Friday, March 29, 2019

What Urban Liberals Might Learn From Rural Rebels

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Loka Ashwood, a rural sociologist at Auburn University, visited The Land Institute in Salina, KS, last September, and gave a presentation on her then just-published book, For-Profit Democracy: Why the Government Is Losing the Trust of Rural America. The book is wonderful, if sometimes a little frustrating--I'd love everyone to read it, but especially the liberal editors of Washington Monthly, the liberal contributors to Boston Review, and all the progressive liberals surrounding Elizabeth Warren's presidential campaign. Why them, in particular? Well, that takes some explaining.

I pick on the Monthly and the Review in particular because they both recently published extensive packages of articles addressing--in thoughtful and (mostly) non-condescending ways--the fate of liberal politics and left causes in general in rural parts of America, and insisting that a new engagement by those on the left with rural America is a necessity. Paul Glastris, the editor of the Monthly, announced the issue's focus by calling upon its mostly wonky, mostly DC-living readership to "check your coastal urban privilege," and the articles which followed thoughtfully examined how agricultural consolidation is more a problem for rural communities today than tariffs, and how airline deregulation and the weakening of antitrust laws have created huge difficulties for small and mid-size cities in rural parts of the country trying to hold onto the resources upon which rural, regional economies depend. Elizabeth Catte, editing a special issue titled "Left Elsewhere" for the Review, invoked the left-wing, populist history of miners unions and other 19th-century and early 20th-century fights in Appalachia, noted the parallels between those movements and the West Virginia teachers strike, and insisted that liberal reformers today need to rediscover a "continuity" with rural activists from the past. And as for Warren, just on Wednesday her campaign dropped a long list of policy proposals she is promising to pursue if elected president, any one of which--supporting farmers in their pleas for much needed right-to-repair laws, shifting anti-trust policy to focus as least much on the Monsanto-manipulated agricultural producer as on the cheap-food-price-paying consumer--would be valuable additions in the fight to preserve rural economies and keep agricultural communities intact.

Talk is cheap, of course. Still, these and many other responses--some hopeful, some less so--from the liberal/progressive/socialist/left side of the political aisle in American life would seem to suggest, if nothing else, that in the wake of consistent major losses in the middle of the country over the past couple of decades, at least some smart Democratic activists, think-tankers, and politicians want to be more serious about incorporating the social and economic concerns of rural America into their thinking. More power to them!

But, also, they should read Ashwood's book. Because her analysis of the way the federal, state, and county governments of Burke County, Georgia, plus the massive and entwined corporations of Southern Company and Alabama Power, and the nuclear Vogtle Electric Generating Plant which they all together managed to build on land that, at one time, was owned by and provided both cultural and natural support to the people who lived upon it, teaches sobering lessons to those who hope that policies alone, absent a deeper restructuring of how we think about rural communities, will suffice.

It should emphasize that I have no doubt that Ashwood herself would be sympathetic to all of those above mentioned policies, and probably many more. Her contempt for the crony capitalism and the regulatory state which uses eminent domain to serve the interests of for-profit bodies which perpetuate such capitalist concentrations of power is made exceptionally clear throughout the book and her other writings, so clear that I'm certain she would consider any program, no matter how minimal, which might even just slightly limit the ability of corporations (and the governments which enable them) to control whether or not farmers can fix their own equipment, or make use of their seeds, or hunt on what was, sometimes for generations, their own land, absolutely worth pursuing. Years of research in rural communities have convinced her--and she makes a convincing case--that the greatest enemy of rural America is what she calls "for-profit democracy." It's a term which she defines multiple times, often somewhat differently (readers of her book should be forewarned that she repeatedly introduces concepts, even if quite similar to a previously introduced one, with a "this is what I'm calling" declaration--it's a slightly distracting habit, but not a terrible one). It describes a phenomenon which should be familiar to anyone with a rural background, in which public utilities--which are nearly always for-profit corporations--work through the power of governments to capture resources (land, waterways, roads, and more) so as to expand their productive footprint (and, thus, their "public service," though of course also their profit margins). It's a phenomenon which ties together concerns over majoritarianism (urban areas with large populations rarely think about the rural consequences of voting in support of constructing electrical grids, power lines, water treatment plants, or waste repositories, and therefore for the invasive industrial expansions necessary to do so), monopolization (economies of scale, when dealing with the demand for equal access to comprehensive goods, invariably benefits those large economic actors which can provide said goods, and thus empowers their demands for special privileges from the state), and limited liability (the creation of corporate forms which can offload costs creates a corrupt condition of mutual dependency, as well as mutual enrichment, between government and private actors). To try to capture the complexity of her idea, consider this explanation:

