New Book Reviews

As part of our ongoing work reviewing books that make important contributions to movements for social change, Media Mouse has posted four new book reviews. Media Mouse has reviewed Jeremy Scahill’s new book

Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, a timely book looking at Blackwater’s role in the Iraq War and the religious right here in Michigan from which founder Erik Prince emerged. Michael Albert’s new memoir, Remembering Tomorrow: From SDS to Life after Capitalism, makes an important contribution to books on the history of the 1960s and post-1960s left in the United States, while Allison Fine’s Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Change examines how social change organizing has changed due to social media technology. Lastly, we have posted a review of Jules Valles’ The Insurrectionist (The Jacques Vingtras Trilogy), a personal recollection of the Paris Commune.

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Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age

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Allison H. Fine’s Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age is an intriguing exploration of the ways in which new social media technology–including social networking websites, email, cell phones, and the Internet as a whole–can be used to facilitate social change organizing. Unlike the worst proponents of social media, Fine argues that social media has a facilitative role of “connecting” people through social networks for the purpose of creating connections that can be used in real world organizing efforts.

Momentum explores how social change organizing is changing due to social networks becoming increasingly well developed through social media technology. Fine describes how mobilizing these social networks are key to successful social change movements, while explaining what makes these networks successful. Fine asserts that a network is successful because it has hubs of information and leaders that drive the work, while also having a “friction-free” information flow that enables and empowers people in the far reaches of the network. These networks–online variations of traditional networks such as the nuclear family or church groups–grow in power the further out that they extend and the numbers of people that they incorporate. Moreover, their power is enhanced when they not only connect people in a network but also move people to act in a coordinated fashion in the “real world.” The networked world that Fine terms the “Connected Age” emphasizes not only connections and the free-flow of information between the networks, but also communication. Fine argues that the many-to-many nature of communication in a network is more empowering for both members of the network and organizers than the traditional “top-down” methods of organizing because it emphasizes interaction and feedback. Networks for social change must also be “broad and porous,” reaching a wide variety of individuals while also understanding that people will move in and out of networks as their interests shift.

Fine argues that these new technologies will have a profound effect on organizations working on social change issues. Rather than maintaining existing hierarchies where information is provided in a frequently top-down and one-way fashion to constituents, social media offers the potential for information to be distributed in a horizontal fashion through which people throughout an organization–from constituents to staff members–are empowered to organize. Because of this decentralization of power and functioning, Fine asserts that organizations will have to rethink how they measure their effectiveness, especially now that many “connections” made in new social networks are not necessarily quantifiable by traditional means. This shift in how success and effectiveness are measured will also affect funding, with Fine asserting that foundations will have to shift their focus in a manner that recognizes networks rather than top-down entities. Organizations will also begin to recognize the immense potential of the Internet and online networks for fundraising. Such technology makes it possible to raise money quickly and with relatively low cost, while also encouraging funders to embrace new and exciting ventures at what will hopefully be a quicker pace than has been traditionally done by foundations. Fine also makes a brief argument that social media can provide a more interactive substitute to the traditional broadcast media, allowing nonprofits and social change organizations to have access to low-cost distribution channels that in many cases may even be preferred by younger audiences.

Despite its arguments that social change cannot be confined to the digital world and that it must exist separately from the technological tools that give can give it much of its power in the Connected Age, Fine minimizes some of the serious issues regarding race and class that should be at the forefront of this discussion. To her credit, Fine does at least briefly address these issues, which is already more than many proponents of social media have done. Far from simply stating that social media has a “leveling effect” that distributes power, Fine cites examples of how this is done, specifically focusing on how anyone with an internet connection can now start a website, blog, email list, or advocacy campaign. She admits that the so-called “digital divide” through which people have unequal access to digital tools and infrastructure exists, although she argues that it is rapidly closing. Fine asserts that in the case of young people specifically, gaps are closing as social media increases political participation from women, youth, and people of color.

