Sunday, March 14, 2021

#StayAtHome: J. Sakai's "Learning from an Unimportant Minority"

 J. Sakai is a Japanese American radical who is best known for his book Settlers: the Mythology of the White Proletariat from Mayflower to Modern. This book, Learning from an Unimportant Minority: Race Politics Beyond the Black/White Paradigm (2015) is the transcript of a talk he gave as part of the Festival of Anarchy in Montreal in 2014. It's a small book, and short at 118 pages; I read it in a few hours last night.

The title is sarcastic. Sakai doesn't really think either Asians or Japanese Americans are an "unimportant minority", but that is how they are often treated within a paradigm that looks at race as primarily Black/White. He's interested in this problem not as an academic exercise in critiquing binaries or dualism, but based on his life experience. But the talk opens with the case of a white man in Chicago who attacked several Asian men while they were fishing by Lake Michigan. The white guy got a reduced sentence because his companions included a white woman and a black male, and because he belonged to an anti-racist skinhead group. That's the context for Sakai's immediate concern with Asians as an "unimportant minority."

In the talk he relates his family's experience after leaving a WW II concentration camp for Japanese Americans. They moved to Chicago, and he learned how to interact with white people ("the rules") around age 9 from African American kids of similar age. He observes the ways in which Japanese Americans in Chicago "bargained" with a white power structure, as well as about his own (and other Asian Americans') activism in solidarity with African Americans and American Indians.

One of the most exciting stories he tells is about an American Indian armed occupation of vacant housing in Chicago,

Sakai doesn't think that race antagonisms will go away when capitalism is put down. He points to conflicts between the Japanese American community and other racial groups, and to class differences within the Japanese American community, and suggests that "contradictions among the people" will persist for some time after a revolution.  

Saturday, March 13, 2021

#StayAtHome: Suldokar's Wake, Periodical Release Issue #1


Suldokar's Wake is a science fiction RPG by Christian Mehrstam, the creator of Whitehack. Readers may know about Whitehack: it is a brief, extremely flexible reconstruction of a d20 RPG. Whitehack introduced one of the favorite features appropriated without attribution by Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition: the advantage/disadvantage mechanic, referred to as double roll/half roll in the mechanics of Whitehack and Suldokar's Wake.

What we have here, in Suldokar's Wake, Periodical Release Issue #1: Aeonic Evil Returns is Mehrstam making something explicit that he believes is implicit with many RPGs. It is typical with many RPGs to release a core book or players' guide, followed by "supplements". So many, many RPGs are in fact serial publications. Christian Mehrstam decided to intentionally release an RPG as a serial product with a number of issues. It's an experiment to see what happens when you get intentional about this publication format.

The first issue pictured above is a gazetteer of sorts. There is a brief explanation of the publication strategy, a description of what you need to play, some content about design philosophy, information about dice mechanics used in the game, and then about 40 pages of setting description. That is followed by some explanation of mapping conventions used in the game, and a glossary of mechanical terms and in-world words.

The setting is interesting. It has a lot in common with Numenera, except that the author has taken the effort to present a coherent history of the world, something lacking in Numenera. The parts of the world hang together here, because the author chose to present a world with a history. It is a long history, with the rise and fall of human and non-human civilizations. There is a time abyss, such as we often see in fantasy and science fantasy, but it has concrete elements that hang together in a coherent way that leaves one wanting more information, while walking away with the impression that there is plenty of space for GMs to write new content for the game. 

Back to the setting. Post-scarcity, long-gone ancient civilizations, and recently fallen starfaring civilizations. Human(ish) people, aliens, droids, solid-light holograms. An isolated planet, stargates no longer functioning. Crashed starships and generation ships. A planetary holointelligence. Pervasive nanotechnology, much of it gone wild. A subterranean world, with another planetary intelligence, this time fungal. Ruins to explore and pillage. Makers (replicators) no longer very programmable, with reproduction templates that can manufacture many goods while rendering the land around them barren: the makers strip resources from their immediate environment to construct their valuable products.  

There is a lot to work with here. I read a lot of Numenera into this, but there are certainly other influences including Babylon 5, especially with all the hints of an ancient Shadow evil that is about to return, and STALKER, with people delving to recover inexplicable alien artifacts. 

My edition of the product is 80 pages. The editing is spotty, but that's what happens when you buy a print on demand book right after its release.

You could run this game setting with Numenera, Fate, or Mutant Year Zero but if you are patient (as I was over the last couple of years) there was the promise of supplements. These supplements now exist:

  • Issue #2: Anatomy of  Zira-Kaan Character has the rules for character creation (this is a light d20 system, with some intrinsic weirdness based on the author's interests) in 128 pages.
  • Issue #3: Rules of Inverted Reality has the game mechanics in 128 pages.
  • Issue #4: Depths of Devnull is huge. It clocks in at 330 pages, has all the rules and resources for GMs, as well as a 50 page adventure.
  • Issue #5: The Screen That Wasn't is a 19 page optional that summarizes all the key rules. Think of it as a GM screen in booklet form. 

