Saturday, July 14, 2018

Fictional Blowback?

“American War,” by Omar El Akkad, 2017

This book is ostensibly about a second American civil war that starts in 2075.  Given that 30%, of the U.S. population presently thinks another civil war could happen in the U.S., it would seem to be a book that could surf on that meme quite well.
It is actually about something else.  It is a book structured so that we feel sympathy for a suicide bomber who kills 100 million people.  It is far more about past and present events in the Middle-East – torture facilities, reactionary rebellions, imperial invasions, refugee camps, armed militias, political suicide, massacres, assassinations, drones, tribal allegiances and revenge – than a 2nd American civil war.  Not that some of these things might not occur in the U.S. as well.  In that sense it seems to be a book about present imperial ‘blowback’ processed through a reactionary logic.  And set in the U.S. to ‘bring the message home’ to readers who are paying attention.  Akkad was a reporter who covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, so it makes sense. 


Akkad has combined this overlay with elements of the first Civil War on American soil in 1860-1865 and the catastrophic effects of global warming to create a cramped simulacrum of the future.  In the book, Florida is all gone, now called the Florida Sea.  Only an island prison camp, Sugarloaf, that resembles Guantanamo or Bagram or Abu Ghraib remains on a slightly higher chunk of land.  Or, if you know your Civil War history, the old Union prison on Dry Tortuga.  New Orleans is gone, to be replaced by the Mississippi Sea.  Savannah is underwater, and now Augusta, Georgia is the main port receiving aid supplies and contraband.  All southern coasts are gone and some eastern ones, seemingly including Washington, D.C.  Hurricanes and storms are frequent.  Overwhelming heat and dust swirl around the south, so that farms in skyscrapers around Atlanta provide almost the only food for that region.  Food from greenhouses provide another source.


The 2075 civil war revolves around 4 states in the deep South – Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina – who refuse to give up the use of gasoline and move to a solar electric grid.  They secede and form the “Free Southern State” (FSS).    A singular reed to hang a civil war on, but that is one of the main motivations in the Middle East.  Somewhat funny logic for the U.S. though. “You’ll have to tear the wheel of my 8-cylinder muscle car from my cold, dead hands.”  Oddly, wind turbines are invisible in this future.  The southerners are “reds” who start another sad and doomed reactionary rebellion for gasoline production against the “blues” in the north. (Those colors come from the present corporate press’s identification of a state’s political loyalties, of course.  Socialists will take back the color ‘red!’)  This scenario reflects the first U.S. Civil War, which was launched to defend a reactionary economy, slavery, so long ago.  This civil war involves the reactionary oil barons of Texas evidently defending their profits, though Texas is oddly not part of the FSS.  South Carolina itself has been walled off from the rest of the country, as the North allowed a biologic agent to damage everyone in the state permanently.

Akkad focuses on a tough, tomboyish girl, Sarat, who comes from the Mississippi swamps in ‘purple’ territory.’  She is the book's central character.  She eventually ends up with most of her family in a refugee camp called Camp Patience near the Kentucky border.  The camp is presided over by the ‘Red Crescent’ society – in actuality the present Middle-Eastern version of the Red Cross.  The joke here is that the Chinese and the large Middle-Eastern “Bouazizi Empire” are now the powers of the world, who send humanitarian aide to the U.S. FSS.  A large chunk of the U.S. southwest has been retaken by Mexico as well and turned into a protectorate.  So the U.S. is no longer what it once was. 

Given global warming would have impacted the Middle-East into an even more extreme oil-depleted desert, it is not clear what the Bouazizi Empire is based on, but fantasies sometimes run rampant. Nor does anything here tell us why Mexico would be able to take back the Southwest – as Mexico would be even more parched than Arizona.  China’s aid seems to be purely humanitarian and that makes sense.  Akkad’s future national imagining is somewhat arbitrary.


Sarat is recruited by a wealthy FSS agent to be a sniper for the “reds” and she goes on to shoot the top general of the ‘blues.’  Later she is captured and tortured in the Sugarloaf detention facility in Florida.  This cruelty and the prior deaths of her mother and sister and permanent deformation of her brother during a massacre at Camp Patience carried out by a ‘blue’ militia lead her to accept another assignment by a Bouazizi agent.  She sneaks into the North with help from a southern militia leader Bragg (name-checked after Braxton Bragg, Confederate general.)  There she releases a toxic biologic agent supplied by the agent in the new northern capital, Columbus, Ohio.  This happens during a ‘reunification ceremony’ that follows the 2nd Northern victory in the 2nd civil war.

