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Rad Dad on Red Dirt Report

By Andrew W. Griffin
Red Dirt Report
January 2013

As a new father of two adopted boys, both under the age of 5, I knew that I was going to have my hands full, in addition to running this news-n-views website. Yes, I'm a pretty political guy, for anyone who is familiar with Red Dirt Report. I don't hesitate to share my views and sometimes I piss people off. But as a reporter and analyst, I feel that is my duty.

And now with the duty of raising two boys, I wanted to find that balance. That's where the book Rad Dad: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Fatherhood comes in. Until just recently I was unfamiliar with the award-winning 'zine Rad Dad or the rad blog Daddy Dialectic. However, I was familiar with Washington D.C. activists Mark Andersen (of Positive Force and author of Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation's Capital) and of course punk-rock icon Ian MacKaye of the bands Fugazi and Minor Threat. These were guys - now fathers - I respected and admired and when I came across info on this book Rad Dad I knew I had to get it.

And while it was a little meandering in parts, the overall book is a gem and well-worth picking up. Split up into sections - "Birth, Babies and Toddlers," "Childhood," "Tweens and Teens," "Politics of Parenting: Gender, Race, Allies, Visions," and "Interviews with Rad Dads" - the editors - blogger Jeremy Adam Smith and Rad Dad 'zine creator Tomas Moniz - take us on a journey through the various stages of a child's development and the different way radical fathers raise their children.

For instance, the aforementioned Mark Andersen, an adoptive father, talks about his son Soren and says, "I accept the overriding imperative to provide Soren with love, respect and security he needs and deserves every day, as a new person, learning as he goes along, dealing daily with the newest challenge. . . . For example, I regularly expose my son to anthems of my would-be-revolution, including the Clash, Fugazi, Chumbawamba, Bikini Kill, and more. But if the first song Soren ever heard was 'Destroy Babylon' by Bad Brains, other tunes now rule our house and my own subconscious." Andersen explains that while children's songs like "Pop Goes the Weasel" can run on an "endless loop," if allowed, but what makes it fun for father and son is changing lyrics - making them meaningful, even if it's personalizing classics like "Old McDonald."

Another contributor, Jason Sperber, talks about "Seeing Pink" and how he wanted to raise his daughter - his "babygrrl" - to be a "fierce, strong woman of color." But then he laments how gender norms - girls like pink and boys like blue - bombard children at an early age and how its silly and pointless. "I'm tired of seeing pink," writes Sperber. "I'm tired of seeing blue. And I'm both pissed off and saddened deeply that at age three, my daughter and her friends, both girls and boys, have already learned to see those colors, and what they are supposed to mean, so well."

Chip Gagnon, another "rad dad," addresses "boys and militarism" and how he had to explain to his son that playing war and real war are not the same thing, writing, "he understands that the reality of war is not a game."

And this is just some of what we hear from these politically-charged, progressive fathers who want to make a difference for their children. And these fathers are straight, gay, transgendered, divorced and more.

For instance, editor Moniz, a self-described "feminist father, a rad dad, a militant antiracist," says that while you may "lose the battle" in raising your children to be loving and accepting of all people, you end up "winning the war" by living out your values in their presence and not changing who you are. After all, Moniz notes that kids spend only a fraction of time under the influence of their parents, compared to the influence they experience from media and society.

Writes Moniz: "I realize that all I can do is be the example of leading a life the way I think I should." All the while giving your kids the "tools" to fight on for themselves in an ever-changing world.

Later in the book, Moniz interviews Ian MacKaye and one of his questions to MacKaye is "any advice to new parents?" (I read his answer with great interest - having never forgotten seeing Fugazi live in Lawrence, Kansas in 1991 - a show that blew my mind)

Responds MacKaye: "Trust yourself. It's natural. You just figure things out as you and the child develop; if the kid's crying, you hold him, if he's hungry, you feed him. And take the kid for a walk!"

Ian MacKaye never bullshits and is always about getting straight to the point. And he's absolutely right. It's pretty simple and even in this society - with the crass advertising aimed at kids and the lousy movies and TV shows and corporate junk, it's good to know that there are ways to raise your kids while staying true to your values and beliefs. Rad Dad is a great guide and one I hope all new fathers will take the time to read.

To check out the Rad Dad blog, go to

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Suspended Somewhere Between in The American Bazaar

By David Keplinger
The American Bazaar
December 20, 2012

At their best Ahmed's poems realign the reader towards love, even forgiveness, through their language and attention.

WASHINGTON, DC: There's style in the writerly sense and then there's style, the style one achieves as a member of the human family, say, a style Akbar Ahmed has mastered. For there is surely a tone, a voice, a mastery of the grammar of life which lives not only in the pages of his non-fiction, drama and now poetry, but in the way Ahmed has conducted himself throughout his personal history, from being a young delegate of the Civil Service in Pakistan to his arrival here at American University as the Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, and onward to appearances on Oprah and The Daily Show, to being called "the world's leading authority on contemporary Islam" by the BBC and "a national treasure" by Dan Futterman, academy award nominee for screenwriting.

Ahmed has written a dozen books, including Discovering Islam, which was the basis for a six-part BBC documentary entitled Living Islam, and he is winner of the American Book Award, as well as many other honors. Since the mid-1960s, his career in the Civil Service led him to Bangladesh and later, the UK, where he served as Ambassador to Pakistan. I was present, a few years ago, when Ahmed and his family were honored at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. So I would add to Futterman's comment that not only is Ahmed a national treasure but an international one, a man whose life work has been to reach across borders, promoting amity between the most ancient rivalries.

