December 25

So there are those who think that today of all days everyone should not work too much, have nice things to eat, something to make them feel special, be warm, clothed and in shelter.

And there are those who think that everyone should have this every day.

I wonder if there’s any way to make the two groups come together.

Have a lovely day.

What To Do Now

It’s Friday and it’s been a hard week. I’m not asking you read tonight. We don’t all have to be out on the streets in the disaster zone but there’s something each of us can do. It beats waiting for the so-called government to do something.

Here’s reporting from Cindy Milstein on the situation right now:

No sign of tents or Occupy Sandy Relief at Coffey Park in Red Hook, but plenty of signs of suffering: water still being pumped out of buildings, public housing & corner stores with no lights and probably heat, downed trees & debris lingering, toxic smell in air and toxic-looking muck on ground, single Red Cross truck giving out supplies, ConEd & “restoration” workers with masks/gloves on, homemade & bilingual signs about where to get help or when/if school is open, and police. Lots & lots of police — doing nothing (which is maybe preferable to doing something!)

Watch this video by David Borenstein on the situation in the Rockaways and see if you don’t start thinking about Katrina:


Waiting for the Lights to Go Out

Southampton, Long Island, before Sandy arrives

I like snow storms. I love thunder and watching the crack of lightning. This is no fun at all. The bands of rain and wind are coming in faster and harder already and we’re not expecting Sandy to make landfall till 8pm. There’s water over Battery Park, the FDR drive and the East River parks at 2.30. Long Island’s lights are out. Ours will be soon, no doubt, and you start to realize what a dark little box a NYC apartment really is.

Twitter and Facebook are alive with contempt for the climate silence of the campaign and a certain hope that perhaps this will be the event that changes all that. Just last weekend, David Attenborough, the BBC TV naturalist, speculated that it would take a disaster to do so. I’d like to see that– but I doubt it.

If things are bad, we will be told, as if this were yet another gun violence disaster, that now is not the time to talk about what caused the storm. Or that no one weather event can be attributed to long-term climate change. Or that it wasn’t as bad as predicted so the climate change lobby was wrong again. And before we get dried out on the East coast, before the power is restored upstate and in Long Island, we will have re-elected at a minimum the know-nothing Republican House, perhaps also a Republican Senate or President.

Given a golden opportunity to look presidential, Obama came on TV around lunchtime and delivered remarks with the affect of a professor changing the due date on a test. I don’t recognize or understand this person, who sometimes goes away when Obama is in front of a large crowd or even in the latter debates after the damage was done.

For Republicans, their angry white male core constituency regards science and research as two more of the things that prevent them from getting ahead. The coal-steel-auto-airplane-defense matrix that created the well-paying (usually union) jobs they hanker after both caused the climate crisis and has moved to China forever. That’s why Romney talks about expanding defense: not because we need the materiel but because it offers the prospect of some jobs where there are so few now.

We should not look down on these people. If you visit Copenhagen, to take just one example, there are windmills everywhere. In New York, not only are there no windmills but I can’t recall ever seeing a solar panel. In a place with broiling summers, why aren’t the roofs of all the buildings covered in panels to power the A/C? Why did diesel generators sell out immediately, while so few people have solar installed? I don’t have either at our house because both are expensive. But it never seems to occur to anyone that a solar panel could do the work of a generator without having to be refueled and without the noxious fumes.

We have all been in denial. For a few days around this storm, should it prove to be as devastating as predicted, there will be attempts to break that wall but, if past experience is any guide, the carapace of obfuscation will seal over the issue once again.

I don’t know when I will be able to get back online after tonight–maybe tomorrow, maybe not. But the work ahead came to me in a title: The Debtor’s Guide to The Climate Disaster.

Flirting With Fascism

On one day, three severe austerity budgets were issued in Europe. For the most part, the cuts fall on the back of the poorest and least able to sustain yet more “austerity.” All these losses are in theory driven by the post-World War II fear in the then West Germany that it was inflation that caused fascism. While there is no present sign of inflation–and many people think it would be a good thing if there were–austerity is creating its own form of state-directed dominance, while asserting its desire to resist fascism.

