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Left of the Dial in the Indypendent Reader

by Blake Underwood
Indypendent Reader
July 15th 2013

One of the many takeaways from David Ensminger’s newly published Left of the Dial: Conversations with Punk Icons is that subtleties matter. Even the book’s title seems to ask us to examine the distinction between an interview and a conversation, which the author makes clear over and over again. Rather than yet another compilation of call-and-response style interviews, where figures from punk’s history are asked to answer the same context-free questions about why yesterday is more important than today, Ensminger has been able to create real dialogues. The conversations draw out a diverse, narrative history of an all too often essentialized subculture. And while expected names like Ian MacKaye, Jello Biafra, and Keith Morris are present, the list of conversations also includes names that will be much less familiar to many readers, including an “Un-oral” history of San Francisco’s short lived, but historically important show space, The Deaf Club. Each conversation is exceptionally unique, often with a level of specificity that will have readers taking notes to do their own follow-up research, but always providing new insight into the people and topics at each story’s center.

Left of the Dial is broken into two parts. The first, much shorter section, entitled “Tales from the Zero Hour,” provides a rather diverse array of perspectives on the “birth” of punk from its Rock ‘n’ Roll and New Wave parents.Yet, rather than mining tired territory on the hows and whys of punk’s evolution, these accounts go quite far to describe the musical, cultural and, to a lesser degree, political landscapes that existed in the spaces that early punks carved out, often before they even called themselves punks. Featuring, amongst others, Peter Case of the Nerves, Captain Sensible (aka Raymond Burns) of the Damned, and Tony Kinman of the Dils, the conversations cover the influences on early punk music, the almost accidental development of DIY (do-it-yourself) touring, and the first attempts at mainstream cooptation of punk culture. Ensminger’s distinctly personal questions means that the conversations are allowed to meander, creating narratives that are fascinating, yet rather difficult to summarize -- such as when Captain Sensible answers a question about the difficulty of international touring in the late 1970s, with a caustic anecdote about Patti Smith and the atmosphere around the infamous CBGB, one of the earliest venues to feature punk bands in New York City. However, where this style would pose difficulty with more narrowly historical documentations, here it shines. From the start, Ensminger treats his readers like adults, either knowledgeable enough to contextualize each divergent thread of conversation, or smart enough to seek and find the materials to do so.

Though heavily focused on bands formed in the late 1970’s through the 1980’s, the book’s second section, “Hardcore Sound and Fury,” attempts to follow punk’s lineage all the way through to the present. Opening with the likes of Mike Palm and Gregg Turner, of Agent Orange and the Angry Samoans respectively, Ensminger begins to unravel the development of hardcore punk, an amorphous term used to describe the more aurally aggressive and politically confrontational subgenre that came to dominate the scene, especially in the mid-to-late 1980s.

The conversations follow the same logic as those in the first section, allowing personal experiences and anecdotes to provide explicit references, but inexplicit answers to the broader, underlying questions that too often lose their power when answered with black and white clarity. A tactic that seems employed by the book as a whole.

For example, like many of its counterparts, Left of the Dial might be criticized for its limited inclusion of women, punks of color, and other marginalized groups whose influence in and on punk has been enormous. But Ensminger attempts to allow these narratives to shine through, while not necessarily highlighting them. To this end, the inclusion of Kira Roessler not only in the book’s contents, but also on its cover, stands out in bold relief. From 1983 to 1985, Roessler played bass in Black Flag, arguably one the most important bands in punk history.

Yet, many of the bands contemporary fans are likely unaware that the band ever featured a female member, much less one who played on the band’s last four LPs. But instead of the political pandering and essentialism that can too often be counted on in such a scenario, Ensminger’s conversation with Roessler is nuanced. Without blunt, tokenizing questions, she is able to speak to the sexism and prejudice that existed towards her while the band was on the road, while never seeming to summarize her role simply as “that girl who was in Black Flag.”

Similarly, Beefeater’s Fred “Freak” Smith briefly discusses his experience as a black punk in a DC scene dominated by white, middle-class men, with a type of candor that few interviewers allow for. And though Ensminger steers Smith in this direction, it is clearly with the intention of creating a round understanding of his subject’s experience, and not to simply check a proverbial box.  [Note: For those interested, Ensminger has done extensive documentary work on women and people of color in punk history. See links at the end of this review.]

The loose style of Ensminger’s conversations sometimes leaves the reader wanting to ask their own follow-up questions, perhaps about Tony Kinman’s seeming disdain for Jello Biafra, but one is rarely disappointed with the final product. Occasionally, an elaborated introduction seems called for, especially in the first section of the book where readers may need more background information to contextualize the personalities, but this is not a book aimed at the totally uninitiated. Those without a cursory knowledge of punk history will likely be lost, and those looking for a comprehensive historical document will be disappointed. Yet, the book closes with two interviews that really seem to convey punk’s broad, enduring influence.

Speaking with Dave Dictor of MDC and Thomas Barnett of Strike Anywhere, Ensminger creates a snapshot of punk’s power as a form musical, cultural, and political resistance to the status quo. Both long-time frontmen, Dictor and Barnett have used the stage, literal and figurative, to voice the constant critique that is at the heart of punk, even when that hearis itself the target of their critique.And we are able to find the foundations of these voices, unearthing the varied inspiration these men have found from such sources as Black Power politics, the hippie generation, anarchism, and their punk predecessors.

Because punk continues to maintain an ethic of self-reliance, while also understanding the need for evolution and even reinvention, Ensminger understands that these foundations and their narratives are invaluable. While even some of voices contained within will deny that punk continues to live and endure under new contexts and with new sounds, this book belies that notion. If today’s punks and their music looked and sounded the same as their predecessors, then the reactionary, antagonistic spirit of the culture would be all but lost. The fact that punk spaces continue to serve as sources of political and personal experimentation is a testament to the strength of those foundations.  The conversations in Left of the Dial speak to much more than the longevity of a particular sound or style, they speak to the very existence of a culture that has outlived those who declared it dead decades ago. Regardless of how long a record stays on your turntable, if it truly matters, its importance will outlive the ringing in your ears.


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The Human Front Reviewed in Locus

by Russell Letson
July 2013

Ken MacLeod’s Sidewise Award-winning novella The Human Front first appeared as a PS Publishing singleton in 2001, and now is the centerpiece of one of Terry Bisson’s Outspoken Authors series from PM Press. There’s a ‘‘Plus ...’’ on the cover and title page, indicating the inclusion of a pair of reflective essays by the author, an interview conducted by Bisson, and an extensive bibliography of MacLeod’s fiction and non-fiction. The elements of the package interact nicely.

The MacLeod I first encountered through the Fall Revolution novels was wild and woolly and quite emphatically Out There, all exotic tech and wide-open-galaxy settings and gnarly post-human action. And, to be sure, politics. Lots of politics. The Human Front comes from the end of that period, but has a rather different atmosphere, an almost claustrophobic variation on the UK of the post-WWII decade, with its class tensions and barriers, shabby-genteel-to-industrial-grimy economy, and straitened emotional horizons – except it’s set in the 1960s and after. But the politics are still right in the foreground. This is an alternate history in which the Cold War was short-circuited in the late 1940s and by 1963 Stalin has ended up as a guerrilla leader (a dead one, in the story’s first lines) in a grindingly permanent international conflict that pits the Allies, now the old imperialist order, against Communist revolutionaries all over the world. The frame of the story is a bildungsroman, the memoir of John Matheson, a middle-class doctor’s son and eventual Communist partisan fighter, who at an early age sees something strange at the crash-landing of an American bomber of the type that proved a military and geopolitical game-changer by dropping an A-bomb on Moscow in 1949. As exotic as the saucer-shaped aircraft is, it is nothing compared to the four-fingered, child- or midget-size pilot whose leg Dr. Matheson sets, and whose very existence, the ‘‘two men in black suits, who weren’t ministers’’ suggest very strongly to the doctor, is to remain a state secret if he knows what’s good for him and his family.

That puzzle remains hanging over the mantelpiece for a long time while young John’s political involvement in radical left causes takes him ever deeper into the asymmetrical war against the old order, culminating in an action that brings him into contact with another Allied saucer craft and its differently-but-equally unexpected pilot. Then things open out considerably, though not quite in the expansive, space-operatic manner of the Fall Revolution novels, or Learning the World, or Newton’s Wake. Instead, we get a tour through at least one more genre familiar enough that John writes that its ‘‘tedious details... need not be repeated here.’’ Then things open out yet again and we end up in somewhat more familiar MacLeodian territory.

