Category Archives: History

Ideology and the Individual In Cinema, II

By David A.


First, before I begin, the following is not intended to make a conclusion on whether or not the modern incarnation of film represents “good” or “bad” art; I am not Slavoj Zizek, nor do I intend to be. Instead, this is a matter of examining ideologically functionality. It is intended to glance at what the majority of films, especially films derived from Hollywood, are implemented for with regards to bourgeois cultural hegemony.

We left off roughly at the conclusion that the modern manifestation of the cinematic hero is (consciously or unconsciously) a specific form of interpellation. This edition, however, seeks to understand, at least on an abstract level, the way in which the hero, the protagonist, inevitably serves a different function than it did in pre-Capitalist times given that art then was produced under different ideological circumstances, given the different mode of production which existed at the time. While what I put forth here may, indeed, apply to both the aesthetic form and with literature, I have chosen to dedicate this serial to the subject of film because it is among the chief examples (as well as the most popular) of a form of art which has developed entirely in the context of Capitalist cultural domination, and with regards to Hollywood, is entirely inseparable from the circulation of Capital (as the existence of many a studio film depends entirely on whether or not this is a possibility). This is, of course, not to say that other forms of media have not also been incorporated into the overall bourgeois superstructure; however, having existed throughout the ethos of humankind’s cultural expression, across different modes of production, such an analysis would have to be reserved for another time.

Literature and art of the past has offered us a myriad of heroes, of sagas, which romanticizes the experience of the struggle, something all organisms endure, which, in turn, formulates the narrative itself. Very often, however, the art produced existed in the realm of cultural self-expression wherein, as I previously pointed out, the characters that were produced by the narrative were entirely subject to the objective material conditions which were depicted within the narrative (wherein, also, the line betwixt fiction and non-fiction, myth and fact, was mystified). Let us examine the case of Cao Cao, as so famously depicted in the epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It was not Cao Cao, or any of the other romanticized warlords (Lu Bu, Liu Bei, etc.) who forged the narrative – they were the catalyst for the story of China’s upheavals, rather it was inversed. The troubles of that period were the catalyst for their manifestation, both in reality and, somewhat more importantly, in their immortalized depiction across the annals of history, starting from the aforementioned novel. The epistemological rupture betwixt Cao Cao or Achilles and, to use a crude example, a Rambo archetype, is that the latter exerts his determination very often isolated from or hostile to the objective material circumstances of a given situation, i.e. the masses or the environment (very often both). Only occasionally do modern heroes require the help from characters that are, of course, supporting them in their endeavor of personal conquest. In short, Cao Cao and the like are subject to the narrative at hand, whilst on the other side, modern cinematic heroes are very often masters of that very narrative.

Here I must pause, and for a moment explain that since this is being viewed through the prism of historical materialism, I must point out that I do not think that the protagonist, the hero, while nearly ubiquitous in art throughout human history, retains a transhistorical function. On the contrary, the effort must be put forth to thoroughly investigate the modern origins of the individualist archetype, immortalized time after time in the modern cinematic experience. Here, through Nietzschean self-determination and will, the protagonist is never subject to the objective conditions, but the very catastrophe of it’s being, manifested in explosions and gunfights, forms the modern narrative, seeping down into all manners of artwork from the golden screen above. Wherein did the protagonists’ function depart from an agent of cultural self-expression, in which they are secondary to overall drama of the narrative itself, to functioning as an agent of self-assertion whose very existence is the narrative? When did the protagonist become reified into the narrative itself, and when did narrative no longer from the soil from which various characters spring up? Without the Trojan war, without the siege of Troy, the objective conditions of the time, could Homer have had an avenue through which all those heroes could have been highlighted? Fictional or not, the objective events of that time shaped the stories, formed the narrative, from which characters sprang – and to those conditions were they vulnerable. Without the mistake made by Asano Naganori in assaulting Kira Yoshinaka, and without all the developments which transpired afterwards, again the objective conditions from which characters spring, what would have become of the Japan’s national legend, The 47 Ronin?

It should be noted that while looking fondly on storytelling of the past, this piece in no way suggests that the ethos of art return to the way it was in a previous mode of production, as such a thing would be the act of a philistine at best, and the crime of a reactionary at the worst. Springing back to the present, we can see that the narrative, the objective conditions, does not proceed the protagonists, but rather it is composed by the interpersonal affairs of the protagonist itself; the narrative is subject to them, and as such, cannot form independently. How often does the vigilant movie-watcher spot something attributable to the protagonist which forms a plot hole, and upon pointing that out, is met with the usual,

“Well then, there’d be no movie!”

Behold, post-modern fascism.

The most recent example would be the film Django Unchained, which while personally artistically satisfying, exemplifies this motif. It is a fascistic masterpiece insofar as the entire plot arch revolves around the existence and self-determination of a lone individual, in this case Django, and could not even materialize without him. There are rare exceptions, but generally in the modern ethos of film, this is the formula which is employed to tell a story. Perhaps it can be said that the objective conditions forming the subjective experiences exist, but that the subjective experiences are the foreground, while the masses, the landscape, all exist in the background and would not at all be explored save for the existence of the protagonist. A necessary investigation, which should be saved for another time, would be examining the rupture points wherein the modes of expression changed function, even use-value, and responded to the shifts in the modes of production.

