Review diverse books (because the anti-capitalist literature can be so boringly monochrome)

Something I’m going to start doing on this blog: reviewing diverse books. What does this mean? Well a blog called read diverse books had this challenge to read diverse books in order to fight against the cultural industry’s tendency to tell us stories about how great white people are, particularly males, particularly middle class, straight, heteronormative whites, etc. It looks like a good idea so I’m adapting it here.

I say adapting because the original challenge (and a similar one at wocreads) is mostly oriented to fiction, so it focuses on lead characters. I’m more into non-fiction political books, so I’m adjusting the challenge to focus on authors rather than protagonists (except for biographies, then it is about the authors and the protangonists). I’m also adding some additional dimensions beyond gender/sexuality and race: things like class, experience of state repression, and linguistic communities. And instead of just reading I like to review so as to engage with the ideas and hopefully share the most useful thoughts and tools with those who can make use of them.

The challenge looks like this. I have to review:

  • A book authored/edited by a woman

  • A book authored/edited by a homosexual

  • A book authored/edited by somebody from Latin America

  • A book authored/edited by somebody who grew up as an ethnic or racial minority in their country

  • A book authored/edited by somebody from Africa

  • A book authored/edited by somebody who identifies as part of an ethno-national community that is without a state

  • A book authored/edited by somebody from Asia

  • A book authored/edited by a biracial person

  • A book authored/edited by a transgender person

  • A book authored/edited by a refugee

  • A book authored/edited by somebody with a disability

  • A book originally written in a language other than English

  • A book originally written in one of the over 2000 UNESCO designated endangered languages.

  • A book authored/edited by somebody without university-level education

  • A book authored/edited by somebody who was imprisoned for at least a year

  • A book authored/edited by somebody who lived under state socialism

  • A book authored/edited by a collective

One of the problems with checklist challenges is that the goal often end up being to complete it so you can say “look how fuckin diverse I am”. The main reason I’m doing this is to show how uniform the anti-capitalist literature tends to be. The checklist will be used mostly as a commentary during reviews about how diverse or undiverse the books are. And the emphasis is on commentary – not a rating. I don’t want this to end up like a judge in the oppression olympics.

Looking back at what has been reviewed so far on this blog, two were written or edited by individuals (How to change the world, and New forms of worker organisation), both white males from the US and the UK, employed (currently or at some time in their lives) as university professors, presumably straight, abled bodied, and originally written in English for English-speaking audiences. The two books on Rojava reviewed here are also written for US/English-speaking audiences, but they at least are edited by collectives, and include some essays and interviews translated from Kurdish and Turkish. Both collectives do seem to be north america-based though.

On the other hand, Teaching Rebellion, is also edited by a collective, this time Mexico-based, and although it is unclear whether it was written originally for a Spanish-speaking or English-speaking audience, almost the entire bulk of the book is composed of interview/testimony pieces which are certainly translated. Clearly the most diverse book reviewed so far here, but it just shows how much things need to improve. Looking forward to seeing what books this challenge leads me to.

Book reviews: To dare imagining: Rojava Revolution by the Autonomedia collective and A small key can open a large door by the Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness collective

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A small key can open a large door – front cover. Image from Combustion Books.

Something incredible seems to be happening in Rojava. The first revolution ever to be pre-figuratively anti-patriarchy, anti-state and anti-capitalist, and doing all this in the most difficult of circumstances. Of course the Rojava Revolution is not without its contradictions: they have a military alliance with the US, there is the hero-worship of Öcalan, official feminist and libertarian ideology seem to have been decided on by the leadership of a formerly Stalinist Communist Party. But as Marx said, “every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes”, the Revolution in Rojava is something real, happening, and it is something to be supported and deserves our solidarity.

The problem I have is getting info on it. The many online resources are great to keep abreast of things. But like a lot of things on the internet while being swamped with updates I don’t really have a clear idea of what is being updated. On the other hand the problem with books is that they take so long to write, publish, distribute, become affordable, and finally to read them that they are hopelessly slow at keeping pace with the situation that changes everyday. And usually long single-author reads are just inappropriate for reflecting a real democratic revolution that is by nature full of diverse and often conflicting viewpoints and is constantly fluctuating.

Two books which kind of address this are To dare imagining: Rojava Revolution by the Autonomedia collective and A small key can open a large door by the Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness collective. Both books are short, accessible compilations of multi-author texts, and published relatively recently. Compiled to specifically address this dilemma outlined above they are aimed at international audiences to raise awareness about what is going on in Rojava and to stimulate solidarity movements.

