History is Changing; We’re Changing History!

View south from Alameda shore early November…

Firstly, I’m feeling fine (thanks for asking!). I just started a round of prophylactic immunotherapy infusions to be sure we have killed off all the microscopic cancer cells that may be floating around in me… but the cancer-free diagnosis I got after my October 14 surgery has held up so far, and I’m happy to say my voice is back (28 days later!). I have resumed all my usual activities, including hiking and biking around San Francisco, playing pétanque, and schlepping home 50-70 lbs of groceries every week on my bike. Basically I feel just as normal as I did before surgery, and before diagnosis, except for a very numb half of my left face (from mid-ear to the bottom of my neck) which may last a year or more…

Anyway, my personal history is unfolding in surprising ways this year. All of us are having a weird Covid-warped year, but some are having harder or easier ones than others. All in all, I can’t complain since I have really not been suffering since neither my cancerous tumors nor their treatment have been that bad, and life during Covid is not so different for me than what it was before Covid. Between the loving care I get from Adriana, and the sweet joy of seeing my father, my daughter and my grandkids all the time, I have it easy. Plus, we eat incredibly well!

I read a lot. I’ve probably plowed through at least 30 books this year, mostly nonfiction but some great novels too. In fact, I finally read the original Frankenstein after getting inspired by reading Dave McNally’s Monsters of the Market (Haymarket Books: 2012). I also recently read Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest, Ministry for the Future—I always enjoy his work more than most, and I liked this novel too, but it was less of a novel than a strong demonstration of thinking creatively about our fraught future. It has plot and characters and a variety of compelling events, but more than anything it shows one man’s ideas, at one point in time, of how we actually could grapple with climate chaos on a global basis, even while realistically understanding how much inertia blocks us, not to mention so many people with the worst of intentions.

Outdoor dining in Covid times, North Beach, November 2020.

Thanks to readings this year, I also enjoy a widening perspective on history. Not only am I constantly confronted with how little I actually know (while at the same time, my endless filling in of blanks does create thickening webs of understanding), but a lot of what I’m reading is actually breaking new ground historically. Whether its about how other people are doing history, or histories covering lost and forgotten chapters, or stories of populations that have been left out of the historic record until now, we are living through a remarkable explosion of paradigm-shifting historical work.

A good friend, Peter Linebaugh, has certainly been one of the historians who shaped this epoch of rethinking basic assumptions. He was a student of famous British historian of the working-class, E.P. Thompson, and steeped in a “history from below” perspective, he has opened that up to reveal lost histories of the Commons, of commoners and commoning. Our pals at PM Press published his collected essays Stop, Thief! The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance back in 2014, but as is the case with anthologies, I find myself going back to find things rather than reading it from front to back. I revisited Linebaugh’s essay “Ned Ludd & Queen Mab: Machine-Breaking, Romanticism, and the Several Commons of 1811-1822,” realizing as I did that it was a precursor to his more recent book on Ned Despard, the Anthropocene, and Global Warming Red Round Globe Hot Burning. Peter’s style is unique. He always manages to knit together seemingly disparate and far-removed items that individually seem small and isolated, but once he does his magic, they make a coherent analytical tapestry:

Rocketry was the advanced military technology of the day, originating in India at the battle of Seringapatam in 1799 and carefully studied by Robert Emmet in the insurrection of 1803. During this total war hundreds of thousands of soldiers put boots on the ground, boots made of hides from cattle fed in the pastures of Ireland or the pampas of Argentina. Pick any thread of this tapestry, pull it, and yes, the historian unravels the cruelties and crimes of the era, but look more carefully and there is another story which sticks to the hand. It is the story of preservation, resistance, kindness to strangers, a seat at the table. This was the commons, and so it was with the Luddites. (p. 81-82)

