Monthly Archives: December 2011

New Year’s Reflections: Let’s Paint the Town (Red and Black)

My twenties begin with the end of Battle For Settle, 9-11, and marriage and ended with divorce, expatriation to East Asia, and occupy wall street.  At thirty-one, I feel like the new normal’s prolonged adolescence is finally over.  This year I have spent dating, traveling East Asia, and protesting.  Sounds glamorous, but in reality in is slog better left to de-romanticization instead of the travel writing of discovery that leads to such tripe as “Eat, Pray, Love.”  I have also been deeply studying Marxist and Anarchist theory as well as history of fascism and neo-paganism. There are interviews on Marxist Economics, Reconstructionist Paganism, Critical Theory, and Marxian Anarchism coming to the blog.  Oddly, the first part and the second part of this paragraph are related.

This year, for me, it is time to start building both the theory and the action: Times they are a-changing, and like the book-ends of my twenties, we’re going to change with them.

Marginalia and Religious Ethnography Botched: Another Interview with Keith418 on Aleister Crowley, Stalin, and Standards

This is the third interview in a series with Keith418. The first one is here,. and the second one is here.  Keith418 is one of the most controversial figures in modern Thelema.  His interviews on the defunct Thelema: Coast to Coast were often rigorous and demanding, yet highly contentious.  Keith418 has also documented thinkers on both the radical right and the far left often comparing those thinkers to the problematic thought in the Occult community.  The parallels are discomforting to all involved. This interview goes into territory of both my interview series so it will be considered part of both. 

Skepoet:  Just for my reader’s clarity sake. You and I come from similar but almost inverse points of view: I try to understand culture and religion and thus am fascinated with occultists but am I leftist.  You are trying to figure out how societies work including in the occult community and thus study leftists.   You often see many, many parallels that are instructive. For example, you have observed while officially most Marxists are supposed to be materialists–albeit of a very specific type–they often act like believers in the spirit or the transcendent. While Occultists are suppose to be idealists in the manifestation of their will, but often act like vulgar materialists.   Why do you think this is the case?

Keith418: Because both groups are uncomfortable with the implications of what each are supposed to believe. The occultists are reluctant to give up on the influence of the material universe, and the Marxists are just as unwilling to depend on it and it only. Modernity, now, creates these muddles and the path out of them requires more self discipline than people are able to attain to these days. Consumerism erodes self-discipline and both groups swim in the same waters that everyone else does. People want to be “different” but no one wants to be “that” different. Changing the status quo really demands a commitment to a kind of radical difference, but since the end of the ’80s this has been harder and harder for people to see and muster the strength for.

Contemporary, so-called followers of Aleister Crowley seldom engage in any personal magick. Instead, what they want is a kind of pleasing, gentle, Unitarianism with faintly occult trappings. Most Marxists are unable or unwilling to penetrate the inner workings of the various players in various social classes the way Lenin told them to, because they do not have the strength to cope with the “symbolic violence” Bourdeiu described so well. In both cases, the ideologies serve as a way to cope with a world they cannot really change, rather than a means for them to change a world they can no longer cope with. Deviations like this are inevitable once people surrender. And, in each case, surrender they have.

I wonder how much of their problems are the result of the loss of a kind of “interiority.” Modern Thelemites and modern Marxists both, at times, seem barely literate. So many people have lost the ability to sit and read anything – to enlarge and expand on their own interior selves. Without this ability, how can they engage deeply with either Aleister Crowley or someone like Lenin? Academics that do not read for pleasure before they enter school are just as useless. A friends notes that it’s not a matter of people not reading because they won’t read – but because they can’t. They can’t sit and focus. If he’s right, then what chance do these people ever have of seeing why they are mistaken or totally off course?

Skepoet: This has led me to wonder what could fix this, and honestly while even my ultimate goals may be a stateless society, it will require a lot of discipline and a transition that will be ugly.  It seems to me that a lot of revolutionary leftists want a revolution without the revolution part. That is they don’t want to look at the nature of the negation with the current.  You have pointed this out by quoting, oddly, Spengler, Zizek, and Stalin as parallels?

Keith418: You have to look at the way our current society has been sold the idea that discipline has to be “ugly.” Modern consumerism is predicated on the exaltation of ease and a lack of discipline. This is part of the message of all its propaganda. What is the current origins of our disinclination to view self-discipline negatively, or as a “necessary evil? Why, for example, do we wish we wouldn’t have to struggle for things and why do people resist seeing struggle as something noble? These reactions are not formed by accident, nor do they exist in some kind of universal sense.

Zizek is pointing out the need, even the necessity, to rehabilitate and embrace per-consumerist ideals and values – values we find among both Bolsheviks and those involved in the “conservative revolution” (Spengler, Junger, etc.). Modern revolutionaries do not want to look at whether or not there really is a “decadence” that infected even their target audience, nor do they wish to really attack that decadence and its pernicious effects. Ironically, when they do, they sound too “conservative” for most liberals and leftists to bear.

The Marxists I talk to will acknowledge – sometimes – that the masses need to undergo their own political experiences. These experiences cannot be experienced “for” them, in some sort of vicarious fashion by the vanguard or by the leader. They have to undergo these experiences themselves and, in that process, they will change. Why wouldn’t we welcome that change? It implies that their current state isn’t that great. Well, say that enough and you’re going to damage people’s sense of “self-esteem.” It’s not a flattering thing to be told.

In the occult community, no one wants to admit that they need to change, or that they should change. Initiations, now, are just a further ratification of why they already are. To admit that one needs to change or must change in some significant sense is to acknowledge that real problems and deficiencies exist. Magicians, surprisingly, do not want to admit that they aren’t perfect “just the way they are.” Are Marxists going to tell the working class that isn’t wonderful just the way it is?

