Category Archives: Philosophy and Politics
Communism is the Truth that Fulfills All Truths: Why Christians and Atheists (& Muslims, Hindus, Etc) Will Someday Reach the Same Destination
from Plato onwards, Communism is the only political Idea worthy of a philosopher. – Alain Badiou
Reading this line from Badiou a few years ago pushed me over a hesitation to embrace the word “communism” in a full-throated sense. I wrote an essay not long after this point on Plato’s Republic where I explored how Plato connected the ability of his ideal city’s guardians to achieve justice to their having forsaken private property. In fact, re-reading Book V last night only confirmed for me what Badiou is saying, that Communism is the fulfillment of political rationality. If Plato’s philosophy of ideal justice requires communism in this sense, I hold that a profound truth has escaped the notice of many in our time, including advocates of Marxism. That truth is that communism does not belong to Marx and his successors, but to humanity as a whole.
Marxists often want to define just how communism will be brought into being. They have a theory of the proletariat revolution led by a Communist Party. The leadership of the Communist Party is composed of the advanced activists and theorists who correctly understand the necessary path to take towards Communism. Of course, history is littered with the failures of Communist governments. It isn’t adequate to slap a label on your philosophy and call it Communism. Communism does not belong to Marxists, but to humanity.
If communism is as old as Greek philosophy – actually older – then is it so surprising that it also makes an appearance in the most popular world religion, Christianity? The gospels are only comprehensible as a communist event with a vision of a classless society at their core. The Book of Acts presents the “Jerusalem Commune” where the followers of Jesus set up a system of wealth redistribution among the members of their new movement.
I am not arguing that Communists should become Christians, by no means. I am contending that Communists, whether atheist or Christian, have a common heritage that is older than Karl Marx. I am contending that Communism’s central axiom, “from each according to ability, from each according to need” is rooted in universal human relationships. Every healthy nuclear family operates as a commune. In “primitive communism” sharing was simple and direct exchange. It is the ruling classes throughout human history who have rejected this basic relational ethos and imposed class domination on the majority of all societies.
The rebirth of Communism in our times will not fall into the classic divides of the left of Marxist vs. Anarchist vs. Religious communists. In our post-secular world, communism is only possible with an inclusive alliance of Atheists, Christians, Muslims, and others.
Or, communism may fail to be achieved. Humanity may be forever trapped in an undesirable system of class domination. Many science fiction dystopias paint such a picture. I am an optimist, but I am not a fatalist. Humanity could fail to fulfill its own potential. That will be tragic, indeed. But, even such a failure does not prove that Communism was not the true fulfillment of humanity’s potential.
It has long seemed quite strange to me that so many atheists find Nietzsche’s assertion of the death of God attractive. God doesn’t exist at all for atheists, his “death” can only be at most the death of the theism of some part of humanity. Perhaps a historical point can be made about the passing of a specific era of religiosity in Europe at the time of Nietzsche.
Beginning in the 60s, Nietzsche’s ideas got re-deployed by theologians, no less, or rather, atheologians. Thomas J. J. Altizer declared the “Gospel of Christian Atheism” which asserted the historical death of God in the event of the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus. Today, Slavoj Žižek has produced his own Lacanian spin on this mostly forgotten theological fad.
On the contrary, God (as theism) never died for a substantial portion of modern society. God was redesigned, certainly, by the course of Western history. God today has become the ultimate capitalist, a Heavenly Boss who punishes the lazy and hedonists with poverty and war. Working-class Christians in the US have been lavishly courted by the ruling class into a New Religious Right with showers of campaign donations promising to end the sinfulness of society by reactionary economic discipline.
As a Pentecostal preacher’s kid, I somehow got deformed and alienated against the New Right. Jesus was always to me a hippie, a communist, a peacenik, and a rock star. I held the orthodox doctrines as long as I could, up to my mid-30s. I can still wax eloquent about the wonders of Trinitarian mysticism and the infinite glories of being resurrected in the New Jerusalem. While still a believer I argued obsessively that Jesus was a revolutionary, a radical who prophesied the destruction of the ruling class and the victory of perfect love over the earth. And, I could show how such a theology came straight out of the biblical texts themselves. Despite their putative belief in inerrancy, most Christians today don’t follow the teachings of Jesus on wealth, but rather those of John Calvin.
One of the most puzzling mysteries of the modern world is how followers of Jesus can be such willing propagandists for the inhuman system of capitalism and tyranny under which we slave daily. Why aren’t there Christian Socialist Clubs in every church? Jesus denounced wealth and possessions in no uncertain terms. How can anyone read the gospels with an open eye and not understand that the one they call Christ and Savior is the enemy of the system of commodity production and wage labor?
If we turn from the deformed condition of Christianity to the condition of “Actually Existing Socialists” we don’t find a pretty picture there either. Although most potential proletarians in our society today are Christians, often fervently so, card-carrying socialists are nearly all deeply hostile to Christianity. Today’s socialists take the New Atheists as their models for religious criticism, not the more nuanced approach taken by Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg. My favorite quote from Rosa’s classic Socialism and the Churches reads:
In conformity with the material position of the men belonging to this [Roman proletarian] class, the first Christians put forward the demand for property in common – communism. What could be more natural? The people lacked means of subsistence and were dying of poverty. A religion which defended the people demanded that the rich should share with the poor the riches which ought to belong to all and not to a handful of privileged people; a religion which preached the equality of all men would have great success.
My experience trying to discuss Christian Communism with left-wing atheists has been quite dispiriting over the years. The business class holds massive fund-raisers courting preachers and laypersons to their causes, but except for the largely defunct religious socialism commissions of DSA and the SPUSA, there is no effort to appeal to Christians on the basis of their most fervent passion, following Jesus.
Some have accused me of cynicism when I propose a religious left as a necessary element of a revitalized left politics in the US. Since I personally no longer hold an orthodox theology, they assume that I want socialists to lie to Christians when we invite them eagerly into our ranks. Not at all, what I want Socialists and Communists and Anarchists to do is listen respectfully to the faith of these working-class followers of Jesus. Ask them why they don’t take their own gospel teachings about poverty literally.
There is no hope of ever overthrowing capitalism in the US unless we kill the Capitalist God who reigns in American Christianity. We can only kill that satanic inversion of the Father of Jesus if the Christians do that from their own convictions. I am proposing a mutual collaboration between the brilliant atheists in the socialist movement with the disheartened Christians who are daily coming to question the heresy of the Christian Right. We need each other.
We need each other not because Christians are potentially a massive pool of allies and activists, though they are indeed such. They are necessary for the revitalization of Communism as the universal vision of world emancipation. Every religion has its earthly paradise that it promises the faithful. These paradisiacal visions are the seedbed for the utopian mindset from which radical politics sprung. Communism comes from humanity’s total history, not from the mind of one philosopher named Karl in the mid-1800s! Reclaiming the communist teachings of Jesus and his early followers means reclaiming an essential part of communism’s historical development.
Communism’s axiom, from each according to ability, to each according to need is the economic corollary to the Golden Rule, do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Although many leftists like to praise the achievements of modernity and seem to forget all the blood, sweat, and toil of humanity before the onset of capitalism, in fact, communism springs quite logically from the nature of humanity and our highest values. Although Karl Marx did banish Hermann Kriege’s “Communism of Love” from his organization, it seems in the aftermath of Stalinism that Communism needs to restore its reputation as humanizing vision with affirmative principles of human mutuality. Who better to be a symbol of such a kinder, gentler communism than the Good Shepherd, Jesus of Nazareth?
Tom O’Brien is the host of the From Alpha to Omega. This interview was completed just before the Cyprus banking crisis and thus was not mentioned.
C. Derick Varn: Your podcast topics seem to vacillate between sort of “left” Keynesianism and more traditional Marxism, what in your experience of the Irish economic crisis led you to see the two as more complimentary than it may seem from a distance?
Tom O’Brien: The current crisis from an Irish point of view seemed to have been caused by a massive buildup of private debt, aided and abetted by the usual neo-liberal deregulation and regulatory capture.After the crisis erupted, we also found out about the flaws in the monetary architecture of the Euro – how it operated like a gold-standard and prevented national central banks from funding their government expenditures. My reading on the topics of debt and monetary matters led quickly to the current work of radical Post-Keynesians, who predicted this monetary crisis as early as 1992 – the famous British economist Wynne Godley laid it all out in an article for the London Review of Books. The work of Steve Keen, on the acceleration of the growth in private debt as an accurate predictor of crisis was also particularly important in understanding the Irish situation. The Post-Keynesian view of why such debt bubbles occur, is the Hyman Minsky view that stability is itself destabilizing. That seemed a little convenient and not as convincing an argument as Marx’s ‘Tendential Fall in the Rate of Profit’, which gives a more direct causal explanation as to why there was such a shift from industrial capitalism to financial capitalism and outright speculative behaviour in the western developed economies. This, I think is probably closer to the real root of the problem, and works well as explaining the current neo-liberal experiment, which can be seen as a massive drive to basically increase the rate of profit. The work of the radical post-Keynesian school seem to have developed important insights into the nature of money, that might have very important implications for Marxist economics,and indeed for those seeking to understand how to alleviate the current Eurozone crisis.
C.D.V.: Do you think that Keynesian or Post-Keynesian insights are limited to circulation problems?
T.O’B.: As a non-economist, I would have to say that what I see as the main Keynesian / Post-Keynesian insights are the stabilizing effects of government deficit spending, the role debt plays in the boom-bust speculative cycle, and the ‘Chartalist’ or ‘Modern Money Theory (MMT)’ school which tries to describe the workings of our modern floating fiat currencies. The standard Keynesian deficit spending insight, when allied to the MMT school of thought, lead us to radical conclusions as to what we can achieve in capitalist economy. They shine us to a path where government deficits don’t matter, where the economy can be managed to grow in a reasonably smooth fashion. It could also lead, I am tentative to state, to a scenario where the falling rate of profit can be endlessly jacked up in nominal terms, and thus help to avoid that Marxist crisis of capitalism. Convincing these individual, isolated, ideologically hide-bound capitalists of the merits of these policies for the system as a whole, has been something pretty difficult to achieve for these Post-Keynesians, as their policies play more into the hands of the workers and the industrial capitalists than the financial capitalists currently in charge of the system. However, even if all the Post-Keynesian insights were put into play, all they would in reality likely achieve would be the stabilizing and speeding up of the existing capitalist system, enabling it to chew through all our dwindling natural resources at a quicker pace than ever. Their insights say little about the alienation of workers, the meaninglessness and arbitrariness of capitalist production, or the inherent exploitation of the capitalist mode of production.
C.D.V.: What role do you see social democracy as having in the current EU crisis?
