning figures of pantomime fun need to be located here, because they establish the conditions of possibility for the man with the hook and a chest full of treasure. Most importantly for Kuhn though, over the past thirty years a radical pirate has been constructed by social historians such as Christopher Hill, Marcus Rediker, Peter Linebaugh, Peter Lamborne Wilson, Stephen Snelders and others.

This sort of pirate didn’t really exist before in anything but fragments, but has increasingly become the representation of a tradition of dissent which carries the skull and crossbones into contemporary debates about intellectual property, via the Paris Commune and G8 protests. Life Under the Jolly Roger adds little to any of these works, since it relies on the same materials, but Kuhn manages to summarise the sorts of issues at stake in this literature, at the same time as he endlessly repeats a warning against the dangers of romanticization. At times, the book is simply a long list of pirated quotations from other authors and ends up reading like a sort of textbook on what people have said about the radical pirate for those students doing a ‘Piracy 101’ module.

To summarise, this guerrilla pirate is an enemy of mercantile capitalism and the imperial state, and a social bandit who is supported by most common people. Such pirates are also tolerant when it comes to questions of nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and disability, and practice a form of rough democracy in which they elect their own leaders and are magnanimous to those who don’t resist them. There is probably some truth in all of these claims, though perhaps not as much as some might like to believe, and hence it should not surprise us that pirates have come to matter for utopian historians. Searching for examples of practice that can shame the present, and shape the future, the historian presents the pirate ship as an anarchist collective populated by diggers and levellers. Educated guesses and suppositions fill in the gap between wishful thinking and desire. It’s enough to make a historian turn in their grave, or break a quill.

I overstate the case, but do so deliberately. Kuhn is very often concerned to withdraw from such strong claims, pointing out that pirates sold slaves and raped women for example, but neither he nor PM Press would want that to be the marketing pitch for the book. The whole point is that this pirate opens things up, and allows for forms of thought about possibility to be laced with the smell of spiced rum and the exciting possibility of blood and shouting. It is fantasy, with all the identifications and projections which that involves, though that certainly doesn’t mean that it can’t be politics too. Kuhn’s pirates also fly some other flags – Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault and Nietszche. They become nomadic war machines, who resist biopolitics in the name of Dionysian excess. Casually dressed in fashionable theory, they swashbuckle their way into the radical imagination, post-structuralists before structuralism, anti-capitalists before capitalism. It’s a powerful brew, and no wonder that writers from a wide variety of backgrounds get seduced by it – even if they work in Business Schools (Land 2007, Parker 2009)

Peter Leeson’s The Invisible Hook (2009) uses the same sort of historical evidence as Kuhn’s book, but reaches some rather different conclusions. Leeson’s book (like Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics and many other similar titles) is a primer in behavioural economics, and the title is intended as an echo of Adam’s Smith’s ‘invisible hand’, the aggregation of individual rational choices. Leeson is concerned to show that pirates were rational economic actors, and not irrational psychopaths whose behaviour was
incomprehensible to all but them. I suppose he thinks that if he can demonstrate the logic of piracy, as Levitt and Dubner (2006) did with drug dealing, he will make some money himself, and prove that behavioural economics even works in the most unlikely situations. He seems to be aiming at rather a straw target, because I’m not exactly sure who Leeson is arguing against, but his analysis of the ‘hidden economics of pirates’ is convincing enough in a peg-legged sort of way. He writes about why spreading stories about torture was a good idea to encourage the development of fearsome pirate reputation, which in turn saved resources when they were attacking ships. He shows how pirate democracy was a response to the principal-agent problem, and the Jolly Roger was a brand which signalled to the market. Admittedly he does make the pirates sound like autistic accountants, but it’s a good yarn that he spins.

There are a variety of ways in which Leeson’s analysis might be deemed a bit thin, as well as ideologically driven, but that’s not really my point here. Whether you buy the book on Leeson’s bounded rationalists in search of strategies to maximum benefit, or Kuhn’s metrosexual autonomists engaged in potlatch economics, doesn’t really depend on the facts of the matter or the quality of the analysis. Neither author can point to indisputable evidence, and both books use the same sources, and tell the same stories. (Pretty much as every book on piracy has been doing since the publication of Captain Charles Johnson’s General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, and Also Their Policies, Discipline and Government in 1724.) It’s rather like a choice between Errol Flynn and Johnny Depp, both pirates who swing around on ropes a lot, but are very different in the way they play their parts. I think that the only basis for a choice between Kuhn and Leeson is what lessons we want to learn from history.

Leeson wants to prove that most people, most of the time, behave according to a calculus of incentive and reward and that economics is the best way to understand what people do. Kuhn is looking for inspirations for a radical politics. These aren’t necessarily incommensurable lessons for an anarchist libertarian, but they are clearly intended to sell to different audiences. Leeson’s book ends up advocating markets and rolling back the state, as well as suggesting that ‘workers democracy’ is all very well, but you can’t run Wal-Mart like a pirate ship. Kuhn suggests that the pirates show us something about the potential for revolutionary organizing, and doesn’t mention WalMart, but I would guess he wouldn’t shop there.

Personally, and for what it’s worth, I think that Leeson’s book is better. It adds to the panoply of ways in which pirates can be understood, and assumes that they were engaged in forms of rational economic action. It doesn’t moralise that much, except about his one dimensional version of economics, and forces you to think about what you know (although he does make some rather odd comments about homosexuality.)

Kuhn’s book is not a paradigm shift, despite his name, and he doesn’t really end up thinking very hard about what he wants the pirates to do for ‘radicals today’. He warns not to get carried away with our romanticization of a bunch of people most of us would cross the street to avoid, but then goes ahead and does it anyway. I prefer my fantasies to be thoroughly fantastic, so Leeson’s determined refusal to attach a politics to piracy ends up being the more challenging thought experiment. I might not agree with Leeson’s version of the imperialism of economics, but The Invisible Hook has a lot to say to present day politics too.

If we take the current examples of piracy off the coasts of Somalia, Indonesia, Nigeria and so on, and apply Leeson’s dispassionate calculus, we are left without a peg-leg to stand on in terms of justifying present day policies. If any of us lived in poverty, and saw huge ships trundling along on the horizon, we would probably feel rather hostile to the ‘laws’ that govern international trade and the relations between states. Another book published in 2009, written by balding British TV hard man Ross Kemp, makes this point too. Kemp’s breathlessly ordinary attempts to meet pirates are good ‘content’ for a book and a BBC TV show, but they are also quite convincing demonstrations of the inequalities of the international order. Kemp shows us that pirates have reasons for being pirates, and ironically one of the main reasons is the dominance of ideas of the market which Leeson finds so compelling. I’m not sure that Somalians would see the irony though, as industrial waste washes up on their poisoned beaches, and killing has become a national industry. It seems that the unintended consequence of applying neo- liberal economic policies on a global scale is to provide very rational reasons for some people to fire rocket propelled grenades at container ships.

There is no definitive answer to the question of what we can learn from pirate history, but there are two things that might be provisionally concluded. One is that representations of pirates will continue to be sold by other people for money. Kuhn and Leeson are in that respect not much different from Captain Johnson, Johnny Depp and Ross Kemp. The second is that since we don’t seem to agree about what we learn, we might as well be clear about what we want to learn. There’s an odd paradox in the very idea of historicising the present. It could lock us in to history in ways that make path dependency inevitable, and prevent us from imagining anything that isn’t now. But it could also show us that now wasn’t always the case, and that things have been done differently in other places and times. Leeson shows us that this is not necessarily a romantic or nostalgic argument and he doesn’t need Kuhn’s radical baggage to show why piracy made, and makes, sense. What Leeson lacks is any sense that the future can be substantially different from the past, assuming that the lesson that we learn that is that we should learn the lessons of economics. But if recent history is anything to go by, we would be better assuming that many economists don’t understand politics, and hence the possibility of change in the social conditions that produce rationality and market exchange. It is this very possibility for change that shows us why those sympathetic to pirates should be suspicious of arguments that assume that history teaches lessons, unless the lesson is that the future is open.

references:
Kemp, R. (2009) Pirates. London: Michael Joseph.
Land, C. (2007) ‘Flying the black flag’, Management and Organizational History, 2(2): 169-192.
Levitt, S. and S. Dubner (2006) Freakonomics. London: Penguin.
Parker, M. (2009) ‘Pirates, merchants and anarchists: representations of international business’,
Management and Organizational History, 4(2): 167-185.  
 
Martin Parker works in a leading university based Business School somewhere near Coventry.
E-mail: martin.parker@wbs.ac.uk

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The Chieu Hoi Saloon on MidwestBookReview

MidwestBook Review
By Diane Simmons
January 2011
Volume 11, Number 1

Harry Hudson, the hero of Michael Harris's The Chieu Hoi Saloon, reminds me of other hulkingly desperate, endlessly searching, secretly intellectual loners of literature. I think especially Thomas Wolfe's Eugene Gant, hurling himself into "immense and swarming" New York City. Perhaps it is only the outsider, the tortured seeker for something that couldn't be found in his nowhere home town, who can truly plumb a great city's depths.

