A far-away from the centre and mountain town, university town, town built around the manufacturing of wool. Its picturesque buildings tumble down hills along narrow twisting streets, offer incredible views across valleys filled with the ruins of old factories. It has built public elevators and funiculars. It is storied with ancient castle walls, labour organizing, and now woolfest, which has brought the town some of my favourite street art. It seems safer to love these incredible works without reservation here unlike Lisbon, where gentrification and the financialisation of real estate through luxury flats and air bnb creeps across that amazing city. Once an art of rebellion, grafitti has become marketable in many places, but perhaps not here. It can just be loved.
Eric Williams on Capitalism and Slavery is, of course, a classic, and yet another one I wish I had read some time ago. It’s key points — racism emerged out of the economic relationships of slavery, not slavery from racism. That economics remained primary to the motivations of UK statesmen as they first instituted then abolished slavery, as they supported Colonialism, turned against it, then returned to the carving up of Africa. I am more used to the complexities of culture and hegemony and social formations in thinking about race and capitalism, they are still at play here but not explored as much as they are elsewhere. That doens’t stop this from being bad ass.
A quick overview of the narrative, that cuts much out for which I apologise.
Origin of Negro Slavery
Eric Williams notes how the practice of white indentured servitude prepared the way for slavery — and no, it wasn’t the same. But it established a profitable pattern that could be improved upon.
The servant expected land at the end of his contract: the Negro, in a strange environment, conspicuous by his color and features, and ignorant of the white man’s language and ways, could be kept permanently divorced from the land. Racial differences made it easier to justify and rationalize Negro slavery, to exact the mechanical obedience of a plough-ox or a cart-horse, to demand that resignation and that complete moral and intellectual subjection which alone make slave labor possible. finally, and this was the decisive factor, the Negro slave was cheaper. The money which procured a white man’s service for ten years could buy a Negro for life. .. But the experience with white servitude had been invaluable…white servitude was the historic base upon which Negro slavery was constructed.
Here, then, is the origin of Negro slavery. The reason was economic, not racial… (19)
The crux of it all really, but there is so much more here of course. A little on the rationalisations of the times. Climate is a familiar one — it was just too hot and unhealthy for Europeans. But really, all that indentured white servitude had already proved that wrong. As the economy came to be all about sugar in the Carribean, tobacco and cotton on the mainland, plantations grew and labour needs changed.
I can still be shocked by how quickly these changes took place, how fast small farms (and the hopes and dreams of white men often fleeing desperate poverty, even if founding their dreams on conquest) were swallowed up by big ones: Barbados in 1645 — 11,200 small white farmers, 18,300 whites fit to bear arms and 5,680 Negro slaves; 1667 — 745 large plantation owners, 8,300 whites fit to bear arms, and 82,023 slaves (23). I can’t actually imagine that shift in 27 years. This happened on island after island. Nevis, white men decreased by 3/5 between 1672 and 1708, Montserrat over 2/3 between 1672 and 1727 (24). We see a steady process of the dispossession of the dispossessors in a way that works contrary to all myths of meritocracy and promise, even if you are able to take at face value a civilization based on enslavement, rape and genocide.
The end of slavery did not mean the end of the plantation. But Black people got the hell out of there, whites were too high status for that work, so new labour sources had to be found — East Indians. Trinidad imported 145,000 East Indians, British Guiana 238,000 between 1833 and 1917. It boggles the mind. These things boggle my mind even now.
The Development of the Negro Slave Trade
Of course, slavery was a long time developing. The 1st English slave-trading expedition was led by Sir John Hawkins, 1562. It continued, though in a small way, until the establishment of the Caribbean colonies and the introduction of sugar. Eric Williams, like Rodney Walters, ties the development of England tight to the slave trade and its destruction of Africa and the New World, one country profiting from the exploitation of many others. I am going to depart from Williams here to separate out the different cities, trace their individual connections. But without forgetting how they are woven into the whole of this history — see post two for that. This initial step was under the banner of mercantilism.
The slave trade [as compared to East India or China] was ideal in that it was carried on by means of British manufactured goods and was, as far as the British colonies were concerned, inseparably connected with the plantation trade which rendered Britain independent of foreigners for her supply of tropical products. (37)
Under such a profitable system, the courts very quickly inscribed the lives and bodies of slaves as property, Judge Mansfield ruling in 1783 that ‘the case of slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard‘ and awarding thirty pounds to the ship’s investors for each of the 132 slaves thrown overboard when the vessel grew short of water. No homicide charges were contemplated. (46)
British Commerce and the Triangular Trade
So Williams moves on to the rise of the triangle trade we learned about in school, returned to it all of the horror our textbooks stripped away along with a deeper understanding of its profitability: (1) Negroes purchased with British manufactures, (2) transported to plantations to produce tropical goods which created new industries in England, and (3) their maintenance and that of their owners provided another market for British industry, new England agriculture and Newfoundland fishing industries. This wealth did more:
The profits obtained provided one of the main streams of that accumulation of capital in England which financed the Industrial Revolution. (52)
This led to the growth of Bristol, Liverpool, and Glasgow first, that would go on to be invested in manufacture and machinery. Thus these cities of original wealth ‘occupied…the position in the age of trade that Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield occupied later in the age of industry‘ (60). I learned more about British manufacturing here than I ever knew before.
Until the tremendous development of the cotton industry in the Industrial Revolution, wool was the spoiled child of English manufactures. It figured largely in all considerations affecting the slave trade in the century after 1680. The cargo of a slave ship was incomplete without some woolen manufactures–serges, says, perpetuanos, arrangoes and bays. (65)
Which led to some absurdities still with us as a manner of custom:
That woolen goods should figure so prominently in tropical markets is to be attributed to the deliberate policy of mercantilist England. … Woolen undergarments are still common in the islands today, though more among the older generation, and suits of blue serge are still a sign of the well-dressed man. (67)
The West Indian Interest
And so for a while, before this rise of the industrial revolution, the West Indian planter was the great wealth and power, and they much preferred England.
The West Indian planter was a familiar figure in English society in the eighteenth century. The explanation lies in the absentee landlordism which has always been the curse of the Caribbean and s still one of its major problems today. (85)
The curse of the absentee landlord seems ubiquitous. There is also this:
The wealth of the West Indians became proverbial. (91)
They held a monopoly of all seats but one in Bristol for a long time, and represented various other areas in parliament, which I can also still find bewildering. For example, John Gladstone represented Woodstock then Lancaster:
it was his pleasure to listen in May, 1833, to the maiden speech of his son, MP for Newark, in defense of slavery on the family states in Guiana. (93)
These families of slave-generated wealth also entrenched themselves in the House of Lords, and married into high families — ‘There are few, if any, noble houses in England…without a West Indian strain.’ (94)
British Industry and the Triangular Trade
Williams goes on to look at where this power was directed and wealth invested:
Banking: helped provide the large sums needed for cotton factories and building of canals connecting Manchester and Liverpool
Heavy Industry: West Indian trade capital financed James Watt and the steam engine. Antony Bacon early war profiteer — engaged in trade in both victualing troops and ‘supplying seasoned and able Negroes for government contracts in the West Indies‘. Set up iron works in Merthyr Tydfil, rapidly expanded to fulfill government contracts during the American war, set up another furnace at Cyfartha. (103) Just a few examples.
Insurance: Obvious this one.
The American Revolution
This played a big role in the politics of the new world, and not in the way that Americans are taught to understand our early history. New England in particular had problematic relationship with England as it grew to become a competitor with British goods rather than a consumer — which in some ways was what the revolution was actually all about. But initially it was well integrated into the triangle trade as another exporter to the West Indies (with British policy ensuring the West Indies did not produce for themselves, of course).
I just hadn’t realised how closely connected the islands were with the mainland. Alexander Hamilton was born on Nevis. Many owned plantations both in the islands and in the South. American succession had a huge impact on them, and one thing I do wonder is why they weren’t incorporated in the new US… I suppose perhaps because they were already in decline. Instead, they were just left.
Fifteen thousand slaves died of famine in Jamaica alone between 1780 and 1787, and American independence was the first stage in the decline of the sugar colonies. (121)
‘The Caribbean ceased to be a British lake… The center of gravity in the British Empire shifted from the Caribbean Sea to the Indian Ocean, from the West Indies to India. In 1783… prime Minister Pitt began to take an abnormally great interest in the British dominions to the East. In 1787 Wilberforce was encouraged by Pitt to sponsor the proposal for abolition of the slave trade. In the same year the East India Company turned its attention to the cultivation of sugar… (123)
Jesus. Profit falls and people starve.
The Development of British Capitalism 1783-1833
This becomes the period of the huge growth of cotton manufacturing (see Manchester), wool suddenly becomes an import, primarily from Australia whose whole economy shifts. Profit interests shift from West Indies to South America and India as UK becomes exporter of manufactured goods worldwide — thus exploding the need for earlier Mercantilism wisdom of monopoly. Manchester and others wished to trade with everyone, no barriers — and so, the rise of free trade movement. Well, it was coming soon.
Mercantilism had run its course. It was necessary only to give political expression to the new economic situation. (133)
It would be good for the West Indies.
The New Industrial Order
That’s because the West Indians stood for monopoly and mercantilism, and both were going down.
The attack on the West Indians was more than an attack on slavery. It was an attack on monopoly. Their opponents were not only the humanitarians but the capitalists. The reason for the attack was not only that the West Indian economic system was vicious but that it was also so unprofitable that for this reason alone its destruction was inevitable. (135)
The attack falls into three phases: the attack on the slave trade, the attack on slavery, the attack on the preferential sugar duties. The slave trade was abolished in 1807, slavery in 1833, the sugar preference in 1846. The three events are inseparable. The very vested interests which had been built up by the slave system now turned and destroyed that system. (136)
It’s an extraordinary about face.
The growth of Anti-Imperialism
There’s this strange period that I never knew about, after the loss of the original colonies, when the West Indies no longer of any importance to anyone but its plantation owners, when prevailing attitudes were against Empire. It didn’t last that long, obviously. But it did exist for a while, while greater profits were to be found in free trade.
The colonial system was the spinal cord of the commercial capitalism of the mercantile epoch. In the era of free trade the industrial capitalists wanted no colonies at all, least of all the West Indies.
