What we read this summer
Some of our regular contributors have tips for further reading as the days grow shorter.
IN SEEKING a path through the conundrum of the advance of LGBT rights in an era of ongoing sexual and gender oppression, I picked up a copy of Rosemary Hennessy's Profit and Pleasure: Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism. Published in 2000, Hennessy's book remains fresh and insightful about sexuality in our neoliberal era.
Sex has been transformed into a commodity to be bought and sold on the market--or used to sell other things on the market. And our sexualities are commodified, that is, our sexualities are coveted or shunned on the basis of their marketability. Bizarrely enough, the success of LGBT struggles over the last 40 years has transformed queer sexuality from the outlier margins to the heights of marketability. Queers didn't intend to, but we created a new market.
The commodification of lesbian and gay sexualities has been contradictory. On the one hand, we opened up a space for ourselves. As a result of struggles that have led to more and more people coming out of the closet, and others experimenting with sexual practices that would have been unthinkable in previous eras, Corporate America has embraced not only the "gay market," but the marketability of gays--or I should say, some gays.
So, for example, there's not only the expansion of gay bars, clubs, tourism, porn, etc. but there's been a transformation of gay into a marketable commodity, a sensibility that is lean, usually white, conventionally attractive, well-dressed, well-coiffed, sweet-smelling, well-decorated and with impeccable bourgeois style.
But naturally, the market only embraces those images that it deems desirable, which is to say, sellable. So Black bodies, Brown bodies, fat bodies, those bodies that don't conform to heterosexual gender norms, disabled bodies, etc. are all left out of the gay embrace, just as they are with straight people.
So on the one hand, gay men and lesbians who can afford a certain lifestyle and image are no longer pariahs. Yet, the price of entry is costly. One must have the health status, education, financial well-being and appearance to be fully accepted. Those without those qualities are rejected, and under the conditions of a neoliberal state, even further repressed, policed, vilified and victimized.
Though I disagree with their tactical conclusions, this is what drives some of the queer left's totally understandable dismissal of assimilation into what is referred to as the heteronormative world, but what I prefer to call bourgeois society. In Marxist terms, gays and lesbians are now welcome to be visible as consumer subjects, but not social subjects.
Just as the neoliberal state monitors the nation's borders not to stop the flow of immigration, but to control it and immiserate the conditions of labor, so too it monitors gender borders quite closely in order to control, confine and define acceptable gender behavior. This tells us something about how important the gender division of labor remains under capitalism.
In Profit and Pleasure, Hennessy has provided us with a useful Marxist framework from which to understand sexuality and capitalism.
On a totally unrelated topic, Joe Berry's Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education is a must-read for every grad student, faculty member and higher education unionist. Berry not only lays out the facts about the proletarianization of higher education, but he provides a how-to manual for those seeking union rights for non-tenured faculty.
What makes this slim volume so invaluable to educators and unionists alike is that he takes you through the mindset of those working in higher education and sensitively deals with the complications of organizing extremely well-educated people who are trained to embrace individualism and personal achievement above the collective.
I TOOK the opportunity this summer for a long-delayed trip into Latin American history. I started with Marie Arana's recently published biography of Bolívar, American Liberator. Perhaps best known in recent times as the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez inspiration for the "Bolivarian" revolution, Bolívar remains an enigmatic figure.
Scion of one of the richest elite families in the Spanish colony of Venezuela, Bolívar would have seemed the least likely person to become a leader in the revolt against Spain. But his class position put him in touch with the liberal thought that swept Europe after the French Revolution. Napoleon's conquest of Spain in 1810 helped spur an emergent independence movement in Spain's colonies.
Over nearly 20 years of constant warfare, the revolution seemed lost multiple times as Bolívar was forced into exile. But near-superhuman military feats, including at least two expeditions over the Andes, broke the Crown's hold on the continent.
