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London Peculiar reviewed on Omnivoracious

by Jeff VanderMeer
Omnivoracious
March 29, 2012

From mainstream realism and surrealism to fantasy, science fiction to swords & sorcery, Michael Moorcock has done it all. Honored as one of the most iconic British writers of the post-World War II era, Moorcock has already won several lifetime achievement awards—even as he continues to produce vibrant and relevant work. His latest book, from PM Press, is London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction, and features an introduction by novelist Iain Sinclair.

This collection features the best of Moorcock’s nonfiction, with an emphasis on 2006 onward, but with plenty of material representing the full span of his fifty years of work. In addition to insight into Moorcock’s own literary output, readers will find excellent appreciations of Angela Carter, J.G. Ballard, and Thomas Disch, along with great essays on music and politics. A selection of introductions and reviews carefully chosen by Moorcock and PM editor Allan Kausch round out London Peculiar.

The most personal sections of the collection can be found under the headings of “London” and “Other Places.” The title essay, “London Peculiar,” is an impassioned relating of Moorcock’s memories of wartime London and the architectural “improvements” that occurred in rebuilding the city after the war. It is beautifully complemented by a longer rumination entitled “A Child’s Christmas in the Blitz,” which will fascinate readers. Other essays on London include “Heart and Soul of the City,” “Building the New Jerusalem” and “City of Wonderful Night.”

The variety on display in London Peculiar reflects several core strengths: curiosity, passion, a need to understand the past, a compulsion to spin entertaining yarns, and a restless intellect always engaged in sharp and insightful analysis.

As Sinclair writes in his introduction, “The Man on the Stairs,” “I could never quite persuade myself that there was any such human entity as Michael Moorcock. I mean in the sense that you could touch him, or talk to him, or sit down with him for a meal at which the seamless stories, the astonishing anecdotes, the myths and memories, would ravel and unravel, lap and overlap like swirling, contradictory, sedimentary-heavy Thames tides. The man was too fecund, too prolific, in too many places, high and low culture, for me to believe he was one person and not a Warholite factory.” And yet, as Sinclair attests to, that is exactly the protean talent embodied by Moorcock.

In his afterword, Moorcock notes that although he has “been a working journalist all my life,” he believes U.S. readers will “be surprised by what they find here,” given his reputation in this country primarily as a “writer of imaginative fiction.” Perhaps, however, this highly entertaining collection will only confirm what most readers know: Moorcock is ubiquitous in the best possible way.

PM Press has also done an excellent job with the design of London Peculiar: it invites extensive and comfortable reading, and also includes a comprehensive bibliography of Moorcock’s works. Highly recommended.

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Review of David Gilbert's, Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond

by Gabriel Kuhn
Alpine Anarchist Productions
March 2012

David Gilbert mentions the documentary film The Weather Underground by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, released in 2002, on the very first page of his book Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond. Gilbert relates how the film has made many activists of a younger generation aware of his case, leading to very rewarding and inspiring correspondence. Fittingly, my own awareness of David Gilbert’s role in the Weather Underground and of his subsequent involvement with the Black Liberation Army is strongly tied to watching the movie about a decade ago.

Armed Struggle

I got politicized in the radical European left of the late 1980s, when the urban guerrilla movements that had formed in the 1970s (the Red Army Faction, the Red Brigades, Action Directe, and others) had already succumbed to state repression and internal friction or were making their last stand. I remember defending the Red Army Faction in my high school after the assassination of the Deutsche Bank chairman, Alfred Herrhausen, in November 1989. I didn’t necessarily condone the killing, but argued that the group’s political motivations were honorable. I’m sure I said things that were self-righteous, insensitive, and pretty stupid, but still believe that the moral panic I caused was worth the exercise. There is no fault in reminding people that not everything in this world is rosy, even if you go to a good school in a First World country and have plenty of opportunities.

In my late teens, politics replaced sports as my number one passion and I became obsessed with people dedicating their lives to armed struggle. The willingness to pick up arms seemed to distinguish the most serious, most committed, and most heroic of all revolutionaries: people who had made the ultimate sacrifice and put the struggle for a better world above all else, especially decadent bourgeois ideals such as financial security, professional career, and nuclear family.

I feel embarrassed for these thoughts today, as they express elitism, a very masculine glorification of violence, and rather poor political analysis, but at the time they framed my worldview. Reading Love and Struggle, it appears as if I wasn’t the only one dealing with that kind of problem; David Gilbert speaks of “making a fetish out of violence” in the early Weather days. Had I read the book twenty tears earlier, I might have at least understood that machismo was not only a moral problem, but a tactical one as well: “When someone takes risks mainly to prove his manhood or her womanhood to peers—when one doesn’t feel a deep political and humanitarian basis for facing new challenges—he or she often makes dumb mistakes and has trouble maintaining commitment over the long haul. Macho is not only a male-chauvinist style; it doesn’t work, at least not for us, going up against such a powerful enemy and needing to build a long-term struggle" (131).

Perhaps luckily, I never faced the decision of intensifying militant confrontation. Going on the offensive was not in the cards for my activist generation. In the Europe of the 1990s, we managed little more than organizing modest resistance against capitalism’s claim to historic victory and the new wave of nationalism and racism that swept over the continent. We were mainly busy keeping left-wing culture alive at all in the midst of socialism’s apparent demise and a deep collective identity crisis. Entertaining the thought of urban guerrilla struggle was so outlandish that it provided little more than moments of amusement in otherwise depressing times.

