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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

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


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 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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Diario De Oaxaca: A Review

By Geoff Gossett
World Literature in Review
Nov/Dec 2010

Since 1997, Peter Kuper has been the sole artist behind MAD Magazine’s Spy vs. Spy series as well as myriad other illustrative projects over several magazines and publications. Kuper also happens to be the artist behind the first and only comic to ever run regularly in the New York Times, and accomplishment rounding out a prolific career.

In 2006 Kuper took his family on sabbatical to the sixteenth century town of Oaxaca in southern Mexico to take a break from the sort of omnipresent Bush-era Americanism that was dominating his home country at the time. Diario de Oaxaca is the culmination of all that Kuper recorded during his stay. The book is what one would expect from a professional artist of Kuper’s caliber spending quality time taking in and recording the lush, vivid topography of a tropical paradise that remains relatively untouched by modern consumerism.

Despite its ability to offer sanctuary, Oaxaca happened to be connected to one of Mexico’s most turbulent conflicts in recent years. As one of the main contributors involved in World War 3 Illustrated (1989), Kuper is no stranger to political strife. The book doesn’t come off as preachy or heavy-handed toward one affiliation or another, however; rather, it turns into a purely journalistic account of what was happening, by a stranger in a strange land. The watercolor paintings and pencil sketches of old buildings and desert flowers are peppered with scenes of riot squads, armored cars, and smoldering aftermaths so that the nature of the struggle is felt and naturally integrated into what is otherwise one man’s documentation of a journey.

Outside of the clashes, Kuper managed to put together a beautiful collage of all the southern Mexico has to offer. In the hands of an illustrator with such creative gifts, Oaxaca is a brilliant dreamscape whose bugs and vegetation are as visually appealing as its protest graffiti and wild dogs. Journal entries, sketches, field paintings, and photographs culminate in an experience that few people get the chance to have, and which most miss when they do.

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Don't Mourn, Balkanize! on Znet

By Andrej Grubacic
November 15, 2010

1. Can you tell ZNet, please, what Don't Mourn Balkanize! is about? What is it trying to communicate?
Don't Mourn, Balkanize! is a chronological selection of various commentaries, interviews and essays written for ZNet and Z Magazine “after Yugoslavia” and between 2002 and 2010. Some of these essays and conversations were written in Yugoslavia, others in the United States. All the essays have been originally written in Yugoslav languages. It is important to read these essays chronologically so as to see how movements and ideas mature. The reader will find me contradicting myself, as well as making mistakes and trying to correct them, all of which reflects my own development as a protagonist, propagandist, and essayist. This book is not a scholarly volume, it is not a piece of investigative journalism, and most emphatically it is not a work of theory. It is a selection of commentaries and conversations in the long tradition of Balkan socialist propaganda.

The first part, “Balkanization from Above,” follows the farcical trial of Slobodan Miloševic; the assassination of Zoran Djindjic; the “humanitarian” occupations of Bosnia and Kosovo by the “international community”; and the privatization and neoliberalization of the Serbian part of Yugoslavia. The other part of the book, “Balkanization from Below,” consists of essays and conversations related to the possibilities of anticapitalist, pluricultural resistance in post-Yugoslavia. Essays collected in this book reflect the possibilities and limits of this process today, and specifically in the Serbian part of former Yugoslavia.
I wish I could say that there is an abundance of revolutionary projects and multitude of exciting, utopian moments ready to capture the imagination of American militants. I am afraid that readers won’t find Argentine-style horizontalists or Mexican-influenced Zapatistas in fragmented, postwar Yugoslavia. What they will encounter, instead, is a socio-political landscape of desperation, destitution, and collective disappointment. They will meet hungry workers who lost their factories; angry students unable to afford privatized education; refugees still living in “temporary” camps; Kosovo Roma deported from Germany and other countries of the civilized world, and simply dropped in the middle of transitional poverty. An American activist who recently visited Kosovo told me that she had never been to such a place. She stood on every barricade from Oaxaca to Genoa, and in every war from Iraq to Lebanon. But she never experienced anything quite like Kosovo. This is a country of an absolute defeat, she told me. The words are well chosen.

