Richard Iton’s Solidarity Blues was so good for thinking not just about how race and the American left have articulated, but the nature of the left in general. I use that word ‘left’ often, struggle with it, often distinguish between an elite left and a grassroots left (you all know which one I’m for). Iton takes a step back, to look at the broader ideas in motion:
I attempt to understand how the forces of individualism and collectivism interact in different contexts. (5)
This is much broader than the ‘left’, starts to capture some of the things that happen outside of movement. But I like his broad understanding of the left as well, looking at it in three different aspects:
the conventional conceptions, labor movements and socialist parties
the availability of a certain set or type of public goods
the prevalence of a certain sensibility or set of cultural values. (6)
I like too, this case for just how different America is from the other ‘developed’ nations and how it contrasts with other countries where:
certain things are taken for granted: comprehensive health care, inclusive voter registration procedure, affordable higher education, and a certain standard of public safety. (7)
Not in the US as everyone knows. Which begs the question:
Why so slow, so reluctant to provide public goods?
the answer — constructions of race — and instead of choosing to allow race to disappear or lose its significance,
at every opportunity the choice has been made to remake race in some potent form at the cost of community. (22)
So, to summarise Iton’s arguments on the articulation of race with these three principal aspects of the Left.
Labour Movements and Socialist Parties
Labour movements are sustained by a collective identity of labour opposed to capital. In the US, this collective identity was fractured by race in three principal ways — that follow one from the other and that in themselves show the complexities of this I think.
the popular identification of organized labor with racial progressivism (an association that was accurate at times and ironic at others)
the energies consumed by internecine battles within the labour movement between nativist and racist constituencies and those advocating a more inclusive movement
the decisions made by nativists, racists and their opponents to forego challenging the racial status quo and organizing immigrant workers, in the belief that a successful labour movement could be sustained without the participation of those groups, and that these issues and constituencies could be dealt with at some later point… (25)
This helps explain the rise of someone like Samuel Gompers in the AFL — fucking Samuel Gompers, the UK has some responsibility for him too as he was born here. He promoted a focus on today’s battles rather than a broader struggle or movement — small wins, craft unions, the exclusion of people of colour, such an ugly politics that wasn’t arguably even practical given it created large pools of strikebreakers. He actually fought while in the cigar makers union to have white labels placed on cigars made by white labour so racists would know and could but white and union.
No wonder you get Du Bois writing that the ‘AFL not a labor movement, but monopoly of skilled workers’.
There are some brighter lights, though they may have shone briefly. Hurrah, for instance, for the Western Federation of Miners, founded in 1893 in Montana (Montana! No longer somewhere such a movement could blossom I think). From them grew the IWW in 1905 — and of course Iton notes the greater homogeneity of the west coast and how it shaped their politics, it was easier not to be racist. But still. While Iton argues their importance was more symbolic, he does quote Dubovsky:
so feared were the Wobblies that probably no group of labor agitators before or since has as suddenly or disastrously experienced the full wrath of state and national authorities. (51)
On the whole though, Labor’s record in the US is dismal.
labor’s job is to ensure that its constituency can control the circumstances of its existence. Organized labor in the United States has largely either been afraid to do so, or, because of internal and external compromises, been unable to do so. (78)
Where it has been successful in building solidarity, Iton notes, it has actually been along racial lines rather than lines of work or labour.
Southern Politics and Parties
Nothing establishes better the broad weaknesses of the left, and how racial conflicts have prevented it from creating a more collectivist society, than a hard look at the impact of Southern ‘Democratic’ party politics. Iton summarises his argument that it created a:
- constant division of leftists activists over issue of whether organizations would be interracial, segregated, or separate but coordinated.
- popular rejection of those movements which have pursued interracial alliances …IWW, UMW, CIO
- …the race issue has just been a problem to be solved at some future date (84)
Jim Crow disenfranchised Blacks, but also increasingly poor whites, concentrating power in Southern elites against which the whole country has been held hostage through the Democratic party.
There was, of course, that brief period when Lenin in the 2nd congress of 1920 directed the Communist Party to support the self-determination of oppressed peoples within nations — this included the Irish and African negroes as revolutionary groups, which ensured that the CPUSA for a time did its best to pursue equal rights for blacks, and in South proposing in proposed a black belt nation. In the North, party activists began doing grassroots organizing work with tenants, particularly around rent strikes and the unemployed councils. In 1936 they formed the National Negro Congress, and at this time also began reaching out to other race communities, such as Mexican farmworkers.
‘By 1935…11 percent of the party’s roughly 27,000 members were black, and in the South, blacks composed an even higher percentage. (118)
Change in CP policy led widespread abandonment of earlier causes, but this isn’t really mentioned. It does help explain some of the automatic connection between race equality and communism that is still so prevalent today, though I mostly think this has been a convenient labeling to facilitate isolation and repression. Of course, it meant the red scare had an even greater impact on those fighting for racial equality. Like Gerald Horne, Iton writes of this period after WWII, which saw:
a unique collapsing of the realms of racial and class politics…the effective end of the traditional left in American politics and a further truncation of the acceptable range of debate concerning economic issues and alternatives. (125)
The radical politics emerging from the Great Depression could have been a time when working classes came together, but instead they split over race. Party politics since then has not sought to challenge current attitudes, but work within the very limited gains staying within them can achieve… White privilege was just a little too strong I suppose. Old FDR himself maintained a 2nd home in Warm Springs Georgia, and promoted himself in 1932 election as a “Georgia planter-politician’.
And now? Iton cites Robert Greenberg’s 1985 study of Macomb ,Michicgan and the switch from Democrat to Republican among white working to middle-class Americans
These white Democratic defectors express a profound distaste for blacks, a sentiment that pervades almost everything they think about government and politics. . . . Blacks constitute the explanation for their vulnerability and for almost everything else that has gone wrong in their lives; not being black is what constitutes being middle class; not living with blacks is what makes a place a decent place to live. (129)
Beyond the Left
Iton describes how race conservatism has allowed rights to vote to be curtailed, slowed and reduced medicare and medicaid, opposed fair employment practices committee, ensured no best practices taken from Europe as US the only superpower post WWII. But this is a question that continues to pester me:
While I do not want to overstate the importance of the cultural politics of the post-McCarthy era from a progressive standpoint, the inability of the American left to survive the era that produced the civil rights movement and second-wave feminism says something about the American left, as well as American society. (218)
For Iton the why is at least partially found here:
the characteristically American resistance to collective strategies reflects an attachment to the rights and prerogatives of individuals over and above and particular communities. (234)
This of course emerges from Turner’s ‘frontier thesis, or Louis Hartz or Seymour Martin Lipset’s work. But this doesn’t go deep enough, why this push towards individualism?
The liberal individualism Hartz and others have cited has been rhetorical residue remaining after the battles among the competing “we” claims promoted by different ethnic and racial communities. In other words, while an examination of the speeches of politician might reflect a particularly American preference for individual liberties, the unstated realities have often been shaped by the ethnic and racial calculations made by different groups. (235)
This has never been dealt with by the left in its goal to appeal to the broadest number of people and rejection of the call to help with the ‘maintenance and relaization of a collective sensibility and human civilization.’ (245-246). There is more to dig into here about the way that race has structured capital (see Cedric Robinson), or about how racism has help form a concept of whiteness tied to privilege (as does David Roediger), but the result has been tragic. The book ends with this thought:
The particular and exceptional extent to which the American left has been removed from the main stage of American life has been a direct function of its inability or unwillingness to transcend these hurdles in an especially demographically diverse context, and a result of the popular attachment to a realm — race — that can generate few larger meanings, resilient identities, or practical moralities. (246)
Iton, Richard (2000) Solidarity Blues: Race, Culture and the American Left. Chapel hill and London: University of North Carolina Press.
Laura Pulido is one of my heroes, and returning to Environmentalism and Economic Justice now that I have some disposable income to buy it…well. It’s brilliant. (Though actually I am realising I don’t actually have any real disposable income at all. Breaks my heart). It brings together the theory that I believe most needs to be brought together, using the postcolonial and subaltern theory to look at struggles in the US and knocking apart some of the most frustrating aspects of writing around ‘new social movements’ and social movement in general. Then rebuilding it of course, in ways I find particularly useful and illuminating.
Subalternity is not often used in relation to the U.S. — this is how Pulido describes the economic structures and the role of racism in creating conditions of subalternity:
…subaltern environmentalism is embedded in material and power struggles, as well as questions of identity and quality of life. Dominated communities engaged in environmental struggles do not disaggregate their various identities and needs. Although they may engage in strategic essentialism, the practice of reifying aspects of one’s identity for political purposes, they recognize the multiple identities and the various lines of domination and power that need to be resisted and challenged. They build complex movements which simultaneously address issues of identity as well as a wide range of economic issues (production, distribution, and uneven development), thereby defying the various models and paradigms social scientists have created to impose meaning on collective action, in particular, environmentalism. (xv)
This is because for some communities, environmental problems are not just simple quality of life issues, rather:
From the perspective of marginalized communities, environmental problems reflect, and may intensify, larger existing inequalities and uneven power relations. (xv)
While Pulido celebrates the new, postmodern opening up to struggles beyond production such as identity, I love her argument against ditching political economy. Love that she looks to Watts as well as to Arturo Escobar to bring the two together. Because poor people of color experience a complex reality in which resistance is required along lines of both class and race among other things. We need to understand
how multiple forces interact in creating inequality and oppression, and how complex struggles form to overcome it. (xviii)
Elsewhere she writes this intersectionality:
Even though their struggles may be categorized as class conflict, racism, or patriarchal resistance, what is usually at stake are multiple forms of domination, exploitation, and resistance, that narrow applications of class may prevent us from appreciating. (5)
The two studies featured in this volume were chosen to complement the principal focus of environmental justice work at the time, on toxics primarily in urban areas. I like how this expands the focus — though of course, so much work has been done in the past eleven years to further develop this, as can be seen in The Colors of Nature or The Environmental Justice Reader.
