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May 8, 2012

Does Cory Doctorow Think The Matrix Got It Wrong?

Cory Doctorow’s The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow is a little book divided into three parts. The first part is a novella by Doctorow. The second is a transcript of his address to the 2010 World Science Fiction Convention titled “Creativity vs. Copyright” in which Doctorow argues that DRM technologies are bad for content creators. The final section is a wonderful interview with Doctorow on his thinking and the writing process.

At first it may not seem that these three different pieces of writing would fit together very well in a single volume. A closer reading, though, shows they provide a surprisingly coherent view into Doctorow’s thought and work. The address and the interview are more easily understood, but without a careful reading the novella can seem to contradict them. Placing it in context with the other two pieces will require some spoilers. If you are interested in reading the novella before you finish this review, you can read an electronic copy from the publisher and then come back. (You can also purchase a paperback copy on Amazon. The publisher’s site is the only way to get a digital version.) It should only take you a couple of hours to read the novella. Just a note, as the back cover of the book states the story revolves around “a transhuman teenager in a toxic post-Disney dystopia, who is forced to choose between immortality and sex.” So there is one explicit sex scene in the book. This isn’t part of Doctorow’s YA fiction. It is for adults. Warning: there are spoilers ahead.

As the cover blurb indicates, the hero, Jimmy Yensid (spell that backwards), is a trans-human child created to be nearly immortal. He will die someday, but that is in a future in which it is said you wouldn’t recognize the continents because of the tectonic drift. Jimmy and his father live in a post-technology world where any desired change is possible. At one point in the book Jimmy Yensid says that his world has “outgrown progress” and what was left was only “change.” Changes either became popular or they fade away. Yet from Jimmy’s perspective change no longer brings with it growth. Jimmy and his father long for a time when the growth from technology was clearer, linear and easy. The angst created by this post technology environment has caused Jimmy’s father to reject both change and progress. He has spent his life trying to preserve Detroit, the last remaining American city, from Wumpuses. Wumpuses are robots which eat inorganic matter and turn it back into arable soil. The two of them live there alone, mostly isolated from other human beings. Jimmy’s father’s prize possession is the Carousel of Progress created by Walt Disney for the 1964 New York World’s Fair which he has painstakingly restored. Early in the story, Jimmy’s father disappears in an attack on Detroit by eco-terrorists. Jimmy escapes and spends the next couple of decades of his life preserving the carousel and giving out rides to a group of cult members who share an emotional consciousness.

The multi-layered ironies in Doctorow’s writing are rich and wonderful particularly when it comes to Jimmy’s father. Here is a man who has dedicated his life to preserving an artifact which declares that humans should embrace change and accept progress. Yet even the ride itself is a kind of irony. It is a carousel which spins in a circle doing the same thing over and over again. It never moves and it never changes, even as it speaks about the wonders of the future, a future which is long past. Jimmy’s father is certainly not afraid of technology. After all he built a child who for all intents and purposes is immortal. However Jimmy’s father only uses technology in the service of preservation. Before his father disappears, change only happens in Jimmy’s world in order to preserve the existing order. This is truly a world in which the vision of Walt Disney runs in reverse. Technology is used to preserve the status quo, to entomb the present in the past, rather than to bring humans into The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.

The Carousel of Progress. Credit: Wikimedia CCCarousel of Progress

My favorite exposition of this irony comes from Jimmy himself who spends much of the story fulfilling his father’s vision. He criticizes his only friend Lacey for creating a transgenic goat that gives spider silk rather than milk. “You think she enjoys giving silk? Somewhere in her head she knows she is supposed to be giving milk.” Goats should be left alone the way nature intended them, argues Jimmy. The rich irony of those words coming from the mouth of the first trans-human are just wonderful. Yet at the time he says it Jimmy doesn’t even perceive the irony. He is technology used to preserve the past. He has no vision for the future. His existence is merely a “change,” not “progress.”

This scene is about as sharp a scalpel as an author can create. But this only becomes apparent if the reader understands that trans-genetic goats who give spider silk protein in their milk already exist. (Watch New York Times reporter David Pogue’s Nova series Making Stuff to see these goats in action.) The reader is forced by Doctorow to ask how they view technology. Do we see technology as a means to preserve the status quo or as a means to better human existence, as progress? Even more than that, Doctorow challenges us to recognize that we are products of technology ourselves. We cannot oppose progress through technology without irony, because we are products of medical science, information technology and the industrial revolution. (In some sense, I think Doctorow seems to be saying that we are already trans-human.)

According to Doctorow, to use technology to preserve the status quo is to deny something about what we are as human beings and this powerful observation is the thread which ties the novella to the other essays in the book and to the rest of Doctorow’s work. It explains his distaste for DRM technologies—the subject of the address in the book—and guides all his fiction —the subject of the interview which closes the book.

