Ava DuVernay, Black Lives Matter, Game of Thrones, George Floyd, Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino Defense, Racism and Fiction, Selma, Stephen King, The Magical Negro, The Shining, The Stand, Third Reconstruction
Last January Stephen King was criticized for comments he made about voting for the Academy Awards, something he is apparently entitled to do as a member of that august body. “For me, the diversity issue — as it applies to individual actors and directors, anyway — did not come up…That said, I would never consider diversity in matters of art. Only quality. It seems to me that to do otherwise would be wrong” he tweeted.
Well, Stephen King is anything if not consistent. From what I can gather his literary output reflects no concern whatsoever with ‘diversity’ other than as a license to express forms of racism so extreme they might shame a klansman.
Ava DuVernay, director of the 2015 film Selma (not nominated by the Academy for best director) described King’s comments above as “backward and ignorant.” I think that’s being charitable. Even by the standards of the 1970s and 1980s King’s novels have always trafficked in what can only be described as gratuitous bigotry. So why have his works always been so popular? How is it that so much of King’s work challenges even the Urban Dictionary in depravity and yet still rakes in millions of avid readers and millions of dollars? Why does he leaven so much of his writing with grotesque stereotypes?
The common defense takes the form of a non-denial denial, insisting that because what King writes is horror it should shock and sicken; nothing shocks and sickens like racism so that’s why there is so much of it in his novels. Implied here is that he uses such bigotries in a constructive manner; they serve a larger, more edifying purpose, or so the argument goes. But this is really the Tarantino defense: it’s just plot and character development, nothing more. The problem here is that so much bigotry in King’s novels so obviously serves no purpose. It is gratuitous; which is to say unneeded and unwarranted, therefore casual bigotries that do not forward plot or character development, or, at least go far beyond such development. There is just no way to excuse or explain away the naked racism peppered throughout King’s oeuvre (we will get to examples below).
So as to undermine the Tarantino defense, I’m going to quote a couple characters from a Tarantino film. Upholding King’s legacy sans his bigotry amounts to the position that John Travolta stakes out regarding eating bacon in Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction. You know the scene. Samuel L. Jackson holds that “Pigs sleep and root in shit. That’s a filthy animal. I don’t eat nothing that ain’t got sense enough to disregard its own feces.” Travolta counters, “How about a dog? A dog eats its own feces.” Jackson quips, “I don’t eat dog either.” To which Travolta asks whether Jackson considers dogs a filthy animal. Jackson says a dog’s “got personality. Personality goes a long way.” Travolta counters, “by that rationale if a pig had a better personality it would cease to be a filthy animal.” Jackson famously responds, “We would have to be talking about one charming motherfucking pig!”
King’s writing is as that pig wallowing in its own shit; don’t eat the bacon.
Regardless of how one answers these questions, King’s comments should come as no surprise, as his output betrays an unbearable whiteness of being, something that remains pervasive within elite and popular culture. And in this sense, no matter how charming it may be, a pig is still a filthy animal. (That there is a literary device. For what it’s worth, I consider pigs adorable).
Do you need some evidence as to rank racism in Stephen King novels? In the unfortunately titled “Stephen King Needs More Black Friends” (Scott Woods, Medium, January 15, 2020) the image of Black people in the ‘Stephen King Universe’ is made clear. And mind you, this recounting is from a fan:
King writes almost all of his Black characters, magical or otherwise, in problematic ways. When they are not magical they are horrendous stereotypes: dope fiends and brutes (The Stand), jive-talking thugs (End of Watch), and worse (the short story “Dedication”). More, King’s characters never happen to be Black; he intentionally makes it clear that they are Black from the outset, usually with jaw-droppingly offensive descriptions: Mother Abigail in The Stand is “coal-black” and further described as looking like an “old black Everglades alligator.” The Black junta of The Stand are also Black, “huge,” nude (save for a loincloth, so sexualized to boot) and actively murdering White people with intent. The chief villain in The Running Man is a game show producer named Dan Killian who is “minstrel show” Black. The Green Mile’s John Coffey is hit with a litany of racist descriptors, including “monkey,” “big mutt,” and “big boy.” Some of these are character embellishments, insults provided through the mouths of virulently racist characters — aka the Tarantino Defense. But some of them come from the universal narrator of a given story.
Getting a bit more granular, this is from my essay “King vs. Kubrick” (Mozzochi.wordpress.com, January 22, 2019) where I compare King’s The Shining to Kubrick’s The Shining:
What the Ghosts Represent:
Book: All the ghosts are evil; all desire to continue their evil deeds–marital infidelity, gangsterism, murder, as a manifestation of their “single group intelligence”. The source of this evil is not institutional, structural, historical, political or otherwise outside of the individual. It is located within us, in our denial of the possessive individualism at the heart of the bourgeois family.
Movie: The source of evil is the hotel itself, which cannot be separated from its history, in part erected on the bones of indigenous peoples. It is rabidly racist and demands absolute servility on the part of inferiors, most pointedly workers and their families.
Racist, Homophobic, Classist or Misogynist Scenes That Contribute To Plot Or Character Development.
Movie: Grady calls Dick Hallorran a “nigger” in the all important restroom scene. Elsewhere Jack says, “just a little problem with the old sperm bank upstairs. Nothing I can’t handle, though.” That’s about it. Sparing, short and devastating. But Kubrick doesn’t wallow in it as King does–as a teenager expressing unfiltered repressed emotions.
Gratuitous Racist, Homophobic, Classist or Misogynist Scenes That Don’t Contribute To Plot Or Character Development.
Book: an endless parade of cringe worthy and vicarious bigotries apparently pleasurable for some people to read. Emblematic is where King has a young Dick Hallorran fire a “Nigger Chaser” firework (bottle rocket) at a wasps nest. This makes no sense even on its own terms.
From Ben Goldstein, “Stephen King’s The Stand is Bloated, Racist and (Somehow) Still a Masterpiece” (Medium, May 10, 2015). Again, this is from a fan:
King didn’t invent the Magical Negro literary trope, but he’s spent much of his career coasting on it. Consider the psychic hotel caretaker Dick Hallorann in The Shining, who comes back to rescue Danny Torrance when Jack loses his mind. Or the hulking and simple-minded John Coffey of The Green Mile, who heals the innocent by absorbing their pain, and dies as a savior figure.
In The Stand, we’re presented with Mother Abigail Freemantle, a religiously devout beacon of benevolence…” Within the entire Boulder Free Zone community — which eventually numbers in the thousands — Mother Abigail is the only person who is described as black. That’s right, kids: Stephen King’s utopic Free Zone society contains exactly one (1) black person. Other than that, the Free Zone is a diverse tapestry, featuring white people from Maine, white people from Texas, white people from New York, and white people from Ohio.
Of course there are other black people in The Stand. You’ve got the jive-talkin’ Rat Man, who’s so creepy that even the nymphomaniac Julie Lawry wont fuck him. There’s Richard Hoggins, the young black drug addict from Detroit mentioned in the “second epidemic” section. (“He had been addicted to the fine white powder he called ‘hehrawn’ for the last five years.”) Hoggins breaks into a drug dealer’s house after the Captain Trips virus kills everyone and OD’s on the stash he discovers there. “No great loss,” King writes directly afterwards. But wait, it gets worse. I regretfully present the beginning of the aforementioned “black junta” scene:
Huge black men wearing loincloths! “Amazingly even and white teeth in his coal-black face”! Oh man, Steve, what are you doing here? And let’s not forget the “brown, smooth skinned” band of spear-carrying natives that Flagg encounters at the very end of the book. Savages. They don’t speak jive, but that’s only because they don’t speak English at all.”
…Every notable black character in King’s novels — Hallorann, Coffey, Mother Abigail, Mike Hanlon in It, Susannah Dean in The Dark Tower: Song of Susannah, Nan Melda in Duma Key, etc. — is referred to as a “nigger” at some point by another character. Usually, this is meant to signify villainy or ignorance in the character using the word. But you’d think a writer with as expansive an imagination as King would find different ways to make that point.”
No, I wouldn’t. It’s the liberal version of the unfiltered bile Trump spews. And again, the above is from Stephen King fandom. I’m not a fan of Stephen King. But I am a fan of tearing down monuments that glorify inequality, racism and reaction.
King’s comments about diversity and the Academy Awards above are classic meritocratic nonsense–the real ‘virtue signaling’ we hear so much about–that practiced by business elites, cultural influencers and celebrities designed to remind us how talented they are and how in awe we should be of that talent and the money and power it commands. Much of this ‘race blind’ and ‘post-racial’ narrative nonsense gets packaged with brutal class war attacks against the poor and vulnerable.
King stands in this artistic and political tradition, one that is thankfully under assault by antiracists everywhere. See that Robert E. Lee statue being taken down? How about the confederate flag being banned at NASCAR? Remarkable. But such atrocity exhibitions extend beyond statues and flags, to art and entertainment and government policy that goes from The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind through The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (aka The Moynihan Report) onwards through King’s The Stand and The Shining and Game of Thrones, which I have described elsewhere as a “blood and soil zombie soap opera that utilizes medieval fantasy conventions.”
This tradition needs to be hog-tied, pulled down and tossed into a river, just like those confederate statues.
King is not exceptional in this regard; but he is an exceptionally rich and prolific scribbler whose work should be a focus of criticism during this amazing period of resistance, rebellion and (dare we say it) revolution. Might we be in the midst of a Third Reconstruction in America? If we are, I expect this sacred cow to be sacrificed forthwith. For if we are in a Third Reconstruction, then how could we ever accept as penance King’s frequent twitter attacks on the psychotic flaming Cheeto? Or anyone’s, for that matter? That’s a bar set so low that a hedge fund vampire like Mitt Romney can step over it and march in a protest for George Floyd without a public shaming such as that endured the mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey. That just won’t do.
Isn’t it past time we chucked the Stephen King monument into the Castle Rock River?
As protests over the murder of George Floyd continue across the country there are fresh debates among radicals about the best methods for social protest. I am in favor of a concept known as “diversity of tactics”, a set of ideas that accepts a wide range of activity from non violent civil disobedience to militant, and sometimes violent, direct action. Different situations require different means of resistance, rebellion and hopefully, revolution. When it comes to getting the knee off of the neck of Black people, ‘by whatever means necessary’ means all of those tactics. Over the past few days I’ve been fortunate enough to have been present at very militant actions in the San Francisco bay area. Like you, I’m sure, I’ve also been watching other protests across the country. And, like you, I’ve noticed that news coverage of these protests, be they passive or aggressive, tends to be somewhat frustrating. No, that’s not quite right. News coverage is abominable, a disgrace to the fourth estate. That’s better.
Now we all know that the mainstream media–fake and real news included–promotes unquestioning sycophants and only occasionally breaks free from self-imposed blinders to actually report on anything of value. So we don’t expect much coverage of militant resistance to the murder of Black people to be very accurate or informative. But still, even Noam Chomsky will argue that there is a nominally free press in the United States, however much this fourth estate is also complicit in manufacturing consent. But I’ve got to tell you, I’m not sure how free that free press is anymore. When covering these uprisings virtually every mainstream (and not a few alternative) reporters somehow feel it a necessary and good thing to whinge. You know what that is–when someone’s mouth is moving and they are complaining in a persistent and peevish or irritating way such that they end up not really saying anything of value at all. To this whinging is inevitably added moralizing. These guardians of the intolerable status quo not only complain about the inconvenience of their beloved Whole Foods being emptied of merchandise, they describe such activity as inherently wrong, even evil. You know what I’m talking about. In this case such reporters aren’t reporting so much as emoting.
This raises a question. Isn’t a basic function of the fourth estate to report? Shouldn’t that reporting include, if not be limited to, Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? How is it that every dip-shit with a microphone suddenly feels empowered to tell us, in cringeworthy and excruciating detail, how they feel about everything? What their opinion is? Perhaps an answer lies in the fact that reporters have become celebrities and thereby entitled to inflict their singular pathologies on us. Oh, I know. I can just choose not to watch and listen. But that’s not true, is it? If I want actual reporting that informs I have no real choice but to watch and listen to these narcissists because between Unicorn Riot, Redfish, and Democracy Now! there isn’t enough reporting. Our alternative media can’t get everywhere all the time. And whinging even intrudes on these platforms.
One can debate the effectiveness of marching in the streets and fighting cops at barricades so as to hold those streets, but we should all agree that plaintive cries for state and corporate power to “do better” are absurd. We need something more, and different. And look here! When comparing and contrasting previous uprisings (1969, 1992, 2014-15) with todays rebellions, isn’t it rather remarkable that so much direct expropriation is now centered not in ghettos and barrios, but on Rodeo Drive and Beverly Hills (LA), Union Square and Emeryville (Bay Area)? To me there seems to be a clear break with the dominant narrative about ‘senseless rage’ and self defeating masochism that poor and working people inflict upon themselves when they ‘riot’ and ‘loot’. But you wouldn’t know it from most reporters–they are too busy crying about people blocking traffic and how ‘mom and pop’ businesses like Target and Chase Bank are being needlessly attacked.
I haven’t found a single television report that isn’t saturated with these disgusting displays of shock and awe larded with denunciations of property damage and resistance to cops in our streets. A recent example is instructive here. I just watched a reporter and camera person covering some people engaged in expropriation at a Whole Foods in Santa Monica, California. The reporter was whinging ad nauseam and speculating wildly about how the “looters” must be “outsiders”. Then, the camera person purposefully focused on the license plate of a car being used to load liberated merchandise. The crowd noticed this and chased these “emoters” off. When one of these august members of the fourth estate gets killed, we will remember that they took sides and joined the battle–on the wrong side. They won’t be whinging then, because they weren’t actually reporting–they were being cops with press credentials.
He completed two tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan that included work as a grunt and later as a bomb technician, the latter earning him the nickname ‘Blood’, short for Bloodhound, in recognition of his superior bomb detection skills. After almost a decade of service, and as a result of his many physical and psychic wounds, his productivity declined. Finally he was honorably discharged, Purple Heart in hand. Subsequent his discharge his PTSD got worse, as did his many other physical ailments, and he slowly developed a debilitating addiction to OxyContin. Blood found it unconscionable that recent legislation made it difficult for him to obtain the medicine he needed to function. While no longer on the battlefield, he nonetheless understood that he had brought it home with him only to be denied the very thing he needed most to make it go away, if only temporarily. His family life deteriorated, punctuated by a divorce and homelessness. He wandered through a series of short term, menial jobs and omnipresent, terrifying loneliness. The most routine social interactions found him bewildered and often inexplicably angry. When he read an advert for a company that specialized in hiring vets (and convicts) for ‘elite’ canine care, he jumped at the chance to find some peace and affection with ‘man’s best friend’. But instead of a way out of his situation, that of a character wrongly condemned to some circle or another of Dante’s Hell, his introduction into the gig economy only plunged him deeper into the abyss. As is so often the case it all began innocently–even optimistically–enough.
The canine care gig was a quintessentially San Francisco startup– an ‘app based’ on-demand concoction that paired ‘charity’ with luxury. Blood was to be the primary ‘on-call’ guardian for three Bloodhounds housed on an estate in the Sea Cliff neighborhood of San Francisco. Blood was from another neighborhood of San Francisco, Hunters Point, a mere three miles from Sea Cliff, but a world away. The mansion, a sprawling architectural hate crime of dubious English Tudor pedigree covering four acres was equipped with a vast surveillance system–a state of the art panopticon. It even had a capacious lawn, a super premium in that dense cradle of plutocracy, where the Bloodhounds could ‘do their doody’. As an independent contractor Blood was responsible for his own taxes, insurance, time off, etc. What he gave up in pay he could reap with flexibility. He could always say ‘no’, although the longer he worked as a contractor for the company, the narrower his flexibility became. And the money was terrible.
His time spent with the dogs began with walks on the beach, bathing, games and even social outings where the dogs could frolic with their own kind. His undoing, later to be covered breathlessly by a media slavering for sensationalism, was not at all the dogs per se, but their owner: a billionaire dowager who insisted that her “precious ones” receive three outfit changes a day, individual hand feeding and a meticulous monitoring and analysis of their bowel movements such that the animals, while pampered, were also in a constant state of anxiety. Blood did what he could to assuage their pain.
Whenever the dowager was away, usually at a philanthropic event centered on (you guessed it) rescuing dogs, her disembodied voice would pierce every room, from one to another. She needed instant empirical confirmation that the outfits were arranged and on the dogs, their dietary regime intact, their stool samples evidence of good gastrointestinal health. There was always a ‘dog whisperer’ or another at the ready whenever one or more of the dogs was sick or disturbed–which, given the depraved regime of ‘care’ insisted upon by the dowager, was often. Always exasperated the dowager ordered her many servants about as a boot camp sergeant might harangue new recruits. In this Blood found familiarity; later contempt. Whenever the voice of the master erupted around them he and the dogs would jump, as if at the crack of a rifle shot, to rapt attention.
At charity and business events, no matter the urgency of the issue at hand, the dowager was not to be interrupted while she was barking instructions to the help on her cell phone. She was regarded by her peers as eccentric, but a real champion of the underdog. A gilded philanthropist and influencer who routinely made or spade political careers. Kamala Harris and Gavin Newsome knew her well. And a feminist! The dowager would outlive her husband by more than thirty-years and grow their fortune more than five-fold. The origins of the family fortune were somewhat obscure, having roots in antebellum Mississippi. The family patriarch, a Southern lawyer and savvy investor, had always been associated with Bloodhounds. Blood thought it odd that someone would insist on outfits for a breed of dog such as Bloodhounds until he began to notice a recurring theme to the costumes. There was the Sherlock outfit, the Prisoner outfit, the Beauregard, the Kentucky Derby and finally the Birth of a Nation outfit, at least that’s how the dowager described it.
This routine continued for a few months before Blood came to the terrifying realization, as with so much in this world, that he could neither protect the dogs from their owner nor steal them away. He, and the dogs, were trapped.
After about six months into the gig, having found a breach not yet made ‘suicide proof’ on the deck of the Golden Gate Bridge, he plunged off, making sure the three Bloodhounds went with him, an act he considered a mercy killing. The dogs, like himself, were too damaged to go on.
He also left a deftly constructed IED at the dowager’s manse. In order to ‘sniff out’ and defuse bombs one must be intimately familiar with their construction. Blood hacked facial and voice recognition software programs so his C-4 device, planted under the dowager’s bed, would only detonate if she, and she alone, was in the room. The explosion took out most of the third floor of the mansion along with the octogenarian meat sack who owned it. Because the explosion occurred early in the evening there were neighbors walking their dogs in the vicinity. One You Tube video captured a King Charles Spaniel licking up brains from off the front lawn. It went viral.
In Dante’s hell the sin of suicide always resulted in irrevocable condemnation and therefore instant admittance to hell. In a hell constructed by communists (forgive such an absurd thought) Blood would undoubtedly receive a pass for having taken an oligarch with him.
Capitalism will not willingly fall into the grave it digs for itself; nor will it likely stumble in. It must be pushed, or in this case, dragged in by someone willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.
In case you are wondering, all dogs go to heaven.
See you in heaven, Blood!
When we vote for anyone or anything, we should always do so with our head, heart, hands and feet.
Chileans who enthusiastically expropriated more than 60 (!) Walmart-owned department stores just last week voted with their hands.
The tens of thousands of Chicago teachers who defied yet another mayoral boss to go on strike for worker dignity and the kids they teach voted with their hearts.
When Carola Rackete captained the Sea Watch 3 to escort international workers and refugees to safe havens across the walls of fortress Europe, she voted with her feet.
Before being run out of town, Gregory Stevens, the queer First Baptist Church of Palo Alto pastor voted with his head when he declared: “The tech industry is motivated by endless profit, elite status, rampant greed, and the myth that their technologies are somehow always improving the world”
When we engage in multifarious forms of direct action, we are voting without ballots. What we do in our daily lives to strengthen revolutionary movements is our preferred form of voting.
In short, when we vote through direct action we demand nothing of our ruling class; on the contrary, we act so as to achieve everything. We say to them: everything we want is in the end of you.
In a capitalist democracy we also may vote as a ‘citizen’, but begrudgingly and with the full knowledge that this routinized, bought and paid for and largely symbolic act is still an act of will, however much it is diluted through representation. Then, if a particular candidate might be assessed as furthering our more important votes for direct democracy, then we vote in these bourgeois elections, for something greater than democracy many times removed.
In this presidential election there is only one candidate who passes such a litmus test: Bernie Sanders. It seems to me that the only presidential candidate worthy of our ‘vote’ is the one who has been leading a ‘political revolution’ within a political party (Democratic) that is itself quite at odds with such a revolution. One can criticize the Sanders campaign on a variety of fronts from the left and below, but we should bear three things in mind.
First, the Democratic Socialists of America is a member in good standing of our larger political family. Their strategy of organizing within the Democratic Party is Quixotic, but it is bearing fruit. It should garner our tactical support.
Sanders has been making the same speech for forty-years, a source of both consternation, because it hasn’t changed, but also consistency and reliability, as we know full well what his political philosophy and program are. He’s a known quantity. Sanders is no neophyte to the struggle against inequality, nor is he a triangulator or schemer. He is, for better or worse, a democratic socialist within the American tradition–what most elsewhere we might more accurately describe as a social democrat. We can reason from here what a Sanders presidency might look like, warts and all. And such a thing would be a political revolution of sorts.
Second, and of more importance is the DSA itself, and the 50,000 or so new members that have recently signed up. It is instructive to note that during its convention in August, 2017 the DSA withdrew from the so-called ‘Socialist International’. The SI has long counted such august ‘socialist’ parties as the PRI in Mexico, the French Socialist Party, and the SPD in Germany. As such it is neither socialist nor internationalist. While the DSA’s withdrawal was a positive development, it remains to be seen whether the Sanders Presidential campaign will amount to a net positive or negative for our movement. Has his campaign, replete with ad nauseam funding pleas and other trappings of capitalist electoral politics, inadvertently stalled the growth of membership and development of the DSA? Is the Sanders campaign both a source of growth for socialism but also a limit to its horizons? We can influence the answers to these questions.
Third, all other candidates are outspoken defenders of the capitalist order; they do not have a place within our political traditions. They cannot be trusted nor supported, at least not so long as an obvious better alternative is available.
Vote often, vote everywhere, vote as though our lives depended on it. Vote Sanders for President–at least while he represents a move towards our more full-throated revolution. But above all continue to vote in all the ways that will truly make a difference. Remember–direct action gets the goods.
As a ghost of antifascism I sometimes take the liberty to be somewhat controversial. I will now take that liberty.
I despise professional sports. The more popular the sport, the more I hate it. The larger the audience, the louder the crowd, the brighter the fireworks, the faster the jets–the more I want to throw up.
Even the term ‘professional sports’ is offensive, seemingly calculated to help us forget that these ‘professionals’ are skilled workers engaged in labor within a capitalist enterprise. That enterprise rakes in considerable profits from the surplus value created by those workers. These corporations are for profit, and share the same means of enforcing exploitation and domination as an oil company, weapons manufacturer or, for that matter, a charitable foundation.
Furthermore, the non-millionaire workers who park cars, cook hotdogs, clean bathrooms and stitch hats are invisible. As with all corporations, it is from the least powerful that the lions share of value is created and then stolen by others; then that process is hidden from us. In coliseums and arenas it seems our otherwise sharp ‘critical criticism’ is set aside to allow for unbridled support for a team or competitor. There is also a certain fidelity to white settler state militarism often aptly represented by mascots, e.g., cowboys and Indians.
Professional sports are also prime vectors for the reproduction of the pathological male gaze: men, beer and hot dog in hand and mouth watching men, balls in hand in combat with one another; meanwhile women busy themselves watching those men watching men and imagine how they look to those men. Ugh. This is the male supremacy algorithm that dominates professional sports, and why there is still no out gay (American) football player who hasn’t faced organized and violent opposition of one form or another. Give it time, you might say, by the turn of the next century I’m sure there will be an out gay quarterback, or perhaps even a transgender one. But that’s precisely my point–there is no point to this short of transforming the very nature of competition by obliterating that which upholds it all–private property. Capitalism has proven itself to be the most efficient means by which to organize a form of ‘free time’ that is misogyny masquerading as sport. Big fucking deal. What an accomplishment. Oh, and don’t get me started about the grotesque enslavement that is ‘college sports’ and its cannibalism practiced on higher education, two things that should never be spoken of in the same breath. Finally, it seems that within the American tradition of professional sports ‘politics’ is verboten. If you ask me, not much to recommend here. Since when did a radical cheer on a corporation?
Remember, corporations are legalized dictatorships–they practice a form of economic totalitarianism fundamentally at odds with democracy and equality. This is what Milton Friedman meant by making the economic realm supreme, where the profit motive can replace democracy altogether. That’s the neoliberal agenda and it is not necessarily at odds with a white nationalist and male supremacist one. They can function hand and glove. Get it?
Not all sports are subject to my scorn; just those that are capitalist enterprises. Amateur sports, especially kids sports, are another matter entirely. Here, as with all facets of social life that have managed to remain at least partially outside ‘the economic’ one can find healthy and wholesome competition. Some of my most precious memories are of amateur sports. Sporting competition outside private markets and organized capitalist insanity used to be enshrined in the Olympics. Remember when it was for amateurs only? Friendly competition between nations? Remember when those scrubs from the beer league bested the Soviet hockey team? Now it is a loathsome spectacle of corporate corruption, preening celebrities and vicious gentrification programs that vacuum up the wealth of entire cities.
So it is with such disdain in mind that I turn to the Portland Timbers, a professional sports corporation no different from those discussed above, but with a fan club, the Timbers Army, unlike any other, except perhaps one: FC St. Pauli Hamburg (Germany).
First some bona fides. I have been an antifascist for more than 30 years and spent a good part of the 1980s and 1990s making that a full time occupation. During 1996 I visited 15 cities throughout Germany on a speaking tour in a concerted effort to meet and better coordinate with comrades fighting the far right there. In the United States the Oklahoma City bombing had recently taken place while Germany was in the throes of an insurgent mass-based racist anti immigrant movement. My speaking tour was hosted by radical antifascists, autonomists, ‘refoundation’ communists, squatters, anarchists and trade unionists. In Hamburg (my favorite venue of the tour) I was given the t-shirt pictured above by antifascist supporters of FC St. Pauli.
The far left, antifascist credentials of the FC St. Pauli club go back to the 1980s, which is when the Antifa began to be revived in Europe and North America. There are other European football clubs with one foot in socialism, but few that are as militant as FC St. Pauli. There are many more fan clubs with both feet in fascism.
The Timbers Army antifascism owes much to this left wing political tradition, and it is a welcome development. The Timbers Army are to antifascism in the United States what FC St. Pauli are to German and European antifascism. But the Timbers Army is also a creature of its social milieu and therefore a football fan club. I don’t live in Portland or follow any sort of football. But so long as a sports club is antifascist, I’m interested in what they mean by that and what they do about it.
Now, I am partial to the original antifascist symbol, that of the red and black flag, but I can accept others.
Also, I might chafe at Timbers Army supporters using one of three iconic arrows to target ‘communism’, or other ‘Iron Front’ antifascists distancing themselves from groups self identified as ‘antifa’, or the distinction without a difference made between ‘patriotism’ and ‘nationalism’, but I will uphold their rightful place within the larger antifascist movement. I would expect the same in return.
If the Timbers Army were to reach its full potential, what might that look like? Here the limits of a fan club become a bind. But there is a way forward: don’t just bite the hand that feeds you, take the whole arm and use it to beat the living shit out of your master. And you do have a master.
The Timbers football team is owned by Hank Paulson—the guy who helped orchestrate the bailout of America’s plutocrats and ensure the continued immiseration of the rest of us after the global shitting of the bed that was the ‘financial crisis’ of 2007-2009. During a recent match where Timbers Army supporters observed 33 minutes of silence to protest a ban on their antifascist symbols, Paulson, together with his son, also an owner, is said to have blamed the loss of that match on this vocal antifascism. It seems to me that what should be done here is pretty clear.
Radicals within the Timbers Army should agitate for the obvious next step in political development, a step that should exacerbate contradictions and divisions within the enemy camp and reinforce solidarity and unity within ours: It’s time for a community-owned Portland Timbers. The decommodification of our leisure time is an antifascist action and goal, or should be.
At issue here is not whether the owners are antifascist enough, but why anyone should own our leisure time? Here is a political movement on a platter: a loathsome dictator (every CEO is that) who is also shoving nepotism down the throats of supporters all the while undermining popular antifascism. This is also an issue all antifascists–antifa and social Democrat’s alike–could agree on. Some, however will undoubtedly cry in their beer: the defense of private property, rather than its abolition, is antifascist. Such nonsense presents itself as an opportunity to separate the antifascist wheat from chafe and reclaim that which belongs to the commons.
In any case I will always hate professional sports, perhaps not as much as corporations that manufacture cluster bombs, but not much less, either. What’s important is that there is an alternative that is possible and that we are willing to fight for it.
The world we live in is indelibly marked by organized and systematic theft and violence, facilitated by the dual fictions of Law and Order. The worst crimes of capitalism, perpetrated by capitalists, are legal, and therefore hidden in plain sight.
The crimes of Jeffrey Epstein, of which we know of only a few, took place over decades and were also never really hidden, only dissembled. Through the sophistry of a Law and Order beholden to money and influence, and a ruling class that loves the smell of its own shit, this particular atrocity exhibition was, in a word, enabled by that scatalogical fixation. If our ruling class can be said to have a culture, this is it. But, however despicable Epstein’s predations undoubtedly were, in terms of sheer injury they pale in comparison to, say, the crime of a luxury condominium development and the homelessness that results therefrom. While shocking and outrageous, its important to place Epstein’s organized rape along a continuum where it can be viewed alongside the daily violations of wage labor, gender inequality, racism and the general plunder that characterizes the world we live in. So when considering Jeffery Epstein, we would do well to do so in light of the ongoing evisceration of women’s reproductive health services, especially abortion rights, and the hundreds of miles and dollars a woman must often travel and spend to try and secure what should belong to her as an inalienable human right. Epstein’s crimes were illegal, after a fashion, while these other outrages are legal. But I insist: they are different not in kind, only degree.
When treated exclusively as a form of extreme pathology allowed to fester because of cracks in that edifice of Law and Order, Epstein’s crimes are diminished. On the contrary: Epstein’s crimes are the plaster and glue that hold that edifice together. He is not an outlier; he is emblematic. Their moral reasoning was sound according to the depraved precepts it follows. Refusing to say as much sets the crimes of the rich aside, in relief, where they can continue to be repackaged as progress. The ‘Epstein affair’ becomes spectacle when it is ripped from the only context that can explain it: The crimes of our ruling classes.
Showing how Epstein’s crimes are symptomatic of, rather than exceptions to, elite domination is one task of the radical. This must involve a refocusing from the spectacular to the quotidian, from the retail to the wholesale, from the individual to the political economy, and from there to an examination of what the Epstein criminal syndicate tells us about capitalism and its ruling classes. What do his predations share in common with other forms of oppression? How were they different? Then, finally, what do they tell us about ending their rule?
The toxic masculinity Epstein practiced for decades, out in the open and with the full support of his peers is inconceivable without those international pleasure palaces. It is from such a position of invulnerability that those heinous assaults on women were organized again and again. They are inseparable–the palaces and the pimping–and work well together. Private property and the theft it is based on is also an expression of illegitimate power; that this is currently legal in our society doesn’t change that universal human truth.
Just as there is no moral equivalence between neo Nazi violence and antifascist resistance, there is no analogy to be drawn between the depravity of the rich and the violence of the poor. The rich are the grand heavy weight champions of exploitation and domination; we are the only social force that can end their rule.
Capitalism and justice are mutually exclusive terms, as are capitalism and feminism.
A socialism of the 21st century must by definition be a feminist one. Where there is gross inequality, mass predation, and immeasurable suffering, one will always find the powerful justifying it all through Law and Order. That means we will never be rid of the Jeffrey Epsteins of the world, or for that matter the Elizabeth Holmes, until we are rid of the rich.
21st century socialism must recognize that one of the most earth shattering, horizon expanding, revolutionary developments in human history is hidden in plain view: money, once the great elixir of progress, the indispensable lubricant of trade, the sine qua non of exchange, the sinew of capitalism, the lifeblood of state socialism, is now an impediment to progress. The question of money is no longer that of more or less, public or private, sovereign or dependent, supply or demand, ‘classical’, ‘Keynesian’, or ‘modern monetary theory’, but how soon we can get rid of it, how quickly we can usher in a world where there is no longer a need for it.
Consider that it is entirely possible to measure, weigh, track, render, monitor, surveil, coordinate, network, and evaluate in real time any unit of capital or labor, all manner of goods and services, such that one knows their precise physical state everywhere and at every moment of existence, from production to distribution, consumption to disposal and/or recycling. If that is the case, we need only establish the use value of a commodity (its utility) and forego the fictitious accounting associated with its ‘stored value’ such that a commodity can be truly ‘decommodified’, becoming the ‘thing for us’. If time and space has been so utterly transformed that trust and risk (competition) no longer provide an organizing principle for our economy, what is the purpose of money? Without a need for storing value, why do we need money? Why must we store value when its use can be determined by and immediately available to all? What would be the purpose of wage labor? Of private property? Of banks? Of insurance? Of advertising? Isn’t this the whole point of a truly communist economy–to do away with these things? Isn’t this what we anarchists and communists all agree we want to rid ourselves of? For the first time in human history it may be possible to achieve this, but it won’t happen because of some inexorable law of economics, or because capitalism will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. It will only happen if we will it to happen.
Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
The above was popularized by the philosopher William Rapaport in the early 1970s. The period is there at the end because it is a grammatically correct sentence. Deceptively simple, Rapaport’s word-play requires a key to unlock the logic at work. The word ‘buffalo’ conveys three distinct meanings: as a proper noun it is a city, as a common noun it is an animal (aka bison) and as a verb it means to bamboozle. These nouns and verbs conspire with one another to transform an absurd list into an entirely reasonable thought. The sentence diagram above helps, if you are into that sort of thing, or just substitute the word ‘bamboozle’ for the verb ‘buffalo’ and the sentence can be understood as ‘buffalo from the city of Buffalo are bamboozled by other buffalo from Buffalo and in turn bamboozle still other buffalo from the city of Buffalo’.
That’s a lot of crafty buffalo.
Much later Rapaport, in his book Great Insights of Computer Science, makes another observation about a seemingly mundane matter, yet one that he shows has complex and far reaching implications. The first great leap in the theory of computer science was “Gottfired Wilhelm Leibniz’s, George Boole’s, Alan Turing’s, Claude Shannon’s, and Samuel Morse’s insight: there are only two objects that a computer has to deal with in order to represent ‘anything.’ All information about any computable problem can be represented using only 0 and 1 (or any other bistable pair that can flip-flop between two easily distinguishable states, such as ‘on/off’, ‘magnetized/de-magnetized’, ‘high-voltage/low-voltage’, etc.).”
Huh. All of the most spectacular advances in computer science can be reduced to such humble origins–the binary digit, or Bit. What a relief! For someone who is mathematics illiterate, such as myself, this is comforting. All that rarified knowledge has been constructed upon a foundation that is so simple an eight-year-old can understand it. Cool. What can we do with that?
To answer this question Rapaport identifies a second great insight that belongs to Turing alone:
“…there are only five actions that a computer has to perform in order to do ‘anything’. Every algorithm can be expressed in a language for a computer consisting of only five basic instructions:
From this the modern electronic computer was born.
Turing, a gay man in mid-twentieth century England, is also largely credited with solving the cipher to the Enigma machine that encrypted and thereby safeguarded Germany’s most secret communications during WWII. Cracking the code facilitated an Allied victory. But what of Turing, the man? How was this singularly brilliant individual treated by the British state? He was hounded and incarcerated then subjected to chemical castration and psychological torture so as to ‘cure’ him of homosexuality. His signature contribution to solving Enigma was kept a state secret until long after his death, itself perhaps directly at the hands of that state.
The British state (as all states) pillaged the insights and innovations of its brightest ‘deviants’ then wrapped them up in the Union Jack and called it progress. The contrast between Turing’s contributions to science and the manner in which he was treated is emblematic of the difference between those insights and the political and economic system that claims them for itself. The film The Imitation Game acknowledges the injustices suffered Turing, but upholds the right of the state to pillage that which belongs to it by sovereign right. Anarchists and communists refuse to uphold that right, because all capital and labor, and the science and technology that drives inventions and innovations, belong to us, not bureaucrats or capitalists, innovators or influencers. They steal it from us. Our task, as always, is to take it back.
From the two insights above the Information Age has evolved. There are, of course, other insights and innovations, but few, it seems, are as fundamental as these two. The scaling up of Bit logic, and its service to capitalist political economy is reshaping the biosphere we call earth and our relationship to it. The so-called ‘Information Age’ with its computerized networking power, artificial intelligence and machine learning, genetic engineering, robotics and automation, are ‘disrupting’ concepts once considered fundamental to capitalist and state-socialist economics, such as trust and risk, space and time. However one assesses what are undeniably monumental, deep, broad and fast changes one thing should be crystal clear: In the hands of bosses and bureaucrats such power will only further our collective immiseration. There is no ‘progress’ here without attendant forms of domination. We must find a way to create a rupture with this process.
Marx wrote something about ‘value’ that might be of some use here (pardon the pun).
Capitalism has always been characterized by an effort to instrumentalize the trust and risk intrinsic to trade so as to guarantee profits for the property owner. This presupposes the prior existence of private property owners and workers–the former with the power to compel the latter to sell the only thing that ensures their continued mutual existence: the labor power of the worker. That labor power is the basis for all value. Yet for those economists who believe that something other than labor produces value, its easy to formulate trade in an abstract, ‘pure’ form and construct what I call the Santa Claus theory of economics: Someone needs something they don’t have, so they trade something in order to obtain it. Goods and services intermingle through the magic of competition and pricing and everyone is happy. Everyone gets what they deserve in the form of presents under the tree; only the lazy and undeserving get a lump of coal in their stocking. In this way inequality is justified and reproduced.
“But ‘profit-making’ is just capitalist exploitation. Its secret gave rise to the study of political economy; and since Marx disclosed it orthodox economics has been devoted to covering it up again…Capitalism is unique in hiding its method of exploitation behind the process of exchange, thus making the study of the economic process of society a requirement for its transcendence.” (A Dictionary of Marxist Thought. Tom Bottomore, Eds., 1983).
In order to overcome great distances and long periods of time associated with much trade, money served as a fungible representation of the value such goods and services contained. While this now seems natural, and no doubt was in many ways superior to other forms of storing value associated with earlier modes of production, it was never, and can never be, a definitive and accurate accounting of that value; it can only ever be a social construction of that value. Stamp that coin with a number, print currency with heads of state and corresponding digits, watch the stock market hit 26,000, it is still constructed by human beings in relation with one another. It does not have an existence independent of that social reality. Marx wrote that money in each of its moments mediates a social relation and has a dual nature:
“Commodities come into the world in the shape of use values, articles, or goods, such as iron, linen, corn, &c. This is their plain, homely, bodily form. They are, however, commodities, only because they are something two-fold, both objects of utility, and, at the same time, depositories of value. They manifest themselves therefore as commodities, or have the form of commodities, only in so far as they have two forms, a physical or natural form, and a value form.” (Capital. Volume 1. Part 1. Section 3).
Neither the physical form nor the value form can ever be captured through a number, only approximated. Such “depositories of value” are encoded in money, be it precious metal, fiat or digital. Here, I think, a conceit is indulged, or if you prefer, a sleight of hand is performed. This sleight of hand has proven more efficient, more powerful and most of all more fungible than competing forms of valuation. Private property, capital accumulation and markets organize trade–rationalize it–and facilitate the speeding up and expansion of the forms of monetary endcoding of exchange value necessary to overcome the long periods of time and often great distances involved in buying and selling labor and capital in the form of goods and services. But, regardless of its ability to outperform competitors, it was still an imprecise and arbitrary operation that also codified relations of exploitation and domination that are intrinsic to it. This operation appears to us as naturalized, by which I mean represented as an authentic and eternal, just and good, embodiment of the value of that good or service. When economists employ mathematical formulas and assert ‘laws’, it is as though the realm of capitalism is eternal. While some of these formulas can be helpful in understanding the nature of capitalism, such as Thomas Picketty’s R > G, they are only applicable within the narrow field of economics. However many econometricians may don white lab coats to assert their empirical knowledge, what they practice is still, at best, numerical anthropology or mathematical sociology. Value in a Marxist sense is always, everywhere and throughout all of history, something human beings determine. These laws and the numbers that make them appear so solid do not stand outside of time, outside of history. This misrepresentation, (conceit, sleight of hand) lies at the heart of capitalist, and much socialist, political economy: that part of the value of a good or service can be ‘stored’ and rendered as an amount expressed by the numerical symbols of whatever currency is deemed legitimate.
Non Marxist economists believe that ‘stored’ or ‘deposited’ value can be calculated one way, through pricing signals and monetary mechanisms toward that ever elusive market equilibrium, or the cosmic balance between supply and demand; Marxist economists, through the labor theory of value, another. Both economic theories, on paper and in practice, rely on a pricing mechanism and a monetary system together with banks, private or public, as institutions necessary to facilitate trade and the meeting of human needs, however imperfect. Socialist states sought to quantify the exchange value of labor and capital in monetary forms–every socialist state has had a currency, banks, an insurance industry, etc.,–no less than capitalist states.
With the public realm of the state it was possible to socialize (usually ‘nationalize’) values, to one degree or another; with the private the goal was, and is, to privatize them. Both approaches sought to expand and speed up economic growth and thereby social development. Socializing surplus value, on the one hand, or lifting all boats by expanding the pie, on the other. Private property and ‘free’ markets have proven to be more adept at this. All things being equal the military and economic might to command large armies of labor from which super profits and surplus value can be extracted, especially from the global South, has been a constant advantage throughout the recent history of capitalism. But how that growth and development is distributed is, of course, its Achilles heal. With the public and private, everyone is fixated on monetizing labor and capital, then dividing the fruits according to the logic of either system. Both only considered communism as an economic system free from private property and wage labor, money and exploitation, as a distant utopia or an ever present threatening dystopia but not, in any case, realizable in the here and now.
Bit Logic and a Communist Future
The explosion in computing power that Bit logic has unleashed threatens to upend this by potentially making the public/private binary obsolete because it is rapidly transforming the space and time involved in trade. It is simultaneously opening up a heretofore impossible communist future while also enabling a more exploitive and domineering state and corporate nexus. The gig economy and Bitcoin are responses to this change in the fundamentals of classical economics–both represent an intensification of private capital accumulation and control. That intensification is proceeding at a frenetic pace. Well meaning politicians who bemoan workers having to live ‘paycheck to paycheck’ are missing the fact that in our increasingly informal and digitized economy workers live from gig to gig, which is to say hour to hour, in their cars or cars they rent, while corporations continue to slough off the social costs of doing business onto the backs of those workers. As the gig economy grows–and it will grow unless we strangle it–other better paying, more secure, safe and fulfilling jobs disappear. But the freedom to set a work schedule of our own desire, or to take breaks when we need them, or not have a boss up in our face is greatly diminished when we must work 12-14 hour days and the only other options to this digital treadmill are prison or homelessness. Fully half of Google’s workers are now gidgets (my word, which is a portmanteau of widget and gig), i.e., contract workers with all the flexibility of someone unemployed but none of the benefits of an employee. Dismissing or applauding the growth of the gig economy ignores the inescapable logic inherent to its spread: capital is able to massively socialize costs while increasing accumulation. What allows for this is the increase in digital networking power, the massive disenfranchisement of the masses that accompanies the privatization of electoral politics and the general speeding up of the circulation of money. Workers have no choice but to work these jobs because, as a comrade once noted, labor always follows capital, as it doesn’t wish to starve or be imprisoned. The key here, much like the key to Rapaport’s sentence above, is understanding that this power belongs to us and must be returned to us and in order to bring that about we must fight for all of it. We must wrest that power from them, not enable it. No half-measures such as increased taxes, higher wages, a reclassification of workers or more democrats in office will do. Nothing less than everything will do.
Did you know that bluetooth beacons in grocery stores track cell phones to within centimeters and can send push notifications to nearby ‘shoppers’? These changes are not coming; they are already here. The good news is that many of them prefigure an anarcho-communist future. That future will not come about by its own volition; it must be won.
Developments in Bit logic and networking power, especially during the past 10 years, expose the increasingly unnecessary and wasteful aspects of capitalism while laying the groundwork to make it possible to forego these operations altogether. Some untethered radicals and discombobulated libertarians believe that ‘data’ will supplant ‘pricing’ in the near future, a signature development of a ‘post-capitalist’ future. Call it what you may, it will be worthless without a massive redistribution of wealth.
What is different today, or at least since 2010 is that whereas at one time such advances in technology facilitated trade and the meeting of human needs, now they hamper them. This is what continues to be misunderstood about the Great Recession of 2007-09: The upheaval was less about housing bubbles or asset overvaluations per se than about a balance that needed to be re-calibrated. An explosion of value was being unleashed through technological changes and that value had to be captured–privatized–by corporations and the state. But the velocity and breadth of these changes are outstripping the ability of the modern nation state to corral it. Bitcoin and the gig economy are efforts to intensify the privatization of these advances.
