Tag Archives: politics

Foucault: Society Must Be Defended

Foucault - Society Must Be DefendedAh Foucault…There is a lot to grapple with in Society Must Be Defended, and I will do so below more for my memory in writing a dissertation than anything else, so be warned!

I love that it starts out with Foucault’s critique of Marx — there must be more out there I haven’t found in terms of that critique, but this really helped me think through the distinctions as it has always seemed to me that the two could well complement each other. I suppose they still can if broken into pieces and rejoined, but I have a much better sense of how different Foucault’s project is.

He argues that Marx, or any other similar over-arching theory such as psychoanalysis, “provided tools that can be used at the local level only when … the theoretical unity of their discourse is, so to speak, suspended, or at least cut up, ripped up, torn to shreds …” [6] Why is that, particularly in thinking about theories that have liberation as their goal? Because their effort to unify knowledge into a single framework of understanding is the problem, particularly the way that theoretical frameworks such as Marxism see themselves as a science. This sets up an ‘aspiration’ to power, where they decide what kinds of knowledge are legitimate and which are not with the aim of organising them, filtering them, putting them into hierarchies to create a body of ‘true’ knowledge. Foucault argues that this is done primarily to allow Marxism to benefit from the power that Western society has granted scientists and the scientific paradigm, rather than to actually create a Marxism that is scientific. Thus Marxism oppresses.

In opposition to Marxism’s (or psychoanalysis’s, or liberal economist’s or etc) subjugation of various knowledges, Foucault’s project is to liberate these various subjugated knowledges: “to set them free, or in other words to enable them to oppose and struggle against the coercion of a unitary, formal, and scientific theoretical discourse” [11]. His archeological work seeks to understand these formal scientific discourses, and his geneological work to liberate the local knowledges that have been subjugated by them.

Got it. Fundamentally antithetical to Marx in its theory, and I couldn’t ask for a clearer definition of the archeological v the geneological. (There’s also the fact that he ends the lectures with socialism is racism, but more on that later.)

One critique before moving on, Foulcault writes: “When I say “subjugated knowledges” I am also referring to a whole series of knowledges that have been disqualified as nonconceptual knowledges, as insufficiently elaborated knowledges: naive knowledges, hierarchically inferior knowledges, knowledges that are below the required level of erudition or scientificity.” I applaud this project of course. My problem with Foucault is always that he writes in a way that cannot engage in dialogue with these knowledges, but can only ‘unearth’ or worse ‘discover’ them. Please note the complete absence of the actual people who hold these ‘knowledges’, whatever those are when separated from their human beings, both from these lectures and presumably from these lecture rooms. Meh.

So onwards.

The question here is what is power, but as Foucault writes: “‘What is power?’ is obviously a theoretical question that would provide an answer to everything, which is just what I don’t want to do” [13]. Instead he wants to try and understand how it operates. He starts with liberalism and Marxism which he believe share the common feature of ‘economism’ stemming from a juridical understanding of power. In liberalism, “power is regarded as a right which can be possessed in the way one possesses a commodity” [13], it can be traded, taken, given up by political contract and etc. To take that to its conclusion, “There is therefore an obvious analogy, and it runs through all these theories, between power and commodities, between power and wealth” [13].

In Marxism, you have what Foucault calls the “‘economic functionality’ of power … to the extent that the role of power is essentially both to perpetuate the relations of production and to reproduce a class domination that is made possible by the development of the productive forces and the ways they are appropriated. In this case, political power finds its historical raison d’etre in the economy” [14].

He moves away from these economistic theories, exploring the ideas that “power is not something that is given, exchanged, or taken back, that it is something that is exercised and that it exists only in action,” and that “power is not primarily the perpetuation and renewal of economic relations, but that it is primarily, in itself, a relationship of force… Power is essentially that which represses.” [15]

And so we come to the crux of Foucault’s argument (and his difference from Marxism and liberalism) “rather than analyzing it [power] in terms of surrender, contract, and alienation, or rather than analyzing it in functional terms as the reproduction of the relations of production, shouldn’t we be analyzing it first and foremost in terms of conflict, confrontation, and war?

Here he inverts Clausewitz’s aphorism to ask whether ‘politics is the continuation of war by other means’, and continues to state the ideas he will explore through the rest of the book in a nutshell. If politics is the continuation of war by other means, then (my own underlining for emphasis):

This would imply three things. First, that power relations, as they function in a society like ours, are essentially anchored in a certain relationship of force that was established in and through war at a given historical moment that can be historically specified. And while it is true that political power puts an end to war and establishes or attempts to establish the reign of peace in civil society, it certainly does not do so in order to suspend the effects of power or to neutralize the disequilibrium revealed by the last battle of the war. According to this hypothesis, the role of [15] political power is perpetually to use a sort of silent war to reinscribe that relationship of force, and to reinscribe it in institutions, economic inequalities, language, and even the bodies of individuals. This is the initial meaning of our inversion of Clausewitz’s aphorism-politics is the continuation of war by other means. Politics, in other words, sanctions and reproduces the disequilibrium of forces manifested in war. Inverting the proposition also means something else, namely that within this “civil peace,” these political struggles, these clashes over or with power, these modifications of relations of force-the shifting balance, the reversals-in a political system, all these things must be interpreted as a continuation of war. And they are interpreted as so many episodes, fragmentations, and displacements of the war itself. We are always writing the history of the same war, even when we are writing the history of peace and its institutions.

