Category Archives: Interviews
Dean Whiteside studied at the University of Music and Preforming Arts, Vienna, and has an deep interest in re-integrating music theory with materialism.
C. Derick Varn: The debates on aesthetics and Marxism have often been framed in terms of visual arts and in terms of music. This, perhaps, is the legacy of Adorno. Do you see Adorno as a primary entry point to Marxist musicology?
Dean Whiteside: It is not enough to say that Adorno was partial to music. For Adorno, the mutual dependency between musical and critical thinking cuts both ways. For this reason, many of Adorno’s deepest thoughts work through the relation between music and conceptual thinking. Adorno claims that German music and philosophy constituted a single system since the time of Kant and Beethoven. Adorno has a critical take on this relationship. His method is deeply historical and sensitive to the ways in which music embodies the antagonisms of bourgeois capitalist society, especially its fissures and points of non-identity. Left at that, Adorno would be suggesting merely another way to think about the relationship between music and society. But his inquiry is deeper: he wants to interrogate the social truth content of music itself. Music does not lie outside of capital, nor does it provide a safe haven from instrumental reason, but it also isn’t reducible to them: it’s a mode of thinking about what is contradictory and unarticulated within the world. Through music we discover the possibility of thinking about thought insofar as thought finds itself sublated within musical form, often through the concepts and signs which have the most authority over us, especially basic ones like repetition and self-identity. Thought is saved from the fate of merely smashing its face repeatedly against a mirror: its redemption lies in the broken and bloody shards on the floor—music, if you will (certainly Neue Musik). Conceptual thinking then faces the burden of making sense of its own broken image. The anxiety which neue Musik causes us is that we don’t recognize ourselves in the fragments. Thought’s return to itself must overcome a moment of mis-recognition. Many listeners don’t get past the initial: “Wtf, that’s not me!” Their reaction is wrong but understandable. Obversely, Adorno wants to problematize the moment of false recognition that bourgeois listeners experience while listening to Mozart or Beethoven. Adorno insists that Beethoven’s music is Hegelian philosophy in a truer form than Hegel’s philosophy itself could ever be. This is not an analogy. He maintains that although we can no longer write music like Beethoven, we should still think and act like Beethoven’s music. This amounts to an ideal of praxis which I think Adorno himself only occasionally lives up to. His failings are usually on the side of musical theory, namely a simplistic understanding of tonality and harmony. So to answer your question, yes and no.
C.D.V.: An unusual focus has been placed on Adorno’s critique of Jazz, particularly denouncing it as Eurocentric or ascetic, but what do you think the real issues were at hand in his critique of popular music and do you think they are relevant now?
D.W.: I think Adorno’s argument has often been taken out of context and used for ideological ends. This text is often attacked as representative of intellectual elitism, Eurocentrism, and even white supremacy. Even if Adorno was not knowledgeable about the object of his criticism—it’s not clear what “jazz” or “pop” he was actually exposed to—it’s not our task to replicate his tastes or defend his ignorance, but to understand the logic of his critique. We should not take for granted the fracturedness of a society in which Boulez and Britney Spears co-exist, both produced within late capitalism and symptomatic of it in different ways. It is a condition of our historical moment that Boulez is incomprehensible to most people and Britney Spears accessible to many more. We should abjure the false choice between an elitist, top-down modernism or a populist, bottom-up mass art. According to this logic, you’re either an elitist or a man of the people. Our first critical move should not be to unreflectively choose one side or the other, but to step back and assess the political and socio-historical conditions which produce this false choice: their co-existence reflects our antagonistic historical condition. To claim that all “high art”is inherently superior is a reflex of elitism. There are bad 12-tone pieces just as there are thoughtful pop songs. It’s clear that Adorno limited his inquiry to formally complex or resistant artworks; we shouldn’t necessarily follow suit. A danger of the culture industry is that it reproduces the ruling ideology and seals off its products from critical engagement. One sees this in the injunction not to think implicit in the claim: “Hey, it’s just a song!”
It’s possible that Adorno underestimated the extent to which the re-circulation of our needs and desires by mass media in the service of capital would become an essential way of navigating our alienated way of life. We all crave some niche of popular culture, whether it’s Hollywood or MTV, and we shouldn’t (always) feel guilty about that. It’s not the case that all consumers of mass media are mindless drones; it’s also true that mainstream pop bands can write interesting stuff. So although Adorno sometimes over-emphasized the side of production and neglected the particularity of individual art objects, especially pop ones, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Adorno left us useful tools to help formulate a materialist critique of music.
C.D.V.: What do you see as the explicit foundations for such a materialist critique of music?
D.W.: I don’t think the conditions can be made explicit. This would amount to a set of axioms or prescriptions about how to to critique music, which I’d like to avoid. We need more than a historicist account which merely reports in a putatively objective way on the historical or socio-political contexts of a work’s production and reception. Some musicology locates relationships of patriarchy, ideology, or biopower within music itself. We should be grateful that these approaches have criticized and undermined the authority of the work concept, brought to light music’s dependence on history and culture, and made us aware that musical meaning is constituted inter-subjectively and not only within musical texts themselves. We should reject the crude rebuttal that these approaches have a “political agenda” or that we should return to an essentialist or ahistorical critique of music.
That being said, I think the historicist approach is neither political enough nor properly historical. Too often it assumes that our own historical position is privileged and outside of history. Sometimes it abjures formal or syntactical analysis of musical texts completely, claiming that to refer to an autonomous text is formalistic and disassociated from history and culture. This is wrong. Texts speak mutely in a language whose intentions were always already negated by the culture which made them homeless. Insofar as music works to make its objectless intentions convincing, it becomes ambiguous at its moment of blinding clarity (Ask a music lover to articulate what she’s feeling at the end of Mahler 9 or Götterdämmerung; her tongue-tied, stammering inarticulateness is evidence, rather than disproof, of the certainty and integrity of her emotional response). Therefore, critique as a mere way of explaining social practices or drawing historical connections is not only insufficient but violent: it uses the positivity of historicity to bring music back into a world to which it never belonged. It reconciles music to its place in history. Music as a symptom of bourgeois capital is historical precisely in its not belonging to history. Often it inherits the future of a past which went unfulfilled (Brahms or Mahler); at other times, it looks toward a future in which that past will finally be buried and done with (Berlioz or Stockhausen). Only in rare cases, say Max Reger, is it interested in the present.
It seems like I’ve only offered ways not to critique. So here’s another one: critique which refers formally to a necessary link between theory and practice without offering any material to that dialectic (as it seems I’m doing now). So I have no easy formulations. I think critics (and performers) should start with the music which moves them and try to articulate their subjective responses. Critiquing music well means first caring about it: without this, one is merely regurgitating an academic discourse. There is Truth in music, and a formal understanding of music’s surface, of its thwarted intentions, is often the best way to grasp the truth of the world it failed to realize.
C.D.V.: Are you at all concerned over anti-aesthetic sentiments in the left (such as in Anti-Nietzsche by Malcolm Bull)? Do you think the radicalization of art has pushed us away at the radicalization of aesthetics?
D.W.: What does concern me is the tendency of today’s left to use aesthetic spectacle as a substitute for political action. The overestimation of the role of art is symptomatic of a failed or even non-existent politics. Occupy Wall St, for example, used art to put forward its explicit political message, often through catchy slogans on banners and video projections. First, the politics which is espoused in these spectacles of cultural resistance is usually tepid and simplistic. Often it asks people to wake up and change their subjective attitude towards the System, or the Man, as if the political issue at stake were one of “attitude.” Second, the attempt of performance art to synthesize art and politics is itself flawed and symptomatic of our lacking a real politics. Today at 3:30 we enjoy our symptom for two hours, we take part in an onanistic community of solidarity, and then we go home. It’s a symptom of our historical condition that politics becomes spectacle so quickly in the absence of authentic political organization. Spectacle, attempting to be the re-presentation of politics, actually functions as its end station, taking a political moment which failed to actualize itself in the world and re-inscribing it within a self-enclosed realm with clearly delineated boundaries, a beginning and an end. Our political failures migrate to spectacle when their claims can no longer be pressed within the world. Spectacle is where politics goes to die, but it is celebrated within these pageants as vibrant and thriving.
We should note that the form of this art is always fun and comprehensible. Its form, as such, is incidental, and the content it represents is independent of it—independent of representation, which is to say that it’s not artistic form at all. What is the alternative? I’m not advocating formalist or autonomous art, per se, either: this seems moot as well, though perhaps in more redeemable ways.
C.D.V.: Has Guy Debord affected any of your approaches to musicology?
D.W.: Not explicitly, no.
C.D.V.: What kind of politics can we extract from popular music at the moment?
D.W.: I’m interested in the form of this question. It suggests that the critic’s job is to look at a musical work, tease out its underlying social content, and transpose that content into a set of political prescriptions. Who is performing that task, and for whom? Sometimes the task is quick easy when a piece has an obviously unsavory or reactionary political content. Locating its political content serves as a way of avoiding thinking any further about it: we call something “kitschy” or “regressive” or even “disgusting,” which can also carry a political judgment, and are absolved from having to interact with it anymore. These concepts function like “homeless person”–they ask us to pass over the object in question once we have identified it as such. It’s fair to say that sometimes this is called for, like a piece named “Pussy be Yankin.” The politics one can extract is clear enough from the title.
The same process is much more difficult for thoughtful pieces of music, which I don’t think should be categorized according to “pop” or “classical.” Utopian music advocates a clear-headed egalitarian politics and is wrong precisely for its clarity and certainty. Adorno writes that “Authentic expression probably only exists as the expression of negativity, of suffering.” Art renounces substantive and affirmative being and takes refuge in shadowy form, and for this reason its most powerful claims are mute and covert, rather than political or didactic. Art is able, remarkably, to survive within our historical condition–we shouldn’t underestimate this feat–and continue to have an impotent sort of power over us. Webern, not a pop composer by any measure, does not offer a politics. The music embodies domination and totalization as well as reflectiveness and profundity. Webern’s mute, lonely speech, elusive and alienated from purposeful articulation, persists spectrally. This is reflective of our political condition but indicative of an absence, rather than presence, of real politics. Art which affirms a politics or Weltethos–usually one entails the other–should set off alarm bells.
Thinking about art always comes after the fact, after art has already represented the world. Critique should first make sense of art’s own representation, rather than impose its own. Art and philosophy are both types of thinking, which is to say forms of representation, but they are distinct, although not wholly irreconcilable. The best critique about music is musical, much like the best music is rigorously conceptual.
C.D.V.: What do make of many non-Frankfurt school influenced Marxists who would say this is letting idealism in through an aesthetic back door?
D.W.: Good, I’ll refer to the argument between Adorno and Lukacs as a way of addressing this issue. Lukacs was opposed to avant-garde literature insofar as it depicted the ruptures and discontinuities which define the consciousness of bourgeois subjects. He felt that this distorted image of individual experience was conflated with reality itself, thus amounting to idealism. This argument is grounded in Lukacs’s Hegelian reading of Marx. He argues that Marx put Hegelian philosophy into practice by showing how the relationship between universal and particular finds expression in the commodity form, which he claims represents the most extreme form of abstraction within capitalist production. Unlike the vulgar economists who remain enclosed by their abstract, fetishized world, a Marxist critique—and here is where art comes in as well—looks at the total process of social reproduction. So art for Lukacs must dig deep and express the social content of the world as it actually is; it’s insufficient to merely depict the network of abstract relations which constitute the surface of society. Merely describing the state of mind of bourgeois subjects (stream of consciousness, for example), amounts to a fragmentary and chaotic, therefore undialectical perspective on social reality.
For Adorno, Lukacs misunderstands the way in which social reality is represented. Reality is not directly accessible to our consciousness. The content of artworks is not real in the same way reality is (in fact, it’s realer). Adorno writes: “If this distinction is lost, then all attempts to provide a real foundation for aesthetics must be doomed to failure.” Adorno grants that art exists in the world, that is has a function in that world, and that the two realms have strong mediating links; however, “as art it remains the antithesis of that which is the case.” Regarding idealism, he claims: “It is no idealistic crime for art to provide essences, ‘images’; the fact that many artists have inclined towards an idealist philosophy says nothing about the content of their works.”
One can explain the tendency towards idealism in Adorno by what he understands as the non-identity between consciousness and social reality. Reality is not empirical: it’s inseparable from the concepts we use to describe it, and these concepts are socially mediated. Adorno’s dialectical method means to interrogate the social content inherent in these concepts, not to observe the world as it actually exists–that’s impossible. Materialism can only be reached by boring through idealism, by subjecting our own concepts to critique so that we might finally understand and return to them. Put more politically: the transformation of material reality will only occur through a breakthrough in self-consciousness.
Social reality for Adorno is always already mediated within art. So consider Lukacs’s claim that a stream of consciousness novel is undialectical insofar as regresses to the individual’s immediate experience; No, Adorno says, through this, an image of the object is absorbed into the subject, which amounts to a synthesis between subject and object. This type of literature—and Adorno was a supporter of avant-garde literature, especially Beckett—keeps the object from merely persisting out in the world in a state of reification. From this arises an important contradiction between the actual, unreconciled object in the world, and the object which has been mediated by a subject. A negative form of knowledge is born from this contradiction which makes critique possible. So aesthetic distance from the world is essential for Adorno’s form of critique; mere “portrayal” of social reality, as he thinks Lukacs means it, is undialectical.
C.D.V.: Why do you think there are so many heirs to Lukacs argument?
D.W.: I don’t want it to seem that I’m dismissing Lukacs by giving Adorno the last word, although we do have to admit that he was limited as an art theorist. The return to a Lukacsian model advocated by Jameson, for example, tries to address art’s changing relationship to capital. If Lukacs’s theory, according to his critics, offers a closed and integrated totality,a layover of German idealism, within which artworks are bound to un-dialectically representing the world, the alternative, call it the avant-garde, focuses instead on the ruptures within experience, mirroring, so to say, the cracks and breakdowns which are internal and essential to the reproduction of capital. Jameson claims that within late capitalism these avant-garde techniques of rupture and estrangement have become appropriated by the culture industry, even becoming the mode through which we’re reconciled as fragmented subjects to capitalism. I’m thinking of the ways in which music videos and TV shows, for example, often utilize sophisticated techniques derived from formally radical artworks. What follows from this is the thought that we need to return to a form of totality in the precise Lukacsian sense, to return to a realism which articulates and makes transparent moments of class struggle. I think we would need to more closely interrogate the concept of “totality” at work in Jameson. I don’t think it withholds critical scrutiny. That being said, I’m not sure that there are as many heirs to Lukacs’s argument as you indicate, Jameson being the most notable that I’m aware of.
C.D.V.: Is there any music criticism that seems to you in line with your view of materialist musical critique?
D.W.: Sure. There is plenty of very intelligent musical criticism out there, much of which unfortunately seems destined for the academy. I like Jonathan Neufeld’s work because it tries to engage with concrete musical practices, although in political terms I think he situates his theory too much in relation to democracy and not enough in relation to capital. As a practicing musician, rather than a theorist, it’s important to me that criticism contribute to musical praxis. I think interesting and provocative performances can also do this, provoking dialogue about musical works in order to keep them from becoming ossified. This depends on listeners who are able to critically engage with what they’re hearing. So I like thinkers who write musically, which includes such divergent types as Peter Kivy, Susan McClary, Michael Rose, and Charles Rosen. I like Badiou’s writing about music, especially Wagner; one really senses that he loves it; Zizek, less so. Music is hard to talk about because it’s essentially abstract, and arguments about its meaning have kept music criticism in a self-critical state, with disagreements still occurring over basic ontological definitions which have long been assumed in other fields of art. This might explain the relative paucity of Marxist musical criticism. Music’s abstractness, however, is not necessarily a bad thing. Music’s difficulty, its opaqueness and resistance to thinking, are qualities which Adorno prized. These traits should be viewed as holding dialectical potential for critique.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
D.W.: I suspect that the philosopher’s anxiety over ending well is surpassed only by the musician’s. Modern composers face the problem of how to end a piece without providing closure or affirming the identitarian nature of being. The quiet, open-ended coda has become almost a cliche of modern music. Conversely, philosophy’s inhibitions over ending affirmatively rarely hinder it from doing just that. I hope I haven’t suggested any party line about the right or wrong way to think about music. What I’m encouraging is an approach which does not consider its subject of critique as standing outside of the form in which it is being theoretically considered. This means that thinking about music is not merely a conceptual but also a mimetic process. In performing this, thinking must confront what is non-identical and other to thought. In this sense, authentic philosophy relies on art. Music’s survival as a social practice is in turn bound up in talking about it. It’s a shame that musicians and critics are so often indifferent to how their colleagues feel about music. Let’s be more interested in this personal level: often this is the best way to start a conversation.
Noah Gataveckas is a member of the IMT.
Derick Varn: You were recently involved in a somewhat heated debate that I took part in on the legacy of Ted Grant. Why do you think Ted Grant is so crucial to modern Trotskyism?
Noah Gataveckas: For the same reason that the debate was so heated. After all, when most people think of “Trotskyism,” they think of the Fourth International. But the Fourth International was a failure which, despite failing, survives to this day as a zombie formation. As I said in the exchange, the various sects that haunt the Left today are akin to ghosts which have arisen due to an improper burial service. Trotsky was never properly buried, so all sorts of distortions and revisions of his figure continues to haunt the scene of the Left to this day. His repressed legacy returns as the return of the repressed, which is what we find as the grotesque symptom of Leftist sectarianism in the contemporary political arena.
Thus “Trotskyism” is the question of the day: how does it work? The way that bad “Trotskyism” perpetuates itself in a kind-of undead way demonstrates perfectly what Althusser called an “ideological survival,” an ideology which perpetuates itself like a meme, in spite of the historical collapse of its material antecedents. But what makes “Trotskyism” different than just any old ideological phenomenon like “Gangnam style” or whatever, is that there is a historical reason for our inability to move past it on the Left. Trotsky and Lenin should be conceived as biconditional inputs to the Russian Revolution, which is the event which we need to rediscover today more than any other. Their practical solidarity attests to their overwhelming theoretical agreement, even if their clashes tend to get overemphasized today in the same way that Lenin’s disagreements with Rosa Luxemburg tend to get portrayed today in a sensationalist fashion. There are a lot of false notions about “Trotskyism” out there and it’s time to set the record straight. This is where Grant comes into play.
Grant’s thought is so crucial for us today because it allows us to bypass this roadblock that is the Fourth International. Grant basically got expelled at the beginning of it. This is because he challenged the proclamations of the leadership by predicting correctly the postwar economic boom, which the leadership of the Fourth International – Pablo, Mandel, Cannon, Healy, etc. – thought was impossible. They were predicting the return of fascism and the beginning of World War III, every year until 1953 or so. Thus Grant is kind of like the Trotsky of “Trotskyism” itself, who, like Trotsky getting elbowed out of the Third International by Stalin and Co., got elbowed out of the Fourth International by the Zinovievite and Stalinist tactics of the leadership of the Fourth International, mainly because he was correct in his analyses.
Another way I tried to explain this is that Grant should be conceived in the following way: if Trotsky is the thesis, and the Fourth International quickly became the practical negation of what Trotsky really stood for, then Grant is the negation of the negation. Here we must recall what the figure of the negation of the negation – otherwise known as synthesis, sublation, in any case aufhebung – represents: simultaneous cancelling and preservation at a higher level. Grant is the one who allows us to get beyond the Fourth International, since he is also the figure that allows the Fourth International to get over itself. For example, I don’t know anyone who goes around and first and foremost labels themselves as “Grant-ites.”
We are Marxists, communists. Let’s get back to basics: Marx-Engels-Lenin-Trotsky. That’s what Grant was about.
C.D.V.: How do you characterize the tension between Ted Grant and Tony Cliff the division that emerged, first in British and then in international Trotskyism?
N.G.: First of all, I’m not sure if many followers of Cliff would describe themselves as “Trotskyist.” His theory of “deflected permanent revolution” was an open rejection of Trotsky’s basic ideas. In a way, Cliff’s tendency is defined by a theoretical regression, which is evident even when compared to the problematic versions of “Trotskyism” that are to be found in the writings of Mandel or Cannon. Cliff is more like a stray who struck out on his own and, without a map to guide him, got lost in the wilderness.
