Category Archives: conservatism

Marginalia on Radical Thinking: Interview with KMO. part 2

Continued from part 1. A note: it took KMO a few days to answer the last two questions because he found them much more perplexing upon reflection than he thought at first. 
Skepoet:   You and Doug Henwood have been calling out NPR lately.  Why do you think it has so much cache among liberal and lefty types?

KMO:  I love NPR. I’m a lifelong listener. I think it appeals to lefty Baby Boomers because that’s the target demographic. It’s clearly aimed at people with too much education, critical thinking facility and attention span to take more ‘mainstream’ news and current events programming seriously, and so it flatters its audience with the tacit message, “You’re so smart for not settling for low-brow sound bite journalism and fake debates between shrill talking heads.”

NPR, particularly it’s flagship programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, annoys the living shit out of me because they respect all of the same taboos that the corporate media hold dear and actually serve to reinforce and legitimize those taboos by posing as a free and unbeholden actor. I think they function as what people more steeped in political language than I am like to call a ‘left gate-keeper.’

That said, let me reiterate; I love NPR. I listen to it all the time,  although less so now that I live in New York City and have more alternatives to choose from.

S:  You have been working with Occupy Cafe and you have recently moved to New York: what are you thoughts on the developments of Occupy?

KMO:  You may have heard that Occupy Wall Street has moved from Zuccotti Park to Union Square. I’ve been by Union Square a couple of times to check out the vibe, and except for the inordinate police presence and a table holding up an OWS banner with a donation jar on it, I saw nothing to indicate that there was anything at all out of the ordinary going on there. I know there have been a few Occupy events at which people were arrested, but I think the mild winter weather has not been a blessing to Occupy. I think people need some recuperation, and I think that 70 degree days in February put psychological pressure on the Occupiers to get back in the game before their batteries were sufficiently re-charged.

As exciting as OWS was last year, I don’t really want to see what it will become now that it has solidified into a recognizable brand and a more-or-less fixed organization. I would rather see everybody change clothes, change dance partners, and let the spirit of protest manifest itself in a new form in 2012.

S:  What would you like to the see the spirit of occupy become?

KMO:  Last year, Occupy changed the parameters of the mainstream conversation. At first the corporate media ignored OWS, then they thrashed about, grasping at any possible means of discrediting or discounting it, and then the 1% / 99% lingo entered the mainstream conversation. Suddenly, the vast disparities of wealth and privilege in our society materialized in view and required acknowledgement and comment in the mainstream narrative. That is but one of a herd of elephants in the proverbial room. This year, I want more elephants to
de-cloak.

The Drug War has become an invisible Juggernaut. It’s excesses and the resulting prison nation that have resulted from absurd mandatory minimum sentencing laws are completely indefensible from any rational perspective. In the 80s and early 90s, Drug War propaganda was everywhere. Now, prohibition-themed public service announcements are
rare. The whole monstrous program barrels forward under its own steam, but discussion of its utility or whose ends it serves is completely absent from the mainstream narrative. I think this is starting to change, and the recent Summit of the Americas at which Latin American leaders insisted that we examine alternatives to the Drug War now has
president Obama explicitly defending prohibition and the prison industrial complex. By the time November rolls around, I want it to be glaringly obvious to anyone tuned into the mainstream narrative that Barrack Obama and the Democratic Party are the party of Empire, the party of prisons, the party of the surveillance state, and the party
of the financialized economy. Whether it is OWS or some other mechanism that effects these changes in perception doesn’t matter much to me. I think that Ron Paul’s candidacy has done a lot more good on this front than has OWS.

S: The drug war is one of the few policies outside of the wars in the Mideast in which the majority of the population, outside of law enforcement, don’t support anymore.  It costs the states incredible amounts of money, and it destabilize Latin American countries. Why do you think it continues?

KMO:  Money.

S:  Money for whom?   That’s the real issue for me.  It actually costs most parties involved more than they make in the long run, so the question becomes “who benefits.”

KMO:  I think the key phrase there is, “in the long run.” The Drug War creates huge flows of money, the channeling of which provides short term benefit to entities like governments and corporations. This comes at an enormous short-term cost to millions of individual humans and an ultimately catastrophic cost to society, but the pressure to favor short
term gain over long term well-being is certainly not the exclusive province of the Drug War.

S:  What are the best ways to frame the issue in the general public ?

KMO:  That’s a really challenging question for a number of reasons. At one level, it seems that my own perspective is so deviant that what seems obvious for me is completely alien to “the common man,” whoever he is. So what are my intuitions worth when it comes to a successful re-framing of the Drug War? That viewpoint is laden with a blinding payload of self-flattery. I suspect that when the Greatest Generation dies off and the Baby Boomers are panicked over the fact that their retirement security has evaporated, we can frame the question as, “We can’t afford to fund your retirement AND the Drug War, so what’s it gonna be?” That, I think, will be a no-brainer for the Boomers.

Finally, the whole Drug War stands or falls with the prohibition of marijuana. The propaganda is all about cocaine and heroin, but without the prohibition on marijuana, there are not enough “drug criminals” out in the world to justify the gazillion dollar Drug War budget. Depending on how you massage the poll results, we’re pretty close to having half of the existing population, complete with members of the Greatest Generation who participated in lynchings, already favoring the decriminalization of marijuana for personal use. I heard Ethan
Nadelmann give a talk at the Cato Institute in 1999. He said something that stuck with me for more than a decade. He said, “Support for the Drug War is a thousand miles high, a thousand miles long, and one inch thick.”

S:  Do you think pointing out how insane the prison-congressional complex has gotten which actually privatized profits from prisons at extreme cost to the tax payer could be a way forward? Recently I saw that even at the most high estimates we have beat Stalin’s gulag in raw numbers of people in prison and almost all of it is drug related. One almost sees this as a political crime, like “speculation” was in the Soviet Union, rather than a purely administrative category.

KMO:  The Drug War started in a fairly honest way. It was clear that the prohibition of certain drugs and the enforcement of those prohibitions were intended to single out blacks, Mexicans, and politically and culturally disobedient youth. The architects of the Drug War were fairly open about this motivation, and the majority population favored the suppression of these groups. Now, the official policy of the federal government is one of color-blindness or the embrace of ethnic diversity, and our current cultural narrative condemns racism. While the cultural narrative has changed, the existing apparatus of the Drug War, which systematically imprisons blacks and Latinos, remains in place. Even worse, in the decades since the enactment of the Controlled Substances Act, marijuana has entered the mainstream. It’s prohibition, originally meant to criminalize ethnic minorities and rebellious youth, now criminalizes huge swathes of mainstream society. Because the racism at the heart of the Drug War cannot be admitted, the fact that the same Drug War now criminalizes the lifestyles of tens of millions of otherwise obedient whites cannot be acknowledged as an unintended consequence and corrected.

Those who profit from the Drug War  (a set that includes just about everyone, if Catherine Austin Fitts is to be believed – perhaps link to her essay Narco Dollars for Dummies)  cannot acknowledge the size and composition of the prison population without self-condemnation. No rational discussion of the topic can be permitted at this point, as
the avoidable and egregious harm produced by the Drug War is so glaring. It’s grounding in systemic racism and repression of political dissent is so obvious that it cannot withstand even the most cursory examination.

One reason why many whites still favor prohibition and mass incarceration is that most drug criminals are arrested in cities but housed in rural prisons. Prison jobs prop up many otherwise failing local rural economies. I saw a news story (which I posted to the Friends of the C-Realm) the other day (it was really a piece of corporate propaganda branded with the CBS News imprimatur) touting the benefits of a robotic prison guard. Corporate profits generated by mass incarceration can be increased by increasing the prison
population and decreasing labor costs. If labor costs can be lowered in the short term by replacing human prison guards with robotic systems, then the logic of the corporate mandate to maximize shareholder value in the short term will dictate that this sort of automation be adopted even if it is obvious that doing so will undermine one of the few remaining pillars of support for the Drug War. This doesn’t give me much reason for hope however. Modern-day logging operations employ very few people because technology has allowed one heavy equipment operator to do the work of an army of men wielding saws and axes. Even so, people who live in the economically devastated husks of rural towns that used to thrive on the basis of logging industry jobs still revile environmentalists as enemies of economic vitality. People in these communities still favor logging industry jobs over forests even though the logging industry no longer provides jobs to a sizable percentage of the local population.

S:  The issue of stacking districts with prison populations is an interesting problem. Even though in many of the states that do this felons cannot legally vote ever, the prison population is counted for appointing state representation. So it can be a form of “empty district building” and this increases rural, generally Republicans, representation against urban centers.  This leads me to think that there structural problems of electoral reform, not just for the drug but for many elements of our society, will actually not be particularly responsive to public pressure.

KMO:  Agreed.

S:  What gives you hope right now?

KMO: I hate to give a nit-picky answer to a straightforward question, but as someone who voluntarily engages in philosophical discussions, I figure it’s par for your course.

Channeling Paul Kingsnorth, now. “Hope for what?”

Hope for the future of life on Earth? I know some people who think that human industrial activity will turn the Earth into a Venus-like world, unfit even to support microbial life. This fear clusters in my own consciousness with the fear that the CERN particle accelerator will destroy the universe or that the Bible is literary true and that Christian true believers will soon be raptured into heaven leaving the rest of us in the clutches of the Anti-Christ.  I’m not saying that the danger of a run-away greenhouse process is as remote as the other  two I mentioned, but I have as much trouble working myself into a state of genuine concern over it as I do taking seriously a Left Behind scenario.

Hope for the future of the human species? Ninety nine percent of the species that have lived on Earth are now extinct. Perhaps humans will transcend our biology and project our consciousness out into the larger universe to take our place among the gods, but it’s also quite likely that we will go the way of most of the species that have arisen on this planet, and I’m fine with that. Even if industrial civilization has a short future, I do think that humans will be on the scene for hundreds of thousands of years yet. I’m not worried about
the survival of the human species.

Hope for the continuation of the status quo of global corporate capitalism? For the sake of the non-human life on Earth, I hope it does NOT continue.

Hope for a version of the technological singularity that preserves and advances those aspects of human intelligence that I value? There are people working on so-called Friendly AI, but given the fact that so much robotics research is driven by the military and that the leading forms of artificial pseudo-intelligence operate in the service of corporations and their overriding mandate to maximize short-term financial gain by externalizing costs at the expense of future prosperity, which is to say denying the consequences of their actions, I think that the Vile Offspring of Charles Stross’s Accelerondo is the more likely outcome.

Hope that industrial civilization can execute a deliberate soft-landing and transition to a low-power existence without leaving the survivors in a state of collective PTSD? It’s certainly within our power if we decide that that is what we want to do. The real barrier to this is our conditioned expectations and the psychology of previous investment.

Paul Gilding gave an optimistic TED talk recently in which he basically affirmed the Doomer vision that I’ve been articulating in answer to your question, and then he ended by pointing out that 4 days after the USA entered World War II our ancestors halted all domestic automobile production and converted that manufacturing capacity to the
service of the war. We CAN turn on a dime, but we won’t until a serious crisis smacks us in the face. Gilding’s faith is that the crises are coming and that the turning on a dime will follow. He might be right, and I guess that’s where my own hope finds a bit of traction. I hope he’s right.

My fear is that the media apparatus for worldview management has grown so sophisticated and effective that the majority of people will regularly be stepping over corpses on their way to work and that they will continue to believe that everything is on track for a brighter tomorrow and that better times are just around the corner so long as we all keep the faith and keep plugging away at our assigned tasks.

Hope that we can arrest the slide into a high-tech totalitarian society? Occupy Wall Street, the mass demonstrations around the globe,the work of Anonymous and WikiLeaks all give me reasons to hope.

The hope that I hold closest to my heart is that my two sons will get the chance to live full-featured human lives that include education, romantic love, family life, and satisfying work. What gives me hope here is John Michael Greer’s argument that civilizations in a free-fall state of collapse still move so slowly in comparison to a human lifetime that, for the people living through the collapse, everything seems normal. Unfortunately, his arguments are all
historical, and I think that some aspects of our current situation are unprecedented.

S:  Anything you’d like to say in closing?

KMO:  Last week I gave a talk at Bluestockings Bookstore, Cafe, and Activist Center, and after I had described the seemingly-inevitable and traumatic transition from a growth-based civilization to a steady state or contracting civilization, one audience member asked me what the magic lotto ticket out of our situation was. I said that I didn’t see one that seemed likely. He said he knew what it was, and I invited him to stand up, take the mic, and share with the audience. He did so. His magic lotto ticket: aliens.