With that it seems fitting that Ahmed's first book of poetry, Suspended Somewhere Between (PM Press), should seek in its very title to reach not only across borders but to seek the meaning, as Mallarme taught, in the interstice. It was in relationship, the father of the modern prose poem taught, that meaning is achieved: between the words, between the images, and, I would add, between peoples.  One's meaning as an individual does not reside in one's life or one's gifts, necessarily, but in the ways one shares those resources.

My life's meaning comes via my relationship to that to which I cast my glance. Who am I? What is my name? Where am I from? Often we answer these questions in the context of other people. I am of the Keplinger family. My first name has a Biblical origin. I am a citizen of the United States.

But a more mysterious, even mystical sense of meaning and purpose is revealed as the questions assume more metaphysical undertones: why am I here? For what do I do my work? For whom? What shall be my work? Ahmed, as poet, asks questions that increasingly have no answers; or perhaps have only one. Love. Why am I here? Love. For what and for whom do I do my work? For love. What shall be my work? Love.

To place ourselves in relationship to Love, to pay attention to the power of love in all its forms, is to achieve, I might say, this Most Admirable Style, which he embodies in these poems about the ravaged regions between India and Pakistan. He focuses not on macrocosmic abstractions but on individuals, often children, or his own childhood memories as "a small boy/in a crowded train compartment/bathed in dim yellow light/motionless at night/stranded/ in the killing fields of the Punjab."

Here is compassion for the innocents who are born into a violent world by no choice of their own. They have been born into a litany of terror that stretches across borders and they would be hated, even killed, for the names and meanings others would ascribe to them. The poems are often chillingly violent, but in the power of the utterance a kind of beauty, a kind of song is achieved at their best. In perhaps the strongest poem of the collection, "They Are Taking Them Away," he writes of the slaughters he witnessed as a young civil servant in "the green lands of Bengal," 1971:

women, like broken toys,
on the rail tracks to Santahar Junction
bright flags fluttering from their thighs
does it matter now
which side did this
or why

they were playing these games
with death over there in the green lands of Bengal
in the year of our lord 1971

oh the storm that raged
under the blue Bengal sky
within man,
and without him,
when rape was relief
death a desire
and killing a kindness.
Mama, hide me in your arms, for

they are taking them away
to the slaughterhouses . . .

Ahmed's poems reveal no solutions to global issues. At their best they realign the reader towards love, even forgiveness ("does it matter now/which side did this/or why"), through their language and attention. Our affiliations and borders are erased momentarily; thus he is a poet writing in the lineage of Rumi, Kabir, Ghalib. He knows, as they did, our common name is silence.

Recently, I was browsing the shelves at Bridge Street Books in Georgetown and I came across a copy of Ahmed's play, Noor, which was performed here in Washington and later published, translated, and is being produced shortly, I've learned, by a group of students at The American University of Iraq-Sulaimani. Such connections are the miracle work of art, not politics. Ahmed teaches that there is much to learn in lingering a while with the questions, in these in-betweens where we often find ourselves suspended-that is to say, in our relationship with others. It is there that poetry connects beyond diplomacy, even, and it is there that poets, as Shelley wrote, become the legislators of the world.

David Keplinger teaches in the Department of Literature at American University in Washington, DC. He is the author of three collections of poetry, including The Prayers of Others. He is also a winner of the National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, the T.S. Eliot Prize, and the Colorado Book Award, among other honors.

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Sober Living on Upping the Anti

by Joshua Stephens
Upping the Anti
January 12th, 2013

In his 1977-78 lectures at the Collège de France, Michel Foucault began charting the rise of what he referred to as governmentality – an exercise of power that differed from the sovereign and disciplinary forms he’d previously explored in two key ways. First, it concerned itself with populations rather than individuals; second, it derived from the practice of economy in the classical sense, conducting available materials, conditions, bodies, and forces the way one might captain a large ship. In these lectures, Foucault charted its development from the management of households to what we now recognize as the neoliberal state, hitting its stride in the unprecedented intervention of pastoral power in the lives of individuals during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, in what the church called the conducting of “the economy of souls.” Tellingly, this was where the practice of governmentality, for Foucault, encountered its fiercest resistance, in the form of what he called counter-conduct: “[T]hese anti-pastoral struggles, these pastoral counter-conducts [brought] … a whole new attitude, religious comportment, way of doing things and being, and a whole new way of relating to God, obligations, morality, as well as to civil life.”

The term was deliberately chosen, and was intended to function as something of a double-entendre: conduct counter to this particular formulation of power and a refusal to be conducted. In his lectures, Foucault zeroed in on five key instances of such refusal in the Middle Ages, the first of which was asceticism, “a form of internal challenge, if one can put it like that, which is also a challenge to the other.” In Foucault’s view, self-mastery was not a pursuit of personal salvation, but an embodied, ongoing practice within a broader and (more importantly) collective refusal of the ‘conducting of conduct’ in one’s connection to the divine, or freedom. “Whenever and wherever pastoral counter-conducts develop[ed] in the Middle Ages, asceticism was one of their points of support and instruments against the pastorate.”
Coincidentally, at the very moment in which Foucault gave these lectures, a version of this challenge to the self and other was being taken up in punk scenes across the United States. In a rather strident disavowal of punk’s creeping nihilism and its celebration of self-destruction, a number of the music scene’s adherents began turning its rejection of post-Fordist values inward, casting self-discipline as an unequivocally punk rejection of mainstream values. Straight edge, a term coined in the title and lyrics of a song by Washington, DC hardcore outfit Minor Threat, became something of a code name for this lifestyle, a practice of strict abstinence from intoxicating substances and a sometimes refusal of a sexuality driven by self-serving conquest. In the last three decades, the tendency has achieved global reach and its banner has been taken up with an often religious zeal, provoking everything from inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary, to occasional media obsession, to mockery.

