Friday, March 23, 2012

Fiction Notes

I know, I know. I was going to be reading all this fiction, wasn't I? And presumably writing about it, but it's been seemingly all non-fiction all the time here at the blog. So it might seem. And yet, it turns out, of the 20 books I've read so far this year, 13 have been fiction. Though writing about it is something else entirely. So then this is something of a first-quarter round-up (which runs the risk of making it sound like I expect/plan to be doing quarterly fiction round-ups; note/reminder: no announced plans have ever come to fruition on this blog).

Anyway, here are the 13 I've read as of today, with remarks, maybe:
  • Lightning Rods, Helen DeWitt — I really enjoyed this novel, and frankly, it was just the thing I needed to get back to fiction. It's smart, not difficult. And funny, very funny. I thought the workplace satire was spot-on, and I loved the piled on clichés, some of which were just perfectly employed to comic effect. It's not the brilliant novel that The Last Samurai is (few books are); it's much more modest in scope, doesn't try to do too much, or convert its satire into an obvious message. 

  • The other day, DeWitt pointed us to the discussion at The Morning News Tournament of Books, in which her book was pitted against the latest by Julian Barnes in the quarterfinals of their ridiculous annual competition. Though it's hard to argue with Kevin Guillefoile's observation that Lightning Rods might be a difficult book to recommend in certain company ("I would have to know you really well before I would suggest that you would like this novel."), the conversation (or "meta-commentary") between him and John Warner didn't offer much (not that I expected it to), and worse, led me into reading the annoying and stupid comments that followed. Actual complaints about a lack of realism. Arguments about verisimilitude, in connection with inaccurately reported details from the book. Fun.

  • Zone, Mathias Énard (French; Charlotte Mandell, trans.) — The back copy of this novel claims it is "One of the truly original books of the decade—and written as a single, hypnotic, propulsive, physically irresistible sentence . . . " Propulsive? Yes. Hypnotic? Possibly. Occasionally. Physically irresistible? Hm, at times, OK, yes, I'll allow this. A single sentence? I've already tweeted about this to some annoyance, but it's not a single sentence. It's not even close! The novel is primarily a stream-of-consciousness sort of narrative, the thoughts and memories of a French-born Croat who's spent the previous couple of decades doing awful things, as a spy, a soldier, etc, in some of the worst wars and hot spots in Europe ("the Zone"), on his way via train to Rome, where he is supposedly to hand off a briefcase full of intelligence on countless other similar types of bad characters, some of whose stories we are treated to as he recalls their adventures, after which he is to ride off into the sunset under a stolen identity. There is not a single full stop in these parts of the novel. Where people get the idea that a sentence must have a period in order to come to an end is beyond me. This is not exactly written according to Strunk & White's guidelines. For one thing, it's divided into chapters, each of which begins what is obviously a new sentence, punctuation or no punctuation. For another, several thoughts are completed, and do not grammatically belong with the thoughts that follows them. Complete sentences! Perhaps I'm belaboring the point and no doubt you don't care. But also: there are three chapters that are from the novel our narrator takes a break from his reveries to read from. Its prose is fairly conventionally punctuated. Sentences! OK. Enough with that. The novel itself is quite good (propulsive, at times even hypnotic). I may have already mentioned this, but it reminded me a great deal of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, in particular the detailed descriptions of the unpleasantness of war, which we usually prefer to ignore.

  • Liquidation, Imre Kertész (Hungarian; Tim Wilkinson, trans.) — I'm sorry to have to report that I have nothing at all to say about this novel, other than I liked it, I think. It didn't leave much of an impression. It came to my attention via David Auerbach's discussion of the other Hungarian writer, László Krasznahorkai, who all of the lit blogs I follow have been talking about constantly lately; he referred to Liquidation as "stunning", so when I saw it at the library, I took a shot.

  • Stoner, John Williams — I wrote about Stoner here. To re-cap: I thought this novel was wonderful. I'd begun a second post about the novel, intended to focus on Stoner's wife, but I have as yet been unable to finish it. I make no promises that I ever will.

