Geoffrey E. Fox's Blog: Reflections & inquiries

March 28, 2017

Susana Torre has permitted me to post these excerpts from her report on our January trip to Bolivia.

We are still assimilating the disparate experiences of our Bolivian sojourn, as it is really 3 countries (geographically and culturally) with over 40% of the population being of 36 officially recognized indigenous groups, the Aymara and the Quechua being the largest. President and former cocalero leader Evo Morales is an Aymara. Under his rule many “women of the skirt” as they call themselves (for the pollera, the abundant skirt favored by indigenous women) or cholas, as they are called more disparagingly – have prospered as merchants enough to commission flamboyant buildings in a new style developed by the Aymara engineer Freddy Mamani, outside all canonical architectural discourses. They are designed to stand out and to be profitable: two levels of a huge and an exceedingly lavish party hall and two levels of rental apartments surmount the ground floor store; on top is the proprietor’s own large chalet (or “cholet”, as the white elite calls them). The colorful façades inspired by indigenous decorative motifs vigorously reinforce the cholas’ identity. Their enhanced status in the consumer society is amplified by the sumptuous designer versions of their traditional attire, about 10 grand for a party outfit.

Cholas in La Paz in everyday costume



Mamani’s buildings, which have been published in the international popular media, are so emblematic that small models of them were for sale in the huge alasitas fair on January 24th. This is the national feast celebrating the Ekeko, the Aymara god of abundance whose coat full of pockets is filled by believers with miniatures of the things they wish to obtain. In earlier times it was food on the table, now it is cars, houses, university degrees, dollars – as Lacan once observed, desire can never be satisfied. The newer Aymara city El Alto at 13,615 feet above sea level, where Mamani’s buildings are located, overlooks La Paz, about 1,700 feet below; the exposed red brick buildings make both cities look permanently unfinished. In La Paz, the neighborhoods succeed themselves from poor to wealthy skewer-like along the main road over the river underneath. Since Colonial times the richer the people, the lower in the ravine they live, enjoying better climate and more oxygen.

A Freddy Mamani building in El Alto

Potosí is even higher, at 14,420 feet above sea level, and placing coca leaves between skin and bone in one’s mouth and drinking coca tea made with Windsor teabags that can be found in supermarkets is essential to combat soroche (altitude sickness). There we experienced the degradation of a place that was subject to predatory imperialist overexploitation for over 450 years, claiming 8 million lives. The Cerro Rico (The Rich Hill), once dripping with silver and represented as the Holy Virgin in the 18th Century is now an anthill with hundreds of mine openings where men and boys toil brutally to extract minerals, mainly tin and what is left of silver. For those who speak Spanish, the documentary La Mina del Diablo (The Devil’s Mine) is an excellent introduction through the eyes of a 14 year old to this nether world and its fickle satanic deity, El Tío. The tourists donning yellow coveralls and miners’ hats that are brought through the mines are made to avoid the sight of children working, turning the experience into a slightly strenuous but mostly sanitized physical adventure.

The streets of the cities and villages we visited (Santa Cruz, San Xavier, Concepcion, El Alto, La Paz, Tiwanaku, Potosí and Sucre) are full of cars and minivans made in China without safety devices like air bags. These and the plethora of merchandise available in El Alto’s 6-mile long open-air market, the largest in Bolivia, are the most visible evidence of China’s assertive involvement in Latin America and especially in socialist Bolivia, which still doesn’t have an American Ambassador, only a Chargé d’Affairs. Bolivia’s production of natural gas, large enough to export, affords giving incentives to convert cars to natural gas as fuel, a good thing that eliminates the gasoline fumes, dispersed in noxious clouds by the reduced oxygen in the air. This and the Swiss-manufactured cable car system that connects El Alto with La Paz, allowing domestic workers to reach their jobs in wealthy neighborhoods quickly and comfortably, are counted as two of the government’s best achievements. But the country that had the fist Mint in the Americas now subcontracts the making of its money to Canada and Chile because it lacks the technology for anti-forgery features, and 45% of its population is below the poverty line according to some surveys.

