Category Archives: Media
Tom O’Brien interviews me for the From Alpha to Omega podcast. We discuss the Russian revolution, the Vanguard Party and it’s problems, the profound failures of the cultural revolution, and the emergence of decentralised movements like occupy and the 5-Star Movement. O’Brien has a move positive view of occupy than me, but he does get into what I see as some of the key problems of so-called “Leninism” is now. Click here to listen.
I appreciate the many thoughtful responses to my quirky first post regarding reading Zerzan prior to going shopping at a big box store, especially skepoet2′s post. There is a lot to chew on there, and rather than spiral into back and forth contretemps, I thought I would try to clarify a little more what I meant in the initial post, and perhaps show my own hand concerning my opinions if they have not been sufficiently articulated.
First of all, some of my points concerning the division of labor should have highlighted better the problem at the international level, rather than just hypothetical questions as to who takes out the garbage. I think, for example, of Bolivian president Evo Morales’s overly simplified but still rather intriguing description of the causes of the economic crisis in the “developed world”:
There’s a crisis in the United States, there is a crisis in some countries of Europe. What conclusion do I reach: since they are not robbing us, since they are not looting us, there is crisis in the capitalist European countries, and we are lifting ourselves up… Now that they can’t steal, they are having an economic and fiscal crisis.
Read the rest of this entry
This is the fifth interview in a series with Keith418. The first one is here, the second one is here, the third is here, and the fourth is here. Keith418 is one of the most controversial figures in modern Thelema. His interviews on the defunct Thelema: Coast to Coast were often rigorous and demanding, yet highly contentious. Keith418 has also documented thinkers on both the radical right and the far left often comparing those thinkers to the problematic thought in the Occult community. He has recently spoken at C-realm podcast as well.
Skepoet: Recently, you and I were discussing about how even in groups that are interested in “inequality” or even “the working class” or “labor” there is an avoidance of class dynamics. I think we both think this comes from training class as if it were just another “identity” like gender or race. Would you like to elaborate on that?
Keith418: A friend noted that, when class is discussed at all these days, it’s talked about as another kind of “identity.” As in, “respect people from the working class.” It’s not about how those people are formed or used or how those subjects are created and why they are here. Instead, it’s a demand that they be honored and respected and appreciated – not that “class” as an issue be erased or that the forces that create different classes be eliminated. People are supposed to be proud to be ”working class” – just like they are proud to be “gay” or proud to be ”black.” The underlying mechanism of class and class domination is never discussed. This naturalizes class. It looks like a trenchant criticism of the status quo, but it’s not. How is this not a problem and why aren’t people addressing it? If we all learn to respect the ”working class” does that mean we use them with cleaner consciences? Is this what the left wants?
S.: Clearly this seems to be a move towards things that are more obvious, but also more obviously arbitrary. They can be subsumed in liberal modernity pretty easily, while class if viewed as a something that is unacceptable is not something that accommodation can handle. In that sense, actually winning would require something that is destabilizing. Although oddly, this brings me to our recent debate on Jonathan Haidt, do you think that focus on class as identity instead of class as foundation is part of a liberal moral virtue of inclusiveness?
K.: I think class as identity is just easier for them to cope with than class as a product of human relations. This is the same, when you think about it, with gender and race. There is a virtuous sense of equality and value that seems to assume that “respecting” people alleviates the need to stop exploiting them. Liberals and the left like to look at problems, but examining the causes for those problems is harder for these folks to do. That “racism is wrong” they will readily acknowledge and helpfully explain to us. But what causes it?
If everyone is guilty and implicated, who will guide to our glorious new society and who – untainted – will govern it?
Who will be the left’s managers? If we assume a revolution, who will manage the resources after it is over? How will these people be trained and developed – and what would prevent them from simply be assumed into the ruling structure the left is seeking to overthrow?
The anti-revisionist left used to urge people to “go into the factories” right? Why didn’t that work out? Is anyone asking? Did factory work become too numbing for everyone? Or did the other workers simply not respond to their ideologies? I find the fact that so few seem to be curious about the history of these groups and their struggles and decline to be itself curious. You’d think people would be researching this stuff so as to learn from these groups and their mistakes. Who does and why don’t they?
We’ve talked about the people who are “Progressive Except for Palestine.” What about the folks who are “Progressive Except for Income Inequality”? This not insubstantial group views the current society as a meritocracy and wants to make sure everyone gets a fair shake within it. They care about every liberal issue – like gay marriage, environmentalism, and women’s rights – that doesn’t call into question the ownership of the means of production and how their own particular privilege is maintained within it.
What I don’t grasp is why the “real left” never goes after these people. Instead, everyone wants to target what remains of the white working class and its issues – never the privilege of the NPR-listening, Prius-driving, white liberal elites. What I see on Facebook and elsewhere are people who keep shooting down the class slope. They may see themselves as “leftists” but their cultural targets are always poorer and less educated than they are. As long as the working class and the poor do not obey the left’s ideological dictates about, say, science and gender issues, they will remain the enemy.
S.: This is an interesting contradiction then isn’t it? The right is supposedly exclusive, but has a populist base largely on a willingness to be broad on cultural issues, but leftist and liberals both tend to be supposedly populist but whose ideological and aesthetic judgments are elitist. Do you think this contradiction is something Haidt’s research help you understand?
K.: No, I’ve looked at it for a long time – as I think anyone who has worked seriously in left-liberal circles has. Ken Minogue pointed out, some time ago, the way the left has a very elitist nature. They are the ones who are enlightened – the elect seeking to liberate the ignorant. This kind if condescension appears to me to be another way Judeo-Christian translates into the left’s approach. “The blessed” - who are distinguished by being always ready to profess the right and virtuous opinions are in conflict with the “poor and benighted” who don’t get. It’s worse lately. now the left seeks to speak ‘truth to the stupid” rather than speaking truth to “power.” they ARE the power and their values and the the ones that dominate. In any event, it’s always about attacking the people poorer and less privileged than they are. The people who weren’t privileged enough to go to good schools and who don’t understand why you have to listen to NPR, drive a Prius and take canvas bags to the grocery store. Those people, of course, are the problem – not the people running the non-profits and elite foundations.
S.: What if the left or liberals just openly embraced elite culture and values? It seems like conservative values in the US are just as elitists in their function economically, but it just a different set of elites. What bothers me is the patent hypocritical nature of both claims, again, with a slight deviant perhaps being paleo-conservatives who do see themselves as a remnant elite, but as you have said, “they were bad suits.”
K.: What does it matter to us if none of these groups has any real authority or even an understanding of what that is – where it originates, what it constitutes? I’m not seeing any evidence that any of them has the slightest clue. Science cannot tell us what our values should be, and the values that used to motivate people before the age of science aren’t working well no matter how they get restated or disguised and stuck into new, and usually threadbare and cheap, costumes. A real elite needs real authority, They don’t have it. None of them do. It’s all increasingly revealed as feeble and inauthentic posturing. Real authority is like real art – it has to engage with and proceed from and return to the absolute. What Facebook and the Internet show us is that no one can be consistent any longer – and without that sense of consistency there is no authenticity and no real authority.
S.: If I understand you correctly, at the moment, no one seems to be operating from a point of consistency ideologically, or in connection with power. So embracing elitism honestly would be impossible in that situation. Do you see this increasing?
K.: I think we have to look carefully at the ‘truth to power” line. Lately, the leftists I know want to speak “truth to stupid.” We see this with their anger at the small government types, the people who deny climate change, or the religious. This is a very different dynamic and one that has come to usurp the former idea. Are we oppressed by power or by ignorance? The frustrations and the contempt the managers have for the managed is not “revolutionary” – is it?
