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Notes from the Underground

by Matthew Newton

August 1, 2012

Writer and former radical bookstore owner Sean Stewart talks about his new book on the underground press that was so vital to '60s counterculture.

Photographs courtesy Shaun RobertWith the Occupy Wall Street protests still fresh in the nation’s collective memory, and hacktivist groups such as Anonymous and LulzSec now a part of our culture, modern American protest has a different identity than the counterculture movements of the 1960s.

One shared trait, however, is the importance these movements have placed on mass communication. In the case of OWS, social media played a critical role, facilitating instantaneous eyewitness reports from Liberty Plaza/Zuccotti Park and providing the tools to quickly organize. But old media models had their place. OR Books’ Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America and n+1’s Occupy! An OWS-Inspired Gazette, are key examples. Taking cues from the Sixties underground press, these publications offered readers a more holistic view than social media could provide, and tipped their hats to a publishing movement that often remains historically unsung.

Of course, no discussion of American counterculture in the 1960s is complete without mentioning the role and influence of the underground press. In the wake of the civil rights movement, and as public opposition to the war in Vietnam swelled, this ad hoc network of the alternative newspapers found a growing audience among the disaffected and disenfranchised.

What set these small, independent weeklies apart from the journalistic establishment was that they didn’t cover news in the same fashion as The New York Times, Boston Globe, or Chicago Tribune. Instead, the loose-knit group of editors, writers, photographers, and illustrators that comprised the underground press focused heavily on the concerns of the rising New Left, the far left, and the infinite nuances of the counterculture scenes sprouting up from Haight-Ashbury to the East Village, and every small town in-between. In essence, the underground press represented the freaks, a mandate lovingly embraced by the movement’s founders.

In On the Ground: An Illustrated Anecdotal History of the Sixties Underground Press in the U.S. (PM Press), editor Sean Stewart—who until 2009 operated Babylon Falling, a San Francisco bookstore and gallery space that was a forum for revolutionary literature and progressive visual art—delves into the origins, aspirations, and internal politics of America’s radical alternative news scene. Imagine artwork by R. Crumb, Bill Narum, and Rick Griffin; a column by Charles Bukowski; reporting from Ray Mungo and Allen Young; that was the tenor of the underground press.

“The underground press was part of a vast and amorphous scene,” Stewart writes in the book’s introduction, “any attempt on my part to be comprehensive would have been folly.” Nonetheless, Stewart has assembled a primer that dives deep into the psyche of American counterculture. “For me, the relatability of the era lies in the humor, irreverence, and open defiance to authority,” Stewart tells me. “But the most important legacy is that regular people from all walks of life stood up and demanded to be counted and to be heard.”

The social, cultural, and political turbulence chronicled by such off-radar newspapers as Rat Subterranean News, Screw, San Francisco Oracle, East Village Other, Black Mask, and Los Angeles Free Press, to name only a few, is commonly overlooked in mainstream histories. As a result, what often remains is the same scattershot of familiar imagery from the late 1960s/early 1970s that’s lingered in the nation’s collective memory: hippies dancing with flowers in their hair at the Monterey Pop Festival during the Summer of Love; Timothy Leary at the Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park in 1967, urging the Haight-Ashbury crowds to “Turn on, tune in, drop out”; U.S. military tanks on city streets during the race riots in Detroit and Newark; the rise of the Hell’s Angels as the new American outlaws; and the Kent State University shootings and Mary Ann Vecchio’s haunting scream.

What makes On the Ground resonate, aside from its interviews, are the visuals culled from Stewart’s extensive private collection of underground newspapers. Given the increasing scarcity of the print material from that era, On the Ground depicts the movement’s aesthetics and anti-authoritarian bent in a way that oral histories fall short.

For Stewart, who first got introduced to radical literature through hip-hop—via references by Tupac, BDP, and the Beastie Boys, among others—documenting American counterculture has become a natural extension of his prior work as a bookseller and curator. Babylon Falling, his shuttered bookstore and gallery space in San Francisco, is now a blog dedicated to cataloging the revolutionary publications and ephemera from the Sixties and Seventies, with a running thread on hip-hop culture. Over the last several months, I’ve corresponded with Stewart by email, discussing his book, the historical significance of the underground press, and what modern-day protest looks like. It turns out that the names may be different, but the struggles remain eerily familiar.

Matthew Newton for Guernica

Guernica: Many of the visuals in the book are pulled from your own collection. Have these publications become increasingly hard to find in the fifty-some years since their initial release?

Sean Stewart: Because they are starting to pop up at estate sales, there are actually more available now. Of course I also pick up papers once in a while on eBay, but prices are criminally inflated online, so those come in one-by-one in a trickle. I don’t want to snitch on myself too much, but the most fruitful hustle for me is taking trips deep into New Jersey.

Guernica: In the book, you talk with a cross section of people who were involved in the production and distribution of underground publications such as the Berkeley Barb, Chicago Seed, Helix, Los Angeles Free Press, The East Village Other, Screw: The Sex Review, and The Black Panther, among others. During your interviews, did any specific conversation help you better understand the social and political tone of that time period?

Sean Stewart: If I had to single out just one, it would be my conversation with Alice Embree of the Austin paper, The Rag. She helped me to get a deeper understanding of just how insidious the male chauvinism in the movement was and why the emergence of Women’s Liberation, and its manifestation in the underground press, was inevitable.

… we’re all familiar with the cases of overt oppression that existed, but it’s much harder to identify or even articulate the nature of the oppression that is hardwired into the culture.

Guernica: Did Alice Embree give any specific examples of the type of male chauvinism that was dominant in the movement?