Unfortunately, while a convincing argument can be made to this effect, Fine is guilty of minimizing the ongoing effects of racism in the United States. Fine argues that there is a new generation of technologically savvy youth–whom she calls “Net-Genners”–who are extremely comfortable using social media tools. She describes this generation as “tolerant” and asserts that they are “one of the first generations to grow up in a largely integrated society.” She goes on to state that they are one of the first generations “who spend almost no time thinking about race and ethnicity or sexual preference” and that “they’re just used to being around lots of different people who look different.” This argument is further articulated when she states that this generation is not accustomed to thinking about race and ethnicity “consciously,” which she argues is better than “a generation that is constantly thinking about race and how not to offend.” Fine–to her credit–does express concern over statistics showing that “Net-Genners” are growing up in racially homogenous communities and being educated in similarly structured schools, but she fails to examine the ramifications of this. Nowhere is there a substantive discussion of how social media tools can be used to either challenge or reinforce racism. Similarly, while Fine addresses class to a limited degree when she cites the fact that 75% of Americans have Internet access at home and that the so-called “digital divide” has not been the issue that people thought it would be, she does not address how social media can either reinforce or subvert class-based hierarchies. There is also no exploration of the race and class base of online communities and the extent to which they are integrated.

Despite limits in how it approaches issues of race and class, Fine’s Momentum provides an important look at the “new” activism possible with social media. Fine presents a compelling argument that activists must begin to use these tools. Moreover, Fine does an excellent job of reminding readers and activists that these digital tools are not ends in and of themselves but rather they are tools that can be used to create and enhance “real world” connections that can then be leveraged for social change.

Allison H. Fine, Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age, (Jossey-Bass, 2006).

Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army

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Our corporate goal is to do for the national security apparatus what FedEx did to the Postal Service.

– Erik Prince CEO of Blackwater USA

As the war in Iraq continues and the US Congress sheepishly debates withdrawal dates and timelines, it would do all of us good to understand the growing significance of private mercenaries, also known as private security forces. Few people have done as much investigation into this growing phenomenon as has Jeremy Scahill. He has been reporting and writing on the use of private mercenaries in Iraq and New Orleans in The Nation magazine and for Democracy Now!. His new book–Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army–on the largest private mercenary firm, Blackwater, comes at a time when the anti-war movement needs a more sophisticated analysis of the US war in Iraq and the so-called War on Terrorism.

The founder and CEO of Blackwater is Erik Prince, son of Edgar Prince, the now deceased businessman from Holland, Michigan. Prince’s background as a Western Michigander is not just limited to geography, the brother of Betsy DeVos has also embraced the conservative religious beliefs that his family promoted zealous, particularly with their money. Erik began his political career working as an intern for Gary Bauer at the Family Research Council and also worked in the Bush I White House, although he thought that this administration was too liberal. Prince disapproved of the Bush I administration to the extent that in 1992 he supported Patrick Buchanan for President, something that got him into trouble with his sister Betsy.

Unlike his family, which is part of the Christian Reformed Church, Erik Prince is a Catholic. He most likely became Catholic when he married his first wife, who died of cancer shortly after they were married. Interestingly enough, most of the leadership at Blackwater is also Catholic, albeit a conservative wing of the church that is quite reactionary. Erik Prince is personally connected to conservative Catholic groups like Catholic Answer, Crisis magazine, and a Grand Rapids-based group, the Acton Institute. But Prince has not abandoned his Protestant/Evangelical roots and is a close friend of Watergate criminal turned believer Chuck Colson. They have shared the podium on several occasions, even once at Calvin College. According to Scahill, Prince is aligning himself with a new Catholic/Evangelical alliance called “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” The ECT manifesto states:

“The century now drawing to a close has been the greatest century of missionary expansion in Christian history. We pray and we believe that this expansion has prepared the way for yet greater missionary endeavor in the first century of the Third Millennium. The two communities in world Christianity that are most evangelistically assertive and most rapidly growing are Evangelicals and Catholics.”

