Delightful Devra Davis, Director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, and Professor in the Department of Epidemiology at UP’s Graduate School of Public Health, has provided me with a basis for one of your New Year’s Resolutions. I hope.
One of the problems with studies of cell phones, according to Dr. Davis, is that the issues they are trying to understand are inherently complex. Science works best, apparently, examining one thing at a time, as we do routinely with drugs in clinical trials.
The problems posed by cell phones in the real world are like are like huge simultaneous equations — mathematical formulas of relationships between multiple unknowns. She asks how we can determine the role of one factor, such as cell phone exposure to the skull, when others like diet, workplace conditions and local air pollution, are changing at the same time and at different rates.
Studying brain cancer, for example, is one of the toughest jobs in epidemiology, according to Devra (Let’s provide a cozy sit-down, holiday ambiance here, okay?) because it is a rare disease, takes years to decades to develop, an impairs the very systems that might give us clues, a person’s ability to recall and describe past activities and exposures that might have put them at risk.
The disease can take forty years to develop, and very often researchers have to rely on the very unreliable recollections of family members… respecting what elements a given relative might have been exposed to way back when. Try remembering on that count for your own life. Very difficult, to say the least.
When it comes to sorting through the risks of cell phones, we have lately been assured that there are none based upon reports from what appear to be independent scientific reviewers. Devra points out that researchers from the Danish Cancer Society reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 2006 that they found “no evidence of risk in persons who had used cell phones.”
Headlines around the world boasted of this latest finding from an impeccable source published in a first tier scientific journal. The press coverage of this study tells us a great deal about what journalists and the rest of us who depend so heavily on these phones would like to believe. The following were all posted between the 6th and the 10th in 2006:
“Cell Phones Don’t Cause Brain Cancer” — Toronto Daily News
“Cell Phones Don’t Raise Cancer Risk” — Reuters
“Big Study Finds No Link Between Cell Phones, Cancer” — San Jose Mercury News
“Study: Cell Phones Don’t Cause Cancer” — Albuquerque Tribune
“Study: Cell Phones Safe” — Newsday
“Cell Phones Do Not Cause Cancer” — Techtree.com, India
Most people — in the absence of well-publicized official clarification/intervention — will run with those positive findings… for a number of reasons. Continue with their lifestyle as is. Keep their hands on their habits.
But…what did the researchers actually study? I can hear Santa Claus going “Ho, Ho, Ho” in the background:
1. They reviewed health records through 2002 of about 421,000 people who had first signed up for private use of cell phones between 1982 and 1995.
2. A “cell phone user” in the study was anyone who made a single phone call a week for six months during the period 1981 to 1995.
3. The study kicked out anyone who was part of a business that used cell phones, including only those who had used a cell phone for personal purposes for eight years.
Dr. Davis asks:
1. Why did they not look at business users — those with far more frequent use of cell phones?
2. Why lump all users together, putting those who might have made a single cell phone call a week with those who used the phones more often?
3. Why stop collecting information on brain tumors in 2002, when we know that brain tumors often take decades to develop and be diagnosed?
There are NO legitimate explanations for such indiscretions.
It would have been better to compare the frequent users with non-users, omitting the limited users altogether. Devra notes, “Lumping all these various users together is like looking all over a city for a stolen car when you know it’s in a five-block radius.”
The Danish Study was designed to appear definitively thorough — Imagine, 421,000 people!!! — but in fact it was biased against positive findings from the start.
Anyone who’s interested in receiving data which definitively damns the use of cell phones is invited to contact this author. Short of that, if you’re interested in the health of society and your own health on this count, I recommend the “Presumed Innocent” chapter (Fifteen) of Dr. Davis’ latest book. For the purpose of coming up with a possible… New Year’s Resolution.
Regardless, I do have one other anecdote to share, which hints at WHY findings (you’ll keep coming across) are likely to gloss over the gross, horrific aspects of cell phones.
A major international study of brain cancer in wireless phone users has been underway for quite some time, headquartered at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization in Lyon, France.
The large study was designed to combine more than 3,000 cases of brain tumors from around the industrial world and was supposed to release its results in 2006. In Canada, Daniel Krewski, a respected epidemiologist who heads that country’s national study of cell phones, receives much of his funding from the industry. Some have asked whether this constitutes bias. Krewski is also part of the IARC study.
The former director of the IARC, Lorenzo Tomatis, is concerned about the lack of independence of this important work, according to Dr. Davis. He complained publicly in 2004 about the close cooperation that was developing between the cell phone industry and those who were studying brain cancer that could be associated with cell phones’ use.
When Dr. Tomatis returned to the facility in Lyon to meet with colleagues with whom he had worked, he was treated like no other former director: he was ordered to leave and security guards escorted him from the building. Much along the lines of how Will Ferrell’s “Buddy” (a loving character) is roughly escorted out of his Scrooge-like father’s office building — denying him deserved refuge — in the laughable movie Elf.
I end on this funny cinematic note because more readers are likely to be able to relate to that Moloch-like image than they can to delineated dangers of cell phone use. And I do so want readers to stop stagnating with/suffering through the commercial imagery surrounding cell phones, push past the powers that be, and resolve to make changes in their lives. Our lives.
[Thanks to Fernando and Grischa for this link]
ScienceDaily (Dec. 20, 2007) — Using ESO's Very Large Telescope, an international team of astronomers  has discovered a stunning rare case of a triple merger of galaxies. This system, which astronomers have dubbed 'The Bird' - albeit it also bears resemblance with a cosmic Tinker Bell - is composed of two massive spiral galaxies and a third irregular galaxy.
The galaxy ESO 593-IG 008, or IRAS 19115-2124, was previously merely known as an interacting pair of galaxies at a distance of 650 million light-years. But surprises were revealed by observations made with the NACO instrument attached to ESO's VLT, which peered through the all-pervasive dust clouds, using adaptive optics to resolve the finest details .
Underneath the chaotic appearance of the optical Hubble images - retrieved from the Hubble Space Telescope archive - the NACO images show two unmistakable galaxies, one a barred spiral while the other is more irregular.
The surprise lay in the clear identification of a third, clearly separate component, an irregular, yet fairly massive galaxy that seems to be forming stars at a frantic rate.
"Examples of mergers of three galaxies of roughly similar sizes are rare," says Petri Väisänen, lead author of the paper reporting the results. "Only the near-infrared VLT observations made it possible to identify the triple merger nature of the system in this case."
Because of the resemblance of the system to a bird, the object was dubbed as such, with the 'head' being the third component, and the 'heart' and 'body' making the two major galaxy nuclei in-between of tidal tails, the 'wings'. The latter extend more than 100,000 light-years, or the size of our own Milky Way.
Subsequent optical spectroscopy with the new Southern African Large Telescope, and archive mid-infrared data from the NASA Spitzer space observatory, confirmed the separate nature of the 'head', but also added further surprises. The 'head' and major parts of the 'Bird' are moving apart at more than 400 km/s (1.4 million km/h!). Observing such high velocities is very rare in merging galaxies. Also, the 'head' appears to be the major source of infrared luminosity in the system, though it is the smallest of the three galaxies.