Antiquity clearly employed one distinct form of function in artistic expression from modernity; where we are lost is the in-between, where the function ceased one form and manifested into another.
If we work alongside the notion of material progression, then we are of course bound to incorporate the status of artistic mediums into that overall equation. The key is watching for new artistic mediums as well as the movements which start in their wake, which have a tendency to react to external stimuli, mostly springing from the masses. Clutching to the events and upheavals of a given time, the points demonstrated earlier that art directly corresponds to the ideological mood of the time, and most of it is in turn completely overtaken by the cultural hegemon.

The presence of the gaze, which is something acknowledged throughout production of a film, is itself a direct result of the current mode of production, forms a key function of the shift in artistic, especially cinematic, function, The gaze, often contained within the span of two or so hours, fixates you upon a particularity, who’s aesthetic appeal has a limited span of time, and cannot enjoy the sort of permanence that a book, painting, sculpture, etc. enjoys. Meanwhile, a particular scene can be enjoyed multiple times, but against, within a specific time/framework, while consciously being subjected to the gaze of the viewer. Add the subjective perception of the viewer into this framework, whom is aware of the conditions in which the illusion of film takes places (ignoring it via the suspension of disbelief), here we already have a relationship with a disposition towards atomization. Here, the time to espouse an artistic point is not measured in lifetimes (such as the cultural importance of a particular painting or piece of literature), at most it is measured in generations with the case of film, and certain hastiness must take place. A scene, a filmed narrative, must work to have all the necessary details ready at once, while producing the agents of narrative whose composition is entirely sweeping enough to at least appeal to a majority of the viewership, at least the intended viewership (again, this is a matter of Capital circulation). Here the intention is established; that insofar as it will circulate capital, the development of a narrative which does not relate to a culture-at-large, but rather individual dispensers of cash, i.e. the viewership, films will continuously produce narratives composed by irrational individual heroes.

Knowing this, it cannot be emphasized enough to remember that film is rarely produced for the sake of artistic satisfaction, but instead serves an economic use-value (entertainment) and has proven to a be an extremely viable method of capital accumulation and circulation. We have only faint glimpses of what cinema looks like divorced from bourgeois cultural hegemony, and most of said material has been produced in the past from consciously revolutionary movements which sought to do this very thing, existing only in brief spats of time. Inversing the narrative and protagonist, or clearing distinctions between the two, demonstrates the ideology of rash individualism in society-at-large; through this, even in the most crowded theater or in the thickest of a party, atomization (cinema being on aspect of interpellating this point) has ensured that we shall all continuously be alone together.

In the modern narrative form, which is embodied in most cinema, adapting to all new forms of media, it enforces the notion (consciously or unconsciously) that the mostly socially-constructed notion of the individual exists in its most terrifying form, in completely isolation from one another, and the heroics of modern cinema only serve to reinforce this idea that you and you alone are the master of objective material circumstance. It serves to inject the idea into the masses that the individual exists in the foreground of all matters, severed from the backdrop.

Another crude example is the Batman; Bruce Wayne is the avenue through which we come to explore and understand the city of Gotham, which is the crux of the narrative even though it is quite obvious that because of that environment itself is he initially. Even long before the narratives of Batman, when cowboys were still in style, we see that, no, it is not the chaotic, beautiful (already inhabited) lands of the American West, with all its towering heights, that forms the prerequisite from which the fascistic heroic cowboy emerges; rather, because of that hero and the endeavors which he undertakes do we understand the latter.

Again, partly because of time, because of the gaze, the subject may not be presented with the totality from which our gun-toting ranger first bolts out of upon his trusted steed. Setterlism, in all it’s grotesque romanticism, must be at once personified into a Clint Eastwood, whom above all else is both in the narrative but at the same, because he has the ability to intervene in affairs, is above it. There are, again, always exceptions; however, the ontology of cinema, especially in the United States, can be characterized in this way, albeit very roughly at this stage in the analysis. Art, like many things in bourgeois society, requires remnants of past times to be incorporated into the mold of the superstructure when the use-value of a particular cultural ethos is favorable to bourgeois cultural hegemony. In the case of film, the ethos of the hero, which of course, has thus far manifested throughout history, has been entangled in the affairs of cinematic interpellation, a reactionary left-over from times bygone, yet still retaining the ability to captivate an audience. Although in this way, it shifts in function, and the hero itself transformed into something extreme, into something irrational. Boundless, the narrative must now surrender to the modern individual protagonist, whom now, more than ever, it owes its existence to. Now, more than ever, the narrative is not producing agents of storytelling, but as we have said, it is borne from an agent. Serving numerous functions, chief among them capital accumulation via entertainment value (the economics/chrematistics of the matter of the material base), the precise character of the modern hero fits neatly into the manifolds of bourgeois cultural hegemony, in both the productivist sense as well as feeding the ideological necessity of irrational individualism.

The case for smashing borders

Triumphus pacis Osnabruggensis et Noribergensis; Tubingen, Brunnius (1649)

The Peace of Westphalia: Triumphus pacis Osnabruggensis et Noribergensis; Tubingen, Brunnius (1649)

Originally posted at The Charnel-House.

