On the Verge of Something Big: Discontents 7/05/21
Structures and Critical Junctures in History
If we want to try to understand the broad scope of human history, there are a number of different approaches we can take.
The most popular one, largely because of its easy transition to the narrative form and ease of repetition for bored adolescents forced to sit in a history class, revolves around “great people”: almost always men, by and large kings and military leaders, with the occasional pope, queen, and scholar thrown in for good measure.
If we’re trying to grasp actual causality — why things happen — this is nonsense. We can probably count on one hand the number of people over the past couple of millennia who drove historical change via their individual qualities: Napoleon, maybe. At best, it’s an enormous oversimplification, cramming square pegs into round holes to make a coherent story out of the mass of stuff that happens in a given era. At worst, it’s the perfect tool for toxic myth-making about national pasts, great heroes, and founding fathers.
There are better ways of understanding causality, approaches that revolve around what a group of French scholars called the longue durée: slow, practically imperceptible changes in the structures that shaped the lived experiences of the vast mass of humanity. If we want to make sense of the forces that drove most people’s actual lives in the past, then the longue duréeis a much better place to start: aggregates and structures rather than individuals and events, centuries rather than months, the masses of data provided by economic history rather than thrilling yarns of battles and court intrigue.
But this isn’t totally right, either. As much as the long, slow march of structural change dictates most of what happens in the world, there are moments of intense upheaval, relatively brief periods when an explosion of unforeseen events shatter the established order. We call these times critical junctures, and they’re full of both disasters and opportunities. The window of possibilities opens, cramming decades or centuries of change into short stretches of upheaval. These critical junctures tend to set the institutional and structural stage for the world that follows. World War II fits this description on a global scale; so does the Meiji Restoration in Japan, the French Revolution, and perhaps the last decade or so of continuous blows to the neoliberal global consensus.
In 1490, western Europe was something of a backwater, a fractious and relatively poor periphery to the sprawling and wealthy states of Eurasia. By 1530, the outlines of a future in which vast colonial empires centered on the nascent states of western Europe dominated the globe had come into view. I believe this is a perfect example of a critical juncture, and it’s the subject of my new book, The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World.
Voyages of exploration, the emergence of the state, banking, gunpowder warfare, printing, and religious reformation all collided in a brief and incredibly tumultuous period. Wars of ever-increasing scale and violence rocked the continent, leaving battlefields covered with the dead and great cities sacked. Fleets left European harbors behind, sailing for the rich ports of India and the unknown coasts of the New World, to the eternal detriment of practically all but the wealthy financiers who funded the voyages. Printing presses spread both vast troves of knowledge and destructive propaganda, fueling everything from religious animosity to peasants’ uprisings.
These weren’t separate developments; all of them were driven by the same mechanisms, financial in nature, that channeled capital into a series of disruptive processes. All of these things, from armies of mercenaries to ships to printing presses, cost money. Europeans in this period excelled at finding ways to pay for them. By 1530, the damage had been done, and the future course set.
The Verge comes out on July 20th, but it’s available for preorder now via your distributor and medium of choice, and I’d be forever grateful if you checked it out.
Okay, it’s time for updates from the rest of the team. If you haven’t done so already, please subscribe to Discontents today:
Last week, Foreign Exchanges columnist Daniel Bessner made the case for consigning NATO to the dustbin of history:
The alliance has also grown to thirty members, and now includes many nations that were once in the Soviet sphere of influence, like Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania. Unsurprisingly, the organization’s wanton expansion into Eastern Europe has provoked Russia—imagine how US decision-makers would have felt had Canada or Mexico joined the Warsaw Pact—and NATO has been a useful foil for Russian President Vladimir Putin, helping him justify his revanchist foreign policy.
As this all suggests, there are significant drawbacks to NATO’s continuing existence. For this reason, one of the major goals of the anti-imperialist left should be to dismantle NATO. Though one could have reasonably argued in 1949 that NATO was needed to pacify the North Atlantic and deter Stalin, there is no longer any reason for the United States to remain primus inter pares in Europe, spending more than any other country on NATO and deploying thousands of troops to the continent. Europe is safe, rich, and better able than the United States to determine what its security needs are.