A final ingredient is the focus on struggle, and that of course, it recognises that oppression also helps create the conditions for its resistance:
For oppressed communities, a dignified life means being able to live free of cultural oppression and racial and ethnic inequality. Hence, while culture and racism are critical to understanding oppression, they are also essential to illuminating the process of mobilization (xx).
So a good summary of the subaltern nature of environmental justice struggles:
This new form of environmentalism goes by a variety of headings: grassroots, popular, livelihood, resistance, environmental justice, and resource struggles. What they all share is a counterhegemonic, or subaltern, location — they exist in opposition to prevailing powers. (4)
New Social Movements (NSMs)
For NSM researchers, identity has emerged as as a key area of focus…understanding how individuals coalesce and fashion new collective identities is the crucial question in understanding the emergence of social movements.
I understand why she has to engage with this literature more broadly, it was the thing after all. But still I am frustrated with its limitations. Of course Pulido also brings in old favourites — on the transition to post-fordism, she looks to Stuart Hall (1991) to understand the new decentring of self and identity, and how we are made up multiple identities and positions, identify in multiple different ways. Gilroy is in here too on the complexities of it all.
The claim that NSMs are only about quality of life issues, or the disagreement over whether racial struggles are NSMs or should be catagorised among older movements? Not so useful. Pulido writes:
The concept of NSMs has become problematic precisely because it has been so widely applied. In reality, its true value is in helping us see what is unique about a limited number of movements. (12)
The idea that some people have to struggle on multiple fronts? Obvious I would have thought, and yet…apparently not to everyone. But it is to subaltern scholars:
Subaltern movements are simultaneously about both material concerns and systems of meaning, thereby challenging the notion that identity issues are not of concern to those struggling to survive.
She quotes Arturo Escobar rather extensively (I love Escobar, haven’t managed to write about him yet, and will find it difficult precisely because of the desire to quote him even more extensively than I usually quote people, his book is full full full of underlining)
It is essential to recognize the importance of economic factors and their structural determinants. But just as crucial as the reconstruction of economies — and indelibly linked to it — is the reconstitution of meanings at all levels, from everyday life to national development. Social movements must be seen equally and inseparably as struggles over meanings as well as material conditions, that is, as cultural struggles… Contemporary social movements in Latin America have a multiple character, as economic, social, political and cultural struggles.(Escobar 1992b)
I would argue that the same could be said for the environmental struggles of the subaltern, regardless of their location. (13)
It works well, I think, to see the struggles of people in the colour and potentially the poor more broadly in the US in these terms, and I like the opportunities it opens up for broader alliances across race and nationality and particularly across national borders. I also think there is still a lot of work to be done here:
Activists are acutely aware that racism is manifest in every corner of society and that racist attitudes are deeply entrenched and institutionalized, but they have not developed a textured understanding of how racism interacts with various economic forces and hegemonic forms of cultural life. Instead, they have emphasized overt forms of discrimination… (17)
At the same time I think this is worth saying (and so eloquently):
It could be argued that for racially oppressed groups, racism is the primary axis of domination. All encounters of the oppressed–whether in the job market, at school, at home, or as a consumer–are experienced through racial subordination. Conversely, the racialized structure of the United States results in a benefit to whites. White privilege is so hegemonic that few whites are even cognizant of it. (18)
This stuff is… really hard, and I think people are all over the place in terms of how clearly they understand it and how well they are able to articulate it. It certainly shapes struggle though, and where communities are at. Pulido quotes Robert Bullard’s insight that African Americans really came to understand the importance of environmental issues only after linking them to civil rights and inequality.
The key to … inclusion rest on linking environmental issues with the social justice concerns of minority communities… (Bullard 1993a)
I’m wondering for how many other issues this might be true, and what this means for white consciousness. But the point is well made:
This is critical to understanding the dominant discourse of subaltern environmental struggles in the United States. Racism and the struggle for equality are the entry point for marginalized groups in the United States; livelihood is the entry point for Third World communities. (19)
I found Pulido’s thinking here so so useful in thinking about positionality in a robust and useful way, something I feel like I’ve been stumbling around my whole life with gradually increasing clarity:
I argue that the issue of positionality is most important in distinguishing mainstream and subaltern environmentalism. Activists of all sorts may be involved in the same environmental issue and even have the same political line, but mainstream and subaltern actors hold different positions within the socioeconomic structure that, in turn, frame their struggles differently. It is important to realize that positionality does not refer to a specific person or group per se but is rather a position that can be filled by any individual.
Contrary to mainstream efforts are the actions of subaltern environmental movement who, because of their position, are not in control of the economy and, in general, do not benefit from a continuation of the status quo. For these individuals, environmental issues are important in that they affect their livelihood or impact their health and physical well-being. Consequently, not only are they more physically and socially vulnerable, but they may require a change in the prevailing social relations tor each a satisfactory solution. Hence, on a very fundamental level, participants in subaltern struggles encounter environmental concerns not only from a different perspective, but also from a different structural position that may entail entirely different solutions and course of action. (28)
It emerged so clearly in both our organising and my own research the ways that these structural positions demand recognition in both strategy and goals in ways that people outside the struggle often do not understand:
Due to their position, the subaltern are not able to distance themselves from the political or economic consequences of either the problem or the proposed solutions. (29)
I think the key here is, does someone, do you benefit from the maintenance of the status quo? If you do, better said where you do because almost all of us have aspects of our identity that do not, then it is certain you’ll have some blindspots. It is nice to see it so clearly explained why there cannot just be one axis. But also the way Pulido grounds her work in economic relations, so she is also able to:
recognize how economic relations are mutually constituted by racism and issues of identity. A materialist analysis is crucial in identifying the structures and forces leading to the formation of subaltern environmental struggles. (31)
And highlights some of the key questions in looking at movement and thinking about resistance:
The task is to identify the ways in which racism, cultural oppression and identity interact with economic forces to create unique forms of domination and exploitation. (32)
Above all this book explores how important culture is to these positions — and the ability to find strength there:
For subaltern groups, quality-of-life issues are expressed within their economic projects. “People fight not only for more but for the possibility of defining a way of life expressive of deeply held values” (Plotke 1990, 93)
Given the development of white supremacy, these values are often key both to imagining alternatives, and to challenging the constantly promoted superiority of whiteness.
Racism must be challenged in the economic, social and cultural spheres.
Consequently, while the UFWOC’s [United Farm Worker of California] movement is a class conflict, it was also an antiracist struggle. It was antiracist in its efforts to counter the racialized division of labor, a racist class structure, as well as the larger racist ideology which rendered rural Chicanos as a despised population. (32)
Again this is part of identifying the multiple modes of oppression, of fighting on all fronts:
When poverty, racism, and culture come together to oppress people, they also interact to create unique forms of oppression that become the basis of resistance. Each of these factors must be countered individually and collectively, and one of the first steps in attempting to do so is the creation of an affirming, collective identity. (33)
Some axes, some definitions
I struggled a lot with why I have not focused on gender in my own work, and again Pulido nailed exactly why I did not and why I was uncomfortable with doing so artificially — in the struggles she studied gender was not articulated as an axis of domination and resistance, so she chose not to include gender as its own axis as it were. While ever present as an issue, Pulido writes:
Emphasizing this line of inquiry, however, would have take the analysis in a different direction, emphasizing unspoken forms of consciousness and interaction. … the fact remains that gender was not strategically used by the organizations in either understanding their oppression or mobilizing against it. For this reason I did not make it a separate category. Instead, it us interwoven throughout the discussion and reflects not only individual gender consciousness, but its intersection with other dynamics that create fully textured lives. (33)
The definitions found here are great, especially in the ways that they build on — while also moving beyond — traditional Marxist understandings:
In short, there are many ways to be poor and economically marginal which are beyond the bounds of class. Understanding the specific conditions and relationships which give rise to poverty and inequality is essential in order to analyze them and ascertain the motivating force of struggles. (34)
Looking at Northern New Mexico, and its underdevelopment it becomes more clear just how this works, and how this is connected to space and place:
Because they have been relatively exempt from the homogenizing forces of modernity, such communities often carry the illusion of a traditional lifestyle…
It is imperative to understand the role of capital in the creation of places. (35)
This does not discount the importance of class, or the division of labour as an important analytical category in all advanced economies, but it explores the complexity of this as it intersects, or too often overlaps far too perfectly, with race. While there may be contradictions, too often
there may be an almost perfect fit, leading to a racialized division of labor. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than among California farmworkers. (37)
Like Harvey’s more flexible reading of Marx, Pulido emphsasis the relational aspect of class, an individual can occupy more than one class position. At the same time there is often a collective relationship rather than just an individual one.
Of course, neither poor people nor workers automatically constitute a class. Only when people unite to struggle on issues related to production, the appropriation of surplus value, and domination — only when they exist in opposition — do they then become a class. (39)
This raises the question of domination and power, and resistance to it.
Race is socially constructed. Of course. She uses Peter Jackson’s definition of racism (1987) which I hadn’t come across before (I don’t think?)
…a set of interrelated ideologies and practices that have grave material effects, severely effecting black people’s life chances and threatening their present and future well-being (1987, p 3)
But expanded beyond the Black/white binary of course. I like this definition very much. Another key:
In order to be effective, a racist ideology must become so pervasive and natural that it becomes hegemonic, and therefore, rarely questioned. (43)
Interesting too, how this becomes transferred to behaviours:
Although much of our racial discourse centers on the words “color” and “skin” — and although many people continue to be racist based solely on the idea of phenotype — skin color has essentially become a signifier for behavior considered objectionable by the dominant group. (44)
and both become tied up with neighbourhood and place, as described by Charles Mills.
