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Wrapped in the Flag of Isarel in Mondoweiss

by Sylvia Schwarz
July 7th, 2014

How long can Israel depend on Mizrahi docile loyalty? Smadar Lavie asks in new book - See more at:

Smadar Lavie’s most recent book, Wrapped in the Flag of Israel: Mizrahi Single Mothers and Bureaucratic Torture, is an anthropological study of a group of marginalized women, written by a member of this marginalized group, and written for Westerners who, for the most part, know nothing about intra-Jewish racism in Israel.

In the short but packed volume, Lavie describes the demographics of Israel, the power structure, classism and sexism. She tells some of the history of political movements involving the ethnic majority in Israel (Mizrahi Jews), showing how the minority elite (Ashkenazi Jews) suppress political demands. She includes anthropological descriptions and statistics, describes reasons that the majority ethnic group leans politically to the right, and quotes from her diary, giving compelling testimony to the truly bureaucratic torture that impoverished single mothers must suffer in Israel.

Mizrahi Jews, or Mizrahim (pl. Hebrew), are 50% of the population of Israeli citizens. Ashkenazim make up 30% and Palestinians are the remaining 20%. Most Mizrahim have roots in Arab countries, such as Iraq, Yemen, Egypt and Morocco. Many Jews from those countries were generally forced to leave during the 1950s after Israel became a state. In some cases this may have been a response by those countries to the new Zionist state, or the emigration may have been precipitated by the Israeli government, or they chose to leave, but the creation of about 600,000 Jewish refugee immigrants served Israel’s purposes. Israel needed to bring in Jews to replace the 750,000 Palestinians it had forcibly removed from their homes, both to justify the removal of the Palestinians and to replace the labor that had been forced out.

Mizrahi means Eastern, but it has come to mean a Jew from a country in which the Jewish population did not speak Yiddish. The term therefore includes Ethiopian Jews, Indian and East Asian Jews, and Jews from Spain and some Slavic countries. Ashkenazim originate in Eastern and Central Europe or the Yiddish speaking parts of Europe. They are privileged in terms of education, employment, positions in the armed forces, housing opportunities and they have many other societal advantages.

Prior to reading this book, I was aware of statements like David Ben-Gurion’s “poor human material” , in referring to Jews from Arab countries [see for example War Without End, by Anton La Guardia]. It was evident that if Israel’s founders based their new country on the premise that one ethnicity is superior to others, then it is no stretch to assume that racism will spread to encompass other ethnicities. If Jews are considered superior to non-Jews, it would not be out of character for the privileged class to believe that certain Jews are superior to other kinds of Jews. In fact, it would be a surprise if there was no evidence of the expansion of racism. Racism is hard to contain, always spilling out over the edges and spreading.

Still, the views expressed by some Ashkenazim quoted by Lavie in her book are stunning: the president of Israel in 1951 said that Mizrahim were unfit for education [p. 56], Mizrahi children are openly called “kushi sambo” (sambo nigger) [p. 14]. And, like Palestinians, Mizrahi single mothers are described as “du-ragli” in Hebrew slang. The literal meaning is bipedal but the word implies a sub-human that walks on two legs.

In fact, Europeans were considered so superior to Mizrahi that during the Soviet immigration period Soviet citizens could easily bypass the requirement of having five maternal Jewish generations in order to immigrate to Israel. Many who were not Jewish falsified their documents, as was known to the authorities who let them in anyway. Lavie states, “Perhaps the absorption authorities were less concerned with Jewishness than with increasing Israel’s Whiteness, or ‘eugenic capability’” [p.37].

Mizrahim, who usually arrived in Israel with next to nothing after their former governments confiscated their possessions in the 1950s, were given housing in the homes that Palestinians had been forced out of a few years earlier, or they lived in tent cities on the front lines between Jordan and Israel. Little or no education was given to children as they were considered too primitive to benefit from formal education. Importantly, education of many Mizrahi children did not include foreign languages. Child labor was common, with children being exploited in the homes of Ashkenazim. Children were exposed to medical experimentation [The Ringworm Affair, p. 79], which killed and injured many.

Mizrahi families were often broken apart: many Mizrahi children were forcibly removed from their parents between the 1930s and 1970s, and the babies given to childless Ashkenazi parents. The practice of taking children from parents deemed unsuitable for parenthood continues today for Mizrahi families, especially those led by single women, who have difficulties providing for their children due to the torturous and exploitative bureaucratic system.

Israeli authorities began a policy of dividing and conquering from the moment Mizrahi Jews arrived in Israel. They already had a lot of practice in this strategy: modeling the European colonial powers, Israel divided Palestinians remaining in Israel into Druze, Christians, Bedouins, Muslims, etc., and set one group against each other [see Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of Israel’s Settler State, by Shira Robinson]. This same strategy was used on Jews of Arab and North African countries, which drove a wedge between the Mizrahim and the Palestinians, who shared language and culture and should have been natural allies. In the Ashkenazi Zionist mind, an alliance between Mizrahim and Palestinians was a dangerous prospect for the continuation of the Ashkenazi political and economic domination in Israel. A Mizrahi-Palestinian coalition in government would spell the end of Ashkenazi control.

The welfare system, which was to provide a safety net, instead gives bureaucrats, opportunities to sexually exploit the women who are forced to show up in person at multiple agencies for help (Lavie offers documentation for this phenomenon, for instance Esther Hertzog’s research, “Who benefits from the Welfare State?” [in Hebrew.]). Rules prevent welfare recipients from owning cars, putting money into a bank, and earning even a substandard wage, making normal commerce difficult and obtaining a job nearly impossible. In 2003, the already insufficient safety net was further eroded by laws in the Knesset.

After the welfare safety net was nearly eliminated, Vicky Knafo, a Mizrahi single mother, began a protest march. At the time, the author was also a Mizrahi single mother in Israel, and experienced first-hand the state system of bureaucracy and exploitation meant to disenfranchise an already marginalized group. Although Vicky Knafo’s protest was prominent news in Israel, few foreign news media covered it – it was not deemed important enough. Since few Mizrahi spoke English or other foreign languages, it was impossible to get international coverage of this grassroots movement for social change. At the same time, the Israeli regime was able to play sectors against one another to cause infighting and divisions.

After weeks of Knafo’s camping out and protesting, a Palestinian suicide bomber struck in Jerusalem, and the news media immediately abandoned the Knafo protest to cover the suicide bombing. Mizrahi single mothers had gained nothing.

The swing to the right in Israeli politics has been largely due to the Mizrahi voting bloc, who overwhelmingly supported right-wing parties such as Likud and more recently Avigdor Lieberman’s racist Yisrael Beiteinu. This is a puzzle: how is it possible that a marginalized, oppressed group supports a party which clearly marginalizes and oppresses another group of people? Lavie says that it is a reaction to years of abuse and disenfranchisement by the Israeli left. It was the left that forced the Mizrahim into downward mobility, expressed vile racism against them and carried out some of the worst practices against their families. The right-wing parties have been those that actually give something tangible to the Mizrahim, such as community renewal projects in the Mizrahi ghettos within Israel.

The Israeli left are the parties who abuse the Mizrahi Jews, yet speak about peace with the Palestinians. Mizrahim understand this hypocrisy. The Israeli left want a two-state solution, in which Israel would give up some of the land in the West Bank to a Palestinian state. Yet most of the settlers living in the West Bank, according to Lavie, are Mizrahim. A peace on those terms would result in large-scale Mizrahi homelessness and is therefore unacceptable to Mizrahim.
Also obviously hypocritical to Lavie and other Mizrahi women are the Ashkenazi feminists who are so patronizing to women of color. Lavie says, in addressing these women belonging to NGOs and philanthropic organizations, “Your feminism is not liberation. It is containment.” [p.136] These NGOs and organizations, like Women in Black, who record human rights abuses against Palestinians at West Bank checkpoints, are part of the Israeli left who talk about peace and the two-state solution but tend to ignore the racism in front of them. These Ashkenazi women who talk about peace are seen as heroes among Jews in the West – showing the vitality of Israeli freedom of expression. Yet, Lavie asks, “How would progressive diaspora Jews – important contributors to civil rights and anti-apartheid movements – react to the revelation of Israeli intra-Jewish racism?” [p.138]

What does this all mean for those of us in the Palestinian solidarity community? The majority ethnic group, the Mizrahi, are marginalized and oppressed by the minority Ashkenazi, but are fiercely chauvinistic. They seem willing to accept their own oppression to protect the state from those who are culturally and even ethnically similar to them. This leaves very little room for optimism. If the majority of the Jewish population are those who could play a pivotal role in bringing about justice in that country, yet are satisfied to be racist, how could their opinions be changed? An effective Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targets those with economic and political power, heads of corporations, governmental policy makers, academics – the Ashkenazim. Those in the lower echelons of society – laborers, unemployed people, welfare recipients – the majority who are Mizrahim and Palestinians, might lose a job due to an effective BDS campaign, but the economy does not rise or fall because of them. Few in the West understand the dynamics and demographics of Israeli society, and so do not challenge the Mizrahim to shift their way of thinking. Without this challenge, there is little incentive to change. This is concerning especially in light of such dramatic recent successes of the BDS movement. Is it possible to create change in that society without the Mizrahim?

