September 24-25: Resist the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh

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Coming off the protests against the Republican National Convention (RNC), I’m not sure entirely how I feel personally about organizing in response to the G20 in Pittsburgh, but I’m really heartened to see that some solid people are putting work into giving the G20 a rowdy midwestern welcome. After seeing folks take to the streets to oppose the G20 in April in London, hopefully those of us in the U.S. can take a similar approach.

September 24-25: Resist the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh

Join Thousands at a Convergence of Action, Resistance and Hope

Pittburghers didn’t ask the G20 to come here, but it is our intention that the worldview the summit represents will die here.

This September 24-25 Pittsburgh will host the next summit of the G20, a group of finance ministers and central bank governors from the world’s largest economies who meet twice yearly to discuss and coordinate the international financial system. Around 1,500 delegates, including heads of state, will be here along with more than 2,000 members of the media, and thousands of police and security agents tasked with squelching dissent.

This summit, and the predecessor meetings this past April in London, occurs on the heels of the worldwide financial meltdown that has been severely impacting hundreds of millions around the world. Since its inception, the G20 has been a tool used to promote a world vision based on the ability of capital to move as it pleases, at the expense of labor, human rights and the environment.

Now that the system these leaders have forced on the world is in crisis they continue to operate as if they have the answer. We know that they do not. To save countries, they propose we turn to institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), an entity that has historically imposed murderous structural adjustment programs on the world’s poor.

G20 summits, alongside other meetings of institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), an entity that has historically imposed murderous structural adjustment programs on the world’s poor.

G20 summits, alongside other meetings of institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and the World Trade Organization, have rightfully been targeted by hundreds of thousands of people around the world because they represent a global vision based on war-making, social and economic injustice, and corporate greed. Pittsburgh will take its place alongside people around the world who have protested and resisted such gatherings in their hometowns.

Pittsburgh was chosen as the host city because of its history, and because the President is looking to buttress his working class credentials. It is true that our city has much to offer the world in terms of progress, we just happen to disagree with the politicians on what these words mean or what others should take from our experience. Pittsburgh has experienced 50 years of population loss and industrial decline as well as more than 150 years of industrial class conflict. We have gained an instinctual knowledge that you get what you are willing to fight for. We celebrate that worker and community self-organization has often succeeded where government, bosses and the supposedly enlightened have failed.

What has carried us through the tough times has been our relationships, the tight knit nature of our mostly non-corporate dominated neighborhoods, a do-it-yourself ethic, the unpretentious manner in which people treat each other, and a sense of local pride that isn’t based on salary or one’s place in some hierarchy. Pittsburgh never died, and the currently-in-vogue talk of “rebirth” measures success, growth, and progress in terms of the number of corporations based here, the multi-national profits, or the success of our politicians at going from Mayors to County Executives to Governors.

For our measuring stick, we look to whether or not all have the resources needed to lead and pursue rewarding lives, and if we are meeting community needs without the involvement of the state. We look to the health of our environment and the treatment of other living things, the equality of educational opportunities, the degree to which we lessen our participation in the exploitation of others, and how successful we are in moving towards a new kind of society in which you don’t have to fuck people over to survive.

And in these respects, our city is making progress. We find inspiration and common cause in the efforts of the multitude of other projects and initiatives that are transforming Pittsburgh into a more just and sustainable place to live, efforts that are in a conflictual relationship with state power, and will be joining resistance to the G20. And truly, if the G20 were about anything besides state power and money it would be these efforts that other countries would be coming here to discuss and look at, because there is much that we have to offer in creating a better world.

Pittsburgh is not without its problems, and there is much that needs to be addressed. During the summit and its lead-up little will be said about the troubling grip the UPMC medical industrial complex and others hold over the region, the chronic illnesses caused by the extremely high levels of particulate matter in our air, the troubling ethical questions posed by the warfare robotics that are being pioneered here, the police violence and acts of unaccountable brutality against the public, a stacked deck against labor organizing, a depressingly inadequate public transit system, and a political process marked by a lack of ethical accountability and transparency.

We should be clear then, we love our city, and in so far as we see the G20 as a threat to our collective health and well-being we intend to be an obstacle to its ability to function. This is an unavoidable decision given what the summit is, and what it represents. The presence of the G20 summit in Pittsburgh will be a major – if short-lived – disruption to the city and the people who work and live here, with or without protests. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has acknowledged as much, stating the summit will result in “chaos” due to security cordons, increased traffic, etc.

The government has already staked out its position: the needs of 20 politicians justify whatever disruption and cost to our city, and the responsibility felt by thousands to participate in resistance to the G20 and to articulate an alternate vision for society is more than unimportant, it’s a threat.

Based on past summits the media will play the state game by focusing on whether protesters will be able to disrupt the ability of the summit to meet, using ominous and sensationalist stories with unsubstantiated claims of evil outsiders come to wreck havoc on the good people, because these stories, even if refuted and later disproved, serve to justify attacks on the public’s liberties and dignity. This must not, and will not, deter resistance. The stakes are too high.

The real value of this summit, to its participants and those resisting it, is not in the substance of the “leaders'” discussions. Our power is not in whether or not we have the ability to prevent a bunch of finance ministers and heads of state from talking. The real importance is in the way an undisrupted ceremony reinforces the dominant worldview. If that view is flawed, it must be rejected, and the spotlight such a gathering creates must be one in which people will manifest liberating social conflict.