As NSM literature demonstrates, the formation of a collective identity is a necessary first step in building a movement. People, regardless of how oppressed they might be, do not inevitably have a common identity. A shared identity must be cultivated and refined through interaction and struggle with other groups. (46) … while an affirmative identity will not necessarily lead to mobilization, it is, at the least, crucial to retaining one’s dignity in the face of oppression. (47)
The point is how to make it an affirming, positive identity, and as inclusive as possible…it would be good to think more about that and I think some people are. Strategic essentialism is part of this perhaps. For those who complain endlessly about identity politics:
Obviously, the creation of an affirmative identity can never be fully distinguished from resistance because the action and consciousness required to build such an identity, even if it simply allows one to live with a shred of dignity, is an act of resistance and an exercise of power in itself. It is the power of self that is the crucial first step in imagining the possibility of resistance or another reality. In my study of subaltern Chicano environmental struggles, ethnicity was the primary form of identification, and culture provided much of the raw material for that identity. (47)
The question, as I say, is how this is developed through struggle and conscientização so that it builds towards alliances, solidarity, broadening of movement.
Quotes Aldrich, Carter, Hone and McEvoy (48):
Ethnicity is the identity which members of the group place upon themselves, race is a label foisted on to them by non-members… While racial identity may be a crippling disability, ethnicity acts as a positive force for the protection and promotions of group interests.
I never thought of it like this… I have so much more reading to do I know. I still think of it as defined on the immigration forms I helped people fill out long ago.
Anyway. To end. Without getting much into the struggles themselves, whose inspiration fills the bulk of the book and I loved and might find time to write more about.
Bringing it all together?
So how does Pulido connect political economy to these concepts, these axes of domination and subordination? She describes three cultural concepts that are helpful:
- Bauman’s concepts of differential and hierarchical culture (1973). Anglo-American culture is regularly seen, described, taught as better than others, part of the necessary struggle is that subaltern cultures turn this on its head.
- Values, beliefs and material culture… different cultural forms exist in subaltern struggles which can become outward symbols and expressions of cultural differences and ways of proclaiming that there is an alternative. Examples are UFWOC’s use of La Virgen de Guadalupe, or Ganados anchoring their economic development project in wool and weaving.
- Praxis. She defines this in a unique way (to me, I am wonderig if this is how it is used in postcolonial studies) and I like how it brings together resistance, culture and material struggle:
Praxis is action. It is the social relations that actually create a culture. It is the stuff of which culture (and life) is made. Praxis usually refers to practices of which people are not overtly conscious but which appear to be the natural way of doing things. An illustration of praxis is how people organize their family life. Praxis is critical to understanding domination, mobilization and resistance. … In order for a movement to be successful, it must begin where people are. It must begin with the familiar and everyday. One reason that both of these case studies were successful was the emphasis on praxis, which allowed people to feel comfortable in new experiences and situations. (55)
Drawing the Global Colour Line by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds — such a good book. It charts how whiteness as an identity was constructed across the British Empire rather than just within individual colonies — it’s a brilliant examination of global formations of racism and its rhetoric, especially given the usual focus on a national context. I might quote with exaggerated enthusiasm here because much of this was new to me when I read it, though I realise it is much more familiar to those working in postcolonial theory. I’m catching up slowly.
This book argues, following Du Bois, that the assertion of whiteness was born in the apprehension of imminent loss…and it charts the spread of whiteness as a transnational form of racial identification, that was, as Du Bois noticed, at once global in its power and personal in its meaning, the basis of geo-political alliances and a subjective sense of self. (loc 73, 84)
This combination of the global and the personal, the connection between privilege and great fear of its loss, are shown to be key to understanding many of white racism’s dynamics, and it was eye-opening to read the constructions of racist beliefs growing in concert and conversation.
In recent scholarship, ‘whiteness studies’ have emerged as a productive new field of historical enquiry, but most investigations have conceptualised their subject within a national frame of analysis, identifying local dynamics at work within histories deemed distinctive or even exceptional.15 Studies that now acknowledge the necessity for a global context still confine their own analyses within a national interpretative frame and that has been especially the case with United States scholarship.16 But, as DuBois and contemporaries on the other side of the colour line saw clearly, the emergence of the ‘new religion’ of whiteness was a transnational
phenomenon and all the more powerful for that, inspiring in turn the formation of international movements of resistance, such as the pan-African and pan-Asian alliances… (loc 99)
A little more on the purpose of the book itself, its focus on racial technologies, and the nature of the global colour line. I find the authors most eloquent so these are long quotations:
In Drawing the Global Colour Line, We trace the transnational circulation of emotions and ideas, people and publications, racial knowledge and technologies that animated white men’s countries and their strategies of exclusion, deportation and segregation, in particular, the deployment of those state-based instruments of surveillance, the census, the passport and the literacy test. The project of whiteness was thus a paradoxical politics, at once transnational in its inspiration and identifications but nationalist in its methods and goals. The imagined community of white men was transnational in its reach, nationalist in its outcomes, bolstering regimes of border protection and national sovereignty. (loc 103)
Again, the importance of understanding what is happening at different scales, differences around particular implementations and histories but also to a great degree unified, particularly around a shared glorious racial past and the sharing of ‘best practices’.
Though recently established, white men’s countries sought legitimacy through locating themselves in the long tradition of Anglo-Saxon race history that dated back to the mythic glories of Hengist and Horsa. They shared an English-speaking culture and newly ascendant democratic politics, priding themselves, as Anglo-Saxons, on a distinctive capacity, indeed a genius, for self-government. It was their commitment to democratic equality that made racial homogeneity seem imperative. In the tradition of J. S. Mill, they argued that democracy could only survive in the absence of distinctions of caste and colour.
White men’s countries rested on the premise that multiracial democracy was an impossibility. (loc 139)
They used specific wordings to promote such ideas, which underline the geographies of race and democracy:
Colonial leaders preferred, however, to speak not of ‘local’, but of ‘self-government’, which they would later invoke to argue their sovereign right to racial homogeneity. (loc 614)
This connection between ideas of democracy and the need for racial homogeneity is a particularly important one to my own research, and seen over and over again. It is also one that continues to emerge in these days of ours, though often divorced from such openly racist rhetoric. Yet at the same time it is a connection glossed over or completely left out of most work on democracy and its workings.
Previous studies have charted racial discourse across the British Empire or drawn attention to the links between the anti- Chinese policies of California and the Australian colonies, but few have analysed the inter-relationship of British and American racial regimes in the same analytical frame.29 Yet, crucially, the idea of the ‘white man’s country’ crossed and collapsed the imperial/republican divide, drawing on the discursive resources of both traditions to enshrine the dichotomy of white and not-white. The British Empire drew a distinction between ruling and ruled races; republican ideology drew a distinction between races fit and not fit for self-government. United States naturalisation law rested on the dichotomy of white and not-white.
In the figure of the white man, the imperialist became a democrat and the democrat an imperialist.
Mills’ The Racial Contract is brilliant on exploring the underpinnings of this in terms of ideas of democracy, ‘social contract’ and race, but more on that later.
This worldview worked to simplify, to make binary a complex reality:
One indicator of the global ascendancy of the politics of whiteness was its ability to recast the previous multiplicity of nations, races and religions – Aryan, Caucasian, Chinese, Hindus, Kanakas, Islanders, Malays, Blacks, Lascars, Moslems, Japanese – in binary terms as ‘white’ or ‘not-white’. English-speaking countries were pace-setters in this regard. (loc 180)
We still suffer from this binary, still don’t quite have the words to deal with its falsity imposed over reality given it has wielded and continues to wield such force.
The Racialisation of Labour: Workers and Masculinity
There is clearly an important connection to be made here with masculinity as well as with democracy:
…when ‘glorious manhood asserts its elevation’, in the words of New South Wales republican poet, Daniel Deniehy, when pride of manhood found expression in pride of race to enshrine the white man as the model democrat. In the New World encounters of diverse peoples, the masculine democracies of North America and Australasia defined their identity and rights in racial terms: the right of Anglo-Saxons to self-government and the commitment of white workers to high wages and conditions, against those they saw as undermining their new-found status, whether they be aristocrats of ‘coolies’.
When glorious manhood asserted its elevation, white men monopolised the status of manhood itself. Coolies, Islanders, Asiatics and Blacks were cast as not simply deficient as workers, colonists and citizens, but also as men. They were docile, servile, dependent, unfree. Hence, the struggles of coloured and colonised men to achieve recognition, or restitution, of their manhood as well as national independence.
So many remarkable interchanges occurred between countries despite the thousands of miles between them, as interesting as the differences.
Anti-Chinese agitation began to centre on complaints of cheap labour, low wages and unfair competition. Industrial employment as well as gold were claimed as the exclusive preserve of white men.
Agitation against the Chinese in Australia was frequently inspired by the example of California.14 A significant proportion of the miners on the Victorian fields had come directly from the lawless districts of the Pacific Slope and they often carried their preference for direct action with them. (loc 271)
Ah, the old spectre of grassroots violence. Makes it a bit harder to talk about the ‘grassroots’ as positively as we so often do.
Workers were in movement, and so were ideas, organising strategies and racism — here from California to Melbourne but drawing on anything useful, with labour pressuring the government to stop immigration (a familiar sort of current, I wish I could say differently today):
The Commission recommended a Californian-type tax to ‘check and diminish this influx’, but the Victorian government also introduced the first form of ‘immigration restriction’, utilising, at the suggestion of the Colonial Office, the British Passengers Act, that limited the number of passengers for health and safety reasons to one passenger for every two tons of ship’s burthen. (loc 300)
A goldfield in Australia called Jim Crow…Jesus:
Agitation against the Chinese continued. In 1857, for example, a public meeting at Geelong ‘numbering not less than one thousand persons’ sent a petition demanding the parliament ‘check any further increase of the Chinese race in Victoria’; the Local Court at Castlemaine presented a Memorial against the ‘Chinese influx’ while miners at a goldfield named ‘Jim Crow’ near Ballarat collected 345 signatures in favour of Chinese exclusion.23 (loc 315)
A transnational identity as a man and as a worker is being crafted here, but a racialised one:
When anti-Chinese activists thus campaigned against the Chinese as colonists, citizens and workers, they also impugned their manhood. ‘Rice-eating men’, declared Australians and Californians in chorus, had neither the rights nor responsibilities of masculine ‘beef-eating’ men. (loc 412)
I remember reading very similar phraseology at this same point in time from authors like Henry Mayhew writing about the Irish in London, and the ways they can live on a single potato or on nothing at all. Hardly surprising, I suppose, that it should be used independently or displaced against others, often by the Irish themselves.