The trend dated back, as we have seen, to the early years of the Industrial Revolution. Its development paralleled the development of the free trade movement. The whole world now became a British colony and the West Indies were doomed. The leader of the movement was Cobden. Cobden referred approvingly to Adam Smith’s chapters in his “immortal work” on the expense of colonies. (142)
And part of the global politicking? Destroying the immensely valuable French colony of Saint Domingue.
Pitt’s plan was twofold: to recapture the European market with the aid of sugar from India, and to secure an international abolition of the slave trade, which would ruin St Domingue. (146)
He failed in both — West Indians managed to keep import duties high, and he couldn’t get the Dutch, Spanish and French to abolish slavery. After the French Revolution, England attempted to take the colony by force — as Williams notes, Pitt couldn’t then have had a successful sugar colony and the abolition of slavery.
But instead, they didn’t capture the colony, just helped destroy it. Abolition wasn’t so important, and Pitt stepped back from it. The slave trade doubled in fact, and Britain conquered Trinidad and British Guiana. It became clear that sugar was most profitable in new territories, with its slash and burn agriculture dependent on fresh soil. Old colonies were saturated, even with destruction of St Domingue the West Indies were still not profitable, instead Cuba and other islands succeeded in producing cheaper sugar.
Wilberforce rejoiced: West Indian distress could not be imputed to abolition. Actually, abolition was the direct result of that distress. (150)
West Indies unable to compete,with Brazil and Cuba. Williams writes:
Overproduction in 1807 demanded abolition; overproduction in 1833 demanded emancipation. (152)
British Capitalism and the West Indies
And so a remarkable change:
Whereas before, in the eighteenth century, every important vested interest in England was lined up on the side of monopoly and the colonial system; after 1783, one by one, every one of those interests came out against monopoly and the West Indian slave system. (154)
“The Commercial Part of the Nation” and slavery
News flash. Capitalists only occasional abolitionists.
The “Saints” and Slavery
So we can’t completely forget the actual abolitionists, Williams admitted it was ‘one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time‘ (178). Of course it wasn’t sentimentality but economics that were the main driving force, but it’s nice to believe it was ‘justice, humanity and sound policy‘ as the bill said it was.
There is an indictment of Wilberforce in here, not that he’s hard to go after…I loved it though, having read quite a bit about the awfulness of the Clapham Sect.
There is a certain smugness about the man, his life, his religion. As a leader, he was inept, addicted to moderation, compromise and delay. He deprecated extreme measures and feared popular agitation. He relied for success upon aristocratic patronage, parliamentary diplomacy and private influence with men in office. He was a lobbyist, and it was a common saying that his vote could safely be predicted, for it was certain to be opposed to his speech. (181)
Their campaign was only directed at abolishing slavery in the West Indies, and only of Blacks. The Clapham Sect had various interest in East India and they didn’t want those troubled.
The Slaves and Slavery
Can’t leave out the agency of slaves themselves, of struggle, of uprising. And of course Eric Williams doesn’t. This is because:
Contrary to popular and even learned belief, however, as the political crisis deepened in Britain, the most dynamic and powerful social force in the colonies was the slave himself. This aspect of the West Indian problem has been studiously ignored. (201)
This despite the power and inspiration of the Maroons of Jamaica, Bush Negroes of British Guiana, the revolt of St Domingue. And endless revolt. In 1808: a slave revolt in British Guiana. 1816, Barbados. 1823, British Guiana again — fifty plantations, 12,000 people. Continued unrest. 1831, Antigua then Jamaica over Christmas that spread. 1833, emancipation.
So a few ideas and principles in the form Eric Williams gives them:
The decisive forces in the period of history we have discussed are the developing economic forces
The various contending groups of dominant merchants, industrialists and politicians, while keenly aware of immediate interest, are for that very reason generally blind to the long-range consequences of their various actions, proposals, policies. (210)
The political and moral ideas of the age are to examined in the very closest relation to the economic development.
An outworn interest, whose bankruptcy smells to heaven in historical perspective, can exercise an obstructionist and disruptive effect which can only be explained by the powerful services it had previously rendered and the entrenchment previously gained.
The ideas built on those interests continue long after the interests have been destroyed and work their old mischief, which is all the more mischievous because the interests to which they correspond no longer exist. (211)
Next post, a bit more on how city by city the UK was linked and remains linked to slavery in the New World. All of these the kind of insights that stay with you.
[Williams, Eric (1989 ) Capitalism and Slavery. London: Andre Deutsch.]
I just finished I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita. The last book started on a holiday that already seems months ago. It is splendid, one of the best things I have ever read I think for its power of storytelling, its innovations, its illustrations, the way it brings together these interconnecting lives circled around a single building and a struggle to change the world.
Two full years of my own life were spent in just such a struggle to save a residential hotel, our Morrison Hotel a mix of white, Latinx, African American, ours not knitted deep into an activist community through shop fronts or anything like the community of old Manilatown. Ours sat where it once fitted the scale and character of the street, but the long-ago razing of neighbourhood had left it more isolated, almost anomalous so close to the convention centre. Our generation did not believe the revolution was upon us, did not quote Mao to frame our defiance of capitalism, did not raise fists over small points of praxis. yet so much resonated, it made me ache. I miss my LA family.
I loved all of it, could have quoted anywhere, but you know the bit I am quoting ridiculously extensively below is about cities–like Tropic of Orange, this is all about the city but so different from that novel… This is long, also brilliant in how it says so much about the place of hotels in our world of work and poverty, about home, about nation, and opening with the solidarities that were, that could be, that should be built:
Thus we emerged from every living crevice in our hilly city, every tenement, blighted Victorian, public housing project, cheap hotel, single or collective rental, many of us the forgotten and abandoned people whose voices were muffled in the underbelly of working poverty, stuffed into the various ethnic ghettos, we the immigrants from the Old and New Worlds, from the black and white South and tribal America, we the dockworkers from the long shore, we the disabled and disavowed vets, we the gay and leathered, we the garment workers, restaurant workers, postal and clerical workers, we who praised the Lord in his house at Glide and his People’s Temple, we of the unions, tired and poor, we the people.
But why save an old hotel?
Because if we remembered the history of our city we would remember how frontier towns began: with a trading post and a saloon with a second floor of lodging rooms. … When we took everything away and thought only about the second floor of lodging rooms, we remembered that people have always come from distances and had to be accommodated, given shelter and a bed, and what we used to call board…
This basic town got complicated and multiplied into a thing we call a city, with every kind of reinvented trading post and saloon and lodging that over time we could imagine. And we supposed that the history of any city could be told through the comings and goings of any trading post or saloon, but thinking as we do, as people coming to the city to find work to pay for shelter and board, whether just for ourselves or for our families accompanying or left behind, it was the lodging that most concerned us. And we could see how city life and hotel life were inextricably connected, and what the city had to offer had a home in the hotel. Over time, we’d forgotten that hotels in our city have long served as temporary but also permanent homes, that living in hotels had been a normal consequence of living in our city. From the inception of our city, our city life could perhaps be translated as hotel life, the way that we as young, single, and independent people could arrive to find work in the industry of the city, find the small cafes and bars, theaters and social clubs, laundries, shops, and bookstores, all within walking distance or perhaps a cable stop away. Even if we did not actually live in hotels, we may have participated in, if not considered, the simple luxuries of life: the bustling social life of our streets, the hotels’ communal restaurants and social galas, the convenience of maid service and bedsheets changed, the possibility of being completely freed from any housework, the possible leisure to think or to create, and finally the anonymity and privacy of a room of our own. Hotel life defined the freedom of the city, but such freedom has been for some reason suspect, and there are always those who want to police freedom.
Finally, like the society that evolved in our city, there have been, of course, hotels for those with money and hotels for those of us with not so much money. And even though the city required our labor and allowed us housing in cheap hotels, in time we came to know that laboring people are necessary but considered transitory. Eventually, it was thought, we’d just go away or become invisible. So even if hotels depended on our constant occupancy, we were not considered permanent or stable members of society. We did not own homes. We may have had families, but hotels were suspect places to raise children, and so we were suspect families. Our communal lives in hotels with shared bathrooms and shared dining, shared genders, shared ethnicities, and heaven forbid, shared thinking that might lead to shared politics, were also suspect. Hotel life might even be subversive. A famous scholar who studied our hotel life warned us that when there are no homes, there will be no nation. But what did he mean by home? And, for that matter, what did he mean by nation?
By the time we got the red alert to place our bodies in a human barricade around an old hotel that held seventy years of our city’s hotel history, we were already the displaced people in the city’s plan to impose a particular meaning of home and a particular meaning of nation. Since our hotel life was considered suspect morally and socially, our hotels should naturally be replaced by proper single-family houses built in locations distant from the city, and our hotels and all our businesses that services us should be replaced with what the city was properly useful for: trading posts, jails, courthouses, and saloons. And no one should be allowed to live over a saloon unless he was just passing through. A commercial room was simply not a dwelling. These edicts were substantiated by zoning and blight laws…Almost as quickly as an earthquake, our neighborhoods located in the Fillmore and South of Market were already razed and being replaced by forty-eight-story multinational corporate trading posts. Even if we were expected to build, maintain, clean, and service these posts, we weren’t expected to live anywhere nearby. Be at work promptly at eight a.m., but please, please disappear by five p.m. But this was an impossible request because we could not leave, and we had nowhere to go. (588-591)
We could not leave, and had nowhere to go.
I love how this situates the residential hotel in a long history of city building, in the development of our urban form. How little things have really changed — though this makes me see US cities with new eyes. Seeing the saloon, the trading post, the lodging house. The change is in the way that capital is working, the way that workers are no longer welcome in the city centre, the disciplining of the poor into certain kinds of homes or punitively forcing them into homelessness. This captures both so beautifully, captures just what it was we were fighting over — not just the profit that owners wished to make on a building they had violently extracted every penny from at the cost of its tenants, but their ability to flick aside human beings and their security and their dreams as if they were nothing. The structural workings of race and class and labour and value that made such cruelty possible. The I Hotel was lost in 1977, and still we were fighting in 2007. Others still fight today, is there any organisation I love and respect more than LA CAN?