Perhaps the key to the liberation of America was Bolívar's late recognition of the need to champion the abolition of slavery and to, at least, aspire to eliminate the color bar that dominated colonial society. As a member of the wealthy white criollo elite, Bolívar and the initial Latin American independence leaders did not inspire confidence in the mass of the population. In fact, Spain defeated initial moves toward liberation when it recruited Black and mixed race troops to fight on its side.
Bolívar also had the air of a traditional caudillo about him. His support of a president-for-life ruling over a unified Latin American continental state was his undoing. Arana, borrowing from Gabriel García Márquez, portrays the last years of the "general in his labyrinth" dying from tuberculosis and wondering if the Latin American masses were ready for independence.
While there's a lot in Arana's novelistic style to recommend the book, I found its narrow focus on the personage of Bolívar to be limiting to an understanding of the Latin American revolutions. We get very little feel for the social forces involved in the revolutions, or the role that the colonial legacy played in the fragmented outcome of the revolt. So many post-liberation political struggles appear as personality conflicts between Bolívar and other political bosses.
The last bastion of support for the Spanish crown in Latin America was Arana's native Peru. Understanding why that was the case led me to a book that has been on my shelf for years, José Carlos Mariátegui's Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality. Published in 1928, Seven Essays is a pioneering Marxist work on Latin America.
Mariátegui, a founding member of the Socialist (later Communist) Party, dedicates each of the essays to a crucial question of Peruvian society: the economy, the "problem of land," the problem of the Indian," religion, regionalism, education and literature.
Although many have since hailed Seven Essays as an example of open, heterodox--even indigenous Marxism--the book reflects a materialist, fairly orthodox approach. Even the long essay on literature roots its cultural analysis in the neocolonial, class and racial dynamics of Peruvian society.
Seven Essays most consistent theme is the division of Peruvian society into two: an indigenous, Andean society where remnants of Spanish feudalism persisted, and a coastal, mestizo, more economically developed, neocolonial society. Mariátegui's key message is the necessity for Peruvian socialists to break down these divisions, by championing the rights of the indigenous majority, to build a multiracial working-class movement.
Some of Mariátegui's assertions are open to criticism today. His suggestion that the Inca kin-based collective management of common lands might provide a cultural underpinning for a Peruvian socialism is unconvincing. And his somewhat dismissive attitude to the Black and Chinese immigrant sections of the working class seems short-sighted, at best. But both of these problems originate in the same worthy goal of focusing attention of Peruvian socialists on the country's indigenous majority.
Unfortunately, Mariátegui didn't have time to refine his ideas in light of historical experience. He died in 1930 at the age of 38. Still, socialists today can benefit from his very genuine effort to apply Marxism to his contemporary reality.
DESPITE A title which sounds like a self-help book for desperate men, Daniel Bergner's What Do Women Want? is actually a fascinating look at what he dubs "the science of female desire." Through interviews with researchers in the field of sexology and personal anecdotes Bergner pokes giant holes in the conventional wisdom about female sexuality.
As he notes, the Victorian-era ideology which viewed women as the height of chastity, unencumbered by the animal instincts of men, has been repackaged in recent decades as science by the field of evolutionary psychology. The theory goes that women evolved to be selective in mating because of their greater investment in reproduction, while men evolved to spread their seed far and wide.
This theory has the advantage of confirming current sexual norms as natural and innate. The only problem is that it runs contrary to the actual historical record, as Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá's excellent Sex at Dawn illustrated so vividly.
Bergner's book attacks this theory from a different angle, examining contemporary research on the physiology of female desire. From studying female monkeys and lab rats aggressively pursuing orgasm, to using sensors on women's genitals and brain imaging to measure levels of arousal, scientists present a picture of women as capable of being every bit as lustful as men, whether or not they know it.
So what do women want? On that count Bergner leaves us with more questions than answers. Are women natural narcissists, as one researcher claims, thriving on fantasies of submission? Are the new "female Viagra" drugs being developed the key to sustaining waning desire in long term relationships?