The Weather in Israel

It was not least due to these circumstances that, by the mid-1990s, I increasingly framed my politics in individualistic terms, that is, expressing my values and principles in everyday life became more important than commitments to any specific community or collective. For over ten years, I traveled nonstop, doing my best to live up to the moment, meet activists in various countries, and join actions and campaigns if I happened to be at the right place at the right time. It was towards the end of this decade that, after a year-long overland trip from Cape Town, South Africa, I visited Israel/Palestine for a third time. During some weeks in the spring of 2004, I lived in a squat with Israeli anti-occupation activists in Jaffa, next to Tel Aviv. One night, some of us went to a friend’s apartment to socialize and watch movies—one of them being the Weather Underground documentary.

I was excited to see the film as I only knew the basics about the Weather Underground Organization. It wasn’t one of the militant movements of the 1970s that we had paid much attention to in Europe. One reason was that its history was simply further removed from us than that of its European counterparts. Another reason was that we, correctly or incorrectly, held the belief that some of the European movements had come closer to shaking the foundations of the capitalist nation state. If there was an interest in militancy in the United States at all, it almost exclusively focused on the Black Panthers. Unfortunately, this interest contained—besides much genuine respect and support—elements of a patronizing mystification and romanticization of Black culture, something that still requires serious analysis in anti-racist movements in Europe today.

I enjoyed the Weather Underground documentary with a particular feature standing out. I was deeply impressed by the interview excerpts with David Gilbert. I remember thinking that I had never seen an imprisoned veteran of the armed struggle exuding such warmth and openness. The images of armed struggle prisoners I was used to were those of earnest and guarded folks. Not that I ever expected anything else; I rather regarded this as an inevitable consequence of their circumstances. Whether Gilbert’s circumstances differ vastly from those of other armed struggle prisoners across the world I cannot say. In any case, I was intrigued by his composure and, taking authoritative control of the remote at 4 a.m., I instantly switched to the full-length Gilbert interview once the movie had ended. The DVD extra confirmed my impression: here was an armed struggle prisoner who you’d want to have a cup of tea with and chat about anti-imperialism, revolutionary strategy, or, what the heck, the Denver Broncos at the next best opportunity—and I know nothing about American Football.

Love and Struggle

Undeniably, one aspect of being taken with Gilbert was a certain identification factor. I, too, come from a white upper middle-class family and have long wrestled with the question of how to meaningfully engage in revolutionary politics based on the privileges I was born with.

Furthermore, just like Gilbert and apparently other Weathermen (Gilbert describes a class interruption at a Brooklyn community college, 128), I find it hard to be impolite—not always the best foundation for intervening in messed-up conditions. Finally, I’m also prone to the “most anti-racist white activist” or “exceptional white person” syndrome, which, as Gilbert rightly points out, “usually undermines any serious effort to organize other people against racism” (304). This was one reason for my excitement when a collection of Gilbert’s political writings appeared as No Surrender: Writings from an Anti-Imperialist Political Prisoner in 2004, as I hoped to learn important lessons from those texts—and not in vain.

I was equally excited about the release of the autobiographical Love and Struggle. The book left the same impression as the abovementioned interview: a nuanced, balanced, and self-reflective account of Gilbert’s involvement in revolutionary politics. The absence of all polemics, finger-pointing, and bashing of other left factions—a rare feat for any of us—is a real treat. In addition, Gilbert’s prose is remarkably clean of both radical and theoretical jargon. Plenty of different views and opinions are portrayed, but always evenhandedly, leaving it to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

Gilbert’s fair-minded approach seems to be rooted in his own experiences. With respect to the conflict that split the SDS in the late 1960s, he writes: “The situation called for open, healthy debate, but more often we responded with posturing, quote-plucking, and name-calling . . . In challenging, heady, scary periods, we need ways to keep our grounding, to try to always base decisions on the interests of the oppressed, to always stay in touch with the humanist basis for our activism” (109-110).

Gilbert also offers crucial advice on how to handle one of the revolutionary’s biggest nemeses, the ego: “Looking back I’m amazed at how many times I thought everything I was doing was about making revolution, but my actions were self-aggrandizing . . . I now believe it is healthier to be conscious and explicit about self-interest . . . It’s not inherently evil to have self-interest, and in any case it’s not completely avoidable. What messed me up was when I couldn’t admit it to myself and then unconsciously maneuvered in dishonest ways. My method now is to try to be open and explicit about my personal concerns and then to rigorously evaluate them relative to collective principles and goals. Sometimes my personal needs are a legitimate consideration; at other times I’ll want to subordinate them to what’s needed by everyone” (110).

Learning from History

The final chapter of Love and Struggle might be the most captivating. This is no big surprise: the ill-fated Brink’s robbery, the arrest and subsequent separation from wife and son, the trial, and the prison experience all contain elements of tragedy that have been captivating audiences for millennia. (Gilbert only tells about his pre-trial detention. In general, he states: “For a number of reasons, I’m not yet ready to write about prison,” 7).