However, we cannot lose hope entirely. In the midst of this rather discouraging social scenery, one can see hazy contours of new “balkanotopian” projects and new possibilities of resistance. In the Serbian part of ex-Yugoslavia, as in the rest of the Balkans, with the remarkable exception of insurrectionary Greece, we can discern a very slow but promising awakening of resistance to the post-state socialist regimes. These scattered islands of unrest and self-activity have explicit or implicit anarchist sensibility. I am very grateful to my comrades from Pokret za Slobodu (Freedom Fight Collective), Globalni Balkan (Global Balkans, at and Voice of Roma ( Their sustained and courageous work is an important inspiration behind this book.
 2. Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book? Where does the content come from? What went into making the book what it is?

I grew up in Belgrade—or, more precisely, between Belgrade and Sarajevo—but I always considered myself Yugoslav. I do not see any reason to stop doing so now. Yugoslavia might not exist anymore (after all, this collection includes, as its subtitle, the words “after Yugoslavia”), but Yugoslavia for me, and for people like me, was never just a country—it was an idea. Like the Balkans itself, it was a project of interethnic coexistence, a transethnic and pluricultural space of many diverse worlds. The Balkans I know is the Balkans from below: a space of bogoumils—those medieval heretics who fought against Crusades and churches—and a place of anti Ottoman resistance; a home to hajduks and klephts, pirates and rebels; a refuge of feminists and socialists, of antifascists and partisans; a place of dreamers of all sorts struggling both against provincial “peninsularity” as well as against occupations, foreign interventions and that process which is now, in a strange inversion of history, often described with that fashionable phrase, “balkanization.”
My family was a microcosm of this deeper Balkan reality. My grandparents were socialists, partisans and antifascists— dreamers who believed in self-management and the Yugoslav “path to socialism.” This idea—and especially the Yugoslav and Balkan dream of an interethnic, pluricultural space—was dramatically dismantled in the 1990s. That was the beginning of my struggle to understand my own identity and the problem of Yugoslav socialism. I went on to look for another path toward what my grandparents understood as communism. It seemed to me that the Marxist-Leninist way of getting “from here to there”—the project of seizing the power of the State, and functioning through a “democratically” centralized party-organization—had produced not a free association of free human beings, but a bureaucratized expression of what was still called, by the official ideology of a socialist state, Marxism. Given my distrust of bureaucratic Marxism, I became an anarchist very early on. Anarchism, in my mind, meant taking democracy seriously and organizing prefiguratively— that is, in a way that anticipates the society we are about to create. Instead of taking the power of the state, anarchism is concerned with socializing power—with creating new political and social structures not after the revolution, but in the immediate present, in the shell of the existing order. The basic goal, however, remains the same. Like my grandparents, I too believe in and dream of a region where many worlds fit, and where everything is for everyone.
I survived the violence of the Yugoslav wars and NATO interventions, but in the end it was my political work in Belgrade—in the country that I still refuse to call by any other name but Yugoslavia—that made it difficult for me to stay there. With the kind help of many generous friends, especially those from Z Communications, I found refuge in the United States. Although I moved to the United States in 2005, I was already a foreigner well before that moment. I became a foreigner in the early 1990s, when the political ideas of interethnic cooperation and mutual aid as we had known them in Yugoslavia were destroyed by the combined madness of ethno-nationalist hysteria and humanitarian imperialism. Being here, on the other side of the world, away from home and reading news from Yugoslavia—or whatever other name local elites and foreign embassies now use to describe it—was then and remains now equally disconcerting. The new, former state-socialist republics were neoliberalized, privatized or colonized and caught in an uneasy tension between sclero-nationalism and neoliberalism. A foreigner with papers to prove it, I remain an outsider trying to make sense of what has happened to the idea of the Balkans and to the country I came from. At the same time, I have and continue to find myself to be a Yugoslav, a man without a country but also, as an anarchist, a man without a state.
I feel absolutely no loyalty to Serbian, Croatian, or Bosnian national causes. I have no other emotion but utter contempt for people who helped destroy Yugoslavia, and I feel the same about the people who are now selling what is left of it. I stand equally distant from the traditionalists and from so-called transitionalists. As you will hopefully discover through reading this book, I believe that the obligations and responsibilities that stand before us (all of us who believe in this deeper conception of the Balkans) are to restore and to revive the idea of Balkan federalism; to infuse it with a new, contemporary meaning; and to fight against the interconnected impositions of Euro-American imperialism and provincial ethno-nationalism. In other words, we must simultaneously and passionately struggle for another, balkanized Europe and a different, balkanized world. The future of Europe, should there be one, is in the Balkans, not the other way around.
3. What are your hopes for Don't Mourn Balkanize!? What do you hope it will contribute or achieve politically? Given the effort and aspirations you have for the book, what will you deem to be a success? What would leave you happy about the whole undertaking? What would leave you wondering if it was worth all the time and effort?
In Don't Mourn'Balkanize! I make a distinction between two kinds of "balkanization." First one is what I call "balkanization from above.” I use this expression to describe a project, remarkably consistent in history, of breaking Balkan interethnic solidarity and regional socio-cultural identity; a process of violently incorporating the region into the system of nation-states and capitalist world-economy; and contemporary imposition of neoliberal colonialism. Both Europeans and local self-colonizing intelligentsia have in common a contempt for everything that comes from this “wretched peninsula.” The events described in the book are nothing but the most recent phase in colonial ordering of the Balkans and its “retorted creatures.” The history of the Balkan peninsula is written in blood of the Great Powers’ attempts to prevent movements towards Balkan unity. Although essays in this book cover only the latest manifestations of elite balkanization, my contention is that the destruction of state-socialist Yugoslavia was a project of the same century-long process of balkanization from above. In contrast, Socialist Yugoslavia