What we read this summer, part one

September 9, 2011

They may not have all enjoyed umbrella drinks on the beachfront, but the writers for SocialistWorker.org did get the opportunity to do some reading this summer. In this first of two installments, they provide a few recommendations.

Lance Selfa

I WAS getting ready to take a long flight and I wanted a book to read on the plane. Desiring a book that had been on my list for a while, I fired up my e-reader and in a few seconds I had Michael Lewis' The Big Short.

Widely touted as the best popular book on the crisis that melted down the global financial system in 2008, The Big Short doesn't disappoint. It's an engaging and (if one can use this word) entertaining read that explains in layperson's terms the financial arcana that brought the system low: subprime mortgages, collateralized debt obligations, derivatives and the like.

Rather than focus on Wall Street titans, Lewis builds his story around profiles of small-time money managers who made a killing by "shorting" (betting that prices would fall) the toxic securities that Wall Street pushed on gullible investors.

All of Lewis' protagonists were outsiders to the Wall Street game who saw through hype and outright fraud. "[Bankers and government regulators] had proven far less capable of grasping basic truths in the heart of the financial system than a one-eyed money manager with Asperger's syndrome," referring to Dr. Michael Burry--one of Lewis's heroes--a disabled medical resident who initially took up investing as a hobby.

Communards at the barricades in Paris
Communards at the barricades in Paris

While some vignettes illustrating the greed and stupidity of the Wall Street establishment can be laugh-out-loud funny, The Big Short ends on the melancholy note. Lewis' protagonists got rich because they swam against the stream. But they were aware that they profited from an irrational system that ruined millions of lives.

In his conclusion, Lewis notes how Wall Street has barely changed since the catastrophe. The people who led the system off a cliff have gotten away with little accountability and with millions in compensation.

My second book recommendation comes almost literally from the opposite end of the world: Jeffery R. Webber's From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia: Class Struggle, Indigenous Liberation and the Politics of Evo Morales .

The 2005 election of Evo Morales as the first indigenous president in Bolivia's history was a blow against racism in that country. But the change in Bolivia amounted to much less than Morales' supporters had hoped for. Today, the Bolivian social movements find themselves locked in a struggle against "their" government.

In understanding and explaining the social forces at work in Bolivia, Webber's book is a model of the application of Marxism to contemporary history. He writes of the a "revolutionary epoch" from 2000-2005 in which mass movements of workers, peasants and indigenous communities defeated water privatization in Cochabamba and overthrew two neoliberal presidents. This epoch of possibility gave way to the electoral victories Morales and his party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS).

While the Bolivian and North American right saw Morales and MAS as fire-breathing radicals forcing through a socialist transformation, Webber shows concretely how MAS's actions in office have been quite moderate. Morales' "renationalization" of hydrocarbon resources, announced with great fanfare in 200x, has produced greater revenue for the state while oil and gas multinationals continue to exploit Bolivia's natural resources.

MAS has enforced an austere budgetary regime that has won grudging praise from the international financial elite, while doing next to nothing to alleviate Bolivia's mass poverty. Webber accurately categorizes MAS's record as one of "reconstituted neoliberalism."

Accompanying this orthodox economic program is an ideological revision of MAS's once-radical program. MAS's leading theoreticians--in particular, Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera--have promoted a view that puts socialism on the agenda in 100 years, after Bolivian capitalism has developed further. MAS, a party that won its base from the mass movements of the early 2000s, has been transformed into an electoral machine courting the country's urban middle class.

In chronicling all of these social transformations, Webber is detailed and clear, as is his conclusion: "The hope for Bolivia's future remains with the overwhelmingly indigenous rural and urban popular classes, organizing and struggling independently for themselves, against combined capitalist exploitation and racial oppression."

Elizabeth Schulte

I RECENTLY got the chance to visit the home of Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass in the Anacostia neighborhood in Washington D.C. Sitting on top of a hill overlooking Maryland, where Douglass was a slave, and the U.S. Capitol, the house offers a great tribute to the life of this great writer, speaker and freedom fighter--and the revolutionary times in which he lived.

From the front hallway featuring a painting of the famous Civil War Black regiment, the 54th Massachusetts, that two of his sons Lewis and Charles served in, to the guest room where Susan B. Anthony stayed, and the set of bar bells in his bedroom, the house offers a snapshot into a life that spanned several decades of struggle and transformation in U.S. society.

