Tuesday, July 22, 2014

David Graeber's "The Democracy Project": Book Review

Having found myself intrigued by this anthropologist-activist who was among the first, as he narrates here, to generate the "We are the 99%" slogan and Occupy Wall Street movement, I followed my reading of his dense but not dull academic study of Debt: The First 5000 Years (reviewed by me in April 2014) with his more casual 2013 narrative of OWS, its origins, impacts, and relevance within grassroots, participatory direct action as the genuine democratic exercise of rights. He insists that the lack of a platform or agenda spoke to the Occupy strengths, by its refusal to play into party politics, rather than as a left-wing balance to the Tea Party's anti-government (but less rarely anti-business, at least after the GOP co-opted it, an issue that merits attention more than the aside here, but it may not be that germane in Graeber's view given his anti-corporate as well as anarchist focus). I agree here, even if my friends and media disagree.  Graeber reminds readers that bipartisan "status-quo" presidents no matter their claims for "change" continue to prop up what's broken.

As I've opined often among my pro-Democratic Party friends and family, Graeber raises a critique few leftists promote; they capitulate to the lesser of two evils or "they won't let Obama win" retorts. He castigates the handling of the 2008 crisis with a new president who exhibited "perversely heroic efforts to respond to an historic catastrophe by keeping everything more or less exactly as it was." (95) This can be confirmed by Timothy Geithner's subsequent defense while he promoted his own book in Spring 2014; and by Matt Taibbi's concurrent exposure Eric Holder's role as he kept kid gloves on as he handled "legal justice" for those victimized by Wall Street's banking powers in '08. George Packer finds in his narrative history another pattern of how the law was used to suppress the common folks, buried by robo-signings and instant judgements from judges, not those in charge.

This fits well with these two recent accounts I've studied which address the mess we're in these decades post-Reagan, and all who've succeeded him: George Packer's "The Unwinding" about a disintegration of American stability under the corporate-political oligarchy, and Matt Taibbi's "The Divide" about the refusal of Obama's administration to pursue justice against Wall Street bankers while doggedly beating down and hounding the poor and weak among us who cannot counter the power of the law and order forces, paid by the government which enables these same banks to launder drug money, profit off debtors, expand prisons, and sustain an increasingly unequal economy.

Graeber shows close-up at OWS a common complaint: the "U.S. media increasingly serves less to convince Americans to buy into the terms of the existing political system than to convince them that everyone does." (109) This is a bit too compressed, but his point is that--take Ralph Nader's campaign--that the media portrays such candidates and platforms as is only the 2.7% who voted for him favor them. The media refuse to offer such alternative advocates the opportunity to speak out, and consigns them to the realm of fringe or freakish figures who don't merit the gravitas afforded the Democrats and to a lesser or greater extent depending on the channel chosen, the GOP. Therefore, a false choice perpetuates, and dismissal of spontaneous uprisings that may present a challenge to the parties who persist in representing the 1% more than the rest of us continues. Those who take to the streets or camp out near City Hall or big banks get ridiculed as dangerous bums or deluded rich kids.

While I remain cautious about his claim that over half of all British female students engaged in sex work to pay off tuition and that nearly a third went to prostitution, and his factoid that 280,000 American women with college debt signed up for sugar daddies needs more than one HuffPo citation to sway me, I agree that student debt (I heard recently costs have gone up 1200% since 1978) and the wider indentured status this incurs among many of us cripples us. For degrees are now the ticket into many professions, and that entry fee rises as banks profit off the money they lend to students and their families, continuing to deepen the hold that loans and interest have over many Americans now. Coupled with his own studies and the pressing need for reform or a debt jubilee (as his previous book naturally called for), this does seem a logical stance to take as the issue most needing redress by us.

The trouble is, "corporate lobbying" as he relabels it by its reality as "bribery" stymies progress. Each Congress member needs to raise, he says, $10,000/week from the time he or she is in office to prepare for the next election. Contrary to our national myth that we can separate the system from its overthrow as if we are revolutionaries anew, Graeber contends the economic and political control is so linked now that it cannot be reformed by representatives, complicit in the status quo. He shows how the appeals of the indebted smack of peasants begging for their land and relief from burdens, such is what Americans have been reduced to. As to "white working-class populism," he correctly chides this for its anti-intellectualism, and Graeber to his credit takes a moment to consider the lasting appeal of it for so many. Within its determination to call for liberty, there's "an indignation at being cut off from the means of doing good," within a society bent in equating our life's range with only the satisfaction of our self-interest. (124) People want to achieve for themselves and conduct their own decisions, and not expect the State to cater to all of their needs. A sensitive issue; a commendable insight. This is explored idiosyncratically in James C. Scott's 2013 "Two Cheers for Anarchism."

Midway, Graeber tackles liberal mockery of OWS. He confides that the left as they dominate media tend to project their guilty conscience by their coverage.  "Liberals tend to be touchy and unpredictable because they share the ideas of radical movements--democracy, egalitarianism, freedom--but they've also managed to convince themselves that these ideals are ultimately unattainable. For that reason, they see anyone determined to bring about a world based on these principles as a kind of moral threat." (150) He reminds us that what John Adams feared as "the horrors of democracy" as if anarchy (often a negative term from Plato on) does not negate "core democratic principles," but takes them "to their logical conclusions." (154)  In a truly eye-opening chapter "The Mob Begin to Think and to Reason," he shows Gouverneur Morris, gentry of NYC, witnessing at planning for the Constitutional Congress "butchers and bakers" arguing the merits of the Gracchi or Polybius (a sign of how far we've fallen from a classical education for the masses?).

He cautions those who'd toss bombs or instigate violence, and he shows as in the chapter "How Change Happens" not only the way direct action and affinity groups and peaceful assemblies reach consensus, but he notes in passing the dangers of coercion. The Iraqi Sadrists attempted to form a mass working-class base for self-governance, but the zones they opened with the wedge of "free clinics for pregnant and nursing mothers" took on, as they required security, the social apparatus and then political platforms supporting charismatic leaders turned cultural voices in formal institutions.

