Book reviews in Processed World #31.
MIDNIGHT OIL: Work, Energy, War 1973‑1993
by the Midnight Notes Collective ($12, Autonomedia, POB 568 Williamsburg Station, Brooklyn, NY 11211‑0568)
I was reading Midnight Oil when the news was published in late January 1993 that Conoco, Amoco, Chevron and Phillips had exclusive concessions to about two‑thirds of Somalia's future oil and gas discoveries. Conoco's headquarters, the only multinational corporate office still open through Somalia's civil war, became the de facto American embassy when the U.S. military moved in.
With this knowledge, the Somalian “humanitarian” effort became more understandable, and strongly illustrates the Midnight Notes Collective's thesis that recent history must be seen from the working class point of view through the lens of petroleum.
The collective basically sees economic crisis as capital's response to the working class movements (working class defined as broadly as possible) of the late '60s and early '70s, which managed to win major increases in wages and social benefits. Oil price shocks in 1973‑74 ended the post‑war “deal,” beginning the rollback of living standards. Later, after 1979, cheap oil was reimposed as an attack on the heightened expectations of the people of oil‑producing countries, with a subsequent explosion of international debt. This in turn allowed (and still allows) capital to force down living standards in nation after nation through “structural adjustment programs” imposed by the IMF and World Bank. The need for continued high production demands new investments, but capital is unwilling to invest when the proletariat threatens to not work hard enough for little enough. According to Midnight Oil and its very informative and detailed account of the economy of the six million guest workers in the Middle East, these many people and their expectations of sharing the oil wealth were a major source of fear for international capital. Before capital would reinvest massively in oil production in the Middle East, it had to be confident of its control there and back in the major market, the U.S. When Americans accepted the Persian Gulf War in the Middle East, both ends were achieved, at least for the moment: the Middle East is completely militarized and millions of potentially troublesome guest workers have been sent back to Egypt, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia. Meanwhile, the “peace movement” and their antecedents in the anti‑nuke, pro‑alternative technology crowd were rendered practically mute in the face of the onslaught. (See also in Midnight Oil “Strange Victories,” an essay included from the first issue of Midnight Notes in 1979, written by bolo'bolo author p.m., which examines exactly who the anti‑nuke movement was in terms of class, race and sociology). Oil companies have been free to raise the price of oil over 30% in the past year in the U.S., while there is no longer any public discussion about abolishing the massive use of fossil fuels as soon as possible. Military occupation of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and the maintenance of a police state in Iraq, as well as the theocracy in Iran, all work to hold down the people of those countries and preserve the extremes of wealth and poverty.
Midnight Oil incorporates essays from Midnight Notes during the '80s, including several from the recent “New Enclosures” issue. A number of pieces from the original 1975 Zerowork are republished here and lay out some of the theoretical foundations of the Midnight Notes perspective. The opening 100 pages of the book are all new, offering some of MN's best work ever once you get used to the emphasis on working class composition, re‑composition and de‑composition as explanatory concepts.
Midnight Notes' emphasis on seeing things from the working class point of view provides a refreshing reminder of the usefulness of some of Marx's original analyses about the broader categories of capitalist society. I have quibbled with my friends at MN for years over the semantic emphasis on capital and the working class, as though there were two clear entities making unified but opposed plans and taking action on them. I occasionally feel like I'm hearing a crackpot conspiracy theory. But Midnight Oil overcame that with clear although abstract analysis. They still use language that can sound silly and conspiratorial, not to mention a bit stodgy, but given the real course of events during the past 20 years, it is fascinating how their analysis parallels and predicts history. The next time you want to go deeper than “Those Unfair Oil Companies!” or “No Blood for Oil” or “Why is the Middle East so crazy?” get yourself a copy of Midnight Oil and settle in for an illuminating, challenging, and extremely informative read.
The Art and Science of Dumpster Diving
by John Hoffman Copyright 1993 (Loompanics Unlimited, P.O.Box 1197, Port Townsend, WA 98368 $12.95)
The Art & Science of Dumpster Diving made me late for work twice and almost miss my train stop once. I have a fragile stomach and it turns over at the thought of diving into a dumpster or even reading a book on the subject. I changed my mind at the sight of the bright cover by Ace Backwords, a cartoonist oft published in these pages.