was a result of a long tradition of movements for Balkan unity, a manifestation of balkanization from below. After the defeat of real existing socialism, the Yugoslav state, with its indigenous socialism, and its global south, nonaligned orientation, could no longer be tolerated. Through the historically well-established pattern of imperialist intervention and local collaboration, this typically Balkan experiment has been destroyed in a series of bloody ethnic wars. Europeans and Americans have successfully blocked every peace initiative during the conflict. Balkanophobic racism in “the civilized world” has diverged into “paternalistic balkanism,” reserved for the helpless and childlike Bosnians and Kosovars, and “raw balkanism,” meaning the evil Serbs. Former Yugoslav republics were immediately transformed into veritable laboratories of “state-building,” “multiculturalism,” “truth and reconciliation,” “democracy-promotion,” and economic privatization. Political choices became restricted to local chauvinist and pro-European options. Alternatives were declared non-patriotic or anti-European. The so-called non-governmental organizations and other organs of civil society, that monstrous creation of American democracy- promotion, joined hands with nationalists and outright fascistic extremists against the pro-Balkan Left. The International Tribunal in The Hague was established in order to promulgate and further refine the official (European and American) truth of humanitarian ideology. Intervention on behalf of this ideology (“humanitarian intervention”) was wildly popular among Euro-American elites, and subsequently used as a justification in every imperialist adventure from Iraq to Afghanistan.
These imperial and colonial attitudes still define the terms “civilized world,” “international community” and “civil society.” Balkan people were never too impressed by civilization. As early as 1871, the founder of the Balkan socialist movement, Svetozar Markovic, ridiculed the entire “civilized world,” from Times to the obedient Serbian press. The civilized world, he wrote, “was composed of rich Englishmen, Brussels ministers and their deputies (the representatives of the capitalists), the European rulers and their marshals, generals, and other magnates, Viennese bankers and Belgrade journalists.” Markovic was an anti-authoritarian socialist who believed, as do I, in a pluricultural Balkan Federation organized as a decentralized, directly democratic society based on local agricultural and industrial associations. This is the kind of antinomian imagination that needs to be rediscovered: a horizontalist tradition of the barbarians who never accepted the civilized world that is now collapsing.
The second kind of balkanization is "balkanization from below." We might describe it as a tradition and narrative that affirms social and cultural affinities, as well as on customs in common resulting from interethnic mutual aid and solidarity, and resulting in what can be termed an interethnic self-activity, one that was severed through the Euro-colonial intervention. I maintain that in the Balkans this pluricultural reality finds its political expression in the anti-authoritarian politics of local self-government, communal use of the land, and various movements for Balkan Federation. The latter project included, in its most expansive and most inspiring proposal, all countries of former Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, and Turkey. It is necessary, today more than ever, to see a lively debate between utopian proposals that dream of the libertarian organization of the society, always in thoughtful dialogue with local institutions and traditions.
As a disciple of Svetozar Markovic, our Balkan Mariátegui, I am convinced that every such proposal must blend with the local conditions and particular local institutions. According to Markovic, who lived in 19th century, local conditions will determine the nature of new society that the working class will establish in each country. The problem of bread, he wrote, is a problem of direct democracy. It is hard not to see the similarity between Markovi?’s eclectic, ethical socialism—which he defined not as a new economic system, but a new way of life—and proposals arriving from contemporary peasant movements gathered around Via Campesina. In a dialogue with Marxism, he sought a balkanized socialism based upon communal institutions and instincts rather than upon inexorable historical laws. He argued for socialist movements that are not only anticolonial with respect to the West and the East, but also revolutionary with respect to the Balkan past. His balkanized socialism was ethical and visionary, eclectic and humane, and on all accounts unacceptable to his state socialist critics who dismissed him as “utopian socialist.” His aim, he wrote in 1874, was internal social reorganization on the basis of sovereignty and communal self-government, and federation in the Balkan Peninsula. Herein, in his federalist plans, lies what is perhaps his greatest contribution: his feverish attempt to subdue the separate nationalisms of the Balkan peoples in favor of all inclusive, directly democratic federalism. This anti-authoritarian eclecticism, itself a most precious feature of Balkan societies and their revolutionary tradition, ability to connect local and global, subaltern and modern, is what I advocate under the name of balkanization of politics.
Svetozar Markovic died at the age of twenty-eight. His death was a result of years spent in exile and prisons of the Serbian state. One of his last acts before his death was to help found the first school for women in Serbia. He was buried on March 16, 1875, in the presence of thousands of peasants, some of who shouted at the police assigned to maintain order to remove their hats in the presence of the saint.
Many decades after the death of Svetozar Markovic, on July 15, 1924, a new publication, La Federation Balkanique, appeared. This was a fortnightly periodical published in Vienna in all the Balkan languages as well as in German and French. In a spirited editorial the program of this publication was defined as follows:
"The principal task of our publication as its title has already shown, is to propagate the idea of liberation and the right of self-determination of the Balkan people as well as that of federalization . . . We wish that they may cease to be the common pray of European imperialism and Balkan chauvinism: that they may cease to be the arena where the latter settle their disastrous internal quarrels . . . The working masses will finally be eager to unite its forces into single Balkan front directed against chauvinism and conquering Imperialism from whatever quarter they may come. We want liberty and peace for our countries and our peoples! We know also that this liberty and this peace are not graciously granted but must be conquered by a desperate struggle! And we are beginning this struggle!"
This is the struggle and the principle that a new generation of Balkan revolutionaries must begin anew, with the same passion, but in a contemporary context, with new organizational forms, new political sensibility, and new language. Balkan Federation: with no state, and beyond all nations.