Skepoet: It seems like they are going to have to go through it anyway as modern capitalism can’t deliver on its propaganda these days.   What are your thoughts on that?

Keith418: I keep wondering if people will be so distracted by technology that they won’t notice. This current generation – does it realize its parents lived better than it does? Or does it just want to play “Angry
Birds” on cell phones and fool around online? New technology often is deceptive in this sense. We are preoccupied with things like Twitter and Facebook, but they employ very few people. There is a – mostly -
unacknowledged contrast between the amounts of attention these things get vs. the number of people really involved with these companies.

There is any number of ways that this can play out. The modern state and corporations can offer the people more bribes to keep the “labor aristocracy” at peace. They can, of course, not offer those bribes and face unrest. But the meritocratic nature of contemporary capitalism tends to take away the best organizers and intellectuals for itself – thus rendering the organized left with very little in the way of dependable human resources. Smart people, talented people, highly disciplined and trained people – the kind of people who can lead and make a successful revolution, are almost always now bought off. The left doesn’t want to look at this “brain drain” for moral reasons, but it’s painfully obvious.

How much is the same current social engineering really a way to pacify the masses and take away the cream into non-profits and consulting work?  The liberal left supports the agenda of the social engineers,but it may not realize the long term effects of all the therapy, pills, and training.

Skepoet: How long could those gadgets keep everyone at heel when the entire Western world starts looking like Greece?  I don’t know.   Does this sort of thinking infect occultist as well?  Do you know if there are people trying to do Geotia on an i-pod or something?

Keith418: It’s a good question, but I keep expecting people to realize they are being played with this technology and they can’t seem to put it down. The more time people spend with video games and meaningless social media, the less time they are able to bring to anything more important and demanding – and that includes the occult.

There is a novelty element with new technology that few seem to be able to see through or resist. The new app, the new toy, it sucks people in and – just when they get bored – there’s another new one. The left and the people in occultism swim in the same waters everyone else does far too much of the time. How can they not be distracted this way and what faculties inside them atrophy in the process?

Some make a conscious effort to use these technologies in better ways, but they often devolve into thinking they are CNN reporters, or they exhaust their possibilities fast. I thought of all the people I saw on Facebook and Twitter furiously posting reports they were getting from all the same places everyone else got them. What’s the point of that? People caught up in “current events” all the time? How sad does that get after awhile?

Skepoet: It does get limiting quickly. The past parts of the “new media” are ways in that mimics the very old media, but its speed actually doesn’t always seem to help.  It seems to limit reflection in some ways since things are pushed to be discussed now. It distorts our sense of time.  Do you see this affecting Thelemites?

Keith418: I think the Situationists once said that they were indebted to the surrealists for revealing to everyone the poverty of the unconscious. In this sense, I think we are all very much indebted to social media for revealing the incredible poverty of the contemporary occult scene. The Internet showed all of us that most of the people involved aren’t educated enough, or brave enough, to do meaningful and interesting work with occultism and magick. Many of us might have suspected this to be true, prior to the Internet’s dawn, but it was more like a suspicion – born out of necessarily limited experiences. Now, it’s irrefutable. While depressing, to be sure, it’s better to know than not know. We have all learned quite a bit from the experience.

This brings me to another topic. Why don’t people follow Lenin’s advice and actually observe the social classes and see how they currently live.  Not just in a revolutionary situation, but in general.

Skepoet: How do you mean?

Keith418:  See, I don’t think it’s weird to expect anyone to be able to do what Lenin said, but no one makes this demand. Communist have retreated away from class psychology. This makes no sense at all

Skepoet:  Many Marxist don’t want to look at the hard end of it, ultimately. They try to redefine old categories without clarifying a departure or they don’t talk about class explicitly.  Sometimes, I wonder if this is partly because so many people don’t realize how severe a break with the current could or would be.

Keith418:  But what else is communism but a break with the old? That’s all Lenin said it was a fight against the old way. You can see the Trotskyites fighting with me about the labor aristocracy and spontaneity. You know who said that combating spontaneity was one of the “foundations” of Leninism in 1924? Stalin? Come on. You cannot habituate people to spontaneous eruptions and then expect them to submit to planning and leadership. This is totally obvious.

Skepoet:  Well, you see that people who quote Zizek, but don’t take him seriously when he says the next society will be disciplinary.

Keith418:  Any work to take power away from the individual is seen as regressive. a strictly materialist, Marxist analysis is seen as degrading.

Skepoet: Well that’s oddly paradoxical because revolutions seem to be impossible if the current informs all thinking.

Keith418: Show me the way out of this.  Even Marxists find Marx’s reduction to be degrading. Are you only the mirror of your role in production?

Skepoet:  Gramsci ironically thought that the October revolution proved this part of Marx wrong , and, it is degrading.

Keith418: It may be degrading feeling, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Skepoet: The problem is that if it’s true Marx himself is wrong because it’s circular and dialectics don’t get you out of it. The Immersation thesis has been proven objectively false.

Keith418:  Immiseration thesis.  Well, this comes back to imperialism.

Skepoet: Yes, it does come back to imperialism, but here’s an issue with Marx.  If the base determines all elements of the superstructure, then change shouldn’t be able to happen from within a class, even the dominant class.

Keith418: The production changes. Everything is in flux. Read Stalin on historical materialism.

Skepoet:  But the production changes itself?

Keith418: The social process changes the production, and the production changes social process.

Skepoet: But production is the determinant of last instances in Marx and Engels.

Keith418: It’s all a matter of progress from one state to another.

Skepoet:  That’s circular.

Keith418:  What does Hegel tell us about the circular? That it is the absolute. Read Kojeve.

Skepoet: That I haven’t read.

Keith418:  It will blow your mind.