This book as with "Debt" skips about although it stays animated with Graeber's confident presence. In a few places the style stumbled and careful editing might have smoothed out a couple of rough spots in the prose. I liked the glances at humor as in the Occu-pie pizza, "99 percent cheese, 1 percent pig" provided those at OWS early on. Books on anarchism sometimes need a lighter touch, after all.  And as with other studies, I needed to see how workplace strategies might evolve to prefigure change, in an increasingly unstable and detached electronic and dispersed environment where freer standards may contend against online surveillance, weak wages, globalization, and reductive profit.

He touches on this, however, in "Breaking the Spell" as he glances at the "productivist bargain" that assumes work is a moral good rather than an economic position. He shows if in passing how labor discipline can make one worse, not better, if it does not become virtuous to allow us to help others. Why not make mothers, teachers, caregivers the "primordial form of work" rather than models of production lines, wheat fields, or iron foundries? Mutual creation and a shift, as he admits Occupy might formulate a key demand, to "change our basic conceptions of what value-creating labor might actually be" is a small step, if one meriting a book and movement of its own. (289)  He tells us how the weight of bureaucracy grew, under capitalism and communism, and how the latter term underlies what society, our circle of friends, our family runs on: amicability, cooperation, practical assistance.

I wish the book, after its vignettes as early on he and a handful of activists met at the Irish Hunger Memorial and then Zuccotti Park to jumpstart OWS, had covered more of the blow-by-blow on the street examples of how consensus might or might not have worked, and how across the world (not only in this perhaps understandably Manhattan-centered p-o-v from one who is based now in London academia after his departure from Yale) people met to for better or worse try to coordinate progress. I saw at the L.A. encampment examples of both, and Graeber appears to gloss over a lot of the mess. It's a mixture: a study of democracy historically and at OWS, and part personal testimony. But this makes it uneven in pacing and scope; it's valuable behind-the-scenes, yet you want to peer in deeper.

In closing, Graeber teaches a different civics lesson. "No government has ever given a new freedom to those it governs of its own accord." (239) Grassroots turn tough. Laws may need to be broken.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

James C. Scott's "Two Cheers for Anarchism": Book Review

As some comprehensive reviews [at Amazon US, where this appeared 6-13-14] summing up and citing key passages have preceded my entry, may I add a few comments? As a Yale professor of politics with a Marxist background, James C. Scott's decision to adapt the anarchist "squint" to view the world a bit differently is commendable. He eschews his previous books, meticulously plotted on sixteen-foot rolls of paper as he puts it, and he integrates fragments which offer digressions and tangents for him to elaborate. This technique reminds me of an engaging lecturer, and shows what his anthropology students at Yale must be lucky enough to witness. He likes to wander off, and then mosey back.

Of course, the fact that an Ivy League, tenured faculty member is discussing what has a suspect reputation by the name alone, and which in E.F. Forster's "Two Cheers for Democracy" tradition recalls less than wholehearted praise, remains crucial. One, this as Scott tells early on is not a narrative of the big thinkers or various theories. It tries to take the aspects of the spontaneous, the unrecorded, the uncredited, the subversive and to argue how these drive key changes in social progress more than the top-down, state-imposed, mass-directed programs. Yet, as with civil rights and desegregation, Scott reminds us how state pressure and policy force might need a State to force moral progress and establish human rights: a provocative insight for anarchists to consider. And, apart from the "official story" often passed on, past and present, many agitate for change, clog up the system as it grinds them down, poach, hide, goldbrick, and evade the time-management and efficiency-expert regimentation. How people organize even without a leader to thwart this repeats.

Two, why there's no mention in a 2012 book of Occupy or the protests in Egypt made me wonder. Maybe the manuscript was in press already, but the timing of this I aver is meant to capitalize on the protests which for some of us forced viewers to take sides, to get involved, to challenge the Tweedledee-Tweedledum bipartisan oligarchy. I cannot figure out why either this book was not delayed so as to address Occupy and similar anti-globalization actions recently, or why Scott left out such relevant case studies. The impact and success or not of these uprisings certainly fits his thesis.

However, his engaging account of Germany and "anarchist calisthenics" so as to break small laws which do not make any sense adhering to so as to be ready to break bigger ones when needed, his red light analogy, his distinction of how we locate ourselves locally by "vernacular order" as a non-official one (will this naming of paths and landmarks by native quirks and lore survive Google Maps and GPS?), and his poignant look at a nursing home's terrified patients who cannot resist the system illustrate well his insistence that autonomy, independence, and decision-making need to be left in the hands and heads and hearts of the individuals and the communities. Teachers, as he demonstrates, suffer particularly in standardized curricula and test-taking compliance. Students atrophy, and the impact carries into the dismissal among leftists of the petty bourgeoisie who after all stand up in history now and then for small-scale innovation, ways of making a living apart from regimens, and self-control of their means of production. The persistence of this dream of a farm, restaurant, or small business among many of us if we broke free of the corporate or institutional demands, Scott observes, proves the endurance of this will to do it ourselves, apart from state or boss.

I would welcome much more on the practical aspects as we see them in the workplace and in our lives as the work-play leisure-duty boundaries dissolve and as this dissolution, we are told by many millennials, is the ideal for our future. How anarchism and games and the lack of structure effect this, how small start-ups innovate but then sell out to giant firms, how the students, teachers and parents find their efforts quantified as learning turns into endless metrics, and how this pressure exerts itself on workers told they have no secure occupation and must always be on call, always reinvent: Scott might at least have provided suggestions for us who are burdened rather than liberated. If he walks among us as a guide, even in an anarchist book, he needs to offer some encouraging, clear directions.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Noam Chomsky: "Chomsky on Anarchism": Book Review


As Barry Pateman, Emma Goldman archivist, notes in introducing these eleven pieces (red cover above, AK Press; mostly interviews and lectures) from 1969-2004, while some repetition occurs, this 2005 anthology offers a sustained explanation by Noam Chomsky of the philosophy and practice of anarchism. He reminds us he's a fellow traveler, for anarcho-syndicalism and left-libertarian attitudes overlap along the continuum, with libertarian communist, anti-statist, and even cooperation (as in voting on crucial referenda, supporting alternative candidates, and local policies) with the state. Pateman in his own interview explores this and shows how some advancement in Chomsky's view of the state in order to contain dangerous tendencies against progressive activism might be justified for the future advance of leader-free or consensual practices of liberty.  He's a pragmatic as well as intellectual thinker, and many of the less formal interviews in the latter pages, with Irish activist Kevin Doyle, scholar Ziga Vodovnik (I reviewed his "Living Spirit of Revolt"), and Pateman capture for me a more avuncular, warmer presence than the scholarship  accumulated in some lectures.

