Massa damnata

On Blaise Pascal

The phenomenon of Jansenism has interested me on and off for about ten years now. There are many reasons for this. The most important of these is that I love a good loser. In contemporary Catholic / Christian thought, Jansenism is the big loser: its rigorism, antiquarianism, and apocalyptic opposition to the decadence of contemporary life are in diametrical opposition to modern thought as currently conceived. Even people who are accused of being too strict in terms of morality or religious practice are hardly Jansenists in the sense that Jansenists were. Our ideas of what these things are have moved so far towards the liberal side of the spectrum that even our conservatism is quite libertine when taken in context. More than likely, we are the first to absolve ourselves of any crimes or culpability for anything. What I have done has always been rational, what I want is always sensible, my moral compass is always right, etc.

The one thing you cannot question in contemporary discourse is: what I want. What I want is always legitimate, my desire is always infallible. My vision of the good and happy life is natural, it must be defended at all costs, and imposed on those poor misguided souls who disagree with it. That I think is part of the problem with our civilization as it exists. In order for things to function well, we must assume that the natural order of things tends towards justice and cooperation. Things are never that bad, never that hopeless, and contain a rational kernel that will lead us to a better and brighter tomorrow. This is just as much the psychological center of Marxism as it is Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” pastoral optimism. Perish the thought that things were never meant to work in the first place.
Read the rest of this entry

A few thoughts before haitus

I will be taking some time off of blogging here to focus on a poetry manuscript, and my other publishing projects. There are two other regular bloggers here and I will be back once my manuscript is finished.   If it is irregular for a while, I apologize but we have not exactly been regular anyway.

Communism is the Truth that Fulfills All Truths: Why Christians and Atheists (& Muslims, Hindus, Etc) Will Someday Reach the Same Destination

from Plato onwards, Communism is the only political Idea worthy of a philosopher. – Alain Badiou

Reading this line from Badiou a few years ago pushed me over a hesitation to embrace the word “communism” in a full-throated sense. I wrote an essay not long after this point on Plato’s Republic where I explored how Plato connected the ability of his ideal city’s guardians to achieve justice to their having forsaken private property. In fact, re-reading Book V last night only confirmed for me what Badiou is saying, that Communism is the fulfillment of political rationality. If Plato’s philosophy of ideal justice requires communism in this sense, I hold that a profound truth has escaped the notice of many in our time, including advocates of Marxism. That truth is that communism does not belong to Marx and his successors, but to humanity as a whole.

Marxists often want to define just how communism will be brought into being. They have a theory of the proletariat revolution led by a Communist Party. The leadership of the Communist Party is composed of the advanced activists and theorists who correctly understand the necessary path to take towards Communism. Of course, history is littered with the failures of Communist governments. It isn’t adequate to slap a label on your philosophy and call it Communism. Communism does not belong to Marxists, but to humanity.

If communism is as old as Greek philosophy – actually older – then is it so surprising that it also makes an appearance in the most popular world religion, Christianity? The gospels are only comprehensible as a communist event with a vision of a classless society at their core. The Book of Acts presents the “Jerusalem Commune” where the followers of Jesus set up a system of wealth redistribution among the members of their new movement.

I am not arguing that Communists should become Christians, by no means. I am contending that Communists, whether atheist or Christian, have a common heritage that is older than Karl Marx. I am contending that Communism’s central axiom, “from each according to ability, from each according to need” is rooted in universal human relationships. Every healthy nuclear family operates as a commune. In “primitive communism” sharing was simple and direct exchange. It is the ruling classes throughout human history who have rejected this basic relational ethos and imposed class domination on the majority of all societies.

The rebirth of Communism in our times will not fall into the classic divides of the left of Marxist vs. Anarchist vs. Religious communists. In our post-secular world, communism is only possible with an inclusive alliance of Atheists, Christians, Muslims, and others.

Or, communism may fail to be achieved. Humanity may be forever trapped in an undesirable system of class domination. Many science fiction dystopias paint such a picture. I am an optimist, but I am not a fatalist. Humanity could fail to fulfill its own potential. That will be tragic, indeed. But, even such a failure does not prove that Communism was not the true fulfillment of humanity’s potential.

What I am not saying about Facts, or Ideas really do have consequences… (Narrative Cop-out part 2)

Let me be clear, while I am bothered by a narrativizing trend, in no way I am implying that one can have a non-narrative or non-theoretical understanding of empirical fact. Even the selection of what counts as a fact and the typologies around that.  This is a tautological and fundamentally about definitions.  My issue is simpler than that and yet harder to articulate clearly, one has a set of typologies that lock out any possible outside data, paradigms and models cannot change and cannot come anything closer to useful or true.  We cannot ignore that all knowledge is situated in a theory, even if it is just some implicit theory of mind.

