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Eve's Review

Common Preservation Or Extinction?

"Save the Humans?"

Jeremy Brecher

PM Press, 245 pages

$20

 

Eve Ottenberg

Despite Covid-19, the previous twin threats to human existence have not receded. Global warming and the menace of nuclear holocaust have proved more intractable than ever. Arctic temperatures soared to 80 degrees last week, and northern Siberia registered 86 degrees, as climate change fatally deforms humanity's sole home world. But with a president like Trump, tearing up every nuclear treaty he can get his hands on and green-lighting development of new types of nuclear missiles, a future of multiple mushroom clouds can't be ruled out either. Maybe it'll be a twofer, and we'll get both. If people keep electing climate-change-denying warmongers, this is distinctly possible.

 

But elections aren't the only path to power. There are social and political movements, and they, argue Jeremy Brecher in the new edition of "Save the Humans?" should not be underestimated. Such movements can tackle his trio of concerns – climate change, disarmament and economic justice – by aiming at "common preservation," which his book promotes through memoir, political analysis and outright exhortation. One way to achieve common preservation, Brecher argues, is globalization from below. "We learned you have to act globally to succeed locally – you have to go to Brussels to save your farm in Texas."

 

Brecher's book lists guidelines for common preservation with subheadings like "Advocate human preservation wherever you are," and "Don't let the movement give birth to new dominations and disorders." He defines common preservation as "action in concert for human benefit." That may sound vague, but he focuses it on his three aforementioned concerns.  He cites promising early twenty-first century developments: "movements emerged all over the world in locations that were marginal to the dominant power centers. They linked up by means of networks that cut across national borders. They began to develop a sense of solidarity."

 

Though "Save the Humans?" is pre-Covid-19, if anything, the pandemic highlights the importance of its three issues. Lockdowns, for instance, lowered air pollution worldwide by 17 percent. But as soon as China re-opened its economy, it surpassed its previous pollution levels. In the U.S., economic justice during mass unemployment has come to the fore – maybe not for Trump or senate republicans, but average citizens, thrown out of work, or compelled to toil in unsafe, Covid-19-infested environments like slaughterhouses, stare economic inequality in the face. Finally, nuclear war between, say, the U.S. and China has moved to the front burner, with Trump blaming China for the plague to distract from his own failures. Peace could be one of the disease's most tragic casualties.

 

 

 If "Save the Humans?" addressed the pandemic, what would it say? Doubtless that we should listen to scientists and doctors, who warn of a second wave of mass death if things re-open too quickly. There is also the problem of cutting corners to produce a vaccine, which the Trump administration appears to be urging. What happened with an H1N1 vaccine back in 2009 is instructive. One vaccine was rushed to market in the UK, but it caused brain damage, facial palsy and nerve damage to thousands of people. It may also have led to some deaths. If that happens with any of the Covid-19 vaccines, it will confirm a skeptical public's worst fears, giving ammunition to anti-vaxxers – and the plague will spread and kill more people.

 

But for Brecher, doubtless the mass unemployment caused by Covid-19 would be central, because, as he says, the future hinges on the working class. He quotes Marx, "the working class is revolutionary or it is nothing." Today's revolutionaries, however, have more on their plate than any predecessors, including coping with an illness for which there is as yet little prevention and no cure. That disease could upend everything. It has already dumped almost 40 million people in the unemployment lines. Sudden mass dispossession amid plague could usher in the sort of dystopia portrayed in the Jim Crace novel, "The Pesthouse," where society has broken down, de-evolved and never coped successfully with the disease that caused the catastrophe. Indeed as of last week, 24 states opened up despite uncontrolled Covid-19 spread. Without a vaccine, we may never get a handle on this pestilence. Any attempts at common preservation will have to bear this in mind, just as even one win, on the climate, stopping nuclear war or economic justice, will be truly revolutionary.

 

 

 

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As the Earth Dies...

"The Robbery of Nature"

John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark

Monthly Review Press, 384 pages

 

Eve Ottenberg

The earth is dying and capitalism is to blame. Facing this, one can opt for hope, as Marxist ecosocialists do, or one can succumb to pessimism fed by dark thoughts on human nature and the intractable, deadly persistence of our economic system of exploitation. Human nature has a destructive and murderous side, while capitalism, expressing that side with its endless growth, endless greed, blights the planet like cancer. Yet Marxist ecosocialists do not let this drag them down to despair. They talk about fixing what humanity has wrought, about drastically cutting carbon emissions, about mitigating the sixth mass extinction, about decreasing plastics and other environmental toxins and doing so while providing for the necessities of life, including, as John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark write in their newly published "The Robbery of Nature," "love, family, community, meaningful work, education, cultural life, access to the natural environment and the free and equal development of every person."

 

Such ecosocialism differs vastly from the technocratic ecomodernism espoused by, say "Jacobin" magazine. Technocratic approaches to the climate catastrophe are very popular these days, even on the left. To demolish them, Bellamy and Clark cite "Jacobin's" summer 2017 issue, "Earth Wind Fire." They argue that the "socialist" magazine did far worse than miss the boat; it steered it in the wrong direction, by touting technological fixes to global warming and pollution, as well as rapid growth in production, population control and the magic of the global free market. This doesn't sound like any socialism I'm familiar with, and indeed one idiotic "Jacobin" writer opined: "You CAN actually have infinite growth on a finite world." Uninhabitable earth – here we come!