J.A. Myerson has an article up over at Jacobin making “The Case for Open Borders.”  As an historical overview, it’s not terrible, even if the way it retains the language of “consecration” for the modern period is a bit tendentious.  Borders and rights are not “consecrated” as divine rights but “legitimated” as civil rights.  There’s some acknowledgement of this fact, at least initially, but the author goes on to undermine this distinction in advocating “universal human rights, consecrated in struggle, enforced by solidarity.”

On a related note — why does “solidarity” always seem to enter in as this kind of quasi-mystical force by which we can simply express our sympathy with various remote causes and thereby consider our political obligations fulfilled? This, far more than any kind of legal procedure defining and establishing borders, strikes me as almost religious.  It’s akin to the sentiment expressed by those of various religious persuasions who’ll reassure you that they’re praying for you, etc. Read the rest of this entry

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

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.

Marginalia On Radical Thinking: Interview with KMO, part 1

KMO is the host of Z-Realm and C-Realm , and a thinker on collapse whose thoughts I have seen evolve through the course of his podcast. While not a hard leftist in the since that many of my interviewees, his perspective is among one of the smarter that some on the collapse end of the left. Avoiding a lot of the common tropes to deep green politics.

Skepoet: How would you describe your political and social journey over the past few years?

KMO: I used to hold pretty orthodox and straight-forward libertarian views. Starting in the 1990s, I voted for the Libertarian Party candidate in every presidential election. My support of the LP ended in 2008, when they put up Bob Barr, a career Drug War blowhard, as their presidential candidate. I’ve always gravitated to artists and creative types as friends, and they tend towards what in modern parlance is known as ‘liberalism,’ and I’ve learned through repeated hard experience with strained or terminated friendships that there is nothing to be gained by engaging self-identified progressives in political debate, so my self-identification as a libertarian comes more as a confession than as a loud and proud declaration.

Also, since I’ve been paying attention, it seems like more and more people who describe themselves as ‘libertarian’ strike me as basically ‘Rouge Elephants,’ i.e. Republicans who don’t want to pay taxes and who gravitate to libertarian ideology because they think it justifies their privileged position in the status quo. These folks seem to have no problem with the Drug War and with imperial ambition. Also, many Ayn Rand supporters gravitate to libertarianism, and they are some of the most obnoxious ideologues I’ve ever encountered. I would hate for someone who formed their opinion of libertarians based on encounters with these folks (I’m working really hard to avoid using the word ‘Randroids’ – I guess I just lost that battle) to slot me into the same mental category with Rand’s most strident and self-satisfied  devotees.

Socially, I’ve gone from being someone who very much wanted to live on a rural farmstead for quality of life reasons, to being a panicked Doomer who wanted to create a lifeboat situation away from major population centers, to being a Brooklynite who has taken a sort of Bodhisattva vow with respect to the potential for civilization-wide convulsions and catastrophes. I’ve made peace with the idea that happens to my society happens to me.

 S:   In the C-Realm podcast, there is a very deliberate attempt to generate consciousness, but from what perspective do you think the most useful  consciousness comes?

The perspective that I encourage and articulate, simply because it’s what I’m best able to represent, is a meta-perspective that contrasts various worldviews. I talk a lot about narratives, world-views, ideologies, belief systems, and, per Robert Anton Wilson, ‘reality tunnels.’

The two worldviews that I contrast most consistently on the C-Realm Podcast are the ‘Doomer’ and ‘Singularitarian’ perspectives. The Doomers see technological civilization as being completely and rigidly  dependent on fossil fuels and economic growth. They think that we have passed the point of global population overshoot, and that a Malthusian Correction is unavoidable at this point. The Doomers remain completely unimpressed with the rapid development of information technology. The Singularitarians on the other hand see peak oil, population overshoot, and in some cases even climate disruption, as non-issues. In their view, artificial Intelligence, nanotechnology, and other game-changing technologies will render these challenges trivial in the coming decades. Many of them think that humans will improve upon the standard issue human template and augment humanity with technology. This belief is called ‘Transhumanism.’ I think that both the Doomer and the Techno-utopian worldview identifies important trends and implications, but each of them seems to be laden with heavy doses of wishful thinking and enormous blind spots. I focus on these two belief systems, because I have been an ardent supporter of each of them and now describe myself as a recovering libertarian and Transhumanist.

There is certainly a lot of unacknowledged political baggage piggy-backing on both of these worldviews. As Adam Curtis pointed out in All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, Silicon Valley is rife with high-powered Ayn Rand devotees, and libertarian memes usually find a receptive environment in the brains of Singularitarians. Doomers tend to condemn libertarian ideology because they think that humans pursuing their own selfish ambitions have ruined the planet and brought humanity to the precipice of extinction.

I realize that I’ve drifted away from your question, so let me bring it back around and say that I think that embodied consciousness is critically important. I think that people reading text on screens and fighting ideological battles on-line or in print produce some very undesirable outcomes and counter-productive hostility. I spend a lot of time in front of the screen myself, and I’m grateful to have encountered Tai Chi and intermittent fasting, as these practices help keep me in my body when my ideological mind would drag me to absurd extremes. I know that you have interviewed more modern magic practitioners than I have and certainly know more about the history of the movement, but I’m attracted to the bodily focus of Chaos Magic and to the emphasis that the Mystery Schools place on self-knowledge.

