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Dr. Michael Fine: Crony Capitalism Is Bad For Your Health

By Ariel Lewiton
October 5th, 2017

Photo: Sokontha Thuong, Snicca Photography.

For months, the fate of the United States’s healthcare system—one-sixth of the largest economy in the world—has seemed to be up for grabs. In May of this year, the Republican-controlled House passed a “repeal-and-replace” bill that died in the eleventh hour in the Republican-controlled Senate. Mitch McConnell announced that it was “time to move on,” and President Trump, known for graciousness neither in victory nor defeat, tweeted, “Let ObamaCare implode, then deal. Watch!” As of this writing, the Graham-Cassidy Act, which would dismantle Obamacare in favor of block grants for individual states, seems to have met an abortive end. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders has announced a single-payer plan he calls Medicare for All; though it has no hope of passing the Republican-controlled Congress, its sixteen cosponsors include 2020 presidential hopefuls Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Kirsten Gillibrand, signaling universal healthcare’s shift toward the center, at least among Democrats.

The only thing everyone seems to agree on is that the American healthcare system is in dire need of an overhaul. The Unites States spends over $3.2 trillion on healthcare annually, or $10,000 per person—more than twice the per-capita healthcare expenditure of other industrialized nations. Yet we lag behind those nations in important health indicators like life expectancy and infant mortality rates. That’s to say: we pay an exorbitant amount for healthcare that doesn’t even keep us healthy.

Dr. Michael Fine, a family physician, former director of the Rhode Island Department of Health, and current chief medical strategist for Central Falls, Rhode Island, believes that we’re missing a crucial point in our debates about healthcare. As he put it to me recently, “The problem with Obamacare, and even with the attempts to destroy it, is that they are all attempts to do a little social engineering by using the health insurance process. Obamacare was health insurance reform; it was not health care reform.

“We’ve done it backwards,” Fine says. “We’ve tried to figure out how we’d pay for it, but we haven’t figured out or articulated what it is.”

Instead of figuring out how to finance our ballooning, unsupportable healthcare industry, we should be questioning why American healthcare costs so much in the first place. In order to solve our healthcare crisis, Fine argues, we need to begin by developing a comprehensive understanding of what a rational, effective, and just healthcare system ought to look like.

Dr. Fine’s vision of health and healthcare is localized, community-based, and integrative: not just avoiding or managing illness, but supporting education, affordable housing, public transportation, and sustainable resources—elements that link to health in surprising ways. The cornerstone of Fine’s own healthcare strategy is the neighborhood health station, a facility that aims to provide almost all the care that patients need, in one place. Last fall, he and his team broke ground on the Central Falls Neighborhood Health Station, the first of its kind in the nation.

In a series of conversations in person and over the phone, I spoke with Dr. Fine about the current crisis of American healthcare, the inspiration behind his work, and what healthcare workers and ordinary citizens can do to create the healthcare system we need.

—Ariel Lewiton for Guernica

Guernica: Let’s get started by talking about what’s wrong with healthcare in the United States.

Dr. Fine: We’re spending an ungodly amount of money—international comparisons suggest that we’re wasting between a trillion and 1.5 trillion dollars a year on healthcare. Our per-person, per-year cost is a little over $10,000 now.

The overall infant mortality rate in the United States is three times higher than the best achievable infant mortality rate internationally. And infant mortality among black Americans is more than twice that of white Americans. Yet we spend around three times more than we need to spend, compared to the countries that have the best outcomes. The countries with the best health outcomes, the lowest infant mortality, and the best life expectancy usually spend about $4,000 or less per person per year. They do it by having a healthcare system. In the United States, we have a healthcare market, not a healthcare system.

Guernica: Where does our spending go?

Dr. Fine: It goes into profit for corporate entities, into salaries for healthcare executives, and income for high-earning specialist physicians. In 2003, the average American family was spending about 17 percent of its annual income on healthcare. In 2017, that’s risen to over 30 percent. The Congressional Budget Office projection is that by 2025, healthcare costs will be 50 percent of a family’s income, and somewhere between 2031 and 2038, it becomes 100 percent. I don’t get how that works.

Guernica: Obviously it can’t work. What does family healthcare spending mean in this context?

Dr. Fine: For most of us, healthcare spending is health insurance spending by either you or your employer. It means co-pays and deductibles. It’s coinsurance [a percentage of treatment costs not covered by insurance companies that individuals must pay on their own], because most people who are employed get 25 percent of the cost of their health insurance taken out of their paycheck, and a lot of treatments aren’t covered even after buying this expensive insurance.

In Rhode Island, we spend a little over $12 billion a year on healthcare. Just little Rhode Island. The average healthcare inflation in the United States, including Rhode Island, has been a little over 6 percent a year for as long as everybody can remember, about three times the cost of general inflation. That means the increase in cost in Rhode Island—and remember, we’re not buying anything new, this is just the cost of healthcare inflation—is $720 million a year. That’s equivalent to the salary of about thirteen thousand teachers. It’s enough to build twenty-four units of affordable housing.

If we’re going to improve infant mortality rates and health in general, we need to spend money on education. We need to spend money on safe and healthy housing so that people have safe and secure places to live. We need to spend money on public transportation, community development, public safety, and the environment. These turn out to be the things that matter most for health. The paradox is that the more we spend on medical service expenditures that we don’t need, the less we spend on those things. In a certain way, healthcare is at war with health.

Guernica: You’ve argued that we are not using the right metrics for measuring health, or that we misunderstand what it means to be healthy in this country. How do you define health?

Dr. Fine: You have to think about what the human project is. Health doesn’t exist as a construct on its own. Health is about relationships. And democracy is a critical piece because it creates peace and stability, which allows relationships to be nurtured and mature.

You have to draw an intellectual distinction between personal and public health. It’s an important distinction because personal health is self-defined: most of us don’t want to be in pain, and we want live until seventy or eighty. None of us really thinks that you’re not healthy if you don’t live until 110. Everyone wants an equal shot of getting to eighty, I think, or at least almost everybody does.

Public health is totally different. Public health is a set of measures like life expectancy and infant mortality, concepts like years of potential life lost and reasons for that loss. From a public health perspective, you put these indicators together to give you a measure of how a population in a place is doing. That allows us to compare the ecology and the social organization of different places. In places where they’ve got it figured out, people live a long time, and their kids grow, and you’d think we’d want to emulate the social organization in those places.

Guernica: What’s an example of a place that’s doing it right?

Dr. Fine: Finland has one of the lowest infant mortality rates and long life expectancies, and the Finns pay about $4,000 a year for healthcare. When you look around the world, many countries that do this well have done what the Finns have done. The Finns build one community health center for every ten to twenty thousand people, and that community health center is responsible for taking care of everybody in that place.

In the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, Finland had the highest rate of heart disease mortality in the world. They flipped it around by doing a bunch of guerrilla public healthcare; they had people who would go into barrooms and convince men in their forties and fifties to go out cross-country skiing and bicycle riding. They got farmers to change what they put in sausages. So instead of using beef fat or pork fat, they started using mushrooms that they were growing. That made the whole country healthier. You can do this. The Finns proved it.

Guernica: You drew inspiration from the Finnish model when you began addressing the healthcare crisis in your own city of Central Falls, Rhode Island. Talk about the work you’re doing there.

Dr. Fine: Central Falls is a city of twenty thousand. It’s a small place, only 1.2 square miles. It’s the poorest city in Rhode Island: about 50 percent of people live below 200 percent of the federal poverty threshold. Fifty percent of people don’t have cars and most people are immigrants from Colombia, Cape Verde, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Liberia, and Nigeria. It’s got an old Polish and Syrian-Christian population. So it’s a really diverse and interesting place.

We’re doing something that I don’t think has ever been done in the United States: we’re actually building a healthcare system. We’re building a single clinical enterprise that is ready to take care of the entire population of the city. It’s classic primary care plus mental and behavioral health, substance use disorder treatment, physical therapy, dentistry, home health, emergency medial services, lab, and X-ray.

Guernica: I’ve heard of community health centers, but you refer to this entity as a neighborhood health station. What is the difference?

Dr. Fine: A community health center is charged with caring for the underserved. The community health center movement in the United States was started in the 1960s by Dr. Jack Geiger. Dr. Geiger was deeply involved in the civil rights movement, so for him this was a way to use healthcare as a social justice intervention, to give people whose lives had been disrupted by racism a shot at equal treatment. There are now 1,375 community health centers in nine thousand locations that care for 25 million Americans—almost 10 percent of the population, focusing on the underserved, those people who live at 200 percent of poverty or less.

With a neighborhood health station, it’s 90 percent of the healthcare services people need, in a single building, using a single medical record, so that 90 percent of the population uses that one clinical entity. We’re bringing primary care to all people, combining primary care and public health for the first time. The neighborhood health station provides services for pregnant women, but also works on improving infant mortality, reducing adolescent pregnancy, extending life expectancy, reducing the number of people who are smoking, reducing the number of deaths from opiate overdoses. The neighborhood health station becomes the agent of public health in every local community. And the vision is, if you can build one of these for every ten thousand people, then you have a real healthcare system.

Guernica: Do you accept health insurance? Do some people pay out of pocket? Is there a sliding scale for people who can’t afford the treatment they need?

Dr. Fine: The money comes from both federal grants (about 10 percent) and from health insurance. Community health centers are paid fairly for this work, which makes it all possible. By law, CHCs care for everyone regardless of ability to pay or immigration status. They all use a sliding scale. Some people pay nothing—they’re charged a minimal amount, but aren’t turned away if they can’t pay it.

Guernica: What is the advantage of bringing all of these services together under one roof?

Dr. Fine: By bringing everyone together in one place and using the single electronic medical record, we can find out lots of things about this population, and begin to improve the health of the population.

Every Friday at 1:15 p.m., twenty-five people get together: People from the state’s largest homelessness organization come. The city housing authority comes. Folks from two different mental health agencies come, as well as someone from the substance abuse recovery agency. The home nursing agency comes. People who do community-based social work and counseling come. We have a couple of clinicians, physicians, nurses, nurse case managers, people who know how to prevent utility cutoffs for people who are sick and can’t pay their bills. People from emergency medical services come. This is all totally voluntary.

Guernica: What do you do once you’ve assembled the twenty-five people?

Dr. Fine: We sit around a table, put our heads together, and think about how we’re going to take care of the people in the city who are most at risk. At each meeting, we discuss twenty-five to forty people. Sometimes we hear about somebody from a doctor, but often we’re hearing about people from the housing authority, or recovery coaches, or the police.

Guernica: Are you able to preserve patient confidentiality? Do your patients sign HIPPA agreements or something similar?

Dr. Fine: Everyone who participates [in these meetings] signs a business associate agreement, which prevents them from sharing any information they may receive. In addition, whenever there’s a non-clinician in the room, we refer to people only by their initials and dates of birth. The data isn’t merged—only the clinical side shares a data system. And HIPPA was never meant to keep clinicians from talking to one another. It was meant to protect people’s privacy in the era of electronic data.

I talk about the neighborhood health station as a single clinical entity that involves multiple disciplines. But that’s different from the multidisciplinary team, which is wider in the community. That includes housing, police, EMS, more extended mental and behavioral health. When people are at greater risk, those people are often already known to most of the caretakers in the community. We can protect people’s privacy while taking advantage of folks who are already involved with them, and their collective knowledge and experience.

In addition, everyone who takes an ambulance ride signs a consent form that includes consent to have their case discussed with the multidisciplinary team. Obviously they can refrain if they don’t want to. And we don’t take that to be that significant, because it’s not full consent when you have an emergency. But on the flip side, when we looked closely at the data about EMS transports, we discovered that most of the time, 70 to 80 percent of the time, people use the ambulance not because they have an emergency but because they don’t have other access to healthcare. By working on this issue, we’ve been able to reduce the number of EMS transports by 15 percent, which saves the city somewhere between $2 to $4 million in a year.

Guernica: What would be an example of a non-emergency reason to call an ambulance?

Dr. Fine: Somebody with back pain, a headache, emotional distress or anxiety. Twelve or thirteen percent are alcohol intoxication. In May, we saw a jump in the number of EMS transports for alcohol intoxication. Now, the literature on alcohol intoxication and alcoholism from Europe suggests that if you shrink the open hours of stores and bars that sell alcohol, you reduce the number of people who get intoxicated. The state legislature decides open hours; local communities can’t. We learned that the people who wanted to sell alcohol had gone to the state legislature and lobbied their way into influence. On May 1, “summer hours” begin, which lets liquor stores stay open later. So we had caused this outbreak of alcohol intoxication with a public policy that was influenced by people with something to sell.

Now we’re in the process of working with the city government and the city’s general assembly delegation to shrink those hours again, at least for Central Falls. But that kind of feedback loop—where you see something happening, you get to its social cause, and you begin to address that social cause politically—is a huge opportunity to think about health and democracy together, and begin to understand the extent to which they’re more intertwined than most of us realize.