This, by no means, takes away from the rest of the book. Gilbert’s account is engaging throughout and provides a precious insight into the U.S.-American left of the 1960s and 1970s, its hopes, debates, conflicts, and disappointments. After introductory remarks on his childhood and youth, with two headstrong sisters paving the way for politicization, Gilbert takes the reader through his activities at Columbia University, the anti-war movement, the SDS, the emerging Weather group, and his six years underground. He describes a steady path of increasing radicalization: “Compared to many people in the ‘60s—when some leaped from Republican families to militant radicals in a matter of months—I was as slow and deliberate as a turtle, grappling with every step in the process: from liberal Democrat, to social democrat (hoping to bring about moderate socialism through elections), to nonviolent civil disobedience, to building resistance through street militancy and draft defiance, to supporting revolutionary armed struggle” (86).

A detail of special interest to me was that Gilbert’s first arrest came at a solidarity demonstration for Rudi Dutschke, the charismatic leader of the 1960s German student movement, who was shot by a right-wing youth in April 1968. (The incident would eventually cost Dutschke his life: he drowned in a bathtub on Christmas Eve 1979 after an epileptic seizure related to his injuries.) The fact that such a demonstration was held in New York at all confirms the internationalism of the era’s struggles. The shooting of Dutschke was a key moment in the radicalization of the German protest movements of the 1960s, out of which the urban guerrilla movements of the 1970s emerged.

Gilbert’s account touches on numerous issues of ongoing importance for radical debate such as free love, drugs, security culture, and movement infiltration. Gilbert also shares enlightening, and amusing, memories about the formation of the Progressive Labor Party, the origins of the LaRouche movement, Enver-Hoxha-touting Maoists, or the working process behind the 1974 Weather manifesto Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism. Love and Struggle is certainly not bereft of humor. In his recollection of the Chicago “Days of Rage” in October 1969, Gilbert writes about missing a handful of cops with a bottle thrown from not more than a few feet, only to escape arrest a second later by a swift and unpredictable move. He concludes: “That moment was fairly emblematic of my brief ‘streetfighting days’. My offensive reflexes were close to nil, but my defensive reflexes were spectacular.” (133)

Common Ground

Particularly interesting from a German-speaker’s perspective are Gilbert’s final remarks on national liberation and anti-imperialism. Gilbert concedes that the former is no “adequate form of struggle in itself to build socialism and to spearhead world revolution” and that the latter can take on “right-wing forms”. Yet, he continues to see imperialism as “the main source” of much global strife and does not regard anti-imperialism as per se reactionary. This is a refreshing perspective in the light of the rifts that the national liberation and imperialism debate has caused among German-speaking leftists, with one side stubbornly clinging to simplistic anti-imperialist doctrines and the other accusing all anti-imperialist analysis of anti-American resentment, anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, and nationalist chauvinism.

It is hardly astonishing that the big questions the left is facing today are essentially the same that Gilbert and his comrades faced in 1970: “Did we support independence for various peoples of color within the U.S., or should we strive to forge a multinational working class? Did an independent women’s caucus give needed power to the oppressed or create divisions diverting us from the overall struggle? Should our limited resources be devoted more to big national demonstrations or to community organizing? Were election campaigns a good arena for organizing or a diversion from building a movement in the streets? Should you organize people based on immediate bread and butter concerns or was it essential to emphasize the major issues for society as a whole? Do we respond to growing repression with increased militancy or by restricting the movement to nonconfrontational tactics” (109). Also many of the personal conflicts described by Gilbert resemble tensions faced by contemporary activists.

Gilbert tells us, for example, how his commitments to solidarity work with El Comité, a Chicano/a organization in Denver, and his involvement in the city’s feminist movement and the group Men Against Sexism (MAS) created a situation that felt like “an unbridgeable gap” even if shouldn’t have (251)—the difficulty to unite different struggles against oppression rather than having them compete over center-stage positions haunts the left to this day.

Naturally, Gilbert is not able to provide definite answers to any of these questions – this being a task of utter impossibility. However, Gilbert provides numerous important guidelines that are essential for resolving the related challenges in the only way possible, that is, by drawing specific conclusions from analyzing specific circumstances. Perhaps most importantly, Gilbert reminds us that focusing on what unites us as radicals is far more important than fights over superior ideology, tactics, and revolutionary identity. The following words should be taken to heart: “As revolutionaries, our commitment isn’t to our own status but rather to advancing the struggle” (292).

While, as Gilbert rightly points out, “we still don’t have that foolproof method for distinguishing crucial debates from competitive bickering” (109), it is easy for petty squabbles to turn a movement of the many into an egotistical battlefield of the few. Differences in opinion and perspective are fruitful and productive for any movement, but we need to stand on a common ground that allows us to nourish the indispensable requirements for true revolutionary action: compassion, solidarity, and love, as there will be no strength, determination, and perseverance without it.

The willingness and the ability to self-criticize are key aspects of the process. Gilbert points this out several times. Yet, he does not mistake self-criticism for self-deprecation and achieves the rare feat of writing a revolutionary memoir staying clear both of denouncing one’s past and of glorifying it. He writes: “I’ve . . .  tried my best to carry on that dual responsibility of upholding basic principles while being open about errors and flaws” (323). He has been hugely successful. Gilbert’s honesty is one of the book’s main appeals.

