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Barred for Life! Interview with Stewart Dean Ebersole on SourPuss

By Ginger
Sourpuss Clothing
March 28th, 2014

I remember meeting Stewart when I worked selling Vespas in Philadelphia. His stories about traveling to Italy, art, and music drew me in and I forced him to become my friend and then co-worker. If you have never met Stewart, the first thing you will notice is how tall he is and what a warm and friendly personality he has. I am glad he could take time out of his schedule to answer some questions so you might get to know him a little better and purchase his outstanding book Barred For Life.


Can you tell me a little about yourself, like where are you from? How old are you? Etc...?

Well, yes. My name is Stewart Dean Ebersole. My dad and I share the same name, but he doesn't like using Stewart, so I don't have to use Jr. or "the second" or anything like that. I just turned 47 last month. As for the background, I've lived a lot of places. Was born in York, PA, moved to Newark, DE, for college, then moved to Philadelphia for grad school, then moved to Cincinnati, OH, to finish grad school. After finishing school I moved to Philadelphia again, and then out to Exton (on the Mainline) for my first teaching job. After leaving teaching I moved back to Philadelphia for about five years, and most recently moved to upstate New York for a new job as a Marine Geologist. I lived a few summers in Italy, but I wouldn't say that I ever actually "lived" there. So that is it. In all, I probably lived in almost 40 different houses and apartments.


What are the top 5 most played songs on your iPod?

I know that this is going to make me out to be a bit of an old-head, but I don't have an iPod. That said, I do have some things on heavy rotation on Spotify, but not all of it is exactly up-to-date, and mostly I listen to entire albums, so that is what I am going to lay out. 1) Misfits; Earth AD/Wolf's Blood is one that I return to a lot. In my opinion, that album captures the pure evil that the Misfits lack in some of their more comedic releases. 2) Stereolab; Space Age Bachelor Pad Music. Love that album. All of it. 3) Cat Power; What Would the Community Think. A keystone album in the "music to slit your wrists to" genera. 4) My Bloody Valentine; Loveless. Not sure I need to qualify as to why I listen to this album over and over for days on end. It is a strange love affair that I have with MBV, and it has something to do with the fact that I have some favorite songs on this album, but in many ways all of the songs sound like one long song on this album. 5) Lungfish; Sounds in Time. I LOVE LUNGFISH. If I were stranded on a desert island and forced to pick one person to stay there with me and talk to me about human origins, outer-space and religious epiphanies, it would have to be Dan Higgs; Lungfish's most fantastical frontman

Is Black Flag your favorite band? If not who is?

Absolutely not. I really liked Black Flag in the early 80's, and knew most of their songs by heart. I could sing just about every song on Jealous Again and Damaged. I could even sing most of My War Side A, and a few from Slip It In... From that point on I didn't like Black Flag at all, and spent a lot of time actively avoiding their music until they broke up. I passed up about 5 opportunities to see them play. They were just that big of a disappointment to me.

Who is my favorite band..? Well, technically, I've always loved DEVO, but slightly more recently I'd say Lungfish. Most recently, I don't really have a favorite. I just listen to a lot of music these days that transcend "now," so saying I have favorites is admitting that most of my favorite bands broke up when I was still in my early 30's.
 

When did you get your first tattoo and what was it?

My first tattoo was my Straight Edge tattoo. I got that in 1987 I believe. I was so scared to go into the tattoo shop to ask the crazy biker guy to give me a Straight Edge tattoo, but he did. Then, I found out that he was sober. He had no idea what Straight Edge was, and I had no idea that you could stop drinking after years of being an alcoholic, so we bonded over that.

Do you have a favorite tattoo artist now that you go to?

I don't have favorite tattoo artists, but I have some friends who I go to for my work. Mike Dorsey in Cincinnati Ohio is my go-to guy for tattoos. Naomi Fuller out in Columbus Ohio is my next in line. I am currently looking for somebody local that I've known for a long time to start on my left arm, but I don't have any leads yet. I am not the kind of person to walk into a shop and just ask for a tattoo. That seems way too impersonal to me. Since this stuff is going to be on my skin for the rest of my life, I want somebody tattooing me that will take some blame if it looks like shit. Seriously, if I just walk into some random shop and get a bad tattoo, that is my own fault. A little planning people...!

Is this the first book you have written?

It is the first documentary that I've written. Before this I wrote a 250 page master's thesis about the Late Permian Mass Extinction. It is a thrilling read.

What inspired you to write it?


As an Aquarius, I am constantly keeping my social calendar filled with art projects. I had just finished a 5 year run doing some fine art stuff, then some graffiti stuff, then some guerilla art stuff and some "outsider" art collective stuff, and needed to focus some attention on things that I felt were more historically important to me. The whole Punk Rock thing was "that" thing. I had gotten a Black Flag tattoo back in 1988, and I was seeing more and more of them surfacing in the mid 2000's, and one day I was sitting at a tattoo shop in Ohio with about five friends, all of whom had the Black Flag bars tattooed on them, and I was confident that doing a documentary about this image was my next big artistic endeavor. At first I thought that I could probably do what I needed to do to document the image in a year or so, but six years later is when the book finally hit the shelves. It became such an all-consuming thing that it was a lot like having a full time, non-paying, sort of job. After a year of going door-to-door and shooting portraits of one or two people at a time, I organized the tour in 09, quit my job, and traveled around the US and Europe in trains, planes, and automobiles for 3 months to get the story. It really was the craziest (in a good way) thing that I'd done in my entire life.

Had you always wanted to write this book?

No. I don't think that I ever thought that I'd write a book (or shoot photos and write a book) until I decided to write it in like 2006. Before that I would have been content painting and showing my paintings every now and again. I would have been happy just to show them and not sell them. Then, like an oops pregnancy, this idea came to me. At that moment I knew that I had to do it. It was such an oddball idea that it had to be sent to me straight from a loving, caring, dead relative.

Had you met Black Flag before you started the book?

Nope. It is very important to remember that this band broke up in 1986. They were very, very, very important to ALL Punk Rockers, but by 2006 there wasn't much chatter about them, except for that time that Nirvana mentioned them in a Rolling Stone interview as being a huge influence on their music. When I first started the doing research for the book in 2006 I had no intention to meet the people in the band and interview them because this was a book about a cultural phenomenon, not really one about Black Flag as a band. Somehow, though, I just kept meeting people that knew Dez Cadena around 2007, and when one of them asked me if I'd like to interview him, um, I said yes. Dez has the bars tattooed on him, so I figured that I could get away with having him tucked away in the book with all of the other people that have the same tattoo, but then, all of a sudden, an altogether new chunk of the book began developing.

Ron Reyes, also called Chavo Pederast on Jealous Again, was my Punk Rock hero in 1983. I made it a sort of goal to get him to agree to an interview, which happened after meeting a woman from Vancouver that knew where he worked. I began sending letters to his work, until eventually I scored his email address. He was rumored to have moved to Puerto Rico a few years after quitting Black Flag, but that turned out to be a bunch of crap. He was living in Vancouver, BC, and I worked my ass off to get him to give his first interview about his years in Black Flag since quitting the band in 1981. While on tour 2009, I think that he declined about four times. Then, one day while sitting at a small cafe in Bozeman, Montana, I got an email agreeing to meet at the Vancouver photo shoot for an interview. That one moment in time was life changing. It totally changed the character of the book I was imagining in my head. Now, instead of just being people with Black Flag tattoos, the book was going to have interviews with as many former Black Flag members as I could round up and talk to. It was a game changer, as they say.

How long did it take you to write?

Too long. From the first photo shoot in 2007 until the finished product arrived on my mom's doorstep was almost 6 and a half years. I made it through college and two years of graduate school in that same amount of time. Nothing should take six years to complete, really.

Do you have a favorite photo or story in it? if so which one?

The whole book is my favorite story. I have some favorite photos and interviews in it, but I find the whole book to be a total hoot. Barred For Life was one of those things that appeared like magic. I took the idea seriously and began doing some poking and prodding of friends to see if it were a good idea. Then I did some research. Then I did some preliminary writing and layout.

At every moment I couldn't believe that this wonderful topic had fallen into my skull. Usually I have bid ideas for things, but on this one I had no idea. It was an idea that fell out of the sky and landed on my lap. If I had decided not to do it, well, so be it. Nobody would have cared one way or another. However, I decided to do it, and as a result I busted myths, learned a lot, met thousands of amazing people all over the world who share a collective passion for Punk Rock and Alternative Culture, and met some of my Punk Rock heroes from 20 years past.

One of my favorite moments was, while on tour, we were invited to Chuck Dukowski's house for an interview. After being fired from Black Flag by Greg Ginn, Chuck stayed on to manage Black Flag. He was part owner of SST, so he had a vested interest. At some point Ginn moved SST to Texas and cut Chuck out of equation and off the payroll. Ginn is a true American dick in my eyes because he doubly fucked his most ardent supporter, Chuck Dukowski. Anyway, Chuck was very cautious about letting us come to his home and interview him. While we were on our way to Venice Beach that evening, Chuck called me to tell me that he changed his mind, and that we should not come over. Then, five minutes later he called me again and asked me who I was working for..? He seriously thought that Greg Ginn had put me up to interviewing him. I told him that this was all on my dime, and so he reluctantly agreed. We arrived at around 9pm. He invited us into his home. His wife brought us drinks and his kids were super excited to see their father talking about being in Black Flag. It turned out to be one of the most amazing moments of the tour, and the photos we shot of him were just so emotional. This very thoughtful and intense man just smiled a lot and did the robot while I was photographing him. So, yes, I'd say that is my favorite story from the tour, at least.

Is there any photo or story you left out and regret not putting it in?

Yes and no. On the one hand, I have zero regrets about the final product. In my estimation, it is one of the most thorough books on the topic of fandom in Punk Rock, and I did my job well. On the other hand, there is a kid that I let remain in the book despite him super fucking me while we were in California. I won't mention him by name, but we shot him in a squat in Brooklyn very early on in the evolution of the book. He moved back to his home of San Francisco, and while shooting photos there in 2009 he showed up at the shoot. He mentioned to me that he was in school for videography, and I asked him if he wanted to video the interviews that we were doing in California with Chuck Dukowski, Kira Roessler, and Keith Morris. He was super into it, and he asked if I would pay his way to LA. I agreed. A few days later I pick him and his equipment up at the LA train station, and we set about doing our interviews.

I was sooooo stoked to have this all on video, just in case I wanted to put the interviews on line or whatever. We complete all of the interviews and he tells me that he doesn't want to give me the master copies (which I paid for), but would process the video and send me DVD copies. I send him back to San Fran a few days later with a handshake promise of getting the interviews inside a few weeks.

I get home from tour in January of 2010 and no DVD copies are to be found. This individual now stops answering my emails and phone calls, and I don't hear from him for months. Chuck Dukowski is worried because I agreed that his interview would never be posted anywhere without his permission, and I am not sure what the video-kid is going to do with the interviews.

Anyway, about a year later I get this emotional email from video-kid about how he has been going crazy and doing drugs, and he is not sure what he is doing with his life, and that he will send me the original copies of the interviews immediately. I tell him that it is cool and that I will pay for the shipping if he wants. He says no, and then goes on to tell me that I should hate him, but I don't feel that way. A week goes by. Then a month goes by. Then another month goes by. I get nothing from him. I decide that I no longer give a fuck about the video nor video kid, and resort to the recording s that I took on a tiny hand-held audio recorder of each interview, and I use this little device to do my transcriptions. I cannot see the mouths of the interviewees move, so I don't know if I got some words right, but I did the best that I could. And, that is my story. I don't hate video kid, but if I ever see him again I may nut-punch him for being such a sketchy dick-for-brains. I still have no idea what became of those recordings.

Who funded your trips to get interviews and photographs?

Hmmm, that is a tough question to answer. Overall, I used my savings to do everything. When my savings wasn't being consumed by rental cars and gasoline, a number of fund raisers were held to benefit the tour back in the summer of 2009. In that way, a lot of people contributed, but I estimate that I used almost 8,000 dollars of my own money to finish Barred For Life.

That, one might say, is a lot of money. But the one thing that gives me a little bit of comfort is that I spread that debt over 6 years (at least I like to tell myself that), so it amounts to a bit over a thousand dollars a year. I spend a thousand dollars a year on my iced tea obsession, and I spend way more than that on gasoline each year, so that isn't so bad, right..?

What have you been doing since it was printed?

When the book arrived at my apartment, I was working as a Marine Geologist for a little bit over one year. I studied to be a Geologist in college, so it isn't so strange that I was working as a Geologist, though people always think that it is strange that a geeky scientist wrote a book about Punk Rock and Black Flag tattoos.

Do you have any other books in your future?

I sure hope so. I have a very amazing publisher in PM Press, and they have encouraged me to do another book at some point. I still haven't exhausted my promotion of Barred For Life, so I will think about another book when I feel like I've come to the end of pushing BFL. The one thing that I do know is that I will not do another book on Punk Rock or Black Flag. I don't like re-covering ground I've already covered, so it will likely be a book about something else that really and profoundly influenced my life.

Anything else you would like to add?


Well, first off, if you haven't bought/read Barred For Life then I encourage you to do so immediately. Buy the book from anybody but Amazon, who really undercuts your local online and retail stores. Secondly, if you are reading this and ever thought of doing something that every person (besides your inner voice) tells you is only going to lead you down a long and winding road to getting angry; Fuck'em. If I would have based my decision to do Barred For Life on my friends reactions I would have quit before the first photo shoot. When I was pulling hundreds of dollars from the ATM to feed my crew and put gas in my car driving all over the place to shoot photos of kids with Black Flag tattoos, and my girlfriend was telling me that I was throwing my money away, I could have thrown in the towel. Well, she's no longer in my life, but I released a rather amazing book for my efforts. I don't have to tell people that doing what seems to be against the grain will generally bring you the most satisfaction. Abraham Lincoln did not have a lot of supporters when he issued his Emancipation Proclamation, but that is Abraham Lincoln's most important contribution to our civilization. Shit just works out like that. If your idea helps people, then even better. Just stay focused and fuck every voice that tried to break your focus. That said, just make sure that you finish it if you start it, okay..?

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Stewart Dean Ebersole's Author Page




Towards Collective Liberation reviewed in Interface Journal

by Lesley Wood
Interface: a journal for and about social movements
Volume 5
November 2013

In her piece, “Love as the Practice of Freedom", U.S.-based writer bell hooks (1994, 244) argues, “until we are all able to accept the interlocking, interdependent nature of systems of domination and recognize specific ways each system is maintained, we will continue to act in ways that undermine our individual quest for freedom and collective liberation struggle.” In Chris Crass’s new book, he works to show how our movements can understand and counter such internalized and systemic oppressive systems and can move toward these goals of freedom and collective liberation.

