Examined Life

Astra Taylor
Zeitgeist Films (2009)
Reviewed by Jason Del Gandio




The documentary Examined Life grounds philosophy in real world issues. Through a series of brief interviews with some of today’s most provocative thinkers, the film addresses issues of ethics, morals, citizenship, democracy, disability, sexuality, consumerism, social contract theory, revolution, and human vulnerability and interdependency. The film’s purpose is to rescue philosophy from the sterility of academia and to use it for self-improvement and social justice.

The film takes its cue from the Socratic adage, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” In other words, critical reflection enables us to expose, critique, and change hidden ideologies, dominant discourses, political masquerades, ingrained “isms,” and taken-for-granted assumptions about being human in the twenty-first century. The documentary argues, at least implicitly, that philosophy (defined as the love of wisdom) should be used to improve our individual and collective lives. The film thus points toward another Socratic question, “Are you living justly?” As the filmmaker Astra Taylor states during an interview:

You make a film about a social issue, and what you’re trying to do is shift people’s perception of reality. Philosophy is similar. You’re walking down a street, but you’re [oblivious] to the way the street is inaccessible to someone in a wheelchair, or perhaps you ignore the consequences of what buying that $300 handbag might be [instead of] giving that money to another cause. Both philosophy and filmmaking are about shifting perceptions and shedding light on things that were normally in shadows. (Hillis)

These issues are explored through a series of short dialogues with such thinkers as Cornel West, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler, and Sunaura Taylor. Each dialogue is filmed in a different moving environment—strolls down Fifth Avenue or through Tompkins Square Park in New York city, a walk through San Francisco’s Mission District, a scavenger hunt at a garbage dump, the back of a moving car, and even a row boat. For Astra Taylor, these cinematic vignettes highlight “philosophy’s connection to the space we’re in every day” and “the material conditions out of which ideas emerge” (Hillis; Lim).

This connection to everyday experience is grounded in Taylor’s background. She studied critical theory and continental philosophy at the University of Georgia and the New School for Social Research; and her previous film, “Žižek!” (2005), was a documentary about Slovenian psychoanalyst and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek. Despite her love for ideas, Taylor argues that philosophy is too often “associated with academia, with a certain professionalization . . . Most philosophers are professional philosophers . . .” and she wanted to “break philosophy out of that rarefied ivory tower space and show how compelling it can be when it’s directly connected to ordinary life” (Hillis).

I believe that Taylor successfully achieves her goal as Examined Life is both intellectually stimulating and political inspiring. The film works against and intervenes in our society’s anti-intellectualism, demonstrating that thought and theory provide backdrop for social action. For example, Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, and Herbert Marcuse were obviously big time, influential thinkers. But so too are Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Edward Said, and bell hooks. And while Emma Goldman, Abbie Hoffman, and Subcomandante Marcos are considered revolutionaries rather than philosophers, their actions are informed by theory and social analysis. Given this framework, I believe that Examined Life is a great tool for social change. It can serve as a discussion starter, educational tool, introduction to various issues, or a form of political/intellectual entertainment. Overall, Examined Life is aesthetically interesting, politically progressive, and intellectually provocative.


Works Cited

Aaron Hillis. “Astra Taylor Explains the ‘Examined Life’.” Interview, IFC.com. Published February 18, 2009. www.ifc.com/news/2009/02/interview-astra-taylor-on-exam.php

Dennis Lim. “Thinkers in transit, Philosophy in Motion.” New York Times. Published February 20, 2009. www.nytimes.com/2009/02/22/movies/22lim.html?_r=1


Aftershock: Confronting Trauma in a Violent World: A Guide for Activists and their Allies

Pattrice Jones
Lantern Books (2007)

Reviewed by Lisa Kemmerer
Reprinted with Permission from the Journal for Critical Animal Studies 




 …we are animals, and aren’t able to decide not to have feelings.  Just like the earth, we are going to quake if sufficiently shaken.  We don’t get to choose whether or not traumatic events will damage our psychic infrastructure.  Like twisted bridges, injured psyches may not be stable or safe and certainly can’t be trusted to get us where we need to go.  Aftershocked activists who are loath to look after their own feelings for fear of selfishness may need to be helped to see self-maintenance as a necessary chore rather than an act of self-indulgence. (2007: 94) 

Merriam-Webster and Cambridge Dictionaries define “aftershock” in the following ways, respectively:

1 : a minor shock following the main shock of an earthquake
2 : an aftereffect of a distressing or traumatic event (Merriam-Webster)

1: sudden movement of the Earth’s surface which often follows an earthquake and which is less violent than the first main movement (Cambridge)

In Aftershock, Pattrice Jones applies this geological term to describe “the reverberations of traumatic events endured by activists” (2007: 65).  She quotes Wickipedia to explain her use of this term: “Aftershocks are dangerous because they are usually unpredictable, can be of a large magnitude, and can collapse buildings that are damaged from the mainshock” (2007: 65).  Similarly, activist aftershock “can leave people feeling like they are in ruins” (2007: 65).

Pattrice Jones is a gay vegan social activist and psychotherapist, with all the right background to explore the psychological affects of animal and eco activism.  She notes how those who see violence entrenched in our way of life, and in our paradigms, are affected by this understanding.  Focusing on animal and earth liberationists, Jones suggests ways that activists might protect themselves against some of these psychological traumas. 

Aftershock begins with the basics: we are animals (2007: 14).  Yet our language, religions, and culture in general tend to deny this basic truth.  And this, Jones notes, is the root of “the most catastrophic problems facing our planet, as well as the most oppressive processes among people, are all related in some way to the denial of human animality” (2007: 20).  While many animal and eco activists understand human animality, and (unlike other readers) will not be surprised by this truth, it will surprise such activists to see how they have not tended to implement this understanding.  For example, activists-as-animals see the traumatic affects of gestation crates on sows and debeaking on birds, yet fail to identify similar affects of trauma in their own lives.  While our traumas are not those of the “dairy” cow, the affects of trauma can be recognized across species.  Dr. Hope Ferdowsian, for example, recorded symptoms of psychological disorders in chimps exploited for laboratory studies that matched those of traumatized humans (“Chimps”).  We are animals, and animal activists are often traumatized while fighting for the health and lives of nonhumans.

Aftershock sometimes turns to the lives of feathered citizens to explore the affects of trauma. Jones has run and worked on a chicken sanctuary for many years.  She has seen the affects of deprivation and prolonged misery on factory farmed hens stuffed in crowded in cages, unable to run after a bug, dabble in a mud puddle, or even lift their wings.  These unfortunate hens stand crowded in squalor throughout their short lives.  Consequently, those few hens who, one way or another, arrive at Jones’ chicken sanctuary, look to be on death’s door—sickly, pale, unable to walk, huddled in terror of the world around them.  Over time, she watches these traumatized birds “learn to be birds” (2007: 112).  Somehow, in spite of all that has been done to them, they retain enough hope for considerable recovery, and are soon flying from the coop with each new day, eager for the chance to chase a bug or play in a fresh mud puddle, lifting their once dormant wings. 

Yet in spite of the enthusiasm these now healthy hens show, Jones can see that these birds “are still compromised by the things that have been done to them” (2007: 112).  Among her many feathered rescues, Jones has a flock of chickens who have gone feral, who roost in trees and roam the woods around her home.  “They are truly, the happiest and healthiest birds at the sanctuary” (2007: 112), she notes.  Not one “former egg factory inmate has ever chosen to join them. . . .  [S]omething in their life history keeps them coming back to the coops rather than making the jump to the trees” (2007: 112).  While the recovery of most battery hens is remarkable, it is seldom, if ever, complete.

We are animals (2007: 193), and so Jones’ chicken observation carries across species, to humans.  She notes that many people are like these “former egg factory inmates,” carrying pain from a world that is angry and cruel, dishonest and shortsighted.  In our violent and fragmented society, many suffer similarly—especially if we are sensitive to the plight of pigs in farrowing crates, or the outlook for walruses in a land of global warming.  The magnitude of these problems, their intractable links with capitalism and consumerism, coupled with the immediate desperation of an individual hen in a battery cage, or the looming peril of global warming, can be overwhelming and seriously damaging.  For animal and earth liberationists, even when our lives are going relatively well, we see suffering on every side (2007: 113).  Humans and hens are both traumatized by the cruelty of our world, the greed and indifference of capitalism.  What traumas are most likely for those dedicated to the earth and animal liberation? 