Pushing Ahead

Love and Struggle is a gift to all activists, not least those of younger generations. We often fail to adequately pass on experiences acquired in struggle. Longtime comrades leave the movement or can’t be bothered to engage with newcomers; at the same time, a mixture of insecurity, youthful arrogance, and misconceived anti-authoritarianism complicates efforts to hand down knowledge in empowering and democratic ways. As a result, new generations of activists often have but a vague idea about what others did just a decade ago (let alone several), reinvent the wheel, and make the same errors. In light of this, a book like Love and Struggle—rousing and instructive, yet far from pretentious and obtrusive—is tremendously valuable. This alone confirms that David Gilbert, also an insightful commentator on current political affairs and a prison activist, remains as much part of the struggle as he has ever been.

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From Here To There In Labor Studies Journal

by Joe Berry
Labor Studies Journal 36, no. 4, pgs. 545-560

Some labor educators might pass by this book as just another tribute collection to an old colleague. That would be a big mistake. Like recent collections of Howard Zinn’s work, From Here to There both reminds us of the remarkable time span of Staughton Lynd’s life and activism and documents the growth and insight of an activist academic who became a true organic intellectual, though that was not his origin.

This collection of both previously published and unpublished pieces ranges from the early 1960s to 2009. They reflect the breadth of Lynd’s interests and activities, which here are organized in four sections, “The Sixties,” “History,” “Possibilities,” and “Conclusions.”

“The Sixties” includes contemporary reports, essays, and speeches, some of which were directed to young radicals during the 1960s and some of which were directed to people searching for lessons at a later time. They include pieces on Thoreau, Socialism, SNCC and the Freedom Schools (of which Lynd was the director), participatory democ- racy or self-activity, and the Cold War origins and the purges in labor. “History” ranges from his own views on doing radical history, to stories about committing the crime of “history from the bottom up” (which he correctly credits to Jesse Lemish and Students for a Democratic Society), to the Kennedy assassination and doing guerrilla history in Gary, Indiana.

“Possibilities” encompasses, among others, essays on nonviolence as solidarity, overcoming racism, students and workers, and perhaps most important, E. P. Thompson’s concept of “warrens” of working-class counterorganization, culture, and power in society. Finally, in “Possibilities,” Lynd discusses what his eighty years have taught him about American imperialism, the “repressive tolerance” of U.S. society, the global capitalist crisis, and the sources of solidarity that might end it.

Of particular interest currently to labor educators, union activists, and labor studies scholars is his general perspective, expressed in many pieces, on lateral solidarity, as opposed to hierarchical centralized organization. He is a socialist, even a Marxist of sorts, but he admires a number of anarchist concepts that have gained new credibility among young activists. Connected with this is his discussion, again in a number of sections and in the introduction by Grubacic, of the concept of “accompaniment,” taken from Monsignor Romero of El Salvador, as an expression of the proper form for solidarity to take when exercised by those with more resources and privileges vis-à-vis those with less.

Taken together with his thoughtful comments on the relations of student struggles to those of workers, from the 1950s to the present, we have more than enough reason to look seriously at this old radical’s long-considered observations and judgments. A final reward is his discussion of how activists and radicals should relate to each other, in other words what fraternal and comradely behavior looks like and how we have disregarded it to our serious detriment in the past.

This is one of those books that can be read usefully by educators and, especially in sections, assigned in even the most basic labor-education classes.

This review would not be complete without some mention of Lynd’s large contri- bution directly to labor education. Few books, and the movies based upon them, have been more useful than his and his wife Alice Lynd’s Rank and File. His little Solidarity Unionism: Labor Law for the Rank and Filer (recently revised and reissued) has found its way into thousands of workers’ pockets. Finally, his example of his own “reinven- tion of himself” when blacklisted out of the historical profession and academia should give all of us a bit more courage when we have to decide “how far we can go.”

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Andrej Grubacic's Page


Capital and Its Discontents Reviewed in Socialist Studies

by Thom Workman University of New Brunswick
Socialist Studies 8, no. 1 (Winter 2012): 290-293

Capital and Its Discontents: Conversations with Radical Thinkers in a Time of Tumult is well worth the read, but is likely to be much more alluring to initiated readers. In this new book, journalist Sasha Lilley interviews many of the luminaries on the left today including Noam Chomsky, Ellen Meiksins Wood, David Harvey, Mike Davis and Leo Panitch. Seventeen different writers are interviewed in all. The range of themes surveyed include the crisis of global capitalism, the rise of neoliberalism, militarism and imperialism, the looming ecological catastrophe, and the acute failure of capitalist development across the majority world.

Lilley’s interviews show that she is in complete command of the main ideas and contributions of each writer. The interviewees are invited to reflect and expand on their ideas familiar to many of us on the left. The semi-formal nature of the interviews gives these expansions a fresh feel, and it is compelling to get a sense of the suppositions impelling certain notions and claims.

Lilley’s questions are posed with an impressive clarity yet she avoids too much “voice-leading.” The pace and tone of the interviews are relaxed despite the fact that they never lose their theoretical coherence. The interviews are as solid as this format can get. Anyone who has had a brush with a typical journalist will quickly reflect on the pleasure it would be if all interviews were conducted by such theoretically informed, perspicacious interviewers.

