February 3, 2019
“The Day Coyote Danced”
Borderland North Publishing, 392 pages
Dystopian novels are in vogue for obvious reasons – the coming ravages of climate change, the grotesque inequality of late-stage, neoliberal capitalism, the intrusions of the security state, the corporate stranglehold on government and so forth. Dystopian suspense novels are rarer, but their adrenalin-infused image of a broken future can be hard to shake. This happens with Peter Reynold’s recently published “The Day Coyote Danced.” Portraying a silent coup in the U.S. by an evangelical mega-church in league with a massive private security corporation, the novel is creepily plausible.
“The Day Coyote Danced” weaves together the disappearance of a female firefighter during a wildfire in California wine country, the aim of the premiere U.S. televangelist to proclaim her rapture, the skullduggery of a surveillance corporation, which has replaced the DEA and the FBI, a journey to a black site rendition center in Matamoros, Mexico and the clandestine campaigns against this tyranny by left-wing journalists and activists, protected by armed bodyguards. For the most part, these leftist fighters have migrated out of the fascist homeland. So, much of the novel takes place in Mexico.
In this fascist future, the most popular television show is “America’s Worst Traitor,” which “demonizes critics of the regime.” “One World News” (Fox on steroids) monopolizes the airwaves and blacks out anything bothersome to the despots. Publishers require “public libraries to charge a reading fee and to keep accurate records of who read what, so books no longer circulated;” mercenaries control law enforcement with access to every citizen’s “photographs, DNA profile, fingerprints, voice print, driving record, employment records, medical records, tax returns, credit rating, insurance policies, e-mails, phone bills, web page visits, retail purchases, online friends, family members, business associates, and a list of all trips” outside the country. Internal refugees, their digital identity revoked, wander the country. Without credit cards, they cannot conduct legitimate commercial transactions, since cash is illegal. A black market in yuan thrives. Volunteer spies opposed to the regime track prisoners in the American gulag, while an underground railroad moves the digitally disposed out of the country. Meanwhile the dictators develop a memory suppression drug and a fertility program to breed a master race. They also work on something sinister called predictive criminality and draw up lists of dissidents to be assassinated. One coup leader is succinctly described: “His pleasant, business-like demeanor belied his role as the Goebbels of global capitalism.”
The point here is the scarcely noticed moment when late-stage surveillance capitalism shades into outright fascism. Many think we are living that moment now. For them this novel is about what could come after. We already have what columnist Chris Hedges has called Christian fascism and obscenely wealthy global corporations interlocked with a surveillance state. For leftists the prospects are grim. Not nearly enough people are in revolt. Even if they were and believed the revolutionary slogan – a people united cannot be defeated – this book’s argument is apparently that even united, a people can be defeated, unless they are armed.
“The Day Coyote Danced” is also about religion. True religion versus televangelism. God versus Mammon. The humble versus the arrogant. The divine feminine versus the soulless adversary. I would have liked to see mention of the opposition between liberation theology and corporate evangelical fascism; how liberation theology from the 1950s to the present has advocated the gospel of the early Christian church, how its priests were murdered in 1960s Latin America by death squads and their views on class struggle denounced by the church hierarchy, how, under Pope Francis, this friction has decreased. While Reynolds’ novel does not address liberation theology’s advocacy for the wretched of the earth, that radical advocacy remains one very logical answer to the antithesis he portrays between televangelism for profit and ministering to the poor. It is also a principled rebuke to corporate fascism.
January 15, 2019
“The Long Honduran Night”
Haymarket, 336 pages
One sure way to add Nicaraguan migrants to the so-called caravans coming to the U.S. is to implement Trump administration plans to topple Nicaragua’s elected leftist government. Currently few if any Nicaraguans migrate here. They are satisfied with their Sandinista government, with the economic security it provides and the absence of gangs and death squads. But the Trump administration wants to sweep all that away. Its model, apparently, is Honduras, which has suffered in a fascist, neoliberal petri dish, since the 2009 U.S.-approved coup.
The coup’s neoliberal policies, backed by U.S.-directed financial entities like the IMF, impoverished Hondurans, while elite corruption robbed the government and spread economic ruin. In her new book, “The Long Honduran Night,” Dana Frank shows how the U.S. abetted the Honduran kleptocracy, which started right off the bat with the junta raiding $200 million from the teachers’ pension fund. Frank documents the assassinations, rapes and tortures perpetrated by death squads and security forces – trained by the American military – and how drug traffickers and gangs swarmed through the police. Honduras became a murder capital of the world and close to a failed state.