"It seems that NACO has caught the action right at the time of the first high-speed fly-by of the 'head' galaxy through the system consisting of the other two galaxies," says Seppo Mattila, member of the discovery team. "These two galaxies must have met earlier, probably a couple of hundred million years ago."
The 'head' is forming stars violently, at a rate of nearly 200 solar masses per year, while the other two galaxies appear to be at a more quiescent epoch of their interaction-induced star formation history.
The 'Bird' belongs to the prestigious family of luminous infrared galaxies, with an infrared luminosity nearly one thousand billion times that of the Sun. This family of galaxies has long been thought to signpost important events in galaxy evolution, such as mergers of galaxies, which in turn trigger bursts of star formation, and may eventually lead to the formation of a single elliptical galaxy.
The findings presented here are reported in a paper to appear in a future issue of the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society ("Adaptive optics imaging and optical spectroscopy of a multiple merger in a luminous infrared galaxy", by P. Väisänen" et al.).
: The team is composed of P. Väisänen, A. Kniazev, D. A. H. Buckley, L. Crause, Y. Hashimoto, N. Loaring, E. Romero-Colmenero, and M. Still (SAAO, South Africa), S. Mattila (Tuorla Observatory, Finland), A. Adamo and G. Östlin (Stockholm University, Sweden), A. Efstathiou (Cyprus College, Nicosia, Cyprus), D. Farrah (Cornell University, USA), P. H. Johansson (Universitäts-Sternwarte München, Germany), E. B. Burgh and K. Nordsieck (University of Wisconsin, USA), P. Lira (Universidad de Chile, Santiago, Chile), A. Zijlstra (University of Manchester, UK ), and S. Ryder (AAO, Australia).
: The final resolution was better than a tenth of an arcsecond, that is, the angle sustained by a 2-cm coin seen from a distance of 40 km. This is roughly a factor 600 better than what a keen human eye can distinguish.
Adapted from materials provided by ESO.
The 'Cosmic Bird.' A 30-min VLT/NACO K-band exposure has been combined with archive HST/ACS B and I-band images to produce a three-color image of the "Bird" interacting galaxy system. The NACO image has allowed astronomers to not only see the two previously known galaxies, but to identify a third, clearly separate component, an irregular, yet fairly massive galaxy that seems to form stars at a frantic rate. (Credit: ESO, final color image by Henri Boffin)
Chapter 1: Some Facts of Life
Utopia or bust
Stalinist “communism” and reformist “socialism” are merely variants of capitalism
Representative democracy versus delegate democracy
Irrationalities of capitalism
Some exemplary modern revolts
Some common objections
Increasing dominance of the spectacle
Chapter 1: Some Facts of Life
“We can comprehend this world only by contesting it as a whole. . . . The root of the prevailing lack of imagination cannot be grasped unless one is able to imagine what is lacking, that is, what is missing, hidden, forbidden, and yet possible, in modern life.”
Never in history has there been such a glaring contrast between what could be and what actually exists.
It’s hardly necessary to go into all the problems in the world today — most of them are widely known, and to dwell on them usually does little more than dull us to their reality. But even if we are “stoic enough to endure the misfortunes of others,” the present social deterioration ultimately impinges on us all. Those who don’t face direct physical repression still have to face the mental repressions imposed by an increasingly mean, stressful, ignorant and ugly world. Those who escape economic poverty cannot escape the general impoverishment of life.
And even life at this pitiful level cannot continue for long. The ravaging of the planet by the global development of capitalism has brought us to the point where humanity may become extinct within a few decades.
Yet this same development has made it possible to abolish the system of hierarchy and exploitation that was previously based on material scarcity and to inaugurate a new, genuinely liberated form of society.
Plunging from one disaster to another on its way to mass insanity and ecological apocalypse, this system has developed a momentum that is out of control, even by its supposed masters. As we approach a world in which we won’t be able to leave our fortified ghettoes without armed guards, or even go outdoors without applying sunscreen lest we get skin cancer, it’s hard to take seriously those who advise us to beg for a few reforms.
What is needed, I believe, is a worldwide participatory-democracy revolution that would abolish both capitalism and the state. This is admittedly a big order, but I’m afraid that nothing less can get to the root of our problems. It may seem absurd to talk about revolution; but all the alternatives assume the continuation of the present system, which is even more absurd.
Before going into what this revolution would involve and responding to some typical objections, it should be stressed that it has nothing to do with the repugnant stereotypes that are usually evoked by the word (terrorism, revenge, political coups, manipulative leaders preaching self-sacrifice, zombie followers chanting politically correct slogans). In particular, it should not be confused with the two principal failures of modern social change, Stalinist “communism” and reformist “socialism.”
After decades in power, first in Russia and later in many other countries, it has become obvious that Stalinism is the total opposite of a liberated society. The origin of this grotesque phenomenon is less obvious. Trotskyists and others have tried to distinguish Stalinism from the earlier Bolshevism of Lenin and Trotsky. There are differences, but they are more of degree than of kind. Lenin’s The State and Revolution, for example, presents a more coherent critique of the state than can be found in most anarchist writings; the problem is that the radical aspects of Lenin’s thought merely ended up camouflaging the Bolsheviks’ actual authoritarian practice. Placing itself above the masses it claimed to represent, and with a corresponding internal hierarchy between party militants and their leaders, the Bolshevik Party was already well on its way toward creating the conditions for the development of Stalinism while Lenin and Trotsky were still firmly in control.(2)
But we have to be clear about what failed if we are ever going to do any better. If socialism means people’s full participation in the social decisions that affect their own lives, it has existed neither in the Stalinist regimes of the East nor in the welfare states of the West. The recent collapse of Stalinism is neither a vindication of capitalism nor proof of the failure of “Marxist communism.” Anyone who has ever bothered to read Marx (most of his glib critics obviously have not) is aware that Leninism represents a severe distortion of Marx’s thought and that Stalinism is a total parody of it. Nor does government ownership have anything to do with communism in its authentic sense of common, communal ownership; it is merely a different type of capitalism in which state-bureaucratic ownership replaces (or merges with) private-corporate ownership.
The long spectacle of opposition between these two varieties of capitalism hid their mutual reinforcement. Serious conflicts were confined to proxy battles in the Third World (Vietnam, Angola, Afghanistan, etc.). Neither side ever made any real attempt to overthrow the enemy in its own heartland. (The French Communist Party sabotaged the May 1968 revolt; the Western powers, which intervened massively in countries where they were not wanted, refused to send so much as the few antitank weapons desperately needed by the 1956 Hungarian insurgents.) Guy Debord noted in 1967 that Stalinist state-capitalism had already revealed itself as merely a “poor cousin” of classical Western capitalism, and that its decline was beginning to deprive Western rulers of the pseudo-opposition that reinforced them by seeming to represent the sole alternative to their system. “The bourgeoisie is in the process of losing the adversary that objectively supported it by providing an illusory unification of all opposition to the existing order” (The Society of the Spectacle, §§110-111).
