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Revolutionary Pacifism as the best of anarcho-liberalism

Consistent with Muste’s “revolutionary pacifism,” the Sydney Peace Foundation has always emphasized peace with justice. The demands of justice can remain unfulfilled long after peace has been declared. The Santa Cruz massacre 20 years ago can serve as an illustration. One year after the massacre the United Nations adopted The Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which states that “Acts constituting enforced disappearance shall be considered a continuing offence as long as the perpetrators continue to conceal the fate and the whereabouts of persons who have disappeared and these facts remain unclarified.”

The massacre is therefore a continuing offence: the fate of the disappeared is unknown, and the offenders have not been brought to justice, including those who continue to conceal the crimes of complicity and participation. Only one indication of how far we must go to rise to some respectable level of civilized behavior. – Noam Chomsky, Revolutionary Pacifism: Choices and Prospects

The ABC National presentation on this speech can be heard or watched here. There are lots of beautiful notions in this piece, lots of hard facts, and an erudition that is impressive. Yet listening I couldn’t tell if Chomsky was an anarchist, a pacifist, or a social democrat.  While Chomsky’s analysis of the historical situation is deadly accurate, but in this analysis we see best of anarcho-liberalism.  Now, I never use that word in a positive sense so why the best:  His assertion that pacifism with justice comes simply from the population holding leaders to elementary moral principles.

History provides ample evidence to support Muste’s conclusion that “The problem after a war is with the victor, [who] thinks he has just proved that war and violence pay.” And the real answer to Muste’s question, “Who will teach him a lesson?,” can only be domestic populations, if they can adopt elementary moral principles.

Yet in all his historical analysis–other than the media obfuscating the truth which is media analysis is correct on–I must note that one is not offered any analysis as to exactly and structurally why this happens? Indeed, Chomsky offers us an appeal to the universal injunction and reciprocation of the other.  But this sort of injunction is not actually universal:

The principle is universal, or nearly so, in three further respects: it is found in some form in every moral code; it is universally applauded in words, and consistently rejected in practice.

Every major religion makes exceptions on morality for the other: Muslims do not have to treat non-believers the same as believers, Confucian ethics is filled with category types with specific and not universal duties, Christianity has historically make exceptions for non-believers, and I could go on and on.

Instead with good a barrage of examples of injustices, but no real definition of what peace with justice and revolutionary pacifism even truly is. Is this pacifism after justice has been rendered? Or is it pacifism than demands justice non-violently?  I didn’t understand A.J. Muste or Chomsky on this,  Muste’s saying that “one must be a revolutionary before one can be a pacifist.” It seems that Chomsky is arguing for the former, in that he quotes Muste again which I paraphrase as saying that we must not be too quick to judge violence against oppression even if it is wrong. Or we to aid these people in their violent struggle?  What about the odds?  Chomsky and Muste do not make that clear.

Chomsky makes a point about Obama that I endorse though:

The specialist literature and even the US Embassy in Islamabad warn that the pressures on Pakistan to take part in the US invasion, as well as US attacks in Pakistan, are “destabilizing and radicalizing Pakistan, risking a geopolitical catastrophe for the United States – and the world – which would dwarf anything that could possibly occur in Afghanistan” – quoting British military/Pakistan analyst Anatol Lieven. The assassination of bin Laden greatly heightened this risk in ways that were ignored in the general enthusiasm for assassination of suspects. The US commandos were under orders to fight their way out if necessary. They would surely have had air cover, maybe more, in which case there might have been a major confrontation with the Pakistani army, the only stable institution in Pakistan, and deeply committed to defending Pakistan’s sovereignty. Pakistan has a huge nuclear arsenal, the most rapidly expanding in the world. And the whole system is laced with radical Islamists, products of the strong US-Saudi support for the worst of Pakistan’s dictators, Zia ul-Haq, and his program of radical Islamization. This program along with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are among Ronald Reagan’s legacies. Obama has now added the risk of nuclear explosions in London and New York, if the confrontation had led to leakage of nuclear materials to jihadis, as was plausibly feared – one of the many examples of the constant threat of nuclear weapons.

The assassination of bin Laden had a name: “Operation Geronimo.” That caused an uproar in Mexico, and was protested by the remnants of the indigenous population in the US. But elsewhere few seemed to comprehend the significance of identifying bin Laden with the heroic Apache Indian chief who led the resistance to the invaders, seeking to protect his people from the fate of “that hapless race” that John Quincy Adams eloquently described. The imperial mentality is so profound that such matters cannot even be perceived.