How did it happen? In 2009, the Honduran military grabbed the moderately liberal president, Manuel Zelaya and put him, in his pajamas, on a plane out of the country. The Organization of American States protested, as did other international bodies. But Obama’s state department, under Clinton, carefully never called this power grab a coup – because such a designation would have triggered a suspension of aid. The conclusion is unavoidable: the Obama administration supported the coup. As Frank writes of later developments, “a pattern emerged: The United States would bow to pressure and up its public commitment to human rights. But it would simultaneously solidify its commitment to Honduran security forces and those who controlled them.” Those security forces and their allies prosecuted a campaign of assassinations, terror, rape and torture against protesters and the opposition.
After some years of this official banditry, what the U.S. calls a president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, but what the rest of the world recognizes as a dictator, appeared on the scene. After his first term, Hernandez illegally changed the constitution by fiat to end term limits, and then stole the 2017 election. The Trump administration, following in the Obama government’s footsteps, hastened to endorse him. Indeed the chief regional U.S. military man under Obama, John Kelly, head of the U.S. Southern Command, had already exerted a very malign influence, supporting Hernandez and his murderous security forces. Kelly, who became Trump’s chief of staff, referred to Hernandez as “a friend.” Think about that. Hernandez, the man who completed the illegal 2009 coup’s destruction of the rule of law, whose wretched policies sent tens of thousands of undocumented Honduran minors fleeing to the United States, that man could count on John Kelly’s friendship and support. Let us hope Kelly has not bequeathed us other such friends in Nicaragua, or his policies will finally achieve what local Central American oligarch’s appear to love – total chaos, in which they can rob the government blind, while assassinating protesters and the opposition with impunity.
U.S. policy toward Honduras since 2009 exemplifies what not to do, and Kelly’s military direction was the exact opposite of what was needed – especially for a president, like Trump, who has prioritized stemming the so-called tsunami of migrants. By helping to make Honduras uninhabitable for so many citizens – by, for instance, supporting a police infested with drug traffickers and gangs – the U.S. has guaranteed that Hondurans will flee here. Instead of money for murderous Honduran security forces, which Trump approved, there should be money for development and a return to the rule of law, which he zeroed out.
Honduran security forces’ most famous victim is indigenous activist Berta Caceres. But others abound. Frank’s book is filled with the names of those assassinated by the police, gangs and drug traffickers, who “took over a broad swath of daily life in Honduras in part because the elites who ran the government permitted and even profited from it.” U.S. tax dollars support those elites, whose criminality caused so many deaths: Fausto Flores Valle, a radio host, killed with eighteen machete blows, Maria Santos Dominguez, an indigenous activist attacked with machetes, rocks and sticks, her son also, a 13-year-old girl, her ten-year-old sister, her seven-year-old brother and their eighteen-month-old brother killed by machete, activist Tomas Garcia, shot and killed by the armed forces, Ebed Yanes, gunned down and killed by security forces. These are just a very few of the numerous U.S.-supported coup’s victims.
The United States has blood on its hands in Honduras. All indications from the Trump administration suggest it is preparing to cause the same mess of murder, terror, torture, assassination, rape and the robbery also known as neoliberalism in Nicaragua. If so, Trump will be responsible for the next wave of migrants – from Nicaragua.
December 10, 2018
“Fighting Fascism, How to Struggle and How to Win”
Haymarket, 131 pages
With the term fascism much in the news since Trump’s election, those concerned about it might want to consult the pros. They include Clara Zetkin, whose “Fighting Fascism,” originally published in 1923, was recently reprinted and Leon Trotsky’s “Fascism, What It Is and How to Fight It,” still, fortunately, in print. For both authors, a key feature of fascism is terror, violence on a massive scale against ordinary working people. By that standard, what we have seen so far in Trump’s America is not fascism. This doesn’t mean it’s good; in fact, what we see and what started long before Trump, which his racism and xenophobia amplify, is a kind of proto-fascism, because neoliberalism shades easily and imperceptibly into fascism. It does so through its savage assault on ordinary people’s living standards; by abolishing rent control (cited by Zetkin), by privatizing public enterprises (Zetkin also cites this), by slashing the social safety net, cutting food stamps, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, by suppressing wages and undermining unions. Indeed, with regard to these neoliberal economic policies, Mussolini said it all: fascists “are liberals in the classic meaning of the word.”
