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Peace activist Brian Willson on book tour

By Kevin Fagan
SF Chronicle
July 15, 2011

Gliding slowly along the back roads of the Bay Area this week is a white-haired man on a strange, low-slung tricycle powered by hand cranks. His two metal prosthetic legs poke out under his shorts to rest in stirrups, and he never musters more than 10 mph.

Most drivers have blown by in Sonoma, Marin and Contra Costa counties with barely a glance. Some stare. The cyclist never notices, cranking, always cranking—and usually with a big smile on his face.
Little do they know this is one of the most renowned antiwar protesters of the past quarter-century.

He is Brian Willson, and he is on a tour to promote the autobiography he released this month, Blood on the Tracks. It's a book 24 years in the making—ever since Sept. 1, 1987, when he was run over by a munitions train at the Concord Naval Weapons Station while trying to block it from delivering bombs headed for Central America.

Lost his legs

Willson lost both legs below the knees and suffered a fractured skull that day. In the years since, he has been in demand at lecture halls and hailed as a pre-eminent voice of peace advocacy by people ranging from activist actors Ed Asner and Kris Kristofferson to Pentagon Papers figure Daniel Ellsberg, who wrote the foreword to his book.

But now, at the age of 70—his birthday was the Fourth of July—and living in a solar-powered house he built three years ago in Portland, Ore., Willson feels his life is about more than peace protest.

His 440-page book traces his journey from high school baseball star in Ashville, N.Y., to Air Force captain in Vietnam to antiwar figure—and on to today, when he says his most important message is that "we have to all live more simply, because our lifestyle in America is totally unsustainable."

Living small

"After all the things I've experienced in my life, I think the neolithic village is our model," Willson said the other day as he stopped for lunch at the Sebastopol home of a longtime protest pal, Eszter Freeman. "We'd all be better off living in small, local, self-sufficient communities, using simple tools.

"The lifestyle we've had for the past century, based on fossil fuels that are disappearing and polluting our planet and causing wars, is unhealthy and killing the earth," Willson said. "There's only one ultimate solution—radical downsizing of our lives."

That, Willson said, is why he has undertaken this book tour not in rented cars or buses, but by hand-cycling the 800 miles from Portland to San Francisco, with side routes, over the course of a month.
He started June 25 and will speak at San Francisco's First Unitarian Church at 12:30 p.m. Sunday. After hitting a few final lecture spots, he will board a train July 23 headed back home.

Appeal to young

He said younger people at his book stops often tell him they didn't know who he was before seeing notices advancing his appearances. The conflicts from the 1980s over El Salvador and Nicaragua have long since given way to arguments over Afghanistan and Iraq, and though Willson still rails against war, his wider mantra of going green and questioning authority means more to some of them than peace activism.

"Brian was much more focused on Central America 25 years ago, but now he's gone deeper into the American way of life," said David Hartsough, a fellow protester in 1987 who protected Willson's exposed brain as he lay, head cracked open, on the tracks.

On Wednesday, Willson's journey brought him back for the first time in many years to the Concord Naval Weapons Station, now mostly shuttered and awaiting civilian re-use. He and Hartsough had a few hours before a book talk, so they drove up to the exact spot where Willson's life changed 24 years ago.

Visit from the law

They'd been on the tracks for one minute before six Contra Costa County sheriff and U.S. Army security cars swarmed them. They wanted to know if the man with the artificial legs and his companion were terrorists—a label once used by the military to describe Willson back when he was blocking munitions trains.

The whole thing blew over quickly. One cop called Willson "a legend when I was in school," and said he was glad to meet him.

"After all these years, to be stopped like that again," Willson mused with a small chuckle. "I mean really - after all these years?"

Tour blog

A trip blog, tour schedule and description of "Blood on the Tracks," by Brian Willson, can be found at:

E-mail Kevin Fagan at

Read more:

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Stopping the Train, Stopping the System

By Ron Jacobs
July 15, 2011

In a world where the violence of war can be safely ignored by most of the population because it occurs in faraway lands the need for moral witness has never been greater. When the recipient of the Nobel Peace prize unabashedly claims that the violence of war is sometimes necessary and then pursues a policy dependent on increasing that violence, the need for those who oppose such a philosophy to speak up would seem essential to human survival. When the economy of the world's richest nation goes into free-fall because it insists on destroying lives and land in at least three different nations under the guise of fighting for their freedom, the need to put one's life on the line to end those wars and the economy that creates them has never been clearer.
Unfortunately, in recent years, the number of people actually willing to do so seems to have diminished to a relative handful. Of that handful, even fewer are known outside their own circles. Even this latter group finds it difficult to be acknowledged by the greater population. Much of this inability to get publicity can be attributed to the mainstream media machine whose sole purpose is to gear the population up for the next invasion and accompanying repression of rights at home. Occasionally, however, an act so dramatic and courageous creates a situation that not even the corporate media machine can ignore it.

One of those instances occurred on September 1, 1987 outside of the Concord Naval Weapons Station (CNWS) in Concord, California.  It was on that day that military veterans Duncan Murphy, David Duncombe and S. Brian Willson sat down on some train tracks outside of CNWS as part of an attempt to block trains carrying weapons and other materials bound for Central America. In Central America, these materials were being used by the El Salvadoran military to kill revolutionaries and their civilian supporters. In Nicaragua and Honduras those materials were being used by US-funded paramilitaries and the Honduran military to destroy the popular government of Nicaragua. Protests like the one that took place that day in 1987 had been going on for weeks. The trains had always stopped before reaching any protesters on the tracks and waited for local police to arrest the protesters.

On September 1, 1987 the train did not stop. In fact, it sped up as it headed towards the three men. Two of the men were able to extricate themselves from the tracks at the last moment. Willson could not. In seconds his legs were crushed and his skull pierced. His body bounced around under the still moving train as the men driving it continued on their way back on to base property. If it had not been for the medical knowledge and quick action of Willson's fellow protesters, he would have died. Given the impact the attempt on Willson's life had in the national media, one can be fairly certain that there were those involved in waging the US wars in Central America who wished he had died.

As it turned out, Willson lost his legs, but otherwise recovered.  He was hailed as a hero by the Nicaraguan people and became something of a moral beacon for the anti-intervention movement in the United States. His memoir, Blood On the Tracks, was recently published by PM Press. The tale he tells is one that is not completely unique to Wilson, although the specifics certainly are. Born in a small town in the eastern US, he played sports in high school, went to college, went into the military and served in a war.  His particular war was Vietnam. Like most of his fellow GIs, Willson never seriously questioned or understood why he was being sent to Vietnam before he was in country. However, once he got there, the murderous contradictions began to challenge his very core. When he wondered aloud why civilians were being killed and labeled as the enemy, he was told to shut up. When he didn't shut up, his tour was shortened and his military life was essentially over. Thus began what would become his future as an antiwar activist, even though he did not know it at the time.

Willson's narrative is a deeply personal story contextualized by a growing awareness of the avaricious and murderous history of the country he always called his own. This growing awareness created a situation quite common amongst Willson's compatriots of the 1960s and 1970s—a situation best described as cognitive dissonance. In other words, everything he had been led to believe about his nation was a lie.  Furthermore, he was complicit in living and perpetrating that lie.  His (and our) complicity is so complete that even if we do nothing to support Washington's wars and Wall Street's rapaciousness, we remain complicit by the fact of our citizenship. Willson's realization is what motivated him to untangle himself from the web of complicity all US citizens are tangled in. Like so many others, his journey involved opposing the wars of his nation. Unlike so many others, it cost him part of his physical body.

S. Brian Willson doesn't just acknowledge his and our complicity; he demands that we challenge it. Even more, he demands that we work to end it.  As anyone knows, this is not an easy or necessarily desirable path.  Yet, in the moral universe of Willson, there is no alternative to certain destruction unless every US American confronts their role in maintaining the machinery of death and greed we call America. Like the revolutionary Mario Savio told a crowd at UC Berkeley in 1964, you must ""There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can't take part. You can't even passively take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop.  And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!" Blood On the Tracks is the story of one man's attempt to change the direction of that machine or, failing in that, preventing it from working at all.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs' essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch's collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available in print and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator's Tale. He can be reached at:

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The Well of Light: Book of the Month

The Well of Light (monthly e-magazine)

Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson
Book of the Month

"We are not worth more, they are not worth less." This is the mantra of S. Brian Willson and the theme that runs throughout his compelling psycho-historical memoir. Willson's story begins in small-town, rural America, where he grew up as a "Commie-hating, baseball-loving Baptist," moves through life-changing experiences in Viet Nam, Nicaragua and elsewhere, and culminates with his commitment to a localized, sustainable lifestyle.