[F]or-profit democracy is enacted through the collective legal form of the corporation. In no universe would corporations exist without a legal system committed to economic development. Corporations enjoy liability protections not afforded to humans that go by their own name. When the Smith family can't pay their mortgage, they lose their house. But if a nuclear power plant defaults on a loan payment or experiences a core meltdown, layers of subsidiary corporations, limited liability, and special legislation protect shareholders from paying their debts. Further, private utilities have an absolute monopoly because the state (in addition to making them legally possible) allows them to buy up one another while also demanding that citizens fund them....

If corporate expansion over public purposes and private profit stopped there, profit-seeking corporations might not be such a substantial affront to the moral economy of democracy. Perhaps the legal creation of what I see as "for-profit democracy"...could stay in a sphere of corporate trade and not over-power the right to own property for other reasons. Perhaps limited liability could apply only when corporations squared up against other corporations, without dispossessing humans, who still bore liability for their own actions. But corporate owners have not stopped there. On top of awarding them public and profit rights, the judiciary recognizes corporations as people....Economic development and making money are so confused with the ultimate ends of society that fictitious legal creations are treated as everyday people....Deft lawyers cleverly press the extension of human rights to the corporate form through narrow legal jurisprudence, making profit's rule ever more pervasive in ever more corners of democratic and everyday life. Meanwhile, the scales of justice that favor corporations bring democracy ever closer to the breaking point--a breaking point for the moral economy familiar to Sydney, Sara, Dave, Dean, Beau, and Patty [all of whom are various individuals that Ashwood profiles at length, all residents of Burke County who have found so many options for the traditional use of the resources and land once available to them circumscribed by the actions of power companies and the county government that are tempted to do as many others--just take the money and leave], who find themselves unable to compromise on their most deeply held principles for the sake of a profit-seeking legal apparatus (pp. 25, 71, 73).

There are many more arguments which Ashwood develops from her years-long, sometimes difficult engagement with and study of both the facts on the ground and the people who live upon it, there in Burke County. (In a nice moment, Ashwood relates how some doors were opened to her that might have remained closed as the word spread through this rural area that her husband was Irish, making her more sympathetic; apparently, stories of the sufferings of the Irish are still known among the distant descendants of the Scots-Irish in the Georgia backwoods still today.) Not all these arguments--about positive and negative freedom, about Thomas Hobbes, about the nature of private property itself--are equally well-informed. But the way she charts how the contracting of resources worsened racial divides, how the rhetoric of both Christian preaching and gun ownership was locally shaped by corporate-driven instability, and more was all superb. True, what she is studying may not be all that different from what happens in urban environments, when business interests get government support (and sometimes even subsidies!) to buy up and "improve" properties that were, in however limited a fashion, "commons" that contributed to urban life. But the fact that her context for examining the way these tensions play out is a rural one matters.

The problem, to put it simply, is rural conservatism. The people she spoke to--the white ones, anyway--nearly always voted Republican (when they bothered to vote, that is). How seriously, you might wonder, are we to take the observations and conclusions of someone who spent years tramping around the forests of eastern Georgia, and develops from that study a condemnation of corporate power and the rule of capital, a condemnation that, at least insofar as electoral results go, is apparently shared by essentially none of the white people she spoke to? Isn't it more likely that her fine-grained sociological study of the people of Burke County only reflects class and race-specific patterns of belief which we're all already familiar with, patterns that the well-intentioned proposals from Washington Monthly or Boston Review or Senator Warren fit into nicely? I would argue no: instead, Ashwood has revealed something important and not-often noticed. But unfortunately, you have to go beyond her fine book to see what that is.