He claimed that non-human intelligence from outside of space and time stand ready to resolve our dilemma any day now and that we can make contact with them via psychedelics. I myself have made a sustained and good faith effort to contact and partner with non-human intelligences via entheogens (psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, and San Pedro cactus). I’ve had provocative encounters, but nothing that has convinced me completely that I wasn’t encountering myself within the confines of my own skull and nothing that engenders faith in an immanent helping hand from beyond. I remain open to the possibility, but I’m not pinning my hopes on it. It could well be that aliens or spirits have converged on the Earth to grieve for us and comfort us in
our passing. Or to gloat and feed on our suffering.

I do think that the eager Doomers of the world, the ones who see humans as a plague upon Mother Earth and who want Her to rid Herself of us, have adopted a willful blind spot concerning the progression of information technology, robotics, genetics and nano-materials. What’s more, I feel no sympathy or resonance with their condemnation of humanity. I reject and repudiate misanthropy. I value human imagination and intelligence, and I want to see it continue into the future.

I think that the Techno-utopians of the world have adopted a willed ignorance of hard resource limits in the short term. I agree that some elements of their grand vision, elements that Doomers reject as baseless fantasy, may well be achievable in the long term, but that doesn’t mean that they will come to fruition in time to avert what looks like a looming Malthusian Correction. Techno-utopians like to say that Malthus was wrong, and certainly Malthus failed to predict the Haber-Basch process, mechanized agriculture, and genetic engineering. Even so, by failing to incorporate these factors into his thinking, Malthus may have underestimated the magnitude of his predicted population contraction. It may be true that Malthus was wrong, but that shouldn’t necessarily be cause for celebration.

I’ve related this basic narrative to several live audiences, and it’s always hard for me to end those talks, because I don’t have any rousing conclusion in which I offer reasonable optimism. Some people think that suffering builds character and that we’ll be better humans for having endured the coming hardship. I don’t think so. I think that damaged, victimized people are as likely to harden themselves to the suffering of others, spread the damage, and perpetuate the cycle of victimization as they are to achieve some kind of awakening.

Conclusions are hard, I think, because they are fake. Ends can’t justify means, because there are no ends. The drama continues even though every player will eventually leave the stage.

Conservatives and liberals at their games (CON edition): The character assassination of a dead 17-year old boy

Now I have had more than a few things to say about the hypocrisy of a lot of people, such as Mayor Nutter of Philadelphia and columnist Leonard Pitts denying that there was any implication to Zimmerman’s racial double-consciousness.  But the recent move to discredit Trayvon Martin has been disturbing. Although I suppose I should completely expect this some of thing as liberals and conservatives, or more specifically, Republicans and Democrats, like to play games with facts to score superficial political points regardless of the situation.

So, here’s the disturbing move: The attempt to place the focus on Trayvon Martin.  Now, let put this way, in both versions of the story, it is clear that Zimmerman stalked Martin thinking he was suspicious, that there was some kind of conflict, and that end, Trayvon Martin was dead.  Even at my most charitable reading of the events to Zimmerman, Zimmerman appears to singled out Martin, stalked him, been comforted perhaps violently, and this ended with Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s life ruined. That’s the most charitable reading.  The rest of the circulation about Martin’s character, honestly, is irrelevant. Some of things linking around from news sources into blogs are, well, patently false.  I don’t care for Alternet much and Thinkprogress even less, but they do a good job of documenting things here. 

So it appears that most of things are political games aimed at discrediting a dead kid which won’t benefit Martin either and ignores the structural problems of Florida laws and Florida communities.  I’ll quote the rather even-handed think progress piece:

Ultimately, whether Martin was a perfect person is irrelevant to whether Zimmerman’s conduct that night was justified. Clearly, there are two different versions of the events that transpired on February 26, the night Trayvon was killed. There are conflicting statements by witnesses and conflicting evidence as to who was the aggressor. Zimmerman has the right to tell his side of the story. But his opportunity to do this will come in a court of law after he is charged and arrested. In the meantime, Zimmerman’s supporters should stop trying to smearthe reputation of a dead, 17-year-old boy.

If you have a real point to make, make it. Don’t smear a dead boy.  I would try to shame those of you doing this, but we all know this isn’t about morality, or what happened to Trayvon.  This is about cultural power in a way in which honesty is largely irrelevant.  I won’t say anything more about this case.  It’s a distraction, but a tragic one.   One where people seem to be learning that moral outrage and character smears  is  a way to avoid looking a deep-seated cultural problems.    It doesn’t undo the situation, and it is unlikely to bring justice to anyone.

Typologies of the Drift Rightward Part 2: Breaking Godwin’s Law through Profiles of Socialists and Marxists

The first part of this series is here.  Now we move on the the most problematic element of the drift rightward from Marxists: Marxists and Other Socialists who became explicit fascists. This one we’re develop the typologies from the case studies.  I will cover the anarchist and syndicalist link to Fascism through the right-ward shift typologies in the next in the series. 

1.  Maurice Barrès was a socialist politician and agitator as well as a anti-semite and French nationalist famous for the phrase: “L’individu n’est rien, la société est tout” (The individual is nothing, society is everything).  He is generally considered one of the precursor thinkers to modern fascism, and while not a Marxist, he was definitely in the French socialist tradition that inspired Marx.  He was always tied to reactionary politicians, such as General Georges Ernest Boulanger, whom he identified with populist and socialist-wing.  He, however, thought that the nation as a corporate union should supplant the people as the means of organizing. He attained this from Counter-Enlightenment thinking in the monarchist tradition in which   Barrès eventually sided despite his republican and socialist leans.

A few interesting side notes about  Barrès that we shall see reappear: his interest occultism through his friend  Stanislas de Guaita and his rejection of capitalism as dirtied the stage of history.

One can note that many Third-world socialist leaders have taken ethnic and nationalist tones over time (the Kim regime of the DPRK).

Typology:  The left-winger who substitutes nationality/ethnicity for class as the subject of revolution and regresses towards non-modern thought which expanding the ideas of nation and state in modernist terms.

2. Ernst Niekisch, one of the intellectual founders of National Bolshevikism and generally considered a proto-typical of the S.A. and left-wing Nazis, began as a standard member of the Marxist German Social Democratic Party and was even involved in the extremely brief lived Bayerische Räterepublik of the German Revolution 0f 1919 which was absorbed into the Weimar Government.   Expelled from the party in 1926 for his increasing nationalism and his anger the hypocrisy of the SDP turn to pacifism in light of the revolutions of 1919.

Although his theories were guiding of the Stasserite wing of the Nazi party, Niekisch denounced Hitler as a lacking any real sense of socialism, and instead endorsed Stalin as a model for a national socialism against “infantile leftism” of the internationalists. Niekisch, ironically, after spending most of the Nazi regime in prison, renounced many of his nationalist views while working for the East German university (although it is unclear where his renouncement was unclear), and after a worker uprising in 1953 failed, Niekisch retired in despair and died shortly thereafter.

While not as entranced with the counter-enlightenment, his anti-semitism and fear of internationalism led Niekisch to a position almost identical to that of the Stasserite left-wing Nazis, and Niekisch was highly influential on American fascist writer Francis Yockey.  Ironically, Niekisch’s position of hopelessness with both nationalism and socialism is pathologically similar to that of the Jewish Western Marxist Max Horkheimer.

Typology: Nationalist Left Which is Not One, Also Western Marxist Gives Up in Despair.

3.  Ikki Kita (北 一輝 ) was a Japanese Romantic Socialist, inspired mainly from non-Marxist and Romantic writers before 1848 but was also inspired by the Xinhai Revolution in which the nationalists and the communist fought off outsiders and the Qing Machu Dynasty.  His first book was on socialism, The Theory of Japan’s National Polity and Pure Socialism, was a critique of Marxist ideology which Ikki Kita thought was too old fashioned and too influenced by social darwinism. He instead referred to the socialism in Mencius and Plato’s Republic for inspiration.  Increasingly throughout his life he became an ultra-nationalist. His later career he started talking about not only self-determination and liberation of the Asian peoples from Western Imperialism, but also called for  to Showa Restoration and the a coup installing or reinforcing someone like the Emperor against the Taisho government.   In near complete contradiction, he called for an Imperial and expansionist Japanese policy as well.  However, he did not have much time to really clarify his contradicting stances and his advocacy of something akin to Japanese fascism which has been made official policy during the Showa Restoration because he was excuted when the Generals tried this trick again in 1936 and failed.

Typology: Romantic Socialist unconcerned with self-contradiction.

Between liberalism and Leftism Part 2: Marginilia Interview with Jamie McAfee

This interview was spurned by a series of internet debates, some of which involved Ben at MARMALADE  and some involved Jamie as well as other disillusioned Democrats and left-liberals. This interview took place during the days just after the Oakland General Strike and the Greek back and forth on the referendum as this background context is necessary as some of the comments seem dated already only a few days later. 

Skepoet: You and I are both on the left.  You on the liberal left, and I am the left Marxian tradition.  Now to cut by ideological jargon, this means that I have Marxist sympathies that fundamentally distrust state power of any sort. I am distrustful of representative Democracy and tend to favor worker control of the means of production ideally.   I, however, realize that I do not live in that world so I work with liberal and left groups.    You are well-versed in the discourse communities, so to speak, and cultural tradition of the radical left, but you consider yourself a non-partisan left-liberal?  What do you see as the fundamental differences between the radical left and the left liberalism?

Jamie McAfee: I’d stress first that I’m talking here about left liberals. Not anybody in the mushy, not very cohesive (or effective) coalition that you might call “American liberalism.” There are plenty of people in that coalition who are in it because they are decent, not particularly politically minded people who are concerned enough to be for things like tolerance, environmentalism, and secularism and against the radicalism of the right. Just as, I would guess, a lot of people who vote for the GOP and identify as conservatives are decent people for whom a discourse of traditionalism and self-reliance makes sense.

I started with that because think it’s really important to distinguish between left liberals, who tend to have somewhat coherent, or a least reflexively complex (I’m not sure my own politics are coherent, but I’m not sure the world is either), politics and who have politics that are deeper than just worrying over civility (although we do that too) from people who identify with the left out of what is really identity stuff. I might be no-true-scottmanning a little, but I don’t think so. People have lives to lead, and politics is distasteful. I take it for granted that most people will always affiliate themselves for tribal reasons. There are a lot people of my generation in the South who were driven to the Democratic Party by the religious right.

So what distinguishes actual left leaning liberals from radical leftists? I think, based on my experience of being a left liberal who’s fumbled around with Marxian texts, at times almost ended up identifying as a radical, only to land on “cultural studies,” and based on my experience talking to and reading people who landed on the radical side of the line, that there are two big differences.

1. “I realize I do not live in that world and so I work with liberal and left groups” is where an important hinge is. From what I can tell, radical leftists think it’s important to maintain that sense of distance from the system (both in terms of political hegemonies and in the sense of actual institutions that have power) whereas left liberals don’t. When I say “that sense of distance,” I mean in terms of discourse, in terms of the kinds of targets for criticism we choose, and in terms of how we describe the chessboard of political actors.

I don’t really trust representative democracy or the capitalist state to work as I’d want them to, but I don’t see a feasible alternative, and so I don’t see the point of using that distrust as a starting point. I’m even less inclined to do so since those same positions are shared by libertarian parts of the right. I know the difference between what you mean when you describe your distrust (something like “capitalist interests and hegemony corrupt democracy”) and the reactionary fantasy that enable the right to take apart the safety net. Yeah, I know, “safety net” just protects capitalism. Remember, we’re skeptical. Perhaps temperamentally conservative. But that’s temperament, not ideas. But in the climate we’re in, where those fantasies about the evils of the state have a lot of sway, I’m not sure I can viscerally get with the radial left version of that, even though I understand it’s different.

. . . which leads us directly to the second answer. . .

2. We are more acutely concerned with the damage that the right has done and wishes to do still. I don’t mean we are MORE concerned, but that we are more specifically concerned. In practice, that’s meant that we’ve been playing defense mostly, even against people on “our” party. I’m not sure it’s a great strategy, but I’m not sure that abandoning it is a great idea either.

One last thought: one aspect of left liberalism that shouldn’t be forgotten is that it does tend to be critical of the people it elected. We are different from the right in not mistaking engagement for partisanship.

Skepoet: I was wondering about that since most leftists see left liberals as apologists. Do you see this problem as being rooted in the fact the radical leftists are disapproved by the nearly constant concessions to the right?