The book isn’t a roadmap. Indeed, it is a set of stories and essays of attempts, disasters, and victories of twenty years of organizing in the U.S. within projects including Food not Bombs, the global justice movement, feminist collectives, anti-racist, and queer campaigns. It argues that to organize more effective, revolutionary movements, those of us who are most privileged by the system in terms of our race, class, gender, sexuality or ability need to listen better, to be more humble, and will need to prove ourselves worthy of the trust of organizers from more marginalized communities. But unlike some discussions of the ways that privilege and power operate in movements, Crass’ book doesn’t keep the argument at the level of ethics, but instead grounds it in a reading of history that says that the most transformative, sustainable movements are those that are grounded in the experience of marginalized communities. Crass argues that without keeping this analysis of power and praxis central to our work, organizers that are white, male, cis, straight and able-bodied will be likely to re-enact hierarchical and oppressive relationships, taking us further from the goal of building the relationships necessary for a more democratic, socialist society.

This book is divided into distinct sections, each with a number of pieces ordered roughly chronologically. It begins with a broad agenda--building an anarchist left. The theme of the second section is anti-racist feminist practice, which includes widely read pieces like “Against Patriarchy: Tools for Men to Help Further Feminist Revolution.” This is followed up with a section called; “Because good ideas are not enough: Lessons for vision-based, strategic, liberation organizing praxis,’ with pieces on leadership and the U.S. civil rights movement. The fourth section is described as “collective wisdom” and it brings together lessons from five different and diverse anti-racist organizing projects through interviews and essays.

While a few of the pieces in the collection were previously distributed on the Colors of Resistance listserv and website, and through a collection of essays put out by Kersplebedeb distribution, bringing them together and framing them so cogently gives them additional power. It is Crass’ book, but he is at pains to emphasize that both the book and the organizing behind it are part of an ongoing collective effort to make more strategic, transformative movements.

The first pages of the book are jam packed with a who’s who of endorsements by some of today’s most skilled organizers in the U.S., and the book itself contains many voices, including a forward by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of Red Dirt Woman and The Great Sioux Nation: Oral History of the Sioux-United States Treaty of l868; an introduction by Chris Dixon, author of a forthcoming book on anarchist organizers, and the interviews with five different anti-racist organizing projects.

Personally, this is a book I’ve waited a long time for. Crass is a white U.S. anarchist who became politically active in the 1990s via suburban punk rock.The book articulates the evolution of an anarchist politics that some of us came to in the 1990s and 2000s, out of a recognition that hierarchy couldn’t be reduced to race, class, gender and sexuality. It is a politics that took into account the idea that the personal was political, and the feeling that large, ritualized protests were not creating a more just and fulfilling world. While such anarchist work is widespread in a wide range of contemporary organizing, including immigrant rights, Occupy, police brutality, and student movements--it is more visible in workshops than in publications. Crass puts this ‘small a’ anarchist approach into historical context.

This is not just a book for anarchists, and indeed many anarchists won’t see themselves within it. But it is a book for those interested in the challenges and gifts of grassroots organizing, whether they see themselves as communists, anarchists, revolutionary sovereigntists, feminists, queer activists--or some combination of the above. Indeed, he’s been certified by some of the most powerful grassroots organizers in the U.S. today.

This book is meant for those engaged in, wanting to be engaged in, or burned out from being engaged in, deep, transformative social justice work. It should be read and discussed by organizers interested in building multi-racial, anti-capitalist, feminist movements. It is written from the perspective of white organizers in a U.S. context, and will be particularly relatable for audiences sharing that space and identity. However, it offers accessible, strategic thinking about the intersection of different forms of inequality and the dynamics of alliance building that should offer insight to those in other contexts and positions.

Rich with stories that will make you laugh and groan, it is full of solid, earnest, loving advice that will push you to think more strategically and patiently about the work that social justice requires. Unlike some discussions of organizing, Crass doesn’t suggest that this work will be easy. He recounts the stories of awkward meetings, angry confrontations and bad strategy. He clearly shows us why challenging power inequalities within our organizing can be far more emotionally draining than occupying a government office or marching on Washington. Nonetheless, Crass concludes with a hopeful essay entitled, “We can do this.” He doesn’t want our movements to get stuck, to get depressed and for our activists to eat each other, and the next generation of organizers, alive.

He tackles the tendency for organizers, activists and radical academics to spend much of our time critiquing our movements and our politics. Crass rightly points out that while critique is a crucial part of rethinking and rebuilding existing practices, the trap of right/wrong, solid/fucked up can trap us, steal our energy, and stop us from thinking creatively and strategically for the long haul. Instead he suggests that in order to be strategic, and to keep our momentum up, we need to combine critical reflexivity with a focus on the opportunities and assets we have, and work to build a just world.

Towards Collective Liberation
is the sort of book you want to hand to your comrades and friends, read passages from, and head into the streets. With a book like this, it feels like yes indeed, we can do this.

References
Hooks, bell. 1994. Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations.
New York City: Routledge.

About the review author Lesley Wood is an organizer and scholar in Toronto, Canada.

Author, educator and organizer Chris Crass is often at the forefront of multiracial and feminist movements. Crass sat down with the Review this week to talk about his experience as an activist and his thoughts on antiracist organizing.

 The topic of your talk, “Anti-Racist Organizing in White Communities,” is something that our college has been struggling with, both as an institution and as a student body. Could you begin by talking about the difference between racist and anti-racist organizing?

It’s a really common experience for white people who are socially conscious and who are coming to awareness about issues of race, particularly with the campus having the Day of Solidarity. There’s going to be a lot of folks — white folks in particular — being like, ‘Oh my God, I haven’t thought about this before,’ or, ‘I didn’t think it was this bad,’ or, ‘I thought this was something that was in the past,’ or ‘I don’t want to be part of the problem,’ and then one of the first next steps [ for those groups] is often the question of how to diversify. I’ve had a lot of experience being a part of mostly or all-white social justice progressive efforts where [that drive to diversify often comes first]. But the question that’s often more helpful is, ‘How can we be a part of challenging racism? How can we be a part of ending institutional white supremacy? What are positive steps, as a white environmental group, we could take to support environmental justice efforts by students of color?’ One of the ways that white supremacy really impacts white people is to invisible-ize the work that’s happening in communities of color, the leadership that’s happening in communities of color, the voices, the perspectives — sometimes you’ll have white activists come to consciousness about race and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, we have to get people of color to join our group,’ and then there’ll be activists of color who will be like, ‘Well, we’ve been working on these issues for a really long time, so rather than coming to us and asking us to diversify your group, it’s more of how could you, as a mostly white group, support the work that students of color are already involved in and build partnership and trust.’

 

What are some positive steps that Oberlin can take toward anti-racist organizing?

Some key ones are learning about work that’s already happen[ed] historically in communities of color, learning about issues. So if you’re in a social justice or progressive student group that’s mostly white, what are issues that students of color are working on, and what are some ways that your group can help support that work? A way that racism often operates is [by determining] whose voices are prioritized. Who’s been told all of their life, ‘You have an important story to tell. You should tell the world about what you think.’ And then there’s a lot of folks — women, queer folks, trans* folks, working class, folks of color — who are regularly told, ‘You have nothing useful to contribute. These aren’t spaces that you even belong in, let alone that you should be working in.’ [It’s about] working to recognize those kind of barriers and having open conversations with activists, leaders of color on campus about the struggles that [you’re] facing and how to think about it together. It’s not going to folks of color and [asking them] to solve all the problems but having genuine conversations about how to overcome these obstacles.

 

How would you explain the reality of institutional racism to someone who might not be familiar with its historical and cultural background?

No one was born with it all figured out. First of all, the way that racism operates is that it socializes and rewards white people to be completely ignorant of racism. The fact that there are so many white people who feel attacked, or who think that it’s racist to even talk about racism, is evidence of how powerful racism operates. Because in communities of color, historically and today, the impacts of racism are so stark. Often white people today look back at white people in the past — whether it’s the white people who were participating, supporting, oblivious [to] or on the sidelines of slavery, or white people who were supportive or on the sidelines of Jim Crow and apartheid in the sixties — and say, ‘How could they have just done nothing?’ [They think] it’s so obvious. People 30 years from now will look back on us today and say, ‘How could white people have not been aware of the mass incarceration, of the mass poverty, of the incredible disparities and not done something?’ As students, [we need to] recognize that we are historical actors, and just as we look on the past and think it was so clear, people will look back on our day and think that it’s so clear. Because in the past, people often said that it was too confusing, that there was  no issue, that it was cultural. [We have to] recognize that we need to make a choice [about] what side of history we want to stand on. It can be a hard journey, but it’s one that ultimately connects us back to our deepest humanity. [We need to get] away from fear, away from ignorance, away from hate and toward a deeper love for ourselves and the people in our community. [People say,] ‘Well, the reason there’s so many black and brown people in prison is because of these reasons,’ and there’s all this justification in the way that the media portrays it, and throughout history that’s always been true. It wasn’t just this super clear cut obvious right and obvious wrong. So we need to take responsibility to investigate and learn and also to open ourselves up to really learning.

 

I’m sure, as a white male talking about feminism and racism, you have been told that you have no right to speak about these issues. Can you talk about your thoughts on who can legitimately contribute to these conversations?

We’re organizing students of color around ethnic studies, around anti-prison issues, around the over-policing of our communities and the underresourcing of our communities, but there’s so much resistance from so many white people who either refuse to believe that this is a reality or accept that it’s wrong but that there’s nothing that they can do about it. We need white people to organize other white people who can relate their own experience about coming to consciousness around these issues, to try to move and support more and more white people to join in multiracial efforts and take on injustice. For me, it’s always [about] trying to remember that it’s absolutely important to amplify and support the voices and leadership of folks of color. This is not about trying to get a bunch of white people to fix the problem for everybody else. Racism is really a cancer in white communities, killing white communities. [It] raises people to racially profile others, to hate or be completely ignorant of other people’s lives and experiences. For me, it’s less about taking [people of colors’] stories and bringing them to white people, and more about connecting with other people as a white person around: How can we come to consciousness about racism, how can we overcome some of the barriers that hold us back from becoming involved, and how can we make really powerful contributions to working toward social justice and structural equality?

- See more at: http://oberlinreview.org/5225/uncategorized/off-the-cuff-chris-crass-author-activist-and-anti-racist-organizer/#sthash.5w2pEyva.dpuf

Author, educator and organizer Chris Crass is often at the forefront of multiracial and feminist movements. Crass sat down with the Review this week to talk about his experience as an activist and his thoughts on antiracist organizing.

 The topic of your talk, “Anti-Racist Organizing in White Communities,” is something that our college has been struggling with, both as an institution and as a student body. Could you begin by talking about the difference between racist and anti-racist organizing?

It’s a really common experience for white people who are socially conscious and who are coming to awareness about issues of race, particularly with the campus having the Day of Solidarity. There’s going to be a lot of folks — white folks in particular — being like, ‘Oh my God, I haven’t thought about this before,’ or, ‘I didn’t think it was this bad,’ or, ‘I thought this was something that was in the past,’ or ‘I don’t want to be part of the problem,’ and then one of the first next steps [ for those groups] is often the question of how to diversify. I’ve had a lot of experience being a part of mostly or all-white social justice progressive efforts where [that drive to diversify often comes first]. But the question that’s often more helpful is, ‘How can we be a part of challenging racism? How can we be a part of ending institutional white supremacy? What are positive steps, as a white environmental group, we could take to support environmental justice efforts by students of color?’ One of the ways that white supremacy really impacts white people is to invisible-ize the work that’s happening in communities of color, the leadership that’s happening in communities of color, the voices, the perspectives — sometimes you’ll have white activists come to consciousness about race and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, we have to get people of color to join our group,’ and then there’ll be activists of color who will be like, ‘Well, we’ve been working on these issues for a really long time, so rather than coming to us and asking us to diversify your group, it’s more of how could you, as a mostly white group, support the work that students of color are already involved in and build partnership and trust.’

 

What are some positive steps that Oberlin can take toward anti-racist organizing?

Some key ones are learning about work that’s already happen[ed] historically in communities of color, learning about issues. So if you’re in a social justice or progressive student group that’s mostly white, what are issues that students of color are working on, and what are some ways that your group can help support that work? A way that racism often operates is [by determining] whose voices are prioritized. Who’s been told all of their life, ‘You have an important story to tell. You should tell the world about what you think.’ And then there’s a lot of folks — women, queer folks, trans* folks, working class, folks of color — who are regularly told, ‘You have nothing useful to contribute. These aren’t spaces that you even belong in, let alone that you should be working in.’ [It’s about] working to recognize those kind of barriers and having open conversations with activists, leaders of color on campus about the struggles that [you’re] facing and how to think about it together. It’s not going to folks of color and [asking them] to solve all the problems but having genuine conversations about how to overcome these obstacles.

 

How would you explain the reality of institutional racism to someone who might not be familiar with its historical and cultural background?

No one was born with it all figured out. First of all, the way that racism operates is that it socializes and rewards white people to be completely ignorant of racism. The fact that there are so many white people who feel attacked, or who think that it’s racist to even talk about racism, is evidence of how powerful racism operates. Because in communities of color, historically and today, the impacts of racism are so stark. Often white people today look back at white people in the past — whether it’s the white people who were participating, supporting, oblivious [to] or on the sidelines of slavery, or white people who were supportive or on the sidelines of Jim Crow and apartheid in the sixties — and say, ‘How could they have just done nothing?’ [They think] it’s so obvious. People 30 years from now will look back on us today and say, ‘How could white people have not been aware of the mass incarceration, of the mass poverty, of the incredible disparities and not done something?’ As students, [we need to] recognize that we are historical actors, and just as we look on the past and think it was so clear, people will look back on our day and think that it’s so clear. Because in the past, people often said that it was too confusing, that there was  no issue, that it was cultural. [We have to] recognize that we need to make a choice [about] what side of history we want to stand on. It can be a hard journey, but it’s one that ultimately connects us back to our deepest humanity. [We need to get] away from fear, away from ignorance, away from hate and toward a deeper love for ourselves and the people in our community. [People say,] ‘Well, the reason there’s so many black and brown people in prison is because of these reasons,’ and there’s all this justification in the way that the media portrays it, and throughout history that’s always been true. It wasn’t just this super clear cut obvious right and obvious wrong. So we need to take responsibility to investigate and learn and also to open ourselves up to really learning.

 

I’m sure, as a white male talking about feminism and racism, you have been told that you have no right to speak about these issues. Can you talk about your thoughts on who can legitimately contribute to these conversations?

