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Catastrophism in Socialist Resistance

by Jane Shallice
Socialist Resistance
January 21st, 2013

Over the last twenty or thirty years there have been a constant litany of the latest life threatening scares. For an older generation growing up in the postwar period, the threat was nuclear war, with its “four minute warning”.  In the USA there appeared a more hysterical response to their Cold War with photographs of school children practicing hiding under desks or seated covering their eyes with their hands as some type of protection from a nuclear blast.

Although no longer discussed as a present and immanent threat to our lives, the huge quantities of nuclear weapons presently stored and maintained, (and with more planned), the nuclear threat is still a distinct possibility, whether from war or accident. But over time this has given way to other catastrophes’, with the emergence of a world exposed to an ever-growing sequence of possible disasters: Aids, Avian Flu, SARS or another mutant strain of some disease, peak oil, GM and Frankenstein foods, the millennium bug, cloning, terrorism, global warming and climate change.  At present responses to the American, now global, financial crisis whilst not being seen as a preoccupation with the end times, does dominate immediate political questions.

Catastrophism is a collection of essays analysing the obsession with a doom laden future and arguing that whether the left, the right or environmentalists, many have succumbed to an unremitting pessimism and helplessness. For the contributors, the world appears “saturated with instrumental, spurious and sometimes maniacal versions of catastrophism – including right wing racial paranoia, religious millenarianism, liberal panics over fascism, leftist fetishization of the capitalist collapse”.  They have as their essential locus that such a confirmation and acceptance of an apocalyptic future, paralyses and prevents any way of challenging what is popularly assumed to be the inevitable. The response in the book reassert the essential requirements of thinking and undertaking actions which return us to the everyday; “to the idea that revolution grows out of the ordinary prosaic acts of organizing and resistance whose coalescence produces a mass upheaval” and the necessity of those “decidedly mundane activities – strikes and demonstrations meetings speeches leaflets and occupations”.   Understanding that “capitalism itself is catastrophic”, it being both crisis ridden and crisis dependent, implies that we should not take for granted “the grinding quotidian catastrophe of capitalism during times when we are faced with exceptional calamities”.

The arena in which we have to act

As for many on the left, having lived with Rosa Luxembourg’s warning of “Socialism or Barbarism”, foolishly I have always thought of this as a warning about the future. I was shocked therefore on reading in an obituary for Daniel Bensaid, that by the mid 90s with the success of neoliberalism, he thought that we were indeed experiencing barbarism.  But throughout history, for vast numbers of people barbarism could be the only designation of all they experienced – slavery, fascism, terrifying and unremitting poverty and genocide. However barbarism is not the apocalypse, it is not the end times; it is the arena in which we have to act, working for another possible future.

The authors of Catastrophism argue that many of the false ecological prophesies around overpopulation and resource depletion flow directly from Malthusian theory, that “ crudest most barbarous theory that ever existed, a system of despair.” (Engels)  But the current ecological crisis dominating today’s thinking means we cannot ignore the supreme logic of the scientific data and the clear trajectory that it indicates. A consensus of scientists indicates the serious questions that have to be addressed and unless there is a substantial change in human behaviour, there will be a progressive collapse of known ecological systems. We are not helped by many proposed solutions being offered, they being patently completely inadequate.  (After the debacle in Copenhagen 2009 public concern over climate plummeted to 22 out of possible 22 global issues). Whilst knowing solutions can only be found when the world system of accumulation and growth is changed, and the terrifying but understandable refusal of governments to confront the real issues reveals the major contradiction: how to get this political system to even modestly constrain capital. It would appear that we have to organize to curb the worst excesses, through regulation and limitations on the actions of capital, whilst knowing this is not the answer.

In his essay The Politics of Failure has Failed, Eddie Yuen considers some of the environmentalist arguments, at the extreme end of which are the anti-civilization movements, who in the name of liberation assert that alienation is endemic to civilization itself. For them our only political choice would be to reject all that we know, abandoning urban structures, work and all which is the stuff of people’s lives.

Walls and fences

With the dangers of global warming, changing climatic patterns and a consequent rise in sea level, large numbers of major cities will be in danger of flooding.  Many will become uninsurable – New York, London, Shanghai, which will radically impact on the financial world.  But as all studies of climate change are stating, from such well known green institutions such as the World Bank, the International Energy Agency and Price Waterhouse Coopers, major changes in both temperature and precipitation, especially in areas girdling the tropics, will experience increased desertification, consequent soil impoverishment and catastrophic migrations will be the increasing pattern. With no basic food security and increasing immiseration, the northern states will respond with walls and fences and authoritarian solutions of surveillance and control. In Planet of Slums, Mike Davis tells of the projects of the US military planning to control urban areas with drones and surveillance, and evidence from the USA/Mexico demonstrates the sealing of that border using the latest military technology, has already been accomplished.

Whilst all points to cascading environmental disaster, Yuen argues that any movement to counter it has to be rooted in networks of communities and activists and requires a positive appeal to community actions and a compassionate egalitarian radical movement – like the networks of the global justice movement.  But he does not consider that it is also necessary to raise demands upon the state, which is the only way in which adequate policies can be implemented. Without such a strategy the dilemma of what David Harvey calls “termite politics” is raised, whereby political activity makes small gains and yet refuses to engage with the question of the state itself.

In Great Chaos under Heaven, Sasha Lilley considers the catastrophism of the left that she argues lies in political despair. “Irresistible economic forces lead with the certainty of doom to the shipwreck of capitalist production. The substitution of a new social order for the existing one is no longer simply desirable it has become inevitable”. Marx never argued that the collapse of capitalism was inevitable. “History does nothing, it possesses no immense wealth, it wages no battles…It is man, real, living man who does all that , who possesses and fights; history is not , as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieving its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims”.

An alternative pole found in the political left is the mentality of “the worse it gets, the better for revolutionaries”. Characterised by the Weathermen and the urban guerilla movements, like the RAF, in the 60s and 70s. “The liberatory hopes of the past and their confidence in the collective power of others have given way to the uncertain hope and fear of collapse, befitting our anti-utopian and crisis fraught times.”

All the bugbears of the right are on display in James Davis’s essay on Catastrophism and the Right. For them society, as we know it, is under attack from immigration, Islam, women’s liberation of peoples, multi-culturalism.  In the USA there is a spectacular display of the populist right, who have taken a central role in the organizing of the more extreme rightist positions in the political spectrum and which have a large influence in sections of popular consciousness. Following the millenarians of the 19th century, communism and secularism and later multiculturalism were seen as catastrophic dangers to the American way of life, which is identified as freedom and liberty.  In the fifties, figures like Billy Graham, who trailed through Britain expounding the dangers of sex and drugs and rock and roll and anything liberatory, was given a huge audience within the context of the Cold War.  Jerry Falwall and Pat Robertson opposing women’s liberation and gay rights used private television channels to drive the message home: the security of the state would be ensured by the family, patriarchy, morality, monogamy, authority and the free market. The enemy for them is democracy and equality and their response has been to elevate the individual swimming against tides of mediocrity.

Davis identifies their eugenicist underpinnings, with their assertion that multi ethnic populations will create a dilution of a nation’s intellectual qualities. We have seen this in sections of the Tea Party, as well as in rightist and neo fascist developments throughout Europe.  A supreme example is that of Anders Breivik, influenced it was revealed by writings of even such as Melanie Phillips amongst others. “Post cold war i.e. after communism the rudders are the fantasy of Islam or Latin American degeneration. … The existential threat of Islam is of course immediate and will be seen to have won “in our lifetime”. 