Part of my rooting around in history has led me to the surprising perception that our world in 2020 is still heavily shaped by events that took place decades and centuries ago. The new histories that I’ve found so exhilarating embody these connections, revealing as they do new ways of understanding received stories that have ossified into condescending clichés if we remember anything at all. In Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: 2020), Vincent Brown digs deep into the uprisings that rocked Jamaica in the late 18th century when it was the heart of British imperial wealth, analogous to the wealth France was deriving from Haiti before its successful and all-important revolution within a generation of Jamaica’s revolts. Brown emphasizes that the military conflicts that emerged on the island of Jamaica in the 1760s were not only a part of a global war being fought by Britain against France and a variety of indigenous nations in the Americas and Africa, but also reflected internal African conflicts that began in the west African territories that became the center of the slave trade. The individuals who became enslaved were often men with considerably military skills but had been defeated in battle. The image that late-eighteenth century abolitionists developed to rally anti-slavery sentiment, “of a kneeling supplicant begging to be recognized as a man and a brother,” invoked a false meek innocence. “That icon of abjection has shaped the prevailing understanding of bondage and race to this day. But the caricature bore no resemblance to the black fighters who stood toe-to-toe with whites in encounters all across the war-torn world of Atlantic slavery, from West Africa to the Americas.” (p. 18)

Jamaican slave revolt, 1761.

Tacky’s Revolt specifically refers to an uprising in one part of Jamaica that took place prior to a series of even more dramatic revolts that unfolded over the following years. Brown’s fantastic book unpacks the oversimplified reduction of a series of complicated insurrectionary uprisings to one event led by one person. From the British imperial angle, it’s worth noting that their prime Caribbean colony was hanging in the balance just as their North American colonies were uniting in a Revolutionary War, adding military and political pressure to both war zones.

Certainly the confederacy of Coromantees, Eboes, and creoles that plotted the 1776 uprising exposed as fantasy the belief that only enslaved Africans posed a threat to slavery—and there would be many more creole revolts in the future. Yet contemporary chroniclers and subsequent historians have generally overlooked the way that Jamaica’s landscape channeled slave revolt across generations. The emphasis on the changing nature of rebel participants obscures an important continuity—the reproduction of local political memory that shaped the geography of black militancy over time. (p. 238)

This theme of local political memory and its role in shaping historic agency is fundamental. The role of memory and invisible channels of communication makes up the heart of The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution (Verso: 2020) by Julius S. Scott. In it he navigates the very sketchy documentary record to bring to light the numerous ways that information and tactics moved from island to island, and throughout the African diaspora in the Americas to spread news, to shape revolts, and to maintain paths of exodus. Sailors and dockworkers were key transmitters in this extensive oral culture, and it was among those same sailors that some of the greatest revolts of the late 18th and early 19th centuries took place. Linebaugh sets the stage:

The proletariat from the expropriated commons of the world had an actual existence in the seafaring communities of the world’s ports, hence we call it, without anachronism, the terraqueous proletariat. (p. 98) It was the sailors of the world who manned the most expensive of machines, the deep-water sailing ship. Commerce and globalization depended on them. They mutinied and were notoriously answered with terror. (p. 104)

In The Bloody Flag: Mutiny in the Age of Atlantic Revolution (UC Press: 2020), Niklas Frykman recounts in detail the slowly expanding revolts, rooted in the French and Haitian Revolutions, that beset the French, Dutch, Swedish, Spanish, and English navies at the turn of the 19th century. The clash of European powers during the same era, pitting revolutionary and then Napoleanic France after its conquest of most of continental Europe against England, was part of the context for these epic mutinies. Not only were these the most expensive of machines during that era, but the sheer scale of the navies dwarfed anything that had come before up to that point in time.

All told, when large-scale hostilities commenced in the early 1790s, European navies were ready to send some 600 line-of-battle ships, almost as many frigates, and nearly 2000 smaller vessels into combat. Together they packed over 60,000 guns, ten times the number of moveable artillery pieces then in sue by the continent’s land armies, and required approximately 350,000 men to operate, equivalent to almost all the skilled manpower available in the North Atlantic. (p. 16)

The British, having successfully subdued the revolt in Jamaica two decades earlier, were busily crushing the incipient Irish Rebellion of the late 1790s, while engaging with the French and Dutch navies on the surrounding oceans. To maintain their huge fleet and the men needed to fight, they routinely sent press gangs into the cities and towns of England to grab able-bodied men to serve with or without their consent, but also took thousands of political prisoners from Ireland, as well as seizing sailors from merchant ships at sea. Sailors were well aware of the harsh conditions that awaited them on any ship, but especially those of the British navy.