T.O’B.: That’s a very difficult question. It seems most of the social democrat type parties across Europe have been in bed with the financiers for years now. In the UK Tony Blair and Gordon Brown let the city run riot, so they could fund their health and social spending increases. In Greece we see how the Socialists have imploded over their support for Austerity and inability to stand up to the ECB and the Germans. In Ireland we have seen the perennial party of power, Fianna Fail, lose 75% of their seats. The neoliberal mindset seems to be as deeply rooted in the social democratic parties as in those of the conservative/right parties of Europe. With the parties of both the left and the right in Europe essentially offering the same unwanted medicine to the people, we are likely to see major radical political changes in the make-up of our politics in the coming years. It seems pretty doubtful that Social Democrats can survive as power political parties in their current form unless they break from their bank-friendly policies. The policies of the ECB/IMF/EU troika are a huge destabilizing force in Europe, and the likelihood is for years more of depression-like economic performance. But if South America is any guide, it may take decades until we have the formation of new dominant left political movements capable of taking power.
C.D.V.: Have your opinions on this fiscal matters changed since you began your podcast?
T.O’B.: Not since I started the podcast, no. But over the last 3-4 years I have read a great deal about monetary matters, the design of currencies, and the role of money creation in societies. I have been interviewing a lot of the best people on these matters about their work on the show. I must say, however, that the Modern Monetary Theory people do have a reluctance to talk about the risks of endless stimulus. They say that deficits don’t harm us once there is the raw materials and human labor to absorb all the issued debt/currency, but talk little about what are the limits to these very raw materials. Most of the good scientific research I see, like the Limits To Growth studies, which show major problems in the coming decades and probable economic collapse, point towards the likelihood of catastrophic resource constraints in the near future. I often find myself wondering: ‘What Marx would have made of the likely coming material conditions?’
C.D.V.: Do you think there is an ideological blinder on that part of MMT?
T.O’B.:I do think there is an ideological blinder in MMT on this issue. But it is far from just MMT economists who ignore the likely upcoming resource crunch. The net energy we receive from our oil, gas, and coal production after getting the stuff out of the ground and into our cars and homes is dropping steadily. More and more of our oil and gas is coming from difficult to reach places, and we have to put more and more energy in, to get our new energy out. This should be a very stark warning to us that our economic system is about to undergo tremendous strain. It should be noted, that the Soviet system’s oil production peaked in the 1980’s, which is likely to have played a very important role in the collapse of Soviet Union. Indeed, Egypt’s oil production peaked in 1996 and became an oil importer in 2007, so I think we can expect many more of the Middle Eastern power structures to fray as the energy surplus from oil and gas production begins to drop.
We must realize that just because when we ran out of trees for firewood we could use coal, does not mean we can easily find ourselves a new energy resource. In fact it means just the opposite – that we have one less energy source left to exploit. Economists are acting like the beer-drinker who thinks there will always be more beer in the fridge, because for the last 6 times he went to get a beer there was always one there. Just like the beer-drinker, they won’t be too happy when they find out all we had was a six pack. None of the existing replacement renewable energies look like they have the ability to scale up to meet this challenge. Economists assume that technology will rescue us, but this is a pretty big assumption.
It’s fairly easy to see that the dominant schools of economic thought largely reflect the interests of those in power, so we can’t expect the high-priests of capitalism to preach too loudly about the contradictions at the core of their belief system.
C.D.V.: Well, many green thinkers also accuse most Marxists as being blind to the resource depletion issue. There are some strong exceptions, I think, including Marx himself, but in general, this has been the case for reasons that don’t have anything to do with capitalism. What do you see as a valid answer to resource problems?
T.O’B.: One of the core insights Marx gave us into capitalist economies is that capital always seeks to grow through productivity increases. Growth is the eternal mantra of economist from both the right and the left. Now with our resource constraints in clear sight, the options left to us are pretty stark. We either have to drastically cut our consumption levels, or our population, or maybe both. The distribution of how those resources are spent are extremely inequitable as well. But such a vast reduction in consumption levels would create absolute havoc for those who own the means of production, so it’s unlikely they will voluntarily give up control. They still might get lucky, some new energy source could materialize or the science could be flawed. So, I expect we will see those in charge of the current system just plough along merrily with their fingers crossed until we get to such a stage as the conditions get so bad and they are overthrown, or the whole global system of production kind of peters out. But the problem with any such new system that comes into power, is that it will have to be based on a new kind of production not based on growth, and most likely not based on value production. There is quite large scope for theoretical work on how such a system would work. Many of the left-movements today speak of a ‘Green New Deal’, which doesn’t deal with the core expansionary drive of capitalist production in the slightest. Robin Hahnel has an interesting new book, Of the people, By the people – The Case for a Participatory Economy, describing how such a participatory economy could work, which is well worth the read and does a fine job of talking of how such a system could work. It offers little though, in how we should work to get there. When it comes to the demographic problem, the only country I know of with a vastly reduced population today compared to 1840 is Ireland, and that only happened through that oh so benign a mix of imperialism, famine, and mass emigration. It doesn’t bode well.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
T.O’B: I would like to point to some of the tentative positive political ideas that are starting to take shape around the world at the moment. The emergence of the Occupy movement globally, the Indignados, and the 5-Star Movement in Italy all in their own way are pointing to failure of our liberal representative democracies to work for their citizens. It’s starting to become more and more obvious to more and more people that the corporations and the banks control their politicians and stand in the way of the radical change that is needed. I think there is a great desire for a sustainable society where wealth and power is equitably distributed. Hopefully these movements are the sparks that will fire the neurons of those involved to come up with new theoretical works that can help us to lay the foundations of the new societies that we seek.
C.D.V.: I find the last bit interesting, if you would forgive a one last follow-up: What exactly do you see as the promise of the 5-Star movement?
T.O’B: Over the last 150 years we have seen many nationalist revolutions succeed. Some of these new governments may even have enacted fairly radical policies, like the welfare state or land reform. But over the years, as the original revolutionaries grew old and left the political stage they gradually became replaced by a managerial class of politicians, lacking the political spine of their predecessors. Countries like Ireland, for example, experienced a new wave of career politicians, of varying levels of corruption and a willingness to suck up to the capitalist class to gain power. The citizens of these countries have learned that the problem wasn’t just that they didn’t have self-determination as a colony, but that the structure of society and it’s political superstructure also plays a critical role. In the words of The Who – ‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss’.
The 5-Star movement, is essentially expressing what a hell of a lot of people in the capitalist west think of politicians – they are a bunch of lying, power hungry, money grabbing, turn-coats. And they are sick to death of it. This is a real blast against the political superstructure, if not, perhaps, the base-structure of production. I see in this the germs of a possibly revolutionary change in how we govern ourselves. Noam Chomsky always talks of how power is terrified of real true direct democracy, because those in power can’t let people actually vote as they wish. Even redneck republican voters in the US. when polled on individual issues are basically social democratic in nature. I don’t think that the 5-Star movement is perfect in its structure, or that I agree with it’s policies – I don’t know enough about it to have a definitive opinion, but I think it does shows us exactly where the political pulse is right now – decentralized structures of power devoid of politicians and their games. It seems to be a return to the libertarian socialist tendencies of the past. It is also a rejection, I believe, of the old vanguard party model of the radical left parties, and left-theorists out there should be taking note.
Pham Binh has been a revolutionary socialist since he was 16. He’s from from Rochester, NY, and has been active against the death penalty, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and many other issues. He is currently an editor of the North Star. He has served on the editorial board of Traveling Soldier, an anti-war newsletter aimed at helping active-duty troops organize, and his writings have been published in the International Socialist Review, Asia Times Online,Counterpunch, Znet, and Dissident Voice.
C. Derick Varn: You have written a good bit over at the North Star on Leninism and the implications in of the SWP fallout. Why do you think the question of “Leninism” doesn’t go away?
Pham Binh: “Leninism” refuses to die because it must be superseded in practice by forms of organizing that are bigger, better, more effective, and more durable. That is a much harder task than exposing its internal contradictions by closely examining the historical practices and methods of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party from 1903-1917 as I have done repeatedly since summer of 2011 and as Lars Lih has done since 2008. It remains an attractive form of organizing for many revolutionaries because it is timeless, applicable everywhere in almost any context; it is the easiest answer to the hardest question — what is to be done, right now, today and tomorrow? No matter what, when, where, why, or how, for “Leninists” the main and decisive task is always to build such a party.
The failure of a given struggle to lead to our goal of working-class rule, whether that struggle is the destruction of apartheid in South Africa or the end of the Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt, is easily and falsely attributed to the lack of a revolutionary “Leninist” party in every overturn.
In some respects, this problem is nothing new. The sect form existed long before “Leninism.” The Communist League that Marx and Engels helped found had its roots in a sect called the League of the Just which merged or regrouped with the Communist Correspondence Committee. The rise of the Second International (and, on the anarchist side, the CNT in Spain and the IWW in the U.S.) did a lot to emasculate the sect form as the dominant method of organizing on the revolutionary left. Unfortunately, a lot of what was built over decades through the blood, sweat, and tears of literally millions of working and oppressed peoples all over the world no longer exists, so we are, to a large extent, starting over from scratch. This is especially true in the United States where the unionization rate is almost in the single digits and where there has not been a mass radical workers’ party in a very long time but less true in places like Greece where the class war is more two-sided than one-sided and there are multiple workers’ parties of varying degrees of radicalism.
C.D.V.: Do you think that the crisis of the SWP will open up a way of talking about organization that goes beyond the vanguard party structure?
P.B.: No. Comrades who reject “Leninism” for the right reasons like Laurie Penny correctly view the SWP’s self-destruction as a vindication of their position on the organization question while comrades who accept “Leninism” like Richard Seymour, China Miéville, and the SWP opposition are reduced to arguing that the SWP is doing it wrong rather than stepping back to re-examine their fundamental and erroneous assumptions regarding vanguard parties and how they develop. In other words, the SWP’s self-destruction is not opening up new discussions or a realignment of forces on the British left. The only new people that I am aware who are thinking “beyond the vanguard party structure” thanks to this crisis are former SWP members Tom Walker and Kevin Crane. The SWP opposition’s political bankruptcy on the organization question will eventually reveal itself, most likely after they are voted down yet again by the membership and are forced to either 1) split to save what is left of their honor or 2) remain a defeated minority in an organization that will forever be associated with rape and has been stuck in terminal decline since the death of its founder Tony Cliff.
C.D.V.: Do you agree with Lars Lih that Leninism itself seems to be an insult to the pluralism of Lenin, and thus is misunderstanding and rigidification of Lenin’s organizational flexibility? Or do you think that Lenin himself is the root of the problem?
P.B.: That is probably not an accurate statement of what Lars Lih thinks about “Leninism.” He has studious and wisely chosen to stay out of left debates over the political and organizational implications of his work as a historian. “Leninism,” as practiced by self-styled “Leninist” groups, certainly is an insult to and a denigration of Lenin and his life’s work as a revolutionary social democrat. He had very little to do with the creation of sects that operate in his name and was far more interested in creating mass-based, class-based parties. In line with this orientation, the Communist International (Comintern) insisted that various national revolutionary groupings fuse and merge into single, united parties if they desired to be affiliated with the Comintern. Historically, the creation of “Leninist” sects is Trotsky’s doing, not Lenin’s.