International doctrines of freedom of movement thus collided with the ascendant democratic power of white manhood. In an age when “glorious manhood asserts its elevation”, in the words of republican Australian poet Daniel Deniehy, Chinese labour, represented as docile and servile, was cast as a profound threat to the new-found status of the independent, upright working man, a figure increasingly coded as ‘white’.47 (loc 415)
Workers were white men, and they were white men ‘under siege’:
In demanding the exclusion of Chinese workers, the labour movement increasingly defined the by his “civilized” standard of living. The difference between the Chinese worker and the white worker, said one supporter in the Victorian parliament, sounding an international theme, was the difference between ‘a rice-eating man and a beef-eating man”. “People who can subsist on a handful of rice and content themselves with the barest shelter are formidable opponents of European labor”, said a colleague.64 Moreover, the “unfairness of the competition is added to by the intense industry of these Asiatics. They stand in as little need of rest and recreation, apparently, as they do of a generous diet or wholesome housing…” (loc 473)
These constructions of masculinity were emerging both from workers and politicians, intertwining with more upper-class justifications and discourses of Empire:
Just as British statesmen looked to the United States as a future ally, so Americans looked to British imperialism as a model for a re-invigorated United States manhood. On a visit to Britain in 1895, the previously sceptical Lodge was impressed by the role of imperial government in building English manhood. ‘I am more than ever impressed with the vast difference between the Englishman who has travelled and governed abroad and those who have not’, he wrote on his return. ‘The latter are insular and self-absorbed and stiff as a rule and the former are almost always agreeable and worth meeting’.65 Imperialism was character-building, for man, nation and race. ‘I believe in the expansion of great nations’, Roosevelt affirmed to his friend, Spring Rice, in December 1899. India had done a great deal for ‘the English character. If we do our work well in the Philippines and the West Indies, it will do a great deal for our character’.66(loc 1569)
Women could only suffer in this equation, being pushed further into roles of pure motherhood to uphold the race. One example:
The Royal Commission placed the blame for the decline of the birth rate on the selfishness of women.64 A copy of the report was sent to the United States at the request of the Department of Commerce and Labor.65 White men’s countries shared the preoccupation with race suicide. (loc 2226)
The other tragic result? The focus in so many liberation movements on ‘recovering’ the masculinity of men of colour. We watched Marlon Riggs’ awesome documentary Black I is, Black I ain’t last night, which is eloquent in showing the cost of this to women of colour and to those finding themselves outside of definitions of masculinity through their sexuality or expressions. To those facing demands to conform or ostracisation.
Motherland v Colony: the complexities of Empire:
One of the most enlightening things for me were the differences, at least initially, in the attitudes and discourses (though not in levels of racism itself) of Britain as the coloniser of a far-flung empire, and its subjects who established settler colonies. I had never quite grasped the strength of the idea of a multi-racial commonwealth, all subject to the Queen. This created complex allegiances amongst the empire’s members, even in its highly imperfect state.
I remember a strange loyalty to this idea puzzling me to some extent in Gandhi’s biography when I read it very long ago, and I am fascinated by quite what that meant, and how it shifted along with power, technologies of exploitation and discourse:
But the imperial status in which Gandhi invested so much – the status of British subject – was fast being eclipsed in the self-governing colonies by the ascendant dichotomy of white
and not-white. In making an argument that Natal should follow New South Wales rather than the United States and declare explicitly against the immigration of Asiatics, one member of parliament was moved to observe that colonists should forget about Colonial Office objections on behalf of coloured British subjects, for ‘the idea of the British subject was fading more and more every year’. (loc 1905)
This kind of attitude was made possible by the nature of empire, by governing from a country that remained white, an illuminating quote:
The shoe doesn’t pinch us; for in the first place each Asiatic in Natal must be multiplied by eight hundred to produce a proportionate effect on the population at home; and secondly this country being already fully populated, a relatively large influx of a foreign element could only be brought about by a corresponding displacement of the native element.36
Racial hierarchies existed within these limited categories of colonial subject, though all as a rule were seen as unfit for the duties and responsibilities of white men:
But there was a further problem in Natal: the presence of several hundred thousand ‘natives’. Even if a few Indians were to be granted self-government, they could not be trusted to govern blacks. The Colonial Office noted the impossibility of one subject race being governed by another:
In the contingency which this Bill deals with – that of Asiatics becoming the majority in a tiny electorate – a result would appear, which no-one ever contemplated, and which would be most anomalous and perhaps hazardous in itself viz the Government of a subject Race, which itself does not understand and is permanently unfit for representative Government, by another Race which does not understand it either which has no experience of it, and whose capacity to work it must be doubtful representative government is the monopoly of the European Races.37 (loc 1754)
Yet they remained subjects — a limited status yet one that settler colonies demanded be stripped. Thus it was the colonies that drove this process, and remarkably late in a sense — the end of the 1800s, which also saw the end of reconstruction in the US and the rise of Jim Crow:
The Australian legislation of 1896, in dividing the world’s peoples between white and not-white, regardless of their standing as powers or status as British subjects, marked a radical new departure in international relations. But the move was a logical development of the binary thinking that governed British imperial rule – the division between Crown colonies and self-governing Dominions or between ‘advanced’ and ‘backward’ races – and United States naturalisation law, that divided the world’s peoples into white and not-white. White Australia was produced in a convergence of these binary classification systems with the result that a vast range of diverse nationalities, ethnicities and religious groups Afghans, Chinese, Japanese, Hindus, Moslems, Negroes, Indians, Malays and Pacific Islanders – were lumped together (loc 2036)
Again, this underlines how this growing understanding of whiteness as identity, the creation of whiteness came from both bottom up and top down as it were, to return to the workers:
The project of White Australia was thus a contest over the meaning of civilisation itself. Much Labor vitriol was directed at the Japanese demand to be recognised as a civilised power. The Australian Worker reported the story of a confrontation between a local Labor man determined to ‘take down’ ‘a Jap standing outside a laundry’, who dressed above his station:
There you are looking like a crow decked out with peacock’s feathers thinking, I suppose, that you represent an up-to-date and enlightened nation. A great Power you call yourself, with your navy and your army, that you haven’t paid for yet, and your factories and other such western civilised innovations wherein you don’t earn enough in a week to keep a white man in beer and tobacco for the same period. (loc 2148)
But it’s all happening a bit later than I usually think of it, though the roots go very deep. We see Labour taking up the rhetoric of justice and democracy only when both are restricted racially:
In the new Commonwealth of Australia, Liberal and Labor parties agreed on the necessity of the state protecting the wages and conditions of white working men, an approach given expression in the policy of New Protection, so named because tariff protection would depend on employers paying workers a fair and reasonable wage. Deakin explicitly theorised White Australia as an exercise in social justice: ‘it means the maintenance of conditions of life fit for white men and white women – it means equal laws and opportunities for all; it means protection against the underpaid labour of other lands; it means social justice so far as we can establish it, including just trading and the payment of fair wages’.55 (loc 2171)
I hate seeing words social justice appearing in sentences like the one above. This was not, of course, only happening in Australia, and it became part of a political toolbox, part of the increasingly hegemonic mix of ideas through strong-held faith alongside canny manipulation and political operating within and between nations:
Above all, metropolitan governments realised that here was an issue capable of mobilising whole communities and creating new transnational ones, of changing voting behaviour and political allegiances . The British Ambassador to the United States, James Bryce, noted ‘an identity of feeling and of interests (real or supposed)’ between the Canadian inhabitants of the Pacific Coast and their neighbours in the United States.86 Washington and Ottawa talked about the possible secession of British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California – “where the same question is agitating the public mind, and threatens to combine all classes, irrespective of boundaries, in one common cause” – leading to their amalgamation into a new republic.87 The British government feared that the United States would stand forth as the leader and protector of white men’s interests… (loc 2606)
I had to pause a moment to imagine the ‘what if’ of a west coast nation, especially given the onset of Trump. But really what is important is that it should be international rivalry in leadership pushing the British Empire to move away from earlier ideas that bestowed some rights and some degree of humanity within the term ‘subject’:
The British, too, worried about the Empire disintegrating, Britain being marginalised and the United States assuming leadership of a new white men’s alliance. In his paper ‘Suggestions as to Coloured Immigration into the Self-Governing Dominions’, prepared for the Colonial Office, Charles Lucas observed that this was ‘a question second to none in difficulty and importance’ for the Empire. The British government should endeavour therefore to show some leadership on the question:
There is also to my mind a constant and serious danger that, if we do not take the initiative, the United States may stand out on and through this question as the leaders of the English-speaking peoples in the Pacific as against the coloured races. This is not my own view alone.92 (loc 2621)
Roosevelt’s world tour with his ‘Great White Fleet’ in 1907 helped to establish US naval power while also consolidating ideas and a solidarity amongst the white settler nations, working to push England to a similar position.
Provocatively, he told a correspondent of the New York Times that the visits (New Zealand was added to the itinerary) were intended to ‘show England – I cannot say a “renegade” mother-country – that those colonies are white man’s country’.33
The drive towards this conception in the colonies was, of course, a lot about the white ownership of land…
Whites in California had been critical of Japanese arrivals, even while they appeared as birds of passage, but their concern turned to alarm when the new settlers established themselves as successful farmers in settled communities. As Yamato Ichihasi observed, agitation in parliament and the press continued unabated. By 1913, it concentrated on the question of ownership and control of land. The claim to be a white man’s country was fundamentally a proprietorial assertion. Senator J. D. Phelan, who had become the most powerful figure in the state Democratic Party machine, set out his case for forcing the Japanese from the farming districts in an article published in the New York journal, the Independent, the same journal, ironically, that had published W. E. B. DuBois’ ‘Souls of White Folk’ on the claims of whiteness to the ownership of the earth forever and ever.