Guernica: You’re a family physician, and you’ve called primary care “the only medical service that is affordable and effective.” Can you explain what you mean?

Dr. Fine: Our data shows a clear association between lower-cost and improved health outcomes in places where there are more primary care clinicians per ten thousand people. That data is replicable all across the country and validated by international comparisons. Why should that be? To a certain extent, it’s because of prevention. If you have a primary care clinician, that person will harass you if you’re smoking until you stop, remind you to exercise, tell you to eat right, check your cholesterol, and remind you again to exercise and diet, and then if you can’t do that, may put you on some medicine, but only once nothing else works. If you get pregnant, your primary care doctor gets your prenatal care started when you’re six or seven weeks pregnant, because that’s when we get the best health outcomes. If you’re a sexually active teenager, your primary care person makes sure you’re practicing safe sex and have birth control so you don’t get pregnant in high school, because that has all sorts of its own bad health impacts and costs associated with it. With all of these factors, you’re likely to live longer.

Guernica: So that’s prevention. What’s the other part?

Dr. Fine: The other part is protection. If you’re part of a good primary care practice or community health center and you get sick, you can call up and get someone who knows you to take a look at you right away. They’re going to take care of you, unless they find something [beyond what they can treat onsite], and then they know how to steer you to specialists who are reputable, honest, and aren’t going to subject you to tests or treatments you don’t need.

If you don’t have that person and you get sick, you’re probably going to go to the emergency room. And there, if you have a headache, they’re going to do a CAT scan, an MRI, get you a neurology consult, maybe do a lumbar puncture. They might find a thing that looks a little funny, and that encourages them to do more testing. You’re in the hospital while they’re doing that testing, and hospitals are this soup of bad bacteria, so that increases the chance that you’re going to get an infection that you didn’t come in with, which is a common occurrence. You’re going to be exposed to the things that the healthcare market throws at you in the interest of profit, many of which are quite dangerous.

When you begin to know and understand the epidemiology, a primary care clinician has a huge impact on protecting you from the malfeasance of the medical market, which exists only to sell stuff and which is actually reasonably dangerous. The per-person per-year cost of primary healthcare in the US is $500. We can provide primary care to all Americans and still save $250 billion a year, because of the savings that providing primary care to all will generate.

Guernica: Yet I’ve heard that fewer and fewer medical students are going into primary care. Is that true?

Dr. Fine: Fewer medical students are interested by far. Primary care physicians don’t earn as much as specialists—though compared to average Americans, we should all be ashamed. Some of it is because of the student loan problem. When you come out of medical school with $250,000 worth of debt, it’s a little harder to convince yourself to make a little less money.

Another big reason is because of the industrialization of primary care that’s happened as a result of the dynamics of the health insurance market. Insurance companies now force us to see four patients an hour. Connecting to human beings and trying to build four relationships an hour, and take care of the thing that bothers them, and get their medicines refilled, is really tough. Primary care physicians don’t even get to look at the patient in front of them anymore; they look at the electronic medical records on the computer. It has become a dehumanizing industrialized experience, and that probably dissuades a lot of people from going into primary care as well.

But it’s more than just primary care people who are industrialized and feeling alienated; that sense has now spread across the whole health worker community. Nurses feel this way. Specialists feel this way. PTs feel this way. Everybody’s had their professional integrity undermined by the market. And now the hope is that this group of people will revolt. In fact I don’t think there’s another way out. When healthcare workers revolt, they can actually lead to change. But they’ve got to stand up and do it.

Guernica: Do you see that happening?

Dr. Fine: Well, not as quickly as I’d like it to. But I think those of us who’ve been around a long time need to start standing up and giving people the courage to do it. If people who’ve been doing this for twenty, thirty, forty years don’t stand up, how are people who just got out of residency and have $250,000 worth of debt going to have the courage to do it? This is the responsibility of my generation and hopefully some of us are doing it now and will keep doing it.

We’ve got a little organizing experiment happening in Rhode Island called Healthcare Revolt that’s trying to bring healthcare professionals together to stand up and fight for the stuff that matters. There’s the Lown Institute in Boston that’s trying to do this across the country, called the Right Care Alliance. Not only do we have people’s professional integrity and meaning at stake, not only do we have the health of Americans at stake, but democracy itself is at stake. If people revolt and start building little healthcare systems, neighborhood health stations, one in every community, that’s the recharge that we’re looking for.

Guernica: What can ordinary citizens, non-healthcare workers, do to improve healthcare in their community? What kind of useful pressure can we put on our elected officials or candidates for office? Are there other concrete actions we can take to help improve the health of our communities as well as our own access to good healthcare?

Dr. Fine: What I say to everyone who has been denied healthcare, or lost their financial security, or can’t afford health insurance, is this: Listen up. Someone is stealing a trillion dollars a year from the American people, and all of us are letting them get away with it. You want affordable healthcare? Use the Community Health Center in your own community. Get on its board. Tell your friends, so we engage them as well. You want someone who will stand up to the hospital executives and the pharma people and the insurance industry? Then you better run for office if you can, because the people there are already bought and paid for by the healthcare profiteers. If you can’t run, you better use your vote and vote for people who can stand up. Start writing letters.

It took fifty years to make this mess. It isn’t going to get fixed overnight. Too many people will go broke, and too many will die because of it, but many more will be hurt if we don’t start demanding a CHC or NHS in every community, publicly supplied generic medication, a cap on what we pay executives and doctors at hospitals and through Medicare and Medicaid, to close hospitals we don’t need. Communities can start closing the many unnecessary and incredibly expensive hospitals that are sucking down money we need for primary care, and that contribute nothing to the public health.

Guernica: Part of this revolt seems to require that healthcare workers make a conscious choice to leave for-profit hospitals and private practices. Does staffing a NHS require persuasion, education, grassroots organizing?

Dr. Fine: Our guys mostly work for community health centers. Many healthcare workers did healthcare because they love communities and the people who live in them. People want to work like this. We still have challenges: EMRs [electronic medical records], productivity measures and standards, and way too much bureaucracy in healthcare, driven by way too many healthcare profiteers. But this work is what many healthcare workers long to do. As we build it, they are coming. If there were more neighborhood health stations, there would be more people flocking to do this work. It takes relatively little or no persuasion: pay people a living wage, treat them like human beings, respect their knowledge and skill, and they keep coming. If you talk to people who are in healthcare, they’ll tell you over and over all the dumb things they get asked to do that have much more to do with keeping the billing system going than taking care of people. There are a hundred different ways we can revolt, and hopefully we’ll keep discovering new ones until we humanize this process. Until we have the ability to sit down and listen to patients. Because that’s what this is about.

Guernica: When talking about the factors that go into evaluating health in general, you’ve mentioned access to education, safe and affordable housing, public transportation, and sustainable resources. You’ve described current healthcare in the United States as less a system than a market that is enabled by lobbyists and politician, and plundered by profiteers including hospital executives and Big Pharma. To put this bluntly: Is market-driven capitalism antithetical to health as you’ve defined it?

Dr. Fine: Unregulated crony capitalism that creates substantial and growing income inequality, that exists to extract wealth? That has nothing to do with the maintenance or improvement of the public’s health. That capitalism is not consistent with health; it’s in conflict.

But I can imagine a capitalism that’s more regulated and restrained. Where healthcare is regarded as essential, along with safe and healthy housing, transportation, decent free education through college and graduate school. Where we fund community development as part of the infrastructure of democracy. That’s a capitalism that we have never seen before in the United States, but it’s one I can imagine, and that does not seem to be inconsistent with health. It’s the environment in which I think our democracy and politics make health happen.

Guernica: Some people might hear the examples you’ve just given and call that “socialism.”

Dr. Fine: I don’t think markets are intrinsically evil, but the challenge is when someone takes the market posture as a fundamental belief about society as a whole. That posture has brought us to where we are, and is unsustainable over time.

We must treat healthcare as an essential service, much like police and fire departments, like water treatment and sanitation. We know pretty well what everybody needs and it’s a whole lot cheaper and more effective if everybody has it.

Ariel Lewiton

Ariel Lewiton is the Director of Marketing and Publicity for Sarabande Books. Her essays and stories have appeared in Vice, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Paris Review Daily, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. She lives in New York.

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Bringing Pan-Africanist C.L.R. James To a New Generation

By Randy Shaw
Beyond Chron
May 10th, 2018

When I got the new graphic novelette, The Young C.L. R. James,  I realized that while I had heard of James I knew very little about him. I suspect I am not alone in this lack of knowledge, which made the 42-page graphic novelette a good entry point for exploring more about the brilliant James.

Illustrated by Milton Knight and edited by political graphic novelist extraordinaire Paul Buhle and Lawrence Ware, the book traces the early years of a man born in 1901 whose most famous book was the 1938, The Black Jacobins, the first history of the Haitian revolt.

James grew up in the West Indies under British colonial control. At age 7 he took up cricket, the only game played at the time. He would go on to become one of the great cricket writers of his era. James saw cricket as one of England’s few positive contributions to Trinidad, including as it did a “stringent sense of ethics.”

After graduating high school in 1918 James falls in with some “Black Bohemians” who published their own political writings and fiction. He becomes politicized listening to American jazz records and calypso in his Trinidad homeland.

James then made the decision that changed his life. As others told him that “Black writers stand no chance in Trinidad,” he moved to London. He soon wrote a radical play about the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture. The great Paul Robeson agreed to play the leading role on the London stage. James saw Robeson as a rebuttal to the claims of White Superiority upon which British colonialism was based.

James would eventually move to Harlem in the 1940’s, connecting to its burgeoning jazz scene. His motto was “Dance every day if you can,” and Knight’s illustrations depict the Harlem scene of the time.

C.L.R. James: The Artist As Revolutionary

If hearing about the remarkable C.L.R. James encourages further reading, I suggest Paul Buhle’s C.L.R. James: The Artist As Revolutionary. There is a reason James was among the leading Marxist and Pan-African writers of his time, and Buhle brings his legacy to life.

And I am told that if you are in to cricket, C.L.R. James is a must read

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. His new book, Generation Priced Out, will be out in October from UC Press.

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Detailing radical attempts imagining impossible agendas

By Michael James Miller
Pedagogy, Culture & Society
April 03, 2018

Introducing the book, Robert Haworth writes his thoughts on what ‘radical informal learning’ is and might be, offering various insights that are echoed and elaborated on throughout the book, among them being developing spaces that are ‘critically reflective’ and ‘horizontal’, and within these spaces questioning our desires and the risks involved, hinted at by Haworth with concepts like ‘radical love’ (Freire) and ‘radical openness’ (hooks). Out of the Ruins is a book situated in the rich archives of radical (and particularly anarchist) writings on learning and learning spaces, and for a reader unfamiliar with radical and/or anarchist pedagogies, here might be a comfortable compilation to get uncomfortable with – Haworth writes of his experiences when introducing notions of ‘free schools’ to pre-service teachers and the discomfort they often expressed when confronted with and challenged on their ‘fixed beliefs of what teaching and learning should be’ (8).

Haworth sets out with a sort-of warning and guide for readers, offering what will be an under- lying (and often a primary) theme in the chapters that follow: ‘Because informal learning, in many cases, has become co-opted and embedded within the logic of a capitalistic economic system, it should be viewed with a critical lens’ (7). Perhaps this is an obvious statement by Haworth, but writing of past and ongoing successes, failures, and struggles (and the not-so-clear distinction between them) as the book does, elucidates the need for continued criticality while imagining/ organizing/navigating more radical spaces and, as I would have liked to read more of, a suspicion of what emerges out of the ruins (even and especially when that includes ourselves). Many of the chapters in Out of the Ruins describe in varying detail personal accounts and collaborative efforts to create and sustain Radical Informal Learning Spaces, and importantly, after their emergences, issues that brought about the end (Chapter 13 emphasizes how crucial having a physical space can be); experiments in structuring organizing (Chapter 10 writes of working with tensions and disorientations); and pedagogical approaches in collectively addressing issues that arose (Chapter 11 outlines horizontal pedagogy) while working to create something outside of (Chapter 5 with techno-education), alternative to (Chapter 7 with the Really Open University), or even within main- stream educational institutions (Chapter 9 teaching the Sociology of Anarchism at university).

As a generalization, I’ve found edited books such as this tend to o er more glimpses and peeks into the author’s thinking than allowing for more developed and in-depth analyses and elaborations, leaving the reader to assume a lot, or assuming a lot of the reader. This is not always a detriment to the content, with some terms or concepts opening-up considerations to pursue beyond the book (for example, radical learning spaces facilitating the questioning of desires – particularly in the Introduction and Chapters 3, 6, 7, 10, 13 – brings me back to important work from Fraser and Lamble 2015; and Daring et al. 2012 particularly the Volcano and Heckert chapters, directly connecting and contributing to, though not offered in, these texts).

