The Beach Beneath the Streets and Other New Releases



Book
Reviews

 

 

The Beach Beneath the Streets:
Contesting New York City’s Public Spaces
By Benjamin Shepard and Greg Smithsimon
Excelsior Editions, 2011, 246 pp.

 

Review by Camille Goodison


A curious person witnessing the Arab Spring revolts of early 2011 and the riots in Europe this past summer, may have wondered why things are so peaceful here in the States where growing poverty trends, crushing personal debt, and instances of high youth unemployment are as bad as in other parts of the world. With youth unemployment through the roof, a lost generation is likely, as was seen in Japan after its financial crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. A socially and financially impoverished generation of diminished ways and means is a tragedy that needs to be avoided and yet, as another political season rolls around, it feels like business as usual.

 

Since the crisis began, there have been protests in the mid-west over collective bargaining rights and, in other parts of the country, there have been people willing to express their disgust over the Bush-era tax cuts which have contributed to the crisis. We’ve heard of citizens occupying the state house in Wisconsin and of activists occupying Wall Street to create an “American Tahrir Square.” There have been examples of brave citizen uprisings since the financial markets crash of 2008, but there has also been a familiar pattern of the authorities using disproportionate force or anti-democratic legislation (recent and created solely for such use) to squelch these movements, often as quickly as they’ve begun.

 

Benjamin Shepard and Greg Smithsimon, City University of New York professors (of Human Services and Sociology, respectively) provide some clues as to how we ended up in this situation in the first place and how outraged citizens have found ways of working against such corporate-backed state repression. One of the things that stand out from reading this book is how necessary it is for activists, or any concerned citizen, to go beyond standard street protest and seek other ways of being heard. In their book, The Beach Beneath the Streets: Contesting New York City’s Public Spaces, the authors take New York City as their case study in how neoliberalism has worked its magic in diminishing opportunity for all except the very wealthy and did it quite often with taxpayer’s money. Beach also takes the time to introduce us to the activist groups formed during the so-called boom years and also during the times of greatest repression. These groups have found creative ways of challenging a system that has come to rely on very effective means for controlling local communities.

 

The authors divide Beach into two parts: repression and resistance. The repression chapters take us through a careful and fascinating history of the 50-year-old neoliberal project. It’s an interesting account of what’s happened since those optimistic years of the 1960s, to the situation today, where youth from targeted communities can expect to be stopped by police several times over the course of their young lifetimes, often without reason.

 

Then, as now, according to the authors, the business elite always found opportunity in a crisis. As Ben Shepard explains in Beach’s introduction, the post-war era saw profound economic and demographic dislocation thanks to deindustrialization. Minorities and immigrants moved to New York in search of industrial work as the governing elite got stingier, suddenly fearing too generous entitlements: “By the early 1970s, the post war business-labor accord, in which business agreed to compensate workers in exchange for labor stability, began to crumble. [In New York]…the fiscal crisis witnessed a rebellion against the city’s social democratic policy…. New York’s bankers, business elites, and Governor Rockefeller pulled the plug, turned right and sketched a path for the city’s neoliberal birth. To pull off their coup, New York’s business elite built on a series of financial crises…. In the years after 1968 and more intensely after 1972, a well-connected elite comprised of a triumvirate of America’s social upper classes, corporate communities, and policy formation organizations called for a shift in direction for US social policy…. While business leaders had once considered social welfare policies an effective means to co-opt social movements…by the early 1970s, these same corporate leaders began to reconsider this view.” What’s remarkable, or perhaps not, is how much this echoes America’s most recent economic situation.

 

By 1975 the financial crisis reached its peak in New York with the city alone among American cities labeled as broke. Beach shows how the ensuing recession was created or, at the very least, worsened by financiers happy to create a privileged business climate rather than addressing the needs of the general population. Urban neo-liberalism meant concentrated wealth, increased social inequality, as well as approaches to policing that were aimed at control and segregation of populations considered undesirable, namely black urban youth and the poor.