The earnestness and aptness of this book is fascinating in these fragile times . Here is the wisdom gleaned from a lifetime practice of dumpster diving as both a means of survival and an art form. There is advice about what to wear, look for, avoid and how to behave with people you encounter diving such as competitors, residents, cops and building managers. And watch out for glass and beware of bio‑hazards such as red pouched “sharps” in hospital waste bins.
Raucous happiness underscores his every description of people engaging in economic activities such as dumpstering that deny the taxman and various local profiteers any gain. Beyond mere physical survival, the spirit of diving gives “Hoffmanville” its identity as a collective endeavor. Hoffman conveys well the individual and shared joys, learning and discoveries of these forays.
Hoffman points out that grassroots trash recyclers re‑inject wealth into the economy and save a lot of dump site space. But too little and too late. Recycling works well only when discards are sorted at the household level. If your neighbors are as subhuman as mine are, good luck getting the work done! Local laws, locked dumpster areas (garbage is precious private property!) and trash compactors are used to frustrate the whole dumpster underground economy and should be actively fought (see “W.O.R.C. will make you free” on page 119, that's “War On Refuse Compactors”.) In truth, I recycle, that means sort, my garbage and do not care who takes it. This is controversial in places where people think the city or half‑assed non‑profit organization should make a buck at it. Not so in this book:
“Think about the stupidity! Dumpster divers and small recyclers are working efficiently, recycling things and injecting money into the economy. The waste recovery plant lives off tax money like a junkie, sucking the local economy dry. Who gets blamed? The dumpster diver of course! And when he stops picking through the trash, the facility still doesn't make any money. And it will never make money because the whole idea is flawed from the start, based upon an irrational fear of garbage.” (page 125)
There is more here than dumpster diving techniques and wilted vegie recipes, etiquette and fashion. There's the Loompanics libertarian I‑Love‑Guns persona with amazing Inalienable American Rights to bear arms and constitutionally topple any iniquitous government. But stay away from the cops, they're nothing but trouble:
“Cops piss me off. They come at you with an attitude that you are guilty and they are going to get you to admit it with a few verbal tricks. Just once, I'd like to meet a pig with an attitude like I have a shining aura of civil rights around my body and possessions. Criminals with guns and badges, that's all they are.” (page 58).
It's indeed lamentably obvious that cops are trained in harassment techniques and lack concern for the remnants of civic liberties. At least in my adopted hometown, Berkeley. No People's Republic but Pig Sty Supreme. “'Nuff said”.
Hoffman convinced me that there is hidden treasure in the bins, that dumspter diving is a respectable occupation and even better, a subversion of the consumer society. He has a predisposition for what he calls “post‑apocalyptic” landscapes and attitudes. I personally don't twig to apocalyptic visions, especially when they are combined with the closing of the second christian millennium. But I appreciate the images Hoffman evokes and his way of living off the plentiful discards and discords of our consumer society.
There's lots of juicy stuff on the art of putting “found information” to good use, and bushels of illegal possibilities should the reader be half a jailbird at heart. The worst story was garbage mail being used by a “church lady” and her group to close an abortion clinic. The enemy is using this found shit and so should you. That's the book talking, not me... really, Officer.
The best stories were on how to make your local legislator look bad in the press through a careful read of his discarded info. Police mail is the best.
Sexy pictures from neighbors or high school classmates aren't bad either. And the future is now:
“In the last few years, I have seen an amazing dumpster phenomenon. People are discarding floppy disks and computer related material by the ton.... Finding a floppy disk is like finding a cabinet full of papers —but in a compact, easy‑to‑use format. Once, I actually found the famous PLO virus. No wonder they threw it away.” (page 139)
There is a somewhat didactic tone which can annoy the reader. But hey! Hoffman is a survivalist (without the vengeance, which he deplores as common amongst that group ).