C.D.V.: I should said seems as his book Lenin Reconsidered does have certain implications for political praxis even if those implications only come from a close reading of primary text and the historical record. To change to a related topic: What do you see as a way to organize labor as the Union movement declines?
P.B.: Before that question can be tackled, we have to step back and diagnose the reason for the union movement’s seemingly unending decline.
Today’s AFL-CIO apparatus (or what is left of it) is very much a product of the 1950s context in which it was born (the federation came together in 1955), that is, hemmed in by Taft-Hartley which outlawed secondary strikes and National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) rules and bureaucracy that constantly interferes with organizing efforts. The creation of these hurdles occurred during a period of unprecedented prosperity and capitalist economic expansion. Back then, the capitalist class felt that peace on the shopfloor was worth paying for and as a result, workers enjoyed good contracts and generally rising living standards from 1945-1970 without a tremendous amount of struggle. If you told Big Bill Haywood before he died in 1928 that, in two decades, American mass production workers would be able afford to send their children through college to get white collar or managerial positions, he’d probably slap you for spouting pie-in-the-sky pro-capitalist propaganda. It’s hard to overstate the change in capital-labor relations in the pre- and post-World War Two eras. Successive generations of workers and union leaders grew accustomed to getting good contracts without much of a fight; when strikes did break out, they tended to be short, non-violent, fairly tame affairs. Eventually management backed down or union leaders would come back to the bargaining table, and an agreement amenable to both sides was reached.
Those days are over and they have been over for a long time. However, the union movement and the working class as a whole has not really caught up to or adjusted to this change. The tactics and traditions inherited from an era of “class peace” weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. As a result, unions in the private sector have almost been wiped out (the percentage is in the single digits), so public sector unions have become disproportionately important to the AFL-CIO by default. The problem is that, in addition to Taft-Hartley and NLRB, there are state laws that outlaw strikes by these public sector workers. Advocates of a labor party used to argue that unions without a party of their own meant that labor was fighting with “one hand behind its back,” meaning the labor movement needed to fight not only on the economic side but on the political-legislative side as well. Today, we are in a situation where labor is fighting with both hands tied behind its back since strike action is almost illegal in practice and we have no workers’ party to combat new anti-union measures that are passing in state legislatures.
So we are in big trouble, to put it mildly.
Now, it’s easy to blame the conservatism of union bureaucrats and bureaucracies for the labor movement’s fate, which is what the far left (“Leninist” and otherwise) does. But the blame is not solely theirs; we should not pretend that we can put labor’s house back in order by electing better, more radical/militant/Marxist labor leaders. Labor’s problems are much bigger, or more deeply ingrained, than this or that treacherous, cowardly leader or even whole layers of treacherous, cowardly leaders. The other side of the union movement’s bureaucratization is the relatively passive, quiescent rank and file who bear the brunt of the attacks and have the most to gain from effective resistance.
In the final analysis, the union movement is only as strong as its rank and file is class conscious, militant, and organized and will only win what it is prepared to fight for, which apparently is not much. Until that changes, until a do-it-yourself ethos becomes a lot more common than it is now among unionized or unionizing workers, efforts to revive the existing labor movement like AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka’s latest initiative will go nowhere fast because they will quickly run up against Taft-Hartley, NLRB, a whole series of anti-union laws, and the absence of a labor party, which is what happened with the exciting Our Walmart initiative. (I’m not saying Our Walmart is dead, a failure, or anything like that; I’m using that experience to point out the difficulties for unions to succeed at doing anything beyond merely surviving in the political and legal context of present-day America.)
There is no “magic bullet” solution or organizational form to the union movement’s problems and I do not pretend to have all or even most of the answers, especially on this question. I have never been in a union although my parents have, and I think my lack of experience in the trenches of the union movement is unfortunately nearly universal for working people of my generation. The existing alternative models to the AFL-CIO like the Industrial Workers of the World have not fared too well either; they are, of course, under-funded, often isolated from the broader union movement, and their efforts to organize at small businesses and large employers alike have not met with great success despite a lot of courageous effort and militant, unorthodox tactics. It was the combination of these tactics (or Occupy-esque militancy and flexibility) and AFL-CIO resources that led Our Walmart to have its initial success.
As a general rule, I don’t think the union movement is going to get anywhere unless and until it begins to defy or find ways of circumventing bourgeois legality. People, including working people, tend to take the path of least resistance, and when you have a family that depends on you for food, clothes, and shelter, risking arrest is not something that is undertaken lightly; this is especially true for working single mothers who struggle just to find babysitters and child care week to week as they slave away for corporate behemoths like Wal Mart, McDonald’s, or Starbucks. At the same time, if every effective tactic is outlawed or ruled illegal by a court injunction, every union is going to face a stark choice between bowing to legality and losing or risk losing everything for an illegal win as the Transit Workers Union Local 100 did when it went on strike here in New York City in 2006. They struck and the union was crippled when a judge took away automatic dues payment as punishment for breaking the state’s anti-strike law.
The convergence of Occupy with union struggles provided a brief glimpse of what or how this problem might be surmounted in practice, but Occupy proved to be too inflexible to adapt and survive without its encampments and so this brief convergence did not have time to take hold and develop into something meaningful. Occupy Homes is a campaign that I think also gets at the question of bourgeois legality, although it is a struggle centered not on the point of production and therefore the unions play a subordinate role (if they play a role at all). What Our Walmart decides to do during and after the NLRB-imposed cooling off period will be pretty important to determining what, if any, future unions have in this country.
C.D.V: What to you make of the general Union reliance on Democrats despite the fact state-level Democrats have been arguibly more successful at slow dismantling since labor is less skillful at framing opposition to the party he Unions channel a lot of money to?
P.B.: Unions will never break from the Democratic Party (DP) unless and until there is a reasonably realistic alternative to switch their allegiance to. How awful the DP is for labor on any issue or policy is irrelevant so long as the Democrats do not change the D to an R.
Breaking the strategic attraction of the lesser-evil strategy means breaking the two-party state at the local, state, and eventually national levels. We’ll need Greens or reds in office before we can expect to see unions re-think their political options and strategies.
We are unfortunately a very long way from that.
Things weren’t always this bad. This tradition of unions backing Democratic politicians come hell or high water has its origins in the Communist Party’s (CP) policies in the union movement of the 1930s during the Popular Front period. Prior to that, there were efforts to create labor and farmer-labor parties and unions sometimes ran their own candidates in local elections. The Debs-era Socialist Party polled 20%-30% of the delegates at the American Federation of Labor convention in the early 20th century. The CP put an end to all that. It played a pivotal role in the rise of the CIO and used its immense power and influence in the unions to kill any and all effort aimed at creating a Labor Party that could threaten the Democratic Party. Since then the unions have been the DP’s most loyal organized constituency.
C.D.V.: You still see this in the somewhat bipolar seeming rhetoric of the CPUSA: Do you see this entryism as being not only habitual but pathological?
P.B.: The problem is not one of entryism; the unions, NGOs, and left-liberal organizations are not “entering” the DP because the party as such does not really have formal structures these groups can enter into or take over in any meaningful sense. Rather, they refuse to organize a jail break, an escape out of the confines of the DP mainly because doing so would leave them with even less power and influence than they have now. Until they have another ship to jump to, they won’t jump ship, even if the ship is sinking, or on fire. That’s why I tire of hearing the socialist left propagandistically and pathologically calling on unions and everyone else to “break with the Democratic Party.” We even hear that rhetoric from Socialist Alternative candidates running in local races in Seattle and Minneapolis for non-partisan(!) offices. Instead, I think we need to discuss and think through how to break the Democratic Party, how to split its voting base from its funding base, how to disrupt it, undermine it, and eventually make it a marginal force in American politics. Actually accomplishing that might require some entryism or other unorthodox tactics by radicals. Another pathological problem I see is acting as if the DP is a moral taint or a poison that, once you touch it, will turn you to stone; it’s a very moralistic approach, one that precludes any real struggle dealing with the DP and exploiting its contradictions.
C.D.V.: What ideas do you have on how to concretely start to fracture the Democractic party?
P.B.: The first thing we have to do is look at local, city, and state politics to find where there are openings and weaknesses we can take advantage of. I learned a lot by reading the chapter on Bernie Sanders’ rise in Burlington, VT in the book Radicals In Power by Eric Leif Davin which I can’t recommend highly enough. If you had to choose between buying and reading Lars Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered and Radicals in Power, I would say skip Lih.
Sanders managed to oust the Democratic mayor, and then he faced an extremely hostile Democratic and Republican city council that effectively sabotaged the first year of his administration. So Sanders and his allies campaigned to oust them too and they won. The remaining (surviving) Democratic and Republican council members then began to compromise and work with rather than against Sanders. Out of Sanders’ campaign came the Vermont Progressive Party (VPP), which I have only begun to study. Their strategy, unlike the Green Party, has been to focus on races for local and state offices exclusively and they endorse Democrats on a case-by-case basis. The latter part of the strategy is generally anathema to the revolutionary left, but it’s hard to argue with results: they’ve managed to build up the country’s most powerful state-based third party and have worked with the Democrats to weaken the Republicans. This extreme tactical flexibility vis-à-vis the Democrats has allowed VPP to avoid the spoiler problem that is built into America’s winner-take-all electoral system which has been the main objective barrier to a robust Green Party. Sometimes you have to compromise with the enemy to fight the enemy, and that is how I view the VPP. Teaming up with Democrats to weaken and undermine the Republicans on a state-wide level is smart because it erodes the spoiler factor that gives the DP so much power overs it voting base. Once you remove the fear factor of a G.O.P. victory from the equation, you empower unions, people of color, women, LGBTQs to make a free choice, a choice of conscience and genuine political preference, which is pretty threatening to the DP since they could never win elections on their neoliberal, G.O.P-lite, free-trade loving, anti-union, and pro-imperialist policies. In many Vermont local races the Republicans don’t even appear to be a factor, so it’s a straight fight between VPP and the DP.
None of the above could have or would have happened without Bernie Sanders running successfully as an independent against the Democratic mayor of Burlington in the 1980s.
C.D.V.: What do you want to see in a broad, multiple tendency and faction left movement emerging?
P.B.: The socialist movement in the U.S. is weaker, more fragmented, and more marginal today than it has ever been. In 1898, there were 6,000 organized socialists in this country. Today, the combined memberships of all the three- and two-letter groups put together might equal that figure on a good day, although now there are 300 million people living in this country, 100 million or so of whom are wage workers.
So we are starting almost from scratch in terms of creating a mass-based socialist movement that is relevant to American politics, one that can throw punches that actually mean something in terms of the class struggle. We’re so far behind every other country in this regard that we haven’t even produced a George Galloway of our own. That’s sad.
Each fragment or sliver has something it can offer and bring to the table, even the Sparticists. There is a time and a place for vitriolic polemics, a time and a place to call out fellow reds for mistakes, opportunism, and so on; the problem is that is all that the Sparticists do. The International Socialist Organization’s publishing house, Haymarket books, is a tremendous asset, and their nonprofit brings in over $1 million a year. They have plenty of talented people, some of whom are union members, and the same goes Solidarity, Workers World Party, and the rest of them.