Skepoet;   So one is left then, if it’s Marx or Hegel which is ultimately right. Zizek has been saying this lately that Marx wasn’t Hegelian enough.

Keith418: Be careful because there is this temptation to move away from materialism and its always bourgeois. The spirit cannot be happy making. This is Crowley’s grace. His spirit is not happy making

Skepoet: Yes, well if “truth” makes one happy easily, and without work, it is generally a lie.

Keith418: This is why I think we need to look again at the issue of what materialism really is. Because the contemporary Marxists aren’t telling me what Stalin is, and calling him crude doesn’t cut it.  They don’t hate him because he’s crude; they hate him because he’s lucid.

Skepoet: No, his writings on historical materialism aren’t crude even with all the party baggage, although I know many who claim he just didn’t write the works. Furthermore, attacking HIM as opposed to his ideas doesn’t cut it either. Just because he made have deviated from them, particularly tactically, doesn’t make the ideas themselves invalid. If there are problems in the philosophy, they must be philosophically addressed.

Keith418:  Mao said 70-30. I hold to that a lot but whatever his other faults poor writing wasn’t one of them. I am reading a collection of essays and they are gripping.  On a related topic, in the 70s the Maoists I knew then spoke a lot about class consciousness. Who talks about that now? I mean really talks about class, not just the system or capitalism, but what it means to be a class and how it has changed. How can you have a revolutionary Marxism without an understanding of class? This is what is so crazy making to me, but class makes people upset. It reminds them of things they don’t want to admit.

Skepoet: Well, you have to be honest and say that only Maoists and Burnham and a few Trotskyist turned Fascists in Italy, actually tried to address the shift in the meaning and nature of class. The rest of the popular Marxists such as Negri and even Zizek don’t talk about class anymore in a coherent matter.

Keith418: Avakaian doesn’t either. See, there’s an analogy of Thelemites who don’t practice ceremonial magick and Marxists who avoid a discussion of class. They know that if they talk about class it will turn off their intended audience. It’s like the Trots who won’t tell people they are Trots

Skepoet: So you have asserted that education limits people dealing with people like Lenin or Aleister Crowley. Would you like to go into this in more detail?

Keith418: We have to ask ourselves, regarding both of these figures, what does it take, now, to read their writings in the original and fully comprehend them? If people are taught rigorous critical thinking and have had a decent range of readings and experiences, they can get a lot out of reading Crowley and Lenin. But are people getting these kinds of educations these days? Are they having the needed experiences? How often do these writers, instead, have to be filtered through interpreters (with their own limitations and agendas)? On the other hand, the people with “educations” now are often really not “educated” (in the classical sense) as much as they are indoctrinated with PC, mainstream social engineering. The people without educations can’t understand the materials, and the people with “educations” have been trained not to take radically different threats to the dominant order seriously. This paradox haunts both the left and occultism.

In the occult community, people aspire to higher education (usually because they want to be middle class) and then are trained – in the academy – to utterly reject occultism. Is there a similar process going on with Marxism – whereby energy is poured into strictly academic discourse and what you get, at best, are very weak versions of the old school “public intellectuals”?

Lenin tells revolutionaries that they have to come to profound and acute understandings of various segments of society – the inner workings of their character – from experience and not from a book. Are young Marxists really doing that? Do they go out into the world and really study different types in contemporary society to understand their inner logic and values? It’s not a matter of learning from books – he explicitly rejects that. I am often disappointed by young people who have led sheltered lives and never seem to know or have experienced a wide range of human types. This lack of basic life experience has got to cripple those on the left and those involved in serious occultism.

Skepoet: The kind of education you are describing can be said to be very instrumental instead of formative. I would agree, however, that most Marxists or anarchists have little familiarity with organizing workers or the problems of non-academic labor.  So do you think this, well, laziness is directly related to consumer culture?

Keith418: Partly to that, but also we have to look at the kind of over-specialization we see today in academia. Academics used to pride themselves on their range of knowledge and their grasp of fields beyond their own specialty. The professors I knew as a kid thought only hopeless nerds and losers talked only about their own fields. Instead, you were supposed to cultivate a broader number of interests and areas of expertise – the arts, history, etc. Now, academics are so specialized, and the competition is so tough, who among them has the leisure time for anything beyond their own increasingly tiny niche?

Kids grow up today, provided they are middle class or above, in more and more structured, guarded, and protected environments. This cripples their sense of adventure, independence, and individuality. Coming out of these carefully managed “play date” upbringings, how can they expect to be bold and risk danger in their lives and even in their own thinking?

I think the left tends to support this movement towards greater and greater state intervention and protection at its own peril. It needs independent critical thinkers and then supports programs and social attitudes that inhibits the formations of whole classes that might prove revolutionary. I simply do not believe that a PC welfare state is going to produce the kind of bold, independent subjects the left needs. Needless to say, this same welfare state doesn’t produce subjects who can do anything with magick and occultism either.

Skepoet: While in my estimation a left that wants an expanded Fordist/Keynesian welfare state is no longer left in any meaningful sense as it is not progressing anything but merely trying to go back an immediate past without dealing with that’s pasts failures. But I would agree with you that this is largely a middle class development.

But the lack of imagination in this is staggering:  I suppose that is why I find both the left and the occult community so interesting, but in the attempt to deal with modernity and, so far, powerlessness in actually transcending much of it.

Anything you’d like to say in closing?

Keith418:  I think the imagination of the “real left” is then challenged to address ideas that transcend middle class conceptions of a welfare state. The people’s demands should inform these new ideas, but if the people really want a well managed welfare state, what do you do then?