Capital and Its Discontents coheres around the notion that capitalism’s tendency towards immanent crises has created an incompatible cultural disjunction and an odd sort of political paralysis. The Freudian notion—implied by the title—of a basic tension between the instincts on the one side and repressive Western culture on the other endures in the notion of a contradiction between neoliberalism with its grievous social injuries and the incapacity of the cultural and political world to respond effectively. Something must give and will give.

Neoliberal society is one where a latent anger with the prevailing capitalist order of things manifests itself at numerous turns, yet fails to coalesce into a sufficiently formed political movement capable of challenging the course of things. Capital and Its Discontents brings this tension to the surface in a theoretically and empirically sustained manner.

The book opens with a review of the basic features of neoliberalism. Lilley’s introductory essay demonstrates that she has a firm grasp of the basic trajectory of neoliberalism, and she spins the story with uncommon clarity and pith. Indeed, so impressive is her brief review that I now plan to assign it to students to help introduce them to the basic features of neoliberalism.

Like many things, however, the strength of Capital and Its Discontents is also the source of its weaker side. Lilley’s incisive lines of query and her theoretically informed interrogations means that the interviewees are generally left expanding upon ideas broached in earlier works. The retorts and rejoinders often directly reference familiar theories and categories. “What I was trying to say” or “as I wrote elsewhere” or “one of my earlier arguments” are locutions encountered frequently, and they underscore the fact that spontaneous dilation is under way.

But this also means that the interviews by and large add little new to the critical discussions well under way in other theoretical quarters. Lilley's deft touch renders the interviews interesting, but the very format itself undermines the likelihood that initiated scholars attracted to the book will benefit significantly. The “concept” of the book, in other words, is executed as well as it could be, but the fact remains that those readers inclined to read the book are unlikely to derive much substantive theoretical or empirical edification along the way.

And there is another trade-off bound to accompany a work of this sort. The spontaneous form of the obiter sometimes gives the reflections an “off the cuff” sort of feel. This renders some of the responses a bit difficult to follow, and on a couple of occasions which I need not specify, the lines of discussion are anything but clear. We occasionally realize that nothing can replace carefully composed arguments presented in papers, lectures or books.

In one important respect, however, Capital and Its Discontents does make a more original contribution, as doyens ponder the challenges facing the left from their various theoretical positions. We are the better for this. The reflections of David McNally and David Harvey stand out in this respect. Harvey’s prescient reflections seem to anticipate the appearance of such movements as Occupy Wall Street. It is worth quoting him at length:

I don’t think it’s a matter of saying to people, forget your specific struggles and join the universal proletariat in motion; I don’t think that’s what it’s about at all. What we have to do is to find a way of politically uniting those struggles, and that’s why I think something like the concept of neoliberalism and its penchant for accumulation by dispossession provide a kind of vocabulary to start to bring together those struggles around a more general kind of theme. So that an Iowa farmer who’s just lost his farm can understand how a Mexican peasant feels, can understand how the struggles going on in China are parallel, so we start to see a certain unity in all of the struggles, at the same time as we acknowledge their specificity (59).

And in a similar spirit of practicality and concreteness David McNally remarks that in times of crisis, people start to raise questions they normally wouldn’t raise and even act in ways—like occupying a plant—that they normally wouldn’t. On a larger global scale I think we can see it in a whole wave of development. Think of the riots and general strikes in Greece. Or the government in Iceland that fell after agreeing to an IMF package, and after groups in civil society started to organize every Tuesday night outside the Parliament building. Eventually they started to do it every night. There was fighting with the police, there were demonstrations, and eventually the rightwing government in Iceland had to resign (101-102).

As suggested in the above quotes, Capital and Its Discontents embraces a deeper political principle. It shows us that the dialectical deconstruction of capitalism and its crises by intellectuals is an indispensable element of the left, and at the same time the interviews are infused with the democratic notion that the struggle to overcome capitalism must be broadly based and inclusive. With the spirit of Freud lingering in the background, we on the left suspect that the contradictions at the heart of capitalist social formations, those pressures that supply the very content of politics, inexorably create upheavals and sustained social struggles. And we believe that the intellectual form and political shape we lend to those struggles will be historically decisive. Lilley's sweeping interviews affirm this deeper democratic conviction more than anything else.

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Global Slump reviewed in Socialist Studies

Global Slumpby Bill Burgess, Kwantlen Polytechnic University
Socialist Studies 8 no. 1 (Winter 2012), 239-295

David McNally’s prognosis in Global Slump seems exactly right:

Rather than describing a single crisis, the term [global slump] is meant to capture a whole period of interconnected crisis
the bursting of the real estate bubble; a wave of bank collapses; a series of sovereign debt crises; relapses into recessionthat goes on for years without sustained economic recovery. This, I submit, is what confronts us for many, many years to come (8-9).

My attention was drawn to two points in this book. The first is an important nuance in McNally’s discussion of the crisis. The second is his original explanation of the reasons for financialization.

Like most Marxists, McNally roots the current financial crisis in capitalist over- accumulation. The “majority” assumption is that there has been a more or less continuous “bust” in capitalist profits since the 1970s. In contrast, Global Slump insists that our understanding of the current crisis must acknowledge that a genuine profit “boom” occurred between 1982 and 2007.