To dare imagining was motivated by an utter failure on part of the american media “to report on the real story of what is happening in Syrian Kurdistan, i.e. Rojava”, believing that “journalists are literally unable to comprehend the very idea of a social revolution” which they outline as:

“a left-tradition of resistance to oppression, and like those struggles, the Rojava Revolution has identified the State itself – nationalism, hegemony and patriarchal power – as the force to be overthrown. Alone amongst all recent armed uprisings in the world (except that of the Zapatistas), Rojava’s is an anti-authoritarian insurrection” (p7).

Compiled of texts (sometimes new, sometimes ‘borrowed’) written by visitors to Rojava, commentaries on the work of Abdullah Öcalan, and a few excerpts of his work, the collection reflects “a distinct urgency about getting this book out and into the american conversation”. It contains a diversity of viewpoints and is sufficiently coherent yet retaining the rough and ready feel that reflects its role as emerging from an ongoing and changing situation. In short, it is anarchist publishing at its most useful. Among the highlights are a set of interviews with women combatants in the YPJ discussing the experiences and feminist reasons for taking up arms, an essay on the sociology of biopolitical and necropolitical wars – the Kurds are victims of both state/imperial rationalised violence and the communal ritualised violence of the likes of ISIS with the implication that new logics and institutions need to be imagined as appeals for protection on the grounds of citizenship or humanitarianism don’t work – and a great piece by Dilar Dirik, a Kurdish activist, phd candidate, and one of the editors of the book.

A small keyis similarly motivated by the observation that “Radicals in the West have been mostly silent as regards the Rojava Revolution” arguing that although “it is absolutely true that it is easier for radicals to travel to Chiapas, Greece, Palestine, or Ferguson” because the “danger is greater in Rojava then so too is the necessity of our support” (p41, 42). But beyond supporting the experiment,

“we also need the Rojava revolution for our own work here in the West. Revolutionary politics in the West have been waiting far too long for an infusion of new ideas and practices, and the Rojavan Revolution in all of its facets is something we should support if we take our own politics at all seriously. […] we can not wait for the selective safety of hindsight to analyze the revolution now unfolding. The people of Rojava have chosen to fight and so must we” (p. 42).

Unlike To dare imagining, A small key is built almost entirely on translated statements, documents, or interviews from groups in Rojava or Turkey and not original pieces, apart from a very informative introductory chapter written by the editorial collective and another great piece by Dilar Dirik on what it is that gives the revolution the will to succeed in the face of so many forces against them (“In the midst of war, Rojava’s cantons have managed to establish an incredibly empowering women’s movement, a self-governance system that operates through local councils in a bottom-up grassroots fashion,and a society in which all ethnic and religious components of the region work hand-in-hand to create a brighter future […] the anticipation of such a free life is the main motor of the Kobani resistance”).

If there are drawbacks, the most obvious one is that both are very much oriented to US audiences. A small key compensates a bit being based on translated texts, as mentioned above, from people or groups taking part in the revolution or activists in places like Turkey. This gives it more of a feeling of talking to a friend who has family and friends active there, whereas To Dare imagining feels more like being taken on a tour by a group of Western academics. Added to this, you have to be cautious and aware that both books only contain a very partial view of the revolution. With To dare imagining you have to keep in mind that the writers are themselves being taken on tours, most likely PR tours, by the welcoming committees, drivers, and translators who bring them everywhere. I’m sure there is as much hidden as there is shared with these messengers. And the other drawback, which is generic to this form of communication, is that they are already woefully out of date – A small key was published in March 2015, while although To dare imagining generally feels rushed and hastily prepared, the most recent of pieces date from January 2016.

Despite being dated, there is still a lot to learn from both books. What is going on in Rojava, if these books are in any way accurate, is nothing short of a new way of thinking and doing feminism (undoing male domination of women and society inherent in the birth of ‘civilisation’, hierarchy and the city-state thousands of years ago) and a new way of doing anti-capitalism (through practicing “the peoples’ economy”). It has made me rethink my perspectives on militarism and nationalism: I used to have answers – both were bad; now just uncertainty.

If I had to choose one of them, I would probably go with a small key. It feels closer to the revolution. That said, to dare imagining does convey more of the philosophy which is (apparently) behind it – particularly in terms of feminist theory and Öcalan’s writings on Sumerian roots of civilisation-as-patriarchy-and-hierarchy and on democratic confederalism. And it is that bit more up-to-date.