Although Western leaders pretended to welcome the recent Stalinist collapse as a natural victory for their own system, none of them had seen it coming and they now obviously have no idea what to do about all the problems it poses except to cash in on the situation before it totally falls apart. The monopolistic multinational corporations that proclaim “free enterprise” as a panacea are quite aware that free-market capitalism would long ago have exploded from its own contradictions had it not been saved despite itself by a few New Deal-style pseudosocialist reforms.
Those reforms (public services, social insurance, the eight-hour day, etc.) may have ameliorated some of the more glaring defects of the system, but in no way have they led beyond it. In recent years they have not even kept up with its accelerating crises. The most significant improvements were in any case won only by long and often violent popular struggles that eventually forced the hands of the bureaucrats: the leftist parties and labor unions that pretended to lead those struggles have functioned primarily as safety valves, coopting radical tendencies and greasing the wheels of the social machine.
As the situationists have shown, the bureaucratization of radical movements, which has degraded people into followers constantly “betrayed” by their leaders, is linked to the increasing spectacularization of modern capitalist society, which has degraded people into spectators of a world over which they have no control — a development that has become increasingly glaring, though it is usually only superficially understood.
Taken together, all these considerations point to the conclusion that a liberated society can be created only by the active participation of the people as a whole, not by hierarchical organizations supposedly acting on their behalf. The point is not to choose more honest or “responsive” leaders, but to avoid granting independent power to any leaders whatsoever. Individuals or groups may initiate radical actions, but a substantial and rapidly expanding portion of the population must take part if a movement is to lead to a new society and not simply to a coup installing new rulers.
I won’t repeat all the classic socialist and anarchist critiques of capitalism and the state; they are already widely known, or at least widely accessible. But in order to cut through some of the confusions of traditional political rhetoric, it may be helpful to summarize the basic types of social organization. For the sake of clarity, I will start out by examining the “political” and “economic” aspects separately, though they are obviously interlinked. It is as futile to try to equalize people’s economic conditions through a state bureaucracy as it is to try to democratize society while the power of money enables the wealthy few to control the institutions that determine people’s awareness of social realities. Since the system functions as a whole it can be fundamentally changed only as a whole.
To begin with the political aspect, roughly speaking we can distinguish five degrees of “government”:
(1) Unrestricted freedom
(2) Direct democracy
____ a) consensus
____ b) majority rule
(3) Delegate democracy
(4) Representative democracy
(5) Overt minority dictatorship
The present society oscillates between (4) and (5), i.e. between overt minority rule and covert minority rule camouflaged by a façade of token democracy. A liberated society would eliminate (4) and (5) and would progressively reduce the need for (2) and (3).
I’ll discuss the two types of (2) later on. But the crucial distinction is between (3) and (4).
In representative democracy people abdicate their power to elected officials. The candidates’ stated policies are limited to a few vague generalities, and once they are elected there is little control over their actual decisions on hundreds of issues — apart from the feeble threat of changing one’s vote, a few years later, to some equally uncontrollable rival politician. Representatives are dependent on the wealthy for bribes and campaign contributions; they are subordinate to the owners of the mass media, who decide which issues get the publicity; and they are almost as ignorant and powerless as the general public regarding many important matters that are determined by unelected bureaucrats and independent secret agencies. Overt dictators may sometimes be overthrown, but the real rulers in “democratic” regimes, the tiny minority who own or control virtually everything, are never voted in and never voted out. Most people don’t even know who they are.
In delegate democracy, delegates are elected for specific purposes with very specific limitations. They may be strictly mandated (ordered to vote in a certain way on a certain issue) or the mandate may be left open (delegates being free to vote as they think best) with the people who have elected them reserving the right to confirm or reject any decision thus taken. Delegates are generally elected for very short periods and are subject to recall at any time.
In the context of radical struggles, delegate assemblies have usually been termed “councils.” The council form was invented by striking workers during the 1905 Russian revolution (soviet is the Russian word for council). When soviets reappeared in 1917, they were successively supported, manipulated, dominated and coopted by the Bolsheviks, who soon succeeded in transforming them into parodies of themselves: rubber stamps of the “Soviet State” (the last surviving independent soviet, that of the Kronstadt sailors, was crushed in 1921). Councils have nevertheless continued to reappear spontaneously at the most radical moments in subsequent history, in Germany, Italy, Spain, Hungary and elsewhere, because they represent the obvious solution to the need for a practical form of nonhierarchical popular self-organization. And they continue to be opposed by all hierarchical organizations, because they threaten the rule of specialized elites by pointing to the possibility of a society of generalized self-management: not self-management of a few details of the present setup, but self-management extended to all regions of the globe and all aspects of life.
But as noted above, the question of democratic forms cannot be separated from their economic context.
Economic organization can be looked at from the angle of work:
(1) Totally voluntary
(2) Cooperative (collective self-management)
(3) Forced and exploitive
____ a) overt (slave labor)
____ b) disguised (wage labor)
And from the angle of distribution:
(1) True communism (totally free accessibility)
(2) True socialism (collective ownership and regulation)
(3) Capitalism (private and/or state ownership)
Though it’s possible for goods or services produced by wage labor to be given away, or for those produced by volunteer or cooperative labor to be turned into commodities for sale, for the most part these levels of work and distribution tend to correspond with each other. The present society is predominately (3): the forced production and consumption of commodities. A liberated society would eliminate (3) and as far as possible reduce (2) in favor of (1).
Capitalism is based on commodity production (production of goods for profit) and wage labor (labor power itself bought and sold as a commodity). As Marx pointed out, there is less difference between the slave and the “free” worker than appears. Slaves, though they seem to be paid nothing, are provided with the means of their survival and reproduction, for which workers (who become temporary slaves during their hours of labor) are compelled to pay most of their wages. The fact that some jobs are less unpleasant than others, and that individual workers have the nominal right to switch jobs, start their own business, buy stocks or win a lottery, disguises the fact that the vast majority of people are collectively enslaved.
How did we get in this absurd position? If we go back far enough, we find that at some point people were forcibly dispossessed: driven off the land and otherwise deprived of the means for producing the goods necessary for life. (The famous chapters on “primitive accumulation” in Capital vividly describe this process in England.) As long as people accept this dispossession as legitimate, they are forced into unequal bargains with the “owners” (those who have robbed them, or who have subsequently obtained titles of “ownership” from the original robbers) in which they exchange their labor for a fraction of what it actually produces, the surplus being retained by the owners. This surplus (capital) can then be reinvested in order to generate continually greater surpluses in the same way.
As for distribution, a public water fountain is a simple example of true communism (unlimited accessibility). A public library is an example of true socialism (free but regulated accessibility).
In a rational society, accessibility would depend on abundance. During a drought, water might have to be rationed. Conversely, once libraries are put entirely online they could become totally communistic: anyone could have free instant access to any number of texts with no more need to bother with checking out and returning, security against theft, etc.
But this rational relation is impeded by the persistence of separate economic interests. To take the latter example, it will soon be technically possible to create a global “library” in which every book ever written, every film ever made and every musical performance ever recorded could be put online, potentially enabling anyone to freely tap in and obtain a copy (no more need for stores, sales, advertising, packaging, shipping, etc.). But since this would also eliminate the profits from present-day publishing, recording and film businesses, far more energy is spent concocting complicated methods to prevent or charge for copying (while others devote corresponding energy devising ways to get around such methods) than on developing a technology that could potentially benefit everyone.