Throughout his life Jimmy Yensid remains unhappy. Jimmy eventually tires of his body’s glacial pace of change. The catalyst for his decision to alter his future is a run-in with the only girl—now woman—for whom he has felt sexual attraction. Lacey returns mid-way through the book as a thirty-something woman of the world. Jimmy remains an early pubescent forever trapped in the body his father made for him. Their love affair acts as a catalyst for Jimmy to seek a way to grow older more quickly so that he can be with Lacey. No more will Jimmy seek to use technology to stop progress.

Doctorow’s ending to Jimmy’s hero’s journey is fascinating. For the last third of the story Jimmy fights off clones himself who want to “mind rape” him and place his consciousness in a computer. After a great chase scene, Jimmy is defeated and ironically achieves his hero’s victory. Inside this Matrixesque world Jimmy finds both his girl and his father waiting for him. Jimmy and Lacey are able to age together through the power of technology and are free to love each other as they have desired. While not perfect, their existence is portrayed as idyllic. Jimmy only finds peace with himself and the life he desires when he embraces the possibilities and progress technology offers, when he becomes literally part of the machine.

What makes Doctorow’s story so unique is that in almost every science fiction story meat-space is privileged over cyber-space. The hero wins when they successfully resist technology and establish their humanity as an opposing force against the tyranny of the machine. Doctorow and other techno-positive thinkers like him argue forcefully that such thinking can only lead to dystopia and suffering. In a world of ever-quickening technological upheaval the question remains important for us: Change or Progress?

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Alpine Anarchist Meets scott crow

by Gabriel Kuhn
Alpine Anarchist
May 2012

scott crow, a long-time anarchist activist based in Austin, Texas, and a co-founder of the Common Ground Relief project in post-Katrina New Orleans has recently released the book Black Flags and Windmills: Hope, Anarchy, and the Common Ground Collective with PM Press. Alpine Anarchist has talked to him about the publication, Common Ground Relief, and grassroots organizing.

For those not familiar with Common Ground Relief: can you tell us about the project in a few sentences?

Common Ground Relief was the largest anarchist-inspired organization in modern U.S. history. We combined many anarchist/horizontal practices and principles throughout the organization including direct action, mutual aid, autonomy, and participatory democracy. Our motto was “solidarity not charity”, which was the idea that we didn’t want to just help people, but to actually support them in rebuilding their communities and their own political power and self-determination from below. We did this by providing aid and basic infrastructure to assist people getting on their feet
as the Black Panther Party called it, “survival programs pending revolution.”

In 2011, your book Black Flags and Windmills: Hope, Anarchy, and the Common Ground Collective was released. Can you tell us what the book is about and explain the title?

The book is a combination of several elements. It’s part personal memoir of how an organizer from a working-class background from Texas ended up in New Orleans, and part an organizing manual of how to look at organizing with elements of “little-a anarchism” as a path for transforming civil society.

The title is an allusion to two things. The first is the black flags that anarchists have carried throughout their long storied histories worldwide. The second is my personal affinity to feeling like the Miguel de Cervante character Don Quixote. All my life I have been a dreamer and fighter against injustice. Sometimes I have slain giants and other times just chased windmills.

If we are talking about self-management, it seems that you were facing extraordinary circumstances in New Orleans. Most self-managed projects, whether it is workers’ co-ops or rural communes, self-manage in a framework set by governmental institutions and the capitalist market. It appears that when you set up Common Ground Relief, the only framework you had were the people
the institutions and the market had disappeared almost entirely. Is this perception correct?

We were self-managed from the beginning. For us it was never a question of whether we would be or not. The question for us was how would we set it all up from the models available? I had a lot of experience within horizontal/anarchist organizations over the years and had used quite a few different models, but could not decide which would be the most appropriate one for this context. My personal experience within large and small groups
both open and closedhad led me to only participate in small, closed collectives. I believe this is the only way that we can really balance internal power dynamics, build true trust amongst the participants, and develop strong political praxis based on shared understood principles. But what we were embarking on was a scale that was far beyond the largest open assemblies any of us had ever participated in, with a wide spectrum of people. We actively sought out more experienced anarchist organizers who began to come to the area, which allowed us to draw on all of our collective historical experiences. Over the first three years we experimented with many different models with varying degrees of success, challenges, and some failures. We were drawing on common threads from the traditions, ideas, and histories of three somewhat disparate movements: the Black Panther Party, the Zapatistas, and anarchism (specifically the Spanish anarchists of the 1930s). We were drawing from their internal organizing experiences as well as the connected programs and projects.

How was working with Common Ground Relief different from other self-management projects you have been involved with?

There are few “professional” horizontal worker cooperatives or collectives within the United States. Additionally, there is not much government “support” for these structures. In most cases the hierarchical bureaucracies of the state find them to be confusing. In the United States, most anarchist/horizontal collectives are volunteer-based with a few worker cooperatives that are truly democratic. The grassroots is where the culture of power-sharing goes on. There has been very little support for horizontal cooperatives or self-management on the government level. Most of it has only been in certain cities or regions, with a few states that have laws that either recognize it or support its growth. That is changing, but only slowly and with much government confusion.