How much can this science really tell us about innate sexuality when, as Bergner notes, "experience--use and disuse, positive and negative reinforcement--is forever altering neurological systems, strengthening some and weakening others"?
Continuing with the very loose theme of "women" another highlight of my summer reading was finally picking up Angela Davis' classic Women, Race and Class. Davis notes that the Victorian ideal of womanhood never really applied to Black women, who, beginning with slavery, were viewed primarily as workers and "breeders," rather than housewives and mothers.
This differing experience, embedded in the economic structure of U.S. society, was to have important implications for the struggle for liberation for both women and African Americans.
Davis uncovers an almost completely forgotten history of these two movements and the important role played by Black women within them, for whom questions of race, gender and class could not be disentangled. Herein she notes a central historical tension.
For instance, while the early struggle for women's suffrage was actually an outgrowth of the abolitionist movement, in later years some suffragists narrowed their focus, in some cases embracing outright racists. As Davis argues, this collapse of solidarity was ultimately to the detriment of both movements, as it allowed the ruling elites to effectively pit one group off the other.
Addressing the women's movement of the 1960s and '70s, Davis raises two arguments which remain crucial to activists today. First she takes on the myth of the Black rapist--a crucial conceit used to justify lynching and segregation--to underscore the problem with anti-rape activists calling for criminalization as the solution.
Second, she critiques the failure of the mainstream reproductive rights movement to address the horrific history and ongoing practice of forced sterilizations of women of color.
While Davis points to these as real divisions between women, she doesn't see them as insurmountable. Rather she argues that there is a material basis for solidarity, but it is not automatic. It takes politics, and Davis' book is a perfect illustration of how Marxist politics can point the way forward in the struggle for the liberation of all the oppressed.
THE FIRST book I read this summer was Erik McDuffie's Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism. McDuffie explores the lives and politics of Black women who were in and around the Communist Party in the first half of the 20th century, including: Audley "Queen Mother" Moore, Louise Thompson Patterson, Thyra Edwards, Bonita Williams, Williana Burroughs, Claudia Jones, Esther Cooper Jackson, Belulah Richardson, Grace P. Campbell, Charlene Mitchell and Sallye Bell Davis.
McDuffie traces their personal stories and life trajectories, and shows their attempts to develop radical organizing projects that would be relevant to the lives of Black women. Needless to say, this wasn't always easy. Between male chauvinism in the Communist Party, ideological rigidity among their comrades, sexism in the party and in society at large, the Cold War and government repression, they faced tremendous challenges.
In their personal relations and their activism, these women were often breaking gender and racial molds in many parts of their lives at once. Importantly, McDuffie explores their attempts to theorize this work, building on (or, for some, breaking from) the Marxist tradition.
At times, I wish he had let us hear their own words a bit more. By his own admission, McDuffie paints them all with a "Black Left Feminist" brush, despite the different ways these women defined themselves. Still, Sojourning is a must-read for those who want to understand the historic contributions of Black women to radical and communist thought, activism and organization in the U.S.
Next, I read Gary Younge's latest book, The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream. America mostly remembers King through the prism of his "I Have a Dream" speech because that way he can be safely portrayed as a wise leader who guided the nation through troubled times. But there's much more to the story.
This book is a brisk and accessible read, full of important insight about what King's speech in that moment really represented, and what it didn't represent. Another fascinating aspect of the book is that Younge shows how the ideological seeds of racism in our era were already being sown in 1963.
For example, he recalls that a fleet of limousines whisked the march's leaders to the White House immediately following Dr. King's speech, and after a photo-op, President Kennedy proceeded to lecture King and the others about how Black people need to adopt greater personal responsibility!
Read this book now, while the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is still fresh, and if you missed them, watch Gary's three short videos based on the book, and his talk at the book launch.
I also read Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life by Barbara J. Fields and Karen Fields. In a provocative series of essays examining modern politics, media the study of history, medicine and more, these scholars (who also happen to be sisters) dismantle common sense ideas about race. Barbara Fields' classic article, "Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the USA" is re-printed in Racecraft, and worth re-visiting.