However, the book’s last sentence, “How long can the regime depend on Mizrahi docile loyalty to the Jewish state?” implies some optimism. A major threat to Ashkenazi domination and perhaps the key to ending Israeli apartheid could be in forging relationships between Mizrahim and Palestinians on the basis of their shared ethnicity, culture, history and oppression. Lavie does not instruct us on how these relationships could be forged, nor does she help us understand our role in this relationship building. But it is essential that we understand the pervasive racism within Israeli culture.

- See more at:

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The thwarted desire to belong in The Jordan Times

by Sally Bland
The Jordan Times
February 22nd, 2015

While the title of this book suggests that it covers a single topic, nothing could be farther from the truth. In the process of explaining why it is virtually impossible for Mizrahi single mothers to provide a decent life for their children, Smadar Lavie analyses multiple aspects of the Israeli state, economy and society, and also shows the interplay between Israel’s domestic politics and its conflict with the Palestinians. She masterfully connects the dots between a wealth of detailed facts to point to strategic issues that are often overlooked in the daily barrage of reporting on Palestine/Israel.

“Wrapped in the Flag of Israel” is unique in a number of ways. It is the first English-language ethnography on single motherhood outside North America. Also unique is Lavie’s interweaving of personal experience and research into an engaging narrative that jumps from social science terminology to slangy, diary style. Herself both an Israeli Mizrahi single mother and activist, who has stood in the welfare lines, and a US-trained anthropologist, she brings these seemingly divergent perspectives to her analysis. Her unflinching exposure of intra-Jewish racism and its political consequences is unmatched.

The book’s title is both very concrete and highly symbolic. It refers to Vicky Knafo, “a 43-year-old single mother of three”, who on July 2, 2003, began a 205-kilometre march from Mitzpe Ramon, an isolated Mizrahi town in the Negev Desert, to Jerusalem, literally “wrapping herself in the Israeli flag”. (p. 1)

Knafo was protesting the state’s decision to slash the already meager welfare allowance of single mothers. Many others got involved, including the author, setting up a tent city in a Jerusalem park which lasted for over a month, until a suicide bombing refocused attention on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This is one of many examples cited by Lavie to show how the Israeli establishment can and does use — and sometimes creates — security concerns to override the Mizrahi struggle for equality, and preclude a potential Mizrahi-Palestinian alliance.

There are many ironies involved in the Mizrahi situation. Unlike 1948 Palestinians or, say, American Blacks, who have organised for minority rights, Mizrahi (Eastern) Jews constitute the majority of Israeli citizens. They are also the majority of the poor and disenfranchised, though official discourse disguises these facts.

Due to a particular combination of gender and racial discrimination, the vast majority of welfare moms in Israel are Mizrahi. Lavie gives a vivid, but troubling account of the status of Mizrahi women from the early days of Zionist settlement through the 1960s. By virtue of their Arab origins, they were regarded as backward, and trapped on the lower rungs of society by the Ashkenazi elite, who headed the colonisation of Palestine.

Yet, ironically, in their desire to fit into the Israeli/Jewish mainstream, Mizrahi deny their Arab roots and the history of discrimination against them. In turn, “the regime uses this false unity to mask how it uses bureaucracy to crush, marginalise, contain and buy out individuals or groups within social protest movements.” (p. 80)

This point is the political crux of the book which “explores the conundrum of protesting against a state one is strongly obliged to deeply love”. (p. 19)

In Lavie’s view, the state’s manipulation of Mizrahi loyalty rules out any real agency on their part.

Lavie underpins her contention of bureaucratic torture by analysing a range of legal, economic and social factors that hinder single mothers getting a job with a living wage or public assistance. Especially the privatisation drive in the 1990s, which brought rampant inflation, skyrocketing rents, reduced social benefits and imported labour, exacerbated the labyrinth of hurdles to be overcome. The single mother suffers endless waiting in line, shuttling between government agencies, often with her children in tow, in order to fulfil changing criteria and demands for various documents.

In the end, she is often refused aid, but she has no choice but to keep try trying. If she can’t provide for her children, they will be forcibly enrolled in a boarding school, even though this costs the state seven times more than granting the mother assistance — only one example of bureaucracy’s illogic. This vicious circle is not merely irritating but inflicts serious pain and often leaves the single mother with real psychological and physical ailments. Her ability to cope may “disintegrate because she uses herself as a human shield to shelter her children from forced boarding, homelessness, lack of medical treatment, etc”. (p. 109)

Provocative at every turn, Lavie ends with a question whose answer could have a major impact on future developments: “How long can the regime depend on Mizrahi docile loyalty to the Jewish state?” (p. 152)

Buy book now | Download e-book now | Back to Smadar Lavie's Author Page

Wrapped in the Flag of Isarel in BRICUP

by Malcolm Levitt
BRICUP (British Committee for the Universities of Palestine) Newsletter No. 82 p. 12-13
December 2014

This is a remarkable book by a remarkable woman. Lavie is a professor of anthropology and social activist. Through a set of personal circumstances explained in the book, she also has extensive first-hand experience of life as a single mother attempting to survive on shockingly inadequate social benefits in Israel. In these circumstances, she used her ethnographic training to observe and document her own life and women sharing her experiences. As she says in the book, "I was a welfare mother with no welfare. I was an ethnographer and autoethnographer".

Lavie's book is notable on many different levels. On one page, she can write technical and opaque sentences such as this (p81): "I argued that one learns to culturally construct race and gender differences as one simultaneously naturalizes them into essences". On another page the writing is personal, moving and poetic, such as this (p62): "The crisp and cool desert breeze came from the north and caressed our southbound backs". She moves quick as lightning from anthropological analysis, to sharp dissections of the political landscape, to highly personal and moving anecdotes, to cutting absurdist humour.

Accompanying the writer on this journey is like sharing on a long, bumpy, bus ride with a person of great intellect, tough life experience, a cheeky sense of humour, and personal warmth. It is a worthwhile journey. As she says (p90): "I want you, my reader, not only to comprehend the text. I want you to survive it."

In the context of the Israel/Palestine conflict, her most valuable contribution is her deep and personal understanding of the predicament of the majority Mizrahi community in Israel (the Mizrahim are Jews originating from formerly muslim countries, as opposed to the largely European-origin Ashkenazim). For my part, I confess to being largely ignorant of the Mizrahim and their significance in the politics of the Israel/Palestine conflict. I knew that much support for the right wing in Israel comes from the Mizrahim but did not really know why that is. I could also imagine that the predicament of poor Mizrahim, especially single mothers, would be very severe in Israel, but could not see that as anything but a sideshow to far bigger political issues. Lavie argues convincingly otherwise. Her presentation places the domination of the Ashkenazim over the Mizrahim as the central fact of internal Israeli politics. The settlement policies, and the periodic conflagrations in Israeli/Palestine relations, cannot be understood without taking into account Ashkenazi-Mizrahi dynamics. She describes how the dominant Ashkenazi ruling class keep Mizrahi social protest in check by provocation of the Palestinians. She describes the astonishing series of bureaucratic hurdles facing poor Mizrahi women as "torture"-a term that initially grated with me, since it appears to place excessive paperwork on the same level as the infliction of physical pain. However, after reading her personal experiences and anecdotes the term no longer seemed so inappropriate.

Above all, her book provides a vivid sense of what life is like for the majority of Israeli Jews, how they think, what really concerns them, and what constrains them. That is essential knowledge for anyone interested in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Smadar Lavie has written a very insightful and original book.

