Cotton: The Fabric of Death

This review of Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History was originally published by Monthly Review.

I could not wait to read Empire of Cotton. For four years following the 2008 mortgage crisis, I worked as a cotton merchant for one of the “big four” trading firms—ADM, Bunge, Cargill, and Louis Dreyfus. These shadowy giants, two of them privately held, maintain oligopoly control of agricultural commodity markets. From desks in Memphis, my colleagues and I purchased mountains of cotton in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, warehoused it, speculated on it, and sold it back to mills on those same continents. Our wood-paneled office was hung with quaint paintings of cotton fields and sepia photographs of the Old South. We sat at the pinnacle of a web of political and economic forces that funneled cotton into facilities we owned and cash into our accounts, but nowhere in the office was there a visible sign of the violence that made it all possible.

Too often liberal histories focus on a single period, territory, or class perspective, and end up obscuring the truth, severing the threads that tie a moment to its historical roots. Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton is different. Although a liberal historian, Beckert refuses to limit his scope in the traditional way. Instead, he follows the movement of cotton across time, space, and class, bringing forward the threads that bind the objects of an otherwise distorted past. Empire of Cotton is a history of the evolving relationships between city and countryside, toiler and owner, colonizer and colonized—all through the prism of cotton.

With this approach, Beckert joins the ranks of prominent scholars, such as Giovanni Arrighi, writing “global history.” He brings to a broad audience the iconoclastic lessons that have usually been the purview of marginalized academics, typically Marxist and oppressed nationality scholars. Empire of Cotton is a New York Times bestseller, book of the month on Amazon, and winner of the Bancroft prize. For a text that argues “Slavery, colonialism, and forced labor, among other forms of violence, were not aberrations in the history of capitalism, but were at its very core,” this is nothing to scoff at (441). It is a book that reaches beyond the audience of scholars and history buffs, and will no doubt make its way even into the hands of some of my former cotton-trading colleagues.

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Posted in Culture

Remembering Richard Levins’ Contributions to Forward Motion

The recent death of dedicated activist, environmental scientist and Marxist theoretician Richard Levins brought to mind that he had contributed to FRSO’s print magazine, Forward Motion. For instance, a quick search showed that he was mentioned in the note our editor appended to this letter, which was received at the Forward Motion office, and subsequently printed in issue 61, twenty years ago. The biting humor, shrewd eye for American mass culture and deft parody of Wordsworth makes it almost certain that Dick Levins was behind it.

Save Our Toxic Waste Dumps! “Isadore Nabi” in Forward Motion

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Posted in Presente!, Uncategorized

Richard Levins (1930-2016): Farewell to a Mentor

Richard Levins with math equations“Within the left, my task has been to argue that our relations with the rest of nature cannot be separated from a global struggle for human liberation, and within the ecology movement my task has been to challenge the “harmony of nature” idealism of early environmentalism and to insist on identifying the social relations that lead to the present dysfunction.”  (Monthly Review, January 2008)

It shouldn’t have surprised me that I couldn’t summarize the life work of Dick Levins—dialectical ecologist, anti-imperialist, revolutionary fighter—more succinctly than he already had.

It’s like one of the conversations with Dick that I was privileged to participate in, when he gave talks at the NY Marxist School and hung out afterward with its organizers. Dick would speak three or four sentences and it would take you five minutes to digest them. He wasn’t showing off or impatient or arrogant, and he was really interested in what you thought. It’s just that his mind made all these amazing connections and synthesized data, moving from pest population dynamics to public health to electoral politics to disagreements on the left, not one superfluous word, not one tendentious leap, nothing over-simplified.

I would say that I wish we could just replicate his brain if I hadn’t learned from Dick about the common theoretical error of reductionism: reducing a complex phenomenon to its smallest component unit and trying to explain or replicate its functioning in that way (e.g. human behavior is explainable by genes, or brilliant, revolutionary insights by a brain).

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Posted in Presente!

Wait a Minute! Two Obamas?

This was originally published on, reflecting on President Obama’s Last State of the Union Address on January 12, 2016.

