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Reclaiming the American Commons

by John Curl
Roar Magazine
March 2016


A quiet upsurge of cooperative activity has been taking place across the US, where people are turning to the commons to rebuild a sense of community.

A quiet, sweeping upsurge of cooperative activity has been taking place throughout the United States in recent decades. All over the American map, millions of people now realize that the existing economic system has failed in the core purpose of any economic system: to offer a decent life and future to all.

Since everybody needs to survive, people everywhere are turning to mutual aid, collectivity, cooperatives, communalist ventures and commons of every sort. The story is not in the statistics. The vast majority of this activity is under the radar, in the informal, underground economy, in unincorporated associations. That is both a weakness and a strength.

Think Occupy. HISTORIC COLLECTIVITY IN AMERICA

America has historically always been a center of collective activity. That observation may seem to fly in the face of the stereotype of Americans being all about individualism and competition, but the truth is that from its earliest days the North American continent has been fertile soil to cooperative and communalist movements, based on people working together to provide for their mutual needs. Native American culture was built on those principles, and cooperative communities were integral to the entire project of working people immigrating here to escape poverty and oppression. Every wave of immigrants spontaneously created cooperative economic and social structures.

When settlers expanded westward in search of a better life, they often did so through cooperative means and formed cooperative settlements. The internal dynamics of American settler culture were intrinsically communalist in nature. But the entire colonial project also had a dark underside that can never be fully expunged: native people were already occupying the land, and the settlers were not only refugees, but also invaders--the vanguard of a tragic clash of civilizations.

The industrialization of the early 19th century brought a new form of oppression to America, and working people responded with the first modern social movements. Communalism was one of the earliest of these movements. It began in America in 1825, with the group of intentional communities inspired by New Harmony, and then renewed again in the 1840s. Like the movement of a century later, they too aimed at constructing a new society through communities based on collectivity and cooperation, but they eventually hit the limits of access to land and resources.

In the same era, worker cooperatives became an integral part of the early union movement. America was becoming increasingly dominated by capital, while working people were increasingly disenfranchised. The wage system, tied to the industrial revolution, was on the rise, and workers fought and resisted being made permanent wage slaves. They saw the wage system, in which people rent themselves to other people, as a form of bondage, and they formed worker-owned cooperatives to prevent themselves from being dragged down into it.

The early union and co-op movements culminated in the precipitous rise of the Knights of Labor and their counter-institutional challenge to capitalism through erecting an alternative economic system of cooperatives. They planned to replace capitalism with what they called the Cooperative Commonwealth. Their defeat in 1886 and the destruction of their worker co-ops by the forces of capital was a historic turning point in American social history. A few years later, their rural allies in the Farmers' Alliance suffered a parallel defeat with the destruction of their agricultural co-ops. These defeats resulted in the triumph of the "gilded age" reign of the robber barons.

In the early 1900s and during the Great Depression of the 1930s, radical collectivist, syndicalist and cooperative movements surged again. But very little of them remained after World War II, leaving the US deeply regimented and militarized. Progressive ideas were expunged from schools and politics, and to express even mildly left opinions in the McCarthy era, you risked being branded a traitor. Parents feared losing their jobs and told their kids to keep their mouths shut in school. LIVING THE REVOLUTION

As the generation that grew up in this airless atmosphere came of age, we were suddenly told that we were being shipped off to Asia to defend "freedom" from Communism. Tens of thousands of young people were being ripped out of their lives and tossed as cannon fodder into a war they opposed. Their overwhelming response was to resist and to turn to each other to invent a new set of liberating social relations, to reject what the country had become and create an oppositional collective, communal and cooperative "counterculture".

We created communal living spaces in both rural and urban settings. Many never even had a name. Just to know about them, you needed to have connections through friends or friends of friends. They had no long-term sustainability, but formed and reformed. Since the world was so unstable and torn by social upheaval, the focus was on liberation, not sustainability. By today's standards, most were not stable intentional communities. Shared living spaces are of course still ubiquitous among young people today, and the main difference was the prevailing atmosphere in society.

The idea at the time was to _live_ the revolution. Unlike many radical organizations of previous generations, our internal organizations needed to reflect our goals. The purpose was liberation, and we could only accomplish that directly, by liberating ourselves. What was holding us all back from living in liberated ways? In some ways the structure of society was doing just that, while in other ways we were oppressing ourselves and each other. We need liberated spaces to experiment in, where each could help liberate the others.

Collectivity led to many cultural victories in that era. But these turned into political defeats as a frightened country retreated to law and order under Reaganism.

COLLECTIVITY IN TODAY'S AMERICA

The current Communities Directory lists 2,364 intentional communities in America, including income-sharing communes, eco-villages, co-housing, residential land trusts, student co-ops and spiritual communities. These are all projects where people choose to live together sustainably, on the basis of common values, with goals of personal, cultural and social transformation. Intentional communities are just one aspect of collectivity, of the commons.

Much of the communalist and cooperative movement in the US is still underground, in the informal economy. But the above-ground movement is expanding rapidly today, in response to the economic crises of this century, which globalized capitalism is not geared to handle or solve.

Do an internet search for worker co-ops, collectives, farmer co-ops, housing co-ops, food co-ops, intentional communities, land trusts, any kind of co-op you can imagine, and you will discover vast numbers. You will also find an extensive network of organizations around the country doing cooperative education, innovation, funding and developing.