In telling his story, Willson provides numerous examples of the types of personal, risk-taking, nonviolent actions he and others have taken in attempts to educate and effect political change: tax refusal—which requires simplification of one's lifestyle; fasting—done publicly in strategic political and/or therapeutic spiritual contexts; and obstruction tactics—strategically placing one's body in the way of "business as usual." It was such actions that thrust Brian Willson into the public eye in the mid-’80s, first as a participant in a high-profile, water-only "Veterans Fast for Life" against the Contra war being waged by his government in Nicaragua. Then, on a fateful day in September 1987, the world watched in horror as Willson was run over by a U.S. government munitions train during a nonviolent blocking action in which he expected to be removed from the tracks and arrested.

Losing his legs only strengthened Willson's identity with millions of unnamed victims of U.S. policy around the world. He provides details of his travels to countries in Latin America and the Middle East and bears witness to the harm done to poor people as well as to the environment by the steamroller of U.S. imperialism. These heart-rending accounts are offered side by side with inspirational stories of nonviolent struggle and the survival of resilient communities.

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Peace activist rides to protesters' battleground

by Greta Mart
The Martinez Gazette
July 14, 2011

To this day, Brian Willson questions why he so obediently—as an officer in the U.S. Air Force from 1966 to 1970—went “9,000 miles from home to participate in destroying people and villages who I knew nothing about.”

Willson, the veteran and peace activist who lost both of his legs below the knee after being run over by a military train at the Concord Naval Weapons Station in 1987, returned to the site of his maiming this week en route to a speaking engagement at Walnut Creek’s Mt. Diablo Peace and Justice Center.

Willson is currently traveling on a book tour, but since he renounced flying due to the destructive environmental impact of commercial jetliners, he cycles to his appointments on a hand-cranked bicycle, using his arms to propel himself.

He said he hasn’t flown in 11 years, naming the present TSA screening processes and the concurrent assault on civil liberties as a factor in his decision.

Since June 25, he has cycled 800 miles from his home in Portland, Oregon. He will go as far south as Capitola and return to his home via the Coast Starlight Amtrak train, he said in an interview Wednesday afternoon.

A supporter, Joel Finkelstein, has accompanied the 70-year-old Willson on this trip, toting behind his bike a trailer carrying tents and sleeping bags. When the duo hit Santa Rosa, they were joined by Willson’s longtime friend and fellow peace activist David Hartsough.

PM Press recently released Willson’s third book, Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson. Daniel Ellsberg, the former U.S. military analyst who released the Pentagon Papers, wrote the introduction to Willson’s book.

In an interview at the Sebastopol home of friends, Willson discussed his life journey since that fateful September day he was protesting the shipment of arms to Central America.

Nearly 25 years later, Willson continues to participate in anti-war demonstrations around the country and has broadened his focus to encompass environmental issues.

In Martinez, however, Willson is still best known for the confrontation that sparked a massive protest four days later, when an estimated 10,000 people came out in Concord to protest the Navy’s decision to treat the veterans blocking the trains as domestic terrorists. At the September 5, 1987 protest, well-known peace activists such as Joan Baez, Jesse Jackson, Alice Walker and Daniel Ellsberg joined in to bring national attention to U.S. involvement in Central America and express outrage over the train versus veteran clash.

“I saw my friend, Brian Willson, run over by a Navy train pulling two boxcars of explosives at Concord Naval Weapons Station (CNWS), the major military transshipment point for weapons on the West Coast,” said fellow activist Ken Butigan in an essay published by the Pledge of Resistance organization, describing how 2000 people had protested at the Concord Naval Weapons Station in June of 1987 and Willson had been part of a group determined to use non-violence to stop the arms shipments.

“The train plowed directly into Brian, dragging him twenty-five feet, tearing off his lower right leg, mangling his left ankle (both legs were later amputated), fracturing his skull. The train never slowed down until it stopped inside the restricted area,” 100 feet from the point of impact.

“The Navy train crew and their superiors knew in advance of our nonviolent three-member veterans’ blockade and had a clear, 650-foot view as the train approached us at high noon on a bright sunny day. Though expecting to be arrested and jailed by the nearby armed U.S. Marines and local police, we never imagined the conscious and criminal acceleration of the loaded train to more than three times its posted five-mile-an-hour legal speed limit,” Willson recalls on his website,

The former base is now shuttered and the City of Concord is in the process of redeveloping the area for commercial, residential and open space use.

“I had to go to Vietnam to get awakened,” Willson said this week. Asked why he wanted to return to the Concord Naval Weapons Station this week, Willson replied, “We’re going to remember and be glad we’re still alive.”
Those interested in attending one of Willson Bay Area engagements can find times, dates and locations at 

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Blood on the Tracks: Berkeley Daily Planet

by Gar Smith
Berkeley Daily Planet
July 12, 2011

It’s a good sign when the testimonials on the back of a 440-page autobiography include the likes of Noam Chomsky, Ed Asner and Martin Sheen. But that only hints at the praise directed at S. Brian Willson’s long-awaited memoir. The testimonials continue on the inside—for another seven pages
and include plaudits from Cindy Sheehan, William Blum, Kris Kristofferson, Norman Solomon, Peter Dale Scott, Cynthia McKinney and Country Joe McDonald.

This whopping epic (published by Oakland’s feisty PM Press) tells the story of a Vietnam-era soldier who entered the war as a red-blooded small-town recruit and emerged as a die-hard dissident, driven to expose and oppose not only warfare in general but also the US’ unique role in spreading military terror around the world.

Willson returned home to become a leading war resister—a man whose dogged determination to confront the war machine lead him to fast on the steps of the US capital and eventually cost him both legs
severed on September 1, 1987, when he was run over by an ammunitions-filled locomotive on the first day of a nonviolent protest on the railroad tracks leading to the Concord Weapons Station.

As Daniel Ellsberg notes in his powerful introduction, “Viet Nam was not a mistake any more than the Iraq War is a mistake . . . They are part of a pattern of brutality written into our country’s DNA.” Americans seem to feel that “it is our manifest destiny as exceptional people to gain ever more material goods, even at the expense of anyone and everyone else, and the earth. We continue to treat others as inferiors.”

Before embarking on his self-styled “psychohistorial memoir,” Willson lays down some grammatical ground rules. His manuscript does not refer to US citizens as “Americans” but as “US Americans” arguing that “it is presumptive and arrogant to do so, considering that the USA is but one country of many on the American continents.” Willson’s book also insists on capitalizing the phrase: American Way of Life. “As an acronym,” he explains, “it signifies being AWOL (‘absent without leave’ in military jargon) from our humanity and the natural systems of the planet that sustains us.”

Born on the Fourth of July

Like other autobiographies, Blood draws us back through the author’s childhood. The son of a rabidly conservative salesman, Willson grew up in the small-town ambiance of central New York State where he learned to revere the military and fear the “communist threat.” Like fellow vet and activist Ron Kovic, Willson was born on the Fourth of July. He was a member of his high school honor society and a standout athlete on the baseball diamond and the basketball court. His family’s John Birch/Barry Goldwater worldview suffered its first small fractures at Eastern Baptist College when he happened across a copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. He decided to abandon his plans to enter the Baptist ministry and instead enrolled to study law at the American University in Washington, DC.

Willson’s plans to become a lawyer were derailed by a draft notice that arrived in March 1966. He enlisted in the Air Force and within three months was commissioned as a second lieutenant. Willson’s depictions of combat training are revelatory. Commanded to plunge a bayonet into a dummy 100 times while screaming “Kill! Kill!” Willson’s body freezes in revulsion. “In my head I wanted to comply” he writes, “but my body stubbornly refused to cooperate . . . Much later, I came to understand that the human body has its own wisdom, one older than the thinking mind.”

Auto da Fein Viet Nam

Willson’s education continued in Viet Nam, an experience that he captures in a cavalcade of stunning, surrealistic scenes, events and encounters. Here’s just a taste: “One evening while watching pornographic movies on the patio of the officer’s club, pilots were eating steaks and drinking beer with their Vietnamese whores when the siren went off warming of potential incoming.”

In one poignant recollection, Willson writes of a rare invitation to share dinner at the home of a Vietnamese family. After the meal, the family asked to sing a “special song.” It was called “Ode to Norman Morrison” and was dedicated to a US anti-war activist who set himself afire beneath Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s Pentagon office window. In a stunning aside, Willson pauses to note that Morrison was not the only US citizen to immolate himself to protest the war. “There were at least eight others from March 1965 to May 1970, ranging from 16 to 82 years of age, including three women. Five of the immolations occurred in California.”

As an intelligence officer, Willson began to doubt the rationale of the military’s “free-fire zones,” which allowed pilots to strafe and bomb farming villages on the flimsiest of suspicions. His concerns were dismissed and he was warned not to become a “gook-loving kook.” Willson’s worst fears were confirmed when a Vietnamese lieutenant invited him along to inspect a recently bombed village in Vinh Long Province.