Anyone who’s been angry about the criticism Congresswoman Ilhan Omar has received for asking a simple, objectively correct question in a committee hearing a few weeks ago will want to check out my interview with attorney and activist Elizabeth Beavers on America’s “accountability for thee, impunity for me” approach to international justice.
Become an FX subscriber and help support the newsletter this month and save 20% on your first year! Finally, please keep an eye out for my new project with Bessner, American Prestige. Our first episode should be dropping this week! Thanks for reading!
Welcome to Hell World
Last week I touched on the death of Donald Rumsfeld and looked back on a few related stories from the archives including this one about our continued valorization of America’s gentle old war criminal grandpas and the human beings they destroyed in Iraq. “I used to think when I was a little boy being taught about the lake of fire that the existence of eternal punishment was the scariest thing imaginable but now that I think it doesn’t exist it’s its own kind of existential nightmare,” I wrote in this other earlier piece.
Prior to that we covered the situation with Nazi war monuments in Canada and a punitive means testing bill for SNAP benefits in Ohio.
“For many Canadians, like the Atlantic’s David Frum, the larger social ill here is destroying a hunk of metal, not the centuries of horror the men represented in them have inflicted on Canada’s First Nations people throughout history and up to the present day,” wrote Karen Geier.
“As a quadriplegic who uses a powered wheelchair for mobility, my van is my lifeline for access to the world. However, if these stringent new policies, or others like them surely to come later, were to go into effect I would be left with an unthinkable choice: Do I sell my vehicle so I can keep the SNAP benefits that allow me to eat, or keep my accessible vehicle so that I can get to the specialist doctor’s appointments that my healthcare requires. Either option is close to a death sentence for me,” wrote Lizzy.
Find both those pieces here for paid subscribers. Here’s a 40% off coupon good until tomorrow.
Nashwa Lina Khan
Two weeks ago hundreds of police officers and parapolice descended upon Trinity Bellwoods park in Toronto to violently evict the residents living there, displacing people from their homes and severing communities. Toronto has been cruel and brutal to the people living in this city. The austerity measures putin place using the pandemic as an excuse for imposing cruelty will not suddenly dissipate after the pandemic “ends.” It is important to note how the pandemic continues to ravage other places in the world. Many are under the illusion that it is near the end because of the inequitable global vaccine rollout and apartheid. While companies thrived, many have died.
This episode was done in collaboration with the Encampment Support Network (ESN) in Toronto. We worked with Charlotte, an outreach volunteer with ESN. We discussed the evictions at Lamport Stadium that took place in May which involved a bulldozer to forcibly remove residents. This episode highlights how encampments are an alternative for so many and the reasons behind that. It also speaks to the work Encampment Support Network Toronto is doing. This episode discusses the tactics deployed by the city, police, and para-police. It also highlights how people can and do care for each other.
Laid bare by the pandemic are the conditions which have always existed for those marginalized by the state. Capitalism is functioning as it should be, and the pandemic has only accelerated its efficiency. The violent clearing events at Trinity Bellwoods serve as a harbinger. Austerity and privatization are in full effect as the means with exterminism as the goal. It is reasonable to expect that the new austerity and security measures are here to stay “post” pandemic.
In these moments, it is vital to connect our discontents. We will continue to bear witness to evictions and mutations of evictions. It is necessary that we understand the global nature of clearing people. It is impossible for low income and marginalized populations to live in cities or centers of cities. Pulling from Henri Lefebvre, it is a necessity to think about who has the right to the city, the right to everything urban life offers. We deserve cities that offer life to all residents. These discontents should never neglect this struggle globally. Presently in Silwan village in East Jerusalem, thousands of Palestinians are losing their homes and even being forced to destroy their own homes.
Capitalism, white supremacy, and fascism yield a massive graveyard. Criminalizing poverty is a war on people. The war on drugs is a war on people. Only through connecting our oppressions will we move forward. We do all owe each other so much, and so many deserve so much better. You can find the full write up and episode here.