Sean Stewart: Definitely, but it wasn’t so much the particular abuses, or that she was trying to harangue me about male chauvinism, it was just something in the way she related them that hit me. We’re sitting in her living room and she’s telling me stories illustrating just how much of a badass she was and yet she still, reflexively, fell into the role of typist in the early days at The Rag. Of course, we’re all familiar with the cases of overt oppression that existed, but it’s much harder to identify or even articulate the nature of the oppression that is hardwired into the culture—the sort of thing that flows quietly beneath the surface, assumptions and attitudes that we accumulate little by little over the years. I don’t know, it just made sense to me the way she told it.

Guernica: Were any mainstream newspapers or magazines getting the counterculture coverage right? And do you think the underground press caused traditional media outlets to feel threatened?

Sean Stewart: For the Sixties, you can’t get me to go more mainstream than Ramparts magazine.

I tread carefully here because the concept of “getting it right” rests on a lot of assumptions. For my part, I’m not so concerned with facts as I am with truth. And I think reading the underground press purely in the pursuit of facts would be folly, but it was one of the few places where you could get a true representation of the culture as it was being experienced. Hunter S. Thompson has a great quote about the blind spots inherent in any posture of objectivity, and I tend to agree with the Gonzo approach as it applies to truth and facts.

That being said, things are so bad with the media right now that you really can look back on the mainstream press of the Sixties and Seventies and imagine that they were radical. I’m even willing to concede that great journalism was done back then, but if you follow the thread to the mid-Sixties you begin to realize that the mainstream media was essentially embarrassed into sympathetic coverage of the anti-war movement and forced to occasionally train a skeptical eye on government corruption.

The youth movement exploded right under their noses, and while they served up bullshit pro-war pieces and condescending articles about the counterculture, the underground press was right there, on the ground, reporting the shit as they lived it. I don’t want to overstate the case, but I’m sure the mainstream press felt threatened. I doubt that the tone of their coverage would have ever changed if they didn’t sense an existential threat.

Guernica: The underground press is historically significant for a lot of reasons, but one aspect that comes to mind is this idea of activist journalism. I can’t remember who said it in the book, but one of the interview subjects talked about how he went from being an observer to a reporter to a warrior. Was this experience typical for many who were involved?

Sean Stewart: I think it was. It was a culture of authenticity that demanded full involvement, and so people working at the papers were evolving at the same pace and in the same direction as the movement.

Guernica: You were born in 1979, more than a decade after the formative years of America’s underground press. Since you didn’t live through the social and political turbulence of that era, what initially sparked your interest in the subject matter covered in your book?

Sean Stewart: It’s definitely been a gradual process over the years. If I had to map it, I would start with my Mad magazine obsession as a kid. Later on, as a teenager, listening to hip-hop provided the first exposure to this stuff. A lot of the artists I was listening to planted the seed for ideas and names that I would encounter later: Tupac talking about his [Black] Panther heritage; the Robert Williams artwork on the cover of BDP’s Sex and Violence album; all the Sixties and Seventies soul, funk, and jazz that hip-hop producers were sampling from their parents’ record collections.

I was living in Jamaica, so this stuff was beyond scarce. I treasured everything I could get my hands on, so there was really nothing escaping me—every little lyric and aspect of the music, every detail of the artwork. I even got put on to Vaughn Bode from an Ad Rock lyric on “Sure Shot,” and then searching out Bode stuff is what put the East Village Other on my radar. Basically, these ideas were floating around in my sphere as a kid, and I think I was primed to be receptive to the papers once I started coming across them.

A lot of what is standard practice visually in magazines and newspapers today was pioneered by the kids working on these underground newspapers in the Sixties.

Guernica: I want to stray for a moment to talk about the visual aesthetics of the movement. In the book, Ben Morea—one of the men behind Black Mask—talks about how they treated each cover of the magazine as a piece of art. How important were visuals in attracting attention and gaining an audience?

Sean Stewart: The visuals were indispensable. They were the first point of entry for many people, and, in contrast to the linear, text-heavy layout of the straight press, the focus on graphics and rejection of standard principles of layout in the underground acted as an instant, and very potent, signifier of the differences between the two. A lot of what is standard practice visually in magazines and newspapers today was pioneered by the kids working on these underground newspapers in the Sixties. Shit, I even remember the uproar caused by the New York Times’ decision to finally include color photos back in the 1990s.

Guernica: Do you think the freedom from having to appeal to a large, mainstream audience fueled those in the underground press to try new things with layout, design, and content? Or was some other factor at play?

Sean Stewart: The underground press, at its height, was reaching millions of people worldwide, so I don’t think that having to appeal to a large, mainstream audience necessitates the creation of boring content, layout, or design. I think the sort of blandness you’re talking about was, and is, an expression of a dying culture. By that same token, I think that the underground press looked like it did because it was a reflection of a vibrant youth culture. Also, from a technical standpoint, the photo offset process by which most underground newspapers were printed allowed for a certain degree of graphic experimentation—if you were in the correct frame of mind.

Guernica: Though it’s not exclusive to youth culture, the Occupy movement shares a certain kinship with the underground press. What’s your impression of the group’s messaging and political effectiveness?

I think the establishment is asking the wrong questions. There seems to be complete signal loss. No matter how you feel about the whole thing, what can’t be denied is that millions of people feel betrayed. The people held up their end of the bargain and rightly feel that they got sold out.

Sean Stewart: I love how Twitter is being used for real-time updates at protests and marches, I love all the madness churned out over on Tumblr, all the livestreams are great, and it’s always dope to see people reading the Occupied Wall Street Journals out in the street. I love what Occuprint is doing and how they were funded through Kickstarter. And, of course, I love all the handmade cardboard signs—probably most emblematic of the spirit of the movement.