Last year, Ashwood published--along with her book--a fascinating, somewhat rambling piece of sociological theory, one which attempts to categorize the type of anarchism that she had experienced so much of during her years in Georgia. It's difficult to reduce the multiple prongs of her argument in that essay to a single thesis, but this one might work: according to Ashwood, many rural people hold to an ideal of statelessness, of entirely independent self-governance. As this is an ideal with no practical vehicle of ideological expression in American politics today, it is instead often articulated in association with various parties, movements, and positions that, while not truly anarchic, nonetheless capture elements of the stateless ideal through rhetorically attacking the state--an "anti-state" position that comes in both "retract" (libertarian) and "reform" (progressive) versions. In her view, reformers "temporarily advocate a pro-statist view as a just means to a stateless end," while retractors "seek to reduce the power of the state without attention to intermediate issues of justice." Here is how she breaks it down:





Assuming we accept this typology (and I'm not sure I do, at least not entirely; I would like to have a long conversation with her as to why she assumes that radicalism is invariably tied to state power) what does it tell us about rural conservatism? Mainly, in Ashwood's view, that what many of the people she interviewed--people who struggled with the reality that tremendous (though definitely not equally shared) economic and technological benefits to their communities came entwined with alienating, land-grabbing, disempowering public-private partnerships--felt was an anarchic desire, one which came out sounding like conservatism, because there was no other available political language which came close to attaching to it. Their actions and reactions, in her view, clearly exhibited a conviction of and in something which their political context gave them no partisan formulation of.

On my reading, the real heart of For-Profit Democracy comes in her long chapter on "The Rural Rebel," which in her presentation is embodied by one William Gresham. William is a character, admired but not always appreciated by the other rural folk that Ashwood got to know, a former worker at the Savannah River Site--a 300-square mile "nuclear reservation" run by the Department of Energy which decades ago was a primary site for refining nuclear material, which stands directly across the Savannah river from the Vogtle nuclear plant--and now a general handyman and something of local legend, spoken of with admiration and sometimes disbelief. It takes a long time for Ashwood to gain his trust, but in time she spends many days with him as he runs errands, assists neighbors, fixes equipment, relates local history, and--eventually--takes her boating on the Savannah, crossing into areas which government signs declare off-limits, and to his hunting lodge, where he goes after squirrels and wild turkeys on property where being caught would mean time in jail. His knowledge of place in the Wendell Berry sense, particularly Sugar Creek, a tributary of the Savannah, is immense, and his awareness of the ecological devastation--in terms of erosion, water radiation, and more--of the land that he loves is highly detailed. He is contemptuous of local farmers who make use of the Conservation Reserve Program to supplement their incomes, and holds as an article of faith that everyone who takes a government job is physically lazy. Drawing on the work of Eric Hobsbawm, Ashwood describes what Gresham represented as thus:

William took issue with the power given to authorities, who then turned their authority into power over the people, rather than power for. He said that he didn't care about voting. That served to reinforce the state that had sucked so many of his neighbors dry. What does William stand against? For-profit politics. He stands against conjoined corporate and state corruption that violates his ideal of hard, honest work, embedded in everyday, manual, resource-intensive labor....

In the modern world, William finds the defenseless to be not only human, but also those voiceless life-forms in need of defense. The woods, open fields, lakes and streams, and inhabitants--quail, snakes, waters, trees--conjoin with disenfranchised humans to constitute what William sees as the defenseless rural poor....The term "environmentalist," signifying someone explicitly engaged in green politics as part of formal governance, doesn't fit. William clarified to me that he "ain't no tree hugger." The rural rebel defends what I sense to be "environmental honor," a poignant protection of what is seen as a defenseless community of ecology....