However, these are valuable. They show the trajectory of the liberal elite's capitulation to the political and corporate interests in power. Whether allied to push policy in Vietnam, approve as Gabriel Jackson's book did the clampdown on Spanish and Catalan anarchists by Stalinists during that civil war, or prop up the US military in Central America and the Middle East, this is consistent. Chomsky shows the consistent defense of US power against the spontaneous and the insurrectionary forces that seek freedom. This may not be surprising, but he looks at how intellectuals and advisors from academia as liberals choose to deny liberty.

He examines Rousseau's 1775 Discourse Against Inequality, Jeffersonian fears of big government, federalism, and the need articulated in language for freedom. This gets a bit academic, as one may expect, but the shorter chapters lighten the tone. Here, he finally addresses workplace issues. It's a bit dated in parts as it seems the auto factory floor remains the metaphor, tellingly, for an earlier US era we are now watching in the rear mirror more than through the windshield. Yet, in entries closer to now, you get some sense of how globalization's balance sheet pits American workers against or alongside Third World workers. More on this and contemporary impacts, as the workforce diminishes and as work itself changes boundaries, is still an underexamined aspect of many anarchist discussions in print. Chomsky, at least, tries to speak in terms understandable by everyday folks. 

Handling questions from audiences, discussing the key struggle against "red bureaucracy" as Bukharin fought for anti-authoritarian social revolution rather than a top-down cadre acting on supposed behalf of the workers and peasants, and admonishing those who place too much faith in leaders, Chomsky remains relevant in these talks, even if they needed an index (Amazon US 6-12-14)

The next book, from 2013 ("A" cover in colors; New Press), overlaps a lot. A spirited introduction by Nathan Schneider (see my reviews of his fine 2013 Occupy study "Thank You Anarchy" and in longer form at New Clear Vision) places this in context of events that in Schneider's view widened anarchism's range so many curious or hostile were confronted for a time with its presence downtown. As his book had advised, Schneider here suggests churches as examples of successful mutual aid independent of the state, and how the left might overcome its tendency to reject such models as part of a "functional resistance movement." He reaches out to the libertarian capitalists who briefly tried to find common ground with OWS activists and anarchists, and he encourages the "anarcho-curious" who found that movement intriguing to contemplate more efforts to expand their impact. Chomsky himself sums anarchism up: "people have the right to be free, and if there are constraints on that freedom, then you've got to justify them." (33) He wants no more wage slavery, but work as willed.

As Schneider notes (and many of Chomsky's critics on the left, who find this inconsistent), Chomsky pragmatically or strategically accepts working within the system so as to prevent right-wing restrictions or for public safety (he uses an example of a rabid raccoon resisting humane traps so he and his neighbors agreed to call authorities to deal with it after local attempts had failed), "because by doing so you can help move to a situation where you can then challenge these structures." (41)

As for the contents, 3/5 are repeated entries from "Chomsky On Anarchism" (AK Press, 2005; none of the articles appearing there are credited as such in the acknowledgements although other reprints and their original sources are cited.) "Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship" (1969) reveals how elites and think-tanks support US foreign policy in Vietnam by "the new mandarins"; "Language and Freedom" (1970) uses linguistics and politics to examine Rousseau, Descartes, and Humboldt. "Notes on Anarchism" (1970/3) is a revision of an introduction to Daniel Guerin's anthology of anarchism.

The new inclusions appear to be a 2002 excerpt from "Understanding Power" and a 2002 interview with Harry Kreisler from his book Political Awakenings (2010). These, as many of the AK Press entries, often repeat themselves, but it makes for a briefer book than its predecessor, probably published to take understandable advantage of the post-OWS interest in Chomsky and these topics. (Amazon US 6-26-14)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Slán a fhághail dó Rover

Fhilleadh Léna agus mé abhaile ar an Ceathru Iúil. Fhán ár dtrí madraí ann: Taffy, Opie, agus Rover. Ith siad lacha ó bialann Sínis ar chéile. 

D'imigh Léna agus mé go Sliabh ar an Rí ar feadh an tseachtaine seo caite. Ach, cheap muid anois go raibh ag fanacht linn Rover a thabhairt ar ais. An lá seo chugainn, ní iarr Rover a ith nó a ól ar chor ar bith. 

Bhí fhíos againn go raibh an uair ansin. Ghloigh Léna trédlia a tháinig go dtí ar theach. Thug sí drugaí dó. 

Thít Rover ina chodladh go mall. Labhraimuid leis go bog. D'inis muid faoi neamh h-aghaidh madrái leis crustaí na pizza go leor.

Shuigh muid leis Rover ar feadh tamaill. D'fheach sé suas ar an crann tangerine. Chonaic Rover an speir gorm samraidh uair dheireanach.

Wishing goodbye to Rover.

Layne and I returned home on the Fourth of July. Three dogs waited there: Taffy, Opie, and Rover. They ate duck from a Chinese restaurant. 

Layne and I had left for Monterey during the week past. But, we think now that Rover was waiting for us to come back again. The following day, Rover did not want to eat or drink at all anymore.

We knew that it was time then. Layne called a veterinarian who came to the house. She gave drugs to him. 

Rover fell into a sleep slowly. We talked to him softly. We told him of a heaven for dogs with pizza crusts galore. 

We sat with Rover awhile. He looked up at the tangerine tree. Rover saw the blue summer sky a last time.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Ruth Kinna's "Anarchism: A Beginner's Guide": Book Review

Rather than provide a chronological narrative introducing great anarchist thinkers and then current concerns (as Colin Ward's "Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction" or the not short at all "Demanding the Impossible" history of the idea and the movement by Peter Marshall; both reviewed by me), this British lecturer and editor of Anarchist Studies addresses a readership which may already have some familiarity with these thinkers, and involvement in contemporary social and progressive issues. Ruth Kinna's beginner's guide appears geared for a political studies seminar, but a reading group or curious inquirer might benefit as well from its range. Each chapter is not only footnoted thoroughly but enriched by a bibliography and a list of websites. The informative contents are neither too jargon-filled nor too slogan-stuffed. (It must be noted that "IWW" stands for not "International" but "Industrial" Workers of the World, a regrettable if understandable lapse. But we learn who designed the symbolizing Proudhon's "anarchy is the mother of order": Anselme Bellegarrigue ca. 1850.) Kinna keeps enough distance from the rivalries, competing theories, and hard-headed activists from many factions. Still, she asks questions, and prods readers to do likewise.