The state has always used repression to fight social movements that promote an expanding democratic agenda, and while the right attacks the state as liberal, the state responds with harsh measures previously off limits e.g. over immigrants. But Davis extends this to encompassing the way in which exceptional events permit the introduction of vicious and antidemocratic measures. The whole war on terror was such an example, and one which was adopted not only within the USA but which became a template for all the “developed” world. Within that context there was “an exchange of social and political freedoms for freedom from fear” whereas there was no such limitation on the impact of neoliberal policies, which had been globally adopted wholesale through the last twenty years, with all the concomitant fears and insecurity for people who rely on their labour power.

For the essay by David McNally, Land of the Living Dead, the status quo is indeed itself the catastrophe.  Looking at film and fantasy fiction with their plethora of zombies and vampires, he develops the argument that such imagery stems from the origins of capitalism and the exploitation of labourers, forced to sell their labour power,  “sapping away all their lives and becoming almost zombies”.  He focuses on the way the zombie is viewed in Haiti, a figure without memory, without self consciousness or agency. The denial therefore of all that is human.  Considering the impact of neoliberal policies throughout Latin America and Africa, it is only too apparent that structural adjustment programes have exacerbated all that was dehumanizing.  But he then offers liberation – through the living dead re-emerging as the rebellious.  Emphasising that there is no catastrophic collapse, which would herald the new dawn, he returns, like the other contributors to the answer being “decidedly mundane activities – strikes and demonstrations meetings speeches leaflets and occupations”.

This is an important book, which emphasizes and confirms the old methods, ones which may not have proved successful in the past but which none the less are the methods of analyzing, agitating and organizing. Whilst recognizing that these are hard times and there are few developments which signal a glorious future, we have seen the impact of Occupy, of landless movements, and of an economic and political crisis that places capitalism as a system which has failed and has to be replaced.  The question as ever is how this will be achieved.

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Catastrophism in EcoEquity

by Tom Athanasiou
January 31st, 2013

There are four essays in this slim volume, one on left catastrophism, one on green catastrophism, one on right catastrophism, and one on zombies. I’m most interested in the left and the greens, though we do need to keep an eye on the right. As for the zombie craze, doesn’t it just come down to the fact that modern life feels like people keep trying to eat your face off?

Doug Henwood’s preface sets the stage nicely. He immediately makes a point that all green pessimists should keep always in mind: “Catastrophe can be paralyzing, not mobilizing.” In fact, it usually is. The challenge is to remember this even as you face the real and present catastrophe that’s now visible on the horizon. It’s a dilemma, no doubt about it, but the way forward, whatever it is, is going to have to take both its horns into proper account. The question is how.

Catastrophism comes at a good time for the green movement, which is in a period of rapid change. The key point here is that, even as we struggle to come to terms with the latest climate science, we need to remember (see particularly James Davis’ essay) that catastrophism is the “native terrain” of the right. The baseline point here is that right-wing politics is all about natural limits (scarcity, austerity, etc) rather than social ones (even in a world of limits, we’d be fine if we shared the commonwealth).  This is not to say that environmentalism itself is biased toward the right – just the contrary – but it has flirted with catastrophism for a long, long time, and along the way it has had a number of unfortunate dalliances, particularly with right-wing populationism and xenophobia.

The challenge now is to invent a just and inclusive politics of planetary limits, while at the same tale navigating a landscape in which “natural limits” and “scarcity” have long served to justify class stratification and economic exclusion. And this, if I may make a wild, undefended claim, is just not going to happen until we project a vision of the future that is fair, sustainable, and — here’s the problem — believable. Which is a bit of a problem, particularly because many enviros actually believe that our civilization is altogether beyond redemption.

Here’s Sasha Lilly, from her introduction:

“Catastrophism presumes that society is headed for a collapse, whether economic, ecological, social, or spiritual. This collapse is frequently, but not always, regarded as great cleansing, out of which a new society will be born. Catastrophists tend to believe that an ever-intensified rhetoric of disaster will awaken the masses from their long slumber – if the mechanical failure of the system does not make such struggles superfluous.”

Throughout Catastrophism, examples of such “ever-intensified” environmental rhetoric abound. Paul Ehrlich’s prediction of global famine by the end of the 20th Century is of course a classic (one that he’s never quite been able to live down) but there’s lots more to regret as well. Helen Caldecott and Chris Hedges are both called onto the carpet, as is Derrick Jensen, who seems intent on becoming a living caricature of self-aggrandizing green despair. Nor do the authors mount a merely cultural critique. As Lilly notes, “Catastrophic politics have a lengthy track record of failure,” and we really shouldn’t be spending our time trying to make that record even longer. We should be planning for success, and that means putting global economic justice square at the center of the green political agenda. Which, by the way, is just the sort of development that the right (see Davis’ essay) would regard as an unmitigated catastrophe.

On the related point – catastrophism as the native terrain of the right – Malthus is of course Exhibit A, though Hobbes stands close behind him. As, by the way, does James Howard Kunstler, the peak-oil snark-meister who has long rampaged against immigration. Eddie Yuen, in his essay on environmental catastrophism, expands this point nicely. He surveys “the main reasons that [it] has not led to more dynamic social movements; these include catastrophe fatigue, the paralyzing effects of fear; the pairing of overwhelmingly bleak analysis with inadequate solutions, and a misunderstanding of the process of politicization.” It’s a fine summary, and it introduces a fine essay, though I do have some quibbles, which essentially come down to my sense that the green movement is much farther along in its re-definition and renewal than Yuen gives it credit for. That said, he raises a host of good points, and when it comes to the weakness of environmentalism-as-usual, I am quite unable to improve upon his key formulation: “the pairing of overwhelmingly bleak analysis with inadequate solutions.”

The inadequacy of our solutions is indeed the problem. And it’s becoming a critical one as climate denialism collapses. Which is to say that, as the denialists lose any residual aura of scientific legitimacy, we’re being left alone with the truth – we are in very serious trouble indeed. And though we have almost all the technology we need to save ourselves, and the science to develop the rest, and plenty of money besides, few people really believe that we’re going to rise to the occasion. They go straight “from aware to despair,” and the awful truth is that the greens are not altogether innocent bystanders. Lacking as they do a vision of a just and sustainable global society, they have all too little to contribute to a believable strategy of global emergency mobilization.

The good news is that the need for such a strategy is now well understood. There’s lots of motion now, and lots of thinking, all around the world. And there’s the fact that catastrophe is not our immutable fate, not yet in any case. So the next time you feel the temptation to foretell doom, just say no. As Henwood asks, “Wouldn’t it be better to spin narratives of how humans are marvelously resourceful creatures who could a lot better with the intellectual, social, and material resource we have?”

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Catastrophism in the San Francisco Book Review

by Glenn Dallas
San Francisco Book Review
February 7th, 2013

The Mayan apocalypse may have been a bust, but with environmental fears, peak oil concerns, staggering population predictions, the threat of terrorism, the specter of nuclear annihilation, and increasingly sensationalist rhetoric, catastrophe has become a buzzword, an all-too-common part of our vocabulary.

Catastrophism collects four articles investigating the politics of despair, crisis, and catastrophe, as employed by both the left and the right in America. The contributors argue that the overuse of doomsday references has led to a national sense of crisis fatigue and environmental apathy, and that such gloom-and-doom narratives are often employed to push religious, racist, and nationalist agendas.

Admittedly, I was most engaged by the closing article, which explored the modern popularity of zombie outbreaks and similar stories, and how they reflect contemporary views and values on catastrophic thinking. It’s a wonderfully down-to-earth examination that backs up many of the arguments made earlier in the book that might have been lost in highfalutin’ narrative.

At its heart, Catastrophism states that fear-based politics are a dead end. Hopefully, this can be the spark for new discussions, more rational debate, and a collective change in direction for government. With well-directed skepticism and fresh eyes, this book is a decent start.