There were a few criticisms of Operation Geronimo – the name, the manner of its execution, and the implications. These elicited the usual furious condemnations, most unworthy of comment, though some were instructive. The most interesting was by the respected left-liberal commentator Matthew Yglesias. He patiently explained that “one of the main functions of the international institutional order is precisely to legitimate the use of deadly military force by western powers,” so it is “amazingly naïve” to suggest that the US should obey international law or other conditions that we impose on the powerless. The words are not criticism, but applause; hence one can raise only tactical objections if the US invades other countries, murders and destroys with abandon, assassinates suspects at will, and otherwise fulfills its obligations in the service of mankind. If the traditional victims see matters somewhat differently, that merely reveals their moral and intellectual backwardness. And the occasional Western critic who fails to comprehend these fundamental truths can be dismissed as “silly,” Yglesias explains – incidentally, referring specifically to me, and I cheerfully confess my guilt.

This is a valid point about the modus operandi of the Obama administration, yet the exact reasons why Obama would work against U.S. interests. Furthermore, for a man respected by many as an anarchist, he speaks of international law frankly but as if it has legitimacy.  There is a tension always felt in Chomsky: his critiques are never explicit if he thinks the “system” can be overthrown or if we can just tweak it here and there.  Indeed, one is left confused to whether Chomsky is advocating revolutionary pacifism or reformist pacifism.

Yes, Yglesias is making explicit what you’d expect to come out of John Yu’s mouth.  Many of my liberal friends will ignore this, of course, and the fact that this is actually a bit more radical than the Bush administration.  However, in another way, Chomsky is being slightly silly indeed.  He should know that sovereignty, even prior to when Carl Schmidt articulated it, is almost always rooted in the ability to make a state of exception.  The person who makes the laws must have some, if not total, immunity from them. Indeed, there is a simple Hobbesian logic to this: the primitive society is so violent that we give the monarch the only legitimate use of violence.  This is explicit in the traditions that created the modern nation state. In this Chomsky seems to make implying, although not making, an anarchist argument but then again he does not seem to be willing to say jettison the international institutions in order to fix it.    One can see this again:

These are among the natural consequences of rejecting Muste’s warning, and the main thrust of his revolutionary pacifism, which should direct us to investigating the grievances that lead to violence, and when they are legitimate, as they often are, to address them. When that advice is taken, it can succeed very well. Britain’s recent experience in Northern Ireland is a good illustration. For years, London responded to IRA terror with greater violence, escalating the cycle, which reached a bitter peak. When the government began instead to attend to the grievances, violence subsided and terror has effectively disappeared. I was in Belfast in 1993, when it was a war zone, and returned a year ago to a city with tensions, but hardly beyond the norm.

The tensions in Belfast have no been resolved, only lessened.  Tactically this makes good sense, and having an open hand is a smart tactical move. But this is tactics, not a political vision.  In a sense, this is what is to be decried in ethics as a maintainer of only the current.

Chomsky’s list of facts is dizzying, but his analysis of what those facts constitute systemically is facile in the end.   Furthermore, seems fundamentally unclear and unable to explain why people who consider themselves moral are unable to break the grit-lock on peace.  This is why I call Chomsky the best of anarcho-liberalism: it is coherent on the surface and sustained, but it is not systemic.  Chomsky is roote din analytic philosophy with the same concerns for describing and limiting the current as opposed to positing something outside of it.  This divide is a philosophical one ultimately.  In my mind there are several reasons why “moral” people cannot hold a government accountable: alienation from other humans in the means of production, cognitive dissonance and prior investment logic, formal as opposed to substantive democracy, and the nation of the interaction between capital and the state themselves.

I ask you then for all our Chomskys valid historical critique does this not ultimately lead to people quoting facts without systemic analysis, pleading on moral whether than substantive grounds, and arguing about beliefs.  While I do not think it would be fair to tar Chomsky as anti-intellectual, but he does encourage lifestyle rebellion. So he may not be an anarcho-liberal himself, but a lot of his analysis lends itself to the people who sound like Sunkara was describing. 

We need answers to why, not just what.

