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Interview with Tom O’Brien: One Marxism, MMT, and the Eurozone Crisis.

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. 

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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.

The Karl Marx credit card.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

The weasel in the fine print: Henwood illustrates Obamacare’s (un?)intended consequences

For the past four years in regards to Healthcare and education, I have heard a few of my liberal friends constantly argue that don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  Of course, this only applies if one is the enemy of the good, but the provision’s of the Democratic Healthcare reform are transparently not so good.  Doug Henwood has had a few posts, one at Jacobin, and the others on his blog, getting into the specifics of why:

Ah, vindication. Today’s Financial Times has has a front-page piece (“US business hits out at ‘Obamacare’ costs”) confirming the central point of the McKinsey survey: for many employers, it will be much cheaper to pay the penalties than cover full-time workers, and cut the hours for others so they fall under the definition of full-time and then don’t have to be covered. Retailers and fast-food chains are the most likely to do that, but there’s no reason that many other employers wouldn’t join in.

David Dillon, CEO of Kroger, put it succinctly: “If you look through the economics of the penalty the companies pay versus the cost to provide coverage, the penalty’s too low, or the cost of coverage is too high.” The penalty for not covering a worker is $2,000 a year — less than half the cost of covering a single worker ($4,664, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation), and less than a fifth the cost of covering a family ($11,429). Uncovered employees will be forced to buy coverage on the new insurance exchanges — with a government subsidy if their income is low enough— or pay the penalty themselves. You don’t need an MBA to figure out the math on that one.

So effectively this may end any affordable healthcare insurance at the low end of the employment spectrum, and the healthcare it will provide at the affordable rate in the private exchanges will actually reduce access to care.  We already see this in another post by Henwood:

The contract covering 42,000 Stop & Shop workers in MA, CT and RI expired last night with no agreement. The problem is the company’s Obamacare-prompted proposal to eliminate medical insurance and prescription coverage for part-timers. Because caps on coverage aren’t allowed under Obamacare and the current plan for PTers has a $20K cap, they say the cost of coverage for part-timers will increase to the same cost as for full-timers when this part of the law goes into effect.

So given that these will be forced on cooperatives that  for whose do receive subsidies (up to 400% of the federal poverty line at around 80K a year), but no minimum pricing beyond those subsidies effectively does make argument from the likes of the Heritage Foundation that this is a handout from one sector of the economy to another. They should know, it was originally their idea.  Given that there are few if little cost controls on the insurance companies or the hospitals, and the onus of keeping things affordable rely on almost solely on either the employer mandated 60% pay-in per employee or the healthcare exchanges, you can expect that at continued rates of growth of both employers and employees would could more easily afford the burden of the penalty for not carrying the insurance than buying it even in the exchanges.   Conservative press has already talked about the “sticker shock” of the premiums under Obamacare.  Healthcare inflation may have slowed, but no nearly enough.

In some ways this will make things look as if reforming healthcare was not a good idea, although the US would be effectively the only country who has decided to this completely by regulation and imposition of a market that has almost no direct socialized competent, and will thus make further attempts at reform more difficult due to its unintended consequences in the US despite the fact that almost all this was sole too us as steps are often marketed by progressives as a “beginning.”

This in some sense makes me wonder: given the origin of many of the provisions in this legislation, are all these consequences so unintended? So are the Democrats here being useful idiots, or is there something far more nefarious going on?

The New (Dis)Loyal Opposition: What are we doing here, anyway?

“I used to think I wrote because there was something I wanted to say. Then I thought, ‘I will continue to write because I have not yet said what I wanted to say’; but I know now I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.” — Mary Ruefle, “On Secrets” in Madness, Rack and Honey

When I changed jobs and began to focus more on teaching than research, and the chapter of Platypus Affiliated in Seoul went into hiatus when my compatriots and I both left the city, my blogging was pretty disaffected. I  flirted and at one point even announced that I was killing this blog after almost four years of using it.  Personally, I met my current partner and moved with her to a new city, and politically the fresh wounds of the flaming out of the promise of Occupy left me feeling like there wasn’t that much I needed to say. I wanted to write my poems, to do more research on my own time, and to travel around Asia.  Who has time to write cultural reviews and politics on some obtuse notion of “the left” when increasingly I didn’t think was really all that coherent.

