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From Incarceration to Decarceration

The Need to Abolish Prisons

Maya Schenwar, Locked Down, Locked Out (San Francisco: Barrett-Koehler Publishers, 2014), 228 pages, $18.95, softcover.

Prison justice issues are garnering more public exposure today than ever before. In June 2012, the United States Senate held its first hearing on solitary confinement, the second in February 2014. This past fall, the New York Times ran a series of prominent exposés on conditions on Rikers Island that resulted in substantive shifts in staffing and conditions. Even the immense success of the TV show Orange Is the New Black suggests that what happens to people locked up is no longer a fringe issue, but part of our public consciousness.… Yet there are so many contradictions bound up in the way we talk about prisons. Solitary confinement is torture for children, but not for terrorists; the death penalty is unjust, but locking people up for life is not; “inmates” are terrifying beings, except the ones who look or speak like us. Therefore, for many progressives, the question is not whether prisons “work”—but how to make them more humane for those who “deserve” time on the inside.… | more |

Cotton: The Fabric of Death

Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Knopf, 2014), 640 pages, $35, hardback.

For four years following the 2008 mortgage crisis, I worked as a cotton merchant for one of the “big four” trading firms—ADM, Bunge, Cargill, and Louis Dreyfus. These shadowy giants, two of them privately held, maintain oligopoly control of agricultural commodity markets. From desks in Memphis, my colleagues and I purchased mountains of cotton in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, warehoused it, speculated on it, and sold it back to mills on those same continents.… We sat at the pinnacle of a web of political and economic forces that funneled cotton into facilities we owned and cash into our accounts, but nowhere in the office was there a visible sign of the violence that made it all possible.… Too often liberal histories focus on a single period, territory, or class perspective, and end up obscuring the truth, severing the threads that tie a moment to its historical roots. Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton is different. Although a liberal historian, Beckert refuses to limit his scope in the traditional way. Instead, he follows the movement of cotton across time, space, and class, bringing forward the threads that bind the objects of an otherwise distorted past.

This article will be published on November 30th.

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“A Torture Machine”

The Violent Story of Slavery and the Beginning of American Capitalism

Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 528 pages, $35, hardcover.

For an estimated hundreds of thousands of people, including some 60,000 workers who had served notice to their bosses, April 15, 2015, was strike day—reportedly the largest mobilization of low-wage workers since May Day of 1886, when a half million workers and their families (10 percent of the population at the time) struck for the eight-hour work day. Hundreds of us from here in Tennessee joined fast food workers, adjuncts, and home and child-care workers in the morning for strike actions, and many of us boarded buses to St. Louis and Ferguson, Missouri, for a Black Lives Matter protest that brought together strikers and supporters from all across the region. It was an intense and exact showcase of the irrevocable knot of violent and permanent racism in this country, and its broadening (and racialized) wealth and income gap and the deepening, permanent poverty of working-class life.… There is no legitimate history of this nation’s past and present that can deny the twin realities of extreme economic exploitation of people of color, especially African Americans, and the incredible violence perpetrated against them. Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told draws these two realities together in his contribution to the new set of histories of U.S. capitalism, slavery, and cotton, which include Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton and Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams.

This article will be published on November 30th.

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Stripping Away Invisibility

Exploring the Architecture of Detention

tings chak, Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention (Montreal: Architecture Observer, 2014), 112 pages, 22 euros ($30.60 from Amazon), paperback.

Over the past six years, more than 100,000 people, including children, have been jailed in Canada, many without charge, trial, or an end in sight, merely for being undocumented.… Locked away from the public eye, they become invisible.… Like the people within, immigrant detention centers are often invisible as well. Photos and drawings of these places are rarely public; access is even more limited. Canada has three designated immigrant prisons, and it also rents beds in government-run prisons to house over one-third of its detainees.… Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention begins to strip away at this invisibility. In graphic novel form, Toronto-based multidisciplinary artist tings chak draws the physical spaces of buildings in which immigrant detainees spend months, if not years. In crisp black and white lines, chak walks the reader through the journey of each of these 100,000+ people when they first enter an immigrant detention center.… | more |

The Part of “Illegal” They Don’t Understand

Anyone who really wants to understand U.S. immigration policy needs to read the brief history of the U.S.-Mexico border in Aviva Chomsky’s often-brilliant new book on immigration.… Politicians constantly tell us we have lost control of the border. In fact, as Undocumented demonstrates, never in the 166 years since the border was established by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo has it been so tightly controlled as it is now. For nearly half its history it was exactly the thing immigration opponents say they fear most—an open border. The first serious restrictions did not come until a head tax and a literacy requirement were imposed in 1917, and even then there was an exemption for Mexican workers, the people most likely to enter the country from the south.… The United States wanted this labor for a reason: it was cheap and disposable.… | more |

An Anti-Imperialist Feminist’s Tale

Roberta Salper, Domestic Subversive: A Feminist Take on the Left, 1960–1976 (Tucson: Anaphora Literary Press, 2014), 236 pages, $20, paperback.