Jamie McAfee: I would guess the concessions to the right stuff is why the radical left uses “liberal” a pejorative. Were there a unified, effective popular left wing liberals would have a better case to make for the political process. Remember though, that left liberals don’t like it either. We see the solution, though, through some kind of political realignment that would change the priorities of government. We aren’t necessarily optimistic about a saner hegemony emerging, but we don’t see a real alternative to fighting on those grounds.

I see what I’m doing by saying we accept a certain kind of hegemony, by the way. That’s probably anathema from a radical perspective. The liberal perspective is, though, I think anyways, that there’s always going to be class struggle, always exploitation, always inequality, etc., and always ideology to incorporate those injustices into some justification. I think liberals are too often accused of naivety by radical leftists because we keep coming back to a process that lets us down. Pessimism, I think, is a better description. What we want is a state to provide recourse for injustice and to mitigate the damage capitalism can do with rules, some redistribution, and a safety net.

Skepoet:  I often the operating principles aren’t actually the same. For example, my ideal world is not to maintain meager gains made by prior that were supposed to be progressively increased. This seems hard to maintain in ALL the Western countries. Do you see this as a legitimate criticism?

Jamie McAfee:I ‘m not sure anybody thinks that’s ideal. It’s more of a response to the political pressures from the right, the increased skill with which capitalism atomizes and disenfranchises, and the holes in the system that have emerged from the economy changing. For example, the liberal take on health care reform is, honestly (I supported it and haven’t given up on it), weak tea. But it’s a defensive posture against a particular reality. For all that Obamacare didn’t do, it made some of the worst practices of the insurance industry illegal. Or that’s what’s supposed to happen. We’ll see. That’s unsatisfying, of course.

It’s a very legitimate criticism of the partisan aspects of the political process, as my Obamacare example probably illustrates. I voted for Obama, and probably will again if there isn’t a good third party option. What left liberals want is a lot more than what the process is giving us right now. What to do about that we don’t know.

I would, by the way, much rather there be a political landscape where technocratic state capitalism had to compromise with a mobilized leftist working class than the present reality, which is crony capitalism justified by a robust ideological project against a disorganized liberalism. I really do want a powerful, organized radical left. One problem we’ve got though is I don’t think we really know what the radical left’s got to say beyond criticism. We’re unhappy about this stuff too, but we’re still trying to worry about governance. That’s certainly unfair, but that perception is a problem for the radical left. It’s a problem for the left liberal who thinks we need a radical left also.

Skepoet: I have a sincere question: If the left-liberals do this why do think the radical left should work with them? I’ll go back to the Obamacare example, while it did make some of the worse practices of the insurance companies illegal, it actually is likely to REDUCE the ability of the poor to get healthcare.  That is definitely the result of the Massachusetts plan which Obamacare is primarily based.  That’s not weak tea: that’s a mislabeling.

Jamie McAfee First of all, I don’t think mean to say that radicals should necessarily want to engage liberals, except in the case of specific causes or protests when you might be able to use us to get something you want. I think what radicalisms (even right wing ones) are good at is pointing out how the system itself benefits those with privilege. Liberals ought to listen to those critiques and be responsive. What I think left radicals should do better though, is to distinguish themselves from other people who make similar complaints about state capitalism and to talk more about policy and process stuff. More emphatically left and less emphatically radical.

As for the specifics of healthcare reform, I think that’s a good example of how policy issues are complex, confusing, and filled with unintended consequences. I’m not sure an unintended consequence (if that bad news pans out) is the same thing as a mislabeling. One problem with reforming the system is that piecemeal changes produce can produce bad outcomes. That’s a critique often made by libertarians which is a good critique. The liberal response, I’d guess, would some sort of Band-Aids to fix those new problems. One hand, that’s lame, and it doesn’t address the underlying structural issues, on the other hand, increasingly complex technological networks require maintenance, and that maintenance is going to be done by some combination of profit seekers and government, and it seems like liberals are making effort toward vigilance. If you make a policy, there will be bad as well as good consequences. Then you have to deal with those. The sort of management/technocrat perspective I’m talking about is, I think, a pretty liberal point of view.

That’s not to say that left liberals are happy with the compromise that came out of the process. I want a government single payer system, as do most of us. The compromise that was reached was with the for profit health care industry. I’m not sure that they were legitimate stakeholders.

Again, none of this is anybody’s ideal. It’s what liberals think is the reality we have to respond to.

On the other hand, if left radicals make it their policy to ignore the political process; I’m not sure how they can expect anything but the worst. Again, I’d love to see a powerful left wing movement. I’m not sure what it would look like or where it would come from, which is why I’m not signed on to it. Some of the currents I see are distasteful. Some of the American anarchists milling about in some of the online left wing groups I pay attention to seem pretty juvenile. If left radicalism isn’t defined enough to exclude that, I’m not sure what kind of direction a left radical movement would go. That may be a perception problem more than a reality, but it’s a reason I don’t feel particularly inclined towards radicalism. I don’t quite even know what it is these days beyond critique.

I’m not really critiquing, just sharing my own feelings, by the way. I’m sure that’s unfair, although I can’t really nail down why.

Skepoet: I am going to ask you a serious question if everyone engaged the legitimate political process as sanctioned by the existing state, would there even be a United States?
Jamie McAfee: I don’t follow. You if literally everyone engaged, would the U.S. disintegrate or radically change or something? Or do you mean something else. I don’t follow.
Skepoet: Furthermore I am going to press you on something:  The results of the Massachusetts were public knowledge by 2009 and they were supposedly studied by the Obama team.   It is clear the results were known if they were being honest about that. There are some differences, but they are not necessarily serious enough to truly neither be cost cutting nor insure low income people actually get care.

Jamie McAfee: I think the idea, at least as it was sold to me, was to get a foot in the door and to work on cost cutting and expanding insurance using the new system, which was the best that was politically possible, as a base. Is it going to work? I don’t know. Certainly not without pressure from the left to keep working on the problem. It was to be the start of a process rather than a finished product. It certainly doesn’t address some of the most serious problems with the health care system.

Skepoet: How are some juvenile activists different from liberals on forums saying things like “Obama cares about ALL Americans, Republicans do not and leftist complainers do not.”  That seems like a failure of focus and a form of interacting with people you find distasteful and then tarnishing about movement because of it.
Jamie McAfee It’s certainly no less juvenile. That’s tribalism for you. There is a difference, though, in you are comparing the fuzzy tribalism and defensiveness of mass politics to the desire to hash out ideas in close quarters with fringe actors you don’t like and have little in common with. On one hand, you have the routine idiocies of partisanship. As asinine as that can be, it’s the way the world is. If I’m going to abandon the realistic/pessimistic choice to participate in a process with those guys in favor of an outsider movement, I’m really going to be able to have to be able to identify with it.

The other problem is the word “movement,” which does not seem to describe, for me anyway, a collective of people united by their dislike of state capitalism. Where you moving to? I don’t know. If there’s a movement afoot it hasn’t been very well defined. I’m not an insider to the radical community, but I think I’m exposed to it enough that I should at least be able to understand what it wants exactly, but I don’t.

Skepoet: I am also going to challenge you on this: “The sort of management/technocrat perspective I’m talking about is, I think, a pretty liberal point of view.”  I find this interesting because there are far left economists (Richard Wolff, Andrew Kliman, tons of the World Social Forum) working on these issues. In fact, technocratic movements tended to reject so wonkism in its day too.   Of course, the people in power have plans for how to manage the situation.   They are in power. The activists on any side generally don’t.

From my vantage point, there has been a discussion by radicals on serious issues of management. There is an entire field of Marxian economic and sociology as well as anarchist sociology and anthropology devoted to it.  We can’t get people to even hear those guys out until the people on the street get enough of a percentage listening to hear that. But it’s out there; blogs like Naked Capitalism are devoted to it as are the Marxist Humanist Institute for Marxists and Zcommunication for anarchists.   Most liberals, left or otherwise, don’t know these things even exist. In fact, I’d suspect many radicals don’t either.  Part of the problem is, I suspect, that the more “serious” radical thinkers have been hiding from first Red baiting then the culture war in Academia.
Jamie McAfee I think you are right about the situation. I’m dimly aware that there are Marxist policy wonks out there. The radicalism I see looks like protest without remainder though. I think you probably have a point about red baiting, but I think the immaturity of some of the activist community is at fault as well, at least for the left leftist community. I want me some wonkiness and some, well, coherence is unfair perhaps, but some idea of where the radical activists would take us and how their ideas differ from what left liberals have got. (This isn’t what we get, mind you. Don’t confuse what left liberals want with what the Democratic Party delivers.)

Skepoet: I am going to ask another pointed question, but I hope for your response on the above as well:  Do you think left-liberals and left radicals actually share values?  I am unsure. In a recent debate with a “progressive libertarian” friend who said my belief that values were fundamentally different was “communist inspired” which I thought was odd since I take values pluralism to be part of a frame inherited from Isaiah Berlin, arch-liberal.   I content that the values are actually fundamentally different which is why many of us see so much of left-liberal activism as both naive about power and too conservative–and I mean this in conserving moderate gain sense.
Jamie McAfee: Good question that I don’t have a good answer to. I think we do, but we are probably not in complete alignment. I think the bigger difference is a worldview thing rather than a value thing. I think both sides of the divide think the other side is naive about power. (Not me about you, by the way.)

What would you say radical values are? Left liberal values would be the belief that the economy should offer everyone a decent standard of living, a belief in change should happen through a political process, the belief that we have the responsibility to maintain a state that protects individual rights, and a strident belief in secularism.

Right now we aren’t getting those things, but angry liberals aren’t necessarily going to become less liberals.

Skepoet: I also want to ask you what to you think of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine?

Jamie McAfee I have mixed feelings about it. It’s been a while since I’ve dealt with it, but I thought about it for some reason recently. I think it’s a bit conspiratorial. I want to like it more than I do, actually, but I’m skeptical about the far reaching claims, particularly since I’ve read persuasive drubbings of some of her specific cases she makes. I don’t know the history of much of it to make much of an independent judgment but the thesis seems a bit like confusing an interesting metaphor with a robust political theory.

I think a ramped down version of the argument- that as of late, crises tend to resolve themselves in ways that bring the world into alignment with the interests of global capitalism and of the wealthy rather than the interests of the people as a whole, is sound. We’ve got a mild version of it in discussions about the federal deficit in this country. We have a looming crisis (or at least the perception of one), and the bulk of political will is for shifting responsibility from the wealthy to the working class. Or look at anything referred to as “austerity measures.” That tendency, well, it might be something of a rule, which the privileged are first in line during times when others are most acutely suffering is fucked up, and that’s a serious topic.

I thought the part about Iraq was ludicrous. I was very much against the invasion, very angry at the abusive private contracting, and very skeptical of the whole strategy and the interests who influenced it. That doesn’t make her version any more helpful. (I don’t remember it that well, but that was my response. I’m not prepared to offer much in the way of what I objected to at present.)

Skepoet: I just bring up Klein because that Shock Doctrine, while written by a left liberal more or less, was really damning of the Liberal Establishment in Eastern Europe and in Latin America as well as during the Clinton years.  That does seem like bad faith to me.   So how do you work with that system exactly?

Jamie McAfee: Beats the shit out of me. Change is hard. That’s not meant to be a cop out. I really don’t see a way to untangle foreign policy or fiscal arguments from corporate interests. Or at least, I don’t see a clear path. I don’t necessarily disagree with radicals about the liberal establishment, and I suspect that other left liberals agree. My own left liberalism comes from a fundamental pessimism about the possibilities for radical change, not out of any great love for they world we live in now. I’m almost tempted to go off on a rant about original sin or something.

I would say though that a belief in liberalism is not support for the liberal establishment. You might say it’s an inability to imagine a different way of doing business. Is that bad faith? I don’t know.

I think my pessimistic left liberalism is a lot like some people’s conservatism, actually, and I think I’m maybe more upfront about it than others. I feel in some ways stuck with politics. I’m not going to wax eloquent about it. I’m on a spectrum though. Left liberal journalists tend to be pissed off a lot.

Skepoet:  But the very process with created America was rupture. A successful one arguably.  Do you see the dilemma in that?

Jamie McAfee: There was some rupture, but a lot more continuity, at least in the short term, it seems like. The American “Revolution” was a misnomer, I think. It was revolt founded on political beliefs that really weren’t meant to apply to everybody. Over time people fault to expand the significance of the revolt (and responded to economic exigencies) until it turned into something more significant than that, but it was rooted in what already was. (My knowledge of it is thin. Not compared to the average person, perhaps, but it’s not a special interest.)