Fighting fascism is something it would seem everyone is able to agree on. After all, 75 years ago, half the world was anti-fascist, because half the world was fighting fascism; Americans and Soviets allied against it. So it’s always a bit of a surprise to hear the term anti-fascist disparaged on a major news network like, say, Fox. If Fox is against anti-fascism, it’s not unreasonable to assume it favors fascism. Even if this is not yet explicit, it soon could be. Which is all the more reason to consult original anti-fascists like Zetkin and Trotsky: “The historic function of fascism,” Trotsky wrote, “is to smash the working class, destroy its organizations and stifle political liberties, when the capitalists find themselves unable to govern and dominate with the help of democratic machinery.” According to Zetkin, fascism has two essential features, “a sham revolutionary program…and the use of brutal and violent terror.” In Italy, she writes, “fascism found its breeding ground in the disintegration and weakness of the economy.” Indeed, Mussolini’s assault on revolutionary workers’ organizations has some parallels to today’s corporate attacks on unions and to Trump-inspired, right-wing hysteria over migrant workers.
For Zetkin, fascism opportunistically seizes power, when socialists fail to take advantage of a revolutionary situation. She blames reformists, who weaken left-wing militancy and open the way for a government that thinks “better the fascists than the socialists.” This reformist failure was evident in the 1920s and ‘30s and was certainly evident during the 2008 economic collapse. Bailing out financial criminals, Obama squandered his political capital with working people, who voted in a Republican congress in 2010, and then defected to Trump in 2016. Many working people just did not want another Wall-Street Democrat in power. When Clinton rigged the campaign through the Democratic National Committee against Sanders, she may well have handed Trump the presidency.
Zetkin lists Italian fascism’s failures to fulfill its promises, and the list brings to mind Trump’s faux populism, though it is far more detailed than Trump’s pledges. Despite promises, Italian fascism did not provide proportional representation, women did not get the vote, an economic parliament was not created, no national assembly was summoned to reform the constitution, there were no protections for the eight-hour day and the minimum wage, no insurance for the elderly and invalids, no funds for the unemployed, no demands that workers participate in factory leadership, no progressive tax on capital, no military reform, and religion returned to the schools. Today’s Republican party would applaud many of these betrayals, considering them sound policy.
Zetkin argues that fascism uses “either ‘democracy’ or a dictator,” provides the troops for the corporate capitalist assault on working people and “consists everywhere of an amalgam of brutal terrorist violence together with deceptive revolutionary phraseology.” She would not have been surprised at how Trump deployed populism in the 2016 election, nor at the subsequent fascist violence in Charlottesville, nor at the anti-Semitic slaughter in Pittsburgh. These are symptoms of the disease in its earliest stage. We’ve passed the window for a vaccine, and lukewarm Democratic polices will not provide a cure. The infection is present. It remains to be seen whether it can be controlled.
November 15, 2018
"Can the Working Class Change the World?"
Michael D. Yates
Monthly Review Press, 216 pages
If the working class doesn’t save our vastly unequal and dying world, it’s difficult to see who will. Certainly not the billionaire class, which has the money to put the brakes on climate change by investing in renewables but has not yet seemed inclined to do so. They don’t seem particularly interested in eliminating inequality either. As for the better-off middle classes, they “are more likely to support fascism than profound social change,” according to Michael Yates in his new book, "Can the Working Class Change the World?" So that leaves the working class. Yates explains how workers can do this, but it’s not, he says, really a matter of can they, but rather that workers MUST change the world and quickly, before it’s too late – before climate change renders the earth inhospitable to humanity.
Yates is correct about the failures of capitalism – for billions of people it’s a calamity. “After several hundred years [of capitalism], there are still several billion people existing on the brink of economic ruin. Work is still hell for all but a few.” Yet many struggle to imagine a non-capitalist world, even though, as recently as 1980, “more than a quarter of the world lived in countries that had broken out of the capitalist global market.” In China and the USSR, “production was not predicated on profit, employment was guaranteed, and much of consumption by workers and peasants had been socialized, that is, provided without payment by individuals.” These countries’ citizens also enjoyed free medical care and free education. But the fall of the Soviet Union and the rush to state capitalism in China have been a disaster for workers worldwide. The two communist behemoths kept capitalism somewhat in line; once gone, corporations the world over renewed their assault on ordinary peoples’ living standards by dismantling social democracy. Now, in many places, capitalism is headed farther than mere neoliberal austerity – to the next step, fascism.