Instant and Inevitable Communism
Two recent articles, one a fluff piece the other more serious fare, address something similar. Aaron Bastani’s concept of “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” first made the pages of the New York Times on June 11, 2019, but it has been around for awhile. The nut of his argument, which is equal parts preposterous and loathsome, not least because it serves as a bridge between the affluent and entitled left and the soulless libertarian right, is as follows: “The case of cultured food and drink, far from a curiosity, is a template for a better, freer and more affluent world, a world where we provide for the needs of everyone–in style.” The article reads as if it was written by a 40-something neurotic boy-man channeling Lenin as a ‘salesman’, rather than he who gave the order to put the Romanovs in the ground. The breathless prose comes off as a promotional pitch for an inevitable technological revolution–no molotov cocktails or general strikes needed. As despicable as his article is and forthcoming book will be, Bastani highlights something of importance: automation, robotics, artificial intelligence and other advances in science are transforming the world, in particular the nature of work and workers. Most radicals know this, but it is an open question as to whether our theory has changed accordingly. The problem, which most radicals also understand, and that is left entirely unaddressed by Bastani, is in whose hands this transformational power resides. The answer, of course, is theirs. The struggle to reclaim that power will not be a cake walk. It will be brutal, and of necessity lightening fast and global, while hopefully successful. But it will not come about because Sergey Brin has decided to fund another vanity tech start up that produces genetically engineered meat. The significance of the article is in the fact that intellectual elites have taken notice of such changes and are planning accordingly. Some, full of dystopian dread, are buying land in New Zealand while others believe the Bolsheviks will never come for their Doggy Hotels because the rough edges of capitalism will be smoothed over through the invention of a better mousetrap delivered to their door by a drone.
The other article of interest, with more heft to it, is that by Evgeny Morozov in New Left Review (No. 116. June 2019). “Digital Socialism? The Calculation Debate in the Age of Big Data” is concerned with similar developments in science and technology. But where Bastani laps up genetically engineered hamburgers made of petri dish grown cellular matter with squirts of commodity fetishism to sweeten the taste, Morozov is more concerned with whether Silicon Valley can cough up fresh “legitimating narratives” and “regenerative mythologies” to buttress actually existing capitalism. The most important aspect of this requires revisiting the “socialist calculation debate” and something called the “New Deal on Data” a concept that derives from a paper presented to the 2009 Davos forum. Morozov writes:
“I will go on to suggest ways in which the development of digital ‘feedback infrastructure’ offers opportunities for the left to propose better processes of discovery, better solutions for the hyper-complexity of social organization in fast-changing environments, and better matches of production and consumption than Hayek’s solution—market competition and the price system—could provide.”
Here is the whole weight of the material determining our political possibilities–sort of a reiteration of the base and superstructure debate. Mozorov is essentially arguing for a more sophisticated ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’ with a tweak from Picketty and perhaps Hayek. Both articles are largely non-starters because of where they begin. For Morozov a compelling argument has been made by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger through his works Big Data and Reinventing Capitalism in the Era of Big Data (or, provocatively titled in the original German Das Digital) that data will replace the pricing mechanism as the guarantee of the internal logic of capitalism.
“Das Kapital, they argue, is out of date: once it is efficiently utilized throughout the economy, Big Data will not just reinvent capitalism—the English title is too modest on this point—but end it. ‘It may be time to close the door on history and officially eliminate the term “capitalism”’, they proclaim. In place of finance capital and firms, data-rich markets will empower humans to work directly with each other. More dramatically, data will supplant the price system as the economy’s chief organizing principle.”
While Morozov does not buy this argument, he does seem to relax his critical faculties when it comes to the proliferation of feedback mechanisms associated with the big data of Amazon and related Gig economy ‘disrupters’. His casual mention of Bla Bla Car, a rideshare startup in France that allows a rider to set a ‘chattiness’ level of a driver neglects to note that this is a form of labor discipline exercised by capitalists. This feature of new data as it intersects with the gig economy is left unexplored, which is a shame because it is the nexus for the anti-labor, anti-human character of this emerging economy. Morozov forgets that the very notion of a ‘consumer’ is bound up with enforcing labor discipline as much as it is about limiting rat feces in bologna. For Marxists, there is no such thing as a consumer, only my labor power and the assholes who steal the surplus value from it. Mozorov evinces no recognition of this fact about the new gig economy.
Whether it be pricing or data, there is no way to definitively quantify the value of capital and labor, goods and services through money, although this is precisely what capitalist and socialist states and their theorists have argued over for the past two hundred years–not if it could or should be done, only how it could or should be done. That’s what the great ‘Calculation Debate’ should have been about. To suggest that it needn’t have taken place at all is not necessarily a fools errand that romanticizes ‘primitive’ modes of production, such as bartering, ‘pre-capitalist’ economies or those such as that practiced by the Zapatistas for more than twenty years throughout the region of Chiapas. We must relentlessly interrogate the notion that there are ironclad stages of development that define and constrain our ability to realize a communist future, aka the stage theory of socialism. We are constantly told that we can eventually overcome this, but to push for too much too soon is to court disaster because it is impossible. The elimination of work, of money, of private property and the state is something that must come about, but can only come about in the distant future. So we have been told. But if capitalism is experiencing a crisis of confidence, so too is the guiding logic of state socialism. Something is different from then and now. Why? Big data, with or without flexible and recursive mechanisms for ‘bringing people together’, will always trend toward monopoly and dictatorship because the dna of the modern corporation is that of domination and exploitation. They are by definition totalitarian regimes. This is not addressed by Mozorov. Small or large, if the corporation remains, our future is bleak. Right now the modern corporation is in almost complete control of all the most important advances in science and technology, not to mention the erasure of politics and culture. To theorize the state as a vector of opposition to ‘globalization’ is to miss the fact that it has been largely captured by capitalists, be they national or ‘international’ in outlook. It just doesn’t make much of a difference.
What is fundamentally different about our situation today is that if we wait, it will be too late. We court disaster by not pushing for everything now, because only everything will stave off total disaster of one type or another. Whether that imminent threat be climate change, fascism, species collapse and pandemics, or just the continuation of neoliberal digital dictatorships wobbling about as a hollowed out and emaciated liberal democracy, is irrelevant. Any one or more of these threats will end the dream of an equalitarian and democratic future. Organized human societies and the democracy and equality that give them meaning are increasingly at risk of collapse. While one could argue that making a leap toward an anarcho-communist future risks destabilizing liberal democratic alternatives, it is becoming more apparent than ever that the risks associated with not making such a leap outweigh those of attempting it.
All Accounting is Fictitious.
All ‘costs’ could be socialized without a monetary system, banks, loans, insurance, or any type of symbolic semiotic absurdity mediating the lifespan and use of a given good or service. Strip from that rutabaga plant or taxi ride, domicile or space shuttle every aspect of pricing and markets, money, buying and selling, wages and ownership, advertising and insurance–what do you have? The thing in itself which we make the thing for us, that which belongs to the commons. If we weren’t spending our time and energy fixated on monetizing exchange value, what could we spend our energy and ‘cognitive capital’ doing? All of those things above that define a good or service sans the elaborate and wasteful exercise in fictitious accounting. In other words, all accounting is fictitious. The operation, while undoubtedly surreal, is not without real world consequences, but it is and can only ever be a misrepresentation of the value it is said to embody. We arrive at that value through our collective control of the process, or it is imposed on us.
Another way of looking at this: What an extraordinary waste of human energy! If there is no longer a need for assurances of trust necessary for the taking of risk, because that trust and risk has been socialized in the commons, for what does one need money? If those great distances and long periods of time have been effectively overcome, what is the point of money? The answer is to maintain inequality. Today it is increasingly only that. It is a system that has lost its ability to project a future worth projecting so it resorts to the doctrine of TINA–There Is No Alternative. The very forces it has unleashed have become fetters on further development, as someone once said, so it forecloses on any future other than that of its continued domination.
Bit Logic ≠ Money
Consider the difference between Bit logic and money. Bit logic is perfectly logical, its operations by definition must solve an equation, complete an algorithm. It’s an arrangement of zeros and ones. This is behind that annoying statement that coders and software engineers are fond of quipping: a computer program can never be wrong; it can only be programmed (by a human) incorrectly. Exchange value, on the other hand, is not strictly logical in the above sense; it is a social construction that employs a certain logic in its execution, but can only ape bit logic. It always reflects whatever values a ruling class is able to impose on subordinated classes, something decidedly social in nature. That value is mediated by the class struggle, not independent from it. There is no ‘value’ apart from this. In this sense the value of money lies in the ability of a ruling class to live in a manse, impose a border, enforce a regime of labor, and organize all of this from its computerized citadels. It has no existence independent from this.
Try and imagine a world without finance, debt, deficits and loans, without corporations and governments, without advertising and without wage labor, without work. It is difficult because it cannot be done without an understanding of the functional and structural basis of capitalism and the state together with a theory of what can replace them, and how to bring that about. It’s also the case that such a dream of the future cannot be piecemeal, because it is always subject to the death of a thousand cuts. You want open borders? What about the chaos that would ensue? And so on. Additionally there is a dynamic to capitalism such that whatever we are able to wrest from one hand they will take back (and more) with the other. This is what we radicals mean by a ‘systemic’ analysis, or “the system”. Bit technology can help facilitate this transformation–it can be used to help us replace capitalism because it is different from it.
Now, it should be clear that I am not a Luddite. But I am also not a futurist nor a technological determinist. This technology which exists on a world-changing scale must be controlled and shaped by the commons for the common good. We ought not hide from, organize around, ignore or destroy it. We must make it serve the common good. We can only accomplish this through political struggle. Left in their hands it will bring us nothing but more misery. What we yearn for, the prize that we must always keep our eyes on, is what is meant by this quote from Marx, altered for gender clarity:
“For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each woman has a particular exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon her and from which she cannot escape. She is a hunter, a fisherwoman, a shepherd, or a critical critic and must remain so if she does not wish to lose her means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch she wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have in mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherwoman, shepherd or critic.” (The German Ideology).
This year the British state will adorn a 50 pound note with a visage of Alan Turing. Such a conflation of the scientific genius of Turing with that of the unscientific power of money is obscene, and perfectly in keeping with the odious nature of the United Kingdom.
This is not our future, much less the only possible future; it’s no fucking future at all. I will have none of it. Let’s bring something different into existence. Let’s take a leap toward a 21st Century socialism, in a word Anarcho-Communism.
If you are a tourist, just don’t drive in the city. Don’t even consider it. This is the most unforgiving and forbidding, bat shit crazy city to drive in throughout the entire United States. Oakland is a close second, with the crappiest roads in the country, but nothing beats San Francisco’s hybrid transportation hell with its one-way, dilapidated streets, steep, winding hills, constant construction, horrific traffic and the most aggressive pedestrians and bicycle riders on the planet. If you must travel to San Francisco–and we prefer you did not–don’t drive a car. If, however you insist on doing so, here are some vehicular pastimes that beat the crushing stupidity and corporate mendacity of those tourist traps like Fisherman’s Wharf and The Embarcadero. You might as well learn something from your intransigence.
If you are not above indulging in a bit of schadenfreude proceed to Washington and Jefferson streets where they cross Snob Hill east-west and west-east. Both streets are one way and are cable car equipped. The cable cars, long since abandoned as a means of proletarian conveyance, now cater exclusively to that most despicable of social creatures, the tourist. Get your video ready. Note that in place of four-stop-sign intersections the cable car is granted the right-of-way, making for two-stop-sign intersections, something unexpected and counterintuitive to anyone unfamiliar with San Franscisco’s insane transportation environment. You will watch as driver after driver stops when they ought not to stop, and do not stop when they should. This, despite the prominently posted signs north and south that read Cross Traffic Does Not Stop. It makes no difference, as no-one reads a sign posted below a stop sign, unless it is for a yard sale; but it does make for constant near catastrophes, and the occasional full-on crash. Hours of enjoyment here, much superior to those creepy mobs lined up outside the Full House house, which is not the house at all, merely the exterior that formed a shot for the show. Besides, sitcoms with laugh tracks are the television equivalent of easy listening muzak.
Americans are congenitally allergic to Round-a-bouts. San Francisco is no exception. The Round-a-bout at 8th and Townsend is a shit show worthy of a Three Stooges skit. The physical comedy of vehicles, bicycles, scoots and scooters, skateboarders and pedestrians all aggressively competing for the right-of-way through a circle whose logic escapes everyone is perfectly emblematic of the future Big Tech has in store for us. And this is ground zero of Big Tech in San Francisco, with the offices of Adobe and Air BnB yards from the chaos. They have figured it all out, you see, because an algorithm can never be wrong (only the person who programmed it) therefore everything that derives from the algorithm is right and good. Now comes the pesky Round-a-bout and the many nuanced social cues and codes and all that other stuff that escapes the ironclad logic of the Bit. The logic of the Round-a-bout is straight forward and simple, yet flouted by practically everyone: if you are in, you have the right of way. If you are out, watch out. Exceptions, as always, are pedestrians and bicycles. The point system is always in effect, which is my way of saying Big Tech is Big Stupid.
Set aside time in your itinerary for the onramp to the Bay Bridge at 1st and Harrison and the neighborhood known as SoMa (South of Market). Deeply ensconced within this cradle of plutocracy is the leaning Millennium Tower (fall over already) and the worlds most posh freeway entrance. While you are there let them know we are coming with pitchforks and molotov cocktails, and a particular emphasis on those $5,000-a-month doggy day cares. During rush hour (5am-10pm everyday) watch for Lamborghinis with a right-of-way my Toyota just doesn’t have. They will cheat through that bike lane while pretending to ignore horns blaring around them then park right in the middle of the fucking intersection, stopping traffic in all directions. Taking their time, they will pretend to have misinterpreted the giant sign that reads “Do Not Block Intersection” and the civil code cited below it. Milkshakes are in order.
While not particular to San Francisco, the mantra Look, Signal, (then) Pull out should always apply. Don’t do the opposite–pull out, signal and look as an after thought. Doing the opposite means you will ram your vehicle into mine and I will be forced to exit my vehicle and beat you about the head with a copy of Das Kapital. This elementary principle, so simple and unambiguous, so very difficult to misinterpret, is unobserved everywhere. There is a phrase for doing otherwise: aggressive stupidity.
Don’t stick your phone, much less your iPad, into the middle of your front windshield. Are you daft? You will not be able to take out that Salesforce executive without backing up to finish the job. Furthermore, while you may be able to track your progress through that gps navigation program, you won’t get wherever it is you are going because you will have hit something you ought not to have hit along the way. Those large spaces at the front and sides of your vehicle called windows are transparent for a reason–so you can see through them.
Autonomous vehicles in training are legitimate targets for milkshaking and the old Issac Asimov I Robot conundrum: roll a baby carriage from one direction and an elderly person from another directly in front of the Waymo vehicle and force it to make a decision, thereby exposing bias at work in the algorithm. If it chooses to run over the baby, autonomous vehicles are baby killers; if it chooses the elderly person, it is guilty of geronticide. If it stops altogether, get your milkshake ready.
Two noteworthy tidbits of trivia to keep in mind about the Golden Gate Bridge. First, is that it was Iron workers who died building it and should be honored for it. Architects and engineers can fuck off. Second, the suicide deterrent system currently being installed on both sides of the bridge to the tune of $240 million is emblematic of the priorities of San Francisco’s city leaders. It is far more important to obstruct people trying to die with dignity, and perhaps a bit of notoriety, than do anything about the homeless crisis–which is not a crisis of too few homes available for too many people, but that of the 100,000 empty homes that the wealthy indolent and real estate industry purposefully leave uninhabited. That’s right 100,000 empty fucking homes. Occupation and expropriation are the only solution here.
The Tenderloin District is the last bastion of lumpen proletariat resistance in the entire city. Drive careful through there because God’s children are selling the dope all those Big Tech twits need to make it through their twenty-hour work days while they pray to the crack in the wallet of a Tech billionaire. That’s right, San Francisco’s African-American population has contracted by almost half in the past twenty years, which makes driving through The Tenderloin, Bayview and Hunter’s Point neighborhoods the rough equivalent of visiting a concentration camp or Indian reservation. You are witnessing a program of urban genocide carried out under the banner of Big Tech. So remember, with every floor of a shiny new office building, a tent city is erected in its shadow.
Welcome to the City on the Hill.
Here’s something you have probably heard before: As we grow older we become more conservative in our politics because maturation implies moderation. Within every young anarchist or communist is a reactionary just waiting to emerge.
This assertion is often presented as a value-neutral descriptive that merely reflects a principle of human sociality beyond all politics. Quite the opposite is true, as the assertion contains within it a hidden prescriptive: implied is that one should become more reasonable with advanced age and ‘grow up’ by tossing aside youthful excesses, like political radicalism, in favor of capital accumulation, the responsibilities of ‘raising’ a family, and the moderation in all things that this apparently entails. This is often framed as natural, something that just happens because that’s just the way the world is. This is almost always the way this concept is wielded. There are endless variations of this meaningless mantra and they often begin with a red diaper baby and end up with someone like Norman Podhoretz. The trajectory is everything–one doesn’t ever go from right to left, always from left to right.
Together with that other old canard, history repeats itself, these two maxims serve to paralyze thought and action.
Using Occam’s Razor we can make a very different assertion: Older people appear more conservative not because they mature in their beliefs, nor because reactionary values are ‘natural’ or inevitable, but because rich assholes live longer–much longer–than the rest of us.
Furthermore most rich people have more conservative values than the rest of us because they began with wealth and power they want to conserve; then, when they get older, they are proportionately more of any given population than when they began their incessant exploitation of us. As inequality kills us quicker, their social footprint–financial, electoral, golf–becomes that much greater. As we die in greater numbers more quickly than they do, they accumulate more wealth and power as they grow older. They don’t become wise with old age; they defend that which they have stolen with greater zeal. It just appears to be the case that the older people get the more right wing they become, when in fact there are just more right wing assholes because they live longer.
What a shame.
It would seem a simple corrective to begin reversing this trend; if need be by taking some of them with us.
Willem Van Spronsen, the 69-year young anarchist who went down fighting ICE with firearms and molotov cocktails is living proof of my argument. Honor his contribution accordingly.
Literally used now more than ever.
Joe Biden was criticized way back in 2012 for using the adverb ‘literally’ nine times in one speech. How quaint. I recently listened to a level 5 Google engineer use it nine times in the space of two minutes.
This particular soulless quant had another annoying habit: He would begin every other sentence by restating my name, “Jonathan, I understand what you are saying…” If such feigned familiarity is coupled with a light touch on the arm, I feel free to reach for a knife. Most people who do this are trying to overcome skepticism and inculcate credulity. As a mnemonic device it is annoying at best; more often it is cloying and insincere and is a sure sign of someone to distrust, even despise.
Honestly? Like. Literally. Actually.
While I don’t miss Obama much, I do miss his particular elocution, that patient, preternaturally calm, baritone voice and the halting ‘ums’ and ‘uhs’ that stitched together his verbal output. By today’s standards those pauses are pleasant by comparison. They don’t have any pretense; they are space fillers that allow him to think. While I have many disagreements with what he said, I could always understand it. He was thoughtful and nuanced to a fault; dithering on the golf course while fascism made a comeback. But in this he was not alone, nor particularly exceptional. Plenty of socialists, for instance practically the entire seven hear history of Jacobin Magazine and Blog, join him in this regard. But back to those adverbs.
With Trump it is as though every wealthy, entitled and neurotic teenager has suddenly been given carte blanche to release their own unfiltered insanity. While I think the parallels here can be overstated (Trump as a teenager) there is still something to it. Will Trump bomb Iran or just berate the housekeeper? Will he begin in earnest the rounding up of undocumented families or just do a stint in rehab?
His verbal diarrhea is pockmarked with superlatives such as ‘winner’, ‘terrific’, ‘tremendous’ and of course, ‘great’ and ‘greatest’. It’s as though his mother, or au pair, never stopped telling him how special he was, even when he was caught eviscerating the neighbor’s cat. Good boy.
If Trump were a pornography category it would be ass-to-mouth, mouth-to-ass, with all those A-list ruling class enablers from both political parties, across every imaginable capitalist enterprise, sucking and fucking to form one giant, unending, gangrenous human centipede, just like the horror film. Jeffrey Epstein is in there somewhere.
Today it seems that adverbs, and certain nasty ones in particular, have mounted an attack upon the nonviolence of ums and ahs, completing a scorched earth assault on the quiet dignity of anodyne place fillers so as to replace them with crutch words that, whether used correctly or incorrectly, amount to obfuscation and disorganization–i.e., bullshit. These lexical tics impulsively resorted to by the verbally disabled add emphasis where none is needed, assert drama where there is only triviality, state the obvious rather than the nuanced and (my favorite) suggest strongly that everything said beforehand was a lie (honestly?…). The standard Trump teenage verbal diarrhea disaster asserts a recklessness with meaning that can only be regarded as aggressive stupidity. This is the hallmark of the powerful, the invulnerable, the masters of the universe who say and do as they please without repercussions, and is the hidden in plain view secret behind Trump’s attraction to some people. We have heard it again and again: Trump ‘says out loud what we can only think to ourselves’. My own take on this is that Trump says out loud, in ways some people would never even hazard, the despicable ideas that belong in the basement. They generally stay there because someone will kick your fucking ass if you say them out loud elsewhere, which is as it should be, but, alas is no longer.
The terrifying ephemeral nature of Twitter is the dominant mode of communication for this viral and noxious hate speech. But together with the sheer hatred and assault of such verbiage there is something else underway: where everything is equally dramatic, nothing is important. Aside from links to longer written work, this platform, like instagag and snapcrap is useless for leftists. The ‘twit’ in Twitter is there for a reason. Those who are prolific in these mediums are the same shallow dipshits who prosecute juvenile intra-leftist fights. Tankies vs. insurrectionists, statists vs. anarchists, etc.
No complex thoughts or arguments are possible here, only half-ass hash tags, silly memes, and depraved gossip. Chomsky once remarked that in order to engage an audience about ideas which break with orthodoxy one must spend some time setting the groundwork to do so–you need at least 15-30 minutes to tear down presumptions that prohibit ‘out of the box’ thinking. If you are not afforded the opportunity to do this you sound insane. This fact alone means the instant ambush culture of social media and the talking heads that wallow in cultish Marxisant Zizekian nonsense ensures no such thinking is possible within such a format. Zizek and his ilk thrive there because they are full of shit. That’s why Chomsky didn’t go on cable news programs or engage in celebrity debates. Chomsky has all the more integrity because of that. More leftists, certain antifascists in particular, need a reminder on this point. Otherwise you are just engaging a debate on their terms. The only corrective to this sorry state of affairs is aptly provided in the wonderful allegory of revolution that is the film Snowpiercer, by Bong Joon-Ho. If you get to the front of the train, don’t listen to the conductor, don’t even allow him to talk–cut his tongue out and remember: Kronole is a bomb, you idiot!
This is why it is largely pointless to troll celebrities and engage in the shadow boxing preferred liberals and conservatives. The questions determine the parameters of possible answers. Liberals and conservatives, establishment types and pols consumed with issues and policies are congenitally allergic to our thinking and action. Are they concentration camps? Is Jeremy Corbyn an anti-semite? Was Brett Kavanaugh qualified for the Supreme Court? Is there a U.S. presidential candidate other than Bernie Sanders worth two shits? Did Jeffrey Epstein receive preferential treatment for his predations? If you debate these questions, you have lost before you begin because there is no debate. To debate what is obvious is the death of debate. It is to die a dithering death, full of thoughtfulness and nuance, that amounts to nothing. It won’t stop fascism or overcome capitalism. Enough already. Try a long form essay, ffs, and mind your adverbs
To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism. By Rob Riemen. W.W. Norton and Company. 2018
Just because a verbose twit decries ‘fascism’ doesn’t mean said scribbler is onto something. If, while pointing at a chair, someone screams ‘fascism!’ we would look askance and wonder about their mental state.
So it is with this pulp fiction.
The problem appears immediately, in the opening sentences. Having ‘courageously’ announced the return of fascism way back in 2010, Riemen, all too comfortable writing about himself, assumes the role of reluctant soothsayer, only to be dismissed by his fellow patrician academics.
He told you, but you refused to listen. ‘You’ are that most reasonable and cautious of thinkers, steeped in the eternal values of liberal democracy, perhaps a fellow at The Nexus Institute or the Templeton Foundation, which seems to mine similar philosophical terrain. A liberal, a conservative, a neo-this or neo-that, perhaps even a ‘progressive’.
Of course what Reimen considers to be fascism is so elastic and untethered from reality as to be an hallucination. If a brute of any political persuasion were to vomit in his precious ivory tower, staining the parchment rolls of wisdom poured over by so many serious thinkers, the sulphur pits could not be far behind. But he was ignored not because his colleagues failed to grasp the reemergence of fascism in the 21st century–an indisputable fact about which there is now little argument–but because they didn’t give a shit. Riemen’s account of fascism is so preposterous as to lend credence to their dismissal, which says a lot, I suppose.
This bit of nauseating self congratulation is quickly followed by laughable cautionary tales about why ‘civilizations’ self destruct. In short: Elites fall prey to their own hubris, their aggressive stupidity opening the door to the passions and naïveté of the masses, which is the real problem here, and far worse than ruling class shortsightedness.
Ruling elites get too greedy and self absorbed–go all Caligula–mindlessly following the pagan shock and awe of an amoral capitalism, and thereby undermine the natural order of things, which depends upon the endless interpretations of philosophers such as Reimen. Not change that order of things, mind you, but explain it. The problem is in the style of elite rule, rather than the rule itself. Here fascism is just another variant of anything that challenges the status quo, which is eternal.
Artists and philosophers are seen as repositories of the values that humanize capitalism, and are counterposed to technocrats and economists.
But capitalism cannot be humanized, only overthrown.
Besides, the fight against fascism proceeds not through the words and ideas of so many scholars and celebrities, but through the class struggle, the true motive force of history.
Elite rule, in today’s world, as that of old, involves brutal and unrelenting exploitation and domination. This is the hidden source of the reappearance of fascism as an exit strategy from the contradictions of capitalism. To ignore this means misunderstanding fascism and thereby being helpless to thwart it.
This is why the philosopher above, and many of his colleagues alike, will end up aiding it. Most of these sophisticates will find their way back to supporting this 21st century fascism (still in early development) precisely because they cannot see their own ideas and the institutions that sustain them as enablers of that same actually existing fascism–to use a turn of phrase. They are faux antifascists, their ideas, floating in a rarified atmosphere of abstract metaphysical absurdity, should be ridiculed, their institutions allowed to rot from within so we can immolate their edifices and warm ourselves by the embers. If your idea of a popular front is so anemic as to include such monstrous stupidities in its theoretical formulation, you have already surrendered.
What’s at stake here is, again, the definition of fascism, so important to the task of defeating it.
I haven’t included any direct quotes from To Fight Against…I don’t want to imply that there is something there with which one should engage. There isn’t.
Such a strange mixture: Eucalyptus, palm and pine trees. This blending of old and new worlds, south and north, afforded by a most temperate clime, is a theme of Northern California wine country.
We can develop this theme well beyond flora.
The precise, computer rationalized and seemingly endless matrices of grape vines suggest progress, only to be disrupted by the altogether incongruous appearance of desperately poor and exploited farm workers, their bent backs evoking the cotton fields of the antebellum South, the rice paddies of Asia, the banana and coffee plantations of Central America, and the corporations and death squads that still rule so many of them. Little distinguishes this agricultural-industrial abomination, at least in its effects upon the poorest among us, from its obvious precursors.
The huddled port-a-potties an unintended admonition of the condition of the wage laborers that prop up the political economy of wine country.
Soon the grapes will make some room for endless rows of marijuana plants. The crops may vary; the port-a-potties are eternal.
Likewise the segregation between rich and poor, dark and white, so omnipresent as to be invisible, is a remarkable testimony to the continuity in forms of domination. There is virtually no mixing of social classes in Sonoma or Napa, and less upward mobility, only a seamless segregation reigns, the material base of a faux diversity no less a myth than those proffered the benevolent despotisms of yesterday.
So too the lavish estates of today, with names like Domaine Carneros and Chateau St. Jean, call to mind the landed aristocracy of France. This nod to the old world is found throughout the language of wine country. ‘Meritage’, a neologism coined by a plantation master with the name of Mondavi, is a clever linguistic transversal of the two worlds. To the novice it is pronounced “mer-i-tahzshe”, as a word of French origin might be. But it is not pronounced that way, rather as the word “heritage”. The confusion is by design, I think, so as to elicit a correction by an enthusiastic initiate, enhancing the prestige of the brand by way of deeper discussion.
However the wine is pronounced, farm workers can’t afford it.
In wine country the Kentucky Derby is celebrated without an ounce of irony, single vine varietals next to Mint Julip’s, parasols and wide brimmed hats flapping in the breeze, white leisure suits tended by servants at beck and call. All invited to the party wax nostalgic and are enthralled with that other breeding they are so in love with, that of an equestrian nature.
No surprise then that the ‘industry’ of grape cultivation also cultivates the most despicable values and social mores of an aristocracy, or Slaveocracy, even if they think of themselves as ‘cosmopolitan’ or celebrating the ‘modern South’.
But their ‘global culture’ is the damnable culture of a ruling class that steals everything, then forces us to reassemble it as a pastiche of conspicuous consumptions flaunted as the spoils of the class warfare it relentlessly prosecutes, yet denies.
Farm workers eat mangos and flavored ice from humble roadside stands, bittersweet reminders of how far away lie their homes and loved ones.
Wealthy oenophiles line up by the thousands at spittoons–a sure sign of a ‘healthy’ economy.
I agree, if we want economic development, let’s line them up.
For many radicals firearms have no place in the home, nor the streets. They will not have a meaningful role in the revolution, either. For these radicals if revolution is even possible it cannot have a violent component because the state has an overwhelming monopoly on all forms of violence. They are just too powerful. Revolutionaries stand no chance with firearms, much less any other forms of direct action. Besides, we are making great headway in the ‘hegemonic’ struggle, and have but a few more key institutions to capture before the discursive discourse discussed divides the ruling class and we flow into the vacuum that results. We ease into the state, after a long period of leaning into it, until it warms up to our embrace. Or something like that.
There is also the fact that guns are used within poor Black and Brown communities to kill poor Black and Brown people, too often at the hands of other poor Black and Brown people. So guns need to be restricted, more heavily regulated, so as to save lives. That’s a persuasive argument, and makes sense, in a narrow sort of way, as bourgeois policies and the ‘issues’ they reflect so often do. The reactionary character of the firearms industry is also obvious. So guns and gun violence are reprehensible. They are morally and strategically a dead end.
The David Hogg approach, with a focus on the spectacle of school massacres, is a politically vacuous and celebrity centered mess that has no place in our movement. Democrats excel at this nonsense, with endless proposals about reduced gun capacities, background checks and regulation–and lots of tears.
We socialists point to the social and economic conditions that drive the use of guns–poverty, exploitation, domination–and the importance of the violence of everyday life in conditioning the violence of the gun in the streets. This context makes gun use perfectly reasonable. It follows a logic that is inescapable. It is impossible to understand gun violence without an understsnding of capitalism and its antipode, socialism. Allow me to explain.
Within poor communities the informal (illegal) economy is by definition outside of and stands in opposition to the legal system. It’s illegality is enforced by cops and courts. If you are engaged in the purchase, sale, distribution or consumption of illegal goods and services there is no way to safeguard your activity by recourse to the ‘protection’ offered cops, nor the ‘justice’ of the judicial system, save the ‘corruption’ of each, which amounts to a distinction without a difference. One must rely on other means, e.g., superior force, to ensure the safe and successful completion of a transaction. A gun is first and foremost a weapon that extends deadly force beyond arms length. It is, in its basic form, a radical extension of an arm and the fist at the end of that arm. It is a form of potentially lethal violence, small in size, easy to use, and in most respects superior to comparable forms of protection and assault. Hence, ‘you don’t bring a knife to a gun fight’.
So here’s the thing: To argue for the elimination of guns from poor people who make their living in the so-called ‘black market’ is to also effectively call for disarming those economic actors and leaving them to the tender mercies of their armed trading partners. Without addressing this aspect of gun control, all policies to restrict gun rights risk raising the costs of securing that protection and prescribing behavior that is irrational, even suicidal.
Of course if you are a patrician socialist, the ‘lumpen proletariat’ is by definition reactionary, and probably all wife beaters, so this is a non starter. They are all ‘criminals’ rather than ‘citizens’.
If you are a wild-eyed lunatic fringe socialist, like me, being down with the homies is a prerequisite to being a socialist. The two are inseparable.
While not specifically about gun control Louis Proyect, the Unrepentant Marxist, with whom I frequently disagree, gets it right when he writes the following:
“The mounting assaults against working-class interests will inevitably lead to neighborhoods or entire cities forming their own self-sustaining institutions and defending them by force of arms. By then, parliamentary style elections will have outlived their usefulness. It will be the hour of the American socialist revolution. I understand that for most people used to the meaningless bourgeois election circus this will sound like science-fiction. Maybe so but history has a way of sharpening the contradictions that make all this very real.” (From “Left Strategy for the 2020 Elections and Beyond: a Critique” April 29, 2019).
Following Proyect above, the logical extension of his argument, with which I wholeheartedly agree, is best exemplified in the Socialist Rifle Association, to which I proudly belong.
In this sense the solution to gun violence is the Socialist Rifle Association and their motto, ‘Arm the Working Class!’
Parenthetically, the homies are workers, in and outside the formal economy.
That and those “neighborhoods” and “self-sustaining institutions” that Proyect wants us to defend must include the fabulous homes and workplaces of the rich, which must be occupied by us, because they belong to us, always and everywhere. After all, if our revolution only involves defending our shitty neighborhoods and the scraps we are forced to subsist on, what’s the point?
Jonathan Gary Mozzochi
February 1, 1966–
Did we defeat fascism?
Did the revolution triumph?
If no to either:
I hope you brought a shovel.
An old comrade would often remind young antifascists of two sayings.
Nazis are people too.
Fighting Nazis can be fun.
The first I always understood as a reminder that even the most vile and violent fascists have all too human motivations at work, often quite pedestrian. In order to fight them effectively, one must understand them on their own terms. Not empathize with them, but understand them so as to defeat them.
I don’t agree, but I understand.
This, rather than a variation on what I gather to be the original saying, “kids are people too”. It was never meant to mean ‘don’t punch Nazis’, allow them platforms or that doxing is mean.
Which leads us to the second saying, ‘fighting Nazis can be fun’. Antifascist action, especially that work undertaken in the shadows, can be painstaking and laborious, with results that don’t yield immediate benefits. Rewards and plaudits will not be forthcoming, because Antifa activists, by definition, are anonymous. Some comrades will attack your work as adventurist or so much tilting at windmills. So what’s to recommend? Anti fascists fight fascists and uphold the red and the black. That, and at the end of the day, dance once in awhile, then do what LKJ said, so as to dance on their graves. Did you get that?
To these fine recommendations I offer a third that on first glance may appear cheeky, even disingenuous. But I mean it sincerely.
Hate the good hate.
Hate is a strong word. We have come to associate it with the foulest expressions of bigotry, as we should. But there is a flip side to this emotion and the language that expresses it that, if left only to the bigots, can render us monolingual. We should speak from love, but not always. Too often the language of love renders as false hope rather than daring audacity; surrender and victimhood are misrepresented as progress; tolerating that which is intolerable is upheld as a virtue.
We love our enemies, it is true, but that love must insist on our own common humanity, precisely that which they deny. When they deny even our basic human dignity, the bile will rise up in your throat. So as not to choke on it, you must spit it out.
Spit it back at them.
Hate the good hate.
Just be mindful of whom you strike, how and why.
If you can, live to fight another day; if not, leave us, and them, something to remember you by.
But strike back, nonetheless.
Strike back with fury, precision and devastating effectiveness.
Hate the good hate.
The Urban Dictionary strikes me as a lexical sewer, what to language that toilet featured in the film Trainspotting is to basic hygiene. It should come as no surprise that the alt right contributes to it with relish. I think it can fairly be characterized as their dictionary. That it is not, strictly speaking, a ‘dictionary’ at all nor a reliable representation of anything ‘urban’ but rather a Rorschach Test for emerging political pathologies is beside the point. Or perhaps that is the point.
Here’s one for xenophobia:
If you look up ‘racism’ or ‘socialism’ in the Urban Dictionary you will find equally noxious material mixed with the occasional, and more often than not, feeble, alternative.
As a corrective some comrades valorize xenophilia as an antonym to xenophobia. This is surely an improvement over the alt right screeds above, which do the opposite. But here’s the thing. As a reference point for radicals it is useful, but limited. Much as the touchstone liberal shibboleths ‘diversity’, ‘equal opportunity’ or ‘race relations’, there is an element of bullshit here. Allow me to explain.
For working class peons in the tourism and service industries it is an inescapable fact that the overwhelming majority of interactions had with ‘diverse people’ is as their servants, their underlings, their step-and-fetch-its. The only people who take vacations to exotic lands are the well off with disposable income, or people without much disposable income who envy, and therefore emulate, those who have it. We poor and working people don’t travel much, so our interactions with ‘other people’ most often involve a power imbalance, summarized in that noxious imperative, “the customer is always right.” If you appreciate that phrase, you internalize your oppression, or enjoy inflicting it on others. I don’t. But that’s the nature of a tourist economy. The only thing I hate more than a tourist is a celebrity tourist.
I have therefore developed a very keen hatred. My stomach turns and churns when I hear the Queens English enunciated from a Hermès suit, the North Atlantic lockjaw pronounce ‘Maarthaa’s Vin-yaard’ from a Polo shirt, or perhaps an East Coast asshole snap their fingers for attention.
In this sense certain languages, dress, accessories, and behavior set me off. You could say I have become ‘prejudiced’ toward tourists–of all backgrounds. I know in a sense this is irrational; that I am ‘prejudging’ based on stereotypes. But in another sense it’s also a defense mechanism, one that is necessary for the preservation of my basic human dignity. So I own that prejudice by placing the burden of evidence to prove otherwise upon them. Is it possible then to have a positive prejudice?
My interactions with the globetrotting rich have been, on the whole, really distasteful. Wait, that’s not strong enough. They are scum and I hate them. That’s better.
These encounters then linger in my mind as dog shit I can’t scrape off the bottom of my shoe. I cannot begin to recount the number of times I’ve had a twit make a comment about the homeless, Asian drivers, Black kids with saggy pants, the lazy Latino road workers, the white opiate addict. They will often unthinkingly assume that because I am a white guy in my 50s, and at least not outwardly and obviously an opiate addict, I will laugh along with them and share their contempt and disgust. I must be a deplorable. So it is. I am a deplorable–just not their kind of deplorable.
If it’s a racist comment, what they get in return (when I’m feeling safe enough to do it, which is not often, because I am a coward) is as vehement a condemnation of their unfiltered ‘whitesplaining’ vitriol as I can muster. Sometimes I’ll cap it off with the phrase “I’m a race traitor”. That’s always a conversation starter.
I know that in spite of their wonderful diversity of languages, religions, cultures and identities they are also united by one singular difference from me: they have class power over me and my coworkers and wield that power, especially when on vacation, in a more unfiltered manner then they might otherwise. That’s another way of saying rich people are actually at their worst when enjoying their leisure time. What they say in private–and if I’m there serving them, it is private–has never really been adequately captured in film or novels, much less social science. The reality is a horror that changes even as it stays the same. But it’s always there, and I have no choice but to step in it again and again. That’s the important part to remember.
So here’s the rub. How does one inculcate an appreciation for different peoples from different cultures when all of ones experience is as degrading and dehumanizing as I’ve described above? Too often what is prescribed as an appreciation of difference is experienced as, and in a very real sense is, subservience and abject humiliation. That is not a deformity of the world we live in, an unfortunate and necessary by-product of progress; it is a constitutive element of the rule of the few over the many. So how to uphold the primacy of rebellion without collapsing into a destructive and pointless rage?
We must remember and point out, again and again, that we have more in common with that vast exploited and dominated humanity from all cultures than we could ever have with our masters, or their masters, whatever their language or ethnicity.
When my hate is pure it is sharpened by a critique informed by race, class and gender. Sounds kinda counterintuitive. So it is.
If you use frameworks of diversity and privilege, access and opportunity, xenophobia/xenophilia without social class, you are a liberal, or worse.
If you are forever fixated on rearranging the chairs at the table rather than upending the table, your politics amount to that of a banquet manager or event planner. If you think different faces in high places accomplishes anything other than cosmetic appeal, your politics are as that of United Colors of Benetton ads of yor. If you think philanthropic largess has any meaningful role in politics short of its extinction, you are a financial adviser, not a leftist, much less a revolutionary.
It’s all business. That fact must cease to exist. So long as it rests on the ill gotten gains stolen from us, which is, after all the foundation of all wage labor, it must be overthrown, in its entirety.
However much a philanthropic plutocrat spends down a fortune, however quickly it is spent, it won’t be enough and it won’t be fast enough. Why? Quite simply because it doesn’t belong to them in the first place.
It is not enough to argue for civility and safe places. One must affirm the right to righteous rebellion, and the uncivil, unsafe (for them) character of that rebellion. Then we can ask: Is that rebellion shaped by the power of a critique loaded with race, class and gender? Hopefully we can answer yes, always and everywhere. Then the right of all people exploited and dominated to be free can be upheld.
Our common circumstances should not be lost through a fixation on our differences, real and imagined, not least because it makes impossible the urgent task of theorizing an enemy. And there is an enemy, not just a ‘system’. That enemy is structural, institutional, and individual. They–the roles they play, the status they enjoy, the positions they occupy, the surplus value that accumulates to them, the mirrors they gaze longingly into–are also the meat-sacks we call our ruling class. If they are meat-sacks, they are mortal.
I’m getting some of that shit off my shoes, now. I feel better.
Anything less is sophistry, at best, delusion at worst; both thereby ensure our capitulation and defeat.
We’ve had enough of that; time for something different.
When I hear it, read it or watch it, I’ll let you know.
Fascism: A Very Short Introduction by Kevin Passmore
2002 Oxford University Press
As a primer on fascism this little book is useful. I’ll use it as a jumping off point for my arguments about fascism and populism. So don’t expect a thorough review.
Passmore opens with a series of historical vignettes set in France, Italy, Romania and Germany that illustrate the varied character of what have been called ‘fascist’ movements and regimes, their distinctiveness and specificity on display. He does this, however, with an eye toward upholding what is common between them, setting the stage for a later use of the term ‘fascism’ that has both general applicability and analytical clarity. This tension between the diversity of forms of fascism and what they all have in common and the seemingly contradictory nature of that relationship is an important problem Passmore identifies early on through a quote by the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset that opens the book.
“Fascism has an enigmatic countenance because in it appears the most counterpoised contents. It asserts authoritarianism and organises rebellion. It fights against contemporary democracy and, on the other hand, does not believe in the restoration of any past rule. It seems to pose itself as the forge of a strong State, and uses means most conducive to its dissolution, as if it were a destructive faction or a secret society. Whichever way we approach fascism we find that it is simultaneously one thing and the contrary, it is A and not A…” (Sobre el Fascismo, 1927).
Passmore restates this problem in a more contemporary fashion:
“In the 21st century interest in the history of fascism and its cries is perhaps greater than ever. Yet how can we make sense of an ideology that appeals to skinheads and intellectuals; denounces the bourgeoisie while forming alliances with conservatives; adopts a macho style yet attracts many women; calls for a return to tradition and is fascinated by technology; idealizes the people and is contemptuous of mass society; and preaches violence in the name of order?” (p. 11).
The short answer here is racism. We will get to that.
Passmore then poses this seeming conundrum as one that has vexed scholars of and activists against fascism as ‘the problem of definition’. To solve this he outlines three broad approaches to fascism: Marxist (1935 Comintern, Trotsky), Weberian (Max Weber), and Totalitarian-nationalism (Hannah Arendt).
All three approaches don’t adequately handle what W.E.B. DuBois succinctly called “the color line”. Passmore does a somewhat better job of this than most when he seeks to borrow useful aspects from all three traditions, while dispensing with their limitations, so as to formulate a synthesis. He makes some progress toward this end, but fails. That failure has a name: Ernesto Laclau. But more on that in a bit.
My own definition of fascism proceeds from a different premise than that of Passmore: a definition of fascism that is analytically sound must serve human liberation. Another way of saying this is that there is no ‘true’ definition of fascism possible because we formulate that through struggle. Ours will be different from theirs. That struggle is not only carried out in the ‘marketplace of ideas’. If we want to define fascism our dream of the future and our belief in the desirability and possibility of that future must inform our definition of ‘fascism’ within a historical framework that can facilitate its defeat and our triumph. As an Anarcho-Communist, I believe the struggle against fascism is inextricable from those struggles against capitalism and the state and the exploitation and domination that are their defining features. A more or less useful definition of fascism can only be constructed from a theoretical framework that derives from a hybrid of anarchist and communist philosophies. Part of doing as much requires a recognition that the use of terms such as ‘populism’, ‘liberal democracy’, and ‘race relations’ is incompatible with that project. These terms usually dispense with the notion of a political right or left. When there is no right or left arranged along a spectrum informed by inequality, there is no possibility of analytical clarity in regards fascism or of much else. But there is a left, distinguishable from a right. Even when there isn’t a viable left, there still exists that wellspring of ideas and actions that we call socialist, anarchist and communist. If your dream of the future is limited to liberal democracy, your understanding of fascism will be bound up with the presumptions that undergird that philosophy. As fascism thrives within conditions liberal democracy depends, one must theorize the end of that system as a solution to the problem of fascism. Liberals, conservatives, purveyors of the ‘populist’ thesis all are forced to imagine the end of the very institutions that give meaning to their lives. Unfortunately for them, this is a prerequisite for the defeat of fascism. This they will not do; so we shouldn’t expect it of them. So I don’t of Passmore. But he does have much to offer, nonetheless.
If one’s frame of reference is democracy vs authoritarianism as liberal, Weberian, and totalitarian approaches utilize, there is virtually no way to account for the continuity fascism has with modernity, progress and capitalist institutions. Fascism, on this reading, represents a discontinuity with capitalist progress. It is an outlier, a deviation, an anomaly. On the other hand, if one follows the 1935 Comintern definition of fascism as “the open, terroristic dictatorship of the most reactionary, the most chauvinistic, the most imperialistic elements of finance capitalism” the relatively independent nature of fascism is lost. It shares too much in common with capitalism and cannot be distinguished from it. So too the role of racism as a primary structuring feature of fascism and the particular form of that in anti-Semitism is obscured. One cannot really account for the wholesale destruction of European Jews at the hands of Nazis and fascists throughout Eastern Europe well past the point of Aryanizing businesses, to the point where such activity undermined the general war effort and had no benefit to fascist regimes. A failure to understand eliminationist racism as a central feature of fascist ideology risks a misunderstanding of fascism as solely a product of a crisis within capitalism. Much of this is tricky, but it is not splitting hairs, so much distinction without a difference. It is important.
