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S. Brian Willson reviews David Hartsough's Waging Peace

By S. Brian Willson   

Peace in Our Times

Spring 2015 issue

We are fortunate to finally have David Hartsough’s Waging Peace, an extraordinary description of his amazing sixty-year journey as an activist spanning the entire Cold War and continuing to the present. As one of today’s authentic elders, Hartsough offers us a body of experiential knowledge presented in dramatic detail sometimes easily forgotten in today’s digital era of short memories.

Hartsough excitedly shares wisdom garnered from a broad range of experiences: direct, nonviolent confrontation of Cold War policies during his travels in Europe as well as in the US; active participation in the Civil Rights movement (he met Martin Luther King, Jr. at age 15); becoming a conscientious objector to US military conscription in the 1950s; participating with others in physically blocking weapons and military ships headed for Viet Nam; actively obstructing, with hundreds of others, the construction of nuclear power plants; accompanying aggrieved, impoverished campesinos facing historically repressive military threats in El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Palestine; facing death squads in the Philippines and Chiapas, Mexico; visiting Russia during the Cold War and again in 1991 when he joined many Russians in efforts to avert a coup ousting the reformer Mikhail Gorbachev; leading delegations to Iran creating citizen-to-citizen diplomacy; traveling over the years to the region of ex-Yugoslavia in efforts to participate in strategic nonviolent alternatives to the violence unleashed when Yugoslavia was broken up significantly due to US policies; recently protesting drone warfare with increasing numbers of others by obstructing entrances to drone bases in efforts to confront the most insidious and diabolical of all terror policies; among many, many examples of citizen power.

In the chapter, “Assault on the Tracks: Facing Violence With Love and Courage,” Hartsough describes his first-person, eyewitness account of the horrendous assault – attempted murder – that occurred at the Concord, California Naval Weapons Station on September 1, 1987—the first such account to be published, as far as I know. He was one of many protestors, organized under the name Nuremberg Actions that had been vigiling all summer, in direct confrontation of the movement of munitions by train and truck from the Pentagon’s largest West Coast arsenal.

Hundreds had already been arrested and jailed for trying to stop the flow of munitions to El Salvador and Nicaragua, where they were being used to murder and maim thousands of campesinos struggling for justice after decades of brutal, US-supported repression. President Reagan had signed new executive orders to counter “terror” at home and abroad, in effect reinstituting the FBI’s feared COINTELPRO—orders that remain in effect today. Reagan made the ridiculous claim that these impoverished people in Central America were creating a Soviet-inspired Communist beachhead “just two days driving time from Harlingen, Texas,” and that the US Americans dissenting from his policies of murder were terrorists themselves. On that day in September 1987, three veterans, after providing plentiful notice and surrounded by 40 others in solidarity, including Hartsough, began a munitions train blocking action just before noon. The train speed limit was 5 mph, its legal protocol required it to always stop awaiting arrests by police when demonstrators were present on the tracks. Two Navy spotters always stood on the front platform of the locomotive in radio contact with the engineer to assure clear tracks. On this particular sunny day, the locomotive accelerated to 17 mph, more than three times the legal speed limit, catching everyone off guard. One blocker (this reviewer) was unable to get off in time, losing both legs below the knee and suffering a fractured skull among a multitude of injuries. Hartsough, standing immediately next to the tracks, had his arm struck by the speeding locomotive knocking him to the ground from which vantage point he observed the dragged blocker “getting smashed from side to side as the train continued another four hundred feet before stopping,” Of all of his years of resistance, Hartsough described this as “the most horrible experience of my life.” 

In 2003, as a result of his many observations of conflicts in various countries, Hartsough helped launch the Nonviolent Peace Force (NPF), deploying teams of multinational citizens trained in nonviolence to accompany and stand in defense of endangered people in critical global locations.

Hartsough’s inspiring life story teaches us so much about the power of conscience and militant nonviolence, shaped by his years of participation with thousands of others in creative and educational resistance actions. He and his family also have modeled “right livelihood,” with modesty and humble simplicity, conscious of the old motto, often ascribed to Gandhi, “live simply that others may simply live.”

This is a primer for learning many practical approaches to militant, nonviolent revolution. Read and study it. You will not be sorry.

S. Brian Willson is a Viet Nam veteran, trained lawyer, long time peace activist, and member of Veterans For Peace.

Buy Waging Peace | Buy Waging Peace e-Book | Back to David Hartsough's Author Page

The Knitting Circle Rapist Annihilation Squad reviewed in Marvel at Words

Marvel at Words
July 9th, 2014

Summary: The six women of the Knitting Circle meet every week to talk, eat cake, and make fabulous sweaters. Until the night they realise they are all the survivors of rape—and that not one of their assailants has suffered a single consequence. Enough is enough! The knitting circles becomes the Knitting Circle Rapist Annihilation Squad. They declare open season on rapists, with no licenses and no bag limits. With needles as their weapons, the revolution begins!

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Review: I think my expectations were too high for this one. I knew of some of Derrick Jensen’s non-fiction books, and his general political leaning. So a book by him about a group of women forming the Knitting Circle Rapist Annihilation Squad had to be amazing, right? Not so right.

Let’s start generally. Generally, this book reads like it’s written for 9-13 year olds. At several points i considered giving this book to my 9-year-old niece, the only thing that stopped me was the fact that she wouldn’t understand a lot of the references. Generally, the humour is trying too hard. It’s past funny and into cringe-worthy slapstick territory. It’s not clever humour, it’s not even well done humour, it’s loud and poorly written humour. Generally, none of the characters were well-developed or likeable. They weren’t hateable, either, they were just two dimensional and there to serve an obvious point. Generally, the plot progression was ridiculous.

Nothing was believable. Maybe i was being to logical and rational in a book that had neither of those things, but i’d like a story about the eradication of rape to be somewhat based in reality.

More specifically, i like that the book broaches important topics that are not often discussed in day-to-day life. Rape, exploitation of women, women’s rights, media influence, police brutality, how fucked up politics is, religion, extremist groups and more. It broached these topics, but it did not discuss them. Instead, it tried to use humour and over the top caricatures to make their opinion of these things clear. Key word in that last sentence: tried. Rather than making their opinions clear, they shoved them into the reader’s face, while using such awful humour, i’m sure anyone who didn’t share the opinions would laugh it all off as a bad joke.

Ultimately, that’s my problem. That this book isn’t doing anything. It could have provided readers with an opportunity to think about things, things they might not have considered before, because they are told by the world that those things are normal. It could have helped a lot of people start to think about their life and the world around them a little more. Instead, it’s a poorly written book of bad humour. Wavering close to offending me, and allowing others to laugh at what they should be thinking about.

Purely on quality, this book is really only worth two stars, but i felt obligated to throw on an extra, because it is at least trying to write about subjects that should be written about–read about–more. But really, it’s a book about rape. I think this book could have been so much more well written, and with witty, intelligent humour. I think this book could have been written with a lot more respect.