In The Chieu Hoi Saloon, a huge book in which literary meets noir, it's 1980s Los Angeles, a city festering for the eruption that will follow the Rodney King verdict. Harry Hudson, who has fled/deserted a small town up in Oregon, a failed marriage and a little son, stutters so badly that he can barely talk to anyone but himself. His copy-desk job in a dying newspaper world leaves him plenty of time to shadow box with his past, to re-live the moment when, in a young man's "drowsiness and fear," he killed a harmless old Vietnamese, and the even longer moment, fifteen years later, when he was too drunk to fish his little daughter out of the deep end of the swimming pool. With these memories before him, he knows he "has no right ever to feel good again."

Los Angles, as seen here, seems to be a good place to have come if you are looking to run but have no real hope of hiding. Harry Hudson - as he's always called - seeks to find himself, or lose himself, in one dive after another, joints where signs such as "SWINGERS WELCOME" and "ONE AT A TIME ONLY IN THE TOILET" tell you all you need to know. Part-time hookers on their way down are willing to love Harry Hudson a little, accept his money and his support, and he at times he becomes so involved with their lives that the book sometimes begins to speak, successfully I think, in their voices, opening up a second window onto the life of the city.

Does our hero find redemption? Let me not say.

But there is one oasis of hope in the book, the Chieu Hoi (exact translation, I think, to sicken and die) run by a woman called Mama Thuy. Her life has been tough too; a young girl during the Vietnam War, she also left behind a son to make her escape. Still she remains whole: beautiful, tough, decent, courageous. The disreputable crew of saloon regulars - those who have long since "lost the ability to control their behavior well enough to pass for normal citizens" -- are all in love with her, would lay down their lives for her in a minute.

The Chieu Hoi, though it's called a saloon, is really, Harry Hudson, knows a church, a "congregation of fools, of incomplete people gathering around Mama Thuy in hope that, somehow, in this one place, some wholeness might "rub off."

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Storytelling as Organizing: How to Rescue the Left from its Crisis of Imagination

by Adam Kader
In These Times
January, 2011

In an editorial in In These Times'  November 2009 issue, reflecting on the right’s success at re-framing the healthcare reform debate in its favor, Kevin O’Donnell wrote, “When it comes to messaging, Republicans believe in science. Democrats don’t.” To their detriment, “Democrats cling to the idea, disproved by science and electoral experience, that if you present the facts, people will reason their way to the right conclusion.” Republicans, on the other hand, know to use “simple words, short sentences and a heavy dose of repetition.”  



Must one be this cynical in order to win a campaign or a policy battle? Is the way to beat conservatives on important issues to “race to the bottom,” debasing rhetoric, and treating the public as imbeciles? Fortunately, for those looking for a more generous understanding of public discourse, there’s Re:Imagining Change: How to Use Story-based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World (PM Press, 2010), by Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning. 



Reinsborough and Canning provide another way of looking at “the battle of the narrative.” Like O’Donnell, any experienced activist knows that framing the issue matters to any campaign's success. But rather than “dumbing down” progressive campaign messaging, Reinsborough and Canning argue for a story-based strategy that deconstructs dominant narratives and constructs new ones that challenge assumptions and move citizens to action.

The authors encourage readers to re-imagine both how change can happen and what can be changed. They introduce a series of concepts “to win campaigns, build movements, and change the world” based on Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s notion of hegemony, which posits that powerful interests exert control through dominant culture so that the status-quo becomes “common sense.” If campaigns are to change the status-quo, the authors argue, they must be communicated in ways that fall outside the narrative categories created by the status quo. 



Just as a successful campaign can change the material conditions of society, Reinsborough and Canning argue, so can it change the way society thinks—it creates change on the level of meaning. In the same way that a direct action physically interrupts a target’s business-as-usual, a campaign has a deeper impact when it also interrupts the dominant narrative about the campaign issue.  



Consider Re:Imagining Change’s example of Greenpeace’s Save the Whales Campaign. When Greenpeace activists took action by literally placing themselves between whaling ships and the whales, it “showed it was the activists, not the whalers, who were the courageous people on small boats risking their lives—not to kill whales, but to save them. In this new narrative, whales were not big and evil; rather it was the giant whaling ships that were the dangerous monsters. The whales were the helpless victims and became sympathetic and worthy of protection...The story changed and the roles of hero, victim, and villain shifted.”

Successful campaigns utilize a “meme,” or a unit of “self-replicating cultural information such as slogans (Just Do It!), iconic images (Abu Ghraib torture), catch phrases (“wardrobe malfunction”) or symbols (the peace sign). Just as engines of dominant culture create memes, so can social change groups.

 Re:Imagining Change's accessible language and hands-on exercises make it ideal for busy community and political organizers. My favorite feature of the book is the “Reflections” box included in each chapter. An example:

What are some assumptions in the dominant culture you think need to be changed?  Make a list.  You can carry this assumption list with you and keep a running tab of times when they show up, or when you surface new ones.  Choose one assumption to work with for the moment...Are there institutions where it lives?  Are there ways it is felt in popular culture?  Now think about actions you could take to challenge that assumption and change the story. Are there physical points of intervention that could expose this assumption?

The exercise pushed me to step back and consider a campaign that my organization, Arise Chicago, and other worker centers around the country are engaged in. The fight against the exploitation of low-wage earners is not new, but our “anti-wage theft campaign” is because of its use of the “wage theft” meme. Before, institutions like the Department of Labor and the mainstream media referred to the phenomena of worker exploitation as “non-payment of wages.” 



Several years ago, however, worker centers designed the “wage theft” meme.  This meme overthrows the dominant assumption that wages are the property of the boss, to be shared with workers.  Rather, in this new narrative, wages are the property of workers that have been stolen by the boss. 



The wage theft meme is deeply effective, because a common defense narrative spun by an employer caught for not paying his workers is that these are hard economic times; that in a difficult business climate everyone has to tighten their belts—that the boss is doing everything he can to keep things running.  



The public is sympathetic to this defense. The employer is understood as benevolent; he is the job provider, the one who can save our economy—the workers, protesting, are ungrateful! They should be thankful to be employed at all in this bad economy! The audience of this dominant narrative will identify with the employer, who is the one struggling to stay alive in this economy.  The workers are troublemakers, trying to take wages away from the employer, a property owner, just like you and me! 

But through the wage theft meme, workers, not employers, become the victims of the bad economic climate. The boss, not the workers, becomes the unreasonable one.  The self-respecting public will identify with the righteous worker who is trying to stand up for their right to recover their private property.  Using the wage theft meme, when my organization fights an employer who is not paying minimum wage, overtime wage, or wage at all, we also are fighting some of the assumptions embedded in the dominant narrative about labor. Accordingly, the media has begun to use the meme when they report on our campaigns and legislators have incorporated the phrase “wage theft” in the names of bills.

All of this is to say that Re:Imagining Change has inspired me to evaluate the choices we’re making in designing and communicating our organizing campaigns. Other progressive organizers should strive to do the same. The left is losing the battle over narrative, which means we often lose the larger war over legislation and fiscal policy. Think of common current rhetoric surrounding climate change legislation (“it kills jobs”), public sector jobs (“we have to cut back to decrease the deficit”), gender parity (“it will result in frivolous lawsuits”), etc. 

Indeed, Sally Kohn of Movement Vision Lab writes: “Over the past year, much of the left has jealously ogled the Tea Party and its apparently up-out-of-nowhere grassroots movement energy.” Kohn locates the origin of this energy in the proliferation of “an attractive story of power and vision—a story in which everyday activists can see themselves and engage.”

That the left needs to develop strong, compelling, narratives is clear. Re:Imagining Change is the resource that can show us exactly how to do so.

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C.L.R. James's A New Notion in Radical Philosophy Review

by Matthew Quest
Radical Philosophy Review
Volume 13, number 2 (2010) 191-195

C.L.R. James’ A New Notion, a compiled republication of two of his most engaging and neglected works, which are central to his political thought, will captivate readers concerned with current problems of world war, economic crisis, thin conceptions of democracy, and retrogression from socialist principles. While race and color are not addressed here by this notable Pan-African from Trinidad, it would be a mistake to think they do not address the empire of capital in terms of both imperial and peripheral nations’ experiences.

The Invading Socialist Society (1947), co-written with Raya Dunayevskaya and Grace Lee, is the first collective statement of the Johnson-Forest Tendency of American Trotskyism, and it offers perspectives and proposals that foreshadow a rupture with that movement and most socialist frameworks. James’ small Marxist group would breakaway from the Trotskyists permanently in 1951.

Subsequently, the Detroit based Correspondence group was founded with a newspaper of the same name. Every Cook Can Govern (1956), a meditation on Ancient Athens and direct democracy, first published as an essay in Correspondence, would become an internationally circulated pamphlet. The title itself would become an adage embodying James’ unique body of ideas.

Peculiarly central to his paradigm for national liberation struggles, in exactly that respect, James’ Ancient Athenian framework did not always suggest popular self-management for the Third World. Instead it could be taken as a story there, in contrast to modern industrial nations, reflecting the tasks of an aspiring progressive ruling elite.

The Invading Socialist Society (ISS) cannot be properly understood unless one is aware of James’ view that a socialist future is not distinguished by a one-party or welfare state, but rather the self-emancipation of toilers. Those identifying actually existing socialism with the Soviet Union or Maoist China in the past, or Castro’s Cuba and Chavez’s Venezuela quarrels with American empire more recently, or with increasing access to healthcare and education as the embodiment of a progressive welfare state, while voting for lesser evil capitalist politicians such as Franklin Roosevelt or Barrack Obama, will have difficulty. James is neither concerned with the damaged consciousness of the American toiler or labor globally. It is clear James is not a theorist concerned with cultural or media hegemony like most socialist scholars. He argues, “the theory of the degenerated worker state… implies the theory of the degenerated worker” (54). Consistent with another neglected work, Marxism & The Intellectuals (1962), James does not believe workers need more culture and education over many years before finding the power to emancipate themselves.