S;  Do you find it interesting that both mystics and political radicals  (particularly in the Marxist tradition) speak in terms of  consciousness? What do you make that shared lingo?

KMO:  Before C-Realm was an interview-based podcast it was a web comic, and before it was a web comic it was a comic strip in a university newspaper. The title of the newspaper comic was ‘C.’ I came up with that title in my first semester in grad school studying philosophy in a Hegel seminar. The translation of The Phenomenology of Spirit that I used for that seminar used the English word ‘consciousness’ for Hegel’s ‘geist.’ I wrote the word ‘consciousness’ in my notes so many times that I came to abbreviate it as ‘C.’ I was thinking about creating a comic strip for the university newspaper, and when I wrote that letter C in my notes for the umpteenth time I thought, “Hey, that would be a good title for my comic strip.” So the C in C-Realm refers both to both the mystical and political senses of the word ‘consciousness’ which come together in Hegel’s tortuous dialectic of which Marx was so critical.

‘Consciousness’ is an ambiguous term with many meanings. I would find it intensely interesting if I thought that political radicals and mystics were consistently using the word in the same sense, but I do not think that this is the case. I think that ‘political consciousness’ tends to refer to consciousness as the holding of desirable beliefs and priorities while mystics make reference to an awareness, sense of identity, or point of view that transcends the physicality of the individual animal organism. (There are, of course, materialist practitioners of magic whom one could hold up as counter-examples, but then I would quibble with their inclusion in the category of ‘mystics.’) Now, you could say that the two meanings converge in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and that Hegel’s ‘geist’ on its dialectical journey encompasses both meanings, but I doubt that very many contemporary revolutionaries or mystics are that well-versed in or concerned with the details of their own memetic lineages and that their usages of the word ‘consciousness’ have diverged and compartmentalized since Hegel’s day.

S.:  KMO., you predicted exactly my point on Geist and consciousness, but you are right most people don’t see the dialectical relationship.  Do you think that we should re-merge the two meanings of consciousness in a way that would make Marxists uncomfortable?  Ironically, I think the tendency of Marxists or Hegelian Leftists like Zizek to reintroduce lots of psychoanalytic theory into Marxism is actually an indication of the need here?

I sometimes worry that the left–and here I don’t mean liberals or Democrats, but socialists–don’t deal enough in ecological limit theory and how do deal with it.  Murray Bookchin, an anarchist I did respect, thought that neither the singularity types (techno-utopians) nor the primitivists or doomers had much a realistic way to handle the future: the thought socialized and ecologically oriented technology would be important to sustainability?   I actually worry about this, and I am more skeptical of the way this is all framed.  Do you think we will need is somewhere in-between the singulatarians and the doomers?

KMO:  I don’t think it is within my power or yours to re-merge these two meanings of consciousness for anyone but ourselves and the tiny fraction of the population who pay attention to us. There are several more uses for the word ‘consciousness’ other than the two described above. I don’t think that translators of Hegel have any particular claim to the correct definition of the English word ‘consciousness.’ While I think it’s useful to ask people to clarify what it is they mean when they use the term, I don’t see much point in telling them that they have to mean something by it that they didn’t intend. Also, I have no more interest in making Marxists uncomfortable than I do in perturbing the peace of mind of Theosophists or Millerites.

If I could wave a magic wand and instantly infuse the English-speaking population with a correct understanding of words and phrases, I would use that power to rescue ‘decimate’ and ‘begs the question’ from terminal misuse.

As far as ideology goes, I don’t see any indication that political fundamentalists on the left are any more interested in testing their worldviews against empirical data or enhancing them with interdisciplinary thinking than are fundamentalists on the right. As for injecting psychoanalytic theory into Marxism, I’d rather hear political theorists attempt to integrate elements of contemporary neuroscience or even sociobiology into their discourse than try to wring some utility from hundred year old Freudian lingo.

I gravitate to ecological metaphors when it comes to the question of what people should believe, what values they should hold, and how they frame questions. I don’t think everyone should hold the same beliefs and values. Over-specialization and lack of variety set up the conditions for catastrophic failure and extinction. I think it’s good that we have self-aggrandizing, monomaniacal techno-triumphalists as well as sack-cloth-and-ashes, misanthropic Doomers. I’m also encouraged that there are enough people interested in a synthesis of these viewpoints to comprise an audience for the C-Realm Podcast.

S:  On psychoanalytic theory, I think you’re right KMO, the Marixst left avoidance of neuroscience is telling. Psychoanalysis in both Freud and Lacan thought that neuroscience was necessarily, and I don’t think Zizek, for example, truly reject it.  However, dealing with the internal self is something that Marxism doesn’t give you a way to deal with–it is only the social self and it’s alienation that is important.  Given how deeply internalized this is, not dealing with the psyche, is a key problem.  This has led to supplementation.  Is that clearer?

KMO:  Yes. Right up to that last statement.  I don’t think that a political ideology should strive to be an exhaustive guide to living which includes every possible self-knowledge and self-help modality.  Any meme complex that includes an attempted prophylactic against new discoveries and innovation sets off my cult BS detector.

I do think that a failure to deal honestly with the innate features of  human psychology and physiology is a common feature of political belief systems and certainly is not unique to Marxism.

To be continued. 

