economy, 'technology', public space, San Francisco past and present, class, books

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Old Patterns Still With Us

Long time, no blog. Might’ve called this the Winter of my Discontent, but I don’t really want to get into the details of the past few months. Housing and income dramas are underway, with no particular end in sight, while various political and social groupings left me feeling isolated and disappointed. So it goes. And I just haven’t felt like writing. Photos in this post not related to what I’m writing about, but kind of a parallel story of high tides and beautiful winter light.

Early January view north from Twin Peaks (south). San Rafael bridge visible across the edge of Angel Island.

I find myself staying up and getting up late (it was really bad during the holidaze), reading a lot, staying home instead of going out, reducing my internet time though not as much as I ought to. Never fails to amaze me how much time I can waste noodling around the internet, reading posts, news, catching up on this and that. I’m going to come back to this in a later post, but one cluster of books I read recently included Geert Lovink’s Networks Without a Cause which informed me that no one reads blogs, or if there are some readers, certainly no one comments on them (that has long been my experience—stats indicate that there are usually about 1000 visitors a month, but how many are real people? How many read anything through? And comments? Less than a dozen per year of non-spam, actual thoughtful commentaries.) I’ve always understood this blog, and my writing in general, to be in service to what I want to say. I don’t write for an audience. I appreciate it when people get something out of what I write, but I have never written FOR an audience, but for myself.

Surprising that a view like this is possible from the same spot on Twin Peaks.

Anyway, I just started teaching 19th century San Francisco history at the SF Art Institute again, and decided I needed to get better informed about the first half of the 19th century that preceded the founding of San Francisco or the acquisition of California by the U.S. Some months ago I read about Andrew Jackson and his Indian Wars against the large cultures of the southeast (Creek, Cherokee, Seminole, Chocktaw, Chickasaw), pushing them west across the Mississippi during his Presidential reign 1828-1836. Even earlier than that I read about the Comanches and the empire they anchored in the southern Great Plains from the mid-18th century to after the Civil War, a story that is left out of most histories. Due to the severe pressure of Comanche raids on Texas, Mexico liberalized immigration to the territory, leading to an influx of Americans who became the majority of the population by the early 1830s. The Texans gained their independence from Mexico in 1836 and were an independent country for about nine years before annexation to the United States in 1845. But those years of independence involved huge debts incurred to British and U.S. banks, a floundering economy, and a persistent claim by Mexico that Texas was still part of it, while at the same time the Comanches continued their dominating economic role of raiding and trading all around and in Texan territory, making economic development along capitalist or even just large agrarian lines nearly impossible.

Amy Greenberg’s excellent history “A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico” helped me grasp a lot of the missing pieces politically of the decade and a half before the beginning the city of San Francisco. Perhaps the most remarkable single item I learned was how the U.S. started the Mexican-American War. I had assumed it had to do with the gold discovery in California and that there had been some kind of pretext to allow the U.S. to attack. But I hadn’t realized that the pattern established in 1846 became the DNA of U.S. military expansionism and is still being followed to this day.

California King Tide in January led to coastal flooding, a sign of things to come!

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In the Trenches with General Intellect

I went to Mexico City over Thanksgiving to visit my wife, who is hard at work on complicated project involving a penal reform initiative there. The photos scattered through this post are from my visit, but have little to do directly with what I’m writing about.

Penny-farthing riding woman in Chapultepec Park, Mexico City.

I had lots of time to read and managed to whip through a couple of books while there, one about Andrew Jackson and his Indian Wars in the early 1800s (a grim story), and the other, Paul Mason’s remarkable and highly readable Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions (Verso 2012). Mason’s book does a great job of putting the uprisings of 2011 in a longer-term historical context, as well as helping to emphasize that they are far from over (the past week’s new uprising in Egypt served as a loud exclamation point on this larger argument!). It complements in a fascinating way another short book I read the week before I left by Franco “Bifo” Berardi called The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance (Semiotext(e) Intervention Series No. 14). In fact, at one point Mason quotes Berardi from an essay he co-wrote with long-time cyber-theoretician Geert Lovink called “A Call to the Army of Love and to the Army of Software,” labeling Berardi as the “figurehead” of “autonomism,” and crediting it as the political theory that most influenced the exploding horizontalist social uprisings of the past year.