However, I found some content lacking important analyses which had me searching or returning to readings beyond this book, for example Tuck and Yang’s (2012) Decolonization is
not a metaphor with Chapter 5 ‘explor[ing] radical educational alternatives using the metaphor of decolonization’ (87). Tuck and Yang write that decolonization is ‘a distinct project from other civil and human rights-based social justice projects’ (2); that the ‘easy absorption, adoption, and transposing of decolonization’, an example being calls to ‘decolonize our schools’ or ‘decolonize student thinking’, are incommensurable and is ‘yet another form of settler appropriation’ (3) which inhibits ‘more meaningful potential alliances’ (3). Other times I found passages to take too much for granted. For example, after re ecting on the experience and standard reactions to the intro- duction of more radical concepts of learning spaces from students based in (US) mainstream, No Child Left Behind-era education, Haworth states
Radical informal learning takes a significantly different approach to learning than what was stated above. For one, radical informal learning would be an ongoing process and geared toward freedom, autonomy, critical reflection, and liberation rather than supporting hierarchical, authoritarian, and economically corrupt institutions and relationships. (7)

With what, I wonder, is the reader to do with these terms? While ‘freedom’, ‘autonomy’, ‘critical reflection’, ‘liberation’ and ‘ongoing process’ are mentioned and alluded to throughout the book, I do not consider these terms to be as self-evident as I often read them being used. Without further engagement and analysis with these terms, I hesitate with what is being questioned and challenged by the authors (e.g. education, learning spaces, desire).

Perhaps what I am looking for is too tedious a task for this format (a single chapter in an edited book has limited space to say much, especially when there is so much to say and so much being said), perhaps these are even meant to be terms open to interpretation with informal understandings. But I offer this critique because perhaps the authors are taking for granted, even taking liberties with some common conceptualizations (e.g. ‘freedom’) while directly taking on others (‘learning’).

A stand-out example for me comes from the book’s co-editor John M. Elmore in Chapter 1, which presents the reader with various provocations on authoritarianism, education, and restraint from ‘organic development’. I found some arguments in the chapter to themselves be restrained; while I support taking the strong position that ‘to oppose one system of domination while sup- porting...another, is to engage in intellectual hypocrisy of the highest level’ (27), there was no further analysis of opposition itself (for which I again go to Daring et al. 2012, specifically chapters by Conrad, and Heckert). Other passages I found to be restraining in themselves with an accepting and upholding of the authoritarianism the chapter and wider collection seeks to address and o er alternatives to. For example, when considering consequences of ‘Preventing learners from think- ing and acting freely’ (again, more assumptions on terminology), Elmore brings in an Arnstine quote to support the point being made of the process in which ‘...entire societies can acquire the mentality of slaves.’ What Arnstine means by ‘the mentality of slaves’, and why Elmore offers this quote to try and substantiate the argument for ‘Finding alternatives to traditional schooling’ not only remains unclear in this chapter – as no elaboration or explanation is given – but is (at best) missing the mark. One might ‘get’ the sentiment of what is meant here, but given the complex, nuanced, opaque, beautiful, horrible work around slavery (for one example, the work of Saidiya Hartman), this assumption is one of the more glaring examples of the over generalizations and selective criticality scattered throughout this book.

I o er this review not necessarily as a dismissal of what all is contained within Out of the Ruins to any would-be readers, nor of the authors whose work is used here as examples. Instead, I write this as an attempted contribution of necessary suspicion; I want to stay with and expose more tensions than are confronted in these texts, and if we are committed to emerging out of the ruins without bringing along the same patterns, systems, and naturalized ways of thinking and being, then our efforts must extend to our too-often assumed understandings and imaginings (thinking again with Haworth’s ‘critical lens’).

I found Chapter 6 offered a lot of important insights and questions regarding beginning, beginnings, and the dificulties thereof, particularly with ‘the policing of “possibilities”’ (107).

Author Sarah Amsler’s ‘critical lens’ was intently and intensely focused on the Social Science Centre of which she is a part of, and their being compelled ‘to articulate new answers to fundamental questions about the purpose of education, defining or redefining democracy, and what it means to be-in-common and to learn’ (108). A few questions posed include:

So what is it that we need to learn, and how can we approach these ideas if we do not already know about them? If we could practice any kind of education we want, of what activities would it consist and why? What can these educational spaces do? Who is it for? How was it developed? How is it gendered, classed, raced, colonial, or epistemologically exclusive? Whose expression does it wear, in whose voice does it speak? What is its relationship to traditional, or even neoliberal, education? Are there spaces and cracks to work within and are they enough? How are the roles of student and teacher de ned, if at all? What is to be done with intractable reproductions of power? How shall we subsist? Who is affected by our commitments? What are we willing to give, and to lose? (108).

These (potentially) unanswerable questions (not that they would have any one answer any- ways) are importantly directed to people and groups who might be or work to be ‘at once united, diverse, divided, and aspiring to be in common’ (121). I read the contributors to this book being among those, and something discussed throughout these texts that I am thinking a lot about is ‘community’. I was interested to read different approaches and thinking’s about ‘community’ (and similar sentiments), and if/how this might be re/de/conceptualized in a general sense, and in relation to the idea of a ‘learning community’ more specifically. What might we mean and understand when thinking of‘community’, what do we take for granted, and what violences does ‘community’ not just potentially counter or diminish, but also strengthen and reinscribe – including (and particularly) radical informal one’s? Included here (brie y) as further provocations and potential contributions when thinking ‘community’, works by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney variously discuss maroon communities (Harney and Moten 2013), sociality (Moten 2018), and of the need to abolish the community so that we might commune (Harney 2017). These notions and my study with them were further pressed with co-writing a conference paper bringing up these points (Miller and Miller 2017) and from the push back, questions, and conversations in response, particularly around what abolishing the community could mean, and how to not only recognize the communing that is already happening, but what to do at that point. This is an ongoing conversation...

Sprinkled throughout Out of the Ruins I found other seeds of intrigue and interest that I would have liked to read more about. Discussing AnarchistU, for instance, Chapter 12 wrote of distinctions between the classroom and the community, and further had varying statements about hierarchies that recognized pitfalls (‘hierarchies of expertise’) while also perceiving the created space as distinct (‘different hierarchies than academic spaces uphold’ 235) and (boldly, intriguingly, somehow) free from others (‘while hierarchies of state and capital were eradicated, hierarchies associated with epistemologies of space were only somewhat mitigated’ 231).

Another seed only mentioned brie y but I found of interest was ‘boredom’, particularly the expressed desire of ‘militating against boredom’ (Chapter 11, 219, 220). Here I wonder what might ‘boredom’ have to o er (for example, see Horning 2017), including and further than rumination, particularly if we are challenging that which we take as obvious. Similarly, I want to imagine further about engaging in a ‘tolerance of ambiguity’ with others as proposed in Chapter 4, which gives a few, perhaps inadvertent but nonetheless appreciated examples of ambiguity, by later writing of the ‘problem of abstractness and a lack of engagement with the specificities of teaching and learning’ (80). Chapter 2 had a lot of imaginings, yet I read David Gabbard’s provocations as both pushing for more creativity from teachers and students, while also implying/imposing limits on what might be considered ‘useful’ creativity. Why must we shirk from an ‘impossible agenda’ – especially as the chapter draws on Zizek’s advice to ‘start thinking’ and not ‘get caught in this pseudo-activist pressure’ to ‘do something’? (50, 51) – what might it mean to imagine the unimaginable rather than ‘stir up public debate’ which seems to me is the ‘doing something’ which is to be avoided? I want to think more about the ‘useless’ in the ‘useful’ (h/t Tiqqun); the ‘impossible’ while we continue pushing what is ‘possible’.

Out of the Ruins offers an Introduction and 13 chapters with various anecdotes and attempted antidotes, provocations and practical, experiential writing on experimental efforts to create and maintain counter-hegemonic learning spaces and communities. Through different approaches, reflections and emergences this book extends many important considerations. Whether we are starting on our thinking of radical informal learning spaces, looking for examples from other’s experiences, or how we might bring in more criticality, radical intentions and informal pedagogies to our own practices and experiences, Out of the Ruins is intended to be that place.


Daring, C. B., J. Rogue, Deric Shannon, and Abbey Volcano, eds. 2012. Queering Anarchism: Addressing and Undressing Power and Desire. Oakland: AK Press.

Fraser, J., and S. Lamble. 2015. “Queer Desires and Critical Pedagogies in Higher Education: Reflections on the Transformative Potential of Non-normative Learning Desires in the Classroom.” Journal of Feminist Scholarship 7 (8): 61–77.

Harney, S. 2017. “Stefano Harney Interview (part 2) by Michael Schapira & Jesse Montgomery.” Full Stop. http://

Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions.

Horning, R. 2017. Ordinary Boredom. The New Inquiry. Miller, Lindsay L., and Michael J. Miller. 2017. “Carceral Educations: Schools, Prisons, Police and the Obligations of an Abolitionist.” Paper presented at the 2nd International Conference for Carceral Geography, December 11–12,
in Birmingham, England.
Moten, F. 2018. “Come on, Get it! with Thom Donovan, Malik Gaines, Ethan Philbrick, Wikipedia and the Online

Etymology Dictionary.” The New Inquiry.
Tuck, E., and K. W. Yang. 2012. “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity,
Education & Society

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Setting Sights: A review in The Philadelphia Partisan

By Ben Curttright
The Philadelphia Partisan
May 15th, 2018

If Setting Sights has a single thesis, it’s that support for gun control is not an inherently left-wing position.

This is a particularly hard sell in the United States, as author and historian Neal Shirley admits. Those opposed to gun control “tend to be right-wing, pro-government folks in their practical attitudes toward domestic and international military and police repression, yet somehow they see themselves as fighting against government control.” The National Rifle Association (NRA) has spent over $200 million since 1998 lobbying, campaigning for, and contributing to the campaigns of (predominantly) Republican candidates. A large majority of domestic terrorist attacks are committed by right-wing extremists. On February 14, a 19-year-old gunman, Nikolas Cruz, killed 17 people at his Florida high school with an AR-15. As if drawn to match Shirley’s description, Cruz was a former ROTC member who allegedly trained with white supremacist groups (though these claims have been disputed) and posted Islamophobic rants on Instagram; in his profile picture, he’s wearing a MAGA hat.

It makes sense to think of the right-wing gun nut as performing at the logical endpoint of the nationalist/imperialist ideology that’s dominated the U.S. since World War II and especially since 9/11. America is the global cop; the most venerated of its servants are the troops; the truest way to embody these ideals in this atomized, individualistic world is to buy a gun and declare oneself a cop, swearing to protect and serve the “Real America.”

In a 2017 survey, the Pew Research Center found that Americans across the mainstream political divide generally support the most frequently suggested gun control proposals, including universal background checks, barring gun purchases by people on terror watch lists, and preventing the mentally ill from purchasing guns. These proposed laws range from cosmetic to discriminatory, given their reliance on repressive, undemocratic organs of the American state like police databases and the FBI no-fly list. Meaningful gun control measures, like bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, poll significantly lower. What’s most interesting, though, is how the policy proposals that Pew asked about would largely leave the status quo intact: most gun owners are white men; most gun deaths are by handgun, not assault rifle; and mental illness generally does not cause gun violence (though mental health background checks might still matter; two-thirds of gun deaths in the U.S. are suicides). Pew didn’t ask about buybacks or handgun bans, policies that have reduced gun violence in countries around the world. And, crucially, they didn’t ask about the police, who shot and killed 987 people last year.

Setting Sights aims to provide an alternative framework for thinking about guns. The authors, writing primarily from an anarchist tradition, reject the liberal consensus on gun control: “that violence is bad, and guns are often used in violence, therefore guns are bad, therefore it would be better if the government was the only entity able to use them (presumably against everyone else?).” Instead, they see guns as a “fact of life” for any social movement, a necessary tool for those who resist power. “Guns are like forks,” quotes the Western Unit Tactical Defense Caucus. “You may not believe in forks, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist and aren’t a useful tool for the revolutionary. Guns, like forks, have a use and a purpose within the revolution. Quite simply put, guns are tools.”

Tools, yes; “like forks,” not so much. Whether arguing, as scott crow does, that “if we want to transcend violence in the long term, we may need to use it in the short term” or asserting “the right of oppressed peoples to protect their interests by any means necessary,” firearms must, by any self-interested social movement, be treated more seriously than forks.

Who is made safer by gun control? Who, if anyone, is made less safe? If guns are tools, then when and how should they be used, and what ends are worth their use? And, ultimately, are guns necessary for the Left to win the future?

Maybe. Setting Sights largely elides the question of full-scale revolution in favor of a discussion of community armed self-defense as a means of protection against both reactionaries and the state. As gun control, for once, lingers in the national discourse, making these assessments of tactics and consequences is perhaps more important than ever.

