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Grassroots Social Change: Lessons from an Anarchist Organizer

By Brian Martin
August 11th, 2013

Many progressives around the world look at the United States and are repelled by its extremes of wealth and poverty, enormous military, massive prison population, excessive gun violence, inhumane welfare policies, reckless environmental destruction, and aggressive and self-interested foreign policy. US trade policies have contributed to impoverishment in many countries; US troops are stationed in dozens of countries around the globe.

The US is the embodiment of a dangerous — even rogue — state, anomalous when compared to European social democracies or even other English-speaking countries. The US is the only wealthy industrialized country never to have had a significant communist, socialist or labor party; there is little articulation of left-wing politics within the political system. Outsiders relying on mainstream news reports have an additional problem: there is hardly any coverage of grassroots activism.

Those who have interacted with US activists know there is another side to the country. Within the dominant capitalist world power, there is a vibrant activist scene with an amazing depth of commitment and experience. Prior to the US-government-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, there were massive protests around the world. Yet few would be aware that in some parts of the US there were regular anti-Iraq-war protests for many months after the invasion. This sort of activism is hardly ever reported in international news.

Indeed, observers might be excused for thinking that the last major US protest movement was in the 1950s and 1960s, namely the civil rights movement. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. are now revered figures, but popular recognition of leading activists seldom extends to contemporary movements, such as climate change, animal rights and global justice, which are more likely to be ignored or reviled.

Not only is activism for progressive causes alive and well in the US — it has produced some of the most astute analyses of what it takes to be effective in organizing for change. The classic work is Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, a book about community organizing that has inspired generations of activists.[1] There are many other valuable US treatments aimed either at the level of day-to-day practice or at a more strategic level.[2] To these must now be added Chris Crass’s book Towards Collective Liberation.

Crass gained much of his experience working with Food Not Bombs, mainly in the large and energetic San Francisco group (SF FNB). He was an active member, later thinking of himself as an activist organizer. He went on to train other organizers. A key part of his book is a close analysis of the activities of SF FNB. He uses the case study approach to extract insights and spell out lessons.

FNB provides free food to homeless people, tying this activity to a radical analysis of homelessness, poverty, inequality, militarism and other issues.  Initiated in 1980, the FNB idea spread rapidly, being taken up in hundreds of cities in the US and other countries. FNB groups are autonomous, with different levels of activity and different mixes of food provision and politics.

Crass provides a detailed and insightful analysis of the experience of SF FNB in the 1990s. The group was large and energetic. In the early 1990s it confronted a city government intent on devaluing and punishing the homeless population, as part of an agenda of supporting gentrification. Providing free food in public was made illegal, and numerous SF FNB volunteers were arrested. The dramatic confrontations helped to publicize the issues. Eventually, after years of struggle, the government allowed SF FNB to undertake its activities unhindered.

This sounds like a classic success story, but is only the prelude to Crass’s analysis. He probes into different goals within the group. Some wanted to focus on the welfare function of providing meals; others wanted to combine this with political education; yet others saw building the movement’s capabilities as a key goal. Crass examines the tensions arising from differing goals, from the ever changing levels and types of participation in the group, from strategic planning monopolized by a small group of men, from attempts to deal with (or skate over) inequalities in skill levels, and much else.

Overall, Crass addresses the challenges activists face when confronting injustice while trying to build a model of an alternative politics, with participants continually struggling with personal issues, ingrained behaviors, dilemmas of collective decision making, and, for some, how to help build a wider movement. This examination of activist campaigning, organization and internal dynamics will resonate with others who have participated in major campaigns. There is one extra dimension that Crass brings to the mix: anarchist politics.

In many of what are called “new social movements” — such as feminist, environmental, and peace movements — anarchist orientations are evident. The politics of the old left was oriented to class struggle and to action by socialist parties and the wider labor movement. These struggles were often structured following lines of authority, sometimes adopting a version of the Leninist model of “democratic centralism,” namely decision-making by a small core of party leaders, usually male. The rise of the new social movements challenged this style through putting other issues on the agenda in addition to class struggle, and through promoting a more participatory style of action and organization.

Other treatments of grassroots organizing deal with tactics and strategies, but less commonly with an explicit political perspective. Crass, however, puts anarchism at the center of his analysis. Prior to his lengthy examination of SF FNB, he provides an excellent overview of anarchism, usefully framed around prefigurative politics, namely acting in ways compatible with the goal, a longstanding feature of anarchist thought and action. He briefly examines the classical anarchist tradition, giving most attention to the US movement, highlighting issues, organizations, campaigns, and setbacks. He attempts to present anarchism as part of — and central to — left organizing, with an emphasis on inclusiveness. Given that grassroots activism has many anarchist characteristics, but seldom is explicitly linked to the anarchist project, this is a welcome contribution.

Though oriented to anarchism, Crass opposes the tendency to maintain a correct political line. He says “we need a revitalized, dynamic, and visionary Left politics that draws from many traditions, not just anarchism, but also Marxism, socialism, feminism, revolutionary nationalism, and others” (p. 22).

Crass’s overview of anarchism is best for readers already familiar with some history. Crass’s treatment of SF FNB in the 1990s, on the other hand, is accessible to anyone with any experience of activism and campaigning, given its explanation of the political circumstances in San Francisco at the time, the sorts of people joining the group, the issues regularly confronted, and the difficulties encountered.

One of the challenges the group faced was overcommitment: members would take on more tasks, campaigns, and solidarity actions than they collectively had the capacity to do well, and there was no obvious way to deal with this tendency. Another was the problem of leadership and initiative. As is common in some anarchist-oriented groups, there was an overt denial of leadership, although some members had more power and influence than others. Crass summarizes the challenges:
In FNB, we saw poor people slowly dying on the streets of San Francisco and felt a tremendous call to respond. We threw ourselves against the policies of the state, in some cases literally. We had little in the way of training, resources, infrastructure, and mentorship from older organizers. We often had a narrow conception of who the movement was, which limited our allies and community. Mental illness and drug addiction affected both FNB and the homeless community, yet few of us had any skills to deal with them. The international Left was in disarray, with most of us completely rejecting and alienated from the Marxist tradition, and we searched for lessons from past movements usually without guidance. The instant-gratification culture of U.S. consumer capitalism made it profoundly difficult for most of us to think about our work even one year in the future, and an attitude of “just do it” prevailed that burned us out. (p. 97)
As well as analyzing FNB in the context of grassroots organizing and anarchist politics, Crass analyzes himself. His reflections on his own development, in terms of his thinking about social problems, his understanding of systems of domination, and especially his awareness of his own privilege as a white middle-class man, are a highlight of his writing.

The rest of the book covers a range of topics relevant to grassroots organizing. Some sections are essays Crass wrote for circulation within the movement. A large section is composed of interviews with anti-racist organizers in different parts of the country, though these are more like edited essays than interactive interviews. Together, this material provides some of the most sophisticated insights available about the challenges of activist organizing in the US.

The theme of leadership recurs throughout Towards Collective Liberation. Anarchists have long had a conflicted attitude towards leadership. Many of the so-called leaders in government and corporate bureaucracies exercise power based on position. Anarchists, as opponents of domination and associated formal hierarchies, are naturally opposed to such systems and often, by association, to the individuals occupying these roles. Within anarchist-oriented groups, the result can be hostility to the idea of any formal roles linked to decision-making power. Crass titles one of his chapters “But we don’t have leaders.”

The trouble is that “leadership” has a dual meaning. As well as signifying a formal role in a hierarchical system, it also means an informal role of providing insight, inspiration, support, and direction, without necessarily being linked to formal power. This sort of leadership is greatly needed within social movements.

Within business studies, this distinction is widely recognized: leadership is distinguished from management, with both being seen as necessary, but leadership more highly prized. However, in workplaces in government and business, the two aspects of leadership are often confused or conflated, with managers assuming that their formal position gives them the authority of leadership.

Therefore, it is no surprise that anarchists, few of whom are familiar with writing on business leadership,[3] should have rejected leadership altogether, throwing out the valuable roles with the oppressive ones. The result, in many cases, has been a system of informal leadership — by those with the most experience, knowledge, confidence and informal connections — that is hard to question because of the rhetoric of “We have no leaders.”

Crass was eventually able to recognize the de-facto system of leadership and the fact that it was often dominated by white middle-class men. He credits many women and people of color with helping him understand his own role. He describes how he broke through the assumptions about absence of leadership and came to a different orientation: his task became developing activist leadership capacities, especially of women, people of color, and those with a working-class background.

Leadership development can take a very simple form: encouraging individuals to take on roles involving coordination, initiative, and responsibility, helping them overcome their own self-doubt and reluctance, providing them support in their new roles, and helping them develop their skills and their capacity to reflect on their performance. For Crass, the initial step in activist leadership development is simply to be aware of the damaging dynamics of unspoken interpersonal inequalities.