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Wrapped in the Flag of Isarel in the Journal of Palestine Studies

by Simona Sharoni.
Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 44, No. 3
Spring ‘15

The experiences of Israeli Jews whose families originated from the Arab and Muslim world, including the Middle East, North Africa, and the margins of Ottoman Europe, have been written out of dominant accounts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Commonly referred to as Sephardim, Mizrahim, or Arab Jews, this population has suffered systemic discrimination and disenfranchisement. Sexism and gender inequalities have added a layer of oppression to the social and economic hardship experienced by Mizrahi women. In her book, Smadar Lavie, Mizrahi activist and author, details the daily struggles of Mizrahi single mothers with multiple bureaucratic institutions in Israel, filling an important void in the literature.

Defying conventional academic styles, Wrapped in the Flag of Israel comprises fragments of memoir and auto-ethnography fused with political analysis and cultural critique. Informed by critical race feminist theorizing, Lavie skillfully weaves her moving personal story as a single mother fighting to regain legal custody of her son with a thought-provoking analysis of social protest movements in Israel. Covering mobilizations focused primarily on gender and race inequalities within Israel, the book begins with an insider’s perspective on the 2003 Single Mothers’ March and ends with the Israeli mass protests in Tel Aviv in summer 2011, often referred to in the media as “Tahrir is Here.”

In analyzing the Single Mothers’ March as the culmination of the multiple struggles of poor Mizrahi women in Israel, Lavie uses the term GendeRace to call attention to “bureaucratic logic’s main classificatory criterion . . . a calcified amalgamation of gender and race.” She concludes that Israel’s bureaucracy is an “inflictor of pain” on welfare mothers (p. 80). Lavie examines the social protest of 2003 and its aftermath by detailing how, following media coverage of the march, which was led by forty-three-year-old mother of three Vicky Knafo, “dozens of poverty-stricken single mothers from Israel’s Mizrahi ghettos and barrios started their own marches on Jerusalem” (p. 5).

One of the more provocative arguments in the book is about agency. Lavie’s analysis of “how Israel’s bureaucracy denies Mizrahi single mothers their agency,” serves as the basis for her conclusion that “there are situations where agency is impossible” (p. 80). The book documents how the Israeli state’s failure to address the plight of Mizrahi single mothers gave rise to several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), like Ahoti (Hebrew for “my sister”), that work to support, represent, and advocate for this underserved community. Far from romanticizing the grassroots campaigns led by NGOs, the book examines critically the politics of funding as well as conflicts of power and privilege between academics and activists, and within the feminist movement in Israel. Throughout the book, Lavie also provides original discussions of such questions as why Mizrahim support the right wing in Israel. Most insightful is Lavie’s analysis of the dilemmas facing Mizrahi feminists, who are discriminated against both as women and as a racial minority but often feel alienated in the Israeli feminist movement and academy where racism is overlooked.

Wrapped in the Flag of Israel underscores the dynamic interplay between Israel’s socioeconomic divisions and the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both examples of social protests described in the book end abruptly as the political conflict escalates and the Israeli-Palestinian divide returns to dominate the news. In the aftermath of a suicide bombing in Jerusalem in August 2003, “the plight of the single mothers was completely off the public agenda in favor of the Palestine-Israel conflict. Most mothers left the encampment within a few days of the bombing” (p. 146). An almost identical phenomenon ensued in the summer of 2011. Inspired by the Tahrir Square demonstrations in Cairo, Egypt, “tens of thousands of young Israelis, priced out of their rental leases or foreclosed upon, protested the state’s slashing of public services, echoing the Single Mothers’ Protest of 2003, but on a larger scale” (p. 148). A suicide attack on an Israeli bus near Eilat, which provided an excuse for a “retaliatory” Israeli military operation, once again shifted the media and public attention in Israel away from socioeconomic disparities.

Lavie’s book ends with a rhetorical question: “How long can the regime depend on Mizrahi docile loyalty to the Jewish state?” (p. 153). Like the other poignant questions raised in the book, this question has no easy answer. However, Lavie illustrates how asking difficult, troubling questions that disturb taken-for-granted silences can be an important strategy of resistance. In doing so, Wrapped in the Flag of Israel offers theoretical and political insights that extend beyond Israel’s undeclared borders.

Simona Sharoni is professor of gender and women’s studies at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh. She is the author of Gender and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Politics of Women’s Resistance (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1995). Her new book, Gender and Resistance in Israel and Palestine, will be published by Syracuse University Press.

Buy book now | Download e-book now | Back to Smadar Lavie's Author Page

PM Press Feature in Sapling Newsletter

Originally published in the Sapling Newsletter
May 30th, 2016
This week Sapling talks with the editors at PM Press.

Sapling: What should people know who may not be familiar with PM Press?
PM Press: In less than 10 years, PM Press has managed to release nearly 400 books that have slowly and steadily sold over a million copies (combined) without any mainstream or corporate support. Our staff has gone from fully volunteer to full-time paid employees with very few changes. Unlike traditional publishers, our sales rely heavily on grassroots events (hand to hand bookselling) from coast to coast, word of mouth and small press reviews, and the support of the DIY and global political activist communities. We’d like to think that at our best we’ve been an example for folks interested in starting their own independent publishing ventures, and as an amplifier for writers, artists, and activists working on social/political justice issues ignored by the celebrity-driven mainstream media; and at our worst, proof that the world does not really need any more fantasy novels or tenure-driven Marxist analysis of the world (regardless of how well-intentioned, of course).
Sapling: How did your name come about?
PM Press: We needed a name quickly; a list was drawn up with options ranging from large motorcycle engine sizes (1200cc) to book related terms (Crooked Spine) to initialed phrases (FTW). PM was a friendly set of initials that could be used for any purpose that the occasion required (print matters, pogue mahone, piano man etc.). It didn’t hurt that most of the productive work in the early days was taking place late at night, in the PM!
Sapling: What do you pay close attention to when reading submissions? Any deal breakers?
PM Press: Am I excited to read the topic or story? Is the writer able to communicate an idea or am I left puzzled? Sometimes I'm excited to read a manuscript based on the synopsis and the writer hasn't been able to follow through beyond that initial spark.
The deal breakers are sort of boring. Nothing racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. Otherwise we're open to publishing an eclectic range of nonfiction, fiction, and comics as long as it's something a few of us find interesting.
 Where do you imagine PM Press to be headed over the next couple years? What’s on the horizon?
PM Press: We'll keep trucking along releasing lots more books by authors old and new while covering a diverse range of ideas both in fiction and nonfiction. Hopefully some graphic novels and comic collections. Occasionally a book that left me puzzled but through a lot of hard work has come together at last.
Sapling: As an editor, what is the hardest part of your job? The best part?
PM Press: The hardest thing for me as an editor is to give everything the care and vigilance it deserves, moving it all the way from the submitted manuscript to its polished final form, the main reason being a burdensome workload. It’s a lot of ground to cover. There’s so much worthy stuff that we want to publish yet we’re only a tiny crew.
The best part is any time a reader finds one of our books inspiring or engaging. If something we publish sheds light on a neglected issue, voice, or history, or serves as a tool to think about how to make the world better, then whatever it took to get it out there was worth it.
Sapling:  If you were stranded on a desert island for a week with only three books, what books would you want to have with you?
PM Press: Walden and Resistance to Civil Government (Norton Critical Edition), Henry David Thoreau: A favorite book for most of my life. I could spend months (years?) on an island reading this without exhausting its store of valuable things.
Kindred, Octavia Butler: The most recent novel I bought, last week. While stuck on a desert island I’d want something that could transport me to another place and time, and Kindred relates to the protagonist’s struggle to survive in a frightening and unfamiliar world, that of American slavery.
Garner’s Modern English Usage, Bryan A. Garner: Assuming I’d have brought my laptop, I’d probably want to get caught up on some editing as long as my battery held out, and Garner’s book is an indispensable reference book I wouldn’t want to be without.
Sapling: Just for fun (because we like fun and the number three), if PM Press was a person, what three things would it be thinking about obsessively?
PM Press: If PM Press was a person (and what a strange person that would be), the three things we would be thinking about obsessively would be:
1) How to make Google previews work more easily for our titles,
2) Finding new ways to get books into people's hands that focus on social/cultural and political justice and inspire change,
3) Smashing Capital and the State.
PM Press was founded at the end of 2007 by a small collection of folks with decades of publishing, media, and organizing experience. PM Press co-conspirators have published and distributed hundreds of books, pamphlets, CDs, and DVDs. Members of PM have founded enduring book fairs, spearheaded victorious tenant organizing campaigns, and worked closely with bookstores, academic conferences, and even rock bands to deliver political and challenging ideas to all walks of life. We’re old enough to know what we’re doing and young enough to know what’s at stake. We seek to create radical and stimulating fiction and nonfiction books, pamphlets, T-shirts, visual and audio materials to entertain, educate, and inspire you.
 For more info: 

Urusla K. Le Guin’s Late in the Day In Rain Taxi

Klausner's Bookshelf
Midwest Book Review
February 2012

Ursula K. Le Guin’s newest book includes poems, an essay on poetic cra , and a postscript on the state of literature. The poems are well cra ed, each with a poignant message about humanity or nature.
 Le Guin says in her forward: “by demonstrating and performing aesthetic order or beauty, poetry can move minds to the sense of fellowship that prevents careless usage and exploitation of our fellow beings, waste and cruelty.” In both cra and theme, this new collec- tion meets her ideal.