In 1967, French philosopher Régis Debray published Revolution in the Revolution?, a slim book on the successes of the Cuban revolution that quickly became required reading for would-be guerrillas in the Americas, alongside Che Guevara’s own manual on guerrilla warfare. Debray’s essay advanced foquismo, a combat strategy based on small, hypermobile guerrilla units that attack from secret strongholds without aiming to take or control territory. The guerrilleros would instead remain a clandestine, specialized force, detached from peasant society but, through acts of armed propaganda, demonstrate the ability of the people to resist state power. The text is particularly critical of Trotskyism (“Trotskyism flies in the face of common sense”) and the Trotskyist insistence on organizing the revolution within the peasantry and trade unions. The foco, not the union, is, according to Debray, the vanguard of the working class.

Debray’s theory of the foco was implemented in several countries and contexts; the results were, on balance, not good. Che Guevara was captured and killed in Bolivia in 1967 while recruiting for a guerrilla group. According to George Ciccariello-Maher’s essay in Setting Sights essay, foquismo “proved disastrous” in the Venezuelan guerrilla struggle of the 1960s, as guerrilla groups were unable to establish the political base among the peasant masses that makes warfare sustainable. The split between Students for a Democratic Society and the more radical Weatherman faction was directly inspired by Debray’s book, which became the blueprint for the ill-fated Weather Underground Organization in the U.S. (whose hard-line politics made them one of the most intellectually interesting, but least politically effective, groups to emerge from the American New Left).

Political texts, Debray writes in his 2017 preface to the Verso edition of Revolution in the Revolution?, are “wagers on the future, laid instinctively, in the excitement of a unique, unrepeatable moment, when form is not available to sublimate content, for they are generally bereft of style or captive to a logomachy peculiar to their time.” Upon reflection, according to Debray, the collective wager of foquismo was not won; meaningful political and social changes were “not achieved by armed vanguards, but by the reconstruction of trades unions, implantation in the shanty towns, and the revival of united opposition fronts and specifically political organizations.”

Debray’s honest self-criticism is born from an understanding that armed struggle, in its various forms, is a tool. If a tool is useful, it should be used; if not, it should be dispassionately discarded. This seems to be the logic behind the second section of Setting Sights, titled “Histories of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries”: by analyzing cases of community armed self-defense, we can assess the validity of the authors’ original claim (that guns are a necessary factor for any social movement) and better implement community self-defense practices in the future.

However, the essays, in general, proceed differently; in Setting Sights, the gun, more often than not, ends up justified whether its use was successful or not.

One of the earlier essays, a historical piece by educator Shawn Stevenson, analyzes an armed encounter between the Centralia, Washington branch of the Industrial Workers of the World and a group of Legionnaire vigilantes in 1919. Stevenson is pointedly writing against popular history, in which the 1919 skirmish was a “massacre” or a “tragedy.” He instead sees the incident as a partial victory for the Wobblies, who “took up arms to defend their right to organize, striking a blow against the bosses despite great personal sacrifice.” According to Stevenson, “A message had been sent that the Wobblies would not always submit to beatings and the destruction of their property peacefully, and few would-be vigilantes appear to have been willing to put their lives at risk in face of the example set in Centralia.”

This optimistic reading of the events sits at odds with Stevenson’s own summary of the incident and its aftermath, in which eight Wobblies were convicted of second-degree murder and IWW member Wesley Everest was taken out of jail and lynched by vigilantes. The “message” sent did not halt the “White Terror” that followed the Centralia incident, a citywide scare in which “any working person with an association to the IWW was rounded up by vigilantes, their homes searched without warrant and vandalized.” In fact, internal disputes about militancy in the IWW, according to labor organizer Fred Thompson, proved harmful to the IWW, whose membership fell after a series of dissensions in the early 1920s. These more negative consequences do not change Stevenson’s mind about the efficacy of the IWW’s tactics; taking a “principled stand in the fight for the rights of working people” is suddenly more important to Stevenson than better understanding how to advance those rights.

crow defines community armed self-defense as “the collective group practice of temporarily taking up arms for defensive purposes, as part of larger engagements of self-determination in keeping with a liberatory ethics.” Firearms, in this reading, are not instruments of revolution but instead a tool for carving out, in accordance with anarchist principles, spaces outside the state.

The key historical example of this theory put in practice (at least when working within the American context) is the Black Panther Party, whose Ten-Point Program explicitly called for all African Americans to arm themselves in accordance with their Second Amendment rights.

In “Gun Control Means Being Able to Hit Your Target,” American Indian Movement leadership council member and ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill cites the Panthers as the only community self-defense model that was “effective, replicable, and potentially sustainable.” The Panthers’ community-building efforts in the 1960s were facilitated by the Party’s demonstrated willingness to “physically defend what had been built against those bent on destroying it,” Churchill argues.

The right of oppressed groups to defend themselves, whether against the state (see Michele Rene Weston’s essay, “Ampo Camp and the American Indian Movement: Native Resistance in the U.S. Pacific Northwest”) or against white supremacist vigilantes (see the Mabel Williams interview “Negroes with Guns” and a panel discussion between Williams, Kathleen Cleaver, and Angela Y. Davis, “Self-Respect, Self-Defense, and Self-Determination”) has been reasserted since the Parkland shooting by R.L. Stephens of Democratic Socialists of America (“In my socialism, I believe in the democratic right to bear arms among the people, not to defend against the government but because the government does not in fact protect everyone equally”) and Setting Sights contributor Ciccariello-Maher (“And so, we know that the government has no interest in prosecuting and undermining white supremacist organizations, and that organizations on the ground are going to need to do that themselves”).

This particular argument is sort of outside this reviewer’s purview. If nondiscriminatory gun control, in concert with demilitarization or, ideally, abolition of the police, is possible, the Left should advocate for gun control. At the same time, if oppressed groups organize community self-defense groups to protect themselves, white leftists can have few reasonable complaints. Long-term, the idea that armed groups of anarchists are the best defense against armed white supremacists, as described in J. Clark’s “Three-Way Fight” on post-Katrina confrontations in Algiers Point, New Orleans, feels all too similar to the reactionary (and flawed) idea that only a “good guy with a gun” can stop a bad guy with a gun.

However, the idea that guns are inherently liberatory (in former Black Liberation Army member Ashanti Alston’s words, the “liberation gun” gave the BLA “the power of the people to inject fear into the oppressor and make them do as we command”) appears throughout Setting Sights, often in the form of a warning: “Some radicals might fetishize armed struggle,” warns Wingnut Anarchist Collective member Mo Karnage, especially armed struggle by people of color. “For me, collective liberation is not about fetishizing arms as the only true means toward freedom,” writes crow. In perhaps the deepest essay in the collection, “Notes for a Critical Theory of Community Self-Defense,” philosophy professor Chad Kautzer details the dangers of “machismo and narcissism” in social movements based around the “sovereign subject” as defined by armed self-defense. The sovereign subject, Kautzer writes, actualizes freedom through asserting the individual’s right to self-determination; in doing so, the revolutionist undermines the “conditions of freedom for others.”

As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote in the wake of Parkland, any social movement that aims to deal with gun violence “will inevitably force a deeper engagement with the causes of proliferating guns, violence and the toxic masculinity that often expresses itself in gun violence.” Per Taylor’s analysis, America is a systemically flawed, violent society, bound together by “guns, violence, racism and war.”

If these factors are, as Taylor presents them, bound together like blood and sinew, then gun control should be a left-wing position. The history is certainly more complicated than that. And, if you’re on the fence about the potential for armed self-defense, Setting Sights will certainly give you a lot to think about.

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Out of the Ruins: A Review

By Gregory Zobe
Journal of the Study for Technical Communication
May 2018

Out of the Ruins: The Emergency of Radical Informal Learning Spaces is an edited collection with its guiding concept of Radical Informal Learning offering thirteen chapters, thirteen dofferent approaches, for actively teaching and educating against authoritarian institutions, policies, and practices. Some
chapters are idealistic while others are confrontational; several chapters o er subtle but potentially effective strategies to work against the corporatized and surveilled learning environments where so many of us work and teach.

Four sections nicely divide the book and scaffold effectively. First: critiques of education. Elmore’s “Miseducation and the Authoritarian Mind” is one
of the strongest pieces in the text; it sets the book’s tone. is work will probably be reprinted in multiple future collections—thus, this is the key piece to
take from this collection. Next section: “ theoretical Frameworks for Educational Praxis.” Blending an array of critical pedagogues, anarchists, anti-colonialists, and related revolutionaries, these chapters’ authors o er multiple structures and frameworks to move against abusive power.

e third section is likely most relevant to technical communication readings: using official institutional space for radical learning while not being of the space. Resistance from within the system. Sadly, no chapter was entirely persuasive. In their favor, each chapter represents a practical, hands-on approach to making their theory live and real. As such, their suggestions and insights need not be either effective or persuasive; what matters is that they shared tactics and experiences and allow us to learn from their work. at sharing in community is what is most notable. From that view, this section succeeds.

e last section, “Of the Streets and the Coming Educational Communities,” offers four chapters about ways to engage, teach, and learn outside of the university. is section is most interesting because it blends direct experience, such as working in Anarchist Free schools or developing horizontal pedagogy, with visions of the future. In a sense, they are forecasting or planning a bit, but this planning is not based just on theories—it’s based on work that they are already engaged in.

Anarchism has long attended to education’s importance in social relations and liberation. Sadly, scholarship around these ideas has been limited, often despite the explicit parallels between anarchism and liberatory educators like Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire or John Dewey’s experiential education and learning. Out of the Ruins is a welcome addition. It contributes both in terms of scholarly work as well as helping share practical and theoretical pieces for those interested in challenging extremist authoritarianism.

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To Spite the Face: A Review of Insurgent Supremacists


By Rhyd Wildermuth
Gods & Radicals
May 18th, 2018

Anti-fascism in the United States has two deep problems, neither of which can easily be unraveled. The first problem, which is the foundation of the second, is that it cannot accurately identify precisely who or what a fascist actually is.

This first problem can best be shown from a rather amusing conversation I recently encountered regarding myself and Gods&Radicals Press (where I am the managing editor). It turns out, according to some deeply wise Twitter commentators, that I’m a fascist, or possibly a proto-fascist, or an anarcho-nationalist with white-nationalist leanings.

Their evidence? A recent essay regarding the commons, an essay critiquing racial and gender essentialism, and an anti-imperialist essay.

While it’s tempting to dismiss such a conversation and laugh about the general absurdity of American social media “call outs,” their error points to something much more endemic than mere ignorance or poor reading skills. The essays selectively cited do indeed contain some ideas that could be mistaken as fascist, but not because the ideas themselves are fascist. For instance: the essay on reclaiming the commons from an anti-colonial perspective mentions the word “land” a lot. Some fascists also wish to reclaim land. Likewise, the essay against imperialism shares with some fascist tendencies a disgust for the occupation of peoples by the military. And my critique of social justice essentialism criticizes non-Marxist “feminist” reduction of men to their bodies and genitals.

That is, what the commentators were looking for were signs of fascist ideology, ticking off boxes on a checklist of fascist traits. But unfortunately, opposition to fascism is not as easy as completing a Buzzfeed quiz or reading an Everyday Feminism listicle.

In this error they are hardly alone. American antifascist organizing has faced a much larger difficulty identifying precisely who’s a fascist, or even whether any particular idea is indicative of fascist ideology. This problem leads to all sorts of practical problems, particularly when it comes to organizing against groups and theorists on the far-right who don’t fit into traditional stereotypes of fascism.

Two examples should suffice to show the problem here. First of all, Jack Donovan and the group to which he belongs, The Wolves of Vinland, cannot easily be classified as fascist according to popularly-accepted metrics. Donovan is specifically anti-imperialist, criticizes capitalism and anti-globalisation, rejects racism, and is homosexual. In addition, The Wolves of Vinland might be better described as a Pagan body-cult than a “Fascist counter-cultural tribe” , particularly because they not only do they not participate in demonstrations and have rejected alliances with alt-right groups, but have absolutely no interest in seizing political power or taking control of the state. So any litmus strip we might apply to either Donovan or the Wolves of Vinland in order to determine whether they are fascist will come back completely clean.

Likewise, fascists are at least according to popular understanding supposed to be anti-Black, anti-gay, and most definitely anti-Semitic. So that makes encountering the occasionally violent ideas of Milo Yiannopolous quite difficult: he is homosexual, has a Black man as a lover, and also happens to be Jewish. That is, he isn’t anti-Black, nor anti-gay, nor precisely anti-semitic, yet we still generally see his ideas as fascist.

This nebulous nature of Fascism also means that many leftists find themselves considered fascist because of their adherence to ideas which appear (at least at first glance) to be of fascist provenance. For instance, the anarchist publisher Little Black Cart and its publications have been repeatedly identified as fascist by other anarchists because of their anti-civilizationist and eco-extremist tendencies, both of which appear (under a glance no more attentive than what is needed for a Teen Vogue article) to be identical to some white-nationalist positions.

Similarly, those who use the works of clearly leftist philosophers such as Max Stirner or even Slavoj Zizek are often painted with a fascist brush because of the similarities between both philosophers’ rejection of Liberal Democratic capitalism and the European Nouvelle Droit’s rejections of the same regime.

