Category Archives: Book Review

It is Not Love that Abandons Its Treaties

The Tsilhqot’in Struggle

On 26 March 2018, Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau spoke of the six Tsilhqot’in chiefs who were arrested during a sacred peace-pipe ceremony and subsequently hanged for their part in a war to prevent the spread of smallpox by colonialists: “We recognize that these six chiefs were leaders of a nation, that they acted in accordance with their laws and traditions and that they are well regarded as heroes of their people.”

“They acted as leaders of a proud and independent nation facing the threat of another nation.”

“As settlers came to the land in the rush for gold, no consideration was given to the rights of the Tsilhqot’in people who were there first,” Trudeau said. “No consent was sought.”

In recent years, the Tsilhqot’in people were engaged in a long, drawn-out fight to gain sovereignty over their unceded territory, spurred by the attempts of Taseko Mines to situate an open-pit copper-and-gold mine near the trout-rich Teẑtan Biny (Fish Lake). Also proposed was “destroying Yanah Biny (Little Fish Lake) and the Tŝilhqot’in homes and graves located near that lake, to make way for a massive tailings pond.”

The Supreme Court decision in Tsilhqot’in Nation v British Columbia, (2014), upheld Indigenous title as declared in an earlier Supreme Court decision, Delgamuukw v British Columbia, (1997).

The Wet’suwet’in Struggle

Sometimes the law works (even colonial law), and sometimes it doesn’t. Neither the Tsilhqot’in or Delgamuukw legal precedents have, so far, buttressed the Wet’suwet’en people’s fight against the encroachment of a pipeline corporation.

In the unceded territory of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, corporate Canada and the government of Canada are violently seeking to ram a pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territory despite its rejection by all five hereditary chiefs; i.e., no consent has been given for the laying of a pipeline.

The Gidimt’en land defenders of the Wet’suwet’en turned to the international forum and made a submission to the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous People on the “Militarization of Wet’suwet’en Lands and Canada’s Ongoing Violations.”  The submission was co-authored by leading legal, academic, and human rights experts in Canada, and is supported by over two dozen organisations such as the Union of BC Indian Chiefs and Amnesty International-Canada.

The submission to the UN was presented by hereditary chief Dinï ze’ Woos (Frank Alec), Gidimt’en Checkpoint spokesperson Sleydo’ (Molly Wickham), and Gidimt’en Checkpoint media coordinator Jen Wickham. It makes the case that forced industrialization by Coastal GasLink and police militarization on Wet’suwet’en land is a repudiation of Canada’s international obligations as stipulated in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Their submission states:

Ongoing human rights violations, militarization of Wet’suwet’en lands, forcible removal and criminalization of peaceful land defenders, and irreparable harm due to industrial destruction of Wet’suwet’en lands and cultural sites are occurring despite declarations by federal and provincial governments for reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. By deploying legal, political, and economic tactics to violate our rights, Canada and BC are contravening the spirit of reconciliation, as well as their binding obligations to Indigenous law, Canadian constitutional law, UNDRIP and international law.

Sleydo’ relates the situation:

We urge the United Nations to conduct a field visit to Wet’suwet’en territory because Canada and BC have not withdrawn RCMP from our territory and have not suspended Coastal GasLink’s permits, despite the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination calling on them to do so. Wet’suwet’en is an international frontline to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples and to prevent climate change. Yet we are intimidated and surveilled by armed RCMP, smeared as terrorists, and dragged through colonial courts. This is the reality of Canada.

In the three large-scale police actions that have transpired on Wet’suwet’en territory since January 2019, several dozens of people have been arrested and detained, including legal observers and media. On 13 June 2022, the Unist’ot’en Solidarity Brigade expressed outrage that the BC Prosecution Service plans to pursue criminal contempt charges against people opposed to the trespass of Wet’suwet’en territory, including Sleydo’.

Treaty Treatment

The Wet’suwet’en are on their ancestral unceded lands. Would it have made a difference if they had signed a treaty with the colonial entity?

The book We Remember the Coming of the White Man (Durville, 2021), edited by Sarah Stewart and Raymond Yakeleya, does not augur a better outcome for the First People.

We Remember adumbrates how the treaty process operates under colonialism:

When our Dene People signed Treaty 11 in 1921, there had been no negotiation because the Treaty translators were not able to translate the actual language used in the document. There was not enough time for our People to consult with each other. Our Dene People were given a list that had been written up by bureaucrats declaring the demands of Treaty 11. They dictated to the Dene, ‘This is what we want. You have to agree, and sign it.’ We did not know what the papers contained. (p ix)

Treaties and contracts signed under duress are not legally binding. Forced signing of a treaty is on-its-face preposterous to most people with at least half a lobe. It is no less obvious to the Dene of the Northwest Territories:

How can you demand something from People who cannot understand? That’s a crime. I have often said that Treaty 11 does not meet the threshold of being legal. In other words, when we make a treaty, it should be you understand, I understand, and we agree. In this case, the Dene did not understand. (p x)

Unfortunately, the Dene trusted an untrustworthy churchman. The Dene signed on the urging of Bishop Breyant, a man of God, because they had faith in the Roman Catholic Church. (p x)

Oil appeals to those with a lust for lucre. This greed contrasts with traditional Dene customs. Walter Blondin writes in the Foreword,

We Dene consider our land as sacred and owned by everyone collectively as it provides life…. [T]here were laws between the families that insured harmony and sharing. No one was left behind to face hardships or starve when disasters such as forest fires devastated the lands. The Dene laws promoted sharing, and this was taken seriously as failure to follow these laws could lead to war and bloody conflict. (p 3)

The Blondin family of Norman Wells (Tlegohli) in the Northwest Territories experienced first hand the perfidy of the White Man. The Blondins gave oil samples from their land to the Roman Catholic bishop for testing. The Dene family never received any report of the results. Later, however, a geologist, Dr Bosworth staked three claims at Bosworth Creek that were bought by Imperial Oil in 1918. (p 5-6)

Imperial Oil told the families: “You are not welcome in your homes and your traditional lands and your hunting territory.” The Dene people were driven out. “Elders say, ‘It was the first time in living memory where the Dene became homeless on their own land.'” (p 6)

The Blondin family homes were torn down with possessions inside and pushed over the river bank. “No apology or compensation was ever received from Imperial Oil. Imperial Oil considered Norman Wells to be ‘their town—a White Man’s town’ and the Blondin family and other Dene were not welcome.” (p 6)

“Treaty 11 became the ‘treaty for oil ownership.'” (p 8)

“One hundred years after the fact, the Dene can see the collusion between the British Crown, Imperial Oil [now ExxonMobil] and the Roman Catholic Church in the fraud, theft and embezzlement of Dene resources.” (p 10)

Sarah Stewart writes, “Treaty 11 was a charade to legitimize the land grab in the Northwest Territories.” The land grab came with horrific consequences. Stewart laments that the White Man brought disease, moved onto Dene lands and decimated wildlife, and that the teaching of missionaries and missionary schools eroded native languages, cultures, and traditions. (p 14)

Indigenous People, whose land it was, were never considered equal partners in benefiting from the resource. As Indian Agent Henry Conroy wrote to the Deputy General of Indian Affairs in January 1921, the objective was to have Indigenous people surrender their territory ‘to avoid complications in the exploitation of oil.’ (p 15)

Filmmaker Raymond Yakeleya elucidates major differences between the colonialists and the Dene. He points to the capitalist mindset of the White Man: “‘How can we make money off this?’ Dene People are not motivated by that.” (p 24) A deep respect and reverence for all the Creator’s flora and fauna and land is another difference. “When you kill an animal, you have a conversation with it and give it thanks for sharing its body. There are special protocols and ceremonies you have to go through.” (p 28)

While Yakeleya acknowledges that not all missionaries were bad, (p 30) he points to a dark side:

A major confusion came to our People with the coming of the Catholic missionaries. I see the coming of the Black Robes as being a very, very dark cloud that descended over our People. All of a sudden you have people from another culture with another way of thinking imposing their laws. We see that they did it for money, control, and power. I heard an Elder say to me once that the Christians who followed the Ten Commandments were the same people who broke all of them.

The first time we ever questioned ourselves was with the coming of the Christians and to me, I think there was something evil that came amongst our People…. The missionaries were quick to say our ways were the ways of the devil, or the ways of something not good…. Now we see they are being charged with pedophilia and other crimes. (p 29)

As for the discovery of oil, Joe Blondin said, “The Natives found it and never got anything out of it and that’s the truth.” (p 159) As for Treaty 11, John Blondin stated emphatically, “We know that we did not sell our land.” (p 171)

At the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry in Fort McPherson [Teetł’it Zheh], Dene Philip Blake spoke words that resonate poignantly with the situation in Wet’suwet’en territory today:

If your nation chooses … to continue to try and destroy our nation, then I hope you will understand why we are willing to fight so that our nation can survive. It is our world…. But we are willing to defend it for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren. If your nation becomes so violent that it would tear up our land, destroy our society and our future, and occupy our homeland, by trying to impose this pipeline against our will, but then of course we will have no choice but to react with violence. I hope we do not have to do that. For it is not the way we would choose…. I hope you will not only look on the violence of Indian action, but also on the violence of your own nation which would force us to take such a course. We will never initiate violence. But if your nation threatens by its own violent action to destroy our nation, you will have given us no choice. Please do not force us into this position. For we would all lose too much. (p 229)

The Nature of Colonialism and Its Treaties

Spoken word poet Shane L. Koyczan captures the nature of colonialism in Inconvenient Skin (Theytus Books, 2019):

150 years is not so long
that the history can be forgot

not so long that
forgiveness can be bought with empty apologies
or unkept promises

sharpened assurances that this is now
how it is

take it on good faith
and accept it

except that
history repeats itself
like someone not being listened to
like an entire people not being heard

the word of god is hard to swallow
when good faith becomes a barren gesture

there were men of good faith
robbing babies from their cradles
like the monsters we used to tell each other about

ripping children out of their mother’s arms
to be imprisoned in the houses of god
whose teachings were love

did no one hear?
did god mumble?

god said love

but the things that were done
were not love

our nation is built above the bones
of a genocide

it was not love that pried apart these families
it is not love that abandons its treaties

The post It is Not Love that Abandons Its Treaties first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Is There Life After Death?

Life is entwined with death from the start, for death is the price we must pay for being born, even though we don’t choose it, which may be why some people who are very angry at the deal, decide to choose how and when they will die, as if they are getting revenge on someone who dealt them a rotten hand, even if they don’t believe in the someone.

The meaning of death, and whether humans do or do not survive it in some form, has always obsessed people, from the average person to the great artists and thinkers.  Death is the mother of philosophy and all the arts and sciences.  It is arguably also what motivates so much human behavior, from keeping busy to waging war to trying to hit a little white ball with a long stick down a lot of grass into a hole in the ground and doing it again and again.

Death is the mother of distractions.

It is also what we cannot ultimately control, although a lot of violent and crazy  rich people try.  The thought of it drives many people mad.

No one is immune from wondering about it.  We are born dying, and from an early age we ask why.  Children often explicitly ask, but as they grow older the explicit usually retreats into implicity and avoidance because of adults’ need to deny death or their lack of answers about it that makes sense.

David Ray Griffin is not a child or an adult in denial.  He has spent his life in an intrepid search for truth in many realms – philosophy, theology, politics, etc.  He is an esteemed author of over forty books, an elderly man in his eighties who has spent his life writing about God, and also in the last twenty years a series of outstanding books on the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the demonic nature of U.S. history.  He fits T.S Eliot’s description in The Four Quartets:

Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Though the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

In his latest book, which is another beginning, James and Whitehead on Life after Death, he explores the age-old question of whether there is life after death and concludes that there probably is.  It is a conclusion that is arguably shared in some way still by many people today but is clearly rejected by most intellectuals and highly schooled people, as Griffin writes:

The traditional basis for hope was belief in life after death. Modern culture, however, has so diminished this belief that today, in educated circles, it is largely assumed that life after death is an outmoded belief….The dominant view among science-based modern intellectuals is that the idea of life after death is not one to take seriously. That conclusion, however, is virtually implicit in the presuppositions of these intellectuals, such as Corliss Lamont. According to these modern intellectuals, there is no non-sensory perception; the world is basically mechanistic; and the world contains nothing but physical bodies and forces.

Griffin argues the opposite.  His book is devoted to refuting these presuppositions with the help of William James and Alfred North Whitehead.  It is not an easy read, and is not aimed at regular people who would find it rough going, except for the middle chapters on mediums, extrasensory perception, telepathy, apparitions, near-death out-of-body experiences, and reincarnation – the stuff of tabloid nonsense but which in Griffin’s scholarly hands is treated very intelligently. Moreover, these chapters are crucial to his overall argument.  However, the book will mainly appeal to the intellectuals whom Griffin wishes to convince of their errors, or to those who agree with him.  It is scholarly.

Without entering into all the nuances of his rather complicated thesis, I will try to summarize his key points.

Griffin is what is called a process theologian and his work of philosophical theology is intimately linked with scientific thinking and the idea of evolution, even as it rejects the modern mechanistic worldview for a “postmodern” cosmology based on recent science, in particular, the work of microbiology.  Although he is a Christian, the present book does not presuppose any Christian beliefs such as revelation, nor, for that matter, specific beliefs of any religion, although he does presuppose (and partially explains in chapter eleven) the existence of a “divine creator” or “divine reality” who is responsible for the evolutionary process that is the expression of a cosmic purpose with the “fine-tuning” of the universe.  This “Holy Reality” is important to his argument.

The thought of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead underlies everything Griffin writes here.  Whitehead is known as the creator of process philosophy, which, to simplify, is the idea that all reality is not made up of things or bits of inert matter, no matter how small (e.g. atoms, brain molecules) or large (people or trees) interacting in some blind way with other bits of matter, but consists of conscious processes of ongoing experiences.  In other words, reality is constant change, flowing experiences with types of awareness and intention and the free creativity to change.  Humans are, therefore, ongoing experiments, not static entities.

Following Whitehead, Griffin has coined the term “panexperientialism,” meaning that all reality is comprised of experiences.  It is worth noting that the etymology of the words experience and experiment are the same – Latin, experiri, to try.  Life is therefore a trying.  As some might say, it is trying to be born and to know you will die.

