The Stain of Big Oil is Smearing Earth … and Our Culture

This month we published Mel Evans’ Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts, coinciding with the fifth anniversary of BP’s catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill. In this article, first published on commondreams.org, Mel explores the ongoing – and yet increasingly scrutinised – relationship between oil companies and many of our most loved and prestigious cultural institutions.

Evans AW‘This week marks the 5th anniversary of BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster. The company continues to be hounded by the legal fallout, including criminal convictions, and it is desperate to do whatever it can to cleanse its public image. This is especially challenging in the face of intense criticism globally from the fossil fuel divestment groups like 350.org, the #keepitintheground campaign and the movement to end oil sponsorship of the arts.

One of BP’s PR techniques to weather the Deepwater Horizon backlash is ‘Artwash’ – the title of my book which has been published on the same day as the anniversary. By sponsoring the likes of Tate and British Museum, as well as the Olympics, BP hopes to achieve a guise of social acceptability, or what oil PR specialists would call ‘social licence to operate’. But over the same period since the disaster, a multitude of voices have risen up to criticise cultural institutions for associating themselves with BP.

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The story behind Rebel Footprints

David Rosenberg’s Rebel Footprints: A Guide to Uncovering London’s Radical History was written for us to discover the hidden, radical history of London. But what inspired the author to write the book? We find out…

‘As you open my book, Rebel Footprints, take a moment to read the dedication at the beginning. “But that’s just the author’s family. I don’t even know them,” you are probably thinking to yourself. Please indulge me and read on. Apart from my family (who are nice and interesting people) it says, Rebel Footprints“…and to a ground-breaking social historian, Bill Fishman.” Those who knew Bill will understand immediately why I used the term “ground-breaking”. Bill was the pioneer of radical history walks in London’s East End.

In 1984 I had the privilege of attending one of Bill’s unforgettable and truly inspirational walks. Needless to say, I was blown away. Without that experience I would not have written this book. As well as providing shed-loads knowledge he showed me how important it was to put yourself in the shoes of the people who made our history. I wrote my dedication to him when I submitted the final manuscript of Rebel Footprints at the end of last November. Sadly Bill died just before Christmas, at the age of 93, but he lives on in the work of many people he inspired, including myself.

Since 2008, I too have been walking the streets of London telling the stories of ordinary people who did extraordinary things to change life for the many, not the few. Yet each year, as I tramp the streets, it is a bit different. When I reach the Lord Morpeth pub on Old Ford Road, instead of saying: “Notice that pub sign with a suffragette selling a newspaper”, I find myself saying: “until last year there was a sign on that pub…” On Donegal Street in Islington, I now point to where there used to be a wall, “and on the wall there was a plaque for a leading Chartist, James Bronterre O’Brien.”

London is changing rapidly and not for the better. The inner-London sites of so many struggles for social justice are starting to be obscured and erased. As houses, shops, municipal buildings and other older structures disappear, often the artworks or plaques that had been placed on them come down too. New monuments are taking their place; the luxury flats and financial houses are monuments to the triumph of casino capitalism. We can occasionally win a small victory to temporarily halt a “development”, but we don’t seem powerful enough to stop this process of recolonisation of significant parts of our city and its spaces by massive wealth. Once an important landmark is gone, it is difficult to put back anything meaningful to show what once was there.

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Jaurès Today: Socialism and Democracy from the Bastille to Barcelona

To accompany his important new translation and abridgment of Jean Jaurès’ Socialist History of the French Revolution, we asked Mitch Abidor to reflect on the relevance of Jaurés’ writing to contemporary political struggle.

‘During a recent visit to New York Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, the left-wing party that Jaures ASHOTFRgrew out of the Indignados, and which has become a rising force in Spain, was asked – or rather harangued – about the revolutionary era we’re now living in. Iglesias refused to accept this characterisation. Similarly, he later refused to condemn Keynesian measure out of hand for saving capitalism, pointing out that in his country people were hungry, jobless, and homeless and couldn’t wait for socialism to have their problems solved. Iglesias’ refusal to play the game of “I’m more left than you could ever be” was impressive in its willingness to accept the reality of a period where achieving any positive reform is an uphill battle, and I felt that perhaps the time was coming for the return of Jean Jaurès.

Jaurès’ masterpiece, A Socialist History of the French Revolution, is the rarest of books: a serious work of history that was also intended to be an inspiration and guide to action. Jaurès is clear about this right from the start – his book is, after all, entitled A Socialist History of the French Revolution; his parti pris is proudly brandished on the cover. And once the book is opened, the first paragraph contains a political program: “We want to recount the events that occurred between 1789 and the end of the nineteenth century from the socialist point of view for the benefit of the common people, workers, and peasants. We view the French Revolution as an immense and admirably fertile event, but we don’t see it as something eternally fixed that leaves the historian with nothing else to do but explain its consequences. The French Revolution indirectly prepared the advent of the proletariat. It realised the two essential conditions for socialism: democracy and capitalism.” This is a book to read, reflect upon, and be guided by.