Buy this book now | Download e-Book now | Back to Derrick Jensen's Author Page
| Back to Stephanie McMillan's Author Page

The Knitting Circle Rapist Annihilation Squad reviewed in Books, Life & Wine

By Mrs. Joseph
Books, Life & Wine
February 26th, 2015

In this darkly comic novel, the six women of the Knitting Circle meet every week to talk, eat cake, and make fabulous sweaters. The easy-going circle undergoes a drastic change when the members realize they are all the survivors of rape—worse still, that none of their attackers suffered consequences—and the group becomes the vengeful Knitting Circle Rapist Annihilation Squad, taking punishment into their own hands via their knitting needles. As the women take their revenge, groups of men issue statements against the vigilante ladies, from the Chamber of Commerce to the sinister Men Against Women Against Rape (MAWAR), plotting to stop and punish the Knitting Circle. Featuring strong female characters, this satirical piece explores love, revenge, feminism, violence, and knitting.

The Knitting Circle Rapist Annihilation Squad is a book I picked to read during my Scribd trial but I couldn’t get into it. DNF at 60%.

The plot idea and the blurb all sounded extremely interesting so I decided to read it when I started my Scribd trial. I was expecting a dark comedy – something like the movie Heathers.

Sadly, The Knitting Circle Rapist Annihilation Squad was more of a forced “chuckle, chuckle” than a dark comedy to me.

The Knitting Circle Rapist Annihilation Squad
starts with a woman on her way to a “special” dance class offered by her dance teacher (ballroom dancing). When the character arrived at the class she finds herself alone with the instructor – apparently the “special” class was an invitation to be raped. Instead of letting the instructor rape her, the character kills him with her knitting needles – and we’re off!

The Knitting Circle Rapist Annihilation Squad is funny, don’t get me wrong, but the funny wore really thin really quickly. Rape is a big deal and it happens all the time. Some of the points being made by the book – the men all being horribly clueless about rape and the (male) police not focusing on the rapes (crimes against women) but trying to put as much manpower into solving the murders (crimes against men) – all rang true. Sadly true.

“This is Franz Maihem with ultraurgent breaking news. We are linking you live to our FBI contact Chet Stirling for an emergency announcement. Chet, go ahead.”

Chet stands at his desk for several awkward seconds, staring blankly at the camera as the audio delay ticks by. Then his voice crackles as he says, “We have received a communiqué from the so-called Ice Queen Killers, whom our agency has classified as the greatest terrorist threat facing America today. They are more dangerous than al-Qaeda, the Taliban, North Korea, or Iran. They are even more dangerous and ruthless than domestic environmentalists. They are our top priority and we pledge to eradicate them.”

Franz asks, “What does the communiqué say, Chet?”

“It says, ‘We will stop killing rapists when men stop raping.’”

Franz asks, “That’s it?”

“That’s it. The entire message.”

Franz asks, “What the heck does it mean, Chet?”

Chet responds with the uncertainty of a man standing waving his arms while he cries, “Where’s my ass?”: “Well, Franz, we’re baffled. We have no idea what this could possibly mean. It’s certainly shocking and depraved, but you know chicks, I mean women—they’re incomprehensible.”

“What do women want? That’s the age-old question, isn’t it, Chet?”

“Yes. We’ve done extensive research on this question, and experts concur that women are irrational, hysterical, and contradictory. They often say no when they mean yes. In fact, sometimes they’re saying no with their mouths at the exact moment their eyes, and often their tantalizing breasts, are saying yes. They are devious, manipulative, lying, cheating, slutty whores.”

Franz clears his throat. “The message, Chet?”

Chet regains his composure, such as it is, and says, “Cryptologists are urgently trying to decipher this message as we speak. As soon as we figure out its precise meaning, we’ll alert the public. Meanwhile, please remain vigilant and report any suspicious activity.”
-The Knitting Circle Rapist Annihilation Squad, page 96

The book became even more sadly true when it talked about the lack of concern that men have dealing with rape.

I discussed some of my concerns about The Knitting Circle Rapist Annihilation Squad with my husband and he initially didn’t believe me when I said that crimes against women – especially rape – are under-reported and under-investigated. I told him that there are thousands of rape kits that were discovered sitting unprocessed in an improper storage facility in Detroit alone and showed him a couple of articles that made him speechless.

In Detroit:

More than 11,000 rape kits that were left in police storage, some for 20 years, are to finally be tested after a $4 million grant from the attorney-general.

The discovery of the kits gathering dust in a Detroit warehouse in 2009 has shocked prosecutors, who have pushed for the evidence to be processed and the rapists to be brought to justice.

On Wednesday Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and attorney-general Bill Schuette announced that $4 million in settlement funds will be used to examine the kits.

*Funds used to collect evidence from more than 11,000 Detroit rape kits
*DNA matched in 136 cases already, including 32 linked to serial rapists

Country (USA):

A five month CBS News Investigation of 24 cities and states has found that more than 20,000 rape kits were never sent to crime labs and an additional 6,000 rape kits from active investigations are waiting months, even years, to be tested.

Just…being 100% aware of how rape, rape jokes and rape culture is dealt with here in America…the slap-happy jokes and heavy handed sarcasm did not reach a level of comfortable for me. It just reinforced how horrible rape is dealt with here and how difficult it is for women to get justice for rape.

I may decide to try to read this again (based off of Stephanie McMillan’s resume) – but it will be quite some time.

Buy this book now | Download e-Book now | Back to Derrick Jensen's Author Page
| Back to Stephanie McMillan's Author Page

The Knitting Circle Rapist Annihilation Squad in Problems Worthy

By Rose Regina
Problems Worthy
March 21st, 2013

In addition to the high shock value name and reference to knitting, Derrick Jensen and Stephanie McMillan’s The Knitting Circle Rapist Annihilation Squad caught my eye from it arrived from PM Press because of the blurb on the back that referred to it as “Monty Python meets the SCUM Manifesto.” It did not disappoint.

The cover is brilliant. It has a knit background with a clothing label with the authors’ names at the bottom and most of the cover taken up by a shield shaped patch with “the knitting circle rapist annihilation squad” and a a ball of yarn with two knitting needles sticking through it and daintily dripping a single drop of blood. Copies of the patch are available from and

The plot is surprisingly substantial and full of endearing and plucky characters. The roast of television news anchors is priceless. Men Against Women Against Rape (MAWAR), a parody of men’s rights and Christian masculinity groups, is spot-on. I was impressed by smooth prose and the perfect lambasting of everything from the USDA and Department of the Interior to manarchists and a PETA-like animal rights organization cleverly named “PATE.”

Unfortunately, like many otherwise good, pop-culture friendly versions of rape culture feminism, this book leaves much to be desired in regard to recognizing the depth of race and class’s effects of societal structures. While I enjoyed the light-hearted, sardonic narrative about the obliteration of rape, I couldn’t help but think that even if rape disappeared, there are many people, including many, many women, who would still face some serious every day barriers to the relaxed, post-exploitation life this book hopes for. Arguably, if one’s disbelief is suspended enough to believe that killing rapists with knitting needles will actually end rape quickly and without the knitting needle wielders getting caught, then enough disbelief has been suspended enough to accept that racism and class also have been solved. There were a few spots throughout the book that indicated that in the vision of a post-rape society, or at least the people who are moving us rapidly towards a post-rape society, did not shed some fairly major hang ups regarding gender and social norms. I was also disappointed by the lack of representations of trans* people and non-hetero relationships. In spite of that, this book was hilarious and definitely a good option of funny fluff that mostly hits the nail on the head.
Perfect vision of a post-rape world this is not, but wonderful summer beach reading this is. I suspect that title alone will also do wonders for repelling people one might not want to engage with at the beach or on the subway.