This is the tricky thing about language though and about metaphors in our models.  I may imply some kind of naive realism about facts because I am pushing my language to try to talk to a general audience about two fundamentally separate but related issues: one) the way psychological heuristics can be used to disengage and disarm any criticism and two) when a paradigm, historical methodology, teleological stance, or something goes wrong and can no longer adapt to new facts.  To use a metaphor, when this happens, ideas become brittle and break.  In politics, this is PARTICULARLY common, and especially when politics stand in for moral positions they way one used to treat religion as being.

Let’s look at this in other places, however, as politics isn’t the only limit. I  was reading an excellent post at edge,

But the rhetoric of science doesn’t just risk the descent into scientism. It also gives science sole credit for something that it doesn’t deserve: an attention to the construction and operation of things. Most of the “science of X” books look at the material form of their subject, be it neurochemical, computational, or economic. But the practice of attending to the material realities of a subject has no necessary relationship to science at all. Literary scholars study the history of the book, including its material evolution from clay tablet to papyrus to codex. Artists rely on a deep understanding of the physical mediums of pigment, marble, or optics when they fashion creations. Chefs require a sophisticated grasp of the chemistry and biology of food in order to thrive in their craft. To think that science has a special relationship to observations about the material world isn’t just wrong, it’s insulting.

Beyond encouraging people to see science as the only direction for human knowledge and absconding with the subject of materiality, the rhetoric of science also does a disservice to science itself. It makes science look simple, easy, and fun, when science is mostly complex, difficult, and monotonous.

A case in point: the popular Facebook page “I f*cking love science” posts quick-take variations on the “science of x” theme, mostly images and short descriptions of unfamiliar creatures like the pink fairy armadillo, or illustrated birthday wishes to famous scientists like Stephen Hawking. But as the science fiction writer John Skylar rightly insisted in a fiery takedown of the practice last year, most people don’t f*cking love science, they f*cking love photography—pretty images of fairy armadillos and renowned physicists. The pleasure derived from these pictures obviates the public’s need to understand how science actually gets done—slowly and methodically, with little acknowledgement and modest pay in unseen laboratories and research facilities.

The rhetoric of science has consequences. Things that have no particular relation to scientific practice must increasingly frame their work in scientific terms to earn any attention or support. The sociology of Internet use suddenly transformed into “web science.” Long accepted practices of statistical analysis have become “data science.” Thanks to shifting educational and research funding priorities, anything that can’t claim that it is a member of a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) field will be left out in the cold. Unfortunately, the rhetoric of science offers the most tactical response to such new challenges. Unless humanists reframe their work as “literary science,” they risk getting marginalized, defunded and forgotten.

Hence all the “scientific skeptics” I met with undergraduate degrees in the humanities. I used to think it was rare, but when I was involved in that I noticed it was actually quite common because people who work deeply in scientific thought realize how precarious some of these ideas are, and ones who are particularly reflective realize that rhetoric matters.  That is not  just because it convinces the public to fund science.  Rhetoric matters because it has subtle effects on our typologies and methods.  It banks on things we see and don’t see, and like the vulgar Marxists I was talking about earlier, often this enthusiasm for “science” is dangerous to any idea of science itself–it romanticizes it while also emptying out the relationship to other areas of life.  It may damage the funding in the humanities but even STEM itself won’t always be safe. In fact, ask the B.S. in Biology how much work they have in their field.

When you no longer can adjudicate and adjust to changing inputs and the world around you, the metaphors that color your dealing blind you to facts that would, when your model is adjusted, make your theory stronger–in the sense of more useful.   When that cannot happen, things fall apart.

That is what is wrong with the narrative cop-out: it is not we should become naive realists about facts and values. To imagine that we don’t have an ideology. We are always situated: the bigger problem is can our worldviews adapt to our historical and physical circumstances, can they process information, and can they help us bring about what we really want. If a worldview can’t deliver on its end, what do you think it will deliver you personally?

Organs, bodies, and political theology: A response to Charley Earp

In Charley Earp´s Killing the Capitalist God: Gospel Communism and the Death of God, there is a lot to parse.  The idea that a new conception of God represents a mode of capitalism seems to confuse modern Protestant pietism with an “capitalist God” seems to be a rebranding of liberal Protestant conception.   We, however, should probably not jump to that point without first looking at some of Charley´s assertions:

It has long seemed quite strange to me that so many atheists find Nietzsche’s assertion of the death of God attractive. God doesn’t exist at all for atheists, his “death” can only be at most the death of the theism of some part of humanity.  Perhaps a historical point can be made about the passing of a specific era of religiosity in Europe at the time of Nietzsche.

This should be read closely:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

—Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Nietzsche is speaking in parable about value, but it is important to look at the even deeper context in Thus Sprach Zarathustra

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market-place, and cried incessantly: “I am looking for God! I am looking for God!”
As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter. Have you lost him, then? said one. Did he lose his way like a child? said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? or emigrated? Thus they shouted and laughed. The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances.

“Where has God gone?” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us – for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto.”

Here the madman fell silent and again regarded his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern to the ground, and it broke and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time has not come yet. The tremendous event is still on its way, still travelling – it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the distant stars – and yet they have done it themselves.”