Jones’ focuses on post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) and depression, which she describes as two common symptoms of aftershock. PTSD and depression can be debilitating if left untreated, Jones notes, and neither ought to be treated solely with medications.  (Traumatized individuals often make things significantly worse by self-medicating with alcohol or other drugs (2007: 124).)  PTSD, caused by trauma, and first diagnosed after the Vietnam War (2007: 69), is a “normal physical and emotional reaction to extraordinarily frightening or disorienting experiences” (2007: 70).  Jones’ list of symptoms for PTSD will likely be familiar to animal and eco activists: Reliving traumatic experiences, avoiding reminders of traumatic experiences, hypersensitivity manifest in various forms (such as heightened startled responses or insomnia), emotional numbness often manifest as detachment or estrangement (2007: 75-76). 

“Trauma,” Jones writes, “always involves some sort of rupture or break,” and often leaves people feeling helpless and disconnected (2007: 72).  Trauma also tends to isolate people (2007: 129).   Healing requires empowerment—doing something—and reconnection (2007: 2).  A “stable recovery” requires coming “to terms with what has happened, integrating the trauma into one’s life history and worldview, and restoring or forging connections with other people and the natural world” (2007: 83).  In particular, Jones isolates the “healing power of nature . . . .  There is no synthetic substitute” (2007: 126).   Jones suggests time in the outdoors, such as walks.  She encourages painting and dancing for those who are not ready to talk, or who are perhaps unable to discuss the traumas experienced.  She also encourages those with PTSD and depression to continue working for change.  We all need to “make sure to do some things that surely will have some impact, no matter how seemingly small” to aid against feeling helpless (2007: 133): Go vegan, rescue a hamster, or pause to move a spider from the sidewalk.  Each of these acts has a direct and sure positive affect in the world, and concurrently, a direct and sure positive affect on the activist.  Jones also highlights the importance of forging meaningful connections, and reminds readers that activism can be a particularly natural and meaningful way to forge such connections.

Jones work covers many details, but also backs up to talk about the bigger picture, the underlying cause, the hidden fault that causes the earthquakes and the aftershock.  Jones does not sideswipe issues—she gets her teeth into the whole vegan enchelada.  All forms of oppression are linked, she reminds.  Therefore, activists need to network with others from a variety of causes, and we must always remember that we are not separate from nature—we are animals. 

Our culture teaches us that we are separate and above other creatures and nature, but this falsity is the ultimate rupture behind the trauma that Jones indicates has led to PTSD in earth and animal liberationists, and to global warming itself.  All oppressions are linked by this “fault line” running underneath all of the social and environmental disruptions that plague us and the planet” (2007: 172).  Jones encourages us to root out the core falsity that is central to the thoughts and actions of the Western world: “Men have the right and the duty to transcend and subdue the earth, animals, women, children, and men of other faiths” (2007: 172).  If we do not see the core problem, the dishonesty and fracture inherent in some of our most basic paradigms, we will continue to make choices rooted in falsity. If we are to heal, we must root out these ancient and deep falsities, and connect with other movements in search of a more holistic justice (2007: 199).

Jones cautions that our mental states are unlikely to ever be entirely whole and healthy in our broken world, in communities built on lies of hierarchy and violent actions of oppression and injustice—lies that are as old as hierarchy itself (2007: 190).  Jones states clearly with regard to Aftershock: “The purpose of this book is to give you the tools and information you need” to work toward recovery from aftershock (2007: 66). 

Perhaps foremost in her recovery suggestions, Jones encourages communication, and repeatedly notes that telling one’s story is an important part of integrating painful experiences and healing.  She refers to us as “talking animals” (2007: 129), and explains that one of our most important roles as fellow activists is to “Listen, listen, listen” (2007: 135). She even offers guidelines as to how an activist might protect her or himself from prosecution if talking to a therapist, in light of today’s politically repressive society. 

On reflection, always alert for the blinkers of my gender, age group, race, and economic status, I found myself wondering: Are women and men equally “talking animals”?  Studies repeatedly show that women and girls are the most verbal human beings, excelling in the use of words, even turning to communication and friendship in times of stress, unlike men, who “holed up somewhere on their own (Berkowitz).  Truth is, I am a bit of an anomaly as a woman, not much inclined to emotive words or sharing feelings.  Meanwhile, my sister is the quintessential communicator, and will attest to the importance of communication whenever asked—and sometimes when not asked.  Consequently, I wonder about the role of communication in healing.  When my sister returns home to tell me all about a wounded frog which she found on the roadway and was not able to save—purging herself of at least a portion of the incumbent pain—I am further burdened in my silence.  Whereas I was previously free of the imagery and knowledge of a frog’s suffering, I am afterwards weighed own by the horror of the frog’s tragic end, as well as my sister’s traumatic experience. 

Is it ever appropriate to tell someone that, no matter how distressing their experience, we do not wish to hear of it?  Do communicators have some responsibility to avoid burdening other sensitive activists?  Off hand, it is difficult to envision how this concern might be integrated into Jones’ focus on the importance of communication, which will resonate with most people.         

Jones’ thought-provoking book also led me to ponder increasing violence among liberation movements.  She describes trauma as rupture, and notes that rupture tends to lead to “uncharacteristic behavior” (2007: 107).  She also notes that “Everyday life can be similarly nightmarish for those who have undone the socialization that leads us to see cadavers as ‘meat’” (2007: 90).  Once we realize that the white, dimpled flesh under the cellophane wrap was, not long ago, a youthful chicken deprived of just about every basic instinct and desire, we flinch every time we see someone toss “bloody body parts onto the check-out conveyer belt” (2007: 90).  It is not easy seeing violence for what it is when surrounded by people who do not see.  “[V]egans, unlike flesh-eaters, never stop noticing the violence inherent in meat” (2007: 149).  Animal and earth liberationists are likely to be in a constant state of trauma, and Jones notes that this trauma is caused “not by what has been done to them but by what they have seen” (2007: 93).  As somewhat helpless witnesses to daily violence against animals in supermarkets and restaurants, we are also traumatized by veal crates, gestation crates, and battery cages, not by being in them, but by seeing the flesh, the eggs, the milk that surrounds us in daily life.

Furthermore, those perpetually traumatized by violence are “normal” in our incredibly violent world.  Those who are oblivious to the blood on their plates, those who are in denial about global warming are in the majority—but they do not exemplify sanity (151).  Connecting these various ideas from Aftershock looks like this:

  • Animal and earth liberationists are constantly traumatized
  • Trauma can lead to uncharacteristic behaviors
  • Traumatized activists and their uncharacteristic behaviors are likely more healthy than those not traumatized by persistent, pervasive violence and destruction.

Even though traumatized activists are more sane than those who fail to notice the ongoing animal abuse and environmental devastation, our society does not view animal or eco activists in this light.  Consequently, it might be possible to discover in Jones’ book, Aftershock, a worthy legal defense to help activists in courts of law.  If the escalating violence of liberation movements can be demonstrated to be an “uncharacteristic response” that stems from the trauma, this might help activists avoid unjust and increasingly harsh prison sentences.

While thought provoking on many levels, Aftershock is an imminently practical book, in which Jones provides animal and eco activists with sound and much-needed advise: take care of yourselves and each other, eat well, rest well, breathe, and get plenty of exercise and outdoor time.  Of equal importance, Jones offers tips for counselors and psychotherapists who might be interested in entering this much needed treatment area.  She recommends that such professionals “make themselves more available,” since few activists can afford expensive healthcare.  She writes: “I’d like to see relevant professional associations take responsibility for organizing and publicizing networks of therapists and counselors prepared to provide free or low-cost services to activists” (2007: 150).  Jones encourages group therapy because it is cheaper, because of the importance of communication, and because this format allows one trained therapist to help a number of activists (2007: 156), keeping costs at a minimum. 

Critically, Jones recommends that therapists interested in this field of work learn something of activism, and of the issues involved, noting how touched she was when one of her therapists, instead of perceiving her as most non-activists do—as a tough and strong activist—commented on the difficult exposure that Jones faced each day, and the vulnerability that goes with such exposure. Her therapist the criticisms and abuses that animal and eco activists accept as part of their advocacy (2007: 160-161). 

Jones also warns that activists are likely to make therapists uncomfortable who are not leading a socially progressive and well-informed lifestyle.  “It is possible,” she notes, “that activist clients will directly challenge you or, without even meaning to, lead you to feel uncomfortable with your own choices.  Every vegetarian who has ever attended a family dinner at which meat is served knows that all you have to do is sit there quietly not eating meat for people to feel attacked about their own food choices” (2007: 158). 