Since second wave feminism is the largest social movement in the history of the United States, it is surprising that there are fewer than a dozen autobiographies written by the activists of the late 1960s and early ’70s. Roberta Salper’s Domestic Subversive is a welcome addition, especially because it is well-written, often with humor, and promises an anti-imperialist feminist analysis.… Domestic Subversive is a feminist’s take on a range of organizations of the left from 1960 to 1976: the student movement in Spain, New Left movement in the United States, Marxist-Leninist Puerto Rican Socialist Party in the United States and Puerto Rico, and a prestigious liberal think tank in Washington, D.C., the Latin American Unit of the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), where she worked as a Resident Fellow.… | more |

Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions at Ten Years

Reflections on a Movement on the Rise

Rich Wiles, editor, Generation Palestine (London: Pluto Press, 2013), 256 pages, $24, paperback.

When in March 2012, Barack Obama paused briefly from approving orders for drone killings of Pakistani and Yemeni villagers, in order to reassure the attendees at the annual gala of the AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee) that, “when there are efforts to boycott or divest from Israel, we will stand against them,” the real target of his declaration was elsewhere: the myriad grassroots organizers across the world who have made the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns unignorable. Their mounting influence has provoked efforts to declare them anti-Semitic or illegal from London to Long Beach. In fact, the series of victories across the University of California system has so annoyed its managers that they have hauled in the Caesar of domestic repression, Janet Napolitano, to deal with campus activists. Obama’s declaration of support for Israeli colonialism had a simple message to those many activists: back down, because Washington will not.… | more |

The Nazi Threat in the United States

Imported or Homegrown?

Eric Lichtblau, The Nazis Next Door: How America Became A Safe Haven for Hitler’s Men (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2014), 256 pages, $28.00, hardcover.

Fascism has come full circle…. The main sponsor of this regime this time is not Nazi Germany but Washington…. U.S. military adventures in the Middle East and Africa [and the] [r]esort to imperialist wars abroad also reflects growing social polarization at home, the hollowing out of U.S. liberal democracy as a result of the power of money, the gigantic expansion of the security and surveillance state, the spread of armed vigilantism, the intensification of racism, and the militarization of the U.S. police.… What we are likely witnessing is a situation in which it is no longer possible for the capitalist class in crisis to rule the people of the United States in the old way. A process is underway that involves the withering away of liberal democracy and the arrival of a not-so-friendly fascist order meant to bolster capitalism through a resort to authoritarian discipline. How far this process goes depends on political events and the effects of the ongoing economic crisis on public consciousness.… | more |

Cricket and Revolutions

C.L.R. James's Early British Years

Christian Høgsbjerg, C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 294 pages, $24.95, softcover.

The London Times once referred to the famed Trinidad-born C.L.R. James as a “Black Plato.” When asked about the phrase, James elliptically deflected it with a graciousness that should be noted, but the problems with being able to conceive of black intellect only within parallels within Western thought could take up pages. Christian Høgsbjerg’s new biography of James focuses on his first years in Britain, from 1932 to 1938, and skillfully avoids either fetishizing his subject or reducing him to a glorious “black brain.” The result is a riveting history that is bound to awaken the interest of those unfamiliar with him and add a dimension to what others already know of his life and work.… | more |

Native Land and African Bodies, the Source of U.S. Capitalism

Had Marx written Capital in the early twenty-first century, knowing what he could not discern in 1867—that the global dominance of capital, through the military and imperialism, would be realized by the United States—this is the book he may have written using the methodology he developed in the mid-nineteenth century.… What Walter Johnson desires is to change entirely the way we think about the history of the United States, particularly the development of capitalism. He also wants to change how we think about the application of dialectical materialism to the United States. Like Marx, Johnson marshals thick description to disclose the theses that emerge.… | more |