This inability to distinguish between right-wing (and fascist) critiques of Liberal Democracy leads to the second and more intractable problem within American Anti-fascism. That problem? By mis-identifying Marxist and other far-left opposition to Liberal Democracy as fascist, antifascists end up siding with Capitalist interests and becoming defenders of Liberal Democracy. That is, in an attempt to fight off white supremacists and other far right challenges to the state, antifascists can enable the state to continue its oppression against the very people antifascists claim to defend.

The Revolutionary Right

Thus Matthew N Lyons’ forthcoming book, Insurgent Supremacists: The US Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire, is a deeply needed work.

In the title itself, Lyons begins to unravel inherited, popular misconceptions about the entire political constellation in which we (often clumsily) attempt to locate fascism. Generally (at least within liberal and “progressive” anti-fascist currents), the far right is not considered a threat to Empire, but to be the political foundation of Empire itself. But while to speak of an anti-imperialist far-right seems oxymoronic, Lyons provides an almost overwhelming onslaught of detail as to how much of the Far Right is predicated on a critique of and opposition to liberal democratic imperialism.

Opposition to global capitalism and the international governance organizations which protect it, fierce criticism (sometimes backed by weapons) of oppressive policing and surveillance apparatuses, and moral reprehension at imperialist US foreign policy in the Middle East have all been parts of many movements within the Far Right in the United States. For instance, consider the following words:

When a U.S. plane or cruise missile is used to bring destruction to a foreign people, this nation rewards the bombers with applause and praise. What a convenient way to absolve these killers of any responsibility for the destruction they leave in their wake.

Unfortunately, the morality of killing is not so superficial. The truth is, the use of a truck, a plane or a missile for the delivery of a weapon of mass destruction does not alter the nature of the act itself.

These are weapons of mass destruction — and the method of delivery matters little to those on the receiving end of such weapons.

Whether you wish to admit it or not, when you approve, morally, of the bombing of foreign targets by the U.S. military, you are approving of acts morally equivalent to the bombing in Oklahoma City …

These words by Timothy McVeigh (the far-right bomber of a federal building In Oklahoma City that killed 168 people, many of them children) might just as easily have been written by indigenous resistance leaders, the Black Panthers, or other leftist revolutionary groups in the United States. Or as I note in an essay about him,  many of Jack Donovan’s critiques of the police state and of liberal democracy could just as easily have been written by those same groups.

Unlike those leftist revolutionary groups and also unlike Jack Donovan, Timothy McVeigh was a white nationalist, expressing fondness for the white supremacist book The Turner Diaries, as well as selling copies of it at gun shows. And so there is where someone like McVeigh fits into our preconceived notions of what makes a fascist…except as Lyons points out in his book, white supremacist ideas are not a clear indicator of fascism, either.

That difficulty of pinning down precisely what makes someone on the far right a fascist might otherwise plague such a book as his, but Lyons wisely dispenses with the question altogether until the very end (a previously-published essay included as appendix). Rather than attempt to build a catalogue of fascist ideologies and movements in the United States, he instead details all the Far Right movements which intersect with this slippery category.

The first part of Insurgent Supremacists provide a detailed sketch of five ideological movements (Neo-Nazis, Christian Dominionists/Theocrats, The Alt-Right, the Patriot movements, and the LaRouche Network), and at least for the first four groups, readers with only a surface understanding of Right-wing ideology may find themselves surprised to learn how thoroughly different each ideology is from the others. While crossovers absolutely exist, many of the adherents of each group would be just as likely to vehemently oppose the other groups as to claim them as fellow travelers.

In the second section, Lyons then looks at each group again through the lens of their views on gender & sexuality, decentralization, and anti-imperialism, and here again the average anti-fascist may find their original analysis uncomfortably complicated by what Lyons details. Particularly of interest are the problems of anti-imperialism and decentralization (anti-federalist– or in some cases even anti-government–positions ), both of which are critiques autonomous Marxists and anarchists share with many on the far right (albeit for different reasons).

The third section, however, is the most useful and unfortunately the most short. In it, Lyons discusses the complicated relationship that police and the FBI have had with far right groups, as well as the influence the Liberal political structures (especially the Democratic Party) has had on creating the conditions for the rise of these groups as well as increasing police oppression of society at large in the name of fighting them. Returning to McVeigh’s bombing, Lyons points out:

The Clinton administration also used the Oklahoma City bombing to help win passage of the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which loosened restrictions on the wiretapping and other surveillance of alleged “terrorists,” expanded the use of secret evidence to deport non- citizens (which means that the defendants have no opportunity to see the evidence being used against them), and, in the words of legal journalist Lincoln Caplan, “gutted the federal writ of habeas corpus, which a federal court can use to order the release of someone wrongly imprisoned.” The law made the death penalty more “effective” by making it much more difficult for death row inmates to appeal their sentences, even though a notoriously high proportion of death sentences have been shown to have serious flaws.” (174)

Antifascist Alliances with the Capitalist State

In fact, it’s Lyons’ consistent (but understated) criticism of liberal politics throughout his discussion of the Far Right that makes Insurgent Supremacists most useful. Lyons runs directly counter to most popular antifascist thought by insisting that the Far Right is not made up of idiots without political sensibilities or actual grievances. People like McVeigh were absolutely right to be incensed about the government’s slaughter of innocents in Waco or at Ruby Ridge, just as many of those who supported Trump in the recent election had absolutely legitimate grievances against the Democratic Party’s destructive hyper-capitalist economic policies and imperialist expansionary foreign policy positions.

Of course, such a position runs counter not only to the received wisdom of many antifascists, but stands directly in opposition to Liberal dismissals of the Right as merely ignorant or hateful.   Accepting this Liberal position is how antifascists have gotten to the place they’re in now, finding themselves continuously pulled toward the Democratic Party’s “centrist” positions and thus unable to distinguish a leftist from a fascist.

This is not merely an unfortunate problem of mis-identification, however. As in the case of McVeigh, Lyons points out that antifascism and opposition to far right ideologies have historically sometimes served to increase State violence and power.

Many people think of growing state repression as a trend toward fascism. But these events of the 1930s and ’40s highlight the fact that antifascism can itself serve as a rationale for increasing repression, as Don Hamerquist has pointed out: “when did this country outlaw strikes, ban seditious organizing and speech, intern substantial populations in concentration camps, and develop a totalitarian mobilization of economic, social, and cultural resources for military goals? Obviously it was during WWII, the period of the official capitalist mobilization against fascism, barbarism and for ‘civilization.’” (166)

The particular difficulty here, which Lyons touches on occasionally, is that the political interests of Capital are able to manipulate opposition to far right ideologies, particularly through the Democratic Party. And here many looking for easier answers will likely either dismiss or take offense at his discussion about whether or not Trump (or the US government in general) is fascist or in “process” of becoming fascist.

Each of these claims that the U.S. government or public officials are driving us toward fascism represents a misuse of the term, one that blurs the line between fascism and the more repressive, racist, and militaristic sides of the United States’ liberal- pluralist political system (181)

In particular, Lyons critiques the dogmatic approach to Trump of Alexander Reid Ross (an antifascist writer I’ve criticized before for mis-identifying leftist opposition to capitalism as fascist or fascist-adjacent):

Radical journalist Alexander Reid Ross argued that we should look at fascism “as a ‘process’ rather than an ‘outcome’,” and that “Trumpism” was “part of a process of ‘fascist creep,’ meaning a radicalization of conservative ideology that increasingly includes fascist membership while deploying fascist ideology, strategy, and tactics.” This approach rightly emphasized that many political initiatives occupy a gray area between fascist and conservative politics and that the political character of such initiatives can change over time. But Ross simply assumed that Trump’s campaign—unlike previous right- wing populist candidates such as George Wallace and Pat Buchanan—had an inherent tendency to move toward fascism and would not be co- opted by the established political system. (197)

But then, if Trump isn’t fascist and if many of the implementations of oppressive (and often explicitly racist) policies and powers of the United States isn’t fascist either, than what exactly is fascism? In an appendix of the book, Lyons discusses the difficulty of defining fascism and looks at others’ attempts to do so before coming up with a definition that will satisfy very few:

Fascism is a revolutionary form of right- wing populism, inspired by a totalitarian vision of collective rebirth, that challenges capitalist political and cultural power while promoting economic and social hierarchy.

This definition will be unsatisfactory to most because of what it doesn’t explicitly include (white supremacy, misogyny) as well as what it does include (a challenge to capitalist political and cultural power).  With such a definition we are forced to question almost everything we think we know about fascism’s traits, and find none of our checklists or listicles make sense anymore.

That’s a good thing, but with a caveat. Because the culture of constant reaction within America, especially via the reductionist forms of internet “discourse,” makes it very likely that capitalists and the government which serves their interest will continue to summon antifascists to their defense. While the challenge fascism presents to capitalist power is not our challenge, we must avoid making façile concessions to the Liberal Democratic state out of fear that the fascists might win. As Lyons points out in the case of the House UnAmerican Activities Committe during the middle of the last century (which was originally set up to prosecute fascists!), supporting (or even celebrating) government repression of the far right always empowers the state to then turn its weapons on the left.

Antifascists can and must oppose both the capitalist liberal democratic state as well as fascists, and must do so always at the same time. To make alliances with the state against the Far Right which threatens it will also lead the left to abandon their own challenge to the state, cutting off our nose to spite the face.

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A Most Violent Year: A Review of The Global Imagination of 1968

The world that 1968 ushered in is a far cry from the one activists imagined.

By Alan Wolf
New Republic
May 18th, 2018

It was neither the best nor the worst of times. But in contrast to the relative placidity of the 1950s, the events of 1968 opened up previously unimaginable vistas to people all across the globe. “We knew about the Paris commune,” the surrealist artist Jean-Jacques Lebel tells Mitchell Abidor in May Made Me, a new collection of oral histories of that year. “This was going to happen again” in May 1968, he had felt. “So you could have the near orgasmic joy of taking part in something much greater than yourself.” The protests began with calls for an end to same-sex dormitories at French universities and quickly developed into a general strike involving some 10 million workers from every segment of French society. By the end of that year, students and, to a lesser degree, workers in nearly every part of the world would rise up.

The spirit of 1968 was not merely political. Simultaneously individualist and collectivist, as well as both sober and psychedelic, it was cultural, economic, sexual, hedonistic, spiritual, and transcendental. In a few of its more crucial aspects, it was a wild success. Two 68ers—Jack Straw in Britain and Joschka Fischer in Germany—became foreign secretaries of their countries. The women’s movement, galvanized in large part by the unrelenting male chauvinism of 1968’s leaders, intervened in history, as did movements for racial and ethnic equality. Protests against the war in Vietnam played a role, however indirectly, in ending it. Soviet-style communism did, eventually, topple. Universities were transformed, as was, for a brief moment in time, the Catholic Church. Conscription ended. Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix changed music.

But a powerful reaction began as early as the first protests in Paris. After fleeing to a military base, Charles de Gaulle announced new elections, and when they took place on June 23, 1968, his party gained even more seats. Not only did May 1968 fail to survive the summer of its birth, but France is now led by a man born nine years after the shock and awe of 1968 came to an end. If you utter “insurrection” in Paris today, you will likely conjure up images of the right-wing nationalist Marine Le Pen.

In the 50 years since 1968, many prominent radical figures of the time have turned to the right. David Horowitz, the Trump-supporting right-wing propagandist, had been the American New Left’s major theorist in the 1960s. His conversion pales in comparison to that of Benny Lévy, Jean-Paul Sartre’s last personal secretary and a self-professed Maoist, who became a passionate Zionist and died an Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem. Others did not turn right wing per se but did become supporters of a more militaristic turn in foreign policy in the name of humanitarian interventionism, none better known than Bernard Kouchner, the co-founder of Doctors Without Borders.

1968 may have ushered in a new world, but it is a far cry from the one the activists of those years imagined then. Donald Trump is the American president, neo-Nazis are gaining in Germany, Britain is turning its back on Europe, and recently liberated Communist countries compete over how far to the right they can turn. It can be no surprise that the half-century anniversary of 1968 is producing so many books aiming to make sense of it. What was it all about, this sudden outburst of activity? What were its consequences, and could it happen again? Or did it, in the end, signify very little? Both the academic I am now and the radical I was then want to know.

Revolutions, like suicides, are contagious. George Katsiaficas, the author of The Global Imagination of 1968, is, to modify a term from the German poet and essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger, a tourist of many revolutions; his book comes endorsed by a parade of sometime-notorious activists including former Black Panther Bobby Seale; Ward Churchill, who once called the victims of September 11 “little Eichmanns”; and Shaka Zulu of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party and Jersey State Prison. Katsiaficas is worth reading partly for nostalgic reasons: If you have forgotten the existence of Lotta Continua in Italy or of the Brown Berets in California, he will remind you of their actions.

