Review of Law in a Lawless Land: Diary of a Limpieza in Colombia

“The objective of memory is to highlight both the struggle of the dead
and the nature of the powers that silenced them.”
—Luis Carlos Restrepo

As part of my pre-visit area studies and research for Unraveling, I picked up Law in a Lawless Land: Diary of a Limpieza in Colombia by Michael Taussig prior to going to Medellin. A first person account told in a diary format over two weeks, Taussig recounts the dynamics, shares the stories of others and contextualizes the history of the region to explain the murders that once made Colombia the world’s murder capital. While conditions and the murder rates have drastically changed since then, it’s still a place where massacres of campesinos over access to land still occurs to this day.

Taussig’s journal describes in at times uncomfortable details a number of large-scale public killings, referred to as limpiezas in Spanish, as well as the backgrounds of the actors and the historical context in which they occur. Besides this, Taussig also reflects on the role of memory and accountability from a personal in reflections on the process of writing a journal as well as in the political sense, ie – through which means hegemony is formed.

Indigenes, Viciosas, Delincuentes, Traficantes, Paras, Sicarios, Guerrillas, Policia y la Ejercito Oh My!

While many of the participants in the conflict are prone to describing things in terms of good or evil, what is really going on is conflict over modes of production and access to fertile and resource rich lands. Though the quote from Karl Marx’s work Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations is one that opens Michael Taussig’s other book The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America, I think it a good one for quickly that describes the primary driver for conflict here as well.

Thus the ancient conception in which man always appears (in however narrowly national, religious or political a definition) as the aim of production, seems very much more exalted than the modern world, in which production is the aim of man and wealth the aim of production.   

While not nearly as knowledgeable as Taussig about Colombia’s past or collective psyche, my experience with various social strata in Medellin and Jerico, a pueblo in Antioquia, provided me a similar view. Those that primarily outside the capitalist mode of exchange for supplying their daily needs seemed more peaceful, calm and happy then those that depended on it.

In a long passage discussing the transformation of Cali’s agricultural lands in the 1950s and 1960s, Taussig describes how the thousands of peasants, who were outside the capitalist mode of production as the variety of plants they would grow and rotate provided them with all they needed were forcibly dispossessed so that a foreign born family could grow and export sugar. These instances of rapid proletarianization helped contribute to the problems faced within the cities – people without capital or many skills flocking to them – and were accelerated once cocaine became the crop of choice for those wanting to live beyond subsistence means.

 

When You Don’t Want Your Haters To Know Your Name

The immensity of the cocaine market drove traffickers to form paramilitary organizations to seize land and routes with high use value from the FARC and other large scale farmers. Unable to effectively contest such a well-financed group and still keep their scruples, the FARC got into the protection and trafficking rackets so that they could survive as an organization. Armed conflict over this left many frightened and dead , however this was not the full extent of the new dynamics influencing Colombia’s political economy. Large nuber of addicts too cropped along with a profound incentivization for “bad behavior” as la vida facil – or the drug-dealing/trafficking life – was known to be sweet, but short.

Planfleto Amenzas, or warning pamphlets, like the one above along with the graffiti signs of paras scrawled around the community are the first indication that the paramilitaries are soon coming in for a cleansing of such mala gente. Translating the above picture, it says the following:

“We will be killing all rat bastard sons of bitches, leftist communists, defenders of human rights and the process of peace and restitution of the land, student communist groups, unionists and guerillas.”

Then continues to name the people that will be killed following by the ominous entre otros, or “among others” and a warning that caught or informed upon for helping these people will also be receive lead.

Sometimes warnings are not so explicit and people must rely upon word of mouth news networks or wait until AUC graffiti was painted someplace public to know where and when the AUC was.

The Massive Scope of the Conflict

At the time of this book’s publication in 2002, Michael Taussig states that he’s been visiting Colombia to do fieldwork for 30 years. While the intensity of the civil war has halted, there are still multiple bad effects that stem from the narco-trafficking. There are neighborhoods that require thousands of police in Bogota to clear out the open air drug markets made by vendors and addicts and anyone visiting the area around El Centro in Medellin has seen the improvised encampments filled with bazuco addicts.

Taussig describes in details various encampments and characters he encounters in such places in a way the bring much needed levity to the stories he’s sharing. Behind those moment of levity, however, is the underlying fear. Fear of being seen with the wrong person. Fear of saying the wrong thing. Fear of your name showing up on a computer provided to the paras by the military. In numerous anecdotes the absolute terror felt by those in towns undergoing a cleaning is clear. Just as who is behind these, the local power elites.

¡No Tiene Sentido!

One of the recurring themes in my readings thus far on Colombia which is again reinforced here, is how distorted the reporting of the events are in Colombia. Many journalists fear intimidation, harassment, assault or death as reporting a story in the wrong way would could mean various armed groups would target them, so often they distort reporting in favor of the government or the paras or do not report on important events at all.  The result of this is a collective unreality on all sides.

Threats of violence aren’t the only reasons why mass delusions as to the acts of the government, the paras and the guerillas are reported in a manner that later is corrected in the evidentiary findings of human rights NGOs.

Besides the stick, there is the carrot. Writing about the paradoxical viewpoint that many Colombians have, Taussig points out on page 76 the following commonplace hypocrisy of many Colombian political commentators:

“How is it that while the pandillas, or gangs of the young preoccupy everybody to the point of collective hysteria, while the bandas of the local upper class rarely get talked about? Is it because the bandas have for so long been a part of reality and that many people, or at least many influential people, get fat on them?”

The corruption in the country is notoriously endemic. In fact when asking one taxi drive in Medellin what he thought about the President Santos he want on a long rant about how all the politicians were corrupt – Liberals and Conservatives alike – and that stated that there’s no party that represents the poor and the campesinos except for the FARC, who would never come to power given so many people disliked them for the reason I said above. As a result, leading to million and billions of dollars of state money going to development projects. Maybe a few dollars goes in the pocket of a reporter, or maybe the ownerships of the new outlet gets some money out of it so exercises editorial control, or maybe a company that purchases advertising threatens to pull money if certain things are said. Either way, there are are lot of incentives to sow confusion in community by incomplete or false reporting.

 

On the Weakness of Trump Jr.’s Halloween Candy as Socialism Analogy

As income inequality worsens within countries around the world and more people grow disillusioned with the neo-liberal verities that justified their immiseration as well as the politicians which has been spouting them, more people have been rethinking whether or not policies based on socialist principles might be a better option. In fact with the recent election of Lee Carter, a marine veteran that identifies as a Democratic Socialist, along with a number of other left of center populists and socialists we might even be seeing the pivot begin to become a trend. This is making a lot of people nervous.