Large numbers of non-profits and social justice organizations have expanded their horizons to include co-ops, particularly worker co-ops and related social enterprises, community enterprises and solidarity enterprises. Go to the websites of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives and other regional networks. Cities are supporting worker co-ops as an economic development strategy. The New York City recently granted $1.2 million to fund worker co-operative development.

An Underground Railroad of Communes

For me, participation in the communalist and cooperative movement started back in the mid-1960s, when I lived at Drop City, the fabled commune in southern Colorado. At the height of the movement of that era, we were part of a loose network of intentional communities, and we entertained the notion that American society was collapsing and we were constructing the basis of a new social order.

No directory of communes existed, but if you knew where to go, you could cross the country and never have to stay at a motel. The Vietnam War was raging, and the draft was the spark that ignited the movement. Communal spaces formed a kind of underground railroad, where resistors could travel commune to commune until they reached refuge in Canada.

Each of the 1960s communes was organized around a space that belonged to no one person. Since the planet, the original commons, was almost entirely privatized, with everyone dispossessed except the elite, groups of dispossessed decided to start creating small commons of their own.

That was at the core of the movement. But we soon hit a wall: only those with significant financial resources could have access to land, and you cannot conjure up alternative real estate. It was that contradiction that stopped the movement in its tracks. With the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, many communes disbanded and few new ones formed.

Eventually intentional communities began to proliferate again, as experiments in new ways of living, and continued to draw many people, as they still do today. To some extent, the drive of this new communalism remains the same: to restore a sense of community in an economic system where families, neighborhoods and entire populations are at the mercy of developers and planners, where people are moved around like cattle, with profit maximization being the primary consideration.

THE WEST BERKELEY PLAN

But people need not necessarily form communes to restore a sense of community. Many movements today aim to defend communities by protecting the commons. In this sense, it is worth pointing out that historical experiences like the Paris Commune were by their very nature centered around reclaiming the commons and defending "social property" in the fight against privatization.

An inspiring example of a contemporary movement aiming to protect the commons from economic attacks and displacement can be found in West Berkeley, California. Outsiders who visit this area often wonder why in 2016 it has not been totally swept up in the relentless gentrification that has decimated and transformed so many other Bay Area neighborhoods.

Why it is still full of funky little homes, local businesses, artists, artisans and industries? The secret answer is the West Berkeley Plan, through which a long-established, mixed-use urban neighborhood successfully created, recognized and defended a threatened commons.

The West Berkeley Plan was a radical transformative structure right in the heart of mainstream society, which all the developers strenuously opposed, since it limited their capacity to exploit and extract profit. Yet the movement eventually rose above the opposition and implemented the Plan by a unanimous vote of the city council. We had allies in city hall. That turned out to be key.

It began in the 1980s, when, during an era of expansive Reaganism, I brought several council members down to West Berkeley and showed them around the thriving and economically diverse community that at was at risk of displacement. Meanwhile a community group formed called West Berkeley MAARS, which stood for Merchants, Artists, Artisans, and Residents. The city council passed an "urgency ordinance" to stop wild gentrification and stabilize the situation, because there was no area plan in place to govern development in the neighborhood.

The first thing we tried was a commercial rent stabilization ordinance for industrial spaces. Berkeley already had commercial rent regulations protecting small merchants in two gentrifying commercial districts across town, as well as residential rent control. These ordinances treated affordable rental space as a commons. The community needed to protect that commons to remain a diverse community. But within weeks after the city council passed the West Berkeley ordinance, the state legislature intervened with a law outlawing all commercial rent control in California. It was then that the city council initiated the West Berkeley Plan process.

The Plan was based on the radical concept of a neighborhood planning and administering itself by consensus. All the stakeholders attended big public meetings, refereed by the city. Over a period of several years large numbers of people participated, argued, fought and ultimately came to acceptable compromises in which every sector had enough of their needs met. All the groups in West Berkeley could stay. No one would be pushed out by unchecked gentrification. This was true community-based planning in the best sense of the term.

We managed to stabilize the situation through zoning. We created a series of industrial zones, in which industrial and arts-and-crafts spaces were protected. Industrial and art space was recognized as a commons. Once landlords realized they could only rent out an industrial space to an industry or artisan, and not convert it to a higher-paying use, they had to accept the situation and rents no longer escalated. Since an industrial or arts-and-crafts space use can only generate a modest income level, and since a landlord can only replace an industrial tenant with another industrial tenant, landlords had to accept community stability.

Although developers continued to attack the West Berkeley Plan before the ink was even dry, over the decades the plan has held. This continued success has been largely due to the ongoing efforts of another community organization called West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies (WEBAIC), which took over the struggle from MAARS.

The West Berkeley Plan showed a way forward. The Plan struck a great blow to gentrification, achieved a triumph for diversity and community, and successfully created and protected a commons. It is a living demonstration of how, when grassroots activist community groups and progressive elements in municipal government work together, the impossible can become possible.

COLLECTIVITY: A WAY FORWARD

Today's cooperative, communalist and collectivist movements emerged in the early years of the 21st century. While many intentional communities continue to thrive, living communally is not an option for the vast majority of the US population, who are struggling just to stay where they are and working to transform their existing communities.