 

This writer also adds, "our skyscrapers are not separate from nature, they ARE nature." As Bellamy and Clark argue, by this logic, "so are nuclear weapons." Another "Jacobin" contributor supports the astonishingly dangerous geoengineering of injecting "sulfur aerosols into the atmosphere to block the sun's rays." Many scientists have warned that this could be a calamity. Bellamy and Clark also critique carbon capture and sequestration plans, advocated by Christian Parenti in this "Jacobin" issue. The problem is one of scale. Bellamy and Clark quote one energy analyst: "In order to sequester just a fifth of current CO2 emissions, we would have to create an entirely new worldwide absorption-gathering-compression-transportation-storage industry whose annual throughput would have to be about 70 percent larger than the annual volume now handled by the global crude oil industry, whose immense infrastructure of wells, pipelines, compressor stations and storage took generations to build."

 

Ecosocialists have a more straightforward approach. They start by pinpointing the problem – capitalism. Bellamy and Clark argue Marx's ecological bona fides convincingly, by detailing his concern about a "metabolic rift." They quote Marx that capitalism creates an "irrevocable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself." Much of "The Robbery of Nature" debunks leftists who have dismissed Marx's environmentalism; but Marx asserted that capital loots nature as a "free gift." This, the ecosocialists argue, is the problem of capital's relation to the earth: plunder and deadly "externalities," i.e. pollution. According to Bellamy and Clark, Marx "emphasized that capital accumulation, through its rapacious expropriation of nature, inevitably promoted ecological destruction." He also wrote that capital's seizures of common people's property is "written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire."

 

"The Robbery of Nature" also argues that Marx was a proto-feminist and a food theorist. "The unhealthy and even poisonous contents of the Victorian working class diet was thus a key concern of Marx's food analysis." The book also documents Marx's views on alienated speciesism and his horror at capitalist animal abuse; one can only imagine his abhorrence of modern factory farming. But he never lost sight of the human impact of animal abuse: he noted that between 1855 and 1866, "1,032,694 Irishmen [were] displaced by about one million cattle, pigs and sheep."

 

The core of Marx's critique of capitalism is that it undermines "the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker." That is as true today as it was in the nineteenth century. Leftists, like the "Jacobin" writers that Bellamy and Clark cite, who do not argue for halting endless capitalist growth, who swoon over the magic of the global free market, are not socialists. Leftists who blame impoverished people for humanity's carbon footprint and advocate population control, instead of targeting the real carbon criminals, namely the affluent West, they are hardly socialists either. We have seen where endless growth leads: a poisoned atmosphere, an overheated planet and billions reduced to destitution. The ecosocialists argue that capitalism is a death cult. They are correct.

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Capitalism Versus Humanity

"Beyond Crisis"

Edited by John Holloway, Katerina Nasioka, Panagiotis Doulos

PM, 246 pages

$21.95

 

Eve Ottenberg

From today's perspective of Covid-19 mass death, the virtues of left-wing policies like Medicare for All are abundantly clear. Especially at the capitalist core, where, in the U.S., a stripped down, for profit, privatized, price-gouging, neoliberal health-care system has been proven wholly inadequate and been quickly swamped. Tens of millions cannot afford health insurance. They fall sick with Covid-19 and have a choice: suffer and spread the disease or go to a hospital, get treated and go bankrupt. M4A would correct that. In fact, every other plank of the Sanders campaign would correct similar abuses. In a sane world, that would lead to a leftish government to implement M4A, student loan forgiveness, progressive taxation and more. But this is not a sane world. And not all recent leftist governments have covered themselves with glory.

 

Take Greece. If ever there was a political party that betrayed its principles upon obtaining power, left-wing Syriza is that party. Elected on a wave of Greek disgust at EU austerity, Syriza held a referendum on whether Greeks should submit to that. The people resoundingly voted no, even at the risk of being booted out of the EU, whereupon Syriza promptly turned around and ignored the referendum. Not surprisingly, last July, a conservative party beat Syriza at the polls.

 

Was this a stunning instance of treachery by Syriza or was it something else? In the recently published essay collection, "Beyond Crisis," one of the authors, John Holloway, argues it was something else, that for the last 30 years governments have adopted neoliberal policies "not because the leaders are traitors, but because that is the world in which governments are forced to operate." An economy based on debt, deployed to ram austerity down the throats of workers and the middle class – that is contemporary, globalized, financialized and seemingly inescapable capitalism. Left-wing states – Greece, Venezuela, Bolivia – "have been unable (or unwilling) to break the dynamic of capitalist development."

 

According to Theodoros Karyotis' essay, in Greece "a sovereign debt crisis has been used as a pretext for a massive operation of wealth transfer from the popular classes to the local and international capitalist class." Sound familiar? It should. It's life as normal in the U.S., where every time the stock market shudders, political leaders become hysterical and demand that the Fed throw billions down the toilet to rescue the rich. Of course, what is also flushed away is social welfare; tax revenues which could decrease college tuition or subsidize medical care go to ceos, rich corporations and their dividends. As Holloway argues, it's capitalism versus humanity.