But I probably would also prefer the newer book, Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan which is more up to date and at least written by people who had spent more time there (written by three Germany- and Turkey-based activists who have been working for years with with and in Kurdish groups, they visited Rojava and spent a month there and compiled their notes into the book, which originally appeared in German but has been translated into English recently by Janet Biehl). Hoping to get my hands on a copy of that as soon as I can. But in the end, it is not so important which book or blog you follow. The most important thing is to spread info about what seems to be an incredible struggle that should be supported and learned from as much as possible.

Best of October

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The “Jungle” camp in Calais, where refugees attempting to reach britain lived, was dismantled last week by the French state, with people being ‘redistributed’ to different centres around the country, in complete disregard for the choice of people forced to leave war conditions. Image shared from Liberation.

The biggest story is still the inspirational prison strike in the US. Most important to share is a compiled list of calls for support. Resources and contact details for offering

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Front page of the National following the uk conservative party conference where they announced plans to expel non-essential foreigners, have schools and workplaces report their foreign pupils and workers, exempt the army and police from following human rights legislation, revive a class-appartheid education system, among other atrocities. Source: The Canary

support to different local campaigns. As ever, things change quickly so follow the links for updates. And indeed, one of those links leads to an excellent article about an uprising as the strikes started in a prison in Michigan. Try also another piece from the same blog (great blog, by the way, itsgoingdown.org) on solidarity organising with prisoners, which also contains lots of avenues for you to show support with specific struggles and campaigns.

 

And on the theme of prisons, ROAR has a story about how the Greek government under Syriza are blocking access to educational leave to an activist imprisoned and tortured for involvement in the anti-austerity protests that brought them to power after having from opposition issued statements supporting his right to educational leave during a victorious hunger strike. Until they got into government a few months later and failed to implement what Demokratia-PASOK had conceded. From the same blog an interview with the authors of one of the three high profile English-language books to date on the Democratic Confederalist project in Rojava. Book is called Revolution in Rojava, originally published in German, written by three activists based in Germany and Turkey after spending a month in Rojava. And translated by Janet Biehl (who also interviews the authors in this article), collaborator and partner of Murray Bookchin, said to be a leading influence on the philosophy behind the revolution.

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Woman is Not Incubator – sign displayed at Czarny Protest, a womens’ strike in Poland against legislation banning abortion. Source unclear.

Four years ago an Indian woman, Salvita Halappanavar died in a hospital in Ireland because doctors refused her requests to terminate her fatal pregnancy, and threw in a good measure of racist slurs at her and her husband while she was dying. A blog post commemorating her death and calling out the patriarchical, racist and statist systemic violence that killed her and continues to deny bodily autonomy to women. Shocking but important that the story is shared. The Black Lives Matter UK group introduce themselves and their agenda to combat the same type of intersectional violence.

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britain-based Sisters Uncut let off green and purple (colours of the Suffragettes) smoke flares after disrupting the in-session local council in protest at the cuts to domestic violence response services. The council sits on 1,270 unoccupied social housing units while 47% of domestic violence survivors are turned away and told to go back to the abuse. Image shared gratefully and in solidarity from the Sisters Uncut fb page.
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Black Lives Matter UK action in July. Image from Red Pepper

But to finish on some positive notes, this post tells the story about how the solidarity network supporting VioMe (an occupied factory in Greece that the workers have been running as a cooperative for four years now) prevented another attempt by Capital to auction off the property. To be clear, the factory was economically viable, but the owner closed it down after going bankrupt because of a different venture. In London, students recount how a rent strike was won. And in Bristol, homeless people defeat an injunction by the local council trying to evict their encampment, a camp that actually brightened up the area and got the community involved.

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“With solidarity and self-organisation we defeat facsim” – Syrian activists in Greece at anti fascist demonstration in august. Image from the New Internationalist.

Best of September

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“Dignity can’t be imprisoned” – banner drop in Korydallos Prison in Athens in solidarity with prison strike in US. Image from insurrectionnews.

The event of the month this month in my opinion is the prison strike in the US. I’m not getting great coverage of it here but the following articles are worth sharing: a good introduction piece here about slave labour and the prison industrial complex and the organising (or lack thereof) which led up to September 9th, although it was published on the first day of the strike so probably out of date at this stage and doesn’t really tell us anything about what happened. A more recent discussion article about reasons why women prisoners are not joining the strike in large numbers (yet!), most of the reasons rooted in patriarchal nature of grievances and tactics, and an exploration of ‘everyday resistance’ and how the movement might strategise around this. And finally a really useful summary of events day-by-day, and and most importantly with resources for how you can help. Support-wise, it is a bit US focused, but there are somethings there that people elsewhere can use. As I said, with lack of media interest it is kind of difficult keeping track of what is going on there. If somebody does have some good overview readings on the strike – preferably ones that don’t rely on the US dept of justice or other official sources for their info – then please do share.

