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Las Hilanderas (1657) by Diego Velazquez

Las Hilanderas (1657) by Diego Velazquez

I. The Merging of Catholic and State Power

“The empire on which the sun never sets”

This phrase encapsulated Spanish pride during the 16th and 17th centuries. Behind all of that however, the Spanish Golden Age involved the systemic subjugation of indigenous peoples, expropriation of their natural resources, and assimilation of their respective cultures. Generations destroyed by Spanish (and other Western) colonialism left a crippled continent that lacked the capital to upstart its uphill battle from subservience, even to this day. As Uruguayan journalist writes in his book The Open Veins of Latin America: “Our part of the world, known today as Latin America, was precocious: it has specialized in losing ever since those remote times when Renaissance Europeans ventured across the ocean and buried their teeth in the throats of the Indian civilizations.” And with the arrival of Spanish boats on the Latin American continent emerged a new chapter in their once-proud history; one marked with decline and subservience to a power that simply saw their blood as money. The Spanish invasion of Latin America was pushed by its thirst for economic prowess, and was facilitated by demands that held Spain and its Habsburg royal family by the handles. These included mineral profiteering, religion, and finance. Ideologically, the Catholic Church and its thinkers played a crucial role in legitimizing colonial expansion. Monetarily, the influx of silver and gold from Spain’s colonial plunders financed the growth of arms and territorial expansion. This vicious cycle was largely made systemic until the steady decline of the Spanish Empire in the 19th century.

RequerimientoBefore creating conflict, presumably war, it is essential to have academic backing beforehand to hold popular support. Despite being an autocratic monarchy, an ideology was necessary to justify Spain’s colonial ventures. The Catholic Church proved to be a viable outlet since its power was diminishing on the European stage. Critics, such as Martin Luther, questioned the Papacy and threatened the Catholic rule that had been the status quo for over a millennium. The Church struggled to counteract the powers that were splintering its unity and it found leverage in Spanish politics. Given the expansionist aims of Spain, the Catholic Church viewed this as a proper opportunity for evangelical expansion. Therefore, the Spanish state and the Catholic Church worked hand in hand but for different reasons – the former wanted to reap profit and the other wanted to expand its mode of theological thinking. Throughout the Spanish Empire, the Catholic Church worked alongside colonial interests to build on its influence although its prevalence was most prominent in the formative years of the empire. Many conquistadors pursued conquest for materialist and religious aims. Declarations titled Requerimiento were read aloud by Spanish authorities upon calling a new region their own, citing divine law and God’s plan as their justification. Written by Juan López de Palacios Rubios, a Council of Castile jurist, these degrees were given credibility through the Catholic Church and its dominion. The language was purely Catholic, naming Saint Peter and his Papal successors as proper evidence that God had the right to rule over the entire earth. Naturally, by association, God had given this authority to the Spanish monarchy. And if the indigenous people refused to be converted or ruled, they were threatened with murder, torture, and enslavement. Oftentimes, such theological justifications were read to indigenous people despite language barriers and to empty towns as a rationalization for murder and destruction. Dominican friars usually accompanied the conquistadors as they read the declarations, granting the decree holy justification. Despite enriching the coffers of the Spanish ruling class, the Requerimiento was abolished in 1556, since it was deemed unjust to impose a religion by threats if the victims had never heard of Christ prior. However, Requerimiento served its purpose – it established the religious justification for Spanish imperialism.

The marginalization of the New World began with the creation of administrative regions of control. The North and South American continents were carved up by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 between the Spanish Crown and Portugal. Another treaty was signed between them in 1529 titled the Treaty of Zaragoza, which aimed at determining their respective regions of control in Asia. With the territorial lines set, the Spanish empire could now employ its ecomienda system of labor which institutionalized the enslavement of indigenous peoples and spread its Catholic evangelical message by sword even more efficiently. The Catholic Church sanctioned these territories with the papal bulls given in 1493, setting the groundwork for the Treaty of Tordesillas and Zaragoza. Called the Bulls of Donation, it granted overseas territories to the Catholic Spanish monarchs and Portugal. The major area of contention was Latin America, but is also involved a few islands in Asia among other regions. This holy sanctioning of land fundamentally usurped the power away from the Native Americans and granted the Spanish Crown the divine right to rule. Likewise, this was evoked many times over in conquest. Aside from the Requerimiento, which was read after a region was conquered, the Spanish Crown also instated the Spanish Requirement of 1519. This solidified Catholic rule in the colonies. It decreed that the Spanish Empire was divinely decreed to take the land of the New World. It also explicitly granted Spain the privilege of exploiting, subjugating, and enslaving the native inhabitants when they saw fit. The conquistadors that invaded, then, evoked this and believed those who resisted occupation also resisted God’s plan. Thereby, from then on, the colonial mission was fully set in motion – it had a monetary incentive, since territorial expansion provided bullion for the coffers of those in power, and it provided an ideological justification through God’s will.