A key, but often less-discussed feature of this conduct (alongside a more nebulous set of sentiments around goal-oriented living, a positive attitude toward life, and a fierce loyalty in one’s personal relationships) was its individualization and general depoliticization. In its earlier years, with notably few exceptions, straight edge bands and zines eschewed much of any relationship with political themes, favouring a more personal lens or ethics. By and large, this remains the case in the US, where one finds little analysis or even awareness of how such moralizing, depoliticized and individualized, inheres a rather dangerous vulnerability to fascist politics.

Late 1980s New York band Youth of Today, for instance, lifted part of its signature anthem’s lyrical content directly from the Boy Scouts Oath, championing a life lived “physically strong, morally straight.” The band’s chief songwriters went on to join the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), better known as the Hare Krishnas, subtly popularizing often profoundly regressive takes on authority, gender, and sexuality, and inspiring a spinoff tendency that survives (with considerable marginality) to this day, known as Krishna-core. One band went so far as to adopt the name Vegan Reich, founding and advocating a “natural law” position, opposed to both homosexuality and reproductive choice. A 1995 punk music festival in Cleveland, OH ended rather abruptly in a riot provoked by the appearance of One Life Crew, a straight edge band whose lyrics referred to immigrants as “dirty leeches.” Perhaps most famously, Syracuse straight edge outfit Earth Crisis acquired the status of legend almost overnight with an anthem rather shockingly evocative of fascist themes, entitled “Firestorm,” proclaiming “violence against violence; let the roundups begin.” None of these instances reflected the infiltration of self-identified fascist tendencies, as has been the case in other corners of the punk world; its expression was entirely homegrown, and thus remains largely uncontroversial, with the exception of One Life Crew. Many of these bands are widely celebrated, occasionally accompanied by a dubious irony.

With, perhaps, the exception of animal liberation struggles, the space in which radical social transformation and punk have been conventionally understood to overlap is a terrain virtually bereft of any reference to straight edge. In Sober Living for the Revolution: Hardcore Punk, Straight Edge, and Radical Politics, Gabriel Kuhn has attempted to stake out a sort of counter-narrative, charting encounters between punk sobriety and a radical politics drawn largely from left antiauthoritarianism. Curiously, Kuhn has settled on an edited anthology to accomplish this task; a sort of vignette built around five would-be chapters focused on bands that carried the banner of straight edge, particular geographies in which the practice took up with radical politics, manifestos from various zines, reflections from individuals who have played some role in radicalizing straight edge, largely in the form of interviews, and perspectives from people similarly involved, largely in the form of reprinted essays. Given that much of the subculture’s encounter with left politics occurred in the course of its migration to Europe from North America, Kuhn’s final product can be credited as the first deeply international account of straight edge, comprised overwhelmingly by contributions from Europe, Israel, and South America, and perhaps the first to draw from the voices of women and queer folks as central (rather than ornamental) to the subject’s history.

It’s a curious choice of format for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it replicates the documentary template one finds in the vast majority of intellectual explorations of straight edge. These accounts – including Beth Lahickey’s All Ages, Marc Pierschel and Michael Kirchner’s film Edge: Perspectives on Drug Free Culture, as well as myriad documentaries now available on YouTube, including a particularly abysmal National Geographic feature – tend to privilege providing an account of straight edge over any analysis of it, comparative or otherwise. Whereas documents comprised of first-person narratives, particularly from personalities central to the formation of one or another piece of straight edge’s history, might have carried some informative novelty before web-publishing and video technology became widely accessible, they’re now the sort of thing virtually anyone can produce. To the extent something interesting can be said about straight edge at this point, it’s not merely a matter hitting the record button.

Kuhn’s premise strikes a stark contrast with prior treatments of this subject matter. Where previous film and written works have alluded to straight edge and political themes tangentially, they’ve generally done so with little interest or considerable confusion. Worse still, the documentary and sociological angles from which straight edge has consistently been tackled tend toward compartmentalization and self-reference and take economic and political forces for granted. According to these accounts, we’re to believe the phenomena itself is the context. Its relationship to anything beyond or prior to it has (with somewhat stunning consistency) been deferred or dismissed. The result has mostly been a glimpse into a vaguely exotic strategy to meet the logic and demands of neoliberalism. We see (mostly) suburban, (mostly) male voices making appeals to sobriety as a means to competitive advantage in navigating the demands of capitalist production (high school, athletics, university education, professional life, etc.), and the discipline necessary to secure/maintain particular advantages therein. Straight edge, in these accounts, intentionally or not, provides something of a “model minority” within punk subculture, contrasted with that subculture’s otherwise anti-establishment orientation. To the extent that straight edge is portrayed as a critique of a dominant culture, it’s generally in a sort of dialectic relationship with a “grown up” hypocrisy concerning substance abuse. This antagonism is almost invariably resolved in some vindicating, assimilationist compromise with neoliberal modes of living. Straight edge achieves intelligibility as a (perhaps unlikely) force for greater efficiency within the established order. (To read the full article, see Issue #14 of Upping the Anti)

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Catastrophism in Socialist Resistance

by Jane Shallice
Socialist Resistance
January 21st, 2013

Over the last twenty or thirty years there have been a constant litany of the latest life threatening scares. For an older generation growing up in the postwar period, the threat was nuclear war, with its “four minute warning”.  In the USA there appeared a more hysterical response to their Cold War with photographs of school children practicing hiding under desks or seated covering their eyes with their hands as some type of protection from a nuclear blast.