Taking a global perspective on the events of 1968, Katsiaficas has made a somewhat obsessive accounting of all the student demonstrations between April and June of 1968: West Germany saw 63; Japan, 9; France, 1,205. This data, culled from Le Monde, is fascinating; every region of the world witnessed youth revolts of assorted varieties. Richard Vinen, a historian at King’s College London, in 1968: Radical Protest and Its Enemies, cites a diplomat who suggests that Western Australia was the only place unaffected by the times. There are occasions when tourists of the revolution can play a healthy role, and this is one of them: As in 1848, when unrest in Sicily quickly spread to every part of Europe, there really did seem to be a spirit of 1968 that included not just Western Europe and North America but Eastern Europe and the Third World.

In retrospect, the most important of 1968 rebellions was not the Parisian one but the Prague one. Before Václav Havel became a household name, at least in intellectual households, Alexander Dubček and his conception of “socialism with a human face” became one of the most powerful sources of resistance to the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Proceeding very carefully, ever aware of the Soviet tanks facing in his direction, Dubček introduced reforms designed to encourage greater freedom of expression and a more flexible approach to industrial production. Although the Czech reformers bent over backward to accommodate Russian anxieties, the Soviets invaded in August 1968, bringing the dream of a more humanistic form of socialism to an end. The rebellion and its repression made clear that 1968 was not only a protest against capitalism and its appetites but against Soviet-style communism as well.
The very term “New Left” was designed to drive home that young radicals wanted little to do with the days of fellow traveling and united fronts. That might not have been as important in the United States, where Communists have had so little influence, as it was in France, where the French Communist Party (PCF) was not only large and powerful but took upon itself the role of judging whether a movement was properly revolutionary, concluding that all of them outside its own control were not. In Abidor’s oral histories, the filmmaker Michel Andrieu recalls an event on May 13 when he and his friends were confronted by henchmen from the Communist-dominated union the Confédération Générale du Travail, who threw them out of the demonstrations and tried to take their cameras. Another filmmaker, Pascal Aubier, was lectured by Georges Marchais, soon to be the leader of the French Communists, about how his movement was going to end badly.

In August 1968, Warsaw Pact tanks invaded Czechoslovakia, putting an end to Alexander Dubček’s reforms. Josef Koudelka/Magnum

The epicenter of early phases of the student revolt, the Paris suburb of Nanterre, was in fact governed at the time by the PCF, making a clash between the old and the new left inevitable. The PCF now launched at leftist students the kind of invective they once might have directed against capitalists. “These pseudo-revolutionaries who claim to give the working class movement lessons ... must be unmasked vigorously,” Marchais pronounced, “because, objectively, they serve the interests of the Gaullist power and the big capitalist monopolies.... The theses and activities of these revolutionaries might make one laugh.” In Eastern Europe, the students attacked the Communists. In Western Europe, the Communists attacked the students.

Marchais, nonetheless, was onto something when he said that the student rebels were serving the interests of Gaullism. Unlike the United States, France, as the sociologist Michel Crozier once pointed out, was a “blocked society.” Because French institutions were overly bureaucratic and resistant to change, the young and ambitious had little choice but to attack the whole system if they hoped to rise within any part of it. For this reason, May 1968 attracted not only protesters but potential power brokers who, once the 1968 struggles were over, would find successful leaders such as de Gaulle attractive. Régis Debray was in Latin America in May 1968, but despite his support for the Cuban Revolution, he later expressed admiration for de Gaulle, as did soixante-huitards Serge July and Alain Geismar. This all makes a certain amount of sense to Vinen, who notes that like the student radicals, de Gaulle “regarded the consumer society with disdain”:

He had opposed Israel during the 1967 war. He had opened diplomatic relations with China in 1964. He had withdrawn France from NATO’s joint command structures in 1966, and, most importantly, he had opposed American intervention in Vietnam.

When activists and would-be revolutionaries have more in common with the conservative establishment than with Communists, we know we are in strange territory.

In style, 68ers tended to be charismatic. One of the activists most responsible for the demonstrations in Nanterre was Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Central casting could not have provided a better version of a student radical: half German and half French, Jewish, and with red hair, “Danny the Red,” who later became a Green Party politician in Germany and a key member of the European Parliament, was especially hated by Marchais and the Communists (and he returned the favor). Another of the activists who talked to Abidor, Jean-Pierre Fournier, found Cohn-Bendit refreshing, contrasting him with the more “usual” activists such as Geismar and Jacques Sauvageot, who at the time was a leader of the Union of French Students. “He avoids coded, hidebound language,” Fournier recalled. “He spoke just like us.” He distinctly remembered Cohn-Bendit confronting Louis Aragon, the Communist poet, and calling him a “Stalinist lowlife.”

The tone of radical politics in West Germany was far more sober than in France. The recent memory of Nazism, defeated there little more than 20 years previously, provided an opportunity for conservatives to denounce the radical left as little different from Hitler and his henchmen: Even the liberal and humane philosopher Jürgen Habermas worried about the direction 1968 would take. The man who came to symbolize the German events of that year, Rudi Dutschke, as if to bury the shadow of Nazism once and for all, stood in sharp contrast to the flamboyance of Cohn-Bendit. Dutschke had little appreciation for the surreal and the absurd sides of leftist politics, and his influence stemmed from his modesty and inclusiveness. He was also shaped by the devout Lutheranism of his parents, was married to an American, and was scholarly in his interests and demeanor.

Shot during the 1968 events, Dutschke never fully recovered and died in Aarhus, Denmark in 1979. Ultimately, Dutschke’s major contribution was a phrase, “the long march through the institutions,” which provided a sense of meaning to 1968 activists in the quiet years that followed. The German Dutschke understood better than the French radicals Crozier’s idea of a blocked society, and he hoped to instill in the student left a sense of the seriousness of its actions. Instead of aiming to transform all of society, it was now the goal to transform work, the church, the university, and the family. These were no doubt huge ambitions in themselves, but they were nonetheless tethered to the real world.

Instead of aiming to transform all of society, it was now the goal to transform work, the church, the university, and the family.

In this, the 68ers did achieve a certain success: All major institutions have opened themselves up to change and become more meritocratic compared with how they operated before 1968. Whether this was a result of the student movement, or the demise of inherited privilege, the rise of affirmative action, or the reaction against affirmative action, or the spread of the internet, is still unanswered. But the more responsible of the 1968 protesters made it clear that they were in it for the long term. That may help explain the interest in those events half a century later. You never know when and where a former 68er might just pop up.

Some were less patient. West Germany, like the United States, soon became the home of left-wing terrorists: Here, they were called the Weathermen; there, the Baader-Meinhof gang. (There had been some direct connections between New Leftists in the two countries: Vinen tells the story of Michael Vester, a young German who played an important role in drafting the Port Huron Statement in America.) In sharp contrast to the 68ers like Fischer who became active in the Green Party, Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin were charged with setting fire to a department store in Frankfurt and tried in October 1968. Their legacy, the Red Army Faction, as their gang came to be called, was, in Vinen’s accounting, responsible for roughly 34 deaths.
Germany competed with Italy for the most deaths produced by 1968, whether measured in police violence against the protesters or by the actions of left-wing terrorists themselves. Italy won hands down: By Vinen’s accounting, 419 people died there between 1969 and 1987 as a result of left-wing terrorism. In either case, violence could not perpetuate itself indefinitely: The Red Army Faction committed its last violent act in 1993. Germany, a society responsible for so much violence in its recent past, was the last place to tolerate still more violence.

Protest and violence marked 1968 in America, too. That year, both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, permanently changing the direction in which the country was headed. It was also the year of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam; the publication of the Kerner Commission report on urban violence; the sentencing of four of the Boston Five, including Dr. Benjamin Spock, for aiding draft resistance; major protests at Columbia University; the My Lai massacre; the Catonsville Nine burning of draft records; the premieres of the films Wild in the Streets and Night of the Living Dead; feminist protests against the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City; the “shot heard round the world” photo of a Vietnamese prisoner’s execution; the Mexican Olympics and the protests of Tommie Smith and John Carlos; the shooting of Andy Warhol by Valerie Solanas; the release of the USS Pueblo crew by North Korea; and the arrest of Timothy Leary in California on drug charges.

The events of that year proved to be far too big for Lyndon Johnson. LBJ’s 1968 by Kyle Longley, a history professor at Arizona State University, focuses on a number of crucial decisions Johnson made in 1968—just about all of which were disastrous. His refusal to bend over Vietnam represented little more than the victory of hope over experience; he heard what he wanted to hear and ignored the reality of the war America was losing. Moreover, Johnson knew that the 1968 Republican candidate Richard Nixon was working with Henry Kissinger to undermine peace talks with the Vietnamese, thereby helping Nixon’s own campaign in an action bordering on treason. Afraid that he would be viewed as trying to help Hubert Humphrey, Johnson refused to make Nixon’s efforts public, even when the press got wind of what was going on. For a man so adept in the ways of power, LBJ experienced 1968 as a long year of impotence.

For a man so adept in the ways of power, Lyndon Johnson experienced 1968 as a long year of impotence.

Prague offers one more example of Johnson’s fecklessness. Determined not to undermine plans for a summit with Soviet leaders, Johnson chose not to contest the claims made by Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, that the Russians, in invading Prague, were simply trying to protect the Czechs from their own folly. This was, as LBJ’s adviser Clark Clifford put it, “a shattering moment, not only for Lyndon Johnson and his dreams, but for the nation and the world. History was taking a turn in the wrong direction that day, and there was nothing that anyone could do about it.” As brilliant as his political instincts were in the domestic realm, Johnson simply did not have the judgment to deal effectively with the global challenges that 1968 posed to America. Johnson not only botched both the war and the peace; he helped squash Hubert Humphrey’s attempt to replace him.

Compared to Hanoi and Prague, the Miss America contest that took place in Atlantic City in September 1968 may seem like small potatoes. In retrospect, it was an event of major significance. Reading all of these books on 1968, it is astonishing to recall that all the major decision-makers in the United States were men, with the noteworthy exception of Anna Chennault of the “China Lobby,” who helped further Richard Nixon’s duplicity by pleading with South Vietnamese leader Nguyen Van Thieu to resist signing any peace deal. The most vivid example is provided by the 14 so-called “wise men” who in March 1968 urged LBJ to begin to disengage from Vietnam; they were all male, white, and with two exceptions (Abe Fortas, a Jew, and Robert Murphy, a Catholic), Protestant. It is little wonder that feminist activists chose to protest against what they called the “degrading, mindless-boob-girlie symbol” represented by the pageant.

As if trying to mimic the ruling class they were seeking to oust, the New Left movements of 1968 were also dominated by men, many of them with the most reactionary attitudes toward women one can imagine. In 1964, Stokely Carmichael, then a field organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, declared that “the only position for women in SNCC” was “prone.” In the early days of organizations like Students for a Democratic Society, too, women’s voices were rarely heard, and the issue of gender equality garnered little attention. Among young radical men, free sex and drugs fueled fatal posturings of machismo and an atmosphere in which women were expected to reward courageous draft resisters with their bodies. It would not be long before those women formed, partly from these experiences, a radical critique of power relations between the sexes.

Richard Nixon at a campaign rally at Madison Square Garden, five days before the 1968 election Santi VisalliI/Getty

As if the events of 1968 were taking place in a totally different world, that year saw in the United States the election of Richard Nixon. Lawrence O’Donnell published a history of the 1968 campaign last year, and this year has produced, so far, at least half a dozen more treatments. For the most part, they cover the same stories, relating how Allard Lowenstein, an activist and aspiring politician, searched for a protest candidate to challenge Johnson and eventually persuaded the otherwise ambivalent Eugene McCarthy to run, and how after McCarthy’s surprising performance in New Hampshire, Robert Kennedy jumped in. Johnson surprised everyone by withdrawing from the race (although he made clear that he would accept a draft); Hubert Humphrey experienced repeated humiliation from LBJ before, at the very last minute, finding his voice; Ronald Reagan made his first run for national office; George Wallace and his independent candidacy displayed a bit of Trumpism before Trump; and Nixon chose, of all potential leaders, Spiro Agnew to be his running mate.

Charles Kaiser’s 1968 in America—published 30 years ago and now reprinted for the 50th anniversary—magically conveys the spirit of the times, blending his treatment of the election that gave us Nixon with the culture that gave us Grace Slick, Jim Morrison, and Marvin Gaye. Kaiser’s chapter on rock and roll is, in fact, the best in the book. He identifies as the “one man” who “did more than anyone else to break down the barriers that had traditionally kept American musicians apart” in the years before 1968 John Henry Hammond Jr. Born to wealth—his mother was a Vanderbilt—Hammond possessed an astonishing ability to discover talent and, more importantly, to cross racial lines in bringing that talent together. Without him, Billie Holiday, Sonny Terry, and Aretha Franklin, among many others, might still be unknown to white audiences.