“I didn’t see one person standing,” Willson writes. “Most were ripped apart from bomb shrapnel and machine gun wounds, many blackened by napalm beyond recognition; the majority were obviously children. I began sobbing and gaggin . . . I took a few faltering steps to my left, only to find my way blocked by the body of a young woman lying at my feet. She had been clutching three small, partially blackened children when she apparently collapsed. I bent down for a closer look and stared, aghast, at the woman’s open eyes . . . Napalm had melted much of the woman’s face, including her eyelids, but as I focused on her face, it seem that her eyes were starring at me.”

The full horror of America’s war in Viet Nam settled deep inside Willson’s soul that day. “I could not talk about this experience for twelve years, and the thought of it still creates tremors in my body,” he confides in his book. “I often find myself crying at the thought of it, and at times feel a rage that nearly chokes me.”

A Warrior for Peace

Confessions like this make understandable his transformation into a relentless critic of US military interventions. Willson’s experience as a combat officer made him a formidable critic in the anti-war movement—and a target of covert government surveillance. Working with Veterans Against War, War Resisters League, and Veterans Fast for Life eventually took Willson (in the company of singer/actor/activist/veteran Kris Kristofferson) to Central America, where the US was waging a secret war against the revolutionary government in Nicaragua.

To Washington’s mounting anger, Willson visited hospitals to visit victims of US-backed “Contra” attacks, protested outside the US Embassy in Managua and addressed 300,000 Nicaraguans at the Plaza of the Revolution on November 8, 1986.

On his return to the US, Willson was determined to find an enhanced strategy to confront Pentagon brutality—some tactic that carried more moral force than mere words, fasting or vigils. With his friends Duncan Murphy, David Duncombe, David Hartsough and others, Willson decided to revive the historic peace vigil outside the gates of the Concord Naval Weapons Station
the major transshipment point for US weapons being sent overseas.

Showdown at the Concord Weapons Station

“After a couple of weeks of seeing so many trucks and trains pass slowly by our vigil, visibly loaded with rockets and bombs, I started ‘seeing’ bodies inside the boxcars.” It may have been latent Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, Willson reflects, but “all I knew was that the rockets and bombs we saw on flatbed railcars looked, to me, like bodies of the dead.”

This chilling vision drove Willson to envision a form of confrontational protest that was to prove even more dangerous than he could have imagined. He resolved to begin a 40-day fast that would take place on the very rails leading into the Weapons Station.

The protest was named the “Nuremberg Actions.” The vigil was intended to call attention to the fact that Washington’s Central American wars were illegal under both the US Constitution and international law. And, further, that the Nuremberg Principles
enunciated during the famous trials that held German Nazi officials to account for atrocities conducted during WWII—compel citizens to not only “refrain from participating” in illegal government acts but also to actively oppose them, even if that means breaking other laws.

The Nuremburg Action statement read in part: “Once the train carrying the munitions moves past our human blockage, if it does, other human beings in other parts of the world will be killed and maimed . . . We are not worth more. They are not worth less . . . It is worth giving our lives to save theirs.”
“We assumed we would be arrested and made plans to fast in jail as well,” Willson recalls. This was an honest assumption. Previous protests at the weapons station had all concluded with arrests and jail terms. In addition, the base had safety protocols in place that held train traffic to a slow 5 mph. Train operators were instructed to halt trains whenever there were any obstructions on the tracks (a sensible rule, given that the trains were loaded with tons of high-explosives).

The Navy Decides to Go for a Kill

But on September 1, 1987, someone in the military chain-of-command decided to play by different rules. There were early signs. For the first time, extra security (a show of armed marines wearing flak jackets and brandishing M-16s) was trotted out. One shouted out to Hartsough: “There is going to be violence today.”

The protest had been widely announced
to the base commander, to politicians and government officials, to the press. It was clearly stated: “Fasters will not move for approaching rail traffic.” The morning was sunny and clear as Willson and fellow fasters Duncan Murphy and David Duncombe took their positions on the railway track at 11:40 a.m. A weapons train was seen approaching the Weapons Station but it pulled to a stop several hundred feet away from the vigil. The protesters were clearly visible to the two men standing on the front of the engine to act as “spotters.”

Slowly the train began to move. And as it bore down on the three men, the engine began to pick up speed. Instead of 5 mph, videos of the incident revealed the train was travelling upwards of 15 mpg when it struck Willson and, at the moment of impact, it was accelerating. Duncan suffered a gashed shin but Willson, as he attempted to rise from a seating position and move off the tracks, took the full brunt of the locomotive.

Horrified onlookers watched as Willson’s body was smashed beneath the train and bounced 20 feet down the track “like a rag doll.” In the process, the train amputated both of Willson’s legs just below the knee, leaving his boots, with his severed legs and feet still inside, scattered alongside the rails. One arm was torn open and a large part of Willson’s skull was ripped away, exposing his brain.
Willson credits his wife Holly (with her training as a midwife) and former Green Beret medic Gerry Condon for stopping the bleeding and saving his life.

The military attempted to spin the story, portraying the near-murder as an “accident” but eyewitnesses and videotapes told a different story. After a long and painful recovery, Willson sued the government. In the course of the subsequent investigations, it was revealed that the train crew had been given special instructions that day to proceed without stopping. The train crew’s defense in the “Nuremberg Actions” case was ironic: They insisted they were “only following orders.”

“When the Naval command gave the order to move the train forward, the message was that the government was willing to murder us in order to protect their cargo, cars full of weapons designed to kill other people.” Like the napalmed villagers in Viet Nam, “like the eleven campesinos I saw being carried to their graves in Esteli [Nicaragua], we were in the way of empire. We had to be eliminated.”

But the War Machine was stopped that day. After running over Willson, the locomotive and its cargo of rockets and bombs braked to a halt outside the Weapons Station. And as word spread about what our government had done that day, the people of the Bay Area decided to rise up rebel against intimidation.
The next day, as Willson remained unconscious in a hospital bed recovering from multiple surgeries, thousands of nonviolent activists—including Joan Baez—descended on the Weapons Station. They chanted and sang and then they rolled up their sleeves and began tearing up the tracks that had been used to carry US-made bombs, rockets and ammunition to waiting ships. Inspired by Willson’s sacrifice, the people united and actually stopped the Pentagon’s War Machine.

The story of Willson’s near-death experience only takes us to the middle of this detailed (536 footnotes!) and fascinating autobiography. The middle of the book also offers a special treasure—a 60-page book-within-a-book filled with a stunning collection of photos that recapitulate the author’s amazing life and travels.

A Man in Motion

S. Brian Willson continues to be a man in motion. Four months after being crushed beneath a speeding locomotive, Willson was back on his (new, prosthetic) feet, participating in an anti-war protest on the steps of the US Capitol with Dan Ellsberg, Ed Asner and others. He soon resumed a full campaign of agitating, actively waging peace with fact-finding trips to Central America, Palestine, Iraq, Panama City, El Salvador, Cuba, and Haiti.

These days, however, Brian has stopped flying. He refuses to promote polluting forms of travel that stoke climate change. He has designed and built his own sustainable home, powered by solar panels. He has replaced the engine on his 1984 Chevy pickup truck with an electric motor.

S. Brian Willson is currently embarked on a “carbon-free” book tour to promote Blood on the Tracks. You won’t have any problem spotting Brian out on the highway. He’ll be the one traveling down the road in an “arm-powered handcycle” beneath a whip-pole flying the flag of Veterans for Peace.

Local Book Tour Appearances:  

Wednesday, July 13
7:00 PM -- 8:30 PM

Mt. Diablo Peace & Justice Center
55 Eckley Lane
Walnut Creek, CA
Thursday, July 14
7:00 PM -- 9:30 PM

CommunityChurch of Sebastopol
1000 Gravenstein Hwy N.
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Friday, July 15
7:30 PM -- 9:30 PM

First United Methodist Church
9 Ross Valley Dr
San Rafael, CA 94901
Sunday, July 17
Noon -- 1:30. First Unitarian Church
1187 Franklin Street (at Geary)
San Francisco, CA
Monday, July 18
6:00 PM -- 9:30 PM

Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists
1924 Cedar St
Berkeley, CA 94709By Paul Thissen
with contributions from Lou Fancher

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Soccer vs. the State in The Independent (UK)

By Simon Redfern
The Independent (UK)

August 7, 2011

The idea of football as "the people's game" has taken a battering in recent years, as at the top level in England and elsewhere it increasingly resembles the "rich man's plaything" or "highly leveraged foreign owners" game.

Soccer vs the State does a useful service by reminding us that since football was codified by public school amateurs in the 19th Century, then run by capitalist club owners after the advent of professionalism, it has rarely belonged to the people except in an emotional sense.