[Rebel sailor] Larkin and his friends unleashed accusations of “slavery,” “bondage,” and “kidnapping” to amplify their critique of both coerced naval servitude and of British colonial rule in Ireland, and it was repeated onboard the Defiance, where one conspirator explained with the same telling ambiguity that their shared desire “to get free of Slavery and Confinement” united them all, Irish Catholic rebel and British Protestant seamen (p. 184)…

This was the era when Irish were brutally subjugated by the British, and in North America Irish immigrants were usually indentured servants, often referred to as “black Irish” and held in conditions very close to the slavery of the African-Americans. The racialization of oppression that was such a key aspect of British rule extended to the Navy too.

When in 1806, for instance, the British Leopard famously opened fire on the USS Chesapeake to force the surrender of four deserters, three of whom were native-born Americans, it was an inconvenient and therefore frequently unreported fact that two of them—David Martin and William Ware—were African Americans. …Likewise, in the early nineteenth century American merchant marine, a large and growing proportion of men below deck were foreign-born, and the New England whaling fleet was particularly dependent on the skill and muscle-power of foreign-born and Native American hands. Finally, in both the navy and civilian shipping, African Americans accounted for around 20 percent of most crews.

Herman Melville’s epic Moby Dick is often cited for its portrayal of a multi-racial crew with a number of indigenous American Indians, and the brutality meted out by the crazed captain in the novel was no worse than what was routinely inflicted on sailors throughout the 19th century. The presence of large numbers of black sailors combined with the brutality of “bucko” mates and captains (always white), reinforced the larger dynamics of coerced labor on the most modern technologies of the day. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that U.S. sailors gained the normal rights of working men to escape the violence and coercion that had been codified as late as an 1897 U.S. Supreme Court decision as acceptable treatment for sailors.

Peter Linebaugh once again finds the words to unite widely disparate experiences while underscoring the fundamental unity of the proletarian experience:

Looking back two hundreds years from the vantage point of 2011 it is easier to see that the proletariat was not insular or particular to England. It had suffered traumatic loss as we have seen in a few of the myriad commons of 1811 such as the Irish knowledge commons, the agrarian commons of the Nile, the open fields of England enclosed by Acts of Parliament, the Mississippi Delta commons, the Creek-Chickasaw-Cherokee commons, the llaneros and pardos of Venezuela, the Mexican comunidades de los naturales, the eloquently expressed nut-and-berry commons of the Great Lakes, the customs of the sikep villagers of Java, the subsistence commons of Welsh gardeners, the commons of the street along the urban waterfront, the lascars crammed in dark spaces from from home, and the Guyanese slaves building commons and community—and these losses were accomplished by terrifying machines—the man-of-war, the steam engine, the cotton gin—which therefore were not seen as improvement,” “development,” or “progress” but as hell itself. (Stop Thief! p. 106)

22nd and Mission on Day of the Dead…
Our local comedians!

Rushing all the way to the present, we come to yet another new book Automation and the Future of Work (Verso: 2020) by Aaron Benanav, discussing one of my favorite topics. Benanav has a particular argument to make, which is to reject the idea that automation and artificial intelligence are already or will soon be creating mass unemployment. He is quite efficient in dispatching the arguments of the technophiles, and relies on a classic look at capitalist dynamics to explain the falling demand for labor. An economy that is not generating sufficient profit does not generate enough investment to expand production, and it’s this falling output that is reducing the demand for labor… or so argues Benanav. Implied by this analysis is that there is a growth regime that could “solve” this problem by expanding output and thus expanding employment… and of course I find both goals misguided at best. We’re already working too hard, producing too much, destroying planetary ecology, etc. etc. A radical reorganization of what we do and why has to be a central part of any transformation of our condition. And with this Benanav agrees enthusiastically. He is at his best taking apart proposals for Universal Basic Income as likely to lead to a socialist future, and I think correctly recognizes that most UBI scenarios will be zero-sum games pitting capitalist against labor over scarce surpluses.

