Monthly Archives: July 2014

David Von Drehle/Triangle: The Fire That Changed America

It’s almost cliche to say this, but the phrase continues to reverberate: New York is a nice place to live, but don’t even think of living here if you make less than x dollars. To some extent, it is a recent development – with the “quality of life” crimes which Guilliani enacted to target victimized populations, followed by Mayor Bloomberg’s recent economic cleansing of NYC and the advent of the condo dweller/deluded small-town hipster. But this crushing inequality has existed since the inception of the city – New York has never been particularly kind to the working class, to say nothing of the impoverished. Triangle, David Von Drehle’s history of one of the worst industrial accidents in US history, is manifest evidence that even during NYC’s “Gilded Age“, people were considered secondary to products and profits.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire may have lasted for less than an hour, but it embodied the bloody nature of industrial capitalism in the burgeoning capital of the world. The fire itself was the result of unbelievably poor safety standards in what amounted to a ten story tinder box. A fire inevitably broke out, and in the course of a handful awful minutes, killed around 140 workers, some of whom burned to death, or asphyxiated from the smoke, or even horrifically throwing themselves desperately out of the windows.

Triangle goes into that terrible incident in nauseating depth. But it is the atmosphere and the working conditions of a largely non-unionized factory district, and the ramifications of the event itself (namely the political fallout and the shape of labour, feminism and progressive ideology) that form the bedrock of Von Drehle’s masterful account.

New York at the turn of the century can be seen as the open maw of a conveyer belt, in which tens of thousands of Jews and Italians took the place formerly occupied by the Irish and German immigrants at the bottom rung of New York society. The Jews had escaped hellish pogroms in Eastern Europe and especially Russia, and had decided to gamble on a better life in the New World, the Golden Land.

The immigrants were largely shelved in the slums of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and found employment as sewers, rag-pickers, bakers, fishmongers and every other hot, unpleasant job that you can think of. The term “sweatshop” was coined during this period, describing the tiny tenement apartment buildings where piecemeal work was produced on a nearly 24 hour schedule, by every age and gender. Unions were difficult to organize; not only did prospective union organizers face violent suppression at the hands of the state (this was still the period in which the notorious Tammany Hall political machine ran Manhattan like fiefdom), but the work itself was disorganized. There was always fresh meat arriving by the boatload, so entire work-forces could be fired and replaced within a matter of days.

The turn of the 20th Century marked a confrontation and escalation of these antagonist bodies, the workers versus the employers. Labour became centralized, as employers found it easier and cheaper to house all of their work force under one roof, even if the work routine consisted of the same drudgery. This in turn emboldened the formerly isolated workers, who managed to band together and form unions as a result of this conglomeration.

If any of this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Nowadays we don’t tend to have sweatshops within eye-sight, but that simply means that they have been transferred elsewhere, where the labour pool is cheap, desperate, and easily controlled. And as in the case with the Triangle fire, terrible industrial accidents occur regularly, as slave labour is not only inexpensive, it’s also replaceable. Safety issues abound in the sweatshops of today, including the recent catastrophe at Loblaw’s factory in Bangladesh, where the entire factory collapsed and killed dozens; it is only one of many such disasters which have eerie precedents in America. For more information regarding this recurring process of desperate people taking dangerous jobs, one need only pick up the masterful Planet of Slums,by Mike Davies.

Triangle is not the depressing slog it may have become – it ends on a positive note, as the incident marked the turning point of the end of the Tammany machine and the subsequent shift to progressive politics in America’s cities. It is also an indelible document of the Jewish migrant’s experience in the newly forged Promised Land, which occasionally rewarded it’s tremendous working population with freedoms unthought of in the shtetls of East Europe.

This is social history at its finest, a labour (so to speak) of years of time and research into the forgotten history of Manhattan. You’ll finish it in a few days, and cry out for more of this bravura social history.


Decadence – The Mirror of Reaction

There is a line (one of many) in the classic film Withnail and I that encapsulates the class dynamics of a dying English aristocracy. The aging gay aristocrat Monty states “It is a terrible time for us, my lads. Shat upon by Tories, and dug up from below by Labor”. This loss of self is perfectly cast, as it is a mourning statement that reflects the former antipathy and dialectic relationships that decadence once held by the gay, decadent aristocracy that been transformed into an antiquarian myth by the advent of the 70s in of the UK.

Decadence is only mirrored by a conservative hegemony – specifically a hegemony which had been in decline since the zenith of the British Empire and the subsequent Great War. Decadence needs conservatism; just as a belief/worship of the devil has to acknowledge the existence of an adversarial Christianity, decadence needs an antipathetic foil.