We therefore believe that the necessary attempts of thousands to interfere with the summit are not an ends in and of themselves, they are a critical part of the means we can use to achieve the victory we are collectively organizing for in September: to heighten existing social resistance, and to present an alternative narrative of why our world is the way it is. We must make it clear that the world need not be this way, and talk about our vision for a movement towards a new society based not on profit and coercion but rooted in meeting collective needs for both material comfort and the freedom to pursue fulfilling lives of opportunity and dignity.

In this effort we invite and encourage your participation!

In Struggle,

Pittsburgh Organizing Group

http://www.organizepittsburgh.org

If your group would like to endorse this call, let us know at pog@mutualaid.org

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Economic disaster is no match for people’s spirit and self-organizing

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This article is reprinted from an anarchist newspaper published out of Berkley, California called Slingshot. I think it does a good job of discussing current popular responses to the global economic crisis while also looking at the challenges for leftists and progressives. How can we respond to the current crisis in a way that is both relevant and challenges the underlying system/logic that brought about the current crisis? As a whole, I think “the left”–especially in the U.S.–has done a pretty bad job of responding to the current crisis.

Economic dislocation and pain has always given rise to creative forms of protest, direct action and rebellion. Right now, the French are showing the way with a wave of “boss-nappings” — when the boss tries to close a factory or layoff workers, the workers lock managers inside and won’t let them leave until demands for better severance pay are met. But outrage has been overflowing all over from unrest in Bolivia to Greek farmers blocking roads to riots in Vladivostok, Russia, and clashes with police in Reykjavik, Iceland. At the recent G20 protest in London, hundreds of people smashed the windows of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

The US has a powerful history of action during hard economic times — from general strikes to bread riots to widespread squatting that occurred during the depression in the 1930s. And while protest in the US often lags behind the rest of the world these days, things haven’t been totally boring in the USA. There have been marches on Wall Street and in Chicago, 300 members of the United Electrical workers seized their factory in December to protest its closing.

Given that recessions are part of capitalism’s normal functioning, it isn’t always clear whether popular uprisings inspired by economic pain can go beyond purely reformist and limited goals. While it is encouraging to see more people in the streets and less respect for bosses, corporations, and authority, it makes no sense to demand “jobs,” “more economic activity” or “more money” out of precisely the same system that has let us down. The recession is causing pain for people precisely because the economy has so much power over people’s lives — demanding that the system start working “better” so it can even further dominate our lives makes no sense.

Protests related to an economic downturn risk being myopic — addressing symptoms, but not causes, and seeking crumbs, not the whole pie. But popular eruptions don’t have to be so short-sighted.

How can we seize on capitalism’s current self-inflicted wounds — widening tiny cracks into huge breaches in its rotten facade? In the last issue of Slingshot, I suggested that the recession creates opportunities for people to build alternative economic structures outside the capitalist system that can enable us to live more sustainably during the recession and after it is over. These alternative structures can replace competition, consumption, and privatization with cooperation, sharing, and a broad re-evaluation of what we really need to make us happy and free.

The other opportunities opened by the economic collapse are exciting chances to mount direct attacks on the structures of capitalism, industrialization, and hierarchy that create and sustain material inequality and misery, and that — in the process — are wreaking devastation on the environment. Right now millions of people see banks, the stock market, and the dog-eat-dog economy as the problem, not the solution.

A boss-napping in France that forces a company to pay an extra three months severance is ultimately not very threatening to capitalism. The workers are still accepting their status as workers and the bosses’ right to own the factory and close it if they like. The extra wages can be factored in as a cost of doing business. The manager taken hostage is usually just another paid employee of a big corporation — not all that close to the people who are really in charge. Such an action fails to question the flaws in the system that run deeper than a periodic downturn leading to some layoffs, business failures and foreclosures. How can such actions be put in a broader context and make wider demands?

Even when the capitalist economy is booming and consumption is growing, all the hours spent at work, new products to buy, and technological improvements leave us poorer in the things that really matter. When the economy is healthy, we are robbed of our time to invest in relationships and community. A world in which all our needs are increasingly met through the market — rather than voluntarily by other people around us — replaces meaning, depth and intimacy with distraction, superficial interactions, and loneliness.

The gross domestic product grows as more and more people eat highly processed food transported over great distances, and fewer and fewer people have the time to grow their own food in a garden and sit with friends cooking a slow supper. The mainstream assumption that more money, consumption and higher production improves the “standard of living” or human happiness is absurd — based on manufactured misunderstandings about what really matters.

This recession is perhaps the first major economic collapse since society has become fully aware of the environmental consequences of capitalism’s model of limitless economic growth. During the Great Depression, it was clear that capitalism led to economic inequality, arbitrary displacement and misery. Capitalism meant millions would live alienated, meaningless lives based on mechanistic consumption and production, rather than humanistic pursuits of freedom, joy and beauty. In the 1930s, the scale of world capitalism and the state of environmental awareness made it difficult to understand capitalism’s even more dramatic flaw: a model that requires limitless growth cannot coexist with a finite planet.