The bending of William's back in his self-chosen toil serves as as essential piece of his resistance against corporate and government control. He is not part of a roaming group of outlaws. Nor is he a member of a mob. He is in fact rare, and has the admiration of a following the stubbornly stands against the money interests that he sees destroying his homeland....Part of being a rebel can be staying at home--that in itself is an act of defiance against the state, which demands urban migration (pp. 126, 132, 134-135). 

There is clearly at least a touch of hero-worship in Ashwood's description of Gresham, but something powerfully authentic as well. Elements of social welfare can be found in his language, and traditional Christian morality as well, but no fondness, at least in Ashwood's telling, for either profit or progress, both of which, in Gresham's telling, invariably involve one in the machinations of both Big Business and Big Government. Gresham is hardly a role model for the more egalitarian and pluralistic world which sets the terms by which our economic and legal structures operate; Gresham's life operates in accordance with rules that are very particular to his gender (Greshman's friends are astonished that he brought a woman on one of his secret trips up the Savannah, and the aggressive flirtation Ashwood put up with while getting to know him bordered on the abusive) and his race (Ashwood's interviews make it clear that poor African-Americans that live near Gresham would never trespass property while hunting the way he does casually, or at least would never admit to doing so to an outsider like herself--the threat of law enforcement was real to them in the way it wasn't for Gresham). But for all that, is there anything "conservative," in the rural anarchic sense which Ashwood observed, that all the progressives, liberals, socialists, and others who are concerned about crony capitalism, alienation, monopolization, state oppression, and all the rest, can learn from? Well, maybe.

I have an acquaintance here in Wichita, KS, named Zack. (This is him posing next to Carrie Nation in downtown Wichita. He's the one on the left.) He's a good guy, a marathon-runner and a supporter of public radio. We go the rounds every once in a while, because his attitude towards politics is almost perfectly calibrated to make someone like myself, who teaches it for a living, kind of furious. But nonetheless I appreciate the way he, and other radicals (though by Ashwood's typology they're better described as "rebels") I have known, have pushed me to understand the many ways in which working through the institutional forms of society to achieve more moral, or more just, or more fair outcomes, cannot help but tie those outcomes to the power of the social institutions themselves. And democracy--at least representative democracy, the voting for candidates and the deliverance of sovereign authority on the basis of the results of those votes--provides no protection against this. Nor, arguably, is protest, at least not of the petition-gathering variety. In rethinking anarchism in the rural context which Ashwood provides, I see the possibility that the rhetoric of majoritarian democracy can co-opt protest, making it into something aligned with the goal of obtaining control over the state, as opposed to the goal of assuring spaces for collective action. And if the state is itself co-opted by (or at least entwined with) corporate entities hunting for profit--whether that be through contracting out to corporations the running of a nuclear power plant, or through making deals with developers to remake a city park in line with their physical preferences--then the whole logic of protest (to say nothing of voting) is changed, since it cannot present itself as doing anything other that replacing the management of the relationships with capital within the state. Perhaps some kind of socialist revolution could do the trick--but given that the historical record suggests pretty clearly the harms of that approach, what does that leave us with? Maybe just...individual acts of rebellion. As Ashwood concludes:

Taking the for-profit democratic state at face value prompts an understanding of rebels as something other than apolitical, pre-political, misguided malcontents. If the state is seem as complicit in the creation and persistence of the coal industry, the nuclear industry, or any other corporate industry that could not exist without the government, rebellion becomes less an unfortunate barrier to successful political action. It rather takes on its own legitimate basis of political reason by working entirely outside a state that sanctions exploitation (p. 125).

In the end, I'm not certain I take the "for-profit state" entirely at face value. I'm not certain that I agree that  private-public partnerships, absent a wholesale reconstruction of how markets function, are necessarily always disempowering and exploitive, especially if the public goods being secured (as, in theory, is the case with public utilities) are truly comprehensive. And therefore, relatedly, I'm not convinced that there's something wrong with Democrats who, in thinking about rural communities, focus on judicial decisions, state-enforced laws, and more. But even there isn't anything wrong, there well may be something missing. What's missing, perhaps, is a clearer understanding of the "why" any policies such of those would be valuable, assuming they can pull of their reforming work. It's not, at least insofar as Ashwood's work suggests, because farmers will be grateful for the security the state is providing. It's because, maybe, just maybe, it will help them be less in need of such outside security, and more able to live their arguably "rebellious" lives in their places. Which is exactly why all of them haven't decided to accept discipline, get with the program, and move to the city yet, right?