The Washington Post recently published an editorial  decrying changes in language and politics as neo-bolshevism. The American Culture and Faith Institute recently published findings from a survey which outlets like the National Review are up in arms about. Why? Because younger people are becoming more sympathetic to socialism! Also in on the furor is the Victims Of Communism Foundation, they also published the results of a different survey that much to their and others dismay, also found that younger people view socialism favorably! Lest this seem like the new American generation simply is ignorant to the realities of socialism, it’s worth noting that this trend wherein socialism is seen as desirable is not just in the U.S. but a sentiment found in the former Soviet Union as well.

 

It’s in this context of   growing demand for systemic political and economic change, that the son of the current American president, Donald Trump Jr., decided that he would use his following on Twitter to try to educate his followers on just how unfair, unjust and undesirable socialism is by posting the photo and text that I’ve screenshot on the right. The post, rightfully so, was mocked by a number of outlets, including Vice and Twitter.

A few days later Liberal (not leftist) Chris Hayes posted the following on his Twitter account. I can’t say for sure whether or not this was in response to Trump Jr’s tweet, but it does touch upon the (1) the correctness of Socialist analysis, (2) just how slow in coming to understand want Trump means for America and (3) that the received truths from most outlets (i.e. non-Marxist) are no longer valid.

Why Trump Jr is Wrong: Selective Redistribution is not Socialism

As many on Twitter pointed out, as far as analogies go Socialism = Halloween is a pretty bad one. But this isn’t something that is unique to Trump Jr. There’s a long history of purposeful misrepresentation of socialist thought and ideas by the media outlets of the wealthy going back over a hundred years. Puck Magazine was one such outlet that previously paid artists to publish cartoons of dirty, foreign socialists to discredit them. The sensibilities have changed, but the essence hasn’t.

Now people like Dinesh D’Souza, a man convicted of violating campaign finance law, not only seek to discredit socialism, but to transform it’s meeting so that the whole of the philosophy comes down to is “redistribution” and to claim that the the Democrats are in fact descended from Nazis. Thus, according to the new logic of the presumptive ruling class, World War II was really just leftist infighting between socialists in Germany and Russia and the US. By the by, this means that the Nazis actually won WW2 because, remember, FDR was a National Socialist…

The problem with all of this is, the logic turns to dust when you look to the seminal author on capitalism, Adam Smith. Here is from one of his maxims on taxes:

The Wealth Of Nations, Book V Chapter II Part II, Appendix to Articles I & II, p. 861, para. 12.

The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities…

Smith also includes four additional maxims that ought to inform how it is that taxation should transpire. That said, while tax percentages, sources and allocation is certainly a contentious dynamic, but there’s nothing inherently “socialistic” about it. Social, yes, interaction between people. Socialist? No. That refers to principles of social and economic governance. While there are a variety of views on public ownerships of good and services – such as public schools, roads, national parks, etc. – but to claim that they are “socialist” is to mistake what socialism really is – the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Marx’s Major Theoretical Writings Are About Capitalism, Not Socialism

If that last phrase of that last sentence needs some unpacking, that’s understandable. Unlike the language and theories that Freud and the circles of readers and practitioners of the artistic science of psychoanalysis developed, Marxism hasn’t entered into the popular lexicon. This shouldn’t be that surprising given the indoctrination in our schools and churches that Communism/Marx is unAmerican, the fact that America has a long tradition of anti-intellectualism; state and para-state actors that seek to dissuade those that have made their way to Marx from acting on it and an entire cultural apparatus that is owned by a numerically small but politically powerful class that does not want to see or hear of their property being threatened.

Dictatorship is a heavily loaded term and it’s worth noting that as is conceived in Marxian though, the term does not necessarily refer to a personalistic style of political rule, but to control over political institutions. Marxists say that currently, living in the class society that we do, we live under the dictatorship of capital. It’s purely descriptive.

The proletariat is the group of workers that know they live in a class society and want to halt class rule through organized political struggle. The proletariat is categorically not the working class as a whole, who may not be active in the political economic struggle.

Class struggle, however, is just one component of Marxism socialism. There’s a large body of primary literature (and for free, thanks marxists.org!) as well as secondary literature that can explain the varieties of socialism, be it How to Read Karl Marx, Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx: A Revolutionary Interpretation or David Harvey‘s website.

Class Struggle! But What Else?

From my conversations around college campuses and at political events, validated by Jon Stewart, I think it’s fair to say that as a whole Socialism/Marxism as ideologies tends to be conflated with economic leveling and giving greater political power to the people. Because of this unfortunate desire to appear “in the know” thousands of pages of theory and decades of history are obfuscated and I think that this focus distracts from the fact that there are a number of his non-revolutionary concepts and intellectual innovations within Socialist and Marxist literature.

I say non-revolutionary as there are a large number of writers on every possible locations on a political map that agree with a some of his concepts and interpretations of historical developments. I’m not going to cite them all, instead an excerpt of this article from Harvard Business Review shows that class struggle isn’t specifically socialist or Marxist:

“Have these people never heard about Teddy Roosevelt excoriating the “malefactors of great wealth,” or his cousin Franklin getting Congress to raise the tax rate on top incomes past 90%? Americans have been pillorying the rich on and off for more than 200 years, and our economic system has survived and mostly thrived. In fact, the political and labor-relations compromises occasioned by what you might call class warfare have on balance surely made the country stronger.

What’s been unique, or at least highly unusual, has been the environment in which entrepreneurs and business executives were able to operate from the late 1970s through the early 2000s. Taxes dropped, high-end incomes exploded, and hardly anybody complained at all. Far from complaining, in fact, the news media for the most part celebrated the recipients of those exploding incomes for their boldness, creativity, and economic importance. It was a pretty stinking awesome time to be a plutocrat: You got to make billions of dollars, pay far less in taxes than you would have a quarter-century before, and get your face on the cover of Forbes or Fortune (or maybe even the top of your head on the cover of HBR).”

After you’ve read that entire article, which is worth your time, I’m sure you’ll agree. However, unless you were familiar with socialist/Marxist thought, you wouldn’t know this and just think it’s just some “foreign” ideology.

Marx and the Many Schools of Economics

Understanding how societies operate is difficult and requires a specialized vocabulary to talk about various components. In the process of gaining deeper knowledge within an academic discipline, ones’ lexicon and scholarship grows such that one can come to understand a variety of schools in relationship to one another and how the effects of their policies are. It’s because of this – lack of study on the subject – that Trump Jr. makes such a poor analogy for socialism. One might consider that as a capitalist he might “have ideas”, but all this means is that he’s able to extract surplus value from people not that his position as such a historical agent makes his version of theory superior. It’s not.

