Friday, 30 January 2009

Books again

The final two, putting this slow-burning feature out of its misery...

4 Harry Cleaver - Reading Capital Politically

I´m one of those people who always takes a mountain of books with him every time I travel anywhere, a sub-conscious acknowledgment of how lazy I am whenever nobody expects me to work for a living (a friend recently described my trip to visit them as me having ´experienced the internet of Australia´). One time I was in Vienna, staying with a friend (as a man of limited means, but cosmopolitan acquaintances this is how I take holidays ...), and he was flicking through my books. This man, being one of the most educated men that I know, idly passed comment on each volume, until he came to this diminutive little book.

"Is there another way of reading Capital other than politically?" He asked me, and I mumbled something unintelligent about reading it philosophically, economically, sociologically etc etc. But I didn´t get across Cleaver´s actual meaning of the title which he expresses as follows:

I intend to return to what I believe was Marx's original purpose: he wrote Capital to put a weapon in the hands of workers.
Simply that the purpose of it (and I think every political book) should be to accumulate knowledge for the social war that we´re in the middle of. A simple, powerful sentiment, which Cleaver illustrates by applying aspects of the book to the world he lived, with its contemporary struggles and the world we actually lived in.

It´s much more effective than trying to shoe-horn the world into the prescription of political activists who have long since being dragged off the stage, icepick lodged in cranium. There´s the perceptive application of the theory to the changing face of capitalism in the last 40-50 years, and the effective explanation of how capitalism is forced to transform itself in the face of what we (the working class) do to it (if nothing else I think it inspired the best contemporary book on this topic Beverley Silver´s Forces of Labor). More than that, it´s one of the best practical guides to the bearded one´s work that you´re likely to find. It´s also small enough to fit in your pocket or to read online if you have the time.

5 Jose Peirats - Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution

There´s a possibility that you will see the title of this section and sigh, as another anarchist flags up the profound effect of the Spanish Civil War on his political outlook. Fear not, I´m going to take a slightly controversial line. Obsessing about the Spanish Civil War can be damaging to your political health. In fact, dwelling on that past is possibly the most debilitating aspect of most anarchist groups.

Once you get bogged down on what things worked in the past, how they were organised in the past and what that means for our ideology, you´re finished. You´re a glorified historical recreation society busily trying to promote nostalgia for a revolution that happened over seventy years ago. Yes, if you´re anything like me you´ve a fondness for crying at the end of Land and Freedom, and if you lived in Spain you´ll be trying to convince your friends they want to go and see La Mujer del Anarquista at the weekend.

But modern life is not the same as semi-rural, church-dominated 1930s Spain, we aren´t re-creating the struggles of way back when, we´re existing in a modern world. In every era workers came up with innovative ways of defending themselves under capitalism and even pushing those societies toward revolution. What they came up with suited where and when they lived. Later on new generations invented new structures and organisations that suited what they wanted and how they might set about getting it. But soviets and factory councils weren´t the same as syndicates and collectives, nor were they the same as what developed in any of the revolutionary moments after that. Every time we invent something new, be it in the Hungarian Revolution or May ´68. It doesn´t come off the pamphlet in some anarchist or communist pocket, it comes out of everyday life and experience.

So what did I get out of Jose Peirats´ shorter book (there´s a 3 volume one too!)? Peirats was a member of the CNT all of his life, a historian and educator too. His book isn´t a whitewash, nor is it a hagiography of martyrs. It´s an explanation and a criticism of how he sees that the revolution went wrong. He was a convinced anarchist all his life and he was honest enough to criticise the conduct of his own organisation. It was great when I read this to understand why we don´t make examples out of history, we learn lessons and think about what happens and what´s happening now. We try not to wallow in nostalgia and assess honestly the shortcomings of our own history.

Most of all we understand that everything in history is compromised, not just by the dominant classes but by ourselves and the fact the reality is dirty and is far from Utopian. As I explained to a friend recently, I´m not a Utopian, I´m someone who wants things to better and thinks he has some insight into why they are how they are. I shouldn´t have to judge myself against the criteria of any imaginary world but on the quality and utility of my ideas in real life and in contrast to the ideals of others.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

building radical unions

There are a lot of positive things about having serious, mass-membership revolutionary trade unions. It gives people with analogous views (working or otherwise) somewhere organised and permanent around which to gather, it puts an alternative voice out there for people who don´t believe in the traditional union leaders, it gives people who are being sold out somewhere to go rather than just complain about their existing lot, it allows you to link the immediate and everyday with wider ideas and lastly it puts pressure on everyone else to go the extra mile so they can compete for members. It´s certainly superior to the ´only show in town, everyone pays subs to Labour´approach back home.