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Catastrophism in the Socialist Review

by Mark Bergfeld
Socialist Review
January 2013

Frederic Jameson once stated, "It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism." With climate change negotiations deadlocked, the biggest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s and right wing media pundits declaring the end of Western civilisation in the face of the supposed Islamic threat, this book is the perfect antidote to the catastrophism that has become common currency from left to right.

Catastrophism is the belief that "natural disasters", nuclear wipe-outs, and apocalypse promise political change and even revolutionary transformation. So environmental activists argue that floods and forest fires will wake the masses from their apathy and hail a new world. The Copenhagen Climate Summit 2009 was seen to be "the last chance to save the planet from burning". While things are getting worse, the movement hasn't been able to mobilise people on that basis. Similarly, the current economic crisis hasn't meant that people automatically draw revolutionary and socialist conclusions.

In four essays Eddie Yuen, Sasha Lilley, James Davis and David McNally argue that such catastrophism serves a deeply reactionary function. Basing one's political strategy on such scenarios of disaster only demobilises and fosters fear, inaction and cynicism. Sasha Lilley's essay here is an important contribution drawing on history, and a Marxist strategy and tactics that readers of this magazine will enjoy and learn from.

Capitalism's history has shown that the system is dynamic, flexible and can overcome crises. Yet the Second International's elaboration that capitalism would collapse under its own weight like a Jenga Tower is prominent as ever. Disastrous theories have disastrous consequences in reality as well as for the revolutionary and Marxist left.

Deep-seated pessimism about the ability for workers to change the world produces voluntarism on the one hand and determinism on the other. While many believe that these are diametrically opposed, Lilley argues that they are the product of the same world-view and thus overlap.

Rosa Luxemburg's famous formulation "Socialism or Barbarism" inverts catastrophism according to Lilley. "Instead of capitalist collapse heralding a new society, it will produce a barbarism unless revolutionaries achieve socialism first."

Catastrophism is a refreshing book that draws out important lessons from history, Marxism and current environmental movements. Its belief in the actuality of changing the world for the better is sorely needed at times when much of the left has given up hopes of the revolutionary and socialist transformation of the system. It reminds us of Gramsci's famous words, "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will".

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Rebel Voices reviewed in Labor Studies Journal

by William A. Pelz
Labor Studies Journal
June 2012 37: 236-237

Born in 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) at its height organized hundreds of thousands of workers to create a type of solidarity unionism that included women, minorities, and immigrants, all of whom have been too often ignored by mainstream labor. Although the IWW has yet to build the “One Big Union” of its dreams, it has nonetheless been an inspiration for generations of workers and radicals. In Daniel Gross’s preface to this new edition of the long-out-of-print 1964 edition, he claims that this is “the most important book ever written about the Industrial Workers of the World” (p. ix). Although a bold statement, there is much truth in it, because Rebel Voices is a fine collection of original source material written by IWW members themselves. Naturally, this means there is no pretense of objectivity or  detached analysis. Yet it allows the reader to feel the passion that drew so many to the organization. By including a rich collection of cartoons, posters, and other graphics, this anthology is lively, informative, and at times, inspirational.

While most chapters appear mainly of historical interest (e.g., “Patterson: 1913”), the material gives a clear sense of the ideas that motivated IWW members and supporters. Starting from the premise that the “working class and the employing class have nothing in common” (p. 12), the IWW put forth a class-struggle vision of unionism. Placing great importance on democracy and direct action, it challenged more traditional trade unionism. Believing that unions based on craft needlessly divided the working class, the IWW was a pioneer in the development of industrial unionism before the CIO was even conceived.

With seditious humor and biting satire, Rebel Voices brings alive the revolutionary syndicalist challenge to both the capitalists and mainstream trade unionists. One need not agree with the arguments made in this book to find them thought provoking. Further, the book advances the claim that the work of the IWW has helped protect civil liberties. The IWW was a leader in the fight for free speech in an early-twentieth-century America, where verbalizing opposition to the status quo was all too often a criminal offense. When the First World War struck, the IWW was clear about which side it supported. The IWW argued that it was on the side of workers being forced to kill their fellow workers for the benefit of the employing class. This was a courageous
position that opened the already persecuted group to even greater state repression.

A twenty-first-century reader may fairly question the relevance of the views of the IWW today. Despite the IWW’s recent campaigns to organize Starbucks workers and bicycle messengers, it must be admitted that the IWW lacks the social muscle it once possessed. No matter, it remains an alternative vision of unionism that deserves a hearing, and to some, it may even be considered the conscience of the labor movement. The IWW once had a skit where one of the characters pointed at a building and said, “Folks that didn’t build it own it, and the fellows who built it don’t own it, I think that’s crazy” (p. 377). Maybe the IWW has a point.

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When Miners March reviewed in Appalachian Journal

when miners marchBy Peter Slavin
Appalachian Journal: A Regional Studies Review
VOLUME 39, NOS. 3 & 4 (SPR/SUMMER 2012)

Few significant episodes in American history have been as lost to the nation's memory as the West Virginia Mine Wars of 1920-21 and its climactic event, the Battle of Blair Mountain. The ruthless oppression of coal miners and the United Mineworkers of America by the coal industry, backed to the hilt by state and local authorities, led to a decade of violence and finally armed revolt by the Red Neck Army, some 10,000 bandana-clad miners. Their armed march to bring their union to tyrannized fellow miners and their fight on Blair Mountain against a paramilitary force defending the status quo was quelled only when thousands of federal troops intervened. The miners' leaders were charged with capital crimes and put on trial. (None were convicted.)

Front-page news across the country at the time and the subject of congressional hearings, the Battle of Blair Mountain and the trials were all but forgotten, helped by the fact that the West Virginia authorities kept any mention out of the state's textbooks for decades. After all, they had been on the wrong side of the greatest insurrection on American soil since the Civil War. But in the last few years, the Mine Wars have reemerged.

First, a group of historians and UMWA President Cecil Roberts leveled harsh criticism at the West Virginia History Museum's coal displays, including a misleading account of what led up to the Battle of Blair Mountain. Second, a fight has been raging over whether or not to place the Blair Mountain battlefield on the National Register of Historic Places, as a way to honor it and protect it from mountaintop removal mining. Preservationists, environmentalists, and labor historians have squared off against coal companies and state and federal authorities over the battlefield's fate. Finally, in June of 2011, hundreds of people, banners aloft, marched 50 miles during six days along the route the miners took to Blair Mountain in 1921, urging that the site be saved, and 800 rallied high on the mountain.

When Miners March
is the sweeping and heavily documented account of the Mine Wars from the governor's mansion to coal tipples as portrayed by the son of Bill Blizzard, the leader of the Red Neck Army-all told as the miners saw it. There is no pretense of impartiality. Coal miners, the author notes, were "the victims of exploitation, cruelty, bad working conditions, miserable pay, and murderous treatment if they dared protest." The book first appeared in the 1950s as a series of newspaper articles, and the style is old fashioned, but the writing is full-bodied and biting, with humorous jabs sprinkled throughout.

William C. Blizzard, a journalist, takes us through the long and bloody history of coal in West Virginia, with stops at the UMWA's first struggles, the fierce strike at Paint Creek and Cabin Creek, World War I's impact on coal, the shootout at Matewan and Sid Hatfield's assassination, the Armed March, Blair Mountain, the trials, and the aftermath. In one county, we find "Some 2,800 miners . . . locked out of their jobs and thrown out of their homes . . . nearly, 10,000 men, women and children were living in tents and shacks while the coal companies attempted to starve them into submission." We see the armored train known as the Bull Moose Special firing machine guns into tents holding evicted mining families. We find martial law and drumhead courts.

We observe the scheming of C.E. Lively, the company spy who plotted Hatfield's murder and helped execute him. We learn the lengths to which coal operators and government leaders were willing to go to break strikes and defeat the UMWA: employ hired thugs, court injunctions, and scabs, and call in the National Guard. We find men arrested for reading The United Mineworkers Journal. Like today, we see coal operators controlling the machinery of the state, including the courts, and using it to subdue miners who fought back.