Nevertheless, people everywhere are turning to mutual aid, collectivity, cooperatives, communalist ventures and the commons for an alternative.

Today the US is no longer a powerhouse of heavy industry (apart from munitions), and the civil economy is largely based on services and small production. Our movement is not capable of challenging the commanding heights of the economy, like the Knights of Labor once tried to do, but it _is_ taking over the margins. The objective now is to multiply and thrive, horizontally not hierarchically, in the age-old task of trying, under adversity, to create a sustainable humane society to live in, in balance with the natural world--a great commons.

Collectivity can involve many kinds of sharing, and they all enrich life. When we create collectivity among ourselves, we are creating commons. Collectivity and commons are of enormous value: by creating commons, by taking back and defending them, by filling our lives as much as we can with collectivity, with community, we bring about progressive and sustainable social change.

In a real sense, then, widespread collectivity and cooperation in our lives is already changing the world.

_[John Curl is the author of _For All The People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperatives, Cooperative Movements and Communalism in America_ (2009). He is a longtime member of Heartwood Cooperative Woodshop.]_
--
"Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realize we cannot eat money." --Nineteenth century Nēhilawē (Cree) proverb

 

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Peter Kuper's 1990 Donald Trump Cartoon titled "The Wall" from Drawn to New York

For your enjoyment we've excerpted a 12 page 1990 cartoon by Peter Kuper (of MAD Magazine, SPY vs SPY fame) from his book Drawn to New York titled "The Wall" which sadly seems rather prescient at this point...

Enjoy. Or not so much enjoy, but... The Wall page 1

The Wall page 2The Wall page 3The Wall page 4The Wall page 5The Wall page 6The Wall pg 7The Wall page 8Wall page 9Wall page 10The Wall page 11The Wall page 12Buy Drawn to New York now | Buy Drawn to New York e-Book now | Back to Peter Kuper's Artist Page




Damnificados: a magical realist manifesto for the poor

Damnificadosby Dave Sewell
Socialist Worker

Debut novelist JJ Amaworo Wilson’s magical realist fable celebrates the ingenuity, tenacity and resistance of slum-dwellers.

It is the tale of an abandoned skyscaper that’s occupied, revived and defended by a ragtag army of the “damnificados”—the casualties.

To make the trash of the city a home, they take on everything from gangster politicians to a biblical flood and a two-headed wolf.

Some are the poorest of the poor. But many are regular workers and the few characters we get to know include a diplomatic translator and a small business owner.

Pushed to the city’s margins, they are outcasts who refuse to be excluded.

Amaworo Wilson creates a world where people and things that are thrown away come alive and where neglect breeds creativity and tyranny breeds defiance.

The novels that defined magical realism looked into the repressed histories of real societies. Damnificados does the opposite.

Its urgent present tense and its eclectic borrowing of languages and settings cut it off from any one place or time.

While “loosely based on” events in Caracas, Venezuela, the unnamed city could be almost anywhere in the developing world.

At its weakest points this reduces the residents to a vague mishmash of lovable eccentrics—and makes you wish you’d read about the real ones in Caracas.

But at its best it feels like a manifesto. A recurring phrase is “they are us”.

Amaworo Wilson invokes the urban pooor as a global force and invites us to identify with it.

 


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The hero uses crutches: JJ Amaworo Wilson’s Damnificados

DamnificadosBy Kate MacDonald
March 24th, 2106

The carefully managed outbreaks of magical realism are what I like best about J J Amaworo Wilson’s Damnificados. Wilson’s skills as a novelist are impressive, and his scope in Damnificados is global: his vision of a Latin American city that casually and fleetingly connects to Africa and Japan makes this novel a world myth with a mildly fantastical dystopian setting. It’s set in a vast tower block in an unnamed Spanish-speaking city of favelas and spiralling shanty-towns. The tower is inconveniently inhabited by wolves when a travelling group of hundreds of the homeless underclasses need it as a refuge and a home. They’re led by Nacho, a small man with a dragging leg and arm who moves about expertly on his muletas. He’s a teacher, but becomes a legendary leader of the people against the forces of nature, and against the heavily armed Torres family, who want their tower back. The damnificados, the despised, spurned, rejected and repressed, become a community in their new home. They set up shops, a bakery, a hair salon, start schools, keep watch on the surrounding country and city fringes, and become settled enough to go back into the city to pick up their old jobs again, now they have a home and a clean shirt to wear in the morning. All this is reassuringly human, something to hang onto as the strangeness of this world reveals itself.

The two-headed wolf leading the pack who originally inhabited the tower: radiation mutation? Or simple mythic throwback? Either way, we’re now in magical realism territory. How the damnificados dispose of the wolves was a fine piece of character development that sets the tone for the novel: no unnecessary violence, no cruelty, no rampant body counts unless absolutely necessary. The wolves come back when they’re needed, so there is also tidy storytelling, nothing left dangling or undealt with. The giant snakes are important, as are the crocodiles who come with the floods, and the five immense carved heads that appear at the city gates when the floods recede. Wilson’s characters are effortlessly individual: the giant man they call the Chinaman who never speaks, Nacho’s big brother Emil the picaresque traveller (who will surely be played by Chris Pratt in the Hollywoodisation of this novel), the engulfing passion of Maria the ex-beauty queen and salon owner, Shivarov the creator of bespoke limbless beggars, and Nacho himself, a character who unpeels a new layer with each chapter.