Griffin begins by noting the importance of life after death and why many argue against it.  He states how he will avoid many of their objections and how he will show how the valid ones dissolve under his analysis.  He promptly writes that “Microbiology has dissolved the mind-body problem.”  He bases this on the work of acclaimed evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis,, among others, and her theory of symbiogenesis:

Her theory of symbiogenesis was based on the idea that all living organisms are sentient. Saying that her world view ‘recognizes the perceptive capacity of all live beings,’ she held that ‘consciousness is a property of all living cells,’ even the most elementary ones: ‘Bacteria are conscious. These bacterial beings have been around since the origin of life.’

Margulis’s point is consonant with Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, meaning that all physical reality possesses a degree of perceptive experience, although Griffin says “some of us may prefer to save the term ‘consciousness’ for higher types of experience.”  The fundamental point is that all of physical reality experiences, or, as he quotes William James, “is a piece of full experience.”  In layman’s language as applied to people, the mind and body are one.

Having laid down this scientific/philosophical foundation in the first four chapters (and in two more detailed appendices), Griffin turns to psychical research and how Whitehead and James believed in the need for such research and how James’s radical empiricism supported the reality of parapsychological events as did Whitehead, who accepted telepathy.   Griffin writes:

Like James, Whitehead affirmed the reality of non-sensory perception. Moreover, besides affirming its reality, Whitehead argued that non-sensory perception is fundamental, so that sensory perception is secondary. Far from being primary, sensory perception is derivative from non-sensory perception….Accordingly, there is nothing supernatural about telepathy; one becomes aware of the content of other minds through the same non-sensory mode of perception that tells us about causation, the real existence of physical objects, memory, and time.

(Let me interject the simple but important point that it follows that in order to have any perceptions one must exist in physical form.)

Turning to actual psychical research that was promoted by the establishment of The Society For Psychical Research (SPR) in London in 1882, Griffin, as previously mentioned, devotes four key chapters to mediums, telepathy, extrasensory perception, near-death out-of-body experiences, apparitions, and reincarnation. This research and its findings, while rejected by the modern scientific worldview, is widespread and quite believable, in various degrees.  Griffin shows why this is so.  The truth of such  psychic experiences is hard to refute since there are so many examples, which Griffin gives.  He would agree with James who said:

The concrete evidence for most of the ‘psychic’ phenomenon under discussion is good enough to hang a man twenty times over.

And James, of course, the longtime professor at Harvard University, is revered as one of the United States’ most brilliant thinkers, not a fringe nut-case.  This is also true for many of the others Griffin calls on to show how solid is the evidence for much psychic phenomena.  Most readers will find these chapters very engaging and the most accessible.

Finally, Griffin explains why the idea of a fine-tuned universe makes the most sense and how it dovetails with the belief in God, even as it runs counter to the mechanistic, materialistic, and atheistic view of many intellectuals. He writes:

The new worldview advocated in this book requires a new understanding of the divine reality.  Whitehead and [Charles] Hartshorne [an American process philosopher and theologian who developed Whitehead’s work] advocated a view of the universe known as ‘panentheism.’  The term means ‘all-in-God.’  Panentheism [the world is in God] is thus distinguished from pantheism, on the one hand, and traditional theism, on the other.

Based on these factors – microbiology, Whitehead and James’s philosophy, psychic research, etc. – Griffin concludes that there is ample evidence for life after death, not in the physical sense but in that of psyche or soul or spirit.  He says that he has “long believed in life after death,” but that in offering this book with his argument for life after death as our “only  empirical ground for hope” since we all die, he does so reluctantly.  “I suggest this answer with fear and trembling, knowing that most of my friends and other people whose opinions I respect will hate this answer.”

That they would be surprised by his conclusion is a bit perplexing since he has long believed in life after death.  I surely do not hate his answer and believe that he has made a strong case for his long-held belief.  I share it, but differently.  And I think that many of his scientifically-oriented friends and others may indeed agree with him more than he thinks, for his argument is rooted, not just in philosophy and theology, but in science.  It is based on the idea of the non-duality between mind and matter, with the difference being that for him matter is conscious and for them it is not. They may come to accept the recent findings of microbiology and reject the “assumption of materialists and dualists alike” that “neurons are insentient.”  They may reject some of their own presuppositions.  For these debates take place at the highest level of abstraction where intellectuals dwell, and accepting one new scientific paradigm does not necessarily lead to belief in life after death.  Far from it.  That is when God enters the picture.

Griffin wisely uses hardcore commonsense beliefs to refute dualism and materialism.  But I propose that there is another hardcore, commonsense belief that he ignores: that people know and feel that they are flesh and bones.  Out of this feeling comes our conceptions about life, not the other way around.  The Spanish philosopher Miguel De Unamuno, in The Tragic Sense of Life,  put it this way:

Our philosophy – that is, our mode of understanding or not understanding the world and life – springs from our feeling toward life itself …. Man is said to be a reasoning animal.  I do not know why he has not been defined as an affective or feeling animal …. And thus, in a philosopher, what must needs most concern us is the man.

David Griffin, relying on John Cobb’s term, says the “resurrection of the soul” is a better term for life after death than the more traditional ones of “immortality of the soul” and the “resurrection of the body,” since it splits the difference, thereby taking a bit of truth from both terms.

But as I understand his argument in this book, he is doing what he cautions against via Whitehead: “… he [Whitehead] said that one must avoid ‘negations of what in practice is presupposed.’”  Griffin’s presupposition is that both dualism and materialism are both wrong and panexperientialism is correct.  He writes:

Panexperientialism is based upon the supposition that we can and should think about the units comprising the physical world by analogy with our own experience, which we know from within. The supposition, in other words, is that the apparent difference in kind between our experience, or our ‘mind,’ and the entities comprising our bodies is an illusion, resulting from the fact that we know them in two different ways. We know our minds from within, by identity and memory, whereas in sensory perception of our bodies, as in looking in a mirror, we know them from without. Once we realize this, there is no reason to assume them really to be different in kind. [my emphasis]

So if that is true, I ask this question: why, if body and soul/mind are inseparable and are what people are, why is it necessary to argue for their divorce in death?  If God created them as one at birth, could not God recreate them as one in death?  Why Griffin concludes that this is impossible or would require a miracle escapes me.  Maybe contemplating it is a bit too pedestrian and non-philosophical.

Despite my point above, James and Whitehead on Life after Death is another quintessentially brilliant volume from Griffin’s pen.  It forces you to think about difficult but essential matters.  It may not be easy reading, but it may force you to imaginatively ask yourself, what, if anything were possible and life continued after death, you would want such a life to be like.  Maybe the man David Ray Griffin wants it to be non-bodily.  Maybe many do and can’t imagine an alternative.  But I can, and I hope for bodily resurrection.  It’s just what I am.

Philosophy and theology can get very abstract and leave regular people in the dust.  Another poet comes to mind, a counterpoint to T.S. Eliot, William Butler Yates, who wrote in “An Acre of Green Grass“:

Grant me an old man’s frenzy,
Myself I must remake
Till I am Timon and Lear
Or that William Blake
Who beat upon the wall
Till Truth obeyed his call;

A mind Michael Angelo knew
That can pierce the clouds,
Or inspired by frenzy
Shake the dead in their shrouds;
Forgotten else by mankind,
An old man’s eagle mind.

I would love to read what a frenzied David Ray Griffin has to say, now that I have read his philosophical logic. I can’t help agreeing with Unamuno:

And thus, in a philosopher, what must needs most concern us is the man

The man of flesh, blood, and bones.

The post Is There Life After Death? first appeared on Dissident Voice.

A Blinkered Reality

The author Steven Pinker’s blinkered perspective in Enlightenment Now is limited to critiquing what remains of an academic leftism often accused of a reflexive anti-Western bias. Pinker’s advocacy of rationality and science in itself adds little to the mainstream recognition of human intellectual advancement since the 18th century Enlightenment. Over the centuries, the main opponent of free inquiry, it should be recalled, was organized religion–the ideological dogmas of which sanctified State despotism and discouraged independent learning (and even literacy).

Yes, “wealth is created.” But how? Pinker blithely ignores the global reality of opposing class-interests. In the late 20th century, in the name of promoting “development,” the World Bank and the IMF produced a mountain of Third World indebtedness to the extent that many nations were compelled to drastically cut critical social services in order to service that debt (or default). Moreover, trans-national capital flow continues today to seek out poverty-wage locales for sweatshop manufacturing (little or no labor rights, few if any environmental regulations, etc.). Pinker likewise fails to discuss the quite favorable “profit-sharing agreements” imposed by oil companies and others (think Iraq, Nigeria, etc.)

In his paean to the establishment of the United Nations (1945), and of growing recognition of international human rights in general, he hypocritically ignores the United States’ repeated violation of the UN Charter and Security Council edicts (most egregiously in 2003, when the Bush Administration flagrantly ignored the Security Council’s veto of the imminent invasion of Iraq). And surely, such waging of aggressive war–in the case of Iraq, destroying the lives and livelihoods of millions, remains even today the foremost threat to the very “reason-and-progress” which Pinker proselytizes. And Pinker, who manifests a surprising ignorance of U.S. foreign policy (cf. Noam Chomsky’s seminal book Rogue States), also seems uninformed about the U.S.-imposed, draconian sanctions, which have deliberately caused very high rates of infant mortality and massive starvation (Iraq, North Korea, etc.). Such horrors remain unseen through rosy-colored spectacles which can only detect growing “peace-and-prosperity.”

(Computers were indeed labor-saving devices, i.e., substitutes for millions of white-collar workers, thereby making dramatic labor-cost reduction once again a major source of corporate profit.) What of the emerging “gig economy,” in which millions of young people, already saddled with about $1.25 trillion in student loan debt (U.S.), are finding themselves under-employed and without union representation? A possible “jobless future”? Ironically enough, Oxford Martin’s Our World in Data, the primary source for Pinker’s sunny diagnostics, has warned of just such a possibility.

Pinker strives to document his claims of decreasing world poverty and social problems with some dubious sources: not only Oxford Martin, but endless charts provided by the World Bank and the CIA. Without necessarily invoking–“lies, damned lies, and statistics”–one is entitled to question the objectivity and ideological agendas of such sources. Low-wages and dubious lending schemes, as well as fomenting insurgencies, have crippled economic conditions in innumerable nations. Pinker doesn’t seem aware that some 75 or so global mega-billionaires have a combined wealth greater than that of the roughly 3,500,000 living largely in the Global South (Oxfam data). Perhaps he is confidently awaiting that most elusive of phenomena: the “trickle down.”

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N-: the Day-Glo Elephant in the Room

To Bigger and his kind, white people were not really people; they were a sort of great natural force, like a stormy sky looming overhead or like a deep swirling river stretching suddenly at one’s feet in the dark.

— Richard Wright, Native Son (1940)

The memoir, N, by James Henry Harris, Distinguished Professor of Pastoral Theology & Homiletics at Virginia Union University, is confrontational, even fiery from the get-go. Wonderfully in-your-face, no-holds-barred prose that gets right to the heart of the matter about CRT and the controversy over banning books — and specifically and intentionally makes the white reader squirm as Harris holds down and interrogates the talismanic, racially-charged Forbidden Word. You know which word. Don’t be coy. Whatever you do, don’t think of watermelon.

One of the first things that Harris reminds us about is that the trump card word from a stacked deck culture occurs “220 times” in the Twain novel he’s confronting. The same word occurs in his memoir 177 times. What’s most bolshy about the word is that Harris makes the point — over and over — that white people don’t have a right to use it. And by the time I reach 177, I feel punished for my sins, and, worse, feel like I deserve it. But, at the same time, I’m totally on his side; I get it, I think. The stridency and militancy recalls Miles Davis’s Tribute to Jack Johnson, a tower of strength seemingly warning the listener: “I’m Black; they’ll never let me forget it. I’m Black alright; I’ll never let them forget it.” Fight’s on.

The full title of James Henry Harris’s memoir is N: My Encounter with Racism and the Forbidden Word in an American Classic (Fortress Press, 2021). The classic is, of course, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. It is (and has been for quite some time) the focal point of inquiry for any understanding of the importance and totemic value of the forbidden word. No other word in American history has such power and carries such weight. It is suffocating for all around and yet unresolved; the heavy baggage of the slaver’s legacy brought forward into the continuous and pronounced socio-economic and judicial inequalities of our common heritage as Americans. Only African-Americans see new migrants come to America — Koreans, Chinese, Eastern Europeans, etc — and be able to separate themselves from one subculture (and thereby gain an advantage) by the use of the black magic word.

This nonsense has been going on for a long time. There have been periods in our recent history when we’ve made faint attempts to get past the surface level of our group thinking, to make fun of our bigotry, and to try to move on more enlightened, or at least “woke.” The Seventies was like that to some degree. A lot of progressives took succor in humor during the 1970s to relieve the tension of our extended blues brought on by so much before us gone wrong. Dylan didn’t really help salve anything; he reinforced the depths of our insight and left us largely depressed and looking for ways to get laid. But Jews did come to the rescue. Nobody knows how to do stand-up comedy on the gallows better than the Jews, who have seen so much horror in their diasporic millennia that dark comedy oozes from their kosher pores. Regarding the politics of the N word, I don’t know if anyone did a better job than Mel Brooks setting up a scene that captured the hilarious tension embodied in the white-Black dialectic of power — the celebration of law and order that civilizes us all, as long as it’s not a Black man — than that welcoming the new sheriff to the frontier scene. All’s gleeful anticipation until the white townspeople see that the new badge in town is a “Schvartze”, the Yiddish N-word.

It’s telling that only a member of a parallel diaspora could have pulled it off and got away with it. And who didn’t feel sorry for the way the sheriff was treated in the end?

But Harris is not much amused by this kind of tomfoolery. Or, at least, he has no intention of letting the reader off that easily. N: My Encounter with Racism and the Forbidden Word in an American Classic is a memoir about a 53-year-old academic guy who signs up for a graduate Mark Twain seminar at a Richmond college that’s focussed on the politics of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a book he’ll be reading for the first time, only to discover that he’s the only Black person in the class. What’s more, he’s a got a thing about whites using the N word — at all — and now he’ll have to listen to each them read aloud passages from Twain’s novel over a long semester, in which no page of the classic novel goes without dropping the bomb.