My own personal experiences both in activism and in the work world have shown me that bottom-up collective organizing with many perspectives, experiences, and thoughts has been more effective than relying on one person or small group of people to plan and direct something. Common Ground wasn’t always completely horizontal, but that was the ideal we tried to attain. We operated most of the projects like “affinity groups” under an umbrella of the Common Ground Collective. Some of the others
like the health clinics for exampleoperated mostly autonomously. We were a network where we shared principles and resources. In all of these projects and programs we shared information while consulting and operating in coordinated efforts to support the residents of New Orleans and help them build their power from below.

It is important to know that these structures were fluid, morphing and changing over time. We didn’t always have a clear blueprint of what the organizational structures were while we were in them. They were very organic, every time we formalized them, something would lead us to change or fine-tune them. Then, there were the hierarchal tendencies within the organization, which always caused tensions within the core coordinators and how we operated. It was largely borne of four factors.

First, there were the people who didn’t have experience with anarchist organizing or self-management. This was by far the largest grouping. In the United States, there is not much experience in participatory democracy or sharing our voices expect in small isolated spaces like small collectives, in tree-sits, or mass summits for example. And once out of those spaces, people have to return to their work with a boss or landlord etc. There isn’t a continuum of exercising those voices.

Second, some people didn’t value it. They had bad experiences with bad horizontal processes or just completely disagreed and wanted to be the “the leader” of something. It’s hard to break those patterns which are reinforced and rewarded in civil society.

Third, we often executed really bad processes within many of the open meetings due to lack of experience or group dynamics; blurring the lines between where concrete decisions needed to be made and where spaces were opened for peoples’ voices to be heard, while achieving neither.

Fourth, some of our administration or projects were very centralized by necessity. Some examples were the security teams, the finances of the organization, and long-term visions or projects. These were things that were held to a smaller group to keep relative control due to security, health of the organization, or allocation of our scarce resources.

While some people say that disasters bring out the best in people, others like to cite Lord of the Flies, suggesting that you actually get to see the worst in people. What did you see in New Orleans?

I saw both extremes while there. I saw chaos on one hand where situations were out of control and people were desperate enough to do desperate things for their own survival
especially in the early days. But I have to say that of the thousands of people I interacted with, this was the minority. The white vigilantes and the police would be extreme examples of the “Lord of the Flies” to me. But the majority of what I did seethe part that gave me absolute love of humanitywere those with absolutely nothing, who shared what little they had. People realized quite quickly when they were left to die that they would have to help each other and they did. If someone who had lost everything had a bottle of water, they would give it to someone who needed it morejust because they asked. It was mutual aid and cooperation for survival that morphed into rebuilding their lives together.

I also experienced people begin to self-organize without leaders or governments. In political terms, it was direct action and mutual aid. In these cases neighbours organized their own search and rescue missions of people trapped, distributed supplies to those with the greatest need, and later worked to decide what they wanted for the future. People put aside their differences when it mattered for a common good.

That phenomenon is illustrated historically here in the United States by a wonderful book from my friend Rebecca Solnit called A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. It gives numerous examples about disasters leading to growing social movements. Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath was one of those examples, just like the Mexico City earthquake in the 1980’s.

If it is true that disasters, or severe crises, mainly strengthen principles of solidarity and mutual aid, what are the political lessons we can learn from this? After all, it would be cynical to hope for more disasters and crises just to see more solidarity and mutual aid.

We, as movements, are excellent at reacting to socio-political situations and mobilizing under crisis as I talked about earlier. The biggest challenges I see, and what I want to us to do, are to create these spaces, infrastructure, and movements without reacting, without the crisis, without disaster. If we have these pieces in place
even on small scalesand long-term goals or strategies, we can build grassroots power and have more capacity to resist Power when the crisis situations arise. We can build solidarity and mutual aid on small scales in all of our communities. That isn’t always going to be exciting, but it can provide communities with great power.

Given the unique circumstances under which Common Ground Relief was founded: what are the lessons to be learned for self-management in everyday life?

Some things I think I have drawn from this are:

* We need to recognize that we have incredible decentralized networks within horizontal/anarchist movements that can mobilize effectively and well with great flexibility.

* We need more ongoing projects on larger scales that are networked so that when crisis does occur we don’t have to re-invent everything. Networked projects or groups could plug in more easily to something on the ground.

* We need to create movements built on long-term strategies, not reactionary politics.

* We need, as movements, to connect the struggles on a daily basis not just in solidarity, but in actual day-to-day organizing that resists Power and builds counter-institutions simultaneously.

* We need to recognize that people in the real world will never look like our ideal politics and we need to meet people where they are. Otherwise we are always going to be relegated to being a subculture or, worse, a vanguard.

