Reading Roundup

Austin DSA’s September Reading Roundup

Welcome to the second edition of Reading Roundup, a forum for ATX DSA members to share what they’ve been reading and how it’s informing their political education.

The Bee Book by Fergus Chadwick, Steve Alton, Emma Sarah Tennant, Bill Fitzmaurice, and Judy Earl

Bees are an oft-marveled animal, and for good reason. Hattie Ellis said they must be “the most discussed creature on the planet, after humans.” Every bee in every hive has a job that fulfills a crucial role (like a good union job), and they are excellent communicators. Bees can teach us how to work together as socialists. From the young nurse bees (NNOC/NNU) to the wise, old foragers (UFCW Local 540), to the tireless undertakers (Teamsters Local 657), every bee contributes to the health and perseverance of the hive. Bees also have a highly sophisticated form of communication — they dance! Each hive has a specific dancing culture that the foragers and scouts use to inform their comrades of good sources of food, potential new nest sites, and incoming danger. In recent years, “saving the bees’’ has become something of a proxy struggle for fighting climate change. If only we can save the bees, we can save the world. It is, at best, a misguided liberal strategy that would mitigate a single symptom without addressing the material reality of the problem. Chadwick et. al. discuss ways that we as individuals can fight bee population decline in The Bee Book, while simultaneously recognizing the wider causes are far-reaching issues like massive, industrialized farming and the reduction of native biodiversity. There is a silver lining, however, in that honeybee colonies are back on the rise as of a USDA report in 2020. Our furry little stinging comrades in nature are far more resilient than we may have initially given them credit for. Life uh… finds a way. As for those individual solutions suggested, like planting indigenous bee forage around your community, creating bee habitats for less-cultivated species, and learning how to keep and care for bees? They are no less meaningful in the wake of population rebounds, and are not only good for fighting climate change, but for the myriad little ways we rebuild our communities together and become more whole human beings. Go sit in the sun and watch some bees buzz, and feel at peace.

— Gumbo

Rank and File: Personal Histories by Working-Class Organizers Edited by Alice and Staughton Lynd

Rank and File tells the stories of the great labor struggles in the United States from the 1930s to the 1970s from the perspective of the people that made them great: the rank-and-file organizers who dedicated their lives to fighting for the working class. The stories told in this book, spanning a wide variety of industries and perspectives, give a vivid sense of the power labor had during these decades. Rank and File includes accounts of steelworkers, meatpackers, autoworkers, miners, rubber workers, teamsters, longshoremen, public sector workers, and chemical workers who organized against the boss, and often against unresponsive union leadership, and won real gains. The power of the working class has gradually waned over the past half century since this book was released, but if the past few years have proven anything, it’s that workers can still organize and beat the boss. While impressive by today’s standards, the West Virginia teachers’ strike of 2018 or the GM strike of 2019 are still miniscule compared to, say, the strike wave of 1945–6, in which several million people participated. That doesn’t mean we should despair. In fact, if I was to take away one lesson from Rank and File, it’s that we’ve got to be ready to be in this fight for the long haul, through thick and thin. Workplace organizing, especially during a historic low in union density, is difficult work, but so was organizing steel mills and auto plants in the 1930s. Against seemingly impossible odds, our predecessors in the labor movement won and so can we. Reading how they did it is a good place to start.

— Jake J.

This Life: Secular Faith & Spiritual Freedom by Martin Hägglund

It took me almost two months to get through this but the struggle of seeing my own beliefs reflected in the work — and then grappling with the practical meaning of those beliefs in my day to day — was absolutely worth the effort.

Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith & Spiritual Freedom challenges the ideal of salvation in the eternal that is central to many of today’s modern religious faiths. He engages with the work of major religious philosophers, from St. Augustine to Kierkegaard, to elaborate his conception of spiritual freedom and its basis in secular faith, or devotion to outcomes in this life. Secular faith, in contrast to religious faith, is critical to the possibility of spiritual freedom because mortality, our limited time, is how we understand the most important question of spiritual freedom: what to do with our time. The religious focus on transcendence or communion with god is fundamentally at odds with having a real stake in the consequences of our actions. The promise of an afterlife in which no one suffers obscures the necessity of potential failure. Without the possibility of suffering and grief, questions of how we spend our time and how our actions shape existence here on earth are meaningless.

None of this is meant to attack religious community, but to point out how religious philosophy underpins (and limits) liberal ideas of freedom. Secular faith, because of its commitment to building and sustaining positive aspects of life that are always threatened by failure or erosion, is inherently interested in ending oppression and exploitation. While Hägglund puts forward democratic socialism as the blueprint for achieving these ends, he recognizes the historic role of capitalism in moving society toward a more just existence. This leads up to a discussion of Marx’s immanent critique of liberal capitalism, or it’s inherent failure to deliver on the promises of individual liberty. What is called for, however, is not simply a redistribution of wealth, Marx’s socialism requires a fundamental revaluation of economic value. This section of the book is an excellent breakdown of some of the most fundamental principles of Marxist socialism. Under democratic socialism, the goal of production is to minimize socially necessary labor time, not maximize profit. This would not eliminate questions of what the collective should do with spiritual freedom, which is understood at its most basic as the ability to choose how we spend our time. We would still need to wrestle with how socially necessary labor is distributed equitably and what values are important to us as a collective. But a centrally planned economy doesn’t have to be autocratic. Hägglund lays out concrete principles of democratic socialism that would reflect a society committed to spiritual freedom, but he also challenges Marxist utopian thinkers like Adorno who cannot break free from utopia as a world completely free of suffering and death. In Hägglund’s mind, this characterization obscures the changeable economic forces that sustain capitalism and oppress the working peoples of the world.

A great read, can’t recommend it enough.

— Ana P.

In Dubious Battle By John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck is renowned for his lengthy depictions of the grueling lives of laborers in early twentieth century California. While his novella In Dubious Battle certainly does not stray away from this theme, its pace is more propulsive than that of his novels. In Dubious Battle follows Communist Party organizers Mac and Jim on their way to organize fruit pickers in the fictional Torgas Valley. They’ve heard rumblings about workers being disgruntled about a paycut and decide to make the journey in order to agitate and organize so that the workers may overcome their class enemy. What follows is a heart-pounding tale of class struggle, class hatred, triumph, and defeat. The singular priority the organizers have towards the life-or-death struggle for resources, however doomed, fills the events with an urgency that many socialists today will relate to. As with all Steinbeck’s work, the novel can be depressing and brutal even to people familiar with the incredibly violent history of the American labor struggle. It serves as a reminder to socialists that power concedes nothing without a demand, and that power will go to great lengths to avoid conceding at all. Nonetheless, the dogged determination of the organizers serves as an example to us all. The working class must be organized and prepared for its world-historical task. The workplace is the prime location for forging a well-tempered working class movement that can not only withstand capitalism but smash it altogether.

— Paul S.

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