 

This was already clear in another sphere: the climate crisis. There, capitalism sentences us to an unlivable planet, so that in the short term, fossil fuel corporations can rake in profits. With Covid-19, as with the climate, capitalism reveals its fundamental anti-human nature. "Capitalism has become our destiny," Holloway writes. "And more and more it seems that this destiny is death…Yet we resist…because resistance is the defense of what we understand as our humanity, as our dignity…Capital flees from us…It may flee geographically in search of a more docile or more malleable labor. It also flees into technology, replacing us with machines." He argues that we are in a stalemate "where capitalism is unable to tame us sufficiently," and we haven't created an alternative. This was written before Covid-19. So it does not account for the chance that capitalism may destroy itself. Its refusal to resuscitate the welfare state, its refusal to forgive debt, may undo it.

 

The 2020 financial crisis could become a depression. If so, we are not in uncharted waters. We know what that looks like. We can refer to the 1930s or glance at the carcass of Greek society after the banks bled it dry and tossed it in the dumpster. Misery for almost everyone. Unimaginable luxury for a very few. Now we have the added disaster of Covid-19. A plague that ravages a population which cannot afford health care. Overwhelmed hospitals where bodies pile up in the corridors. You can be sure there will be no shortage of ventilators for plutocrats. Still, that may not save them.

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Police Torture

"The Torture Letters"

Laurence Ralph

The University of Chicago Press, 242 pages

$19

 

Eve Ottenberg

The Chicago police department has a problem. They say it's fixed, but local African American residents can't be blamed for being skeptical. The problem is torture. And of course the Chicago PD is not one bad apple in the nation's police departments, because when it comes to police brutality, the whole barrel is rotten. Chicago is just an extreme case.

 

"Between 1972 and 1991, approximately 125 African American suspects were tortured by police officers in Chicago," Princeton anthropology professor Laurence Ralph writes in his new book "The Torture Letters." More than 400 cases currently await investigation by the Illinois torture inquiry and relief commission, "which also gets three to five new torture claims each week." From 2004 to 2016, Chicago police paid $662 million in police misconduct settlements. Torture has not been unusual in the Chicago PD and elsewhere, nor is the next level of violence – murder of suspects, of people stopped at traffic lights or just walking down the street. Stop and frisk often means stop and kill

 

For decades, Chicago's Area 2, where officer Jon Burge's seven-member "A-Team" took their suspects, was a notorious torture site. An anonymous police department whistleblower named Burge as a perpetrator in 35 torture cases, Ralph reports. "A total of 67 officers were identified by survivors as having direct knowledge of torture." The torments included beatings, being shackled to a hot radiator, mock suffocations and electrocutions from Burge's infamous black box. Once knowledge of this dreadful little machine seeped out and Burge was defending himself in the courts, he "is rumored to actually have thrown his torture device in Lake Michigan from his boat, named 'Vigilante.'"

 

Another torturer was Richard Zuley, a Chicago police officer from 1977 to 2007, with a sabbatical as an interrogator at Guantanamo. Ralph sums up Zuley's worldview: "Zuley said it did not matter to him whether this man was innocent or guilty. It didn't matter because to Zuley, this was a bad guy." And therein lies the problem: the good guy/bad guy mentality, which pervades all American police departments, the military and – to judge from Trump's repetition of the phrase "bad hombres" – the executive branch of the U.S. government. Ralph argues that morally, no one, no matter what they have done, deserves the cruel and unusual punishment of torture. But many who consider the world riddled with bad guys disagree. That includes Trump and many in the former Bush administration. If torture yields a false confession, so what? The victim is a bad guy, and even if he's punished for something he didn't do, the reasoning goes, he was guilty of something. So instead of serve and protect, the Chicago police hunt and torture.

 

The good guy/bad guy dichotomy is the death of morality and the death of thought. It kills morality by eliminating justice based on an individual's innocence or guilt of a specific crime. It kills thought, as "The Torture Letters" demonstrates, by recounting how police ignore leads and clues to the true perpetrator, because they already plan to ensnare one particular bad guy. Careful, patient, rational police-work goes out the window.

 

It's also a quick step from seeing some people as bad guys to generalizing about groups and thence to racist stereotypes. Once the police regard young African American and Latino men as bad guys – the result of Bloomberg's notorious stop and frisk policy – pretty much anything goes, including framing them for murders they didn't commit, because they're "bad guys," who have committed other crimes anyway.

 

This diseased mentality stigmatizes whole communities. "Just because someone killed two police officers," Ralph writes, "doesn't mean that an entire community should be treated as if all members were murderers." But that's what has happened in Chicago. When a crime occurred, the police could pick whomever they wanted from this stigmatized group, regardless of evidence. The crime became an excuse to brutalize someone, anyone from the pool of those considered bad guys. This attitude goes to the top. When confronted with the lack of proof that Iranian General Qasem Soleimani was planning attacks on Americans – the initial stated cause of assassinating him – Trump waved that away, said it didn't matter, because Soleimani was a bad guy. But one person's bad guy is another's heroic soldier. This way of thinking is a highway to hell.

 

Burge's "A-Team epitomized everything wrong with the Chicago police department: it is racist, it is secretive and…believes that the police department has the right to operate above the law," Ralph writes. These are the same police videotaped "gunning Black Chicagoans down on the street," like Harith Augustus in 2018, Paul O'Neal in 2016 and Laquan MacDonald in 2014. There's not much space between  torture and murder; the two go hand in hand. No wonder African American residents are leaving Chicago in droves. Though one has to wonder – is this what the city's powerful wanted all along?