Given that recently the world’s 3.5 billion workers have lost power, how to reverse this trend? The first step, Yates argues, is to find an ally. And there is one ready at hand – the world’s three billion peasants. Clearly these two groups constitute most of earth’s population. The problem is that both are so busy eeking out a living, just surviving hyper-capitalism, that few have time or energy to terminate capitalist hegemony. Nonetheless, Yates has many suggestions. Paramount among them is radical education, provided by labor unions and peasant organizations. He quotes Peter Linebaugh: “Communal values must be taught, and renewed, continuously.” Also capitalism’s nature – exploitation and expropriation – must be explained and can be: “peasants have been taught the rudiments of the three volumes of Karl Marx’s magnum opus, Capital.”
This book also critiques that bane of the campesino, capitalist agriculture. Yates quotes Ian Angus: “It now takes more energy to produce food than we obtain from eating it: every calorie of food energy requires ten calories of fossil energy.” Clearly industrial agriculture, relying on fossil fuels and billions of pounds of pesticides, promotes ecocide. Much of that industrial agriculture goes to feed the billions of farm animals that provide meat and dairy. So our diet must change too. Meanwhile, capitalist distribution of agriculture is wildly inefficient: 850 million to two billion people go hungry, Yates reports. He praises Cuba, whose agriculture has transitioned off fossil fuels and mechanization.
Yates also advocates democratizing labor unions, so that members run the unions and “abandon labor-management cooperation schemes.” This, he argues, will require getting “rid of the leadership.” His best model here is the United Electrical Workers. Yates also promotes union-like groups, or worker centers, like those in New York and Florida, and also the labor-community coalition in Richmond California, the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), which has fought “for rent control, pollution abatement at the large Chevron oil refinery, against police brutality…against the harassment of immigrants by ICE,” and more. Neither the RPA nor its office seekers take corporate money, Yates reports. “It is also independent of the Democratic Party.” With similar organizations in other places, Yates writes, “they could coalesce into regional and national political bodies.” He also suggests other tactics for the worker/peasant alliance, including ways to fight structural racism and patriarchy to advance workers’ aims.
Can the working class change the world? Yes, Yates answers, if it pursues these goals: a sustainable environment; a planned economy; “socialization of as much consumption as possible, especially transportation and childcare;” worker-community control of workplaces; public ownership of social institutions like schools and media; a radically egalitarian society; opposition to the rule of the many by the few.
While Yates is correct that “only radical thinking and acting have any chance of staving off…barbarism,” getting billions of people to act radically is a tall order. Everywhere, across the globe, barbarism advances. Only the combined efforts of workers and peasants could stop this, but the sleeping giant has yet to awake. The sobering truth is that if that slumber continues, we and the fragile biosphere that supports life could all die in our sleep.
October 18, 2018
“The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism”
Monthly Review Press, 256 pages
The world is awash in the blood of innocents. Nothing makes this clearer than Gerald Horne’s recently published “The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism,” which puts the genocide of indigenous Americans at about 90 percent of their population’s total. The book also estimates that from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries nearly 13 million Africans and five million indigenous Americans were enslaved by Europeans in the new world, a predicament that proved fatal for many of them. He refers to “the three Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Slavery, white supremacy and capitalism,” while throughout this volume, he relates the construction of a new racial identity, whiteness, and white identity politics.
Horne emphasizes the hypocrisy of a slaver merchant class that cloaked its interests in bombast about liberty. In the seventeenth century, London “merchants unleashed a steady fire of propaganda, portraying their unhindered entry into the slave trade as a matter of the nation’s life and death.” Cromwell’s merchant supporters won the propaganda war, as they muscled their way into the slave trade. “This blatant power and money grab by merchants was then dressed in the finery of liberty and freedom, as the bourgeois revolution was conceived in a crass and crude act of staggering hypocrisy, which nevertheless bamboozled generations to follow, including those who styled themselves as radical.” Horne also levels this criticism at the American Revolution of 1776.
The slavers did not always have an easy time of it. “Between 1673 and 1694 Jamaica experienced at least six major slave revolts of the enslaved, followed by eruptions in 1702 and 1704.” Slaves often employed arson against their oppressors and rebelled on their transport ships, too. In the mid-seventeenth century, more than 300 slave revolts occurred on Dutch ships. Also, Horne tells how Africans and indigenous Americans cleverly played different European powers against each other and joined with indentured Europeans in uprisings. But as “whiteness” was constructed as the new and paramount racial category, these tactics foundered, according to Horne. Early on, religious bigotry divided Europeans, Horne writes, but by the close of the seventeenth century, race determined everything.
Once established, a racially-based caste system was difficult to overthrow. Though the United States eventually abolished slavery, the world’s north-south color line today matches the one between the haves and the have nots. To the extent that color-caste has gone global, the slave trade – which, Horne writes, ransacked the healthy adult population of parts of Africa, thus crippling large swathes of that continent – is largely to blame. Hence Horne’s call for reparations at the end of his book.