We’re organizing students of color around ethnic studies, around anti-prison issues, around the over-policing of our communities and the underresourcing of our communities, but there’s so much resistance from so many white people who either refuse to believe that this is a reality or accept that it’s wrong but that there’s nothing that they can do about it. We need white people to organize other white people who can relate their own experience about coming to consciousness around these issues, to try to move and support more and more white people to join in multiracial efforts and take on injustice. For me, it’s always [about] trying to remember that it’s absolutely important to amplify and support the voices and leadership of folks of color. This is not about trying to get a bunch of white people to fix the problem for everybody else. Racism is really a cancer in white communities, killing white communities. [It] raises people to racially profile others, to hate or be completely ignorant of other people’s lives and experiences. For me, it’s less about taking [people of colors’] stories and bringing them to white people, and more about connecting with other people as a white person around: How can we come to consciousness about racism, how can we overcome some of the barriers that hold us back from becoming involved, and how can we make really powerful contributions to working toward social justice and structural equality?

- See more at: http://oberlinreview.org/5225/uncategorized/off-the-cuff-chris-crass-author-activist-and-anti-racist-organizer/#sthash.5w2pEyva.dpuf

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Spray Paint the Walls: A Political Media Review

By Simon Czerwinskyj
Political Media Review
April 2nd, 2013

The attempt to placate unruly youth inevitably molders into attempts to oppress unruly youth. Southern California in the late ’70s was all soft rock, cowboy fashion, and an extreme distaste for any blemishes in the sprawling whitewashed suburbs beyond Los Angeles. Hardcore punk was a perfectly placed kick to the teeth of all the authoritarian squares on the lookout for cultural aberrations to white out or erase. And Black Flag was the quintessential exemplar of everything the straight world feared; these disheveled, uncouth punkers lived by their own rules.

Stevie Chick has created a whirling dervish of a book (PM Press, 2011) in chronicling Black Flag’s rise and eventual flame out. Giving a rich background to the cultural and hereditary traits that informed the Flag members as individuals (vocalist Dez Cadena’s father was an accomplished jazz promoter, guitarist Greg Ginn came from eccentric, bohemian, and extremely frugal stock), Chick constructs a story that illustrates how these misfits really had no choice but to fall together into the vibrant mess that was Black Flag.

The linchpin of this tightly wound mess was Greg Ginn. An insular kid living in Hermosa Beach who had his own electronics company (Solid State Transmitters) and a real appetite for music. Upon entering UCLA, Ginn had access to the university’s record library, and he absorbed all the jazz, country, classical, and blues records available, eventually using this varied musical base to unleash unmitigated sonic hell by way of his guitar.

Chick’s detailed rendering of all the individuals who eventually joined the first incarnation of Black Flag smartly illustrates how these self-made men (and woman) would eventually create the archetype for hardcore. These individuals were out of their time, culturally, but always thoroughly American. Self-starters who refused to bend to the authorities and communities attempting to suppress and wipe out their single-minded free expression, Black Flag’s anarchy was fueled by — though the squares that despised them would deny it — an extremely American confidence and work ethic.

Keith Morris – Black Flag’s first vocalist — was an artistically inclined kid that saw the path laid out for him (taking over his father’s bait & tackle shop) as wholly unsatisfying. Gary McDaniel (aka Chuck Dukowski), the Flag’s quintessential bassist, was the resident philosopher and intellectual, never letting the media tag the nihilistic punk rock stereotype on him or the group. And Robo, the mysterious illegal immigrant, trying to make good with his newfound home. And of course Henry Rollins, Flag’s longest running and trademark vocalist, an independent freethinker if there ever was one. Raised with a military mind-set, Rollins work ethic was rivaled only by Ginn’s, who couldn’t understand why someone wouldn’t want to practice 8 hours a day.

Greg Ginn’s singular, one could even say obsessive or megalomaniacal, vision led to a real pioneer spirit. The regular joes that surrounded Black Flag in Hermosa Beach wanted them gone, erased, to the point that police surveillance and constant harassment eventually drove the band out of town. Now, what true, red-blooded American movement hasn’t been harassed by the powers that be? In a vague echo of COINTELPRO, the police would bust into concerts and try to shut them down, and then blame the resulting clashes on “punk rock violence”.

While the initial stages of the Black Flag story are brilliant flashes of light, it seems as though the final stages were a dull, flickering, single bulb. After carving out touring routes that hadn’t previously exist and amping up punk rock to create a template for hardcore, the group “matured.” Ginn’s laser focus on musical intricacy and perfection resulted in a disdain for personal relationships. As Rollins entered the band as their fourth vocalist, Ginn sent other Flag soldiers packing. Founding bassist Dukowski was vibed out of the band for supposedly not living up to Ginn’s perfectionism. Robo was stranded in Europe with immigration problems.

The line-up of Bill Stevenson on drums, Kira Roessler on bass, and remaining veterans Rollins and Ginn slogged it out for a few more years, till the rhythm section was also pushed out by Ginn’s finicky obsession. The band puttered to a stop with a replacement rhythm section, Rollins eventually being informed by phone that Black Flag was done.

Chick does a great job of conveying the wild energy and desperation that formed the cultural whirlwind of the mighty Black Flag. Their legacy is undeniable and the early recordings will always be incendiary, immediate, and revolutionary. Spray Paint The Walls is passionate and invested, a true fan’s testament to a ragtag band that refused to die in the face of the protestations and physical threats of straight society’s henchmen.

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Catastrophism in Science & Society

by David Laibman
Science & Society
Volume 78, No. 2
April 2014

Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, by Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen, and James Davis. Foreword by Doug Hen- wood. Oakland, California: pM press, 2012. paper, $16.00. pp. xv, 163.

This short volume is an exemplary contribution to the growth of a mature, self-reflective left. It consists of four chapters, one by each of the co-authors of the volume; an introduction by Sasha Lilley; and Doug Henwood’s fore- word. in the introduction we are told that the book “evolved out of many conversations within the retort Collective . . .”, described as “providing radi- cal antinomian comradeship, but eschewing any party lines or set positions” (13). its central message is for the left: catastrophism — the assumption that society is headed for total collapse — is bad analysis and leads to ineffective politics.

Eddie Yuen’s essay, “The politics of Failure Have Failed: The Environ- mental Movement and Catastrophism” (chapter 1) examines the catastrophic side of ecological thinking, citing the avalanche of recent writing on carbon emissions, global warming, tipping points, deforestation, resource wars, tens of millions of climate refugees, etc., all pointing to some sort of collapse of civilization itself, and calling into question the possibility of any political solution, i.e., of a social organization beyond capitalism that might achieve sustainable human development. He argues, persuasively i believe, that “an undifferentiated narrative of environmental doom is disempowering and encourages feelings of helplessness. . . . The fear elicited by catastrophism disables the left but benefits the right and capital” (21, 41–2). a reoriented radical environmental movement, rooted in networks of communities, can- not wait for capitalism to implode, and for this activism to emerge “it is vital that a movement offer something positive to go with the cold porridge of climate catastrophe” (43).

Chapter 2, “Great Chaos Under Heaven: Catastrophism and the Left,” is by Sasha Lilley, and presents the book’s core argument. it surveys the “two major traditions of the radical left in the Global North, Marxism and anarchism” (45), reviewing formulations from Marx and Engels, Kautsky, Luxemburg, Lenin, Gramsci, r. palme Dutt, C. L. r. James, Henryk Grossman, anton pannekoek, immanuel Wallerstein, and many others. The idea “the worse, the better” is subjected to a thorough critique. Lilley shows that Marx and Engels had com- plex views on this; while some passages suggest that crisis produces revolt, and general crisis produces revolution, others see political opposition movements as emerging from organizational victories and maturation of consciousness. Historical evidence suggests that, with the possible exception of war, moments of crisis in societies have not been associated with progressive outcomes. The idea of fomenting radical change by deliberately instigating chaos is traced in the writings of various anarchists and anti-state communists, and found wanting. Lilley concludes that the “determinist–voluntarist dyad” driving left catastrophism must be transcended. She writes:

No amount of fire and brimstone can substitute for the often-protracted, difficult, and frequently unrewarding work of building radical mass movements, even under situations of the utmost urgency. When they deploy catastrophic rhetoric, radicals overlook the diminishing returns and distorting effects it has on the forms of organiz- ing it does manage to inspire. . . . if we are committed to the demise of capitalism, we should steer well clear of catastrophism. (76.)

The third chapter, “at War with the Future: Catastrophism and the right,” by James Davis, shifts the focus to the political right. Here we en- counter “catastrophe as cure,” in the form of religious millennialism and the rapture, along with the related view that associates catastrophe with progress, tracing all manner of evils back to the French revolution, for example. “Dis- ease catastrophism” takes many forms, all of which however involve the virus of equality and democracy and modernity infecting a once-proud European and Christian civilization and dragging it down to disaster. “Much as the communist threat provided a useful ideological rudder to the militarized economy during the Cold War, so the fantasy of the islamization of Europe, guided by a liberal elite of politicians, intellectuals, and bureaucrats in con- spiratorial league with their islamic comrades ticks a number of important boxes for the contemporary right” (93). Davis is clear: “Catastrophism is a less ambivalent strategy for the right than for its adversaries on the left” (106). The description here is useful, but this chapter has a less pointed message for the book’s audience than do the preceding two chapters.

The final chapter, by David McNally, “Land of the Living Dead: Capital- ism and the Catastrophes of Everyday Life,” is a wonderful foray into the literary and cinematic world of monsters, focusing on Dr. Frankenstein’s creation and on zombies. These latter, originating in West africa, entered into american consciousness through the influential 1929 book by William Seabrook, The Magic Island, about modern Haiti. There “zombies . . . acquired their unique meaning as the animated dead, mere flesh and bones toiling on behalf of others” (115). The legends took on force during the U. S. occupa- tion of Haiti, when marines terrorized the local population into the status of forced laborers engaged in road-building and other construction.

Zombies, as “crazed consumers and lifeless laborers,” became a cultural artefact that mirrors the conditions of exploited and dominated people, in all periods of 20th-century U. S. capital accumulation. This radical reading of the monster genre can help us “to uncover the social basis of all that is truly horrifying and catastrophic about our world, as part of a critical theory and practice designed to change it” (127). McNally’s use of “catastrophic” in an everyday or micro sense appears as a rather forced effort to integrate this chapter into the overall project of the book; the chapter is highly entertaining and informative, even if this integrative effort is judged to fall a bit short.

Returning to the book’s main theme: one can only second the authors’ call for the left to move well beyond all versions of catastrophic thinking, fatalist or voluntarist, and to build broad movements that generate optimism derived from possibilities that only arise when small steps are connected with larger ones, and unity is cultivated among activists with different under- standings of society and social change. That is, as indicated, the book’s core message, and it is long overdue.

One quibble. i have a gnawing feeling of uncertainty regarding Eddie Yuen’s essay on environmental catastrophism. When we think about, e.g., Bill McKibben’s “terrifying new math” concerning CO2 emissions and global warming, i want, with Yuen, to say that this message of doom will lead to apathy and inactivity, so we need a better message! Here, however, we must confront the hard facts emerging from scientific evidence. While the evidence is not all in, and Yuen and his co-authors are right to say that it is not only about what scientists find but also about what we are able to do now, in move- ment building, it is at least possible that the best message we can hear, and/ or achieve, is a rather catastrophic one. in that case, we need the humanly best conceivable response to the impending catastrophe; that would be the most we can do. The scientific moment in the Marxist heritage enjoins us from slaying the messenger, just because we don’t like the message.

Book Review: Catastrophism – The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis (PM Press 2012)

cataCatastrophism is a collection of essays addressing the use of dooms day predictions in the environmental movement, the left, the right as well as in popular culture. The four chapters are authored by Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis following conversations within the Berkeley-based Retort collective guided by Iain Boal (who led an excellent biking oral history tour in Dublin as part of the Prosperity Project in May).  This book is meant as ‘a political intervention, designed to spur debate among radicals.’ (4) I have taken this as an invitation for discussion.

Firstly, what is catastrophism? Sasha Lilley offers the following definition in the 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 a 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.’

Seeking a clearer understanding of what the writers meant by catastrophism, I listened to a podcast where Lilley explains that they are discussing an ideology around collapse and rebirth which assumes a new society will be born out of the ashes of the old. This kind of thinking, they argue, results in people waiting for the collapse rather than organising. They further claim that catastrophism is based on fear which works very differently for the right where it is mobilising, than it does for the left where it is paralysing.

Eddy Yuen begins by voicing a critique of the environmental movement. The central argument he puts forward is that the environmental movement is failing to mobilise because of its catastrophic discourse and an ‘apocalyptic narrative’ that presumes this will lead to political action. He is concerned that ‘dooms day scenarios’ don’t have a politicization effect and suggests environmentalists should find better ‘narrative strategies’.

Catastrophism, here, refers to the warning of environmental crisis. Dissemination of information, according to Yuen, does not lead to action. He claims the environmental movement has caused fear induced-apathy in the population. Yuen pins this to a deeply held conviction about politicization apparently held by environmentalists – if people have the facts they will act. While this may be the case for some, Yuen does not address the importance of understanding the dynamics of climate change and their consequences as a vital precursor to action. In the same way that knowledge of starving children in your city does not lead most people to take action, so knowledge about climate change does not necessarily lead to action. This phenomenon is not unique to the environmental movement.

Yuen makes the assumption that the environmental movement cannot mobilise because it uses catastrophic language. This line of argument ignores the complexity of psychological and sociological factors contributing to inaction. Kari Marie Norgaard has done some excellent work on social movement non-participation and speaks about strategies people develop to avoid having to deal with difficult emotions. This indicates that, like with other bad news we get, there is a need to support people while dealing with these difficult emotions. 

Yuen rightly criticises false solutions like green consumption proposed by Al Gore. It seems like Yuen sees Al Gore as a spokesperson for environmentalists. This is not the case and should have been clarified. Al Gore is probably the most visible advocate of ecological modernisation in the US. Ecological modernisation theory (EMT) argues that the institutions of modernity, including multinational corporations and governments, will increasingly give more importance to ecological concerns. It is the neo-liberal belief that the crisis can be solved through far-reaching reforms, without the need for radical social change. Leftists concerned with climate change however, argue that social change and an alternative to capitalism are needed.

He further argues that the catastrophism of ‘many left-leaning greens’ is ‘Malthusian at its core’, points out a ‘shocking deficiency in the movements understanding of history, capitalism and global inequality’ and a simplistic analysis which places the blame on ‘the human race’. Surprisingly, he does not mentioned groups and networks on the left dedicated to building a climate justice movement which addresses the above concerns. This movement, like Yuen, rejects false solutions. It argues that climate change is not a problem of overpopulation but overconsumption/overproduction by and for the global north and elites in the global south. Climate justice activists speak about capitalism and point out the ‘contradictions between infinite accumulation of capital, and life on a finite planet’. It would have been more stimulating if he had discussed shortcomings of the environmental left, rather than criticising neo-liberal environmentalism.