To some extent, that “response to agencies” vision is perhaps how I see people acting in history. Agitate and organize and build, but ultimately I’m skeptical about how much power we have outside of specific opportunities.

Let me just go one record as saying I’d love some radical change, I try to be supportive of and receptive to people who work to figure out what it might look like, and I have the deepest respect for dissidents who are conscientious and honest. For me though, the best they are going to accomplish is to redirect and reinforce liberalism. I’m not at all against people working outside of the liberal paradigm, and to the extent that they manage to accomplish things through alternative means and grassroots networking, great. Left liberalism doesn’t say that radicalism shouldn’t exist alongside or that it doesn’t have contributions to make. It just thinks that giving up on the political process is a mistake.

Skepoet: You seem to think there is more continuity than it appears. I remember you mentioning this in a discussion about Latour?

Jamie McAfee:  Yeah, I’m probably overstating the case, but “revolt” I think is a better description than revolution. That was historically during a period of major intellectual upheaval and just before major economic upheaval. Again, not my specialty, but I do have a hard time drawing a parallel between the turmoil of a colony breaking away and an internal, class struggle-oriented upheaval.

Latour’s shtick that I was talking about is to criticize the idea that there was a modern “break,” or at least, to argue that it was a social change or a pretense rather than a meaningful intellectual change. Modernism, for Latour, is defined by a separation of the social, the discursive, and the physical. So biologists have to look at facts; the moral order that fact might imply doesn’t count. This, of course, is all wrapped up in Cartesian dualism and it creates massive problems for philosophers. It also permits massive expansion of technological cultures. Latour essentially says that we have to understand the Modern world anthropologically, so that the practices of science and technology (which he blends together) are understood as social practices and as nodes on networks that incorporate text.

This is relevant for talking about capitalism because if we understand capitalism as a technology, defined by immediate pragmatism and framed with deliberative rhetoric, we can perhaps more easily talk about it’s expansion. We can talk about American expansion or colonization (internal or overseas) the same way. Sort of a “Guns, Germs, Steel” approach to the problem. Capitalism pretends to be value free and it functions like a technological network. Latour talks about “quasi objects” that ontologically are  nature/matter, textual productions, and cultural artifacts. A corporation seems like a good one to think about.

I’m stretching Latour a bit to use him this way, but it makes sense to me, and that notion of Modernism as a epistemological phantom that allowed us to do do magic tricks so we could expand networks of technology is a lot better than a model of historical rupture. One reason I am a cultural studies Marxist dude and not a revolutionary Marxist dude is the teleological stuff in Marxism. I don’t know enough about contemporary revolutionary Marxists to know how they deal with that stuff, but Marx certainly has a strongly narrative sense of history. That doesn’t make sense to me. Consider also that as somebody with more than a little postmodern bent, the kind of narrative approach you’d have to adopt to talk about ruptures doesn’t make sense to me. Latour claims to hate postmodernism because it’s a decayed late Modernism that’s become narcissistic. I think he’s teasing a bit though.

Now I’m all off on my own tangent, so I’ll stop and leave it messy.

Skepoet: What do you think that implies for radicals and left-liberals then?

Jamie McAfee: Yeah, I’m probably overstating the case, but “revolt” I think is a better description than revolution. That was historically during a period of major intellectual upheaval and just before major economic upheaval. Again, not my specialty, but I do have a hard time drawing a parallel between the turmoil of a colony breaking away and an internal, class struggle-oriented upheaval.

Latour’s shtick that I was talking about is to criticize the idea that there was a modern “break,” or at least, to argue that it was a social change or a pretense rather than a meaningful intellectual change. Modernism, for Latour, is defined by a separation of the social, the discursive, and the physical. So biologists have to look at facts; the moral order that fact might imply doesn’t count. This, of course, is all wrapped up in Cartesian dualism and it creates massive problems for philosophers. It also permits massive expansion of technological cultures. Latour essentially says that we have to understand the Modern world anthropologically, so that the practices of science and technology (which he blends together) are understood as social practices and as nodes on networks that incorporate text.

This is relevant for talking about capitalism because if we understand capitalism as a technology, defined by immediate pragmatism and framed with deliberative rhetoric, we can perhaps more easily talk about it’s expansion. We can talk about American expansion or colonization (internal or overseas) the same way. Sort of a Guns, Germs, Steel approach to the problem. Capitalism pretends to be value free and it functions like a technological network. Latour talks about “quasi objects” that ontologically are  nature/matter, textual productions, and cultural artifacts. A corporation seems like a good one to think about.

I’m stretching Latour a bit to use him this way, but it makes sense to me, and that notion of Modernism as a epistemological phantom that allowed us to do magic tricks so we could expand networks of technology is a lot better than a model of historical rupture. One reason I am a cultural studies Marxist dude and not a revolutionary Marxist dude is the teleological stuff in Marxism. I don’t know enough about contemporary revolutionary Marxists to know how they deal with that  stuff, but Marx certainly has a strongly narrative sense of history. That doesn’t make sense to me. Consider also that as somebody with more than a little postmodern bent, the kind of narrative approach you’d have to adopt to talk about ruptures doesn’t make sense to me. Latour claims to hate postmodernism because it’s a decayed late Modernism that’s become narcissistic. I think he’s teasing a bit though.

Now I’m all off on my own tangent, so I’ll stop and leave it messy.

Skepoet: What do you think that implies for radicals and left-liberals then?

Jamie McAfee: My messy Latour brainstorm?

I think it implies that we need to be a lot more careful about thinking about managerial structures and other technologies when we talk about ideology. In some ways that’s a traditional “left” idea- that context and structure is what we have to think about to understand behavior, but I think Latour might lead to some re-framing of how we should discuss those things. There are philosophers (or theorists or whatever you want to call them), who’ve moved in that direction, but I don’t see the people or journalists in the radical or liberal communities who think that way. I don’t think Donna Harraway, for example, is widely read by people who aren’t particularly concerned with feminist theory or techno-science theory.  I wonder if she might be helpful.

I think some of my inability to articulate how political process could have the ability to lead to substantial change might be, not solved, but helpfully reframed with some “non-modern” thinking about how corporations and governments function. I similarly think that some of what I see as naive antagonism in some of the radical people I interact with might become more usefully articulated to how power actually functions with a dash of that stuff. Class struggle is still a relevant concept, but it seems incomplete without a discussion of how the complexity of the organizations of contemporary institutions.

Or not. One theme that’s emerged from this exercise has been a lot of dissatisfaction on my part with the remedies offered by traditional left liberalism and a lot of skepticism about how useful the observations of the young radical community actually are. I identify myself as a left liberal and not a radical because as unsatisfying as the system is, I still think we have to engage with it, and because I just don’t identify with the the radical community that I’ve been exposed to. I think some reframing is in order, for all of us. Talking more about institutions as technologies is a shot in the dark, really, but it’s an example of the kind of thing I think might help.

Skepoet: Do you think OWS has brought out the tensions between Liberals and Leftists?

Jame McAfee: I think it has brought out tensions between liberals and some radicals, but I don’t know if they are specifically “leftist,” and I think that’s going to get worse. The really remarkable Oakland strike involved some confrontations between some black bloc folks and police last night. I don’t think you’re going to find many liberals who won’t say that that sort of thing is very bad for the legacy of OWS. Nobody, I think, who’s anywhere left of center approves of the typical overreaction of the police when that sort of thing happens- putting protecting property BEFORE the safety of protesters is asinine and dangerous, but I think the liberal framing of that kind of confrontation is going to be “a minority of hoodlums are giving us a bad name.”

I don’t toe that line (I really don’t), but I do think that kind of violent confrontation is absurd and counterproductive. Huffpo’s picture today that linked to the story about the Oakland Strike was of a guy wearing some kind of black steam punk getup with a fire blazing behind him. The NYT lead paragraph was about the “100 or so” young men who stormed a building and started some fires. Considering the amazing accomplishments of the protest, framing the story around those incidents of violence is absurd, but there’s a lesson there. The promise of the occupy movement is that it doesn’t fit into the partisan narratives that generally frame our discourse. If you make it look like a riot, that’s a much easier story to tell. Rioting anarchists are sexy villains and good copy.

I think the issue is whether the occupy movement is a protest or an insurrection. Civil disobedience and revolt, I think, aren’t the same thing, and I think considering the difference is a useful way to distinguish left liberals from radical leftists. I’m probably oversimplifying about the radical left. I hope so. I’m not sure how it helps us to think about how the occupy movement could blossom into some real change by reducing it to very literal challenges to specific authority figures.

One issue here is that I’m not sure I can comfortably equate the “insurrection” point of view with any sort of “left.” The lack of clarity that I’ve mentioned earlier is rearing its head. I suspect there are answers to be had for my confusion, but I’ve followed this stuff much more closely than most folks, and at this point if I’m confused, I suspect most liberals might write off “radicals” protesters as a motley collection of undisciplined hippies.

I’m not saying any of this is fair. I’m just saying that as somebody who sees this as a protest, and therefore a rhetorical activity, I think it’s a very serious danger for the occupy movement. I think that concern is a liberal, rather than a radical, concern.

I want to chip in that I’m trying to sort out the differences, not necessarily to defend my liberal point of view, since I understand that to be the point of this activity. When I saw that Huffpo pic, my first thought was “you fucking idiot,” and my second though was “man, Huffpo sucks.” I think it might be important for anybody concerned with the occupy movement to consider that I reacted in that order. I think I’m way more sympathetic to that guy than most of the 99%.

I’m perfectly aware, by the way, that some folks are of the opinion that the police were looking for excuses to use violence. I think there’s some truth to that. The militaristic approach we’ve seen at some Occupy protests are certainly disturbing. All the more reason to take the high road. Of course, that opinion doesn’t work if this isn’t a protest.

Skepoet: Here’s the problem, Jamie, the left-liberals involved aren’t  going to have an outlet and they don’t see to have thought it through what they are doing either.   Shutting down the port has more effect on supply lines than you think.  It’s serious, and that more than anything would be why the police were involved. You know because the sheer volume of police involved was coordinated prior to the event as was the timing of their involvement.

But the high road to what, Jamie?  This has been my question for left-liberals and they have no answer.  No one is asking for a new party and very few of my liberal friends are even really dealing with the fact that the Democratic mayors are the ones who have been given to the strongest police violence. Why?  Because they know that the left-liberal base with vote for their party regardless because of fear of Republicans.  This is a pattern, one your analysis offers no real solution about.

So whining about property damage by anarchists seems like its all public relations. Now, at this point, such actions are counter-productive and honestly there were several times on the live feed where it looked like there were agent provocateurs in the crowd. Given the history of things like Haymarket riots, it wouldn’t surprise me.

Yes, HuffPo sucks. But what are going to offer us?  The current Greek situation did not happen because everyone was willing to place nice and worried about the immediate image of the protestors. They had a goal and now their government is trying to do something about it. Something that could possibly unravel the Eurozone so that at minimum Greek’s can stabilize their free-fall like Argentina did after its massive default.

That doesn’t happen because of liberal’s holding hands.  That happens because liberals realize that if they don’t push for something, they’ll have a revolution on their hands.  That was written about OPENLY in several British papers, and it is spreading like wildfire.

Yes, you are more sympatric.  Yes, the property violence incidents, particularly ones aimed at Shops like Tully’s closed in solidarity are stupid.  I’d even go far to say that I am not an ends justifies any means kind of guy.  I am not.  But the HuffPo situation really puts it forward for me in a different way.

What do left-liberals have without the Democratic Party?   Good public relations, the ability to sway public opinion?  During the anti-war movement, you did that. It still took the Iraqis themselves refusing a terrible status of forces agreement for most of the troops to come home.

Honestly, this is the point where I am going to ask, seriously, when liberals tell us to be serious and mature, work through traditional means either within the less militant Unions or within the Democratic party.   Furthermore, while OWS was started primarily by activists and anarcho-liberals, it was not started by left-liberals even though I’ll admit they make up the vast majority. The fact that left-liberals have not pushed the organization towards co-option or George Soros is admirable.  Seriously, but there is already talk of a crack down on all anarchists not just those in the black bloc.

So, Jamie, since the 1960s, working with liberals has led to us being purged from organizations such as unions encouraging the unions to accept things like the Taft-Harly act which forbids them in participating in a general strike.  It led to weakening of the McGovern campaign; It led so many running to the Maoist parties and then sectarian battles of the late 1970s.  Every step of the way, Democratic Presidents has been having the “Nixon to China” moments on most of the liberal compromises of the past.

