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.

Killing the Capitalist God: Gospel Communism and the Death of God

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?

All Roads Lead to Communism, or None Do: Theses on Marxism & Intersectionality

(The following is my response to the “Exiting the Vampire Castle” controversy on The North Star webzine about tensions between Marxism, intersectionality, and left politics.)

1) Communism is the goal of ending human domination, exploitation, oppression, and repression in a world of abundance, justice, and harmony among all living beings. Therefore, the practical subject for revolutionary analyses are the social systems that perpetuate and extend systemic suffering for living beings. It is proposed based on careful study of social science and left-wing political theory that the basic categories of human social systems are eightfold:

Economics

Politics

Gender

Race/Culture

Ecology

Martial Systems (institutional use of coercion)

Sexuality

Religion/Irreligion

2) No single one of the above social systems is independent or dominant over all others.

3) Revolutionary analysis identifies institutional structures that perpetuate systemic suffering and propose political collective mobilizations to overturn these structures and replace them with emancipatory new systems and institutions.

4) Revolutionary analysis considers the objective collective systems to be the primary focus of activist mobilization and engagement. It is also engaged with collective cultural aspects of these institutional systems. It considers interpersonal and personal subjective behaviors and attitudes of subordinate importance, though not entirely unimportant.

5) By identifying eight interdependent social systems, an adequate revolutionary analysis cannot advance communist goals by minimizing the objective importance of any of the social systems. A “revolutionary” change in one or a few aspects of these social systems without attempting broad changes in all of them will leave the new institutions vulnerable to counter-revolutionary mobilization from one of the unrevolutionized social systems.

For example, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 did indeed radically change the political, religious, and economic character of Russia, but it at best merely reformed systems of cultural, gender, martial, ecological, and ethnic domination and oppression, which formed the basis for the counter-revolutions against communism from within Russia and the Soviet Union.

6) There are important aspects of Marxism, feminism, anti-racism, radical democracy, pacifism, sex radicalism, progressive religion/irreligion, and environmentalism that must be applied to revolutionary analysis to better equip radicals to overturn the systems that dominate our world. Posing irreconcilable oppositions between feminism and Marxism or any of these important approaches to social criticism is to betray the revolutionary movement from the very start.

Why the Left Needs to Be Agnostic about Religion: Part I

In an essay recently re-blogged here, the author lays out a case for why he believes a rapprochement between socialism and religion is ill-advised or even impossible, depending on how you interpret his claims about the incompatibility between them. It would be tempting to argue back that he is characterizing religion incorrectly, or that he fails to account for positive religious involvement in struggles for liberation around the globe. But to make such arguments would be to compound the primary error, and reinforce the dysfunction of the understanding which produced the author’s arguments in the first place. What we must do, if we care about the future success of leftist endeavors, is to question the idea of religion as a meaningful category in the first place. That is, not to argue over whether religion is good or bad, or whether it is compatible with socialism, but to deconstruct the idea of religion as a cultural category.

Over the last couple centuries, social scientists have been studying religion, and have created a succession of different definitions of religion in the process. Unlike the study of, say, geology, the study of religion presents the challenge that it has no concrete referent. When one studies geology, one does not have a great difficulty in identifying the object: rocks are rocks. When one studies religion, however, one does have the difficulty of first creating a definition that allows us to call one thing (set of beliefs, actions, symbols, institutional arrangements, etc) religion, and yet exclude another thing as not religious. (See Arnal 2000 here for a thorough discussion.) Long story short is that none of these definitions have been able to simultaneously include all those things which we consider religious and exclude those things which we consider non-religious. Not, that is, without recourse to theological notions that are unsupportable within a scientific context. Whether it is Rudolf Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans, or Mircea Eliade’s “orientation to the sacred,” these substantivist definitions only work if one assumes that religion is a sui generis category which exists in relation to an actual God or Divine Reality. That transcendent reality may exist, but it is beyond the ability of science to speak to it, and therefore can not be the basis for a scientific definition. The problem of definition here is the problem of the actual existence of the category. Anthropologists came to the same conclusion about “race” in the 20th century, and we should detect here a useful pattern: when the thing you’re trying to define eludes all attempts at useful definition, the thing just might not exist except as a cultural construct. (See also Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions.)