The smart, strategic thing to do would be for all of these groups to begin cooperating with each other at the local and branch levels, start having joint meetings, panels, discussions, moderated debates, agreements to fight together for strictly local campaigns for desperately needed measures like rent control, police reform and accountability, lower public transit fares, stuff that working class people care about and that would make a difference to their daily lives. Instead, each group sticks to its own mini-campaigns and initiatives, sees their comrades as competitors, tries to recruit like mad to make up for the number of people dropping out or becoming inactive, and won’t enter into campaign mode for a given initiative unless it is controlled by their group and/or not controlled by one of its rivals. It’s the theory and practice of petty proprietorship, not proletarian socialism.
There’s no good, strategic reason not to form a common radical organization that is anti-capitalist on the theoretical side and dedicated to fighting austerity on the practical side. Disagreements on Syria, Greece, Russia 1989 or 1917 are just an excuse not to unite into something bigger, better, and more effective. Everyone wants to be Lenin in 1914 and accuse everyone else of being Kautsky or Plekhanov, as if the three of them were not still part of the same International at that time. No trend within socialism in the U.S. has anything approaching a mass following and never will if the status quo on the socialist left prevails. Imagine what Greek politics would look like if the Maoists, Trotskyists, and eurocommunist forces that constitute SYRIZA today did not start cooperating almost a decade ago in the manner I described above. PASOK’s support would have collapsed, and Golden Dawn would not be counterbalanced by any left force. In the U.S., similar disaffection with the ruling parties leads to the Tea Party on the right and Occupy/anarchism on the left because the socialist left is essentially a vacuum, a non-entity.
A big tent radical organization could unite the independents (who outnumber the group members), fuse the splinters into a single bat, and probably attract a lot of the revolutionary-minded, non-dogmatic class-struggle anarchist-ish types as well who want nothing to do with central committees, paper sales, and recruiting the uninitiated through intensive individual conversion. A serious 3-5 year plan with some sketched out stages/phases of development and benchmarks or metrics to create such an organization undertaken by a few of the existing groups could easily have 10,000 active members at the end of that process provided no group’s control-freakery or ingrained sectarianism shipwrecked the thing before it could get off the ground.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
P.B.: Thanks for taking the time to interview me. You asked a lot of tough, challenging questions and I hope to see some debate, discussion, and progress towards at least some of the goals we all share.
Brian Hioe is a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society and an undergraduate at New York University.
C. Derick Varn: Recently, you spent time in Japan and did some detailed research on the history of Marxism in Japan and its current incarnations. Briefly, what did you discover about the types of Marxism that have developed there?
Brian Hioe: It’s hard to sum up, of course, but if we are to speak of Marxism as it existed in the pre or post World War II periods, to broadly generalize, I would say that in the earlier broader sense that these forms of Marxism are more generally bound up with the problem of Asian modernity and Marxism in a non-European context. This is largely the question of how to accomplish the aims of Marxist revolution in a country that does not fit the classical category of an advanced industrial nation as one sees with early Marxists before World War II in the Meiji and Taisho periods. As might be expected, this is more generally inflective of broader issues of concern with Western-imported thought and its applicability to an Asian context, which was, of course, by no means a phenomenon unique to Japan, but a particularly prominent issue during these periods.
Following World War II and the period of Japanese militarism in which Marxism became outlawed and was forced to operate underground, the problems of Japanese Marxism becomes the question of the Soviet Union and the differing responses to it, even as this is in itself remains bound up with previous questions of Asian modernity. For example, the dividing line between the splits in Marxist groups in Japan was often the question of whether Japan has accomplished a bourgeois revolution or whether this remained to be done. Although to be sure, there was much doctrinaire infighting on such grounds, the political implications were such that the (Stalinist) Japanese Communist Party held Japan to have not accomplished a bourgeois revolution, presumably so as to provide justification for Popular Front-ism and the like. Contrastingly, the later anti-Stalinist groups such as the Zengakuren, which rose to international fame in the 1960s, generally originated in but broke from the Japanese Communist Party, were often conflicted upon this issue, and this served as a dividing line among the Zengakuren groups.
On the other hand, if we are to consider the contemporary state of Marxism as it currently exists in contemporary Japan, I would say that the specter of postwar Marxism has not yet been exorcised—its influences still remain in some sense. So far as I spent a great deal of my time on the Japanese Left, the groups I encountered came out of this history as either groups surviving from this period, newer groups whose political imagination is such that efforts are made to reenact postwar, 1960s-style Marxism as a viable model to be emulated, or, alternatively, the attempt to break with this history altogether in a manner so as to precisely avoid this type of Marxism. These seem to me to represent differing, somewhat schismatic responses to the history of postwar Japanese Marxism.
C.D.V.: Does Japanese Marxism break down on non-Leninist, Trotskyist, and Maoist lines like in the US or are there differently delinated groups in response to local concerns?
B.H.: Yes, much as with the US and elsewhere, Japanese Marxism breaks down upon non-Leninist, Trotskyist and Maoist lines, though the history is at variance. The most historically prominent group up until the postwar period is likely the Japanese Communist Party, which adhered to the Soviet Union and in that way can be said to be Stalinist, although it begins to distance itself from the Soviet Union in the 1950s, took no sides in the Sino-Soviet split. Its relationship with its prior antecedents became unclear in this way. So I am not sure where to categorize such a group, since it is clearly not Trotskyist or Maoist group, and at least today would by no means refer to itself as a Stalinist group. What I don’t know is if Lenin is still upheld, if the group can be called non-Leninist, nor the exact points any shift in this discourse occurs. My own suspicion is that the relationship of the JCP to its prior history is made opaque by its statements disavowing the brutality of the Soviet Union but also criticizing Eastern European states for rejecting socialism and embracing capitalism and, in this way, any engagement with this history that works through it in its messiness is glossed over. For all its touting as the world’s largest Communist party, it is, in fact, a group you rarely ever see today on the Japanese “Left” and it is rarely included, as such.
To raise the Zengakuren again, as the most prominent group of the postwar period, of the groups that were known under the name Zengakuren, some originated in splitting from the Japanese Communist Party. Trotskyism appears in the group in the form of groups as the Kakumaru-ha faction, which originates in a split from the Japanese Revolutionary Communist League National Committee, which was affiliated with the Fourth International, and in some fashion thereby claimed for itself the mantle of being the first Japanese Trotskyist group. By the time the Kakumaru-ha formed in 1959 as a further split from the Japanese Revolutionary Communist League and became one of the groups known under the mantle of the Zengakuren, it was known as a Trotskyist group. However, other Zengakuren were alternatively Maoist, and some anti-revolutionary Marxists, the latter of which naturally tended towards the critique of Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, et al. The Zengakuren is often thought of as Japan’s “New Left,” equivalent in some fashion to the American SDS, but although it was also a student group, it originates over a decade earlier, and was never one discrete organization but a conglomeration of groups and groupuscules. Furthermore, if the Japanese Revolutionary Communist League was in fact the first Japanese Trotskyist group, that dates the origin of Japanese Trotskyism to 1957. So, then, while the presence of Maoist or non-Leninist groups in the Zengakuren is not a surprise for a group which grows to prominence in the 1968 period, the presence of the Kakumaru-ha in the Zengakuren as a Trotskyist organization would point to the difficulty of establishing any“Old Left” or “New Left” distinction as we use these terms in the United States, so far as the New Left can be characterized by suspicion of Old Left Trotskyist groups. Yet the categorical divisions do remain much the same, I think, even if the history is different.
To speak of Marxist groups in present day Japan, however, I encountered non-Leninist and Trotskyist (or formerly Trotskyist) groups, but rarely ever any Maoist groups. I suspect the reason for the lack of Maoist groups might be anti-Chinese sentiment in regards to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which does not provide much space for Maoist groups to breathe, but this may be casting aspersions a bit too far. A number of the groups that composed the Zengakuren are still around and remain active and so can be termed today’s Trotskyists; for example, there have been a number of English language translations in the last decade of the publications of Kakumaru-ha’s theoretician-leader, Kuroda Kan’ichi that appear to come from what it is that remains of the Kakumaru-ha. Other Zengakuren groups, too, are active that continue to organize demonstrations, especially in relation to the anti-nuclear movement. Likewise, there remain a number of Trotskyist labor unions, even if between some of them there seems to have been some distance between them and Trotsky and more of an attempt to return to Lenin. Otherwise, there are non-Leninist groups that embrace“democratic socialism”, some of which are also splits from the Japanese Communist Party, such as the Zenko group at whose conference in I spoke at in Osaka in August 2012, or the closely aligned Movement for Democratic Socialism (MDS).
C.D.V.: How have Japanese Marxists dealt with the periodic resurgence of local Nationalism?
B.H.: It’s a tough question. While I was in Japan, navigating among different Left groups, I did not encounter any mobilizations specifically addressing nationalism, except as more broadly a phenomenon stemming from and intimately bound up with the Japanese Right. The predominant political issue on the Left is or was, after all, the anti-nuclear movement, although, rather interestingly, the anti-nuclear movement raised questions of nationalism given that far Right groups were also participants alongside Left Marxist and anarchist groups and were sometimes among the most militant and dramatic of participating groups at protests.
To the extent that I saw nationalism addressed as specifically nationalism by the Japanese Marxist Left, it was in regards to figures as the far Right mayors of Tokyo and Osaka, Ishihara and Hashimoto, respectively, but these are figures so large as to cut across multiple domains—in addressing these ultra-nationalist figures, it was on issues such as their support for nuclear energy, their abuse of labor, militarist provocations, or their censorship policies rather than specifically on the issue of nationalism, although it probably need not be said that such policies are intimately bound up with nationalism. I was not in Japan during the time that Ishihara formed his Sunrise Party and Hashimoto his Japan Restoration Party, or when the two parties merged, so I can’t speak for the response, except to report a general wave of despair and resignation expressed at that time among my acquaintances in Japan. The Japan Restoration Party aimed at organizing as a “third force” in relation to the two major parties of the“center-right” Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and “center-left” Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), although it must be noted that it is the former which gave rise to the Japan Restoration Party. Again, I don’t know of any mobilizations around that might have occurred, given my lack of proximity, nor what along what lines such mobilizations might have organized. For example, there are sectors of the Japanese Left modeled upon the European anti-fa, but these are primarily anarchist, rather than Marxist in nature, and I never saw any anti-nationalist demonstrations or organizational by them—of course, it could be that I just failed to notice. I also suspect that nationalism and the national question may be an issue that is left opaque, whether cynically or unconsciously, by aspects of the Japanese Marxist Left more reformist in nature in operating within the status quo of the electoral system, even when they lay claim to an putative internationalisms. This may be I myself being cynical in this case; however, like I raised earlier, the specters of North Korea and China does provoke strong national sentiment even among certain individuals who self-identify as being on the “Left”.