Inverting Clausewitz’s aphorism also has a third meaning: The final decision can come only from war, or in other words a trial by strength in which weapons are the final judges. It means that the last battle would put an end to politics, or in other words, that the last battle would at last-and I mean “at last”-suspend the exercise of power as continuous warfare. [16]

That’s a definition and a half, which seems to mean that the achievement of any victory against the status quo requires a battle of strength in which weapons are the final judge. I guess we’re all heading back to the mountains and jungles then, no?

But maybe he jests, because we’re only studying power after all.

The next chapter shows nicely how he turns things upside down. Where the traditional question as he sees it would ask “How does the discourse of truth establish the limits of power’s right?” Foucault would ask “What are the rules of right that power implements to produce discourses of truth? Or: What type of power is it that is capable of producing discourses of power that have, in a society like ours, such powerful effects?” It’s a good illustration, as are the following 5 methodological precautions, which stand as an excellent summary of what Foucault thinks power is, and what power is not (while also making him sound a bit like a Buddhist text). They in turn are summed up thus:

To sum up these five methodological precautions, let me say that rather than orienting our research into power toward the juridical edifice of sovereignty, State apparatuses, and the ideologies that accompany them, I think we should orient our analysis of power toward material operations, forms of subjugation, and the connections among and the uses made of the local systems of subjugation on the one hand, and apparatuses of knowledge on the other. [34]

This differentiation between state apparatus and material operations is carried through in his discussion of sovereignty and the discourse of rights that emerged in response to it. Foucault suggests that the mechanism of power shifted in the 17th and 18th centuries from essentially feudal monarchy to the kind of power discussed above, while the theorisations of struggle against it did not make the same shift. Whereas power ceased to be about land and goods and legal rights, the critics continued to treat it so while in fact it had become much more about control of time and labour, surveillance, and the mechanics of discipline. Hobbes, for example, in looking at contracts and rights as the foundation for sovereignty completely ignores, and actually hides the fact that power relations have nothing to do with right and everything to do with domination. It is rare you find groups like the Diggers who are able to articulate in some manner that this domination is the problem, rather than Norman lords instead of Saxon lords or what have you.

One of the key sections of the book is of course on race and racism, and a remarkably interesting and unique take on both really that is rich and provocative though I’m not sure what I think about it yet. In a highly simplified form if I understand the argument right: we have long had a concept of sovereignty as legitimate state-based power which words and history existed to praise and exalt to the exclusion (and obfuscation) of all other ideas. Slowly this shifted as a new discourse came into being, a counterhistory of dissent and revolution acknowledging the oppressed and the subjugated. As power and sovereignty was based on the conquest of one people by another (connecting back to Clausewitz’s aphorism though it somehow feels far distant), this took the form of race struggle, a binary struggle of peoples in which everyone was on either one side or the other, their side defining their discourses of truth. In the 16th century what was initially seen as race struggle slowly became seen as class struggle in these counterhistories, and so race began to be used by the counterhistory arising in opposition to the original counterhistories (you can see why this is difficult but this new counterhistory is in the service of those with power). It was reformulated with medical and biological meaning, and as Foucault states: “Whereas the discourse of races, of the struggle between races, was a weapon to be used against the historico-political discourse of Roman sovereignty, the discourse of race (in the singular) was a way of turning that weapon against those who had forged it, of using it to preserve the sovereignty of the State” [81]. Essentially it sought to preserve power and centralise/control discourse through defining the State in terms of its need for protection against the other, the subrace, the enemy. Thus, he argues, racism is only a stage in this larger discourse of race struggle.

He returns to race in the last lecture, which introduces the idea of biopolitics — a term I’ve always found very off-putting but never mind. Essentially it is a new function of government from “sovereignty’s old right — to take life or let live” to “the power to “make” live and “let” die” [241]. It is the State in its new function of measuring and monitoring, nurturing and manipulating the mass of the population for its own benefit rather than simply disciplining individual bodies. This new form of politics does not replace the old, rather it complements and articulates with it in a highly insidious fashion primarily through institutions and specialised scientific knowledges and the development of norms to which individuals and general society must live up to.

Within this new method of governing, racism becomes first, a way to fragment and divide the population for improved control. That’s easy to understand, I’m not sure I fully grasp what follows. In a war situation, it is easy to legitimate that the other ‘people’ must die in order that our ‘people’ may live, thereby giving the state expanded power over life and death. Racism recreates this latitude granted under conditions of war for a regime of biopolitics: “in other words, killing or the imperative to kill is acceptable only if it results not in a victory over political adversaries, but in the elimination of the biological threat to and the improvement of the species or race. There is a direct connection between the two. In a normalizing society, race or racism is the precondition that makes killing acceptable.” [256] So perhaps that makes sense of this:

And we can also understand why racism should have developed in modern societies that function in the biopower mode; we can understand why racism broke out at a number of privileged moments, and why they were precisely the moments when the right to take life was imperative. Racism first develops with colonization, or in other words, with colonizing genocide. If you are functioning in the biopower mode, how can you justify the need to kill people, to kill populations, and to kill civilizations? By using the themes of evolutionism, by appealing to a racism.