It’s hard to comment on the novella without unleashing a spoiler of some kind, but since the story is more than a decade old, it’s worth the risk. The story’s resolution – and the solution to the problems addressed by all the various modern political-economic-technological complexes at work in this world and others – is provided not by John Matheson and his comrades, nor by any forces in his world, but by intervention from outside – in this case, by descendants of the few survivors of the old historical-evolutionary meatgrinder, operating across multiple universes of possibility. The deployment of alternative futures, not just here but across MacLeod’s fiction, is telling – it seems to me to be a severely constrained optimism-in-principle, with no guarantee of success in practice: not ‘‘we could try X’’ so much as ‘‘we could have tried X – but we didn’t and probably won’t.’’ On the other hand, maybe somebody, somewhere or somewhen, will, and here’s how it might play out in some luckier or smarter scheme of things. There is nothing inevitable about progress. In the interview, MacLeod says, ‘‘To this day, British SF writers see evolution as a vast pitiless process that will eventually doom humanity, and US SF writers tend to see it as a chirpy homily to self-reliance.’’ Most of the results of evolution’s experiments, after all, are dead ends. (Compare Greg Egan’s view of evolution in Teranesia.)

The two essays, ‘‘Other Deviations: The Human Front Exposed’’ and ‘‘The Future Will Happen Here, Too’’, explore the genesis of the novella, the former outlining the geopolitical side (‘‘the world becomes Vietnam’’), and the latter the more personal. Perhaps perversely, it is the latter I find more compelling. Even before I read these pieces, I was struck by how strongly the geography, climate, culture, and politics of Scotland seem to have soaked into his fiction, and in ‘‘The Future’’ MacLeod acknowledges his uses of particular places, not just because he knows their textures well but because

Scotland’s streets and mountains, lochs and rain have shaped my own mind just as geological processes have carved the landscape itself. This place I live in is still the place I visit in dreams. I owe it that forming, that weathering, that uplift.

That lyrical note is as important to MacLeod’s voice as the speculative or dialectical or smart-assical, and it explains much of why I return to his work so enthusiastically.

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On the Ground Reviewed in Logos

by Abe Pack
July 2013

An excerpt from Review Essay: The Life and Times of the Underground Press

On The Ground: An Illustrated Anecdotal History of the Sixties Underground Press in the U.S.,[32] embraced the oral-history recollections of numerous participants. Editor Sean Stewart, a native Jamaican who’d curated a 2009 underground press exhibit in the San Francisco bookstore/gallery he then owned, produced what his publisher said was “neither meant to be an official nor comprehensive history.”[33] Stewart wanted to remain “faithful to the established historical narrative.” But, as he said, “my focus is strictly on the atmospherics—trying to get a handle on what things were like day-to-day in the underground press.”[34]

Stewart does succeed in re-animating the ethos of the underground press experience. A nice editing job distributed reminiscences by rough chronology and key topics: “participants or reporters,” design, distribution, sectarianism, repression, burnout and legacy. Interviewees accentuated the positive; few were disillusioned. There was nostalgia, and PG-13 eliding of coups and correctness—but also a sense of accomplishment and a continuing feistiness about having confronted war-makers and bigots. Here’s Thorne Dreyer of the Texas papers Rag and Space City—still an activist—summing up in Stewart’s “Legacy” section.

Everybody all felt like they were changing the world…There were phenomenal changes happening. We were also delusional in lots of ways. We saw revolution—a total revolution—and our goals were so large that anything that happened would have fallen short…
We created institutions that were reflective of what we believed…and the underground press was the most significant of those.[35]

On The Ground’s liveliness is reinforced by perhaps 100 covers, comix, illustrations and photos. As Jonah Raskin, a biographer of ‘60s Yippie activist Abbie Hoffman, has noted, these illustrations could be at once dynamic, sexist and violent. But, Raskin added, Stewart’s array “comes closer than [McMillian’s and Wachsberger’s books] to the spirit of the in-your-face underground papers.”[36]

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Hoping for the Worst

by Samuel Grove
New Left Project
July 4th, 2013

Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth is a collection of essays published by PM Press that explores the politics of apocalyptic thinking across the political spectrum. In her essay, ‘Left Catastrophism’, Sasha Lilley focuses on the left’s peculiar attachment to disasters. Recently she spoke to Samuel Grove about why a politics of impending doom should be avoided.

What is left catastrophism?

Left catastrophism, which runs through much of the radical left, is an outlook rooted in political despair.  It takes two forms, although they can elide.  One is based on the notion that capitalism will mechanically abut internal or external limits—for example, owing to a "terminal" economic crisis or peak oil—and come crashing down without concerted struggle. The other is rooted in the idea that the worse things get, the better they will be for radical prospects. Hence, periods of economic crisis or state repression are welcomed for finally providing the conditions in which ordinary people will lose their illusions about the system and move leftward. Many on the left oscillate between these two versions of catastrophism. Both presume that out of the ashes a new world will be born—the world that we radicals have not been able to create by ourselves. While it often serves as unexamined conventional wisdom, a “common sense” of sorts, catastrophism is counterproductive for anticapitalists.

So there are two dimensions to left catastrophism. The first concerns the objective conditions for revolution, the second, the conditions for a revolutionary subjectivity. Let's begin with the first. You are not questioning that capitalism produces catastrophes are you? Rather, as you say, that these catastrophes are in themselves sufficient to break the system. What is a better way of interpreting the relationship of capitalism and catastrophe—particularly in the absence of concerted struggle?

A good place to start is by distinguishing between catastrophes and catastrophism. Capitalism, by its very nature, is catastrophic.  Yet while it is crisis-prone, it also needs crises.  That is, crises help the system renew itself.  Just look at how the capitalist class has used the current economic crisis to ratchet up productivity to achieve soaring profits, exploiting workers’ fears that they may lose their jobs. So to imagine that an economic crisis will, by itself, bring on the collapse of capitalism is misguided.  Similarly, the burning of accessible petroleum reserves—which is certainly catastrophic for humanity, fuelling global warming—does not create an insurmountable limit against which capitalism cannot survive, as some peak oilers suggest. Rather, the depletion of current reserves has driven the search for new sources of petroleum, opening up new avenues of accumulation and profitability. To the point that the United States is predicted to surpass Saudi Arabia in five to eight years as the world’s leading petroleum producer.  

The point about Marxist theory, and in particular Marx’s critique of liberal economics, was to show that what was assumed to obey determined natural law was really the result of human action? Nevertheless you take a lot of Marxist theory to task for succumbing to catastrophism.

That’s true. As ever, one needs to distinguish between Marx and many of his 20th century inheritors, who turned his arguments into mechanistic dogma. Various political tendencies under the Marxist banner held that iron laws of history would bring an end to capitalism, and that victory was preordained. Although Marx indulged in rhetorical flourishes himself, he was clear that human beings make history through struggle. Over time his views evolved about crises as a trigger for social upheaval. Marx and Engels greeted the 1857-58 economic crisis with the assumption that it would automatically set off a revolutionary wave. That didn’t happen and they subsequently abandoned such expectations. Furthermore, while Marx viewed crises as a central feature of capitalism, he did not equate crises with the system’s collapse.  

If Marx came to realize that capitalism would not collapse because of crises, many of his successors did not.  Hence, in the early 20th century, European radicals became embroiled in debates over the coming inevitable breakdown of capitalism.  Collapse was constantly seen on the horizon, with deleterious political consequences: complacency on the one hand and adventurism on the other. An example of the latter was furnished by militants in Estonia, where an insurrection was launched without mass support because of the presumption that capitalism was in its death throes: “At 5.15am on December 1, 1924, two hundred and twenty seven Communists started a revolution,” wrote C.L.R. James, “and by 9 o’clock were completely defeated, doing untold harm…”

Is this still something that afflicts the left?

The idea that capitalism will collapse under its own weight has much less traction today, in our markedly anti-utopian times, but it does appear in various forms.  I’ve mentioned peak oil: the group Deep Green Resistance argue that come 2015 industrial capitalism will start to unravel as a result of diminished oil reserves and will be ripe for take down by a small group of committed militants. We also saw, at the start of the financial crisis, some glee on the radical left that capitalism was unravelling and that our time had finally come.  Clearly, that didn’t turn out so well and such euphoria has mainly receded. But it has a hold on the imagination of leftists of various stripes, from anarchist to Marxist, such as Immanuel Wallerstein who draws on the notion of Kondratiev waves to argue that capitalism has been stagnating since the early 1970s and in twenty to thirty years will no longer be with us, replaced by either something better or worse.

I should emphasize that I think it’s entirely reasonable for radicals to desire the end of capitalism. In historical terms, it is quite a new system and there is nothing eternal about it.  But I believe it is mistaken to imagine that this end will come mechanically, without widespread struggle.

The other form of catastrophism—the notion that increasing economic immiseration or state repression move people to the left—is more common amongst radicals today. In the last decade, insurrectionist ideas have become more popular, boosted in one form by the bestselling book The Coming Insurrection. Insurrectionism celebrates increased conflict and concomitant repression as providing a catalyst for revolt. A less exciting version of this notion has had widespread appeal on the left with the assumption that austerity would provoke renewed radical movements. It’s premised on a very simplistic idea of politicization—that people are deluded about the system they live under and need a shock in order to see things as they really are. But this notion, which is quite patronizing, misunderstands the complexities of what moves people to action. It’s ripe for vanguardism.

Historically, perhaps the most appalling example of the worse, the better can be found with the leaders of the German Communist Party in the 1930s who believed that if the Nazis came to power, they would pave the path to revolution.  The party informally adopted the slogan, “After Hitler—our turn”, and encouraged its members to vote for the Nazis in the Prussian state elections. It need hardly be said that it ended quite badly for them.