There has to emerge a revolutionary class that can embrace those new ideas. In the same sense, there have to be individuals who can break out of the sterility of the contemporary occult and Thelemic communities and take it in new and better directions. Neither of these forces can emerge, however, without a criticism of present conditions, nor can they discover themselves and their own truths without a struggle. The irony here is that my receptive magical individuals prove to be just as elusive, given present ontologies and the creation of subjects (individual and collective), as your revolutionary class.
“These new enemies of mine were not capable of comprehending my criticism: because of their intellectual level they inevitably perceived any discussion based on serious cultural and critical apparatus as something both impenetrable and annoying – for, in an attempt to satisfy their sentimental urges and taste for the common and ‘occult,’ such people had grown accustomed to the popularization and debasement of certain subjects.” – Evola

Marginalia on Radical Thinking Series can be found hereherehere,  here,  here  here,   here and here

Religious Ethnography Series can be found here, here, herehereherehere,  herehereherehere,  here  hereherehere,here here,  here, and here

Notice: The blog will be returning shortly

The Holidays have hit and a loved one is ill.  I have four interviews I keep trying to get formatted for you that are completed.  When life stops hitting me in the face, I’ll get them up. Until then, its holidays and bed-side hospitals for me.

Two Ghosts that Haunt the Left: Smith and Lenin

Lenin and Adam Smith, the founder of the first “successful” Marxist and founder of modern political economy, book end the ghosts that haunt the left right now.   Why do I say this?  I think Chris Cutrone’s recent lecture on the Importance of Lenin and Spencer Leonard speech on Marxists relationship to the basic assumptions of Adam Smith really bring the point home.   Both figures, it seems, are misread by their friends and enemies book-end the early phase of our modernity.   Both figures seem to haunt the left now: Do we abandon all that was good in Smith or do we allow ourselves to regress?  Is it as simple as merely opposing capitalism, or do we have to undo it to save its first liberating possibilities.  Furthermore, do we abandon all that is good in Lenin because of his historical oversteps or, worse, see him as teleological necessating  Stalin or Pol Pot?

The simple answer is not simple:  we need to go back to the sources while also realizing we do not live in that time. It’s a dual move.  A very difficult one.  We have to combat liberalism, not because anything liberal is bad. It is not.  It is that the liberal is regressing nearly infinitely into something that resembles technocratic feudalism, and in the capitalist class is deposing of itself within the structure.  In this sense, all regressions are indeed failures of the left.  Let’s acknowledge our ghosts while moving on.

Reading “The Critique of the Gotha Program, Part 1″ by Marx, Part 2

The first part of this series is here.   Let’s go to the next part of the first section of The Critique of the Gotha Program: 

2. “In present-day society, the instruments of labor are the monopoly of the capitalist class; the resulting dependence of the working class is the cause of misery and servitude in all forms.”

This sentence, borrowed from the Rules of the International, is incorrect in this “improved” edition.

In present-day society, the instruments of labor are the monopoly of the landowners (the monopoly of property in land is even the basis of the monopoly of capital) and the capitalists. In the passage in question, the Rules of the International do not mention either one or the other class of monopolists. They speak of the “monopolizer of the means of labor, that is, the sources of life.” The addition, “sources of life”, makes it sufficiently clear that land is included in the instruments of lab.

One forgets that land-owners, the preoccupation of the American Georgists, is vital. The ownership of land is also a primary function and the ownership of land almost always comes into being by the enclosure by one class on another in a given society. Forgetting this one gets into a new series of problems.  Any platform that obscures this is obscures the primary function of the way most societies actually work.

What is “a fair distribution”?

Do not the bourgeois assert that the present-day distribution is “fair”? And is it not, in fact, the only “fair” distribution on the basis of the present-day mode of production? Are economic relations regulated by legal conceptions, or do not, on the contrary, legal relations arise out of economic ones? Have not also the socialist sectarians the most varied notions about “fair” distribution?

To understand what is implied in this connection by the phrase “fair distribution”, we must take the first paragraph and this one together. The latter presupposes a society wherein the instruments of labor are common property and the total labor is co-operatively regulated, and from the first paragraph we learn that “the proceeds of labor belong undiminished with equal right to all members of society.”

“To all members of society”? To those who do not work as well? What remains then of the “undiminished” proceeds of labor? Only to those members of society who work? What remains then of the “equal right” of all members of society?

Again, we see how the these semi-cognitive and prospective-driven slogans don’t lead anywhere? Reading this one is see the current liberal rallying over a “fair wage” is actually quite deceptive. This rhetoric is easily co-opted by both the generic “right” (GOP, reactionaries, even anti-capitalist reactionaries) and capitalist movement itself.

Another notion we see in that society, even though it is produced from labor, cannot be defined by it.  Society defined by labor will not be able to survive technological removal and reduction of the need of the labor processes.  This is clear and obvious if one looks at the mechanization of the factory, something that was implied in Marx’s even though he was at the beginning of the industrial era.

Against Phrase-Mongering: Reading “The Critique of the Gotha Program, Part 1″ by Marx, Part 1

These are my writing notes for a discussion group on “The Critique of the Gotha Program” by Marx.  Some of this is very intriguing.  I will go through the subject matter piece by piece, and then I will give a run down post on various readings of this critique. A close reading of a critique can become slightly over edge of the precipitous cliff of meta-analysis–given that the critique is itself a close reading of a nearly forgotten text–but it is clear given the Marx’s critique of the Gotha Program.

The first point is something that is often missed, Marx states “Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power.”    We immediately note that this goes against the assumption in most liberal and socialist thinkers that it is labor that defines wealth in so that labor defines value.  This is absolute essential to thought of John Locke as it is to much vulgarization of Marx. The labor theory of value does not postulate that labor is the source of wealth–material reality is the source of wealth–it is the source of value, which is to say, it is the ability to use that wealth.  In fact, this is not just a statement of a problem or source, but of a dialectic, to which Marx makes clear:

“The bourgeois have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labor; since precisely from the fact that labor depends on nature it follows that the man who possesses no other property than his labor power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labor.”