The subprime mortgage recession of 2008 — or whatever future generations may eventually call these times — is occurring within a far different context. Now, perhaps the chief indictment against the system is on environmental grounds. The idea of restoring the economy to “normal” becomes even more sinister when one considers the health of the world’s ecosystems.

Will the failures of the capitalist economy beyond temporary layoffs be on trial during this long, hot summer of discontent? Can a factory occupation demand not just severance pay, but that the factory be turned over to its workers rather than closed? And once we own the factory, will we redirect its function away from producing limitlessly for profit and consumerism, and towards manufacturing things we actually need in a way that doesn’t undermine our ability to live on a fragile planet? Or will we decide we don’t need factories and the stuff they make at all?

Militant tactics like wildcat strikes, bread riots and neighborhood eviction defense contain within them very important seeds for a different world. Each of these actions represents people alone or in groups stepping outside the dream world of the system — a world of consumers and spectators powerless to control their own lives. To the contrary, when you’re in the streets, you are a full participant in history, not a passive observer. You’re helping to determine what will happen next and how social institutions shall be organized or transformed.

May Day: Celebrate Workers Power

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Today is May Day, a day that around the world is celebrated as a celebration of workers’ rights and the power of collective action. In Europe, protestors celebrated the social and economic gains of the labor movement, while also criticizing the world’s elites over the economic crisis.

In the United States, we’ve largely forgotten that history with May Day’s relationship to workers’ rights being scrubbed in the 1950s hysteria over communism and instead christened “Loyalty Day”.

When we lost that history, working people lost part of an inspiring history of grassroots action. Things like the 8-hour day, the end to child labor, and the right to collectively bargain all came out of the struggles of unionized and non-unionized workers and their allies. Radical historian Howard Zinn said in a recent interview:

“Think back to 1886,” he urged, ” … that last part of the nineteenth century, when corporations were growing more and more powerful … And workers were working ten, twelve, fourteen hours a day in factories, and mills, and mines.” “Particularly in the period, in the 1880s, workers decided they would have to win the eight-hour day by their own efforts, by direct action, by going on strike. And they did, they went on strike all over the country. And the result was, they did win the eight-hour day in many places at that time.”

“It wasn’t written into law … until the 1930s, until the New Deal. But it was the unions, the strikers, who did it first. And so it’s very important to understand that May Day is a symbol of protest against terrible working conditions, and of workers’ solidarity to change that.”

So celebrate today as a day of power, and more importantly, (re)commit yourself to the struggle for social justice. Join a progressive group in West Michigan, call your legislators in support of the Employee Free Choice Act (which would make it easier for workers to form unions), or start a new group or project. History shows us that we have the power to change things–we just need to make the effort.

It’s also worth noting that in recent years, May Day has had a resurgence in the U.S. as a day of protest in support of immigrant rights. Since 2006, massive protests have taken place annually in cities across the United States that have in many cases link immigrant rights and workers rights and forged a broader sense of solidarity across movements.

Finding Our Roots Conferences Explores Anarchism and “Space”

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This past weekend, I traveled to Chicago to attend the Finding Our Roots Conference at Roosevelt University. This is the third year the anarchist conference on praxis and organizing has been held. The theme of the conference this year was space:

“Why and how is space important to the theory and practice of anarchism; what is ‘anarchist space’? How are anarchists involved in struggles around space, both within and beyond our community? How is space central to the struggles of oppressed and marginalized groups? How does space operate within the social landscape and machinations of capitalism, as well as within resistance to capitalism?”

Obviously, this is an extremely broad category, and therefore a variety of topics were covered over the weekend. A schedule, including descriptions of each workshop, can be found on the website linked above. There were typically about four workshops during each time slot, so I was only able to attend a fraction of the total workshops offered. What follows are brief overviews of some of what was covered.

Gentrification: Containment, Displacement, Yuppie Infestations, and the Resistance to Come

This workshop, facilitated by Fancy and Ezra, began with a brief history of gentrification, going back to the 1930s when racist government policy equated a nonwhite person living in a house to the same “damage” as a tree falling. The group agreed that the definition of gentrification involves displacement of a group of (nonwhite) people in cities. Fancy noted that many people falsely equate white flight to gentrification, and therefore it is viewed by the public as a natural result of the market, when in fact realtors and city officials tend to target certain neighborhoods.

The discussion turned toward resistance. One attendee brought up the importance of providing services for community members when the city cuts them off – access to food, health care, or whatever is needed. A DuPaul professor talked about his work in the Pilson neighborhood, where his students go and talk to the residents, helping those who do not speak English to develop well reasoned arguments against gentrification and its effects.

Chicago’s 2016 Olympic bid will result in gentrification of the Washington Park neighborhood. It was brought up that even if Chicago does not win the bid, the neighborhood will be still be gentrified due to Tax Increment Finance Money.

Mad Liberation and Safe Space

Facilitated by the Mad Tea Party group of Chicago, this workshop was about creating safe spaces where those who struggle with mental illness can have autonomy over their own recovery.

It was noted that “madness” cannot be separated from our culture. One person shared his experience in the mental health system, in which he worked a menial job six days a week that made him depressed and exacerbated his struggles. Upon seeking help, he found himself in an institution where the end goal was to get him back into a job – he recognized this as a form of oppression.

Several people expressed concern that the issue of mental health is one that gets pushed to the side in anarchist organizing. In response to this, groups have been formed in Chicago (and, I’m sure, in many other cities) to provide peer support, such as The Icarus Project).