And like I said, 100 million plus die in a plague that last 10 years.  Revenge.

Other than the view of global warming, which seems quite accurate for the U.S., this view of the “American” future uses a Middle-Eastern template which I find unconvincing.  There is nothing about class in here, or rural versus city, or economics or the many other fractures that actually exist in the U.S.  A ‘state-versus-state’ rebellion is actually very unlikely based on one issue, though it fits the conventional journalistic template.  For instance, Atlanta, the ostensible capital of this southern rebellion, is mostly controlled by black or Democratic Party politicians now.   Houston is too, as are most large southern cities.   Black and Latino people are invisible in this book, so you have to wonder what happened to them in this version of the South.  It is hinted that Sarat might be mixed, but she is the only one.  She’s a lesbian too.  Instead she becomes a ‘rebel’ flying the four-starred and barred flag.

Akkad has basically taken bits of the U.S. and Middle-Eastern present and stretched them out to 2075, creating a creepy central character for us to cheer on.  Or not.  It is an enjoyable read as a bit of speculative fiction, but its structure is flawed.  This is a civil war that liberals would love.


Predictably, the New York Times compared it to Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," an inaccurate comparison.  'The Road' was actually a less political and more Biblical version of dystopia or the future than this. There is another future that might be imagined, a revolutionary future where the version of ‘civil war’ is actually that between corporations and the rich one side, with their fascist allies – and the working class on the other, in all its ethnicities.  Global warming is certainly a constant, but ‘capitalism’ - not gasoline alone - will be the real fulcrum around which a class-based ‘civil’ war develops.

I even know someone that is working on a book that is about precisely that.

Other reviews on dystopian futures:  The Road,” “Hunger Games,” “Divergent,” “Blade Runner,” “War for the Planet of the Apes,” “The Heart Goes Last,” “Good News,” “World War Z,” “Cloud Atlas.”

And I bought it at 2nd Story Books, Ely MN.
Red Frog
July 14, 2018

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

After Janus

“Rebuilding Power in Open-Shop America,” by Labor Notes, July 2018

Labor Notes has rushed out a guide for unionists on how to deal with the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, “Janus v AFSCME.”  On ‘free speech’ grounds the Supreme Court decision basically says that public sector union dues ‘violate the free speech’ of those who don’t agree with the politics of the union.  This echoes the logic of the “Citizen United” Supreme Court decision, which said that restrictions on corporate contributions were a restraint on ‘free speech.'  In a sense it brings what in the union movement is called the ‘open shop’ to all public workers – teachers, postal workers, state and federal government workers, firefighters, etc.  I.E. a minority of workers can benefit as ‘free riders’ from a union contract, while not contributing at all.

Mr. Janus is a deadbeat, basically.  He’s the guy who only thinks of himself.

Janus-Faced Supreme Court
Anthony DiMaggio of the Illinois Federation of Teachers points out that union dues in his union are used for these 5 things: 
+ Money is allocated to the faculty union’s legal fund, to represent members bringing complaints or charges forward against the college and its administration, in cases when both were in violation of the language of the collective bargaining agreement.

+ Funds are set aside for various social outings, including food/dinner functions, and drinks, and to promote solidarity between union members.

+ A small salary is allocated for the union president of $5,000 a year, to compensate he/she for all the work involved in representing faculty by bringing forward grievances, and for coordinating all other union activities.

+ Funds are set aside to pay a nominal fees (less than a few thousand dollars) to each of the three members of the collective bargaining team, who spend countless hours negotiating/arguing with college administration in pursuit of pay raises and other benefits for dues-paying union and non-union members.

+ Fees were paid to the IFT for various activities funded by the union, including political lobbying, public outreach campaigns, salaries of IFT representatives, and the salary of the IFT lead negotiator who aided us during our collective bargaining sessions with the college. 