In Greece, where military dictatorship is a phenomenon of the recent past, the very unpleasant Golden Dawn are now reaching 22% in the opinion polls and have tried to open an office here in New York. Happily, Anonymous at once hacked their website. Golden Dawn are almost a parody of the jackbooted, violent image of fascism that might seem a historical relic if it were not for the shadow of recent Serbian history, not so far away. They serve perfectly as a bogeyman for neoliberal austerity across Europe, so much so that if they did not exist it would no doubt be necessary to invent them. That said, we should not minimize the threat they pose in Greece: even the neoliberal Greek government is trying to delay further cuts for fear of accelerating their rise.

It’s in Spain, France and Italy that the new paradigm is being formed. Cut after cut,  more and more regressive taxation from the detested TVA or sales tax, to more expensive parking meters and raised museum entry fees. Spain has cut the budget of the world-famous Prado museum by two-thirds. Soup kitchens abound in Spain, while the government talks of raising the retirement age and finding yet another €60 billion to bail out the banks.

While France today ventured towards making higher tax at least half of its formula, there are still €37 billion in cuts, pay freezes for the numerous public employees of the country and so on. The neo-fascist National Front lost no time in denouncing the “hyper-austerity” of the budget, while a nationwide demonstration against the EU budget treaty in Paris on Sunday is expected to draw 30,000 or more. The Front’s position again allows the austerity regime to pose the alternative “fascism or us,” while subjecting people to its own dominance.

In Italy, one day after a similar 30,000 struck against austerity, the technocrat prime minister Monti let it be known he would take another term if requested–surely we have to call this The Full Monti, a naked assault on living standards. Being unelected, Monti is impervious to democratic pressure and election results alike, although the recalcitrance of Italian corruption holds him back. Ironically, only the Mafia now stand in the way of mafia capitalism.

While a demonstration estimated by organizers to have had as many as one million participants in Portugal–ten per cent of the country’s population–did succeed in shelving some cuts, for the most part The Troika (the EU, the IMF and the World Bank) seem to welcome confrontation. They see a new form of domination in sight, in which banking escapes national controls of any kind, while governments and corporations are no longer obliged to maintain welfare provisions.

In short, the post-World War II settlement in which those that fought the war extracted major concessions from the state in exchange for not going communist is over. Now the Troika want to withdraw all protection from people and offer it to banks instead. Strikes, walkouts, civil unrest and even the break-up of nation states does not deflect them from this goal. And then, of course, there would truly be a United States of Europe.


Secrecy now, secrecy forever

How long ago WikiLeaks seems. Yet for Bradley Manning and Julian Assange, the whole world is defined by the scandal. While the materials released were not of particular consequence, often merely confirming well-read suspicions, the culture of secrecy that they represented continues to assert itself. In this area, there is precious little distinction between the mainstream US political parties.

Manning has been confined in appalling circumstances, treated like a Nazi war criminal, rather than a person whose principles came into dramatic conflict with what he was being asked to do. As the military expanded its intelligence network as a key part of counterinsurgency, it was taken for granted that any person allowed to see what there is to see, and not told to move on, would do so gratefully. Never mind that, according to Manning, most spent their time downloading music and movies onto blank DVDs. He himself smuggled out his documents on DVDs labelled “Lady Gaga” so as not to arouse suspicion.

Assange has likewise been hounded in palpably absurd ways, whatever you think of him personally. Who else would Britain agree to extradite merely for questioning by prosecutors in what seems like a suspiciously convenient case? Of course, I am not condoning sexual harassment and, if this does prove to be a case encouraged by the authorities, it was a clever choice, knowing that progressive people would be torn between the two issues.