Collective Living Spaces: A Roundtable Discussion

Much of this discussion was based around common problems and issues that arise in collective housing and how to deal with these, either preemptively or after the fact.

The goals for many who choose to live in collective houses are to find an alternative to patriarchy in their living space (as opposed to traditional family structures), and to live out a microcosm of what one wants to see in the world.

Security was the biggest issue for many. Several houses had protocol for how to deal with cops, took batteries out their cell phones during meetings, did not allow pictures of the space to appear on the internet, did not allow drugs or alcohol, and had a zero tolerance policy for any perpetrators of sexual and/or violent assault. People had differing opinions on the question of whether it is ever acceptable to call the police.

The Seizure of Space and the Public Sphere: Enduring Lessons from the Zapatistas

Facilitated by Richard Gilman-Opalsky, author of Unbounded Publics: Transgressive Public Spheres, Zapatismo, and Political Theory, we examined the example of the Zapatistas in Mexico, who, rather than seize the state, chose to live in an autonomous communities, taking public space and making visible an alternative way to live. Opalsky critiqued the recent actions in Greece, viewing the Zapatista model as a more effect tool for change.

The discussion turned to indigenous struggles in the U.S., such as the Lakota Indians in South Dakota, who continue to struggle in the Black Hills.

Creating Safe Space in an Unsafe World: Supporting Survivors Whilst Respecting Their Autonomy

The discussion in this workshop, facilitated by Bash Back Chicago, began with a talk about community, and learning to create a community where it becomes OK to call people out on inappropriate behavior, to create accountability for people’s actions – particularly for male bodied people to call out other male bodied people. There was extensive discussion of whether community needs can ever trump a survivor’s expressed desires – for example, if the survivor did not want the perpetrator to be dealt with, but community members feared for their safety.

People shared stories about their own experiences, as survivors, support givers, etc. The workshop concluded by talking about the importance of connecting dominant power structures to sexual violence, and reclamation of power.

Sobriety Within The Struggle

Attended by people from a variety of viewpoints (straight edge, those who do drink, etc.), there was a lot of productive discussion in this workshop. Many who abstain from substances spoke about their concerns: that it was hard to organize when people attended meetings hung over and stoned, that it was alienating and detracted from community. There was expressed frustration at peoples’ interpretations of “sober spaces” – that people would just drink or do drugs beforehand, and show up intoxicated. Others were frustrated that self identified anarchists, who hate capitalism and avoid it in every other way, support huge alcohol and tobacco companies when they party.

There was also a discussion of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which most everyone agreed was a destructive group, in which a certain set of morals was forced on its participants, who were told they would never be sober without belief in a higher power.

Overall, the conference was a great chance for discussion and to meet other like-minded folks living in the Midwest.

The Nation Guide to the Nation

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For anyone that has traveled–or has browsed through bookstores–you’ve likely seen the large number of resources dedicated to publicizing tourist traps and offering the so-called “insider” information about any number of cities. The Nation Guide to the Nation takes that approach and highlights historical sites, projects, bookstores, and other places and events that would interest leftist travelers.

The book is divided into five sections–“Culture,” “The Media Gallery,” “Organize!,” “Goods and Services,” and “Social: Connecting”–that catalog a wide variety things pertaining to “the left” in the United States. In the introduction, the editors write that this book is for:

“People of the left-liberal-radical persuasion (the kind of people who read The Nation) who find themselves in some red state backwater hungering for kindred spirits, for community, for folks who’ll help them organize an antiwar rally or a fund-raiser or a peace march or a discussion group or a food co-op.”

That said–it certainly has the potential to deliver on its goals. Whether you are travelling and want to check out some new and inspiring projects (for example, food cooperatives, radical printers, or independent media centers) or wanting to find people in your own to work with, its resources are helpful. For the most part, they are organized logically using broad categories and then smaller categories to narrow down the listings even more. My only complaint is that it might have been easier to organize resources by state in some sections so that people could find out about new things in their own area. Nevertheless, the breadth of the listings are impressive–it contains projects of different political persuasions including anarchists, socialists, and more traditional liberals. Moreover, these projects cut across a wide variety of areas covering everything from organizing hubs to green architects. I’d say that while there are obviously some things left out that could have been added, the book largely succeeds in being a catalog of the left.

Even if you aren’t planning to go anywhere soon to check out new places, the book can be a helpful resource. It catalogs some of the best of the leftist websites on the Internet, indentifies organizations working for social change, and identifies places where you can purchase goods produced in a socially and environmentally sustainable manner. Reading about places in far away cities–or even interesting websites–could easily inspire readers to take on new projects in their own areas.

Overall, The Nation Guide to the Nation is a good introduction to left and progressive politics in the United States. From its exploration of art collectives to websites, the book lists a wealth of resources, a number of which are almost sure to be new to any reader who picks up the book regardless of how long they have been involved in leftist politics.

Richard Lingeman and the Editors of The Nation, The Nation Guide to the Nation, (Vintage, 2009).