In the graphics, and in the general atmosphere at the various rallies and assemblies, I see the same sort of playfulness that was so important to the Sixties underground press and which, a hundred years ago, made the Wobblies so popular. Judy Gumbo Albert had a great little piece over at Thorne Dreyer’s Rag Blog where she breaks down the echoes of the Sixties she saw in the makeup of the crowd at the big Oakland General Strike back in November. Of course, although Occupy bears the mark of previous eras of struggle, it’s also its own thing entirely. As Judy says in the article, “history is not a straight line,” but I do think that in this case it is one that is unbroken, and one that is distinctly American.

As far as political effectiveness? Any intellectual differences I have instantly melt away once I’m surrounded by thousands of people demanding a better world. For me, the most vital part of the movement is the lack of shame—the fact that people who are surrounded by an obscene abundance, and yet have nothing, aren’t afraid to speak up.

And as far as the overall discourse, I think the establishment is asking the wrong questions. There seems to be complete signal loss. No matter how you feel about the whole thing, what can’t be denied is that millions of people feel betrayed. The people held up their end of the bargain and rightly feel that they got sold out. As I see it, the system is a game of three card monte. If you’re not the dealer, ringer, booster, or lookout, you’re probably getting conned. The problem the conmen are now facing is that the crowd is hip to the game. The key for the Occupy movement will be making sure that the ringers in the crowd aren’t speaking on their behalf as they try to redress grievances.

Guernica: In one of the book’s final chapters, “People Burn Out, and People Burned Out,” you cite the repression of the Nixon years and the increasingly splintered focus of the underground press as contributing to the movement’s eventual downfall. Even though its dominance faded, what do you view as the most important aspect of the movement’s legacy?

Sean Stewart: For me, the relatability of the era lies in the humor, irreverence, and open defiance to authority, but I think the most important legacy of the era is just the fact that regular people from all walks of life (every color, every stripe, every persuasion) stood up and demanded to be counted and to be heard. For the underground press, it started as a system of intramural communication, and grew to become the unifying institution for a counterculture made up of a wide range of affinity groups.

About a month ago I was at Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn where they were screening Roz Payne’s classic newsreel film Garbage followed by Chris Marker’s The Sixth Side of the Pentagon, which features footage of a group led by Ben Morea breaking through the doors of the Pentagon at the massive 1967 anti-war rally in Washington D.C.

Anyway, Ben Morea was there at the theater, and, at the urging of the guys running the place, he took questions from the crowd. A lot of the questions were of the “What should we do?” and, “What mistakes did you make?” variety, and Ben’s answer was basically that there is no blueprint, and that each person and each group needs to decide for itself what is to be done. He has a line at the end of the book that I think applies to the underground press and that speaks to the legacy of the Sixties youth movement in general: “That’s the lesson of the Sixties; everybody was out there. It wasn’t just the crazies, like we’ve been called. It wasn’t just us, it was everybody. It was all there, and I think that’s the key: it takes it all.”

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Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow: A Review

By Eric Laursen
George Mason University's History News Network
July 19, 2012

Eric Laursen is an independent journalist and longtime anarchist activist, writer, and organizer. He is the author of The People's Pension: The Struggle to Defend Social Security Since Reagan (AK Press, 2012) and co-author of Understanding the Crash (Soft Skull Press, 2010).

On the surface, British history during the postwar decades has been a saga of political and economic centralization. But postwar Britain has also witnessed the long-delayed flowering of a small but very influential anarchist movement. Colin Ward, perhaps the leading British anarchist thinker of the period, wrote in his remarkable 1973 book, Anarchy in Action, that "an anarchist society, a society which organizes itself without authority, is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow, buried under the weight of the state and its bureaucracy, capitalism and its waste. . . . Once you begin to look at human society from an anarchist point of view you discover that the alternatives are already there, in the interstices of the dominant power structure. If you want to build a free society, the parts are all at hand.”

Those “seeds”—where they came from, what they blossomed into during the postwar generations—are the subject of Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow, David Goodway's study of British anarchism, first published in 2006 and now revised, updated, and republished, for the first time in the U.S., by PM Press. This is an important study—the first that drills deeply into Britain's idiosyncratic progression from hard-to-categorize nineteenth century socialist reformers like William Morris to major anarchist figures like Colin Ward and Stuart Christie. It doesn't pretend to be a proper history of a political movement. And it doesn't encompass, for instance, the mutually beneficial relationship between anarchy and punk-rock culture, which was, in a sense, one of the fruits of the progression he discusses.

Goodway, a UK academic, has edited collections of writings by two of his subjects, Alex Comfort and Herbert Read, and was a founder of the Oxford Anarchist Group in the early 1960s (I should also note that he is a friend and that I am thanked in the Preface to the new edition). Organized into discreet chapters on eleven writers who contributed to the development of intellectual anarchism in the UK, his book lays out a persuasive explanation why anarchism developed in the particular direction it did there. In addition, he makes a strong argument for British anarchism as one of the most influential strands in the entire anarchist tradition since the war.

What was different about British anarchism? It was never a mass working-class movement, as it was for a time in continental Europe and the United States. And while the most celebrated continental anarchist thinkers and organizers tended to come from the working class or, sometimes, from the upper classes, like the aristocrats Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Malatesta, the writers Goodway identifies as progenitors of contemporary British anarchism had largely middle-class backgrounds. They included some of the most famous British cultural figures of their day, from Oscar Wilde to Aldous Huxley to the novelist John Cowper Powys to the poet and scientist Comfort, author of the bestseller The Joy of Sex.

