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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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Sunflowers in the Concrete: Black Flags and Windmills reviewed on Center for a Stateless Society

By Trevor Hultner
Center for a Stateless Society (C4SS)
May 5th, 2015

Four years ago, anarchist activist and co-founder of the radical humanitarian aid organization Common Ground Relief (formerly the Common Ground Collective) scott crow released his memoir about the nearly three months where he and a band of activists and New Orleans residents beat the odds – and the Feds – in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

C4SS’s Kevin Carson penned a glowing review of Black Flags and Windmills in 2011, writing, “As someone who’s followed the Arab Spring and Occupy movements very closely, I find Crow’s account of organizing the Common Ground Collective extremely relevant to the problems the movement faces today.”

Last August, crow released the second edition of Windmills, which includes a collection of emails, interviews and a photo diary of sorts that documents his trajectory as an activist from young, state-loving communist to the incredible “puppetmaster” of an anarchist (according to the FBI) that he is today, as well as moments from his time on the ground in New Orleans.

This new information, which adds roughly 100 pages of material to the book, is incredibly illustrative and should be of interest for any activist or aid worker looking to create a horizontal, decentralized and anti-authoritarian movement in their communities – whether they’re affected by natural disasters or simply the long, slow disaster wrought by state capitalism.

Besides that, there’s not a whole lot of difference from the first to the second editions; crow’s narrative flows roughly the same in both copies of the book, and Carson has already done a great job of summarizing that first edition in his own review from 2011. So rather than rehash what Kevin said, and you should really go back and read that review because it’s fantastic, here instead are some impressions the book left on me as a younger self-described anarchist.

1. It’s never just about one person. It’s about the people.

crow has received a lot of notoriety (and rightly so, in my opinion) in the years after Katrina for being one of the sort-of public faces of Common Ground; in between organizing in his hometown of Austin, Texas, he goes on speaking tours to college campuses, infoshops and independent venue spaces around the United States to talk about the foundational principles he, Malik Rahim and Sharon Johnson started Common Ground on, as well as the concept of “emergency hearts.” I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him in Oklahoma twice now.

That being said, crow makes it clear toward the end of his narrative in Windmills that while he, Malik and Sharon put a whole heap of work into what Common Ground stood for and what it was doing for the community, they were not the sole people we should focus on when we talk about the success of the organization. Hundreds upon hundreds of local residents and out-of-state activists made Common Ground what it was, and without them – not to mention the support of Algiers and the surrounding rural and urban communities they served – the effort would have sputtered out.

Ultimately, the narrative crow creates – and lived – is not one about a rockstar anarchist swooping into New Orleans and rescuing the flooded poor communities in the Lower Seventh and Ninth Wards from the wrecking ball of the State, but one where the communities themselves rose up against outside pressure – from crooked, killer cops, vigilantes, overly bureaucratic federal relief organizations and the military – to save their homes, schools and neighborhoods, Zapatista-style.

2. When the State gets injured is when it shows its claws the most.

Arguably, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and its sister storm, Hurricane Rita, showed exquisitely what the State will do and how it will respond when it has been dealt a truly damaging blow. crow captured the stark realities of the days and weeks post-Katrina in Windmills, pulling no punches and telling the whole story: the white vigilantes, the shoot-to-kill orders, the mainstream relief agencies delivering nothing but baby wipes and plastic cutlery to Algiers when food and water was needed, FEMA employees getting “the best medical treatment” they had ever seen in New Orleans at the Common Ground Clinic. One scene in particular was especially striking. Rather than paraphrase, I’ll let crow do the talking:

Early one afternoon, I drove a truck over to St. Mary’s to drop off our regular supply load. Their volunteers helped with unloading, and I was set to leave, when I realized the truck was blocked in by a Humvee full of young-looking soldiers. I stepped out and cordially asked the driver to move forward so I could back out. The vehicle didn’t move. The driver stared through me without moving or acknowledging I had spoken to him.