Le Guin is better known as a novelist, the author of The Le Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, Earthsea, and so many others. Throughout her career, however, she has also been a poet. Her new collection is a worthy addition to her lifework, in which she has continually looked at the relationship of humans to the natural world and sought solutions to con ict and violence.

In “The Old Music” she uses the form of Goethe’s “Nachtgesang”:

The tunes of my own choosing
all sounded false and wrong

I sought a newer music,

I found an older song.

In returning to an older song, Le Guin uses traditional forms, free verse, and “free form.” She says: “By free form I mean a discernible pattern—involving a regularity, repetition of stanzas, line lengths, metric beat . . . that is unique to a certain poem.” “The Canada Lynx,” here in its entirety, is free form:

We know how to know and how to think
how to exhibit what is known

to heaven’s bright ignorant eye

how to be busy and to multiply.

He knows how to walk

into the trees alone not looking back,
so light on his so feet he does not sink
into the snow. How to leave no track,
no sound, no shadow. How to be gone.

Here Le Guin shows her trademark respect for the environment; with irony and humility, she acknowledges that the lynx may know more than we imagine. But she also exempli es the kind of freedom she es- pouses. “We can use rhyme, meter, repetition, however and whenever we choose—in conventional forms, or semi-conventional forms, or in once-only patterns we discover or invent. This, I think, is true freedom of verse.” In “Artemisia Tridentata,” she uses end rhyme and a single quatrain:

Some ruthlessness be ts old age.

Tender young herbs are generous and pliant,
but in dry solitudes the grey-leaved sage
stands unforthcoming and de ant.

She may be de ant—she’s an unapologetic anarchist and feminist, and certainly a literary sage—however Le Guin is anything but unforthcom- ing and ruthless. Goethe, in “Nachtgesang,” wrote: “Those eternal feelings / li me sublimely high, / away from the earthly crowd.” As she observes the world, Le Guin is as sublime as Goethe and yet more grounded in solid form, imaginative imagery, and empathy.

In the book’s postscript, Le Guin says, “Resistance and change o en begin in art . . . I’ve had a long career as a writer, and a good one, in good company. Here at the end of it, I don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publish- ing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds; but the name of our beautiful reward isn’t pro t. Its name is freedom.” With such a view, Late in the Day is a tting capstone to Ursula K. Le Guin’s long career. The poems, with their diverse topics and varied forms, show versatility and compassion.

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Jon Felton and his Soulmobile // Songs for A Wolf at the Gate

Spirit You All Music
June 7th, 2016

Frostburg, Maryland's Jon Felton has been at the wheel of his Soulmobile band for almost a decade now, but their latest effort brings their Kingdom-heralding, punk-flavored folk to a brand-new audience: kids. The album is a companion to Mark Van Steenwyk's book A Wolf at the Gate, which retells the story of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio for children with beautiful woodblock-print illustrations and the author's characteristically Mennonite emphasis on peacemaking and non-violence; Soulmobile's music retains those weighty themes while sharpening them with charm and humor at every turn. As the cliché goes, Songs for A Wolf at the Gate is kids' music that grown-ups will appreciate, too.

After the wonderful opener "The Prayer of the Beggar King", which is one of the most memorable renditions of St. Francis' prayer yet put to music, Songs for A Wolf at the Gate acquaints listeners with its large cast. Van Steenwyk's book turns the legend of Francis taming a town-terrorizing wolf into a society-wide morality tale, so here the different levels of the town's social strata, along with the beasts of the nearby forest, each get a tune with its own distinct lesson. Felton goes full-Aesop on "The Song of the Raven", where he sweetly admonishes the hoarding bird for stealing away the other animals' food ("Raven, Raven, don't you know that's no way to live and grow?/Raven, Raven, it's better to go hungry with friends than it is to be full alone"), while on "The Song of the Nobles", the ruling class's raucous gang vocals sneer at the peasants they casually exploit.

Though this is his first kids' album, Felton is an old hand at playfully illuminating serious issues - he's a founding member and performer in the Carnival de Resistance, a circus aimed at spiritual renewal and ecological justice. Many of those Carnival accomplices lend their voices to Songs for A Wolf at the Gate. Most notably, there's Jay Beck, whose unmistakable booming baritone shows up throughout, with other contributions from Aimee Wilson, Seth Martin, members of Psalters and The Hollands!, and many more.

Another contribution is from Soulmobile's multi-instrumentalist BJ Lewis - the hilarious "12 Days of Christmas"-style "Kneeuhmajeans", which accrues new descriptors of the Beggars' destitute state with each repetition: "There is a hole in the tip of my cap/Toe of my sock/Knee of my jeans..."  That, along with songs like "Simple Gifts" (which has the classic accelerating chorus without which any children's album would be impoverished) are just a few of many indications that Felton and company didn't take the route musicians sometimes default to when creating for tykes: dumb down song structures, garnish with banjo, and call it kids' music. Instead, they have respect for the form and, after the pattern of masters like Ella Jenkins and Raffi, a deep respect for their young audience. It's that respect, combined with grin-inducing humor and good old-fashioned Appalachian folk music, that makes Songs for A Wolf at the Gate such a pleasure, no matter how long it's been since you've read a picture book.

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Strike: A Review

By Dale Heckerman
The International Marxist-Humanist
May 28th, 2016

In the field of radical labor history, Jeremy Brecher’s Strike! is held in high esteem by fellow leftists and labor historians and is considered one of the standard go-to reference books for anyone aspiring to learn labor history. I agree that this book is a must-read source of information on labor’s struggles in the United States during the period from 1877 to today. I believe that Jeremy Brecher genuinely cares about the plight of the working class as he painstakingly details numerous labor actions over the past, nearly one-hundred-forty years of labor history. I learned a lot from this book and it would be very difficult to sum up all the various strikes and labor actions he covers. I recommend that everyone read it for the wealth of information and insight this book contains.

We learn a lot from Brecher concerning the creativity and co-operation between workers that has been hidden from “conventional” history. A critical examination of the history of unions and union leaders is taken up, as well, which ranges from the heroic, e.g., Mary Harris Jones (Mother Jones), to the development of parasitic business unionism.

Brecher begins his book by briefly discussing the fact that strikes occurred during the building of the Great Pyramids of Egypt and that strikes had occurred as early as 1636 in North America, where the strikers were prosecuted as illegal conspirators. After recounting a few interesting observations by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831, which will remind folks of what will be developed dialectically by Karl Marx in the following decade, Brecher starts his labor narrative in the year 1877.

Brecher’s Chapter 1, “The Great Upheaval,” marks the first great American mass strike, which occurred primarily on the railroads in the year 1877. In addition to the mass strikes, Brecher lists several pertinent facts relating to 1877 beginning with what became a monument to the Great Upheaval, the construction of armories in many major cities, built to protect “America not against invasion from abroad but against popular revolt at home.” 1877 was four years into the longest depression, which began in 1873, that capitalism had known. The Paris Commune was still fresh in everyone’s mind and its effect on the working class was particularly unnerving to the capitalists. The 1877 General Strike grew out of the failure of less violent forms of struggle. Brecher also covers the use of federal troops to break the strikes.

All these facts are indeed important, but if we try to trace the self-development of labor dialectically we see that some important facts are left out, beginning with the fact that 1877 was the year that Federal Troops were removed from the South, thus ending Reconstruction and consequently freeing up more federal troops for use in the class war against labor.
The Unfinished State of America’s Second Revolution

Marxist-Humanists regard 1877 as the year of betrayal in the history of Black liberation, which has had lasting consequences to this day for Black liberation and labor. However, the unfinished state of America’s second revolution (America’s Civil War) isn’t the ground where Brecher starts his narrative. The following quotes may help explain what we mean by the unfinished state of America’s second revolution. The first quote is from Marx’s Capital, Volume 1 and concerns the effects of slavery in America on labor:

“In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded. But out of the death of slavery a new life at once arose. The first fruit of the Civil War was the agitation for the eight-hour day.”