Not all of them explicitly identified as anarchists—Goodway uses the term “left libertarian” as an umbrella—and because they all had distinguished careers in other areas, teasing out the common threads in their thinking can be difficult. Goodway not only highlights the ideological connections between his writers, but unearths previously little-known personal ties. For example, he examines the correspondence between Powys and Emma Goldman (of which he's edited a volume), and the friendships and rivalries between George Orwell, an idiosyncratic socialist; Comfort; the poet and anarchist historian George Woodcock; and the art historian and anarcho-pacifist Herbert Read. An astonishing range of major thinkers and writers were also drawn to the politics of the British anarchists at one time or another, including Bertrand Russell, John Middleton Murry, E.P. Thompson, Rudolf Rocker, the American anarchists Dwight Macdonald and Paul Goodman, and Gene Sharp, the guru of nonviolent civil resistance. But the middle class origins of Goodway's subjects—and, perhaps, the fact that many of them were successful in more conventional ways—had a distinct impact on their anarchism. They tended to be more deeply preoccupied with individual liberty and self-expression than their continental counterparts. British anarchists also stressed the practical over the theoretica—even, at times, over explicit political action. In his 1936 book, Ends and Means, Huxley advocated a radical decentralization of economic and social life into voluntary cooperative communities, which he argued would free the people from government and the corporate structure.

As a result, Goodway considers the author of Brave New World, along with the American urban historian and critic Lewis Mumford, to be a precursor of the “new anarchism” of the postwar era, which likewise concentrated on finding practical anarchist solutions to known problems, in part by locating the conjunction between anarchism and scientific fields like biology, psychology, and alternative technologies.

If one specific wish unites all the very distinctive individuals in Goodway's book, it's for the unitary nation to dissolve, allowing regional and local cultures and identities to reassert themselves—something that can't happen so long as the state still stands over them. Yet British anarchists tended to shy away from explicit class analysis. They also tended to frown on violence and revolution, arguing instead for an evolutionary approach to a classless, non-hierarchical society.

A strong pacifist streak runs through British anarchism, stemming partly from the traumatic experience of the First World War. Comfort, not quite out of his teens, was one of Britain's most prominent pacifists and conscientious objectors during the Second World War. Afterward, he became a major figure in the UK nuclear disarmament movement, which oriented itself from the start around non-violent, mass direct action and activist self-organizing. As such, it contributed powerfully to the tradition that includes the New Left, the movement against corporate globalization, and the “Occupy” movement that erupted last year on Wall Street and around the world.

It's not altogether unfair, however, to accuse British anarchism—especially the prewar thinkers who Goodway discusses—of a tendency to evade the need to grapple directly with the state-capitalist power structure. Emma Goldman had noticed this similar in the late 1930s, when she solicited a statement in support of the Spanish anarchist cause from Huxley and he answered her with a refusal, accompanied by a disquisition on the need to decentralize industrial production—right away, presumably. (Goodway's book also includes a side-splittingly funny account of how the obstreperous Goldman was greeted by typically reserved English audiences when she lived in their country in 1936-37—a classic episode of British-American culture clash.)

The story Goodway tells is of a movement that started with the musings of a succession of highly individualistic British intellectuals who had no “native” anarchist movement to use as a reference point—just what they observed among their country's rural population and working class. Thanks in large part to Ward, Comfort, the Freedom magazine group, Anarchist Black Cross, and a few other writers and organizers including Stuart Christie and Albert Meltzer, British anarchism grew into a coherent body of thought, with the beginnings of a popular following, between the end of World War II and the mid-1970s—about the time the Sex Pistols released Anarchy in the UK, as it happens. Today, it is very much present in Occupy London – an ongoing campaign of nonviolent direct action against a crushing, state-imposed economic damp-down which Comfort would certainly have plunged into, headfirst.

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Red Crayon, Blue Crayon

By Austin Considine
New York Times
June 15, 2012

WHEN Really Big Coloring Books published a 32-page children’s book about the Tea Party in 2010, the book received a lot of unwanted attention. The Los Angeles Times called it “kiddie propaganda art;” its author and publisher, Wayne Bell, said he received death threats.

“There was even a group of guys in New York that wrote a manifesto of how they were going to come down here and put me in chloroform headlock and throw me in the back of an ice cream truck,” Mr. Bell said.

But publishing houses like Mr. Bell’s have discovered that selling political literature to children is also good business. The Tea Party coloring book sold well, generating more than $100,000, at $3.59 each, in the first thirty days, Mr. Bell said. That may explain why, despite the threats, the St. Louis company released a sequel a few weeks ago, Tea Party II, Why America Loves You! The Social-Activist Coloring Book for Kids.

Political coloring books aren’t new, nor are they limited to one side of the ideological spectrum, said Fran Walfish, a Los Angeles-based clinical psychotherapist who specializes in children and families. In the 1990s, she said, there were coloring books about changing families, addressing themes like gay parenting.

Recent years have seen a resurgence. PM Press, based in Oakland, Calif., has published coloring books like the feminist-themed Girls Are Not Chicks, and Sometimes the Spoon Runs Away With Another Spoon, which challenges gender norms. Ramsey Kanaan, the publisher, said the books teach young readers “diversity or tolerance or creative thinking.”
Like Mitt Romney bobbleheads and Hillary Clinton nutcrackers, most political coloring books are aimed at adults, like The Bush Years: Celebrating the Beginning and End of an Error, or the overtly sexist The Official Geraldine Ferraro Coloring Book: V.P. or K.P.? from the 1980s.
But the Tea Party II book is very much geared for younger minds. “Don’t be intimidated by political correctness!” one caption reads, and there are color-in drawings of conservative figures like Glenn Beck, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain. The caption under drawings of the House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and the Senate majority leader Harry Reid reads: “These people need to improve their behavior and get better at what they do or resign.”
Mr. Bell says he’s no activist. He has also published pro-Democrat books like President Obama, a Coloring & Activity Book: Yes We Did and nonpartisan volumes like We Shall Never Forget 9/11: The Kids’ Book of Freedom. The goal of the company, he said, “is simply to make money.”