  • Dreaming of Dead People, Rosalind Belben — Belben is a favorite of Gabriel Josipovici's, which automatically makes her a writer I want to read. And yet I've had difficulties. Our Horses in Egypt, while at times quite lovely, nevertheless seems written with a very specific, that is to say necessarily small, audience in mind: readers familiar with horse jargon, World War I military jargon, and Edwardian slang. I am, it turns out, not one of these readers; as such, the book was at times very nearly unreadable for me. And yet, for all that, I nevertheless found the book charming (though not enough to feel I needed to keep my copy or ever read it again). I'd been assured that some of her earlier novels were likely more my speed. And, indeed, Dreaming of Dead People is frequently marvelous. The recollections or meditations of a lonely old woman, observing the world around her, and the course of her life, it is at times heart-breaking. And sexually frank, which was something of a surprise.

  • I.End of I., & Meyer, Stephen Dixon — I have a post in the works on these three Dixon novels; stay tuned.

  • Slowness, Milan Kundera (French; Linda Asher, trans.) —entertaining; not as good as The Unbearable Lightness of Being, better than Life is Elsewhere. Alternating tales of seduction, two hundred years apart. Seemingly a trifle, and not without its cloyingness, but the stuff on slowness and time and memory set it apart a bit, and help it remain in the library.

  • Mavis Belfrage, Alasdair Gray
  • Now that you're back, A.L. Kennedy — The fact that I'm lumping these two books together is a sure sign that I have next to nothing to say about them. Years ago, I traveled to London with a friend. I took with me a list of Scottish authors and titles to look for. I was in the midst of my expansive attitude toward fiction, but before the despair had set in. I think I'd read Janice Galloway's excellent Dalkey-published novel, The Trick is to Keep Breathing, and had read an interview with her in which she named several other Scottish writers. And I'd by then already acquired my copy of Gray's Lanark. So, this is where I first found James Kelman's novels, and where I got these two books, both of which, I just noticed, are story collections. I appreciate some of Gray's work (Lanark still seems worthy, as does Janine, 1982); this particular collection, as with the novel Something Leather, is mildly diverting, but ultimately slight and forgettable. Kennedy's collection is not unlike Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains in its evident skill—she's not a bad writer at all—and in my overall indifference. A couple of the stories achieved a kind of creepy dread that made them stand out from the whole (like, "A Perfect Possession"), but overall not terribly memorable. Of the six books by Gray and Kennedy mentioned in this paragraph, all will be discarded, save Lanark and Janine, 1982. I also have two other Kennedy books that I need to at least sample before deciding their fate.

  • Dogma, Lars Iyer — I wrote about Dogma here, to widespread indifference.

  • Eva's Man, Gayl Jones — I don't have a lot to say about this novel in particular, but it's made me want to revisit a long-dead post sitting in draft-mode about Jones and modernism, in connection with her novel Corrigedora, in which I'd like to include something about Eva's Man as well. In this case, the narrator is a black woman, in jail for poisoning a man. The account of the events leading to the murder is interspersed, often confusingly, with fragmented memories of various stages of her childhood and previous encounters with boys and men.

I also read several pages in books by Martin Amis, James Wilcox, and Toby Olson, as part of my plan to read and re-read books to determine whether or not I want to keep them. Wilcox and Olson don't mean a whole lot to me (they are very very different writers, incidentally; it amuses me to pair them like that, though I don't particularly care to elaborate). Wilcox's Modern Baptists is part of Harold Bloom's modern canon, and came to my attention by way of Dan Green of The Reading Experience, in a list of under-appreciated novels he posted eons ago. Count me among those who under-appreciate it. Anyway, I read it years ago, to little impact. I also along the way acquired Wilcox's novel North Gladiola. I took a few passes at reading it, and I just didn't care. Admittedly, I was being a bit rash, but given my overall indifference toward the earlier book, I just didn't see it getting more interesting for me. Then I took a long look at Modern Baptists again, too. Decided I didn't need to keep either novel. As for Toby Olson, I've previously read, and enjoyed, two of his novels: The Blond Box and The Woman From Shame. I liked them, but they weren't important to me; they're being discarded. I'd also acquired two others: Utah and The Life of Jesus. I settled onto the couch with Utah, expecting a good read, but not expecting I'd feel the need to keep it around after I was done. But I couldn't get into it. About 20 pages in, I was bored, even irritated. Where normally I'd either persevere or put it aside for later, my attitude now is: immediate discard. The Life of Jesus, on the other hand, looks just interesting and weird enough that I did put it aside for a later pass.