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Al Burian Interviewed on Creative Loafing

Burn Collectorby Shawn Goldberg
Creative Loafing
November 30, 2010

Out of sheer curiosity, I contacted Al Burian. What happened? Where’s the new album? It’s absolutely shocking how long it’s been since we’ve heard anything new about this musician.

Burian, the singer/guitarist of two of my all time favorite punk/hardcore bands Milemarker and Challenger, currently resides in Germany and agreed to an interview, one question at a time, that took place over the first three months of 2010. When the interview began, I completely forgot that Burian also writes a ‘zine called Burn Collector, which consists of ridiculously entertaining autobiographical accounts of his travels and living situations in various metropolitan burgs across America. I was even more surprised to find the candidness and honesty reflected in those writings manifested itself in his emailed responses to my queries.

Recently, Microcosm Publishing released the newest edition of his zine, Burn Collector 14, and this fall PM Press re-printed a book containing Burn Collector Volumes 1-9.

Burian also sent along a photo to accompany the interview, along with the following message: “Myself inside the coliseum in Rome. Behind me you can see the arena where they used to feed Christians to lions.”

CL: What are you doing in Europe? How long have you been there?

Al Burian: I’m just doing my usual thing. I have German citizenship so staying here is no problem. I moved to Berlin last spring, in a pretty spontaneous decision. I found myself here and with no job or place to live back there. I had a moment where there was a flash of realization: that I could just stay. And so I stayed.