But Dr. Walfish says that children are particularly susceptible to activist messages disguised as fun drawings. Coloring books like Tea Party II, she said, could “raise a young child’s anxiety rather than provide a healthy realm for exploration.”

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West of Eden on Z Mag

by Seth Sandronsky
Z Magazine
July/August 2012

If you favor the Occupy Wall Street moment, you might also savor the personal and political flavors of communal living during the 1960s and 1970s. In West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in Northern California, thirteen contributors enlighten us about these alternate living and working arrangements.
Of the editorial quartet who oversaw this book, seven years in the making, two are from the city and two from the country. Iain Boal of Berkeley situates West of Eden’s four-part focus around the historic dynamics of rural and urban “communing.” His interview with the influential artist, communalist, and writer Ramón Sender helps us to understand the social context of his inspired invention to counter the mainstream culture.
Historian Timothy Miller opens part one, placing the trend for communes in the Golden State a half-century ago as “part of the larger emerging Zeitgeist,” with a nod to the communalism of American Indians. Their relationship to the land stands in stark contrast to the regime of private property that marks a capitalist order based on alienated labor. Michael William Doyle evaluates the San Francisco-based Diggers. In the 1960s, they made food free for all via ingenious means and foreshadowed current groups, such as Food Not Bombs.
Jeff Lustig, dean of California studies and a retired professor of government at Sacramento State, highlights the crucial role of common lands of UC Berkeley and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in nurturing communalism. Such venues partly provided people the space and time to emulate those in the Civil Rights movement where putting one’s body on the line paved the way to overturn Jim Crow segregation.
Jesse Drew recalls his time as a teenage runaway in “networked” communes, a modern-day Underground Railroad that sheltered the marginalized—from draft resisters to military deserters. Communards flourished in “a Badlands…that brought the euphoria of utopia and the freedom of autonomy, a tonic that showed that a new world is possible.”
Felicity D. Scott addresses in part two what violent measures the state took against communes’ “open lands” in places such as Sonoma County. There, authorities used bulldozers to flatten shelters of communards, attempting to live outside the capitalist system.
Simon Sadler connects the idealism and pragmatism of communes and the geodesic domes of Buckminster Fuller. Sadler argues that the result was a “design ethos,” which, mostly rejecting Fuller, attempted to recapture what American culture had destroyed, specifically a “respect for nature.”
Janferie Stone, an editor, with help from people in the Native American Program at UC Davis, recalls the occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. There, Native Americans in late November 1969, recaptured their culture of self-provisioning that U.S. government intervention via boarding schools from the 1870s to 1960s tried to end.
Robyn C. Spencer contributes an eye-opening chapter on the practice of communalism within the Black Panther Party. Spencer’s scholarship provides detailed analysis of the BPP’s community programs and living arrangements as covert police disruption took a grim toll on members, two-thirds of whom were female.
Stone and co-editors Cal Winslow, in the book’s third part, “the country,” reflect on the ebbs and flows of communal living in Mendocino’s Albion Ridge. According to Winslow, the communards based there “shared no grand vision, no religion, no structures; they were not the followers of a particular leader, there were no gurus.” Reading him, you appreciate the promises and perils of these utopian living arrangements, as his interviews with participants make clear.
Stone gives form and shape to the dynamics of sexual politics in the communal movements of the 1960s. Two examples she examines centered on childbearing and rearing. Ray Raphael, in the final section “legacies” unpacks the contradictions of marijuana production and back-to-the- land communards in California’s back country. You might read this trend as a triumph of small businesspeople.
Lee Worden hits the nail on the head in his critical essay about the rise of a commercialized techno-counterculture and communal living that entrepreneurs such as Stewart Brand personified. This is a cautionary tale of individuals commoditizing social movements for the purpose of accumulating wealth.
Berkeley-based editor Michael Watts ties together many threads of “radical individualism” and social activism culminating in the global upsurges of 1968. What propelled such utopian experiments stateside, of course, was rebellion against an “American Dream” of consumerism, militarism, racism, and the right-wing reaction.
You can read in West of Eden about communal living experiments as generational spirits of today’s OWS movement for justice. I did.

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Avec Nous, Dans la Rue: Pedagogy of Mobilization, University of the Streets

Organize! by Aziz Choudry
wi: journal of mobile media

[T]he world is our classroom, a place full of ideas and possibilities, and . . . history is replete with examples of how, even duringand often as a result ofdeep-seated crisis, change is eminently possible. - David Austin, 2009 (115)

This is a discussion—one of many that will take place today—which would not be happening without the willingness of thousands of people to take to the streets, put their bodies on the line day after day, for months on end, and, at the time of this writing, with no apparent end in sight. For that, I am deeply grateful.

The student strike against tuition hikes, and the broader mobilizations in Quebec since Bill 78 (the special law against student organizing and protests, among other draconian measures) passed, highlight the importance of organizing for social change in difficult times. Longterm efforts at coordination and education by student organizers and their allies have built and sustained this major mobilization. It is now viewed internationally as a major site of resistance against the erosion of rights to education and the downloading of economic crises onto the middle and working classes for the benefit of economic and political elites.