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Failures of Capitalism

"Beyond Market Dystopia, Socialist Register 2020"

Edited by Leo Panitch and Greg Albo

Monthly Review, 294 pages

 

Eve Ottenberg

To define a workable socialism, it's best first to lay out what's wrong with capitalism. Nancy Fraser's excellent essay in "Beyond Market Dystopia" does just this, and these wrongs are three: injustice, irrationality and unfreedom. Injustice inheres in the exploitation of labor and theft of its surplus value. Irrationality exists in capitalism's built-in economic crises. Unfreedom derives from social inequality and class power and also from tyranny in the work-place.

 

Capitalism, Fraser argues, "is no mere economy…It is an institutionalized social order." The economic conditions on which it depends reveal this. There are four: unwaged social reproductive labor (cooking, cleaning, child and elder care, etc.); wealth expropriated from subjugated peoples (mostly in the Global South); free gifts from non-human nature (arable land, breathable air, potable water, etc.); public goods supplied by states (legal orders guaranteeing property rights, contracts and free exchange, transport and communication etc.). So capitalism takes from these four conditions but scarcely acknowledges them at all, indeed irrationally, compulsively and dangerously undermines them.

 

"Reduced to a tap and a sink, non-human nature is open to brute extractivism," by capitalism, as the terrifying evidence of climate change demonstrates all around us. Capital tends to "erode or destroy or deplete…its own presuppositions – which is to say, to eat its own tail." It does so with all four of the conditions it relies on. "If socialism aims to remedy capitalism's wrongs," Fraser writes, "it faces a very big job," because "socialists need to turn things right-side up: to install the nurturing of people, the safeguarding of nature and democratic self-rule as society's highest priorities, which trump efficiency and growth." Any moderately pessimistic onlooker would doubtless say "good luck."

 

But we have reached a point where moderate pessimism is not acceptable. Capitalism has "so callously trashed" all the conditions it depends on that it endangers humanity's future. If not now for socialism, when? Because in the end, socialism is the only governance that can "deinstitutionalize the growth imperative hard-wired into capitalist society." Capitalist growth is a cancer, one that has metastasized over the face of the earth, even as it robs billions of people of any life beyond mere subsistence.

 

"Beyond Market Dystopia" presents 14 essays organized around this theme of what comes after the destructive cyclone that is capitalism. It contains essays on migrants, socialized housing, precarious work, communism in the suburbs and much more. Editors Leo Panitch and Greg Albo have used their theme to reach into society's various realms and to illuminate the possibilities for a better, socialist future. A certain necessary optimism suffuses the whole. But beneath this, in many of these essays, simmers the very realistic anxiety that capitalism has gone too far.

 

Indeed, "Inside Climate News" recently reported that the oceans have absorbed warming caused by anthropogenic climate change equivalent to the explosion of over a billion Hiroshima-sized bombs. That's just what capitalism has done to earth's oceans. What it has done to the air, earth and nature's creatures is equally horrifying. But, as Barbara Harriss-White's essay quotes Chomsky: "We have two choices: to abandon hope and ensure that the worst will happen, or to make use of the opportunities that exist and contribute to a better world. It is not a very difficult choice."

 

In the world of work, Michelle Chen reports that most labor will be freelance by 2027. "In rich and poor nations alike," she writes, "technological innovation will disrupt the role of the state and the power of the labor movement." The gig economy will only expand. Chen advocates countering it with a global crowd-workers' guild or an app-based collective-bargaining agreement. These would be welcome developments, helping technology, she argues, to become a force against capital's consolidation of power "over the emergent global infrastructure" and against capital's "capture of more of our public sphere."

 

Gig workers, Chen argues are in a "constant state of dislocation [that] breeds constant instability." There have been some legal wins: in New York, uber drivers are now entitled to unemployment benefits and in some countries are recognized as employees. Drivers have led wildcat strikes, and they have rioted. Their fight against capital is a fight for life. They are on the front lines of the twenty-first century's class war, in which the billionaire class arrogantly asserts its privilege: to control the lives and bodies of workers, to wring out every last cent, everywhere, just as it pillages the planet, everywhere.

 

The face of that predatory class is Donald Trump. He and his reactionary Republican backers chant that the U.S. will never be socialist, that that is not in our future. He is wrong. It may only come in bits and pieces, one policy at a time, but without that in our future, we likely won't have one.

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The Way Forward

"Lessons of the Spanish Revolution"

Vernon Richards

PM, 286 pages

$21.95

 

Eve Ottenberg

Long after 1936, when the Spanish voted in a leftist government, many Latin American countries followed suit – Cuba with Castro, Chile with Allende, Brazil with Lula, Venezuela with Chavez and Maduro, Nicaragua with Ortega, Bolivia with Morales and others. Vernon Richards' "Lessons of the Spanish Revolution," reprinted some months back, makes one miserable inference very clear: the only people who've learned the lessons of the Spanish revolution are fascists in places like Bolivia and the U.S. government. Certain basic, obvious steps – like replacing reactionary military officers – are rarely taken. As a result – coups; and leaders like Evo Morales have to run for their lives.

 

One problem, however, has become less pronounced – certain internecine battles on the left. At the time of the Spanish civil war, anarchists and communists were at each other's throats. The Latin American left's divisions get less attention today, perhaps because over the decades it became clear that the enemy, backed by the U.S., is so strong that all leftists are targets for elimination. The counterrevolution has been busy, with one assault after another – most recently, with the attempted overthrow of the Maduro government, the imprisonment of Lula on trumped up charges in Brazil and a right-wing military coup in Bolivia. There's little point in communists murdering anarchists when death squads, like those currently busy in Honduras, fill mass graves anyway with students, peasants and every leftist they can find.