I’m sure many other unions could say the same.  Only in the last bullet point do some funds go to political candidates chosen by the local or region or international… i.e. the ostensible majority of the membership.  So the idea that union dues are merely 100% transmission belts to Democratic Party coffers is a lie.  Which of course is part of the rationale for this decision, not just crippling unions and impoverishing the working class.

To revive the union movement after Janus, Labor Notes bullet-points 6 things:

  1. Be democratic in the union.  Unions that don’t rely on their members are weak and fail.
  2. Fight the boss.  Unions that don’t win fights with management fail.
  3. Turn up the heat.   Well-planned campaigns win.
  4. Ask people to join the union.  Part of everyday organizing.
  5. Count noses.  Have good data on the company and the employees.
  6. Don’t go it alone.  Reach out to community groups and other unions.
They spend the rest of the pamphlet expanding on these points, which seem pretty vanilla.  But for conservative ‘business unions’ that only dwell on maintaining their own structure, this might be news.

Due to the astounding weakness of private sector unionism, the public sector has now become the next target.  Labor Notes points out that this Supreme Court decision is anti-union but is also racist, as many black and Latino workers, especially women, were hired in the public sector since the 1960s and 1970s.  This draconian legal decision impacts minority workers the most, but the Supremes don't care.

Labor Notes lists other legal tactics by anti-union forces in the public and private sector, as well as what unions are doing to combat these tactics.  The 4 anti-union strategies are:

A.                 Right to Work … for less.  Spread the open shop to every single workplace, public and private, though local or state legislation.  Trump has pledged so sign national ‘right to work for less’ legislation too.

B.                Encourage individuals to resign from union – opt out.  The union-busters claim well-run campaigns can cut a local’s membership from 5-20%.

C.                Forcing unions to recertify every number of years.

D.                Individual workers have individual contracts with the company, instead of being covered by the union contract.

Note the Empty Slogan - "Equal Justice Under Law"
Pretty dystopian, aye?  Labor Notes has charts that gauge how exposed your union or local is to any of these anti-union tactics through members attitudes to the union:  Do members merely see it as a ‘dues collector,’ a hired ‘business,’ a ‘firefighter’ or a ‘movement.’  The latter, of course, is the most powerful.

What is glaringly missing from this syndicalist pamphlet is any notion of political action.  This might have been tacked onto their point 6 about ‘going it alone.’  A union movement without a political arm that it can trust – i.e. a Labor or Labor/populist Party – is not ‘reaching out.’   It is ignoring the role of the very lawmaking that is destroying unionism.  By omission Labor Notes is relying on an abusive corporate ‘friend’- the Democrats - to somehow pull labor’s ass out of the fire.  As we’ve seen from the past 40 years, since the Georgian Jimmy Carter went after the miners and jump-started deregulation in 1977, this ‘friendship’ is that of the rider with the horse, or the mule and his driver, or the elephant and his mahout.

"Reaching out" might also be understood as having a social agenda that benefits society as a whole, not a narrow agenda that adds work on projects that might be anti-social or part of a corporate plan.  That, I think, is what 'movement' really means.

Also missing is a long-term analysis of conditions ‘before’ wide-spread unionism in the U.S.  Given unions can be fined, or unions can work to restrain workers, or unions can make really bad political choices (Republican or Democrat…) the period prior to unionism may also be a guide.  Remember the recent wave of teacher strikes in the south and west sometimes went outside the bounds of the union leaderships or recognized strikes (a wildcat…) to pressure their respective state legislatures.  Direct action might become a thing!  No one can decertify or seize or take over or fine thousands of workers as they can an official union body.   Unleashed labor might be a threat that capital fears more than unions…

Another thing missing is the big picture.  Unions were at one time part of the structure of welfare-state capitalism.  Welfare-state capitalism – the social contract - is on the way out in many capitalist countries, and with it the social stability of unionism.  This is a huge loss but it is part of the international and political restructuring of capital.

This is a valuable guide on the level of the shop floor, the contract, the local and even the region.  But it fails on a national or international level to provide the real keys to overturning Janus, ‘right to work’ and every other law against labor, which started all the way back after World War II in 1947 with Taft-Hartley.

Other books, commentaries and fiction on labor reviewed below:  “Factory Days,” “Reviving the Strike,” “Embedded with Organized Labor,” “Meeting of Campaign for a Mass Party of Labor,”  “Save Our Unions,” “On New Terrain,” “Labor Day,” “A Snake Slithers Up the Mississippi.”