A further step in leadership development is to formalize the process, with regular events to share skills, promote self and mutual education, and develop awareness of group dynamics. This can happen spontaneously within a group or at the instigation of independent movement organizers and educators. After many years with SF FNB, Crass left to join a collective dedicated to improving the capacity of the movement.
Anarchist theory and practice

Contemporary anarchism can be characterized as opposition to all forms of domination and, instead, support for self-management, namely people collectively making decisions about the things that affect their lives. Anarchist opposition to domination has gradually become more all-encompassing, as the classical anarchist opposition to the state has been supplemented by opposition to capitalism, militarism, patriarchy, racism, heterosexism, and human chauvinism (domination of nature). Tying together struggles against different forms of domination is a key theme in Towards Collective Liberation, as its title indicates.

Crass gives most attention to feminism and anti-racism. Because these connect with leadership development, one implication is to encourage and support women and people of color to become leaders. Another key theme is to take action within the more privileged group, specifically for men to address sexist behaviors by other men and for white activists to promote anti-racism among other whites. The lengthy interview section of the book begins with an essay titled “What we mean by white anti-racist organizing.”

The accounts of organizing are inspiring. Crass and the organizers he interviews are experienced, highly committed, self-aware and struggling with one of the most difficult tasks: building anti-racism in parts of the country where racism is highly entrenched, such as in rural Oregon and in Louisville, Kentucky. For example, Carla Wallace, a leader of the Fairness Campaign in Louisville, commented:
It is exciting to me that we can take a struggle for a much needed law and wage the battle in ways that provide opportunities for those engaged to learn deeper lessons, become inclusive leaders, recognize that only by building together can we grow power that is freeing rather than oppressive. For those of us in the battles who are white, taking leadership from people of color, and finding our own way to lead while organizing other white people, results in some of the most profound life-changing liberation we can dream of. (p. 222)

Questions and further directions

One area Crass could have developed more is the practical consequences of tensions between struggles against different forms of domination. Electing Barack Obama is a challenge to racism in US politics, but is this an anarchist goal? More generally, should it be a goal for more women and people of color to be elected to office and rise within government and corporate hierarchies, given the long-term anarchist goal of replacing these hierarchies with self-managed systems?

Crass’s primary focus is on the playing out of patterns of domination within social movements, so some of these issues do not arise. Even so, there is potentially a tension between a person’s identity and their political practice. What if an African American woman or transgender person is personally domineering? Membership of an oppressed group does not always translate into greater consciousness of oppression and greater capacity to help others. These complications deserve greater attention.

Compared to most other rich countries, the US mainstream political and economic system is remarkably powerful: activists challenge from the margins, certainly having an effect, but seldom being invited to join the power elite. In many other countries, there are more opportunities for radicals to rise within the system, for example as politicians or union leaders within left-wing parties or as senior government bureaucrats. It is conceivable for a prominent peace activist to join the system and become influential within the government or other elite circles.

From an anarchist perspective, this is a process of co-option: concessions and opportunities are used to tempt talented radicals to join in systems of enlightened social engineering, anything from planning commissions to corporatist agreements between governments, business, unions, NGOs, and international bodies. This is a tantalizing lure for many radicals, who see the possibility of having a tangible influence, especially in times of political turbulence when change seems possible.

In the US, co-option seems a lesser risk because the establishment is more prone to use repression and exclusion against challengers. How would Food Not Bombs have responded if its leaders had been invited to join a task force on poverty and homelessness or if the organization had been given government funding for its work and offered a guaranteed space for its operations?

For anarchists, a recurring occasion for confronting the tension between operating against or within the system comes at election time. Some anarchists oppose voting, whereas others support local election campaigning, or voting in some elections. The basic problem is that voting operates to promote people’s consent in the system of rule.[4] How to undermine the ideology of representative government and promote the alternative of self-management is one of the deepest challenges for anarchists. In the US, though, a more common organizing goal is equal access to the vote, especially given racist and other exclusionary practices in many parts of the country. For an anarchist organizer, is the goal full and fair participation in the electoral process or setting up alternatives to representative government?

Another issue is the vision of an anarchist alternative. Anarchists often say the organization of a future society should be in the hands of those constructing and living in it, but nonetheless there are some models available. The most common is a network of self-managing groups, each of which selects delegates to higher-order coordinating groups.

Given that a key principle of anarchist organizing is embodying the ends in the means, then it makes sense to have some vision, however vague, of the ends. For Crass, the means are better specified: sharing of expertise, rotation of responsibilities, leadership development, consensus decision-making and, for large actions, coordination by groups composed of spokespeople (delegates) from smaller groups. This is certainly compatible with the anarchist project, but it leaves unanswered many questions. How, for example, are global decisions to be made on environmental and other matters? How are fundamental disagreements to be resolved? How can specialist skills, for example in making computer chips, be reconciled with sharing of expertise?

The processes involved in consensus-based activist groups definitely provide a model of cooperative practice. Can these be scaled up to offer a society-wide alternative? If not, what does prefigurative practice look like?

For Crass, grassroots organizing is something occurring in communities in public spaces. There is also another sort of grassroots organizing: inside workplaces and, more generally, inside organizations. Workplace organizing is a longstanding activist project; the syndicalist tradition is built around it. Organizing is also possible inside churches, militaries, police forces, banks, sporting clubs, government departments, international organizations, and high-tech firms. Some of these are workplaces, to be sure, but not commonly seen as places to be doing organizing, which has usually been oriented to working class occupations, especially industry. There are now some new possibilities for organizing. What does it mean to organize among developers of open source software — a dispersed, partially self-managed production process — or among contributors to social media? There are many arenas for grassroots organizing, and it would be fascinating to see what Crass and other organizers have to say about the possibilities and pitfalls.

Crass gives considerable attention to the US civil rights movement as a model struggle, involving grassroots mobilization, transformation of consciousness, skill development, and sophisticated use of nonviolent action. However, from the point of view of anarchist politics, is it the best example? Civil rights campaigners depended, to a considerable extent, on raising awareness of oppression so the federal government would intervene against segregationist laws and practices. Nonviolent action was crucial in the struggle, but so was the role of the US state.

There are other examples of popular nonviolent action internationally in which success came without relying on state intervention. The classic example is the Indian independence movement led by Gandhi. Others are campaigns against repressive governments in the Philippines, Iran, South Africa, Indonesia, Chile, Egypt, and dozens of other countries. Few of these are perfect models for anarchist campaigning, but they can provide lessons for grassroots campaigners.

Crass writes that “Anarchism as a political theory and organizing strategy has been overwhelmingly white and male, and is therefore influenced and shaped by white privilege and male privilege” (p. 152). Given that some commentators see the Gandhian movement as anarchist,[5] it might be speculated that white male privilege is one factor in many anarchists neglecting the contributions by Gandhians to anarchist theory and practice. Most leading Gandhians have been male but certainly not white.

Crass has provided an exemplary volume for informing anyone interested in strategy and organizing in the US. It should serve as an inspiration for sympathizers in other countries to know what is being done, and what can be done, in the heart of the US empire. It can also serve as a model for organizers in other countries to analyze and document their own experiences. These insights can then be fed back to receptive audiences in the US. Chris Crass will be among them.

I thank Sharon Callaghan and Ian Miles for valuable comments on a draft of this review.
Brian Martin is professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia. Web:

[1] Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: a Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals (New York: Random House, 1971). See also Saul Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals (New York: Vintage, 1969).

[2] Virginia Coover, Ellen Deacon, Charles Esser and Christopher Moore, Resource Manual for a Living Revolution (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1981); Robert Fisher, Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America (Boston: Twayne 1984); Ed Hedemann (editor), War Resisters League Organizer’s Manual, revised edition (New York: War Resisters League, 1986); Eric Mann, Playbook for Progressives: 16 Qualities of the Successful Organizer (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011); Bill Moyer, with JoAnn McAllister, Mary Lou Finley, and Steven Soifer, Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements (Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2001); Randy Shaw, The Activist’s Handbook: A Primer (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001).

[3] For one of the rare treatments bridging these two areas, see Pierre Guillet de Monthoux, Action and Existence: Anarchism for Business Administration (Chichester: Wiley, 1983).

[4] Benjamin Ginsberg, The Consequences of Consent: Elections, Citizen Control and Popular Acquiescence (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1982).

[5] Joan V. Bondurant, Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict, new revised edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), pp. 172–187; Geoffrey Ostergaard and Melville Currell, The Gentle Anarchists: A Study of the Leaders of the Sarvodaya Movement for Non-violent Revolution in India (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971).

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PM Recommends: Fighting Spirit: A Message from Herman Wallace

herman wallace

PM Recommends: Fighting Spirit: A Message from Herman Wallace

PLEASE TAKE ACTION: Demand Humane Release for Herman! USA, UK, France, Belgium, and elsewhere.

[Editor's note: We at PM Press mourn Herman's loss, as he succumbed to cancer on Oct. 4, shortly after being freed by a federal court order.] 