Passmore does hold racism as central to fascism, but he doesn’t really flesh it out, not least in how it continues to occupy a central role in contemporary fascism. This is the case today as well as 2002 when he wrote this book.
Here’s another humdinger: Fascism is a constitutive feature of a particular type of capitalism, that found in Europe and North America. In writing this I am not arguing, much as Ta-Nahesi Coates does, for the existence of what amounts to a ‘primordial’ white supremacy, that fascism somehow attaches itself to ‘white’ genes or that whiteness is somehow eternal in the imagination of white people. I am arguing that fascism has a political geography that roughly corresponds to what I call the ‘white belt’. In this sense there is a fascist international in formation, a social and cultural process within such geo-political formations as the European Union that made its construction possible. Racism was baked into its cooking, regardless of the lofty humanitarian principles that animate its pronouncements. This process of fascistization underway throughout ‘the West’ seeks to rectify regional differences between fascist programs (Catholic here, Protestant there; urban vs rural, worker vs capitalist, etc.) in favor of a pan European whiteness that can only be conceptualized as against a dark, swarthy, foreign other. This is as fundamental to understanding anti immigrant racism as labor markets and competition over jobs. It cannot be understood apart from the larger divide between North and South, Core and Periphery. This is key to understanding the appeal of and prospects for 21st century fascism. In a frightening way, the ‘super fascism’ of Julius Evola, the ‘Imperium’ of Francis Parker Yockey and the snarky postmodern ‘race realism’ of Generation Identitaire foreshadow much worse to come. The future of fascism is there. If much worse is to come, it will ride this horse, and not that of the German donkey or the Italian mule.
In response our struggle cannot be limited to the terrain of the national, according to the rules of liberal democracy, within the suffocating possibilities of the here and now. We fight here, on this contested terrain of the national, but from an internationalist standpoint. Solidarity is a non-negotiable principle. We also should not pretend social democracy is up to the fight; the ‘populist’ leaders of France Insoumise and Podemos are social Democrats, but without a strong base within organized labor, so they cannot lead this fight. We must. If the broad struggle remains within the confines of the social-democracy, and we are unable to envision and fight for a communist future, we will be trampled, staring at a digital jackboot forever.
In his attempt to offer a redefinition of fascism Passmore gets much correct. But his effort lacks a grounding within a liberatory communism and will therefore be stuck within one or another of the schools of thought above. His observation that the strength of the Marxist approach, as he understands it, is that it illuminates the relationship between capitalism and fascism that other approaches either dismiss or ignore, allows us to make a more important argument, that fascism is constitutive of ‘progress’. Just as poverty and exploitation are essential components of economic development, rather than unfortunate errors of that development, so too does fascism necessarily exist, always and everywhere, within the general capitalist mode of production. It never left, most people just didn’t pay attention.
This informs my insistence that fascism never went away and that a primary problem scholars and activists have with defining and fighting fascism is that they tend to begin and end their efforts with classical fascism, giving short shrift to the subsequent eras of the movement. Rather than yet another dense scholarly work about Hitler’s relationship to his German Shepherds, how about a monograph on how fascism persisted in the war between South Africa and Angola? How about a close reading of that extraordinary experiment in anti racist communist organizing that was the Sojourner Truth Organization? How about a treatise on American white nationalism and fascism? Is American white nationalism a unique form of fascism? Or is it part of a generalized development of fascism that is trans national, the peculiarities of Trump an expression of something much larger? Perhaps it’s not fascism at all? I have offered up my opinions about all of these questions; most radicals appear fixated on Trump’s style of rule, the latest trade tariffs, or the coming national elections. They seem unable to formulate a useful question. Better questions help us reach better conclusions.
Over its 100-year history, through its now three distinct eras (Classical, Cold War and 21st century) fascism is as much a permanent feature of capitalist society as it is a threat to that society. It is both, but not in the sense that Arendt used it, as a fundamentally ‘revolutionary’ reorganization of society that is the doppelgänger of ‘communist totalitarianism’. Passmore, writing in 2002, gets an important part about the uses and abuses of ‘totalitarianism’ correct when he writes: “as a scholarly idea the term enjoyed its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, when anti-Marxist social scientists favoured a concept that discredited communism by linking it with fascism.” That link, by the way, is mostly bullshit and in any case not nearly as important as the link between capitalist democracy and fascism. That general academic project, always a political project in the sense it twists history to fit unsupported premises, is still operative today and informs virtually all non-Marxist interpretations of fascism. Most of that work, especially as it is rendered by journalists, is deeply flawed. Unfortunately, the Marxist rejoinder tends to remain stuck with scholarly work and frames of reference from the Classical period alone. Will the bourgeoisie fund the fascists? Will the fascists seek a red-brown alliance against monopoly capital? Yes, they are funding them. All capital is monopolistic. Meh. This will not do.
Passmore will end up articulating a ‘post-Marxist’ position on fascism, indebted to Ernesto Laclau’s theories of ‘populism’. My central problem with this is that Laclau’s theories are not transferable to the capitalist core–Europe, the United States, Canada, etc., because of the fascist element. Has anyone ever argued this? Someone should. One cannot construct a successful program for ‘populist hegemony’ on this terrain without dismantling the white supremacy, now expressed politically as white nationalism, within it. That demands a discrete fight that is not possible within the thought world of populism. Left wing hegemony cannot be achieved here through a program of populism because that program is both too reformist–it doesn’t offer anything to the most oppressed among us that addresses their particular forms of exploitation and domination (reparations, open borders,etc) yet is also too radical–it proposes universal programs that capitalist power will not accept. Furthermore the populist program is electoral, with a social movement component as an adjunct. Direct action movements must drive electoral politics, not the other way around. The discourse on discourse is too discursive, if you will, chasing public opinion and ideas as though the variability of their meanings float somewhere above and separate from the material conditions of existence. Sociotopes make the animal; the animal does not exist within conditions of its own making.
The limits of the ‘pink tide’ movements in Latin America, which ubdoubtedly owed much to this theory, are now evident everywhere. While acknowledging the contributions of Marxist theory Passmore seeks to articulate a theory beyond the centrality of class but he has picked a frame of reference that only applies, and in a limited way, to the global south.
I agree with Laclau and other ‘populists’ or ‘hegemonists’ however, that social class needs to be re-theorized beyond an industrial proletariat as the agent of history; beyond a peasantry that can surround the cities or a Black lumpenproletariat that can ignite an urban rebellion. Today, add or subtract however many agents of history to however many points of production however much one likes, it will amount to a pointless search for a vanguard that will never emerge. This then is what is different from then to now. What may have been possible in Russia of 1917 cannot be reproduced today. And it shouldn’t be. Something has changed. What is it?
My own unique contribution to this problem is to expand social class without diluting it; rather than an amorphous ‘people’ or ‘populism’ a new set of social actors could be theorized by examining the role of Border, Manse, Factory and Bit in our current mode of capitalist production. The fulcrum for these new social classes is the city, ground zero for insurrection. And, in what is surely to be regarded as a confusing twist, I think a central locus of rupture with capitalism is precisely where it is most wasteful–those centrally located, densely populated, impossibly tall, blindingly bright at night, giant penises we call skyscrapers. Here, where the most pointless of activity takes place in that utter waste of space called the office, by human beings so alienated from themselves and the products of their own labor they don’t even want a union because they prefer the taste of boot, under the watchful eyes of the permanent panopticon, is ground zero of the greatest insurrection in the history of humanity. Oh. That and our ruling class, holding their own dicks, are so blinded by hubris as to locate their primary loci of social reproduction in many of these same buildings. They live where their networking power is concentrated. It’s great that they have it all in one place. This fact will provide us with a wonderful teachable moment.
Today, borders and prisons create social class as much as a factory. So too the Manse is a point of social reproduction that shapes and conditions our existence. If social class is social, then it seems one locus of its reproduction is the home, where, apart from work, socialization takes place. Theirs and ours. While it is true that we live in the street, in a home much larger than theirs, we will take back that which is ours, which is everything.
Social Reproduction Theory is an essential tool for understanding this. The overarching theme here, and its the same one since 1968, is RCG–Race-Class-Gender.
The unification of anarchist and communist theory proceeds from here, where it must tackle the question of fascism.
The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States was an epic shitting-of-the-bed with no parallel in American election history. The first, most important point to be made about this is that our corporate and political elites made that bed; we need to make sure they must now lie in it. When they blather about Russians stealing the election or the deplorable nature of the white working class, force feed them the truth. It was their hubris that fertilized a garden overrun with weeds that produced the super bug that is Trump.
According to virtually all prognosticators, once the Sanders ‘political revolution’ was dispatched the Unfiltered Orange Sociopath would surely lose, and the ship of state, with another captain Clinton at the helm, would continue on course. Only two newspapers with circulations above 100,000 endorsed Trump for President, while all other major media formats, excluding Fox News, and only after the primaries, either dismissed his candidacy with a shrug or actively campaigned against him. He was not from the establishment. He was not the first choice of the ‘smart money’. He wasn’t their 20th choice. He was not one of them. Trump arose from a social movement he did not create within conditions not of his making. He is more an expression of those developments–riding the wave, so to speak–rather than the wave itself. What produced that wave is most certainly a generalized crisis within capitalism and its ruling ideology, neoliberalism. But the wave is now large enough that it drives that crisis as much as it is a product of it. It’s important to call that wave what it is: white nationalism, or the American form of fascism.
If what happened on November 8, 2016 is best understood as a sharp departure from an otherwise healthy and democratic political culture, then the solution might plausibly be a restoration of democratic norms. But what took place was not a departure from the norm, but a logical outcome of that norm. What they call ‘progress’ will always invite the eternal return of fascism. What transpired was not a coup, a ‘stolen’ election, or an excess of American democracy that, if you listen closely, certain bloodless technocrats now argue requires an enlightened despotism as a corrective. This is, of course, how everyone from conservatives to progressives view things: Everything was more or less fine until–WHAM!–the impossible came to pass. The solution is to boot the bigot out of office, fix the damage and move on. But the problem is much more than that and much worse. Even Bernie Sanders can’t fix it now.
On this question of fascism and Trump much of the socialist left is mistaken in other ways. For instance, a rendering of Trump’s triumph as the ‘rotten fruit of the ruling class’ correctly locates the general responsibility for the world of shit that we live in with the rich and powerful, but it cannot explain two things about that world: first, Trump’s contradictory relationship to that ruling class and, second, his ability to command support from millions of (white) people manifestly not from that ruling class.
To understand how what happened came about and what, more than two harrowing years later, can be done in response, requires an understanding of Trump’s appeal, especially that ‘authenticity’ so often associated with his “saying out loud what some people only dare to think”. Part of what that something amounts to is the genuinely contradictory relationship he has with established centers of economic and political power–what we anarchists and communists call the ruling class. He is from their family but in their eyes he has always been and will always be something of an embarassment. They will never fully accept him, something that is, oddly enough, part of his strength. Trump was always invited to the party, but the hosts secretly hoped he wouldn’t show up. If he did appear, everyone would cringe, but they would not kick him out. Why is that?What is it about Trump that makes him a social outcast, yet a fixture at the same time? And why do certain people turn to a billionaire in order to punish a ruling class?
Sometimes wisdom can be found in unlikely places. The nooks and crannies of oppositional subcultures sometimes become the interstices that make history. It took Marx’s body of work decades to marinate before becoming a set of ideas followed by millions across the planet; but those ideas started on the fringe, within spaces in between what is and what could be. If we want to understand Trump and fascism here’s a source from the recent past that sheds important light on a particular dynamic of Trump’s ascendency and its relationship to fascism. Set aside that academic article, that peer-reviewed journal, the latest tweet from that celebrity intellectual. For the moment dispense with those shop worn terms: ‘populism’, ‘authoritarianism’, ‘monopoly capital’, and ‘privilege’.
Listen to some rap and read the lyrics.
The Oakland-based Hip Hop band The Coup released an album in 1994 called Genocide and Juice. It is my favorite work of art in that musical genre and is to hip hop what Alan Ginsberg’s Howl is to poetry, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue is to Jazz, or Marx’s Das Kapital is to socialist theory. It is remarkable in many ways and anticipates band member Boots Riley’s film, Sorry to Bother You, released to critical acclaim last year. I will focus on two songs, “Fat Cats, Bigga Fish” and “Free Stylin at the Fortune 500 Club”. If you can, listen to these two songs and follow along with the lyrics. And remember, all of this was created prior 1994. Apologies in advance for any lyrics that are incorrect.
“Fat Cats, Bigga Fish”
Well, now haha, what have we here?
Come with it
Get down, get down, get down 2ce
Come with it
Get down, get down, get down 2ce
It’s almost ten o clock, see I got a ball of lint for property
So I slide my beenie hat on sloppily
And promenade out to take up a collection
I got game like I read the directions
I’m wishing that I had an automobile
As I feel the cold wind rush past
But let me state that I am a hustler for real
So you know I got the stolen bus pass
Just as the bus pulls up and I step to the rear
This ole lady looks like she drank a forty of fear
I see my old-school partner, said his brother got popped pay my respects, “Can you ring the bell?” We came to my stop
The street light reflects off the piss on the ground
Which reflects off the hamburger sign as it turns round
Which reflects off the chrome of the BMW
Which reflects off the fact that I’m broke
Now, what the fuck is new?
I need loot, I spot the motherfucka in the tweed suit
And I’m on his ass quicker than a kick from a grease boot
Eased up slow and discreet
Could tell he was suspicious by the way he slid his feet
Didn’t wanna fuck up, the come on,
So I smiled with my eyes, said “Hey, how’s it hanging guy?”
Bumped into his shoulder, but he passed with no reaction
Damn this motherfucka had hella of Andrew Jacksons!
I’m a thief or pickpocket, give a fuck what you call it
Used to call ’em fat cats, now I just call them wallets Getting federal, ain’t just a klepto
Master card or visa? I gladly accept those
Sneaky motherfucka with a scam, know how to pull it
Got a mirror in my pocket but that won’t stop no bullets
Story just begun but you already know
Ain’t no need to get down, shit, I’m already low
Come with it
Get down, get down, get down 2ce
Come with it
Get down, get down, get down 2ce
My footsteps echo in the darkness
My teeth clenched tight like a fist in the cold sharp mist
I look down and I hear my stomach growling
Step to Burger King to attack it like a Shaolin
I never pay for shit that I can get by doing dirt
Linger up to the girl cashier and start to flirt
All up in her face and her breath was like murder
Damn the shit I do for a free hamburger
“Well, you got my number, you gonna call me tonight?”
“It depends…is them burgers attached to a price?” “Sorry, sorry, I’m just kidding, I’m a call you, write you love letters…”
“It’s all good…” “Thanks for the burgers…um, hook me up with a Dr. Pepper?”
“That’s cool you want some ice?”
“Yeah, and some fries will be hella nice!”
“Damn, my manager’s coming, play it off, okay? Have a nice day!”
“I’m up outta here anyway”
I use peoples before they use me
‘Cuz you could get got by an Uzi over an OZ.
That’s what an OG told me
Gots to find someplace warm and cozy to eat the vittles that I just got
Came to an underground parking lot
This place is good as any, fuck, it’s all good
Walked in, found a car, hopped up on the hood
Ate my burger, threw back my cola
Somebody said, “Hey!” It was a rent-a-pig, I thought it was a roller
“Want me to call the cops?” I don’t want them to see me
Looked down and saw that I was sitting on a Lamborghini
It was Rolls, Ferraris and Jags by the dozen
A building door opened…Damn, it was my cousin!
Getting off a work, dressed up, no lie Tux, cumberbund and a black bow tie
I was like hey, “Who is it?” “Me”
“Oh, what’s up man, I just quit this company
They hella racist and the pay was too low ”
I said, “Right, what’s was up in there though?”
“A party with rich motherfuckas, I don’t know the situation
I know they got cabbage, owning corporations
IBM, Chrysler and shit, is what they said”
Just then a light bulb went off in my head
They be thinking all black folks is resembling
“Gimme your tux and I’ll do some pocket swindling”
Fit to change in the bathroom and I freeze off my nuts
Let’s take a short break while I get into this tux
Alright, I’m ready
Come with it
Get down, get down, get down 2ce
Come with it
Get down, get down, get down 2ce
Fresh dressed like a million bucks
I be the fliest muthafucka in an afro and a tux
My arm is at a right angle, up, silver tray in my hand
“May I interest you in some caviar, maam?”
My eyes shoot ’round the room there and here
Noticing the diamonds in the chandelier
Background Barry Manilow, Copacabana
And a strong-ass scent of stogies from Havana
Wasn’t no place where a brother might’ve been
Snobby ole ladies drinking champagne with rich white men
All right, then let’s begin this
Nights like this is good for business
Five minutes in the mix, noticed several different cliques
Talking, giggling and shit
With one mother fucka in betwixt
And everybody else jacking it, throttling
Found out later he owns Coca Cola bottling
Talking to a black man whose confused
Looking hella bougie, ass all tight and seditty
Recognized him as the mayor of my city
Who treats young black man like frank nitty
Mr. Coke said to Mr. Mayor, “You know we got a process like
Ice T’s hair, we put up the funds for your election campaign
And oh, um, waiter can you bring the champagne?”
“Our real estate firm says opportunity is arising
To make some condos out of low income housing
Immediately, we need some media heat
To say the gangs run the street and then we bring in the police
Harrass and beat everybody till they look inebriated
When we buy the land, motherfuckas will appreciate it
Don’t worry about the Urban League or Jesse Jackson
My man that owns Marlboro, donated a fat sum”
That’s when I step back some to contemplate what few know
Sat down, wrestled with my thoughts like a Sumo
Ain’t no one player that could beat this lunacy
Ain’t no hustler on the street could do a whole community
This is how deep shit can get
It reads macaroni on my birth certificate
Puddin-Tang is my middle name but I can’t hang
I’m getting hustled only knowing half the game
Shit how the fuck do I get out of this place?
Our protagonist is broke, hungry, and without transportation, while also a poet, a pickpocket, a thief and a flirt. He’s also not a worker, at least not in the formal economy but his epiphany is dependent on posing as a worker. In other words, understanding the deus ex machina of capitalism requires the vantage point of a worker. And yet when he poses as a worker he doesn’t so much as to gain access to a point of production, as to a locus of social reproduction, the leisure activities of the ruling class, where the ‘art of the deal’ really takes place out of the prying eyes of the public.
To rich white people all Black people look the same (“resembling”) which gives our protagonist the opportunity to infiltrate their posh gathering so as to pick some pockets. But what he overhears is shocking, and I don’t think this guy is shocked by much. The hustler, knowing but “half the game” is being hustled. The analogy here, between the hustle of the street and the hustle of capitalist exploitation and domination, posits a world where there is no in-between–you are either a pimp, a John or a ho. There is no way to act ethically within a capitalist system short of overthrowing that system; no way to be right with the world until those categories are utterly obliterated.
That’s as profound and accurate a portrayal of the exploitation and domination of capitalism as I have ever read. Here, in searing terms is the carceral state and gentrification, racism and urban pacification, the two-party system and elite command and control together with a breathtaking cynicism. It also upholds the humanity of a petty thief without romanticizing it and demonstrates how it is possible, and desireable, for that person to become a radical. There is no direct or easy path from “using people before they use me” to “from each according to ability, to each according to need”. But the possibility is there, it just needs a kickstart and guidance.
The revelation that corporate and political power are a hustle, but on a scale so vast as to be hidden in plain sight, forces us to “wrestle” with our thoughts. It challenges seemingly sacred convictions about the meritocratic principle, that competition leads to opportunity and the common good. But the reality is that a fair playing field is nowhere, to climb the ladder is to place one’s foot on a rung that is someone’s head. The song’s emphasis on an epiphany experienced by a member of the so-called ‘lumpen proletariat’, or Black underclass, challenges those sneering socialists who consider this consciousness raising on the part of ‘criminal classes’ virtually impossible. I don’t. I think it’s essential to our collective struggle. In a world increasingly characterized by the deterritorilized nature of the gig economy we need to theorize a terrain of rupture with capitalism at points other than those, strictly speaking, of production.
“Free Stylin at the Fortune 500 Club”
[Rockefeller] Well if they could make this music more funky…
Let me see if I can get my voice like those rappers. Ahem. Ahem
Here we go.
Trump’s inside/outside status is captured perfectly by Riley through his representation as a reggae-rapper, something I gather was anathema to hip hop during the 1990s. The first two rappers in the song were meant to represent the then emerging feud between east coast and west coast rap traditions, memorialized through the mortal conflict between Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur. Rockefeller is east coast, J.P. Getty west coast. Trump is the outlier. There was no reggae-rap. That just wasn’t done. Perhaps this is still so today, I’m not an expert on hip-hop.
In any case the rendering of corporate bosses and their political lackeys as pimps playing a cynical and profitable game is brilliant. ‘Punnany’, by the way, is slang for vagina, a further foreshadowing of Trump’s misogynistic ‘pussy grabbing’.
Trump is clearly an embarrassment but he’s still at the party. Begrudging acceptance is still acceptance. We are never at the party, unless we have a tray in our hand. At that time Trump was a millionaire, but not a member of the ruling class in good standing, just as the interloper in the song above is at the party, but not entirely welcome. So it is today. This dynamic, captured so well in the song above, also highlights a facet of fascism that is essential to understanding it and therefore fighting it effectively. Fascism, in its classical, Cold War and 21st century versions always theorizes a fight above and below and involves a relatively independent, or semi autonomous, racist and nationalist mobilization of large segments of a population. A fascist movement in formation cannot be understood primarily, much less exclusively through the prism of class, although it cannot be apprehended without it, either. Fascists fight ungrateful elites above and unworthy black and brown hordes below. That fight above is not disingenuous, either. All so-called ‘issues’ and ‘policies’ (trade wars, immigration, Supreme Court nominees, corporate power, etc.) need a theoretical framework that includes this element within the definition of fascism. Otherwise it is lost.
Fascism is not a product of capitalist crisis; it is the crisis.
The (often) missing element of socialist analyses of fascism is precisely a recognition of the relatively independent nature of fascism as a social movement. The second missing element is an understanding of an eliminationist form of racism that undergirds and binds together otherwise disparate factions into a social movement.
Trump follows, he doesn’t lead. Another way of stating this is that he is a symptom of a much deeper and entrenched problem: the slow, long term yet quickening growth of fascism throughout North America and Europe. Here, where I live, its particular expression is American white nationalism. It takes other forms elsewhere, but the family tree from which all variations descend can be identified and then fought.
The nature of fascism cannot be captured through attitudinal surveys, marketing pitches and polling preferences. Therefore, fascism can never be substantively defeated at the ballot box alone. Emasculate him through constitutional checks and balances, harass him with deep state democrats, impeach him, or defeat him during the 2020 elections–it will not be enough and will only serve to deepen the rot. Fascism is more than a form of authoritarianism counterposed to liberal democracy. If your frame of reference for fascism is bookended by these two concepts–authoritarianism and liberal democracy–as most conventional frameworks are, you will misunderstand it and be hapless to stop it. Only leftists have the theoretical framework to understand this, if only they would use it.
A defeat as epic as that of 2016 has produced precious little soul searching or self reflection. Instead, the tenuous and brittle state of neoliberal ideology has produced a default explanation for defeat that has settled on theft. Liberals and (neo) conservatives were predictably apoplectic about the Orange sociopath ‘stealing’ their election. Their wrath was directed outward, toward a mostly imagined conspiracy of a resurrected KGB that, whatever its influence on the 2016 Presidential election in no way whatsoever represented a significant deviation from the constant interference practiced by all states against one another as a matter of bourgeois routine since time immemorial. Besides, the United States is the undisputed world heavy weight grand champion of sovereign interference. Regime change is, after all, a particularly aggressive form of electoral interference that both Russia and the U.S. practice practically everywhere. The wrath of disenfranchised elites was directed internally, as well, at those ungrateful ‘deplorables’, a handful of utopian Jill Stein supporters and of course the millions of us who said ‘fuck you’ to both parties. Their own complicity–either through deliberate policy, as with Obama’s deportation of 2.5 million souls and Clinton’s reminder that Honduran children may have crossed our border but they didn’t get to stay, or a whoopsie such as neglecting to campaign in Wisconsin–is always rendered as a mistake to be corrected, a flaw to be remedied, a wrinkle to be ironed out, rather than something irredeemable at the core of their rule and the values that justify it. But their rule is irredeemable. This ruling class sips champagne while gazing over infinity pools of conspicuous consumption. When they fuck up, it is by definition our fault. Everything is our fault. They are gods. We are mortals. And what do we do with gods? Hold their heads under water until the bubbles stop and be sure that there are fascists at the bottom of that pool drowning with them.
Spring Is Coming
“Trump and GOP Candidates Escalate Race and Fear as Election Ploys” New York Times, October 22, 2018.
The use of the term “ploy” in that headline is interesting. “A cunning plan or action designed to turn a situation to one’s own advantage.” Common synonyms for ploy include subterfuge, ruse, stratagem, contrivance, gambit and trick.
The implication here is that Trump and the GOP have an ulterior motive, an agenda that is cynically being foisted upon ignorant people for narrow electoral gains. He’s tricking them. The typical counter argument proceeds to expose the ploy to unveil the truth. The ploy is ‘the border crisis’, the truth is that there is no crisis. The counter argument, swaddled as always in statistics and eye candy, proceeds thusly: The border is strong. We are not letting in undesirables, the unworthy, the illegal. There is no crisis. Stop inventing one. Look! I’m a reporter at the border and everything is great! I’m eating a street taco. No national crisis. Trump is making up this nonsense to scare people into voting for Republicans.”
This engages the conspiracy theory on its own terrain, and thereby assists its growth. This is the overwhelming narrative fiction that poses as political analysis all around us.
Then there is the other assertion made in the headline, that of an escalation of fear and race. I can understand how Trump’s racist attacks on migrants escalate fear on the part of some people, however irrational that fear may be. But how, exactly, does one escalate race? This is a textbook example of using ‘race’ apart from the only concept that gives the term any meaning, namely ‘racism’. To use ‘race’ here without its prerequisite (racism) is to naturalize the former within that threadbare sociological construct ‘race relations’, something that brackets out racism and white supremacy in its very definition, together with class and gender.
My favorite delicious tidbit from this article:
“…Mr. Trump’s dystopian imagery has clearly left an impression with some. Carol Shields, 75, a Republican in northern Minnesota, said she was afraid that migrant gangs could take over people’s summer lake homes in the state.
“What’s to stop them?” said Ms. Shields, a retired accountant. “We have a lot of people who live on lakes in the summer and winter someplace else. When they come back in the spring, their house would be occupied.”
Spring is coming.
Just as Bill Maher, that sneering, smug, creepy jokester who locates the social base of bigotry within the consumer choice between “Chef Wolfgang Puck or Chef Boyardee”, liberals declaim ‘the wall’ but uphold the sanctity of the eternal border.
It is now March, 2019 and there is no let up with Trump’s ‘rhetoric’ on the border and immigration. Quite the opposite–he recently sent an additional 3,500 national guard troops there. But wait, there is no election. What about that cynical ploy? Why would Trump and the GOP persist with these policies if there isn’t a national election scheduled for almost two years? It must be the government shut down, a lazy liberal might say. But that’s over, too. What cannot be acknowledged is that the attacks are meaningful in and of themselves, and constitute a form of racism. Why is that so difficult to understand? Precisely because what Trump argues is not really any different from the actual function that the border serves; it differs not in kind, only degree. The border itself is a racist construct, a vast filter for the smooth accumulation of capital by the few.
What is it then that is so important to the far right that it pursues it, perhaps even to the detriment of electoral calculations? The answer is, quite simply, that they mean what they say. It is not a substitute for something else, nor a means to achieve something else. It is not a feint in one direction, so as to move in another. It is a project for a deepening of fascist tendencies within our economy, politics and culture. Increasingly that project resonates among elites within both major political parties. It was not too long ago that lazy leftists dismissed fascism in America on the grounds it had no base of support within the ruling class, no fraction of capital supported it against liberals or the left. Must I cite the stock market, Mercer and McGinnis, vast swaths of Europe and Brazil to drive home the folly of that position?
To Trump and Carol Shields it is an ongoing crisis irrespective of election politics. To understand this as principally a ‘ploy’ or as theatre is to say it is artificial, manufactured in a cynical fashion to accomplish other ends, to distract the gullible from the ‘real’ issue, which is the smooth functioning of that border. What does that look like? Perhaps the 2.5 million souls deported during the tenure of Obama is a good index to an answer. Obama is no fascist, but his policies and political philosophy seeded the terrain within which fascism grows. Liberals will cry for the popular front while they demolish the only force capable of giving it meaning, the left. Watch how low they go to undermine DSA and Sanders.
Spring is coming.
In order to understand what they say, one must understand the world view that informs what they say. At the center of that worldview is a picture of the United States of America, sometimes drawn with crayons, at other times rendered with more sophisticated instruments, but always clearly defined by borders.
Listening to liberal or conservative acolytes ‘debate’ immigration is the rough equivalent of a person standing on a street corner trying to decide between Uber or Lyft. The better choice would be a functioning public transportation system, something which ‘rideshare’ is hurriedly eviscerating. Your ‘choice’ is determined by the parameters set by someone else. That debate, between different styles of border is as that between McDonalds or Burger King, Pepsi or Coke.
The national crisis here is precisely how one understands ‘borders’.
These are not merely ploys that will disappear from right wing strategy just as soon as they win or lose an election. They will be back with a vengeance regardless of who wins.
It is a distinction without a difference–between raw, naked aggression that celebrates itself and the kind that is exercised quietly from a remote desk, using clever algorithms. The children of the undocumented have been and will continue to be housed in barbaric camps by both parties, then tossed aside as human refuse or put to work in their factories. Both accomplish the same thing: The regulation of the flow of humanity across borders so as to maintain the privileges and majesty of our ruling classes. However it is managed, the end result is largely the same, different only in degree, not kind.
The real crisis is the existence of those borders, in any form.
Spring is coming.
Liberals, conservatives and progressives will never say this; so we must. For to say otherwise is to tacitly accept that the accumulated wealth and power of elites has a legitimate place in organized human societies. It has no place. It is an abomination. Everything they have accumulated has been stolen from us. Therefore, we say to them: everything we want is in the end of you.
Besides, what these conspiracies take as their worst case scenario is, in many ways, our best case scenario. The values that inform the world we live in are upside down, almost entirely so. If that is the case, then a set of counter values cannot be found, much less articulated, within the language and assumptions that frame the world view of the dominant elite. Their values should never be our values; their utterances should strike our ears as so much gibberish. One does not debate the master; their tongues should be ripped from their mouths.
It is important to debunk these conspiracy theories, but in doing so one should not throw out the baby with the bath water.
One must be more than just right; one must have an impact apart from success in the circus that passes for reasoned debate. And it is a circus, dominated by clowns and jugglers who compete for our attention.
Don’t be a clown or juggler. Be a soothsayer by creating self fulfilling prophecies.
Spring is coming.
As fascism grows within any given society it can, if not properly checked, create its own facts on the ground such that its world view becomes dominant–however irrational it may be–and therefore normative. The conspiracy theory shapes the world to conform with its view. No amount of dispassionate, disinterested critique will change that awful reality, only a militant anti-fascism can do that.
Liberal antifascism, on the other hand, is based on a set of ideas that lead, quite expectantly, to a politics of centrism, a defense of capitalist authority from which no revolutionary politics is possible. The dream becomes anemic, and will quickly turn into a nightmare. Remember, popular frontism presumes a political alliance forged in response to a previous defeat of revolutionary left forces; its weakness is always to be found therein.
Some conspiracy theories need confirmation in resistance and rebellion. Let’s affirm that the nightmare about which they are terrified, is real.
For us, of course, it is a dream we work to bring about.
Antifascists must create our own facts on the ground, not shibboleths that render tribute to the powerful.
We are coming for your summer homes, but from much closer than Mexico. If necessary we will drag you from them, kicking and screaming. We just haven’t figured out how to effect this. We don’t deny it.
Spring is coming.
Within the Marxist library the bookshelf on fascism has always been somewhat neglected. Socialists in the Marxist tradition tend to understand fascism primarily through the lens of economics and the clash of classes. Following this fascism is often rendered as a political strategy resorted to by elements of a beleaguered ruling class so as to preserve their rule, and nothing but that. This presumes an insurgent left that poses a threat to that rule. No insurgent left, no fascism.
Anarchists problematize the state as a vector of fascism and capitalism and counterpose new social subjects as a way to ground their struggle within class by expanding the definition of class. Following lessons learned during the ‘premature antifascism’ of the Spanish Civil War, if your solution to fascism involves the dictatorship of the proletariat, it will be, at best, a temporary fix. Conversely, and perversely, once fascism gains a foothold, such a solution may become the only fix available.
Liberals tend to emphasize the emotional aspects of fascist rule, the personality traits and psychology of fascists and the difficulty of managing ‘race relations’ and promoting ‘cross-cultural’ tolerance. Antisemitism is understood as an accelerant to what is always considered the irrational kernel at the center of fascism, its rejection of capitalist democracy. Liberals are virtually incapable of theorizing a ‘field of compatibility’ between capitalism and fascism because they don’t understand history as a struggle between classes, however construed, but rather as a smooth unfolding of progress occasionally interrupted by the siren calls of extremism from the right or left. It’s preferred terms of reference are ‘populism’ and ‘liberal democracy’.
Conservatives focus on the similarities between communist and fascist totalitarianism, with an emphasis on the state, even going so far as to argue that classical fascism was a reaction to Soviet imperialism, a riff in another key on the orthodox Marxist approach.
From Trotsky and Gramsci, through Rajani Palme Dutt to Nicos Poulantzas, to Ernst Nolte and Jurgen Habermas and the ‘Historians Debate” through to Jonah Goldberg’s preposterous “liberal fascism” and Roger Griffin’s “palingenetic ultranationalism” of today, however one defines it, everyone agrees that fascism existed. What is more difficult to comprehend is that it also never left. It has always been with us. It is here with us today, stronger than yesterday. It must be fought.
Dylan Riley’s “What Is Trump?” (New Left Review no. 114, Nov./Dec. 2018) takes issue with analyses of fascism across the political spectrum, from conservative to “anarchist insurrectionist”. For Riley, who has a contribution or two on that Marxist bookshelf, the central problem common to all who ask and answer ‘the question of fascism’ today lies in flawed analogies drawn between classical fascism and various contemporary movements of the far right, in particular Trumpism.
“The typical rhetorical device they [analysts of fascism] deploy is to advance and protect the identification of Trump with fascism by way of nominal disclaimers of it.”
The effort to compare and contrast is valid, only “their analogies are rarely placed in a properly comparative and historical perspective,” he writes.
Riley attempts to correct this error by offering what I gather he thinks is a proper comparative and historical perspective on the question. After doing so, Riley wrongly concludes that fascism does not exist today as a discrete political threat. Unfortunately he has two problems with which he is ill equipped to deal.
First, as with most of the analysts he disagrees with, his operative definition of fascism, drawn exclusively from the classical era, is flawed. His definition omits key terms necessary for apprehending fascism in any era.
Second, and also in common with most of the analysts he disagrees with, he will proceed, flawed definition in hand, one hundred years ‘back to the future’, skipping everything in between, to wrongly conclude that fascism is not a threat in 2019; that whatever Trump and Trumpism are, the ‘fascist’ label obscures more than it reveals and rather than the further development of fascism within the American body politic, this latest iteration of the far right might just be “a shot of adrenaline” to it.
I think it’s a shot of crystal meth.
What Riley is arguing is that Trump and Trumpism don’t represent anything different from routine capitalist rule; therefore, the general socialist project can continue as is without significant adjustments made for a new threat.
“Move along,” Riley seems to say, “nothing new here”.
His conclusion is driven by the purpose he believes fascism must always serve, rather than the conditions from which it derives that shape its nature. Marxists used to critique this as a ‘teleological argument’ but I guess in regards fascism it is given a pass. After all, it’s a pretty small shelf.
In any case this whole project of drawing analogies between classical fascism and whatever it is one thinks we are confronted with today is itself wrong-headed.
The yardstick is the problem; so too what you think you are measuring.
First, that pesky definition.
Riley doesn’t offer a formal definition of fascism, but he does write this:
“In sum, the interwar fascist regimes were a product of inter-imperial warfare and capitalist crisis, combined with a revolutionary threat from the left.”
All of which begs the question: What then is that “product”? Riley uses four comparative axes to tease out an answer.
These are “…geopolitical context, economic crisis, relations of class and nation and, finally, the character of civil society and of political parties.”
Having explored the global conditions and comparative axes within which fascism first developed Riley then turns to the sociologist Max Weber and his three forms of rule (the charismatic, patrimonial and bureaucratic) for a more focused treatment of Trump. This is probably the best section of Riley’s article where the contradictions between Trump’s style of rule and the ‘legal-rational’ state are made clear, but it tells us next to nothing about fascism in any era.
Riley’s unfortunate use of the term “product” further suggests that fascism is assembled, as a toaster or automobile, rather than emerges within history as a political and social movement. Here he is again confusing the conditions that structure the nature and political horizons of classical fascism for classical fascism itself. Using only the conceptual framework and terms on offer by Riley, one cannot grasp the nature of fascism. This approach to the question of fascism has a long and inglorious history, best exemplified by a recent precursor with whom I’m sure Riley is familiar.
“The Sunkara Trap” is my term of reference for the intellectual cul-de-sac entered into when one accepts the framework for argument about fascism put forward in an article by Jacobin founder and editor Bhaskar Sunkara, first published in the socialist journal New Politics in June, 2011. Coming on the heals of the tea party rebellion and just prior the Occupy movement, “A Thousand Platitudes: Liberal Hysteria and the Tea Party” was essentially the inaugural long form essay for Jacobin Magazine and Blog.
Sunkara made his bones with it.
The key argument made by Sunkara regarding the Tea Party and the left is as follows:
“The American left’s response to grassroots activity on the right has historically been punctuated by hysteria, exaggeration, and appeals to the coercive power of the state….Furthermore, an alternative reading of the Tea Party will be offered, a movement that is not fascistic, racist, nor particularly novel, but rather a new expression of a venerable American right-wing populist tradition.”
Drawing on critics of left identity politics such as Walter Benn Michaels, Ken Silverstein and the late and hapless (on fascism) Alexander Cockburn, Sunkara blasts the antiracist liberal-left for engaging in electoral theatre that abandons class analysis, thereby leaving regimes of accumulation intact. Its antiracism is so cynical it helps prop up ‘the other capitalist party’ through the ‘antifascism of fools’.
Sunkara’s key argument on fascism is this:
“Though many of its shock-troops have come from lumpenproletarian elements, fascism has historically been a petit-bourgeois movement that can only be understood within the context of a militant left. German and Italian fascists disrupted strikes and physically attacked left-wing meetings. This historically specific brand of reaction implies that there was a vibrant workers’ movement challenging capitalist class rule, forcing elements of those on top to attempt to gamble on empowering the fascists in order to ultimately preserve the existing class structure. The American left is a marginalized and besieged political force, not exactly ready to storm the barricades.”
Sunkara’s dismissal of the tea party uprising of that time was met with some dissent, as the article in New Politics was accompanied by critiques from the late Marvin and Betty Mandell that, while spirited, unfortunately largely reinforced the dynamics of the trap.
Here’s an interesting thought experiment. What kind of definition of fascism could one construct without the use of the following terms?
Not a very useful or accurate one.
All of these terms should feature prominently in any discussion of fascism; none of them are discussed, much less developed by the two authors. Why?
For Sunkara this is fairly straightforward. All of those terms above no longer have any saliency within a form of 21st century capitalism (globalism) that embraces diversity of identities all the while enforcing class division. It does this without having to resort to the crass prejudices of bygone eras. Structural forms of discrimination exist, but they only serve to divide workers. They have no internal logic apart from this. Vigilante forms of racist violence, for instance, are also by definition a part of the past. The capable administrators of American capitalism are clever; they would never resort to such measures unless…you got it, there was an insurgent left. There is no insurgent left. Therefore there is no fascism. And so on.
Sunkara’s dismissal of the American racist right and his defense of the Tea Party are so blind that he ends up needlessly and callously impugning the integrity of civil rights icon John Lewis. In what should be regarded as his ‘Black Face Moment’, Sunkara treats insults hurled at Lewis by tea party militants as “alleged” expressions of “bigotry.” Now, I don’t care that Sunkara describes Lewis as a “doyen” of the liberal establishment, but if the veteran civil rights activist says Tea Party assholes were yelling “nigger” at him, I’ll take him at his word. Elsewhere in his article Sunkara uses the term “race relations”, a sure sign that he is out of his element here. He should stick to explications of the clever triangulating of Kautsky.
Nothing Sunkara has written in the past eight years remotely suggests he has changed this basic theoretical framework. The entire socialist project of Jacobin Magazaine and Blog has continued to reproduce this anemic debate; that project has been compromised as a result. For Sunkara, Trump and the Tea Party before him are merely excretions of capitalist rule and to fight them is to ignore “the true stakeholders of power.” It would seem to be a simple corrective to fight both, but the problem is deeper, more entrenched, and potentially disastrous. Moving from this set of presumptions about the nature of and prospects for contemptorary fascism directly to the democratic socialism of the Bernie Sanders 2020 Campaign means follies from the past, and those yet to be committed, will likely adversely effect the left.
For Riley these terms are subsumed within treatments of what he calls the inversion of nation/class relations, civil society and the interplay between economics and culture. Trump’s “racist messaging and general boorishness” is about as detailed a discussion of racism or white nationalism to be found here. They are addressed, in other words, through these larger conceptual constructs which actually have no room for them at all. For instance, after describing an American population that resembles that famous “sack of potatoes” described by Marx, and therefore ill suited for fascist mass mobilization, Riley then argues that if Americans are mobilized at all it will be “on the defensive basis of protectionist nationalism, rather than yet further imperial aggression.” Increasingly, in an era of neofascist mobilization, this is a distinction without a difference.
In a bizarre passage he also claims: “In the us today, a pro-globalist professional layer is pitted against a ‘nationalist’ white working class—a configuration that is almost the opposite to that of interwar fascism.” How to even untangle this? I think Riley is saying that professional layers during classical fascism tended to be nationalist as opposed to worker movements that were internationalist. This syllogism only works if by “globalist” one means “internationalist”. Globalism is not the equivalent, during any era, of socialist internationalism. What is the point of highlighting such a difference, manufactured though it may be, if not to accentuate his claim that fascism no longer exists in any meaninful way? What then is the logical conclusion from all of this? Do not fight fascism because it doesn’t exist.
Here is Riley again on Trump’s appeal: “Here it would be futile to separate ‘cultural’ from ‘economic’ issues: the two are inextricably linked. To the extent that Trump’s economic-nationalist agenda had a popular basis, it rested on workers and middle-class layers who had suffered from the offshoring of jobs and who feared competition from immigrants in employment, rather than welcoming them as a cheap source of labour.”
Notwithstanding his own disclaimer, notice how quickly the ‘cultural’ becomes the ‘economic’, entirely unrelated to that unending, unfiltered and noxious racist bile that has issued forth from ’45’ to his 56 million followers on Twitter.
What Sunkara and Riley both don’t understand is that when mobs of white people organize to attack migrants or scream racist epithets at Black people they are not only ‘protecting their jobs’ by responding to labor competition, they are engaging in activity that builds white identity and thereby fascism. When they attack George Soros it’s not just because he’s a billionaire, its because he’s a Jew. Soros can, of course, take care of himself, but we need to take care of the Nazis who hate him. Not for Soros, but for us.
There is a continuum along which this set of ideas ranges, blending into one another. From macro-economists who blather about ‘advanced economies’ to political scientists who wax nostalgic about the roots of democracy in ‘the west’; to neo-cons and their ‘western civilization’ to modern day culture warriors and their ‘christian west’; then onwards to what makes the west a civilization–whiteness–and the ‘organicism’ espoused by the neo-Nazis of Generation Identity. There is a political geography here within which whiteness embodies a key set of ideas that increasingly structures politics, economics and culture. It becomes the key reference point for many white people. It is no longer confined to the margins, it is transforming the mainstream.
Sunkara and Riley fail to theorize a relationship between capitalism and fascism that can account for the semi-independent nature of fascism as a mass movement. Riley hints at the fluid nature of fascism in its movement stages by alluding to a “field of compatibility” that existed between conservatism and classical fascism. But he quickly dispenses with this in his discussion of Trump. I prefer the term ‘semipermeable membrane’, something veteran antifascists have endeavored to monitor as an index to the development of fascism. Such political activity is not the same as routine expressions of racism, homophobia and sexism that undoubtedly characterize all forms of capitalism, even the most “advanced”. It represents something different.
Back to that pesky definition.
No definition of fascism that excludes the above referenced terms could possibly be cogent or complete; only misleading. Any definition of fascism that does include the above referenced terms is not, however, necessarily complete either; one needs a theoretical model that accounts for capitalism and fascism. Jacobin and New Left Review should be indispensable tools for doing as much. They have both largely abdicated this responsibility.
Here I will sketch out an alternative definition of fascism and periodize that definition so as to track it over time and space. I wrote ‘sketch’, so cut me some slack.
Fascism, in all its forms, across different continents and over the span of almost one-hundred years always involves an ideology rooted in racism and nationalism. Its most articulate exponents and most dedicated opponents know this. There is no point in engaging with any definition of fascism that excludes this remarkably simple observation.
