This looks pretty amazing, and I am honoured to be in it on Grenfell, right to the city, right to a home. But it is full of struggle to transform the world.
Community Organizing in the Conservative 1980s — exciting stuff (though we’ve been through the late 1800s through 1946, the 1960s, conservative organizing in the 50s and 60s, and the 70s). The chapter opens with a fabulous quote:
We live in a society that is like a house on fire, and it’s arson. (Heather Booth, organizer, p 168)
Ah, the 1980s. My lifetime. Reagan and economic crisis, the reemergence of voluntarism, agreement amongst community activists that there has been a movement away from dissent and confrontation. There is now talk about how organizing is no longer ‘against’, instead it is ‘for’ something, it is increasingly about establishing common ground, political partnerships, moving into development, CDCs and ’empowerment’ though seems like they are doing less of that in a radical way. But on the positive side you have ACORN and City Life staying radical, there is increased thinking about cooperatives etc
You also see the rise of the neoconservative movement building on some lessons from community organizing. Fisher writes:
The neoconservative movement, in fact, sees itself, not the New Left and new social movements, as the true proponent of “the community revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s.
They are the ones giving ‘power back to the people’ (178)
Fisher describes a process in which the IAF has shifted to faith-based organizing as part of a move to understand people need more than self-interest but continues trenchant in his critique:
The strategy of moderation, the commitment to moderates, the grounding of IAF efforts in mainstream religious institutions, and a definition of power that emphasizes relationship building leads to a politics that limits the parameters of IAF work and excludes alliances with other movement activists and organizations. It encourages IAF to work alone with its constituency and mainstream allies and avoid confronting the causes of the imbalance of power that oppresses its constituents. (196)
On the other hand, ACORN continues to follow a social justice movement model, committed to radical ideology and confrontational tactics. It has a clear political program. Its “people’s platform” emanates from–but goes beyond–neighborhood politics to integrate both a constituency and class-based mode of organizing and critique of American political economy.
There are also some new developments, a raising of critiques around the intersectionality of oppressions (my words there).
There is the founding of CTWO, the Center for Third World Organizing, where I did some training myself and love well (more about them later). Fisher describes their work as multiracial organizing and a ‘critique of the systemic, institutional bases of racism and ethnocentrism’ (197). More on them next. You have the rise of ACT-UP among others…there is actually a rise of all kinds of awesomeness in this decade, despite its bad rap.
This is a decade of new social work models developing out of a radical feminist movement — a movement I was completely unaware of, but now feel the need to explore, starting with the work of Lorraine Gutierrez, Edith Lewis on the elimination of power hierarchies and support to realize full potential, Ann Withorn and Cheryl Hyde, explorations of tensions in service delivery and social action.
In response, Fisher writes:
It is this decentering of political struggle, away from the core class struggle of the old social movements to a more diverse, polyvocal discourse of the varied new citizen initiatives, that gives current grassroots efforts such potential and such problems (207)
He accepts the importance of this, and continues
the challenges of the 1990s and beyond is for groups to learn how to maintain their identity, focus, and constituency and work together in progressive organizations that advance social justice. (209)
I am struggling with Boaventura de Sousa Santos at the moment and he is all about this in a way that is quite amazing. But more on that later.
The conclusion wraps up all of this up quite well, summarizing Fisher’s understanding of the three main approaches he looks at: political activist, social welfare and neighborhood maintenance (which maybe I haven’t drawn out enough over the course of these summaries):
The political activist approach regards the community as a political entity and/ or potential power base. It focuses on obtaining, maintaining, or restructuring power. Or…is political in that its goal is to develop alternative institutions. The community’s problems, as defined by organizers, is the absence of power needed to defend the neighborhood and/ or give people more control over their lives.
Where the political activist approach differs most significantly from the social work approach is in its class perspective. The social work approach often seeks a class rapprochement based on a “partnership” between upper-class supporters, social welfare professions, and working- and lower-class neighborhood residents. (212)
Again we have an analysis of the positive role played by conflict in challenging structures people didn’t think they could challenge, and the ways in which this is where people find power, and how this is where class balances are actually altered. He looks a bit at ‘New Social Movement Theory’ too, challenging it in more ways than one, but particularly the idea that after the industrial revolution all organizing was factory organizing or entirely class oriented until post WWII. Sock it to them, I say.
The main lessons from the past as Fisher sees them:
- Neighborhood organizing cuts across the political spectrum. Not inherently left or right.
- Neighborhood organizing movements develop in a historical context that includes yet transcends local community borders. (222)
- There is a critical interaction between neighborhoods organizing efforts, national politics, and nationwide social movements. (223) Movements can be buoyed by these larger forces or crushed.
- Problems besetting neighborhoods demand political organization beyond the neighborhood level. (224)
- Neighborhood organizing requires a gentle balance between organizing, leading, and educating. (225)
- Political education must be an integral part of neighborhood organizing. (227)
- Neighborhood organizing must create a more consciously ideological practice. (228). Must connect ‘popular, inherent ideology rooted in people’s traditions and a derived ideology, primarily external, that connects their concerns to forces and events beyond personal experience. (23)
- An organizing ideology for our times needs to combine new demands for autonomy and identity with older ones for social justice, production for human needs rather than profit, and a spirit of connectedness and solidarity rather than competition. (232)
That’s the real trick.
[Fisher, Robert (1994) Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International.]
Part 2 on Robert Fisher’s great book on Community Organizing (read part 1 from 1886 to 1946 here). This might be the best part, the most inspiring at least, because weren’t the 60s amazing? We have won so much since then and I wouldn’t want to go back, but that feeling that revolution could come tomorrow?