Kaiser downplays, wrongly I believe, just how much white musicians essentially stole from black artists. But he rightly understands how much the tumult of the times shook all previous alignments, including racial ones. “Through television,” Kaiser concludes, “the Vietnam generation participated in a terrible tide of death and destruction as the political center repeatedly failed to hold during the balance of the years. But in their worst moments, the children of the sixties took solace from the music that kept rolling out of the radio.”

So what shall we make of this year of discontent? Richard Vinen concludes his book, easily the very best of the newly published ones being considered here, with this observation: few 68ers became hippies on communes, terrorists, government ministers or multimillionaires but the majority had unspectacular careers that often involved a degree of self-sacrifice.” I think he gets the balance precisely correct: 1968 without question changed lives, but it is an open question how much it changed societies—and in what direction.

1968 certainly changed me. Graduating college in 1963, the closest I had come to politics was a brief fascination, common among young male idealists at the time, with the novels of Ayn Rand. Having outgrown her simplemindedness but unsure what to believe next, I traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, to enter graduate school at Vanderbilt, a sure way, I correctly believed, to escape the draft. What came next quickly became obvious. Overt, explicit, state-enforced racial segregation, which I encountered in Nashville’s streets in the year before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, was so blatantly unjust that not protesting against it became unthinkable.

Arrested, jailed, and tried (fortunately the case was eventually dismissed), I encountered among fellow protesters, many of them students at either Fisk or Tennessee A. & I. (now Tennessee State), a sense of moral urgency, a compelling love of gospel music, and a commitment to lives of purpose that put me and my white, middle-class typicality to shame. When my arrest made the hometown newspapers in my native Philadelphia, my mother flew down to Nashville to make sure I was OK. I took her to hear Martin Luther King Jr. preach in a black church, and she never stopped talking about it afterward.

It was said at the time that the personal was political, but for me that phrase took on special meaning. I left Vanderbilt before one year was up when my wife, Brenda, who had had a persistent cough that turned out to be a deadly form of cancer, died soon after our marriage. Just over three years later, my sister Bonnie was taken ill, and she too passed away, this time from an inflamed colon. A few weeks after that, Martin Luther King was shot, then, in just two months more, so was Robert Kennedy. I had already been involved in left-wing politics, but the deaths that took place that year transformed my indignation over racial discrimination in the South and cruelty in Vietnam into powerful and frequently destructive anger: There I was in the streets, cheering slogans, risking arrest, inhaling tear gas, occupying buildings, flirting with Marxist theories, giving advice to students, rejecting King’s nonviolence, and experimenting with sex and drugs. For me, 1968 was a time of both liberation and despair. I literally did not know which end was up.

For me, 1968 was a time of both liberation and despair. I literally did not know which end was up.

I was all of 26 years old in 1968. I had never been outside the United States, never lived in anything but a middle-class environment, and, save for one week, never worked in a nine-to-five job. But here I was telling people how to make the world a better place. I shudder now, 50 years on, to recall the know-it-all I was then. But 1968 was capable of doing that sort of thing. Thirty, Jerry Rubin had announced, was the cut-off point, and I still had four years to go. Because the whole world was going up in flames, we knew we must have been doing something right.

In subsequent years, 1968 brought about more than its share of recriminations. A number of writers and intellectuals, some of whom were my building-occupying comrades, expressed “second thoughts” about the radicalism of their youth. My mind does not work that way. To be sure, when I think back to 1968, I shudder at my immaturity, selfishness, and lack of responsibility: The events of that year were changing people, and I was in desperate need of change. Yet all the mistakes I made back then leave me with little or no sense of shame: Dostoyevskian reflections are not my cup of tea. Not even the horror of the Trump years can make me forget all the lies told by Lyndon Baines Johnson to justify the deaths his political cowardice caused in Vietnam.

Once you had seen someone like Spiro Agnew elevated to the vice presidency there seemed no bottom to how low American politics could sink. To be sure, Sarah Palin came close, but she never actually held national office. In 1968, the politics of race had not yet turned in a nationalistic direction, and identity politics was just in the process of formation. Was I wrong to have been swept up in the more exotic manifestations of that year? Knowing how young I was then and how much tragedy I had experienced, I do not think so. I was an idealist at an idealistic moment. That is not a bad place to begin the process of maturing.

Since 1968, America has gone off in a different direction than I had hoped: Reagan, Nixon, and Trump are not the kind of leaders we had in mind back then. In 1968, I would have settled for nothing less than socialism. Twenty-five years after that, something like a European welfare state would have made me happy. Today, just having a reliable subway system appears utopian. The French Revolution, however violent, uprooted the monarchy. The Russian Revolution, however perverse, produced an experiment, albeit a failed one, in economic planning. 1968 not only failed to achieve most of its goals, it set politics off in the wrong direction.

Yet the story does not end there. It pleases me beyond measure that young people today are leading so much of the opposition to Trump, the reactionary right, and the NRA. Let them have much of what I had in those glorious but also frightening years: burning conviction, solidarity, euphoria. Only this time, let them win.

Alan Wolfe lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is a longtime contributor to The New Republic. He is the author of Does American Democracy Still Work? and One Nation, After All.

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Demanding the Impossible in Perspectives on Terrorism

By Joshua Sinai
Perspectives on Terrorism
Volume 12, Issue 2
April 2018

This is a comprehensive and massive collection of primary documents from leading anarchist theoreticians since the movement’s origins in the 1890s, although some historical predecessors are also included. In the introduction, the volume’s editor de nes an anarchist “as one who rejects all forms of external government and the State and believes that society and individuals would function well without them” (p. xiii). Regarding the involvement of anarchists in terrorism, the editor points out that “only a tiny minority of anarchists have practiced terror as a revolutionary strategy, and then chie y in the 1890s when there was a spate of spectacular bombings and political assassinations during a period of complete despair” (p. ix). Following the editor’s introductory overview, the volume is divided into seven parts. Part O, “Anarchism in eory”; Part II, “Forerunners of Anarchism”; Part III, “Great Libertarians”; Part IV, “Classic Anarchist inkers” (such as William Godwin, Max Stirner, Joseph Proudhon, Michael Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, Leo Tolstoy, Emma Goldman); Part V, “Anarchism in Action” (in countries such as France, Italy, Spain, Russia, Europe, the United States and Latin America); Part VI, “Modern Anarchism” (including the New Le , the New Right, and modern anarchists); and Part VII, “ e Legacy of Anarchism.” e Epilogue takes the form of a literature review that assesses new developments in anarchist thought and activities. e author concludes that one of anarchism’s main contributions is its utopianism “in that it imagines the world as it could be. But it is also realistic in that it conserves and develops ancient traditions of self-help and mutual aid and profound libertarian tendencies within society” (p. 705).

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Pictures of a Gone City paints a vivid, learned portrait of the Bay Area

By Martin Nicolaus
May 16th, 2018

When I first moved to the Bay Area decades ago, someone steered me to Malcolm Margolin’s The Ohlone Way. I became enraptured by this classic study of what the Bay Area looked and felt like before the European occupation. In the intervening years, I’ve tried to keep my eyes and ears open to current realities. But I have to admit that I’ve not been able to form as comprehensive and vivid an image of my adopted home region today as Margolin conjured up about the original inhabitants.

That is, until I read Richard Walker’s new book, Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The “Gone City” in the title comes from a 1951 poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “Pictures of a Gone World.” It’s a bit misleading, in that neither Ferlinghetti nor Walker are mourning the loss of a real or imagined better world in the past. What’s “gone” after reading the works — and this applies both to the poem and the treatise — is the illusion of untarnished beauty and glimmering perfection in the present.

Walker doesn’t stint in painting the positives. His is a broad canvas, covering the 12-county greater Bay Area and sometimes much further beyond, as befits a region with dense national and international connections.

These bright lights sharpen the contrast with the dark side. There is plenty of it, starting with wealth inequality. The top 1% has become vastly more wealthy. The top half of 1% takes home more than 20% of of state income, a ratio that is markedly more skewed than in the rest of the country. The Bay Area has more high net worth individuals and more billionaires per capita than any other city, including New York.

At the center of the picture is Tech World — the industry that employs only about one tenth of the region’s working population but touches billions of lives every day. One sixth of all patents issued in the US originate in the Bay Area, twice as many as New York. In terms of its Gross Domestic Product, the Bay Area alone would rank among the top 20 countries in the world. It has been the primary growth engine for the state of California, which itself is the fifth-largest economy in the world, greater than France and Brazil. Of all US regions, the Bay Area has made the fastest recovery from the Great Recession of 2008. Walker marshals a broad range of indicators to underline the stellar achievements of the Bay Area economy, led by tech. In his words, it is “capitalism’s shining star today.”

The top fifth of wage earners are also doing well, although not in the same league as the upper handful. They earn about five times as much as unskilled workers, a much higher ratio than nationwide. They are almost entirely white, with a few Asians, fewer women, and almost no African Americans. But their numbers are shrinking slightly, and the numbers of the middle third are definitely shrinking.

There are other contradictions. The Bay Area is famously liberal, with a long history of labor militancy which Walker reviews in colorful detail. Not only labor, but civil rights, feminism, immigrant rights, gay and lesbian rights, Native American and other movements marked the Bay Area as the proverbial “Left Coast.”

The bottom stratum of the workforce are paid less than half of the regional average. A majority of them are women and/or minority, including recent immigrants. Two thirds are paid the minimum wage. Benefits like pensions and health care are mostly not in their reach. The poverty rate is close to 20% by federal measures, higher by other indicators. One in four people in the Bay Area is at risk of hunger. By the Gini coefficient, a measure of social inequality, the Bay area is on a par with Guatemala.

But the most reactionary and punitive vision of criminal justice nationwide also originated in large part in California, particularly in the Central Valley agribusiness cauldron. California’s gulag is the largest in the world both in absolute numbers and per capita, and its most crushing weight falls on young men of color.

Wages of the upper sections of the tech industry are higher here than equivalent jobs elsewhere in the country. These incomes are possible because the tech industry floats on a flood of capital extracted from huge numbers of underpaid workers in places like China, Vietnam, Bangladesh and others. With these inflated incomes, the tech professionals drive up housing prices and gentrify formerly affordable neighborhoods.

In a lengthy and detailed analysis, Walker contends that a ballooning of housing demand from several sources to demented proportions is the main cause of the housing crisis. The same dynamic that creates enormous wealth at one extreme generates swelling numbers of homeless people at the other. We are living through the worst housing crisis in Bay Area history, says Walker.

One byproduct is freeways choked with commuters driving hours back and forth to work every day, creating the fourth worst traffic congestion in the world. Central city budgets, once strapped to the minimum, are enjoying a revival. Outlying towns have trouble scraping up the means for the most basic services.

What we have seen in this millennium, Walker shows, is a historic reversal of the postwar white flight to the suburbs. The children of the suburbs, money in hand, have rediscovered the civilized joys of center-city living: brew pubs, nouvelle cuisine, entertainment venues, bicycling, light rail, gaslight retro districts, and all the rest of it. At the same time, the children of inner-city residents are being squeezed out by high home prices and exorbitant rents, and are fleeing to the suburbs and exurbs where housing is cheaper.

There is much else in the nearly 400 pages of Walker’s tome. Every city, every movement, every industry, every issue, every leading mover and shaker gets its due. This is truly an encyclopedic volume. The bibliography alone is 45 pages of small print. The craft of geography, in Walker’s hands — he is an emeritus professor of geography at UC Berkeley — includes sociology, economics, politics, biography, culture, statistics, and much else, blended into a powerful and sensitive analytical tool.

Although deeply learned, the book is free of jargon and “academese.” Walker writes for the educated general reader. His subject matter is at times explosive and infuriating, but he proceeds in a calm and organized way. There are some gaps; for example, in the discussion of California’s environmental issues, there is no mention of fracking. There are also lapses in proofreading, perhaps because the book discusses developments as recent as early 2018. But these are minor in a work of this magnitude.

With a historical perspective going back to the Gold Rush and a scope covering the entire region, concentrating on the world’s most advanced industry, and surveying a complex, ever-developing diversity of people, Pictures of a Gone City is a masterwork. It’s the one book that has helped me get a mental focus on the Bay Area today much as The Ohlone Way captured the area in the distant past. Gone City belongs in the library of every person who wants to know in rich and colorful detail what the amazing Bay Area is really about.

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Friday essay: the complex, contradictory pleasures of pulp fiction

By Peter Doyle
The Conversation
May 10th, 2018

That Sergeant Peppers album cover roll call of heroes seems a rather quaint exercise now. We’ve still got lists of heroes and anti-heroes but indie culture watchers and streetcorner critics have long since worked their way past the big figures like Elvis, Marilyn, Marlon and so on to people and places further out and further down.

Cinephiles have combed the ranks of B-grade directors, low-rent auteurs and semi-forgotten character actors, working down to low rung schlockmeisters and trash merchants. Age of Rock geeks and music journalists forever trawl through little-played B-sides, obscure old jukebox records, the dusty outputs of small and regional record labels. Likewise, fans and collectors of pulp publishing continue to produce entire new canons and anti-canons of shadow literatures, starting with hardboiled and noir crime, and moving on to every possible sub-form.