Prince’s relationship to what Scahill calls the “Theocon” movement is not marginal. Prince himself writes about this relationship and it’s importance, particularly with the mission of Blackwater. Prince says “Everybody carries guns, just like the Prophet Jeremiah rebuilding the temple in Israel – a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other.”

The bulk of the book, however, is devoted to an understanding of Prince’s creation known as Blackwater. Prince was a Navy Seal himself during the 1990s and felt that security issues were paramount for the future of the US. Blackwater was created in 1997, but its growth was influenced by several events in the years following. The first major event to propel Blackwater to the forefront of the “security” debate was the school shootings at Columbine in 1999. Blackwater responded by building a training facility called “R U Ready High” and that became a major training center for local law enforcement training on rapid response to such incidents. The second event was the attack against the USS Cole in October of 2000. With Prince’s connection to the Navy, he was able to negotiate a contract worth $35.7 million to conduct “force protection training.” However, the biggest incident that propelled Blackwater to its current status were the attacks on September 11, 2001.

Blackwater was quickly providing training and gaining contracts with the FBI, the Department of Energy, the Department of the Treasury and even the Department of Health and Human Services. These connections eventually led to the agency’s work in Iraq, which landed them their most high profile contract – guarding Paul Bremer in Iraq. This no-bid contract was worth $27.7 million that included “personal security detail and two helicopters for Bremer.” Not surprising, Bremer is also Catholic and has maintained an intimate relationship with Prince and Blackwater even after his reign in Iraq. This symbiotic relationship led Bremer to create Order 17 as his last political act in Iraq. Order 17 in effect protects those in the private mercenary business from being prosecuted from any wrongdoing. Once Blackwater made a name for themselves in Iraq business really took off.

Then Fallujah happened. Several Blackwater contractors were killed in what Scahill documents as a botched mission. This didn’t stop the administration and Blackwater in using the Blackwater deaths as justification for a massive military assault on that city just after the 2004 Presidential election. Blackwater used the incident to hire its first lobbyist, Paul Behrends, from the Republican lobbying firm Alexander Strategy Group. Here Prince’s religious right connection paid off. Behrends was on the board of Christian Freedom International (CFI) with Prince for years. The CFI was founded by veterans from the Reagan administration, many of who were “major players in the Iran-Contra scandal.” This lobbying certainly paid off.

Blackwater was able to expand in step with where US foreign policy interest lay. After the US invasion of Afghanistan, the US set up military bases in the Caspian region. In Azerbaijan, Blackwater “would be tasked with establishing and training an elite Azeri force modeled after the US Navy SEALs that would ultimately protect the interests of the US and its allies in a hostile region.” This all occurred during a time when the US State Department said there were “restriction[s] on the right of citizens to peacefully change their government; torture and beating of persons in custody; arbitrary arrests and detention, particularly of political opponents; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; excessive use of force to disperse demonstrations; and police impunity.”

This constant growth for Blackwater posed a problem, in that they were not able to keep up with the growing demand for training and providing mercenary forces for “security duty.” Again Prince turned to his past connections. He was stationed for a period of time in Chile while in the US military. It was here that he tapped into another military source. Jose Miguel Pizarro was an ex-military man in Chile that Prince knew. Pizarro, an ardent defender of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinichet eventually became Blackwater’s main recruiter for mercenaries from Latin America. Soon, other Chilean mercenaries, Colombians and Hondurans would become contract workers for Blackwater in Iraq. This raises interesting questions about the type of people that Blackwater employs, considering many of them have worked as part of military or Para-military organizations with brutal track records.