Chapter one takes on the contested definition of anarchy and the negative connotations dogging it. She addresses its past uses, its key exponents, the various forms the concept takes, and a quick history. Then, its critique of the State (not the same as society, and perhaps as government, a tricky distinction for some to parse and debate, as are power and authority as accepted or not) follows. "Natural" authority and "social" power precede her consideration of liberty. As she cites one thinker, liberty is granted, while one is born free. I found chapter three valuable for its investigation into competing arguments whether a natural, pre-industrial community of anarchists existed or survives today, and whether some older notions that anarchism imitates or returns to such a condition are upheld by anthropological evidence today. (Oddly, no mention of David Graeber appears here.)

Utopian experiments, including an aside to a New Zealand novel (one aspect of Kinna's study is that it looks a bit at Maori and Australian responses to anarchism, which get ignored in many European or British-centered studies) that smacks of the hippie era, find mention, as do the heavily analyzed (by others) experiments attempted in Spain and Ukraine during the past century. Primitivism gains throughout these sections extended attention, and Kinna shows in helpful charts how its precepts align or differ from the classic 19 and early-20c thinkers as well as some competitors from communitarians and anarcho-capitalists. The graphic summation of the range of responses by anarchists-with-adjectives helps greatly to illustrate their various positions.

The last part looks at tactics, who takes charge, whether a platform, a union, a collective, or individuals take charge. The difficult questions of success given the scope of resistance vs. the crackdowns imposed, and the adjustments of earlier decades' models of factory workers or ruralists in terms of those in cubicles, in odd jobs or none, squatters, and the like get some mention. I'd have liked more on how workers in the electronic era and the age of dispersed work and downsizing and global competition might fare in relation to the sentiment that a general strike can bring down the system once and for all. Also, while Kinna shows how state socialism and Marxist models diverge from anarchism, and the dangers of compromise, she might have taken more time to address those who advocate or at least accept some cooperation with the political system to advance some change, in light of those who reject any such collaboration as unacceptable. In light of present protests and the indifference many have shown towards anti-globalization campaigns and actions, how to get anarchism taken seriously appears still a topic needing more reflection and more guidance. However, her closing portions, as to tactics, seem to hint pacifism may not suffice. (Amazon US 6-12-14)

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Ziga Vodovnik's "A Living Spirit of Revolt": Book Review

How can anarchism get beyond marginalized impacts, finicky theorists, and squabbling activists? A Slovenian political scientist, Žiga Vodovnik, offers suggestions forward. This concise survey occupies a space, if pre-Occupy (despite a 2013 copyright for the English translation this offers no updates but the late Howard Zinn, who died in 2010, provides an encouraging introduction), where an overview of anarchism's philosophies and history segues into a a connection to not only Continental and British thinkers, but its overlooked, attenuated American Transcendental roots. 

For, Vodovnik argues that--given this idea itself did not fully emerge until the late 19th century--the counterculture of the 1960s revived it looking back not to Godwin, Bakunin, or Benjamin Tucker so much as Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. They ally in their attitude against "foolish consistency" for an approach allowing contradictions to advance equality (as does socialism) along with freedom (as does liberalism). Vodovnik supports a flexible nature for anarchism. He grounds it in the "absence of a leader or ruler" as its meaning, and its anti-authoritarian ethos rather than one that avoids any authority. This key distinction aligns with Dave Neal's "small-a" methodology rather than a "capital-A" ideology insisting on no overarching plan. As many motivators cited here agree, the spark lies in the "infrapolitics" where "seemingly non-political" or hidden forces seek to undermine unjustly imposed and unfairly distributed power structures, where the majority lack viable options to pursue opportunities to enrich self-fulfillment.

Vodovnik sides with an anti-statist and civil disobedience charged resistance. Hakim Bey's "Temporary Autonomous Zones" (TAZ) offer one model where a "tendency for actualization of theory" meets the personal space opened, if for a while, for a "liberated zone" and "political laboratory" that allows real progress "outside the boundaries of commodification or spectacle." This encouragingly commonsensical attitude links anarchists by name with many more who enter part or all of its many fluid channels, while flowing into, as historian Peter Marshall sees it, a common river.

David Graeber's post-ideology of Direct Action is here linked to Oaxaca in 2005 and Seattle in 1999, but while this book unfortunately was not updated for Occupy Wall Street and the anti-austerity EU or Tahrir Square protests recently, that anthropologist's aspiration "to reinvent daily life as a whole" remains relevant. Zinn's pragmatic revolutionary reform that pushes progress within systems as well as undermining unjust control may be more realistic, Vodovnik suggests. Instead of street theater or fervent factionalism, fitting this stereotyped strategy into its many vibrant and changing forms appears more practical. There's some slow spots given this is written by a professor, one wonders how pop culture applies to foster anarchism, the absence of recent events is odd, and more clarification of how the "young Marx" offered a more liberating version of labor as self-identity
could have helped a non-specialist. But, despite a few clunky parts via translation, this is welcome.

In closing, this handy guide stands in the space between brief pamphlets or Colin Ward's Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction in Oxford UP's series and Marshall's magisterial Demanding the Impossible. PM Press published many of the inquiring texts quoted here, and adding Žiga Vodovnik's compact treatment will guide the reader to many more books, and even better, piers from which to leap into an arguably the last remaining viable revolutionary current, this free river of human longing.
(Amazon US 5-3-14; 5-4-14 at Slugger O'Toole)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Peter Marshall's "Demanding the Impossible": Book Review

Seven hundred pages of fine print, and another hundred of footnotes (in 2010's revised edition) narrate thousands of years over which people have longed for the right to make their own decisions, live as best they choose among each others' mutual assistance and communal support, and to conduct their livelihoods and relationships as they please, free of coercion, top-down dominance, or imposed government or creed. If leaders are chosen, if organizations are established, then these are entered freely and exited at will.