If the split is more dramatic, then what options do we have? Seriously.  As a liberal, this should scare you because if we aren’t working with you and the situation on the ground gets hotter. What are you going to do?

Oakland was not a revolution. It was just a wildcat strike.  But taking a port, wow.  That’s fairly radical.  The left-liberals were involved in that.  Yes, the anarchists may have made everyone a target, but the real issue at hand was handing over the port today. This was done, and actually does weaken the situation.  So I ask you again, if left-liberals don’t even have a decent handle of the narrative at HuffPo, which is not an arm of the Democratic Party, what do they have?   As a British journalist said, OWS has power because it shows there are still threats to ignoring electoral will, and if the situation is not improved people will take action on their own. He however said another point, its because the people behind that if it doesn’t work have much nastier iconography that a ballerina on the bull.  Gandhi doesn’t work with Nehru’s nationalists, the all-Muslim league, and the Indian Communist Party prepared to rip the British raj’s throat out if Gandhi fails.

Secondly, very, very few leftists are fond of the black bloc attacking things like Tully’s. Even the black bloc itself is unhappy with that.
So if this used for left-liberals to purge actual leftists, even ones not sympathetic to the propaganda by the deed, which Marxists and
syndicalists traditionally aren’t, then you’ll be just as powerless as you rendered us.

Sorry for the rant, you know, it out of respect, but there really seems to be a very selective perspective here.

Jamie McAfee: I did not mean to imply that I had a problem with shutting down the port. Striking is a legitimate form of protest. That’s just fine with me. It’s some of the specific behavior of a small group of people that happened later in the evening I’m talking about.

To your question about what high road and why? I think my answer above might answer this as well. I have no qualms with disciplined civil disobedience, even disruptive stuff like striking or stopping business. I’m not at all saying that participation in elections alone is enough for dramatic change. I’m saying that activism needs to be ultimately concerned with persuading people to use the system differently, and in the context I used it “the high road” referred to behavior at protests. Fighting cops and setting things on fire is not useful. Peacefully marching on  the port with the help of thousands of other people might be.

It is interesting that some of the cities that have had the strongest responses have left liberal bases, but I’m not sure correlation is causation in this case. The very troubling history of police brutality in Southern California, for example, is it’s own thing with its own history. The “because” in that statement is seems a bit dicey considering the complexity of how a city functions. You may have a point, but I’m not convinced.

Certainly the “liberal” mayors of these cities have failed to defend activists in any meaningful way.
You’re right that protests are about civil disobedience. It is a protest. It is, in part, public relations. Breaking laws is fine so long as you are careful about which laws you break. As for agent provocateurs, I wouldn’t be surprised, but I’d be astonished if the majority of the shenanigans were not exactly as they appear.
If the occupy movement is so successful at something that resembles insurrection that liberals start acting more like I want them to act, then more power to ‘em. I’m skeptical that it will be. I’m skeptical; for one thing, that the percentages of the people in the really popular protests are radicals who are thinking that way is very large. I could be wrong. I get that idea from accounts of crowds trying to talk the anarchist youngster out of breaking the law, from both mainstream media reporting and from a couple of anarchist blogs that I’ve seen through FB.

I agree that more than public opinion is necessary for political activism and the last decade has proven that public opinion has been as import as we used to assume. I’m not sure how the fact that left liberals don’t often get what they want is an indictment of anything. Radicals don’t often get what they want either. I’m not trying to be flippant, by the way. We tried and failed. A lot of radicals have failed to get their way also. Unless your point is that disillusionment with the system should lead people to try to overturn it. Sounds like a great principle, but I don’t see the way forward.

When you asserted that “Honestly, this is the point where I am going to ask, seriously, when liberals tell us to be serious and mature, work through traditional means either within the less militant Unions or within the Democratic party.   Furthermore, while OWS was started primarily by activists and anarcho-liberals, it was not started by left-liberals even though I’ll admit they make up the vast majority. The fact that left-liberals have not pushed the organization towards co-option or George Soros is admirable.  Seriously, but there is already talk of a crack down on all anarchists not just those in the black bloc” I have something to say about that. Remember when I said I wasn’t sure radicals and liberals necessarily needed to work together all the time? There’s a good example.  As for “cracking down” on anarchists, I don’t quite follow what you mean. (Like specifically what kind of tactic are you talking about?)
I agree with you with the problems of Democratic rightward movement and the liberal engagement with that. The point of left liberalism is to figure out how to change that. I don’t claim to know how to do it. It’s very difficult.

The rant is fine, and I appreciate the perspective, but you’ve gone way beyond the scope of the exigencies that I’m going to be facing anytime soon. Where I’m not following you in the partisan way you’re talking about this. As for purging anybody, I’m not sure where you would get the idea that I’d want to do that. (I’d maybe come up with strategies to get the hell out of the way of the black bloc people.)

If I’m following you here “As a British journalist said, OWS has power because it shows there are still threats to ignoring electoral will, and if the the situation is not improved people will take action on their own. He however said another point, its because the people behind that if it doesn’t work have much nastier iconography that a ballerina on the bull,” you are suggesting that there is a real chance for these protests to escalate into a real visceral threat to power. I disagree. It’s not that I disagree about whether that should be a goal of the protests. I don’t think that’s going to happen. If the protests get scary enough, America is going to turn its back on them. I’m not saying I’d like for that to happen. I’m predicting that’s what would happen.

I’d be fine with being proven wrong, by the way.

One quick comment on that last comment: the issue is, in part, that American populist anger has such a strong history of right wing orientation that’s its really difficult for me to imagine the larger left embracing anything resembling what you are talking about. It’s just such a strong part of our recent history, and our longer history also. I just don’t have any hope of any meaningful leftist militancy taking hold outside of some little bits of fringe. The one exception was the labor struggle, which took decades of combat against well defined enemies. Power has gotten a lot more subtle since then.

Skepoet: Material history is not all about public relations and rhetoric, and I think liberals generally forget this. America will turn against radicals if they are the targets. If it is businesses like Tully’s then it’s bad, but direct action is about violating the law. They work because they are illegitimate and illegitimatize those who are its targets because it shows how tenuous power really is.  That port taking was a breach of a federal law, and the reasons why there were so few unions involved in the strike is that a wildcat strike is illegal under the Taft Harley act. That’s not a sanctioned strike with nice permits and free speech zones.

I doubt most of them are radical either.  People don’t start as radicals.  At one point in my life, I pretty much agreed with you.  When it was an intellectual exercise, I thought about this totally in terms of public relations.   Furthermore, I am not advocating that we silence anyone, or violently attack anything. However, for direct action to work, that’s got be a real possibility.  Non-violence only works when people are made to be moral.  That means two things: they are actually afraid of public opinion or they are actually afraid for their lives.  The Ned Turners in the world enable the Federick Douglases  With employment rates as high as they are things are different and you’re analysis seems to come the 1990s when employment was low and anger was about other people who we merely empathized for.  That was even the case in most of 1960s.  That is not the case now.

As for your analysis about reactionaries, I have several two word phrases for you: Bleeding Kansas, Shay’s Rebellion, Haymarket Riots,  The Colorado Miner’s strikes. The entire period just before World War 1.   It is an illusion of reading the past through the lenses of the 1990s that militancy has been right-wing in America or would it be a particular historical deviation. Even in the 1970s, there were about 80,000 known members of groups like the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers, the Socialist Workers party, etc.   The reason for their ineffectiveness was partly sectarian splits and partly lack of tactics.  Furthermore, the idea that America is somehow unique in history as the world’s eternal center-right nation is Reaganite bullshit that even most liberals seem to believe.   The liberal love affairs with “reasonable” conservatives like Andrew Sullivan seem to illustrate this. In the 1920s it’s hard to know how large it was.  In the 1930s, you have massive membership in the CPUSA, SPUSA, and even the Technocrats.   Reading literature from the time, not just Marxist literature, but even fairly mainstream stuff and conservative stuff: there was a real fear that capitalism was over.  It morphed of course. Through a mixture of Keynesianism, managerial revolutions, the rise of the limited liability as the dominant form of capital, and Fordism stalled things and the destruction of capital during the war saved it.

However all of those theories had a time limit, the 1970s stagflation indicated that Keynes’s patch isn’t a low term fix.  The right is actually quite right about that, and that’s something liberals don’t want to hear.   That means, basically, that  crisis theories of capital seem more and more right in the global perspective.  That’s bad yet but we are looking at systematic structural unemployment which liberals in our current congressional Republic can literally do nothing about.

Liberals have studied the right for so long to figure what happened they have assumed that the morbidity of the left that we experience now is somehow a long tradition in the US. That’s historically ignorant.  But then again, liberals seem to be afraid of teaching the history of left-radicals in schools partly for fear of be tarred with the same brush and partly because they don’t those ideas to challenge the loyalty of the left. I don’t even think this is entirely conscious, but history does bear it out.

Secondly, power hasn’t gotten subtle.  That’s a problem with post-modernism in my opinion.  A tendency towards reification dominates it.  Tactics have gotten more subtle, but so have the communication mechanism to counter-act.
You still did not answer my question though: what do liberals have to offer us?   So far, I see bad policy driven from a lack of principle.  Confronted with the fact that even the establishments that left-liberals do not listen to them. They make up more of the general public if you ask about values than about the brand, but they only make up about 20% of the Democratic base.  Most of them are not in parties anymore.  Furthermore, outside of Moveon and DailyKos which both have been pretty much arms of the Democratic party but have been remarkably consistent the last few months and remarkably angry with Obama, even HuffPo and Rachel Maddow don’t really seem to be entirely sympathetic to direct action.

And whose fault is this direct action?  People of my and your Jamie became voting age during the late Clinton and Bush Administrations. We’re used to defeat as are most of the Generation X people above us. These people just a few years younger than us came of age in a time when they finally won, and what did they get for it?  A neutered healthcare bill.   That’s it. They have crushing debt as scholarships went away. They were told their entire lives that working hard in school and going to a good college would enable them to get work. They busted ass for it. Now the same people that told them to do that are mocking them for not having jobs.  They won an election in their view and got almost nothing for it. Furthermore, Generation X and company are laid off in mass and underemployed.  Democrats are not politically able to do anything in our current system about that.  They couldn’t even do with the largest majority in modern history while the Republicans had no problem with bankruptcy reform, wars, what have you. What do you expect will happen?  You’re answers are skirting that question.

So if all you have to offer is “I think these protests will be defeated” and you also have no real answer to how to work within the system.  Then what, at all, does liberalism have to offer?  I don’t mean to challenge you personally, but if liberalism is just a cult of defeat against reactionary forces which will always have the advantage of popular opinion. That far more necrophiliac in character than even the leftists who are salivating over a return to the conditions on the grounds like in the 1930s.

As for cracking down on anarchists, the Occupy is policing itself and there has been talk of expelling the anarchists in Oakland.

Jamie, I hate to say this but the case you’re making is the reason why most left-wingers see left liberals as both weak like the ancient regimes in the past and much more of a threat to us than right-wingers.  We may need each other to avoid the worse, but you don’t even really believe in the possibility of direct action changing things and you admit the systematic relationship to power of the Democratic party has even sapped left-liberals, you’re going to hard pressed to keep the liberals in the OWS  in your ranks.  And as things get worse, you see left radicals taking more and more direct tactics as well as increasing victories for the right as leftists and even left-liberals will feel no one represents them.  I know you honestly don’t want to make that case and I sincerely believe you.  But for a long time my brother, no radical, has made the joke “Democrats are the party of no ideas and Republicans the party of bad ones.”  At the moment, it seems like liberals are at a total loss.  OWS broad support sort of proves that.  Whether it stays or not is another question.

Two years ago radicalism was almost dead even in the worst recession in modern history.  That’s not the case now.  That’s a liberal failure of epic proportions.  I suppose I am asking you, what do you see as a possible way out of that? And if you don’t see a way out of that, what do you think the failure is.

Jamie McAfee: I think your points are sound, and I don’t think I’ve said anything that would imply disagreement with some of them.

As for the question of whether or not America is ready to embrace, in numbers that matter, left wing insurgency, your longer view of American history is useful, and you may be right that the grounds for populist anger are shifting. I don’t see the potential for that yet.OWS is encouraging, but I think that for much of the country, the enemy is government. Not in the sense of authoritarianism or state sponsored capitalism either. I’d love for that to change, but it’s very hard for me to imagine that it will. That might be a limit of my own historical perspective, but you haven’t moved me from that opinion. (Although you make a strong case.)