I also notice that many leftists seem reluctant to lampoon, satirize, and generally disparage the accouterments and excesses of the privileged. Look at the paintings of George Grosz and the cartoons in The Masses. Who is going after the privileged elites today with the same kind of venom and sharpened ire? Look at the wealthy families with their spoiled children and their paraded pretensions – this isn’t ripe for criticism? Yet who on the left does this? We don’t see it - any more than we see leftist satires of elite and, obviously hypocritical, “liberal” Zionists. The desire to target the lifestyles and presumptions of the privileged elites just isn’t there.Why not? Is it because these people are allies against the “conservative” masses? Do people on the left aspire themselves to lofts in Brooklyn with nannies who know to recycle?
Maybe the old WASP elites were different. Now that new elites, from other ethnic groups have emerged, no one feels the same motivation to take them out and to subject them to righteous ridicule.
S.: This seems tangentially related to another issue you and I have talked about: The refusal to look seriously at failures of left-wing thought in the past is deeply there. For example, you pointed me to a Kasama post reviewing at book on the Sojourner Truth Organization which flippantly skipped over both the fact that STO had got little support from the racial communities it was aiming to aid and also ignored the later ideas and controversies of Noel Ignatiev. What do you make of that?
K.: I’m not sure. I read and wondered what planet these people are living on. It’s like the truth, the reality is so painful they explore these histories as barely explored mythologies and leave as much as they can out of it. Where are the left’s much vaulted critical thinking skills?
What about all the people in the STO that put years of their lives into that project only to watch it crash and burn? Did it strike you as strange that there seemed to be so little looked at there?
S.: It does strike me as strange. In fact, it strikes me as strange that few people discuss the 1970s and 1980s New Communist movement, they always focus on the anti-Revisionists in the 1960s and just want to pretend that the 1970s didn’t happen, and then the 1980s emerge as some kind of conspiratorial relapse. Both the far left and the liberal left does this: the liberal left pretends that Stagflation didn’t happen in the 1970s and neo-liberalism emerged solely as a political project, and the far left doesn’t want to look at the 1968 in France was put down without a single shot fired, how Nixon won in the end of the 60s, etc. The right is in denial about a lot of things too, but I am not a rightist, so it isn’t my responsibility to criticize it.
Do you think this runs into basically ideological tribalism where one gives one’s own group a heuristic of charity and the opposing group at a heuristic of demonization?
K.: I tend to see these partisan battles as the result of the way Judeo-Christianity has permeated secular political thinking – what you refer to as “political theology.” One group is either the “elect” or the ”chosen people” who are always innocent and the other group is ignorant and beneath contempt. The good and noble group is the “light unto the nations” and the rest are seen as without redeeming or admirable features. Likewise any undeniable faults in your own group are understandable and “tragic” while the problems the other groups face are a result of their bad ideas and beliefs.
In looking at some of the left discourse, it seems to me to be less about a political movement for real change and more of a way to have a kind of secret and superior analysis of events always at hand – like many occultists seem to see occultism. You get to feel superior by knowing, for example, when an institution is “patriarchal” while never criticizing your own continuing participation in said institution.
Are those on the left really as smart as they think they are? If they are that smart, where is their challenging thinking? Why aren’t there hundreds of Glenn Greenwalds rather than just one? What kills me are all the leftists I know who claim to admire Greenwald and go right ahead cheerfully carrying water of Obama and ignoring everything he says. The “far leftists” do want to make their middle of the road liberal friends mad by attacking Obama with any real venom. I do not get it.
S. I wrote something on Tim Wise attacking Greenwald for being a racist for saying that Ron Paul was better on war questions than Obama, but really, Ron Paul is. Furthermore it struck me that Wise was trading in the symbolic capital of a “black” President for the actual lived lives of brown people far away. Now admittedly both Wise and Greenwald are white, but it seemed like a laughably bad argument.
This brings me to another topic: even fairly well-off conservatives, as you have pointed out in some of your writings, say the correct liberal things on race in public and when they don’t the backlash is extreme. But as you point out, this can lead to a “leftism” and a “rightism” without much substance. For example, one can renounce one’s own privilege, say all the right things, hire the right people, and have a few symbolic members of the right minorities in your in-group but nothing fundamentally has changed for most people economically.
K.: There’s a couple of things here. One, Look at Ron Paul on drug use. Assuming he is a racist – and I don’t think he is at all, but let’s allow the assumption – he still wants to end the drug laws and release every black person in prison who’s there for drug charges. Obama, as we have seen, has been determined to not only coninue the drug war, but his AG has even started to go after medical marijuana in places where the voters have approved it. In old Marxist-speak, can’t we then say that Obama is more “objectively racist” than Ron Paul? No one is pointing to this because the left has backed away from opposing the drug war. If anyone disputes this, then why aren’t they more enraged at Obama and his supporters for continuing it? Even the Marxists I know do not get on Facebook and rage at their liberal friends for supporting Obama. Do you see this? I do not see it.
We can say that the right has been co-opted by its own commitments to a Judeo-Christian ethic that has been secularized into “progressive” positions in various ways, but I would look to Hegel as to why they can’t resist this process. There is no “right” in America that is harshly critical of Judeo-Christianity the way there is in Europe – no meaningful tradition or one that has produced an insightful and substantive literature. Therefore, when the American right is appealed to in Christian terms, it tends to cave sooner or later.
We can go back to the work of Kenneth Minogue, who I have been reading recently, who carefully analysed the way being a liberal means having the right opinions and saying the right things – it doesn’t mean DOING all that much. People recite the opinions they know they are supposed to have and go right on living their lives the same way. Nothing changes except for what they say. That’s how everyone knows you’re a good person. Minogue – in his day – carefully criticized ideologies, but I wonder how the people who read him in the ’60s see how neoconservatism fulfilled every single one of his criteria for what an ”ideology” consists of. Few on the right realize this.
long time ago. Murray Rothbard was one of the early people who went through the purge process at National Review. The neocons may hate the paleocons, but they hate anti-war libertarians even more.I have no idea why the leftists I know have no interest in studying and attacking the neocons. Is it because they are afraid of being called antisemites? That fear seems to prevent them from criticizing Israel most of the time. Do liberals even know the socially “left” necons like David Brooks really aren’t fellow liberals? Sometimes I wonder if they grasp that fact. Remember, you can be a neocon and support gay rights and abortion. They welcome people with those positions. You can actually be okay with socialized health care too.
You can stay a neocons and be quite liberal on every domestic issue. It’s the Foreign Policy stuff that makes for trouble. There you have to toe the line. How is that really any different from many liberals we know?
Real libertarians are principled and consistent in ways that a lot of folks just aren’t right now. The anti-war libertarians are just as hard on Obama as they were on Bush as they were on Clinton as they were on Bush. Again, this messes up the left narrative – a narrative that plays down its own tendency to play partisan games and cut people defying its own principles slack when convenient. The liberals I know do this weird thing which thing where they embrace Obama while attacking his actual policies. It’s schizophrenic. Or they pretend the bad things he does need to be blamed on others. It’s part of the strange, unremarked upon, and nearly universal inconsistency we see on Facebook all the time. I see people on Facebook decrying an Obama policy one day and then posting these “Awwww!” pictures of him and Michelle dancing together the next. They take umbrage when you point out that they are being inconsistent – but does anyone link automatically link personal authenticity to personal consistency any longer?
At a certain point, in its early stages, the Internet and emerging social media was interesting because of what it said. Now, what it won’t say, what it won’t discuss or talk about, is even more interesting.