This collection of essays by various hands seems a daunting rag-bag of radical ideas at first glance but, helped by deft linking commentaries from Gabriel Kuhn, a common theme soon emerges: fans worldwide have a duty to fight attempts by government and big business to control football for their own ends. A few entries verge on self-parody—Wally Rosell's The Pass and Albert Camus claims: "The act of passing is the antipode of a nihilist or Stakhanovist act; it is a creative act"— but there is plenty of thought-provoking history too. For those who associate the ultra movement with hooligan right-wing fans of the likes of Lazio and Internazionale, it's instructive to learn there are plenty of ultras worldwide who combine a passionate love of their clubs with an abhorrence of both violence and fascism. And the example of the Italian international Cristiano Lucarelli, who took a £450,000-a-year pay cut to play for the side he had always supported—"Some players buy a Ferrari or a yacht. I bought myself a Livorno shirt" —is a welcome antidote to the cynical badge-kissers who pack their bags the minute a better offer comes along. Will this book change anything? Probably not, but it's full of original ideas about what could and should be changed.

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Grassroots Solutions to American Crises: From Collapse to Action

By Benjamin Dangl
Toward Freedom
July 7th, 2011

Reviewed: Crossing the American Crises: From Collapse To Action, A Documentary Film by Sílvia Leindecker and Michael Fox. Published by PM Press/Estreito Meios Productions.

When the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression hit the US on September 15, 2008, filmmakers Sílvia Leindecker and Michael Fox began a journey across the country to see how the economy was impacting people’s lives. Their interviews, which span two years and nearly 40 states, draw from farmers, truck drivers, homeless people, workers, immigrants and more. The result is the documentary Crossing the American Crises: From Collapse To Action, a film full of desperation, hope and grassroots solutions.

Leindecker and Fox are the makers of the earlier documentary Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas, and Fox was an editor of the book Venezuela Speaks!: Voices From The Grassroots. Like these earlier works, Crossing the American Crises highlights the voices of people participating in grassroots activism and everyday struggles for a better world.

The first stop of their trip is Detroit, where the camera cuts to empty store fronts and factories. “Detroit is what it is because of industry and the industrial revolution, and capitalism, and so-called democracy and how all those failed. And this is what we have left with it,” Jon Blount of the activist collective Detroit Summer tells Leindecker and Fox. Such bits of hard-won insight from streets, factory floors and living rooms across America are interspersed throughout the film.

The next visit is to the Rosebud Lakota Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where they speak with Alfred Bone Shirt. “We’re seeing that there’s a segment of our society that feel we’re left out, neglected, abused; rights are violated. We’re in a depression down here so bad that people just wanna give up.” His words are underscored by footage of the reservation itself, a place crushed by economic depression.

After stops in Utah, Oakland and Los Angeles, they head out onto Route 66, where, Fox tells the camera they want to “see the direct effects on the local community.” And indeed, that is what they find at nearly every stop in their tour; very real life stories of how the US economy is making life difficult for people from coast to coast and everywhere in between.

In New Orleans, they speak with people in the Lower 9th Ward, a neighborhood that was destroyed by Katrina in 2005. Robert Green and his family lived in this community for 38 years before Katrina hit, and at the time of the shooting of the film they were still living in a FEMA trailer. Green is interviewed with his daughter and wife next to a string of empty lots—places where his neighbors’ homes used to be located before the storm destroyed them.

Fox asks Green what he thinks about the government bailout, the major issue of the day. Green tells him, “It’s ironic that it only took [the government] two weeks to issue a $700 billion check. It took them three years after Katrina and this is what you see.” He pointed to the empty lots, saying the names of the families that used to live there. “So basically every house, every family that’s gone actually was a family that should be here now. And if they would have been given the money in two weeks like the way they did in Congress, the way they did in Wall Street, then every last one of these families would have rebuilt their houses, and this whole Gulf Coast area would have been rebuilt because everybody in the Gulf Coast is basically like the people down here: family first.”

This story conveys a sentiment shared by many of the interviewees in this film: outrage at the disparity between the government’s concern for Wall Street over the people bearing the everyday grind of the crisis.

Crossing the American Crises then turns to the hope people felt in the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Yet after the election, the camera cuts to a stream of grim economic news, and stories of people struggling to make ends meet. One college graduate appearing in the film went through 109 job interviews before finally finding a very low-paying position at Staples. A homeless man on the Gulf Coast tells Fox and Leindeker he’ll ask them for money after the interview so he can get some lunch.

On a cold, snowy street corner in New York City, they interview John Lambertus, a homeless man who lost his job in May of 2008 and couldn’t find new work. Lambertus points to a plastic bag he’s carrying, saying, “You see this? This is my blanket, another jacket in case this one gets messed up, and another pair of pants—and that’s my situation.” He worked in a printing press for thirty years before losing his job. “I’ll be 51 in April and I’m in the street,” he says, the cold wind thundering against the microphone.

So what is to be done with all of this bleak news from the American crises? That leads to the second part of the film: Action. Crossing the American Crises goes on to include many solutions to these economic and social problems, focusing on inspiring stories of grassroots alternatives and responses.

There is the Vermont Workers’ Center fighting for affordable healthcare for all, the Green Worker Cooperative in the Bronx that sells recycled building materials, the Santa Fe Alliance in New Mexico advocating for local producers and businesses over tax-dodging multinational chains, and the Iraq Veterans Against the War struggling for veterans’ benefits. There are stories of people working for affordable housing, jobs, better working conditions, improved public transportation and prison justice.

These groups are largely led by the people who are impacted the most by these various crises. Organizers are meeting these challenges in states across the country. “Organizing is the key! Organizing is the key!” JoAnn Watson from the Detroit Council tells a boisterous crowd at the US Social Forum in her city.

Alongside these stories of hopeful organizing is a vision for a better world. “The people have to act through their own organizations to implement their vision of what life should be like,” explains Kathleeen Cleaver, a law professor at Yale University.

That’s a central message of this film – that when the politicians, banks, bosses and economy fail to work for the people, it’s the people that have to form the backbone of movements for economic justice, peace and equality and rights. In the midst of these crises, those movements are already thriving across the US today.

As Robert Green from the Lower 9th Ward says, “Basically, we need to start taking back our government, taking back our taxes, start taking back our control from our elected officials because they’re not putting us first.”

Such insight from people across the country makes Crossing the American Crises an impressive film that captures the spirit of America today. Its stories of human hardship, solidarity and hope paint a portrait of America that is both heart-breaking and inspiring. This documentary is a powerful reminder of the countless social movements working each day to transform this country, from the fields of Oklahoma to the streets of New Orleans.


Benjamin Dangl is the author of the new book Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America (AK Press). He edits, a progressive perspective on world events, and, a website on activism and politics in Latin America. Email Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com.


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Anarchism and Education in Anarchist Studies

By Abraham DeLeon
University of Texas at San Antonio
Anarchist Studies 19, no. 1 (2011), pg. 107-109

Anarchist theory. The words alone are enough to strike fear in most that hear them, making anarchism often maligned and misunderstood. In education, radical theories have been centered in Marxism in the works of scholars like Paulo Freire and Peter McLaren. Interestingly, anarchism has been heavily invested with educational projects globally but has not been sufficiently theorized in the educational context.

Luckily, Judith Suissa explores what she calls a "social anarchist" engagement with anarchist theory and education. Originally published in 2006 (Routledge), this second edition has now been published by PM Press. There has been recent work since its initial publication, which should have been covered in a more thorough introduction that places the book within its historical conjuncture (see, for example, Antliff, 2007; DeLeon, 2008). Despite this, the book produces a critical and informative narrative about what social anarchism can mean for education. Suissa highlights five important claims that can be gleaned from the social anarchist literature: mutualism, federalism, collectivism, communism and syndicalism. It is through these that I will position this book and its implications.

Mutualism is an important feature of social anarchist thought, and supports the  notion that "society should be organized not on the basis of a hierarchical, centralist, top-down structure such as the state, but on the basis of reciprocal voluntary agreements between individuals" (p.11). Cooperation and the ideal of mutual community building lies at the heart of many anarchist projects, especially when we
think about the role(s) that anarchists envision education to assume. According to Suissa, it can be the role of education to "systematically promote and emphasize cooperation, solidarity, and mutual aid," which will "undermine the values underlying the capitalist state’ (p.32). Suissa speaks to several historical examples, specifically an excellent treatment of the Escuela Modernaproject of Francisco Ferrer in Spain (p.80).

She also points to anarchist conceptions of federalism. This is envisioned as a loosely organized series of communities and networked through councils
"established spontaneously to meet specific economic or organizational needs of the communities; they would have no central authority, no permanent bureaucratic structure, and their delegates would have no executive authority" (p.12). Federalism
is an important concept in social anarchist thought because it eschews not only hierarchical State structures, but also positions anarchist communities to experiment with direct forms of self-governance. In the United States for example, an intense process of enculturation and coercion occurs at public schools that celebrate individual gains and standardization over collective forms of social organization.
Because of this, anarchists continually maintain the "need for an ongoing educitional process" (p.38).