One of Marx’s merits was to have cut through the hollowness of political discourses based on abstract philosophical or ethical principles (“human nature” is such and such, all people have a “natural right” to this or that) by showing how social possibilities and social awareness are to a great degree limited and shaped by material conditions. Freedom in the abstract means little if almost everybody has to work all the time simply to assure their survival. It’s unrealistic to expect people to be generous and cooperative when there is barely enough to go around (leaving aside the drastically different conditions under which “primitive communism” flourished). But a sufficiently large surplus opens up wider possibilities. The hope of Marx and other revolutionaries of his time was based on the fact that the technological potentials developed by the Industrial Revolution had finally provided an adequate material basis for a classless society. It was no longer a matter of declaring that things “should” be different, but of pointing out that they could be different; that class domination was not only unjust, it was now unnecessary.
Was it ever really necessary? Was Marx right in seeing the development of capitalism and the state as inevitable stages, or might a liberated society have been possible without this painful detour? Fortunately, we no longer have to worry about this question. Whatever possibilities there may or may not have been in the past, present material conditions are more than sufficient to sustain a global classless society.
The most serious drawback of capitalism is not its quantitative unfairness — the mere fact that wealth is unequally distributed, that workers are not paid the full “value” of their labor. The problem is that this margin of exploitation (even if relatively small) makes possible the private accumulation of capital, which eventually reorients everything to its own ends, dominating and warping all aspects of life.
The more alienation the system produces, the more social energy must be diverted just to keep it going — more advertising to sell superfluous commodities, more ideologies to keep people bamboozled, more spectacles to keep them pacified, more police and more prisons to repress crime and rebellion, more arms to compete with rival states — all of which produces more frustrations and antagonisms, which must be repressed by more spectacles, more prisons, etc. As this vicious circle continues, real human needs are fulfilled only incidentally, if at all, while virtually all labor is channeled into absurd, redundant or destructive projects that serve no purpose except to maintain the system.
If this system were abolished and modern technological potentials were appropriately transformed and redirected, the labor necessary to meet real human needs would be reduced to such a trivial level that it could easily be taken care of voluntarily and cooperatively, without requiring economic incentives or state enforcement.
It’s not too hard to grasp the idea of superseding overt hierarchical power. Self-management can be seen as the fulfillment of the freedom and democracy that are the official values of Western societies. Despite people’s submissive conditioning, everyone has had moments when they rejected domination and began speaking or acting for themselves.
It’s much harder to grasp the idea of superseding the economic system. The domination of capital is more subtle and self-regulating. Questions of work, production, goods, services, exchange and coordination in the modern world seem so complicated that most people take for granted the necessity of money as a universal mediation, finding it difficult to imagine any change beyond apportioning money in some more equitable way.
For this reason I will postpone more extensive discussion of the economic aspects till later in this text, when it will be possible to go into more detail.
Is such a revolution likely? The odds are probably against it. The main problem is that there is not much time. In previous eras it was possible to imagine that, despite all humanity’s follies and disasters, we would somehow muddle through and perhaps eventually learn from past mistakes. But now that social policies and technological developments have irrevocable global ecological ramifications, blundering trial and error is not enough. We have only a few decades to turn things around. And as time passes, the task becomes more difficult: the fact that basic social problems are scarcely even faced, much less resolved, encourages increasingly desperate and delirious tendencies toward war, fascism, ethnic antagonism, religious fanaticism and other forms of mass irrationality, deflecting those who might potentially work toward a new society into merely defensive and ultimately futile holding actions.
But most revolutions have been preceded by periods when everyone scoffed at the idea that things could ever change. Despite the many discouraging trends in the world, there are also some encouraging signs, not least of which is the widespread disillusionment with previous false alternatives. Many popular revolts in this century have already moved spontaneously in the right direction. I am not referring to the “successful” revolutions, which are without exception frauds, but to less known, more radical efforts. Some of the most notable examples are Russia 1905, Germany 1918-19, Italy 1920, Asturias 1934, Spain 1936-37, Hungary 1956, France 1968, Czechoslovakia 1968, Portugal 1974-75 and Poland 1980-81; many other movements, from the Mexican revolution of 1910 to the recent anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, have also contained exemplary moments of popular experimentation before they were brought under bureaucratic control.
No one is in any position to dismiss the prospect of revolution who has not carefully examined these movements. To ignore them because of their “failure” is missing the point.(3) Modern revolution is all or nothing: individual revolts are bound to fail until an international chain reaction is triggered that spreads faster than repression can close in. It’s hardly surprising that these revolts did not go farther; what is inspiring is that they went as far as they did. A new revolutionary movement will undoubtedly take new and unpredictable forms; but these earlier efforts remain full of examples of what can be done, as well as of what must be avoided.
It’s often said that a stateless society might work if everyone were angels, but due to the perversity of human nature some hierarchy is necessary to keep people in line. It would be truer to say that if everyone were angels the present system might work tolerably well (bureaucrats would function honestly, capitalists would refrain from socially harmful ventures even if they were profitable). It is precisely because people are not angels that it’s necessary to eliminate the setup that enables some of them to become very efficient devils. Lock a hundred people in a small room with only one air hole and they will claw each other to death to get to it. Let them out and they may manifest a rather different nature. As one of the May 1968 graffiti put it, “Man is neither Rousseau’s noble savage nor the Church’s depraved sinner. He is violent when oppressed, gentle when free.”
Others contend that, whatever the ultimate causes may be, people are now so screwed up that they need to be psychologically or spiritually healed before they can even conceive of creating a liberated society. In his later years Wilhelm Reich came to feel that an “emotional plague” was so firmly embedded in the population that it would take generations of healthily raised children before people would become capable of a libertarian social transformation; and that meanwhile one should avoid confronting the system head-on since this would stir up a hornet’s nest of ignorant popular reaction.
Irrational popular tendencies do sometimes call for discretion. But powerful though they may be, they are not irresistible forces. They contain their own contradictions. Clinging to some absolute authority is not necessarily a sign of faith in authority; it may be a desperate attempt to overcome one’s increasing doubts (the convulsive tightening of a slipping grip). People who join gangs or reactionary groups, or who get caught up in religious cults or patriotic hysteria, are also seeking a sense of liberation, connection, purpose, participation, empowerment. As Reich himself showed, fascism gives a particularly vigorous and dramatic expression to these basic aspirations, which is why it often has a deeper appeal than the vacillations, compromises and hypocrisies of liberalism and leftism.
In the long run the only way to defeat reaction is to present more forthright expressions of these aspirations, and more authentic opportunities to fulfill them. When basic issues are forced into the open, irrationalities that flourished under the cover of psychological repression tend to be weakened, like disease germs exposed to sunlight and fresh air. In any case, even if we don’t prevail, there is at least some satisfaction in fighting for what we really believe, rather than being defeated in a posture of hesitancy and hypocrisy.