Some thoughts on Marriage:

I have been toying with sociological data on marriage shift in the larger society, and here are some trends. The first trend is that college educated people are increasingly more likely than the uneducated to get married, according to a Pew Study. :

Throughout the 20th century, college-educated adults in the United States had been less likely than their less-educated counterparts to be married by
age 30. In 1990, for example, 75% of all 30-yearolds who did not have a college degree were married or had been married, compared with just 69% of those with a college degree.As those numbers attest, marriage rates among adults in their 20s have declined sharply since 1990 for both the college-educated and those without a college degree. But the decline has been much steeper for young adults without a college education. Young adults who do not have a college degree are delaying marriage to such an extent that the median age at first marriage in 2008 was, for the first time ever, the same for the college-educated and those who were not
college-educated: 28. As recently as 2000, there had been a two-year gap, with the typical college-educated adult marrying for the first time at 28 and the typical adult lacking a college degree marrying for the first time at Among the possible explanations for this shift are the declining economic fortunes of young men without a college degree and their increasing tendency to cohabit with a partner rather than marry. From 1990 to 2008, the inflation-adjusted median annual earnings of college-educated men ages 25 to 34 rose by 5% (to $55,000 in 2008 from $52,300 in 1990), while the median annual earnings of those with only a high school diploma declined by 12% (to $32,000 in 2008 from $36,300 in 1990).

But it was moderated by this bit of information:

A major finding from the above analysis is that college appears to deter marriage for men and women from the least advantaged social backgrounds. For least advantaged individuals college attendance lessened men’s and women’s odds of marriage by 38 percent and 22 percent, respectively. For individuals enjoying status in the highest stratum college attendance increased their marriage chances by 31 percent for men and women by 8 percent.

Another important finding is the pattern of increasing marriage homogamy with increasing social advantage and consistent with a mismatch hypothesis, the authors found the more disadvantaged college attendees were less likely to be matched on education with their spouse.

So marriage is increasingly becoming a classed commodity. This leads me to another thought, the way we view the present in light of the immediate (but not very distant) past, and the distant past in light of the immediate past and the present. We think, for example, the nuclear family, which its love marriage and male provider, was an American norm prior to the 1960s, but was unique to the 1950s as a social creation. On in which female property was beginning to be liberalized and liberated from assumed ownership from men, but was predicated on stronger sexual differentiation than was held prior by most people. There are a lot of factors into this, and it is too easy to play reduce it to just one idea (liberalization of divorce, predominance of love marriage, the economic need for nuclear families for increased mobility within the US, etc), but there is some evidence that married people have tended to be less social than single people and less involved in the larger community. There is also evidence, however, that marriage bonds are pretty much the only social networks that are really strong by the time most people reach their 40s.

This is all very modern. I was reading Philip Larkin’s Ardunel Tomb and then doing research on the family of the tomb it describes. The love match Larkin is talking about was a political second marriage, the countess had probably never met the Earl of Ardunal when he was engaged to her, and his first wife had died in child birth. Larkin though makes the assumption that he didn’t love her, and it that was a show but that seems problematic too. There is evidence to the contrary in the posture, rare among married aristocracy, of the tomb.

The problem is that our ideas of love are based off of love marriage, which seems to privilege the dopamine phases of human sexual interaction, which fade off in most people after a few years. However, sexual bonding between humans does lead, in most cultures, to oxytocin bonds, which may be why arranged marriages have such high satisfaction rates (but then again, it may also be because other options just aren’t common). The privileging of our notions of love to the media portraits and romantic notions which are all based on dopamine reactions, and culturally primed ones at that.

What people say about history also seems to apply to human nature, we rhyme with our ancestors as much as merely replicate them. We are objects of and subjects to history, but we also produce it to paraphrase Marx and Hegel.

The idea that human nature is eternal and unchanging privileges the present, but the idea that we are radically and unknowably “other” to the humans to the past is so discontinuous with my experience of the natural world that it leads me to see the “Chomsky” and “Foucault” positions (Chomsky, human beings are innately what they are and Foucault, human beings are completely historical contingent) as both being sort of a false dichotomy. We are social by our “nature,” and thus primed by social cues, but these cue change us. They change mating habits, change environmental reactions, and even can cause stress hormone releases with change specific manifestations of genes. We are different from our ancestors, but in very consistent ways.

So in a way, we see that marriage has always been about the production of “society” which is to say, it is human relations that reproduce human relations: not just in the form of children. So it should be no surprise how much economic changes affect it, and our ideas about love, which in turn, affects economics. One can see the pull and push here.

Foucault: Arch-liberal?

It’s too nice a day to really go off on Foucault.

I have oft wondered about the supposed radicalism of Foucault? He and Chomsky are two of the most cited intellectuals in the world, and yet I have wondered about his radicalness. His historical understanding seems to be rooted in Althusserian structuralism, and his notion of power seems to be nebulous in a way that his refusal to define for reasons of avoiding “reduction” seemed both arbitrary and a mystification in and of itself.  Indeed, his turn just before the end of his life was an ethical turn aimed at the self, which seemed to come out of some of his particular failures of predicting politics in localities (Foucault’s failure to understand Iran seems key.)