A Book Chat with Richard Wolin on Wind from the East, on the French Moaists and their original hostility to May 1968, and the merger between the anarchists and Maoists after the first botched 1968. The tensions within Maoism and Post-Maoism seem to be encapsulated in this, to use an ironic work, “problematic.” So the Maoist point of reference is moved away from 1974 afterwards for “cultural revolution,” sort of merges in cultural politics one sees in the Foucault-inspired left in both France and America. One sees a rightward shift after 1968 in France for many of the Maoists who shifted towards the nouvelle philosophie, and while one sees Alain Badiou as a development of the period, there is a highly problematic tendency of the Post-Maoists in France to resemble the Post-Trotstkyists in the US.
I wish Wolin would have gone into more detail about the influence of the Alhusserian strain other than Foucault particularly given the popularity of Ranciere these days, but we can’t always get what we want.
I have talked to everyone from die-hard Eurasian (read: Russian) Nationalists, who seem to the think Putin is the walking manifestation of a meritocratic Russian nationalism that will one day rule of Europe and Asia. Frankly, given the massive capital flight out of Russia, this seems like dreaming for a second coming of Stalin. I suppose one knows the future by its wish fulfillment. As I write this there is almost monarchical pomp over Putin’s reassumption of power, and protests in the streets. RT, which I call Radio Free US, has some great programming, but it is a Putin-friendly arm of Russian state and it good not to forget that. Sadly, the same is true for most of the UK, and so the recent debacle involving Assuange’s show is met with the liberal critique of tepid variety:
US cables released by WikiLeaks in December 2010 paint a dismal picture of Putin’s Russia as a “virtual mafia state”. Has Assange read them? It seems extraordinary that Assange – described by RT as the world’s most famous whistleblower – should team up with an opaque regime where investigative journalists are shot dead (16 unsolved murders) and human rights activists kidnapped and executed, especially in Chechnya and other southern Muslim republics. Strange and obscene.
There is a long dishonourable tradition of western intellectuals who have been duped by Moscow. The list includes Bernard Shaw, the Webbs, HG Wells and André Gide. So Assange – whether for idealistic reasons, or simply out of necessity, given his legal bills and fight against extradition to Sweden – isn’t the first. But The World Tomorrow confirms he is no fearless revolutionary. Instead he is a useful idiot.
But like the the Eurasian nationalists and Putin apologists that Luke Harding cannot stomach, he ultimately sees things in same jilted hope for a Cold War area unipolar world. So why do so many leftists take the enemy of my enemy is my friend approach to politics? It’s hard to say, but it is a simpletons move. Still, this is what shows you who is serious in politics: the left is not neither is the right, because you see simple platitudes and not facts being marshalled for decision making. We live in a broadly liberal movement, but not liberal-left in the way American’s understand it. Chomsky is right to point out that if you Foreign Policy, The Financial Times, The Economist, the Wall Street Journal (prior to Murdock), you got honest news and detailed specifics because those who are in power need that in way those who merely dream of power don’t.
NPR is an example of this: It is liberal media in both senses: in the sense that it serves soft capitalist interests and that it placates the sensibilities of the center-to-center-left liberal. It is mid-brow/mid-cult capriciousness consumption plus decent news with a milder (but still dangerous) US-tinged corporate slant. In coverage of the French elections and the Greek elections, one could hear defenses of Sarkozy passed off as impartial: the American left always secretly wants to be the European center right–capitalism with a human face. Although if one actually knew the rhetoric of in Sarkozy in daily life, or if one took time to see how religious the rhetoric of David Cameron was, the vapidity of the American left is the European center-right meme would be apparent.
Still, an example of the good news “liberals” give to themselves: Take the Planet Money podcast In A Leaderless World, Who Wins?, which is based on Ian Bremmer and Nouriel Roubini‘s notion that “even is America is not declining, we aren’t a hegemon anymore, and despite word to contrary, it is unlikely that Russia or China will be it either as both have serious issues that largely unaddressed, and I’ll quote here instead of paraphrase:
This is not a G-20 world. Over the past several months, the expanded group of leading economies has gone from a would-be concert of nations to a cacophony of competing voices as the urgency of the financial crisis has waned and the diversity of political and economic values within the group has asserted itself. Nor is there a viable G-2 — a U.S.-Chinese solution for pressing transnational problems — because Beijing has no interest in accepting the burdens that come with international leadership. Nor is there a G-3 alternative, a grouping of the United States, Europe, and Japan that might ride to the rescue.
Today, the United States lacks the resources to continue as the primary provider of global public goods. Europe is fully occupied for the moment with saving the eurozone. Japan is likewise tied down with complex political and economic problems at home. None of these powers’ governments has the time, resources, or domestic political capital needed for a new bout of international heavy lifting. Meanwhile, there are no credible answers to transnational challenges without the direct involvement of emerging powers such as Brazil, China, and India. Yet these countries are far too focused on domestic development to welcome the burdens that come with new responsibilities abroad.
We are now living in a G-Zero world, one in which no single country or bloc of countries has the political and economic leverage — or the will — to drive a truly international agenda. The result will be intensified conflict on the international stage over vitally important issues, such as international macroeconomic coordination, financial regulatory reform, trade policy, and climate change. This new order has far-reaching implications for the global economy, as companies around the world sit on enormous stockpiles of cash, waiting for the current era of political and economic uncertainty to pass. Many of them can expect an extended wait.
In the interview, Bremmer talks about how the Chinese growth model must change, not be based on 21th century mercentilism, and raise net-GDP which makes it far more unstable than it appears now. He points the contradictions exposed in the Bo Xilai, which of course is painted in the liberal media as a story of ruthlessness (I saw this headline in HuffPo, NYTimes, etc) and fails to mention Bo’s popularity among the Chinese Left, the fact that Aei Wei and other luminaries praised him. But the liberal reformers (in both the positive and negative sense) have used this to push for change in China, against both the Dengish middle and the Maoists left, or at least that is what is passed along in the media in South Korea. Bremmer has a point: there is a fundamental problem to the paradoxes of PRC’s strange blend of New Confucianism, Legalism, and Maoism with mercentilism-esque State Capitalism. Although as the London Review of books point it, it also points out that there is a move to try re-centralize as Maoism is beginning to start on a public now see the benefits:
In Chongqing there was more emphasis than in some other places on redistribution, justice and equality, and because the province was already highly industrialised, state-owned enterprises were important to its model. Chongqing’s experiment with inexpensive rented housing, its experiment with land trading certificates, its strategy of encouraging enterprises to go global: all these, under the rubric ‘the state sector progresses, the private sector progresses,’ contributed to society’s debate. Chongqing may not have offered a perfect blueprint, and it’s hard to know whether Bo himself was corrupt, but its architects stressed the importance of equality and common prosperity, and tried to work towards them.
The Chongqing experiment, launched in 2007, coincided with the global financial crisis, which made a new generation feel less confident of the benefits of free-market ideology. The policies followed in Chongqing demonstrated a move away from neoliberalism at a time when the national leadership was finding it harder to continue with its neoliberal reforms. What the Chongqing incident now offers the authorities is an opportunity to resume its neoliberal programme. Just after Bo was sacked the State Council’s Development and Research Centre held a forum in Beijing at which the most prominent neoliberals in China, including the economists Wu Jinglian and Zhang Weiying, announced their programme: privatisation of state enterprises, privatisation of land and liberalisation of the financial sector. At almost the same time, on 18 March, the National Development and Reform Commission issued a report on ‘Important Points and Perspectives on the Deepening of Economic Structural Reform Priorities’. It contained plans for the privatisation of large sections of the railways, education, healthcare, communications, energy resources and so on. The tide of neoliberalism is rising again. But it won’t go unchallenged, even when left-wing websites have been closed down. In the past ten days both the People’s Daily and the Guangming Dailyhave devoted several pages to the achievements of state-owned enterprises and the argument against privatisation.