 

Our country’s high rates of incarceration which rose in parallel with the influence of neoliberal policy, has more to do with the profit motive than with public safety or crime rates. Beach doesn’t state this fact so directly but shows it through changes in building design and public space throughout the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. It is a fascinating study—funny, sad, and compelling. The authors show how developers were able to use public money meant to create public space to instead build exclusive suburban-style plazas where forced segregation was practiced discreetly and off premises. We learn about the types of “public” space: privatized, filtered, suburban, policed, and it becomes clear how melting-pot cities like New York became much more stratified and divided. It wasn’t by accident. It turns out that developers are given a bonus for including a public plaza, but in reality most of these are barren, unusable and exclusive, and are so by design. As illustrated in Beach, these exclusionary policies result not only in a less democratic society but one that is less open to social progress.

 

The second half of Beach focuses on the activist struggles of queer youth of color, gardeners, cyclists, anti-gentrification activists, and other pushed-aside communities found in our big cities. People have been literally displaced by recent government policies which say, big business can plan our use of public resources and space. It’s exhilarating to read how groups like Critical Mass and Bike Lane Liberation Clowns (the cyclists actually dress as clowns) are able to both seriously and playfully reclaim urban streets. Through direct action, they are able to influence public debate on issues like the environment, sustainability, public transportation, and the constitutional right of people to assemble—a right which during the so-called boom 1990s had been under serious attack. Despite the clown suits and staged crashes into cars parked in bike lanes they’ve also managed to initiate discussions on our present wars abroad and our dependency on oil. Beach also tells of how groups like minority gay youth—criminalized and displaced by this privatization of public space—have been able to fight back against their subjugation and reclaim those places which they had first created, but had taken away and turned over to private hands. All things considered, these may seem like small victories, but they add up to something.

 

One of Beach’s underlying messages seems to be, every citizen needs to join one of these groups, if not create their own. As with the French May 1968 slogan for which the authors named their book, “Sous les pavés, la plage”—beneath the pavement, the beach—it is apparently true that the repressed can reclaim their right to be. Beach presents an optimistic alternative. It brings to mind another slogan, which now doesn’t seem so naïve, “power to the imagination.” Used correctly it remains a potential weapon for harassed citizens. 

Z


Camille Goodison is a graduate of the Syracuse University (MFA) and Binghamton University (PhD) writing programs in fiction. She currently teaches English at the City University of New York.

 

 

 

Ours to Master and to Own: 
Workers’ Control From the Commune to the Present 

Edited by Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini
Chicago, IL, Haymarket, 2011, 400 pp.

 

Review by Andy Piascik


Much recent discussion and scholarship has gone into dissecting the decline in the strength of the working class in the United States. For the most part, the emphasis has been on the steady weakening of trade unions and on excavating why union officials have been unwilling to attempt new forms of resistance. In such a context, discussions of workers control of the means of production—how it might look, what about it has succeeded and failed in the past, its relationship to revolutionary change—may seem a stretch. But maybe not. For perhaps what the U.S. working class needs as much as anything is to explore alternatives not only to neoliberalism but to traditional unionism, even that of the social movement type.

 

Ours to Master and to Own: Workers Control from the Commune to the Present edited by Immanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini goes a long way in assisting us in that exploration. Ness and Azzellini are well-positioned to put together such an important work; both have long radical histories as writers, teachers and activists. The result of their efforts is a rich collection of stories of workers seizing control of production in different epochs under a vast array of circumstances in numerous countries.

 

Councils, in a nutshell, are self- management organizations established by workers to administer production, usually in periods of great tumult. They may take shape in a single plant, in an entire industry or, in a revolutionary situation, in many plants and industries simultaneously. Through them, workers oversee all aspects of production including those which, under capitalism, are done by owners and bosses. The forms differ greatly but the common thread is that those who do the work should decide how it’s done.

 

There are two important themes that emerge as one reads through the cases collected by Ness and Azzellini. One is that many workers across time and around the world have understood better than any revolutionary theoretician that the working class controlling its own work is the way it should be. Second is that councils, apart from any trade union or vanguard party, develop spontaneously and organically as the system of private ownership slips into crisis. As detailed in the book, this development occurs so frequently in such instances as to be almost a natural phenomenon. 