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Fredrik Barth: An intellectual biography

As  a new biography of social anthropologist Fredrik Barth is published this month, we ask the author Thomas Hylland Eriksen, himself a renowned anthropologist, to expand on why he chose his subject…

‘Social scientists come in many shapes, some more interesting than others. One of the Fredrik Barthextremes is the wide-ranging scholar who circles the planet in a helicopter with a pair of binoculars, eventually developing a theory about life, the universe and everything. The opposite extreme is the khaki-clad explorer crawling on all fours while peering at the grains of sand on the beach through a magnifying glass. This is the end of the continuum where most anthropologists find themselves. Yet, the grains of sand are not enough. Indeed, a major ambition of anthropology consists in ‘seeing the world in a grain of sand’ (Blake), building social theory from everyday events in ordinary communities and discussing human universals through the life-worlds of a few individuals leading perfectly average lives anywhere in the world.

In this endeavour, Fredrik Barth (b. 1928) is an undisputed master. One of the most influential anthropologists of the latter half of the 20th century, Barth’s career spans six decades and has brought him to more than a dozen field sites. This book tells the story of Barth’s life from his student days in Chicago just after the war to his retirement years in Oslo; and in doing so, it highlights the power of the ethnographic gaze and the critical potential inherent in an anthropological approach to human life. At its best, anthropology can tell us that everything could have been different, that there are many roads to the good life, and that the present social order does not necessarily constitute ‘the best of all possible worlds’ (Leibniz). Anthropology treats all lives in an equitable way, giving no pride of place to the pale and powerful.

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Social Contradictions and Awakened Dreams in Latin America

Luis Martinez Andrade gives an overview of his new essay collection, Religion without Redemption.

‘Since 1492, the history and the appearance of the Americas (Abya Yala) acquire a new nature. The Andrade RWRInvasion of the Conquistadores is a critical moment not only in the constitution of modern Western subjectivity but also in shaping the pattern of world domination, in the words of Aníbal Quijano, “modernity, capitalism and Latin America were born the same day”. Indeed, to understand the paradoxes and challenges of the Latin American people one has to understand the self-destructive logic of capitalist´s modernity-coloniality. Therefore, inspired by Walter Benjamin’s project, this work proposes a contrary reading of history in order to track both major colonial paradigms as well as liberation struggles of its victims.

Through evangelization, religion played an important role in the colonization of indigenous imagination: myths, beliefs lines and legends of the Christian world were imposed on dominated societies. However, religion as “sigh of the oppressed creature” (Marx) enabled the emergence of liberation Christianity: an ethos against colonial domination and against the idols of death. The theoretical expression of this liberating ethos was a school of thought that emerged in the mid-twentieth century in Latin America and today is known as Liberation Theology.

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‘Guilty as charged: I did once have a Jawal Card’

Alice Rothchild, the author of Broken Promises, Broken Dreams reports from Israel and Palestine.

‘Two weeks ago when the permit to Gaza finally arrived the travel nightmares began, lost aliceluggage, harsh Israeli interrogators, forgetting a flight, the neurotic pulsations of an anxious mind already on high alert.

The flight from Boston to Newark has the worst turbulence I have ever experienced. The tight lipped stewardess races the drink cart down the aisle as the plane lurches and pounces through the air, cups and plates clattering wildly as I brood over the striped suit sitting next to me, white knuckled, grimly gripping the seat ahead.  I briefly ponder my short but meaningful life. Is this another message from the angry travel goddess?

As expected, C 138, the terminal for the flight to Tel Aviv, is hidden behind a food court at the end of a long corridor, blocked off from general traffic, “SECURED GATE HOLD AREA.” I can feel my pulse leaping, a tightness in my chest, as the smatterings of Hebrew, Spanish, and the twang of New Jersey and New York meld with the drawl of southern accents.  We line up for the second bout of screening, (see message: all the world hates us, Israeli security is our most important product), but the cursory bag inspection and spread eagle wanding seem more for show than anything else.

An eager young man wearing a yarmulke pours over a heavy organic chemistry text book.  He explains to me that he had gone to Israel and “gotten religious” and now he dreams of medical school, do I have any advice for getting in?

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Intervention – ‘Future Shock’

The following article by Andy Merrifield, author of The New Urban Question first appeared on AntipodeFoundation.org.

‘Speculating on the future, especially on the political future—and especially especially on a Left political future—is something you get slammed for these days; “they” tell you you’re writing fiction, particularly if your future threatens the status quo. (Check out Merrifield TNUQAustin Williams’ recent review in the Architectural Review of my The New Urban Question.) On the other hand, if your future can be absorbed within the status quo, or else puts a different spin on that status quo, your future is realistic, permissible not dismissible: technocratic futures are okay, as are big futuristic master plans that involve lots of high-tech urban design stuff—lots of corporate high-tech urban design stuff—ones endorsed by some billionaire and administered by a patented scientific corporation. The reasons behind this are of course intellectual and political, particularly when ideology and politics underwrites commercial economics.

Contemporary academia and a lot of scholarly social science have pretty much given up thinking about radical futures.[1] It’s sad how low the bar is set, how unambitious and unimaginative the academy is with its knowledge production, keeping its thought within the narrow confines of academic specialization and arcane professional journals. Social science has retreated inwards, or has become servile, a mere handmaiden of power. Crucial therein is the dominance of the positivist-empiricist tradition, something perhaps obvious in our age of “experts,” in our era some describe as “post-political.” Positivism has always hidden behind the shield of quantification and “objectivity,” always tried to rid itself of politics. Now positivism/empiricism is a convenient methodological foil for technocrats trying to find consensus without conflict, gaining grants without upsetting anyone. Their opinions are neutral and expert, right? Their objective knowledge isn’t value-laden. Yours, if it’s critical and theoretically partisan, is warped, ideological; worse, fantasy.

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