This of course changes war as well, “it is not simply a matter of destroying a political adversary, but of destroying the enemy race”. It makes more sense of Nazism and Stalinism. And I don’t think that it is trying to take the place of other ideas and meanings of race as they lived and experienced, but rather goes deeper adding a new dimension:

here, we are far removed from the ordinary racism that takes the traditional form of mutual contempt or hatred between races. We are also far removed from the racism that can be seen as a sort of ideological operation that allows States, or a class, to displace the hostility that is directed toward [them), or which is tormenting the social body, onto a mythical adversary. I think that this is something much deeper than an old tradition, much deeper than a new ideology, that it is something else. The specificity of modern racism, or what gives it its specificity, is not bound up with mentalities, ideologies, or the lies of power. It is bound up with the technique of power, with the technology of power. It is bound up with this, and that takes us as far away as possible from the race war and the intelligibility of history. We are dealing with a mechanism that allows biopower to work. So racism is bound up with the workings of a State that is obliged to use race, the elimination of races and the purification of the race, to exercise its sovereign power. The juxtaposition of-or the way biopower functions through-the old sovereign power of life and death implies the workings, the introduction and activation, of racism. And it is, I think, here that we find the actual roots of racism. [258]

It is this much wider more difficult idea of racism that allows Foucault to say “Socialism was a racism from the outset” [261], contentious words. He argues that because socialism never recognised biopower as a form of control, and the role that racism has played in that, it has essentially recreated (or sought to recreate) these same controls even while changing the social structure. That I can see and is useful in thinking about what happened in Russia, I’m not sure I agree that it is endemic in socialist thought per se in the following way:

Whenever, on the other hand, socialism has been forced to stress the problem of struggle, the struggle against the enemy, of the elimination of the enemy within capitalist society itself, and when, therefore, it has had to think about the physical confrontation with the class enemy in capitalist society, racism does raise its head, because it is the only way in which socialist thought, which is after all very much bound up with the themes of biopower, can rationalize the murder of its enemies. [262]

There’s so much more here, primarily on the practice and discourses of history, and on the nation. I have to change my rating to 5 stars because while I get so frustrated with Foucault and continue to question the utility of his work to practical struggle, it is undoubtedly full of ideas and questions well worth thinking over, and this is definitely a book I’ll be returning to. I am certain I will find an entirely new set of brilliant/problematic statements to ponder over, which is impressive.

Occupying Lambeth Town Hall

Occupying Lambeth Town Hall to hold a People’s Assembly is what we did on the 23rd, and extraordinary it was too! The crowd outside was so impressive, and the noise was like nothing, absolutely nothing I have ever heard before, as the cars, trucks and buses passing all slowed down, cheering and honking to show their support.

It was tricky even getting in. And so we got fed up and took democracy into our own hands. This is what it felt like as we forced our way up the stairs and into the main council chamber after they refused to even let us into the overflow room to hear our people testifying to the council:

I’m usually the one with the camera, so it is magic to have someone else catch my face (and Ali’s!) at such a moment of happiness (photo by Guy Smallman, he’s got some great pics!). I found my face featuring heavily in the Socialist Worker article, which was ironic, but I loved that so many groups were able to come together to pull off such an incredible night.

I’m late writing this up due to exhaustion and another day of protest yesterday, and you can read the full coverage from the Guardian here. We heard this article some time after midnight, sitting in the Brixton Bar and Grill and clustered around Andy as he read it off of his phone. The victory was particularly sweet as a section of Lambeth’s Labour Council was also in the Brixton Bar and Grill, we spotted them in their suits as soon as we entered the door. Celebrating one would guess. Some words were exchanged, some hilarious dancing, but no blows. I twittered that their hangover was going to be far worse than mine, and doubtless I was right. Especially since it’s a cocktail of liquor, guilt and responsibility for carrying out this unprecedented attack on the welfare state.

Not us of course, we were celebrating a victory in the good fight, and the Guardian article was just icing. What got the most cheers upon reading was this: “Demonstrators ranging from trade unionists to pensioners occupied the chamber for more than an hour, taking their seats in what they called a ‘People’s Assembly'” because Lambeth SOS is both big and diverse and it’s a shame that the council tries to brand us otherwise. My favourite though, was “Alex Bigham, a Labour councillor, said that the meeting had been moved to an assembly room after it was disrupted by ‘quite organised protesters'”. Damn straight we are ‘quite organised’. The cuts affect up to a thousand jobs, not just people’s quality of life, but their ability to live itself. This budget will devastate both workers and those who need and deserve the services that they provide.

So a brief rundown on the assembly! Ruth presided over the voting as Mayor of Lambeth, as we voted down a budget that will destroy everything we have fought to build since World War II.

We had a number of great speakers, I can’t do them justice, and am still a bit too tired to try! But these were my favourites, demanding we save adventure playgrounds (pic also by Guy Smallman):

The People’s Assembly support them unequivocally. As we did libraries, park rangers, teachers, school crossing patrols, nurses and the NHS, the RMT (who were brilliant by the way, though we could have used their heft getting up the stairs!), students who joined us from the UCL occupation, and everyone else who makes Lambeth a great place to live.  This is just one more step forward, for more info on what’s coming up or how to support, go to http://lambethsaveourservices.org/.

For more written on the events, look at the Urban75 blog, London Indymedia, and the Coalition of Resistance webpage.

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Seeds of Autonomy in Greece

While the economic crisis has hit all of us, and hit us hard, Greece is a country riding the edges of bankruptcy, even after the intervention of the IMF and the European Union.