What’s your “usual thing?” And what are you doing for money? You can’t survive on your good looks alone like Henry Miller, can you?

Whenever I meet artists, I tell them I’m a musician and whenever I meet musicians, I tell them I’m a writer, and so on — so I guess my “usual thing” is trying to stay productive, do what I want, and not feel boxed in. And you are right, it is hard to find gainful employment with that attitude. I’ve always managed to scrape by somehow, but, for instance, one of my goals with moving to Europe was to get some health insurance, which is a luxury I could never afford in the USA. Socialized medicine in Europe, right? No, unfortunately. It turns out the health care situation in Germany is only slightly less of a mess than in USA. But I did end up wrangling some insurance out of them, as well as a few other benefits. Right now, I’m gainfully unemployed, getting my basic expenses paid by the state. The downside of the German system is that the job center seeks out jobs for you. They could call me at any moment with a job offer, and I have re-occurring nightmares about getting a call where they’ve lined up something for me as a car mechanic or a lifeguard. So far, no calls, and I’m spending my aimless days trying to get some writing done.

I’d spent a good amount of time in Germany before moving here, so it hasn’t been a total culture shock. My mom is German, and I grew up speaking it, so language barrier is no problem. Though, I will say, there is a certain longer-term strangeness that seeps in as time goes by — not so much a sudden culture shock, more a slow blooming realization of the subtle differences. When I went to Japan, my first impression was that it wasn’t very different — sure, I couldn’t read the signage, but I could recognize, OK, this is a grocery store, this is someone’s apartment, this is a kitchen, etc. and it all seemed about the same. After about a week of having the subtle differences compound themselves, though, I felt like I was tripping on acid. Everything, all the little details, seemed totally, mind-bogglingly weird. Germany is a lot closer to the US in many ways, plus there is no language barrier for me, so the differences have crept up very slowly. It took about four months before I felt like I was tripping. German society in general is very ordered, very regimented. The common example that people point to is how no one will cross the street if there is a “don’t walk” signal, even if there is no traffic in sight. As a wild-west American, your first impulse is to brazenly march across the street, you know, show some autonomy, be an individual, it’s common sense, there’s no cars coming. You feel smug about showing the herd how herd-like they are. But after a while, like having a mohawk as a teenager, you just get tired of people staring at you all the time and giving you weird looks, so you try to fit in. And what I found, at that point, was that it is actually pretty hard to re-socialize yourself into cultural norms you are not familiar with. I constantly find myself in situations where I realize that I am acting really weird, and that there is no way I can shut it off, in fact I can’t even quite exactly figure out what I’m doing wrong. It’s actually a quite similar feeling to being mentally unbalanced.

What are you writing? Songs? Essays? Stories? What are they about?

I’m working on a new zine, focusing around Berlin, that I hope to put out later this year. The last thing I did (Burn Collector 14) was very Chicago-centered, and between sending it off to the publisher and getting it back from the printer, I had moved out here. So now it feels strange to have that as my newest object to show for myself; it feels out of date to me already. I want to get something done that’s more representative of now. Otherwise, I’m working on another, longer story, generally about nervous breakdowns. And I have a couple of side project writing plans, so going back and forth with it all is keeping me pretty busy. I’d like to work on some more comics this year too. As far as music, I haven’t done too much of it since I’ve been here.

It seems like you’ve written stories about nervous breakdowns before. What fascinates you about nervous breakdowns? What’s the protagonist going through? Do you do any psychological research to study up on how one acts during such a spiral? How low does he go? I only ask this because I was today captured by a strange old memory. I was 6 or 8, and during that time my dad worked at the mall selling suits, and in passing he mentioned one of his employees (who must’ve been 45 or so and I was friendly with) had “suffered a nervous breakdown.” Being a kid, I didn’t really understand what those strong string of words meant and in a random moment of having nothing to chat about I asked the guy what that was like, having a nervous breakdown. I don’t remember his response but I remember the terror stretch across his face as he walked away. Weird that you reference nervous breakdowns, something I never think about, on the morning this memory came to me for the first time in almost 20 years.