While I do deeply respect Foucault’s historicism and think his structural critiques of differing European periods are key as well as his points about the basic failures of the liberal state, I think the failure to truly address what power is and what the self is the point where Foucault can be seen as less profound as both the Nietzscheans and the structural Marxists that he built on.   Listening to Hans Sluga interview on Entitled Opinions, the fact that power is kept nebulous leads Foucault to want to critique without being unable to question any of the basic assumption of his own epoch/episteme.  Sluga actually that Foucault’s slipperiness on his relationship to Nietzsche is key.   Foucault mystifiies power in a way Nietzsche does not in which power is both a net good but it is the ability to assert the will and make values through Umwertung aller Werte, or re-valuation itself.   So power is not just violence but the means to create  values. Foucault is not that precise, and thus avoids the “right-ward” drift of Nietzsche, but does this at cost of radicalization or the ability to more radically against general trends in specific moments.

This is why Foucault seems so useful:  He gives us means to talk about the past and critique, but his central analytic of power is vague and even quietistic.   Sometimes a little Hegel does one good.


The twilight of winter, and historicism

I do not call myself a progressive, as it was a term used by left liberals to distance themselves from communism and for liberal-leaning communists to hide, furthermore as the demonization of the word liberal in the popular imagination and simplification of the political spectrum into a highly misleading and rather vapid binary. Yet in pondering the historicism of Hegel as well as Nietzsche and DeMaistre, there is a tension in all historical thinkers for even the most conservative ones realize that while time may not be moving in a presupposed teleos, it most definitely moves and Hegel supposed as did DeMaistre that history was the judge of right.

This, however, has always problematized the left. The left conception of history can not longer be simply linear. It cannot think this because history did not judge left projects well. One was seen two trends in left philosophy: to embrace and accelerate the end of history within liberal modernity or to see everything that has happened as regressive.  DeMaistre had the same conflict when he saw the Enlightenment win. The Right has not be judged well by history either.

Now I do see a validity to this later view yet this is in fundamental contradiction to a materialist conception of history without a teleos which is known. We cannot know the future, and even the past is but a rhyming dictionary. To paraphrase Mark Twain, history doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes. So this fundamental contradiction requires a self dialectic that remains unaddressed.

I say this on a day I am on a bus and ill with cold. The winter is over but peeking its head up for one more day, and the predictable unpredictability of the natural emerges yet the climate is altering slowly day by day. This actually primes my thought.

History Lesson: Eric Hobsbawm on Gramsci

To Fight Stalinism one must get over Stalinphobia: A Dialogue.

Recently I got tired of the so many debates with leftists that attack Stalinism as if the thought was an extension of Stalin’s personal flaws. My assertion has been that it may be the case, but to say that one must cite chapter and verse and correlate that to the historical situation.  While someone can lie about their true theoretical framework, as Marx indicated in The German Ideology, there isn’t a real gap between actually held to theory and praxis.   My reason for asserting this was not a defense of Stalin, whom even many “anti-revisionists” have been reassessing in the last few years.

Ayika Kahn has written in an essay about 1968 and the decline of the new left,the twin poles of Stalinphobia and Stalinphilia were represented both within the Frankfurt school and society at large.  One is left with a legacy on how Mao obscured his deviation from Stalin while many Left Communist started portraying Lenin in a light that was more in line with a damnation of Lenin, a feet that had taken primarily from anti-communists.  Mike Ely, a Maoism himself, has been quite honest about this trend. 

In more traditional Socialist groups, even those who consider themselves Marxist, there is over an allergy to Stalin manifested in misrepresenting the debates between Luxemborg and Lenin as being one of total opposition instead of one of a complicated dialogue of respect and trepidation, often ignoring that Lenin called for decentralization of Bolshevik leadership and for Stalin to lose his general secretaryship of the party.  Often both Stalin and Trotsky used this movement as a key piece of propaganda. 

I have noticed getting Marxist who aren’t Maoist to read Stalin and address the textual basis of Stalinism is like pulling teeth, as if admitting that Stalin’s reading of Marx perhaps a valid one and justified his actions as Kolakowski thought in the late 70s. To paraphrase Orwell, this is the secret fear of almost every Trotskyist (to which I would add also Left Communist, Anarcho-communist, and modern “democratic” socialist).  One has an easier time getting Marxists to read Hitler often.

So we looked at  Dialectical and Historical Materialism at first, in which we could find little flaws although the thinking on the base and the superstructure was more reductionist than Marx and the opposition to bourgeois far more simplified than found in Das Kapital.  Still, it was clear, concise, and largely un-problematic.  The people involved were a post-Maoist, a non-Marxist socialist, Ross Wolff , a Trotskii-influenced member of Platypus, Eric Lundin, a rare erudite anarcho-communist, and myself, a left communist who has warmed up to middle period Lenin.  I have shortened the exchange to focused on a few key issues.

Eric Lundin:  Well since we’re talking exclusively about what Stalin theorized about and not what he did. I’ll give a critique of solely his philosophy:

In “Marxism and the National Question” Stalin seems to say that any nationalistic struggles against imperialist should be supported. Which is why Stalin was expressing support for the Emir of Afghanistan’s struggle against the U.K. Even though the Emir was a feudal lord. This was basically the same logic that Mao used in “On Contradiction;” a belief that the larger contradiction must be solved more immediately than the others. So therefore the feudal Bourgeoisie of a nation and the peasant Proletariat must work together against a large imperialist enemy. But the idea of the Proletariat and Bourgeoisie ever working together seems to have been completely discarded by Engels in his “Socialism: Scientific and Utopian.” So to use an overused term, Stalin was a “revisionist.”