Author provided

The term “Pulp Fiction” refers to what is actually a sprawling category of cultural product, covering a wide range of mass publishing enterprises, mostly of the mid-20th century. There are competing definitions, but generally the term “pulp” is used to include magazines, comics, paperback novels, novellas, non-fiction books and booklets, cheaply printed on low grade paper, often in monstrous print runs, sold at newsstands, railway stations, corner shops, or distributed to armed forces, with the cheapest possible cover price – a dime in the US, sixpence or a shilling in Australia.

Product was offered up to the savagely Darwinian competition of the newsstand, with new titles appearing constantly. So pressure was always there to hype up cover illustrations, with saturated colours, sexy or even pseudo-pornographic illustrations.

Pulp was the natural home of genre narrative: science fiction, crime, romance, westerns, horror and “weird” tales, and nearly as much (purported) nonfiction, in the form of true adventure and crime stories and bogus ethnography of the shocking-exposes-of-carnal-practices-in-exotic locales type.

We’re talking trash, exploitation, flagrant misrepresentation, tastelessness, and a general striving for pure textual energy. With a high premium on visuality. Plenty of splash, bang, pop and shock, pushed to the limits of acceptablility. There’s a lot there to love.

Author provided

Like B-movies and rock’n’roll, pulp culture mostly came from the USA, with a substantial British contribution, and those two suppliers between them pretty thoroughly colonised Australian markets. But not totally: since the late 1800s there had been a trade in locally made paperback reading matter (such as the then scandalous “bushranger stories”, which were said to be inflaming urban delinquents to rebellion and lawlessness).

When the supply of US comics and paperback trash was abruptly halted in World War Two, local publishers rushed to fill the gap, offering hastily conceived superhero comics, crime magazines and a range of sexy novels. (The text rarely matched the salacious promise of the cover.) The content was nearly entirely Australian, providing a living or at least some extra pocket money for a bunch of artists, letterers, young wannabe authors and quite a few moonlighting journalists. It was the 1940s precursor to today’s gig economy.

A handful of local pulp publishers, mostly centered in Sydney limped on through the 1950s, fending off as best they could competition from bigger, bolder, newer and cheaper US product. Newsagent shelves of the time displayed racks and racks of material – much of it locally made – with some surprisingly raunchy cover art, and bold strap-lines promising lurid content within. (Australian pulp factories rigorously observed a few simple rules: show as much feminine breast and cleavage as possible, for example, but use careful shadows to hint at – never directly show – a nipple.)

Australian adaptations

The life of the freelance creative artisan was precarious anywhere, but in Australia it had its own special circumstances. Britain and the USA had populations large and dense enough to sustain entire industries devoted to all aspects of pulp production, often concentrated in specific districts. It was a much riskier game in Australia, with its dispersed population and smaller markets.

Still creative labourers did their thing, albeit in semi-isolation. Product was made and distributed; ideas, styles, genres, riffs, and tropes were adapted for local audiences, often crudely but sometimes brilliantly, or at least energetically – like the wonderfully odd, now highly collectible comics produced by Frank Johnson Publications and Frew Publications in the 1940s and 1950s.

Author provided

Foundational researcher Toni Johnson-Woods and more recently Andrew Nette and Kevin Patrick are building a growing and diverse body of research into the mysterious world of Australian pulps and comics. They move smoothly from assessments of the works themselves (often affectionately ironic in tone), to biographies of forgotten artist-authors-makers. (Very few of Australian pulp writers, it turns out, could ever afford to give up their day jobs, as journalists, school teachers, accountants whatever, or in the case of prolific author of westerns and detective stories, Gordon Clive Bleeck, a railway worker.)

The spotlight has recently turned to the entrepreneurs themselves – those fleet-footed, sometimes ruthless small businessfolk who by turns scammed and flattered their contributors and managed the government censors and risk averse national distributors, while keeping a sharp eye on trends and fads.

The survival of a local pulp industry at all is something of a wonder. Nearly anyone who was alive in 1950s or 1960s Australia will remember the ubiquitous, 300- plus series of detective novels written by “Carter Brown”, with their titillating cover art, carefully placeless, or explicitly US setting, written by a prolific local author Alan Yates. Publisher Horwitz indeed managed to turn the series into a lucrative export.

Author provided

A few years ago I was invited to put together an exhibition drawing on the sprawling papers of Sydney pulp outfit, Frank Johnson Publications, held at the State Library of NSW. The original idea had been to simply display the racy cover art and true crime illustrations, but my attention was also drawn to the volumes of correspondence between Johnson and his far flung network of authors, journalists, artists, illustrators. Whole working lives were revealed, if obliquely, in the nitty-gritty back and forth between Johnson and his schleppers. There was hope, disappointment, rejection, self-doubt, anger, sometimes a certain neediness, other times outright manipulation, and occasionally, great dignity.

A Peter Chapman cover for My Love, a 1950s collection of romance fiction. Author provided

It became clear too that for some freelancers, there was a living to be made. The late Peter Chapman, for example, was a comics author, cover artist and general illustrator who got his start as a teenager freelancing for Frank Johnson in the 1940s (at “30 bob a page” – pretty good money for the time), and went on to make a lifelong, four decade-plus career of it.

As well as possessing an appealingly loose but accurate line and a vibrant sense of colour, Chapman had storytelling nous. He authored a number of successful “true pirate” and superhero comics and invented the “Sir Falcon” character – a pistol-wielding medieval knight. His later western and war novel covers always retained a strong sense of unfolding story, often deftly encapsulating the narrative pivot-point.

Lost in pulp’s crazy labyrinth

For the contemporary reader, the pleasures of pulp are complex and contradictory. Start digging and it is possible you’ll find unexpected literary finesse – plenty of people who eventually graduated to high literary respectability, such as David Markson, paid the bills early on by writing serviceable pulps. The early work of Patricia Highsmith and William Burroughs first appeared in very pulpy editions. And there were plenty who never graduated, but whose work ranks high on modern literary criteria: balance, flow, economy, freshness of image and language. Natural writerly grace and all that stuff.

 A locally made Peter Chapman cover for a licensed pulp collection of US Detective Stories. Author provided

You might find earlier versions of the punk aesthetic – the textual equivalent of harder, faster, louder. Pulp fictions regularly managed to be way more out there. Because no one was paying all that much attention. There wasn’t time to sand down the sharp edges.

I’m not a collector of any stripe, but I’ve done my time in the second hand shops, and have my own beloved finds, among them Dan J Marlowe’s, The Name of The Game is Death, from 1961, with its great cover art and back cover text which is almost rock’n’roll poetry in its own right - “On the day they sentenced Olly Barnes to fifteen years I quit the human race. I never went back to my day job and I’ve never done a legitimate day’s work since.” The novel is fast, the prose spare, but never rushed. The first person narrator is a sort of psychopath with principles. The story has three different time frames, and the switches are deftly handled. The plot is totally uncompromising. One of the story strands brilliantly narrates the character’s humdrum middle-class childhood, and his emerging outlaw weirdness. The author himself turns out to be a dark and enigmatic figure.

Blurb on the back cover of The Name of The Game is Death. Author provided

But pulps that stand the test for literary value are relatively rare. You might more commonly read them as symptom, to see laid bare the unspoken fears, desires, dreams and nightmares of the time. Doubly, trebly so when it comes to sex and sexuality. Among the preoccupations of 50s smut pulps there’s a dogged and recurring fascination with queerness, lesbian sex, bondage and sadism, gay sex, teen sex. Pulp as cultural Freudian slip, loony bulletins from the collective Id. Maybe not so loony.

Or you might say to hell with that, and just go with the flow, enjoy pulp for its couldn’t-give-a-shit attitude. There’s deep, dark, perverse mad - the amazingly twisted noir novels of Jim Thompson for example - and then there’s fun mad. John Franklin Bardin’s wacko novels (such as The Deadly Percheron) are the sort of mad that the author is complicit in.

And then there’s the naïve and unselfconscious, weird obsessive, medication-all-wrong mad, the kind the artist seems to be entirely unaware of. Great, but tormented US pulpster David Goodis, favourite of the French Nouvelle Vague might qualify, as might Richard Allen, British author of bovver boy youthsploitation classics including the much revered Suedehead.


Most cultural product – be it high, low or of the middle, nobly or cynically intentioned – sinks quickly into obscurity; headed for the dump, unread, unseen, unheard and uncelebrated. Live fast, die young etc.

Which means there’s a lot there for the latter-day cultural ragpickers. It’s not that easy to spot the diamonds in the rough. Most of us need a gently eye-opening pointer now and then in order to see the value. It takes a lot of work and a lot of time spent combing through junk shops, flea markets, eBay sales. It can be gruelling. You can find yourself soon hating everything – yes, it’s called trash for a reason. More scarily, a kind of rapture of the deep can set in, and you start loving everything. Finding virtue everywhere.

A recently released collection, Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 to 1980, edited by Melbourne-based researchers, Iain McIntyre and Andrew Nette, shows wonderfully how trash can change, how new riffs can quickly emerge. How our contemporary understanding of it changes and evolves and how much careful husbanding and thoughtful interlocution the whole process demands. (Disclosure: I wrote a foreword for the book.)

It’s an old story now that successions of youth subcultures, each more bad mannered than the one before, provided so many of the panic refrains of post war public life in the west, publicised by ad hoc alliances of tabloid journalists, social workers and media commentators. In the early 1950s it was juvenile delinquents. Then came beatniks. And bikers. Gays and lesbians. Hard dope fiends. Later on hippies and countercultural types, mods, rockers, surfers, skinheads, revolutionaries. Trippers, potheads and ravers. Rock musicians and groupies. Portrayed as a kind of tribe, obviously. With secret rituals, which most likely involved something sexy and forbidden.

So, that’s a promising set of circumstances for the low-end fiction factories of the day: there’s anxiety mixed with genuine curiosity mixed with sexual frisson. The cheap paperback industry knew how to churn out some appropriate product. Nette, McIntyre and their contributors have assembled a dizzying catalogue of fascinatingly tawdry exploitation lit: stories about dark and forbidden doings among secret enclaves of artists, dykes, bikers, drug addicts, jazz musicians and the like. Novels would typically tell of an ingenue drifting into some cultish social underworld and being initiated into its forbidden practices. It would usually end with the ingenue’s ruination and death, often by murder or suicide.

Author provided

But the ground started shifting. Pulps in the 1950s and 60s had typically depicted the “other”. The people on the train to work who read about lesbians bikers or boho artists or ghetto dope fiends probably weren’t part of those groups, and that separation of domains was core to the cheap kicks the books delivered. But during the golden age of “tribe” pulps, the tribes themselves went from being weird and marginal to being visible and even central to global cultures.

By the early 1970s there was nothing very exotic about long haired young people who smoked dope, shared houses, played in bands and slept with one another. Queerness and genderbending were moving rapidly towards mainstream visibility, and the idea of “youth gangs” had lost much of its terror-clout.

A typical old school pulp writer might have been a World War Two veteran, maybe, or a middle-aged literary lady, turning their unsympathetic gaze to some upstart, youth craze or other. But by the 1970s that pulp author might be a pot smoker or tripper, a surfer or a hippie chick. Maybe of non-mainstream sexual orientation. Or a New Left sympathising, anti law and order, social change person. Or a crazed gun-toting survivalist. While that might help the authenticity, it could compromise the prurience.

Second life

Pulps through the 1980s went on to embrace ever more violent Serpico and Rambo-styled revenge sagas, as well as super tooled-up espionage, Mafia, mercenary and paramilitary adventure yarns – often with a massive gun barrel represented in hyper-perspective on the cover. Fans continue to debate where pulp went from there – maybe the internet simply consumed it.

So when that early material gets rehabilitated there’s a lot to deal with. There’s the whole artefactual package: cover art, strap-lines, back page, title font, colours, design. There’s the text content – the story itself. (Do we just go with it, or do we keep our distance, botanize it. Like a weird specimen?) And the author, should their life and career be attended to. Is it of interest? (Often resoundingly, yes.) And we might consider, or just enjoy the clever ways the whomp of the visuals interact with the wham of the story.

You could argue that pulp material culture is a direct precursor to the clickbait aesthetic. Digital screen culture is reconfiguring how image, design, text and story interact. Some media theorists believe this is way more than simply advancing the fashions and practices of design and publishing, but in a much deeper way is remaking the ancient distinction between “pictures” and “writing”. Looking at the work of pulp illustrators and comics makers of half a century ago we can see that they were quietly and cleverly dealing with the myriad problems, tensions and artistic opportunities that are commonplace today.

It takes a nuanced understanding, and a huge amount of time and energy to bring all that together for the time-poor modern reader. And to see the glimmerings of value there in the first place. To recognise that a thing can change: a thing which last month was junk, really was junk, has quietly become something else.

A selection of Peter Chapman’s art is the subject of an exhibition at Macquarie University Art Gallery, 16 May-29 June 2018.

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