Collectivism and communism are integral to this process, and anarchists understand that the way(s) in which subjects are constructed occurs through complex forms of social reproduction. This puts education at the centre of many anarchist political projects because they understand the need to cultivate and encourage cooperation and community (p.66). This also matches with the anarchist conception of syndicalism, or unions, "as the ultimate expression of the working class," and should comprise "the basic unity of social reorganization" (p.14). This is because social anarchists are concerned with "the concrete aspects of social justice, distribution of goods, and the material well being of the community," and are "always at the forefront of educational thought and practice" (p.109).

Ultimately, this last point is what makes Suissa’s project unique and important because she recognizes the anarchist desire to challenge coercive relationships of power through education. "One can begin this process . . . on the smallest possible scale, by challenging dominant values and encouraging the human
propensity for mutual aid, cooperation and self-governance" (p.118). Although some may be sceptical at what anarchist theory can offer those in education, Suissa’s book is a valuable reminder of the importance of this work, and the possibilities that education can offer anarchists and other radicals working towards social change.


Allan Antliff, "Breaking Free: Anarchist Pedagogy" in Mark Coté, Richard Day & Greig de Peuter (eds.), Utopian Pedagogy: Radical Experiments against Neoliberal Globalization (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), pp.248-65.

Abraham DeLeon, "Oh no, not the 'A' word! Proposing an 'anarchism' for education." Educational Studies 44, no. 2 (2008), pp.122-41.

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Profits of Doom: Spectres of Capitalist Crisis

By Bryan D Palmer
Spring 2011, Iss. 67; pg. 189, 14 pgs 

Global Capitalism in Crisis: Karl Marx and the Decay of the Profit System (Halifax and Winnipeg: Femwood 2010)  

Albo, Greg, Sam Gindin, and Leo Panitch, In and Out of Crisis: The Global Financial Meltdown and Left Alternatives (Oakland, California: PM Press/Halifax and Winnipeg: Femwood 2010)  

Michael A. Lebowitz, The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development (New York: Monthly Review Press 2010)  

"A SPECTRE IS HAUNTING EUROPE," wrote Marx and Engels in 1848, "the spectre of Communism." A century and a half later the spectre, according to much conservative ballyhoo, had been vanquished. In 1989, as the Berlin Wall fell and "actually existing socialism" imploded throughout the Soviet Bloc, Francis Fukuyama declared "the end of history."  

This premature triumphalism celebrated what seemed the ultimate victory of the American Empire over its Cold War superpower rival, the Soviet Union. Liberal capitalism had finally, after decades of nuclear arms stockpiling, Sputnik space races, and routinized skirmishing over battlegrounds such as Cuba, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and the Middle East, won its war with what passed in many circles for communism. History, as it had been known for much of the 20th century, had been transcended. The good life was now assured. Or so went the story, and many were sticking to it.  

The good was not to come without the bad. In less than two decades, and with no evil enemy of totalitarian communism to point the finger of blame at menacingly, capitalism ascendant was reduced to capitalism in crisis. From 1990 to 2007, the free market world was rocked by crisis after crisis. In 1994 1995 the Peso Crisis in Mexico necessitated a $50 billion bailout involving the International Monetary Fund, the United States government, and the Bank of Canada. The collapse of the Asian Tigers in 1997-1998 saw Far East currencies plummet in value by 25 per cent on a single day. In the United States, and 9/11-induced stock market crashes devalued Wall Street portfolios dramatically in 2000-2001. But it was the subprime mortgage meltdown of the summer of 2007 that registered with unambiguous finality that capitalism was indeed in crisis mode. It cut a swath of foreclosures, plummeting stock prices, unemployment, and corporate bankruptcies through capitalism's hedged ideological façade. In its aftermath capitalism had, for a brief moment, an exceedingly bad press: sordid tales of corruption and greed circulated through the media; brazen multi-millionaire ceo's became the bad boys of the hour, their arrogance and assumptions of limitless entitlement offending populist sensibilities.  

This latter crisis, the reverberations of which continue to this day, forced the hand of the United States government. For decades the reigning capitalist ideology had assailed 'big government' intervention in the sacrosanct market, although, of course, the American state had been wielding its influence in decisive ways, not only domestically, but also around the world. The free market, however, had clearly failed. It needed a massive infusion of cash, as both Republicans and Democrats agreed. Failing financial institutions by the dozens and bankrupt private sector giants such as General Motors became suddenly dependent on an unprecedented US taxpayer-funded bailout. Not only was Wall Street given a reprieve and Detroit brought back from the brink, the United States Federal Reserve shored up banking systems around the world. As went the US, so went Canada: Oshawa's automobile industry (and retired workers' pensions) was saved by Ottawa and Queen's Park.  

We live in the shadow of this 2007 meltdown. The spring 2010 collapse of the economy of Greece, and the likelihood of similar European Union catastrophes in Spain, Portugal, and Italy are reminders of this. They may seem far away, but in our current world economic village, the fall of a European economy cannot but be felt immediately on all the planet's continents, however varied their Main Streets. In the global south, where levels of poverty have been so high for so long that the press of these cumulative crises merely seems to lower trend lines, bailouts and the buying up of bad debt are neither perceived to be necessary nor likely to be forthcoming. For these are the social settings that have nurtured rare voices of socialist-like resistance of late, even bringing to power regimes that speak ill of the capitalist devil itself, the United States.  

Ironically enough, it has been China that has perhaps sustained the international capitalist order in this most recent dead-ending. An economy neither socialist nor capitalist, China's emergence out of its Stalinist, peasant-based recent past has charted authoritarian inroads into global markets at the same time as it has exercised a tight state-planning grip on domestic productive relations as well as its institutions of financial management. The result: China has become an island of ordered accumulation in the sea of capitalist crisis and disaccumulation. It now holds massive reserves of US debt/dollars.  

Had Mao's successors actually wanted to bury American (and global) capitalism, as Khruschev reportedly threatened in 1956 (his actual words were less bellicose: "Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will dig you in"), China is certainly in a position to do so. In following such a course, however, China would dig its own grave as well. In this sense, something of history has come to an end. The dynamics of class war, globally and domestically, seem rather emasculated in the age of capitalist crisis; the absence of anything approximating a 'socialist' superpower undoubtedly contributes to this quietude.  

The result, however, is hardly enhanced civilization. Nor is it etched timelessly in stone. A new spectre haunts. As three recent books, all written by socialist political economists, proclaim, the spectre haunting the globe in 2010 is capitalist crisis. In its wake flow all manner of barbarisms: ecological disaster, lowered standards of living, and generalized disenchantment and despair. The more you beat old Marx down, it seems, the more resiliently his reminders of the human costs of capitalism as a system of profit-taking pop back up. And so the spectre of socialism reappears.  

Why have Canadians, or displaced Americans who took up residence for much of their lives in Canada, produced books with titles such as In and Out of Crisis: The Global Financial Meltdown and Left Alternatives, Global Capitalism in Crisis: Karl Marx and the Decay of the Profit System, and The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development. It is not entirely accidental.  

Canada offers a 'softer' more social-democratic-influenced capitalism than has generally been on order south of the border. On the one hand, its universal programs, especially health care but in a muted way a relatively accessible higher education system, and its less bellicose presence on the stage of world politics, free left activists from many of the limitations inherent in United States politics. Framed, on the one hand, by a more embedded McCarthyite far right, now decked out in religious fundamentalism and the populist revival of Paul Revere Rides Again 'tea partyism' and, on the other, by capitalist privatization as the cornerstone of patriotism's always looming edifice, the American body politic is one of muscles everywhere flexed against anything smacking of socialism. In Canada we cannot quite escape the mediations of socialist-like traditions that seem, even to those who worship at the altar of market society, quite sensible. Tea-bagging rants aren't quite in vogue in Canada.  

The fact that Canada's trade union movement seemed in slightly better odour than its counterpart in the United States, and that it contained pockets of vibrant, left-leaning elements throughout the period from the 1970s to the 1990s, in conjunction with the political presence in Canada of the New Democratic Party's reformist pseudo-socialism meant that all of these authors intersected with radical alternatives outside of academic life. They did so in ways that were unlikely to be routinely replicated in the United States. Sam Gindin, for instance, was for many years research director of the powerful Canadian section of the United Automobile Workers Union and, after the establishment of an autonomous caw, Gindin served as the union's chief economist and presidential advisor. Mike Lebowitz and Leo Panitch were part of the brains trust of ndp governments in power, even if, in Panitch's case, the experience was rather brief. This ostensible Canadian openness conditioned certain 'dark,' albeit valuable, insights. The spaces for political activism in the electoral, legislative, and trade union arenas, for instance, offered eye-opening direct contact with the constipated nature of social democracy and trade union officialdom. Lebowitz refers to his days as an author of ndp policies as "an education into the limits of social democracy" in the preface to his book. (9) This meant that Marx, rather than Bob Rae or Bob White, spoke to these left intellectuals in truly lasting ways, doing so through an institutionally embedded and relentlessly materialized Canadian political economy tradition. Canadian leftists, reared on this diet of experience and reflection, are perhaps not quite as likely as their American counterparts to swallow the 'lesser of two evils' arguments that have sucked so many progressives south of the 49th parallel into embracing all manner of Democratic Party hopefuls, Barack Obama being only the last and most hyped of a long list. None of this, finally, translates into a narrow Canadian nationalism, for these authors all write as pronounced internationalists, concerned with humanity's widest vistas.  