 

"Lessons of the Spanish Revolution" anatomizes divisions on the left, and what emerges is a picture of how truly destructive of the revolution they were. From the anarchist perspective – and this book, originally published in the 1950s, is written from the anarchist perspective – the Spanish civil war led to repeated betrayals; betrayal of the anarchist revolution by the communists and by the anarchist leaders themselves. By the end, according to Richards, the revolutionary press was nothing but "the mouthpiece of the government and the 'revolutionary' chauvinists."

 

This book attempts "to counter the enthusiasm on the left for the Popular Front and its communist partners." For Richards and other anarchists, Stalinist Russia was as deadly as Franco – though in fact, it's easy to see why any leftist who fought in the Spanish civil war might have become a Stalinist. The Spanish republicans received no arms from abroad from any leader except Stalin. No country beside the Soviet Union supplied this desperately needed weaponry. This is not to mute Stalinist crimes. They are multitudinous and well documented. And Richards justly calls out the murders committed by Russian secret police in revolutionary Spain. He argues, correctly, that the leftist government should never have dismantled the workers' militias, but his opposition to any government, while principled – on the grounds that government of necessity kills the fighting spirit of any social movement – could well have led to an even swifter defeat by Franco.

 

The two issues for Richards and his fellow anarchists were the social revolution and the armed struggle against fascism. He argues that "it was Moscow's intention to destroy Revolutionary Catalonia," and devotes many pages to proving this point. Nowadays leftist have no such problems. The Soviet Union ceased to exist thirty years ago, and with it vanished all the support, betrayals and internecine left battles that it generated.

 

So things are simpler now, though without the threat of a communist superpower, fascism  rises again. Leftist Mexican president Lopez Obrador, for instance, need not worry about Russian communists infiltrating his base. But he does have to worry about the U.S. empire fomenting a military coup against him. Reactionary U.S. forces have gone into hyperdrive – promoting regime change all over the world, while fascist wannabe Trump proclaims any available neoliberal imbecile the true president of any socialist country he wants to abolish. Leftists everywhere lack the very real strength of being able to threaten overpowering retaliation. They cannot count on China. Chinese socialism, led by billionaire party members, so far appears reluctant to play the role its Soviet predecessor played. China has been slow to aid besieged Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua or Cuba. As a result, splits between anarchists, syndicalists, communists and socialists matter less than in the past, so even do splits between varieties of feminism. To a certain extent, one can argue that the only thing that matters is whether a person is on the left or not. The enemy is far too strong to waste time on niceties of doctrinal difference. Death squads kill indiscriminately.

 

If Richards were writing today, it is doubtful that he would support any Latin American governments. He might encourage the Zapatistas in Mexico, though it's hard to extrapolate from his book's account of the byzantine, internecine battles of leftists in revolutionary Spain. One thing "Lessons of the Spanish Revolution" clarifies: though the world has changed since then, and radically, for leftists, for fascists it has remained much more static. They still overthrow socialist governments and murder leftists. But leftists are being forced to become less violently concerned with their splits or isms, and more pragmatically concerned with what always should have been the focus: survival. I guess that's progress.

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The Torture Called Solitary

"Solitary"

Albert Woodfox

Grove Press, 433 pages

$26

 

Eve Ottenberg

Few people can survive, unbroken, over four decades of solitary confinement. Albert Woodfox, one of the Angola 3, is such a person. They tried to break him, they tried really, really hard, every minute of every day. Because that's what this form of wickedness called solitary confinement is about – destroying people callously, cruelly, carelessly, just because it can. "For 44 years I defied the state of Louisiana and the Department of Corrections," Woodfox writes in his book, "Solitary." "Their main objective was to break my spirit. They did not break me."

 

This book is about a confrontation with evil. It is about being in the hands of wickedness itself and still, somehow, not succumbing, not submitting to utter powerlessness. Woodfox is a Black Panther, so are the others in the Angola 3, Robert King and Herman Wallace (now deceased). As such they were targets of the prison authorities, who framed them for the murder of a white guard, Brent Miller. They fought the charges in court, gained retrials, suffered horrendous prosecutorial misconduct and constant, depraved retaliation from prison authorities while they were in jail. In a closet-sized cell, twenty-three hours a day, stifling hot in summer, freezing in winter, infested with rodents and vermin, Woodfox held onto his sanity. "Our resistance gave us an identity. Our identity gave us strength. Our strength gave us an unbreakable will. My determination not to be broken was stronger than any other part of me, stronger than anything they did to me."

 

When he first came to Angola before he was a Black Panther, Woodfox survived the constant threat of violence from other prisoners by being known as someone who was ready to fight and wouldn't quit. "I knew my survival depended on my ability to respond violently, if needed. But by some grace, maybe the love of my mother, I hadn't totally lost my humanity. I was always poised to be aggressive, but I knew it wasn't who I was." Later he developed other modes of resistance and other relations with inmates. "I turned my cell into a university. I wrote to them, a hall of debate, a law school. By taking a stand and not backing down, I told them. I believed in humanity, I said. I loved myself." He, King and Wallace helped their fellow inmates by treating them as human beings deserving of respect and dignity. Woodfox writes that his greatest achievement in Angola was teaching another prisoner to read. The Angola 3 made a special issue of prison rape, protecting victims and announcing to potential rapists that they would have to fight Woodfox, King and Wallace.