As two thousand of us were eventually bullied away from the hotel entrance, we saw our sheriff enter at the head of his deputies, leading them into the hotel and the final phase of the eviction, breaking into the doors of each of the hotel tenants and ordering them to leave their homes. And yes, we knew that each room was a tiny home, a place of final refuge for a lifetime of work, and the the room, though housed in a hotel, was sill a home. (591-592)
The last paragraph excavates something inside of me. Why we do, why we write.
And in time we may remember, collecting every little memory, all the bits and pieces, into a larger memory, rebuilding a great layered and labyrinthine, now imagined, international hotel of many rooms, the urban experiment of a homeless community built to house the needs of temporary lives. And for what? To resist death and dementia. To haunt a disappearing landscape. To forever embed this geography with our visions and voices. To kiss the past and you good-bye, leaving the indelible spit of our DNA on still moist lips. Sweet. Sour. Salty. Bitter. (605)
[Karen Tei Yamashita (2010) I Hotel. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press.]
Richard Iton’s Solidarity Blues was so good for thinking not just about how race and the American left have articulated, but the nature of the left in general. I use that word ‘left’ often, struggle with it, often distinguish between an elite left and a grassroots left (you all know which one I’m for). Iton takes a step back, to look at the broader ideas in motion:
I attempt to understand how the forces of individualism and collectivism interact in different contexts. (5)
This is much broader than the ‘left’, starts to capture some of the things that happen outside of movement. But I like his broad understanding of the left as well, looking at it in three different aspects:
the conventional conceptions, labor movements and socialist parties
the availability of a certain set or type of public goods
the prevalence of a certain sensibility or set of cultural values. (6)
I like too, this case for just how different America is from the other ‘developed’ nations and how it contrasts with other countries where:
certain things are taken for granted: comprehensive health care, inclusive voter registration procedure, affordable higher education, and a certain standard of public safety. (7)
Not in the US as everyone knows. Which begs the question:
Why so slow, so reluctant to provide public goods?
the answer — constructions of race — and instead of choosing to allow race to disappear or lose its significance,
at every opportunity the choice has been made to remake race in some potent form at the cost of community. (22)
So, to summarise Iton’s arguments on the articulation of race with these three principal aspects of the Left.
Labour Movements and Socialist Parties
Labour movements are sustained by a collective identity of labour opposed to capital. In the US, this collective identity was fractured by race in three principal ways — that follow one from the other and that in themselves show the complexities of this I think.
the popular identification of organized labor with racial progressivism (an association that was accurate at times and ironic at others)
the energies consumed by internecine battles within the labour movement between nativist and racist constituencies and those advocating a more inclusive movement
the decisions made by nativists, racists and their opponents to forego challenging the racial status quo and organizing immigrant workers, in the belief that a successful labour movement could be sustained without the participation of those groups, and that these issues and constituencies could be dealt with at some later point… (25)
This helps explain the rise of someone like Samuel Gompers in the AFL — fucking Samuel Gompers, the UK has some responsibility for him too as he was born here. He promoted a focus on today’s battles rather than a broader struggle or movement — small wins, craft unions, the exclusion of people of colour, such an ugly politics that wasn’t arguably even practical given it created large pools of strikebreakers. He actually fought while in the cigar makers union to have white labels placed on cigars made by white labour so racists would know and could but white and union.
No wonder you get Du Bois writing that the ‘AFL not a labor movement, but monopoly of skilled workers’.
There are some brighter lights, though they may have shone briefly. Hurrah, for instance, for the Western Federation of Miners, founded in 1893 in Montana (Montana! No longer somewhere such a movement could blossom I think). From them grew the IWW in 1905 — and of course Iton notes the greater homogeneity of the west coast and how it shaped their politics, it was easier not to be racist. But still. While Iton argues their importance was more symbolic, he does quote Dubovsky:
so feared were the Wobblies that probably no group of labor agitators before or since has as suddenly or disastrously experienced the full wrath of state and national authorities. (51)
On the whole though, Labor’s record in the US is dismal.
labor’s job is to ensure that its constituency can control the circumstances of its existence. Organized labor in the United States has largely either been afraid to do so, or, because of internal and external compromises, been unable to do so. (78)
Where it has been successful in building solidarity, Iton notes, it has actually been along racial lines rather than lines of work or labour.
Southern Politics and Parties
Nothing establishes better the broad weaknesses of the left, and how racial conflicts have prevented it from creating a more collectivist society, than a hard look at the impact of Southern ‘Democratic’ party politics. Iton summarises his argument that it created a:
- constant division of leftists activists over issue of whether organizations would be interracial, segregated, or separate but coordinated.
- popular rejection of those movements which have pursued interracial alliances …IWW, UMW, CIO
- …the race issue has just been a problem to be solved at some future date (84)
Jim Crow disenfranchised Blacks, but also increasingly poor whites, concentrating power in Southern elites against which the whole country has been held hostage through the Democratic party.
There was, of course, that brief period when Lenin in the 2nd congress of 1920 directed the Communist Party to support the self-determination of oppressed peoples within nations — this included the Irish and African negroes as revolutionary groups, which ensured that the CPUSA for a time did its best to pursue equal rights for blacks, and in South proposing in proposed a black belt nation. In the North, party activists began doing grassroots organizing work with tenants, particularly around rent strikes and the unemployed councils. In 1936 they formed the National Negro Congress, and at this time also began reaching out to other race communities, such as Mexican farmworkers.
‘By 1935…11 percent of the party’s roughly 27,000 members were black, and in the South, blacks composed an even higher percentage. (118)
Change in CP policy led widespread abandonment of earlier causes, but this isn’t really mentioned. It does help explain some of the automatic connection between race equality and communism that is still so prevalent today, though I mostly think this has been a convenient labeling to facilitate isolation and repression. Of course, it meant the red scare had an even greater impact on those fighting for racial equality. Like Gerald Horne, Iton writes of this period after WWII, which saw:
a unique collapsing of the realms of racial and class politics…the effective end of the traditional left in American politics and a further truncation of the acceptable range of debate concerning economic issues and alternatives. (125)
The radical politics emerging from the Great Depression could have been a time when working classes came together, but instead they split over race. Party politics since then has not sought to challenge current attitudes, but work within the very limited gains staying within them can achieve… White privilege was just a little too strong I suppose. Old FDR himself maintained a 2nd home in Warm Springs Georgia, and promoted himself in 1932 election as a “Georgia planter-politician’.
And now? Iton cites Robert Greenberg’s 1985 study of Macomb ,Michicgan and the switch from Democrat to Republican among white working to middle-class Americans
These white Democratic defectors express a profound distaste for blacks, a sentiment that pervades almost everything they think about government and politics. . . . Blacks constitute the explanation for their vulnerability and for almost everything else that has gone wrong in their lives; not being black is what constitutes being middle class; not living with blacks is what makes a place a decent place to live. (129)
Beyond the Left
Iton describes how race conservatism has allowed rights to vote to be curtailed, slowed and reduced medicare and medicaid, opposed fair employment practices committee, ensured no best practices taken from Europe as US the only superpower post WWII. But this is a question that continues to pester me:
While I do not want to overstate the importance of the cultural politics of the post-McCarthy era from a progressive standpoint, the inability of the American left to survive the era that produced the civil rights movement and second-wave feminism says something about the American left, as well as American society. (218)
For Iton the why is at least partially found here:
the characteristically American resistance to collective strategies reflects an attachment to the rights and prerogatives of individuals over and above and particular communities. (234)
This of course emerges from Turner’s ‘frontier thesis, or Louis Hartz or Seymour Martin Lipset’s work. But this doesn’t go deep enough, why this push towards individualism?
The liberal individualism Hartz and others have cited has been rhetorical residue remaining after the battles among the competing “we” claims promoted by different ethnic and racial communities. In other words, while an examination of the speeches of politician might reflect a particularly American preference for individual liberties, the unstated realities have often been shaped by the ethnic and racial calculations made by different groups. (235)
This has never been dealt with by the left in its goal to appeal to the broadest number of people and rejection of the call to help with the ‘maintenance and relaization of a collective sensibility and human civilization.’ (245-246). There is more to dig into here about the way that race has structured capital (see Cedric Robinson), or about how racism has help form a concept of whiteness tied to privilege (as does David Roediger), but the result has been tragic. The book ends with this thought:
The particular and exceptional extent to which the American left has been removed from the main stage of American life has been a direct function of its inability or unwillingness to transcend these hurdles in an especially demographically diverse context, and a result of the popular attachment to a realm — race — that can generate few larger meanings, resilient identities, or practical moralities. (246)
Iton, Richard (2000) Solidarity Blues: Race, Culture and the American Left. Chapel hill and London: University of North Carolina Press.
Laura Pulido is one of my heroes, and returning to Environmentalism and Economic Justice now that I have some disposable income to buy it…well. It’s brilliant. (Though actually I am realising I don’t actually have any real disposable income at all. Breaks my heart). It brings together the theory that I believe most needs to be brought together, using the postcolonial and subaltern theory to look at struggles in the US and knocking apart some of the most frustrating aspects of writing around ‘new social movements’ and social movement in general. Then rebuilding it of course, in ways I find particularly useful and illuminating.
Subalternity is not often used in relation to the U.S. — this is how Pulido describes the economic structures and the role of racism in creating conditions of subalternity:
…subaltern environmentalism is embedded in material and power struggles, as well as questions of identity and quality of life. Dominated communities engaged in environmental struggles do not disaggregate their various identities and needs. Although they may engage in strategic essentialism, the practice of reifying aspects of one’s identity for political purposes, they recognize the multiple identities and the various lines of domination and power that need to be resisted and challenged. They build complex movements which simultaneously address issues of identity as well as a wide range of economic issues (production, distribution, and uneven development), thereby defying the various models and paradigms social scientists have created to impose meaning on collective action, in particular, environmentalism. (xv)
This is because for some communities, environmental problems are not just simple quality of life issues, rather:
From the perspective of marginalized communities, environmental problems reflect, and may intensify, larger existing inequalities and uneven power relations. (xv)
While Pulido celebrates the new, postmodern opening up to struggles beyond production such as identity, I love her argument against ditching political economy. Love that she looks to Watts as well as to Arturo Escobar to bring the two together. Because poor people of color experience a complex reality in which resistance is required along lines of both class and race among other things. We need to understand
how multiple forces interact in creating inequality and oppression, and how complex struggles form to overcome it. (xviii)
Elsewhere she writes this intersectionality:
Even though their struggles may be categorized as class conflict, racism, or patriarchal resistance, what is usually at stake are multiple forms of domination, exploitation, and resistance, that narrow applications of class may prevent us from appreciating. (5)
The two studies featured in this volume were chosen to complement the principal focus of environmental justice work at the time, on toxics primarily in urban areas. I like how this expands the focus — though of course, so much work has been done in the past eleven years to further develop this, as can be seen in The Colors of Nature or The Environmental Justice Reader.