It has been further related that on that same day the madman entered divers churches and there sang a requiem. Led out and quietened, he is said to have retorted each time: “what are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God?”

Charley does not go into this and what is the profounder point, instead he shifts to the a claim:

On the contrary, God (as theism) never died for a substantial portion of modern society. God was redesigned, certainly, by the course of Western history. God today has become the ultimate capitalist, a Heavenly Boss who punishes the lazy and hedonists with poverty and war. Working-class Christians in the US have been lavishly courted by the ruling class into a New Religious Right with showers of campaign donations promising to end the sinfulness of society by reactionary economic discipline.

Whether or not this is true for “modern society” in its religious justifications or theological self-conceptions is hard to know, the subjective nature of Protestant Pietism in US culture and the post-Christianity of most of Europe makes this much more obscured, but it is important to remind the Madman approached the crowd in the market and the crowd does not recognize what it has done.   Nietzsche´s parable makes a point: the overarching system of value that dominated culture has been replaced by a specter of market value which does not even realize what it has killed and continues in obliviousness to the profundity of the shift in values.

It can only be for those who profess belief that no longer live by for whom God is dead.  This, however, is not just atheism.  However, the secular humanist who does not deal or address the cultural origins of his or her values in a Christian development ( as opposed to a Confucian or post-Islamic one) is in the same shape as the pietist Christian who does not recognize that the practice of his or her life is outside of the Christian traditions that developed prior  to such a point as to render God looking like themselves more than the other way around still would haul around such a divine corpus.

For those who never had such a value system, what is dead can never die. Nietzsche would go onto to say at this point one could create a new values system, but only if one is aware that situation in both a material and ideological sense.  Political economy of Jesus–in so much that it ever existed–is not our political economy, nor can it be.  Something recognized partly in the apocalyptic view of the Christian tradition:  giving to the poor was because there was no need for the law to continue when the world was ending.

The turn to make Jesus like a modern socialist is just another re-branding. Looking at Rosa Luxemburg’s assertion that:

In conformity with the material position of the men belonging to this [Roman proletarian] class, the first Christians put forward the demand for property in common – communism. What could be more natural? The people lacked means of subsistence and were dying of poverty. A religion which defended the people demanded that the rich should share with the poor the riches which ought to belong to all and not to a handful of privileged people; a religion which preached the equality of all men would have great success.

The see the Christians as a proletarian class or for common property is one that we find little evidence for. Monastic Christianity seems to be a third century development and the demand upon the apostles seems to have been not common property, but the abandonment of property all together.  The spread of Christianity en masse is more clearly tied to the first Nicene council and perhaps the Christian persecution in an Empire whose third century almost destroyed it.  (It is important to remember that Judaism in an now nonexistent evangelical form was popular and spreading in Rome prior to Bar Kochba rebellion and that Christianity, whose sayings seem a syntheses of Cynicism and Hillel could have easily been seen to slowly spread in that context with the persecutions as, perhaps an ironically, an advertisement for the religion´s existence).  Whether Luxemburg reading is due to a lack of actual historical context or motivated reading is impossible to say, but we do know better now.

In this I find Charley´s last point to be easily used or read as cynical:

There is no hope of ever overthrowing capitalism in the US unless we kill the Capitalist God who reigns in American Christianity. We can only kill that satanic inversion of the Father of Jesus if the Christians do that from their own convictions. I am proposing a mutual collaboration between the brilliant atheists in the socialist movement with the disheartened Christians who are daily coming to question the heresy of the Christian Right. We need each other.

In such decontextualized readings of Christianity that do not accept the limitations of the various Christian traditions, we have only the vapors and folklore of Christianity draped crudely over the ethics that were birthed from Christian Humanist thinking but does remain in context that one could adjudicate what is or is not heresy.  Both post-Christian readings could be equally valid in absent of the original culture, but then Nietzsche´s question looms: If one accepts this plasticity, why not create something entirely new?

As for my opinion of what one could do with such a Christianity, I feel similarly to how I feel about its popular opposite in feel good pietism of Rick Warren or Joel Olsteen.  A Christian tradition so hollowed out will just reflect the popular opinions in the culture, which admittedly have some Christian origins but are manifestly different from the original tradition, like a kidney and heart removed from a body.  Materially, they are unlikely to be put back in the original body since it is now “dead” from the original, and to be transplanted to a new body without suppressing the very immune system of that body, the foreign organs will likely be rejected if they are the organs of a parent.  Heiddegger was insightful here when looking at attempts at Folklore to serve “revive the folk”,

‘This way of being embedded in a people, situated in a people, this original participation in the knowledge of a people, cannot be taught; at most it can be awakened from its slumber. One poor means of doing this is folklore. It is a peculiar mishmash of objects that have been often taken from the customs of a particular people. But it often investigates customs, mores, or magic which no longer have anything to do with a specific people in its historical Being. It investigates forces that are work everywhere among primitive and magical human beings. So folklore is not suited to ask about what specifically belongs to a people; often it even does the very opposite. This is why it is a misunderstanding and an error to believe that one can awaken the consciousness of of the Volk with the help of folklore. We must above all guard ourselves against being overly impressed by the world “folk.”‘

Killing the Capitalist God: Gospel Communism and the Death of God

It has long seemed quite strange to me that so many atheists find Nietzsche’s assertion of the death of God attractive. God doesn’t exist at all for atheists, his “death” can only be at most the death of the theism of some part of humanity.  Perhaps a historical point can be made about the passing of a specific era of religiosity in Europe at the time of Nietzsche.