Andean textiles are rightly considered the art form that best conveys the imaginary of pre-Modern indigenous groups in the region. They are carefully displayed in two outstanding small museums in La Paz (Museum of Andean Textiles) and Sucre (ASUR). The exquisitely manufactured pieces of the Tarabuco and Jal’qa women weavers impressed me the most. Tarabuquean weavings, like historic American quilts, describe the elements of everyday life (houses, animals, people, occupations). Jal’qa weavings use only black figures against a red background to describe the imaginary elements of a magical world populated by khurus, powerful monstrous wild beasts. These black figures fill the red background in a seemingly chaotic fashion, as they are realized without previous drawings, a technique known as pallay (designing while weaving). Training in weaving begins when girls are five years old. Traditionally, an ability to weave well was essential to assuming their responsibility to clothe their family and feed it by selling the surplus. Yet while the government encourages the preservation of pre-Modern societies and traditional female roles, it must also accommodate the demands of women like the cholas in La Paz, whose political presence as Minister of Culture or mayor of a major city like El Alto are transforming Bolivian society. That, and China’s expanding influence, propels the process towards a new kind of Modernity no longer within the framework of Western culture and civilization.

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Published on March 28, 2017 12:03 • 2 views

March 9, 2017

Free or discounted books at Smashwords, March 5-11, 2017, include my short-story collection, Welcome to My Contri (free) and my novel A Gift for the Sultan (big discount). Just click here. Coupon codes for the discounts will be coming shortly (I trust — I’m waiting for Smashwords to send them).

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Published on March 09, 2017 03:25 • 2 views

January 3, 2017

In a world beset by so many crises, and with Internet communications thrusting great tragedies and shocking murders into our faces almost all the time, we have to make an effort to stay calm, not quiescent but cool enough to think and act rationally. Using whatever resources each of us commands to help make things better as far as we can reach.

Like yours, my 2016 was upset and shocked frequently by turbulent events, and 2017 has begun with another one — in Istanbul, a city to which we have many ties and where we have good friends and many wonderful memories. We have also been appalled by the deaths and misery of so many refugees, the bombing of ancient and noble cities, typhoons, narco murders and on and on.

For 2017 I intend to continue using my writing and thinking capacities to find the patterns in the chaos, and then to reach as many others as I can. Discovering patterns is not only consoling, but may also help us know where we stand, what’s coming, and where we might take effective action. My long term project is a novel which I hope will reveal, or at least suggest, the patterns of desire and protest and violent revolt, and inspire reflection in readers.

As I said a year ago, “My proximate aims are to complete my novel on the Paris Commune of 1871 and to produce more essays on the multiple crises of our time.” Looking over my notes from 2016, I see the beginnings of some of those essays, but the main accomplishment has been important progress on that novel. Victory is still a long way ahead, but the struggle — to say and do something that will make a difference — continues.

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Published on January 03, 2017 13:52 • 5 views

December 21, 2016

Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris CommuneCommunal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune by Kristin Ross

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a collection of five deeply thought essays on distinct but overlapping debates regarding the Paris Commune of the spring of 1871, coming not to a unified conclusion but raising more sharply pointed questions about social aims and possibilities. There had been self-governing towns and village associations called “communes” since the middle ages, but it was a new and revolutionary conception that emerged in the wake of the French revolutions of 1789, 1830 and 1848, becoming a popular theme in Paris political clubs in the 1860s. The new concept, suited to the rapidly developing industrial world of 19th century Europe, was of a self-governing collective that was also egalitarian and voluntary, that is, entered into freely rather than with statuses predetermined at birth, and decisions and leadership all chosen, and revoked as necessary, by free vote of the people. Goods would be distributed to provide for the material needs of all, and in further contrast to preindustrial communes, it would not isolate itself but be open to newcomers and to free exchange of ideas and goods with other communities.

The amazing thing, astounding to participants and observers, is that something approaching that ideal became a reality in continental Europe’s greatest and most economically and technically advanced city for over two months (the 72 days from the revolt of 18 March to final massacre ending 28 May 1871).

The essays, or chapters, successively examine the pre-history of the Paris Commune in the thinking of worker intellectuals, the Commune’s actual practice during its brief active existence — with special attention to women’s actions and demands — and the sequels of the Commune’s experience in the thinking of survivors and sympathizers, including especially the geographers Elisée Reclus and Piotr Kropotkin and the arts & crafts artist, artisan and self-proclaimed “Communist” William Morris. Like Morris, Kristin Ross searches through ideals of the past to illuminate possibilities for our future — though without Morris’ medieval romanticism. It’s a marvelous intellectual journey, pointing to interpretations of the Arab spring, Spain in 2011, and many other popular revolts, in course or about to come.