Perhaps most important is the belief that we can do things for ourselves as individuals and communities. That we absolutely do have the collective power to make sweeping changes across the world and in our lives without appealing to Power. It’s like that old cliché Think global but act local, where we need to connect and support struggles elsewhere but recognize that the changes we are proposing need to be done, and can be done, collectively in our own backyards.

Participatory democracy takes practice and commitment to unlearn the past and to learn new things about ourselves. It takes time to unwind all of our habits, prejudices, and biases, while learning to hear others differently and learning to trust our own voices about decisions.

It is also important to recognize the Zapatista saying that “We are building the road by walking”. The path is the journey to revolutionary change. We will make mistakes along the way, but it’s okay, we will continue walking.

We may not be able to stop global capital from destroying the planet, but we can still create pre-figurative communities and projects where we change our relationships with each other and the environment, restructure our local food and water security, rethink how we do or don’t use energy, how to defend our communities, create alternative economies and counter-institutions, reshape our work, culture, arts, and child care, etc.

You’ve been on book tours with Black Flags and Windmills, sharing your experiences with people across the United States. What have the reactions been like?

Overwhelmingly positive. I hadn’t left Texas since 2006. I was working on the book and recovering from the traumas of New Orleans and its aftermath. I had no real gauge on how the ideas, the history, and the book would be received. I am grateful for the engaging dialog that ensues in every city, small or large, where I present the book. My presentation is unusual in that it has roots in the book but goes far beyond it. I ask a lot of questions about our current movements and challenge us to begin to think differently about who we are and how we engage in transformative politics for the future. Communities everywhere are thinking about or acting on some of these ideas; I am just giving them a language and narrative.

The other thing that I have found is how fast we forget our radical histories. In such a short time the history of New Orleans has been largely forgotten except superficially
like the levees’ failure, the government’s failed response and sheer brutality. But even in radical circles, the bottom-up resistance to oblivion was not known that well, especially not the grassroots organizing of Common Ground and all the other groups who were doing work in the region. I think my book is creating an opening to re-examine those experiences and histories, which I hope will widen and continue. I believe there is a lot of practicality that is relevant to the Occupy movements and other horizontal efforts today and for the future.

How strong are notions of self-management in the United States today in general? What do you expect from the future?

It has been gaining ground for the last twenty-thirty years, but has been moving at hyperspeed for the last ten or so. It reaches from volunteer collectives to professional non-profits to businesses that are all examining, or re-examining, the way we make decisions and how power sharing affects our work and lives.

Where is Common Ground Relief today? And where are you?

Common Ground Relief is still very much around, albeit in a smaller capacity than it once was. The anarchist heyday is over, as it has become a more traditional grassroots non-profit. We made a conscious effort in 2008 to scale back. That combined with the forces of the large NGO movement for funding sources led it to becoming much more traditionally structured, but still with the “solidarity not charity” analysis throughout its programs.

I still live in Austin, Texas, where for the last five years I have stayed busy working a “green collar” manual labour job at an anarchist recycling worker cooperative, co-founded another worker coop thrift store called Treasure City Thrift, and consult with others on building horizontal worker coops as alternative economic engines to fund community-based projects. I also contended with being labelled a “domestic terrorist’ by the U.S. government and political far right, outing a “friend” as an undercover FBI agent, and dealing with all of the repercussions around it. I have also continued to consult with various Occupy camps and other groups on some of the best horizontal practices for power sharing, decision-making processes, etc., as they continue to build their grassroots political power.

Let’s say you had three sentences to summarize the most valuable personal lessons from Common Ground Relief: what would we get to hear?

That ordinary people
you, me, and everyone elsecompelled in extraordinary situations can do amazing things beyond what we can imagine. That we should continue to do so. And that our time to do something is now because our collective futures are unwritten.

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A Mix of Bricks & Valentines in Trust Magazine