Here in Australia, Assange’s case is very much understood as one of civil liberties, both in the US and in Australia, where the Labor government has carefully followed the American line. Here’s the Sydney Morning Herald:

We now have an American president who continues with indefinite detention outside the protection of the US constitution, who orders the killing of US citizens, who allows pre-trial punishment of Manning, and who continues to keep American officials immune from prosecution in the International Criminal Court for war crimes. With Assange, we now have a democratic government in the American hemisphere granting asylum to someone on the basis of well-grounded fear of political persecution in the United States.

A while ago, only my Occupy friends were posting material like that, now it’s mainstream opinion.

One more irony has yet gone unnoticed. The purported scandal of WikiLeaks in the first place was in part its flaunting of diplomatic protocol, as cables from diplomats were a major part of the leaked material. All kinds of huffing about the damage to diplomacy followed. Now the British government threatens to snatch Assange from the Ecuadorean embassy in London. I wonder how Anglophone diplomats in some of the world’s less secure locations feel about that? Not to mention that, as any reader of John Le Carré knows, half the so-called diplomats are spies anyway.

So it’s clear that what’s at stake here is not what happens to poor Bradley Manning or the career of Julian Assange. What matters to the Anglophone governments working in synch over this matter is preserving their right to act in secret, to continue to tell us not to concern ourselves with what they do, and to punish any effort to breach that divide. Here, finally, is something the political class can agree on: that they think they’re better than us.

Wolf Hall and the Revision of Empire

I resisted reading the phenomenally successful Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel for as long as I could. Stuck for something to read while traveling, I picked up a battered copy. LIke everyone else, I found it a surprisingly compelling read. At the same time, I could not help but notice the revision of imperial politics at work.

If you’re the other person who didn’t read it yet–even the little bookstore in Port Douglas, Queensland had her new one in the window–the book tells the story of Thomas Cromwell, chief minister of Henry VIII. More exactly, after a brief prelude it describes six years of Cromwell’s rise to power, along with that of Anne Boleyn.

This is the Tudor-Stuart story that many middle-class people get taught at school. especially in Britain and its former colonies. That this period is so central to the teaching curriculum is in considerable part the legacy of James Anthony Froude, heir and biographer of Thomas Carlyle. Froude transformed Cariyle’s mystical theories of the Hero into a straightforward narrative of British heroes from history.

In his monumental 12-volume History of England, Froude dealt only with the Tudor period. His thesis is nonetheless simply stated: the privateers like Francis Drake and other adventurers of the period set Britain on the road to imperial glory. Froude constantly advocated for the formation of a global Anglophone sea-power empire that he called Oceana. Arguably, American power in the 20th century from the Great White Fleet to Midway and the Cold War was exactly that.

Mantel takes this thesis, whether consciously or not, and applies it to Cromwell. Like Carlyle, she proclaims

It is time to say what England is, her scope and boundaries.
The voice is ambiguous throughout, so it could be said that this is Cromwell “speaking” but it is also the voice of the indirect narrator.

Cromwell is presented as a modern man, who learns multiple skills as a mercenary fighting in Italy for the French. In other words, he is depicted as exactly the kind of hero Froude had in mind, only updated for the era of financialization. Cromwell’s talents are presented as bureaucratic organizing, especially filing, and the ability to render accounts. He regulates the money supply, like any good neo-liberal should. Mantel modifies the blustering great man thesis accordingly. History is shaped rather by the detail and the person behind the scenes. Describing Cromwell cooking up a deal with an ambassador she writes:

The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals the processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes.
So whereas for Froude and Carlyle, the double of the Great Man was the historian, for Mantel it is of course the novelist. creating a reality effect by the convincing detail.

And everyone says how realistic it all seems and that’s true because Mantel has in effect written a screenplay. She has the conventional dramatic opening scene that forms the youthful character, in this case a brutal beating of Thomas by his blacksmith father. We then jump cut to 27 years later, when Cromwell is already a successful administrator to the then all-powerful Cardinal Wolsey. The book is carried forward by dialog, rendered almost entirely in modern style with the occasional “in no wise” to remind us that this is the sixteenth century.