Buy this book now | Download e-Book now | Back to Derrick Jensen's Author Page
| Back to Stephanie McMillan's Author Page

The Knitting Circle Rapist Annihilation Squad reviewed in The Socialist Review

By Jaswinder Blackwell-Pal
Socialist Review
December 2012

It's surprising to open a book and find, on the very first page, the line "Brigitte didn't set out to be a revolutionary. She just wanted to make some fabulous sweaters", but Derrick Jensen's new novel is unusual in every way. It follows a group of women who realise, during one of their weekly knitting groups, that they have all been raped. When they find out that none of their attackers have ever faced justice they decide to take things into their own hands.

Knitting needles are transformed from their domestic role into instruments of liberation as the women go on a killing spree, using their needles to stab their rapists. The movement spreads quickly and soon knitting circles spring up around the world, encouraging more women to fight back against sexism and rape.

The novel mixes very serious subject matter with a dark comic style which mocks the prevalence of "rape culture" and sexist attitudes. When the murders are first reported police claim they have no idea of a motive, despite the group issuing a message stating "Stop rape or face the wrath of the knitting circle".

Many elements of US culture and political life are satirised: the US state declares an alliance with Al Qaeda to stop the "terrorists" of the knitting circle; animal rights group PATE (a play on PETA) comes out against the knitting circles on the basis that if men aren't allowed to rape women it will increase attacks on animals, and US commentator Glenn Beck appears on TV to explain why rape doesn't exist.

A sense that the whole of society is complicit in the oppression of women runs through the book. One of the group was raped by a priest, another by a school counsellor and another by a police officer. None of them felt able to report their attacks because they knew they would not be believed. Though the novel is often hilarious, it also touches on the appalling truths about rape: that so many cases go unreported, and so many men walk free.

But while the book is a fantastic rallying cry against sexism it fails to explore the roots of women's oppression. In the end it suggests thaat rape and sexism can be eradicated without uprooting capitalism itself. By the end both the plot and its politics have lost their way. Cutting social commentary gives way to an increasingly surreal plot and the writing goes off on a number of un-useful tangents.

Despite its flaws, The Knitting Circle Rapist Annihilation Squad is still an enjoyable read, especially for revolutionaries. The problem is that the book doesn't offer any way in which readers can challenge oppression in their own lives.

The plot isn't meant to be realistic, and unfortunately we can't simply get rid of rape by all taking up knitting needles. If Jensen had spent less time on bizarre plot twists and more time trying to expose the roots of sexism in class society, the novel would be far stronger both politically and artistically. A book which challenges rape culture and the myths around it is fantastic, but women need to go even further to end our oppression for good.

Buy this book now | Download e-Book now | Back to Derrick Jensen's Author Page
| Back to Stephanie McMillan's Author Page

Does Harvard have a secret history as a major force for evil?

Does Harvard have a secret history as a major force for evil?

By Sarah Rose
New York Post
May 24th, 2015

“Verita$” was a best seller in Korea, author Shin Eun-jung’s native country, because she asks the question that’s hardly ever asked: Why Harvard?

Eun-jung says the third word a Korean baby learns, after mom and dad, is “Harvard.” She argues that this is a tragedy, because Harvard isn’t the global intellectual powerhouse of reputation.

Now, there are plenty of criticisms of Harvard, though rarely the one Eun-jung levels: that Harvard swanned its way to dominance by maintaining a false front of liberalism when it is, in fact, an arm of the governing right.

“Verita$” recites a litany of bad acts: the Salem witch trials, eugenics, a so-called “collaboration” with Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler, architects of financial collapse such as Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, McCarthyism, racism, sexism, tyrannical labor practices and “a poison called elitism.”

Her list is long. I might add Harvard produces such venerable alumni as Henry Kissinger, Ted Kaczynski and Dr. Oz.

The institutional corruption stems from Harvard’s hungry endowment, Eun-jung says. The Harvard Corporation invests wisely if not well, for instance backing Enron then mysteriously cashing out before it tanked the energy markets. This black box of university finance, she says, shows Harvard is an undemocratic pawn of international corporate overlords.

“This made me wonder: Why would Harvard go through the trouble of hiring leftist professors in the first place, if they are only going to marginalize them while they’re there?” She asks. “After thinking about this question, the answer became obvious: Harvard’s pride in the myth of its progressive character.”

I wish the author understood how hiring decisions are made — that is, in departments and not some sinister university-wide level. Also, that Harvard tends not to raise its own faculty. The assistant professorship is nicknamed “the folding chair,” as there is slim chance of rising to tenure.

It would have been nice too if the author had spent enough time on campus to unpack the multiple Harvards: the college, the professional schools (law, business, medicine, dentistry, design, education), the divinity school, school of government, oodles of institutes and an extension school.

When writing about Harvard it is helpful to ask, which one? There might not be a monolith called Harvard.

Within the college — the core of Harvard’s elite brand — there are many mansions: WASP legacy Harvard, the dirty white baseball hats of athletics and male-only drinking clubs; the precious, artsy and gay Harvard; a drone-like premed Harvard, and so on. These Harvards hardly know each other after freshman year — they are all too busy taking over the world.

I confess I am a child of the hegemama, class of 1996, and it was fascinating (by that I mean tedious) to read what other people think of mea mater.

The greatest criticism I, as a graduate, can lob goes unmentioned in “Verita$”: Harvard takes the finest collection of scholars and the ablest young minds and throws them together in the most mediocre educational infrastructure.

But are impressionable students really being brainwashed into right-wing conservatives? Hardly. There are hundreds of examples of notable graduates from both sides of the aisle. George W. Bush graduated from its business school; Elizabeth Warren its law school.

Shin Eun-jung sees Harvard’s investment in Kenneth Lay’s (center) Entron as a sign of the school’s cozy relationship with corporate interests.Photo: Getty Images

“Verita$” is on more solid ground when it takes the university to task on the taboo subject of class in the classroom. Harvard selects students primarily from advantaged backgrounds. Blue-collar kids have a hard time finding each other. Harvard can and should do better.

With a fraction of the endowment, Stanford recently announced free undergraduate tuition for families making less than $125,000 a year. That would be a good start.

Let us stipulate that “Verita$” is true, every terrible charge. We are left with the question: Who cares?

It’s hard to believe that Harvard is a hotbed for conservatives when it also produces Democratic firebrands like Elizabeth Warren.Photo: AP

I happily concede Harvard is a massive, moneyed institution lurking with unnamed evil, but I can’t grant the warrant that an exposé on this order matters.