Slowly, I realized I wanted to continue the engagement, but I didn’t just want to write it all myself. I wanted a few people to bounce ideas off of and to work as a sort of brain-storming collective blog: I wanted something to challenge myself out of the doldrums that I have gotten politically.  So I started asking writers who challenged me–in style, in ideas, in politics–aboard.  I did want a common set of backgrounds so that engagement would be fruitful, but I did not want people to agree with me.  I did not want to “host the conversation” either as other, better people already do just that, but to put in an semi-formal way a mission to get a more developed critique of liberal capitalist modernity out there, and to push my self out of my boredom.

At the same time, Douglas Lain and I started talking about “Pop the Left”–a show about how to lose friends and alienate people while asking the question: “What could a sense of socialist freedom be?  What could actually develop something to oppose capitalist modernity without being a rehash or an idealized conservatism”–but we know that a podcast or a blog won’t do that.  It was just to get us to ask the questions to ourselves: what can be done, now, that so much has been born and destroyed?  What  could even start a opposition culture?   We aren’t trying to form a new party, or even a new platform.

So in expanding the writers here at the (Dis)Loyal Opposition: we hope we can see the new questions emerge, and maybe start see how men and women can make start to change the material conditions of their existence. In order words, this is the challenge me to write something to which I want to listen.

Beyond Warm and Fuzzy Socialism to Vague and Hazy Socialism?: An uphill sentiment that signifies what exactly?

Recently, Jacobin has published ‘s recent words at the  Young Democratic Socialists conference. While I am thankful to Sunkara’s coining of the phrase and clarification of the concept “anarcho-liberal,”  I have watched both Jacobin under  Sunkara develop positions on market socialism or a refusal to denounce the Democratic Party which could be best be called “Marxo-liberal.”  By which I mean not the acknowledge that Marxian politics takes the  classical liberal project of 17th and 18th century outside of its own regression, but a failure to recognize the difference between the two tendencies entirely.   While I admire Jacobin for putting Marxian ideas back into wider circulation, it cannot be ignored that its flirtations with Neo-Keynesian-ism and other “feasible socialist” answers which aren’t actually all that feasible, nor its willingness to publish strawmen characterizations of Marxist economics which use basically liberal arguments, in, irony of irony, an issue called: Liberalism is dead.

This said, Sunkara’s recent talk at YDS was interesting:

Socialists don’t believe people should be held hostage to accidents of birth. We believe in a society with equal respect for all, one that will bring to fruition frustrated Enlightenment values of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Perhaps, socialists do just hold these principles: after all, the Sunkara’s publication is called Jacobin and not anything related to the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd internationals. But whatever socialist vision Sunkara is pushing, it is a fundamentally liberal one. It is actually the motto of the bourgeois revolutions that brought us the current systems of production.  For focus on equal respect for all, however, is telling.  Perhaps quoting Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program will illustrate exactly the point that Sunkara is missing:

Here, obviously, the same principle prevails as that which regulates the exchange of commodities, as far as this is exchange of equal values. Content and form are changed, because under the altered circumstances no one can give anything except his labor, and because, on the other hand, nothing can pass to the ownership of individuals, except individual means of consumption. But as far as the distribution of the latter among the individual producers is concerned, the same principle prevails as in the exchange of commodity equivalents: a given amount of labor in one form is exchanged for an equal amount of labor in another form.

Hence, equal right here is still in principle – bourgeois right, although principle and practice are no longer at loggerheads, while the exchange of equivalents in commodity exchange exists only on the average and not in the individual case.

In spite of this advance, this equal right is still constantly stigmatized by a bourgeois limitation. The right of the producers is proportional to the labor they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made with an equal standard, labor.

But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right, by its very nature, can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only — for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labor, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal.

But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society. Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

Sunkara’s focus, like that of the Social Democrats which refuse to truly oppose the Democratic party, is essentially in this mode even as he critiques (obliquely) the traps of social democracy.  Equal respect in every sense is even weaker than equal right.  We can end with another section of the Critique of the Gotha Program:

 Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution. After the real relation has long been made clear, why retrogress again?

Indeed, why?  We have been through the principles of the Jacobin’s before.  They were good, but necessarily unfinished and continue to regress to points resembling prior social structures.    But let’s go back to Sunkara, who does seem to feel a tension in his own words and goes back to something like a classical Marxist form:

But importantly, I think these “warm-and-fuzzy” goals have to be rooted in class antagonism.