Beginning in the 60s, Nietzsche’s ideas got re-deployed by theologians, no less, or rather, atheologians. Thomas J. J. Altizer declared the “Gospel of Christian Atheism” which asserted the historical death of God in the event of the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus. Today, Slavoj Žižek has produced his own Lacanian spin on this mostly forgotten theological fad.

On the contrary, God (as theism) never died for a substantial portion of modern society. God was redesigned, certainly, by the course of Western history. God today has become the ultimate capitalist, a Heavenly Boss who punishes the lazy and hedonists with poverty and war. Working-class Christians in the US have been lavishly courted by the ruling class into a New Religious Right with showers of campaign donations promising to end the sinfulness of society by reactionary economic discipline.

 As a Pentecostal preacher’s kid, I somehow got deformed and alienated against the New Right. Jesus was always to me a hippie, a communist, a peacenik, and a rock star. I held the orthodox doctrines as long as I could, up to my mid-30s. I can still wax eloquent about the wonders of Trinitarian mysticism and the infinite glories of being resurrected in the New Jerusalem. While still a believer I argued obsessively that Jesus was a revolutionary, a radical who prophesied the destruction of the ruling class and the victory of perfect love over the earth. And, I could show how such a theology came straight out of the biblical texts themselves. Despite their putative belief in inerrancy, most Christians today don’t follow the teachings of Jesus on wealth, but rather those of John Calvin.

One of the most puzzling mysteries of the modern world is how followers of Jesus can be such willing propagandists for the inhuman system of capitalism and tyranny under which we slave daily. Why aren’t there Christian Socialist Clubs in every church? Jesus denounced wealth and possessions in no uncertain terms. How can anyone read the gospels with an open eye and not understand that the one they call Christ and Savior is the enemy of the system of commodity production and wage labor?

If we turn from the deformed condition of Christianity to the condition of “Actually Existing Socialists” we don’t find a pretty picture there either. Although most potential proletarians in our society today are Christians, often fervently so, card-carrying socialists are nearly all deeply hostile to Christianity. Today’s socialists take the New Atheists as their models for religious criticism, not the more nuanced approach taken by Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg. My favorite quote from Rosa’s classic Socialism and the Churches reads:

In conformity with the material position of the men belonging to this [Roman proletarian] class, the first Christians put forward the demand for property in common – communism. What could be more natural? The people lacked means of subsistence and were dying of poverty. A religion which defended the people demanded that the rich should share with the poor the riches which ought to belong to all and not to a handful of privileged people; a religion which preached the equality of all men would have great success.

My experience trying to discuss Christian Communism with left-wing atheists has been quite dispiriting over the years. The business class holds massive fund-raisers courting preachers and laypersons to their causes, but except for the largely defunct religious socialism commissions of DSA and the SPUSA, there is no effort to appeal to Christians on the basis of their most fervent passion, following Jesus.

Some have accused me of cynicism when I propose a religious left as a necessary element of a revitalized left politics in the US. Since I personally no longer hold an orthodox theology, they assume that I want socialists to lie to Christians when we invite them eagerly into our ranks. Not at all, what I want Socialists and Communists and Anarchists to do is listen respectfully to the faith of these working-class followers of Jesus. Ask them why they don’t take their own gospel teachings about poverty literally.

There is no hope of ever overthrowing capitalism in the US unless we kill the Capitalist God who reigns in American Christianity. We can only kill that satanic inversion of the Father of Jesus if the Christians do that from their own convictions. I am proposing a mutual collaboration between the brilliant atheists in the socialist movement with the disheartened Christians who are daily coming to question the heresy of the Christian Right. We need each other.

We need each other not because Christians are potentially a massive pool of allies and activists, though they are indeed such. They are necessary for the revitalization of Communism as the universal vision of world emancipation. Every religion has its earthly paradise that it promises the faithful. These paradisiacal visions are the seedbed for the utopian mindset from which radical politics sprung. Communism comes from humanity’s total history, not from the mind of one philosopher named Karl in the mid-1800s! Reclaiming the communist teachings of Jesus and his early followers means reclaiming an essential part of communism’s historical development.