 

Even after the U.S. government destroyed the Black Panther Party, Woodfox abided by its beliefs. He never forgot the humanity of the Black Panthers he met while in prison in New York City, in the Tombs. He read voraciously – Franz Fannon, George Jackson, Malcolm X, Richard Wright, Karl Marx and more. He concluded that capitalism could not be "fixed" but had to be abolished. He quotes the Zapatistas: "They tried to bury us. They didn't know we were seeds."

 

"By the early eighties, Herman, King and I knew we were forgotten. The Black Panther Party no longer existed," Woodfox writes. Then began long decades of lonely struggle. The warden would not release them from solitary. But, buried alive, they had each other, their beliefs, their work on behalf of other prisoners and the will not to break. Finally, in the 2000s, their situation drew attention. King, eventually released, agitated for Herman and Woodfox. They got a legal team, a support committee and media coverage. When Herman developed liver cancer, James Ridgeway and Katie Rose Quandt published an article in "In These Times," about "one medical horror story after another," in prison medical care. A prisoner with extreme pain in his side in 2010 "was told he had gas. Over the next five years, Ridgeway and Quandt wrote, the prisoner 'developed numbness in his feet, legs and fingertips, lost his appetite and dropped nearly 100 pounds. When he finally received a CT scan in 2015, he was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in his kidneys and lungs." Woodfox reports that Angola "routinely hired doctors with suspended licenses." One medic was "diagnosed with amphetamine, cocaine and cannabis dependence, in addition to adjustment disorder and personality disorder."

 

"Solitary" describes life in hell. Woodfox had several mechanisms for keeping hell at a distance. "If I'd allowed myself to feel an emotional connection to my reality, in that moment I would have gone insane." But he kept fighting for his freedom and finally won it. The state, the prison bureaucracy robbed him of his rights, but they could never touch his dignity, integrity and self-respect.

 

Woodfox's story deserves the widest possible audience. It is heroic. It bears witness against a great evil in the United States – mass incarceration and the widespread torture known as solitary confinement.

 

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The Crime of Progress, the Crime of Caste

"My Seditious Heart"

Arundhati Roy

Haymarket Books, 1000 pages

$29.95

 

Eve Ottenberg

Some of Arundhati Roy's most galvanizing essays describe the ruin of the forest people, whose lands in India were flooded to create huge dams. Over the past fifty years, as many as 56 million people were displaced by Big Dams, many reduced to utter destitution. These ancient villages of "ferrymen, fisher folk, sand quarriers and cultivators of the riverbed" were not compensated for their dispossession. Instead, as Roy writes, "I can warrant that the quality of their accommodation is worse than any concentration camp in the Third Reich…In cities like Delhi, they run the risk of being shot by the police for shitting in public places." She calls the Indian state "a giant poverty producing machine."

 

"When the history of India's miraculous leap to the forefront of the information revolution is written," according to Roy, "let it be said that 56 million Indians (and their children and their children's children) paid for it with everything they ever had." As of the late 1990s, 700 million rural people lived in India. Many of their lands have since been stolen and privatized, what Roy calls "barbaric dispossession on a scale that has no parallel in history." If this sounds familiar, that's because it resembles what the U.S. army and government did to Native Americans during the nineteenth century.

 

India is a country, Roy writes, "where something akin to an undeclared civil war is being waged on its subjects in the name of 'development.'" In essay after essay of her new collection, "My Seditious Heart," she describes how the Indian government dispossesses tribal forest people (Adivasis) and desperately poor Untouchables (Dalits), to gift their lands to mining corporations, hydro-electric corporations and other industries. When these forest people resist, the government declares them Maoists or terrorists and sends in the military. If a tribal person plants a vegetable garden, that's proof he or she is a Maoist. If they fish the rivers – they're Maoists. If they refuse to abandon their huts – they're Maoists. Small wonder that in the end, many of these crushingly poor people react to the banditry called privatization by becoming Maoists.

 

"My Seditious Heart" spans the period from 1994 to 2016, during which India became a magnet for capital investment, underwent an "information revolution," and privatized forests, rivers and mountains, which were previously the people's commons. During this time, the Hindu fanatics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its sister organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) transformed the country from a secular democracy with a socialist constitution into a religious, ethnocentric autocracy espousing fascist doctrines. This transition relied on calculated violence. The RSS's early twentieth century founders admired Hitler, Mussolini and the Nazi drive for ethnic purity. One founder of this Hindu movement, also called Hindutva, said it should take Hitler as a model. And indeed, several decades ago, starting with a call to destroy an ancient mosque, the Babri Masjid, and replace it with a Hindu temple, the BJP began whipping up the population against the minority of 170 million Muslims.

 

This frenzy of anti-Muslim attacks, murder and propaganda culminated in 2002 in a pogrom against Muslims in the state of Gujarat. Two thousand Muslims were butchered by mobs, many disemboweled, women were raped and burned alive, children slaughtered, tens of thousands of Muslims permanently fled their homes, and one prominent Muslim politician, Ehsan Jaffri, who also happened to be a fierce critic of Modi, was dragged from his house by a Hindu mob and dismembered. Modi, the leading government official at the time, was accused of inciting this pogrom. Several of his ministers went to jail for just that. Indeed when Modi became prime minister, he was denied a U.S. visa for these human rights violations. The Indian Supreme Court exonerated Modi, but this is the same court that looked the other way when told that the law required those dispossessed by Big Dams be recompensed. Also, it is a crime in India to criticize the Supreme Court. So, not surprisingly, there was little uproar over its whitewashing of Modi's role. Predictably, after he rose to be prime minister, Modi fomented the anti-Pakistan frenzy and put the entire population of Kashmir – the world's largest occupation – on lockdown. Conditions were already dreadful in Kashmir, with the police murdering "suspected terrorists" at will. Now they are worse.