Another wonderful example is Oscar Wilde’s “masterpiece”, The Portrait of Dorian Gray. It takes place in the world that Monty nostalgically pines for seventy years in the future. The characters are essentially conservative, despite the not-so veiled homosexual overtones of the novel. Wilde worships the landed gentry of England, an essentially outdated class which was already declining in the pre-war period. Despite the characters’ declared break with convention, and embrace of all things sensual, the novel still smacks with the reactionary beliefs of the aristocracy. The Portrait of Dorian Gray is a witty, hyper conservatism, one that dispenses the hypocritical humanism of the gentry. Wilde threatens classic conservatism, all the while staying with the rubric of the reactionary system of taste and convention.

There have been precedents for this “flouting of convention” (that nevertheless stays within the boundaries of conventionality). Byron and many of the Romantic school were first and foremost aristocrats, despite their wildcat claims that Romantics were “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. The Romantics may been substance-abusing polygamists, but it was from a vantage point of privilege and the capability to get away with such acts. And if you need to go a little bit earlier, De Sade and the somewhat legendary Hellfire Club are other such examplesof the decadence trapped within the confines of paleo-conservatism. Disdain for the plebeians still ranked side by side with progressive, adventurous sexuality.

A gay talking-head recently informed listeners that part of the homosexuality, at least during the closeted period, consisted of an outsider status, looking in at conventionality and acceptable sexual roles. With aristocratic decadence, there is no such outsider element, beyond an immediate need to avoid getting arrested for their many “immoral” acts. Wilde’s imprisonment and the banning of his play, Salome, represents the danger of being outwardly unconventionality. Nevertheless, the aristocracy of England and France were still willing to protect their own, despite whatever misdeeds of the Decadent lifestyle. Just as long as the aristocrats in question towed the line and didn’t do anything too publicly. There’s nothing like embarrassment to get British blueblood running up.

Carlos Levi/Christ Stopped at Eboli

Germany will be forever associated with Nazism and the Holocaust, at least as long as the state of Israel exists. It could be the year 2300 and the word Germany will bring up images of gas chambers. Fascist Italy has gotten off easy – Italy is not synonymous with totalitarianism, and most people don’t think of Mussolini very often, if at all. They forget the Italy’s pointless invasion of Ethiopia, the equally pointless invasion and occupation of Greece, and the brutal suppression of dissidents (who weren’t members of a specific ethnic group, so they don’t count). The world has also forgotten the fact that technically Italy was the world’s first Fascist state. This displaced memory is aided by the fact that Mussolini was essentially a buffoon, with one of the worst armies at his command. It also helps that Mussolini was despised by a significant portion of the population he governed, as evidenced by the fiesta that followed his death during the forties.

But the thirties were different. If you publicly condemned Mussolini, you could look forward to death or imprisonment. Carlos Levi was one of those unfortunates. He was a doctor, well-respected by the community. While he wasn’t a communist, he knew nonsense when he saw it, and Levi publicly condemned Fascist Italy. Due to the fact that Levi was essentially upper bourgeois, the authorities opted not to kill him outright, and instead internally deported him to the worst part of Italy they could find. This was south central Italy, sort of the instep of the boot. Christ Stopped at Eboli is a fantastic (in every sense of the word) semi-autobiographical account of Levi’s experience as a deportee in this harsh landscape.

The region is so hot that the heat hovers over the ground, creating an illusion of wavering space. The land is arid and inhospitable – it’s mostly clay ground without proper soil, so there’s zero agriculture. There is also zero population for the most part, with the exception of a handful of villages that against all logic still exist. Christ indeed stopped here – this is one area of Italy where Catholicism never took root, and old pagan traditions still exist, at least in the folklore of the people.

This is where Levi spent a year of his life, where he drew from his experiences and the native folklore of the very poor people who were cursed to be born in such a hellish place. Malaria was incredibly common here, due to the mosquito population that dwelled in the clay, and the only medicine on hand was quinine – Levi’s background as a doctor was put to good use here, and he was regarded as something of a saint by the peasants.

The entire work is hallucinatory, dream-like – the result of living in such a hot area that common images take on an almost mythical stature. Levi’s kaleidoscope of experiences and the overall witchy tone of this sweaty area (to say nothing of the quasi-pagan beliefs held by the populace) combine to create a dream-like account of exile, in a place as far removed from Rome as Ethiopia.

One more noteworthy aspect of this work: the population is utterly apathetic to politics. The state i.e. Rome) exists to screw the populace over, regardless of whether or not that state is Fascist or not. The local fascists in town are portrayed as clownish, and no one takes them particularly seriously. Levi’s status as a political prisoner is chalked up to the fact that “someone in Rome must have it in for you” – he’s just another good man, victimized and pilloried by the authorities in Rome, a time honoured tradition that’s been going since the unification of Italy in the 1800s.