One can see much of Hegel’s Master/Slave dialectic implied in this critique–not of mere contradiction being reconciled, but clearly of sublation. It is the material conditions of labor to which the capitalist has entitled himself/herself by its use, a use which the capitalists then denies the other in a struggle even though the capitalist not longer is the primary user of those material aims which his/her labor power.  Now this is a pathology hidden in the Lockean mythos–even if we accepted Lockean mythos, this would still be the result. The reality that the nation state was always key to the enclosure of land and that imperialism–in both the mercantile sense and the capitalist sense was actually key to the foundation of capital  through the primitive accumulation of capital.  Still following dialectical logic, the tension and sublation there would be true even if the ideologies myths created in capital were true.

Marx’s next move is interesting: “According to the first proposition, labor was the source of all wealth and all culture; therefore no society is possible without labor. Now we learn, conversely, that no “useful” labor is possible without society.”  Marx does allow for logic to be inverted for means of simple polemic or practical logic.  Marx would have had no tolerance for incoherent sloganeering.  But the next move is practically interesting:

A savage — and man was a savage after he had ceased to be an ape — who kills an animal with a stone, who collects fruit, etc., performs “useful” labor.

So there is slippery modifier, but a modifier about assumptions. Marx does not handle things that seem to clarify but actually mystify.  He has no patience for the non-cognitive phrase.  Of course,  this also seems interesting in light of a regressive romantic tendency in socialism prior to Marx that are reoccurred more prominently as societies operating under capitalism have degenerated.  One can see this nonsense in Zerzan. These sorts of remarks shows how Marx would have had absolutely not patience for that.

I will discuss one more bit of The Critique of the Gotha Program:

Thirdly, the conclusion: “Useful labor is possible only in society and through society, the proceeds of labor belong undiminished with equal right to all members of society.”

A fine conclusion! If useful labor is possible only in society and through society, the proceeds of labor belong to society — and only so much therefrom accrues to the individual worker as is not required to maintain the “condition” of labor, society.

In fact, this proposition has at all times been made use of by the champions of the state of society prevailing at any given time. First comes the claims of the government and everything that sticks to it, since it is the social organ for the maintenance of the social order; then comes the claims of the various kinds of private property, for the various kinds of private property are the foundations of society, etc. One sees that such hollow phrases are the foundations of society, etc. One sees that such hollow phrases can be twisted and turned as desired.

Note again that Marx shows how easily logic that seems to be socialistic can be twisted into new ideas. Hollow phrases cannot be a placeholder for a revolutionary subject–given how much meaningless phrases have emerged from both the liberal, socialist, and anarchist left. Mystification cannot be used against obfuscating tendencies.

Bakunin, Marx, and authoritarianism

Anarcho-communists and Marxists, including Marxists of the anarchist variety, have had a long running dialogue that debates back to the First International. The Marxist perspective is that Bakunin did not rightfully recognize the universal nature of the Proletariat, that his involvement with Nechayev discredits him, that his international brotherhood was elitists, that propaganda by the deed by not a poor recourse, that one should not side with specific powers in international wars like Bakunin did with France, and that Bakunin lacked a coherent message due to a lack of methodology, dialectical or otherwise.  The Bakunin anarchists would say generall Marx’s myoptic Hegelianism limited him, that there is no need for a complete rupture with present conditions by a socialist state transition or “dictatorship of the proletariat,” that Marxian statism was dangerous, and that there was no need to posit a specific class against which all others above and below would have to rely on for communism.   One can see both of this play out in Louis Proyect’s critique of Bakunin as well as the anarchist response to it.

That is not what interests me particularly as I see validity in both critiques–even if I am ultimately a Marxian thinker on methodological grounds–the more interesting reading is to notice that both Marx and Bakunin accused on the other of authoritarianism.   In this sense, both were also right. The best writer on this is probably David Adam’s.  His exploration of this at lib-com is definitely worth a read:

Since Marx can be “united” with the Rothschild banking dynasty, Bakunin has no problem at all identifying Marx with someone like Lassalle, who had very different politics from Marx. For example, Bakunin writes, “Conforming strictly to the political program Marx and Engels had set forth in the Communist Manifesto, Lassalle demanded only one thing of Bismarck: that state credit be made available to the workers’ producer associations.”57 As it turns out, in Marx’s mind there was a clear distinction between what Bismarck could do for the workers, and what the workers could do for themselves. Marx was quite hostile to Lassalle’s socialism-from-above. As he wrote in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, criticizing Lassallean influence on the Gotha Programme,

Instead of the revolutionary process of transformation of society, the ‘socialist organization of the total labour’ ‘arises’ from the ‘state aid’ that the state gives to the producers’ co-operative societies and which the state, not the worker, ‘calls into being.’ This is worthy of Lassalle’s imagination that one can build a new society by state loans just as well as a new railway! . . . That the workers desire to establish the conditions of co-operative production on a social, and first of all on a national, scale in their own country, only means that they are working to revolutionize the present conditions of production, and has nothing in common with the foundation of co-operative societies with state aid. But as far as the present co-operative societies are concerned they are of value only in so far as they are the independent creations of the workers and not protégés either of the government or of the bourgeoisie.58

While Marx’s critique of Bakunin’s autitarianism is often ignored, Bakunin’s critique of Marx is often praised for its prescience, despite its complete distortion of Marx’s ideas.