Arnal suggests, following Talal Assad’s reasoning in Genealogies of Religion, that the task for the social-scientific study of religion therefore must be to deconstruct the idea of religion in order to uncover not what religion “is,” but rather in what cultural contexts the concept of religion is evoked to separate some human phenomena from others. And it is in this task that the importance of understanding what we are talking about is made clear for the success of the left’s intellectual projects. Give Arnal a listen:

 The very concept of religion as such—as an entity with any distinction whatsoever from other human phenomena—is a function of [the] same processes and historical moments that generate an individualistic concept of it. The concept of religion is a way of demarcating a certain socio-political reality that is only problematized with the advent of modernity in which the state at least claims to eschew culture per se. Further, one of the current political effects of this separation—one of the political ends served currently by it—is the evisceration of substance, that is, collective aims, from the state. That is to say, the simple positing of religion is a covert justification for the modern tendency of the state to frame itself in increasingly negative terms: the secular state is the institutional apparatus by which the social body prevents the incursion by others into the personal and various other goals of individuals, rather than being the means of achievement for common projects and the collective good (pp. 32).

Which is why it would be dysfunctional to argue against Cancovic’s claims about the incompatibility between religion and socialism: it reinforces the category we should be exposing as a tool of the state. When you see a self-professed leftist talking like Richard Dawkins, it should give you pause. An academic like myself would be inclined to use one of the many functionalist definitions of religion popular in social science still, despite their fundamental inability to effectively circumscribe a real phenomena; but here we have no attempt at definition whatsoever. “Religion” seems to be, for Cancovic as with Dawkins, “whatever people I don’t like believe.” That essentially anti-pornographic definition (I can’t define it but I know it when I see it) might suffice for casual conversation or beer-fueled debate among college sophomores, but it most certainly does not suffice for a discussion of leftist organizational tactics in which religion is problematized as the main subject.  It is in Dawkins’ interest to discourage the study of religion as a serious topic, because if his audience understood anything about religion from a social-scientific standpoint he wouldn’t have an audience.  One can’t make a career selling books blaming religion for everything bad that ever happened if people know that “religion” is whatever thing you want to call it willy nilly. But the concern of the left is, at least ostensibly, to make real changes in the material conditions of human beings.  We can not do this if we are hampered by belief in categories which exist only to subjugate people to regimes of thought facile to state control. It should be an item of concern that leftists are borrowing rhetoric from modern supporters of right-wing state policies (Hitchens, Sam Harris, et al) which spread war and terror around the globe in the name of combating “religious extremism.”

Volumes could be written about this, and very well likely will be, but time constraints at the moment prevent me from anything more than this short first draft at a reflection. Suffice to say for the moment that claims about how religion “does” this or “says” that must rely on a refusal to study religion scientifically, or else such claims could not be made. Not least because religion is a made-up category. Religion is dying? Somebody should talk to Peter Berger. One of the ironies of the piece is the call to “always preach the scientific worldview.” Which scientific worldview is that, exactly? The one that refuses to study religion scientifically but feels specially entitled to denounce religion? Again, hello Christopher Hitchens. Preaching is the correct word here.

Rather, what we need to do, how we need to be, is agnostic about religion. The obsession with the beliefs in other people’s heads is an Enlightenment hold-over natural to fundamentalist Protestantism and its sibling New Atheism, but it is not useful to the cause of social emancipation. Cancovic’s essay amounts to “I don’t want to play with those kids I don’t like.” Okay, maybe they were mean to you; but guess what? They’re the majority of people on the planet for all of human history (by any of the definitions of religion or religious out there). If you want to build a movement, you should probably not be looking at the comrade next to you digging that ditch, and tell him he can’t help because he worships an Octopus. Or, worships himself for not worshiping an Octopus. Instead of telling people they’re not allowed to have symbolic culture you don’t approve of, just try explaining political economy to them.