Damn, I wouldn’t mind that at all.
The Neighborhood Organizing “Revolution” of the 1960s
Another great quote from Malcolm X:
I, for one, believe that if you give people a thorough understanding of what it is that confronts them, and the basic causes that produce it, they’ll create their own program; and when the people create a program, you get action. When their “leaders” create programs you get no action. (98)
I find it hopeful, even if I will never believe revolution is right around the corner, that there is a steady progression in how we come together to change the world, and that the issues encountered through one struggle inspires new, and often better responses to carry the struggle forward. Fisher writes:
As preceding chapters have demonstrated, the stop-gap solutions and tenuous class and race relations of one decade often become the central problem and basis for change in the next. And each new situation seems to breed new forms of neighborhood organization activity. (98)
I think he’s right, we have come a long way, and it feels good to look back to these years and see the seeds there, things I took for granted but that were invented, tested, put into action. The chapter looks at ‘the quasi-anarchist experiments’ of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) — I’ve ben reading all kinds about the first (Ransby and Cobb and Morris and Zinn and others). Fisher writes:
The groups were important innovators in a new style of community organizing, but only one of many types of grassroots efforts during the decade. (99)
He notes how geographical shift to suburbs meant poverty invisible to those living outside city center, which allows poverty to be redefined as a “black problem” both because of its concentration, but also because African Americans are leading the fight back. This connection between the spatialities of segregation, white privilege and struggle are so important, and I think finally through the new Movement for Black Lives and #BlackLivesMatter, much more of this is being explored. But at the same time as there was a spatial separation of elites, the NAACP and SCLC tended towards an elite way of working (and for the NAACP always had, with some exceptions amongst the branches), despite King’s vision of democracy. The youth entering the movement opened it all up and made it more participatory through student sit-ins and freedom rides.
Fisher notes that like Alinksy, SNCC and SDS called themselves “nonideological”:
they advocated in their words and behavior a moral revolt and nonconformity…rejected liberal faith in modest reforms…emphasis on direct action and the formation of locally autonomous, insurgent community organizations…rejected all centralized, bureaucratic, hierarchical forms…
They moved away from concerns with organization and power, and
substituted an all-embracing political credo that emphasized democratic action and relationships, processes and values. “participatory democracy,” they called it. “Let the People Decide.” (107)
The common ‘ingredients’ of these approaches (I love these lists):
- Be a catalyst, not a leader
- Let the people decide
- Develop loose organizational structures – to encourage maximum participation, consensus decision making (108)
- Establish places in the community free of external restraints – development of community unions open to all. My favourite idea, why don’t we have a million of these?
- Develop indigenous leaders
- Create supportive personal relationships (109)
A lot of those ideas are still part of the canon, along with some new additions. Many of them to deal with the shit gender dynamics that Fisher notes were still in operation here, with women doing much of the work while ‘men always remained center stage and dominated the organizations.’ (113) That picture at the top of the post was carefully chosen to make sure I don’t feel too much nostalgia.
Gender issues (and race for damn sure, and homophobia, and etc) must have damaged the strength of the movement. Fisher notes another three principal factors that hurt their efforts up to 1965. The first, the decimated state of the left and the absence of any national program to provide support, so they had to rebuild from scratch. I am divided on that as a negative factor actually, after my experiences here in the UK. The second is the difficulties in building a ‘leaderless’ movement of ‘organizers’. Fisher writes:
It is critical in community organizing to provide leadership, to do organization building, and to teach leadership and rudimentary organizational skills, but most new lefters though this ran counter to the idea of letting the people decide. (116)
I am rather fascinated by that because I can see where they were coming from ideologically, but it seems so clear that direct democracy in practice is something that is learned, that you improve with practice, that takes skill to make work effectively in a way that ensures everyone’s voice is heard, everyone can speak, everyone has power. That shit is hard. Anyway. He describes the third factor as the ‘sheer physical and emotional drain of organizing’ (117). That shit is real too.
But undoubtedly these have had a big impact on the developing models for community organizing.
The 1960s also brought the Great Society, it’s organizing projects and its Community Action Agencies. An attempt to buy out revolution really. Fisher describes the havoc that government funds caused, thrown at community organizations to try and quell the disorder that was beginning to effect economic and political centers, He writes:
The Great Society, however, was more than a traditional liberal reform program to palliate and co-opt mass insurgency. It sought not only to defuse protest from below but to reincorporate African-Americans into the political process and thereby solidify their support for the Democratic party. It sought in essence to create new black political organizations in the inner cities and the rural South that would strengthen black political involvement and electoral participation. (122)
And in many ways it succeeded. The theme of a Black elite co-opted by the establishment and becoming part of the foot holding people down, well, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation does a brilliant job at looking at that. And this is long, so the 1970s are continued next post.
[Fisher, Robert (1994) Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International.]
Winona LaDuke…damn. This collection is so due to be updated (hold on a second, it has been! A new collection, The Winona LaDuke Chronicles, came out this year). Published in 2002 this reader already represents decades of struggle and wisdom, imagine what that must look like now? She is still fighting at Standing Rock, still going strong to defend lands and peoples, still writing and speaking. It is humbling to read these words.
From ‘Building with Reservations’, speaking to architects and educators she described this:
If I were to describe the architecture of my community, I would describe it both as an architecture of poverty and an architecture of what is sacred. … But there is this sorrow–I have to say sorrow–that exists when you are stripped of the cultural integrity of your house, of your architecture, and given something that does not resonate. Sure, it provides a shelter, but as you all know, a house is more than a shelter: it is a home, it is something that reflects you. So that is the architecture of poverty in my community.
