The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: August, 2015

Boycott the Capitalist Election! Fight for People’s Power!

I wanted to put my unaffiliated opinion out there. I support the election boycott and hope that it provides an opportunity to get more politically active in the real world and start to reach out to the local area I live in. The electoral process is a losing proposition for the left and, more importantly, for the dispossessed and exploited. Don’t think politics can be reduced to a ballot box.

Boycott Elections

Call from the Revolutionary Communist Party:

With an early declaration of an election campaign by the Harper government, we find ourselves at the beginning of a 78-day campaign period in the lead-up to the October 19 federal election. In fact, before it was even officially called, the parties vying to administer the capitalist state had already been campaigning for several weeks. Their hope may be that, with such a long campaign, they will convince us that this election is a “special moment in Canadian democracy.” For most of us, though, it’s a waste of time!

One after the other, the competing parties will parade themselves around promising to do something for us—the working class, indigenous, women, youth, etc.; they will have sugary sweets for everyone! Some will even present themselves as a “workers’ party,” one of “everyday Canadians” or “hard-working families!” Above all, they will emphatically remind us that we…

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Robert Biel’s New Imperialism

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Having already done a piece on the brilliant 2012 book The Entropy of Capitalism, I quickly got ahold of copies of Biel’s other two books, The New Imperialism and Eurocentrism and the Communist Movement, which together form a loose trilogy progressively exploring a coherent set of themes.

  1. Capitalism as a complex international system with a parasitic centre and exploited peripheries. Implies class as an instance that unifies a person or group’s status relative to racial, gender, and proletarian peripheries. These constitute the internal contradictions of concrete capitalism.
  2. Capitalism in relation to the environment. External contradictions between capitalism leeching off of all of human society and the nonhuman natural world.
  3. Agriculture as the ultimate basis of human civilization. This theme does not appear much until the second and third books, but it has formed arguably the core of his practical and published work for a decade plus.

One caveat for no. 3 is that the version of Eurocentrism and the Communist Movement that I read is the recently published revised edition that updates the content in light of Entropy of Capitalism. Because of this, I sense a better defined continuity between the three books.

In my writeup of EntropyI indicated that the most compelling thread in that book was:

how the notion of entropy and the concept of peripheries in imperialism studies overlap throughout the book. In Biel’s political ecology, the environment and the Third World––along with enclaves within the First World and women and minority populations––are sites of both extraction, the outsides that capitalism can use for resources, and dumping sites for entropy.

New Imperialism is a true predecessor to this book. Looking over my marginal notes, I notice that I make several references to the fact that Biel would fortify insights made in this middle book with concepts developed in the third. Reading New Imperialism casts a light on just how powerful the thermodynamics concepts and systems perspective are in unifying and strengthening the arguments Biel advances. Considered on its own, however, this book contains keen insights of its own. Despite its advancing age and the fact that many of its chapters are aimed squarely at concerns that existed circa 2000, it still produces some impressive analysis of capitalism as a heterogeneous world system.

In contrast to Entropy, where the analysis was mainly present and future-oriented, New Imperialism’s meatiest sections are on the historical development of capitalism throughout the 20th century. Biel does not merely summarize changes in the mode of production in a reductionist or economistic way, however. Rather, his eye is trained on the adaptation of capitalism as, shall we say, a whole organism.

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This does include various changes in the technological base and the “economy” proper, of course. He covers a swathe of issues ranging from financialization and the growth of the speculative economy, the industrialization of the South, the destruction of full employment in the North, the emergence of what were then the NICs (Newly Industrializing Countries, which has been replaced in international relations and econo-speak by the BRICS), and the complicated position of Japan. But rather than focus mainly on such changes, he demonstrates how capitalist powers instituted new control mechanisms and navigated tricky impasses. Defusing the idea of an omnicompetent imperialist bloc, he explores the real dangers faced by capitalism after World War II and during the 1970s. He identifies the central task of Northern capital in these periods: continue to exploit the South for cheap labour and natural resources while preventing it from developing to the point of gaining too much political power.

