Against the Current No. 212, May/June 2021

Biden: "Empire Is Back"...

— The Editors

President Joe Biden, March 2021. Official White House photo by Adam Schultz

NOT THAT IT ever left, of course: The United States’ vocation to rule the world is a constant fact of global life and its multiple crises. What then is the meaning of President Joe Biden’s proclamation that “America is back,” warmly greeted in many capitals and among elite opinion-makers?

Biden’s mantra is taken to mean a return from Trump’s transactional chaos and corruption to what’s called the “rule-based international order.” As to what that order means in the lives of the global majority, Nicole Aschoff has it right (“The Biden Doctrine,” Jacobin, Winter 2021):

“In promising to reconstruct a close approximation of the Obama-era global order, Biden is promising to restore a violent, rapacious system that had increasingly lost its legitimacy....

Conviction on All Three Counts in Chauvin Trial, Bail Revoked

— Malik Miah

“I CALLED THE police on the police,” one eyewitness told the jury.

The prosecution opened the trial of Derek Chauvin with a 9-minute and 29-second (“929”) video of the cop’s knee murdering George Floyd on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis. The Medical Examiner and other medical doctors said he was not moving minutes after the knee was placed on his neck....

Bravery, Not Blowout

— John Logan

Amazon driver and her packages. Elvert Barnes CC BY-SA 2.0 cropped from original

RWDSU campaign at Amazon deserves better than uninformed criticism

ON FRIDAY, APRIL 9 the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) announced that the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) had lost its organizing campaign at Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama, one of the most closely watched union drives in decades, by a vote of 1798 to 738....

Egypt's Uprising and Its Fate

— Joel Beinin

CALLING THE OCCUPATION of Tahrir and other urban squares in Egypt and the January-February 2011 ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak a “revolution” — as is common — is not a helpful characterization of the events. The terms Arab Spring and Arab Winter are even less helpful because they obscure the social struggles of the decade preceding Mubarak’s ouster, which continue today.

According to the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, in the last quarter of 2020...

Solidarity with Myanmar Peoples

IN MYANMAR (BURMA) the escalation violence continues, as at least 714 people, including four dozen children, lost their lives by mid-April. Some 3,000 have been arrested according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

“The ruling junta wants to break democratic resistance, whatever the human cost. To this end, it deploys a veritable policy of terror. A dictatorship generally tries to deny or relativize its crimes. The junta is following that rule internally, but in Burma itself, this is not the case…’We are aiming for the head,’ the soldiers proclaim on social networks.” (Pierre Rousset, “Myanmar: Terror, Resistance & the Stakes — A New Political Situation,” March 31, 2021, following the “Armed Forces Day” massacre. Posted at Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres and ATC....

Islamophobia in Europe

— Joseph Daher

WHILE ISLAMOPHOBIA, CONNECTED to forms of anti-Arab racisms and colonial and imperial histories, certainly existed prior to 2000, it exploded in Western countries after the attacks of September 11, 2001 by the jihadist organization al-Qaida. A new enemy had been found and laws discriminating against Muslim populations blossomed in Europe, North America and Australia, but also elsewhere, such as in India, Russia and China....

Marxism and the Modernist Poet

— Alan Wald

“[T]he revolution is a profession in itself, which it is the writer’s part to support as a human being, but without ceasing to be a complete writer.”—Delmore Schwartz, 1939(1)

I. Delmore Agonistes

HISTORY CAN BE a spoiler. What most students of literature are taught about the Jewish-American poet Delmore Schwartz (1913-66) is a cautionary tale of creative, reputational and psychological atrophy.

Delmore, who was almost always called by his first name, initially burst like a supernova on the Marxist literary landscape of the 1930s; a striking young eagle with a blazing movie-star charisma. As a Modernist (i.e. an author self-consciously departing from traditional ways of writing), he was dubbed “The American Auden,” extolled by T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens, and became a central presence in the pages of the Trotskyist-influenced journal Partisan Review.(2)...

What Method of Organizing?

— Marian Swerdlow

Steel strike, 1919. Although the strike was lost, William Z. Foster carried its lessons with him.

IN HER SECOND book, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018, paperback), Jane McAlevey spells out a method for organizing a work place, most explicitly in the chapter called “The Power to Win is in the Community, Not the Boardroom.”