Communism’s axiom, from each according to ability, to each according to need is the economic corollary to the Golden Rule, do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Although many leftists like to praise the achievements of modernity and seem to forget all the blood, sweat, and toil of humanity before the onset of capitalism, in fact, communism springs quite logically from the nature of humanity and our highest values. Although Karl Marx did banish Hermann Kriege’s “Communism of Love” from his organization, it seems in the aftermath of Stalinism that Communism needs to restore its reputation as humanizing vision with affirmative principles of human mutuality. Who better to be a symbol of such a kinder, gentler communism than the Good Shepherd, Jesus of Nazareth?

The anti-primitive

An apology to gutter-punks, or: How I learned to stop worrying and love anarcho-primitivism

I’ve been intending to write this essay for months, but things always got in the way. And now that I have elected to use some time to write it, I am somewhat at a loss. So to begin, I thought I will cite a recent review in the New Yorker of a history of the demise of the passenger pigeon.


In their wake, passenger pigeons left behind denuded fields and ravaged woods; descriptions conjure up those First World War photographs of amputated trees in no man’s land. “They would roost in one place until they broke all the limbs off the trees,” one old-timer recalled, “then they would move to Joining timber & treat it likewise, then fire would break out in the old Roost and Destroy the remainder of the timber.” Their droppings, which coated branches and lay a foot thick on the ground, like snow, proved toxic to the understory and fatal to the trees…If anything, the passenger pigeon is a bracing corrective to notions of a natural world detached from its fecund terrors. The bird’s propensity for eating everything and taking over earth and sky makes it seem, frankly, a little like us. As Greenberg notes, “a widely held view is that this species could not sustain itself without a giant population,” so that decline itself became a cause of further decline. In other words, passenger pigeons lived by collaboration on a giant scale, and may have died by it. Yet what Greenberg sees is not the clash of two irreconcilable species with gargantuan needs but a story of victimizers and victims.

Read the rest of this entry

Puer natus est nobis

One of the iron laws that I have found out concerning being a parent is that children love the outdoors. Well, at least mine do. Any parent in an intemperate climate where it can get too hot or too cold knows well how much more difficult the day goes when the children are unable to be outside. “Cabin fever” often results in children bouncing off the walls, gratuitously antagonizing each other, and trying the parents’ wits in a seemingly endless test of wills. And they sleep badly. No matter how difficult it might be, one almost inevitably has to prepare the children to go outside, if only for a little while. Once outdoors, they tend to calm down, or unleash pent up energies in far more constructive ways.

I am rather sure that this very concrete reality in my current life has influenced the trajectory of the little intellectual life that I am now allotted. To be direct, my tendency to take the “anti-civ” critique more seriously than the average person may be due to my parenting of very young children. A lot of it has to do with guilt. I live a very, very white-bread middle class life in a U.S. suburb. On the other hand, I am beginning to realize that most of my inherent parental sense when it comes to discipline has to do with curbing my children’s wants and needs in order to conform to a society in which I believe very little. Sit still, comb your hair, don’t scream, don’t make a mess, don’t hit your sister… it is just one continuous monitoring against things that children naturally do in order to make them do the opposite.
Read the rest of this entry

Occultation, or Why I quit editorial commitee of the North Star

“Do not say ‘I will study when I have the time’, for perhaps you will never have time.” (2:5) – Pirkei Avot

“Do not say something that cannot be understood, thinking it will be understood later.” (2:5) – Pirkei Avot


I. Of Ornithorhynchidae and Astronomy, or Remembrance of Things (Very Recently) Past

For those of you who do not know, I have been an editor for the North Star in some capacity for ten months.   When this project expanded and contracted like a supernova, Pham Binh and Ben Campbell asked me on to the editorial staff of the North Star for the first of four attempts at a redesign and relaunch.  I was to play a quiet role, and was explicitly asked to bring more cultural and theoretical bend to the very practically-minded editors already on staff.  As this was happening, my disillusionment with my association with Platypus Affiliated Society was growing stronger.   I entered P.A.S. in the heat of Occupy Seoul and in the sphere of Occupy Wall Street.  I shared its skepticism of the “left” as it was constituted–in fact. Disgust with the left had driven me fairly deeply right in my early 20s–I was linked to anti-war movement libertarian and paleo-conservative wing and had even been so foolish as to sign the Euston Manifesto as a “third-campist” against both the neo-conservatives war-mongers and those who thought that supporting regressed regimes was a kind of national liberation. I still standby that impulse; however, I was naive as to the motives of the other signatories–many of whom developed either quite reactionary politics or became neo-conservatives themselves.