There are limits on how far one can liberate oneself (or raise liberated children) within a sick society. But if Reich was right to note that psychologically repressed people are less capable of envisioning social liberation, he failed to realize how much the process of social revolt can be psychologically liberating. (French psychiatrists are said to have complained about a significant drop in the number of their customers in the aftermath of May 1968!)
The notion of total democracy raises the specter of a “tyranny of the majority.” Majorities can be ignorant and bigoted, there’s no getting around it. The only real solution is to confront and attempt to overcome that ignorance and bigotry. Keeping the masses in the dark (relying on liberal judges to protect civil liberties or liberal legislators to sneak through progressive reforms) only leads to popular backlashes when sensitive issues eventually do come to the surface.
Examined more closely, however, most instances of majority oppression of minorities turn out to be due not to majority rule, but to disguised minority rule in which the ruling elite plays on whatever racial or cultural antagonisms there may be in order to turn the exploited masses’ frustrations against each other. When people get real power over their own lives they will have more interesting things to do than to persecute minorities.
So many potential abuses or disasters are evoked at any suggestion of a nonhierarchical society that it would be impossible to answer them all. People who resignedly accept a system that condemns millions of their fellow human beings to death every year in wars and famines, and millions of others to prison and torture, suddenly let their imagination and their indignation run wild at the thought that in a self-managed society there might be some abuses, some violence or coercion or injustice, or even merely some temporary inconvenience. They forget that it is not up to a new social system to solve all our problems; it merely has to deal with them better than the present system does — not a very big order.
If history followed the complacent opinions of official commentators, there would never have been any revolutions. In any given situation there are always plenty of ideologists ready to declare that no radical change is possible. If the economy is functioning well, they will claim that revolution depends on economic crises; if there is an economic crisis, others will just as confidently declare that revolution is impossible because people are too busy worrying about making ends meet. The former types, surprised by the May 1968 revolt, tried to retrospectively uncover the invisible crisis that their ideology insists must have been there. The latter contend that the situationist perspective has been refuted by the worsened economic conditions since that time.
Actually, the situationists simply noted that the widespread achievement of capitalist abundance had demonstrated that guaranteed survival was no substitute for real life. The periodic ups and downs of the economy have no bearing on that conclusion. The fact that a few people at the top have recently managed to siphon off a yet larger portion of the social wealth, driving increasing numbers of people into the streets and terrorizing the rest of the population lest they succumb to the same fate, makes the feasibility of a postscarcity society less evident; but the material prerequisites are still present.
The economic crises held up as evidence that we need to “lower our expectations” are actually caused by over-production and lack of work. The ultimate absurdity of the present system is that unemployment is seen as a problem, with potentially labor-saving technologies being directed toward creating new jobs to replace the old ones they render unnecessary. The problem is not that so many people don’t have jobs, but that so many people still do. We need to raise our expectations, not lower them.(4)
Far more serious than this spectacle of our supposed powerlessness in the face of the economy is the greatly increased power of the spectacle itself, which in recent years has developed to the point of repressing virtually any awareness of pre-spectacle history or anti-spectacle possibilities. Debord’s Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988) goes into this new development in detail:
In all that has happened over the last twenty years, the most important change lies in the very continuity of the spectacle. What is significant is not the refinements of the spectacle’s media instrumentation, which had already attained a highly advanced stage of development; it is quite simply that spectacular domination has succeeded in raising an entire generation molded to its laws. . . . Spectacular domination’s first priority was to eradicate historical knowledge in general, beginning with virtually all information and rational commentary on the most recent past. . . . The spectacle makes sure that people are unaware of what is happening, or at least that they quickly forget whatever they may have become aware of. The more important something is, the more it is hidden. Nothing in the last twenty years has been so thoroughly shrouded with official lies as May 1968. . . . The flow of images carries everything before it, and it is always someone else who controls this simplified digest of the perceptible world, who decides where the flow will lead, who programs the rhythm of what is shown into an endless series of arbitrary surprises that leaves no time for reflection . . . . isolating whatever is presented from its context, its past, its intentions and its consequences. . . . It is thus hardly surprising that children are now starting their education with an enthusiastic introduction to the Absolute Knowledge of computer language while becoming increasingly incapable of reading. Because reading requires making judgments at every line; and since conversation is almost dead (as will soon be most of those who knew how to converse) reading is the only remaining gateway to the vast realms of pre-spectacle human experience.
In the present text I have tried to recapitulate some basic points that have been buried under this intensive spectacular repression. If these matters seem banal to some or obscure to others, they may at least serve to recall what once was possible, in those primitive times a few decades ago when people had the quaint, old-fashioned notion that they could understand and affect their own history.
While there is no question that things have changed considerably since the sixties (mostly for the worse), our situation may not be quite as hopeless as it seems to those who swallow whatever the spectacle feeds them. Sometimes it only takes a little jolt to break through the stupor.
Even if we have no guarantee of ultimate victory, such breakthroughs are already a pleasure. Is there any greater game around?
1. Ken Knabb (ed. and trans.), Situationist International Anthology (Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981), p. 81 [Revised Edition pp. 106-107] [Geopolitics of Hibernation]. Here and elsewhere I have sometimes slightly modified my original SI Anthology translations.
2. See Maurice Brinton’s The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control: 1917-1921, Voline’s The Unknown Revolution, Ida Mett’s The Kronstadt Uprising, Paul Avrich’s Kronstadt 1921, Peter Arshinov’s History of the Makhnovist Movement, and Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle §§98-113. (These and most of the other texts cited in this book can be obtained through the distributors listed at the end of the Situationist Bibliography.)
3. “The journalists’ and governments’ superficial references to the ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of a revolution mean nothing for the simple reason that since the bourgeois revolutions no revolution has yet succeeded: not one has abolished classes. Proletarian revolution has so far not been victorious anywhere, but the practical process through which its project manifests itself has already created at least ten revolutionary moments of historic importance that can appropriately be termed revolutions. In none of these moments was the total content of proletarian revolution fully developed; but in each case there was a fundamental interruption of the ruling socioeconomic order and the appearance of new forms and conceptions of real life: variegated phenomena that can be understood and evaluated only in their overall significance, including their potential future significance. . . . The revolution of 1905 did not bring down the Czarist regime, it only obtained a few temporary concessions from it. The Spanish revolution of 1936 did not formally suppress the existing political power: it arose, in fact, out of a proletarian uprising initiated in order to defend that Republic against Franco. And the Hungarian revolution of 1956 did not abolish Nagy’s liberal-bureaucratic government. Among other regrettable limitations, the Hungarian movement had many aspects of a national uprising against foreign domination; and this national-resistance aspect also played a certain, though less important, role in the origin of the Paris Commune. The Commune supplanted Thiers’s power only within the limits of Paris. And the St. Petersburg Soviet of 1905 never even took control of the capital. All the crises cited here as examples, though deficient in their practical achievements and even in their perspectives, nevertheless produced enough radical innovations and put their societies severely enough in check to be legitimately termed revolutions.” (SI Anthology, pp. 235-236 [Revised Edition pp. 301-302] [Beginning of an Era].)