A large demo left from near our hotel on Saturday Nov. 24, part of the International Day Protesting Violence Against Women... it was probably 2000-3000 with people from all over Mexico City's neighborhoods represented.

The Marxian concept of General Intellect has been inspiring to me for a while already. I wrote about it at length in Nowtopia, using the concept to contextualize the myriad ways people take their time and technological know-how out of market relations to begin producing a social and technological foundation for a post-capitalist life. The concept goes back to Karl Marx’s Grundrisse and “the Fragment on Machines” which has been heavily plumbed in the past couple of decades for its prescient analysis of the stage of capitalism we seem to be in now, more than a century after Marx first described it. The most commonly quoted piece of it is this: “The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it.”

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Forgetting to Remember

During the past several months I’ve been quite preoccupied with preparing for the 20th anniversary of Critical Mass, and a big part of that earlier this year was wrapping up the book “Shift Happens! Critical Mass at 20,” which is now out and available both in print and as a kindle e-book. And last June we traveled to Scandinavia and Spain too, so that also filled up my life for a while.

All that is to say that even though I’ve been away from blogging for the most part, I still think of things I want to write about, and today, finally, I’m getting back to a topic that I had been thinking about off and on during the past six months. It started when I picked up Comanche Empire by Pekka Hämäläinen, an incredible book documenting a major piece of North American history that is barely recognized or understood. After I read that I picked up The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, a breezy but well-told history of the Dust Bowl. What I realized as I started on the second book was that the stories take place separated by a little more than a half century in the exact same geographic area! Then I found a novel published by the New York Review of Books by John Williams called Butcher’s Crossing, which takes place in the years that the trade in buffalo hides peaked and collapsed in the mid-1870s, exactly when the U.S. Army was wiping out the Comanches by destroying their domestic encampments while for-profit hunters were decimating the buffalo herds on which they depended. And lastly I finally got to read my good friend Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s first volume of her autobiography, Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie, about her childhood from the late 1930s to the 1950s in a small town that is later swallowed by the greater Oklahoma City metro area.

Taken together these four books provide quite an unexpected and rarely connected history of the southern Great Plains. The territory in question extends from southern Kansas and even southeastern Colorado into New Mexico and the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, all the way to Mexico. I’d never heard of the Llano Estacado region but it figures prominently in Comanche history as well as the early histories of the Mexican provinces of Texas and New Mexico. The recent prominence of Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas?, in which he laments the late 20th century rise of red-state right-wing politics, underscores the Republic of Amnesia that cloaks the much longer and non-U.S.-centric history of the area. Roxanne’s memoir Red Dirt is so named to evoke the layered histories of the area, the red soil that predominates in Oklahoma, the “red skin” of the many tribes that were driven to “Indian Territory” by U.S. policy in the early 19th century, the strong socialist and Wobbly history in Oklahoma, the left-wing “reds” that created a pro-worker state constitution in Oklahoma and who were smashed during the “red scare” after World War I.

The dramatic untold story is that the Comanches were an aggressive, expansive, and successful empire for over 150 years, from the early 1700s to after the U.S. Civil War, but they haven’t appeared on maps, and have not been much of a factor in most of published history. (An important exception is Caleb Galloway’s magisterial work “One Vast Winter Count” which completely reconfigures the history of North America by seeing it from the point of view of many different tribes, situating them as historic actors and makers of their own history.) Until I read Comanche Empire I didn’t really appreciate how much land the Comanches controlled, in fact I didn’t really even know where they were or how they related to other well-known Indian nations like the Apaches, the Pawnees, the Cherokees, or Creeks. I never knew how much they had successfully prevented the Spanish and then the newly independent Mexicans from consolidating and controlling their northern colonial territories, and how they developed a thriving economy based on a semi-nomadic symbiosis with vast herds of buffalo while becoming expert horse breeders, combined with “raiding and trading” along their frontiers to dominate their neighbors.

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