Eun-jung’s Harvard is attended by straw men. Is some other school a nobler model? When rebels topple the John Harvard statue guarding University Hall, who replaces him? If Harvard were not Harvard, every other elite university already is.

Eun-jung’s book reads like a campus tour delivered by an embittered sophomore. But I would not hesitate to recommend it as a graduation present to this year’s seniors denied admission at the world’s fanciest university.

Buy the book | Buy the e-Book | Back to Shin Eun-jung's Author Page

Mayday, mayday! A new kind of unionism for a changing world

By Daniel Tseghay
April 30th, 2015

Solidarity unionism. What is it and how can the Canadian labour movement get it?

In 1982, when service and maintenance workers at a hospital in Warren, Ohio went on strike, they were not alone. Members of the Workers' Solidarity Club from Youngstown, Ohio -- about 200 km away -- joined the picket line. They made leaflets, invited members of other unions to join the hospital workers in rallies every week, and got themselves arrested while chanting "Warren is a union town, we won't let you tear it down."

The Workers' Solidarity Club was not an established union but an alternative to one, created by workers displeased by the organizations meant to advocate on their behalf. It's one among many "alternative kinds of organization, like the shopfloor committee and the parallel central labor union," writes Staughton Lynd admiringly in Solidarity Unionism: Rebuilding the Labor Movement From Below.

Lynd describes the Workers' Solidarity Club as initially being a forum where workers could get strike support and have discussions about the labour movement. It was created by workers and primarily composed of either them or retirees.

The club fostered an attitude of solidarity with all workers regardless of their union membership or even location. "Having lived through the way big corporations trampled on people's lives in Youngstown," writes the members, as quoted by Lynd, "we found it easy to relate to Native Americans in the Southwest, or to Nicaragua. In 1988 four members of the Club went to Nicaragua and worked there for two weeks. One of them, an electric lineman, returned with a fellow worker to help bring electric power to small towns in northern Nicaragua."

The difference, argues Lynd, between the club and others like it on the one hand and existing trade unions is that membership in a parallel union is voluntary, dues aren't deducted from paycheques, there are no staff members, and direct action is preferred over bargaining with management. But, most importantly, it comes from the bottom up. Rank-and-file workers organize and lead these organizations.

For Lynd, these parallel unions are especially necessary today. Lynd writes that the internationalization of capital has revealed the inability of centralized unions to respond to new challenges. We need solidarity across unions, industries, and even types of workers.

"[T]rade unions as they exist in United States are structurally incapable of changing the corporate economy, so that simply electing new officers to head these organizations will not solve our problems," he writes. "[T]he time has come to break with the forms of organization of the existing labour movement…[W]hether we work within or outside existing structures, we must self-consciously seek the emergence of new forms." And it looks like these new forms are attracting people.

While there's been an incredible decline in union membership across the country, he reminds us that "there has also been a revival and more widespread exploration of the 'solidarity unionism' that is front and centre in these pages."

In Canada, 70,000 temporary foreign workers were made undocumented based on the "four and four" law, where they can only work in the country for four years at a time and cannot return on another work permit for at least another four years. Many of these workers will either be deported, leave voluntarily, or remain in the country underground. But, in response, there's been solidarity.

The Migrant Workers Alliance for Change has raised the issue and made demands like granting permanent residency to all workers upon arrival and ensuring that all workers have access to the same social services others enjoy -- something which is not yet a reality for temporary migrant workers. The Canadian Labour Congress, and Unifor National, have agreed to take on this cause.

"For some time to come, the actions we may be able to take on behalf of a new kind of labour internationalism will be modest," Lynd writes. "We are at an early stage of organizing when what we are really doing is meeting people, making friends, building community in a one-on-one manner."

Perhaps the emerging connections between migrant workers brought in from all corners of the globe and Canada's labour movement is our most crucial form of solidarity unionism now.

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

Anarchists Never Surrender: Review 31

By Ian Birchall
Review 31
May 2015

Victor Serge was witness to some of the most momentous events of the first half of the 20th century. He was an anarchist in Brussels and Paris, then, after a spell in jail, went to post-Revolutionary Russia. He supported the Revolution loyally for some years, then opposed the rise of Stalin, returned to the West and ended up in Mexico, escaping the Nazi occupation of France. Best known for his Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1951) and novels such as The Case of Comrade Tulayev (1967), he was also a prolific journalist. One of the main themes in his work is an ongoing dialogue with anarchism. Mitchell Abidor has assembled here a fascinating collection of his writings on the subject.

The first half of the book consists of articles written for various anarchist publications. Serge was a very angry, very young man – several of the pieces were written when he was still a teenager. There is much in Serge’s contemptuous rage against the madness of contemporary society that still rings true, like his hatred for commercialised sport and those who flock ‘to see brutes pummel each other, break each other’s jaws, and give each other black eyes.’ He mocks the practice of wishing ‘Happy New Year’ as ‘the festival of great social hypocrisy’ and scorns public holidays when we all agree to ‘rejoice on a fixed date.’

There are some remarkable insights. To this day secularism (laïcité) is almost universally seen as the backbone of the French Republic. But Serge denounced the ‘stupefying charlatans of the secular,’ seeing already before 1914 that the aim of secular education was to prepare children to be loyal soldiers: ‘who will they spill their blood for in the impending slaughterhouses?’ He also has some acute observations on how to ‘revolt usefully.’ While he recognises that hungry people will see shopkeepers as the enemy, he points out that ‘hanging a baker from a lamppost (which, I hasten to recognize, could be agreeable)’ cannot shorten an economic crisis and the only result will be that ‘good people will get months of prison time.’

Yet Serge’s anarchist philosophy has major weaknesses, and the very vividness and lucidity of his writing makes them easier to analyse. His anarchism comprised a radical individualism, inspired by Albert Libertad, whose teaching he later summed up as: ‘Make your own revolution, by being free men and living in comradeship.’ He may have had a vision of ‘a beautiful and harmonious life from which hatred and anger, injustice, and poverty will be banished,’ but he had no strategy for getting there other than individual revolt and self-improvement. Individual change preceded social change: ‘let us show how, by the transformation of men, society is transformed.’

Anarchism might appear ultra-democratic, but as Serge shows, it could easily develop into an ugly élitism. He rejected the proposals for collective action that came from socialists and syndicalists, and rejected the socialist belief that the working class would be the agent of social emancipation. Instead he sneered at ‘the imbecilic devotion to his master’s money of the wage earner.’

The second part of this book shows how Serge’s thinking developed. Already by 1917, when he came out of jail, he had clearly been reconsidering his position. There is a major essay on Nietzsche from 1917 which brings out many of the questions that the young revolutionary was now reconsidering. While many anarchists had admired Nietzsche, Serge saw him as ‘profoundly barbarous and an enemy of the progress for which we are fighting.’ Yet he ends with an expression of his torn ambiguity: ‘I love him ... but I don’t follow him.’