This is the second edition of When Miners March. It is more professional in many ways than the original, containing a rare biographical sketch of Bill Blizzard, an expanded Foreword and Acknowledgments, blurbs from historians, and color photographs, as well as something as basic as a Table of Contents. Even the cover art is much improved.

When Miners March
shows us how far West Virginia has come from those brutal days. And yet, are things that much better? Today, most of the state's miners are non-union, and their families support the coal companies that give them a paycheck. Mining abuses are still common, but resistance now comes far more from a minority of residents and environmentalists than from the UMWA, whose heyday is long gone. The coal companies and the state have generally replaced violence with political power, but they still play hardball and win far more battles than they lose.

Peter Slavin
Freelance journalist Peter Slavin has been doing feature and investigative work in Appalachia since 1995. His latest article in Blue Ridge Country profiles Bill Blizzard, the miners' general at Blair Mountain.

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The Fifth Inning on

by Paul Buhle
January 28th, 2013

A distinguished African American poet and for decades a prime cultural organizer on the campus of Howard University in the glory era of Black Studies and in the largely black community of D.C., Ethelbert Miller has always been a surprisingly youthful Wise Old Man in the African sense, a senior figure, soothsayer, and a poet. Now he is not so young any more.

He is still, however, an undiminished baseball fan of note, and there is no doubt that his appreciation of the National Pastime blossomed under the warm sun of his favorite philosopher and mine, C.L.R. James. Around 1970, the aged James -- who many across the world took to be that ancient Wise Man -- took a job teaching at what was then Federal City College. A circle of activists surrounded James and provided him an avid audience as well as logistical support (he was palsied and had trouble making his own way), with Miller often at the head of the group, connecting him with ordinary African Americans of the moment, seeking wisdom in a rapidly changing racial environment. James's great love, apart from philosophy and revolution, was unquestionably cricket, of which he was undeniably the greatest historian and savant. James's cricket is Miller's baseball.

Here, Miller has chosen to wind the contradictions of life, of his own life, and all of us in middle age (or beyond) into the game that so many of us considered the very center of our lives, way back in the summers of childhood. He insists, at the outset, that he has himself reached the fifth inning, and we surely hope he will go the distance. As he says, someone is getting up in the dugout or the bullpen (I keenly appreciate the anxiety, perhaps an approaching sense of relief as well: off to life's showers).

He hears about the death of great poets -- those he knew well, sponsored, read alongside, loved, and now misses. June Jordan for starters. Like an elderly Yiddish poet I knew thirty years ago, he is scratching out the names of the deceased in his little phone book. It's the cost of surviving.

He begins another chapter with a memory or imagined memory of being on the mound. For the first three innings, he feels like he could go on forever. He has the fastball. Then the innings go by and he doesn't have it any more. Suddenly, the batters hit for extra bases and it's over. Next chapter: "So what went wrong? Do you want to talk with the sports writer, therapist or literary critic?" He feel like a former star playing out the string, traded to another team, box-office-useful for his name more than what he can do on the field.

Ethelbert Miller spent so much of his life taking care of other people, from his mother to the poets and fiction writers visiting Howard, and, naturally, also his family, that perhaps he never appreciated how much we, who saw him in action only from time to time, appreciated him for what he was doing. It looked so natural because he was obviously so good at it.

Now he's afraid -- not ashamed like the rest of us to admit being afraid -- that he's the shortstop who failed to touch second amidst a double play. Even if the umpires didn't notice. He also thinks (slipping back into the role that I remember best) that he should now contemplate his very last pitch. Fastball, curve, knuckler? What would Satchel Paige throw if he had one more pitch to throw?

Unanswered questions. But beautifully proposed. This is real E. Ethelbert Miller and a little book to treasure.

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Punk Rock in RazorCake

By Jimmy Alvarado
Monday, January 21 2013

These days it’s almost as if you can close your eyes, throw a rock in any direction and hit either a book about U.K. punk’s “golden age,” or some punter who’s writing one. Most of them follow the same template: focus your attention on the Pistols, Clash, and so on, then pontificate liberally about the impact of the whole nonsense on Western Civilization as a whole before declaring the whole thing deader than a swastika-shirted bass player by 1979. The myopia and fallaciousness of that frame of mind is screamingly obvious to anyone who’s spent more than a week paying attention to punk, but nonetheless that attitude has become a bit of a cottage industry unto itself in the punk book world.

That said, this is another book wherein the lion’s share of pages roughly cover the same span of time as all the others. It is, however, a bit different both in structure, scope, and attitude. First, as its title implies, it’s an oral history, and for the most part allows its subjects to do the talking. Second, while there is no shortage of talk about that scene’s iconic bands, it also includes a wealth of information about names the casual punk fan might not be quite as familiar with—Lurkers, Eater, Subway Sect, Flowers Of Romance, and the Spitfire Boys—and it isn’t afraid to also include lengthy discussions about second and even third wave bands.

Author John Robb—who, having done time in both ‘80s punk sensations The Membranes and, more recently, Goldblade, is no stranger to the subject matter—keeps the tone conversational, allowing his subjects to go on related tangents and even snipe back and forth on occasion (although he also isn’t afraid to call bullshit or interject when he disagrees with someone’s assessment of another’s merits) while adhering to a fairly straightforward timeline. As a result, the book provides a decidedly more holistic view of punk’s explosion in the U.K. than most, giving first-person accounts of where the scene originated and how it developed and mutated, with tons of trivia ‘n’ tidbits (who fuggin’ knew Siouxsie Sioux’s whole shtick was just as influenced by the evil queen in Disney’s Snow White as it was by the more frequently cited Weimar Republic-via-Cabaret?) to keep one’s interest piqued throughout.

Best of all, Robb is well versed enough with punk’s history to know better than to pander that same tired “punk died in ___” jazz, stopping roughly in the early ‘80s merely because it’s just as good a place to stop as any, and acknowledging punk rock has continued on and even had some, albeit largely superficial, effect on the dominant culture. I went into this book with no shortage of trepidation, but as it stands, I’d say it’s as close to a go-to tome as you’re gonna get if you’re looking for a street-level account of the origins of Europe’s wing of the punk revolution. –Jimmy Alvarado (PM Press, PO Box 23912, Oakland, CA94623)

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Radiant Time: An Interview with Michael Moorcock

by Jerome Winter
Los Angeles Review of Books
January 20th, 2013

AS EDITOR OF the magazine New Worlds from 1964 to 1978, Michael Moorcock helped to revolutionize the SF field by publishing experimental work by J.G. Ballard, Brian W. Aldiss, and others. From 1965 to 1976, Moorcock also wrote the Cornelius Quartet, which follows an antiestablishment urban adventurer-rock star in a madcap race against the concept of linear time itself. Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné series staged an irreverent intervention into epic fantasy, chronicling the brooding adventures of an albino king. By the early 1970s, Moorcock had begun to unite his dauntingly proliferating work into a rich “multiverse” of interconnected speculative-fantastic fiction. One sterling example of this vast fictive palimpsest was Gloriana (1978), dedicated to the phantasmagoric Mervyn Peake. In 1988, Moorcock published the celebrated novel Mother London (shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize) in which mundane realism merges with the fantastic in an encyclopedic encapsulation of a city. And King of the City (2000) returns to a sordid London scene to unleash a savage satire that spans the globe and the entire twentieth century. In 2013, Victor Gollancz will begin publishing a collected edition of all his work.


