Friday, 28 October 2016

The Illegalists: Anarchism, Banditry and Automobiles

A while back I backed a project on kickstarter. The project was about getting a comic book made about an interesting chapter in French history, 1911-12 when the headlines of all the major French newspapers were dominated by lurid tales of a gang of Anarchistic bandits striking fear into the hearts of the wealthy  and humiliating the police. Dubbed the Bonnot Gang after one of their more prominent members Jules Bonnot the mixed group would raid jewellery stores, banks, armouries and mansions, and one of the first to use the automobile as a getaway car.

Jules and his mates have since become a part of French folklore, a sort of 20th century Robin Hood with his band of merry men. The truth is bit more complex and a lot more bloodier of course. But I was intrigued and the sample sketches provided by the artist Attila Futaki looked great so I stumped up some money and hoped for the best. The book made its goals and earlier this year was published, and I received my copy a few months ago. I've read it a few times and really like it.

The book isn't an in depth look at the Bonnot gang, or French  Anarchism at the time or the concept of Illegalism, it also takes quite a few liberties with the story, though the historical account of what happened with the group and the police. One version of Bonnot's end not used in the book involves a brawl between the police and the army over perceived lack of support in the operation. A lot of accounts by members, supporters and opponents are mutually contradictory too, so I don't really blame the writer for going in a streamlined direction.

This book by Richard Parry* goes into extensive detail into the Bonnot Gang and the author goes to great lengths to make the reader aware of how hard it is to get completely accurate information on anything about the Gang.

Here, the question of 'historical truth' rears its ugly head: some of
the story remains very obscure for several reasons. To begin with, none
of the surviving participants admitted their guilt, at least until after the
end of the subsequent mass trial. It was part of the anarchist code never
to admit to anything or give information to the authorities. Equally, it

was almost a duty to help other comrades in need, and if this meant
perjury to save them from bourgeois justice, then so be it. Hence the
difficulty in knowing who was telling 'the truth'. Those who afterwards
wrote short 'memoirs' often glamorized or ridiculed persons or events,
partly to satisfy their own egos and partly at the behest of gutter-press
In the trial itself there were over 200 witnesses, mainly anarchists for
the defence, and presumably law-abiding citizens for the prosecution.
Much evidence from the latter was contradictory. While most were
probably telling the truth as far as they could remember, others had
told an inaccurate version so many times that either they believed it
themselves, or, under police pressure, they found it too late and too

embarrassing to withdraw it. A few were certainly motivated either by
private, or a sense of social, revenge.
But the changes made are such that many parts of the story are completely fictive, Jules Bonnot is a hardworking family man who wants to keep his head down and provide for his wife and son, and is practically pushed into criminality and rebellion. The real Jules Bonnot while caring deeply for his son at least (he fought hard for custody, even crossing the border to Switzerland) was already an experienced thief and had already been familiar with Anarchism and even met and worked with some of the gang that appear in the comic later. His love interest Judith while real was not a prostitute, though she was married. Palatano was a close associate of Bonnot but their parting of the ways was very different. Its possible that Bonnot may have murdered him, or Bonnot accidentally shot him in the head, we'll never know for sure.

Basically what I'm trying to say is don't use this comic book as a source on a school assignment, or a research project. Its like Blade Runner and Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the characters have the same names and the setting is correct but both have diverged too far and rarely meet in the middle.

On the other hand, the book does do a very good job of showing instead of telling. We don't get any expository lectures on the ideology of illegalism and reappropriation, but we do see it in action with the heists by the group being motivated mainly by the concept. And the author put in a few comments by the gang to help make this clear.  And throughout there's a not so subtle tone of individualistic defiance and a few introspective passages about society and the prospects for building a better world. So it isn't devoid of political content its just made to work with the story and leaves a lot to the readers imagination.
We also spend time with Dubois and his Anarchist workmates who are trying to build a revolutionary union, and while we don't get a page and a half tract about the importance of anarcho-syndicalism (sadly) we do see the opposition they face, the importance of solidarity and being ready and willing to meet violence with violence and how fearful the capitalists and police are of such a strategy.