Some of Bakunin’s criticisms of Marx are truly bizarre. Bakunin believed that “doctrinaire revolutionaries” like Marx and Engels think “that thought precedes life, that abstract theory precedes social practice, that sociology must therefore be the point of departure for social upheavals and reconstructions,” and therefore come to the conclusion “that since thought, theory, and science, at least for the present, are the property of a very few individuals, those few must be the directors of social life.”59 After quoting at length Bakunin’s charges that Marx was using the First International to impose on the world a “government invested with dictatorial powers,” Daniel Guerin comments, “No doubt Bakunin was distorting the thoughts of Marx quite severely in attributing to him such a universally authoritarian concept, but the experience of the Third International has since shown that the danger of which he warned did eventually materialize.”60This is a curious justification for Bakunin’s criticism: because people have done authoritarian things in Marx’s name, Bakunin’s elaborate straw-man argument becomes retroactively vindicated. Another commentator writes, “Bakunin’s conception of the Marxist state he saw waiting in the wings of history was disturbing but correct. . . . history seems to have been on Bakunin’s, not Marx’s, side. . . .”61 Praise for Bakunin’s prophetic powers has served to gloss over the inaccuracy of his portrayal of Marx’s ideas.


Marx characterized the International as “a bond of union rather than a controlling force”62 and considered it “the business of the International Working Men’s Association to combine and generalize the spontaneous movements of the working classes, but not to dictate or impose any doctrinary system whatever.”63 On the basis of this vision, Marx opposed secret groupings in the International and held that this type of organization “is opposed to the development of the proletarian movement because, instead of instructing the workers, these societies subject them to authoritarian, mystical laws which cramp their independence and distort their powers of reason.”64 This perspective bears little in common with the caricature of Marxian authoritarianism that has become so widespread. Writing to Blos in 1877, Marx asserted that when he and Engels first joined the Communist League, they “did so only on condition that anything conducive to a superstitious belief in authority be eliminated from the Rules.”65 Marx’s opposition to authoritarian methods of organization reflects his long-standing belief in the importance of workers’ democracy. This was thus the basis for his rejection of Bakunin’s brand of vanguardism. As we have seen, Marx considered Bakunin’s emphasis on a tightly knit revolutionary general staff to be misguided. Far from being a consistent critic of authoritarianism, Bakunin mixed his elaborate praise for abstract liberty with an authoritarian organizational outlook.

Ironically much of the authoritarianism in the vanguardist ideology that most bothers anarchists was actually embodied in Bakunin’s organizational methods. Yet one does wonder if Marx’s faith in a transitional state was itself a problematic to which Bakunin was right. If one drops the historical polemics and looks at the actual events of the First International, the two bearded fore-bearers of different schools of communist both have egg on their faces historically.  We need to learn from both–a good Marxian thinker does not dismiss Bakunin for opposing Marx, but looks at the historical issues and decides the merit on each specific historical issue.

Furthermore, when it comes to organizing communists today–Marxist or otherwise–it is time to learn from the First International instead of parrot it.

On Kim Jong-Il:

There are often two reactions to Kim Jong-Il: one in support of the predominant US narrative on North Korea and the other on defending it as a socialist power against US Imperialism. While the US narrative predominates in capitalistic media, it is important to put North Korea in its context.   Kasama Project is right to say that it is both an oppressive state and in danger:

Kim Jong Il has long been head of the oppressive and isolated state ruling northern Korea — locked in a seemingly permanent state of war against the southern Korean state (which was occupied by the U.S. after world war 2). The North Korean regime,which calls itself the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK),  may well be weakened by Kim’s death and by long-brewing power struggles within the North Korean ruling circles.

There is both danger and opportunity in those possibilities of instability.

Certainly the people of northern Korea and their compatriots in the southern Korea’s peninsula have every interest in helping radical changes sweep their peninsula. They deserve the freedom to make their own difficult future choices freed from the interference and domination of great powers.

At the same time, any turmoil or instability in North Korea will signal intense and self-interested interference by the United States, and by those great powers (China, Russia and Japan) that border Korea.

Over and over Korea has been invaded, occupied, colonized, brutalized, exploited and threatened by outside powers — specifically Japan and the United States during the 20th century.

As I have pointed out, the name indicates quite a bit. In Korean, North Korea is 조선민주주의인민공화국.  In it you see the name of the Confucian Dynasty prior which one does not see in the name of South Korea in Korean, 대한민국.  As B.R. Meyers points out,  North Korean propaganda doesn’t resemble even Stalinist propaganda of socialism in one nation, but has a very similar character to the Confucian propaganda used by the Japanese fascists.  Yet it does inspire many North Koreans through appealing to a rather conservative ethnic nationalism that is concerned with purity.  Furthermore, the cult of personality around the Kim Jong-Il  has more in common with Hirohito’s cult than with Mao and Maoist personality ideology used by his father.  I have my critiques of that as well, but it is not what is going on in the current DPRK.  There is a continuity of the Confucian patriarchy and a deliberate inversion of Confucian male values.  DPRK propaganda is interesting in that sort of duel nature: a refutation of Confucianism and an acceptance of it by mere inversion. Furthermore, it is a refutation of Marxist-Leninism while claiming to have “further” developed it.  You don’t have to be a Trotskyists to see the problems there. Also, the racial propaganda in North Korea is anti-internationalist even against other socialist peoples, but the racial ideology is uniquely pulled from a Japanese colonial ideology which itself borrowed from Germans. Furthermore, Gary Leupp has been quite telling:

Still, those portraits of Marx and Lenin are there in Pyongyang. DPRK propaganda continues to describe the late Kim as “a thoroughgoing Marxist-Leninist.” Juche is described as a “creative application of Marxism-Leninism.” The Korean Workers’ Party continues to cultivate ties with more traditional, perhaps more “legitimate,” Marxist-Leninist parties including the (Maoist) Communist Party of the Philippines.