Nevertheless Marx held to the idea that there were certain contradictions in capitalism which are ultimately unsustainable.  For example the planet cannot support compound economic growth forever.

Indeed. Marx didn’t, of course, make that particular argument, but it’s a very legitimate one.  Yet if capitalism were to wholly destroy the basis for compound growth, one imagines that point is not imminent, as perilous as global warming, ocean acidification, deforestation, the destruction of the coral reefs, mass extinctions, and the poisoning of our bodies have become.  That’s because of the alarming yet remarkable ability of capitalism to leap over “natural limits” of various kinds.  Out of scarcity, capitalism frequently opens new avenues for profitability and accumulation, some material and others immaterial, and often by incorporating new fields of life into the commodity form—from the body to the ocean floor—by enclosing what had been outside of the market. And capitalism, premised as it is on creative destruction, often uses moments of devastation for the same purpose: just think of the trade in pollution credits, remediation of toxic spills, or even expanding healthcare costs for particulate-related heart and lung disease.  That this would be able to continue indefinitely is hard to imagine, but if capitalism were not able to expand at a 3% compound rate of growth, it’s not clear that it would simply collapse, rather than limping along in highly uneven ways for a time, with some regions contracting and others not. Either way, it’s a pretty bleak path for reaching a postcapitalist world.

If crises don’t always produce widespread struggle, is it fair to say that widespread struggle nonetheless requires some sort of precipitating crisis in order to get underway? For instance the most progressive period in US labour history was in the 1930s during the Great Depression.

Clearly social unrest doesn’t appear out of thin air.  And I’m certainly not suggesting that social struggles can’t emerge during times of economic crisis—they obviously can.  But often such crises only appear to be the catalyst for struggles.  There are many crises, economic or political, that could, and perhaps should, ignite upheaval and do not—countless police murders that don't start riots, austerity programs that don't trigger uprisings, and so on—which are then forgotten.

Pinpointing the ingredients that spark protest is always tricky since so many factors tend to be at work. Contrary to received wisdom on the left, however, many struggles come not out of worsening economic conditions, but rather periods of expansion. The Great Depression, as you mentioned, is often held up as the prime example of an economic crisis providing fertile ground for radical social movements.  But it should be noted, even there, that perhaps the most militant episodes in that struggle—the iconic factory occupations and sit down strikes of 1936-37—took place not during a worsening economic crisis, but a recovery, when the employment rate had increased by thirty percent from the depths of the depression.  And that’s telling: often social movements get the most traction when people’s expectations rise and they have a sense of their own collective power, not weakness.  The movements of the Sixties in the US, similarly, arose from a time of economic expansion and relatively high wages. It was the backdrop for tremendous rank and file militancy, which fell off after the severe economic crisis of the early 1970s.

One of the few welcoming consequences of the 2008 economic crisis was the dent it inflicted on notions of capitalist invincibility. For instance Naomi Klein suggested that the Wall St. Crisis was for 'neoliberalism' what the fall of the Berlin Wall was for 'communism'. If nothing else then crises can serve to put discussion of revolution and postcapitalist arrangements back on the table. In light of this is catastrophism necessarily a bad thing?

The crisis did shake, at least early on, the idea that capitalism was invulnerable.  But as you intimate, this was even more so for neoliberalism (which has often become a synonym for capitalism amongst some leftists, but clearly is just one form). A number of prominent figures on the left proclaimed, if not the downfall of the capitalist system, at least the death of so-called free market capitalism. But that proved overly optimistic—it was nothing like the fall of the Berlin Wall. Neoliberalism may have been discredited in some quarters, but it remains the order of the day in the Global North.

Any renewed discussions of revolutionary change and life beyond capitalism would be all to the good, although I’m not sure the degree to which that has happened in any extensive way during the current crisis. As I’ve been emphasizing, there is nothing automatic about the relationship between crises, politicization, and radical action. During crises people may move to the left or to the right, or stay where they are, trying to get by individually. Fear—and this is a point made by James Davis in Catastrophism—tends to tilt right, not left.  When people are fearful, they’re more likely to accept authoritarian solutions and the scapegoating of immigrants and others.

As Eddie Yuen argues, we need to remember that, living in crisis-wracked times, many people suffer from catastrophe fatigue.  Another jolt is not going to make them decide that revolution is the answer.  They don’t need convincing that something is wrong, or that the system we live under doesn’t work for them. They simply have no faith that anything can be done to change it.  And a catastrophist outlook does nothing to address that basic problem. In fact, it hinders coming to grips with it.  It attempts to bypass the often difficult job of reaching out to others who don’t agree with you and helping them to organize themselves.

Is war any different to other forms of crisis—either for its revolutionary or counterrevolutionary effects?

Yes, war could be seen as an exception.  Historically, wars have seemed to beget revolutions.  The great revolutionary waves of the 20th century followed World Wars One and Two, as did the disintegration of the colonial empires. Those who had been asked to sacrifice, or to kill and risk being killed, are much less likely to want to return to the old order.

But wars also give the state even more coercive power in the name of national security, as we know.  They’re marked by great repression and jingoism, when radicals frequently are unable to make themselves heard above the xenophobic or nationalist din, and wars often unleash the forces of the far right.  And the lessons of the 20th century, from World War One to the Vietnam War, have not been lost on the ruling classes. They realize that conscripts, even from imperialist countries, can be radicalized. Hence they now tend to rely on proxy forces and drones, as we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

One sometimes hears that revolutions are a thing of the past because war has changed.  But it’s worth noting that the most significant revolutionary situation to occur in Europe in recent memory—the events of May 1968 in France—was not fuelled by war, but took place in a reasonably prosperous society at a time of peace, if we can call it that.

If there is nothing particularly new about 'catastrophism' what are the particular contemporary circumstances which make this idea attractive? If as you say 'catastrophism' is offered as a substitute for the hard work of organisation and struggle, to what extent is 'catastrophism' a symptom of the difficulty of engaging in struggle?

That’s a key question. Catastrophism appears to be most prevalent during periods of political defeat for the radical left. To borrow E.P. Thompson’s phrase, it’s the chiliasm of despair, if we define despair in political, rather than psychological, terms.  Hence the old chestnut about it being easier to image the end of the world than the end of capitalism—something that has marked the last forty years, with the defeat of the radical left and the emergence of neoliberalism with its mantra of being the only possible way.

During this period social movements have been, by and large, in disarray, while the working class has been incorporated into neoliberal capitalism through the nexus of finance.  In the United States, there have been moments of great mobilization in recent years—the massive antiwar demonstrations of 2003, the immigrant workers strike of 2006 (numerically the largest general strike in US history)—but creating sustained, ongoing movements has been more difficult.  Even Occupy flared up spectacularly and then waned.  The old ways of organizing—especially the vanguard party model—have been discredited, but the purportedly horizontal forms of recent years have also been beset with problems.  Political despair and a crisis of organization lend themselves to the hope that an external jolt will replace the arduous work of reaching out to and organizing others.  Add to this the very real urgency that many people feel about the need to stop the ravages of capitalism—global warming being the most obvious—and catastrophism is eminently understandable. Catastrophism will not go away simply by pointing to its negative effects. Nevertheless, as radicals attempt to renew a widespread anticapitalist project, ideas matter. As tempting as catastrophism is, it’s an outlook that should be rejected.

As you say though, if ‘catastrophism’ is no solution to hopelessness and compromise on the left, then simply abandoning ‘catastrophism’ isn’t a solution either. It strikes me from what you are saying that just as ideas matter—so does history. There is something quite ahistorical about catastrophism, not just in the sense that it pays no attention to overcome crises, but also in proposing a radical break from all that has gone on before, catastrophism has a kind of wilful blindness to previous struggles on the left; struggles that have brought with them real victories.

It’s generally true that catastrophists undervalue past battles, although not always.  There are some, especially of the determinist variety, who would situate themselves at the pinnacle of prior historical struggles. But for the most part, previous struggles—and what made some successful and others not—are less than relevant. Catastrophism is, amongst other things, about shortcuts and the messy business of fighting and losing some times and winning others can be shunted to the side.

You seem to be pointing to an idea that has appealed to sectors of the left over time, of broad social transformation or revolution as a great cleansing, a moment where we start the calendar anew.  In terms of radical breaks with the past, I’m sympathetic to the impulse. But there is no such thing as building from scratch, of creating a new society that’s not made out of some of the elements of the old.  In earlier debates one side has argued that revolutionary change is not about annihilating the past—a negative sense of revolution—but instead building on the positive elements of the world that exist already in the struggles that we are waging. The other, negative, sense of social change is not confined to catastrophism, but one can see it in the catastrophist notion of a cleansing rupture. Not surprisingly, catastrophism tends to stress our collective weakness, rather than our collective power.  And that I think is to be avoided, no matter how grim things sometimes appear, because it’s actually inaccurate.