II. The Catholic Theological Debate Over Colonialism 

The Spanish Empire was unique in that it had a strict religious undertone. Other empires, such as the British and French, lacked such a prophetic message and were not as fervent in their religiosity to new-found lands. The difference was that the religious and governmental spheres of Spanish societies overlapped. This was especially evident in the Spanish Crown’s insistence in spreading Catholicism by lawful decree. The law of Burgos was passed in late December of 1512 and it was the first set of laws to govern the behavior of Spaniards living in the Americas in their treatment of indigenous peoples. It forbade them from being “mistreated” and facilitated converting them to Catholicism.  However, it was largely ineffective in preventing the former. The system of ecomienda was too ingrained in the colonial economic system to be ruined by Spanish decree. This was tried to be corrected again in 1542 by King Charles V, but it was again largely ignored in the largest colonial regions. The native peoples of the Americas were then left with mistreatment and forced Catholic conversations, the decrees doing little to better their condition beside force more religion upon them.

Chiapas Bartolomé de las Casas was arguably one of the first to conceive of  universal conception of rights.

Chiapas Bartolomé de las Casas was arguably one of the first to conceive of universal conception of rights.

In theological circles, the question of forced conversation and treatment of indigenous peoples in the Americas was one of much debate. Although the political sphere justified its colonization of peoples through a religious lens, the Catholic consensus on the matter within the upper echelons of its administration were split. This disagreement on the treatment of Native Americans would eventually reach its culmination in the Valladolid debate, which was held in the Colegio de San Gregorio of the Spanish city of Valladolid. The two debaters were the Bishop of Chiapas Bartolomé de las Casas, defending their right for equality, and Dominican Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, who argued that their enslavement was justified by divine law. Casas was one of the first individuals to criticize Spanish colonization and argued that the Native Americans were capable of reason and could be brought to Christianity without coercion. And, according to natural law, they were to be treated just as the Europeans were. Sepúlveda, on the contrary, argued from a strangely secular position. Arguing from an archaic Aristotelian point, he stated that indigenous peoples have a predisposition for slavery since they fall into the definition of “barbarian.” Hence, they were to be considered “natural slaves.” He went on to outline four mine reasons for the enslavement of native peoples of the Americas. Firstly, their condition in nature was one that was akin to slavery and demanded a Spanish master. Secondly, it prevented the indigenous peoples from engaging in obscene acts such as cannibalism and sexual perversion. Thirdly, it prevented chaos amongst them and stopped them from engaging in forms of offensive sacrifice. And finally, slavery was the most effective way of teaching them of European Catholic culture. Casas, furious, responded that there is an international duty to protect innocence from being treated unjustly. Remarkably, this was one of the first public callings for universal human rights. The debate ended with both sides polarized and there was no clear “winner” of the Valladolid debate. However, Casas’s arguments had an effect on policy to some degree. The ecomienda labor system was marginally weakened and the New Laws of 1542 were passed, however this did little to better the condition of the Native Americans. All in all, neither side came out truly victorious – to Cases’s dismay, Spanish colonialism and expansion continued and Sepúlveda, who wanted to strengthen the ecomienda system, failed to tangibly do so.

BARTSCH_4830005

Papal bulls served as the moral justification for colonization since the Spanish Empire had little in the law books over the mistreatment of the indigenous peoples.