 

Ours to Master and to Own begins with four overview essays and follows with groups of analytical chapters in four categories. Significantly, stories of the global South are well-represented. Though far less industrialized than the North (and perhaps precisely for that reason), countries like Argentina and Venezuela are home to some of the most important contemporary experiments in workers control. With upheaval rocking much of the Middle East and Latin America, these case histories, together with those where councils were an integral part of anti-colonial insurgencies in Indonesia and Algeria, take on an additional timeliness.

 

Ours to Master and to Own also includes a number of familiar cases. Perhaps the three best known occurred in revolutionary (or at least what were perceived by some of the participants as revolutionary) situations: the soviets in Russia leading up to and immediately after 1917; the councils in Germany during World War I up to the unsuccessful uprising of 1919; and the anarchist-led movement in Spain in the 1930s. Each of these chapters is highly instructive, with nuanced analyses of the wide array of challenges the different groups faced. For the most part, each of these council movements failed simply because the forces aligned against them were too strong. However, there are valuable lessons within each that the contributing authors do an excellent job of mining.

 

Equally important are more recent cases such as Argentina during the economic crisis of 2001, compellingly summarized by Marina Kabat. Initially a response to neo-liberalism, the factory takeovers that helped topple President Fernando de la Rua took on a life of their own. As the takeovers evolved, workers grappled with how best to affect a degree of control within a capitalist society. No easy feat that, and many efforts failed or were coopted. As with the uprisings in the early 20th century, however, there is much in the experience of value. As Kabat writes of the takeovers, “an objective study of their characteristics and shortcomings will help remove obstacles and develop their complete potential for the future,” especially since “[t]he reprise of the economic crisis has opened new horizons for the taken factories.”  

 

Other chapters of note are two from Eastern Europe—one on Yugoslavia by Goran Music and one on Poland by Zbiginew Marcin Kowalewski. Both document ongoing struggles for autonomy in societies purported to be workers’ states. The class conflict that surfaced quite dramatically in Poland in 1980 with the formation of Solidarity, for example, was the culmination of decades’ worth of work, rather than a brand new phenomenon. In Yugoslavia, Music relates the continuous contention between workers and the state over the form of self-management that lasted until the collapse of 1989. 

 

Then there’s a fascinating case in India authored by Arup Kumar Sen where workers in a variety of work- places went head to head with a Communist state government within a capitalist society. Events unfolded much as those in other cases, and workers there faced many of the same obstacles. It would seem from so many examples that vanguardists are right in one thing and that is the revolutionary potential of the working class. That they often fear it and have frequently been—from Lenin and Trotsky forward—as hostile to it as any capitalist is one of the most important lessons of this volume.      

 

Trade unions, including ones of the left, have also frequently opposed working class autonomy in the form of councils, especially at times of great upheaval. The period when fascism in Portugal was overthrown in 1974-75 is a prime example. As related by Peter Robinson, the alliance the Socialist unions forged with liberal military officials checked the possibility that the Revolutionary Councils of Workers, Soldiers and Sailors might expand their influence right at a point when something besides corporate liberalism was a possibility. Again, as we examine what was, we are left to wonder what might have been.

 

Still, the tone of Ours To Master and To Own is decidedly positive. In chapter after chapter, we can practically see workers contending with the most fundamental of revolutionary questions: what should the kind of society we want look like? How do we best get there?

 

Again and again, as events unfold, great emphasis is placed on process. In fact, in case after case, a successful outcome, however else that is measured, is inseparable from process. Workers went forward as often as not without deeply elaborated theories, but with a highly attuned sense that each was responsible to one another as well as to the future.

 

There is also much strategic discussion that is of immense value. In a revolutionary situation, for example, do councils pre-figure a working class state? Or does their consolidation mark the beginning of the end of the state? If the former, what should the relationship of the councils be to the state? Although some of the contributors put forward more decisive answers than others, the overall tone of the book is that these are still open questions to be answered with greater experience.