And seeing that this year is the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War, I thought it would be a good time to get out Life and Times of Frederick Douglass and read it again. The last published, and most complete, of his three autobiographies, Life and Times takes the reader from Douglass' early life as slave through to his escape, his abolitionist organizing in the U.S. and abroad, all the way to his later role as the U.S. minister to Haiti.

You can almost hear Douglass speaking in this book, and in addition to painting a vivid picture of the daily humiliations and horrors of slavery and his harrowing escape, he takes up the critical political arguments of the day. These include his defense of abolitionist John Brown after his raid on Harper's Ferry, a failed attempt to steal weapons and arm slaves for an uprising against slavery, which ended in brutal repression.

His writings about the war and the right of African Americans to take up arms in the fight are sharp and winning polemics. With today's debates over the significance of the Civil War raging, the words of the former slave cut to the heart of the question:

Had the South accepted our concessions and remained in the Union, the slave power would in all probability have continued to rule; the North would have become utterly demoralized; the hands on the dial-plate of American civilization would have been reversed, and the slave would have been dragging his hateful chains today wherever the American flag floats to the breeze.

Another book I read this summer I'd like to recommend is People Wasn't Made to Burn: A True Story of Race, Murder and Justice in Chicago from SocialistWorker.org's own columnist Joe Allen. It tells the story of African American Chicagoan James Hickman, who shot the landlord responsible for setting fire to his family's apartment and killing four of his youngest children. This book also tells the story of how socialists, members of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, helped organize a defense campaign that would make the difference between life and death for Hickman, and achieve seemingly impossible justice.

With details of historical events and places woven through the book, what comes through clearly is the face of poverty and racism rampant in Chicago housing in the 1940s, as Black families like the Hickmans were forced to live eight of more to a room in cut-up kitchenette apartments where conditions were ripe for fire and other dangers. Illustrations by artist Ben Shahn from 1948 pepper the book.

More than anything, People Wasn't Made to Burn is an important example for socialists today--of a campaign that not only inspired celebrities to lend their support but played the critical role in winning justice in a dire situation. Their campaign also highlighted the racism and injustice at the core of the justice system and segregated housing in Chicago and in cities across the country.

With the police and government agencies and officials ready to let housing conditions and greedy landlords go unpunished and unnoticed, it's easy to imagine what would have happened if there weren't activists who sought out this case and initiated a campaign. The case of James Hickman would have ended much differently if socialist Mike Bartell hadn't opened the Defender, read about the arson fire at the Hickmans' home and then went to offer his support and organize a campaign.

As neighborhoods face housing foreclosures and evictions as well as police brutality, socialists today can learn a lot from this example.

Anthony Arnove

IN SPRING of next year, Haymarket will be publishing a brilliant novel by Trinidadian author Earl Lovelace called Is Just a Movie. I read the British edition published by Faber and Faber this summer, and fell in love with the characters and Lovelace's vivid prose style.

The story is set against the backdrop of the U.S. Black Power movement, and we follow a cast of characters who we first meet in 1970, moving back in time as Lovelace gives us rich personal histories and forward as we see the various paths they take from the political upsurge of 1970 through to a more contemporary Trinidad whose political leaders are rushing to embrace neoliberalism.

The book is written with tremendous humor and love of his characters. No matter how much the protagonists of the story may fall short of their own aspirations or struggle to find a connection with the others around them, we see them in the unmistakable act of struggling, of making their own paths, and making history.

What emerges is, I think, one of the most important contributions to postcolonial literature in the period since Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born.

In one brilliant passage, Lovelace describes a government "program to buy up useless dreams":

It was a grand occasion with the Prime Minister the featured speaker, with wine and cheese and crumpets and accra and those little things you eat with a toothpick. I didn't go, but Aunt Magenta make Clephus put on his jacket and a tie and go with her. They come back and tell me about this new system where you could sell your dreams. Something about assigning to each dream a number and being paid for it.

He writes of the "handsome young men singing the theme song, based on a popular melody by the Mighty Sparrow, that ended with: Dreams gone, development take over now."

This is truly a transcendent book. Look for Haymarket's edition in spring.

On the nonfiction front, I read Richard Wolff's Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do About It, a terrific study of the current economic crisis and U.S. capitalism more broadly. Wolff writes about complex economic matters with great clarity, and consistently exposes the absurdity of economic debates in the mainstream media about the most recent global recession.