The real turning-point came with Serge’s arrival in Russia in 1919. Here was what he called ‘the reality-revolution, quite different from the theory-revolution, and even more from the ideal-revolution.’ Serge’s eyes were wide open to the horrors of the civil war and to the disturbing trends towards bureaucratic and dictatorial power which were evident even in the very first years of the Revolution. But he also saw the powerful hope embodied in the Revolution: collective action by working people was not some hypothetical abstraction but a reality on the streets of Petrograd.

Serge joined the Bolsheviks; there would be no time for criticism until the civil war was over, and he commended those anarchists who threw in their lot with the communists. He was subjected to much abuse from his former anarchist comrades, but for years he devoted his efforts to trying to win over European anarchists to support for the Russian Revolution – a task encouraged by Lenin and Trotsky, though not by some of their fellow-Bolsheviks.

In his last decade of exile Serge was preoccupied with the problem of what had gone wrong with the Revolution to which he had devoted himself. And some of the questions posed by anarchism continued to haunt him as he recognised that there had been many failures long before Stalin consolidated his power. As he noted: ‘In all of history there is no example of a dictatorship that died on its own.’

The mature Serge did not simply jettison his youthful anarchism; rather, he sought to raise it to a higher level, to achieve a ‘synthesis of Marxism and libertarian socialism.’ The final item in this volume is a thoughtful essay from 1938 on ‘Anarchist Thought.’ While being respectful to the anarchist tradition, Serge is forthright on its weaknesses. Anarchist thinkers, he writes, have not proffered ‘a word of explanation’ as to how social transformation is to be accomplished. The Russian Revolution ‘posed the sole capital question, one for which the anarchists have no response: that of power.’ Anarchist ideas will revive each time a new section of humanity rebels against an increasingly unjust world. These writings provide a valuable tool for understanding and criticising them.

Mitchell Abidor will be speaking about Victor Serge at an event in London on 15 May. Full details are available here.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Mitchell Abidor's Editor Page | Back to Victor Serge's Author Page

Anarchists turn to capitalism at Oakland book fair

By Nanette Asimove
SF Gate
April 28th, 2015

Books are displayed by PM Press publishers at the 20th annual Bay Area Anarchist Book Fair in Oakland, Calif. on Saturday, April 25, 2015.

Photo credit: Paul Chinn, The Chronicle

Plenty of well-ordered capitalism was happening Saturday at the anarchist book fair in Oakland.

One of the hottest sellers was “A Rule Is to Break: A Child’s Guide to Anarchy,” by John and Jana, who break the rule that authors’ last names should appear on the cover.

Everything you need to know about anarchy is contained in the slender green volume: “Give away stuff for free.” “Think for yourself.” “Cake for dinner!” The drawings — including a smiling child with blue hair and no clothes, and a kid in a devil suit running with a match — conveyed just as much.

Sarah Koster handed her credit card to Jennifer Joseph, founder of Manic D Press publishing in San Francisco. Koster, a public health worker in Oakland, said the book would make a great gift for her nephews and niece in Arizona, ages 2 to 4.

“I like to introduce them to new ideas and different ways of moving through the world,” she said. “If you just rely on mass media and children’s shows, they won’t learn to challenge authority and ask questions.”

Rejecting authority, thinking for oneself and being kind to others were the messages reverberating through the Seventh Street warehouse called the Crucible.

List of lectures

That’s where the 20th annual Bay Area Anarchist Book Fair was held from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., with lectures on such topics as contemporary labor issues, how to support political prisoners, fighting police and what to do if you’re a radical seeking therapy.

Anarchists are judged harshly because of the Black Bloc, whose members have broken windows during recent protests, said Joseph.

“I’m more in the Emma Goldman school of anarchy, which is about self-determination and autonomy,” she said.

Someone, who asked that his last name not be used, said there are many forms of anarchy, “but generally people say it’s an abolition of the state and capitalism.”

Which raised a certain question, as Steven was at the PM Press table selling stuff.

“Everyone has to live within a certain level of hypocrisy,” he sighed. “It’s almost impossible to break out from under the thumb of capitalism. We’re here selling books, but it’s not like we’re selling microwaves or televisions.”

Not that anarchists don’t watch TV or microwave their food. But they do eschew some worldly things., for example.

“Amazon is affiliated with the CIA,” said Tristen Schmidt, a child care worker in Alameda. “I don’t buy from them.”

Instead she bought “The Communist Manifesto” by Karl Marx from one of the many vendors selling such books as “Left of the Dial: Conversations with Punk Icons,” by David Ensiminger; “Anarchists Never Surrender,” by Victor Serge, about the movement from 1908 to 1938; and “The Sofa Surfing Handbook: A Guide for Modern Nomads,” edited by Juliette Torrez.

Past the books, the Food Not Bombs table, the Earth First group and the cookie vendors, visitors could sit in on lectures.

Tale of Starbucks

About 30 people, young and old, gathered on the back patio for a talk called “Anarchy on the Shop Floor” and heard a young man tell how Starbucks fought for seven years against paying baristas time-and-a-half for Martin Luther King Day before recognizing the holiday in 2011.

“And they called themselves a socially responsible company,” the man snorted.

AK Press also had a table. The publisher of radical books was part of a collective of residents and businesses whose building burned last month in Oakland, killing two people. Supporters donated about $50,000 and are trying to help those displaced to get the city to declare the building fit to occupy again.

'Without rulers’

“One of the core tenets of anarchism is mutual aid,” said Jen Angel, who helped organize the fair. “There’s this miconception that anarchism means chaos. But the term means 'without rulers.’ We don’t expect people to organize for us. We organize for ourselves.”

Nanette Asimov is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: Twitter: @NanetteAsimov

Chronicle of a Crash Foretold

By Tom Jennings
Mute Magazine
7 May 2015

In John Barker’s Futures, an expertly crafted crime novel exploring cocaine trafficking in Thatcherite London, Tom Jennings finds a parable of neoliberalism with considerably broader resonance

Set in 1987, a year after the UK government’s Big Bang deregulation of the City of London's financial institutions, Futures follows the contrasting trajectories of several fictional protagonists operating in different but overlapping niches in the capital’s illegal drugs market. The events – described from the main characters’ own perspectives – occur in the weeks leading up to, and shortly after, the 15-16 October hurricane, which temporarily scuppered everyone's mobility and communications, followed on 19 October by the Black Monday stock market crash. As with the meteorological and economic weather patterns, the novel’s coke-fuelled outcomes also fail to yield dividends corresponding to theory, planning and expectations, so that the results of various agendas and efforts come more or less spectacularly unstuck. But before the wheels come off, and as the tension ratchets up, we are given richly detailed accounts of the lives, attitudes and preoccupations of a diverse set of Londoners adapting to and coping with change and attempting to exert control over their fates. This was a period when the dust was settling after the first tranche of social and political upheavals induced by the policies of Thatcher's governments, which had already drastically damaged the present circumstances and fundamentally foreshortened life-chances for swathes of the population, but before the fallout had become integrated into the everyday culture of atomisation, consumerism, moral squalor and cynicism that we've become familiar with since. And because the vernaculars, idiosyncrasies and interactions of such disparate folk are rendered pitch-perfectly, the impression is given of a fully realised and comprehensive cross-sectional snapshot of social strata at the time which might mirror comparable situations in all sorts of other licit and illicit fields of endeavour. That this effect is accomplished with such a minimal fleshed-out body count, largely through sharp, believable dialogue and judicious employment of interior monologue in response to the demands of a compelling storyline, is testament to the author's command of narrative and characterisation.