A final ingredient is the focus on struggle, and that of course, it recognises that oppression also helps create the conditions for its resistance:
For oppressed communities, a dignified life means being able to live free of cultural oppression and racial and ethnic inequality. Hence, while culture and racism are critical to understanding oppression, they are also essential to illuminating the process of mobilization (xx).
So a good summary of the subaltern nature of environmental justice struggles:
This new form of environmentalism goes by a variety of headings: grassroots, popular, livelihood, resistance, environmental justice, and resource struggles. What they all share is a counterhegemonic, or subaltern, location — they exist in opposition to prevailing powers. (4)
New Social Movements (NSMs)
For NSM researchers, identity has emerged as as a key area of focus…understanding how individuals coalesce and fashion new collective identities is the crucial question in understanding the emergence of social movements.
I understand why she has to engage with this literature more broadly, it was the thing after all. But still I am frustrated with its limitations. Of course Pulido also brings in old favourites — on the transition to post-fordism, she looks to Stuart Hall (1991) to understand the new decentring of self and identity, and how we are made up multiple identities and positions, identify in multiple different ways. Gilroy is in here too on the complexities of it all.
The claim that NSMs are only about quality of life issues, or the disagreement over whether racial struggles are NSMs or should be catagorised among older movements? Not so useful. Pulido writes:
The concept of NSMs has become problematic precisely because it has been so widely applied. In reality, its true value is in helping us see what is unique about a limited number of movements. (12)
The idea that some people have to struggle on multiple fronts? Obvious I would have thought, and yet…apparently not to everyone. But it is to subaltern scholars:
Subaltern movements are simultaneously about both material concerns and systems of meaning, thereby challenging the notion that identity issues are not of concern to those struggling to survive.
She quotes Arturo Escobar rather extensively (I love Escobar, haven’t managed to write about him yet, and will find it difficult precisely because of the desire to quote him even more extensively than I usually quote people, his book is full full full of underlining)
It is essential to recognize the importance of economic factors and their structural determinants. But just as crucial as the reconstruction of economies — and indelibly linked to it — is the reconstitution of meanings at all levels, from everyday life to national development. Social movements must be seen equally and inseparably as struggles over meanings as well as material conditions, that is, as cultural struggles… Contemporary social movements in Latin America have a multiple character, as economic, social, political and cultural struggles.(Escobar 1992b)
I would argue that the same could be said for the environmental struggles of the subaltern, regardless of their location. (13)
It works well, I think, to see the struggles of people in the colour and potentially the poor more broadly in the US in these terms, and I like the opportunities it opens up for broader alliances across race and nationality and particularly across national borders. I also think there is still a lot of work to be done here:
Activists are acutely aware that racism is manifest in every corner of society and that racist attitudes are deeply entrenched and institutionalized, but they have not developed a textured understanding of how racism interacts with various economic forces and hegemonic forms of cultural life. Instead, they have emphasized overt forms of discrimination… (17)
At the same time I think this is worth saying (and so eloquently):
It could be argued that for racially oppressed groups, racism is the primary axis of domination. All encounters of the oppressed–whether in the job market, at school, at home, or as a consumer–are experienced through racial subordination. Conversely, the racialized structure of the United States results in a benefit to whites. White privilege is so hegemonic that few whites are even cognizant of it. (18)
This stuff is… really hard, and I think people are all over the place in terms of how clearly they understand it and how well they are able to articulate it. It certainly shapes struggle though, and where communities are at. Pulido quotes Robert Bullard’s insight that African Americans really came to understand the importance of environmental issues only after linking them to civil rights and inequality.
The key to … inclusion rest on linking environmental issues with the social justice concerns of minority communities… (Bullard 1993a)
I’m wondering for how many other issues this might be true, and what this means for white consciousness. But the point is well made:
This is critical to understanding the dominant discourse of subaltern environmental struggles in the United States. Racism and the struggle for equality are the entry point for marginalized groups in the United States; livelihood is the entry point for Third World communities. (19)
I found Pulido’s thinking here so so useful in thinking about positionality in a robust and useful way, something I feel like I’ve been stumbling around my whole life with gradually increasing clarity:
I argue that the issue of positionality is most important in distinguishing mainstream and subaltern environmentalism. Activists of all sorts may be involved in the same environmental issue and even have the same political line, but mainstream and subaltern actors hold different positions within the socioeconomic structure that, in turn, frame their struggles differently. It is important to realize that positionality does not refer to a specific person or group per se but is rather a position that can be filled by any individual.
Contrary to mainstream efforts are the actions of subaltern environmental movement who, because of their position, are not in control of the economy and, in general, do not benefit from a continuation of the status quo. For these individuals, environmental issues are important in that they affect their livelihood or impact their health and physical well-being. Consequently, not only are they more physically and socially vulnerable, but they may require a change in the prevailing social relations tor each a satisfactory solution. Hence, on a very fundamental level, participants in subaltern struggles encounter environmental concerns not only from a different perspective, but also from a different structural position that may entail entirely different solutions and course of action. (28)
It emerged so clearly in both our organising and my own research the ways that these structural positions demand recognition in both strategy and goals in ways that people outside the struggle often do not understand:
Due to their position, the subaltern are not able to distance themselves from the political or economic consequences of either the problem or the proposed solutions. (29)
I think the key here is, does someone, do you benefit from the maintenance of the status quo? If you do, better said where you do because almost all of us have aspects of our identity that do not, then it is certain you’ll have some blindspots. It is nice to see it so clearly explained why there cannot just be one axis. But also the way Pulido grounds her work in economic relations, so she is also able to:
recognize how economic relations are mutually constituted by racism and issues of identity. A materialist analysis is crucial in identifying the structures and forces leading to the formation of subaltern environmental struggles. (31)
And highlights some of the key questions in looking at movement and thinking about resistance:
The task is to identify the ways in which racism, cultural oppression and identity interact with economic forces to create unique forms of domination and exploitation. (32)
Above all this book explores how important culture is to these positions — and the ability to find strength there:
For subaltern groups, quality-of-life issues are expressed within their economic projects. “People fight not only for more but for the possibility of defining a way of life expressive of deeply held values” (Plotke 1990, 93)
Given the development of white supremacy, these values are often key both to imagining alternatives, and to challenging the constantly promoted superiority of whiteness.
Racism must be challenged in the economic, social and cultural spheres.
Consequently, while the UFWOC’s [United Farm Worker of California] movement is a class conflict, it was also an antiracist struggle. It was antiracist in its efforts to counter the racialized division of labor, a racist class structure, as well as the larger racist ideology which rendered rural Chicanos as a despised population. (32)
Again this is part of identifying the multiple modes of oppression, of fighting on all fronts:
When poverty, racism, and culture come together to oppress people, they also interact to create unique forms of oppression that become the basis of resistance. Each of these factors must be countered individually and collectively, and one of the first steps in attempting to do so is the creation of an affirming, collective identity. (33)
Some axes, some definitions
I struggled a lot with why I have not focused on gender in my own work, and again Pulido nailed exactly why I did not and why I was uncomfortable with doing so artificially — in the struggles she studied gender was not articulated as an axis of domination and resistance, so she chose not to include gender as its own axis as it were. While ever present as an issue, Pulido writes:
Emphasizing this line of inquiry, however, would have take the analysis in a different direction, emphasizing unspoken forms of consciousness and interaction. … the fact remains that gender was not strategically used by the organizations in either understanding their oppression or mobilizing against it. For this reason I did not make it a separate category. Instead, it us interwoven throughout the discussion and reflects not only individual gender consciousness, but its intersection with other dynamics that create fully textured lives. (33)
The definitions found here are great, especially in the ways that they build on — while also moving beyond — traditional Marxist understandings:
In short, there are many ways to be poor and economically marginal which are beyond the bounds of class. Understanding the specific conditions and relationships which give rise to poverty and inequality is essential in order to analyze them and ascertain the motivating force of struggles. (34)
Looking at Northern New Mexico, and its underdevelopment it becomes more clear just how this works, and how this is connected to space and place:
Because they have been relatively exempt from the homogenizing forces of modernity, such communities often carry the illusion of a traditional lifestyle…
It is imperative to understand the role of capital in the creation of places. (35)
This does not discount the importance of class, or the division of labour as an important analytical category in all advanced economies, but it explores the complexity of this as it intersects, or too often overlaps far too perfectly, with race. While there may be contradictions, too often
there may be an almost perfect fit, leading to a racialized division of labor. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than among California farmworkers. (37)
Like Harvey’s more flexible reading of Marx, Pulido emphsasis the relational aspect of class, an individual can occupy more than one class position. At the same time there is often a collective relationship rather than just an individual one.
Of course, neither poor people nor workers automatically constitute a class. Only when people unite to struggle on issues related to production, the appropriation of surplus value, and domination — only when they exist in opposition — do they then become a class. (39)
This raises the question of domination and power, and resistance to it.
Race is socially constructed. Of course. She uses Peter Jackson’s definition of racism (1987) which I hadn’t come across before (I don’t think?)
…a set of interrelated ideologies and practices that have grave material effects, severely effecting black people’s life chances and threatening their present and future well-being (1987, p 3)
But expanded beyond the Black/white binary of course. I like this definition very much. Another key:
In order to be effective, a racist ideology must become so pervasive and natural that it becomes hegemonic, and therefore, rarely questioned. (43)
Interesting too, how this becomes transferred to behaviours:
Although much of our racial discourse centers on the words “color” and “skin” — and although many people continue to be racist based solely on the idea of phenotype — skin color has essentially become a signifier for behavior considered objectionable by the dominant group. (44)
and both become tied up with neighbourhood and place, as described by Charles Mills.