by Dolf Hermannstädter
Trust Magazine

A book with more than 250 songs of agitprop lyrics from the singer und co-founder of the Dutch band The Ex. The band started in 1979 and G.W. Sok decided to leave them in late 2008 this book documents his writing in chronological order, more or less. At first it might seem odd to imagine to read that many lyrics, but it is not! You can see how G.W. develops, from bold classic "anti," to socially engaged, to deep intellectual analysis of geopolitics onto poems. Sok shares his thoughts with the reader and takes you on a trip of three decades of insightful socio-political standpoints. During a certain period one can tell much more "work" went into writing the lyrics, which, I think, was not necessarily for the best, since I do believe that a text should be understood immediately and not only after putting a lot of thought and effort into finding out what the author means to say. But I know the other side of the coin, it can take the beauty out of a text . . . anyway, it is funny to read in 2012 a text that was written in 1982 and to see it still can be screamed at the audience nowadays:
"Punk (Aversion 2"Hey ho fake punks/here's news for you/this is 1982/"scaring people"time is over/we don't wanna play for you/The times you fight on our side/are nothing but coincidence/when you're satisfying needs/you could try to use some brains/Why don't you rip off your badges/you look like a Christmas-tree/your dope, your beer, your swastikas/show nothing but stupidity or interesting and at the same time funny stuff like "The Idunno Law" I do not quite remember/I'll have to look it up/That's not in my recollection/I guess no one has told me/I don't understand the question/It's hard for me to answer/I can't recall, I told you/Did I write what note?/Apparently I said so/It's all unknown to me/What do you wish I'd tell you?/These facts I can't recall/Maybe it has happened/I really do not know/Did I have this conversation?/I assume that it took place/Yes, I didn't know that/I guess that it could be/Who do you say has told you?/And who you say told me?/I can't remember everything/Did I lead what discussion?/This happened long ago/Why shouldn't you believe me?/Would I lie to you?/That's the first time that I hear this/You say I had a conflict?/No one did inform me/Maybe I should know/What can I say about it?/I feel no urge to answer/If only I remembered or one of the later texts "Shop Drop"Let us pretend for a minute or three/that we all agree/that no conflicts can be seen between/the rich and poorer nations of this civilization/and therefore we assume/that there is no competition/that we've ran out of all friction/concerning resources except, of course, if through natural causes-/then a future lies ahead/in which all experts expect/a yearly steady growth/of the economy as we know it/with all the tacky side-effects/enabling us to blow it/If this rate is sustained/then a rough calculation/makes it very clear/that within a 100 years/we'll be X-times as rich/and X-times as fucked/as we're asking the question/that the experts have ducked:/what to do with this wealth?/how on earth do we spend it?/we're so busy being buying/but how can we end it?/what to do with this wealth?/why do we spend it?/we're so busy being buying/how can we end it?/what to do with this wealth?/why do we spend it?/we're so busy being buying/why don't we end it?/Do we shop till we drop?/do we buy till we die?/do we use till we lose?/do we go with that flow?/do we build till we're filled?/do we suck till we're fucked?/do we do we/do we?/Do we never have enough?/do we really need that stuff?/do we stick to the greed?/do we knock us off our feet?/do we climb up to the gutter?/do we wise up like a nutter?/do we do we/do we?

While the band was always experimenting with the music, G.W. Sok was doing the same with the lyrics of the songs, without losing the big picture. A must for The Ex fans and also a good inspiration not only for your average band singer. 350 pages with a foreword by John Robb and a introduction by the author himself. A few small b/w photos are there too. Paperback. (Dolf)

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The World Turned Upside Down in fRoot Magazine

by Colin Irwin
fRoots Magazine
April 2012

Oddly enough, Leon Rosselson always seems to get overlooked whenever they dish out those lifetime achievement awards. Odd that, given he's been writing and singing with consistent potency for over fifty years now, with a CV that contains several songs that have been adopted and adpted and made a fierce dent on the wider scene:"Don't Get Married Girls," "Time McGuire," "Palaces of Gold," "Invisible Married Breakfast Blues," "The Man Who Puffs the Big Cigar" and—most celebrated—the vivid, evocative account of the Digger Uprising of 1649, most famously covered by Billy Bragg, Dick Gaughan, Blowzabella, Oysterband and Karan Casey.

Surely it can't be anything to do with those jagged lyrics and the fearlessly contentious subject matter with the capacity to offend almost every strand of society with the twist of an acidic couplet . . . the Christians with "Stand Up For Judas," "Zionists with "Song of the Olive Tree," royalists with "On Her Silver Jubilee" and capitalists with . . . well, with mostly everything he pens.

Sitting here with a four-CD boxed set, including an extensive booklet offering valuable insights into the whys and wherefores of it all (including a wry opening piece from Leon subtitled "How I Failed to Become Rich and Famous") you not only get the full benefit of his stinging satire, you get a sharp sense of the times for which they were written. This is a remarkable achievement for any songwriter, whether it's the Seventeenth Century stories recounted in "The World Turned Upside Down" and "Abiezer Coppe"—sung so powerfully by Roy Bailey—to modern follies depicted by helices of "They're Going To Build A Motorway," "Ballad of a Spycatcher," and "The Wall That Stands Between."

Not that it's all political. Rosselson maintains a wry sense of humor about his own lot, revealing much about his own attitudes in the imaginary conversation captured in "The Ghost of Georges Brassens," referencing the outraged reactions to his more extreme work on "It's Just the Song," while drawing acutely on personal experience to write about Judaism on the telling "My Father's Jewish World."

There's more variety than you'd imagine—Janet Russell beautifully singing the painful "Song of the Olive Tree," with the Three City Four, Roy Bailey, Marin Carthy, Frankie Armstrong, Ruth Rosselson, Christ Foster, Fiz Shapur, Liz Mansfield, Billy Bradd and the Sheffield Socialist Choir (on the wondrous The Power of Song) featured along the way, helping to complete a well-rounded picture of a remarkable artist who's never taken his eyes off the ball, even—or especially—when that ball is bouncing in determinedly antipopular directions. A lifetime achievement award next year? Don't hold your breath. 