The metamorphosis of Blitzed London became the Chaotic landscapes of Elric the Albino. As in need of his soul-drinking sword as Chet Baker was in need of his junk, he witnessed the death of his Empire, even conspired in it. The adrenaline rushes of aerial bombardment and imminent death informed Jerry Cornelius stories where London’s ruins were recreated and disaster had a celebratory face. And the Holocaust became the background for the black comedies of my Colonel Pyat books. We tried to create a new literature which expressed our own experience … all the great writers who contributed to my journal New Worlds were rejecting modernism not from any academic attempt to discover novelty but in order to find forms which actually described what they had witnessed, what they had felt.
—from “A Child’s Christmas in the Blitz”

Michael Moorcock:
As usual I find myself qualifying or quarreling with myself. Aldiss didn’t reject modernism. He was some years older than Ballard and me and wanted to bring SF in line with modernism. Ballard and I in particular argued against nostalgia as a form of sentimentality that distorts all experience. I thought all fiction of that time rotten with it! Ballard agreed. There were of course a number of reasons that brought so many individuals together at the same time. Some of those reasons would be the ones that later split us apart. Same as rock bands, really. Our common passion brought us together; our individual passions — our egos if you like — ultimately made us take pretty different paths.

So I’m disinclined to generalize too readily. Ballard and I were both bored by space fiction. Aldiss was highly literate but he loved generic SF and, like Harlan Ellison in the US, wanted to improve writing standards, characterization, and so on. Ellison wanted SF to be braver, to tackle the hard subjects. Spinrad did, too. Ballard wanted originally to emulate Ray Bradbury but his interest, like mine, was in addressing a general literary audience. The so-called “new wave” (we never called it that or anything else — I hated the idea of “movements” if not manifestos) had at least two agendas along with the personal agendas of the writers. I wanted to use some of the techniques and targets of SF to create narratives that seemed to me appropriate to our times. Peter Blake, the pop artist who did the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper sleeve, talks about the cultural optimism of those days and that inspired much of what we were doing. We had contributors to New Worlds like Eduardo Paolozzi, another prominent pop artist inspired by SF who, fundamentally, was trying to do something very similar as us and enthusiastically came aboard as our “Aeronautics Advisor.” A lot of rock musicians took inspiration from NW. In London the arts seemed to blend more — music, painting, poetry — than, say, in New York. We shared facilities with most of the underground papers like Frendz, Oz, IT, Ink, and so on, which meant we also shared contributors to some degree.


[The Blitz] was the first I fully understood how detached governments become from ordinary people…. I never went home. I worked in the East End all that time. The carnage was disgusting. Expecting London to collapse, the authorities made no real provisions for defense. The ordinary people pulled the city through. They forced the tube stations to give them shelter. Against official disapproval they set up street groups, volunteers, amateur firefighters. It wasn’t Churchill or the King of bloody England who kept up our morale. It was the men and women whose homes and families were bombed to bits discovering their own resources. But it was hard work. Frequently we had only our bare hands to dig away bricks and concrete and all kinds of filth, trying to find anyone who might be alive.
—from Mother London

In some ways Mother London could be the novel where I most successfully incorporated a touch of SF, using “telepathy” to represent the multi-ethnic voice of the city. There was no compunction to take that element literally (any more than the womb/time-machine in Behold the Man). Psychogeography would have been influenced by Guy Debord, of course. I could see the way consumerism, especially the aggressive kind embraced by Thatcherism/Reaganism, was repackaging our heritage, our memories, our traditions, the sinews of mythology by which we live, in order to maximize financial profitability. Tourism thrives on simplified, sentimentalized, sanitized stories. Within a short time every little town and hamlet, rather than profiting incidentally from any tourism, had to make its own living from tourism — a notoriously unreliable means of earning an income — rather than by its industry. Because it was cheaper to manufacture elsewhere or not manufacture at all. Thanks to monetarism most of us became whores, very often in our own eyes. Monetarism took over the public rhetoric as well as the public’s imagination.

In my mind those two (Maggie & Ron) dealt the human psyche a terrible blow. They learned the art of buying and selling souls. A rather melodramatic statement, but many who were told to see services as commodities (health, education, public safety, the arts, etc.) felt exactly as if they were being told to sell their souls. They were told to sell their most profound hopes, dreams, and fears at a profit. Of course, to do that they had to resort to the most sentimental arguments, the most distorted forms of nostalgia, atrociously maudlin, insulting to their constituents and the faith they claimed to draw upon. Such jumped-up accountants in politics have always been the enemies of art but never had a campaign been more successful. The job of the novelist became that of the revenant and the satirist, the archivist, almost. And, more than ever, the moralist. The strong moral element that attracted me to Pilgrim’s Progress, The Amazing Marriage, The Stars My Destination, or Felix Krull informed everything I did, including the supernatural adventure stories I wrote to finance myself and my own less commercial projects. Apart from early juvenile fiction, I never wrote on less than two levels. But I had to change direction somewhat in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

We had most of us assumed that, through activism and democratic discussion and persuasion, we could slowly but surely improve the world. In the 1970s we were talking about “the problem of leisure,” of wiping out disease and poverty throughout the world: zero population growth was another idea to stop us using up the world’s resources. That was our goal. Our expectations might have been unrealistic but they were positive. The 1980s turned all that optimism into the most banal forms of nostalgia and triumphalism (Falklands, for instance), and the fall of the USSR was an opportunity to gloat rather than come together to serve the world. I think that was the cleverest and most evil trick big business and its political henchmen played on all of us. To keep us from resisting them they had to corrupt individual memory as well as history. Orwell was right about 1984 but he didn’t foresee, as some of the leftwing New York SF writers of the ‘50s foresaw, the subtleties of such manipulation. Anyone could see that Communism was a loser, but I also saw growing up how democratic socialism could demonstrate the benefits of, for instance, “socialized medicine,” so that a succession of incoming right wing conservatives did not dare dismantle it.


“We’re clearing things up. Tidying the world."

"You might just as well be in the political age. You can’t bring it back, Frank."

"We will."

"Not for long."

"You’ll see."

"But you know what I’m going to do to you, don’t you?"

"Randomize. The equilibrium of anarchy."

"More or less."

"You won’t succeed. History’s against you, Jerry."

"That’s the difference between you and me, Frank. I’m against History."

—from A Cure for Cancer

I’m sort of cautious about using “alternate history” as a description of the Cornelius stories since they were not conceived as that. Jerry is meant to inhabit the world we know. I describe him as an urban adventurer, using the description Edmond Hamilton created for 'noir' thrillers -- urban adventure stories. The stories are parables but nothing else, I think. Yet it’s not wrong to use 'alternate history' I guess, since a transition was being made from using the language of SF to using my own language and narrative techniques. JC/2 was in my own view a “mandarin” book. A flashy playing with genre (for the most part) rather than a serious use of its tropes. I still find the Elric symbols of Law (a single straight arrow) and Chaos (arrows pointing in every direction) very useful. I’m suspicious of the conventional mindset that believes there’s only one good answer to a question. Simple arguments are attractive to the general public, sadly.

I’ve recently come up with the fun notion of “Radiant Time” as an image to suggest a universe of limitless possibilities — the human brain, in fact — situationalist strategies for the 21st century — a means of understanding the modern psyche and society. It’s balanced by the notion of Linear Time and its proponents. Pretty evident where my sympathies lie, of course! Space is a dimension of Time!

Linear vs. non-linear was almost the most important battle of our time. I’ve tried most of the existing methods and created some of my own. Art reflects the crises of society. We are always writing about our world, whether we’re conscious of it or not. The best way of doing it is consciously, surely? That also helps us identify how much “self” plays in the equation. As an editor I learned how much negative self-consciousness works against creativity. Unlike the modernism of 100 years ago, contemporary artists have to find ways of forgetting about the self. Give the outside world their strictest attention. Genre fiction offers techniques for writing about the world without much self-reference. In that sense I suppose it is a reaction against modernism, but I believe what we do is more positive than that, since it works to combine a variety of techniques and approaches, rejecting nothing. This is a moment in our history where we need to look reality right in the eyes.