Perhaps the most remarkable advice Jones offers therapists, is that they “encourage all of their clients to explore their lapses of empathy with the earth, other people, and—yes—other animals” (2007: 162).  While acknowledging “sacrosanct personal beliefs,” which therapists are trained not to breach, she notes that “eating an animal is something you do to somebody else’s body without her consent” and that “therapists routinely intervene, speak up, or at least ask questions when they hear that their clients are violating the bodies of people” (2007: 162).

Aftershock is well-written and well-researched, offering a fresh vision into the lives and minds of activists, into the importance of the activist community, and into the importance of dealing with the inevitable emotional strain that goes along with a life of animal and earth advocacy—or any heightened sensitivity to injustice and violence.  Jones has written a practical book in plain English, with plenty of worthy examples and bulleted lists to help readers key in on the most important symptoms or solutions. 

Jones observes, “The world is hurt, and so are you” (113), but Aftershock is a book filled with possibilities.  Social activism, she notes, “requires some measure of hope” (106).  We must be like the chickens at Jones sanctuary, who somehow fly from the coop to explore each bright new day filled with bugs and puddles as if they could not remember the battery cages.  We must find what brings us peace, what affords us a measure of happiness, and how to hold onto joyous moments even in the face of ongoing activism:

Blue skies and bright colors, birdsong and sea breezes, all of these are parts of the real world, too.  Indeed, they are more longstanding than concentration camps and highways.  Remember that, and you’ll have an easier time making peace with the less pleasant aspects of present reality.  (113)



Berkowitz, Gale. (2009)  “UCLA Study on Friendship among Women: An Alternative to Flight or Fight.”  .docstoc.  Online. Internet. June 25, 2009. http://www.docstoc.com/docs/2390512/UCLA-STUDY-ON-FRIENDSHIP-AMONG-WOMEN

Cambridge: Dictionaries Online.  (2009) Definition: Aftershock.  Online.  Internet.  June 10, 2009.  http://dictionary.cambridge.org/define.asp?key=1535&dict=CALD

“Chimps Used in Experiments Develop Psychological Disorders.” (2008) Good Medicine 17:3.  Summer 2008.  12. 

Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.  Aftershock.  Online. Internet. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/aftershock

The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Behind the Non-Profit Industrial Complex

INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (Ed.)
South End Press (2007)
Reviewed by Noel Hawke

This book review was originally published by Theory in Action, Vol. 3, No.1, January 2010 (© 2010) DOI:10.3798/tia.1937-0237.10011


The Revolution Will Not Be Funded confirms and explains the strings attached to philanthropic grants while presenting a global cross-section of modern political discontent. This book of sixteen essays edited by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence following their 2004 conference of the same name, lays out the history of the development in the U.S. of philanthropic entities whose eventual tax-favored status increased their size and influence worldwide. Revolution was published as George W. Bush’s second term was ending and the worldwide recession had begun. Progressive thinkers were reeling from years of conservative social policy, erosions in affirmative action and cultural backlash against multiculturalism.

The introduction by Andrea Smith, co-founder of INCITE!, includes a clear and concise history of the American non-profit system which provides essential context for the rest of the book. Missing from the introduction is guidance as to who besides social justice organizers and activists should read this book. Though it is not a blueprint for action, the book could benefit socially conscientious investors, workers in social service organizations, and students of political science. How strongly and clearly the writers make their case isn’t uniform, which affects the book’s impact. Readers must persist through essays less well organized, some of which imply but do not substantiate significant assumptions, and abandon the opportunity to offer guidance or issue a call to action.

Part I, titled “The Rise of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex,” begins with Dylan Rodriguez’ polemic essay connecting the racist state designed to maintain brutal inequalities with the incorporated organizations of the alleged Left, between which he sees symbiosis that supports the state’s ongoing absorption of organized dissent. His emphatic concern is that the assimilation of “the establishment Left” into a non-profit industrial complex (NPIC) enables more vicious forms of state repression. Citing two dozen books, articles and speeches, Rodriguez lays out a pattern of criminalization and repression of people of color through federal and state initiatives from the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program to the more recent California anti-gang statutes. He decries George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, despite acknowledging its “breathtaking number of left-of center grants over 20 years,” as “formulaic, naïve and conservative” because it marginalizes radical forms of dissent and exerts a disciplinary force on social movement organizations. Rodriguez does not comment on how the Open Society Foundation does this, but implies that it is by selective funding. Rodriguez lists the incentives available to the NPIC including postal privileges, tax exempt status, and quick access to philanthropic funding apparatuses. Ties of financial and political accountability keep the NPIC’s organizations tethered to the state. The state, in turn, uses clandestinity and deception to persuade people that violent enforcement are necessary to preserve a free way of life, and teaches them that consent is necessary. Further, control of social movements by neoliberal state and philanthropic organizations is accomplished by forcing upon them reactive planning due to policy changes, and stringently quantified monitoring, which compels organized dissenters to replicate the bureaucratic structures of businesses and government agencies. The murkiness of Rodriguez’ writing nearly undoes points he wants to make. He shrugs off the opportunity to present a guiding conclusion, asking instead what activists, scholars, writers and intellectuals enmeshed in the disciplinary restrictions imposed by the NPIC should do. Just before closing with five more pages of polemics on colonialism, he suggests that “We might, for a fleeting moment, conceptualize the emergence of the NPIC as an institutionalization and industrialization of a banal, liberal political dialogue that constantly disciplines us into conceding the urgent challenges of a political radicalism that fundamentally challenges the existence of the US as a white settler society.”

“In the Shadow of the Shadow State,” by Ruth Wilson Gilmore, expands our understanding of the NPIC by discussing other industrial complexes, military and prison, which have been promoted by ideologists who wish to gain or keep state power, becoming “antistate state actors.” Gilmore says these aggression agencies become so accepted that “people imagine that locking folks in cages or bombing civilians or sending generation after generation off to kill somebody else’s children is all part of human nature.” She points to the increasing shift of non-profits away from supporting people’s pursuit of full incorporation into the body politic and toward supporting people in the throes of abandonment, using “twice-stolen wealth – (a) profit, sheltered from (b) taxes.”

In a chapter reprinted from his book Black Awakening in Capitalist America, Robert L. Allen contributes a history lesson on the takeover in the late ’60s of black political momentum by the Ford Foundation. Allen describes coalitions and struggles among groups representing both black masses and the black middle class. The new liberalism endorsed black power, black separatism and black capitalism as a means of sidetracking revolution. The Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) published a radical agenda including revolution, but by 1967, CORE’s agenda had been recognized and dismissed as angry words that were not accompanied by conspiracy to commit violence. “The reformist or bourgeois nationalism…will not ease the oppression of the ordinary ghetto dweller.”

In the final essay in part I, “Democratizing American Philanthropy,” Christine Ahn quantifies the widening gap between the richest and poorest in this country. She calls piecemeal volunteering no substitute for a systematic public approach to eliminating poverty because inequality, not scarcity, is at its root. The wealthy escape a disproportionate share of taxes through creating and contributing to charitable foundations which are, in turn, allowed to distribute only 5% of their assets annually. She quotes a report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy: “It is as though philanthropy exists for its own sake, rather than for the communities it is intended to serve.” Ahn cites cases of negative outcomes of the use of philanthropic power – conservative foundations’ influence on the media, the undoing of a traditional agrarian model through its replacement by scientific farming techniques, and the prevention of shipments of free AIDS drugs to Africa due to U.S. intellectual property rights laws. Ahn concludes with a few proposals: requiring foundations to pay out more of their assets, providing closer government monitoring, and diversifying foundation boards and staff.

Eight essays in the second part of the book, “Non Profits and Global Organizing,” are the distillation of years of experience within movements for social change and organizations for social service. Writers draw on experience in both settings as they describe the nfluence on mission and methods exerted by sources of funding. Of these eight, Madonna Thunder Hawk states in “Native Organizing Before the Non-Profit Industrial Complex,” how the American Indian Movement operated without grants, accepted in-kind donations, traveled without expectations of comfort, shared resources communally, did not organize on the basis of single issues, developed links and traded support with other groups. She observes, “Once you get too structured, your whole scope changes from activism to maintaining an organization and getting paid, [and] people start seeing organizing as a career rather than as an involvement in a social movement that requires sacrifice.”

Tiffany Lethabo King and Ewuare Osayande explain in “The Filth on Philanthropy” how people of color are used to maintain the status quo by progressive philanthropists, and that philanthropy is not and never has been progressive. Amara Perez, in “Between Radical Theory and Community Praxis,” narrates how SPIRIT in Portland, Oregon, struggled with funding dependency with a resulting clarity of mission and methods.