Which brings me to Martin Amis. I've written how Martin Amis was once one of my favorite writers, and how I'd soured on him. I've already gotten rid of most of my Amis books, but had kept back what I always think of as the big three: Money, London Fields, and The Information. Money is the one that still has the decent reputation among people I respect. London Fields was the first of his books I'd read; it was nothing like I'd ever read before, and I still have a big soft spot for it. And The Information, I'd felt, was every bit as entertaining and fascinating, even if I was confused as hell by the ending. Though my opinion of Martin Amis has shifted over the years, to the point that I now find him rather unpleasant, still I have fond memories of these three novels, and rather looked forward to re-reading them, to see if they hold up, among other things; I figured, even if they didn't hold up, they'd still be fun reads. I started with The Information, perhaps because I'd thought it was the more difficult book of the three . . . and, god, I just couldn't do it. Where I expected to find and enjoy the great prose style he's so famous for (and which I remembered), I found instead awful, turgid writing. I couldn't make it past the first ten pages! Now I look on the other two with much wariness. Will they be painful, too? Is it worth it? Wouldn't I rather keep my fond memories? Wouldn't I rather spend my time reading something else? As of this writing, I'm still undecided.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Notes on two political books from 1974

As noted, I'm reading Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century, by James and Grace Lee Boggs, published in 1974. Last week, I read An Autobiography, by Angela Davis, also published in 1974. Why am I reading these books?

In a sense, they both came to my attention as part of my effort to read more feminism, and in particular more by black women and other women of color, though neither book is explicitly feminist. Angela Davis is very well known, of course, but it never really occurred to me to read her (or read much about her) before encountering references to her work in my recent reading of bell hooks. So I'd added her to my list of writers to check out. Seeing the interview with her in The Black Power Mixtape clinched it and pushed her to the top (you should absolutely watch that interview, by the way; and here also is a recent short interview with Davis about that film: really good stuff). Grace Lee Boggs first came to my attention last Fall, when I attended a panel discussion on race, here in Baltimore. She was not in attendance, but Scott Kurashige was. He is co-author (it's billed as Grace Lee Boggs with Scott Kurashige) of her most recent book, The Next Revolution in America: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, which was available for purchase at the event. The discussion was excellent, and in another, more flush time, I would have walked out with a pile of books. As it was, I only bought David Roediger's classic, The Wages of Whiteness, though even so I was sorely tempted by The Next Revolution in America. In any event, reading Roediger's book re-awakened my need to deepen my understanding of racism in America, to read black history, and works by black writers, especially black women writers. Which is one reason I was going back to bell hooks in the first place: both for hooks herself, and for the other writers and books she references. And in her Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, she quotes several times from Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century. So then I spent some time looking into Grace Lee Boggs, and by extension, her husband and partner, James Boggs.

Once I began looking up Grace Lee Boggs, it appeared that she was everywhere and that everyone else was already familiar with her. She is Chinese-American, born in Providence, Rhode Island, now aged 94, who has been a fixture in Detroit activism for decades. James Boggs was African-American, an auto-worker when they met. He died in 1993. They worked closely with C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya, among others. (Those details are essentially cribbed from Grace's Wikipedia entry, which is rather skimpy, as is James Boggs'. See also the Boggs Center, which appears to serve as a kind of blog and document repository and community organizing site.) They split with C.L.R. James in the early 1960s, and the many works they appear to be best known for come after this time. If they are anything like as good as Revolution and Evolution, then they are very important indeed. Among these works are (which I list here in part as a reminder to myself):

The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker's Notebook (1963; James Boggs)
Racism and the Class Struggle: Further Pages from a Black Worker's Notebook (1970; James Boggs)
Living for Change: An Autobiography (1998; Grace Lee Boggs)

And just last year, Wayne State University published Pages from a Black Radical's Notebook: A James Boggs Reader, which I imagine includes at least a few pieces from the first two books listed above (both of which, incidentally, like Revolution and Evolution, were also published by Monthly Review Press, which is always a good sign in my book).