In this hostile atmosphere the police and secret services were used aggressively to attack demonstrations and break picket lines. In 1891 twelve workers died in clashes with the police at Fourmies, in 1900 strikers were shot dead at Chalon-sur-Saone (on the orders of the France's first socialist- minister Alexandre Millerrand), three separate strikes and demonstrations ended in murder in 1907 and in 1908 the deaths of two striking quarrymen at Draveil were followed days later by the murder of six construction workers protesting in solidarity. The Interior Ministry had a dedicated 'political brigade' responsible directly to the minister and agent provocateurs and spies infested the CGT. When protest could not be contained by aggressive union-busting employers or the machinations of the security services, the government would typically turn to the army. When more than 200,000 workers walked out in strikes for an 8 hour day on May 1st 1906, the government brought 50,000 troops to the capital and arrested 700 strike leaders. On other occasions they used conscription as a weapon against workers, calling-up striking railmen to force them back to work in 1910 on pain of execution, jailing 200 strike leaders.
They also mention the Anarchist press and name L'Anarchie newspaper, but aside from mentioning police interference and suspicion, it amounts to a cameo.

The main educational strength of the comic is its communicating the hypocrisy and brutality of life in the Third French Republic for workers. The police are shown to be brutal in dealing with the poor, strikes are repressed by armed force, union meetings are raided and participants but in jail for weeks, Devil's Island a penal colony where many reformers and militants were exiled for advocating strike action is named several times as a potential punishment for any crime, be it armed robbery or advocating a pay rise. We also see the police execute by guillotine an innocent man.

Business is also depicted as being callous and willing to support if not push the police and army to keep taking a hardline against the unions and workplace agitators and Anarchist newspapers.

Bonnot's personal plight though romanticised is shown to be driven by a desire for payback, and a strong will to get revenge on the society that has made life hell for him and his friends. As a story its very interesting, a romantic tale of rebellion against all the odds and learning to live in those brief moments of calm during the struggle.

Its a bit thin on factual information or criticism,  but it is a comic book, and as an introduction to Bonnot (the myth of Jules Bonnot), early 20th century France and Anarchism as a political force I think it does its job well. I hope the graphic novel will spark some interest in readers to go further, but I'm happy this project got off the ground and wish its creators, Futaki, Pierce and Vogel well in their future works.

Edit from the future: Activedistributions sells copies if you're curious, haven't seen the book available elsewhere which is a shame.

* Richard Parry is listed under the special thanks credit so the authors of the graphic novel were aware of his work.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Jackboots and Phasers

It seems like we have another theory about the sinister message behind Star Trek, this time from the other side. Unlike that weird essay on Star I think this is mainly tongue in cheek, its a youtube video on a channel called Film Theory. But I honestly struggle to tell, I have seen people with similar presentations and styles say even more ridiculous things only to find out they were being sincere. I mean I thought that Star Destroyer guy was having a joke before I read the whole thing and realised they were being 100% genuine, and I have seen both being used by other people on the internet as the crux of a serious argument, so I think its worth taking sometime to dissect it.

We don't get off to a great start this fellow doesn't seem to understand what Fascism is. He gives a brief introduction on Fascism but aside from name checking Hitler and Mussolini there's nothing really in it that's unique to Fascism. It's just generic authoritarianism. Fascism is a word that's become incredibly overused and misused over time, probably more so then Communism. It refers to a specific ideology but most times when you see or hear the F word its used to describe a thing the person using it doesn't like. Pinochet's regime in Chile was often described as a Fascist regime and while its true the regime was brutal and relied on the police and military for its survival, it can't really be described as Fascist because its economic foundation was unrestricted capitalism (well until they needed the state to prop them up) and that's pretty much the opposite of Fascist economics. And later on the author (video star?) claims that Fascism hated capitalism, this ahistorical nonsense. His only support for this assertion is one quote from Hitler.

Now there are a number of problems with this, its considered bad practice to rely on quotations devoid of context. Especially when dealing with politicians who lie, exaggerate and in some cases are being sincere in their wishes but find once their in power will have to make some sort of compromise. A good example of this is President Nixon. Nixon is remembered as a war monger and a lying crook but in the 1968 election where he became president he ran on a fairly peacenik friendly campaign, well friendly compared to his image anyway. He claimed he would end the draft (which he did, but in 1973 during his second term) and be a better negotiator then LBJ and Hubert Humphrey.