Fascism has its vital center in a political geography located throughout the capitalist core. I call it the ‘white belt’. In order to understand this leftists must integrate the concepts of a ‘North/South’ divide and a core/periphery with that of a class analysis. Anti-immigrant racism has as much to do with expressions of whiteness as with labor competition. One cannot understand ‘white nationalism’ without untangling this and the tripartite concept of ‘Race-Class-Gender’, sometimes expressed through the term ‘intersectionalism’, should provide some answers. New Left Review, through its first editor, Stuart Hall, was founded in part to articulate a brand of Marxism that could do as much.
The social base of fascism is best captured through the metaphor of a marriage between the Christian Right and white nationalism which crosses class lines yet remains a mirror of the hierarchies that exist between those social classes. In other words there are fewer doctors and lawyers who are fascists principally because there are fewer doctors and lawyers in any given capitalist society. The social base of fascism cannot be counted, as beans in a jar, only understood in relation to the other aspects of its definition. But you can count on professionals and other fascists of means (Mercer, McInnes, Bannon, et. al.) accounting for an outsize share of their leadership.
Lastly fascism has a motor, what I call ‘the fight above and below.’ This motor must be engaged for a social movement to be reasonably characterized as fascist; this is what gives fascism it’s potentially popular, or mass basis. This ‘fight above and below’ is not a feint, or cynical ploy. It is real. While I agree with Riley that “fascist societies unquestionably remained capitalist societies” they also supercharged the racist, nationalist and imperialist elements of those capitalist societies. They do this in their movement and regime phases.
The last element of my definition involves periodizing it. Fascism has existed throughout three distinct eras. It can be characterized by what has ‘overdetermined’ its parameters, or political horizons, during each of these eras.
Classical Fascism (1921–1945)
Riley correctly identifies the major set of conditions that drove and shaped fascism in the classical era: capitalist crisis, inter-imperialist conflict, an insurgent left. But he misses the key concepts of racism, whiteness and the division between the global north and south.
Cold War Fascism (1945-1990)
Here fascism became the bastard step child of capitalism through the role it played in the anticommunist consensus. Christopher Simpson’s Blowback and Russ Bellant’s Old Nazis, the New Right and the Republican Party are required reading on this era. Where fascism thrived in Latin America, e.g., Argentina (1976-1983), Brazil (1964-1985; 2018-?) Guatemala (1954-1997) it is marked by a genocidal racism clearly inherited from its colonial past.
21st Century Fascism (2010-?)
While the Cold War is understood to have ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is equally important to recall that this was accompanied by claims of ‘the end of history’. Few analysts of capitalism or fascism anticipated an expansion of the political horizons for fascism during the years following the end of the Cold War. Most assumed it would pass into the garbage bin of history. Instead, in retrospect, that time period was a crucible within which fascism was reinvigorated. With the ‘Great Recession’ of 2007-2010 it has vigorously shaken itself, much like a wet dog emerging from a rainstorm; no longer on a short leash, it is on the hunt covering terrain previously out of reach.
An expanded and modified framework for understanding this sweeping periodization might be constructed following ideas popularized by Immanuel Wallerstein. Capitalism cannot be theorized without reference to a ‘global north and south’ and a ‘core and periphery’. Neither can fascism.
To illustrate the flaw inherent to analogies that proceed directly from Classical fascism to the present, let’s turn to Chumbawamba and their 1994 anthem, The Day The Nazi Died (the Nazi is Rudolph Hess).
We’re told that after the war
The Nazis vanished without a trace
But battalions of fascists
Still dream of a master race
The history books they tell
Of their defeat in ’45
But they all came out of the woodwork
On the day the Nazi died
They say the prisoner at Spandau
Was a symbol of defeat
Whilst Hess remained imprisoned
The fascists they were beat
So the promise of an Aryan world
Would never materialize
So why did they all come out of the woodwork
On the day the Nazi died?
The world is riddled with maggots
The maggots are getting fat
They’re making a tasty meal of all
The bosses and bureaucrats
They’re taking over the boardrooms
And they’re fat and full of pride
And they all came out of the woodwork
On the day the Nazi died
So if you meet with these historians
I’ll tell you what to say
Tell them that the Nazis
Never really went away
They’re out there burning houses down
And peddling racist lies
And we’ll never rest again
Until every Nazi dies
Sunkara and Riley both extrapolate from a definition of classical fascism that is flawed not least because it omits or downplays key categories necessary for defining it. With flawed definition in hand, they then do what virtually everyone else does: proceed directly to the present, skipping Cold War fascism.
From here they will have difficulty understanding 21st Century Fascism, which began around 2010. The twenty years between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of 21st Century fascism is an interregnum, which I will explain in another article.
Riley has his own blind spot on display when he is discussing what animates the former attorney general, Jeff Sessions. “Sessions’s anti-immigrant fanaticism is rooted in a theory of us development over the past ninety years or so. According to him, the massive inequalities of the Gilded Age were an expression of uncontrolled immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. With the passage of the National Origins Act of 1924, the European population was assimilated, becoming a homogeneous white working and middle class—the foundation for us world power and domestic tranquility in the twentieth century.”
To use Riley’s own turn of phrase, such a political philosophy could plausibly be cast in white nationalist terms.
The “extreme form of hybridity” Riley assigns to Trump is a feature of fascism, as well as a style of rule. Fascism scrambles familiar categories of the liberal and conservative thought world precisely because it insists upon white identity. The civil becomes the ethnic state (birtherism, attacks on the 14th Amendment, the border becomes a wall), economics is increasingly rendered as cultural (black crime imperils white neighborhoods, immigration undermines community cohesion, trade protectionism expresses a desire to care for one’s own), etc. It must do this because what drives fascism–racism, nationalism and the fight above and below–cannot be carried forward within traditional modes of capitalist command and control; they are not the same, although there is a great deal of overlap between them.
This is fascism in its movement stage.
How to account for this? In a footnote on NSDAP voting and membership data, Riley acknowledges the problem of identifying fascism in its movement stage: “…whether voting behaviour is a good indicator of the ‘social basis’ of fascism is an important question.” At least he recognizes the need to account for fascism in its early stages. But, as with so many others, he throws up his hands because it is apparently too difficult a task. It isn’t.
Here’s an example of what I mean drawn from yet another missed opportunity, this time from our preeminent political prognosticator, Nate Silver. In February of 2016, following breathless articles in the New York Times about disturbing levels of racism polled throughout the American South, Silver led a befuddled group of his colleagues in an attempt to address this. “Elections Podcast: Racism Among Trump’s Supporters” was the first time Silver, or probably any of his colleagues, used the term ‘white nationalism’. Their unfamiliarity with the term, together with no particular follow through, opened a window through which to view the more general failure to anticipate the election victory of Trump. Aside from Michael Moore, most liberals and leftists failed as well. Again, the key term here is ‘white nationalism’.
Near the end of his article, Riley, having thus far successfully eschewed the term ‘populism’, then renders to it that which must be denied: analytical legitimacy. Trump, Riley argues, may not be any kind of fascist per se, but he exhibits ‘traits’ of the authoritarian and populist. Ugh.
About that “shot of adrenaline”. Here’s the full quote:
“In the 2018 congressional elections, there is no doubt that Trump bore much responsibility for a result unprecedented over the past fifty years—a 49 per cent turnout in a midterm. In this basic sense, Trump’s ascendancy has not resulted in the erosion of American democracy, but rather acted as a shot of adrenaline to a moribund system. Can the left succeed in turning this new terrain to its advantage?”
Yes, perhaps. But what will determine success or failure? If that “shot of adrenaline” turns out to be crystal meth the need for a vibrant, grassroots, militant antifascism will be essential to countering whatever new monstrosities are unleashed. The time for that is before such abominations gain a foothold.
What is it then that Sunkara and Riley prescribe?
More of the same.
Today while the left may not be a roaring tiger, it is certainly no longer a mewling kitten. Democratic socialism is on the lips of millions, but so is white nationalism. By their own logic Sunkara and Riley should understand this. So long as they deny even the existence of contemporary fascism, they will unwittingly hobble our efforts to both confront and offer an alternative to it.
Neither Sunkara nor Riley have anything to say about antifascism, much less the Antifa. It should be noted that the two signature tactics used by today’s antifascists in the United States–doxxing and deplatforming –have effectively crippled the further development of mass fascism. Antifascists throughout the global north deserve support–theoretical and political defense, legal aid, funding and platters of brownies. Where is it?
Last November, after Trump singled out the Antifa for attack by “cops, soldiers and tough guys” there were no statements of solidarity forthcoming from the left. Perhaps the International Socialist Organization or Democracy Now! stood up, but it wasn’t enough. Antifascists should not be hung out to dry; their accomplishments left for academics, ‘anti hate centers’, celebrities or the SPLC to cannabalize. The left needs an independent antifascist effort from the left and below, rooted in the red and the black. It has this in the Antifa, but it needs the political and theoretical defense necessary for continued development. Such efforts should be supported by comrades in positions to do so.
I have been terse, even harsh, with Jacobin and New Left Review. But I want to be clear: These are two of the most important journals I go to for theoretical and political clarity.
I’m yelling at you because I care.
In 2019 there is a growing sense among fascists that what they fight for is not a narrow nationalism, but a transcontinental ‘whiteness’ that stretches from Western Europe east through Russia, onwards to Canada and the United States. In this scenario the threat from Russia is not principally from its ‘authoritarian’ nature, but from its increasing alignment with a fascist international in formation. This ‘white belt’ cannot be understood within a framework of analysis that amounts to a ‘white out’. The solution, as always, is a hybrid of communist and anarchist ideas–the red and the black.
Throughout its first four seasons Black Mirror, the science fiction series that features technology-driven dystopian futures, has largely managed to avoid the 1980s nostalgia trap. Black Mirror’s critique of science, technology and capitalism has been sharp and disquieting in welcome ways.
My favorite episodes from the first three seasons are “5 Million Credits”, “Nosedive” and “Hated in the Nation”. Although Netflix got involved in season four, the series still managed “Black Museum” and “U.S.S. Callister”, continuing a tradition of entertaining and socially conscious science fiction.
Now comes Bandersnatch.
Rather than fidelity to the social-science fiction of Issac Asimov, William Gibson, Ursula K. LeGuinn, or even Samuel Beckett (check out Lost Ones) Black Mirror, perhaps in keeping with the global civilizing mission of its adoptive parent, Netflix, has plunged down the 1980s memory hole. We will have to see if it can find its way out.
Which raises a couple questions:
What is it about the 1980s that has captured the imagination of corporate popular culture? What are the reactionary nostalgists nostalgic for?
Allow me to hazard some answers.
What is celebrated here is the golden era of the Cold War, where, as the story goes, capitalism, and to a lesser extent, democracy, finally triumphed over communism, and to a lesser extent, totalitarianism. Reagan said “tear down that wall!” and the wall came down. Every rose colored look back includes that scene in its rear view mirror, with a Hollywood sunset ahead.
This triumph of the anticommunist ‘democratic’ consensus claimed to have ushered in ‘the end of history’. No more class struggle, no more engine of history that didn’t run on wage labor, private property and free markets. Progress may be slow, we were told, but it was persistent, always bending towards justice. But history didn’t end, only ‘the end of history’ came to an end–in the killing fields of the Balkans, Rwanda and Iraq.
This is the ‘progress’ Walter Benjamin warned us about.
So here we are, in 2019, and one can smell fascism wafting through the malls, class struggle back on the streets, meaninglessness growing as a malignant tumor on the body politic. What went wrong?
How to fit this square peg into that round hole?
Efface, or reframe it.
The consolidation of political reaction, economic austerity and social backlash came about in the final defeat of the 1960s-70s global wave of upheavals. You know, what came before the 1980s. Buried within this nostalgia is a tacit celebration of reaction, or at least a begrudging acceptance of it.
For corporate interests and many liberals and reactionaries alike, the 1980s also represents the end of socialism, by which is meant class struggle, the true motor of history. The launch of the digital frontier coincided in the popular imagination with that ‘end of history’. They are linked.
But something sinister stalks the anti communist consensus and the tech revolution to which it is yoked.
Nostalgia always involves sentimental longing, often for something that never was. This longing for a mythical past has been described as a key feature of fascist ideology. It is, but it is not the only feature, although it shares this in common with neoliberalism.
What this nostalgia doesn’t efface, it reframes and co-opts. Note that the current wave of 1980s nostalgia does not (usually) include a revalorization of gay bashing, women in the kitchen or Black people at the back of the bus. It presents itself as inclusive of hard fought and won social and economic rights, but claims these victories for itself, then repackages them for sale to the highest bidder, thereby undermining the foundation for those gains. What is most important is that the narrative of how those rights were won be safely ensconced within the embrace of this nostalgia. Slowly, incrementally, while enjoying Kenny Loggins, Michael Jackson or Van Halen.
‘Everything’s gonna be alright’.
The return to the 1980s frequently presents these victories as having come about as a result of anticommunism, austerity, and extreme increases in corporate power, and not despite of or in opposition to them. It’s a difficult argument to make with a straight face, but plenty of people do it. The most persuasive arguments for such nonsense are those that have their roots in a playful naïveté leavened with a healthy dose of cynicism, preferably with very high production values.
Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One is a gleeful expression of this tendency. Bandersnatch plays the same tune, but in a different key.
Whereas Ready Player One employs a traditional action/adventure narrative structure, Bandersnatch is configured to scramble any narrative structure. Although they are dissimilar in this respect, they are united in their reactionary nostalgia.
The first element of attraction here is an effort to rediscover that magical moment when the twin totalitarianisms of fascism and communism gave way to capitalism and democracy. Or so the story goes. But capitalism and democracy are fundamentally incompatible, their clash engendering the eternal return of various strategies for an exit.
The second concept celebrated here is the birth (in a garage, rather than a manger) of a nascent cottage industry of personal computers. A bunch of sexually maladjusted teenage nerds fondling diodes and manipulating bits innovated again and again until voila! the personal computer was liberated from IBM, then plundered for profit by Microsoft and Apple.
Whatever trace amounts of creativity and public good remain from those garages was long ago gobbled up by metastasizing corporate power.
For Ready Player One this retreat from the public sphere into the garage is glamorized in the opening moments of the film, when the protagonist says, “he showed us we could go somewhere without going anywhere at all.” This is the perfect theme for a political philosophy that cannot acknowledge even the existence of a shared material reality, much less the gross inequality of that reality.
The first unforgivable sin of Bandersnatch is in its very conception and, predictably, its production costs. Because this movie/app involves multiple story lines, it takes hours to exhaust all the possible ‘endings’, so instead of four discrete science fiction pieces, we get ‘four in one’. “Look how much money we saved on actors and locations!” someone surely noted.
But the end result is a second sin: Bandersnatch takes on more than it can chew and succumbs to that dreaded art form, pastiche. Who in their right mind thought to combine the worst elements of an ‘on demand app’ such as Uber Driver or Deliv with a science fiction tradition that skewers such naked digital aggression? If that’s Bandersnatch’s snarky point, it’s well taken because I didn’t bother to finish it. Mission accomplished.
Here are three concepts useful in unpacking the reactionary philosophy at the heart of Ready Player One and Bandersnatch and for understanding my seething hatred of them both.
Commodity fetishism is a concept with deep roots in Marxist economics. It borrows from religion and anthropology to examine capitalist production. All capitalist production involves exploitation and domination. The processes and relations that are a part of producing the things we need and desire, and the inequality that ensues, must be hidden, the whole process represented as good, just and eternal. Where commodities come from, how they come to be, and what relations are involved with their production must be obscured or reframed, if they are even acknowledged. Why? Because the truth of the matter is a horror show.
In Ready Player One, as with seemingly all video games, keys and coins are fetishized. A commodity is represented as having magical properties in much the same way a talisman does for a priest.
The relationship between the Bit and capitalism is perfectly represented by keys and coins. One must develop skills (coding, for instance) in order to obtain and use keys; the keys unlock chests of coins, used to purchase more keys (skills) so as to unlock…and so on. Nowhere in this film is there even a glimpse of the material reality that underlies its world; only that sometime in the future there will still be trailor parks and Pizza Huts.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the scenario that takes place in a digital recreation of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. This craven homage is, to me, sacrilegious. But I aggress.
The second concept is possessive individualism. Here’s C.B. MacPherson, who coined the term, on what it means: “in which an individual is conceived as the sole proprietor of his or her skills and owes nothing to society for them.” The highest expression of possessive individualism today is the celebrity tech millionaire, worshipped for their genius. Originally, as with the case of Thomas Edison, genius was represented by the ‘invention’. Today we call this ‘innovation’, the difference in terms reflects a deeper transformation of things (inventions) into processes and relations (innovations) controlled by Bit logic. The power of the tech lord is not found in a thing so much as the ruthless cunning necessary to instrumentalize all those hidden relations of production that produce corporate profits. If tech titans wield a talisman, it is the Bit. This is what networking power is really about. Because corporations are inherently dictatorial, the celebrity tech titan is a prime source of authoritarianism. We know this, intuitively, and it causes anxiety. That anxiety, however, is neurotic: it loathes and loves the dictator. This is why there are usually good and bad corporate dictators, as in Ready Player One, from which one must choose. There is no alternative to this binary–one must choose one or the other. Both choices are bad.
The last concept, repressive desublimation, occurs when in order to satiate our thirst for change, we increasingly purchase or fund our rebellion, becoming thirstier.
Repressive desublimation can be broken down into its constituent components. Attributed to Herbert Marcuse, of the Frankfurt School, it borrows from psychology. Repressed, as in a desire that cannot be fulfilled, the deferment of which functions as both a defense mechanism and the source of pathology. When we say something is repressed, we usually assume it will bite back with a vengeance sometime later. The longer the repression, the harsher the bite back later on. But it is also a coping mechanism, where one learns to tolerate and accept intolerable and unacceptable things and get over it.
Desublimation occurs when a desire, say for sexual expression, is desublimated through, for instance the beauty myth. Sexual fulfillment can only be found through the sexual marketplace where strict adherence to a beauty regime and the wages of patriarchy are required. Each desire deferred is transmuted into a new desire, and so on. Desublimation occurs when the unfulfilled desire snaps back, without a mediating state, to a state which now contains within it both the original desire and the experience of its repression, thought to be its fulfillment. The snap back is not gradual, but immediate and harsh as when the purchase of a Land Rover is criticized as outdated, or your haircut is ugly.
As a thermodynamic process, desublimation is when a substance (here, steam) is transformed back to its original state (ice), reversing its sublimation from ice to steam.
This is the soul crushing cycle of consumer capitalism, where needs and desires are manufactured as much or more so than goods and services, through advertising. Workers are enlisted as consumers in administering their own poison. This is the essence of repressive desublimation, which is what framing Van Halen as rebellion is all about.
The Bildungsroman coming of age adventure story featured in both Ready Player One and Bandersnatch allows for celebrity worship, but of the right celebrity. This always features a poor, Horacio Alger type, preferably abused by a working class family that fails to appreciate his (it always is a boy-man) genius.
Here capitulation to pop culture is rendered (fat boiled off down to the bone) as resistance, even revolution.
But it is neither.
The only exercise of free will here is that of the corporation, a legally defined citizen with all the rights of a citizen, but none of the responsibilities. The only responsibilities a corporation has are those of a fiduciary nature, to shareholder value.
Perhaps this is one of the points the creators of Bandersnatch seek to make. But it’s difficult to extract that from an experience as loathsome as that of watching/playing Bandersnatch. Many of us are forced to endure such indignities on a daily basis and prefer that our intelligent science fiction be free of such cruelties.
The film Almost Mercy, by Tom Denucci is a flawed, but welcome antidote to this reactionary nostalgia. Almost Mercy is violent, gory and gruesome, yet surprises with deadpan humor and even manages tenderness and melancholy. The plot contains an initially disorienting look back to the bigotries of early American Christian fundamentalism. That disorientation later reveals itself as deeper character development and thematic exposition. The narration by the protagonist, an emerging militant feminist, is caustic and unsparing, but funny as hell.
There are problems, however, such as the well sprung role reversal near the end. If you watch closely, that role reversal is given away a bit too early. There are also several scenes with anachronisms, such as selfies with IPhones, not invented until 2007.
The casting of two icons of 1980s slasher horror films is brilliant, as they satirize themselves. The soundscape and soundtrack obliterate so much 1980-90s commercial pop music through thoughtful and searing vignettes, which owe more to that time period’s alternative rock.
Set in ‘South Greenwich, Rhode Island’ the social context for Almost Mercy is rooted in Northeastern American deindustrialization. The town used to have industry, but now downwardly mobile whites pursue “champagne lifestyles on gingerale budgets”, caught up in the familiar scourges of easy credit and indebtedness, addiction, meaninglessness and the disposable family. As if that weren’t enough, every possible institutional representative relied upon to protect the young protagonist, fails: parents, teachers, law enforcement, pastors, social workers, psychiatrists, peers, the media, etc. Each, in turn, is skewered in scenes of deep pathos and sarcasm, creating the conditions within which drastic means of redress become the only option.
It’s a brilliant film, but needs editing.
The exit strategy for Ready Player One is the full embrace of the simulacrum; of Bandersnatch, that there are endless iterations of an exit; and of Almost Mercy, vengeance–kill your oppressors.
A socialist future is nowhere considered here, but there is little doubt that it cannot be constructed from the lessons of the first two; only, problematically, if at all, from the last.
If only in 1991 there had been a John Brown Gun Club, a Pacific Northwest Antifascist Workers Collective, a Socialist Rifle Association, or even a communist caucus within the Democratic Socialists of America, I wouldn’t have been visiting a Stalinist at a Victorian overlooking Delores Park, in San Francisco.
But then again, I wouldn’t have enjoyed that reefer in the park, either.
Somewhat delirious after frolicking in the Castro during Gay Pride, I sat in the parlor of a woman who was an aficionado of the great abolitionist, John Brown. In fact she called her organization the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee (JBAKC–what an acronym!). A committed Stalinist, she held forth at length about ‘Uncle Joe’, and was a militant and mostly nonsectarian (really) antifascist. But between the two of us–I am not in any sense a communist in the Stalinist tradition–we did what we could, from within a political environment vastly different from that of today, to stem the tide of fascism. We shared intelligence on fascists, protested fascists, and fought them in the streets, all the while hoping to ignite a prairie fire of resistance and rebellion. But all this we did at a time when radicals who were socialists, anarchists and communists, were not so frisky. Most people from these traditions split the difference as ‘progressives’, the remainder operated from radical grouplets. The most dedicated and principled among us did prison support work to honor and protect comrades on the inside.
Much of our conversation in that Victorian proceeded in the manner of a seasoned dialectician gently head-patting a skeptical neophyte:
“Kicking the shit out of Nazis seems to be at least somewhat effective,” I would say. My Stalinist friend would reply, “well, I agree with you in practice, and will even do it with you, but, look here,” pointing to a passage from Stalin’s Dialectical and Historical Materialism, “I’m not sure it works in theory.”
What the Antifa practices works, damn the theory.
The theory will come round, eventually.
I was always fond of the phrase, “the book is always better than the movie.” Then Stephen King wrote The Shining, and Stanley Kubrick made a film by the same name.
Let’s compare and contrast the book and film, shall we?
Book: The Shining
Movie: The Shining
Book: Overlook Hotel in Colorado
Movie: Overlook Hotel in Colorado
Book: a wasp’s nest
Movie: a maze
Book: (literal) Ghosts of hotel seduce father to kill mother and child; (figurative) hive mentality vs bourgeois individualism; addiction vs sobriety.
Movie: (literal) Ghosts of hotel seduce father to kill mother and child; (figurative) White settler colonialism vs. everyone else; industrial capitalism vs. nature; the leisure class vs. the working class; patriarchy vs. women and children.
Book: Jack’s drinking.
Movie: Danny’s ability to ‘shine’.
Jack’s Principle Weapon
Book: a mallet from the lawn game of roque.
Movie: an axe for clearing forests.
The Supernatural vs. Science Cliche
Book: Stock characters are present everywhere in the King universe to support a main conceit indulged by seemingly all purveyors of supernatural horror, and therefore common to all of it: science and rationality are ill equipped to apprehend and control the spirit world. To believe otherwise is folly and brings disaster. This is why a doctor, a cop, a lawyer, a scientist or a government agent always appear in such narratives as well intended, but naive and ineffective, allies to the main character(s). There are many in the book.
Movie: one scene involving a child psychologist establishes Danny’s gift will be misunderstood as pathology.
Supernatural anthropomorphic manifestations
Book: Topiary animals. A firehose. A boiler. A lamp (just kidding).
Movie: None. Only ghosts.
Bullshit Pop Culture Reference Worked Into The Narrative As Though It Was A Postcard Tacked Onto A Refrigerator
Book: Creedence Clearwater’s “Bad Moon Rising” lyrics portend a coming snowstorm?
Movie: none. Kubrick is meticulous and reviles pop culture.
Bullshit Literary Reference Worked Into The Narrative As Though It Was A Postcard Tacked Onto A Refrigerator
Book: Edgar Allen Poe’s Masque of the Red Death.
Movie: none. Unless you count the maze, in which case it is effectively worked in and therefore not bullshit.
Book: Caribou in Colorado. (elk yes, but not caribou).
Jack’s Choice of Liquor
Book: Gin Martini.
Movie: Bourbon, of course.
Book: Underwood–Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Kerouac.
Source of Evil
Book: Bad people who did illegal and immoral things in the hotel, then got trapped there in the afterlife.
Movie: The hotel itself–a monument to the parasitical leisure class that demands everyone become a ‘Jeeves’ to serve them. The worst fucking place on the planet where the spoils of exploitation and war coagulate in shimmering infinity pools of conspicuous consumption. Our hell, their heaven.
Metaphor Used By Dick To Explain the Presence of Ghosts
Book: “Fingernail clippings and boogers” which does not work as a metaphor as both reference the entirely quotidian and therefore not frightening sloughing off that every human being experiences.
Movie: Dick says, “Burnt toast”–the perfect metaphor to represent traces a ghost leaves behind. Burnt, as in something went wrong with the cooking of the toast such that an unpleasant smell would linger. Ghosts are emotional remnants made material in our world because of unfinished business of a nefarious nature.
What Jack Means When He Says, “White man’s burden, Lloyd, my man. White man’s burden.”
Book: The civilizing mission of paint by numbers genre fiction is a heavy burden.
Movie: what a suckup asshole says to impress his bosses.
What the Ghosts Represent
Book: All the ghosts are evil; all desire to continue their evil deeds–marital infidelity, gangsterism, murder, as a manifestation of their “single group intelligence”. The source of this evil is not institutional, structural, historical, political or otherwise outside of the individual. It is located within us, in our denial of the possessive individualism at the heart of the bourgeois family.
Movie: The source of evil is the hotel itself, which cannot be separated from its history, in part erected on the bones of indigenous peoples. It is rabidly racist and demands absolute servility on the part of inferiors, most pointedly workers and their families.
Racist, Homophobic, Classist or Misogynist Scenes That Contribute To Plot Or Character Development.
Movie: Grady calls Dick Hallorran a “nigger” in the all important restroom scene. Elsewhere Jack says, “just a little problem with the old sperm bank upstairs. Nothing I can’t handle, though.” That’s about it. Sparing, short and devastating. But Kubrick doesn’t wallow in it as King does–as a teenager expressing unfiltered repressed emotions.
Gratuitous Racist, Homophobic, Classist or Misogynist Scenes That Don’t Contribute To Plot Or Character Development.
Book: an endless parade of cringe worthy and vicarious bigotries apparently pleasurable for some people to read. Emblematic is where King has a young Dick Hallorran fire a “Nigger Chaser” firework (bottle rocket) at a wasps nest. This makes no sense even on its own terms.
Book: Serve different masters. In Wendy’s case, following escape from the Overlook Hotel, this is made possible by the generosity of Jack’s former alcoholic buddy, Al, who can be distinguished by two things: he’s rich and with his connections can get Wendy a job, and he’s emotionally stable, having defeated the demon of alcoholism. Oh, and he’s part owner of the hotel?! This makes perfect sense if the idea of the hotel is not what the problem is, just its mismanagement. This satisfying ending is a continuation of the real horror unaddressed by the novel.
Movie: Dick is killed by Jack. Wendy and Danny escape by snowcat. Jack then freezes to death in the maze.
Symbol of Eternal Horror
Book: something about August 1945 and “group intelligence”. Almost completely unintelligible, as though King finally, mercifully, tired of typing.
Movie: Jack is immortalized in a framed group photo of rich, white revelers at an eternal Fourth of July celebration, circa 1921.
All of this flaunts two unavoidable truths about the world we live in: first, that the true source of horror in the world is capitalism, a system of private property and markets that is eminently rational in organization, yet bat shit crazy in its unrelenting imposition of the inequality and suffering that are the unavoidable hallmarks of its rule; and, secondly, the only way out of this maze-like house of mirrors horror show is collective struggle and a socialist future. Everything else is a part of that horror show.
Kubrick, brilliant nihilist that he was, ably deconstructed the hypocrisy and hubris at the heart of the capitalist narrative. He acknowledged that horror and identified its sources, but without any exit strategy, (as a nihilist he didn’t believe such a thing could ever exist) he succumbs to the traditional failure of nihilism: cynicism and its doppelgänger, fatalism.
Kubrick is still preferable to King, who misidentifies the true source of horror in the world we live in, then prescribes more of it as a way to escape it.
After all these years, I remain hopelessly in love with you.
From our first meeting, I was head over heels.
The initial courtship, that labor of love called the Antifascist Archives Project, blossomed into a passionate love affair.
We became friends, comrades and lovers.
You would tutor me in the manner of a sober socialist dialectician. But, Oh!–how my heart would skip a beat and I would blush when you pronounced the word, “dialectician.”
So many late nights with comrades buried in newspaper clippings, pamphlets and balaclavas, it was a wonder we ever slept.
That cold call you insisted I make to an old Yippie–“castigate him for not sufficiently appreciating the legacy of the Black Panthers,” you exhorted. That same old Yippie would laugh uproariously at my chutzpah, then spend countless hours sharing trade secrets over latkes and coffee.
“Only from ignorance can the greatest leaps of wisdom be made,” you later said.
Thrumming your fingers on a wooden desk piled high with papers, you look up: “The best protection from being infiltrated by your enemies is to infiltrate them. Simple and irrefutable. Know what they are thinking before they think it; act before they act. Then crush them.”
You were always straight to the point.
Long before his posthumously published Millennium Trilogy, you claimed Stieg Larsson as one of our own–an international socialist and antifascist who lapped other researchers by practicing the dark arts of Antifa spycraft, all the while hewing close to your dictums.
Gazing up at the entrance to a segregated country club, you mused: “Pedagogy is important. Where the rich have been so shortsighted as to construct their temples of conspicuous consumption in close proximity to us, we will occupy them so as to provide a teachable moment.”
The Great Game, by Leopold Trepper, always at your fingertips.
“Trapped between the anvil of Stalin and the hammer of Hitler, Trepper chose an independent, antifascist communism. He also developed long term spies and a formidable intelligence network.”
Later: “Sometimes I feel trapped between the hammer of Trump and the anvil of Clinton.”
You were never so relaxed and jovial as with that knock-nosed miner from Northern England. The Godfather of the American Antifa (who, in keeping with tradition shall remain anonymous) dispatched this foul mouthed hooligan to disrupt fascist enclaves in the Pacific Northwest, and we sang songs about gay and lesbian liberation, armed strikes and Native resistance.
In 1996, over weird breakfasts and not a few pints in a baker’s dozen of cities throughout Germany you showed me the Antifa flag flying high.
“Look”, you pointed up. “There, hoisted high above that community center, the red and the black. The only flag the Antifa will ever fly–if it flies one at all.”
You were everywhere over there after the fall of that wall, from Stuttgart to Bremen, Wuppertal to Keil and of course Berlin and the wonderful organized chaos of Kreuzberg.
“What’s that smell?”, I asked in Leipzig. “Braunkohle”, you murmured, “distinctive and dirty.”
Defending refugees the urgent task of the day; fighting cops what the Antifa did on its lunch break.
“All cops are bastards,” you would spit, the taste of cayenne pepper fresh in your mouth.
Later: “Most cops are workers, too. Find a few still capable of cognitive dissonance; they will help us liberate their intelligence reports on fascists and identify racist cops.”
Then, after a shot and a beer, another tattoo, and dancing to LKJ at a meet up with the RABL, you woke up with a terrific hangover, then got back at it.
As you remember I continued to fight fascism, and fascists, but sometimes wound up in odd situations, occasionally a forum where I did not belong.
You never thought much of that cocky, droll southern lawyer and his legal sophistry; less of the television repairman and his White Aryan Resistance. Something was amiss during that trial and verdict. I have heard rumors of a fateful meeting at a Shari’s Restaurant that one day will provide a curious postmortem to this instance of American justice carried out in the little city known as ‘Little Beirut’.
Sometime thereafter I was drafted to appear before an unofficial meeting of some subcommittee or another of the United States Congress, where I read something about terrorists and white supremacists.
I lectured judges about ‘citizen militias’ and white supremacists, keen to know if any of them were sympathetic.
We always found a few.
I then became an unpublished footnote to a libel suit filed by a peripatetic Holocaust denier, a suit he lost to a scholar of the Holocaust.
“I see you are slated to provide testimony for the trial,” you casually noted.
“Will they be in wigs?” I asked.
“Yes,” you said, “but it won’t be as much fun as a drag show.”
I stayed home.
Finally, I was approached (not the first time) to expand my intelligence network to target a part of the left that was dancing with brownshirts. I refused.
The request came from an unlikely source, and its refusal was difficult. What’s more, the logic behind the request and its integrity were not without foundation. It was something I would not do, but, could not categorically state should not be done. That’s a conundrum.
Ugh. I was a mess. So was the left.
But I never betrayed you, a statement many comrades close to you then, and perhaps close to you now, cannot truthfully say.
Sometime later you passed me a note which read, simply “What have we become?”
I burrowed deep within my files.
The bloom was off the rose.
Then I left. Or was shown the door. Probably a bit of both. I cast myself adrift, but always found myself moored somewhere close to you. I thought perhaps you would be better off without me. I watched from a distance, and you were hardly aware of my existence.
Throughout many years I’ve never really had another proper lover; paramours, flings, but nothing serious.
After you, no one could compare.
Today things are much different. Today the fascists are on the march and there are more of them. But so too have the red and the black multiplied and spread.
When Trump noted that opposition to the Antifa would include cops, soldiers and “tough guys” no one leapt to your defense.
Radicals who should have leapt to your defense instead demurred.
Others, however, expressed their solidarity.
The Socialist Rifle Association through its slogan “Arm the Working Class”, is an antidote to both the National Rifle Association and David Hogg. They are organic allies to the Antifa, as I’m sure you would agree.
I see you deepening your ties to allied antiracist, anticapitalist, left struggles. Even the New York Times references you, once removed, in begrudging acknowledgement of your successes.
Recent efforts by Al Jazeera, Hate Not Hope and even The Stranger in Seattle to infiltrate fascist groups follow a template you established.
But the terrain will be tricky.
Recently you were bashing the fash when a comrade approached you wearing a button that read, “I Am George Soros”. You shrugged, “Billionaires can take care of themselves, until we do. And fuck Charlie.”
A few months ago you exclaimed, “Look here! There is a veritable cottage industry in doxing, outing, de-platforming, shaming, exposing and ostracizing fascists online.”
A bit later, “human intelligence is often the foundation for signals intelligence. Not the other way around.”
When discussion strayed and the autonomous nature of the Antifa in doubt, you would retort:
“The Antifa is a conspiracy: Small, local, anonymous, decentralized, and flexible, with both feet churning in para politics, holding a compass oriented to the red and black.
“It has a twofold mission.
“First, fight fascism by attacking fascists. Destroy their capacity and disrupt their organizing.
“Second, protect kindred movements from attack. As socialists, anarchists and communists, the Antifa places priority on left popular movements and communities targeted by fascists.
“Safeguard the political integrity and independence of the Antifa in part by never using spycraft against the left or targeted communities.”
Warming up to it, you would continue:
“The Antifa is not a mass organization. The Antifa is not a, much less the, vanguard.
“The Antifa does not base build, hold conferences on privilege, organize unions, coordinate voter registration drives or practice entryism. All of these can be fine activities, but are not the province of the Antifa proper.
Finally, channeling Lenin or Luxemburg:
“The Antifa is a defensive formation that fights a rearguard battle against fascists to clear and prepare the way for popular revolutionary movements.”
“The Antifa does not fight to preserve liberal democracy, nor on behalf of liberal democracy, nor even according to the norms of liberal democracy; only, when appropriate, alongside liberal democracy, in opposition to fascism.”
“Such support is provisional and never in support of capitalist war, only class war.”
I’m breathing heavy just remembering your off-the-cuff harangues.
“Having an intelligence advantage is often a prerequisite to everything else. If you don’t develop it, you will be dependent on the state or para state formations to do so. That’s a relationship of dependence that will corrode your principles.
“Be bold. Push the envelope. Be conspiratorial.
“When recruiting people to infiltrate fascist organizations, ‘already antifascists’ are always preferable to someone motivated by money, or a recent epiphany. Leave them to the ADL and SPLC.”
As I look upon you now, in an epic battle with fascism, my love burns anew, if a bit less bright.
Do you still consider me one of your ‘original gangsters’? An O.G. Antifa? After all, once a gangster…
I am also, of course, an Old Ghost of Antifascism.
Whatever I am to you, I will always love you.
Have you ever seen a superhero take a shit?
Every superhero secretly craves the limelight, and will even battle one another for it.
The superhero is a con artist, a narcissist posing as an altruist. Hence the disguise.
The superhero is a reclusive millionaire (Batman) a flamboyant millionaire (Tony Stark) a magical millionaire (Dr. Strange) or, getting right to it, a god (Thor).
The arch enemy of a superhero emerges from the shortcomings of that superhero; the wealth and privilege the superhero defends produces the evil they will eventually vanquish, at their leisure.
The superhero sets the barn on fire, then expects applause when they put it out.
For zombies a superhero is scum coagulating at the top of a boiling pot.
Zombies stir that pot.
Zombies are filthy and eat without utensils.
Zombies eat brains, because direct action against cognitive capital never tasted so good.
Zombies are the salt of the earth, the great unwashed.
Zombies swarm and are anonymous.
Zombies say, ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’; the superhero says, “hold my cape.”
Zombies rush through borders, climb over walls; a superhero builds them.
Zombies cry out: No Pasaran! The superhero pats us on the head, and says, “this too shall pass.”
Zombies harness the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ against the private power of the few.
Zombies lose their teeth and hair from disease; the superhero secretly harvests black market organs so as to live forever.
Zombies act to satisfy basic needs and desires denied them; the superhero stands for ‘a man and his castle’ and ‘everyman for himself’.
The superhero is, in a word, an ubermensch. A word from which every zombie recoils, yet also a meat sack every zombie will devour with relish.
To the superhero, zombies are irredeemably different, less than human and an eternal threat; to zombies, a superhero is meat.
A superhero will hold the line.
Zombies do not wait in lines.
Zombies just don’t behave.
A superhero is clean, bright, mostly white, fashionable and, above all, ironical.
Irony: when fate conspires, unexpectedly and often humorously, against you.
Zombies don’t believe in fate.
Zombies believe that ‘we make our own history, just not in conditions of our own making.’
(Zombies slur their speech, so I may not have got that exactly right.)
Zombies feast on superhero irony, then spit the bones into that boiling pot.
Zombies are anti-heroes, yet also something more than just the opposite of a hero; something more than a collection of individuals who either shuffle or run really fast.
Zombies represent that movement towards liberation the masses carry out when, by becoming a class for themselves, they engage that inexorable motor of history, the struggle of poor against rich, class against class, us vs them–and win.
We are many, they are few.
‘Everything we want is in the end of you’.
As measured by revolutionaries the value of philanthropic giving is to be found not only in the item given (the amount, its strategic impact) but in the size of the reservoir from which said item derives. Put another way acts that rise above charity and facilitate change are those which involve sacrifice. On this valuing, the $5 bill extended a homeless person from someone with only $100 is revolutionary in a way the $10,000 grant from a foundation with an endowment of $3,000,000, is not. With one exception: when that grant is made in order to spend that endowment down, immediately. Then again, all fortunes are amassed from another’s misfortune. That such endowments are not universally regarded as the spoils of war and wage labor is of little matter. When such wealth is redistributed in the commons the truth of the matter will out.
Everything we want is in the end of you.
Back in the late 1980s, in the embryonic days of the Coalition for Human Dignity, together with a small group of student radicals I cobbled together something called the Antifascist Archives Project. It amounted to little more than a poster featuring a bundle of sticks with the blade of an axe protruding from the top being broken in half. The symbol is that of the fasces, the Latin term from which fascism derives. Together with our fanatic hearts and a pile of research files to inspire the breaking, we began ferreting out fascists wherever they might be, in whatever stage of development they had progressed, at whatever cost to ourselves. We operated from the second floor of a warehouse space located at 333 SE 3rd Street in Portland, Oregon known as The Matrix. From the beginning my antifascism always involved no small amount of rebellion.
Below our second-story ramshackle office was a tortilla chip factory where (in my mind’s olfactory eye) I can still smell those fresh tortillas cooking. After being cut into chips, they would slowly make their way down a small conveyor belt where they would be bagged and often consumed, hot and fresh, by yours truly. My memories of this collective space are bound up with the smell of those tortilla chips and that of another: the fresh ink that emanated from the giant offset printing press which periodically disgorged the finished broadsheets for the long defunct, and somewhat bizarre, Portland Free Press.
Fronted by Andrew Seltzer, the cantakerous and idiosyncratic editor and publisher, the newspaper had a short run of a couple years. I was listed on the masthead as “Staff Researcher”. In late 1989, I dug up a connection between the local top representative for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and government surveillance of the left. Seltzer told me to call the local FBI office for an interview, which I did. To my surprise, I was granted an audience with the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) of the Portland, Oregon FBI, a guy named Danny Coulson. Two of us marched up to his office and were allowed to record the proceedings (where is that tape recording?). We grilled him about the FBI’s Cointelpro (Counter Intelligence Programs) of the 1960s-1970s, armed with the accusation that such efforts to “infiltrate, disrupt and neutralize” the left were continuing, in particular around groups such as CISPES, (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador). I was young and well on my way to a political philosophy that does not appear on any conventional ideological map. The interview didn’t win me a Pulitzer, but it was an interesting peek into the top office of America’s Secret Police.
The Matrix warehouse collective was a motley crew of antiracists and anarchists, Earth First! environmentalists and anti-gentrification activists (some of whom would burn to the ground a number of rowhouses being built by developer Phil Morford, and get away with it) antiauthoritarians who had stools alloted them at the Laurelthirst Pub, cop watchers and ACT-UP militants (some of whom I joined in occupying a federal office building more than once) anti-repression activists and numerous denizens of alternative music venues such as Satyricon and the Pine Street Theatre. The Matrix was a crucible for radical politics and an incubator for a subculture of resistance that would later be dubbed, “Little Beirut.” On more than one occasion I had a tasty meal procured from dumpsters at the back of a local grocery store. On other occasions, following rolling street brawls featuring Anti Racist Action and SHARP (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) activists fighting racist skinheads, comrades armed with shotguns and rifles patrolled the roof of The Matrix.
Around the same time I was interviewing the Portland SAC, my comrades and I were organizing the first protests against Dan Quayle and George H.W. Bush. The two would visit Portland over the next few years for a series of very expensive, very posh, private fundraising dinners, mostly held at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Portland. Chuck Palahniuk, by the way, doesn’t know shit about any of this, and neither do the scribblers at Willamette Week. Allow me to fill you in on a few details left out of these sanitized versions of what took place. First, the earliest of these protests were conceived, planned and carried out by militants in The Matrix collective. Get that right.
The symbolic protestors of Reed College who were self identified as “Reverse Peristalsis Painters” and who swallowed ipecac and food coloring so as to vomit in red, white and blue, were a sideshow, and came much later. The main events involved something quite different: gauntlets organized at two entrances to the Hilton Hotel, through which the well heeled Republican millionaires had to travel if they wanted to eat dinner. We disrupted the fuck out of that dinner party. Projectiles of all kinds–fruits, vegetables, eggs, rocks, etc., hit their mark. Cops were unprepared for the first two events, and rolling battles took place in the streets. I know, because I was there. One group of us dressed in the manner of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles–straight out of the sewers. What animated us was one main objective: raise the social costs of staging such events by interfering with the material capacity of the organizers to carry out such events. Symbols and imagery were secondary.
“Everything we want is in the end of you.”
That gauntlet, by the way, was what earned Portland the moniker ‘Little Beirut’, not the kids from Reed College and their ‘shocking’ performance art. And we threw all manner of projectiles, soiling the fur coats of the rich, burning newspaper boxes and cars. For a brief moment in time, at a few intersections in downtown Portland Oregon, the rich were on the run from impending violence. You don’t see that often enough.
History, as the saying goes, is written by the victors and they write whatever necessary to justify their continued dominance. Let this missive from a ghost of antifascism past be a token of resistance to that history.
Socialism, the great revolutionist Regis Debray reminds us, “was born with a printer’s docket around its neck.”
“Writing collectivizes individual memory; reading individualizes collective memory. The back-and-forth between them fosters the sense for history by unearthing potentials within the present, creating backdrops and foregrounds; it is fundamental for the idea of socialism. When it is cold outside and the night is long, memory means that we are not alone.” “Socialism: A Life Cycle” Regis Debray, New Left Review, No. 46, July-August, 2007.
For a new generation of radicals at the barricades I ask this: What happens to a society that no longer writes or reads, but posts and records in the manner of a compulsive self-documentarian? The selective timelines and creepy sanitized nostalgia of Facebook displace historical memory. Not that history by the victors was objective to begin with, but for every Richard Hofstadter or John Lewis Gaddis there is a Howard Zinn or an Eric Foner. Who shall replace them?
Socialism was born with a printer’s docket around its neck, and a molotov cocktail in her hand.
Long Live Little Beirut.