The topic has come up before in stories I’ve written, although in recent years I’ve had some experiences that have made me realize that I didn’t know what I was talking about at that time; my definition of “nervous breakdown” was a pretty lax. A lot of people exhibit aberrant behavior within the punk scene and get away with it because it is more tolerated in that social context; I’ve taken advantage of that myself, and gone to some mental brinks while still blending into my surroundings. The last couple of years I was living in Chicago, for instance, I played in a band that was playing shows constantly, and I refused to carry any equipment, own a guitar amp, or put any effort into organizing ones to borrow. My attitude was, if there is an amp there that I can use, I’ll play, if not, too bad for you all. I was having some kind of deep crisis about music and expressing it in this weird denial of the physical objects associated with it. My band-mates, rather than kicking me out or recommending me a psychiatrist, just considered it a funny quirk of mine.

But that’s what I’m interested in, the idea of sanity being a social construct. In the story you are recounting, for instance: say a 45-year-old man walks into his job at the mall one day and announces, “I’ve been wasting my life selling suits! Don’t you people see how meaningless this all is?” Maybe the security guard escorts him away, and he gets fired, or even taken to a mental hospital if he won’t calm down. But is what he’s saying totally crazy? The other salesmen are obligated to think so, otherwise they cast their own lives into doubt, and that is the path to unraveling. If only this poor guy had been a 20-year-old with some crimethink literature! Then his actions would be pretty normal for his social context, and what he was saying would make sense to everyone around him. I had the reverse problem: when I finally started coming to an active crisis about my life in Chicago, it ruptured the social fabric I was in. My bandmates were much happier rounding me up an amp than debating the fundamental futility of our motivations. I don’t know if you’ve run across a lot of people who are losing their minds, but my experience is that they often have a lot of lucid, intelligent and insightful things to say, and that bums people out considerably. People get medicated and put away all the time, not because they stop being able to think clearly, but quite the opposite, because they start thinking too much, they can’t bottle up their feelings anymore, and eventually they make others feel and question in ways that are counter-productive to daily routine. In some way this is the extreme front line of the battle between the individual and social institutions.

It sounds like Milemarker/Challenger are on definite hiatus. Will you ever make new records again? When I last saw Milemarker live, maybe three or four years ago in Gainesville, you guys played mainly older songs; it was like a collection of greatest hits. Were you even aware back then (before your aversion to amps) that your interest in making music was dwindling?

The last couple of Milemarker tours we did (in the US and then in Europe), we did self-consciously play a sort of “greatest hits” setlist. That was partially a bit of self-irony (since, as you alluded to earlier, we were often perceived as being indifferent or openly hostile towards audience expectations), and partially because if someone recognized those songs, it was a way of hopefully communicating: thanks for paying attention, thanks for sticking with us.

It’s actually pretty possible that either or both of those bands will make another record. All of the principal players are still friends, still creatively active, and still in communication, so I could easily see it happening. I would probably not be the one actively pushing for it, but if it happened, I would be glad to participate; making music is fun, and it’s a good social outlet, a good way to hang out. The part I’m not that into is the pressure from labels, the stress of touring, the investment of self that leads to bruised egos and personal conflicts. I guess it is not exactly a dwindling interest in making music per se, more a lack of interest in the identity of being a musician. I don’t really sit around and “write” songs. For me music is more about the collaboration. Until I find some people who I am motivated to make music with, I’ll probably stick to other things. I’m a little confused about what the end result of music is supposed to be anyway: a good show? A good record? A Myspace site? I think music is in a strange period right now, as a form in general.

It’s funny you mention the end result of music. Especially that one of the ends is that you distill it down to such a cynical common denominator as a Myspace page. More often in interviews, I’ve sensed the confusion, and in this context the musician sometimes mentions his apprehension for the record album. Yet every week I purchase and listen to albums, and listen to them all the way through, side A and side B. If more people were more vocal about their love of the album as a whole, do you think you’d be so confused? Not everyone has an iPod and downloads music and visits social networking sites. And I wouldn’t describe those people as stubborn, either. Has your perception of the listener changed? With the sort of music you make, did you ever really care what the listener thought? And if ‘n/a’ to those, then what’s your predominant trepidation in the current climate of music?