 

Rather, James challenges his fellow socialists on the following grounds. There is no progressive or dual character of government bureaucracy (24).  He rejected an odd proposition emerging at that historical moment, but still with us: that the bourgeois police state was a defender of the gains of working people (83).

That such governments could suppress mass movements and still be credited with redistributing wealth and being radical or even viable. A socialist future would for James not place an emphasis on greater economic equality or the cultivation of public or nationalized property, but center on toilers controlling the social relations of production and society by popular councils and committees. “The revolt,” he declares, is “against value production itself” (43).

James illustrates Marxism, for most, had become the analysis of bureaucracies, instead of the instinctive or spontaneous drive toward workers’ autonomy. Noel Ignatiev, in a concise, though primarily biographical, introduction, is correct that James’ conception of revolutionary organization is to assist in disciplining spontaneous revolt. Through education and propaganda James aspires to undercut those who aspire to enter the rules of hierarchy. But Ignatiev does not face squarely a historical dilemma. James functioned in his career both as a mentor of self-emancipating toilers from below and aspiring rulers above society.

ISS is a text which rejects the idea of a progressive ruling elite as it advocates self-government through workers councils. ECCG while promoting the idea of a direct democracy by popular assemblies imagines a place for philosopher-statesmen at the rendezvous of victory. James asserts that “state capitalism,” the increasing government intervention in the world market and ownership of production, was appearing all over the world without releasing the reins on toilers’ lives. It may call itself fascism or nationalism here, socialism there, or communism somewhere else.

But he warns the idea of the progressive ruling elite, whatever form it takes, defends “statified production” against the self-government of working people. Thus, following a phrase from Frederick Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, the “invading socialist society” will be where workers begin to take over “people’s” factories, mines, oil wells, and land. The state monopoly of capitalist production, without any plan for cultivating people to directly govern, will be confronted. “Proletarian nationalization” of property, by general strikes and people’s communes, will conquer the aspiring bosses.

ISS is also remarkable for its global reach in analyzing American imperialism as well as the Soviet Union. Further, it repudiates the nationstate as unable to provide economic prosperity and collective security in the world. James’ takes to task the State Department, World Bank, Marshall Plan, and the supplying of arms and resources to “every counter-revolutionary regime” on the globe that suppresses mass uprisings. James asserts the United States dominates its subordinate allied nation-states as it counter-attacks rival imperialisms. The U.S. “engender[s]hatred among revolutionary forces everywhere” in an interplay of “national, imperial, and civil wars,” which will lead to its collapse, just as the Soviet Union in its fraudulent claim to be a workers’ republic will also implode. The Soviet Union and the U.S. have in common, for James, the claim for progressive patronage toward the working class, as it manages them as commodities or national capital. At home they offer bourgeois-democratic or economist reforms while abroad they offer aid —all in exchange for submitting to their world dominance.

James may appear to observers as utopian, abstract, and sectarian. Yet his interlocutors made these claims in 1947. He argued, in the rhetorical flourishes that spice his writings and make them sizzle, that whoever claimed to be militant and believe in the coming downfall of world civilization while finding it abstract that working people could directly govern by popular committee, carry out armed self-defense, and control production, were “playing with revolution.”

Every Cook Can Govern (1956), a meditation on the Ancient Athenian city-state, proposes ordinary citizens can directly govern through popular assemblies, just as their human ancestors. James knows this would flummox the average AFL-CIO bureaucrat in the United States or British parliamentarian.

Consistent with the ISS, James believes ordinary citizens can make economic planning decisions. In Athens they also made decisions about war and foreign policy. In a fashion reminiscent of the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, they also decided what popular artistic achievements, such as the plays of Aeschylus, would be award winning, and these same plays would later be interpreted falsely as elite Western classics beyond the ken of the rank and file. James has been criticized (despite his acknowledgement of the problem in the text) as minimizing the exclusion of slaves, immigrants, and women from Athenian citizenship. James has challenged those who make this criticism by emphasizing they are less concerned with those who were subordinated in history than in making sure contemporary democratic conceptions stay minimal. In the post- Black Power and post-colonial world (if we have arrived there), we need to interrogate this problem further by centering James’ projections of Athenian ideals into the African world. The critique of Eurocentrism by thinkers fond of the progressive character of the nation-state in certain sectors needs to be taken further.

Every Cook Can Govern, while functioning as a text intended to give a historical basis for the ideals of workers self-management in the United States (though James acknowledges Ancient Athens could not be socialist as it was a pre-capitalist society), largely has had a different function in the Caribbean.

Aspects of his argument can promote a sense of national purpose—the small islands imagined as similar sto their Greek counterparts—if the aspiring “city-state” and its leadership cultivates the humanistic development of the masses. What could this possibly mean after James has generally rejected social democratic economism and cultural criticism in the former text? Here we should be aware of James’ references to Pericles: the famous statesmen in his Funeral Oration suggested the noble character of the Ancient Athenian citizen was not that all could make policy, but that all could judge it.

James’ meditation on Ancient Athens inaugurates a shift in his political thought, always incomplete, between a syndicalist vision of popular committees of self-governing workers and an increasing focus on philosopher-statesmen, especially those in the Third World, such as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Trinidad’s Eric Williams, and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere. In a fashion akin to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, they should observe the self-activity of the popular will, which doesn’t know exactly what they desire (though this doesn’t make them dumb or mis-educated), as they appear to embody in their actions the condemnation of representative government. Still postcolonial statesmen can be imagined as progressive and leading a revival in their initiation of the post-colonial defeat of the plantation order. And this should be part of
an unanswered riddle: what happened to the Grenada Revolution, which critiqued the Westminster model and advocated popular assemblies instead? What exactly was C.L.R. James’ influence on Maurice Bishop?

These texts are suggestive.

We will conclude by reminding ourselves how James and his associates projected these ideas into the West Virginia coal fields against John L. Lewis’ United Mine Workers’ trade union bureaucracy. Also these inspired perhaps the most original theorist of the Black Power movement, the African American autoworker James Boggs, to break with Walter Reuther’s United Autoworkers’ hierarchy in his earlier labor activism in the Detroit of the early 1950s. Observers of the post-colonial moment in Caribbean political thought should be aware of how James’ ideas on popular assemblies and workers councils, evident in these two seminal works, shaped projects fighting empire from above and below society.

Eric Williams’ effort to be a populist tribune of the people of Trinidad from 1955 to 1961 would decline and evolve into the Black Power revolt of 1970 against his post-colonial regime. Both moments have linkages to these intellectual legacies of James as the following one. Eusi Kwayana’s African Society for Cultural Relations with Independent Africa, from 1971-1974, in its transition from party politics to a movement of popular committees of bauxite and sugar workers against Forbes Burnham’s regime in Guyana, facilitated their own invading socialist society. Self-managing workers took over nationalized property and foreshadowed the epic struggle, led by Walter Rodney, for people’s power and no dictatorship in a postcolonial society.

These two works from C.L.R. James’ archive, if critically engaged, will prove to be an archive of new notions for philosophical criticism and social movement practice, wherever the re-enchantment of workers power and Black autonomy beyond the nation-state and the empire of capital are found to be desirable. 

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The New Spirit of Social Movements

by Richard Seymour
Wednesday, January 05, 2011

In the neoliberal phase of accumulation, capitalism underwent several dynamic changes. Its operations were downsized, re-organized and technologically upgraded. This is how David McNally puts it, in his highly recommended new book, Global Slump: "It is not simply that jobs went to the South, though in some industries this clearly happened. It is more that a severe process of restructuring occurred that involved an enormous downsizing of workforces and “leaning” of production systems everywhere. Geographic reorganizations, sometimes within the bounds of a nation-state, as in the flight of plants from the northern to southern United States, were one part of this picture. While industry-specific changes may have been in play in the case of steel, we observe a common pattern combining new technologies with old-fashioned employer tactics of speed up, contracting out, and undermining of unions.

Production was made more “flexible” largely by making labor so—by tiering wages, altering shifts, increasing insecurity and precarious employment (casual, part-time, and contract work), and enhancing employers’ power to hire, fire, and reorganize work. New technologies thus combined with old forms of precariousness to boost labor productivity.” (pp. 47-8)

This reorganisation of capitalism - made possibly by raw class power and imperialist aggression toward the global South - had been conceived in its essential outlines within the laboratories of the social sciences departments of universities, a long-standing redoubt of ruling class project design. The 'Chicago Boys' just happen to be the most easily recognisable brand name of this particular firm and its maitres penseurs. The pretext was that centralised planning, corporatism, collective bargaining the hierarchies of the Keynesian era, had failed. The solution was capitalist freedom, of the kind extolled by Friedrich Hayek.