Links to order any of the books can be found at the Suldokar's Wake blog.

I'll be starting in on Issue #2 tonight. I ordered Issues #4 and 5 earlier this week, and look forward to their arrival!

#StayAtHome: J. Moufawad-Paul's "The Communist Necessity"

I purchased J. Moufawad-Paul's The Communist Necessity back around 2014, when it came out in its first Kersplebedeb edition. There is a second edition from Kersplebedeb out now, which is about 10 pages longer, and you can download a free PDF of the first edition from the very fine independent Maoist publisher, Foreign Languages Press, right here

J. Moufawad-Paul is a Maoist philosopher, the publisher of the M-L-M Mayhem! blog, and a frequent contributor to online discussions hosted by the Foreign Languages Press. It's unfortunate that it took me so long to read his book, but on the upside, in recent years I have read a good number of the texts he critiques in the The Communist Necessity, including Alain Badiou's The Communist Hypothesis, Jodi Dean's The Communist Horizon, and the Invisible Committee's The Coming Insurrection.

The Communist Necessity critiques each of these texts as an expression of movementism, which is a similar concept to that expressed by Featherstone, Henwood, and Parenti as activistism: the species of anarcho-magical thinking born of WTO protests and Occupy, which holds that the sheer momentum of action by diverse social movements is sufficient to bring about sweeping social change, and may even be sufficient to cause capitalism to disintegrate or just go away, without need any overarching revolutionary movement, party, leadership, or organization. So far, so good.

The next level of critique is directed at the theoretical apparatus used in these texts, in particular their over-reliance on philology ("the word 'communism' comes from the Latin words X,Y, Z," etc.), as well as a variety of post-structuralist critiques of grand narratives, end of history, etc., all tools that lack explanatory power in the real world.

These approaches are described as being a form of idealism. They are perhaps sentimentally tied to notions of socialism and communism, but they are utopian socialisms of the kind already critiqued and rejected by Marx and Engels. So why revert to rhetorical strategies that have already been rejected by historical social movements?

Perhaps part of this rejection comes from the fear of being asked to defend (or be seen as defending) various historical moments in the history of socialism and communism, such as the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, and the Cultural Revolution. Moufawad-Paul makes the point that past revolutionary cycles and theories have of course had their disappointments and shortcomings; he makes it clear that for him there is no need to hypostatize Leninism as a fixed form or universal, transhistorical political solution. 

But why ignore recent and contemporary political struggles of the people's war variety: the Shining Path in Peru, the Naxalites in India, the CPP-NPA in the Philippines? The lack of engagement of these authors with those Third World movements is an interesting question, and it is easy to see the elevation of various forms of Theory (Lacan, Deleuze, Zizek, etc.) as just more eurocentrism. That is hard to deny. Like Trotskyism, the New-New Communists (my term) have a distinct lack of interest in and engagement with the Third World, both in terms of revolutionary theory from the periphery, and revolutionary practice there.

And that's where necessity comes back into the picture. The communist necessity is the demand for better lives and new forms of social relations being raised by movements in the periphery. Actual communist movements. Labor and social movements in the core countries of the capitalist world economy feel less sense of this necessity, and their movements embrace theory that doesn't recognize that necessity. 

The critique of New-New Communists could be advanced further through a deeper awareness of world-system analysis. That area of study grew out of a critique of development theory, and has stayed close to Third World revolutionary theory and struggles. Over the last 40 years, it has also developed a strong understanding of the limitations imposed by the world-system on any revolutionary movement that takes state power. There are constraints on revolutionary agency that come from the inter-state system and the capitalist world economy, which is why practically all revolutionary movements that take state power fail to achieve their maximum program, and usually achieve far less. 

While world-systems analysis is quite weak with respect to agency, it does bring attention to the challenges that revolutionary movements and states need to face, as well as to the challenges in internationalizing a revolutionary movement. This is especially important to consider with respect to people living in smaller states. Autarchic development is possible in large states with big populations and plentiful and diverse resources. Both the USSR and China demonstrated that. But it won't be an option for smaller states. That needs a lot of careful thought, but that is a project for a different book.

I intend to read some of J. Moufawad-Paul's more recent work, as The Communist Necessity was a provocative and enjoyable read.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

#StayAtHome: Rivers Solomon's "The Deep"

Rivers Solomon's The Deep is a great novel about the pain of the Middle Passage, and how people deal with historical trauma, individually and collectively. I am a big generation ship fan, and really liked Rivers' first novel, A Kindness of Ghosts, but this novel went a lot deeper for me. It probably helps that the novel is strongly suggestive of West African and Afro-Caribbean spirituality, and in particular belief in Ginen, and the lwa La Siren (a mermaid being). The novel is brief, disjointed, and powerful, and I am confident that it will reward rereading.