Blackwater was also able to tap into veterans of the US intelligence community. Cofer Black a 37-year veteran of the CIA, was hired by Blackwater in February of 2005 as the company’s vice chairman. Black had been appointed by Bush as his “coordinator of counterterrorism, with the rank of at large ambassador at the State Department.” Soon after that the company scored another big insider in the person of Joseph Schmitz. Schmitz, before joining Blackwater was tasked with the job of overseeing all war contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Schmitz, whose connection to war profiteers was well known, determined after his investigation that “there was no wrong doing” with any of the private contractors in Iraq or Afghanistan. For those who have seen the documentary Iraq for Sale, you know this to be a bold lie. Shortly after Schmitz exonerated his friends in the war profiting industry he announced that he was going to work for Blackwater.

Schmitz is also part of the inner circle of Theocons with Prince. In a 2004 speech Schmitz said “No American today should ever doubt that we hold ourselves accountable to the rule of law under God. Here lies the fundamental difference between us and the terrorists.” Schmitz is a member of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, “a Christian militia formed in the eleventh century, before the first Crusades, with the mission of defending territories that the Crusaders had conquered from the Moslems.” In addition, Schmitz is a devotee to someone who fought alongside of George Washington, the Prussian militarist Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Von Steuben. “Von Steuben is one of four men often cited by Blackwater officials as founding mercenaries of the United States.” Erik Prince and the other Blackwater leadership, like Joseph Schmitz, think they are following in that tradition.

As Scahill’s book was going to press he noted that Blackwater is now in the process of building 2 more facilities in the US – Illinois and California – and a jungle training facility in the Philippines. Those of us who are trying to have a healthy analysis of the US war in Iraq, the War on Terrorism and US foreign policy in general, would do well to read this book.

Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, (Nation Books, 2007).

The Insurrectionist (The Jacques Vingtras Trilogy)

Jules Valles, a life long rebel, activist, and anarchist, is famous for his role in the Paris Commune and for his Jacques Vingtras trilogy. Jules Valles was elected a member of the Paris Commune, and later appointed Minister of Education under the Commune, during which time he created free and undenominational public schooling. After the fall of the Commune, he was condemned to death, but escaped to Belgium and later England.

It was in England that he began his autobiographical work under the pseudonym of Jacques Vingtras. Although Jules Valles does take some advantage of the Roman-a-clef nature of fiction to change some of the chronology and minor details, the Jacques Vingtras trilogy is frequently used by historians as if it were a memoir.

Partly owing to the politicized nature of his work, Jules Valles has long been regarded as one of the French Literary cannon’s minor writers. However, like many overlooked writers, Valles’s works are periodically rediscovered by different generations and thrust back in the limelight every now and again.

During the May 1968 Revolution in France there was renewed interest in Jules Valles. He was found quoted by student graffiti on the walls of Paris during the student rebellion, and his works were republished in both French and English.

After the 68 generation, Jules Valles has been largely forgotten again, although recently the New York Review Books has republished The Child, the first book in the Jacques Vingtras trilogy.

“The Child” chronicles Jules Valles’s childhood from hell caught in between the middle class cult of respectability and the traditional bourgeois classical education. The book begins with the words: “I dedicate this book to all those who were bored stiff at school or reduced to tears at home, who in childhood were bullied by their teachers or thrashed by their parents.” Although this story is certainly anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment, it is of limited direct political value. However, it has been described as one of the funniest books in French literature, and can be recommended as a fun read to anyone (activist or otherwise) looking for a light book.

The second book in the series The Graduate, describes the 1848 Revolution, the 1851 coup by Napoleon III, and the struggle of Jules Valles and his friends to keep the socialist movement alive during the repressive period of the second empire. It has, to the best of my knowledge, never been translated into English. Or at least, a search of the Internet reveals neither current nor used copies available for sale.

The Insurrectionist, which describes the workers movement of the 1860s culminating in the Paris Commune, is of the most interest to the activist. The English edition is not currently in print, but can be found at some libraries, used bookstores, and Internet booksellers.