According to several reports, Bo and Zhou had been plotting a smear campaign against future Chinese leader Xi Jinping, while planning to install Bo as a high-level official.
So who knows if all those liberals know they are spreading p.r. related to the PRC’s politoburo. I guess one can say that Assuage is not the only useful idiot. But there this big trouble in big China, and the signal to move investment into India and Brazil as well as Latin America is telling. Canada’s turning to China is telling too, but perhaps short-sited ultimately. The one thing is true: The 1%, to use Occupy’s somewhat vapid term, thinks in global terms in ways Occupiers, despite all their rhetoric, don’t comprehend.
While I am endorsing “Liberal” media for news, let me point you to a serious liberal podcast that I have come to like for its honest wonkiness: Bruno and the Professor is good, honest liberal Keynesianism. That has all the weaknesses that Keynesianism does: It ignores that stagflation, not just neo-liberalization, was part of why things were abandoned: Neo-liberalization was a political project empowered by stagflation, and as Bruno and Professor point out, was often started by Carter, not Reagan. Anyway, their analysis of the brain-drain in Southern Europe to Germany, explains, for the first time, what the ECB could be doing, no order explanation of the sado-monetarism adopted by the Germans was really that coherent.
Now, before you critique me with “Why are you endorsing managerialism and the state?” Who says I am, but to change the world, you must see the world as it is. The abstractions, hypotheses, and refusal to understand managerial logic and the flows of capital that under-grid it is a refusal to be able to offer a real counter-point. To have a theory of what politics should be, one must see what politics is.
Jamie McAfee is a Ph.D. candidate in Rhetoric and Composition and a long-time friend and former colleague of mine. Jamie and I both were involved in the early “skeptic’s movement” in middle Georgia and are both atheists. We have both, although from entirely different grounds, taken issue with sloppy epistemology, naive views of the sociology and ideology around the scientific community, and problems with scientism; however, it is also clear that we disagree fundamentally on what is at stake in the problems of the “Skeptic’s movement” and “New Atheism” as problems of the practices of the scientific community and what makes a conceptual distinction of the demarcation line.
This also begins my “marginalia on skeptical thinking” in which I will interview and interrogate different thinkers who adopt various postures in regards to science as a means of knowing, skepticism as a means to philosophical inquiry, and doubt as a part of a dialectical project. Often this series will venture away from politics directly, and into the realms of science, science communication, rhetoric of science, the philosophy of science, sociology of scientific community, science journals, as well as epistemology, onthology, and the semantics of methodology.
Skepoet: You and I have been complaining about the rhetoric in the North American/Australian Skeptic’s movement and in the lay cheerleading for ”science” for a while. While I think I am probably more “pro-science” in the way many in the Skeptic’s movement mean than you, but we have both been accused of being anti-science for pointing out the unthinking ideological categories that are hidden in framing in the presentation and even design of scientific work. We are also both skeptical of the scientific community’s representation in popular culture (Dawkin’s, Hawking, etc) who have written off rhetorical and philosophical criticism of ideas. How do you see your own relationship to science and, how is it different from the post-modern strawman that is often thrown at many of who “skeptical” of the “Skeptic’s movement” claim to objectivity?
Jamie McAfee: I’ll start by explaining “what my problem is” with the Skeptics. I’ve got four big, closely related, beefs with the skeptic movement. I’m generalizing, of course, but this is what I’m seeing from those guys:
1. They describe science using what we might (as sloppy shorthand) call a naive modernist or neo-positivist perspective. That point of view is, as an ideology for empowering scientists, just fine, but it’s really untenable as a way to discuss what science is or to talk about the place of science in society or in public debate.
2. They are still fighting the science wars, and they seem to think that any effort to discuss the cultural embeddedness of science is extreme relativism and nihilism. I think that science can be subject to extrinsic politics (like, for example, if a granting agency demanded certain results), and that is inappropriate. Richard Dawkins would agree. The next step though, is to think about all of the ways that politics are intrinsic to science. Scientific methodology does not allow you to be free of always in social context. That’s a truism (or deepity, if you will), so it’s not a big whoop. “Duh,” right? Well, go tell some of the Skeptic spokespeople to stop making fun of people who try to interrogate science using that truism as a starting point. I don’t know if they would concede that truism as a truism (they probably would, actually), but they act as if it’s a threat when people actually try to act on that assumption.
3. They actively disparage non-scientific ways of knowing. Humanities inquiry and, yes, religion have well-developed, robust ways of talking about the world. In fact, for some kinds of problems, we are nowhere close to having built enough hard science for hard science to be as useful as those other ways of talking. A little modesty is in order. (I would say the same thing to some of the more extreme outposts of science studies like some of the post-Lacan business that was going around a couple of decades ago making some really extreme claims. But, you know, that was a faddish avant guard that doesn’t really represent science studies as I know it.)
4. This one is less closely related, but still related. . . the really naive engagement with the public and with their own movement. I haven’t been spent much time with a community that is as as unself-critical as them dudes. A specific place this pops up is in some of the more grotesque sexism that you see from people like Dawkins. That the Amazing Atheist has a following is noteworthy. I think that flows from their naivete in other areas.
Really, my complaint is that they have swallowed the philosophical problems introduced by the enlightenment hook, line, and sinker, and that they are really combative about it.
Why am I not the postmodern strawman?
The biggest difference between me and pretty much everybody in my field who does something like “science studies” and the postmodern strawman is that, to paraphrase Bruno Latour, we “believe” in “reality” and we respect that the practices we call “science” have a unique ability to address some kinds of problems. So like, science is real and it does stuff that other enterprises can’t do.
The biggest difference between how I would talk about science and how Skeptics talk about science is that I talk about science as an industry rather than an epistemological enterprise. I wish, frankly, to avoid the issues that informed the science wars, not to simply take a modified version of the humanities “side” (although, except for the Lacan people, that’s a bit of a strawman too, I think). Science is a rhetorical practice that includes the material, as does all rhetoric. The self correction and rigor of science, along with the increasingly huge networks of material stuff that it includes, make it uniquely powerful for making arguments (which are still just arguments) and for designing technical procedures.
That stance makes science MORE “real” than modernism allows, but it doesn’t divorce science from some of the different things we mean by “politics.” When I say that science is one way of knowing among many or that science is never free of culture, I don’t mean that there is no way to make a distinction between medicine and faith healing.
This is kind of a rhetorical appropriation of Latour, but it’s drawing from a lot of the assumptions of cultural studies oriented rhetoric and professional communication scholarship as well. Technical communication is about understanding a place in a network where material facts are translated into semiotic artifacts so that you can produce other artifacts to help actors make the system work, etc.
I was a rather enthusiastic booster of the Skeptic movment a few years ago, believe it or not. Read all the books and even the magazines. Watched my Penn and Teller. Watched all the youtube debates and followed all the gossip. But I’ve come to think of them as being really problematic. I know people who live in very conservative communities for whom the Skeptic thing is a lifeline, and I sympathize. I haven’t written off the concept of a Skeptic movement. But as it is, it’s a mess.
S.: What caused you to see the Skeptics movement as problematic?
J.M.: I think that 5-8 years ago when it was really getting rolling, when the “four horsemen” of atheism were really becoming widely popular and when big conventions like the Amazing Meeting were becoming a regular “thing,” it was a real breath of fresh air. I’ve always been a fan of some of the guys who’ve been in the business of debunking hookum, Shermer and Randi in particular, and to see that corner of pop culture really grow into something bigger that might stand up to the fundamentalists was pretty cool. Like, trading videos bashing Ray Comfort was a lot of fun. (I am, of course, remembering my experience of the skeptic movement here. I haven’t checked up on my history.)