McNally labels this period a “neoliberal expansion” (38). This draws attention to historically-specific factors that are often left out of accounts guilty of the complaint that Marxists have correctly predicted ten of the last three great depressions. The emphasis on neoliberalism suggests that rising exploitation may be an important determinant of the crisis. Too many explanations focus one-sidedly on over-investment in machinery.

Attention to rising exploitation also sets the stage for the significance of the “predatory inclusion” (121) of more and more people into financial markets. McNally describes how “sub-prime” mortgages in the United States disproportionately targeted poor people of colour. The indebtedness of developing countries quadrupled during the neoliberal boom (127). He emphasizes that credit can offset the dampening effect on consumer demand of rising exploitation. For example, McNally argues that the end of the neoliberal boom was signalled by the 1997 Asian Crisis but massive credit expansion postponed the broader crisis to 2007.

I perceive a partial disconnect between this attention to rising exploitation and ballooning credit and the book’s description of over-accumulation in the chapter titled “Manic Depression: Capitalism and its Recurring Crises.” The chapter explains that “mechanization is necessary to . . . win the battle of price competition . . . as the ratio of labour to total investment declines, so the ratio of profit to total investment will tend to fall” (77-78). The glossary entry for “over-accumulation” reports that it is “caused by intense competition to boost the productiveness of their companies by investing in new plants and technologies” (196).

Readers are directed in a footnote to a forthcoming work which will point out that “the actual process is more complex, with a variety of counter-tendencies. But this explanation does justice to a key part of the dynamics at work” (212). Well yes and no, because as Marx wrote, “to try to explain them [capital’s laws] simply as the results of competition therefore means to concede that one does not understand them” (quoted in Lebowitz 2010, 284). McNally (1999) has himself made this point against “horizontal” (inter-firm) accounts of over-accumulation in place of “vertical” (inter-class) accounts. For the fuller, “vertical” explanation I think the chapter needed to include the “problem” of realizing surplus value. This is where rising exploitation and credit nicely fit.

Global Slump identifies the other key element of the neoliberal expansion as the dramatic capitalist expansion in East Asia, especially in China. McNally highlights the dramatic proletarianization of the Chinese peasantry and the massive foreign investment attracted by the precarious position of these urban migrants. “China’s working class, today at 750 million . . . is one and a half times larger than the labour force of all the thirty rich countries of the OECD combined. The country’s surplus labour force alone is three times larger than the entire manufacturing workforce of the OECD countries” (52).

It may be that “tendencies towards over-accumulation and declining profitability . . . have become central features of China’s market-driven-development” (57). But the implication seems to be that this process of over-accumulation is the same as in wealthy capitalist countries. How do we then evaluate the influence of the Chinese state on the dynamics of the economy, on investment and demand? The statistic that “China’s 250,000 millionaire households, making up only 0.4 percent of the population, now control 70 percent of the country’s wealth” (57) caught my eye. I followed the sources to determine that the 70 percent actually refers to household wealth, not all wealth. It had been cited for a discussion on social inequality, so it was also my mistake to have read it too literally with other issues in mind. But my point about this experience is the need for more clarity on the particular structure and dynamics of an economy so central to global capitalism.

The second main point I got from Global Slump is McNally’s explanation of financialization.

The numbers are always impressive. Financial returns in the US rose from 16 percent of total profits in 1973 to 41 percent in 2007 (86). Trading in foreign currencies increased from twice the value of trade in goods to 70 times by 1995. “Over-the-counter” trade in derivatives grew from $1.2 trillion in 1992 to $4.2 trillion in 2007 (94). McNally provides a clear, understandable description of the various and often esoteric financial instruments – derivatives, collateralized debt obligations, credit-default swaps and the like.

He then briefly outlines a distinctive theory about the origins of financialization. It emphasizes the “historic transformation of world money that occurred after 1971, when the US government ended the convertibility of dollars for gold” (10). With no relatively stable reference point for value, the need arose for insurance-like protection against the resulting fluctuation in currencies and interest rates in the context of globalized production and sales. Thus, financialization does not flow from opportunities created by deregulation. It is rooted in the objective need of globalized capitalism for a measurable standard of value. McNally does not discuss it in these terms, but this sounds like an orthodox Marxist theory of money that had been challenged by the end of the gold standard.

In addition to trying to clarify the nature of the crisis, Global Slump was written to “think through what all this means for movements of resistance, struggles for social justice, and anticapitalist politics” (ix). In his second-last chapter McNally tries to “chart pathways of resistance and anticapitalist transformation” (10) by reviewing recent movements to occupy factories, general strikes in Guadeloupe and Martinique, social uprisings in Bolivia and Oaxaca and mobilizations of immigrants in the US. He emphasizes that the anticapitalist Left must “reclaim democracy—radical, direct democracy in particular—as a core value” (189).

McNally’s review of the contours of resistance from below depicts the commonality of struggles against neoliberal capitalism in imperialist and imperialized countries. Some of us would distinguish the context of these struggles more than he apparently considers necessary.

For example, the issue of anti-imperialism is not developed in his account of the “mass anti-neoliberal upsurges [that] toppled governments and rolled back privatizations in countries like Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela” (152). The discussion of anti-neoliberalism and anti-capitalism leaves out the governments placed in power by the above upsurges, and projects like the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) and the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.