McAlevey has accrued remarkable prestige and influence, including among young labor activists and organizers, and is seen as a labor organizer with the answers to how to revive the labor movement. In Jacobin (“Workers of the World Can Still Unite,” 12/2019), Sam Gindin writes,

“Jane McAlevey is everywhere these days. Recently appointed a senior fellow at Berkeley’s Labor Center, she is now also a regular columnist for both The Nation and Jacobin. Her webinar (‘Organizing for Union Power’) has a global audience. She continues to be called on to address unions and run training sessions in the United States, the United Kingdom, Scotland and Germany . . . ”...

Tulsa's Buried Massacre, 1921-2021

MAY 31 AND June 1, 2021 mark the 100-year anniversary of the destruction of “Black Wall Street,” the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in one of the most violent and sadistic white race riots of the bloody post-World War I period. Indeed it was pure ethnic cleansing in America....

Solidarity with Kshama Sawant

FOLLOWING AN APRIL 1 ruling by the Washington State Supreme Court allowing a recall petition to proceed against socialist Seattle City Council representative Kshama Sawant, local activists along with her organization Socialist Alternative have formed a campaign, the Kshama Solidarity Campaign, to defend her.

The recall is heavily backed and funded by corporate forces including Amazon, which Sawant has fought to force it to pay fair taxes, and the Seattle Times, ostensibly because of her role in Black Lives Matter protests last year following the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd....

Urban Crisis

Detroit's Tale of Two Water Crises

— Josiah Rector

Are basic human needs a class privilege? Photo Jim West

LESS THAN EIGHT months before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. cited water bills as an example of what was wrong with capitalism. In his “Where Do We Go From Here?” speech, delivered at the 11th Annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference convention in Atlanta, Georgia on August 16, 1967, King asked, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?”

He observed that “when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.” He went on to ask: “Who owns the oil? […] Who owns the iron ore? […] Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?”(1)

Taken literally, King’s last question suggests that desalination technology, harnessed to human needs rather than profit, could make the world’s oceans a viable drinking water source for the world’s population. (This was not a totally impractical idea; by 1961, Kuwait was already desalinating over six million gallons of water per year.(2))...

Detroit, Comeback & Austerity: State of the City

— Peter Blackmer

Detroiters protested bankruptcy and water shutoffs. Photo Jim West

TALK TO PEOPLE from outside Detroit, and you’re bound to encounter the same line on repeat: “I hear Detroit’s coming back!” The implicit meaning behind this well-financed narrative, of course, rests on tired racist analyses of Black leaders failing the city and white saviors coming to its rescue.

Within the stories of long decline and recent “renaissance” in American cities like Detroit, heavy-handed state interventions — taking over school districts, imposing emergency managers, declaring municipal bankruptcy — are treated as unfortunate, yet necessary course corrections after decades of local mismanagement.

Similarly, the draconian and neoliberal measures that accompany these state takeovers, like closing schools, shutting off water, foreclosing on homes, cutting social services, slashing pensions and selling off city assets, are explained as unavoidable sacrifices to balance the budget and save the city....


Bringing Malcolm to Life

— Malik Miah

The Dead Are Arising
The Life of Malcolm X
By Les Payne and Tamara Payne
Liveright, 2020, 640 pages, $32.50.

THIS IS A powerful new biography of one the greatest African Americans of the 20th century, Malcolm X (Muslim name el Hajj Malik el-Shabazz). His voice still resonates across the world as his speeches are played to new generations of activists.

The Dead Are Arising provides a much fuller picture of the life and death of Malcolm X. It draws on interviews with his friends and family, including brothers who joined the Nation of Islam (NOI) before he did, to assess his contribution in the context of the times....

The Empire's New Forms

— Keith Gilyard

Worldmaking after Empire:
The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination
By Adom Getachew
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019, 288 pages, $24.95 paperback.

“FROM OUR VANTAGE point, the transition from empire to nation in the twentieth century appears inevitable. And while the universalization of the nation-state marked an important triumph over European imperialism, it has also come to represent a political form incapable of realizing the ideals of a democratic, egalitarian, and anti-imperial future.” (1)

With this opening observation, Adom Getachew begins an admirable and convincing historical analysis in her recent book, Worldmaking after Empire. Understanding the current political moment as a phase in the centuries-long pillage of the global south by the global north, Getachew examines the practice and promise of several anticolonial efforts....

Healing Politics -- A Doctor's Story

— Susan Steigerwalt

Healing Politics:
A doctor’s journey into the heart
of our political epidemic
By Abdul El Sayed
New York: Abrams press, 2020, 338 pages, $27 hardcover.