It’s not just “The Left” That Regresses (also guess what Obama is not vetoing?)

Last week I reported about how the White House probably would veto the  NDAA Military Detention of Americans, but for the completely wrong reasons based on the reporting of Paul Craig Roberts. Apparently, according to the guys at OEN, which admittedly is not the most trust-worthy news source in the world, there is evidence that not only will Obama not veto to it, he asked for it. 

And who says libertarians never have a point?

This, however, got me thinking. For all the talk of left-wing regression and right-wing reactionary hissy fits, I haven’t thought that this might be proof that the bourgeois revolutions–the rights that began liberal modernity–are regressing. Listening to the Platypus Affiliated Society panel on Marxism and the bourgeois revolution, I begin to wonder why contemporary Marxists couldn’t see what  Marx and his colleagues did in the bourgeoisie.  The capitalists structure in our time has alienated us more and more and denied more and more people their bourgeois rights.  In short,  the capitalist structures that we are currently dealing with are regressing themselves to something akin to late Feudalism.   One imagine that we are looking at something akin to a Bonapartist regime in the way Trotsky understood it.  What would Danton say about this much less Marx?

Furthermore, the hyper-capitalists are sounding more and more like old feudal lords.  Don’t believe me, look at the arguments of Hans Herman Hoppe?  He has essentially argued for anarcho-capitalists society that is functionally not different from Feudalism.  The Distrubist Review and Naked Capitalism ran a series of interview with an imaginary libertarian quoting Hoppe’s makes clear how disturbing this is, and I’ll give you a few select quotes from Hoppe’s book:

democracy has succeeded… in the ultimate destruction of the natural elites. The fortunes of great families have dissipated, and their tradition of culture and economic independence, intellectual farsightedness, and moral and spiritual leadership has been forgotten.

If you think Isaiah Berlin could have wrote about that as an example of the counter-enlightenment, you’d be right.  The last time counter-enlightenment trends arouse to counter and offer a “revolutionary” protection to the bourgeois was the rise of European fascism. We aren’t seeing that quite yet, but if Obama doesn’t veto the NDAA he does move one step to making the Tea Party hyperbole that Obama is a fascist seem true.  What about the center-liberal left?  It is either disenfranchised or is dishonest.  One can see “Democratic friendly” thinkers like Tom Friedman cooking up excuses for this as we speak.  Meanwhile, in Europe, Brussel’s has officially ended any resembling state sovereignty over the economic sphere, which more or less officially ends state sovereignty itself.  Le Monde Diplomatique report on  Greece is heart breaking.

Ironically, its we in the left that is fighting to preserve something like the bourgeois revolution by ending its regressing legacy.  If the best hopes of left liberals is to always vote for a Carter, Clinton, or Obama, then there is little to be done.  As Tariq Ali said in a recent ISO speech, increasing the entire world is dominated by an extremist middle that can wear either a Republican shirt or a social democratic shirt or a Tory shirt or a French socialist shirt, it doesn’t matter: it all serves neo-liberalism.

We want find the heroes of the old bourgeois in their legacies like the UN because there is little heroic or/even Democratic.  Just technology has  lengthened our lives and made the world temporarily more peaceful, but Keynesianism could never do more than buy time at the expense of the future. It has done so. Now its safe to say that Danton’s legacy is now in the working class, the oppressed, and the marginalized. If allow capitalism regression to continue the endstate for most of us is techno-serfdom.

We Thought We Got Huxley’s dystopia instead of Orwell’s, but it seems we actually got both…

While there are far more revolutionary figures than Alan Moore’s V wearing his mask for a Catholic terrorist, you must admit that Anonymous has a point here. I have been thinking lately on how we have assumed that we have been numbed into a Huxley’s vision of a velvet-gloved future, but we really are getting something akin to Orwell. You see the funny thing about liberal representative democracy is how afraid of democracy it actually ends up being. Fur example, we get more democracy deficit in Brussell’s democracy deficit is about to be increased. This is the return of a corporatist Reich after all which all its German sado-monetarism. Furthermore, while Obama is likely to attempt to veto that bill, it is not out of altruistic reasons:

The Obama regime’s objection to military detention is not rooted in concern for the constitutional rights of American citizens. The regime objects to military detention because the implication of military detention is that detainees are prisoners of war. As Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin put it: Should somebody determined “to be a member of an enemy force who has come to this nation or is in this nation to attack us as a member of a foreign enemy, should that person be treated according to the laws of war? The answer is yes.”