But you’re right that there is a certain tension between the two figures. The main theoretical distinction boils down to the question of the USSR: is it “state capitalism” or a “deformed workers state”? Here we have to remember that both of these terms were used by Lenin and Trotsky to describe the Soviet Union at one point or another. However, “state capitalism” was used to refer to the days of the New Economic Policy, which ended when Stalin initiated collectivization in
1928. Based on this definition, it makes more sense to describe the China of today as “state capitalist” then it does to describe the Soviet Union under Stalin.
Meanwhile the term “deformed workers state” came about through the exchanges of Lenin and Trotsky: while the latter called the Soviet Union a “workers state,” Lenin made sure to note that it had a “bureaucratic twist.” This is what would develop into a menace with the consolidation of Stalinism and the entrenchment of the planned economy, as it is explained in Trotsky’s vital book The Revolution Betrayed. Grant understood the uniqueness of the Soviet economy as it developed into the postwar period, while it seems that Cliff was all too eager to repress the complexities of the situation. The entire problematic status of the Soviet Union is downplayed with Cliff’s approach, which tends to make a kind of category mistake, insofar as it conflates the similarities of profit- and planned-economies into a single kind of category, similar to the way that Horkheimer and Adorno’s “industrial society” is brought to apply to the United States, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union all at the same time. These all-or-nothing terms, though, can’t tell us a thing about the particularized social differences which came to markedly manifest themselves as a result of the material development of the Soviet economy. And yet this is what is at stake here.
Sometimes I’m tempted to think that Cliff was lazy in his classification of the Soviet Union as “state capitalist,” insofar as he thought capitalism was bad and what he saw happening in the Soviet Union was bad, by the time he was born, so he came to classify the Soviet Union as capitalism with a state twist. Though I suppose this makes it all the easier as a theory to accommodate an outlook that is rooted not so much in a philosophy as it is in a pretense for unbridled opportunism.
But don’t take it from me. Grant’s essay from 1949 on the weaknesses of Cliff’s thought is a great text, along with his “Will There Be a Slump?” from 1960 and “Programme of the International” from 1970. If there were three Grant texts that every person should read, especially if they considered themselves “Marxists,” these would be the three that I would recommend.
C.D.V.: How would you characterize the differences between the three major Trotskyist tendencies: the International Marxist Tendency, the International Socialist Tendency, and the International Bolshevik Tendency?
N.G.: I think I’ve said enough about the Cliffites for now. The people from the IBT that I have met so far have seemed like good people. In fact they once or twice came out to a reading group that I go to, that is put on by the Platypus Affiliates. Let me tell you: I’ve been to meetings with other sectarian groups before, and they have quickly degenerated into an embarrassing situation. Perhaps the best compliment I can give to the IBT is that I am not embarrassed to stand in a room with them, which is more than what I can say for most of the so-called “Marxists” that I’ve met here in Toronto, who cannot be Marxists because they are sectarians.
Which puts the IBT in a funny place. They seem to me like honest Marxists, but I’m afraid that they fall into the trap of sectarianism. Their orientation to the traditional organizations of struggle, which have historical significance for the workers and masses, is completely disorienting. Big events in history split parties, sending factions reeling in different directions across the political spectrum. Dynamis defines the site of the political struggle, not stasis; rule can only last for a short while. To assume that one is going to build a mass revolution on a one-by-one basis is to disavow the already existing class struggle. To never work in a dialectic relationship with the dynamics of the class struggle as they operate in the world leaves one incapable to win over and consolidate the actual organized sections of the working class who make up the masses of society. And without them, there is no revolutionary potential.
I think this results to taking an empiricist approach to a question which, as dialectical materialists, must be treated dialectically. At the same time, this question can also be resolved by the strictest appeal to the writings of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky. In the Communist Manifesto Marx even says that the communists do not form a separate party from the working class parties, we do not set up sectarian principles by which to stand apart from the masses. Lenin discusses it in Left-Wing Communism an Infantile Disorder, in the chapters of how communism should relate to bourgeois parliaments and, in particular, British politics. And Trotsky is of course the one who provided the theoretical basis for entryism in the first place with his writings on the French Turn. So you can see why I am perplexed by the IBT, considering that these guys can claim to be taking the ideas of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky to heart in their desire to build the forces of a revolutionary tendency.
The International Marxist Tendency has always stood apart from the sects of the Left. This is due to our willingness to engage in the class struggle that is going on all around us. We have always understood that there are no shortcuts to Marxist organizing; that the mountain will not
come to us, that we shall have to go to the mountain. And what a steep mountain at that! Still, Marx reminds us that there is no royal road to science, and that only those who are willing to invest the effort will be able to reap the rewards of the luminous summit. That Ted Grant’s approach to mountain climbing has the potential to be a successful strategy in the advanced capitalist countries has been proven by what happened with Militant in the 1980s. After all, what would Lenin and Trotsky have done in these situations, aside from what Grant did and wanted to do? That is, considering that his perspectives and tactics were modelled directly upon the thoughts and deeds of Lenin and Trotsky?
I think it is high time that the Left came to get over its melancholia for itself. Freud described melancholia as the sickness that stems from mourning the loss of something before it has gone away. Instead of lamenting the collapse of the Left, it is time to get serious. I became a supporter of the IMT after having a series of conversations at Occupy Toronto, which I was involved with at the time. I was impressed by the way that they were one of the few formations on the Left that had an optimistic, engaged attitude about their work. At the same time their tactical interpretation of Marxism was essentially correct, based on the Marx and Lenin that I had already read. The people from the IMT taught me that time spent feeling sorry for ourselves due to the sad state of the Left today is time wasted when we could have been organizing. Never forget that the class struggle keeps going, with or without the attention of its so-called “Marxists.” It is our responsibility to keep this broad perspective with regards to the movement in mind, so as to better represent the interests of the movement as a whole, to participate in the process of its development. Anything less is a capitulation to the ideological habits of a morose defeatism which, if you give it enough time and let it spread to enough sections of the Left, will surely become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is why we can no longer afford to continue to ignore the vital contributions made by Grant, Woods, and the rest of the IMT, insofar as these perspectives and ideas point the way forward to bringing about the socialist transformation of society.
C.D.V.: What responsibility to the think the “new left” or the “New Communist Movement” had on the current shape of the Marxist mileau?
N.G.: From an organizational standpoint, the accomplishments of the New Left and the New Communist Movement can speak for themselves. With the strengthening of Stalinism after World War II and the collapse of the Left Opposition on the international stage, it is no wonder that people were led to rethink their basic premises about what Marxism could be. Yet in so far as the current Marxist milieu in the West has been inherited from the interventions made by these movements in the 1960s and 1970s, up to the present, perhaps this is where we are to locate the bad element which has made the Left such a lightweight as of late, both theoretically and organizationally. I’m tempted to recall a line from Brecht: “It’s just the simple thing / that’s hard, so hard to do.” To just be a communist, without having to invent some ad hoc feature of a personalized identity to explain how Marxism uniquely connects to one’s present moment (e.g. Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, “post-Marxism,” neo-Kautskyite forms of academic “Marxism,” etc. etc.), has proven itself increasingly difficult for people on the Left to do as of late. It is as if people feel that words like “Communism” or “Marxism” are too obscene to stand on their own, and thus must be watered down and basically effaced with all sorts of qualifications and prefixes. The temptation to displace the meaning of one’s Marxism onto the qualifier is perhaps the most problematic legacy that the New Left has opened up the door to. That and the fact that most of the anarchist and Maoist organizations of today are no less authoritarian and bureaucratic than the “Trotskyist” sects that still pledge allegiance to the Fourth International of Cannon and Mandel.
That being said, I think the Frankfurt School has made vital contributions to the field of Marxist theory, particularly Adorno. Out of all of them, he was the best one. The work that he and Horkheimer did on the Culture Industry and television is, in my opinion, essential towards a Marxist critique of mass ideology under capitalism. Still, it is interesting to rediscover his views about the uprisings of the late 1960s, which freaked him out because he thought it was the return of fascism. Out of the prominent Frankfurt School academics at the time, it was only Marcuse, a much less essential theorist, who crossed the aisle, so to speak, and with the rest of his students exchanged the classroom for the streets. So the legacy of the Frankfurt School is, at the very least, not without its problems, especially once it is conceived as a group which had the capacity to organize and make interventions into the massive movements which they were surrounded by at the time. One could imagine that if Adorno was actually a secret Leninist, as Chris Cutrone basically suggests in one of his essay, then the uprisings of the late 1960s would have had different results.
C.D.V.: Are there any theorists currently living do you think could help us?
N.G.: I once met Alan Woods. We talked about Hegel’s conception of overproduction as it gets elaborated in the Philosophy of Right. We also talked about James Joyce. Apparently Ted Grant was a Shakespeare supporter, and Woods would argue with him over this point of aesthetics. Woods’ breadth of knowledge in literature, the sciences, and bourgeois philosophy was something amazing to engage with. But considering that he is also the closest to Trotsky’s theories in the present day, as it was said by Trotsky’s grandson Esteban Volkov, it was also thrilling to talk with him also about Venezuela, the mistakes made by the Militant tendency in the 1980s, and other topics. Woods had a down-to-earth persona which was the complete opposite of someone like, say, a Callinicos, in that Woods condensed encyclopedias worth of philosophical and theoretical thought into terms and phrases which workers and youth could understand even if they had never gone to university. Meanwhile Callinicos strikes me as the opposite: a mad generator of jargon and faux-academic prose to cover up a humdrum iintellect with no real revolutionary content to offer. For example, did you know that the SWP supported the Muslim Brotherhood in the last Egyptian election? What was revolutionary or remotely “Marxist” about that?
On the other hand, I also see Slavoj Zizek as a living leading theorist who, like Alan Woods, I think most people would do well to learn from. While Woods’ tendency provides the best world political analysis and critique of political economy at the present moment, Zizek makes the best mass psychological analysis and critique of ideology for the contemporary era in the West. Sometimes I think people just see Zizek for a joker or a generator of non sequiturs, but the point is to see the logic of the joke itself as part of the teaching that he brings to the table. In this regard, I would claim that there is no better explainer of Lacanian psychoanalysis today than Zizek, especially insofar as this teaching constitutes the precondition of being able to understand the structural basis by which one can proceed to carry out a critique of ideology on a scientific basis. Arguably this is something Marx, although a pioneer on this front in his own right, was never fully able to elucidate, although there are hints of a programme in his early writings.
In this way Zizek is like Althusser and Badiou, all of whom have stressed the importance of Lacan and Freud within the greater philosophical approach of dialectical materialism, as it gets taken as the basis of a theory of ontology as well as an applied social science called Marxism. Although also on this basis it is interesting to read Zizek’s critiques of Althusser and Badiou. One might say that Zizek’s value is his partisanship on behalf of a philosophical position that takes Freud and Lacan as true a priori, as opposed to the rest of the phenomena which develops a posteriori as experience, a category which includes all concrete political struggles and all events of world historical development. Zizek is the proof that philosophy still means something and can still be useful and helpful as an explanatory aid for the practitioners of organized Marxism, whose critique is and must be rooted first and foremost in a critique of a political-economic process or state of affairs stemming from a concrete analysis of a concrete situation.
Thus Zizek’s dialectical transcendental trajectory always leads him back to the totalizing critique of everything hitherto existing, a category which includes political economy, history, and the ideology of culture all at the same time. This is dialectical materialism by way of Lacan, only Zizek is a funnier comedian. In the same way that the ultimate aim of the Freudian drive is to circulate forever around its goal, Zizek orbits the core teachings of Hegelian dialectics, Marxist Communism, and Lacanian psychoanalysis, using everything else as a pretence to resuscitate these three essential but repressed discourses. Meanwhile Woods, following the Marxist method, starts with a concrete analysis of concrete conditions as they exist for a society whose reproduction of itself is dependent on the economic interaction of the masses, of social bodies. Woods bypasses the logically prior individual to engage with the temporally more immediate particulars of class struggle. Another way to say this is that Zizek’s focus falls on how the universal intersects with the individual, the subject qua individual subjectivity, while Woods is interested primarily in how the particular conditions of the world out there, so to speak, interacts with the structuring principle of capitalist production and accumulation, as this is experienced as the universal logic of the social world today.
The two can hardly be combined into a single point of view, but they can be taken together dialectically as a curriculum of combination which, through allotting each equal time in a reading group, a praxis of theory, can overcome itself as an actual contradiction extant between the teachings of the Lacanian-Zizekian philosophical perspective and the practical political perspective put forward by Woods and the IMT. The former must defer to the material validity of the latter, but the latter cannot do without the former as a measure of its truth and historical relevance or meaning in the interim of a world revolutionary uprising. In my opinion, this is the interstice where Marxism starts today, which structures the difference between dialectical materialism and critique of political economy, a disjunction which, due to the pure difference of atemporality and temporality in discourse, will never be synthesized into a single perspectival position, but must continue to compliment each other, as Zizek would say, as “parallax.”
C.D.V.: Are you bothered by the Maoist affiliation of all the thinkers you mentioned related to Lacan but Zizek?
N.G.: Not personally. Zizek’s political motto seems to be “repeat Lenin,” not “repeat Mao.” This makes sense, because while Mao’s revolution historically succeeded the Russian Revolution, we are actually closer today to the conditions of the Russian Revolution, due to the material development that has taken place around the world and the way that this has produced a global working class. There are exceptions, of course, but a majority of people in the world have moved to urban centers and become wage laborers Whereas Mao’s revolution relied solely on the peasants, Lenin’s was comprised of the workers and peasants fighting side by side. This is what makes Lenin’s gesture more modern, more contemporary, and relevant to our current geopolitical context, despite the fact that it happened at an earlier date. Ideological Maoism is the mistake that results from failing to understand how, due to dialectics, this event could establish itself as more pertinent to the present world situation, but it also follows from ignoring or repressing a basic tenet of Marxist struggle, which is that the workers have a key role to play in the overthrow of capitalism.
When I think of Althusser, I think of him primarily as an ideological Stalinist. I suppose he referenced Mao in “Contradiction and Overdetermination,” but his allegiance to the PCF puts him on one side of the Sino-Soviet split. And there is a difference. Badiou is more of a Maoist, but at the same time I am not sure exactly in what that consists, aside from a first-person avowal. It just seems that many of the self-proclaimed Maoists that I have met in real life would object to the idea of a person like Badiou claiming to be a Maoist, and would not think highly of his writings on ontology. From the standpoint of an ultra-leftist, it is easy to find something “liberal” or “bourgeois” about Badiou’s orientation to the class struggle. But I suppose there are Maoisms and Maoisms. Badiou’s thought seems like an interesting variant, which is perhaps made more worthwhile than it would be otherwise due to his admittance of Lacanian psychoanalysis into its discussion.
In any case, Zizek has insightful criticisms of both of these figures,which significantly distinguishes his account of Lacanian Marxism from theirs. For example, Zizek basically spends an entire chapter of his latest book, Less than Nothing, explaining the differences between Badiou and himself. Then again, people have been botching the connection between psychoanalysis and Marxist politics since the beginning of the twentieth century. First Wilhelm Reich, then Fromm, Adorno, and Marcuse, then Althusser and his students, like Badiou. But it has fallen to Zizek, powered by dialectical materialism, to provide the systematic expression of exactly how these two fields of study come to intersect with one another. Arguably, it is Zizek’s radical Hegelianism that has allowed him to avoid falling into the errors that have been made by others in their attempts to combine Lacan with the Left.
C.D.V.: What do you think could bring a unifying program back to the Marxian Left as a whole?
N.G.: Program begin with education. In a couple of words, Lenin, Trotsky, the Bolshevik Party, and the events and accounts surrounding the Russian Revolution. Learning about these particular people and events and the ideas surrounding them is essential to coordinate ourselves today in the struggle against capitalism. It may seem counterintuitive, because didn’t the Russian Revolution happen all the way back when? But it would be foolish not to try to learn from a history which threatens to repeat itself. This is why I like the Platypus primary Marxist reading group so much, because it simulates the progress of the historical development of Marxism, starting from its origins in bourgeois liberal philosophy.
In terms of perspectives and views, we still have lots in common with Lenin and Trotsky’s circumstances. Things have changed, to be sure, but as Lenin would say, historical obsolescence is not the same thing as political obsolescence. The same parliamentary political structures which governed back then on behalf of capital are in power today. Humans have to rise up and smash the state to no lesser of a degree than Lenin and Co. were able to from 1917 – 1924. The lessons of the Russian Revolution have to be learned, multiple times over, such is the significance of the event, even for our present era which may seem at times like it in no way resembles the circumstances and conditions of the Russian Revolution. But such is the outward-looking appearance of a speculative identity.
The good thing about insisting on orthodoxy, on what could be called a ‘hard’ reading of Marx-Engels-Lenin-Trotsky and I would add Grant, is that it condenses what makes Marxism essential from what makes it spurious. There is undoubtedly no shortage of Marxist literature out there which elaborates and explains the nuances of Marxism, but why not go straight to the source? I find often that Lenin is or can be the elephant in the room, especially in academic settings. As soon as you mention “repeating Lenin” or a return to the reading of Lenin’s texts, people can tend to get skittish,, including other so-called “Marxists.” The amount of effort that some people must have to put into their collective repression of Lenin and also Trotsky as ghosts of communism who haunt the historical present is astonishing. Moreover, it is symptomatic of what’s wrong with the Left today: a Lenin a day keeps the scourge of particularist identity politics away. Under the guise of “post-Marxism,” consciousness on the academic and activist Left, I’m afraid, has degenerated into something pre-Marxist.
It is for exactly this reason that we have to return to the repressed, to recover Lenin’s legacy from the obscurity with which it has been tarnished, caught as it is between the American ideological industry and the shameful behavior of the sectarians, whose theories need look no further than their deeds to find their concrete negations. Allusions here could be made to Antigone, whose ethical act involves defying the rule of Creon in order to properly bury her brother Polynices. We are like Antigone in a kind of way, since our duty involves acting on our fidelity to the past against the normalized attitudes instituted by the current regime. This is why now is the time to rediscover Leninism as the approach to politics that, as you may, could bring a unified program to the Left as a whole. I personally don’t claim to have all the answers, but it seems to me that this is the path to pursue if one is serious about revolutionary socialism, as it would do the most to cure the Left of the infantile disorders which currently inhibits it from unifying and engaging meaningfully in the ongoing class struggle, as it articulates itself in both political and economic environs.
C.D.V.: Would you say you think the primary obstacle is pedagogical then?
N.G.: Yes, if pedagogy is understood in a broad sense that includes the way that Marxist education comes primarily as a byproduct of organization. After all, one of the main functions and features of any vanguard is to teach and explain the ideas and methods of revolutionary Marxism. This involves teaching not only what Marx and Lenin said, but how this teaching comes to apply to the current era. Hence the importance of a figure like Ted Grant, who only died in 2006 and was active into the beginnings of the twenty first century. But this is just one of the duties of revolutionary Marxism. Agitation and organization fills out the rest of the equation, since education when taken on its own is too atomized and disjointed to fightback against the machinations of capital. For that it takes the unity of the workers’ movement and the youth, which presupposes organization.
To put it simply, pedagogy taken without organization is like an outboard motor without a propeller. You may be able to get the engine going to the max, but you’ll still be idle in the water. Without a willingness to get organized, I’m afraid the Left will remain stuck in the marsh of movementism, identitarianism, “resistance,” the worship of spontaneity, etc. etc. To be sure, this was all laid out by Lenin in What is to be Done, but our inability to learn from the mistakes of history means that we are bound to repeat the errors of the past for he present. From this perspective, the primary obstacle is the alienation of contemporary consciousness to its history, to the high points of its development as a theory and practice, in relation to which it can only appear as a profound regression.
C.D.V.: What do you think the problematic forces you identify took hold?
N.G.: There are both objective and subjective reasons. From the standpoint of historical materialism, the triumph of Stalin and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union set the stage for a near-universal conception of Marxism, let alone Leninism, which is patently false. While better judgment always tell us to do our research, many people still do not do this and thus get fooled by the appearances of what people have tried to justify in the name of Marxism. This is a trap that many self-avowed Marxists have fallen into as well, some of whom are unconsciously counter-revolutionary in their actions and effects, regardless of what they tell themselves about themselves. The entire scene is shrouded in confusion, mystified if you will. Instead of coming to terms with the history of the Soviet Union, the boogey-man of permanent gulags and show trials gets invoked to abstractly negate the real details, including the real tragedy, of what took place.
