Thursday, January 28, 2010

HOWARD ZINN (1922 - 2010) ON OBAMA

Howard Zinn died of a heart attack yesterday — the same day (perhaps during) Obama's first State of the Union address. If not the final word on the paralytic state of the administration certainly his last word. But Zinn didn't expect much in the first place. Here. A brief comment on Obama's first year in office published in The Nation a couple weeks ago:

I've been searching hard for a highlight. The only thing that comes close is some of Obama's rhetoric; I don't see any kind of a highlight in his actions and policies.

As far as disappointments, I wasn't terribly disappointed because I didn't expect that much. I expected him to be a traditional Democratic president. On foreign policy, that's hardly any different from a Republican—as nationalist, expansionist, imperial and warlike. So in that sense, there's no expectation and no disappointment. On domestic policy, traditionally Democratic presidents are more reformist, closer to the labor movement, more willing to pass legislation on behalf of ordinary people—and that's been true of Obama. But Democratic reforms have also been limited, cautious. Obama's no exception. On healthcare, for example, he starts out with a compromise, and when you start out with a compromise, you end with a compromise of a compromise, which is where we are now.

I thought that in the area of constitutional rights he would be better than he has been. That's the greatest disappointment, because Obama went to Harvard Law School and is presumably dedicated to constitutional rights. But he becomes president, and he's not making any significant step away from Bush policies. Sure, he keeps talking about closing Guantánamo, but he still treats the prisoners there as "suspected terrorists." They have not been tried and have not been found guilty. So when Obama proposes taking people out of Guantánamo and putting them into other prisons, he's not advancing the cause of constitutional rights very far. And then he's gone into court arguing for preventive detention, and he's continued the policy of sending suspects to countries where they very well may be tortured.

I think people are dazzled by Obama's rhetoric, and that people ought to begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre president—which means, in our time, a dangerous president—unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction.

Like Jimmy Carter with a fierce exterior. A sort of speedbump on the way to something else. (recall here Paul Volcker — engineer of the so-called Volcker Shock crucial to the success of neoliberal economic policy in the US — was Chairmen of the Federal Reserve first under Carter and then Reagan; and FUCKING GET THIS YO: Volcker is NOW chairman of the newly remodeled Economic Recovery Advisory Board under Obama. He's an Obama man. Or Obama's a Volcker man. Some ASTOUNDING shit. Volcking bullshit.

In A Brief History of Neoliberalism (the book went not through one but two printings in 2009) Paul Volcker is one of the first names David Harvey drops. First on page one. Then page two. Etc. Paul Samuleson died a few weeks back. Remember him? 1970 Nobel Prize in Economics (thermodynamics + economics). His nephew Larry Summers served as chief economist of the World Bank in 1991, Secretary of the Treasury under Clinton and is now director of the National Economic Council. The distance between MIT (neo-Keynesian) and Chicago (Friedman Franken Von Hayek) is slim.

I'm not sure he developed it much further, but Zinn extended the method of the British Marxist historians (Christopher Hill, E.P. Thompson, Dorothy Thompson, Rodney Hilton, Hobsbawm &c) to an American context. An important accomplishment. As a social historian Zinn's work attended to the economic — to the culturally determinate character of economic antagonisms.

Pound, "History and Ignorance" (1935): "History that omits economics will not eternally be accepted as anything but a farce or a fake."

Zinn writing eight years ago, in 2002 (Terrorism and War). Apropos:

The current recession has already had a very direct effect on a number of people, but this fact has been buried by the enormous attention paid to the war. As news coverage of the war recedes, though, the impact of the economic recession is going to become more and more obvious, and this will have an important result in the public's growing disaffection with the Bush administration, and maybe even disaffection with the Democratic Party, which has played such a pitifully obsequious role in this whole affair.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


While the official unemployment rate in the US remains at 10% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a sobering article at The Huffington Post reports that BLS figures indicate only 80% of men ages 25-54 held jobs in the month of December. One in five men of working age are presently unemployed. For men these numbers — which do not include the underemployed — rival unemployment figures during the Great Depression (numbers that peaked at 25% in 1933, four years after the precipitating crash). The new BLS figures have inspired a few evidently dull economists to refer to the present moment as a "mancession" and, coupled with the global feminization of labor in manufacturing over the past few decades, these stats punctuate the final stage of what has been a deeply gendered process of deindustrialization in the US and elsewhere.

