MEDIUM READ: System Change is in Order

This is a repost of my contribution to the Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication editorial. Originally published May 12, 2021 at https://doi.org/10.7710/2162-3309.2432


In the spirit of Walter Rodney’s guerrilla intellectual, I’ve tried to dissolve the scholar-activist dichotomy within myself for several years now.[1] I find it increasingly impossible (and not even a desirable goal) to divide my personal and professional beliefs. That is why I see a common force affecting the COVID-19 pandemic, the global uprisings sparked by the police murdering Black folks, and scholarly communication—capitalism. I want to briefly explore these three areas using critical theory as a tool to explain and predict. And, because capitalism is responsible for producing (and benefitting from) these major crises, I see system change as the only solution.

Social ecologists, such as Murray Bookchin, have observed that the way humans treat each other is reflected in the way that we treat nature.[2] These theorists see domination and hierarchy as a commonality across capitalism, racism, patriarchy, and ecological destruction. They note that relating to nature as something to be dominated and exploited has fragmented landscapes, polluted our air, and made us more susceptible to zoonotic viruses such as the one that causes COVID-19.[3] Social ecologists warn that capitalist agricultural practices will increase the occurrence of these viruses. Sadly, the corporate capture of the US political structure has worsened the pandemic while benefiting the super-rich. Billionaires became 27.5% richer between April and July.[4] Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, alone is $74 billion richer. Relatively few people can only accumulate that much wealth when millions of people are made to suffer. Black people in the US have died from COVID-19 at twice the rate of white Americans.[5] Women have been disproportionately saddled with more childcare and household labor.[6]

The global uprising sparked by the murder of George Floyd is rooted in the same injustices seen in the pandemic. If George Floyd tried to use counterfeit money, as was alleged, he did so as a victim of a racist economic situation. For several decades, the capitalist system has not needed as many workers in the US as it once had. This has confined large numbers of Black folks to lower paid work, underemployment, unemployment, and/or subjugation to the criminal-legal system. The police, whose roots are in slavery, are an institution designed to enforce social and economic inequalities. There is no other reasonable explanation for why they inflict so much violence on Black and Brown people, while prioritizing the safety of the wealthy and private property. While the interminable call for reforms have failed to stop police violence, abolitionist ideas and values reached a level of popularity that few could have predicted. Abolitionists, who often have an intimate knowledge of racist violence, are full of imagination and love for their communities. We are not content with the symbolic painting of “Black Lives Matter” on city streets. The potential implications of abolitionist thought on scholarly communication deserves further elaboration beyond this editorial.

The lesson I am receiving from the pandemic and uprisings is that our economic system leads to social and physical violence, and we can do better. Our structures in scholarly communication are mostly capitalist in nature, which leads to forms of intellectual violence as well.[7] How else can we describe the profit-making we see in journal pricing? Or e-books that are not licensed to libraries because there is more money to be made by selling individual licenses? Unless we examine, undermine, and replace the underlying ideology, we will continue to be disappointed by whatever happens after the pandemic is over. I do not share the optimism that some of my peers have, especially because we need to brace ourselves for years of austerity—budget cuts, a smaller workforce, increased pressure to be productive, and shrinking paychecks.

Austerity will highlight and increase the unresolved tension between researchers and their employers. Within their institutions, researchers and scholars (employees) are offered little to no decision-making power regarding publishing as an economic activity. The knowledge that we produce is converted by our institutions into revenue and accumulated wealth that is controlled by relatively few people. This is a result of the logic of capital pervading both the private and public sectors. Scholarly communication is shaped in a way that benefits university brands. The higher-ranking institutions, especially, are wedded to a publishing paradigm based in prestige. This may explain why some of them embrace “transformative agreements,” which do not upset the status quo. It is also more apparent than ever that all open access is not made alike and that capital does not rest. Elsevier launched 100 new open access journals in just nine months.[8] As the relatively higher-ranking schools use publishers like Elsevier to increase the value of their brands, the publishing oligopoly will remain well-entrenched. Barring a radical change, scholarly communication will continue to be part of a larger system based on domination, exploitation, and oppression. If scholarly publishing is not controlled by its authors and readers is it worth having?

[1] Rodney, W. (2019). The groundings with my brothers. London: Verso.

[2] Amargi, W., & Amargi, S. (2020). Communalism: a liberatory alternative. https://www.communalismpamphlet.net/

[3] Smith, E. G. (2020, March). Coronavirus and the need for a social ecology. Institute for Social Ecology. https://social-ecology.org/wp/2020/03/coronavirus-and-the-need-for-a-social-ecology/

[4] Neate, R. (2020, October 6). Billionaires’ wealth rises to $10.2 trillion amid Covid crisis. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/oct/07/covid-19-crisis-boosts-the-fortunes-of-worlds-billionaires

[5] Pilkington, E. (2020, September 8). Covid-19 death rate among African Americans and Latinos rising sharply. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/08/covid-19-death-rate-african-americans-and-latinos-rising-sharply

[6] Chemaly, S. (2020, April 20). Coronavirus could hurt women the most. Here’s how to prevent a patriarchal pandemic. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/coronavirus-could-hurt-women-most-here-s-how-prevent-patriarchal-ncna1186581

[7] The prosecution of Aaron Swartz and his suicide showed multiple types of violence.

[8] Abrahams, P. [@paul_abrahams]. (2020, October 22). RELX 9 month trading update. Elsevier underlying revenue growth +2%. Article submissions up 25% [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/paul_abrahams/status/1319193921017217024

Happy Birthday, Malcolm X!


“I’m not the kind of person who come here to say what you like. I’m going to tell you the truth whether you like it or not.” – Malcolm X


In my first post, I’m honoring Malcolm X, on his birthday (May 19). He is, of course, the inspiration for the blog’s name and tagline. I’m forever striving for his combination of courage, clarity, insight, honesty, and provocation when I speak and write.

Malcolm was clear on his solidarity with the Palestinians, who will be free in our lifetime:

In short the Zionist argument to justify Israel’s present occupation of Arab Palestine has no intelligent or legal basis in history

I particularly like this essay by LEFT on Malcolm. I agree with LEFT’s quote from Kwame Ture:

Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael went as far as to emphasize that, “we who have an ideology today use Malcolm X as our framework. Our basic framework. Our point of reference.

Later on LEFT says:

Malcolm X is alive in the hearts and minds of every one, whose evolution in life involved the reading of his autobiography. He is alive in every lashing out for liberation by Black folks uncompromisingly fighting tooth and nail against the interlocking systems of white supremacism and anti-Blackness.

There are too many Malcolm quotes to choose frosm, but I highly recommend (re)reading his autobiography and listening to his “The Ballot or the Bullet” and “Message to the Grassroots” speeches.

Keith LeBlanc’s No Sell Out track is pretty dope too.