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Book Review; Social Populism? A Review of Steve Early's Refinery Town

R. Burke

One of the most interesting things about Steve Early’s new book Refinery Town, Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City, is the way it seems to provide an empirical confirmation for theoretical positions that have been debated on the left for decades. Thinkers from Althusser’s current of Marxist thought, such as Etienne Balibar, have advocated for a shift from a class based to a mass based politics, while Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe in their 1985 classic Hegemony and Socialist Strategy make use of Gramsci’s notion of hegemony to argue that the secret to politics, and thus of socialist advance, is in the adoption of a populist political strategy. Of course Mr. Early does not mention these theoretical debates. This is not to say that he may not be highly conscious of these matters, but that what is important in this book is that it is a record of lived political experience whose testimony helps to confirm the insights of certain political theorists. Mr. Early does nothing less than demonstrate how to successfully organize a counter-hegemonic bloc!

No doubt those who would remain restricted to the orthodox Marxist position would attempt to caricature such notions.  However when one recognizes that the working class, even in the most traditional Marxist definition, is an essential element of the popular classes, one recognizes the sheer audacity of what is actually being proposed. Mr. Early, a long time leftist with a solid background in labor activism, describes his experiences in moving from New England to Richmond, California on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay. He describes how he and his wife first became aware of the ‘shelter in place’ warnings due to releases of toxic gasses from the nearby Chevron refinery. When one factors in that Richmond, long tied to its biggest employer, also contains a large population of African-American and Latino residents, one is contemplating a real world situation in which class, race, and environmental factors interact and reinforce each other, within the context of an urban community, to produce conditions of oppression. Mr. Early describes the history whereby these different communities and groups overcame the fragmentation and isolation that the capitalist world-system would impose on us all, and come together in a popular, mass movement that has actually been able to attain and maintain political power. What is more this power has been utilized in ways that largely satisfy the demand ‘power to the people.’ As a result the Richmond Progressive Alliance has had electoral success in running and supporting candidates for electoral office in the city government and have been able to introduce measures that benefit the citizens of Richmond in concrete ways.

Mr. Early displays talents as an historian of labor and other anti-systemic movements in his writings. He gives us a background regarding the economic history of the east bay area and Richmond in particular, providing the necessary context in which to understand the situation. The building up of industry in the early 20th century; the migration of black workers to the area in search of employment, and the indignities they suffered; the effects of industry on the local ecology are all chronicled. Activists from the labor, civil rights and environmental movements were able to come together in a larger movement, the RPA. One might suspect that Mr. Early is secretly a reader of Laclau, so closely does his investigation of the history of the RPA read like a concrete description of the ‘construction of the people’ described in Laclau’s On Populist Reason. What is more, Mr. Early informs us of the socialist element that plays a prominent role in RPA politics. It must be remarked that populism as a distinct political current was born in the United States, and advocated for things such as the formation of cooperatives, as well as the nationalization of railroads. Issues that even Lenin, in his final writings, could agree with. Recently Frederick Jameson in An American Utopia has raised the question of why those who call themselves socialists display reluctance to defend and propose measures such as nationalization and public ownership? Perhaps more populism is necessary for socialists in order to remind them what socialism is really about! Could a social-populism be successful for socialist advance in the US in the 21st century?

What also provides evidence for the views of thinkers such as Laclau and Mouffe is the sad fact that, while the RPA has always consciously tried to appeal to workers issues, certain unions with more conservative political tendencies are among their biggest opponents. To recognize this, in itself, tends to falsify the views of those who hold that there is a necessary connection between class position and political position. Here we have clear representatives of Marx’s industrial proletariat taking the side of their capitalist exploiters. Political positions are socially created, they do not pre-exist as some kind of ‘essence’ within those who are supposed to provide the agency to put theory into practice. This means that it is up to us socialists to organize all those who can be organized, as Marta Harnacker so eloquently testifies.

Mr Early’s book admirably relates the fragile nature of the alliance, the pressure it is put under to undermine its political effectiveness, to pull it back apart on racial, class, or environmental lines. At no time can it be assumed that the RPA speaks unchallenged by those who also claim to speak for these issues, and in some cases do so precisely in order to maintain the status quo. What is on display is a repeated effort by the RPA-one is tempted to use a term from Sartre’s later writings: totalization- whereby what might otherwise be seen as isolated and fragmented ‘causes’ become popular demands; more theory and practice?

Refinery Town has a foreword by Senator Bernie Sanders. Whatever one thinks of Sanders, and his co-operation-or collusion- with the Democratic Party, one thing is clear: his campaign proved that a massive yearning for socialist politics exists, particularly among younger people (disclosure: the author of this review crossed party lines to vote for Sanders in the Missouri primary while voting for Jill Stein in the general election). As a result of this the Democratic Socialists of America is now the largest socialist organization in the country, and has even moved leftward. The movement that Early documents is more closely connected with the Green Party. However the other great virtue of the Sanders campaign is the way he showed the power of populist political appeals, which is in fact the great lesson to be gained by reading Refinery Town. Hopefully it will become more widely learned by the US left in coming months. May it spread like a prairie fire.

Refinery Town; Big Oil, Big Money and the Remaking of an American City.

By Steve Early

Beacon Press, Boston, 2017


Hardcover $27.95

222 pages