Nonetheless, my frustration with P.A.S.’s highly idiosyncratic reading of Lenin, Trotsky, and Frankfurt school as a practicable politics as well as the highly doctrinaire attitude within the organization chaffed me.   Ben Campbell had reacted to what he saw as the bad faith of P.A.S.–a interpretation with which I actually did not quite agree. We split from the org at the moment we tried to reform and balance the committee.  At the same time, several other members did too, and a few were asked to leave. This got conflated with the leaking of some of the content from the P.A.S. message board and a call for a boycott of P.A.S. by Ben and several other leftists. I was torn…I do not generally support anything but extremely targeted boycotts for any reason, nor did I feel that P.A.S. had been dishonest to non-members about its mission.  Indeed, I felt like the issue was one of flattery. People did not want to believe that P.A.S.’s mission to “host the conversation” to make the left “aware of its own deadness” was exactly what it sounded like. In retrospect, that mission seems like reification upon reification. Ben, Binh, Ismael Diablada, Stephen H. myself, and several new editors (including two female editors who did not stay on), Matthijs Krul, and Dario Cankovic set out to “host the conversation” in a more open and less theoretically rigid manner. Indeed, we all disagreed about key political issues: I was a third-campist on Syria against Binh’s support of the rebels, I disagreed with Dario C. on democracy and on secularism and Ben C. on the relationship between Marxism and science.  The idea between Ben C. and I was that this was going to be just as plural internally as the conversation external to the site’s organization.

The North Star, however, was defined against Occupy’s failure on Binh’s end and P.A.S. mission statement on the other.  The new editorial collective quickly set about trying to recruit feminist writers and writers of color, writers from different religious background, and writers from various tradition. This, frankly, was an unapologetic failure. Many complained about Ben’s apparent focus on P.A.S., which was not actually as focal as the internet impression would lead you to believe. Sadly Ben’s work redesigning the North Star was not shown to the public. There was also much rancor over Binh’s increasing support of NATO action in Syria, which was viewed as a apologetic for “imperialism.” Political tensions emerged between Binh and Ben as well as the rest editorial board all the while brewing a distrust of the political tradition the name of the magazine linked us too. Only Binh looked to the original Peter Camejo North Star project as a major inspiration. After a showing at Left Forum and a successful series of panels for the relaunch, Ben C. quit after a disagreement with Binh and from personal pressures that was not clear to me. The relaunch editorial staff was never put in place, so the five editor structure with various sub-editors–came into being.  We established a relationship with the Philly Socialists, which was never formalized.  Tensions over both feminism and Syria alienated the two female editors. The fact they were never credited for their work didn’t help matters either.

In addition, Binh seemed to have felt disappointed with the new staff whom he viewed as largely absentee after Ben C.’s leaving.  He worked primarily with myself and on his own to put out the North Star, which also felt very much like his blog. Various authors with ties to a certain Louis Proyect’s Marxmail began to be in regular rotation, many of whom advocated a focus on class to the exclusion of all other forms of identity politics, a willingness to adopt and capitulate on certain GOP talking points because they were “working class concerns,” and an increased reliance on NATO for liberation. The editorial staff, even those still actively doing interviews and writing for Binh, was not always aware of what was being published and why. With Ben C.’s leaving most of the work done for the original relaunch was shuttled in the confusion. The North Star feel into a routine that even Binh was not entirely comfortable seeing happen.
Then Binh’s personal life attacked. Despite rumors to the contrary, Binh’s personal life had made it difficult for him to keep on doing what he was doing and he needed to take care of it. Out of respect for him, I won’t go into the details, but suffice to say it was serious. As a result of these events, Binh asked Pavel,a friend of mine who I brought on in the failed relaunch, and me to deal with some issues of audience expansion, minor web-site redesign, and fixing an increasingly kluged back-end of the site. Binh eventually would ask us to take the lead as co-managing editors, which evolved to “co-editor-and-chiefs.”

Pavel and I quickly set about to the relaunch and re-structuring of the site…again.  This time our site redesign was much more limited. The true focus of our attetion was the re-organizing of the people that we had inherited from Ben C. days who had not left during the confusion.  We Condensed the back-end of the site from a panel of five editors and ten contributing and associate editors to six devoted editors.  The leadership of Philly Socialists left the advisory panel on the magazine quietly to focus on US politics, and increasingly by Ben and Binh’s own doing, the editorship of the site had moved from New York City to people living in South Korea/Mexico, the UK, and Canada. In fact, of the six currently existing editors, only two still lived in the US and only four had been born there. I also rewrote the mission statement to minimize the relationship to Peter Camejo and to emphasis the diverse nature of the project.

Soon after Binh’s departure, Proyect wrote his first denouncement of me: mostly having to to do with my past in P.A.S. It was clear from the writing that he knew none of the details of my involvement. He was also critical of some of the writing’s on this blog, particularly writings NOT initiated by me in the first place.  Now there are plenty of things I’ve said and done you can attack me on, but Proyect didn’t even bother to touch them. Fiction is more entertaining than fact apparently. To make matters worse, we discovered that Proyect had bankrolled the beginning of the site, selected Binh to run it, and still viewed himself as having some controlling stake in both the name of the North Star and the legacy of Camejo. The majority of the editorial committee had known almost nothing about this until just before Binh was slated to leave, and we had definitely not been informed when Ben C. and Binh had first came up with the idea for the relaunch. Tensions mounted between Proyect and the site as a whole and some heavy-handed things were done on both sides. The editorial committee opinion was split.  During this time, I formally abstained from most of the decisions involving Proyect since I was personally attacked. Nevertheless, the attacks continued: I was “over-theoretical,” too interested in politics, a secret neo-conservative, a Leninist, Pavel and I couped Binh, I didn’t put my opinions in public, etc.  Most of this came from people who were functioning on misunderstandings based on Proyect’s hit piece, misinformation about the nature of Binh’s leaving which remained cryptic, and guessing as to who Pavel and the other editors were since many of us used a nom de plumes.