He sets the scene of the weeks-long inter-course to come. He’s not taken with the white professor teaching African-American intellectual values. He notes his physical environs:

The room was, in fact, an old dining room converted into a classroom in a building that was an antebellum plantation mansion. In my mind’s eye, the room became a mirror of old sins and transgressions.

You have a kind of flash — Leonardo Dicaprio turned pipe-smoking prof in Django Unchained. But Harris isn’t finished setting the scene:

This is where Black folk learned the ways of white folk. This is where Black folk acquired the necessary astuteness to speak, breathe, and exist without the Otherness that defined them… It is where the practices of smiling, “softshoeing,” and “cooning” were refined into a tradition of degradation and self-deprecation. This is the house in which Blacks learned to wear masks and store their anger in their hearts and souls until it could be unleashed like hellfire and brimstone.

It’s early in the memoir and already I’m marinating in a white man’s burden. And I probably deserve it: Not because I’m white so much as I never stop letting them forget they’re Black — when I look the Other way in academic exercises of their existential crisis.

Harris feels equally uncertain he should be there in that class during introductions, each student standing and telling what brought them there; what reader-response tableau they bring to the table. He raises concern about a class filled with whites talking Black history and, most of all, using that dang-nabbit word. He notes, “But nobody, not even the professor, seemed willing to acknowledge that there is an ‘otherness’ that must be heard if learning is to take place.” Already, Harris is experiencing that Ellisonian invisibility factor. Whites, even or especially educated whites, will be abstracting his very subjective and continuously felt experience. Right there in the classroom. It’s frisson at work; a chemical reaction, if you will.

As the semester wears on, Harris finds a way through the mind field filled with IEDs — white-expressed Ns always ready to take him to the hell of anguish and raw emotion, unfiltered by the privilege of having the right, white integument. A personal moment creeps in. I recall my first days at Groton not long after Nixon resigned, an elite boarding school in the outer burbs of Boston, where Teddy and FDR had been educated, and how nervous and frightened I felt — a scholarship student from the Groton-Lowell Upward Bound program, wondering how I would fit in with the children of the highly privileged, who had produces champions of the Monroe Doctrine and the New Deal. I came from a poor background, but I wasn’t like the sprinkle of Blacks there, poor and Black. One could escape poverty, but you could never escape your skin color. When Michael Jackson tried to escape by bleaching his skin the results were disastrous, making him look like a reverse-Al Jolson singing “Billy Jean,” instead of “Mammy.” So, I get Harris’s point.

Over the period Harris begins to sift through his growing love/hate relationship with Mark Twain in general — his pioneering literary genius, — his brilliant ability, Harris concedes, to capture the vernacular of everyday Missourians back in the day, and he seems to be quite taken with Twain’s narrative techniques and humorous flourishes. In an Explanation to Huckleberry Finn, Twain tells the reader:

In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary ‘Pike County’ dialect; and four modified varieties of this last… I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.

Harris accepts this readily enough, but dang-nabbit not with the profuse use of the forbidden fruit of slavery and its aftermath — the Word. You know which one.

The class seems to move towards an acceptance of Twain’s language, including the ahem, along the lines of what the great novelist Toni Morrison recommends. No slouch herself with language and her portraits of country people, the Nobel prize-winning writer extols the virtues of Twain’s prose and defends his use of it —. In her 1996 Oxford Edition Introduction to Huck Finn, Morrison sums up the issue so many have with reading the book in the current climate of resurgent primal racism:

In the early eighties, I read Huckleberry Finn again, provoked, I believe, by demands to remove the novel from the libraries and required reading lists of public schools. These efforts were based, it seemed to me, on a narrow notion of how to handle the offense Mark Twain’s use of the term “[n–]” would occasion for black students and the corrosive effect it would have on white ones.It struck me as a purist yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children. Amputate the problem, band-aid the solution.

Indeed, Harris says he waited until he was 53 to read Huck Finn for the first time, and then as part of a college course. You can believe, from reading Morrison’s explanation, that he is similarly self-conscious while reading it.

However, it’s clear that Harris may not be as settled in his capacity to accept the word’s use along with the wonderfulness of Twain’s prose, as Morrison is. It’s a real struggle. And as Harris works his way in the memoir toward a thesis in the class, he provides us with keen insights, by way of childhood remembrances, of the use of the word, that provides nuanced context and emotional weight to his arguments and observations. His is not merely an academic adventure over a semester. In his Intro to N, Harris tells us,

Twain himself was always protected by the professor and the rest of the students. White privilege. Nothing negative could be attributed to Twain. As far as the professor and the white students were concerned, Mark Twain was a god. And yet, I felt differently. I was not duped. In my mind, I placed Twain in the pantheon of Americans who, in one way or another, have sustained and emblazoned the word [n–] into America’s consciousness.

It’s a split consciousness, between seeing Twain for his literary value and questioning his use of the word and its implications for his moral balance. Harris struggles with such protection of a canon figure.

His struggle pushes him at one point to ask the class of whites if anyone there had ever been called the word. Harris seems to take impish delight in provoking the white students, who respond to his rhetorical pose with silence — even the proverbial pin that dropped seems gagged and bound. Harris writes, “My Black skin had, for once, given me the advantage to pose a question that not a single white person in the room could answer in the affirmative.” His is an existential crisis that they can’t really relate to — he might as well be Mersault in Camus’s The Stranger. He invokes W.E.B. Dubois’ well-known reference to “double-consciousness.” Living two lives at once. Bifurcated and compartmentalized and chewed up inside. Harris writes,

Double consciousness was a state of being for me. I was a self divided. It is also the stuff that makes for some forms of depression, schizoid and paranoid behavior. And, at times, I’m a bona fide paranoid African American male thinking that everybody is out to get me—Black people included.

One recalls here the Scottish psychologist R.D. Laing’s critique of society that produced divided selves, where the norm could be seen as “crazy”. As Laing put it, abnormal behavior in an abnormal world is normal, and such fracturing can account for the Good German, or looking the other way when white knees sink into Black necks to the sound of the brassy Star Spangled Banner. O say can you see.

While it’s clear from the real world observations of someone like Laing (who depressingly seems to follow in the tracks of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents and, maybe worse, The Future of An Illusion with serious and deeply-considered pessimism) that such psychological division is common; it is no bromide or rationale or excuse. There is that growing element out there that accepts, with a shrug at last, the continuing deterioration of our lot with “It Is What It Is.” Cultures that accept a glad return to the Dark Ages — before the Magna Carta provided the first light of a brave new Enlightenment — and lurk behind omerta masks in wait for the return not of Jesus but chaos re-ordered by goon squad enforcers for the elite. In short, civilization is worth fighting for, and the hallmark is not just the terrible beauty of a Gothic cathedral’s interior, but human language. It is what sets us apart from the other animals, homo sapiens instead of merely australopithecines. N is a big step backward into fascist feudal darkness.

Harris’s N is full of goosy surprises. His best bit might be eschewing the Shelley Fisher Fishkin consideration that Huck Finn might have been Black. Harris can do better and wonders aloud, to his tense but open-minded collegial scholars, whether Huck and Jim weren’t, in fact, an item:

Was Huck gay? Had anyone ever thought about this? It seemed like a reasonable area of inquiry, devoid of any moral judgment. What was to be made of the fact that Jim often called Huck “honey”? I asked. I continued, “And many days and nights Huck and Jim lay naked on the raft smoking and talking about all kinds of things as they drifted up and down the Mississippi.”

There was silence in the room, so I went on pressing my case to the point of annoyance. Like a gadfly or a philosopher like Socrates or Plato. I pointed out that Huck did some crossdressing with Jim’s help. And he practiced how to walk and talk like a girl—although he was not too good at it.

This feels like Harris has a gratuitous go at academia, more than a fully argued feeling about the two raftsmen.

N is a fantastic read, welcomely confrontational. I should be antsy. I accept that. Why am I antsy? Harris’s strategy of having the memoir correspond to a semester-long seminar struggling with a loaded word is really a clever tactic. The pay-off comes in Chapter 15, a chapter that alone makes the book worth purchasing, when Harris, the student, presents his thesis to the class (they all must) and draws his conclusions about Twain and the use of the word by whites. He quotes from his thesis,

The ubiquitous use of [n–] by Twain is the basic reason why his novel has attained the status of an American classic. [N] is an American invention and its use by whites describes the nature and meaning of American democracy, constitutionality, and culture. In short, white Americans’ use of the word [n–] is tantamount to describing what makes America, America. Mark Twain knew this, and he too capitalized on it. This made him complicit in propagating America’s white supremacist and capitalist culture.

Moments later, while his classmates are still “gasping for air,” he comes right out with his conclusion: “Mark Twain was a racist.”

This would be depressing enough, since I do so like my Twain readings. But I admit, my morbid feelings of guilt and sin at that moment must have resembled those of his white classmates, who’d come to share a co-produced enlightenment and were given, instead, a lecture on “enwhitenment.” This conclusion is probably the biggest difference between Morrison and Harris. (The reader would find it fruitful to compare Morrison’s Huck Finn Intro to Harris’s Chapter 15.) She does not see him as a racist, but as part of culture that was. Did she sell her soul to be canonized among the relativists? Or has Harris maybe overstepped the mark? I don’t think either is true. But then their experiences as a Black woman and a Black man are historically, but significantly, different — if for no other reason than the male, white or Black was the “breadwinner” who must negotiate in the social sphere for jobs and respect, while the woman, traditionally,was the homemaker, and thereby, to some minuscule degree, was shielded from the daily abuse a Black man must negotiate. I can understand how there might be less “forgiveness” from a Rodney King who gets a knee in the neck for asking, Can’t we just get along? Harris does a nice job dealing with this divide in his book.

Reflecting on his presentation in the grad literature class, Harris adds,

Without ever using the term, I had introduced the allwhite class to critical race theory by claiming that Mark Twain, the book Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the society and culture that constructed the word [n –] are all grounded in racism.

No prisoners here.

Harris dislikes the use of the word altogether and is not enamored of its use by Blacks in general and rappers in particular. (Don’t ask him what he thinks of Eminem.) Aside from the vulgarity implied, Harris argues that stylin one’s beat with the peppershnippel of dramatic tension the word brings also reinforces the differences. Back in the days of The Last Poets it might have been argued that its use by the artists was deliberately and honestly confrontational — like the Miles Davis “I’m Black Alright theme” — but Harris, when he confronts young Blacks today, is told he’s “too sensitive,” which works his nerves some. At the same time that Blacks continue to be beaten to death by neo-fascists in America, too many of these youngsters are not employing the word out of militancy as much as monetary gain.

Interesting enough, and in a really important section of the memoir, Harris, instead of calling for a ban on the book for linguistic reasons, acknowledges that the real problem in reading Huckleberry Finn is the lack of qualified guidance. He writes,

Everybody agrees that not every English literature teacher is qualified to teach such a novel to youth. It’s too complicated. Too emotional. I understand the debate because I’m in my sixties now and the word [n –] throughout the novel troubles me mightily.

For Harris, it is important that the book be taught with the sensitivity it requires and the competence of good teaching. He notes throughout the book flaws in the teaching of the book at the graduate level, and you can almost hear him shaking his head at the quality of the approach to the word at elementary and high school levels. Harris implies, then, that the successful implementation of Critical Race Theory in the classroom is a matter of teaching competence and cultural sensitivity. A white southerner will teach Huck Finn differently than Harris, himself an educator. His section on education is interesting, and his critique of Black educators in the mainstream is well-noted, but, as with Noam Chomsky, he would probably agree that we are all held back by ignorance to some degree and can only be rehabilitated by education.

The book is not all doom and gloom, as they say and say. In fact, it’s inspiring. There are lots of noteworthy subsections, such as the immersion into Adrienne Rich’s poem, “Diving into the Wreck,” which resonates with Harris. “Rich’s poem is about the quest for wholeness while being surrounded by both death and life. Idealism has been shattered by the reality principle,” he writes. “Isn’t that what has happened to Huck and Jim?” More Freud. Harsh stuff that reality principle at work.

The book is as powerful and wriggly as a Mississippi eel. It has the vibes of Richard Wright — self-consciousness on a journey: In this case, the semester-long seminar on Huck Finn and race in America. It’s playful, poignant, entertaining, and is one of the best takes on CRT and banned books and the seemingly endless need to address skin color in the world’s premiere democracy. A highly recommended read.

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Common Sense in the Form of Theory

In the ideological disciplines—the humanities and social sciences—it is rare to come across a theoretical work that doesn’t seem to fetishize verbiage and jargonizing for their own sake. From the relatively lucid analytical Marxism of an Erik Olin Wright1 to the turgid cultural theory of a Stuart Hall, pretentious prolixity is, apparently, seen as an end in itself. In such an academic context, one of the highest services an intellectual can perform is simply to return to the basics of theoretic common sense, stated clearly and concisely. Society is very complex, but, as Noam Chomsky likes to say, insofar as we understand it at all, our understanding can in principle be expressed rather simply and straightforwardly. Not only is such expression more democratic and accessible, thus permitting a broader diffusion of critical understanding of the world; it also has the merit of showing that, once you shed the paraphernalia of most academic writing, nothing particularly profound is being said. Vivek Chibber’s The Class Matrix: Social Theory after the Cultural Turn (Harvard University Press, 2022) constitutes an exemplary demonstration of this fact, and of these virtues.

Chibber has been waging a war against postmodern theory for some time now, ably defending Marxian common sense against generations of carping “culturalist” critics. His Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (2013) brilliantly showed that the Marxian “metanarrative” that has come under sustained attack by poststructuralists and postmodernists retains its value as an explanation of the modern world, and that many of the (often highly obscure) alternative conceptualizations of postcolonial theorists are deeply flawed. More recently, in an article published in 2020 in the journal Catalyst (“Orientalism and Its Afterlives”), Chibber has persuasively criticized Edward Said’s classic Orientalism for its idealistic interpretation of modern imperialism as emanating in large part from an age-old European Orientalist discourse, rather than from a capitalist political economy that—as materialists argue—merely used such a discourse to rationalize its global expansion. In more popular venues too, notably Jacobin, Chibber has argued for the centrality of materialism to the projects of both interpreting and changing the world.