Material history is not about discourse. But enrolling people into a cause is exactly about that. History provides exigencies that might be taken advantage of through effective communication that might enroll people into your cause. I’m thinking about the “public relations problem” as a classical rhetorician, not as a postmodernist. I worry you think that I think politics is a war of ideas. That’s not what I mean to say. I think it is a struggle to articulate a worldview through which people can recognize themselves and then act. I do not recognize myself in the images of black hooded young men smashing windows, and I don’t think very many other Americans will either.

I understand what the port protest was and that it was illegal, and I, again, support it. When I am talking about civil disobedience, I mean to describe calculated, specific lawbreaking designed to bring attention to a point of view. I chose “civil disobedience” for that reason. (Is that my  stepping outside of a liberal paradigm?) Symbolic lawbreaking that is unintelligible to those outside of a specific fringe community is pointless, unless you think that you actually have the ability to frighten the powers that be. You’ve returned to that point several times, including the Nat Turner allusion here. I’m not optimistic about that happening anytime soon. You mention Nat Turner, but a more useful model for effective insurrection might be John Brown, whose action shifted popular opinion. I don’t see the potential for that to happen in the occupy movements. (I don’t mean to denigrate Nat Turner by the way. That’s as legitimate an insurrection as can be imagined.)

Your points about the inefficacy of left liberalism are well taken, and I think I’ve made it clear that I don’t think liberals have much to celebrate of late. I’m not sure that anybody who isn’t of the paranoid right persuasion thinks American liberals have gotten any bang for their buck during the past few decades. I think left liberalism is in something of a crisis. We’ve defined ourselves in opposition to the right for much too long. During the past two years, the fact that our representatives don’t have much of an idea what they stand for besides has become increasingly obvious. There was a joke about Obama’s election that I remember: “Sure. Now the black guy has to come clean up the mess the white people made.” If we remove the racial element of the joke (which is what makes it a joke at all), that’s not much is it?

There is a difference, though, in pointing out that the particular failures of a political coalition and abandoning the idea that ultimately, a legitimate goal of politics is to make institutions better. I do not have the answers that you seem to want about how to get American liberalism out of the mess its in, but I’m not ready to abandon that distinction.
“That means two things: they are actually afraid of public opinion or they are actually afraid for their lives. The Ned Turners in the world enable the Federick Douglas.” This formulation, in one form or another, seems to be a theme in how you are describing the relationship between liberals and radicals. I’ve done it to. (I think I said something about how I’d be happy to see a scary left militarism that would give left liberals more leverage in an earlier episode of our conversation.)

Here’s the problem though. That posits that the point of radicals is serving as boogiemen or martyrs that allow liberals more leverage. If that’s the frame you are using, then liberals have nothing at all to offer radicals other than an eventual betrayal when the radicals manage to gain enough support that they scare people.

I certainly don’t like that formulation, and if that’s the point of radical direct action (to intimidate the powers that be), than I don’t think we have anything to offer other than a abandonment or eventual betrayal when the radicals get scary enough to make power compromise. I don’t want that.

Besides the uncomfortable Machiavellianness (how’s that for spelling?)  of it, that’s just the same old expansion of what we have. Incremental change and compromise to ward off something more serious. That is the best outcome I can see for radicalism. I understand that radicals have bigger plans.

I would rather see the next evolution of capitalism (or from it, ideally) to be engineered by the left. Somebody is going to do it. Resistance might affect that process, but it isn’t going to replace it. Nobody with any sense would disagree that the phase we’re in has a shelf life that’s drawing near, and your sense of looming crisis is one that I think most people who think about these things share. I think there is a place for direct action, but that doesn’t replace the work of recreating institutions and engaging with traditional politics.

What the looks path forward looks like, I don’t know. It’s THE question for people of my political persuasion, though, isn’t it?

Skepoet: Well, I am left with two thoughts.  One is that your refusing to abandon something that is obviously not working seems like a text book definition of a ideological blinder. Particularly in light of complete failures even by your own standards. Without a substantive standard to defend liberalism,  then the reactionaries and the far left will continue to get your numbers.   Let me put it in another way, right now the Greek prime minister under pressure from the socialist government abandoned him after he was taken to task by the center-right politicians in the E.U.  Now if he does that 60% is likely to literally rebel.

I don’t think that’s the function of the left.  Honestly, I don’t know that we need liberalism or that, to be honest, liberalism ISN’T now the problem.   I have been having a long form discussion with another blogger about this topic and frankly, while conservatives are reactionary in goals, they are actually progressive in tactics.  Liberals in operation until the OWS were reactionary.  Just trying to conserve past gains and often at the cost of things they would not accept from an opponent group. The Greek example is one of them.  Clinton and welfare is another. Obama and entitlements.

Furthermore, given the compromises liberals have made in the past, I have to say that it puts the liberal not only in a conservative mode against different sides that have real plans.  In the past, we actually were the liberal think tank. We changed orientation, moved forward, liberals’ compromises so that there would be no complete rupture with the past.  Now, I see a problem with this: I am not opposed to pluralism or certain kinds of compromise.  Political systems come out of realities on the ground, but liberals have to so concern about temporary set-backs that they really have lacked complete vision.  An ideological construct–I am not using this in the Marxist sense at the moment–is only useful if it still generates new ideas for the situation.  Yet, since the red scare, left-liberals have wanted to look like they were as strong as conservatives so they take just as hard stances on war when in office, they have wanted to seem realistic so they make compromises.  Yet lately these compromises have not even been effective Band-Aids.   If you don’t do something about this: liberalism will be on the dust-heap of history as anything other than a personal orientation.  It will be like feudalism or mercantilism something that hasn’t entirely gone away, but is completely irrelevant to the current.

So what do you see give liberals new ideas?   Right now, I honestly am not seeing any: even the Obamacare was essentially a Republican plan fro 10 years ago.  Keynesianism DID lead to stagflation, Jamie, so when you bring that up I sort of snicker.  The Republicans are right that doesn’t work. What they are proposing will destabilize the economy and is a return to social Darwinism with more upward transfers of wealth, but most liberals are proposing isn’t even a viable stop-gap.

So where do you see a new liberal vision coming from?

Here’s another irony:  while I think the U.S. actually was always a liberal society in a sense. I don’t entirely agree with Latour that it wasn’t a something different.  Many have pointed out that why primitivism and radical traditionalists are against modernity in the absolute, the Marxian left has been modernity’s loyal opposition.  I think, however, the classical liberalism of the 18th century is not the liberalism after World War 2.  So it seems like my modern standards, liberals are trying to stop-gap an essentially illiberal system and that contradiction isn’t lost on them when they are honest about the constitution for example. The contradiction has always been part of American society, but it seems acute now.  For example, to defend a progressive tax system most liberals neglect to point out that the entitlement taxes are essentially regressive on the poor.   The poor may no income tax, but they pay tons of payroll taxes as percentages of their earnings. Many liberals defend that. They defend the VAT that is popular in Asia and Europe which are also HIGHLY regressive.  So when you look at that contradiction, do you see it?  How do you respond to it?

Jamie McAfee: My response to an awful lot of what you are saying is that you are conflating left liberalism as a point of view with the specific policy choices of liberal governments. It’s worth nothing that one of the defining feature of the left, which we are both broadly a part of, is dissatisfaction with what is. Pointing at a bunch of stuff to be dissatisfied about is a good argument against complacency, but not an argument against my notion of liberalism. You are doing a great job of describing an agenda for someone like me to be concerned about.

I think the best radicalism might do would be to light a fire under left liberals, call attention to how unjust our system actually is, and pull a lot of the complacent center toward the left. The worst it might do would be to inspire a huge backlash. One theme I see on your side of the conversation is that there’s a lot of turmoil coming down the pike. This is obviously the case. Until I think it is very likely that radicalism has any outside chance to become wildly successful, the way I’m going to frame this turmoil is going to be through left liberalism. I’m not sure that a pragmatic opinion about what’s possible, particularly one that attempts to account for popular opinion, is “ideological.” I suppose there are definitions of ideology that would include that way of talking, but I’m not sure how helpful those are for our purposes. I want to emphasize that I’m not really able to be moved from left liberalism, for the time being anyway, not out of preference or theoretical construct but because I haven’t been convinced there is a realistic path for radicalism to succeed. In the past you’ve pointed out that I’m inconsistent for sticking with a left liberal political perspective while sympathizing with radical analysis. I’m not sure that analysis and prescriptions should fit together in that way.

Where do I see a new liberal vision coming from? Realistically, I don’t know. We are in a turbulent time, and our politics are decayed. Shit is fucked up and bullshit.
I’d LIKE to see a new liberal vision coming from a wonky appropriation of the goals of the far left. I worry (I really do) the lack of clarity that I see over that I see over there and about the degree to which the radicalism I see defines itself strictly through antagonism. Those are the mistakes that have defined liberals for three decades now. That’s why we’ve been playing defense, and why we’ve ended up being the small c conservative point of view as of late. I’m not sure that fate is in store for radicalism, but I think what ultimately will emerge from these crises is a reincorporation into something other than the teleological goals of radicalism. I think radicals can work with an eye toward participating in that future or they can let themselves be marginalized.

I am, of course, talking about how liberals can benefit from radicals and not the other way around. I leave it up to you to figure out what we an do for you. I wonder if you are right to suspect “nothing” for the time being. But stay with me a second. . .

As for the model of Greeks being so volatile that the government can’t acquiesce to center right:  I would welcome with open arms an American populace who were that dangerous to institutions that did not put economic justice first. I think radicals, as they think about how to make that happen, can be careful to consider popular opinion, to think about what institutional power looks like (but opt out of you want), and to engage in resistance with an eye toward future participation rather than let themselves be marginalized. Radical boogiemen were very useful for the right in the 70s and 80s. They are useful now. One of Barack Obama’s political problems is that some of the Americans who are most disgruntled with institutional power think he is a communist. I think you underestimate how much right wing sentiment is a part of the seeds of American radicalism. It’s a reason I’m not totally comfortable with the total antagonism toward the system inherent in radicalism. That could turn ugly in a way neither of us would like.

I’m not sure that fate is in store for the radicalism that is recognizing the exigencies of the moment, but I think what ultimately will emerge from these crises is a reincorporation into something other than the teleological goals of radicalism. (If I thought differently, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.) It’s that reincorporation that worries me. It worries me because liberalism is not very well equipped, at present, to deal with that. I think radicalism is less equipped. But I hope we can learn from each other. But, you know, whip our asses. It might be a perfectly useful thing for radicals to center their attention on liberals. I think we probably need it. What I ask is that you do so carefully, with an eye toward the future.

Skepoet: My closing word.  You seem to think radicalism is inherently teleological.  I think liberalism is an in a crisis from which it would will not emerge in any way recognizable to itself.  That makes liberalism the current traditionalism in my mind, and historically a thing in the decline. That does not mean the type of thinking or human temperaments in the liberal mindset will go away.  The temperaments that make up the liberal, the conservative, and the radical are human universals since the development of abstract thinking in my view, but the ideologies that those ideas are articulated are contingent. My response to your assertion that I am conflating left-liberals with the liberal establishment:  you are dangerously close to no true Scotsman fallacy there.

For years, liberals and conservatives alike have tarred radicals with the failures of the past by the same logic:  we produced the Jacobins, Stalin, Pol Pot, the farming failures of Mao, the Spanish civil war, etc.  To counter that I will point out that the anti-communism and white guardism has a very, very hit body count, and much of that anti-communism was done by liberals Presidents. But that is largely irrelevant: barbarism is barbarism and we do not need to rely on the tu quo que fallacy to make that point.  The real issue at hand is liberals consistently do one thing when in power in the current epoch of neo-liberal capitalism that is because they cannot transcend the system they wish to reform and indeed must maintain even the illiberal elements of it to survive at all.   I caution friends of a liberal persuasion to abandon their faith in the apparatus and parties currently developed under the guise of liberal modernity and to think anew:  you may not want OUR revolution, but unless liberalism itself undergoes a revolution, it will be outflanked on one end and radicalized on the other.

I think your warning about cautions of absolute systems and teleologies are well-taken.  We do not what the future looks like no theorist can tell us that no matter how radical or how empirical or how well-versed in the dialectic.  Perhaps compromises are needed, and a voice of caution is always needed.  However, that voice of caution cannot act merely as an ideological reformulation of the current.   My challenge to you simple: the left got lazy, sectarian, and forgot about material history. Indeed, perhaps, they believed too much that ideology itself produces the revolution against material circumstances as Gramsci once argued.