"On Saturday. August 31st, I was transferred to LSU Hospital for evaluation. I was informed that the chemo treatments had failed and were making matters worse and so all treatment came to an end. The oncologists advised that nothing can be done for me medically within the standard care that they are authorized to provide. They recommended that I be admitted to hospice care to make my remaining days as comfortable as possible. I have been given 2 months to live.
I want the world to know that I am an innocent man and that Albert Woodfox is innocent as well. We are just two of thousands of wrongfully convicted prisoners held captive in the American Gulag. We mourn for the family of Brent Miller and the many other victims of murder who will never be able to find closure for the loss of their loved ones due to the unjust criminal justice system in this country. We mourn for the loss of the families of those unjustly accused who suffer the loss of their loved ones as well.
Only a handful of prisoners globally have withstood the duration of years of harsh and solitary confinement that Albert and myself have.  The State may have stolen my life, but my spirit will continue to struggle along with Albert and the many comrades that have joined us along the way here in the belly of the beast.
In 1970 I took an oath to dedicate my life as a servant of the people, and although I'm down on my back, I remain at your service. I want to thank all of you, my devoted supporters, for being with me to the end."

From the Angola 3 Newsletter: September 10th

New Taboos on the Daily Kos

by Kurt Wilcken
Daily Kos
July 21st, 2013

Back in the 1980s, writer John Shirley was on the cutting edge of the Cyberpunk movement in science fiction. Athough Cyberpunk has faded and its tropes and memes cut up and assimilated into the SF Mainstream, Shirley continues to write raw and imaginative fiction.

Several months ago, I reviewed his most recent novel, Everything Is Broken, a cautionary tale about why having a government small enough to drown in a bathtub is of little help when the water gets really deep. I recently received another book by Shirley titled New Taboos.

New Taboos is part of the "Outspoken Authors" series published by PM Press, presenting material from some notable literary voices. The book is a collection containing a novella, a couple essays and an interview with John Shirley.

"A  State of Imprisonment" is a novella which extrapolates the current trend toward privately-run, for-profit prisons to its logical conclusion. It's set in the near future, where nearly the entire state of Arizona has been converted into a maximum security prison run by a large company. (To be fair, only 80% of the state has been converted into the prison; the Grand Canyon, presumably, has been set aside for the tourists). 

The prison is run on the cheap, to maximize profits, and the company gets paid by the prisoner, so they subcontract out to house delinquent debtors as well as political prisoners from other countries. They also use every means possible to extend each prisoner's sentence. As a private entity, the business has very little government oversight. What happens behind the walls stays behind the walls. And if any prisoner tries to escape, he has to face the Worm: crawling robot drones that locate and terminate fleeing prisoners.

Faye Adullah is a reporter for a major internet news service who wrangles permission to do a story on Arizona Statewide Prison. Statewide does not particularly like transparency and obstructs her in every way possible, but Faye is determined to get her story.

In the middle of the carefully-choreographed tour, something unexpectedly goes wrong. The power goes out, and Faye finds one of the prisoners at her side urging her to come with him. He has arranged the blackout -- the prison was built on the cheap, so it is not that difficult to overload the electrical system if you know how -- so that he can get Faye away from her minders and show her what really goes down at the prison.

Faye gets a bigger story than she imagined, but it's a story that Statewide will never let her publish. She quickly finds herself a prisoner on fabricated charges, with her only avenues for justice in the hands of a corporation with a strong profit motive to keep her locked up forever.

Accompanying the novella are two essays. "New Taboos", from which the collection takes its title, discusses the idea of the taboo, not as an arbitrary prohibition, but as an expression of societal values. We saw something like this just recently with Paula Deen's adventures in ill-advised remarks, but Shirley takes it further.

What if the phrase "Obscene Profits" were not just a figure of speech? What if the practice of amassing huge profits while exploiting one's employees, or while contaminating the environment, or while lying to the public, was actually regarded as  revolting, and the people who engaged in such practices were shunned as pariahs?

On the adult scale, we have laws againt some of these social transgressions, but much of the time they're unenforceable.  Taboos -- if we really integrate them into our society -- enforce themselves, for the majority of people. If the taboos are deeply ingrained enough, we don't need the laws.

In Shirley's view, these taboos would only be a stage; an artificial but necessary framework until we deveolped as a society and as a culture so that such rules would not longer be needed. I'm not sure how these taboos would be instituted, nor how well they would work if they were, but here he is more thinking aloud than formulating a plan. And his modest proposal suggests a different way of looking at some of our society's faults.

"Why We Need Forty Years of Hell" is a TEDx address John Shirley delivered in 2011 offering a grimly optimistic view of the next few decades. Optimistic, because he believes things will get better... eventually; grim because he is convinced that the only way people will make things better is when -- not if -- things get so bad that we are forced to clean up our act.

He touches on several aspects of the future which are already on top of us now: climate change, ecological damage, crises in food production, the social ramifications of the widening gap between rich and poor, and the dark side of technology. It's all interconnected, and that indeed is the lesson we need to learn.

We'll have astounding technological advancements against a backdrop of grievous social inequity and quite possibly increasing barbarity, for a period, until we are forced by waves of crises to come to terms with the consequences of developing a civilization blindly. Wars, plagues, radical separation of privileges, famines due to climate change and other environmental consequences, will force humanity to accept Buckminster Fuller's "Spaceship Earth" concept as very real.

In the end, he feels that humanity will eventually achieve the kind of rational, integrated approach to society, the environment and each other that we need; but only after harsh experience hammers in the understanding that "we can't treat Spaceship Earth as a party cruise ship."

Rounding out the volume is an interview with Shirley, touching on many facets of his varied career. He talks about cyberpunk and writing, doing lyrics for Blue Öyster Cult and the screenplay for The Crow, being attacked by wild monkeys, and about his politics.  He describes how seeing pictures of the My Lai massacre as a boy radicalized him and how, although a lifetime of experience has tempered his views, he still has a socialist streak in him. He strongly dislikes the Tea Party Movement and the Neo-Randites, which comes out strongly in his novel Everything is Broken.

The interview is a bit disjointed and reads like the interviewer submitted a list of questions rather than engaged Shirley in a conversation. I've conducted interviews that way too, so I suppose I shouldn't criticize; and the interview does allow Shirley to comment on a wide variety of subjects. Still, I would have liked to see the interviewer follow up on some of the questions and allow Shirley to expand upon his answers.

New Taboos is a slim volume offering an intriguing sampling of John Shirley's writing and ideas. It's worth a read.

Now I need to tackle his A Song Called Youth Trilogy.

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Chris Crass: White America Must Make a Choice: What Side of History Do You Stand On?

by Chris Crass
July 31st, 2013

Which side of history do you stand on? Do you stand with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that made every neighborhood watched by the slave patrols? Do you stand with the courts, police and juries that time and time again acquitted anyone accused of lynching a Black person? Do you stand with the White Citizenship Councils who were the most “respected” men of their community, who defended Jim Crow apartheid?

Do you stand with the Ku Klux Klan who were the first to make the argument that the Voting Rights Act and Affirmative Action gave “special rights” to Blacks, an argument that quickly became a rally crying for white Americans around the country?

Or do you stand with the Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, William Garrison and Harriet Tubman, who were routinely told that they were creating racial hostility and disturbing the natural order? Do you stand with Ida B. Wells who launched an international campaign against lynching and used her skills as a journalist to expose the false accusations of rape and theft in story after story of Black men who were lynched? Do you stand with Emmett Till and his family when he, at 14 years of age, was brutally murdered by white men because he “didn’t know his place” and was supposedly flirting with a white girl? Do you stand with Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., the Freedom Riders and the Civil Rights movement as they faced angry white mobs from Chicago to Alabama?

My nephews, 5 and 7 years old, recently asked their grandmother, at the Lincoln Presidential Library, “Nana, how could Christians have supported slavery?” It’s a heartbreaking question.

And many of us who are white would respond with indignation about slavery, as we should. But how often do so many of us look back and wonder “how could people have supported slavery and segregation?” And when we look back, we are usually pretty clear that we’re not just talking about the people who actively supported, but also the people who through their indifference and inaction supported these systems. The argument is frequently made, well that was just considered normal at the time, even though it is appalling to us now. But what isn’t as frequently named is that it was the resistance of Black Americans, people of color and white anti-racists who took on those injustices and won institutional and cultural changes.

However, most white Americans would either say that they would have been on the right side of history working for justice or at the very least, they would not be on the wrong side of history supporting the slave system and segregation. But it is always so much easier to assume you would have been on the right side of history in retrospect. What is much more difficult is being on the right side of history in the here and now. Because in the here and now, we are living in the “what was considered normal,” the normal that in retrospect is so clearly racist.

The Trayvon Martin murder, and the verdict which acquitted George Zimmerman is just the tip of the iceberg, as a recent report found that in 2012 a Black man, woman or child was killed every 28 hours by police, security guards or vigilantes. It not the uniqueness of Trayvon Martin being racial profiled and killed for being Black “in the wrong neighborhood”, it’s that his story is so tragically familiar. Even President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have recently spoken out about how prevalent and dangerous racial profiling is. While there are many white people outraged and demonstrating the verdict, there are many more who say “it’s just so complicated,” “they both made bad decisions that night,” “Martin got what he deserved,” or simply “the jury did a good job.”