Creating a society built around different values requires a revolutionary transformation of our socioeconomic order. These shifts, a radical extension of democracy into the social and economic realms, are not only desirable, but possible. The roadblocks to their implementation aren’t technical ones, like they’re often portrayed to be, but rather rooted in the political resistance of those who benefit from the exploitation and hierarchy inherent in class society.

It’s important that the socialist message be wedded to moral and ethical appeals, but it can’t lose track of this antagonism against the class that makes even tepid social democratic reforms hard to envision in the 21st century. Yet there’s also the second half of that antagonism, the identification of the class and social forces capable of challenging capitalism and pushing us towards a better social order.

Any future society would build off the wealth and social advances of capitalism itself, but to accomplish this mission we need structures different than the ones capital can create. We need political parties, cultural organizations, a radical labor movement, and other currents of the exploited and oppressed.

Sunkara then calls the basic principles of the Enlightenment project “warm and fuzzy.”  I would note the blood on the guillotines of his magazine’s namesake revolution.  His call here is classic Marxism, and something that the feel good notions in Social Democrats in the America tend to do: ignore class conflict for the sake of social order.  Sunkara’s reminding them of the stakes, and this is a smart thing to do.  That’s an uphill battle, and even within his own publication he sometimes loses that fundamental insight. That said, it’s nice to see him remind the YDS of it.

This is sentiment; however, is just a sentiment.  In a public conversation with Ben Campbell, he pointed me to some other problems when he stated:

General sentiment seems nice, but it is quite short on detail. So when Bhaskar [Sunkara] says: “Participate in the slow and patient construction of class power through organizations capable of challenging that system.”What organizations is he actually talking about? The DSA? Jacobin magazine? He has certainly been quite explicit about the fact that he opposes the “slow and patient construction” of a political party that would challenge the capitalist party that he currently supports (The Democrats). So what is he even talking about here? Who knows.

Second, we would need to hear more from Bhaskar   [Sunkara] about why social democracy “fell into a trap” and “lost track of a structural critique of capitalism”. What were the structural and institutional factors that caused this to happen, and how will Jacobin avoid them? Because this general “trap”, of attempting to increase influence by progressively watering down program, seems to nicely fit to Jacobin’s current trajectory.

The lack of details is vital, and not just for such a short speech.  What class organs exist?  With the majority of the working population not attached to liberal trade Unions (and the leadership of those unions often suspect themselves and stuck in a “at the moment” mentality and fear of competing organizations), with the Democratic party reflecting the more amiable face of a capitalist managerial class, with most Marxist organizations in the US consisting mostly of either students or academics, and with no attempt to party a multiple tendency party or even some alternative organizations to either the NGO or the  majority party caucus or Taft-Hartly limited Union emerging themselves, what exactly does this mean?

Finally, Sunkara ends with this sentiment:

In the development of such a strategy in the 20th century, radicals fell into two traps that seem different, but are actually related.

  1. The pursuit of short-cuts: from syndicalist fantasies about general strikes ending capitalism overnight to more brutal attempts to stimulate change by imposing socialism-from-above.
  2. But also the other extreme. A gradualism that yielded useful reforms, but lost track of a structural critique of capitalism and the role of socialists as not the administrators of the capitalist state, but rather the identifiers and heighteners of class antagonisms.

We must find an alternative — both patient and visionary, pragmatic and utopian — and fight against austerity, pushing this world to and ultimately beyond social democracy.

This stuff about socialism from above is strange to me as well, but I suppose it’s crypto-anti-vanguardism and placating the audience. Very few Leninist believe that it would be easily possible to impose socialism via coup without support of the working class and probably the other non-capital owning classes as well.  It would also be very hard to do in a multi-ethnic country without involvement of most so-called “minority groups,” and it would definitely not be possible without women. No one thinks that it can be imposed by conspiratorial organization alone unless they have delusions of grandeur and a massive misunderstanding of modern military power.  So we are left with a paper Lenin.

The road out here must be based on more than sentiment pointing to a new paradigm. It must even be more than just a critique of currently existing bad ideas and weak politics.  This vague notion of returning to an alternative organization that is beyond social Democracy, and, by implication, beyond other currently existing Marxist formulations, and yet also completely consistent with the aims of bourgeois revolution seem, at best, trying to have it both ways, and at a worse, sound and fury signifying a hazy that is so vague it does not yet even have the power to haunt.

Why retrogress again, indeed.

Dynamite or détournement?