Nevertheless, so far as the rise of the Japan Restoration Party is coterminous with the return to power of the LDP that had dominated Japanese politics since World War II through one-party rule until the emergence of the DPJ in 1998, some left-liberal commentators speak of the permanent decline of the DPJ and, accordingly, the failure of Japan’s experiment with genuine democracy. So while it may be simplifying the contours of the Japanese political situation to say so, likely, in the changed political landscape, nationalism will become a issue that the Japanese Left will be required to address in a more definitive way if it is to be able to respond in any effective manner.
C.D.V.: How exactly do you think anti-Chinese tendencies have complicated things in Japan?
B.H.: For the Left, that’s actually somewhat unclear to me. I suppose it has to do with the relation of the Left to the rest of society. The specter of China is one that can evoke the fears related to Japan’s territorial sovereignty, not to mention Japan’s military capacities, and in this way the issue is very frequently a rallying call for the far Right who, after all, would like to see a renewed Japanese militarism in order to maintain Japan’s territorial sovereignty or perhaps reclaim Japan’s territorial boundaries of old. The specter of China, too, is bound up with specter of North Korea because of China’s being North Korea’s ally; in fact, sometimes the calling out of North Korea is really a cipher for China. Yet while this is very frequently an issue of concern for the Japanese Right and far Right, China can be an issue that evokes strong feelings among liberals, as well, and can serve to sometimes draw out sentiments of nationalism.
Hence the tricky position of the Left. This may be somewhat speculative, as I never saw any much in the way of direct addressing of the issue, but with the sections of the Japanese far Left that work in or through Japanese liberalism, sometimes bleeding into reformist politics, probably China proves an issue to be worked around rather than directly addressed. For example, one of the various Japanese Occupy groups I encountered while in Japan had a Twitter account that was spewing out tweets inflecting a somewhat nationalistic anti-Chinese sentiment. I think this example is illustrative of some of the antinomies that the Left needs to navigate in Japan. So far as Occupy in its global incarnations encompassed perspectives not strictly “Left”or “far Left” but very often left-liberal, such a group (or whoever running the Twitter account) would claim the internationalism of the Occupy mantle of the“99% versus the 1%” in addressing global economic inequality, but simultaneously express nationalist sentiment in relation to China.
In other words, the China issue is one which brings out the difficulty of the Japanese Left in working in a political milieu in which the China issue can bring out nationalist sentiment even among liberal and left-liberals—even, of course, if the Left itself is not invulnerable to falling prey to nationalism either. And, indeed, I think part of it may also be the difficulties of calling one’s self “socialist,” “Communist,” or “Marxist” in Japan with the examples of “actually existing socialism” of China and North Korea all too close for comfort. But that seems to be a problem generally for Marxists in East Asia.
C.D.V.: And are there more attempts at fusion of Marxist and Hegelian concepts with local developments in the Japanese left than has been discussed?
B.H.: There are some examples, but not many that I know of, and many of these belong to an early era. Part of it is, I think, the relative prominence of Marxism in the Japanese social sciences following World War II, but that Japan does not experience a Marx renaissance. Rather, after the turbulent 1960s, Marxism goes into a decline in Japanese academia. I’ll go into what I do know.
For example, the school of Japanese “Hegelian Marxism” I know about is the “Uno School,” an economic school which follows from the thought of Japanese Marxian economist Uno Kozo (1897-1977). Uno’s two most prominent students are Thomas T. Sekine (Sekine Tomohiko) and Makoto Itoh (Itoh Makoto), of which I interviewed the former (forthcoming in the Platypus Review). The Uno School is very often touted as a “Hegelian Marxism” in western circles so far as Sekine is the primary English-language advocate for the Uno School and his interpretation of the Uno School has a Hegelian spin, which has led to the criticism that he, in fact, over-Hegelianizes the Uno School. In any case, Sekine’s contention is that the dialectical account of the development of Geist provides a means of understanding of capital, in regards to the movements of capital being dialectical—Hegel’s mistake, so to say, being that he mistook what is historically specific to capital for the developmental tendencies of the human spirit. So, then, does Sekine provide a reading of Capital which overlays Hegel’s Logic onto it, in order to serve the enterprise of an economics that is held to be objective knowledge. It is entirely not clear to me how much of this Hegelian Marxian thought is present in the work of Uno Kozo himself.
Likewise, I already mentioned Kuroda Kan’ichi (1927-2006) in relation to the Zengakuren, as the theoretician-leader of the Kakumaru-ha. Kuroda was one of Uno Kozo’s interlocutors in his day, during the heyday of the Japanese Marxist groups, and in his Methodology of Social Science: A Critique of Uno Kozo’s Theory of Economics, he critiques the understanding of capital produced by the Uno School as fundamentally bourgeois in nature, because Uno Kozo’s interpretation of Capital rearranges the work so as to begin with “circulation.” His contention is that Marx wrote Capital to be understood by members of the proletariat which is why the work begins with “production,” in relation to the proletariat’s being directly embedded in the processes of production. He poses a reading of Capitalthat, instead, reads the Phenomenology of Spirit onto Capital, as the bildungsroman coming-to-self-consciousness of the proletarian, Karl Marx. It is not entirely clear to me how much of Kuroda further elaborates on his forays into Hegelian Marxian, because his books are rather hard to obtain, although they were actually translated into English by the present day Kakumaru-ha in the 90s and 2000s, and I know his thought coheres into some sort of body.
There are also later academic readings of Hegel and Marx, such as Uchida Hiroshi’s reading of Hegel’s Logic onto the Grundrisse (Marx’s Grundrisse and Hegel’s Logic 1988) but I know much less about this, and I’m not aware of any schools of thought that emerge from these attempts. Again, I would think this is attendant with the decline of Marxism in the Japanese academy. Obviously, there is more than I mention here. I should also add by way of caveat that I’m limited to reading English language texts, my Japanese being too poor at present to read theoretical texts, so there is likely much I am not aware of, but such is my perception.
C.D.V.: Does the experience of left-wing tramas like that United Red Army’s impolsion and the Japanese Red Army’s Lod Airport massacre have effect on the current Japanese left?
B.H.: Yes, I would say so, though I wouldn’t necessarily tie it down to any single event as to the general history of 60s violence. For example, in the anti-nuclear movement, even as a number of Left groups hoped to use the issue as a radicalizing issue for the public, the organizers of the weekly protests on the Japanese capitol in Tokyo (which, at times, numbered in the tens if not hundreds of thousands), sought to avoid the expression of explicit political views. It eventually became clear that the organizers were, in some fashion, coordinating with the police that was otherwise restricting the protests’ actions, when it became noticeable that the organizers’ signs directing people were the same signs the police had. In other words, what was feared was that the protests would rupture the norms of civil society in a way that would be alienating. To make the Occupy connection again, I was reminded of Occupy, in which the question of radical views quite possibly alienating public from the protest of broader issues versus the use of broader issues as a way of radicalizing the public was also an issue.
In Japan, as with most places, the employment of violence carries societal stigma, but I think in the Japanese context it’s especially haunting of the far Left in relation to the history of the 1960s. The last thing you’d see at a protest would be any form of black bloc. After events as the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attacks, which were, of course, acts of violence carried out by a religious cult, and which was profoundly disruptive of society, Left groups tend to get lumped into the category of being violent cults themselves because of their history. Or Left groups are perceived as being much the same as violent right-wing groups; certainly, sometimes hyperbolic discourse about revolution can sound not dissimilar.
I might mention here the widespread police surveillance of Left-wing groups that takes place in Japan. Of course, very often on the Left, groups which are not at all any threat to the state want to feel as though they were important enough to be observed by the state and so claim to see police surveillance everywhere. But I’ve attended meetings in Japan with an attendance of only a dozen people, advertising of which was conducted almost entirely through the Internet, in which undercover police were present. Undercover police have a habit of standing en masse outside of meetings of radical labor union organizations with notepads, as though they were monitoring individuals, even when a lot of this might just be psychological intimidation. Furthermore, protests in Japan are usually accompanied by disproportionately large numbers of police—a protest consisting of only about fifty people might be accompanied by an escort of fifty or more policemen. Given that the regulation of the police is overwhelming, a public that very often just wants to avoid trouble is deterred from the far Left by way of societal stigmas reinforced in this way.
This degree of police surveillance is certainly a response to the history of 60s violence and, in that way, restricting of the Left’s activity. Yet the effect of 60s violence that I would point to on the Left is the schismatic response of the Japanese Left to this. Again, in the example of the anti-nuclear movement, in order to maintain civil respectability and mass appeal, sections of the Left sometimes attempt to curb their radicalism in order to avoid alienation. As is not surprising, this proves problematic for anything that provides for more than reformist politics. Contrastingly, other sections of the Japanese Left react by embracing the iconography of Japanese sixties radicalism in order to play up their militancy—for example, the iconic Zengakuren helmets and the distinctive aesthetic of sixties protest banners. As is also not surprising, this is, in fact, alienating to the general public. So far as I observe, in this way, the response on the Left tends to be divergent in these opposing directions, both problematic in their own way, both responses to the legacy of the 1960s.
C.D.V.: What do see happening in he Japanese left after the brief flicker that was Occupy in Asia?
B.H.: Occupy was never very big in Japan—it was more of a one-day protest action in 2011. However, many groups adopted the Occupy name and the slogan of the “99% versus the 1%” afterwards, and I encountered a number of groups calling themselves Occupy or using Occupy-based slogans. I was intimately involved in particular with a group that called itself Occupy Tokyo Action. There were other groups, but they weren’t very large. By no means on the scale of the Occupy movement in the US.
Other times, established organizations adapted the Occupy name but, in that way, it actually became quite rhetorical. Sometimes groups would just add the slogans of Occupy the rhetoric of the 99% and the 1% to all the preexisting slogans and self-identified labels, and it would just became another protest chant or declarative statement of self-assertion: “We are the ninety-nine percent!”
So far as I was coming off of Occupy to Japan because I was living there in the spring and summer of 2012, sometimes it was clear to me what exactly Occupy was was actually not entirely understood—for example, that impetus behind the original concept of Occupy was the occupation of a public space. So people were calling themselves Occupy but not entirely knowing that means, I think, and people were claiming the mantle of the 99% but not necessarily in a manner where it was meaningful. I was invited to speak about Occupy several times by individuals or organizations, but while I sought to adopt a critical stance and offer something else than what was purely salutary, I think people often thought what I had to say was unexpected or counterintuitive.
For example, something I tried to do when invited by leftists or leftist groups to talk on Occupy was to frame Occupy in the context of the Left—which was sometimes surprising to people, who didn’t see Occupy as a leftist movement. Well, to be sure, it was too heterogeneous to call it that, so I agreed, but why else should there be this interest in Occupy, then, on the Japanese Left? That was something I found myself wondering very often. And I’m not sure what people were hoping to get out learning from someone who had been observant of and involved in Occupy—in my talks, I very often tried to point out or gesture towards my own perceived imperfections of Occupy, which wasn’t always what people wanted to hear. This may just be me being overcritical of everything, which is generally the tendency on my part. Still, it also did make me quite hopeful that there was this interest in global events relevant to the Left.