A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket, George Lucas, Jonathan Swift, Magic Negro, Repressive Desublimation, Stanley Kubrick, Star Wars, Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, Stranger Things, The Duffer Brothers, The Green Mile, The Shining
I hated Stephen King’s books when they came out and I was in high school. I had to read more than one, just to keep up with the pop culture references. I loathe them even more, today. For me his low point (to date) was writing the teleplay from his book, The Shining for the TV series of the same name (1997). There is no better example of King’s narcissism, hubris and corresponding lack of talent than this laugh out loud effort to ‘correct’ what is arguably the greatest horror film of all time, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). The only thing to be said about the television version is that it is indeed faithful to King’s book, while Kubrick’s is not. But that’s exactly the point: King’s writing has always been cloying and soft in the middle, unconsciously mendacious in that uniquely ‘ugly American’ way. At once insipid and preternaturally neurotic, the horrors visited upon Stephen King’s Americans–and they are always stock Americans–are the character flaws and psychological failures of individuals, even when they take an institutional form.
This is precisely what Kubrick has never trafficked in, the melodrama and kitsch that characterize contemporary morality plays in the wasteland of genre fiction.
What Kubrick did with King’s pablum is extraordinary–he made a mediocre text obsessed (as always) with individual themes of personal responsibility and psychology into an indictment of American exceptionalism and universalism. And it was terrifying, but in ways that were difficult to verbalize.
Kubrick linked profoundly disturbing themes of child abuse, murderous misogyny and alcoholism with capitalism, racism and white settler genocide–he made the personal, political, and the political, personal.
This achievement is partially recognized through the fanciful documentary film Room 237, (2012). The filmmakers make much of Kubrick’s fanatical attention to detail, noting the frequent appearance of symbols that reference two genocides–those of Native America and the Holocaust. And I agree that the repeated appearance of certain symbols–cans of baking powder and a typewriter, for instance, were not incidental nor accidental; but intentional. Kubrick puts them there for reasons cited above.
Room 237 is an interesting homage to Kubrick’s The Shining but it doesn’t take King to task. As befitting the pay-to-play state of modern academia, it also includes a lengthy, tedious and stupid section that is incidental to the film, repeating conspiracy theories that Kubrick assisted in faking the 1969 moon landing. The film also fails to note what is hidden in plain view within the important scene that takes place in the bathroom between Jack and the ghost of the previous caretaker, Grady. Grady refers to the Black head cook, played by the iconic actor Scatman Crothers, as a “nigger.” Kubrick was as careful crafting language as he was with symbols, so that’s there for a reason, too. Jack’s mental illness is brought on not least because he craves acceptance into upper management at a resort hotel that caters to the well heeled, white and rich, who are forever dancing and drinking at a Fourth of July celebration. The price Jack must pay for admittance to the upper crust is the sacrifice of his family. The character played by Scatman Crothers is the only one trying to protect them. For King its all about the ‘demons’ of alcoholism and the ‘salvation’ of AA. To King, Crothers is the ‘magical negro’, a frequent staple of his stock and trade (The Green Mile, The Stand) but in Kubrick’s hands the character represents something much more.
King always resolves whatever conflicts he conjures within a morality play of possessive individualism. His characters–an endless parade of pop psychology tropes torn from a high school year book–are as wooden as his plots: The magical negro, the overburdened patriarch, the evil foreign interloper, the randy daughter, the undersexed milf, the touched giant, the addicted adolescent, so on and so forth. Each character a world unto themselves; all forbidden from exercising the only possible resolution to their woes–radical collective action.
King hated Kubrick’s movie because it skewered the very myths King had spent his entire literary career so passionately defending–the bourgeois family, the myth of a melting pot America, the ‘up by your bootstraps meritocracy’, Democracy vs the Evil Empire, etc.
All of this is now reappearing with a vengeance through a virulent strain of reactionary nostalgia for 1980s America, which is really the golden era of Stephen King. And he has imitators galore: Here come the amnesiac and conspiratorial Duffer Brothers, and Stranger Things, followed by Steven Spielberg and his Ready Player One. Both try and recast conformist and repressive strains of pop culture such as Van Halen and Yacht Rock, Dungeons and Dragons and Back To The Future as rebellion. The naval gazing, Wall Street speculating, anti communist computer nerds of Reagan’s America are the hero’s making America Great Again. There is a term for this, it’s called repressive de-sublimation. Look it up.
As an old ghost of antifascism I must draw the analogy: King’s entire oeuvre is to horror what the Anti-Defamation League is to antifascism, the Nature Conservancy is to ecology, or the 2017 Women’s March is to feminism. The latter the result of celebrities ‘leaning’ so hard into their ‘resistance’ they fell over the day after Donald Trump was inaugurated. Ooh. Scary!
Kubrick, while not a leftist, and probably not a feminist, was at least my kind of nihilist, unsparing and sharp, his erudite vitriol always serving to clarify relations of power, rather than obscure or justify them.
He may not have had an alternative to the world of shit within which we live, but his work helps us not mistake that world for a flower garden, which is more than one can say for all the typing Stephen King has ever clacked out. “All Work And No Play Makes Stephen A Dull Boy.”
Aside from the greatest American horror film ever made, Kubrick also made the greatest film of political satire: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb (1964!?!). A great satirist needs a wicked sense of humor, and I think Kubrick took some inspiration from Jonathan Swift’s, A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick (1729). You remember what that proposal was, yes?
Did Kubrick also create the greatest American antiwar film ever made in Full Metal Jacket? (1987).
A Clockwork Orange (1971) is a searing indictment of the postwar boom in youth subcultures, consumerism, social control and the inherent violence of the state.
2001: A Space Odyssey exposes every asinine iteration of George Lucas’ Star Wars as the juvenile cartoons they are. Yes, I hate Star Wars, too and I don’t care that it was originally conceived as having something to do with protesting the Vietnam War. They are all wretched films.
Long Live Kubrick!
“Two Roads For the New French Right” by Mark Lilla, New York Review of Books December 18, 2018.
Mark Lilla has written an essay on the French Catholic Right without using the term laïcité’, an achievement of sorts. It strikes me as a bit like writing an article about The National Rifle Association and not mentioning the Second Amendment, which you can do, but only if you are Sacha Baron Cohen, and its not an article you are writing, but a satirical sketch.
Come to think of it, Lilla also manages to explore a good chunk of the French far-right ecosystem without once using the term ‘fascism’. This will not do.
A liberal heavyweight of ‘populism’ studies and a critic of identity politics, Lilla writes that something is underway in France that is more than “xenophobic populist outbursts”. A “New French Right” is being assembled by some characters with questionable democratic credentials.
But what Lilla purports to identify as a new political phenomenon is not in any sense new to veteran anti fascists. It’s only new to him. Lilla, who understands not a bit of the essence of fascism, waxes cheerily about the hip, countercultural credentials of this latest iteration of the French far-right, as though this is the first time a political movement has raided the nostalgia box of May 1968.
For instance, what he describes as a New French Right owes much to the 1980-90s writings of Alain de Benoist, an obvious progenitor of the ideas that are the focus of his essay. de Benoist and his Nouvelle Droit (New Right) of the 1980s and 1990s was also influenced by Gramsci, and I think de Benoist coined the term ‘the right to difference’ way back when. The Génération Identitaire fascists of today, with their millionaire funders behind their slick tech savvy media stunts, are similarily fascsinated with Gramsci and hegemony, the counter culture, environmentalism, etc. So is it a new, new French Right? Let’s not go down this road, for I fear we will end up reinforcing what is already a lexical hell.
Through this critique of Lilla’s essay, I will try a different approach.
The 3rd generation neofascist from the Le Pen stable, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, (pictured above on her Granddaddy’s lap in a Riefenstahlesque National Front poster of yor) gets a treatment that reads like a human interest piece. She is a “stylish Frenchwoman” with a “slight, charming French accent” who politely opposes what she calls a “nomadic, globalized, deracinated liberal system”. “Deracinated” translates here as “uprooted”, but it works in the other sense, too.
Lilla writes that French intellectuals dismiss these new-right Gramscians as closet National Front supporters and therefore of little political significance. He then laments that “The left has an old, bad habit of underestimating its adversaries and explaining away their ideas as mere camouflage for despicable attitudes and passions.” We probably don’t agree on what is referenced above as “the left”, but what Lilla doesn’t understand is that it is not all of the left that is guilty of this, just part of the left.
Comrades within the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) who beat the living shit out of a National Front organizer during a recent Saturday protest are not paralyzed by attempts to parse French fascism into naughty and nice. But that’s what Lilla trys to do here.
Lilla is wringing his hands, as all liberals do when they sense the salience of their ideas approaching a denouement. One solution, of course, is to hop in the sack with the fascists by calling them conservatives.
“One possibility is that a renewed, more classical organic conservatism could serve as a moderating force in European democracies currently under stress. There are many who feel buffeted by the forces of the global economy, frustrated by the inability of governments to control the flow of illegal immigration, resentful of EU rules, and uncomfortable with rapidly changing moral codes regarding matters like sexuality. Until now these concerns have only been addressed, and then exploited, by far-right populist demagogues. If there is a part of the electorate that simply dreams of living in a more stable, less fluid world, economically and culturally—people who are not primarily driven by xenophobic anti-elitism—then a moderate conservative movement might serve as a bulwark against the alt-right furies by stressing tradition, solidarity, and care for the earth.”
Note how encouraging the nice French New Right could have a positive effect on democracy. And that’s the crux of the problem here: if the liberal democratic state is “under stress” and in need of a “moderating force” then the possibility that capitalist democracy is itself the problem is out of the question. This is the key concept around which all descriptions of ‘extremism’–from right or left–are constructed. And it is dangerous for antifascists to traffic in this stupidity.
The other possibility, according to Lilla, is this:
“A different scenario is that the aggressive form of conservatism that one also sees in France would serve instead as a powerful tool for building a pan-European reactionary Christian nationalism along the lines laid out in the early twentieth century by Charles Maurras, the French anti-Semitic champion of “integral nationalism” who became the master thinker of Vichy.”
So we have a passive and an aggressive conservatism that are behind what he calls the French New Right.
Both of Lilla’s scenarios are bunk. What is underway, and has been for some time, is a continental project of neo-fascism that has outstripped and scrambled familiar liberal categories. The only way to unscramble them is to reject both using a theoretical framework that is antifascist and socialist–from the left and below.
Lillla’s second scenario unconsciously references what I call the political geography of white nationalism within which all of this is taking place. This, together with neoliberalism, are what condition and structure this ‘new’ expression of the French far right, not vague notions of a global economy about which peope feel a generalized anxiety.
Let’s call it what it actually is: a fascist international in formation.
Also, just because one political creature of the far right prefers terms like “culture war” or “social organicism” in place of “race war” and “white nation” doesn’t mean such efforts have any empirical value for antifascists. Such rhetorical flourishes cannot help us distinguish ‘good conservatives’ from ‘bad conservatives’.
All of this is ripped from history, as when Lilla writes “This is consistent with trends in Eastern Europe, where Pew [Research Center] found that Orthodox Christian self-identification has actually been rising, along with nationalism, confounding post-1989 expectations.”
Confounding whose expectations, exactly? Most antifascists I knew in the 1990s correctly predicted a profoundly destructive unleashing of far right forces once they were freed from the Cold War parameters that had previously limited their political options. Much of this neo-fascism had a Christian bent–not surprising at all if you understood the twin pillars of fascism to be white nationalism and the Chrisitian Right. If, however, at the time you believed in the righteousness and stabilizing influence of the post Cold War American led neoliberal order–the end of history, the universal utopia of the European Union, the expansion of ‘free markets’ and civil society, etc.,–there was no real threat of a renewed fascism, only a gradual diminishing of those ancient prejudices that would accompany progress. But that was never going to be the case.
Some of us were arguing way back when that a pan-European white nationalism was developing into what can only be described as a fascist international. The collapse of the Soviet Bloc didn’t unleash long buried ancient prejudices that ‘communism’ kept artificially suppressed, as some inept anthropologist or another wrote, it burst the Cold War anti-communist consensus and opened new horizons for fascism to challenge capitalist democracies and authoritarian states alike.
Perhaps most disturbing, however, is that Lilla, together with so many of his dim witted colleagues, never tire of fretting about the ‘anxiety’ and ‘xenophobia’ that supposedly accompanies (excessive) immigration. Exhausted from such intellectual turbidity, they have nothing left for an analysis of why people from the Global South move northward. To do so would mean bringing up the pulverizing wars, economic super exploitation and social dislocation that is always justified, when it is even acknowledged, by a zero-sum racism that says, effectively, “that’s the nature of the nation state. You can’t change that, only fight for your piece of the pie within it.” That successive French governments and corporations have played no small role in prosecuting these wars for profit and conquest is totally ignored.
In any case Lilla gets it backwards: immigration doesn’t drive xenophobia. The de facto racism of the French state (or American) and its beneficiaries drive the manufacture of immigrants, creating the finished product that becomes refugees. It’s a global killing machine, with an engine that uses humans as fuel. Liberals are incapable of getting this, which is why Hillary Clinton recently floated her ‘tough on immigration’ proposal, clearing the way for Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi to offer Trump $1.5 billion for construction of his border wall. Will Democrats provide a ceremonial signature brick in that wall? How convenient and despicable, yet predictable and predicted. But I aggress.
As everything continues to slip sideways, the ground shifting beneath our feet, yesterday’s comrade today’s foe, everyone is reaching, struggling to capture what the fuck is going on. Lilla’s fumbling about illustrates my point: precisely when everything appears to be up in the air, fascism begins to thrive and has an opportunity to arrive.
“In countries as diverse as France, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and Italy, efforts are underway to develop a coherent ideology that would mobilize Europeans angry about immigration, economic dislocation, the European Union, and social liberalization, and then use that ideology to govern. Now is the time to start paying attention to the ideas of what seems to be an evolving right-wing Popular Front. France is a good place to start.”
No, it’s not a “right-wing Popular Front”, but a fascist international.
“The prerequisites for a European Christian nationalist movement may be falling into place, as Hungarian president Viktor Orbán has long been predicting.”
Again, this is fascism in formation and we don’t need a Hungarian dictator to point it out. Lilla has no problem expressing awe for the supposed prognosticatory powers of Orbán, but he can’t bring himself to say as much about antifascists who have predicted as much for thirty years. Orbán, by the way, isn’t only ‘predicting’ such a social transformation, he’s actively bringing it about. That’s called a self fulfilling prophecy, not a prediction. And as long as academics such as Lilla continue to use the framework of liberalism vs populism to try and apprehend 21st century fascism, and comrades on the left ape that analysis, then Orbán and his fascist humunculi will be rendered as oracles, rather than the fascist meat sacks they actually are.
It’s good that Lilla is reaching for a way to apprehend this transformation of the European Right, but trapped as he is within the sociology of ‘populism’ and the liberal assumptions that go with them he does not have much to offer.
Yanis Varoufakis and Bernie Sanders are fumbling in a similar manner with their newly launched ‘Progressive International”, which is at once progressive, but not socialist, and international, but not internationalist. From this confused and confusing framework both continue to waffle on the so-called ‘issue’ of immigration, which is not an ‘issue’ at all, only an expression of racism vis a vis the eternal and inviolable right to movement, which it denies. In any case, about the time Lilla, Varoufakis and Sanders get their shit together to confront the so-called ‘populist threat’, the terrain has probably shifted again underneath their feet.
Academics and their postmortems.
My latest empirical research supports a strong correlation between good taste and high income levels. I just killed and ate a Facebook executive—he tasted delicious.
I wrote the following, last May, as part of a speculative fiction piece.
“June 1, 2018–The Summer of The Dancing Exodus
The Summer of 2018 begins with blistering heat waves and thousands of refugees forcibly reopening the land route through the Balkans and Greece; the restart of the migrant caravans on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border; and, a deepening of militant memorials to the Nakba. With these signature developments the three great movements of people in the global south begin to coalesce.
June 5, 2018–Discourse
Slogans of ‘Family Reunification First’, ‘We Are All Refugees’, ‘On Demand Housing’ and ‘No More Work, So You Can Play’ begin to be shouted by wild-eyed subversives from makeshift pulpits.”
“Here, it seems, framing the right of movement in terms of fundamental human rights and survival begins to outstrip notions of charity, for which one is expected to be grateful, and access, which must be earned.”
“June 25, 2018–The Worm Turns
ICE raids in the U.S. begin to be met by unruly crowds of mothers and children. Street gangs begin targeting enforcement agents. An ICE picnic in a Texas park, replete with silhouettes of sprinting ‘illegals’ that participants shoot with paint guns, is demolished by protesters.
Thousands willfully obstruct ICE raids on meat packing plants in Illinois, Tennessee and Ohio, blocking armed raiders access to their targets.”
While my timeline may be a bit off, such fervid speculation has not been entirely off base.
From the New York Post November 25, 2018
“US Border Patrol agents fired tear gas to repel rock-throwing migrants who tried to storm through a border fence separating California and Mexico Sunday…”
The confrontation came after a caravan of several hundred Central American migrants — including women pushing kids in strollers — overwhelmed Mexican cops standing guard near the San Ysidro crossing that links San Diego with Tijuana, Mexico.
The group breezed by the blockade, carrying hand-painted Honduran and American flags and chanting, “We are not criminals! We are international workers!”
From the Washington Post
“Singing ‘Amazing Grace,’ a church surrounded an ICE van to stop an arrest. 27 were jailed.
And from a post on my webpage Mozzochi.wordpress.com from a few weeks ago:
“Border attacks need manse occupations. The next complimentary phase will be housing and rent protests–mass non violent direct action aimed at palatial estates, penthouses, resorts, yacht and golf clubs. Anywhere the elite live, reproduce and recreate.
Finally, from the NYT
“But Mr. Trump’s dystopian imagery has clearly left an impression with some. Carol Shields, 75, a Republican in northern Minnesota, said she was afraid that migrant gangs could take over people’s summer lake homes in the state.
“What’s to stop them?” said Ms. Shields, a retired accountant. “We have a lot of people who live on lakes in the summer and winter someplace else. When they come back in the spring, their house would be occupied.”
Oct. 22, 2018
My response, from the film Almost Mercy:
One day we will look upon these fortresses as so much concrete and steel that had to yield to the far more powerful force of human freedom. Walls are never a guarantor of freedom, but a singular impediment to that freedom.
Ok. You don’t like that picture. Sorry, but I do. That grin is from our kitchen sink, where I am bathing you, and we are both ecstatically happy. And I want more of those moments, together.
Please come home.
You are truly a force of nature. Your will is indomitable. You have proven, once again, that you will not be denied. Rather than endure another group meeting, you fled through a bathroom window, out into a hellscape with freezing temperatures and a massive toxic cloud of smoke from the Camp Fire–only a few miles north of you, with no money and a location you were totally unfamiliar with. After 24 hours on the run, I hope you have reached a safe haven.
Time to come home.
You have a wonderful character trait I lack: physical bravery. I am brave with my thoughts, in speech and writing, but a coward in body.
But you are so powerful and beautiful that sometimes we just hold you in awe. And that can be frightening, because that same unbounded courage can lead you to act without self regard. You hurt yourself. And we need to work on that–you and I–because I do that, too.
Time to get home.
You are loved. We miss you. Please come home. Your extended family is here for you.
Stay away from the shit. You know what I mean. Have your fun–you have earned it, in a peculiar sort of way. But go easy on your mind and body–chill, but don’t turn to the shit. If you have already, make the call. Right now.
I love your fierce loyalty and incipient anarchist contempt for authority (ask me what I mean by that later). But your loyalty to family and friends means listening to them. And all of your most important family is saying,
Get your ass home.
Make the call, soon. Or at least let me know you are ok, and we can negotiate a pick up.
We can add this to your roll call of shenanigans.
Another bed time story you can tell your children, when they are home with you, safe and warm.
I love you more than life itself.
Please come home.
P.S. It’s Sunday, I won’t be working. I’ll be watching my version of the Super Bowl–match seven for a stake of the World Chess Championship. It will be a six hour thrill ride for me. But it could never compare to a call from you. Call me, come home.
Love you more.
How the first four elements interact over time is my fifth element–periodization. To visualize this we can use a picture frame to view our subject matter; the mortise and tenon joint is comprised of the first four elements, the whole frame is the era.
These eras are:
Classical Fascism 1921-1945
Cold War Fascism 1945-1990
21st Century Fascism 2010–
In another sense I am just focusing attention on what was happening within and to fascism during this long span of history. Elsewhere I will situate that effort within Régis Debray’s broader medialogical history of ideas (a frame around a frame, if you will) although with a caveat–that the current era we are in is not the videosphere, but the Bitosphere, a part of the Bit Revolution.
We can see why such a periodization is important in understanding the threat of fascism today by noting what can happen when some other frame, often unacknowledged, is used.
Christopher R. Browning’s “The Suffocation of Democracy” in the New York Review of Books (October 25, 2018) is exhibit one. To be fair, Browning is an historian of classical fascism, in particular the holocaust, who wrote the article cited above at the prompting of friends and colleagues who wanted, as we all do, satisfactory answers to two questions: What are the parallels between fascism then and now? What are the differences? Not unreasonable questions. But the very framing of the questions conditions the answers.
Browning extrapolates from a definition of fascism rooted in the classical period forward to the present. In doing so he does what virtually everyone else does, he skips what happened in between. He reasons from a definition of fascism 70-100 years ago to the present, with a frame of liberal democracy vs the twin totalitarian threats. In this he mischaracterizes the nature of fascism, perhaps not so badly in its classical phase, but wildly so today.
Projected out across a sea of time and space this approach to the problem of fascism is ahistorical. In this his broad sweep of history doesn’t hold up.
But he is not alone. It is a rarity for anyone to discuss fascism during the Cold War era because the common wisdom has it that fascism died with Hitler in the bunker, leaving the ‘free world’ to fight communism. Fascism didn’t do anything over that time period because it was dead. Its reemergence in the 21st Century, if one even concedes that it has re-emerged at all, is ex-nihilo. And herein lies the problem: this operation, repeated add nauseam throughout the liberal and socialist press serves narrow political goals (fighting republicans, supporting a narrow anti-capitalism, encouraging a split from Die Linke over ‘open borders’, etc.,) but at the expense of history and thereby a viable revolutionary socialist project.
From a reasonable question (fascism then vs now) comes an analytical movement of staggering stupidity and often breathtaking dishonesty. But, as I noted above, this is not confined to liberals.
Exhibit two. Here’s the same nonsense from Bhaskar Sunkara’s “A Thousand Platitudes: Liberal Hysteria And The Tea Party” (New Politics, June 2, 2011).
“Though many of its shock-troops have come from lumpenproletarian elements, fascism has historically been a petit-bourgeois movement that can only be understood within the context of a militant left. German and Italian fascists disrupted strikes and physically attacked left-wing meetings. This historically specific brand of reaction implies that there was a vibrant workers’ movement challenging capitalist class rule, forcing elements of those on top to attempt to gamble on empowering the fascists in order to ultimately preserve the existing class structure. The American left is a marginalized and besieged political force, not exactly ready to storm the barricades.”
“Historically”, “within a context”, “historically specific brand.” As in waaay back when, not now.
Restated, Sunkara argues: Fascism can only exist if workers pose a credible threat to capitalist rule. Workers pose no threat to capitalist rule. Therefore fascism cannot exist.
If Sunkara insists that the far right represents an episodic readjustment of capitalist command and control, Browning relies on a fairy tale of the post war era so as to isolate the phenomenon of 21st century fascism from it.
“Today, President Trump seems intent on withdrawing the US from the entire post–World War II structure of interlocking diplomatic, military, and economic agreements and organizations that have preserved peace, stability, and prosperity since 1945. His preference for bilateral relations, conceived as zero-sum rivalries in which he is the dominant player and “wins,” overlaps with the ideological preference of Steve Bannon and the so-called alt-right for the unfettered self-assertion of autonomous, xenophobic nation-states—in short, the pre-1914 international system. That “international anarchy” produced World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Great Depression, the fascist dictatorships, World War II, and the Holocaust, precisely the sort of disasters that the post–World War II international system has for seven decades remarkably avoided.”
Setting aside his characterization of the Bolshevik Revolution as a disaster, note that other disasters of this splendid post war era –Hiroshima, Nagasaki (with which it was inaugurated) the obliteration of North Korea, the Vietnam Invasion, Apartheid, and Jim Crow, Rwanda, etc., are apparently separate from the peace and prosperity he cherishes.
So the liberal in part protects what is by defining fascism as entirely separate from it; the patrician socialist attacks what is but cannot make the leap to something else because of blindness to what also, through different means, blocks its path.
The question restated: what the fuck was fascism doing from 1945 until 1990? What has happened within fascism from 1990 to the present?
That obliteration of an important slice of history serves a purpose: to obscure the true nature of fascism as a desperate exit strategy from the contradictions of capitalism in favor of a future oriented nostalgia that reinforces the worst aspects of that system.
Let’s cue Chomsky–not on fascism, which I think he misunderstands also, but on this notion of framing. Every time someone does this on the subject of fascism–extrapolates across 70 years–they perform an analytical operation similar to that of characterizing the slaughter that was carried out from 1961–1975, on the part of the United States, in Indochina as ‘the Vietnam War’ the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ or ‘Vietnam Quagmire’ but never, ever, ‘The Invasion of Vietnam’. A mistake. A missed opportunity. A failure. Never the predictable results of deliberate policies carried out with bipartisan consensus.
Conservatives draw a somewhat different lesson. My favorite runs like this: fascism was incubated within relatively liberal and democratic polities, (Italy, Germany) yet fascism itself was illiberal (anti democratic) and took aim at that same civic society. Those civic institutions responded in the only way they could–by strengthening those selfsame institutions. This, paradoxically, fertilized the soil for fascism to grow. Ugh. Vicious circle, right? Wrong. Why?
From here it is but a short hop to this conclusion: fascism is a creature of the mob, of the dangerous classes, of the hoi polloi, of an excess of democracy. Fascism comes about through polarization and the collapse of a moderate center, rather than racism, nationalism and war. The stifling of civic society and the intensification of inequality, become necessary evils.
The upshot is this: We all need a little irritating authoritarianism with our morning breakfast so as to avoid the painful bowel movement of totalitarianism in the afternoon. But that’s a steady diet of nothing in the service of the status quo, not an analysis a socialist should respect, much less use.
Browning says, however, that there is a divergence between then and now:
“The fascist movements of that time prided themselves on being overtly antidemocratic, and those that came to power in Italy and Germany boasted that their regimes were totalitarian. The most original revelation of the current wave of authoritarians is that the construction of overtly antidemocratic dictatorships aspiring to totalitarianism is unnecessary for holding power. Perhaps the most apt designation of this new authoritarianism is the insidious term “illiberal democracy.” Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Putin in Russia, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and Viktor Orbán in Hungary have all discovered that opposition parties can be left in existence and elections can be held in order to provide a fig leaf of democratic legitimacy, while in reality elections pose scant challenge to their power. Truly dangerous opposition leaders are neutralized or eliminated one way or another.”
So the threat is these ‘authoritarians’, growing everywhere who “aspire” to “totalitarianism”.
Browning then dissolves everything into the plaintive cry of the sappy liberal:
“The racial division, cultural conflict, and political polarization Trump has encouraged and intensified will be difficult to heal. ”
That’s as eloquent and empty a summary of the politics of liberal bullshit as any has ever written. Note how ‘fascism’ has totally supplanted ‘populism’ in this treatment–but the use of the term as an epithet denuded of explanatory power remains.
Browning ends with the obligatory environmental apocalypse coda, and just in case you aren’t sure if you are reading this in the NYRB, he reminds you: “No wall will be high enough to shelter the US from these events.”
I agree–that fucking wall won’t be high enough to protect the masters from the hordes. But we won’t wait for rising sea levels to tear it down, we will do it sooner, along with all that “post war peace and prosperity” you have inflicted on us.
Siphoning gasoline from a bowling alley for your sorry-ass van stranded in a cornfield.
MacGuffins–That mechanism, often absurd, that sets the plot in motion.
Actors are cattle.
Punk rock ethos–Low production values, dirty, transgressive, subversive, no fucking talent.
“Boots and Braces”
“Nazi Punks Fuck Off”–Dead Kennedys
The “Scary fucking Nazi” is Kennewick Man
Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Austrauloid, Negroid. Fuck You.
My favorite Desert Island Band–Firewater
Caveat: Must include Cop Shoot Cop–the greatest name for a rock n roll band in the history of rock n roll.
Two takeaways for anti-fascists from The Seirawan Method of playing chess.
The $350.00 fucking Nike shoe.
The Bit Revolution
The contradiction between the competition of capitalism and the cooperation of democracy.
A Redefinition of Fascism
Regis Debray’s periodization.
Overdetermination refers to the establishment of parameters, horizons of social and political action. The Cold War didn’t directly determine the nature of fascism in all instances; only constrained its horizons. It also kept it alive. The concept is related to that of Ernst Mandel’s ‘parametric determinism’ and another, the ‘semi-permeable membrane’.
The fascist interregnum.
Fascism and the Bit Revolution.
This audio essay reintroduces the operative inquiry behind the arguments and themes, concepts and flights of fancy in the six written essays I have posted to date on my website Ghosts of Anti-Fascism Past, hosted at Antifa.live.com. There is a method behind the madness.
The subject of my inquiry can be captured in the phrase ‘Anti-Fascism and Socialist Strategy’. It can in turn be divided into three questions: What is fascism? What is anti-fascism? How does socialist strategy weigh in our answers?
The Three-wheeled Stair Climber.
Theory is important.
Political thickets within political traditions.
The central contradiction at the heart of contemporary anti-fascism is here, in the inadequacy of both the liberal and socialist traditions to theorize the relationship between fascism and capitalism.
Progressives generally fight fascism, even if they misunderstand it. Many socialists have the tools with which to better understand it, but refuse to fight it. This has been the situation for close to a decade.
Neo-fascism is not an epiphenomenon of capitalism, but a constituent component of it.
Both traditions fail to grasp parallel developments underway since 2010 in culture and ideology, on the one hand, and political economy on the other. These developments I outline in the essay GOT Und Uber.
Laundry Lists–Umberto Eco’s ‘Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways Of Looking At A Blackshirt”
The short-lived ‘scholars consensus’ on fascism.
(Post)Modernism and progress are not incompatible with neo-fascism.
The liberal fight against fascism is always limited to resistance, never rebellion, much less Revolution.
A bastardized popular front.
Liberals will form alliances with fascists when there is the possibility of displacing an ‘authoritarian’ menace–of the right or left–because they are incapable of recognizing the authoritarianism and domination at the center of their own political philosophy and practice.
‘Patrician Socialist’ explanations of fascism–Jacobin Magazine and Blog, New Left Review, The Socialist Register, and Louis Proyect’s work as the Unrepentant Marxist. Most adept at demolishing liberal and progressive approaches to fighting fascism that throw workers under the bus or engage in election time histrionics. They generally do not believe fascism in the 21st century exists, only ‘right wing populism’ as an expression of capitalist rule. If fascism doesn’t exist as a discrete political movement, much less a dangerous and growing political movement, then to fight it is essentially shadow boxing, a theater of the absurd designed to mobilize workers and the ‘petit-bourgeiosie’ to support the lesser evilism of democrats at election time; a cynical anti-fascism that amounts to the anti-fascism of fools.
The touchstone document of this perspective within socialist thought is Bhaskar Sunkara’s 2011 article “A Thousand Platitudes: Liberal Hysteria and the Tea Party.” Seven years after its first appearance “A Thousand Platitudes…” remains the dominant editorial line of Jacobin Magazine and Blog and the most articulate expression of that political line to date.
Tensions within the Left.
Stathis Kouvalakis’s article “Borderland” in New Left Review (no. 110, March/April 2018) lays out what I call the “political geography of white nationalism” that lies at the heart of the European Project. From this we can begin to theorize a relationship between neo-fascism and capitalist institutions and structures. Contrast this article with “The Return of the Repressed”, in the same journal (no. 104, March/April, 2017) by the sociologist Wolfgang Streeck. The passage that is emblematic of a head-up-the-ass understanding of 21st Century neo-fascism is the following:
“Domestic conflicts are also foreseeable where cultural symbols are concerned. Will enhanced ‘populist’ appreciation of the natives require a devaluation of immigrants in the broadest sense? And can the left succeed in paying a credible cultural tribute to those lately woken from their apathy?”
While I applaud Streeck’s pillorying of the “bourgeoisified left”, the split within Die Linke over ‘immigration’ that he apparently supports is anathema to anti-fascists and socialists alike. It also flows directly from the word salad in the quote above, if anything could be said to flow from it. Streeck argues that this same globalist left wants (white) workers to genuflect to neoliberal ‘open border’ policies, effectively giving up their jobs to ‘immigrants’. How then does he explain the racist thrust of Brexit in the absence of credible threats to the jobs of those workers? Or the fact that the ‘surge’ in refugees from war afflicted countries in the Global South took place three years ago, but Chemnitz last week? I cannot reconcile these two articles, so different are they from one another. But where is the tension noted? Where is the argument between the two, and a resolution? Nowhere, because it is unacknowledged.
Consider the differences between the Greek fight for Oxi and against the Troika compared to Brexit. If, like Louis Proyect, you insist on a “unit of analysis” that is class, and apparently only class, you cannot possibly explain how racist anti-immigrant policies in England drove the debate over Bexit without an influx of refugees ‘to cause’ the fear and be exploited by elites. Go ahead, look at the comparative paltry number of refugees entering England at the time of Brexit. On the other hand anti-Brexit forces, far from wielding a bomb such as that of Oxi (defused by the Patrician socialist Tsipras) found themselves forced to uphold the EUs cynical ‘open borders’ alternative, itself a construct that incorporates the political geography of white nationalism within it. What a fucking miserable situation. Something else is needed–from the left and below.
My teenage son Max and I are having a lively discussion over Balaclavas, the spicy dish made famous during the Great Uprising. He cringes as I relive a past agony–negotiating with a ‘customer service representative’ over erroneous, probably illicit, credit card charges. He is empathetic, if also a bit embarrassed for me.
“What,” he asks, “is a ‘customer service representative’, again?”
I try to explain it,”they were disembodied ghouls who…oh, forget it.”
I pause, then try a different tack, “remember when you were six-years-old and we visited that Museum in Portland and you asked me what that black thing on the wall was?”
In my mind’s eye Max points to a rotary dial telephone from the 20th century mounted on a display board. I share the image with him.
“I know what a telephone was,” he insists.
“Right,” I say, “But ‘phone’ to you meant a cell phone, not that thing on the wall, just as the notion of charging me money for something I need is so foreign and absurd to you now.”
“Yeah, that part–how food and and shoes!? were bought and sold and many people didn’t have either. And then if you did have them, in order to keep them, you would starve yourself of everything else money couldn’t buy.” He exclaims.
“That’s a good way of putting it,” I respond.
“Here’s another: The misery of wage labor, of private property and markets became so common that to suggest anything different became unthinkable. There was even an acronym for this: TINA–There Is No Alternative. But, of course, there was, and it is only by understanding how difficult it was to imagine something better that we never again find ourselves at the mercy of money.”
“Ok, Pops,” Max says. “So, money is the root of all evil.”
“Well, one root that anchored the weed that had to be pulled,” I reply. “There were three others to be pulled before our garden could be ready for Spring,” I add.
“Damn this is hot!” Max exclaims.
“So it was,” I nod.
Four simple and seemingly unrelated words. We now know them as the Four Loci of Attack, those iconic sign posts on the road to the Great Uprising, a tapestry of resistance, rebellion and revolution that unfolded as the greatest downward redistribution of wealth since the first Bolshevik Revolution and, before that, the United States civil war and Black Reconstruction.
As with Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘Four Freedoms’ of a bygone era–from want and fear, of religion and speech–the catchphrases reflected the theoretical foundation upon which they rested. But if Roosevelt’s ‘Four Freedoms’ were rooted in the United States Constitution, this 21st century revolution would be anchored in a different document, the Theses of Disambiguation, the first of which is so familiar to us all: “From each according to ability, to each according to need.” This precept, traced back some centuries and throughout many cultures, is the first of the theses (could it have been otherwise?)
There were, and continue to be, different variations on the central themes at work in the Four Loci of Attack.
“Head, Heart, Hands and Feet,” the sing-a-long plucked from radical pedagogy may not have preserved the particular order of battle many historians hold was so essential to the revolution’s success, but it did allow for the appropriate analogy: Border is to Feet, as Manse is to Heart, Factory to Hands, and Bit to Head.
That this transposition would spur millions of teenage Fortnite gamers to hack their virtual world so as to coordinate real world attacks and initiate the final struggle with Peter Thiel’s paramilitary Poundists was outside everyone’s thought world. How, how?!–did that happen?
There were so many rapid and unanticipated developments–new social actors, untethered discourses, clashes along bizarre battle lines–that entire disciplines would be upended trying to explain how what transpired came about.
But it did come about.
Even today we still debate where and when the proverbial writing on the wall first appeared, and who wrote it.
‘Learn To Swim’ scrawled on estate walls would prove to be prescient.
‘Are We There Yet?’ no longer the question of a cloying adolescent, but a statement full of mirth and resolve.
‘The Future Is Here–It Awaits Redistribution,’ yet another.
As with many of the great questions of history there is no definitive answer. The answer will forever change, as we do. But, one must try, no?
The burning questions the movement had to confront and overcome were answered in victory. But it is useful to revisit them so as to gauge their historical relevance anew.
Won’t the worst among us hijack the movement and plunge humanity into a new age of barbarism? Doesn’t militant resistance call down upon it the very repression it seeks to destroy? Won’t the ‘abused’ become ‘abusers’? Isn’t the terrible lesson of past utopian struggles their inevitable devolution into the ethical morass of all out war and the jettisoning of the very principles they seek to uphold? After all, had not every other radical experiment answered “no” to all these questions only to act in ways that amounted to “yes”?
So where, when and with whom did the resounding “No” originate? How and why was it different? How did the dream of a future free from “race, taste and history” come to pass?
A chronology of events can be assembled; from such an admittedly selective outline perhaps a logic as to their unfolding might better come into focus.
–A political line separating sovereign states often taking the material form of a wall.
June 1, 2018–The Summer of The Dancing Exodus
The Summer of 2018 begins with blistering heat waves and thousands of refugees forcibly reopening the land route through the Balkans and Greece; the restart of the migrant caravans on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border; and, a deepening of militant memorials to the Nakba. With these signature developments the three great movements of people in the global south begin to coalesce.
June 5, 2018–Discourse
Slogans of ‘Family Reunification First’, ‘We Are All Refugees’, ‘On Demand Housing’ and ‘No More Work, So You Can Play’ begin to be shouted by wild-eyed subversives from makeshift pulpits.
June 13, 2018–The Zapatistas Move.
A contingent of Zapatistas who operate according to the now familiar ‘Militant’s Creed’, “Everything for Everyone, Nothing For Us” joins the caravan of Central American refugees with students, slum dwellers and the families of the dispossessed. In the global north sanctuary cities draw thousands of activists to vigils at border crossings, cities and towns.
June 15, 2018–Fascism Reaches For Hegemony.
‘White-ists’ in Germany, Italy, Austria and the Visegrad group–the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia–continue their march through institutions and deepen their ties. The familiar anti-Semitic trope that George Soros is the puppet master besieging white Christian Europe reaches a political threshold, with Victor Orbán it’s most visible leader. The AfD in Germany attempts ethnically cleansing neighborhoods in Berlin and Hamburg, but meets fierce resistance. Fascism begins to exert hegemony throughout these societies, but a counter movement is afoot.
June 17, 2018–Identity Disorder
Following vicious propaganda in newspapers and television linking ungrateful refugees and crime, pogroms break out in major Italian cities. Facebook first removes videos celebrating the pogroms, then reverses its decision, citing ‘national will’. “Besides,” Mark Zuckerberg quips, “it’s not extremism if everyone is out there doing it!”
The new MS-5-Lega government doesn’t need to make good on expelling 500,000 refugees–fascist mobs will drive them to the sea, saving millions of euros in the process, to the delight of the Troika.
June 22, 2018–Festivals of Resistance
Caravans form in Mali, Kurdish-held areas of Turkey, Syria and Iraq and from within the holding pens known as refugee camps in Italy and Spain. The push to expel them unites refugees on both sides of Fortress Europe and the first massive vigil featuring more than 20,000 Christians, Muslims and Jews is established on the beaches of Sicily. They are supported with thousands of aid flotillas and mobile health care units. Nothing so dramatizes this rapidly developing conscientizacao as the festivals of communitas that accompany the caravans and its border vigils.
Here, it seems, framing the right of movement in terms of fundamental human rights and survival begins to outstrip notions of charity, for which one is expected to be grateful, and access, which must be earned.
During a raucous Q & A Slavoj Zizek is shouted down by a teenager who tells Zizek that the only way to actualize sanctuary is to practice solidarity–not by reinforcing borders and walls, but by attacking them.
June 25, 2018–The Worm Turns
ICE raids in the U.S. begin to be met by unruly crowds of mothers and children. Street gangs begin targeting enforcement agents. An ICE picnic in a Texas park, replete with silhouettes of sprinting ‘illegals’ that participants shoot with paint guns, is demolished by protesters.
Thousands willfully obstruct ICE raids on meat packing plants in Illinois, Tennessee and Ohio, blocking armed raiders access to their targets.
June 28, 2018–Free Lula!
The first attempt to free Luis Ignacio da Silva from prison is rejected by Lula himself. He can run for president from jail and implores homeless activists and PT members to trust in Brazilian democracy.
June 30, 2018–Your Nightmare, Our Dream.
The Museum of Capitalism opens in the urban hellscape that is Jack London Square in Oakland, California. The point of the exhibit is to feature artistic representations of a world after capitalism. Also on this day the city of Oakland announces ground zero for their new sports stadium: Jack London Square. It will never be built.
July 4, 2018–Is It Loaded?
The National Rifle Association appears to shoot itself in the foot as their new president, Oliver North, is again investigated for funding paramilitary armies, although this time domestically–the ‘MAGA Militias’.
July 6, 2018–Comic Interlude
Sorry To Bother You opens to festive riots in such diverse locations as Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, Santa Monica and Oakland, California. Director Boots Riley, of the radical hip-hop collective The Coup, avoids an assassination attempt by Atomwaffen Division fascists. Antifa militants respond in kind.
July 10, 2018–The Border Is Not Enough
The Five Eyes intelligence alliance begins mass arrests and targeted assassinations at key border conflicts. Trump sends the National Guard by the thousands to the southern border and deputizes Joe Arpaio with extrajudicial powers.
The uprising appears to reach an impasse as it stalls on the beaches of Italy, in the razor wire of Gaza and the conurbations of Juarez and Tijuana, El Paso and San Diego.
A second front emerges.
–The cradle of opulence within which the ruling class reproduces itself: “In a huff, the senator retreated to his manse in Butte—three stories, thirty-four rooms, stuffed with Tiffany glass lamps” (the novelist Timothy Egan).
It is said that the border assaults would have foundered had it not been for another totally unprecedented social phenomenon, that of a great outpouring from the slums, the barrios and the ghettos towards the direct occupation of the landed estates of the rich.
July 12, 2018–Tahir Square Redux.
Again Tahir Square is occupied, but this time primarily by slum dwellers, the real force that by the mere threat of an uprising during the 2011 Arab Spring prompted the removal of Hosni Mubarak. And they didn’t rely on Facebook to do it. This force, so often neglected and disparaged, stirs, quakes, then explodes in the Cairo Necropolis, then Dharavi in Mumbai, Neza-Chalco-Itza in Mexico City, Khayelitsha in Cape Town, throughout the favelas in Rio and Sao Paulo, and finally Shanghai, Beijing, Detroit and Los Angeles.
A gigantic pyroclastic flow of humanity swamps the borders and manses of Fortress Europe–by foot, bicycle and makeshift rickshaw, by vehicle, boat and air. Its movement appears as inexorable as a glacier, but its speed resembles nothing so much as scenes from the early 21st century film World War Z, where zombies overrun border walls.
July 15, 2018–Revolt of the Discarded
‘We Are Many–They Are Few’ heard everywhere. Squatting becomes a mass direct action tactic with a decidedly feminist component. Participants are mostly women, children, students, the elderly, disabled and infirm, the homeless and sex workers. Unforgettable images of octogenarians with canes and walkers splash across social media pages while Banksyesque graffiti heralds a movement led by those frozen outside the formal rituals required by regimes of accumulation.
Festive vigils take place at the opulent homes of those whose wealth made it impossible for the many to live. Lush gardens and manicured lawns become tent cities, golf courses host massive BBQs, the finest estate wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties with their ‘faux French’ architecture are completely surrounded by farm workers who create sublime murals in the tradition of Diego Rivera on their walls.
Gated communities become conspicuous totems for home invasions.
July 17, 2018–Standing Rock –Veteran Alliances
U.S. armed forces veterans who were active in Stand for Standing Rock during the 2016-17 Dakota Access Pipeline protests begin standing up for tribal sovereignty and standing down when National Guard units are deployed to borders or manse occupations.
Vets again form human shields to protect protestors and perform ceremonies of apology and contrition.
The esprit de corps of American armed forces doesn’t so much as weaken as it leaps head first into the Four Loci of Attack. Marines and soldiers refuse to obey unethical orders. Fragging again weakens the morale of professional soldiers throughout the capitalist core countries; ‘Citizen-soldiers’ increasingly demand explanations for jus ad bellum. “Oh shit” Jim Mattis is overheard saying with a stunned look on his face, “they want to know why? That’s the fucking kryptonite question. We’re gonna need Captain Kirk for this one.”
July 20, 2018–Cross Currents
A crucial alliance between pacifists and Antifa militants, first developed in response to the 2017 neo-Nazi riot in Charlottesville, Virginia begins to expand exponentially. Where pacifists face armed white nationalists or racist death squads, the Antifa fights a parallel battle, oftentimes violent, in their defense.
Rose City Antifa and the John Brown Gun Club disable a white nationalist terror group, it’s infiltration and dismemberment the subject of multiple hidden recording devices that chronicle the spycraft. The whole shebang is narrated by an Antifa social media collective in the style of Pewdepie, but without the juvenilia.