This sums up anarchism's principled versions. It seems from early on, philosophers, priests, bosses, legislators, politicians, and generals all have feared such a movement. Peter Marshall's immense survey shows the results, parading steadily the greatest names in the centuries who've tried to make theory into practice. The Introduction begins with great quotes from some of its exponents, and prefaces in Part I anarchism as it is in theory. While "the river of anarchy" changes with each version, the essence of freedom attracts a few each generation to plunge into what, by the heady rhetoric recurring, appear inviting waters of liberation, personally and socially. For, society for most advocates remains, even if the State withers away. The former is sought freely; the latter isn't chosen. "Society and the State" and "Freedom and Equality" articulate this in Marshall's introduction.

In Part II, the forerunners of anarchism, Taoism and Buddhism, surprisingly show how ancient this impulse is. Feared by Plato if somewhat anticipated by the pre-Socratic Greeks, its impulses survived into early and medieval Christianity, among such as dissenters, heretics, guilds, and rebels against Rome--and against Luther, tellingly. By the English Revolution, we see the short rise of Levellers and Diggers, and the brief establishment of Gerard Winstanley's commune--and then his about-face later in life, as he turned away from his earlier rebellious stance. Inconsistency, as Marshall patiently notes, characterizes many who in the French Renaissance and Enlightenment and also, as with Burke in the British Enlightenment, toyed with models for radical change without truly supporting them.

By Part III, French, German, British, and American libertarians emerge. Not quite anarchist for the term was not yet in common usage, but such as Tom Paine presage if imperfectly, for many sought the protection of a Jeffersonian State, however limited, along a federalist or decentralized system, the dreams of the later 18th century, as revolution sparked the possibility for change and no more kings. Partial anarchists, as it were, abound among Rousseau, Emerson, Swift, Mill, Morris, or Fourier, et al.

In Part IV, we finally reach the heart of the book. Classic anarchist thinkers begin with the passionate example of William Godwin, the lover of order. Next comes the near-Nietzschian Max Stirner, the conscious egoist, who as many would angered Marx. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's intricate theories reveal the philosopher of poverty. Two Russians pair off: Michael Bakunin as the fanatic of freedom, full of inconsistencies as many theorists seem to be in this century. Peter Kropotkin, the revolutionary evolutionist, tries to tame the theories with a study of geography and science to fit anarchism within a natural determinism, akin to many world-changing paradigms of the nineteenth century. So does, on a smaller scale, the fierce Elisée Reclus: the geographer of liberty. For all but Reclus in this long part, Marshall offers a grand sweep of their life and thought before entering topics such as their ethical views, political attitudes, thoughts on the State or human nature, to clarify particular ideas in depth.

The twentieth century's Errico Malatesta, the electrician of revolution, sparks a new current: the energy of the will, not of nature, as a way to transform human drives towards peaceful (again a contentious point among many, as the fall of the Paris Commune and the rise of WWI split many) goals. Marshall seems to sympathize with those who reject war or violence, as these are coercive means to achieve the end of the end of class antagonism, national boundaries, and capitalist rule.

Leo Tolstoy, the count of peace, gets sympathetic treatment, and various American individualists and anti-State Communists such as Lysander Spooner (who finally takes up a question I'd been asking ever since I read Locke to ask: who signed us up to the social contract established by the "consent of the governed" centuries ago?), Voltairine de Cleyre, Benjamin Tucker, and Alexander Berkman but they're all skimmed over too hastily, in admittedly a very lengthy book as it is. Sasha B's companion, Emma Goldman as "the most dangerous woman" earns a brisk, lively study, as Marshall scans her ambiguous position between understanding and condoning the use of violence to achieve liberation. 

German Communists, notably the brave martyr to the cause in the aftermath of 1919's failed Munich soviet, Gustav Landauer, follow suit, and then Mohandas Gandhi, who counters brutality as "the gentle revolutionary"; a strength of Marshall's treatment is that he firmly if gently calls out Gandhi for devolving from leader to guru with a cult of personality, or chides in part V, "Anarchism in action," those in France, Italy, and Spain who capitulated to compromise, as with the CNT-FAI, and so lost the momentum of the social revolution, during Spain's war against fascism--and Stalinism. Still, then as now, some accommodation with party politics appears inevitable for many radicals, to advance situations amenable to elusive goals of autonomy and mutual aid beyond unions or regions.

Russia and the Ukraine, with Makhno's early attempt, similar to Spain's at a sustained anarchist society during war, offer cautionary tales, as do repeated situations in Northern Europe, the United States, and especially Latin America, when attempts at progress were stymied by unions, violence, agitation, and crackdowns. Mexico and Cuba repeat the same story as the USSR and Spain, where anti-statist traditions were lured or pressed into capitulation by crafty cadres led by brutal despots.

While these chapters inevitably and rather dully in parts tell some of the same narrative the earlier chapters on leading anarchists had, depending on the nation, glimpses at such movements as French Situationists, British punks, American Wobblies, and German agitators show how the 20c managed in a few nations to survive its heyday 1880-1930 and a few progressives lived long enough to see the 1960s and inspire younger activists. The downside of this in India, where the Sarvodaya movement was co-opted by a very clever politician who used it for his own party advancement, is also telling.

After a hasty look at Asia (many regions get a rapid glance, and this tends to be names-and-dates and unions-full-of-initials types of coverage, of uneven interest compared to earlier biographical narrative), Marshall shifts in part VI to modern anarchism, with the New Left and the counterculture. This lively section looks at Situationists, Kabouters, Provos, and Greens along with anarchists themselves, as by the 1960s, a loose collective rather than unions or platforms drives many experiments. One of these, concocted on the New Right as anarcho-capitalism, merits blunt critique.

Modern libertarians and anarchists gain briefer mention; Murray Bookchin and his ecology of freedom meets an in-depth challenge as Marshall takes on this former and then future Marxist who bridled at the "lifestyle" rather than "social" anarchists as insufficiently committed. Marshall's passion emerges here and makes this part of the book lively and spirited. Similarly, his reprise as Part VII of the book's contents, as he reviews the big thinkers who established the legacy of anarchism, its ends and means, and the relevance of anarchism, along with an epilogue, shows how difficult it is for the author to let go of this vast topic. He examines the strengths and weaknesses, he tackles the applicability of this ideal to our "post-scarcity" economy after the heady utopian dreams of the 60s have given way to environmental damage, job loss, unfettered capitalism, and a commodity culture.