Naomi Klein on Obama’s First 90 Days: A Lexicon of Disappointment

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By Namoi Klein, reprinted from The Nation

All is not well in Obamafanland. It’s not clear exactly what accounts for the change of mood. Maybe it was the rancid smell emanating from Treasury’s latest bank bailout. Or the news that the president’s chief economic adviser, Larry Summers, earned millions from the very Wall Street banks and hedge funds he is protecting from reregulation now. Or perhaps it began earlier, with Obama’s silence during Israel’s Gaza attack.

Whatever the last straw, a growing number of Obama enthusiasts are starting to entertain the possibility that their man is not, in fact, going to save the world if we all just hope really hard.

This is a good thing. If the superfan culture that brought Obama to power is going to transform itself into an independent political movement, one fierce enough to produce programs capable of meeting the current crises, we are all going to have to stop hoping and start demanding.

The first stage, however, is to understand fully the awkward in-between space in which many US progressive movements find themselves. To do that, we need a new language, one specific to the Obama moment. Here is a start.

Hopeover. Like a hangover, a hopeover comes from having overindulged in something that felt good at the time but wasn’t really all that healthy, leading to feelings of remorse, even shame. It’s the political equivalent of the crash after a sugar high. Sample sentence: “When I listened to Obama’s economic speech my heart soared. But then, when I tried to tell a friend about his plans for the millions of layoffs and foreclosures, I found myself saying nothing at all. I’ve got a serious hopeover.”

Hoper coaster. Like a roller coaster, the hoper coaster describes the intense emotional peaks and valleys of the Obama era, the veering between joy at having a president who supports safe-sex education and despondency that single-payer healthcare is off the table at the very moment when it could actually become a reality. Sample sentence: “I was so psyched when Obama said he is closing Guantánamo. But now they are fighting like mad to make sure the prisoners in Bagram have no legal rights at all. Stop this hoper coaster–I want to get off!”

Hopesick. Like the homesick, hopesick individuals are intensely nostalgic. They miss the rush of optimism from the campaign trail and are forever trying to recapture that warm, hopey feeling–usually by exaggerating the significance of relatively minor acts of Obama decency. Sample sentences: “I was feeling really hopesick about the escalation in Afghanistan, but then I watched a YouTube video of Michelle in her organic garden and it felt like inauguration day all over again. A few hours later, when I heard that the Obama administration was boycotting a major UN racism conference, the hopesickness came back hard. So I watched slideshows of Michelle wearing clothes made by ethnically diverse independent fashion designers, and that sort of helped.”

Hope fiend. With hope receding, the hope fiend, like the dope fiend, goes into serious withdrawal, willing to do anything to chase the buzz. (Closely related to hopesickness but more severe, usually affecting middle-aged males.) Sample sentence: “Joe told me he actually believes Obama deliberately brought in Summers so that he would blow the bailout, and then Obama would have the excuse he needs to do what he really wants: nationalize the banks and turn them into credit unions. What a hope fiend!”

Hopebreak. Like the heartbroken lover, the hopebroken Obama-ite is not mad but terribly sad. She projected messianic powers onto Obama and is now inconsolable in her disappointment. Sample sentence: “I really believed Obama would finally force us to confront the legacy of slavery in this country and start a serious national conversation about race. But now he never seems to mention race, and he’s using twisted legal arguments to keep us from even confronting the crimes of the Bush years. Every time I hear him say ‘move forward,’ I’m hopebroken all over again.”

Hopelash. Like a backlash, hopelash is a 180-degree reversal of everything Obama-related. Sufferers were once Obama’s most passionate evangelists. Now they are his angriest critics. Sample sentence: “At least with Bush everyone knew he was an asshole. Now we’ve got the same wars, the same lawless prisons, the same Washington corruption, but everyone is cheering like Stepford wives. It’s time for a full-on hopelash.”

In trying to name these various hope-related ailments, I found myself wondering what the late Studs Terkel would have said about our collective hopeover. He surely would have urged us not to give in to despair. I reached for one of his last books, Hope Dies Last. I didn’t have to read long. The book opens with the words: “Hope has never trickled down. It has always sprung up.”

And that pretty much says it all. Hope was a fine slogan when rooting for a long-shot presidential candidate. But as a posture toward the president of the most powerful nation on earth, it is dangerously deferential. The task as we move forward (as Obama likes to say) is not to abandon hope but to find more appropriate homes for it–in the factories, neighborhoods and schools where tactics like sit-ins, squats and occupations are seeing a resurgence.

Political scientist Sam Gindin wrote recently that the labor movement can do more than protect the status quo. It can demand, for instance, that shuttered auto plants be converted into green-future factories, capable of producing mass-transit vehicles and technology for a renewable energy system. “Being realistic means taking hope out of speeches,” he wrote, “and putting it in the hands of workers.”

Which brings me to the final entry in the lexicon.

Hoperoots. Sample sentence: “It’s time to stop waiting for hope to be handed down, and start pushing it up, from the hoperoots”

Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography

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This is part of Atlantic Monthly’s series: “Books that Changed the World” in which several different authors write biographies of influential books. I don’t know about the other books in the series, but this book was very short (144 pages). I was able to read through the whole thing in just a few days.

Wheen is also the author of a biography of Marx, and as with his biography of Marx, in his work on Das Kapital Wheen spends a lot of time making fun of Marx’s personality quirks, but ultimately comes down on Marx’s side on most of the issues.