III. The Ultimate Victor 

Despite the winner the argument being ambiguous, Sepúlveda argument for “natural slavery” is one that was prevalent in Christian circles. It originates from Aristotle, that certain individuals have a predisposition for slavery and subservience. The ideologically basis for it is inherently racist, Euro-centric, and was used to justify enslavement of the Native Americans by political, military, and Church leaders. However, it would be unfair to argue that the entire Church condoned the actions of the Spanish empire. Bartolomé de las Casas was only one of many that opposed such mistreatment on the basis of natural rights. Much of the opposition grew out of the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, which was interpreted as a rebuttal to the enslavement of Native Americans. This would eventually form a new school of ecclesiastical thought, from the turn of the 16th century, which aimed to reconcile the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas with the new emerging political order. It was titled the School of Salamanca. They tackled the topics of the Spanish empire and its treatment of peoples, the Reformation, and the rise of humanism. The school represented the eventual end of medieval thinking and the focus on individual liberty in ethics. Natural rights were elaborated upon and were argued to have been given to all humans, including Native Americans. This was contrary to the dominant opinion in Europe at the time, which was that indigenous peoples lacked such rights and were made for subservient positions. Moreover, this was one of the first times in history when a group of intellectuals questions the basis of imperial conquest rather than merely justifying it. One of the leaders of this group was Francisco de Vitoria, who was also the founder of the School of Salamanca. He argued that the claims to land by the Spanish Crown were largely illegitimate and that the peoples of Latin America also possessed property rights. From this, he outlined a rough conception of international law, which was the first of its kind, and his Just War theory. Thereby, he concluded as did others in the intellectual movement, that the enslavement of the indigenous peoples was unjust on the basis that it was provoked and it usurped them of their natural right to free will. Contrary to mainstream thought, Vitoria made the bold claim that wars for glory or forced conversion against “heretics” or “infidels” were inherently unjust since they were inherently aggressive rather than defensive.

The history of Spanish plunder in their occupied territories is one of complete destruction – not just in Latin American, but elsewhere also. Generally speaking, the purpose of colonization was to expropriate mineral-rich reserves from the colonies while maintaining it benevolent in the eyes of Catholic dogma. Largely efficient for Spaniards in power, some questioned it and such criticisms lead to the establishment of natural rights in intellectual circles. International justice came from ills of Spanish colonization, from within the Catholic establishment, and a set a precedent for future human rights movements. Thinkers along the likes of Bartolomé de las Casas and Francisco de Vitoria argued against the subjugation of indigenous peoples from a principled position of ethics. Rejecting the Aristotelian argument of “natural slavery,” their writing focused on the soul of each man as being equal. This consequently broke the chains of medieval thinking, but it would take a long while until such criticisms reached the mainstream. Despite the dissenters, Spanish colonization was based largely on Catholic evangelism. Catholicism was the underpinning of all of Spain’s imperial conquests, one of the only empires to exclusively do so, and it provided a rationalization for the torture and violence that they would inflict on the native peoples. The synthesis of the Church, with the Pope’s involvement, and the political system of Spain created a deadly dualism that would eventually lead to one of the greatest tragedies in human history –involving the complete destruction of certain cultures and peoples just for the sake blood profiteering. With the Catholic justification as the mainstream ideology supporting colonization, its critics scrambled to stop the bloodshed. Eventually, their voices would be heard, but only after millions have been victimized by the brutal labor system imposed by the Spanish Crown. And this plunder would roll the clock back on the Latin American experience, and other colonies, hundreds of years. It is a tragic setback that is still felt today, in culture and in economy, and a wound that will perhaps never be fully healed.

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aristotAristotle’s Categories is an ontological piece attempting to differentiate between states of being. It is a short piece, broken up into fifteen chapters. The most basic component is the distinction between the subject and the predicate. The former is what the statement is about; the latter is what is describes.

In chapter two, Aristotle gives a two-type difference between the natures of the subject in a statement of truth. Firstly, there is a statement that which is said of the subject. This type of ontological deduction is that which is essential to the subject. It is arranged in universal hierarchies. One example would be “the saxophone is (said of) an instrument” where the “saxophone” is the more specific type than the lesser universal distinction of “instrument.” This statement of truth is essential to the subject. However, both “instrument” and “saxophone” are two distinct parts and can exist independently in different statements of truth.