8 comments:

Becky Elder said...

Front page of USA today is about the failure of the charter school movement, or the perceived failure of the charter school movement by the educational establishment. I personally think it is a wrong headed hybrid. However, reading the piece reminded me of your post here. People have all different ideas about what works to make their lives sustainable and wonderful. Systems, collectively created and supported by the exclusive access to force of law, can be helpful to meet some essential needs of life, but even that definition is a long conversation. What we must not do is take away the ability of people in a place to make their life out of the stuff available to them, subsistence perhaps, minimalist is better. Let the people work.

In a system, collectively created and supported by force of law, each voice must initially be heard. Then, the "sovereign" vote speaks an answer. The sovereign must care for the survival of the dissenting voices. Even more important, they must trust that the dissenters to have a grip on a reality that works, not as a threat to the sovereign but like you would look at people that are setting out on a journey using their own precious resources and taking on personal risk and responsibility. Don't burden them into submission. That is all there is to it. That is the antidote to tyranny, people encouraged and allowed to thrive outside the sovereign's control. Maybe the right of secession, or the right to create. When the dissenters, your rebels, sense that the system is predatory and no longer trusts them to function well, if differently, they have to begin distancing themselves from it and practicing resistance as needed. And, the predation is not always direct (regulations are direct ("stop that"), taxes are general ("pay your share of a system you don't use") and indistinct) so withdrawl tends to becomes geographic. People pack up and leave the system as far behind as possible. In that way, they can begin to grow a new opportunity and demonstrate the validity of their option. If the system comes after them, it proves itself predatory.

Democracy is the work of the people. Any healthful political system is going to observe, consider and encourage that perennial phenomena, limit itself and let the people work. History is full of that story.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Becky,

Thanks for commenting!

What we must not do is take away the ability of people in a place to make their life out of the stuff available to them, subsistence perhaps, minimalist is better. Let the people work.

I agree--though again, as you say right before this, exactly where those lines need to be drawn (in the name of many things: Christian charity, social stability, equal opportunity and respect, etc.) is a "long conversation." But generally speaking, yes: forcing "improvements" upon people, preventing them from being able to discover and development the richness of their own places, even if comparatively poor or minimal, is often a great crime against community, and thus against our most fundamental anthropology as human beings.

Even more important, they must trust that the dissenters to have a grip on a reality that works, not as a threat to the sovereign but like you would look at people that are setting out on a journey using their own precious resources and taking on personal risk and responsibility. Don't burden them into submission.

I'm in agreement here too. Decades ago, the law professor Stephen Carter wrote a short book (based on some lectures, I think) titled The Dissent of the Governed. His argument, which is not a unique one, is that majoritarian democracy depends not just on finding institutional forms which can accommodate disagreement, but also on forms which can respect dissent from the operations of the democracy itself. Dissenters, in other words, need what I see you saying as "a grip on a reality that works": a space of sufficient respect and integrity that they can develop their own resources and take on their own risks and responsibilities. The borders of that space will, once again, involve "long conversations"--who will be able to enter those spaces of dissent, and which of those within them will be able to leave, in both case with all their own resources intact, but while also acknowledging the separateness of that dissenting community may have achieved collectively? That's a hard thing, particularly in a pluralist society that wants to have a democracy that takes liberal principles of equality and freedom seriously. But unless we just want the majority to always and in every way overwhelm the dissenters, no questions asked, those hard conversations must be had.

Doug said...

"...The people she spoke to--the white ones, anyway--nearly always voted Republican..."