II. A Tale of Two Uniteds

Increasingly the North Star expanded into UK politics. Two editors were living there and British left seemed more active than the US left after the degeneration of Occupy. While all the editors discussed expanding into general North American and Latin American politics, the reader interest was not there.  Despite many of Binh’s fans decrying the death of the site, the numbers of readers went up by 1/3 to 1/2 depending on the day and the Facebook likes increased 100%.  To maintain this growth, we monitored the articles to which the readers responded. As Pavel, Dario, Matthijs, and myself largely wrote on issues larger or outside the US and moved the site away from Binh’s relationship on Syria, the readership changed. It responded to economic writings, writings on foreign politics, and theoretical issues. We had become a podcast syndication problem under Binh and Ben, but increasingly the readers did not view or listen to the podcasts.

Despite the growth during this time, I found that I was tired of having my character attacked on half-information. I made the decision to focus on my literary publishing, my relocation to Mexico, my partner, and both of our ill-health. I resigned as editor-n-chief giving the role totally to Pavel, but stayed on for content generation, and trying to get some of the authors who had said they were interested in turning in work to actually do so. Our first two months of good numbers started to slack with increasing interest in writing on Latin American or left history.

The readership was increasingly based in the UK and NYC, the editors felt that we needed to cater to that and subtly push new ideas and debates into that context, but our readership was returning to that of the Binh and Ben days of site.  This ends the first three phases of the magazine and brings us up to last month.

III. Vampires, WASPs, and Bears… Oh my. .


After the numbers dropped down for a while, Pavel decided to contact some people who had committed to possibly writing something for the North Star. Finally, Mark Fisher, whom Pavel had been working with privately, delivered a piece. I read it and immediately took issue with its universalization of a particularly British notion of class – which renders class as a largely identity-based movement – as well as not advancing an understanding of the conditions that case overlap between race, gender, sexuality, and economic class. That said, I generally agreed with his critique of privilege and by proxy standpoint epistemology. Then came the slew of articles from people who had responded, seeming to largely pick up on the popularity of the piece. Critiques of the North Star editorial staff as largely male (true), largely white (more-or-less true), and straight (completely false–more than half the staff is queer-identified) emerged from twitter, and even within the editorial staff, rumblings about Mark Fisher as a semi-fascist tied to the “neo-reactionary” Nick Land began to be uttered.

After a week of this, and feeling like people were actively misreading what had been done, Pavel resigned earlier than he had originally planned. Two weeks later, I resigned from all responsibilities and cut all ties with the site after I felt like I was trying to say things that were either inchoate and hard to understand, In absence of a moment to make these ideas have some enacted clarity, I felt like the debate that would emerge would just calcify already existing tendencies in socialist politics.

IV. My Four Theses Nailed to Nothing, Or Talmudic Commentary in Dissent

The above history is honest as I remember it, but biased and chipped.  While my resignation was not done out of any ill-will or strong ideological split, there are four major points where I feel unreconciled with the dominant ideological strains of the North Star. I think it will helpt to first state the mission of the North Star which Pavel and I primarily wrote:

A guidepost is not a program or a strategy: it is an orientation. We are oriented towards a politics that leads beyond what is understood as contemporary capitalism. Emerging out of various strains of activists and theoretical traditions—most of which are rooted in socialism or critiques of capitalism—we aim for a new politics. We believe that the traditional leninist, leftcom and anarchist notions of occupation and revolution may not be applicable (if they ever were). We also believe that tactics of reform and harm reduction as part of an electoral path towards socialism have not succeeded in combating the spread of the deleterious effects of global capitalism. We are guiding ourselves towards new understandings and strategies while looking at the socialist/communist past both in its glorious successes and dismal failures.

1. Democracy is a non-cognitive word

In both its earliest days and currently, the North Star has had a mild obsession with the idea of democracy despite the over-ripeness of the word. While many readers of North Star are of many different ideological stripes, the various trends do share a love of “democracy” albeit often only conceived of in the vaguest terms.  Is it democracy of only working class?  Of the people?  Direct democracy?  Councils?  Economic Democracy?   The focus on Democracy waxes and wanes – the waning particularly occurring during Pavel and my co-editorship. In general I find such talk to be literally meaningless. Marxian notions of democracy are very different from Republican or Parliamentary notions, and acknowledge that a state of emergency would have to temporarily place the working class in a state of exception in which democracy only applied to itself.  That is not Leninism, but Marx as stated in both the Critique of the Gotha Program and Reflections on the War in France.  One may critique this and distrust this as even I do, but the focus on democracy as a battle cry for socialism is weak tea politics and horribly confused.   Orwell was right when in “Politics and the English Language” he declared the word to be all but meaningless.  Furthermore, this is not in line with the mission of the North Star as redefining democracy is not discussed except as a vague tactic for mass involvement in socialist politics, or as a the goal of unifying “economic democracy” with “political democracy.”   These words seem to say something, but I suspect they don’t.