« Elle n’est pas morte »  sang survivors. And indeed she”, la Commune, did not die with the defenders of the Paris barricades or the scores of communards shot down in the cemetery Père Lachaise at the end of May 1871. The ideal of the commune, had been born earlier in the imaginations of workers and their allies, as productive capacities and expanded communications made the scarcities and restrictions of capitalism seem unnecessary and intolerable. It was born in the imaginations of workers like Eugène Pottier, decorative artist, poet, communard and author of the phrase “communal luxury” and of the lyrics of The Internationale. And bookbinder Nathalie LeMel, and schoolteacher Louise Michel, and many others. And lives on still.

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Published on December 21, 2016 03:07 • 4 views

December 8, 2016

A Visit from the Goon SquadA Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An overarching story of changing times and failed aspirations is constructed of many much smaller, intimately observed episodes of a dozen or more characters in and around the music business. Their lives sometimes just brush against one another, or can intersect with life-altering consequences, creating the weft running through the warp of time. Each episode is a self-enclosed chapter, not immediately connected to the one that follows either in time, or place, or cast of characters. They occur between the 1970s and the near future, in different parts of the U.S. (the Manhattan streetscape is the most vivid), in a forest in Kenya, and some unnamed country ruled by a disgusting, obese and cruel dictator called “the general”. More interesting, keeping the reader alert, are the sharp shifts of narrative voice, tense and imagery.

Some of these literary experiments are much more successful than others, though all are cleverly written. The weaker ones include the visit to that genocidal general, who is nothing more than a caricature meant to demonstrate how low a publicist can go when she needs to please a client, and the surprising pages of color slides by a child with her comments on her parents (whom we have seen at much earlier moments in their lives).

Mostly, though, the shifts in voice, time and perspective are effective, revealing lives from several aspects as well as at different stages of life. Most memorable to me is the Kenya jungle safari, as seen by the young female graduate student accompanying the much older powerful recording executive and his son and daughter (who is too close in age to her father’s new lover), and the handsome Kikuyu playing a savage for the tourists, crazed American rock musicians, and a steely, attractive white hunter — the sexual tension among these characters reaches a near explosion.

Having created so many scenes with so many characters and their dramatic failures to achieve the lives they imagine, the author seeks closure in a final chapter set in the near future, 2021 or 2022 apparently, in an oppressive Manhattan patrolled by police or army helicopters. There, young people have given up smoking, swearing, body-piercing and tattoos, and consider notions of “corruption” or “purity” antiquarian because all that matters is your “reach”, which means how many people you can touch and move to attend a concert (or, I suppose, vote for Trump or anybody else), primarily through adroit texting of your “friends” — which is one of the words that can no longer be used innocently, but always within quotation marks to demonstrate its irony.

Those younger people are the only ones who have not yet succumbed to “the goon squad”, the ravages of time — but you know it’s going to get them.

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Published on December 08, 2016 02:32 • 4 views

December 7, 2016

Professor Scheidel tells us that the only effective social leveler is all-out war. There is another sort of crisis brewing, short of thermonuclear war (though not without violence), destabilizing the patterns that are producing greater inequality. We are experiencing its effects already: Inequality (as Thomas Piketty predicted) has grown so great and become so obvious that more and more people are forced to take desperate measures just to survive — such as trying to cross the Aegean by any means possible, or fleeing Central America, or Burma, or other places in extremely dangerous conditions. Others, not quite that desperate but fearful of greater economic and social decline, demand change and are ready, even eager, to join mass movements that promise some solution — what we’ve been calling (very loosely) “populism”.  The solutions offered by Marine LePen, or Donald Trump, or Nigel Farage or Hungary’s Jobbik, etc., are no doubt illusory, but they are destabilizing, forcing adjustments that sometimes produce even greater inequality, stimulating violence by their supporters and their opponents. Even more destabilizing are the movements including Taliban, Daesh, etc., extremely violent but not (so far) with the capacity to spark a global thermonuclear war. And from the rubble, whether literal (as in Aleppo) or institutional (as some now fear for Italy), the survivors will have no choice but to rebuild, to work together, and in  more equal conditions.

My take: The redistribution of wealth and opportunities has always required and will continue to require violence, because the more privileged have the resources to resist. The war for redistribution is already underway, in theaters from the Philippines to Cannonball, N.D., from Syria to Nigeria to Honduras, and violence just short of war in even as unlikely places as Finland, all spurred by galloping gap in life-chances. The possibility of some of these protest movements growing into war-seekers reminiscent of the Fascists and Nazis of the past century, and driving us into greater wars, is real. But not inevitable. As always, the future depends on us. But we are forewarned.