The second post looks more at the intellectual architects and popularisers of ideologies to support conquest, settlement, white democracy and genocide. I’ll end this terribly long one with some timely thoughts on some of the results on whites themselves:
According to a Frenchman, Baron d’Estournelles de Constant, who had been to the fore in summoning the second Hague conference in 1907, the brutality of imperial rule was not only destructive to the colonised, but rebounded on white men themselves and their ‘mother-states’:
Where is the white man, however excellent, who can be perfectly certain that in the great wide spaces of our various European colonies he will be able to resist the terribly demoralising effect of unlimited power, conjoined with the influences of solitude and climate? Where is the white man who has not in Africa and Asia felt himself to be more or less master, with power to act as he will, with power to oppress? There is . . . a regrettable and retrograde tendency among white men once left to their own devices to cultivate and foster deliberately a brutality whose evil traditions they then bring back with them to their mother-state.45 (loc 3338)
Israel Joshua Singer is Isaac Baschevis’s older brother. His book The Brothers Ashkenazi (1936) blew me away. Written in Yiddish about the Jews of Łódź, Poland, it reads to me like a working out of demons — a deep and knowledgeable, very Marxist examination of capitalism and justice, yet the most chilling of conclusions about the power of hate.
All of these things find an equally chilling physical manifestion in the ghetto of Podgórze and the remains of Płaszów Camp.
The Brothers Ashkenazi begins, of course, in the Łódź ghetto, and contains the first of many things that struck me like blows, the similarities of segregation in Poland and that of African-Americans in the US:
At first, the Jews confined themselves to their own quarter. Seemingly overnight the houses already standing sprouted additional stories, annexes, wings, extensions, ells, attics, and garrets to accommodate the flow of newcomers converging upon Lodz from the surrounding areas…
Gradually the Jews began to spill out of their congested area in Wilki, which was officially closed to them. The first to stick a toe inside the restricted area were the more affluent, audacious Jews; presently the more timorous followed.
Then, like a torrent overflowing its banks, the Jews smashed down all barriers set up to include them.
Here too is an examination of real estate, and strategies for overcoming racial and religious restrictions as seen through the wheelings and dealings over building a new residential suburb. A savvy character named Preiss sees the potential, and buys land from a heavily indebted noble family, pretending it is for a factory.
Forgetting the fact that a Polish nobleman was obliged to address a Jew by his first name only, the Kanarskis abjured protocol and were almost civil to their visitor.
They are furious when they find out it is to become a residential area for Jews rather than an industrial one, but too late — the new municipality of Baluty is built, swallowing up peasant huts and transforming the lives of the gentiles within them in a new cultural melding.
This is also a story of the lived experience of Hasidic Judaism, of the unique battles between tradition and modernity faced by those raised in such traditional households. It explores the many contradictions of religion and capitalism, as well as the complicated relationships between family through the complex relationship between the twin brothers Ashkenazi, Simha Meir (Max) and Jacob. Both become successful, though in very different ways, both leave Hasidic Judaism for the most part behind them. Both love the same woman. There are a host of characters that seem drawn directly from life in all of their quirks and hypocrisies. My favourite is perhaps Feival, who works to recruit young men away from the Hasidim and into the intellectual heresy of their choice.
In his large house, strewn with daughters, papers, promissory notes, and bedding, stood bookcases filled with books for which he had paid fortunes.
His wife and daughters hate him…I was impressed by how Singer exposes quite relentlessly the oppression of women, their limited possibilities, the ways that it twists and distorts their lives and dreams. Not so impressed at the consistently shallow figures of haridans running around the novel (with one exception), but no one in this is whole.
What most fascinated me, however, is how with all of this emotional complexity of life and religion as they are lived, this also manages to be a story of the industrial revolution. A story of the rise of capitalism. It describes the practice of Jews buying factories through gentile front men, and hiring only gentiles so their factories can run through the Sabbath ‘with impunity and a clean conscience.’ Simha Meir becomes Max in his quest to become the ‘King of Łódź’.
More than ever he spent sleepless nights, scheming how to squeeze even more profits out of the factory.
He cuts out middle men, reduces quality of the materials used, reduces the amount of material, improves technology from hand looms to steam, reduces wages, increases hours. It explains the whole process of piecework and subcontracting. It describes in detail manufacturing at the beginning of the 1900s, here is just a sample:
A giant cloud of steam, moisture, and stench hovered over the dyeing rooms. the directors grimaced at the half-naked workers clattering in wooden clogs over the slippery stone floors. they laundered the goods, rinsed and dried them before huge ovens, steamed them, threw them into bins, and passed them through the press.
By now the visitors had had enough, but Ashkenazi wouldn’t let them go.
There are ongoing strikes and the organizers are complex and sympathetic characters appearing throughout the book. The strikes are mostly broken — it is Simha Meir who reports its organizers to the police. Thus the workers come to study Marx:
Ironically, there was no place in tsarist Russia that offered such splendid opportunity to study Marxism as prisons.
As the strike falls apart, religious violence is unleashed as Catholics rampage through Jewish streets. The fragile solidarity built between workers is nowhere near enough to contain the fury and violence.
As the Jewish community mourns its dead and rebuilds what has been destroyed, industry and business push forward into a new time of prosperity for the few and increased misery for the workers.
The contradictions of capitalism emerge, as the huge bubble of credit spurring prosperity eventually bursts. Fires break out across the city as factories, warehouses, spinneries burn for the insurance. Simha Meir stays ahead. Rebuilds.
More violence is unleashed as the Austrian army occupying Poland unravels, and war breaks out. Singer writes:
The only ones with no homeland to return to were the Jews. Hooligans of all persuasions daubed their homes and shops with obscene and threatening slogans. the sounds of nationalistic and religious songs were accompanied by the tinkle of shattered Jewish windowpanes.
This is eerie. Just as is the descriptions of the 1918 massacre/pogrom of Lviv (Ukrainian)–Lwów (Polish)–Lemberg (Austrian).
When the Crocuses arrived and drove off the Ukrainians, the Jewish quarter was offered to them as a prize. A mob of priests, clerks, streetwalkers, nuns, housewives, criminals, teachers, monks, nurses, and assorted civilians gathered to egg on the conquerors. “Get the sheenies!” they howled. “Hang them by their beards! Smoke them out like rats!”
The mob is everyone, it unites the city across all other barriers because who does not appear in this list? Legionnaires disarm the Jews, hang the leaders. The next morning they set up machine guns at all the strategic corners and open fire. Then they go from house to house stripping them of valuables, raping women and killing at whim babies and grandmothers and anyone who resists.
“Let no Jewish seed remain in Christian Poland!” the officers cried.
On the second night they do their best to burn the quarter down to the ground.
Singer’s despair weighs on you like a stone. This insanely violent and destructive anti-Jewish sentiment makes a mockery of Marx — not in terms of the functioning of capitalism and industry and the resulting desperation and misery of the workers, but in the hopes for the unity of the working class to overturn it. You arrive at this conclusion with Singer, and it fucking hurts. Because he understands the plight of the workers all too well, and his sympathies are always with the agitators fighting for change:
Like flies caught in spider webs, the men, women, and children of Balut sat glued to their looms, working until they dropped. But all the millions they earned weren’t enough to prepare for the Sabbath.
Yet in a world where capitalism has intertwined with gentile power and hate, capitalism is impossible to overturn and attempts to do so will only bring another wave of Christian violence crashing down on the Jewish community. Another strategy is required.
Had Jews adopted the gentile’s ways, they would have already long since vanished from the face of the earth. But the Jews perceived that theirs had to be a different course, and it was this perception that had lent them the moral strength to endure and accumulate the only kind of force the gentiles respected — intellectual and economic power.
You can read this book perhaps as a commentary of the emptiness, the unhappiness of In Max Ashkenzai’s life, where he only finds a measure of fulfillment in reconciling with his family through mutual tragedy. Yet I don’t think Singer lets us off that easily. In the face of hatred he shows how Max’s life — despite its ruthless exploitation of his fellow Jews along with gentiles, its emptiness and unhappiness — is perhaps the best Jews can achieve. It is a victory and a revenge against Polish society that needs celebration. Thus, at his funeral, Max is acknowledged the King of Lodz, and beloved of his people:
Piotrkow Street was black with people, droshkies, carriages, and cars. Wild-bearded Hasisdim walked next to top-hatted bankers, grimy vendors, clerks, brokers, herder students, beggars, thieves, workers. In Max Ashkenazi’s passing they say the demise of Lodz itself. His funeral was its funeral.
It was hard reading this to remember that it was published during the Nazi’s rise to power, that these conclusions were reached with such desperate sadness before anyone knew the unthinkable thing the Nazis planned. These conclusions seem even more apt in grappling with the meaning of the holocaust, and I have found a little more insight I think, into today’s politics and all the ugliness of Israel’s actions. I still hate them, and watch, with heart breaking, oppression beget oppression.
“Let no Palestinian seed remain in Jewish Israel!” the officers cried.
While Krakow’s museums and plaques and self-descriptions rightly celebrate the stories of those who stood against the Nazis — among them Tadeusz Pankiewicz, the Catholic owner of the Eagle Pharmacy in Podgórze who continued operation and helped the resistance, or Schindler (with all his complications) whose factory also sits in Podgórze — they fail signally to engage with this longer history.
We did not visit Auschwitz-Birkenau — the thought of visiting a place of such horror as an attraction, with a guided tour for tourists as you must, filled us with dread. Instead we spent a day exploring the remnants of the ghetto on our own.
Between 1941 and 1943, Nazis carried out mass murders of Jews here in Plac Bohaterów Getta/ Plac Zgody — the staging point for their deportation to other camps from the ghetto. The Nazis ordered all Jews to leave Krakow in 1940; 17,000 remained and all were forced into the ghetto. In 1942, the Nazis carried out a mass deportation of people to Bełżec death camp. Those remaining they divided into sections “A” and “B”, employed and unemployed, useful and not useful. I think it is this kind of organizational detail that I find most terrifying. Those in group “A” were later marched to Płaszów Camp just down the road, while the people of “B” were murdered on the spot or sent to Auschwitz.