One year after Pussy Riot’s
“punk rock prayer”

Originally posted at The Charnel-House.

Figure 1: Pussy Riot performs in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow (February 21st, 2012)

I. Détournement

When members of the Russian femme-punk outfit Pussy Riot ascended the altar inside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior around this time last year, few seemed to notice the physical space in which their performance was taking place.  This is perhaps understandable, after all, given the spectacle unfolding before their eyes.  Less than a minute into their gig, the band was unceremoniously carted “offstage” by officers of the Moscow militsiia.  It was an absurd scene: the frenetic punching motions of the five musicians, colorfully clad in their trademark balaclavas, clashed sharply with the sterile, Neoplatonic immobility of the gilded iconostasis and paneled Carrara marble chapel behind them.  The sole video documenting the event, which went viral almost immediately thereafter, featured a tiny Orthodox nun herding the crowd of bewildered onlookers away from the nave with far greater success than the burly cop who meanwhile attempted to assail the band.  After eluding his clutches several more times — one member even managed to kneel and cross herself before being arrested — all five were jailed and made to stand trial for “blasphemy” and “hooliganism” (an oldie-but-goodie harkening back to the days of Stalin, and before him, the tsars), of which they were eventually convicted.  A few months later, on August 17th, 2012, they were sentenced to two years in prison.

Outside Russia, news of the verdict was met with widespread uproar and scathing criticisms, roundly condemning the Putin government’s callous disregard for the most basic democratic freedoms.  These were for the most part justified, if a little poorly expressed at times.  Slavoj Žižek’s contention that “the true blasphemy [in the blasphemy allegations] is the state accusation itself” is one of his clumsier dialectical inversions to date — a category mistake, even if it’s a nice sentiment.  The few dissenting voices that warned against lending uncritical support to Pussy Riot’s shenanigans, such as Vadim Nikitin in The New York Times, may have been right in parts (especially about the hypocrisy of Western observers’ puffed-up indignation at the fact that such things “still happen”) but generally had their emphasis all wrong (Nikitin’s shocked moral and aesthetic sensibilities at some of the band’s past stunts).  These complaints were by and large drowned out, and rightly so.  Still, one year on, two of the women from Pussy Riot remain locked up, their sentences increased in both extension and duration, relocated to “far-flung prison colonies” in the Urals with a few extra months tacked onto their terms.  Little, if anything, seems to have changed in the country.  Putin’s judo death-grip on Russian political life has been decisively reasserted.  No major challenges present themselves to his continued administration.

Figure 2: Pussy Riot frontwoman Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, surrounded by police, raises her fist

Figure 2: Pussy Riot frontwoman Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, surrounded by police, raises her fist

Pussy Riot’s sad fate should call into question the prevailing political imagination of the Left, both in Russia and abroad, however.  This may seem an odd claim to make, as the general public still largely considers the band’s defiance of Putin a courageous, if not heroic, act.  As such, their high-profile performances have even been regarded in some circles as a success, despite (although precisely because of) their subsequent imprisonment.  In the final analysis, this is a consequence of decades of impotent protest politics.  For many activists today, the assurance that “action will be taken” is enough to allay any anxieties they may have that nothing can be done.  The experience of mobilization and coordinated demonstrations is a virtue unto itself, and arrest only grants false legitimacy to the idea that such pseudo-activity poses a threat to existing structures of power.  Whether or not an action contributes in a meaningful way toward its purported goal — e.g., if an anti-war march actually helps bring an end to war — the sheer fact of mass participation is (mis)taken as a sign of its success.  The experience of defeat has become so naturalized for the Left that it no longer even recognizes its defeats as such.  The most miserable failures are held up as the most shining triumphs, and no one is better off for it. Read the rest of this entry

Some Ideas on Current Politics: Russia, US, Syria, and the return to the Great Game

Honestly, reading both the Russian and the US side, I suspect that Russia is right about foreign inference, but overstating who is providing it.  They are also foreign inferrers since they have been supplying the Azzad regime, but they also sincerely seem to doubt the viability of the government.  They don’t want the Saudis gaining influence.  We return to great game politics.   RIA NOVOSTI, which I tend to trust more than the Russia Today (which American leftists seem to like in a “the enemy of our enemy is our friend” mentality, has covered Russian public opinion on this:  

Almost half of Russians (46 percent) surveyed believe that the Syrian conflict is the result of interference by hostile foreign powers seeking to increase their influence in the Middle East or weaken Syria, according to a public survey published on Friday by the state-run VTsIOM pollster.