As NSM literature demonstrates, the formation of a collective identity is a necessary first step in building a movement. People, regardless of how oppressed they might be, do not inevitably have a common identity. A shared identity must be cultivated and refined through interaction and struggle with other groups. (46) … while an affirmative identity will not necessarily lead to mobilization, it is, at the least, crucial to retaining one’s dignity in the face of oppression. (47)
The point is how to make it an affirming, positive identity, and as inclusive as possible…it would be good to think more about that and I think some people are. Strategic essentialism is part of this perhaps. For those who complain endlessly about identity politics:
Obviously, the creation of an affirmative identity can never be fully distinguished from resistance because the action and consciousness required to build such an identity, even if it simply allows one to live with a shred of dignity, is an act of resistance and an exercise of power in itself. It is the power of self that is the crucial first step in imagining the possibility of resistance or another reality. In my study of subaltern Chicano environmental struggles, ethnicity was the primary form of identification, and culture provided much of the raw material for that identity. (47)
The question, as I say, is how this is developed through struggle and conscientização so that it builds towards alliances, solidarity, broadening of movement.
Quotes Aldrich, Carter, Hone and McEvoy (48):
Ethnicity is the identity which members of the group place upon themselves, race is a label foisted on to them by non-members… While racial identity may be a crippling disability, ethnicity acts as a positive force for the protection and promotions of group interests.
I never thought of it like this… I have so much more reading to do I know. I still think of it as defined on the immigration forms I helped people fill out long ago.
Anyway. To end. Without getting much into the struggles themselves, whose inspiration fills the bulk of the book and I loved and might find time to write more about.
Bringing it all together?
So how does Pulido connect political economy to these concepts, these axes of domination and subordination? She describes three cultural concepts that are helpful:
- Bauman’s concepts of differential and hierarchical culture (1973). Anglo-American culture is regularly seen, described, taught as better than others, part of the necessary struggle is that subaltern cultures turn this on its head.
- Values, beliefs and material culture… different cultural forms exist in subaltern struggles which can become outward symbols and expressions of cultural differences and ways of proclaiming that there is an alternative. Examples are UFWOC’s use of La Virgen de Guadalupe, or Ganados anchoring their economic development project in wool and weaving.
- Praxis. She defines this in a unique way (to me, I am wonderig if this is how it is used in postcolonial studies) and I like how it brings together resistance, culture and material struggle:
Praxis is action. It is the social relations that actually create a culture. It is the stuff of which culture (and life) is made. Praxis usually refers to practices of which people are not overtly conscious but which appear to be the natural way of doing things. An illustration of praxis is how people organize their family life. Praxis is critical to understanding domination, mobilization and resistance. … In order for a movement to be successful, it must begin where people are. It must begin with the familiar and everyday. One reason that both of these case studies were successful was the emphasis on praxis, which allowed people to feel comfortable in new experiences and situations. (55)
In 1968, Wendell Berry wrote The Hidden Wound — a fascinating look at U.S. racism and its connection to land and work from this incredible environmentalist who grew up in a family that still remembered owning slaves. I’ve been trying to get my head around the way that the current terrifying onslaught of policies of hate and fear are so closely tied to Christianity — and yes I know Crusades and witch burnings and pogroms and the Inquisition and… I know. But this helped explain the particular moment we are in as Americans better than anything I’ve read in while from a point of view that I don’t often read.
It opens with a frank admission:
I have been unwilling, until now, to open in myself what I have known all along to be a wound–a historical wound, prepared centuries ago to come alive in me at my birth like a hereditary disease, and to be augmented and deepened by my life….If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound unto himself. As the master, or as a member of the dominant race, he has felt little compulsion to acknowledge it or speak of it; the more painful it has grown the more deeply he has hidden it within himself. But the wound is there, and it is a profound disorder, as great a damage in his mind as it is in his society. (3-4)
This damage now erupted brutally into the open keeps me up at night.
Berry writes of the casual stories told by his family, remembering the past. There is one story in particular of a slave that had to be sold because he would not be good (and how much Black pain lies in that white concept of ‘good’?):
The story has passed from generation to generation in flight from its horror. It has been told and retold, surely, because in the depths of our souls we all have recognized in it an evil that is native to us and that we cannot escape. (8-9)
Still, slave owners tried to escape its consequences, and this required particular habits and manners of thought. Berry describes the double nature that had to exist in religion, for example. We all know the Bible says to turn the other cheek, to love your enemies, to ‘lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth’, to do unto others as you would have done unto you — all things Southern society would be glad that slaves (and their descendants) should live by. But whites clearly did not, could not live these beliefs, without freeing slaves (or returning all that land to Native Americans rather than attempting their total destruction). This shaped white Christianity in very particular ways, and Berry’s description of it resonates so strongly today…
Thus the moral obligation was cleanly excerpted from the religion. the question of how best to live on the earth, among one’s fellow creatures, was permitted to atrophy, and the churches devoted themselves exclusively and obsessively with the question of salvation. (17)
I think current events have been ripping the covers off, revealing the fruit of this.
Berry also shares thoughts on language, how this double nature existed there too and shaped the words people used, how they thought.
Within the context of prejudice and segregation, the two races had to get along, and so there was an etiquette of speech that one learned from the cradle: one “respected the feelings” of Negroes, when in their presence one did not flaunt one’s “superiority” or use the word nigger… But more important, within the language there was a silence, an emptiness, of exactly the shape of the humanity of the black man; the language I spoke in my childhood and youth was in that way analagous to a mold in which a statue is to be cast. The operations, then, were that one could, by a careful observance of the premises of the language, keep the hollow empty and thus avoid the pain of the recognition of the humanity of an oppressed people and of one’s own guilt in their oppression; or one could, willing or not, be forced by the occasions of sympathy and insight to break out of those premises into a speech of another and more particular order, so that the hollow begins to fill with the substance of a life that one must recognize as human and demanding. (19)
Later he writes:
The word nigger might be thought of as rattling around, with devastating noise and impact, within the silence, that black-man-shaped hollow, inside our language. (50)
This is so chilling, makes so much sense. There is so much to undo, and Wendell Berry writes about the difficulties of undoing it:
I am trying to establish the outline of an understanding of myself in regard to what was fated to be the continuing crisis of my life, the crisis of racial awareness–the sense of being doomed by my history to be, if not always a racist, then a man always limited by the inheritance of racism, condemned to be always conscious of the necessity not to be a racist, to be always dealing deliberately with the reflexes of racism that are embedded in my mind as deeply at least as the language I speak. (48-49)
This is a process deeply rooted in history, in the origins of the country, in the ways that whites sought to take what was not theirs, and then to force others to work on it.
From the beginning also, as the white man made his drive into the continent, to take it from its wilderness and its original inhabitants and possess it, there were two great necessities: one was to own the land, to establish and maintain a legal claim; the second was the enormous and continuing labor it took to convert such ownership into the profits which would preserve and augment it. In the parts of the country where there was a black labor force these necessities were divided, in theory at least; the white man was to be the owner, the black man was to be the laborer. (80)
The results could only be a twisted and misshapen society whose ultimate values had been conquest and profit. Berry writes:
The white man, preoccupied with the abstractions of the economic exploitation and ownership of the land, necessarily has lived on the country as a destructive force, an ecological catastrophe, because he assigned the hand labor, and in that the possibility of intimate knowledge of the land, to a people he considered racially inferior; in thus debasing labor, he destroyed the possibility of a meaningful contact with the earth…The history of the white man’s use of the earth in America is a scandal. (105)
He also writes:
Whereas the whites, as a group, have produced here only a pernicious value system, based on greed and egotism and the lust for status and comfort, without either an elemental knowledge on the one hand or a decent social vision on the other. What the whites have produced of cultural value had come into being in the face of either indifference or opposition on the part of most whites… (81)
And yet for so many years, race has been seen as the ‘Negro Problem’ (or the Mexican problem, or the Asian problem…), when not only is it a problem of all Americans, but resonates through each and every one of our relationships:
It seems to me that racism could not possibly have made merely a mechanical division between the two races; at least in America it did not. It involves an emotional dynamics that has disordered the heart both of the society as a whole and of every person in the society. It has made divisions not only between white people and black people, but between black men and black women, white men and white women; it has come between white people and their work, and between white people and their land. It has fragmented both our society and our minds. (91)
This not least because
Whites fear what they feel, secretly or otherwise, to be the righteousness of the anger of blacks; as the oppressors they feel, secretly or otherwise, morally inferior to those they have oppressed. (92)
Where does wholeness lie? A better future? In recognising that
…no man is alone, because he cannot be; he cannot arrange it so that either the good or the bad effects of his life will apply only to himself; he can only live in the creation, among the creatures, his life either adding to the commonwealth or subtracting from it. Men are whole not only insofar as they make common cause with each other, but also insofar as they make common cause with their native earth, which is to say with the creation as a whole, which is to say with the creator. (104)
It involves recognizing the crimes against native peoples, and in all humility learning from them.
For examples of a whole and indigenous American society, functioning in full meaning and good health within the ecology of this continent, we will have to look back to the cultures of the Indians. That we failed to learn from them how to live in this land is a stupidity–a racial stupidity–that will corrode the heart of our society until the day comes, if it ever does, when we do turn back to learn from them. (107)
It involves recognising the humanity of all.
As soon as we have filled the hollow in our culture, the silence in our speech, with the fully realized humanity of the black man–and it follows, of the American Indian–then there will appear over the horizon of our consciousness another figure as well: that of the American white man, our own humanity, lost to us these three and a half centuries, the time of all our life on this continent.
It is not, I think, a question of when and how the white people will “free” the black people and the red people. It is a condescension to believe that we have the power to do that. Until we have recognized in them the full strength and grace of their distinctive humanity we will be able to set no one free, for we will not be free ourselves. When we realize that they possess a knowledge for the lack of which we are incomplete and in pain, then the wound in our history will be healed. Then they will simply be free, among us–and so will we, among ourselves for the first time, and among them. (108)
There is more here I want to write about, about race and land, work, memory… but later. For now I will end with a quote from the Afterward, written in 1988, a plea to recognise the only things that could possibly make us truly safe and secure:
There is no safety in belonging to the select few… If we are looking for insurance against want and oppression, we will find it only in our neighbors’ prosperity and goodwill and, beyond that, in the good health of our worldly places, our homelands. If we were sincerely looking for a place of safety, for real security and success, then we would begin to turn to our communities – and not the communities simply of our human neighbors but also of the water, earth, and air, the plants and animals, all the creatures with whom our local life is shared. We would be looking too for another another kind of freedom. Our present idea of freedom is only the freedom to do as we please…But that is a freedom dependent upon affluence, which is in turn dependent upon the rapid consumption of exhaustible supplies. The other kind of freedom is the freedom to take care of ourselves and each other. The freedom of affluence opposes and contradicts the freedom of community life.