It’s time to speak honestly. At all the points in history that we look back on and can’t understand how people supported such racism, in all those eras, white people said “it’s too complicated,” “it’s the way things are,” “that Black person must have done something to deserve it.” Even in the murder of Emmitt Till, many white people said “it may have been extreme, but the boy forgot his place.” Today, the verdict is in, and white people, have to choose what side of history we are on. This is our moment. Our character, values, and legacies are shaped by the choices we make in the times we live, not by the stands we imagine ourselves taking in the past. I believe in our ability to stand, in the millions, in the tradition of the Abolitionists, the Freedom Riders, and the Dream Act students, the immigrant rights movement and the Justice for Trayvon Martin movement today.

Chris Crass is a Knoxville, Tenn.–based social justice activist and author of Towards Collective Liberation: Anti-racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis, and Movement Building Strategy.

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Victoria Law on The Michelle Jackson Show

By Michelle Jackson
September 15, 2013

Victoria Law, author of Resistance Behind Bars, discusses solitary confinement and the California prison strikes, along with the many issues that face inmates with a focus on women.

Resistance Behind Bars is a must-read that focuses on women's issues within the criminal justice system.

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More Smiles? More Money: A Review and exploration of Revolution at Point Zero

By Dayna Tortorici
n +1
August 19th, 2013

This article appears in Issue 17: The Evil Issue, available now. Subscribe to n+1.
    •    Silvia Federici. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. PM Press, 2012.
    •    Martha Rosler. Meta-Monumental Garage Sale. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2012.

Last November, the artist Martha Rosler had her first solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, an installation and performance piece called Meta-Monumental Garage Sale. It was, in fact, an enormous garage sale, with heaps of toys, furniture, clothes, and crockery arranged on a tidy maze of racks and tables winding through the main atrium. A ladder-like utility shelf stood at the center of the display, from which a crooked flag, French but for the words GARAGE SALE spelled down the white stripe, hung limp.

Silk dresses, lingerie, and cotton T-shirts were pinned high on the walls like items in a boutique secondhand store. A rainbow garland of horse-show ribbons made a miniature proscenium for a smattering of childhood junk: bobbleheads still in their boxes, glittering bangles, balsa-wood dollhouses, and stacks of worn board games likely missing some pieces. MoMA volunteers in red aprons hovered over two registers in the middle of the floor (cash only) as the artist, wearing a canvas fanny pack from Home Depot, milled around. A sign taped to the backboard of a kids’ basketball hoop said HAGGLE, and the artist did. Sometimes she sold things.
Sometimes she didn’t.

The show was a continuation of a project Rosler began in 1973 with Monumental Garage Sale, a performance she staged as a graduate student at UC San Diego. She reprised the show in 1977 with Traveling Garage Sale in San Francisco, and in subsequent decades recreated versions of Garage Sale in museums all over the world. Like its predecessors, Meta-Monumental Garage Sale was a meditation on value. It was “meta,” more than usual, because it was at MoMA: the reconstruction had to be gussied up accordingly, which meant no ads on the street for the garage sale (people entering MoMA must know they’re looking at an exhibit, and one they’ll pay to see), and the 14,000 items on display had to be fumigated prior to installation, taking some of the gamble out of street-side shopping. Given its proximity to the museum gift shop, the show was also “meta” in that familiar conceptual-art way: one vendor sold a car with no engine; the other took major credit cards. Both the exhibition and the gift shop issued receipts with the institution’s name on it, but only one challenged you to name the difference.

The show, in other words, dredged up familiar questions about art and money: about what goes into the appraisal of artworks, about the validating power institutions like MoMA still wield. But Meta-Monumental Garage Sale also sought, in the kind of political gesture that sets Rosler apart from peers whose critiques end with the art world, to call attention to the way garage sales expose the unwaged work of women known as “housework.” A catchall term for everything that women do in the home, housework is invisible work. Not only performed behind closed doors, it is endless — done one day to be redone the next, with nothing to show for itself but the material refuse of ordinary life. Old toys, Tupperware, outgrown baby clothes, gardening tools — the garage sale’s discarded offerings chronicle a life devoted to care work. Each object refers to some unseen and unquantified period of time spent caring for spouses, parents, and children; cooking, cleaning, teaching, and entertaining; preparing oneself and others for school and work. Rounding it all up for the public, the garage sale, itself a domestic chore (“spring cleaning”), offers proof of women’s work in the absence of a paycheck.

Much has changed for women in this country since Rosler held her first Garage Sale in 1973, but not this. The mass introduction of women into the waged workforce has changed the face of domestic work, but the new face has not been a man’s, but another woman’s — or the same woman’s, after hours. The uncompensated labor of housework, child care, and elder care has gone largely unseen, and largely, where seen, unconsidered. Work like Rosler’s Garage Sale does what it can to amend this — making matters plain by way of making them strange — and last year, her show seemed to come at the right time. Media “debates” about child care and work–life balance had been flaring up since Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen said Ann Romney “never worked a day in her life,” and the question of homemaking’s “productive value” felt almost central, as even Forbes shared a study that showed how calculating the value of “household production” would affect GDP. (In 2010, housework would have been valued at roughly $3.8 trillion and upped GDP by nearly 26 percent.)

The same month as Rosler’s show, a report from the National Domestic Workers Alliance confirmed with statistics what many had already known: that 95 percent of domestic workers were women, 51 percent were women of color, 36 percent were undocumented immigrants, and the vast majority did not have health insurance or paid sick leave. Meanwhile, as austerity measures in Europe shifted even more care work from public services onto individual households, the memory of Wages for Housework, a movement formed in a different Europe in the 1970s, was resuscitated among the American left with the publication of new books by two of the movement’s founders, Silvia Federici and Selma James.

The Wages for Housework Campaign first formed in Padua, Italy, in the summer of 1972. It grew out of an organization of twenty or so women called the International Feminist Collective, founded by Selma James, Brigitte Galtier, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, and Silvia Federici. James, a full-time housewife and Marxist activist, had been living in England with her partner, the radical intellectual C. L. R. James. Galtier, in France, was involved with the group that published the autonomist journal Matériaux pour l’intervention. Dalla Costa, an academic and activist from Italy, had come from operaismo, an intellectual movement inspired by a resurgence of factory strikes in northern Italy. In its rereading of Marx, operaismo argued that it was workers, not factory owners, who determined the shape of social relations under capitalism, and that workers themselves could produce a crisis in capitalism through direct action in the service of their own partial interests. Operaismo saw the wage as central to the struggle for worker control: it was a way of returning surplus value to the worker, and of redefining how much one worked, and for what pay.

This emphasis on the wage was crucial to the formation of Wages for Housework. As Selma James and others brought with them lessons from the anticolonial, civil rights, and student movements, Dalla Costa brought to Wages for Housework the operaisti’s sense of the wage as both economic compensation and political tool. Equally critical to the early thinking of Wages for Housework was Mario Tronti’s concept of the “social factory.” In the movement journal Quaderni rossi, Tronti argued that as social relations are subsumed by capital, society itself becomes a “factory” that organizes and supports production and circulation. Dalla Costa and the women of Wages for Housework deduced from Tronti’s theory what their male comrades had failed to: If all society had been made a factory, wasn’t housework also factory work? If so, why wasn’t it rewarded with a wage?

These ideas were not entirely new. Women had been arguing for wages for housework since at least the early 20th century; Crystal Eastman called for “a generous endowment of motherhood provided by legislation” in her opening address to the First Feminist Congress in 1919. The idea that the work of raising children should be recognized and remunerated as well as any other job surfaced again among American welfare-rights activists in the 1960s, who demanded that welfare be dignified with the title of a “wage.” These efforts built upon Engels’s observation in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State that while the first historical division of labor was one based on sex — leaving the responsibility of household management to women — it was only with the rise of private property and the patriarchal monogamous family that this division became hierarchical, devaluing the social contributions of women. As the communistic household dissolved, Engels wrote, domestic work lost its public character:

“It no longer concerned society. . . . The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife.”

Feminists’ demand for payments to mothers and housewives was an attempt to free women from the “domestic slavery” of dependency on the male wage and to return the private struggle of women to public concern.

But Engels’s observations were also misleading, and Marxist tradition throughout the 20th century largely took the wife being “excluded from all participation in social production” to mean that household work had no bearing on production — that it existed outside the capitalist market. Wages for Housework made this assumption its primary target. Its proponents insisted that the binary between work and home, “productive” and “reproductive” work, was not only a fiction, but a necessary fiction at the basis of capitalism. Capital accumulation depended on unwaged household work: giving birth to the future workforce, yes, but also feeding husbands, children, and parents, cleaning up after them, placating them when the world frustrated their ambitions, and so on. Seeing this more clearly than its predecessors, Wages for Housework understood how much damage a refusal to do unwaged labor could inflict on a capitalist system. In her 1970 pamphlet “Women and the Subversion of the Community,” Dalla Costa wrote, “women are of service not only because they carry out domestic labor without a wage and without going on strike, but also because they always receive back into the home all those who are periodically expelled from their jobs by economic crisis. The family, this maternal cradle . . . has been in fact the best guarantee that the unemployed do not immediately become a horde of disruptive outsiders.”