And I bought it at May Day Books large periodicals section!
Red Frog

July 1, 2018

Friday, July 6, 2018

Another Comrade

The Real Balfour Declaration

Earl Balfour, long-time May Day Books volunteer and militant class war activist, died on June 26th in the Our Lady of Peace hospice at the age of 82.  He will be missed by many for his acerbic wit, his signature hats and his commitment to the revolutionary labor movement.   Among others, he was close to his partner Lesa, his sons Jeff and Ken and his daughter Sharon.

He is the 3rd May Day Books volunteer to die in the last 3 years.  A leftist generation blooded in the 1950s and 1960s is passing away.
Earl restraining a cop at P-9 Strike - hat and mustache extra

Earl was a skilled machinist and tool & die maker who worked at Colt Manufacturing in Hartford, Connecticut and small machine shops around Minneapolis.  His fondness for metal machines was unmatched, as was his distaste for computers.  He loved and created small steam engines while at work, enjoying stealing time from the boss. Earl escaped Minnesota winters for many years by driving to the Yucatan area of Mexico, returning only when the snow retreated.

Earl spent time in the Socialist Workers Party in the 1960s and early 1970s, then left with many others due to political differences with the SWP leadership.  During the time he was in the SWP he was active in the anti-war movement against the Vietnam War. After leaving the SWP he joined several smaller left organizations, but decided to devote his time to strike and movement support and May Day Books.

Earl worked to support the P-9 Hormel strike back in the 1980s.  A picture of him in a fracas with police at the strike adorns May Day’s desk and is included here.  He was involved in the local Iowa Pork strike support committee (P-6) and support for UAW Local 869 at Ford, and also worked with Teamsters for a Democratic Union at UPS. Earl’s role in the AMFA strike in 2005, even as an older man, was stellar.  He drove the lead junker car as part of a mobile picket intending to shut down the Northwest scab gate near the airport.  He disabled the car in the road and was arrested by police, being later bailed out downtown by comrades.  Earl helped plan and participated in every anniversary celebration of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters Strike, beginning in 1984 with Harry DeBoer, Jake Cooper, and other local labor activists, then every 5 to 10 years thereafter.

Lenin Carries On
Earl played a role in the fight against fascist groups in the 1990s in Minneapolis.  At one point, he got some anti-racists in Anti-Racist Action out of a tight jam at the University of Minnesota by leading a garbage-can charge to break an encirclement by racist thugs.  He supported the American Indian Movement in spear-fishing struggles in the 1990s, homeless rights and every anti-US intervention struggle ever. He struggled alongside many groups, including communists, socialists, anarchists and DeLeonists. If there was a picket, a strike, an occupation or an anti-war demonstration, Earl would be there.

Earl started volunteering for May Day in the early 1980s.  Due to his mechanical intelligence, he planned and built some of the bookcases used to this day.  He contributed a potato clock to the May Day counter, to the delight of young and old.  He helped people move with his aging truck, razzed people with his exaggerations and stayed a proud Luddite to the end.

A memorial for Earl was held at May Day Books on June 30th which filled the store, standing room only.  According to his son Jeff, “he was a good comrade, father, grandfather, friend and mentor.  He was always there with good advice and leadership.  He inspired several generations of activists and always had a good story.”

Now his story is over.

Compiled by friends and family… July 6, 2018

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Summer Lake Read Down

“The Vegetarian,” by Han Kang, 2007 / 2015 English Version

I’m mostly a vegetarian, so of course I was attracted to a book with this title, especially set in South Korea, a place famous for barbecue and obsessed with pork.  Meat, meat meat!  And there was nothing much else to read in the bookstore I got it from.  The book however is not a look at the narrow cultural norms of a certain authoritarian middle-class strata in South Korea.  No, the vegetarianism in the book is merely a prelude to the slow suicide by starvation of a quiet Korean woman, Yeong-hye.  This is a terrible book, and I don’t mean that in a good way.
Another name for starvation?

But the book garnered the Booker International Prize and kudos from the usual suspects - the New York Times (10 best books, 2016!), Entertainment Weekly, Oprah, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and many more. What more could you want?