These organization and education efforts are happening in the general assemblies in which students have been organizing the strike, debating ideas, making decisions, voting, building strategies and solidarity. They’re happening in teach-ins and other forums organized by striking students and in coalition work with other communities and movements to build connections and common fronts of struggle. They’re happening in anti-racist organizing within the student movement, challenging racism and the ongoing marginalization of many racialized students in Quebec. This mobilization and education has spread to the neighbourhood marches, casseroles, and popular assemblies springing up across Quebec.

There’s a lot happening in the streets, every day/every night—incrementally, incidentally, informally, through talking, exchanging, marching together, claiming and creating space, confronting power, building solidarities and trust—learning that could not take place in a classroom.

Critical adult education scholar John Holst (2002) writes that “there is much educational work internal to social movements, in which organizational skills, ideology, and lifestyle choices are passed from one member to the next informally through mentoring and modelling or formally through workshops, seminars, lectures, and so forth” (81). He calls this the “pedagogy of mobilization” (87).

Theorizing social movements at a level which is too far abstracted from the dynamics, particularities and contradictions on the ground has severe limitations. What’s been taking place across Quebec, in the general assemblies of CEGEP and university students and in other spaces opened up by this vibrant movement attests to the potency of “learning from the ground up” (Choudry and Kapoor, 2010). A great deal of knowledge production, learning and theorizing is taking place in this movement, often occurring under the radar of where we tend to assume learning and education to take place. As Griff Foley (1999) notes, profound forms of informal learning may often be incidental and not even recognized as such, embedded as they are in social action.

The massive numbers of arrests and violent police actions against protestors are hard to overlook. This is a movement which is in turn infantilized, criminalized, brutalized by the state and sections of the media. For many engaged in this struggle, such conflict has facilitated profound learning about state power and the limits of liberal democracy. In thinking these issues through, the insights of the sociologist and activist George Smith (2006) come to mind.

He suggests that there is a wealth of research material and signposts derived from moments of confrontation to explore the way that power in our world is socially organized. He contends that being interrogated by insiders to a ruling regime, like a crown attorney, for example, brings one into direct contact with the conceptual relevancies and organizing principles of such regimes.

School may be out for summer for many students, but those concerned with teaching and learning should perhaps consider the complementarity (and tensions) between formal academic education, and non-formal and informal learning in this struggle. As Paula Allman (2001) contends: “Our consciousness develops from our active engagement with other people, nature, and the objects or processes we produce.  In other words, it develops from the sensuous experiencing of reality from within the social relations in which we exist” (165).

In our new book, Organize! Building from the Local for Global Justice, Jill Hanley, Eric Shragge and I identify three elements that are key to effective organizing: analysis, action, and critical reflection on practice. Without romanticizing the current movement, I have no hesitation in saying that I come across each of these elements on a daily basis in my engagement with these mobilizations and student activists. The Quebec movement is a rich site of critical learning. Further, the level of engagement, sacrifice and collective struggle which many thousands of Quebec students have displayed so consistently is forcing many to re-examine their cynical view of today’s youth as individualistic and self-absorbed. We cannot predict the course and outcomes of this movement but the conscientization and politicization of a generation of students – and their courage in taking action—offers hope for the future for many people who do not see ‘business as usual’ as a viable option faced with today’s profound economic, political and ecological crises. Indeed, perhaps as historian Robin Kelley (2002) suggests . . . the most powerful, visionary dreams of a new society don’t come from little think tanks of smart people or out of the atomized, individualistic world of consumer capitalism, where raging against the status quo is simply the hip thing to do. Revolutionary dreams erupt out of political engagement; collective social movements are incubators of new knowledge (8).


Allman, P. Critical Education Against Global Capitalism: Karl Marx and Revolutionary Critical Education. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey, 2001.

Austin, D. "Education and Liberation." McGill Journal of Education 44, no. 1 (2009): 107-117.

Choudry, A., Hanley, J., and Shragge, E., eds. Organize! Building from the Local for Global Justice. Oakland.CA/Toronto.: PM Press/Between The Lines, 2012.

Choudry, A., and Kapoor, D., eds. Learning from the Ground Up: Global Perspectives on Social Movements and Knowledge Production. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010.

Foley, G.  Learning in Social Action: A Contribution to Understanding Informal Education. London and New York: Zed Books, 1999.

Holst, J. D. Social Movements, Civil Society, and Radical Adult Education. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey, 2002.

Kelley, R. D. G. Freedom dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Boston: Beacon Press, 2002.

Smith, G. W. "Political Activist as Ethnographer." In Sociology for Changing the World: Social Movements/Social Research, eds. C. Frampton, G. Kinsman, A.K. Thompson, and K. Tilleczek, pp. 44-70. Black Point, N.S.: Fernwood, 2006.

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Global Slump in Labor Studies Journal

Global Slump By Sarah Laslett

Labor Studies Journal 37(1): 127–140

David McNally’s book Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance provides an historically grounded and insightful analysis of the economic crash of 2008. The book would be appropriate for use in an undergraduate or graduate-level political economy class. It could also be useful for labor educators preparing popular economics workshops, although it would not be appropriate to assign to audiences without any higher education background.

McNally paints a picture of global capitalism and the impact of recurring economic crises in both the global north and the global south, in both highly developed economies and developing economies, and connects the radical swings of economic fortune to both governmental policy and people’s movements. One particularly powerful lesson of the book is that the “recovery” of global financial institutions does not mean improvement in the lives of the average working person, nor that the sacrifice is equally shared among the international working class:

While banks and multinationals have been rescued, there is no bailout for working class people, who can only expect more “pain” for years and years to come. As corporate profits recover, jobs, incomes and social services continue to disappear. . . . But the human recession hits some a lot more than others (24).