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Published on December 07, 2016 03:21 • 2 views

November 18, 2016

I just discovered this note written 1-28-1971 as preparation for a lecture in a sociology course I was then teaching at the University of Illinois in Chicago. It still seems relevant  — especially for the “bubbles” we all live in.

People who share common objective conditions come to develop similar interpretations of the world, and tend to be predisposed toward similar types of actions. Thus it often appears to others, outside this situation, that concerted action of this group is due to conspiracy when in fact they are all reacting more-or-less spontaneously to the same events.

Is there a military and industrial conspiracy to prevent peace? In the first place, it is much easier to conspire with people who share your general understanding of the world, and if this type of affinity is strong enough sometimes only the slightest remark or gesture may communicate fully one’s intentions. People may “conspire” in this sense without necessarily even being aware of it — or certainly without being willing to admit that that is what they’re doing.

People do not always need to be consciously communicating with one another, nor does anyone necessarily have to outline a strategy for them, for them to act together. This is the premise of the study of collective behavior. The military and industrial elites do of course communicate among themselves a great deal; no doubt much of this communication is secret between members of this elite. Nevertheless, most of their communication comes through media which are available to all, as they inform one another of their interpretations of world crises, international and domestic economics, repression of dissent at home and abroad, and so forth, in such media as U.S. News and World Report, Barron’s, and the New York Times.

These elites do not then need to conspire behind closed doors; they can do it openly, except for especially daring violations of the public conscience about which they prefer to keep the non-elite people ignorant.

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Published on November 18, 2016 03:44 • 5 views

November 13, 2016

We are still recovering from shock of the Trump triumph, as in the days after watching the Twin Towers burn and collapse on September 11 fifteen years ago. (See my notes from those days, link below.) The two events are completely different in other ways, except that each has felt like a blow to the body, a stunning shock that everything good that we have struggled for and believed secure was under attack.

How to respond? Well, let’s not panic — we New Yorkers kept our cool and embraced one another then, and need to do that again. But we need to do more than that. First we have to assess who we are and what are our personal resources; then secure our foothold where we are and see how far we can reach to others. Then, we can think how best to act in this moment. Here’s my personal answer.

I …

am a man 75 years old, an age at which one can die without embarrassment — which would be the easy way out. But in my case that would be as unpardonable as it would be for Bob Dylan or Mick Jagger, my nearly exact contemporaries: like them (I hope), I am in good health and, because of all the years lived and things done and seen, better prepared than ever to confront new challenges — though each of us in different ways. In my case, the preparation includes years of research, formal training and informal observation of the dynamics of social movements, overlapping with years of active social organizing. Plus a lot of practice writing. (See links below.) These are the resources I bring to the struggle.

Here …

is more than a geographical location, in my case a tranquil village on the southeastern coast of Spain — very nice, but too far for joining street demos or other face-to-face organizing. So let’s look at social location. Though I am no longer in an institution with colleagues, subordinates and/or students, I have a good foothold in social networks and can reach people through publications in print  or on-line articles. Since here I have wi-fi,  as well as warm human contacts and a wonderfully calming view of the Mediterranean sea, that reach can extend pretty far.

Now …

means before the new Trump administration gets consolidated, and also for the years to follow: we’ll need much critical thought and action, much as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have described. But “now” also means the beginning of our future, which will be up to us, all of us, to define — unless you’re willing to lie back and let Trump and company and the multinational corporations and the bureaucrats  and party hacks and Vladimir Putin and the religious fanatics define it for us. In the very near future, we have to confront the imminent danger of extreme global warming and all its consequences, continuing violent conflict among self-defined racial, national or religious clans, ambiguous technological breakthroughs that could bring either more destruction or more liberation — probably both —and a need to define a course for more human goals. Each of us using whatever resources we have, from wherever we find ourselves, has much to contribute.  As I’ve said before, this vision is very similar to that of the French sufi-trained philosopher Abdennour Bidar (if you read French, see my review of Les tisserands).

The “I” has to become a “we”, the “here” has to be a multitude of global interconnections, the “now” has to look to the yet-to-come.