For men struggling to hold onto some deluded, destructively nostalgic sense of an industrial working class past (where culturally specific forms of pride, dignity and resistance are gendered masculine and shot through with an idea of the nation) the jig is up and has been for a long time. But for women and men in the US presently laboring in the retail, service and manufacturing sectors (chicken processing plants in the so-called "broiler belt" running from the deep south to the Texas panhandle immediately spring to mind), the need to reimagine gender neutral but class specific forms of resistance, defiance, dignity and rage that are not bound to particular trades or occupations has never been more urgent. This is cultural work — the essential work of a cultural politics.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010


Not sure why John Clare's "Ants" come to mind, but Brenda Iijima's'll—ution (Displaced Press) was the first book to arrive at the door after the New Year. Red letter day. Her "Rock Facing Many Days," a poem for Rob Halpern and Thom Donovan:

Rock fissures, myriads, birds in their difficulty
To land in eradication, atomized vanishings
Bold face of moon Inner core produces sluice
Sense forces no not nothings beings surroundings

An Etel Adnan epigraph precedes the poem:

In grey luminescence, on colored brain tracts, the hour is
Unsure, quivering there, over there, this time inside, or is it
Outside the core of one's being, as we always are the other?

Outside the core of one's being, from the third stanza of Iijima's "Rock Facing": "Darkness swaddles loss and cruises," pushing forward without compromise, moving beyond idyll (idle) environs. John Clare's "Ants":

Surely they speak a language whisperingly,
Too fine for us to hear; and sure their ways
Prove they have kings and laws, and that they be
Deformed remnants of the Fairy-days.

Whether the distorted remnants of the past gesture nostalgically toward idyllic fairy-days worth mapping onto the future or grizzly moments that render the present a little more legible,'ll—ution is motored by a poetics of digging, tilling and a desire to turn material evidence over and over again in a dialectical movement that discloses new ways of hearing those languages that, to use Clare's line, are "Too fine for us to hear."

As a book the poems, texts and photographs in'll—ution come together to create a complex set of connective tissues, answering perhaps David Harvey's call to think multiple spatial scales simultaneously and allowing us to think the local (or the specificity of Iijima's local) in relation not only to the national and the global but to other distant locals (particular alterities) and the ideological. Like peering through an electron microscope and the Hubble telescope simultaneously. From "overleaf" introductory texts and photographs that patiently walk us through archaeological, investigative and guerrilla (gorilla) actions at various sites in North Adams, Massachusetts — Iijima's hometown — to poems that address the "swelling bloating grinning grimacing collecting / riveting" industries (tendencies) that engender and generate multiple forms of genocide and devastation on a global scale,'ll—ution insists we reconsider the spatialization of the past that destructively separates humanity from the animal world, civilization from the primitive, developed from the developing.

In the fifth volume of Damn the Caesars I had the privilege of including an especially productive dialog between Iijima and Tyrone Williams. Responding to an insightful comment by Williams on her use of parataxis in'll—ution as a possible "invocation of overpopulation," Iijima says:

I guess it is a statement about overload — the compounding pressures of a late capitalist system teetering on the brink of — what — no one can be sure. Noticing how systems achieve ever-greater complexity while also attempting to homogenize. Being conscious of the peripheries, the local, the emergent, the regrouping, the re-abling energies ...

A deeply sedimented book that plumbs; a digging and an accumulation concerned with, as Iijima notes in her conversation with Williams, "our responsibility to refuse." In an afterword to'll—ution Judith Goldman writes: "Let the pulse of its tumultuous mulch engulf you — "