He explicitly draws on basic Marxist insights about economics and politics throughout his work, and pushes his readers in the many short pieces that make up the book to draw explicitly systemic and radical conclusions.

Wolff writes that most of what passes itself off as "economic 'science'" is in fact "bought-and-paid-for economic propaganda." And he argues for "a deeply and widely grounded revolutionary left alternative" that places worker's democratic control at the heart of renewing the socialist project.

Writes Wolff:

Henceforth, social movements seeking reforms will need to include demands for revolutionary changes as necessary means to secure those reforms they can achieve.... No longer will it be an abstract proposition to combine reform and revolution within one political strategy for social change. That combination is becoming the only realistic left position.

Like many others, I also have been engrossed by Manning Marable's important--and illuminating--biography of Malcolm X, truly a must read.

Leela Yellesetty

I READ so many excellent books this summer, trying to choose my favorites has been an agonizing decision, like picking your favorite child. So in addition to my top picks, I can't resist throwing in a couple of honorable mentions.

Every once in awhile you come across a book that from the first few pages just sucks you in and won't let you go until it's done with you. This Common Secret by Dr. Susan Wicklund is one of those books. I picked it up for a book discussion with my fellow activists in Seattle Clinic Defense, which organizes counter-pickets to the right-wing bigots who routinely camp out in front of abortion clinics to harass and intimidate women. This book made me realize exactly how crucial the work we're doing is.

Wicklund worked as an abortion provider for over 20 years, beginning in the late 1980s--i.e. in the era of legal abortion. For those who think Roe v. Wade alone is enough to safeguard our rights, this book will make you think again.

The lengths Wicklund was forced to go to--from wearing bulletproof vests to donning elaborate disguises--and the near-constant harassment she and her family endured, simply to provide women with access to basic reproductive rights is heartbreaking and infuriating. Word of warning: I was in tears by the end of the first chapter.

An honorable mention goes out to the next book in our study series, Leslie Reagan's When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine and Law in the United States, 1867-1973. If Wicklund's book forces you to reconsider what legal abortion means in America today, Reagan's offers an impressively researched and often surprising account of more than a century of illegal abortion in this country.

I also had the pleasure of hearing Donny Gluckstein speak this summer, author of The Paris Commune: A Revolution in Democracy, just released for American audiences this summer by Haymarket Books. Whether you're well versed on the subject or have no clue what the Paris Commune was, this book has something for you.

The Paris Commune was one of the earliest examples of working class government, which is why it remains a touchstone for revolutionaries to this day. Yet it happened so long ago that often the historical context can be obscure and confusing for activists learning about it today.

The strength of Gluckstein's book is it presents the topic in a way that is both compelling and relevant. Rather than proceeding chronologically, he begins at the heart of the matter: the inspiring achievements of worker's self-government under the Commune. He then goes back to unpack how they got this point, how it was ultimately unraveled, and what lessons we can draw. The enduring relevance of these lessons is evident if you think of the current revolutionary upsurge in the Middle East while reading the following passage:

How can the desire to advance toward human liberation be balanced against the need to confront the enemy of that goal? How can a movement that wants to end violence and repression combat an adversary that employs violence and repression? How, in winning freedom for the mass of the population, can opponents be prevented from using that freedom to destroy the gains that are being made?

As a follow-up to Gluckstein's book, I also recommend Edith Thomas' The Women Incendiaries , which provides an in-depth account of the crucial role played by women in the Commune.

Last but not least, no summer would be complete without a fun novel to read on the beach. My not-so-guilty pleasure this year was to tear through the second book in Stieg Larsson's Millenium Trilogy--The Girl Who Played With Fire. I know I'm probably the last person on the planet to get around to reading these, but they strike me as particularly timely right now.

On the one hand, we've had no shortage of powerful men allowed to sexually assault women with impunity, from New York and Chicago police to International Monetary Fund heads, while their victims are disbelieved and discredited. On the other hand, we're finally seeing the emergence of a movement to combat this rampant sexism and victim-blaming in the form of SlutWalks across the globe. If there is a fictional character that best embodies both these contrasting dynamics, it has got to be Lisbeth Salander, the undeniable heroine of the Millenium Trilogy.

Another thread in Larsson's novels, which was even more central to his journalist work, was the growth and threat of the far right in Europe. His warnings went largely unacknowledged, of course, by Muslim-terrorist obsessed governments and media until the tragic shootings in Norway earlier this summer.

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