President Obama gave an optimistic speech using his prolific oratory style.  He addressed a wide range of issues, attempting to direct his message to various sectors of American society. Throughout his speech it was obvious that he had tailored it to a conservative audience, making a point to appear as the great unifier, agreeing to disagree, but not too much. Also making it clear (in Obama’s opinion) that politics in America would be better if there was not so much polarization. He was referring to the hostile political climate in Washington DC between Democrats and Republicans. It was as though he was hoping for a Kumbaya moment, where liberals and conservatives could get along in spite of their politics.

During his speech we saw Obama the liberal and Obama the imperialist.  The language swayed back and forth between civil rights and the toughness of America and its military might. He follows a liberal tradition similar to presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, where they were considered champions of civil and democratic rights in the U.S. and pro-working class.  On the other hand Franklin was an imperialist, supporting Latin American dictatorships and the internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps.  Kennedy attacked Cuba, supported the Bay of Pigs attack, and sent military personnel to Southeast Asia, engaging in an unpopular imperialist war, which polarized people in the U.S., being either pro or anti-war.

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Posted in Electoral Strategy

Interview with Bill Gallegos

This interview was originally published in Monthly Review.

As we veteran activists of the 1960s and early ’70s enter our años del retiro, it is time for reflection, summation, and most importantly sharing what we have learned with those reaching to grab the baton. Many of us, now grandparents, are getting questions from our grandkids and kids about our lives in the “golden age” of U.S. social movements. During this ten-to-fifteen-year stretch, those oppressed by U.S. racialized capitalism were speaking up and acting out. Inspired by the Black freedom movement in the South, all kinds of movements and organizations blossomed: Black Power, Black Panthers, Young Lords, Brown Berets, La Raza Unida, I Wor Kuen, Red Guards, Redstockings, Combahee River Collective, National Welfare Rights Organization, Gay Liberation Front, “Days of Rage,” Earth Day, and anti-war and anti-nuclear movements. There was insurrection in our auto plants—among Black workers centered around the earth-shattering Revolutionary Union Movements, RUM (Dodge RUM, Eldon Avenue RUM) and among predominantly white workers in such outposts as Norwood, Ohio. Socialism and communism, intense targets of the FBI and COINTELPRO, were re-emerging from both the McCarthy-era witch hunts and the Stalin revelations as legitimate options to achieve real democracy and power for the marginalized and working class.
Bill Gallegos has been an activist since the 1960s, when he became involved in Crusade for Justice, a revolutionary Chicano nationalist organization. He has since emerged as a leading socialist environmental justice activist, and is the former executive director of Communities for a Better Environment. He was born in Pueblo, Colorado where his family had lived for generations as campesinos in Greater Mexico. As local families lost their land and were colonized by the expanding United States, they went to work in the mines that were developed on their former lands. Several of Gallegos’s relatives, including his grandfather, died from Black Lung. Thus from an early age the intersection of class, conquest, and ecology were part of Gallegos’s life. Both his parents served in the Second World War (his mom was a nurse) and through the GI Bill his dad was able to become an accountant, and the family moved to the barrios of north Denver. Ask any activist and they will have an “A-ha moment!”—that life changing event when it all came together. For Gallegos it was taking a Chicano Studies class in 1969 and hearing Corky Gonzalez speak. “I realized that my family history was a part of our people’s history and struggle and that our freedom could only be complete when we ended capitalism and constructed a socialist system that would ‘flip the script’ on the U.S. history of genocide, enslavement, colonialism, racism and national oppression.” As the interview details, Bill’s life took him from factory to fields to community.The idea for this interview grew out of another Anne Lewis interview between Gallegos and Bill Fletcher that explores the relationship between the social justice movement centered in the workplace and that centered on ecological disaster. Continue reading
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Posted in Ecological Crisis, Oppressed Nationalities, Our History

Dialogue with Barbara Ehrenreich – Connecting White Privilege and White Death?