And then you have the architecture that is sacred. Next to some of these houses, you’ll see a sweat lodge, or you’ll see a miichwaap, which is like a tepee, but it is used for smoking meat. The most beautiful thing to me is when I consider the fact that a lodge that is used for one of our ceremonies is based on the mirror of a star constellation; it reflects where the poles are located. That, in its essence, is sacred architecture. I think that that is the most beautiful thing in our community. (46-47)
I’m pretty obsessed with with ideas of home, of architecture, I love this redefinition of poverty in architecture which we are in fact seeing in gleaming steel and concrete across all of our cities in the form of luxury apartments built for the global market. So different than pieces of shit HUD homes on the reservation, I don’t mean to compare them in any other sense beyond their bankruptcy of creativity or human feeling.
She talks later on about the importance of culture, the way that in universities it is treated as anthropology and folklore rather than literature and something vibrant and lived. She writes
In my life and in the life of my family, many of us in our community find that those teachings are not about the process of going back, but that’s kind of the mythology that surrounds the view of native people… It’s not about that at all. It’s about recovering that which the Creator gave us as instructions, and then walking that path… (173)
It provides an alternative — not to be appropriated but to be learned from — of systems that value balance and ‘a good life’ over profit. Like this:
There should be beauty in “process,” whether it is harvesting with intelligence, whether it is the use of recycled materials, or whether it is observing energy efficiency. (53)
It is particularly explicit in the essay on ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Environmental Futures’, a term I know has been problematised, but which lays out a different basis and a better source of expertise for our thinking about how we relate to the world around us:
Traditional Ecological knowledge is the culturally and spiritually based way in which indigenous peoples relate to their ecosystems. This knowledge is founded on spiritual-cultural instructions from “time immemorial” and on generations of observation within an ecosystem of continuous residence. I believe that this knowledge also represents the clearest empirically based system for resource management and ecosystem protection in North America, and I will argue that native societies’ knowledge surpasses the scientific and social knowledge of the dominant society in its ability to provide information and a management style for environmental planning. (78)
It is based around a very different idea of success, of life’s meaning.
“Minobimaatisiiwin,” or the “good life,” is the basic objective of the Anishinaabeg and Cree people who have historically, and to this day, occupied a great portion of the north-central region of the North American continent. An alternative interpretation of the word is “continuous rebirth.” This is how we traditionally understand the world and how indigenous societies have come to live within natural law. Two tenets are essential to this paradigm: cyclical thinking and reciprocal relations and responsibilities to the Earth and creation. Cyclical thinking, common to most indigenous or land-based cultures and value systems, is an understanding that the world (time, and all parts of the natural order-including the moon, the tides, women, lives, seasons, or age) flows in cycles. Within this understanding is a clear sense of birth and rebirth and a knowledge that what one does today will affect one in the future, on the return. A second concept, reciprocal relations, defines responsibilities and ways of relating between humans and the ecosystem. (79)
I don’t know how different, in fact, Minobimaatisiiwin actually is from what most people outside of these traditions would term a fulfilling life, but we have still bowed before money and power as measures of success and as enough justification for any number of terrible things. She describes a very different understanding of development, light years removed from that which now prevails but without question one way, perhaps the only way, to step back from the precipice of ecological disaster:
By its very nature, “development”–or, concomitantly, an “economic system” based on these ascribed Indigenous values-must be decentralized, self-reliant, and very closely based on the carrying capacity of that ecosystem. (80)
And this is, indeed, a very good question:
I believe there is a more substantial question meriting discussion: Can North American society craft the social fabric to secure a traditional management practice, based on consensual understanding and a collective process? (82)
I am taking these out of order here, thinking about how this all connects to our relationship to the earth, that perhaps many of our problems emerge because we have been so divorced from place:
Implicit in the concept of Minobimaatisiiwin is a continuous inhabitation of place, an intimate understanding of the relationship between humans and the ecosystem, and the need to maintain that balance. These values and basic tenets of culture made it possible for the Cree, Ojibway, and many other indigenous peoples to maintain economic, political, religious, and other institutions for generations in a manner that would today be characterized as sustainable.4 (80)
She returns later to this topic:
Native environmental groups have a commitment and tenacity that springs from place. “This is where my grandmother’s and children’s umbilical cords are buried … That is where the great giant lay down to sleep … That is the last place our people stopped in our migration here to this village.” Our relationships to land and water is continuously reaffirmed through prayer, deed, and our way of life. Our identity as human beings is founded on creation stories tying us to the earth, and to a way of being, minobimaatisiiwin, “the good life.” (57-58)
It is not just positionality and the structural oppression faced by indigenous communities, but this connection to place that drives experience, meaning and struggle.
All this to say that Native communities are not in a position to compromise, because who we are is our land, our trees, and our lakes. This is central to our local and collective work. (62)
There is a lot about land in here, and what has destroyed traditional connections to it:
The governance of this land by traditional ecological knowledge has been adversely affected by genocide, colonialism, and subsequent circumstances that need to be considered in the current dialogue on North American resource management, the role of the environmental movement, and indigenous peoples. (82)
She describes the two worldviews at play:
The conflict between two paradigms-industrial thinking and indigenous thinking-becomes central to the North American and, indeed to the worldwide, environmental and economic crisis. … For many indigenous peoples, the reality is as sociologist Ivan Illich has suggested: development practices are in fact a war on subsistence. (86-87)
Capitalism, industrialism…can the two be separated? But it is definitely a war and this seems to be exactly the idea that we might belong to the earth that is being decimated. The clearances and enclosures in Europe were to the same end.