In a career-spanning essay collection, Revolution at Point Zero, Silvia Federici recalls reading Dalla Costa’s pamphlet for the first time. “By the time I read the last page,” Federici writes, “I knew that I had found my home, my tribe, and my own self, as a woman and a feminist.”

Federici, born in Italy in 1942, moved to the US in 1967 to study philosophy at SUNY Buffalo. She wrote on theory and left politics, often from the perspective of operaismo; she contributed a critique of Althusser to an early issue of Telos and cowrote with Mario Montano the first-wave autonomist text “Theses on the Mass Worker and Social Capital” under the pseudonym Guido Baldi. She had been ambivalent about the women’s movement; “likely,” she deadpans, “after having for years pinned all my hopes on my ability to pass for a man.” But in 1972, after encountering Dalla Costa’s work, Federici joined the International Feminist Collective and helped see Dalla Costa’s ideas through as a leader of the Wages for Housework campaign. The following year, Federici started Wages for Housework groups in the US. In 1975, the year Wages for Housework opened an office in Brooklyn, she published “Wages Against Housework,” one of the most elucidating texts on the movement’s intentions.

It begins with a chant — or what looks like a chant, in dramatic verse, written for an invisible chorus:

They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work.
They call it frigidity. We call it absenteeism.
Every miscarriage is a work accident. . . .
More smiles? More money. Nothing will be so powerful in destroying the healing virtues of a smile.

Neuroses, suicides, desexualization: occupational hazards of the housewife.

It’s a weird opening, without explanation, but it grounds Federici’s arguments in the context of an actual protest, an actual movement. Wages for Housework wasn’t just a discussion point or thought experiment. These groups existed, with real demands and protest songs to go with them (such as the “Wages Due Song,” written in 1975 by Boo Watson and Lorna Boschman:

“What do you think would happen if we women went on strike? / There’d be no breakfast in the morning, there’d be no screw at night / There’d be no nurses treatin’ you, there’d be no waitresses servin’ you, there’d be no typists typin’ you-o-o-o”). The “we” echoes the starting point of James and Dalla Costa’s The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community — an essay that built on Dalla Costa’s original work and was recently reprinted in James’s new book, Sex, Race and Class (2012) — that the proletarian housewife is a figure women could rally around. We, women, are all housewives, Wages for Housework said — not to embrace that work but to denounce it, to argue against the role capitalism reserves for women even if some manage to escape it in its most literal form. It’s also a great opening display of Federici’s style, the sort of humorless humor of an enraged intellect, delivering blows through punch lines: More smiles? More money.

By the time Federici wrote “Wages Against Housework,” Wages for Housework had already encountered some resistance from both Marxists and feminists. To male Marxists, a feminist faction undermined the unity of the struggle, a story familiar enough from American feminism’s difficulties with the New Left. (Dalla Costa recalls one early episode in Italy, in 1972, when some women organized a workshop on female employment open only to women: “The reaction of groups of men generically self-identified as comrades, was to prevent the workshop from taking place, by launching from outside the room condoms full of water that broke the windows. . . . Just the fact that women could meet by themselves could provoke a violent reaction.”) Feminists, in turn, alternately accused Wages for Housework of extending economic rationalization into the home — “the only interstice of capitalist life in which people can possibly serve each other’s needs out of love or care,” as Carol Lopate wrote in Liberation — and of further entrenching women in domestic work by paying them for it. They condemned Wages for Housework for failing to sufficiently glorify the private and then for sticking women there, in that hell, forever.

In “Wages Against Housework,” Federici writes to set the record straight. Feminists ambivalent about Wages for Housework tend to misunderstand the demand for a wage as a demand for a thing, for “a lump of money,” she says. Money certainly helps, but Wages for Housework is more than a simple demand: it is also a political perspective. In asking for wages for housework, women distill a nexus of demands, critiques, and observations into a single phrase, which they can then use to dismantle assumptions about their social role. The gesture strips housework of its naturalism, since to want wages for housework means “to refuse that work as the expression of our nature,” as Federici writes, “and therefore to refuse precisely the female role that capital has invented for us.” The demand is a wage for housework, not housewives, and is addressed to the state — not to husbands or even to all men — since the state, “the representative of collective capital,” is “the real ‘Man’ profiting from this work.” The big Man, the State, and the little man, the husband, are locked in collusion against the wife:

The more the man serves and is bossed around, the more he bosses around. A man’s home is his castle and his wife has to learn: to wait in silence when he is moody, to put him back together when he is broken down and swears at the world, to turn around in bed when he says “I’m too tired tonight,” or when he goes so fast at lovemaking that, as one woman put it, he might as well make it with a mayonnaise jar.

“Why Sexuality Is Work,” also published in 1975, hits the same register. Sex, Federici writes, sold to us as the “other” of work, is understood to make the discipline of the workweek more bearable. But it doesn’t, really: “We are always aware of the falseness of this spontaneity. No matter how many screams, sighs, and erotic exercises we make in bed, we know that it is a parenthesis and tomorrow both of us will be back in our civilized clothes (we will have coffee together as we get ready for work).” As a result, “we are bodiless souls for our female friends, and soulless flesh for our male lovers.” Sexual liberation doesn’t offer much help, and the situation applies to both married and unmarried women: “Certainly it is important that we are not stoned to death if we are ‘unfaithful,’ or if it is found that we are not ‘virgins,’” she writes.

“But ‘sexual liberation’ has intensified our work.” Anticipating central concerns of the third wave, Federici writes, “In the past, we were just expected to raise children. Now we are expected to have a waged job, still clean the house and have children and, at the end of a double workday, be ready to hop in bed and be sexually enticing.”

The common strategy of these early essays — which extends throughout Federici’s work — is one of accounting: by recasting all the social activities women perform as “work,” Federici economizes them to the point of logical extremity. The point isn’t actually to put a price on perfunctory marital sex, or to max out categories of value so that their utility disintegrates; it’s to illuminate how supposedly noncapitalist activities shore up the economic system that structures and controls so much of our lives. It’s a conceptual trick to trigger political and feminist consciousness — and in the 1970s, when much of what needed revolutionizing stood in plain sight, in the form of one’s most intimate relationships, this trigger seemed enough.

But even while she relies on this flip of the switch to start a movement, Federici seems to recognize early that her ideas might suffer from conceptual ambiguity. Shifting the title from wages for to wages against housework, she reiterates that the goal is not reform but revolution: “To demand wages for housework does not mean to say that if we are paid we will continue to do this work. It means precisely the opposite. To say that we want wages for housework is the first step towards refusing to do it.” In “Counterplanning from the Kitchen,” co-authored with Nicole Cox in 1975, Federici reiterates: “We do not say that winning a wage is the revolution. We say that it is a revolutionary strategy because it undermines the role we are assigned in the capitalist division of labor and consequently it changes the power relations within the working class in terms more favorable to us and the unity of the class.”


Much of Martha Rosler’s early photo, video, and performance work — dating from the late ’60s through the late ’70s — was, like Wages for Housework, intended to spark critical consciousness. And like Wages for Housework, it hit a sort of interpretive snag where the artist’s intentional elisions, meant to inspire critique, were taken by viewers to be insufficiently critical. This never sat well with Rosler, and one sees it in her work: more often than not, she intervenes to clarify — to talk.

Rosler, granted, was an explainer from the beginning. Since 1973, every performance of Garage Sale has featured a reel-to-reel tape recording of Rosler posing reflexive questions about garage sales, speaking alternately as a California housewife and Marxist expositor: “What is the value of a thing? What makes you want it? What makes me want it? Question: How do things get to be commodities? Answer: When they are part of a system in which things are made for exchange, not for use, a system in which people sell their labor to others.” She curbs her self-explicating impulse in Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), a short black-and-white video depicting Rosler as an aggressively deadpan cooking show–style hostess who demonstrates the utility of different kitchen objects in alphabetical order. “Egg beater,” she announces. “Fork. Grater.” She clangs metal dishes on the table, holds utensils in a fist and stabs at the air: no change of expression, no voice-over analysis. But it returns with Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained (1977), in which Rosler strips on camera to be tediously and invasively measured by a team of young scientists. Three interns in lab coats whistle at a high pitch, ring a bell, or blow the deflated note of a kazoo to indicate if the measurement falls above, within, or below “standard” range. (“Vaginal depth, relaxed, is six inches — that’s standard,” says the doctor, and a bell tinkles, like she’s won a prize.) It’s a clear enough critique of the measurement and evaluation of women’s bodies, but in case the artist’s naked body draws your attention away from the underlying message, Rosler’s voice-over on the audio track, overwhelming the video, tells you what you should be seeing: “This is a work about perception . . . This is a work about being done to. This is a work about learning how to think . . .