For example, I had never before considered the gigantic risks that capital takes when weakening the state apparatus in the name of faster accumulation. Yes, privatizing services and state enterprises does free them up for greater exploitation and narrows the terms of acceptable social debate, but it also leaves the states of the North prey to bankers and bondholders. The erosion of national sovereignty even within the European Union is an astonishing development in this past decade, as capital turns states over to the direct management of the financiers. Biel explains this as a weakening of the political centre for capitalism, cannibalized by the very capitalist forces it was protecting.

Other highlights include a discussion of Cold War bipolarity as a system set up to use the USSR to crush popular social movements––or to co-opt and neutralize them––while undermining Southern solidarity. But because of my professional interest in Japan, I want to spend the rest of this little review discussing the way the book deals with this “honorary Aryan” economic power.

Japan:

Japan’s position within the capitalist world had already shifted greatly by the time Biel published this book in 2000. It had been dragging through almost a decade of its ongoing stagnation, a far cry from the beacon of growth and social coherence it had appeared to be in the 1960s through the 1980s. Allowed to develop fully because of strategic considerations and the industrial demands of the Korean War, it had managed by the 1980s to command an immense amount of wealth through an intense state-driven focus on GDP growth and the establishment of a national government that was effectively run through collusion between bureaucrats and big capital. Biel notes that its success also depended on a highly hierarchical system of subcontracting. Male workers at the top of the pyramid, employed by big monopolies, were guaranteed high wages––over double those of lower ranking workers––and lifetime job security. Below this stratum were two layers of firms employing cheaper and more precarious labour, which since the slump has become more generalized in Japan.

At its apex, however, this system and the management techniques created to groom effective and loyal workers commanded such respect that they were made use of in the larger Northern transition to neoliberal regimes in the 1980s and 1990s. Effectively, firms could open leeway for more human initiative while leaving employees with direct responsibility for the quality of their work, in effect exploiting themselves while management positions proliferated in an attempt to prevent slacking. Europe and the United States forced the Japanese currency to appreciate in value, which is what fueled the foreign buying frenzy and property boom in Japan in the 1980s (the infamous “bubble economy”).

What Biel notes is that the Asian countries that have been allowed to industrialize––Japan, the ROK, Taiwan––have all been able to do so purely because the United States had strategic reasons for doing so. He notes that this status as part of the Global North might be tenuous. This guess came at the end of the Asian crisis of the late 1990s, so it makes more sense then than it might now. Still, I suspect that there is a germ of truth in this since these countries are also all dependent on American arms support for their defense, and therefore possess limited true autonomy.

Conclusion:

If you must read one Robert Biel book, make it Entropy of Capitalism. That book incorporates the basic theoretical and concrete concerns and methods from New Imperialism and makes them far better and more pertinent. At the same time, New Imperialism, despite being out of date and possessing a rather vague strategic vision for the future––a common feature for books written on the left––brings its points home well. In largely avoiding economist reductions and bringing gender, race, and the environment into the discussion it sets itself apart from a great deal of Marxist discussion of capitalism as a world system. And its insights in agriculture, which I did not have space for in this post, are almost worth your time in themselves.

Public History Journal Part 6: Working with What You Have

I like the analogy of a toolbox because you realize that your options are limited by the size and type of box you have and the tools inside of it. If you don't have a hammer, you can't solve your nail problem very easily.

I like the analogy of a toolbox because you realize that your options are limited by the size and type of box you have and the tools inside of it. If you don’t have a hammer, you can’t solve your nail problem very easily.

Historians who follow the curves of the “postmodern turn” like to talk about the limitations of human knowledge. Critical awareness of the historical and limited character of our own knowledge is healthy, but often the epistemological discussion among historians and historical theorists ends up advocating a kind of surrender to “narrative” and subjectivism. I don’t want to describe these discussions in detail in this blog post, because the limits to my public history project are more immediate than some epistemological block.

To be frank, the entire construction of my project is limited by the availability of sources that can illuminate the core topics I want to address. In some cases, there are mountains of information on topics that are marginal to my focus, including a lot of biographical sources that would not be suitable to include in my work because they skew the project’s focus onto a single person. But a shortage choked off my ability to write well about one of the most important topics in my tour: the creation and evolution of the Hispanic community in the neighborhood.