Levi’s haunting, elegiac paean to the worst place in Italy should be read by everyone, regardless of political background. With all due respect to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, this is literature, not mere agitprop. It has just as much to say about the contours of the landscape as it does about the niceties of living in (and surviving) Fascism.

The French Revolution/Histories, Fictions, Final thoughts

France loves a good upheaval. You can trace this back to the First Republic (which is incidentally the subject of the these latest posts), as a centralized authority, based entirely in Paris, attempted to create the French “nation” from a ragtag group of provinces, dialects, religions and social mores. There was revolt after revolt, a tradition carried on through the centuries, and at regular intervals. The Paris Commune is an excellent example, as are the Situationist riots in 1968, as are the latest upheavals in the suburbs of Paris, where the disenfranchised ethnic youth have gotten tired of being shat upon by White Paris. The revolutionary cycle of 1789-1793 still bears interest – we are still inheritors of the insurrection and the formation of a genuine Republic.

In order to understand why the Revolution took place in the first place, one has to understand the slow build-up of pressure, leading to an inexorable clash between the haves and have-nots. The Coming of the French Revolution by Georges Lefebvre analyzes this grinding process in beautiful, succinct prose. M. Lefebvre was himself a Marxist, who had the dubious privilege of having his books burned and banned by the Nazis for being too subversive. In some ways, they were right: This is history written from below, concentrating on mass movements as they dealt with structural changes in their livelihood, structural changes that led to unrest and ultimately open rebellion. This is not a book of big names and big battles; this an account of peasantry growing increasingly frustrated with the harsh indemnities that resulted from France’s pointless war against the English. It is a reminder that the Jacobins and every other revolutionary organizations would be utterly helpless without the participation of the masses.

Twelve Who Ruled takes a different tact, concentrating on the battles of personality between the individual members of the Committee of Public Safety – the organization responsible for most of the carnage during the Reign of Terror. The Committee’s judicial system was a very simple formula: first,the judiciary gave the suspect a trial (which the suspect would lose), give the accused a chance to appeal the sentence (which they’ll also lose), and then the accused would get his/her head chopped off. It was a cold, mechanistic system designed to root out counter-revolutionaries, one that quickly became embedded, and one that ultimately turned on its operators. Robespierre himself tasted Madame Guillotine. Twelve who Ruled neatly traces this trajectory.

In an effort to add colour to all of this, we should examine the novel, The Gods are Thirsty, by the Francophile Tanith Lee. It’s a somewhat fictional account of the life and times of Camille Desmoulins, a pamphleteer and propagandist for the Jacobins during the Revolution. Leave it to fiction to create nuance out of commonly accepted facts. The novel captures the headlong fervour of the revolutionary period, and the descent into despair that followed the establishment of the terror machine (and if you want to draw comparisons between this period, and, say, the Stalinist experience, be my guest). The writing is as rich red wine – it’s intoxicating, heady, with an ominous feeling of the morning after.

Paris is no longer the capital of the world, much less revolutions. The proletariat and the working poor of the city have been condemned to the outer suburbs, leading to isolation and the loss of the sense of community activism. Nevertheless, the explosions of Paris are indelible, even if the city itself has taken a few steps back in recent decades. The French Revolution means a lot of different things to different people, and it may be that this is ultimately a subjective event. But that subjectivity (which this author has ranted about in the past) just fuels the fire of inspiration. It’s an eternal ground-spring of ideas and hope, and it demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt the vitality of mass participation in crucial events.

Robespierre/Virtue and Terror (Verso Edition)

“If the spring of popular government is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror; virtue without terror is fatal; terror without virtue is powerless.”

The history of the French Revolution is, more than anything, a reflection of those that look into it. It is a history of histories, one which has been hijacked and spun so many times that objectivity is nearly impossible. In the introduction of Verso’s fine edition of Virtue and Terror, Slavoj Zizek attempts to frame the question in the most straightforward manner, while still placing his own interpretation in the long line of Terror studies that date back to 1793 itself. Even now there is still a powderkeg of rationale and interpretation which the modern viewer is encumbered by.

One has only to think of the way that twentieth century communists attempted to fashion history, as they saw the French Revolution as the first building block of a socialist project. Other historians during the 30s saw the struggle of the left wing government in Spain fighting off the fascist powers of the world as being eerily reminiscent of the French Revolution during its violent infancy. Contemporary historians (and this writer has been guilty of this) read the Reign of Terror as one of the first modern police states, desperate to get rid of the OTHER, get rid of this creeping fifth column of outsiders who are plotting from within to destroy the revolution.