This is a work about coercion.” It’s Brechtian by way of Godard, inviting the possibility of uncritical pleasure in order to disrupt it. But here, as with Garage Sale, there’s a risk that desire — to buy things, to look at the artist’s body without having that gaze returned — overpowers the disruption. One can eat the treat and spit out the medicine.

With Martha Rosler Reads Vogue (1982), Rosler’s explanatory impulse begins to move from the margins of her work — in voice-over, caption, and crawling text — toward the center, to the point of becoming its substance. In a video for the public-access collective Paper Tiger Television, Rosler talks while flipping through the pages of Vogue, lightly tracing the contours of models’ strained poses with her index finger. The camera reads over her shoulder as she recites a laconic monologue: “What is Vogue? It is a magazine for women, for the woman who wishes and wants and hopes, and identifies with her social betters . . . It is the look, the pose, the skin of luxury. . . . It is the new face under the old face, it’s the pose, the look, the skin of narcissism.” The monologue recalls the looping tape recording in Garage Sale and the voice-over in Vital Statistics, but eighteen minutes in, there’s an abrupt switch: with the reggae drumroll of Blondie’s “Die Young Stay Pretty,” the camera cuts to a scene of women machine-sewing swaths of indigo fabric in a garment factory — dyeing, steaming, pressing — and stays there for four minutes. It’s delightfully didactic, as if Rosler no longer trusts her audience to infer ambiguous cues or take her Frankfurt School meditations for anything but soporific jargon. It’s also jarring enough to suggest that she’s right. Captions onscreen become journalistic: OVER 40 PERCENT OF CLOTHES SOLD IN THE US ARE MADE IN THE THIRD WORLD. MOST OF THE REST ARE MADE IN THIRD-WORLD ENCLAVES IN NYC, MIAMI, CHICAGO, AND LA. IN HAITI, WORKERS MAKING CLOTHES FOR SEARS AND ROEBUCK MAKE $2.60 FOR 12 HOURS WORK — MODELS WHOSE PICTURES ARE IN VOGUE MAKE $150–$200 AN HOUR.

In the late ’80s, the Dia Art Foundation in SoHo invited Rosler to do a solo exhibition; instead of showing her own work, she organized If you lived here . . . (1989), a three-part exhibition on homelessness to which over 200 artists, activists, and self-organized homeless contributed. Each exhibition had a reading room and an open forum discussion, with titles like “Housing: Gentrification, Dislocation, and Fighting Back” and “Homelessness: Conditions, Causes, and Cures.” The show was hardly written up by critics, but it made a big impression on aesthetic practice generally, and on Rosler. The urge to educate with supplementary literature and programming remains with her. For the MoMA Garage Sale, Rosler published two issues of a newspaper featuring articles on e-waste, commodity fetishism, the domestic labor market, obsolescence, and the museum; two panel events brought in the expertise of a psychic, a stylist, an art conservator, artists, activists, and an anthropologist and historian of garage sales. You could shop at the Garage Sale as before, but there was no question this time about what you should be thinking about as you did.

There is a story told about American feminism in the 1980s, and it goes like this: after the tremendous victories of the ’60s and ’70s, feminists who had come of age during the Women’s Liberation Movement hit a series of walls. One was the Reagan presidency, which embraced a token feminism at the top while systematically disassembling feminist organizing efforts below — appointing the first woman to the Supreme Court, for example, while dismantling the legal and policy initiatives that had won the previous decades’ battles. Then came the rise of “post-” and antifeminists, many of them young beneficiaries of the former movement, who caricatured their predecessors as overly censorious, sex-negative, numb to the pleasures of domestic life, and unduly pessimistic about the promises of careerism. (So began “have-it-all” feminism.) Some older feminists retreated into art, culture, or separatist Gaia worship. Many others turned toward the project of a new “global feminism.” Global feminism was capacious and, as a single category, unwieldy — lumping ineffectual UN conferences, worry over clitoridectomies, proliferating acronymic NGOs, and site-specific solidarity work under one banner. But there was also a strain of global feminism, emerging from the socialist-feminist wing of the movement, that sought to connect the situation in the US with the one in the developing world and vice versa. There were not different feminisms in different places, but one global situation, and injustices reverberated from one place to the next.

In the 1970s, Western women who were radicalized by feminism were women doing housework. They knew firsthand what that work was like: how strained and boring it was, what social obligations it involved, how it shored up their position in relation to men. Self-knowledge was fundamentally what made consciousness-raising — talking in a room to other women — such a powerful tool: it confirmed that your personal experience of sexism didn’t belong to you alone. It offered solidarity as well as a theoretical framework, a picture of social reality, on a scale that made the personal, as they say, political. The early work of people like Rosler and Federici — and Flo Kennedy, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Shulamith Firestone, Ellen Willis, Kate Millett, Valerie Solanas, and many others — allowed women, suddenly, to see their lives anew. It was like changing the lights in a room: all the furniture was the same, but, seen in a new cast, never quite the same again.

Decades later, the daughters of the predominantly white, middle-class women at the front lines of the WLM (if they had daughters) were no slaves to housework. If they valued it, they hired someone else to do it — and the people they hired were overwhelmingly women from the global south, pulled by the growing demand for domestic work in the West and pushed by structural and political forces in their home countries. This happened on such an enormous scale that an international division of labor emerged: maids, nannies, and nurses working in the US, Canada, Europe, and Saudi Arabia increasingly came from South Asia, North and East Africa, Indonesia, the Philippines, Central America, and the former Soviet countries — and still do. This was, and is, no mystery to employers, but what may seem mysterious is why these women left their countries to begin with.

By the 1980s, the error of trusting epiphany to do the work of revolution was clear to Federici. In “Putting Feminism Back on Its Feet” (1984), she writes, “One of the main shortcomings of the women’s movement has been its tendency to overemphasize the role of consciousness in the context of social change, as if enslavement were a mental condition and liberation could be achieved by an act of will.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in the global south, to which Federici turns her attention. Since the 1980s, economic policies liberalizing global trade have created structures of oppression no one could possibly expect a person to will away; “enslavement,” in Federici’s words — to debt, to need, to circumstance — is undeniably material.

As the international division of labor grows starker, the condition of the housewife is writ large, leaving the women of the “third world” to clean up the damage inflicted by the first. The questions raised by Wages for Housework are therefore more crucial to consider than ever, and Federici says as much. But as she does so her writing abandons the conceptual and consciousness-oriented posture of her early essays. Instead, footnotes multiply as information performs the task of argument.

This shift in style and focus coincides with a gap in Revolution at Point Zero, between 1984 and 1999. For two of those years Federici taught in Nigeria — years she described as “a turning point” for that country, as international pressures forced a program of “economic recovery” that would leave most Nigerians impoverished and destabilized. Witnessing this process firsthand influenced Federici’s later work, and her urgency to communicate what she saw trims the fat from her prose, if also the flair. When she writes about the effects of structural adjustment in 1999 — describing how new economic policies “solved” the housework crisis in Europe, the US, and Canada by “incentivizing migration,” pulling women from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the former socialist countries to do the domestic work middle-class women in the West no longer would — facts argue for themselves. Similarly, in an essay about how humanitarian intervention and food aid are anything but — creating unstable governments and food dependency, clearing the ground for multinational industry — she turns to research and journalism when invective and critical introspection no longer suffice. Federici calls on feminists to take action: to support the cancellation of “third world debt”; to demand an end to structural adjustment; to “organize against the recolonization attempt of which NIDL [the new international division of labor] is a vehicle.” It isn’t new for her to tell readers what to do, but it is new for her to tell them what to know.


Federici and Rosler make good case studies in the feminist activism of the past several decades. Their writing and art mirrors a shift in strategies over time, from consciousness-raising to broadcasting across a barrier, which the two of them happened upon while seeking out the best methods for their political projects.

But why are they popular now, when their best work has been around for decades? One answer is that institutional recognition always lags at a safe distance, and it’s taken time for these women to see their works published and publicized on this scale. Another is Occupy, which drew people back to autonomism, operaismo, and Wages for Housework, and which Rosler and Federici both vocally supported.

Something else, too, may explain why even Rosler’s and Federici’s earliest work feels contemporary and urgent. Young people in the West who have spent their formative years in the workforce as freelancers, part-timers, adjuncts, unwaged workers, and interns are beginning to feel — granted, later than most of the world — that they’re not compensated for the work that they do. Not “not paid enough,” but not paid at all, since the ballooning service, communications, and private-care industries increasingly demand the kind of work that people are expected to do out of love. Under these circumstances, the longstanding critique of the exploitation of mothers, wives, grandmothers is felt with new force, among a much younger and much wider population of women and men, with children and without.