Again, in the last sections there is some repetition, and certain material gets included a third time, for overlap of thinkers, regions, and recent events may be inevitable. A history of a big idea causes the weight of a big book. But anyone who's read shorter works such as Colin Ward's Anarchy: A Very Short Introduction or the newer A Living Spirit of Revolt by Ziga Vodovnik will welcome Marshall. 

P.S. This massive work might be read on a Kindle so note-taking can be eased. As the print copy and bulk necessitate a very small font, readers may prefer a dual version. I found the index and notes easier to consult in book fashion, but the highlighting made an e-book appealing. A few typos remained, and the margins of a Kindle version meant that 40% of the text was end-material, but the portability of this meant I could finally finish what I'd been making my way through in print, slowly...
(Amazon US 6-10-14)

[His conclusions anticipate anthropologist David Graeber's post-millennial OWS activism, reviewed well by Christopher Shea at the Chronicle of Higher Education; Kalefa Sanneh at The New Yorker; Greg Downey at Resilience, and Eli Cook at Raritan, which burst forth a year after this edition.]


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

David Goodway's "Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow": Book Review

This fills a need among not only literary critics but political historians. It's an in-depth survey of eleven British-centered thinkers, most of whom attempted to put their written theories and favored tracts into practice. They pursued their commitment to varieties of left-libertarian and anarchist thought--always as individuals, but more often sympathetic to a syndicalist-union or especially libertarian-communist (as in common grassroots management of the resources we hold in common and the means of sharing them equitably) system. Goodway burrows in, and his notes show a meticulous analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of not only the main subjects of each chapter, but of their colleagues, foes, and critics. He calls to task a lazy scholar, he cites a conflicting tidbit in one account that clashes with another's assertion, and his attention to such detail is astonishing. It proves how seriously he takes this enterprise.

Yet, it moves along, given the generally hefty subject matter and the need to cover biography, literary themes, political clashes, economic models, religious and secular contexts, and philosophical digressions of the past century, quite well. This is not light reading, not should it be. It's important as a guide to how crucial ideas energize thinkers and encourage autonomy. It instructs one in many currents of the British intellectual contributions to an encouragement of a truly liberal individual. He starts with William Morris and the guild socialism of his later career, 1880-1920, and then he moves into the impact of Edward Carpenter, the first of a few whom Goodway champions who are now generally neglected by mainstream culture. It's inspiring to find in Carpenter such an insistence on forging and forcing from one's circumstances the means for personal and social transformation. His gay identity means that much of his contribution is seen retroactively by critics since as filtered accordingly through his necessarily then-somewhat circumspect expression of his sexuality, but the larger concerns, as with Oscar Wilde, remain open to all. Goodway delves into Wilde's anarchist statements and by archival investigation uncovers fresh material for research, no easy feat for an author whom, as he notes, has been scoured by respectively gay rights advocates and English Lit scholars, both of whom, one suspects, often misread his admittedly scattershot essay on socialism.

Socialism often tugs away many who occupy left-libertarian niches here. Those who resisted the allure of the new Soviet and survived suspicion or Red Scares remain sometimes on the fringes, at least as far as the once-celebrated lecturer and author John Cowper Powys. He earns two chapters, and Goodway makes no apologies. Originally issued in 2006, this preceded by a year Morine Krissdóttir's biography (reviewed by me), but Powys' novels ("baggy monsters") and prolific career earn devoted attention herein. So does his individualist anarchism, which for this friend of Emma Goldman retreats from the political platforms erected by most in this collection, and whose works (as with Joyce, who Goodway finds shares Powys' predilection for what he called "ecstasies" and Joyce "epiphanies") can be an acquired taste. Powys demands articulation by a patient critic, as evading (not the first or last herein) facile summation. While he claimed to be a "philosophical anarchist" (as did Joyce, according to Kevin Birmingham's 2014 study [reviewed by me] of the impact of Ulysses on the regimes of state censorship), Powys to Goodway appears more of a sympathizer with a delayed encouragement of anarchism as an ideal but an impracticable one for the present time. Powys retreated into a personal stance of defiance. This is what earns Goodway's attention and deep focus.

Herbert Read's similarly long career was even more diverse, as art criticism channeled his talents along with literature and politics. WWI shifted this medal-winning recipient soon after into pacifism: "The whole war was fought for rhetoric--fought for historical phrases and actual misery, fought by politicians and generals and with human flesh and blood, fanned by false and artificially created mob passions..." (loc. 4508 qtd.). One finds when reading Read here a man able to express ideas precisely.

Pacifism gets a separate chapter, if a brief one. Akin to George Orwell here profiled, this stance stirred dissent and debate as another conflict loomed, predicted by the Spanish predicament of the anarchists, trapped in Catalonia between fascists and the Stalinists. Both men have been cursed by some who regard their shifts as untenable or signs of weakness, but Goodway while cognizant always of their inconsistencies allows each critic his fair chance for rebuttal, or clarification, over careers that found them taking on many complicated issues. Same for Aldous Huxley, and the uneven nature of his fiction and the wide range of his non-fiction gain him a central stage in this thorough presentation.

Best known for his Joy of Sex, Alex Comfort is lesser known at least abroad and nowadays for his own commitments to libertarian leftism. Along with Huxley and Bertrand Russell, his high-profile stances gained him notoriety as a proto-countercultural icon before the hippies ever marched. On the CND Committee of 100, Comfort's lifelong pacifism guided him into a recognition of anarchism as the best fit for him, a trajectory shared by many in this collection. He avers that "centralized power should be reduced to the practical minimum and individual responsibility increased to the practical maximum" (loc. 6133), a sensible ambition. I'd have liked to find out more about how his sexual affirmations aligned deeper with his libertarian vision, as this Goodway elides.

E.P. Thompson, Marxist historian of Morris and of the English working class, also worked for nuclear disarmament along with these figures. He also taught often, and to many. Like Comfort, he is taken to task for blind spots. While chastising Orwell for premature anti-Stalinism and the like, this pioneering scholar ignores the many points of agreement he had with Orwell and other dissidents.