This intervention has come at a high price, requiring Greece to slash its national debt at a brutal cost to its own citizens.

To find out more about the impact of the crisis on the lives of people and how they are responding, I recently spoke to Antonis, who is from Greece and is a fellow graduate student at the London School of Economics.

ANDREA: Tell us a little about yourself.

ANTONIS: My name is Antonis. I’m a student here in London and I’ve lived here for quite a few years. But I’m originally from Greece. Since the revolt of 2008, together with some friends, we’ve been covering what’s been happening in Greece in a blog, the Occupied London blog. We were also running a journal, an anarchist journal, called Voices of Resistance from Occupied London. But I think our project was one where the blog completely overtook the journal itself, so that’s what we’re focusing on at the moment.

ANDREA: Would you just say a few things about how concretely the crisis has affected Greece, and how it is affecting people in their everyday lives?

ANTONIS: Obviously it’s had a massive effect on every single level — the political, the social and the everyday — all around. And it’s happened very rapidly.  Its very hard to explain in a few words how big the change is because its something we are still assessing. People are still trying to grasp what has actually happened.

But to see the difference in the everyday reality in the country and in people’s mentality, even from December (which was the second to last time I visited) to March this year (which was the last time I was there) is tremendous.  To put it quickly, pretty much everyone, or at least most people I know who work in the public sector (and the public sector is huge), are facing the same sort of decrease in their wages — about 20 to 30 % of their total wages, anywhere between the two roughly.  And they probably are faced with even higher cuts in their pensions —  if you ever get to get a pension, the way things are going.

The private sector is about to go through the same kind of process and the cost of life overall has increased tremendously. Just to bring one example out of many: the cost of gas, from August 2009 to what they predict it’s going to be in a couple of months (in August 2010) has gone up by about 150%.

ANDREA: So how are people reacting to this? I know there was a general strike just a few weeks ago…

ANTONIS: Four weeks ago… There’s been a few general strikes actually; the one on May 5th was the fourth in 2010 if I’m not mistaken. Which is not that much, by Greek standards, you would usually have at least a couple of general strikes in a year anyway.

ANDREA: And so when you say general strike, is it really everything that shuts down?

ANTONIS: Pretty much. Airports completely shut down, transport is completely out. And the largest part of the public sector. Not the private sector, and of course one of the sectors where people are pretty much bullied into working is the banking sector, and that’s why the people who died on May 5th were actually in the bank working, they were forced to work, and threatened with being fired if they did not stay in the bank working. So the answer to that is yes, one reaction has been these relatively frequent general strikes. But then, the atmosphere in the country after May 5th has changed dramatically, people are very scared, they’ve been very taken aback by the level of violence on that day.

They are expecting more trouble even though this summer is probably going to be a dead period because nothing ever happens in Greece in the summer: It is way, way too hot for any kind of action! But come September … we are expecting, quite realistically, that anywhere between September and December the country is going to default; it is also most of the economists are predicting this, so of course it will be interesting to see what happens then.

ANDREA: So you don’t think that Germany will step in again, or that the rest of the European union will bail them out?

ANTONIS: It seems like it’s pretty much inevitable, that Greece’s default is something just waiting to happen and they are trying to allow it to happen in the most painless way for them, not for the people in Greece of course.

ANDREA: So what kind of alternatives are people talking about, are people thinking about long term change at this point, or that this is an opportunity to have a different sort of economy or different way of life aside from capitalism, is that being discussed?

ANTONIS: I guess there are two kind of tendencies toward which people are moving. One is individualization and a kind of despair: you hear a lot of stories, very personal stories about people going on anti-depressants after looking at the prospects of what is coming ahead. And of course this is really bad. But at the same time there is another tendency, of a lot of people trying to organize, to work collectively. There are a few projects being planned at the moment and they are going to be rolling out in the next few months, to head toward a more self-organized economy at least on a very local level. So people are talking about anything from self-organized bakeries to self-organized soup kitchens. Which on the one hand is emergency relief, but on the other people are really trying to avoid, I think, these projects taking the character of charity. We want them to be more of a solidarity thing, so it’s going to be emergency relief for now, but also a  structure that could live through the entire crisis itself and into the future.

ANDREA: So you’re going to be working in a bakery, right?

 

ANTONIS: That’s the plan.

ANDREA: So how did you set that up?

ANTONIS: I mean it’s still very much on paper, it’s just an idea we’ve been having. But we just said, you know, hell, we have to build on the ideas that we had and the experiences that we had from comrades abroad, in different projects abroad, the cooperative movement in this country but also in the States, as far as I know, it’s huge. So we can build on this experience, and build on the experience of, say, the Italian self-organizing autonomia movement. And we’re trying to combine the two, and of course many of us have seen that large part of the population is coming to the threshold of starvation, of bare survival, and so you have to kick in at that point and try to address these people and their needs. Again, like I said, absolutely not as some sort of top-down charity and “we’re here to help you” kind of attitude, but to organize with them.

ANDREA: So just one last question, if you could tell a little bit the story of December Park?