Akiing is the word for land in our language, and in the indigenous concept of land ownership or the Anishinaabeg concept of land ownership, it is much more a concept that we belong to that land than the land belongs to us. … land tenure itself and concepts of land ownership are of course a concept of culture–they are a concept of your teachings, a construct of how you are raised and how you live in your community. (138)
Important to always remember that these things are not natural or self-evident but constructed. And the creation of the US is definitely one of predator…I am pondering how this might help us think about the political economy of land.
Indigenous people traditionally have been the people who have lived on the land, but the predator/prey relationship that exists between America and the land is one that has caused the constant erosion and taking of the indigenous land base in the Americas. And it has caused the constant erosion and the taking of other people’s land outside of that context as well. (143)
Again mobility, predation, frontiers, all those things that capital needs, as opposed to connection, balance, care…
One of the challenges that we have in America is that America is built on conquest, not on survival. It is a society, by and large, based on the concept that there is always a West, always a frontier. There will always be someplace to go. We don’t necessarily have to give thanks for where we are because we’re moving.
That is the challenge..This conceptual framework between one worldview and another worldview, indigenous and industrial, or land-based and predator….the predator world-view. It is, in fact, manifest in how we live here. And every ecological crisis we have today is a direct consequence of that… (180)
From the land to rights as Native women, I loved her speech ‘I fight like a woman’ from the UN Conference on Women in China, 1995.
As one woman, Corrine Kumar from the Asian Women’s Human Rights Association explained simply, “From the periphery of power human rights looks different.” (205)
A challenge to mobile, global power to look those it is destroying in the eye:
Vicki Corpuz is an Igarok woman from the Philippines, head of the Cordinera Women’s Association. … “We found that a lot of our problems were related to trans-national corporations and institutions. And we thought it was time to get more accountability from them. We can do basic empowerment work here – but all the decisions are actually made elsewhere. They should have to look at us in the face when they make those decisions.” (208)
The need for indigenous peoples (as true of other struggles) to operate at a global level…
It was several years ago Mililani Trask, Kia Aina or Head of State of the Native Hawaiian Nation changed her mind about work. “The real reason why all Indigenous people have to be apprised of, or involved in the international arena is because their individual land-based struggles will be impacted by these nation states and international interests.” (209)
More on militarism — I love this quote, hate what the US and others are doing on other people’s lands…
Militarism is a form of colonization which takes away from our lives. That future is without hope for us. But, we will fight for our rights. I believe in nonviolence and civil disobedience. I am ready to go to jail, to take blows or die for our cause, because I believe in the struggle for the freedom of my people. I don’t want your sympathy, I want your support, your strong and collective support against the oppression of your government. What are need is your resistance.” Penote Ben Michel made this plea at a 31 January 1987 conference in Montreal on militarism in Labrador/Nitassinan. (230)
I am furious with Geroge Dubya all over again. I volunteered to do precinct walking for Kerry in Vegas I was so furious with that man. Might have campaigned for her, though, if I’d been a little more woke, though I still might have bowed to the dual party system.
This is from her acceptance speech for the nomination for Vice Presidential candidate, running with Nader.
I am not inclined toward electoral politics. Yet I am impacted by public policy. I am interested in reframing the debate on the issues of this society — the distribution of power and wealth, the abuse of power and the rights of the natural world, the environment and the need to consider an amendment to the U.S. Constitution in which all decisions made today will be considered in light of their impact on the seventh generation from now. That is, I believe, what sustainability is all about. These are vital subjects which are all too often neglected by the rhetoric of “major party” candidates and the media.
I believe that decision making should not be the exclusive right of the privileged. (267)
All of that. We need all of that.
This is only a sampling of some of what I loved most/have been thinking about most recently. There is so much more here, and of course so much more written since this was published.
[LaDuke, Winona (2002) The Winona LaDuke Reader: A Collection of Essential Writings. Stillwater, MN: Voyageur Press.]
It’s been a full-on few days of action hosted by the People’s Assembly, as it should be with the Tories busy sticking knives into each other at their annual party conference as people die from their benefit cuts, sanctions, mental health cuts, NHS cuts, housing sell off and etc. That’s what my sign would have said — or some snappier version of that — had I made one. Danielle and I did a lot, though not even close to all.
Saturday night? The Dancehouse, to see much-loved Maxine Peake (OMG Maxine Peake!) and Mark Serwotka (OMG Mark Serwotka! How much do I want to be able to join PCS? Let me count the ways…), to love for the first time comedian Barbara Nice (OMG Barbara Nice!).
Sunday was the protest of the Tory conference proper. It’s kind of funny, remembering back to the first time I ever visited Manchester, on a bus up from South London to protest Tory Party Conference in 2011. I confess I was a bit unimpressed with everything but the canals and the Peak of Peveril Pub — but I was here. Doesn’t feel it could possibly have been as long as 6 years ago. We could get closer to conference then, but they are still using those silver walls. 2011:
The anti-Brexit contingent, and ‘Boris’ on a unicorn singing busily, 2016:
We headed down Castlefields way, heard Mark Serwotka again (OMG Mark Serwotka again!) speak by chance. Then we ran into Jon and the next few speakers were yawny in the way lefty men of a certain generation can be, so we took a short break for art.
Alongside us in the Museum of Science and Industry was Nikhil Chopra in the second half of his 48-hour performance art piece, performed in front of one of the engines built in Manchester, but sent to India and used during the partition. This ink drawing, a re-imagining of passage. This sleeping and camping and being in public for 48 hours — it is what refugees undergo, isn’t it, part of the horror wrapped up in horrors of this thing, being a refugee. Always in public. Always moving. Always somewhere you don’t belong. And it challenged me in watching it, the shame of being comfortable in the face of this discomfort, in the memory of this tragedy. I lowered my eyes to give privacy to this figure on the stage, then took a picture to remember the provocative nature of this intervention because after all it is ‘art’, it is a gift and a challenge thrown at us by someone who is also not here under duress. A challenge I don’t know quite how to live up to, but I hope to. Through my work around homelessness perhaps, through struggle. I don’t know if that is enough.