But Trump Jr. is not alone in his ignorance. If polled via mTurk, I think that less than 5% of people could give me an accurate definition of any number of terms used by Marx, be it alienation, commodification, division of labor, fetishism, solidarity, mode of production, etc. I believe the same would be true for concepts introduced by Marx’s later interlocutors like Gramsci with hegemony, Rosa Luxembourg’s analysis of reformism or Trotsky with permanent revolution. What great potential for a poll! Those the believe that schools have indoctrinated children with collectivist thought could finally have proof of it as knowledge of those words and other ideas related to it would quantitatively demonstrate public school led to collectivist thought!

Despite such claims, I would propound that with Trump there is a rise of people with a racial and nationalistic language for thinking through their politics, and I’m not alone in this assessment.

Socialism, or Barbarism

The middle class does not exist in the US anymore and as nationalism becomes the new watchword for determining US policy, American workers need to come to realize that they have more in common with a worker in China than they do with their own employer. Not history, language or culture, of course, but their economic precariousness and the fact that they compete with each other in the labor market due to a world connected by cargo shipping containers, transportation networks and a variety of shops.

The Right has been using racial and nationalistic language as well taking a few pages from Joe McCarthy’s anti-communism playbook – as evidenced by the header image at the top of the page. However in the end it is less about fears of “others” than the precariousness of American’s status to which they are appealing.

“You will not replace us” is anxiety about globalism and it’s ability to decimate regions once industries leave for greener pastures (and less labor laws). It’s taken a while for enough people to come to this perspective, but people are slowly recognizing that the economic game has been so changed in the past 30 years that they want the rules to change too. Neoliberalism is increasingly becoming a dead letter and in it’s place will either go Socialism or Barbarism…

What is the Global State of Socialism? What Does that Mean in America?

While I’ve focused on the American case as we zoom out of our focus and head onto the world stage we see that Socialism, that cause for much American intervention in countries that elected such politicians, is not seen as such a bug bear.

In China, Xi Jinping is announced as a contributor to Communist thought and practice in the vein of Marx and Mao. Vietnam remains radicalized by their experiences with European colonialism and like China are a single Communist party state.

In Europe, Spain‘s PODEMOS party rules the country and while their leader Pablo Iglesias is not a Marxist, they are socialist in orientation. Same goes for Greece, where the current leader of the Syriza party, Alex Tsipras, continues to battle against Germany and the international credit market. While no longer a part of the EU, in the United Kingdom, Jeremy Corbyn, an avowed Trotskyist, is revivifying anti-austerity politics and helping to turn the Labour party in a working class party rather than a neoliberal party.

In Venezuela, Maduro’s PSUV won heavily in the regional elections. In Colombia Rodrigo “Timonchenko” Londoño, the former leader of the FARC, a Marxist guerrilla organization, has announced he will be running for president. In Bolivia, Evo Morales has presided over a decade of socialist-inspired reforms. In Brazil, the Temer government cannot gain legitimacy and it looks like in 2018 Lula will return at the head of the Workers Party.

In Kerala, India the Washington Post positively describes the large socialist movement on the opposite end of the “Red Corridor” wherein a Maoist-inspired insurgency fights the government.

In Rojava, anarcho-communist Murray Bookchin has found a new audience amongst Kurds fighting for a socialist nation and those that are inspired to help them.

Many other developed nations, such as Denmark, Finland, NorwaySwedenCanada, Australia and New Zealand are not socialist, but have such a robust social safety net that it’s nothing like the American notion of capitalism.

What does all this going on mean in America?

At the most general level, I think it means that Americans ought to familiarize themselves with socialist literature. There’s a whole lot of false misconceptions as to what socialism is out there. There’s a whole lot of people that think American socialists want to bring North Korea, Cuba or U.S.S.R. to America and despite s#!tposting that hints others, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

That said, Socialism is a huge topic with a lot of debates within – take it all in slowly and with a grain of salt for as is to be expected in politics, there are underlying motives both professionally and ideologically operating here.

Lastly, I think it’s worth pointing out that people should also meet with other people in their community to talk about their experiences in relation to what they are reading in order to make sure that they understand things correctly and to help form bonds. It’s a whole lot more engaging and enjoyable than hearing an analogy that literally makes you stupider from the son of a reality T.V. star that would love to have more of your money because they tricked you into thinking that the modern American iteration of Socialism wouldn’t be a treat…

 

Racial Controversy in Advertising and How To Avoid The Need For Apologies

 

I was waiting for another “advertisement campaign gone wrong” news story to happen to contrast the way in which the messages in traditional magazine style graphic ads differ with what can be done with content marketing and sure enough Dove does me the favor of running an ad that many are calling racist and is now facing a boycott of their product.

In this article I’m not going to judge the intentions of the people involved in this Facebook-based advertising campaign, but I will defend their intentions by stating I believe the screen grabs below that spread like wildfire across Twitter misconstrue the nature of the ad – which isn’t nearly as direct in implications as this.

Instead, I’m going to show why it is that people claim it is racist; touch upon some of the ways in which a marketing messaging can be engaging and controversial but not offensive; and finally present a brief content marketing proposal that Dove could have instead done which would provide more value for their current and would be customers.

Racism in American Skin Care Marketing

   

Controversial marketing can be very effective, but if not done properly it can also lead to undesired press. Because of this it is important to always keep in mind the perspectives of the people being depicted or implicated in advertising.

One need not agree completely with all the views of prominent African American cultural commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates as to the power of whiteness to recognize that in the United States whiteness has been lauded as an definitive quality for culturally dominant standards of beauty and truth; legitimate political power and authority; etc. Additionally, one need not agree completely with Malcolm X to recognize that the media has a huge impact in how communities perceive themselves.

In this sense we can come to understand that the brouhaha is less about the manifest content – a skin cream that whitens – but the latent content, or social context, in which it is promoted.

To put it another way the issue at stake, pardon the pun, is not black and white but is specifically about what many people see as a culture that continuing to reinforce a social and economic order that denigrates and exploits black people. Because of this, these these types of advertisements are seen as ideologically supporting such a structure and why Proctor & Gamble’s ad is so celebrated for being the opposite.

Cultural Sensitivity in Polarized Times and What Stays With Consumers

   

Skin whitening creams aren’t the only type of product and services whose communications run the risk of being labelled racist and alienating customers.