Samuel Grove is an independent researcher and journalist

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S. Brian Willson's Latest Guantanamo Fast Solidarity Statement - June 4th, 2013

Check out the Interview with S. Brian Willson on Cable TV from Portland, Oregon, about His Hunger Strike to Close Guantanamo (47 Minutes) - June 2nd, 2013


S. Brian Willson's Latest Guantanamo Fast Solidarity Statement - June 4th, 2013

My Personal Fast

I have been on a 300-calorie-a-day indefinite hunger strike since Sunday evening, May 12. As of today, having completed 23 days of fasting, I have lost nearly 21 pounds. My participation in this strike was prompted by the decision of 130-140 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (where 166 total prisoners have been held, without charge or chance for trial, for as long as 10+ years) to embark on a hunger strike to protest their continued long captivity and tortured treatment. Since their fasting commenced, many have been force-fed with tubes rammed into their noses and down into their stomachs, causing bleeding and vomiting, while chained from head to foot in a chair. These men have not seen their families since being brutally snatched from their home communities beginning in 2001 upon directives from the U.S. government and its secret operatives, who are known to have freely handed out lucrative bounties to those who would finger someone, anyone. The continuing captivity and maltreatment of these prisoners is medieval, barbaric, sadistic, and grotesquely illegal according to both U.S. and international law. It dehumanizes all of us.

The Most Salient Question
For me, the salient question is: What is the proportionate response when one knows his or her government has waged, for twelve years, and continues, a Global War OF Terror, committing on an ongoing basis the supreme international crime of aggression (Nuremberg) against a multitude of countries around the world, while participating in the associated war crimes
and crimes against humanity, murdering as many as two million innocent human beings, maiming and displacing millions of others, while torturing thousands, destabilizing regions for years, even decades to come? Meanwhile, domestic repression tightens the noose on any effective dissent. The 2001 Patriot Act eliminated Habeas Corpus for foreigners, as the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) eliminated it for U.S. citizens deemed by
the President as "terrorists." Please tell me: What is the proportionate response to all this diabolical criminality and barbarity?

Though there may not be a simple answer, this is a most important question. I viscerally feel the pain of the Guantanamo prisoners. Each of these individual's odyssey began with being kidnapped, hooded, and continually shackled while being transported from one torture prison to another, until finally flown (hooded and shackled) to the U.S. gulag known as Guantanamo.

The U.S. has acknowledged at least 100 of the prisoners were murdered during the torture process, before arriving at Guantanamo, ruling the deaths as homicides. The U.S. military prison at Guantanamo is located within a 45-square-mile parcel of land forcefully taken from the Cuban people in the 1898 (illegal) Spanish-American War.

Preserving my humanity requires me to do something, as I strive to express unmistakable solidarity with the pain and suffering of the prisoners who remain at Guantanamo. As Socialist Eugene Debs declared, "While there is a soul in prison, I am not free."

U.S. Pattern of Imperialism is Entrenched

Since my birth on July 4, 1941, my country has overtly, militarily invaded dozens of countries at least 390 times, covertly interfering in other countries' sovereignty thousands of times, while bombing 28 of them. I personally witnessed grotesque atrocities against the Vietnamese people, and subsequently witnessed illegal and barbaric U.S. policies at work in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Haiti, Israel/Palestine, Iraq, Colombia, among others. Drones, our newest killing invention, have added another inherently destructive technology to the global murder arsenal, enabling the President to decide anyone labeled "terrorist" can be murdered with premeditation, any place, any time, such decisions being made at his whim, in secrecy, with no accountability. The U.S. is now a totalitarian state that has eliminated basic principles established some 800 years ago with the Magna Carta. Smart bombs and smart missiles are in fact really dumb because they directly create more enraged enemies, endangering the U.S. American people. In my eyes, the U.S. President is a totalitarian monster no less than the worst monarchs and dictators in world history.

The Gated Society: The U.S. love affair with incarceration, solitary confinement and torture
I live in a country that imprisons more than 2.5 million of its citizens on an average day in more than 9,000 jails and prisons, boasting the highest per capita detention rate in the world by far - 800 prisoners for every 100,000 people

[Local jails: 745,000; state and federal adult prisons: 1,600,000; juvenile facilities: 141,000; and immigrant detention: 34,000 =Grand Total: 2,520,000 U.S. prisoners].
Rwanda has the second highest detention rate at 595; Russia comes in third at 568. The world's average per capita detention rate is 146.

More than 60 percent of U.S. prisoners are from racial and ethnic minority groups yet they comprise only 36 percent of the general population. The U.S., with 4.6 percent of the world's population, holds 25 percent of the world's prisoners. At least 80,000 of these, and as many 110,000, are locked up in solitary confinement in facilities for years such as continues at Pelican Bay Prison in California, and Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana, among dozens of locations. Being held in solitary for more than 15 days was determined in 2011 by the UN Special Rapporteur to begin devastating, often irreversible physical and mental ill effects, and is therefore considered torture. Force-feeding of prisoners on hunger strikes in the U.S. is also
not unusual, itself another form of torture in violation of international law. Solitary confinement inevitably contributes to increased risks of prison suicides, of which hundreds are reported every year. Nine Guantanamo prisoners are reported to have died, and at least six of these deaths were suicides.

I studied the regular use of torture in Massachusetts prisons in 1981, where force feeding of striking prisoners was common; as was the withholding of rights and privileges such as necessary medicine, mail, or winter clothing during cold weather; the imposition of hazards such as flooding cells, igniting clothes and bedding, providing too little or too much heat, and spraying mace and tear gas; inflicting physical beatings of prisoners filing prison complaints or litigation, of those protesting conditions using hunger strikes; and various forms of intentional psychological abuse such as arbitrary shakedown of cells and brutal rectal searches, ordering prisoners to lie face down on cold floors or the outside ground before receiving food, and empty announcements of visitors or family only later to say it was a joke.

During the Spanish-American war in the Philippines, President Teddy Roosevelt proudly defended water boarding torture as part of the arsenal of techniques to achieve "the triumph of civilization over the black chaos of savagery and barbarism" of the Filipinos, or "googoos". The U.S. Marines used one of the first instances of air power and widespread torture to overcome a Haitian revolt of "savage monkeys" against the continuing U.S. presence there in 1920." The word googoo morphed into "gook" as the derogatory term used by U.S. soldiers against the Vietnamese.

In 1931 President Hoover's Wickersham Report (National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement) concluded that the use of torture (intentional infliction of various methods of pain and suffering) was "widespread" throughout the entire U.S. criminal justice system. The U.S. school of the Americas has been teaching torture ("interrogation") to Latin American military personnel since 1946.

Torture Is U.S. Policy.

Guantanamo continues a long U.S. tradition and pattern of domestic cruelty to its own prisoners, as it represents the continuation of the supreme international crimes launched by the U.S. beginning in 2001. This hunger strike intends to address this chronic pattern by affirming my mantra, "We are not worth more; they are not worth less".

S. Brian Willson

The Following Has Been Added by Frank Dorrel.

Feel free to send Brian an email in support of his fast at: . His website is:

Please watch the 9-Minute Trailer for: "PAYING THE PRICE FOR PEACE: The
Story of S. Brian Willson & The Peace Movement" - Directed by Bo Boudart -
Associate Producer Frank Dorrel -

If you feel inspired to help get this important film finished, please send a
donation to:

Beau Monde Image Foundation
PO Box 7395, Menlo Park, CA 94026
(This is a 501 C-3 organization. So it is Tax Deductable)

Bo has already interviewed Daniel Ellsberg, Father Roy Bourgeois, Medea Benjamin, Col. Ann Wright, Martin Sheen, Alice Walker, Phil Donahue, Blase Bonpane, Ron Kovic, Ray McGovern, Charlie Clements, Camila Mejia (Iraq War Veteran), Bruce Gagnon, Charlie Liteky, Duncan Murphy, Leah Bolger (past president of Veterans For Peace), Elliot Adams (past president of VFP), Mike Prysner (Iraq War Veteran), David Swanson, Jeff Paterson (Courage to Resist), Ed Ellis (VFP-LA) & others. He still plans to interview Amy Goodman, Kris Kristofferson, Ed Asner, Kathy Kelly & Cindy Sheehan.

Bo Boudart is a producer of wildlife, ecology, cultural, human rights, cultural, educational and science programs. He has initiated productions in Asia, Indonesia and Philippine Island Archipelagos, South America, Africa, Australia, the Arctic, the Caribbean, and throughout the United States. Boudart has produced documentaries, animations, educational, marketing and
informational programs for distribution in all formats. Many of his programs have aired on the Discovery Channel, Public Television, Canadian Broadcasting, NHK Japan, French TV, and the Middle East.