I think the problem, for me, was that skepticism and atheism had made it’s initial splash as a pop culture “event,” it failed to really define itself in a self critical way, and some of the roots of the movement, particularly the science wars stuff I’ve alluded to earlier, have caused a bunch of trouble. The antipathy toward feminism, the snotty attitude about humanities studies of science, etc., seem rooted in that stuff. Dawkins also has his baggage from arguments about culture with Steven Gould. The other problem is that with some exceptions (Daniel Dennet being the big one, obviously) these guys aren’t trained in anything to do with philosophy. So it went, for me, from being a refreshingly honest response to the religious right to being an endorsement of a really problematic brand of commonsense, a synonym for which is “hegemony.”
I’ve kinda watched this thing unfold over the years and gotten increasingly antsy about it. I think maybe the realization that some of these guys (Shermer too) were embracing American styled libertarianism, along with several ugly incidents involving women in the Skeptic movement made me really think that there was a big strain of thought going on there that I was pretty actively repulsed by. That, along with re-reading stuff about the science wars (which I followed, vaguely, at the time as a teenager) made be really wonder if skepticism as a “movement” was something I could identify with. I’ve also done a lot more thinking about religion, and I’ve become bothered that the Skeptic movement defines religion in the fundamentalists terms. It seems to be that they are just reinforcing fundamentalism when they do that. So they aren’t even good at the thing that first attracted me anymore.
The Skeptic “movement” seems to be riddled with problems up and down. I’m particularly troubled by people like Dawkins and Harris who use their authority as “experts” to talk about philosophy and theology when their expertise is in neither. But I’m also troubled by some of the 4Chan like troll culture and the misogyny that you see on the bottom end of the online skeptic community.
As I said before, I sympathize with people for whom atheism provides a way to participate in an alternative community. For me, though, the past few years have been a process of growing increasingly annoyed as this community has developed.
S.: For me the biggest offender was Sam Harris who seems to try to naturalize a political philosophy that is basically a form of militant Benthamite utilitarianism, but even Michael Shermer, whose tone I like more, tries to naturalize markets and conflates the rhetoric of libertarian capitalism with natural selection–ignoring the utter inefficiency of natural selection and its incredibly high failure rate (99.9 of all species that ever existed are extinct). I actually see this as an ideologically motivated ignoring of the demarcation line even in the terms of analytic philosophy. What do you think about the demarcation line?
J.M.: Sam Harris is undoubtedly the worst of those guys, in terms of his work as a public intellectual. Dawkins is worse, for me, in the way he abuses his authority as a preeminent scientist, and he’s done worse in terms of bad behavior, but Harris is, as a thinker, really pathetic. The fact that he gets invited to talk to people about philosophy is a symptom of a problem. I do like Shermer more, even now. I’ve stopped reading his books, but his rhetoric is a lot more modest, even if his claims sometimes aren’t.
By “demarcation line,” I assume you mean between science and “not science”?
I think it’s a sticky wicket. It’s important to have some way to distinguish between the two, but I don’t know of a way to do it that is clean or problem free. I don’t think there is or could be one. What I would say is that science is a social practice that scientists do. It’s not anything else, and when you try to base demarcation on some kind of epistemological something or other, you have erred seriously. I’d base the demarcation on practice, and I’d want to perform that demarcation on the specific circumstances of specific disciplines. So, like, the demarcation in medicine is not the same as psychiatry (I mention those two because there is a lot of messy overlap and because I study therapeutic rhetoric), and neither are the same as for physics. There will always be a way to deconstruct that demarcation, but ce la vie.
When I say “based on practice,” there are two good ways that I know of that you can do that demarcation. One is the “Latour/Harraway” techno-science way, and the other is the Collins and Evans expertise way. I’d endorse, perhaps, some combination of those two ways.
The “Latour/Harraway” (also John Law and the whole Actor Network school) method, which I’ve alluded to in a previous answer, is to understand science as the enrollment of people and objects into networks. The shape of those networks might be variable, but the object are going to have to co-operate. So, like, while the rubber often meets the road through texts of different kinds, and while we are ultimately going to understand science as rhetoric, the objects have to co-operate for it to be science. I could spend all afternoon in an occult bookstore, and no matter how robust the networks of text I might find there, I wouldn’t learn anything that would enable me to make a rocket work. That’s because their was at no point a disciplined transference of data into the network. When networks get really big they get more stable and reliable. So evolution is probably true because there is SOOO much independently collected data that has been incorporated into the networks of practice that study it and that USE it for things like vaccines or animal science.
The “Collins and Evans” method is to understand legitimacy in terms of expertise, tacit knowledge, and inculcation into a community. That’s not particularly novel, but they develop that a lot more, and they spend a lot of time worrying over how people who don’t have accredited expertise can be experts. There’s a famous rhetoric of science article (well, we read it as that, but it’s really just British science studies) about sheep farmers who argued with scientist about how widely nuclear fallout was going to disperse. The sheep farmers, because they had a lot more tacit knowledge and local expertise, were a lot more right than the scientists. You get a lot of that kind of “commensuability of expertise” stuff in studies of anything to do with agriculture. They also have the category of “interactional expertise” which is when you understand, tacitly, the problems of a discipline and can “talk the talk.” A lot of what you learn in graduate school is interactional expertise. I have never run a study about teaching composition because I don’t do research about that topic, but am a hare away from being ABD in a professional communication program, so I could go to a conference and have a conversation, perhaps even a heated argument, about somebody else’s research. Many parents with autistic children could sit down with someone who researches autism and have a peer-to-peer conversation about it.
I think that maybe instead of demarcation, I want to think about two different kinds of legitimacy. One is some kind of “downwardly” discriminating legitimacy, which, I think, you could pretty clearly talk about using some combination of the two frameworks presented above.
Of course, being a rhetoric guy, I’m not so sure that “downstream” is the direction we need to think about, and so there are issues of talking about how to critically engage science without cordoning off “bad” science from “good science,” and issues of talking about how the public recognizes legitimacy. The latter is pretty much a straightforwardly rhetorical (or maybe political) problem, but the former is tricky. It is important that we DO NO draw the demarcation retroactively so that we’re ahistorically describing science as a progressive march. That means recognizing errors as being “science.”
Boundary policing, of course, involves issues of social legitimacy (cultural capital might be a term I would use), but it involves a lot of deliberative rhetoric about process and method. Studying boundary policing has at times been a preoccupation of rhetoric. It involves logic and data and disciplinary rules. I don’t want to imply otherwise.
Being able to explain yourself in the language of science using the logic of your discipline is what makes you a scientist. For me that is the end of the story. I’m not saying that language or logic can’t be (and shouldn’t be) interrogated, but that when we demarcate “science” from “not-science,” that is the only valid way to do it, for me anyway. If you’d like to to explain the demarcations of process of a specific site, you can go in there and study how they police themselves. These are ongoing struggles that happen in particular scientific disciplines. I’m NOT saying that there are no logical or methodological rules that make science science. It might be that I’m refusing to give a philosophical answer and am giving a sociological answer instead because I think that’s a more appropriate way for an non-scientist to think about science. So it might be that you and I have an incommensurability problem here.
You are onto something very serious when you complain that rhetoric might be doing a bit of a power grab when we want to posit deliberation and argument as the key to demarcation. That’s astute. It’s an issue that we sometimes call the “Goankar problem” after a the author of a very contentious essay about science studies in rhetoric. My knee jerk answer is that I’m trying actually to deffer to the expertise of scientists, but that IS a cop out, so screw that answer. I won’t get all into it here, but Alan Gross’s “Rhetorical Hermeneutics” is a very good book containing the Goankar essay, a bunch of responses, and a bunch of commentary. There are ways to talk about that issue. We sound like we are saying that “everything is rhetoric all the time,” and that is thorny. I don’t think that’s quite what we’re saying, actually. (I think we are saying “rhetoric is a vocabulary for talking about practices all the time.”) But it’s a pretty central issue. I was tempted to bring it up before, but didn’t. I’m glad you caught it.