This article was originally published at Portside. It is framed as a response to a recent article by Barbara Ehrenreich called “What Happened to the White Working Class? The Great Die-Off of America’s Blue Collar Whites

A recent study by economists Deaton and Case shocked the nation: they found that death rates were rising for middle-aged whites. Working class whites with a high school education or less had death rates go up by a whopping 22% in 15 years. How are they dying? Suicide and substance abuse, brought on by “despair.”

We appreciate Barbara Ehrenreich’s examination of this important piece of our new reality in the Lost Angeles Times. Understanding what’s going among white workers is essential for thinking about organizing strategies. Her analysis is that white men in particular have lost jobs, income, and the personal power that comes with economic security. At the same time, she says, African Americans have made social gains due to federal support for desegregation that allow them access to public spaces and that they are “inching toward equality.” The perceived loss of white privilege – “shit, I’m no better off than a `bleep'” – is fuel to the despair of white workers; they have seen a cut in their psychological wage as well as their actual wages. It is excellent that Barbara has put out this position which can jump-start a conversation that white leftists need to have with each other, and with people of color, about race and class.

In that spirit, we beg to respectfully disagree.

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Posted in Intersecting Oppressions

Rodt Hammers Red Wedge Into Norwegian Politics

European elections have recently caught the  interest of Americans on the Left. Greece, obviously, and the election victory of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party in the UK. Now there’s one more, admittedly on a much more modest scale, to chalk up for the Left: Norway. On Monday, Rødt—Red in English—a party of communists and socialists (although not a classic communist party), had their best showing in years in the nationwide voting for provincial and local leaders there, while the ruling Conservative coalition took some big hits.

The Norwegian elections have not been widely covered in the mainstream media here, nor even in the English language blogosphere, so I spent Tuesday tracking down friends and friends of friends in Norway and grilling them to cobble together, from 5000 miles away, this rough, immediately-after-the-fact report.

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Posted in Uncategorized

Ferguson/October Weekend of Resistance

This video brings together footage from the Weekend of Resistance that took place in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, together with interviews of key leaders from the movement there. Thanks to Judith Roderick for filming all the footage and putting together this important video.

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Posted in Oppressed Nationalities

An In-Depth Look at the Ferguson Eruption: Organization for Black Struggle Leader Lays It Out

Montague Simmons. Photo from

Montague Simmons. Photo from

This spring, the New York/New Jersey District of Freedom Road sponsored a forum entitled “Ferguson: The Movement So Far and Lessons for Coming Struggles.” The first speaker was our comrade, Montague Simmons, Chair of the legendary Organization for Black Struggle in St. Louis. These five videos, roughly 5 minutes each, provide an inside and in depth look at what up to the Ferguson eruption and what has been happening since the murder of Mike Brown.

Part 1

Montague Simmons tells how little the St. Louis area has changed since his childhood, explaining how it’s a long-term experimental laboratory in racial segregation.

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Posted in Oppressed Nationalities, Police & Prisons

keep movin’ directly


blue black
we still shoutin’/screamin’/prayin’/swearin’/tauntin’/crackin’/laughin’
beat down/bloody/hearts broke/weepin’/wonderin’/doubtin’
reachin’/teachin’/liberation preachin’
we enslaved today by empire and nightmare dreams
but we still matter and see tomorrow comin’
’cause what we do is resist is work is build somethin’ better
what we say we can do we can organize
we can posit/testify/sing/assert/announce/proclaim/flatfoot dance
our lives matter and
because we stand
we speak truth
we organize
we remember
we listen
we love and lift
we tired and still walk and run and wade and carry
’cause The Spirit don’t like ugly
we gon’ get where ol’ massas can’t go can’t turn us around
where you got to walk upright
on yo’ feet and nobody’s back
we go find our ways
croon new doo wops
create mo’ decent swags
shout hallelujahs
tell pimpin’ preachers “see ya!”
don’t cha worry
we gon’ matter ’cause
we always

M. Thandabantu is a veteran human rights activist, feminist, labor educator and writer; working and living in Aurora, CO

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Posted in Oppressed Nationalities, Poetry