This call is reasonable. Germany pays reparations to Jews whose lives were destroyed by the holocaust. Surely a multi-trillion dollar economy, that of the U.S. and European Union combined, can do the same. Unfortunately, under the current Washington regime, such a move seems unlikely. White supremacy has surged lately in the U.S., legitimized by a president who regards open racists as “fine people.”
One point that cannot be stressed enough is the symbiosis of capitalism and slavery. The southern United States was built on unpaid labor. Slavery was big business for merchants and the bandits who engaged in the slave trade stooped to any trick, promoted any lie, to increase their profits. Things haven’t changed all that much. Take the climate catastrophe today. As the planet burns from global warming and as freak weather events kill thousands, stupendously wealthy fossil fuel corporations pump out lies about their product having no role in the current ecocide. Their propaganda dominates U.S. media and government, making sane, civilized, scientifically informed discourse nearly impossible. Thus it was in the seventeenth century with slavery.
What slavery illustrated with painful clarity was that capitalism is about profit and regards the workers who create that profit as disposable. That has not changed; for proof just look at the sweatshops in India, Bangladesh, Vietnam and elsewhere today. With its tyrannical structure, the capitalist corporation ensures that the people it exploits have no say.
At his book's end, Horne mentions the Haitian Revolution’s challenge to the slave system and thus white supremacy. Later, across the ocean, the Bolshevik Revolution eroded “the capitalist world’s maniacal obsession with ‘race’” by replacing it with the concept of class. Moscow’s threat, Horne writes, engendered Western entente with China, and thence we reach today’s juncture, with communist-led China surpassing the United States economically. “This represents a crisis for all aspects of the hydra-headed monster that arose in the seventeenth century – white supremacy and capitalism not least.” As this comes about, Washington will resist. But the tide has turned: the current flows now toward a multi-polar world, not one dominated by a single, capitalist superpower. And the economic leaders in that world may very likely not be white.
September 23, 2018
“Not Enough, Human Rights in an Unequal World”
Harvard University Press, 277 pages
The human rights movement has been criticized from the left in recent years, charged with abetting the grotesque results of neoliberal market capitalism, namely, runaway inequality. A new book by Samuel Moyn, “Not Enough, Human Rights in an Unequal World,” clears the movement of this specific charge, but observes that “the critical reason that human rights have been a powerless companion of market fundamentalism is that they simply have nothing to say about material inequality.” Nor does he let go of a central fact in this debate, that is, “the coexistence of the human rights phenomenon with the death of socialism.” There are no innocent bystanders. By ignoring inequality and keeping public focus on other issues, human rights activists have made a dreadful mistake; though not to blame for the rise of right-wing authoritarian – some would say neo-fascist – governments throughout the First World, they have stayed silent on a condition fueling it, fury over inequality.
Of course people have the right not to be tortured, but we are in a sorry state if this is our baseline for social decency. In their defense, Moyn notes that human rights activists have pushed for a social minimum – a right not to starve, a right to existence – but even this is not enough. Moyn advocates a ceiling on wealth and to illustrate his view, begins his book’s conclusion: “Imagine that one man owned everything. Call him Croesus…” Imagine that Croesus is not a monster: Moyn says Croesus cannot stand torture and believes everyone has a right to subsistence. This, of course, is where we are headed in a world where a handful of people own as much wealth as billions of impoverished others. Indeed, in our world, it is questionable whether our handful of Croesuses really do care about torture and abuse. Certainly the bigwigs at Apple do not seem particularly concerned about the thousands of workers at the huge Foxconn center in Shenzhen, China, who put in 17-hour days doing extremely complex, repetitive fine motor tasks, so that they when they try to sleep in their dormitories they cannot stop shaking, while suicides have swept the workforce. Nor do the heirs to the Gap clothing fortune seem particularly concerned about ten-year-old children who have labored in their sweatshops in India, in what author Gerald Coles has called conditions close to slavery, even as the Gap fortune funds corporate U.S. educational darling, charter schools, at the expense of public education.
We may already inhabit Croesus’s world, without the hypothetical benevolence. As Moyn observes, “some national settings have been trending toward absolute inequality.” And it is a problem that “nothing in the scheme of human rights rules out Croesus’s world.” But there does exist a long history of people – and Moyn details that history – who did wish to rule out Croesus’s world. Those people were, and are, called socialists. They have a tradition of fighting inequality, and they used the welfare state in the west to do so, while in the east they used the communist state. Because of abuses associated with those communist states, the term “socialism” fell into a disrepute, from which it has only recently begun to emerge. But make no mistake – if the Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyns or Andres Manuel Lopez Obradors of the world are too successful, market fundamentalist ideologues will not hesitate to tar them with the mid-twentieth century sins of communism.