artwork by Peter Garcia to illustrate the novel

He’s a teacher, a leader, a community organiser, he knows his poisonous mushrooms and can recite the history of the world. He loves secretly, does nothing about it because he fears her rejection, and worries constantly about the safety of his people. He’s an angel with crutches for wings and abstruse survivalist knowledge, and speaks heaven knows how many languages. However, his impairment is taken away from him through an unspecified transcendental miracle, as if to reward him for his goodness. I find this reward out of nowhere rather odd, and troublesome in how we are expected to feel about Nacho. The removal of his bodily impairment tells us that such a physical difference isn’t suitable, is in the way of true love (not that the miracle gets him anywhere), and will have to be changed before Nacho can achieve whatever he wants to achieve. It’s certainly a fantasy. People in the real world live with difference without the hope of a miracle and an overnight restoration of muscle tone, nerve endings and bones to what society thinks is normal. Giving Nacho a transformative reward is perfectly suitable within mythic storytelling patterns, but this particular reward feels superficial. It produces a similar effect to narrating the novel from a (mostly) male perspective. Only two women are named, or have anything to say; the world of the damnificados is a man’s world where women are faceless and voiceless, ignored and of no account. Nacho too becomes anonymous when the essential part of his body that has shaped his personality is taken away, he runs like anyone else, and fades from view. His difference has been taken away, which seems a pity, since, within the novel, his difference made him individual.

Damnificados is based on the real events in Caracas, Venezuela, when an abandoned tower block was temporarily inhabited by hundreds of outcasts for seven years. Wilson added the multilingual ghosts and the avenging two-headed wolves, obviously.


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A Reasonable History of Impossible Demands reviewed on FATEA

By David Kidman
FATEA
March 2016

It's just half a dozen years since Uncle Robb celebrated his standing as one of the UK's leading writers of protest song with a copious four-disc box-set Margaret Thatcher - My Part In Her Downfall, which provided nothing less than a whistle-stop (or should I say whistle-blower's) tour through two decades of saying Stop The War - and so much more. It exhumed a generous assortment of obscure, limited-edition and/or wilfully unavailable releases, and enshrined them for posterity on CD format. But the "Thatch" set was but the tip of the iceberg of Robb's œuvre, not least in its concentration on just that one strand of his creativity. Now, as if to redress the balance and show that he's capable of writing so much more than a decent protest-song (or fifty!), Robb's lit the torch under the iceberg and put together this massive, magnificent five-disc "retrospective", after hearing which nobody with an ounce of sanity or right-thinking moral fibre can refuse to acknowledge the breadth of - and high degree of literacy in - his songwriting - not just in the realm of outright protest (while still recognising the place that agit-prop commands at the hard core of his output). It's become all too easy to forget just how many great (yes, I mean that!) songs Robb's written - and even this exhaustive new retrospective can barely scratch the surface of the work of this enviably prolific songwriter; but it's a salutary reminder for sure.

While broadening the temporal scope of this new collection to span the full 27 years of his recorded career to date, Robb has also helpfully - if "irregularly" chronologically - grouped the contents of each abundantly well-filled disc according to a theme of sorts. Recordings are sourced from releases both official and unofficial, all manner of formats, originals and re-recordings, and it's good that Robb has something of an anorak's attention to detail when it comes to furnishing discographical and recording information within his frank and accessibly opinionated booklet notes. In terms of bold statistics, around a dozen tracks are culled straight from the above-mentioned Thatch set, while (that set apart), only a handful come from releases that are still available. Many songs are represented in versions taken from limited-edition or obscure issues. There's 10 previously unreleased tracks - some being alternate versions or suchlike - and half-a-dozen more that are previously not officially released (OK, now that might be splitting hairs!). Since a significant majority of Robb's releases are now deleted, this set will be deemed a treasure trove even for those RJ fans who "have everything", and worth purchasing for the satisfyingly high proportion of unavailable-elsewhere recordings.
The first disc introduces us to Robb via the "early years" of 1987 to 1994, the first "key stage" of his career if you like (cue laboured teaching reference!) - well, nothing happens overnight does it?… Around two-thirds of Disc 1's recordings are sourced from CDs Robb made with Pip Collings, during the "folk-friendly duo" phase. And both within and outwith that category, a large number of these early songs have attained a kind of unofficial "greatest hit" status for Robb. The most-oft-quoted example is Rosa's Lovely Daughters, of course (here presented in Robb's chunky banjo-driven rendition from the 1987 Skewed, Slewed, Stewed & Awkward LP), but I'd also cite More Than Enough, I Close My Eyes, Fairy Tales In Feltham, Winter Turns To Spring, and of course there's the towering achievement that is Overnight. This first disc also contains what might be regarded as the first of his classic "English chansons" Sunday Morning St. Denis and the reflective The Last Time I Saw Paris, as well as 6B Go Swimming (one of Robb's acutely-observed "skool songs"), the "idealised England" of Evergreen, the observation of real natural beauty (Blame The Snow For Falling) and the terrifically poignant You Don't Have To Say Goodbye. Now (as has been remarked), these are songs to play to those who "don't like Robb on principle"!…