Moreover, McNally assures us at the end of the book that the continued pain for working people is not a random by-product of the “jobless recovery,” but rather a strategy of the “shock doctrine”:

“Shock doctrine” refers to the idea that our rulers cannot carry through radical neoliberal restructuring without first traumatizing the population. Massive attacks on pensions, health-care, education, public sector job and incomes, and on people’s image of the sort of life they ought to expect—none of this can be accomplished without generating a profound sense of social crisis, a panic that life as we know it is now imperiled (184).

While explaining the brutality of the global economic collapse, and tracing the history of these vicious boom-and-bust cycles over the last forty years, McNally also wants to inspire us to believe that a new kind of social justice movement is possible in response. The final chapter of the book does, indeed, offer inspiring examples, from the fight against the privatization of water in Cochabamba, Bolivia, to the factory occupation at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago.

There is, however, something of a disconnect between McNally’s macro-economic analysis and his activist response. One of the things I have been particularly struck by as I have watched the drama of our current “great recession” unfold is the anthropomorphizing of the “market.” How often have we heard that “the market is lacking confidence” or “the market is having a bad day”? While I have had a number of good chuckles at these ludicrous analogies, they also strike me as highly dangerous. Just as we are entering into a movement phase in which the 99 percent are unveiling the lie behind the idea that corporations are people, we continue, even in the most progressive of economic analyses, to assign near-human status to the mythological entity of “the market.” McNally falls into this trap. In analyzing macro-economic and structural forces, he even goes so far as to let individual decision makers entirely off the hook:

But the story of powerful bankers seizing the reins of capitalism and remaking it in their interests is decidedly unhelpful. Among other things, it falls prey to the illusion that powerful men (and the odd woman) actually direct the way our society develops (87).

McNally wants us to believe that structural forces overwhelm the agency of individuals in the power structure, as if “the market” can “have a bad day” without lots and lots of individuals making choices that create those conditions. And yet we are to also believe that the agency of activists in building movements to resist exploitation is paramount. How can, on the one hand, activist agency be a driving force in the creation of social movements, but on the other, the culpability of individuals in the financial sector not be an integral part of understanding how our economy works in the interest of the few?

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RE: Imagining Change in Labor Studies Journal

By Jennifer Sherer
Labor Studies Journal 37 (1): 127–140

Today’s labor activists have much to gain from a fuller understanding of how narrative theory and mass communication relate to political power and movement building. Though activists should not expect to learn all they might want to know about these relationships from Re:Imagining Change, the book provides a useful introduction for those newly considering how hegemonic cultural narratives shape the terrain on which they organize. The book successfully makes a case that activists must consciously work to reshape this terrain by disrupting dominant narratives and creating viable new ones.

Grounded in the environmental justice movement, the authors of Re:Imagining Change are co-directors of SmartMeme, a nonprofit whose mission is to “build movements and amplify the impact of grassroots organizing with new strategy and training resources, values-based communications, collaborations, and meme campaigning” (136). For a labor audience, the book’s focus on case studies from eco-justice campaigns may be instructive. Segments of the labor movement have indeed already benefited from adoption of innovative approaches—such as corporate campaigns employing tactics such as street theater, “brand busting,” or “culture jamming”—popularized by global justice activists.

Potential readers should be forewarned that the book’s content does not fully live up to the promise of its title. The text is long on admonitions to “use story-based strategies” but relatively short on explanations of how to do so. Reinsborough and Canning pack the text with specialized terminology (later collected in a glossary) and relatively sophisticated tools (grids and worksheets) for analyzing narrative components in relation to particular power struggles. They don’t, however, share their own stories of the processes they or their clients might typically employ when applying these tools. For example, in one of the “how to” sections of the book we are told that the “hard work” of developing a “framing narrative” requires “creativity, experimentation, and collective commitment”; that such a narrative must adhere to a “common narrative logic”; and that groups must be vigilant about “matching [not mixing] metaphors” and “choosing the right meta-verb[s]” to match a particular “action logic” (60-3). Just one good story illustrating how an organization might in practice engage brainstorming or decision making on these items could have helped demystify the book’s jargon and its application.

The book’s other unavoidable limitation is that terrain-shifting stories generated by powerful new social movements—from 2011’s Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street—may have fundamentally altered the communications landscape the book aims to describe. The book offers little analysis of the role of the Internet in relation to corporate-controlled mass media and no discussion of social media.

Despite its limitations, Re:Imagining Change makes a valuable contribution to rais- ing contemporary activist consciousness of the role cultural narratives play both in maintaining existing power relations and unleashing human potential to change them. The book serves as a welcome reminder that to make real change, “movements need to nurture a culture of strategic innovation,” (107) take risks, and articulate vision- ary alternatives to the status quo. And for a contemporary labor movement too often reluctant to “disrupt dominant narratives” by telling its own proud, visionary stories of what a just world for workers might look like—and tempted instead to seek short-cut “messaging” solutions based on focus-grouped talking points too often designed to reinforce dominant narratives—there may be no such thing as too many reminders of the inseparability of stories and power.

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The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow in Electric Review

By Bryan Zepp Jamieson
Electric Review

As part of their “Outspoken Authors” series, PM Press brings the first SF author to be an Internet Legend. Cory Doctorow disdains conventional publishing and goes the route of Creative Commons.

In Great Big Beautiful, he describes an immortal in a krapnatz post-apocalyptic world who is in an unappealing situation; perpetually on the cusp of puberty, with two pubic hairs to call his own, the protagonist is trapped with the mind and body of a boy who has spent decades beginning to notice girls but doesn't know why he is noticing. In an ironic counterpoint, he has stewardship of an animatronic carousel from the 1965 New York World's Fair and late of Epcot Center that pays endless and unchanging homage to progress.