What was larger, of course, but also interrelated was the anti-nuclear movement. The original anti-nuclear movement post-3/11 had tapered off, but when I was in Japan, the Japanese government’s plan to restart the nuclear reactors in Fukui and Oi sparked a resurgence of the anti-nuclear movement. As I mentioned, at one point, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people were marching every Friday on the Japanese capitol in Kasumigaseki, which is a district of Tokyo. This came out of the blue, so far as the anti-nuclear marches on the capitol had continued weekly and there was even a sort of Occupy-esque tent, Tento Hiroba, in Kasumigaseki. But although Tento Hiroba had managed to resist all attempts to evict it for over a year, when I first arrived in Japan, these marches consisted of only about several hundred people, though they resembled the casseroles marches. Yet that these marches had gone on for over a year since 3/11, even with the loss of momentum, provided the site for the reinvigoration of the anti-nuclear movement in regards to providing for weekly protest actions of thousands. Very quickly, it became clear that these were the largest demonstrations since the 1960s though, as I said, perhaps the emphasis upon social and civil respectability in these demonstrations was because of the lingering stigma of the sixties.
I mentioned being reminded of Occupy in the Japanese Left—it was through the anti-nuclear movement that I was. Some aspects of the anti-nuclear movement saw themselves as in the spirit of Occupy, including those who I was involved with. But my own perception was that the anti-nuclear movement was, in some sense, the actual Japanese Occupy. While, of course, it actually outnumbered Occupy in New York by several orders of magnitude, and the cause wasn’t the same, what I felt was that it had many of the same problems as Occupy. The question of radical views versus an appeal to populism, also the issue of how to make one issue into an entry point into a broader panoply of political issues. Likewise, the question of leadership between groups, the relation of the movement to police actions, and the issue of attempting to make a movement grow, but towards what purpose? Such were the questions at hand.
Still, if we’re to tie these issues together, Occupy and the anti-nuclear movement, in relation to the current state of the Japanese Left, I honestly don’t know. The anti-nuclear movement wasn’t growing significantly larger, and after the high point of a mass demonstration in Yoyogi Park, near Harajuku, in late July, eventually at some point the protests saw a decline. I think there’s been somewhat of a vacuum since, and a sense of confusion on the Japanese Left of what is to come next—especially since the issue was never resolved in any decisive way, but just became somewhat obfuscated and, in that way, buried. We shall see. Is there potential for a third resurgence? I don’t know, although protests continue, and the two year mark has arrived. But what concerns me is that I don’t see people asking this question of themselves.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
B.H.: Just that, fundamentally, I think the issues of the Japanese Left are the same issues that the Left faces the world over. Much of what the Japanese Left faces, I think, are the issues that the international Left across the world faces, except that such issues are configured differently in regards to the specifics of Japanese history. I’ve mentioned the Occupy parallel many times, also the shared problems faced by the Left in East Asia where it proves difficult to call one’s self a Marxist because of the specter of “actually existing socialism.” What this points at is the need for an international politics that operates at more than merely expressing solidarity for various national politics or various issue-based politics from afar, but intimate political involvements on every level. Good feelings, even feelings of shared struggle, only go so far, after all. At worst, expressions of global solidarity can even be quite performative in nature, in claiming to situate national struggles within the context of a global Left, but really in the interests of just drawing a number of new protest slogans from abroad and the projection of one’s hopes and desires onto some place other than home so as to avoid confronting the reality which looms ever-present before you. I certainly saw that sometimes on the Japanese Left, for example, in relation to me as someone who came from America immediately following a period of involvement in Occupy, but also in relation to the Japanese Left as understood from the American perspective, by way of the perception of Japanese radicalism my American radicals. And what I don’t see from either perspective is the sort of radical self-questioning necessary to actually make shared international struggles meaningful in any visceral, politically-charged level.
Perhaps, then, what the state of the Japanese Left points at is this need for a new internationalism in which worldwide struggles can be made meaningful on the visceral polticially-charged level with an actual effect on reality—and also its absence in the present. I would say so about the Japanese Left so far as these are maladies faced by the global Left, and so far as the Japanese Left is an expression of the global Left. Indeed, I can only speak for myself and my own perceptions so much as far as I went into Japan, began researching the history of the Japanese Left, and sought to absorb myself into the contemporary Japanese Left—even if, of course, it ends up that I can’t help but subsume the Japanese Left to my preexistent political conceptions. That is, I think, inevitable to some degree. Yet this is what I would conclude, in my knowledge that I don’t know everything, that my knowledge of the Japanese Left is necessarily incomplete, and that neither do I have any answers.
Daniel Spaulding is a graduate student in the Department of the History of Art, Yale University. He works on postwar and contemporary art in Western Europe. With Jaleh Mansoor and Daniel Marcus he coauthored a response to a questionnaire on Occupy Wall Street for a special issue of the journal October in the fall of 2012. (http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/OCTO_a_00122)
Daniel Spaulding: It’s senseless to answer this question except with reference to concrete instances of relations between the two. I’m not interested in defining the role of art in bourgeois society as such in the manner of, say, Peter Bürger. At the same time real instances of the interface between art and politics are unquestionably determined by the general forms of capitalist society – the commodity, the wage, exchange, and so on. From this basis one can indeed claim to deduce the category of art from the determinations of the value-form or more broadly from the whole complex of relations that make up the capitalist mode of production. The role of a Marxist art history as opposed to a Marxist aesthetic theory, however, must be to mediate between form-determination and form itself, between category and material artifact.
In that spirit I’m also going to be a bit unsatisfying and refuse to give a programmatic answer to your question. I will venture to say that the standard modes of “critical” post-60s art won’t cut it. This seems widely acknowledged even in the bastions of that very model: see for instance recent meditations on the “postcritical” impulse and the failure of the “anti-aesthetic” in journals like October and Texte zur Kunst. I’m afraid lot of this is just chewing the cud of “left” art history’s academicization. The impasse is real, however.
The vital question is how to articulate the totalizing impulse of critique – which I’d argue is still as important as ever, in the face of capitalism’s own totalizing force – with a poiesis necessarily fixated on the smallest point of ingress to the materiality of everyday life, or to put it differently, the smallest unit of affect or event in its difference from a reified situation. Art small-a. I’d be willing to bet that a materialist lyric mode is the closest thing to an avant-garde we currently possess. It’s no longer very interesting to say: “Look, I’ve divested myself of my subjectivity, I’ve laid bare the mechanism through critical mimesis, I’ve taught the petrified social forms to dance by singing them their own song.” Better for artists to ask: “How can I make something that speaks to my experience in all its fucked-upness and seeming inevitability; how can I produce anything at all without immediately reproducing capital; what representational or anti-representational claims can I make with regard to my own place in the violent hierarchy of class society?” But this is a kind of lyric that opens onto epic to the extent it necessarily folds totalization back into subjectivity, or history into experience.
Art is able to do this in ways that exceed the resources of critique alone. By doing so artistic practices conceived on this model also help get us beyond the antinomy of committed versus autonomous art. Art’s autonomy instead consists in its asymptotic approach to an autonomy of the social, that is, to communism. Whether this means a sublation of art into life or something quite different is not the most interesting question at this moment in history.
C.D.V.: You have written on the aesthetics of insurrectionism and communization in Occupy: do you see part of Occupy’s appeal as aesthetic?
D.S.: I think its appeal may have been aesthetic in the older and broader sense of the term. Occupy had a visceral sensory impact on the ground and even in its circulation through the image-world. Occupiers sometimes talk nostalgically about the distinctive smell at the camps. There’s obviously a danger of romanticizing this, but I think it’s right to say that Occupy among other things offered a glimpse of a different sensorium, that is, of a world in which matter and form are ordered not by the logic of capital but rather in the immediate reproduction of communal life. Of course Occupy’s world was precarious and frequently miserable, but in that, too, I think it was probably an accurate preview of what a break with capital will really entail.
This is a slightly different matter than the “aesthetics of insurrectionism and communization,” whatever such might be. (I’d like to keep the two terms separate, by the way. You can certainly have insurrection without communization, but whether you can have communization without insurrection is another question.) In the October piece I wrote with Jaleh Mansoor and Daniel Marcus we made a rather coded swipe at what we called the “aestheticizers of autonomy.” By this we meant, for example, artists or artist-collectives who take insurrection as a “theme” or even a procedure but at any rate as something to be injected into the gallery system, and thus into all its attendant circuits of valorization and exploitation. I don’t know if this is much different from the wave of awful “political” art that came out of the heyday of identity politics. At any rate Baudelairean neo-spleen is not much better than the same product that’s in all the other galleries.
One of the functions of art in capitalism is to poach and domesticate radical energies from elsewhere in society. Art historians ought to be frank about this. A critique of art history, or a meta-art history, might be used to disqualify the circulation of vaguely “political” signifiers as the common currency of the art world. We can say: No, this isn’t political, this is the same shit as always, please stop fucking around. And this might be a way to redirect the desire for a better life that is currently railroaded into the art world back to the world itself.
Anyway, moving on. I would avoid saying that there is a specific aesthetic of communization or insurrection, unless there’s an aesthetic of communism itself. Undoubtedly there would be such but we can’t say in advance what it is. It isn’t Emory Douglas or Claire Fontaine, however much we might be interested in their work. On the other hand there’s certainly a visual imaginary of insurrectionism. It’s interesting that The Coming Insurrection ends on a narrative scene, really a sort of creative writing exercise: “visualize total collapse” as opposed to “visualize world peace.” I find that useful as far as it goes. We do need to view the current order from the standpoint of its anticipated collapse. This is the basic historical materialist insight, and it’s also the point of departure for the Marxist tradition’s thorny pairing of utopia with catastrophe. When the image of insurrection substitutes for its actuality, though, we’re back into mere ideology. I don’t mean this as an attack on any particular milieu and its styling. We simply need to be very careful to specify that revolutionary dynamics are at least as likely to be marked by their non-visibility as by a production of images, by their withdrawal from the aesthetic as much as their conquest of a public profile. Politics happens where genre fails.
On this note, Occupy was fascinating because there was a basic tension between an (exhausted) image-politics – “the media isn’t covering this!” or “let’s make this trend on Twitter!” – and a mostly subterranean challenge to the rule of property, to the police state, ultimately to what has to be described as the whole of capitalist society. Capital’s overwhelming command over the boundaries of the sayable and the unsayable predictably meant that the more profound challenge often came to the surface only in variously mediated or symptomatic shapes. The Marxist interpretation of culture has some work to do here because one of the areas in which it historically gained purchase was of course the method of symptomatic reading – scouring the surface of culture for traces of contradiction. What gave itself to appearance in Occupy demands the same attention. But in present conditions, art history, in particular, may paradoxically best do this by shrinking back from “the aesthetic,” if this is understood as identical with the historical institution of art. There are other kinds of practice that challenge the very coherence of the term.