''Every American wants peace in Viet Nam. The question is what kind of peace. The war must be ended, but in a way that does not encourage aggression and thereby sow the seeds of future wars.
''Beyond this, we need a new diplomacy -- one that looks past Viet Nam to the prevention of future wars, and one that enlists other nations more fully in their own defense.
"In Korea, and again in Viet Nam, America furnished most of the money and most of the arms -- and most of the men.
"America is a big country. But there are only 200 million Americans, and there are more than 2 billion people who live in the free world. We need a new diplomacy that will get other nations with a stake in the defense of peace and freedom to bear their share of the burden. And we need a new diplomacy that will insure that, if the people of a friendly nation again are threatened, we help them fight the war but we don't fight the war for them."
 Of course Nixon didn't really end on his watch, if anything the war escalated and spilled over into neighbouring countries. Nixon did eventually make good on his promises to pull US troops out of Vietnam and set up negotiations but most of that happened in his second term after his creditability on the war was already wrecked.

Now what's the relevance here? Well its because the evidence in the video is far from compelling. Hitler and the Nazi party did indeed criticise capitalism (the Nazi version of Titanic film blames British Capitalists for the disaster to pick a random example) but the context gives a different picture. Many of the disparaging comments directed at capitalism by Hitler and his gang revolved around the perceived damaging effects to the nation inflicted by self interested businessmen.

The video actually quotes Hitler's speech in 1927 were he declares the Nazi party to be socialists. Though thankfully he's only interested in the bit at the very end of the passage were he talks about his determination to destroy capitalism under all conditions. This speech is actually quite well known it gets used a lot by right wing types all over the internet to paint the Nazi's as socialists. And it's understandable if your naive enough to take a politician at his word. Remember Hitler also publicly  stated that he wished to be a man of peace, and allied with the Soviet Union for a couple of years after murdering German communists and spending decades warning anyone who would listen that the USSR was a direct threat to the Western world and the German race.

But this particular case is quite egregious, you see the date of the speech was 1927 when the Nazi party was doing rather badly, but the Social Democrats and the Communist party were both on the up. The mid to late 20's are seen as a period of desperation by the Nazi party as it struggled to stay relevant and break out of its 2-3% vote share. Part of this strategy was to try an nick some members from the SPD and KPD which didn't really work, of the three they always came a distant third amongst working class Germans. Another part was to provoke the other two into violent outbursts and frame the Nazi party as the only real opposition to the Reds, which did work, after the press reported the street fighting membership applications went up. But it's important to remember that even when Hitler and Goebbels tried to appeal to the left that they never deviated from their racist core.

For example the "We are socialists" speech was actually about how important Lebensraum, the colonisation of the East was to German survival.

And later on when the Nazi party lost its interest in attracting German workers to it, Hitler made multiple speeches and paragraphs in Mein Kampf talking about a need for a disciplined capitalism.

“We concede that capitalism itself is not the enemy; but rather it is capitalist excess and irresponsibility, such as Jewish Finance Capitalism and the destruction of profiteering from interest, that we must strive ruthlessly against....We do not seek to replace the capitalist system, but to harness its productive capacity for the betterment of the German Nation."

There was also another factor, Hitler believed very strongly that financial and international capitalism was dominated by the Jews, and was one of the two means the Jews had for attacking and dominating the human race, the other being of course "Bolshevism".

The Jewish train of thought is, moreover, clear. The 
bolshevization of Germany, i.e., the extermination of the 
national folkish intelligentsia and the exploitation of Ger- 
man labor power in the yoke of world Jewish finance facili- 
tated thereby, is thought of solely as a preliminary to a 
further extension of this Jewish tendency to conquer the 
Indeed he was so focussed on resisting Jewish financial capitalism that he dedicated one of the later chapters of Mein Kampf "The Will to destruction of Jewish Finance" to the subject.