Surf pulled a number of ads like the one above, which is especially ironic given criticism over roles and awards given to black actors in Hollywood films. In the wake of controversy over the defending hate groups prior to demonstrations in Charlotesville and their subsequent Twitter post shown above, the ACLU has changed their position on defending all groups right to free speech and apologized for their posting. State Farm’s Twitter account briefly became

What these and the Dove ads miss is cultural sensitivity that would allow them to see how how black people and their allies could feel that such marketing messaging contributes to a culture that denigrates blackness.

While not speaking on race but sexual preference, Dan Cathy of Chick-Fil-A’s reflection on the comments he’d made regarding gay marriage summaries provides a good insight in what companies should consider when approaching their messaging:

“Consumers want to do business with brands that they can interface with, that they can relate with. And it’s probably very wise from our standpoint to make sure that we present our brand in a compelling way that the consumer can relate to.”

If a consumer feels that a company is attacking them in their advertisement, intentional or not, it puts th consumer relationships at risk.

Great Content Marketing That Deals With Controversial Content

The problem with addressing or depicting controversy in advertisements is not necessarily that it gets attention, but what further message is then transmitted from it. Though many people purchase products such as bleaching creams or Surf detergent in order to get their skin or clothes whiter, the underlying message of “Darkness is undesirable” leads to wasted ad buys and time spent on handling criticisms. It’s for this reason that content marketing is particularly effective.

This is one of the reasons why Zillow and NerdWallet’s Content Marketing is doing such an amazing job. Not only are they both producing functional tools for people to used, but they are also coming out with reports like: Rising Rents, Stagnant Wages, And the Burden of Unstable Housing and Seeking Medical Debt Relief? Crowdfunding Rarely Pays Off the Bills.

Hiding Controversy in Plain Sight

   

Chances are as you read what my good examples of controversial choices for marketing content was you may have thought the following contentions:

  • These don’t deal with race.
  • These aren’t controversial.
  • I’m comparing apples and oranges.

Regarding the first point you are absolutely right. I will, however, provide an example of what good content marketing that deals with race looks like below so I hope you’ll overlook this. As for them not being controversial let me explain how they are.

Your friends, if they’re good friends, will certainly give sympathy for expressing anxiety and frustration over your income and how your daily struggles wouldn’t feel so burdensome if you just earned just a few percentage points in your salary and some level of support. Your employer, who holds the power in making such a determination, is less likely to be as welcoming to such expressions and less likely to offer support – though this is changing.

The future of health care in America is so highly contested by a variety of actors that have stakes in saving and losing money that protests and coordinated movements to sway legislators have erupted all over the country. Regardless of one’s view of what is to be done, information is power and this goes to show that private philanthropy is not doing nearly enough to prevent people from death or life-changing debt.

As for the third contention, that’s a partial truth as they are different in format but as they are at their root marketing messages such a distinction is spurious and only gives heft to the claim of many advertising professionals today that content marketing is king. Unlike the visual-only ads, these content marketing projects do not veil the conditions of American political economy but make unveiling it their purpose. The value-proposition of Zillow and NerdWallet’s content marketing is educational rather than mere single grahpic attention grab whose only message is: “This lotion will whiten your skin”.

What Could Dove Have Done to Raise Brand Awareness Instead of Publishing An Ad the Replicates Racist Tropes?

Like many other people,  I Feaking Love Science. Like many publishers, I also love survey based projects. Not wanting to go into too much details, it was with this in mind that I thought of some alternatives that Dove could have developed instead of the racially insensitive ads.

Were Dove to take a content marketing approach instead of the traditional single graphic ad for their campaign they would have had their marketing team produce content that educates about skin and race via an aesthetically engaging depiction and explanation of the science of skin color.

Were Dove to take a content marketing approach they could have presented the findings of a survey asking about perceptions of whiteness that combined analysis of their results with that of previous studies in an engaging manner. There a lot of them on race in relation to aspects of American society and such a study that examines original research (Legal, psychological, etc.) along with the number produced, their findings and analysis of other qualities over time would contribute to the national conversation instead of being seen as just more evidence for one position or another.

Controversial Content, But Without The Baggage

One of the reasons content marketing is such an amazing field is that the value it creates is not as ephemeral, being more than a mere image, but also as it can be continuously updated, and parts of it can be repurposed. Like solely visual advertisements it seeks to gain a consumer’s attention, but because of the format it is able to do so without the baggage and and in a more organic manner.

If you want to assure that your company’s time is not wasted by apologizing for an insensitive advertisement and are interested in learning more how controversial content can help your marketing, reach out to me, Ariel Sheen, and ask about how I can help build up on-site material or how I can build you a content marketing campaign.

Not only do I have a track record of successful content marketing campaigns, but my extensive studies in America’s history and culture means you won’t end up with lots of press about how you inadvertently promoted racially insensitivity.

Review of “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual”

I’ve been meaning to review The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual by Harold Cruse for quite some time. With it’s depth and breath of evidence and a forceful analysis it’s no surprise that following it’s publication it was a cultural touchstone amongst the cultural and political elites of the early 1970s. Truth is, whenever I’ve sat in front of an open Word document with the intent to respond to it’s arguments and evidence, I start to feel a bit overwhelmed. This despite the fact that I’ve had some pretty extended conversations on this book.

Thankfully, one of the Facebook groups whose posts I follow, the Society for United States Intellectual History, recently curated a Roundtable on the Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. Rather than provide you with my thoughts on the matter, I decided I’d share these instead:

 

Along with two other insightful PDFs:

and some random other links:

Beyond the Color Line: Jews, Black and the American Racial Imagination

Review of “The Para-State: An Ethnography of Colombia’s Death Squads”

The Para-State: An Ethnography of Colombia’s Death Squads by Alvo Civico is an engaging and at times haunting account of the armed conflict between various groups that has shaped Colombia’s political economy over the past forty years. The books anthropologically oriented methodology combines first person interviews with cocaine kingpins, leaders of para-military forces as well as the regulars, victims of paramilitary violence, as well as supporters of the paramilitary along with a historical account that contextualizes the events described in the interviewees stories. Through these accounts, Colombia’s rural interior comes to be seen as a space where actors project their desires for wealth and personally engage or organize horrific behavior in order to obtain it.

While it appears late in Para-State’s chapters, despo-capitalism is the term that Civio uses to describes the socio-economic dynamics of Colombia. It is a “threshold where the repressive forces of the despot combine with the liberating forces of capitalism” (140). His theoretical model for understanding the dynamics of despo-capitalism is decidedly Marxian with deference to Deleuze and a dash of Zizek. He states repeatedly, in fact, that the role of the AUC is what is described as a War Machine in the book A Thousand Plateaus. To bolster this positions, he includes a brief comparative political account based on interviews with an Italian prosecutor that illustrates the similarity of development of the Sicilian Mafia to the Colombian para-militaries.