Hayek's approach to 'freedom' placed great stress on information. The case for markets and competition, and against socialism and planning, was based on the problem of how producers would come by the relevant knowledge to behave in an efficient manner. This knowledge could not be accumulated and concentrated in the hands of planners, but was distributed in fragments, bits of incomplete and contradictory knowledge among a multitude of actors. Knowledge and learning are necessarily constrained by one's position relative to one's peers, so that one is dependent on the pathways linking one to those peers - those being price signals. The economy thus works as an informational flow, a network which - if allowed to operate without the distortions of monopoly and intervention - is greater than the sum of its nodes. If each node comprises a partial, insignificant piece of knowledge (your shopping list, your debts, the change in your wallet, your evolving gustatory propensities, etc.), the whole network aggregates that knowledge in a way that enables the needs of each to be met satisfactorily. This approach embraces what many have taken to be the rudiments of modern network theory.

A somewhat different, overlapping critique of the old hierarchies also had its impact on the self-understanding of capitalist enterprises, or so argue Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello in their monumental book on The New Spirit of Capitalism. The 'spirit' of the title, borrowed from Weber, refers to an ideology that justifies people's commitment to capitalism. This commitment is necessary to the reproduction of capitalist relations, and it must be exacted from many many more people than can expect to significantly benefit from the process. These firms, having adopted lean production and flexibility, sought through the 1970s to incorporate elements of the Sixties critique of capitalism, of counterculture, and re-organise their systems along networked lines, embracing some of the ideas of self-management: "autonomy, spontaneity, rhizomorphous capacity, multitasking (in contrast to the narrow specialisation of the old division of labour), conviviality, openness to others and novelty, sensitivity to differences, listening to lived experience and receptiveness to a whole range of experiences, being attracted to informality and the search for interpersonal contacts". (p. 97) This is not, of course, to say that corporations ceased to be hierarchies, that managers ceased to control, or that spontaneity and creativity ceased to be stifled. This is an ideology, at the centre of which is a hard kernel of reality, that being lean production, flexi-working, spatial re-organisation and technological upgrading.

In the field of academic production, things were not much different. Employees of universities undergoing proletarianisation were also encouraged to think entrepreneurially, embrace transdisciplinarity, and so on. (Students are now also being encouraged to think entrepreneurially, as a demonstration of 'corporate skills' will give them higher marks.) But these employees were not always or necessarily unwilling in their task, and the intellectual reaction that accompanied this global capitalist reformation, which was inaugurated by a particularly grotesque revival of McCarthyism on the Left Bank, tended to evince the same suspicion of planning, of centralisation, and particularly of totalitizations such as nations, classes and societies, as the Hayekians. There was only the fragmentary and the contingent. Mrs Thatcher's jibes against the idea of class and society were met with differing degrees of mortified outrage at the time. But in the academia - including the humanities departments that the Thatcherites tended to disapprove of - the idea that such metanarratives were inherently absurd and oppressive was gaining currency.

In practise, what tended to happen was that the metanarratives based on class, agency, power, social determinants, and so on, tended to be replaced by metanarratives based on informational flows, networks, autonomous processes, choice and flexibility. Sometimes this went under the heraldry of 'postmodernism', but not always. The emergence of 'globalisation' as the master-concept of the 1990s was accompanied by a blizzard of academic work on informationalism, the knowledge economy and so on. Signs and symbols, more than matter, were the determinants of life on earth. It's relevant to stress how widespread this anti-materialist turn was, and in how many fields. If in the field of economics, materialist value theory was replaced by a (circular, mundane) subjective value-theory, in the field of history, materialist accounts of class, labour, sex and oppression entered a recession, making way for the 'cultural turn', while in sociology, the courtiers of the Third Way such as Anthony Giddens and Charles Leadbeater vaunted the 'knowledge economy' and the 'weightless society'. As capitalism started to make its returns increasingly on inflated values in the stock market, its most vulgar apologists held that this bubble was nothing other than a "most of us make our money from thin air", producing nothing that can be touched, weighed or easily measured. Globalization itself was conceived of as an autonomous, self-expanding process, almost as a Weltgeist against which humanity was powerless.

So, by this point, you'll be wanting me to explain what all this has to do with the new social movements, with the multitudes, with swarms, with networks and their technophilic informationalist paradigms? What bearing could it have on the strange, hubristic notion of decentralised, networked, non-hierarchical, autonomously self-sustaining social movements? Well, I'll have to deal with that in another post.

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Global Slump's Toronto Book Launch

Launching The Socialist Register 2011:

The Crisis This Time and
David McNally's Global Slump:
The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance


Book Launch
at Lula Lounge
Thursday, January 20th
at 6:30pm

1585 Dundas St. W., west of Dufferin, Toronto, Canada
416.588.0307
www.lulalounge.ca

David McNally will speak and there will be a panel discussion with local SR contribnutors: authors of In and Out of Crisis, Greg Albo, Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch, as well as Bryan Evans. 

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Baloney's Not the Answer

tunnelp

By Ryan Bell
Molossus Blog
December 15, 2010

Teun Voeten is not the first to document the lives of the people living in the tunnel systems of New York City. His newly updated account, Tunnel People, is unique, however, because of Voeten’s commitment not only to his craft, but also to the people. Articles and books have been written about the tunnel people and Mark Singer’s award winning documentary, Dark Days, introduced the world to this underground society in what Voeten himself calls a “shockingly honest portrayal.” But Voeten went a step further, living in the Amtrak tunnel on Manhattan’s west side for five months over two years, digging beneath the surface of the tunnel people’s lives as well as their complex and diverse social environment. “To add something new to the earlier studies,” Voeten writes in the introduction to his book, “I decided to take the anthropological approach, using its favorite research method of participant observation” (3).

During Voeten’s time living in the tunnel, Amtrak closed the tunnel, evicting all the residents. City and federal agencies made valiant efforts to place the tunnel people in permanent housing. Now, thirteen years later, Voeten has reestablished communication with as many of the former tunnel people as he can find. In a brand new Part 4, Voeten describes where his friends are and how they are faring. Some have successfully integrated into life up top while other have not. Some have returned to the streets, others have died, a few have overcome some remarkable challenges.

Voeten is no stranger to dangerous situations having covered more than a dozen conflict zones as a photo journalist, he brings all his unique talent and experience to bear upon this subject.

There is no shortage of people who want to help the homeless, serve the homeless, even study the homeless. There are federal and local programs to end homelessness in ten years. These efforts have a range of motivations, from sparing the rest of us the visual obstacle of people living on our streets to moral outrage over the inhumanity of allowing widespread suffering to continue unchecked. Those in a position to help others don’t often stop to consider how those on the receiving end experience that help. Many of the tunnel people didn’t consider themselves homeless at all. Indeed, the tunnel was their home. Voeten’s account gives us a window into this complexity

Yesterday, Frankie was also approached by an outreach worker. He holds the same kind of grudge as Bernard toward the do-gooders that try to intervene in his life. This time it was a friendly man who gave him a baloney sandwich and offered him a place to stay, that is to say, a city-operated shelter. Of course, Frankie was deeply offended.

“What the fuck do they think they’re talking about?” Frankie says angrily. “A shelter and a lousy sandwich! I told the guy, ‘Come to my place, I’ll make coffee and cook burgers and we gonna watch the ballgame on TV.’ But this asshole, he didn’t dare to come down.” It sounds like it was Do-Gooder Galindez again. “Something wrong with the system,” Frankie ponders, “when you got those guys making thirty grand a year driving fancy cars and handing out baloney sandwiches” (105).

Still, life on the streets—or in a tunnel—is difficult and dangerous. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that people are not meant to live this way, even when so many willingly chose it. The tension between respect for people’s choices and the outrage over a society that structures life in such a away that so many get left behind is not easily resolved. Handing out baloney sandwiches is not the answer.

As someone who regularly encounters homeless people on the streets of Los Angeles and interacts with half a dozen social service agencies working among the homeless, I found Voeten’s book deeply insightful and helpfully frustrating. Tunnel People offers a penetrating vision of a slice of life that is uniquely American, recounted by a uniquely qualified Dutch writer.

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Ryan Bell is senior pastor of Hollywood Seventh Day Adventist Church, which was awarded the North American Division’s Award for Most Innovative Church in 2010. Bell writes for a wide range of publications, including the Huffington Post, and works very closely with many LA-based and national organizations to promote social justice.




The Chieu Hoi Saloon

Benjamin Whitmer
November 16, 2010

It sounds almost too nuts-and-bolts to be something you actively think about, but I’ve been thinking about character a lot lately. That’s most of what I’ve been talking about in interviews, and most of what I’ve been working on in my own writing. It comes, I think, from trying to pin down what noir is, what separates it from everything else, and I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s the focus on character over plot that allows the distinction between noir and other kinds of crime fiction.

It’s probably not incidental that I’ve been thinking so much about character while reading Michael Harris’ The Chieu Hoi Saloon. It’s one of the most harrowing depictions of a character in crisis that I’ve ever read. Denis Lehane once described noir as working class tragedy, where the characters “don’t fall from great heights, they fall from the curb.” Harry Hudson, The Chieu Hoi Saloon‘s protagonist, falls from curb to gutter to sewer, and somehow manages to keep falling. The stakes are small, there are no hamhanded plot points, there’s just this one broken and heartbreaking character doing the best he can to play with the hand he’s been dealt. It’s a minor miracle he even manages to survive the hell of his day-to-day existence; that he does so with a kind of grace and courage is evidence of how wonderful a writer Harris is.

To give you a taste, here’s the beginning of a scene Michael would read aloud when we were hitting bookstores together in San Francisco. It fucked me up every time I heard it.