Fields describes how historians can, quite literally, trace the act of colonial Virginians inventing the concept of race as a necessary solution to the problems they faced employing African slaves in plantation labor:
Probably a majority of American historians think of slavery in the United States as primarily a system of race relations, as though the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice, and tobacco.
The term "racecraft" is meant to evoke "witchcraft"--and by comparison, explain how rational people have come to believe (to this day) that race--which has no foundation in genetics or biology--can cause things to happen in real life.
The authors point out the common sense phrasing about lots of everyday occurrences--such as police violence, for example--often don't make sense. People say, "They shot him because he was Black." But there's nothing about brown skin that attracts bullets!
"Disguised as race," the authors write, "racism becomes something that Afro-Americans are, rather than something racists do." Thus, the reality is that it was the application of a double standard to the victim that explains the violence. Racism explains what race, alone, cannot. Further, the Fields sisters argue that it is racism that causes race--as a concept--to exist, not the other way around!
ISABEL ALLENDE'S latest novel, El Cuaderno de Maya/Maya's Notebook, traces the impact of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's bloody September 11, 1973, coup on a family scattered from California to Chile's remotest islands. Themes of escape, self-destruction, and salvation (in chemical and emotional forms) play themselves out over three generations of an improbable family and a supporting cast of rebel teens, drug dealers, defeated revolutionaries, academics and drifters.
Readers familiar with Allende's style will delight in her experiment with Maya's voice, a young woman coming of age after America's own 9/11 in Berkeley. At times I wonder if she leans too heavily on a blizzard of descriptive detail to cover over the very real difficulty of holding steady Maya's authentic voice. But her attempt to speak through Maya is fascinating all by itself.
The story is written in the form a first-person journal recollection, jumping back in forth in time, as Maya comes to grips with the cause of her exile in Chile. Allende's great humanitarian instincts explore the resonances of psychological trauma and the capacity of human beings to heal, even if only partially.
Maya's flight from danger geographically reverses Allende's own path, but this only goes to show that life, even in America's most liberal and prosperous enclaves, remains stunted and difficult and is given meaning only with the greatest of effort.
OK, this isn't a book, but the documentary trilogy The Battle of Chile, by director Patricio Guzman, The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie (1975), The Coup d'état (1976), Popular Power (1979) powerfully enriches any book on the same subject.
I would go so far as to say that, whatever the number of books you may have read about Chile in 1973, you cannot really come to grips with what happened without watching these films. The films rely on interviews with workers, campesinos, students, bosses and politicians and long scenes from inside the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary camps.
From factory floors to the inner chambers of employers' associations, the revolution's actors speak directly into the camera and foresee their victories and defeats. Four and a half hours might seem like a long commitment, but no other film captures the feel of a genuine social upheaval.
If you want to understand what is happening in Greece or Egypt today, you can do no better than to begin here. Perhaps most surprisingly, there is no better description of the relationship between people and machines. Marx, of course, could never have written a screenplay for Capital, but if he had lived into the age of cinema, this is how he would have done it.
AFTER READING Danielle McGuire's excellent At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance, which focuses in on the organizing Rosa Parks and others did in the years before the civil rights movement, I wanted to read more about the all-too-often hidden history of Black women's leading role in these struggles.
Sisters in the Struggle: African-American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement, edited by Bettye Collier-Thomas and V.P. Franklin, is a collection of essays that tell the stories of the women who were key to organizing these struggles for justice but, as the book points out, weren't always acknowledged for their role.
The book begins with Mary McLeod Bethune, an educator and early civil rights leader who founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1935, continues through to civil rights leaders like Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee founder Ella Baker and the women of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and then goes on to the Black Power years, with the Cambridge Movement's Gloria Robinson, and later the 1974-75 defense campaign for Joan Little, an inmate who killed a guard who was about to rape her.