Thoughts on an empty chair

Andrew Kliman in a rather opaque essay on Raya Dunayevskaya’s thought has quite a few paragraphs explaining something along the lines of the following:

And this is where organizational responsibility for Marxist-Humanism comes in. In her 1986 discussion of the third attitude of thought with respect to objectivity, Dunayevskaya addressed the issue of organizational responsibility by taking up the Christian church. She did not take it up, nor do we do so now, in order to advocate hierarchical structure, the embrace of dogma, or the adoption of any specific religious beliefs. Indeed, Dunayevskaya, in a manner that some would regard as “un-philosophical” because they privilege beliefs (“philosophy”) over organization, did not focus on the beliefs of the church, but abstracted from them––set them aside––in order to consider it as an organization.

The article goes one to explain what was meant by Dunayevskaya’s idea of organization and how an idea only becomes real once it is embodied in organization:

Dunayevskaya is not advocating blind acceptance of the pronouncements of an “authority” or embrace of the tenets of Christianity. To understand why not, we need to recall that for her “the point” of Hegel’s whole critique of the third attitude of thought with respect to objectivity is “the necessity of proof,” mediated knowledge, as against the Intuitionalist claim that “what is infinite in import” can be known without mediation. Unlike the faith of Jacobi’s philosophy, the Christian faith is not the product of immediate, personal revelation, but the result of a process of demonstration. As Dunayevskaya remarked in the mid-November letter, “Christianity … proves itself and has an organizational expression in the Church.” Thus, the authority of the church is the “organizational expression,” the mediated result, of that process of demonstration.

But it is not merely a result. The church, organization, is also the mediation. It is the church, in other words, that takes organizational responsibility for the process of developing its beliefs, subjecting them to scrutiny, and demonstrating them. By means of this organizational process, “Christianity … proves itself”; the Christian Idea is self-thinking.

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“The Color of Black Power is Green” and The Failures of Identity Politics.

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There is a terrific documentary that was released two years ago called “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975″, which goes into a detailed account of the rise and eventual stagnation of the Black Power movement, as well as major groups within it such as the Black Panther Party. The Black Panthers were a group of revolutionary African-American, who while struggling for freedom and liberation for people of their race and identity within the US, also fought an equal struggle against capitalism, which they perceived as the basis of inequality and social injustice in America, not only against poor blacks but poor whites as well. While initially starting as a black nationalist movement dedicated to separatism, similarly advocated by other black nationalist such as Louis Farrakhan and Malcolm X (though he renounced it later in his life), eventually the ideology of the party had evolved to the point where they began to reject black nationalism and became more a “revolutionary internationalist movement”. As stated by historian of the Black Power movement, Curtis Austin:

(The Party) dropped its wholesale attacks against whites and began to emphasize more of a class analysis of society. Its emphasis on Marxist-Leninist doctrine and its repeated espousal of Maoist statements signaled the group’s transition from a revolutionary nationalist to a revolutionary internationalist movement. Every Party member had to study Mao Tse-tung’s “Little Red Book” to advance his or her knowledge of peoples’ struggle and the revolutionary process.

Maoist notions of class struggle and working-class unity became central into the Black Panther Party. Liberation was not just a few more African-Americans given the same position of extreme power, wealth, and status as few white Americans in the US, but instead liberation was to erase a base and superstructure which the Black Panthers viewed as inherently oppressive, not only to their own identity but towards the most working class people. And by eliminating this factor, racial division (and the socio-economic divisions of it) within the US could be much more better combated. Just as to many black abolitionist during antebellum times, having more African-Americans become slave owner would not been seen as something emancipatory of black people, the Black Panthers viewed any attempt of assimilation into a social structure that was to them inherently injustice to much of the same sense. But gradually, as the sixties faded into the seventies, the Black Panthers faded as well. Not because of a division over ideology, but a division over action. Whether the party should pursue more reformist methods such as participating in local government and social services, or more revolutionary methods such as armed confrontation with the police and building dual power. By the mid-70s, the party was merely a shadow of it’s former self. The documentary captures all of this as it develops, and as it finishes off into 1975, one of the commentators Robin Kelley states this:

I see the Black Power movement as something of three different legacies, the most evident is this idea of building black institutions, buying black, supporting black businesses, but not necessarily revolutionizing or transforming society. Now in days its manifested in slogans like “the color of Black Power is green”, its about making money and supporting our businesses. It’s not a revolutionary ideology. Another extreme in that is a type of cultural nationalism, in that it goes in ebbs and flows. When Spike Lee’s film “Malcolm X” came out it was the height of a kind of cultural nationalist, sort of resurrection. And then finally, the other element is the black radical tradition. And how does it exist today? It certainly exists in certain forms of Hip-Hop.

The major disappointments and failures of Black Power groups trying to change the basic structure of society fueled desire for a less structurally radical and a more identity empowering, racially emphasized solution for representing the African-American community. This was a conscious shift in the belief that the only way to truly succeed for ones identity is to use the same capital-based organization the perceived rival identity uses. To use all of the powerful structural tools in society (no matter how unjust and harsh they may seem) to advance ones identity by any means. The same logic has been applied to second-generation feminism as well as the LGBT rights movement (primarily since the 1980s).

When we talk about identity politics, many Marxists may initially view it as divisive and reactionary, something that hinders political and economical liberation for the general population and does not address the concepts of contradictions within a capitalist society. But most of those that advocate identity politics view it the only pragmatic and empowering solution to their situation of being an downtrodden people. I find problems with both notions. First of all, Orthodox Marxism has had a difficulty trying to address the complexities of shared identities, primarily because Marxism externalizes all history in class relations, with elites taking their position on the basis of claiming ownership to the means of production. While this is true and I agree with it, we shouldn’t ignore the influence the conception of identities based on social structure (whether they be religious, racial, or etc) have had on history, creating illusions not only to the average people but even to the ruling elites (such as nationalistic fervor, which can be expressed by all social strata of a given nation). Marxism can definitely address identities when the theory of Marxism is hybridized with other theories such as structuralism and post-structuralism, but by itself, Marxism is a theory on economics and historical class relations, and I may even hesitate as to consider it a theory of politics as well. Not to mention that many so-called “Marxist regimes” have often times suppressed different identities their leaders felt threatened the stability of the state, such as with the repression of homosexuality in virtually every Communist country, as well as outbursts of nationalistic chauvinism, as with the Soviet Union (Russian nationalism), China, and Hoxhaist Albania. Though to be fair, many Western countries also had the same problem for a long while, with regards to issues such as national, racial, and sexual identities, and many still strongly do.

But we should also recognize that identities are often times competing and fighting against one another, mainly for the position of importance among its fellow adherence, who also have different identities as well. For example, if there is a black gay man, which identity should he associate himself with the most? Should it be his racial one or his sexual one? Which one weighs more importance? And what if he faces some hostility from the majority of people of both identities? There is still unfortunately a lot of homophobia prevalent within the African-American community, enlarged to some degree by homophobic lyrics in the rap sub-culture. Equally, there is a great amount of alienation in the LGBT community for people of color, mainly because a lot of the imagery associated with gay culture shows primarily upper-middle class white gays. Plus many of the “gay neighborhoods”, places where LGBT people can feel some sense of liberty for their identity, such as Castro Street and West Hollywood are very racially gentrified. This is just one minor example of the complexion of identities and the fact identities in of themselves are not bound to become permanent. They are constantly being shifted, molded, reformed, destroyed, and created entirely new. But what they are bound to is the physical materialism that has created them.