That night, sleeping on the cot in the storeroom of The Chieu Hoi Saloon, Harry Hudson was spared the worst dream of all—the one in which he lay pinned to the chaise lounge by the swimming pool of the apartment complex in Garbersville, Oregon, unable to move, while his two-year-old daughter, Sally, wandered slowly but unstoppably toward the water; below the ruffles of her bathing suit (yellow with little blue flowers) were pink ovals on the backs of her thighs from lying on the hot concrete.  This was only the second worst dream—the one in which his squad waited in ambush at the edge of an old Michelin rubber plantation twenty clicks northwest of Phuoc Vinh.

If you’re anything like me, that should be all the inspiration you need to get yourself a copy.

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Capitalist Crisis and Left Alternatives

By Hamid Sodeifi
New Socialist
November 15, 2010

In and Out of Crisis is a significant contribution to understanding the North American political and economic situation in the aftermath of the "Great Crisis." The core premise of the book is that the building of radical alternatives with the power to truly affect change requires a serious and sober analysis of the profound socio-political and economic changes that have taken place over the last three decades. So significant have these changes been that even with a crisis of capitalism as severe as the one experienced in recent years, the labour movement and the Left continue to "remain on the defensive" within a relationship of class forces in which the capitalist class has enjoyed the political space to settle the crisis on its own terms.


In and Out of Crisis is thus a tale of two different crises. It is, on the one hand, the story of the most recent economic crisis that brought the global financial system, and with it the global economy as whole, to the brink of collapse and how capitalist classes and states responded to the crisis to bring the system "out" of crisis. It is also, and perhaps even more importantly, about the crisis of left politics. In light of so much evidence, why is it that voices against the utter cruelty, irrationality and destructiveness of capitalism — most recently the financial crisis of 2007-8 — have remained so muted and mobilizations against it so limited in North America?

In answering these questions, the book does not restrict itself to developing a mere understanding of the reasons for the weakness of the working class and left-wing politics in North America. Albo, Gindin and Panitch, have quite consciously produced the book to provoke discussion and debate about these issues as a way of finding a way out of this crisis.

It is thus fitting that the book is written in a very clear and accessible way. Without at any point becoming simplistic, the authors clearly and concisely present a wealth of economic, political and historical information to be used, discussed and debated by students, labour and social activists, and progressives of all types.

That said, the book is not a generic discussion of these trends from a "progressive" perspective. And herein lies the strength of the book. It is written with passion and conviction by three of Canada's leading socialist thinkers whose objective is not to find technical solutions and policy alternatives to make the capitalist system work better but, rather, to find ways of fundamentally challenging "property rights in the name of democratic and social rights." It is written not just to provide information and insight, which it does quite well in lucidly presented, tightly-packed chapters, but also to challenge theories and perspectives that are seen by the authors as barriers to our ability to mount an effective challenge to the rule of capital.

States Against Markets?

One such theory is the idea that states and markets stand against one another, in binary opposition, as it were. From this perspective, the history of the last few decades is seen as one in which the power of the state has been eroded in favour of markets. This is said to explain the excesses of the capitalist system: increased inequality and greater degradation of environmental and labour conditions, ultimately resulting in massive economic problems such as the recent financial meltdown. From this perspective, what we need is to enhance the power of the state and use it to limit market activity through greater regulation.

Against this viewpoint, In and Out of Crisis makes the case that the capitalist states and capitalist markets do not stand so much against each other as in symbiotic relationship to one another. In other words, to see the capitalist state as a neutral force that can be used to constrict capital not only misunderstands the role played by capitalist states but also, more importantly, leads to the wrong political conclusions for our side.

"Calls for 'reregulation,' with their assumption that states and markets stand in opposition to each other, can further confuse rather than politicize those the Left should be trying to mobilize.  As the most recent state interventions make clear, given the current balance of social forces, regulation is about finding a technical way to preserve markets in the face of their volatility, not about any fundamental reordering of relative power in society to conform to social needs." (pp. 105-6)

Real Economy vs Finance?

Similarly, the book challenges the notion that the problem is that financial markets have become too dominant at the expense of the "real economy," resulting in grotesque imbalances. This view sees the unencumbered movement of financial capital across the globe at incredible speeds as having produced not only the recent volatility, including the "great crisis," but also the hollowing out of the "real economy" and the decline in social prosperity and employment opportunities.

In direct challenge to this, the book argues, quite rightly, that seeing finance as belonging to the sphere of "superstructure" in contrast to the "material base" of the "real economy" in a capitalist society is a false dichotomy. Far from being a barrier to capitalist development and growth, finance has played a key role in promoting capitalist efficiency and has facilitated the system's dynamism over the last few decades.

There are two challenges to commonly-held beliefs on the Left presented here simultaneously. The first is the challenge to the idea that capitalism over the last 25-30 year period has lacked dynamism. If we look not just to the extraordinary 20-25 year period after WWII but to the whole history of capitalism, in capitalist terms the period of neoliberalism actually compares quite well. The problem is that many people mistake capitalist profitability with social prosperity. In reality, the two tend to stand in opposition to each other in a capitalist society.

The second belief challenged is that somehow finance can be taken out of capitalism as a system. As the book suggests, financial markets are necessary to the proper functioning of capitalism. They impose discipline on workers and capitalist firms, forcing increases in productivity and pooling social surplus to advance credit within the capitalist system, all in order to enhance profitability in a system driven by the profit imperative alone. So long as the logic of capital is accepted, so must the reality of the role of finance in the system. You cannot have one without the other. That is why the solution lies not in partial tinkering, or dreaming up new regulatory regimes, but in challenging the capitalist system as a whole.

The End of Neoliberalism?

Against the view that the current crisis spells the end of U.S. hegemony and the neoliberal order, In and Out of Crisis claims, on the contrary, that what the recent financial crisis demonstrated was the continued strength and hegemonic role of the U.S. ruling class. Not only was there no significant fracturing within the U.S. ruling class in terms of objectives and actions to be taken, there were also no challengers emerging on the international arena. Moreover, contrary to suggestions by some that neoliberalism is dead, the book argues that the "political conditions that kept neoliberalism in play have not been exhausted." Of course, certain changes have and will be instituted by the ruling class, but the overall logic will remain much the same. This is important for our side to be conscious of as capital develops its road map for getting out of the crisis on the backs of working people and the oppressed.

Another Way Out!

And this brings us to the key challenge posed by the book: what should be done? Of course, faced with job losses, cutbacks, foreclosures, etc., it is critically important that we actively participate in and encourage and support immediate demands in defence of people's jobs, homes, savings and social programs. However, from a longer term perspective, and from the point of view of the relationship of class and social forces, the bigger strategic question is can the Left structure its responses to immediate needs in ways that "strengthen popular capacities to think ambitiously and to act independently of the logic of capitalism?"

The book devotes considerable space to exploring these issues both theoretically and from the perspective of recent activism. The chapter dealing with "labour's impasse" highlights a series of important changes in the balance of class forces as a result of neoliberal policies, including the increasing dependence of workers on the health of capitalist markets and the implications of this for workers' consciousness and class organization. The ideas and challenges in this section and in the chapter dealing with "strategic considerations for the North American left" require very careful consideration by serious activists for social change.

The authors conclude their assessment of recent struggles and mobilizations with three concrete suggestions/challenges for the Left: 1. the establishment of an independent infrastructure of socialist media that can contest mainstream interpretation of events, offer critical analyses of capitalism and articulate alternatives; 2. the expansion of linkages between different sectors of working classes and across gender and racial divisions to build meaningful and lasting class unity through sustained work and engagement in various struggles; and 3. Development of a socialist approach to the environment to counter facile "green" alternatives with real alternatives "that [ insist] that local socio-ecological struggles cannot be delinked from...[the] universal projects of transcending capitalism on a world scale."

Neither the book's conclusions nor its analysis of social, historical and economic trends should be accepted at face value. This is true about any book, and there is much that can be contested about In and Out of Crisis. In fact, the intended purpose of this book is to instigate discussion and debate. What makes this book particularly valuable is the way it provides a clear, and in most cases very compelling, account of the social, political and economic changes of the last 30 years as a point of entry into the more important strategic considerations about the future course of the movement for fundamental social change. With the publication of In and Out of Crisis, Albo, Gindin and Panitch have set out to make a contribution to the "widest degree of discussion and debate" about economic and political possibilities in order to develop "strategies for identifying allies and building new popular, union and community capacities." This book is an excellent contribution to this project and needs to become one of the reference points for those seriously interested in challenging the rule of capital.

Hamid Sodeifi is a supporter of the New Socialist Group.

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Be the Media: The Current State of Activist Media and the Work of Franklin Lopez

Pop Matters
By Chris Robé
November 12, 2010

“Revolutionary movements do not spread by contamination but by resonance. Something that is constituted here resonates with the shock wave emitted by something constituted over there… It takes the shape of a music, whose focal points, though dispersed in time and space, succeed in imposing the rhythm of their own vibrations, always taking on more density”
—The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurection

As November 2009 neared and the global recession continued to eviscerate the infrastructures of the nation-state and local government, as hundreds of thousands of recently fired workers battled for a decreasing number of low-paid, disposable service-industry jobs to simply keep food on their tables, as their homes depreciated in value while their mortgages bloomed into nightmares, as thousands of low-income students were increasingly squeezed out of colleges by inflated tuition-hikes that administrators disingenuously deemed as necessary austerity measures, various global justice activists assessed the inheritances left in the wake of the famed Battle of Seattle during its tenth anniversary.