ANTONIS: This park is quite amazing, the history of this space. It’s what used to be an abandoned parking lot only a few meters away from where this kid Alexis was shot in December 2008, and of course his assassination triggered the revolt of December, so symbolically it’s very important. An abandoned ex-parking lot was lying there unused for many years, and a few months after the revolt a group of people came in, mostly local residents, and said “we are going to take over the space.” Athens has very few green spaces and very few public spaces, so they said, “we are going to turn this into one.” In a way, this is not too far from the kind of guerrilla gardening that you’d maybe see in New York and other places, but at the same time very specific to the Greek situation, a very strongly political space. So people have done a really amazing job in transforming the ex-parking into one of the nicest spots in Exarcheia, and ever since it has been very lively. Many political demonstrations start and end in this park, and of course it has attracted a lot of notice from the police: there has been at least three major raids by now. In the last raid more than 70 people, and two dogs, were detained by the police.

December Park

ANDREA: Two dogs? [laughing]

ANTONIS: Yeah. [also laughing]

ANDREA: That’s not funny at all…[still laughing]… so basically over the summer you’re going to work to build something…

ANTONIS: That’s the idea, and the main thing, and this is where I want to utilize the blog and any means of communication we’ve got with other people abroad, is to build on the experience of other people and other movements that went through something even vaguely similar to this. So Argentina is very important to us, Italy historically is very important to us, but also the States and the UK in relation to this kind of cooperative movement are important to us as well.

ANDREA: All right, so I suppose we’ll be checking back in with you in September?

ANTONIS: Sounds good.

For more on the situation in Greece, check out the Greek Indymedia website.

[also posted on Dr. Pop]

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Wyndham Mortimer: Organizing the UAW

I’m not saying that I know all the ins and outs now, but having just finished Wyndham Mortimer’s book Organize! My life as a union man, I have a much better idea. And I know he has been a hero to many before me, but he is ranked at the top of those I love and admire. To stumble across people like that is always an unexpected joy in a country that seems to pride itself on rubbing out their memory.

It is a beautiful, powerful, hell-raising sort of book. Mortimer started working at the age of 12 in the coal mines, went on to organize unions in coal, auto, and parts manufacturing. He wrote of the 1890’s that “It was during this era that the Nebraska farmers decided to raise more hell and less corn.” He was one of the key people in breaking the open shop in America, a  founder of the UAW, and he stood for a broad definition of syndicalism, a union led by its members for its members, an anti-capitalist vision for the future, the equality of all races in the movement and the country… And so if you want to know just what the hell happened to the union movement in the U.S., this will tell you, and break your heart while doing it.

After organizing his own auto plant, he left for Flint to build a broad-based industrial union. Here is what happened when he arrived:

Early in June, 1936, I went to Flint, the center of General Motors operations and power. I registered at a cheap hotel (The Dresden) obtaining a room costing twelve dollars a week. I had barely time to remove my coat when the phone rang, A voice said, “You had better get the hell back where you came from if you don’t want to be carried out in a wooden box!”

“How would you like to go to hell?” I shot back, but the person had hung up. I was fifty-two years old and nobody had taken me out in a box yet; I’d be damned if this was going to be the first time!

Here he is, second from your left, marching on Cadillac Square in 1937

Wyndham Mortimer

He was there of course, at the founding of the CIO. Here is the historic moment in his own words:

Hutcheson having protested the chair’s permitting Thompson to speak, Lewis observed to him, “I think it is pretty small potatoes when the President of a great international union takes advantage of parliamentary rules to prevent a working delegate from telling us of the problems confronting his people…”

Hutcheson replied sarcastically, “I eat small potatoes, that is why I am so big.”

Lewis stood glaring at him. “I would think you would be ashamed to do this sort of thing.”

Hutcheson then called Lewis a “dirty bastard.” These words were scarcely uttered when Lewis struck Hutcheson on the jaw, knocking him over a table. The Carpenters’ chief landed on the side of his face, which was badly skinned.

The convention was in pandemonium. Sitting across from me was Wharton, President of the Machinists. Picking up his folding chair, he shouted, “Kill the bastard!” … Our entire union delegation moved over to the side of the Miners, prepared to do battle, if necessary.

His feelings on labour and government, written in 1949 and long since proven true:

A ‘Labour’ government, committed to the policy of ‘gradualism’ cannot come to power. It can only come to office.

And this piece of amazing writing on race, from his Newsletter #7, 1950

The fact is–and the top leadership knows it–that the Negro will never receive recognition without pressure. When discrimination is abolished, it will be time enough to think in terms of merit, not before. It took terrific pressure to abolish chattel slavery. It required pressure to have the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to our Constitution adopted. It has required pressure from our unions before many employers would even hire a Negro…

In a white man’s world, the Negro worker has every problem of the white worker–plus one more: he has the problem of color. No person of the white majority can ever possibly understand what this means. The claim that our Negro membership is adequately represented by an all-white Executive Board is a piece of brazen, chauvinistic nonsense, advocated by those who see nothing really wrong in racial discrimination and do not understand the harm it does the American labor movement.

It is an amazing book from an amazing man. And it is the best and the worst of the American labor movement, its brilliant spark of promise before that was crushed through red-baiting, fear, and greed.

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Reading the world through sport

The amount you can learn might come as a surprise if you don’t read the sports pages, and possibly even if you do. I (somewhat) recently went to hear David Goldblatt speak, and definitely learned a whole lot about things I didn’t really know before.

Let’s take the African Cup of Nations 2010 for starters, what did it teach us?