He preaches his stuff with plenty of religious fervor and admonitions to have fun at it, get back at the enemy (power companies, taxman, retail industries, banks...), use your imagination and thrive in the cracks of a dying capitalist economic web. There is a downplayed survivalist anti‑abortion stance perhaps because the more (armed survivalists) the merrier? Women have the inalienable right to their body at all times in my script. Hoffman's bias also shows in the statement that businesses are a front for government:
“If the government demanded all persons buying books show proper ID, K‑Mart would slavishly obey the edict. Don't pity the ”poor businessman", he's a whore for the government. You might as well be shopping at the IRS store..." (page 100)
I used to think that governments were a front for businesses, then I grew up. Now I know it is a two‑headed Cerebus. Don't hesitate to use the singular: BIZGOV.
The most basic advice works regardless of your ideological leanings. Don't pay full price if you don't have to, mattresses being the sole exception according to the author. I know a lot of people whose predilection favors flea markets above malls for the thrill and challenge of barter and that's what Hoffman pushes: free thrills. And a cash bonus to boot. “THAR'S GOLD IN THEM THAR DUMPSTERS!” He claims it's better than bill posting or spray painting because it furthers family interests. Well, to each her cup of tea.
In the meantime and as times do get mean (have been getting meaner forever really), Hoffman does his part in sharing his way to get from under the heavy economic boot of the “best system in the world”, well known for its recurrent crashes, depressions, recessions, etc. So if you have a steady nose, go hound out those treasures. It could be a fun hunt. The book certainly is a fun read.
THE LONDON HANGED: Crime and Civil Society in 18th Century England
by Peter Linebaugh (Cambridge University Press, New York: 1992) $25
Midnight Notes contributor Peter Linebaugh, once a student of reknowned British labor historian E.P. Thompson, has fulfilled the promise of that apprenticeship by publishing an incredibly detailed account of the use of capital punishment in London from the late 17th century through the 18th century. This is a long, very serious book, that microscopically covers the daily lives of London's working class during the crucial century in which contemporary work and property relations became firmly established. As Linebaugh shows, these relations were often enforced with the gallows. In an era when history is increasingly absent, denied, and manipulated, this book stands out as a beacon of clear, engaging historical writing. Linebaugh's analysis of the establishment of capital punishment for property crimes, the ebb and flow of the death penalty with changing labor needs, and the rise of wage‑slavery and factory work sheds interesting light on the current resurgence of capital punishment in the United States. 20th‑century work and property relations are more precarious than ever thanks to new technologies, and new forms of resistance and refusal. Perhaps most compellingly, using work as a measure of social wealth makes less and less sense when capital itself is systematically reducing the use of human labor in most areas of production. The ultimate punishment is making a comeback as society descends into criminal chaos and as desperate poverty becomes more widespread. The London Hanged helps us see the social processes and decisions that make reliance on the death penalty “natural” and “obvious” and confronts us with their absurdity as reflected in a similar but vastly different moment in history, a history as much ours as Londoners'. Check it out!
REAL GIRL: The Sex Comik for all genders and orientations...
by cartoonists who are good in bed! Edited by Angela Bocage. (Fantagraphics Books, 7563 Lake City Way NE, Seattle, WA 98115) $2.95
Real Girl is real good. Cowgirls make horns at the blues. Maybe the sometimes beautiful and sometimes not too aesthetic genitalia would scare your mother. That's not the raison d'être for this diverse collection of cartoons. The philosophy here is of exploration and acceptance. It's so varied in scope that anyone can find a romantic soft touch or g‑spot to hook on to. It is amazingly moral in essence.
I passed it to my favorite teenagers (it's restricted as in not for sale to minors) and the favorite story from Real Girl #3 was “Signed Sister Ende” by Chula Smith, a historical dream sequence of sorts, in which a 20th century woman teacher introduces the religious illuminations of a 13th century woman painter. She signed her work “Ende Pintrix, Dei Autrix”: Ende, Woman Painter & servant of god. In the background, modern school kids practice jungle war on each other.
That just shows it's not about sex only. Everything is acceptable so long as it promulgates understanding and acceptance. I'd recommend it for all those pesky teenagers still in your life or soon to be. But if I were you I'd grab it first, 'coz it's a great read. Make this comix required reading in all high schools!