Communicating climate change is difficult. Most people (including many on the left) do not want to hear about the topic because it makes them feel uncomfortable and there are no easy solutions. Climate denial, sponsored largely by the fossil fuel industry, is distorting reality. They want us to believe that climate change is not man made or that it is nothing to worry about. My concern with this chapter is that it could be used by some to further silence environmental activists.

In the second chapter, author and Against the Grain (which is well worth checking out) radio host Sasha Lilley distinguishes between two types of catastrophism on the left: determinist and voluntarist catastrophism. The former is a belief that capitalism will collapse under its own weight while the latter refers to the idea that worsening conditions will lead to a revolution. Catastrophism leads to the paralysis of the many and the vanguardism of the few and results from a politics of despair.

Lilley writes that the belief that capitalism “will come crashing down without protracted mass struggle is wishful thinking.’ (44) Are there really people on the left who think the sudden and uncontrolled collapse of capitalism would be a positive event? Surely the suffering would be enormous in such an event. She then looks at thinkers including Rosa Luxemburg and Immanuel Wallerstein whose analyses predicted that capitalism will collapse. Lilley disagrees. In her view capitalism will not come to an end due to internal contradictions. (136) The consequences of assuming collapse, it is further argued, leads to “adventurism (the ill-conceived actions of the few) or political quietism (the inaction that flows from awaiting the inexorable laws of history to put an end to capitalism)”. (52) Lilley asserts that we cannot rely on external forces to do the work of ending capitalism for us and that political organising is crucial. Unfortunately she has not presented convincing evidence that deterministic catastrophism is a phenomenon that requires discussion.  The sources she quotes do not take the position that we can sit back and wait. To the contrary they argue for the importance of organising a new society before capitalism collapses.

The second type of catastrophism on the left, voluntarism, is more common, according to Lilley. What ties determinism and voluntarism together is “a deep-seated pessimism about mass collective action and radical social transformation.” (45) Immiseration and state repression then are tools for politicisation leading to an assumption that “radicals should do what they can to make things worse.” (54) It is the idea that state repression can lead to the growth of movements. That the KPD (German Communist Party), one of her examples, made very serious mistakes has been discussed since 1945. Attempting to demonstrate that the KPD believed state repression would bring them to power in three paragraphs, while taking quotes out of their historical context, does not do the situation any justice.

Speaking about state repression and revolution, the next section examines war, which ‘has long been seen on the left as the midwife of revolt, often patterned in the trinity of crisis-war-revolution’. That revolts can follow war is a historical fact. To argue, however, that the left sees war as ‘midwife’ is a serious misrepresentation, at least of the European left which associates nothing positive with war.

The sub-chapter ‘Heightening Contradictions’ discusses militant groups like the Weathermen and the Red Army Faction arguing that insurrectionism is a misguided tactic, while the last part discusses anti-civilization.

James Davis, Irish writer and film maker, looks at catastrophism on the right and introduces the disease-cure binary of catastrophe. The catastrophe for the right is the threat to privilege and political power. The left is the catastrophe for the right, the left is the disease. Civil rights, feminism and social democracy are trends the right wishes to reverse. One approach to this is cure catastrophism, a subset to disease catastrophism. Acts which could contribute to a reversal in power won by social movements might be sparked by right wing terror and could then take the form of a ‘race war, insurrection, Armageddon, civil war, or in its purest form biblical apocalypse, and rapture.’ (78)  Actors explored in this chapter include the media used as a tool for propaganda, individual acts of terror on the right, small groups on the radical right, conspiracy theorists and the religious right. Catastrophism, Davis argues, “has a long history on the right and both the state and the organised far right understand it and wield it skilfully to achieve political and propaganda goals.” (106) It was unclear how this chapter relates to the previous two.

The final chapter takes a look at catastrophism in pop culture. David McNally, Professor of Political Science at York University, firstly discusses the relationship between capitalism and body panics by linking the rise of early capitalism to body snatching. The commodification of the body and the emergence of a corpse economy created fear among poor and working people, during the 18th century, that their bodies would be lost to medical experiments after their death. This also led to an increase in murders and grave robbing. McNally then discusses the historical origins of monsters, such as Frankenstein, who was constructed from dead body parts of humans and animals, and zombies, the cannibalistic consumer on one hand and the living-dead labourer on the other. McNally argues that the truths about social dynamics embedded in these tales about monsters need to be redeemed and translated into “languages and practices of social and political action.” (126)

The book’s key dilemma is that there is no clear definition of catastrophism as a concept. In a way this problem is reflected by a paragraph in the introduction where Lilley explains that “an overarching logic might be harder to place, since these movements and ideas are driven by different impulses, from above and from below (and in the case of the greens, both). In that sense, it is hard to talk about a catch-all catastrophism, without specifying whether it is of the left, right, green – or liberal – variety.” The definition offered by Lilley in the introduction as well as the scene set by the title – The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth is misleading. It suggest the authors are speaking about an ideology that assumes a collapse, be it economic, ecological or social, and is followed by a new and better society, which will be born out of the ashes of the old. Apart from the the religious right, which is mentioned in the third chapter, there is no evidence of collapse being viewed as a positive event.

- See more at: http://www.irishleftreview.org/2014/01/28/catastrophism-apocalyptic-politics-collapse-rebirth/#sthash.AOOGp2NJ.dpuf

Book Review: Catastrophism – The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis (PM Press 2012)

cataCatastrophism is a collection of essays addressing the use of dooms day predictions in the environmental movement, the left, the right as well as in popular culture. The four chapters are authored by Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis following conversations within the Berkeley-based Retort collective guided by Iain Boal (who led an excellent biking oral history tour in Dublin as part of the Prosperity Project in May).  This book is meant as ‘a political intervention, designed to spur debate among radicals.’ (4) I have taken this as an invitation for discussion.

Firstly, what is catastrophism? Sasha Lilley offers the following definition in the 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 a 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.’

Seeking a clearer understanding of what the writers meant by catastrophism, I listened to a podcast where Lilley explains that they are discussing an ideology around collapse and rebirth which assumes a new society will be born out of the ashes of the old. This kind of thinking, they argue, results in people waiting for the collapse rather than organising. They further claim that catastrophism is based on fear which works very differently for the right where it is mobilising, than it does for the left where it is paralysing.

Eddy Yuen begins by voicing a critique of the environmental movement. The central argument he puts forward is that the environmental movement is failing to mobilise because of its catastrophic discourse and an ‘apocalyptic narrative’ that presumes this will lead to political action. He is concerned that ‘dooms day scenarios’ don’t have a politicization effect and suggests environmentalists should find better ‘narrative strategies’.

Catastrophism, here, refers to the warning of environmental crisis. Dissemination of information, according to Yuen, does not lead to action. He claims the environmental movement has caused fear induced-apathy in the population. Yuen pins this to a deeply held conviction about politicization apparently held by environmentalists – if people have the facts they will act. While this may be the case for some, Yuen does not address the importance of understanding the dynamics of climate change and their consequences as a vital precursor to action. In the same way that knowledge of starving children in your city does not lead most people to take action, so knowledge about climate change does not necessarily lead to action. This phenomenon is not unique to the environmental movement.

Yuen makes the assumption that the environmental movement cannot mobilise because it uses catastrophic language. This line of argument ignores the complexity of psychological and sociological factors contributing to inaction. Kari Marie Norgaard has done some excellent work on social movement non-participation and speaks about strategies people develop to avoid having to deal with difficult emotions. This indicates that, like with other bad news we get, there is a need to support people while dealing with these difficult emotions. 

Yuen rightly criticises false solutions like green consumption proposed by Al Gore. It seems like Yuen sees Al Gore as a spokesperson for environmentalists. This is not the case and should have been clarified. Al Gore is probably the most visible advocate of ecological modernisation in the US. Ecological modernisation theory (EMT) argues that the institutions of modernity, including multinational corporations and governments, will increasingly give more importance to ecological concerns. It is the neo-liberal belief that the crisis can be solved through far-reaching reforms, without the need for radical social change. Leftists concerned with climate change however, argue that social change and an alternative to capitalism are needed.

He further argues that the catastrophism of ‘many left-leaning greens’ is ‘Malthusian at its core’, points out a ‘shocking deficiency in the movements understanding of history, capitalism and global inequality’ and a simplistic analysis which places the blame on ‘the human race’. Surprisingly, he does not mentioned groups and networks on the left dedicated to building a climate justice movement which addresses the above concerns. This movement, like Yuen, rejects false solutions. It argues that climate change is not a problem of overpopulation but overconsumption/overproduction by and for the global north and elites in the global south. Climate justice activists speak about capitalism and point out the ‘contradictions between infinite accumulation of capital, and life on a finite planet’. It would have been more stimulating if he had discussed shortcomings of the environmental left, rather than criticising neo-liberal environmentalism.

Communicating climate change is difficult. Most people (including many on the left) do not want to hear about the topic because it makes them feel uncomfortable and there are no easy solutions. Climate denial, sponsored largely by the fossil fuel industry, is distorting reality. They want us to believe that climate change is not man made or that it is nothing to worry about. My concern with this chapter is that it could be used by some to further silence environmental activists.

In the second chapter, author and Against the Grain (which is well worth checking out) radio host Sasha Lilley distinguishes between two types of catastrophism on the left: determinist and voluntarist catastrophism. The former is a belief that capitalism will collapse under its own weight while the latter refers to the idea that worsening conditions will lead to a revolution. Catastrophism leads to the paralysis of the many and the vanguardism of the few and results from a politics of despair.

Lilley writes that the belief that capitalism “will come crashing down without protracted mass struggle is wishful thinking.’ (44) Are there really people on the left who think the sudden and uncontrolled collapse of capitalism would be a positive event? Surely the suffering would be enormous in such an event. She then looks at thinkers including Rosa Luxemburg and Immanuel Wallerstein whose analyses predicted that capitalism will collapse. Lilley disagrees. In her view capitalism will not come to an end due to internal contradictions. (136) The consequences of assuming collapse, it is further argued, leads to “adventurism (the ill-conceived actions of the few) or political quietism (the inaction that flows from awaiting the inexorable laws of history to put an end to capitalism)”. (52) Lilley asserts that we cannot rely on external forces to do the work of ending capitalism for us and that political organising is crucial. Unfortunately she has not presented convincing evidence that deterministic catastrophism is a phenomenon that requires discussion.  The sources she quotes do not take the position that we can sit back and wait. To the contrary they argue for the importance of organising a new society before capitalism collapses.

The second type of catastrophism on the left, voluntarism, is more common, according to Lilley. What ties determinism and voluntarism together is “a deep-seated pessimism about mass collective action and radical social transformation.” (45) Immiseration and state repression then are tools for politicisation leading to an assumption that “radicals should do what they can to make things worse.” (54) It is the idea that state repression can lead to the growth of movements. That the KPD (German Communist Party), one of her examples, made very serious mistakes has been discussed since 1945. Attempting to demonstrate that the KPD believed state repression would bring them to power in three paragraphs, while taking quotes out of their historical context, does not do the situation any justice.

Speaking about state repression and revolution, the next section examines war, which ‘has long been seen on the left as the midwife of revolt, often patterned in the trinity of crisis-war-revolution’. That revolts can follow war is a historical fact. To argue, however, that the left sees war as ‘midwife’ is a serious misrepresentation, at least of the European left which associates nothing positive with war.

The sub-chapter ‘Heightening Contradictions’ discusses militant groups like the Weathermen and the Red Army Faction arguing that insurrectionism is a misguided tactic, while the last part discusses anti-civilization.

James Davis, Irish writer and film maker, looks at catastrophism on the right and introduces the disease-cure binary of catastrophe. The catastrophe for the right is the threat to privilege and political power. The left is the catastrophe for the right, the left is the disease. Civil rights, feminism and social democracy are trends the right wishes to reverse. One approach to this is cure catastrophism, a subset to disease catastrophism. Acts which could contribute to a reversal in power won by social movements might be sparked by right wing terror and could then take the form of a ‘race war, insurrection, Armageddon, civil war, or in its purest form biblical apocalypse, and rapture.’ (78)  Actors explored in this chapter include the media used as a tool for propaganda, individual acts of terror on the right, small groups on the radical right, conspiracy theorists and the religious right. Catastrophism, Davis argues, “has a long history on the right and both the state and the organised far right understand it and wield it skilfully to achieve political and propaganda goals.” (106) It was unclear how this chapter relates to the previous two.

The final chapter takes a look at catastrophism in pop culture. David McNally, Professor of Political Science at York University, firstly discusses the relationship between capitalism and body panics by linking the rise of early capitalism to body snatching. The commodification of the body and the emergence of a corpse economy created fear among poor and working people, during the 18th century, that their bodies would be lost to medical experiments after their death. This also led to an increase in murders and grave robbing. McNally then discusses the historical origins of monsters, such as Frankenstein, who was constructed from dead body parts of humans and animals, and zombies, the cannibalistic consumer on one hand and the living-dead labourer on the other. McNally argues that the truths about social dynamics embedded in these tales about monsters need to be redeemed and translated into “languages and practices of social and political action.” (126)

The book’s key dilemma is that there is no clear definition of catastrophism as a concept. In a way this problem is reflected by a paragraph in the introduction where Lilley explains that “an overarching logic might be harder to place, since these movements and ideas are driven by different impulses, from above and from below (and in the case of the greens, both). In that sense, it is hard to talk about a catch-all catastrophism, without specifying whether it is of the left, right, green – or liberal – variety.” The definition offered by Lilley in the introduction as well as the scene set by the title – The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth is misleading. It suggest the authors are speaking about an ideology that assumes a collapse, be it economic, ecological or social, and is followed by a new and better society, which will be born out of the ashes of the old. Apart from the the religious right, which is mentioned in the third chapter, there is no evidence of collapse being viewed as a positive event.

- See more at: http://www.irishleftreview.org/2014/01/28/catastrophism-apocalyptic-politics-collapse-rebirth/#sthash.AOOGp2NJ.dpuf

 

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Fred Ho, Composer and Musician in ‘Popular Avant-Gard,’ Dies at 56

By Ben Ratliff
New York Times
April 12th, 2014

Fred Ho, a composer, saxophonist, writer and radical activist who composed politically charged operas, suites, oratorios and ballets that mixed jazz with popular and traditional elements of what he called Afro-Asian culture, died on Saturday at his home in Brooklyn. He was 56.