This is also the square on which the Eagle Pharmacy sits.
A later picture I found: the plac in 1958, with an advertisement in the background for Nova Huta…the past invisible here, and only a looking forward to the future.
We hunted down the remnants of Podgórze’s walls, built to contain and cage:
Today, here is a view of the old ghetto framed by the remaining section of wall on the left:
A terrifying picture of the clearing out of the ghetto, pieces of the wall in the background, ‘normal’ life beyond them:
From Podgórze, we crossed the highway to climb a prehistoric mound, mythologised as the resting place of King Krakus, Kraków’s founder. It is the oldest human-made structure in Krakow, and normally I would have been much more excited about that. Alongside it, as you can see, sits a huge quarry. Used by Spielberg in filming Schindler’s list, it was also a site of work for groups from Płaszów Camp:
We continued on along a fairly overgrown and narrow track alongside the quarry and with a Catholic cemetery on the other side. Finally we reached Płaszów Camp:
It was dusk, and I know some of the ruins still exist at the other end, where the main entrance sat. We did not go and find them. But we looked out over the site from above, eerie and empty. You want to be alone with your thoughts in such places, don’t you.
This is what sat here once:
This history of violence and contradiction lingered. It is not something that should be, or even could be, reconciled, contained, fully understood, capped off, or put behind us. This issue of how not just to bridge what divides us — and there is the whole grab-bag to choose from such as race, religion, gender, sexuality and any other difference we choose to invest with such meanings — but to find strength and beauty in our diversity, remains the key challenge for liberatory praxis I think.
This is a story about tractors for my amazing nephew Eli.
There are two tractors who live on the farm. A lot of the time we work, while they sit around in the farmyard resting.
But when it’s time for the really big jobs? We think they are amazing. I am going to show you just some of the jobs they can do.
One of the things they do is cut the grass, so all of the animals can have food in the winter time when snow covers the grass and they live inside.
Sometimes little tractors can’t do everything themselves, so the tractors that live next door come and help!
This one pushes all of the grass into rows that are the perfect size. This is the daddy tractor:
The son tractor follows behind him, scooping up all the grass into his baler. The baler takes all the grass and spins it into a big ball.
Imagine cutting all this grass without a tractor!
Afterwards the baler covers the ball in plastic, and then just drops it onto the field. Poom!
You can watch it if you want to.
Riding in the tractor is fun, but you have to climb up up up to get into it! This is how big the neighbour tractor is:
Inside you can see everything from really high up:
When we need to move these bales off the field and stack them up, we put these funny arms onto our tractor. It’s important we don’t break the plastic, or the animals won’t like the food inside!
For moving hay bales, you need the spiky arms instead. It’s so cool you can change the tractor’s arms to do all kinds of different things.
These bales are SO BIG! See, here I am sitting on some in the barn.
You can only move these big bales with a tractor.
Tractors can also make little hay bales when you connect this machine to it. This one is very old, but it still works and makes the hay nice and small so you can sit on it easier, and people can move it around!
But best of all, tractors are really good at cleaning up HUGE messes. The cows and the sheep live inside the barn all winter, and they poop and pee and spill their food and it is so yucky.
With a tractor you can just move it all away. People only have to clean a little bit in the places where the tractor can’t reach. That still takes us hours, but look at what the tractor can do!
I bet your mom wouldn’t mind having a tractor for your messes! But maybe you can use your little tractor to help her clean up. Because tractors love to help. Look at how much work this tractor has done, putting all the mess into just one shed.
The tractor especially loves helping her animal friends. Like Sandy the calf:
and Lilly the Kid:
And all of the chickens. This one is Natasha:
Mimi and Mishka the lambs:
They all say bye bye Eli, maybe we will tell you another story sometime!
It takes a lot of work, salad.
So. Much. Work.
This is because today we worked picking for the market, for the ‘city folk’, not for our own meal. I know now I never appreciated enough where my usual salad came from.
It took two of us much of the morning to harvest two boxes of spinach and one of chard. True, it’s near the end of the harvest and they are just at the point of bolting, but still. So much work. Back — aches. Hands — itch from that one sneaking nettle. Bending over to pick leaf by leaf, not too much on any one plant so more can be harvested. I know spinach disappears when you cook it, but it does the same damn thing filling a box.
I also picked and washed and de-slugged lettuce. I thus discovered today there are not two kinds of slug — the fat round kind and the long slithery kind with antlers. The slitherers roll up. Life was all right when I didn’t know that.
Mizuna, roquette (this is the same as arugula, who knew? Maybe I knew, but I have also been known to state I’ve never had ‘rocket’ in the US. Perhaps this forgetfulness arises from the fact I don’t care so much for it…) and a third I can’t remember. Those you can just cut all the leaves in a satisfying bunch about an inch and a half above the roots and they will grow back better than ever. Those were a pleasure to harvest. A little chicory, endive, some calendula petals and my salad bags for market tomorrow were a pleasure to behold.
There is, of course, also the choosing of varieties, preparing of beds, planting, watering and etc. Today’s labour was only the end of a much longer labour of hours and thought.
The afternoon we spent weeding around the chard and spinach, and weeding and weeding. But these polytunnels are amazing.
Today’s moral: appreciate your damn salad.
My last day at the farm, sheep-shearing day which I am so happy I got to see. It hardly seemed real to be leaving, hardly seems I was there now I am in Bristol. Everything fades so fast, though the soreness of my arms and tiredness implies it was in fact real.
Today as I sat at the train station — before being joined by an Afro-Carribean pensioner on a day-trip from Bristol doing her photography who boldly stated that Blair and Bush should be brought to the Hague for prosecution for their wars that were for nothing more than oil and was a bit taken aback I think when I wholeheartedly agreed so continued on with her arguments as if I had disagreed — before being joined by her, I was thinking how much I have enjoyed my time so far. I feel like I’ve been cracked open a little bit, horizons expanded a little bit so I have more room to grow. There is all this new experience that I can now own as mine, and the humility of knowing it could fill a thimble of what there is to know.
Today the sheep-shearer came. Martin. I watched him work and like yesterday herding sheep with T I was hit by just how very beautiful human beings are when they are in their element doing things they are expert in. I think sometimes this is the fascination of sport, because in office life, city life, you almost never see this. You forget just how amazing it is to watch someone with true expertise move and perform the very difficult tasks that they are best at. It seems effortless, every movement is sure, practiced, with the weight of years behind it. It looks easy, but you know it is the opposite.
It struck me that in this kind of physical labour you can find one aspect of true beauty visible nowhere else.
I will miss it the way I miss stars. Both of these things, I think, are things generally lacking in urban modern life, a reminder to be a little humbler in how we walk on the earth.
He had already done a few hundred sheep this morning before he came to do our 51 (the ewes with lambs will be shorn later in the summer) — most farms have several hundred at least. He spends three months a year in New Zealand shearing sheep like this every day — there are farms there with 80,000 of the things. Teams spend weeks shearing. Then there is part of his year traveling up and down England shearing sheep every day, and he has just added winter months in Finland and Latvia to the rotation — sheep there are kept inside for whole of the winter into the very late spring.
It never occurred to me that people could travel the world shearing sheep. A different kind of migration than what we usually hear about.
In England, where there is barn capacity (unlike the farm where I was working though plans are for that to soon change), ewes are often shorn in December before they lamb, and then kept inside until spring. They only need an inch and a half to two inches of wool coat to be perfectly happy outside in the winter weather, the rest of that immensely heavy fleece has all been bred for our own use.
The sheep file up this ramp — it was easier than I expected though often enough a ewe grew tired of waiting there and backed a waiting line right back into the pen. Often enough one of the stupid things sat stubbornly sideways across the entrance blocking it. They snorted and started around the pen when I got in to encourage them up. They act as if they are afraid of you every time you move, but when you are still you often feel their hot breath on your hands, and they will attempt to nibble away at wellies and sweater and jeans.
The shearer grabs them under their chin and by the foreleg and as he pulls them down he flips them over and there they lie strangely quiescent for the most part as he follows the same routine in removing their fleece, moving their dead-weight deftly to do so with practiced holds. Off the great thing comes. It is an amazing thing to watch.
I was expecting someone burley and older and grizzled. Not a rather puckish looking slender guy who is very possibly stronger than anyone else I have ever met.
The clippers are razor sharp and the skin very thin though the fleece is generally ready to come off at this point, seemed mostly to just peel away. From scattered conversation it also seems that certain kinds of sheep are much easier in this respect to shear than others, and some fleeces much more ready to come off. On one of the ewes who kicked there was a deeper cut, and he sewed it up himself there and then with something very thick and a huge needle.
That made me a little queasy I confess.
T rolled up the fleeces as they came off, into bundles that filled these massive great sacks that need massive muscles to haul into trucks and make this a bit more of a manly occupation than it needs to be. The sacks belong to the wool board, a cooperative that collects the wool from around the country and sells it all for the best price possible for large and small farmers alike. I love this, the only problem for T & I is that they don’t get a check for the wool until the following year. Not a huge problem for large farms, but often quite difficult for small holdings as you could imagine.
Sheep are so funny when shorn, but so clearly very happy and they even frisked a bit like lambs might — these were the year-old ewes who still hadn’t lambed, so still young I suppose.
He did the two ewes that didn’t lamb and the ewe whose lamb died and the four rams as well — those last cost quite a bit more trouble, and then one of them jumped the hurdles, a rather astonishing feat for something so heavy. An annoying one too as it meant a much more tiring day for us. Martin’s sheep-dog Jack helped round him up which was immensely helpful, but it meant he ended up penned separately with two of the shorn ewes so we had to separate them, get all the ewes into the orchard, get the rams together, load them up into the trailer, and return them to their fields.
We had the best bacon butties I have ever eaten when we finally had done. Showers and hot water seem extra special as well.