Red scare tactics may not, however, work yet another time around. The world has gotten a good, long look at the ugliness of neoliberal austerity. Many U.S. millennials regard capitalism negatively. Given that so many of them graduated college bankrupted by debt, this is not surprising. Given that so many of them are underemployed or can only find work in service jobs, despite their B.A.s and despite official propaganda about the supposedly wonderful job market, it is not surprising that they esteem socialism. Moyn observes that human rights advocates may soon have no choice but to address inequality. Indeed the discontent over economic inequality that put Trump in the white house and other near-fascists in power in Europe has already caused human rights abuses – the separation of young children from their parents by ICE at the Mexican border and the drowning of refugees in the Mediterranean en route to abysmal refugee camps in Europe, for starters. More abuses may be coming. Who should human rights activists team up with? Like it or not, the answer is socialists.
August 22, 2018
“Kropotkin, the Politics of Community”
PM Press, 314 pages
Anarchists have a bad reputation. Historically they are associated with terrorism, bomb-throwing, assassinations and the wild utopianism of a life without government, in chaos. Admittedly, over the course of centuries, some anarchists have fit this description. More recently, the word “anarchist” conjures images of the black bloc – black-clad rioters in balaclavas, smashing windows, car windshields and pitching rocks at police. In short, to many, anarchism means lunatic violence. But like most stereotypes, the anarchist one is misleading; applied to Proudhon, Bakunin or Kropotkin – three notable anarchist thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – these stereotypes are simply piffle, as a new book by Brian Morris, “Kropotkin, the Politics of Community,” amply demonstrates.
Right from the start, Morris is at pains to distinguish between anarchist communists and socialists. But distinctions between founding a federation of autonomous communities or a workers’ state seem remote and secondary in these dark, reactionary times, in which an evil, thieving, global capitalist empire rules the world and through its environmental rape threatens the future of life on earth. What Kropotkin would call an empire of brigands has seized planetary control. In his day, at the time of the 1871 Paris Commune, there was hope. Now we have despair. But despair can be put to good use; with lucidity about where this global, fossil-fuel capitalism leads – to the grave – despair can invigorate the struggle for any socialist alternative.
At the turn of the twentieth century, people like Kropotkin, Lenin and Trotsky had good reason to believe that capitalism was dying and would soon be replaced by a more humane socialism. That belief led to a successful workers’ revolution in Russia, the first ever in human history. Others followed. Before the Russian revolution was betrayed by Stalin, people could hope for progress, that rapacious, thieving capitalism would yield to social ownership of social goods, that history was not merely the repetitive struggle, reenacted in each generation, between decency and solidarity on the one hand and the arrogant dominion of a minority of kleptocrats on the other. That hope is gone for now. There is nothing left at the moment but struggle.
If Kropotkin could see us now, he would doubtless advise us to promote trade unions, worker cooperatives, environmental activist groups and, especially in the global south, to aid the equitable distribution of land to poor farmers. He would have more suggestions than that, because he had learned from history. “The clan, the village community, the guild, the free medieval city,” Morris writes, “were all institutions, Kropotkin argues, by means of which the common people resisted the encroachments of brigands, conquerors and other power-seeking minorities.”
Kropotkin argued that mutual aid and altruistic sociability inhered in mammalian biology – in contrast to those who argued that what drove early humanity was a Hobbesian war of all against all. As Morris recounts, Kropotkin published articles on mutual aid to counter “struggle for existence” and “survival of the fittest” dogma. Hence Kropotkin’s “vision of a new society that is based on mutual support and voluntary cooperation, not on coercive authority, hierarchy and exploitation.” But how to bring such a society about? Kropotkin considered anarchist bombings futile: “a structure based on centuries of history cannot be destroyed by a few kilos of explosives.” According to Morris, “like the Marxists, Kropotkin always repudiated terrorism as a political strategy.” Though he argued for a massive social uprising to overthrow capitalism and the representative government that served it, and that, he insisted, always served it, he criticized the Russian revolution, mainly because of the Bolshevik role.