A Bit of a Panicker

At the centre of the action is Gordon Murray, drugs wholesaler and London criminal born of the old school, who is resolutely and brutally traditional in his logistics, security and human resources practices while also keen to modernize money-making activities in line with his take on the new commercial environment. Thus profits are laundered by and siphoned into investments in property and yuppie service ventures in newly gentrifying districts, while sectors of the business such as heroin from Iran are divested if margins or risks are judged to be unsatisfactory, and eventually the decision is made to broaden the stock portfolio via one of the dodgy offshore brokerages flogging innovative deals and clamouring to cater for the excess capital swilling about in the wake of deregulation. Murray's partners in the family firm are his brothers Derek, a hard man and enforcer handling distribution operations, and Keith, a cautious accountant; whereas Gordon is the chief executive and strategist. This character was intended to be ‘totally unromanticised [...] nasty but boring’, but he is also rather pathetically aspirational, socially and intellectually as well as in terms of greed.1 This is shown, for example, in ‘the way he kind of mimics neoliberal language’, seeing himself as a discreetly model ‘captain of industry’ but who is ‘in the end, a bit of a panicker’.2 On several levels, then, Gordon's overbearing self-satisfaction justifies his pivotal role in the story, given the ramifications of his vainglory for the rest of the cast.

Functioning as little more than his narrative appendage is a paid informant, Detective Chief Superintendent Graham Curtis of the Metropolitan Police Drugs Squad. Barker presumably enjoyed the portrayal of a creature even more pompous, self-righteous and venal than his clandestine employer: Curtis is obsessed with professional status and outmanoeuvring colleagues in a blatantly dysfunctional organisation. In their secret meetings, Murray barely tolerates this petty bureaucrat’s piety, snobbery and hypocrisy in order to cover himself and become apprised of specific foreknowledge about the Met’s legendary lack of bona fide ‘intelligence’ so as to plant misinformation and prompt strategically valuable legal travesties.3 Such relatively low-cost ‘outsourcing’ tactics are probably deemed expedient for the balance sheet, even if leaving the gangsters more short-staffed when going in mob-handed might otherwise be called for. Nonetheless, the prominence and space afforded to Curtis is mildly surprising given his tangential significance to the plot. Descriptions of sundry escapades orchestrated by him certainly reinforce the message that the state authorities charged with ‘regulating’ (i.e. shutting down) this particular market are at best a practical irrelevance – in contrast to PR claims concerning nominal aims and purposes – and, at worst, the crooks’ (unwitting) footsoldiers. Furthermore, the well-worn crime fiction tropes either lionising heroic crusading cops or demonising them with superhuman doses of evil or corruption are also effectively belied – showing that any truth in them tends towards banality – but this goal too could surely have been accomplished more economically.4

Completing the representative sample of narcotics tradespeople is Carol Curbishley, who receives supplies from the Murrays through a distributor called Terry, one of their longstanding middlemen. Aged 35 and from a working-class background, she is a small-time cocaine dealer and single mother of a 9 year-old daughter, living in a housing association flat but using a friend’s landline for telephone contact with clients. All of her self-designed security precautions are followed scrupulously but are also potentially flimsy, her preoccupied awareness of which causes great anxiety and paranoia and impacts negatively on her social life. However, despite regular ruminations on how to get out of the business altogether given the precarious unpredictability of income and prospects, alternatives remain elusive. Nevertheless, as the story unfolds, she finds herself in a situation which may promise an escape route along with financial security for the first time in her life, but without the wherewithal to realistically weigh up the odds. Barker says he feels ‘very sympathetic to her, representative of a very ordinary person who has to make this decision’, and it is symptomatic that, in the end, Carol turns out to be more pragmatically grounded than those with far broader knowledge and experience. In fact she is the single straightforwardly likeable major figure in the novel and the only one capable of genuine adult relationships, compared with the others who perceive people as objects for instrumental use or boosts to egos or narcissism. As a strong woman with generally sound ethics (even with this job), she is also a welcome counterpoint to the offhand misogyny of the movers and shakers, which unerringly unmasks feeble personalities behind purportedly superior intellects and loftier ranks.


Image: A Yuppie, from cover of The Nervemeter, 2013


Speaking of which, the final two prominent players start the novel as end-users at the bottom of the drugs production chain. Archetypally arrogant and brash middle-class boors with prodigious recreational cocaine habits, striding about town as if they (should) own it, Phil Stone and Jack Sharp have been best friends since school (we learn of no other close social ties). They are currency and commodity analysts specialising in the dollar and gold respectively and working for respected City investment banks which have recently been taken over by US predators seeking a slice of the newly wide-open British speculative capital pie. Although amply remunerated, Phil and Jack grow increasingly dissatisfied with the direction in which their vulgar American masters are heading compared with the relatively relaxed ride under old regimes run by the typical old boys networks of well connected toffs. What they considered to be already taxing workloads are now subject to further intensification along with restricted autonomy, accompanied by even less worshipful appreciation of their supposed genius in predicting the slings and arrows of outrageous fortunes. So, when his dealer is busted, Jack comes up with the idea of initiating a cocaine futures market, in principle no different from those they presently work in but now exploiting their sophisticated understanding of fluctuations in value to benefit big-time from prudent buying and selling at volume while guaranteeing unlimited personal stashes. The timing should be propitious since (as Gordon Murray also realises) the saturation of North America has prompted the Colombian cartels to seriously expand into Europe, thereby lowering prices. Phil proposes his supplier, Simone (aka Carol), as the entry point to the industry, with their extensive networks of casual yuppie acquaintances as easy marks for punters, and thus the plan takes shape...

Of course, unbeknownst to them, those occupying other positions on the greasy pole they hope to ascend are doggedly pursuing their own bottom lines, which increasingly converge, commingle and conflict in what turns out to be a perfect storm of wrecked ambition – but with dissimilarly disastrous outcomes roughly consonant with the scale of misconceived hubris and delusions of grandeur. So the accelerating pace of the narrative finally yields a cascade of interlocking denouements where the protagonists go out with either a big bang or abject whimper or, if they're less unfortunate, live to fight another day. The latter seems to be the case for Supt. Curtis, whose assiduous pursuit of Murray’s misdirections seems for a while to enhance his stock but then leads to exposure of his wrongdoings to an equally compromised colleague also battling the tide of high-flying graduates fast-tracked into upper echelons of the Met to effect its renovation (i.e. polish the PR and weed out the most embarrassingly unredeemable dinosaurs). Meanwhile, having sensed the way the wind is blowing and unwilling to venture further out of her depth, Carol kicks her dilemma upstairs to Terry and escapes the apocalypse by the skin of the teeth – complete with new lover and stepdad to the kid, though now bereft of a livelihood and, we fear, her worryingly incommunicado best friend.