And then there I was waiting for the train. Feeling a little sad to be going I confess. Before I left I got a shot of the very helpful poster of sheep, cattle and pig breeds, though a bit of reflection from the sunny day
Wonderful thing to do, this farming malarkey, though I am quite happy to have a good long rest before me.
Aliens came, they stayed a while without saying hello and left without saying goodbye, having both transformed and trashed the places they inhabited around the world. Humans are left to shift through their incomprehensible and often deadly garbage. Ursula le Guin writes in the preface to this wonderful new translation:
Here, the visitors from space, if they noticed our existence at all, were evidently uninterested in communication; perhaps to them we were savages, or perhaps pack rats. There was no communication; there can be no understanding. (Le Guin – vii)
And there never is understanding, just a mix up of hope and fear. There is one scientist, Kirill, who sees in it the potential of knowledge and utopia and inspires Red, who works with him, just a little:
‘Mr Aloysius Macnaught!’ I say. ‘You are absolutely right. Our little town is a hole. Always was and always will be. Except right now,’ I say, ‘it’s a hole into the future. And the stuff we fish out of this hole will change the whole stinking world. Life will be different, the way it should be, and no one will want for anything. That’s our hole for you. There’s knowledge pouring through this hole. And when you figure it out, we’ll make everyone rich, and we’ll fly to the stars, and we’ll go wherever we want. That’s the kind of hole we have here…’
At this point I trail off, because I notice that Ernie is looking at me in astonishment, and I feel embarrassed. (42)
Because while this is Red drunkenly speaking, these are Kirill’s words, Kirill’s utopia. It’s possibly what the zone could have meant, or could always partially mean and what remains part of its lure. It is always the promise held out by science, the bright and shining dream of it. It’s not completely disproven here, but questioned.
I love that these new translations have afterwords from Boris. He describes the process, and shares the Strugatskys’ notes for the story written in February of 1970. This after wandering ‘the deserted, snow-covered streets’ of Komarovo on the Gulf of Finland, with all its resonance as a retreat for poets and scientists and writers of what was then Leningrad…I so want to go.
The growth of superstition, a department attempting to assume power through owning the junk, an organization seeking to destroy it (Knowledge fallen from the sky is useless and pernicious; any discovery could only lead to evil applications). Prospectors revered as wizards. A decline in the stature of science. (195-196)
Prospectors! It was only later they came up with stalkers, used the English word thus bringing it into the Russian language (very cool).
I do like the term prospectors though, this drunken dangerous lifestyle seeking fortune and escape is so reminiscent of prospecting. Even without understanding anything, some of the new technology can be put to work, money can be made. So corruption and dealing abound. Seemingly harmless things like batteries on the one hand, but so much of the detritus deals in death and disfigurement, and there has always been big money in those.
And there is poverty in this town. So you have the stalkers, men like Red who cross government lines to enter, to pick up what they can and sell it on the black market. The danger and skill and knowledge of the work has its on pull, but you can never forget the factors prodding men into it, particularly those who do not wish to spend their whole lives in jobs they hate to get nowhere:
Now I get really depressed. I’ll have to count every cent again: this I can afford, this I can’t. I’ll have to pinch pennies…No more bars, only cheap movies…And everything’s gray, all gray. Gray every day, and every evening, and every night. (47)
This is my own fear, that I will tumble into this. It fills book after worthy book, which is why I quite love sf that brings colour to the gray without denying its existence, that tells of wonder and danger and the exploration of the meanings of our lives in new ways. This is so much about how we are transformed by things beyond our understanding, whether it is technology or other human beings:
All these conversations had left a certain sediment in his soul, and he didn’t know what it was. it wasn’t dissolving with time, but instead kept accumulating and accumulating. And though he couldn’t identify it, it got in the way, as if he’d caught something from the Vulture… (162)
I love how this resonates with some discussions of cities, of formations of inequality in ghettos as sedimentation. But the alien artifacts have much deeper transformative effects — the children of the stalkers are not fully human and love for them and their loss is also central to this.
With the spread of the artifacts through channels legal and illegal, the rest of the world is slowly changing to. This shit can’t be contained.
I love how Roadside Picnic makes humanity the sideline, incidental to the big picture. I hate to drop that conceit even for a short time. But in many ways, of course, this could be read with ourselves as the aliens, forever transforming areas of the planet and sowing it with destruction for the species that live there. I see rivers flowing polluted with oil in my mind, like the recent spills into the Amazon. Chernobyl. Abandoned landscapes, extinctions. Scenes you stumble over everywhere humans have been, here in Bristol as eerily as almost anywhere.
Perhaps because humans are the sideline, they are allowed to just be with everything good and bad about them. But then, this is one of the things I particularly love about the Strugatskys. So does le Guin:
Humanity is not flattered, but it’s not cheapened. The authors’ touch is tender, aware of vulnerability. (vii)
And the ending, oh, I did love the ending. The awareness of just how little choice there ever was, just how little understanding. But the idea that that does not define your life, and it is something to be human.
Look into my soul, I know–everything you need is in there. It has to be. Because I’ve never sold my soul to anyone! It’s mine, it’s human! Figure out yourself what I want–because I know it can’t be bad!
And who doesn’t want this in the end? What better thing to wish for on a great golden ball that supposedly grants wishes, though someone must die springing the trap first, and so it is surrounded by splodges of soot.
‘HAPPINESS, FREE, FOR EVERYONE, AND LET NO ONE BE FORGOTTEN’ (193)
Sherwood Anderson published Poor White in 1920, but it feels as though it is from an earlier era (and describes one sure enough). I haven’t read anything else by him, haven’t read Winesburg, Ohio though it is the one on all the lists of American classics…It centers on this guy:
Hugh McVey was born in a little hole of a town stuck on a mud bank on the western shore of the Mississippi River in the State of Missouri. It was a miserable place in which to be born.
In his fourteenth year and when the boy was on the point of sinking into the sort of animal-like stupor in which his father had lived, something happened to him.
It’s all too easy sinking into animal-like stupor, lying on a riverbank. He gets a job at a railroad station, stays with the station master there and falls under the influence of the station master’s wife, who has grand ideas:
When Sarah grew into young womanhood and went about among the young people in the new country, she heard much talk of mortgages and of the difficulty of making ends meet, but every one spoke of the hard conditions as temporary. In every mind the future was bright with promise. Throughout the whole Mid-American country, in Ohio, Northern Indiana and Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa a hopeful spirit prevailed. In every breast hope fought a successful war with poverty and discouragement. Optimism got into the blood of the children and later led to the same kind of hopeful courageous development of the whole western country. The sons and daughters of these hardy people no doubt had their minds too steadily fixed on the problem of the paying off of mortgages and getting on in the world, but there was courage in them. If they, with the frugal and sometimes niggardly New Englanders from whom they were sprung, have given modern American life a too material flavor, they have at least created a land in which a less determinedly materialistic people may in their turn live in comfort.
This is a book of broad generalisations, of sweeping statements, of attempts to plumb the broad changes in the white American psyche during the rise of the industrial age. We learned about it in school as the gilded age, the time of the robber barons and railroad giants. It describes a man who I struggle to imagine now, though I’d never deny the possibility of his existence. Someone so isolated from his fellow men he doesn’t know how to talk to them, doesn’t know the birds and the bees, doesn’t know anything we might read in books or papers, doesn’t understand relationships of any kind. He wanders in a sad isolation, wondering at the strange human beings around him.
This was part of my Chicago reading, what the city meant for this great metropolis, how it connected to the people of the countryside and the towns that filled it. Here is what this simple lad up from riverbank animal-like stupor thought of his few hours in the big city:
In the spring of the first year of his wandering he passed through the city of Chicago and spent two hours there, going in and out at the same railroad station.
He was not tempted to become a city man. The huge commercial city at the foot of Lake Michigan, because of its commanding position in the very center of a vast farming empire, had already become gigantic. He never forgot the two hours he spent standing in the station in the heart of the city and walking in the street adjoining the station. It was evening when he came into the roaring, clanging place. On the long wide plains west of the city he saw farmers at work with their spring plowing as the train went flying along. Presently the farms grew small and the whole prairie dotted with towns. In these the train did not stop but ran into a crowded network of streets filled with multitudes of people. When he got into the big dark station Hugh saw thousands of people rushing about like disturbed insects. Unnumbered thousands of people were going out of the city at the end of their day of work and trains waited to take them to towns on the prairies. They came in droves, hurrying along like distraught cattle, over a bridge and into the station. The in-bound crowds that had alighted from through trains coming from cities of the East and West climbed up a stairway to the street, and those that were out-bound tried to descend by the same stairway and at the same time. The result was a whirling churning mass of humanity. Every one pushed and crowded his way along. Men swore, women grew angry, and children cried. Near the doorway that opened into the street a long line of cab drivers shouted and roared.
Hugh looked at the people who were whirled along past him, and shivered with the nameless fear of multitudes, common to country boys in the city…. They came in waves as water washes along a beach during a storm. Hugh had a feeling that if he were by some chance to get caught in the crowd he would be swept away into some unknown and terrible place.
Hugh doesn’t understand it, flees it. But this is a time when small towns have their hopes and dreams of greatness too. This book is as much a biography of their change as it of the inventor Hugh, who builds machines, helps create the new age, makes a fortune. This is what they were for a while, before the industrial age:
In even the smallest of the towns, inhabited only by farm laborers, a quaint interesting civilization was being developed. Men worked hard but were much in the open air and had time to think. Their minds reached out toward the solution of the mystery of existence. The schoolmaster and the country lawyer read Tom Paine’s “Age of Reason” and Bellamy’s “Looking Backward.” They discussed these books with their fellows. There was a feeling, ill expressed, that America had something real and spiritual to offer to the rest of the world. Workmen talked to each other of the new tricks of their trades, and after hours of discussion of some new way to cultivate corn, shape a horseshoe or build a barn, spoke of God and his intent concerning man. Long drawn out discussions of religious beliefs and the political destiny of America were carried on.
Genocide is half way completed, swathes of land are clear and ripe for development.