Anyway, reading these two books—Angela Davis' autobiography and Revolution and Evolution—at this time is a strange experience. I find them fascinating, inspiring, yet also dispiriting, a little depressing. These last two effects have very little to do with what the authors have written, but with what has transpired since they wrote. As I mentioned, both books appeared in 1974. Reading Davis there is a palpable excitement, of evil being confronted, of victories, however limited, being won, victories that you get the sense can be built on. But those victories didn't last; far from it. For one example, I'd completely forgotten, before reading her book, that the death penalty had ever been outlawed in the United States. It seems ages ago. And far from solving the problems of prison and policing, and its disproportionate impact on African-Americans, we have been subjected to the ever intensifying logic of the prison-industrial complex. (I say "we", as if I'm not as shielded from its evils as it's possible for a non-wealthy person to be.) And we know it was part of an explicit counter-offensive intended to contain black people, who have always been more dangerous to the system than white people.

On this last point—the intentional containment of politicized and dangerous African-Americans—allow me to briefly revisit a point I made in passing in my post on The Black Power Mixtape. This is what I said:
In the later years, we see the ways drugs flooded American cities, and politics, focus, power, recedes. In light of the scenes that came before, it is difficult to believe anything other than that this was absolutely intentional. (I've always wondered: as if there's any chance huge quantities of illegal drugs could make into the United States without some powerful governmental entity making it happen.) There'd been a clip earlier in the film, in which someone, I forget who, says something like "they can't jail all of us". Then you see the drugs, and the dissipation, and it comes to you with an astonishing clarity, though you already knew it, that this is in fact what they intended. They will jail you, or they will fuck you up. Whatever the case, you will not win. 
Now, I wasn't sure how to word this paragraph. I was angry, but trying not to sputter. And I was somewhat wary of being taken for a kook. After all, those of us who were raised as good little white liberals, especially of a certain age (I am closing in on 42), don't we fundamentally have a hard time believing that the system is not basically good? Even when we finally believe that it's not (and it's not, not at all), when we finally come around to the idea in its fullness, do we not feel a tug? (Do we not, still, after all this time, get sucked into utterly debased debates about "humanitarian intervention", as if there was any validity to the terminology or idea at all?) In the event, it was nevertheless still suggested that what I'd written there amounted to an unnecessary "conspiracy" theory. I admit I wasn't really sure what to say in response, or even which part was supposed to be the conspiracy (the jailing? the drugs?). It wasn't as if I was suggesting that Federal agents literally forced heroin into a person's arms. But don't we know that drugs were allowed into the cities intentionally? Is it really that controversial? And, really, how do so many drugs make it into this heavily fortified country if they aren't somehow let in?

Well anyway, I let it go, not wanting to get into it. But then as I was reading Revolution and Evolution, in the riveting chapter on the Vietnamese Revolution, "People's War in Vietnam", I noticed this passage, covering the history of French imperialism in Vietnam, around the time of Ho Chi Minh's birth:
From Vietnam the French chiefly wanted rice and rubber for export. The establishment of rubber plantations necessitated removal of the peasants from large tracts of land. The peasants thus displaced were transformed into a labor force working to produce rubber and rice and to construct the roads and railroads to take these commodities to the ports. The sale of opium and alcohol was encouraged to help the police force control this labor force. To finance the new apparatus of transportation and control, taxes had to be collected, etc., etc. (p.99)
The sale of opium and alcohol was encouraged to help the police force control this labor force. Well, of course. It's after all not a new technique, is it? In this case, in the U.S., the traffic of drugs is encouraged to dull the edges of rebellion, and/or possible revolutionary fervor, and just so happens to fit in quite nicely with the nascent expansion of what came to be known as the prison-industrial complex.

But in Revolution and Evolution, though James and Grace Lee Boggs are highly critical of various aspects of American leftism, Marxism, Black Power, and so on, they nevertheless are writing under the assumption that they are in the middle of a "revolutionary period", and they spend a lot of time discussing what a revolution is, what sorts of questions and problems it needs to address, how these problems are peculiar to the United States (you cannot import revolution from elsewhere without understanding what you're doing or the place you're in), how it's distinct from a rebellion, how it requires so much of would be revolutionary leaders, and so on. Presumably they do this because they thought it was worth their time. And yet, all the myriad problems they diagnose have only deepened over the last 40 years. Nearly everything they talk about is considerably worse now than it was then. That thought is more than a little dispiriting.