I grew up, of course, listening to music on LPs, and my motivation for producing music was to make LPs. A-side, B-side, cover art — I was into the whole package, it made sense to me, and a good all-around record is a pretty satisfying object to make. It’s interesting to realize, though, that the format which you and I grew up taking as the norm is a relatively recent phenomenon. Recorded music hasn’t existed that long, and it wasn’t until the 20th century that you could mass-produce slabs of plastic that you insert into an appliance and it plays any type of music you can imagine. The idea of the album was a not-quite one-century blip in the formatting history of music, and dictated by market and technological forces, not by artists’ innate desire to write concept LPs. We just happened to grow up within that blip, so we see that as the natural way music should be presented. Contemporary (21st century) music seems completely defined by its adjustment to the paradigm shift of the digital age. That goes for how it sounds, who is making it, who is consuming it, and how they get access to it. I don’t think it’s bad, but I’m still waiting to see how things re-align themselves. In the meantime, I guess I just don’t have a strong urge to participate.

You said before that you’re trying to find a job through a state-run service. Have you found one yet? What sort of jobs are they offering you? I was also wondering what it’s like not to have a job in another country, since I kind of know what it’s like to not have a job in America. At first, it’s a good time, and then you have no money and a realization of squandered time begins to take hold. Do the differences of Germany allow that time to at least be more interesting? Is there anything in Germany that’s a surprising phenomenon?

I’m on unemployment, basically, on German welfare. The way that the system works here is, you sign up at an office and give them a list of your skills, degrees, and experience, and then they are supposed to try to match you with a job. Meanwhile, all of your basic costs are covered. I guess I have a weird and pretty unmarketable set of skills, so I am still waiting for them to call me. Germany is not that different from the US, basically a well-off first world country, and able to put more of their resources into creating a minimum social safety net for their citizens, since they are not investing huge portions of the GNP into fighting wars abroad. The current state of things does seem long-term untenable, though. An odd economic quirk in Germany is that there is no minimum wage. So many jobs pay ridiculously low wages, where working full-time you don’t make what you would for being on unemployment. Where’s the incentive to get a job?

Now that you’re in a place where no one knows you, and music is no longer a focal point of your daily efforts, are people often surprised by your past? I mean, Milemarker has its own Wikipedia page (which I doubt you contributed to). Do you ever show people your old music? Are they surprised by the covers? Like the Anaesthetic one for example? (And on a side note, what’s the inspiration behind that album cover?)

It surprises me how many people I meet who were at a show we played sometime in the last decade, and the vivid memories they’ll have of it. It makes sense, because Milemarker played in a lot of small towns all over Germany, and a lot of the kids at those shows have ended up moving to the big city a few years later, and if I go to shows and such I’ll run in to those people there. It always does surprise me though. I guess I didn’t register how many people we actually played to in the time when we were really touring a lot.

I’ve got no clue what was going on with that Anaestheic cover. The record had an original title of “Rise Up Friends” and was supposed to be kind of animal liberation themed, with all the songs about different animals, etc. Somehow all that ended up left over from that idea was the winged Pegasus. Then we tried to do packaging where the lyrics would be printed on the inside of the inner record sleeve, so you’d have to rip open the record sleeve to read the lyrics. Despite specific instructions, the printer, of course, folded the jackets so that the lyrics were readable on the outside. They probably figured we were just high when we wrote out the instructions or something. Anyway, overall Anaesthetic is not the most cohesively executed record of all time.

What do you think is your most cohesive artistic endeavor? In writing and music?

It’s hard for me to judge; I tend to be pretty self-critical, and only more so as time goes by and I look back on things. In a way it’s the dissatisfaction with past efforts that gives me the drive to do something new, to try to redeem myself. Also, when I think of projects that seemed to have turned out well or held up over time, it seems kind of arbitrary. There seems to be no formula to it. The Milemarker record Frigid Forms Sell, for instance, was no less haphazardly put together than any of the others — there are three different drummers on it, for instance — but somehow that one seems to have the most solid aesthetic and message, to communicate something specific and un-convoluted. Burn Collector #8 was the first long-form novella style of writing I did, and the first zine I put together that pointed to maybe being able to do something more ambitious with writing — and yet, I wrote it in a few weeks while crashing on someone’s couch in North Carolina; I didn’t even have a computer at the time. I think with creative endeavors you just have to do your best, try to supersede yourself a little every time, and accept that, as Haruki Murakami said, “they can’t all be winners.”

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