That left us pensive, subdued, strange to go back out into a crowd. But it fit. As in all damn marches we stood and we stood and we waited and we waited. I didn’t get many pictures, but a few. The highlights were absolutely the drums, I enjoyed myself, and then…we left them behind.
It was all right, the march. They always are.
And then we had to find food and drink and wait and wait, because we had been promised Captain Ska and Lokey, and finally they were on and finally we danced. For me this was…amazing. The power and passion and incredible words and beats. Damn.
I hurt the next morning. First time exercising since holiday, then a march and then dancing? Shit.
Still, I went to work. And then in the evening off to Manchester Cathedral to see John McDonnell speak in conversation with Gary Younge. Because I promised Danielle. To be honest, were it just me, I would have headed straight for bed with some Horlicks. But I went. And I was glad.
First we had some workers… From the strikers at McDonalds! so amazing, I remember my minimum wage fast food /Kmart days, I know just how amazing these folks are for carrying off a strike.
RMT! Strike across the North East for passenger safety!
Careworkers! She almost had me in tears.
Communications union — our postal workers! Anxiously awaiting ballot results when he spoke, but today we know the vote is to strike.
And then, John McDonnell!
I’m sad Gary Younge didn’t get to make a speech too. But ah well, McDonnell said Labour was in full support of the workers, they would re-nationalise the trains and the post, they would fully fund the NHS and support careworkers, they would implement the living wage. I never thought, to be honest, I’d ever hear anyone in a position like that of shadow vice-chancellor ever say such things. It solved all the problems expressed earlier in one sentence.
Last time I saw him speak was in 2011 (the parallels between 2011 and 2017 are only now striking me), at the People’s Assembly in Brixton that we organised as Lambeth SOS. He was a little less formal then, but sounded just the same.
I jotted down a few notes, some sound bites and I don’t even care because they were brilliant, all in response to some really good questions.I can’t swear any of these are exact quotes, so don’t quote me.
We’re not just a party we’re a movement again … if owned by the people change becomes unstoppable…
(I am a bit skeptical about whether the old left can deal with democracy and youth and people of colour and women, but, you know, I have hope).
This is not a free market but a rigged market of the 1%.
We need to wipe out UKIP.
In response to a good question about why this change is so damn long in coming and so resisted (someone yelled out Tony Blair and we all laughed because we knew it was true), he brought it on with Gramsci — the hegemonic nature of neoliberalism (also true).
Never again should we pay for their crisis.
Education is a gift from one generation to another, not a commodity.
Then he went on about a new education service, starting with sure start, a new approach that pays teachers but also respects them, support for apprenticeships, scrap tuition fees, EMA returned, debt forgiven, support for lifelong education.
And the end? I was wondering when this would come up — the focus on climate change, on developing the economy through green tech owned by workers cooperatives, on decarbonising the economy, ending fracking. It was like the Hallelujah chorus.
A brilliant night. A night of hope. We need those, I feel privileged to have enjoyed one because it has been a very long time…
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.]
I finally got around to reading all of de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. I had, of course, before read all that stuff about walking, but there is so much more here for the literary and philosophical geographer. I might have liked the chapter on tactics best of all, even if I disagree with it. I have been thinking about strategy and tactics for the past few weeks, it’s one of the things community organizing is all about, but I was reading this particular book for another project entirely. Interesting. I’ve kept some of his headings because I quite love the breadth of what he writes about, and though I’ve found even of interest for two, maybe three blogs here, I am fairly sure there will be more when I read it again. There are some pieces from the intro in this, blog 1, but it is mostly chapter 3.
This is one of my favourite quotes:
As unrecognized producers, poets of their own acts, silent discoverers of their own paths in the jungle of functionalist rationality, consumers produce through their signifying practices something that might be considered similar to the “wandering lines” drawn by autistic children…”indirect” or “errant” trajectories obeying their own logic. (xviii)
Though I’d prefer my poetry emerged through something other that my consumption. I kind of like to sit and stare and these sentences that at first sound so good, but then sometimes lose sense as you think about them. Wisps of smoke. The strategy and tactics I found much more clear:
I call a “strategy” the calculus of force-relationships which becomes possible when a subject of will and power (a proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated from an “environment.” (xix)
Not entirely sure about the environment, mostly disagree with strategy as belonging only to such subjects of will and power and wonder what it means to place a city itself into that category, but interesting.
Chapter 3 “Making Do”: Uses and Tactics
Thus a North African living in Paris or Roubaix [France] insinuates into the system imposed on him by the construction of a low—income housing development or of the French language the ways of “dwelling” (in a house or in a language) peculiar to his native Kabylia. He superimposes them and, by that combination, creates for himself a space in which he can find ways of using the constraining order of the place or of the language. Without leaving the place where he has no choice but to live and which lays down its law for him, he establishes within it a degree of plurality and creativity. By an art of being in between, he draws unexpected results from his situation.
These modes of use–or rather re-use–multiply with the extension of acculturation phenomena…of transiting toward an identification of a person by the place in which he lives or works. That does not prevent them from corresponding to a very ancient art of “making do.” I give them the name of uses, even though the word most often designates stereotyped procedures accepted and reproduced by a group, its “ways and customs.” (30)
I love this, both in how it understands the ways in which we inhabit space by making it our own, the ways that that subverts and transforms space, and that a similar process should happen in language. Because of course, you see it everywhere and most places I have lived, this in-between has become a vibrant new place and new way of speaking both.