The Class Matrix continues his engagement with these issues, this time in the form of a systematic critique of cultural theory, specifically of its inability to explain the sources of stability and conflict in modern society. Materialism, in contrast—i.e., a primary emphasis on such concepts as class structures and objective economic interests rather than “discourses,” “cultures,” “identities,” and “meanings”—is quite capable of explaining society, and can rather easily be defended against the criticisms of (some) culturalists. The book’s admirable lucidity serves several functions: first, Chibber is able to present the arguments of a variety of “culturalisms,” from Gramscians’ to the Frankfurt School’s to those of the post-1970s cultural turn, very clearly and in a way that illuminates the stakes of the debate; second, his eloquent reconstruction of (aspects of) cultural theory lays the ground for an equally eloquent, and much more thorough, exposition of structural class theory, which is shown to have no difficulty (contrary to the claims of culturalists) in explaining the longevity and stability of capitalism; third, the discarding of all unnecessary verbiage and jargon makes it clear just how intellectually trivial these long-running “theoretical” debates are in the first place. One can have a perfectly defensible and sophisticated understanding of the modern world on the basis of a little critical common sense and knowledge of history.

Chibber starts by presenting the culturalist case. Why didn’t the West become socialist in the twentieth century, as Marxists predicted? Evidently Marx had gotten something wrong. In fact, it was argued (in the postwar era), he neglected the role of culture in forming the consciousness of the working class. Mass culture and the diffusion of dominant ideologies were able to reconcile the working class to capitalism, indeed to generate active popular consent for it. This analysis amounted to a demotion of the classical Marxist emphasis on the conflictual dynamics of the class structure—which supposedly would naturally lead to proletarian class consciousness and thereby revolution—in favor of the cohesive functions of mid-twentieth-century culture. Later culturalists took this argument a step further by rejecting the Marxian theory altogether, arguing that culture is actually prior to structure: what people are really presented with are not unmediated structures or objective material interests but “constellations of meaning” (p. 6), social identities, local cultures, contingent processes of socialization that shape how actors understand the many structures they are located in. One cannot (pace classical Marxism) predict behavior from people’s structural locations and the interests they supposedly define, because people first have to interpret structures, a process that is highly contingent and variable. Subjectivity, therefore, is primary, and the objectivity of class structures tends to evaporate.

Chibber’s response to this postmodernist argument, in effect, is that while it is perfectly true every structure is steeped in culture and agents’ subjectivity, this hardly implies the causal inertness of class location. Capitalist institutions don’t exactly impose high interpretive requirements: everyone is capable of understanding “what it means” to be a worker or a capitalist. If you lack ownership of the means of production, you either submit to wage labor or you starve. The economic structures force themselves on you. “[T]he proletarian’s meaning orientation is [therefore] the effect of his structural location” (p. 34). Similarly, the capitalist has to obey market pressures (structures) in order to survive as a capitalist, so he, too, is compelled to subordinate his normative orientation to objectively existing capitalist institutions. In fact, it is the postmodern culturalists who are in the weaker position: how can they explain “the indubitable fact of capitalism’s expansion across the globe and the obvious similarity in its macrodynamics across these regions” without accepting materialist assumptions (p. 45)?

Having dispatched this particular objection to materialism, Chibber moves on to other difficulties. Given the antagonistic relations between worker and capitalist (which Chibber elaborates on in detail), why hasn’t collective resistance, and ultimately revolution, been more common? The obvious answer, contrary to cultural theory, is that the asymmetry of power between worker and capitalist is so great that workers find it quite difficult to fight successfully for their collective interests. The insecurity of the worker’s position (for example, he can be fired for union activity) makes it easier and safer to pursue individualized modes of advancement or resistance. Moreover, the intrinsic problems of collective action—free rider problems, difficulty in securing agreement among large numbers of workers, etc.—militate against class consciousness and collective resistance. Classical Marxists were wrong to assume that the most rational path for workers would always be the “collective” path. In fact, contingent cultural considerations play an important role in the formation (in any given case) of class consciousness—although culture always remains constrained by material factors.

Having successfully and eloquently deployed common sense in his first two chapters, Chibber now turns, in the lengthy third chapter, to an explanation of how capitalism has endured. Here, too, he prefers common sense to the idealistic arguments of many Gramscians and New Left theorists, who pointed to bourgeois “cultural hegemony” and ideological indoctrination as having manufactured consent among the working class. One problem with this theory is its dim view of workers: “Culturalists are in the embarrassing position of claiming implicitly that while they can discern the exploitative—and hence unjust—character of the employment relation, the actors who are, in fact, being exploited, who are experiencing its brute facts, are not capable of doing so” (p. 91). There are, admittedly, other possible understandings of the basis of mass consent, more materialistic understandings, but in the end Chibber rejects these as the primary explanation for capitalist stability. Instead, he argues that workers simply resign themselves to capitalism—they “accept their location in the class structure because they see no other viable option” (p. 106). What Marx called “the dull compulsion of economic relations” keeps the gears of capitalism grinding on, generation after generation, including in the absence of workers’ “consent” to their subordination.2 In short, the class structure itself—the enormous power asymmetry between employer and employee—underwrites its own stability, and there is no need to invoke “consent” at all (even if such consent does, perhaps, exist in certain periods).

There remain a couple of other issues Chibber has to address in order for his defense of materialism to be really systematic. First, what about the old, E. P. Thompsonian charge that “structural theories bury social agency” (p. 122)? Is this necessarily the case, this conflict between structure and agency? No, as long as one acknowledges the role of reasons in motivating people’s actions. “The structure is not reproduced because it turns agents into automatons but because it generates good reasons for them to play by its rules” (p. 123). A structural process may be rather deterministic in its outcome, but it “is generated by the active intervention of social agency” (p. 126). Given the structures of capitalism, people rationally adapt to them, regulating their behavior in accord with them. Structure thus exerts its causal force precisely through agency.

Of course, agency also exists in tension with structure insofar as agents can flout institutional norms or even rebel against particular structures. This point brings us to another question Chibber considers, namely the relation between structural “determinism” and contingency, another favorite concept—along with agency—of the postmodern cultural turn. His argument here is quite rich and nuanced, much too subtle, in fact, to be summarized in a short book review. (It goes without saying that I have merely been outlining his arguments, hardly doing justice to their richness.) One might think that such an austere structuralism as Chibber defends would be unable to account for the contingency of social processes, but through a fairly ingenious analysis he is able to answer this objection, too. Even prima facie, however, the objection doesn’t hold much water, because capitalist relations are evidently compatible with an immense variety of social structures, such that between nations and even within a nation there can be great heterogeneity of local cultures. In a world of infinitely many structures and cultures interacting and overlapping, all of them being activated and enlivened by countless individual free wills, there is clearly a place for contingency on both small and large scales. Materialism can therefore accommodate the “argument from contingency.”

The Class Matrix, in short, is a quite thorough and impressive work, not only a compelling defense of materialism but also a fair-minded if highly critical engagement with cultural theory. It isn’t clear how culturalists—especially the anti-Marxist ones—can effectively respond to this broadside, tightly and cogently argued as it is. They might, perhaps, be able to make the case that there is a greater role for culture than Chibber allows (although he does grant the importance of cultural considerations at many points in his arguments), but they certainly can no longer sustain the claim that materialism is deeply flawed.

In fact, that claim could never have been sustained anyway, because, in the end, materialism—the causal primacy of class structures (and the theoretical implications of this doctrine)—is little more than common sense. The average member of the working class, more insightful (realistic) in many ways than most intellectuals, could tell you about the overwhelming importance of economic institutions. If classical Marxism got certain predictions wrong, that wasn’t because of any inherent flaws in historical materialism; as Chibber shows, it was because the original theorists misunderstood the implications of their own theory. There was never a good reason to think socialist revolution would “naturally” happen as workers “naturally” achieved greater class consciousness. These predictions were but a projection of the hopes of Marxists, not logical entailments of materialism. In our own day, when the historic achievements of Western labor movements have been or are in the process of being destroyed, it is unclear what the way forward is—except, as ever, for working-class self-organization and critical materialist understanding of society. Toward the latter task, at least, The Class Matrix makes a valuable contribution.

  1. See Russell Jacoby’s savage review of Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias entitled “Real Men Find Real Utopias,” Dissent, Winter 2011, for an exposure of the intellectual emptiness of a certain type of “theoretical” sociology.
  2. This argument, indeed much of the book, is anticipated not only, as it were, by common sense (most workers could tell you they don’t embrace their position but simply find it inescapable), but also by a brilliant book Chibber doesn’t cite: The Dominant Ideology Thesis, by Nicholas Abercrombie et al. (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1980). Incidentally, I myself have grappled with the question of why socialism hasn’t happened yet and have offered a quite different, and perhaps more original, explanation than Chibber. See my paper “Marxism and the Solidarity Economy: Toward a New Theory of Revolution,” Class, Race and Corporate Power 9, no. 1 (2021), as well as the shorter articles “Revolution in the Twenty-First Century: A Reconsideration of Marxism,” New Politics, May 5, 2020; and “Eleven Theses on Socialist Revolution,” Socialist Forum (Summer 2021).

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The persecution of Julian Assange

The British home secretary, Priti Patel, will decide this month whether Julian Assange is to be extradited to the United States, where he faces a sentence of up to 175 years – served most likely in strict, 24-hour isolation in a US super-max jail.

He has already spent three years in similarly harsh conditions in London’s high-security Belmarsh prison.

The 18 charges laid against Assange in the US relate to the publication by WikiLeaks in 2010 of leaked official documents, many of them showing that the US and UK were responsible for war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. No one has been brought to justice for those crimes.

Instead, the US has defined Assange’s journalism as espionage – and by implication asserted a right to seize any journalist in the world who takes on the US national security state – and in a series of extradition hearings, the British courts have given their blessing.

The lengthy proceedings against Assange have been carried out in courtrooms with tightly restricted access and in circumstances that have repeatedly denied journalists the ability to cover the case properly.

Despite the grave implications for a free press and democratic accountability, however, Assange’s plight has provoked little more than a flicker of concern from much of the western media.

Few observers appear to be in any doubt that Patel will sign off on the US extradition order – least of all Nils Melzer, a law professor, and a United Nations’ special rapporteur.

In his role as the UN’s expert on torture, Melzer has made it his job since 2019 to scrutinise not only Assange’s treatment during his 12 years of increasing confinement – overseen by the UK courts – but also the extent to which due process and the rule of law have been followed in pursuing the WikiLeaks founder.

Melzer has distilled his detailed research into a new book, The Trial of Julian Assange, that provides a shocking account of rampant lawlessness by the main states involved – Britain, Sweden, the US, and Ecuador. It also documents a sophisticated campaign of misinformation and character assassination to obscure those misdeeds.

The result, Melzer concludes, has been a relentless assault not only on Assange’s fundamental rights but his physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing that Melzer classifies as psychological torture.

The UN rapporteur argues that the UK has invested far too much money and muscle in securing Assange’s prosecution on behalf of the US, and has too pressing a need itself to deter others from following Assange’s path in exposing western crimes, to risk letting Assange walk free.

It has instead participated in a wide-ranging legal charade to obscure the political nature of Assange’s incarceration. And in doing so, it has systematically ridden roughshod over the rule of law.

Melzer believes Assange’s case is so important because it sets a precedent to erode the most basic liberties the rest of us take for granted. He opens the book with a quote from Otto Gritschneder, a German lawyer who observed up close the rise of the Nazis, “those who sleep in a democracy will wake up in a dictatorship”.

Back to the wall

Melzer has raised his voice because he believes that in the Assange case any residual institutional checks and balances on state power, especially those of the US, have been subdued.

He points out that even the prominent human rights group Amnesty International has avoided characterising Assange as a “prisoner of conscience”, despite his meeting all the criteria, with the group apparently fearful of a backlash from funders (p. 81).

He notes too that, aside from the UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, comprising expert law professors, the UN itself has largely ignored the abuses of Assange’s rights (p. 3). In large part, that is because even states like Russia and China are reluctant to turn Assange’s political persecution into a stick with which to beat the West – as might otherwise have been expected.

The reason, Melzer observes, is that WikiLeaks’ model of journalism demands greater accountability and transparency from all states. With Ecuador’s belated abandonment of Assange, he appears to be utterly at the mercy of the world’s main superpower.

Instead, Melzer argues, Britain and the US have cleared the way to vilify Assange and incrementally disappear him under the pretense of a series of legal proceedings. That has been made possible only because of complicity from prosecutors and the judiciary, who are pursuing the path of least resistance in silencing Assange and the cause he represents.

It is what Melzer terms an official “policy of small compromises” – with dramatic consequences (pp. 250-1).

His 330-page book is so packed with examples of abuses of due process – at the legal, prosecutorial, and judicial levels – that it is impossible to summarise even a tiny fraction of them.

However, the UN rapporteur refuses to label this as a conspiracy – if only because to do so would be to indict himself as part of it. He admits that when Assange’s lawyers first contacted him for help in 2018, arguing that the conditions of Assange’s incarceration amounted to torture, he ignored their pleas.

As he now recognises, he too had been influenced by the demonisation of Assange, despite his long professional and academic training to recognise techniques of perception management and political persecution.

“To me, like most people around the world, he was just a rapist, hacker, spy, and narcissist,” he says (p. 10).

It was only later when Melzer finally agreed to examine the effects of Assange’s long-term confinement on his health – and found the British authorities obstructing his investigation at every turn and openly deceiving him – that he probed deeper. When he started to pick at the legal narratives around Assange, the threads quickly unravelled.

He points to the risks of speaking up – a price he has experienced firsthand – that have kept others silent.

“With my uncompromising stance, I put not only my credibility at risk, but also my career and, potentially, even my personal safety… Now, I suddenly found myself with my back to the wall, defending human rights and the rule of law against the very democracies which I had always considered to be my closest allies in the fight against torture. It was a steep and painful learning curve” (p. 97).

He adds regretfully: “I had inadvertently become a dissident within the system itself” (p. 269).

Subversion of law

The web of complex cases that have ensnared the WikiLeaks founder – and kept him incarcerated – have included an entirely unproductive, decade-long sexual assault investigation by Sweden; an extended detention over a bail infraction that occurred after Assange was granted asylum by Ecuador from political extradition to the US; and the secret convening of a grand jury in the US, followed by endless hearings and appeals in the UK to extradite him as part of the very political persecution he warned of.