But beyond speeches, the reality of the Fascist regimes shows how shallow the anti-capitalism of big business really is. See Fascist economics in theory is based on class collaboration and mediation. Labour and Capital are viewed as competing, sectional and at times selfish interests and if the two are in open conflict or one side dominates completely the nation in its entirety suffers. So in order to balance the two, the Fascist party (representing the entire national community) will act as a mediator and moderating force on the two to ensure the best possible outcome for both sides. The Deustche Arbeits Front (DAF) the main organisation for German labour would support wage increases and holidays and other benefits on occasion, in order to ensure high productivity. But on others they would support employers in preventing wages from rising beyond a certain point, make sure the workers would work long shifts, and assisted in the transfers of workers to strategic industries.

In addition the Nazi party provided German industry with thousands of slave labourers. Even in the concentration camps factories and workshops owned by private companies could be found. IG Farben the chemical giant that produced the pesticide Zyklon B operated in Auschwitz

The history of the founding of the camp is connected with the initiative by the German chemical concern IG Farbenindustrie A.G. to build its third large plant for synthetic rubber and liquid fuels. The new camp was to be located in Silesia, beyond the range of Allied bombers at the time. Among the several sites proposed in December 1940/January 1941, the final choice fell on the flat land between the eastern part of Oświęcim and the villages of Dwory and Monowice. The decision was justified by the favorable geological conditions, access to railroad lines, water supply (the Vistula), and the availability of raw materials: coal (the mines in Libiąż, Jawiszowice, and Jaworzno), lime (Krzeszowice), and salt (Wieliczka). Furthermore, the belief that it would be possible for the firm to employ prisoners from the nearby Auschwitz concentration camp was by no means a trivial consideration, and may in fact have been decisive in the choice of the project.

IG Farben put the pieces of the deal in place between February and April 1941. The company bought the land from the treasury for a knock-down price, after it had been seized from its Polish owners without compensation; their houses were vacated and demolished. At the same time, the German authorities expelled the Jews from Oświęcim (resettling them in Sosnowiec and Chrzanów), confiscated their homes, and sold them to IG Farben as housing for company employees brought in from Germany. Some local Polish residents were dispossessed in the same way. Finally, IG Farben officials reached an agreement with the concentration camp commandant on hiring prisoners at a preferential rate of 3 to 4 marks per day for the labor of auxiliary and skilled construction workers. In a letter to his colleagues about the negotiations, IG Farben director Otto Ambros wrote that “our new friendship with the SS is very fruitful.”

And this is just one example, a far more complete list of German firms taking advantage of slave labour in the camps can be found here.

So no matter what Hitler thought about the pursuit of money, the reality is that his Fascist regime was heavily dependent on capitalist enterprises to function, and it worked to support them to ensure the needs of both state and capital were met.

But let's move on now, what about the rest of his statements? Do his other claims about the Federation stand the test of scrutiny? Well not really.


The viewer is told that we only ever see the viewpoint of the Federation, and that just isn't true. Throughout the franchise we get alternative views. DS9 is the best in this regard, by the time season seven ends we know just as much about the Ferengi, Bajorans and Cardassians as we do the Federation, if not more. We also see different points of view from within the Federation, that's actually an important subplot in early DS9, the Maquis are group of extremely disgruntled colonists are highly critical of the Federation.

But its not just DS9, in TNG and TOS we do get the Klingon and Romulan side of the story in several episodes. Even Voyager tried to do this with its long running villains the Kazon, Hirogen and Borg. Its just that they weren't very good at it.

Conquest and colonisation:

He also says the Federation is a colonising power, which it undeniably is, we spend many episodes at Federation colonies. But then he links it to human colonisation on earth. The destruction of the American Indian societies, the scramble for Africa etc. That is in a word bizarre, see all those colonies are on worlds that had no intelligent life, and the only way to join the Federation is through mutual consent. We see episodes were the Enterprise encounters primitive planets and the crew is supposed to leave them alone. But if they were only interested in empire building and resource gobbling they would love these planets, they would be very easy to dominate and exploit.

The Prime Directive, Star Fleets most important rule, so important that we're told that a Captain is prepared to give his life and the lives of his entire crew to uphold, states this, civilisations that don't have warp technology are to be left alone.

I can think only one episode where the Federation tried colonising a planet that was already inhabited by intelligent creatures (TNG Home Soil). But that was because they didn't know it was there. The species was a form of intelligent crystal,  and once they find out the crystals are intelligent and alive they call the operation off.