Bo Boudart Director of: "Paying The Price For Peace"

Other Important Links for S. Brian Willson

Here is Brian's Interview on Democracy Now with Amy Goodman on October 28th,

You can watch Brian's 8-minute segment from my film: "What I've Learned
About US Foreign Policy" at:

All of Brian's essays on his website are well worth reading:

Short Autobiography of S. Brian Willson:

BLOOD ON THE TRACKS: The Life & Times of S. Brian Willson:

In Peace,
Frank Dorrel
Associate Producer of: "Paying The Price For Peace"
Publisher of: ADDICTED To WAR

Buy book now | Download e-Book now | Back to the Author's Page

An Anarchist Noel Coward? The World Turned Upside Down – Rosselsongs 1960-2010

By Raymond Deane
The Irish Left Review
March 29th, 2013

Music Review: The World Turned Upside Down – Rosselsongs 1960-2010

"And then the ‘political songwriter’ label can mislead into the belief that I’m writing songs in order to change the world… I have to point out that after fifty years of writing songs, the world’s in a worse state now than when I started, although I don’t blame myself entirely for that." - Leon Rosselson

Why is the English singer-songwriter Leon Rosselson, now almost eighty years old, not a “household name”?

In the entertaining, informative and argumentative liner notes accompanying this 2011 set of four CDs he repeatedly muses on how, in his own words, he “failed to become rich and famous”. Concerning the celebrated title song, World Turned Upside Down, he writes: “Some people think it’s a folk song. Or that it was written by Billy Bragg. Which is, I suppose, fame of a sort.”

Success, he tells us, “should have happened in the 1960s… There was the folk boom, the singer-songwriter boom.” At the same time, however, “my songwriting style didn’t fit comfortably into the folk bag. Or any other bag, if it comes to that.” And anyway, “the alternative culture was big business, the musicians were bought into superstardom by lucrative record contracts, …the message ‘liberate your minds’ turned out to be both politically safe and eminently saleable… The guerrillas had simply, without their even realising it, been incorporated into the regular army of the enemy.” His songs The Ugly Ones (“the fetishizing of the beautiful people”) and Flower Power = Bread (from the fateful year 1968) savaged ‘60s values, thus ensuring that Rosselson would not be thus incorporated but also, perhaps, that stardom on 1960s terms would elude him.

Another factor that may have militated against Rosselson’s popular success is the self-confessed absence of love-songs from his output (“love, a word that has rarely passed my songwriting pen”). Instead, he has specialised in what he calls “relationship songs” entailing “a sideways look at love, sex, marriage, relationships and angst…”, here represented by Do You Remember?, Invisible Married Breakfast Blues (inspired by Brel and Prévert), Let Your Hair Hang Down, and the wonderful Not Quite, But Nearly. Jacques Brel’s example taught Rosselson that “[y]ou could write songs by pretending to be someone else, by adopting a persona.” Here the feminist principle that “the personal is political, the political personal” provided the rationale, but perhaps in an age when “letting it all hang out” was the order of the day this approach was too oblique.

Nonetheless, in at least one vital way the 1960s marked Rosselson indelibly. The 1967 Six-Day War completed the Jewish singer’s alienation from Zionism and the state of Israel: “After that, it became increasingly clear that the trajectory Israel was taking… was not an aberration from Zionism: it was Zionism…” In the 1995 Song of Martin Fontasch (based on an anecdote from Primo Levi) he “continues the argument between the Jewish values I identify with and Israel’s values as a colonising state”, concluding that “Though they [Zionist Israelis] are Jews, they do not live within my heart.” Seven years later, in My Father’s Jewish World, we hear that “[Israel] brings shame by torturing and killing in our name” (Rosselson’s parents were refugees from Czarist Russia, his father a lifelong communist).

Rosselson is not merely concerned with the contradiction between Zionism and “Jewish values”, but courageously takes an uncompromising stance on behalf of Palestinian rights. The 2005 Song of the Olive Tree, perhaps his most beautiful composition, celebrates the abiding symbol of Palestinian sumud (steadfastness) while lamenting the fact that “[h]undreds of thousands of olive trees have been uprooted [by Israel] since the beginning of the second intifada”.

On the double CD Celebrating Subversion by the recently formed collective of singers and songwriters The Anti-Capitalist Roadshow, of which Rosselson is a guiding light, the Song of the Olive Tree is magnificently sung by the English-born Palestinian singer Reem Kelani. On The World Upside Down it is entrusted to the Scottish folk singer Janet Russell, also a member of the Roadshow. Another of Rosselson’s most famous and controversial songs, Stand up for Judas, is sung here by Roy Bailey and is best known in a version by Dick Gaughan. The song World Turned Upside Down itself, Rosselson’s homage to the 17th century Digger pamphleteer Gerrard Winstanley is (as we have seen) indelibly associated with Billy Bragg.

The version of the latter by Rosselson himself (backed by his daughter Ruth) in this collection suggests another reason why he has “failed to become rich and famous”: the lack of range and variety in his singing voice. With its vaguely Monty Pythonish quality (Eric Idle comes to mind!) it’s an instrument particularly suited to those “topical/satirical” songs most typical of his early material, but also to polemical rants like his slashing attack on Tony Blair, Talking Democracy Blues (with its wicked paraphrase of Auden: “Blair’s an amiable guy/Look, he wouldn’t harm a fly/But when he smiles children die…”).

When passion or emotional intensity are required, as in the powerful The Wall That Stands Between (about “the shameful campaign against asylum seekers waged by the gutter press” and “the inhuman policies enacted by the New Labour government”), the result can sound understated. Rosselson objects to an early reviewer’s description of him as “an anarchist Noel Coward”, but Coward was similarly deficient in vocal charisma. Coward nonetheless consolidated his reputation by piggy-backing on the atmosphere of patriotism (bordering on jingoism) understandably prevalent during World War II, an option entirely alien to Rosselson whose aim “to depict a society based on an ideology of control, order, obedience, repression, domination of nature, deterrence, leading ultimately to the death of the planet” is hardly calculated to entice the average radio DJ.

It might seem that over four CDs and 72 songs (about a quarter of Rosselson’s total output), most of them sung by Rosselson himself, such a deficiency might prove fatal. Strangely enough, however, for me at any rate the effect is the opposite. One becomes used to the voice and knows what to expect and not to expect from it. When Roy Bailey or Liz Mansfield or Dick Gaughan sings a Rosselson song, the result can be a show-stopper. When Rosselson sings, the vocal idiosyncrasies are inseparable from his intractable and endearing integrity.

This, of course, is premised on the assumption that one is well-disposed towards Rosselson’s radical perspectives. Here is a comment from a You Tube viewer who clearly is not:

‘However I later met and talked with Leon Rosselson himself, and it was kind of dismaying. He came across as a parody: a naive, stereotypical, unreconstructed socialist who understood nothing about economics, and truly believed that “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” was a workable system of government.’

Undoubtedly there are many who would consider this a recommendation. Not alone has Leon Rosselson been writing and singing for more than half a century, but he has remained faithful to a certain concept of political, social and economic justice. For those who share that faith, he will always be a household name.

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Staughton Lynd Interviewed on Writerscast

By David Wilk
May 20th, 2013

For me and for many others who came of age politically in the mid-to-late sixties, Staughton Lynd was an early and important figure.  He had been a Quaker and war resister, Civil Rights Movement participant, was cogent and critical about social structures and an early leader in the anti-Vietnam War movement.  He taught at Yale, but left academia, earned a law degree, and with his similarly activist partner and wife Alice Lynd, moved to Youngstown, Ohio and became active in the effort to save the steel mills there.  While that effort did not succeed, the Lynds have remained in Ohio for over 30 years working at a grass roots level in the labor movement, as well as with imates of Ohio prisons and with others across the country.

Accompanying is a short book, but extremely focused and coherent.  Lynd contrasts the hierarchical “organizing” efforts of the sixties civil rights and antiwar movements with the concept of “accompaniment” first articulated by Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, wherein organizers listen to their colleagues rather than instructing them.  Lynd then applies this distinction between organizing and accompaniment to the social movements in which he has been a participant for the past fifty years, which include the labor movement, civil rights, antiwar organizing, prisoner insurgencies, and the Occupy movement of the past few years. Alice Lynd, who has been his partner in all these efforts, adds her experience as a draft counselor during the Vietnam War era and now as an advocate for prisoners in maximum-security facilities.

The Lynds together bring an incredible range of experience, dedication and commitment to the human spirit and to the kind of social change that so many have wished for and demanded for so long.  I was struck by how their description of accompaniment resonates so well with the principles of cooperation and listening espoused by so many who have grown up in the Internet era.  It’s crucial to connect these ideas to political and economic analysis and to questioning the organizing principles of our society.  Anyone interested in social change in the modern world should read this book and attend to its simple and powerful precepts.  Here’s a great piece by Lynd speaking at the IWW Centenary in 2005, a website with more information about his work, and the publisher page for Lynd and his books (recommend buying directly from the publisher, PM Press, to support its work). 2006_staughton_lynd  I am honored to have been able to have this conversation with this ever intelligent, dedicated, and coherent activist and writer.

Listen HERE | Buy this book now | Buy this e-Book now | Back to Staughton Lynd's Author Page

Puerto Rican Independentista Oscar López Rivera's 32 Years of Resistance to Torture

By Hans Bennett
Upside Down World
May 30th, 2013

“It is much easier not to struggle, to give up and take the path of the living dead. But if we want to live, we must struggle.” –Oscar López Rivera, 1991

Wednesday, May 29 will mark 32 years since Puerto Rican activist Oscar López Rivera was arrested and later convicted of “seditious conspiracy,” a questionable charge that Archbishop Desmond Tutu has interpreted to mean “conspiring to free his people from the shackles of imperial injustice.”

