2011/05/17

Book Review: The Anti-Capitalism Reader

book cover

I picked up this collection of essays many years ago. I had read a few of the pieces here and there, but recently decided to read the whole thing through from front to back. I got a startling sense of time warp.

I write this just two weeks after Osama bin Laden was assassinated by the United States, an event that seems anti-climactic, of an unimportance that would be astonishing to any time-traveler from nine or ten years ago. Already the story is fading from the news, subject only to occasional reverberations around discussion of the merits of torture or conspiracy theories that he is still alive. There is no indication that the US is any closer to ending its occupations of Iraq or Afghanistan, its wars in Libya or Pakistan, or its various military actions in other places across the world.

Google Trends on "Osama bin Laden": sharp peak on May 2nd, 2011, subsided by May 8th

The Anti-Capitalism Reader, edited by Joel Schalit, was published in 2002, and many of the essays refer to the events of September 11th, 2001. Reading the interviews and analysis, you can feel the epochal status of 9/11 at that time, while now it has faded, representing only the turning point to the Dreary New Normal.

What 9/11 did manage to do was halt the rising tide of anti-corporate globalization protests, and furthermore squelch popular memory of that history. This book still has a fresh, vibrant sense of that movement, at a time when it did not seem quite dead, and was thought to be only in temporary shock. Quite a few pieces attempt to analyze the movement's shortcomings, or suggest directions. Only AK Press's Ramsey Kanaan really saw how dead it was, killed by weak-minded liberals too afraid to offend public opinion:

I think a lot of participants in the anti-globalization movement can be summed up in their utter retreat from everything after September 11. The largest anti-globalization protest that would have ever been seen was scheduled for Washington, DC following September 11. But the main players in that demonstration, the Sierra Club and the Ruckus Society, Global Exchange, etc., actually canceled the protest. I think that's disgusting. It's terrible. (p307)

(Note: the protest did take place (I attended it), although it was much smaller than it otherwise would have been. Afterwards, what was left of the movement was diverted into attempting to prevent US aggression against Afghanistan and then Iraq.)

Away from the Hegemonic Ideological Monopole of Anarchism

The book is subtitled "Imagining a Geography of Opposition", but it feels much less unified than even that phrase suggests. That is not to say that it isn't quite educational and often engaging. Apart from a couple low points - an unfocused piece by Annalee Newitz, whose writing I usually enjoy, and an unconvincing one on "parallel economies" - each contribution stands on its own as an informative essay, intriguing analysis, or engrossing interview. The points of view tend to be decidedly less anarchist than much of the Left politics of then or now, and in particular several authors call for greater engagement in electoral politics. The following paragraph would make an anarchist laugh, and many a non-denominational leftist (such as myself) extremely uncomfortable:

The state may be set in its ways, but it's not so rationally overdetermined by its historical role as an agent of the wealthy that it cannot be transformed and made to work on behalf of everyone.. .. [I]t is entirely probable that state policies and personnel can change, and government can be a true agent of public welfare. (Scott Schaffer, p194)

It is really quite remarkable to see this from a radical, anti-capitalist (as opposed to liberal) writer in 2002. Most anti-capitalists at that time were at the very least highly skeptical of state power as a means for social justice. The protestors were mostly calling for states to stop their negative actions, but few proposed concrete, positive actions, and the prevailing opinion, at least outside of liberals, was that the international institutions of the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank were fundamentally unreformable. Unfortunately, few people seemed to have any real sense of what could replace state power, and I think we have only a little bit more of an idea now.

Being Realistic about Large Scale

I particularly like the interview with Doug Henwood, who I have long admired for his show Behind the News, a leftist look at economics and politics. He and others in this book critique the American Left's romanticization of individualism, localism, and independent, "mom-and-pop" capitalism. Henwood states the case well:

You can't have "independent" computer companies or locomotive manufacturers or things like that. You have to think about what kind of arrangements make for large-scale operations, unless you want to give up on industrial civilization. I don't think most people seriously want to do that, even if they might fantasize about it. Once you start trying to conceive of some larger-scale, more cooperative way of doing things, you have to get beyond the fetish of independence. (pp157-158)

Conclusion

Although it is not tightly focused and much of it pertains to the political circumstances immediately post-9/11, The Anti-Capitalism Reader is a collection of thought-provoking writing by some of the best leftist writers you haven't heard of yet. Ultimately, if you come across this book, you should do what I originally did - pick and choose among the pieces at your leisure and enjoy the gems you find.

You can find it on isbn.nu.

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