On a positive note, census data and general present-day information was readily available, but colorful and popular history accounts do not typically include a deluge of statistical data. And exploring demographic minutiae gets me no closer to the relevant history of how this community formed and what its day-to-day struggles and joys might be. There are oral histories recorded in the library archives, but they tended to be so granular and personal––and often not connected to the neighborhood at all––that they proved little use in creating a general history.

Nevertheless, the account I have been able to craft has slowly taken shape into something that functions well within the structure of the walking tour.  After all, limited knowledge does not mean no knowledge, and it would be corrupt perfectionism to abandon a worthy endeavor because it was not flawless from conception to delivery. This is especially true in regard to people whose class position includes racial or sexual oppression. Nor are limitations an excuse to disregard intellectual rigor: indeed, it’s only because I was able to draw on tools and best practices that I learned in class or while writing that I was able to make the most of the information I had. The real lesson to draw from this is that our situation and historical/geographical placement creates a set of opportunities/limitations we have to recognize when writing or researching. Our goal remains unchanged: approximate the truth as closely as possible while refining our tools and frameworks progressively.

The project is now nearly complete, but these final days are all the more critical because of their brevity. Here the timeline crunches together, and many of the hardest editing choices are still in front of me. Nevertheless, I anticipate this series ending with the next installment, which will review the entire process and reflect on how historians can draw lessons from this project and its accomplishments/failures.

Rendezvous with Hucksters and the Academic Underbelly

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Because serving in the reserve army of the unemployed is a dreary and potentially lethal enlistment, I’ve been obliged to find myself a job. Currently between bouts of education, I therefore strive to find the most agreeable way to spend my days (or nights) earning rent and food money. But being unemployed leaves you in a vulnerable state, and long periods without work can leave you desperate. I’m far from that point, and have a privileged status that makes it less likely I’ll ever slip through the cracks completely. At the same time, the power of temptation is strongest when you feel as though you have to swipe the first opportunity you get, like a tiger being fed by a zookeeper (not that I have all that much experience with being in tiger cages, mind you).

It takes less than a minute of digging on job listing sites to find that, beneath the soft loam of corporate jobs and other “respectable” occupations there is a layer of sticky dreck clinging to the boots of the capitalist economy. At least, I hope our location is so clean. These firms and agencies operate essentially as parasites on the body of what we usually accept as the “normal” working of the economy. They produce no value and do not fulfill human needs. Rather, they operate to fill niches of demand that capitalism creates in the interest of profit. There is a key difference between need and demand, bearing in mind, as Robert Biel says, “many of the demands generated by capitalism are not based on real needs,” which follows his argument that demand is not given or spontaneously arising from need but is instead manufactured for the sake of moving product.¹

Hence, on the back of charismatic advertising and carefully tended appearances, companies have found ways to exploit people in ways and for reasons that even run-of-the-mill capitalists and their state representatives can’t swallow. All of capitalism thrives on exploitation of workers, but groups like Just Energy make you nostalgic for the days of outright merchant swindling. Which is, in effect, what the company has been accused of doing. Just take a look at the wikipedia page for the company and you can recite the litany of regional governments and regulators who have thrashed the company’s reputation. More bizarrely, the issue goes beyond salespeople bullying “prospects” into signing up for expensive energy plans. All the way up at the top, their CEO and Canadian Conservative Party buddy-buddy has been accused of falsifying claims that she is the descendant of a Yugoslav energy minister. No wonder they sound a bit desperate in their hiring pitches.

Note that they don’t sell any energy they produce themselves. What they sell is pieces of paper that assure their clients that they will pay a (higher than their salespeople promise) fixed rate for energy, supposedly to protect them from spikes in fuel costs. Of course, had this been the amazing deal they allegedly promised, they would not be a billion-dollar company today.

My other encounter with the slightly sleazier side of the job market came in the form of a listing for an academic essay writer. That’s bound to appeal to many college students who have just graduated and find themselves with few workable skills other than producing academic essays. Of course, one has to ask what kind of people would pay for academic essays other than the usual list of journals and slate-faced gatekeepers?