Now I did know where Angola was, but I did not know that there is an unconnected piece of Angola called Cabinda, and that it has been fighting for its independence for decades.

Why does Angola care? Cabinda contains a third of Angola’s oil. So to hold soccer games in this rather out-of-the-way place, miles from any other stadium, was entirely a political decision. Cabinda, we own you.

But that’s still up for rather violent debate, as rebels proved by attacking the Togolese tour bus with its Angolan military escort. Three people died in the ensuing thirty minute firefight. So wasn’t there a peace accord signed in 2006? Well, if you could call it an accord when you pull a rebel out of a Dutch prison where he has been languishing for some time and make him sign something on behalf of loads of other people he hasn’t talked to recently, and that contains nothing about disarmament or amnesty. I’d prefer to call it fraud.

And so the rebels attacked a soccer team’s tour bus. The dark side of national politics, you can read more here.

And of course, there are the direct connections between teams and politics, Goldblatt gave another example of a trip to Israel, where soccer teams correspond to different political factions. He looked particularly at Beitar Jerusalem. Over the past 70 years it has become increasingly tied to the extreme right wing, fans planting soccer club flags beside those of settlements. During half-time you will customarily see  some fans gather to pray. When asked why, the leader of “La Familia” faction said “This is my country … When I see one million Muslims praying in my country, it makes me nervous.”

The even darker side of fans, read more here.

And at the other end? The joy of football, and sport furthering positive resistance. The Mathare Youth Sports Association. Started in the slums in Kenya, it essentially began as a one man operation. He acted as a referee and lent soccer balls to youth who organized themselves to clean up a place to play.

Entire leagues run by youth themselves formed this way, so much time spent volunteering in community self-help, and then they could play. This has since spread to work on other issues from Aids to child labor. I don’t know how well it addresses structural issues, but mutual aid is always good in my book. You can read more here.

So! There’s so much more to say, so to hear the entire podcast, click here. It’s highly recommended. Another great sports blog that connects sport, resistance and politics is Dave Zirin, the Edge of Sport. And I didn’t even start on the Premiere League or hooligans or…well. There’s time.

To the claim that team sports are only bread and circuses? If you’re like me you’ll say “oh hell no,” and then think, and say, “well, some of it is.” Not the love of the game, the love of play, that feeling of solidarity with others. But I’d say we should be critical of the politics of it, and it’s probably as good a way to learn about the world around us as many others. 90 days to the World Cup, and all the world will be holding its breath at the politics and wonder.

[also posted at www.drpop.net]

Why editing Gary Phillips’ Underbelly is such a god damn pleasure!

I’m not usually one to bring certain aspects of life to the blog realm, as you can tell. But who else could write dialogue like this? Politics, comics and old school rap all in the same few paragraphs? My job is so often a joy…

“Who you supposed to be, old school?” Savoirfaire taunted, flexing his shoulders and shifting his weight onto his back foot. “Captain America don’t live here no more.”

“I’m telling you it’s through,” Magrady repeated calmly, eyes moving from the man’s hands to his face, locking onto the faux designer shades the discount desperado wore.

“You and Floyd are done.”

“You his older brother, cousin, somethin’ like that?”

“You’re missing the point, Flavor Flav,” Magrady said. “My message is what you should be focusing on. Floyd Chambers is no longer on your loan list. No more vig off his SSI checks.”

The two men stood on Wall, smack in the womb of L.A.’s Skid Row. Unlike the street’s more famous incarnation in Manhattan, the west coast version didn’t boast of edifices as testament to giddy capitalism. Trickle-down had long ago trickled out down here.

“Oh, uh-huh.” The bottom-feeder nodded his head. “You lookin’ to take over some of my territory, that it? Don’t seem to me like you got enough weight between your legs to be doin’ that, nephew. Don’t appear to me you got enough left to run this block.”

It will be available in June at PM Press, just click on the cover for more…

Zero Tolerance Policing (in the Dominican Republic?)

It sends chills down my spine really, to know Bratton’s out there making mad money as a consultant and spreading this everywhere. I know it’s considered a controversial issue but I stand pretty squarely on the side saying fuck the (U.S.) police. You add the proven corruption and racism to a larger political program and developer and business dollars? You get Giuliani and Bratton’s policies to clean up neighborhoods not by stopping crime but by criminalizing all of its inhabitants (of color) and getting them the hell out of there so the new wealthy (white) people moving in can feel safe, that’s what zero tolerance policing means to me. Just to be clear.

Funny though, Bratton’s plan is not exactly what’s going on in the Dominican Republic according to professor David Howard, nor has he been involved. They’ve just taken the prestigious name as proof of their ‘modern’ and ‘Western’ method, and have applied a particularly nationalistic twist. Of course, throwing 16,000 armed policemen into a small area (approximately 1 for every 13 people), instituting a curfew and 24 hour surveillance, and randomly arresting anyone looking at a cop wrong…well, that sounds about right. Though the scale is a bit mind boggling.

And of course,  approximately 3,000 of those police have been trained in New York and Miami. (I was going to throw in the possible effects of America’s military occupation of the Dominican Republic from 1917-21 and 1965-66 as well, but realized it’s maybe a tiny stretch to connect these facts. Or not.)

