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Imperialism and Class in the Arab World

Ali Kadri, Arab Development Denied (London: Anthem, 2014), 250 pages, $40, paperback.

Perhaps nowhere does violence collapse the horizon as it does in the Arab world. Imperial wars have demolished the Libyan state and turned Syria into a charnel house. Yemen, the region’s poorest country, was a U.S. drone shooting gallery before Saudi Arabia…attacked it, sending it spiraling into famine. Iraq shudders under ISIS’s car bombs after decades of wars and sanctions. And Palestine continues to bleed and resist under the weight of Israeli settler-colonialism.… Why so much violence? The academic mercenaries of counterinsurgency studies fixate on terrorism as a response to material grievance, and Western war as the response. Others ascribe the region’s underdevelopment to a mix of institutional inadequacy and democratic deficits, remediable by the application of U.S. power.… Against this tableau, Ali Kadri in Arab Development Denied offers a coruscatingly intelligent account of how the United States has denied Arab development. Through wars, colonialism, and sanctions, it has sought for decades to prevent working-class sovereignty in the region.… | more…

Self-Rule in the Balance

Paul Street, They Rule: The 1% vs. Democracy (London: Routledge, 2014), 252 pages, $30.95, paperback.

In They Rule, Paul Street offers a thorough deconstruction of the status quo of U.S. capitalism. The book’s subtitle gives a nod to the Occupy Wall Street movement, whose main victory was to popularize the concept of U.S. class conflict, as embodied in the “1 percent.” The title also recalls John Carpenter’s 1987 film They Live, a sci-fi spoof of the Reagan era that prefigured the Occupy revolt. Carpenter’s characters don “magic sunglasses” for intellectual defense against media misinformation.… One current form of that misinformation is the view that the Democratic Party exercises “left” politics. Street smashes this notion.… [However,] this is no academic query.… | more…

Organizing for Better Lives

Todd Jailer, Miriam Lara-Meloy, and Maggie Robbins, The Workers’ Guide to Health and Safety (Berkely, CA: Hesperian, 2015), 576 pages, $34.95, paperback.

The new Workers’ Guide to Health and Safety—with drawings on every page—is a fun read, which is an unusual thing to say about a book with such a serious intent. Garrett Brown, an industrial hygienist with decades of experience as an inspector and activist in California, Mexico, and Bangladesh, claimed with some justification that of all the books on occupational health and safety, “almost none…are accessible to workers or their organizations.” The Workers’ Guide is the first major book aimed at organizing for healthier conditions in the labor-intensive export industries of countries like Bangladesh and China, Mexico’s maquiladora frontier, in Central America and Southeast Asia, and even in the United States itself, where for many, working and living conditions are being beaten down.… | more…

“Realists of a Larger Reality”

On New Science Fiction

Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.

—Ursula K. Le Guin

Le Guin is undoubtedly right about resistance in the “real” world, but in reading, only some books offer a call to resistance and the possibilities of a new reality. Among the books considered here, some come to us as “literary fiction”; others are marked as belonging to another, historically denigrated, form, “science fiction” or “fantasy.” This could be a distinction without a difference: two are near-future dystopian novels about corporate capitalism in the United States (both by well-established white authors); two are collections of near-future short stories that set out to critique the human powers that structure our world (written by both established and new voices, primarily writers of color). But the books that embrace rather than evade their status as science fiction or fantasy are the ones able to imagine the resistance and change that Le Guin invokes.… | more…

The Postracial Delusion

David Theo Goldberg, Are We All Postracial Yet? (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2015), 200 pages, $12.95, paperback.
Linda Martín Alcoff, The Future of Whiteness (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2015), 224 pages, $19.95, paperback.

If we based our understanding of race relations in the United States on the events of the last year alone, it might seem like a racial Armageddon was upon us. Hardly a day seems to pass without a report of yet another black victim of a police shooting. Independent estimates confirm that the prevalence of such incidents has been rising over the past several years.… What we are witnessing…is a volatile combination of a rise in violence alongside the increasing visibility of that violence.… But despite so much evidence that black Americans and other people of color are under attack, nearly half of respondents to a recent Pew survey thought that race was “not a factor at all” in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the same number agreed that the United States has already “made [the] necessary changes” to achieve racial equality.… And yet…everywhere there is more evidence than ever that race and its cousin, ethnicity, still define the simple matter of who gets to live or die. Whether in the global refugee crisis, the aftermath of the Paris bombings, or the quotidian ways in which people of color in the United States face the denigration of both casual and institutional racism, one thing is clear: race survives.… | more…

Clerics and Communists

Rula Jurdi Abisaab and Malek Abisaab, The Shi’ites of Lebanon: Modernism, Communism, and Hizbullah’s Islamists (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2014), 350 pages, $49.95, hardcover.