July 21, 2018–Moral Mondays
The Moral Monday movement in the U.S. South begins to reap the benefits of decades of patient, radical organizing. They begin ‘righteous occupations’ throughout the southern U.S. using the tried and true tactics of non-violent civil disobedience.
July 25, 2018–Free Lula!
The second attempt to free Lula is again rejected by the ex-president.
July 27, 2018–Cinema Verite’
Bong Joon-Ho, radical South Korean filmaker releases The Parasite, the satirical follow-up to his anti-imperialist film The Host. Netflix does not bankroll it and there are no adorable pigs, but Tilda Swinton is in it.
July 28, 2018–Pissing Among Giants
The annual meeting of elite tools at the Bohemian Grove in Sonoma, California is the last gathering of this kind. For the first time in history the protestors who besiege its environs are both decidedly left wing and multiracial. Alex Jones and other right-wing conspiracy theorists, mainstays of protests in earlier years, now focus on joining MAGA Militias, Thiel’s Poundists or buying more bitcoin and retreating to makeshift bunkers. The secret society’s annual ‘Cremation of Care’ ceremony assumes a decidedly non-theatrical character–participants with surnames like “Coors”, “Bechtel”, “Rumsfeld” and “Bush” are forced to flee into the Redwoods under a barrage of personalized napalm attacks, facilitated by a hack to Elon Musk’s $500 flamethrower. The fucktardery here reaches legendary proportions, symptomatic of a dominant culture gone totally insane.
July 30, 2018–All In La Familia
The Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas turn on one another in savage displays of fratricidal warfare leaving thousands dead and mutilated in the streets. Out of the wreckage left wing survivors begin providing support to caravan marchers and housing occupiers, turning their weapons on the state and right wing death squads. MS-13 militants join the effort, forming an alliance with the FMLN government in El Salvador.
August 3, 2018–Green Zone Overrun.
The Iraqi Shiite cleric Moktada al Sadr deepens his electoral alliance with the Communist Party of Iraq. The Green Zone is overrun by an interfaith coalition of revolutionaries. Sadr, in an abrupt about-face, orders Islamic academics to translate and integrate the Theses into Islamic law. The second Thesis, with an emphasis on the elimination of debt, becomes the fulcrum that supports an unprecedented theological convergence. Liberation theologians from Jewish and Christian traditions follow suit.
August 15, 2018–The Homeless Jew Living In An Elitist Shit-Den of Hate.
Gregory Stevens, the queer First Baptist Church of Palo Alto pastor run out of town for tending his flock of the homeless and exploited returns to evict the money changers from their temples. “The tech industry is motivated by endless profit, elite status, rampant greed, and the myth that their technologies are somehow always improving the world” He preaches.
August 20, 2018–The S.S. Social Democrat
Following an armed strike by workers aboard the Nation Magazine’s annual cruise off the coast of Alaska dozens of celebrity intellectuals are taken hostage. Huddled together in pensive grouplets within the ‘Africa-themed Explorer’s Bar’ most mutter about ‘horizontal vanguardism’, or ‘adventurist verticalism’ and ask if their captivity will include rations of wine–preferably of good vintage. A few guests express their solidarity by going full Stockholm Syndrome.
Another group, led by the ghost of Christopher Hitchens, calls in the U.S. Navy, but because the ship is in international waters, Blackwater mercenaries get the call. The ensuing debacle grounds, then sinks the cruise ship, hilariously named the ‘M.S. Eurodam’ or, in the gallows humor of its time, the ‘S.S. Social Democrat’.
August 25, 2018–Eat This
Two Book receptions at swank Georgetown manses are disrupted by wait staff, one featuring Pat Buchanan who is forced to eat his own feces with a pitchfork, the other featuring David Frum, who is forced to eat Pat Buchanan’s feces while standing atop a box, with a capuche on his head and electrical wires attached to his fingers.
September 5, 2018–Eloquent Yet Empty
The New York Times and Atlantic Magazine issue hyperbolic warnings about the end of democracy and a looming fascist turn by the state. Photos of refugees swamping borders, Teslas and police vehicles in flames, Van Jones in tears outside a looted mansion in Brentwood, California and, the source of seemingly endless hysterical op-eds, empty shelves at Whole Foods.
September 10, 2018–Mea Maxima Culpa
Pope Francis issues his mea culpa for failing to confront evil while a Jesuit official during the reign of the Nazi generals in 1980s Argentina. Determined not to repeat his sin the Pontiff issues a decree ordering a third Vatican Council around the Four Loci of Attack and the Theses. Within days, while the pope is washing the feet of a gay sex worker (who am I to judge?) Opus Dei conspiracists cut him down, inadvertently helping him complete a martyrdom deferred, but never abandoned.
Led by interfaith revolutionaries millions of mourners besiege that most unusual city-state, the Vatican. Swiss Guards abandon their posts and join the masses washing the feet of refugees and the outcast. Saint Peter’s Basilica will become a vast museum to the bizarre rituals and lavish feats of architecture that characterized organized patriarchy.
September 13, 2018–The Diversity of Opposites
Following police murders of young BLM activists Tupac Zapata in Los Angeles and Angela Lumumba in New Jersey, the ghettos explode. Rioters join vigils at wealthy estates and begin forcibly occupying them. Not a single edifice in poor neighborhoods is attacked. Streets team with mobs of Crips, Bloods and MS-13 militants escorting the marchers, bringing to mind that elusive chemistry between Malcolm X and MLK, occasionally made concrete when armed ‘Deacons of Defense’ protected civil rights pacifists from the violence of the state and their vigilantes.
September 15, 2018–God Slave the Queen.
The British royal family, under the cover of their popular identitarian princess Meghan Markle, reintroduces, through the House of Lords, a poll tax so as to limit the impact the opinions of the uninformed have on democracy–or some such twaddle. Thousands go to the streets and propose a ‘Troll Pax’ instead. Prince Harry is again filmed in a Nazi outfit, this time attending a meeting of ‘Mosleyites’ in support of Tommy Robinson. The queen is recorded referring to Meghan Markle as ‘that nigger princess’ who cannot be allowed to pollute the royal blood line.
Today Buckingham Palace is a research institute for the study of the various pathologies linked to royal inbreeding–such as racism.
September 17, 2018–The Great Sucking Sound
Traditional news media lose millions of viewers and practically disappear over night–except the Christian Broadcasting Network, Sinclair News and Fox affiliated stations and networks, whose viewership spikes for a hot minute, then collapses to chants of ‘Surprise! Surprise! The Government Lies!’.
A third front develops.
–A point of production whereby things are made and the class struggle is reproduced.
September 20, 2018–What About the Workers?
Just when they thought it might be safe to go home, along comes the general strike, long the most potent weapon in the arsenal of the proletariat. Led by IWW militants, radical nurses, TDU Teamsters, rebel teachers, UAW civil rights organizers, gig economy nomads, farm workers (peasants) anti-war veterans and increasingly, cops and soldiers who no longer identify the state with democracy. How could they, when their children, wives, parents, neighbors and friends were marching to manses, tearing down borders and occupying factories?
September 23, 2018–Marx Has the Last Laugh
The proletariat of China, some 200 million workers strong, whose quiescence had long been taken for granted, explodes and begins occupying Foxconn, the world’s largest ‘company town’. Walmart and Amazon apparatchiks flee to the west en masse. Much like the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, the germ of worker control that persisted in the rotted husk of the sclerotic communist regime prevented civil war, leading to a relatively bloodless victory. Thesis Eight, which places the role of the worker in the context of the other Loci of Attack, upends much of Marxist historiography, but upholds much as well. When that historic force moved, becoming a class for itself, everything became possible; but without other social actors, its movement would have been for naught.
September 26, 2018–Oroboros or Infinity?
Workers throughout the world adopt the symbol of infinity, to reflect their struggle as one that increases in value without limit. Captialism is represented by the Oroboros, a creature that eats itself. Seemingly everyone just drops their tools and begins moving–there is that ‘movement’ again–toward a mansion, a border, a factory or an Amazon distribution center.
September 28, 2018–The Great Slowdown
The implacable non-cooperation and material disruption that characterizes the General Strike produces a Great Slowdown. Traffic begins to noticeably thin, airports experience pile-ups of jetliners, the financial districts of major cities become eerily quiet. People stay home. For a few days it is terrifying. But workers self-organize and target non-essential, frivolous and repressive points of production for immediate elimination. Factories are occupied, then retooled or scrapped. Comrades at Labor Notes begin intensive work on a campaign of ‘Hack it or Scrap it’ so as to prevent a collapse into barbarism and back to ‘Year Zero’.
The rideshare behemoth Uber is hacked, occupied and reconfigured as Unter.
In retrospect the social basis for the general strike was precisely where corporate ‘disruption’ was most pervasive, in the wreckage wrought by the gig economy. The hard wedge of this force was Uber, said to control some eight million drivers. The gig economy dissolved the bonds of solidarity between workers in a self-administered acid bath of instant casino culture, a steroidal expression of the possessive individualism at the center of capitalist culture.
September 30, 2018–Free Lula!
An earthquake frees Lula from prison, who is grateful to join comrades in the streets. The era of representative democracy, however, is passing into history, so there is no election for Lula to contest.
October 1, 2018–No Skyscraper Is Too Big To Fall.
Wall Street in New York, the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco and The City in London are besieged by militants, but no one pleads for free tuition or debt relief, such reforms obliterated by the majesty of what had been impossible becoming possible, even probable. There were no demands made of elites and their institutions, only self evident and inexorable action towards a new future.
October 5, 2018–La Barricada
Workers link up with other social actors as barricades are built and Molotov Cocktails thrown by seemingly ‘new social actors’–presaging a much broader class formation than the students and workers of May 1968, who were, more often than not, at odds with one another. Not this time, as such tidy categories of discourse and definition–‘workers’ and ‘students’–begins to give way to a new discourse, a new social movement.
October 10, 2018–Oy! Stop Waving That Flag!
The pranksters of Jewdas form Antifascist fighting units with names such as ‘Grand Guignol’ ‘Discombobulate–Disambiguate’ and ‘Charlie Chaplin’.
October 15, 2018
Peter Theil, Robert Mercer and Jeff Bezos have a tete-a-tete and agree to begin funding private armies, including death squads to disrupt worker militancy. They move to create an alliance with Hoffa Jr.’s Teamsters to implement the program, but this proves too distasteful, even for Hoffa, who turns to more familiar allies (Republicans and a rump mafia) instead.
November 6, 2018–Vote With Your Feet
The U.S. midterm elections suffer an historic low turnout, as people vote with their feet. The Democrats implode–the communist wing of the Democratic Socialists of America splits with the electoral strategy of Bernie Sanders and takes thousands to the border, factories and large estates. As the possibility of a world without government and markets begins to come into focus, the Republicans consolidate their rule over all branches of government. The irony, of course, is that their electoral strategy works–the gerrymandering, billions in advertising, warmongering and swaggering nationalism create a GOP landslide–but it no longer matters. Facts on the ground say otherwise.
The Final Battle.
–A portmanteau of binary and digit, the ground floor of modern computing power.
–A tool inserted into the mouth of a powerful animal, together with ‘blinders’ facilitating control.
November 10, 2018–The Tech Wars
An explosion of hacking and activism in the center of the digital economy begins to weaken networks of capitalist command and control. Two factions of the ‘petit-bitoisie’–Left Techs and Right Techs (the latter also called Poundists in homage to the money fetishist, anti-Semite and poet, Ezra Pound), continue their struggle for dominance over the means of information production.
November 12, 2018–The Digital Break
Newly aware that the possibility of revolution had become real and that the tools to realize it were in their hands, Left Techs circulate memes and blogs arguing for the conquest of the means of scientific and technological production. They adopt the Theses then aggresively begin colonizing smart phones, gps navigation, sattelites and data farms to facilitate the direct, unmediated access to the means of survival–domiciles, food, clothing, health care, etc. Their digital activism becomes rooted in the Theses and Four Loci of Attack.
November 15, 2018–Playgrounds
The croquet courts at Facebook, festive playgrounds of Google and ‘campuses’ of Apple become battlegrounds featuring rival Tech factions. Left Techs break with the libertarian wing of their class, deploying the tactics of disruption to bring down the very corporations for whom they labor. The Poundists try to accelerate their crypto currencies and shadowy power centers as alternatives to impotent governments and an increasingly militant revolutionary movement.
November 17, 2018–War Games
The immensely popular online multi-player game Fortnite is completely taken over by teenage Left Techs. Gamers begin using the virtual locations of Tilted Towers, Anarchy Acres, Flush Factory and Wailing Woods in ways unintended by the game’s originators. A coded language is employed to coordinate real-world attacks on Right Techs, assist border assaults and occupy factory and manse. The speed and ferocity of these attacks is extraordinary and catches everyone by surprise.
November 20, 2018–The Paramilitary Turn
The Right Techs, led by Peter Thiel, secretly lobby the Trump administration to incorporate them into strike-breaking and border patrol units. Left Techs hack and publicize the plans through Glen Greenwald’s The Intercept, which takes a principled stand and begins doxxing state agents of repression, taking a page from Covert Action Information Bulletin of another era.
November 22, 2018–Shut Up Already
Elon Musk is mangled by one of his own robots, as it accomplishes the seemingly impossible–interrupting the tech titan mid-rant. Musk will die some weeks later, suffering periodic fugues and rambling about canals on Mars.
November 23, 2018–‘Are We There Yet?’
Left techs announce 20% of digital space hacked and repurposed for the Four Loci, a tipping point within reach.
November 24, 2018–Crypto Crap
‘Satoshi Nakamoto’ is outed as an Ayn Rand acolyte living as a hermit in the boiler room of the Chicago School of Economics Library. For more than 30 years he keeps his crypto currency scheme a secret, lest the Gnomes of Zurich find out and try to steal it. He subsists on an austere diet of sugar donuts and carrots. The product of Austrian economics, Randian culture kampf, and an abiding affection for fascism as an occasional emergency measure needed by elites, he judges the year 2010, in the wake of the wreckage of the Great Recession as ripe for the release of Bitcoin to the world.
November 26, 2018–We Are Not Bits
Left Techs begin to theorize and rapidly operationalize an economy without pricing and markets, money or wages, work or workers, capital or capitalists. Airbnb is hacked to bits (literally) and reformatted sans money. Free, on-demand housing signals a growing decommodification of markets. The technology of the gig economy is thoroughly decommodified–instant work of a dizzying array of jobs wherever one wants–food, clothing and health care available to whomever needed it.
Data science nerds begin eliminating the great inefficiences imbedded within capitalist and statist economics beginning with the fiction of converting the value of a thing into a number and distributing said thing according to whether a person has the accepted exchange value ($) sufficient to obtain it. But in a world with instant knowledge and instant communication what is the point of trusting in something as an intermediary? Why must the exchange involve a numeric value? We are asked to imagine a world without finance departments, without debt collectors, without money, and then use new technology to create that world.
December 1, 2018–The Foundation of Democracy is Equality
The Seventh Thesis on democracy is taken up and operationalized by Left Techs through a series of rhetorical statements and questions:
Human rights can never be legislated, they are the foundation of democracy, not a product of it, to be bartered, bought or sold.
Why would anyone be satisfied with voting for a talking head to ‘represent’ them when their opinions can be instantly registered?
Why vote for a cult of personality, for ‘democracy’ many times removed, when direct democracy, facilitated by the greatest scientific revolution in human history, is there for the taking?
The great fear of nuclear war or a descent back to year Zero thus far unrealized; at every juncture where chaos threatens, mutual aid and direct action open new horizons and channel the passions and the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ into a new future.
December 10, 2018–Chickens Come Home To Roost.
Most now regard the ignominious end of Donald Trump and Mike Pence, together with most of their fellow cabinet members at the hands of assassins dispatched from within the fetid bowels of the deep state, as after the fact; the point-of-no-return preceded this. How far back that PONR extended is a matter of contention, but that the assassination was too late is no longer an issue.
But it is poetic that the end of American Empire would be in keeping with that most sacrosanct of American traditions: assassination.
December 15, 2018–The End of Everything
While climate change was certainly a factor in the Great Uprising (the Summer of the Dancing Exodus was named in part for this–the asphalt was so fucking hot you had to dance) Mother Earth makes a statement about pollution and environmental degradation from deep within her bosom.
At 8:45 AM PST the Cascadia Subduction zone within the Pacific Ring of Fire detonates with multiple 9.0+ earthquakes, setting off the Yellowstone super volcano. The sonic boom produced by the eruption signals the end of humanity–at least that’s the conclusion many jumped to. And it was loud enough–you could feel it in your chest hundreds of miles away–and unusual enough, that it seemed to demand an apocalypse for an explanation.
And it was an apocalypse for some.
The earthquakes that crackled along the San Andreas fault resulted in the cleaving of California in ways interpreted by those of a religious persuasion as divine providence, as the devastation of La Jolla and Malibu, Silicon Valley and San Francisco appeared to target the wealthiest of zip codes. Thousands of seaside villas plunge into a sea boiling with tsunamis. Plumes of ash appear to coagulate most intensely in Beverly Hills, but not Watts.
The super rich flee en masse to pre-established and lavish bunkers in New Zealand, Iceland and Northern Canada. The ‘somewhat rich’ are left to the tender mercies of their gardeners, nannies, delivery drivers, teachers and servers. There are a few massacres.
December 20, 2018–The Beginning of Everything
From where did this Great ‘No!’ originate? Was it at the southern US border when the caravan of Central American refugees transformed into a movement of dispossessed nomads–from supplicants begging for administerial admittance into the core of accumulation, into insurrectionists intent on demolishing the border itself? Was it when the first great upheaval of people from the slums, ghettos and barrios of the ‘advanced’ metropoles began their vigils at the gates of the estates of the rich? Perhaps the appearance of general strikes throughout factories of production? Or the hacking of the digital sphere by software engineers, coders and data scientists (the Petis-bitoisie) which brought low Wall Street and Bitcoin, Amazon, Google, Uber and Apple–was that decisive?
It clearly wasn’t accidental, but was it predestined? Was it baked into capitalism? The publication and mass acceptance of the Theses and the Four Loci of Attack was prescient graffiti to be sure, but perhaps just recording, as a good journalist, what was in the process of unfolding.
In retrospect the diverse ways capitalism dug its own grave appear obvious–the rise of neo-fascism as an accelerant of inequality, the way automation obliterated productive labor and hurled millions onto the streets and into prisons and makeshift ‘holding centers’; the persistence of unjust, horrific wars; the intensification of the ‘Uberization’ of large swaths of economies and its reaching ‘scale’; the crisis in confidence in traditional institutions and a ‘breakdown’ of law and order.
This approach lends some credence to the ‘determinists’, of various stripes, who argue that structural features, such as declining rates of profit associated with automation and the ‘dead labor’ of capital, established the crisis for which reform became impossible. The clash of countervailing forces–of a capitalism off its leash and a revolution dedicated to its elimination–became the structuring force animating human affairs.
On the other hand the creeping realization that capitalism wouldn’t stumble, much less jump into, its grave, seems correct. Finally the necessity for someone to push it, or even make the ultimate sacrifice and pull it in with them, spurred all manner of militancy. That such activity was necessary seems a given; that it was pivotal, persuasive. This view is represented by the ‘Neo-Situationists’ in homage to the great global upheaval of students and workers of May 1968.
Regardless of what line one takes on this question, people who said “No Mas!” then began to say “Yes!”, but to a very different world.
By ‘border’, it should be noted, was not meant all borders. Nor did the term signify only the physical barriers that demarcated so-called sovereign states from one another. ‘Border’ would come to mean something more akin what the Greek radical Stathis Kouvalakis meant when considering deportations as a central policy of Fortress Europe:
“The eu–Turkish accord is not a mistake, a departure from so-called ‘European values’…. It is wholly in keeping with the logic that has presided over European integration from the beginning, making the eu’s external border the dividing line between the fully human, white and European, and the sub-humans destined for a ‘precarious life’ and an anonymous death, to which the waters of Lampedusa and Lesbos bear everlasting witness.”
As do the deserts of Arizona and charnel houses of Juarez.
It wasn’t until June 12, 2018 that the Four Loci of Attack would be laid out by an eclectic and anonymous group of radicals associated with outfits like Kersplebedeb Publishing. More of an outline with notes in the margins than a manifesto, it did capture a growing Zeitgeist of resistance and spark much discussion.
Loci, plural of locus: a set of points whose location satisfies or is determined by one or more specified conditions.
The Loci of Attack are concerned with power centers that present as inviolable: the militarized borders, the sacred family, the gigantism of multinational corporations, the endless carnivorous jello of computerized information systems.
The document treats the borders of the capitalist core as fortifications and systems of biopolitical surveillance and control that consign human beings in the global south–and not a few in the north–to the fracturing of their kinships, desperate precarity and super exploitation, while expanding and consolidating a geography of white nationalism within a neoliberal order of austerity for the many and grotesque opulence for the few, abetted by the long confidence game of capitalist democracy.
Border attacks, the group points out, would have a dual function: to serve as the sine qua non of solidarity between the northern and southern masses and the basis for a denial of the internal logic of both white nationalism and authoritarian neoliberalism. Neither order of oppression could function without them; therefore attacking them became essential, though not sufficient, in developing the Four Loci of Attack.
The Theses of Disambiguation (an unwieldy translation from the Lokota original) began circulating in late July, the product of obscure anarcho-communist, intersectionalist, and Indigenous collectives. Released during the second phase of the Great Uprising, Thesis Five posits the occupation of large estates and plush penthouses as a central feature of the social liberation of women and children–the locus of gender inequality being the social reproduction of the ruling class at the expense of everyone else. The Patriarchy lives inside men, the authors contend, but the roast beef it depends on for sustenance is up there, on that hill in that swank manse. Thesis six argues that homophobia is the social expression of the need to control the labor and sexual power of women. Following this, during the initial stages of an uprising, women and children should seek refuge with LGBTQ families as a way of both protecting themselves from, and undermining, patriarchal relations.
During this period Intersectionalists would cross pollinate with Trotskyists, Maoists with Black Lives Matter militants, and the crustier the anarchist, seemingly the higher the esteem in which they were held.
But what about the State, you may ask? What about the repressive state apparatus–cops and soldiers–and governments?
By the fourth phase of the Great Uprising, the Tech Wars, the pillars that supported the state had all but dissolved under sustained and militant attacks. Because the State was primarily administrative in nature, when it was no longer needed for management it didn’t ‘wither’ away gradually, it disappeared overnight. When representative democracy gave way to direct democracy on a field of relative equality, there was no need for electing ‘leaders’.
The novel idea to quarantine markets within stadiums and arenas also served its purpose. Today we know such human behavior through the few museums to capitalism that remain, curious relics to an age of sporting competitions like the NFL and FIFA and the orgies of consumption and revelry known as rock concerts. And golf courses. In these few remaining arenas the foulest of hot dogs and the stalest of beer may still be consumed, national anthems sung or knelt to, physical strength, artistic expression, unbridled cunning, disruption and innovation ruthlessly pursued. But only here, in these gladiatorial arenas, and nowhere else. Of course, without a profit motive and a market to channel it, the very nature of competition was utterly transformed. The video game Fortnite became emblematic of this as participants stopped killing one another, and began building as in Minecraft.
This epic struggle appeared as both unequal yet combined, with a permanence that echoed down through history: there would be no return to a social contract binding labor to capital in a framework of liberal welfare states and representative democracy; only the elimination of this grand bargain in exchange for an unfettered capitalism in alliance with fascism or a revolutionary movement intent their abolition.
The old prophetic binary ‘Socialism or Barbarism’ comes to mind.
Today we live in a different world. While three-hundred years can seem a long time, and the Great Uprising so much ancient history, in geologic time it is but a moment. The discovery last century of life on another planet, while important, is also cold comfort, for there is as yet no way to engage this miracle from 3,000 light years away. And in cosmic time this is but the idea of a hiccup.
We take solace in the hope that with a more just and equitable world we can hazard the proposition–something that in a previous era would have been reckless and foolhardy–that perhaps we should attempt contact; that perhaps we have something to offer other than brutal competition, a fight to the death, and a world that too often, for too many, was ‘nasty, brutish and short’.
We have accomplished much, but we should always be prepared to dance, lest our horizon again become but a short trip to nowhere.
“Yo! Pops! Pass the Balaclavas!”
This essay is a work of speculative fiction. As such, it is deliberately transgressive. As a ghost of antifascism future, I exercise a certain artistic liberty not often available the living.
Copywrite 2018. Jonathan Mozzochi
Angels in America, Angelus Novus, anti-fascism, Elon Musk, fascism, Michael Lowy, On the Concept of History, Paul Klee, Perry Anderson, Peter Thiel, Rachel Maddow, Roy Cohn, Tony Kushner, Walter Benjamin
As a ghost sent from the past into your world my presence involves no small amount of incivility. So much clanging about and reckless rage, while confined to dark digital outposts, still demands an audience, someone to haunt. In any case, it has never been your world, or our world, always their world. We were just thrust into it, and told to make our way, however difficult. So if my desperate whispers fall on your ears as so many dark forebodings, they also contain within them the possibility of another future.
Can a ghost dream? If so, what kind of dream would a ghost dream? It would be a dream filled with longing and regret, to be sure, but also, free from the past, a dream of reckless abandon, an imagination allowed to run riot. It is a dream that cries for a future free from an insufferable past and an intolerable present.
In this, the dream I dream is not unlike that cool and sardonic description of heaven as told by the character Belize to a fictionalized Roy Cohn in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Twenty-five years after its first production the play is experiencing a welcome revival, no doubt because of scenes like this one:
I’ve taken the liberty to transcribe HBO’s version of Kushner’s play. Please pardon in advance my light editing and any errors.
Belize: “You awake? Can you see who I am?”
Roy Cohn: “Yeah. You came for my momma years ago. Wrap your arms around me now…”
Belize: “Who am I, Roy?”
Roy Cohn: (laughs) “The negro night nurse. My negation. Come to escort me to the underworld…”
Belize: “You want me Roy? You want me to take you away?”
Roy Cohn: “Oh, God I’m ready.”
Belize: “I’ll be coming for you soon. Everything I want is in the end of you.”
Roy Cohn: “What’s it like after…this misery ends?”
Belize: “Hell or Heaven?”
Roy Cohn: He….(Roy trails off)
Belize: “Like San Francisco.”
Roy Cohn: “A City! Good. I was worried it would be a garden. I hate that shit.”
Belize: “Hmm. Big City. Overgrown with weeds, but flowering weeds. On every corner a wrecking crew and something new and crooked going up catacorner to that. Windows missing in every edifice, like broken teeth. Gritty wind and a gray high sky full of ravens.
Roy Cohn: “Isaiah.”
Belize: “The prophet birds, Roy. Piles of trash, but lapidary, like rubies and obsidion, and diamond colored cowspit streamers in the wind. And voting booths. And everyone in Balenciaga gowns with red corsages and big dance palaces full of music, lights and racial impurity and gender confusion. And all the deities are creole, mulatto. Brown as the mouths of rivers. Race, taste and history finally overcome. And you ain’t there. ”
Roy Cohn: “And heaven?”
Belize: “That was heaven, Roy.”
Indeed. Yet as Kushner has acknowledged, many years after publishing Angels, that future is not here, in San Francisco or anywhere else. Besides, even our most beautiful rebels, like Belize, are still, at best, changing the bedpans of the Roy Cohns of the world, rather than topping off that dose of morphine. Heaven must be conquered, brought into being, rather than received as a gift, upon surrender.
In order to dream a future at odds with the only one our present has on offer (the doctrine of TINA) one must identify who and what stand in the way of the realization of that future–one has to theorize an enemy, then a way to defeat that enemy. Kushner’s character Belize does this, and yet seems a bit too secure (smug even) in the notion that his heaven is the future.
Part of the problem, I think, is that smugness exhibited by Belize, so often on display by today’s liberals (think Rachel Maddow) and not a few historical materialists (Perry Anderson), reflects a belief that history is a necessary evolution, a slow but certain unfolding of ‘progress’, an arc always ‘bending’ towards justice. It is not. It just moves, hither and yon, not backwards or forwards. Where it moves and the quality of that movement is at least in part up to us. We may not make it move within conditions of our choosing, but move it we must.
Dreaming is a precondition for liberation; an essential rupture with ‘what is’, a reimagining of what is possible and and a fierce interrogation of ‘progress’. It is also essential for an effective anti-fascism.
In 1940, in the midst of a world-wide fascist explosion, just prior his suicide, Walter Benjamin said as much. From Benjamin’s On the Concept of History, Thesis Nine:
“There is a painting by [Paul] Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.”
All of our 21st century gizmos and widgets, all that seamless connectivity and disruptive productivity brought on by our gigantic mega corporations are entirely compatible with a neo-fascism now only in its pre-pubescent stage. Fascism is not the reemergence of some ancient bigotry from prehistory, it is one possible future asserting itself, and in this assertion another form of capitalism is being constituted. Behind the progress of Peter Thiel and Elon Musk is a craven figure who cringes and obeys for a piece of chocolate. That figure is us, unless we discover a way to bring about a rupture with that ‘progress’.
In an article on Benjamin’s eclectic anarcho-communism in Jacobin (“The Young Benjamin”, Jacobin Blog, January 8, 2016) Michael Löwy locates the failure to apprehend fascism within the evolutionary socialist tradition represented by the philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Löwy writes:
“An evolutionist conception of history, which believes in the necessary progress in the forms of domination, can hardly give an account of fascism — except as an unexplainable parenthesis, an incomprehensible regression ‘in the middle of the 20th Century.’ Now, as Benjamin wrote in his Theses, one cannot understand the meaning of fascism if one considers it just an exception to the historical norm which would be progress.”
Lowy notes that “Benjamin understood the 20th century as one of barbarism and modernity — an interconnection which would take, a few years after his death, the catastrophic figure of Auschwitz and Hiroshima.”
War is coming; and with it the soil within which fascism grows is fertilized.
In winter the rain-soaked Pacific Northwest wind finds its way through split bricks and cracked beams. It is fended off with wood stove and blankets, occasionally the warmth of a kindred spirit. From my office in this ramshackle warehouse, set next to a railroad crossing busy with jostling container cars and the occasional furtive hobo, surrounded by artists, counterculture types and a few working class intellectuals (some of whom work at Powell’s Books, a temple for what remains of the graphosphere) I engage in my phantom labor: interrogating the past so as to excavate the future.
As I leaf through old texts, always on the lookout for how fascism is apprehended by comrades and enemies alike, I find references to a scholarly work from the 1970s and a novel term of abuse from 2015. Together, they tell us something important about fascism, and, perhaps unexpectedly, the left.
The first text sends me to the Dead Letter Department of Anglo-American academia. Here I find the work of an American sociologist describing–even if he didn’t use this terminology–an American form of fascism. As with many advances in science and technology, the key insight from this work was stumbled upon and then, as with a miss-addressed letter, returned to sender. Unfortunately, that return address hasn’t been viable for forty years. But at least someone found it, opened it and read it, before sending it back to the Dead Letter Department, where it awaits some old-ghost to reinterpret its contents.
In 1976 the sociologist Donald Warren published The Radical Center: Middle Americans and the Politics of Alienation. From this work he coined the term “MARs”, an acronym formed from ‘Middle American Radicals’.
Warren and a team of researchers developed the concept of the MARs in an attempt to explain the results of their in-depth personal interviews, demographic research and attitudinal surveys collected over a period of years in the early 1970s. What they were studying was white people–a bunch of white people who, Warren noted, held beliefs seemingly at odds with their economic position–a polite way of saying social class. The book was published in 1976 and has been trotted out by liberals (John B. Judis), conservatives (David Brooks), paleo-conservatives (Samuel Francis) and even radicals (Zaid Jalani for Alternet) whenever recurring eruptions of ‘populism’ have needed explaining. All of these authors, and many others, misinterpret the singular insight Warren provides in The Radical Center. While this insight is related to his term “MARs”, it is a bit different from it, too.
So, what is it about Warren’s study, a work from the margins of sociology, published in relative obscurity and without much of a readership, that nonetheless remains attractive to analysts across the political spectrum? And what is that special something I think he discovered, that has been hidden in the Dead Letter Department?
If, as I contend, fascism has an ideology, a political economy, a social base and a geography, it also has a motor–something that once switched on sets it in motion, propels it in a particular direction, and must be engaged for it to keep going.
Early on, in order to will itself into being, fascism will engage in a double movement of fighting elites above and the working and non-working poor, below. This vertical double movement is from an oppositional political footing that is also deeply contradictory. It is at once set against certain elite centers of power but still closely tied to them; a semi-permeable membrane separating and binding together the two. I call it the MARs Motor. While this concept of a fascist motor¹ is mine, I didn’t identify the mechanics that underlie it; that was formulated by Warren, and as with many important discoveries, he was looking for something else.
From page 14 of The Radical Center:
“Thus, an “ideological perspective” seemed to emerge from our in-depth exploratory interviews. This ideological point of view does not readily fit the traditional notion of “left wing” or “right wing” convictions. Instead, it seems to embody, a distinct orientation of multiple threats of being caught in the middle between those whose wealth gives them access to power and those whose militant organization in the face of deprivation gains special treatment from the government.”
This is the only significant explanatory passage in some 260 pages that Warren sets apart and italicizes; it is the nut of what he is arguing. And its easy to see why it appeals to a broad political spectrum. For Warren social class didn’t neatly correlate with political consciousness. Likewise, the notion that something was needed ‘beyond left and right’ to assuage the ‘alienation’ of people trapped in the middle seemed appealing to a growing consensus that there was no longer ‘class conflict’, only entrance into the ‘middle class’ or banishment from it. But the relatively anodyne passage above doesn’t really capture why a growing number of ‘white ethnics’ (to use the terminology of the day) seemed to be wrenched loose from their traditional moorings within labor unions, the Democratic Party and liberalism. Why would they turn toward a radicalism that was in many ways anathema to mainstream insititutions–the presidential candidacy of George Wallace, for instance?
Warren’s singular insight, sketched out in the passage above, is developed further:
“The Middle American Radical perspective was developed from interviewing numerous individuals who felt very threatened by problems that were not immediately related to their economic position in society. Such individuals, in some problem areas, directed their scorn toward, and felt threatened by, groups which they seemed to consider lower in status than themselves, such as the organized poor and minority groups. At the same time we found that many individuals were deeply concerned about the status groups above their own…An additional element in this discussion of threats from the rich, the poor and the minorities, was the role of the government as an arbitrator of group interests.” (pgs. 13-14).
What is important here is that this ‘something’ be identified, if some four decades later, as nascent white nationalism, an American fascism just waking up from its slumber, still within the paternal confines of the Cold War anti-communist consensus, but nontheless self conscious of its relatively independent nature. What Warren described would become known as the ‘paleo-conservative right’, originally fronted by Pat Buchanan, later to re-invent itself as the ‘Alt-Right’, the key component of Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential victory. What I call it is nascent white christian nationalism, the American form of fascism.
The MARs Motor is a feature of fascism that sets it apart from run-of-the-mill conservatism and right reaction. While often considered to be a red-headed bastard step child of the broader conservative family, it is still, regardless of what neo-conservatives might argue, a member of that family. The MARs motor is an essential ingredient in the fascist repetoire that signals it is on the move. It is the struggle with an ungrateful elite above and the unworthy poor below. If they are not engaged in a struggle with both, they are something else. In the capitalist core the political expression of this movement must take the form of white nationalism. Today, throughout Europe and North American a new fascism is being forged that seeks to reinforce a political geography of white christian nationalism and with it a new identity as a dispossessed and besieged minority. It is arrayed against the Global South, making socialist internationalism that much more important. Fascists, to be fascists, must fight above and below, then near and afar. The near and afar come when they go to war–and war is coming.
The dynamic Warren identified is a feature of fascism, not populism.² There is no such thing as populism, other than as a term of disparagement. But there most certainly is something called fascism. What Warren stumbled upon was indeed ideological, rather than an expression of a class position, a wooly conspiracy theory or a response (legitimate or illegitimate!?) to rising expectations, declining prospects, relative (or absolute) deprivation, etc. He documented a fundamental shift then just underway in the imaginary of the far right, from defenders of the white supremacist Jim Crow status quo to the newly dispossessed (white, silent no more) majority. White racism was developing a new character in the post-civil rights movement era, essentially morphing closer to an American fascism, something that their European counterparts would come to recognize. The defeat of de jure white supremacy by the civil rights movement set fascism back, but also offered a new horizon in the way of white nationalism, previously made redundant by the state’s own formal white supremacy. In a way, nationalism and racism had to shift terrain, in order to survive. And they did.
But from the dizzying heights of academic disdain, it’s difficult to understand any of this. And Warren, while I’m sure a nice guy, is a product of an institution that is largely incapable of getting it. Even the title of his book includes the phrase “politics of alienation”, by which Warren most certainly did not mean the alienation of workers from the products of their labor, but rather their ‘alienation’ from the splendid institutions of progress that American capitalist democracy had on offer at the time.
Following this, The Radical Center occasionally coughs up a cringe-worthy paternalism that regards its subject as a wayward child. But in this it was only following accepted conventions then (as now) regnant throughout sociology, political science and history. Behind virtually every study of populism (or todays Antifa, for that matter) is an implicit rebuke: Why would anyone reject freedom and democracy for extremism, especially when doing so is against their own interests? As in a shlocky horror film, academics peer into their brains, trying to determine what the hell is wrong with them and how they are to be fixed, or, more often than not, cured of whatever disease is causing the epidemic. The most extraordinary thing about Warren’s work was how a sociologist so obviously indebted to the head-patting paternalism of Richard Hofstadter and his ‘Paranoid Style in American Politics’, could have identified a key element in the development of a nacsent white nationalism in the United States, without ever calling it that, much less understanding it as such. But Warren obviously meant well, I’ll give him that. And he largely took his subjects at their word, a singular accomplishment at that time, as any.
All conservatives and liberals share this fundamental outlook about the far right and far left. But these angry white people still know what side their bread is buttered on. Capitalism creates the zero-sum game within which racism is made (and remade) normative, the conspiracy theory rational, the mode of exploitation necessary and eternal, the act of mass murder justifiable. If there is psychological projection here, it is on the part of patrician academics and their media chatterboxes and sycophants, products of their sociotope, which treats all radical politics as childish and utopian.
To state that this overall approach to the far right is emblematic of the dominant thought running througout all conservative, liberal and many socialist traditions would be an understatement. It is also central to why the return of right reaction surprises everyone except anti-fascists.3 And militant antifascists have a unique perspective on this recurring phenomemon. In trying to understand fascism, it sometimes helps to kick its ass. Empirical knowledge has its foundation in experience; there’s nothing quite as illuminating as the direct knowledge that a fascist is but a meat sack. But I aggress.
For Warren, the challenge was to identify a feature both constant and unique to his term, ‘middle american radical’. He would run up the flag pole the whole gamut of sociological, demographic, psychological and political markers that contend, but fail to achieve, the empirical throne: the ‘silent majority’, an ‘ethnic’ (pretty much white, working class Catholic), the alienated, forgotten, angry, troubled, disillusioned, ‘relatively deprived’; the “not quite poor American living in the not altogether affluent society” and so on. Then, Warren looked to income and education levels and labor union membership, for some kind of control for those pesky variables, again to no avail. Having dispensed with all these pretenders to the throne, Warren would attempt–like so many before and after him–to place the giant elephant in the room (racism) into some service of his middle american radical definition, but by calling it anything but that. What’s most important here is the all-too-common analytical operation of identifying discrete ‘races’ and correspondingly ‘race relations’, but not racism as the feature that structures important beliefs. And it’s mostly unconscious, an implicit given, shared by well-meaning academics, that remains operative today. And so long as one operates from these assumptions, nothing will make sense.
The motor of fascism has another aspect of importance to radicals, something that becomes visible by way of contrast. If fascists constitute themselves by fighting above and below, radicals do the same (come into being) by fighting the rich, and only the rich, and their homunculi, everywhere. Socialists become something else if they allow the bonds of solidarity that unite peoples in struggle to dissolve through racism and nationalism. Socialists should never fight the poor masses, but from a restrictive, narrow definition of who is a worker, especially during war, they risk doing precisely that. Cue a reference to the great betrayal of the socialist international in 1914. To be a socialist is to have an expansive definition of what it is to be a worker, the poor, the marginalized. The fault line here is nationalism, but not all nationalisms, just the form it takes in the core.3 White nationalism. The failure to organize the ‘unorganizable’, to swim within the great ocean that is the brutal exploitation and domination of the lowest of the low, is on display when socialists look to their betters above, and want to be like them, rather than put their heads on a platter.
Back in my office I am laughing at a zinger from a right-winger.
The hilarious epithet ‘Trumpen proletariat’ was first introduced to our political lexicon in 2015 by the effervescent right-winger Jonah Goldberg, who scribbles for National Review and the American Enterprise Institute. Goldberg is also the purveyor of a related term, ‘liberal fascism’ (a smiley face with a Hitler mustache adorns the cover of his book by the same name). But while his cockamamie thesis about fascism having roots in the family tree of liberalism was effectively savaged by scholars such as Roger Griffin, his ‘Trumpen Proletariat’ hits on all cylinders, at least as polemic, if not analysis.
As a tripartite portmanteau of ‘Donald Trump’, ‘lumpen’, and ‘proletariat’ the epithet at once mocks Trump as an interloper among political elites, while asserting his followers are of a plebeian nature (lumpen) best understood as an outgrowth of the left (proletariat). But it misunderstands all three terms, in a perverse manner and that’s why it’s funny–a billionaire leading the scum of the earth in a left-wing revolution. What the fuck. But, it succeeds in another way that is altogether uncomfortable for some radicals.
The term ‘lumpen’ is used by many Marxists eager to explain why certain people won’t accept socialism–can’t accept socialism–principally because they are not workers or the peti-bourgeoisie and are therefore unorganizable. When Marxists consider a hefty portion of any population to be an undiferentiated mass of criminals and ‘deplorables’ you can count on any ‘revolution’ they lead being one that maintains inequality, class divisions, violence and oppression. These undesireables don’t count among the proletariat, and usually don’t figure in Marxist equations for social transformation. If they do it is as the gangs that support fascism. They cannot be organized, only neutralized or destroyed. There is a long history of what I call patrician socialists deliberately sabotaging efforts to organize with the lowest of the low. But know this: when the slum dwellers, gang bangers, outcasts and unemployed are condemned to the orthodox Marxist original sin of non-participation in the formal economy, when they are dismissed and discarded as so much “human dust”, you ensure they will be organized by themselves, by others, or not at all. In any case, many will turn to the right, or all the way to fascism. Indeed, many have probably completed that journey and are wearing MAGA hats rather than joining Redneck Revolt.
This contempt for the common people (plebians) is most pronounced among elite liberals and conservatives–indeed it is central to their world view.
Gary Kamiya, a co-founder of Salon magazine, explained back in 2011, apparently in all seriousness, that the childlike behavior of Tea Partiers could be understood by resurrecting Hofstadter, whose work, Kamiya writes was “penetrating…prescient…brilliant” (all three adjectives in one sentence).
Kamiya, in his article “The Infantile Style In American Politics” (a nauseating homage if there ever has been one) excerpts the following from Hofstadter’s The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt — 1954:
“[I]n a populist culture like ours, which seems to lack a responsible elite with political and moral autonomy, and in which it is possible to exploit the wildest currents of public sentiment for private purposes, it is at least conceivable that a highly organized, vocal, active and well-financed minority could create a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.” (Salon, December 5, 2011).
Well, you could say that it was 1954 when Hofstadter wrote that, but it was the 21st century when it was adoringly quoted by a liberal fucktard. To do this passage justice one should channel the inimitable Mid-Atlantic lock jaw of William F.Buckley jr. or Gore Vidal, or perhaps its 21st century liberal identitarian version, the incessant screeching of Arianna Huffington, who learned how to embrace the weirdness of her cacalogical musings by sidling up to Henry Kissinger–the very definition of elite creepy weirdness–so she can now lecture Uber drivers on getting more sleep, so they can starve more efficiently. Those accents are as entirely contrived as the bullshit it enunciates so clearly.
But this is not about otherness or rising above being weird, it’s about believing you are an Optimate and that capitalism offers upward mobility to all who would just strive to climb the ladder of success. But climbing means your foot is best positioned on someone else’s neck–someone below you.
From the Financial Times (December 6, 2016).
“When Trump first ran for President, the Huffington Post had each story that mentioned him print a byline that described him as ‘a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther’. But when I ask whether his victory surprised her, she says no. She points me to her 2010 work Third World America. ‘Its about the fact that many parts of America have become third world. They are the people who voted for Trump.'”
Right. How effortlessly Huffington links Trump with the lumpen of the global south, now invading America. How convenient for a millionaire, many times over.
This elite visceral reaction to Trump is not resistance–its hatred and fear of the hoi polloi, channelled in a narrow, self-serving direction.
This disdain for the masses by ‘people of property’, to use a phrase by that war mongering skeezoid David Frum, are to be expected and should cause no sense of surprise. But they tend to take other forms when issued from on high from the left. Any radicalism that traffics in this stupidity aids the growth of fascism.
On the other hand, dismissing the importance of racism in structuring political and social life can lead to other pitfalls. For instance, consider two very recent political developments, the first a ‘controversial’ policy effort on trade by the Trump administration and the second an extraordinary expression of worker militancy in a state that most recently flipped so hard to the right that Mike Davis thinks it might end up setting a Guiness World Record.
Trump’s imposition of tariffs on steel imports should not be understood apart from this:
Here, to be clear, more than one-year after his assumption of the presidency, is Trump offering a sop to his working class base, albeit one that probably won’t help anyone. In fact, it might hurt more than a few. But its good optics. It means, in part, that Trump, now more than a year into his tenure, is finally rewarding white workers–practicing patronage if you will–and thereby growing the political, cultural and ideological space within which fascism can thrive. He’s also building his re-election bid. And no, it doesn’t mean all steel workers are racists–it means anti-racism needs to happen there in conjunction with socialist work, or that constitutency will be lost to fascism.