Now we getting into familiar ground, much is made of how we don't see ships that don't belong to Star Fleet even though we do. Remember the Maquis? Well they were so critical of the Federations policy that they went rogue and started turning their own ships into a sort of attack fleet. Also Sisko dates and marries and independent freighter captain. There is also quite a few references to individual Federation planets having their own fleets and ship designations.

A combat vessel knocked up by farmers

Communications, its often brought up that the Federation owns a monopoly on interstellar communications. Every time I hear this I think do they? Because there doesn't really appear to be any difference which communicator you other then the prop frame. You can ring up Romulus or use a Klingon hand communicator to hail the Enterprise, the only restrictions seem to be on whether the bad guys can track the signal or if the person your calling is out of range or in some space anomaly that interferes with communications.

Basically what I'm getting at is that they don't really develop their communications technology on the show. Like the transporters its just a means of plot convenience. You can use something the size of a smart phone to alert the flagship of an alien plot with little issue, unless the episode is about the crew overcoming whatever was preventing them from making a call.

A bit later on the author gets back to the point by taking Trek philosophy "The needs of the many" and mirroring it to what he claims are Fascist philosophical pillars, but are mostly just generic collectivist sayings. Like Hitlers "Society's needs come before the individuals'" though to be fair in this section he does get the Fascist idolisation of the state right. And he is correct with  the Italian Fascist symbol being a bundle of sticks with an axe blade. However that was the symbol for ancient Rome, from the time of Roman kings to the Republic era and survived into the Imperial period. Mussolini talk a lot about rebuilding the Roman Empire apart from deliberate evoking of Roman imagery the two societies simply aren't comparable.

 However he draws the connection by linking it to the bundle of sticks proverb and not a representation of the Fasces. The problem here is that the Fasces were a direct reference to the proverb which comes from one of Aesop's fables,

An old man had a set of quarrelsome sons, always fighting with one another.  On the point of death, summoned his sons around him to give them some parting advice. He ordered his servants to bring in a bundle of sticks wrapped together. To his eldest son, he commanded, "Break it." The son strained and strained, but with all his efforts was unable to break the bundle. Each son in turn tried, but none of them was successful. "Untie the bundle," said the father, "and each of you take a stick." When they had done so, he called out to them: "Now, break," and each stick was easily broken. "You see my meaning," said their father. "Individually, you can easily be conquered, but together, you are invincible. Union gives strength."
There's also a similar story about the Bulgar king Khan Kubrat, the Bulgarian national motto (Union gives strength) is a reference to that tale.

 And the proverb was used by the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh while he rallied his people to fight in the war of 1812. So what's happened here is a case of disingenuous, the author has taken something Fascists use to argue that the source they  used and by definition all other usage and allusions by others is automatically  fascist. This would be like claiming Hindu religious rituals are fascist because a lot of them involve drawing some form of Swastika.

That's really the crux of his argument, what's left is a bit where he uses Kirk being punished for mutiny as an example, but unless he's claiming military discipline is inherently Fascist as too, is just another out of context fallacy. He ends comparing the relationship between the Federation and the Klingons, Romulans, Cardassians etc to the Holocaust (no seriously its at 12:10 in the video). Not only is that in very poor taste, it's not remotely true. The Federation doesn't demonise its enemies, at every turn it tries to make peace. They never conquer any of their major enemies, they turn the Klingons into allies, and gave up settlements in disputed space with the Cardassians, and agreed to neutral zone between them and the Romulans, and promised not to build cloaking devices.

The only time we ever encounter a Federation member demonise and entire species, like Captain Maxwell in TNG's the Wounded, or Picard and the Borg, or Section 31 in Deep Space Nine, their shown negatively, with their motives being challenged and explained. Maxwell lost his family in the war with the Cardassians and couldn't let go. Picard also had trouble putting what happened to him at the hands of the borg, but in the episode I Borg he realises he has issues and works to overcome, them. And Section 31, well their incredibly paranoid and have their plans to commit genocide thwarted by the series main cast.

Point is, as a joke this video isn't funny, as a serious argument its a joke.

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