The story begins with Jules Valles in 1857 having gone against his morals and accepted a job as a teacher after living on the streets for many years. His former friends criticize his cowardice and hypocrisy, but after years of starving himself he is unable to resist the lure of steady meals and a paycheck. However his new found security is not to last long. Valles loses his job after telling the students never to pay attention to anything they are taught in school.

He then briefly becomes a government clerk, and loses that job after giving a seditious speech at one of the clubs. He struggles to find work in journalism. He participates in several anti-government demonstrations, but he and his colleagues are never able to mount a serious challenge to the Napoleonic Empire.

Jules Valles was recruited by his socialist friends to run against the moderate republican Jules Simon in the governmental elections. Although Jules Simon was the leader of the republican opposition to Napoleon at the time, some of the socialists thought it was important to provide a socialist alternative in the election. Others thought the candidacy would take votes away from Jules Simon and strengthen Napoleon. Jules Valles ended up being caught up in the middle of this debate. Of course since these strategic electoral issues are still debated by radicals today, the candidacy of Jules Valles and the debate around it should still be of interest.

Then the Franco-Prussian war begins, and Jules Valles is beat up while participating in a peace demonstration. Since he is beat up not by police but by workers, the very people he had spent his whole life trying to help, he feels particularly discouraged.

“I regret my sacrificed youth, the life I have given to starvation, the pride I have given to the dogs, the future I have spoiled for a mob I thought had a soul, a mob I wanted to honor by giving it all the strength I had so painfully amassed. And now I see that very same mob sucking up to soldiers, dogging the steps of regiments, cheering colonels whose epaulets are still sticky with the blood of December, shouting “Kill them!” when we say we want to silence the trumpets by ramming rags down their bells. It is the greatest disillusionment of my life.”

However as every historian knows, the initial war euphoria soon gave way to anger and disillusionment when the French army started loosing. Valles chronicles in his book first the republican revolution of September 4, next the failed socialist uprising of October 30, and finally the Paris Commune.

Although he sat as a member of the Commune, Valles work offers almost no insight into the ideological struggle behind the Commune, although he does describe some of his personality clashes with other members. It is for this reason that Valles is frequently accused of adventurism by Marxist critics, but in The Insurrectionist Valles is much more interested in chronicling the experience of revolution than the ideology behind it.

The Insurrectionist repeatedly deals with the intersection of the political with the personal, probably the most striking example of which is the following scene from the fall of the Commune, in which Valles witnesses an accused spy about to be executed:

Another one denied being a traitor and asked to be led “before the proper authorities.” He spoke as a coupon clipper from Le Marais. “I’ve never been mixed up in politics.”

“That’s why I’m killing you,” replied a fighter who’d been hit in the left paw one hour before, and was using his right paw to aim a revolver at the man in the grip of the crowd. And he was about to shoot when it was decided that people perhaps should not be executed without proof and that this man should be led to Public Safety the “authorities” he was begging for as often as his sobs would allow. “The committee’ll let him go, as sure as I’ve lost five fingers,” grumbled the wounded man, shaking his red stump.

“Not mixed up in politics! They’re the biggest cowards of all. I hate that kind of a son of a bitch! They wait until after the slaughter to see who to spit on and who to suck up to!”

Valles himself can probably be classified as an anarchist, although he belonged to the generation of anarchists more influenced by Proudhon than Bakunin. He was part of the Proudhonist minority on the Paris Commune which was consistently outvoted by the Jacobin majority, but once again Valles prefers to describe this in terms of personality instead of politics:

“I hate Robespierre the deist, and I don’t think we should ape Marat, the galley slave of suspicion, the lunatic of the terror, the maniac of the bloody age. My curses join with [the majority] when they attack [the reactionists] but more sacrilegious than they, I also spit on Robespierre’s vest.”

Almost no time is given to the Commune’s deliberations, but Valles gives a lot of space to the fall of the Commune and bloody week. Most of the Commune’s members were killed, and Valles barely escapes himself by disguising himself as an ambulance driver.