Some material by Marx, Engels and Lenin circulates in North Korea, and the Marxist dictum, “Religion is the opium of the masses” is universally known. But according to a Russian study in 1995, “the works by Marx, Engels, and Lenin are not only excluded from the standard [school] curriculum, but are generally forbidden for lay readers. Almost all the classical works of Marxism-Leninism, as well as foreign works on the Marxist (that is, other than [Juche]) philosophy are kept in special depositories, along with other kinds of subversive literature. Such works are accessible only to specialists with special permits.” (One thinks of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages restricting Bible reading to the trusted clergy, and discouraging it among the masses.)

I imagine some with those special permits are able to read Marx’s famous 1844 essay in which the “opium of the masses” phrase occurs:

“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.”

Maybe the rare North Korean student of Marxism, acquiring some real understanding of the Marxist view of religion, can see all around him or her conditions which require mass illusions and delusions in order to continue. There are some signs of resistance here and there to the Kim cult, which would seem to be a good thing.

Having said that (and always trying to think dialectically), I don’t believe that life in the DPRK is quite the hell—another religious concept—that the mainstream media would have us believe it is. One should try to look at things in perspective. We hear much of the terrible famine that lasted from about 1995 to 2001, killing hundreds of thousands if not millions. But North Korea was not always a disaster. As of 1980, infant mortality in the north was lower than in the south, life expectancy was higher, and per capita energy usage was actually double that in the south (Boston Globe, Dec. 31, 2003). Even after the famine and accompanying problems, a visitor to Pyongyang in 2002 declared:

“Housing in Pyongyang is of surprising quality. In the past 30 years–and mostly in the past 20–hundreds of huge apartment houses have been built. Pyongyang is a city of high-rises, with probably the highest average building height of any city in the world. Although the quality is below that of the West, it is far above that found in the former Soviet Union. Buildings are finished and painted and there is at least a pretense of maintenance; even older buildings do not look neglected. Nothing looks as though it is on the verge of falling down. . .

“Although a bit dreary, the shops in Pyongyang are far from empty. Each apartment building has some sort of shop on the main floor, and food shops can usually be found within one or two buildings from any given home. Apart from these basic, Soviet-style shops, there are a few department stores carrying a wide range of goods. . . “While not snappy dressers, North Koreans are certainly clean and tidy, and exceptionally well dressed. . . There is no shortage of clothing, and clothing stores and fabric shops are open daily.”

There’s apparently one hotel disco and some karaoke bars in Pyongyang. No doubt Kim Il-songism can provide some with the “illusory happiness” about which Marx wrote, and it is possible that genuine popular feelings as well as feelings orchestrated from above have contributed to the production of the North Korean faith. The DPRK might not be all distress and oppression. But neither is it a socialist society in any sense Marx or Lenin would have recognized, to say nothing of a classless, communist society. It is among other things a religious society in a world where nations led by religious nuts are facing off, some seemingly hell-bent on producing a prophesized apocalypse. I find no cause for either comfort or particular alarm in the Dear Leader’s October 9 nuclear blast; if it deters a U.S. attack it’s achieved its purpose, and however bizarre Jong-il may be he’s probably not crazy enough to provoke his nation’s destruction by an attack on the U.S. or Japan. I’m more concerned that Bush will do something stupid in response to the test.

In any case, the confrontation here isn’t between “freedom” and “one of the world’s last communist regimes,” nor even between fundamentalist Christian Bush and Kim Il-songist Kim Jong-il. It’s between a weird hermetic regime under threat and determined to survive in its small space, using a cult to control its people, and a weird much more dangerous regime under the delusion that God wants it to smite His enemies and to control the whole world. Both are in the business of peddling “illusions of happiness.” Neither is much concerned about the “real happiness” of people. Both ought to be changed—by those they oppress, demanding an end to conditions requiring illusions.

Now, living in South Korea, I must say that the US influence here can be pretty distorting as can the dominance of several major corporations.  But one must be honest and say that this is not even a vulgar Stalinist version of Marxism, but a regression to something far more primitive. Still one cannot argue that this is sound grounds for any US action.  The fate of Korea is for those who live here to decide.  It is not for the US to toy with.

Some postulates for the New, New Left(s)

For all those people who despair in the idea that the “Left is dead; Long Live the Left”  I want to focus on the second half as so many have solely focused on the first.  The question becomes what does a new emancipatory politics look like?  Obviously,  we see the roots of it spreading out everywhere in the Arab Spring, in #Occupy, in the austerity revolts, in the “return to Marx,” and so forth.   In recent debates I have been hosting, I have been trying to sublate various dialectical problematics in a way that is useful as a set of axiomatic guide posts.

The “New, New Left” as I see it needs to be derived from both practice and theory, not practice as opposed from theory nor theory as a opposed from practice, nor should be a theory as the master signifier of practice nor as practice as prime generator of theory.  All those binary relationships are false as both practice and theory are produced by ideas emergent from social relations.   Practice and theory are mutually co-emerging and should be tested off of each other in the movement.  Now, necessarily, the downside to this is 1) we can never know the necessary theory for the future in the current but only in the moment of shifts from the current to the future, and 2) we can have no blue print other than hypothesis and experimentation.

In other words, we are to operate both in a dialectical and scientific matter, but not necessarily in the simple  19th conception of the words.  In other words, there can be not complete rupture with the past nor can there be a return to it, there can only be the manifestation, elimination, and sublation of contradictions in the current movement.

This is all too abstract:  there can be only praxis as the unity of theory and practiced.  To think and to do is important, criticize and to act, to have positive and negative dialectics, to acknowledge the double bind of history and transcend it.  In practical terms, this means we avoid trying to slavishly bend “reality” to theory and pretending that action without a theoretical framework is meaningful.  Both are co-emergent from social relations.