This is an important book to read, especially for its distinctive explanation of the economic crisis.

References

Lebowitz, Michael A. Following Marx: Method, Critique and Crisis. Boston: Brill, 2009.

McNally, David. “Turbulence in the World Economy.” Monthly Review 51, no. 2 (1999), http://monthlyreview.org/1999/06/01/turbulence-in-the-world-economy.

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A Progressive Coloring Book for Progressive Kids

by Liz Gumbinner
Cool Mom Picks
March 11, 2011

When the airport gift shop coloring book choices "for girls" range from princesses to uh, princesses (and maybe the occasional princess) I'm reminded of how easily twenty-first century gender stereotypes are reinforced pretty much everywhere we look. Well hooray for a coloring book that goes in the entirely opposite direction.

Or more like, runs in the opposite direction, wearing sneakers and a dress, Atalanta style.

The title alone, Sometimes the Spoon Runs Away With Another Spoon, should give you a pretty good clue that this is not your ordinary coloring book. It's all about challenging traditional gender sterotypes.

Pages include illustrations and messages I love, like a man who wins a bake-off, a cowgirl riding a dinosaur, a girl building her own dollhouse, and a "beast" who likes "pretty things" like handbags and sparkly earrings. I especially love the co-ed tea party captioned "Tea, trains, and tiaras for everyone!" And there are quite a few kids depicted in wheelchairs throughout, which is pretty great.

But then, there are messages like Prince Charming searched high and low for the owner of the glass slipper . . . to find out where to get a pair in his size. Or a princess kissing a frog, thinking "I hope it's another princess." It happens to crack me up, and my own kids would like it. But I think honestly, the more ironic, edgy messages (like Prince Charming) will make some parents uncomfortable; not every parent has had the same-sex marriage or cross-dressing conversation with their kids yet, nor do all parents want to.

Now if you do want to, there happens to be a great conversation-starter page in the back featuring open-ended Socratic questions about gender. Because after this coloring book, I bet your kids will have quite a few.

Sometimes the Spoon is not a coloring book for every family. But if you think it's for yours, it's a fun way to get some good dialogue going and to remind kids that it's okay for boys to like EZ Bake ovens, and for girls to drive trucks.

Besides, you get to color in a cowgirl riding a dinosaur. Awesome.

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The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow on Midwest Book Review

Klausner's Bookshelf
Midwest Book Review
February 2012

"The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow." The world ended not with a bang but with a wumpus; as everyone wanted control of technological change leading to the Mecha Wars. In Detroit, Jimmy Yensid, his dad Robin and the pack reside in abandoned Comerica Park. Dad restored the classic Carousel of Progress; currently he recommends preservation of this last standing city as a heritage site. Being transhuman Jimmy ages slowly so though he has lived for decades he remains preadolescent. He spots a wumpus near a crumpled Ford factory. Riding his dad's mecha and accompanied by his canines packs piloting air drones, he attacks the wumpus. A gang riding eight smaller mechas attacks Jimmy. He fights back feeling like a murderer as life in abandoned Detroit is never dull.
 
"Creativity vs. Copyright." This fascinating essay/presentation focuses on proposed copyright laws in the electronic publication age. The impact on corporate profits has been discussed many times. Mr. Doctorow provides a fresh focus on the digital rights management (including monetary - how an author makes a living from Net sales is beyond my comprehension) of intellectual property in a world in which many users assume "information is free."
 
The thought provoking novella is a dark thriller that turns upside down the "future" as progress does not necessarily mean better. The exciting storyline looks deeply at change as everyone insists implementation of theirs; and customized technology may just lead to a wasteland. The well written essay/presentation provides the audience with insight into Mr. Doctorow's views especially on intellectual property ownership in an on demand digital world. Finally there is also included "Look for the Lake" Cory Doctorow Interviewed by Terry Bisson.

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Sensation in Midwest Book Review

Klausner's Bookshelf
Midwest Book Review
February 2012

Julia Hernandez leaves her husband City College Professor Raymond before murdering Peter Neads Fisherman and then vanishing. Since she left him, Raymond rationalizes her dumping him without warning as a "penis panic" attack on her part.
 
He spots Julia in public near where they lived in Lower Manhattan. The first time was at a grocer she never shopped in buying items she never ate when they were married. The second encounter is in Times Square in which Raymond chose flight rather than confront Julia with why. His running saves his life from an observer ready to push him into traffic. A distraught Raymond will soon learn why Julia committed murder and fled. He finds out about the insect eggs in her arm and the Simulacrum where anarchist wasps and a super genius spider hive that collectively is a "man" ready to shove the professor into traffic. These two insecticide species battle to steer or crash humanity.
 
Sensation
is an entertaining modern day parable that looks at the accumulative stress of minor annoyances in a world in which the individual has no wiggle room alternative. Told by the spiders, Nick Mamatas looks at the Butterfly Effect of chaos in an absolute controlled environment that makes independent thought that breaks away from one's profile impossible.

Although the two intelligent insect species are underdeveloped leaving readers with a void; fans will enjoy this allegorical look at New York, in which Seinfeld is right that as Queen sings in Bohemian Rhapsody "Nothing really matters, anyone can see nothing really matters."