One cannot understate the radicalizing impact that the Seattle World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in 1999 had upon Generation Xers worldwide. Although Seattle had many political precedents and influences such as the anti-colonial struggles of the ‘60s in Vietnam, Algeria, Senegal, Chile, and Cuba, the feminist movements, the anti-nuclear crusades, queer activism, and, more recently, the 1994 armed insurrection of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, the 1996 Landless Campesino Movement in Brazil, the 1998 Peoples’ Global Action Against Free Trade and the WTO in Geneva, and the June 1999 Global Carnival Against Capital in London, to name only a few, Seattle converged in an explosive way. Over 50,000 people descended upon the city, catching both police and activists off-guard. Traditional sectarian lines were drastically being dissolved, emblemized in the placards that read, “Teamsters and Turtles: Together at Last!” Traditional permitted marches intersected with black bloc property destruction of Starbucks and Nike Town, causing WTO delegates to finally cease their meetings and flee from a city smoldering under pepper spray and tear gas as Marshal Law locked into effect. As one protestor was to reflect later, “Seattle 1999 was our May 1968.”

Seattle politicized previously depoliticized locals and on-line viewers with its flood of police repression and brazen governmental arrogance that Westerners were perhaps used to and comfortable with descending upon the Third World, but not in their own backyard. Yet, more importantly, it galvanized the already politicized by revealing how the center could no longer hold, how the circuits of neoliberalism could be shorted at ground zero in a silicon city that pulsed with the free-trade platitudes and dot.com delusions of the Empire.
  
Only months before Seattle, Naomi Klein released No Logo, which boldly charted the international terrain of globalization and its discontents: the glut of anti-union temp. work in the First World; the imposition of Free Trade Zones within the Third World where multinationals are given free-reign to exploit Third World, predominantly female, labor; the intrusion of marketing into our education system, treating children as potential consumers rather than as students; and the charring of an entire way of life into easily identifiable corporate brands. The book distilled the diverse strands of the global Left into a powerful critique of neoliberalism that activists could incorporate into their protests. Yet the book’s final section on resistance that charts culture jamming, reclaim the streets campaigns, and the student anti-sweatshop movements remained unconvincing. How could these various, unrelated strains of civil disobedience possibly block the flows of global capital in a significant fashion? No Logo’s answers possessed the stale whiff of empty Leftist genuflection towards change after having documented the seemingly inexorable momentum of late capitalism towards planetary destruction. That is until Seattle happened.

Also within the crucible of the Seattle WTO protests Indymedia was founded— a consensus-based, non-hierarchical, digitally-networked, technologically-savvy collective of activist videographers, journalists, photographers, artists, producers, and web-designers. Similar to the protests themselves, Indymedia had a long lineage of influences from the Third Cinema movements of the ‘60s, the video activist groups of the ‘70s, the cable access movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s, UNESCO’s McBride Commission, Downtown Community Television, Paper Tiger and Deep Dish TV, and the Zapatistas.

More immediately, a group called Counter Media established a website during the 1996 Democratic National Convention to broadcast the protests and teach-ins occurring outside the convention, though due to technical problems the site kept crashing. This was the first attempt at establishing a website to distribute radical, on-the-scene protest footage. Furthermore, the Grassroots Media Alliance Conference in Austin, Texas in 1999 provided a forum where established media groups like Whispered Media, Big Noise Film, Deep Dish, and Free Speech TV could discuss with independent activist media-makers plans about providing alternative media coverage during Seattle.

Even with this preparation, Indymedia almost did not happen. By early November, the collective could only raise $1,500 of the $40,000 needed to run a website, upload satellite footage, power electricity, and maintain a media space. Luckily, during the final weeks leading up to the protests, Indymedia received a $10,000 anonymous check as well as a $10,000 donation from the Tides Foundation. Deep Dish TV had also been busily raising money on its own for satellite access. Additionally, Gabrielle Kuiper, an Australian Ph.D. student, had just developed an open-source software code on which Indymedia could establish its own web-platform to directly upload video footage, news reports, and photographs. Finally, Seattle, the hub of the tech. sector, provided more than ample amounts of free technical labor to upkeep the website during the protests.

Indymedia’s presence upon the scene proved inspirational. Not only was it broadcasting in-depth stories regarding the protests that the major networks arrogantly ignored, but it also revealed the raw power of a D.I.Y. ethic of upstart amateurs seizing back control of a medium that had once seemed to be beyond their grasps. Similar to punk’s seizure of arena rock, and hip hop’s sampling of black R&B songs that were copyrighted by white producers, Indymedia hijacked cheap video technology and the open-source knowledge of the tech. sector to challenge commercial media’s façade of “objectivity” with its own visions of global justice. Anyone could upload his/her video, photographs, or stories to the website. The Seattle Media Center produced 2000 copies daily of its own newspaper, The Blind Spot, as well as provided on-line pdfs so that activists in the other 82 cities also protesting the WTO could distribute it. Seattle illuminated how new media technologies could be re-inflected against the very vectors of global capital that made them possible. By March 2003, Indymedia had grown into a global phenomenon with over 110 international Media Centers—though most still primarily centered in North America and Europe. Its insistence that everyday folk “be the media” proved prophetic.

Yet with the arrival of the 22-26 June 2010 Second U.S. Social Forum in Detroit, Indymedia was noticeably absent. Out of the dozen activist media panels I attended, Indymedia was not mentioned once. Although one can understand the tactical need to focus on the present, this lack of historical hindsight is surprising when considering that just ten years ago Indymedia was considered the vanguard of the media movement.

In Cobo Hall, the fortress-like cement convention center that occupies downtown Detroit where the Forum was held, a People’s Media Center occupied the south wing of the second floor in a ballroom. Ostensibly based-off the Independent Media Center model, it provided space where autonomous groups of techies, videographers, print journalists, and artists could gather to make and distribute media. Except in this case all but the techies were missing. Aspiration, a Bay Area group that assist nonprofits in using software more effectively and sustainably, assembled a team of four or five members around two tables of donated computers to provide computer access. Predictably, most people were using the computers for email. The rudimentary video editing software proved irrelevant since the computers lacked both the memory and processing capacity to edit without periodically crashing.

In a far corner of the room stood a hard-drive with its cover removed and tangled wires exposed. Nat, a dreadlocked techie, hunched over it like a surgeon or coroner—depending upon his mood. This apparently was where videographers were supposed to archive and upload their material. Nat informed me that ATT had not delivered the DSL line until two days into the Forum. The router broke in the process, and he still needed to set-up two terabytes of server space. In short, the archive was non-existent.

Nat informed me that Alfredo was in charge of video archiving, but in spite of visiting the Media Center daily, I never caught sight of the elusive Alfredo. Just as I never saw any other videographers attempting to upload their footage. Free Speech TV contributed the only media activity in the center. At the far end of the room it had erected a temporary studio to conduct interviews for satellite transmission and to upload videos. What happened?

Granted, the Toronto G20/G8 protests coincided with the U.S. Social Forum during the latter half of the week, thereby drawing critical focus away from Detroit. But one would think that out of the 18,000 people in attendance there would be more media activity. The 9AM. press briefings proved embarrassingly representative. They were attended by Carlos, who was the Social Forum Press Secretary, a Communist correspondent from People’s World, and me—along with 72 other empty chairs. A few times I had to correct Carlos on material that he largely recited from the Social Forum brochures such as the time of the plenary speech. The Communist correspondent quipped, “Well, we outlasted General Motors.” Barely.

What indeed were the inheritances of Seattle? Many activists believed that they had mistakenly taken Seattle for a movement rather than a moment. In the latest issue of Turbulence Rodrigo Nunes claims, “‘The movement had never existed. It was a mirage, produced in a moment of hugely and rapidly increased capacity of communication and coordination, and wide-eyed astonishment at a just-discovered capacity to produce moments of convergence whose collective power was much greater than the sum of its parts” (“About Ten Years Ago” 39). David Solnit, a Seattle organizer, agrees: “There is no global justice movement. At best, ‘global justice’ is a common space of convergence” (5). Although such analysis underestimates the new movements that Seattle forged as well as the complex interplay between movements and moments that global protests facilitated (and forestalled), the austere tone reveals a new structure of feeling surrounding activist communities engulfed by two Middle Eastern wars, escalated global warming, a worldwide financial collapse, and one of the worst oil spills.

In a similar manner, following an article titled, “Why Seattle Still Matters”, in the November 2009 issue of The Indypendent, NYC’s Indymedia newspaper, a reader ironically questioned: “Does the Indymedia global network still matter?” Perhaps the question is wrongly stated. The point is not if Indymedia still matters, but what has it become?

For the New Generation, Media-Making Is Second Nature

Although some strong Inydmedia centers in New York, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Portland remain, the Indymedia movement could not sustain itself at its 2003 levels due to various internal contradictions. Victor Pickard notes how there has always been a tension between Indymedia’s decentralized, consensus-based structure and its goals of media democracy, between the inefficiency of egalitarian decision-making and the need to get a story uploaded in a timely fashion, a film edited within a specific timeframe (“United Yet Autonomous,” 330).