We have not been a force in politics really since the 1980s in Europe and have hardly even been one in the North America.  This, I hope, is changing.  We too have our own failures of vision to content with.

In so much as left liberals are well-meaning, I think there is promise that many of you will start radicalizing yourselves even if merely a radicalization of the present.  Weak liberals are not good for leftists and neither are weak conservatives prior to a true rupture with the current.  Right now, I see a political spectrum awash in decadence and anti-philosophy.  That is not promising because that means no one has a real voice to challenge the current even if increasingly most of North America, Europe, and the central Asia are screaming for it.

I’d invite you to your closing thoughts. Thanks for your time. I told you this was going to be an interview, but it ended up more of a debate.  I suppose I’ll quote title of a Zizek essay, “philosophy is not a dialogue” but sometimes dialogues are necessary.

Jamie McAfee: Before I close, I want to make one quick comment. What I intend in my complaint about your conflating liberalism with liberal governments is the opposite of no true Scottsmaning. I’m conceiving of liberalism as being very broad. Because I do not agree with the Democratic party doesn’t mean I’m not a liberal or that the Democratic party isn’t liberal, just like the fact that very few contemporary Marxists agree with Stalin doesn’t mean that they aren’t Marxists or that Stalin wasn’t a Marxist. Small point that may or may not be convincing.

And thank you for your time and for your useful provocation. I think that the work you are doing through your blogging is challenging and useful, and while I think this installment isn’t going to flatter my point of view very much, I’m honored to have been involved. Actually, I’m particularly proud to have been asked to do this BECAUSE you’ve done such a good job of calling me to task. As I’ve said pretty consistently, we’ve got problems. I think that the best hope we have of righting ourselves is to listen more seriously to the left.

The conversation did evolve into something of a debate, and I think that might have been an appropriate exercise. The first time you interviewed me, it was about a narrow corner of thought, a particular intersection of Marxian theory and humanist thought, in which I have some expertise and, I hope, something of an original contribution to make. I’m hardly a respected authority on either post-Gramscian Marxism or rhetoric, but I’m in the early stages of writing a dissertation on those topics. Having a venue for sharing my somewhat undisciplined ideas about broad applications of my work was a lot of fun, and I hope it was provocative.

This time was different. I not an expert in political science or the history of liberalism; I’m a somewhat-more-informed-that-average left liberal who was trying to be honest about why I’m not ready to abandon liberalism. I made a point early on to show my cards. My strategy for debating was to defend my position, but to do so in a way that was dialogic, or perhaps psychoanalytical. My idiosyncrasies, biases, and ignorances (I’m sure somebody could fact check my contributions here and find them wanting) are my own, but to some degree I understood the point of this to be something like ethnography. THIS is what left sympathizing liberals are like. I’m a disenchanted Democrat whose Marxism comes through the humanities. I’m not a particularly qualified spokesman for my political position. I’m just a somewhat representative example of the species.  (Although. . . . speaking of idiosyncrasies, I spot three metaphors drawn from professional communication theory in that paragraph. I am who I am.)

We agree, for the most part, about the state of liberalism. I hope that hearing my concerns about how capable the radicalism of the present might be to help fix things is helpful to you and to the community who reads your blog. I am, in some ways, on of the audiences that radicals should be thinking about. My distaste for tactics and/or rhetoric that seem undisciplined, romantically unrealistic, nihilistically antagonistic, or out of touch should be taken very seriously. I am sympathetic to the frustrations with the system and to the anger that fuels those attitudes, but embracing them is narcissistic and reckless. The dismissiveness and disinterest in engagement I see sometimes in self identified radicals seems petulant, or in some cases, like militaristic fantasy. That worries me a lot.

Having said that, I think that by and large, radicalism would be ill-served by acquiesce to liberalism as it is. That does not mean we can’t respect each other or talk to each other. Whip our asses. Seriously. But do so with an eye toward helping us get our shit together. Nothing would make me happier than to see the radical left become an important voice in America. I hope you give me the benefit of the doubt when I say that. I really mean it. Your best point, and a persistent theme of our conversation: “I caution friends of a liberal persuasion to abandon their faith in the apparatus and parties currently developed under the guise of liberal modernity and to think anew: you may not want OUR revolution, but unless liberalism itself undergoes a revolution, it will be outflanked on one end and radicalized on the other.”  If that is how things filter out, I’ll certainly on your side, but I don’t think our chances of getting what we want will be very good. Not, at least, if “radicalized” doesn’t evolve into something more emphatically humanist and responsible.

But I’m in danger of debating again. I think we’ve said what we have to say. To the extent that I’m right, I hope I’ve been persuasive, and to the extent that I’m wrong, I hope I’ve provided a useful demonstration of my thought process. Best wishes.

The first in the between liberalism and leftism series is here.  

Marginalia on Radical Thinking Series can be found herehere, here, and here. 

My first interview with Jamie McAfee on populism can be found here. 

Other people saying interesting things about Conservatism:

I have been focusing on the problem’s with liberalism lately, which I see as the predominant ideology of contemporary modernity, but let’s not forget that the conservatives still exist, which are early modernity’s rear-guard. So let’s look at some statements I have found interesting on the subject lately.

Take this from the The Devil’s Advocate:

So, why do I believe that CONservatism in the USA is about to experience a potentially lethal blowback?

The answer lies in a convergence of trends which have created conditions that are without any real precedent. The single biggest trend is adverse demography- specifically the lack of rapidly increasing number of greater fools to buy into the system. While this trend stared in developed countries, it has spread to many developing countries and many formerly ultra-fertile countries are close to replacement rates. The severe and voluntary worldwide reduction in the number of children per woman in the last 20-30 years has created a shortage of young and naive greater fools which are the lifeblood of any ponzi scheme. CONservatism is simply untenable without many disposable fools fighting each other for meager gains.

Then there is the issue of a break in the inter-generational contract whereby the winners of the previously mentioned competitions are no longer getting the promised positions and resources. From countries as diverse as Japan, Spain and the USA- those who played by the rules and jumped through all the meaningless hoops are finding out that they have been cheated. The ‘prize’ is either gone or never existed in the first place. To add insult to injury, or vice versa, they are finding out that modern abominations such as feminism, managerism and legalism have placed new burdens on them.

The exponential financialization of the economy and recent willful “failures” by the best-of-the-best have left many people, especially the younger ones, doubtful about traditional explanations and paradigms. The information revolution, whether it occurs via text messages on cellphones or social media and blogs, have also made a large number of younger people start questioning the very fabric of the system that allows CONservatism and other older social systems to exist. The atomization of the individual has, if anything, accelerated this trend.

The CONservatives and “leaders” who represent them, on the other hand, seem to live in a dream world stuck in the mid- 1990s, 1950s or 1850s- depending on whom you ask. They keep on trying to drown out the growing voices of dissent and discontent by enacting even more regressive policies and adopting ever more orthodox attitudes. Whether it is voter suppression, restrictions on abortion, banning evolution from textbooks, destroying the already frayed social safety net to making fun of people who are unemployed through no fault of theirs- they just cannot seem to stop.

Their worldview does not, however, make allowances for a few ‘potential’ complications.

a: They are getting older and weaker with every day. The older population in developed counties is far more whiter than the younger population and people do have memories.

b: Devoting all of their energy against blacks, coloreds and young socialists has not created a long-lasting increases in economic activity.

c: Defending “values”, “constitution” and all of that other bullshit requires a functional nation.

d: They have no allies or supply of greater fools and dissenting opinions spread fast over inexpensive and ubiquitous communication devices.

e: Few younger people care about ‘cultural’ issues such as evolution, abortion, gay marriage or aspire for over-priced stucco boxes with white picket fences- nor do they trust the system that employs them to deliver on income security.

The 2012 election might be last pyrrhic victory for american CONservatives, though even that is doubtful. In any case, it is pretty much over for them and they will just have to go way- one way or the other.

Corey Robin’s dialogue with a conservative at the New Inquiry has produced some interesting gems:

In the American context, there is a precedent for the conservative rush to empire, which you suggest is mostly a creation of the Cold War. And that is the slaveholders. But the slaveholders developed a fascinating vision of an imperial political economy, which would be centered around the Mississippi and spread out from there to the Caribbean Basin and beyond. It would be centered on slave labor, and it was thought to be a different kind of imperialism.

And though I’ve never seen anyone discuss this, it strikes me that there are fascinating parallels to be drawn between their vision of a slave empire, based on land, and the Nazis’ vision of an empire in the East, which was also to be based on land. People often forget that Hitler had a major critique of European imperialism in that it was extraterritorial and commercial in its orientation, whereas he wanted an empire that was contiguous territorially and based on slave labor and agriculture.

Or this gem:

More important is that these very same conservatives will say quite openly that the order against which they are contending has been the hegemonic order for decades, sometimes centuries. Take Michael Oakeshott, by no means an outré member of the conservative canon. In his essay on conservatism (pdf), he says that the kind of order he is tilting against has been in power since the 1500s or so. So here you have the 20th century theoretician of familiarity, attachment to what is, recommending a comprehensive challenge to a half-millennium development.

What I think conservatives dislike about revolutions is not change per se but emancipatory change, overthrowing established hierarchies of power and privilege. And by that I mean something much more particular than “concentrated wealth” or “centralized power,” which, as you rightly point out, some conservatives (though not as many as you might think) oppose. And I also mean something more than a generic opposition to established power, particularly if that power is far away. I mean real forms of concrete and personal rule of superiors over inferiors, which is most pervasive in what we now call the private sphere — power that is intimate and near at hand.

Ron Paul: myth and cultus

This is a hot topic. Ron Paul popularity seems to come from the fact he does have some integrity. Sometimes I wonder how thin things have gotten with integrity is enough to make someone seem supremely reasonable. I consider it necessary, but not sufficient.  The cult of Ron Paul says more about what the US political climate than about Ron Paul.  The myth of Ron Paul seems to make him every thing to everyone: Lew Rockwell and company see him as a harbinger of anarcho-capitalism, many see him as a bringer of Third Party politics, and eventually even the French nationalist Le Penn is interested in him.   In a strange way, the integrity of Ron Paul is used as a way NOT to deal with the current situation as Ron Paul cannot win in the party he runs in since he could not possibly get enough financial support.

On the ideological mirror part 2: Radical Right, dishwater right, analytical Marxism, dialectical Marxism, and the spectre of Hegel.

The Radical in the Right and the Left
One thing that is often ignored by many leftists is that same weapons of analysis derived by Henri Lefebvre and Louis Althusser have been either co-opted, or more problematically, literally developed in a parallel traditions. One reason for this is many of thinkers of the radical right, particularly in the fascist sense which in some ways can be harder to place on the ideological spectrum that many left-wingers are actually willing to admit, actually come out of a Hegelian tradition.

So I have been reading Corey Robin’s book, The Reactionary Mind, posits conservatism as opposed to traditionalism. The traditionalist isn’t conserving anything, he is merely the extension of the old regime according to Robins, but the conservative is a sort of a reactionary project that not only co-opts the left tactics for practical reasons but also because the reactionary prerogative comes from a sense that it is too late. I have called this before inverse utopianism. I would say, however, that most people in the far right use the terms in the opposite matter.

One thing that Robin’s does not do, however, is talk about the contemporary truly radical right and how it should be very discomforting to many leftists. Note I did not say liberals again, who should already find it discomforting, but many leftists in the tradition of Marx. So I was listening to Alterative Right podcasts today: I was amazed about how much more blatantly Spencer and company were willing to talk of race outright and admit they were racial nationalists, not just separatist but supremacists ones. Most lefts and liberals turn it off right there, but I kept listening because I noticed Robert Spencer when interviewing Alex Kuragic sounded remarkably like many, many leftists I know. The talk of collapse, of the decline of the liberal class, and the ability to seize the moment in the turn against the illusions of Democracy. What Spencer and Kuragic called the left-liberal period can easily be fit into what contemporary Marxists like David Harvey and Jodi Dean call the neo-liberal periods. Instead of the proletariat or the working class being the only class to change society, it was the return to white supremacy and tradition that was posited.

My socialist friends have offered two responses to these eerie similarities: the first is simple co-option, which is true in some cases but not all. The second is that this kind of conservatism is a revolt of the vulgar middle class—either that of the Lumpenproletariat or that of blue collar middle class. One socialist friend of mine went so far as to say that fascism is always the revolt of the middle class against both the lower class and capitalist class, socialism the revolt of the working class, and anarchism the revolt of the peasant class. When I challenged him as to how in the hell that was true outside of early 20th century revolutions in Mexico and Spain, he just said “individuals do not always manifest as clearly as materially emerging class types.” This is obviously an attempt to create a category that is immune not only from critique but from any differentiation between modern movements.