The cause was complications of colorectal cancer, said his student and friend Benjamin Barson. Mr. Ho had been in a war with the disease — his preferred metaphor, which he expanded on in many books, essays, speeches and interviews — since 2006.

Mr. Ho, who was of Chinese descent, considered himself a “popular avant-gardist.” He was inspired by the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and by the ambitious, powerful music of African-American bandleaders including Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Sun Ra and especially Charles Mingus. But he rejected the word jazz, which he considered a pejorative term imposed by Europeans.

Self-reliance was a priority for Mr. Ho. He rarely played in anyone else’s band (among the exceptions were stints with the arranger Gil Evans and the saxophonists Archie Shepp and Julius Hemphill). Describing himself as a “revolutionary matriarchal socialist and aspiring Luddite,” he never owned a car and made many of his own clothes from kimono fabric.

Fred Ho in 2013. Credit Joshua Bright for The New York Times

Despite his determination to stand outside the mainstream, he found support from grant-giving organizations, academic music departments who hired him as artist in residence, and nonprofit arts institutions — including, in New York City, the Public Theater, the Kitchen and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Born Fred Wei-han Houn on Aug. 10, 1957, in Palo Alto, Calif. — he changed his surname in 1988 — he moved with his family when he was 6 to Amherst, Mass., where his father taught political science at the University of Massachusetts. He felt a powerful attraction to the art and rhetoric of black culture; as a teenager, he audited college classes taught by Mr. Shepp, the drummer Max Roach and the poet Sonia Sanchez, who were all putting progressive politics in their art. (He never formally studied music, but began teaching himself baritone saxophone when he was 14.)

In interviews, Mr. Ho recalled that his father physically abused his mother. “One of my first insurrections,” he told Harvard Magazine, “was to defend my mother against his physical beatings and give him two black eyes.”

He served in the Marines, where he learned hand-to-hand combat, and was discharged in 1975 because, he said, he had fought with an officer who had used a racial slur. In his 20s, Mr. Ho briefly joined the Nation of Islam and then the I Wor Kuen, a radical Asian-American group inspired by the Black Panthers. Like his two younger sisters, Florence Houn and Flora Houn Hoffman, he attended Harvard University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1979.

His sisters and his mother, Frances Lu Houn, survive him.

Mr. Ho moved to New York in the early ’80s to pursue a career as a musician. He formed the Afro Asian Music Ensemble and became associated with other Asian-American musicians working on a newly emergent hybrid conception of jazz, including the pianist Jon Jang and the saxophonist Francis Wong. His first records, “Tomorrow Is Now!” and “We Refuse to Be Used and Abused,” were released by the Italian jazz label Soul Note.

In 1989, Mr. Ho had his first work performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the bilingual opera “A Chinaman’s Chance.” He then created two ballet operas based on the Chinese novel “Monkey,” by Wu Ch’eng-en, “Journey to the West” (1990) and “Journey Beyond the West: The New Adventures of Monkey” (1997). Both used Mandarin in their librettos, and both reimagined Monkey, a trickster figure, as a political agitator, upsetting the power structures of the gods. Mr. Ho called them “living comic books.”

Other ambitious works, many of which were recorded, were on the subjects of Chinese folklore, physical combat, domestic abuse, the black power movement and revolutionary feminism — and sometimes all of those subjects together, as in the opera “Warrior Sisters: The New Adventures of African and Asian Womyn Warriors” (1991), written with the librettist Ann T. Greene.

That work imagined a meeting of Fa Mu Lan, the Chinese fighter who was the subject of a sixth-century folk ballad; Yaa Asantewaa, who in 1900, in what is now Ghana, led the Ashanti rebellion against British colonialism; Sieh King King, a young Chinese-American woman who agitated for women’s rights in early-20th-century San Francisco; and Assata Shakur, the Black Liberation Army activist.

After learning in 2006 that he had colorectal cancer, Mr. Ho documented his fight against the illness in a book, “Diary of a Radical Cancer Warrior: Fighting Cancer and Capitalism at the Cellular Level,” followed by another, more prescriptive one, “Raw Extreme Manifesto: Change Your Body, Change Your Mind and Change the World by Spending Almost Nothing!” He wrote about his treatment in a blog, naming the doctors he mistrusted, thanking his friends and theorizing about his illness.

In “Future’s End,” a lecture from 2010 that he published at the website of the artists’ collective called Commoning, he wrote that the cause of cancer is “capitalist industrialism” and “social toxicity,” and praised Luddism, his philosophical passion, as the only alternative: “the opposition to technology (any of it) that is harmful to people or to the planet.”

Even in his final years, as Mr. Ho underwent multiple operations, he was still working: on “Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon!,” a choreographed martial-arts opera based on the 1970s manga comics of Kazuo Koike, performed for two weeks at La MaMa in May and June 2013; on “The Sweet Science Suite,” for 20-piece band and dancers, dedicated to Muhammad Ali, which had its stage premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in October 2013; and on several unfinished opuses.

To watch the video Fred Ho: The Music Lives On, click HERE




A Living Spirit of Revolt: A Review in Maximum RocknRoll

Chris Estey
Maximum Rocknroll

April 2014

Never has there been a better time for a lucid, lean, inclusive primer-history about anarchism. We're blessed that it's from Faculty of Social Sciences professor Ziga Vodovnik, someone deeply knowledgeable and personally passionate about those who are linked officially and ontologically by a "suspicion of authority." A previous work of his, Ya Basta! Ten Years of the Zapatista Uprising (AK Press, 2004) cohesively detailed how regional revolutionary acts in 1994 would eventually lead to the rising of the anti-globalist movement internationally at the turn of the century. In a similar, more sweeping way, Vodovnik here superbly elucidates how many levels and layers of anarchism have fed into each other or synchronistically arrived at the same roots of rebellion.

An anarchist can be defined as someone "suspicious of authority." It is someone who doesn't necessarily think that authority can solve disorder and injustice; in fact, its arguable that the government and marketplace might be their primal cause. This book happily comes out at a time when popular mainstream writers often fear and mock sloppily suggest that anyone wanting to use force to overthrow authority or endorsing a lack of civil commitment to others is an 'anarchist' (misunderstanding the majority of beliefs and behaviors). Vodovnik shows that anarchists were often the only ones left in society concerned with all-encompassing oppression, exclusion, and economic exploitation, and not willing to "trade revolution for a dictator." Vodovnik weaves theories from anarchist argued "classics" into concise reporting on anarchy's greatest peaks and certain valleys, succeeding in constructing a nimble narrative of ideas, actions, personalities, struggles, and even successes (Orwell's Catalonia; May 1968 in Paris and what that spawned, for example).

It's refreshing to have this book's clear-headed analysis on a way of life that somehow bizarrely connects Cartesian philosophers; Taoists and Buddhists; the arrival of Proudhon's political definition of the term; pacifistic New England Transcendentalists; the arrival of German immigrants who wanted to extrapolate the freedom of the human spirit at the end of the 19th century; the evolution of ideological traditionalists; the Dadaist usurpers of the spectacle; the pop-up inspiration of Temporary Autonomous Zones; and the phenomenon of transglobal citizens. Listed are individualized and collectivized protests against the horrors that have been done in the name of obedience throughout recent regime and market-driven civilization.

A Living Spirit of Revolt is not a bloated text of controversies, contradictions, and mystifications; it doesn't strive to take down every internal conflict and dogmatic detail of clans and cliques throughout anarchism's official existence since Proudhon. As Vodovnik has quoted Zinn in the press, the work of anarchy is often done by people not professing the ideology by name. Sometimes anarchy is that one person standing against something that seems reasonable, such as democratic rule. Sometimes it is a group with altruistic motives which came together for the sake of social justice (but its organizational aspects and altruism may not seem 'anarchist' on the surface). What are their basic histories and how may they all fit in with each other? Most importantly, what do they all really have in common, if much at all? Vodovnik finds what worked best for each, but doesn't leave out the mistakes or possible problem areas. He does openly favor the non-violent and stresses unity, but A Living Spirit of Revolt makes a solid argument that only true freedom could be the living mother of real (human, non-oppressive) order.

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Karen Joy Fowler Wins PEN/Faulkner Fiction Prize

by Allan Kozinn
The New York Times
ArtsBeat
April 2nd, 2014

Karen Joy Fowler, a novelist known for her science fiction and for stories set in the 19th century, is the winner of the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons), a novel with a contemporary setting. The $15,000 prize, which was announced on Wednesday by the directors of the award, will be presented at a ceremony at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington on May 10.

Ms. Fowler’s novel focuses on Rosemary Cooke, the 22-year old daughter of an Indiana University psychology professor, whose family was disrupted in the aftermath of a peculiar psychological experiment that Rosemary’s father conducted when she was a child. It was chosen by a panel of three judges – the novelists Madison Smartt Bell, Manuel Muñoz and Achy Obejas – from among more than 430 novels and short story collections by American authors published in the United States in 2013.

“This superb novel is not only comic and smart,” Mr. Muñoz said in a statement, “it packs a surprising emotional punch. Fowler captures an altogether new dimension of the meaning — and heartbreak — of family dynamics.”

The finalists for the award, who will each receive a $5,000 prize, are Daniel Alarcón for “At Night We Walk in Circles” (Riverhead Books); Percival Everett for “Percival Everett by Virgil Russell” (Graywolf Press); Joan Silber for “Fools” (W.W. Norton & Company) and Valerie Trueblood for “Search Party: Stories of Rescue” (Counterpoint Press).

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A Conversation with Mystery Author Kenneth Wishnia

OmniMystery News
March 14th, 2014

We are delighted to welcome mystery author Kenneth Wishnia to Omnimystery News today.

Ken's fourth mystery with ex-cop and new PI Filomena Buscarsela, Red House, is being re-issued this month in trade paperback and ebook formats by PM Press.

We recently had the chance to talk with Ken about his series character and the mysteries in which she finds herself.

— ♦ —

Omnimystery News: How has Filomena Buscarsela changed over the course of four books?

Kenneth Wishnia: I can't imagine writing one of those series in which the character never ages or changes (she's a human being, for God's sake, not Superwoman). So my character, Filomena Buscarsela, goes from a wild and crazy female cop in the first novel, 23 Shades of Black (set during the Reagan era), to an ex-cop and single mom in Soft Money (George H. W. Bush era). She's unemployed and desperate in The Glass Factory (Clinton era), and in Red House, she's working for a private investigator (and some guy named George W. Bush is president).



OMN: Into which mystery genre would you place the series?



KW: Fairly hardboiled and political, but tempered with lots of cynical humor. It's not a terribly crowded niche, so I'm fine with that.



OMN: Tell us something about this book that isn't mentioned in the publisher's synopsis.



KW: Red House was the first novel I wrote after going through the sheer hell of graduate school in Comparative Literature (my dissertation was on 20th century Ecuadorian literature). By that point, I found writing academic prose almost physically painful, and as a result Red House has this incredible energy running through it: It's like I'm rediscovering the thrill of being able to kick the crap out of a scene. In academic prose, you have to painstakingly qualify everything. In crime fiction, you get to smash the amps and leave the stage a smoking ruin. Woohoo!



OMN: How much of your own personal or professional experience have you included in your books?



KW: Tons of it.



OMN: Describe your writing process for us.



KW: I gather the notes for five novels, then I write one. It's very labor intensive, but I'd rather do that than write one those lame, formulaic crime novels that are nothing more than a set-up and a conclusion with tons of dead air in between because the author clearly doesn't have enough material for a novel. Whenever I hear a writer complain that they're having trouble with "the middle," all I can think is, Well, then you shouldn't be writing a novel, because it sounds more like a short story.



OMN: How do you go about fact-checking the plot points of your books?

KW: I do tons of research, including expert interviews and location scouting. But none of that matters if you can't get the story off the ground. In Red House, Filomena is an overworked single mom who's dealing with the lack of affordable housing and the poor treatment of immigrants. Women have come up to me and said, "This is my life. How did you know this?" Because it's my life, too.

(On another note, it took me a long time to find the voice for my last novel, The Fifth Servant, which is set in Prague's Jewish ghetto in 1592. When it finally came out, a number of readers said, "Well, you're obviously a Talmudic scholar." No, I'm a writer: it's not my job to be a Talmudic scholar, it's my job to make you believe I am one. And if I did, then all that research paid off.)



OMN: How true are you to the settings of your books?



KW: I use real settings, but often fictionalize them. You have to be careful, though, because people are funny: You can invent "The Schneerson Building" at 72nd and Broadway, and everybody accepts that you're making up a building, but God help you if you say "72nd and Broadway, east of Park Avenue," because everyone will tell you that 72nd and Broadway is west of Park Avenue and that they no longer trust anything you say.



OMN:
If you could travel anywhere in the world, all expenses paid, to research a setting, where would it be?



KW: Jerusalem in the 6th century BC, because that's the setting of my next novel. But so far all my attempts at time travel have proved fruitless. Darn laws of physics …



OMN: Do any of your outside interests or hobbies find their way into your books?

KW: Everything finds its way into my books. So watch what you say to me.



OMN: What advice might you offer aspiring writers?



KW: The basic rules for good writing haven't changed since the Roman poet Horace laid them out in the Art of Poetry around 10 BC: Have some talent, read the masters, and revise your work over and over before sending it out. 

Then hire a publicist.



OMN: Complete this sentence for us: "I am a mystery author and thus I am also …".



KW: I am also a Professor of English at Suffolk Community College on Long Island. Don't quit your day job, people.



OMN: Red House was first published in 2001 and is being reissued by PM Press. How involved were you with the new cover design? And does the title have any special meaning?



KW: I love the covers that PM Press is doing for this series. They're unique, immediately identifiable as part of a series, and unlike anything else out there. Just like my writing. And yes, there was a
lot of back-and-forth about the cover designs.

The title Red House has many meanings in the story: there's a house that's painted red, a house full of "reds" (anarchist squatters), a house that's "red hot" (due to toxic chemicals), and a house that goes up in flames. It's also the title of one of Jimi Hendrix's classic blues songs, which turns up in the pages of the novel.



OMN: What kinds of feedback have you received from readers about the book?



KW: That they actually read it and liked it enough to tell me so — see
the "This is my life" comment above — or better yet, they told
somebody else to read it.



OMN: If this series were to be adapted for television or film, who do you see playing the part of Filomena?



KW: Obviously, she'd have to be a latina. Why, you know somebody?



OMN: What kinds of books did you read as a child?