Although no longer discussed as a present and immanent threat to our lives, the huge quantities of nuclear weapons presently stored and maintained, (and with more planned), the nuclear threat is still a distinct possibility, whether from war or accident. But over time this has given way to other catastrophes’, with the emergence of a world exposed to an ever-growing sequence of possible disasters: Aids, Avian Flu, SARS or another mutant strain of some disease, peak oil, GM and Frankenstein foods, the millennium bug, cloning, terrorism, global warming and climate change.  At present responses to the American, now global, financial crisis whilst not being seen as a preoccupation with the end times, does dominate immediate political questions.

Catastrophism is a collection of essays analysing the obsession with a doom laden future and arguing that whether the left, the right or environmentalists, many have succumbed to an unremitting pessimism and helplessness. For the contributors, the world appears “saturated with instrumental, spurious and sometimes maniacal versions of catastrophism – including right wing racial paranoia, religious millenarianism, liberal panics over fascism, leftist fetishization of the capitalist collapse”.  They have as their essential locus that such a confirmation and acceptance of an apocalyptic future, paralyses and prevents any way of challenging what is popularly assumed to be the inevitable. The response in the book reassert the essential requirements of thinking and undertaking actions which return us to the everyday; “to the idea that revolution grows out of the ordinary prosaic acts of organizing and resistance whose coalescence produces a mass upheaval” and the necessity of those “decidedly mundane activities – strikes and demonstrations meetings speeches leaflets and occupations”.   Understanding that “capitalism itself is catastrophic”, it being both crisis ridden and crisis dependent, implies that we should not take for granted “the grinding quotidian catastrophe of capitalism during times when we are faced with exceptional calamities”.

The arena in which we have to act

As for many on the left, having lived with Rosa Luxembourg’s warning of “Socialism or Barbarism”, foolishly I have always thought of this as a warning about the future. I was shocked therefore on reading in an obituary for Daniel Bensaid, that by the mid 90s with the success of neoliberalism, he thought that we were indeed experiencing barbarism.  But throughout history, for vast numbers of people barbarism could be the only designation of all they experienced – slavery, fascism, terrifying and unremitting poverty and genocide. However barbarism is not the apocalypse, it is not the end times; it is the arena in which we have to act, working for another possible future.

The authors of Catastrophism argue that many of the false ecological prophesies around overpopulation and resource depletion flow directly from Malthusian theory, that “ crudest most barbarous theory that ever existed, a system of despair.” (Engels)  But the current ecological crisis dominating today’s thinking means we cannot ignore the supreme logic of the scientific data and the clear trajectory that it indicates. A consensus of scientists indicates the serious questions that have to be addressed and unless there is a substantial change in human behaviour, there will be a progressive collapse of known ecological systems. We are not helped by many proposed solutions being offered, they being patently completely inadequate.  (After the debacle in Copenhagen 2009 public concern over climate plummeted to 22 out of possible 22 global issues). Whilst knowing solutions can only be found when the world system of accumulation and growth is changed, and the terrifying but understandable refusal of governments to confront the real issues reveals the major contradiction: how to get this political system to even modestly constrain capital. It would appear that we have to organize to curb the worst excesses, through regulation and limitations on the actions of capital, whilst knowing this is not the answer.

In his essay The Politics of Failure has Failed, Eddie Yuen considers some of the environmentalist arguments, at the extreme end of which are the anti-civilization movements, who in the name of liberation assert that alienation is endemic to civilization itself. For them our only political choice would be to reject all that we know, abandoning urban structures, work and all which is the stuff of people’s lives.

Walls and fences

With the dangers of global warming, changing climatic patterns and a consequent rise in sea level, large numbers of major cities will be in danger of flooding.  Many will become uninsurable – New York, London, Shanghai, which will radically impact on the financial world.  But as all studies of climate change are stating, from such well known green institutions such as the World Bank, the International Energy Agency and Price Waterhouse Coopers, major changes in both temperature and precipitation, especially in areas girdling the tropics, will experience increased desertification, consequent soil impoverishment and catastrophic migrations will be the increasing pattern. With no basic food security and increasing immiseration, the northern states will respond with walls and fences and authoritarian solutions of surveillance and control. In Planet of Slums, Mike Davis tells of the projects of the US military planning to control urban areas with drones and surveillance, and evidence from the USA/Mexico demonstrates the sealing of that border using the latest military technology, has already been accomplished.

Whilst all points to cascading environmental disaster, Yuen argues that any movement to counter it has to be rooted in networks of communities and activists and requires a positive appeal to community actions and a compassionate egalitarian radical movement – like the networks of the global justice movement.  But he does not consider that it is also necessary to raise demands upon the state, which is the only way in which adequate policies can be implemented. Without such a strategy the dilemma of what David Harvey calls “termite politics” is raised, whereby political activity makes small gains and yet refuses to engage with the question of the state itself.