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Occupy Sherwood Forest

In These Times
April 1, 2012

In Robin Hood: People's Outlaw and Forest Hero (PM Press), Paul Buhle, the founder and editor of the New Left journal Radical America, provides a historiography, accompanied by three new comics of the first superhero to wear tights. Drawing on the work of William Morris, Mark Twain, E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, Buhle examines the original rebel's everlasting appeal. He writes, "If Robin stands higher than any other figure in English lore, even King Arthur, it is because he is mythically still in the Greenwood, waiting."

The struggle for common space, common decision-making, whether rural, metropolitan or global, can be usefully traced back, in one part of the world, to the changes forced upon royalty in the Magna Carta. They carry us forward to our opposition against privatization of formerly public goods and space, beyond remedies for the excesses of contemporary capitalism, toward a society of a different (and more sustainable) kind. Many millions of farms, urban neighborhoods and software programs can be or in many cases are already being operated on some basis of sharing . . . "[C]ommoning" is the opposite of the imperial mode, right down to the struggle against dams being constructed on rivers in or outside forests, around the world. If the "primitive accumulation" (Marx's own phrase) of capitalism was effected through enclosuresthe privatization of previously common lands for the purpose of successful wool production a couple of centuries after Robin's appearance—then he and the Merry Men (not forgetting Maid Marian) had been seeing to nip the process in the bud. Marx erred, writing in the middle of the 19th century, not by failing to see the utter misery introduced to move primitive accumulation forward, but by not seeing that primitive accumulation as a permanent process. With so little of the planet not yet completely exploited, the process nevertheless accelerates. We need Robin more than ever.

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Black Flags and Windmills: A Razorcake Review

By Steve Hart
March 30, 2012

I lived in New Orleans in the late 1980s, when the city was in a post-oil boom depression. Many of the buildings downtown were empty, except for a lone security guard. In 2005, Katrina smacked the Gulf Coast, the levies failed, and New Orleans was flooded. Soon thereafter, Scott Crow and a group of friends entered the New Orleans area on a small boat to help. Faced with an armed military, an inept FEMA, a hopeless Red Cross, and vigilantes, they searched for lost friends and survivors.

After a few missions, they settled in an area on the West Bank, in a town called Algiers. Even before the hurricane hit, Algiers was an area hard hit by recession after recession, and far removed from the charming old-world style of the Vieux Carre. When the Common Ground volunteers set up in Algiers, they were faced with armed vigilantes, described in the tense chapter entitled, "White Vigilantes and the Battle of Algiers." I was amazed by the determination of the volunteers who met the everyday challenges of helping residents tarp their roofs, providing quality health care, and even offering back massages to suffering people. Another chapter described the hopelessness of Red Cross trucks, pulling up to much fanfare, only to hand out plastic utensils and handi-wipes, to people without drinkable water or food.

Black Flags and Windmills is an incredible book about a group of dedicated men and women who, faced with challenges from all sides of the United States government, built an oasis in a desert of shitty water and bloating animal carcasses. The author also writes about some of his internal struggles with the collective and doesn't shy away from his criticism of his own techniques and beliefs.

I highly recommend this book. It is dramatic and tense, full of intense hope and utter despair. Everyone should read this.

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The Primal Screamer on Razorcake

By Jimmy Alvarado
March 30, 2012

I remember repeatedly picking up, then putting down, a copy of Rudimentary Peni vocalist/guitarist and visual artist extraordinaire Nick Blinko's first novel when it initially came out in the mid-'90s, undecided on whether or not to buy a copy. Though a fan from their initial releases on, the band's most recent release at the time, Pope Adrian 37th Psychristiatric, was a bit of a chore to listen to, to put it nicely. I was a bit skint, so I was unsure whether or not it was worth the risk. By the time I decided to plop down some cash for it, of course, it had gone out of print, and subsequent efforts to procure a copy over the years yielded opportunities dependent on spending vast sums of money.

Lucky for punters like moi, it's been reissued. Part quasi-autobiography, part homage to H.P. Lovecraft, The Primal Screamer recounts the tale of Nat Snoxell, an attempted suicide patient, as told through the journal entries of his psychiatrist. Over the course of the novel, Snoxell undergoes primal scream therapy, forms a punk band named "after the androgynous human embryo's undeveloped genitalia," and the band's subsequent records and performances garner them a modicum of popularity before they, and Snoxell, fall apart. At the same time, his psychiatrist has increasingly bizarre dreams which culminate in an ending that reads like it came straight out of Lovecraft's "Dreamlands" story cycle.