KW: My brain took a while to develop that capacity. I read kids'
mysteries like Encyclopedia Brown, the tales of Judge Ooka,
Hitchcock's Three Investigators, Basil of Baker Street, and Rod
Serling's Twilight Zone stories. But I could barely get through three
pages of the crappy novels we were assigned in 5th and 6th grade. Then
suddenly in 7th grade something clicked: we read Tom Sawyer, A
Christmas Carol, and The Crucible (in 7th grade!) and I finally
experienced what it was like to immerse yourself in a compelling, more
literary style of storytelling. (Thank you, Mrs. Putre!) I had read
the complete Sherlock Holmes canon by 8th grade. Then it was on to
 Raymond Chandler.



OMN: What do you read now for pleasure?



KW: Everything — with a definite biias towards crime fiction, literary fiction, and non-fiction of all kinds. I once heard a radio interview with jazz great Charles Mingus in which the host, a college student, asked Mingus whom he thought the "young jazz musician of today" should be listening to. Mingus answered: "Start with Bach, and listen to everything else since then."

I'd adapt this advice for the aspiring writer of today: Start with the Epic of Gilgamesh, and read everything else since then.



OMN: What's next for you?



KW: Researching my next novel. Unless Hollywood calls.

— ♦ —

Kenneth Wishnia's novels include 23 Shades of Black, an Edgar Award and Anthony Award finalist; Soft Money, a Library Journal Best Mystery of the Year; and The Fifth Servant, an Indie Notable selection, winner of a Premio Letterario ADEI-WIZO, and a finalist for the Sue Feder Memorial Historical Mystery Award (Macavity Awards). His short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock, Queens Noir, Long Island Noir, Send My Love and a Molotov Cocktail and elsewhere. He teaches writing, literature and other deviant forms of thought at Suffolk Community College on Long Island.



For more information about the author and his work, please visit his website at KennethWishnia.com.

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Refusing the Planetary Work Machine

by Kevin Van Meter
Perspectives Journal

A Review of Silvia Federici’s Revolution at Point Zero and George Caffentzis’s In Letters of Blood and Fire


In the immediate aftermath of the Seattle World Trade Organization protests in 1999, at the peak of the counter-globalization cycle of protest, I stumbled into an office at Long Island’s Hofstra University. Amongst piles of books and photocopied lefty fliers I found a copy of the Midnight Notes collection Midnight Oil: Work, Energy, War, 1973-19921 and had a chance encounter with feminist activist-scholar Silvia Federici. Since then I – and the Team Colors Collective, in which I participate – have drawn on the work of Federici and the Wages for Housework Campaign of which she was part, philosopher George Caffentzis and historian Peter Linebaugh of the Midnight Notes Collective, and economist Harry Cleaver, who, along with Caffentzis and Linebaugh, wrote as part of the short-lived Zerowork Collective that predated Midnight Notes. I do not offer this personal introduction as a justification for celebrating the release of these two collections, as much as they should be celebrated; rather, I do so because revolutionary politics are “something, which in fact happens” in “human relationships,” as E.P. Thompson offered.

In what follows I explore the history that situates this work and review the concepts and ideas offered by Federici’s Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle and Caffentzis’s In Letters of Blood and Fire: Work, Machines, and the Crisis of Capitalism.2

A Short, Incomplete History of Autonomist Marxism in the United States

In the “Introduction” to Reading Capital Politically, Harry Cleaver proposes a “political- strategic reading” of Marx’s Capital that takes the perspective of working-class struggle. Cleaver argues, “[R]evolutionary strategy cannot be created from an ideological critique; it develops within the actual ongoing growth of working-class struggle.”3 He then locates this perspective in a series of heretical Marxist organizations that he broadly defines as purveyors of an “autonomist” politics. Beginning with the publication of the 1947 pamphlet The American Worker by autoworker Paul Romano and Ria Stone (pen name of Raya Dunayevskaya), Autonomist Marxism was forged in 1950s Detroit in the former- Trotskyist Johnson-Forest Tendency and subsequent organizations Correspondence Publishing Committee and Facing Reality. These organizations, each with their own publishing arm, included figures such as Trinidadian Marxist CLR James, Works Projects Administration Historian and documentarian of American slavery George Rawick, retired factory worker and Wayne State Professor Martin Glaberman, and Chinese-American Detroit luminary Grace Lee Boggs.

The connections between the Detroit-Torino auto industry and The American Worker resonated with Raniero Panzieri, Romano Alquati, Mario Tronti, and Antonio Negri in various journals-qua-organizations Quaderni Rossi (Red Notebooks) and Classe Operaia (Working Class). These projects drew on the Johnson-Forest Tendency, Socialisme ou Barbarie, and various ultra-left tendencies in the Italian Communist Party. Following the 1969 Hot Autumn in the Fiat factories and corresponding student struggles, a new phase of struggle in the social factory was launched with figures such as Paolo Virno, Sergio Bologna, and Franco "Bifo" Berardi, and similar journal- organization hybrids were launched including Lotta Continua (Continuous Struggle) and Potere Operaio (Workers Power). The Detroit-Torino proletariat attacked capital at its highest points of concentration in the auto industry. Subsequently, working class struggle in the auto industry pushed capital to seek new areas for accumulation. Hence capital moves the factory model beyond the factory gates to encompass all of society, in what Autonomist Marxists have termed the “social factory”.

The working class response to the development of the social factory was typified in Italy under the broad movement called Autonomia, which in turn traveled to Germany via the squat movement exemplified by the Autonomen, and was developing in the US and UK during the same period. Militants Paolo Carpignano and Ed Emery, the latter of Red Notes in the UK, served as conduits of this discourse, as did Federici, who was at the heart of the US-wing of the International Wages for Housework Campaign. Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa initiated the Campaign, based in London and Pauda, Italy respectively, and circulated its call via Dalla Costa’s monumental The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community.4 With the advent of the feminist movement in Italy, the UK, and the US, Wages for Housework took Autonomist Marxism in a different direction then its initial focus on male autoworkers.

Herein the Campaign centered the housewife and the unpaid reproductive work they performed, thus furthering the discourse on the social factory.

As a result of the work of the Campaign in the US, and in New York City particularly, a men’s group came together to form Zerowork and launched a corresponding journal. The initial meetings in New York included members of Facing Reality, Wages for Housework, and featured Cleaver, Caffentzis, Linebaugh, and others. Zerowork released two journals in 1975 and 1977 respectively (and produced an unreleased third) before splitting, with Cleaver moving to Austin, TX and a number of remaining members launching Midnight Notes, along with Bostonian educator Monty Neill.

At this time New York City was in the midst of the Fiscal Crisis, mass firing of CUNY faculty, and repression of social movements that echoed the 1979 mass arrest of Italian militants. New York was entering ‘midnight’ with the endless imposition of work, while Cleaver continued to argue that capital was moving toward ‘zero’ work in Austin amidst the tech boom. The Midnight Notes collective, which continued until recently, along with Zerowork, was amongst the first to theorize the importance of the NYC Fiscal Crisis for future International Monetary Fund / World Bank structural adjustment programs. Furthermore, they contributed key analysis on the importance of hydrocarbons – wood, coal, oil, gas – and uranium for neoliberal capital, intervened in the antinuke movement, described the process of “new enclosures” (i.e. structural adjustment, privatization of land and forced urbanization / proletarization, increasing penetration of capital into everyday life), and furthered the Zapatista slogan “one no, many yesses.”

As the 1980's began Autonomist Marxism found its expression in the continuing work of the Midnight Notes collective and with the related project Processed World that was launched in San Francisco. Initiated by Chris Carlsson, who would later go on to found Critical Mass, and feminist Caitlin Manning, Processed World focused on the new forms of work, specifically temporary office work and precarious labor. Combining the aforementioned projects with influences such as the Situationist International, early punk rock, and a playful San Francisco counter culture, Processed World participated in various street actions and theatre in addition to an irregularly published journal.

Reviewing Revolution at Point Zero and In Letters of Blood and Fire

In Revolution at Point Zero Federici locates the beginnings of the Wages for Housework Campaign in the Welfare Rights Movements rather then the assumed burgeoning white, middle-class feminist movement. It is these various perspectives that Federici utilized in her organizing with the Campaign in New York, and appear in Revolution at Point Zero as well as her well-received 2004 volume Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation.5 Moreover, her “Counter-planning in the Kitchen” written with Nicole Cox, is an application of Bill Watson’s “Counter-planning on the Shop Floor” to unwaged work, and further illustrates her position within the Autonomist tradition. “Counter-planning in the Kitchen” offers a important remark – “[p]ower educates.”6 Specifically, against the liberal notion that racialized, gendered, and other oppressive behaviors change through education or changes in consciousness, Federici and Cox argue that the education process comes through refusal, struggle, and political recomposition. 7

Revolution at Point Zero
8 opens with Federici’s 1975 essay “Wages against Housework.” Challenging the notion that the wages for housework demand was simply about the figure of the housewife and wages due, she argues that “[w]ages for housework [...] is a revolutionary demand not because by itself it destroys capital, but because it forces capital to restructure social relations in terms more favorable to us and consequently more favorable to the unity of the class.”9 Put clearly, the demand is for the unwaged work of social reproduction – that is, the reproduction of a particularly important commodity for capital: the workers’ ability to work– to be recognized as such through its refusal. Hence the refusal of gendered, unwaged work is part of class struggle and a class project beyond capital’s imposition of such work. Earlier in the chapter she notes, “women have always found ways of fighting back, or getting back at them, but always in an isolated and privatized way. The problem, then, becomes, how to bring this struggle out of the kitchen and the bedroom and into the streets.”10 Here I see reflections of the women’s consciousness-raising movement of the time but with an added class struggle component. By the 1980s capital was in the process of restructuring its technical composition and attempting to decompose the power that various sectors of the working class obtained in the previous cycle of struggle. In “The Restructuring of Housework and Reproduction in the United States in the 1970s” she argues, “[t]he clearest evidence that women have used the power of the wage to reduce their unpaid labor in the home has been the explosion of the service sector in the ‘70s. Cooking, cleaning, taking care of children, even problem solving and companionship have been increasingly ‘taken out of the home’ and organized on a commercial basis.”11 The predictive quality of these comments should be obvious, as the new forms of labor that capital has developed in the advancing decades has simply created a sector of low waged ‘housework’ performed in others homes while maintaining, and even increasing the imposition of, unwaged housework. Federici argues in her later chapters that what is now called affective work (the “service industry”) is simply capital taking the demand of wages for housework to extreme levels by imposing a form of low waged housework upon the planetary working class, most specifically poor women of color. Finally, Federici calls attention to the need to center reproductive work in our movements: “We cannot build an alternative society and strong self-reproducing movements unless we redefine in more cooperative ways our reproduction and put an end to the separation between the personal and the political, political activism and the reproduction of everyday life.”12

In Letters of Blood and Fire commences with Caffentzis’ monumental “The Work/Energy Crisis and the Apocalypse”. Originally published in 1980s No Future Notes: the Work/Energy Crisis & The Anti-Nuclear Movement, listed as Midnight Notes number two, “Work/Energy Crisis” finds Caffentzis at the apex of his powers. Using multifarious language, he decodes the magic of the market and the energy crisis of the late 1970s. Amongst a wide range of concerns – the state of the antiwar movement, increased imposition of unwaged work on women, the shifting technological composition of capital, theory of machines – he offers two particular cogent insights, amongst many: first, capital transforms value from low sectors (unwaged, service, factory, and farm work) to high sectors (finance, energy); and second, not unrelated, capital seeks “low entropy” workers. “The less the entropy, the greater the ‘efficiency’ [and less resistance offered]: hence the greater the work/energy ratio, the greater the profit” he states.13

In Letters of Blood and Fire14 contains three sections, beginning with the imposition of work, continuing with the theory of machines (a rich discussion that counters the often dismissive analyses of technology that predominate among radicals today), and concludes in understanding capitalist crisis and its origins in class struggle. Taking each chapter in kind might abscond with the red thread that ties these pieces together, and Caffentzis’s writing, while stirring and written with a question / answer approach, could confuse those not familiar with these discourses. Thus, it’s worth describing two aspects of this thread: first, how “counterplanning from the shop floor to the kitchen”15 reveals class composition; and second, how centering class autonomy in the understanding of capitalist crisis illuminates various possibilities for class struggle and in turn critiques those who see crisis as a result of the internal contradictions of capital. On this second point, crisis in capitalism according to Marxian theorists such as David Harvey, Paul Sweezy of Monthy Review, and others, is caused by the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, a crisis of overaccumulation, or the internal contradictions of capitalism; herein the role of working class struggle in causing crisis in capitalism is secondary if it appears at all. Against these analyses, Caffentzis urges us to “read the struggles,” by assessing how struggles are politically composed, how the struggles are overthrowing “capitalist divisions,” how they are reaching their limits and directly confronting the technical composition of capital. By centering class struggle, and the autonomy of the working class from capital, the working class becomes a living, political project rather then a “structure” or “category.” Further contained within this insight is the notion that in refusing work (which encompasses “counterplanning”) in its waged and unwaged forms, the working class moves from a class ‘in itself’ (technically composed for capital) toward being ‘for itself’ (politically composed against and beyond capital), as revealed in struggles. Further, “[f]or much of the history of the working class, this power to be able to refuse work has been rooted in the existence of common property resources or commons that people could access independent of their status as waged workers.”16 Hence the struggle ‘for itself’ contains elements of the commons and practices of commoning. Autonomist Marxism, and this is clear in Caffentzis’s work, sees the seeds of the new society – counterplanning, self-reproducing movements, commoning – as material rather then ideological seeds in the shell of the old.

Revolution at Point Zero and In Letters of Blood and Fire are not collected works nor are they illustrative of the broad scope of these militants’ contributions. Rather, as much of their prior solo and collaborative work, these collections function as particular interventions: Federici’s into the continued gendered nature of social reproduction and the need for movements to center their own self-reproduction, Caffentzis’s into Marxian crisis and machine theory as well as the continued imposition of work. Radicals interested in this American legacy ought to supplement these collections with the work of Midnight Notes, including the aforementioned Midnight Oil, Auroras of the Zapatistas: Local and Global Struggles in the Fourth World War (2001), New Enclosures (1990), and the more recent Promissory Notes: From Crisis to Commons (2009) addressing the current fiscal crisis.17 Further, Federici’s recent collection serves as a complement to her ingenious Caliban and the Witch and various articles on witch-hunts. A collection of materials from Federici and Caffentzis’s years in Africa is yet to be compiled.

There are various resonances between the collections. Caffentzis includes “Mormons in Space” co-written with Federici, and while the Wages for Housework “Copernican Revolution” is omnipresent, his final chapter “On the Notion of a Crisis of Social Reproduction: A Theoretical Review” directly engages with the material in Revolution at Point Zero. Additionally, Federici draws on the larger literature of refusal of work, Marxian crisis theory, and Autonomist Marxism, while critiquing the search for a particular revolutionary subject and the latent Leninism of Negri, Hardt, and others; Caffentzis compliments this by arguing that “immaterial labor” does not in fact exist. These similarities are unsurprising for Federici and Caffentzis have been partners and political comrades for forty years.