My log of the days after September 11, 2001
See “Nonfiction” and “Fiction” links on my home page for some of my past writings
“Fire dragon” illustration source


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Published on November 13, 2016 04:45 • 3 views

November 5, 2016

I just received an invitation to this “Summer of Peace.” I then looked into it, because at first glance it seemed similar to Abdennour Bidar’s proposal of local actions to heal the world in Les tisserands, a book I reviewed very favorably. Then I looked at the roster of speakers on this and related pages. They include several quite respectable people, such as Jane Goodall, along with certified cranks like Ben Carson (remember him? The surgeon who wanted to be president) and Dr. Oz, immensely famous (though I had never heard of him) as a Columbia prof, Oprah Winfrey frequent guest, and pseudoscience promoter. I looked him up on Wikipedia and found (among other ridiculous but lucrative scams)

«A study published in the British Medical Journal on the effectiveness of Oz’s medical advice found that 51 percent of his recommendations had no scientific backing and rationale, or in some cases contradicted scientific evidence.[58] The study showed that 36 points of the 51 percent consisted of no supporting scientific evidence, while the remaining 15 percentage points went directly against scientific evidence.[59] »

This makes me draw back from my original enthusiasm for Bidar. The idea of “les tisserands” (“the weavers”) sounds wonderful, but just what are these people weaving, and with what sorts of threads? That our world is shaken by so many crises that it seems to be tearing apart — “the weave torn”,  le tissu déchiré in Bidar’s terms — prompts would-be saviors all over the world, among them many crackpots, gun enthusiasts, and opportunists of all varieties, including even the so-called “Islamic State” that aims to save the world by imposing sharia and destroying those who object. And closer to home, those Trump supporters looking for quick and drastic solutions to very complicated problems.

Knowing this, we U.S. voters have at least three options. We can vote for Trump, to accelerate the destruction of our institutions (free press and Supreme Court and international trade agreements among them), with all the risks that that entails (pretty scary) for possible short-term benefits for some (real estate speculators, maybe coal miners), and the excitement of nearing Armageddon. Or, secondly, we can give up all pretense of saving the world and just try to keep it functioning as well as we can, maybe with some gestures to mitigate gross inequalities but basically letting the rich keep getting richer.  Which means voting for Hillary and hoping for the best.

Or we can vote for Hillary to give us some time to think more deeply and broadly about a longer-range change, working to strengthen alliances to defend and develop liberty, equality, fraternity in the face of all our challenges, including environmental, technological and political. But meanwhile vote for Hillary so as to hold off Armageddon while we get our act together.

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Published on November 05, 2016 05:06 • 3 views

October 27, 2016

In reviewing my past reflections on the state of the world, I see I’ve made frequent references to this book: Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Origin of Capitalism (Monthly Review Press, 1999). So that readers may know what I’m referring to, here is my capsule summary from 2000.

Elegant & persuasive critique of all theories (including Marxist) that assume that capitalism is the natural evolution of any market to which all societies tend once obstacles are removed, or that it emerges as a consequence of demographic and/or technological changes. Markets & trade are not proto-capitalist, operating not on maximizing profit, competition, and compulsion, but on older principle of buying cheap in one market (say, Samarkand) and carrying goods to sell dear in another (say, Constantinople). Capitalism—”a system in which goods and services, down to the most basic necessities of life, are produced for profitable exchange, where even human labor power is a commodity for sale in the market, and where, because all economic actors are dependent on the market, the requirements of competition and profit maximization are the fundamental rules of life”—first emerges in one place only, the English countryside, NOT all of Europe and not in the cities, because of peculiar conditions there: exceptionally wide land holdings by lords, municipalities & other corporate entities with autonomous powers, who could rely on their economic power (to demand rents) and forego use of military power to extract surplus. Reliance on rents that varied according to market conditions, including the productivity of the land, made these landholders interested above all in productivity, thus on organizational & technical improvements, including enclosures. The dispossessed ended up in the cities, especially London, which grew to become the first mass market for cheap consumer goods. English capitalism benefited enormously from its overseas empire, but it grew in the first instance in response to its domestic, mainly London, market, which became so powerful it obliged other countries to modify their economies to serve it (00/3/20).

I find this a persuasive argument. You can find other, more elaborated reviews on the Web. Or read the book.

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Published on October 27, 2016 01:15 • 7 views

Reflections & inquiries

Geoffrey E. Fox
"Reflections" try to make sense of things read or experienced, as in my previous blog, "Literature & Society".

"Inquiries" are attempts to grapple with difficult questions, sociological, political,
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