I’ve been criticizing the Iowa Writers Workshop for turning out formulaic writers who mostly dwell on personal / family stories set in middle-class settings, full of psychology and pompous images, while paying a very high price for their entry into the hallowed halls.  I’m not alone. I know this is heresy.  I’ve never read a book by one of these people and, to my surprise, after I finished this one, I read the internal blurb on the author and sure enough, she was educated at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

I’ve been to the main bookstore in downtown Iowa City, Prairie Lights (the name stolen from you know what…), the same town where the Workshop is located.  The bookstore’s politics section is two small shelves hidden away in a sub-bookshelf.  I had to ask where it was.  This bookstore is the main commercial reference for the esteemed geniuses there.  You can only laugh.

Here is how vegetarianism works in this book.  Yeong-hye has a conventional corporate husband who doesn’t really like her, but married her because it was expected.  She has a bad dream and suddenly stops eating meat - and makes her husband food without meat.  He is outraged, but hopes she grows out of it.  She embarrasses him at a meal with his boss when she turns down the meat-heavy dishes.  At a following celebratory full family meal she also refuses to eat meat.  Her father (former South Korean military soldier who fought in Vietnam for the U.S….) hits her twice and tries to stuff a piece of pig down her throat.  Buried in the story is that her father has been brutal to her for years. After that the husband divorces her.  

From there she starts taking her clothes off in public and engages in adulterous sex with a video artist who is infatuated with her ‘Mongolian’ birth mark, who is also her sister’s husband.  He films them having sex while both are body painted in flowers… Then she is committed to a mental institution.  Edgy!  There she stops eating and just drinking water, and from there wants to ‘live on air’ like a plant and stops any intake whatsoever.  Her sister is sympathetic but overwhelmed.  Then Yeong-hye dies due to starvation, which is evidently the wages of vegetarianism …

The book is narrated by the block-head husband, then the long-suffering sister.  Told, not shown…

You want to read a book like that?  Really?  It is not about vegetarianism at all.  This book reads like some slight attempt at a pathetic copy of 1950s American fiction about the corporate IBM family life.  Bulls-eye for the U.S. literary mafia who work hard to avoid anything up-to-date.  Lord knows, South Korea’s middle class is a dreadful class, but the analysis is glancing.  Where are the majority of South Koreans, many of them militant Korean workers with other issues besides vegetables?  Invisible, as usual.  A book with a crazy woman.  As usual.  Probably needs to be doped up on Valium.  As usual.  Betty Friedan story, 70 years later, of retro fake progressivism and 'insight.'  A typical psychological, derivative, anti-female, dysfunctional story… written by a woman.  A coup!  And an insult to real vegetarianism.

An Iowa Writer’s Workshop® product.

And I bought it at 2nd Story Books, Ely MN.

Red Frog

July 4, 2018

Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Two-Tier Legal System

“The Appeal,” by John Grisham, 2008

Given the right-wing decisions issued last week by the highly political U.S. “Supreme” Court, this book is germane and prescient.  The Supreme’s embraced Trump’s ban on immigration and visits from mostly Muslim countries and slammed the labor movement by allowing public workers to opt out of paying dues even if they benefit from labor contracts.  (Janus v. AFSCME)  NPR ran an interview with Janus, who works in Illinois, and mostly buried the rest of the story.  Then the ‘culture war’ liberal and corporate conservative Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement prior to the 2018 elections, thus giving Trump a slam-dunk at another criminally right-wing ‘jurist.’  After all, Kennedy voted for “Citizens United” where corporations are now treated like people and money becomes ‘free speech.’  He voted for gutting the Voting Rights Act, gerrymandering, for Janus, for the travel ban, for purging voter rolls - and that is just in the last few weeks.  Not to mention his 'Bush v. Gore' vote that handed the 2000 election to Bush.  He's no 'centrist' as claimed by our corporate press.