Our place of safety can only be the community, and not just one community, but many of them everywhere. (129)
[Berry, Wendell (1989, 2010) The Hidden Wound. Berkeley: Counterpoint.]
Buffalo Bill Cody! Like many I am fascinated by him, particularly as I increasingly realise just how much he had to do with creating the mythology of the Wild West and spreading it around the world. Many years ago, Manny and I traveled to Spain and ended up in the same Barcelona hotel where Buffalo Bill had once stayed — where he had ridden his horse up the marble stairs if my memory does not lie. There are traces of him in England too, and I always wondered what the many people who traveled with him as part of his show felt and thought as they experienced Europe and crossed the US. What an adventure — and yet to be on display, to create mythologies through recreating scenes as they almost certainly never happened — from cowboy life to white victories over Native American tribes.
I never knew that in looking towards his retirement Buffalo Bill partly settled in Oracle, filed mining claims there that he hoped would make him rich but that instead helped bankrupt him. He is not alone in that. A picture of him in Oracle.
William ‘Curly’ Neal, who Cody took under his wing as an aide and scout (and last blog is all about him and his amazing wife Annie and a small window into the lived experience of race in Southern Arizona), was doing very well for himself in Oracle and Buffalo Bill and some of his riders would often come stay with him at the Mountain View Hotel. The Mine With the Iron Door by Harold Bell Wright — both the novel and the 1924 silent film itself filmed in Oracle — helped inspire his desire to find the mine in the Catalina mountains that would make him rich.
When Curly told him the mine with the iron door was nowhere to be found, Buffalo Bill filed claims on High Jinks, Campo Bonito, Maudina, Southern Belle, and the Morning Star mines. They would drain him of all money – partly in legitimate development, which is always expensive and over-cost. But from Marriott’s description in Annie’s Guests, it certainly sounds as though he was soundly robbed by those he employed to manage the mines for him.
Buffalo Bill stayed up at the Hijinks claim, now a series of ranch buildings just alongside the Arizona trail, it’s now a National Historic Site:
A picture of Buffalo Bill can be found there near the entrance:
It is alongside an old cart, driven by Liz Taylor and Tom Skerrit in Poker Alice:
the view looking out across the valley towards the Gaiuros Mountains…not too bad at all:
Views of the Old Maudina Mine:
(and the view from inside this shallow working)
The more traditional mine entrances, fenced off, signs warning of danger riddled with bullet holes…
Some of the tailings spilling down the hill, all iron- and mineral-stained quartz:
Campo Bonito mine was much bigger, a shaft driven deep but mostly obscured by huge rock tumbled from the cliff face above it. Here’s a long-ago view of Buffalo Bill playing Santa Claus here though:
The view looking outwards remains splendid:
In Marriott’s chapter on Elizabeth Lambert Wood, there is a diary entry mostly describing Buffalo Bill’s wife, who had confided to Elizabeth that his long white hair was a wig. She loved knitting, and was using one of Buffalo Bill’s Medals of Honor to wind her wool. Wood also comments that she saw the saddle that Queen Victoria gave Buffalo Bill just lying on the ground. She writes:
They told me they had so many valuable things thay had no place to put them…To her they were only ‘negligible trifles’. (104)
A larger than life character in every way. Elizabeth Lambert Wood later bought the Southern Belle Ranch and the mine, and made a fortune in Tungsten.
The walk to get up to Hijinks and the mines was brilliant. We started at the Arizona Trail head just alongside the American Flag Ranch (our map had that wrong, so it took us a while to find.) We walked up the Arizona Trail to meet the Oracle Ridge trail, along that a ways, and then down along the old roads to the mines and then back to the Arizona Trail. You can see the Biosphere II from here once you come up to Oracle Ridge, though this picture hardly does its SF feel justice as it sits white and gleaming in the desert landscape.
We saw three white-tailed deer, huge numbers of birds, and traces everywhere of a most abundant wildlife. A wonderful spot for hiking.
I loved John Gaventa’s book on power. I read it a good while ago, but it came to me as I read more and more about social movement analysis that it would be good to look at it again — and the more I love it. Because it does not start from the question of why do people organise and challenge power, but from the question of why they don’t do it more often.
This is a study about quiescence and rebellion in a situation of glaring inequality. Why, in a social relationship involving the domination of a non-élite by an élite, does challenge to that domination not occur? What is there in certain situations of social deprivation that prevents issues from arising, grievances from being voiced, or interests from being recognized? Why, in an oppressed community where one might intuitively expect upheaval, does one instead find, or appear to find, quiescence? Under what conditions and against what obstacles does rebellion begin to emerge? (3)
That, I think, is the right question. Not surprising, I suppose, from someone who was the director of the Highlander Center after Myles Horton. Gaventa names some of the theories that help explain this before replacing them with something much better:
…the sociological literature of industrial societies offers an array of explanations for its roots: embourgeoisement, hegemony, no real inequality, low rank on a socio-economic status scale, cultural deficiencies of the deprived, or simply the innate apathy of the human race…Rather than deal with these directly, this study will explore another explanation: in situations of inequality, the political response of the deprived group or class may be seen as a function of power relationships, such that power serves for the development and maintenance of the quiescence of the non-élite. The emergence of rebellion, as a corollary, may be understood as the process by which the relationships are altered. (4)
It looks to the question: what is that nature of power? Bases its analysis not on Foucault, but on Steven Lukes in Power: A Radical View, and the way this debate on power has expanded C. Wright Mills.
Lukes (& Gaventa) on Power
Lukes argues that power consists of three dimensions. Gaventa summarises as do I — given that Lukes is still on my stack of books unread:
One-Dimensional Approach: the pluralists, like Robert Dahl and Nelson Polsby. Quoting Dahl:
My intuitive idea of power is something like this: A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that he would not otherwise do.’*
This definition is focused on behaviour, on doing, on participating.
It makes the following assumptions
- grievances are assumed to be recognized and acted upon
- participation is assumed to occur within decision-making arenas, which are open to any organized group (5)
- because of the openness of this system, leaders may be studied, not as élites, but as representative spokesmen for a mass
Gaventa describes the consequences:
Political silence, or inaction, would have to be taken to reflect ‘consensus’, despite the extent of the deprivation… To make plausible inaction among those for whom the status quo is not comfortable, other explanations are provided…because the study of non-participation in this approach is sequestered by definition from the study of power, the explanations must generally be placed within the circumstance or culture of the non-participants themselves. (7)
We know the list: apathy, political inefficacy, cynicism or alienation…amoral familism (I think I knew that was on the list).
What is there inherent in low income, education or status, or in rural or traditional cultures that itself explains quiescence? If these are sufficient components of explanation, how are variations in behaviour amongst such groups to be explained? (8)
Groups do sometimes rise up, fight back. Something else must be going, so we move to the two-dimensional approach, introduced by Schattschneider, further developed by Bachrach and Baratz (again, none of whom I have read).
… power’s ‘second face’, by which power is exercised not just upon participants within the decision-making process but also towards the exclusion of certain participants and issues altogether. (9)
Thus, power’s second dimension and
The study of politics must focus ‘both on who gets what, when and how and who gets left out and how’** (9)
Here’s another good explanatory quote from Michael Parenti ‘Power and Pluralism: A View form the Bottom’ Journal of Politics 32 (1970)
‘One of the most important aspects of power is not to prevail in a struggle but to pre-determine the agenda of struggle…
But still, this is not sufficient to explain the patterns in resistence and acquiescence that we see. Lukes brings in the three-dimensional approach, here he is quoted by Gaventa:
A exercises power over B when A affects B in a manner contrary to B’s interests.
A may exercise power over B by getting him to do what he does not want to do, but he also exercises power over him by influencing, shaping or determining his very wants.
Gaventa continues, his own commentary puctuated by quotes from Lukes again:
the analysis of power must avoid the individualistic, behavioural confines of the one- and to some extent the two-dimensional approaches. It must allow ‘for consideration of the many ways in which the potential issues are kept out of politics, whether through the operation of social forces and institutional practices or through individuals’ decisions…the three-dimensional view … offers the prospect of a serious sociological and not merely personalized explanation of how political systems prevent demands from becoming political issues or even from being made.
this allows considerations of social forces and historical patterns involved in hegemony per Gramsci, and Ralph Milliband’s work on the engineering of consent (in The State in Capitalist Society which I maybe should read).
No dimension cancels out the others, they work in combination and each level represents a mechanism of power:
1st — ‘who prevails in bargaining over the resolution of key issues…political resources–votes, jobs, influence–that can be brought by political actors to the bargaining game…(14)
2nd — same as above, and in addition a ‘mobilization of bias’. Continues to quote Bachrach and Baratz
A set of predominant values, beliefs, rituals, and institutional procedures (‘rules of the game’) that operate systematically and consistently to the benefit of certain persons and groups at the expense of others. (1970, p, 43)
Some of the forms of non-decision making: force, threat of sanctions, invocations of norms and precedents, manipulation of symbols (like ‘communist’ and ‘troublemaker’), establishing of new barriers. These are easily identifiable, others exist that are not so observable, like institutional inaction, or B deciding not to make a demand of A for fear of anticipated reactions.
3rd — least developed and understood
Their identification, one suspects, involves specifying the means through which power influences, shapes or determines conceptions of the necessities, possibilities, and strategies of challenge in situations of latent conflict.
‘study of social myths, language and symbols’, ‘study of communication of information’, ‘focus upon the means by which social legitimations are developed around the dominant, and instilled as beliefs or roles in the dominated’, ‘locating the power processes behind the social construction of meaning and patterns that serve to get B to act and believe…’ (15)
Thus we have direct and observable forms: control of information, mass media, processes of socialization. Indirect: psychological adaptations to the state of being without power, adaptive responses to continual defeat, extensive fatalism, self-deprecation, undue apathy. Greater susceptibility to internalization of values and beliefs.