Either that, or it is glossed over with an overly romantic or fanatical viewpoint which neglects the serious philosophical and practical deadlocks which defined the Soviet Union as a project from the outset.
This is not so much specific to the USSR, but to a historical perspective in general, which in the current age and with the encouragement of bourgeois ideology has reverted into an ahistorical or, as Debord would say, pseudo-cyclical experience of time. I think the extent of this phenomenon can be measured by looking at the inability of many people to think the gravity of the ecological crisis we are currently facing as a species, which itself is fueled by capitalism. This spectacular way of looking at time is irresponsible, even from a non-communist point of view, since it is ignorant to hate learning about real history that completely pertains to one’s current concrete conditions of living, insofar as ‘history repeats itself,’ as they say. One does not have to be a communist to have heard this saying before, although it is profoundly dialectical, now that I come to think about it. At the same time I don’t take this condition for anything more than the historical result of the objective violence which capitalism has to inflict on the intellectual development of its youth through the funding of a training and conditioning apparatus called the school system. Bourgeois ideology cannot consciously think the crisis of capitalism, so it has to invent and reproduce ways of thinking and seeing that are able to function in a cooperative relationship with the logic of capital accumulation, that themselves tend to thrive by the logic of fetishistic disavowal: “I know very well that capitalism is the crisis, but still, I have to teach/learn/answer that it is more complicated than that, that other factors are also to blame…”
The subjective reason has more to do with the amazing power of the Culture Industry, its ability to structure desire on a mass basis, the impact that television culture has had on a form of life, in sum, everything the people have undergone in the last fifty years with the technological revolution in the means of communication. For a time, it may have mattered that Ronald Reagan was an actor and that this helped him to become the president of the United States, such was the material dominance of television over the American mass psyche, but I think that the dominance of television politics is actually on its way out. Internet politics opens up the playing field again, but mostly because it is a return to reading and writing as more democratic forms of communication as opposed to the speaking image as the monopoly on discourse. Although this may go hand in hand with my comments about Debord’s notion of spectacular time, this proliferation of communications networks occurred at the same time that the rhetoric of “postmodernism” came to be adopted in the academic context. If the university Left could find it in themselves to get past this buzzword, to realize that we are still, perhaps more than we would like, modern, then the coordinates of our historical situation and the political tasks at hand would become more immediately apparent. Postmodern relativism is the delusion of liberal capitalism in its senile stage.The real Left can do without it.
Then again, things are changing as we speak. Right now there are riots in Brooklyn. Socialism is one of the most searched terms on web browsers in the U.S. With the collapse of the era of Western prosperity which has basically lasted from the end of World War II to the present, there should be little surprise that people have begun to question their conditions and started to organize. Dialectics teaches us that it is only a matter of time until things change, and what was previously thought to be impossible is suddenly a reality.
C.D.V.: What trends that you have not mentioned think give you some hope for the future of a Marxian left?
N.G.: Trends within the workers’ movement are towards increasing dissatisfaction with the status quo. In Greece, dock workers have taken control of their worksites. Similar measures are beginning to be taken all across Europe. While on the one hand this is merely a reflection of the ravages wreaked by the free-market economy, it is also a sign of life that the Western proletariat hasn’t gone anywhere, it still exists and it is still the case that, if provoked, it will occupy and seize the sites and means of production. This is to say nothing about the recent developments which have taken place in India and Venezuela. And while it is not yet a trend, I have hope that it will become one: that the Chinese proletariat will reawaken and take back their country from the capitalist roaders who have slowly asserted their dominance over the interests of the CCP.
Another sign of hope comes from the youth, who even at a young age can see that the status quo does not make sense. More and more young people are turning to Marxism to understand the world they live in, considering that their schools and churches do not offer any real answers, but only try to obscure the problems that we face as individuals, communities, national populations, even as a species. Events like Occupy Wall Street and the Quebec student strike show that the youth are angry and ready to fight, but what is lacking are the correct ideas of how to win. Not only what is wanted, but what kind of commitment is necessary to get there. Something like the 1905 revolution will be necessary to take place once again, before an event comparable to 1917 can come to fruition for us in the present age. And, while the movements which I’ve mentioned are only the beginnings of the development of mass consciousness towards arriving at revolutionary, anti-capitalist conclusions, it still gives me hope that the Marxist left has a significant role to play in the future of humanity, our future.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
N.G.: Thanks for giving me an opportunity to clear up some of the questions surrounding the legacy of Ted Grant. Considering that this year is his centenary, it would be a perfect time to rediscover his writings on the variety of topics which he had dealt with since before the end of World War II. Also keep your eyes open for a new biography that will be coming out about him later this year by Alan Woods. You never know, it may be the case that the time for Grant’s views and perspectives is not so much in the past, but the future.
KMO is the host and producer of the C-Realm Podcast and author of the book ‘Conversations on Collapse.’ He recently relocated from the Ecovillage Training Center on the Farm in Summertown, TN to Brooklyn, NY. He describes himself as, “a recovering libertarian and Singularitarian.”
CDV: Recently, I have been listening to your C-Realm podcast, particularly episodes 348 and 347, and noticed a change in tone. You, like myself, have become more frustrated with a certain kind of liberal cultural self-assuredness that leads to a myopia when dealing with issues that aren’t matters of managerial policy or cultural inclusion. Is this a new frustration on your part?
KMO: It’s a newly activated frustration on my part, and it has everything to do with moving from rural Tennessee to New York City. In Tennessee, I lived on a former hippie commune, where the dominant political orientation in the community was an ossified form of 1970s liberalism. The central tenet of that ideology seemed to be opposition to the Vietnam War, and more generally, an ideology of nonviolence. That mindset struck me as somewhat myopic and disconnected from more pressing concerns, but it didn’t annoy me in the way that the self congratulatory, self-righteous identity politics of the left of the 21st-century New York City does.
CDV: What about New York do you think particularly brings this out?
KMO: I think this behavior stems from a combination of the circumstances particular to New York City interacting with some fairly universal human tendencies. First, the role of victim has great appeal because, in any situation with a victimizer and a victim, the onus to change, to make amends, and to show contrition rests entirely with the victimizer. Consequently, comfortable and prosperous people are anxious to identify themselves as victims, or at least to claim kinship with victims.
This works both ways. I grew up attending Southern Baptist churches, and Protestant Christians in 20th century America were still making a big deal about the persecution of the early Christian church by the Romans. I may have been in college before I ever learned that Christianity eventually became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The story of Christian martyrs murdered in inventive ways for the entertainment of cheering Roman citizens holds far more appeal to modern Christians than does the idea that their belief system eventually became the belief system of the powerful.
I do a lot of cross-country driving, and when I’m out away from any major population area I will scan the radio dial looking for anything interesting. Sometimes I will alight on Christian programming. In the middle of the country an astounding amount of the radio spectrum is devoted to Christian stations, and yet time and again I stumble upon conversations on Christian radio about the attack on the Christian faith by the forces of secular materialism. Granted, the radio airwaves are filled with efforts to get people to crave and purchase things they don’t need, and so in that sense the forces of materialism are omnipresent, but that’s not the sort of materialism the Christians are complaining about.
I’ve never once encountered an articulate voice explaining the complexities of climate or geology on AM radio, but I have heard a cavalcade of on-air personalities refuting Darwinism on Christian radio. Not once have I come across an AM radio program which featured an articulate and charismatic radio personality presenting the case for evolution by natural selection. As one-sided as that debate is on AM radio in the middle of the United States, the narrative on Christian radio insists that the forces of Darwinism and scientism are relentless in their assault on the beleaguered Christian faith community. From my perspective, this is an absurd conceit, but from their perspective, it is a plain fact about the deployment of forces on the map of the spiritual battleground.
Here in New York City, I have encountered prosperous gay couples, who have access to social, cultural, and business opportunities which the people in Alabama or Mississippi couldn’t even imagine, and yet they claim to be the victims of social conservatives. The social conservatives they have in mind are a cartoon abstraction, but having lived in the South, I have real faces to attach to the archetype of the social conservative, and the faces I see are those of senior citizens working as greeters at Walmart stores in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. Their knees, backs and necks ache from standing for hours at a stretch in the entrance of a Walmart super-center. They are well into retirement age, but Social Security and whatever pension they may have is not enough to support them, and so they endure this discomfort day after day in order to draw the meager paycheck that allows them to make ends meet. Because these people hold conservative religious values concerning homosexuality this supposedly makes them the oppressors of successful people living in this nexus of cultural and economic opportunity.
Because it is the victimizer who must change, and not the victim, the NYC social narrative holds that it is the people scratching out a living in the aftermath of economic collapse, not the people living in the luxurious penumbra of power in the cultural heart of the empire, who must change in order to right the evils of the world.
The Imperial wealth pump which draws resources from around the globe and allows 5% of the population to use 25% of globe’ s resources requires soldiers. It is the children and grandchildren of the people living in the former Confederate states who disproportionately fill the ranks of the Imperial military machine. This is because the Southern value system holds military service in high regard and because so few economic opportunities present themselves in the rural South now that industrial and mechanized agriculture has so little need for expensive human labor.
Whose lifestyle is propped up most by the Imperial wealth pump? Who pays the dearer price to keep it functioning? I’d like to see a PTSD map of the United States. I imagine that it would be almost a photo negative of the map showing the concentrations of wealth and opportunity, and yet so long as New York City liberals can cast themselves as the besieged victims of vicious rednecks who want to outlaw abortion, make guns readily available to violent criminals, and reinstate criminal penalties for sodomy, they don’t have to examine their own support for Empire or question their own status as beneficiaries of the Imperial system.
CDV: Do you see this as relates to the arch-druid Greer’s claim on your show that we are in danger from totalitarian centrism?
KMO: I hadn’t made the connection before you suggested it, so I’ll give it some thought and see what comes up.
CDV: Do you think using victimization as a prime motivator of politics is a means to avoid having to change anything?
KMO: I think just about everybody wants to see some kind of change, and they want someone else to do the changing. Claiming the status of victim is one way to put the onus for change on someone else. Another way to do that is to claim that you are the embodiment of correct living. I see this attitude at work both in the so-called red states, as well as in the urban centers of liberal intelligentsia. New Yorkers who know anything about climate change or limits to growth are quick to repeat the claim that urban dwellers have smaller carbon footprints than do suburbanites or people living in the country.
CDV: Do you think more specifically that people want the change without giving anything up in the process?
KMO: For the most part. Yes. Some people make a good faith effort at voluntary simplicity, but like vegetarianism, more people dabble in it than stick with it. As per my recent conversation with Kathy McMahon, the Peak Shrink, (episode 334: Reframing the Sucky Collapse), rather than volunteering to live with less, people are more likely to have their lifestyles downsized by circumstances and then mentally re-frame the matter after the fact as a positive development.
CDV: Do you see these traits in your liberal friends leading to a kind of anything goes as long as we maintain our cultural distinction mentality? A kind of heavily semi-authoritarian pragmatism, perhaps?
KMO: I don’t know if they would accept “anything” so long as it played into their self-congratulatory narrative as being more enlightened than the knuckle-dragging conservatives. I would hope that death camps would push at least some of them out of their current basin of complacency, but so far nothing short of death camps has. They seem completely unfazed by the resource wars or the mass incarceration resulting from the war on drugs. They seem utterly sanguine over the fact that so-called higher education has become a conduit to debt peonage. As Van Jones put it, a college education used to be a ladder up out of poverty. Now it has become a trap door of debt that drops kids from the middle class down into the ranks of the working poor. Congress put the lock on the debt cage making student loan debt exempt from bankruptcy procedures, and yet the cosmopolitan liberals I talk to are more concerned about gun control and gay marriage than they are about militarism, growing wealth inequality, the encroaching surveillance state, or the fact that their man, Obama, is as much a champion of the Imperial agenda and the financial master caste as was his predecessor.
It really is mind-blowing, because these are educated, creative people I’m talking about. These really are the cosmopolitan intelligentsia; not pseudo-intellectual poseurs, and yet they remain committed to their role in the stage-managed culture war spectacle that the Democrats and Republicans use to maintain the facade of competing agendas.
CDV: What do you think actually causes this inertia?
KMO: I have already taken my best stab at this question. I think people gravitate to self-justifying narratives, and both the Rush Limbaughs and the Rachel Maddows of the world have perfected the formula of casting the world’s problems as a result of the people on the other side of the cultural divide. “Those people need to change and see that we’re right, and only then we can get back to prosperity and right living.”
That’s a very attractive meta-narrative. If someone can expand on this notion and add some useful nuance, I’m certainly interested in reading or hearing their ideas, but the basic idea seems workably complete to me, and fleshing it out further is low on my “to do” list.
CDV: What do you see as the most pressing fixable problems we have?
KMO: It depends on what you mean by “fixable.” Not counting climate change, I think most of our problems arise as a result of unworkable belief systems and ideological commitments and that they would be amenable to rapid improvement if we adopted a few simple changes in mindset.
I think that if we adopted a strict itolerance for usury and financial speculation then a great many of our financial and economic difficulties would prove far less severe. I think that the idea that “a man has to work for his living” has outlived whatever utility it may once have had. Farming, a major employment sector as recently as a century ago, is now almost completely mechanized. It takes about 2% of the population working with petroleum-powered farm equipment and chemical fertilizers to feed the population of the United States.
With information technology, whole classes of employment are disappearing. Instead of freeing the people who used to do those jobs to pursue more enlightening and ennobling activities, the cultural value we place on work for work’s sake drives people to invent new forms of economic activity. We don’t try to find new work for displaced workers because those new sorts of work fill real and existing needs. People don’t need to work because there wouldn’t be enough food, shelter and clothing for everyone if large swathes of the population were not working. We try to keep everybody working so that they can draw a paycheck, and they only need to draw a paycheck because the real necessities cost money.
So much of the work that people do these days not only isn’t necessary, it’s actively harmful to the environment and to human quality of life. We’d all be better off if a lot of the work that people engage in out of economic necessity simply were not done. But the entrenched notion that people who don’t work and draw a paycheck don’t deserve to eat keeps us dreaming up new pseudo-needs and ridiculous ways to service them.
If belief systems were as malleable as software, we could “fix” the problem, but belief systems don’t work that way. Instead of recognizing that a cultural value has grown toxic and eliminating it, we will double down on what doesn’t work until we no longer have the means to continue. Only then, when continuing in the previous mode is not an option, will we have the mental freedom to look at other options.
We pay a high price for our ideological commitments to failed methodologies. If we can make a change before circumstances compel us to try something new then we would have more options available to us than if we continue doing what has proved not to work for as long as possible. The lost opportunities are staggering.
CDV: Do you think decline will help shift the culture or lead to more entrenchment?
KMO: I think that decline will make some kinds of entrenchment impossible. Think of a very wealthy man who used to respond to any interpersonal friction by hiring private detectives to dig up dirt on his enemies. Suppose he goes broke. Now, when someone slights him, he doesn’t have the option of hiring a private detective. There are a number of alternatives he can try. Hopefully he’ll get some good results from sensitive listening and searching for common ground with other people. He might grow as a person, or he might turn to alcohol or take out his frustrations on his dog. Going broke might lead to personal growth, but there’s no guarantee.
CDV: What are the cultural values that you think can be fostered in transition?
KMO: Adaptability, resilience, mindfulness, honesty and patience.
Whoops. I misunderstood your question. I answered the question, “What are the cultural values that you would like to see fostered in transition?”
In terms of your actual question, I think that the local food movement has introduced people to the idea of building resilience through a focus on local efforts. That’s a promising beginning, and it leads people into forming stronger bonds with local farmers and sellers whom they encounter regularly in face to face cash transactions rather than depending on impersonal transactions with distant strangers mediated by information technology and the banking system.
CDV: What illusions that we haven’t already talked about do you think we need to give up collectively?
KMO: I’m not sure I’d call them illusions, but three things that blind us to the full spectrum of adaptive responses are:
1) The idea that prosperity means a return to growth
2) The idea that a single response or strategy should be applied universally regardless of local conditions
3) The faith in the omnipotence of violence
To close out this portion of the discussion, I just want to say that voicing the particular criticisms of complacent, cosmopolitan liberals that you’ve been drawing out with your questions puts me in a frame of mind that I don’t enjoy and which is bad for my relationships. While I bristle at the unkind caricatures of social conservatives that NYC smartypants lefties invoke when they talk politics, I’d much rather be at that swank, New York gathering than at a Tea Party rally or high school football game in suburban Texas. I can get along with social conservatives, but even more than with the liberals, it can feel like a chore. There is plenty of common ground to focus on, but sooner or later (usually sooner) I’m either biting my tongue or leading my interlocutor through a Socratic line of questioning meant to bring out the contradictions in their worldview.
It rarely makes me any friends.
I try to live by the maxim that it is more important to understand than to be understood, and spending my time and energy “lashing the liberals” (as Joe Bageant put it) is not only counter to this maxim, it doesn’t seem to do any good. At least, it doesn’t seem to bring the liberals around to a more inclusive mindset or get them to hold their man Obama to a higher ethical standard. The only value I see in it is that it satisfies the need of people who recognize the abandoned middle to have their intuitions articulated and validated by someone who seems to be paying attention.
Tom O’Brien is the host of the From Alpha to Omega. This interview was completed just before the Cyprus banking crisis and thus was not mentioned.
C. Derick Varn: Your podcast topics seem to vacillate between sort of “left” Keynesianism and more traditional Marxism, what in your experience of the Irish economic crisis led you to see the two as more complimentary than it may seem from a distance?
Tom O’Brien: The current crisis from an Irish point of view seemed to have been caused by a massive buildup of private debt, aided and abetted by the usual neo-liberal deregulation and regulatory capture.After the crisis erupted, we also found out about the flaws in the monetary architecture of the Euro – how it operated like a gold-standard and prevented national central banks from funding their government expenditures. My reading on the topics of debt and monetary matters led quickly to the current work of radical Post-Keynesians, who predicted this monetary crisis as early as 1992 – the famous British economist Wynne Godley laid it all out in an article for the London Review of Books. The work of Steve Keen, on the acceleration of the growth in private debt as an accurate predictor of crisis was also particularly important in understanding the Irish situation. The Post-Keynesian view of why such debt bubbles occur, is the Hyman Minsky view that stability is itself destabilizing. That seemed a little convenient and not as convincing an argument as Marx’s ‘Tendential Fall in the Rate of Profit’, which gives a more direct causal explanation as to why there was such a shift from industrial capitalism to financial capitalism and outright speculative behaviour in the western developed economies. This, I think is probably closer to the real root of the problem, and works well as explaining the current neo-liberal experiment, which can be seen as a massive drive to basically increase the rate of profit. The work of the radical post-Keynesian school seem to have developed important insights into the nature of money, that might have very important implications for Marxist economics,and indeed for those seeking to understand how to alleviate the current Eurozone crisis.
C.D.V.: Do you think that Keynesian or Post-Keynesian insights are limited to circulation problems?
T.O’B.: As a non-economist, I would have to say that what I see as the main Keynesian / Post-Keynesian insights are the stabilizing effects of government deficit spending, the role debt plays in the boom-bust speculative cycle, and the ‘Chartalist’ or ‘Modern Money Theory (MMT)’ school which tries to describe the workings of our modern floating fiat currencies. The standard Keynesian deficit spending insight, when allied to the MMT school of thought, lead us to radical conclusions as to what we can achieve in capitalist economy. They shine us to a path where government deficits don’t matter, where the economy can be managed to grow in a reasonably smooth fashion. It could also lead, I am tentative to state, to a scenario where the falling rate of profit can be endlessly jacked up in nominal terms, and thus help to avoid that Marxist crisis of capitalism. Convincing these individual, isolated, ideologically hide-bound capitalists of the merits of these policies for the system as a whole, has been something pretty difficult to achieve for these Post-Keynesians, as their policies play more into the hands of the workers and the industrial capitalists than the financial capitalists currently in charge of the system. However, even if all the Post-Keynesian insights were put into play, all they would in reality likely achieve would be the stabilizing and speeding up of the existing capitalist system, enabling it to chew through all our dwindling natural resources at a quicker pace than ever. Their insights say little about the alienation of workers, the meaninglessness and arbitrariness of capitalist production, or the inherent exploitation of the capitalist mode of production.
C.D.V.: What role do you see social democracy as having in the current EU crisis?