The following quotes describing capitalism in the United States following the failure of Reconstruction after the Civil War are from Raya Dunayevskaya’s book, American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard (ACOT):

“American capitalism… has been both raised up, and thrown back by the unfinished state of its revolution. Capitalism, not capitalism in general, but American capitalism as it expanded after the Civil War, sharpened the basic contradictions of the historic environment in which it functioned. This capitalism was tied to the cotton plantations.” (ACOT, p. 5, emphasis in original).
“No wonder we have advanced so little from 1877 when Union, ‘one and indivisible,’ meant unity forged in the struggle against labor for imperialist adventures. To understand todays racism as well as tokenism, it is necessary to return to that page in history when the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ of Northern capital with the South set the stage for the unbridled violence against labor” (ACOT, p 12).

To understand the dialectic of labor we must turn to the past. We cannot understand history in the United States unless we understand Black history. The Black dimension has put American civilization on trial for nearly four hundred years since the arrival of Africans as slaves in 1619 and has been the “touchstone” of American history ever since.
Divide and Conquer

I think those of us who are even remotely acquainted with labor history are aware of the divide-and-conquer strategy used by capitalists to defeat the working class. Racism as the most commonly used form of betrayal is also familiar to most. But what happened to African-Americans following the Civil War has to rank as one of the most heinous examples:

“The three basic constituents of the betrayal, that is to say, the unfinished state of revolution, were (1) the freedmen did not get ‘the 40 acres and a mule’ they were promised; (2) the old slave owners did get back their plantations and thus the power to institute a mode of production to suit cotton culture; and (3) the crop lien system was introduced with ‘new’ labor; share cropping…. Once Congress, in 1867, failed to pass Thaddeus Stevens’ Land Division Act which would have given each freedman 40 acres and $50 for a homestead, the rest was inevitable” (ACOT, p. 11).

Consequently, most Black workers were to remain isolated in the South for several decades, divided from white workers and from most forms of labor organization bringing Black and white workers together against the capitalists.

Hopefully, I’ve been able to establish the ground needed to give a sense of the conditions on which labor, both Black and white have had to navigate in America. Jeremy Brecher covers most of the labor strikes from 1877 through to our time, but without the category of the Black dimension as touchstone of American as well as labor history, one can easily miss key moments in the dialectic of labor’s self-development. One such moment is that of Populism, which Brecher doesn’t mention and which briefly challenged the rulers of the benighted South.

Populism was in some ways a greater threat to the southern “plantocracy” than the Civil War because it was a revolutionary challenge from “within” the South, not from “without”. Populism succeeded in temporarily establishing white and Black solidarity. Unfortunately, Populism came to an end with monopoly capitalism’s transformation into imperialism that not only re-invigorated racism in the South but brought it to the North.

Brecher takes up the year 1886, the year that became the dividing line in American labor, and the year when no less than 80,000 were out on strike for the eight-hour day[1]. That year, the counter-revolution broke the back of labor by hanging its leaders, the Haymarket Martyrs in Chicago, Parsons, Spies, Fischer, and Engel. Brecher also gives us a very detailed account of the strikes of 1892-94, which included the Homestead Massacre, Coeur d’Alene’s mining strikes, and Briceville, Tennessee miners’ strike where miners gave armed resistance to military attack. Brecher also recounts how “The New Orleans General Strike revealed an extraordinary solidarity among all races and strata of labor.” Brecher ends this chapter with the great Pullman Strike, writing that Eugene Victor Debs ended that strike because “it might have eventuated in a revolution.”

Brecher’s focus is on “peak periods” of mass strikes and therefore he doesn’t necessarily cover strikes that don’t fit into that pattern, e.g., the Ludlow Massacre of 1914 in Colorado.

The Ludlow Massacre was an attack by the Colorado National Guard and company camp guards on a tent colony of 1,200 striking coal miners and their families at Ludlow, Colorado, on April 20, 1914. Approximately twenty-four people, including miners’ wives and children, were killed.

Some consider the Ludlow Massacre a watershed moment in American labor relations and perhaps one of the most violent struggles between capital and labor. The outrage over the Ludlow Massacre was influential in promoting child labor laws and an eight-hour workday.
From the IWW to the Depression Decade

Following shortly after the end of Populism came the emergence of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Brecher very nearly dismisses the IWW as “more of a social movement than a union.” The IWW was industrial unionism 30 years ahead of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and was built along militant class struggle lines. At its height, the IWW claimed over 100,000 members, with a not insignificant number of Black members.  Moreover, the IWW had unions in the prejudice-ridden South. The IWW (or Wobblies) was a militant revolutionary organization born out of the desperate conditions workers were experiencing during the turn of the twentieth century and brought together, for a time, the poorest and most downtrodden working people from every race and group, along with some larger-than-life characters. What other union has evoked the attention of poets, novelists, and radicals as much as the Wobblies? The Wobblies were imbued with the message of an alternative society run by and for the benefit of common folk. This message was explained, preached and sung around campfires of itinerant workers and in meeting halls across North America and around the world.
The Wobblies were always anti-war and advocated against suspicion and hatred of “foreigners.”

The turn of the twentieth century was a very intense period of class war that gave birth to an appreciation of spontaneity and of revolutionary ideas. Many Wobblies enjoyed reading Marx’s Communist Manifesto. And it was during this period that the Black labor activist Lucy Parsons, the widow of Haymarket Martyr Albert Parsons and a founding member of the IWW, advocated the tactic of “Sit Down Strikes. This was nearly thirty years in advance of the formation of the CIO and its successful sit-down strike against General Motors in Flint, Michigan in 1936-37.
The IWW led many successful strikes, the most famous being the so-called “Bread and Roses” strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912 World War I and red baiting led to the persecution of the IWW and imprisonment of its leaders, which brought about the decline of the IWW (ACOT, p. 18).

The next period of mass strikes Brecher covers is 1919, which is obviously a very turbulent period in world history with the end of World War I, and, for a brief period of time, the success of the Russian Revolution. The wave of strikes in 1919 was truly massive and extremely diverse, and Brecher does a comprehensive job of covering this period. Of particular interest to me was the Seattle Strike of 1919, where the strikers not only took care of themselves, but also conducted “social services” by the various trades providing necessary services for the entire city of Seattle. In the case of the steel districts of Pennsylvania and the surrounding region in 1919, Brecher writes about the use by capital of between 30,000 and 40,000 Black workers as strikebreakers. These workers had little compunction about this because most American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions had been white only.

One problem here is that Brecher doesn’t write about the migration of 1-1/2 million Black workers who moved North before, during and after WWI only to do the worst jobs imaginable and who had to live in oppressive ghettos. Black soldiers who went to fight in WWI for “democracy”, came home at the end of the war to “Jim Crow”, the KKK (who followed the Black migration North) and the “Red Summer of 1919”. During the Red Summer of 1919, there were 26 race riots. Some of the Black soldiers who went back home to the South after the war were lynched in their uniforms. Can anyone now wonder why so many Black folks were attracted to Garveyism and Marcus Garvey’s back to Africa campaign?

The next period Brecher covers is the Depression Decade and again, he details the creativity and cooperation of workers this time, while they endured the extreme hardships imposed by the Depression. Brecher’s attention to detail makes it all the more inexplicable that he misses the key role Black workers played in the formation of the CIO. Without Black labor, the CIO could not have organized the basic industries where Black labor was pivotal. Furthermore, Black and white unity was now a fact of life that could never again be denied.

Moving on to the next period, “The War and Post-War Strike Wave,” Brecher’s blindspot regarding Black labor continues by not including A. Philip Randolph’s attempt to organize a Black “March on Washington Movement,” which prompted President Franklin Roosevelt to issue Executive order number 8802 barring discrimination in war industries and thus prevented the march. The next notable period of agitation by Black workers ignored by Brecher is that of the 1943 Black rebellions in New York and Detroit. Brecher does mention very briefly the miners’ strike, also in 1943, but doesn’t give it the attention it deserves as the only major union-recognized strike of WWII. Moreover, it could have been mentioned that there were a great number of Black workers in the mines.