In an upbeat, short article, “Fundraising Is Not a Dirty Word,” Stephanie Gilloud and William Cordery describe Project South, an Atlantabased organization founded for racial and economic justice which balances grassroots and foundation funding sources with fees for service and non-foundation dollars. Forty percent grassroots funding mitigates exposure to the fickleness of foundations’ grant-giving and the competitive pressure among applicants. Project South shares the cost of community events with other local groups. Building a support base committed to social justice is key to their ongoing success.

A different voice, that of Ana Durazo in “We Were Never Meant to Survive,” takes the stand that all violence toward women is political, interconnected, and an attempt to mark domination. In her work with battered women’s groups over more than a decade, Durazo calls it an act of racism to sequester concern for a particular population in one program of an organization. She also warns that treating violence against women of color as an intracultural phenomenon ignores the source, which is the racism of the state and of society. Furthermore, forcing doctors to report domestic violence exposes immigrant women to instant impoverishment and deportation. Durazo’s essay does not put forth remedies or alternatives.

Social service workers may pay special attention to “Social Service or Social Change,” by Paul Kivel. As a worker for 30 years in agencies addressing men’s role in domestic violence, Kivel questions whether such work will ever effect lasting change. He draws an economic pyramid, at the bottom of which 80% of Americans get by on 9% of the nation’s wealth while producing wealth retained by others. This 80% includes the middle and working classes, the unemployed, welfare recipients and the homeless The average annual household income of this 80% is $41,000. Of the rest of Americans, 19% of households average $94,000 annually and 1% average over $374,000 a year. Kivel says, “The role of the NPIC is to keep our attention away from those in power and to manage and control our efforts to survive in the bottom of the pyramid.” He posits the  existence of a “buffer zone” of people at the bottom who are employed in jobs which carry out the agenda of the ruling class and keep them from having to deal with those on the bottom. Kivel urges struggling for a redistribution of wealth and power, and refusing to serve as buffer-zone agents against our communities. Throughout, Kivel poses questions to raise awareness of work, roles and opportunities for change, and he closes with a call for accountability.

Closely embracing a radical vision of social change while holding onto government funding was the accomplishment of Communities Against Rape and Abuse (CARA) in Seattle. Alisa Bierria writes that CARA found ways to represent the organization to funders by creating a dual identity and by developing solidarity with other community groups who advocated for them during critical funding campaigns. Acknowledging that there are contradictions inherent in their practice, Bierria defends it as resistance and creativity which enables continuation of a program that employs, empowers and transforms the lives of people in their communities, rather than just dealing with isolated incidents of assault.

Readers unfamiliar with the personal impact of sudden landlessness and voicelessness will find insight in the essay, “The NGOization of the Palestine Liberation Movement.” Interviewing four Middle Eastern activists who work and write in the U.S., Andrea Smith provides a history of the Palestine Liberation Movement, then asks how non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have impacted it. Most Palestinians can barely find paid work except in NGOs, where donor dollars shape policy in favor of allowing Israel to control land Palestinians used to own and inhabit. International law securing the rights of refugees to return to their homeland, which was upheld in Bosnia, Kosovo and elsewhere, is being ignored in the case of Palestine. The Left movement has become stagnant there, leaving an opening for the promises of Hamas. Meetings of NGOs are closed under the excuse of concern over infiltration, which cuts off access to decision-makers and blocks dissent.

“Rethinking Non-Profits, Imagining Resistance” is the third and final part of The Revolution Will Not Be Funded. Four essays address ways to remain progressive despite the hegemony of the NPIC. “Radical Social Change: Searching for a New Foundation” by Adjoa Florencia Jones de Almeida declares the need to return to being accountable to constituents, not funders; to diffuse solidarity to all involved; to opt out of the state’s systems (as with the Zapatistas’ creation of their own schools in the peasant revolt in Chiapas, Mexico); and to avoid replicating the damaging, hierarchical behaviors of corporations and the state when crafting policy and practice in social change movements. Paula X. Rojas lays out in “Are the Cops in Our Heads and Hearts?” the spirit of inclusive responsibility and sharing (“entre todos, todo” – among everyone, everything) that permeates recent Latin American uprisings. Rojas warns against internalizing capitalist notions, and offers the contrasting Latin American model of diffused and consultative consensus-building achieved in the streets. She espouses compensating paid staff according to need only, and reminds organizers to avoid a patriarchal, hierarchical style in a confused drive for militancy. “Ultimately,” she holds, “political involvement that comes at the expense of our relationships with loved ones and the larger community is not truly liberatory.”

Eric Tang identifies in “Non-Profits and the Autonomous Grassroots” the ways in which social change has been derailed in organizations that have adopted a management style which is antithetical to the base. Board liability, limits on tactics due to terms of a grant, and coverage limits on an organization’s insurance are but a few examples of the funding ties that bind the hands of a movement which accepts the red tape that comes with foundation funds, posing as many challenges as it does solutions. Tang delivers a capsule history of changes wrought by the availability of funds from family foundations begun by “baby boomers with loot,” to fund antipoverty programs in the Kennedy-Johnson “Great Society” before being cut off by Reagan. The Left then tried “donning a suit and grabbing a seat at the table to win big.” Tang mentions a resulting burnout felt especially by women faced with the internal politics and sexism of self-identified revolutionary movements. Tang takes the example of Project South (described in the earlier essay, “Fundraising Is Not a Dirty Word”) as an organization resistant to foundation funding for its first ten years, then resistant to changing its mission or methods despite obtaining 501(c)(3) status, insistent on salary parity for all staff, and bent on publishing ideas in bold and unequivocal language which cautious nonprofits might eschew. Jerome Scott, of Project South, declared, “We made a conscious decision to keep on doing the work in the way we believe it needs to happen. If this means that we’re not following the 501(c)(3) rules, well then they can just come right over and take our status away from us.”

The final essay by Nicole Burrowes, Morgan Cousins, Paula X. Rojas and Ije Ude, “On Our Own Terms: Ten Years of Radical Community Building with Sista II Sista,” provides a summation of the book’s message in describing Sista II Sista (SIIS), the Brooklyn, N.Y. organization that combined social change with social service by providing a space in which young women of color take leadership in transforming themselves and their communities. SIIS evolved from an all-volunteer organization to an incorporated non-profit which received its first grant in 1999. They saw their constituents faced with a “braid” of oppression—racism, sexism, capitalism, ageism and more—which was complex to challenge and required creativity to cut through. They learned to offer many types of actions and activities to engage constituents in their own liberation and put into practice how communities should address violence, childcare, health care, education and other pressing issues. For ten years they accomplished community projects with the help of foundation grants, expanding their reach and their staff. After Sept. 11, 2001, however, the funding world changed. SIIS decided to stop pursuing foundation grants in favor of continuing their work against war and police brutality, which some foundations found distasteful if not downright “unfundable.” Its organizers gradually acknowledge the drain on their human resources of grant writing, administration, site visits and reports, “the rejections, the waiting, and the constant explanations of our work to people who just didn’t get it, yet greatly influenced its direction.” SIIS returned to their roots as an all-volunteer organization, operating again through grassroots fundraising and the support of those who believe in their work. Slower, smaller, still extremely busy, SIIS with its core organizers and volunteers credits this conscious return to the grassroots with the deeper satisfaction they feel once more. Leaders continue to emerge from their programs. They continue to enjoy occasional support from a few program officers with foundations, but spend fewer days on the chase for dollars and devote more time to the mission of social change.

With volunteerism being supported by the Obama administration’s agenda, and foundations’ loss of endowment value in chaotic global markets, the insights and counsel contained in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded can help a new generation of activists stay true to their missions and decide carefully before seeking funding which can undermine them.

The Political Economy of Media: Enduring Issues, Emerging Dilemmas

Robert W. McChesney
Monthly Review Press (2008)

Reviewed by David Weiss

This book review was originally published by Theory in Action, Vol. 3, No.1, January 2010 (© 2010) DOI:10.3798/tia.1937-0237.10013


“There is an opportunity before us to reinvigorate journalism and, with that, democratic governance in the United States. But we need to correctly understand the source of the problem to prescribe the solutions… [W]ithout viable journalism we not only make democracy unthinkable, we open the door to a tyranny beyond most of our imaginations. I argue herein that the political economy of media is uniquely positioned to provide the insights necessary for constructive action.”
Robert McChesney, The Political Economy of Media, 118.

Robert McChesney opens his 589-page tome by acknowledging that “whereas some readers may devour the book from beginning to end…many readers will be as likely to read only a handful of chapters, or read the chapters out of order” (8). For better or worse, and despite having separately read and taught sections of this book, I chose to read The Political Economy of Media (henceforth, TPEOM) from front to back.

