Rick Emerson - 'Unmask Alice'
The first biography about Beatrice Sparks, the author of 'Go Ask Alice' and 'Jay's Journal'.
I liked this book from the start, in how it simply put things together:
At the end of working on Intersectional Class Struggle, I found myself writing during the combined impacts of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and the unprecedented movement power of Black Lives Matter in 2020. Albeit powerful, attempting to look strictly at “class” factors to explain this moment gets us in trouble. For example, the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated the already gross wealth inequality in the United States; the richest and most powerful tech corporations have ballooning stock valuations and profitability propped up by government spending and guarantees for the rich. A study by the Institute for Policy Studies found, in the first three months of the crisis in the United States, the nation’s billionaires increased their wealth by over $600 billion, bringing their total assets to $3.5 trillion, more than the total wealth for the entire U.S. Latinx population. In the same period, more than 44 million people had to file for unemployment relief because they lost their jobs and, by mid-2020, 40 million were facing eviction, all disproportionately affecting people of color. Amazon’s stock valuation soared during the crisis to $1.5 trillion, doubling its profit during the pandemic and bringing in a record $5.2 billion in revenue. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive officer (CEO) and already the richest person in the world, gained $13 billion in one day on a stock surge, his personal value up $70 billion on the year to roughly $180 billion while the real economy suffered. Meanwhile, Amazon workers who make that profit possible were being called in to work, getting infected with COVID-19, and dying. By May, there were eight known deaths. When workers protested those conditions, they were fired.
So, what is intersectional class struggle? To quote the author from a passage about Clarence Coe:
Coe is expressing the tenets of intersectional class struggle, the idea that, despite significant differences, most of us are “in the same boat” and can come to recognize it. White workers can’t make it without Black liberation.
Race, gender, class, all of these bits matter in breaking all of us out of our chains. Reagan, unlike Marx, includes more factors than the material when describing the fundamental relationship of class.
In different times, and in different places, workers across the world have come to see wage labor as exploitation and a form of slavery. Twentieth-century migrant workers in California’s Central Valley, early nineteenth-century British coal miners, and the “factory girls” of Lowell all created profound critiques of wages and capitalism. Besides the outrageousness of wealth inequality, capitalism robbed workers of the wealth they created by taking that value and giving it to capitalists. This meant that wages and profits were in direct contest with one another and that the class struggle was a permanent antagonism that could not be reconciled within the system of capitalism. Instead, a new system, one without wages and property, would be necessary to ensure that workers could control their labor and the wealth they created. For this loss of control, women workers in the textile factories of Lowell compared their condition to slavery and recognized that their experience was shaped both by corporate control and patriarchal control, which limited their autonomy and freedom. In the labor market, their statuses as women and workers were mutually reinforcing, contributing to their undervalued labor, exploitation, and oppression. In this picture, we see factors of culture, material conditions, and social structure fused in systems of class and gender that constitute one another.
Reagan interweaves stories of time before wage labour, extreme injustice, revolution, and grass roots forming to cause the most profound change, always in the context of the fact that class struggle is inequality: if one party is treated unequally, we all are.
Colonial workers acted on their shared interests, often alone, sometimes in collective acts of resistance. The most famous, Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, highlights the possibility for interracial class alliances forged by those on the bottom of colonial society. The rebellion itself and the legacy it represents offers a complicated mix of race, class, colonialism, violence, and resistance. Initially, Nathaniel Bacon, for whom the uprising takes its name, wanted to expand the colonial frontier into lands of the Nanticoke and Doeg Indigenous peoples. This was an important claim for freed servant and enslaved people who found land inaccessible around the increasingly crowded Chesapeake. The colonial governor of the time, William Berkeley, refused. A rebellion then formed around Bacon, composed of the colonial underclass both white and Black, who turned their ire on colonial elites. They marched on the capital city and burned it to the ground, forcing Governor Berkeley to flee to the protection of offshore British warships. Eventually, through deceit and violence, the rebellion was overcome. Bacon died of dysentery, and the last band of holdouts was an interracial group of Black and white rebels who were captured not long after. What is important for our purposes is that Black and white colonial workers who faced similar conditions united against the colonial ruling elite with enough energy to sack the seat of government. Needless to say, this was a serious threat to the interests of the ruling class.
Reagan draws links between old and new ways to rule classes, from physical violence to mental; he shows links between the past and present, and, if we are not careful, how our future will play out. Reagan plants seeds. One example of this is making the reader consider if we truly are rid of slavery by playing out how companies such as Amazon and FedEx monitor and control their employees.
I enjoy the complexities in this book. For example, there is the struggle of Black people, further lineated by thinking of Black women, who have been and are punished harder than Black men in many different contexts. Then, add to that the matters of class and profession: a wealthy person may be measured differently than a poor person. Is one profession different than any other, in regard to value, and, if so, why and how? All of these things must be considered. There is also time and geography: matters have been measured differently in different times, and in different places. Culture plays in.
I loved reading about Rudolf Rocker, both his critique against scientific materialism and how nuanced he laid out his thoughts:
“In social events,” writes Rocker, “it is always a matter of a causality of human aims and ends, in nature always of a causality of physical necessity. The latter occur without any contribution on our part; the former are but manifestations of our will.” Based on will, desire, calculation, conscious thought, and unconscious thought, individuals and societies could not be reduced to singular factors such as economics. Instead, material factors themselves were composed of cultural and social components. Rocker says that “religious ideas, ethical concepts, customs, habits, traditions, legal opinions, political organizations, institutions of property, forms of production, and so on, are not necessary implications of our physical being, but purely results of our desire for the achievement of preconceived ends.” Here Rocker presents the idea that even material structures are a reflection of ideas, desires, and will, created for human interests, and hence changeable through human agency.
There are many voices referenced in this book: W.B. Du Bois, Cedric Robinson, Frantz Fanon, Silvia Federici, Selma James, Sojourner Truth, Angela Davis, and Judi Bari, among others.
All in all, this is a trip through many components that the author pulls together to try and weave a complex picture. In this, he succeeds. My critique is this: while this is a much-needed book that paints a wondrous, horrifying, and inspirational picture of humanity, it is wordy as fuck. It is more a thesis than a coherent and modern book. Sure, I think most people can read this book and get much from it, but I also think it would make a potential reader steer away it if they opened it up and had a quick read.
On the other hand, this book makes for a rewarding reading experience. There is much to be found in these pages, and its author did a fine job in displaying the many nuances in both the struggle against class oppression and how important it is to understand intersectionality.