Brecher explains how WWII had integrated the economy more than ever before and how conditions affecting workers across industry lines created the best conditions the country had ever known for a nationwide general strike. In response, the government took over the regulation of wages and worked out agreements between industry and the unions to control the workers. Brecher ends this chapter with the fact that despite these agreements, there were still wildcat strikes, but fails to mention a most important postwar strike, the 1949-50 Miner’s General Strike[2].
The Postwar Era
The 1949-50 Miners’ General Strike was the first strike against the new stage of production, automation, which had taken the form of the continuous miner, and which created a whole new stage of cognition that questioned the very foundation of capitalist production.  They raised issues like what kind of labor must humanity perform, and why must there be such a division between mental and manual labor, between work and life. And as alluded to above concerning the miners’ strike of 1943, the mining industry was where Black labor was both significantly numerous and integrated into the union. The 1949-50 Miner’s General Strike conditioned the dialectic of both white and Black labor’s self-development from that point on. When taking the subsequent Civil Rights Movement together with the workers’ battles against automation of the 1950’s and 1960’s, one could consider these movements in terms of both race and class. Brecher ends his Chapter 6, “The War and Post-War Strike Wave,” roughly in the year 1947, just short of President Harry Truman’s integrating the Army in 1948 at A. Philip Randolph’s prodding, as well as the 1949-50 Miner’s General Strike.

Brecher then proceeds with his Chapter 7, “The Unknown Labor Dimension of the Vietnam War Era Revolt.” After a cursory review of the 1960’s revolts Brecher resumes his labor narrative with the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Brecher acknowledges the changed attitude of workers in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and their desire for more control over production, but doesn’t link this with the fundamental question workers have raised since 1950, “what kind of labor should people do”. Consequently, the workers’ desire for more control over production seems to appear ab novo around the year 1970.

Brecher covers the bigger strikes of the period of 1970 through to our time beginning with the U.S. Postal strike of 1970 and the use of federal troops to break that strike[3]. Brecher’s begins his exposition for the 1970’s by explaining, “workers’ action in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s was increasingly independent of union leaderships, with wildcat strikes, contract rejections, informal direct action on the jobs, and rank and file caucuses all reaching their highest levels in the post-World War II era.” Add to this mix the deepest recession since the Great Depression beginning in 1973, declining profit rates, decreasing wages due to union busting and free trade agreements sending jobs overseas. We can thus easily visualize the end of the so-called “golden age of capitalism”, the period from 1947 through 1973. Workers have been in a downward spiral ever since.
The End of the Postwar Boom

I doubt if the above description depicting the end of the so-called golden age of capitalism will be new to many of us folks who lived through it. At any rate, we need to go beyond the mere phrase “declining profit rates” to state bluntly that there will be no return to any “golden age of capitalism” (which I think Brecher would agree with). To better grasp that fact, we need to grasp Marx’s concept of “The Tendential Fall in The Rate of Profit,” where he argues that the decline in the rate of profit is organic to the law of motion of capitalism.

I believe the following quotes from Michael Roberts’s blog are relevant here: “The key tests of the validity of the law in modern capitalist economies would be to show whether 1) the rate of profit falls over time as the organic composition of capital[4] rises; 2) the rate of profit rises when the organic composition falls or when the rate of surplus value[5] rises faster than the organic composition of capital; 3) the rate of profit rises, if there is sharp fall in the organic composition of capital as in a slump.  These would be the empirical tests and there is plenty of empirical evidence for the US and world economy to show that the answer is yes to all these questions.”

“And Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall makes an even more fundamental prediction: that the capitalist mode of production will not be eternal, that it is transitory in the history of human social organization. The law of the tendency predicts that, over time, there will be a fall in the rate of profit globally, delivering more crises of a devastating character. Work has been done by modern Marxist analysis that confirms that the world rate of profit has fallen over the last 150 years.”

“As Esteban Maito concludes: ‘The tendency of the rate of profit to fall and its empirical confirmation highlights the historically limited nature of capitalist production. If the rate of profit measures the vitality of the capitalist system, the logical conclusion is that it is getting closer to its endpoint.  There are many ways that capital can attempt to overcome crises and regenerate constantly. Periodic crises are specific to the capitalist mode of production and allow, ultimately, a partial recovery of profitability. This is a characteristic aspect of capital and the cyclical nature of the capitalist economy. But the periodic nature of these crises has not stopped the downward trend of the rate of profit over the long term.  So the arguments claiming that there is an inexhaustible capacity of capital to restore the rate of profit and its own vitality and which therefore considers the capitalist mode of production as a natural and a-historical phenomenon, are refuted by the empirical evidence’.”

“Capitalism has a ‘use-by-date’.”

Brecher traces labor’s struggles through the last decades of the twentieth century that saw newer strategies for employer demands for concessions that were often backed by lockouts and the hiring of replacement workers. These forms of employer oppression were met by new and creative strategies of resistance from workers. One of the unlikely concentrations of resistance was Decatur, Illinois, where Caterpillar, Bridgestone/Firestone and A.F. Staley Manufacturing were all located at the time. The strikes at these enterprises started separately and eventually converged into a regional mass strike. Brecher ends his strike coverage on the eve of the millennium with a detailed exposition of the UPS Strike of 1997.

Brecher’s last chapter “Beyond One-Sided Class War” ends the book with what he calls “mini-revolts”, the very broad range of mass movements more commonly known as, “The 1999 Battle of Seattle”, “2006 Immigration Protests”, “Wisconsin Uprising”, “Occupy Wall Street”, “2012 Chicago Teachers Strike”, and “Fight for 15”. I can only give a whiff of the different movements covered during the past 17 years or so and highly recommend reading Brecher’s account of what he calls mini-revolts for yourselves. Brecher’s very nuanced and detailed coverage of these movements demonstrates the interconnectedness and new broader forms of solidarity and organization developing between labor (union and non-union), social justice movements, immigrant rights, anti-globalism, anti-austerity, anti-war, environmentalism, the whole range of activism under the umbrella of intersectionality, etc. All these aspects of human experience are interconnected and should be examined together as well as separately. This can be heartening to us older workers who were wondering how we were going to achieve a revolution for a better life, especially given that presently, only about 12% of the workforce is organized in the work place through unions. Despite the decline of “institutional” unions, I believe we workers have more options than ever before and are no longer restricted to old narrow forms of bureaucratized unionism centered on manufacturing and service industries.

Labor is developing links with more and more diverse groups that hadn’t even been thought of previous to the new millennium. One example was the recent support shown between the Chicago Teachers, the low-wage “Fight for 15,” and the anti-Nato Summit protests of May 2012. The 1999 Battle of Seattle had emerged from the anti-globalization movement and found allies with Seattle’s King County Labor Council because of the connection they saw between the anti-millennium World Trade Organization (WTO) summit in Seattle with the 80th anniversary of the 1919 Seattle General Strike. The year 2006 saw the largest demonstrations for immigrant rights the world had ever seen with close to 5 million people participating, which was supported by both traditional labor unions and by less formal networks. The participants were from all walks of life, including both legal and undocumented immigrants.

Also, as we wrote in 2011: “In Wisconsin, the intersectionality of the protestors was remarkable and saw professors protesting alongside construction workers, African-American and Latin@ high school students rallying with 80-year-old white farmers. University of Wisconsin faculty pledged solidarity with state workers across the system, the elementary and high school teachers, corrections officers and nurses. One of the most active participating groups was the ‘Teaching Assistant Association’ and was involved in every phase of the protests.”

In addition to taking on the banks and allying with many social movements, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) had numerous links with labor worldwide. The most significant labor action by OWS to me was when Occupy Oakland shutdown the Port of Oakland and Longview, Washington terminals on November 2, 2011. At that time, the organizers stated openly that they wanted to stop the “flow of capital.”
This is the last paragraph of Jeremy Brecher’s 2014 edition of “STRIKE!”: “Working people, along with the rest of humanity, are faced with a future that is unsustainable economically, socially, and environmentally. It will take more than a revolt to put that future on a sustainable basis. Ultimately it will take a transformation of human civilization. But when those in power perpetuate unsustainability, the world can only be put on a sustainable basis when people take control of their own activity and support each other to resist the authority of those in power.

Whatever may happen in the future, the heritage of worker self-organization will therefore continue to be a resource that we can draw on to construct collective responses to the problems we face.”