Perspectives: Past, Present, and Future
Researchers in China have identified what they claim is a new species of archaic human, Homo longi, dating to at least 146,000 years ago. Is this actually a new branch of our family tree? I’m not convinced about that; I think we’re looking at some of the first physical evidence for the enigmatic Denisovans, a species of archaic human we know almost entirely through ancient DNA and tiny fossils found in Siberian caves. That’s perhaps less headline-grabbing, but far more impactful for our understanding of the deep human past.
Gaby Del Valle & Felipe De La Hoz
I can’t believe I’m going to say this but Joe Biden is doing something actually decent (???) with regards to immigration policy. The Biden administration is reportedly considering setting up a process that would allow certain people who have been deported to have their cases reevaluated, which would eventually let them come back to the U.S.
There are a few questions as to how this is going to work in practice, which we covered in last week’s edition of the newsletter. The big one is who will actually qualify. Right now, the administration has reopened the cases of veterans or people whose relatives served in the military; it seems like in the near future, the process will also be opened to people who were deported despite having DACA or as possible retaliation for political speech. But of course, there’s a catch: the “unjust” deportations the Biden administration is considering reversing are those that happened under Trump, and only under Trump. Of course, one could argue—and many advocates have—that almost all deportations are unjust, not just the most egregious ones. There’s also the fact that Trump deported around 900,000 people, while more than 2 million were deported under the Obama administration.
Hello from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia! Yesterday my sweetheart and I spent the day wandering around the old town and visiting every John Brown-related site and museum we could find (the John Brown Wax Museum is the best $7 I’ve ever spent). There were a ton of Bud Light dads and Appalachian trail hikers underfoot, but it was still the nicest possible way I could think of for an abolitionist couple like us to spend our anniversary :)
I’ve been on vacation mode for the past couple of days and still need to add these to my actual Patreon, so I guess this is something of a sneak peek. This past week, I published a new installment in No Class, my ongoing labor column at Teen Vogue; this one dives into the life and legacy of legendary labor organizer and agitator Mary “Mother Harris” Jones, and how her spirit lives on in the work that the women of the UMWA Auxiliary in Brookwood, Alabama have been doing for the past four months of the Warrior Met coal miners’ strike.
A couple of days ago, we released the second video in my Battleground Brookwood mini-documentary series for The Real News Network. This one focuses on the Auxiliary and specifically the coal miners’ wives who have been keeping this strike alive while running households, raising kids, and dealing with jobs and pressures of their own. We know that the coal industry is in decline, and that it has and will continue to cause grave harm to the environment; what often gets left out of these conversations is the human cost of coal, and the communities who depend on it despite the risks and heartbreak that are an almost guaranteed part of life in the mines. Take a minute to listen to these women and their stories (and if you’re so inclined, donate to their strike pantry). I’ll be back with more coverage of the strike next week.
Wars of Future Past
Kelsey D. Atherton
The military is in the business of converting information into violence. It is, in many ways, seen as a zero sum operation, with known facts interpreted as an enemy advantage. This is true with the obvious, like revealing concealed troop positions in battle, and it is true with the remote and secret, like the flight of an aerial torpedo outside Dayton, Ohio, in 1918.
Last week, I had a story in Slate about the latest UFO (er, UAP) report from the intelligence community. It was a chance for me to revisit my favorite topic, the Kettering Bug Aerial Torpedo, and a chance for me to talk about New Mexico (this time, in the case of the Roswell balloon crash of 1947). What all three of these incidents have in common is an act of omission more than an outright lie (though Roswell and the Kettering Bug crash featured those, too). The omission is this: rather than admit to a failure of a new and novel military system, the military on the ground preferred to let people speculate about demonstrably untrue possibilities.
In this week's upcoming Wars of Future Past, I’ll talk more about sensor failure, about the limits of admitting limits, and what it means to trust the keepers of secrets, especially given a proclivity for at best half-truths.
A less than sweet week at The Flashpoint—Russell Stover's facilities in Iola and Abilene, Kansas are using prison labor to make up for a labor shortfall. The plants also cut sanitation crews to save money, leading to allergens being left on production lines and caked up chocolate and grime.
More to come on this frankly gross story, as well as a look at ICE and policing, this week.
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