2. It’s important to note that people can be “doing” science and doing it badly. Some of the sillier evolutionary psychology that gets reported in the popular media is very bad science because the arguments that they make connecting their data to their conclusions is bad, but it’s still psychology. It’s psychology because they are playing by the rules of their discipline, but because it’s right. “Science” does not means something is accurate or good. Deeming something “science” just means that we are saying the people involved are following certain kinds of rules. I think that plenty of “science” is flimsy and transient. It’s still science. We might conclude some sub-disciplines are out to lunch and still say they are doing science.
“Science is what scientists do” is only relativistic (or even tautological) if we put “science” on a pedestal or essentialize science so that it is something other than a kind of practice. (And if it’s a kind of practice, the practitioners get to decide the boundaries.) Because I differ to scientists to discern what science is doesn’t mean I can’t, even as a more informed than average layperson with no particular expertise, make judgements about their work (sometimes anyway). They still get to decide what science is. I can say “this is really shitty science, and people should stop doing it.” Nothing about “science is what scientist do” means that I can have discernment. As somebody (don’t remember who. . Feyeraband?) said, it’s foolish to think that science should only be of concern to scientists.
3. Both the Latour model and the Collins and Evans model I mention are very much concerned with practical knowledge, materialism, and efficacy. Things that don’t involve certain kinds of data or manipulating the material in a disciplined way are not science, and we can have some faith in the legitimacy of “science” because it is able to incorporate material things into its practice. (This, of course, gets messy in social sciences or medicine.) It’s not magic. Or rhetoric, for that matter.
I’m not proposing that we replace demarcation with some kind of free for all, but that we think about science as disciplined ways of acquiring practical knowledge. It is NOT episteme. It is some combination of explicitly discusses techne and tacit, generally unacknowledged phronesis. The “rules” of science are designed to patrol the boundaries of science, but also to accomplish things.
4. “So while it may be true there are always ways to deconstruct the demarcation line, it does not logically follow that there is no demarcation line or lines.” Agreed. Here’s an issue though. . .science is often driven bey exigency (there’s my using “rhetoric as a vocabulary”), and exigencies do not always match up very well with the disciplinary division we have. Science is ontologically and epistemologically messy, and dismissing the difficulty of demarcation as “deconstruction” (I said it first. . .I’m no accusing you of anything) is deeply misguided. Here’s a statement from the profile page of a rhetorician working at Los Alamos National lab:
“Many of the ‘big science’ problems that come to the national labs are “messy.” That is, they aren’t clearly a physics problem, or a chemistry problem, or an engineering problem. Like in the fable of the blind men around the elephant, multi-disciplinary communities often stand around these problems unable to define the problem in a way that they all can begin collaborative work. Dr. XXX uses qualitative tools to begin to build shared understandings of the problem space, and he uses graphical methods to map out the different areas of knowledge about the problem so that interdisciplinary communities can begin to talk and perform work.“
I’m my brief encounters with actual scientists (and because I generally study how scientific rhetoric is used publicly, I don’t have the experience doing that that some rhetoricians do) and conversations with rhetoricians who work with scientists (we do that more than you’d think)I see a lot of messiness and disciplinary miscegenation, to borrow a word from Latour. I’m, as a little part time job, working on something right now that’s a bizarre, from a demarcation perspective, interdisciplinary, political, and industry project. (I’m the English monkey who is helping write some reports for a big meeting.)
Latour, and Harraway, argue that impurity is THE defining feature of science. Not A feature, but the very thing that makes science more efficacious than other ways of knowing. It’s not a trick I’m doing to unnecessarily problematize something; it’s the thing that makes science powerful. So when I seem like I’m circumventing the demarcation issue, it’s for more serious reasons than it might seem. Boundary policing is crucial, but I’m not sure that “demarcation,” in the way you mean it, gets me anywhere. If it gets somebody else somewhere (and, hey, Collins and Evans have two whole chapters about it, so they don’t agree with me), that’s fine.
The major objection you could make that I would agree with is that I’m saying that science is only science when institutionally recognized authority recognizes it. Because science is an industry housed in universities, government labs, etc, I’m essentially saying that science is what happens in those spaces. I’m also making it difficult to think about the history of science before the 20th century when that infrastructure existed. That’s a can of worms I’m not that interested in. (Although it’s really serious stuff.) Peer review, for example, would be a standard I’d think that most efforts to handle demarcation would discuss, and those institutions are where the people who do peer review work.
There’s a very good early rhetoric if science article by John Campbell tracing the development of the scientific article from a brief note that reported some novelty to a developed genre that discussed methodology, etc. That development can be understood in part as a growing sophistication in our efforts to control the material, and it can also be understood as the development of a style of argument. Eventually you had to be able to argue in a certain way to participate in the conversation. So, like, where on that spectrum is it “science”? What about people outside of those institutions who follow scientific rules? Can we gerrymander in some practices from outside of the establishment? I’m at the boundary of my concern right now, but this is seriously problematic, perhaps destabilizing stuff. Imma leave it alone though.
I think the question you concluded with cuts to the heart of all the unpacking of my defense that I just did. Scientists discipline themselves in particular ways so that they remain within the boundaries of science. There are good reasons that they do that (most notably, to try to filter out, or at least responsibly account for, their own cultural position and bias . . . that’s the goal anyway, to construct some kind of objectivity), and the recursiveness of how more “informed” people like scientists, and hobbyists, approach problem solving has advantages. I’d say that hobbyists and scientists are approaching problems from disciplined perspectives, and while the “disciplining” works according to different rules, it allows for the creation of tacit expertise (slipping into Collins and Evan speak here).
Again, science is what scientists do, but we can recognize expertise in non-scientists. Perhaps using tools that scientists have developed.
Skepoet: So it’s been a few weeks since we talked, but we have seen a seeming organized crack down on Occupy in the States. The Occupy Seoul has long since died down. I am going to shot-gun a few question at you. What is going on in Occupy Philly? In a recent conversation, you told me there was tensions between the Unions and the activists in Philly? Has there been scapegoating of anarchists in Philly?
Nik: Occupy Philly, in the vein of many of the other Occupations, has largely split among people who favor more direct action and not yielding an inch, and a group who want to accommodate the city at every turn. Most of the discussion has centered on if we will move from City Hall across the street to Thomas Paine Plaza. There is a federal/state/city infrastructure project that calls for the refurbishing of the space we are Occupying and for an ice skating rink to be built there. There are many issues that cropped up because of this. First, the permit application had no end date. When the permit was returned by the city, it said a TBD date for the renovation project. Second, it’s union work, which I’ll get into more in the second question. Third, the renovations would provide more disabled access to the subway station and plaza where we are camped. We tried to contact the city about the move, but received no response, other than to say they wouldn’t issue another permit until we moved. This brought about concerns of if they will issue it at all. A proposal to move was brought up at the General Assembly and it was soundly defeated. This led to a splinter group calling themselves Reasonable Solutions to declare that the GA wasn’t speaking for the Occupation, and that they were the real Occupiers and they were going to negotiate with the city. I’ll get into what followed in the third question.
The tension between the Unions and the activists is simply jobs. The trade unions want their jobs. The project creates 20 permanent jobs, and over a hundred temporary jobs. The Union leadership asked the activists to move, and promised assistance. The issue there is that the Radical Caucus thinks moving is giving in, and wants concessions from the city and promises of more help besides moving from the Unions. In addition, the trades have a reputation for getting what they want and not delivering.
