History is Changing; We’re Changing History!

The proletariat from the expropriated commons of the world had an actual existence in the seafaring communities of the world’s ports, hence we call it, without anachronism, the terraqueous proletariat. (p. 98) It was the sailors of the world who manned the most expensive of machines, the deep-water sailing ship. Commerce and globalization depended on them. They mutinied and were notoriously answered with terror. (p. 104)

In The Bloody Flag: Mutiny in the Age of Atlantic Revolution (UC Press: 2020), Niklas Frykman recounts in detail the slowly expanding revolts, rooted in the French and Haitian Revolutions, that beset the French, Dutch, Swedish, Spanish, and English navies at the turn of the 19th century. The clash of European powers during the same era, pitting revolutionary and then Napoleanic France after its conquest of most of continental Europe against England, was part of the context for these epic mutinies. Not only were these the most expensive of machines during that era, but the sheer scale of the navies dwarfed anything that had come before up to that point in time.

All told, when large-scale hostilities commenced in the early 1790s, European navies were ready to send some 600 line-of-battle ships, almost as many frigates, and nearly 2000 smaller vessels into combat. Together they packed over 60,000 guns, ten times the number of moveable artillery pieces then in sue by the continent’s land armies, and required approximately 350,000 men to operate, equivalent to almost all the skilled manpower available in the North Atlantic. (p. 16)

The British, having successfully subdued the revolt in Jamaica two decades earlier, were busily crushing the incipient Irish Rebellion of the late 1790s, while engaging with the French and Dutch navies on the surrounding oceans. To maintain their huge fleet and the men needed to fight, they routinely sent press gangs into the cities and towns of England to grab able-bodied men to serve with or without their consent, but also took thousands of political prisoners from Ireland, as well as seizing sailors from merchant ships at sea. Sailors were well aware of the harsh conditions that awaited them on any ship, but especially those of the British navy.

[Rebel sailor] Larkin and his friends unleashed accusations of “slavery,” “bondage,” and “kidnapping” to amplify their critique of both coerced naval servitude and of British colonial rule in Ireland, and it was repeated onboard the Defiance, where one conspirator explained with the same telling ambiguity that their shared desire “to get free of Slavery and Confinement” united them all, Irish Catholic rebel and British Protestant seamen (p. 184)…

This was the era when Irish were brutally subjugated by the British, and in North America Irish immigrants were usually indentured servants, often referred to as “black Irish” and held in conditions very close to the slavery of the African-Americans. The racialization of oppression that was such a key aspect of British rule extended to the Navy too.

When in 1806, for instance, the British Leopard famously opened fire on the USS Chesapeake to force the surrender of four deserters, three of whom were native-born Americans, it was an inconvenient and therefore frequently unreported fact that two of them—David Martin and William Ware—were African Americans. …Likewise, in the early nineteenth century American merchant marine, a large and growing proportion of men below deck were foreign-born, and the New England whaling fleet was particularly dependent on the skill and muscle-power of foreign-born and Native American hands. Finally, in both the navy and civilian shipping, African Americans accounted for around 20 percent of most crews.

Herman Melville’s epic Moby Dick is often cited for its portrayal of a multi-racial crew with a number of indigenous American Indians, and the brutality meted out by the crazed captain in the novel was no worse than what was routinely inflicted on sailors throughout the 19th century. The presence of large numbers of black sailors combined with the brutality of “bucko” mates and captains (always white), reinforced the larger dynamics of coerced labor on the most modern technologies of the day. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that U.S. sailors gained the normal rights of working men to escape the violence and coercion that had been codified as late as an 1897 U.S. Supreme Court decision as acceptable treatment for sailors.

Peter Linebaugh once again finds the words to unite widely disparate experiences while underscoring the fundamental unity of the proletarian experience:

Looking back two hundreds years from the vantage point of 2011 it is easier to see that the proletariat was not insular or particular to England. It had suffered traumatic loss as we have seen in a few of the myriad commons of 1811 such as the Irish knowledge commons, the agrarian commons of the Nile, the open fields of England enclosed by Acts of Parliament, the Mississippi Delta commons, the Creek-Chickasaw-Cherokee commons, the llaneros and pardos of Venezuela, the Mexican comunidades de los naturales, the eloquently expressed nut-and-berry commons of the Great Lakes, the customs of the sikep villagers of Java, the subsistence commons of Welsh gardeners, the commons of the street along the urban waterfront, the lascars crammed in dark spaces from from home, and the Guyanese slaves building commons and community—and these losses were accomplished by terrifying machines—the man-of-war, the steam engine, the cotton gin—which therefore were not seen as improvement,” “development,” or “progress” but as hell itself. (Stop Thief! p. 106)

22nd and Mission on Day of the Dead…
Our local comedians!