The second disc is the most inevitable entry in the song catalogue: subtitled Protest And Survive, it delivers a quarter-century's worth of Robb's contributions to the genre, but not necessarily all of the most obvious candidates. The disc opener, for instance - the obscure A Bird Is Singing (which I took into my own repertoire over a decade ago) - may well be the roughest track in terms of both recording and singing, but its simple lyric still packs a forceful punch. As indeed does each and every one of the specimens of protest song here enshrined, for all that in some cases (as Robb admits) some degree of punk-rock edge may be sacrificed for listenability by dint of including later re-recordings rather than original takes. Naturally, some of these songs have polarised even Robb's admirers - but however blunt the weapon, the point is always well made and the menu still contains some plenty of prime cuts for certain, from the National Union Of Seafarers strike-fundraiser The Herald Of Free Enterprise; the gleefully grisly "alternative" kiddies' singalong Animals Song; two unexpectedly controversial songs Vic Williams (song of a contemporary deserter) and Three Minute Silence; and the anthemic Red And Green and Undefeated; to the outright upfront sentiments of We All Said Stop The War and the previously unreleased Ding Dong Thatch and This Is What Democracy Looks Like. The disc also accords due prominence to the highly-rated Inexcusable and the true story of Alice Annie Wheeldon, and the glorious celebratory noise of Punk Rock Jubilee (play this one LOUD and set on repeat!!), and unearths gems like a YouTube take on When Saturday Came and a storming electric-band version of North West Frontier.

Disc 3 presents English Chansons 1995-2003, an integral strand of Robb's writing that's enjoyed an increasingly high profile over the years. In his notes, Robb admits that a number of these songs are trying to come to terms with the fact that he doesn't actually live in Paris. He has a long-term love affair with the city, sure, but each of these little masterpieces also displays his maximum respect for, and empathy with, the great writers of chanson, their tradition and their methods. These songs deal with relationships, of person and place, in language that's realistic, often conversational, invariably poetic, always literate. . So many of these songs still possess the capacity to make me weep; while it's tribute enough to the sheer quality of these chansons when you learn of the critical acclaim they've received, not to mention the eagerness of singers of stature like Barb Jungr to cover them. The disc contains just two songs from the classic "cjohnsong" collection The Night Café, as well as the lovely dobro-accompanied Love Takes No Prisoners, three contrasted examples from 21st century Blues, and - glory be! - five from 1999's The Big Wheel, including Au Depart, one of my own personal favourites from Robb's extensive recorded catalogue. There's also a rare RJ3 version of Invisible People, and two songs from the honest-to-goodness, modestly titled A Beginner's Guide album (including Breakfast In Chemnitz - which incidentally is the only song to be missing a paragraph in the booklet notes…), and the disc closes on a poignant note with an unreleased song, Magic. Quite.
Disc 4 presents a diverse collection of songs instancing "the enduring if irregular racket", kicking off with two choice cuts that were most widely available on the This Is The UK Talking compilation including Not In My Name, a particularly enduring example originally written in 1991 to protest against Gulf War 1. There's a number of other songs whose relevance has endured into different decades, while they've also survived with or benefitted from different treatments or arrangements. Robb's always careful to select a version which he feels to have more edge or power, or where the recording circumstances were special or specially memorable. The enduring influence of Paris pervades You And This City, Hands Off My Friends comes from the Article 14 benefit CD. Other important songs here include I Am Not At War, UK Talking, Ugly Town and Karl Marx City Blues. Many are given in more fully-scored contexts, but perhaps the only song which falls victim to over-arrangement is Lottery Land.

Disc 5 enjoys a meaningfully double-edged sub-title, Same Sh**, Different Day. For these songs contain situations, circumstances and experiences good and bad, sometimes both at once. In a way, it's the most difficult disc to come to terms with, for we all feel similarly ambivalent about life in the 21st century after all. In fact, the songs collected together for this final disc are less depressing than the obvious "plus ça change" interpretation might imply - many are decidedly positive statements and indeed are often quietly celebratory. Robb's genius for observation of things that matter runs through these songs like a stick of Brighton rock. True stories form the basis for The Rottweiler Man, Real Cool Purple Shirt and (arguably finest of all) Stand Clear!, while Pennypot Lane and the tender Here Comes That Miracle Again both find their inspiration in thoughtful reflection on simple pleasures. The barbed A Place In The Country resulted from a family outing, while the prescient The Wrong Train is one of a pair of songs stemming from actual dreams. The wonderful Metro album, on which Robb was accompanied by pianist Russel Churney, is allocated four contrasted tracks, including standout chanson Don't Close The Bar and the jaunty authentically-cockney music-hall-style number The London Eye. Tucked in there towards the end of the disc, we find the sparsely voiced No Time To Say Goodbye, a commentary on the personal "sharp end" of the "collateral damage" of warfare: evidently a painfully difficult song to both write and sing, and recorded and released here for the first time. The theme of solidarity is of course the central concept for much of Robb's writing, and Be Reasonable - from which the set's title concept is derived - is an obvious choice for inclusion on this final disc - here in the "massed folksingers" version from the 2012 Anti-Capitalist Roadshow double album. For this is what we get in this mammoth 6½-hour collection of Robb's work - justice and poetry, and jam on it too!