What seems a pretty nifty idea in theory, however, doesn't quite gel in execution. Blinko clearly has a handle on the overall tone and basic conventions of Lovecraftian horror, but while both storylines provide the potential for a number of different ideas-some of which are actually set up at various points- virtually none are ever fully explored or ultimately lead anywhere. Similarly, the ending feels rushed and tacked on as a way to get things over with, in part because not enough care has been given to setting up the machinations necessary to convey both character's slip into the gray area between madness and "reality," and the resulting disintegration of their psychological states.

Still, despite being a near miss as a horror novel, it nonetheless serves as an indispensable read for those interested in Blinko's oeuvre. The elements of the quasi-autobiographical portion are fictionalized-anyone familiar with the band's history will catch on fairly quickly-but enough rings true that one is likely to glean that Snoxell's feelings about his band's escapades might be close to Blinko's feelings during Peni's early years. PM's edition includes all of the drawings included with The Primal Screamer's prior editions, plus some additional artwork unique to this pressing. (PM Press, PO Box 23912, Oakland, CA 94623)

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Love and Struggle: An Alpine Anarchist Review

Alpine Anarchist
April 2012

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

Armed Struggle

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

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

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

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Why Nonviolent Activists Should Follow John Brown Partners in the Freedom Struggle

by Matt Meyer
March 23-25, Weekend Edition

“The lack of historical consensus regarding John Brown,” asserted longtime labor, racial justice, and international activist Bill Fletcher, “speaks to the ideological confusions we continue to face.” Fletcher—a columnist for Black Commentator, Senior Scholar for the Institute for Policy Studies, and former president of TransAfrica—noted that John Brown was anti-slavery, but not just that; he was anti-racist, but there were others at the time who were anti-racist as well. As Fletcher suggested that Brown’s difference was his dramatic defense of enslaved Africans, people he actually befriended and liked, he summarized the dividing line question which still remains: “Was Brown a terrorist or was he engaging in an emancipatory practice?”

This year’s Left Forum—the annual coming together of a broad spectrum of left and progressive intellectuals, activists, academics, organizations and the interested public, the largest in the United States—was a different one than usual for me.

Award-winning and beloved science fiction writer and old buddy Terry Bisson asked me to join his panel on a favorite topic of ours: the legacy of abolitionist John Brown. Aside from the infamous failed assault on Harpers Ferry in 1859—the act many credit as a short-term cause of the Civil War—Brown was a leading part of the Bloody Kansas battles which ultimately led that state to enter the USA prohibiting slavery. Bisson is author of the “what if” classic Fire on the Mountain (which PM Press has just wisely put back into print), telling the tale of the United States that would have been had Harriet Tubman not gotten ill in the Spring of 1859, and had joined—as planned—Brown and others in the West Virginia raid. Instead of that pretty fantasy, we are left with the reality of Brown’s capture and public hanging, and some ancient tunes about “John Brown’s body.” I was honored to share a platform with Fletcher and Bisson and others; this weekend we tried to breathe some life into still-vital debates.

“Occupy Harper’s Ferry” was the perhaps-misguided title to our overflow workshop, which was supposed to inspire dialogue about the relevance of Brown to current movements. For me, this question was clear: as a life-long nonviolent activist, what message does Brown have in the current debates about tactics and strategy, and alliances which need to be built? The sub-titled question, why radicals (including pacifists) should support John Brown, left my job directly spelled out. I was to represent the parenthesis, and outline why I thought Brown was significant—then and now. My comments took up seven short points, as follows:

1) As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. poignantly noted, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere—and injustice along racial lines has only increased since those comments were made. As Michelle Alexander noted in her indispensible book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the number of Black people in prison today exceeds the number of enslaved Africans in 1850, ten years before the Civil War. The “abolitionist movement” today talk about abolishing prisons (a special responsibility of Quakers, who helped found the penitentiary), but—for activists committed to ending violence (starting with the violence of the state)—prisons are but the tip of the iceberg.

2) As Minister Malcolm X poignantly noted, John Brown was the white person most dedicated to the liberation of African/Black folks in the USA. When asked by whites if there was anything they could do to help end the injustices of the time, any role model they could follow, Malcolm always mentioned John Brown.

3) John Brown understood that the struggle was not just to free enslaved Africans and end a “peculiar” institution, but to be in militant solidarity with the oppressed, and in so doing rid ourselves of the oppression so pervasive in our country and ourselves.

4) In his day, pacifists always supported John Brown; Brown’s so-called “ambivalent co-conspirators”—the Secret Six of well-known and wealthy supporters—may not have agreed with all of the tactics he used, but they met with him, funded him, and laid the basis for his ongoing legacy.

5) Henry David Thoreau, one of the historic champions of nonviolent resistance and a close friend of Brown’s, had this to say about him: Brown was “a man of rare common-sense and directness of speech, as of action; He was not in the least a rhetorician; had no need to invent anything but to tell the simple truth, and communicate his own resolution; therefore he appeared incomparably strong.”