In his introduction, Zizek digs even deeper, intimating that not only did the revolution had recourse to violence during the Terror Days, but that it needed that violence to carry through a genuine revolution. Liberals disagree ferociously; as Zizek mentions, Liberals want 1789 without the 1793, a sort of neutered, caffeine-free version of revolution. Zizek feels that a radical rupture must take place if you want to avoid the mush-mouthed constitutional monarch, a la Britain. It is this fever for the new which drove the French Revolution forward, why it wanted to export the revolution. As Danton, once would-be ally of Robespierre put it, “Audacity, Audacity, More Audacity”.

Robespierre was a committed national liberal in the beginning of the Revolution, and he was more interested in his own back yard before knocking on his neighbor’s door. But the encroaching menace of the counter-revolution was already beginning to draw heated discussion, as it has with nearly every other revolutionary state. Time and time again, a besieged nation will begin to look askance at it’s own citizens, wondering if, just maybe, that person is working for al Qaeda, or the British, or the Royalists. The Reign of terror was to systematize this protean fear, and make it into a clockwork system of checks and balances to determine who out there is a real threat to society.

It backfired, as these things do. A perfect terror machine will run out of legitimate targets and begin to feed on itself. It happened in Russia, where Stalin himself had to step and put an end to it. It happened in France too, where it had become apparent that Robespierre was more interested in getting rid of political thorns in his side. Robespierre was both the author and victim of his own creation.

As Zizek mentions in his intro, contemporary radicals tend to lean toward the bloody days of 1793. Not that they embrace wholesale slaughter of innocents, but they recognize that a final, (possibly violent) break with the past is necessary in order to move on into the future. If this sounds a little millenarian, that’s because it is. Most revolutionaries strive to bring better things to this earth – it may not happen in their lifetime, but doesn’t negate the irresistible force which leads men and women to rebel against their masters.

George Saunders – American satirist par excellance

The mutual hatred that’s shared between France and America is a little amusing. In American eyes, the French are a bunch of ungrateful effete snobs who would be speaking German today if it wasn’t for American intervention. As for the French, well, there’s a reason why they love Jerry Lewis – that’s how the French view Americans. This is despite the shared participation in both of their respective revolution of the 18th Century.

Both of these bigotries are unrealistic, as ethnic hatred has a tendency to be. These are massive, complex states that have undergone insurrections, wars, turmoil, economic and social disasters, and a perpetual battle between right and left. George Saunders represents the truest essence of Independence Day in America, with an emphasis of the former word.

Saunders started out on the wrong foot. Saunders was an Ayn Rand Republican, born and raised in that Democratic bastion, Chicago. He went to Indonesia to practice his craft as an industrial engineer, working on resource exploitation in the coal mines of the third world. It was here that Saunders had a revelation: The right wingers that he was working with, these noble builders of worlds in the Randian sense, were in fact “stinkers”. Selfish, racist scum with little regard for anyone. They beat or had sex with the local kids, spent their money on booze and drugs, and generally obliterated any heroic notions you may have had about them. Saunders went back to the States a changed man.

His writing also changed. Saunders was no longer the self-serious, self-avowed “Hemingway-slut” that he was before the trip. Instead, he began writing nonsensical sketches, which gradually warped into the full blown stories and essays that are under examination here. While some are darker than others, they share a mutual admiration/despair for America, ruthlessly skewering the neo-liberal ideology and consumerism that have led the country astray.

In Persuasion Nation is certainly the bleaker of the two. Yes, it’s funny, but it’s funny in the sense of “Laugh so you don’t cry”; these stories hit very close to home, especially for North Americans. That’s the point of course – the purpose of decent agitprop is to enrage the spectator to the point where they actually get off their respective asses and do something. Still, there’s a sliver of despair throughout all of these stories, a cold wind directly from Ingmar Bergman country.

The Braindead Megaphone is moderately more hopeful, and at the very least more entertaining. If In Decision Nation attacked consumerism, The Braindead Megaphone went after the jingoistic, mindless state of the media in America. The title essay is worth the price of admission alone – I have never read a more ferocious, insightful attack on the Western media in my life. “Ask the Optimist” is another wonderful short story, skewering America’s predilection towards looking on the bright side, even if it means ignoring blatant, disturbing facts that point otherwise.

One more thing to impart before I go: America is a vast country, and while the international image may still be one of Sarah Palin appearing on CNN, there’s so much more to this republic than mere right-wing, consumerist nationalism. George Saunders exemplifies this notion. The American spirit of independence is still alive, and can be found in this skewering of America itself.

Next week we’ll be exploring the preeminent satirist of the US, and of Saunders himself – Mark Twain. Bastille Day in France is on the way as well, so expect more revolutionary fervor.