Well, cheating students of course. I won’t deny that academic pressures can, for certain people, create a sense of hopelessness combined with an attachment to grades as an ultimate sign of self-worth. That kind of mixture can lead to cheating. Businesses like this owe their existence just as much if not more so to higher education’s insistence on tying financial aid to grades as it does to unscrupulous or lazy students. Students, at least in North America, are now evaluated so ruthlessly and so often that failures are seen as catastrophic, easily worth bending or breaking rules to get.

And, unlike Just Energy, these companies are actually selling something that is at least potentially valuable, at least in terms of knowledge. But the fact that they can do so at such cut-rate costs shows you how the writers who don’t manage to get famous––i.e. almost all of them––have to scrounge for money just to live off their own skills. Capitalism sucks value out of its own institutional failures, another recurrent theme in Biel’s work. In a better world, you wouldn’t be able to make money off of put-upon young people desperate for grades. These two small examples show that, despite attempting to baptize itself as a positive force in the world, capitalism cannot escape, at a certain level, being overtly predatory––well, more so than usual. Sometimes we seem to have a wistful and whimsical view of the old snake oil salesmen who supposedly prowled the streets of the pre-FDA American wilds. Indeed, all of this would be a lot more funny if real people weren’t being ripped off in the process––and this one top of their subjugation to capitalism in the first place.

Notes:

  1. Robert Biel, The New Imperialism (New York: Zed Books, 2000), 109.

The War Rages On

I had reservations about the article Jacobin published about the People’s War in the Philippines, and I am glad to convey some of the words comrades there have written in response.

Kapirasong Kritika

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As a Filipino activist committed to radical social change, I like JacobinMag.com, the magazine that introduces itself as one “of culture and polemic.” Well, despite the lapse in judgment that spurred this missive (which we’ll get to shortly), I still do. I like the fact that its articles are short, direct-to-the-point, and relatively free of jargon. Its articles on the struggle of the workers and people of Greece against austerity, for example, are enlightening.

Jacobin’s publication of “The War Is Over” by one Alex de Jong, however, is a low point for the website. Despite its attempt to feign even-handedness, de Jong’s article clearly demonizes the underground Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the open national-democratic umbrella organization Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan, which means “nation” in Filipino) before an international audience.

While admitting that the CPP and Bayan constitute “the strongest current on the Philippine Left,” the article…

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56 Cities, Two Books

Painting of the city of Irene from Invisible Cities by Colleen Corradi Brannigan. Click on the image to see more of her renderings of Calvino's work.

Painting of the city of Irene from Invisible Cities by Colleen Corradi Brannigan. Click on the image to see more of her renderings of Calvino’s work.

Urbanization is one of the lifebloods of modern life. If industrialization is the hear of capitalist society, urbanization fastens onto its productive powers and, like a tsunami, creates a sloshing deluge where there was once relative stability. Social struggles have taken to the urban stage since before the French Revolution, though Revolutionary Paris represents their apotheosis in the capitalist core of Europe and North America. So talking about cities involves talking about social struggles. More specifically, cities are living and working spaces, playing spaces, channels for industrial goods, outlets for propaganda and advertising and every form of visual and aural production imaginable. Increasingly, the human race lives out its collective life in cities, leading many Marxists like David Harvey to call for a renewed focus on the character of cities and the political strategies necessary to making cities livable.

Having just moved to one of the larger cities on the continent, I have felt the pull of its acceleration, adding an experiential weight to some of the fictional reading I have been doing. Reading about cities and living in them are separate matters, but I find it helpful to take directions from fiction and other artworks as to what we should look for in cities. Two books in particular have left their marks, providing me with some cutting questions to ask of my new hometown.

1. King City by Brandon Graham

In King City, the characters serve to inform the setting more than the other way around. Their stories are in the foreground, but seems marginalized by the background.

In King City, the characters serve to inform the setting more than the other way around. Their stories are in the foreground, but seems marginalized by the background.

I read King City in a few days from the omnibus collection published by Image Comics. But attempting to read this book along a single plot thread is a mistake, since at the end the “comic book” climax of the story happens in a flash, making the ostensible narrative engine just another story among many. This makes the story not so much a single plot but a book of accounts showing how life is lived in a city warped by, among other things, extraterrestrials, magic cats, and the author’s hyper-dense reimagining of Los Angeles. The titular King City might have a central power core, a government of some kind, and a convoluted network of criminal gangs running the show, but when reading the book none of these things seems to take any kind of priority because Graham’s art is always letting us in on a hundred other stores, sometimes in the space of a single page. It’s a melange or mosaic of disparate moments connected by a certain logic––most of the time, that logic involves groan-worthy puns––that sets romantic tensions, life-or-death rescue operations, petty crime jobs, and supernatural apocalypse on the same level of relevance.