T.O’B.: That’s a very difficult question. It seems most of the social democrat type parties across Europe have been in bed with the financiers for years now. In the UK Tony Blair and Gordon Brown let the city run riot, so they could fund their health and social spending increases. In Greece we see how the Socialists have imploded over their support for Austerity and inability to stand up to the ECB and the Germans. In Ireland we have seen the perennial party of power, Fianna Fail, lose 75% of their seats. The neoliberal mindset seems to be as deeply rooted in the social democratic parties as in those of the conservative/right parties of Europe. With the parties of both the left and the right in Europe essentially offering the same unwanted medicine to the people, we are likely to see major radical political changes in the make-up of our politics in the coming years. It seems pretty doubtful that Social Democrats can survive as power political parties in their current form unless they break from their bank-friendly policies. The policies of the ECB/IMF/EU troika are a huge destabilizing force in Europe, and the likelihood is for years more of depression-like economic performance. But if South America is any guide, it may take decades until we have the formation of new dominant left political movements capable of taking power.
C.D.V.: Have your opinions on this fiscal matters changed since you began your podcast?
T.O’B.: Not since I started the podcast, no. But over the last 3-4 years I have read a great deal about monetary matters, the design of currencies, and the role of money creation in societies. I have been interviewing a lot of the best people on these matters about their work on the show. I must say, however, that the Modern Monetary Theory people do have a reluctance to talk about the risks of endless stimulus. They say that deficits don’t harm us once there is the raw materials and human labor to absorb all the issued debt/currency, but talk little about what are the limits to these very raw materials. Most of the good scientific research I see, like the Limits To Growth studies, which show major problems in the coming decades and probable economic collapse, point towards the likelihood of catastrophic resource constraints in the near future. I often find myself wondering: ‘What Marx would have made of the likely coming material conditions?’
C.D.V.: Do you think there is an ideological blinder on that part of MMT?
T.O’B.:I do think there is an ideological blinder in MMT on this issue. But it is far from just MMT economists who ignore the likely upcoming resource crunch. The net energy we receive from our oil, gas, and coal production after getting the stuff out of the ground and into our cars and homes is dropping steadily. More and more of our oil and gas is coming from difficult to reach places, and we have to put more and more energy in, to get our new energy out. This should be a very stark warning to us that our economic system is about to undergo tremendous strain. It should be noted, that the Soviet system’s oil production peaked in the 1980’s, which is likely to have played a very important role in the collapse of Soviet Union. Indeed, Egypt’s oil production peaked in 1996 and became an oil importer in 2007, so I think we can expect many more of the Middle Eastern power structures to fray as the energy surplus from oil and gas production begins to drop.
We must realize that just because when we ran out of trees for firewood we could use coal, does not mean we can easily find ourselves a new energy resource. In fact it means just the opposite – that we have one less energy source left to exploit. Economists are acting like the beer-drinker who thinks there will always be more beer in the fridge, because for the last 6 times he went to get a beer there was always one there. Just like the beer-drinker, they won’t be too happy when they find out all we had was a six pack. None of the existing replacement renewable energies look like they have the ability to scale up to meet this challenge. Economists assume that technology will rescue us, but this is a pretty big assumption.
It’s fairly easy to see that the dominant schools of economic thought largely reflect the interests of those in power, so we can’t expect the high-priests of capitalism to preach too loudly about the contradictions at the core of their belief system.
C.D.V.: Well, many green thinkers also accuse most Marxists as being blind to the resource depletion issue. There are some strong exceptions, I think, including Marx himself, but in general, this has been the case for reasons that don’t have anything to do with capitalism. What do you see as a valid answer to resource problems?
T.O’B.: One of the core insights Marx gave us into capitalist economies is that capital always seeks to grow through productivity increases. Growth is the eternal mantra of economist from both the right and the left. Now with our resource constraints in clear sight, the options left to us are pretty stark. We either have to drastically cut our consumption levels, or our population, or maybe both. The distribution of how those resources are spent are extremely inequitable as well. But such a vast reduction in consumption levels would create absolute havoc for those who own the means of production, so it’s unlikely they will voluntarily give up control. They still might get lucky, some new energy source could materialize or the science could be flawed. So, I expect we will see those in charge of the current system just plough along merrily with their fingers crossed until we get to such a stage as the conditions get so bad and they are overthrown, or the whole global system of production kind of peters out. But the problem with any such new system that comes into power, is that it will have to be based on a new kind of production not based on growth, and most likely not based on value production. There is quite large scope for theoretical work on how such a system would work. Many of the left-movements today speak of a ‘Green New Deal’, which doesn’t deal with the core expansionary drive of capitalist production in the slightest. Robin Hahnel has an interesting new book, Of the people, By the people – The Case for a Participatory Economy, describing how such a participatory economy could work, which is well worth the read and does a fine job of talking of how such a system could work. It offers little though, in how we should work to get there. When it comes to the demographic problem, the only country I know of with a vastly reduced population today compared to 1840 is Ireland, and that only happened through that oh so benign a mix of imperialism, famine, and mass emigration. It doesn’t bode well.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
T.O’B: I would like to point to some of the tentative positive political ideas that are starting to take shape around the world at the moment. The emergence of the Occupy movement globally, the Indignados, and the 5-Star Movement in Italy all in their own way are pointing to failure of our liberal representative democracies to work for their citizens. It’s starting to become more and more obvious to more and more people that the corporations and the banks control their politicians and stand in the way of the radical change that is needed. I think there is a great desire for a sustainable society where wealth and power is equitably distributed. Hopefully these movements are the sparks that will fire the neurons of those involved to come up with new theoretical works that can help us to lay the foundations of the new societies that we seek.
C.D.V.: I find the last bit interesting, if you would forgive a one last follow-up: What exactly do you see as the promise of the 5-Star movement?
T.O’B: Over the last 150 years we have seen many nationalist revolutions succeed. Some of these new governments may even have enacted fairly radical policies, like the welfare state or land reform. But over the years, as the original revolutionaries grew old and left the political stage they gradually became replaced by a managerial class of politicians, lacking the political spine of their predecessors. Countries like Ireland, for example, experienced a new wave of career politicians, of varying levels of corruption and a willingness to suck up to the capitalist class to gain power. The citizens of these countries have learned that the problem wasn’t just that they didn’t have self-determination as a colony, but that the structure of society and it’s political superstructure also plays a critical role. In the words of The Who – ‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss’.
The 5-Star movement, is essentially expressing what a hell of a lot of people in the capitalist west think of politicians – they are a bunch of lying, power hungry, money grabbing, turn-coats. And they are sick to death of it. This is a real blast against the political superstructure, if not, perhaps, the base-structure of production. I see in this the germs of a possibly revolutionary change in how we govern ourselves. Noam Chomsky always talks of how power is terrified of real true direct democracy, because those in power can’t let people actually vote as they wish. Even redneck republican voters in the US. when polled on individual issues are basically social democratic in nature. I don’t think that the 5-Star movement is perfect in its structure, or that I agree with it’s policies – I don’t know enough about it to have a definitive opinion, but I think it does shows us exactly where the political pulse is right now – decentralized structures of power devoid of politicians and their games. It seems to be a return to the libertarian socialist tendencies of the past. It is also a rejection, I believe, of the old vanguard party model of the radical left parties, and left-theorists out there should be taking note.
Laird Samuel Barron is an award winning author and poet, much of whose work falls within the horror, noir, and dark fantasy genres. He has also been the Managing Editor of the online literary magazine Melic Review. He lives in Olympia, Washington.
C.Derick Varn: You are one of the few writers that works in poetry and weird fiction, what do you see as the relationship between weird fiction and poetry?
Laird Barron: Poetry is the atom that underlies all writing. A few years ago I concentrated my efforts solely on poetry and in doing so became a better prose stylist. It’s not clear to me that it could work so well in reverse. There’s a profound connection between poetry and the weird–some of the great stories are poems: The Ballad of Sam Magee by Robert Service; Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge; EA Poe’s The Raven; or any number of poems by Dunsany, Lovecraft, or Clark Ashton Smith. Hell, look at the ancient classics such as Beowulf. Poetry and the weird share a circulatory system.
C.D.V.: Do you think horror fiction demands a particularly poetic bend for genre fiction?
L.B.: I scrupulously avoid prescriptions. Many of the great authors of the macabre have succeeded with an unadorned prose style. Nonetheless, give me the baroque decadence of Michael Shea or Wilum Pugmire; the brutal lyricism of Livia Llewellyn and Joe Lansdale; or the rough and tumble stream of consciousness that emits from Stephen Graham Jones. Lyricism is the sinew of my favorite work.
C.D.V.: Are there any habits of a poet that can inhibit a fiction writer?
L.B.: On the contrary, my time as a poet steeled me for a career in prose. I find the discipline and the relative economy of poetic expression to have taught me a set of skills and best practices applicable to fiction and essay writing. The essential lesson of poetry being that every word must have weight. Making those few words count is exacting, and that’s not a bad takeaway for any kind of writer.
C.D.V.: What particular poets have had an effect on your prose?
L.B.: I don’t know if anyone has directly influenced my style, but several poets inspire me in abstract ways: Mark Strand; James Dickey; Anne Sexton; Charles Simic; Wallace Stevens; Ted Hughes…
C.D.V.: Do you find that you organize your books of short stories along any of the themic principles that poets often use for books of poems?
L.B.:No, although it’s a concept I’ve toyed with over the years. It might be something to revisit if I were to produce an omnibus of stories down the road.
C.D.V.: What has attracted you specifically to go back to cosmic horror so much in your writing career?
L.B.: The notion that mankind is tiny and insignificant against the backdrop of the cosmos is alluring and terrifying. The possibility that sentient life might exist amid that empty space only sharpens the attraction. Cosmic horror is analogous to leaning over a guardrail and peering into the mists of a gulf. Lovecraft’s influence is a culprit, and so too various religions with their depictions of vast and dreadful gods of stick figures. Possibly my thousands of miles traveling by dog team across Alaska sealed it. The landscape up there is immense and inhospitable. You can’t cross the Farewell Burn, or Norton Sound, or plod among the ancient, rounded slopes along the Innoko River without being conscious of your transient mortality. In such places a man is little more than a moving speck. It is probably inevitable that I’d be compelled to communicate that experience through the lives of my characters.
C.D.V.: Is this the same sentiment that makes place so important in your work?
L.B.: Yes. It’s also a manifestation of my reading habits in youth. The landscape as a character is something a number of my favorite authors featured–Howard, Lovecraft, L ‘Amour, Blackwood, Burroughs…
L.B.: My latest collection, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All will be released in April. I’m working on several projects. These include another collection, this one featuring stories set in Alaska; and a crime novel. Thank you for the interview.
Charley Earp is the blogger behind Radical Progress and Leftist Quaker and lives in the Chicago area. A Pentecostal preacher’s kid who lived with a commune for 9 years, which led to his political radicalization. A 3-time college drop-out with a day job in the travel industry, he is currently completing a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and planning to pursue a seminary degree focusing on congregational ministry and activism. No longer a Christian, yet actively involved with the progressive wing of Quakerism both locally, with the national Conference, and ecumenical and interfaith work. Born in 1963, married for 30 years, with two adult children. His current long-form writing project is a theo-political autobiography titled, “Jesus Made Me a Communist.” He is currently the acting Chair of the Socialist Party USA’s Commission on Religion and Ethics.
C. Derick Varn: We chatted via e-mail recently about the characterization of the right and left as religious forces, and you were provoked by many of Keith418’s points in a recent interview I did with him. . Would you like to go into that in more detail?
Charley Earp: What provoked me in that interview was the statement that American conservatism is fundamentally different than its European predecessor, and therefore somehow an illegitimate rightism. Keith418 seems utterly taken up with a tradition of the Right that has very little traction in the US, though Ayn Rand’s followers are often as anti-Christian as are the kind of Nietszcheans Keith admires. The majority of the American Right does come out of a Christian milieu, but that milieu has some strange incoherence within it.
I watched as the Christian Right began to take over the churches in the Pentecostal tradition where I grew up, and it was definitely a external intervention, not something organic to Pentecostalism. This seems also true of other Evangelical and Fundamentalist churches, that is, those that defend the inerrancy of the Bible. I would almost say that what distinguishes American rightism is the presence of a large group of radical protestants that by pedigree belong in either centrist or leftist politics, not the right.
The Baptists, who comprise the largest group of Christians in the US outside the Catholics, were founded as an opposition to the very idea of a European State Church. The Methodists/Wesleyans, the next largest group of US protestants originated and subsist in perpetual tension with state churches. The modern Christian Right in the US was largely inspired by Calvinist ideas of a “Christian Nation,” a proposition quite foreign to the conversionist ethos of Baptists and Wesleyans. By definition, these traditions deny that an entity like a nation can be Christian because that title is only conferred by a conscious conversion experience to salvation in Christ. Calvinism in its original Swiss incarnation had no such conversion emphasis. Salvation was a predestined election by God that was not conferred by faith, but by irresistible grace. Therefore, no separation of secular and religious realms were recognized, law itself derived from biblical revelation.
This crypto-Calvinist incursion into Evangelical and Pentecostal churches occurred as a deliberate campaign by the architects of the New Right. What has always fascinated me is how Christian conservatives hold in tension two opposed ideas, that of a minority converted remnant church with incongruous idea that the US needs to be restored to its Christian heritage. A favorite saying of conversionist theology is “God has no grandchildren” and that means heritage is nothing, one must be saved by an immediate conversion. Most Pentecostals, even today, believe that someday very soon Jesus will secretly rapture all “true believers” from the earth, leaving behind false churches and the heathen masses to become the followers of the Anti-Christ. It is a wholly pessimistic worldview that had zero room for political activism, only for evangelism to save the souls of those who would miss the rapture. It is that tension that I believe is now unraveling as the younger generation of Evangelicals abandon political conservatism, though most don’t thereby become leftists. Why they don’t is often predicated on systemic race, gender, and class predispositions.
C.D.V.: Who precisely do you see as responsible for sneaking a Calvinist streak into all forms of American evangelicalism, particularly given the semi-socialist orientation of a lot of Protestant churches in the 1920s and 1930s in the US?
C.E.: It’s all somewhat murky to me, though I am familiar enough with various trends in the 70s and 80s that shaped the New Christian Right. Certainly the neo-Calvinist idea of theonomism and the “Christian Nation” as refracted through Francis Schaeffer’s dispensational Presbyterianism played a role. Jerry Falwell’s emergence from the segregationist right in the 60s to head the anti-abortion and evangelical Zionist Moral Majority was also significant. Underlying all of this was the politicization of the capitalist class and their bid to mold a populist right front, with things like opposition to high taxes, and Milton Friedman’s 10-part laissez-faire documentary, “Free to Choose” that aired on PBS in early 1980 just as Ronald Reagan was consolidating his presidential campaign.
Christians of the more literalist sort tended to be apolitical right up until the mid-80s, when the successes of Reagan’s first term convinced even more of them to support his policies in 1984, including my father, a Pentecostal preacher who had always voted Democrat before 1984. I personally was headed towards the pacifist and anti-capitalist left following the lead of Sojourners Magazine. If there was a semi-Socialist bent to many churches prior to the 80s, it was probably strongest among liberals in the Wesleyan and Catholic traditions. My mother still complains about the Social Gospel she heard growing up Methodist and how much it didn’t preach the true gospel of individual salvation.
These days I think the nucleus for a Christian Left lies mostly with African-American and Latino churches. White Evangelicals are coming to question their parents’ conservatism, but there is still a strong core of the (White) Christian Right out there and the Tea Party is still trying to reinvigorate that 80s right populism. If the younger generation who supported Obama in 2008 – but ignored the mid-term election of 2010, thereby hamstringing many reform efforts that might have been possible – could learn their lesson and pull off another Democratic congressional majority win like 2006 in 2014, I think the political basis for a national shift to the left will solidify. Even though I believe that a socialist movement will have to form to the left of the Democrats and the Green Party, that is, through a Socialist Party, one strategic prerequisite for that development is to shatter the social and religious basis of the 80s New Right, by advocating some form of Christian Socialism or Social Democracy. This is my motivation for the “Jesus Made Me a Communist” presentations and publications I’ve been working on since late 2012.
That turn for me personally has meant a rapprochement to my Christian upbringing, which I discarded in 1996 for a Universalist Quakerism. In fact, by 2005, I’d become flatly nontheistic and doubted the existence of a historical Jesus. I haven’t become a Christian all over again, but I have decided that it is more important to convince Christians to become Socialists and Communists than it is to convince Atheists on the Left to embrace Christians. It seems to me that a New New Left will be a largely Christian phenomenon and atheists and Marxists will become a minority among socialists by mid-century. Of course, along the way Christians will become more “liberal” and less orthodox theologically. This phenomena is already visible in projects like the “Jesus Radicals” anarchist webzine or the left flank of Emergent Christianity.
C.E.: The decline of Protestantism is probably overrated, just like the long predicted demise of religion itself. While there has been a small uptick in the numbers of Atheists in the world, religion continues claiming new coverts and baptizing more babies every day. Statistically, religion has a lead on atheism that would take decades to outpace.
If you mean US “mainstream” protestantism’s decline, I actually think that what will happen in the next period will be that more Evangelical young adults will drift towards either secularism, alternative spiritualities, emergent Church models, or back to the benighted mainstream Protestants. The megachurches will fade into history, I believe, just like the mass urban cathedrals of an earlier period of American life.
Mainstream protestants are generally committed to ecumenical mutual recognition. Denominational mergers which consolidate bloated church bureaucracies will likely make it possible for a comeback for many currently declining denominations.
My liberal Quaker conference is impacted by several trends. We’ve just restructured our denominational practices, reducing paid staff significantly among other cost cuts in the aftermath of a donor crisis. Our sister body, Friends United Meeting, may actually be fatally crippled by its own internal inability to reach agreement on a way out of that same crisis. Some FUM meetings have decided that our conference is more congenial to their values, especially on same-sex marriage for example.
We’re one of the few mainstream Protestant bodies to post growth figures in the past two decades, but one key element in that was that some independent Quaker Yearly Meetings joined our conference. I think we are slowing losing numbers, especially in comparison to population growth rates. However, an uptick in membership such as we experienced in the Vietnam era might change this quite suddenly. We were at the forefront of the same-sex marriage movement and are also quite active in environmental and anti-war concerns. We may very well have mass appeal in some quarters as the Obama era rolls onward.
C.D.V.: I can offers up some specific statistics: Pews data is as follows: even white evangelicals have seen a decline in the last years data down from 21% to 19%, which was the first reversal in a long a time. Religiously unaffiliated has grown from 5% to almost 10% in since 2005. Specifically “White” mainline protestants have move from 19% to 15%. Catholicism has maintained its percentage, but this seems to be from immigration. Pew didn’t study minority groups, which is interesting because that is where growth would actually be. Is this in line with what you are talking about? Why do you think progressive positions have left to declining populations within religious circles since the 1950s? This is a trend that can be seen all over the developed world, not just the US.
C.E.: I’d imagine that Black churches have declined as well. The stasis of Catholic numbers is very likely based on immigration from Latino countries. However, the rise of the “nones” isn’t tied to a rise in Atheism, but of people avoiding church on Sunday. That might lead to more atheism, but the polls don’t show as sharp a decline in theism, as they do in religious affiliation. For years after I left my former church, I’d have said I still believed in God. From 1997 to 2004 probably. That suggests that just because people have disassociated from churches doesn’t mean they’ve become atheists.
To clarify my earlier point, the decline in mainline and evangelical churches is indicative of the contradiction of American culture. Conservative religion does very well during a general economic stasis or slow decline, like the 70s through the 90s. However, as the economic crisis grinds on, people will leave those churches. They won’t immediately go to mainline protestants, though I did when I joined Quakers in 1998. However, if something changes dramatically, either a capitalist recovery that reduces unemployment or a new sharp drop in jobs, then the picture will shift again. In the former case, conservative churches might rebound. In the latter case, atheists, mainline protestants, and progressive Catholics might enjoy a new growth.
Those Catholics are unusually good at keeping their church alive. Over a millenia. It ain’t going away anytime soon. So, why doesn’t the left get over its view that it has to wage a secular revolution? The American and French Revolutions were secular liberal revolutions, why imitate them? Even blowing up churches like the Soviets did had little staying power, as Ross Wolfe documented recently.