Along with the novella, the book also has a striking essay, ”Creativity vs. Copyright” about how the Digital Management Rights Act is a threat to consumers but which has the main intent of utterly controlling the artists whose works the Act is supposed to protect. And finally, there is an interview with Terry Bisson.

Doctorow is the most important voice to emerge in this digital age, and this book shows just why he is so important.

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23 Shades of Black: A Review

Thinking about books
By David Marshall
July 1, 2012

One of the perks of reviewing is that I get to read the work of many writers I’ve never heard of. Even at my advanced age, it’s actually fun to add new “persons of interest” to the Ten Most Wanted posters on my walls. So imagine my joy in picking up 23 Shades of Black by Kenneth Wishnia (PM Press, 2012). I read the title verso (doesn’t everyone) and discover this presumptuous author has included the words of the Tenth Psalm “Reprinted by permission of God.” This is auspicious and suggests we share the same world view. The introduction by the redoubtable Barbara D’Amato fills in the gaps in my knowledge (ask me about science fiction, fantasy and horror and I’m reasonably encyclopaedic, but American police procedurals are a relatively new territory for me). It seems our author grew tired of rejections and self-published this book in 1997. It was immediately shortlisted for both the Edgar Allan Poe Award and the Anthony Award. Which just goes to show that, sometimes, authors are an excellent judge of the quality of the work they produce and know more than the agents and publishers. Indeed, within ten pages, I’m hooked and sad that I’ve missed out on the four books in the series that have followed this.
So what’s so wonderful about this book? Welcome to the world of Filomena Buscarsela. Like many heroines in police procedurals, she’s the eternal victim in the unrelenting world of aggressive sexual harassment. Just as one example, they send her out on rape patrol to walk the park in the hope she will lure out a predator male. Two police officers are supposedly seconds away, ready to rush in to arrest the perp the moment they hear the attack over the wire she’s carrying. Except all the male officers in this particular part of New York have been betting on whether she will defend herself or be raped. This leads to delays in her rescuers’ arrival. Ah, such are the pranks officers play on each other. For all involved, it’s just one laugh after another.
Mentioning laughs brings me to the tone of the book. You might think from the rape jape that this is a dark book whereas it’s actually “funny.” Yes, yes, I know I’ve been harping on about the hole in my head after the humour lobotomy, but I really did find passages in this book amusing. There’s a world-weary wit about the way our first-person heroine describes the crass awfulness of the world around her. In part, this comes from her background. She’s arrived in the US from Ecuador having grown up under the military juntas. We now find her in the 1980s when President Reagan is the Man in Charge, struggling to overcome discrimination and make it into the ranks of the detectives. Except, as mentioned, everything that can go wrong with this ambition does go wrong. This leaves her with a dilemma. She can either subside with whatever grace she can muster and live a “quiet life” as the butt of everyone’s jokes. Or she can go out of her way to investigate cases on her own and break through the glass ceiling by main force. Fortunately for us, she adopts the latter strategy and we soon see she would make a phenomenal detective. Except, of course, it all goes pear-shaped as the fix goes in to curtail her private investigation before it gets too dangerous for the “men at the top”. Suddenly, there’s an adverse drug test and questions being asked about the amount of alcohol she drinks. All these problems might go away if she would just accept “guidance.”

We have to remember this is a woman whose family died in Ecuador, who grew up seeing far worse corruption. Yet she wavers because, one-by-one, all the people who were supportive seem to lose their enthusiasm. Perhaps the big corporation she thinks is involved really can buy everyone else off. But not our Filomena. She’s going to get to the bottom of this even if it kills her. Which brings me to the ending which is not the usual feel-good effort that comes in the majority of mainstream books. All things considered, it feels pleasingly realistic. As a real-world comparison, Erin Brockovich might have won a settlement from Pacific Gas and Electric Company but, despite a non-related bankruptcy, it continues to trade. Fighting a large corporation as a white knight only rarely slays the corporate dragon and, more often than not, leaves the person in the can crisped when the flames lick around the armour. So it is we leave Filomena somewhat the worse for wear after her encounter with corporate power.
Kudos to PM Press for bringing this back into print. 23 Shades of Black, a reference to a painting she comes across during the course of her investigation, is a wonderful read and I unhesitatingly recommend it to everyone, regardless of their usual genre preferences.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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The Primal Screamer on the Electric Review

By Bryan Zepp Jamieson
Electric Review

Nick Blinko, one of the more innovative voices of the punk-anarchist movement in the UK during the Thatcher era, picked a singularly well-trodden format for his novel, Primal Screamer.

In this Gothic horror, Blinko employs the device of having an independent observer keep a diary of a troubled patient who seems to be descending irrevocably into madness. This is a trope that dates back to the days of Poe and Lovecraft, and was seen more recently in Stephen King's N. The story follows a familiar pattern, with the patient descending deeper into insanity and strangeness, and it being more apparent as time went on that this is more than just a routine case of schizophrenia.

Inevitably, the observer is changed by the action of observing, the old reverse Heisenberg, and he is drawn into the madness.

The narrator, a psychiatrist named Rodney H. Dweller, recounts the story of Nathaniel Snoxell (“That's perfect iambic pentameter!” exclaims Dweller). Blinko infuses what would otherwise be a rather shopworn manuscript with flashes of brilliant black humor, and has a deft touch at pacing and tone, creating an agreeable sensation of dread. He does a good job of making his narrator a perfect reflective instrument, and the reader doesn't even learn the narrator's name until after his denouement. The environment of the story, a decaying and despondent society in Thatcherite Britain, similarly reflects and enhances the story neatly.

The story is illustrated with Blinko's own art, specializing in the grotesque and macabre.

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