There are problems too though. At work I´ve been steadily doing my thing, persuading other people we need to get organised, to stand up for ourselves, find out our rights, get meetings together, maybe even join unions. All going pretty well, getting a good reception for it. And the other day something stopped me in my tracks. Someone asked if it would be worth joining my union.

This set me back a little bit, I´ll be honest. The customary cringe that comes with admitting that you´ve got very ... err... unique views on the world, and that your union reflects that, is difficult to get past. It wasn´t the same problem that I´d had in the past ("come and hang around in the back room of a pub with me and a few middle-aged men, who are powerless beyond handing out leaflets"), I know that the CNT is a great union, that supports its members effectively and provides everything that a big bureaucratic union can and more. This time it was just the realisation that they would rapidly notice from the office, from the leaflets, from the people (even the General Secretary of the Education Union is a punky student type - not that I´ve anything against that, but it gives a certain impression, you know?) that this was an "extremista" organisation.

This got me thinking ... of what possible use is it to be part of union that you aren´t comfortable telling workmates to join? I mean I believe in its ideals, but its a stretch to expect everyone else at work should. Maybe it would be different if it wasn´t an English workplace with English workers accustomed to our trade unions (or none) who pitch themselves only as workplace organisations and mention their politics as a kind of afterthought.

It´s difficult to make the case to relatively apolitical people (ie. normal people) that they should join something that´s so red in tooth and claw, even superficially. What are the other options though? The mainstream trade unions, the ones that don´t proclaim themselves revolutionary organisations, are affiliated to other things that are just pure shite. I don´t see why I should encourage them to throw subs at the UGT and as a consequence at the PSOE, or, even worse, why I should get them to join the Stalinist arseholes that populate the higher reaches of the CC.OO. It just so happens that their politics are mainstream, but it doesn´t make them any more popular.

So what? Encourage them to join the CNT and downplay the revolutionary aspects? Just say the important stuff, that it´s a good union, that fights for its members, provides all the support they ask for, that gives its sections autonomy and has reasonable subscription rates? Get them to pop along on a Thursday when the more regular looking Enseñanza members are there for a teachers and social workers meeting?

Or, suck it up, and tell each and every person why they should join, try and get them involved as possible, and play up the other elements? Or just stick with it myself and tell them they should join something, anything, that gets them some sort of union support, whilst focusing on staff meetings.

Failing that, the slightly tamer anarcho-syndicalists in the CGT?

Above all, what does the hesitation say about my conviction in my politics and whether I think it can really work?

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Judge a man by his actions.

The aforementioned truism should not always be taken to heart. Sometimes a man´s actions pale in comparison to his motivation and his outlook (just as sometimes the best of intentions produce the most horrendous deeds). Ostensibly Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg is a German resistance hero, killed for his attempt to assassinate history´s greatest evil. This act is about to be commemorated in a new hagiography called Valkyrie, with Tom Cruise as the lead. From what I can see, we´re going to go through the existing founding myth of conservative Germany´s innocence in the holocaust, and absolve the Wehrmacht of any responsibility for the War.

This is of course complete horseshit, Stauffenberg and pals were all planning to take over a post-Hitler Germany so they could save the dictatorship and rope the Allies into joining them in going to war with the Soviet Union, whilst mobilising all that nice slave labour from the East and in the concentration camps for the war effort. There were of course thousands of genuine German heroes who gave their lives fighting Nazism, before and during the war, including a variety of assassination attempts and resistance, some detailed here.

Of course, all of those attempts were by various communist and anarchist malcontents, and we couldn´t possibly venerate people who made a genuine and sincere stand against fascism, as opposed to ultra-conservative johnny-come-lateleys who tried to save the skins of some of the worst perpetrators of Nazi brutality.

Anyway, view the alternative antifa trailer with my compliments:

h/t: darren redstar on

Friday, 23 January 2009

next on Fox: change ....... Has .......... COME.