I would further argue that a deeper contradiction plagued Indymedia: as much as it fought neoliberalism, it was also birthed by it and perpetuated some of its inequalities. Like neoliberalism, Indymedia also depended upon the free labor of the relatively privileged, the knowledge of the predominantly white, male tech. sector, and the technological infrastructures and industrial economies of the global North. Sociologist Richard Florida calls these people “the creative class”: those “people in science, engineering, architecture and design, education, arts, music and entertainment, whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology and/or new creative content” (8).

For the Facebook generation, electronic media comprises their social identity; this entails a fluency in media production unlike ever seen before as well as a certain uncritical naturalization of it that will eventually have to be interrogated for their activism to develop. Yet this creativity can cut both ways: in jamming the circuits of neoliberalism and also re-channeling previously alternative currents into neoliberal pathways. Indymedia did both. Under the weight of its inheritances, Indymedia had to change as global summit hopping waned, while the wars on terror escalated, and the gutting of local communities intensified, and as local and federal governments absolved themselves of the welfare of its populace.

As a result, contemporary activist media has reconfigured itself largely in one of two ways: through community media activism or a more professionalized band of videographers, editors, bloggers, and producers contributing to various independent— and sometimes commercial— venues. The emphasis on reconnecting with local communities has been a recurrent self-critique that activists have been noting ever since the demise of global summit hopping around 2004. As Ashanti Alston, a former Black Panther notes, “Even with the anarchists, you’ve gotta do some local work. Even if it’s not your community, begin to interact, go into dialog. You’ve got some information, you’ve got some things to share? Well, so do they. And in the dialog, you see some points where you can begin to work together” (Uses of a Whirlwind, 339).

Community media activism has either been mediated by an outside group assisting in achieving media autonomy for local groups and peoples involved or it is initiated by the community itself. The classic example is the Zapatistas’ involvement with the Chiapas Media Project, a Chicago-based group that lent donated VCRs, video cameras, and computers to assist various Zapatista indigenous groups identify their community’s issues to themselves and others. Self-conscious of the potential post-colonial dynamic of yanquis coming to the “rescue” of indigenous folk, the members of the Chiapas Media Project intentionally let other media-savvy Mexicans and indigenous peoples train the Zapatistas themselves.

More recently, the Media Mobilizing Project, located in Philadelphia, is influenced by the Zapatistas’ media tactics as well as the class emphasis provided by Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. Project members assist various local groups engaged in social struggle to assist in producing and distributing their messages as well as in media training. They are currently in partnership with the Taxi Workers Alliance of PA, Unite Here Hotel Workers Rising Campaign, the Philadelphia Student Union, among others. A recent project involved making support videos for the Pennsylvania Head Start Association. These video were then distributed to members of the U.S. Congress, who eventually recertified the program.

Mobile Voices, on the other hand, was initiated by members of the Los Angeles Latino community for low-wage immigrants to create and distribute their own stories in contra-distinction from the largely anti-immigrant sentiments of commercial media. Since an early survey of theirs revealed that 78 percent of all Hispanic day laborers owned cell phones, Mobile Voices used them as production and distribution platforms. One of their initial projects entailed a 15-year-old girl calling in a report concerning police harassment of day laborers. She then sent in the pictures she had taken of the incident. One of the Mobile Voices team edited the images with her voice-over and posted it on the website. Currently they have collaborated with the School of Communication at University of Southern California in developing a web platform that allows its members to quickly compose videos with their cell phones that can then be distributed across the network. Their most recent video documents the protests against the racial profiling law in Arizona.

As newer generations of activists emerge, media making becomes second nature. While attending a student bill of rights assembly at the Social Forum, I watched various high-quality videos made by high school students from Los Angeles, Chicago, Austin, and Detroit—all shot on $150 flip cameras and edited on bottom-line software. Interestingly enough, unlike older activists, the students didn’t mention media-making at all, instead assuming it as a part of their activism. For the Facebook generation, electronic media comprises their social identity; this entails a fluency in media production unlike ever seen before as well as a certain uncritical naturalization of it that will eventually have to be interrogated for their activism to develop.

On the other hand, there is the gradual professionalization of media activists who emerged from Indymedia. Many of its former members have created new independent media organizations like Democracy Now, Free Speech TV, and Pepper Spray Productions. The generation of videographers, editors, photographers, and writers inspired by Indymedia have become freelancers who work with a wide array of independent media organizations, as well as occasionally with commercial media.

Brandon Jourdan, a videographer, notes how Indymedia’s legacy was more as a social network than an institution unto itself. It created the links between hundreds of activist media makers and groups that assisted in the formation of many community and national media projects. As The Invisible Committee notes, “Revolutionary movements do not spread by contamination but by resonance.” Indymedia fostered such resonance, which has converged in the hundreds of videographers and editors contributing to shows like Democracy Now and DVD magazines like The Leader, Dispatches, Molotov, and Indy Newsreal.

By far the most routinely praised contemporary media activist is Franklin López. His shows and films not only possess a distinctive look and feel, but they also contain a wicked sense of humor that is often sorely lacking among alter-globalization activists. Furthermore, López self-critically draws attention to the tensions that underlie his own activism and by implication that of the anarchist-inflected, direct-action groups that he associates with. As a result, he defuses the “holier-than-thou” stance that some activists project with self-deprecating humor and a carnivalesque tone.


López’s crowning achievement is It’s the End of the World As We Know It and I Feel Fine (ItEotW)—the name pilfered from the R.E.M. song of the self-same title. The show began in 2007 as a bi-weekly ten-minute webcast from his SubMedia homepage. López plays The Stimulator, our disembodied post-modern/sci-fi foul-mouthed host who floats over the screen in three red-bordered squares that encompass negatives of his eyes and mouth. Digitized fuel clouds burn post-apocalyptically behind him. As López noted in an interview with me, “Aesthetically I stole Ice-T’s character in Johnny Mnemonic where he would split his face into three squares when he wanted to broadcast his messages on pirate TV.”

The show is broken-down into thirds. The Stimulator spends the first third recounting recent ecological, political, and/or economic disasters along with resistance news of the alter-globalization movements. The middle-section presents music from a politically-engaged musician with accompanying video or mash-up composed by López himself. Its final section holds either an interview with an activist or a rant by The Stimulator provoked by recent events or viewer email. Currently, the show is broadcast over Miro, Free Speech TV, and various radio stations, and podcast.

As one can surmise, López is deeply indebted to the copyLeft, culture jamming tactics of the avant-garde and hip-hop communities. The Stimulator routinely praises hip-hop’s influence. During episode 21 of season one, he states, “Chuck D and company gave me my first lesson in how fucked-up the world really is” while praising N.W.A.’s 1988 album Straight Outta Compton. He clarified during our interview: “My roommate in college introduced me to hip-hop, and I’ve been a head ever since. Public Enemy had the biggest influence on me. It was noisy, sample-driven shit that made you want to overthrow the government. So I translated what PE did to video: lots of anger projected through manipulations of pop culture.”

Yet at the same time, the show frequently pays homage to illegal-art groups Negativland and Emergency Broadcast Network (EBN). The former is best known for incorporating samples of a swear-ridden tirade by Casey Kasem, the saccharine host of the nauseatingly bland American Top 40, to the background music of U2’s, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” They distributed it as a single with a U2 spy plane on the cover along with the letters “U2” in large font and a smaller font “Negativland” underneath. Needless to say, they were sued. But news coverage provided the group with a forum to expose the hypocrisy of being sued by U2’s label, Island Records, for copyright infringement when U2 routinely illegally streamed satellite footage during their ZOO TV tour.

EBN sifted through the detritus of commercial television to sample and distill it into a techo-infused critique that was then distributed on bootleg VHS tapes and eventually led to multimedia tours. As Josh Pearson, one of EBN’s founders, observes, “People are getting more and more cynical while still watching television. And everyone kind of knows, ‘They’re just fucking with us. They’re just manipulating us. It’s all just propaganda.’ So when we take television and manipulate it, it provides us with a cathartic release.”

It is not only the masterful appropriation and fusion of different styles that makes ItEotW compelling to watch, but also the importance it affords to art’s role in activist politics. As López notes, “Art is the gateway drug to get people hooked on the truth.” The problem, however, is that many media activists aren’t “very aware of previous media movements, and that is partly because there is not continuity within counter-cinema-media movements. Because of this, many media activists start producing within a creation ‘box’ and don’t experiment with different styles until they encounter them.”

As a result, The Stimulator dedicates a significant portion of the shows not only speaking about art and music, but also demonstrating how a culture jamming, hip-hop infused aesthetic can create captivating material. During one show, The Stimulator asserts, “In fucked-up times, music, art, and film play an important part of the Resistance. When the chips are down, there ain’t nothing like Mos’ Def or Rage Against the Machine to lift my spirits up. What I’m trying to get at is that if we spot some hot political art, we need to support and nurture it with our dollars and our word of mouth. For it will give us strength during our times of weakness.” Along similar lines, every show ends with the request: “Support this show, motherfuckers, and buy some shit from our store.”

Yet this stance doesn’t result in a rather simplistic championing of underground culture against that of the mainstream. At its best and most poignant, the show hacks into popular culture to unmoor its fleeting flashes of anarchic rebellion and utopian dreams from the rather reactionary narratives that they are embedded within. One show ends with a sequence from Fight Club where Brad Pitt’s character and other fight club members are about to castrate a wealthy country club patron. Pitt declares, “We haul your trash. We cook your meals. Don’t fuck with us.”