Only 19 percent of those polled describe the Syrian crisis as a popular uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, the survey shows. More than one third (34 percent) of respondents were undecided on the nature of the conflict.

The LA Times has covered Russia’s fears about the Syrian debacle going the way of Libya:

Russia maintains a naval base in Syria, one of its few military bases aboard, and several thousand Russian diplomats and technical specialists working with Syrian companies are based there, said Gennady Gudkov, deputy head of the security committee of the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament.

“I am afraid we must have missed our chance to talk Assad into some constitutional reform, even including him ceding power,” Gudkov said. “The Kremlin’s persistence in defending his regime now comes from the fact that there is no good way out of the situation and no good decision anymore.”

Leonid Kalashnikov, deputy head of the Duma’s foreign affairs committee, said that, aside from some weapons sales, Russia has not had close political or economic ties to Syria for years, a reflection of Moscow’s diminished role in the region.

“That is why it would be wrong to consider Syria the last Russian stronghold in the Middle East; in fact, we no longer have any,” he said.

“Russia just wants to make it a hard and fast rule that all such conflict issues should be resolved only through efforts of the existing international institutions,” he said.

Now Russia’s concerns are reasonable compared to all rapid destabilization, but you can also see that this is essentially a role played by the “West” in similar situations in the 1950s: this locks things into rigid blocks where things cannot change.  Indeed, I too suspect that we should be weary of any push for NATO expansion into these kinds of conflicts, but I also doubt the efficacy or legitimacy of any existing international institution.

So we are stuck with all sorts of powers that one should distrust.  I wouldn’t be counting China and Russia out in any way, but this is great game politics, and in that, trust no state entity.

A Shift in Focus back to Poetry and Rationality (With focus on Continental Philosophy): Reader input? And Announcements

I will be continuing my interview series on radical thinking and on skeptical thinking, but I am thinking that I am moving away from political philosophy constantly. My line is increasingly that of the an Adorno-influenced post-Trotskyist Marxist. Post-Trotskyists in that while I find that Trotsky was one of the most insightful thinkers in the Marxist tradition, the “actually existing in our time” Trotskyist tradition is in such opportunistic disarray that I can’t count myself as an wanting full comradeship in any Trotskyist organization at the current although there are a few of them that I wouldn’t necessarily oppose. The sectarian nature of the 35 Fourth Internationals and it’s nine million parallel tendencies is exhausting.

Anyway, I will be working with Douglas Lain on a new project on the history and state of the contemporary left, which may have interviews and other things within it. IT will probably be released in podcast form. I have appeared on Douglas Lain’s podcast in the last month, and we enjoyed it so much that we decided to do a spin-off Therefore, my commentary on politics will be moved to that realm for the most part. Honestly, I am getting exhausted by commenting on politics and my political exploration is settling down into a set view, but still flexible, view. So a podcast and a blog focusing on politics will tire me out: the politics here will probably be limited to the interview series.

So I will be discussing differing views of rationality, and differing views on aesthetics, with some, albeit less, commentary on politics.

Just a reminder of why I am “Skepoet” and not something more catchy:

I am in a new issue of Yes! Poetry as well as Pirene’s Fountain.   I know you wouldn’t know it from how dense and unreadable a lot of my post’s here are, but I am primarily a poet.

Some self-reflection in light of the Yeon Deung Hoe Festival and my exhaustion over reification, plus my fiancee.

“Why don’t you blog more about this?” my girlfriend asks as another lantern rolls out of the plaza near Insadong neighborhood in Seoul.

“You mean commenting on flying Buddhas with weird television screens going down the center of a parade in Seoul?”

“Yes.”

“My readers have come to expect an impersonal obtuseness and a reliance of strange readings of Hegel that makes one seem hip.”

“To say ‘seems hip’ means you’re not, love.”

This was the first bit that started this reflection after seeing the fifth or sixth traditional Korean drum dance at Hoehyang Hanmadang. I avoid writing that way because there is some small solace in an impenetrable writing style and an insistence on absolute consistency over time. But there is a limit to that sort of thing when you realize that many of your readers are reifying concepts in a way that makes you wonder if you are doing it too: if you wonder this, it is probably too late. So when I talk about liberals or the left or regression, I realize that language is obfuscating and alienating. It’s part of a “discourse community” that frankly most people could not give two flying fucks about.