What, then, do these books tell us about the current crisis of capitalism? What do they suggest about history's recent one-sided lurching from bad to worse, and how change can be effected in the interests of human development?  

At the most general level the positions staked out by these left critics of capitalism are congruent. All see the capitalist order as a global system of accumulation, in which profits are privileged over human development. They are like-minded in their condemnation of the wasteful and destructive character of capitalism. These books won't bend the knee to arguments about the inevitable good of the invisible hand of the market guiding humanity towards ever better futures. Events like the bp oil 'spill' that has decimated a huge expanse of the Gulf of Mexico and its coastline are not so much accidents as they are inevitable catastrophes. That millions die of starvation in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, when the world's resources are more than able to provide the sustenance required for all of the globe's people is not, for these authors, the result of unfortunate contingencies of nature. Death follows in profit's global footprint. Finally, all of these radical political economists would also agree that only mobilizations of the dispossessed, led by the multifaceted global working class, can effectively put an end to capitalism as the systemic suppression of human need through the elevation of money as the final arbiter of all worth.  

It is at the point that these authors differ that they become, in some ways, more interesting. For it is there that they illuminate, even for those opposed to their analysis, important tensions in the current critique of capitalism, illuminating the profit system's intricacies.  

Murray E. G. Smith is arguably the most orthodox of this anti-capitalist lot. He provides a rigorous accounting of Marx's argument that capitalism is always going to be governed by the economic law of the rate of profit to fall. This is not some philosophical abstraction. Rather it goes to the heart of why socialists believe that capitalism must be struggled against. If the rate of profit was not bound to fall, but could continue in an ever upward rise, it might be argued that capitalism could probably accommodate its wage earners and all other components of oppressed humanity. Even acknowledging that capitalist inequality was bound to create a vast separation of the wealthy few and the poorer many, as long as profit rates climbed and climbed, the large crumbs from capital's table could well provide all of life's necessities and ample amenities for the world's people. It would simply be a matter of distribution.  

Capitalism, however, cannot function in this way because it has historically been wracked by profitability crises. These are not, as Smith argues, episodic blips on the socio-economic radar screen. Rather, they are necessary outcomes of a system that cannot avoid overproduction that satiates markets that are themselves constrained by the consuming capacity of producers who are constantly being displaced by technological innovations and other enterprising capitalist undertakings. Even the truly rich cannot buy everything, try as they might; there are too few of them. In different historical periods and in different kinds of societies, this basic dilemma has manifested itself in countless complex ways. At the root of the problem is profit, which drives all considerations of capital, regardless of the particularities of countries and the individuality of entrepreneurs.  

In capitalism's history, the imperialist conquest of colonies, which brought to capital new markets, new sources of cheap labour, and new riches and resources, was one answer to the falling rate of profit. The resulting colonization balkanized the globe, ravaged indigenous peoples whose cultures and political economies were subordinated to advanced technologies they were unable to resist decisively, and set the stage for world war in the 20th century. War, in turn, also shored up the falling rate of profit, for it came to be waged in ways increasingly dependent on a military-industrial complex. This fusion of capital and the state in a 'productive' commitment to armaments buttressed capitalism at a time when it was pushed to expend vast sums, through the development of the Keynesian welfare state, to improve the standard of living of workers and others. You could not wage constant war against the dreaded communist monolith and not make some kind of effort to materially and ideologically keep capitalism's labouring masses and underemployed reserve army on side. The post-World War II years saw working-class consumption enhanced by the high wages and benefits of unionized industrial jobs. By the mid-1970s, however, this social edifice could not be sustained, as capitalism faced yet another profitability crisis. As profits fell, production slipped into a malaise that slowed the income flow into state coffers, which could no longer foot the bills needed to fund 'great' and 'just' societies.  

With the Cold War winding down, and the defeat in Vietnam something of a jolt of shock therapy for the most hawkish elements in the military-industrial complex, a new war had to be waged on the 'high costs' of labour. Restraint became the new watchword. The United States began to act, in concert with other western capitalist nation states, to extend the disciplining structures of the war on the working class around the globe. Neo-liberalism has come to be the shorthand designation of this project, which grew directly out of the profitability crisis of the 1970s.  

Waged on two levels, this war struck most aggressively on the ideological front, where the claim was made that markets must govern, that states must subordinate themselves to minimalist intrusions, and that all fetters on the production and exchange of commodities must be eradicated, giving capital free reign, and allowing the rate of profit to reach, once again, acceptable levels. Free trade became the mantra of neo-liberal globalization, which was, in an age of antagonism to regulation, increasingly monitored by powerful combinations of nation states, brought together in bodies like the US-led G-8.  

The rise of the G-8, and its expansion to the G-20, indicated how behind the scenes of the crude market ideology of the moment, neo-liberalism's war was also waged on a second, more material, front. Capitalist restructuring on a global scale was facilitated by a host of new and reinvigorated institutions. Against the simplistic utterances of the free marketers, for instance, regulatory organizations like the International Monetary Fund expanded in importance and took on increasing salience. Their policies controlled and altered national agendas, dictated monetary policy, and, increasingly, ordered the political economies of smaller, subservient states dependent on the notso-invisible hand of United States economic power. Precisely because trade, exchange, credit, and institutions that enhanced and managed capital's globalized need for liquidity were central to North American and European capital's new vision that its profitability crisis could be overcome by shifting production to Asia, capitalism underwent a profound "financialization," a process that necessarily entailed integration of capital and the state. Whereas in the early 1980s the financial sector in US capitalism accounted for roughly ten per cent of total profits, by 2007 this figure had soared to 40 per cent.  

Smith tends to follow orthodox Marxist understandings, which emerged in the 19th century, of the leading role of productive capital, and he finds current fixation on financialization unsatisfactory precisely because it deflects attention from the irrationality of capitalism and the inevitability of the rate of profit to fall. It tends to concentrate criticism of the current crisis, not on capitalism's inevitable generation of crises, but on the greed and corruption of individual capitalists instead, or on the banks, a target everyone likes to strike out at. In this reading capitalism is not bad: certain capitalists behave outrageously; some kinds of capital are unwholesome. He is undoubtedly reacting to outcry against financial magnates and what might be called fictive capital, an example of which would be the wildly irresponsible actions of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, government-backed but privately run agencies that managed to either own or guarantee some 56 per cent of single family mortgages in the United States, controlling almost $5.5 trillion of the total $12 trillion American mortgage debt. When the house of cards that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had built by shuffling the deck of financial exposure threatened to tumble down in escalating mortgage defaults, this helped kick-start the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007-2009.  

To be sure, the financialization of the economy must be understood not as something uniquely responsible for the 2007 meltdown, but rather as an outcome of general capitalist development. In conjunction with globalization and a disciplining of industrial workers in the advanced capitalist economies of the west, with which the rise of financialization was associated, this new capitalist trajectory succeeded in restoring profitability. But this 'success' had a very limited chronology, and financialization's metaphorical 'seven years of plenty' relied on methods of super- accumulation that could hardly be squared with what some have called 'the Protestant ethic' of capitalism's origins. It is in excavating the particularities of financialization that Albo, Gindin, and Panitch offer illuminating and detailed comment on the current meltdown.  

In and Out of Crisis insists that neither individual nation states nor their role as regulators of markets have disappeared in the age of neo-liberal globalization. It also argues that orthodox Marxist understandings of a binary opposition separating financial/fictive and productive capital are overdrawn, and that the financialization of capitalism in the last third of the 20th century was fundamental to the new terrain of capitalism. They agree with Smith that capitalist crises are inevitable, but they are far more insistent that each crisis must be analyzed rigorously on its own terms. "The interesting political questions," they write, "relate to not only why crises occur under capitalism, but also as to what makes each crisis distinct." (39)

Because Albo, Gindin, and Panitch reject notions that finance capital is subordinate to productive capital, seeing it as far more than parasitic, they are able to show that just because American capital has undergone a financialization, this does not necessarily mean that United States capitalism has suffered a weakening of its position internationally. On the contrary, they suggest the opposite: its advancing financialization situates American capitalism as the world leader, a state preeminent among all others. As much as the US dollar has declined, no rival currency can displace it on the stage of money's truly global power.  