In Great Chaos under Heaven, Sasha Lilley considers the catastrophism of the left that she argues lies in political despair. “Irresistible economic forces lead with the certainty of doom to the shipwreck of capitalist production. The substitution of a new social order for the existing one is no longer simply desirable it has become inevitable”. Marx never argued that the collapse of capitalism was inevitable. “History does nothing, it possesses no immense wealth, it wages no battles…It is man, real, living man who does all that , who possesses and fights; history is not , as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieving its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims”.

An alternative pole found in the political left is the mentality of “the worse it gets, the better for revolutionaries”. Characterised by the Weathermen and the urban guerilla movements, like the RAF, in the 60s and 70s. “The liberatory hopes of the past and their confidence in the collective power of others have given way to the uncertain hope and fear of collapse, befitting our anti-utopian and crisis fraught times.”

All the bugbears of the right are on display in James Davis’s essay on Catastrophism and the Right. For them society, as we know it, is under attack from immigration, Islam, women’s liberation of peoples, multi-culturalism.  In the USA there is a spectacular display of the populist right, who have taken a central role in the organizing of the more extreme rightist positions in the political spectrum and which have a large influence in sections of popular consciousness. Following the millenarians of the 19th century, communism and secularism and later multiculturalism were seen as catastrophic dangers to the American way of life, which is identified as freedom and liberty.  In the fifties, figures like Billy Graham, who trailed through Britain expounding the dangers of sex and drugs and rock and roll and anything liberatory, was given a huge audience within the context of the Cold War.  Jerry Falwall and Pat Robertson opposing women’s liberation and gay rights used private television channels to drive the message home: the security of the state would be ensured by the family, patriarchy, morality, monogamy, authority and the free market. The enemy for them is democracy and equality and their response has been to elevate the individual swimming against tides of mediocrity.

Davis identifies their eugenicist underpinnings, with their assertion that multi ethnic populations will create a dilution of a nation’s intellectual qualities. We have seen this in sections of the Tea Party, as well as in rightist and neo fascist developments throughout Europe.  A supreme example is that of Anders Breivik, influenced it was revealed by writings of even such as Melanie Phillips amongst others. “Post cold war i.e. after communism the rudders are the fantasy of Islam or Latin American degeneration. … The existential threat of Islam is of course immediate and will be seen to have won “in our lifetime”. 

The state has always used repression to fight social movements that promote an expanding democratic agenda, and while the right attacks the state as liberal, the state responds with harsh measures previously off limits e.g. over immigrants. But Davis extends this to encompassing the way in which exceptional events permit the introduction of vicious and antidemocratic measures. The whole war on terror was such an example, and one which was adopted not only within the USA but which became a template for all the “developed” world. Within that context there was “an exchange of social and political freedoms for freedom from fear” whereas there was no such limitation on the impact of neoliberal policies, which had been globally adopted wholesale through the last twenty years, with all the concomitant fears and insecurity for people who rely on their labour power.

For the essay by David McNally, Land of the Living Dead, the status quo is indeed itself the catastrophe.  Looking at film and fantasy fiction with their plethora of zombies and vampires, he develops the argument that such imagery stems from the origins of capitalism and the exploitation of labourers, forced to sell their labour power,  “sapping away all their lives and becoming almost zombies”.  He focuses on the way the zombie is viewed in Haiti, a figure without memory, without self consciousness or agency. The denial therefore of all that is human.  Considering the impact of neoliberal policies throughout Latin America and Africa, it is only too apparent that structural adjustment programes have exacerbated all that was dehumanizing.  But he then offers liberation – through the living dead re-emerging as the rebellious.  Emphasising that there is no catastrophic collapse, which would herald the new dawn, he returns, like the other contributors to the answer being “decidedly mundane activities – strikes and demonstrations meetings speeches leaflets and occupations”.

This is an important book, which emphasizes and confirms the old methods, ones which may not have proved successful in the past but which none the less are the methods of analyzing, agitating and organizing. Whilst recognizing that these are hard times and there are few developments which signal a glorious future, we have seen the impact of Occupy, of landless movements, and of an economic and political crisis that places capitalism as a system which has failed and has to be replaced.  The question as ever is how this will be achieved.

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Back to Sasha Lilley's Author Page
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Catastrophism in EcoEquity

by Tom Athanasiou
January 31st, 2013

There are four essays in this slim volume, one on left catastrophism, one on green catastrophism, one on right catastrophism, and one on zombies. I’m most interested in the left and the greens, though we do need to keep an eye on the right. As for the zombie craze, doesn’t it just come down to the fact that modern life feels like people keep trying to eat your face off?

Doug Henwood’s preface sets the stage nicely. He immediately makes a point that all green pessimists should keep always in mind: “Catastrophe can be paralyzing, not mobilizing.” In fact, it usually is. The challenge is to remember this even as you face the real and present catastrophe that’s now visible on the horizon. It’s a dilemma, no doubt about it, but the way forward, whatever it is, is going to have to take both its horns into proper account. The question is how.

Catastrophism comes at a good time for the green movement, which is in a period of rapid change. The key point here is that, even as we struggle to come to terms with the latest climate science, we need to remember (see particularly James Davis’ essay) that catastrophism is the “native terrain” of the right. The baseline point here is that right-wing politics is all about natural limits (scarcity, austerity, etc) rather than social ones (even in a world of limits, we’d be fine if we shared the commonwealth).  This is not to say that environmentalism itself is biased toward the right – just the contrary – but it has flirted with catastrophism for a long, long time, and along the way it has had a number of unfortunate dalliances, particularly with right-wing populationism and xenophobia.