It occurred to me, while reading both of these books, that they appeared right as the ruling class was itself responding to various questions of its own. This is exactly the period of the so-called oil crisis of 1973-1974, the manufactured crisis that the U.S. Government and the oil companies and conservative think-tanks used as the opportunity to completely change the game, bringing into being what we now call neoliberalism. Timothy Mitchell describes the true nature of this crisis very well in his recent book Carbon Democracy, which I have blogged about a couple of times (here and here). There is quite a lot to say about his argument in that book, but I bring it up here to point out that this neoliberal turn was happening at the precise moment when people on the left might have had reason to believe that something like victory was, if not imminent, then possible. And it essentially took place without anyone noticing—it took years for the left to notice and analyze what had happened. Sympathetic liberals still haven't noticed. The question, I suppose, is how to take the proper kinds of lessons from of all this. That, after all, is what James and Grace Lee Boggs say repeatedly: without the correct understanding of the problems needing to be solved, along with the willingness to take the responsibility to formulate solutions to those problems, true revolutionary change is not possible. Though they seem a lot smarter about technology than a lot of Marxists, yet they say nothing about the problem of energy, which is and has been an international problem, where their analysis repeatedly emphasizes, correctly it seems to me, the ways in which revolution must be addressed to the problems and contradictions specific to each individual country. How to resolve that contradiction?

I'm not sure how to finish up, whether I have a specific point to make, other than to be struck anew by the enormousness of it all. I imagine that'll have to do for now.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Some quotes from James & Grace Lee Boggs and attendant thoughts

Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century, by James and Grace Lee Boggs, was published in 1974 by Monthly Review Press. It was written, they said, "for those Americans of our time who have become aware of the need for profound and drastic change, who want to do something to improve human life and are ready to dedicate their lives to this goal, but who are unable to see a path, a direction for their dedication". I'm about halfway through the book, and it's a fascinating read.

In the opening chapter, the authors seek to define what revolution is not, before getting into what it is. Here they are on rebellion:
Rebellion is a stage in the development of revolution, but it is not revolution. It is an important stage because it represents the "standing up," the assertion of their humanity on the part of the oppressed. Rebellions inform both the oppressed and everybody else that the situation has become intolerable. They establish a form of communication among the oppressed themselves and at the same time open the eyes and ears of people who have been blind and deaf to the fate of their fellow citizens. Rebellions break the threads that have been holding the system together and throw into question the legitimacy and the supposed permanence of existing institutions. They shake up old values so that relations between individuals and between groups within the society are unlikely ever to be the same again. The inertia of the society has been interrupted.

Only by understanding what a rebellion accomplishes can we see its limitations. A rebellion disrupts the society, but it does not provide what is necessary to establish a new social order.

In a rebellion the oppressed are reacting to what has been done to them. Therefore rebellions are issue-oriented. They tend to be negative, to denounce and expose the enemy without providing a positive vision of a new future. They also tend to be limited to a particular locality, or to a particular group—workers, blacks, women, chicanos. For all these reasons the time span of a rebellion tends to be limited—usually to a few days or a few weeks.
It's interesting thinking of these terms in context of the Occupy movement of the last six months. In many respects, it's unclear whether it is (or has been) merely a rebellion, or in fact has the possible seeds of a revolution. The continued refusal for demands to be issued has to be seen to be a good sign, in this respect:
When those in rebellion talk about power, they are employing the rhetoric of revolution without the substance. In fact, they are simply protesting their condition. They see themselves and call on others to see them as victims and the other side as villains. They do not yet see themselves as responsible for reorganizing the society, which is what revolutionary social forces must do in a revolutionary period. Hence a rebellion begins with the feeling by the oppressed that "we can change the way things are," but it usually ends up by saying "they ought to do this and they ought to do that." So that while a rebellion generally begins with the rebels believing in their right to determine their own destiny, it usually ends up with the rebels feeling that their destiny is, in fact, determined by others.
Once you start making specific demands, you have accepted the logic of the oppressor, or revealed that some modest reform might quiet you down. And once the state is able to offer you something to satisfy a demand, that offer can be softened, eroded. Many people have written about Occupy and the question of demands, but it's a difficult question, because of who we are as Americans, what we've become accustomed to. I don't mean to offer any criticisms of Occupy here, especially given my personal lack of actual political experience. My true radicalization, you might say, is yet to come, even if in recent years my diagnosis and understanding of the problems facing us has become ever more radical.