If there´s one thing that Americans don´t worry about too much, it´s ´hubris´. One day in the job and this is The Whitehouse website informing us that ´CHANGE has come to America´. Given that Obama is a declared centrist, with no controversial opinions of anything whatsoever, in the midst of a wholesale crisis of American capitalism and confronted by one of the most entrenched political castes on the planet, all determined to keep their noses in their respective troughs. Perhaps a little humility might be in order at this point. You know, maybe wait a bit for declaring that the world will finally and permanently altered beyond all recognition.

The unwritten laws of Spain

Spain, being the epicentre of malfunctioning rules, inefficient bureaucracy and generally a culture of disinterested chaos, survives mostly through instituting rules and customs that are essentially unwritten but must be followed at all times. To truly fit in here you must follow the etiquette. Some important things to remember are as follows:

Firstly, during the Winter months, it´s required that you comment on how cold it is constantly. At a minimum this should be done every time you enter or leave a building. On entering the building you must point out how cold it was outside. As you remove your multiple garments - scarves, hats, coats, more coats, jumpers etc - simply make a shuddering gesture, look your companions over, then remark ´ay, que frio, eh?´ This is for the benefit of the people around you. When exiting a building and going out into the cold, you repeat the same routine, only this time you say it to yourself, rather than your companions. Failure to do this will result in the catastrophic effect that no-one know that it is cold, or be informed that the weather is, in fact, appropriate to the season.

Secondly, if you are old and Spanish, especially if you´re are old, Spanish and walk incredibly slowly, more slowly than any human being really should be able to without the universe collapsing in on itself, you MUST walk in the middle of narrow pavements. As you wobble gently from side to side (your bottom half for some reason is considerably wider than you top), you cannot allow other, more rapid, pedestrians, to pass you. You are in fact part of a complex training programme demonstrating the Spanish way of life to interloping foreigners. Without your assistance they will never learn the correct way of walking on Spanish streets (the gentle amble which results in everyone being late for everything) and will forever be laughed at as the sad, inept foreigners that they are. Now, the selfish pensioner, unmoved by these arguements, might ask why they should be expected to shuffle so wearily around the city in this manner, selflessly enlightening the unitiated outsider. But by way of recompense they receive a reward whereby every Sunday young Spanish people are obliged by law to take an old person for a walk. Preferably this should be a relative of some kind, a grandparent if you´re of that age or a parent if you´re a bit older. If not, you should find an unattached one and adopt them. They´ve earned this reward for years of patient wobbling.

Finally, you should look out for "la broma burocracia", a practice that to the outsider might seem infuriating, but should be borne with a phlegmatic shrug, simply being the way things are done. The system works like this: you will be set a reasonable deadline by which to register someone or something (everything must be registered with 15 different agencies, in different parts of the city, none of whom share any information), after dwelling for the regular quantity of time on it, you will decide to make an appointment at whichever of the three million governments departments is in charge of it. This appointment will inevitably be after the deadline. You will have no choice by to take it. Some months later the department that set the deadline (as opposed to the one that fulfils it) will mention that non-compliance with their instructions will incur a hefty fine. When you (not unreasonably) point out that it is their own system that lacks the capacity to carry out their mandates, they will shrug their shoulders and fine you anyway. Then, when you actually go for the appointment, you will discover that didn´t really need one anyway (you just needed a place in the short line) and as the final insult, will be told that you´ve actually already done whatever you needed to do and they could have just sent you the correct piece of paper in the first place.

But like I said, don´t get wound up. It´s just how this place works.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

My 5 books Continued...

I may have inadvertently been telling a little bit of a lie when claiming that none of my books give me reason to look back and cringe. This one does only partially because of the content, but mostly because of the political point in my life that it brought me to.

3 Noam Chomsky - Pirates and Emperors

This probably could´ve been any of Chomsky´s back catalogue, largely because it´s a pretty repetitive sort of canon. The pattern is thus, Noam thoroughly chronicles the attempts of the United States government to overthrow and undermine democracies that try to assert any kind of meaningful independence from Washington directed global capitalism, doing so not on the basis of any spurious conspiracy theories, or with reference to the high standards of some Utopian fantasy land, but on the basis of their own documents and their own declared policy goals.

It´s incredibly effective stuff, and you only have to look at that truly feeble counter-arguments ranged against him to see that. Critiques flit around the edges of his work, making absurd claims as to his support for the Khmer Rouge (this attack involves deliberately misunderstanding the nature of his work) and various other things related to his sometimes naive notion of free speech.