Liberal secularism is based on the privatization of fundamental human passions. We keep the churches out of politics, just like we keep the masses out of politics. It wasn’t that long ago that all of Europe was nominally Catholic. When the Reformation tried to replace an international church with national establishments, it only succeeded in a few places, though they were key, England, Germany, Sweden, Holland, etc. Italy, France, Spain, and Eastern Europe remain solidly Catholic (or Orthodox) and also among those places where Communism has met with significant success. Liberation Theology didn’t come to Latin America because of liberal secularism, but because Catholic priests studying in Europe were exposed to Marxism and the synthetic and dialectic methods of theology dominant in Catholicism made an appropriation of Marxism almost too obvious.
My admiration for Catholic Leftists is only matched by my distaste for the hierarchy, especially at its higher levels. And yet, Catholicism continually makes corrections like adopting evolution and social democracy that many Protestants can’t make. The Church of England is in a funny way more aristocratic than the Catholic church, which doesn’t have many monarchs, dukes, and lords in its membership these days.
C.D.V.: I know you are not a Marxist, but do you see something dialectical about this? Also what do you make of both Badiou and Zizek calling for a serious consideration of the Christian identity while also sharply condemning theism itself?
C.E.: I confess that I don’t always know what Marxists mean by “dialectic.” I’ve been told that the interpretation of Hegelian thought as thesis>antithesis>synthesis is a vulgar misreading. However, I also don’t think I am just a linear thinker.
So, can you can say more how you see a dialectic at work in the religious situation today?
C.D.V.: The beginning of a dialectic is a contradiction within manifestation of a idea or material condition which enables an opposition or a countervailing tendency to emerge, and the resolution of this contradiction through various forms of negation sublates the problem and leads to something new. Do you see something like this at work?
C.E.: You assert that Badiou and Zizek “condemn theism.” I’d like to see how that is actually expressed. I’ve read a good bit of Zizek and while he asserts his atheism, he identifies theism with the Lacanian “Big Other” that is, an imaginary person outside one’s self who one believes incorrectly will come to one’s rescue. What is interesting for me is that my Pentecostal experience was that God did rescue me many times from bad choices. God, as I think about it now, functions as a kind of super-super-ego. God is the being with both a perfect moral will for each of us and perfect knowledge of the consequences of any specific action. Being sinful, we are prone to disobedience, which God knows in advance, and God created a world with beings who will disobey him constantly. His reason for doing so (according to classic Christian doctrine) is that this requires God to become an incarnate sacrificial lamb and redeem us from our sins. I used to love to quote Norman Geisler (though I’m not sure it’s his original phrase), “this is not the best of all possible worlds, but the best of all possible ways to become the best of all possible worlds.”
I don’t think theism is irrational, unless one wants to say that all of human history is irrational. I think gods have a certain deep logic, that of trusting our parents when we are children. As a kid, I knew very little about how much danger there was in the world, so I often chafed when my parents interfered with my choices. Now, I believe they were very wrong about some of their interference. Having raised two children, I am convinced that some interference with my ignorant volition was necessary for my survival. Theism is a projection of that benevolent protector onto the cosmos itself. Hey, we exist, the natural world must care that we exist. We know now that this is a hasty conclusion, but only after centuries of accumulating scientific knowledge. I think theism is hard-wired, nearly every kid believes in invisible beings of some kind.
C.D.V.: Why do you think the impact of Liberation Theology has been so varied?
C.E.: The impact of Liberation Theology is still growing, though not as fast as I would like. Liberation Theology has two basic roots, the Black Civil Rights struggle of the 60s and the radical Catholics of neo-colonial Latin America. The successes of the Sandinistas and the election of Lula would have been impossible without it. Even Chavez owes his success to it. Does that mean it is going to ever become the dominant understanding of Christianity? Maybe outside the US. Inside the US seems less likely, but that is partly for the same reason that socialism in general has had very little success.
C.D.V.: In the past two questions there is so much to respond to here that I am going to just focus on two things. You think theism is hard-wired, but you posited that notion with a notion of divinity is just a supernatural non-physical being, there have been cultures without any sense of the moral impulse or creation given to it’s divinity claims, so that is so thin a definition of God that it amounts to “most children believe in something like mind-body dualism innately.” Which I suppose stances to reason, but this would be illogical to draw any metaphysicals claims from it. It would be an informal logical fallacy, the naturalistic fallacy, to use the hardwiredness of dualist beliefs to argue that they are true, which is not what you are necessarily doing. But let’s clarify here. I find that much less compelling than the idea of divinity’s working as a kind of super-super-ego, but this really seems like a modernization of a pre-modern understanding.
But let’s get away from critiques of theism for its own sake: I noticed your drawing out of a God myth that resembles the scapegoating myths of Rene Girard. Do you share Girard’s view that Christian myth is an answer to necessity for violence as a basis of group bonding?
C.E.: Let me try to clarify. “Supernaturalism” seems to me to have arisen in late antiquity as a result of early Greek natural philosophy, perhaps due to the experience of building an international empire. Before this logic emerged, there was only one world, a wholly supernatural world created by god(s), peopled by spirits, and humanity themselves were special creations of god(s). The separation into two realms of incommensurable substances – spirit vs matter – arose when it began to dawn on the early philosophers that the gods couldn’t actually be part of the world they were beginning to examine with geometry and early physics. Our hard-wired theism then got mapped onto that duality as it became ingrained in Western culture. It’s interesting that this dualistic worldview arose just in time to be merged with the Christian movement in the second century.
I was certainly taught the Christian fall/redemption myth. Adam ate the forbidden fruit and passed on his disobedient genes to us. God is perfect so every sin must be atoned, and only a perfect sacrifice can do that, ergo the incarnate Christ gets crucified and resurrected. Girard’s view, with which I have a passing familiarity, implies that this myth has its basis in the tribe’s need for blood vengeance against lawbreakers within itself. I can’t say that whether I believe that is the true source of sacrifice myths. I’d want to do a cross-cultural analysis of sacrifice/redemption myths, which I have not.
The influence of Liberation Theology on me was to break down the sacrificial mythology and replace it with a “Christus Victor” mythology of Jesus as the miraculous revolutionary initiator of a millennia-long subversion of the bondage of the world and its people to a Satanic overlord who ruled via capitalism, tyranny, patriarchy, racism, and ecocide, which would culminate in a global overthrow of those systems by the oppressed. I’ve seen this sort of view working in various places, even in the US among Christian Anarchists, Black Churches, and the Evangelical/Pentecostal Left. This is why I believe that Communism can be embraced by Christians in the future without them abandoning theism.
I pose to the left that they can either work to change people’s theology or their politics, but changing both doesn’t work very well. I’ve seen many Christian abandon the faith and become libertarian atheists. Therefore, I try to change their politics by using the immanent critique of Liberation Theology to steer them towards the left.
C.D.V.: Do you see Christianity in specific as being key to liberation theology?
C.E.: Christianity is strategic in that it is the largest living religious tradition in human history. Liberation theology holds an important place as the “new left” period’s – 1955-75 – expression within Christianity. As I read the history of Communism it began as a religious idea first named “communism” by Etienne Cabet, who explicitly identifies the early Jerusalem church that “held all things common” as his inspiration. Then, it spread into secular left movements within the Enlightenment. Marx himself is tied to Christianity, both through his religious upbringing, but also by his Hegelianism. Liberation Theology reconnects the Christian origins of Communism – not only Cabet, but the Munsterites, Diggers, Hutterites, etc. – with its contemporary expressions, especially Nicaragua, Brazil, and Venezuela.
Judaism has its own connections to Communism and therefore a Liberation Theology also implicit. A literature has developed in the 2000s. I think Islam also has this potential, and there were some important expressions of “Islamic Socialism” that have been largely suppressed by Islamist movements and governments.
Other religions, such as Buddhism and Neo-Paganism can also develop liberation theologies that don’t rely on monotheism, but build from within their traditions and sources to connect their visions of ultimate value to a revolutionary politics. Atheism can also benefit from considering the emergence of Liberation Theology as a “worldly turn” that increases the possibilities for creative cooperation in left politics for religious-secular alliances.
Just as Badiou sees communism as implicit in the origins of Western philosophy, especially Plato, I see Christianity and Judaism as also containing important source material for elaborating a new Communist politics and culture.
C.D.V.: What do you predict will happen to North American Christianity over the next 50 years?
C.E.: I believe that a variety of post-conventional theologies will come to dominate at the lay level and eventually even most of the leadership levels. If the US turns to the left in the next half-century – as I sincerely hope and work towards – then religion will follow. As Caucasians become a de facto minority, both the overall percentage of Christians will decline, as will the strength of orthodox doctrines and the white supremacist versions of Christianity, which includes all the Continental traditions such as Lutheran and Catholic, as well as varieties such as fundamentalism.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
C.E.: My view remains that the Left needs to develop its capacity to collegially embrace religious diversity. For too long it’s been hostile or indifferent to religion. That needs to be replaced by a principled diversity. A quote is attributed to Augustine of Hippo “in essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Since for a political movement the essentials are practical matters of principled action, this means that in the expression of religion, we should encourage liberty and diversity. I’d imagine that Black churches have declined as well. The stasis of Catholic numbers is very likely based on immigration from Latino countries. However, the rise of the “nones” isn’t tied to a rise in Atheism, but of people avoiding church on Sunday. That might lead to more atheism, but the polls don’t show as sharp a decline in theism, as they do in religious affiliation. For years after I left my former church, I’d have said I still believed in God. From 1997 to 2004 probably. That suggests that just because people have disassociated from churches doesn’t mean they’ve become atheists.
Pham Binh has been a revolutionary socialist since he was 16. He’s from from Rochester, NY, and has been active against the death penalty, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and many other issues. He is currently an editor of the North Star. He has served on the editorial board of Traveling Soldier, an anti-war newsletter aimed at helping active-duty troops organize, and his writings have been published in the International Socialist Review, Asia Times Online,Counterpunch, Znet, and Dissident Voice.
C. Derick Varn: You have written a good bit over at the North Star on Leninism and the implications in of the SWP fallout. Why do you think the question of “Leninism” doesn’t go away?
Pham Binh: “Leninism” refuses to die because it must be superseded in practice by forms of organizing that are bigger, better, more effective, and more durable. That is a much harder task than exposing its internal contradictions by closely examining the historical practices and methods of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party from 1903-1917 as I have done repeatedly since summer of 2011 and as Lars Lih has done since 2008. It remains an attractive form of organizing for many revolutionaries because it is timeless, applicable everywhere in almost any context; it is the easiest answer to the hardest question — what is to be done, right now, today and tomorrow? No matter what, when, where, why, or how, for “Leninists” the main and decisive task is always to build such a party.
The failure of a given struggle to lead to our goal of working-class rule, whether that struggle is the destruction of apartheid in South Africa or the end of the Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt, is easily and falsely attributed to the lack of a revolutionary “Leninist” party in every overturn.
In some respects, this problem is nothing new. The sect form existed long before “Leninism.” The Communist League that Marx and Engels helped found had its roots in a sect called the League of the Just which merged or regrouped with the Communist Correspondence Committee. The rise of the Second International (and, on the anarchist side, the CNT in Spain and the IWW in the U.S.) did a lot to emasculate the sect form as the dominant method of organizing on the revolutionary left. Unfortunately, a lot of what was built over decades through the blood, sweat, and tears of literally millions of working and oppressed peoples all over the world no longer exists, so we are, to a large extent, starting over from scratch. This is especially true in the United States where the unionization rate is almost in the single digits and where there has not been a mass radical workers’ party in a very long time but less true in places like Greece where the class war is more two-sided than one-sided and there are multiple workers’ parties of varying degrees of radicalism.
C.D.V.: Do you think that the crisis of the SWP will open up a way of talking about organization that goes beyond the vanguard party structure?
P.B.: No. Comrades who reject “Leninism” for the right reasons like Laurie Penny correctly view the SWP’s self-destruction as a vindication of their position on the organization question while comrades who accept “Leninism” like Richard Seymour, China Miéville, and the SWP opposition are reduced to arguing that the SWP is doing it wrong rather than stepping back to re-examine their fundamental and erroneous assumptions regarding vanguard parties and how they develop. In other words, the SWP’s self-destruction is not opening up new discussions or a realignment of forces on the British left. The only new people that I am aware who are thinking “beyond the vanguard party structure” thanks to this crisis are former SWP members Tom Walker and Kevin Crane. The SWP opposition’s political bankruptcy on the organization question will eventually reveal itself, most likely after they are voted down yet again by the membership and are forced to either 1) split to save what is left of their honor or 2) remain a defeated minority in an organization that will forever be associated with rape and has been stuck in terminal decline since the death of its founder Tony Cliff.
C.D.V.: Do you agree with Lars Lih that Leninism itself seems to be an insult to the pluralism of Lenin, and thus is misunderstanding and rigidification of Lenin’s organizational flexibility? Or do you think that Lenin himself is the root of the problem?
P.B.: That is probably not an accurate statement of what Lars Lih thinks about “Leninism.” He has studious and wisely chosen to stay out of left debates over the political and organizational implications of his work as a historian. “Leninism,” as practiced by self-styled “Leninist” groups, certainly is an insult to and a denigration of Lenin and his life’s work as a revolutionary social democrat. He had very little to do with the creation of sects that operate in his name and was far more interested in creating mass-based, class-based parties. In line with this orientation, the Communist International (Comintern) insisted that various national revolutionary groupings fuse and merge into single, united parties if they desired to be affiliated with the Comintern. Historically, the creation of “Leninist” sects is Trotsky’s doing, not Lenin’s.
C.D.V.: I should said seems as his book Lenin Reconsidered does have certain implications for political praxis even if those implications only come from a close reading of primary text and the historical record. To change to a related topic: What do you see as a way to organize labor as the Union movement declines?
P.B.: Before that question can be tackled, we have to step back and diagnose the reason for the union movement’s seemingly unending decline.
Today’s AFL-CIO apparatus (or what is left of it) is very much a product of the 1950s context in which it was born (the federation came together in 1955), that is, hemmed in by Taft-Hartley which outlawed secondary strikes and National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) rules and bureaucracy that constantly interferes with organizing efforts. The creation of these hurdles occurred during a period of unprecedented prosperity and capitalist economic expansion. Back then, the capitalist class felt that peace on the shopfloor was worth paying for and as a result, workers enjoyed good contracts and generally rising living standards from 1945-1970 without a tremendous amount of struggle. If you told Big Bill Haywood before he died in 1928 that, in two decades, American mass production workers would be able afford to send their children through college to get white collar or managerial positions, he’d probably slap you for spouting pie-in-the-sky pro-capitalist propaganda. It’s hard to overstate the change in capital-labor relations in the pre- and post-World War Two eras. Successive generations of workers and union leaders grew accustomed to getting good contracts without much of a fight; when strikes did break out, they tended to be short, non-violent, fairly tame affairs. Eventually management backed down or union leaders would come back to the bargaining table, and an agreement amenable to both sides was reached.
Those days are over and they have been over for a long time. However, the union movement and the working class as a whole has not really caught up to or adjusted to this change. The tactics and traditions inherited from an era of “class peace” weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. As a result, unions in the private sector have almost been wiped out (the percentage is in the single digits), so public sector unions have become disproportionately important to the AFL-CIO by default. The problem is that, in addition to Taft-Hartley and NLRB, there are state laws that outlaw strikes by these public sector workers. Advocates of a labor party used to argue that unions without a party of their own meant that labor was fighting with “one hand behind its back,” meaning the labor movement needed to fight not only on the economic side but on the political-legislative side as well. Today, we are in a situation where labor is fighting with both hands tied behind its back since strike action is almost illegal in practice and we have no workers’ party to combat new anti-union measures that are passing in state legislatures.
So we are in big trouble, to put it mildly.
Now, it’s easy to blame the conservatism of union bureaucrats and bureaucracies for the labor movement’s fate, which is what the far left (“Leninist” and otherwise) does. But the blame is not solely theirs; we should not pretend that we can put labor’s house back in order by electing better, more radical/militant/Marxist labor leaders. Labor’s problems are much bigger, or more deeply ingrained, than this or that treacherous, cowardly leader or even whole layers of treacherous, cowardly leaders. The other side of the union movement’s bureaucratization is the relatively passive, quiescent rank and file who bear the brunt of the attacks and have the most to gain from effective resistance.
In the final analysis, the union movement is only as strong as its rank and file is class conscious, militant, and organized and will only win what it is prepared to fight for, which apparently is not much. Until that changes, until a do-it-yourself ethos becomes a lot more common than it is now among unionized or unionizing workers, efforts to revive the existing labor movement like AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka’s latest initiative will go nowhere fast because they will quickly run up against Taft-Hartley, NLRB, a whole series of anti-union laws, and the absence of a labor party, which is what happened with the exciting Our Walmart initiative. (I’m not saying Our Walmart is dead, a failure, or anything like that; I’m using that experience to point out the difficulties for unions to succeed at doing anything beyond merely surviving in the political and legal context of present-day America.)
There is no “magic bullet” solution or organizational form to the union movement’s problems and I do not pretend to have all or even most of the answers, especially on this question. I have never been in a union although my parents have, and I think my lack of experience in the trenches of the union movement is unfortunately nearly universal for working people of my generation. The existing alternative models to the AFL-CIO like the Industrial Workers of the World have not fared too well either; they are, of course, under-funded, often isolated from the broader union movement, and their efforts to organize at small businesses and large employers alike have not met with great success despite a lot of courageous effort and militant, unorthodox tactics. It was the combination of these tactics (or Occupy-esque militancy and flexibility) and AFL-CIO resources that led Our Walmart to have its initial success.
As a general rule, I don’t think the union movement is going to get anywhere unless and until it begins to defy or find ways of circumventing bourgeois legality. People, including working people, tend to take the path of least resistance, and when you have a family that depends on you for food, clothes, and shelter, risking arrest is not something that is undertaken lightly; this is especially true for working single mothers who struggle just to find babysitters and child care week to week as they slave away for corporate behemoths like Wal Mart, McDonald’s, or Starbucks. At the same time, if every effective tactic is outlawed or ruled illegal by a court injunction, every union is going to face a stark choice between bowing to legality and losing or risk losing everything for an illegal win as the Transit Workers Union Local 100 did when it went on strike here in New York City in 2006. They struck and the union was crippled when a judge took away automatic dues payment as punishment for breaking the state’s anti-strike law.
The convergence of Occupy with union struggles provided a brief glimpse of what or how this problem might be surmounted in practice, but Occupy proved to be too inflexible to adapt and survive without its encampments and so this brief convergence did not have time to take hold and develop into something meaningful. Occupy Homes is a campaign that I think also gets at the question of bourgeois legality, although it is a struggle centered not on the point of production and therefore the unions play a subordinate role (if they play a role at all). What Our Walmart decides to do during and after the NLRB-imposed cooling off period will be pretty important to determining what, if any, future unions have in this country.
C.D.V: What to you make of the general Union reliance on Democrats despite the fact state-level Democrats have been arguibly more successful at slow dismantling since labor is less skillful at framing opposition to the party he Unions channel a lot of money to?
P.B.: Unions will never break from the Democratic Party (DP) unless and until there is a reasonably realistic alternative to switch their allegiance to. How awful the DP is for labor on any issue or policy is irrelevant so long as the Democrats do not change the D to an R.
Breaking the strategic attraction of the lesser-evil strategy means breaking the two-party state at the local, state, and eventually national levels. We’ll need Greens or reds in office before we can expect to see unions re-think their political options and strategies.
We are unfortunately a very long way from that.
Things weren’t always this bad. This tradition of unions backing Democratic politicians come hell or high water has its origins in the Communist Party’s (CP) policies in the union movement of the 1930s during the Popular Front period. Prior to that, there were efforts to create labor and farmer-labor parties and unions sometimes ran their own candidates in local elections. The Debs-era Socialist Party polled 20%-30% of the delegates at the American Federation of Labor convention in the early 20th century. The CP put an end to all that. It played a pivotal role in the rise of the CIO and used its immense power and influence in the unions to kill any and all effort aimed at creating a Labor Party that could threaten the Democratic Party. Since then the unions have been the DP’s most loyal organized constituency.
C.D.V.: You still see this in the somewhat bipolar seeming rhetoric of the CPUSA: Do you see this entryism as being not only habitual but pathological?