Paisas Son Un Gente Muy Amable y Acogedoras

 If you consume enough of the marketing content that encourages travel and investment in Colombia or various polls, you’ll soon notice that one of the recurring themes is of how wonderful and welcoming the people are here. While as of writing this I’ve only spent time in Antioquia, this combined with the many others I met from this region while living in South Florida makes me feel that this is a general truism. The irony, of course, is the happiness that they feel despite there being a longest standing civil war throughout any Latin American country.

The reason for the Civil War is long, and stems in part to the violence between Liberal and Conservative Parties before that. Each operated with tenuous. After a number of periods of sectarian killings, including La Violencia, the political elite united around the Frente Nacional (1959), which is incredibly similar to Venezuela’s Pact of Punto Fijo (1958). This specifically lead to the establishment of the FARC and would later open up the conditions for the death squads the books describes. Unable to get enough civilian support in regions rich with fecund land and extractable primary goods, the para-militaries became a means for the elite to establish control.

Limpiezas were right wing paramilitary that went throughout the rural and urban areas and liquidated those that they considered FARC sympathizers (real and imagined) as well as desechables, gamines, and those in combos. There were a large number of such groups, such as the Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Cordoba and Uraba (ACCU), that came to be united in name but not always in orientation under the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). Regional groups were funded by either the upper classes with financial interests in a region or workers being under their total control or cocaine producers and distributors.

Death By BananasDespite what the above meme suggests, getting murdered because you don’t want to pick bananas for the wages offered is not something relegated to the not so distant past. In the period when the bi-lateral trade agreement between Colombia and the United States was being debated by the Legislative branches of government, the American trade unions pointed to the wave of over 450 assassinations of civil rights leaders, trade unionists and community leaders that was then going on. Chiquita Banana, may still face trial for its support of the AUC after the State Department deemed it a terrorist group.

The informant network created by the AUC deemed all such people as “collaborators to the FARC’s cause,” even if there was no such material support evidence. The mere belief that workers had a right to collectively bargain was considered cause for getting kidnapped, shot, dismembered by chainsaw and the remains left somewhere in the forest for animals to consume.

In regions with fecund soil that inhabitants had adopted a subsistence model of reproduction, market relations were either forced on them by paracos or they were dispossessed. In regions where wage-labor for agricultural production was pre-existent but drives for higher wages occurred, paracos enforced at gunpoint the continuation of work. In a word, the feudalistic model for enforcing labor participation for capitalist production was the norm.

The information network of the AUC would later identify and assassinate over 450 unionists, community rights leaders, and other “sympathizers” or collaborators to the FARC’s cause. If this seems high, well, the number of civilians the AUC killed is drastically higher. When a valley needed to be cleared of occupiers so that a foreign national company could grow bananas, for instance, or a gold lode was discovered that initial seismic wave readings indicated could be worth billions – paracos would declare that town a pueblo guerillero for resisting such displacement. After they’d encircle it with hundreds of heavily armed people, they’d raid a number of people specifically identified as trouble and then publicly execute them and put their bodies on display in an area with high pedestrian and automobile traffic.

The Direction of Colombia’s Economic Development is the Heart of its Civil Conflict


These capital and labor intensive industries along with cocaine production and trafficking are at the heart of the Colombian political economy. The latter more so as cocaine itself is a totem that organizes the distribution of bodies, practices, objects, symbols and words. The class divide determine by one’s placement in the such a system of capital circulation is both implicit by social norms but also by the legal system which designates people according to a legal class (estrata). Those that are lower class are not given much, if any, assistance by the state – hence the antagonism to it, as those on the lower end see the benefits given to those at the top – and thus can best earn through trafficking or muscle. An additional element driving the conflict has to do with US investment in the region.

Cocaine and the Development of Medellin

The Para-State’s account of cocaine’s role in the geographical and demographic development of Medellin describes evolving dangers from sundry violent actors working in unison and against each other. With vast amounts of capital coming into the country through sales via Miami and other points, the traffickers soon became the largest land holders in the country. Not all wanting to live in highly guarded fincas outside of the city center, they invested in different neighborhoods in Medellin.

As a result of the the aforementioned dispossessions and high level of unemployment, combos formed in these area. The effects that these two converging factors in one region is described on page 158 by Civico as follows:

“Medellin has long been crossed by these invisible but powerful boundaries, and transgression could trigger a death sentence from a rival armed group. These lives have shifted constantly, and residents have learned which streets to travel on, which ones to avoid, and which boundaries to cross. Walking on the wrong side of a street can get you killed. In several of the city’s barrios, survival has been a matter of such cartographic knowledge.

Having spent a few weeks now in Medellin, it’s worth noting that even now, 20-30 years after the period described the dynamic remain the same – with the higher areas along the mountains being more “dangerous” while the center is safer. That this is a dynamic caused by wealth inequality from the hegemonic economic capitalist enterprises is clearly shown to be the case.

De-armament, Reintegration and Politicization of the Struggle

Even before the recent FARC demobilization, those once in the AUC were in the process of demobilizing. As Civico describes it, however, this is not an easy process. The job prospects for those once involved pay significantly lower, making them ripe for recruitment by narcos, their history of violence makes them apt to end up in jail or dead over minor disputes and others that aware of their crimes – be they family members of those they killed or rival groups – sometimes take justice in their own hands. One of the interviewees that Civico writes about, in fact, is taken by a group that he was on bad terms with and is never seen again.

The politicization of the armed struggle is certainly a step in the right direction for a united Colombia, however as this book shows there is a lot of bloody history that will continue to make such a transition difficult. While it’s not clear if this will work, Civico is clear that if the massive modernization projects which dislocates thousands continue, if the assassination of leftists continues, if the state continues to fail in its ability to speak for all but the elite, that this project will fail.

Vocabulary

Desechables – Literally means “disposable people”. This meant people that were drug addicts, petty thieves, homosexuals, domestic abusers and could sometime include people that had long hair.

Intreccio –the inter-twinement of the state and the parastate. First used to describe the relationship between the Italian Mafia and state

Traquetos – the people engaged in cocaine trafficking who make a show of their wealth with thick gold chains around their necks, expansive cars and stunning young women

Pajeria – literally means “squad”. People who enacted organized political violence

Vacuna – protection money

Farras – parties to get drunk

Urbano – a paramilitary working in an urban area

Bonification – a bonus according to the number of people you killed

Paracos – paramilitaries

Bara – The dynamic wherein a commander likes your performance and gives you frequent opportunities and recommends you

Limpieza – social cleansing accomplished through spectacular violence

Raspachin – coca gatherer

Pueblo guerillero – a town associated with guerillas

Gamine – street kids

Vallenato – romantic Colombian music from the coastal region with lyrical content similar to African griots

Pillos – a Medellin specific term for gang-members and junkies

Culebras – literally poisonous snakes. A term for one’s enemies.