Doing so revealed the book’s flaws as a collection (as I detail below), yet also its strengths—or, more accurately, the strengths of its author’s ideas, the depth of his copious research, his profound and broad knowledge of media and economic history and theory, his personal and professional devotion to education in all the best senses of that word, and his commitment to bringing the fruits of his academic labor to bear on the process of social, political, and policy change. For Robert McChesney is not merely a brilliant scholar and perhaps the foremost political economist of media of our time; he is a passionate advocate and tireless activist for media reform, embodying personally the claim he makes (repeatedly) throughout TPEOM about the study and critical analysis of political economy being inextricably linked to political and social action and reform. In McChesney’s words, “the political economy of media has always been about the task of enhancing participatory democracy; media and communication systems are a means to an end, with the end being social justice and human happiness . . . It is only in the context of people coming together to struggle for social change that depoliticization is vanquished and victory becomes plausible, even inevitable” (151, 153).

McChesney, an endowed professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is also host of a weekly radio show, Media Matters; the co-founder of Free Press, a leading media-reform organization; and a fixture on the public radio and live lecture circuits, where he speaks regularly about media, journalism, and politics—and most recently, about net neutrality, an issue for which he is a tireless advocate. His writing frequently informs speeches and position papers on issues of media reform and regulation delivered by U.S. senators and representatives. Fittingly, TPEOM reflects, even exemplifies, McChesney’s approach to media political economy as a field of study that inevitablyimbricates theory and political and social action.

As McChesney explains in the introduction to TPEOM (and elsewhere, many times, in only slightly varying ways), political economy of media is

a field that endeavors to connect how media and communication systems are shaped by ownership, market structures, commercial support, technologies, labor practices, and government policies. The political economy of media then links the media and communication systems to how both economic and political systems work, and social power is exercised, in society. (12)

However, while many scholars who categorize themselves as political economists of media limit their work to merely the (critical) study of those issues, McChesney sees—and enacts—the direct connection between his scholarly specialty and direct political action. Indeed, his definition of political economy of media does not stop with theoretical concerns and questions, but, rather, only begins there:

The central question for media political economists is whether, on balance, the media system serves to promote or undermine democratic institutions and practices. Are media a force for social justice or for oligarchy? And equipped with that knowledge, what are the options for citizens to address the situation? Ultimately, the political economy of media is a critical exercise, committed to enhancing democracy.

Given this “mission statement” at the center of a discipline that, in other scholars’ hands, is purely an academic pursuit, it should be no surprise that TPEOM serves as both a virtual encyclopedia of the theory of political economy and also a call for, and practical guide to, taking direct action.

TPEOM consists of twenty-three chapters, most of which were published as either book chapters or journal articles between 1984 and 2008, usually in somewhat different form, and often as co-authored pieces with other activist-scholars in the fields of political economy, media reform, and/or journalism. As McChesney warns in his book’s preface, TPEOM “brings together what I regard as the best elements of much of my research in the political economy of media over the past two decades. It is not meant to be representative.” This non-representative “bringing together” approach captures what is both praiseworthy and problematic about TPEOM, an excessively large even if not strictly exhaustive assortment of the author’s writings between 1984 and 2008. For, despite McChesney’s grossly understated claim that he “edited out as much repetition as possible, because I tend to return to a number of familiar themes in my articles” (8), the degree of repetition—and, in too many cases, overt recycling of content—in the book is, in fact, rather mind-numbing.

Repetition notwithstanding, the quantity and importance of the topics covered in TPEOM, and the consistent, direct application of theory to practice in the coverage of those topics, is impressive. The book’s contents span articles and chapters about the current, sorry state of journalism both domestic and global; the history of the development of the broadcast media system in the United States (and its tragic hijacking by corporate interests); explorations of the inevitably insidious intertwining of corporate, political, and media power; ruminations about the role the Internet might or might not play in the democratization of media control and content; critical analyses of media reform movements around the world (and comparisons to the virtual non-existence of such movements in the U.S.); systematic deconstructions of neoliberalism and, in particular, the neoliberalist claim that the only truly “American” media system is an unregulated “free-market” system (despite the fact that, as Mc-Chesney repeatedly demonstrates, U.S. media systems have always and only been beneficiaries of government policies granting media owners not only massive subsidies but also near-monopoly licenses); and comparisons between Left/labor movements in the U.S. and abroad—among many, many other topics.

Of particular relevance to readers of Theory In Action, McChesney consistently and expressly links virtually every historical fact, theoretical explication, philosophical argument, critical analysis, and statistical data point to a call for action (including, in many cases, specific directions to follow in the process of building or revising a platform for change)— even in those sections of his book not ostensibly devoted to the cause of reform. What inevitably results, though, is a reading experience that is useful but redundant, despite McChesney’s intention to segment his volume into different areas of focus.

The first of three large sections, entitled “Journalism,” has as its stated purpose the presentation of “research that is to assist us as we attempt to establish a media system that we can rationally expect to generate the journalism we need to engage in self-government” (23). Specific topics critically addressed in the section’s five chapters include the gutting of newsroom staffs (and the inevitable result: shoddy journalism) in the pursuit of corporate profits; the “exhuming” of the century-old tradition of radical media criticism in the United States, touching on the work of everyone from Upton Sinclair to Noam Chomsky; the failure of the American press to challenge the Bush White House’s claims and rationalizations during the 2002-2003 run-up to the Iraq War; and the media policies and subsidies historically and currently in place that encourage the maintenance of the status quo. This section of the book is most successful as a cohesive, thematically unified collection of essays. Still, given the repetition of what McChesney calls his “familiar themes”—most important, the critique of contemporary journalism’s failure to serve as a “rigorous watchdog of those in power and who want to be in power,” to “ferret out truth from lies,” and to “present a wide range of informed positions on the important issues of the day” (25 and elsewhere), it is not necessary that an interested reader tackle all five of its chapters, nor that she read them in order.

“Critical Studies” is the name of section II. As this amorphous title suggests, the issues covered in this nine-chapter section are rather diverse—everything from the history of public broadcasting and a warning about the dangers of advertising and hyper-commercialism, to a detailed statistical exegesis of the “new” digital economy, a critique of the globalization of media corporations and content, and a survey of the centuries old interrelationships between the worlds of media and professional sports. It is not always clear why some Section II essays were placed where they were—or, in some cases, included in the book at all. Chapters six and seven, for example, both explore the struggle between commercial forces and educational/social reformers for control of radio in the 1920s and ‘30s; in doing so, they tackle many of the issues addressed in Section I (“Journalism”) and would have therefore been just as effective there. More problematically, the two chapters cover nearly the same ground, actually including identical sentences and some nearly identical paragraphs. (The chapters’ titles alone should have raised a red flag for McChesney’s editors: “The Battle for the U.S. Airwaves, 1928-1935” and “The Payne Fund and Radio Broadcasting, 1928-1935.”) Surely a more forceful editorial team might have succeeded in convincing McChesney to leave one of these chapters out of TPEOM—or, failing that, in merging the contents of the two into one non-redundant essay that would still “provide a tradition to draw from as we face important questions of the relationship of communication to democracy” (212). Chapter eight (“Media Made Sport: A History of Sports Coverage in the United States”), while interesting reading, might also have been omitted from TPEOM, as it—uncharacteristically for a McChesney essay—offers little or nothing in the way of recommendations for leveraging its historical content into pragmatic guidelines for reform. Still, the middle section of the book provides evidence that the pressing concerns of McChesney’s activist political economy of media reach well beyond the confines of journalism, extending into nearly all aspects of popular culture and entertainment, government policy, and First Amendment law.

The final section of the book is “Politics and Media Reform.” A reader scanning only the table of contents of TPEOM might assume that it is only (or primarily) here that she would encounter proposals for effecting meaningful change in the service of participatory democracy. But she would be wrong. Indeed, by the time the reader reaches this third section, she will have already encountered McChesney’s prescriptions for change (policy reforms to strengthen or enforce journalism education, media literacy progams, student media, the public broadcasting system, net neutrality, enforcement of antitrust laws, community broadcasting, and a host of others) and, in most cases, steps that must be taken by Left, labor, and other social change-minded factions to move these media policy issues to the center of their broader reform agendas. Still, in Section III, she will encounter a few new topics, such as a particularly insightful explanation for the dearth of debate in U.S. political culture about the legitimacy of corporate media, a fascinating account of the (sadly) anomalous 2003 citizen uprising against the Federal Communications Commission in the wake of that agency’s attempt to further loosen media ownership regulations, and a stunning criticism of the Left’s failure both to use the media effectively and to recognize media reform as central to its broader mission of social change. (“The Left can use media as an educational tool to explain the flaws in the existing social order and to present its vision of what a more democratic society would look like [and] can also use media reform as an issue that unites its disparate elements” (388)). Of course, if the reader is smarter than I was, and approaches TPEOM in a piecemeal fashion rather than reading it in its entirety from front to back, she will find in just about any Section III chapter the same useful blend of history, theory, critique, and call to action (and variations on McChesney’s favorite “familiar themes”) that can be found in just about any section I or section II chapter—again, for better or worse.