 

Inclusion of at least a few chapters authored by workers might have added another dimension to the book. Workers are quoted throughout and their insights are meaningful parts of a number of the analyses. Still, hearing summaries and perhaps some tentative conclusions from on-the-ground participants could have provided a larger understanding of the subject at hand.

 

The specific experiences of women in worker councils are also largely invisible in these accounts, perhaps because industrial work has been the domain of men and the councils largely the domain of the industrial work- force. Still, it would have been beneficial to hear about the role of women in at least a few of the case studies.

 

Though it is difficult to imagine any popular movement, working class-centered or otherwise, in which women would not play a prominent role, much of the work women do remains below the surface. It is for this reason that councils of the present and the future, at least those that are the most inclusive, may be influenced by cooperative economics with its emphasis on the citizenry at all levels—worker, domestic laborer, and consumer. At the same time, analysis that assumes the special role of women may bring into being  more inclusive council formations.

 

The value of Ours to Master and to Own is that its contributors collectively wrestle with these kinds of big questions. Who should decide and which factors must be weighed in the deciding—are not questions with easy answers, after all. Ness, Azzellini, and all of the contributors have made a valuable contribution to our understanding of how to go forward. All the better that a second volume is in the works.

Z


Andy Piascik is a long-time activist who has written about working class issues for Z, Union Democracy Review, Labor Notes and other publications. 

 

 

 

Music
Review

 

Big Red Sessions 

With David Rovics
Produced by David Rovics & Billy Oskay

 

Review by Michael McGehee


Political music can be very difficult to pull off. The Bob Dylan’s, Billy Bragg’s, Pete Seeger’s, and Rage Against the Machine’s of the world are not a dime a dozen. So, it’s always a warm welcome when rebel music comes out of nowhere and succeeds.

 

David Rovics’ Big Red Sessions is that album. There are 13 tracks and nearly every one is an historical account of resistance to tyranny and injustice. From the revolution earlier this year in Tunisia to Bradley Manning to Loukanikos, the Riot Dog in Greece, listeners are entertained with not only some good rebel music, but are educated in a (Howard) Zinnian fashion (I just made that word up).

 

It’s not just popular or modern history that is covered. Some lesser known events like that of Chiune Sugihara are beautifully written and performed. Before I heard this track I knew nothing about Sugihara, a Japanese vice-consul who served in Lithuania and helped thousands of Jews escape the Nazi’s during World War II. My personal favorite song on the album is “East Tennessee,” a story about a Vietnam vet who blew up some coal mining equipment due to outrage at what was being done to his beloved mountains. I love the chorus on this song:
 

 10, 9, 8

 Sometimes that’s just how it goes

3, 2, 1

Get out before it blows

 

The song about John Brown is really good and the track about the Mavi Marmara gives me goosebumps. It’s a six-minute song that starts with al Nakba and goes straight to the massacre of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in international waters. “Cordova” is another really good song that tells the tale of fishermen resisting Exxon over the Exxon Valdez spill in the late 1980s.

 

Then there are some fun songs about “Pirate Santa,” anarchist purists (it’s more of a punk song and my two-year-old loves it). My second favorite “Burn it Down”—is a song about Rodney Coronado, an eco-activist who was jailed for giving a speech about how to make an incendiary device. The song is critiquing how a man can be imprisoned for speech, as if that is a real crime. Much like “East Tennessee,” the chorus is really catchy:   

 

We don’t like the Wal-Mart so we’re gonna burn it down 

Corporate terrorists drive them out of town

 

We’ll bring a lot of gasoline and pour it on the floor  

Light a match, say a prayer and run right out the door

 

Burn it down (burn it down) 

Burn it down (burn it down)

 

We’re going to burn it down 

Burn it down (burn it down)

 

BURN IT DOWN!

 

I highly recommend Big Red Sessions, which you can purchase/download at davidrovics.com.

Z


Michael McGehee is an independent writer and working class family man from Kennedale, Texas.