What brought American - and global - capitalism to its current meltdown? Albo, Gindin, and Panitch locate the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007 in the contradictory outcome of the war against labour that originated in the 1970s profitability crisis, although they do not frame their analysis within this kind of referencing. But they are adamant, and rightly so, that capital has won a recent war against the trade unions in particular and workers in general, driving labour into retreat. In winning the battle, capital deepened its inevitable future crisis, for a working class driven down cannot help to float rising profit rates, dependent as profitability is on extending, not curtailing, consumption.  

As early as 1975 the tide had turned against United States and Canadian workers. Canada proved something of a pace-setter. British Columbia's ndp government reined in the powerful provincial International Woodworkers of America, legislating 60,000 iwa members back to work. The claim was that this was necessary because capital was waging a strike against the industry, its workers, and their ostensibly sympathetic social-democratic state. What better way to empathize with workers than to order them to down pickets and get back on the job! At the national level, Trudeau, in a haughty display of bourgeois 'statesmanship/ implemented wage-and-price controls. The controls were stringently applied to workers' paycheques, but were rather loose and ineffective in their constraint of prices. Canadian labour responded with a one-day General Strike, which struck some radicals as a contradiction in terms. Even this symbolic protest was more than would be forthcoming from the US unions. By 1979-80, the concessions squeezed by the Jimmy Carter administration from the powerful United Automobile Workers set a tone of concession bargaining that would continue throughout the next decades. This was heralded as the necessary price exacted in the name of keeping Chrysler afloat as bankruptcy threatened. In 1981, with a New Right changing of the guard in the White House, Ronald Reagan declared official war on organized labour, firing striking air traffic controllers.  

Unions were disciplined out of existence as the state jettisoned mechanisms of institutionalized recognition and protection of the labour movement's essentials of existence, won through class struggle in the 1940s: collective bargaining procedures and the freedom of association that legally guaranteed trade union survival. 'Right to work' states and the exporting of jobs to Brazil, Taiwan, and South Korea were nails in the coffin of North American unionism, which suffered serious declines in membership. Wages - union and non-union - fell, inflation eroded real earnings, and families, pressured to keep up levels of expected consumption, extended the working hours needed to maintain domestic economies.  

In this climate, profits necessarily rose, and this leads Albo, Gindin, and Panitch to conclude that the meltdown of 2007-2009 was not the product of "any sharp profit decline or collapse in investment." It was, rather, "rooted in the dynamics of finance." (42) True enough, on one level. What this approach may be missing, however, is the forest of capitalist trajectory amidst the trees of financialization. To say that the bonanza profit-taking leading up to 2006-2007 was inherently unstable has, retrospectively, been established as understatement. The rate of profit, soaring in 2006, was overdue for a fall, pregnant as it was with malignancies. For all that the financialization particularities of the 2007 collapse are intriguing, as Albo, Gindin, and Panitch suggest, the true significance of the crash should not be obscured: record profits in the increasingly important financial sector were on the cusp of a necessary and dramatic decline. The meltdown that commenced in the summer of 2007 fits neatly into an analytic paradigm that stresses the inevitability of the rate of profit to fall.  

The housing bubble proved more than one shaky cornerstone of the financedriven restoration of profit in the early 21st century. The subprime mortgage meltdown revealed dramatically that how capitalism resolves its inherent crises leads only to further crises. Profit rates revived in the post-1980 years only by decimating the well-paid industrial jobs that had fuelled the consumption-paced largesse of the post-World War II years. Asian production, its wheels greased by western capitalist financial institutions, boomed, while in Michigan, Ohio, and Ontario plants closed. Once-unionized factories shut down in Etobicoke, reopening in non-union Napanee, Mexico, or the Philippines. Public sector workers, whose jobs could not be exported, found themselves confronted by states whose new purpose was to gut their collective agreements, cap their wages, and trim their sails in what came to be known as 'downsizing.'  

What allowed working-class families to keep a toehold on the American (and Canadian) dream in this war fought relentlessly against them was that as much as they lived within the daily erosion of their wages, hours, and working conditions, the single largest equity held by such families continued to rise in value. Housing prices in the United States rose faster than at any previous time in history. Median real home prices grew from roughly $170,000 to almost $280,000 between 2000 and 2006. The bubble-inflating housing market allowed workers an ideologically convenient illusion that they were doing well as their real take-home pay stagnated and then fell from 1999 to 2005. When pressing material need demanded an infusion of hard cash, these 'home owners' altered domestic strategies, their children living with parents longer and contributing to the household finances. If this was not enough, or was not an option, some, especially in the United States, turned to second and third mortgages, easily on offer from a variety of financial institutions buoyed by the 'certainty' that housing was as good, or better, than gold. From the large, internationally connected New York investment banks on down to basement-dealing, derivative-packaging hucksters, mortgages were sold, resold, and stepped-on like a cocaine package making its way from Mexico to the crack houses of Brooklyn. And precisely because of financialization's global reach, the mortgage maze soon extended into the books of European, Asian, and other international capitalist institutions. As Albo, Gindin, and Panitch argue, "The worlds of high and low finance had never been so closely interconnected than in this volatile mix of global capital movements, insecurity and poverty." (58)  

This was what pushed the global rate of profit upwards in the years leading to 2006-2007. But in this final point of reckoning, capitalism's resourcefulness began to exhibit signs of strain. As more and more working-class families availed themselves of the cash of second and other mortgages, interest rates began to climb. Particularly at the most insecure margins of the subprime mortgage rate industry, the increase might double or triple the percentage exacted over the course of a single year. Delinquency rates in this sector began to increase, 4.4 per cent in 2006, and a whopping 16.7 per cent in 2007. The smart money began to flee the mortgage market, aware that the bubble was bursting. Defaults increased, and panic spread as the poorest victims of this bursting bubble became destitute and homeless and the banks turned the credit taps off completely. The mammoth financial conglomerate, Citigroup, saw its Wall Street share price plummet 60 per cent. Capitalism, riding high in 2006, was in crisis, again, in 2007. The superprofits of one year evaporated as deficit dominated the financial ledgers twelve months later.  

Even if the undeniable and historically entrenched conservatism of the Canadian banking/mortgage systems insulated workers and others north of the 49th parallel from the worst of this bursting housing bubble, the situation differs only in degree. Canadians, too, face an ongoing, and worsening, crisis in the housing market. Falling mortgage rates have enticed many into purchasing homes that are beyond their precarious means, with relatively high-wage employment more and more an elusive likelihood in an economy hard-hit by capitalist globalization's deindustrialization. Yet with mortgage rates so enticingly modest, and the ideology of rising house prices so robust, the inflated prices fueling speculative profits and developers' windfalls seem affordable. The Canadian Association of Mortgage Professionals reported in 2010 that about 375,000 homeowners were cutting back on their spending in a variety of other areas in order to sustain their overvalued domiciles, private ownership being possible only because of low-rate mortgages. If mortgage rates were to ease up to slightly over 5 per cent, which is inevitable, a further 475,000 homeowners would be forced into similar cutbacks on everyday expenditures. Historically unprecedented levels of personal debt thus combine with this overreliance on home ownership sustained by low, but inevitably rising, interest rates to produce a situation in which the working poor and even those still hanging onto the declining numbers of high wage jobs in the Fordist sector, are exposed to the vagaries of the financial marketplace, exceedingly vulnerable to any future shocks to the system. The demise of high-paying, unionized, industrial jobs in the sphere of productive capital means that when the financial sector experiences turmoil, as it must, the human fallout will be devastating. Even conservative estimates suggest that 7.5 per cent of Canadian households will be financially compromised by mid-2012 if the level of individual borrowing continues at its present pace and interest rates rise.1  

The crises will continue as long as capitalism does. For all the misery inflicted by them, however, a sober assessment of the current situation suggests that the prospects of burying capitalism and ending its cycle of crises are a long way off. AU of these books have been written to bring a socialist day of reckoning closer. The spectre of socialism, they agree, follows logically from the spectre of capitalist crisis. If socialism is to be more than a haunting threat, however, it must be built, if not reinvented.  