The challenge now is to invent a just and inclusive politics of planetary limits, while at the same tale navigating a landscape in which “natural limits” and “scarcity” have long served to justify class stratification and economic exclusion. And this, if I may make a wild, undefended claim, is just not going to happen until we project a vision of the future that is fair, sustainable, and — here’s the problem — believable. Which is a bit of a problem, particularly because many enviros actually believe that our civilization is altogether beyond redemption.

Here’s Sasha Lilly, from her introduction:

“Catastrophism presumes that society is headed for a collapse, whether economic, ecological, social, or spiritual. This collapse is frequently, but not always, regarded as great cleansing, out of which a new society will be born. Catastrophists tend to believe that an ever-intensified rhetoric of disaster will awaken the masses from their long slumber – if the mechanical failure of the system does not make such struggles superfluous.”

Throughout Catastrophism, examples of such “ever-intensified” environmental rhetoric abound. Paul Ehrlich’s prediction of global famine by the end of the 20th Century is of course a classic (one that he’s never quite been able to live down) but there’s lots more to regret as well. Helen Caldecott and Chris Hedges are both called onto the carpet, as is Derrick Jensen, who seems intent on becoming a living caricature of self-aggrandizing green despair. Nor do the authors mount a merely cultural critique. As Lilly notes, “Catastrophic politics have a lengthy track record of failure,” and we really shouldn’t be spending our time trying to make that record even longer. We should be planning for success, and that means putting global economic justice square at the center of the green political agenda. Which, by the way, is just the sort of development that the right (see Davis’ essay) would regard as an unmitigated catastrophe.

On the related point – catastrophism as the native terrain of the right – Malthus is of course Exhibit A, though Hobbes stands close behind him. As, by the way, does James Howard Kunstler, the peak-oil snark-meister who has long rampaged against immigration. Eddie Yuen, in his essay on environmental catastrophism, expands this point nicely. He surveys “the main reasons that [it] has not led to more dynamic social movements; these include catastrophe fatigue, the paralyzing effects of fear; the pairing of overwhelmingly bleak analysis with inadequate solutions, and a misunderstanding of the process of politicization.” It’s a fine summary, and it introduces a fine essay, though I do have some quibbles, which essentially come down to my sense that the green movement is much farther along in its re-definition and renewal than Yuen gives it credit for. That said, he raises a host of good points, and when it comes to the weakness of environmentalism-as-usual, I am quite unable to improve upon his key formulation: “the pairing of overwhelmingly bleak analysis with inadequate solutions.”

The inadequacy of our solutions is indeed the problem. And it’s becoming a critical one as climate denialism collapses. Which is to say that, as the denialists lose any residual aura of scientific legitimacy, we’re being left alone with the truth – we are in very serious trouble indeed. And though we have almost all the technology we need to save ourselves, and the science to develop the rest, and plenty of money besides, few people really believe that we’re going to rise to the occasion. They go straight “from aware to despair,” and the awful truth is that the greens are not altogether innocent bystanders. Lacking as they do a vision of a just and sustainable global society, they have all too little to contribute to a believable strategy of global emergency mobilization.

The good news is that the need for such a strategy is now well understood. There’s lots of motion now, and lots of thinking, all around the world. And there’s the fact that catastrophe is not our immutable fate, not yet in any case. So the next time you feel the temptation to foretell doom, just say no. As Henwood asks, “Wouldn’t it be better to spin narratives of how humans are marvelously resourceful creatures who could a lot better with the intellectual, social, and material resource we have?”

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Catastrophism in the San Francisco Book Review

by Glenn Dallas
San Francisco Book Review
February 7th, 2013

The Mayan apocalypse may have been a bust, but with environmental fears, peak oil concerns, staggering population predictions, the threat of terrorism, the specter of nuclear annihilation, and increasingly sensationalist rhetoric, catastrophe has become a buzzword, an all-too-common part of our vocabulary.

Catastrophism collects four articles investigating the politics of despair, crisis, and catastrophe, as employed by both the left and the right in America. The contributors argue that the overuse of doomsday references has led to a national sense of crisis fatigue and environmental apathy, and that such gloom-and-doom narratives are often employed to push religious, racist, and nationalist agendas.

Admittedly, I was most engaged by the closing article, which explored the modern popularity of zombie outbreaks and similar stories, and how they reflect contemporary views and values on catastrophic thinking. It’s a wonderfully down-to-earth examination that backs up many of the arguments made earlier in the book that might have been lost in highfalutin’ narrative.

At its heart, Catastrophism states that fear-based politics are a dead end. Hopefully, this can be the spark for new discussions, more rational debate, and a collective change in direction for government. With well-directed skepticism and fresh eyes, this book is a decent start.

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Catastrophism in the Socialist Review

by Mark Bergfeld
Socialist Review
January 2013

Frederic Jameson once stated, "It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism." With climate change negotiations deadlocked, the biggest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s and right wing media pundits declaring the end of Western civilisation in the face of the supposed Islamic threat, this book is the perfect antidote to the catastrophism that has become common currency from left to right.

Catastrophism is the belief that "natural disasters", nuclear wipe-outs, and apocalypse promise political change and even revolutionary transformation. So environmental activists argue that floods and forest fires will wake the masses from their apathy and hail a new world. The Copenhagen Climate Summit 2009 was seen to be "the last chance to save the planet from burning". While things are getting worse, the movement hasn't been able to mobilise people on that basis. Similarly, the current economic crisis hasn't meant that people automatically draw revolutionary and socialist conclusions.