The placas have the jargon down as well, they are sanitizing these neighborhoods, cleansing them. But generally speaking they’re not criminalizing the entire population, nor is it parallel to the gentrification and displacement sweeping New York or L.A. Essentially they’re reinventing the image of the police, making a show of dealing with crime in a media friendly way, and hunting down Haitians. I’m not quite sure if this has slowed down since the earthquake, but I’m doubtful.

So. If you haven’t read Junot Diaz, either Drown or the Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, do not even finish this, proceed directly to buy these books and read them. He writes like a razor blade about the dark absurdity that seems to lie at the heart of Dominican politics (not that they’re alone in that). But here are some choice new facts.

First the Haitian thing. (Read Edwidge Danticat too, she’s amazing.) Dominicans, very generally speaking, hate Haitians. Particularly the ones who want to move to the Dominican Republic. The law says anyone born on Dominican soil who is not in transit (ie in the airport etc) is Dominican if they have a birth certificate to prove it. Trouble is, you often can’t get a certificate if either of your parents doesn’t have one, so you have some cases of 4th generation kids (dunno if you could even call them Haitian at that point), who don’t have birth certificates. And without a birth certificate you cannot get an ID. And without an ID you can be immediately arrested, and shortly thereafter deported.

But it gets better, because they’ve legally broadened the definition of ‘in transit’ to include all migrants. It’s called fun with words. And it means a lot of people in these neighborhoods have suddenly found themselves heading back to their ‘home’ country.

So the second thing. As part of re-branding themselves the police have seen technology as a major factor. So as part of this zero tolerance thing they have bought all these new jeeps equipped with the latest and greatest in tech. First, they all have laptops. Of course, they have no computerized data on crime or criminals to bring up on those laptops, but I suppose it’s the theoretical ability that counts.

Their other new gadgets? GPS units. Of course they are policing informal settlements with no paved roads and regular flooding. You can give coordinates but that will never help anyone actually get to you. And as for using it to get anywhere, forget about it.

And still I sat through the lecture with my stomach disappearing into itself and its fear of power combined with a legacy of immense violence and corruption embodied in 16,000 officers and neighborhoods essentially on lock down.

Battle for a Living Wage, UK and US

I saw Jane Wills of Queen Mary University of London speak last night on the battle for a living wage in the UK, a great talk and fascinating in its comparisons to the US…though the comparisons are all my own!

I think graphs always speak so much louder than words, so just a quick snapshot in the most comparable format I could find of growing inequalities in the two countries.

On inequality in the UK from The Guardian:

UKtop1%

On inequality in the US from Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez (via The New York Times)

US Inequality

The US retains its role as a world leader… as of 2005, the top 1% in the US held 21.8% of the wealth, and it is perhaps more frightening to look at the other lines. But many of us aren’t so happy about this, as it means we’re generally fighting each other for the little that is left. So what is being done?

In the UK, as in the US, there has been a growing movement for a living wage. It is only a very small step towards the truly just world that I believe possible on alternate Wednesdays, but I will never say that such small steps do not require a most inhuman amount of work by an admirable and massive number of people.

Essentially the minimum wage (only introduced in the UK in 1999, upon which 2.1 million people received a raise averaging 10%!) is the maximum salary that the market says it can afford to pay people. The living wage is the minimum salary that people actually need to live. A bit simplified I know, but they reduce nicely to moral foundations.

The UK living wage campaign (inspired by the US living wage campaign, begun in Baltimore in 1994) is spearheaded by a non-profit called London Citizens, a group closely based on the organizing model of the Industrial Areas Foundation, working to create a broad and powerful coalition of those already involved in churches, mosques, schools, unions and community groups.

The victories have primarily been won in London. One of the main problems has been identified as the widespread, almost ubiquitous, practice of employers outsourcing every job possible (see the brilliant new book co-authored by Jane, Global Cities at Work). This forces contractors to compete amongst themselves and underbid each other in a mad rush to the bottom. So a huge push of the campaign has been to negotiate with large employers (hospitals, office buildings, the Olympic contractors) to only outsource to businesses providing a living wage.

This reminded me a great deal of SEIU 1877’s strategy in the Justice for Janitors campaign. So I asked, and indeed! They were here at the beginning, working with one of the unions involved in the struggle. Governmental authority works a bit differently here in London and so there hasn’t been a push for anything like a city-wide ordinance, but there are talks of a campaign to get any organization receiving Government funding to ensure the living wage.

It’s a small world, and hopeful to know that some of the lessons of struggle are crossing the Atlantic (and Pacific). May that continue and grow.

So to end not on a cliche, but on John Cleese (because I’m smitten with him), here is a final graphic from The Guardian. Of course, it’s a load of doom in pretty colors really. The only bright light is the success of civil partnerships. I haven’t anything as pretty from the US, I just know (in my gut) everything is worse…

GuardianBig

[Also posted on www.drpop.net]

Nicholas Dreystadt, Cadillacs & African-Americans

So. I have always vaguely wondered about the rather unique love-affair between African-Americans and the Cadillac. I stumbled across this story of Nicholas Dreystadt in a book called The Chrome Colossus by Ed Cray, while doing some research for my dissertation…

It is 1932, and GM is actually at the point of abandoning the Cadillac forever…what was on the cutting board? This beauty of an automobile:

Nicholas Dreystadt, head of the Cadillac division, breaks into the meeting

As Cadillac service manager, Dreystadt had earlier discovered that the car was very popular with the small black bourgeoisie of successful entertainers, doctors and ghetto businessmen. A surprising number brought Cadillacs in for service–surprising because corporate policy was not to sell Cadillacs to blacks at all; the Cadillac was reserved for the white prestige market. “But the wealthy Negro,” business critic Peter F. Drucker recalled, “wanted a Cadillac so badly that he paid a substantial premium to a white man to front for him in buying one. Dreystadt had investigated this unexpected phenomenon and found that a Cadillac was the only success symbol the affluent black could buy; he had no access to good housing, to luxury resorts, or to any other of the outward signs of worldly success.”