 

Modi's party promotes the idea of India as a Hindu nation. As such, it has inherited Hindu anxiety that its dreadful caste system – which brutalizes, stigmatizes and humiliates the lowest castes – will so alienate Dalits that they will convert to Christianity, Islam or another religion. Indeed many have. Roy critiques Gandhi's defense of caste, in her excellent essay on his opponent, the Dalit intellectual Ambedkar. The Indian establishment long insisted that caste was an internal Indian matter, but for Ambedkar "there cannot be a more degrading system of social organization than the caste system." Roy reports that Dalits are prohibited from using certain roads, wells and temples, while the occupation of many Dalit women is cleaning shit with their bare, ungloved hands and carrying it away in baskets on their heads. Dalits who "pollute" upper castes with their proximity are beaten, and Dalit women frequently raped. Ambedkar called out Indian communists for their hypocritical failure to attack caste. Indeed, it is scarcely imaginable how any leftist could ignore such injustice.

 

"No Untouchable worth the name will be proud of this land," Ambedkar wrote. Yet upper caste politicians have slyly worked to keep Dalits from leaving the Hindu fold. Indeed Roy reports that the early twentieth century Hindu dilemma was how to recruit people they believe should be treated abominably. "Even today…the BJP has to persuade the majority of the Dalit population to embrace a creed that stigmatizes and humiliates them." Meanwhile Dalits who convert to other religions are still treated abysmally. Dalits who manage to get a university education, often turn sharply left and so become police targets. Not surprisingly, Dalits and Advasis constitute the majority of the millions of people displaced by mines, dams and other major infrastructure projects.

 

Roy reports that Adivasis practice primitive communism. "Today Adivasis are the barricade against the pitiless march of modern capitalism." As such they are a target of its military. "This is a war against people who have barely enough to eat one square meal a day," she writes.

 

Roy concludes her collection with a grim, foreboding picture of modern India under Modi, a country in which the ethnic cleansing of Kashmir looms as a possibility. After all, that would be of a piece with events in India proper: "Our forests are full of soldiers and our universities are full of police."

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The Lies of Capitalism

"The Lie of Global Prosperity"

Seth Donnelly

Monthly Review Press, 119 pages

$21

 

Eve Ottenberg

Neoliberals love to quote the World Bank's rosy statistics about capitalism lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty. Unfortunately, those statistics are skewed and manipulated to the point of outright prevarication, as Seth Donnelly demonstrates in his new book, "The Lie of Global Prosperity." He quotes a breathless World Bank press release, "soon 90 percent of the world's population will live on $1.90 a day or more." No matter that translated into local currency at local prices, in many places that $1.90 per day purchases the equivalent of 30 cents a day or that $1.90 per day means the pauperization of billions – for as Donnelly shows, a truer metric of avoiding desperate poverty is over $5 per day. If that far more honest measure is applied, 80 percent of South Asians and sub-Saharan Africans are, Donnelly explains, horribly impoverished. Even more disturbing, achieving a 70-year life expectancy requires $7.40 a day, something the world's cold and pampered capitalists will certainly not shell out or even allow for the billions of wretchedly poor.

 

Best exemplifying the World Bank's ideologically biased poverty measures – biased to glorify capitalism – is how it uses statistics about China. "The free health care, education and food that people received in Mao's China do not enter into the calculation. As a result, Chinese people, who achieved new levels of food security and saw their life expectancy double in this [Mao's] period were found to be on the whole 'extremely poor'…the Chinese only ceased to be 'extremely poor' once they lost their collective lands, food rations and medical care and began making iphones and other export goods under atrocious conditions."

 

When there are too many destitute people to conceal, neoliberal UN organizations and the World Bank simply erase them. "The World Bank statistically elevated by more than 100 percent the dollar incomes of Haitians, thereby artificially reducing poverty" in 2016, Donnelly writes. He then points to the 836 million Indians who live on fifty cents a day, in conditions that are "utterly deplorable." But creative statistics disappear poverty by underestimating food costs for the poor.  These costs soar higher in poor countries than rich ones due to neoliberal trade pacts that harm Third World agriculture. Donnelly attributes food price gouging in the Third World to agribusiness' death grip on the world food system.

 

That the World Bank, UN groups and magazines like the "Economist" fabricate statistics to lie about poverty should surprise no one. After all, as Donnelly reports, the World Bank assumes that economic growth automatically reduces poverty. But we can put that myth to rest, given that the majority of all people live on about $3 a day, according to a Pew expert Connelly cites. Globally, 4.3 billion or 60 percent of humankind lives below $5 per day. Donnelly quotes a Pew report that 71 percent of the world population is low income, "with most living in severe poverty." Capitalism has deracinated and dispossessed hundreds of millions, if not billions of the rural poor, and packed them like sardines into shanty-towns in cities in the Global South, as Mike Davis documented in his indispensible work, "Planet of Slums." As many on the left have observed, for most people on earth, capitalism has been an unmitigated disaster.