On the same note, I haven’t come across any really good writings on the protests following the latest killings of black lives by police in the US, so please share if you have one or two to recommend.

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A huge demonstration against racism in Helsinki following a recent murder by militant far right group. Image by @yonatankelib.

The best thing I read this month came out just on the last day of September: a piece written by a group of militant organisers trying to organise among the low-wage immigrant working class in London. The focus of the article is about a text written in the 1970s by a US group – the Sojourner Truth Organisation – who had similar objectives, on the subject of how race and class intersect and the challenges this poses for collective consciousness. The London group discuss how the Sojourner Truth Org document is relevant and not in their context, what potential and problems there is for race-focused campaigns in London (such as Black Lives Matters in the US), and what are their principal challenges to organising with immigrant workers in racist UK.

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Although not as lively as the strikes that brought France to a standstill in June, the movement against the Loi Travail continues. Image liberated from Liberation.

And another late post is the transcript of a 1994 talk about similarities between Marx and Kropotkin, and their shared visions of moneyless, stateless communism. Fair play to the libcom library crew for digging this one out.

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Demonstration in Poland in June against restrictive abortion laws. Polish women are to initiate a work stoppage Monday 3rd October in response to recent proposals to further restrict and criminalise abortion – essentially a complete ban. Image shared from Lebedev’s notindependent.co.uk.

Elsewhere:

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Banner to commemorate Abdelssalam Eldanf. Shared from Struggles in Italy.
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Two YPJ (Womens Defense Units) soldiers take a break from defending Rojava’s experiment in autonomous democratic confederalism from both ISIL and Turkey to raise fists in solidarity with Irish campaign to legalise abortion. The sign reads in Irish “There is no Liberation without Womens Liberation”, above “Repeal the 8th”, a reference to the 8th amendment to the irish constitution outlawing abortion. Image shared from wsm.ie.

 

Best of August

The civil war in Syria gets worse, with Assad seeing success with his strategy of starving territory back into control, and Turkey crossing the border. Yet again, the establishment media has done little more than regurgitate the official spin: that Turkey is responding to the ISIL terrorist attack on its territory by committing ground troops to the fight against them in Syria. When in fact, the bomb attack was in (Turkey-occupied) Kurdistan, at the wedding of a Kurdish political activist, which was used by Turkey as an excuse to implement a plan it had drawn up not to fight ISIL but to attack the autonomist project of the Syrian Kurds in Rojava, who are the most successful grouping gaining back territory from ISIL. And the US has gone along with it and finally ended the uneasy ‘temporary’ relationship with the Kurds, possibly because they don’t want Turkey getting closer to Russia, possibly because they too see the Rojava autonomist project as a threat, probably both. Either way, it shows that for the US and Turkey alike, fighting terrorism is less of a priority than imperialist hegemony. See this and this articles on the deal.

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Puerto Rican street art by La Puerta collective calling for a revolution against US colonialism. Image from ROAR.

Workers at two app-facilitated, conditions-destroying delivery companies in London have opened an important front in precarity-capitalism by organising wildcat strikes – not because they are radical anarchists who say fuck unions and class collaborationist process, but because they aren’t actually allowed to have a union, and as ‘contractors’ they don’t officially work there, so wildcat is the only way they can get together and strike. An important fightback against capital and the propaganda of the ‘sharing economy’. As Carlos Delclos from ROAR puts it, “Companies like Uber and Amazon Mechanical Turk privatized the [mutual aid]-style networking that allows these workers to earn a living, and then challenged governments to adapt their legal structures to their “no-benefits” employment scheme”. See these pieces on the Uber eats strike here and here, and this earlier one on the Deliveroo strike.

Also in England, following the disgraceful behaviour of Byron, a hamburger chain that exploited undocumented workers for years and then rounded them up and turned them over to the immigration police, a group in the National Health Service calling themselves ‘Docs not Cops’ is organising to make hospitals and health facilities no-immigration-police-zones and to refuse them access to medical data. A good article was posted on Novara about them. And Red Pepper ran this article damning the Chilcot enquiry for purposefully avoiding questions on the real motives for the war in Iraq, and the role of private corporations and lobyists in pushing the invasion agenda. Nice to see this, because I was getting fairly sick of hearing the media call the Chilcot report ‘damning’ and peddling its face-saving language (e.g. saying Blair ‘exaggerated’ the threat from Iraq, when in truth he made it up, etc).