As far as the scapegoating of anarchists goes, there has been much of it from the beginning. Certain groups, including some of the Reasonable Solutions people, have been circulating the theory that there are anarchists being bused in to sway votes at the GA. Cindy Millstein, an anarchists activist and writer, has been their target. The City Paper did a wonderful job of pointing out that Philadelphia has one of the largest, most diverse, and active anarchists population in the country. The corporate media jumped on board the scapegoating this week. There was an issue where a homeless gentleman spray painted and defecated on the walls underground. The Daily News blamed this on anarchists. They also called the people who wanted to follow the vote of the GA “mostly anarchists.” We have not had many arrests here, but the ones that have come lately have been violent in nature. The media has connected this to anarchy for the most part. Fortunately, in serious incidents, like a rape that was alleged, they didn’t tie that to the anarchists.
One other thing that’s become a problem is the homeless. Not that they’re there or causing problems, because that happens everywhere. The issue is that various groups are speaking for them instead of letting them speak for themselves. Some people who want to stay are saying they should because otherwise it makes the homeless move as well, and a lot of them stayed there before we Occupied. Valid point, perhaps, but not one that a group of young people who have homes to go to should be making. The city is claiming that we are damaging the homeless by providing them with food and protection in the group. They claim that the homeless would be moving into shelters if not for us. Not accurate, and again, speaking for people who may be willing to speak for themselves if asked. The one good thing is we managed to wrangle 4 gyms and another property to use as emergency shelters for them.
Skepoet: Did Philly act in solidarity with OWS in general strike on the 17th?
Nik: Philly did act in solidarity with the call to action. They marched in an event to the Market Street bridge, which the state of PA has said needs to be repaired or replaced, and sat down in the middle of the street and blocked traffic on one of the busiest streets in the city during rush hour. Even this did not come without conflict, as the original organizers of the event would not let people join in on the street who wanted to. The radical caucus was upset by this, because some of them were looking to get arrested.
Skepoet: Can you describe the poilitical orientation of the each faction in more detail? Have Democrats been more involved? Are there large groups of libertarians and Ron Paulites in the group?
Nik: There are some Democrats involved. MoveOn, Union leadership, and politicians affiliated with the Dems, like Jesse Jackson, have all stopped by to offer support. The good news about the horizontal setup is it’s been impossible to really co-opt because unless they join working groups and show up for a lot of GAs, they’re not making decisions. There are enough different factions, ranging from Paulites to syndicalists, that are wary of everyone. There is a Paulite tent. For the most part, they kind of operate in their own world. I think there are a lot of people tied into the divisiveness that affiliate themselves with those libertarians and Paulites. They built a propane heating room, which didn’t sit well with the city because of the fact that there was basically a bomb sitting on their doorstep. Also, it’s hard to get a handle on the guy who was in charge of the Facebook page and started the splinter group Reasonable Solutions. I’ve had a lot of people say he is “weirdly conservative.” The constant desire to march on the Fed as the solution to all problems is proposed by them constantly, and regularly defeated. As far as the factions, it’s not political lines per se. There are anarchists that are part of the Radical Caucus and ones that pushing for the move. There are union rank and file members who are pushing to stand up to the city, and union leadership that’s pushing to work with the city. The divisiveness has become less about political lines and more along the lines of issues that have cropped up down there.
Skepoet: Has any paranoia sat-in within the movements?
Nik: As far as the paranoia, it’s there. People can feel the inevitable crackdown of the city coming. Living on the streets breeds a specific paranoia in and of itself. People’s lives are there, and their stuff is there, and the fact is that some people view an encampment as an opportunity to take things that don’t belong to people. In addition, the media has been producing divisive articles, so that has caused a lot of people to accuse other people of looking out for themselves. In addition, the lines of division listed above have the daily ability to cause people to think that people who don’t believe what they believe are going to go behind their backs. There actually have been groups that set up secret meetings with the city, and filed for permits elsewhere. Since this movement, has in general, become about holding land in the face of power and not about the original meaning of pointing out what is wrong with the system, it allows paranoia to run rampant because the city does actually want their land back. There are simple ways to fix this, and to make the movement evolve, so we will see if the GA is willing to bring new ideas to the table, or if they are going to descend further into the rabbit hole where a plaza in the middle of the city is the center of the universe.
Skepoet: Do you worry that the focus on the occupation actually leads occupiers to miss the what is at stake or do you think this actually clarifies matters or, perhaps, both in various proportions? Would you explain the reasons for your answer there as well?
Nik: That’s my biggest concern right now. Holding a piece of land to defy the state may be admirable, but it isn’t effective. In Tahrir Square, they solidified one demand and so were able to keep coming until it was met. We don’t have that in the U.S. On the plus side, it has awakened many people to the idea that we have to do more. Other avenues and ideas are being tossed around to both implement now and bring about after the Occupation ends. I think the issue comes from the fact that there are a lot of utopians who think that this Occupation is run the way things should be- consensus-based horizontal democracy. They think that the whole world should be that way. Anything that suggests taking a step back and evaluating or trying something else is met with claims of not supporting the GA, the Occupation, or the Revolution, depending on who you talk to. Now, as far as the people who view this as more of an opportunity to reach people and awaken them to the struggle that’s going on between the classes, they have realized that they have to go out among the people instead of isolating themselves in a place where the media and the politicians can take pot shots at us. This has lead to a more visible support among other groups and attempts at education. The unions came out in their colors yesterday, and explained more about organizing and what they’re trying to do about class struggles. It’s a pleasant surprise to hear the unions talking about class. More direct action has come about. The march on the bridge, occupying a Wells Fargo bank, and more planned for the future. I feel like these actions speak to a lot of people that the real action is going to take place away from City Hall, and out in the streets. We can have continued events and education to mark the Occupation, but I think a majority realizes now that it’s not about the place; it’s about what’s going on everywhere.
Skepoet: Are you aware of the anarchist essay from a few years ago: “occupy everything and demand nothing?”
Nik: I am not familiar with it.
Skepoet: Its central thesis is that any demands legitimate the current political system and that “you should demand nothing because everything is already yours.” I find this fascinating because I think there is truth to it, but I also think it leads to some really inchoate politics when it isn’t articulated directly. Do you think there should be demands?
Nik: I don’t think there should be any demands in the Occupy movement. The only demand I’d personally support is revolution anyway, and this isn’t that. I also think it would be far easier to co-opt if demands were introduced. If our demand was reducing the economic inequality, the Republicans would proclaim tax cuts were the way to go, and the Dems would say to support Obama’s job bill. This needs to be a movement of action, not of begging and waiting for an answer. Now as far as the “everything is already yours” part of the idea, I suppose that’s a philosophical debate rather than a practical one. The practical matter is one class owns nearly everything, and has the ability to get more, which they are currently using with devastating consequences to the working class. I would say “you should demand nothing, but do everything” would be a far more effective thing to say about Occupy.
Skepoet: I am going to push you on this, we’re both on the left, but when you say one class owns everything, I am not quite sure you’re right: Do CEO’s or the bourgeoisie owe everything? Here’s the crux of the question: CEO’s are not truly speaking capitalists in the strict sense, they’re labor aristocracy or the managerial class. Yet many of them are in the 1%, and many petite bourgeoisie are not. So how do you see this class entanglement actually breaking down? Furthermore, how do you see this as related to the 99% rhetoric of #Occupy?