Then the blank stare changed to a disturbing facial expression I had seen on many faces recently. I thought, “Is he going to shoot me?” Suddenly, a ranking officer stepped off the curb to the driver’s side, barking at their car, “Soldier, this is not Iraq! We do not control the streets! These are American civilians! Now move your ass — immediately!” Instantly, the driver turned and the vehicle moved. The officer waved me on. Stunned, I drove away. That shell-shocked look was in the faces of many of the young soldiers who were cycling through, fresh from Afghanistan and Iraq to the hell in their own backyards.

While there are arguably more intense scenes peppered throughout the book, this particular scene hit me with the force of weeks of exhaustion and the knowledge – the certitude – that at any moment crow or any other activist working in Algiers could be shot and killed by any number of government officials, soldiers, cops or yahoos with a gun and a penchant for Klan kosplay. Despite this, the people who made up Common Ground still showed up and helped the work along in defiance of an injured and feral State.

3. Building counterpower works.

Perhaps the biggest point I took from Windmills is that, regardless of whether the Common Ground Collective can be considered “pure anarchism,” or how messy the organization’s internal framework was, or what it eventually turned into, it is still a pretty dang great model for how we can build institutions of counterpower that can actively oppose the State. We don’t have to wait for a revolution, or a natural disaster, or for the bus driver to walk off the bus, to start building. We know this model works – it worked for Occupy Sandy, and to a lesser degree, the radical cleanup efforts in Moore, OK after the May 31, 2013 F5 tornado. The principles it employs can be used in a variety of settings and are even adoptable as a personal, individual framework.

As poet June Jordan, quoted by crow in Windmills, wrote in her 1978 “Poem for South African Women,” we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. crow’s book shows how ordinary people can create something more effective and more vital for their own communities than any outside force, be it the State, corporations or mainstream relief organizations, and we can do so without waiting for anyone’s approval.

Ultimately, Windmills left me with a sense of hope and excitement for an anarchist future. It’s not a future that will come easily, as crow demonstrates, and as the old cliche goes, I may not see it in my lifetime – none of us may! But damn if you won’t see me running to meet it.

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Jacinta Bunnell talking to Frankie Magazine about The Big Gay Alphabet Coloring Book

By Jacinta Bunnell
Frankie Magazine

May 2015

“Gay has been used for decades as a negative slur to denote something as ugly, weird or uncool. In my circle of Queer friends, we have reclaimed the statements “you’re so gay” and “that’s so gay” to mean that something is AWESOME, perfect, extremely good or delightful. So that got me thinking about all the amazing things that have come out of or are associated with LGBTQP culture: rainbows, musicals, glitter, unicorns, and on and on! There are all these things that just wouldn’t be here without Queer people. Would we have jazz hands if it were not for all the gay choreographers? Who are the biggest, most exuberant fans of the movies Roller Boogie and Beaches?

Since 2001, I have been collaborating with different artists, making coloring books that celebrate feminist, queer and trans people and ideas. I started making them because I didn’t see myself or my friends anywhere in media that was made for children. We were all children once and if you grow up not seeing a representation of your family, your feelings, your crushes, or your loves in ANY media at all, it is really hard to keep your head held high, let alone keep your tiara in place. In children’s movies, video games, books and TV, heterosexuality is not just the norm, it is very near the only way romantic love is ever represented. As an educator, I have spent many years working with kids of all ages who were literally dying to be seen and heard, overcoming abuse, neglect, homelessness and torture simply because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. I wanted to create books which offered a fresh way for people to look at stereotypes and oppression. If you can get people to laugh at themselves and at cultural expectations, their hearts will be more receptive to taking a hard look at difficult issues. Once you have opened someone's heart with a joke or a good laugh, you are better able to do the hard work of liberation together. Though my work directly draws from feminist, queer, and transgender scholarship and activism, I try to make it accessible to people of all ages via the familiarity of coloring books. I LOVE COLORING, I always have. It is relaxing, creative and fun….  And above all, I just want people to be proud of themselves.