This book is one of Grisham's best, as it shows the combination of corporate politics and corporate law.  It concerns a chemical corporation buying a seat on the Mississippi Supreme Court in order to get a large compensatory and punitive judgment against them reversed.  As we know, stacking the courts with ultra-conservative ‘judges’ has been normal practice by the Republican Party vetted by the Federalist Society.  It is called ‘tort reform,’ which is a euphemism for corporations legally doing whatever they want.  This book shows how it is done.  Anyone who thinks the ‘law’ is objective and neutral has not been living in the real world.  In a capitalist society, the laws and the courts enforce private property and, while varying their interpretations, defend an archaic Constitution over 200 years old.  The U.S. Supreme Court, where members are inducted for life or until they retire, is a perfect example of this.  It is the most reactionary institution in the government.

The corporation in the book, Krane Chemical, is accused and convicted by a jury of poisoning the water of a small Mississippi town, Bowmore, through years of dumping toxic chemicals into ravines behind their plant.  This results in a ‘cancer cluster’ 12 times the national average, resulting in many deaths and sicknesses, giving the name “Cancer County” to the locale.  Not to be confused with the real ‘Cancer Alley” across the river in Louisiana, also related to the chemical and oil complexes in that region.  The jury issues a huge punitive and compensatory award of $41M.  

The objective of the Wall Street firm behind Krane Chemical is to get the decision reversed on appeal, jury be damned.  To do that they need to find a young, na├»ve white lawyer who believes in church and hunting and is against gay marriage and is ‘tough on crime’ ... and run him for Mississippi Supreme Court judge.  Almost nothing to do with actual supreme court decisions, but Krane hopes to introduce a political litmus test into electing judges.  If they are successful they will be able to kick out a centrist female Supreme Court judge who might uphold the jury verdict in a 5-4 decision against them.  Sounds like the U.S. Supreme Court, aye?  Controlling every state’s Supreme Court means that any unpleasant awards on the district level can be reversed, and firms don’t even have to settle.  As shown here, they have the money and the time to appeal.

Points to note:  Money is the crucible under which these legal issues are decided.  The defendants push the small-town opposing lawyers into bankruptcy. They funnel millions of dollars in secret and openly into the campaign of their patsy, Ron Fisk.  The holding company of Krane Chemical manipulates its stock price so as to enrich the largest shareholder.  High-end lawyers, consultants, managers and techies are hired to blanket southern Mississippi with fliers, TV ads, e-mails and lies.  They push culture war ‘ho-ha’ about gun rights, gay marriage, crime and religion, which are merely window-dressing to limit or eliminate liability for corporations in the state.  Sorta of a ‘What’s The Matter With Kansas,” the realistic fictional version.   Christian fundamentalist ministers, white and black, provide troops and money for the corporations.  Decoy candidates are paid to run and then drop out.  Fake false-flag attempts at gay marriage in deeply conservative Mississippi are instituted.  Lies are broadcast.  Omissions are made.  Fraud in black neighborhoods is set up. Senators are bought on retainer.  I.E. normal capitalist ‘democratic’ methods.

If you look at what is happening to societies with formal 'democratic' voting procedures, they can manipulate bourgeois laws to the point where they can create a permanent authoritarian government.  See Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Russia as examples - now the U.S.  No need to resort to outright fascism ... you use your police and soldiers to maintain order.  The hysteria by Clintonite and Obama liberals about Trump's 'fascism' hides the fact that authoritarianism is built into capitalist legal and governmental structures.   Their middle-class analysis is ahistorical, clueless about class struggle and the material roots of fascism.  Will the capitalists ultimately need actual fascism if a real mass working class resistance occurs in the U.S.?  History will decide that, but the logic is yes.

Grisham’s heroes fighting this setup are the usual small-town lawyers fighting for the ‘little guy.’  Their back-up are the somewhat deep pockets of the trial lawyer associations.   Yet after finishing the book, you will understand that even these legal heroes are insufficient to fight the rising and open dictatorship of capital.  In a way, Grisham undermines his own liberal politics by showing how this whole charade functions. Clearly, more than lawsuits and heroic lawyers are needed.  If you don’t think so, you are lying to yourself.

Other reviews of books on capitalist law or by Grisham:  “With Liberty & Justice for Some,” “Legal Logic,” “The Divide,” “Gray Mountain,” “Eric Holder,” “99 Homes,” “Sycamore Row,” "Dispatch from the American South" and “A Time to Kill.”  Use blog search box, upper left.

And I bought at Chapman Streets Books, Ely MN

Red Frog

July 1, 2018