… it is much easier to imagine that a UBI would stabilize at a low level, as a support of an ever more stagnant and unequal society built around private property, than that it would serve as a planetary highway to a world of free giving. (p. 79) …Th[e basic precondition for generating a post-scarcity world] is not the free distribution of money, as the most recent wave of automation theorists have it, but rather the abolition of private property and monetary exchange in favor of planned cooperation. (p. 82) … abundance is not a technological threshold to be crossed. Instead, abundance is a social relationship, based on the principle that the means of one’s existence will never be at stake in any of one’s relationships. The steadfast security that such a principle implies is what allows all people to ask “What am I going to do with the time I am alive?” rather than “How am I going to keep living?” Some will choose to follow a single idea to its end, others to periodically reinvent themselves. (p. 89) … Unless social struggles organize themselves around this historic task, the conquest of production, they will not break through to a new synthesis of what it means to be a human being—to live in a world devoid of poverty and billionaires, of stateless refugees and detention camps, and of lives spent in drudgery, which hardly offer a moment to rest, let alone dream… (p. 99)

I certainly agree with this emphasis. But promoting this way of framing our predicament, while a good start, does little to address our isolation and inability to conceive of a way to move forward politically and socially. For most people it seems that talking about work and production as central concerns is a way to immediately end a conversation! In another book I recently read, Media Marathon (Duke University Press: 1996) by Erik Barnouw, he ends on a parallel note towards the end of his life (d. 1996) when he wonders

Is the new world being shaped by people who love gadgets, not people? How else explain these visions in which people are always made to stay home—out of the way—their attention riveted on blessings arranged and displayed for them? Is that what people want or need? Human beings thrive on social relationships, not technical linkages.

Reading Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism (Verso: 1977, 2020) was quite moving. She interviewed dozens of former Communists in the mid-1970s, usually long after they’d left the American Communist Party (the most massive exodus, including Gornick herself, was after Khrushchev’s 1956 “secret” speech to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party revealing the extent of Stalin’s brutal and psychotic rule), and in the collecting of these stories you get a composite view of what made people into true believers, which was often the powerful sense of purpose and comradely connectedness they gained in Party life. It also reveals a brittle hollowness that resulted from their years-long descent into ideological conformity, often leaving them painfully alone and confused in their later years, lacking in empathic connections. But historically, the role of the American Communist Party was an important episode, much as Communism was for the world as a whole, with its barbaric failures included, that led to the transformative kinds of anti-authoritarian radicalisms that are now so widespread. As she concludes, we needed the 19th century visionary socialists and their epic failures, which gave rise to the authoritarian power politics of the Bolsheviks and 20th century Communism, which in turn disintegrated to make way for the myriad forms of radical opposition percolating today, based in gender, sexuality, race, indigeneity, and more.

Ben Dangl’s history thesis was turned into an amazing small book The Five Hundred Year Rebellion: Indigenous Movements and the Decolonization of History in Bolivia (AK Press: 2019). I learned a lot from it, getting a much better sense of where the current politics of Bolivia came from, post-Evo Morales, but still rooted in a mobilized indigenous majority there. The most exciting discovery is the role of oral history in the development of a self-conscious movement there, starting in the early 1980s. The Andean Oral History Workshop (THOA in its Spanish acronym) gave rural and newly urbanized indigenous Bolivians a way to bridge the gap between the original anti-Spanish uprisings centuries ago, and the lost histories of indigenous resistance that continued to the present. One of the key founders of the THOA, Silvia Rivera, was an academic and activist who had all her papers and personal library stolen by the dictatorship, leaving her to realize they could steal everything but not her memory.

The THOA’s research approach helped its members, Rivera notes, to reinterpret supposedly spontaneous rebellions “as the culminating point of a process of subterranean ideological accumulation that emerges cyclically to the ‘surface’ to express the continuity and autonomy of Indian society.” (p. 124)… the THOA’s Marcelo Fernández explains, “In reality, the THOA has been structured to counter what’s unsaid in the academy, or rather, to argue that another society exists, another culture that has knowledge, that has struggles, that has its contributions.” This other culture, other society, came together around the THOA’s work and continued producing its own historical awareness and narratives about indigenous resistance. (p. 135)

In my weirdly eclectic reading, and the practice of curating the local history we collect on Foundsf.org, I get excited to come upon these kinds of analyses. Several of the books cited here were published this year, others go back five or more years, and Barnouw’s book is from 1996. But taken together, they are part of a reconfiguration of history, all examples of the iterative process of how we make history here and now. And how the range of history is growing rapidly, incorporating people and perspectives long overwritten, overlooked, and flushed from historical consciousness. As we move into the 3rd decade of this century, the ignorance that predates our time is getting harder to maintain!

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