For example, one of the great slogans that came out of Occupy was “Shit is fucked up and bullshit.” This struck a chord with a lot of us because it hit on the predicament of trying to speak politically today: we are reduced to practical incoherence by the sheer wrongness of the world and of our lives, on what I’m tempted to call an existential level. Art has also sometimes been able to speak this inability to speak. The most recent Whitney Biennial was pitched to a very definite affective register, what David Joselit called “melancholy camp.” I think this might have been overplayed in the exhibition to the point of mannerism, but it does get at a very real sense of how we live now (with the caveat that “we” is of course parceled out by class, race, gender, and sexuality): now, we are very often in some way “camping,” improvising in the ruins of an order that can no longer promise a future, can no longer promise coherent structures of experience, in the end, can no longer promise its own reproduction and simple endurance. But did the Biennial register this situation in the most effective way, or the slogan? The latter, I suspect.
Art historians should recognize that art is not necessarily good at what it’s trying to do. Art as a practice may sometimes give us models of how to relate to the material world and to each other in ways that don’t succumb to the imperatives of value production. So do things like occupations and reading groups and riots, though, and it’s not obvious to me that art is currently doing a better job.
C.D.V.: What do you make the commercialization of some the aesthetic sensibilities around Occupy?
D.S.: To be honest I’m not entirely sure what you mean. There was an aspect of Occupy’s aesthetic presence that was always-already commercialized, so to speak, in that it aimed to propagate a political brand through existing channels of circulation. Meme politics and the like. I don’t have an objection to this per se. I like memes. But the limitations are clear and so is the tension between that strategy and the more intractable problems of subsistence, survival, and open class conflict that also surfaced in Occupy. I sometimes think of this tension metonymically as New York versus Oakland. That’s not very fair to either city, though. In fact all of the camps reproduced a gendered and racialized division between a self-appointed “99%,” who claimed the privilege of speaking for others, and the mass of the more profoundly dispossessed who continued to face state and economic violence on a daily basis and who often found themselves expropriated again in the discourse (and practice) of Occupy. This division was already recuperation from within. Unfortunately it was probably insurmountable in a context structured by white and male supremacy.
Beyond this my impression is that instances of specifically aesthetic co-optation have been minor. Occupy never really generated a new vocabulary of forms, in either politics or aesthetics, and so there ultimately wasn’t much to appropriate. This is in marked contrast to the revolts of the sixties, to take an obvious example. Aside from “We are the 99%” even the slogans barely percolated into mass culture. Occupy’s impact was probably more effectively distributed in heavily mediated and more insidiously ideological manifestations, like the most recent Batman movie (which I didn’t actually see, but then, the noise in the vicinity of these media events is often more interesting than the thing itself). Of course there was also a tremendous amount of liberal normalization especially over the past year, reaching a peak of absurdity with the election. But to me this was just so much slime returning to the swamp from whence it came.
Again the issue pivots around what does and doesn’t take coherent form at the present moment. Occupy never made itself into Leviathan. There was no figure of sovereignty to gather it together, nor so much as a credible placeholder/analyst akin to the historical prerevolutionary Party. Contra the back-to-Lenin crowd I don’t necessarily see this as a failing. Contra the horizontalist tendency I also don’t see it as a strength. It’s simply the place we are at. This is also an aesthetic fact since the distribution of aesthetic as much as political forms depends on establishing oppositions of figure to ground, on the emergence of a gestalt. The coalescence of organized and representational anti-capitalist politics seems to be what is barred. This undoubtedly has its effects in the visual field. The crisis of capitalism today is far more severe than in the sixties, but in the present cycle neither crisis nor opposition lend themselves readily to images, except of the most disposable sort (memes again); the masses don’t meld into an image of unity, and the forces of reaction have had only limited success in appealing to the image of the nation or other more or less fascistic rallying points. (I don’t intend to minimize the threat of fascism, in Greece for instance, but rather to say that the threat is unlikely to play out quite like its twentieth-century predecessors.) This complicates the familiar cycle of revolt-representation-recuperation that’s often presumed to be the modus operandi of spectacle. If representation never truly takes place, it’s hard to know how co-optation can proceed – except perhaps by colonization at an exponentially molecular level. Which is perhaps what I mean by the “internal” recuperation I’ve already described.
That’s a dark thought and I don’t want to give it too much weight. The commercialization of oppositional culture obviously continues apace – there’s a riot video game in development, I’m told – but it seems unlikely that this will succeed in containing what it represents. To be clear: it’s not as if there’s something external to the commodity’s rule, in either art or politics, that then becomes vitiated through recuperation, but rather that events like Occupy point to immanent breaks in the reproduction of capitalist relations – including their image-structures – even if on a certain level they are undoubtedly already “captured.” Capital and the state then seek to plug the leaks any way they can. Clearly it’s worth paying attention to such strategies. But it’s also important to remain true to the point of rupture – to continue asking, with the late Chris Marker, “Pourquoi quelquefois les images se mettent-elles à trembler?”
If the question is about art, however, I can only repeat what I’ve already said. There exists bad art about Occupy. The phenomenon seems minor enough that it may still be conscientiously ignored.
C.D.V.: Why do you think Oakland Occupy narrative is so often contrasted with the New York narrative despite the fact that Oakland occupy itself was criticized for being racially problematic by minority leaders within the community?
D.S.: The point is not that one version of Occupy or another was better at dealing with race but rather that Oakland was undeniably marked by a higher degree of militancy. All of the occupations were fundamentally inadequate in their attempts to confront racism. The dynamic was very different in different places, however. Occupy Oakland would not have been what it was without the uprisings following the Oscar Grant murder, to say nothing of many decades of radical black militancy. The name “Occupy Oakland” itself ramified into “Decolonize Oakland” and the “Oakland Commune,” both of which indicate quite divergent self-conceptions. It’s thus better to understand the 2011-12 events as autonomous developments out of the city’s own radical tradition rather than as imports from New York. There was of course conflict around tactics that were perceived to be alienating. But it’s demonstrably untrue and deeply reactionary to claim that people of color universally disapproved of militant escalation.
I want to avoid misunderstanding: I’m not trying to valorize Oakland over New York or anywhere else. I do believe Oakland showed us possibilities and limitations that were never so apparent elsewhere in the United States. It’s an important case study as we try to anticipate future developments. A similar mix of alliance and friction between insurrectionary currents, organized labor, and established community leaders (who too often act as managers of racial and class domination) – to name only three among many actors – will undoubtedly play out with any number of local variations over the coming years. These tensions surfaced in New York as well but were more effectively subsumed under the figure of a downwardly mobile “middle class.”
Now I’m beginning to sound like an authority, though, which I’m certainly not. These are my impressions from knowing people involved and from following events at a distance. I’m just an art historian.
C.D.V. : Some context over what I trying to get at. I don’t think anyone has said that Occupy Oakland was universally condemned by people of color, but I do think it is very clear that leaders within Oakland’s African American and Asian American community did start to become hostile to it after two or three event dafter the “general strike”. The tensions were not over black bloc tactics as a whole, but the community writings in the Oakland local turned after the strong local support after Scott Grant attack. The support was lost because of a few threats to shut down airports and other things that the Oakland Commune honestly did not have the capacity to do, as well as the targeting of some local businesses seen as not related to corporate or government problems within the community. Support in the community for the General Strike was very, very high particularly because of the Oscar Grant killing, the protests over BART police, and the particularly high rate of homelessness there. The black bloc tactics themselves weren’t condemned in local papers at first, just some the aimlessness of some of the choices of targets until that meme became much more used in the liberal press.
I think, however, it should be dealt with that this disapproval was seized upon by large portions of liberals within the media to be able to distance themselves from Occupy Oakland/The Oakland Commune and to try to paint it as a San Francisco kids coming to Oakland with bringing within the “black bloc.” This stuff is all over the editorial pages of local Oakland papers. To make it more problematic, this idea as then pressed in almost every liberal net-newspaper outlet: Mother Jones, HuffPo, the Nation, and Truth Out.
The debates over the black bloc were interesting though, and this brings me to my next question: Why do you think the aesthetics of the black bloc has been so successfully used within left-liberal circles as a distancing point? I have been involved in discussions and debates about these things since my teens, and the Black Bloc was used to protect squatters from police and some local gangs in Atlanta prior to the WTO Protests* in 1998 in Seattle. After the WTO protests, there was a small storm in the left media about the Black Bloc tactics used there, but this largely disappeared during the Bush years as a debate after the G-8 Protests were minimal at Sea Island for the same movement. Only after the Oakland commune incidents did it come back into play, but the objections seemed largely about Public Relations and aesthetics (direct property violence versus indirect property violence is not really a moral choice, as their effects are equal. None of the left-liberal publications had strong problems with the General Strike shutting down the Port of Oakland, but they did have problems with smashed windows).
D.S.: Thanks, I see where you’re coming from now. My understanding of what happened in Oakland is broadly the same. All of this of course came to a head with Move-In Day on January 28 last year, followed shortly thereafter by Chris Hedges’ despicable “Cancer in Occupy” article. But already interventions by the “peace police” indicated that there was never unity of action between left-liberals and radicals – as of course was only to be expected. Incidentally I don’t think it’s the case that there were no strong objections to the port shutdown. Certainly the second action in December got a lot of negative attention. Even on the radical left there was skepticism about Occupy’s relation to ILWU, the longshoremen’s union. Cal Winslow, who is a member of the group Retort, had a piece in Counterpunch criticizing the port shutdown due to lack of support from union leadership, for instance. At exactly the same moment the communization-oriented website Bay of Rage posted an article urging the necessity of circumventing the union apparatus entirely. This is just to point out that the moment of unity was very brief if it can be said to have happened at all. But then, this is not what you were asking about.
I have to say I’m not eager to jump into another discussion of the Black Bloc. By now the debate is so ossified that I wonder if much remains to be said. I take a longer perspective on the matter because in my own work I happen to study art and politics in post-‘68 West Germany. That’s where the Black Bloc was first developed, taking cues from the Dutch Provos and other street-fighting contingents of the New Left. It arose as a combat tactic at a time when you could still reasonably expect to fight the cops in pitched battle and win, as indeed happened on a number of occasions. Thanks to the Autonome scene and a massive squatting movement there were sizeable chunks of Berlin and Hamburg where the state effectively had no authority. In those circumstances the tactic made a lot of sense and indeed marked an important innovation after the decline of both late-60s mass mobilizations and of the armed struggle groups following the “German Autumn” of 1977. Absent these conditions the Black Bloc is something else entirely. I could say much on the subject but I would likely only duplicate arguments from elsewhere without making any particular contribution of my own. At any rate it’s an odd moment for us to be considering the question, given that we’re now in a comparatively dormant phase (with the unanticipated exception of the emergence of an Egyptian Black Bloc in February, about which other parties are surely far more knowledgeable than I).