The second differentiation deals with what is present in the subject. This signifies dependence, since it can not exist without the subject. Thus, it is description which is non-essential to that subject. Such an example would be “Aristotle was wise” where wisdom is used as a description of the subject. In this case, the description of “wise” cannot exist in the same context without its subject. Therefore, it is not a part all of itself; it is merely present in the subject.

This distinction forms the basis of Aristotle’s ontology since it differentiates between two states of being. That which is said of the subject are parts which are essential to the subject, but are not dependent on each other in statements of truth. And that which is present in the subject is a description of it which cannot exist without the subject.

***

Aristotle’s Categories

616px-William_Blake_-_Socrates,_a_Visionary_Head_-_Google_Art_Project

Socrates, a Visionary Head (1820) by William Blake

In Athenian society during Greek Antiquity, religion played a crucial role in mediating public and state affairs. It served a social function rather than a personal one. Polytheism was embedded as the cultural foundation of Athens, where “priests and officials were regularly voted honors for their sacrifices that they had performed ‘on behalf of the Athenians’ or ‘for the health and safety of the Athenians’” (Parker, 95). Assemblies were opened with religious rituals to demonstrate good faith (Parker, 100). Thus, although individualist in nature, Athens was paradoxically mostly collectivist in its interpretation of religious affairs. To go against this consensus was public suicide – and likewise, any denigration of these practices was met with scorn by Athenians, especially by the more conservative members of the ruling class. For Socrates, this would mean his eventual trial and execution.

Impiety is relative to the culture in question. When discussing the charges against Socrates, it is important to realize the society which produced them. Firstly, the assumption must be made that Athenian law was justified in prosecuting persons for impiety, despite the fact that this type of offense does not exist in the contemporary Western world. From there, having abandoned our modern biases, the real contextual controversy arises – was Socrates impious or not?

Given what is known about Athenian religion, it would be very probable to argue Socrates was in fact guilty. In Plato’s account of the trial, Socrates speaks of a divine voice that prevents him from doing certain actions.

It may seem strange that while I go around and give this advice privately and interfere in private affairs, I do not venture to go to the assembly and there advise the city. You have heard me give the reason… I have a divine or spiritual sign… This began when I was a child. It is a voice, and whenever it speaks it turns me away from something I am about to do, but never encourages me to do anything (Apology, 31c – 31d)

Death of Socrates (1787) by Jacques-Louis David

Death of Socrates (1787) by Jacques-Louis David

In alternate translations, this “divine or spiritual sign” is called daimonion in Greek. According to Socrates, this voice has been present since he was a child. He follows it to a fanatical degree, resembling religiosity, and it “continues [to come] to [him]” (Euthyphro, 3b). To the typical Athenian observer, Socrates’s daimonion comes off as antithetical to religious norms. He had a private channel of talking to the gods (Ferguson, 174), which threatened the power of priests who were seen as the mediators between gods and man. Plato hints towards the rowdiness of the crowd as Socrates truthfully explains his “inner voice,” while at the same time begging the crowd to bear with his defense and believe him (Apology, 31a).

In the earlier part of Apology, Socrates tells the story of Chaerephon and the oracle which proclaimed that there is no man wiser than Socrates (Apology, 21a). Socrates goes on to question different groups of people, each skilled in their craft, to test if their wisdom was greater than his own. “As a result of this investigation… I have acquired much unpopularity,” Socrates goes on to remark (Apology, 23a). In an effort to justify his inquiring, he appeals to the gods.

So even now I continue this investigation as the god bade me – and I go around seeking anyone, citizen or stranger, whom I think wise. Then if I do not know who he is, I come to the assistance of god and show him that he is not wise. Because of this occupation, I do not have the leisure to engage in public affairs to any extent, nor indeed to look after my own, but I live in great poverty because of my service to the gods (Apology, 23b).

However, the immediate question that arises is – when did the gods ask that of Socrates? There was no command by the gods for Socrates to do such actions. The oracle merely declared that he was the wisest of men. The story is, therefore, inconsistent. It is likely that Socrates said this to appeal to the audience and to further prove his piety, albeit disingenuously.