4. “We’re not interested in hearing about the exploiters’ economic problems. If the capitalist economy is not capable of fulfilling workers’ demands, that is simply one more reason to struggle for a new society, one in which we ourselves have the decisionmaking power over the whole economy and all social life.” (Portuguese airline workers, 27 October 1974.)
End of Chapter 1 of “The Joy of Revolution,” from Public Secrets: Collected Skirmishes of Ken Knabb (1997).
- Chapter 2: Foreplay
- Personal breakthroughs. Critical interventions Theory versus ideology Avoiding false choices and elucidating real ones. The insurrectionary style. Radical film. Oppressionism versus playfulness. The Strasbourg scandal. The poverty of electoral politics. Reforms and alternative institutions. Political correctness, or equal opportunity alienation. Drawbacks of moralism and simplistic extremism. Advantages of boldness. Advantages and limits of nonviolence.
- Chapter 3: Climaxes
- Causes of social breakthroughs. Postwar upheavals. Effervescence of radical situations. Popular self-organization. The situationists in May 1968. Workerism is obsolete, but workers’ position remains pivotal. Wildcats and sitdowns. Consumer strikes. What could have happened in May 1968. Methods of confusion and cooption. Terrorism reinforces the state. The ultimate showdown. Internationalism.
- Chapter 4: Rebirth
- Utopians fail to envision postrevolutionary diversity. Decentralization and coordination. Safeguards against abuses. Consensus, majority rule and unavoidable hierarchies. Eliminating the roots of war and crime. Abolishing money. Absurdity of most present-day labor. Transforming work into play. Technophobic objections. Ecological issues. The blossoming of free communities. More interesting problems.
[Thanks to Star Vox for this wonderful link]
I first met Rebecca Solnit on-line. She sent an essay in to Tomdispatch in 2003, not long after the invasion of Iraq began, just as so many who had demonstrated against the onrushing war were packing their bags and heading home in despair. It was called Acts of Hope: Challenging Empire on the World Stage, and, soon enough, it would expand into a little gem of a book -- one that changed the way I looked at the world -- Hope in the Dark, Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities.
Consider that work the secret thirteenth companion to Solnit's 12 book choices below -- her "secret library of hope" -- which offer a reader encouragment not to curl up in despair when faced with a grim world. And here's a bit of small-scale synergy that brightens my own life. My favorite bookstore on the planet, City Lights in San Francisco, is putting up a "Secret Library of Hope" window display of Solnit's suggestions, with most of the books specially stickered and available inside (along with this essay).
As someone who regularly wears a "City Lights Books" baseball cap in New York City, I can hardly imagine a more enjoyable response to a Tomdispatch post -- except for your e-letters which pour in regularly. I always read them and I try my best to answer, when I'm not swept away. I've taken to calling them "the university of my later years." So let me offer Tomdispatch readers a small thank-you for every one of those letters, for all the support, encouragement, and criticism you've offered this year, for the tips on articles or books I might have missed, for the descriptions of lives I'd otherwise never know about and places I'll never get to, for the just-after-publication catching of mistakes and errors, for passing Tomdispatch posts on to friends, colleagues, and those who disagree, for every small act you've taken to mitigate the damage being done on, and to, this planet, for every small space for hope you've created in me. Tom
The Secret Library of Hope 12 Books to Stiffen Your Resolve
By Rebecca Solnit
Hope is an orientation, a way of scanning the wall for cracks -- or building ladders -- rather than staring at its obdurate expanse. It's a worldview, but one informed by experience and the knowledge that people have power; that the power people possess matters; that change has been made by populist movements and dedicated individuals in the past; and that it will be again.
Dissent in this country has become largely a culture of diagnosis rather than prescription, of describing what is wrong with them, rather than what is possible for us. But even in English, a robust minority tradition can be found. There are a handful of books that I think of as "the secret library of hope." None of them deny the awful things going on, but they approach them as if the future is still open to intervention rather than an inevitability. In describing how the world actually gets changed, they give us the tools to change it again.
Here, then, are some of the regulars in my secret political library of hope, along with some new candidates:
Monks, Slaves, Prisoners and the Power from Beneath
When the monks of Burma/Myanmar led an insurrection in September simply by walking through the streets of their cities in their deep-red robes, accompanied by ever more members of civil society, the military junta which had run that country for more than four decades responded with violence. That's one measure of how powerful and threatening the insurrection was. (That totalitarian regimes tend to ban gatherings of more than a few people is the best confirmation of the strength that exists in unarmed numbers of us.)
After the crackdown, after the visually stunning, deeply inspiring walks came to a bloody end, quite a lot of mainstream politicians and pundits pronounced the insurrection dead, violence triumphant -- as though this play had just one act, as though its protagonists were naïve and weak-willed. I knew they were wrong, but the argument I rested on wasn't my own: I went back to Jonathan Schell's The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, by far the most original and ambitious of the many histories of nonviolence to appear in recent years.
When it came out as the current war began in the spring of 2003, the book was mocked for its dismissal of the effectiveness of violence, but Schell's explanation of how superior military power failed abysmally in Vietnam was a prophesy waiting to be fulfilled in Iraq. Schell himself is much taken with the philosopher Hannah Arendt, whom he quotes saying, in 1969:
"To substitute violence for power can bring victory, but the price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished, it is also paid by the victor in terms of his own power."
I hope that his equally trenchant explanation of the power of nonviolence is fulfilled in Burma. Schell has been a diligent historian and philosopher of nuclear weapons since his 1982 bestseller The Fate of the Earth, but this book traces the rise of nonviolence as the other half of the history of the violent twentieth century.
That's what books in a library of hope consist of -- not a denial of the horrors of recent history, but an exploration of the other tendencies, avenues, and achievements that are too often overlooked. After all, to return to Burma, much has already changed there since September: Burma's greatest supporter, China, has been forced to denounce the crackdown and may be vulnerable to more pre-Olympics pressure on the subject; India has declared a moratorium on selling arms to the country; a number of companies have withdrawn from doing business there; and the U.S. Congress just unanimously passed a bill, HR 3890, to increase sanctions, freeze the junta's assets in U.S. institutions, and close a loophole that allowed Chevron to profit spectacularly from its business in Burma.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was elected as Burma's head of state in 1990 and has, ever since, been under house arrest or otherwise restricted. She nonetheless remains the leader of, as well as a wise, gentle, fearless voice for, that country's opposition. Since the uprising, her silencing has begun to dissolve amid meetings with a UN envoy and members of her own political party; some believe she may be on her way to being freed. The Burmese people were hit with hideous, pervasive violence, but they have not surrendered: small acts of resistance and large plans for liberation continue.
The best argument for hope is how easy it ought to be for the rest of us to raise its banner, when we look at who has carried it through unimaginably harsh conditions: Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom recounts his unflagging dedication to his country's liberation (imperfect though it may still be); Rigoberta Menchu dodged death squads to become a champion of indigenous rights, a Nobel laureate, and a recent presidential candidate in Guatemala; Oscar Oliveira proved that a bunch of poor people in Bolivia can beat Bechtel Corporation largely by nonviolent means, as he recounts in !Cochabamba!; and Nobel Laureate and Burmese national icon Aung San Suu Kyi radiates -- even from the page -- an extraordinary calm and patience, perhaps the result of her decades of Buddhist practice. She remarks, toward the end of The Voice of Hope, a collection of conversations with her about Burma, Buddhism, politics, and her own situation, "Yes I do have hope because I'm working. I'm doing my bit to try to make the world a better place, so I naturally have hope for it. But obviously, those who are doing nothing to improve the world have no hope for it."