The ideas of Byron and Shelley have probably caused more young men to lose their lives in hopeless, idiotic, romantic causes than the ideas of Karl Marx. Romanticism is the disease of the Modern Age. It is the direct result of increased leisure among a certain class. If one does not believe me, one only has to look around at the so-called hippies and ‘dropouts’ who always complain of poverty yet find time to bargain with me for coats worth twice the price I am charging, and pay in the end with money donated to them by the State!
—from Byzantium Endures

I’m also interested in “understanding the enemy” as it were. What idealism informs the reactionary? I am very superstitious. I felt I should pay back for the gifts I’ve had. I wanted to get to the roots of the Holocaust in the Pyat books. I was afraid it might happen again. I felt I had a moral duty to write those books. Everything since finishing them has seemed relative easy! 25 years of having to look reality steadily in the eyes. It's exhausting.


“Elric refuses to understand the danger, Princess Cymoril. Yyrkoon’s ambition could bring disaster to all of us. Including Yyrkoon." Cymoril sighed. "Aye, including Yyrkoon. But how can we avoid this, Cymoril, if Elric will not give orders for your brother’s arrest?"

"He believes that such as Yyrkoon should be allowed to say what they please. It is part of his philosophy. I can barely understand it, but it seems integral to his whole belief. If he destroys Yyrkoon, he destroys the basis on which his logic works. That at any rate, Dragon Master, is what he has tried to explain to me."
—from Elric of Melibone

I was astonished to find that even fantasy readers could be literal-minded. Early letters to the magazine where the stories first appeared would criticize me for not describing in more detail the geopolitical background of Melnibone. I still have to point out to readers that I don’t do “world-building”! My landscapes represent the emotional states of the characters (as in Wuthering Heights, for instance). I only recently learned, by the way, that supernatural fantasy stories were split into various sub-divisions — Sword & Sorcery, Dark Fantasy, High Fantasy, and so on. Reviewing a collection of “Epic fantasy,” one critic recently said that I am not an epic fantasy writer but a founder of the “sword and sorcery” school. The irony being that I came up with the terms “epic fantasy” or “heroic fantasy” as a suggestion to describe the genre in discussions with Fritz Leiber, L. Sprague de Camp, and others. Fritz used the term S&S (referring to Cloak and Dagger fiction) and it stuck! He included Tolkien and [Robert E.] Howard in his term for the genre.

This could be the right moment to remind people that I hated the endless discussions of what to call various divisions of supernatural or science fantasy and refused to join in. In my view books should be classified according to whether they’re fiction or nonfiction and by author. I know many readers who broadened their reading because they picked out an author in mistake for another. Harry Harrison said that he would never have read and enjoyed all of E.M. Forster if when young he hadn’t been looking for C.S. Forester and A Passage to India sounded like a rattling good sea-story to him! When Lord of the Rings and Gormenghast (as well as Elric) first appeared, mainstream critics were arguing that they were post-apocalyptic science fiction stories because they couldn’t decide what category they fitted!

She yawned. If the Lords of Entropy were to manifest themselves on Earth again as they had in the legendary past she felt she might welcome them as a relief, at least, to her boredom. Not, of course, that she believed in those terrible prehistoric fables, though sometimes she could not help wishing that they had really existed and that she had lived in them, for they must surely have been more colourful and stimulating than this present age, where dull Reason drove bright Romance away: granite scattering mercury.
—from Gloriana

I think Mervyn Peake owes a lot to the great English, French, and, to a degree, Russian and German absurdists and surrealists. He’s echoing them as much as he seems to be rejecting modernism (even though reference works often list him as a modernist!). It’s true, if you like, that he failed to reflect many of the examples of modernism, even though he knew and enjoyed modernists. Maeve, his wife, read Proust almost continuously in English and French, forwards and backwards, and he loved Joyce. They both admired Picasso. But he wasn’t exactly in any school. He was his own man. He can’t be imitated and didn’t beget a genre. He has influenced very few generic fantasts. Perhaps because there is almost nothing supernatural in the Titus sequence. I think the comparisons are to Sterne, Peacock, Carroll, Lear, Jarry, Firbank.

If you look at the books Peake chose to illustrate, there’s Alice, Snark, Book of Nonsense — and a number of other nonsense books for children. He was attracted to nineteenth-century romantics as well as Balzac, Dickens, and Stevenson, and I remember him telling me about an early “pilgrimage” to meet Walter de la Mare, author of Memoirs of a Midget and many others. That was in the days when English fantasy was recognized as a quality rather than a category and included T.H. White, Lewis, and Tolkien as being very much the same tradition. If I ever have time I’d love to write a piece about this. It’s also interesting that pretty much every English 20th century realist had a fantasy in them from Woolf to Waugh, Angus Wilson to Amis. Everyone, it seems, has at least one idea best expressed in a fantastic manner.

And that was history, too, right? What a fucking century. You start with the first concentration camps, an Imperial War, carving up Africa (or actual Africans in Leopold’s case), add a chorus of all the agonized millions crawling from the dirt of no man’s land, into the Russian Civil War, Stalin, the rise of fascism, the Holocaust, World War Two, Hiroshima, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Bosnia, Rwanda and East Timor. And Kosova, of course. What a century, pards. What a bloody century.
—from King of the City

King of the City wasn’t designed to reflect Mother London. Or really expand on it. King is, if anything, the male novel to Mother’s female novel! The voices are very different. I never really saw them as connected. The publishers chose to use the earlier book in their advertising. King is a more autobiographical book and a far angrier book, reflecting my own frustrations in the twelve years between one appearing and the other. To be betrayed by the right is one thing; to be betrayed by the left is another! I could hardly bear the distress in the world when I wrote King and it is a far more political novel than Mother London. ML was a celebration of my home city. KotC was a kind of mourning for it as I watched the family silver being sold off.

The world's first all-purpose human being strode eastward, whistling.

"A tasty world," it reflected cheerfully. "A very tasty world."

"You said it, Cornelius!"

—from  The Final Programme

I’ve just finished a large novel called The Whispering Swarm. It’s an odd thing. Part autobiography, part metaphysical, part fantasy, part historical, it even has a bit of cod philosophy thrown in! That’s sitting for a while before I do the last draft. I’m working on a short autobiographical novel called Stalking Balzac (similar to my story “Stories” in Neil Gaiman’s recent anthology) which I’m about half-way through. I’m well into a long novella, “Kabul,” in the same sequence as My Experiences in the Third World War. I’m working on a new record album with Martin Stone and Pete Pavli called Live from the Terminal Cafe. We’ve been rehearsing it in Paris and plan to record in London next Spring. I’m doing a couple of Jerry Cornelius stories and maybe one last Elric novella to celebrate the first edition of The Stealer of Souls fifty years ago. Victor Gollancz in London will begin publishing a collected edition of almost my entire work in 2013, beginning with the most recent Elric books. It will be a definitive edition, thoroughly revised and corrected, in print and electronic form, and I’m very much looking forward to that!

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Cooperatives and Community Work Are Part of American DNA

by Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers

January 22nd, 2013

There is so much in US history that has been hidden or mythologized that ignorance is more common than knowledge even among the best informed. That is how we felt when we read For All the People and then interviewed the author, John Curl, on Clearing the FOG radio.

Curl's area of expertise is very important for those of us seeking transformational change to a new, more equitable economy and participatory democracy. His book methodically and authoritatively traces the hidden history of cooperatives, cooperation and communalism in US history. He shows how these models of economic democracy were intertwined with many of the transformational changes the country has made, including breaking from English empire, ending slavery, and gaining women's suffrage, worker rights and union rights, as well as civil rights. He also shows how economic democracy has been in constant battle with concentrated-wealth-based capitalism, which is threatened by a more equal distribution of wealth. This history is critical for advocates to understand; therefore, For All the People is essential reading.