Continued Importance of Hydrocarbons, Reproductive Labor, and Refusal of Work

Federici and Caffentzis (as well as their comrades in Midnight Notes) have illustrated the continued importance of hydrocarbons (wood, coal, oil, gas) and uranium, reproductive labor (unwaged housework), and the refusal of work (struggles of waged and unwaged workers against and beyond the wage) for our present moment. To conclude I briefly review these concepts and then read them as tools and weapons for contemporary anarchist and radical currents.18

Hydrocarbons, along with labor-power, is a base commodity that in turn affect all other commodities in a capitalist society; the energy sector, as the intersection of both, thus holds a particularly important place for class struggle. Moreover, “energy” is in fact work, as value is transferred from low sectors (unwaged, service, factory, and farm work) to high sectors (in this case energy). The anti-nuke movement, of which Federici and Caffentzis were active participants and commentators, effectively prevented capital from using nuclear power as an option for accumulation. In a similar fashion, current climate change, anti-fracking, pipeline, and mountain top removal struggles have a role in defending the earthly commons in addition to resisting the ability of capital to plan.

Reproductive Labor serves to conceptualize the myriad of services and tasks, predominately performed by women and those outside of the gender binary, which reproduce labor-power. This encompasses both unwaged reproductive labor and a significant sector of female laborers “employed in the service sector and [as] domestic labor” [who have] migrat[ed] from the Global South to the North.”19 This underlying materiality of reproductive labor is suffering under an increasing imposition of work as welfare benefits are cut, state services are pawned off to the non-profit sector, and the continued precariousness of waged work leaves the working class seeking other avenues for reproduction. To this complex set of realities and struggles, Federici proposes the centering of reproduction in revolutionary movements, in what she calls “self- reproducing movements.” This strategic assemblage takes a few forms: “recognizing domestic work as work,”20 in both unwaged and waged forms; active solidarity with those refusing this work and wages’ struggles associated with this work; and “undoing the gendered architecture of our lives and reconstructing our homes and lives as commons.”21

Refusal of Work when read through a particularly American counter-cultural lens becomes the simple rejection of work and celebration of slack, as tends to happen in our contemporary radical movements. Rather, the rich tradition of Autonomist Marxism in Europe, America, and elsewhere views the refusal of work as a temporal reality at the core of capital – the class antagonism. Refusing forms of unwaged and waged work make this work visible. With the left abandoning struggles around wages and only giving tacit comment to debtor-creditor struggles, revolutionaries have the opportunity to organize against precaritization, divisions of labor, and the imposition of work.

Finding ourselves in the post-Occupy moment, or may I suggest malaise, anarchist and radical movements are apparently stuck in the search for a singular revolutionary subject, the simplistic attraction of moralistic arguments, and the pairing of the desire for immediate results with the rapid turnover of movement participants. Refusing the planetary work machine whilst constructing common resources and common practices can be scaled “all the way down” to everyday lives and “human relationships” – and address the current stuckness of radical movements by reading class conflict from the perspective of working class struggle. Herein mountain top removal is simultaneously about preventing ecological destruction and the capitalist use of energy, debt resistance is concerning debt and the lost wages and incomes that debt represents, and the refusal of unwaged reproductive labor resists the imposition of care-work as it seeks to create relationships based on care-giving. And in turn, refusing the endless imposition of work is about wages due and a world without such an imposition. This “political-strategic reading” begs the question: where do we see refusals against the planetary work machine and what is the political composition of these struggles? It is here – in reading working class struggle as it exists rather then as a “structure” or “category” – where we can begin to develop anarchist and radical movements that move.

Refusing the Planetary Work Machine


Caffentzis, never to miss an opportunity to address the pressing issues of the day, gave a retirement speech at the end of the Spring 2013 semester. As an active participant in Strike Debt and other campaigns, he titled the talk: “My Penance, Student Loan Debt.” Caffentzis’s, as well as Federici’s, recent interventions in the Occupy and Student Loan Debt movement – calling for jubilee – is just the most recent action in a long, illustrious career as militants, revolutionaries, and theorists. Refusing the planetary work machine concomitant with the practices of commoning has been the thrust of their solo and collaborative work. Revolution at Point Zero and In Letters of Blood and Fire thus serve as introductions to the thought of Federici and Caffentzis and as a node in a much larger undertaking.

Biography

Kevin Van Meter is a member of the Team Colors collective (www.warmachines.info) and recently relocated to Minneapolis to complete his doctorate in Geography. With Team Colors, Van Meter co-edited the collection Uses of a Whirlwind: Movement, Movements, and Contemporary Radical Politics in the United States (AK Press, 2010); and with Team Colors, co-authored Winds from below: Radical Community Organizing to Make a Revolution Possible (Team Colors, 2010). Van Meters’ work has appeared in various radical publications and his doctoral research documents American Autonomist Marxism.

1 Midnight Notes Collective (eds.) Midnight Oil: Work, Energy, War 1973-1992 (New York: Autonomedia, 1992); www.midnightnotes.org

2 Both collections are published under the Common Notions (www.commonnotions.org) imprint of PM Press (www.pmpress.org) and in association with Autonomedia (www.autonomedia.org). Silvia Federici. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (Oakland: PM Press, 2012); George Caffentzis’s In Letters of Blood and Fire: Work, Machines, and the Crisis of Capitalism (Oakland: PM Press, 2013).
3 Harry Cleaver. Reading Capital Politically (Leeds: Anti/Theses & San Francisco: AK Press, 2000), 57.
4 Mariarosa Dalla Costa. The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (Bristol: Falling Walls Press, 1972).

5 Silvia Federici. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2004).
6 Federici. “Revolution at Point Zero”, 37. Credit for insight goes to Craig Hughes of the Team Colors Collective.

7 “By political recomposition” the Zerowork collective states, “we mean the level of unity and homogeneity that the working class reaches during a cycle of struggle in the process of going form one composition to another. Essentially, it involves the overthrow of capitalist divisions, the creation of new unities between different sectors of the class, and an expansion of the boundaries of what the ‘working class’ comes to include.” Zerowork Collective. “Introduction to Zerowork 1” in Midnight, Midnight Notes Collective (eds.).
8 Federici’s collection is organized chronologically from 1975 to 2010, with the exception of one chapter; additionally, there is a gap between 1985 and 1998. One clear error in the collection is the absence of an index.

9 Federici. “Revolution at Point Zero”, 19.
10 Ibid, 18.

11 Ibid, 49.

12 Ibid, 147.

13 Caffentzis. In Letters of Blood and Fire, 55.

14 Rather then being organized chronologically as Federici’s collection, Caffentzis’s book is thematic in its construction. Chapters begin in 1980, eschewing his early work with Zerowork and Midnight Notes issue one titled “Strange Victories”, and conclude in 2010; the three undated chapters are from his more recent period.
15 Caffentzis. In Letters of Blood and Fire, 4.

16 Caffentzis. In Letters of Blood and Fire, 249.

17 Midnight Notes Collective (eds.). Auroras of the Zapatistas: Local and Global Struggles in the Fourth World War (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2001); Midnight Notes Collective (eds.). Midnight Notes, No. 10, New Enclosures (Boston: Midnight Notes, 1990), available online at: http://www.midnightnotes.org/newenclos.html; Midnight Notes Collective and Friends. Promissory Notes: From Crisis to Commons (Boston & New York: Midnight Notes, 2009), available online at: http://www.midnightnotes.org/Promissory%20Notes.pdf.

18 For our previous application of these concepts to the contemporary period see: Team Colors Collective. Winds from below: Radical Community Organizing to Make a Revolution Possible (Portland: Eberhardt Press & Team Colors, 2010); Kevin Van Meter. “To Care is to Struggle” in Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Fall 2012); and Team Colors Collective. Occupied Zuccotti, Social Struggle, and Planned Shrinkage (New York: Team Colors Collective, 2012).

19 Federici. Revolution at Point Zero, 71.

20 Ibid, 8; Caffentzis. In Letters of Blood and Fire, 269-270.

21 Federici. Revolution at Point Zero, 148.

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An Interview With Staughton Lynd About the Labor Movement

By Andy Piascik and Staughton Lynd
ZNet
April 1, 2014

For more than 50 years, Staughton Lynd has been a leading radical in the United States. He was an engaged supporter of the Black Liberation Movement in the Deep South in the early 1960’s, most notably as coordinator of the Freedom Schools during Mississippi Summer in 1964. He was an active opponent of US aggression in Indochina, including as chairperson of the first national demonstration against the war in Vietnam in April 1965.[1] In recent decades, Lynd has been an attorney representing prisoners, particularly at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown, and has written a book, a play and numerous articles about the 1993 uprising at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville.[2]

Since the late 1960’s, Lynd has also been deeply involved in the labor movement as an activist, attorney and prolific writer.[3] Inspired by Marty Glaberman, Stan Weir and Ed Mann,[4] Lynd has been a passionate and prolific proponent of decentralized, rank-and-file driven unionism. In November 2014, Haymarket Books will publish a book by Lynd entitled Doing History from the Bottom Up: On E.P. Thompson, Howard Zinn, and Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below and a new edition of his book Solidarity Unionism: Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below with an introduction by radical labor scholar and activist Immanuel Ness will be published by PM Press in Spring 2015.
 
Piascik: What is your general view of the state of organized labor in the United States today?

Lynd: My general view, like that of everyone else, is that the labor movement is in catastrophic decline. My particular view is that the reason for this decline is not the Supreme Court, or the McCarthy period, or anything that might be remedied by changing the top leadership of unions, but the model of trade union organizing that has existed in all CIO unions since 1935. The critical elements of this model are: 1) Exclusive representation of a bargaining unit by a single union; 2) The dues check-off, whereby the employer deducts dues for the union from the paycheck of every member of the bargaining unit; 3) A clause prohibiting strikes and slowdowns for the duration of the contract; 4) A “management prerogatives” clause giving the employer the right to make investment decisions unilaterally.

In combination these clauses in the typical CIO contract give the employer the right to close the plant and prevent the workers from doing anything about it. So long as collective bargaining agreements conform to this template, the election of a Miller, a Sadlowski, a Carey, a Sweeney, or a Trumka will not bring about fundamental change.
        
Piascik: You have written extensively about the working class upheaval of the 1930’s, both the early years of the decade and the formation of the CIO.[5] How and why was the CIO consolidated as a top-down organization?

Lynd: It tends to be forgotten that the CIO was created by John L. Lewis. There is now a significant body of scholarship to the effect that 1) Lewis centralized the administration of the UMW so as to minimize the traditional influence of local unions and ran the national union in an altogether high-handed manner; 2) Lewis went out of his way to assure the business community that if they bargained with the CIO such phenomena as wildcat strikes would become a thing of the past; 3) many liberals and radicals such as Roger Baldwin of the ACLU opposed the Wagner Act, believing correctly that the result would be exactly what has occurred and that alternatives such as the Progressive Miners in southern Illinois would be steamrollered; 4) contrary to popular belief, the revival of unionism among miners began from below before the passage of the National Recovery Act with its Section 7 during the Spring of 1933 and the long-lasting miners’ strike the following summer was created and persisted in by rank-and-file miners despite endless attempts by Lewis and his lieutenant Philip Murray to settle it from above.
 
Piascik: You consistently underscore the importance of local initiatives. What do such initiatives look like in practice and why might they be more fruitful than national reform campaigns?

Lynd: At first glance any imaginable agglomeration of local groups appears helpless in contrast to gigantic international corporations. Indeed, in my early struggles with this dilemma, I highlighted the absence in the steel industry in the 1930s of effective coordination between new local unions improvised by the rank and file in a variety of locations.

The same problem presents itself today as low-wage workers in a variety of communities are simultaneously assisted, but also managed by, existing national unions like the UFCW and SEIU. For the moment, the unions say they only want to help these workers win specific demands through direct action. Down the road, however, these same unions may seek to make local direct actions serve as stepping stones to their familiar objective: exclusive bargaining status, complete with dues check-off and no-strike clause.

I have come to feel that the sense of helplessness experienced by local groups may be exaggerated, even illusory. In a single workplace, workers in a particular strategic unit or department may be able to bring the entire enterprise to a halt. Vicki Starr a.k.a. Stella Nowicki describes how this was true when the “beef kill” stopped work in the Chicago stockyards in the 1930s.[6]

Something like that occurred at the giant Walmart warehouse in Elwood, Illinois, near Chicago, two years ago. That particular warehouse handled most of the products flowing into the multitudinous Walmart distribution points throughout the United States. So severe was the disruption caused when these particular workers walked out for a couple of weeks over local grievances that the company not only granted some of their demands but also welcomed them back to work and paid back pay for the time they were on strike! Thus even when confronted with the challenge of national coordination, inquiry circles back to the willingness of small groups of workers in particular critical segments of the production or distribution process to stop work.

Energy should go into building strong nuclei of self-activity on the workplace floor. Stan Weir called such entities “informal work groups.” He was convinced that such groupings come into being wherever human brings work together, and develop leadership of a sort from below, as needed. Energy should not go into electing new top officials.
 
Piascik: Would you elaborate on the drawbacks of the “exclusive representation” stipulation in the NLRA?

Lynd: There are at least three or four drawbacks to the idea of exclusive representation.
 1) The initial contact between a union organizer and a group of workers involves activities meaningless in themselves, such as collecting signatures on cards or petitions which are then forwarded to the NLRB. The obvious alternative is to build solidarity, what Stan Weir called creating a “family at work,” by means of small direct actions.

 2) Once a union is successful in winning a representation election pursuant to Section 9 of the NLRA (now LMRA), it becomes extremely difficult for a group of workers to “decertify,” that is, to choose another union to represent them. In contrast, in Nicaragua during the 1980s a union was selected only for the duration of a single contract, at the expiration of which there was a new election to choose a union to negotiate the next contract.

 3) Self-evidently, the Section 9 process made it seem impossible for a minority of workers to do anything meaningful until it became a majority. As everyone knows this need not be the case, in a workplace or any other setting. The idea of “minority” or “members only” unionism has accordingly been gaining ground. Its leading exponent is Professor Charles Morris, who argues that under the NLRA as originally conceived the employer had a legal obligation to bargain with any group of workers, even if was not a majority.[7] Thus a group in a particular department that was strategic in the enterprise could successfully bargain for better terms for itself. If successful, other workers would be drawn to join the union.