As I was completing this review, a colleague pointed out that the 1972 first edition of Strike! ended with a completely different chapter titled “From Mass Strike to New Society”. This version of “Chapter 9” ended with expositions of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Italian Factory Occupations of 1920, and the Spanish Civil War of 1936-37. (This missing content from the 1997 and 2014 editions is something that other reviews I have read have failed to mention.) While Jeremy Brecher’s coverage of these revolutionary events wasn’t the most comprehensive, it is definitely still worth reading.

In conclusion, Brecher’s Strike! is a most valuable and revolutionary-minded study of working class self-activity and self-organization whose republication should be celebrated.  The book’s republication is especially timely during a period when young people and workers are questioning capitalism at a level not seen for over a generation.

At the same time, I have pointed to two problems in the book. First, by not discussing the dialectic of Black liberation and its integrality to the dialectic of labor and consequently, the integrality of race and class, Brecher is unable to establish as fully as he could have done the revolutionary praxis through which humanity self-develops. Second, Brecher’s neglect of the IWW points to his spontaneist [6] position, which neglects even revolutionary forms of organization, which do not necessarily have to be top-down.

My second criticism is not limited to Brecher’s book, but points to a broader problem of our age, how to work out a viable alternative to the existing forms of revolutionary organization (spontaneist or vanguardist), one rooted in a philosophy of liberation that points toward a humanist alternative to capitalism. Thus, Brecher provides us with a cogent critique of top-down labor organization, but does not offer a real alternative.  That is something that the present generation needs to develop.
Dale Heckerman is a roofer working in the Denver area.

[1] I think more needs to be said about the importance to both capitalism and the working class in establishing the eight-hour workday. To begin with, the history of labor has shown that if the capitalists had had their way, they would have worked the working class to death. This fact confirms the next fact, that the eight-hour day saved capitalism itself (temporarily), by preventing the capitalists from destroying capitalism’s only value-creating substance, labor. The eight-hour day forced capital to increase productivity through the development of technology that increased the costs of production, thus speeding up the decline in the rate of profit, and consequently, aiding in the demise of capitalism. Finally, the increased productivity through the development of technology helps to insure the success of developing an alternative to capitalism by freely associated labor.

[2] See the pamphlet by Raya Dunayevskaya and Andy Phillips, The 1949-50 Miner’s General Strike, to grasp the full importance of that historic strike.

[3] To those who like to distinguish between the use of federal troops and the National Guard as if the National Guard were kinder, gentler goons, Brecher points out that the National Guard is equipped, trained and supported by the US Army. One only needs to think about the Ludlow Massacre, et al. and the fact that in 1970, 4 students were murdered at Kent State, Ohio by national guardsmen which inspired the murder of 2 students killed by cops soon afterwards at Jackson State College in Mississippi.

[4] From Marx’s Capital, Volume I, Chapter 25: “The composition of capital is to be understood in a two-fold sense. On the side of value, it is determined by the proportion in which it is divided into constant capital or value of the means of production, and variable capital or value of labor power, the sum total of wages. On the side of material, as it functions in the process of production, all capital is divided into means of production and living labor power. This latter composition is determined by the relation between the mass of the means of production employed, on the one hand, and the mass of labor necessary for their employment on the other. I call the former the value-composition, the latter the technical composition of capital. Between the two there is a strict correlation. To express this, I call the value composition of capital, in so far as it is determined by its technical composition and mirrors the changes of the latter, the organic composition of capital.”

[5] According to Marx, workers under capitalism are paid the minimum amount necessary for the workers to reproduce themselves, the minimum that is necessary to stay alive and provide future workers for capitalism through their children. Therefore, surplus value is equal to the new value created by workers in excess of their own labor-cost and the other costs of production.

[6] The tendency to believe that social revolution can and should occur spontaneously from below, without the aid or guidance of a vanguard party, and that it cannot and should not be brought about by the actions of individuals or parties who might attempt to foment such a revolution.

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In Against, and Beyond Capitalism: A Review

By Stella Darby
June 2016

My own nervousness about reviewing this short book of John Holloway’s talks matched my pleasure in being asked to do it. It felt daunting to publish my first-ever review piece on the work of a favourite author and teacher. Thankfully the book’s short, digestible format makes it easy to enjoy, and its content leaves as much space for critical engagement as it creates for hope and inspiration.

In Against, and Beyond Capitalism comprises three lectures–collectively titled “After Capitalism”–given by Holloway at the California Institute of Integral Studies on three consecutive days in April 2013. Andrej Grubačić’s preface introduces key theories and theorists influencing Holloway’s thinking. I initially wondered if diving straight in with negative dialectics, post-1968 Marxism, Italian autonomists, and state derivationism could be off-putting for the reader who (like me) feels intimidated by much of Leftist intellectual philosophy. However, this preface carefully highlights relevant terms and authors, situating the more accessible talks which follow within a helpful and concise theoretical context.

A short bibliographic note from Holloway closes the book with further thoughts on historical influences and current context. Between these book-ends, transcriptions of Holloway’s three talks–complete with audience questions and discussion–allow us to follow a journey which begins with “We” and urges us to carry a flag of hopeful defiance with its concluding message: “We are the crisis of capital, and proud of it!”

In his first talk, “Who Are We?”, Holloway discusses what he means by “We”. The non-identitarian stance he lays out here continues to be reinforced throughout the book.

Holloway’s “We” is not defined by characteristics or classifications, which–including the often-idealized proletarian identity–ultimately separate us from each other. Instead it points to dignity as an inclusive and connecting basic desire. As such, this concept of “We” places the power with people’s humanness, and with our ability to recognise others’ shared desires for dignity. It flips on its head the notion that we who dislike capitalism are all powerless victims of hegemonic neoliberalism: we are neither victims nor powerless, because capitalism’s functioning depends on our participation.

By reminding us that we all actively create capitalism, Holloway opens a space for us, whoever “We” may be at any given time, to contemplate how we’d like to do things differently. However, he never tells us what “doing things differently” ought to look like.

Multiple admiring references to the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, are accompanied by the caveat, “We must start where we are.” But Holloway’s foundational principle–that “We” ordinary people have the power upon which capitalism depends–establishes a theoretical imperative for conscious, collective discussion and choice-making about how we want to organise ourselves, and why.

The second talk, titled “Capital: The Social Cohesion That Strangles Us”, puts a visceral focus on capitalism–not as an immovable system but as a fluid way of relating to each other. We are not nouns, but verbs, says Holloway–constantly in movement. Yet through capitalism, we choose to relate to each other through objectified things that we produce with our labour. As Marx has shown, to do this we need to fix arbitrary, static value to objects and services–thus separating our creations and creativity from the human “doing” behind them. This focus on capital as a set of social relations highlights what’s so un-dignifying about it, what makes us angry, ill, dejected. Stuffing our time, energy and creativity into the box of monetary value–which has to push us ever harder to sustain its edge–simply hurts. We might respond with anger, sickness or withdrawal...all while continuing, understandably, to try and counteract these ills through the same processes of labouring and consuming that we are accustomed to, thus recreating these damaging relations day by day. And yet, alongside all of this, we are constantly creating “cracks”–taking action in small and large ways not driven by money but rather by care, creativity, dignity, love, anger, fun.

As in earlier books, Holloway steers straight for the rage and pain created by the twisted social relations of capital and, in touching this collective wound, opens us up to the possibility of doing things differently. At the same time, this emphasizes the capacity which already exists–in the cracks–for doing things in ways which affirm dignity and value life.

Revolution, for Holloway, means the expansion and multiplication of these cracks. It’s not so much a call to action as a call to connection, or re-connection: a call to relate to each other as the dignified humans we know we are, rather than as producers of stuff.

The third and final talk builds on the premises of collective dignity and suffocating capitalist social relations to convince us that capitalism is as vulnerable to us as we are to it.

Capitalism’s fluidity, its constant need to make monetary value keep pace with shifting human needs and wants and ingenuity, means that it must always demand more from labourers. Instead of seeing the repeated crises of capitalism as failures of those in power, Holloway invites us to see this as the failure and/or refusal of workers to effectively submit to domination. He recognises implicit “nonsubordination” as equally significant to overt anti-capitalism: perhaps workers express direct anger, or perhaps they simply drag their feet, or get physically or mentally ill–in any case, the productivity that capital depends upon is diminished. From this point of view, Holloway points out, demanding better regulation of banks and full employment is akin to saying “let’s put other bankers, other capitalists [in power]...ones who are more competent, who can really dominate us effectively” (p.55). So, we can choose victimhood, demanding that capital be shored up by state power so it can function more effectively at exploiting us, or we can embrace our collective power as the stick in the wheels of capitalism and decide that we want to do things differently.