The advantage of the repetition (or, depending upon your perspective, the consistency) of the contents of TPEOM is that its facts are important, its arguments persuasive, its connections insightful, and its recommended actions appropriate and necessary—meaning that a reader who decides to peruse even just one chapter of TPEOM is more than likely to encounter something both convincing and useful, usually an essay that combines fascinating (and often surprising) historical background about the development of media systems and their intricate relationships to government and society; insights from political economic theoreticians and other critical scholars of the media, including but by no means limited to

McChesney himself; a practical rationale for being aware of said history and theory; and, finally, recommendations for specific actions that can and must be taken to raise public awareness, challenge and change current media systems, and agitate for reform of government media policies. Indeed, McChesney’s defense of his predilection to repeatedly explore past movements, struggles, defeats, and occasional victories can be applied to the project he urges into action by the publication of his own book: “Studying the structural press criticism across numerous eras [and societies] amounts to locating the indisputable common denominators of the current crisis. It is a tool for greater understanding, stronger critique, and a robust movement for that elusive goal: change” (82).

 1 David Weiss is Assistant Professor of media studies at Montana State University-Billings. His research encompasses critical approaches to mediated and other public discourse, particularly debates over identity and representation; political communication; religious rhetoric in the public sphere; and governmental/legal language. He is currently editing a book about religious discourse in Democratic Party politics and co-editing a collection of essays about the rhetoric of American exceptionalism. Address correspondence to: David Weiss; e-mail: dweiss@msubillings.edu.

Becoming the Media: A Critical History of Clamor Magazine

Jen Angel
PM Press (2008)
Reviewed by Sarat Colling




Becoming the Media provides an in-depth analysis of the intersectional radical and left wing publication Clamor, which emerged with the Independent Media Centre movement after the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle and was a staple read for do-it-yourself revolutionaries during its seven year run. In this concisely written case study, Clamor co-founder Jen Angel shares the inner workings of the award winning, nationally distributed magazine. She offers useful suggestions and analysis for media projects, the evolving publication landscape, and the importance of understanding how media functions within social movements for social movements. 

As a form of participatory movement media, Clamor created space for social activists to reflect and served to support political and cultural writers, artists, and projects. Jen Angel and Jason Kucsma started Clamor on an iMac in their spare room, envisioning a “hip, young magazine that would speak to the Progressives and radicals…and that would attract new people to social justice work and ideas.” With roots in zine culture and an openness to publish many new and diverse voices, Clamor had a fresh and vibrant outlook. It covered a wide range of interests from environmentalism and feminism to hip-hop and punk culture.

In the pamphlet, Angel analyses the challenges and successes of running the magazine, touching on issues of diversity, decision-making, community, sustainability, finance, successfully “branding” a magazine, working groups and more.

She looks at the current state of the North American independent media movement, and discusses the need for a radical restructuring that moves towards “collaboration, shared resources, and joint publishing efforts.”  While facing challenges in a capitalist driven society, the movement must make an effort to work together and examine what voids need to be filled. One such gap is mapping the movement’s history: as Angel notes, “Many organizations and movements are poor historians.” This recording can enable lessons to be learned from past successes and mistakes. Another is the need for a new widely distributed intersectional, cultural and political magazine that functions as a space to discuss strategy and reflect on the anti-capitalist and alter-globalization movement.

Another important issue addressed is the relevance of print publication, especially magazines, in the digital age. Along with referencing, sharing and archiving, Angel identifies accessibility as a significant component of print: “Until there is free wireless everywhere and everyone has a laptop, tangible objects you can take on a bus, into the woods, and on an airplane will remain relevant.” While there are exciting new possibilities to be utilized with digital communication, print is still highly relevant. As with books, magazines will continue to play an important role in disseminating information and organizing.

With careful critical analysis of the life of Clamor, this unique pamphlet exemplifies the self examination necessary for movement growth. It provides an insiders perspective on role of media within social movements and useful tips on accomplishing successful grassroots projects. Further, it brings to light the need for continued dialogue on how independent media can grow in a capitalist society: exploring which new forms of media and collaborative efforts have a role to play in the movement for social change.

Becoming the Media is part of the PM Press Pamphlet Series. A solid contribution to independent media history, it will benefit anyone interested in movement analysis or working on a grassroots media or organizational project.

Critical Pedagogy, Ecoliteracy & Planetary Crisis

Richard Kahn
Peter Lang Publishing (2010)
Reviewed by Godfrey Mnubi




As globalization penetrates the hearts and souls of many lives and as transnational capitalist interests work beyond the sovereignty of many states to weaken both socioeconomic and environmental regulations, accelerating people’s impoverishment along with ecological catastrophe as a result, the world needs revised thinking and action. Richard Kahn offers a new paradigm for understanding and teaching against global corporatism’s foundational role in the current planetary crisis.

In Critical Pedagogy, Ecoliteracy & Planetary Crisis, Kahn describes some of the root causes and possible solutions for the socioeconomic and ecological disasters the planet is facing in great detail. Particularly, he examines the interconnectedness of planetary, nonhuman species, and human activities that have created ecological tension, as well as socioeconomic and political instability due to unsustainable economic exploitation of nature and unsound cultural practices that have a negative social impact overall.

Kahn warns planetary communities against the increased overuse and extraction of nature as a resource and the dangerous increase in carbon emissions largely responsible for global warming. He further chronicles the increased global desertification occurring as a result of agricultural practices, such as the planet has not seen during the last 150 years combined (p.2). Moreover, Kahn speaks to unsustainable fishing practices that have contributed to great losses of global mangroves, reducing them to approximately 35 percent during the second half of the twentieth century. These astonishing figures of grave natural exploitation and the extinction of life that corresponds with it fill page after page of the book’s opening salvo.

Yet, building an ecopedagogy upon great educational theories from people such as Ivan Illich, Paulo Freire, and Herbert Marcuse, Kahn challenges hegemonic thinking and demonstrates the missing link between global capitalism and the planet in peril. Further, he critically examines the dialectical link between our mainstream lifestyles and the dominant social structure, showing how this applies to education and its role in fomenting additional ecocrisis. In reply, he argues that we need a “more radical and more complex form of ecoliteracy than is presently possessed by the population at large” (p. 6). This requires a critical examination of cosmological, technological and scientific transformations as they apply to broad social illiteracies as regards the media, politics, and the potentials in play for a sustainable society.

In his own words, Kahn emphasizes that “the major goal for ecopedagogy must involve people in large scale resistance movements to actively transform mainstream understandings, policies, and practices of techno literacy through the politicization of the hegemonic norms that currently pervade social terrains” (p.63). This requires citizens to formulate ways to create and use technologies to realize a critical oppositional ecopedagogy that serves the interests of the oppressed, as they aim at the democratic and sustainable reconstruction of technology, education, and society itself (p. 79).

Kahn also urges educators to confront unsustainable ecological exploitation and corporate interests that work against the moral health of an emerging planetary community. This requires commitment and courage. Thus, he ends his book with a courageous citizenship parable of Judi Bari, the “ecofeminist, social justice leader and social change revolutionalist” who worked tirelessly on campuses and in grassroots communities to encourage sustainable political and socioeconomic involvement on the part of people. As he relates, even after Bari was car-bombed in 1990, which left her with a shattered pelvis and shrapnel in her body such that she lived out the rest of her life in severe pain, and even in the midst of great harassment and humiliation she encountered from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and police force, Judi Bari never gave up the fight she believed in.

As I read this book and relate it to the political and socioeconomic structures of developing countries in Africa, I see the relevance of the ecopedagogy’s paradigm. There, many political and socioeconomic conflicts are a result of the over-exploitation of nature, which is the foundation of survival in most of our African societies. Joining in this battle to save the planet will ultimately enhance the quality of life of many Africa states and build peace and stability for present and future generations.

In terms of understanding the challenges posed by the current ecological devastation and planetary crisis to sustainability, this is an important book that one should read. Whether you are a student, educator, social activist, or policy maker, this book will wake you up from your deep sleep and spark you to learn more and begin educating others on these issues in order to achieve change.

