Columnist Vijay Prashad: Thinking of my friends Frances Crowe and Michaelann Bewsee

  • Frances and the girls. Courtesy of Vijay Prashad

Published: 9/2/2019 1:35:47 PM

Impossible to imagine how we — on the left — keep going.

When Margaret Thatcher said in the 1980s that there is no such thing as “society,” that was less a description of reality than a threat. The policies that Thatcher and Ronald Reagan pushed, which we call neo-liberalism, have crushed society. Life for the vast majority of people around the world continues to deteriorate. Commute times to work have increased, precariousness around jobs remains steady, wages are stagnant and state benefits have declined to perilous levels. The institutions of social life have been damaged — sometimes beyond repair — with time to spend with each other much declined. There was something called society. The policy of neo-liberalism has broken it.

Part of the neo-liberal project was to dismantle the state support for health care, education, and elder care. The breakdown of these crucial social support structures has put the burden of the “care economy” largely on women. No invisible hand takes care of this in our families; it is the invisible heart, as UMASS economist Nancy Folbre put it, that often does the work. If not for the economy of care, it is likely that our entire family structure would have been far more of a wreck. The unions of “care workers” have maintained militancy in the otherwise dormant trade union culture.

No wonder that for the past half-century at least, as the tide of neo-liberalism has flooded society with anxiety and heartache, it has been women who have been the most active in the fight back. In August, western Massachusetts lost two such women: Frances Crowe and Michaelann Bewsee.

Michaelann was more directly involved in organizing the indigent to fight to reclaim their dignity. Her work with Arise for Social Justice was part of the welfare rights movement and now the poor people’s campaign. The forcible destruction of the state put such ferocious pressure on society, but that pressure was most harshly felt among the poor (especially those with the illnesses that are magnified by poverty).

There is something ghastly about poverty — and about its manifestation, hunger. The last time I saw Michaelann, we discussed a line from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1964 Nobel Prize speech: There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it. The world does. But that money — in the tens of trillions — is held by the microscopic rich, who hide most of it away in tax havens rather than invest it for productive activity. Michaelann could not realize her dream of a socialist society, but she held on to it fast. The obscene conditions of our time did not deter her; in fact, they gave her strength.

A few years ago, Frances Crowe came over to our house for dinner. She had heard that my youngest daughter, Rosa Maya, had made a poster presentation on Gandhi. Frances went over the presentation with Rosa and her sister, Zalia, telling them stories about her own non-violent fight against violence. The main subject was nuclear weapons, with Frances talking about the escalation of the nuclear threat in our time. The experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the horrendous evidence we have of the damage caused by conventional weapons, should have stopped humanity in its tracks. But it did not. Nothing has changed. And yet, Frances said, a life of struggle was the only possible way to live with dignity. Even though Doomsday Clock sits at two minutes to midnight, our efforts to fight war and the climate catastrophe are necessary. I remember the profound impact this had on my children.

I remember the great impact this had on me. These women, Michaelann and Frances, and so many others like them did not care about the odds that seemed stacked against us. It is people like Frances and Michaelann — and Arky Markham, Phyllis Rodin and Jean Grossholtz — who remind us that there is no future in giving up our ideals. Phyllis Rodin died in Northampton in 2015 at the age of 100. She came to the area after a life of working in India with the Gandhi Peace Corps and then in Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the survivors of the nuclear bombing. During the war on Iraq in 2003, Phyllis, Frances and Jean worked with a group of younger activists (including Jo Comerford and myself) to publish the Valley War Bulletin. It was our little cry from the heart, a warning about the terrible effects of war on the place being destroyed and the place doing the destroying.

These women taught us how important it is to hold the line, how ridiculous it is to become cynical. These are our elders. As they pass, the heavy obligation begins to fall on the rest of us. There is no time to rest. We are two minutes to midnight. We have protests to organize; we have a world to win.

Vijay Prashad, who lives in Northampton, is the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.



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