P.B.: The problem is not one of entryism; the unions, NGOs, and left-liberal organizations are not “entering” the DP because the party as such does not really have formal structures these groups can enter into or take over in any meaningful sense. Rather, they refuse to organize a jail break, an escape out of the confines of the DP mainly because doing so would leave them with even less power and influence than they have now. Until they have another ship to jump to, they won’t jump ship, even if the ship is sinking, or on fire. That’s why I tire of hearing the socialist left propagandistically and pathologically calling on unions and everyone else to “break with the Democratic Party.” We even hear that rhetoric from Socialist Alternative candidates running in local races in Seattle and Minneapolis for non-partisan(!) offices. Instead, I think we need to discuss and think through how to break the Democratic Party, how to split its voting base from its funding base, how to disrupt it, undermine it, and eventually make it a marginal force in American politics. Actually accomplishing that might require some entryism or other unorthodox tactics by radicals. Another pathological problem I see is acting as if the DP is a moral taint or a poison that, once you touch it, will turn you to stone; it’s a very moralistic approach, one that precludes any real struggle dealing with the DP and exploiting its contradictions.
C.D.V.: What ideas do you have on how to concretely start to fracture the Democractic party?
P.B.: The first thing we have to do is look at local, city, and state politics to find where there are openings and weaknesses we can take advantage of. I learned a lot by reading the chapter on Bernie Sanders’ rise in Burlington, VT in the book Radicals In Power by Eric Leif Davin which I can’t recommend highly enough. If you had to choose between buying and reading Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered and Radicals in Power, I would say skip Lih.
Sanders managed to oust the Democratic mayor, and then he faced an extremely hostile Democratic and Republican city council that effectively sabotaged the first year of his administration. So Sanders and his allies campaigned to oust them too and they won. The remaining (surviving) Democratic and Republican council members then began to compromise and work with rather than against Sanders. Out of Sanders’ campaign came the Vermont Progressive Party (VPP), which I have only begun to study. Their strategy, unlike the Green Party, has been to focus on races for local and state offices exclusively and they endorse Democrats on a case-by-case basis. The latter part of the strategy is generally anathema to the revolutionary left, but it’s hard to argue with results: they’ve managed to build up the country’s most powerful state-based third party and have worked with the Democrats to weaken the Republicans. This extreme tactical flexibility vis-à-vis the Democrats has allowed VPP to avoid the spoiler problem that is built into America’s winner-take-all electoral system which has been the main objective barrier to a robust Green Party. Sometimes you have to compromise with the enemy to fight the enemy, and that is how I view the VPP. Teaming up with Democrats to weaken and undermine the Republicans on a state-wide level is smart because it erodes the spoiler factor that gives the DP so much power overs it voting base. Once you remove the fear factor of a G.O.P. victory from the equation, you empower unions, people of color, women, LGBTQs to make a free choice, a choice of conscience and genuine political preference, which is pretty threatening to the DP since they could never win elections on their neoliberal, G.O.P-lite, free-trade loving, anti-union, and pro-imperialist policies. In many Vermont local races the Republicans don’t even appear to be a factor, so it’s a straight fight between VPP and the DP.
None of the above could have or would have happened without Bernie Sanders running successfully as an independent against the Democratic mayor of Burlington in the 1980s.
C.D.V.: What do you want to see in a broad, multiple tendency and faction left movement emerging?
P.B.: The socialist movement in the U.S. is weaker, more fragmented, and more marginal today than it has ever been. In 1898, there were 6,000 organized socialists in this country. Today, the combined memberships of all the three- and two-letter groups put together might equal that figure on a good day, although now there are 300 million people living in this country, 100 million or so of whom are wage workers.
So we are starting almost from scratch in terms of creating a mass-based socialist movement that is relevant to American politics, one that can throw punches that actually mean something in terms of the class struggle. We’re so far behind every other country in this regard that we haven’t even produced a George Galloway of our own. That’s sad.
Each fragment or sliver has something it can offer and bring to the table, even the Sparticists. There is a time and a place for vitriolic polemics, a time and a place to call out fellow reds for mistakes, opportunism, and so on; the problem is that is all that the Sparticists do. The International Socialist Organization’s publishing house, Haymarket books, is a tremendous asset, and their nonprofit brings in over $1 million a year. They have plenty of talented people, some of whom are union members, and the same goes Solidarity, Workers World Party, and the rest of them.
The smart, strategic thing to do would be for all of these groups to begin cooperating with each other at the local and branch levels, start having joint meetings, panels, discussions, moderated debates, agreements to fight together for strictly local campaigns for desperately needed measures like rent control, police reform and accountability, lower public transit fares, stuff that working class people care about and that would make a difference to their daily lives. Instead, each group sticks to its own mini-campaigns and initiatives, sees their comrades as competitors, tries to recruit like mad to make up for the number of people dropping out or becoming inactive, and won’t enter into campaign mode for a given initiative unless it is controlled by their group and/or not controlled by one of its rivals. It’s the theory and practice of petty proprietorship, not proletarian socialism.
There’s no good, strategic reason not to form a common radical organization that is anti-capitalist on the theoretical side and dedicated to fighting austerity on the practical side. Disagreements on Syria, Greece, Russia 1989 or 1917 are just an excuse not to unite into something bigger, better, and more effective. Everyone wants to be Lenin in 1914 and accuse everyone else of being Kautsky or Plekhanov, as if the three of them were not still part of the same International at that time. No trend within socialism in the U.S. has anything approaching a mass following and never will if the status quo on the socialist left prevails. Imagine what Greek politics would look like if the Maoists, Trotskyists, and eurocommunist forces that constitute SYRIZA today did not start cooperating almost a decade ago in the manner I described above. PASOK’s support would have collapsed, and Golden Dawn would not be counterbalanced by any left force. In the U.S., similar disaffection with the ruling parties leads to the Tea Party on the right and Occupy/anarchism on the left because the socialist left is essentially a vacuum, a non-entity.
A big tent radical organization could unite the independents (who outnumber the group members), fuse the splinters into a single bat, and probably attract a lot of the revolutionary-minded, non-dogmatic class-struggle anarchist-ish types as well who want nothing to do with central committees, paper sales, and recruiting the uninitiated through intensive individual conversion. A serious 3-5 year plan with some sketched out stages/phases of development and benchmarks or metrics to create such an organization undertaken by a few of the existing groups could easily have 10,000 active members at the end of that process provided no group’s control-freakery or ingrained sectarianism shipwrecked the thing before it could get off the ground.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
P.B.: Thanks for taking the time to interview me. You asked a lot of tough, challenging questions and I hope to see some debate, discussion, and progress towards at least some of the goals we all share.
Recently, Greg Sharzer interviewed me on South Korea, North Korea, and the rapidly changing nation of left and right in country. I am not an Koreanist, and I only educated myself on this in the course of research to live here and do some literary research on Korean American poets, but also began to engage with politics in general. This is a very brief summation of a lot I have come across here.
Here’s a teaser for the first part:
Q: You’ve had a long-standing interest in South Korea and been here a few years. In that time, what have you found most interesting about its political economy – or its politics – and how did that change your previous perceptions of the country?
A: That’s a complicated question: my interest in South Korea was personal and scholarly originally. I am not a Korean and my proficiency with the language is basic, but my aunt was Korean so I exposed to the culture briefly as a child. In graduate school, I became obsessed with Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and her novel/prose poem Dictee. While there is a lot going on in that book, one must have the context of the Japanese occupation of Korea and the French Catholic missionary history as well. When an accident of employment landed me here, I started doing historical research to further my literary research on Theresa Cha. I began to notice that, when looking for the origins of several crucial Korean ideas, such as 민족 (pronounced minjok. It means “race-nation”), that the traditions were modern and projected back on the past. Not only that, but often the origin of the ideology was either Japanese or Western. However, it had been obscured by some of the progressive nationalists’ attempts to construct a modern identity for Korean in the end of the Joseon period and the dissolution of the “Great” Han Empire. Even though you will hear the word 민족 in Korean historical dramas, portraying early Joseon or the Goryeo dynasties.
So there’s a strange history here: the Korean independence activist and historian Shin Chae-ho coined the word. Shin Chae-ho was linked to many anarchist publications and is revered in both North and South Korea today. He was, however, getting his idea of race-nation from the Japanese themselves, as a means to get a modern identity (and the Japanese had only come up with a similar concept in the late 1800s after exposure to German and Northern European racial notions.) It wasn’t hard for Chae-ho to adopt the concept: the Japanese themselves had used the idea that the Koreans and the Manchus were primitive versions of their own race. They had some sound linguistic evidence for this (Korean and Manchu are clearly linguistically related to Japanese) and cast their imperialism as a liberation attempt from the West. There is a good book on Japanese attitudes about this in English by E. Taylor Atkins called Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze. Still one finds that a lot of the ancient traditional image of Korea would be, if we were using European time frames, “early modern.” Hobsbawm’s invented traditions are all over the place in this in a strange way: a lot of the local ideas about ancient Korea, quite like the rebuilt palaces in Seoul which were burnt by the Japanese, are very modern.
If you want to learn more about my understanding of Korean politics, please read Greg’s blog for the rest.
Brian Hioe is a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society and an undergraduate at New York University.
C. Derick Varn: Recently, you spent time in Japan and did some detailed research on the history of Marxism in Japan and its current incarnations. Briefly, what did you discover about the types of Marxism that have developed there?
Brian Hioe: It’s hard to sum up, of course, but if we are to speak of Marxism as it existed in the pre or post World War II periods, to broadly generalize, I would say that in the earlier broader sense that these forms of Marxism are more generally bound up with the problem of Asian modernity and Marxism in a non-European context. This is largely the question of how to accomplish the aims of Marxist revolution in a country that does not fit the classical category of an advanced industrial nation as one sees with early Marxists before World War II in the Meiji and Taisho periods. As might be expected, this is more generally inflective of broader issues of concern with Western-imported thought and its applicability to an Asian context, which was, of course, by no means a phenomenon unique to Japan, but a particularly prominent issue during these periods.
Following World War II and the period of Japanese militarism in which Marxism became outlawed and was forced to operate underground, the problems of Japanese Marxism becomes the question of the Soviet Union and the differing responses to it, even as this is in itself remains bound up with previous questions of Asian modernity. For example, the dividing line between the splits in Marxist groups in Japan was often the question of whether Japan has accomplished a bourgeois revolution or whether this remained to be done. Although to be sure, there was much doctrinaire infighting on such grounds, the political implications were such that the (Stalinist) Japanese Communist Party held Japan to have not accomplished a bourgeois revolution, presumably so as to provide justification for Popular Front-ism and the like. Contrastingly, the later anti-Stalinist groups such as the Zengakuren, which rose to international fame in the 1960s, generally originated in but broke from the Japanese Communist Party, were often conflicted upon this issue, and this served as a dividing line among the Zengakuren groups.
On the other hand, if we are to consider the contemporary state of Marxism as it currently exists in contemporary Japan, I would say that the specter of postwar Marxism has not yet been exorcised—its influences still remain in some sense. So far as I spent a great deal of my time on the Japanese Left, the groups I encountered came out of this history as either groups surviving from this period, newer groups whose political imagination is such that efforts are made to reenact postwar, 1960s-style Marxism as a viable model to be emulated, or, alternatively, the attempt to break with this history altogether in a manner so as to precisely avoid this type of Marxism. These seem to me to represent differing, somewhat schismatic responses to the history of postwar Japanese Marxism.
C.D.V.: Does Japanese Marxism break down on non-Leninist, Trotskyist, and Maoist lines like in the US or are there differently delinated groups in response to local concerns?
B.H.: Yes, much as with the US and elsewhere, Japanese Marxism breaks down upon non-Leninist, Trotskyist and Maoist lines, though the history is at variance. The most historically prominent group up until the postwar period is likely the Japanese Communist Party, which adhered to the Soviet Union and in that way can be said to be Stalinist, although it begins to distance itself from the Soviet Union in the 1950s, took no sides in the Sino-Soviet split. Its relationship with its prior antecedents became unclear in this way. So I am not sure where to categorize such a group, since it is clearly not Trotskyist or Maoist group, and at least today would by no means refer to itself as a Stalinist group. What I don’t know is if Lenin is still upheld, if the group can be called non-Leninist, nor the exact points any shift in this discourse occurs. My own suspicion is that the relationship of the JCP to its prior history is made opaque by its statements disavowing the brutality of the Soviet Union but also criticizing Eastern European states for rejecting socialism and embracing capitalism and, in this way, any engagement with this history that works through it in its messiness is glossed over. For all its touting as the world’s largest Communist party, it is, in fact, a group you rarely ever see today on the Japanese “Left” and it is rarely included, as such.
To raise the Zengakuren again, as the most prominent group of the postwar period, of the groups that were known under the name Zengakuren, some originated in splitting from the Japanese Communist Party. Trotskyism appears in the group in the form of groups as the Kakumaru-ha faction, which originates in a split from the Japanese Revolutionary Communist League National Committee, which was affiliated with the Fourth International, and in some fashion thereby claimed for itself the mantle of being the first Japanese Trotskyist group. By the time the Kakumaru-ha formed in 1959 as a further split from the Japanese Revolutionary Communist League and became one of the groups known under the mantle of the Zengakuren, it was known as a Trotskyist group. However, other Zengakuren were alternatively Maoist, and some anti-revolutionary Marxists, the latter of which naturally tended towards the critique of Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, et al. The Zengakuren is often thought of as Japan’s “New Left,” equivalent in some fashion to the American SDS, but although it was also a student group, it originates over a decade earlier, and was never one discrete organization but a conglomeration of groups and groupuscules. Furthermore, if the Japanese Revolutionary Communist League was in fact the first Japanese Trotskyist group, that dates the origin of Japanese Trotskyism to 1957. So, then, while the presence of Maoist or non-Leninist groups in the Zengakuren is not a surprise for a group which grows to prominence in the 1968 period, the presence of the Kakumaru-ha in the Zengakuren as a Trotskyist organization would point to the difficulty of establishing any“Old Left” or “New Left” distinction as we use these terms in the United States, so far as the New Left can be characterized by suspicion of Old Left Trotskyist groups. Yet the categorical divisions do remain much the same, I think, even if the history is different.
To speak of Marxist groups in present day Japan, however, I encountered non-Leninist and Trotskyist (or formerly Trotskyist) groups, but rarely ever any Maoist groups. I suspect the reason for the lack of Maoist groups might be anti-Chinese sentiment in regards to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which does not provide much space for Maoist groups to breathe, but this may be casting aspersions a bit too far. A number of the groups that composed the Zengakuren are still around and remain active and so can be termed today’s Trotskyists; for example, there have been a number of English language translations in the last decade of the publications of Kakumaru-ha’s theoretician-leader, Kuroda Kan’ichi that appear to come from what it is that remains of the Kakumaru-ha. Other Zengakuren groups, too, are active that continue to organize demonstrations, especially in relation to the anti-nuclear movement. Likewise, there remain a number of Trotskyist labor unions, even if between some of them there seems to have been some distance between them and Trotsky and more of an attempt to return to Lenin. Otherwise, there are non-Leninist groups that embrace“democratic socialism”, some of which are also splits from the Japanese Communist Party, such as the Zenko group at whose conference in I spoke at in Osaka in August 2012, or the closely aligned Movement for Democratic Socialism (MDS).
C.D.V.: How have Japanese Marxists dealt with the periodic resurgence of local Nationalism?
B.H.: It’s a tough question. While I was in Japan, navigating among different Left groups, I did not encounter any mobilizations specifically addressing nationalism, except as more broadly a phenomenon stemming from and intimately bound up with the Japanese Right. The predominant political issue on the Left is or was, after all, the anti-nuclear movement, although, rather interestingly, the anti-nuclear movement raised questions of nationalism given that far Right groups were also participants alongside Left Marxist and anarchist groups and were sometimes among the most militant and dramatic of participating groups at protests.
To the extent that I saw nationalism addressed as specifically nationalism by the Japanese Marxist Left, it was in regards to figures as the far Right mayors of Tokyo and Osaka, Ishihara and Hashimoto, respectively, but these are figures so large as to cut across multiple domains—in addressing these ultra-nationalist figures, it was on issues such as their support for nuclear energy, their abuse of labor, militarist provocations, or their censorship policies rather than specifically on the issue of nationalism, although it probably need not be said that such policies are intimately bound up with nationalism. I was not in Japan during the time that Ishihara formed his Sunrise Party and Hashimoto his Japan Restoration Party, or when the two parties merged, so I can’t speak for the response, except to report a general wave of despair and resignation expressed at that time among my acquaintances in Japan. The Japan Restoration Party aimed at organizing as a “third force” in relation to the two major parties of the“center-right” Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and “center-left” Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), although it must be noted that it is the former which gave rise to the Japan Restoration Party. Again, I don’t know of any mobilizations around that might have occurred, given my lack of proximity, nor what along what lines such mobilizations might have organized. For example, there are sectors of the Japanese Left modeled upon the European anti-fa, but these are primarily anarchist, rather than Marxist in nature, and I never saw any anti-nationalist demonstrations or organizational by them—of course, it could be that I just failed to notice. I also suspect that nationalism and the national question may be an issue that is left opaque, whether cynically or unconsciously, by aspects of the Japanese Marxist Left more reformist in nature in operating within the status quo of the electoral system, even when they lay claim to an putative internationalisms. This may be I myself being cynical in this case; however, like I raised earlier, the specters of North Korea and China does provoke strong national sentiment even among certain individuals who self-identify as being on the “Left”.
Nevertheless, so far as the rise of the Japan Restoration Party is coterminous with the return to power of the LDP that had dominated Japanese politics since World War II through one-party rule until the emergence of the DPJ in 1998, some left-liberal commentators speak of the permanent decline of the DPJ and, accordingly, the failure of Japan’s experiment with genuine democracy. So while it may be simplifying the contours of the Japanese political situation to say so, likely, in the changed political landscape, nationalism will become a issue that the Japanese Left will be required to address in a more definitive way if it is to be able to respond in any effective manner.
C.D.V.: How exactly do you think anti-Chinese tendencies have complicated things in Japan?
B.H.: For the Left, that’s actually somewhat unclear to me. I suppose it has to do with the relation of the Left to the rest of society. The specter of China is one that can evoke the fears related to Japan’s territorial sovereignty, not to mention Japan’s military capacities, and in this way the issue is very frequently a rallying call for the far Right who, after all, would like to see a renewed Japanese militarism in order to maintain Japan’s territorial sovereignty or perhaps reclaim Japan’s territorial boundaries of old. The specter of China, too, is bound up with specter of North Korea because of China’s being North Korea’s ally; in fact, sometimes the calling out of North Korea is really a cipher for China. Yet while this is very frequently an issue of concern for the Japanese Right and far Right, China can be an issue that evokes strong feelings among liberals, as well, and can serve to sometimes draw out sentiments of nationalism.
Hence the tricky position of the Left. This may be somewhat speculative, as I never saw any much in the way of direct addressing of the issue, but with the sections of the Japanese far Left that work in or through Japanese liberalism, sometimes bleeding into reformist politics, probably China proves an issue to be worked around rather than directly addressed. For example, one of the various Japanese Occupy groups I encountered while in Japan had a Twitter account that was spewing out tweets inflecting a somewhat nationalistic anti-Chinese sentiment. I think this example is illustrative of some of the antinomies that the Left needs to navigate in Japan. So far as Occupy in its global incarnations encompassed perspectives not strictly “Left”or “far Left” but very often left-liberal, such a group (or whoever running the Twitter account) would claim the internationalism of the Occupy mantle of the“99% versus the 1%” in addressing global economic inequality, but simultaneously express nationalist sentiment in relation to China.
In other words, the China issue is one which brings out the difficulty of the Japanese Left in working in a political milieu in which the China issue can bring out nationalist sentiment even among liberal and left-liberals—even, of course, if the Left itself is not invulnerable to falling prey to nationalism either. And, indeed, I think part of it may also be the difficulties of calling one’s self “socialist,” “Communist,” or “Marxist” in Japan with the examples of “actually existing socialism” of China and North Korea all too close for comfort. But that seems to be a problem generally for Marxists in East Asia.
C.D.V.: And are there more attempts at fusion of Marxist and Hegelian concepts with local developments in the Japanese left than has been discussed?
B.H.: There are some examples, but not many that I know of, and many of these belong to an early era. Part of it is, I think, the relative prominence of Marxism in the Japanese social sciences following World War II, but that Japan does not experience a Marx renaissance. Rather, after the turbulent 1960s, Marxism goes into a decline in Japanese academia. I’ll go into what I do know.