I think the implication may be more bothersome for the Marxist if she or he is honest. It is the revolt against modernity on both sides of spectrum which is part of the impetus for the Marxist and the Radical right, but even that combining Hegel with some pre-existing train of thought is part of the mode of operations for both groups. Spengler parallels to Marx cannot be overstated, but Spengler focused on a completely different typological end of the dialectical process. So instead of the clash of class, there is a clash of civilizations in decline.

Dialectics of universality or Utopian inevitability

The shape of this thought should really horrify most of the more orthodox Marxists with their class typology. Not that I am the first to notice this, not in the least actually. Both Arendt and the National Bolsheviks have made this argument for since the 1940s in the sense that the development of teleologies of dialectical ideas.
In a sense, one can admire the right for their lack of reliance on materialist conditions or implied teleological biases. Indeed, in further points, I would say that aside from the populist front of religious right in America, no one is taking anything as given teleological formation. The populist religious right on these points are frankly schizoid in their attempt to hold view which as obviously incompatible such as American exceptionalist theology with Christian catholicity, or trying to reconcile benefiting from rationalist science in terms of antibiotics while rejecting the frame of thought that makes it possible or belief in things like the prosperity gospel. Such religious right benefit and are damned by their inability to understand points of context and their own internal contradictions.The nationalist right of Spencer and Alternative Rght is a return to a mixture radical traditionalism in both pagan and Christian spheres despite the fundamental contradiction of those religious outlooks. Now there are other internal fractures here as well, the narrative of hyper decline which they somehow special plead that they somehow do not represent as well. The critique of ‘mainstream’ conservatism and there increasing separation from it sounds like a critique of liberalism by leftists. In another interview on the conservative cannon, I take Paul Gottfried’s point as valid, most of what passes for conservatives by Andrew Sullivan, Sam Tanenhaus, and even the neo-conservatives in the cabinets of Reagan and Bush are really various versions of different ideological groupings from Enlightenment liberalism. Of course, these guys do not recognize distinctions amongst their enemies in the “elites of the cultural Marxist liberal-left, but then again, most leftists do not recognize this either. In fact their refuse often to acknowledge that all disharmony is not rooted in class or even in an extension of class into race or gender, they often miss that there are other enemies than the capitalist class and that capitalist never actually completely superseded the old regime any way. It just co-opted large parts of it.

In fact, one can almost admire Spencer and Kuragic’s spleen in comparison to the self-deception of otherwise sound thinkers like the Tory philosopher Roger Scurton, who calls all Foucault merely rhetoric, says that English law is proof that power is not necessarily oppressive, and that Thatcher is somehow an embodiment of sound English values like home and hearth. As everyone from the socialist Orwell to the neo-conservative Daniel Bell has pointed out, the family was eroded by capitalist developments like the ones Thatcher advocated. However, these soft conservative-liberals like Scruton who praise high culture, traditional family cultural and praise the market without realizing that both the aristocracy and the conservative religious knew that those three idols do not ever really lock together.

Dialectical or Analytical Marxism. . . or Both.

But let’s go back to the left: I sometimes wonder if insistence on things like “Universal nature of the working class” are no different than the neoliberal foolishness about the end of history. In other words, it’s a failure of imagination and a dependence on history as teleology to make sure the desired ends could even happen. Hence the way traditional Marxists have held dialectics to be crucial and have disparaged both post-Marxists in the post-structural “tradition” and the analytic Marxists who have held that one must rid Marx of “bullshit” or “essentialism” as unacceptable heresies or deviants or revisionisms. I actually hold by the analytical Marxist line that Marx is like Darwin, his empirical predictions stand as science or they don’t stand. However, here are the issues: Marx’s critique of capitalist political economy isn’t dependant on the dialectic, its dependent on a materialist view of ideology and taking classical political economy as a given. It is an analytic heuristic in the classical sense. Marx’s final stage of communism as a wage of a universalized class is completely dependent on the dialectic. So Marx as prophet DOES dependent on dialectics and a specific, although materialist, teleological version of the process.
Now, I am not sure we must abandon dialectics, but structures of decline and progress are eerily similar in their critique, but eerily vague in their possible solution. I will be reading Fedric Jameson Valences of Dialectic in order to more truly understand the possibility of the dialectical process, but what I can safely say is that dialectic must stand up analytically or it doesn’t wash. Now I still consider myself somewhere oriented in something like the left, but one must admit that one of the things about the radical right is that since they are not assuming they will win. That assumption in many ways makes them far more powerful than most leftists or liberals would be likely to admit.
Other differentiations
I have already mentioned in a prior point above that often the Marxist refuses to see the differences between elements of the old regime, the feudal order, and the capitalist class , OR the radical differences between conservatism, traditionalism, and libertarianism. The similar is true of the right: neo-conservatives, theo-conservatives, libertarians, paleo-conservatives, and ethnic nationalists. What destroy the simple oppositional dialects are often ideologies that are considered most dangerous: integralist, fascists, national Bolsheviks, distributists, anarcho-capitalists, mutualists, etc. The typical move is claim that the blended ideologies are just new forms of the old ideological spectrum. Corey Robins like to basically revolutionaries and reformists and current regime and counter-revolutionaries.

I don’t think this is distinct or subtle enough. I have laid out my categories for ideology before: explicit and illicit, attitudinal and orientational, and closed and opened. However, there are some other areas that make understanding a banal conservative intellectual like Scruton from a radical rightist like Evola from an American partisan populist like Herman Cain.
First, conservative and liberal have attitude orientations as well as pure ideological ones. This has been noted before by people must more in tone with things like values indexes and even neurology. This can be seen in the work of Jonathan Haidt for example.

What has not been talked enough is that radical and reactionary ALSO have attitude and ideological variants. Many of the counter-revolutionary or nationalistic reactionaries have a radical mind-set while many liberals and leftists are essentially reactionary in attitude, they have no plan and react to the threats from outside. This is a problem. The radical is on the offensive, the reactionary merely reacts to attack or decline. The progressives, for all there talk of progressive, are often defensive in their tactics for a variety of reasons, but more often than not they don’t have an any real plan.

The first in this series is here. 

The Beast looks back at you, or, the Ideological Mirror: When the real right praises the actual left.

I sometimes read far right and conservative media.  Call it a hang-over from the early 2000s when I was far to the right of George Bush and subscribed to Lew Rockwell’s feed and read Sobrans and the American Conservative.  This reactionary period was brief and ended because I was not religious in the strict sense, so I could only stomach supposed libertarians praising Dominionists or warmed over Catholic traditionalism trying to pass itself off as real liberation movement for so long.  Or, in short, I was a Buddhist conservative.

This was a brief period of my life.  A phase one might say like that period of wearing fedoras after you woke up drunk in a plastic swimming pool in one during your undergraduate parties.   Doug Henwood actually describes going through a similar phase in his youth.  I quickly cycled through a libertarian phase, although I do proudly say that even when I was a conservative I never voted for a Republican on a federal ticket in the United States.

Lately, I was thinking about by brief three-to-four year detour into reactionary politics.  I was fed up by the left which never seemed to do anyway. In the late 90s, I have traveled across the country from Georgia to Seattle to protest the G-8.  Then I lived among gutter punks after being disillusion with that.  I wrote about this many, many years ago at Unlikely Stories in three parts (here, here, and here) just after 9-11. My contrariness led me to reject the sort of standard left-liberal dialogue as a conservative philosophy Professor introduced me to Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk.  Soon I was reading J. Alfred Nock and Ludwig Von Mises as well as Leo Strauss.   I thought that Bush, who I would jokingly call King George the Third, was incompetent and his cabinet was filled with Neo-conservatives who were really disciples of Max Shachtman who would revert back to their Trotskyism.   While there really is a relationship to third camp Trotskyism and neo-conservatism, Irving Kristol was going to break out into the Internationale during a press conference.

Ironically, now I sincerely wish that were true.  Strangely, my own brief trip through the right–the paleo-conservative and far right–has led me to be a more passionate “leftist” as I get older.   I am sure that people will psychologize my drift, but I think my personal experience agrees with Corey Robin’s conception of the reactionary mindset.  That there is a Utopian element to their thinking.

While conservatives (and many left liberals) have called Libertarian-ism the Marxism of the right.  Yet even traditionalism itself has a kinship to utopian socialist thought.  They want a different society and they see the structural elements that keep the status quo going as a negation of a past. In fact, I have accused conservative ideology, or more specifically, paleo-conservative ideology as being utopian in reverse.   It involves an invented past to which they long to return.     Both the Utopian sociologist and the traditionalist are acting off a teleology, but with models in different directions.  Indeed, Robin’s points this out in the writings of Von Hayek:

Utopia, like ideology, is a bad word today… But an ideal picture of a society which may not be wholly achievable, or a guiding conception of the overall order to be aimed at, is nevertheless not only the indispensable precondition of any rational policy, but also the chief contribution that science can make to the solution of the problems of practical policy.

This almost could have come from a James Cannon or C.L.R. James.

But back to the story at hand.   I had just come in from teaching some classes on, ironically, American Religious culture to my Korean students.   A friend of mine who sort of waffles between socialism and paleo-conservatism posted something from the “more-reactionary than thou” Taki Mag.
Charles A. Coulombe has written a relatively thoughtful piece called Leftist Nostalgia on Modern Airwaves on how he feels a tickling kinship with the real left-wing on KPFK.  I know the feeling in reverse.   Pat Buchanan is odd and I feel like he is a broken clock who happens to be right periodically, but there are times when I wish more Republicans were that honest about what they believe.
Coulombe hits a nail on the head multiple times:

“With the partial exception of the Tea Partiers, the “progressives” who form the station’s fan base are among the very few folk in this country who approach politics with any passion—anything greater than a cynical desire for government employment or else a tribal approach to party labels. The folk who agonize over current events at KPFK really do agonize”

One of the things I have been frustrated with the liberal left is that so much of it is about making excuses for when Clinton or Obama fails.  I remember in the years of the Bush administration, it was only the Paleo-conservatives and some of the hard libertarianism who didn’t make bullshit excuses for the failures of Bush.  They were ideologically consistent in a way that illustrated something akin to discipline.   Yet Paleo-conservatism was in decline: hemorrhaging members to the theological right or to moderate libertarians.   The call against the tribal identification with G.O.P.  was seen as impractical.   Indeed, there movement was defined by nostalgia.

The “radical” left has been too nostalgic for too long.   The members of small Marxist parties reliving the debates between Trotskyists and Maoism in the late sixties and who have rigid definitions of what it means to do anything have led even communist luminaries to ignore them.  Bookchin has noticed that Primitivism has started to replace other socialist anarchists for a similar reason.  

Furthemore, Coulombe hits on another crucial point:

But the station reminds me of Chesterton’s dictum that the left is right about what is wrong but wrong about what is right. To put it in medical terms, their diagnosis of the illness is often as spot-on as their prescription is lethal. Their complaints about an oligarchic power structure that has little or no care about its subjects’ welfare? True. A burgeoning underclass without hope of betterment? Absolutely. Endless wars that are waged without any relation to their stated goals? Correct. Did the antiwar movement seem to vanish as soon as Obama occupied the White House? Yes, I noticed that, too.

The frustrations, however, of those who operate on principle are similar even if our answers are diametrically opposed. Now the “moderate” would generally say, “that is because you have an ideological orientation that blinds you to reality?”

But I would appeal to both modern psychology and Althusser:   You, dear moderate, do not realize your ideological orientation.  As the Chinese saying goes, “A fish does not know it is in water.” Those of us with more modal values realize exactly where we deviate.  In other words, the idea that things could be different and have been RADICALLY different in past.  David Gaeber points this out on our idea of currency and money: even metal commodity money returning as a major commodity of exchange is relatively recent.  It is the psychological of investment–or to use something that isn’t infected with the rhetoric of business–the psychology cognitive dissonance going there.

If only all my opponents were as consistent as  Coulombe.  I miss battles of real differences too instead of luke warm world of tribal party politics between the center-right and the more-right-center-right one has in most of the Western Europe and the U.S. now.  That’s a bit of my nostalgia.

Side note: Read Corey Robin’s bit on Anton Scalia on why perhaps I should be a bit more careful with my nostalgia.

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