Wheen blows up a lot of the mythology surrounding Marx on both sides by focusing on his all too human foibles (very much similar in tone to Mark Steel’s lectures on Karl Marx–viewable on Youtube here). Far from being a dedicated evil genius or a revolutionary Jesus Christ, Marx had a terrible time writing this book. He procrastinated endlessly, constantly lied to his publisher and his friends and told them it was almost finished when it wasn’t, and generally showed a remarkable inability to just buckle down and finish the thing.

As a result, only volume one out of an intended six volumes was completed during Marx’s lifetime. Therefore, as Wheen emphasizes, despite the tendency of Marx’s disciples to make dogma out of his work, no complete bible of Marx’s theory exists.

Another one of Wheen’s main points is that Marx intended Das Kapital to be a work of art rather than purely a work of economics. Instead of simply writing a straight forward economic text, Marx throws in so a great deal of humor, irony, literary and poetical allusions. I’ve got to say, based on Francis Wheen’s description of it, Das Kapital doesn’t sound half bad as reading material.

Lastly, as you would expect, Wheen spends a significant amount of time analyzing the ideas in Das Kapital.

Wheen believes that although Marx may have failed as a prophet, he was extraordinary as an analyst. That is, although the communist revolutions may not have happened exactly as Marx had predicted, Marx was still able to give an excellent analysis of how capitalism functioned, and what it’s inherent instabilities were.

Wheen goes on to assert that although Marx’s theories have been unfairly maligned in the West, much of Marx’s analysis has been subsequently vouched for by mainstream economists. In fact Wheen argues that Keynesian economics, with it’s belief that capitalism unregulated and left to its own devices is inherently unstable, is very similar to Marx’s own analysis.

Although this book was originally published back in November of 2007, one year ahead of the economic meltdown, recent events have made this subject much more relevant now than it was when it was first published. In fact, Time magazine, of all places, just recently published an article that raises the question: Was Marx’s critique of capitalism right after all? And here in Japan, Marx’s Das Kapital is enjoying renewed popularity as a Manga.

(Also, anyone interested should check out the NPR interview with Francis Wheen about this book.)

Francis Wheen, Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography, (Grove Press, 2007).

Anarchy Alive!: Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory

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For those of us who consider ourselves anarchists or who are sympathetic to the idea of anti-authoritarian, bottom-up forms of organizing, it is occasionally frustrating that many of the books written on the topic are decades old. While there is much to learn from Emma Goldman’s Living My Life, the writings of Peter Kropotkin, or other classic anarchist texts, you can’t help but feel that they are rather dated and in many ways simply don’t apply to the current political situation. This is unfortunate because popular movements from the ground up–whether they call themselves anarchist or not–have been at the forefront of the most exciting political changes in the past decade.

In this context, Uri Gordon’s Anarchy Alive!: Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory is a welcome addition to the writing on anarchism. Gordon’s purpose is not to argue the case for anarchism–he writes that case has been made well in two-hundred years of anarchist writing–but rather to explore “the development of anarchist groups, actions and ideas in recent years, and aims to demonstrate what a theory based on practice can achieve when applied to central debates and dilemmas in the movement today.”

It’s a book that is written primarily for anarchists or those who are knowledgeable about the movement, but it does offer a couple of introductory chapters that provide a quick introduction to the topic. Gordon argues that anarchism is a contemporary social movement that has an intricate political culture that revolves around shared political orientations. These include agreement on the use of direct action, decentralized and horizontal organizing, and shared political language emphasizing resistance to capitalism, the state, patriarchy, and domination. Gordon acknowledges that diffuse networks and constantly evolving thought characterize anarchism. The first chapter, “What Moves the Movement?” looks at many of the characteristics of the movement and its political activities while the second, “Anarchism Reloaded” examines anarchist ideology and how that has evolved over time. Gordon mixes his examination with relevant quotes from contemporary and historical anarchist literature as well as personal experience and succeeds in creating an exciting introduction to contemporary anarchism.

Following the introductory chapters, Gordon delves into some of the most serious debates in contemporary anarchist thinking–power, violence, technology, and the nation-state. In each of these sections, Gordon provides overviews of the current debate by frequently incorporating the thinking of various anarchist tendencies. After showing where the debate has taken place thus far, he offers his ideas for where it could go or how to advance the thinking. To be sure, these are just one anarchist’s ideas, but they often provide valuable insights that are worth considering. For example on the issue of violence, he writes that arguing over what constitutes violence is rather futile and that the real question to ask is when is violence justified. Never? Is it justified if it prevents greater violence? These questions are accompanied by numerous examples and grounded in a through knowledge of both past and contemporary anarchist theory as well as in modern anarchist practice. Of these issues, his discussion of Palestinian solidarity work and how it intersects with anarchist anti-statism is quite interesting, while his chapter on power–and the many problems associated with it–will likely resonate with many anarchists. Gordon examines how power functions, the problems that can occur when one group or individual holds a disproportionate amount of power, and other such issues.

The book does get a bit muddled at times and occasionally delves into theoretical territory that can try the reader’s patience. But those who stick through it will be treated to a book that is at once inspiring and shows that anarchism–far from being an “infantile disorder”–has the capacity to offer compelling answers to many of humanity’s most serious problems.

Uri Gordon, Anarchy Alive!: Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory, (Pluto Press, 2008).

Socialism: Worth Another Look in Light of Economic Crisis?