Combos – street corner gangs

Review of “The Spook Who Sat by the Door”

A post shared by Ariel Voyager (@arielvoyager) on

I first heard of The Spook Who Sat By The Door by Sam Greenlee in the source note of an academic journal article by George Ciccariello-Maher called Brechtian Hip Hop. The note provided a plot overview and stated that this text, about a black spy trained by the U.S. comes to recruit a number of gang members in Chicago to begin and spread a domestic insurgency, was formerly mandatory reading for CIA operatives in the 1970s. Given the zeitgeist, a few years after The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder had published The Kerner Report, which delineated concerns over rioting and Communism, such a work being produced seems apropos. On first learning of such a narrative, which is a variant of Happy’s story in my book Unraveling, I was somewhat bummed – yet also pleased to be able to learn from such a narrative. A few clicks later it was being delivered to me. A few more and I learned that the book was also made into a movie, which after reading the book and having watched it is, for the most part, felicitous to the original.

Dan Freeman is the “spook” of the book –  a play on the words meaning black person and spy. We learn through conversations midway through the book that he was in a Chicago street gang, the Cobras, as a young man and that while in college he was an advocate for a variant of Black Nationalism. He sits by the door as following an opportunistic senator’s push to integrate the C.I.A., he is the only one that is able to pass the rigorous testing regimen and is put into a position of great visibility so that visiting Congressmen and Senators can see the token black person hired for a non-sanitation or food preparation related job.

During the several years Freeman works for the C.I.A., he is described as having a dual life. One where he is a “good negro” that does all work beyond expectations at his job in Washington D.C. and the other a “hipster negro” that only exists once he slips in tail in New York. This is themes of masks and the social construction of identity is one of the main themes of the book. Freeman is always “putting people on” in order to meet the expectations that white people have so as to obtain social or political acceptance.

Dan leaves Washington D.C. in order to take a job as a social worker. Counterbalancing his behavior in this role as an “Uncle Tom,” one wholly deferential to the existent structure of white supremacist, liberal power, he also begins to organizing the Cobra’s into a militant, revolutionary organization. The comments that come out of Greenlee’s liberal characters at the dinner parties and community outreach foundation meetings Freeman attends and the divide between what he thinks and says are quite amusing. Freeman states how he feels more comfortable than the whites as they are actually less racist than the black middle class – which he sees as constantly struggling to be “more white” in their values, attitudes and behaviors than white people.

This disdain for the black bourgeoisie/middle class is another recurring theme of the book. Freeman’s psychological criticisms are akin to those voiced by Harold Cruse, as well as a number of other non-integrationist traditions. According to Freeman’s worldview, the “social worker” is less a means of helping empower communities and more a means of helping vent frustration over the conditions of the political economy away from rioting and toward more passive, less private-property damaging outlets.

In Freeman’s initial planning stages for domestic insurgency he is reluctant to try to recruit any members of the the black middle class to his cause. Following the beginning of the widespread civil disorders, they are described as one of the most outspoken groups delegitimizing the violence due to the fact that they are losing their “token” jobs over it.

Dan Freeman’s struggle to convert his childhood friend Dawson to his cause, who he sees as a potential asset due to his color and high rank in the police department, shows the irreconcilability of their two positions. While Dan sees freedom as the ejection of white political power and economic control from black communities, Dawson accommodates to it and has no trouble playing the jailor.

The novel as a whole, thankfully, never gets caught up in long, didactic passages as a number of ideologically motivated texts are often want to do. The Cobras transition from street hoodlums to disciplined cadre members leading five man teams to attack and harass the armed guard lacks any sort of crypto-catechism in conversational form, a la Ayn Rand, and the interpersonal struggles of Dan Freeman keeps him from being a one-dimensional character.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t Call me a Millennial!: A Critique of “The Fourth Turning” by Neil Howe and William Strauss

For almost a week several outlets in my news feed had headlines highlighting “Steve Bannon’s book” for understanding the current American moment. Described as a seminal text in Bannon’s political philosophy and the foundation for his 2010 documentary, I was curious. I dug a little further and found out that one of the authors, Neil Howe, had been the person who coined the term Millennial. I’ve long heard and used the term Millennial and viewed it as a description of the generation of people born in the early eighties to the mid- nineties. Reading The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy – What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny made me realize how wrong I was about this and has brought me to the view that the widespread adoption of the term is highly problematic. So problematic, in fact, that I’m going to make a conscious effort not to use the word and attempt to raise awareness as to why it should not be be used.

When Glenn Beck Takes Something Seriously, That’s A Good Indication You Shouldn’t

Perhaps the quickest way to show how intellectually bankrupt the term is is to look at the level of excitement  Glenn Beck has when talking about The Fourth Turning. After viewing this clip, to me it seems that Beck does not just view their work as history, but as Revealed Truth!

Beck has multiple episodes devoted to detailing Howe and Strauss’ work that details as to the significance of the saecula – the average span of a human life – the archetypal cycles within them and the psycho-social impact of their interactions. I’ve not seen these videos, but I imagine it is a further delineation of the philosophy of history which opens the book.

The Historians Wear No Clothes

H&S begin with an intellectual history that highlights numerous people that have declaimed history to be generational and circular. Citing and updating Classical Greek ideas and terms, we soon learn that the four archetypes of American History – which all have their another iteration in other national borders – are Prophet, Nomad, Hero, and Artist.

These archetypes emerge from periods of crisis, such as war or revolution, that changes the spirit of the people due to their experience. While the collective action problem inherent in the upheavals of massive social transformation is certain to impact people’s consciousness, the historic component of the dynamic which H&S describe is piecemeal, Metaphysical and Idealistic.

History Matters 

H&S, like many others, locate the origin of “linear history” in The Enlightenment, and associate it with modernity and the State. They continue to say that despite the works of a number of eminent thinkers having created the most “cogent body of generations writing ever,” (tellingly all non-Jacobins) that this mode of thought fell out of favor while the more directional form of historical consciousness became hegemonic (63).

They import this into their account of American history, which is quite unusual, but more so due to the the method that the bring to bear on their account.

Quite simply, in Howe and Strauss’ account of America, there are very few actual people accounted for. Though masses are named and given qualities, for the most part there is little attempt to connect the qualities of the Prophet, Nomad, Hero, and Artist into the historic conditions of the saeculum they are describing. For the most part all that we’re treated to is analysis based on movies or well-known personages that “somehow define the ages”. What’s missing is any sort of genuine political economy.