Things are decisively terminal, however, only for those at, and aspiring to reach, the top of the pile. Blinded by quaint trust in the ability of the dismal science to accurately capture the often barbaric reality of major league narcotics, Phil and Jack ironically assume that access to a bigger shot than ‘Simone’ heralds the impending realisation of their dream. Instead they fall prey to Gordon’s maniacal last-ditch scheme to rescue some readies from the collapse of his empire, leaving one dead and the other framed for his pal’s murder. Murray himself, meanwhile, utterly misjudges the elite sphere of high finance and global cosmopolitanism he felt entitled to enlist in and is comprehensively swindled by the new investment advisor he assumed was forging his passport for entry. Further, and with more immediately and literally fatal import, he has completely lost touch with the grassroots end of the business and succumbs to the unexpectedly (to him) vicious, disrespectful and destructive atmosphere that prevails on the streets with the progressive degradation of working class communities: something brought on by the very government policies he has hitherto benefited so handsomely from. Thus, in one way or another, all of the book's main characters are defeated by the sheer multifaceted complexity and pace of the changes taking place in their worlds, with the nature and gravity of each prognosis depending to a large extent on that individual's levels of blithe ignorance, vanity, avarice, and humility.

Shuffling the Class Cards

Much of John Barker's background material for the book was gleaned during spells of imprisonment, first between 1972-78 after conviction as a member of UK urban guerrilla outfit the Angry Brigade, and subsequently when sentenced to five years in 1990 for involvement in an international conspiracy to import cannabis.5 Thus his profile of the London drugs scene and treatment of its denizens and their conduct, idiom and worldviews can be assumed to be based on extensive inside knowledge (in both senses). Likewise, the exhaustive details of Phil and Jack’s professional activities and their musings and prognostications on the state of the global economy from within the belly of the beast were partly sourced from studious critical attention to the broadsheet financial press while incarcerated, adding further flavour to the notion of jail as an academy of crime. It’s worth noting, therefore, that Futures was originally drafted two decades ago, and its much-delayed publication (with the help of a Kickstarter campaign) should not detract from an appreciation of its acuity concerning both the prevailing structural adjustments in criminal and other enterprise and the fantasies of omniscience associated with faith in ‘rational’ or ‘transparent’ markets (or marketers), as well as prescience concerning the catastrophic consequences of such beliefs irrespective of the sector concerned – which most allegedly expert commentators took rather longer to cotton on to, if at all, even with the advantage of hindsight.

Nevertheless, the author is at pains to emphasise that this is just ‘a kind of crime story – in no way a political tract’. But then, crime fiction has always interrogated the contours of power through accounts of activities judged to be taboo and how their manifestations are to be legitimately handled, so a crime story can scarcely avoid being political at least with a small ‘p’ In British literature this often entails reactionary rationales for restoring equilibrium to an inequitable status quo or favouring fascistic purging of criminal perversions from the social body. Meanwhile an alternative tradition originated in hard-boiled stories of American private dicks negotiating the shifting sands of class structure and the failure of mainstream institutions to acknowledge or provide redress for injuries caused to otherwise helpless citizens cut adrift from traditional family, community or solidaristic mechanisms. This inherently critical and potentially radical literary lineage has blended over time with gritty tales of colourful rogues getting one over on their social superiors, gangster sagas, conspiracy thrillers, and downbeat social-realist scenarios of impoverishment and brutalisation in lower-class milieux. These flourishing genres and sub-genres have more recently increasingly attracted more ambitious writers and filmmakers keen to diagnose wider social and political problems by dissecting large-scale patterns of wrongdoing and their reflections and reverberations throughout society. Intentionally or not, this novel definitely fits such criteria.6


Image: Guardian headline 15 April 2013


Two of its narrative strategies in particular help to differentiate Futures from more restricted or run-of-the-mill fictional depictions of organised illegal activity and attempts to control it – and especially those involving banned drugs, which typically arouse ire, indignation and distortion out of all proportion to the harm caused (compared with, say, nicotine and alcohol) and relative to other types of serious crime. Firstly, as mentioned previously, the cast selection distils down an extensive hierarchy of punters, dealers, middlemen, gangsters, hangers-on, competitors and adversaries into a very limited set of characters, which allows all of their social environments, work situations and internal lives and behaviour to be thoroughly and equitably elaborated. Moreover, no specific viewpoint is privileged in terms of any overriding attribution of responsibility or moral judgement; nor does the degree of emotional or cognitive depth ascribed to some characters contrast with others sketched more abstractly or stereotypically. In the absence of such clichéd rhetorical tactics – which facilitate the assumption of ideologically loaded preconceptions or identifications that tend to yield an unbalanced and partial grasp of the world described – the reader can more readily concentrate on the intricacies and machinations of the plot, taking into account, in turn and in combination, the characters’ contrasting perspectives on and responses to events.


Secondly, the novel’s episodic construction provides details of each successive short period of time from one character’s viewpoint only, so that the significance or effects of actions taken are left to the reader to infer from retrospective and/or indirect references in subsequent intervals according to different perspectives. This is a brave strategy, since readers may be left floundering to connect the dots and keep up. However, it also intensifies awareness that the protagonists may be aware only dimly or not at all of what the others are doing, missing the origins of minor or substantive changes affecting their own positions or the consequences of their own behaviour and that of others. A major dividend is that this leads to a mirroring between the reader’s efforts in following the twists and turns of the tale and the difficulties encountered by the characters themselves in interpreting their own experience and formulating their plans accordingly. In both cases, the inherent risks, uncertainties and pure unknowns in life are foregrounded, along with the wisdom of taking into account the material inertia of existing bodies and relations and the barriers introduced to the possibility of their and our comparative autonomy. Just as parallels can be drawn between the range of functions that these characters serve in their world with those operating in many more conventional and less dangerous and stigmatised realms, so the portrayal of the frustrations, impasses, ignorances and breakthroughs of those dealing in drugs hints at continuity with, rather than alienated distinction from, the ‘normal’ life of society – where similar general constellations of forces constrain action.


Given these rare and impressive qualities, it might even be proposed that a film adaptation of the novel would enthral a far larger audience – if a courageous and competent enough production team were tempted to take on the task who could do as much justice to its subtle and sophisticated subtexts as the obvious entertainment potential. A television serial would appear most suitable for a story of this weight and complexity, and although the track record of UK media fictionalising the controversial field of the drugs trade is sparse, there are promising precedents. Traffik (by Simon Moore, Channel 4, 1989) at least attempted a multi-stranded structure melding local, national and global elements of the heroin trade, but with a relentless focus on and clear sympathy for its upper middle-class characters. Much later (and skipping the bilious nihilism sugar-coated with New Labour aspiration of Danny Boyle's 1996 Trainspotting), following the acclaim afforded to the British feature film Bullet Boy (directed by Saul Dibb, 2004) which tackled a Hackney family’s struggles with petty crime and gun violence, Channel 4 commissioned two series of the excellent Top Boy (by Ronan Bennett, 2011/13), a similarly exemplary and unusual social realist story of the trials and tribulations of a small East London manor’s low-level drugs posse which also refused to diminish, homogenise or demonise its miscreants. Likewise, the feature Twenty8k (directed by David Kew & Neil Thompson; written by Paul Abbott and Jimmy Dowdall, 2012) made a decent fist of expanding the drugs game palette to include dodgy finance, land grabs, property speculation and municipal corruption in the run-up to the London Olympics graft-fest.