Skepoet:  That’s exactly what I wanted Eric. We need to deal with Stalinism, not just Stalin’s character.  If we can see things in his character in his writing, then fine.  We note the error.

Eric Lundin: In fact, Stalin was even contradicting Lenin in this case. For example, here’s something from Lenin’s “National and Colonial Questions:”

“Second, the need for a struggle against the clergy and other influential reactionary and medieval elements in backward countries;

Third, the need to combat Pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc.”

Skepoet: I, however, think honest revisionism is preferable to dishonest anti-revisionism. But that was Stalin’s logic on the popular front, and it was always deceptive. Now the question that will make some of our post-Maoist friends uncomfortable, how much is this deviation of Stalin still present in Maoism?

Remember Stalin’s claim that bourgeoisie are at odds in interests: the battles around fascism proved that even at the time. However, Stalin seems willing to reject the benefits of Bourgeois revolutions while embracing a popular front with the Bourgeoisie (but not even social Democrats who were seen as objectively fascists)–is this because Stalin is too reductionist in his Dialectics? Or because he was an political hack? Or both?  I am not sure.

Eric Lundin: Well, I think Mao was using much the same logic in “On Contradiction.” In which his thesis was that within a nation there is a Hegelian-esque contradiction between bourgeoisie and proletariat. But within the world there is a contradiction between Imperialist and Colonialized. And that the larger contradiction must be solved first. This is sort of how he rationalized joining alongside the Kuomingtang to force out the Japanese. I mean, I can see some rationality behind making a peace deal with an opponent to fight a larger enemy. But I think it’s a bit dishonest to claim that this is all part of solving a “larger contradiction.” As opposed to just being honest and saying that you’re doing it out of desperation.

Skepoet: Wait, that doesn’t make much sense since Imperialism is an expansion of primitive accumulation of capital in a capitalist system. That seems precises inverted.  Honestly, I think oppression and exploitation are two separate questions that interweave, but that is odd.   But as to the last bit, concessions to history are forgivable when they are noted as such, Kolakowski was right about that. They are not forgivable when someone makes shit up post-facto to justify them theoretically.  Anyway, this larger “contradiction” thesis, when taken to its extreme let to Lin Baio’s Maoism-Third Worldism which denies that exploitation even happens in first world countries. This is simpleton’s analysis. I don’t think Mao was such a simpleton, but the seeds of the error where there in Stalin.

I never understood the move to try to reconcile Lin Baio with both Mao and the cultural revolution since Lin Biao  crushed the cultural revolution, supported Deng, and probably tried to coup Mao, but things got weird between the 1970s and now.

Eric Lundin: Mao also sided with an Anti-Communist dictator like Mobutu Sese Seko in order to screw with the Soviet Union. Since this was after the Sino-Soviet split and he considered them “Socialist Imperialist.” This seems to me as being beyond any sort of greedy opportunism, or even beyond coherent logic.

Skepoet: Yes, as was his justification with an alliance with the US against the Soviets.

Ross Wollf:  Skepoet said‎”how much is this deviation of Stalin still present in Maoism?”

Yes. This is THE central question for Maoism in terms of its problematic Stalinist inheritance.

For Trotskyists and even Leninists the central question is how much of what became Stalinism was latent in Trotskii’s and Lenin’s own thought. Even if, as is the case with my own opinion, I don’t believe Stalinism was an inevitable consequence of Leninism, democratic centralism, or vanguardism per se, even the most ardent Leninist must admit that Stalinism existed in potentia. This is so even as a perversion owing to the Soviet Union’s national isolation; the possibility of perversion exists in these principles themselves.

But the same can be said of radical bourgeois thought and Jacobinism.

Skepoet: This is why I am think Left-Leninist may be the best statement of my position, although I am intensely interested in the various strains of post-Maoism. If one isn’t honest about problems in thinkers even one respects then you aren’t self-honest, saying a glaring contradiction isn’t a contradiction is fool-hearty.

Eric Lundin: I think I got the name of it wrong. It wasn’t “Marxism and the National Question,” it was a chapter of “The Foundations of Leninism” called “The National Question.” Anyway, here is the quote:

“the struggle that the Emir of Afghanistan is waging for the independence of Afghanistan is objectively a revolutionary struggle, despite the monarchist views of the Emir and his associates, for it weakens, disintegrates and undermines imperialism; whereas the struggle waged by such “desperate” democrats and “Socialists,” “revolutionaries” and republicans as, for example, Kerensky and Tsereteli, Renaudel and Scheidemann, Chernov and Dan, Henderson and Clynes, during the imperialist war was a reactionary struggle, for its results was the embellishment, the strengthening, the victory, of imperialism.”

The Weathermen: A Precursor to Anarcho-liberalism?