In four essays Eddie Yuen, Sasha Lilley, James Davis and David McNally argue that such catastrophism serves a deeply reactionary function. Basing one's political strategy on such scenarios of disaster only demobilises and fosters fear, inaction and cynicism. Sasha Lilley's essay here is an important contribution drawing on history, and a Marxist strategy and tactics that readers of this magazine will enjoy and learn from.

Capitalism's history has shown that the system is dynamic, flexible and can overcome crises. Yet the Second International's elaboration that capitalism would collapse under its own weight like a Jenga Tower is prominent as ever. Disastrous theories have disastrous consequences in reality as well as for the revolutionary and Marxist left.

Deep-seated pessimism about the ability for workers to change the world produces voluntarism on the one hand and determinism on the other. While many believe that these are diametrically opposed, Lilley argues that they are the product of the same world-view and thus overlap.

Rosa Luxemburg's famous formulation "Socialism or Barbarism" inverts catastrophism according to Lilley. "Instead of capitalist collapse heralding a new society, it will produce a barbarism unless revolutionaries achieve socialism first."

Catastrophism is a refreshing book that draws out important lessons from history, Marxism and current environmental movements. Its belief in the actuality of changing the world for the better is sorely needed at times when much of the left has given up hopes of the revolutionary and socialist transformation of the system. It reminds us of Gramsci's famous words, "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will".

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Rebel Voices reviewed in Labor Studies Journal

by William A. Pelz
Labor Studies Journal
June 2012 37: 236-237

Born in 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) at its height organized hundreds of thousands of workers to create a type of solidarity unionism that included women, minorities, and immigrants, all of whom have been too often ignored by mainstream labor. Although the IWW has yet to build the “One Big Union” of its dreams, it has nonetheless been an inspiration for generations of workers and radicals. In Daniel Gross’s preface to this new edition of the long-out-of-print 1964 edition, he claims that this is “the most important book ever written about the Industrial Workers of the World” (p. ix). Although a bold statement, there is much truth in it, because Rebel Voices is a fine collection of original source material written by IWW members themselves. Naturally, this means there is no pretense of objectivity or  detached analysis. Yet it allows the reader to feel the passion that drew so many to the organization. By including a rich collection of cartoons, posters, and other graphics, this anthology is lively, informative, and at times, inspirational.

While most chapters appear mainly of historical interest (e.g., “Patterson: 1913”), the material gives a clear sense of the ideas that motivated IWW members and supporters. Starting from the premise that the “working class and the employing class have nothing in common” (p. 12), the IWW put forth a class-struggle vision of unionism. Placing great importance on democracy and direct action, it challenged more traditional trade unionism. Believing that unions based on craft needlessly divided the working class, the IWW was a pioneer in the development of industrial unionism before the CIO was even conceived.

With seditious humor and biting satire, Rebel Voices brings alive the revolutionary syndicalist challenge to both the capitalists and mainstream trade unionists. One need not agree with the arguments made in this book to find them thought provoking. Further, the book advances the claim that the work of the IWW has helped protect civil liberties. The IWW was a leader in the fight for free speech in an early-twentieth-century America, where verbalizing opposition to the status quo was all too often a criminal offense. When the First World War struck, the IWW was clear about which side it supported. The IWW argued that it was on the side of workers being forced to kill their fellow workers for the benefit of the employing class. This was a courageous
position that opened the already persecuted group to even greater state repression.

A twenty-first-century reader may fairly question the relevance of the views of the IWW today. Despite the IWW’s recent campaigns to organize Starbucks workers and bicycle messengers, it must be admitted that the IWW lacks the social muscle it once possessed. No matter, it remains an alternative vision of unionism that deserves a hearing, and to some, it may even be considered the conscience of the labor movement. The IWW once had a skit where one of the characters pointed at a building and said, “Folks that didn’t build it own it, and the fellows who built it don’t own it, I think that’s crazy” (p. 377). Maybe the IWW has a point.

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When Miners March reviewed in Appalachian Journal

when miners marchBy Peter Slavin
Appalachian Journal: A Regional Studies Review
VOLUME 39, NOS. 3 & 4 (SPR/SUMMER 2012)

Few significant episodes in American history have been as lost to the nation's memory as the West Virginia Mine Wars of 1920-21 and its climactic event, the Battle of Blair Mountain. The ruthless oppression of coal miners and the United Mineworkers of America by the coal industry, backed to the hilt by state and local authorities, led to a decade of violence and finally armed revolt by the Red Neck Army, some 10,000 bandana-clad miners. Their armed march to bring their union to tyrannized fellow miners and their fight on Blair Mountain against a paramilitary force defending the status quo was quelled only when thousands of federal troops intervened. The miners' leaders were charged with capital crimes and put on trial. (None were convicted.)

Front-page news across the country at the time and the subject of congressional hearings, the Battle of Blair Mountain and the trials were all but forgotten, helped by the fact that the West Virginia authorities kept any mention out of the state's textbooks for decades. After all, they had been on the wrong side of the greatest insurrection on American soil since the Civil War. But in the last few years, the Mine Wars have reemerged.

First, a group of historians and UMWA President Cecil Roberts leveled harsh criticism at the West Virginia History Museum's coal displays, including a misleading account of what led up to the Battle of Blair Mountain. Second, a fight has been raging over whether or not to place the Blair Mountain battlefield on the National Register of Historic Places, as a way to honor it and protect it from mountaintop removal mining. Preservationists, environmentalists, and labor historians have squared off against coal companies and state and federal authorities over the battlefield's fate. Finally, in June of 2011, hundreds of people, banners aloft, marched 50 miles during six days along the route the miners took to Blair Mountain in 1921, urging that the site be saved, and 800 rallied high on the mountain.