In 1919, Morris writes, Kropotkin, old and frail, met with Lenin, then at the height of his power. Kropotkin had returned to his country, Russia, the land of socialist revolution, and by meeting with Lenin, presumably hoped to influence the revolution’s course. Lenin did not take him seriously, Morris reports. Lenin, with his idea of the socialist state, must have regarded Kropotkin’s vision of a stateless federation of communes, cooperatives and mutual aid societies as quaint. Unfortunately, by the end of the next decade, the workers’ state had been hijacked, and in 1991, its remnants finally frayed to nothing. So maybe it’s time to dust off these anarchist writings that blend individualism and communism and reconsider what Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin had to say.
July 30, 2018
“Devil’s Mile, The Rich, Gritty History of the Bowery”
Alice Sparberg Alexiou
St. Martin’s Press, 290 pages
For much of the twentieth century, the Bowery meant destitution. It was where hobos slept in flophouses, where the homeless dozed on sidewalks, where vagabonds flocked to saloons and immigrants crowded in tenements. Nowadays the destitute don’t even have the Bowery. Where once they shared dormitories with bedbugs for 25 cents a night, now instead loom swanky high-rises. Manhattan, remade in the era of mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, erased its poor, while promoting the interests of real estate moguls like Donald Trump. Who knows where the vagrants went – the outer boroughs, other cities, rusting inner suburbs, a few can doubtless still be spotted drifting like ghosts around their fast-disappearing old haunts. But they won’t be there long. According to Alice Sparberg Alexiou’s “Devil’s Mile, the Rich, Gritty History of the Bowery,” the thoroughfare has been remade in typical New York style: developers get rich, as they sweep inconvenient locals away.
Over forty years ago, when the real estate boom first picked up steam, New York landlords targeted middle class and poor families in rent-controlled and rent-stabilized apartments. The idea then was to drive them out, renovate the property and make millions, selling it as co-ops. Throughout the eighties and nineties, this pattern repeated in almost every Manhattan neighborhood. Why should the Bowery have remained untouched? Even if it was the world-famous destination of the down and out, the Bowery too, inevitably and finally became a magnet for real estate speculation.
New bars and fancy hotels “are the Disneyfied version of the old Bowery saloons, refashioned and glammed up for the young moneyed class that crowd into these places to party and decompress from Manhattan’s ferocious work environment,” Sparberg writes. “This is the demographic that now drives the Bowery economy.” The thoroughfare that added the term “Bowery bum” to the American lexicon, what Sparberg calls “the street synonymous with despair,” is now, like much of Manhattan, the playground of the rich. And the homogenization, the elimination of all classes except the very affluent, continues apace. “Notice all the half-finished towers that are going up, some as high as sixty stories, imperiously dwarfing the old brick walk-ups…that house artists, Chinese families and small businesses.” Those walk-ups are doomed, and not just because the logic of capitalism – unending, ultimately cancerous growth – dictates it. But because the Bowery metamorphosed often in its past, and each change was distinct, discrete and a nearly complete rupture with what came before.
Back when Manhattan was primeval forest, in the 1600s, the Bowery, Sparberg reports, was originally a Lenape footpath. “To the west of the path and surrounded by hills (where now stand the state supreme court and parts of Chinatown) was a huge freshwater pond…Between the hills stretched flat, marshy terrain teeming with aquatic life: redwinged blackbirds, coots, herons, bullfrogs, beavers. Several streams undulated through the flat area…Indians in canoes traversed the island via streams…” Sparberg traces the endeavors of the Dutch in New Amsterdam, then the British, noting a key abattoir on the Bowery, which linked the street in everyone’s mind with the meat business. In the late 1700s, Sparberg writes, the Astors came to the Bowery and, stingy and penny-pinching, amassed their fortune. In the 19th century, theaters crowded the Bowery, drawing a working class audience, including Walt Whitman, while Irish and German gangs, most famously the Bowery Boys, fought nearby.
Sparberg also portrays the civil war’s impact, especially with theatrical productions of the smash-hit, abolitionist tale, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” German beer gardens proliferated along the Bowery; one, according to Sparberg, held 3,000 people. She also sketches the infamous ties between Tammany Hall and the Bowery, how the bums were shipped from one polling place to another, voting repeatedly for the Democratic machine. Indeed it was in this post-civil war era that derelicts first began flocking to the Bowery. Then came Italian and Jewish immigrants, making the Lower East Side “the most densely populated place on earth, at the beginning of the twentieth century.” Prohibition squeezed the Bowery, but once lifted, more alcoholic wrecks than ever thronged the street, especially during the Depression. Lastly, in the 1970s, punk rock and its internationally famous venue, CBGB, flourished on the street Sparberg calls “New York’s dumping ground.”