No Race, No Class, No Immigration in Howe and Strauss’ America

In H&S’s account of American history, slavery’s inheritance on the personality of the body politic writ large is marginal. Other racial and ethnic tensions have also not played a significant role in the development of the American Identity. Instead, from Slavery through Reconstruction through Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Era, the same four archetypes are in conflict over the direction of the political order – and yet racial conflict is largely glossed over.

Based on this “prophetic account of history” you would also never suspect  that over 59 million people have immigrated to the United States since 1965 alone from places very different from those that first settled. Since Howe and Strauss’ opening intellectual salvo is to connect the First Turning to the end of the Glorious Revolution, it’s worth noting that many millions of other immigrants have arrived from non-Anglo countries, an unmentioned fact in H&S account.

Social struggles for women’s rights, unions and the various repressions at home and oppressions abroad justified by the “Cold War” are other dynamics that apparently play a negligible role in the development of American Identity.

Why this is so is never clearly stated, instead we are presented with conflicts stemming solely from generational conflict. That they would not entertain other theories about the cycles of conflict is surprising given that a number of other historians and political economists support the basic notion of cycles in history…

Only Weak Thinkers Avoid Attacking Their Convictions

The idea of cyclical waves existing in human history is not solely the domain of those historians such as Ortega Y Gasset. Given that much of the first writings of man are economic in nature, receipts and double entry book-keeping, it should perhaps come as no surprise that it’s in this domain – political economy – that a similar trend has been noticed.

Commodity prices like the ones above, for instance, have been shown via the work of Nikolai Kondratiev and others to follow a secular, recurring cycle of peaks, recessions and crashes. Given that American’s live within a capitalist mode of social relations to produce their means of subsistence, these “economic” indicators have huge anthropological and political effects, hence why it is so surprising that labor and economic exchange is barely mentioned in this account of America’s past. The structural constraints imposed on the working class have actual corporeality, eight hours daily in economic relations limited by varying degrees of political agency – unlike Howe and Strauss’s idealist account. New technologies and new relations of political power cause massive social disorder and economic dislocation, however these don’t play a factor in the creation of “generational identities” such as Millennials, Baby Boomers, etc.

Contending Schools of Thought: Materialism vs. Idealism 

That the authors of The Fourth Turning don’t quote any of these “cyclical” schools that have recognized cycles of life within societies that have political economies informed by capitalist property relations is perhaps unsurprisingly, for reasons that should already becoming clear.

This is because for Howe and Strauss, the current generations of Baby Boomers, The Silent Generation, Generation X, Millennial are trans-historic substantive categories that subsumes all America’s class, racial, sexual, sexual preference, and many other differences. According to their use of the term, those born within certain date border inherently, all have the same experience.

When Are You Getting To The Part about Millennials?

With all of this in mind it becomes easier to understand how problematic Howe and Strauss’s term Millennials and why their “prophecy” should be seen as bullshit and those that cite them as inspiration should be resisted.

For one, it literally emerges from the entire web of bullshit that I described above.

Secondly that prognostication isn’t so good. And by this I don’t mean Howe’s Book Millennial’s Rising: The Next Great Generation, about which one Amazon reviewer wrote the following: “The book was written BEFORE any of the predictions advanced could have happened and MISSED many of the things. I thought it was a real up-date and it was not.”

According to The Fourth Turning, Millennials are on track from which there is no escape to be a generation that sacrifices under the auspices for austerity. The way that we prepare is not as a class of people recognizing and acting upon their material interests, but to revert to tribalism. Return to classic virtues, expect for the collapse of public support mechanisms. Look to your family for support. Etc.

More than just focusing on increasing one’s self-reliance and forgetting about the “others”, “millennials” as a class ought to approach the crisis period by just  “going with it” and “prepare ourselves for it” – a message with some really weird echoes across history. Considering that most of the issues that “millennials” face all stem from historical capitalist relations, this is a big point to miss.

Wait, So Millennials Is A Crypto-Facist Term?! 

Indeed it is.

“The Fourth Turning” is a prophecy that a mythic, inner- conflictless country during a time of some outside conflict, generalized economic depression, massive natural catastrophe, or some other “panic” inducing behavior that prods changes in the normal acceptance of the status quo.

That said – I appreciated their prose. And found their brief remarks against Fukuyama to be insightful. Despite being risible epistemological sophistry, it was compelling! Furthermore, as someone that has training in the theory behind and therapeutic practice of Hellinger Constellations I found their writings on the inter-general interaction to be genuinely insightful and aligned with my own training in that field. Yet in the end the book is a rallying call for American Facism Lite™. The parts of American that it silences in its Prophecy is indeed the very foundation of Americanness. And it’s only through realizing this, that such cycles become less something that individuals must personally buttress themselves against or and instead something that we account for and address as a species-level.

Review of “Men, Mobs, and Law: Anti-lynching and Labor Defense in U.S. Radical History”

One section of Master’s Thesis research included legal analysis with politically chilling effects upon anti-lynching and leftist movements in The United States of America from Harper’s Ferry to the late 1960’s. The way in which the law laid force upon the bodies that broke with expected behavior and the means by which police facilitated “corrective” behavior for these violations differs drastically. And dialectically. To suppress suppress either labor, racial and leftist political struggles is to repress the three progressive aspects of society that have been driving emancipatory ideas and practiced encased in institutions. Because of this, of course I read Men, Mobs, and Law: Anti-lynching and Labor Defense in U.S. Radical History by Rebecca N. Hill.

Hill’s history has a pleasantly journalistic feel to it. The main characters are of course detailed – the defendant – whomever she’s describing in that section – and the plaintiff – the State in the place that they were arrested – are both described and all their relationships therein. Who were those involved with the crime, what brought them to where they were right before they just were arrested, arraigned, transported, processed, jailed, for days, jailed, for months, jailed, for years, then brought to court, etc.etc.

It combines this description of their time and those around them with legal exegesis of the components of the case. This combined with local socio-political factors involved in such cases, such as the manner in which popular movements sought to impress their influence upon the courts, had a number of legal implications on social movements involved with race, class and/or labor struggles. While Sacco and Vanzetti are name dropped in the highly underrated, very funny movie War On Everyone with Alexander Skarsgård and Michael Pena. Anyway…

 

The book is organized around several dramatic cases, starting with John Brown’s trial. From this heavily police involved form of repressive behavior the the narrative goes to where the law played a less involved roll. Lynching throughout the south in the United States was a true horror that kills thousands of African Americans. Police slowed their roll on the road towards justice and would often falsify or forge documentary information, not intervene while militant bigots exercised their force upon them and, well, all around oppressed them.