Much of the assertion is frankly hard to credit. Would an early sixteenth century father have thought that he should treat his children kindly because his own parents were mean to him? Or has a classic baby boom self-justification not been projected back five hundred years? Would Cromwell and Henry VIII have worried so much about the opinion of women, much as we might think they should and might like to imagine them doing so?

There is a strong literary revisionism at work in the book. Thomas More is made to say “Words, words, just words” so often that even the slowest reader will be reminded of Shakespeare. Other lighter references to Eliot and Joyce can be found. But the heaviest conflict is, oddly, with Robert Bolt’s old play and film A Man For All Seasons. The Catholic More is presented by Bolt as a civil rights hero, defending freedom of conscience against a tyrannical government. Mantel depicts More as a brutal inquisitor, willing to torture and burn all heretics that come his way. The imperial state is the good guy in this movie.

To create her central conflict, Mantel writes Cromwell as a convinced Protestant reformer, perhaps the one principle he is not willing to bend. Again, she follows the line of Carlyle and Froude in insisting that English empire was properly Protestant from the first. She defends the literate virtues of this Protestantism against the vanities of Popery and the excessive radicalism of Anabaptism alike. Where modern radicals have seen the Anabaptists of Münster as a precedent, Mantel sees only foolishness and male sexual desire. Catholics are simply deluded in their attachment to transubstantiation, relics and icons. The execution of More is nonetheless the denouement, Cromwell’s necessary evil.

You can’t help but read Wolf Hall to the end once you’ve started–at least. if you come from the cultural background that it takes for granted. For all its capacity to tell a good tale, Mantel’s exaltation of the financial bureaucrat, the imperial servant and nationalism in general but Englishness in particular are all to be rejected. Don’t go and see the inevitable movie with Anne Hathaway as Anne Boleyn, Michael Gambon as Henry VIII etc and I already hate the fact that it will win 15 Oscars.

In transit

Occupy 2012 is on its way to Australia, a 22 hour flight with all the attendant joys of getting to airports and so on. Some kind of service will be resumed as soon as I can, Internet access permitting. Over the course of the dog days, I’ll be building a set of page archives for the site to facilitate its use.

See you from the other side!

Abolition: Debt, Slavery and Reconstruction.

Occupy theory is what we do as we occupy or as we create a relation between democracy and capitalism. That relation is dynamic and unfolding. It has moved from a place of critique and the articulation of grievances to a call for abolition. In so doing, OWS is creating a set of pasts for itself that predicate possible futures, a temporal version of the prefiguration that direct action embodies. However, this prefiguration does not take place in a context of our own choosing and so direct democracy has been driven to consider the terms of its own possibility.

I’ve been arguing here for a while that abolition and Reconstruction provide one such past because slavery was an economic system predicated on debt that was reconfigured by the formerly enslaved into new forms of sociality that we can learn much from.

So I’ve been reading the Proceedings of the South Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1868 (available oddly enough as a free Google book via something called Google Play, which seems to be yet another of their efforts to make Google cool). The Convention was charged with drawing up a new State constitution in light of the Reconstruction statutes and to bring the State into line with the Union. Most whites boycotted the election for the Convention, with the exception of anti-slavery people and some cannier former Confederates seeking to limit the damage.

It’s an amazing document, over a thousand pages of debates, motions, discussions. It has a distinctly familiar feel. There’s a great deal of discussion about process. A lot about money. And they ended up renaming the meetings of the Legislature as the General Assembly, which is still their name.

By far the longest discussion is about debt. More precisely, whether debts contracted by those selling and purchasing slaves during the war had to be honored. What had happened was not extensive slave trading as such, but the mortgaging of the enslaved to raise money for the Confederate war effort. There were thousands of such debts outstanding and creditors were trying to sell the plantations in order to recoup some of their debt. In the post-war recession with no established labor systen, land was very cheap and these sales would not in many cases have raised enough to clear the debtors. They would, however, have provided an opportunity for the freedmen (as they were known at the time) to purchase land and establish an economic foothold.