Today, 70-year-old Oscar López Rivera, never accused of hurting anyone, remains in a cell at FCI Terre Haute, in Indiana. Supporters around the world continue to seek his release, most recently by asking US President Barack Obama for a commutation of his sentence. Similar pardons granted by President Truman in 1952, President Carter in 1979, and President Clinton in 1999, were the legal bases for the release of many other Puerto Rican political prisoners.

Since all of Oscar López Rivera’s original co-defendants have since won their release, he is famous in Puerto Rico as the longest held Independentistapolitical prisoner. Supporters are planning a range of events across the island for the upcoming week, as they mark this dubious ‘anniversary.’ Among those calling for his release is Javier Jiménez Pérez, the mayor of his hometown of San Sebastián, Puerto Rico, and a supporter of statehood.

Upside Down World interviewed Dylcia Pagán, one of López Rivera’s co-defendants, by telephone from her home in Loíza, Puerto Rico, where she continues to work in support of other political prisoners. Asked why the US government should release López Rivera now, after 32 years, Pagán told Upside Down World:

“Oscar should be free because he is an incredible human being, an artist, and a man that has a lot to give society in both the US and Puerto Rico. He has never even been accused of committing an act of violence. This conviction for ‘seditious conspiracy’ is what they’ve used against all of the Independentistas. The US claims to believe in democracy and human rights, but Oscar’s continued imprisonment is a clear violation of both.”

Pagán adds: “Oscar has served his time with dignity and has contributed to the lives of other prisoners. He deserves to be home in Puerto Rico, just like all of us.”

Between Torture and Resistance

“I was born Boricua, I will keep being Boricua, and will die a Boricua. I refuse to accept injustice, and will never ignore it when I become aware of it.” –Oscar López Rivera, 2011

With public support continuing to build for Oscar López Rivera’s release, PM Press has just published an important book, entitled Between Torture and Resistance, timed well to amplify López Rivera’s voice at this critical time. The book bases its text upon letters López Rivera has written over the years to lawyer and activist Luis Nieves Falcón, as well as letters to and from many family members during his imprisonment. This new book examines the broader political significance of López Rivera’s case, while providing an unflinching look at how imprisonment and draconian policies like solitary confinement and no-contact visits affect prisoners and their loved ones.

Perhaps nothing illustrates López Rivera’s character better than how he refers to himself with the lowercase use of the letter ‘i,’ in order to deemphasize the individual with respect to the collective. His letters offer a view into the mind of an extraordinary person. Reading first-hand in Between Torture and Resistance about the range of abuses that López Rivera has survived while in US custody may cause readers nightmares, but his accounts are a badly-needed reality check for anyone unfamiliar with the typically brutal treatment of US political prisoners. As Reverend Ángel L. Rivera-Agosto, executive secretary of the Puerto Rico Council of Churches comments, the book “is a powerful testimony, born from the cold bars of imprisonment, as a sign of today’s injustice and lack of freedom and respect for human rights.”

The chapter entitled “Life Experiences: 1943-1976,” offers a glimpse into the early years of Oscar López Rivera, born on January 6, 1943, in Barrio Aibonito of San Sebastián, Puerto Rico. At the age of fourteen, he moved with his family to the US and eventually graduated from high school in Chicago in 1960. In a 1981 interview, López Rivera’s mother, Mita described this initial move, reflecting: “My husband came looking for a better environment and it was not to be found here. We have to work harder, it’s colder, [there is] more humiliation, more racism for us…We live humiliated by the Americans…We suffer in this country.”

After working several different jobs to help support his family, in 1965 the government drafted López Rivera into the Vietnam War, which ultimately “awakened previously unexperienced feelings about Puerto Rico. First, the Puerto Rican flag became a symbol of important unity among the Puerto Rican soldiers…Second, Oscar began to question his role in such a terrible war. Why did they have to kill people who had done nothing to them? Why kill people who appeared to have things in common with Puerto Ricans themselves? He began to question the actions of North American imperialism in that Southeast Asian country, and the role of Puerto Ricans in the imperialist wars of the United States. These two seeds—cultural nationalism and anti-colonial struggle—begin to germinate in Oscar’s mind in Vietnam, and ripened later in his life,” writes Luis Nieves Falcón.

López Rivera’s politicization continued after serving in Vietnam, when he returned to Chicago. After working with the Saul Alinsky-influenced Northwest Community Organization, in 1972, he co-founded the Pedro Albizu Campos High School, an alternative school controlled directly by Puerto Ricans. Nieves Falcón writes that here “Oscar articulated a powerful vision of how alternative schools can challenge the essentially racist system of mainstream US education.”
In 1973, he co-founded Juan Antonio Corretjer Puerto Rican Cultural Center and in 1975 helped establish Illinois’ first Latino Cultural Center. López Rivera participated in some of the Young Lords’ activities, but he was not a member of the group. In addition, he worked on other issues, including racial discrimination in hiring and working conditions, confronting landlords about housing conditions, and improving hospital conditions and medical services for the most vulnerable. Luis Nieves Falcón comments that Lopez Rivera’s “civil activism between 1969 and 1976 clearly evidenced his genuine and significant effort to use every possible route of change within Chicago’s existing official structures.”

In 1973, after joining the National Hispanic Commission of the Episcopal Church, López Rivera publicly supported Independentistas imprisoned in the US for attacks on the Blair House (the Presidential guesthouse) in 1950 and on the US Congress in 1954. In the early 1970s, several armed clandestine groups formed in Puerto Rico and carried out actions to protest the US occupation of Puerto Rico. At this time, the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN) formed inside the US and from 1974-1980 claimed responsibility for multiple bombings, mostly in New York and Chicago, of military, government and economic targets. The FALN said they meant for their actions to publicize US colonization of Puerto Rico and to demand the release of the same imprisoned Independentistas that Oscar López Rivera and other community activists had been publicly supporting.

In response, the US government held Grand Jury investigations, ‘fishing’ for intelligence on the FALN, in 1974 and from 1976-1977. The government jailed several members of the National Hispanic Commission of the Episcopal Church for refusing to cooperate with the Grand Jury, including López Rivera’s brother, Jose. With Oscar López Rivera expecting to be the Grand Jury’s next target, he and three other close associates went underground, where López Rivera remained from 1976 until his subsequent arrest in 1981.

Convicted of ‘Seditious Conspiracy’
“This is not a trial. It is not even a kangaroo court.” – Oscar López Rivera, speaking at the 1981 court proceedings.

Oscar López Rivera’s legal team at the People’s Law Office, explains on their website:
“In 1980, eleven men and women were arrested and later charged with the overtly political charge of seditious conspiracy — conspiring to oppose U.S. authority over Puerto Rico by force, by membership in the FALN, and of related charges of weapons possession and transporting stolen cars across state lines. Oscar was not arrested at the time, but he was named as a codefendant in the indictment…In 1981, Oscar was arrested after a traffic stop, tried for the identical seditious conspiracy charge, convicted, and sentenced by the same judge to a prison term of 55 years. In 1987 he received a consecutive 15 year term for conspiracy to escape–a plot conceived and carried out by government agents and informants/provocateurs, resulting in a total sentence of 70 years.”

At Oscar López Rivera’s 1981 trial, he took a position similar to that of his co-defendants at their earlier trial: he declared the trial illegitimate and refused to present a defense or pursue an appeal. However, López Rivera did make an eloquent statement, reprinted in Between Torture and Resistance:

“Given my revolutionary principles, the legacy of our heroic freedom fighters, and my respect for international law—the only law which has a right to judge my actions—it is my obligation and my duty to declare myself a prisoner of war. I therefore do not recognize the jurisdiction of the United States government over Puerto Rico or of this court to try me or judge me.”
Later, at his 1987 trial where the court convicted him of “conspiracy to escape,” López Rivera took a similar stance, and in his statement, also reprinted in the new book, he elaborated further on the precedent set by anti-colonialist international law:

“Colonialism, dear members of the jury, is a monumental injustice according to the norms of civilized humanity and a crime under international law. According to United Nations Resolution 2621, the continuation of colonialism in all its forms and manifestations is a crime that constitutes a violation of the charter of the United Nations, Resolution 1514 (XV), the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples….No nation, ladies and gentleman, has the right to take over another nation. The military invasion and occupation of Puerto Rico clearly depicts the rapacious and voracious nature of the United States government, with the armed forces, rifles, and cannons it used to subjugate a people into submission and reduce a nation of one million inhabitants to a commodity for the bartering of human beings. For 89 years, this nation, conquered by force—the Puerto Rican people—have been denied their basic rights to self-determination and independence.”