Then there is the West Virginia wildcat teachers strike, which should not be understood apart from this:
The extraordinary fact that an illegal strike–a wildcat strike!–on the part of public employees was not put down by the state should be considered in light of Mike Davis’ Jacobin article of February 7, 2017 “The Great God Trump and the White Working Class”.
“The exception [during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election] was West Virginia where the Democratic wipeout was so enormous that it will probably end up in Guinness World Records. Only Wyoming gave Trump a higher percentage of its presidential vote. But even more striking than his 42-point margin of victory was the fact that Clinton received 54,000 fewer votes than were cast earlier for candidates in the Democratic primary — a contest that Sanders (125,000 total) won in every single county…a large minority of working people, custodians of a heroic labor history, are ready to support radical alternatives but only if they simultaneously address the economic and cultural crises of the region.
The struggles to maintain traditional kinship networks and community social fabrics in Appalachia or, for that matter, in the embattled Black-majority counties of the former cotton South, should be every bit as important to socialists as defending individual rights to make free reproductive and gender choices. They’re usually not.”
Isn’t that the truth. But how to explain such an incredible volte-face? Is there a relationship between renewed worker militancy in West Virginia and its recent turn to the right that should be theorized in relation to fascism? Saying as much doesn’t mean any number of unsupportable corollaries; for instance, that West Virginia teachers have become white nationalists. Perhaps the only space available for labor militancy is in a state like West Virginia? Why would that be the case? While there is no doubt that the overwhelming popular support hard-won by West Virginia teachers came about as a result of direct action/mutual aid tactics like providing free lunches to kids out of school, thereby denying their opponents a dirty wedge with which to divide the movement (your’e hurting the children!), it can also be partially attributed to the fact that West Virginia is not Mississippi.
And while much of what Davis has written about Trump is true in a narrow electoral sense, it doesn’t adaquately capture what is going on here. And Jacobin, while correctly applauding the heroism and militancy of the West Virginia teachers, fails yet again to explore the larger context of a growing fascism, not least because their editorial line doesn’t recognize the existence of that political phenomenon.
This is how the Australian anti-fascist Angela Mitropoulos can accuse Jacobin of “authoritarian Left nationalism” or Strasserism, for printing articles by Die Linke leftists that argue for a ‘tightening’ of Germany’s borders. In its coverage of the West Virginia strike Jacobin buries that state’s recent political developments in the perennial and futile search for revolutionary agency that is myopic, at best. My response to Mitropoulos’ admittedly polemical attack on Jacobin is a riff from the comic Chris Rock, who approached the obvious guilt of OJ Simpson by saying: “I don’t agree, but I understand.”
I probably cut an odd figure in my Carhartt Washed-Duck Tool Pants, black Thrasher hoodie and industrial neoprene gloves. Waist-deep in a dumpster I am making a fashion statement of sorts, wading through the quotidian refuse of an office park: coffee grinds, fast food containers, styrofoam peanuts, cardboard boxes, used printer cartridges and, much to my chagrin, the occasional dirty diaper. It’s 1990 and my comrades and I are ‘dumpster diving’ out in the suburban sprawl of Portland, Oregon. But it is neither food nor salable commodities we seek. We are churning through garbage in search of the political droppings of a far right organization housed there. The take from this ‘trash cover’ (to use a term of the trade) could help neutralize a far-right group, or at least make less effective their attacks on vulnerable communities. After a few night’s worth of applied garbology–Disco! Reams of perforated computer paper reveal detailed membership lists. We don’t have time to do anything other than scan it–the headings confirm it is from our target–so we bag the loot and skidaddle.
Your trash, my treasure–asshole.
From there the black garbage bags are transported to a warehouse where the really difficult slog begins. We spread out a large tarpaulin and separate the wheat from the chaff. What we call raw, primary data–everything from membership rosters to post-it notes, utility bills to grocery lists–is sorted and prepped so as to be of some use. Then we feed the raw data into already existing databases and files, cross referencing it to identify matches and points for further analysis. In other words, manual data entry is how we transformed data into information (no shortcuts from analog to digital back then). If we do our opposition research well, that information can reach its final form: actionable intelligence. For instance, the computer printouts provide detailed information on the targeted organization’s supporters–donation amounts, addresses, phone numbers, occupations, etc. Some of those donors may not want their identities released to the public. We do. Likewise, the discovery of internal memoranda can provide a window into a group’s organizational capabilities, relations with other political formations or even internal dynamics, such as factional fights, that we can exploit. Finally, a report can be generated and the findings ready for dissemination. Then it’s back into the dumpsters and the process repeats itself. From data collection to information analysis to actionable intelligence.
Our fashion statement is also therefore a political statement.
In all of this our team of researchers were practicing a form of ‘para politics’, i.e., political conduct apart from voting or demonstrating, polling or political speech. There are other, less charitable meanings associated with this term, but I am employing it here in a relatively value neutral manner. This is, of course, the province of the Antifa. For our purposes here, let’s call it Antifa spycraft.
If my late-night shenanigans of decades past often yielded material for critical print, radio and television stories on the far right, they also often helped communities better protect themselves from attack. In this case, our information helped ‘out’ more than a few ‘down low’ bigoted businesses and politicians. Oh, and it was legal. In many locales, the laws around trash collection are often ambiguous. In this case, because the material we absconded with was in a dumpster, it was no longer private property. Likewise, depending on your locale, once your garbage can is out on a sidewalk or street, it may be free for anti-fascists–or fascists, for that matter–to rummage through. This low tech tactic of opposition research–today’s equivalent of hacking someone’s digital footprint–was a time-honored weapon in the Antifa arsenal. But not the only weapon.
If back in the day we had a ‘trash cover’ on an enemy political group, there was a good chance we also had an infiltrator attending meetings and other activists taking down license plates and shooting video and photos of their events. Much like the shitheads at Project Veritas and Brietbart News do now, but long before those clowns were selling their hack jobs to their paymasters, we pushed the limits of acceptable political engagement. Today, effective anti-fascists, especially those grouped around Rose City Antifa and It’s Going Down, as well as activists featured in Mark Bray’s Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook understand this. It’s well past time to have a debate with those socialists and other radicals who don’t seem to get it.
That the political tradition and contemporary efforts of the Antifa are valuable, even essential, to the broader socialist struggle is not accepted by all comrades. In spite of an honorable and effective history, there are left radicals who not only dismiss this work, but denigrate those who practice it. Quite a few regard the most militant and therefore visible actions of the Antifa as anathema to our broader struggle. Many misguided socialists prefer to ignore this vital work or, when such intelligence is used by an Antifa fighting force, such as in Charlottesville, raise cries of ‘adventurism’, perhaps laced with a quote from Lenin on infantile disorders.
But if you ask this old ghost there is nothing more infantile than attacking the work of comrades you know next to nothing about; except, perhaps, doing so from a Marxist theoretical framework so sclerotic it can regurgitate that fatal stupidity all veteran anti-fascists are familiar with: “The enemy is not fascism as much as it is capitalism that exploits the working class according to democratic and civilized norms that would never be associated with the swastika or other fascist regalia.” (‘Antifa and the Perils of Adventurism” by Louis Proyect, August 15, 2017. My emphasis). Proyect, whose nom-de-chair is The Unrepentant Marxist, slanders antifa activists when he’s not busy digging himself out from under all the free dvds (he never tires of letting us know) tinseltown sends him for film reviews.
He goes lowest when addressing the street battles between anti-racists and neo-Nazis that took place in Charlotesville last year.
He writes, “Turning now to Charlottesville, it is obvious to me that if the protests had been disciplined and under the control of marshals such as was the norm during the Vietnam antiwar movement, there would have been much less of a chance that James Fields would have been able to drive his Dodge Challenger into a crowd, killing a young woman and injuring 19 others.”
Here Proyect is laying the death of Heather Heyer at the feet of the Antifa, instead of where it belongs, with the neo-Nazi who ran her over. Elsewhere he refers to Antifa activists as ‘boys’ engaging in ‘childish acting out’. And unruly boys need discipline, don’t they? Proyect apparently wants cops, in the form of movement ‘marshals’, to get them back in line, with a spanking, if necessary. This bit of scolding he digs up from his glory days in the abject failure that was the Vietnam antiwar movement. But the important lesson of Charlottesville is completely lost to Proyect, which is in the role the Antifa played in protecting religious pacifists from attack. Cornel West testified to this development, something that should be built upon. Leftists with integrity, who know when to shut the fuck up when they are out of their element of expertise, should support the Antifa, not hang them out to dry.
What Proyect does not understand is twofold: the nature of neo-fascism in the 21st Century and how a corresponding anti-fascism, to be effective, must be somewhat different from other forms of protest and organizing.
By definition Antifa organizing must contend with vigilante forms of attack–those that have their origins largely outside the state repressive aparatus. In other words, fighting racist assholes is not the same as going door-to-door collecting signatures for a ballot initiative or candidate, much less reviewing the latest art house cinema production.
The hinge that supports the door through which all revolutionary antifascists must pass–from a coherent definition of fascism to a retooling of anti-fascism–is intelligence, by which I mean spycraft. There is no substitute for knowing your enemy, preferably much better than they know themselves. No one else will do it. Cops reduce everything to their bailiwick: criminality. Reporters personalize the far right, always looking to sell a story. Academics do post-mortems with an eye towards predictability–usually unconnected with the flesh and blood Antifa struggle and therefore too little, too late. Liberals wring their hands about free speech and fumble about for that phantom limb within the democratic party that might deliver them from ‘hate’. Anti-fascists are the only political force intent on destroying both the conditions that continually regenerate fascism as well as the recurrence of the fascist plague itself.
This role can only be successfully carried out by anti-fascists who employ measures of antifa spycraft against our enemies. One cannot gain this critical advantage through anything other than counter-intelligence: no amount of long-form analyses of the falling rate of profit or the changing demographics of the working class will tell you this and it cannot be divined through oracles–whether in the form of tea leaves or data science. Anti-fascists must have the ability to infiltrate neo-fascists both to disrupt and neutralize their efforts and to protect communities they attack.
How to do this begins with a counterintuitive hidden in plain view. The state, law enforcement in particular, is governed by a set of regulations that are not the same as those that govern citizens and many others. People can engage in intelligence gathering in ways that are often (though not always) rendered problematic for a cop or official. Furthermore, the person of interest to an antifa spy is often not a public official but a private citizen, perhaps a public figure, in many ways more open to surveillance and their networks thereby to penetration. This also applies to the civic and political groups a far right activist works with. While it may be quite beyond the technical capability of an antifa activist to hack the confidential informant records of a local cop, it is certainly within their capability to wade through the trash of a local fascist.
Today, many Antifa groups continue in this same tradition with detailed, publicly available and actionable intelligence on far-right activists–mug shots, addresses, workplaces, quotations, etc. Furthermore, contrary to claims that it’s too expensive and/or complicated to practice spycraft (leave it to the professionals!?) amateur spies are essential to the Antifa. Another way to think about this is that the type of struggle the Antifa is engaged in will in large part determine its methods, much like clinic defense organizations have long utilized opposition researchers in their work defending clinics against the anti-abortion movement, especially when they cannot rely on the state to do so.
It should be obvious that fighting the far-right is not the same as fighing corporations or the state; and the Antifa is not synonymous with the Black Bloc, another elementary distinction that eludes Proyect, but will have to wait for another time.
To continue, a cop generally has to have ‘probable cause’ to search through someone’s garbage and will likely be required to leave a paper trail (digital footprint) of their activity. In other words, because of the oppositional nature of much of the far right–the fact that it occupies a contradictory relationship with the state, often outside of it and even opposed to it–forms of anti-fascist resistance can penetrate it by different means. Opportunities for disrupting the far right present themselves in ways that organizing a union drive at a multinational corporate factory do not, and, also, that creative intelligence work can provide the basis for work between communities that might not otherwise work together. This doesn’t, of course, mean that elements of the state don’t overlap with the far right (after all, Donald Trump is president) but that anti-fascists need to take the threat of their activism seriously.
In my experience the value of anti-fascist work was always best determined in close consultation with other radical groups and communities targeted by the far right. In “Death to the Klan” and Armed Antifascist Community Defense in the US (It’s Going Down, July 26, 2016) there is a useful review of such efforts in Portland, Oregon during the late 1980s and 1990s.
“…[groups] like the Red and Anarchist SkinHeads (RASH) and the SkinHeads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARPs) found themselves in frequent battles with neo-fascists converging on Portland. A group called Coalition for Human Dignity (CHD) activated not just to beat back the onslaught of skinheads, but to transform racial consciousness in Portland. They used the strategies developed by ARA [Anti Racist Action] to expose and shame skinheads wherever they showed their faces, getting them fired from their jobs and evicted from their apartments. However, when skinheads began to harass local members of the community, attacking their houses and cars, CHD devised a decentralized community self-defense strategy.”
In the same article an old Portland comrade of mine, M. Treloar, is interviewed by It’s Going Down activists and elaborates:
“There were several situations where our people who had concealed weapons were confronted by groups of boneheads and either pulled the weapon or made it clear that they were armed and the boneheads backed off…There is no doubt in my mind that in several instances they would have been attacked, since we had people who were taking down car license plate numbers, staking out houses or infiltrating gatherings.”
“The CHD mobilized to form a media defense position, which helped generate positive public opinion….What’s notable is again the people who attacked the boneheads after a certain point did very little time, and were generally hailed as heroes in the community…”
From very early on the work of the Coalition for Human Dignity in Portland, Oregon (I was a founding member) targeted the social base of neo-fascism: white nationalism and the Christian Right. This definition intentionally cut across class lines–rendering racist reaction as neither the exclusive rotted fruit of the ruling class (capitalism releasing fascist antibodies to protect itself) nor principally the unresolved grievances of a white working class left behind by captialist development (two fairly typical myopic explanations of the re-emergence of the far-right.)
Back then, much as today, the issues of choice for far-rightists were anti-black and anti-latino racism and homophobia. It should be noted that at this time (1980s-1990s) the two main political parties and all statist anti-hate groups (SPLC, ADL, etc.), scrupulously avoided homophobia as a political issue and did not include bigoted elements of the Christian right nor anti-immigrant groups within their definition of ‘hate groups’. It was radical LGBTQ and fight-the-right activists who pushed them to do so by being more effective than they ever could be. But, nonetheless, organizing in the early nineties had to contend with the routine dismissals of the Christian Right as backwoods hicks, neo-Nazis as cults and criminals and racist skinheads as yet another counter-cultural youth rebellion, all destined to pass–if they hadn’t already–into the dustbin of history. But they didn’t, and neither did we. So many premature obituaries of the Paleo-conservatives and the Christian Right have been issued and reissued since then that it is staggering to consider not only their continued relevance today but their central role in the Trump electoral victory, and how spectacularly wrong those analysts were about their political prospects.
Many months after Trump’s victory, in a series of articles for Catalyst, Jacobin and New Left Review one of the most astute Marxist analysts today, Mike Davis, finally got around to noting the confluence of white nationalism and the Christian Right in Trump’s victory. That it took so long for the socialist left to make this observation is disturbing and highlights the fact that if anti-fascists lack the theoretical sophistication of New Left Review contributors, they more than make up for it by actually fighting fascism and capitalism, rather than just writing about it, after the fact.
On the other hand, if antifa groups want to have a say in how to oppose fascism, theoretical clarity is certainly important. The reason the best anti-fascist fighters have always come from socialist, anarchist and communist traditions is because they understood the first principle of anti-fascism: fascism is our mortal enemy, and must be fought.
Saying as much need not always involve alliances with liberals and conservatives that necessarily mean capitulation to those forces. If one has a decisive advantage in intelligence, it can be used to establish the political parameters of such alliances or agreements. If, however, antifa groups do not have an ‘intelligence capacity’ they will cede the right to effectively fight fascism, and thereby protect communities under attack, to others. That right, by the way, is earned; sometimes in a dumpster.
I am half out of my chair, wagging a finger at a rumpled comrade across the conference table. He is mouthing yet another misbegotten argument. But, before I can lob a verbal hand grenade his way, my erstwhile rival employs a bit of misdirection, using a card trick to illustrate how ‘false populists’ dupe the unwitting into acting against their own interests. The slight of hand lards a meandering presentation, something about fighting extremism but accepting ‘real’ grievances, supporting tolerance and diversity but rejecting hate and privilege, and is taken by many in attendance to be the summit of human wisdom on the topic at hand, which is fascism. I want to throw something—or throw up. It is about 1995, somewhere in the United States (really anywhere will do) and a dear friend and mentor is quietly urging me to stop wagging my finger.
“Sit down!” He says.
“Fold your hands into your lap and let him speak…then pull it apart, piece by piece.”
Then, he whispers, “Omne trium perfectum. Tell them what you are going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you just told them.”
Good advice when you are proposing ideas that break with accepted conventions; excellent advice if your emotions drive your intellect in the manner of a soap box orator. Throughout this gathering, held among fight-the-right activists from around the country, I try my best. But my best is not enough. My ideas don’t carry the day.
It is now some 20 years later and I’m not half out of my chair, nor am I standing on it. I’m throwing it—perhaps at you.
I am a ghost of anti-fascism past.
A restless spirit from history; a chair flying past your ear.
While I am not so arrogant to claim that if my ideas had carried the day then we wouldn’t be faced with a President Trump today, I am brash enough to state that the ideas which did carry the day during that gathering also failed to do as much.
Perhaps I can jog a memory that will cause you to shift uncomfortably in your chair. Am I mocking yet another premature obituary of the Christian right? Am I insisting that anti-fascists confront white nationalists on their own terrain? Am I noting how fascism can shape-shift and thereby ensure its enduring political relevance? Am I pounding my fist on the table, demanding foundations fund Antifa spy-craft instead of yet another conference on privilege? I hope the outline of my silhouette makes you a bit uneasy. But, behind every posthumous revenge lurks a pyrrhic victory. I am a ghost, after all, with nothing left of me but these words in the digital ether.
Don Hammerquist, in his valuable booklet Fascism & Anti-Fascism opens with the self-effacing statement:
“Feel free to shoot down any part of the argument, but remember that on the major points, validity isn’t ultimately a scholastic matter, but an issue that will be determined and ‘decided’ in struggle.” True enough. Feel free to attack what I write, too. However, keep in mind another dictum coined by C.L.R James on the same topic:
“A correct orientation does not mean victory. Incorrect orientations so glaringly false lead to certain defeat.” (The World Revolution 1917-1936, Chapter 12 “After Hitler, Our Turn”) The title of that chapter should be familiar to you, likewise the singular importance of its lesson.
With that in mind, here’s what I’m going to tell you, in three parts, naturally.
What you consider helpful in answering the age-old question ‘What is fascism?’ has probably been so inept as to invite that riposte rooted in mathematics: it is so bad it doesn’t even qualify as wrong. When trying to grasp the nature of fascism many radicals lean heavily on the tortured language of ‘populism’ and end up talking about choo-choo trains. Likewise, many socialists will suddenly morph into economic nationalists and start furiously digging analytical rabbit holes, reinforcing them with a maze of mirrors where we watch each other shadow box. It can be confusing. So, you probably don’t understand what fascism was, much less what it has become. Oh, I know. Who does? Even Nate Silver, that oracle of political prognostication, seemed shocked to find himself saying the words “white nationalism” on a podcast in the summer of 2016 when, had he understood the implications of what he was saying, it could have made a difference. But no matter, revolutionaries shouldn’t expect much from oracles. In any case, even back then it was clear that while the paleo-conservatives had successfully reinvented themselves as the alt-right through audacious counterintelligence initiatives such as the Acorn sting engineered by The Drudge Report, the salacious faux news of Brietbart, the white identitarian antics of Milos Yananoupoulis and the hacked Leninism of Steve Bannon, the progressive and socialist left were busy holding hands, examining and cross-examining their ‘privileges’ or feeling around for a phantom limb that had been amputated by the Democratic party. Meanwhile, much of the socialist left, including comrades at the International Socialist Organization (ISO) offered up wholly derivative, second rate accounts of fascism, forcing the tired bones of comrade Trotsky to carry their water, his petrified frame long ago having collapsed from the strain. But fascism is not a holdover from the past–a ‘basket of deplorables’ as some inept politician once remarked–nor ignorant hicks who clutch onto their God and guns because they fear being left behind. Fascism appears today as a tendency within our political and cultural age and offers itself as an exit strategy from the unsolvable contradictions of our present regimes of accumulation. It is thoroughly modern, or post-modern, if you insist. As white Christian nationalism it vies for supremacy within and between contemporary social classes throughout Europe and North America, where it has a political geography. That’s why Trump chose Pence as his running mate. It is real. It has always been with us. It is here, now and is both similar to, yet different from, ‘fascisms’ from previous eras. While this new fascism comes from the same family tree as its immediate predecessor, cold war fascism, and its antecedent, classical fascism, in important respects it differs from them, too. Getting that overlap and divergence correct is important. The Tea Party rebellion was the bridge between the end of cold war fascism and the beginning of 21st century fascism; of the transformation of the paleoconservative right—always the incubator of fascism in the United States—into the Alt-Right.
If you don’t know what fascism is, you will probably have a hard time fighting it effectively—even if you somehow arrive at the conclusion that it should be fought. Following the victory of Trump, liberals and progressives are leaping to join ‘the resistance’. But their methods follow their theory: fascism is something that comes from outside, not a tendency within our political culture. Their current obsession with Putin is a reflection of their diluted nationalism—what Albert Einstein called the “measles of humanity” that some Democrats offer as an alternative to the much more powerful Spanish Influenza on offer by Republicans. These “I’m With Her Anti-Fascists” who want Trump ridden out of town on a rail—preferably by the cowboys of the ‘Deep State’—should make any radical uncomfortable. But at least they recognize the existence of that political tendency, though their understanding of it is fatally flawed and their methods for confronting it a double-edged sword. On the other hand, for those of us from socialist, anarchist and communist traditions, it can be a bit disorienting to see an avowedly socialist journal such as Jacobin spend nearly seven years effectively arguing against the existence of, much less the need to fight, fascism. And that editorial line, that fighting the right amounts to nothing but the ‘anti-fascism of fools’ and support for ‘lesser evilism’, is pervasive amongst many radicals. With a redefinition of fascism along the lines I suggest, we might better retool our collective resistance to fascists and capitalists and carve out some space for emancipatory struggles. I am still waiting for long overdue mea culpas from socialists with integrity on this question.
Lastly, there can be no effective, comprehensive and permanent solution to the recurring problem of fascism without a revolutionary socialist project. The anti-fascist struggle is an indispensable crucible for revolutionary socialists, anarchists and communists–or should be. This understanding of fascism is informed by a theoretical framework rooted within a revolutionary left tradition—but one that is frequently overlooked, dismissed and denigrated by patrician socialists. A key insight into the nature of the kind of fascism we face today can be grasped by looking at the nuanced relationship that often exists between the far right and more traditionally conservative power centers. That relationship has long been a matter of fierce debate. What I will argue is that fascism has always been a constitutive part of capitalism, even when in opposition to it, but that that relationship is contested, a ‘semi-permeable membrane’ in the words of Leonard Zeskind. What all this means is that capitalist democracies will not and, more importantly, cannot decisively defeat fascism; they share too much in common with it. As revolutionary socialists, anarchists and communists we recognize this inescapable fact of our current predicament: Our mortal enemy is fascism. It cannot be decisively defeated without us and we should be preparing for the sacrifices necessary for the successful prosecution of that struggle. If need be, we will come back from the grave to kick its sorry ass back down the street.
In order to assert a new definition of fascism, theorize a contemporary movement against it and do so within the revolutionary socialist tradition (to restate what I am going to tell you) a note on who I am, is perhaps in order.
I’ve always been somewhat of a ‘bad school boy’—a peculiar revolutionary, perhaps even a walking contradiction: an insolent socialist who questions the centrality of workers to the democratic revolution; an anarchist in a suit who eschews affinity groups and consensus; a communist who refuses to join a communist party. But I wouldn’t have it any other way, for from each there is the possibility of a world outside the tyranny of the market, of work and of bosses, of violence, exploitation and domination. But, if our dreams and desires are dismissed as the daydreams of the naive and therefore nightmares for everyone else, (what used to be called ‘utopianism’, now ‘aspirationalism’ in current parlance) our future will be frozen within a capitalist democracy that will forever fail to be a democratic capitalism, thereby engendering the eternal return of fascist reaction. There the radical coreligionist dreams of a democratic socialism, an emancipatory anarchism and a communism of the commons will break our teeth and souls on the rocks of racism, nationalism and war. Now, facing a rising tide and ferocious surf of neofascism, it is imperative that we consider the following proposition at the heart of my dispatch from the past: Perhaps the unfinished Antifascist Revolution can bring together these warring siblings and deliver us from our current impasse.
That’s what the Antifa means to me.
What keeps me up at night, however, is quite different. In forthcoming dispatches I will expand upon the following themes.
Saints Without Miracles
The late Catholic Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero is rightly remembered as a courageous man of faith who broke with, then stood up to, the El Salvadoran elite.
Then he was murdered by them.
Roberto D’Aubuisson, the army major and oligarchy favorite known by the stomach-churning nickname “Blowtorch Bob” is said to have given the order for Romero’s March 24, 1980 assassination. Romero was shot to death as he was giving a sermon in a small chapel in San Salvador. Only days before his murder he had delivered a radio address beseeching Salvadoran soldiers to disobey immoral orders from their commanders—especially orders to kill civilians. That the Catholic Church hierarchy disregarded Romero’s pleas on behalf of the persecuted is well known.
Which brings to mind another courageous figure from El Salvador’s history who was cut down by his own: the communist poet Roque Dalton, whose assassination at the hands of fellow comrades took place forty years ago this month. Perhaps best known for the quote: “Poetry, like bread, is for everyone” Dalton was a larger than life poet/revolutionary who escaped a death sentence while in prison not once, but twice: the first time in the early 1960s when a coup d’etat freed him and the second time in 1965 when an earthquake destroyed the walls of his prison cell on the eve of his scheduled execution.
The legacies of Oscar Romero and Roque Dalton are linked by something other than mere geography. Their legacies are now contested by the very institutions that shaped their respective histories–for better and for worse.
And, in their own ways, they are both saints.
In a sign that many regard as heralding a new, more progressive Catholic Church under Pope Francis, Romero is to be beatified this coming May 23, 2015. But beatification—an important step towards sainthood within the Catholic Church—comes at a price. In some respects this is the same church hierarchy that abandoned Romero and other priests and lay people to the tender mercies of dictatorship that now seeks to claim his legacy as its own.
The legacy of Romero has long served as a touchstone for conflicts between factions within the Catholic church—between it’s right wing (pro-free market traditionalists) and left wing (followers of Vatican II and Liberation Theology) and even it’s ‘North’ and ‘South’. The sainthood process of Archbishop Romero illuminates, and may sharpen, these conflicts. And there is no-one more at the center of this conflict than Pope Francis himself.
Romero was declared a “Servant of God” by Pope John Paul II as long ago as 1997, initiating the sainthood process. There was plenty of opposition to that step from right wing Catholics. Under Pope Francis a Vatican commission established that Romero died in odium fidei, or because of “hatred of the faith”, clearing the way for him to be declared a “martyr.” And there are plenty of right wing Catholics who are unhappy about that, too. But this latter distinction is important, because it means Romero didn’t die on behalf of the poor, or for any reason other than his Catholic faith. In other words, he died because he was a Catholic, rather than because he sided with the masses during the civil war, or because he delivered fiery sermons attacking the Salvadoran ruling elite. As with much in the Catholic Church this is a small, but important, distinction and one which represents an approach by Pope Francis which can be viewed as clever, or nauseating, depending upon your point of view. As when Pope Francis was asked about homosexuality and the Church and he responded, with clever ambiguity, “Who am I to judge?”
In my view, the Catholic Church’s beatification of Oscar Romero will most likely elevate, and bring low, his legacy.
These titles and definitions are linked to a process of institutional recognition that may eventually culminate in sainthood—the highest regard in which a deceased Catholic can be held. My admittedly limited understanding of this process is that for someone to be declared a Saint, two “miracles” have to be “proven”: One which occurred when the saintly prospect was alive and one posthumously. Apparently, the latter often involves someone praying to the prospective saint on behalf of a sick person who is then miraculously “cured”—magical steps that, it seems to me, cheapen the whole process; sort of a mirror image of the largely (and thankfully) disregarded Catholic practice of exorcism.
What all this means is that we don’t need a Catholic commission to find “proof” of Godly intercession to tell us what we already know: that Romero—call him what you like— played an important role in the struggle for freedom and equality and there is much to be learned from his example. And it is precisely this lesson that is problematic for the Catholic Church—in particular for Pope Francis himself.
I would argue that Pope Francis did not take that critical step towards the poor during the dirty wars in Argentina (1976-1983) when his fellow Argentinians were being hunted down and murdered by the dictatorship. When Romero was castigating his fellow ruling oligarchs for repressing preasants, what was Jorge Mario Bergoglio saying? Pope Francis claims that he protected some fellow Jesuit priests, but I think it’s clear from his own recollections of that time that he did not have his epiphany when it was needed most. And no brave actions against the dictatorship were forthcoming on his part. And I, for one, am still waiting for a fuller Mea Culpa from this Pope who, from the current relative safety of his Pontificate, now rails against the injustices suffered by the poor and downtrodden of this earth. Where were these impassioned homilies when they were needed?
But perhaps it will be the beatification of Romero that gives Pope Francis his opportunity to square the circular hole that is his past behavior during the Dirty War dictatorship with the square peg that is his contemporary denunciation of privilege and oppression in the new millennium.
The earthly ‘miracle’ of Archbishop Oscar Romero is that he set aside a life of immense privilege, stood up for the oppressed, made himself vulnerable and then paid the ultimate price for having done so.
This is something Pope Francis did not do.
If every person, from whatever background—religious or non-religious— would do as much, we would have paradise in the here and now, where it counts, rather than some imaginary beyond, where it doesn’t.
Romero had his epiphany following the murder of his friend, the radicalized parish priest Rutilio Grande. And while Romero probably wouldn’t have put it in the currency of Liberation Theology, he took that “preferential option for the poor” and stood up to torture, repression, poverty and inequality. And that’s why he was killed, not, in a narrow sense because he was Catholic, or because he professed his faith. Unless, of course, we equate the Catholic faith with standing up to oppression in the manner of Oscar Romero. In this respect the Catholic Hierarchy wants their cake and to eat it too—they want to take credit for Romero’s legacy of social justice, but without linking it to actual struggles for equality or their own complicity in the death of Romero and so many, many others.
Roque Dalton’s murder by his own comrades in arms presents the left with its own ethical dilemma: Some who are reputed to have executed Dalton went on to play leading roles in the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) umbrella guerrilla movement that now, as a political party, governs El Salvador. Dalton’s sons, Juan Jose and Jorge Dalton have both petitioned the left wing government of El Salvador to investigate the murder and bring to justice his killers, to no avail.
The late Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano has this devastating three-sentence-long poem about Dalton’s murder which eloquently lays out the stakes:
The poet Roque Dalton wielded a defiant wit, he never learned to sup up or take orders, and he laughed and loved fearlessly.
On the eve of this day [May 10] in the year 1975, his fellow guerrillas in El Salvador shot him dead while he slept.
Criminals: rebels who kill to punish disagreement are no less criminal than generals who kill to perpetuate injustice.
(Retreived May 1, 2015 from wordswithoutborders.org).
Since the day I first read it in El Salvador in 1985 my favorite poem of Roque Dalton’s is Watchtower. (Please forgive my translation, it is largely from memory and what I have been able to scrape together from the Internet as I cannot find my copy of Datlon’s Clandestine Poems within which it appears.)
A religion that tells you there’s only pie-in-the-sky
and that all earthly life is lousy and vicious
and that you shouldn’t be too concerned
is the best guarantee that you will stumble at every step
and dash your teeth and soul
against absolutely earthly rocks
While it may seem counterintuitive, it is nonetheless true: the legacy of Archbishop Romero demands a reckoning from the Catholic Church that cannot be satisfied by his elevation to sainthood; it can only be given true meaning when his example transforms the Catholic Church and makes it a vessel for delivering us from oppression and opening the door towards justice and equality. Likewise, the assassination of Roque Dalton by his own comrades cannot be atoned for by placing his visage on a postage stamp or including his poems in the school curriculum; it can only be set to rest when his killers are brought to justice and when Dalton’s vision of a socialist future is won.
by Natsuo Kirino
Alfred A. Knopf 2008
In a brief foreword to Real World the author, Natsuo Kirino, writes that for Japanese kids “…the school year begins in April and ends in March the following year.” In other words, excepting brief interregnums, it’s interminable. And as everyone knows, Japanese kids are expected to study way too much. Occasionally, student failure results in murder or, more often, suicide.
The tableau having been set—picture alienated students in uniform cramming in isolated cubicles—Kirino begins with the familiar trope of students collapsing under the weight of academic expectations that cannot be fulfilled. But what she does with this set piece is unexpected: She indicts modern Japanese society and, by extension American Imperialism, for a shared legacy of soul crushing militarism and misogyny. This novel is deeply political; although it seems no one has figured that out yet.
Kirino employs a first-person, present-tense voice through which we are brought directly into the headspace of five Japanese adolescents—four young women and one young man. As a literary device, attempting to convey the thought-world of teenagers (or anyone, for that matter) through the first person seems a risky conceit. But, S.E. Hinton did as much through her character Pony Boy in The Outsiders. Kirino does the same, adeptly and to devastating effect.
Matricide is at the center of Real World’s plot. The book opens with our first teenager, Toshiko, penciling in her eyebrows as she hears something “breaking” next door where a teenage boy lives with his parents. The loud sound, we find out later, is that of the mother being bludgeoned to death at the hands of the son. Toshiko refers to the boy as “Worm”, the nick-name that sticks throughout the remainder of the novel, even when we switch to his perspective, which reads somewhat like the boy’s one-sided response to an interrogation—the questions, while omitted in the text, are implicit. The remainder of the novel explores the deeply conflicted actions of the four women as they help, in various ways, the young man elude authorities until his inevitable demise.
While the novel is character—rather than plot—driven, it has no central protagonist. Instead, Kirino assembles a composite protagonist from four women, Toshiko, Kirarin, Tarauchi and Yuzan. Emotional attachment to Worm runs the gamut from erotic fascination to revulsion but always shot through with a certain matter-of-factness that suggests a certain shallowness. It is through the response these young women have to what Worm has done that Kirino’s political point comes into relief: modern Japanese nationalism, propped up on the twin pillars of militarism and misogyny, is destroying its youth, and thereby its future.
Worm’s murder of his mother sets in motion the plot of the novel. It is also through Worm that Kirino introduces the ghost of Japanese nationalism. Worm recalls watching a television program where, in revenge for something done “during the war” an “old Filipino woman” savagely attacks a Japanese soldier with a hammer and pointed stick. Worm identifies with the soldier.
The link between nationalism and misogyny becomes more explicit on page 113:
Worm: “I don’t need any women at all. I’ve been transformed. Maybe because I took a bath after we checked into this love hotel. As soon as my salt suit was washed away I completed my new personality. The soul of the former Japanese soldier.”
Elsewhere, Worm’s psychosis becomes more fully developed: “Now that I’d done my mother in, I had to mow down all the rest of the pornographic women in the world. Somebody’s got to give the order. I glanced around the room, looking for an officer. But no one was there.” (p. 114).
And finally: “The reality came to me—I’m alone on the front line, the only one still fighting the war. Before that old Filipino man and woman can torture me, I’ve got to escape into the jungle. And regroup for the next battle. My war has just begun. That’s the world I’m in—my world.” (p.115).
And the world of Worm—psychosis and all—is our world, too; the real world of men free to prey on young girls and a national culture that refuses to acknowledge, much less atone for, the Rape of Nanking and other atrocities. But in this Japan is not alone; the United States has its own national atrocities about which it has never come clean (slavery and segregation, the Vietnam War and other interventions in the so-called Third World, etc.). And Kirino is aware of the willful national amnesia the United States and Japan share. I don’t think it is by accident that she has Worm murder his mother with a baseball bat. While Sumo wrestling is Japan’s national sport, baseball—that most American of sports—is it’s most popular. As Worm swings the bat at his mother’s head, Kirino has him thinking, “Strike one…Foul ball…Clean hit…” deftly reminding us that the bat is not just a piece of wood, but a loaded cross-cultural symbol, as well.
Later, after Kirarin and Worm die in a car accident, Terauchi suffers the brunt of guilt for her involvement in the events leading up to the death of her friend. Terauchi considers her role so terrible as to be “…irreparable…a horribly frightening feeling that keeps building up inside you forever until your heart is devoured. People who carry around the burden of something that can’t be undone will one day be destroyed.” (p.150). She commits suicide. Through Terauchi, Kirino is clearly saying that a culture that cannot come to terms with its ghosts is doomed to be devoured by them.
Kirino is brilliant when rendering the alienation and terror of adolescent life through these harrowing internal monologues. In this her work suggests the dark cinematic lyricism of Gus Van Sant’s film Elephant (2003), itself a profound rumination on the 1999 Columbine high school massacre which shares a certain tone with Real World. Also, Real World clearly owes a debt to Tim Hunter’s 1986 film River’s Edge, a reinterpretation of an S.E. Hinton novel that explores some of the same territory Real World and Elephant do—the remarkably detached, almost sanguine, reaction to murder these kids display. All three efforts explore the normalization of dissociative behavior that hovers somewhere between the sociopathic and psychotic; that is between a coping mechanism grounded in reality and a complete break from that reality.
Kirino, Van Sant and Hunter all have their young people set adrift among failed institutions—most notably the family. But all of this takes place within a broader context of a deep cultural anxiety. In Hunter’s case our protagonists struggle (unsuccessfully) to find meaning in the cultural effluvia of America’s ‘defeat’ in the Vietnam War. Here, the importance of Dennis Hopper’s character (Feck) is noteworthy in establishing the film’s cultural context (he’s a Vietnam Vet obviously experiencing post traumatic stress disorder, newly added to the DSM III in 1980). With Kirino’s Japan it is the Lost Decade of the 1990s, together with the unresolved legacy of the Empire of Japan that provide context. Van Sant’s Elephant was made soon after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that marked a turning point in the American cultural narrative, from self-sacrificing Cold War victors to “a reluctant, but necessary turn to the dark side”, as Dick Chaney succinctly captured it, best represented by the psychopath Chris Kyle of American Sniper fame.
It doesn’t do Kirino justice to describe her as merely a “feminist noir” writer, although she certainly is that. Aside from being a very well written and creative novel, the book also serves as an unexpected and welcome rejoinder to a growing Japanese World War II historical revisionism. It’s refreshing to see this done through what amounts to a Dystopian Bildungsroman novel leavened with social criticism.
Only two items are locked behind the counter at my local grocery store—cigarettes and baby formula.
Capital in the Twenty-First Century–Eternal Inequality?
No, I have not read all 577 pages of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I don’t think I have the wherewithal to hike through such a dense scholarly forest. Besides, there are also seventy-eight pages of notes inconveniently placed at the end of the book–rather than at the bottom of each page–that drive me bat shit. So I’ll leave it to the saintly patient among us to assemble a more complete assessment. Here I’ll sketch out my preliminary thoughts.
I’ve read more about Thomas Piketty and his economic laws and formula for inequality ‘r>g’ (now immortalized on a t-shirt by Stephen Colbert) than I have read pages of his book. But after having read a hundred or so pages, Capital in the Twenty-First Century now occupies pride of place on my desk where it conceals a good number of bills I would rather not pay. So here’s my two-cents worth, which is all I have left after r>g.
Capital in the Twenty-First Century is primarily a study of economics, a discipline I generally hold in low regard, as phrenology or public relations. Despite this built-in handicap, Piketty has succeeded in producing a work of singular importance for anyone concerned with social equality and economic justice. What allows him to do so, unlike so many others before him, is two-fold: a multi-disciplinary approach to the problematic relationship between capitalism and social inequality; and a mastery of a mountain of data sets.
Piketty argues that a systematic rendering of the dynamics of inequality require the scholarly tools of the historian and the sociologist as much as, if not more than, the economist, in order to adequately explain what is at the core of this system of production, exchange and consumption that we all live with. Piketty also owes a great debt to a number of talented colleagues and to relatively recent technological advances (the internet, relational databases) that help with the heavy lifting necessary to manage mountains of data. Such talented coworkers and new widgets allowed for Piketty et. al. to slowly, over 15 years, sort through economic data spread out over a great deal of time (as much as 300 years) and across many different societies (at least 20 countries) and transform it into useful information and from there into a theory. Piketty even goes so far as to argue that his theory rests on laws. That’s pretty audacious, and just the sort of thing, when put forward by economists, I usually find so aggressively stupid–the kind of stuff that ‘naturalizes’ inequality and injustice, where the rich are rich because they work real hard and deserve what they get and, conversely, the poor deserve their lot. But Piketty is grinding a different axe here and although I am skeptical that he has uncovered any hidden ‘laws’ regarding the functioning of capitalism or economics more generally, he has valuable insights.
Captial in the Twenty-First Century provides a much needed re-periodization of the history of global capitalism that reminds us (as if we needed reminding) that as a system it is both unstable and unsustainable. As a political economy it involves a deeply contradictory relationship to democracy. Except for war, depression and revolution, social inequality increases both over time and across nations: regardless of where or when you live, the global rate of return on capital (r) tends to increase at a rate higher than that of the economy in general (g), the result being that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It’s a fairly straightforward equation, but it has far-reaching, profound implications. Piketty’s prescription to solve this problem is not, as revolutionary ideas go, audacious, but it is absolutely inconceivable within the thought world of elite opinion: a global tax on wealth and income. Even Piketty has described this modest proposal as ‘utopian’.
What Piketty and his colleagues effectively demonstrate is that instead of a steady forward march and upward trajectory, where the benefits of capitalist development steadily lift all boats, or trickle down onto the heads of the masses–choose your inept metaphor–the prevalence and persistence of inequality is a key feature of this economic system. The kicker here is that the rate of accumulation of wealth and income by the few is only interrupted when gross economic output (GDP at the national level) exceeds the rate of return on capital. The tendency towards increased inequality is mitigated by technological innovation and the diffusion of education to the masses–but only so much, and such developments can be offset by novel forms of accumulation at the top. Apparently this leveling out hasn’t happened very often over the past 300 years and when it has–during and after world wars, depressions and revolution–it is a by-product of the instability the economic system has itself produced. In other words, only after economic and political convulsions is the process of upwards accumulation slowed or halted; then, after a time, inequality is reasserted. Another way to look at this is that these spasms of extreme violence, capital destruction, and habitat obliteration are this system’s way of regulating itself.
This brings to mind a clever rhetorical Q & A: Why does capitalism triumph over all attempts to thwart it? Because when faced with a crisis, capital turns to socialism to rescue it every time.
Elsewhere Piketty notes the recent emergence of ‘super managers’ pulling away from everyone else and that we are returning to a form of ‘patrimonial capitalism’ that resembles the ‘Gilded Age’ that preceded the Great Depression.
It doesn’t take a Paul Krugman to see that.
But I am also ambivalent about Piketty and his tome. The author self-consciously adopts the accoutrements of radicalism without any of the elements of risk (imprisonment, exile, execution) that have commonly been associated with such ideas–sort of squatting on the shoulders of giants. Piketty’s radicalism is that of a ‘rock star’, the perfect emblem for the Society of the Spectacle (another apt French phrase). If I write dismissively of the hype surrounding Piketty it’s only to highlight an intellectual marketplace that functions to domesticate all manner of dissent and opposition, what others have described as Capital’s ability to assimilate and thereby neutralize red, yellow and black cells. In the process what is so obviously a scholarly work of some importance is being systematically sucked dry of any saliency by a commentariat enthralled with the image of scholarly rebellion but largely incapable of grappling with the most potent ideas at the center of this work. And that includes the gushing praise heaped by the likes of Paul Krugman as well as the absurd red-baiting coughed up by the Financial Times and other hack apologists for inequality.
It’s been inspiring to watch mainstream and especially libertarian economists go back on their heels in the face of a body of work that has exposed their epic failures: first, their inability to document and accept the instability that comes with inequality as an essential historical feature of global capitalism and, secondly, their failure to anticipate the obvious results this contradiction will produce (Crash of 2008). I delight in Piketty’s swipe at American orthodox economists as being numbers obsessed, a collection of blinkered bean counters and malignant technocrats consumed with more profit and novel ways of obtaining it. The essayist Thomas Frank in his review of Piketty’s book recounts an anecdote that neatly captures this point in a satirical manner reminiscent of a Family Guy cut-out skit: a group of American economists at an unnamed Mid-Western university took to sporting white lab coats so as to distinguish the ‘serious’ nature of their pursuits as distinct those of their colleagues in the ‘soft’ sciences of sociology, political science and anthropology. The hubris here tells us everything we need to know about the reining orthodoxy of that profession.
Piketty’s work neglects the role social forces (organized labor, civil rights movements, rural rebellions, etc) play in shaping income inequality–especially by reducing it. This reinforces a mechanistic view of economic forces as being somehow beyond our control, inexorable and inevitable–sort of like the orthodox historical materialism of another era. Piketty is a French structuralist, a school of thought that adds much to our understanding of the role social forces and institutions play in shaping our lives as much as it fails to apprehend human beings as subjects with conscious thought and agency. Such economic laws are said to exist outside us, perhaps above us, to be divined by econometricians with their modern alchemy of algorithms and spreadsheets, and salvation lies in uncovering the ‘laws’ that govern production, exchange and consumption. We need only understand them better and apply them more intelligently.