In King City, politics loses its meaning, or at least its collective character. Issues of class, nation, and gender don’t get much explicit discussion in the book. Power blocs form today and dissolve tomorrow, and life is precarious to the utmost. Individual struggles are what is important; the heterogeneity and acceleration of the city seems to render all connections temporary at best. Graham is showing us an important aspect of the modern city: the speed and visual overload people experience there renders the surface of the city a film of blurry fragments. Many jokes at the expense of New Yorkers start off with some catastrophe happening, raising only shrugs from life-weary denizens. Graham’s production here condenses that facet of the city and gives it a deeply weird and novel guise, drawing on anything and everything to pack in. And it looks to use like business as usual. Well, business as usual with a dose of scatalogical surrealism.

2. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Uses one of my favourite Magritte paintings as the cover.

Uses one of my favourite Magritte paintings as the cover.

Now this book, unlike King City, is more properly “literary,” being a collection of what I hesitate to label prose poems interwoven with bits of dialogue. Despite that pedigree, I believe it qualifies as “speculative fiction,” seeing as its goal is to explore the affective and imaginative aspect of cities.

Calvino’s conceit here is that Marco Polo and Kublai Khan have met in the Mongol capital. Polo regales the Great Khan with tales of cities from all across the vast span of the Empire. Khan, plagued with worries about the coming dissolution of his realm, looks to Polo for a sign, though whether that sign is a confirmation of his own decline or the contrary remans unsolved. 55 cities pass through our minds, page by page, unfolding like nautilus spirals. Because the Venetian and the Mongol do not share the same language, at least initially, Polo has to resort to describing cities with objects from them, sketching often fantastical and anachronistic portraits. On his journeys, he has apparently passed through at least one airport and one American-style suburb, not to speak of the more classically Orientalist constructions.Even though every city Calvino describes is nothing more than an assembled fiction, its components find their origins in real cities or legends of cities. The mystical quality of the book comes from its strangeness. Example: one city’s citizens built a replica of their city underground, burying their dead in the same poses they assumed in life.

The entire structure of the book reminded me of Kino’s Journey, a Japanese animated show about a nomadic woman and her talking motorcycle visiting countless cities that embody human virtues, vices, desires, and ideals. Here we have no protagonist in the present tense: all of Marco Polo’s “expeditions,” if they ever happened (and Khan has no reason to believe they did), seem to have been ages ago. So what we have here is a book party archaeological, partly poetic, and partly speculative, and if I could identify a single virtue it would be in expanding our conceptions of what cities are and what they are capable of being. It also shows us quite directly how we conceive of cities in modern times: repositories of buildings, yes, but also stories, images, and desires, not to mention refuse and leftovers.

For Marxists, obviously, the matter does not rest there. We see cities not as fixed or swirling without coordinates, but evolving according to social needs and the dictates of those with political power. In other words, cities are only perceptible through a historical and materialist vision. But I would argue that both of the works in this post offer compelling insights into the nature of urban living today, regardless of their various mystifications and tendencies to treat those social struggles in an oblique way. Like cities themselves, they’re not pure illusions, but products of social labor and embedded processes within their respective industries. Let’s ponder the questions they raise and celebrate the positive aspects of the visions they evoke; we have a long road ahead, after all.

Jeff Vandermeer: Annihilation

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Late one night, staying up long after I meant to, I caught fragments of an episode of the Peter Capaldi series of Doctor Who, the undying (not to say interminable, but…) British science fiction series. Between the extreme close-ups of Capaldi’s topographically dazzling mug, a little streamlet of a story ran something like this: a gigantic magical forest completely overwhelmed the world. Though at first believing them to be malicious, our Doctor of dubious professional credentials intuits that they are actually attempting to act as a sandbag, cushioning the earth from a cosmic disaster. More than that, I could not grasp.