‘Spiritcide’ and the Torture of Imprisonment

“The memory of our pain deserves to be appreciated, remembered, and never denied.” --Oscar López Rivera, 1997

Following his 1981 conviction, the government first held López Rivera at FCI Leavenworth in Kansas, until 1986. Upon arrival, Luis Nieves Falcón writes that “the majority of the prison guards were waiting for him. They surrounded him and verbally assaulted him. They repeatedly stressed that they didn’t want him there; that he was a dangerous terrorist and the place for him was Marion: an even higher-security prison, regarded among prison guards as the right place to eliminate terrorists.” Despite a clean record at Leavenworth and a 1985 report by his jailers that “he demonstrated favorable adjustment and maintained positive relations with the staff,” López Rivera became the target of an FBI entrapment scheme, involving a fabricated escape plan. On June 24, 1986, just days after the government formally accused him of planning to escape, he received a disciplinary transfer to the notorious federal prison in Marion, Illinois.

During the court proceedings for the ‘escape’ charges, held from September 1986 to February 1988, prison authorities held López Rivera in solitary confinement at MCC Chicago. Following his conviction and sentence of 15 years, authorities transferred him back to Marion, where he stayed until 1994. The new book features his reflections upon his living conditions during this period. López Rivera writes:

“i use the word ‘spiritcide’ to describe the dehumanizing and pernicious existence that i have suffered…i face, on the one hand, an environment that is a sensory deprivation laboratory, and on the other hand, a regimen replete with obstacles to deny, destroy or paralyze my creativity…i am locked up in a cell that is 6’ wide and 9’long, for an average of 22 ½ hours a day…Living in these conditions day after day and year after year has to have an adverse effect on my senses. i don’t have access to fresh air or to natural light because when i turn off the light in the cell to sleep, the guards keep the outside lights on and light enters the cell…Day and night i hear the roaring of the electric fans, whose noise is so strident that when I don’t hear them, i feel disoriented.”

Later in the same letter, López Rivera explains how he has survived:

“i know that the human spirit has the capacity to resurrect after suffering spiritcide. And like the rose or the wilted leaf falls and dies and in its place a newer and stronger one is reborn or resurrects, my spirit will also resurrect if the jailers achieve their goals…My certainty lies in my confidence that i have chosen to serve a just and noble cause. A free, just, and democratic homeland represents a sublime ideal worth fighting for…i am in this dungeon and the possibility that i will be freed is remote, not to say impossible, under conditions equal to or worse than caged animals, under spiritual and physical attack, but with full dignity and with a clean and clear conscience.”

In 1994, authorities transferred López Rivera to a new federal prison in Florence, Colorado that soon became as notorious as Marion was, for its own human rights abuses. After over a year of good behavior at Florence, authorities transferred him back to Marion after denying his request to be transferred elsewhere. Even though Marion had officially become lower security than before, following his transfer back, López Rivera reported that conditions had become worse.

Perhaps most chilling is his account of getting an operation for a hemorrhoid condition three days after his mother had passed away. Authorities had denied his request to attend the funeral. Within hours of the procedure, the area operated upon became infected, with his fever finally reaching 102.7 degrees. At this point, instead of giving him antibiotics as he immediately requested from the medical staff, authorities accused him of stealing the needle used for a blood test. The authorities cruelly withheld the antibiotics. Two days later, as the still untreated infection got even worse,

“They released me from the hospital and returned me to the hole. The jailers that took me were racing wheel chairs. Every turn made me feel as if someone was cutting me with a razor. i got to the cell and was preparing to clean up the blood. A lieutenant came in and said they were going to cuff me…According to him i had stolen the needle and immediately passed it to an accomplice who took it away…They searched me from head to toe. Blood was running down my legs, and here he was passing a metal detector on my rear. To punish me, they did not allow me to use the sitz bath or give me medications.”

It was not until 10:00 pm, the following day, López Rivera writes “that they gave me the sitz bath and the antibiotics…An hour later, my body responded and I was able to use the toilet—an incredibly painful ordeal”

In 1998, after 12 years in total isolation, authorities transferred López Rivera to FCI Terre Haute, in Indiana, where he remains today. Once there, he was finally able to have contact visits and other new ‘privileges,’ which increased his quality of life. Despite these improvements, the People’s Law Office reports that prison authorities imposed a special condition requiring him to report his whereabouts every two hours to prison guards. Even though this condition was initially scheduled to end after 18 months, it still continues today, over 14 years later.

Since 1999, authorities have barred the media from interviewing López Rivera, “in spite of policy allowing for media interviews of prisoners, in spite of allowing media interviews of other prisoners, and in spite of having allowed Oscar to be interviewed many times previously, without incident. Each rejection has used the identical, unsubstantiated excuse that ‘the interview could jeopardize security and disturb the orderly running of the institution,’” writes the People’s Law Office, noting further that “since 2011, the government has extended this ban beyond media, rejecting requests by New York elected officials to meet with Oscar.”

The Struggle Continues

“They will never be able to break my spirit or my will. Every day I wake up alive is a blessing.” – Oscar López Rivera, 2006

In 2011, the denial of parole to Oscar López Rivera outraged the leaders of Puerto Rico’s political and civil society, who publicly denounced the ruling. One critic, Puerto Rico’s non-voting U.S. congressional representative,  Pedro Pierluisi, said, “I don’t see how they can justify another 12 years of prison after he has spent practically 30 years in prison, and the others who were charged with the same conduct are already in the free community. It seems to me to be excessive punishment.”

In response to the parole denial, 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu joined Nobel Laureates Máiread Corrigan Maguire of Northern Ireland and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel of Argentina, to send a letter to US President Barack Obama expressing their concern about his parole hearing. The letter cited how “testimony was permitted at that hearing regarding crimes López Rivera was never accused of committing in the first place, and a decision was handed down which—in denying parole—pronounced a veritable death sentence by suggesting that no appeal for release be heard again until 2023.”

Following the parole denial, López Rivera declared in a public statement to supporters:
“We have not achieved the desired goal. But we achieved something more beautiful, more precious and more important. And that is the fact that the campaign included people who represent a rainbow of political ideologies, religious beliefs, and social classes that exist in Puerto Rico. This to me represents the magnanimity of the Boricua heart—one filled with love, compassion, courage and hope.”

Today, López Rivera and his support campaign are focusing their efforts on a a letter-writing campaign asking US President Barack Obama to pardon him (view/download a suggested letter). There is a strong precedent for this strategy. In 1952, President Harry Truman commuted the death sentence of Oscar Collazo. In 1977 and 1979, President Jimmy Carter pardoned Andrés Figueroa Cordero, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Lolita Lebrón, Irving Flores and Oscar Collazo.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton pardoned Oscar López Rivera’s co-defendants Edwin Cortés, Elizam Escobar, Ricardo Jiménez, Adolfo Matos, Dylcia Pagán, Luis Rosa, Alberto Rodríguez, Alicia Rodríguez, Ida Luz Rodríguez, Alejandrina Torres, Carmen Valentín, and Juan Segarra Palmer. President Clinton offered to release López Rivera on the condition that he serve ten more years in prison. However, because Clinton did not extend that offer to two other Independentista prisoners, López Rivera did not accept the offer. In 2009 and 2010, those two other prisoners won their release on parole, making López Rivera the last co-defendant still imprisoned today, even though Clinton’s offer would have ostensibly released him in 2009.
Dylcia Pagán, pardoned in 1999, says that after 32 years of imprisonment, the time is now for President Barack Obama to pardon Oscar López Rivera. Asked to compare today’s political climate to that in 1999, Pagán is optimistic and says the movement is “alive and well,” with popular pressure continuing to build in support of López Rivera. “Hopefully, Oscar will be home by Christmas.

The new book, Between Torture and Resistance, concludes with a final thought from Luis Nieves Falcón:

"The best tribute we can extend to Oscar is to continue to fight every day, with yet greater determination, for his release. Every day that Oscar remains in prison is another reminder of the hypocrisy and absurdity of the US government's talk of human rights in light of its colonial rule. In the strongest possible terms, let us raise our voices to denounce this abuse and demand freedom for Oscar López Rivera."

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New York According to the Artist behind 'Spy vs. Spy'

by Paul Buhle
Jewish Daily Forward
June 3rd, 2013

This oversized, four-color 30-year compendium of comics, magazine illustrations, painting and sketchbook work by the artist best known for his "Spy vs Spy" pages in Mad Magazine, is stunning in its variety and vividness. "Chronicle" is evidently a play on words, because Kuper is looking at his Manhattan experience - ever since he moved from Cleveland in 1977 - from all sorts of angles, including geographical, aerial, animal, and, of course, human. It's not always a pretty sight, that's the price of admission to the real-life Greatest Show on Earth. The Mexican and French publishers of the volume, which preceded this version, must think so, too.

We don't see the evidence here, but Kuper started in comics by inking "Richie Rich," and many of the pages of "Drawn to New York" might be understood as a depiction of the world that real-life Manhattan rich people would prefer not to see. Not that Kuper, a founder of the iconoclastic "World War 3 Illustrated," is didactic. He takes in street violence, poverty, prostitutes, ecological and architectural crimes almost casually: How would you recognize modern New York without them? He also likes to be self-indulgent: the endangered species in the city is himself, threatened by some random or still unspecified source that makes 9/11 almost a relief in its specificity.