In this light Smith provides exemplary reminders that there is indeed much in the traditional arsenal of Marxist revolutionary practice, developed in the 20th century by Lenin and Trotsky, that can be utilized. He rightly chastizes leftists who would dismiss, crudely and curtly, the ostensible sectarianism of the revolutionary left in what amounts to yet more sectarianism. Albo, Gindin, and Panitch, less orthodox than Smith, nonetheless accent the ways in which all alternatives must begin with people's material needs and can be developed only in so far as popular capacities to "act independently of the logic of capitalism" are encouraged and extended. (127) Whatever their separations, and they are significant and many, Smith, Albo, Gindin, and Panitch would agree that the severity of capitalism's current crises expose the extent to which, in the latter's words, "states are enveloped in capitalism's irrationalities," highlighting the need "for building new movements and parties to transcend capitalist markets and states." (129)  

This is the ground on which Michael A. Lebowitz offers his thoughts on how to get to socialism in the 21st century. His short exploration of the necessity to see socialist alternative as a process in creating a society committed not to profit but to human development in the fullest sense, builds on decades of research and writing on Marx's political economy, as well as long years of experience in the global struggle to transcend capitalist confinements. Currently the Director of the Program in Transformative Practice and Human Development in Caracas, Venezuela, and something of an advisor to Hugo Chavez (whose thought echoes in these pages), Lebowitz's book begins where those of Smith, Albo, Gindin, and Panitch leave off. The Socialist Alternative assumes that capitalism and its ongoing, inevitable crises are destructive of human potential, that capitalism is a debilitatingly irrational system, and that a new socio-economic order needs to be created. "The system is so profoundly perverse," writes Lebowitz in his book's introduction, "that it is necessary to ask, What keeps capitalism going?" (17)  

Lebowitz's answer is that socialists have failed to ask adequately where they are going and what kind of route they want to follow if socialism is indeed to be created. He insists that socialism can neither transcend immediately the capitalist context from which it will emerge, nor can it replicate the bureaucratism and deformations of past so-called socialist efforts like the failed Soviet Union. Anti-capitalist alternatives will be built on what Lebowitz designates, following Chavez, the socialist triangle. One side of this triangle addresses real wealth as human enrichment: men, women, and children must emerge who are able to measure their capacities and capabilities not in terms of money and the things it can buy, but in the development of their full humanity. A second side of this triangle confronts a crucial mechanism in the making of such rich human beings: work and productive life. Rather than the alienated labour of capitalism, in which profits are accrued by extracting monied value from workers whose ownership and control of all that is associated with production has been severed and concentrated in the hands of the owning class, work must be undertaken in ways where collective ownership can be assumed and decision-making can proceed democratically and cooperatively. This accomplished, the third side of the socialist triangle can be wedged slowly into place, the solidarían society, in which acquisitive individualism is replaced by a sense of collectivity and dedication, not to the self, but to the communal.  

In building this solidarían society, Lebowitz stresses that there is much to overcome. New understandings of what is rational and good, what is possible and what is needed, will develop. A new social organism must be consciously guided into being, its values and its apparatus of regulation provisioning production and leisure in ways antithetical to capitalist conventions. The project is large and beset with the dilemmas of concrete disjunctures. Lebowitz's book is short, and given to abstraction. It is nonetheless a necessary beginning in charting paths out of capitalist crisis toward societies freed from the twisted entanglements of profit's contradictory march through what is left of history.  

If this history is indeed not to end in the quickening pace of capitalist crisis following on capitalist crisis, the spectre of barbarism now haunting the globe needs to be challenged by socialism. There are, to be sure, only the faintest signs of this happening, but capitalism, as profound as is its irrationality and generation of crises, will not bury itself. Socialism needs to become more than a spectre following on the devastations of capitalist crisis. It must be built, and Lebowitz makes the case that this undertaking must begin now.  

There are many reasons, of course, for the ironic lack of socialist success in the face of capitalist crisis. Past socialist endeavours, as Lebowitz makes abundantly clear, squandered much in their degeneration into bureaucratic state planning that simply reproduced too much of the productive ethos of capitalism in a society where private ownership did not exist. Moreover, if crisis is endemic to capitalism, this is not to say that capitalism does not have immense hegemonic powers at its disposal, always ready to be deployed in ways that divert the costs of crisis onto the shoulders and into the pockets of the poor, in the process obfuscating the origins of each particular collapse. The subprime mortgage crisis revealed this time and time again, nowhere more cruelly than in the ideological capacity of capital and its servile state to blame the victims, it being argued that the greed of poor homeowners, especially African Americans, drove the crisis to its break-point. Now, in central Europe, there are those scapegoating the 'lazy Greeks,' who retire at 55, and the languid Spaniards, who won't work in the afternoon. All manner of parochialisms and chauvinisms continue to thrive in capitalism's global marketplace of retrogressive thought.  

Such shibboleths, however useful to stay an accounting of capitalist responsibility for the spectre of crisis now haunting the globe, are thin gruel indeed when placed alongside the argument and analysis of these three books. These texts should be required reading for all who want to understand why capitalism generates, not a crisis here and a crisis there, but a repetitive serialization of crises. Read quickly, however, for the pace at which capitalist crises unfold seems to be accelerating, and the shelf-life of solutions to profit's falling fortunes appears to be of shorter and shorter duration. If the obscenities of the modern world - in which the cataclysmic and catastrophic degradations of poverty, war, and environmental destruction, alongside the ideological cynicism of a politics of denial - cannot move you, as they should, then at least try thinking inside the box of informed self-interest. The next crisis could well be just around the corner. One of its victims might just be you.  

 *[Footnote]* 1. "'Future shocks' forecast for housing market," Globe and Mail, 13 September 2010.   *[Author Affiliation]* Bryan D. Palmer, "Profits of Doom: Spectres of Capitalist Crisis," Labour/Le Travail, 67 (Spring 2011), 189-201.   *[Author Affiliation]* Bryan D. Palmer, Canada Research Chair at Trent University, is the author of a number of books, the most recent of which are James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928 (2007) and Canada's 1960s: The Ironies of Identity in a Rebellious Era (2009).

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Patrick Marks Sees a Bright Future in His Bookstore

Kate Conger
Patrick Marks
100 Profiles
SF Weekly interviews 100 people in San Francisco arts and culture.

No. 84: Patrick Marks

Three decades ago, Patrick Marks set off from St. Louis on his bicycle, bound for Los Angeles. He took a haphazard route, riding through Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, and Oregon, before traveling along the Pacific coastline and arriving in San Francisco after four months of pedaling. Seduced by the city, he never made it to Southern California. He set up camp in Golden Gate Park and earned a living as a bike messenger. Eventually, he crossed the bay to attend UC Berkeley and work as a buyer for Cody's Books.

Now, Marks leads a more sedentary lifestyle: He owns and operates the Green Arcade bookstore, sings in the lounge act Lars Mars and His Men, publishes noir literature, and lives in the same San Francisco apartment he's had for the past 27 years.

That's not to say he's lost his piquancy. He's maintained the same daredevil attitude that brought him halfway across the country on a bike. Despite Cody's closing, Borders' bankruptcy filing, and Barnes & Noble offering itself up for sale, he decided to open his own bookstore.

"I didn't want my skills to go to waste," he explains. "I figured I might as well give it one last stand."

And so he did, opening the Green Arcade in 2008. The bookstore, which features titles catered to Marks' eclectic and rebellious interests, opened its doors on the corner of Market and Gough, in the heart of what was once bike messenger mecca. Now, Marks looks out from behind his register at the same landscape he biked in those days.

"This area is a springboard to so many areas of the city," he says.

San Francisco is a pivotal force in Marks' life. As the name of the bookstore suggests, environmentalism is important to Marks, but he's particularly interested in the urban environment. The "Arcade" half of the name is inspired by Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project, a lengthy philosophical study on the nature of city life.

Marks views his store as a representation of the city itself: simultaneously a refuge and a crass commercial space. His taste in books reflects it, with selections ranging from noir literature and art to urban planning and politics. Bay Area author Rebecca Solnit is allotted her own section, including her most recent work, a collaboration with SFMOMA and various authors and artists called Infinite City. It's a multifaceted atlas of San Francisco—and Marks' favorite book in the store.

When he's not presiding over his books, Marks assumes the alter ego Lars Mars and performs new arrangements of old lounge tunes. His Men are Durand Begault, Mic Gendreau, and Nate Furgason, who he terms "sound scientists."

His other passion is noir. He founded a publishing imprint, also named the Green Arcade, in partnership with Oakland's anarchist publishing house, PM Press. He tracks down out-of-print novels, such as Sin Soracco's Low Bite, and reprints them. He publishes new works as well (Soracco's Edge City is forthcoming).

"Noir is the shadow cast by the urban studies section," he rhapsodizes, circling back to his fascination with the gritty side of city life. The Green Arcade's newest publication is an English translation of Against Architecture by Franco La Cecla, which explores issues of "brandscaping" in modern cities.
For Marks, publishing and selling books is an exciting frontier, not a fading art. He intends to digitize his business, selling books online and making books available for download on the Green Arcade's website.

"Reading was always my way of dealing with reality," Marks says. "They say the truth will set you free— well, reading is a big aspect of that. It's an important part of citizenship."

As he makes reading more accessible online, he'll also maintain his store in the hub of the city, serving up conscientious rebellion to the residents of San Francisco.

Visit Patrick Marks and the Green Arcade on Sunday, June 26, at 5 p.m. for the release party of Summer Brenner's new book, Ivy: Homeless in San Francisco. Like Marks, the heroine Ivy begins her adventure in Golden Gate Park. Following a reading by Brenner will be a talk by the Community Housing Partnership of San Francisco about ways to reduce homelessness and support those who are currently homeless.

 Green Arcade Imprint Page


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