The Struggle for Scotland’s Future

Chris Bambery’s splendid People’s History builds upon the scholarly work of others across several generations…. In Bambery’s careful telling, the decisive moment in anything like modern Scottish history comes several hundred years ago. The Scots’ real capitalism spread through the savage process of depopulation that Marx described so brilliantly in Capital: enclosure. Over extended decades, thousands of historic villages were literally emptied, so much so that remnants of crude huts can still be found in areas that have fewer inhabitants than sheep. The distinct language, created over thousands of years and retained with great effort in Wales, and with less effort in the rural districts of Ireland, did not need to be crudely suppressed here: the victims, pushed into the cities when not driven to early deaths, seem to have lost everything in this later period but their colorful, characteristic Scottish accents.… | more |

Vietnam War Era Journeys

Recovering Histories of Internationalism

Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, Radicals on the Road: Internationalism, Orientalism, and Feminism during the Vietnam Era (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), 346 pages, $26.95, paperback.

The cover of Judy Tzu-Chun Wu’s Radicals on the Road features a sepia-toned photograph of Eldridge Cleaver raising his fist in a Black Power salute behind three Vietnamese women in combat helmets, one of whom is kneeling behind an anti-aircraft gun. While you have probably seen a similar photograph of Jane Fonda from her North Vietnam trip in 1972, images like that of Cleaver are less common, if circulated at all. In this second book by Wu, she documents three sets of journeys, like Cleaver’s, that have remained at the margins of both the scholarship and the popular memory of the antiwar movement.… | more |

E.P. Thompson: A Giant Remembered

Cal Winslow, ed., E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left: Essays & Polemics (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2014), 333 pages, $23.00, paperback.

It is surely difficult for young people today to grasp that thirty years or so ago, radical historian-activist Edward Thompson was by opinion polls intermittently the second or third most popular person in England, just after the Queen Mother. This was despite the British establishment, to say nothing of U.S. Cold Warriors (liberal or conservative), slandering him for decades—and why not? He had led massive protest movements of ordinary people against their government. Worse, in cloistered academic quarters he was viewed as having reorganized the whole idea of social history and turned it over to ordinary people! More than anyone else in the English-speaking world, he made the history of such people important.… | more |

A Defining Moment: The Historical Legacy of the 1953 Iran Coup

Ervand Abrahamian, The Coup: 1953, the CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations (New York: New Press, 2012), 304 pages, $26.95, hardback.

The Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States began in earnest as soon as the Second World War ended, shaping most of the remainder of the twentieth century. The U.S. doctrine of “containment” required confronting the Soviets at every point of contact, accompanied by the claim that lasting peace could be reached only through the establishment of an international order based on national states which enjoyed a U.S.-defined political liberty and a capitalist economic order. The Soviets bolstered their security through providing support to countries seen as friendly and close to their borders. Therefore, maintaining influence in Iran was a goal of Soviet foreign policy in the Middle East. U.S. foreign policy was shaped by its own state interests and ideology and driven by the American postwar, worldwide systems of military bases.… It is this turbulent period of geopolitical maneuvering that Ervand Abrahamian’s The Coup revisits. Yet, unlike other books on the 1953 events in Iran, Abrahamian locates the U.S.-backed coup less in the Cold War ideological confrontation between East and West than in the conflicts which opposed imperialism and nationalism; between the center of world capitalism and the underdeveloped economies heavily dependent on exporting raw natural resources.… | more |

Living in the (Right-Wing) Media Glare

Bill Ayers, Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident (Boston: Beacon Press, 2013), 240 pages, $24.95, hardcover.

In this beautifully written memoir, Bill Ayers recounts his bizarre and unsettling experience as a “public enemy” during the 2008 presidential election. An unlikely grouping of right-wing web sites, Fox News, liberal foundations, George Stephanopolous, and even university faculty and presidents did their part to portray the then-Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois, Chicago as a veritable mad man, someone profoundly immoral whom any self-respecting public figure or institution should immediately disavow. This suggests the salience of two phenomena: first, the perennial appeal of demonizing the U.S. left (especially—but not only—its militant wing), and the ready availability of a variety of tropes to do so.… Second, the incidents reveal a dark region of U.S. political culture striving to influence the mainstream. Many Americans were unsettled at the prospect of a black president, and they have displayed their fears, hatreds, and anxieties in various ways ever since.… | more |