The goal throughout, says Melzer, has not been to expedite Assange’s prosecution – that would have risked exposing the absence of evidence against him in both the Swedish and US cases. Rather it has been to trap Assange in an interminable process of non-prosecution while he is imprisoned in ever-more draconian conditions and the public turned against him.

What appeared – at least to onlookers – to be the upholding of the law in Sweden, Britain and the US was the exact reverse: its repeated subversion. The failure to follow basic legal procedures was so consistent, argues Melzer, that it cannot be viewed as simply a series of unfortunate mistakes.

It aims at the “systematic persecution, silencing and destruction of an inconvenient political dissident” (p. 93).

Assange, in Melzer’s view, is not just a political prisoner. He is one whose life is being put in severe danger from relentless abuses that accord with the definition of psychological torture.

Such torture depends on its victim being intimidated, isolated, humiliated, and subjected to arbitrary decisions (p. 74). Melzer clarifies that the consequences of such torture not only break down the mental and emotional coping mechanisms of victims but over time have very tangible physical consequences too.

Melzer explains the so-called “Mandela Rules” – named after the long-jailed black resistance leader Nelson Mandela, who helped bring down South African apartheid – that limit the use of extreme forms of solitary confinement.

In Assange’s case, however, “this form of ill-treatment very quickly became the status quo” in Belmarsh, even though Assange was a “non-violent inmate posing no threat to anyone”. As his health deteriorated, prison authorities isolated him further, professedly for his own safety. As a result, Melzer concludes, Assange’s “silencing and abuse could be perpetuated indefinitely, all under the guise of concern for his health” (pp. 88-9).

The rapporteur observes that he would not be fulfilling his UN mandate if he failed to protest not only Assange’s torture but the fact that he is being tortured to protect those who committed torture and other war crimes exposed in the Iraq and Afghanistan logs published by WikiLeaks. They continue to escape justice with the active connivance of the same state authorities seeking to destroy Assange (p. 95).

With his long experience of handling torture cases around the world, Melzer suggests that Assange has great reserves of inner strength that have kept him alive, if increasingly frail and physically ill. Assange has lost a great deal of weight, is regularly confused and disorientated, and has suffered a minor stroke in Belmarsh.

Many of the rest of us, the reader is left to infer, might well have succumbed by now to a lethal heart attack or stroke, or have committed suicide.

A further troubling implication hangs over the book: that this is the ultimate ambition of those persecuting him. The current extradition hearings can be spun out indefinitely, with appeals right up to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, keeping Assange out of view all that time, further damaging his health, and providing a stronger deterrent effect on whistleblowers and other journalists.

This is a win-win, notes Melzer. If Assange’s mental health breaks down entirely, he can be locked away in a psychiatric institution. And if he dies, that would finally solve the inconvenience of sustaining the legal charade that has been needed to keep him silenced and out of view for so long (p. 322).

Sweden’s charade

Melzer spends much of the book reconstructing the 2010 accusations of sexual assault against Assange in Sweden. He does this not to discredit the two women involved – in fact, he argues that the Swedish legal system failed them as much as it did Assange – but because that case set the stage for the campaign to paint Assange as a rapist, narcissist, and fugitive from justice.

The US might never have been able to launch its overtly political persecution of Assange had he not already been turned into a popular hate figure over the Sweden case. His demonisation was needed – as well as his disappearance from view – to smooth the path to redefining national security journalism as espionage.

Melzer’s meticulous examination of the case – assisted by his fluency in Swedish – reveals something that the mainstream media coverage has ignored: Swedish prosecutors never had the semblance of a case against Assange, and apparently never the slightest intention to move the investigation beyond the initial taking of witness statements.

Nonetheless, as Melzer observes, it became “the longest ‘preliminary investigation’ in Swedish history” (p. 103).

The first prosecutor to examine the case, in 2010, immediately dropped the investigation, saying, “there is no suspicion of a crime” (p. 133).

When the case was finally wrapped up in 2019, many months before the statute of limitations was reached, a third prosecutor observed simply that “it cannot be assumed that further inquiries will change the evidential situation in any significant manner” (p. 261).

Couched in lawyerly language, that was an admission that interviewing Assange would not lead to any charges. The preceding nine years had been a legal charade.

But in those intervening years, the illusion of a credible case was so well sustained that major newspapers, including Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, repeatedly referred to “rape charges” against Assange, even though he had never been charged with anything.

More significantly, as Melzer keeps pointing out, the allegations against Assange were so clearly unsustainable that the Swedish authorities never sought to seriously investigate them. To do so would have instantly exposed their futility.

Instead, Assange was trapped. For the seven years that he was given asylum in Ecuador’s London embassy, Swedish prosecutors refused to follow normal procedures and interview him where he was, in person or via computer, to resolve the case. But the same prosecutors also refused to issue standard reassurances that he would not be extradited onwards to the US, which would have made his asylum in the embassy unnecessary.

In this way, Melzer argues “the rape suspect narrative could be perpetuated indefinitely without ever coming before a court. Publicly, this deliberately manufactured outcome could conveniently be blamed on Assange, by accusing him of having evaded justice” (p. 254).

Neutrality dropped

Ultimately, the success of the Swedish case in vilifying Assange derived from the fact that it was driven by a narrative almost impossible to question without appearing to belittle the two women at its centre.

But the rape narrative was not the women’s. It was effectively imposed on the case – and on them – by elements within the Swedish establishment, echoed by the Swedish media. Melzer hazards a guess as to why the chance to discredit Assange was seized on so aggressively.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Swedish leaders dropped the country’s historic position of neutrality and threw their hand in with the US and the global “war on terror”. Stockholm was quickly integrated into the western security and intelligence community (p. 102).

All of that was put in jeopardy as Assange began eyeing Sweden as a new base for WikiLeaks, attracted by its constitutional protections for publishers.

In fact, he was in Sweden for precisely that reason in the run-up to WikiLeaks’ publication of the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs. It must have been only too obvious to the Swedish establishment that any move to headquarter WikiLeaks there risked setting Stockholm on a collision course with Washington (p. 159).

This, Melzer argues, is the context that helps to explain an astonishingly hasty decision by the police to notify the public prosecutor of a rape investigation against Assange minutes after a woman referred to only as “S” first spoke to a police officer in a central Stockholm station.

In fact, S and another woman, “A”, had not intended to make any allegation against Assange. After learning he had had sex with them in quick succession, they wanted him to take an HIV test. They thought approaching the police would force his hand (p. 115). The police had other ideas.

The irregularities in the handling of the case are so numerous, Melzer spends the best part of 100 pages documenting them. The women’s testimonies were not recorded, transcribed verbatim, or witnessed by a second officer. They were summarised.

The same, deeply flawed procedure – one that made it impossible to tell whether leading questions influenced their testimony or whether significant information was excluded – was employed during the interviews of witnesses friendly to the women. Assange’s interview and those of his allies, by contrast, were recorded and transcribed verbatim (p. 132).

The reason for the women making their statements – the desire to get an HIV test from Assange – was not mentioned in the police summaries.

In the case of S, her testimony was later altered without her knowledge, in highly dubious circumstances that have never been explained (pp. 139-41). The original text is redacted so it is impossible to know what was altered.

Stranger still, a criminal report of rape was logged against Assange on the police computer system at 4.11pm, 11 minutes after the initial meeting with S and 10 minutes before a senior officer had begun interviewing S – and two and half hours before that interview would finish (pp. 119-20).

In another sign of the astounding speed of developments, Sweden’s public prosecutor had received two criminal reports against Assange from the police by 5pm, long before the interview with S had been completed. The prosecutor then immediately issued an arrest warrant against Assange before the police summary was written and without taking into account that S did not agree to sign it (p. 121).

Almost immediately, the information was leaked to the Swedish media, and within an hour of receiving the criminal reports the public prosecutor had broken protocol by confirming the details to the Swedish media (p. 126).

Secret amendments

The constant lack of transparency in the treatment of Assange by Swedish, British, US, and Ecuadorian authorities becomes a theme in Melzer’s book. Evidence is not made available under freedom of information laws, or, if it is, it is heavily redacted or only some parts are released – presumably those that do not risk undermining the official narrative.

For four years, Assange’s lawyers were denied any copies of the text messages the two Swedish women sent – on the grounds they were “classified”. The messages were also denied to the Swedish courts, even when they were deliberating on whether to extend an arrest warrant for Assange (p. 124).

It was not until nine years later those messages were made public, though Melzer notes that the index numbers show many continue to be withheld. Most notably, 12 messages sent by S from the police station – when she is known to have been unhappy at the police narrative being imposed on her – are missing. They would likely have been crucial to Assange’s defence (p. 125).

Similarly, much of the later correspondence between British and Swedish prosecutors that kept Assange trapped in the Ecuadorian embassy for years was destroyed – even while the Swedish preliminary investigation was supposedly still being pursued (p. 106).

The text messages from the women that have been released, however, suggest strongly that they felt they were being railroaded into a version of events they had not agreed to.

Slowly they relented, the texts suggest, as the juggernaut of the official narrative bore down on them, with the implied threat that if they disputed it they risked prosecution themselves for providing false testimony (p. 130).

Moments after S entered the police station, she texted a friend to say that “the police officer appears to like the idea of getting him [Assange]” (p. 117).

In a later message, she writes that it was “the police who made up the charges” (p. 129). And when the state assigns her a high-profile lawyer, she observes only that she hopes he will get her “out of this shit” (p. 136).

In a further text, she says: “I didn’t want to be part of it [the case against Assange], but now I have no choice” (p. 137).

It was on the basis of the secret amendments made to S’s testimony by the police that the first prosecutor’s decision to drop the case against Assange was overturned, and the investigation reopened (p. 141). As Melzer notes, the faint hope of launching a prosecution of Assange essentially rested on one word: whether S was “asleep”, “half-asleep” or “sleepy” when they had sex.

Melzer write that “as long as the Swedish authorities are allowed to hide behind the convenient veil of secrecy, the truth about this dubious episode may never come to light” (p. 141).

No ordinary extradition’

These and many, many other glaring irregularities in the Swedish preliminary investigation documented by Melzer are vital to decoding what comes next. Or as Melzer concludes “the authorities were not pursuing justice in this case but a completely different, purely political agenda” (p. 147).

With the investigation hanging over his head, Assange struggled to build on the momentum of the Iraq and Afghanistan logs revealing systematic war crimes committed by the US and UK.

“The involved governments had successfully snatched the spotlight directed at them by WikiLeaks, turned it around, and pointed it at Assange,” Melzer observes.

They have been doing the same ever since.

Assange was given permission to leave Sweden after the new prosecutor assigned to the case repeatedly declined to interview him a second time (pp. 153-4).

But as soon as Assange departed for London, an Interpol Red Notice was issued, another extraordinary development given its use for serious international crimes, setting the stage for the fugitive-from-justice narrative (p. 167).

A European Arrest Warrant was approved by the UK courts soon afterwards – but, again exceptionally, after the judges had reversed the express will of the British parliament that such warrants could only be issued by a “judicial authority” in the country seeking extradition not the police or a prosecutor (pp. 177- 9).

A law was passed shortly after the ruling to close that loophole and make sure no one else would suffer Assange’s fate (p. 180).

As the noose tightened around the neck not only of Assange but WikiLeaks too – the group was denied server capacity, its bank accounts were blocked, credit companies refused to process payments (p. 172) – Assange had little choice but to accept that the US was the moving force behind the scenes.

He hurried into the Ecuadorean embassy after being offered political asylum. A new chapter of the same story was about to begin.

British officials in the Crown Prosecution Service, as the few surviving emails show, were the ones bullying their Swedish counterparts to keep going with the case as Swedish interest flagged. The UK, supposedly a disinterested party, insisted behind the scenes that Assange must be required to leave the embassy – and his asylum – to be interviewed in Stockholm (p. 174).

A CPS lawyer told Swedish counterparts “don’t you dare get cold feet!” (p. 186).

As Christmas neared, the Swedish prosecutor joked about Assange being a present, “I am OK without… In fact, it would be a shock to get that one!” (p. 187).

When she discussed with the CPS Swedish doubts about continuing the case, she apologised for “ruining your weekend” (p. 188).

In yet another email, a British CPS lawyer advised “please do not think that the case is being dealt with as just another extradition request” (p. 176).

Embassy spying operation

That may explain why William Hague, the UK’s foreign secretary at the time, risked a major diplomatic incident by threatening to violate Ecuadorean sovereignty and invade the embassy to arrest Assange (p. 184).

And why Sir Alan Duncan, a UK government minister, made regular entries in his diary, later published as a book, on how he was working aggressively behind the scenes to get Assange out of the embassy (pp. 200, 209, 273, 313).

And why the British police were ready to spend £16 million of public money besieging the embassy for seven years to enforce an extradition Swedish prosecutors seemed entirely uninterested in advancing (p. 188).

Ecuador, the only country ready to offer Assange sanctuary, rapidly changed course once its popular left-wing president Rafael Correa stepped down in 2017. His successor, Lenin Moreno, came under enormous diplomatic pressure from Washington and was offered significant financial incentives to give up Assange (p. 212).

At first, this appears to have chiefly involved depriving Assange of almost all contact with the outside world, including access to the internet, and telephone and launching a media demonisation campaign that portrayed him as abusing his cat and smearing faeces on the wall (pp. 207-9).

At the same time, the CIA worked with the embassy’s security firm to launch a sophisticated, covert spying operation of Assange and all his visitors, including his doctors and lawyers (p. 200). We now know that the CIA was also considering plans to kidnap or assassinate Assange (p. 218).

Finally in April 2019, having stripped Assange of his citizenship and asylum – in flagrant violation of international and Ecuadorean law – Quito let the British police seize him (p. 213).

He was dragged into the daylight, his first public appearance in many months, looking unshaven and unkempt – a “demented looking gnome“, as a long-time Guardian columnist called him.

In fact, Assange’s image had been carefully managed to alienate the watching world. Embassy staff had confiscated his shaving and grooming kit months earlier.

Meanwhile, Assange’s personal belongings, his computer, and documents were seized and transferred not to his family or lawyers, or even the British authorities, but to the US – the real author of this drama (p. 214).