This understanding develops from Freire — people are unable to engage actively with others, denied ability to reflect upon actions or act upon them. Gaventa quotes Gramsci:
…it can reach the point where the contradiction of conscience will not permit any decision, any choice, and produce a state of moral and political passivity. (Gramsci 1957, p 67)
the dimensions of power, each with its sundry mechanisms, must be seen as a interrelated in the totality of their impact. (20)
Thus all of these dimensions of power insulate A from challenge from B, but — and Gaventa looks always to how these injustices can be overcome, which is again why I think this is so useful:
as the barriers are overcome, so, too, do A’s options for control lessen. And, just as the dimensions of power are accumulative and re-enforcing for the maintenance of quiescence, so, too, does the emergence of challenge in one area of a power relationship weaken the power of the total to withstand further challenges by more than the loss of a single component. (24)
Methodology for studying power
rather than assuming the inaction or inertia to be ‘natural’ in the mass and activism as the phenomena to be explained (as is done in the pluralist methodology), this approach initially assumes that remedial action upon inequalities by those affected would occur were it not for power relationships. (26)
How do you see it? Understand the mechanisms by which repressive power relationships are operating? This
… requires going outside the decision-making arenas and carrying on extensive, time-consuming research in the community in question. (27)
Thus it is necessary to:
1 — look at the historical development of an apparent ‘consensus’, whether this has actually been a choice, or shaped by power relationships
2 — look at processes of communication, ideologies and actions
3 — to posit or participate in ideas or actions which speculate about or attempt to develop challenges — response will shower if power relations operating (27).
Like Stuart Hall, Gaventa has a poor opinion of the idea of ‘false consciousness:
The unfortunate term ‘false consciousness’ must be avoided, for it is analytically confusing. Consciousness refers to a state, as in a state of being, and thus can only be falsified through negation of the state itself. If consciousness exists, it is real to its holders, and thus to the power situation. To discount it as ‘false’ may be to discount too simply the complexities or realities of the situation…To argue that existing consciousness cannot be ‘false’ is not to argue the same for consensus. (29)
To illustrate both this understanding of power and this method of its study, Gaventa then goes on to destroy any possible belief that the ‘acquiescence’ of coal miners in the Appalachians is due to their own lack of intelligence, culture or because they are happy and smiling in their work.
First he details the precise ways the American Association first came to own 80,000 acres of land in the Cumberland Gap — and the way this first key encounter of people losing their lands through essentially a combination of brute force and fraud had been internalized as their own fault. He outlines the power this company came to hold over its tenants and local power structures. He oulines the ideology developed to support this power:
- the notion of ‘a common purpose’ in mining and development
- the idea that benefits were attainable by all through hard work
- the idea that the new structures represented progress, civilization
- rewriting the old ways of mountaineer, which were shaped by their relationship to nature and their harmony with it, to be seen as man’s role as a conqueror
Where there had been a solidarity of family and farm there was now an industrial solidarity…Although life had involved work before, it had not been so gloried — nor bought as a mass product. Where there had been a sense of contentment, there was a progress that transformed. Where there had been a struggle to obtain a harmony with nature, this civilization would dominate nature and free the creating capacities of man. However, for the study of power it is not enough to say that this was a different ideology; one must look at the processes or mechanisms through which it was instilled. (62)
Gaventa sees this as a complex process of colonialism, one occurred driven by the initial mining boom in Middlesboro in at least 4 observable ways:
- A distortion of information: the industrial order was introduced to the mountaineers’ society by conspicuous consumption, with an exaggerated demonstration of its benefits (63) Made into a resort, attracted the wealthy. —
- The exaggerated attractiveness of the industrial order, on the one hand, carried with it the degradation of the culture and society of the mountaineers, on the other. (65) Similar to process of racialism in colonization process. Glorification of the one culture and degradation of the other could combine with the ideology of openness and hard work to help ensure a ‘choice’ by the mountaineers to pursue the new values. (66)
- More direct appropriation of local culture — replacement of old names in places of cultural development with new names from foreign cultures, while places of work and mines retained old labels. ‘By the imposition of one identity over another in the cultural arena…the development of a counterhegemony was made less likely…(67)
- connected to socializing influences of government, church and school controlled by the Company.
Gaventa notes an increase of violence, but horizontal against each other (refers back to Freire who also describes this). Compares to other similar regions, shows that:
the ‘consensus’ of the miners in Yellow Creek was inherent neither in their conditions nor in their nature, but grew from the effective wielding of power–in all its dimensions–by the new ‘instruments’ of civilization. (75)
Gaventa continues through the historical formation that elads us to the present. After the initial boom and destruction of previous ways of life and though came the rise of unionisation, the violence of its destruction, and the maintenance of power relationships into the present (of the book’s writing of course). He gives several case studies.
Throughout the book Gaventa focused on the articulation of structure and culture (though articulation is not a word he uses, and comes of course from Stuart Hall, but this is exactly the relationship Hall is trying to examine as well). He looks at how local politics is entirely within the control of the power structure. He returns to the various approaches to power and how they illuminate current conditions, showing the interrelated nature of these forms of exercising power.
He ends with an account of a current (1980) struggle, a campaign that began organizing around garbage collection, then started to move towards land reform given that the land was not owned by those who lived or worked there, but by people living far away. Those in struggle found that this was the crux of the problem. You want to see power relations in action, you try such a challenge. Gaventa describes the repression they faced: twenty-bullets through a community worker’s home, office of health and development group burned down, alternative school also destroyed by fire (214). People branded as communists, ignored by local government and agencies.
A later campaign against the multinational company owning the land couldn’t even discover where ownership actually resided, much less how to make them accountable.
I loved the dark humour of this:
Although the power of decision and non-decisions may allow the powerholder to remain beyond protest, the powerlessness of the protestors does not protect them from repercussions from their actions. (249)
The fact that the discontent is so often overlooked says less about the Valley than it does about the methodological biases found in the dominant approach in American to the study of power (252-53)
A historical approach is needed to reveal
the shaping of patterns and routines which underlie the power relationships of the present … just as a ‘view from below’ allowed a unique perspective of ‘power’s hidden faces’ (253)
Only as these multiple aspects of powerlessness are overcome may the conflict that emerges in power’s first dimension be said to be amongst relatively competing groups, upon clearly conceived interests, in an open arena.
Rebellion, to be successful, must both confront power and overcome the accumulated effects of powerlessness. (258)
To end on a high note with hope for the future:
While the notion of universal democracy in America may consequently be a myth, it is not an impotent one. As long as the belief in ‘openness’ can be sustained, the phenomenon of power may continue to be separated from the understanding of non-participation. And as long as the roots of quiescence can continue to be blamed upon the victims of power, then democracy of the few will continue to be legitimated by a prevailing belief in the apathy or ignorance of the many. (260)
*’The Concept of Power’ in Bell, Edwards, Harrison Wagner (eds) (1969) Political Power: A Reader in Theory and Research’ p 80
**Bachrach and Baratz (1962) and (1970)
[Gaventa, John. (1982) Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.]
Israel Joshua Singer is Isaac Baschevis’s older brother. His book The Brothers Ashkenazi (1936) blew me away. Written in Yiddish about the Jews of Łódź, Poland, it reads to me like a working out of demons — a deep and knowledgeable, very Marxist examination of capitalism and justice, yet the most chilling of conclusions about the power of hate.
All of these things find an equally chilling physical manifestion in the ghetto of Podgórze and the remains of Płaszów Camp.
The Brothers Ashkenazi begins, of course, in the Łódź ghetto, and contains the first of many things that struck me like blows, the similarities of segregation in Poland and that of African-Americans in the US:
At first, the Jews confined themselves to their own quarter. Seemingly overnight the houses already standing sprouted additional stories, annexes, wings, extensions, ells, attics, and garrets to accommodate the flow of newcomers converging upon Lodz from the surrounding areas…
Gradually the Jews began to spill out of their congested area in Wilki, which was officially closed to them. The first to stick a toe inside the restricted area were the more affluent, audacious Jews; presently the more timorous followed.
Then, like a torrent overflowing its banks, the Jews smashed down all barriers set up to include them.
Here too is an examination of real estate, and strategies for overcoming racial and religious restrictions as seen through the wheelings and dealings over building a new residential suburb. A savvy character named Preiss sees the potential, and buys land from a heavily indebted noble family, pretending it is for a factory.
Forgetting the fact that a Polish nobleman was obliged to address a Jew by his first name only, the Kanarskis abjured protocol and were almost civil to their visitor.
They are furious when they find out it is to become a residential area for Jews rather than an industrial one, but too late — the new municipality of Baluty is built, swallowing up peasant huts and transforming the lives of the gentiles within them in a new cultural melding.
This is also a story of the lived experience of Hasidic Judaism, of the unique battles between tradition and modernity faced by those raised in such traditional households. It explores the many contradictions of religion and capitalism, as well as the complicated relationships between family through the complex relationship between the twin brothers Ashkenazi, Simha Meir (Max) and Jacob. Both become successful, though in very different ways, both leave Hasidic Judaism for the most part behind them. Both love the same woman. There are a host of characters that seem drawn directly from life in all of their quirks and hypocrisies. My favourite is perhaps Feival, who works to recruit young men away from the Hasidim and into the intellectual heresy of their choice.
In his large house, strewn with daughters, papers, promissory notes, and bedding, stood bookcases filled with books for which he had paid fortunes.
His wife and daughters hate him…I was impressed by how Singer exposes quite relentlessly the oppression of women, their limited possibilities, the ways that it twists and distorts their lives and dreams. Not so impressed at the consistently shallow figures of haridans running around the novel (with one exception), but no one in this is whole.
What most fascinated me, however, is how with all of this emotional complexity of life and religion as they are lived, this also manages to be a story of the industrial revolution. A story of the rise of capitalism. It describes the practice of Jews buying factories through gentile front men, and hiring only gentiles so their factories can run through the Sabbath ‘with impunity and a clean conscience.’ Simha Meir becomes Max in his quest to become the ‘King of Łódź’.
More than ever he spent sleepless nights, scheming how to squeeze even more profits out of the factory.