Detainees treated according to the laws of war have the protections of the Geneva Conventions. They cannot be tortured. The Obama regime opposes military detention, because detainees would have some rights. These rights would interfere with the regime’s ability to send detainees to CIA torture prisons overseas. [Yes, Obama is still apparently allowing "extraordinary renditions" to torture people abroad .] This is what the Obama regime means when it says that the requirement of military detention denies the regime “flexibility.”

The Bush/Obama regimes have evaded the Geneva Conventions by declaring that detainees are not POWs, but “enemy combatants,” “terrorists,” or some other designation that removes all accountability from the US government for their treatment.

By requiring military detention of the captured, Congress is undoing all the maneuvering that two regimes have accomplished in removing POW status from detainees.

A careful reading of the Obama regime’s objections to military detention supports this conclusion. (See )

The November 17 letter to the Senate from the Executive Office of the President says that the Obama regime does not want the authority it has under the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), Public Law 107-40, to be codified. Codification is risky, the regime says. “After a decade of settled jurisprudence on detention authority, Congress must be careful not to open a whole new series of legal questions that will distract from our efforts to protect the country.”

In other words, the regime is saying that under AUMF the executive branch has total discretion as to who it detains and how it treats detainees. Moreover, as the executive branch has total discretion, no one can find out what the executive branch is doing, who detainees are, or what is being done to them. Codification brings accountability, and the executive branch does not want accountability.

Those who see hope in Obama’s threatened veto have jumped to conclusions if they think the veto is based on constitutional scruples.

So a word from that inconsistent old socialist Orwell that is a bit to the point:

All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side. . . . The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.
-George Orwell, “Notes on Nationalism”, 1945

Nationalism is almost always a ruse for naked capitalism and other related power grabs. It is the imagined community that keeps the anyone from noticing the Emperor’s clothing.

Sometimes Chomsky gets it right; but the crucial question is why

He is right that the Obama’s policy towards Pakistan is objectively bad for the civilization populations in both the US and Pakistan.  What I wonder is what Chomsky thinks is the reason for Obama’s position? He says that it is objectively “bad” for the West, and I agree with Chomsky there. But it is good for someone or the blindness exists for some reason is the question of why  This is a question that Chomsky doesn’t ask. I don’t just mean that Chomsky doesn’t ask “who Obama servers” which would questionably be the largest lobbying interests, but doesn’t go into why exactly this happens regardless of the particular personality of the candidate.

David Harvey at Occcupy Philly: The Liberation of Public Spaces

We seen the enclosure of the common fields of labor, but what we are seeing now is the enclosure of the fields of discourse. This is inevitable in a way, if one believes in a knowledge society, then the enclosure is a sure way to build a factory model of even intellectual labor. Adorno’s criticism of the faux dichotomy between the physical laborer and the mental laborer becomes clearer: there is no need for a factory floor for a factory model.  When David Harvey points this out, he is dead on.

Furthermore, even if we acknowledge that there is a declining rate of profits, the crisis has been used as a weapon against the working class to consolidate an ever dwindling source of revenues in comparison to the population as a whole. Furthermore, the point that loan system is a way of moving income from the middle to the top while keeping up an inflated bureaucratic system within the universities is not discussed either: it is move of means of class fossilization and class warfare outright.

Harvey is also dead-right that the danger has to be escalated. I notice his is being light on Marxist rhetoric and speaking plainly, this is refreshing as it makes it harder to red-bait against him and appeals to people not versed in the finer points of Marxist philosophy.

For all my critiques of #Occupy of which I have many, I must say that this is the beginnings. In this failure we have a chance to rise to something new.  A revolution is never successful in the movement of its inception nor is it won in a day.   To the strikes!

While you were Occupying: The nail in the coffin of Habeas Corpus

You know its not a good day with center liberals like Slate start seeing the writing on the wall for the US. Obama has objectively taken every precedent taken by Bush and upped it absurd levels now.  I would say the Democrats and Left-Liberals aren’t saying much, but to their credit they are.  But what options do they have electorally in the US?  A successful armed rebellion is statistically more likely than a third party on enough state ballots to matter now.