For example, the school of Japanese “Hegelian Marxism” I know about is the “Uno School,” an economic school which follows from the thought of Japanese Marxian economist Uno Kozo (1897-1977). Uno’s two most prominent students are Thomas T. Sekine (Sekine Tomohiko) and Makoto Itoh (Itoh Makoto), of which I interviewed the former (forthcoming in the Platypus Review). The Uno School is very often touted as a “Hegelian Marxism” in western circles so far as Sekine is the primary English-language advocate for the Uno School and his interpretation of the Uno School has a Hegelian spin, which has led to the criticism that he, in fact, over-Hegelianizes the Uno School. In any case, Sekine’s contention is that the dialectical account of the development of Geist provides a means of understanding of capital, in regards to the movements of capital being dialectical—Hegel’s mistake, so to say, being that he mistook what is historically specific to capital for the developmental tendencies of the human spirit. So, then, does Sekine provide a reading of Capital which overlays Hegel’s Logic onto it, in order to serve the enterprise of an economics that is held to be objective knowledge. It is entirely not clear to me how much of this Hegelian Marxian thought is present in the work of Uno Kozo himself.
Likewise, I already mentioned Kuroda Kan’ichi (1927-2006) in relation to the Zengakuren, as the theoretician-leader of the Kakumaru-ha. Kuroda was one of Uno Kozo’s interlocutors in his day, during the heyday of the Japanese Marxist groups, and in his Methodology of Social Science: A Critique of Uno Kozo’s Theory of Economics, he critiques the understanding of capital produced by the Uno School as fundamentally bourgeois in nature, because Uno Kozo’s interpretation of Capital rearranges the work so as to begin with “circulation.” His contention is that Marx wrote Capital to be understood by members of the proletariat which is why the work begins with “production,” in relation to the proletariat’s being directly embedded in the processes of production. He poses a reading of Capitalthat, instead, reads the Phenomenology of Spirit onto Capital, as the bildungsroman coming-to-self-consciousness of the proletarian, Karl Marx. It is not entirely clear to me how much of Kuroda further elaborates on his forays into Hegelian Marxian, because his books are rather hard to obtain, although they were actually translated into English by the present day Kakumaru-ha in the 90s and 2000s, and I know his thought coheres into some sort of body.
There are also later academic readings of Hegel and Marx, such as Uchida Hiroshi’s reading of Hegel’s Logic onto the Grundrisse (Marx’s Grundrisse and Hegel’s Logic 1988) but I know much less about this, and I’m not aware of any schools of thought that emerge from these attempts. Again, I would think this is attendant with the decline of Marxism in the Japanese academy. Obviously, there is more than I mention here. I should also add by way of caveat that I’m limited to reading English language texts, my Japanese being too poor at present to read theoretical texts, so there is likely much I am not aware of, but such is my perception.
C.D.V.: Does the experience of left-wing tramas like that United Red Army’s impolsion and the Japanese Red Army’s Lod Airport massacre have effect on the current Japanese left?
B.H.: Yes, I would say so, though I wouldn’t necessarily tie it down to any single event as to the general history of 60s violence. For example, in the anti-nuclear movement, even as a number of Left groups hoped to use the issue as a radicalizing issue for the public, the organizers of the weekly protests on the Japanese capitol in Tokyo (which, at times, numbered in the tens if not hundreds of thousands), sought to avoid the expression of explicit political views. It eventually became clear that the organizers were, in some fashion, coordinating with the police that was otherwise restricting the protests’ actions, when it became noticeable that the organizers’ signs directing people were the same signs the police had. In other words, what was feared was that the protests would rupture the norms of civil society in a way that would be alienating. To make the Occupy connection again, I was reminded of Occupy, in which the question of radical views quite possibly alienating public from the protest of broader issues versus the use of broader issues as a way of radicalizing the public was also an issue.
In Japan, as with most places, the employment of violence carries societal stigma, but I think in the Japanese context it’s especially haunting of the far Left in relation to the history of the 1960s. The last thing you’d see at a protest would be any form of black bloc. After events as the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attacks, which were, of course, acts of violence carried out by a religious cult, and which was profoundly disruptive of society, Left groups tend to get lumped into the category of being violent cults themselves because of their history. Or Left groups are perceived as being much the same as violent right-wing groups; certainly, sometimes hyperbolic discourse about revolution can sound not dissimilar.
I might mention here the widespread police surveillance of Left-wing groups that takes place in Japan. Of course, very often on the Left, groups which are not at all any threat to the state want to feel as though they were important enough to be observed by the state and so claim to see police surveillance everywhere. But I’ve attended meetings in Japan with an attendance of only a dozen people, advertising of which was conducted almost entirely through the Internet, in which undercover police were present. Undercover police have a habit of standing en masse outside of meetings of radical labor union organizations with notepads, as though they were monitoring individuals, even when a lot of this might just be psychological intimidation. Furthermore, protests in Japan are usually accompanied by disproportionately large numbers of police—a protest consisting of only about fifty people might be accompanied by an escort of fifty or more policemen. Given that the regulation of the police is overwhelming, a public that very often just wants to avoid trouble is deterred from the far Left by way of societal stigmas reinforced in this way.
This degree of police surveillance is certainly a response to the history of 60s violence and, in that way, restricting of the Left’s activity. Yet the effect of 60s violence that I would point to on the Left is the schismatic response of the Japanese Left to this. Again, in the example of the anti-nuclear movement, in order to maintain civil respectability and mass appeal, sections of the Left sometimes attempt to curb their radicalism in order to avoid alienation. As is not surprising, this proves problematic for anything that provides for more than reformist politics. Contrastingly, other sections of the Japanese Left react by embracing the iconography of Japanese sixties radicalism in order to play up their militancy—for example, the iconic Zengakuren helmets and the distinctive aesthetic of sixties protest banners. As is also not surprising, this is, in fact, alienating to the general public. So far as I observe, in this way, the response on the Left tends to be divergent in these opposing directions, both problematic in their own way, both responses to the legacy of the 1960s.
C.D.V.: What do see happening in he Japanese left after the brief flicker that was Occupy in Asia?
B.H.: Occupy was never very big in Japan—it was more of a one-day protest action in 2011. However, many groups adopted the Occupy name and the slogan of the “99% versus the 1%” afterwards, and I encountered a number of groups calling themselves Occupy or using Occupy-based slogans. I was intimately involved in particular with a group that called itself Occupy Tokyo Action. There were other groups, but they weren’t very large. By no means on the scale of the Occupy movement in the US.
Other times, established organizations adapted the Occupy name but, in that way, it actually became quite rhetorical. Sometimes groups would just add the slogans of Occupy the rhetoric of the 99% and the 1% to all the preexisting slogans and self-identified labels, and it would just became another protest chant or declarative statement of self-assertion: “We are the ninety-nine percent!”
So far as I was coming off of Occupy to Japan because I was living there in the spring and summer of 2012, sometimes it was clear to me what exactly Occupy was was actually not entirely understood—for example, that impetus behind the original concept of Occupy was the occupation of a public space. So people were calling themselves Occupy but not entirely knowing that means, I think, and people were claiming the mantle of the 99% but not necessarily in a manner where it was meaningful. I was invited to speak about Occupy several times by individuals or organizations, but while I sought to adopt a critical stance and offer something else than what was purely salutary, I think people often thought what I had to say was unexpected or counterintuitive.
For example, something I tried to do when invited by leftists or leftist groups to talk on Occupy was to frame Occupy in the context of the Left—which was sometimes surprising to people, who didn’t see Occupy as a leftist movement. Well, to be sure, it was too heterogeneous to call it that, so I agreed, but why else should there be this interest in Occupy, then, on the Japanese Left? That was something I found myself wondering very often. And I’m not sure what people were hoping to get out learning from someone who had been observant of and involved in Occupy—in my talks, I very often tried to point out or gesture towards my own perceived imperfections of Occupy, which wasn’t always what people wanted to hear. This may just be me being overcritical of everything, which is generally the tendency on my part. Still, it also did make me quite hopeful that there was this interest in global events relevant to the Left.
What was larger, of course, but also interrelated was the anti-nuclear movement. The original anti-nuclear movement post-3/11 had tapered off, but when I was in Japan, the Japanese government’s plan to restart the nuclear reactors in Fukui and Oi sparked a resurgence of the anti-nuclear movement. As I mentioned, at one point, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people were marching every Friday on the Japanese capitol in Kasumigaseki, which is a district of Tokyo. This came out of the blue, so far as the anti-nuclear marches on the capitol had continued weekly and there was even a sort of Occupy-esque tent, Tento Hiroba, in Kasumigaseki. But although Tento Hiroba had managed to resist all attempts to evict it for over a year, when I first arrived in Japan, these marches consisted of only about several hundred people, though they resembled the casseroles marches. Yet that these marches had gone on for over a year since 3/11, even with the loss of momentum, provided the site for the reinvigoration of the anti-nuclear movement in regards to providing for weekly protest actions of thousands. Very quickly, it became clear that these were the largest demonstrations since the 1960s though, as I said, perhaps the emphasis upon social and civil respectability in these demonstrations was because of the lingering stigma of the sixties.
I mentioned being reminded of Occupy in the Japanese Left—it was through the anti-nuclear movement that I was. Some aspects of the anti-nuclear movement saw themselves as in the spirit of Occupy, including those who I was involved with. But my own perception was that the anti-nuclear movement was, in some sense, the actual Japanese Occupy. While, of course, it actually outnumbered Occupy in New York by several orders of magnitude, and the cause wasn’t the same, what I felt was that it had many of the same problems as Occupy. The question of radical views versus an appeal to populism, also the issue of how to make one issue into an entry point into a broader panoply of political issues. Likewise, the question of leadership between groups, the relation of the movement to police actions, and the issue of attempting to make a movement grow, but towards what purpose? Such were the questions at hand.
Still, if we’re to tie these issues together, Occupy and the anti-nuclear movement, in relation to the current state of the Japanese Left, I honestly don’t know. The anti-nuclear movement wasn’t growing significantly larger, and after the high point of a mass demonstration in Yoyogi Park, near Harajuku, in late July, eventually at some point the protests saw a decline. I think there’s been somewhat of a vacuum since, and a sense of confusion on the Japanese Left of what is to come next—especially since the issue was never resolved in any decisive way, but just became somewhat obfuscated and, in that way, buried. We shall see. Is there potential for a third resurgence? I don’t know, although protests continue, and the two year mark has arrived. But what concerns me is that I don’t see people asking this question of themselves.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
B.H.: Just that, fundamentally, I think the issues of the Japanese Left are the same issues that the Left faces the world over. Much of what the Japanese Left faces, I think, are the issues that the international Left across the world faces, except that such issues are configured differently in regards to the specifics of Japanese history. I’ve mentioned the Occupy parallel many times, also the shared problems faced by the Left in East Asia where it proves difficult to call one’s self a Marxist because of the specter of “actually existing socialism.” What this points at is the need for an international politics that operates at more than merely expressing solidarity for various national politics or various issue-based politics from afar, but intimate political involvements on every level. Good feelings, even feelings of shared struggle, only go so far, after all. At worst, expressions of global solidarity can even be quite performative in nature, in claiming to situate national struggles within the context of a global Left, but really in the interests of just drawing a number of new protest slogans from abroad and the projection of one’s hopes and desires onto some place other than home so as to avoid confronting the reality which looms ever-present before you. I certainly saw that sometimes on the Japanese Left, for example, in relation to me as someone who came from America immediately following a period of involvement in Occupy, but also in relation to the Japanese Left as understood from the American perspective, by way of the perception of Japanese radicalism my American radicals. And what I don’t see from either perspective is the sort of radical self-questioning necessary to actually make shared international struggles meaningful in any visceral, politically-charged level.
Perhaps, then, what the state of the Japanese Left points at is this need for a new internationalism in which worldwide struggles can be made meaningful on the visceral polticially-charged level with an actual effect on reality—and also its absence in the present. I would say so about the Japanese Left so far as these are maladies faced by the global Left, and so far as the Japanese Left is an expression of the global Left. Indeed, I can only speak for myself and my own perceptions so much as far as I went into Japan, began researching the history of the Japanese Left, and sought to absorb myself into the contemporary Japanese Left—even if, of course, it ends up that I can’t help but subsume the Japanese Left to my preexistent political conceptions. That is, I think, inevitable to some degree. Yet this is what I would conclude, in my knowledge that I don’t know everything, that my knowledge of the Japanese Left is necessarily incomplete, and that neither do I have any answers.
Daniel Spaulding is a graduate student in the Department of the History of Art, Yale University. He works on postwar and contemporary art in Western Europe. With Jaleh Mansoor and Daniel Marcus he coauthored a response to a questionnaire on Occupy Wall Street for a special issue of the journal October in the fall of 2012. (http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/OCTO_a_00122)
Daniel Spaulding: It’s senseless to answer this question except with reference to concrete instances of relations between the two. I’m not interested in defining the role of art in bourgeois society as such in the manner of, say, Peter Bürger. At the same time real instances of the interface between art and politics are unquestionably determined by the general forms of capitalist society – the commodity, the wage, exchange, and so on. From this basis one can indeed claim to deduce the category of art from the determinations of the value-form or more broadly from the whole complex of relations that make up the capitalist mode of production. The role of a Marxist art history as opposed to a Marxist aesthetic theory, however, must be to mediate between form-determination and form itself, between category and material artifact.
In that spirit I’m also going to be a bit unsatisfying and refuse to give a programmatic answer to your question. I will venture to say that the standard modes of “critical” post-60s art won’t cut it. This seems widely acknowledged even in the bastions of that very model: see for instance recent meditations on the “postcritical” impulse and the failure of the “anti-aesthetic” in journals like October and Texte zur Kunst. I’m afraid lot of this is just chewing the cud of “left” art history’s academicization. The impasse is real, however.
The vital question is how to articulate the totalizing impulse of critique – which I’d argue is still as important as ever, in the face of capitalism’s own totalizing force – with a poiesis necessarily fixated on the smallest point of ingress to the materiality of everyday life, or to put it differently, the smallest unit of affect or event in its difference from a reified situation. Art small-a. I’d be willing to bet that a materialist lyric mode is the closest thing to an avant-garde we currently possess. It’s no longer very interesting to say: “Look, I’ve divested myself of my subjectivity, I’ve laid bare the mechanism through critical mimesis, I’ve taught the petrified social forms to dance by singing them their own song.” Better for artists to ask: “How can I make something that speaks to my experience in all its fucked-upness and seeming inevitability; how can I produce anything at all without immediately reproducing capital; what representational or anti-representational claims can I make with regard to my own place in the violent hierarchy of class society?” But this is a kind of lyric that opens onto epic to the extent it necessarily folds totalization back into subjectivity, or history into experience.
Art is able to do this in ways that exceed the resources of critique alone. By doing so artistic practices conceived on this model also help get us beyond the antinomy of committed versus autonomous art. Art’s autonomy instead consists in its asymptotic approach to an autonomy of the social, that is, to communism. Whether this means a sublation of art into life or something quite different is not the most interesting question at this moment in history.
C.D.V.: You have written on the aesthetics of insurrectionism and communization in Occupy: do you see part of Occupy’s appeal as aesthetic?
D.S.: I think its appeal may have been aesthetic in the older and broader sense of the term. Occupy had a visceral sensory impact on the ground and even in its circulation through the image-world. Occupiers sometimes talk nostalgically about the distinctive smell at the camps. There’s obviously a danger of romanticizing this, but I think it’s right to say that Occupy among other things offered a glimpse of a different sensorium, that is, of a world in which matter and form are ordered not by the logic of capital but rather in the immediate reproduction of communal life. Of course Occupy’s world was precarious and frequently miserable, but in that, too, I think it was probably an accurate preview of what a break with capital will really entail.
This is a slightly different matter than the “aesthetics of insurrectionism and communization,” whatever such might be. (I’d like to keep the two terms separate, by the way. You can certainly have insurrection without communization, but whether you can have communization without insurrection is another question.) In the October piece I wrote with Jaleh Mansoor and Daniel Marcus we made a rather coded swipe at what we called the “aestheticizers of autonomy.” By this we meant, for example, artists or artist-collectives who take insurrection as a “theme” or even a procedure but at any rate as something to be injected into the gallery system, and thus into all its attendant circuits of valorization and exploitation. I don’t know if this is much different from the wave of awful “political” art that came out of the heyday of identity politics. At any rate Baudelairean neo-spleen is not much better than the same product that’s in all the other galleries.
One of the functions of art in capitalism is to poach and domesticate radical energies from elsewhere in society. Art historians ought to be frank about this. A critique of art history, or a meta-art history, might be used to disqualify the circulation of vaguely “political” signifiers as the common currency of the art world. We can say: No, this isn’t political, this is the same shit as always, please stop fucking around. And this might be a way to redirect the desire for a better life that is currently railroaded into the art world back to the world itself.
Anyway, moving on. I would avoid saying that there is a specific aesthetic of communization or insurrection, unless there’s an aesthetic of communism itself. Undoubtedly there would be such but we can’t say in advance what it is. It isn’t Emory Douglas or Claire Fontaine, however much we might be interested in their work. On the other hand there’s certainly a visual imaginary of insurrectionism. It’s interesting that The Coming Insurrection ends on a narrative scene, really a sort of creative writing exercise: “visualize total collapse” as opposed to “visualize world peace.” I find that useful as far as it goes. We do need to view the current order from the standpoint of its anticipated collapse. This is the basic historical materialist insight, and it’s also the point of departure for the Marxist tradition’s thorny pairing of utopia with catastrophe. When the image of insurrection substitutes for its actuality, though, we’re back into mere ideology. I don’t mean this as an attack on any particular milieu and its styling. We simply need to be very careful to specify that revolutionary dynamics are at least as likely to be marked by their non-visibility as by a production of images, by their withdrawal from the aesthetic as much as their conquest of a public profile. Politics happens where genre fails.
On this note, Occupy was fascinating because there was a basic tension between an (exhausted) image-politics – “the media isn’t covering this!” or “let’s make this trend on Twitter!” – and a mostly subterranean challenge to the rule of property, to the police state, ultimately to what has to be described as the whole of capitalist society. Capital’s overwhelming command over the boundaries of the sayable and the unsayable predictably meant that the more profound challenge often came to the surface only in variously mediated or symptomatic shapes. The Marxist interpretation of culture has some work to do here because one of the areas in which it historically gained purchase was of course the method of symptomatic reading – scouring the surface of culture for traces of contradiction. What gave itself to appearance in Occupy demands the same attention. But in present conditions, art history, in particular, may paradoxically best do this by shrinking back from “the aesthetic,” if this is understood as identical with the historical institution of art. There are other kinds of practice that challenge the very coherence of the term.
For example, one of the great slogans that came out of Occupy was “Shit is fucked up and bullshit.” This struck a chord with a lot of us because it hit on the predicament of trying to speak politically today: we are reduced to practical incoherence by the sheer wrongness of the world and of our lives, on what I’m tempted to call an existential level. Art has also sometimes been able to speak this inability to speak. The most recent Whitney Biennial was pitched to a very definite affective register, what David Joselit called “melancholy camp.” I think this might have been overplayed in the exhibition to the point of mannerism, but it does get at a very real sense of how we live now (with the caveat that “we” is of course parceled out by class, race, gender, and sexuality): now, we are very often in some way “camping,” improvising in the ruins of an order that can no longer promise a future, can no longer promise coherent structures of experience, in the end, can no longer promise its own reproduction and simple endurance. But did the Biennial register this situation in the most effective way, or the slogan? The latter, I suspect.
Art historians should recognize that art is not necessarily good at what it’s trying to do. Art as a practice may sometimes give us models of how to relate to the material world and to each other in ways that don’t succumb to the imperatives of value production. So do things like occupations and reading groups and riots, though, and it’s not obvious to me that art is currently doing a better job.
C.D.V.: What do you make the commercialization of some the aesthetic sensibilities around Occupy?
D.S.: To be honest I’m not entirely sure what you mean. There was an aspect of Occupy’s aesthetic presence that was always-already commercialized, so to speak, in that it aimed to propagate a political brand through existing channels of circulation. Meme politics and the like. I don’t have an objection to this per se. I like memes. But the limitations are clear and so is the tension between that strategy and the more intractable problems of subsistence, survival, and open class conflict that also surfaced in Occupy. I sometimes think of this tension metonymically as New York versus Oakland. That’s not very fair to either city, though. In fact all of the camps reproduced a gendered and racialized division between a self-appointed “99%,” who claimed the privilege of speaking for others, and the mass of the more profoundly dispossessed who continued to face state and economic violence on a daily basis and who often found themselves expropriated again in the discourse (and practice) of Occupy. This division was already recuperation from within. Unfortunately it was probably insurmountable in a context structured by white and male supremacy.