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Protest by students at a formerly white-only school in Pretoria, South Africa, where a ban on afros is the trigger leading to outburst, but only the latest of a series of policies that has led students to connect the dots of institutional racism. “That is what forces us to realise that no matter how hard we work or how well we speak, we remain black. That is what forces us to realise that we are still niggers. That is what forces ‘coconuts’ to become conscious”. Photo from Daily Maverick.

Elsewhere,

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French-Chinese community in Paris organise and take to the streets to protest against violent, anti-Chinese  racist violence following recent murder. Image from Liberation.fr

And finally an excellent intersectionalist analysis queering marxism – looking at the many ways heteronormative society pushes LGBT*Q people into precarity. I usually don’t like overly materialist left-wing analysis because they tend to reduce form of oppression to just the economic impact, but this one does a great job.

Orlando means fightback – There is absolutely no room in our gay agenda for Islamophobia

Statement of solidarity with LGBTQ+ community after Orlando homophobic attack, but equally strongly anti the racist Islamaphobic agenda. Shared from anarkismo.net

There is absolutely no room in our gay agenda for Islamophobia

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Our hearts ache for the victims of the homophobic hate crime that took place over the weekend in Orlando, Florida where a gunman attacked an LGBT+ club killing 50 and wounding over 50 more. Much has been asked by us and by other left queers about the LGBT+ community, whether it exists and if it exists why don’t we feel a part of it. Sadly it is at times like these that we become aware of its existence. When people are considered deviants and deserving of a murderous assault for their sexuality, a trait all of us in the community share, we cannot but come together in sadness and in mourning.


Orlando means fightback
There is absolutely no room in our gay agenda for Islamophobia

Our hearts ache for the victims of the homophobic hate crime that took place over the weekend in Orlando, Florida where a gunman attacked an LGBT+ club killing 50 and wounding over 50 more. Much has been asked by us and by other left queers about the LGBT+ community, whether it exists and if it exists why don’t we feel a part of it. Sadly it is at times like these that we become aware of its existence. When people are considered deviants and deserving of a murderous assault for their sexuality, a trait all of us in the community share, we cannot but come together in sadness and in mourning.

We wish to draw special attention to the fact that the Pulse nightclub was hosting a Latino night with a trans performer headlining. We must be aware of the disproportionately high number of attacks that are carried out on a regular basis against queer and trans people of colour and we must fight to end this violence. Racism and queerphobia came together over the weekend to form a devastating result and these are two traits of the attack that we cannot allow to be erased from this.

We further warn against the Islamophobic backlash that has already begun in the wake of these attacks. We reject the use of the hurt that our community is experiencing at present in order to justify Islamophobia. There is absolutely no room in our gay agenda for Islamophobia; our liberation is inextricably tied to the liberation of all oppressed groups and that includes our muslim siblings, in particular our queer muslim siblings.

While the media and US authorities have branded this an act of terrorism we feel it is of high importance to state that this act of terrorism was also a hate crime. Already attempts have been made to erase the identities of the victims of this attack, the usual ‪#‎AllLivesMatter‬ crusade has begun. The right wing media wishes to ignore the homophobic nature of this attack in order to continue their scaremongering of muslims. This is incredibly insulting and does a disgusting disservice to those who have been murdered primarily for their sexuality.

Just like Stonewall, Orlando means fight back. While many advances have been made and homophobia isn’t as common or as acceptable as what it has been in recent years we still have a long way to go; the road we take cannot be one of assimilation, whereby we have queer acceptance in a straight society – we must dismantle the straight society.

We must dismantle the society that made it possible for someone to harbour such views about us and to carry those views into such a tragic action. Greater hate crime legislation will not do this, all it will do is cover up the cracks of a society that is already deeply broken by the violence of neo-liberalism.

While we have made many advances, for too long has our focus been on marriage; something that will not prevent trans youth from being murdered, queer homelessness, and closer to home the DUP putting in place a conscience clause to effectively exclude us from civic society. When our right to live is cruelly taken away at the whim of a homophobic gunman we are starkly reminded of how much of a fight we have left. This serves as a rallying call against the violence of a society that is killing us, we must make it known that these queers bash back. No matter how bigoted a person is we will continue to survive, we will continue to resist, we will continue to live.

We call for an end to violence – state-sponsored, homophobic, racist, sexist, capitalist, imperalist violence. This can only occur through revolutionary methods; through overthrowing the society we currently live in.

For now, we must take care of each other because that’s what a community does. We must mourn and organise.

WSM, 13 June 2016