So now the military and arrest/detain without habeas corpus, and this will go to a conservative and executive power loving SCOTUS.   I hate to agree with libertarians in 2008, but they were right about what Obama would do and then some.   So here’s the article:  

Now, perhaps you suspect these thorny questions about the handling of terrorists are best left to the experts, and that the Senate was simply listening to them. Such suspicions would be unfounded. The secretary of defense, the director of national intelligence, the director of the FBI, theCIA director, and the head of theJustice Department’s national security division have all said that the indefinite detention provisions in the bill are a bad idea. And the White Housecontinues to say that the president will veto the bill if the detainee provisions are not removed. It sees the proposed language as limiting its flexibility.

There may be no good outcome here. It could be an unholy victory for both the prospect of unbridled executive power and for the collapse of any meaningful separation betweendomestic law enforcement and military authority. The law manages to expand the role of the military in domestic terror prosecutions and also limit the authority of the civilian justice system to thwart terrorism. These were legal principles to which even the Bush administration said they adhered.

As Adam Serwer explains: This new legislation will “overturn a precedent that was followed almost without exception by the Bush administration: Domestic terrorism arrests are the province of law enforcement, not the military.” Raha Wala of Human Rights Firstnotes that “authorizing the military to detain terror suspects apprehended within the United States clearly goes against the spirit of the Posse Comitatus Act, a law that has prevented the military from taking on domestic law enforcement functions since the Civil War.” If you think the blurring of domestic policing and military authority is an Orwellian fantasy, you may want to consider the treatment of Occupy Wall Street protestors in recent weeks, or Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s claim that “I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh biggest army in the world.”

Make no mistake: this same week that drones were approved for US use.  Somebody is spooked, and they are bringing the lie to the myths about liberal democracy. Do you still see change you can believe in? I do, but it is far from what the average Obama voter thought.

On public/private “partnerships”

Have you ever noticed that in public/private transactions, generally “the private sector” ends up moving power outside of the community hands and into regions that are “untouched” by “populism” or democracy. I have.  Take this recent example in education.  Washington State wants the corporations to pay more of the cost of higher ed, but not through taxes, through an investment partnership under the ruse of a scholarship fund, and what do the corporations get for this:

Fittingly, observers said one of the best descriptions of the new program is a news release from Microsoft. Students from families with incomes of up to 125 percent of the state median income will be eligible for the scholarship, according to the release. (The median income for a family of four in Washington is $80,404, which would mean families earning up to about $100,000 would be eligible.)

The bill that authorized the program’s creation calls for a seven-member governing board. Three are to be selected by the governor, and the others will come from a list of nominations by donors to the fund.

Those four board members should hail from foundations or businesses from “among the state’s most productive industries such as aerospace, manufacturing, health sciences, information technology and others,” according to the legislation.

Donors can also designate whether their gifts go to immediate scholarships or the longer-term pool of endowment money. The state will match donations to both accounts, with a cap of $50 million for annual state contributions.

Notice that the board, though it will be matched by public funds, will give almost total administration rights  to executive appointees and even more to private businesses to set the tone for all the funding.  Now, businesses are notorious for having a low-time preference scale so this means that this will subject education to the whims of market organizations.  Funny, then, how these people who supposedly believe in free markets don’t want a market of education choice and they almost want more influence proportional to their funds. Of course, Washington state law-makers will hoop and holler about how this “helps” the poor and middle class ignoring, of course, that this might weaken education for all involved.

But the object lesson here is how willing so many state and federal governments are to move power OUT of the hands of elected officials with democratic oversight.  The funny thing about neo-liberal democracy, you get less and less democracy over time regardless.

The Death on an Indian Maoist…

The comments on the youtube page seem to indicate the tide in India, which is the say: it’s going to hot. It’s important to remember that this is Maoist insurgency because the Maoists have large support from the indigenous populations in the provincial areas. The Indian Naxalites are not a bblameless movement as Arundati Roy admits, but people’s wars are almost never blameless. That is not to condone or condemn them; however, if Varvara Rao is right then things are going to much worse before they get better. Losing Kenshenji is a blow for the Naxalities and blow for the indigenous people of idea. In a way, it’s a blow for all of us who believe that extraordinary oppression requires extraordinary resistance.

Interviewed and Occupied Part 2: Nik Zalesky on Occupy Philly and Labor Tactics

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. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jamie McAfee: My messy Latour brainstorm?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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