Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Recommended Reading: To know yourself and your place in the world…?

[For students of all specialized disciplines, including physics.]


We have obvious biological drives to feed ourselves, seek physical shelter, and reproduce. And it is in our natures to both compete and cooperate, to both hate and feel compassion. We adapt these drives and tendencies to our circumstances and to social and physical realities, while being guided and misguided by our individual psychologies that are in turn products of our environments and accidents of our developments.

We are also political beings. We want agency and influence. We need some control over our place in the world. And on this front, there is a divide between those who feel and believe the world is just and is close to ideal in terms of what is practical and those who believe the world is unjust and far from a more just world that is possible; those who feel that they can accept their place in society and cooperate to ameliorate their circumstances and those who feel that present structures are unacceptable and should be fought and dismantled.

These are two end-points and there is every variety and deception in-between that varies in time and place and from person to person. But nonetheless they are bimodal attractors in that, at a given time and place, we tend to adopt predominantly one interpretation or the other. Fight or flight? Friend or foe? Safe or dangerous? There are many such bimodal attractors that determine our survival choices.

Just or unjust? Liveable and stable or wrong and dangerous? Am I being oppressed or respected? Am I being used and coerced or given my due and appreciated? As worker, student, mother, child, citizen of the Third or First Worlds…?

Our fundamental beliefs about the extent to which and the ways in which the present “order” is just and sane are what predominantly distinguish us as political beings. These will determine whether we are liberals, conservatives, socialists, or anarchists, in our hearts.

And these beliefs are constantly managed and groomed by the First World trillion-dollar-a-year industry that fabricates our mental environment. So, even if you must medicate yourself with alcohol, consumerism, and entertainment, the aim is that you come to believe that this is an acceptable life, that the rewards make it meaningful, and that to fight against it is futile.

Which brings us to the question of a reading list: One might conclude that education is the answer and that independent and alternative information can lead to political development and more justice. I don’t believe this. Education as a first step, practiced on oneself from a position of having integrated mainstream compliance, is inaction and self co-optation.

One’s justice-injustice world view, one’s anti-authoritarian stance, one’s defiance, and one’s solidarity with the oppressed, are determined by the deep experiences of growing human; involving contacts with life and death, struggles won and lost, facing danger, taking risks, and acting to change one’s place in the world (family, cooperative, community, society).

Reading independent and alternative information can serve either side and does not create justice fighters on its own. But it is an invaluable source of inspiration and aid-in-reflection for the developing activists who already know things are wrong.

At best, reading powerful material can momentarily destabilize the indoctrinated individual, thereby creating opportunities for action.

Action, its results and any backlash, is what educates. Breaking the rules informs us of the true nature of the system that imprisons us, something we cannot learn from books. This in-turn allows us to decode the great writers that spoke from the trenches, from experience. It allows us to see writers for what they are, on the justice-injustice divide.

Therefore, my first recommendation is about this divide, as expressed in the intellectual. True intellectuals who are freedom fighters versus service intellectuals who serve power:

Representations of the Intellectual
...by Edward W. Said, 1994
(Vintage Books edition, 1996)

A related essay is:
Gradual Change is Not Progress
...by dgr

The rest of my recommendations are divided into two themes: (1) Anarchist writers and anarchism as the most advanced political theory, consistent with human liberation from oppression and exploitation, and (2) independent analyses of the world and its societal structures – how things work and how they got that way.


Virtually all the true intellectuals identified by Said and by whoever cares to enumerate them are and were anarchists, in that they believed in the liberated human spirit, liberated from all oppressive structures and all institutions not directly mandated by democratic consensus.

If you know in your gut that things are wrong and if your reaction is to want to fight it rather than accept it to hopefully transform it incrementally, then read about anarchism; read the anarchists. There are usually no courses on anarchism on university campuses. Find the anarchists (Mikhail Bakunin, Emma Goldman, Peter Kropotkin, Erico Malatesta, Emile Pouget, Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Georges Sorel, and many many others) on the web (see links below) and in libraries and read them.

The anarchists, like the Paris students of May 1968, call on us to “live instead of devising a lingering death.” And life is risk: “Sous les pavĂ©s il y a la plage.” (May’68 student slogan)

Many of the greatest intellectuals of our time have declared themselves anarchists and have adopted anarchist ideals (see: Chomsky on Anarchism, Barry Pateman, AK Press, 2005).

I recommend a small book that is one of my favourites:

...by Erico Malatesta, 1891
(translation by Vernon Richards, Freedon Press, 1974, 1994)

(Note: A bad translation is available on the web but the Richards translation makes all the difference!)

Compare it to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ brilliant The Communist Manifesto first published in 1848. These are two small essay-length books but rarely are pages so densely packed with powerful ideas. The dissonances with modern mainstream mass media spin are striking. Minds at work…! This comparison allows one to clearly discern socialist-communist models from anarchist thought.

For those wishing to situate their activism and modern activism in the broadest possible historical context of world views and defining ideologies, I recommend David Noble’s “pocket book”:

Beyond The Promised Land: The Movement and The Myth
...by David F. Noble, 2005
(Between the Lines, Toronto, 2005)

It puts anarchism in its rightful place and shows that history does not simply repeat itself…

We are all students and we are all teachers. The anarchist educator par excellence is Paulo Freire, the father of critical pedagogy. I recommend his book:

Pedagogy of the Oppressed
...by Paulo Freire, 1970
(Continuum, NY, 2005)

This is a very difficult read. I think one cannot understand or know how to apply this work without a critical mass of fighting and organizing experience. But don’t give up.

Some great anarchism stuff and resources and networks on the web:












Among salaried employees, there is a difference between labourers and workers on the one hand and professionals and managers on the other. The first can simply be forced to obey, using job loss and working conditions as tools of oppression, whereas the latter must obey and adopt the employer’s ideology. That is why we have universities and professional and graduate schools.

My first recommendation in this section is for all who have been and continue to be subjected to a university education:

Disciplined Minds: A critical look at salaried professionals and the soul-battering systems that shapes their lives
...by physicist Jeff Schmidt, 2001
(Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham MD, 2001, http://disciplinedminds.com/)

It’s about knowing the system that shaped/shapes you.

Next, you probably want to read an independent history of how America (the US and Canada) got to somewhat recognise civil rights, workers rights, freedom of expressed, and other such nuisances to people in power. I recommend:

A People’s History of the United States
...by Howard Zinn, 1980
(Perennial Classics, 2003)

And what about genocide? What about Canada’s dirty hidden genocide? You probably want to know about the continental-scale crime against humanity perpetrated by Canadian (and US) society. Therefore read:

A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas 1492 to the Present
...by Ward Churchhill, 1997
(City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1997)

Finally, on the theme of understanding the world, one should introduce oneself to Chomsky. The most complete and readable Chomsky reader I have found is:

Understanding Power: The indispensable Chomsky
...edited by Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel, 2002
(The New Press, NY, 2002)

And you probably want to know something about feminism, especially if it did not occur to you as a particularly important “ism”. A wonderful introduction to feminism, in the broader context of class struggles, is provided by bell hooks (bell hooks does not capitalize her name):

Feminism is for Everybody
...by bell hooks, 2000
(South End Press, Cambridge MA, 2000)

Such are some bits and pieces that might distract you from the forced ingurgitation of your specialized program of study…? May your discomfort grow and be amplified. May you be deeply perturbed and inspired to act. Or may these writings inform your actions and nurture your mid-action reflections. Otherwise, it’s wasted.