Nik: That’s fair. It was a hyperbolic statement. Do I think there needs to be a new way of breaking down class? Yes. Working in finance has shown me that even people who are not capitalists and even those who are not wealthy will work actively to oppress people in other classes. I imagine you do have to step away from the Marxist definition of class as only relating to the means of production. Instead of the Victorian model of the petite bourgeoisie who mimicked the behavior of the capitalist class, today’s labor aristocracy and managers, as well as many workers, try to mimic the values of the capitalist class in terms of greed, patriotism, and the thought process that the capitalists earned everything they had and they deserve it. What the labor aristocracy and management class do possess is capital, therefore the own potential forces of repression and they own people’s excess labor tied up into a social concept that has come to dominate the meaning of life in the U.S. I imagine at this point, the State would be less likely to defend factories from workers than they would banks and financial centers. I do support a redefinition of the classes and the relationship between the classes in general. I’m sure someone has tackled that, but I haven’t come across it yet. Some of the 1%, especially people who don’t own the means of production, may find themselves siding with some of the ideas of Occupy. I think the 99% is crap. I think it lumps people into a mass that has the potential to silence them, because some of us do want to see revolutionary change. Some people want reform. Some people have no idea what they want. It works in today’s media, but as a real concept, it’s ridiculous.
Skepoet: It was done by Maoist thinkers in China, but eventually led to Third Worldism, and was done by James Burnham in the Trotskyite mold, but he predicted a fascist victory in World War 2 and when that panned out wrong, he became a neo-conservative. So these thinkers haven’t been addressed in the more popular left. Do you think another part of the problem is that most of the Marxist and, honestly, social
anarchist rhetoric is around factories even though the means of production in most of the world now are far more subtle? There are many people working on this so it’s not entirely new or relegated marginal parts of the left, but it is an issue.
I suppose my question is that is #Occupy forcing us to deal with these problems and how do you see the increased pressure from the police and from internal factions clarifying things for you personally?
Nik: I personally think that’s a huge problem. Instead of worrying about the means of production, which is still a concern, I don’t think there is enough written about how the movers and holders of capital exploit workers and the unemployed. We talk about how it’s generally unfair, and how the system sucks, but we haven’t been able to connect the dots enough for people to understand.
I don’t think Occupy is forcing the masses to deal with this problem, but it is awakening an awareness of the problem, especially among the radical left. It is pointing out to the radical left that we are not connected with the workers, the unions, and the community-at-large though we should be. I think the police pressure is clarifying that for me, because there are a ton of people who have to deal with that pressure every day, for nothing more than standing there. The repression is a daily activity of the police in some communities, and it’s something we need to address on the left. The factionalization of the Occupy makes it clear to me that all leftists, and especially leftist organizations, have to make it a point to educate themselves on not just theory, but on interpersonal relationships and working with other groups. We may all have our own ideas about what is going to work, but we don’t have the ability that other organizations have about how to work together. It’s a standard practice of businesses to give training in that, and I think the left would be served learning it. It also showed me, again, how many people think that they’re way is the only way, and anyone who doesn’t agree is somehow damaging the movement. Trying to control a mass movement is just a wasted effort. I’ve learned that people should look to participate and help where they can. Especially, as this is a leaderless movement, this isn’t the action to try to impose preconceived notions and standards upon. The media and the capitalist system has done a good job of making people not trust any leaders, which ties into some anarchist groups as well. It’s a problem, because no revolutionary action has taken place without some kind of leadership, even if it’s a council. The GA is an interesting force, but it’s intentionally made to be difficult to pass motions. I don’t have a solution for how to find new leaders who can inspire the masses, or what kind leadership would be the best for a mass movement, but I know that this isn’t it.
Skepoet: Well, consensus decision making is not true or particularly radical. It’s commonly tried in new moments, but consensus organizations are easily taken over oddly. Do you think the square one element of everything is obfuscating that? Which groups have been better able to use to the census elements of the GA in Philly?
Nik: Sorry, I took a local reporter to task for his coverage of Occupy Philly, and I’ve been going back and forth with him about his characterization of all who don’t agree with the “Reasonable Solutions” group that is trying to invalidate the GA. He claims that we need liberal capitalists like them, and everyone who doesn’t agree with them are anarchists and socialists, so we’ll see what happens.
I hate consensus. It confuses enough people to allow anyone to slip in and take charge, especially when one group controls what comes to the vote. I think certain utopian groups think consensus is some kind of miracle way of governing and pushed it in the various GAs. Various groups have been able to use the elements. Depending on who you talk to, there are claims that people stack the vote during issues that concern them, or that it’s fine. I’d have to say the Radical Caucus and the Direct Action working group have used consensus well, but the thing is that every GA is livestreamed, and those votes and propositions on the chat there are taken into consideration, if not actually counted, and all the GAs are announced, so anyone can use it.
Skepoet: What, in your opinion, is a more realistic organizational method?
Nik: Man, I don’t know. I’m trying to learn about more effective organizations, but I don’t have the time right now. I wish I knew a way to keep from becoming bureaucratic and still be effective. If we could figure that out, I think the left would be able to make great gains.
Skepoet: Let’s talk about a few more things on the ground: Do how do you see Occupy Philly fairing in the winter? What preparations are being made?
Nik: Well, with hints from police sources and the behavior of the press and the city lately, I think there will be a crackdown long before winter starts. Latest hint is tomorrow the police have been ordered to remove us from downtown. Preparations are asking for more warm donations, planning more actions because marching in the cold is better than sitting, and many of us discussing different tactics such as occupying buildings or sending people home and holding weekly rallies instead.
Skepoet: Wasn’t there a move to roll yourselves back just before this happened in preparation for winter (or the Democratic Elections)?
Nik: Some of us were talking about it, but it never went further than that. I imagine the dialogue will continue, but the actions of the mayor and the police have lowered it as a priority.
Skepoet: Honestly, there is an argument that police actions are actually keeping Occupy relevant and improves its public image. How do you react to this argument?
Nik: It keeps it in the forefront of sensationalistic media. Independent media sources are reporting on it whether there is police suppression or not. It does improve its public image, among the people who can afford the news. Sadly, that’s not a lot of people that I’m trying to reach. I’ve lived in the largest open-air drug market in the country. People there rarely get their news from anything besides the free Metro or the 6 o’clock news on the local networks. There isn’t much positive coverage there no matter what happens, because those broadcasters need access to the mayor and the police commissioner. To me, we have to reach people in the communities independent of the media who are reporting on the crackdowns. I’m not opposed to them doing it, and sharing disturbing images that reach some people all over the country, but it’s just not enough for me. I wanted to be a journalist, and most of the reporting on #Occupy by major outlets has just been poor.
Skepoet: Why do you think it has been so poor?
Nik: Well, since Occupy, though an old tactic hasn’t been used in modern media’s time, they have no idea how to cover something ongoing that doesn’t fit into their box. I’ve taken enough journalism classes, and written for enough school papers, to know that modern journalists aren’t taught to think on their feet. Since it can’t be wrapped up into headline, soundbite, and a good guy vs. bad guy narrative, they are floundering. It has shown how the better commentary and investigative journalism has moved into new media instead of the classic forms, but, unfortunately for the left and #Occupy, the classic forms still reach the most people.
Skepoet: Well, I think we may be talking about this again in the future, but could you talk about the possibility of #Occupy reviving the labor movement in closing? I’ve enjoyed our discussion.
Nik: I think #Occupy showed an example of what labor should have been doing. It’s a movement where people aren’t backing down due to politics. At least here, we’ve marched in support of labor concerns, and labor has turned around and done some self-examination. It has made both the leaders and rank and file more politically involved, and caused them to realize that workers are still exploited, and they need to do something about it. In addition, it provided a link from labor to the younger generation. Everyone I’ve known knows someone in a union. What this did was make sure everyone was friends with and worked side by side with someone in a union, and it also made the unions realize that they have to stand up for workers that aren’t able to be in a union. I do have higher hopes for a more educational and politically-involved labor movement, at least in my city.
The first interview in this series is here.