For a book about those who did their bit beautifully long ago, don't miss Adam Hochschild's gripping Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves. It begins with a handful of London Quakers who decided in the 1780s to abolish the institution of slavery in the British Empire and then, step by unpredictable step, did just that. It's an exhilarating book simply as the history of a movement from beginning to end, and so suggests how many other remarkable movements await their historian; others, from the women's movement to rights for queers to many environmental struggles, still await their completion. If only people carried, as part of their standard equipment, a sense of the often-incremental, unpredictable ways in which change is wrought and the powers that civil society actually possesses, they might go forward more confidently to wrestle with the wrongs of our time, seeing that we have already won many times before.
Indians, Environmentalists, and Utopians
One spectacular book along these lines already exists: Charles Wilkinson's Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations. For us non-native people, Native Americans became far more visible during the huge public debates around the meaning of the Quincentennial of 1992 -- the 500th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in this hemisphere. They reframed the history of the Americas as one of invasion and genocide, rather than discovery and development. But the story was not a defeatist one; simply in being able to tell their own stories and reshape their histories, native people of the Americas demonstrated that they were neither wholly conquered, nor eradicated; and, since then, the history of the two continents has been radically revised and indigenous peoples have won back important rights from Bolivia to Canada.
In the United States that reclaiming of power, pride, land, rights, and representation began far earlier, as Wilkinson's book relates. A law professor and lawyer who has worked on land and treaty-rights issues with many tribes, he begins his story of ascendancy with the 1953 decision by the U.S. government to "terminate" the tribal identities, organizations, and rights of Native Americans and push them to melt into the general population. This represented an aggressive attempt at erasure of the many distinct peoples of this continent and their heritage. Told to disappear, "Indian leaders responded and by the mid-1960s had set daunting goals… at once achieve economic progress and preserve ancient traditions in a technological age…. Against all odds, over the course of two generations, Indian leaders achieved their objectives to a stunning degree."
Wilkinson's monumental history of the past half-century concludes:
"By the turn of this century Indian tribes had put in place much of the ambitious agenda that tribal leaders advanced in the 1950s and 1960s. They stopped termination and replaced it with self-determination. They ousted the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] as the reservation government and installed their own sovereign legislatures, courts, and administrative agencies. They enforced the treaties of old and, with them, the fishing, hunting and water rights. Nowhere have these changes been absolute and pure. In most cases the advances represent works in progress, but they have been deep and real."
Late this November, Canada set aside 25 million acres of boreal forest as a preserve to be managed, in part, by the Native peoples of the region, a huge environmental victory for the largest remaining forest on Earth -- and for all of us. How did it happen?
I am still looking for an environmental history with the strength and focus of Blood Struggle or Bury the Chains. An exhilarating 2006 article in Orion magazine by Ted Nace describes how a bunch of North Dakota farmers killed off Monsanto's plans to promote the growing of genetically altered wheat worldwide. The essay concludes:
"On May 10, 2004, Monsanto bowed to the prevailing political sentiment. It issued a curt press release announcing the withdrawal of all its pending regulatory applications for [its genetically altered] Roundup Ready wheat and the shifting of research priorities to other crops."
We need books on victories like this, books that tell us how this dam was defeated, this river brought back from being a sewer, that toxin banned, that species rebounded, that land preserved.
In fact, a broader history with some of those threads did appear this year, geographer Richard Walker's The Country in the City: The Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area. It describes generations of struggle to preserve something of the richness of this extraordinarily diverse region by defeating some of the most awful proposals most of us have never heard of -- to, for example, completely fill in the San Francisco Bay -- back in an era when water and wetlands were just real estate waiting to happen.
The book does justice to a whole unexpected category of unsung heroines -- the often-subversive affluent ladies who have done so much for the environment and the community -- then moves on to document the emerging environmental justice movement that took on toxins, polluters, and the overlooked question of what ecology really means for the inner city. It's a great, hopeful history of a region that has long created environmental templates and momentum for the rest of the nation -- and Walker makes it clear that this trend was not inevitable, but the result of hard work by stubborn visionaries and organizers.
A decade ago, Alan Weisman wrote a profile of a town in the inhospitable savannah of eastern Colombia, a miraculous community in which that unfortunate nation's turmoil and our age's environmental destruction was replaced by a green, utopian approach that involved reinventing the roles of both technology and community. It worked, though Weisman ended his 1997 book, Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World, on a prophetic note of caution:
"[The] fading of the Cold War has revealed clearly that a far more incandescent and protracted battle -- a potentially apocalyptic resource war -- has been stealthily gathering intensity throughout the latter part of the twentieth century…. Yet a place like Gaviotas bears witness to our ability to get it right, even under seemingly insurmountable circumstances."
Weisman's deservedly successful 2007 bestseller, The World Without Us, takes an extreme approach to getting it right, by showing how the planet might -- in part -- regenerate itself if we were to go away, all of us, for good. The chapters on nuclear waste and plastic are dauntingly grim, but the descriptions of New York City reverting to nature go two steps past Mike Davis's Dead Cities in praise of entropy, weeds, and the power of natural processes to take back much of the Earth as soon as we let go.
While Gaviotas stands out as a rare, realized utopia, our choices among the unrealized ones -- except as literature -- are legion. In 2007, I finally got around to reading what has already become my favorite utopian novel: William Morris' News from Nowhere. Best known during his life as a poet, Morris is, unfortunately, now mostly remembered for his wallpaper. He designed it as part of his lifelong endeavor to literally craft an alternative to the brutality and ugliness of the industrial revolution through the artisanal production of furniture, textiles, and books -- all as models of what work and its fruits could be.
That attempt had its political and literary faces, which is to say that Morris was also a prolific writer and an ardent revolutionary. He was more anarchist than socialist, as well as an antiquarian, a translator of Icelandic sagas, and so much more. News from Nowhere, published in 1890, portrays his ideal London in the far-distant future of 2102, a century and a half after "the revolution of 1952."
It's a bioregional and anarchic paradise: The economy is localized, work is voluntary, money is nonexistent and so is hunger, deprivation, and prison. The industrial filth of London has vanished, and the river and city are beautiful again. (They were far filthier in Morris' time, when every home burned coal, while sewage and industrial effluents flowed unfiltered into the Thames.)
Most utopias, of course, aren't places you'd actually want to live. Admittedly, Morris' is a little bland and mild, as life on earth without evil and struggle must be. But his utopia is prophetic, not dated, close to many modern visions of decentralized, localized power, culture, and everyday life. It is, in short, an old map for a new world being born in experiments around the globe.