Another episode begins with a magic trick infomercial. The footage shows a camera slowly zooming back on a pair of handcuffs resting on a table. The host announces: “We will show you how to escape from a set of profession handcuffs, just like the famous escape artist Houdini did.” Dubbed in quickly afterwards: “This is for entertainment only and should never be used to escape from the police.” Regardless of Fight Club’s conservative message that all resistance ultimately results in establishing new forms of oppression or the infomercial’s ultimate desire to promote magic tricks, ItEotW reveals the instances of genuine class rage that pervades the former and the ways in which magic tricks can be appropriated by direct-action groups to resist the police in the latter.

The 28 June 2008 show of the second season perhaps best exemplifies López’s skill as a political mash-up artist. The episode begins with a sequence from the 1979 film, The Warriors. Within it, the assorted gangs have congregated together. A leader from the podium preaches: “That’s 20,000 hardcore members, 40,000 accounted affiliates, and 20,000 more, not organized, but ready to fight. 60,000 soldiers. Now there ain’t but 20,000 police in the whole town. Can you dig it?” The camera dramtaically circles around him as he speaks, panning over the waves of warriors surrounding him. Finally, the crowd explodes into action.

The Simultor Presents An Amazing Moment of Political Pastiche

This sequence thematically ties to the worldwide rebellions against high fuel prices that The Stimulator will report on occurring in Spain, Hong Kong, Indonesia, India, Portugal, France, and the UK. And the clip will resurface when The Stimulator later ponders midway into the show: “What is the threshold when Americans will say enough is enough?” Here we witness López’s talent as an editor and writer.

The Stimulator continues: “I’ll tell you when: around late August when a gallon of gas will be five bucks, when the electric grid crashes on the hottest day of the year.” We watch images of Walmart workers clapping, the skeleton of a television framing a boarded-up street, an Enron logo, and shots of abandoned homes. We not only get an abbreviated contrast of the class gulf, but also an implicit critique of television that suggest only by kicking-out its screen can we begin to see the socio-economic issues that it masks. Furthermore, the Enron logo not only symbolizes corporate greed and its disdain for its workers, but by having it flash on the screen when mentioning electricity, it also recalls the 2001 California blackouts and price-fixings the company malignantly delivered upon the State’s residents. The logo condenses images of corporate greed, arrogance, and a general disregard for overall human welfare.

The danger of aestheticizing violence and poverty is not unique to López but plagues all talented political filmmakers.

The Stimulator proceeds: “When all you can afford to eat is Mac and Cheese”—shot of a Kraft commercial—“When you finally fucking realize that the wool has been pulled over your eyes”—images of Ron and Nancy Reagan waving, representing the hollow promises of “morning in America”, a dream that broke the backs of millions of working-class folk—“and that everything you have been told is a motherfucking lie”—shots of Donald Rumsfeld press briefings and the terror alert chart, suggesting the fear-inducing lies that pervade our daily existence—“Your time, your life, your dreams, belong to you, and not your boss, your church, or your so-called government. When you do the math and if millions of us gather,”—shots of various protestors from the ‘60s to the present followed by an insert of The Warriors’s clip of “Can you dig it?” and then a shot of the Tiananmen square protestor halting a tank before him—“we can take this motherfucker head on, slay the beast that enslaves us and get on with building a world that we can be proud of”— the final section of The Warriors’clip asserts “Can you dig it?” with the crowd then roaring.

This entire sequence represents a complex socio-aesthetic attitude that both interrogates popular culture and critically appropriates it, that seizes upon its imagery to create momentum to think and act beyond its limits. It’s an amazing moment of political pastiche.

Yet the show also periodically catapults so far into the realms of the far Left that it begins uncomfortably orbiting the realm of far Right paranoia. López, to his credit, often self-consciously addresses this. In episode 18 of season three, The Stimulator distinguishes himself from conspiracy theorist, talk-show radio host Alex Jones, who believes that the government is drugging the water supply, that FEMA is preparing concentration camps, and the New World Order is secretly assembling its rule behind closed doors. As The Stimulator states, “The world is not that simple. Trying to explain our dire state of affairs by blaming a few white men who meet in dark rooms is retarded.”  Some of his thoughts at times suggest otherwise, though— like his belief that Bush and Cheney might have been involved in September 11th—even though he realizes that this might cause some of his viewers to be “worried about The Stimulator being one of those conspiracy nuts.” True enough.

The show has also been increasingly obsessed with catastrophic economic and environmental collapse—most typically associated with anarcho-primitivists like John Zerzan, Kevin Tucker, and Derrick Jensen. Not surprisingly, López’s film, END: CIV, which he is currently completing, is based on the End Game books of Jensen.

Jensen is something of a hangover from the ‘60s—a cult figure for an anarchist age. His speaking style is bombastic as if he imagines himself standing before audiences of a 1,000 rather than a 100. His analogies are often slipshod and cliché. For example, in one sequence from END: CIV he compares the corporate destruction of the environment and people with that of Nazi fascism. The sequence ends with him asking: “If this was happening today, would you fight it?” Echoes of the ‘30s Popular Front haunt his rhetoric—when Hitler’s treatment of the Jews was compared with anti-black sentiment of the US South and anti-ethnic attitudes of the Midwest. The conflation is simplistic and knee-jerk—and not all that much different than when Tea Baggers and Glen Beck claim Obama as a modern-day Hitler.

Additionally, Jensen’s polemical certainty seems less a ploy to engage in debate than to browbeat. In one interview, Jensen asserts, “Civilization will never rise again… It is a one-time blow-out” because all of the natural resources needed to sustain it will be unavailable. He continues: “I think that Mad Max is probably what we’re going to see.” The reference to Mad Max is telling since much of the catastrophe theory that Jensen and others like him propound often sounds like the script to a bad movie. This is not to discount that there are the occasional historical moments that one feels like an extra in a Jerry Bruckheimer film—such the day of 9/11. Yet living your daily life as if catastrophe looms behind every breeze seems psychically damaging.

This is not to deny that the planet will eventually run out of oil or that global warming will devastatingly transform its surface or that humans will no longer exist. However,it strikes me that the world will more likely end with a whimper rather than a bang. The global catastrophe theory strikes me as too pat, too easy—a form of magical thinking that conveniently ignores how we need to transition from our current state of affairs to a more sustainable way of life, how our lifestyles need to alter and our priorities need to be reassessed. The catastrophe theory solves all this by assuming imminent and immediate collapse with a guaranteed reversion to a hunter-gathering lifestyle.

Furthermore, it can lead to political defeatism. If the world is on the brink of collapse, why not simply exploit our natural resources even more voraciously by keeping our lights on 24-hours a day, doubling deep-sea drilling for oil, accelerating strip mining since such actions will ultimately bring us to collapse sooner rather than later? The theory can be used to justify and accentuate the very worst practices of neoliberalism. It’s the flipside of a certain form of conservatism that asserts: the world is going to Hell, so why not take full advantage of what we have now before the Rapture descends?

This theory and Jensen’s tone don’t sit all that well with alter-globalization direct-action politics nor with López’s humorous, inquisitive, and self-reflective style. So it will be interesting to see the final results when END: CIV is completed. Based upon the clips currently displayed on SubMedia TV, the film will be much less freewheeling and more polemical.Yet it’s also strangely and disturbingly beautiful.

In one sequence where López establishes Jensen’s Tenth Premise: that culture is driven by a death urge, we see slow moving aerial shots of highways and rotating parking lots with an underlying dissonant cello soundtrack. This sequence could be straight out of Godfrey Reggio’s experimental film, Koyannisqatsi (1982). Similarly, later on when various voice-overs explain the destructiveness of extracting oil from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, we once again see beautiful aerial, slow motion shots that aestheticize the violence, abstracting it within cello music and graceful camera movements.

This danger of aestheticizing violence and poverty is not unique to López but plagues all talented political filmmakers. Joris Ivens, a documentary filmmaker of The Spanish Earth (1937) and Power and the Land (1940), self-consciously rejected his older avant-garde aesthetic techniques to stress “the harshness of the situation without being sentimental or pitying” (The Camera and Lens 87). López must also learn to better negotiate this difficult terrain of presenting compelling footage while at the same time not derailing the film’s message. Overall, witnessing the tensions between the aesthetics and politics of López’s works provides a refreshing change of pace from activist media projects that all-too-often sacrifice aesthetics for a jagged, amateur self-satisfied harangue to insiders who already know better.

Ultimately, López’s work reveals the promises and pitfalls of contemporary global activist media making. It exposes the compelling results when the aesthetic traditions of political hip-hop and the avant-garde are successfully intertwined; it exemplifies how activists must trawl through popular culture in order to identify and reconfigure its hidden utopian impulses in more radical directions; it discloses the dangers of the reactionary nature of some strains of anarchist thought; and, finally, it negotiates the uncertain and always shifting terrain where aesthetics and politics meet.

As artists John MacPhee and Erik Reutland observe: “Because art is understood as a realm of the qualitative, where our assumptions about how the ‘real’ world works can be temporarily put on hold, it is the place where exciting experiments in social reorganization can take place. It is in this space that we can catch glimpses of liberation” (Realizing the Impossible 5). At its best, López’s work engages in constructing a new vision where popular culture serves the interests of the poor and dispossessed, where humor is reignited within activism, and the D.I.Y. ethics of punk and hip-hop allow those with talent and gumption to be the media, once again.


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