But on to a deeper explanation of the already stated view of strategy:
A distinction between strategies and tactics appears to provide a more adequate initial schema. I call a strategy the calculation (or manipulation) or power relationships that becomes possible as soon as a subject with will and power (a business, an army, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated. It postulates a place that can be delimited as its own and serve as the base from which relations with an exteriority composed of targets or threats (customers or competitors, enemies, the country surrounding the city, objectives and objects of research, etc.) can be managed. As in management, every “strategic” rationalization seeks first of all to distinguish its “own” place, that is, the place of its own power and will, from an “environment.”
I love how this manipulation of power is always in a place, always tied to a geography and a here as opposed to a there. But how does a city exert this? I am still pondering that. I cannot tell where agency lies, and that bothers me. It is too vague. But interesting. De Certeau continues about the difference between the two along different axes: That of time, that of sight, that of knowing:
The establishment of a break between a place appropriated as one’s own and its other is accompanied by important effects, some of which we must immediately note:
(I) The “proper” is a triumph of place over time. It allows one to capitalize acquired advantages, to prepare future expansions, and thus to give oneself a certain independence with respect to the variability of circumstances. It is a mastery of time through the foundation of an autonomous place.
These past few weeks — time has mastered me rather than the other way round. It makes sense to think of power as its master, interesting that it (might be) through place.
(2) It is also a mastery of places through sight. The division of space makes possible a panoptic practice proceeding from a place whence the eye can transform foreign forces into objects that can be observed and measured, and thus control and “include” them within its scope of vision. To be able to see (far into the distance) is also to be able to predict, to run ahead of time by reading a space.
The ability to see gives more control over time, more control over space…
(3) It would be legitimate to define the power of knowledge by this ability to transform the uncertainties of history into readable spaces. But it would be more correct to recognize in these “strategies” a specific type of knowledge, one sustained and determined by the power to provide oneself with one’s own place. Thus military or scientific strategies have always been inaugurated through the constitution of their “own” areas (autonomous cities, “neutral” or “independent” institutions, laboratories pursuing “disinterested” research, etc.). In other words, a certain power is the precondition of this knowledge and not merely its effect or its attribute. It makes this knowledge possible and at the same time determines its characteristics. It produces itself in and through this knowledge.
Transforming history into a readable ‘space’…another magician’s trick. I am not sold, but oddly fascinated of this way he has of assuming we create spaces through words. This slippage between physical and abstract space intrigues.
I am troubled by ‘masters’ owning space, thereby strategies, while the rest of us are without center, reduced to tactics.
By contrast with a strategy (whose successive shapes introduce a certain play into this formal schema and whose link with a particular historical configuration of rationality should also be clarified), a tactic is a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus. No delimitation of an exteriority, then, provides it with the condition necessary for autonomy. The space of a tactic is the space of the other. Thus it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power.
I have trouble moving between physical and abstract space here, trouble working out where we actually stand. But stand we do, I will defend our ability to have strategy, even on someone else turf.
It does not have the means to keep to itself, at a distance, in a position of withdrawal, foresight, and self-collection: it is a maneuver “within the enemy’s field of vision,” as von Bülow put it, and within enemy territory.
It does not, therefore, have the options of planning general strategy and viewing the adversary as a whole within a district, visible, and objectifiable space.
It operates in isolated actions, blow by blow. It takes advantage of “opportunities” and depends on them, being without any base where it could stockpile its winnings, build up its own position, and plan raids. What it wins it cannot keep. This nowhere gives a tactic mobility, to be sure, but a mobility that must accept the chance offerings of the moment, and seize on the wing the possibilities that offer themselves at any given moment. It must vigilantly make use of the cracks that particular conjunctions open in the surveillance of the proprietary powers. It poaches in them. It creates surprises in them. It can be where it is least expected. It is a guileful ruse.
We can keep wins. We can gain ground. It does not mean that we should not search for cracks or go poaching.
In short, a tactic is an art of the weak.
Maybe this is what is wrong with the British left.
Clausewitz noted this fact in discussing deception in his treatise On War. The more a power grows, the less it can allow itself to mobilize part of its means in the service of deception: it is dangerous to deploy large forces for the sake of appearances; this sort of “demonstration” is generally useless and “the gravity of bitter necessity makes direct action so urgent that it leaves no room for this sort of game.” One deploys his forces, one does not take chances with feints. Power is bound by its very visibility. In contrast, trickery is possible for the weak, and often it is his only possibility, as a “last resort”: “The weaker the forces at the disposition of the strategist, the more the strategist will be able to use deception.” I translate: the more the strategy is transformed into tactics. (36-37)
I am strangely drawn to reading Clausewitz, von Bulow. I am all for trickery. But that’s not going to win a fight. Nor will tactics. For all his exploration which at least acknowledges this form of resistance where many do not, de Certeau doesn’t really promise much. He yields a great deal to the enemy from the very beginning.
Lacking its own place, lacking a view of the whole, limited by the blindness (which may lead to perspicacity) resulting from combat at close quarters, limited by the possibilities of the moment, a tactic is determined by the absence of power just as a strategy is organized by the postulation of power. (38)
It’s also a strangely evanescent, individual sort of thing, this tactic. I wonder if it is precisely because he makes this distinction:
strategies pin their hopes on the resistance that the establishment of a place offers to the erosion of time; tactics on a clever utilization of time, of the opportunities it presents and also of the play that it introduces into the foundations of power. Even if the methods practiced by the everyday art of war never present themselves in such a clear form, it nevertheless remains the case that the two ways of acting can be distinguished according to whether they bet on place or on time. (38-39)
Many communities are trapped in place, or part of a place and identify with a place and will never leave a place. This collective identity and its connection to a neighborhood or piece of earth is where strength comes from, this is what drives them to make a stand. They cannot not bet on place, they cannot or will not just pick up and move. What then? The difference between Algerian’s ‘making do’ in Paris as opposed to those fighting occupation in Kabylia perhaps.