Direct Action: An Ethnography

David Graeber
AK Press (2009)

Reviewed by Jeffrey Panettiere




To many anarchists, the idea of an “ethnographic study of the global justice movement” may seem problematic. Whether it be matters of security culture or the question of an outsider coming into a culture and telling the rest of the world about them, people I’ve talked to, without knowing Graeber’s work, often seemed skeptical. In Direct Action: an Ethnography, however, David Graeber blurs the false dichotomy between theory and practice by writing both as a sincere participant in the global justice movement as well as an observer and theorist of it during the protests against the FTAA’s 3rd Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, 2001.

A furtherance of this theme, his book is not only intellectually stimulating and compelling, but activists get a lot of practical material from it too. His detailed reconstructions of consensus-based meetings, meeting structures, street actions, mini histories, revealing conversations and police tactics are of tremendous use to activists who wish to reassess and better their democratic processes, as well as their tactics for direct actions. Describing the platform of egalitarian decision making processes as a springboard for developing anarchist theory, he highlights the “theory-derived-from-practice” theme that anarchists have always had affinity with and the complications of organizing with undemocratic, hierarchically organized groups.

Having participated in similar actions and meetings, many of the issues of privilege, acceptable tactics and police repression ring true to my, and many other’s experiences during large direct action demonstrations against “Globalization” summits, and during the meetings up to and following them. Seeing how, in great detail and context, one particular action unfolds is something that activists would do well to pay attention to, especially because nothing as extensive and specific to one action, to my knowledge, exists. The entirety of the book, however, is not just about one particular action; it is the very idea of direct action, so central to anarchist practice, that is at the center of this study.

Whether it is the hostilities between primitivists, class-struggle anarchists and “small-a” anarchists, the revolutionary implications of blocking a street and throwing a party, or a history of radical community spaces and direct action in new york city, much insider information about this movement gives light to aspects many of its participants may not even be fully aware of.

Although it is touched upon briefly, what could be useful would be a history of direct action that theorizes the transition from direct action and sabotage as tools used by working people (working class, in the narrow sense) to tools used by generally college-educated middle class activists. Graeber does discuss the possibility that actions like the one detailed in this book might not even be classical definitions of direct action. An interesting, and much needed discussion, however, is a refutation of the idea that participants in the global justice movement are mostly angry, privileged white kids with too much time on their hands.

Graber suggests that revolutionary movements have always taken place at the intersection between upward and downward class and social mobility- as alliances form, both physical (in terms of resources, funding) and theoretical (dissemination, ideas, art) between artists, writers, theorists, and workers.

This case study, as much as the actions he describes, itself has radical implications- that one can be both an ethnographer and a participant who is not a faceless, subjective figure. Graeber has found a crucial intersection between radical politics and scholarship where neither are sacrificed for the sake of the other.

For further reading:

The Battle of the Story of the “Battle of Seattle” by David Solnit (Editor), and Rebecca Solnit (Editor). AK Press

Direct Action & Sabotage: Three Classic IWW Pamphlets from the 1910’s. By Elizabeth Gurly Flynn, Walker C. Smith, & William E. Trautman. Charles H. Kerr labor classics

The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Social Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life by George Katsiaficas. AK Press

Fragments Of An Anarchist Anthropology by David Graeber. Prickly Paradigm Press

Bottlemania: Big Business, Local Springs, and the Battle Over America’s Drinking Water

Bloomsbury (2009)
Elizabeth Royte

Reviewed by Joseph Nevins




In mid-January, I received a mass email asking me to donate $10 for bottled water and other supplies for participants in an important immigrant rights march in Phoenix. Given the ever-repressive and cruel political climate in Arizona for immigrants (especially unauthorized ones), I was unequivocally in support of the mobilization. Nonetheless I was taken aback by a request to contribute even nominally to an effort to buy bottles of water for what turned out to be, according to some estimates, more than 20,000 people.

Certainly there are other ways—ecologically sustainable and less expensive ones—to provide water for such a multitude. How, why, and to what effects bottled water became the preferred way to do so for myriad people and places far beyond a single event in Phoenix is the focus of Elizabeth Royte’s powerful and compelling book, Bottlemania.

I’ve never been a fan of bottled water, considering it ecologically damaging—in the United States alone 30-40 million single-serve bottles per day end up as litter or in landfills—and economically foolhardy, another capitalistic trick to con us into purchasing  something from profiteers that we don’t shouldn’t have to. But as Royte powerfully illustrates, the increasing commodification of drinking water is far more complex, and dangerous, than at least I appreciated.

Until recently, the sale of single-serve bottles of water was rare. While the United States had regional bottled water companies as early as the nineteenth century, such entities mainly supplied homes and offices with large containers of the life-sustaining liquid (for water coolers, for instance). This situation began to change in the 1980s with the entry of Perrier into the U.S. market and its successful television advertising which stressed that a little luxury—a bottle of the French water—was available to everyone.

Other companies, like Evian and Vittel, followed, employing the likes of Madonna and fashion models, to help equate bottled water with personal health, fitness, and glamour. That, combined with the invention of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic—which made water easily portable—helped the U.S. bottled-water industry boom: between 1990 and 1997 its annual sales increased from $115 million to $4 billion. (By 2006, the figure was $10.8 billion; globally bottled water’s income was $60 billion.)

This dramatic increase is the outgrowth of “one of the greatest marketing coups of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries,” asserts Royte. What makes it all the more extraordinary is that in the vast majority of cases “tap water meets or exceeds federal health and safety standards, regularly wins in blind taste tests against name-brand waters, and costs 240 to 10,000 times less than bottled water.” Part of the reason it has succeeded, contends Royte, is “that bottled water plays into our ever-growing laziness and impatience.”

This corporate-driven success contributes to the demise of water as a public good. Take the increasingly rare public drinking fountain, for instance: Royte tells of visiting a Midwestern college where there is no drinking-water fountain in its gym.

Bottled water’s rise has changed behaviors even among those whom you might expect would have an alternative consciousness. While I was reading Royte’s book, I accompanied a group of students from my institution on a visit to a geography department at a university elsewhere in New York State, a department with a strong focus on issues of environmental sustainability. At the luncheon, the department offered bottled water as one of the beverage options.

The profound change in how so many of us consume water has consequences far beyond what we imbibe. Among other things, it increases our consumption of oil—and all its attendant detrimental impacts: Royte reports that it takes 17 million barrels of oil each year to make water bottles for the U.S. market alone—enough to fuel 1.3 million cars for a year. Meanwhile, according to one estimate, a quarter of a water bottle’s worth of oil is required to produce each bottle, transport and depose of it.

Royte focuses much of her energy on Poland Springs—the Nestlé-owned company that is the largest U.S. producer of bottled spring water—and the struggles and controversies surrounding its activities in and around Fryeburg, Maine, where it is based. However, her important and compelling book is much more than an examination of the bottled water industry.  It is first and foremost about the health and viability of drinking water and thus human society as a whole. As Royte points out, “We can live without oil, but we can’t live without water.”

Already for all-too-many across the planet, access to safe drinking water is far from assured. As Royte informs the reader, “only 3 percent [of the earth’s water supply] is fresh, and of that fraction only a third is available for human use,” with the rest stored in glaciers and the like.

Not surprisingly that fraction is not equitably distributed based on needs. As such, more than a billion people do not have sufficient access to potable water. And according to U.N. projections, increased demand and water pollution, combined with climate-change-induced drought and reduced recharge of groundwater supplies will lead to two of every three of the planet’s denizens lacking sufficient access by 2025. “Those two out of three won’t just be thirsty;” writes Royte. “[A]lready some 5.1 million people a year die from waterborne diseases, many of which stem from lack of sanitation and its resulting water pollution. That number is going to spike.”

Among the major culprits of water pollution is industrial agriculture with its heavy reliance on synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and insecticides, the runoff from which ends up in the water supply. Atrazine, for example, an herbicide that has been shown to cause birth defects, reproductive disorders, and cancer in lab animals, has contaminated, according to Royte, drinking water sources “in nearly every major Midwestern city, and well water and groundwater in states where the compound isn’t even used.”

The pernicious irony of the degradation of the water commons is that it helps to undermine trust in public water supplies and facilitate their neglect, thus driving more people—especially the relatively wheel-heeled who can afford it—to embrace the bottled water option. In 2001, La’o Hamutuk, a non-governmental organization in East Timor, for example, calculated that the United Nations mission in charge of governing the territory was spending more than $10,000 per day (almost $4 million annually) on bottled water. (And this was the figure just for the international peacekeeping troops present in the country—to say nothing of the water purchased for the non-military U.N. personnel.) According to various estimates, it would have cost $2-10 million at the time to rehabilitate the entire water purification and delivery system of Dili, the now-independent country’s capital, and provide potable water to nearly all of the city’s more than 100,000 residents.