After reading his books as a young adult/older teenager, it gave me a solid rational for my feelings about Empire and all that, which raised me above the previous stage of rebellious teenager.

On the other hand, and I suspect this qualifies as a criticism of the work and not just of my 19 year old self, it did feed into my nascent Stalinism. As a kid I was so fed up of being given the whole ´commies bad, capitalism good´mantra that I developed a knee-jerk reaction that said whatever I was told in official history, must in fact be the opposite. This eventually transformed itself into complex (but quite effective) apologies for Stalinist terror, most drawing on the idea that the Robert Conquest/CIA school of history inflated the figures (this is, in fact, true, though not really an excuse for the millions of people who died nevertheless).

That´s the limitations of Noam´s work as a whole, however much he understands intellectually that as an anarchist he doesn´t support 3rd world nationalism, Stalinism or anything like that, such is the nature of his work, understanding and comprehending the actions of nation states within their own logic, you can´t help emerging with a sneaking sympathy for the Jacobo Arbenz or the Sandinistas or Patrice Lumumba; basically admiration for social democrats with links to various Left-Wing dictatorships. Combined with the natural sympathy that American anarchists and far leftists feel for anyone that opposes their government, it´s not hard to come out the other side tragically drawing a hammer and sickle on all your school books.

So, this one was definitely part of the journey, but thankfully a place from which I have now moved on!

Friday, 16 January 2009

The 5 books...

An idea shamelessly robbed from Jim Jay, only I´m not going to imagine that anyone has the attention span to get all the way to ten, so you´re stuck with only five. Also, I was never a member of the SWP, so none of them come from their rather questionable back-catalogues.

In fact, seeing as I´m still pretty young, I reckon mine look rather respectable from my current perspective. There´s no looking back and shuddering here, I´d recommend reading each and everyone one of these...

1) Maurice Brinton - For Workers Power

Maurice Brinton, a neurosurgeon, was a member of a group called Solidarity, refugees from various Leninist groups, influenced by some unorthodox French libertarian Marxists (mainly Socialisme ou Barbarie, in particular Paul Cardan/Cornelius Castoriadis). Anyone who spent too much time hanging around, which compliments it´s, err, unique forum, with one of the most extensive left-wing libraries on the net, should be familiar with it. You can find a load of Brinton stuff on there, well worth flicking through. It was important to me because it helped me move beyond the idea that everything worthwhile in a revolutionary sense had to happen more or less like it did in the past, and took me toward the idea that every generation makes these things up as we go along. If you want to read something short, stick to the two short statements As We See It and As We Don´t See it, which are as a good a concise explanation of what it should mean to be a good revolutionary.

Meaningful action, for revolutionaries, is whatever increases the confidence, the autonomy, the initiative, the participation, the solidarity, the equalitarian tendencies and the self -activity of the masses and whatever assists in their demystification. Sterile and harmful action is whatever reinforces the passivity of the masses, their apathy, their cynicism, their differentiation through hierarchy, their alienation, their reliance on others to do things for them and the degree to which they can therefore be manipulated by others - even by those allegedly acting on their behalf.

2. E.P.Thompson - The Making of the Working Class

First off, if you´re interested in British history, this is a fantastic book. It´s well-written enough to be as enjoyable as it is informative (unlike his contemporaries Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm, who I find dull as), it basically invented the idea of social history as we now understand it, and it gives you a great perspective on our past which is far more exciting than the conventional narrative. It traces the development of popular and social movements in England from 18th Century Republicanism to the emerging the early consciously working-class movements of the 19th.

For the political activist, I think the money quotes are all in the preface, particularly those that take apart the idea of someone or some group embodying the historical consciousness of a class:

There is today an ever-present temptation to suppose that class is a thing. This was not Marx's meaning, in his own historical writing, yet the error vitiates much latter-day "Marxist" writing. "It", the working class, is assumed to have a real existence, which can be defined almost mathematically--so many men who stand in a certain relation to the means of production. Once this is assumed it becomes possible to deduce the class-consciousness which "it" ought to have (but seldom does have) if "it" was properly aware of its own position and real interests. There is a cultural superstructure, through which this recognition dawns in inefficient ways. These cultural "lags" and distortions are a nuisance, so that it is easy to pass from this to some theory of substitution: the party, sect, or theorist, who disclose class-consciousness, not as it is, but as it ought to be.

to be continued...