Racial, Labor and Leftist social justice warriors – a term that ought be associated with esteem – sought to impress their demands that the state more justly apply it’s purported universalism, an inherently conservative position. The other says the state is unjust and wants to replace it along democratic, centralist lines rather than plutocratic ones – the preconditions for the most active ire. Labor wants the state to join its side in demanding more benefits but are not connected to the Leftists either because of lack of class conscious or lack of practical use value in linkage, a serious consideration to make considering the effect that associating with Reds could have on your work life.

While John Brown clearly engaged in the behavior he was charged with, the obverse is true of the Haymarket Martyrs. Their case spawned a holiday celebrated nearly everywhere in the world except the USA – May Day. If you’re not familiar with the case, you should look it up. What I found interesting as though Hill does not spend much time on the material evidence, of which there is none, and instead writes about the majority-immigrant leftist responses. Of course every people has a culture, but that of Chicago – the Second City, was unlike many others due to the habitus brought over from the German revolutionaries. Gymnastic, parading, militant Anarchist culture practiced by Germans and a number of other stocks from across the shore shocked the sensibilities of the local bourgeoisie.

After an incident that was, essentially, the pretext for the public execution of the Opposition Leadership Anarchist newspapers fought not just to save members but leaders. Newspapers which shared workers stories about their conditions, pay, bosses and other things now started to include writing from those inside. Rather than becoming devotional, religious character associated with sublimity their writings subverted the abolitionist martyrs sharing stories and expressions of romantic, sexual love. Anarchist newspapers published the love letters of the Chicago anarchists and their wives and girlfriends, another practice that was taken up by most socialist defense campaigns.

Hill’s history ends with the equally tragic tale of the Black Panther’s Party. With an emphasis on the Party’s organized defense apparatus raised to support George Jackson, Hill shows a man imprisoned due to political caprice rather than justice. Like The Haymarket Martyrs and Sacco and Vanzetti, his writings behind bars and public adoration of Assata were used as gristle to further help people find sympathy in their story. Having recently read their published letters and accounts – I get it!

All these and more arrests and trials forms responses with historically dependent forms of action. Organizations along class and/or racial/ethnic alliances were highly limited by place, history and the interests and powers of the state and local elite. In some cases the popular struggles were able to save the subject of their organization. Other’s no.

Hill’s history shows radicals creating interconnected networks of protest and resistance activity as well as volunteering time and donating money for massive fundraising undertakings that spanned the globe. Success in obtaining government guaranteed rights often depended on how loud and disruptive supporters could be to the normal functioning of government.

Mixed in is to this journalistic, documentary history are comments pulling together some of the themes evident in today’s world:

“Once admired as the heritage of manly individual freedom, Puritanism in the 1920s became associated with the Ku Klux Klan, along with fundamentalism, racism, capitalism, and prohibition.”

The heritage of many organizations racism persist in various ways. And yet to point this out is to become a public persona non grata. Example K:

Example on the opposite side? Trump the tee-totaller and Sacrosanct “States Rights” Sessions just did a 180 on over over a decade of federal drug enforcement policy.

These broader points build and intersperse Rebecca Hill’s account. Along with the legal proceedings, are a few interesting asides as well – such as The Red and the Black being George Jackson’s favorite novel.

Her conclusion does not lay out a platform upon which a group might be able to exercise their collective social power in order to achieve this, nor should she have to. The conditions by which that they would need to be changed would always depend upon the locals activities. What she does, however, is provide a powerful ethical imperative:

“The capacity to imagine a different world might begin with the ability to refuse to accept the characterizations of people who were willing to recklessly go against the rules of the society in which they live as wicked, misguided, wrong, foolish, or criminal. It is much harder to see the face of the “handsome sailor” on an imperfect human than it is to accept the underlying message of the modern-day nation-state that the only real heroes are the cops and soldiers who protect “us” from the rest of the world”

Review of “October: The Story of the Russian Revolution”

 

Based on a number of recommendations and awareness of his political bent, for quite some time I’ve been intending to read the science fiction writings of China Midvale. I’d yet, however, to get around to doing so when I saw that Verso Press was holding a contest to promote his new book  October: The Story of the Russian Revolution. I submitted an entry and sure enough was one of the lucky winners of a free signed copy of this work of non-fiction.

Excepting events in America, the buildup to and aftermath of the Russian Revolution is probably my most read about world historical event. I’ve read books solely on the subject written by those that were present, such as John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World or Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution as well as essays by Emma Goldman and Victor Serge and, of course, Lenin’s Essential Works. I’ve read a few left and right wing histories published after the 1990s as well. I share this to establish if not a specialization of knowledge on the issue, than at least an above average familiarity with the events one would expect on such a subject. Anyway, to the book…

As a whole October is a very different creature from most of the texts that I mentioned above. This, however, is not necessarily bad. Trotsky’s writing on this period is simply magisterial and Reed’s journalistic descriptions of the sundry meetings unrest are at times nail-biting. These men had clear agendas that were intimately tied to the events that they were describing. Mieville, it seems to me, is writing this as a means of popularizing knowledge about the events in Russia and trying to do so at a distance. Because of this, as well as what I believe is a desire to avoid getting caught up in the debates of that time through extended focus on particular persons/issues it lacks some of the same passion. And yet no matter what side of the political spectrum one is on, I feel that this could be appealing to even those that aren’t Reds. I expected some sort of propagandistic asides peppered throughout the book prior to reading it, but none were there.

I could see myself assigning this book for a history class as not only does he do such an even handed job, but also as there is a glossary of terms in the back that would assist those not versed with the terms of the revolution. After a very brief historical context, Mieville begins the Story of the Russian Revolution in February, following the first revolution. It closes eight months later, in October.

Instead of highlighting an identified-with hero (Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin,etc.), Mieville focuses on the sufferings of the soldiers being ground up by the Kaiser’s troops, the unrest of the peasants, the plight of the industrial workers in St. Petersburg and Moscow, the incompetence of the Kerensky government, the rifts between the socialist parties and within the armed services. In this Mieville does a great job and consistently uses the words of those he’s writing about. As a means for creating tension, however, this is not a great technique. Since the only real character development is that of the people of the city that once paid little heed to the Bolsheviks to then viewing them as representative of their political will – I found this somewhat disappointing as well. Not that the anecdotes aren’t fascinating or the style of writing isn’t good, however my familiarity with it all made me hope for something that this wasn’t. As such I’d say that this was more for those that were unfamiliar with the topic.