And yet...we may well feel stuck between wanting to create alternatives and also needing to make a living. Just as he refutes the idea of revolutionary purity, Holloway acknowledges that it’s “probably best to actually recognize that we are caught in this contradictory situation” (p.65). How do we then “start from where we are”? By “hoisting a flag”, Holloway urges us–and by talking together about how we want to start walking away from capitalism and where we want to go, a little at a time, and proudly. Hence the title of this last talk: “We Are the Crisis of Capital and Proud of It.”

As was the case at talks I’ve attended by John Holloway, some of the questions transcribed in this book exasperatedly ask, “But John, what should we actually do?!” Others query the particularities of a given situation. Holloway almost always evades giving direct answers to such questions. Despite the numerous references to Chiapas, he reminds us that there’s no point wishing we were Zapatistas; we must respond to our own contexts. Indeed, strategies and shared values need to be discussed by the people enacting them, not devised intellectually–not least because they need to be fluid and practical. Crucially, the philosophy presented here entrusts the particularities of a site of resistance to those engaged in it.

Specific recommendations would almost seem out of line with Holloway’s own theory. However, it would not hurt to explicitly encourage conversations about not just dignity but specific shared values: a given group of people must discuss what these are for them; why they are important; how they can be put into practice. If “We” is the theoretical and intellectual starting point for social relations of dignity, such conversations must be the practical one for many of the “cracks” Holloway wishes to promote.

Holloway is similar to many anti-capitalist theorists in eluding requests for advice, blueprints and fully-formed alternative models. Unlike others, however, his work does not seek to shock us into the awareness that something is wrong or to illuminate the problem with revelations of new technicalities. Neither does it present an analysis which requires resistance to subscribe to a particular interpretation of the problem in order for it to “count”.

Holloway’s approach assumes, rightly, that we are already deeply aware of a problem–and seeks instead to elaborate a framework of thinking which helps us articulate that sense of wrongness and reaffirm the dignity and possibilities inherent in our very awareness of it.

Such affirmation empowers and reclaims a diverse set of responses and alternatives to capitalism.

Like a good therapist, Holloway raises more questions than he answers and offers few concrete instructions. He sends us back “out to the see the rebellion inside people”(p.9), comforted by a sense of shared human experience and by the reminder that, no, we are not crazy. If our spirits balk at the everyday exploitation and abstract valuation that appear to define our survival, thank goodness, Holloway suggests–this means we are still alive, still human. In a society where even anti-capitalist activism often defines its success by constant linear progress in ever-more-urgent circumstances, Holloway’s thinking affirms the value of life–which rarely hurries down defined, linear trajectories. He invites us to “ask as we walk”, not as we run, and his words convey a calm, poetical slowness. As long as we keep moving at a pace guided by our dignity, there is hope of cracking the dynamic of capital, right where we are, right now.

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“Positive Force: More Than a Witness”: Robin Bell’s documentary on “30 years of punk politics in action”

By Bryan
May 18th, 2016

Positive Force: More Than a Witness, award-winning videographer Robin Bell’s 2014 documentary on “thirty years of punk politics in action” — now streaming on Night Flight Plus — tells the story of the Washington DC-based punk activist collective Positive Force, who emerged during the so-called Reagan-era “Revolution Summer” of 1985.


Bell’s feature-length film features archival footage — including vintage live concert footage of bands like Fugazi, Nation of Ulysses, Bikini Kill, and more — along with interviews from some of punk’s most influential pioneers, like Ian MacKaye (founder and owner of Arlington, VA-based Dischord Records, and the leader of Fugazi) to Penny Rimbaud (of the UK anarcho-punks Crass), along with supporters and followers, many of whom have played Positive Force gigs, people like Jenny Toomey (Simple Machines, Tsunami), Jello Biafra, Dave Grohl, Ted Leo, Riot Grrrl co-founders Allison Wolfe (Bratmobile) and Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill), and others.


It all begins thirty-plus years ago, in the summer of 1985, on June 21st.

Bell’s film lays it all out with a variety of perspectives who approached the revolution individually and collectively, some of them taking their personal political punk proselytizing to extremes, while others were more passive participants in the socially-conscious DC punk movement (the majority of bands recorded for Dischord Records).


Fugazi live on January 12, 1991, at Lafayette Park in Washington, DC

Actually, the true “positive force” movement began even earlier — in Reno, Nevada, in 1984, centered around the band 7 Seconds — but their ideas quickly spread across the U.S., promoted through a March 1985 article in Maximum RocknRoll, and the focus in the documentary is on what happened in Washington DC.

At the center of those is the film’s anchor, Mark Andersen, one of the young co-founders of the Positive Force punk collective (along with Kevin Mattson), which began during that so-called “Revolution Summer.”


Andersen (co-author, along with Mark Jenkins, of a book on the history of DC punk called Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk In the Nation’s Capital) describes what happened during the summer of ’85 this way, writing last summer in an opinion piece that was published in the Washington Post:

“On June 21, 1985, a few dozen scruffily dressed kids declared ‘Revolution Summer’ with a thunderous ‘punk percussion protest’ at the apartheid-era South African Embassy. That night, the band Rites of Spring officially welcomed the new season with a sweat- and passion-drenched show at the 9:30 Club. Ridiculed by some at the time, 30 years later it has become clear these were ‘shots heard around the world.'”


Rites of Spring at the 9:30 club, July 16, 1981 in Washington, DC. (Lucian Perkins/Washington Post)


The Washington DC-based punk activist organization Positive Force originally became a loosely-organized group of young volunteers, an arts and social justice collaborative — some of them driven by their anarchist convictions or socialist convictions — whose “central mission,” according to Ian MacKaye, founder of DC’s Dischord Records and leader of the band Fugazi says, “was to organize benefits… they do protests and organize some demonstrations.”


The whole point, from the beginning, was to build caring, just and inclusive community, reaching out to those in need and building bridges between diverse communities. they organized punk rock concerts and educational events — some of them in such then-unconventional venues as churches and parks — which were all-ages and liquor-free, and all proceeds went to progressive groups who provided help and worked with seniors, the homeless, and other marginalized folks, regardless of their race, class, religion, sexual orientation, culture, nationality, and even language.

Proceeds also went towards fighting such varied issues as homelessness, hunger, racism, corporate globalization, sexism, homophobia, war, gentrification, and animal/earth liberation.


The DC collective originally gathered together at the Positive Force communal house in Arlington, Virginia (“a garden of radical possibilities”), which became a kind of community center and focal point from which that “central mission” MacKaye speaks of grew outward, into DC and beyond.

Andersen continues:

“The idea caught on and came to life in conversations, group houses, punk shows and protests. It was a rebellion against punk-as-usual and business-as-usual. This simultaneous challenge to the subculture and the wider world included new musical styles, an opposition to ‘slam-dancing’ and skinhead gang violence, and a critique of the sexism of the scene. It embraced confrontational, creative protest, animal rights, vegetarianism and communal living.”


Of course, the bands themselves were part of the reason that the music began merging politics with the hardcore punk climate that existed from the mid-1980s to the early 90s. Back then, DC’s dynamic local scene had sparked to life originally with bands like Bad Brains and Minor, to name just a few, but after that initial burst of energy the scene changed, but its influence and inspiration spread across the country, continuing to inspire new bands, like Nirvana.

In the documentary, Foo Fighter and former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl recalls playing his first gig with the DC band Scream, a 1987 Positive Force benefit concert and march for Amnesty International: “I’m where I am today because of that show, that band, that march.”


In 1991, a group of girls and women in the bands Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and the Nation of Ulysses were inspired by what Positive Force was doing and it lit the fire that became the feminist punk movement Riot Grrrl, which they christened”Revolution (Summer) Girl Style Now.”

Today, Andersen’s DC-based Positive Force faction is the only one still active. As of January 2000, they had organized nearly 300 benefit concerts, raising more than $200,000 for organizations who help DC residents meet their basic needs or to produce “progressive/revolutionary change.”

Andersen occasionally organizes benefits from an office he shares with the We Are Family senior outreach network.


Robin Bell

The film’s director, Robin Bell — a professor at the Corcoran College of Art & Design and founder and owner of Bell Visuals, a boutique production company that supports social justice groups and environmentally sustainable companies — partially funded Positive Force: More Than a Witness with monies received from a class action settlement from his own wrongful arrest at a DC protest in 2002.


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