That move, and the fact that the CIA had spied on Assange’s conversations with his lawyers inside the embassy, should have sufficiently polluted any legal proceedings against Assange to require that he walk free.

But the rule of law, as Melzer keeps noting, has never seemed to matter in Assange’s case.

Quite the reverse, in fact. Assange was immediately taken to a London police station where a new arrest warrant was issued for his extradition to the US.

The same afternoon Assange appeared before a court for half an hour, with no time to prepare a defence, to be tried for a seven-year-old bail violation over his being granted asylum in the embassy (p. 48).

He was sentenced to 50 weeks – almost the maximum possible – in Belmarsh high-security prison, where he has been ever since.

Apparently, it occurred neither to the British courts nor to the media that the reason Assange had violated his bail conditions was precisely to avoid the political extradition to the US he was faced with as soon as he was forced out of the embassy.

‘Living in a tyranny’

Much of the rest of Melzer’s book documents in disturbing detail what he calls the current “Anglo-American show trial”: the endless procedural abuses Assange has faced over the past three years as British judges have failed to prevent what Melzer argues should be seen as not just one but a raft of glaring miscarriages of justice.

Not least, extradition on political grounds is expressly forbidden under Britain’s extradition treaty with the US (pp. 178-80, 294-5). But yet again the law counts for nothing when it applies to Assange.

The decision on extradition now rests with Patel, the hawkish home secretary who previously had to resign from the government for secret dealings with a foreign power, Israel, and is behind the government’s current draconian plan to ship asylum seekers to Rwanda, almost certainly in violation of the UN Refugee Convention.

Melzer has repeatedly complained to the UK, the US, Sweden, and Ecuador about the many procedural abuses in Assange’s case, as well as the psychological torture he has been subjected to. All four, the UN rapporteur points out, have either stonewalled or treated his inquiries with open contempt (pp. 235-44).

Assange can never hope to get a fair trial in the US, Melzer notes. First, politicians from across the spectrum, including the last two US presidents, have publicly damned Assange as a spy, terrorist, or traitor and many have suggested he deserves death (p. 216-7).

And, second, because he would be tried in the notorious “espionage court” in Alexandria, Virginia, located in the heart of the US intelligence and security establishment, without public or press access (pp. 220-2).

No jury there would be sympathetic to what Assange did in exposing their community’s crimes. Or as Melzer observes: “Assange would get a secret state-security trial very similar to those conducted in dictatorships” (p. 223).

And once in the US, Assange would likely never be seen again, under “special administrative measures” (SAMs) that would keep him in total isolation 24-hours-a-day (pp. 227-9). Melzer calls SAMs “another fraudulent label for torture”.

Melzer’s book is not just a documentation of the persecution of one dissident. He notes that Washington has been meting out abuses on all dissidents, including most famously the whistleblowers Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

Assange’s case is so important, Melzer argues, because it marks the moment when western states not only target those working within the system who blow the whistle that breaks their confidentiality contracts, but those outside it too – those like journalists and publishers whose very role in a democratic society is to act as a watchdog on power.

If we do nothing, Melzer’s book warns, we will wake up to find the world transformed. Or as he concludes: “Once telling the truth has become a crime, we will all be living in a tyranny” (p. 331).

The Trial of Julian Assange by Nils Melzer is published by Verso.

First published by Middle East Eye

The post The persecution of Julian Assange first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Cuba Prepares for Disaster

The September 2021 Scientific American included a description by the editors of the deplorable state of disaster relief in the US. They traced the root cause of problems with relief programs as their “focus on restoring private property,” which results in little attention to those “with the least capacity to deal with disasters.” The book Disaster Preparedness and Climate Change in Cuba: Adaptation and Management (2021) comes out the next month. It traced the highly successful source of the island nation’s efforts to the way it put human welfare above property. This collection of 14 essays by Emily J. Kirk, Isabel Story, and Anna Clayfield is an extraordinary assemblage of articles, each addressing specific issues.

Writers are well aware that Cuban approaches are adapted to the unique geography and history of the island. What readers should take away is not so much the specific actions of Cuba as its method of studying a wide array of approaches and actually putting the best into effect (as opposed to merely talking about their strengths and weaknesses). The book traces Cuba’s preparedness from the threat of a US invasion following its revolution through its resistance to hurricanes and diseases, which all laid the foundation for current adaptions to climate change.

Only four years after the revolution, in 1963, Hurricane Flora hit the Caribbean, killing 7000-8000. Cubans who are old enough remember homes being washed away by waters carrying rotten food, animal carcasses and human bodies. It sparked a complete redesign of health systems, intensifying their integration from the highest decision-making bodies to local health centers. Construction standards were strengthened, requiring houses to have reinforced concrete and metal roofs to resist strong winds.

Decades of re-designing proved successful. In September 2017 Category 5 Hurricane Maria pounded Puerto Rico, leading to 2975 deaths. The same month, Irma, also a Category 5 Hurricane, arrived in Cuba, causing 10 deaths. The dedication to actually preparing the country for a hurricane (as opposed to merely talking about preparedness) became a model for coping with climate change. Projecting potential future damage led Cubans to to realize that by 2050, rising water levels could destroy 122 coastal towns. By 2017, Cuba had become the only country with a government-led plan (Project Life, or Tarea Vida) to combat climate change which includes a 100 year projection.

Disaster Planning

Several aspects merged to form the core of Cuban disaster planning. They included education, the military, and social relationships. During 1961, Cuba’s signature campaign raised literacy to 96%, one of the world’s highest rates. This has been central to every aspect of disaster preparation – government officials and educators travel throughout the island, explaining consequences of inaction and everyone’s role in avoiding catastrophe.

Less obvious is the critical role of the military. From the first days they took power, leaders such as Fidel and Che explained that the only way the revolution could defend itself from overwhelming US force would be to become a “nation in arms.” Soon self-defense from hurricanes combined with self-defense from attack and Cuban armed forces became a permanent part of fighting natural disasters. By 1980, exercises called Bastión (bulwark) fused natural disaster management with defense rehearsals.

As many as 4 million Cubans (in a population of 11 million) were involved in activities to practice and carry out food production, disease control, sanitation and safeguarding medical supplies. A culture based on understanding the need to create a new society has glued these actions together. When a policy change is introduced, government representatives go to each community, including the most remote rural ones, to make sure that everyone knows the threats that climate change poses to their lives and how they can alter behaviors to minimize them. Developing a sense of responsibility for ecosystems includes such diverse actions as conserving energy, saving water, preventing fires and using medical products sparingly.


One aspect of the book may confuse readers. Some authors refer to the Cuban disaster prevention system as “centralized;” others refer to it as “decentralized;” and some describe it as both “centralized” and “decentralized” on different pages of their essay. The collection reflects a methodology of “dialectical materialism” which often employs the unity of opposite processes (“heads” and “tails” are opposite static states united in the concept of “coin”). As multiple authors have explained, including Ross Danielson in his classic Cuban Medicine (1979), centralization and decentralization of medicine have gone hand-in-hand since the earliest days of the revolution. This may appear as centralization of inpatient care and decentralization of outpatient care (p. 165) but more often as centralization at the highest level of norms and decentralization of ways to implement care to the local level. The decision to create doctor-nurse offices was made by the ministry which provided guidelines for each area to implement according to local conditions.

A national plan for coping with Covid-19 was developed before the first Cuban died of the affliction and each area designed ways to to get needed medicines, vaccines and other necessities to their communities. Proposals for preventing water salinization in coastal areas will be very different from schemas for coping with rises in temperature in inland communities.

Challenges for Producing Energy: The Good

As non-stop use of fossil fuels renders the continued existence of humanity questionable, the issue of how to obtain energy rationally looms as a core problem of the twenty-first century. Disaster Preparedness explores an intriguing variety of energy sources. Some of them are outstandingly good; a few are bad; and, many provoke closer examination.

Raúl Castro proposed in 1980 that it was necessary to protect the countryside from impacts of nickel mining. What was critical in this early approach was an understanding that every type of metal extraction has negatives that must be weighed against its usefulness in order to minimize those negatives. What did not appear in his approach was making a virtue of necessity, which would have read “Cuba needs nickel for trade; therefore, extracting Cuban nickel is good; and, thus, problems with producing nickel should be ignored or trivialized.”

In 1991, when the USSR collapsed and Cuba lost its subsidies and many of its trading partners, its economy was devastated, adult males lost an average of 20 pounds, and health problems became widespread. This was Cuba’s “Special Period.” Not having oil meant that Cuba had to abandon machine-intensive agriculture for agroecology and urban farming.

Laws prohibited use of agrochemicals in urban gardens. Vegetable and herb production exploded from 4000 tons in 1994 to over 4 million tons by 2006. By 2019, Jason Hickel’s Sustainable Development Index rated Cuba’s ecological efficiency as the best in the world.

By far the most important part of Cuba’s energy program was using less energy via conservation, an idea abandoned by Western “environmentalists” who began endorsing unlimited expansion of energy produced by “alternative” sources. In 2005, Fidel began pushing conservation policies projected to reduce Cuba’s energy consumption by two-thirds. Ideas such these had blossomed during the first few years of the revolution.

What one author refers to as “bioclimatic architecture” is not clear, but it could include tile vaulting, which was studied extensively by the Cuban government in the early 1960s. It is based on arched ceilings formed by lightweight terra cotta tiles. The technique is low-carbon because it does not require expensive machinery and uses mainly local material such as terra cotta tiles from Camagüey province. Though used to construct buildings throughout the island, it was abandoned due to its need for skilled and specialized labor.

Challenges for Producing Energy: The Bad

Though there are negative aspects to Cuba’s energy perspectives, it is important to consider one which is anything but negative: energy efficiency (EE). Ever since Stanley Jevons predicted in 1865 that a more efficient steam engine design would result in more (not less) coal being used, it has been widely understood that if the price of energy (such as burning coal) is cheaper, then people will use more energy.

A considerable amount of research verifies that, at the level of the entire economy, efficiency makes energy cheaper and its use goes up. Some claim that if an individual uses a more EE option, then that person will use less energy. But that is not necessarily so. Someone buying a car might look for one that is more EE. If the person replaces a non-EE sedan with an EE SUV, the fact that SUVs use more energy than sedans would mean that the person is using more energy to get around. Similarly, rich people use money saved from EE devices to buy more gadgets while poor people might not buy anything additional or buy low-energy necessities.

This is why Cuba, a poor country with a planned economy, can design policies to reduce energy use. Whatever is saved from EE can lead to less or low-energy production, resulting in a spiraling down of energy usage. In contrast, competition drives capitalist economies toward investing funds saved from EE toward economic expansion, resulting in perpetual growth.

Though a planned economy allows for decisions that are healthier for people and ecosystems, bad choices can be made. One consideration in Cuba is the goal to “efficiently apply pesticides” (p. 171). The focus should actually be on how to farm without pesticides. Also under consideration is “solid waste energy capacities,” which is typically a euphemism for burning waste in incinerators. Incinerators are a terrible way to produce energy since they merely reduce the volume of trash to 10% of its original size while releasing poisonous gases, heavy metals (such as mercury and lead), and cancer-causing dioxins and furans.

The worst energy alternative was favored by Fidel, who supported a nuclear power plant which would supposedly “greatly reduce the cost of producing electricity.” (p. 187) Had the Soviets built a Chernobyl-type nuclear reactor, an explosion or two would not have contributed to disaster prevention. Once when I was discussing the suffering following the USSR collapse with a friend who writes technical documents for the Cuban government, he suddenly blurted out, “The only good thing coming out of the Special Period was that, without the Soviets, Fidel could not build his damned nuclear plant!”

Challenges for Producing Energy: The Uncertain

Between the poles of positive and negative lies a vast array of alternatives mentioned in Disaster Preparedness that most are unfamiliar with. There are probably few who know of bagasse, which is left over sugar cane stalks that have been squeezed for juice. Burning it for fuel might arouse concern because it is not plowed into soil like what should be done for wheat stems and corn stalks. Sugar cane is different because the entire plant is hauled away – it would waste fuel to transport it to squeezing machinery and then haul it back to the farm.

While fuel from bagasse is an overall environmental plus, the same cannot be said for oilseeds such as Jatropha curcas. Despite the book suggesting the they might be researched more, they are a dead end for energy production.

Another energy positive being expanded in Cuba is farms being run entirely on agroecology principles. The book claims that such farms can produce 12 times the energy they consume, which might seem like a lot. Yet, similar findings occur in other countries, notably Sweden. In contrast, at least one author holds out hope of obtaining energy from microalgae, almost certainly another dead end.

Potentially, a very promising source for energy is the use of biogas from biodigesters. Biodigesters break down manure and other biomass to create biogas which is used for tractors or transportation. Leftover solid waste material can be used as a (non-fossil fuel) fertilizer. On the other hand, an energy source which one author lists as viable is highly dubious: “solar cells built with gallum arsenide.” Compounds with arsenic are cancer-causing and not healthy for humans and other living species.

The word “biomass” is highly charged because it is one of Europe’s “clean, green” energy sources despite the fact that burning wood pellets is leading to deforestation in Estonia and the US. This does not seem to be the case in Cuba, where “biomass” refers to sawdust and weedy marabú trees. It remains important to distinguish positive biomass from highly destructive biomass.

Many other forms of alternative energy could be covered and there is a critical point applying to all of them. Each source of energy must be analyzed separately without ever assuming that if energy does not come from fossil fuels it is therefore useful and safe.

Depending on How You Get It

The three major sources of alternative energy – hydroturbines (dams), solar, and wind – share the characteristic that how positive or negative they are depends on the way they are obtained.

The simplest form of hydro power is the paddle wheel, which probably causes zero environmental damage and produces very little energy. At the other extreme is hydro-electric dams which cross entire rivers and are incredibly destructive towards human cultures and aquatic and terrestrial species. In between are methods such as diverting a portion of the river to harness its power. The book mentions pico-hydroturbines which affect only a portion of a river, generating less than 5kW and are extremely useful for remote areas. They have minimal environmental effects. But if a large number of these turbines were placed together in a river, that would be a different matter. The general rule for water power is that causing less environmental damage means producing less energy.