The role of the Black Bloc in the liberal imaginary and in the media, especially “left” media, is a different matter. It does bear repeating that from the point of view of capital the loss millions of dollars in a blockade is far more serious than the loss a few thousand as a result of direct property damage. Nobody actually cares about bank windows. So clearly the Black Bloc induces hysteria because it’s taken as a threat to social stability and property rights far in excess of its immediate impact. For any right-thinking anti-capitalist this would presumably be a plus. But huge segments of the “left” are afraid to make capitalists afraid. Granting the existence of internal problems within anarchist and other milieux, I therefore think it’s correct to say that the ideological distinction between “violent” and “non-violent” protest – a distinction that itself unavoidably produces complicity with state violence – can be laid primarily at the feet of “left” commentators who bow to the supposed necessity of positive media messaging. This is a catch-22: capitalist media will never grant positive coverage to anything that seriously threatens class rule. The problem is real of course but it’s worse than misguided to believe we can solve it through better behavior at protests. The Black Bloc is a convenient bête noire on which to pin censure of any desire for radical negation whatsoever. If it wasn’t ready to hand something would have to be conjured up to take its place – either that, or visible anti-capitalist contestation would cease to exist. So the reason the Black Bloc is an effective way to split movements… is because it’s an effective way to split movements. Left-liberals distance themselves from the Black Bloc because it’s a convenient pretext to distance themselves from radical opposition to capitalism.
Rather than fulminate at greater length I’d prefer to move on, though. The “aesthetics” at issue here are extremely interesting in their own right, whatever reformists make of them. What I’m about to say stinks of recuperation, but I do think the Black Bloc is a worthy object of study for art historians. It’s another moment – neither necessary nor privileged, but significant – in the long retreat from representational politics and its privileged image-structures in post-60s capitalism, a theme I’ve gestured towards already. The Black Bloc is nothing if not an embodied (anti-)politics of (anti-)visibility. Is it an image or an anti-image? Well, that’s a good question for art historians. And I believe its implications extend to any number of artistic practices as well.
C.D.V.: What do you make the long slow death of the middle brow represented by things like the neo-liberalization of NPR?
D.S.:I wish it were a little less slow.
A bit more seriously: I think in the case of something like NPR (which I never listen to, anyway) the decline can probably be attributed to an increasing divergence between the experience of its mostly white, mostly well-educated, mostly petty-bourgeois audience, and the station’s attempts to reflect that audience’s consciousness back to itself. The postwar era in the United States could be defined in terms of the apparent cultural hegemony of the “middle class”; in fact, of course, the petty bourgeoisie in no way held true political or economic power, but the culture mirrored back to them their own sense of autonomy. Middlebrow organs like NPR or the New Yorker attempt to continue that function for a smaller class fraction, one that perhaps until recently felt itself immune to economic precarity. With the catastrophic rise of student debt and narrowing horizons for college graduates this self-image has become increasingly threadbare. So instead middlebrow culture now more and more has the immediate task of shoring up neoliberalism “with a human face,” so to speak.
C.D.V.: Do you see the so-called hipster aesthetic as a different manifestation of the same tendency?
D.S.: I guess I do, although there are different layers here. I also have no patience with hipster-bashing. A lot of what’s identified as hipster culture is an improvisational response to the contradictions of petty-bourgeois precarity. It’s self-styling for those who for the most part don’t work very much or don’t have much security at the jobs they do have – not much of a future – but who are nonetheless forced to maintain an ability and readiness to work at any moment: a kind of unmoored professionalism. The insufferableness and tragedy of hip life is a function of its scramble for cultural autonomy within the most abject dependency on the attenuated wage-relation. As opposed to earlier counter- or subcultures (punk, say), the moment of negation is perpetually deferred. Needless to say I’m not talking about the stereotypical trust-fund hipster here but rather the mass of mostly post-collegiate individuals in the global North who have been socialized as middle-class workers but who now find this way of life inaccessible, whether temporarily or permanently.
C.D.V.: Do you see hipster bashing as a form of distinction in Bordieu’s sense of the term?
D.S.: I suppose it must be, but I’m not going to lose a lot of sleep over the question.
C.D.V.: Let’s completely shift gears: Why do you think communization theory has been subject to complete misrepresented in a long of left-wing critiques?
D.S.: As a fairly recent convert myself I can say that even with the benefit of a passable background in Marxism my initial encounters with communization theory were characterized by misrecognition and missed connections. I became aware of this body of literature in a major way with the protests and occupations at the University of California in 2009-10. If you weren’t paying attention it was possible to misinterpret what was happening as undifferentiated radical escalation and hence to miss what was so distinctive about the texts coming out from Endnotes or Research and Destroy, to name two important collectives involved in the resurgence of communization theory. So I can understand the tendency in others, as well. And indeed too much of the discourse is stuffed with needlessly convoluted Hegelianisms, even if it ultimately does, as a rule, make sense. The work of Théorie Communiste for example is perhaps the most profound analysis of capitalism today, often delivered in truly unfortunate prose.
After a certain point the misinterpretations seem to become willful, however. I believe the problem is not that the basic insights of communization theory are especially difficult to grasp but rather that they fluster the left’s basic assumptions in ways that can’t readily be parried by creaky arguments against anarchism, adventurism, determinism, or what have you. Incidentally this is not in any way annexable to a Platypus-style thesis on the deadness of the Left. Communization theory as I understand it reaches its conclusions not by way of the political superstructure but instead in a thoroughly materialist interpretation of changes in the reproduction of the capital-labor relation. (This is for the moment to put aside debates within the communization current over invariance, subsumption, and all the other words that give people like me a reputation for opacity.) Communization theory at its best is in fact an extremely rigorous engagement with the basic problems of Marxism; it pursues this engagement with a ruthless focus on the possibilities and impossibilities of the present moment, and hence derives findings that are deeply uncongenial to any form of political nostalgia. The usual defense mechanism is then to reduce communization theory to something it’s not, namely anarchism, adventurism, determinism, or what have you.
This isn’t, by the way, to say that “communization theory” is a single thing or even a thing at all. The term has oddly come to designate an extremely varied set of perspectives unified by perhaps little more than a common origin in the European (mostly French) post-’68 ultraleft, with its forebears in the Situationist International, left communism, council communism, certain strands of anarchism, etc. The differences between, say, Tiqqun and Léon de Mattis and Jacques Camatte are vast enough to destabilize the label altogether. Most recently there’s been some confusion about the relation of communization to value-form theory, which has quite different roots in the late Frankfurt School and the German “New Reading of Marx.” Confusion of this sort might not be such a bad thing; certainly it’s good that “communization” does not exist as an endlessly disputed point of doctrine in the manner of “Leninism.” It would be a huge error to reify one theory or another as the only true essence of communization. That said, my own views are most in line with the perspectives articulated in the second issue of the journal Endnotes, in case you were curious.
C.D.V.: What do Theorie Communiste understands that a lot of other Marxists don’t? And why does it lead to awful prose?
D.S.: Why it leads to awful prose I don’t know. It may simply lead to hasty translation, though to be fair the original texts seem gnarled as well. One could probably attribute this to having worked for decades in near-total obscurity. In these circumstances the development of the collective’s own terminology and self-understanding undoubtedly often took precedence over making themselves clear to others. There’s also the more problematic fact that Théorie Communiste have little interest in building a mass political project of any sort and hence don’t feel the need to explain themselves. Their writing is diagnosis and critique in a rather classical sense of the latter word: it aims to root out the conditions of possibility for thinking communism at all in the present day, but offers no strategy by which to achieve it in a given conjuncture. I find this frustrating myself. Understanding their intentions nonetheless helps to pre-empt the inevitable “Yes, but what do you do?” question. You can only say: in any given situation, whenever it’s feasible, you communize. How that’s supposed to happen can only ever be specific and improvisational; it might involve seizing public squares, or it might simply be turning to existing forms of sociality as a new basis for survival in the absence of capital. Between the logic of theory and the praxis of communism lie whole ranges of hybrid forms of organization that are neither condoned nor excluded a priori by the analysis. In our own lives dealing with these forms will necessarily be paramount. Contrary to the usual accusation, then, communization theory is not inflexibly anti-organizational; rather, it tends to indicate why certain ways of organizing are unlikely to work now and is in that sense immediately practical. But I don’t deny that there’s a hermeticism to some of the writing.
Théorie Communiste are useful to me because they ground the reproduction of class and capital in cycles of struggle that are understood to fundamentally alter the class relation itself. In the most abstract sense they argue that the era in which the proletariat’s revolutionary struggles tended towards the affirmation of the class within capitalist social relations – either in social democracy, or in production under state socialism – comes to an end when the proletariat’s entire being as a class is subsumed under capital: when institutions like the Party or the Union or the Council have been wholly defeated or assimilated to self-exploitation; when capital’s own offensive reestablishes control but at the cost of destroying its very condition of realization, that is to say, the continued reproduction of labor. Class identity then no longer appears as the basis from which to pursue an affirmative politics of autonomy but as an obstacle to be overcome. It’s only by failing to grasp the dialectic here that such a claim can be attacked for supposedly upholding capital as the only subject of history. From a Marxist perspective it should be obvious that the proletariat is a class of capital just as capital only valorizes itself in labor: capital and labor reproduce each other mutually, but capital’s drive towards ever-greater subsumption (through the colonization of everyday life, increased mechanization, neoliberal revanchism, and a host of other devices) progressively eliminates the reserves from which a positive identity for the proletariat might be elaborated and affirmed. Crisis is therefore defined as a breakdown of reproduction that forces workers to encounter their class identity as something external, something to be negated; the revolutionary class is then understood to be the class that negates itself and capitalist society not by its universalization under a dictatorship of the proletariat but rather in its immediate self-abolition, the destruction of the value-form, and a move towards other means of subsistence – communization. The point here is not necessarily that this process has happened or will happen in the conceptual purity of the above presentation but rather that this structure constitutes an explicable tendency that may be expressed in all sorts of chaotic or contingent events.
Théorie Communiste are not the only authors to have made these points, and in many local instances I have strong disagreements with their conclusions. But I do believe they’ve zeroed in on the predicament of our moment with greater force and consistency than perhaps anyone else. Their version of communization theory allows us to recognize the present as an impasse and yet historicize that impasse; it helps to explain the collapse of the left without melancholy for lost powers, lost representations, without despair in the face of a supposedly inalterable totality, and without need for an “idea” to provide direction; it also points towards a practice by which we can move forward even without a grand project or a vaguely theological guarantee of success. Their work has also proved generative for thinking in other directions. Its recent intersection with the concept of social reproduction in materialist feminism is particularly exciting to me.
To return for a moment to your previous question, though, I’d like to say something about another possible source of confusion. Recently I have become more aware that communization theory moves in a very odd temporality. The emphasis on immediacy, the lack of an anticipated transitional phase, “communization in the present tense” – communism as something to do rather than a program to enact – can easily lead to the impression that communization theory conceives of revolution as necessarily both imminent and punctual. In fact I see no reason why this should be the case. Communization theory instead elucidates a spatiotemporal logic within any revolutionary process conceivable on the basis of the present form of the contradiction between labor and capital. It doesn’t provide a timeline, and it doesn’t claim that no other processes may take place concurrently. All real politics are contradictory and unevenly developed. I can imagine communization as taking place over the course of a century, at many levels, at many speeds.
*Originally, read “G-8 protests” due to the confusion of the interviewer and has since been corrected.