Much can be said on the Weatherman (a helpful documentary is available in full on youtube), and much has.   Louis Proyect has pointed out that The Weathermen’s tactics were an inspiration for the black bloc , while I don’t share Proyect’s exact analysis of the black bloc as a tactic as I see it as more of  a mixed blessing, it is ironic that while the Weatheman were supposedly Maoist in politics, they’re tactics seem more like Bakunin’s International Brotherhood than a Maoist mass-line or to a Leninist vanguard.  The interesting thing is that this does lead not to building mass-lines, but to rather elitist notions that non-workers could represent workers and that breaking morality taboos was revolutionary.

In a way, I would have to admit the black bloc tactics seem mild compared to the Weathermen, and more justifiable as a tactic as it is not in such explicit self-contradiction. But reading an interview with Mark Rudd, I was struck by a good deal of what he said as he seems fundamentally more honest than Ayers:

SL: But, at that time, the success of the dramatic building occupations was viewed as a vindication of your Action Faction’s tactics over those of the Praxis Axis. But now you are saying that this was a misreading of the situation, because it was really their tactics that were responsible for the success of your actions.

MR: Yes. Militancy and confrontation maybe could be thought of as a strategy, but basically it was a series of confrontational tactics. The overall strategy was education plus confrontation plus personal relationship-building. But at the time we misread it completely. We took the Columbia Revolt of April and May 1968 to be a vindication of Che’s foco theory (i.e. the theory that a small group takes action and the masses join in once they see that guerilla warfare can work). That was a theory promulgated by the Cuban Communist Party in 1967 and 1968 and we lapped it up. Our Action Faction tendency and mentality fit in with the foco theory. At one point I made a speech quoted by Todd Gitlin in his book1 in which I am reported as saying, “organizing is another word for going slow.” I did not want organizing. I wanted speed and confrontation and militancy. After Columbia, however, almost every single application of this non-strategy of confrontation and militancy resulted in defeat and failed to build the movement.

There is something that I see in Rudd and, in Ayer’s more elitist version, is that in both instances one sees a confusion of tactics and goals, not in a dialectical synthesis, but in a simple substituting one for the other.  This seems why so often the ultra-leftist becomes the center-left or even center-liberal reformist. I’ll quote Rudd again:

SL: In the German context, when the student movement emerged there in the 1960s, the Marxist intellectual Theodor Adorno called into question the movement’s leftist character and said, in essence, “These young people really seek only the narcissistic satisfaction to be achieved by direct action. They are not really interested in or capable of transforming the circumstances that generate the discontent.” He thus took a critical position against what he saw as the authoritarianism rampant on the New Left in Europe. To what extent do you think authoritarianism was a factor both in your own particular political experience and on the American left as a whole in the 1960s?

MR: I think the popularity of Marxism-Leninism is a good gauge of that. Marxism-Leninism is essentially an authoritarian organizational strategy. It says, “Our little group knows best. We have the truth and we are going to impose it on everybody.” And of course, the New Left wound up in the 1970s as a giant mix of Marxist-Leninist groupuscules. There is the authoritarian tendency, the idea that we know best about everything. To me it is reappearing in the kids in Pittsburgh who want to wear bandanas and march without a permit. They said, “Well, we know better than everybody else because we have the truth. We understand how terrible the system is. You are just a liberal and don’t understand.”

SL: What about the exclusive preoccupation with action? To my mind, this is what historically ties today’s anarchists to the Weathermen. In both cases reflection has determined that the problem is reflection. It is almost a theoretical anti-theory, or an intellectual anti-intellectualism.

MR: That could be, but that was not our problem. Our problem was too much of both, too much belief in the propaganda of the deed and too much belief that national liberation was going to defeat US imperialism. So we had the worst of both worlds. We had the action plus the ideology. There has to be some way of testing the truth of ideas. The best I can figure out is growth of the movement, numbers. If you count how many people are at a demonstration and then, a year later, you count again and discover that your numbers have gone up, you are probably on the right track. If they have not, you are probably not.

SL: How do you know that the movement that is growing is the movement you want?

MR: You don’t. Nobody can know. You just blunder along. That is why I am for non-violence, because at least you are adopting strategies and tactics that do not do irreversible damage. In my experience, almost everything I ever did that I thought it was going to turn out one way turned out another. That is why I am a liberal, because hopefully liberals kill fewer people than radicals. I am for nobody killing anybody else, and that includes governments, terrorists, and communists, though, of course, there are not that many of those left in the world anymore.

You can see Rudd actually not answer the question, he doesn’t address that maybe they have an understanding he’s abandoned and perhaps never had because tactics become both the ends and means, and fear of bad tactics seems like prudent caution, but is it true? Do liberals not kill as many people as radicals, for while the  Weather Underground did have a body count, doesn’t the Democratic party?  Is a war-time Democrat not a liberal?   Or is the remove from the violence what makes one sleep better at night?

In a way, I admire Rudd for his honesty about this, and its a candor that one needs to really see the issues. Is this not one of the same contradictions of anarcho-liberal?  The Weatherman tactics reflected that they didn’t believe that class consciousness is there, but it has to be developed but instead of the Social Democratic way of developing it, they pick the Bakunin’s vanguard of terrorists way.  A way that betrays a lack of faith in the possibility that masses–the proletariat–could defend themselves.  It’s not that violence is the problem: it’s that violence done  by a few for the many against the will of the many is objectively not a mass-based action. Action for its own sake doesn’t lead to more action: if history is a teacher, it generally leads to inaction or, worse, regression.


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