Kuper is historical minded, a self-taught scholar of past images. From Thomas Nast to the Ashcan school to Winsor McCay, from the early comic strip artists (before ethnicity was airbrushed out) and George Bellows to The New Yorker's Saul Steinberg, the visualized, vernacular New York has been experienced as self-absorption and enjoyed vicariously across the planet for more than a century and a half. This saga, re-enacted in Kuper's own work, is more like a stream of constant interruption, abandoned genres and new beginnings than anything approaching a narrative of continuity. It all leads up to Š. Kuper! Not that he would make such a claim for himself.

But why not? Along with the pure artistry of the work and the focus on specifics (music is a favorite; Kuper did a brilliant children's book, "Theo and the Blue Note," with colors substituted for sounds), there's ample self-commentary as well. He's a plain guy on the street, sometimes a victim, sometimes a mere observer, occasionally the object of a quizzical, saddened self-portrait. Mostly, though, his gaze goes onward, and when it goes west of the Hudson, it has gone too far for comfort. He left behind the Cleveland of the late Harvey Pekar (who encouraged him), the teenage creators of Superman, and so much else deeply Midwestern, to work, to live and to struggle in New York. If Thomas Nast, with his art, exposed political crooks and helped Abraham Lincoln change American history, Kuper is just as angry and just as intent on delivering an eclectic protest message. But not with sledge-hammer politics.

Readers will find the deepest truth in these pages by following their own interests. Eric Drooker's scant introduction is not as much help as I would like, and Kuper's own preface goes by too quickly, but it offers an essential clue to the volume. This is "an epic love poem" (in Drooker's words) where "Gotham's screaming whirlpools of cement, aging tenements and deafening rhythms have made it onto the page intact." All that and the stylings of a marvelously talented comic artist.

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The Left’s Catastrophic Logic

By Michael Schauerte
Socialist Standard
June 2013

‘Radical leftists’ cling to the belief that capitalism will collapse, thereby ushering in a new society—an illusion that suits their hazy understanding of socialism.

Back in 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, the Socialist Party of Great Britain went out on a limb, or so it may have seemed to many leftists of the time, by insisting that capitalism would certainly not self-destruct. In a pamphlet titled ‘Why Capitalism Will Not Collapse,’ it rejected the ‘wrong and lazy idea’ that capitalism would ‘collapse under the weight of its own problems’ and criticised the ‘fatalistic attitude of waiting for the system to end itself.’

‘The lesson to be learned,’ the pamphlet concluded, ‘is that there is no simple way out of capitalism by leaving the system to collapse of its own accord. Until a sufficient number of workers are prepared to organise politically for the conscious purpose of ending capitalism, that system will stagger on indefinitely.’

It would have been nice if the prediction had been wrong: if capitalism had done us the great service of ending its own life or if the calamity of economic crisis (or war) could have automatically converted the bulk of the working class to socialism. But in fact, over the eight decades since then, capitalism has managed to stagger or even strut along, defying the hope (or fear) that it would self-destruct or bump up against some absolute limit to growth.

Despite all the examples history has provided us of how capitalism can weather a crisis and how a social cataclysm is no guarantee that workers will be ‘radicalised,’ many leftists still cling to the hope that economic crisis, war, or environmental catastrophe could topple capitalism or suddenly transform the consciousness of workers.

This unfounded belief came to the fore again in late 2008 amidst an intense financial crisis, as even mainstream economists were toying with words like ‘collapse’ and ‘meltdown’ to describe the condition of capitalism. The crisis still continues today, of course, but then again so does capitalism.

Yet one can hope that some of these misconceptions will be reconsidered in light of how these five crisis-filled years have not shaken capitalism at its roots, and that ‘radical leftists’ will rethink the process of fundamental social change. One sign that this reflection on a failed outlook and strategy may already be underway is the recent publication of Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth (PM Press).

The book is a collection of four articles by ‘partisans of the radical left,’ critiquing those on both the left and the right who believe society is headed for some sort of total collapse that will either usher in a new age or ‘awaken the masses from their long slumber.’ The authors label this apocalyptic outlook ‘catastrophism’.

The article of most interest to socialists in the book is, ‘Great Chaos Under Heaven: Catastrophism and the Left,’ written by Sasha Lilley, the co-host of the radio programme, Against the Grain, on KPFA (Berkeley, California).

Lilley identifies the two sides of the left catastrophism that has ‘shaped the radical tradition for well over a century’—namely, the expectation that capitalism will collapse and ‘predestined forces [will] transform society for the better,’ on the one hand, and the ‘idea that the worse things get, the more auspicious they become for radical prospects.’ She also quite astutely points out how these mistaken assumptions are connected to ‘the twin dangers of adventurism (the ill-conceived actions of the few) and political quietism (the inaction that flows from awaiting the inexorable laws of history to put an end to capitalism).

The idea among leftists that capitalism would collapse is typically based on a one-dimensional reading of Marx, Lilley observes. She notes that, even though Marx had ‘argued that crises are essential to capitalism, he did not equate such crises with the collapse of the system;’ and that ‘those who believe the system will crumble from crises and disasters lose sight of the ways that capitalism uses crises for its own regeneration and expansion.’ Unfortunately, the misinterpretation of Marx’s theory of crisis took root within the German Social Democratic Party and other supposedly Marxist organisations, exercising a powerful influence throughout the twentieth century. 

Intertwined with the belief that capitalism will collapse is the idea that the worse things get, the better the prospects for revolution. Even though Lilley accepts that ‘social context’ obviously ‘shapes how people see their own situation and the forces at play around them,’ she emphasises that ‘there is no alignment of the stars that leads to collective, rather than atomised, resistance.’

The German Communist Party in the early 1930s provides the best example of where the ‘worse-is-better’ logic of the left can lead, encapsulated in their cheerful slogan, ‘After Hitler, our turn!’ Their turn to be rounded up and sent to the concentration camps, the Communists soon discovered.

The attitude of waiting for things to get worse (so that they can get better) is bad enough, but some leftists take it a further step, Lilley explains, by following the logic that ‘if worsening conditions are more propitious for radical change, then radicals should do what they can to make things worse.’ This is the asinine logic of the radical terrorists of the late 1960s and early 1970s who tried to ‘heighten the contradictions’ through violent or spectacular actions and bring down the state repression that could ‘mobilise the unmobilised.’

This strategy is riddled with problems, Lilley explains, ‘not the least of which is bringing repression down on others for their own good.’ Above all, it is a strategy that simply doesn’t work, she concludes: ‘radical mass movements typically grow because they offer hope for positive change,’ whereas ‘fear is corrosive’ and ‘demobilises.’

The lack of hope is at the heart of the politics of ‘left-wing catastrophism,’ Lilley argues, reflecting ‘a deep-seated pessimism about mass collective action and radical social transformation.’ This is certainly true, but socialists would add that this sense of despair is connected to the basic inability of leftists to envisage a true alternative to capitalism. In short, they are (at best) anti-capitalist but not pro-anything, really—at least nothing that isn’t upon closer inspection a variation of capitalism.

Lilley sidesteps this issue of what she and other radical partisans are for by inserting a sort of disclaimer in the introduction to the book and at the beginning of her article, stating that the aim will not be to ‘furnish prescriptions for mass action and revolt’ but to point out ‘what does not, and will not, work.’ She adds that a ‘militant radicalism with any prospects of success embraces catastrophism at its peril.’

Pointing out what does not work is certainly welcome, but one has the impression that Lilley limits the scope of her argument in part because, like the leftists she criticises, she has no clear idea of what a post-capitalist society would be like.

This muddled outlook is apparent from her attachment to words and expressions that sound revolutionary but are exceedingly vague, such as ‘militant radicalism,’ ‘radical collective politics,’ ‘mass action and revolt,’ ‘radical mass movements,’ ‘a broad anti-capitalist project,’ ‘mass collective action,’ and ‘radical social transformation.’

What does any of this mean, really? How can you advocate a ‘mass’ or ‘radical ’or ‘militant ’movement without saying even a word about what the aim of that movement is? Isn’t this lack of clarity among anti-capitalists precisely why they are so strongly attracted to the outlook of ‘catastrophism’ in the first place? Without a clear notion of a new society to replace capitalism, or of how workers could democratically bring it about, (anti-capitalist) leftists can only hope that a collapse will usher in a new age.

Instead of offering any source of real hope regarding the sort of society that could take the place of capitalism, Lilley concludes her essay with a sort of pep talk, reminding the reader that ‘navigating away from the stormy shoals of catastrophism ... requires a commitment to mass radical collective politics, in inauspicious times as well as auspicious ones.’ But some readers might wish to understand what ‘mass radical collective politics’ means, exactly, before deciding on their commitment.

Still, even recognising the limited scope of the book (whether intentional or inevitable), it is a valuable and timely contribution to those who are frustrated by the limitations of the left. And, in addition to Lilley’s critique of the left, the book contains interesting essays dealing with the right-wing version of catastrophism and the Malthusian outlook prevalent among environmentalists.

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