Anyway, the authors continue in this vein, turning to the U.S.:
It is very hard for those who have been oppressed to get beyond the stage of asking others to do things for them. It is particularly difficult in the United States. The Welfare State and the abundance created by exploitation of other countries and by advanced technology have made possible a vast apparatus of social workers and welfare workers whose economic well-being depends on expanding the agencies for helping the oppressed. This country has also had the wealth to create a vast network of programs by which the oppressed are pacified and the most militant leaders are rewarded with high-paying jobs in community projects.
We can replace the Welfare State with the huge non-profit industry, perhaps, and I'd expand on "the abundance created by exploitation of other countries" to include our consumer culture and television and cars, among many other countless things pacifying us all, lulling us into sleep, into inaction, into believing politics can be reduced to voting, into not even noticing, or at best remembering, how much our lives are shaped by that exploitation. How many of us have jobs that depend on it directly?
It is hard to go beyond rebellion to revolution in this country because of the widespread belief that revolutions can be made as simply and instantly as one makes coffee. Therefore the tendency is to engage in acts of adventurism or confrontation which the rebels believe will bring down the system quickly. It is always much easier for the oppressed to undertake an adventuristic act on impulse than to undertake a protracted revolutionary struggle. A protracted revolutionary struggle requires that the oppressed masses acquire what they never start out with—confidence in their ability to win a revolution.
I don't know that people believe revolution is as easy as all that, not anymore anyway. It's seen as hard, all too hard, and we grow impatient, our attention wavers, and we have to get up early for work tomorrow and hey isn't there something on TV tonight? And there's the still, all-too-widespread belief that the system itself is somehow salvageable (but it's not, it's not). It's the only framework most of us understand. (By the way, I almost elided that reference to "adventuristic acts", wary that it could be read as implicit attack on or criticism of anarchists or Black Bloc. It is neither.)

Overall, that opening chapter was interesting, if a little too general, but I found the next four chapters riveting. In these chapters, the authors explore the histories and problems of four revolutions of the 20th century: the Russian, Chinese, Guiné, and Vietnam. They sketch brief histories of the revolutionary movements in these countries, all too much of which is embarrassingly new to me, but they are primarily interested in discussing the ways in which those movements, and their leaders, posed questions about the specific problems they faced, how they responded to failures, how positions were debated and decided on, how each different revolution went beyond the ones that came before, learning and teaching new lessons, and so on. In doing so, they almost have me persuaded of the need of a vanguard party, which is surprising given that I have long more or less dismissed the idea out of hand, given my attraction to anarchist arguments against it. But the problem does remain, doesn't it, how to move forward, how to expand, without becoming politically muddled.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

"We are all more blind to what we have than to what we have not"

Audre Lorde, the Black feminist essayist and poet, visited the Soviet Union in 1976, at the invitation of the Union of Soviet Writers. Her clear-eyed "Notes from a Trip to Russia" is the first piece in her excellent collection of essays and speeches, Sister Outsider. I'd thought I'd share a few passages from it.

In Samarkand, she encountered a man who was very interested in talking with her about Black Americans. He was surprised to learn that Black Americans were allowed to go to school, and to college, and to teach, since he was under the impression that they had no jobs. Lorde explains that it was simply "more difficult for Black people to find work and make any kind of living, and that the percentage of unemployment" was much higher for Black Americans than for white Americans.
He pondered that a little and then he asked, do Black people have to pay for their doctors, too? Because that's what TV programs had said. I smiled a little at this and told him it's not only Black people who have to pay for doctors and medical care; all people in America have to. Ah, he said. And suppose you don't have the money to pay? Well, I said, if you don't have the money to pay, sometimes you died. And there was no mistaking my gesture, even though he had to wait for the translator to translate it. We left him looking absolutely nonplussed, standing in the middle of the square with his mouth open and his hand under his chin staring after me, as in utter amazement that human beings could die from lack of medical care. It's things like that that keep me dreaming about Russia long after I've returned.

There's much that I think Russian people now take for granted. I think they take for granted free hospitalization and medical care. I think they take for granted free universities and free schooling as well as the presumption of universal bread, even with a rose or two, although no meat. We are all more blind to what we have than to what we have not.
It's remarkable how we've taken for granted the idea that one should pay for medical care. The apparently level-headed, superficially reasonable debates about the extent to which the government should "interfere" in the healthcare "market": we've all seen them, read them, participated in them. They're insane. Anyway, again, Lorde was writing in 1976; she died in 1992, so she didn't live to see how much worse it's gotten here in the U.S., nor would she have seen much of the post-Soviet destruction, "Shock Doctrine" style, of all of those basic features that she notes were (rightly) taken for granted by the Russian people.