The Nation is Hosting an Ongoing Debate About the Relevance of Socialism in Light of Capitalism's Failings

The March 23 edition of The Nation introduces a four-issue series entitled “Reinventing Capitalism, Reimagining Socialism.” The series is of note because it boldly proclaims socialism’s pertinence in the midst of our collapsing capitalist economy. This discussion has not taken place in the United States for quite some time–progressives should seize the moment and engage in society-wide anti-capitalist conversation.

The cover features two articles: “A Bank Bailout That Works” by Joseph Stiglitz, former head of the World Bank and leading critic of globalization, and “Rising to the Occasion” by Barbara Ehrenreich, journalist and prolific author, and Bill Fletcher, executive editor of The Black Commentator. In response to Ehrenreich and Fletcher, prominent leftist figures Immanuel Wallerstein, Tariq Ali, Bill McKibben, and Rebecca Solnit discuss their feelings on socialism’s relevancy for the current financial crisis.

While Stiglitz is somewhat more centrist than many of the writers on this blog, his piece does a solid job explaining some of the finer points of how our economic system ended up in such freefall. In addition, he argues against bailing out the bankers, those whose greed got us into this mess in the first place, and forcefully condemns the old neoliberal dogma that the market can be relied on to distribute goods efficiently to citizens (although any rational being, even those who haven’t won the Nobel Prize for Economics, can surely come to this conclusion after taking a cursory glance at our what’s left of our economy).

Of more interest, however, are Ehrenreich and Fletcher’s and Wallerstein’s articles, if for no other reason than their attempt to reclaim the rich legacy of socialist thought in remaking our country and world into a more just and equitable place.

Socialism became a dirty word thrown at Barack Obama by right-wing pundits and politicians alike in a sad attempt to squeeze a few last drops of milk from a cow that has given so abundantly to them in the past, the Red Scare. The sliming attempts have continued (although in my opinion they simply make the Republicans appear more irrelevant and out of touch than ever), but there seems to be a noticeable shift in the dialogue–seen most clearly in Newsweek’s February 16 cover story “We Are All Socialists Now.” The story’s analysis is shallow, to be sure–as Naomi Klein has argued, throwing hundreds of billions of dollars at banks without giving the citizens who are keeping them afloat any democratic control is not socialism–but it seems to represent a shift in the larger discourse of US society about how to get out of our current financial mess.

Ehrenreich and Fletcher’s article is a call for socialists and like-minded progressives to step forward and show that they have an alternative to the way business has been done under American hypercapitalism. The neoliberal insistence on the infallibility and inherent logic of the market has been proven terribly, terribly wrong; we have to step up and point out that we socialists (and anarchists and other anti-capitalists) have been right all along.

“The great promise of capitalism, as first suggested by Adam Smith and recently enshrined in “market fundamentalism,” was that we didn’t have to figure anything out, because the market would take care of everything for us. Instead of promoting self-reliance, this version of free enterprise fostered passivity in the face of that inscrutable deity, the Market. Deregulate, let wages fall to their “natural” level, turn what remains of government into an endless source of bounty for contractors–whee! Well, that hasn’t worked, and the core idea of socialism still stands: that people can get together and figure out how to solve their problems, or at least a lot of their problems, collectively. That we–not the market or the capitalists or some elite group of über-planners–have to control our own destiny.”

Though Ehrenreich and Fletcher’s piece begins The Nation’s series on Reimagining Socialism, it is Immanuel Wallerstein’s article that is most impressive. The article is particularly helpful for the millions of progressives (myself included) who find ourselves unsure of how to think about Barack Obama and organizing for social change while his administration is in power.

Wallerstein argues that there are “two occasions which require to plans for the world left”: the short run and the middle run. The short run has to do with the immediate conditions of misery faced by the market’s collapse: homelessness, unemployment, lack of health care, loss of life savings, and the like. The middle run is about dismantling the undemocratic, inequality-laden, environmentally destructive system of capitalism that causes these problems. Obama can deliver on the former, but not the latter:

“What we want from Obama is not social transformation. He neither wishes to, nor is able to, offer us that. We want from him measures that will minimize the pain and suffering of most people right now. That he can do, and that is where pressure on him may make a difference.”

When compared with our two options in the last election, Obama and McCain, Obama is certainly the one who is more likely to respond to grassroots pressure to address the most visibly painful results of capitalism. We should be thankful that we do not have as callous of a president in the Oval Office as John McCain. But Wallerstein makes clear that when it comes to long-term structural change, Obama is no different from McCain or any other politician. We need to distinguish between where he is our enemy and where he is our friend, because he is not solely one or the other.

“The middle run is quite different. And here Obama is irrelevant, as are all the other left-of-center governments. What is going on is the disintegration of capitalism as a world system, not because it can’t guarantee welfare for the vast majority (it never could do that) but because it can no longer ensure that capitalists will have the endless accumulation of capital that is their raison d’être. We have arrived at a moment in which neither farsighted capitalists nor their opponents (us) are trying to preserve the system. We are both trying to establish a new system, but of course we have very different, indeed radically opposed, ideas about the nature of such a system.”

The Nation’s inclusion of these pieces will hopefully be a part of a larger shift in society that brings anti-capitalist ideas to the forefront. It is tragic that a global financial meltdown has been required to achieve this–although it should be remembered that for the vast majority of the world, capitalism has never entailed anything but disaster–but we have to seize the opportunity.