Medicare for all:
A Citizen’s Guide
By Abdul El Sayed and Micah Johnson
Oxford University press, 2021, 343 pages, $19.95 (Barnes and Noble)

DOCTOR AND POLITICAL activist Abdul El Sayed has had a busy last few years: re-creating the Detroit health department, including expanding services such as eyeglasses for children so they can better engage in school and vaccinating residents during a hepatitis A outbreak in their neighborhood; running for governor in the 2018 primary (including visits to every single county in Michigan); and now, in addition to being a sometime commentator on CNN and producer of a daily political newsletter, Incision, involved writing two books.

One book shows us El Sayed’s background and political philosophy. The other is a how-to guide for those of us involved in the struggle for Medicare for All....

Venezuela: Things Fall Apart

— Carlos G. Torrealba M.

Venezuelans Under Siege/Venezuela frente las sanciones
Co-directors/producers: Atenea Jiménez Lemon and Kevin Young
42-minute film in English and Spanish, June 2019, available on YouTube

IN VENEZUELANS UNDER SIEGE, Atenea Jiménez Lemon and Kevin Young show the impact of U.S. sanctions on Venezuela and how Venezuelans have responded....

Danger on the Shop Floor

— Toni Gilpin

Blood, Sweat and Fear:
Violence at Work in the North American Auto Industry, 1960-80
By Jeremy Milloy
University of Illinois Press, 2017, 228 pages, $28 paperback.

“THIS JOB IS killing me.” That’s a phrase many workers have uttered, though what prompts such a dismal sentiment can vary: perhaps the numbness engendered by tedious, repetitive labor; or a grueling commute combined with an irregular schedule; or bigoted bosses who harass and belittle. Yet for some workers the danger is even more literal and immediate, as their jobs present a daily, imminent threat to life and limb.

At the outset of the pandemic in 2020, the particular hazards of COVID exposure faced by frontline workers received a brief flurry of public attention. But as that focus has receded, so has the recognition that for many workers, their jobs are literally life-threatening, and not only when there is a deadly virus afoot....

Stirring the Dust of Archives

— Noa Saunders

Left of Poetry:
Depression America and the Formation of Modern Poetics
By Sarah Ehlers
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019, 308 pages, $29.95 paperback.

SARAH EHLERS, AN Associate Professor of English at the University of Houston, has published a highly original book reclaiming the lyrical and political work of several renowned as well as forgotten poets of the 1930s. Attracted to the Communist movement, they collectively cultivated an anti-capitalist poetics that the scholarly community has since neglected.

In a lucid three-part structure, Ehlers situates their work against the backdrop of decades of anti-communist propaganda, which accelerated especially after the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact, and the rise of New Criticism (a formalist movement in literary theory) in the American academy....

Shifting Identities in a Settler Land

— Listen Chen

The Diary of Dukesang Wong:
A voice from Gold Mountain
By Dukesang Wong, edited by David McIlwraith
Translated by Wanda Joy Hoe
Talonbooks, 2020, 144 pages, $18.95 paperback.

IN 1880, FIVE years before the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the federal government’s imposition of a head tax on Chinese immigrants, Dukesang Wong (1845-1931) migrated from China to “Gold Mountain,” the term Chinese migrants used to refer to the west coast of the United States and Canada. He landed in Portland and eventually found work building the railway in British Columbia. Later he became a tailor, brought his wife to Canada, and settled his family here.

The Diary of Dukesang Wong is a selective translation of seven notebooks, originally belonging to Wong, and are the only known primary account of a 19th century Chinese railway worker....

Fictionally Comprehending Trotsky

— Paul LeBlanc

Trotsky in Tijuana
By Dan La Botz
St. Petersburg, FL: Serge Press,, Inc, 2020, 470 pages,
$20 paperback, Kindle $4.99.

THIS IS A curious work coming from the author of a dozen left-wing volumes on history, politics and social struggles — where statements of fact reign supreme.

On the copyright page, the book announces itself as “a counterfactual historical novel,” with its premise that Leon Trotsky, in Mexican exile, was not killed by a Stalinist assassin in 1940. Instead he lives on for a dozen more years, moving from the Mexico City suburb of Coyoacán to the far-western town of Tijuana.

By page 90, I felt an involuntary elation: “Thank God! He wasn’t killed after all!”...

In Memoriam

Karen Lewis, 1953-2021

— Dianne Feeley

KAREN LEWIS, THE Chicago Teachers Union president who led the game-changing 2012 strike, died February 7. As a Black educator, she fought for “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve,” which demanded smaller class size, an innovative curriculum and the resources of nurses and social workers.

The daughter of Chicago teachers who grew up on the South Side, she taught high school chemistry for more than twenty years before being elected president in 2010 on the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) slate that swept into office that year....