6) We are today in no less need of nuanced, dialectical thinking—of an understanding of the false dichotomies between violence and nonviolence—then we were in the 1860s or the 1960s. The “official government version” of U.S. history, for example, suggests that Malcolm and Martin were enemies, polar opposites of two movements which could never connect. It is time to put that historical falsehood to rest, and to put into practice the dialogues, debates, and alliances which Brown and Thoreau, which Martin and Malcolm, began to forge.

7) We are, more than ever, in need of revolutionary, end-of-empire thinking that understands that the real enemy—those in favor of slavery in all its mischievous forms, of greed and unchecked power—will not stand well if we are creative, hopeful, resolute, united, and clear in our radical vision. We may not need to make unsuccessful armed raids against U.S. government arsenals, but we surely do need to take militant positions against racism, imperialism, sexism, militarism, and oppression in all its forms.

Bill Fletcher correctly noted that the issue of race is an ongoing “trip wire” in U.S. politics. In many ways, Fletcher suggested, the Civil War was never completed, its fundamental issues “never resolved.” When an edge of seriousness surrounded a satire column reporting that Republican front-runner Mitt Romney stated in Alabama that he can relate to Blacks because his family used to own several of them, the point is driven home. John Brown showed that white folks must play a role in movements for liberation; he “positioned himself as a partner” in the freedom struggle. There must be no excuses preventing us from building broad partnerships in the freedom struggles of our time.

Matt Meyer is an educator-activist, based in New York City, and serves as convener of the War Resisters International Africa Working Group. His recent books include Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan-African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation (Africa World Press, 2000), the two-volume collection Seeds of New Hope: Pan African Peace Studies for the 21st Century (Africa World Press, 2008, 2010), and Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U. S. Political Prisoners (PM Press, 2008). Meyer is a contributing member of the Editorial Advisory Board for New Clear Vision.

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Sensation: A Review on Interzone 239

by Nathaniel Tapley
Interzone 239
April 2012

You should read Sensation now. I'm not kidding. Right now. Stop reading this, start reading Sensation. Anyone still here for this sentence has failed themselves.

Nick Mamata's novel is a razor-sharp look at the modern world. It's bafflingly current and important. It's as if he foresaw the Occupy movement before the first tents went up. The lack of stated aims, the surplus of enthusiasm, and the taste for dramatic public statements exploited through social media are all there. As I read the book in early December of 2011, it was clear that Mamatas has a firm grasp of the modern world. Around its throat.

There are wasps that lay their eggs in caterpillars, changing their behavior so that even as the wasp larvae chew their way out of them to pupate, the caterpillars stand guard over those for whom they are just a fat, green larder. There are other wasps that lay their eggs in spiders, forcing them to weave a special web on which they can build a cocoon. In the world of Sensation there are wasps that lay their eggs in humans, forcing them to act for the good of wasps rather than people. In the world of Sensation, that explains a lot of human history.

Sensation presents an ongoing war between parasitic wasps (Hymenoepimecis sp.), and the species of spider that loathes them. The spiders spin humans of indeterminate ethnicity out of webbing to ride around in, and do their best to foil the wasps' plans. The wasps lay eggs inside people, and control their behavior. Either manipulated by spiders or mind-altered by ovipositing wasps, the future doesn't look particularly bright for the human race.

But then, as the novel hints, it probably shouldn't. The book savages the hopes, the pretensions, the self-importance, and the ridiculousness of the first world at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It's a pitiless look at human beings, and is both hilarious and perspicacious.

The book captivated me from the moment it had a protest movement spawned by a They Might Be Giants lyric (I shan't tell you which one). It's the first of many examples of the bizarre and the profound being in close proximity. Mamatas expertly combines pop culture with satire with really good jokes.

Its wit is razor-sharp, and it will be a lucky reader who escapes without cutting themselves on its barbs. From again GenXers to lefty hipsters to federal agents, Mamatas has seen you, he's understood you, and here you are in the service of parasitic hymenoptera. Or their arachnid foes.

There's so much to love in this book: its playfulness, its following of a relentless dream-logic, the feeling that this is genre fiction's answer to De Lillo or Pynchon. However, space opera, it is not. It's a knowing, brilliant look at the world through a satirical conceit. It is science fiction in the way Gulliver's Travels is, or Stranger in a Strange Land is, or 1984 is.

If you're looking for titanic space battles between futuristic civilizations, you won't find them. If you're looking for well-developed alien cultures on exciting new worlds, you won't find them. If you're looking for straightforward narrative prose from an omniscient narrator, you won't find it. You'll find in Sensation something more exciting. And a race of sentient, kickass spiders in human costumes made of webbing.

It's a fun book. It's like Lester Bangs whacking the X-Files in the back of the neck with a spade, and then burying the corpse in a grave lined with newspaper clippings from 2011. It's probably the best explanation of 2011 that we've had yet.

If you're still reading this, and you didn't go and do it earlier, go and do it now. Read Sensation now. Right now. I'm still not kidding. It's all right, I'll wait . . .
See? Told you.

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