It’s an improvement, if a somewhat discouraging one. The belatedness with which mainstream culture has come to recognize the value of unwaged work seems to confirm that women’s issues only become relevant once they’re successfully recast as “general” issues that pertain to men. (“Patriarchy hurts boys,” we’re told. It does — but does it have to in order for us to care?) It’s also a symptom of American politics generally, where turbulence elsewhere is only registered if we personally feel the aftershock: a trickle-up theory of oppression to complement the country’s trickle-down theory of wealth. For years, mainstream Western feminism has been stuck in the echo chamber of its own narrow politics. The same debates play out with little variation — about work–life balance, abortion, the sexual double standard, equal pay — as the movement’s perceived protagonists, still predominately white, straight, and wealthy, run up against the limits of their own experience again and again, waiting for the fourth wave to crash. As they spin their wheels, the experiences of women around them offer plenty indication of where the movement should apply its focus. The richest, most successful C-suite feminists may still find female oppression under their noses in the household, but odds are it isn’t theirs but their cleaning ladies’. Meanwhile, the greatest systemic crimes against women that affect our daily lives — and not only the most gruesome ones — remain beyond sight.

What would happen if, at long last, women and especially mothers were paid the market rate for their services? To begin with, it might buoy the baseline value of such work above zero, so that rank-and-file nurses, cleaners, and child care workers moiling in the waged economy wouldn’t get such lousy pay. Rosler and Federici belong to a generation of leftists largely suspicious of economic rationality, but to extend it, rather than battle to incrementally reduce its influence, could do women good. Put a price on women’s work, they say. If that work suddenly seems too expensive, it should. Perhaps men — increasingly the sex without work — might just do “women’s work” at lower pay, as women have done men’s since the Industrial Revolution. And perhaps women, as studies have shown they do, will use their wealth to improve the quality of life of entire households, entire societies.

Economists have known for a long time that women do a lot of work for free in times of social need. Remarkably, they have used this fact against women as part of the rationale behind massive neoliberal retrenchment: Why fund state services when you know that women will supply them for free? In the ’80s and ’90s, policy planners called this “crossing the desert,” a catchall for phenomena like maternal autostarvation (not eating and giving food to children), trekking to faraway water sources, and generally picking up the slack when state services retreat and infrastructure collapses. There’s another side to this sacrificial tendency of women, though, that doesn’t always compromise their health and well-being: during WWI, the British government discovered that income given directly to women, as opposed to men, raised the quality of life of an entire household. Later “experiments” in microfinance revealed the same. If the goal for neoliberal planners was to inflict the least damage on the tightest budget, you’d think this fact — sound enough to justify massive austerity programs — would also be sound enough to make the case for a universal income for women. In other words: wages for housework

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Using Humor and Satire: A Review of Basic Skills Caucasian Americans Workbook

By Lyn Miller-Lachmann
Times Union
September 15th, 2013

Many of us remember the textbook chapters and informational books that presented Native Americans. The unit was a fall staple, and often elementary school children dressed in homemade costumes, built tipis and longhouses, and ate “typical” Native foods in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving.

But how well did we really get to know Native peoples from these activities? More often than not, the activities reinforced stereotypes, trivialized the cultures of Native peoples, conveyed erroneous information, generalized on the basis of a few tribes’ practices, and left the impression that Native Americans and their cultures are long gone.

Beverly Slapin is the co-author (with Doris Seale) of various award-winning resources on how to evaluate children’s books about Native Americans and how to teach the diverse cultures of our continent’s indigenous people, among them Books Without Bias: Through Indian Eyes (1992) and the 2005 update of this classic, A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children. In the colorful updated edition of Basic Skills Caucasian Americans Workbook, published by progressive independent publisher PM Press, Slapin shows why accurate, authentic portrayals matter—by turning the tables on non-Native readers. The workbook, which is designed for educators, teens, and general adult readers, asks indirectly: How would you feel if your own lives, beliefs, and cultural practices were portrayed in the same manner as Native American practices commonly are?

Ample laugh-out-loud humor prevents this volume from becoming polemical or predictable.

Some of the observations are uproariously on-target, as outsider perspectives can sometimes be. For instance, “The Caucasian American women were constrained to wear tight clothing, and sometimes their shows were pointed at the front and had long sticks at the bottom. This made it very difficult to walk, and they often hurt their backs.” (The boldfacing of what are considered unfamiliar terms pokes fun at series nonfiction for young readers.) In other places, the humor is based on customs that we consider strange in other cultures but are no less strange in our own, such as the widespread use of “sacred green paper”—that is, money.

Misunderstood language is another source of humor. Often books about Native cultures mistranslate or misinterpret words, and the same is true in the workbook: “The fashion magazines commanded, for instance that all Caucasian American women had to be tall and thin, just like the supermodels. So many Caucasian American women went on diets. No one knows the origin of that word, but it had to do with death, since many Caucasian American women died soon after becoming thin.”

In other places, the information is distorted or inaccurate to hilarious effect: “After chanting ‘WWW’, the Caucasian American information seekers, otherwise known as users, were given a specific Internet address or url. (The legend of how urls came to be is lost, gone forever.) But when the users typed the urls into their computers, the answers to all the questions the Caucasian American seekers were seeking instantly appeared on their screens! Certainly, these urls were a magical thing!” And in a televised contest called “the Wheel of Jeopardy…[t]he luckless losers, who were called runners-up, ran up a long staircase, at the top of which they were sacrificed to the gods.”

Pronunciation guides, end-of-chapter puzzles, and fake biographies and endorsements add to the appeal of this satire. Also of note are the well-chosen vintage photographs that illustrate the anachronistic approach of cultural “lessons,” including the common impression that living cultures are dead and gone. This resource will lead readers to look at informational books about diverse cultures with a more critical eye, as they see stereotyping and misinformation of their familiar culture along with underlying insights conveyed with an edgy wit.

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Drawn to New York in The North Adams Transcript

by John Seven
North Adams Transcript
August 3rd, 2013

"Drawn To New York" by Peter Kuper (PM Press)

Illustrator Peter Kuper has spent three decades slowly becoming a native New Yorker, and this new art book compiles the story of that metamorphosis through illustrations, comics and paintings that Kuper has done over those 30 years for various publications.

Like New York City itself, Kuper's is not a clear narrative -- or, rather, of course it is, it just doesn't seem so by the presentation, and that's what makes the collection so vital. In trying to capture the city he both loves and hides inside, Kuper offers his work in a format that mirrors its most important quality -- chaos.

It's a chaos that is created from a lot of little voices attempting to harmonize, but not always succeeding, so over the course of the book you find several sweeping silent cartoons that take you on a tour of the city's denizens, as well more autobiographical tales, as well as artwork capturing parks, water towers, crowds, city streets, the back seats of taxis, homeless people and buildings.

Kuper's trademark surrealism offers cartoon scenarios where Donald Trump and Harry Helmsley build a giant wall through the middle of Manhattan, just like Berlin, and create a post apocalyptic absurd adventure, as well as numerous dream scenarios that throw the city into situations where the dreamer must confront his place within it.

Kuper finishes up the collection with work pertaining to 9-11 and how that changed things, including his conceit that New York City wasn't really part of America.

Kuper's New York is one filled with raunch and sleaze and weirdness in a more major way than exists now, when the sweeping and sometimes disturbing craziness of the city functioned as an abstract soap opera better than anything you could find on television. For those who never had the adventure of living in that New York, Kuper's book does an excellent job of relaying that experience through the intensity and dark humor of his art.

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The Knitting Circle Rapist Annihilation Squad in Stirring

by Rosalie Morales Kearns
Stirring: A Literary Collection
September 2013

Years ago I attended a women writers conference where a woman in our fiction-writing workshop read aloud to us from a novel she had started. As I recall, the plot involved members of a book group, all women and all survivors of domestic violence, who agreed to a revenge pact. Each one, they decided, would kill a man who had abused someone else, a man with whom she had no connection.

It was a hot, sunny day, I was a bit drowsy from lunch, I was being read aloud to. Violent men were about to meet their doom in deeply satisfying ways. What stands out in my memory is how soothing the experience was.

I don't know whether the writer ever finished her novel, but of course it leapt to mind as I read The Knitting Circle Rapist Annihilation Squad, a satire by Derrick Jensen and Stephanie McMillan. The title handily telegraphs the novel's plot: as members of a knitting group start confiding in each other, they find out that they're all survivors of rape, and the rapists in question (high school counselors, relatives, clergymen, ex-husbands) have never even been arrested, let alone prosecuted. The women avenge each other by killing those rapists. With their knitting needles.

There are various subplots: A female police officer is sympathetic to the knitters. The fourteen-year-old daughter of one of the knitters discovers what her mother is up to, and argues with her about the ethics of using violence to stop violence. A group of fundamentalist Christian men form a new organization, MAWAR (Men Against Women Against Rape). Best of all are the unctuous TV newsman Franz Maihem and his go-to expert, FBI agent Chet Stirling, who function as a clueless Greek chorus throughout the book as they report on the unexplained knitting-needle murders: first they insist that the murderer is an alienated young white male; then, when the knitters send a communiqué to the FBI ("We will stop killing rapists when men stop raping"), proclaim the message incomprehensible: "We're baffled. We have no idea what this could possibly mean."