 

Most deceptive, indeed devious, is the neoliberal claim of an ascendant middle class.  The Pew report defines this as living on between $10 and $20 per day. From 2001 to 2011, this middle income population doubled to 783 million, a fact much ballyhooed by capitalism's boosters. But "this was only half the increase…of those living between $2 and$10 per day. By 2011, the global middle class represented only 13 percent of the world population." Most of this increase occurred in China, very, very little in India, Africa, Southeast Asia or Central America. Donnelly also argues that the term "middle class" misleads. Living on $10 to $20 per day is "more like living on anywhere between $3 and $7, converted to local currencies [and paying local food prices]. This is far below the U.S. poverty line of $15.77 per person per day." So basically much of the world's so-called middle class is actually poor.

 

Donnelly invokes Via Campesina, which organizes peasant farmers, the Haitian political group Fanmi Lavalas associated with the heroic liberation theologian Jean Bertrand Aristide – twice elected president in Haiti and twice overthrown in U.S.-backed coups – the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil, Black Lives matter and the Standing Rock Sioux resistance, as correct responses to capitalism's crimes. Donnelly knows quite well that the systematic global plunder called capitalism "cannot be tamed to make it either sustainable or humanely acceptable." More movements are needed, especially now that in addition to pauperizing billions through obscene inequality, unchecked fossil capitalism, big money industrial agriculture, a planet-heating, meat-based diet and the wildly destructive, incessant pouring of concrete threaten the habitability of earth. Capitalism causes ecocide, and endless growth is cancer, as is already visible with extreme weather and melting polar ice caps. Anti-capitalists must illuminate the link between destitution and a poisoned world and must refute the lie that over-population is why our world is dying. The citizens of Bangladesh, drowning in climate-altered floods, have a miniscule carbon footprint compared, say, to the U.S. military. We live in the Capitalocene, not the Anthropocene. Blame where blame is due.

 

And we better dismantle capitalism, before it dismantles us.

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Race Riot

"1919"

Eve Ewing

Haymarket books, 76 pages

$16

 

Eve Ottenberg

Race riots go way back in the United States. One of the worst occurred in Chicago in 1919; it killed 23 blacks, 15 whites, injured 537, and its arson left 1,000 homeless. As Eve Ewing writes in her new poetry collection, "1919," the melee was in part a reaction to the Great Migration. Her first poem presents the train's perspective on the migrants it brings up from the South: "…the lash lives in their shoulders/…I can never take you home. You have none./And so you go, out into the wind."

 

Into the wind indeed. The migrants landed in one Windy City neighborhood, the South Side, also known as the Black Belt. They were not welcome elsewhere in Chicago, which remains to this day a pretty thoroughly segregated town. During the 1919 Red Summer, so-called for its many race riots throughout the U.S., the heatwave pushed Chicagoans to lakeside beaches, where, according to an official, 1922 governor's report, compiled by six white and six black men, the spark lit the riot: "There was a clash of white people and Negroes at a bathing beach in Chicago, which resulted in the drowning of a Negro boy." Later, as Ewing quotes, "no arrest was made. The tragedy was sensed by the battling crowd, and, awed by it, they gathered on the beach. For an hour both whites and Negroes dived for the boy without results." Gunfire ensued.

 

Ewing prefaces each poem with a quote from the report. One, at the end, lists solutions dismissed for the race difficulties, including "the dying out of the Negro race." Though not considered workable, it was apparently still contemplated. Integration was not. This is not surprising given the virulent race hatred of Chicago's large Irish population, which, unimpressed by Slavic immigrants' violence against African Americans, resorted to tricks and subterfuges to provoke the East Europeans to join in their hooliganism.

 

Not only immigrants raged against African Americans. The city's elite did too. Ewing quotes the report about blacks "invading" the district, and how this was regarded as the worst catastrophe to strike Chicago since the Great Fire. A prominent white real estate man said: "Property owners should be notified to stand together block by block and prevent such invasion." Yet still the migrants came, determined to escape the persecution and lynchings of the South.

 

With the 1919 civil disturbance, any faint mask of racial harmony came off. "As darkness came on, white gangsters became active," Ewing quotes the report. "Negroes in white districts suffered severely at their hands. From 9 p.m. to 3 a.m., twenty-seven Negroes were beaten, seven were stabbed and four were shot." Chicago whites had no intention of tolerating black rage at the drowning of a child. With violence on both sides, black people got the worst of it, even though they defended themselves. Everybody had guns. In a precursor to modern drive-by shootings, whites drove their cars through the South Side, armed with rifles and revolvers, firing as they went. Residents shot back from behind barricades.

 

Ewing argues that the riot cemented fear and mistrust for a solid century. Certainly the segregation has endured almost that long. In her previous book, "Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago's South Side," she documents how white realtors and banks first penned African Americans into the Black Belt; this was later compounded by mid-twentieth century construction of public housing on the South Side. Not until well after much public housing was demolished, with the arrival of a brash neoliberal mayor, Rahm Emmanuel, did a new form of discrimination emerge: gentrification. The city's real estate community began evicting African Americans from their neighborhoods, especially those conveniently located close to the downtown Loop, and therefore so appealing to wealthy hipsters and young professionals. One strategy has been closing schools, because clearly parents can't live in a neighborhood without schools. Starving a district of such services resembles economic sanctions, a form of violence against a black community, which began in 1919. As Ewing writes of this brutality, "…we live in a time of sightseers/standing on the bridge of history/ watching the water go by/ and there are bodies in the water."

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