Why Cooperatives, Cooperation and Communalism Matter

Creating transformational change is not only about protesting what we do not like and resisting and refusing to cooperate with the power structure; it also requires us to simultaneously build the world we want. If big-finance capitalism does not serve the people, what will? The mass of people who struggle through their daily lives need to know there is an alternative available that will meet their needs and improve their lives. People who urgently require employment, housing, food and other immediate needs can work together now to solve their problems in ways that also undermine big-finance capitalism and build democratic and sustainable systems.

Changing the economic system to one that is more democratic is fundamental to shifting political power away from concentrated wealth and to people. However, decentralized and democratic economic systems will not address all of the crises that exist sufficiently. Some, such as finance, health care, energy, climate and transportation require national approaches and coordination. When political power begins to shift, these bigger solutions can be put in place and greater transformation will be possible.

History reinforces the idea that to achieve transformational change, we must proceed on twin tracks: protesting and building. Mahatma Gandhi changed his emphasis in the mid-1930s, a dozen years before independence from the British Empire, to work focused on building economically self-reliant communities from below (sardovaya, or social uplift for all). This became an adjunct to the strategy he is most known for, satyagraha (noncooperation and civil disobedience to unjust laws). Gandhian economics meant thousands of self-sufficient small communities with self-rule and the need for economic self-sufficiency at the village level joined together in a cooperative federation of village republics. This is bookended by the Gandhian social ideal of dignity of labor, equitable distribution of wealth, communal self-sufficiency and individual freedom.

We discovered this two-path necessity when we were organizing the Occupation of Washington, DC at Freedom Plaza. We learned that change required a strategy of two parts: protesting what we oppose, and building what we want; to make the goals of the occupation clear, we called it Stop the Machine, Create a New World. The latter approach is important for many reasons and deserves more attention than the former because it builds community, solves urgent problems, builds wealth for individuals and communities, and creates the society we want.

The Early History of Cooperatives and Communalism

Curl begins before the European settlement of North America with the continent's natives. There were hundreds of tribes and nations north of Mexico which were based on community and working together to solve problems. Curl writes, "every account stresses community over individualism as their overriding core value." Indeed, the concept of individual private property in land and natural resources was unknown; tools were shared, as were the bounty of agriculture and hunts.

When it came to European colonists, "cooperation permeated the entire way of life." This was true in wave after wave of settlers, whether from Britain, France or Spain. They built houses for each other, plowed fields and shared food; they cleared land and built communities together. There were community gatherings to husk corn, quilt and sew, pare apples and launch ships.

The Spanish colonies, now the Southwest of the United States, were given community land grants by the king for groups of ten or more people. Large sections of common land (ejidos) were put aside for the entire community to share for farming, hunting, water and wood gathering. Of 295 land grants, 154 were community land grants. The common ejido could not be sold. Restoration of ejido lands was one of the central goals of the Zapatistas in the Mexican Revolution of 1910.

In New England, the battle between corporate power and individual rights existed from the very beginning. The first colony of Pilgrims threw off their investors who treated them as indentured servants (a forerunner to modern wage slavery) and instituted self-government. Their community started as a commune and evolved into a cooperative. People worked communally, the product of their work was stored in a community warehouse and needs were taken from a common store. The first major independent industry in Plymouth was a fishing cooperative.

To summarize the early colonial experience, Curl writes, "Cooperation, not competition resounded as the dominant chord across the continent." This self-government and cooperative economy was in constant conflict with the corporations empowered by the British Crown that ruled the colonies, finally leading to the American Revolution with rebellions like the Boston Tea Party, a revolt against the corporate monopoly of the British East India Company.

After the American Revolution, Cooperatives Continued, as Did the Battle With Concentrated Wealth

After the revolution, cooperation continued as a mainstream of the colonial economy. Artisans joined together in "cooperative warehouses" to buy materials at reasonable cost and distribute their products without a middleman. Benjamin Franklin organized 50 neighbors and friends to form the first subscription library, each paying 40 shillings to start the collection. The Union Fire Company, also organized by Franklin, provided for mutual aid in case of fire and was copied in many cities. These evolved into mutual insurance companies owned by a group of people together to insure each other against loss from fire, death or accident. These were copied in ten cities by 1800 and spread to farmers in the 1820s, becoming one of many forms of farmer cooperatives.

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote admiringly of mutual aid associations in the United States in Democracy in America: "Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations ... associations of a thousand kinds ... I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object for exertions of a great many men and inducing them voluntarily to pursue it...."

Throughout the early 1800s, there were a variety of cooperatives. As conflict between workers and owners developed, cooperatives supported workers during strikes. Workers formed cooperatives when they walked off jobs because of low pay and the requirement to work sun-up to sun-down in 75 hour work weeks. These gradually developed into the first unions, which courts often found to be illegal restraints of trade. By the 1830s, workers were winning the right to ten-hour workdays.

This was also a time when economic panics and bank failures became a pattern in the US economy. When there was economic collapse, communalism and cooperatives arose. People worked together to meet their needs. Among the most common were cooperative stores that involved barter, mutual aid and low prices for members. Often when these cooperatives grew to compete with traditional capitalism, capitalists fought back by refusing to sell them goods or transport their products and by undercutting their prices.

Mutual cooperatives formed to build homes for workers. A group of workers would pay monthly into a fund that was used to pay for building homes. The mutual co-op would hold the mortgage until the homes were paid for. These essentially became mutual savings banks, forerunners to the community banks and credit unions of today.

The issues of westward expansion, homesteading and slavery became dominant in the mid-1800s. The wage slaves of industry realized that if chattel slavery moved west, it would mean wages would stay low. This helped create a mass movement for stopping the westward expansion of slavery as well as for abolition. A number of key leaders of the abolition movement were also involved in the labor and cooperative movements, including Horace Greeley and Frederick Douglass.

Many workers put their hopes for liberation from wage slavery in the Homestead Act of 1862 signed by President Lincoln, which gave federal land grants to people (including freed slaves and women). Westward expansion and homesteading also presented a conflict with concentrated wealth, which wanted the land for its profit. In the end, homesteaders only received a quarter of the available land, with railroads and developers taking the rest.

As farming moved west, so did the cooperative movement. Farmers found themselves a small cog in a national chain, forced to buy overpriced seed, supplies and equipment and to pay excessive prices to transport their goods to market on railroads. A national grange movement developed, initially as a secret society. In 1868, the Minnesota Grange organized the first purchasing and marketing cooperative. In a few years, granges sprung up throughout the Midwest and Southwest as mutual aid societies fighting floods and bug infestations, with farmers educating each other and joining together for purchasing and marketing. Granges operated cooperative grain elevators, warehouses, shipping stations, processing plants, grist mills, bag factories, brick yards, blacksmith shops, cotton gins, rail and ship transport, and even banks. Cooperatives were the backbone of the famed farm belt of American agriculture.

The granges became political, joining the Greenback Party, which sought to put more money in circulation to break the power of banks and monopolies. The railroads were a particular impetus because they charged farmers huge freight rates. Farmers made no profits off their crops even though the prices were so high that people in urban areas starved.

There was rapid growth when the granges joined the Greenback Party; by 1875, there were 19,000 local granges with 758,000 members. Their slogans were "Down with Monopolies" and "Cooperation." In 1878, they joined with the Knights of Labor, uniting farmers and workers in the Greenback-Labor Party and adding the eight-hour workday, union rights and women's suffrage to their agenda. They elected members of Congress and state offices, "Repudiationists," who called for the cancellation of many debts. They never gained enough strength to enact their programs and when they passed laws regulating freight charges, industry fought back by refusing to carry grange goods.