Check The Nation’s web site in the next few weeks for the ongoing discussion.

Revolutions of 1848: A Social History

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Many books on 1848 tend to be heavily analytical. They focus on the connecting factors and underlying causes of the Revolutions, and thus tend to lose the narrative. Priscilla Robertson, however, fortunately takes the opposite approach. She focuses on a few of the major upheavals during 1848, and retells each of them as a single contained story.

Of course, it would be impossible to cover every single 1848 Revolution in one book. (“No one has ever numbered the revolutions which broke out in Europe in 1848” Robertson writes in the introduction. “…[But] there must have been over 50”.) Robertson therefore narrows her focus to France, Germany, the Austrian Empire (including a subsection on Hungary), Italy, and a short afterward on Britain and Ireland.

Even within these major countries, there were several different cities that experienced different revolutions. Therefore, in the section on Italy, for example, Robertson breaks it up by devoting separate chapters to Milan, to Rome, and to Venice.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach. Robertson is an excellent story teller, and she’s able to not only make the history come alive, but also to create a lot of suspense in the narrative. On the whole, it makes for enthralling reading.

The disadvantage, however is that every 75 pages or so you get pulled out of one story and have to work at getting yourself immersed into another. If you’re reading the whole thing straight through, it’s a bit jolting to go through the trouble of acquainting yourself with all the circumstances and actors in one revolution, only to find yourself yanked out and transported across the map into another set of circumstances and characters. The stories of the rise and fall of each different revolutionary government can start to feel repetitive after a while.

However, with a little bit of self-discipline, if you stick with the book I did find that I would gradually get immersed into each separate story. And because Robertson works so hard to recreate the feeling of those days, I had the pleasure of feeling like I was transported to several exotic cities in 19th century Europe. The reader of this book gets to spend time in revolutionary Paris, the student government in Vienna, Milan, Rome, Venice, Frankfurt, Dresden, various cities in Hungary, et cetera. (For someone like me who has never been to Europe, it was a great way to visit all of these cities vicariously).

There were a lot of emotions in the 1848 Revolutions, and Robertson does a good job of guiding us through them all. At the outbreak of the revolutions, we can feel the romanticism at each the dream of a utopian republic. “All schools of romantic thought had their day in 1848,” Robertson writes (p. 367).

Once the new governments begin to crumble, this early optimistic feeling all too quickly leads to despair, which Robertson also captures. Of the various people she quotes, perhaps the Russian socialist Herzen describes it most eloquently. “Half of our hopes, half of our beliefs were slain, ideas of skepticism and despair haunted the brain and took route in it. One could never have supposed that, after passing through so many trials, after being schooled by contemporary skepticism, we had so much left in our souls to be destroyed” (p. 96).

As often happens in history, the old order reasserted itself with astonishing brutality, and Robertson records several civilian massacres when the revolution fell.

1848 stands at the crossroads of history in more than one-way, and Robertson explores many of these. For one thing, 1848 represented the split between republicans and socialists. Under the old system, capitalists and workers alike felt themselves constrained by feudalism, causing the industrial class to often be at the forefront of the revolution. “1848 was the last time that business could seem radical” Robertson writes of the Vienna Revolution (p. 206).

Before 1848, most European republicans dreamed of a utopian fusion of the classes under a liberal republican government. “Only after the liberals won power did they discover that they were afraid of the workers; when the workers found this out, they turned to Marxian gospel” (p. 6).

1848 also saw the emergence of nationalism as a popular force. The desire for the various German and Italian states to unite as one country, as well as the desire for the independence among the various ethnic groups in the Austria-Hungarian Empire. As Robertson points out, the failure to resolve these matters in 1848 has been the cause of much of the bloodshed in the 20th century in the former Austria-Hungarian lands.

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Because the action in this book spans across a whole continent, it takes in its scope most of the prominent names of the time: Garibaldi, Mazzini, Bakunin, George Sand, Marx and Engels, Jacob Grimm, Metternich, Richard Wagner, Herzen, and Proudhon all figure prominently in this book (to list some of the bigger names). But there are many, many more names to keep track of. In each country we visit, we are introduced to the figures of the old regime, the moderates, the republicans, and the radicals. It’s a bit daunting keeping track of everyone, and it required a lot of going back to the index for me. Fortunately, the index in this book is excellent. So, if you don’t mind having to flip back and forth occasionally, it’s not a huge problem.

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A lot of popular history books recently are often advertised as having parallels to our current situation, or are recommended for leaders in Washington. But if I was controlling the reading list of Washington, I’d make sure to add this book. It shows the difficulties of creating republics in countries that are not used to democratic traditions, and how fragile those new republican governments can be.

(Of course, it has yet to be seen whether the United States is serious about creating democratic institutions in Iraq and Afghanistan, or simply establishing client states. But assuming the neo-cons are serious about building new republican governments, I think this book can help illuminate the mine-field they’re getting into.)

Interestingly enough though, this is not a recent book. It was first published in 1952. I’m not sure if any new scholarship on the subject makes it outdated now, but when I last in a major bookstore I saw it was still up on the shelves.

Priscilla Robertson, Revolutions of 1848: A Social History, (Princeton University Press, 1971).