Of course, the two ultimate benchmarks for filmic fantasies of the relationship between the narcotics industry and society as a whole are American. Yet, with its uniquely detailed characterisation and effortlessly effective weaving of narrative threads, one could imagine that a faithful visualisation of John Barker’s novel might compare favourably in quality and breadth of sweep with the achievements of the renowned US television series The Wire (by David Simon & Ed Burns, HBO, 2002-8) and Breaking Bad (by Vince Gilligan, AMC, 2008-13). Both chronicle careers and contexts associated with neurochemical scourges rather nastier than the upmarket appeal of powdered cocaine, blighting lower-class neighbourhoods with the crack derivative in urban Baltimore, Maryland, in the former, and an epidemic of crystal methamphetamine in the suburban US southwest in the latter. However, the political visions animating these epics are rather tamer and more conformist than their bold premises might suggest. So The Wire's magisterial cycle, tracing the interconnected complicity between drugs commerce and spheres as discrete as policing, unions, logistics, education, city politics and journalism, consistently homes in on enlightened reform-minded managers whose hearts are supposedly in the right place – hazily insinuating that some such social-democratic vanguard might mend the broken society. Meanwhile, the very different alchemy of Breaking Bad transmutes the resentment of the ‘squeezed’ middle-classes – once illusions of social progress and mobility through respectably professional hard work are exposed as busted flushes – into an obscene subaltern reflection of the cynical barbarism of government by raw capitalism itself.


Image: A shopping bag full of cash


Equally three-dimensional in nailing its setting, and convincingly true to its time, Futures trumps them both in certain respects: even-handedly rendering the agency available and prominence given to those on vastly different rungs of the dealership ladder; withholding an omniscient overview to which all of its fallible embodied subjects are, or should be, philosophically subordinated; and, most notably, being persuasively suggestive of things to come. It can then be read as a minimalist allegory of general features of neoliberalism, which could also be projected into the forthcoming years after the first flushes of Thatcherism – and with an underlying political sensibility which is precisely a critique, rather than denial, disavowal or displacement, of the ideology now often described as ‘capitalist realism’ – i.e. that ‘there is no alternative’. So, if the novel's cast are imagined as prototypes and precursors of later incarnations, the metaphor would encompass the Murray firm’s latter-day retail concern cutting costs and corners to dominate the high street, for whom Carol works as subcontracted precarious labour (herself delegating communications duties to Marie) while Terry has slightly more secure and rewarding tenure. Meanwhile Gordon stands for the company’s top management, mercilessly fleecing the accounts under the noses of colleagues and shareholders in order to feather his own nest irrespective of more distant prospects – with Phil and Jack as early avatars of the new generations of up-and-coming accountancy whizzkids from investment banks prescribing cooked books and mendacious valuation to conjure obscene profits today at the expense of stability next week. Finally, Curtis et al of the Met represent tarnished government checks-and-balances painfully transitioning from the archaic blunt institutional monopoly of force to New Public Management fetishes for performance targets, pop psychology, flexible human resources and spin – promising not less ineptitude, hypocrisy and malevolence in the service of money and power, but more mystified varieties of the same... not going to end well, is it?




So, in the unlikely event of something like the pitch pencilled in above reaching fruition, its advertising copywriters could probably do worse than the publicity tagline: ‘Did charlie cause the credit crunch?’ In fact, this question – in equal measures playful, rhetorical, and deadly serious – haunts the novel and the author’s Afterword as well as the appended text on the political economy of coke. The straightforward answer, naturally, is ‘No’, as Barker himself acknowledges in his commentaries. However, merely taking it at face value opens up the issue of the origins of the fantasies of economics omnipotence that have helped fuel an escalating series of local and international financial burst-bubbles, crises and crashes which have accompanied neoliberalism’s worldwide sway. Doubtless no less salient and rooted in a rather wider history are long-term declining rates of return from real-world productive investment, leaving the trillions trickling up to the elite stratosphere from structural adjustment – including in the consolidation, intensification and rationalisation of narco-production and distribution – nowhere else to profitably go except towards even more of the same toxic medicine. Nevertheless, could the brains behind the new miracle mathematical nostrums of derivatives, algorithms, and supercomputer simulations have been on a decades-long collective coke binge, along with their counterparts in the other burgeoning high-end ‘creative industries’ feverishly fashioning fictitious cultural and social capital in their respective realms? Well, it's intelligible that the behavioural characteristics of cocaine use – wild short-term enthusiasm, single-minded blind persistence, manically inflated confidence and other bipolar patterns – could influence specific, more or less superficial, features of developments.7 But even if so, how is it possible that the great and good who own and govern the globe would go along with it? In summary, then, the achievement of Futures is that it can be enjoyed as a simple, and extremely effective, crime yarn – but can also easily prompt such extensive speculation. This is surely no mean feat.


Tom Jennings is a writer, critic and editor based in Newcastle upon Tyne. His blog can be found at



John Barker, Futures, PM Press, 2014.




1 A point repeatedly made by Barker in readings and interviews accompanying the launch of the book. The same applies to other quotes from the author within this review.

Quoted in Benjamin Mortimer, ‘Still Angry? John Barker on the Angry Brigade and his new novel Futures’, East End Review, 5 June, 2014,

3 One such incident involves fitting up a rival crime boss, who is in any case plainly guilty of many serious offences (if not this one) – perhaps a sly reference to the author’s own experience as an Angry Brigade defendant, where ‘the police framed a guilty man’. John Barker, review of Anarchy in the UK: The Angry Brigade by Tom Vague, AK Press, 2001, available at:

4 Though maybe it’s churlish to expect the writer to forego gratification in trashing a figure who, in a conventional tale, would represent the master criminal's sworn enemy – especially in this case where the first-person voice granted only to Gordon may already imply a degree of over-identification.

5 Barker’s reflections on his jail time have been published in Bending The Bars: Prison Stories, Christie Books, 2002. The book was reviewed by Stewart Home in Mute magazine, 2003,

6 As if to highlight this despite the above disclaimer, a political tract does indeed follow as an appendix to the book, in the form of a fascinating and exhaustive essay discussing the significance of cocaine manufacture, export and finance in the development of contemporary capitalism. John Barker's ‘From Coca to Capital: Free Trade Cocaine’ was written for the exhibition Potosí Principle: How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? by Alice Creischer, Andreas Siekmann and Max Jorge Hinderer, first shown in Madrid, Berlin and La Paz, Bolivia and touring from 2010. The essay was subsequently published in Mute magazine,

7 See the section entitled ‘Biotool’ in ‘From Coca to Capital: Free Trade Cocaine’, Ibid.

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