But the notion of perpetually increasing growth and profit is often presented as natural (immutable) or, worse still, moral (normative). But it is not any of those things (or shouldn’t be regarded as such) and our task is, again, to redistribute. There is no ‘law’–economic, political or moral–that can establish a fairer distribution of resources, income and wealth. Only struggle will achieve that. This is obvious to anyone who cares to look around at the abundance of natural resources that can sustain human life that are at our disposal. That those resources need be exploited by human intervention is a given, but that a market system based on greed and competition is the best way to achieve a sustainable distribution of those resources is an unsupported fairy tale: magical thinking without the sound moral teachings of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel to stoke our wonder and awe and help us engender change. There is really very little science here, just raw power.
Piketty distances his work from that point of view, arguing for interdisciplinary dependence and careful, sober fact-checking. Yet he reproduces that very dynamic elsewhere–at least more than he should–and it is this problem with his work that James K. Galbraith and Thomas Frank rightly point out.
Besides, no matter how many beans are counted, algorithms programmed or equations solved, I don’t consider economics a ‘science’ at all: at best it’s ‘mathematical sociology’, or ‘numerical anthropology’. We are, after all, still human and our ability to reflect on our world and change it means that efforts to quantify our activity should always be held up to rigorous examination and withering critique; that critical stance itself necessarily informed by how that bean counting, that widget, or innovative metric can help alleviate social inequality, how it serves the common good.
Given that Piketty and colleagues have been assembling, publishing and discussing their data for more than a decade and that the book was published last year in France (to mostly yawns) why the explosion in publicity over the past summer? It reminds me of the campaign orchestrated by Adbusters with the help of the PR firm ‘Workhorse’ around the Occupy Movement–some kind of prescient anticipation or luck combined with a ‘flash mob’ moment and technical prowess emerged to launch this book. I’m interested in seeing an analysis of the Harvard University Press public relations strategy on release of the book and other efforts, apparently wildly successful in a narrow economic sense, to sell the book and Piketty himself. My main concern, however, is what this book and the man who wrote it are saying about our world; how best do we evaluate the arguments put forth in the book and the discussion that has followed, and how it is useful (or not) in changing the world. At least it’s heft can be used against champions of the free market, or to help cover up those pesky bills I’d rather not pay.
History Through Horror: The Classical Eugenics Movement and Homo Sapiens 1900
By Jonathan Mozzochi
2. ‘Reading’ Homo Sapiens 1900
3. Origins and Opposition
–The Russian Version–Lenin’s Brain
–The German Version–Blood and Body
–The Swedish Version–‘Consensual’ Sterilization
–The American Version–Prefiguring the Nazi Holocaust
7. Eugenics Residuals
–‘Human Directed Evolution’
–Elasticity of ‘Race’
–Thoroughbreds and Prisons
Peter Cohen’s 2000 film Homo Sapiens 1900 explores the turn-of-the-century ‘eugenics’ movement, an effort by academics, business elites, civic groups and public officials to ‘racially cleanse’ populations through often coercive measures including, but not limited to: control of sexual reproduction (selective breeding), forced sterilization, and euthanasia programs. The movement is shown to have prefigured the European Holocaust and is effectively captured through the film-within-a-film iconic image of a physician who allows an ‘inferior’ baby to die so as to spare society the burden of its upkeep. The scene includes this chilling caption: “There are times when saving a life is a greater crime than taking one.”
A bit more horror show than documentary (think Nosferatu meets Ken Burns’ Civil War)Homo Sapiens 1900 shocks while it informs. In this respect the film adheres to the conventions of its genre; but the very novelty of its approach (history through horror) is also its achilles heel. While Homo Sapiens 1900 effectively conveys the monstrosity of the eugenics project and strikes the right tone in doing so (somber, melancholy, compassionate) it also prevents us from regarding it in a contemporary setting–there really is nothing to relate to here, but plenty to recoil from.
By shining light on the origins, trajectory and ‘decline’ of the classical eugenics movement, Homo Sapiens 1900 can help us expose an inchoate, if potentially far more powerful and destructive movement, all around us today. We need to ask: How did the eugenics movement become an accepted science of its time? How did it become embedded in ivory towers, from Cambridge to Berlin, Stockholm to Moscow? Under what conditions did the movement arise and eventually dissipate? In what novel forms is the movement still with us?
The film asks and answers these questions; it’s our job to evaluate those efforts.
‘Reading’ Homo Sapiens 1900
Homo Sapiens 1900 unsettles through its film score (a piano accompaniment that is alternatively sparse, melancholy, dissonant, and strange) narration (think Rod Steiger of The Twilight Zone meets Walter Cronkite) and entirely black and white still photos and film from the era–many jarring and bizarre. The film’s motif, “The image of man fills us at times with compassion”, conveys a somber pessimism that envelopes us. Yet the overall effect is curiously reassuring as it distances us from its subject. This distancing makes it difficult to identify the persistence of old forms of eugenics; it makes it even more difficult to spot the emergence of any new forms.
Whenever we see a film that is set in the past we tend to project our values there–overlay the narrative, if you will–with our judgments and biases. What seems bizarre to us now may have been a normative idea of that time. For instance, recall those archetypal categories of physical anthropology, the ‘Great Races’? The Caucasoid, Negroid, Mongoloid and Australoid? How mundane does ‘race betterment’ sound next to ‘Mongoloid’? Unfortunately the context within which the eugenics movement flourished is not examined very well; academic and activist opposition to these ideas are only skirted and woefully undeveloped.
The ‘It’s Alive!’ scene from the 1931 film Frankenstein appears near the beginning of Homo Sapiens 1900: “Frankenstein: enlightened reason transformed into a nightmare. The scientist as the terrifying symbol of the utopian era,” a warning about the hubris of man’s attempts to control nature and perhaps cheat death. Cohen (the film maker) clearly regards the eugenics movement as a ‘road to hell paved with good intentions’ and the use of the Frankenstein clip is undoubtedly a convenient and effective framing device. It also, unfortunately, contributes to the film’s inability to grasp the particulars of each eugenics movement, none more so than the American experience. After all, Frankenstein is a morality tale about a heart-broken, rogue scientist while the eugenics movement featured powerful institutions laying the groundwork for genocide.
Origins & Opposition
The term ‘eugenics’ has its origins with Francis Galton (1822-1911), the British polymath who coined it as a means to redress the injustice of his observation that “‘inferior people’ procreate more rapidly.” The film’s narrator aptly summarizes Galton’s scientific racism: “the idea that life, society, [and] the family can be cultivated like a garden, in which the weeds must be distinguished from the useful plants, is something Galton wants to develop into a science. He calls his idea ‘eugenics’: the control of natural selection.”
As used here at the film’s outset ‘natural selection’ and ‘homo sapiens’ reference Charles Darwin’s signature theory of human evolution; indeed, they are inexplicable without it. But other than these instances, the film makes no mention of Darwin, and does not discuss the influence of his ideas on eugenics. This is a glaring omission–although in saying as much I feel a need to state clearly that I don’t consider Darwin’s ideas to be inherently racist, much less uniquely responsible for the eugenics movement. I can’t help think the film maker either intentionally omitted such background for reasons of economy (which is unfortunate) or, perhaps internal censorship, (which is regrettable). Perhaps Cohen didn’t think the material was relevant? Perhaps he was fearful that his art would be subject to misinterpretation and/or willful misuse and abuse by fundamentalists of all stripes?
In any case, our narrator locates the philosophical roots of the eugenics movement in Enlightenment Europe, particularly in ideas popularized by Kant and Rousseau that human beings are the only self-reflective creature able to intentionally alter its environment and, reflexively, itself. The idea of improving, or perfecting, ‘races’ through scientific intervention, followed. This notion was given new meaning when harnessed to advances in biology, in particular the study of heredity. The movement found ample echoes in the ‘high arts’, in particular sculpture, painting, poetry and literature. “The concept of degeneration now has an optimistic antithesis: biology as the redeemer of the western world” the narrator intones.
There were two main schools of thought regarding heredity: Mendelism, so-called by the followers of Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) the founder of the science of genetics, which held that subjective characteristics (e.g., beauty) are not subject to generational alteration through human intervention and that the environment does not directly shape heredity and, Lamarckism, named for the followers of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, (1744-1829) who held that one could intervene in heredity to alter traits, including subjective traits (e.g., intelligence). Both schools of thought are examined through debate carried on during the 5th International Conference on Hereditary Research held in Berlin in 1927. While the Mendelists were proven right, there were many variations of eugenics followers, from nudists to communists, and some were Mendelists while others took a more Lamarckian approach to the matter. The film does a good job of illustrating the cultural milieu within which this debate took place, but does not effectively show how racism could remain potent after one version of the hereditary debate was vanquished: i.e., the elimination of Lamarkism as a viable model for the interpretation of heredity did not eliminate a racist interpretation of Mendelism. The very notion of effecting heredity–from any direction, if you will–can be harnessed to the forever plastic idea of ‘race’. This insight suggests a permanency to such ideas, i.e., so long as discrete ‘races’ persist, notions of ‘improving’ them using ‘science’ will naturally follow.
The film does not discuss these points.
Practitioners of eugenics used two approaches to better a ‘race’: so-called ‘positive eugenics’ or directed breeding, the encouragement of the ‘best’ people to reproduce; and, ‘negative eugenics’, the culling of the herd or pruning of the stock, discouraging ‘inferior’ races from breeding. Attempts to employ these approaches culminated in the euthanasia of babies, the ‘mercy killing’ of the genetically unfit and, of course, the Holocaust, which can be understood at least in part as an effort to apply ‘negative eugenics’ on a global scale.
Weren’t there academics and activists opposed to the hogwash of utopian racialism that eugenics represented? There were, but they are practically invisible in this film. Raymond Pearl, an American scientist in attendance for the 5th International Heredity Conference makes an appearance to deny that “there is any evidence supporting eugenics”; but his is a lonely voice in the film–and conspicuously American. Likewise, academia in general, and physical and cultural anthropologists, sociologists, and biologists in particular, are made out to have been largely united in support of eugenics.
Where is the opposition? Nowhere. This omission serves the artifice of horror at the expense of history. It is enough to note that the ‘father of American anthropology’, Franz Boas (1858-1942) was also “one of the most prominent opponents of the then popular ideologies of scientific racism…” (Wikipedia, Franz Boas) and that Boas often feuded with Madison Grant (1865-1937) “the prophet of scientific racism”(Jonathan Spiro, in Patterns of Prejudice, 2002). Grant was also a close friend of President Theodore Roosevelt and a ‘grandfather’ of the modern environmental movement. Together with co-founding the ‘Save the Redwoods League’ and supporting innovative wildlife management techniques and conservation efforts, Grant also took an active role in shaping anti-immigration policies and anti-miscegenation laws.
This the film leaves on the cutting room floor?
Homo Sapiens 1900 examines four varieties of the eugenics movement: the American, Swedish, German and Russian. Each is contextualized within a broader trend of ‘utopian movements’ prevalent during that time period–the two most influential being communism and fascism. Eugenics became popular because utopian, or well-meaning but misguided efforts to improve society were susceptible to the elegant lie of progress through racial science, or so the film argues. Racialist ideas combined with advances in science were supercharged by utopian ideas. Such efforts reached a tipping point of influence when harnessed to a powerful state, where “the nation ranks higher than the individual.”
The Russian Version–Lenin’s Brain
In newly triumphant revolutionary Russia (1917), the death of Lenin (1924) occasioned the establishment of a eugenics institute dedicated to studying ‘genius’. Lenin’s brain, together with that of other scientists, artists, dictators and democrats were preserved in a glass display case in the hopes of discerning the biological foundations of intelligence.
Homo Sapiens 1900 also explores the ‘utopianism’ at the center of the Russian Revolution noting that at least one Soviet scientist considered eugenics the “religion of the future and it awaits its prophets.” Herman Joseph Muller, an American geneticist and radical, is also an anti-racist who believes that the correct application of eugenics will breed a new generation of geniuses in the mold of Marx and Lenin. Conversely, he just as strongly argues that the incorrect application of its principles will produce monsters in the mold of Al Capone and Billy Sunday. Lost, of course, is the notion that eugenics itself is nonsense. In the Soviet version, however “ideas of degeneracy and decay play a subordinate role” to breakthroughs in the biological sciences, however poorly they are understood.
In any case, the movement is eventually demolished by Joseph Stalin (in his own inimitable fashion) when he brands “eugenics, genetics and fascism” as one and the same–throwing out the baby with the bathwater, as it were. The famines already experienced by the Soviet masses, and those to come, were informed by this decision. Some of the most frightening film clips are those from (presumably) Soviet propaganda films that feature lines of industrial workers pounding hammer to anvil in unison, to the following narration: “Higher capacity–physical and intellectual– leads to increased productivity. The scientific organization of labor will harmonize man and machine.” The ‘young state’ tries to apply the faulty principles of Lamarckism–with updated twists from the Soviet scientist Trofim Lysenko, to poultry and cattle and then to breeding people, but (thankfully) doesn’t get very far. The upshot here is that the Soviet version of eugenics was tolerated by, and ultimately destroyed by, Stalin.
The German Version–Blood and Body
The German version features the physician Alfred Plutz advocating the euthanasia of babies with morphine and the coinage of the term ‘race hygiene’. Early ideas of selectively breeding humans and of the supremacy of biology are central here and the movement infiltrates and conquers German academia with its racial anthropology and notions of ‘blood purity‘. While the film doesn’t reference the back-to-nature, youth movement of the Wondervogel directly, it’s influence is everywhere in the art selected to represent the budding German eugenics movement. The nudism and anti-modern elements of the movement are an interesting contrast to the Russian version of ‘the new socialist man.’ In Germany, protecting the body demands strict guidelines against ‘racial mixing‘ which is believed will lead to degeneration and doom. The role of anti-Semitism in all this is curiously unexplored. Unsurprisingly, Hitler’s National Socialist Party is the first to adopt a policy on ‘race hygiene‘ into its platform. By the early 1930s, eugenics is official state policy.
We know the rest of that story.
The Swedish Version–‘Consensual’ Sterilization
The Swedish variety is fascinating and not as well known. As in the German and American varieties, a pioneering scientist, Herman Lundborg, visits prisons, parishes and ‘mad houses‘ to measure and evaluate inferior peoples. The film presents Swedish society in the 1920s and 1930s as “a progressive social welfare state within which ethnic conflict is virtually unknown.” How that was achieved, we are not told. But, the eugenics movement is again ‘supercharged’ as “the nation ranks higher than the individual” and race hygiene merges with the welfare state. Sterilization laws are passed “unanimously” by parliament (although not until the 1930s) and in a twist perhaps unique to Sweden and the Swedes, “the sterilization law is not compulsory. The Swedish variety is democratic. Opposition shall be overcome through persuasion.” The “passion for social justice” at the center of the Swedish ethos hangs on, if in attenuated form.
In all, Swedish eugenics policies are perhaps less monstrous than those of other states but they last–get this–well into the 1970s.
The American Version–Prefiguring the Nazi Holocaust
The American version, we are told, “gains support through an aggressive campaign against blacks and immigrants” and that “nowhere else is it so strong”. The movement is anchored in granges, eccentric scholars and then-novel forms of mass entertainment (silent movies). Again, all of this is true, but not the whole picture.
How about who funded the movement? What institutional connections did it have?
Charles Davenport, a renowned Harvard Zoologist is an early figure who set up a ‘eugenics record office’ on Long Island where field workers collected ‘eugenics data’ in mental wards, prisons and hospitals on millions of index cards (this nicely prefigures IBM’s complicity in the Holocaust.) Davenport also exemplifies that peculiar American trait of entrepreneurship, in this case wedding the profit motive to ‘racial science’, of singular importance to the spread of the nascent American eugenics movement. Of course that is my observation, not Cohens’.
In America the world’s first sterilization laws were passed early (1907) and broadly (20 states). The American Eugenics Society would hold competitions at fairs where medical measurements are taken of participants who are then judged on ‘intelligence’ and ‘pedigree’. This nicely illustrates the movement’s street credibility, it’s resonance within American culture at large, together with the movement’s fixation on measurement, rank and classification–the trappings of modern scientific inquiry.
There is no better example of the movement’s self-assurance than The Black Stork (1917; re-released in 1924 as Are You Fit to Marry?) which sought to answer the touchstone moral question of whether to allow an ‘inferior’ baby to grow up an outcast, condemned to a life of misery for itself and (by implication) others. The film resolves the question through the application of eugenic infanticide (‘compassionate murder’) which is at the centerpiece of this silent eugenics propaganda film. The film is a re-enactment of a very public effort to apply the then novel philosophy of eugenics to an (incorrectly diagnosed) syphilitic boy. The Black Stork features the real-life doctor in whose care the child was entrusted, Dr. Harry J. Haiselden who plays the fictional Dr. Dickey.
Whereas in reality the child is condemned to death, in the film the doctor is prevented from applying his theory of eugenics and the child grows up to be a “shunned monstrosity” (Wikipedia ‘The Black Stork’). Haiselden intended the film as a “date night movie for couples” who would be spurred to consider ‘race betterment’ when starting a family. Homo Sapiens 1900 introduces us to an emblematic controversy of American eugenics, but without any historical context. The defense attorney Clarence Darrow weighed in on the issue at the time–in support of Haiselden–which would have been interesting to know; instead, we are treated to a compelling, if narrow, horror show ‘set piece.’
The film cherry-picks old, turn of the century images of eugenics meetings at grange halls but fails to identify the fertile soil of white supremacy and anti-black racism that American society provided for newfangled ideas of ‘racial hygiene’. The influence of business elites on funding and directing the movement was not insubstantial, although almost entirely missing in the film. It is one thing to say Charles Davenport founded a eugenics laboratory on Long Island; it’s quite another to learn that the Carnegie Institution funded it or that, according to Edwin Black’s The Horrifying American Roots of Nazi Eugenics, the movement “would have been so much bizarre parlor talk had it not been for extensive financing by corporate philanthropies, specifically the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Harriman railroad fortune…in league with some of America’s most respected scientists hailing from such prestigious universities as Stanford, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton.”
And this: “Stanford president David Starr Jordan originated the notion of “race and blood” in his 1902 racial epistle “Blood of a Nation,” in which the university scholar declared that human qualities and conditions such as talent and poverty were passed through the blood.”
Or this: “The Harriman railroad fortune paid local charities, such as the New York Bureau of Industries and Immigration, to seek out Jewish, Italian and other immigrants in New York and other crowded cities and subject them to deportation, trumped up confinement or forced sterilization.”
There is an almost complete absence of anything regarding the economics of the movement, in particular any demographic data about its adherents or much about the institutions that funded its efforts. The eugenics movement appears–as Frankenstein–then after a struggle, is dispensed with.
Throughout all this I think Cohen overstates the ideological aspect of the movement–the utopianism–at the expense of other features.There are implications for this overstatement. For instance, the utopian drive to improve humanity that eugenics promised suggests that in a more staid and calm environment such ideas would not have taken off. That the eugenics movement wouldn’t have had the impact it did–that it wouldn’t have led to the Holocaust without a ‘utopian’ aspect–is a perfectly reasonable argument to make. But other wellsprings of horror contributed to the spread and popularity of eugenics ideas. Unfortunately the strangeness of the pictorial and filmic images reinforces the horror show aspect of the endeavor, making it difficult to link these images with pre-existing structures of racial stratification and gender inequality, in particular. Family structures, for instance, could drive, or mitigate against, eugenics. And what about religion? Christianity in particular?
Homo Sapiens 1900 suggests the American eugenics movement reached its full expression in sterilization laws, but went no further; that the less utopian American system rejected the movement quicker; and, that utopian overreach was limited by American democracy, and the damage, while reprehensible, contained. In contrast to the American experience, the effects on Swedish society were longer lasting because of that society’s melding of the ‘welfare state’ to eugenics; its (utopian) ‘passion for social justice’ perverted by a nightmare of false perfectionism. The German variety devolved into targeted genocide and the Soviet version occupational extermination, with good measures of ethnic cleansing to round out whatever 5-year-plan was underway at the time–both societies under the heel of full-blown utopian/totalitarian dictatorships.
Homo Sapiens 1900 contains an implicit argument about the decline of eugenics. Cohen argues that the movement was extinguished primarily through exposure to the light of modern genetics, which set in relief the ‘backward’ nature of eugenics. Add to this the growing involvement of America in the Allied effort during WWII and its implied ‘multi-racialism’ and the disturbing example of Nazi extermination policies, all combined to illustrate the movement’s ultimate, nefarious ends.
But I think something else is in play here. America dispensed with its eugenics movement when it did and how it did not because it rejected the ideas of eugenics per se, nor because it suddenly had to fight a war against the Nazis (both of which the film argues) but because it had other eugenics measures already in place–such as anti-miscegenation and hypo-descent laws, state enforced segregation of schools, housing and work, etc. Besides, I’ll bet more than a few white Americans considered eugenics ‘pointy-headed’ nonsense.
“We already cull our herd quite well, thank you very much,” I can hear them grousing.
An American version of eugenics had already been in place for generations: It was called slavery, and later, segregation (de jure and de facto). A brutal racial caste system predated the classical eugenics movement in America; therefore, there was not a great need for ‘racial hygiene’, as most of those functions were already legally and extra-legally in place. What this film fails to convey is the deep racial inequality that served as the cradle within which eugenics thrived, but ultimately, was undone by–it’s horizon limited by its redundancy.
Additionally, as the film notes took place in Germany, unanticipated institutional pressures may come to bear on any social movement. When Heinrich Himmler’s SS was criticized for the ‘positive eugenics’ effort to establish what were taken to be ‘human breeding farms’, the romantic love at the center of the bourgeois family appeared to be threatened. The film notes that this German program was phased out, while negative eugenics programs continued full steam ahead–you didn’t need breeding farms to kill undesirables. But this interplay of interests is not discussed with regard the American setting, with its deeply conservative Christianity and preformationist ideas (‘homunculus’ anyone?) that likely served as a backstop for certain eugenics efforts. This opposition to ‘positive eugenics’ says nothing about ‘negative eugenics’ programs, which were already an integral part of the American social landscape.
Arguing that the different versions of the eugenics movement were primarily expressions of the totalitarian ‘isms’ of that era, most conspicuously communism and fascism, Homo Sapiens 1900 poses American democracy as the ‘best of the rest.’ While conceding that eugenics found expression in American society–indeed, the film’s understandable pessimism is rooted in the observation that eugenics ideas were able to find fertile soil in all types of ‘civilized’ nations–it also argues that the movement dissipated quickest in America because there was no totalitarian dictatorship or welfare state to nourish it. Gains in science, especially genetics, were most pronounced in America where eugenics was eventually exposed as a ‘backwards’ science that could not withstand the light of day.
But this is misleading as the ‘utopianism’ so evident in Sweden, Germany and the Soviet Union also had an unexplored doppelganger in the nascent American empire which had already identified itself as the actually existing liberation of humanity; a utopia ready for export. While the Soviet and Nazi versions of utopia strived to create a ‘new man’, the American version offered itself as a ready-made, actually existing ‘new man’. And this utopia had the power, and riches, to export it. It also, apparently, didn’t need eugenics in that particular form, to do so. In any case, it doesn’t matter that the American version was perhaps less utopian and less totalitarian, or coddling, than other societies; what mattered is that the American version already had those structures of oppression in place. That’s why the movement expired quicker there. The film’s narrative here occludes concepts such as ‘Manifest Destiny’ and American empire building as meaningful to explaining the eugenics movement in the United States–and that’s unfortunate.
How is it that segregation in the United States is never mentioned in this film? What else is neglected during this time? How were issues of reproductive rights–birth control and abortion–woven into this movement? Where these issues intersect with racism and racial science–the film never says.
American anti-miscegenation and hypo-descent laws helped provide the stock for the stew within which ‘racial hygiene’ ideas were slowly cooked, and made to taste delicious. The Ku Klux Klan would make a massive public appearance soon after the nadir of American eugenics, further altering the American political landscape on issues of ‘race’. I can only imagine how ideas of heredity and genetics played out in that context.
There is no mention of this in Homo Sapiens 1900.
What’s needed is a follow up effort to answer some of these questions.
There is a disconnect between our received notions of race, racial categories, and racism and all those advances in biotechnology with their specificity, scientific method and peer review processes. The certainty of our advances in knowledge concerning genes, chromosomes, DNA, genetic engineering, etc., is only matched by the sheer complexity such knowledge has uncovered, and continues to uncover. I’m reminded of the overused, yet still pertinent expression that there are more connections in our brains than stars in the universe. We are infinitely complex, a creature at once unsolvable and uncontrollable. And that’s good. With sufficient concentration of power, however, perhaps exercised through new biotechnology, we could become something else: Frankenstein’s monster, perhaps.
Human Directed Evolution (HDE)
If it is in American foreign policy that “the advisory imagination can roam–run riot, even–with a liberty impossible at home” (Perry Anderson, New Left Review, ‘American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers’, No. 83, Sept./Oct. 2013) it should come as no surprise that it is in the elite policy journal, Foreign Affairs, published by the Council on Foreign Relations, that the subject of eugenics can be broached. The biotechnologist Craig Venter of ‘mapping the human genome’ fame is now creating ‘synthetic life’, we are told, while biologists and geneticists are discussing ‘human directed evolution’. Let’s abbreviate that term ‘HDE’. (Laurie Garrett and Ron Noble, Foreign Affairs, “Biology’s Brave New World” Nov.Dec. 2013). That quote is correct–‘human directed evolution.’ How far is that from Galton’s shorthand definition of eugenics as ‘the control of natural selection’?
Venter is recorded gushing, “What we have done so far is going to blow your freakin’ mind” a comment that registers all the solemnity and pathos of a professional wrestling match. Venter’s ‘game-changing experiment’, as the authors describes it, unpacks as utopian overreach; perhaps shot through with a cult of innovation and an attendant celebrity worship. In keeping with the sports metaphors, I find such ‘cheerleading’ repugnant. The Foreign Affairs article, enmeshed as it is within the antiseptic confines of ‘national security’ considerations, fails to apprehend its subject matter, as worrisome a state of affairs as must have confronted Franz Boaz in his time.
Of course the prior eugenics movement had its cult of innovative scientists and utopian dreamers. Left to their own devices–and they often were–their programs paved the way for genocide. Do our contemporary paragons of innovation resemble so many oracles sifting through the entrails of a genetically modified cow so as to divine the next spasm of wealth creation and how to capture its inevitable flow upward? Will there be horrific unintended consequences as a result of their actions? Is there a new road to hell being paved?
History will tell.
What’s certain is that such scientific innovations as genetic engineering are taking place within a world of globalized consumer capitalism, in many places uprooting traditional forms of social cohesion and deepening social inequality. By harnessing a profit motive to poorly understood scientific innovations controlled by immensely powerful corporations, all within a context of deep racial and economic inequality, we could be witnessing the reemergence of a frightening, new eugenics movement.
Let’s take a moment to pause, and reflect upon the elements of the horror show that is Homo Sapiens 1900.
What of Homo Sapiens 2013?
In 1996 an ancient skeleton was unearthed along the banks of the Columbia River on the border of Oregon and Washington. A paleoanthropologist, Dr. James Chatters, did the heavy lifting on the remains, sorting some 350 bones and subjecting them to a battery of tests demanded by his discipline. Dr. Chatters then commissioned a reconstruction of the skeleton’s skull, by then dubbed ‘Kennewick Man’ for a nearby city, and the resulting visage bore a startling resemblance to the actor Patrick Stewart. Together with Dr. Chatters’ comment that he thought the skeleton most likely of ‘Caucasoid’ descent, Kennewick Man attracted the attention of a racialist pagan group, The Asatru Alliance. The ‘look’ of the skeleton suggested white people populated North America first, and were therefore America’s true indigenous peoples.
During this time I operated a small not-for-profit human rights organization in nearby Portland, Oregon called the Coalition for Human Dignity. Kennewick Man came to represent a stand-in for white America’s struggles with declining demography, Indians (the Umatilla Tribe claimed the skeleton as their descendent) and science. Throughout the years, the skeleton has continued to carry with it an undeniably ideological component, perhaps ignited by scientists who still cannot agree as to its ultimate origins and inflamed by racists. DNA testing, furthermore, has not set the origin story of Kennewick Man definitively to rest.
As an example of the far-right using our plastic notions of race for their purposes and thereby extending this enduring controversy is a March 19, 2012 article on the website of the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens, the modern heirs to the white citizens councils of the Jim Crow era. An article entitled “Kennewick Man Revisited: The Cover-Up of Kennewick Man” by Kyle Bristow includes this gem in its second sentence: “An archeologist [Chatters] who studied the dimensions of the skull concluded that the skeleton belonged to a long dead Caucasoid–white–male…” Here the author sloppily conflates ‘Caucasoid’ with ‘white’–the first an anthropological term of dubious scientific value but undeniable contemporary resonance, the second a proxy for the author’s ‘race’–and we are left with the lurid and the absurd, as in that Patrick Stewart reconstruction.
It is but a small jump from racialist ideas about our origins to ‘race based medicine’ and ‘positive eugenics’.
An insidious example of contemporary eugenics residual appears in the discipline of Pharmacogenomics, a term that blends pharmacology and genomics and seeks to ‘personalize medicine’ by tailoring drugs to a person’s unique genetic makeup. That sounds promising. But there is evidence that the discipline involves ‘race-based medicine’, especially when advertising is involved. Wikipedia defines ‘race-based medicine’ as “the term for medicines that are targeted at specific ethnic clusters which are shown to have a propensity for a certain disorder.”
BiDil, a medication to treat congestive heart failure, was first licensed to be used with patients who ‘self-identified’ as black in the mid-2000s (so much for ‘ethnic clusters’ as the ‘science’ behind the treatment). Of course the first round of trials (experiments) would be targeted at African-Americans–did you think it could be otherwise? After the initial trials the drug was approved by the FDA, but the marketing of Bidil showed itself to be more ‘utopian’ than practical. According to Wikipedia: “This peculiar trial and licensing procedure has prompted suggestions that the licensing was in fact used as a race-based advertising scheme…Critics are concerned that the trend of research on race-specific pharmaceutical treatments will result in inequitable access to pharmaceutical innovation and smaller minority groups may be ignored.”
Subsequent studies of the drug confirmed its effectiveness among some people, but what ‘people’ is the unanswered question. The problem here lies in the relationship between one’s ‘genome’ and one’s ‘self-identified’ racial classification, and how companies should be allowed to market such products. The two concepts–‘race’ and a person’s ‘genomic map’–having multiple, overlapping and exclusive, realms. This is no problem for Henry I. Miller whose September 10, 2013 article “Race, Medicine and Political Correctness” published in the conservative Hoover Institution journal Defining Ideas comes to the winning conclusion that the solution to the problem is simple: “follow the data”. To which I would respond: Who’s following the people following the data? After deregulating, defunding and ultimately destroying agencies that would be best positioned to offer sound answers to such questions, Miller and his ilk suggest that ‘the market’ will do it. Everything else is ‘political correctness’. The subheading to this article is instructive and contains within itself the absurdity of the author’s argument: “If a drug works better for black people than whites, shouldn’t we say so to save lives?” But that is precisely what the study did not establish–only that the drug worked better for some people with particular genetic markers or genomic maps. If Miller had any ethical or intellectual ground to stand on, that is exactly what he shouldn’t say.
For Miller the lesson here is that ‘science’ is being distorted by ‘political correctness’. That’s an inelegant lie, betrayed by the articles subheading. What is actually happening is that the carnivorous jello that is ‘race’ has been opportunistically attached to a medical innovation that is itself poorly understood. The results, predictably, have a disproportionate impact on people of color.
All of this ignores the obvious: that the profit motive, when left to its own devices, will ‘find a way’ to exploit, and thereby distort, any treatment. Where ‘race’ is brought into it, or its proxies such as ‘ethnic clusters’, the plasticity of options are endless with medical treatments that resemble ‘race-based’ alcoholic beverages, video games, clothing and cars. Of course quite apart from the efficacy of any treatment is the question of access to it, a subject relegated to the mysteries of our free market system.
Elasticity of ‘Race’
Leonard Zeskind, President of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights (IREHR), an anti-racist think tank, is fond of explaining the persistence, elasticity and absurdity of the concept of ‘race’ in America through an anecdote on the Mexican American War (1846-1848). One faction of American elites was pro-war and wanted to intervene in Mexico–they were the interventionists. The anti-war or anti-interventionist side opposed the war, but on the grounds that they didn’t want their ‘blood’ mixing with that of an inferior people. The pro-war side defended its position by arguing invasion did not necessarily mean ‘race mixing’–they were just as anti-miscegenation as their loyal opponents. Both sides believed Mexicans were inferior and that white people were innately superior. This narrow ideological spectrum constituted what was acceptable debate; anything outside of it was anathema. Invade or don’t invade, pro-war or anti-war–everyone was a white supremacist.
While that spectrum of debate appears quite narrow today, it was normative then; what’s normative now may appear bizarre in the future.
Thoroughbreds & Prisons
For another contemporary eugenics residual take thoroughbred horse racing–elitist, hereditary, and ‘scientific’, served up in a casino-driven, cult of the celebrity economy. Here the full weight and precision of the science of genetic breeding is joined with the profit motive in a conspicuous display of ‘sport.’ What a thrill the owner must feel sipping Mint Juleps, his horse galloping to riches while his human offspring are granted legacies at elite universities–a sort of eugenics for the hereditary rich masquerading as a meritocracy of the intelligent. These healthy specimens–the progeny of the well-to-do and the horses–will likely receive all the benefits of our modern commercialized health care system, especially its budding ‘race based’ gene therapies, so redolent of ‘positive eugenics’. On the flip-side we can identify ‘negative eugenics’ within the American penal system and its roughly 2 million imprisoned people (African-Americans criminally–pardon the pun–overrepresented) built over three decades of racialized drug laws (sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine vs. powder, anyone?).
I was not charitable in my description of thoroughbred horse racing above, but as it’s most conspicuous home is Kentucky–home of the Derby and Rand Paul, who has his own version of eugenics he’s fighting against–I’m going to return to it.
Libertarian standard bearer Rand Paul read from a standard Christian Right anti-eugenics script when, according to the Associated Press (October 28, 2013) he claimed, “In your lifetime, much of your potential — or lack thereof — can be known simply by swabbing the inside of your cheek…Are we prepared to select out the imperfect among us?” For Rand Paul, contemporary eugenics is primarily about reproductive rights–and his desire to eliminate them–and not about equality or how race, class and gender interact with science. However, when the larger academic culture insists, as the writer of this article does, that “All the [eugenics] programs were abandoned by the 1970s after scientists discredited the idea” then we can understand why Rand Paul comes to the conclusions he does without agreeing with those conclusions. Paul’s statement predictably upholds the absurdity of the promise of eugenics even while it condemns it. This is, no doubt, because he has a deeply flawed understanding of ‘race’, and probably genetics.
Let’s ask a novelist to weigh in on the subject.
The late Michael Crichton: “The theory of eugenics postulated a crisis of the gene pool leading to the deterioration of the human race. The best human beings were not breeding as rapidly as the inferior ones — the foreigners, immigrants, Jews, degenerates, the unfit, and the ‘feeble minded.’ Francis Galton, a respected British scientist, first speculated about this area, but his ideas were taken far beyond anything he intended.”
While I certainly share Crichton’s outrage at such ideas–who doesn’t– his understanding of eugenics is appalling, and betrays the anti-science, conservative populism at the core of his understanding of the world. The term ‘eugenics’ was coined in 1883 by Galton, but the concept of ‘genetics’ didn’t enter the vernacular until 1905. Therefore there was no ‘crisis of the gene pool’ that kickstarted the eugenics movement, as the concept of a ‘gene pool’ didn’t exist then. Once discovered, the concept took decades after that to propagate throughout the field. Furthermore, the notion that Francis Galton’s ideas were “taken far beyond anything he intended” while true in the sense that anyone dead cannot be held responsible for the posthumous reworking of their cogitations, is cringe worthy for its denial of a more relevant detail of Galton’s work: his scientific racism, so central to the eugenics movement.
A horror-show eugenics most certainly was, but by exaggerating the bizarre aspects of its appeal Homo Sapiens 1900 simultaneously quarantines these ideas into the past and impedes us from considering them in the here and now. We are introduced to many of the primary practitioners of eugenics and the broad outlines of the movement, but other than a lone American at an international conference on heredity (Raymond Pearl) and, perversely, Joseph Stalin, there is virtually no opposition to eugenics shown in the film. Eugenics rises up from its coffin, we scream, the damage is done (to others), then it is vanquished, consigned to the dustbin of history along with all the other ‘utopian movements’ of that time period.
‘Civilization’ marches on.
A contemporary warning, while poetic and moving, comes at the end of the film but fails to convey the resonance contemporary eugenics ideas carry today: “Underneath the streets of the city lie the graveyards of civilization, the biological remnants of heredity…Today we know how heredity works. Research on human genetic makeup is in the vanguard of modern science…As political and social utopian theories lose ground, the biological ideal acquires a new lease on life. Visions on genetics and its social implications occasionally assume utopian proportions.”
Occasionally? That is not very comforting.
From Craig Venter’s mapping of the human genome to the elitism of thoroughbred horse racing, through Michael Crichton’s science-phobic moralism, onwards to Rand Paul’s lamenting the reemergence of ‘eugenics’, to geneticists contemplating HDE, it is, indeed, a brave new world.
Modern economic theory will stress that the inelegant inefficiency of ‘race’ will be ameliorated through the mysteries of competition: the stinkweed of selfishness and personal gain–greed–blossoming into the flower of the common good. Or overall good. Or mostly good. Or better than anyone else’s good. Or, perhaps, just as good as it gets.
In light of modern genomics, what data would one pick to categorize people? Would we still use language? Geography? Phenotypes–skin pigmentation, shape of the nose, eyelids? Genotypes? Genetic maps combined with some of the previous categories? To speak of ‘race’ or ‘racial categories’ in the same sentence as ‘genes’ or ‘genetic expressions’ is to enter into a hell of epistemological confusion characterized by a high degree of absurdity, tragedy and, of course, farce.
The very endeavor is absurd, as there are as many ways to allocate traits, characteristics, qualities, aptitudes, and talents as there are to invent a race. Is it better to speak of population groups here? Yes, but we really run into the same problem, especially if that term is just a proxy for ‘race’ and ‘races’.
The notion of ‘race hygiene’ is preposterous given the incredible heterogeneity of our species and the world within which it exists; but the persistence of these ideas, particularly efforts to map and thereby ‘direct’ elements of the human genome seem to transcend the era within which the classical eugenics movement thrived. Or, alternatively, perhaps that era has persisted in a new form; either way the likelihood of a resurgence of eugenics is real.
The image of man does, indeed, fill us with compassion.
As it is April 16, 2020 I must make note of the ongoing collapse of the world economy at the hands of a tiny, but deadly, virus. As per usual here in the United States BIPOC, the poor, the working classes, the elderly, the weak and vulnerable are being hit hardest both by the spread of the virus and the resultant economic fallout. The rich are serenading one another across well-apportioned balconies and expansive vales, clapping while we die. We need immediate material support that in most places is not forthcoming. They need a fucking guillotine. Many of us have been waiting weeks for unemployment benefits, food aid, or that one-off-signed-by-a-sociopath-stimulus-check. If the pandemic has dramatized anything it’s the fragility of the neo-liberal consensus. But the left remains largely incapable of mounting a ‘counter-hegemony’. Perhaps the far right has a better angle on exploiting such fragility? I sincerely hope not, but that remains to be seen.
The most visible opponent to the current Republican Cult of Death is New York governor Andrew Cuomo, a soulless political prevaricator whose contributions to ending the pandemic include forcing Rikers Island prisoners to make hand sanitizer and scolding working class Americans to simultaneously ‘stay at home’ and ‘go get a job’–all without a hint of cognitive dissonance. Liberalism is dead. Don’t expect this sudden, half-assed, altogether pathetic expansion of the welfare state during the pandemic to revive it. Stick a fork in it already. The other Left Coast leading liberal light, California Governor Gruesome is no better. Behind every plutocrat and celebrity clapping on their doorstep for an essential worker risking their life is a lib-con telling us all to get back to work and appreciate the fact we have a job at all. We know the bar for humanitarian response is perilously low when these clowns are regarded as leaders. We leftists have always argued for re-valorizing essential work and the workers who perform it. This system of organized theft will cough up a begrudging acknowledgment of our humanity about the time there is no longer a humanity left.
The contrast between something so small having such a large impact is instructive here. Throughout human history radical political ideologies always, by definition, start on the outskirts of accepted public opinion. Then, that Overton Window we are all so fond of referencing suddenly and quite unexpectedly opens up, moves to another building or is shattered altogether by a projectile. Such ideas and the people who promote them grow in influence during times of major disruption. Twenty-six million unemployed in five weeks, mile-long lines at food banks and overflowing morgues are terrifying testaments to our current predicament. We just cannot say what is coming, only that it will likely be something different from whatever we have experienced before. The depth, breadth and velocity of the current economic upheavals are just too extreme not to produce some kind of political fallout.
The WWI era, for example, was characterized by a devastating inter-imperialist global war and was the hand maiden for both Bolshevism and fascism reaching for and grasping state power. However one chooses to understand and assess those radical ideologies, it is undeniable that they began among a few adherents and under certain circumstances became normative. So today, as we confront a pandemic driving an unprecedented economic contraction throughout the entirety of organized human life we should perhaps ask ourselves: What might be the character of any political upheavals that follow? What small group of conspirators–10 good comrades for Lenin, a handful of putschists for Hitler–might be waiting in the wings? How best to identify such actors so we can accurately assess their prospects and join or fight them?
By way of clarification, I don’t mention Bolshevism and fascism in the same sentence so as to suggest they are moral or political equivalents. That’s what lib-cons do–a fools errand that only perpetuates capitalist exploitation and domination or, worse, ensures the return of fascism. We need a revolution, but a deeply socialist, anti-racist and democratic one. My point here is that both movements came to power during times of extreme duress. We are now in the midst of such a global disruption, one without any precedence in human history. As the cliche goes, great peril is often accompanied by great opportunity. It’s a cliche because it’s true. For all its gruesome effects, this post modern plague has (miraculously) emptied out stadiums, office buildings, concert halls, NASCAR tracks, ocean liners, jumbo jets and golf courses. Behold: the bluest of blue skies and the brightest of stars at night, the re-wilding of diverse habitats, the disappearance of traffic overnight, the great grinding to a halt of capitalism and its ravaging effects on this habitat we call earth, albeit amidst great horror. One can marvel and dream of a different future without succumbing to eco-fascism. It might be possible to theorize an eco-socialism from the realization that the spread of this other plague (capitalism) can be arrested. Which brings us to my last point.
As working class, poor and vulnerable people struggle to survive this latest crisis of capitalism and the hollowed out democracy that provides its ever thinning legitimating narrative, we may find ourselves confronted with a choice that comes around only once every few decades. Whereas previous crises always involved some governmental intervention to temporarily discipline the capitalist casino class so as to reestablish an equilibrium of inequality that the poor and working masses could not find a way out of or around, today the shock is an exogenous one, although magnified a thousand-fold by wholly endogenous factors. It may be that no such equilibrium will be forthcoming in the aftermath. The wheels may have come off permanently. The center may not hold. Everyone is running for the exit. There are only two: socialism or barbarism.
Whatever consensus preceded this conflagration it will hold only on a steep upward incline such that it will be driven inexorably back toward fascism. If and when it slides it won’t slide half-way; it will smash back into the 19th century but with 21st century tools of repression to hold it there. Another way of putting this: if revolutionary socialists fail to effect a revolution this time we may all be doomed to fascism. Anyone who argues that that slide is already underway is probably correct; anyone who argues it is inevitable should be pilloried. The slide can be arrested, even reversed. Rosa Luxemburg wrote:
The “golden mean” cannot be maintained in any revolution. The law of its nature demands a quick decision: either the locomotive drives forward full steam ahead to the most extreme point of the historical ascent, or it rolls back of its own weight again to the starting point at the bottom; and those who would keep it with their weak powers half way up the hill, it drags down with it irredeemably into the abyss.
Neither the slide back to fascism nor a successful ascent to socialism are inevitable. It’s up to us.
Capitalism is the virus. To kill it we must enforce and extend the current shutdown. The only thing capitalism is congenitally allergic to is a limit on growth. It must expand. It must grow, preferably at exponential rates.
Our logic of revolutionary redistribution should be premised on a slowing down and de-commodification, on a decentralization together with a re-valorization, and on a democratization of equality. We must try and refocus our horizon from those narrow, two-party recapitulations of that which is possible forever chained to “There Is No Alternative” to the centrality of essential work and the essential workers who perform it: first responders, mutual aid providers, wage laborers, agricultural workers, gig workers, service workers, frontline fighters, etc. The only jobs worth protecting are those worked by essential workers. Think about that. What is the point of having ‘inessential’ jobs?Collectively, essential workers and the essential work they engage in comprise that which we cannot do without. In a collective sense such work is also desirable and, conversely, the work carried out at stadiums, golf courses, banks and so much more is inessential, that which we can (and should) do without.
What I mean here is that we should support social distancing and shelter at home policies not only because they are necessary to fight the pandemic at hand, but because they embody a better future. To that end, emerging from this crisis should be a robust challenge to the follies of perpetual growth and increased velocity that fuel inequality. We may have a unique opportunity to challenge, in a popular way, the commodity form and the logic of exchange value and pricing so central to it. In other words, the social distancing and stoppage of so much work is not only necessary to defeat the spread of Covid 19, it is necessary for any socialist future, perhaps any future at all.
Ye Galearthéan ~ Marking my words on Life & Music, Chess & Cosmology, Peace & Creation ~ by Simon Edward Jepps
Chronicles of Everyday Life
educator, writer, photographer
"Find what you love and let it kill you." – Charles Bukowski
4 out of 5 dentists recommend this WordPress.com site
Historian. Organizer. Writer.
The Web log of Dr. Joseph Suglia
I blog about climate change, human rights, sustainability and energy security
blog of the post capitalist transition.. Read or download the novel here + latest relevant posts
Shortness of Breadth
Tales of humour, whimsy and courgettes