If we wish to see a more permanent change, something that can be experienced mutually by all people, than we have to see that change coming from a structural and class based sense. People of the same socio-economic class, whether they know it or not, share much more with each other than people of the same skin color, nationality, religion, or sexual orientation. And in our increasingly globalized world, where those of the capital based ruling class have far more interconnectivity with people of the same class position but from other countries, also share far more in common with one another. Today a billionaire in New York shares more in common with a billionaire in Saudi Arabia, or one in India, or China, than he does with an Average Joe stiff in his home town of NYC. And if a billionaire from America shares more in common with a billionaire in India, then why shouldn’t a working class person from America share more in common with a working class person in India? I do not see the prospects of a Communist world revolution seriously, I see any possibilities of a change from capitalism to a more egalitarian form of socialism as something that might happen due to a gradual and technological change in human production. Eventually rendering the capitalist class more obsolete. But we should nevertheless, we should try to build a matured concept of a globalized “human” identity, one based on the principle of economic and class solidarity. We cannot rid ourselves of nationalities, racial differences, sexual orientations, religions, etc, but we can supplant on top of those identities an all encompassing human identity, one that includes all of us, and that also coincides with class struggle. For a human identity,  an identity that includes you and me is an identity that is truly worth fighting for.

Instruction #3: Let Kirk Kill your television and watch with the new Landru

320x240I want you to imagine Captain Kirk beaming into your living room and attacking your flat screen digital TV, to imagine he’s doing it in an effort to set you free from the constraints of early 21st century barbarism. He’s killing your television by asking it to solve some unsolvable logic problem. Kirk is whispering the liar paradox to the DVR.

It’s always the same with Kirk. He beams down and outfoxes a computer God, or kills a robot girl with a kiss, and his time it’s your television he’s after.

Imagine your set is sputtering, about to explode, and then it switches on. For a brief instant, just the time needed for a flicker of light to appear before the set goes dark forever, a television program appears onscreen. What’s on the TV? What would does your television turn to in its last effort to figure out a solution for Kirk’s riddle? The answer is Star Trek, obviously, because Star Trek itself is a kind of Technicolor logic bomb. Your TV set is probably showing the episode with Captain Pike and the Orion Slave girl because that’s the one I’d choose.

Kirk understood the show and used his understanding to kill computers. In the second season of the original series, in an episode entitled I Mudd. Kirk explains his own show in order to kill an android named Norman.

KIRK: What is a man but that lofty spirit, that sense of enterprise, that devotion to something that cannot be sensed, cannot be realized but only dreamed! The highest reality.
NORMAN THE ANDROID: That is irrational. Illogical. Dreams are not real. […]
(Smoke comes out of Norman’s head.)

Back in 1986 William Shatner appeared in a comedy sketch on Saturday Night Live and told Trekkies everywhere to get a life. In the sketch he asked Jon Lovitz if he’d ever kissed a girl and told the crowd of SNL cast members playing the part of Trekkies at a Star Trek convention to leave their parents’ basements and experience the real world.

getalife-16“I mean, for crying out loud, it’s just a TV show! I mean, look at you, look at the way you’re dressed! You’ve turned an enjoyable little job that I did as a lark for a few years into a COLOSSAL WASTE OF TIME!” Shatner shouted.

Shatner could never kill a computer. He doesn’t understand how people use BLAs like Star Trek to live their lives, how some of us even use Star Trek to kiss girls. It sounds impossible, but you really can take your enjoyment of Star Trek quite a long way. In fact, the first time I realized just how far was, coincidentally, my first time.

I was in my girlfriend’s parent’s old house, a house that they couldn’t sell after they’d moved out, but she still had keys and we were in the empty space that had been an upstairs rec room. There wasn’t any music playing, nor electricity, and we didn’t have anything to drink that might lubricate our coupling. What we had was the Star Trek Edition of a Golden Trivia game. I was in my girlfriend’s parent’s old house, a house that they couldn’t sell after they’d moved out, but she still had keys and we were in the empty space that had been an upstairs rec room. There wasn’t any music playing, nor electricity, and we didn’t have anything to drink that might lubricate our coupling. What we had was the Star Trek Edition of a Golden Trivia game.