Did she talk with many black people? I can't tell from the excerpts, and Google Books hides both appendices that might have listed who she talked with. A quick glance at Wiki shows that roughly half of Burke County's population is black. It also shows a big rise in population in the 1840s and 1850s, slaves brought in when cotton was king.

I'm a lot more interested in what they might have to say than I am in Gresham. In the context of the rural deep South, especially a place with a legacy of cotton slavery, the choice of "rebel" as a moniker is something of a tell. That he flouts the law in a way that black people can't is overdetermined.

I see that Burke County raised quite a few soldiers for the Confederacy. I wonder how efficiently their slave patrols worked. I wonder, too, whether the whites of the region were as opposed to government when it was providing the muscle for Indian removal. I doubt it.

Page 53 (not available in full in Google Books) notes the final dispossession of the indigenous peoples in the second half of the 1700s, and says a couple of sentences later that "Vigilante justice became the norm as the moral authority of the state's ruling class came into question." Vigilante justice seems a much more likely outcome of widespread statelessness than does respect and valuing of dissent.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Doug,

Good questions!

Did she talk with many black people?

Lots. The longest chapter in the book is her immersion into the local African-American church culture, which is wild, wonderful thing all its own. And it wasn't--or at least I don't think it was--just religious/racial tourism; she got to know some of these folks very well. It's pretty clear from her reporting that the very, very few locals who have genuinely benefited materially from the Vogtle plant over the years were white, and that the various land-grabs/eminent domain claims/pressured sales that have disrupted patterns of life in Burke County hit blacks to an even greater extent than they did whites.

That he flouts the law in a way that black people can't is overdetermined.

Oh, absolutely. I really don't think that, for all the way that Ashwood obviously found Gresham a fascinating, even romantic figure, she was at all blind to the historical privilege which enabled him to play the role he does (for example, while he speaks respectfully enough of some of his black neighbors, none of them are ever party to his illegal excursions up and down the Savannah and its tributaries). Being a rural rebel in the South is clearly a white male thing, though I'm going to reveal my priors by suggesting, as I think Ashwood would, that just because a set of behaviors is historically (and thus probably also violently) coded to a particular race and gender, doesn't mean that it might not represent a position worth exploring ideologically.

Vigilante justice seems a much more likely outcome of widespread statelessness than does respect and valuing of dissent.

I don't disagree. But that doesn't change the fact that the black population of Burke County didn't, insofar as Ashwood's years-long investigation showed, and despite its different voting habits, was apparently every bit as strong a supporter of the "stateless" ideal (or wish, really) as the white population. The history of the Confederacy and Jim Crow and the power of the national government to (in theory, anyway) save them from all that didn't seem to outweigh the contempt many of the blacks she interviewed had for Southern Power, the Department of Energy, and the government of Georgia. (Though you should read the book, if you have the chance; maybe your impression will be different. One interesting note: it wasn't just whites that took a greater liking to Ashwood once the word got around that her husband was Irish; there were African-Americans who explicitly talked to her as being "one of the oppressed" as well.)

Doug said...

Lots. The longest chapter in the book is her immersion into the local African-American church culture, which is wild, wonderful thing all its own.

Good news! Last month I read The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson, which is a fabulous book, the kind that puts a frame of lived experience on the demographic reports or theoretical musings. One of Wilkerson's main subjects had the kind of deep knowledge of the citrus groves of Lake County, Florida that you get from picking them with your own two hands. He had to leave for the north one day because he probably would have been shot that night for organizing the pickers to demand better wages. And just last night I finished up The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, which, if you haven't read it, is a thoroughgoing brief on how many different ways state power was used to establish and prop up residential segregation. If you count regulators looking away while banks and bank-like entities sold subprime and negative-amortization loans to black customers in ways that they didn't to white, then state support for disadvantaging black Americans runs through at least 2008.

Anyway.

I don't doubt that the Southern Company and DoE have been screwing local people for as long as they have been involved in the Savannah River area. (My impression of the Southern Company from way back in the days when I lived in Atlanta is that they had a serious corruption problem, though I can't cite sources a quarter of a century later.) The courthouse gang was probably the only local group not getting the short end of the stick. Countervailing power is about the only thing I can think of that might change the dynamics soon, and if the local white people insist on voting for Republicans, that isn't going to happen.