Beyond this my impression is that instances of specifically aesthetic co-optation have been minor. Occupy never really generated a new vocabulary of forms, in either politics or aesthetics, and so there ultimately wasn’t much to appropriate. This is in marked contrast to the revolts of the sixties, to take an obvious example. Aside from “We are the 99%” even the slogans barely percolated into mass culture. Occupy’s impact was probably more effectively distributed in heavily mediated and more insidiously ideological manifestations, like the most recent Batman movie (which I didn’t actually see, but then, the noise in the vicinity of these media events is often more interesting than the thing itself). Of course there was also a tremendous amount of liberal normalization especially over the past year, reaching a peak of absurdity with the election. But to me this was just so much slime returning to the swamp from whence it came.
Again the issue pivots around what does and doesn’t take coherent form at the present moment. Occupy never made itself into Leviathan. There was no figure of sovereignty to gather it together, nor so much as a credible placeholder/analyst akin to the historical prerevolutionary Party. Contra the back-to-Lenin crowd I don’t necessarily see this as a failing. Contra the horizontalist tendency I also don’t see it as a strength. It’s simply the place we are at. This is also an aesthetic fact since the distribution of aesthetic as much as political forms depends on establishing oppositions of figure to ground, on the emergence of a gestalt. The coalescence of organized and representational anti-capitalist politics seems to be what is barred. This undoubtedly has its effects in the visual field. The crisis of capitalism today is far more severe than in the sixties, but in the present cycle neither crisis nor opposition lend themselves readily to images, except of the most disposable sort (memes again); the masses don’t meld into an image of unity, and the forces of reaction have had only limited success in appealing to the image of the nation or other more or less fascistic rallying points. (I don’t intend to minimize the threat of fascism, in Greece for instance, but rather to say that the threat is unlikely to play out quite like its twentieth-century predecessors.) This complicates the familiar cycle of revolt-representation-recuperation that’s often presumed to be the modus operandi of spectacle. If representation never truly takes place, it’s hard to know how co-optation can proceed – except perhaps by colonization at an exponentially molecular level. Which is perhaps what I mean by the “internal” recuperation I’ve already described.
That’s a dark thought and I don’t want to give it too much weight. The commercialization of oppositional culture obviously continues apace – there’s a riot video game in development, I’m told – but it seems unlikely that this will succeed in containing what it represents. To be clear: it’s not as if there’s something external to the commodity’s rule, in either art or politics, that then becomes vitiated through recuperation, but rather that events like Occupy point to immanent breaks in the reproduction of capitalist relations – including their image-structures – even if on a certain level they are undoubtedly already “captured.” Capital and the state then seek to plug the leaks any way they can. Clearly it’s worth paying attention to such strategies. But it’s also important to remain true to the point of rupture – to continue asking, with the late Chris Marker, “Pourquoi quelquefois les images se mettent-elles à trembler?”
If the question is about art, however, I can only repeat what I’ve already said. There exists bad art about Occupy. The phenomenon seems minor enough that it may still be conscientiously ignored.
C.D.V.: Why do you think Oakland Occupy narrative is so often contrasted with the New York narrative despite the fact that Oakland occupy itself was criticized for being racially problematic by minority leaders within the community?
D.S.: The point is not that one version of Occupy or another was better at dealing with race but rather that Oakland was undeniably marked by a higher degree of militancy. All of the occupations were fundamentally inadequate in their attempts to confront racism. The dynamic was very different in different places, however. Occupy Oakland would not have been what it was without the uprisings following the Oscar Grant murder, to say nothing of many decades of radical black militancy. The name “Occupy Oakland” itself ramified into “Decolonize Oakland” and the “Oakland Commune,” both of which indicate quite divergent self-conceptions. It’s thus better to understand the 2011-12 events as autonomous developments out of the city’s own radical tradition rather than as imports from New York. There was of course conflict around tactics that were perceived to be alienating. But it’s demonstrably untrue and deeply reactionary to claim that people of color universally disapproved of militant escalation.
I want to avoid misunderstanding: I’m not trying to valorize Oakland over New York or anywhere else. I do believe Oakland showed us possibilities and limitations that were never so apparent elsewhere in the United States. It’s an important case study as we try to anticipate future developments. A similar mix of alliance and friction between insurrectionary currents, organized labor, and established community leaders (who too often act as managers of racial and class domination) – to name only three among many actors – will undoubtedly play out with any number of local variations over the coming years. These tensions surfaced in New York as well but were more effectively subsumed under the figure of a downwardly mobile “middle class.”
Now I’m beginning to sound like an authority, though, which I’m certainly not. These are my impressions from knowing people involved and from following events at a distance. I’m just an art historian.
C.D.V. : Some context over what I trying to get at. I don’t think anyone has said that Occupy Oakland was universally condemned by people of color, but I do think it is very clear that leaders within Oakland’s African American and Asian American community did start to become hostile to it after two or three event dafter the “general strike”. The tensions were not over black bloc tactics as a whole, but the community writings in the Oakland local turned after the strong local support after Scott Grant attack. The support was lost because of a few threats to shut down airports and other things that the Oakland Commune honestly did not have the capacity to do, as well as the targeting of some local businesses seen as not related to corporate or government problems within the community. Support in the community for the General Strike was very, very high particularly because of the Oscar Grant killing, the protests over BART police, and the particularly high rate of homelessness there. The black bloc tactics themselves weren’t condemned in local papers at first, just some the aimlessness of some of the choices of targets until that meme became much more used in the liberal press.
I think, however, it should be dealt with that this disapproval was seized upon by large portions of liberals within the media to be able to distance themselves from Occupy Oakland/The Oakland Commune and to try to paint it as a San Francisco kids coming to Oakland with bringing within the “black bloc.” This stuff is all over the editorial pages of local Oakland papers. To make it more problematic, this idea as then pressed in almost every liberal net-newspaper outlet: Mother Jones, HuffPo, the Nation, and Truth Out.
The debates over the black bloc were interesting though, and this brings me to my next question: Why do you think the aesthetics of the black bloc has been so successfully used within left-liberal circles as a distancing point? I have been involved in discussions and debates about these things since my teens, and the Black Bloc was used to protect squatters from police and some local gangs in Atlanta prior to the WTO Protests* in 1998 in Seattle. After the WTO protests, there was a small storm in the left media about the Black Bloc tactics used there, but this largely disappeared during the Bush years as a debate after the G-8 Protests were minimal at Sea Island for the same movement. Only after the Oakland commune incidents did it come back into play, but the objections seemed largely about Public Relations and aesthetics (direct property violence versus indirect property violence is not really a moral choice, as their effects are equal. None of the left-liberal publications had strong problems with the General Strike shutting down the Port of Oakland, but they did have problems with smashed windows).
D.S.: Thanks, I see where you’re coming from now. My understanding of what happened in Oakland is broadly the same. All of this of course came to a head with Move-In Day on January 28 last year, followed shortly thereafter by Chris Hedges’ despicable “Cancer in Occupy” article. But already interventions by the “peace police” indicated that there was never unity of action between left-liberals and radicals – as of course was only to be expected. Incidentally I don’t think it’s the case that there were no strong objections to the port shutdown. Certainly the second action in December got a lot of negative attention. Even on the radical left there was skepticism about Occupy’s relation to ILWU, the longshoremen’s union. Cal Winslow, who is a member of the group Retort, had a piece in Counterpunch criticizing the port shutdown due to lack of support from union leadership, for instance. At exactly the same moment the communization-oriented website Bay of Rage posted an article urging the necessity of circumventing the union apparatus entirely. This is just to point out that the moment of unity was very brief if it can be said to have happened at all. But then, this is not what you were asking about.
I have to say I’m not eager to jump into another discussion of the Black Bloc. By now the debate is so ossified that I wonder if much remains to be said. I take a longer perspective on the matter because in my own work I happen to study art and politics in post-‘68 West Germany. That’s where the Black Bloc was first developed, taking cues from the Dutch Provos and other street-fighting contingents of the New Left. It arose as a combat tactic at a time when you could still reasonably expect to fight the cops in pitched battle and win, as indeed happened on a number of occasions. Thanks to the Autonome scene and a massive squatting movement there were sizeable chunks of Berlin and Hamburg where the state effectively had no authority. In those circumstances the tactic made a lot of sense and indeed marked an important innovation after the decline of both late-60s mass mobilizations and of the armed struggle groups following the “German Autumn” of 1977. Absent these conditions the Black Bloc is something else entirely. I could say much on the subject but I would likely only duplicate arguments from elsewhere without making any particular contribution of my own. At any rate it’s an odd moment for us to be considering the question, given that we’re now in a comparatively dormant phase (with the unanticipated exception of the emergence of an Egyptian Black Bloc in February, about which other parties are surely far more knowledgeable than I).
The role of the Black Bloc in the liberal imaginary and in the media, especially “left” media, is a different matter. It does bear repeating that from the point of view of capital the loss millions of dollars in a blockade is far more serious than the loss a few thousand as a result of direct property damage. Nobody actually cares about bank windows. So clearly the Black Bloc induces hysteria because it’s taken as a threat to social stability and property rights far in excess of its immediate impact. For any right-thinking anti-capitalist this would presumably be a plus. But huge segments of the “left” are afraid to make capitalists afraid. Granting the existence of internal problems within anarchist and other milieux, I therefore think it’s correct to say that the ideological distinction between “violent” and “non-violent” protest – a distinction that itself unavoidably produces complicity with state violence – can be laid primarily at the feet of “left” commentators who bow to the supposed necessity of positive media messaging. This is a catch-22: capitalist media will never grant positive coverage to anything that seriously threatens class rule. The problem is real of course but it’s worse than misguided to believe we can solve it through better behavior at protests. The Black Bloc is a convenient bête noire on which to pin censure of any desire for radical negation whatsoever. If it wasn’t ready to hand something would have to be conjured up to take its place – either that, or visible anti-capitalist contestation would cease to exist. So the reason the Black Bloc is an effective way to split movements… is because it’s an effective way to split movements. Left-liberals distance themselves from the Black Bloc because it’s a convenient pretext to distance themselves from radical opposition to capitalism.
Rather than fulminate at greater length I’d prefer to move on, though. The “aesthetics” at issue here are extremely interesting in their own right, whatever reformists make of them. What I’m about to say stinks of recuperation, but I do think the Black Bloc is a worthy object of study for art historians. It’s another moment – neither necessary nor privileged, but significant – in the long retreat from representational politics and its privileged image-structures in post-60s capitalism, a theme I’ve gestured towards already. The Black Bloc is nothing if not an embodied (anti-)politics of (anti-)visibility. Is it an image or an anti-image? Well, that’s a good question for art historians. And I believe its implications extend to any number of artistic practices as well.
C.D.V.: What do you make the long slow death of the middle brow represented by things like the neo-liberalization of NPR?
D.S.:I wish it were a little less slow.
A bit more seriously: I think in the case of something like NPR (which I never listen to, anyway) the decline can probably be attributed to an increasing divergence between the experience of its mostly white, mostly well-educated, mostly petty-bourgeois audience, and the station’s attempts to reflect that audience’s consciousness back to itself. The postwar era in the United States could be defined in terms of the apparent cultural hegemony of the “middle class”; in fact, of course, the petty bourgeoisie in no way held true political or economic power, but the culture mirrored back to them their own sense of autonomy. Middlebrow organs like NPR or the New Yorker attempt to continue that function for a smaller class fraction, one that perhaps until recently felt itself immune to economic precarity. With the catastrophic rise of student debt and narrowing horizons for college graduates this self-image has become increasingly threadbare. So instead middlebrow culture now more and more has the immediate task of shoring up neoliberalism “with a human face,” so to speak.
C.D.V.: Do you see the so-called hipster aesthetic as a different manifestation of the same tendency?
D.S.: I guess I do, although there are different layers here. I also have no patience with hipster-bashing. A lot of what’s identified as hipster culture is an improvisational response to the contradictions of petty-bourgeois precarity. It’s self-styling for those who for the most part don’t work very much or don’t have much security at the jobs they do have – not much of a future – but who are nonetheless forced to maintain an ability and readiness to work at any moment: a kind of unmoored professionalism. The insufferableness and tragedy of hip life is a function of its scramble for cultural autonomy within the most abject dependency on the attenuated wage-relation. As opposed to earlier counter- or subcultures (punk, say), the moment of negation is perpetually deferred. Needless to say I’m not talking about the stereotypical trust-fund hipster here but rather the mass of mostly post-collegiate individuals in the global North who have been socialized as middle-class workers but who now find this way of life inaccessible, whether temporarily or permanently.
C.D.V.: Do you see hipster bashing as a form of distinction in Bordieu’s sense of the term?
D.S.: I suppose it must be, but I’m not going to lose a lot of sleep over the question.
C.D.V.: Let’s completely shift gears: Why do you think communization theory has been subject to complete misrepresented in a long of left-wing critiques?
D.S.: As a fairly recent convert myself I can say that even with the benefit of a passable background in Marxism my initial encounters with communization theory were characterized by misrecognition and missed connections. I became aware of this body of literature in a major way with the protests and occupations at the University of California in 2009-10. If you weren’t paying attention it was possible to misinterpret what was happening as undifferentiated radical escalation and hence to miss what was so distinctive about the texts coming out from Endnotes or Research and Destroy, to name two important collectives involved in the resurgence of communization theory. So I can understand the tendency in others, as well. And indeed too much of the discourse is stuffed with needlessly convoluted Hegelianisms, even if it ultimately does, as a rule, make sense. The work of Théorie Communiste for example is perhaps the most profound analysis of capitalism today, often delivered in truly unfortunate prose.
After a certain point the misinterpretations seem to become willful, however. I believe the problem is not that the basic insights of communization theory are especially difficult to grasp but rather that they fluster the left’s basic assumptions in ways that can’t readily be parried by creaky arguments against anarchism, adventurism, determinism, or what have you. Incidentally this is not in any way annexable to a Platypus-style thesis on the deadness of the Left. Communization theory as I understand it reaches its conclusions not by way of the political superstructure but instead in a thoroughly materialist interpretation of changes in the reproduction of the capital-labor relation. (This is for the moment to put aside debates within the communization current over invariance, subsumption, and all the other words that give people like me a reputation for opacity.) Communization theory at its best is in fact an extremely rigorous engagement with the basic problems of Marxism; it pursues this engagement with a ruthless focus on the possibilities and impossibilities of the present moment, and hence derives findings that are deeply uncongenial to any form of political nostalgia. The usual defense mechanism is then to reduce communization theory to something it’s not, namely anarchism, adventurism, determinism, or what have you.
This isn’t, by the way, to say that “communization theory” is a single thing or even a thing at all. The term has oddly come to designate an extremely varied set of perspectives unified by perhaps little more than a common origin in the European (mostly French) post-’68 ultraleft, with its forebears in the Situationist International, left communism, council communism, certain strands of anarchism, etc. The differences between, say, Tiqqun and Léon de Mattis and Jacques Camatte are vast enough to destabilize the label altogether. Most recently there’s been some confusion about the relation of communization to value-form theory, which has quite different roots in the late Frankfurt School and the German “New Reading of Marx.” Confusion of this sort might not be such a bad thing; certainly it’s good that “communization” does not exist as an endlessly disputed point of doctrine in the manner of “Leninism.” It would be a huge error to reify one theory or another as the only true essence of communization. That said, my own views are most in line with the perspectives articulated in the second issue of the journal Endnotes, in case you were curious.
C.D.V.: What do Theorie Communiste understands that a lot of other Marxists don’t? And why does it lead to awful prose?
D.S.: Why it leads to awful prose I don’t know. It may simply lead to hasty translation, though to be fair the original texts seem gnarled as well. One could probably attribute this to having worked for decades in near-total obscurity. In these circumstances the development of the collective’s own terminology and self-understanding undoubtedly often took precedence over making themselves clear to others. There’s also the more problematic fact that Théorie Communiste have little interest in building a mass political project of any sort and hence don’t feel the need to explain themselves. Their writing is diagnosis and critique in a rather classical sense of the latter word: it aims to root out the conditions of possibility for thinking communism at all in the present day, but offers no strategy by which to achieve it in a given conjuncture. I find this frustrating myself. Understanding their intentions nonetheless helps to pre-empt the inevitable “Yes, but what do you do?” question. You can only say: in any given situation, whenever it’s feasible, you communize. How that’s supposed to happen can only ever be specific and improvisational; it might involve seizing public squares, or it might simply be turning to existing forms of sociality as a new basis for survival in the absence of capital. Between the logic of theory and the praxis of communism lie whole ranges of hybrid forms of organization that are neither condoned nor excluded a priori by the analysis. In our own lives dealing with these forms will necessarily be paramount. Contrary to the usual accusation, then, communization theory is not inflexibly anti-organizational; rather, it tends to indicate why certain ways of organizing are unlikely to work now and is in that sense immediately practical. But I don’t deny that there’s a hermeticism to some of the writing.
Théorie Communiste are useful to me because they ground the reproduction of class and capital in cycles of struggle that are understood to fundamentally alter the class relation itself. In the most abstract sense they argue that the era in which the proletariat’s revolutionary struggles tended towards the affirmation of the class within capitalist social relations – either in social democracy, or in production under state socialism – comes to an end when the proletariat’s entire being as a class is subsumed under capital: when institutions like the Party or the Union or the Council have been wholly defeated or assimilated to self-exploitation; when capital’s own offensive reestablishes control but at the cost of destroying its very condition of realization, that is to say, the continued reproduction of labor. Class identity then no longer appears as the basis from which to pursue an affirmative politics of autonomy but as an obstacle to be overcome. It’s only by failing to grasp the dialectic here that such a claim can be attacked for supposedly upholding capital as the only subject of history. From a Marxist perspective it should be obvious that the proletariat is a class of capital just as capital only valorizes itself in labor: capital and labor reproduce each other mutually, but capital’s drive towards ever-greater subsumption (through the colonization of everyday life, increased mechanization, neoliberal revanchism, and a host of other devices) progressively eliminates the reserves from which a positive identity for the proletariat might be elaborated and affirmed. Crisis is therefore defined as a breakdown of reproduction that forces workers to encounter their class identity as something external, something to be negated; the revolutionary class is then understood to be the class that negates itself and capitalist society not by its universalization under a dictatorship of the proletariat but rather in its immediate self-abolition, the destruction of the value-form, and a move towards other means of subsistence – communization. The point here is not necessarily that this process has happened or will happen in the conceptual purity of the above presentation but rather that this structure constitutes an explicable tendency that may be expressed in all sorts of chaotic or contingent events.
Théorie Communiste are not the only authors to have made these points, and in many local instances I have strong disagreements with their conclusions. But I do believe they’ve zeroed in on the predicament of our moment with greater force and consistency than perhaps anyone else. Their version of communization theory allows us to recognize the present as an impasse and yet historicize that impasse; it helps to explain the collapse of the left without melancholy for lost powers, lost representations, without despair in the face of a supposedly inalterable totality, and without need for an “idea” to provide direction; it also points towards a practice by which we can move forward even without a grand project or a vaguely theological guarantee of success. Their work has also proved generative for thinking in other directions. Its recent intersection with the concept of social reproduction in materialist feminism is particularly exciting to me.
To return for a moment to your previous question, though, I’d like to say something about another possible source of confusion. Recently I have become more aware that communization theory moves in a very odd temporality. The emphasis on immediacy, the lack of an anticipated transitional phase, “communization in the present tense” – communism as something to do rather than a program to enact – can easily lead to the impression that communization theory conceives of revolution as necessarily both imminent and punctual. In fact I see no reason why this should be the case. Communization theory instead elucidates a spatiotemporal logic within any revolutionary process conceivable on the basis of the present form of the contradiction between labor and capital. It doesn’t provide a timeline, and it doesn’t claim that no other processes may take place concurrently. All real politics are contradictory and unevenly developed. I can imagine communization as taking place over the course of a century, at many levels, at many speeds.
*Originally, read “G-8 protests” due to the confusion of the interviewer and has since been corrected.