Now subtitled The Damage To Date, the set was originally going to be called Leaving The 20th Century - but that would have made it sound unduly valedictory I guess, for the overall impact is more in tune with the uplift and the sense of shared humanity that the songs bring. All human life is here - well, almost (there could've been songs about football, another of Robb's passions, while Robb's Great-War-themed songs, largely based on his granddad's experiences, are also unrepresented on this set). Robb says things that need saying, however unpalatable, and he does this so eloquently. This is after all a very reasonable history - and a very reasonably priced collection that will make no impossible demands on your pocket.

 

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Continental Crucible reviewed in The Progressive Populist

By Seth Sandronsky
The Progressive Populist
March 2016

 

Tri-National Integration

The bid of billionaire GOP presidential aspirant Donald Trump to make Mexico pay for an anti-migrant wall on its US border is theatre. For credible social analysis, read Continental Crucible: Big Business, Workers and Unions in the Transformation of North America by Richard Roman and Edur Velasco Arregui (PM Press, Second Edition, 2015).

Their book, in three parts, provides clarity about social forces across Canada, Mexico and the US during an extreme era. Part one unpacks the corporate offensive against the working class in North America.

The end of the postwar economic model was the spark that lit this fire. The authors summarize without belaboring the point.

Roman and Arregui provide two pages of acronyms and abbreviations, to clarify what at first glance reads a little like alphabet soup in their radical narrative. This is a useful roster of corporate players that consciously downplay their activities, e.g., political lobbying, quite an effective strategy.

In Mexico, the corporate offensive against the general population unfolds under a post-WW2 regime of governance, a legacy of a national revolutionary history. The results, which Arregui and Roman unravel, is very bad news for the poor and workers, and quite nice for the state and capital.

Beginning with President Reagan and wrapping up with President Clinton, Uncle Sam played a big role pushing the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Uncle Sam’s hand belies the pro-business rhetoric about a free market in which government steps aside for buyers and sellers to meet on level playing fields.

The Business Roundtable (BRT), a US-based group, plays an outsize role in the restructuring of the North American working class. Falling profits and rising competitive pressures propelled the BRT and its allies to wage such class war.

The Canadian state in part drives capital’s mission to weaken militant labor unions. This change effectively shifts national economic policy to the priorities of big business, seeking better return on investment capital via the growth imperative to increase market share.

In each of the three nations, corporations aim to harmonize working conditions to the lowest common denominator. Neutering labor rights and standards is the corporate agenda, demanding and receiving the freedom to increase the mobility and velocity of capital.

Part two of this book covers immigrants, unions and workers. An intriguing departure on this subject is the authors’ viewpoint of bi-nationalism, covered powerfully in Chapters 6 and 9.

For instance, Mexican migrants flee northward to escape crisis and poverty resulting from corporate economic integration. They establish roots in the US.

Add links between unions in Canada and the US. The underpinning for “continental” unions emerges, the authors suggest.

With much empathy, they describe the causes and consequences of Mexico’s human rights nightmare, e.g., the drug war and its horrific violence. There, political instability is the rule.

A US “safety valve” for Mexican capitalism affects US society. Trump’s racist rhetoric aside, Mexicans with (out) documents work throughout the US economy.

Strategically, their positions at the point of production, from agribusiness to building trades, is potentially empowering. The power is to join forces with US allies to improve labor rights and standards in both countries.

What Mexico’s working class has a rich and recent revolutionary past, but one with weak resources and organizations now. Canadian and US working classes have different experiences, according to the authors.

This conjuncture of similarities and differences drives a future of peril and promise for working populations across North America. The time is now, Roman and Arregui write, for labor unions in all three countries to transform themselves to fight tri-national economic integration, the focus of their book’s third and final part.

“The challenges for the North American Lefts and the labour movement are enormous,” he authors. ‘Old-school’ principles of solidarity and unity from below that crosses national borders are necessary to improve the lives of people in Canada, Mexico and the US.

Seth Sandronsky is a journalist and member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email sethsandronsky@gmail.com.

 

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Damnificados reviewed in Foreword Reviews

Damnificadosby Pallas Gates McCorquodale
Foreword Reviews
February 29th, 2016

 
Drawing inspiration from the true story of a skyscraper turned safe haven, JJ Amaworo Wilson’s Damnificados is a timeless reminder of the strength and character found in those struggling to eke out an existence at the bottom rungs of society. Here, they are known as the “damnificados,” the “nonpeople,” or even those that simply “don’t exist.” Seeking refuge in the Torres Building, built and abandoned on a foundation of trash, Nacho Morales finds himself the reluctant leader of an ever fluctuating melting pot of exiles.

When floods and plagues of biblical proportion threaten the sanctity of their home, the damnificados look to Nacho for deliverance. So begins a David and Goliath battle rife with fantastical creatures. Brujas, two headed wolves, and übermosquitos are all mixed into what becomes a veritable chronicle of the “trash wars,” fought over generations by a colorful mix of characters including German twins Hans and Dieter, a Japanese warrior known as the Chinaman, a fiery former beauty queen, and Nacho himself. Thoughtful and intense, but with a core of humility and self-awareness, Damnificados is an extraordinary, magical, inspiring tale of community and conscience.


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We lost a friend last week—Remembering Jef Smith

We lost a friend last week.