He cuts out middle men, reduces quality of the materials used, reduces the amount of material, improves technology from hand looms to steam, reduces wages, increases hours. It explains the whole process of piecework and subcontracting. It describes in detail manufacturing at the beginning of the 1900s, here is just a sample:
A giant cloud of steam, moisture, and stench hovered over the dyeing rooms. the directors grimaced at the half-naked workers clattering in wooden clogs over the slippery stone floors. they laundered the goods, rinsed and dried them before huge ovens, steamed them, threw them into bins, and passed them through the press.
By now the visitors had had enough, but Ashkenazi wouldn’t let them go.
There are ongoing strikes and the organizers are complex and sympathetic characters appearing throughout the book. The strikes are mostly broken — it is Simha Meir who reports its organizers to the police. Thus the workers come to study Marx:
Ironically, there was no place in tsarist Russia that offered such splendid opportunity to study Marxism as prisons.
As the strike falls apart, religious violence is unleashed as Catholics rampage through Jewish streets. The fragile solidarity built between workers is nowhere near enough to contain the fury and violence.
As the Jewish community mourns its dead and rebuilds what has been destroyed, industry and business push forward into a new time of prosperity for the few and increased misery for the workers.
The contradictions of capitalism emerge, as the huge bubble of credit spurring prosperity eventually bursts. Fires break out across the city as factories, warehouses, spinneries burn for the insurance. Simha Meir stays ahead. Rebuilds.
More violence is unleashed as the Austrian army occupying Poland unravels, and war breaks out. Singer writes:
The only ones with no homeland to return to were the Jews. Hooligans of all persuasions daubed their homes and shops with obscene and threatening slogans. the sounds of nationalistic and religious songs were accompanied by the tinkle of shattered Jewish windowpanes.
This is eerie. Just as is the descriptions of the 1918 massacre/pogrom of Lviv (Ukrainian)–Lwów (Polish)–Lemberg (Austrian).
When the Crocuses arrived and drove off the Ukrainians, the Jewish quarter was offered to them as a prize. A mob of priests, clerks, streetwalkers, nuns, housewives, criminals, teachers, monks, nurses, and assorted civilians gathered to egg on the conquerors. “Get the sheenies!” they howled. “Hang them by their beards! Smoke them out like rats!”
The mob is everyone, it unites the city across all other barriers because who does not appear in this list? Legionnaires disarm the Jews, hang the leaders. The next morning they set up machine guns at all the strategic corners and open fire. Then they go from house to house stripping them of valuables, raping women and killing at whim babies and grandmothers and anyone who resists.
“Let no Jewish seed remain in Christian Poland!” the officers cried.
On the second night they do their best to burn the quarter down to the ground.
Singer’s despair weighs on you like a stone. This insanely violent and destructive anti-Jewish sentiment makes a mockery of Marx — not in terms of the functioning of capitalism and industry and the resulting desperation and misery of the workers, but in the hopes for the unity of the working class to overturn it. You arrive at this conclusion with Singer, and it fucking hurts. Because he understands the plight of the workers all too well, and his sympathies are always with the agitators fighting for change:
Like flies caught in spider webs, the men, women, and children of Balut sat glued to their looms, working until they dropped. But all the millions they earned weren’t enough to prepare for the Sabbath.
Yet in a world where capitalism has intertwined with gentile power and hate, capitalism is impossible to overturn and attempts to do so will only bring another wave of Christian violence crashing down on the Jewish community. Another strategy is required.
Had Jews adopted the gentile’s ways, they would have already long since vanished from the face of the earth. But the Jews perceived that theirs had to be a different course, and it was this perception that had lent them the moral strength to endure and accumulate the only kind of force the gentiles respected — intellectual and economic power.
You can read this book perhaps as a commentary of the emptiness, the unhappiness of In Max Ashkenzai’s life, where he only finds a measure of fulfillment in reconciling with his family through mutual tragedy. Yet I don’t think Singer lets us off that easily. In the face of hatred he shows how Max’s life — despite its ruthless exploitation of his fellow Jews along with gentiles, its emptiness and unhappiness — is perhaps the best Jews can achieve. It is a victory and a revenge against Polish society that needs celebration. Thus, at his funeral, Max is acknowledged the King of Lodz, and beloved of his people:
Piotrkow Street was black with people, droshkies, carriages, and cars. Wild-bearded Hasisdim walked next to top-hatted bankers, grimy vendors, clerks, brokers, herder students, beggars, thieves, workers. In Max Ashkenazi’s passing they say the demise of Lodz itself. His funeral was its funeral.
It was hard reading this to remember that it was published during the Nazi’s rise to power, that these conclusions were reached with such desperate sadness before anyone knew the unthinkable thing the Nazis planned. These conclusions seem even more apt in grappling with the meaning of the holocaust, and I have found a little more insight I think, into today’s politics and all the ugliness of Israel’s actions. I still hate them, and watch, with heart breaking, oppression beget oppression.
“Let no Palestinian seed remain in Jewish Israel!” the officers cried.
While Krakow’s museums and plaques and self-descriptions rightly celebrate the stories of those who stood against the Nazis — among them Tadeusz Pankiewicz, the Catholic owner of the Eagle Pharmacy in Podgórze who continued operation and helped the resistance, or Schindler (with all his complications) whose factory also sits in Podgórze — they fail signally to engage with this longer history.
We did not visit Auschwitz-Birkenau — the thought of visiting a place of such horror as an attraction, with a guided tour for tourists as you must, filled us with dread. Instead we spent a day exploring the remnants of the ghetto on our own.
Between 1941 and 1943, Nazis carried out mass murders of Jews here in Plac Bohaterów Getta/ Plac Zgody — the staging point for their deportation to other camps from the ghetto. The Nazis ordered all Jews to leave Krakow in 1940; 17,000 remained and all were forced into the ghetto. In 1942, the Nazis carried out a mass deportation of people to Bełżec death camp. Those remaining they divided into sections “A” and “B”, employed and unemployed, useful and not useful. I think it is this kind of organizational detail that I find most terrifying. Those in group “A” were later marched to Płaszów Camp just down the road, while the people of “B” were murdered on the spot or sent to Auschwitz.
This is also the square on which the Eagle Pharmacy sits.
A later picture I found: the plac in 1958, with an advertisement in the background for Nova Huta…the past invisible here, and only a looking forward to the future.
We hunted down the remnants of Podgórze’s walls, built to contain and cage:
Today, here is a view of the old ghetto framed by the remaining section of wall on the left:
A terrifying picture of the clearing out of the ghetto, pieces of the wall in the background, ‘normal’ life beyond them:
From Podgórze, we crossed the highway to climb a prehistoric mound, mythologised as the resting place of King Krakus, Kraków’s founder. It is the oldest human-made structure in Krakow, and normally I would have been much more excited about that. Alongside it, as you can see, sits a huge quarry. Used by Spielberg in filming Schindler’s list, it was also a site of work for groups from Płaszów Camp:
We continued on along a fairly overgrown and narrow track alongside the quarry and with a Catholic cemetery on the other side. Finally we reached Płaszów Camp:
It was dusk, and I know some of the ruins still exist at the other end, where the main entrance sat. We did not go and find them. But we looked out over the site from above, eerie and empty. You want to be alone with your thoughts in such places, don’t you.
This is what sat here once:
This history of violence and contradiction lingered. It is not something that should be, or even could be, reconciled, contained, fully understood, capped off, or put behind us. This issue of how not just to bridge what divides us — and there is the whole grab-bag to choose from such as race, religion, gender, sexuality and any other difference we choose to invest with such meanings — but to find strength and beauty in our diversity, remains the key challenge for liberatory praxis I think.
Kazimierz & Podgórze
Giszowiec is utterly, completely different from Nikiszowiec, though designed by the same architects and both built in Katowice. I am still quite bewildered that George and Emil Zillmann should build Nikiszowiec in dense quadrangled apartments and Giszowiec after the model of Howard’s garden city. In almost the exact same year — 1907 to 1908.
From the slightly institutional-feeling density of Nikiszowiec (below part of the central square), Macin drove us to the place of his upbringing, Giszowiec (below part of the central park):
It is almost impossible to photograph Giszowiec, with its curving roads and single and duplexed housing.
This view from above does it better, I am just sad it is not mine…
Perhaps its lack of photogeneity is why there is not the same impetus to put it on the tourist maps. We are lucky, perhaps, that it survives at all, as more housing was needed and much was torn down to built the high-rise housing that in places looms over the small family homes. They have much charm, these homes, even when run down or under reconstruction:
And above them the mine:
A German company ran the mine, German engineers held the priviliged positions and also the nicest corner houses sprinkled throughout Giszowiec to maintain some level of integration and control within the community.
A little off the main roads, and sometimes just along one side, you can still see neglect and age:
But yay Sputnik street
The weird home-made
We sat outside the restaurant there, part of a large complex of community halls and services along the park that I signally failed to photograph — as I did the bakery and shops, the first place of care specialising in supporting kids with Down Syndrome, the schools, the chess tables and many other things that were built here (just as in Nikiszowiec, yet so very differently) to improve the lives of workers.
I still find it so extraordinary. To improve the lives of workers. I am wondering where the impetus came from to build this housing so well, so permanently, with such support. I am trying to fit these examples into my understandings of the world, and it is hard, but it’s just because I don’t know enough.
Of course, Macin remembers when the pollution was terrible here, when the streets were rougher, grayer, when kids reluctantly did their public service in the park. He tried to explain it wasn’t quite paradise, and we believed him. yet for myself it was a belief of rational mind only. It feels quite different, staring at the lush green park full of services, the neat little houses and allotments and gardens. For workers.
The miners continue to have more power here than ever they did in the US (or the UK) I think, I still haven’t quite got my head around how different it is in the two places. It is as striking as the differences between the strength and politics of dockworkers in the UK and the US. The new government has committed completely to coal, the mines are safer and cleaner than they have ever been, miner’s salaries are twice the median wage. Their influence isn’t entirely (possibly not much at all) for the good. There is a whole complex history here that I know I have only scratched the surface of — the resistance against the communist government seen in Nova Huta (a third strikingly different type of worker housing along utopian lines), rumblings that would help to bring it down. The strikes, and the violent suppressions. On the way back to our hotel, we passed by Wujec Coal mine, where in 1981 the government sent tanks in to suppress the uprising of the union Solidarity.
The crosses commemorate the nine miners killed.
A powerful day, to see all of this. So much to think about, come back to. I hope to do more work around mining, and these contrasts feel important.
More posts on Poland: