Friday, October 14, 2016

Review of Two Graphic Histories

[Edited by the Graphic History Collective with Paule Buhle. Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working-Class Struggle. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016.]

[Robert Kristofferson and Simon Orpana. Showdown! Making Modern Unions. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016.]

How do you do history in ways that allow it to move, travel, and engage people in non-university contexts? I've thought about that a lot over the years, and I still don't feel like I have any firm answers, but I think it's possible that these two graphic histories point towards at least one possible way of thinking about doing that.

The first books is Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working-Class Struggle from the Graphic History Collective. It features nine different stories of working-class struggle drawn from Canadian history and presented by a range of different historians, writers, and artists. The content goes from the Knights of Labor in the 19th century to much more recent history, like the Days of Action in Ontario in the late 1990s and the struggles of migrant domestic workers. Some are about specific conflicts, like a 1935 coal strike or a battle by dock workers on the west coast; others are more biographical, like the one about iconic trade unionist and feminist Madeleien Parent (who is famous in Quebec but little-known in the rest of Canada) and itinerant radical Bill Williamson (whose name I'd never heard, but who cropped up in many important radical contexts in Canada and internationally in the first half of the 20th century); some focus on a particular organization, like the small socialist-feminist union that did some important work in British Columbia in the 1970s and 1980s; and some on particular groups of workers, like the story of Indigenous workers in the west coast fisheries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Each comic had a short introduction, mostly written by left historians, labour studies profs, social movement scholars, and so on. And the book itself has a great intro written by the Graphic History Collective that situates their work in the history of activist comics.

(I should also add that I was surprised and pleased to see my own name included in the acknowledgmenets sections -- one of the first episodes ever of my radio show, Talking Radical Radio, featured a member of the Graphic History Collective, back when this book was still early in the planning stages, and I'm touched that they thought that worth mentioning. Thanks, GHC! :) )

The other book is Showdown! Making Modern Unions written by Rob Kristofferson and illustrated by Simon Orpana. It is an in-depth examination of one particular strike that rocked the steel industry in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1946. This conflict merits a full book's worth of attention because of the context: There was a wave of strikes in Canada that year that played an important part in establishing the power of organized labour and cementing a new labour relations framework in the post-Second World War era, and this strike was one of a handful that were absolutely crucial to that process. The book, while in one or two places feeling a little over-the-top in its declarations of the strike's historical significance, makes great use of it -- it draws readers in through its wonderful portrayal of the drama of the strike itself, including direct use of voices and images that emerged from it directly, while carefully including the broader historical context in which this year and this strike were key turning points.

Beyond my interest in the content and the quality of the work, it is that potential to engage people who otherwise might not pay much attention to history-from-below that really excites me about these two books. I've done grassroots history-from-below work myself, and am just embarking on a new project in that vein, and I'm feeling particularly conscious that just doing the work is not enough. We are entering the project with a wide open sense of what we might produce the other end, depending on what will be most useful to movements and communities, and to those engaged in related struggles today, but even at this early stage of consultation, I'm beginning to think there isn't a clear answer to that. Generally speaking, lots of people who are involved in movements and communities-in-struggle agree in principle that we need to know more about movements of the past and that which movements have faced, but that rarely translates into creating space for such thinking and learning to happen. Most of us, most of the time, take up knowledge about the world via practices that are habits -- yes, our media consumption practices change over time, and in specific circumstances can even change abruptly, but mostly we learn about the world today in much the same way as we learned about it yesterday. And given that most movements have no deliberate collective practices of learning from the past, and most individuals (whether active in movements or not) do not have such practices either, an ungrounded good will towards remembering past movements does not easily translate into doing anything about it.

I don't really know what the answer to that problem is. I have a sense that part of it involves creating collective proccesses or events or mechanisms for engagement -- mechanisms that are not too onerous; mechanisms that are perhaps arranged by people friendly to but not necesarily in the movements or communities themselves, so the work doesn't detract from pressing organizing; and mechanisms that are appealing in their own right, and don't count on "should"-based sentiments to generate participation. But artefacts are important too, not just processes and events, and I think these books seize on that last principle to experiment with the kinds of artefacts that might be useful -- that is, ones which are engaging and entertaining in their own right, and convey grassroots historical knowledge via that engagement.

When I think about what all of that might mean for my own work, I remain quite uncertain. But as myself and my collaborator continue to puzzle that out, in consultation with other folks in the community, I hope that it will be possible to keep tabs on these two books, to get a sense of the ways in which they are engaging people, the spaces that they are reaching, the excitement that they are generating, so that we might learn from that.

[For a list of all book reviews on the site, click here]

Monday, October 03, 2016

Review: Extraction!

[Frederic Dubois, Marc Tessier, and David Wdigington, editors. Extraction! Comix Reportage, 2nd edition. Ottawa ON: Ad Astra Comix, 2016. (First edition published by Cumulus Press in 2007.)]

I spend quite a bit of time thinking about the how to convey grassroots, critical, against-the-dominant-commonsense knowledge about the world. Just in this post, you can see this attention to method and medium by the presence of an embedded video -- as I explain here I'm experimenting with combining my longstanding practice of reviewing nonfiction books related to social issues and social movements, my longstanding Talking Radical project, and a new interest in developing at least rudimentary skills for working with video to augment my written book reviews with video book reivews. I'm also a fan of comics-based narrative. I didn't grow up reading them, which is a bit surprising because I think I would've liked them, but I've come to appreciate them as an adult. Also, despite my complete lack of anything resembling artistic ability, I have thought a bit about the potential for comics to convey the sorts of ideas and knowledge and information that form the core of my own work. All of which means that I find the combination of journalism and sequential art in Extraction! Comix Reportage, 2nd edition to be intriguing and exciting. I feel somewhat cautious in reaction to it, too, but as I'll explain below, that's really not about the book itself.

Extraction! was first published in 2007. It sold out quickly, and the publisher folded in 2008. This second edition was put out by Ad Astra Comix, a publisher in Ottawa specializing in social justice-related comics, in 2016. The book tells four stories, each bringing together a different journalist with a different artist, and each reporting on a different instance of a Canadian resource extraction company doing its thing -- gold mining in Guatemala, uranium in Quebec, bauxite in India, and the tar sands in Alberta. There is also some text-y frontmatter and backmatter that talk about the project and the process.

I like the art. I appreciate the skill of the writing. I've done some grassroots journalism myself in the past, though unlike the reporters who contributed to this volume it has never been my primary focus, and I appreciate the evidence both of their journalistic skills in general and of the work of thinking through how best to apply them to a medium with quite different strengths and weaknesses than the written word alone. It was also good to see that there were at least a couple of different approaches to doing that represented.

The book, as I said, isn't new, but for the most part that didn't bother me. Fables of corporate social responsibility notwithstanding, violence to people and the earth are endemic to the Canadian mining and broader resource extraction industries, and these stories felt well worth telling and worth reading even if they're a few years old. The only one of the four that felt a little bit off, perhaps because it's the one of the four that I went in knowing most about already, was the one about the tar sands. It felt a little dated, as it was written before what has been a pretty change-filled decade in terms of basic facts and impacts and political dynamics. Still, it does a pretty good job of introducing some of the history and the environmental outcomes, and I think would be a good tool to get senior elementary and high school students thinking about the issue. More concerning, though, was that it talked almost exclusively about the environmental impacts, with almost no attention to the colonial character of the tar sands, and I think that's pretty politically troubling.

Even given those concerns, though, I liked the book, and thought it was well done. I think it can be a tool to introduce critical material about the impacts of capitalist resource extraction to people who might otherwise not encounter such material, and I hope it gets used that way.

But that brings me to the side of my reaction to this book that's hesitant. And, really, this reaction isn't about the book at all -- it is more about my own two decades of experience with both the power and the limits of grassroots media-making and knowledge production. On the one hand, it's work that I am committed to because I know that it can reach people and it can be an important element in supporting struggles for a better world. I know that consistent, solid work on an established project or form can do this, and I know that investing energy in exploring new possibilities, new media, new forms can do it too -- I wouldn't remain determined even after three and a half year to meet a time-consuming weekly radio deadline if I didn't believe the former, and I wouldn't be playing around with video for the first time ever if I didn't believe the latter. At the same time, the scale and reach of dominant institutions and practices of both media-making and knowledge production are vastly larger than anything that we're capable of at the moment, and it's hard to simultaneously hold onto both excitement for what we are able to do along with sober recognition of the sharp limits of our reach and the harsh realities of what we can't do.

That concern is about far more than mainstream news media, but I'll lay it out with reference to that because that's what's most relevant to this book: Dominant institutions and practices of mainstream journalism incorporate particular kinds of silences and biases and erasures into the core of their work, even at its best. The fact that initiatives trying to enact radically transformed institutions and practices for knowing the world are nowhere near the scale they would need to be to functionally replace mainstream media institutions, however, means that struggles to change the world still depend on mainstream journalism's ability to do certain kinds of things dependably and well, whatever its limitations. Except even that has been hollowed out over the last twenty years -- just last week, there was a report in the Toronto Star about the crisis in Canadian news media. And while I disagree profoundly with the solutions being suggested by Canada's media capitalists, the fact that the largest circulation daily in the country has cut its newsroom from 470 journlists to just 170 in the course of a decade, and that many other papers have done similar things or closed up shop entirely, is the sign of a major problem, and one that is very relevant to social movements and to communities-in-struggle, however vigorous and justified our criticisms of the mainstream media might be.

Like I said, this hesitance isn't at all about the book. Rather, it's a reminder -- to myself as much as to anyone else -- that even as we need to celebrate the things that we make that are grassroots and critical and committed to a vision for a better world world, like this important book, we need to keep an eye on that bigger picture and not get lost (as I know all to well can happen) in a neoliberal celebration of novelty and innovation and creativity when, as lovely as those things are, our bottom line really needs to be social justice and collective liberation.

So please do read this book. It's a solid journalistic introduction to the realities of Canadian resource extraction industries, which are known by far too few people given how central they are to colonial capitalism in the northern half of Turtle Island. As well, the book is an important experiment with a new approach to producing and circulating knowledge about the world that, despite my indulgence in broad pessimism above, I really do want to see develop and grow. In fact, I want our grassroots media-making and knowledge production to grow until it really can offer an alternative to the institutions that dominate and distort how we know the world today.

[For a list of all book reviews on the site, click here.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Review: How Queer!

[Faith Beauchemin, writer and editor. How Queer! Personal narratives from bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, sexually-fluid, and other non-monosexual perspectives. Atlanta GA: On Our Own Authority Publishing!, 2016.]

Though the title emphasizes the personal narratives, this book actually combines its fourteen short personal narratives by non-monosexual people who are not professional writers or activist superstars with several essays by the editor. While I have some suggestions in terms of what might have strengthened the analysis in the essays, as someone who is also committed to paying close attention to how everyday lived experience is a starting point for theory and to generating understandings of the social world and our struggles to change it in non-academic contexts, I am a big fan of this book's project.

First, the narratives: I have a soft spot for this kind of personal storytelling, partly because of my sense of the broader political significance it can have but to a large extent because I really like hearing from people about their lives, particluarly about how sexuality and gender and relationships work in their lives. (I'm much less enthusiastic about talking about how those things work for me, but I'm working on it....) The fourteen stories captured here manage to be both an interesting range of different experiences while also (inevitably) being just one arbitrary and limited slice of the vast territory encompassed by people who are in one sense or another non-monosexual. Which, in the overall context of bisexual erasure, is still a pretty great thing. There are a couple of Canadians and one young woman in India, but it is mostly people from the US, with the core being (I think mostly white) people who grew up in conservative religious families. The range of experiences includes a mix of the recognizeable and familiar (accompanied by all the complicated reactions and feelings that can carry with it) with things that feel less so. In particular, it was a reminder of how deeply variegated and often painfully oppressive the social landscape remains, especially for youth, beneath the thin veneer of supposedly already-accomplished liberal tolerance that tends to get presumed by (particularly non-queer) denizens of many urban Canadian contexts to be both universal and sufficient.

The essays, which don't draw directly on the personal narratives but serve as a sort of contextualization and a theorization based on the kinds of experiences the narratives present, bring together in a short, accessible way many of the main ideas found in the rad side of 21st century queer politics in North America, with a non-monosexual emphasis. What this means is that if you're already familiar with those politics, you probably won't encounter much that's new here. However, because it is packaged and presented in a way that is short and accessible, and because the book foregrounds the personal narratives, I think it has a good chance of conveying these politics to young queer readers who otherwise might be less likely to encounter them, and that it has a shot of blowing some new-to-this-stuff minds in a really great way.

Saying that, of course, is not at all the same as not having any opinions about what might strenghten the book's analysis, of which I have plenty. For instance, there are definitely points where the book's account of the social world feels a bit schematic -- a politically important and useful schema, but still more abstracted from the sensual messiness of lived experience than I think we really need. In quite a few places it falls into talking about identities in fairly reified (as opposed to relational) ways, which isn't at all surprising given that it is probably the dominant mode of thinking about identity these days, but it's still worth noting. As well, it feels like it consistently downplays the capacity of capitalism to recoup and put to work even radically intentioned and overtly oppositional ways of enacting diversity, difference, and transgression. Which relates (but is not reducible) to another tendency in the analysis that was concerning -- and that I think is not unusual in ceratin kinds of rad queer politics -- which at least some of the time seems to be framing the enactment of transgressive sexual and relationship practices as much more intrinsically threatening to existing social relations than I think they actually are, in the absence of conscious and deliberate efforts to use them as building blocks for projects of collective liberation.

It should be said that the author is pretty up front in the introduction about what the book does and does not do: It presents individual narratives and it presents some social and political analysis, but it does not try to answer "what is to be done" in a collective way, either through talking about existing collective projects or theorizing about what groups could and should do. Which on a certain level is fine, in that it is never fair to critique a book for not being a different book, but I wonder if taking on that piece and fitting it into what the book already does, and incorporating discussion of how existing collective efforts are being implemented and experienced in practice on the ground, might be one approach to beginning to address some of the limitations in the book's analysis.

Anyway. A neat little book that will go out into the world and do some good work -- it will be supportive and affirming to some folks who really need that, and it will take important and rad political ideas to people who might not otherwise come across them.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Review: Keywords for Radicals

[Kelly Fritsch, Clare O'Connor, and Ak Thompson, editors. Keywords for Radicals: The Contested Vocabulary of Late-Capitalist Struggle. Chico CA: AK Press, 2016.]

For a long time -- longer, at least, than I've been thinking about such things myself -- one important element of both internal and external conflict involving the broadly-defined left has been questions related to language and vocabulary. Accusations of inaccessible verbiage and politically pointless quibbling about language are constantly used to dismiss either the left in its entirety, or whatever sections of the left the speaker doesn't like. While, regretfully, leftist arguing about the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin does sometimes happen, it actually happens much more in the fantasies of those doing the accusing -- whether that is Fox News reactionaries who wouldn't know the actual left if it bit them on the shin, or whether it is aging post-radicals complaining about how social justice-oriented youth conduct themselves on Tumblr -- than in actuality, because even if the issues are not always addressed functionally or directly, and even if that importance is never quite named clearly in the conversation itself, questions that touch on or weave together with issues of language and vocabulary are of larger political importance. And so various language-related questions do matter far beyond themselves. To name just a few: What is the relationship between language and the world around us? How should we approach naming the world in the service of justice and liberation? How should we relate to a particular way of talking and naming and explaining that has (or perhaps had) great power to help us understand the world in certain respects, that is perhaps fading from common use or is still around but whose limits are becoming increasingly clear? How do we navigate conflict among different (parts of) movements who use the same language in different ways...ways that really do reflect substantive political differences? Or among constituencies that potentially could be working in alliance but that are starting from vastly different language and politics? What do we do when politically careful naming of the world becomes in-group signalling that keeps people from engaging with ideas that we think are important?

Keywords for Radicals is a thoughtful engagement with language and the world, inspired in part by a similar but not identical project by English marxist scholar Raymond Williams called Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society that was published forty years ago. The newer book takes 50 terms that are important to social movements and social struggles in the early 21st century. These might be terms that are hotly contested, they might be terms that are so ubiquitous that we don't even notice that their meanings are muddy or multiple, or they might be terms that get deliberately employed to avoid debate rather than clarify understanding. They go all the way from "accessible" and "accountability," to "misogyny" and "nation," to "war" and "zionism." Each is then explored by a different radical writer.

The book is based on a materialist understanding of language that argues that the ways in which language gets used -- the conceptual practices which are thus conveyed -- are related to aspects of social organization. So when usage changes, when a given way of deploying a term goes from clear and mobilizing to contested and confused, say, or when new ways of framing and describing and demarcating social phenomena arise, it is not just whims of speakers but reflective, albeit often in complex ways, of shifts in the social world. So by historicizing and socially contextualizing the ways in which people engaged in struggle use language, we can build understanding of struggles and of the world. The goal of the book is not to resolve tensions in how words are used, not to establish stable 'correct' meanings nor to destabilize supposedly illusory consensuses, but to trace out how shifts and changes and tensions and contradictions have come to be and exist in the present, and to probe what we can learn from that.

Though each entry is written by someone different, and clearly the authors had some latitude to put their own stamp on things, there is also more consistency in approach and feel across the entries than you might expect for a multi-author collection. Most include a brief dictionary-based etymological accounting that goes into the deep past, as well as a more detailed exploration of more recent history and present uses of the terms in question. Though I'm sure many are not exhaustive, and specialists in particular areas would find things to add and expand, they do a good job of touching on key movements and theorists that have shaped the terms in question in the 20th century and more recently, and various tension and competing usages/politics today. I particularly appreciated those entries in which the writers were able to introduce some sort of novel insight beyond elementary description of the landscape of contemporary usage of that entry's keyword. I also appreciate that those who have been invited to contribute, though all are on the radical left in one sense or another, represent a range of political and intellectual traditions. However, because of the emphasis on breadth, completeness, and generous readings within each entry, as well as the editorial effort to produce a common tone, this doesn't come across as an effort to perform some sort of strained political balance but just as a recognition that thinkers from a range of traditions and politics have something to contribute.

That said, it's important to be at least a little bit cautious in how you read these entries. There were very few of the entries that read to me as if they were badly done, but at the same time it would be easy (particularly, I suspect, for readers for whom these ideas are newer) to read them as being more complete than they are. So, for instance, the entry on "class," which was not badly done but which left me with more concerns about completeness than most. As far as it goes, it deals with some important history and current tensions, but I think it leaves a lot of important things out when it discusses the contemporary tension that many radicals frame as existing between liberal identity politics and a more radical class-based politics. Most versions of that framing that I have encountered, including the one in this chapter, present what to me seems to be a very simplistic account in which liberal, reified identity politics are made to stand in for all politics that take identity and related phenomena seriously, thereby erasing politics that do so in ways that are relational, revolutionary, collective, anti-liberal, and non-reified. I see this as profoundly politically unhelpful, and as very common at the moment, so it's disappointing that this chapter didn't push beyond it. As well, in a related but not identical omission, it leaves out any consideration of critical marxist feminist interventions into the category of "class" (though other entries in Keywords for Radicals engage with some of that work) and of autonomist interventions that greatly complexify and expand what "class" captures. And to be clear, I still think it's a useful chapter...I raise this more as a caution about how the entries should be read than anything else. If you are someone who works with the ideas in this book -- and, really, if you write stuff about the social world from a vaguely left-ish perspective, then you do -- the entries in this book are quite useful places to start and pointers to important thinkers and movements and ideas. But they aren't endpoints, and shouldn't be taken as such.

Anyway. It's a sizeable book, and certainly not everyone's cup of tea, but it's very readable and, I think, full of really useful stuff. There's lots to pick apart and debate and discuss in the entries, which I think is valuable in itself, and the underlying theory of why and how language matters is super important. Though this is not it's primary purpose, I think the theory underlying Keywords gives us ways to think through how arguments about language and terminology arise within and beyond the left, and to perhaps approach them in ways that are more historically grounded and potentially useful.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

Monday, August 15, 2016

Review: Normal Life

[Dean Spade. Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of the Law. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2015.]

This is a classic of radical trans politics, written by legal scholar and organizer Dean Spade, and originally published by the sadly now-defunct South End Press in 2009 and re-released by Duke University Press in 2015.

A central premise for the book is one of the key divides in contemporary social movements. On the one hand, there are politics that focus on narrowly defined single issues, that don't really consider differential impacts of their agenda within or beyond their presumed base and that therefore centre the more privileged elements of that base, and that tend to lack any critical understanding of the state. On the other hand, there are politics that may be grounded in a particular set of experiences but that prioritize seeing the interconnections between different struggles and that aim for collective liberation, that are very attuned to the differential impacts that various reforms would have both within and beyond their base in ways that centre the most marginalized people within that base, and that are very clear (but not dogmatic or rigid) about the oppressive violence inherent in the state form. This is perhaps most clearly talked about these days with reference to queer struggles, and this book puts an emphasis on drawing lessons from past queer movements and applying them to present-day decisions in trans organizing, but it is a distinction that is relevant to quite a few movements.

Given that Spade is a lawyer and a legal scholar, a particular emphasis in the book is examining the role of law reform within movements. Again, there is a distinction that maps roughly onto the two broad kinds of politics described above. The former often ends up relying quite heavily on legal strategies, to the extent that they take on much more weight and significance, and absorb more resources, than more grassroots elements of struggle. In the context of lesbian and gay movements, these politics have tended to emphasize law reforms that constitute some kind of positive recognition -- most prominently equal marriage, hate crime legislation, and explicit inclusion in human rights law. The latter kind of politics, and the one Spade argues for, uses law reform as only one part of a larger, multi-faceted movement strategy, and is quite careful that grassroots, often base-building, activities are prioritized. He goes through each of those major legal achievements of queer movements in the United States and shows how they often don't have the promised impacts on queer lives, and that at least some have significant negative consequences on some (often racialized and/or poor) queer and non-queer people. He suggests an approach to law reform in movement contexts, with particular reference to trans struggles, that begins from asking what aspects of law have the greatest material impact on the greatest number of lives, and then seeking to change those things. In the case of trans people, he suggests that rather than following the lead of LGB movements in seeking things like inclusion in human rights codes and hate crime legislation, the largest impact on trans lived experience would actually be made by challenging how gender functions in administrative law -- which hate crime legislation and human rights codes mostly don't touch. He also argues that, again using the metric of actual impacts on the lives of trans people, it is crucial for trans movements to become part of larger coalitions challenging the prison industrial complex and various injustice related to immigration.

The book is scholarly, but very lucid, very clear in its argument, very easy to follow. I think what I like most about it is how grounded and practical it is when it comes to arguing for a sort of intersectional collective liberation approach to movement politics, and when it talks about state violence. I find that too often when activists or writers take those positions, particularly more privileged activists, they end up sounding radical but feeling pretty detached from lived experience in a way that allows single-issue politics and the downplaying of state violence to come across as the pragmatic and reasonable position. Spade does an excellent job of making clear that in fact politics that strive for collective liberation and that refuse to ignore state violence are not just too-the-root radical but also, when done right, the more practical alternative to making incremental improvements to people's everyday lives.

As a cis person, I have no standing to comment on the choices facing trans politics at this moment of heightened visibility and attack, but I think this book is one excellent way for those of us who do not have that lived experience to understand some of the ways that trans lives and gender more broadly are socially organized, and I think the political lessons in this book resonate through all of our movements.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

Saturday, July 23, 2016

PLEASE, Canadians: Don't share pieces on the US election

I want to make a simple request to everyone in Canada who thinks of themselves as in some sense or another part of the left. I don't actually suppose that anyone will listen -- after all, who am I to ask such a thing? -- but I will ask nonetheless. And my request is this: I want all of us to commit, for the period between right now and November 9, not to write, publish, or share anything to do with the elections in the United States.

The basis for making this appeal is a bit different than some readers might assume, so I'm going to start off by talking about what my reasons are not. Then, I'll explain what they actually are.

What I don't mean

The first thing this request is not is an expression of left nationalism. It's not based in smug Canadian we're-better-ness. It's not based in a commitment to reinforcing borders as naturalized demarcations of belonging and action. I hope that if I have demonstrated anything over the last 20 years of writing and making media and otherwise acting in the world, it is a distaste for Canadian nationalism, left or otherwise, so even if this request seems superficially to be in line with such a position, it really comes from rather a different set of political commitments.

This request is also not an assertion that the elections in the US don't have an impact on us; they most certainly do. They always and inevitably do, given...what's the quote from Trudeau Senior about being a mouse on the back of an elephant? Anyway, you get the idea. I also have the sense that there are some dynamics specific to this election. There are lots of people who know more than me about electoral politics and about the right in Canada, so I may be wrong about this, but here's my take: The electoral right, federally and at least in Alberta and in a different way in Ontario, is in a bit of disarray at the moment. However, the grassroots right-wing social movement that brought the Harper Conservatives to power -- and my thanks to a Hamilton anarchist for first introducing me to the idea of right-wing electoral success in Canada as resulting from a highly organized grassroots base -- is still around. It has never been as strong as its counterpart in the US, and the more terrifying and openly white nationalist elements within it have not generally had as much influence as they do south of the border right now, or at least not since the Second World War. But the grassroots right in Canada is still stronger now than it was in the second half of the twentieth century. The electoral disarray is not due to grassroots decomposition, and that means that once the specifics of electoral circumstance that have resulted in that disarray have passed, they will have no trouble rebuilding to challenge once more for state power. There are no doubt lots of factors determining what kind of electoral expression that resurgence will find, and what sort of flavour within the right-wing coalition comes to dominate, but I suspect that one factor is the fate of the openly white nationalist, misogynist, xenophobic Trump campaign south of the border. If he wins, that element of the right in Canada will be energized...even more than they have already been by him winning the Republican nomination. So, yes, the election down there matters up here.

And finally, it's not an expression of rad left puritanical anti-electoralism. I wrote years ago about my take on electoral politics. I continue to combine both a sharp critique of the limitations and dangers of electoral and other uncritically state-focused politics with a strong commitment to pragmatism. Electoral politics can make only very narrow and specific kinds of changes to people's everyday lives (particularly in the absence of powerful extra-parliamentary movements), but those changes can still mean a lot in terms of people's experiences of violence and suffering and access to the resources they need to live. Given that, why not invest half an hour every four years to have a tiny role in shaping that? And I'm at least open to discussing more collective left interventions in elections as well, though my skepticism increases sharply in relation to the resources and attention required, and how that might either detract from or contribute to movements. In any case, I don't see voting as an expression of existential self, as avid proponents and die-hard opponents of voting both so often make it out to be, but as a small tactical intervention. Spending a lunch hour on someone else's picket line isn't going to end capitalism either, but it similarly can't hurt and might help a tiny bit. In a way, I see voting as a sort of harm reduction measure. All of which is to say, I welcome ongoing conversation about how best to relate to elections and to state-focused politics, and I'm not taking the position at the heart of this post out of any sort of conviction that paying attention to elections is uniformly Bad.

What I do mean

So why do I wish that Canadians (and perhaps all non-USians) would stop posting and tweeting and sharing and opining about the elections in the United States?

Well, there are a couple of pieces to that. One key element is that even though the elections affect us, even though I'm not turning my nose up just because it's an election, and even though I don't think looking and feeling and thinking across borders is an intrinsic problem, we can't actually shape the outcome. We can't vote. We can't donate. We can't knock on doors. We can't phone bank. We can't do any of the other things that might make a difference to who wins. All we can do is watch the spectacle in horror and talk about it. Which isn't, on its own, necessarily a problem -- I'm all for posting and chatting about all sorts of things purely for the sake of knowledge or entertainment or edification or debate.

Until, that is, you think a bit more about what exactly the spectacle does.

So. I think our efforts to change the world, considered in their entirety, must begin from people's lived experiences and then proceed through efforts to understand how and why people's lived experiences got that way as we seek ways to make change that gets to the roots of problems. While there will inevitably be small steps and hard decisions and compromises on the way to get there, our overall vision has to encompass the entirety of the problem. Reducing poverty a little bit is a positive step, for instance, but the endgame has to be transforming the social relations that produce poverty. Any individual campaign may only win, say, a modest increase in welfare rates, a handful of concrete changes to reduce racist police violence, a single pipeline stopped, but those campaigns have to happen in the context of overall political visions of a world without poverty, a world without white supremacy and the prison-industrial complex, a world in which Indigenous sovereignties are respected and planet-destroying carbon-based capitalist industries are transformed. We can't make good decisions within movements and communities-in-struggle about the steps along the way if we don't hold on to the big picture.

One of the most pernicious impacts of electoral politics is the way that they get inside us and shape our imaginations of the future, of what's possible, of the world that we want. The range of things that can be changed through purely electoral means is narrow, and the degree to which they can be changed is usually small. Like I said, that still matters, because people's lives and wellbeing are at stake. But because of the incredible amount of resources invested in electoral politics, because of the huge amount of space they are given in the mainstream media, because of the massive legitimacy with which they are treated in mainstream discourse, and because of the power of the spectacle that results, this narrow spectrum of issues and narrow range of possibilities exerts tremendous power over people's political imaginations -- over our sense of what's important, what's possible, what's desireable, what we can and should do. Many people have had hardly any opportunity at all to imagine anything outside the narrow range of the electoral spectacle, and even those of us who try to act with a more expansive movement-based vision in mind still cannot help but be shaped by it.

Now, it's one thing to navigate that when it's an electoral contest where you live, that will have an impact on your life and your community, and that you can, at least in a small way, intervene in (or deliberately not). How do you intervene? Where do you put your energies? What non-electoral things should movements be doing too/instead? How do you recognize the real-life consequences of electoral politics while still fending off the dangerous impacts that the spectacle has on our sense of overall political possibility? It's all difficult and a mess, but it's an unavoidable one because it's not a matter of "false consciousness" but of a hard-to-navigate material situation.

But that's not what I'm talking about here. In this case, no matter what we know or discuss or decide, we are not going to have any influence on the outcome. For those of us not in the United States, as relevant as this election is to our lives too, all we have is the spectacle. All we have is the way that the spectacle shapes us.

And make no mistake, it does shape us. I don't know about you, but I find myself reading and thinking and talking about this election. Even though I know full well that it hasn't magically appeared from nowhere and is the product of a long history, I am finding myself emotionally shaken by it. It is under my skin, and it is taking my attention and my energy -- taking them, that is, from things that I could actually do something about, taking them from a kind of engagement with the world that is, yes, interested for the sake of interest at times but dynamically related to interest for the sake of acting, and instead focusing them on a political car accident that I can do nothing to change but can't look away from.

In the world of 21st century social media, there is a kind of active economy of socially organized attention and affect that is very different from back in the day when daily newspapers delivered to every door were the prime mechanism of creating publics and the public sphere. Now, our knowledge systems are produced much more through our unapid labour of clicking, sharing, liking, tweeting, +1ing, and so on. The democratizing potential of this more active role is greatly overestimated in some quarters, I think, but it still means we have some potential to shape at least our own and our local spheres (bubbles?) of content. That is, we have at least a little bit more control than a generation ago over how we relate to and reproduce that element of electoral politics that is the spectacle that deforms our collective political imaginations.

So I guess what it comes down to is that I'm not saying don't pay attention to and don't care about Trump vs. Clinton. I'm not saying don't read articles if you feel like reading them. I'm just suggesting that it might be a politically useful discipline not to share them, to opine on them online, to circulate them. I've been doing my best to do that, and even just at the individual level, it helps to interrupt the circuit a bit -- to get into the habit of thinking, no, I'm not going to pass that along, I'm going to stay attentive to things that are more directly connected to things that I and that the various wes that I'm a part of can actually do something about. And, like I said at the beginning, I don't expect this call to resonate, because after all who am I to make it. As well, I know how empty it can be to call for individuals to change what amounts to a consumer behaviour, when it is systems and institutions and social organization that are really to blame.

Nonetheless, wouldn't it be great if every time some lefty in Canada thought about sharing an article on how horrible and authoritarian and racist Trump is or how awful and neoliberal and imperialist Clinton is, they just stopped and shared something about...well, maybe about how awful the Canadian state is and Canadian corporations are. Or, even better, what if instead we focused on sharing material about movements and communities-in-struggle on Turtle Island (both north and south of the border) that are already taking action every day to challenge and change all of these things.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

To make social change, knowledge is never enough

It shouldn't be news that knowledge alone is never enough. Ignorance isn't the root cause of oppression, education won't singlehandedly change the world, and uncovering just the right fact will not be the catalyst that leads to global transformation.

Just because that liberal conception of knowledge-as-social-panacea is foolishness doesn't mean knowledge doesn't matter, of course. Events near and far have been hammering that home for me in a whole bunch of ways lately, but I was particularly struck by it last week when I went back and listened to an episode of Talking Radical Radio from May that features my interview with Robyn Pitawanakwat and Sue Deranger of the Colonialism No More protest camp. (For the latest from the camp, click here.)

In this episode, Pitawanakwat and Deranger talk about the protest camp outside the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada office in Regina, Saskawtchewan; about the suicide crisis in Attiwapiskat; about the wave of #OccupyINAC actions through which Indigenous activists and their allies in some cities responded in solidarity to that crisis; and about how the crisis is so much broader than just Attiwapisakat and how it is grounded in histories and ongoing realities of Canadian colonialism.

It's all very clear, very straightforward. Nothing is obscured by academic jargon. The various ways that the interviewees, their families, their communities, and communities of people out on the land who look like them face violence from the Canadian state are laid out plain as day. They don't say it directly, but it's clear -- powerfully clear -- from how they talk about their own paths in this work that efforts to challenge this violence have been going on for generations. They present immediate, direct steps to begin changing these colonial realities.

It's only a 28-minute show, and at least part of the point was exploring the immediate context and the current actions being taken by this particular group of Indigenous people and allies in Regina, so it certainly doesn't present an exhaustive history or complete contemporary description of colonialism. There is lots more to learn about how it plays out, and lots more to think about in terms of how to end it.

But here's the thing: The core is there. You don't need a lot of background knowledge. You don't need specialized vocabulary. You don't need to do a lot of other digging (though hopefully you feel inspired to do some). All you need to do is listen to these Indigenous women talk about their lives, their communities, and their struggles, and to believe them. If you are a white settler person and you do that -- really do it, really take up the gift of the knowledge that's on offer in that interview -- then you are left with a clear path to thinking way more groundedly about who you yourself are and about the country in which you live. That's not to say it's easy, or that there's no need to do a lot of talking to figure out what to do next, but the outline of the path is there.

Even more important is the fact that, as pleased as I am with this interview, it's really pretty ordinary. Sure, given that we have mainstream education and media systems that have only very recently started to inch away from a near-complete exclusion of Indigenous voices, and that still dramatically underrepresent and distort, you do actually have to look a little bit to hear about this stuff. But you know what? You only have to look a little. It's a complete myth that it's hard to find or that it's hard to understand; it's really not.

So why doesn't the fact that this knowledge is out there and that it points in a simple way towards a very different understanding of "Canada" and what it means to be "Canadian" actually result in a kind of collective "Aha!" moment that spreads like wildfire among non-Indigenous people in this country? Well, the simplest answer -- not fully explanatory but certainly encapsulating a core truth -- is that there are always ways for us to not-know things that it is in our material interest to not-know.

For some purposes, that explanation is enough. Certainly those at the forefront of anti-colonial struggles have better things to do with their time than dissect out the details of consciousness of those who don't support them. But I think perhaps examining the how of this not-knowing is relevant to the secondary but still important work of building solidarity with Indigenous struggles among settlers (and I can probably speak to this most clearly with respect to white settlers). So how does this not-knowing actually work?

I don't have any definite answers, just a few areas that merit further investigation. I've already alluded to one: What knowledge gets produced and circulated by the knowledge systems that reach the most people is shaped by power, and this kind of unvarnished Indigenous truth is not something that has much access to those systems. Exactly how that exclusion is maintained varies with context, but it's pretty consistent. Even the relatively small barrier of having to look for such material rather than having it just show up in front of you has a significant impact.

Here's another: We're not passive vessels into which knowledge gets poured. We take it up actively or we don't, actively. And that decision about whether we enter into particular kinds of encounters that could lead to particular kinds of knowledge -- whether we click a link or not, read an article or not, go to an event or not, watch a show or not, participate in a conversation or not -- depends on how we feel about it. Philosopher Sara Ahmed uses language like "orientation" and "proximity" to get at this. It boils down to whether that cluster of feelings we have in response to the possibility of one of those kinds of encounters makes it feel close to us, relevant to us, about us, or not. This is mostly not particularly conscious or explicit, it's more of how we are steered by fleeting gut feelings. Also relevant in that moment of decision is a kind of unconscious prediction of how the encounter itself is likely to make us feel; often something that we expect will make us feel bad, in general or about ourselves, is something we'll avoid. We all have limited time and energy, and we're much more likely to engage with material that we feel close to and that will make us feel good, so often the knowledge that's out there about these bare-bone basics of colonial Canada just gets...passed by.

Even once we've engaged with whatever encounter might lead us to this knowledge, there are other ways that we sometimes manage to not-know: There's the matter of actually believing it. When we have some sort of encounter with a person or an object or a text and we are actively producing knowledge from it, part of that process involves matching this new knowledge up against the knowledge we already have. Sometimes it fits, and it's easy enough to take it up. Sometimes it doesn't fit, but for whatever reason, we are transformed by it, or at least unsettled by it, so we adapt our existing knowledge to fit with what we have just learned. Or it doesn't fit, and we dismiss or disbelieve it. Part of how many of us who are white reach that place of disbelief in this sort of instance is about deep-down sedimented stuff that we learn about the world from growing up in a white supremacist, settler colonial context. Even when we sit in the more liberal parts of the context that would be horrified at hearing this expressed explicitly, there are still all sorts of subtle messages that we are bombarded with over our lifetimes that Indigenous people, Black people, and people of colour aren't quite, or aren't yet, or aren't really fully human, or they are but they aren't as trustworthy or as knowledgeable as you-know-who. That may sound over the top, but it's a big part of how the knowledge that winds through white supremacy and settler colonialism is maintained -- how easy it is to disbelieve and ignore what Black, Indigenous, and people of colour say about their own lives and about the world.

Connected with that but not quite the same is the fact that part of this matching up of new knowledge with existing knowledge is dealing with places where they don't fit neatly together. And when you're hearing about the colonial realities of Canada for the first time, odds are they aren't going to fit with your existing (mis)understandings. That misfitting is uncomfortable, dissonant. A lot of people are pretty attached to an understanding of "Canada" and "Canadian" that is completely at odds with truly reckoning with our colonial past and present -- and when I say "pretty attached" I mean viscerally and intensely. One way to deal with the discomfort of that dissonance is to just dismiss the new knowledge, and to then go on a search for excuses to justify your dismissal. Of course the systemic dehumanization and disregard mentioned in the last paragraph helps with that. Another way to deal with this dissonance, however -- and this is one that I think is a specialty of liberal multicultural Canada -- is to accept it and compartmentalize it. You say, "Oh, okay, that's your reality. That's really hard. I empathize with you and I want to support you." But you keep that knowledge neatly segregated such that it remains entirely about the speaker or writer who originated it, and the fact that it has deep implication for you the listener or reader is studiously avoided. Of course it isn't always this stark, either. In fact, I think a lot of white settlers in the huge expanse from left-liberals to the far reaches of the anarchist and marxist left fall into a milder version of this, where we know a bit about colonial realities, and we even know that it says something about us and about the country in which we live...but we don't know quite what, or what it would mean to end it. (And I think this notional solidarity with partial comprehension is a difficult and dangerous dynamic in which lies the seeds of future white supremacist settler colonial backlash. But that's a different post.)

And one other piece of how this all works is the way in which our knowledge systems deprive us of a good sense of how the social world is actually put together, of how it all works. There are demonstrable material ways that the world around us is socially organized, but not only are we given little opportunity to learn the details of that, we're also largely deprived of the concepts that would be the building blocks of learning those details and derailed into a nearly useless liberal conception of atomized individuals in a structureless massified social whole. That means that even if we have the right encounters, we don't turn away, we actually believe what racialized and colonized people say about their own lives, we don't dismiss the uncomfortable new knowledge, we know it has something to do with us, and we commit to doing the work to figuring out what this all has to do with who we are and where we live, it's not always easy to make anything useful with the knowledge. And because it's not easy to do, the alternative of giving up in dismay is certainly appealing. Or it's easy enough to do some of the work and get somewhere, but then to get stuck or distracted.

I'm sure there is lots that I've missed -- this is just a preliminary sketching of some of the ways that not-knowing happens. It's also not completely clear to me how to turn these ideas about the mechanics of not-knowing into actions that might contribute to building real solidarity. Certainly some part of that has to rest on a recognition of knowledge production not as some heroic individual task that we succeed or fail at, but rather a collective and dialogical process. In other words, this is not something that can proceed in any meaningful way by us individualistically sitting in front of screens or with books in our hands. Rather, there has to be deliberate collective engagement and challenge of some sort on these questions. But what is certain is that the very active character of not-knowing re-affirms that there is a lot more to it -- a lot more challenge, a lot more need to unsettle, a lot more need for dialogical and consistent engagement -- than simply transmitting information.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Tell me about grassroots history-from-below projects in Canada!

Perhaps the most obvious way to summarize a great deal of the work that I've done over the last two decades -- including the books and radio show of the Talking Radical project, but also a lot of things that haven't happened under that banner -- is the tag-line that I put in the header of the Talking Radical website: "historical & contemporary voices from social movements in Canada."

That's accurate and important, but it's equally true to describe all of that work (and perhaps even more of what I've done than that phrase captures) as being about trying to intervene in what ever small critical ways I can in our dominant stories of here and we -- sometimes meaning the dominant stories of "Canada" and "Canadians," but leaving it open to mean a lot of other things as well. For instance, I began the two oral history-based books that I published with the idea that I was mainly contributing to histories of movements, but over the many years of working with the material it became clear that it was at least as important for me to think about movements and communities-in-struggle as an entry point for history-from-below that that was trying to disrupt dominant narratives of this country and those of us who live here.

Recently, I've been thinking more about that, for a bunch of reasons. Partly, it's because a particular tangent within the Talking Radical project that I put a lot of energy into earlier in the year is probably not going to happen after all, so I've reverted my attention to some work that I suspended late last year that is focused on drawing from the interviews of Talking Radical Radio to do precisely this sort of intervention into dominant stories of here and we. Partly, though, it's because I recently went to the 18th annual Allied Media Conference in Detroit, and found that a significant proportion of the workshops I attended either directly or indirectly got me thinking about related questions -- the most exciting of these was, perhaps, the Chicana por mi Raza Digital Memory Collective, but there were lots of others. As well, as I approach the one-year mark in my new-again home of Hamilton, Ontario, I still have not found a satsifactory way to regularly engage politically in the community, but I'm becoming increasingly excited about the possibility of doing that via a specific local history-from-below project that a friend is trying to get going, that fits very well with these overall priorities. And then, finally, there is just the whole state of the world right now, where in so many contexts we seem to be constrained to a soul-wrenching binary for understanding here and we -- the empty and oppressive neoliberal imaginary of Trudeau/Clinton/the mainstream Remain campaign in the recent EU referendum, or the terrifying xenophobic right-nationalism of the Canadian Conservatives of the 'barbaric cultural practices' tip line/Trump/the mainstream Leave campaign. We absolutely need to be working on narratives of here and we that challenge that horrid binary and open space for more radical and liberatory re-imaginings of our world.

For all of those reasons, and to better think through my own future work, I've decided that I want to put together a list of existing projects in the Canadian context that are doing this kind of work. I'm not entirely sure what I'm going to do with this listing...maybe just learn for my own use from the various projects I discover, though I may also end up writing something about engaged, extra-academic history-from-below in the Canadian context.

Specifically, I'm looking for projects that are:

  • historical;
  • focused on movements, communities-in-struggle, or places;
  • organized around some kind of critical politics and a from-below orientation;
  • actively engaged with communities and/or movements in how they are done, whether or not they are also connected with a university context;
  • working to catalyze those active practices that are part of generating critical historical memory (and therefore critical understandings of the current world) among non-scholars, whether or not the project is also engaging in original research -- in other words, movement-based events and conversations focused on history that do not themselves produce new research are also part of what I want to hear about.
I am definitely not looking for:
  • local history that lacks critical politics -- and to be clear, I would categorize projects that go as far as liberal state multi-culturalism and no farther as lacking critical politics;
  • academic projects that are about all of the things that I mention above but that do not engage beyond the academy.
I'm aware of a handful of projects that seem to meet these criteria, though I'm sure there are many more. Here's what I know of so far:
  • the AIDS Activist Oral History Project;
  • the work of the Graphic History Collective;
  • the collaboration between the University of Winnipeg Oral History Centre and Local 832 of the United Food and Commerical Workers (though this may have ended)(UPDATE: Apparently it's still happening.);
  • the No One Is Illegal - Coast Salish Territories Inhereting Resistance Project (though I think this too has ended);
  • the BC Labour Heritage Centre;
  • the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre in Hamilton, Ontario;
  • some of the work of McGill University-based activist scholar Aziz Choudry (though I'm not sure how much of his current historical work is focused on Canadian movements -- at least some is focused on South Africa);
  • a place-based one in Kingston, Ontario, that I heard about recently and think might fit these criteria but that I don't recall clearly enough to find;
  • something called the Toronto Worker History Project, that I believe is still in the discussion phase;
  • the website (though with all due respect to the great people who publish great work there, I'm not sure how far its readership extends beyond other academic historians...I'm keen to be proven wrong, though); and,
  • the OPIRG McMaster History project.

I'm sure there must be others, so send me an email to scottneigh[AT], leave a comment, be in touch via social media, or send me a carrier pigeon with your suggestions!

Friday, June 24, 2016

Review: A Labour of Liberation

[Baijayanta Mukhopadhyay. A Labour of Liberation. Regina, SK: Changing Suns Press, 2016.]

This is the first book that I've read from Changing Suns Press, a new independent publisher with anti-authoritarian politics based in Regina, Saskatchewan. When they were crowdfunding for their start-up money, it was a no-brainer for me to choose this book as the thank-you for my donation, as I had interviewed the author last September (not about the book) and been very impressed by his radical, thoughtful reflections, as a physician who practices mainly in remote communities in northern Ontario and Quebec and who is active on issues of health justice.

The book itself is very short, and made up of a series of brief, thoughtful, readable meditations on practices and systems of medicine in today's world, and on how power pervades them. There is lots of specific content that I could draw out and reflect on, but I think I'll stick with making two main observations about what this book does that you don't often find elsewhere.

The first is the kind of insight it provides into questions of medicine and health. There's a lot of writing out there about health that claims to be coming from one or another sort of critical place, but in my opinion a lot of that, particularly a lot that aims for a lay audience, leaves a great deal to be desired in a number of respects. Often, such writing is very arbitrary in terms of what it is skeptical about and what it accepts on faith. It is also quite common for it not to have much at all to say about power, or to have things to say about power but to demonstrate relatively little understanding of how power works even in general -- so, for instance, to be rightfully concerned about the power that pharmaceutical companies hold within the health system, but to make claims about their behaviour that really don't make any sense with respect to how large capitalist enterprises work. Of greatest concern to me is the fact that such writing often seems to have little insight in particular into how health systems and practices work, and how that relates to social relations of power and oppression. Now, given the nature of the society we live in, the combination of an impulse to resist how medical systems subordinate us with a lack of knowledge about how they actually work is pretty understandable, and there is a tendency to be scornful in the face of such stances that we really do need to keep in check. That said, though, just because it is understandable doesn't take away from the fact that such approaches can easily translate into courses of action that aren't necessarily very useful, or that are even actively harmful. In contrast, this book is relentlessly critical and very accessible to lay readers, and it is grounded in a really solid understanding of how power works in general in our society and of how the practices, discourses, and relations that constitute the medical system work.

Part of how the book does this ties into the other feature I want to highlite: It models a kind of critical reflection that we all can and should engage in, but that we so seldom actually do, about the systems and circumstances we find ourselves embedded in. What better way to develop a radical analysis of the world than to follow the example of this book and start from where we are, from the systems and practices and encounters and relations that fill our everyday lives? The book combines careful attention to the author's own experience as a physician with an active openness to the experiences of people who are differently situated in the same contexts, particularly those with less power within the medical system -- both other professionals and patients -- as well as to a range of critical writings about it. Crucially, Mukhopadhyay demonstrates a tendency towards humility in situating his own experience with respect to these other sources of insight, and a willingness to admit his own complicity in systems that dominate, which I think is absolutely central to building a politically solid picture of how the world works and deciding how to intervene to change it. Both for those of us who are writers and want to develop knowledge for broader circulation, and also for those of us who are more focused on informing the decisions we all have to make about our own lives, this kind of situated critical reflection is an inspiring example that we can all learn from.

The book has a mildly melancholy feel to it, which perhaps not everyone would prefer, but which to me felt very appropriate to the content. My main source of dissatisfaction about the book was that I wish it was longer -- much longer! -- and I definitely hope that the author continues to find time in amidst his medical work and his political work to write. In any case, I hope it gets read widely, and that many are able to benefit from the way it combines being short and readable with presenting a kind of grounded radical insight into health and medicine that is far less common than it should be.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

Friday, June 03, 2016

Review: Lunch-Bucket Lives

[Craig Heron. Lunch-Bucket Lives: Remaking the Workers' City. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2015.]

Back in March, I was travelling far away from my new-again home of Hamilton, Ontario, and as I often do when I have a spare moment, I was reflecting (obsessing?) about the path that I want my work to take. I won't bore you with the chain of connections that got me there, but some part of this thinking about what I want to write led to me thinking that I might like to read more things about where I am and where I came from. Which does not point towards any particular interest in writing, say, local history, but it does point to a desire to read some. After I returned home, I did some poking around to find a relevant book, and this recent publication by a well-known Canadian labour historian jumped out immediately as an obvious choice.

Lunch-Bucket Lives is a massive, detailed look at the social history between 1890 and 1940 of working-class people in Hamilton. As I often find with the sort of methodical, detail-attentive writing necessary to do good social history, it managed to be both an interesting read and rather a slow one. I don't bring any formal disciplinary expertise to the reading of history, but I have read a fair bit of it and written some, and I was pretty impressed with this book. I really appreciated the rich and well-documented sense that it gave of everyday life for working people in that era. I appreciated the breadth of topics that it covered. I very much appreciated how thoroughly considerations of gender were integrated into the length and breadth of the book, and how central spaces of reproduction were made to the telling of this history, in contrast with how labour historians of earlier years might have focused purely on production and the public sphere. I appreciated how effectively some complex ideas about how the social world works and how power works were presented not with inaccessible language and abstraction, but with patient, detailed description of the actual course of actual events. For instance, I really liked the chapter on caring-work and health-related labour, and the one on education, and how they both showed the uneven but relentless push through which the state came to take a bigger and bigger role in working-class lives (or, to express it slightly differently, how working-class people were increasingly organized into state practices). I appreciate how in discussing working-class response to everything from education initiatives to popular culture, the book stressed the agency of working people in the face of social forces, and the active and negotiated ways in which they were incorporated into communities and lives.

There isn't much that I would ask the book to do differently or to cover in greater depth. Perhaps the only thing that stood out for me in this regard was the contrast between how gender was handled versus how race and sexuality were handled. As I said, the gendered character of experience and the gendered aspects of social relations were carefully considered throughout. Questions of racial background and white supremacy (not to mention settler colonialism) were much less thoroughly integrated. In part, I suspect this is a response to the major contours of social life in Hamilton in that era: Indigenous, Black, and Chinese presence in the city were, precisely because of how white supremacy and settler colonialism were playing out, very small in those years. The most palpably present Other against which dominant identities were formed in the Hamilton of that era were the much larger Eastern and Southern European immigrant populations, which are indeed given plenty of attention in the book. And certainly those three colonized/racialized communities were not ignored, nor was the role of what David Roediger wrote about in the US context as the 'wages of whiteness' in the identity formation of the Anglo-Celtic portion of the Hamilton working-class. But these things were not integrated nearly as thoroughly into the book as gender. And as for sexuality -- well, the book did give some consistent if low-key attention to shifts in heterosexual relationship forms and practices over the era in question. And I completely understand that historical resources for understanding manifestations of queerness in that era are not necessarily easy to come by, especially (as the book itself notes) outside of major metropolitan centres that had more developed networks and spaces for same-gender erotic practices in those years like Toronto and New York. On the other hand, I know from reading a few pieces years ago by Canadian historian Steven Maynard, things like urban planning in Canadian cities in that era were very much informed by the impulse to foreclose possibilities for men to have sex with men, so I can't help but wonder whether more attention than the scant few paragraphs it received in this book might have been possible. Anyway, as much as those are real questions, it is always easier to ask for more than it is to actually do it; this book does a tremendous amount and does it well, and I don't want to detract from that.

I think the last feature of this book that I want to draw attention to is one that is perhaps difficult for people committed to social movements and to struggle, but one that I think it is extremely important for us to be totally honest about as we decide how to engage in collective efforts to push for change. There was an earlier generation of labour history that focused very much on strikes and riots and union drives, and on other forms of confrontation in the workplace or the political realm. And, certainly, those are talked about in detail in this book. But they are talked about in a way that refuses to do what those earlier historians did, and detach these generally pretty rare instances of collective and confrontational mobilization from their context. This book is very, very clear that while such collective resistance mattered a great deal to a great many people in certain moments, most of the time the collective agency exerted by the vast majority of working-class people in response to crushing poverty, hostile capitalists, and an indifferent state was in the form of everyday resistance and mutual aid. This is not to dismiss the project of organizing -- of seeking to support the combining of moments of everyday resistance into more overtly collective and confrontational resistance -- but it is perhaps to encourage folks on the left to think more carefully about how to better relate to the just-as-collective but much differently organized responses to harsh conditions that working-class people have engaged in much more often than the sorts of movements we often treat as the be-all and end-all.

Anyway. This is a great book, and I'm very glad I read it, but I'm a little cautious about recommending it -- it is, as I said, physically massive and a slow read. If the themes I've identified in this review speak to you, though, and particularly if you also live in Hamilton, then by all means don't hesitate to put in the time it will take.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]