When I decided to make The Big Gay Alphabet Coloring Book, I approached it a bit differently than my other three books. With those books, I paid less attention to the design and more attention to the content. I just wanted to get the message to people. By the time the idea for this book came about, I had spent several years studying vintage books, art and design and wanted to incorporate a bit of what I had always loved about certain design into a book. I spent a week in my friend Neko Case’s library of old books, taking notes, snapping photos, and collecting ideas for what would become this book. She has a beautiful farm in Vermont. It’s not a bad place to spend a week working! And then I reached out to Leela Corman, who I had met 13 years ago at a writing retreat with Lynda Barry. We had stayed in touch through the years and I had followed her work. I was blown away when she published Unterzakhn, a hauntingly gorgeous graphic novel about two sisters growing up in New York’s Lower East Side in the early 1900s. When she said that she would love to illustrate The Big Gay Alphabet Coloring Book, we set out collaborating by sending ideas through email and setting up shared documents that we could work on from two different states. It took over a year, and luckily my publisher, PM Press/Reach and Teach was psyched about the project.

When you look at the history of the word Gay, it meant “exuberant, bright, attractive, lively, happy…” The antonyms for Gay are “joyless, depressed, lifeless, spiritless…” So the next time someone says “you’re so gay” to you, say “thanks”.

--Jacinta Bunnell

Jacinta Bunnell is an artist and educator living in the Hudson Valley of New York. Jacinta’s work has been shown at The Horticultural Society of New York, Allegheny College, Huguenot Street Farm, KMOCA, Woodstock Artists Association & Museum, A+D Gallery at Columbia College Chicago, TeamLove Ravenhouse Gallery, and Roos Arts. She has collaborated with The Woodstock Film Festival, Planned Parenthood, The Hudson Valley Seed Library, and Elizabeth Mitchell. Jacinta has toured the U.S. and Canada with The Gadabout Film Fest, Neko Case, DavEnd, Anne Elizabeth Moore and Julie Novak. She is a co-founder of Hudson Valley BRAWL (Broads' Regional Arm Wrestling League).

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One Chord Wonders Reviewed in Spectrum Culture

By John L Murphy
Spectrum Culture

May 2015

3.5/5 stars

How punk was deployed as a reaction against what Dave Laing calls the “gigantism” of AOR, pop and progressive rock is a familiar tale. Laing, an English researcher, retells this story through an academic approach. He scrutinizes how late-1970s British punk applies to cultural critique. He incorporates insights from Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Julia Kristeva. This reprint of Laing’s 1985 semiological analysis precedes Jon Savage’s first-hand account, England’s Dreaming (1991).

Introduced briefly by the Adverts’ guitarist-singer, T.V. Smith, One Chord Wonders: Power and Meaning in Punk Rock takes its title from that band’s song, a tribute to DIY spunk.

Unlike Savage or Smith, Laing distances himself as a scholar.

He finds predecessors for punk’s nexus within pop culture. In its collision of the authentic with the commercial, punk’s predicament echoes that of British folksong proponents in 1899 and London pub-rockers in the earlier 1970s. Movements seeking a return or revival of “basic” music confront those who capitalize on its inherent potential for profit. Craving exposure, musicians often must capitulate to the system. Rejecting one tradition, innovators resurrect another, back-to-basics. Johnny Ramone, cited here, embodies this choice. “We’re playing pure rock ‘n’ roll with no blues or folk or any of that stuff in it.”

Instead, punk promoted “artifice, exaggeration and outrage.” One Chord Wonders turned an insult into a celebration. Distorted sounds and mangled meanings created a “frontal assault” on triple-disc or concept albums of the mid-‘70s. However, Laing reports how this music reworked old lyrical themes. Us vs. the Man repeated. Narcissism remained along with protest. Lacking a danceable element, punk stressed exclusivity and negativity. Failing to break out in 1977-1978, punk, Laing asserts, faded rapidly. He notes how broadcasters resisted its disruption and preferred easier listening.