2. In absence of a historical movement, all that can happen is ideological policing

The death nail in the coffin of socialist thought is its calcification into textual platitudes.  David Graeber, a man who I otherwise completely disagree with, once stated that you can tell that Marxism has suffered since its ideological tendencies have moved through being named for revolutionaries, then heads-of-state, then obscure philosophy professors.  The debates between the identity-political thinkers and the class-based thinkers will retrench into the basic status quo fights of the last forty years.  The moments in which these ideas were forced beyond a impasse where in active movements of 1968, 1969, and perhaps for a flash the anti-globalization movement in 1998 and in Occupy however misguided each of these attempts ultimately were. In times when there is a return back to the parliamentary or activist norms, many more ideological litmus tests emerge. One can see the North Star’s comment section, even when heavily moderated, for how nasty this can become.

3. Dialogue between tendencies is not actually meaningful if no tendency is willing to change

In this case, the debates between factions of socialists or feminists or what have you will tend to lead to dogmatic accusation and counter-accusation with no getting beyond the impasse.  The willingness to change often comes from action in the world, and so this seems like a very tired row to hoe. Furthermore, the focus on “the left” itself is myopic, and this had been the theme of every piece of non-interview writing I did for the North Star.

4.  When you are not heard, you should do and not talk

Which brings me to “Occultation” which is the focusing on things I can do: My critiques on Pop the Left and on Disloyal are generally understood, but I do not feel like my criticism has been so well-understood on North Star.  The editorial staff there, including those who are still on board, have been supportive and comradely, but in general, most of what I have said has been misunderstood. This is partly my fault, and partly a function of trying to something that pushes beyond the current conceptions of “left” and “right” in a way that requires some strong self-criticism. Increasingly, I find that writing about specifically theological and cultural problems as well as the arts gets my political points across better. Furthermore, I have decided that my free time should be spent on my active pursuits: the creation of my literary art, doing education work here in Mexico on literacy and ethics, volunteering for feminist education, and going back to helping victims of sexual and domestic violence. I also have to deal with my own diseases, quite literally, and do the study of history, poetry, and Jewish philosophy that I value. I wish the current editors well and think that they may have a bright future as a socialist publication, but I am leaving that behind until a time where the ideals I believe in are more clearly understood through both clearer articulation and frustration with limited options, not only of contemporary mainstream politics but with the options that view themselves as radical.  To paraphrase both the Talmudic Rabbis and Wittgenstein: on what one cannot speak, one should silently enact.

All Roads Lead to Communism, or None Do: Theses on Marxism & Intersectionality

(The following is my response to the “Exiting the Vampire Castle” controversy on The North Star webzine about tensions between Marxism, intersectionality, and left politics.)

1) Communism is the goal of ending human domination, exploitation, oppression, and repression in a world of abundance, justice, and harmony among all living beings. Therefore, the practical subject for revolutionary analyses are the social systems that perpetuate and extend systemic suffering for living beings. It is proposed based on careful study of social science and left-wing political theory that the basic categories of human social systems are eightfold:

Economics

Politics

Gender

Race/Culture

Ecology

Martial Systems (institutional use of coercion)

Sexuality

Religion/Irreligion

2) No single one of the above social systems is independent or dominant over all others.

3) Revolutionary analysis identifies institutional structures that perpetuate systemic suffering and propose political collective mobilizations to overturn these structures and replace them with emancipatory new systems and institutions.

4) Revolutionary analysis considers the objective collective systems to be the primary focus of activist mobilization and engagement. It is also engaged with collective cultural aspects of these institutional systems. It considers interpersonal and personal subjective behaviors and attitudes of subordinate importance, though not entirely unimportant.

5) By identifying eight interdependent social systems, an adequate revolutionary analysis cannot advance communist goals by minimizing the objective importance of any of the social systems. A “revolutionary” change in one or a few aspects of these social systems without attempting broad changes in all of them will leave the new institutions vulnerable to counter-revolutionary mobilization from one of the unrevolutionized social systems.

For example, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 did indeed radically change the political, religious, and economic character of Russia, but it at best merely reformed systems of cultural, gender, martial, ecological, and ethnic domination and oppression, which formed the basis for the counter-revolutions against communism from within Russia and the Soviet Union.

6) There are important aspects of Marxism, feminism, anti-racism, radical democracy, pacifism, sex radicalism, progressive religion/irreligion, and environmentalism that must be applied to revolutionary analysis to better equip radicals to overturn the systems that dominate our world. Posing irreconcilable oppositions between feminism and Marxism or any of these important approaches to social criticism is to betray the revolutionary movement from the very start.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,414 other followers