If you knew Jef Smith, you knew that the man could talk. A lot. To anyone. And if you spoke with Jef Smith, you would quickly learn about his many passions: Speculative Fiction, Radical Politics, Indie Music, the cool things his friends were doing, methods for surviving the zombie apocalypse, and getting through life without wearing proper "pants" - to name a few.

What you might not learn, right away, is that Jef had spent most of his life in and out of hospitals for a wide variety of debilitating maladies. Instead of gathering sympathy for himself, he chose to work on bringing a little bit more joy and justice to the world.

Over the course of his life, he was an active supporter of Anti-Racist Action Chicago, an organizer for the Chicago Anarchist Defense Fund, and a stalwart member of Think Galactic, a reading group that discussed books with a radical left analysis. He was a constant presence at the feminist science fiction convention, Wiscon - where he would be seen on panels, hosting parties, or working in the dealers room. He was also the impetus behind the Think Galactic crew putting together their own bi-annual convention (Think GalactiCon) - which focused on cross-pollinating activism and fandom through mass amounts of discourse.

Jef spent a decade working at IPG, an independent book distributor - which helped to further his connections in the book world. He was an evangelist for many small, smart presses such as Tachyon, No Media Kings, and especially PM Press - who he continued to work with and table for, even after his health issues made his office job impossible. During the same time, he conceived of and brought to existence the feminist SF anthology, Sisters of the Revolution - simply because he thought that such a thing should exist.

Jef Smith died of cancer last week and the world of Anarcho-geekdom lost an emissary. The rest of us, who knew him, lost a deep, supportive, wacky, insightful comrade and friend. He will be sorely missed.


Memoriam by Berianne Bramman (3/2/2016) Help out— Donate at Jef & Kat's Go Fund Me Page

 




Daminificados reviewed on Collected Miscellany


tower-of-david-720

Daminificados by JJ Amaworo Wilson is a novel based on “The Tower of David” in the center of Caracas, Venezuela. The half-completed tower was occupied by thousands of homeless people during the 2007 housing crisis in that city. Wilson uses the occupation as inspiration to write about a group of damnificados (vagabonds and misfits) who take over the tower and fight to keep their hold on the tower.

Wilson masterfully tells of the struggle between the poor and the powerful (Torres brothers) with a little bit of magic.  The damnificados by all rights should have been wiped out by the Torres brothers’ armies – including guns and tanks. But with a combination of ingenuity and help from some wolves and the earth opening to swallow the tanks, the damnificados are able to survive two different assaults.

As part of his tapestry, Wilson discusses the history of the “trash wars” where damnificados fought each other to death and how those wars influenced their situation in the tower. Although it is pure fiction and part fantasy, it is an easy read that you do not want to put down.

Wilson includes a cast of characters that the reader can sympathize with – including Nacho, Chinaman, two German twins, and many more. The main character in the story, Nacho, is an unlikely hero – he is extremely intelligent and well-read with serious physical disabilities. Despite those disabilities, he adroitly leads the damnificados through many trials.

The book is worth the read.


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Iconic Drummer Michelle Gonzales and the Xicana Resistance of Riot Grrrl

By Michelle Threadgould
Remezcla
February 29, 2016

“Kiss the freak, faggot,” spat Travis at my friend David and me. Travis was the ringleader of the jocks at my elementary school. Even in the fifth grade I fucking hated that word: faggot.

I didn’t like being a freak either, but I knew I was one. I was one of two Latinas in my grade. I was curvy and had reached puberty early. It was like my breasts offended everyone; boys and girls in my class would stare, men would catcall me in malls or on the street, and my teachers would pull me aside and tell me to “cover up” because of my cleavage. Who the fuck has cleavage at 11 years old? I was a freak.

But David was not. He was the only person in my class who was nice to me.

“Don’t call him that,” I said.

“Are you gonna have your girlfriend fight for you?” Travis asked.

“I’m not a faggot,” David said, as if to himself. He looked no one in the eye. He just wanted to disappear. So did I.

Travis and the other boys pushed David into me. Again. And again. There was no reason to push back — because there was no escape, it would just start over again the next day. To them, we had chosen to be freaks, and they were enacting our just punishment.

I just wanted to learn to be invisible.


When I found hardcore punk as a teenager in the Bay Area in the early 00s, I loved that I could be one of the guys without being sexualized. My favorite band was Fugazi, and they didn’t believe in merchandise or wearing band T-shirts, because if you were into the music, you bought the record. Being punk to me wasn’t about wearing a leather jacket and Doc Martens, it was about saying “fuck the system” with a group of people who understood what that meant.

I was learning the art of being invisible.

So I wore a different kind of punk uniform: boxy T-shirts, jeans, Converse sneakers, and bandanas. I did everything I could not to look like a girl, not to stand out. I thought I was saying fuck the system while really becoming a part of it. I acted like one of the guys, dressed like one of the guys, and forgot that I wasn’t one of the guys. I didn’t want to be a punk girl, I wanted to be punk.

I was learning the art of being invisible.


“Many of the riot grrrl bands, and not all of them, really used sexuality as a performance, and that made Spitboy [Rule] really uncomfortable. We were fairly asexual on stage, and that was by design, because 3 out of 4 of us had experienced some sort of sexual assault or sexual abuse as children, and we just did not want people looking at us like that. We did not want to be hypersexualized,” says Michelle Gonzales, drummer of 90s female hardcore punk band The Spitboy Rule. “I definitely internalized that many men would fetishize me, because of my dark skin, and because I was Latina, so that was one of the many reasons that I was uncomfortable with that, the use of sexuality as performance.”