It also artificially lowers my own interests which are about left politics, but also the philosophy of science, ontology, epistemology, Buddhist and Confucian Studies, and poetry. While watching the lotus lantern parade, I kept thinking about objects, subjects, and the strange history of Korean and Japanese Buddhism. I kept them about how much I enjoyed a Subway sandwich after not eating them much for almost two years, and about how beautiful Korean started to sound to me, and how close Japanese sounds to it. I kept thinking about endless discussions about history and regression in which history is treated as a ontological force, like a good, which is both human and not. I kept thinking about all the reification of the idea of the left, which, like the reificaiton of religious concepts, becomes both emptier of cognitive and more full of intuitive content over time.

All these axioms can become exhausting, so I am trying to shift gears: To focus on my daily life and its context, the objects of philosophy and the limits to philosophy. More about religion and other cultural elements, and maybe less obscurity and more humor from my daily life.

You can thank a lantern of Buddha and my lovely fiancee for a reminder than even those of who spend time in highly abstract places need to be more rooted in daily life.

For that, I thank her, and move on to other notions: So coming up are more reflections on life here, more interviews in both politics and outside of it: An interview series on the Skeptic’s Movement and the Philosophy of science, a interview series on continental philosophy outside of Hegel, and an an interview series on various religious lefts as well as other things.

Also, a poem for you to enjoy, an excellent one by Gwendolyn Brooks, called “kitchenette building,” which despite it simplicity, one can feel the soft, almost dialectical build-up, of the tension between the humanizing of hope and the abstraction of dreams leading to despair. The simple rhythms build in a way that causes you to miss how much is pasting between the simpler shifts of pronouns and abstractions, which almost seem to dance between symbolic and non-symbolic uses.

Obama’s Gay Marriage Announcement: You do realize that Obama has the same position as Cheney right?

So a lot of my liberal friends have been talking about how the US President’s “open support” of gay marriage marks a brave turning point, particularly right before an election.  Well, I am unimpressed:   Here’s Gawker, of all places, actually articulates why fairly well:  

That is a half-assed, cowardly cop-out. There are currently at least three cases winding their way toward federal courts that address the issue of whether (among other things) the equal protection clause of the constitution guarantees gay men and women the same access to marriage rights as heterosexual men and women—the Proposition 8 case, in which David Boies and Ted Olson challenged California’s ban on gay marriage, and several challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars gay men and woman from receiving federal marriage benefits and allows states to refuse to recognize valid gay marriages. Obama’s Justice Department has admirably declined to defend the constitutionality of DOMA. But the position he enunciated today is in opposition to Boies and Olson: Obama is saying that if he were a judge, he would have rejected Boies and Olson’s constitutional arguments and affirmed the right of Californians to enshrine bigotry in their state constitution.

Equality is not a state-by-state issue. There is no reason other than ignorance and hatred that two men can get married in New York and not North Carolina. At a time when vindictive hucksters are rolling out anti-gay marriage amendments across the nation, and when conflicting state and federal laws portend an insoluble morass of divorce, custody, and estate issues, and when gay Americans are turning to the U.S. Constitution and the courts to seek an affirmation of their humanity, “it’s a state-by-state issue” is a shameful dodge.

Is it a politically wise dodge? Maybe. This was obviously a hastily arranged interview—we’re told that ABC News’ Robin Roberts, who is close to Michelle Obama, was only tapped in the last 48 hours by the White House to come down—designed to clean up the mess left by Biden’s pro-gay marriage comments in as advantageous way as possible. And for Obama to declare that he considers North Carolina and other states’ bans on gay marriage to be unconstitutional would probably energize the GOP base. But those bans are unconstitutional. And anyone who supports their legitimacy—as Obama just did, in no uncertain terms—even if they oppose the policy, is adopting the retrograde position in the contemporary gay marriage debate. Obama is moving backward, not forward.

What probably didn’t know for the President’s “brave stance” is that is not knew. Dick Cheney holds the exact same position.  But wait, you say, he didn’t hold in when he was in office?  Actually, he did.  David Weigal says this in defense, “Obama did not run on a ticket that officially endorsed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.” Which is true, however, Obama made promises on this matter has not kept.    This rhetoric allows Obama to cop-out on his promise to Repeal DOMA. So yes, it’s true that Obama may be less of a hypocrite than Cheney, but, dear readers, that’s a really low bar.

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