When Miners March
is the sweeping and heavily documented account of the Mine Wars from the governor's mansion to coal tipples as portrayed by the son of Bill Blizzard, the leader of the Red Neck Army-all told as the miners saw it. There is no pretense of impartiality. Coal miners, the author notes, were "the victims of exploitation, cruelty, bad working conditions, miserable pay, and murderous treatment if they dared protest." The book first appeared in the 1950s as a series of newspaper articles, and the style is old fashioned, but the writing is full-bodied and biting, with humorous jabs sprinkled throughout.

William C. Blizzard, a journalist, takes us through the long and bloody history of coal in West Virginia, with stops at the UMWA's first struggles, the fierce strike at Paint Creek and Cabin Creek, World War I's impact on coal, the shootout at Matewan and Sid Hatfield's assassination, the Armed March, Blair Mountain, the trials, and the aftermath. In one county, we find "Some 2,800 miners . . . locked out of their jobs and thrown out of their homes . . . nearly, 10,000 men, women and children were living in tents and shacks while the coal companies attempted to starve them into submission." We see the armored train known as the Bull Moose Special firing machine guns into tents holding evicted mining families. We find martial law and drumhead courts.

We observe the scheming of C.E. Lively, the company spy who plotted Hatfield's murder and helped execute him. We learn the lengths to which coal operators and government leaders were willing to go to break strikes and defeat the UMWA: employ hired thugs, court injunctions, and scabs, and call in the National Guard. We find men arrested for reading The United Mineworkers Journal. Like today, we see coal operators controlling the machinery of the state, including the courts, and using it to subdue miners who fought back.

This is the second edition of When Miners March. It is more professional in many ways than the original, containing a rare biographical sketch of Bill Blizzard, an expanded Foreword and Acknowledgments, blurbs from historians, and color photographs, as well as something as basic as a Table of Contents. Even the cover art is much improved.

When Miners March
shows us how far West Virginia has come from those brutal days. And yet, are things that much better? Today, most of the state's miners are non-union, and their families support the coal companies that give them a paycheck. Mining abuses are still common, but resistance now comes far more from a minority of residents and environmentalists than from the UMWA, whose heyday is long gone. The coal companies and the state have generally replaced violence with political power, but they still play hardball and win far more battles than they lose.

Peter Slavin
Freelance journalist Peter Slavin has been doing feature and investigative work in Appalachia since 1995. His latest article in Blue Ridge Country profiles Bill Blizzard, the miners' general at Blair Mountain.

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The Fifth Inning on

by Paul Buhle
January 28th, 2013

A distinguished African American poet and for decades a prime cultural organizer on the campus of Howard University in the glory era of Black Studies and in the largely black community of D.C., Ethelbert Miller has always been a surprisingly youthful Wise Old Man in the African sense, a senior figure, soothsayer, and a poet. Now he is not so young any more.

He is still, however, an undiminished baseball fan of note, and there is no doubt that his appreciation of the National Pastime blossomed under the warm sun of his favorite philosopher and mine, C.L.R. James. Around 1970, the aged James -- who many across the world took to be that ancient Wise Man -- took a job teaching at what was then Federal City College. A circle of activists surrounded James and provided him an avid audience as well as logistical support (he was palsied and had trouble making his own way), with Miller often at the head of the group, connecting him with ordinary African Americans of the moment, seeking wisdom in a rapidly changing racial environment. James's great love, apart from philosophy and revolution, was unquestionably cricket, of which he was undeniably the greatest historian and savant. James's cricket is Miller's baseball.

Here, Miller has chosen to wind the contradictions of life, of his own life, and all of us in middle age (or beyond) into the game that so many of us considered the very center of our lives, way back in the summers of childhood. He insists, at the outset, that he has himself reached the fifth inning, and we surely hope he will go the distance. As he says, someone is getting up in the dugout or the bullpen (I keenly appreciate the anxiety, perhaps an approaching sense of relief as well: off to life's showers).

He hears about the death of great poets -- those he knew well, sponsored, read alongside, loved, and now misses. June Jordan for starters. Like an elderly Yiddish poet I knew thirty years ago, he is scratching out the names of the deceased in his little phone book. It's the cost of surviving.

He begins another chapter with a memory or imagined memory of being on the mound. For the first three innings, he feels like he could go on forever. He has the fastball. Then the innings go by and he doesn't have it any more. Suddenly, the batters hit for extra bases and it's over. Next chapter: "So what went wrong? Do you want to talk with the sports writer, therapist or literary critic?" He feel like a former star playing out the string, traded to another team, box-office-useful for his name more than what he can do on the field.

Ethelbert Miller spent so much of his life taking care of other people, from his mother to the poets and fiction writers visiting Howard, and, naturally, also his family, that perhaps he never appreciated how much we, who saw him in action only from time to time, appreciated him for what he was doing. It looked so natural because he was obviously so good at it.

Now he's afraid -- not ashamed like the rest of us to admit being afraid -- that he's the shortstop who failed to touch second amidst a double play. Even if the umpires didn't notice. He also thinks (slipping back into the role that I remember best) that he should now contemplate his very last pitch. Fastball, curve, knuckler? What would Satchel Paige throw if he had one more pitch to throw?

Unanswered questions. But beautifully proposed. This is real E. Ethelbert Miller and a little book to treasure.

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