Dreams on the Southern Horizon
Morris provided the name for the present-day News from Nowhere Collective, a group that has edited one of the more rambunctious handbooks for activists in recent times, We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anticapitalism. A visually delicious, horizontally formatted little chunk of a book, it features a lot of photographs, a running timeline of radical victories in our era, and short, punchy essays from people immersed in changing the world all over that world (from Quebec and Nigeria to Bolivia and Poland). Playful, subversive, and far-reaching, the book -- even four years after its publication -- demonstrates the scope of constructive change and activism around the planet.
There are other such handbooks, including my brother David's Globalize Liberation: How to Uproot the System and Build a Better World, out from City Lights Books a few years ago. It was in the course of editing some of the essays in that book that I discovered the beautiful, hopeful voice of Marina Sitrin, a sociologist, human rights lawyer, and activist who has spent a great deal of time among the utopian social movements of Argentina. Her encounters become ours in her new book Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina.
That country's sudden economic collapse and political turmoil in December of 2001 was largely overlooked here, but the crisis begat an extraordinary grassroots response -- about as far from shock and paralysis as you can imagine. Neighborhoods gathered in popular assemblies to protest the political structure, and then stayed together to feed each other during the fiscal crisis; factory workers took over shuttered factories and ran them as cooperatives; the poor organized and mobilized; but more than these concrete actions, Argentinean society itself changed.
People began to talk across old divides and create new words for what mattered now -- none more valuable than horizontalidad, which Sitrin translates as "horizontalism," a direct and radically egalitarian participatory democracy, and politica afectiva, the politics of affection, or love. The 2001 crisis was soon transformed into an opportunity to overcome the legacy of the terrifying years of the Argentinean military dictatorship, to step out of the isolation and disengagement that fear had produced, to reclaim power and reinvent social ties. With this, Argentina moved a little further away from hell and a little closer to utopia.
It's not a coincidence that Weisman's Gaviotas is in South America (though it is a surprise that it's in Colombia). After all, the most powerful voice coming from the Spanish-speaking majority of the Americas is that of the Zapatistas, and Our Word Is Our Weapon: Selected Writings of Subcommandante Insurgente Marcos, edited by Juana Ponce de Leon, is still the best English-language introduction to that indigenous movement's non-indigenous spokesman and raconteur Subcommandante Marcos. Via his poetic, playful, subversive, and ferociously hopeful manifestoes, tirades, allegories, and pranks, he has reinvented the language of politics, pushing off the drab shore of bureaucracy and cliché, sailing toward something rich and strange.
Ponce De Leon's book, however, only covers the first several years of Marcos's contributions. City Lights recently brought out his The Speed of Dreams: Selected Writings 2001-2007. On page 102, he advises an indigenous audience: "It is the hour of the word. So then, put the machete away, and continue to hone hope." By page 349, he's quoting a possibly fictional elderly couple in San Miguel Tzinacapan, who say, "The world is the size of our effort to change it."
Not that all resistance, all hope, comes from the south. It can be found everywhere, or at least on many edges, margins, and in many overlooked zones -- and one of the most exhilarating histories of it is The Many Headed-Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker. Their book traces a plethora of acts of resistance to capitalism, exploitation, authoritarianism and the generally sorry lot meted out to the poor in the eighteenth century. That resistance was exuberant, inventive, and occasionally ferocious, and it found its own utopias. The book begins with a 1609 shipwreck in Bermuda, in which the shipwrecked sailors and passengers begin to form their own convivial utopia that the Virginia Company forcibly disbanded. The Many Headed Hydra covers some of the same ground -- and ocean routes -- as Hochschild's book, and they make good joint reading.
I wish Linebaugh's The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All was out in time for this list, but look for it in February. (I read it in manuscript for the University of California Press, loved it, and learned a lot from it.) Beginning with Bush's breach not just of the Constitution, but of Magna Carta's grant of habeas corpus, Linebaugh returns to that moment at Runnymede when King John was forced to concede rights to England's citizens. Linking that despot to the one in the White House, he ventures back and forth between the two times to explore the once evolving -- and now revolving or maybe even regressing -- territory of rights and liberties.
The Climate of Change
One thing becoming increasingly clear in this millennium: Human rights and the environment are all tangled up with each other -- and not only in environmental injustice hotspots like Louisiana's Cancer Alley or oily places like Nigeria. Democracy and an empowered citizenry are the best tools we have to make progress on climate change in this country. The issue of climate change may be global, but in the U.S. a lot of the measures that matter are being enacted on the local level by cities, towns, regions, and states. Together, they have pushed far ahead of the recalcitrant federal government in trying to take concrete measures that could make a difference. Global measures matter, but so do local ones: The change here is likely to come as much from the bottom up as the top down.
One common response to climate change is to try to limit your own impact -- by consuming less. An issue, for instance, that's front and center in Britain but hardly on the table in the U.S., is taking fewer airplane trips. (The state of California, however, did recently start looking into ways to regulate and reduce airplane carbon emissions.) So there's personal virtue, which matters. Then there's agitating and organizing like crazy, which might matter more. Certainly, Bill McKibben makes a rousing case for it in his introduction to Ignition: What You Can Do to Fight Global Warming and Spark a Movement. The book, edited by Jonathan Isham and Sissel Waage, covers a lot of ground when it comes to how policy gets made and how to make it yourself, as does McKibben's own Fight Global Warming Now: The Handbook for Taking Action in Your Community.
Maybe the best news of 2007 is that we're finally doing something about the worst news ever: that we've royally screwed up the climate of this planet. After all, the rest of that news is: We still have a chance to mitigate how haywire everything goes, even though no one is yet talking about what a world of low to zero carbon emissions would look like.
Maybe one thing we really need (just to be a little more visionary and less grim about the subject) is a modern version of News from Nowhere portraying what a good life involving only a small carbon footprint might mean -- most likely a more localized, less consuming life with some cool technological innovations, including many we already have (some of which are described in Weisman's Gaviotas). In ceasing the scramble for things, there would be real gains; we'd gain back time for sitting around talking at leisure about politics and the neighbors, for wandering around on foot -- and for reading. But you don't have to wait for everything to change: change it yourself by seizing these pleasures now.
Rebecca Solnit blurbed a lot of books this year, wrote the foreword for Marisa Handler's Loyal to the Sky, and provided editorial services on another book of her brother's, this time with conscientious objector Aimee Allison: the counter-recruitment manual Army of None. Her own book for 2007 is Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics, a collection of 36 essays including several that first appeared as Tomdispatches. She is the author of Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities.
Rebecca Solnit's Secret Library of Hope:
Jonathan Schell, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People;
Aung San Suu Kyi, The Voice of Hope;
Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves;
Charles Wilkinson, Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations;
Richard Walker, The Country in the City: The Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area;
Alan Weisman, The World Without Us
William Morris, News from Nowhere;
News from Nowhere Collective, We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anticapitalism;
Marina Sitrin, Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina;
Subcommandante Insurgente Marcos, The Speed of Dreams: Selected Writings 2001-2007;
Peter Linebaugh, The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All;
Jonathan Isham and Sissel Waage, editors (introduction Bill McKibben), Ignition: What You Can Do to Fight Global Warming and Spark a Movement.
Copyright 2007 Rebecca Solnit