The main problem with Professor Morris’ perspective is that he makes it quite clear that bargaining status for a minority union is only a stepping stone to becoming an exclusive representative. It is my understanding that in many European countries there can be many minority unions, each aligned with a different national political tendency. Such unions may join together for bargaining purposes.

4) I think the Right has a point when it says that existing law and practice strips away the dimension of voluntariness from union membership.
 
Piascik: How about automatic dues check-off? It’s taken almost as gospel among progressives and radicals, not just bureaucrats, that it’s essential to the survival of unions.

Lynd: When Alice and I did interviews for what became Rank and File, roughly in 1970, we asked: What do you think is the main reason for the failure of CIO unionism to fulfill its promise? The answer that received more support than any other was, ‘The dues check-off.’
 Sylvia Woods said that in her UAW local at Bendix during World War II they deliberately did not seek the check-off, because what happens when you have it is: everybody sits on their duffs and nobody does anything.[8] The argument for dues check-off is inseparable from the argument for exclusive bargaining status. If you believe that a voluntary minority can accomplish more than an involuntary majority, the check-off recedes in importance.

Moreover, absent the check-off there is of necessity a greater tendency for activists to stay in the workplace rather than seeking a desk at “union headquarters” in a separate building.

Piascik: Given the severe constraints of no-strike and management prerogative clauses, why is there virtually no discussion even among rank-and-file oriented unionists of the need to get rid of or even modify them?

Lynd: I have asked myself this question over the years.

I believe that the Wagner Act is Exhibit 1 for many radicals and liberals looking back on the successes and failures of the New Deal and of their own lives. I think of my own father, Robert S. Lynd. As a member of the governing board of the 20th Century Fund in the 1930s, he critiqued the Wagner Act for mistakenly presuming that the Act would equalize the bargaining power of management and labor. Yet at a UAW educational conference after World War II, my dad delivered a speech that was well received by the delegates and, according to Victor Reuther, reprinted as a pamphlet by the UAW because of insistent rank-and-file demand. Therein my father said that organized labor was the only force big enough to counter big business, and that the country would move toward socialism or fascism depending on the outcome of this confrontation.

Roger Baldwin of the ACLU, on the other hand, opposed the Wagner Act because he saw how Lewis would use the mechanism of exclusive representation to squeeze the life out of the Progressive Miners in southern Illinois, the union actually preferred by the membership. See Cletus Daniels’ book on the ACLU in the 1930s.[9]

It is always easier to blame someone for the failure of a cherished remedy to deliver a solution than it is to critique the remedy itself. It is especially puzzling that folk on the Left have been so insensitive to the dictatorial heavy hand that John L. Lewis laid on dissidents within his own union, and on nay-sayers within nascent CIO unions. When an initial convention of the UAW voted not to support Roosevelt in 1936 and to look toward a new labor party, Lewis prevailed through UAW president Homer Martin and CIO staff man Adolph Germer to have that vote reversed.

In truth, we live through the cycle of over-adulation of a leader, followed by disillusion with his or her performance, over and over. Labor historians and union staffers sequentially idolize Lewis, Reuther and Murray, followed by Arnold Miller, Sadlowski, Sweeney, Carey, Trumka and others, only to recognize when the smoke clears that the structure of unionism in the United States has not changed . . . but to go looking for another maximum leader!
As we sang in the 1960s, When will they ever learn?

Piascik: What experiences did you have with unions that led you to your present conclusions?

Lynd:
Let me describe three experiences. 1) About 1969 or 1970, while still living in Chicago, I attended with some friends a Labor Against The War gathering at the hall of Harold Gibbons’ Teamsters local in St. Louis. The occasion was sponsored and steered by top national officers such as the Foners, Emil Mazey, Jerry Wurf, and as it turned out, Harry Bridges. The labor movement was five years late in opposing the Vietnam War, leaders like Walter Reuther having supported the war, but the occasion was promising. I found myself attending a rank-and-file caucus. We offered a motion from the floor that there be a single day on which workers all over the country would protest the war in whatever manner suited their circumstances (extended lunch hours, leafleting, local union resolution, press conference, etc.) His voice dripping with sarcasm, Mazey invited delegates to vote on this crazy idea. The resolution passed by about 3 to 1. So the apparatchiks canvassed over lunch and brought on Harry Bridges in the afternoon to ask the delegates to withdraw their approval. They did.

2. In Youngstown, the international Steelworkers refused to support a campaign against the steel mill shutdowns. Their advice was to be concerned about benefits: what Ed Mann and John Barbero derisively called “funeral arrangements.” The national union red-baited Gar Alperovitz and myself. We were defended by the Catholic bishop of the Youngstown diocese, Father James Malone. After our spirited campaign but courtroom defeat in district court, the Steelworkers refused to file even a friend of the court brief in support of our appeal to the federal Sixth Circuit. Now the national union makes happy talk about worker buyouts, more than thirty years too late.

3. Packard Electric, now known as Delphi Packard, had about 12,000 employees when we moved to Youngstown in 1976. Along with or next to GM Lordstown it was the largest employer in the Youngstown area. The local had originally been part of the UE and there was a clause in the local union constitution to the effect that any contract amendment had to be approved in a membership referendum. When the local violated this clause by agreeing to new language permitting 10 or 12 hour days without membership approval, we went to federal court and won. The company and union pushed through an approval process in a fog of misleading propaganda that we were unable to rebut. There are now less than 1,000 workers for Delphi in Youngstown and over 40,000 in Mexico.

The national leadership of these mainstream unions was simply endlessly behind the curve of membership sentiment.
 
Piascik: You mentioned the unsuccessful efforts by steelworkers to take over control of closed mills in Youngstown 35 years ago. In many places, perhaps most notably Argentina, as well as at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago, such efforts have been quite successful. Is assuming control of shuttered workplaces something unions, together with communities and local officials, should be attempting to do more of and if so how might it most effectively be done?

Lynd: This is the problem that in Youngstown and Pittsburgh we called, “socialism in one steel mill.” Historically, most single distressed companies that have attempted worker or worker-community ownership have either failed or over time become capitalist enterprises again. One runs into a variety of problems.

In Youngstown, we felt it would be a cruel temporary solution simply to buy any of the closed mills without modernizing them. Mere purchase might have cost $20 million. Necessary modernization to replace antiquated open hearths would have cost an additional sum of about $200 million, ten times as much. This was at a time when the guaranteed loan fund, created by the U.S. government to assist the industry throughout the country, was only $100 million.
In arrangements for worker “ownership” as at Weirton Steel, the new start-up capital was often derived by cutting workers’ wages and substituting common stock of the company. Pension experts specifically warn against a pension portfolio overly emphasizing any one company.

Note, too, that Weirton was advised by Lazard Freres,[10] and that while workers held a majority of the common stock they were not permitted to fill a majority of the seats on the board of directors of the “worker-owned” company.

In a worker-owned meatpacking plant, the union president became a member of the board of directors. Only in retrospect did it become clear that the arrangement created a conflict of interest.

Note, too, that it is not clear to me that Republic Windows and Doors has been successful. I believe it has passed through a number of ownership arrangements.

I think there is no substitute for public ownership of the “commanding heights” of the economy. In the midst of our Youngstown struggle, representatives of Swedish metalworkers visited us. It was like a fairy story! In Sweden, when a plant was scheduled to close, printouts of available jobs were posted every day on the shop floor. Each worker received a year’s severance pay, and husband and wife were financed by the government to make a trip to a possible new job site. And public assistance went beyond “benefits.” Sweden had three separate steel mills: one in the far North, where iron was abundant; one inland, where the steel was poured; and one on the seacoast. Our visitors told us that the government insisted that they be combined into a single company.

I worked more than 15 years for a public enterprise, Legal Services, that provided legal assistance to persons who could not afford a private attorney. It was a highly decentralized operation, and it worked.

I remain, as I have been for the last 70 years, a socialist.
 
Piascik: You participated in Occupy Youngstown and have drawn parallels between the Occupy phenomenon and youth-led revolts in 1905 Russia and 1956 Hungary that were joined by workers and became general insurrections. How is this different from traditional views of revolutionary change and how might it apply to the United States specifically and the anti-austerity, anti-imperialist movements around the world in general?

Lynd:
There are different groups and sub-groups in any imaginable Rainbow Coalition for fundamental change. After a good deal of thought, I believe that neither soldiers or prisoners can be the basic force for such change. The reason is that neither group is permanent.

Prisoners are released one by one onto the street, and usually go back to the old neighborhood. They struggle to survive and not to be again imprisoned. Soldiers, too, hopefully come home.

Students are a distinct group but they, too, are temporary. At Oberlin College, students concerned about criminal justice kept that concern alive for two or three student generations, but then it lapsed.

Thus one comes back in the end to workers. Here also there are divisions and sub-groups. Stan Weir used to emphasize how disruptive it was for the informal shop floor networks formed during the 1930s when conscription for World War II picked them off, one by one, and broke up the sub-groups. Adjunct professors represent a potential for change that has not yet organized itself whereas tenured full professors are unlikely to be helpful, at least in significant numbers.
There is a potential for transformative change within the working class, and, I conclude, only there. Manny Ness says that most full-time workers are now in the Global South, and, as in India and South Africa, have been driven to open revolt, not only against employers but against do-nothing hierarchical unions.

Especially in an economy like that of the United States, stripped of manufacturing, “workers” need to be broadly defined. Moreover, it obviously will make a great deal of difference whether workers are encouraged to focus on individual material benefit, or, in solidarity, on common interests.

As women come into the work force more fully and into positions of leadership I believe that solidarity will be nurtured.
 
Piascik: You’ve written extensively about Accompaniment as well as about your decision in the 1970’s to “accompany” as an attorney, historian and writer rather than get a mill or factory job. Could you talk a bit about what Accompaniment means and what you would suggest to a recent college graduate or professional who wants to support the kind of working class movement we’ve been discussing?

Lynd: I continue to believe (see the Conclusion of my book Accompanying [11]) that persons with college degrees can make their best contribution not as manual workers, but as the kind of professional they have been trained to become, in daily contact with, and support of, other kinds of workers. Instead of pursuing a professional career in an academic or upper-middle-income setting, a person who acquires credentials to practice as a useful sort of professional — teacher, doctor or nurse, lawyer, etc. — should consider locating and putting down roots at an address that gives poor and working people easy access to him or her. Perhaps I can best explain what I mean by describing my own experience.

After I got graduate degrees in history, my first teaching job was at Spelman College, a school for African American young women (who included future Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, Alice Walker). We lived on campus, around the corner from Howard Zinn and his family. As a result I was able to hold an honors seminar in our living room. It would have been difficult, in the segregated Atlanta of the 1960s, to do so off-campus.

While I was in Mississippi as coordinator of the Freedom Schools in the summer of 1964, before starting to teach at Yale, Alice found an apartment for us in New Haven, in a moderate-income downtown neighborhood near a good public school. Members of the Yale faculty asked her, “Why would you want to live so close to the university that it will be easy for students to visit you?”

Of course Accompaniment is not just a question of where you live, but of whom you serve. I was fired by the main union-side law firm in Youngstown for assisting individual workers who were at odds with the unions who were the firm’s main clients. When Labor Law for the Rank and Filer was published, Alice and I debated whether to give a copy of the book to the boss. We decided to do so. I was fired at 10 a.m. the next morning.

Fortunately, I had already become a member of the board of directors of the local Legal Services office. I called the executive director, and within a week of my discharge I was practicing employment law as a Legal Services attorney. From time to time, local lawyers at private firms would ask me when I would be moving on to the “real” practice of law. I responded that I was happy as a pig in mud at Legal Services.

Since retirement, Alice and I have been volunteer attorneys for the ACLU of Ohio. From 1978 to the present moment, 36 years, I have been able to practice law for needy clients whom the Legal Services office or ACLU served without charge!
 
1.On Lynd’s many years as an activist, see Living Inside Our Hope: A Steadfast Radical’s Thoughts on Rebuilding the Movement by Staughton Lynd (ILR Press, 1997); Alice and Staughton Lynd’s Stepping Stones: Memoir of a Life Together (Lexington Books, 2009); The Admirable Radical: Staughton Lynd and Cold War Dissent, 1945-1970 by Carl Mirra (Kent State University Press, 2010); and Side by Side: Alice and Staughton Lynd, the Ohio Years by Mark Weber and Stephen Paschen forthcoming from Kent State University Press in October 2014.
2.Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising (Temple University Press, 2004). Layers of Injustice, a booklet by Lynd summarizing the Lucasville story and bringing it up to date, is available from him for $5. Send an e-mail to: salynd@aol.com.
3. Lynd has written articles on labor for Radical America, Liberation, The Industrial Worker, Labor Notes and many other publications. Among his labor books, in addition to Solidarity Unionism and the forthcoming Doing History From Below, both mentioned above, are Rank and File: Personal Histories by Working-Class Organizers (Beacon Press, 1973) and The New Rank and File (ILR Press, 2000), both edited with his wife Alice, as well asa new, expanded edition of Rank and File (Haymarket Books, 2011) in which eight interviews from The New Rank and File are added to all the oral histories in the original edition; The Fight Against Shutdowns: Youngstown’s Steel Mill Closings (Singlejack Books, 1982); and Labor Law for the Rank & Filer (PM Press, 2008) with Daniel Gross.
4.Marty Glaberman (1918-2001) was an autoworker and labor historian who lived in Detroit, taught at Wayne State University and wrote extensively about the UAW. Lynd compiled a collection of his writings in Punching Out & Other Writings (Charles H. Kerr Publishing, 2002) for which he also wrote the Introduction. Stan Weir (1921-2001) was a rank and filer and writer, some of whose writings are collected in Singlejack Solidarity edited by George Lipsitz (University of Minnesota Press, 2004). Ed Mann (1928-1992) was a steelworker and long-time officer in the Youngstown local of the Steelworkers Union. Excerpts from Mann’s autobiographical booklet appear as an appendix to the first and forthcoming editions of Lynd’s Solidarity Unionism.
5.See, for example, We Are All Leaders: The Alternative Unionism of the Early 1930’s, Staughton Lynd, editor (University of Illinois Press, 1996).
6.Rank and File, pages 67-88.
7.See Charles K. Morris, The Blue Eagle at Work: Reclaiming Democratic Rights in the Workplace (ILR Press, 2005).
8.Rank and File, pages 111-129
9.Cletus Daniel, The ACLU and the Wagner Act: An Inquiry Into the Depression-Era Crisis of American Liberalism (ILR Press, 1980)
10.Lazard is a global financial and advisory firm headquartered in New York specializing in investment banking and asset management.
11. Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change by Staughton Lynd (PM Press, 2013)
Andy Piascik is a long-time activist and award-winning author who writes for Z, Counterpunch and many other publications and websites. He can be reached at andypiascik@yahoo.com.


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