Many ways to produce energy start with the sun. Cuba uses passive solar techniques, which do not have toxic processes associated with electricity. A passivehaus design provides warmth largely via insulation and placement of windows. Extremely important is body heat. This makes a passivhaus difficult for Americans, whose homes typically have much more space per person than other countries. But the design could work better in Cuba, where having three generations living together in a smaller space would contribute to heating quite well.

At the negative extreme of solar energy are the land-hungry electricity-generating arrays. In between these poles is low-intensity solar power, also being studied by Cuba.

The vast majority of Cubans heat their water for bathing. Water heaters can depend on solar panels which turn sunlight into electricity. An even better non-electric design would be to use a box with glass doors and a black tank to collect heat, or to use “flat plate collectors” and then pipe the heated water to an indoor storage tank. As with hydro-power, simpler designs produce fewer problems but generate less energy.

Wind power is highly similar. Centuries ago, windmills were constructed with materials from the surrounding area and did not rely on or produce toxins. Today’s industrial wind turbines are toxic in every phase of their existence. In the ambiguous category are small wind turbines and wind pumps, both of which Cuba is exploring. What hydro, solar and wind power have in common is that non-destructive forms exist but produce less energy. The more energy-producing a system is, the more problematic it becomes.

Scuttling the Fetish

Since hydro, solar and wind power have reputations as “renewable, clean, green” sources of energy, it is necessary to examine them closely. Hydro, solar and wind power each require destructive extraction of materials such as lithium, cobalt, silver, aluminum, cadmium, indium, gallium, selenium, tellurium, neodymium, and dysprosium. All three lead to mountains of toxic waste that vastly exceed the amount obtained for use. And all require withdrawal of immense amounts of water (a rapidly vanishing substance) during the mining and construction.

Hydro-power also disrupts aquatic species (as well as several terrestrial ones), causes large releases of greenhouse gases (GHGs) from reservoirs, increases mercury poisoning, pushes people out of their homes during construction, intensifies international conflicts, and have killed up to 26,000 people from breakage. Silicon-based solar panels involves an additional list of toxic chemicals that can poison workers during manufacture, gargantuan loss of farm and forest land for installing “arrays” (which rapidly increases over time), and still more land loss for disposal after their 25-30 year life spans. Industrial wind turbines require loss of forest land for roads to haul 160 foot blades to mountain tops, land loss for depositing those mammoth blades after use, and energy-intensive storage capacity when there is no wind.

Hydro, solar and wind power are definitely NOT renewable, since they all are based on heavy usage of materials that are exhausted following continuous mining. Neither are they “carbon neutral” because all use fossil fuels for extraction of necessary building materials and end-of-life demolition. The most important point is that the issues listed here are a tiny fraction of total problems, which would require a very thick book to enumerate.

Why use the word “fetish” for approaches to hydro, solar and wind power? A “fetish” can be described as “a material object regarded with extravagant trust or reverence” These sources of energy have positive characteristics, but nothing like the reverence often bestowed upon them.

Cuba’s approach to alternative energy is quite different. Helen Yaffe wrote two of the major articles in Disaster Preparedness. She also put together the 2021 documentary, Cuba’s life task: Combatting climate change, which includes the following from advisor Orlando Rey Santos:

“One problem today is that you cannot convert the world’s energy matrix, with current consumption levels, from fossil fuels to renewable energies. There are not enough resources for the panels and wind turbines, nor the space for them. There are insufficient resources for all this. If you automatically made all transportation electric tomorrow, you will continue to have the same problems of congestion, parking, highways, heavy consumption of steel and cement.”

Cuba maps out many different outlines for energy in order to focus on those that are the most productive while causing the least damage. A genuine environmental approach requires a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA, also known as cradle-to-grave accounting) which includes all mining, milling, construction and transport of materials; the energy-gathering process itself (including environmental disruption); along with after-effects such as continuing environmental damage and disposal of waste. To these must be added social effects such as relocating people, injury and death of those resisting relocation, destruction of sacred cites and disruption of affected cultures.

A “fetish” on a specific energy source denotes tunnel-visioning on its use phase while ignoring preparatory and end-of-life phases and social disruption. While LCAs are often propounded by corporations, they are typically nothing but window-dressing, to be pitched out of window during actual decision-making. With an eternal growth dynamic, capitalism has a built-in tendency to downplay negatives when there is an opportunity to add new energy sources to the mix of fossil fuels.

Is It an Obscene Word?

Cuba has no such internal dynamics forcing it to expand the economy if it can provide better lives for all. The island could be a case study of degrowth economics. Since “degrowth” is shunned as a quasi-obscenity by many who insist that it would cause immeasurable suffering for the world’s poor, it is necessary to state what it would be. The best definition is that Global Economic Degrowth means (a) reduction of unnecessary and destructive production by and for rich countries (and people), (b) which exceeds the (c) growth of production of necessities by and for poor countries (and people).

This might not be as economically difficult as some imagine because …

1. The rich world spends such gargantuan wealth on that which is useless and deadly, including war toys, chemical poisons, planned obsolescence, creative destruction of goods, insurance, automobile addiction, among a mass of examples; and,

2. Providing the basic necessities of life can often be relatively cheap, such as health care in Cuba being less than 10% of US expenses (with Cubans having a longer life expectancy and lower infant mortality rate).

Some mischaracterize degrowth, claiming that “Cuba experienced ‘degrowth’ during its ‘Special Period’ and it was horrible.” Wrong! Degrowth did not immiserate Cuba – the US embargo did. US sanctions (or embargo or blockade) of Cuba creates barriers to trade which force absurdly high prices for many goods. One small example: If Cubans need a spare part manufactured in the US, it cannot be merely shipped from the US, but more likely, arrives via Europe. That means its cost will reflect: [manufacture] + [cost of shipping to Europe] + [cost of shipping from Europe to Cuba].

What is amazing is that Cuba has developed so many techniques of medical care and disaster management for hurricanes and climate change, despite its double impoverishment from colonial days and neo-colonial attacks from the US.


Cuba realizes the responsibility it has to protect its extraordinary biodiversity. Its extensive coral reefs are more resistant to bleaching than most and must be investigated to discover why. They are accompanied by healthy marine systems which include mangroves and seagrass beds. Its flora and fauna boast 3022 distinct plant species plus dozens of reptiles, amphibians and bird species which exist only on the island.

For Cuba to implement global environmental protection and degrowth policies it would need to receive financing both to research new techniques and to train the world’s poor in how to develop their own ways to live better. Such financial support would include …

1. Reparations for centuries of colonial plunder;

2. Reparations for the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, multiple attacks which killed Cuban citizens, hundreds of attempts on Fidel’s life, and decades of slanderous propaganda; and,

3. At least $1 trillion in reparations for losses due to the embargo since 1962.

Why reparations? It is far more than the fact that Cuba has been harmed intensely by the US. Cuba has a track record proving that it could develop amazing technologies if it were left alone and received the money it deserves.

Like all poor countries, Cuba is forced to employ dubious methods of producing energy in order to survive. It is unacceptable for rich countries to tell poor countries that they must not use energy techniques which have historically been employed to obtain what is necessary for living. It is unconscionable for rich countries to fail to forewarn poor countries that repeating practices which we now know are dangerous will leave horrible legacies for their descendants.

Cuba has acknowledged past misdirections including an economy based on sugar, a belief in the need of humanity to dominate nature, support for the “Green Revolution” with its reliance on toxic chemicals, tobacco in food rations, and the repression of homosexuals. Unless it is sidetracked by by advocates of infinite economic growth, its pattern suggests that it will recognize problems with alternative energy and seek to avoid them.

In the video Cuba’s Life Task, Orlando Rey also observes that “There must be a change in the way of life, in our aspirations. This is a part of Che Guevara’s ideas on the ‘new man.’ Without forming that new human, it is very difficult to confront the climate issue.”

Integration of poor countries into the global market has meant that areas which were once able to feed themselves are are now unable to do so. Neo-liberalism forces them to use energy sources that are life-preservers in the short run but are death machines for their descendants. The world must remember that Che’s “new man” will not clamor for frivolous luxuries while others starve. For humanity to survive, a global epiphany rejecting consumer capitalism must become a material force in energy production. Was Che only dreaming? If so, then keep that dream alive!

Don Fitz (moc.loanull@nodztif)is on the Editorial Board of Green Social Thought, where a version of this article originally appeared. He was the 2016 candidate of the Missouri Green Party for Governor. His articles on politics and the environment have appeared in Monthly Review, Z Magazine, and Green Social Thought, as well as multiple online publications. His book, Cuban Health Care: The Ongoing Revolution, has been available since June 2020. Thoughts from Stan Cox and John Som de Cerff were very helpful for technical aspects of this review.

The post Cuba Prepares for Disaster first appeared on Dissident Voice.

The True Adventure of a 19-year-old North American Fighting in the Cuban Revolution with Fidel Castro

Wild Green Oranges describes how author Bob Baldock dropped out of college and was at loose ends in 1958. Then he became inspired after a chance viewing of a newsreel. It was about a band of rebels in the remote eastern mountains of Cuba fighting a guerilla war against the US-backed Batista dictatorship. He had access to news about the little-known events in Cuba at his job as a copy boy at the (now defunct) New York Herald Tribune and became determined to interview the rebels.

Then a youth of nineteen years, his only travel outside the Midwest was to New York City. He recruited another dropout classmate, forged press credentials, and hitched to Miami. Working odd jobs and getting by with a little help from their friends to buy air tickets, the two flew to Havana.

Dodging Batista’s security, the buddies traveled across the island toward the rebel enclave. His descriptions of the deprivation in Cuba under the dictatorship are graphic.

By luck and aid from the clandestine movement, they made their way into the Sierra Maestra. There they somehow hooked up with Fidel Castro and his 26 de Julio movement. At first the rebels couldn’t believe that the youths had survived the journey and found their hideout.

But what to do with these two periodistas (journalists), who had never written an article? Celia Sánchez, Castro’s closest revolutionary compañera, made clear that the two North Americans had best make themselves useful. The meager food they were eating was at the expense of the small group of 30 to 60 revolutionary combatants.

So Baldock put his two years of college to good use. He had been in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) and knew how to handle an M1 rifle. For five months, he fought with the revolutionary forces. The book presents an intimate window into the revolutionary struggle, complete with photographs.

Only after getting seriously wounded and contracting a life-threatening case of bacillary dysentery was Baldock forced to leave.

Wild Green Oranges, as an adventure story, is a page-turner. But, because it is autobiographical, it is not really a spoiler to reveal that Baldock lived to tell the tale. Baldock went on to a career of working for progressives causes and organizations such as Black Oak Books and Pacifica Radio.

The book’s self-description as “an autobiographical novel” is a bit misleading. All the events actually took place, according to the author, including his close relationships with leaders of the Cuban Revolution such as Castro and even meeting the legendary Che. However, Baldock includes dialogue for dramatic effect, which had to be recreated to the best of his memory.

The book had to be published out of the country because of the difficulty of getting US publishers to include a title favorable to the Cuban Revolution. However, it can be purchased at a reasonable price from most US book outlets.

Only a few months after Baldock left the Sierras, the Cuban Revolution triumphed on January 1, 1959. For the same reason that Cuba has earned the admiration of oppressed peoples and allies worldwide, it has engendered the eternal hatred of the colossus to the north. Cuba is now into sixty years of a crippling US blockade.

The current US president, contrary to his campaign pledges, has intensified the US hybrid war against Cuba. Joe Biden continues the same illegal policy of regime change against Cuba as that of the previous twelve US presidents: covert and overt destabilization, blockade, and occupation of Guantánamo.

Despite an economy that’s been ravaged by the pandemic and the tightening of the US blockade, Cuba has produced three COVID vaccines with two more in development. More than 90% percent of Cubans are vaccinated, surpassing the US.

World pandemic, increasing inequities, environmental catastrophe, and the possibility of an annihilating nuclear conflagration is the trajectory of the dystopian future promised by US “world leadership.” Cuba and the other peoples and nations striving for socialism are our glimpse into a better world. Although he never returned to Cuba, now 85-year-old Baldock is still proud to say for good reason, “I remain a Fidelista!”

Fidel Castro, the author (right), and his college friend, 1958, Sierra Maestra, Cuba

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A World War Conducted on Multiple Fronts

This book is a brilliant and comprehensive analysis of the Covid-19 crisis and the worldwide states of siege instituted under its cover.  Reading it, one cannot help but shake one’s head in outrage at the long-planned nature of the wealthy global elite’s seizure of power under the guise of a germ emergency and the revolutionary crisis it has created.

I say this not only because I am predisposed to the author’s thesis, but because he buttresses his argument with overwhelming documentation that is meticulously sourced and noted.  This is a work of genuine scholarship of the highest order, and to read it closely and with an open mind one can’t help but be convinced of its essential truth.

Kees van der Pijl, the author of The Making of an Atlantic Ruling Class and the winner of the 2008 Deutscher Prize for Nomads, Empires, States: Modes of Foreign Relations and Political Economy, introduces his study with these words:

The psychological shock of the proclamation of a pandemic, like the purpose behind torture, is intended to induce acceptance of a ‘new normal’ and to turn off critical judgment. This state of mind is achieved by withholding information about what is really going on, through the extremely one-sided information by politicians and mainstream media. Divergent views by often highly qualified experts are not mentioned or are dismissed as ‘conspiracy theories.’ This can be compared to the sensory deprivation in psychological torture. . . .We are dealing with a biopolitical  seizure of power, initiated at the level of global governance and reaching deep into the sovereignty of the individual, a seizure that involves a  whole range of forms of violence. [my emphasis]

The reason van der Pijl’s analysis is so powerful is because he clearly sees the historical context for the Covid crisis, how it is linked to issues of geo/economic-politics going back thirty-five years or more, culminating in the 2008 economic crash that ended years of capitalist speculation.  Then when President Barack Obama, serving as the front man for the big speculators, banks, and shadow banks, bailed out those entities and created a new financial order, popular revolts, such as those which were brewing on the eve of the New Deal in the 1930s, broke out around the world in the ensuing years and had to be subdued.  “Strikes, riots, and antigovernment demonstrations have broken existing records in every category during this period [since 2008].”