Rushing all the way to the present, we come to yet another new book Automation and the Future of Work (Verso: 2020) by Aaron Benanav, discussing one of my favorite topics. Benanav has a particular argument to make, which is to reject the idea that automation and artificial intelligence are already or will soon be creating mass unemployment. He is quite efficient in dispatching the arguments of the technophiles, and relies on a classic look at capitalist dynamics to explain the falling demand for labor. An economy that is not generating sufficient profit does not generate enough investment to expand production, and it’s this falling output that is reducing the demand for labor… or so argues Benanav. Implied by this analysis is that there is a growth regime that could “solve” this problem by expanding output and thus expanding employment… and of course I find both goals misguided at best. We’re already working too hard, producing too much, destroying planetary ecology, etc. etc. A radical reorganization of what we do and why has to be a central part of any transformation of our condition. And with this Benanav agrees enthusiastically. He is at his best taking apart proposals for Universal Basic Income as likely to lead to a socialist future, and I think correctly recognizes that most UBI scenarios will be zero-sum games pitting capitalist against labor over scarce surpluses.

… it is much easier to imagine that a UBI would stabilize at a low level, as a support of an ever more stagnant and unequal society built around private property, than that it would serve as a planetary highway to a world of free giving. (p. 79) …Th[e basic precondition for generating a post-scarcity world] is not the free distribution of money, as the most recent wave of automation theorists have it, but rather the abolition of private property and monetary exchange in favor of planned cooperation. (p. 82) … abundance is not a technological threshold to be crossed. Instead, abundance is a social relationship, based on the principle that the means of one’s existence will never be at stake in any of one’s relationships. The steadfast security that such a principle implies is what allows all people to ask “What am I going to do with the time I am alive?” rather than “How am I going to keep living?” Some will choose to follow a single idea to its end, others to periodically reinvent themselves. (p. 89) … Unless social struggles organize themselves around this historic task, the conquest of production, they will not break through to a new synthesis of what it means to be a human being—to live in a world devoid of poverty and billionaires, of stateless refugees and detention camps, and of lives spent in drudgery, which hardly offer a moment to rest, let alone dream… (p. 99)

I certainly agree with this emphasis. But promoting this way of framing our predicament, while a good start, does little to address our isolation and inability to conceive of a way to move forward politically and socially. For most people it seems that talking about work and production as central concerns is a way to immediately end a conversation! In another book I recently read, Media Marathon (Duke University Press: 1996) by Erik Barnouw, he ends on a parallel note towards the end of his life (d. 1996) when he wonders

Is the new world being shaped by people who love gadgets, not people? How else explain these visions in which people are always made to stay home—out of the way—their attention riveted on blessings arranged and displayed for them? Is that what people want or need? Human beings thrive on social relationships, not technical linkages.

Reading Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism (Verso: 1977, 2020) was quite moving. She interviewed dozens of former Communists in the mid-1970s, usually long after they’d left the American Communist Party (the most massive exodus, including Gornick herself, was after Khrushchev’s 1956 “secret” speech to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party revealing the extent of Stalin’s brutal and psychotic rule), and in the collecting of these stories you get a composite view of what made people into true believers, which was often the powerful sense of purpose and comradely connectedness they gained in Party life. It also reveals a brittle hollowness that resulted from their years-long descent into ideological conformity, often leaving them painfully alone and confused in their later years, lacking in empathic connections. But historically, the role of the American Communist Party was an important episode, much as Communism was for the world as a whole, with its barbaric failures included, that led to the transformative kinds of anti-authoritarian radicalisms that are now so widespread. As she concludes, we needed the 19th century visionary socialists and their epic failures, which gave rise to the authoritarian power politics of the Bolsheviks and 20th century Communism, which in turn disintegrated to make way for the myriad forms of radical opposition percolating today, based in gender, sexuality, race, indigeneity, and more.

Ben Dangl’s history thesis was turned into an amazing small book The Five Hundred Year Rebellion: Indigenous Movements and the Decolonization of History in Bolivia (AK Press: 2019). I learned a lot from it, getting a much better sense of where the current politics of Bolivia came from, post-Evo Morales, but still rooted in a mobilized indigenous majority there. The most exciting discovery is the role of oral history in the development of a self-conscious movement there, starting in the early 1980s. The Andean Oral History Workshop (THOA in its Spanish acronym) gave rural and newly urbanized indigenous Bolivians a way to bridge the gap between the original anti-Spanish uprisings centuries ago, and the lost histories of indigenous resistance that continued to the present. One of the key founders of the THOA, Silvia Rivera, was an academic and activist who had all her papers and personal library stolen by the dictatorship, leaving her to realize they could steal everything but not her memory.

The THOA’s research approach helped its members, Rivera notes, to reinterpret supposedly spontaneous rebellions “as the culminating point of a process of subterranean ideological accumulation that emerges cyclically to the ‘surface’ to express the continuity and autonomy of Indian society.” (p. 124)… the THOA’s Marcelo Fernández explains, “In reality, the THOA has been structured to counter what’s unsaid in the academy, or rather, to argue that another society exists, another culture that has knowledge, that has struggles, that has its contributions.” This other culture, other society, came together around the THOA’s work and continued producing its own historical awareness and narratives about indigenous resistance. (p. 135)

In my weirdly eclectic reading, and the practice of curating the local history we collect on Foundsf.org, I get excited to come upon these kinds of analyses. Several of the books cited here were published this year, others go back five or more years, and Barnouw’s book is from 1996. But taken together, they are part of a reconfiguration of history, all examples of the iterative process of how we make history here and now. And how the range of history is growing rapidly, incorporating people and perspectives long overwritten, overlooked, and flushed from historical consciousness. As we move into the 3rd decade of this century, the ignorance that predates our time is getting harder to maintain!

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