Overwhelmed by Dreystadt’s audacity and bemused by his proposal, the committee gave him eighteen months in which to develop the Negro market. By the end of 1934, Derystadt had the Cadillac division breaking even, and by 1940 had multplied sales tenfold… (Cray 279)

It is one side of the story to be sure, a comfortable retelling of an atrocious racism prevalent in this most American of institutions. And all of America. There must be so much more to it of course, but what a fascinating glimpse from a very corporate angle. Turned around, in spite of the fury it inspires, it seems to say that African-Americans saved the Cadillac from extinction. What did they save again?

God damn. I know it’s conspicuous consumption, but I continue utterly smitten with the craftsmanship and beauty of something such as this.

But there is more. I continue reading and 50 pages later I find this story from the WWII years:

Dreystadt had accepted a contract to produce delicate aircraft gyroscopes. despite mutterings on the fourteenth floor that the job was a killer and needed skilled hands unavailable. The dissent turned to outrage when Dreystadt and his personnel manager, Jim Roche, hired 2,000 overage black prostitutes from Paradise Valley–uneducated, untrained, but willing workers. Dreystadt hired the madams too, blithely explaining, “They know how to manage the women.”

Dreystadt himself machined a dozen gyroscopes, then produced a training film detailing the step-by-step assembly process. Within weeks the women were surpassing quotas, and the outrage turned to chagrin on West Grand Boulevard. Jokes about Cadillac’s “red-light district” angered Dreystadt. “These women are my fellow workers, and yours,” he insisted. “They do a good job and respect their work. Whatever their past, they are entitled to the same respect as any one of our associates.”

Dreystadt knew he would have to replace these women at war’s end–returning veterans had job preference, and the United Auto Workers, heavily white male with a southern-states orientation, wanted the women out of the plant. “Nigger-lover” and “whore-monger” Dreystadt fought to keep some, pleading, “For the first time in their lives, these poor wretches are paid decently, work in decent conditions, and have some rights. And for the first time they have some dignity and self-respect. It’s our duty to save them from being again rejected and despised.” The union stood adamant.

When the women were laid off, a number committed suicide  rather than return to the streets. Nick Dreystadt grieved, “God forgive me. I have failed these poor souls.” (Cray 318-319)

Again, only one side and a highly problematic retelling of what is truly a remarkable story by any measure. And again, racism in bucketfuls. But who was this Nick Dreystadt really? And where are the other sides of this story to be found? I shall be looking, no fear…

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Ford, and confusion in right wing rhetoric

Even among the many books on economics and transnational corporations that I do not agree with, there are some among them that are at least rationally argued and relatively factual. But I rather enjoy when they are not, it allows me to stay awake through the boredom, mumbling angrily at the page and marking exclamation points and question marks in the margins. And their own contradictions and prejudices always come to the fore…a few choice quotes from my recent favourite:

Ford also expanded mechanical parts manufacturing in the United Kingdom (such activities are less sensitive to labor disruptions) and body and assembly in Germany, where the work force was more efficient.

Ah, racial…er…national profiling? Grand generalizations? You have to love them, especially when they’re tossed into the argument like olives of unknown provenance into a greek salad.

Increasingly, these disagreements within the US Big Three made it difficult for the US government to intervene effectively in their bargaining with the Mexican government.

Long live free trade! I wonder who was more vexed, the big three or the US government?

The UAW’s failure to negotiate better with the auto makers that had recently established in the United States also accounted for the disadvantage that the US Big Three face vis-a-vis their foreign rivals…

Is this the present or the past, who can tell? One thing I know is that it’s those damn unions again, always letting the home country’s corporations down…but I suppose if you can’t blame the workers for not kicking some Japanese ass, who can you blame for the American corporation’s failure?

The maquiladoras became the most visible symbols of the threats that low-wage countries could pose to jobs…

Again, if you can’t blame those greedy low-wage countries for the threats against jobs, who can you blame? Oh wait…

US government policies that fostered automotive production in maquiladora plants also altered the negotiating dynamic between the Mexican government and the US vehicle producers. The US auto makers learned about the low costs and the high quality of automotive production in Mexico, and the Mexican government learned about the benefits of rationalizing Mexican automotive production on a North American basis.

This is an extraordinary thing to say by any standard (unless you’re a patriotic elementary school teacher reading directly from a company brochure). It is especially extraordinary if you’re aware of the fact, as the author states earlier in the book, that Ford opened its first Mexican factory in 1925 and GM and Chrysler in 1935. And all of them had been operating there continuously for decades.

Sadly enough, the ongoing silliness of this right-wing hodgepodge of contradictory imperialist and free-trade theories  kept me entranced until the very end! So I have now read a book in its entirety that I can never use as a source in good conscience, though I shall certainly find some of the original sources useful. I could have just read the bibliography…I suppose I know who has had the last laugh.