Both the massacre of civilians by the Versailles army and shooting of hostages by the commune horrifies Valles, and he makes a vain attempt to save some of the hostages. If there is a consistent ideological thread to Valles’s work, it is the horror of cruelty and killing, and yet he is not without his mixed feelings about the necessity of violence in a revolution as revealed by this exchange following the execution of a spy:

A man came up to me. “Citizen, do you want to see what a traitor’s corpse looks like?” “Someone’s been executed?” “Yeah a baker, he denied it at first, then he admitted it.” The federal saw me turn pale. “Maybe you would have voted for acquittal-Jesus God! Can’t you see that to smash in one Judas’ head saves the heads of a thousand of your own men! Blood horrifies me, and my hands are covered with it; he grabbed me and held on when I shot him! But where would you be if you couldn’t find anybody to kill spies?” Someone intervened in the debate. “That’s not all! You want to keep your paws clean for the time when you stand before the court or posterity! And we’re the ones, the poor, the workers, the ones who always have to do the dirty work. So everyone can spit on us later, right?” That angry man was speaking the truth. Yes, you want to stay clean for history and not have slaughterhouse filth attached to your name. Admit that to yourself, Vingtras, and don’t consider it a virtue that your face turned white before the dead baker.

One final note: for those with a historical interest, The Insurrectionist is also useful for the first hand description we get of other famous French radicals, such as Blanqui, Rigault, Varlin, Vermorel, and Michelet. However, for those unfamiliar with French history, there can be a lot of strange names and references to keep track of, so be forewarned.

Jules Valles, The Insurrectionist, (Xs Books, 1988).

Book Review: Army 101

A review of Army 101: Inside ROTC in a Time of War has been posted in the book reviews section of the site. In the book, author David Axe provides an examination of the University of South Carolina’s ROTC unit, the Gamecock Battalion. Axe terms the ROTC cadets “undergrads with guns” and explores the challenges they face, the reasons they enlist, and the day-to-day experiences of life in the ROTC. While short and fairly uncritical of the ROTC, Axe’s book does offer a useful exploration of the ROTC.

Book Reviews: Zapatistas, Waves of Opposition, and Vive la Revolution

Media Mouse has posted three new book reviews in the book reviews section of the site. The reviews include John Ross’ Zapatistas: Making Another World Possible, Chronicles of Resistance 2000-2006, Elizabeth Fones-Wolf’s Waves of Opposition: Labor and the Struggle for Democratic Radio, and Mark Steel’s Vive La Revolution: A Stand-up History of the French Revolution. While all books cover completely different topics, they all make important contributions to the literature covering social movements around the world.

Review: A Century of Media, A Century of War

Media Mouse has posted a review of Robin Anderson’s A Century of Media, A Century of War in the book reviews section of the site. Anderson’s book examines the close relationship that the media system in the United States has had with war. Anderson demonstrates that this relationship formed during World War I with the Creel Commission and its use of public relations to manufacture support for the war. Anderson explains to the reader that following World War I, the US government continued to create media to support its foreign policy, establishing “the Grand Narrative” of the United States miltary being used for “good” against the “bad” in the world.

Book Review: Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy

Media Mouse has posted a review of Jeff Chester’s Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy in the book reviews section of the site. In Digital Destiny, Chester provides one of the first serious analyses of the 1996 Telecommunications Act and how it set the stage for current media ownership battles. Chester explores who the major players in crafting the 1996 Telecom Act and how it was the product of a market-driven, bi-partisan effort.

Book Review: No One is Illegal

A review of Justin Akers Chacon and Mike Davis’ No One is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border has been posted in the book reviews section of the website. No One is Illegal presents an insightful look into the history of immigration policy in the United States and the contemporary movement for immigrant rights and places the struggle for immigrant rights within the context of the struggle between labor and capital. Written early this year, the book addresses the ongoing impact of vigilantes on the border, corporate policy, and the mainstream political debate over immigration.