Worker and farmer rights movements were on the rise and the cooperative movement was rising with them. The largest workers' organization in history up to that time, the Knights of Labor, which formed in 1869 and had more than 500,000 members, included replacement of the wage system with worker ownership as one of its central beliefs. The Knights were involved in strikes as a protest against wage slavery, building cooperatives to construct a liberated future and Greenback-Labor politics to pursue their agenda in government.

In 1877, there was a national railroad strike involving tens of thousands of workers. Knights of Labor from many trades joined in and farmers from granges provided the strikers with food. State militias supported the strikers by refusing orders to break the strike, instead fraternizing with the strikers. The strikers took control of the cities of Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Chicago.

The tides turned after the stolen election of 1878. Rutherford Hayes made a deal with Southerners to remove troops who were protecting blacks during Reconstruction in exchange for the electoral votes of three states that New York governor Samuel Tilden had actually won. Once troops were removed from the South, President Hayes turned the troops on the strikers, killing over 100 workers, injuring 500 and arresting more than 1,000. The strike was broken and the Knights of Labor wounded.

In the mid-1880s, the movement for an eight-hour day was in full force. A national general strike was called on May 1, 1886; 200,000 workers joined the strike and hundreds of thousands more joined in protests marches. The strike continued for four days, and on May 4, Chicago police shot six picketing workers in the back. A protest was held at Haymarket Square that night. Police moved in to break it up and a bomb went off. Police shot wildly into the crowd, injuring many. This triggered police violence across the country to break up the general strike. Three months later, eight "anarchists" were unjustly found guilty of the bombing, among them a leader of the Knights of Labor Eight-Hour League. This verdict led to a reaction against the Knights of Labor by the entire economic system, marking the group as a source of violence and destroying their cooperatives and movement.

The 20th Century New Deal and the 60s Revolt

Despite initial legal challenges, the cooperative movement continued and unions grew during the 20th century. Rather than breaking up monopolies, the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 was used against cooperatives and unions because it declared any "combination or conspiracy" to restrain interstate commerce to be illegal. Fortunately, the number of independent farmers' cooperatives continued to grow because the government looked the other way. It would have been politically costly to enforce the law against farmers. Then the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 exempted many cooperatives from the Sherman Act and legalized collective bargaining.

During the New Deal, programs developed that helped to build cooperatives in rural areas. For example, in 1935 the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) was created to promote bringing electricity to rural areas, where only 10 percent had electricity at the time. The REA made loans available to electricity cooperatives. In four years, 40 percent of rural homes had electricity. The cooperatives also forced private power corporations to lower rates and expand coverage.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, established in 1933, encouraged electrical and soil conservation and cold storage, as well as canneries, mills, dairies and craft cooperatives. The Farm Security Administration (FSA), set up in 1935 to combat rural poverty, supported a variety of mutual aid cooperatives that helped with supply purchasing and product marketing, veterinary services, insurance, water and medical care. In the South, land-leasing cooperatives were set up to resettle farmers on land that was more productive. Farmers leased large plantations together, a program opposed by the more conservative Farm Bureau. The FSA supported every form of mutual aid, helping to organize 25,000 cooperatives among 4 million low-income farmers.

The 1933 New Deal National Recovery Act created a Consumers Advisory Board to protect consumers. Mary Rumsey, appointed by FDR as chair, said, "Today, the need is not for a competitive but a cooperative economic system." Roosevelt signed executive orders protecting cooperatives when business interests tried to weaken them.

But it was not all good news from the New Deal. Support for cooperatives stopped at urban areas, where they would directly challenge concentrated economic power. The Federal Emergency Relief Act only allowed barter pay at their cooperative-funded production facilities, not much-needed cash, while the Works Progress Administration (WPA) promised a cash job at a decent wage to every unemployed person able to work. Advocates tried to convince Roosevelt to count cooperative work hours as WPA hours but were rebuffed. This one-two punch undercut the self-help movement. The New Deal was unwilling to make self-help cooperatives a permanent part of the economy. Hundreds of self-help groups around the country collapsed.

During World War II, much of the farmer cooperative infrastructure was dismantled by agribusiness, which weakened the FSA. When wages were reduced after the war, President Truman used wartime powers to seize basic industries and end strikes. The passage of Taft-Hartley started the slow decline of unions, which continues today. The cold war and the McCarthy Era purged radicals from unions and public life.

When social justice movements developed in the 1960s, collective work and cooperation reappeared. The National Farm Workers (later the United Farm Workers) set up several community mutual-aid associations, including a credit union and cooperative store. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee set up producer and marketing cooperatives. The Selma to Montgomery civil rights march led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. resulted in the formation of the Southwest Alabama Farmers Cooperative, which had 1,800 families as members. The Black Panther Party ran a series of survival programs including a health clinic, free shoe factory, food and clothing co-ops, communally built and owned housing, transportation for elders and a breakfast program for children. In the counterculture of the 60s, people sought to build a new social system "within the shell of the old" based on cooperation and sharing. Collectives were formed as nonhierarchical groups that lived or worked together, based on equality and participatory democracy. These included free health clinics, law collectives and free schools, as well as bookstores, media and films.

Since the 1970s, cooperatives and communalism have continued. In our last article, The Foundation of a New Democratic Economy Is Worker Self-Directed Enterprises, we described the state of cooperatives today and quoting political economist Gar Alperovitz: "There are 120 million members of cooperatives in the United States; 20 percent of the American electric system is either co-op or municipal, essentially socialized." Economic democracy is gaining a foothold in the United States, and worker ownership and credit unions are only part of the progress. Today there is a strong cooperative infrastructure that can assist people in developing and managing cooperatives.

The American Personality Is Cooperative; Transformational Change Is Within Us

Understanding this history allows us to better understand ourselves and the character of the nation. We are people who work together for the common good. Cooperation is embedded in our DNA. We are not the false stereotype portrayed in the corporate media of people who "make it on their own" by not caring for others and becoming driven by greed. In fact, all people who rise to the top do so on a broad foundation of inherited and unearned commonwealth infrastructure, scientific and technological knowledge, as well as labor. As Warren Buffett has said, "society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I've earned." From the founding of the country, community - people working together to solve common problems and make a better life for all - has been central to the national personality.

Throughout history there has been a struggle between economic democracy and capitalist economics over social justice transformations. As Curl writes: "The tapestry of US history is woven with the day-to-day struggles of hundreds of millions of ordinary people for better lives. Mutual-aid organizations such as cooperatives and unions have always been near the heart of those struggles. Those struggles embody the 'pursuit of happiness' that the Declaration of Independence boldly asserts is our inalienable right."

The current rise of economic democracy comes at a time when there is an awakening to the power of protest and resistance. The concentrated wealth of a big-finance dominated economy which hoards wealth while millions starve is more fragile than it seems. Once again, social justice transformations are taking hold at the same time as economic democracy and worker-owned enterprises fill the void of collapsed economies. If we are intentional about building the economy we want while protesting what we oppose, and if we learn the lessons that past efforts provide, we will more quickly achieve the transformations we seek. Resistance and economic democracy will continue to rise because dysfunctional government cannot respond adequately to any of these urgent crises.

The rise against neoliberal economic globalization began in the late 1990s with protests against the World Trade Organization and has continued with the Arab Spring, Spain's indignados, and with the Occupy and Idle No More movements. It comes at a time of tremendous ecological challenges, the end of cheap carbon-based energy, a massive wealth divide, high levels of poverty and extraordinary communication abilities between people all over the world. We are at a critical convergence in history where, as Thomas Paine said at the conclusion of Common Sense, "We have it in our power to begin the world over again."

You can hear our interview with John Curl, author of "For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements and Communalism in America" on Clearing the FOG Radio.

This article is part of a two-part series with "The Foundation of a New Democratic Economy Is Worker Self-Directed Enterprises."

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