Socrates’s assertion that his actions were god-inspired can be interpreted differently when related to his daimonion. He describes his divine signs as never action-inducing, but are rather a means to prevent him from doing wrong. Xenophon’s account of the trial disputes this. Socrates says bluntly, “a clear divine voice indicates to me what I must do” (Xenophon, 12). This is a noteworthy distinction. According to Plato, Socrates’s spiritual visions prevent him from doing certain actions. In Xenophon’s account, these induce him to act. Therefore, Socrates’s appeal to piety is a method to mask this inner voice. Regardless of this voice’s origin, be it religiously rooted or not, such a phenomenon goes against the orthodox Athenian conception of religion. Athenians practiced a public religion, not one of unique personal revelation – if such an interpretation was to take hold, the chief structure of Athenian culture would lose its rigidity. This was the fear of the Athenian ruling class and why Socrates was deemed impious, despite his efforts to mask these “voices” through the gods. In the context of the city’s religion, it certainly went against the consensus.

There are hints of Socrates’s skepticism in Plato’s Euthyphro. In the beginning of the dialogue, he questions the basis of believing in the stories of the Homeric gods (Euthyphro, 6b). However, this by itself is not entirely impious. Dr. Manuela Giordano-Zecharya writes in As Socrates Shows, the Athenians Did Not Believe Not in Gods, “[Athens] was moving away from a focus on ‘belief’ and towards questions of ritual, power relations and symbolic ambiguity…” (Zecharya, 328). Therefore, the fact that Socrates was questioning the Homeric stories themselves was not impious – it was that he responded to his skepticism by failing to engage in religious public life as he truthfully tells the audience in Apology.

Given what is known about Athenian religion, Socrates was indeed impious. His impiety can be broken up in two parts. One, Socrates failed to engage in the public rituals which held Athens together. Religion served a social function, to maintain hierarchy and social cohesion, and his absence from these customs was seen as contrary to orthodox traditions. And second, Socrates’s daimonion angered the ruling religious class in Athens since it was unprecedented. It created a personal channel with which Socrates could speak to the gods. And if such a conception became commonplace, it would leave religion to individual speculation and action rather than to experts. Aside from being offensive to the religious ministers, it threatened the Athenian consensus on religion. Simply put – regardless if death was the proper punishment or not – Socrates was impious.

***

– Parker, Robert. Polytheism and Society at Athens. USA: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

– Cooper, M. John. Five Dialogues. Hackett Pub Co, 2nd Edition, 2007. Print.

– Freguson, A.S. The Impiety of Socrates. The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Jul 1913), pp. 157-175

– Giordano-Zecharya, Manuela. As Socrates Shows, the Athenians Did Not Believe in Gods. Numen, Vol. 52, Fasc. 3 (2005), pp. 325-355.

I. Jean-Paul Sartre’s Maxim

sartre-endIn October of 1945, Jean-Paul Sartre gave a speech at the Club Maintenant. His remarks would become the basis of his next book, Existentialism and Humanism, published in 1946. In it, he establishes the idea of “existence precedes essence,” which would become the maxim of successive existentialist thought. This statement was a reversion of previous Christian arguments on existence, which argued God crafted an essence before one’s actual birth through a divine plan. Sartre recanted this idea and instead inverted it – rather than preceding existence, each individual is responsible for subjectively crafting one’s own essence, where he defines himself to his own liking. Thus, true “freedom” is the ability to authentically craft our own individual essence.

Sartre makes these claims of “defining our own essence” within a capitalist framework. In retrospect, our “essence” cannot be autonomously defined in an environment which manipulates desire. In other words, in order for our desires to be authentic, our environment must, too, be authentic. Capitalism maintains its hegemony through a production of desires which manifests itself through our consumption. Therefore, since consumers – which is all we are reduced to, consumers – exist in an artifice, their essence is also artificial. Sartre’s maxim would be unequivocally true if a coercive environment did not precede our existence. However, the truth in his statement is only partial. Rendered inauthentic by mass consumerist society, we are left with merely just existence without essence. As Oscar Wilde put it half a century beforehand, “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all” [1].