So given I reject my banishment to the use of tactics only, where does that leave me? Us? Because I am not fighting alone. Turned on its head this means we do need our own places, time and space both to think, to plan. To come together. A place on the heights, to see far. One that draws strength from how this place is transformed by our own culture and value and ways of being in the world. That creates the room for these possibilities, that celebrates hybridity and flexibility while drawing on history and tradition that stand in opposition to capitalism. Somewhere not easily seen (but do those in power ever truly see us?). Somewhere we can move quickly and take advantage of the moment, but in ways that lead us to the transformations we seek. Strategically.
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.
From ‘Wanting Now’, thinking of all the struggle that lies outside of a ‘movement’:
Today the desire for justice is multitudinous. This is to say that struggles against injustice, struggles for survival, for self-respect, for human rights, should never be considered merely in terms of their immediate demands, their organizations, or their historical consequences. They cannot be reduced to ‘movements’. A movement describes a mass of people collectively moving towards a definite goal, which they either achieve or fail to achieve. Yet such a description ignores, or does not take into account, the countless personal choices, encounters, illuminations, sacrifices, new desires, griefs and, finally, memories, which the movement brought about, but which are, in the strict sense, incidental to that movement. (2)
From ‘Let Us Think About Fear’ — it seems even more uncannily accurate about Trump and the Republicans today, who almost make me miss Bush Jr.
The leaders of the New World Order, however, would seem to be married to Fear … Day and Night the partners of Fear are anxiously preoccupied with telling themselves and their subordinates the right half-truths … It takes about six half-truths to make a lie. As a result, they become unfamiliar with reality, whilst continuing to dream about, and of course to exercise, power. They continually have to absorb shocks whilst accelerating. Decisiveness becomes their invariable device for preventing the asking of questions. (53)
From ‘Stones’ — on the walls of Ramallah:
Today there is not a wall in the town centre of Ramallah, now the capital of the Palestinian Authority, which is not covered with photographs of the dead, taken when alive and now reprinted as small posters. … These faces transform the desultory street walls into something as intimate as a wallet of private papers and pictures. … Around the posters, the walls are scarred with bullet and shrapnel marks. (59)
I confess, I am perhaps a bit wary of such essays as a form, printed in a small book they seem part of the elite tradition of letters. I still love this book, I know Berger was a Marxist to the end. Yet it makes me so sad that the cover should name Berger one of the great intellectuals of our time, that he could then write such an essay so powerful on Palestine, and that it should continue to be ignored. It makes me wonder what we are doing, what we should do, what we can do.
As I read Raja Shehadeh, another such powerful writer, on his wanderings and the beauty of Palestine it reminded me so much of the Arizona desert I love, that was also lost though not in the same way. So this had a bit of an eerie feeling to it:
I have never seen such a light before. It comes down from the sky in a strangely regular way, for it makes no distinction between what is distant and what is close. The difference between far and near is one of scale, never of colour, texture or precision. And this affects the way you place yourself, it affects your sense of being here. The land arranges itself around you, rather than confronting you. It’s the opposite of Arizona. Instead of beckoning, it recommends never leaving. (68)
This captures capitalism I think, and our history of conquest and pillage of which Bacon knew quite a lot — On a new appreciation of Francis Bacon’s work ‘A Master of Pitilessness’
Today’s pitilessness is perhaps more unremitting, pervasive and continuous. It spares neither the planet itself, nor anyone living on it anywhere. Abstract because deriving from the sole logic of the pursuit of profit (as cold as the freezer), it threatens to make obsolete all other sets of belief, along with their traditions of facing the cruelty of life with dignity and some flashes of hope. (87)
More about walls, about poverty, about home. ‘Ten Dispatches About Endurance in Face of Walls’ (Oct 2004)
The poor have no residence.
The poor have no residence. They have homes because they remember mothers or grandfathers or an aunt who brought them up. A residence is a fortress, not a story; it keeps the wild at bay. A residence needs walls. Nearly everyone among the poor dreams of a small residence, like dreaming of rest. However great the congestion, the poor live in the open, where they improvise, not residences, but places for themselves. These places are as much protagonists as their occupants; the places have their own lives to live and do not, like residences, wait on others. The poor live with the wind, with dampness, flying dust, silence, unbearable noise (sometimes with both; yes, that’s possible!) with ants, with large animals, with smells coming from the earth, rats, smoke, rain, vibrations from elsewhere, rumours, nightfall, and with each other. Between the inhabitants and these presences there are no clear marking lines. Inextricably confounded, they together make up the place’s life.
The poor are collectively unseizable. They are not only the majority on the planet, they are everywhere and the smallest event speaks of them. This is why the essential activity of the rich today is the building of walls – walls of concrete, of electronic surveillance, of missile barrages, minefields, frontier controls, and opaque media screens. (91-92)
‘Looking Carefully — Two Women Photographers’ made me feel inspired to be a photographer again, but I particularly liked this:
Within such a concept of history we have to come to see that every simplification, every label, serves only the interests of those who wield power; the more extensive their power, the greater their need for simplifications. And, by contrast, the interests of those who suffer under, or struggle against this blind power, are served now and for the long, long future by the recognition and acceptance of diversity, difference and complexities. (134)
Ah, to take pictures that do not capture and simplify but render up complexities.