Sisters also touches on the creation of Black feminist Combahee River Collective, which defined itself as socialist and revolutionary. The book outlines some of the projects of the Boston-based group, which writing and producing several publications, and activism like the defense of a Black doctor who was arrested for performing a legal abortion.
For more writing from this important group, check out All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us are Brave, edited by Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith, or read their statement online.
One of Sisters' strengths is a section where the subjects of the book tell their own stories. Rosa Parks' retelling of her arrest on December 1, 1955, and the launching of the Montgomery bus boycott is included, as is National Council of Negro Women president Dorothy Height's discussion of how difficult is was for women to get public recognition for their role, including at the 1963 March on Washington.
While not intended to be an end-all-be-all compendium of this rich history, Sisters provides a great introduction to Black women who organize the struggle for equality.
This summer, in preparation for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I read Gary Younge's book The Speech. Younge, whose columns for the British Guardian most SW.org readers should be familiar with, uses a journalist's eye for detail to re-tell the story of the march--providing the background stories, characters and details that shaped this historic event.
In the typical mainstream telling of the history March on Washington, it begins and ends with Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, with little in between. The Speech is an important departure from this. Younge provides the context to the great gathering on Washington--the months of pitched battles fought by civil rights activists in towns throughout the South, the beatings by racist thugs, and arrests and attacks by local police.
He captures the excitement of activists from across the country mobilizing for Washington, and the thousands more who were compelled to get a bus or train or bicycle to be part of this event.
One of the great tricks of ruling-class history is to whitewash what it considers to be a radical, and even dangerous, message over time, until it is harmless--or, in some case, even serves the interests of the opposite side. With King's "Dream" speech, this has been a constant.
The Speech provides an important remedy to this, first of all by actually reprinting King's speech for everyone to read in the front of the book. Later, Younge goes point by point through the speech as it was delivered to reveal what was behind each line.
The last chapter examines the ways that King's message has been sanitized and co-opted over the years, making an excellent argument for why we have to reclaim his radical message.
OVER THE summer I took part in a study group about Angela Davis's 1981 classic Women, Race and Class at the same time that I was reading a more recently published book that I had picked up at the Socialism 2013 conference: Delusions of Gender: How our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference by the science writer Cordelia Fine.
Coming from the very different frameworks of history and neuropsychology, the two books together presented an unexpected dialogue about the deep roots of oppressive stereotypes and the capacity of human beings to sometimes challenge them.
Delusions of Gender is a takedown of the many popular science books claiming that males and females are "hardwired" to be fundamentally different. Even as she thoroughly and humorously demolishes this "neurosexism" with understandable summaries of fascinating psychological research, Fine explains that the true appeal of this junk science is not to our intellect but to our intuitive sense of how the world works.
She presents experiments demonstrating how even people who don't consciously agree with gender stereotypes usually have an array of gendered stereotype associations in their subconscious because we have all grown up in a society in which sexism and gendered divisions are omnipresent.
Fine's point is to reject the idea that the persistence of stereotypical male/female behavior and identification is proof of innate biological difference, but she also presents a psychological explanation of a difficulty that many activists know all too well: our movements don't just have to take on the institutions that promote oppression but also the oppressive patterns that life inside these institutions has implanted in our own brains, regardless of whether we consciously reject them.
Women, Race and Class covers some of this same territory in its penetrating analysis of the complicated relationship between the struggles for racial and gender equality over the 150-year history of the women's equality movement in the U.S.
The earliest white feminists in the 1830s often compared their subjugation under the institution of marriage to the plight of African American slaves. This flawed but heartfelt identification led many White women to join the abolitionist movement, but Davis shows how in many cases the solidarity it produced proved to be shallow and narcissistic; many feminist leaders abandoned their Black comrades when they viewed anti-racism as a hindrance to advancing the cause of women.
Davis' description of episodes in which leading white feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony embrace racial stereotypes are so heartbreaking that one can't help but wonder if their abolitionism had ever been anything but a tactical ploy.