II. Marx’s Conception of Alienation 

Philosopher Karl Marx in the 19th century described a phenomenon known as proletarianization. It is a form of downward mobility, where the working class grows larger through increasing levels of capital accumulation. As a result, wealth becomes transferred to fewer and fewer hands as the individuals who were once employers now are demoted to mere workers with labor power. And with this transformation, more individuals are coerced into selling their work for a wage. It through proletarianization that an increasing number of individuals experience “subjectivity without essence” – in Marxist terms, alienation.

responseIn modern late capitalist society, this idea has been pushed to its very extreme. Contemporary thinker Slavoj Zizek argues that the current historical situation should push us to radicalize the idea of proletarianization further, since its use has expanded far beyond the confines of the industrial setting [2]. Proletarianization is much more than a reference to a growing working class; it is a condition where an individual is ripped of his/her product, that which is naturally theirs. Therefore, Zizek argues, capitalism embraces this as an end far beyond the base of production. The current ecological crisis is yet another attempt to separate us from our environment. Similarly, intellectual property is a way to separate us from collective ownership, ripping us apart from our substance. In an effort to compartmentalize every aspect of life, capitalism detaches man from his surroundings and creates separation where there was previously none [3].

Thus, given these efforts to fundamentally alter human relations, can Sartre’s conception of essence truly exist in any authentic sense? If essence demands subjectivity than we cannot call anything contemporary “authentic” since our subjectivity is constantly being created for us rather than by us. As Zizek calls it, capitalism leaves us “subjectivity without substance,” in that it leaves us with constant displacement beyond our personal control.

III. Existing within the Simulacra

Artistic depiction of philosopher Jean Baudrillard.

Artistic depiction of philosopher Jean Baudrillard.

Now, how does freedom fit into this end? It simply cannot. True freedom cannot coexist with institutions which subjugate, separate, and alienate individuals. Philosopher Jean Baudrillard in his treatise Simulacra and Simulation denounces contemporary society as merely an artifice masquerading as the Real by eliminating any alternatives to its hegemony. He writes, “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true” [4]. Therefore, contemporary capitalist society – the simulacrum – attempts to normalize exploitative relations in an effort to make them appear universal. Because of this, we oftentimes assume liberal conceptions of liberty are the only form of liberty. In retrospect, this is the only form of liberty that can exist within a capitalist framework. Since systemic forms of oppression are cyclical in capitalist systems, they become normalized and expected. Therefore, commonplace conceptions of “freedom” are skewed and limited to the current economic paradigm and fail to transcend it.

Because liberal freedom is mainstay, proletarianization is seen as complementary to liberty in contemporary Western society. It is not seen as a menace; rather, it simply is. It is this acceptance and rationalization of oppression which prevents freedom from expanding. Worse so, it makes individuals hesitant to even accept greater conceptions of freedom. Again, it all relates back to Baudrillard’s conception of the artifice – the simulation becomes the only reality, while the Real is nonexistent. And it is within this artificial framework that radical freedom, free of institutional oppression and real autonomy, cannot exist.

Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation derives much of its theories on artifice from the French Situationist school of thought, particularly Guy Debord. He writes in Society of the Spectacle, “… just as early industrial capitalism moved the focus of existence from being to having, post-industrial culture has moved that focus from having to appearing” [5]. Similarly, Baudrillard speaks of the artifice as symbols; these symbols reaffirm themselves and the existing artifice they create. Most importantly, such an environment induces individuals to uphold the artifice as if it were the Real. As Debord argues, “The more powerful the class, the more it claims it does not exist.” Because the Real can never be acknowledged, subtle censorship is crucial to maintaining its hegemony; and it is within this paradigm that freedom cannot exist in any complete context.

While we continue to exist in the artifice, individuals cannot achieve their essence. Hence, Sartre’s maxim is incomplete. Since human agents are victim to their circumstances, hierarchies of oppression hamper any realization of true freedom. These systemic imbalances in in class, race, sex, and gender maintain themselves by merely being viewed within liberal capitalism, rather than through the Real. Freedom is unable to be fully realized with this intact. In order for real freedom to be actualized, man has to transcend efforts of marginalization in order to complete the second half of Sartre’s phrase – and it begins by dismantling the institutions that constrict individual autonomy and liberty.

***

– Estranged Labor by a young Karl Marx discusses alienation as a concept. It is part of a greater collection called Economic Manuscripts of 1844. 

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