Christopher Pallis, as with Comfort, combined a prestigious medical career with a parallel one. For Pallis (whose cousin Marco wrote a memorable travelogue of mountaineering turned spiritual quest in Peaks and Lamas, reviewed by me), he had to disguise his dogged libertarian socialism under pen names Martin Grainger and Maurice Brinton. The excerpts here felt stodgy, more "poli-sci" than his comrades, but it's amazing how he and Thompson and Comfort pursued dual research so prolifically. Here, Goodway observes: "All the ruling groups in society encourage the belief that decision taking and management are functions beyond the comprehension of ordinary people." (loc. 7118).

One problem with anarchism, which flourished 1860-1940 and then, beaten down by Bolshevism and fascism, sensationalized for its violent minority, suppressed by spies and infiltrators in capitalist societies, is that "its numerical weakness inhibits its intellectual strength." (loc. 7389) Even after its countercultural resurgence (part due to Situationists, part libertarian socialists), few thinkers since have applied it to practical rather than historical or theoretical analyses, and few workers apply their leisure to advancing its real-world manifestations, given the great obstacles to implementation.

But, the final subject shows how it can work around us. Colin Ward, whose Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction I have reviewed, gains an affectionate tribute. No surprise as the book "Talking Anarchy" combines the two men's conversations and concerns. Like busy Pallis and Comfort, Ward as an architect recycles (a verb Goodway often uses, as he is very alert to all his subjects' printed records, and how they overlap, clash, and contend) much of his writings, given a demanding career. But this chapter feels ultimately perfunctory. One waits for Ward to step in, as an engaging comrade.

Still, the closing section which channels anarchist theory into current currents, stays fluid. Goodway holds that "a society which organizes itself without authority" always exists, "like a seed beneath the snow, buried under the weight of the state and its bureaucracy, capitalism and its waste, privilege and its injustices, nationalism and its suicidal loyalties, religious differences and their superstitious separatism." (loc. 7469)  Recalling in this titular metaphor Gustav Landauer's vision, which guided Ward, Goodway finds an anarchist today widens the old thinkers' perspectives. It "is selective, it rejects perfectionism, utopian fantasy, conspiratorial romanticism, revolutionary optimism,; it draws from the classical anarchists their most valid, not their most questionable, ideas." (loc. 7644)

In conclusion, I return to Goodway's introduction. He acknowledges his own life spent immersed in Marxism as much as anarchism, and admits his conviction that the latter proves more urgently relevant for our own challenges. Rather than utopian, it is rather "the belief that voting for a political party--any party--" that is unbelievable if one believes that by voting one "can bring about significant social change": after all as he quotes, "if voting changed anything, it would be abolished." (loc. 133)

Nestled near the end, we find a reminder of the modesty and ambition that combine for anarchism: crucial it "is for individuals to be able to take command of their everyday circumstances and determine the course of their lives, almost certainly collectively: to institute personal and communal autonomy, so far as they are possible, and to exercise individual responsibility." (loc. 7956) A little share of property and the control of one's means of production, combined with a social control over resources that all need to share in common: this may appeal to a few and more, if they read this book.
(Amazon US  5-10-14)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Colin Ward's "Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction": Book Review

Given his reputation as a veteran activist and architect, who puts his ideals into practice, English anarchist Colin Ward appears to be an wisely chosen author for this Oxford series. He lives rather than merely studies the subject. Some of this Very Short Introduction's best moments come when he narrates the Green applications and environmental dimensions of a left (necessary to preface this as some capitalists have taken this term)-libertarian, small c-communist (as in controlling a common means of ownership for resources shared by all) version. This is, however, one among many versions of living without coercion under a leader or ruler.

This derivation of anarchism contrasts with the popular version, as well as mythologized black-bloc style which may admit violent means to advance the difficult pair of goals, freedom without socialist imposition of top-down power, and liberty without the liberalism which bows to the capitalist and the State as its masters. Ward's chapters move rapidly if unevenly past main themes. He defines the theory and shows its lineage. He looks to its revolutionary phase from the late 19-early 20c, which for many has soured its appeal up through the anti-austerity and Occupy protests of the present, and which with Bolshevism weakened its clout among some who had cheered it on a century ago. He looks at the post-socialist situation and how anarchy may offer alternatives. He counters the nationalist and fundamentalist drives to undermine progress by secular movements and by those seeking a more equitable society.

Here, although the book came out but a decade ago, attacks on the growing menace of the U.S. Christian Right already feel dated, if familiar as to any contemporary reader. But making anarchism fit today's contexts cannot be gainsaid, for this is the purpose Ward seeks. Avi Shlaim is cited as arguing against the nationalist tendencies towards xenophobia and extremism, "towards self-righteousness on the one hand and demonising the enemy on the other" as history is falsified or fabricated. Certainly, anarchists assert, this is relevant no matter who we elect, or is it those who are presented before us for election?

I found the chapter on prisons worthwhile for its excoriation of the industrial penal system, and likewise that on education offered stimulating ideas. How to break free of places where mass inculcation shuts down creativity and insight remains no easy question in an era of correction rather than rehabilitation and of teaching to the test instead of fostering cooperative, enjoyable learning. Both sections, all the same, lurched about a bit in pace and focus, and ended their treatments suddenly; others in this book show a similar unevenness. Ward knows the subject by living it. But it can be a challenge here and there even in a brief book to figure out why he digresses where he does, given the need to cover so much. This may be rectified by Ziga Vodavic's "The Living Spirit of Revolt: the Infrapolitics of Anarchism" (see my review) or a book anyone interested in anarchism will eventually tackle, the magisterial history by Peter Marshall, "Demanding the Impossible," reprinted in 2010 with an update.

This book's precepts may seem utopian, naturally or inevitably, to many skeptics, but I aver even critics of Ward might find useful suggestions (if they ever read such a book) for reform in both schools and the prison-industrial complex. Like that of the military, these regimens dominate our horizons today, and as Ward shows, small-scale efforts for alternative ownership of the way we make a living, teach each other, care for those who lack a way to care for themselves, and break up the centralized power we live and labor under provide worthwhile points for discussion. The anarchist articulation of individual effort and satisfying work and play, allied to the little workshops and craft endeavors a few among us try to sustain, show that progress can be made. Many of those among the New Left may have defected to the New Age (my phrase) but one can sense within Ward's judgment of the counterculture an admission that such advances come at a slow, difficult pace for those who follow in their wake 50 years on.