Thursday, 15 January 2009

What could you add?

For the entirity of my 25 years on this planet (and many more), the conflict in Palestine has rumbled on. It is pretty futile to imagine that I might have anything worth adding on the topic, given that I and innumerable others have throw in their tuppence over the years.

Yet those years adding up calls to you, doesn´t it? That´s more than 60 years without a homeland, and more than 60 years in refugee camps. Twice as long as I´ve lived (and too me it feels like forever, and I don´t live in exile, waiting for my right to return).

Traditionally, with every resumed offensive, the media´s memory resets to as limited a timescale as if necessary to absolve the Israeli government of responsibility. When they invaded Lebanon, we´re were supposed to imagine that neither Israel nor Lebanon had any history whatsoever that pre-dated the kidnapping of 3 Israeli soldiers. These days, we´re supposed to think that everything was peachy until one too many rockets wobbled their way over the border, instead of misfirings into some poor Palestinian farmer´s house.

Of course, throughout the ceasefire, as they have done throughout the last 60 years in fact, the Palestinians have been allowed to exist under sufferance, according to the whims of the Israeli state, their current whim being an open-air prison camps for 1.5m Gazans, as collective punishment for their decisions at the ballot box.

The thing is the Israeli ruling class never changes it up. They´ve a persuasive capacity that is all stick, the more we beat them over the head the better they will behave. There´s no carrot for persuading anyone that peaceful co-existence might be nice. The ceasefire saw the number of rockets launched at Israel decline. Even if you still think a lower level of attacks is completely unacceptable, surely, with a genuine desire for peace, you might take this as a good starting point for something better?

No. Best tear it up and create another generation of hate. So your citizens can live a little longer in fear and loathing, so they never question that perhaps their problems don´t only eminent from the enmity of their neighbours.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Fuck '09

It's only late Afternoon on the 1st and I'm already in a foul fucking mood. So by way of catharsis I thought I'd put down my top 10, "shitty things that will probably happen in 2009" list. So here it is:

(1) Barack Obama will be a war-mongering right-wing shithead. Come on, admit it, he's most of the way there already. He spent his entire campaign shamelessly pandering to AIPAC and the like, as well as promising to invest more in propping up Hamid Karzai's arsehole government in Afghanistan and as we speak he's responding to the killing in Gaza with a giant shrug of his shoulders. Yes, I understand that he operates under the constraints of what is politically possible within the American system. But that's the point isn't it. Why on Earth did everyone get so excited about changing the man who gets to do as he's told by the richest lobbiests and the Washington establishment.

(2) Ipswich Town will continue to be mediocre, despite unprecedented transfer funds for the clueless muppet who manages the club.

(3) Unemployment will expand massively. Pretty safe prediction that one. Call it a hunch, but I don't think the associated misery will result in any upsurge in support for a different kind of society, more likely just produce a wide new variety of obnoxious symptoms, like a rise in crime, anti-social behaviour, racism and fascism.

(4) I will continue to waste my time mimbling about the internet, watching TV and otherwise fucking about rather than putting any of my talents toward any meaningful endeavour that might actually lead to achieving something with my life to be proud of.

(5) Despite the massive upsurge in unemployment, the government will continue with its plan to attack those on various types of benefits, treating people in the most difficult circumstances as thieving scroungers, even though they get by on a income that most politicians would regard as akin to torture if they had to be on it themselves.

(6) There won't be any revolution this year. In fact if this year is anything like the last, the forces of good will not achieve a single notable victory, and everything will continue to go inexorably down the toilet as we approach environmental armageddon and economic apocalypse.

(7) My Spanish will continue to remain so mediocre as to prevent me from expressing myself with any degree of wit, charm and intelligence. This will partially be a result of me not fucking practising enough, and being too cheap to pay for lessons.

(8) All of the world's bastards will continue being simultaneously obscenely rich and obnoxious bitter towards the rest of us who actually make their money.

(9) I will continue eating and drinking too much, whilst not getting enough exercise and will descend inevitably into morbid obesity as I'm getting to that age. I'll probably end up taking up smoking again.

(10) There will be no peace in the Middle East. Obviously.