I end where the book actually begins, with a poem. It has been too long since I shared a poem.
Hold Everything Dear
for John Berger
as the brick of the afternoon stores the rose heat of the journey
as the rose buds a green room to breathe
and blossoms like the wind
as the thinning birches whisper their silver stories of the wind to the urgent
in the trucks
as the leaves of the hedge store the light
that the moment thought it had lost
as the nest of her wrist beats like the chest of a wren in the morning air
as the chorus of the earth find their eyes in the sky
and unwrap them to each other in the teeming dark
hold everything dear
the calligraphy of birds across the morning
the million hands of the axe, the soft hand of the earth
one step ahead of time
the broken teeth of tribes and their long place
steppe-scattered and together
clay’s small, surviving handle, the near ghost of a jug
carrying itself towards us through the soil
the pledge of offered arms, the single sheet that is our common walking
the map of the palm held
in a knot
but given as a torch
hold everything dear
the paths they make towards us and how far we open towards them
the justice of a grass than unravels palaces but shelters the songs of the searching
the vessel that names the waves, the jug of this life, as it fills with the days
as it sinks to become what it loves
memory that grows into a shape the tree always knew as a seed
the child who reaches for the truths beyond the door
the yearning to begin again together
animals keen inside the parliament of the world
the people in the room the people in the street the people
hold everything dear
19th May 2005
Ways of Seeing by John Berger is a most wonderful wonderful book. Told both in words and pictures, what follows is a lopsided collection of sentences that does some violence to the whole I confess. I was particularly interested in photography, but found myself swept away into other places and didn’t mind at all. It is a book I look forward to reading many more times — and hunting down the series as well. I so wish I had been lucky enough to have been given this to read in the high school Art History class that has remained with me all through my years. Better late than never.
It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. (7)
Nothing is ever settled. I love this unsettling. Love this sense of history:
The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognized for exactly what it is. History always constitutes the relation between a present and its past. Consequently, fear of the present leads to mystification of the past. The past is not for living in; it is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act. (11)
Just a sentence and then off he goes in another direction. I want to think more about this alongside Trouillot and the erasings and the silences, but later perhaps.
Because we are off to Frans Hals, always one of my favourites:
Hals was the first portraitist to pain the new characters and expressions created by capitalism. He did in pictorial terms what Balzac did two centuries later in literature. (16)
The regentesses of Haarlem’s almshouse, such an unforgettable picture but never had I thought of it this way:
And this, my favourite statement of the power that images hold, the potential they carry, a statement that makes me think of things quite differently though I have for a long time been thinking about this — like the wonderful obsessions of Otto Neurath and his isotypes:
If the new language of images were used differently, it would, through its use, confer a new kind of power. Within it we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate. (Seeing comes before words.) Not only personal experience, but also the essential historical experience of our relation to the past: that is to say the experience of seeking to give meaning to our lives, of trying to understand the history of which we can become the active agents.
The art of the past no longer exists as it once did. Its authority is lost. In its place there is a language of images. What matters now is who uses that language for what purpose. (33)
I don’t know why Berger’s passages on oil painting struck me as they did, I think because they represent what a profoundly different way this is of understanding painting as it sits within its context — I love it.
Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity. All reality was mechanically measured by its materiality. … Oil painting conveyed a feeling of total exteriority. (87)
I can see this exteriority, feel the velvets and silks under my fingers in these paintings. That always struck me, the incredible details. I think there was such a love of these sumptuous textures in themselves, but yes, also this:
Works of art in earlier traditions celebrated wealth. But wealth was then a symbol of a fixed social or divine order. Oil painting celebrated a new kind of wealth — which was dynamic and which found its only sanction in the supreme buying power of money. Thus painting itself had to be able to demonstrate the desirability of what money could buy. (90)
And then there is the section on advertising, the co-optation of art (not that that was anything new, as can be seen in the quote above) and this unapologetic reading that made me happy:
The pursuit of individual happiness has been acknowledged as a universal right. Yet the existing social conditions make the individual feel powerless. He lives in the contradiction between what he is and what he would like to be. Either he then becomes fully conscious of the contradiction and its causes, and so joins the political struggle for a full democracy which entails, among other things, the overthrow of capitalism; or else he lives, continually subject to an envy which, compounded with his sense of powerlessness, dissolves into recurrent day dreams. (148)
So to end with photography, which sent me here in the first place and of which I found but little, though I did not care in the slightest.
First, something that seems so simple, and yet… before thinking about it I might have said as a reflex that photography was somehow more ‘objective’, I might still lapse into that feeling. But really,
The photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject. (10)
On the other hand, I had not before thought through how the camera changes our perspective, how it differs from painting, how it decentres us from time and space:
The camera isolated momentary appearances and in so doing destroyed the idea that images were timeless. Or, to put it another way, the camera showed that the notion of time passing was inseparable from the experience of the visual (except in paintings)….
This is not to say that before the invention of the camera men believed everyone could see everything. But perspective organized the visual field as though that were indeed the ideal. Every drawing or painting that used perspective proposed to the spectator that he was the unique centre of the world. The camera — and more particularly the movie camera — demonstrated that there was no centre.
The invention of the camera changed the way that we saw. The invisible came to mean something different to them. This was immediately reflected in painting. (18)
This is something I need to think much more about. It’s interesting how this is one of the major differences between Western and non-Western art, it doesn’t surprise me at all that it is Western art of a certain period that put human beings always at the centre. It must be a good thing to destabilise that, but I’m not sure I entirely grasp how photography and film do that. Our own private viewings into the world of others.
But there is so much joy in art and pleasure in thinking about it here…