At these points, it was useful to refer back to Delusions of Gender to understand that such a cynical view isn't necessary to understand how it was that genuine antiracists came to seamlessly embrace some of the racist ideas of the day once they had made the decision to court the support of Southern Whites.
Women, Race and Class makes a powerful case that movements against oppression need to be led by the oppressed themselves. In doing so, Angela Davis doesn't argue that non-oppressed activists are privileged but rather than they are often ignorant and therefore not the best leaders.
Davis describes the betrayals of Stanton and Anthony as evidence of their naiveté of the societal forces behind both racism and sexism and that this lack of political clarity ultimately weakened even the movement for white women by both depriving them of Black allies and leading them to ally with conservative forces that had no genuine interest in women's equality.
Women, Race and Class also includes inspiring examples of white women and (more often, according to Davis) Black men whose sharper understanding of the relationship between oppressions led them to practice a more complete solidarity.
This hopeful message finds a correspondence in Delusions of Gender, which, for all its sobering food for thought about the deep tenacity of harmful stereotypes, ultimately presents our minds as dynamic organs capable of creating new more positive associations, particularly in response to positive changes in society.
In other words, free the world, and your mind will follow.
THIS SUMMER, as part of my preparation for a talk at the Socialism 2013 conference on the life of composer Giuseppe Verdi, I re-read the wonderful Viva la Libertá: Politics in Opera by Anthony Arblaster. Published in 1992, Viva la Libertá remains the best book on opera from a left-wing perspective.
Arblaster's book is ambitious, covering several major composers from Mozart through Verdi, Wagner and onto modern composers including Berg and Britten. Placing such composers in an historical context, Arblaster dismisses the notion of "politics" in art as simply "the petty squabbling and unscrupulous feuding of men and women who are hungry for only one thing--power...Or the perception of politics as a straightjacket or Procrustean bed into which awkward realities are forcibly fitted, but only at a cost to reality itself."
Instead, Arblaster embraces the notion that the contours of each political era that various composers worked in shaped their work.
Looking at Mozart through the lens of class conflict and the Enlightenment, Arblaster informs the reader that the young composer was literally kicked out of the Archbishop of Salzburg's employ in 1781 and that, as a result, he wrote in a letter that, "It is the heart that ennobles a man; and though I am no count, yet I have probably more honor in me than many a count. Whether a man be a count or a valet, the moment he insults me, he is a scoundrel."
This struggle between the lower and upper classes takes center stage in operas like Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) and Don Giovanni, with those in the lower social order, (especially women), being shown as far smarter and more sensitive than those in the ruling classes.
Arblaster particularly excels in his examination of the life of Verdi, showing how the drive for Italian unification with the movement known as the "Risorgimento" colored the composer's work.
From Nabucco's "Va Pensiero," which remains the unofficial Italian national anthem, to the chorus of Scottish exiles in his Macbeth, Verdi's role as the "liberal patriot" of the embryonic Italian nation was cemented through operas in which a chorus often sang of a unified sorrow and longing for a homeland in the face of foreign oppression.
Arblaster also spends time looking at Verdi's sensitive treatment of his female heroines, and the disdain for the institution of the Catholic Church which comes through in his operas--both of which ruffled the feathers of "polite" society (as did Verdi's own relationship with his live-in-lover and later wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, and his own atheism).
Likewise, Arblaster makes a compelling case that the simultaneous reactionary and progressive ideas rooted in the music of German composer Richard Wagner were a result of his political trajectory from young left-wing revolutionary, sent into exile following the uprisings of 1848-49, to reaction, chauvinism and anti-Semitism later in life.
Arblaster argues for a complex view that acknowledges Wagner's musical and dramatic brilliance even while recognizing the backward political ideas often inherent in his work.
For those who may not be familiar with opera--or who might feel it lacks any relevance as an art form to an audience today, Arblaster makes the case, ultimately, that "Opera as a substantial art form has always been involved with politics and will continue to be so in so far as it remains a living and important artistic experience. The alternative is a charming, decorative triviality."