Anyway anyway. My next non-fiction is likely to be A Little Corner of Freedom: Russian Nature Protection from Stalin to Gorbachev by Douglas Weiner, a description of something that wasn't really supposed to exist but which, nevertheless, persisted.

People who are interested in the stateless notion might get something from all of the anti-politics theorizing that was going on in Central Europe just before 1989. Some of those folks actually rose to various positions of power, where they found it didn't mix very well with the needs of running real nations. Havel probably found the best balance, but then a semi-figurehead role is better suited to that approach. Michnik made it as a media mogul, and has a generally positive effect on Poland, current government notwithstanding.

Russell Arben Fox said...

People who are interested in the stateless notion might get something from all of the anti-politics theorizing that was going on in Central Europe just before 1989.

That's an interesting idea, Doug; any recommendations of specific writings or works? I always knew that those thinkers were charting, intellectually at least, a distinct left-wing route forward, but I've never really looked at the details.

Walter said...

As a "rural rebel" myself for nearly 70 years, I commend you and Ashwood for at least looking in a different direction. A lot of this - and more - was brought up in the Movement in the 1960's. The key is to walk away from the state, especially now. More on this can be found in my two books if you are interested. The Laws of Physics Are On My Side (2013) and Hints for Managing Collapse (2014). Both on Amazon and both with the Look Inside feature. You can also get them through interlibrary loan from your county library.

Doug said...

In very, very loose terms there's a generational story going on. You have people like Czeslaw Milosz and Milovan Djilas who were born shortly before the Great War. They grew up amid the remnants of feudalism and the wreckage of the war; socialism seemed to them the humane way of the future. Milosz survived World War Two in Warsaw, though he did not join the Home Army; Djilas was a partisan commander in Yugoslavia and after the war was vice-president under Tito, a possible successor. Both of them saw what socialism married to great-power nationalism became and broke with the movement. Milosz served as a cultural attache for the post-war Polish government in Washington and Paris; he defected to the West while in Paris. He wrote The Captive Mind, which describes how various people came to rationalize their commitment to Communism. (I also read it as a conversion story, or rather as a set of conversion stories.) Djilas fell from power when he followed his ideas on worker participation and democratic self-management to their logical conclusions. After his fall, he wrote The New Class, which is essentially about the intrusion of the Party bureaucracy into the Marxist scheme of class conflict. Its publication abroad earned him seven years of jail time, on top of the three he had been sentenced to when he fell from power. Released early, Djilas published Conversations With Stalin, which got him another five. He eventually served nine years and was amnestied in 1966. He lived to see the end of Yugoslavia.

György Konrád, whose early 1980s book Antipolitics is what started me down this path. He was born in 1933, and his was the only Jewish family of about 1000 in the town where he was born to survive World War Two. The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power (1974) parallels and reinforces Djilas' work on the same topic. Antipolitics is a collection of essays in which Konrád looks for something neither East nor West. My recollection of him is left-ish, in that he isn't interested in the capitalism and consumerism that he saw as being on offer from Washington. After 1989, he was active in politics as a founder of the Alliance of Free Democrats (SzDSz, which, because of the idiosyncrasies of Hungarian orthography is pronounced S-D-S) but wound up more engaged with global intellectual politics, as president of PEN International and two-time head of Berlin's Academy of Arts.

I'll skip Havel, since I presume you've read him. Kundera I only know as a novelist, though apparently there are essays as well. Danilo Kis I don't know at all.

Michnik was born after the war and grew up in a family of committed Communists. He was also a Scout, which I didn't know until I read his Wikipedia entry; his troop leader was Jacek Kuron, who was also later a key Solidarity organizer and theoretician. (I met Kuron briefly in '95 or '96 when he was visiting DC.) Letters from Prison is probably the collection to aim for, if you're looking for pre-1989 views.