Ward suggests federalism, as in the Swiss cantons or regionalism supported as a counter to the EU, as ways that devolved administration of one's work and life may go forward. I cite Ward's quote of Gustav Landauer as indicative of this direction. "The state is not something which can be destroyed by a revolution, but is a condition, a certain relationship among human beings, a mode of human behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently." (qtd. loc. 160) As Paul Goodman tells us in these pages, the key goal is not freedom per se, for once freed, oppressed people do not know what to do next. Instead, encouraging autonomy, as some do now by passive resistance to coercion and decisions made not by them but for them, seems more sensible. This sort of advice, for many, may better address the need for personal and political change: "the ability to initiate a task and do it in one's own way." (qtd. loc. 847). I hope this helps you evaluate this book's merits yourself. (5-6-14 to Amazon US)

Friday, July 4, 2014

Matt Taibbi's "The Divide": Book Review

Certainly he's preaching to this choir member, and I'm glad (relatively speaking) to find Attorney General Eric Holder excoriated for his deeply embedded role in an "aggressive" style of prosecuting Wall Street in a "sophisticated" manner that backfired, allowing "banks too big to fail, too big to jail" to go off with negligible fines (often what a few hours' profit for firms accrued) or none at all. Matt Taibbi's simple thesis, over four-hundred pages, remains that "too-big-to-fail, meet small-enough-to-jail." (49)

He uses a small Chinese NYC bank, Abacus, to prove how the one bank that the government pursued suffered far out of proportion, given the time and money expended, to the Wall Street neighbors who, in Chase's case, used their bailout money to buy up WaMu at fire-sale rates, and to grab two jets at $60 million each and a hanger for $18 million as part of TARP's sweet deal. As their ads assure us, we are to assume all's all right simply because they paid back the money "we" were forced to lend.

The book see-saws back and forth between high- and low-profile case studies. It makes for uneven pacing and while Taibbi labors to make transitions and emphasize contrasts in the disparity of how justice is meted out, the details of the financial and governmental manipulations provide for those intrigued or outraged by this collusion plenty of material for study. While the book (this is a galley) needed an index, and an overview might have helped, as some of this feels like a series of related articles rather than a cohesive summation of what is admittedly, no matter the party in power, an ongoing collapse of our legal system.

He critiques the policing strategy of trolling as fishing boats do among the weak and vulnerable in high-crime areas: swooping all up, seeing who has committed and can be held on petty offenses for blocking a sidewalk, public urination, or fare evasion, to juke stats (he alludes as to how NYC's anti-"broken window" methods to increase those arrested and jailed inspired HBO's "The Wire" here). Matt Taibbi argues that crime-as-lifestyle entices many no matter what the offense, if the payoff is great enough for those so driven, and that the mass arrests only anger the innocent, and try to provoke them when detained into fighting back against the corrupt power. In turn, the system wears down the weak, so as with foreclosures, welfare fraud, credit card debt, and many other offenses, the harried give up, pay fines, acknowledge guilt, cop a deal, and therefore please the law-and-order ranks.

This accounts for the dramatic rise in statistics for arrests and jailings even as the crime rate declines. Meanwhile, Taibbi compares the way the powerful and richer among us get off much easier, even though individuals can be taken down no matter their status. The point is that money matters most, more than the clout of any one person, rich or poor, even if richer is better. HSBC bank funnels the Sinaloa drug cartel money and evades sanctions, while the US government and local authorities pursue minor drug offenses far out of proportion to the gains won, considering the massive costs. At least the police and courts are kept busy, so as to justify more federal and local funds coming in, to perpetuate wars on drugs and on crime that keep on giving.

I realize Taibbi has written lively pieces for Rolling Stone for years and made his reputation. This book is more serious than I expected, and while "overcaffeinated Jesuits" as a memorable term for old-school journalists' fashion sense and lack of style sticks, Taibbi in taking the side of the underdog takes some easy potshots when they don't seem necessary. He mocks two elderly public defenders as looking like the Muppets Stadler and Waldorf, while a Barclays CEO is introduced as a "lipless, pale-faced Irish Catholic from Concord, Massachusetts, who wears Coke-bottle glasses and appears in public wearing the pinched, joyless manner of a constipated nun." (154) Memorable again, sure, but it seems a cheap shot given Taibbi's steady championing of the poor and his sympathies for those "without the right papers" whom he classifies as "hardworking immigrants" while choosing not to address the unspoken situation that this contingent has chosen to break laws and overstay visas, too.

Molly Crabapple's illustrations match the tone of this book, distorting those in the system by caricature, but never those fighting it. This plays into a muckraking feel at times that may extend the tradition of advocacy journalism, on the other hand. I found George Packer's The Unwinding, about the aftermath of Chase's foreclosure and debt-driven robo-calls that Taibbi documents, a good match.

Taibbi's on more convincing ground in handling welfare fraud, admitting that abuses happen and acknowledging the need to investigate, even as he shows how much is exerted to trap the offenders vs. how little is done to rein in Wall Street's guilty. He shows how the system targets easy targets to nab among the vulnerable, while it, as people like Timothy Geithner, Lanny Breuer, and Eric Holder connive to go as far as to ask Wall Street what to do and whom to pursue before the Feds move in, tiptoeing about. Taibbi does not bring in all of the context of deregulated banks, for the pressure on the second Bush administration to loosen up loans to minority and low-income communities is not addressed, nor is the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act discussed in the detail I think it merits, in reference to the Glass-Steagall Act's partial repeal in 1999. But there is a lot of financial coverage overall.

The current White House administration encourages despite its rhetoric (as Obama's "60 Minutes' comment on ethics in typically slippery lawyerspeak is parsed by Taibbi to reveal its vacuum) deregulation and submission to the corporate domination of our nation's legal, judicial, law enforcement, and political establishments started with Reagan and sustained by Clinton and the Bushes. Here, Matt Taibbi connects the dots and singles out those who continue, as yet another election looms, to pretend they have the interests of the common people in mind instead of those with whom they consort and plot, to build what's now oligarchy. (Amazon US 5-31-14)