Photo by Ace Morgan

Michelle Gonzales (front). Photo by Ace Morgan

“And even though it was the same message [as riot grrrl], you know, we were a hardcore band. So we weren’t doing this cutesy, bouncy, girl thing. Our music was not melodic and it did not have a bunch of harmonies. It was straightforward hardcore. And so, our performance onstage, unfortunately, was straightforward hardcore – you know, the way the guys did it.”

“If you want to prove your womanhood, shut up and spread your legs or play.”

When I met Gonzales in Oakland earlier this month, I saw so many of my own experiences reflected in her words. Though we came up in the Bay Area punk scene 10 years apart, we grew up with the same tension: a constant kind of code-switching between the women we were to our families, our friends, and to the public. So many fractured identities, unable to be whole at the same time. Meeting Gonzales wasn’t just meeting someone who got it, it was like looking into the punk mirror, at someone who knew all of my cultural references.

Spitboy was a force in the Bay Area punk scene, and in the scene at large. They shared a split record with one of the first American punk bands to sing in Spanish, Los Crudos, and toured with members of the Subhumans across Europe and Japan. When sifting through photographs of the band, you’ll come across pillars of the punk scene like Ian MacKaye of Fugazi, Aaron Elliott, the former drummer of Crimpshine, and the creator of the zine Cometbus, the ultimate chronicler of punk rock history.

Even though Spitboy was beloved and known in many punk circles, they were still told that as musicians, they “hit hard, for girls.” At one concert, when the band stopped their set because of violence erupting in the pit, a man called out, “Hey, if you want to prove your womanhood, shut up and spread your legs or play.” At the time, it was not uncommon for men in punk to tell women that they didn’t think of them as peers or even as people. It was not uncommon for women to be treated like they were good for just one thing.

Gonzales’ new music memoir The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Xicana in a Female Punk Band is as much about identity as it is about what it was like to grow up in a time where the language of intersectionality was absent and inaccessible. She captures what color blindness meant for people of color in the 90s, and how it translated into invisibility. Yet there was a double consciousness – a feeling that we existed in a colorblind society while we were expected to assimilate into mainstream whiteness.

Part of the richness of Gonzales’ book is her depiction of how these identities were prohibited from coexisting. When the band released the Mi Cuerpo Es Mío EP in the early 90s, a member of a riot grrrl group accused them of cultural appropriation.

Photo by Thang Nguyen

Photo by Thang Nguyen

“She objected to our use of Spanish for the title of our record and accused us of stealing from someone else’s culture, in particular the words ‘mi cuerpo es mío,’ which translates to ‘my body is mine.’ Apparently my body was invisible.”

Gonzales feels she didn’t have the vocabulary to communicate why these words felt like such a betrayal. She didn’t discuss why these words hurt her with her band. Instead, she metabolized and internalized them.

“In conforming to the nonconformist punk ways, adhering mostly to the punk uniform, I had lost something along the way, and I began to experience rumblings of discontent that I didn’t quite understand. I secretly listened to Linda Ronstadt’s Canciones de Mi Padre and sang along, holding long sad notes to words like that, like Ronstadt, [words] I only vaguely understood.”


I was 27 when I first heard Violeta Parra’s “Gracias a la Vida.” At the time, I would play it everywhere: at work, in my car, and at home while writing. I had somehow lived most of my adult life without it, though I don’t know how.

Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto
Me ha dado la risa y me ha dado el llanto

Así yo distingo dicha de quebranto
Los dos materiales que forman mi canto
Y el canto de ustedes que es mi mismo canto
Y el canto de todos que es mi propio canto
Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto

To hear Violeta Parra is to accept the beautiful poetry and ugliness of double consciousness. It is to revisit moments when you felt happy, yet very alone. It is both a thank you and a fuck you to the richness of life. “Gracias a la Vida” reflected the complexity I was searching for.

In the songs of Violeta Parra, Facundo Cabral, and Chavela Vargas, I found the same spirit of resistance that attracted me to punk, but this time it was in my language – not just the language of Spanish, but the language of living in-between.

I grew up speaking broken Spanish, but later along in my life, I’d sing these old folk songs to myself and learn new ways to communicate. I’d finally found the words that were inclusive of my identity.


When Martin Sorrondeguy from Los Crudos described Spitboy Rule, he said, “What so many never truly understood was that all four women brought much more than playing instruments to the stage. Each member had stories, struggles, pain, and together they were searching for answers which brought them together as a band, so go ahead, talk your shit. Spitboy just handed you the fucking mic, now what do you have to say?”

“Spitboy just handed you the fucking mic, now what do you have to say?”

Michelle Gonzales and The Spitboy Rule challenged the notion of who gets to speak and whose stories are told. Whether they wrote about misogyny, sexual assault, or violence against women, the band confronted the idea that women in punk needed to shut up and spread their legs or play.

Gonzales’ memoir isn’t just for fans of punk music. It’s for everyone who ever knew they deserved better and fought to reclaim their identity. It’s about the experience of playing your fucking heart out as a woman and finding the language to finally tell your story.

The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Xicana in a Female Punk Band will be available for purchase this spring.


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