I don’t think it’s too much to see this as a determining moment for future US history: had the plantations been broken up and a communal agriculture been established in what was the most radical of the Reconstruction states in precise relation to South Carolina’s enthusiasm for slavery, very much would have changed.

The debt was first proposed to be frozen, or, as its opponents put it, granted a stay. The transparent hope was that three months later, if the Union army had departed, the debts could be quietly forgotten. Delegates rejected this by a large majority. The motion was reframed as if motivated by anti-slavery sentiments. Now the argument was that, as there is no “right of property in man,” no debt could be incurred, as that which was being mortgaged was not owned in the first place.

One of the most eloquent opponents of this slaveowners’ debt annulment was the Rev. Francis L. Cardozo. Cardozo was the son of a free black woman, Lydia Weston, and a Portuguese-Jewish man, Isaac Cardozo or his brother Jacob.  Between the ages of five and twelve he attended a school for free blacks, then he spent five years as a carpenter’s apprentice and four more as a journeyman. Cardozo then worked as a carpenter and a shipbuilder. In 1858, he attended the University of Glasgow in Scotland where he graduated in 1861 and later became a Presbyterian minister.

Cardozo described the debt annulment as a “class measure,” to protect the slaveowners. As he pointed out, they had known the “precarious tenure” of slavery when they took on the debt. More importantly, he saw this as the only chance to break up the “plantation system.” He described how a hundred freedmen in Charleston had formed the Charleston Land Company. Buying shares individually, they had collectively just bought 600 acres of land for $6600 that would formerly have sold for $25-50,000. Cardozo declared:

Men are now beginning not to plant cotton but grain for food, and in so doing, they are establishing a system of small farms, by which not only my race, but the poor whites and ninety-nine hundredths of the other thousands will be benefitted… [Planters] do not want that a nigger or a Yankee shall ever own a foot of their land.

Perhaps this is the first use of the 99% meme? It envisions a future of sustainable local agriculture rather than single cash-crop agribusiness cultivation that is again being promoted today by food activists, environmentalists and de-growth economists.

But Cardozo and his allies lost the vote to a majority comprised of African Americans opposed to slavery in all forms and self-identified “whites.”

Scanlonville Historic Marker

The Charleston Land Company did nonetheless succeed in creating a community, now known as Scanlonville, in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, after its leader Robert L. Scanlan (or Scanlon). The land formerly belonged to a plantation called Remley’s Point, a name still used by local realtors. First settled by Seewee Indians, the site was colonized by the British as early as 1680.

Remley’s Point in 1862: from a realtor’s website

In Scalonville, the freed bought the land in parcels and then redivided it into farm plots and town plots and has remained in place since Reconstruction, one of four such collectives in the state.

Phillips Community, created by Freedmen during Reconstruction

However, the African American population of Mount Pleasant is now less than one percent and the community is now threatened by the expansion of sub-divisions into suburban Charleston, subject of a 2010 documentary. Bin Yah (Been Here): There’s No Place Like Home (2010). The name comes from the Gullah language derived directly from African languages, spoken by the formerly enslaved and still in use today.

Here’s the beginning with amazing old footage of a plantation and slave cabins and proceeding to an interview with Queen Quet,  Gullah-Geechee Nation Chieftess:

What does this all imply for the Strike Debt campaign? First, that there is a huge precedent for debt abolition, albeit one that we might not feel terribly comfortable with. However, it was in effect a prefiguring of the modern usage of “odious debt,” a debt created by a situation so morally repugnant that it cannot be enforced. That’s why most of the African American delegates voted for debt abolition. Three years after the end of the war, it’s not hard to see why nailing slavery’s coffin shut was so important.

At the same time, the project of getting land to the landless and establishing a democratic economic system was equally important to achieving a long-term freedom and that did not succeed. The exceptions like Scalonville show that it could in fact have worked. So what matters now is not just getting debt relief/abolition but having a project with which to replace the system that created debt in the first place.