The elites knew that such revolts of an uncontrollable world population had to be kept under control, and that the growing numbers approaching 8 billion people had also to be culled. But van der Pijl’s subtitle, while intimating both with its double-entre, leads him to focus on the former that he deems “much more important.” While popular unrest and rage have been more or less suppressed since 2020 with the Covid crisis effectively used to put down its latest signs of eruption and to replace it with a permanent sense of anxiety, fear and trembling was first introduced on a massive scale with the attacks of September 11, 2001, the connected insider anthrax attacks, the Patriot Act, and emergency propaganda measures used to fuel the war on terror that has no end.  This terrorizing of the world has taken multiple forms with an ongoing series of U.S. wars on other countries – Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, etc., not to mention the proxy wars – supported by massive digital propaganda meant to take populations hostage to the lies.

Van der Pijl cogently shows how the Covid crisis fear campaign’s official account is untrue; how it is a political and not a medical emergency; and that it will collapse, as it has, at least temporarily, but how its deeper purpose is to create a  permanent authoritarian, surveillance social order controlled by transnational elites through global digital IDs, etc. This “new normal” relies on the corporate mass media to do the dissemination of the propaganda of fear and lies, and so he correctly emphasizes the central importance of the IT revolution and the single complex triangle of intelligence services-IT-media, which are in, essence, one entity.  The information warfare of mind control of the ruling class is fundamental, as he writes:

This is the core around which the ruling class in the West began to regroup after 2008 and which is now waging the information war against the global population by means of the Covid state of emergency.

He sees the elites’ seizure of power as an effort to foreclose a democratic transformation through the Information Technology (IT) revolution that he compares to the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, which as such could potentially serve as a liberating force.  However, he also views IT, digitization, and the Internet from its inception as fundamental to the elites’ repressive control.  This double-edged perspective (about which I will return later) raises important questions.

But the body of the book is devoted to all the ways the intelligence-IT-media triangle has conducted its information warfare campaign based on techniques developed years ago in CIA counterinsurgency operations in Vietnam – Operation Phoenix – and its Strategy of Tension operations in Italy and Europe in the 1970s, and Lebanon and Central America in the 1980s.

He shows how these operations, stretching back so many decades, are connected to events today, greatly enhanced by the digital devices – particularly the cell phone.

He shows how Barack Obama’s 2012 initiation of aggressive global cyber operations – Total Information Awareness – whose details Edward Snowden made public, expanded the war against the population through cyber pacification techniques.

He tells the reader how the methods of such warfare that were used in Afghanistan and Iraq were brought home with the return of JSOC commander Stanley McChrystal, who just so happens to head an advisory group, the McChrystal Group, that plays a pivotal role in the Covid crisis by allegedly countering disinformation and promoting the government’s version of Covid truth.

He reminds readers about McChrystal’s journalist enemy, Michael Hastings, who after writing an article about McChrystal that led to his recall from Afghanistan and firing, would just so happen to be killed when his Mercedes was “hacked and detonated by remote control in a collision” in Los Angeles a few years later.

Van der Pijl shows how it just so happened that the new digital technologies were privatized in the defense and intelligence areas to form “Private-Public Partnerships” and how the World Economic Forum (WEF) hosted the UN’s 2030 Vision with all its multivarious connections to the imposition of the Covid crisis from above.

He draws the connections between the WEF, Bill Gates, U.S. intelligence, vaccines, the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, the Carnegie institutions, journalists on the CIA’s payroll, In-Q-Tel (the CIA’s venture capital arm), Bloomberg, Jeff Bezos, Black Rock, and so many other individuals and groups with the goal of establishing The Great Reset when the elites will try to exert total electronic control over people’s lives through a digital world economy, artificial intelligence, etc.

He details the U.S./Nazi connections going back to WW II and the U.S. biological weapons research and warfare targeting China and Russia, including the bio-laboratories in Ukraine.  He tells us how:

This goes back to a 2005 agreement between the Pentagon and Ukraine’s Ministry of Health. It prohibits the Kiev government from disclosing sensitive information about the program; Ukraine is required to hand over the dangerous pathogens produced there to the U.S. Department of Defense for further biological research. . . . One of the Pentagon’s laboratories is located in Kharkov where at least 20 Ukrainian soldiers succumbed to a flu-like virus within two days in 2016 . . . . In 2014 there was an outbreak in Moscow of a new, highly virulent variant of the Cholera agent Vibrio Cholera, related to the species identified in Ukraine.

He connects Anthony Fauci, the director of EcoHealth Alliance Dr. Peter Daszak, Christian Drosen of PCR notoriety, Fort Detrick, Wuhan, the World Military Games held in Wuhan between 18-27 October 2019, etc.

He explains how the Covid pandemic and lockdowns are a form of disaster capitalism that is a global project whose tentacles stretch extensively from the Gates Foundation to the Poynter Institute to the McChrystal Group to Philip Zelikow to the pharmaceutical companies and their “vaccine” push and propaganda to DARPA … to… to…  He writes:

It appears again and again that behind both the biopolitical and the IT-media power blocs lies the strategy of the American national security complex. . . One of the most alarming aspects of the transition from mechanical to psychological warfare against the population is that the authorities have now set their sights on the human genetic code as well.

In seven densely packed chapters, van der Pijl weaves and documents a vast tapestry of devious conspiratorial forces behind the states of emergency aimed at world control.  Reading them and following his sources, one would have to be brain dead to not realize that what is now happening throughout the world is not an accident or the result of things just happening but is a long planned operation conducted by very sophisticated forces interconnected in the group he calls the “intelligence-IT-triangle” that is waging mind control warfare to disguise the truth about their deadly bio/germ-weapons, their military wars around the world, and their economic assault on regular people.  It is a world war conducted on multiple fronts whose goal is elite control, the extinguishing of democracy, and the reduction of human being to appendages of the mega-machine.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I think his conclusion may be too optimistic.  For even though he argues that the Information Technology revolution is central to elite propaganda and control, he believes IT – this “social brain” – holds revolutionary democratic potential if it can be liberated from elite dominance.  I don’t see how this can happen, though I wish he were right.  A decentralized, democratic internet seems like a pipe dream to me.  A dream not unlike that of so many others who have assumed technology’s beneficence and inevitability even when they sense its insidious, destructive capabilities.

He is right to say that ”everything revolves around the one universal currency, information,” and that digital infrastructure is now at the center of social organization.  This is beyond dispute.  However, those intelligence/military/IT forces that created and control the internet and digital technologies will not voluntarily cede control.  They will wage information war with it, censor it, de–platform people and sites, etc.  I believe this technology is intrinsically anti-democratic.  Nevertheless,  his concluding chapter on this issue is very important for broaching this dilemma and getting people to debate it.

This book should be read by anyone who cares about our world.  It is brilliant and extremely timely.

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What Red Book Will You Read This Year on Red Books Day (21 February)?

On 16 February 2015, Govind and Uma Pansare went for a morning walk near their home in Kolhapur, in the western state of Maharashtra, India. Two men on a motorcycle stopped them and asked for directions, but the Pansares could not help them. One of the men laughed, pulled out a gun, and shot the two Pansares. Uma Pansare was hit but survived the attack. Her husband, Govind Pansare, died in a hospital shortly thereafter on 20 February at age 82.

Raised in poverty, Govind Pansare was fortunate to go to school, where he encountered Marxist ideas. In 1952, at the age of 19, Pansare joined the Communist Party of India (CPI). While in college in Kolhapur, Pansare could often be found at the Republic Book Stall, where he devoured Marxist classics and Soviet novels that came to India through the CPI’s People’s Publishing House. When he became a lawyer, Pansare worked with trade unions and organisations rooted in poor neighbourhoods. He read avidly, researching the history of Maharashtra to better understand how to get rid of wretched customs such as the caste system and religious fundamentalism.

Out of his world of struggle and his world of books emerged Pansare’s commitment to culture and to intellectual liberation. Along with his comrades, he set up the Shramik Pratishthan (Workers’ Trust), which not only published books but also held seminars and lectures. One of the most popular programmes organised by the Trust was the annual literary festival in honour of the Marathi writer Annabhau Sathe. In 1987, Pansare wrote a book called Shivaji Kon Hota? (Who Was Shivaji? in the LeftWord Books English edition). He freed the 17th-century warrior Shivaji from the manipulations of the far right in India, which had falsely portrayed him in their books as a Hindu warrior who battled Muslims. In fact, Shivaji was reported to have been benevolent to Muslims, which is why Pansare rescued him from their clutches.

Pansare’s assassination is one among many left-wing writers and political figures. No country is immune to this, with left bookstores being attacked and left publishers being threatened across the world. As Héctor Béjar, the former foreign minister of Peru told us in our most recent dossier, right-wing intellectuals simply do not have the intellectual weight to debate the key issues of our time. They do not have the facts or the theory to make a coherent argument for bigotry or for climate destruction, for social inequality or for their interpretation of history. Intellectuals of the right instead promote obscurantist and irrational thought alongside their other weapons: open intimidation and violence. The rise of neo-fascistic politicians and parties provides a veneer of respectability to the scum who take up guns and rods to attack and kill people like Pansare.

Justice for people such as Govind Pansare is elusive, just as it is for Chokri Belaïd (Tunisia), Chris Hani (South Africa), Gauri Lankesh (India), Marielle Franco (Brazil), Nahed Hattar (Jordan), and far too many others. These were all sensitive people who took the dangerous step to fight for something greater than our present world.

Pansare’s daughter-in-law, Dr. Megha Pansare, sent a message to Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research: ‘The space for free expression is shrinking in our country. There have been regular attacks on journalists and artists, intellectuals and farmers. We have been compelled to fight to expand the public sphere. It is extremely worrying to see the state patronise religious fundamentalist forces. We must raise our voices to stop the silencing of our voices by guns’.

The International Union of Left Publishers released a strong statement calling for justice for Govind Pansare: ‘Seven years have gone by and yet the police have not gathered hard facts’, they write. ‘The entire world is witness to the rising trend of hate crimes in India and crimes against Indian culture (including the murder of writers). We, the International Union of Left Publishers, stand in solidarity with the families of the victims and we raise our voice in defense of the progressive and humane values of secularism, social progress, and social justice’.

A few years after the murder of Govind Pansare, LeftWord Books in New Delhi began to float the idea of Red Books Day. This would be a celebration of radical books and the people and institutions that make them. Knowing Pansare, he would have been aware that the day after his death was a significant anniversary. On 21 February 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto just months before revolutions swept across Europe, which would later be called the Springtime of the Peoples (Printemps des peuples). The manifesto is not only one of the most read books in our time, but in 2013, the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) adopted this book in its Memory of the World Programme. This initiative by UNESCO is intended to preserve humanity’s heritage against the ‘ravages of time’ and ‘collective amnesia’. So, LeftWord Books – along with the Indian Society of Left Publishers – decided to issue a global call for Red Books Day to be held each year on 21 February.

When the first Red Books Day was held on 21 February 2020, thirty thousand people from South Korea to Venezuela joined the public reading of the manifesto. It turns out that the United Nations had also designated 21 February as International Mother Language Day. The manifesto was read in the language of the people who were reading it – in Korean when the day began and in Spanish when the day ended. Without question, the largest number of readers of the manifesto on that day were in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where the publishing house Bharathi Puthakalayam and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) included ten thousand people in the festivities. The readings began under the Triumph of Labour statue, erected in 1959 on Chennai’s Marina Beach at the precise spot where May Day was first celebrated in India in 1923. The book was read aloud in the fields by communist peasant organisers in Nepal and in the Landless Workers’ Movement’s (MST) occupied settlements in Brazil; it was read in study circles in Havana (Cuba) and read out aloud for the first time in Sesotho (one of South Africa’s eleven official languages). It was read in Gaelic at Connolly Books (Dublin, Ireland) and in Arabic in a café in Beirut (Lebanon). Bharathi Puthakalayam published a new translation into Tamil by M. Sivalingam for the occasion, while Prajasakti and Nava Telangana published a new translation into Telugu by A. Gandhi.

In the aftermath of Red Books Day, a group of publishers – invited by the Indian Society of Left Publishers – began to form the International Union of Left Publishers (IULP). Over the course of the past two years, the IULP has produced four joint books: Lenin 150, Mariátegui, Che, and Paris Commune 150. To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune, twenty-seven publishing houses released a book on the same day, 28 May 2021, in almost as many languages – an unparalleled feat in the history of publishing. This year, the IULP will publish two more books which collect key texts of Alexandra Kollontai (May) and Ruth First (August). The Union is meanwhile developing its principles of exchanging books between publishers and standing together against the attacks against authors, publishers, printers, and bookshops.

Red Books Day is an initiative of the IULP, but we hope that it will become part of the broader global calendar of annual cultural activities. The Red Books Day website allows anyone to post information about their activities for the day this year and includes an art exhibit of Red Books Day posters from around the world organised by Young Socialist Artists. Rather than insist that everyone read the same book, the idea this year is for people to read any red book in public or online. For example, in Tamil Nadu this year’s reading will be Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880). Others will read the manifesto or poetry about the human spirit in search of emancipation.

Up in the Sierra Maestra, Fidel Castro and his comrades spent long periods in the evenings reading whatever they could find. When they boarded the Granma from Mexico, they brought guns, food, and medicine, but not many books. They had to circulate what they had: Curzio Malaparte’s The Skin (1949) about the Nazi occupation of Naples and Émile Zola’s terrifying thriller, The Beast Within (1890). They even had a copy of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), which was almost the cause of Che Guevara being killed during an air raid.

One of the guerrillas, Salustiano de la Cruz Enríquez (also known as Crucito), composed ballads in the old Cuban guajira style. He would sit by the campfire and sing his poems as he played the guitar. ‘This magnificent comrade had written the whole history of the Revolution in ballads which he composed at every rest stop as he puffed on his pipe’, wrote Che Guevara in his Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War (1968). ‘Since there was very little paper in the Sierra, he composed the ballads in his head, so none of them remained when a bullet put an end to his life in the battle of Pino del Agua’ in September 1957. Crucito called himself el Ruiseñor de la Sierra Maestra – ‘the nightingale of the Sierra Maestra’. This Red Books Day, I am going to imagine his ballads and hum his forgotten tune in honour of people like Crucito and Govind Pansare, who keep trying to make the world a better place for humans and for nature.



PS: my red book to read this year is Võ Nguyên Giáp’s Unforgettable Days (Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1975).

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