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The Wild Girls on Midwest Book Review

Klausner's Bookshelf
Midwest Book Review
February 2012

"The Wild Girls." Bidh informs the girls in their Allulu language that they no longer are part of the Crown City. Chergos' daughter and Dead Ayu's first daughter are now Dirt Girls who if smart will keep their cherry intact until they marry wealth and begat Gods with their Crown husbands. Renamed Vui and Modh, if they want to survive they must accept who they are now and not what they were at the bottom of the food chain.
 
"Staying Awake While We Read." Ms. Le Guin's condemnation essay makes a case that corporate publishing firms care nothing about the golden geese and the readers except as a sham; as all that matters is profit at any cost to the literature.
 
"Outspoken Author Interview." Terry Blissom interviews Ms. Le Guin who revels at being an octogenarian with a strong defense of being against the avarice power-mongers who destroy environments in someone else's neighborhood and send other people's children to fight their profitable wars whether it is 1960s and 1970s Vietnam or Bush 41 and 43 Iraq.
 
'The Conversation of the Modest' is an essay that lives up its title as Ms. Le Guin espouses on what is modesty in a world in which fifteen minutes of fame on social media is sought and revered.
 
There is more to this interesting compilation. The novella is timely with its fascinating look at the tribes along the East River. While the rest of the strong collection also focuses on Ms. Le Guin's issues of concern for the past five decades which include the environment, women's rights in a capitalist cast system and war only good for the moguls.


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The Die is Cast: The Wrong Thing in the Tucson Weekly

by Christine Wald-Hopkins
Tucson Weekly
February 16, 2012

This powerful novel, by a former investigative reporter, depicts the Southwest's dark, soulless side

Smeared in my reviewer's pencil scrawl cross the top of Page 110 of this new Barry Graham novel are the words: "I CAN'T FINISH THIS BOOK!"

I finished the book. And I skimmed it in a second read, all the while dreading Page 110.

It's not as if you're not warned. In addition to the cover blurb's mentions of a "tragic sequence of events" and "explosive conclusion," Graham's narrator hints from the beginning that things might not turn out so well for the central character. It's just that you come to like the character. Somehow, you feel that as a reader, your involvement in his life might queer the inevitable, or maybe the book might turn into a sort of grown-up Choose Your Own Adventure, or Meditate Your Own Ending. Graham is a Zen monk; can't he arrange something?

But he can't, and it didn't. And I got to Page 110 again, and looked away again, and then realized that it's probably not the story or even the character that this book is about—it's not so much the what as the why.

The Wrong Thing is about a slight, young Mexican American from Santa Fe known as the Kid. He's introduced as if he were a legend, through rumors and sightings, and founded or unfounded allegations.

Unwanted by his family, not embraced by any adult, the Kid navigates childhood by scratching out his own paths: reading, learning to cook, defending himself with sharp objects, and getting into the drug trade. Never given affection, he doesn't know how to express it. Neglected and ill-treated, he learns to meet physical abuse with stoicism and patiently nurtured revenge. By the time he's out of school and jail, he can murder without compunction.

It's when he begins to take responsibility for others—a pleurisy-afflicted beauty who works at Woolworth's, and a stray cat—that the Kid experiences some modicum of joy. Too bad his die has already been cast. Thank Graham that he gets a moment of awareness and grace.

So, why, The Wrong Thing?

According to the press release, after Graham's four novels about the "urban wasteland" of his native Scotland were little noticed at home, but recognized in the U.S. (the American Library Association named The Book of Man one of the best books of 1995), he packed up and moved to Phoenix to write about our urban wasteland.

He highlights the economic disparities and social blights of the Southwest: Santa Fe's moneyed, gentrified society contrasts starkly with the Kid's family's poverty. The lack of social services and economic opportunity contribute to how the Kid's life plays out.

One-time boxer and investigative reporter Graham also takes on other aspects of the region—which comes across as a desert more than just geographically. The Kid spends some time in Arizona, where it's so hot that "everything seem(s) to be on fire," and Phoenix feels "like science-fiction movies, like maybe Blade Runner. The streets were jammed with cars, but there were no people on the sidewalks, nobody walking anywhere. There were no individual stores or cafes or bars on the streets, only strip malls." Graham takes a few jabs at Arizona's law enforcement, politics and newspapers, too.

The question of why the Kid acts as he does remains, and some of Graham's other writings might answer that. As a reporter, Graham witnessed two executions. In Why I Watch People Die, he muses about the 1998 execution of 43-year-old Jose Jesus Ceja, who committed a double-murder when he was 18. Even the original judge pleaded for his life at a clemency hearing, but they executed him anyway. "Welcome," Graham writes, "to Arizona."

In the same passage, Graham writes about himself. In 1984, when he was 18, he actually planned to kill and rob a man. Broke and hungry, Graham armed himself with a screwdriver with a weighted handle and went into a bookstore intending to "smash the (elderly owner's) head and pocket the money." After loitering and waiting for a customer to leave, he approached the owner intending to assault him. He was thrown off, however, when the old man merely bade him farewell.

"I walked down to the river and dropped the screwdriver into the water."

Graham must have had something going for him that the Kid doesn't.

As Graham presents it, immaturity, desperation and flat-out fear can drive someone to do the unthinkable—and no amount of magical reader thinking can undo the effects of a soulless, violent society.

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