And here she is, at the end of the piece:
It will take a while and a lot of dreams to metabolize all I've seen and felt in these hectic two weeks. [...] I have no reason to believe Russia is a free society. I have no reason to believe Russia is a classless society. Russia does not even appear to be a strictly egalitarian society. But bread does cost a few kopecs a loaf and everybody I saw seemed to have enough of it. Of course, I did not see Siberia, nor a prison camp, nor a mental hospital. But that fact, in a world where most people—certainly most Black people—are on a breadconcern level, seems to me to be quite a lot. If you conquer the bread problem, that gives you at least a chance to look around at the others.
Earlier she'd written "when you find people who start from a position where human beings are at the core, as opposed to a position where profit is at the core, the solutions can be very different". Of course, in the latter case, the solutions that are found are in fact not intended to "solve" the problems that we are likely to identify. That is, they are not intended to solve "the bread problem", to alleviate "breadconcern". They are intended to solve altogether different problems, usually something more along the lines of "how can we exacerbate the bread problem?" or "how can we increase breadconcern so that more people are compelled to give up potential power and work for less?" In which case, the existing solutions work rather well indeed.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Brief Summary Note on Carbon Democracy

Add another title to the short list of books that are essential reading with respect to our current situation: Timothy Mitchell's Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (Verso, 2011). I wrote previously that I had some minor issues with how Mitchell used the term democracy; those issues recurred, mainly in the concluding chapter, but they do not take away from the book's overall value. This won't be a review, but just a brief note on some aspects of the book.

Mitchell explains how the development of the coal industry, and the dependence on the energy derived from coal, enabled a novel democratization of politics. Coal miners and other workers were able to make their demands heard and attended to because they were in (literal, physical) positions to have effects on the flow of energy, a flow which, in numerous ways, could be interrupted. The subsequent turn to oil was in response to this democratization. First, oil was pursued as a successor to coal, in part to disable workers' existing power with respect to coal. Second, it was physically organized in such a fashion as to make interruptions more difficult.

Then we are treated to a brief history of the Middle East, in the context of the development of oil. Some of this history is not strictly speaking new to me, but its reorganization within a narrative focusing specifically on oil is extremely helpful. Lots of things begin to make a lot more sense. For example, the so-called "oil crisis" of 1973-74, which, far from being a nefarious Arab plot to profit off our dependency on oil, emerges as a crisis staged by the oil companies and the United States government, ultimately allowing for the transformation of the political landscape, towards what has become known as Neoliberalism. I'd already understood something of this history, thanks to the Midnight Notes Collective, but Mitchell's two chapters on the period are essential reading.

Perhaps the most fascinating portion of the book is Mitchell's account of the development of the object of study known as "the economy", which he argues came into being only in the mid-20th century. Rather than a political economy which took notice of the possible exhaustion of natural resources, and their costs, we now had a "science of money":
its object was not the material forces and resources of nature and human labour, but a new space that was opened up between nature on one side and human society and culture on the other—the not-quite-natural, not-quite-social space that came to be called 'the economy'.
The conception of which "depended upon abundant and low-cost energy supplies". Some of this might seem fairly innocuous, especially in my all-too-brief summary, but in fact, this conception became self-reinforcing and has had all kinds of implications on how we understand our world and act politically within it:
Democratic politics developed, thanks to oil, with a peculiar orientation towards the future: the future was a limitless horizon of growth. The horizon was not some natural reflection of a time of plenty. It was the result of a particular way of organizing expert knowledge and its objects, in terms of a novel world called 'the economy'. Innovations in methods of calculation, the use of money, the measurement of transactions, and the compiling of national statistics made it possible to imagine the central object of politics as an object that could expand without any form of ultimate material constraint.
Those of us who live in the Western so-called "democracies" have been taught to expect limitless growth. We have this dangerous expectation, still, in part because many of us have experienced the period in question as "a time of plenty". Worse, our sense of the economy, as somehow outside of nature, as outside politics, has helped narrow our sense of what a democratic politics might look like, has contributed to our incredibly debased notions of democracy as about certain kinds of limited participation (manufactured consent) and certain kinds of institutions.

I may have much more to say about this book in future posts (it covers a lot more territory than what I've sketched above), but suffice it to say that I recommend it highly.