Forests marching back to reclaim their old territories have been a recurring symbol in literature and art for centuries. Everyone who knows anything about MacBeth would remember that one of the final gambits in the power struggle against the titular tyrant involves an army masquerading as a moving forest. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, aligning with the novel by the oddly Shakespeare-hating J.R.R. Tolkien, depicts a race of tree-people, the ents, savaging an industrial fortress. Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind, which has perhaps the closest analogue to Annihilation’s setting that I can recall, places its heroine in a world where the non-human natural world has internalized the toxins dumped into it by humanity and colonized the world with a toxic vastness fatal to human beings.

Even Nausicäa’s toxic jungles, though, conceal within themselves a vaulted cathedral of purity beneath their toxic exterior. They exude poisons into the atmosphere, but as part of a process of self-purification, revealing an essentially beautiful core. Toxic jungles are uncanny ecosystems but are ultimately a part of Earth’s self-regulating impulses, a process belonging to Equilibrium rather than chaos.

Area X in Annihilation is all the more unsettling because, at least in this first volume of the trilogy, the ecosystem complex that comprises this negative zone beyond human control shows no signs of benevolence or even comprehensibility. A hole, ultimately: in human knowledge, in the maps, in the psyche, exposing or, perhaps, absorbing and exhaling, all the chaos unleashed by industrialization in a more unbounded form. And into such a place walks a troupe of experts.

These experts, all women, form the human component of Annihilation. Vandermeer hitches his narrative to one woman in particular, the unnamed Biologist. Coming into Area X following her late husband, entranced by the mystery of this cryptic Eden, her arc in the story consists of her encounter with the biosphere in Area X and the resulting transformation. What’s remarkable about the book, though, is that it refuses to personalize this change to the extent one usually sees in fantasy. Cronenbergian body horror, in its default mode, usually involves the intrusion of something alien into a normalized white settler body: a fly, a virus, cybernetics, an otherworldly love of money. What Vandermeer does is destabilize the entire natural world, bringing his human beings into a process of becoming something other than human. And yet, they are not growing more alienated from the world around them, as frequently happens in Cronenberg. Their abjection from human society is accompanied by their blending further and further into Area X itself.

Comparisons could also be made to the genre of alien invasion/body snatching, but on a personal note I find the latter so remote and abstract that I have difficulty recognizing the horror in them. Whereas the threat from an encroaching and indifferent nature, something coming––at least potentially––from within the earth, is a primal fear I have no difficulty appreciating. So we have a dialectical movement from outside to inside: the environment permeates the person, making it part of an environment. At what point, in her story, is the Biologist no longer human? Aren’t human beings already host to all kinds of extra-human organisms?

Vandermeer’s execution of these ideas, as difficult as they are, is nothing short of astonishing. I was physically and mentally shaken for a few hours after finishing the book in a large gulp of a sultry afternoon. Surrounded by gardens, little growing beings we shove into boxes, we scarcely comprehend the struggles involved in such a practice. And the formal grasp that Vandermeer demonstrates makes all of the above far more comprehensible and involving than the linear sketch I presented above. Annihilation is a book about the pitfalls of science and knowledge, the hollowness of what we know and the terror that an indifferent but living intelligence brings to us. I have great anticipation for the second and third volumes, luckily not having to wait long.

Camping Interruption Over!

Tiger Manfesto has been out of commission for several days because I am in the middle of a migration from one home to another. Staking out new territory comes with its fair share of interruptions of normal routines, but I plan to make up for this gap in posts with a flurry of new writing starting later today with a short post about Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and my general interest in everything urban. I also have planned posts about Inside Out, adjusting to the new situation in Canada, and more about drafting and finishing my public history project. Keep your eyes out for all this dropping in the next week, and thank you for your patience and forbearance.

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Historical DeWitticisms: Environmental History and Random Musings by J.M. DeWitt

Environmental History and Random Musings by J.M. DeWitt

Solarpunk Anarchists

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Cindy Milstein

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Revolutionary Anamnesis

Anamnesis is a Platonic theory of knowledge that posits the soul's ability to recollect the things it knew in past incarnations, or an eternal knowledge, recovered through reasoning.

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