This is my caveat and methodological assumption.  I am done with the obscure phrasing for a moment, let’s get to the postulates:

1) Neither idolize the past nor ignore it.  You may see this as the tension between primitivists and futurists or even Marxists and Anarchists.  As the cliche goes, those who are ignore the past are destined to repeat it, first as failure, then as farce, then as fossilizing pathology of farce and failure.  But those who obsess of the minutiae of the past movement movement are also just as likely to repeat it.   A social “movement” is neither a futurist society nor a historical reenactment society, it is informed by both gestures, but must in a sense be neither.

2) The debates between Marxist and Anarchists on the left, whatever their worth, have been wrought out by history. The Marxist no longer has the “right” to say to the anarchist, “Look, We actually won our revolution” because in the tentative “end” all the Marxist politics of the emancipation has been their reversion to capitalist troupes while the anarchists have never had such defeat because they have never suffered the indignity of having to actually deal with maintaining power.  The liberal and conservative are not wrong to point out how silly this drive ultimately ends up being.  To both, we are socialists and communists both–our division is one of history and of  implantation.  It is good for Marxists to critique anarchists and anarchists to critique Marxists, but only if those critiques are in good faith and not rooted in recantations of prior polemics which no bearings on the contemporary situation.

3) Criticism should not shut down solidarity nor should criticism of tactics be used as a means for scabbing. Criticism should only be done in solidarity with the goals of a movement.  If one does not share such goals, then simple opposition suffices.  If one shares such goals, then there must be a limit of criticism to the constructive.

4. One must work from both axioms and empirical data.  There is nothing wrong with the subjective if it is acknowledged as such nor is there anything wrong with empirical data on axiomatic goals.

5. Do not confuse tactics and goals–i.e. means and ends. The strict binary of means and ends are artificial as there is a limit to tactics must contain the roots of the goals, but one must not thing that there is no difference between means and ends.  The consensus process is not an equitable society, it is the means to an equitable society. The dictatorship of the proletariat was not the end point of communism, it was a transition to the goals of communism.  Any revolutionary who becomes merely considered with conserving the revolutionary gains of the past is not only now acting as a reactionary, but also not progressing towards the goal.  This has been true for anarchists, communists, and Social Democrats at various times.

6. Do not insist on false unity nor refuse to make concessions with other groups. Even within an event or rupture with the contemporary moment, there will be plurality of ways to respond to it. Not all are legitimate, but it is not merely liberalism to support a variety of differing points of view.  IT is a trick of the contemporary moment to say that only its claim to plurality is valid.

7. No theory should be held against the central axiom of one’s politics.  One alliance is to the truth and possibility of a different current.  That is the guide post. Any idea that holds beyond that is irrelevant.

8.Subjectivity is collectively defined.  Words are co-emergent with subjectivity.  One cannot change language and change consciousness because consciousness collectively defined creates and reinforces language. This is a feedback loop.  Therefore the move should not be save a word–such as “communism” or “anarchism”–but to embody the principles in that word in a way that makes others acknowledge it’s value.  When one tries to save a word through external re-definition, the euphemistic phrase is not seen as a signifier for the concept renewed, but a psuedo-signifier for the “real signifier” in which the old definition remains.  This is why almost everyone rightfully bristles at “politically correct language,” it has the order of operations exactly backwards.

9.  Things tend to be both neither/nor and both/and.  Remember this.

10. Desire must be willing to be armed-in the ballot box, on strike, and on the barricades .

11. Never fall to realize that the left of the past has much to say of to the left of the day, but it does not dictate it. Our situation is different because our history is manifested in a different way and our social relationships are different.

This is why I am say, Marxism is a way of thinking, not a set group of answers. In so much as it is the latter, it belongs in the dust bin of history.  The point of “The Left is Dead; Long live the left” is not just the left’s death, but also its re-emergence.   It’s time to stop mourning the zombie left, and starting seeing where the new one lies.  We’re fail more than we’ll succeed at first–in Occupy, during the Arab Spring, etc–but it is now in which a new, new left can be built and defined, and now in which we can built on it false notes or true ones.

When a Marxist is quoting Sue Orman, you know things are getting bad.

Sometimes you wonder if congress wants a violent revolution to test out their security apparatus.  Take for example this problem: Orman is getting to the point. 

Make no mistake, we are still in crisis mode. The unemployment rate didn’t drop from 9 percent to 8.6 percent because there were a ton of new jobs for the unemployed to step into. Much of the decline in the rate is attributed to the fact that more than 300,000 of the unemployed have stopped looking for work, so they no longer get counted in the math of the unemployment rate. We in fact added only 120,000 new jobs in November. At that pace it would take more than four years for private-sector employment to get back to where it was in late 2007. That’s not exactly a rosy picture.

Now of course, what will probably happen — though with this Congress who knows — is that sometime between now and Congress’ Christmas recess we will get word that the bickering has subsided enough and that long-term benefits will in fact be extended for 2012. But every day that we don’t yet have a deal is another day of congressional failure to serve its constituency. I am not talking solely about the 5.7 million. This speaks to what we as a nation stand for. I refuse to believe we are a country that wants to abandon our unemployed, or use them as political leverage. Yet here we are.

Concerned at the cost? Well, keep in mind that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has previously noted that extending unemployment benefits packs the most stimulative bang for the buck. Give someone with a job some money (through a tax break, say) and they might save it, or they might spend it. Give an unemployed person assistance and odds are very high that money quickly gets poured right back into the economy. That’s something that benefits all of us, at a time when the economy remains perilously fragile. And most important, it provides some relief for those who are struggling most.

However, this also illustrates something else: the battle between Neo-liberal and Neo-Keynesian ideology and practice, both are ultimately unsustainable.  Why?  Well, quick stimulus can’t address long-term systemic failure. But then just hoping jobs manifest is not a way:  the idea the job shortages are a matter of lack demand in the labor market because people would rather just not work is frankly, objectively, insane.


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