The Bowery’s ongoing, posh transformation breaks abruptly with the immediate past. But it is in tune with the gentrification that has swept American cities in recent decades, making rents everywhere unaffordable for those working full time at minimum wage. When even the working poor cannot pay for shelter in urban America, is it any surprise that the homeless cannot find a sidewalk to sleep on? With gentrification come laws criminalizing loitering, eating in public, sitting on park benches – things homeless people do. Ejected from city centers, they pitch their tents on the outskirts, as in Seattle, or the slums, as in Los Angeles. They have to go somewhere, but everywhere they turn in gentrified America, the sign says “Keep Out.” Even the Bowery.
June 19, 2018
“A Nation Unmade by War”
Haymarket Books, 180 pages
In handing unprecedented power to his administration’s generals, Donald Trump has endorsed the U.S. military brand – failure is the new success. A seventeen-year long war in Afghanistan with no end in sight and no new ideas – hello? What about leaving? Fifteen years in Iraq and precious little to show for it besides nearly a million displaced Iraqis, cities turned to rubble, continued fighting and untold thousands dead? A proxy war in Yemen. Missiles flying into Syria. A failed state in Libya. And what do our military sachems say? The wars in the Middle East are a “generational conflict,” something we can bequeath to our grandchildren. And why? Because these generals have no idea other than doing the same thing over and over, even though it hasn’t worked. This, as Tom Englehardt explains in his new book, “A Nation Unmade by War,” is the definition of brain-dead.
That’s our military – the most expensive in the world by far, feasting like a vampire on our tax dollars – with not a single idea other than to repeat the same thing that has failed over and over. “An empire of madness,” Englehardt calls the U.S. with its endless wars and determination to deny the environmental catastrophe of climate change unfolding right before our eyes. Not only to deny but to ship crude from tar sands, fracked gas, coal and oil all over the world, to fry the planet as fast as possible. The brain-dead, endlessly violent military and the equally brain-dead, ecocidal fossil energy promoters – this is the lethal combination currently directing the world’s lone superpower.
This book is not a happy read. It documents the cost of America’s war on terror – $5.6 trillion – and how Bush and Cheney’s “soaring geopolitical dreams of global domination proved to be nightmares.” Indeed, Englehardt observes that in the past 15 years “no goal of Washington – not a single one – has been accomplished by war.” And yet the American wars grind on with no end in sight. Meanwhile, we inhabit “a country that no longer invests fully in its own infrastructure, whose wages are stagnant, whose poor are a growth industry, whose wealth now flows eternally upward in a political environment awash in the money of the ultra-wealthy and whose over-armed military continues to pursue a path of endless failure in the Greater Middle East."
“A Nation Unmade by War” consists of Englehardt’s journalistic columns, edited and strung together in book form. As such, there is a certain inevitable repetition, but given the stakes here, this is not a bad thing. Much of what Englehardt has to say cannot be said often enough. In fact, often enough won’t come until these arguments echo in so many people’s brains that they start opposing, en masse, a disastrous, mindlessly fatal political course. At the book’s start, Englehardt quotes Amr Moussa, former head of the Arab League, announcing that an invasion of Iraq would “open the gates of hell.” Anyone who doubts the truth of Moussa’s prescient words, need only look at our post 9/11 grotesquely swollen and expensive national security state with its 17 secret agencies, or glance at the numbers of the secretive special operations command, seventy thousand soldiers strong, “which might be thought of as the president’s private army,” or consider the drone assassination program, creating new terrorists worldwide for our assassin-in-chief, or listen to our military leaders like David Petraeus referring to the mayhem we’ve unleashed on the Middle East as a “generational struggle.”
If doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result each time defines insanity, what are we to make of our generals’ endless calls for more missiles, more drones, more soldiers, where the previous flood of such has failed? Could it be that, well before Donald Trump’s attempt at kingship, our military leaders in Washington had lost their minds? This money, these trillions of dollars, could have gone to shift the world’s second worst carbon polluter from fossil fuels to renewables. In a country with truly sane leaders that would have happened. Our leaders would have observed the freak weather embodied in hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, “nuisance flooding” in coastal cities and listened to our scientists’ warnings about our profligate burning of oil and gas. Instead scientists are screaming in the wilderness, the planet has overheated, arctic and Antarctic ice melt, Greenland is losing its glaciers, all of which means many feet of sea-level rise, but what do we get? A trillion-dollar upgrade of our nuclear arsenal, which will doubtless provoke Russia and China to something similarly wasteful, and eternally expanding war in the Middle East. Our so-called leaders will reap the ruined world they deserve, but unfortunately they may very well drag the rest of us down with them.