In all the towns of mid-western America it was a time of waiting. The country having been cleared and the Indians driven away into a vast distant place spoken of vaguely as the West, the Civil War having been fought and won, and there being no great national problems that touched closely their lives, the minds of men were turned in upon themselves. The soul and its destiny was spoken of openly on the streets… Every one had something to say. Even Charley Mook, who dug ditches, who stuttered so that not a half dozen people in town could understand him, expressed his opinion.
There is such a curious commentary on the need for homogeneity, for safety, for sameness and security so that people can open up and become philosophers:
Within the invisible circle and under the great roof every one knew his neighbor and was known to him. Strangers did not come and go swiftly and mysteriously and there was no constant and confusing roar of machinery and of new projects afoot. For the moment mankind seemed about to take time to try to understand itself.
There is a similar prejudice against foreigners, who are just even more strange strangers I suppose:
Like the other people of Bidwell, Hugh did not like to see foreigners about. He did not understand them and when he saw them going about the streets in groups, was a little afraid. It was a man’s duty, he thought, to look as much as possible like all his fellow men, to lose himself in the crowds, and these fellows did not look like other men. They loved color, and as they talked they made rapid gestures with their hands.
And in this white utopia still aware of hard work and just how hard life can be tied to the soil and struggle, still moving on rural time not city time, still not convinced in the universal belief that profit is the only thing that matters — in this brief time, philosophy begins to flourish:
The judge, an ex-politician from the city of New York who had been involved in some affair that made it uncomfortable for him to return to live in that city, grew prophetic and philosophic after he came to live in Bidwell. In spite of the doubt every one felt concerning his past, he was something of a scholar and a reader of books, and won respect by his apparent wisdom. “Well, there’s going to be a new war here,” he said. “It won’t be like the Civil War, just shooting off guns and killing peoples’ bodies. At first it’s going to be a war between individuals to see to what class a man must belong; then it is going to be a long, silent war between classes, between those who have and those who can’t get. It’ll be the worst war of all.”
This is just one of the men, some of the thoughts burgeoning. But it is already doomed to a short life by progress itself. I haven’t read such sweeping statements as this book contains since Victor Hugo, but the action sections aren’t nearly as good.
I still find myself fascinated by this very particular casting of myth:
A new force that was being born into American life and into life everywhere all over the world was feeding on the old dying individualistic life. The new force stirred and aroused the people. It met a need that was universal. It was meant to seal men together, to wipe out national lines, to walk under seas and fly through the air, to change the entire face of the world in which men lived. Already the giant that was to be king in the place of old kings was calling his servants and his armies to serve him. He used the methods of old kings and promised his followers booty and gain. Everywhere he went unchallenged, surveying the land, raising a new class of men to positions of power. Railroads had already been pushed out across the plains; great coal fields from which was to be taken food to warm the blood in the body of the giant were being opened up; iron fields were being discovered; the roar and clatter of the breathing of the terrible new thing, half hideous, half beautiful in its possibilities, that was for so long to drown the voices and confuse the thinking of men, was heard not only in the towns but even in lonely farm houses, where its willing servants, the newspapers and magazines, had begun to circulate in ever increasing numbers. At the town of Gibsonville, near Bidwell, Ohio, and at Lima and Finley, Ohio, oil and gas fields were discovered. At Cleveland, Ohio, a precise, definite-minded man named Rockefeller bought and sold oil. From the first he served the new thing well and he soon found others to serve with him. The Morgans, Fricks, Goulds, Carnegies, Vanderbilts, servants of the new king, princes of the new faith, merchants all, a new kind of rulers of men, defied the world-old law of class that puts the merchant below the craftsman, and added to the confusion of men by taking on the air of creators. They were merchants glorified and dealt in giant things, in the lives of men and in mines, forests, oil and gas fields, factories, and railroads.
And all over the country, in the towns, the farm houses, and the growing cities of the new country, people stirred and awakened. Thought and poetry died or passed as a heritage to feeble fawning men who also became servants of the new order.
Ah, the passing of poetry. The passing of men of true greatness, rather than men made by their publicists and their ability to make money. It didn’t have to be like this, for there is the special kind of man like Hugh, the inventor who does not care for money:
All men lead their lives behind a wall of misunderstanding they themselves have built, and most men die in silence and unnoticed behind the walls. Now and then a man, cut off from his fellows by the peculiarities of his nature, becomes absorbed in doing something that is impersonal, useful, and beautiful. Word of his activities is carried over the walls. His name is shouted and is carried by the wind into the tiny inclosure in which other men live and in which they are for the most part absorbed in doing some petty task for the furtherance of their own comfort. Men and women stop their complaining about the unfairness and inequality of life and wonder about the man whose name they have heard.
There is everything such men achieve — Anderson signals a moment when the invention of new machinery lightens the terrible burden of toil and allows men to philosophise:
Hugh’s machine took all of the heavier part of the work away. It cut the corn near the ground and bound it into bundles that fell upon a platform. Two men followed the machine, one to drive the horses and the other to place the bundles of stalks against the shocks and to bind the completed shocks. The men went along smoking their pipes and talking. The horses stopped and the driver stared out over the prairies. His arms did not ache with weariness and he had time to think. The wonder and mystery of the wide open places got a little into his blood. At night when the work was done and the cattle fed and made comfortable in the barns, he did not go at once to bed but sometimes went out of his house and stood for a moment under the stars.
This is the moment we perhaps could have clung to. Instead money rather than dreams and the stars became what mattered. This is the fuel for the move of America’s centre from the countryside to the city, a new breed of mice rather than men:
Modern men and women who live in industrial cities are like mice that have come out of the fields to live in houses that do not belong to them. They live within the dark walls of the houses where only a dim light penetrates, and so many have come that they grow thin and haggard with the constant toil of getting food and warmth. Behind the walls the mice scamper about in droves, and there is much squealing and chattering. Now and then a bold mouse stands upon his hind legs and addresses the others. He declares he will force his way through the walls and conquer the gods who have built the house. “I will kill them,” he declares. “The mice shall rule. You shall live in the light and the warmth. There shall be food for all and no one shall go hungry.”
The little mice, gathered in the darkness out of sight in the great houses, squeal with delight. After a time when nothing happens they become sad and depressed. Their minds go back to the time when they lived in the fields, but they do not go out of the walls of the houses, because long living in droves has made them afraid of the silence of long nights and the emptiness of skies. In the houses giant children are being reared. When the children fight and scream in the houses and in the streets, the dark spaces between the walls rumble with strange and appalling noises.
It is the passing of the craftsman, content to do his work well, to earn enough to live on. This is embodied by Joe the old harness maker, mocked and eventually pushed into the corner by his young apprentice Jim, who tells him:
“Can’t you understand what you’re up against? The factories are bound to win. For why? Look here, there can’t any one but some old moss-back who has worked around horses all his life tell the difference between hand- and machine-sewed harness. The machine-made can be sold cheaper. It looks all right and the factories are able to put on a lot of do-dads. That catches the young fellows. It’s good business. Quick sales and profits, that’s the story.”
The arrival of the heavy-handed metaphor of Joe killing Jim in a frenzy without making any change in the system or with the remotest change for the better in his own system doesn’t come as much surprise.
There is not much depth in any of the men, just a whole lot of confusion and isolation, with a dash of poetry perhaps. There are some truly egregious imaginings of women, especially in an attempt to enter the interior emotions of Clara:
There was something back of her desire for a man. She wanted something more than caresses. There was a creative impulse in her that could not function until she had been made love to by a man. The man she wanted was but an instrument she sought in order that she might fulfill herself. Several times during those evenings in the presence of the two men, who talked only of making money out of the products of another man’s mind, she almost forced her mind out into a concrete thought concerning women, and then it became again befogged.
She has a deep friendship with a woman in the big city before returning to her hometown — and it’s curious this friendship with Kate Chancellor who is clearly a lesbian, encouraging Clara to think herself equal of any man, to face life without one. Clearly, she failed, though it doesn’t seem to be for lack of trying. The descriptions of Clara are confusing, in that she doesn’t seem at all worth the effort.
Clara grew tired of thinking, and listened to the talk. The name of Hugh McVey played through the persistent conversation like a refrain. It became fixed in her mind. The inventor was not married. By the social system under which she lived that and that only made him a possibility for her purposes.
Ah, you can see this is trying to be a critique of the social system. It notes that:
She was very hungry for love, but might have got that from another woman. Kate Chancellor would have loved her.
This all reaffirms the ‘natural’ need for a man, for children. How this is strangely tied in to the changing times (I don’t think this means anything more, but maybe it does)
The woman at the window, like every one else in her town and in all the towns of the mid-western country, became touched with the idea of the romance of industry.
That and procreation. The romance of industry and the myth of the great man, not interest in his actual ideas or any sense of who he actually is, or the benefits that could come to others through his work. It is all very sad.
Her father was a schemer; he had even schemed to get her married, perhaps to further his own plans. In reality his schemes were so ineffective that she did not need to be angry with him. There was but one man of them all who was not a schemer. Hugh was what she wanted to be. He was a creative force. In his hands dead inanimate things became creative forces. He was what she wanted not herself but perhaps a son, to be. The thought, at last definitely expressed, startled Clara, and she arose from the chair by the window and prepared to go to bed. Something within her body ached, but she did not allow herself to pursue further the thoughts she had been having.
See? All about procreation. No wonder poor Kate had no chance, with just an ability to talk and think and laugh. To fight. She is a curious figure and I begin to wonder if this post shouldn’t have been all about her instead. But she is too much a caricature, even if a surprising one to find here.
I found the myths rather fascinating, however, all in all. And there are moments I liked. So I will end with one of them:
He looked at the towns and wanted light and color to play over them as they played over the stones, and when that did not happen, his mind, filled with strange new hungers engendered by the disease of thinking, made up words over which lights played. “The gods have scattered towns over the flat lands,” his mind had said, as he sat in the smoking car of the train, and the phrase came back to him later, as he sat in the darkness on the log with his head held in his hands. It was a good phrase and lights could play over it as they played over the colored stones…