Avenging rape as a motive for murder is found is some mysteries and mystery-thrillers (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.), but non-genre fiction doesn't seem to go in much for plots that revolve around women killing men-and in the case of Knitting Circle, it's lots of women, killing lots of men. I can imagine this novel making some readers uncomfortable. No doubt others will dismiss it as "political," a novel with an agenda, although that complaint has always puzzled me. It's also a political choice, I would argue, to create characters who are perfectly comfortable with the status quo.

The style as well as the subject matter won't be to everyone's taste. Don't expect the attributes of a "straight" literary novel, the unspoken standard of literary fiction with its conventions of deep investment in characterization, meticulous attention to visual detail, and careful verisimilitude. In Knitting Circle, we're in the realm of parody, not realism, as the authors demonstrate from the opening pages, when a mob is "celebrating the city's victory in the National Chess Championship. . . . After an evening of rioting, setting small yet well-designed fires in dumpsters, and overturning police cars, the nerds howl with grape soda-induced laughter as they reenact their most impressive chess moves."

On first read, the humor occasionally struck me as too lightweight, almost sophomoric (each time the police chief appears, for example, he's reading a different "expert on crime": Sherlock Holmes, Encyclopedia Brown, Hercule Poirot), but as I considered it more, I realized that Jensen and McMillan were making specific stylistic choices. The police chief is cartoonish precisely because the novel draws on a wide range of pop-cultural forms: Vonnegut and other satiric novelists are clearly an influence, but so are cartoons, TV sit-coms, Saturday Night Live skits, film spoofs like the Naked Gun series, and mockumentaries like Christopher Guest's Best in Show or A Mighty Wind. The book's cover blurb describes it beautifully as "Monty Python meets the SCUM Manifesto."

Although some readers might smirk more often than laugh, there are plenty of spot-on, chortle-out-loud scenes and wonderfully deadpan whimsy. At a typical knitting circle meeting, "after a few preliminaries and pleasantries, the women get down to the businesses at hand: knitting and stopping rape." The touchy-feely Red Moon Sacred Gyn Mill Tea House serves "wheat-free, dairy-free, sugar-free gingerbread wimmin and gyrl cookies." Glenn Beck makes an appearance, at his chalkboard, redrawing a pair of crossed knitting needles so that they form a swastika (he also denies that rape is even possible, bless his little heart). Sentences that at first seem to meander end up packing a punch: the female police officer, Sandy Dougher, is "as beautiful as the Mona Lisa. As beautiful as the sweeping boughs of a western red cedar. . . . As beautiful as a sharp kick to a rapist's testicles."

And over and over again, like that kick to the rapist's testicles, the hard truths of male violence against women are sprinkled amid the silliness. Characters discuss the abysmally low percentage of rapists who are ever incarcerated. Right after the description of the chess nerd riot, a character travels to an unfamiliar part of the city at night and "adopts the walk that all women from an early age learn to use in scary places: rapid, firm, and purposeful. . . . Appear confident. Show no fear." Here is part of the argument between fourteen-year-old Marilyn and her knitting circle mom, Gina:

    "You can't just take the law into your own hands."
    . . . "I couldn't possibly do a worse job wielding the law than they [police and the courts] do." . . .
    . . . "You're asking for social chaos."
    "Marilyn, social chaos is when 25 percent of all women are raped and another 19 percent have to fend off rapes, and nothing is done about it."

When the police hold a meeting on how to stop the knitting-needle killings, Officer Dougher raises the eminently sensible question: "What if we do our jobs and stop rapists?" She is met by silence. Her police colleagues provide no answer to her question, ever.

And sometimes the hard-hitting facts and the goofy humor coincide. When the hapless FBI agent finally concedes that the knitting-needle killers are women, Franz Maihem asks him how he reached his conclusion:

    "Well, Franz, they're just like every normal rational serial killer in every way, but for one bizarre, freaky exception."
    "What is that, Chet?"
    "It's almost unheard of in the long, illustrious history and tradition of serial killing. It's frankly horrifying."
    "Tell us, Chet."
    "All the victims are men."

There are other trenchant observations along the way: on religion, on diet plans, on capitalism, on the ubiquity of television. One of my favorite commentaries is by knitting circle member Brigitte on male-female relationships:

"First he comes to a [knitting circle] meeting, next he's telling me what to wear and to make him a sandwich. Gradually it escalates. . . . Brigitte gets lost and it becomes all about 'we.' 'We hated that movie.' 'We plan to buy a house in the suburbs.' 'We decided that Brigitte's soul was superfluous so we sold it.' . . . Fuck that."

The authors put some amusingly blasphemous, if improbably self-aware, dialogue into the mouth of a MAWAR member: "Where in the Ten Holy Fucking Commandments does it ever say, 'Thou Shalt Not Rape'? Huh? The answer is, it doesn't. In fact, the whole fuckin' Bible is filled with rapes that fulfill God's merciful will." New Agers come in for skewering too, in the form of a self-help guru arguing that rapists should be met with compassion: "Since I'm not really a stop rape kind of guy, and since I don't want to feel bad about not being a stop rape kind of guy, it's important to me that no one else try to stop rape, or it will make me feel inferior, like I should actually be doing something."

What's interesting to me as a feminist is how soothing the novel is. This is partly because it's structured like a happily-ever-after bedtime story: the novel opens with the now-grown Marilyn explaining to her students how the knitters and their allies put a permanent end to rape. But there are also interesting parallels to the "cozy" subgenre of mystery novels. Think of Miss Marple in her quaint village, puttering around in her garden as she solves a murder or two. In the typical cozy, the victims are unsympathetic people whom we don't see while they're still alive. We have no access to their perspective and don't have to expend emotional energy feeling sorry that they're dead. We can forget that a terrible crime has propelled this lighthearted romp. Similarly, Knitting Circle is propelled by a double layer of violent acts: the original rapes, and the subsequent murders of the rapists. And yet we end up with an oddly comforting story where, after "the rage and frustration and sorrow of thousands of years of taking it and taking it and taking it," there is "the joy of finally fighting back."

Unlike most spoofs, The Knitting Circle Rapist Annihilation Squad raises unsettling questions: What do unprosecuted rapists deserve? When is retributive violence, or vigilante justice, called for? Should I feel such glee at these deaths? As if these weren't disturbing enough, there is a subtle parting shot, located on the back cover, right above the price, where the book's category is listed as "Fiction/Relationships." The perfect finishing touch for this strange combination of hilarity and righteous anger.

Rosalie Morales Kearns is an Albany, NY-based writer. One of the stories in her collection Virgins and Tricksters (Aqueous Books, 2012) earned a Special Mention in the 2013 Pushcart Prize volume. Her stories, poems, and nonfiction have appeared most recently in Witness, The Nervous Breakdown, Necessary Fiction, and Her Kind.

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| Back to Stephanie McMillan's Author Page

Alternative history: The Human Front- A Review

By Pik Smeet
The Socialist Party of Great Britain
September 2013

Alternative history

Alternative history is a strange genre. Its central premise, that small changes in history can lead to radically different worlds is somewhat tenuous: Hitler dying as a small child is unlikely to have prevented a Second World War (merely changing the cast and their precise lines, instead). It is, though, fiction, and it provides a useful means of exploring ‘what ifs’, where the route to the alternative history is usually just an excuse to look at a world that might have been or is simply just different from our own. Being able to imagine different societies is a useful skill, in and of itself.

A few are wish fulfilments, and there’s a few too many ‘If the South won the Civil War’ or ‘If the Germans won the Second World War’ and even ‘If the British Empire never fell’. And of course, the less said about Zeppelins, the better.

Ken Macleod’s work has featured in our review columns before, often for their interesting examination of the ideas and cultures of the revolutionary left, as well as for his commitment to libertarian (proper sense) causes. The Human Front was his first published novella, and it has recently been reissued, along with an essay and an interview that further flesh out some of its themes.

It begins with the news that the Communist partisan Joseph Stalin has been killed in early 1963. The Soviet Union had fallen in 1949, under assault from Allied super hi-tech secret weapons. As Macleod explains in the essay, this dramatically changes the shape of the post-war world, leading to the unrestrained use of military superiority to maintain the colonial powers’ positions. The absence of the Soviet Union and the ongoing Chinese revolution means Maoism rather than Trotskyism comes to predominate on the British left. This leads to several scenes of ‘People’s War’ in the Scottish Highlands, with all the horror and brutality that entails.

Originally published in 2001, the image of a fugitive Stalin gunned down escaping is now resonant with the fates of Hussein and Bin Laden, and indeed, of our present unipolar world with the unrestrained use of drone strikes. Tens of years on, it seems more like prescience than alternative history. Although the novella soars off into high science fiction for its end twist, its grounding in the Scotland and the Lewis of Macleod’s childhood gives it a sense of solidity, grounding it in real history and left wing arguments remembered.

This reissue is an opportunity to not only consider the themes of the original story, but also alternative history itself and the way in which we shape our pasts to try and make our own future.

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