In the West today, political Islam is mostly equated with ISIS’s spectacle of violence, and with the narrow, bigoted understanding of religion and society that inspires it. It will thus intrigue many readers to discover that the legacy of Islamic intellectual and political activity, from the turn of the twentieth century until today, bore the imprint of a complex interaction between Communist and leftist traditions. A recent book by two professors at McGill University, Rula Jurdi Abisaab and Malek Abisaab, takes on the ambitious task of tracing the history of the sometimes symbiotic, sometimes confrontational relationship among Shi’i communities and clerics in Lebanon, along with occasional discussions of related issues in Iraqi politics. Based on a rich set of primary documents from both countries, the authors describe in great detail the rise and fall of the Communist experience in the region, the shortcomings of the left as it was gradually superseded by Islamic party formations, and the deep debt of the latter to the former.… | more…

Cuba’s Medical Mission

John M. Kirk, Health Care without Borders: Understanding Cuban Medical Internationalism (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2015), 376 pages, $79.95, hardback.

When the Ebola virus began to spread through western Africa in fall 2014, much of the world panicked. Soon, over 20,000 people were infected, more than 8,000 had died, and worries mounted that the death toll could reach into hundreds of thousands. The United States provided military support; other countries promised money. Cuba was the first nation to respond with what was most needed: it sent 103 nurses and 62 doctors as volunteers to Sierra Leone. With 4,000 medical staff (including 2,400 doctors) already in Africa, Cuba was prepared for the crisis before it began: there had already been nearly two dozen Cuban medical personnel in Sierra Leone.… Since many governments did not know how to respond to Ebola, Cuba trained volunteers from other nations at Havana’s Pedro Kourí Institute of Tropical Medicine. In total, Cuba taught 13,000 Africans, 66,000 Latin Americans, and 620 Caribbeans how to treat Ebola without being infected. It was the first time that many had heard of Cuba’s emergency response teams.… The Ebola experience is one of many covered in John Kirk’s new book Health Care without Borders: Understanding Cuban Medical Internationalism.… | more…

Marx the Feminist?

Heather A. Brown, Marx on Gender and the Family: A Critical Study (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), 323 pages, $28.00, paperback.
Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (Oakland: PM Press, 2012), 189 pages, $15.95, paperback.

In the face of global economic crisis and the dismantling of social programs under austerity policies, many feminists are re-engaging Marx’s critique of capitalism. This return to Marx is necessary if we are effectively to overcome gender oppression, especially since the latest trends in feminism—or at least those “fit to print” and discussed in the popular press—place the onus of equal treatment squarely on women’s shoulders. Newfound feminists like Sheryl Sandberg advise women to “lean in” and adjust their behavior to suit the aggressively entrepreneurial norms rewarded in the real world that men lead. As Nancy Fraser aptly puts it, these tendencies within feminism serve as “capitalism’s handmaiden”: such identity-centered, cultural critiques have helped obscure capital’s dependency on gendered oppressions.… Fortunately, recent scholarship by Heather Brown as well as Federici herself provides useful insights for feminists on how to reconsider Marxist theory.… | more…

Reconstructing Marx’s Critique of Political Economy from His London Notebooks

Lucia Pradella, Globalization and the Critique of Political Economy: New Insights from Marx’s Writings (London: Routledge, 2015), 218 pages, $160, hardback.

In 2012, the second section of the new historical-critical edition of Marx and Engels’s complete writings, the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA), was finally completed, and all the editions and manuscripts of Capital became available in order to trace Marx’s own theoretical development and Engels’s editorial works. The remaining three sections are, however, only halfway completed, and it will likely take at least another twenty years before all the work is finished.… What is more, a great number of them are Marx’s journal fragments and excerpts, which have not yet been published in any language. In this sense, the distinct importance of continuing the MEGA project is the further publication of these unknown notebooks, which promise to reveal Marx’s unfinished undertaking, the critique of political economy.… It is therefore no coincidence that a new trend has emerged in the last few years of scholars studying Marx’s notebooks. Works like Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the Margins, Heather Brown’s Marx on Gender, and my own article on Liebig in Monthly Review have shown the underestimated theoretical dimensions of anti-colonialism, gender, and ecology in Marx’s thought.… | more…

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.… | more…

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