Monday, January 20, 2014

Past and future of Multiracial Coalitions--Some Thoughts on Power to the Poor

In the last few years, our understanding of the social movements of the sixties has been transformed by new scholarship that looks beyond familiar narratives of SDS and the civil rights movement in the South. Works like Penny Lewis’ Hardhats, Hippies and Hawks, Amy Sonnie and James Tracy’s  Hillibilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power and The Black Revolution on Campus by Martha Biondi have undermined notions that the movements in the sixties were largely bereft of class politics, or that identity was foregrounded in ways that marginalized economic struggles. In fact, identity and economic struggle were combined in innovative ways by groups not well represented by the existing labor movement. Not preserved in an amber of nostalgia like some highpoints of struggle, these struggles were nonetheless highly significant. The fact that they cannot be glibly classified as victories may in fact make them even more useful to understanding struggles in the present. Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960-1974 by historian Gordon K. Mantler is a worthy addition to this literature. Focused on efforts to build multiracial alliances, mostly between African Americans and Mexican Americans, it highlights a number of these struggles, showing how assertions of identity, multiracial coalitions, and economic struggles could, for a time, all build together, rather than at the expense of each other.

The notion of multiracial coalitions, or “rainbow coalitions,” can seem natural, or a “no-brainer.” Until recently, the American polity largely excluded non-whites, and, to this day, whites constitute a large majority of the most privileged groups. On the other hand, less privileged, powerful and wealthy groups are also disproportionately non-white. Furthermore, whites are often racist against all those who do not look like them. At the same time, the position of poorer whites could conceivably be strenghthened through an alliance with people of color. However, the author identifies three concrete challenges to the scenario of inevitable multiracial coalitions. First, the history of different racial groups is quite varied, leading to different priorities in the present. Secondly, the evolution of struggle in the US led to an activist hierarchy in which African American leaders saw themselves as the leaders of all oppressed, sometimes folding other groups priorities into their own. Finally, the racial hierarchy in the US is not simply white and non-white. Racism against African Americans is more sharply posed, and other groups have sometimes acted to distance themselves from African Americans, in effect, asserting that they are not so far from whites. All of these emerged as concrete problems in efforts to build coalitions between African Americans and Mexican Americans. On the other hand, continued violence at the hands of police was a shared experience that facilitated unification.

Friday, January 10, 2014

My 2013 Top Ten Books

Don’t trust “best books of the year.” Nobody really has the time to assess more than a tiny portion of the titles actually published. My own tastes run towards academic historical work, but I recommend these ten books to anyone curious about changing the world and interested in learning more about oppressive structures and efforts to change them. A few were published before 2013, but all were published in the last couple of years.

Part ethnographic research on Occupy, part insider account of how things worked at Zuccotti, part sprinkling of the author’s thoughts on various topics like capitalism and anarchist strategy (better on the latter than the former), this book provides strong evidence for its thesis--that, at heart, Occupy was an anarchist movement that deliberately toned down its rhetoric so as to appeal to a much larger community.

Mixing biographical vignettes, architecture criticism, and post-colonial history, Friedman illuminates the way Northern Virginia, home of the C.I.A., numerous private contractors, and more, has been critical to U.S. imperialism, and vice versa. Particularly vivid rendering of the evacuation of Saigon, which you may think has nothing much to do with Northern Virginia, but you would be wrong. Among other things, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the general executing a man during the Tet Offensive in one of the most famous photos from the Vietnam war, opened a pizza shop there.

Recovers the history of multi-racial coalitions as they developed during the sixties. Particularly memorable for its chapters on the Poor People’s Campaign, Martin Luther King’s last effort, an encampment in Washington D.C. that came to fruition just months after his assassination. Although remembered as a failure, Mantler shows the way it was a step forward in the construction of multi-racial coalitions, and also as a way to draw attention to a number of group’s causes. The largest demonstration of the campaign, the Solidarity Day March, compared favorably with the larger and much better known March on Washington in 1963 in terms of radicalism of message, diversity of speakers and inclusion of women.

Debunks the idea that the US is exceptional for its failure to exercise its power in the form of empire building. By closely comparing the US to Great Britain, Go shows how the forms of rule exercised by both states are virtually identical, varying in their application mostly because of changes in the global context. For example, while it is often said that the US exercises power indirectly while Britain formally subordinated colonies, Go reminds readers that the US had, and continues to have colonies, while Britain at times ruled indirectly, either using native elites to run colonies, or exercising decisive influence over formally sovereign states.

Ambitious book that maps the history of workers’ power, democracy, and decolonization on to the transition from coal as the major source of fuel to oil. In a nutshell, coal production and usage actually facilitated democracy and workers’ power, which were undermined by the move to oil. What’s next?

The Black Revolution on Campus--Martha Biondi Did you know that in 1969, historically Black A&T university in North Carolina was subject to a “”combined ground and air  offensive” ...featuring six hundred National Guardsmen, a tank, several armed personnel carriers, (and) an airplane and a helicopter”? No? Perhaps, like me, your understanding of the campus revolts of the sixties is mostly limited to predominantly white campuses. This book is a good place to start to fix that. It also explores the Black revolts on predominantly White campuses, and the movement for Black Studies. Like the Mantler book above, it leaves little standing of the myth that the identity-based movements of the sixties ignored economic issues.

We Created Chavez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution by George Ciccariello-Maher--Focused on the evolving relationship between the revolutionary left in Venezuela and the people, culminating in two great moments--the Caracazo riots of 1989 and the reversal of the coup in 2003--one hopes this book will lay to rest racist myths of Chavez as caudillo holding the Venezuelan masses in thrall. Instead, Chavez is here portrayed as a product of an upsurge in struggle, yet not the limit of that struggle. This book could conceivably lead to a more fruitful dialogue between Marxists and anarchists.

Incredibly rich description of the slave system in the Mississippi valley, the heart of American capitalism in the decades before the Civil War. Johnson describes everything from the dogs used to chase slaves to the financial transactions that underpinned steam ships. He ends with chapters describing the adventures of those who tried to expand the system to Nicaragua and Cuba. Essential American history.

In response to a new climate at the end of WWII, with labor unions strong and assertive, a corporate elite consolidated committed to proposing solutions to the nation’s problems. For the most part, the policies it advocated for were to the left of what has been on offer from the Obama administration. Then the economic climate worsened in the seventies, and the corporate elite moved to the right, and successfully smashed its two constraints--labor unions and state regulators. Having triumphed, the elite fractured, and the US has drifted to the right ever since, unconstrained by either popular forces or a corporate elite that can see beyond its next tax break.

Another new perspective on the sixties, here dispelling the persistent notion that the anti-war movement consisted of students at elite colleges. Instead, Lewis highlights anti-war activity like rebellions of GIs, the anti-war aspect of African American and Chicano nationalism, and even anti-war activity in unions.