In chapters titled “Formation,” “Naming,” “Looking,” “Listening” and “Framing,” Laing dissects the strategies claimed by punk. Drier at times, if supplemented by data, the middle section of his book muddles along. Ivory tower jargon slows its pace. It revives in its later stages, where a short “picture section” shows how punks adopted their public roles to what Laing defines as the movement’s “provisional discursive formation.” That is, punk offered positions to adopt, roles to play and rules to adhere to. Laing presents publicity shots, professional photographs taken in concert and vamping poses as proof. The last category portrayed one trap punk fell into. Originally seeking to provoke or to subvert, earnestly posing punks “allow themselves to be consumed as pinups of sex objects.”

The final chapter, “After,” adds an intriguing analogy. Laing notes that prior to punk, new bands felt making an album was equivalent to making a full-length film. Such an artistic effort seemed to overwhelm. Therefore, professional producers and studios had to be recruited and funded. By contrast, Laing reasons, punk was akin to creating a magazine or a paperback. Cassettes around 1980 began to change the way music by amateurs was distributed. Laing contrasts the cost of a hardcover book to that of a photocopy, as fans began to join with musicians to reproduce their efforts cheaply.

Enriching this study, Laing refutes the claim that most punks came from a working-class background. He compares their class and education to that of beat groups between 1963 and 1967, and he finds little difference in these categories. Such statistics deepen the value of this compact book. It may serve well in seminars or by scholars accordingly, as a critical contribution to Popular Music Studies.

Finally, Laing places punk within intellectual contexts. Benjamin and Adorno looked at Dada and at the “shock-effects” of radical art as predecessors to punk, in Laing’s estimation. Similarly, he ends with Barthes and Kristeva. They located within the avant-garde “the site of the return of the repressed.” Some punks embraced mid-1970s semiotic possibilities of confusion. Fragmenting, discontents chose other fashions, sartorial and musical, to emulate by the decade’s end. Diehards chose “anchored meanings” of mohawks, Oi! and slogans embroidered across leather jackets.

What united punk, for one or two years in the later 1970s, was the tension between realistic lyrics decrying conformity and repression and the sonic jolt that undermines musical predictability. Full of paradox, punk in Laing’s judgment produced a problem. It set out as a rock alternative, but it had to stay recognizable as rock to bring in an audience, to sustain a career and to meet industry demands.

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Clash of thoughts on The Clash

By Bob Gordon
January 17th, 2015

The Clash was not just a band and this is not a band bio. This is the whole intellectual ball of wax. And it's an American ball of wax.

Written by an American it is the story of how, "the Clash fell in love with America and how America loved them back."

There is no salacious gossip or he-said-she said. This is long-form rock journalism — itself a dying art, according to author Randal Doane.

Doane draws everyone from Alan Freed to Lester Bangs into the Clash's orbit in explaining how the Clash were part of larger currents in American popular culture.

There is also a detailed analysis of the New York club scene — CBGBs and Max's Kansas City — and the bands that prepared the clubs and the crowds for the Clash, from Debbie Harry and Patti Smith (hardly friends) to Johnny Thunders and Richard Hell.

The book concludes with a detailed narrative of the Clash's show at the Palladium in New York, broadcast live on WNEW-FM in 1979.

Unfortunately, this is also a depressing book. The author believes that the era that produced the Clash is gone forever. He argues that machine mediation, from synthesizers and drum machines to computer-generated FM playlists, has destroyed the intimacy, creativity and humanity of music making.

When punk died the DIY attitude died, killing free-form FM and regional radio as well. The argument itself is a tad extreme: Perhaps blogging and crowdfunding is just a new form of 'do it yourself.'

Bob Gordon is a Toronto writer.

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