Royte would see such behavior as part of an “insidious trend,” one in which it has become “normal to pay high prices for things that used to cost little, or nothing”—or to go the route of the private rather than the public. But ultimately, preserving or improving public water supplies is the option we must collectively pursue as “too many people can afford to drink nothing but.” Otherwise, Royte warns, we run the risk of a world in which there is “a two-tiered system—bottled for the rich, bilge for the poor.”

Given the ubiquity of bottled water, it might seem like it doesn’t matter if the organizers of one mass demonstration, a single geography department, or a particular U.N. mission choose bottled water, rather than embracing public water options that were the unquestioned norm in the very recent past. But these individual decisions add up and, as such, have a profound impact on people’s livelihoods and the environment. Given the necessity of water for life, do we really have a choice as to what we should do?



Joseph Nevins teaches geography at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. His latest book is “Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid” (City Lights Books).

Colectivo Solidario, El anarcosindicalismo español. Una historia en imagenes

Confederación Sindical Solidaridad Obrera (2007)
Reveiwed by Chris Ealham, Lancaster University
Reprinted with Permission from Anarchist Studies Journal




Marking the centenary of Solidaridad Obrera (‘Workers’ Solidarity’), Spain’s most important anarcho-syndicalist newspaper, this extensive graphic history of the Spanish libertarian tradition is one of the most recent books published by the Confederación Sindical Solidaridad Obrera. In keeping with their previous publications, this volume is reasonably priced; as a pictorial history, it is lavishly illustrated, consisting of some 1,200 images, essentially photos, engravings, paintings, drawings, trade union stamps, magazine covers, newspaper headings, through which over 150 years of working-class struggle are narrated. It concludes with an appraisal of the anarcho-syndicalist movement in Spain today. Inevitably, the text generally plays a secondary role, largely introducing and contextualizing images; further context is provided by a useful introductory chronology preceding each chapter and section.

The story begins with the struggle to organise in Spain in 1835 and the intense repression that followed. The unrelenting readiness of the state and its lackeys to use all possible means to repress any challenge from below – whether real, potential or imagined – is a constant feature of this history. It is striking that the garrotte vil, the agonisingly protracted method of strangulation first used to execute a trade unionist in 1856, was still being used in the mid-1970s, when the young Catalan anarchist Salvador Puig Antich was executed. Equal attention is given to repeated attempts at criminalizing the libertarian movement, from the Mano Negra frame-up, which resulted in 300 jailings and 8 executions in the 1880s, up to the Scala Affair of the late 1970s, when a police agent provocateur organised a petrol bombing – which tragically resulted in the deaths of 4 CNT activists – in an attempt to discredit the anarchist movement. The sight of troops on the streets during strikes is a recurring one, a reminder of how the army was frequently deployed as a tool of internal repression within a militarised system of industrial relations.

Yet official attempts to raise the cost of protest proved futile, essentially due to the sacrifices of thousands of anonymous, largely unknown activists who sustained the movement through their sacrifices, often giving up their freedom, even their lives; inevitably, only a fraction of these militants are seen here. From the images that provide a glimpse of social and working conditions, it is easy to see how the CNT became so deeply rooted within Spanish working-class society and resistant to state repression. Even before anarchist culture flourished in Spain, we see evidence here of popular traditions of direct action street protest and armed uprisings, rebellious acts that provided fertile ground for anti-state, anti-authoritarian ideology. The CNT’s resistance dovetailed with these traditions, and while driven underground soon after its birth, it surfaced during World War One on a wave of militancy, becoming the lodestar of the dispossessed, with a membership of over 700,000. By the 1930s, the union had come to organise over a million workers.

Inevitably, the approach here is essentially chronological, covering all the key moments and periods, while giving special attention to the Second Republic and the revolution, which saw the highest and lowest points in the history of the CNT and anarcho-syndicalism, the legendary short summer of liberation, the crisis opened up by wartime governmental collaboration, and then the long winter of Francoism. Considerable attention is given to what has been dubbed the ‘constructive work’ of the Spanish revolution – the achievements of collectivisation on the land and in factories – in what was western Europe’s most far-reaching and extensive exercise in workers’ self-management. We then see how members of the movement entered government: “with that abandonment of anarchist principles and of the lessons of more than 75 years of working class struggles the grave of the revolution was prepared”, initiating a process from which the Spanish anarchist movement would never fully recover (p. 236).

Chronological chapters are interspersed with themed sections in which the movements’ multi-faceted identifying marks are explored. Among the myriad cultural practices covered are radical education, vegetarianism, organised hikes, nudism, feminism, free love and sexual liberation, the promotion of Esperanto, all of which gave rise to a new sociability and way of being and fighting. What emerges is a clear sense of the deep moral and ethical thrust that made this movement so unique within the corrupt society in which it was formed. Several other observations can be made about the movement from this history. There is a discernible absence of great theoreticians: not a single Spaniard ranked among the intellectual elite of the international anarchist movement. It is similarly remarkable to see the monster rallies organised by the CNT immediately after the demise of the Franco dictatorship. Another outstanding attribute was the profound solidarity underpinning strikes, perhaps most vividly reflected in the way strikers’ children were periodically taken in by trade unionists from other areas during protracted industrial disputes.

At a time when growing numbers of people in Spain are concerned with historical memory, this book is a timely and extensive contribution to the recuperation of anarchist memory. It is also a reminder of the contemporary struggles relating to the past. While the current socialist administration in Spain pays lip service to righting the accumulated injustices from the Franco dictatorship, its approach is highly selective and partial, much the same as that of its conservative and centre-right predecessors. The CNT, which possessed a vast network of buildings and printing presses in the 1930s, has never been compensated for the assets that were seized during the Spanish civil war and subsequent dictatorship. The same is also true of Barcelona’s Ateneu Enciclopèdic Popular (AEP), a people’s athenaeum that served as a form of popular University for many workers and left-wingers prior to the civil war. Some of the AEP’s property is currently in the possession of the Generalitat, the Catalan autonomous government. Publicly, the Generalitat is keen to emphasise the repression of Catalan rights during the Francoist years and honour the victims of state terror. Nevertheless, the democratic authorities – whether Catalan or Spanish – are very selective and myopic when it comes to redressing Francoist piracy directed at the institutions of the popular classes of Catalonia.

This review originally appeared in Anarchist Studies Vol 16, 1

The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale

Karen Davis
Lantern Books (2005)

Reviewed by Ian Smith




Karen Davis’ The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale is a heretical book in the very best of senses.  Davis challenges the firmly held beliefs of a society that systematically devalues the lives of nonhuman animals as a means of justifying their exploitation but she does not stop there.  Her book is also likely to challenge animal liberation activists.

Davis’ principal claim is that “significant parallels can be drawn between the Holocaust and the institutionalized abuse of billions of nonhuman animals, and that there are lessons to be learned by viewing each of these evils through the lens of the other.”  It is not just possible to draw these parallels but “requisite.”

It is often thought that simply showing people images or videos of the extreme suffering that animals are routinely subjected to at the hands of humans should itself be sufficient to motivate large numbers of people to significantly change their behavior and to remove their support from industries that profit from abusing and killing animals. 

Yet Davis points out that “there is no clear evidence that the sight of suffering evokes sympathy or protest in the majority of people” and that this holds true regardless of whether the victims are human or nonhuman.  The slaughter of animals has frequently been conducted not necessarily behind glass walls but in equally transparent open air markets.  Furthermore those who do regularly pass behind the opaque walls of modern slaughterhouses are not generally moved to veganism in large numbers. 

Davis writes that “A major prerequisite for winning the attention of a particular group of people to the plight of others consists in the ability of the victims and their advocates to create a compelling narrative drama in an interpretive framework that unites the history and identities of both groups”.  The Holocaust has taken on an iconic status not necessarily because there has never been a case of genocide with a comparable degree of suffering but in large part due to this massive suffering combined with the writings of Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, Hannah Arrendt, and others who compellingly articulated the horror of the Nazi regime.

The victims of the animal holocaust do not have the ability to produce books and diaries to chronicle their suffering and therefore remain dependent on their human advocates.  By relating the suffering of animals which is not sufficiently understood to an event such as the Holocaust which is widely recognized as an atrocity of the grandest scale, advocates can effectively bridge a gap and transform the commonplace suffering of animals that does not always trouble observers into something more dramatic that demands action and intervention.

A refusal to compare atrocities is simply not tenable as it will often have the effect of preventing us from learning from past atrocities.