Before we got around to intercourse on the wall to wall orange carpet, doing it on the spot where the entertainment center had left a indentation, we asked each other questions about M class planets and the Federation. Rather than grope and undress, rather than struggle with the clasp of a lace bra or the buttons on the fly of a pair of blue jeans, we played strip Star Trek Trivia. We were geeks and this seemed natural to us. We found a way to use our mutual affliction in order to get off.

“Why did Kirk display such inordinate love and affection for Dr. Helen Noel?” she asked me.

“Who? Which episode was that?”

“Do you know the answer?” she asked. I didn’t, or pretended that I didn’t. I ended up giving her my left sock, but, for the record, the answer, per the back of the card, is this: “Kirk was under the influence of a powerful suggestion implanted by use of a devilish machine.” The episode was the Dagger of the Mind and the machine was called a neural neutralizer.

Star-Trek-Cosplay-Girls-19Consider this, Sigmund Freud considered Star Trek to be a kind of fetish and  repetition compulsion.

Okay, he didn’t really. He died before Star Trek was ever on the air. But if you google the words fetish and repetition you’ll find a link to a book called Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. More specifically you’ll find a link to this passage:

“Neither the popular stereotype of the crazed Trekkie nor academic notions of commodity fetishism or repetition compulsion are adequate to explain the complexity of fan culture.”

But this assertion simply underestimates the complexities involved in both fetishism and repetition compulsion. Fetishism and repetition compulsion can produce Baroque results, and can certainly explain most of the more faithful fan tributes to the series.

For example, last summer I took the family to Cathedral Park for something called Star Trek in the Park, and watching the reenactment of “Journey to Babel,” seeing Portland actors, hipsters dressed in perfectly authentic uniforms complete with wavy stripes on their shirt cuffs and with perfectly reasonable facsimiles of a Tellarite pig nose or Andorian antenna when necessary, was a queasily religious or fetishistic experience.

The Atomic Arts Ensemble delivered the lines from the original episode and typed into invisible computer panels, their fingers wiggling methodically in thin air. They stared at a view screen that wasn’t there, stared through empty air out at me, and I experienced something like Déjà vu. The repetition of “The Journey to Babel”, the uncanniness of the Atomic Arts reproduction, unsettled me.

Adam Rosko played Kirk for Trek in the Park, and he was perfect. He did an especially good job when he fought the Andorian. He perfectly replicated Shatner’s fighting techniques, and watching him I stopped thinking or comparing. I didn’t have to think.

Rosko grabbed his blue opponent by the shoulders, fell back, and used his right leg to flip the alien onto his back. Then Rosko rolled onto his stomach and dove for the alien’s right arm, for his right hand which held an Andorian dagger, but the alien rolled over onto his belly and stood up. The Andorian tried to wrench his arm out of Rosko’s grip and then used his left hand to deliver a Karate chop which sent Rosko reeling. The Andorian turned on him and lunged with the knife. Rosko as Kirk dodged to the right and, when the alien swiped at his head, Rosko both ducked and brought up his knee, delivering a blow to the Andorian’s belly. The alien bent over in pain and Rosko delivered Kirk’s signature double fisted blow to the alien’s right side. He then jumped at the alien, using both feet and delivering a double kick, but ending up on his back. Rosko rolled over and started to slowly crawl away on all fours (too slowly, what is Kirk waiting for?) and the Andorian grabbed him by the neck and stabbed him in the right side. Was this the end?

Of course not. Rosko reached back and flipped the Andorian over his left shoulder. And when the Andorian got back to his feet and reached for the knife that had flown out of his hand, Rosko was on him fast. Rosko kicked the Andorian in his face and knocked him out cold. Then Rosko flopped against a pole and used the Intercom prop to call the bridge.

star-trek-in-the-park-1c0c096fad02d561“Bridge? Spock? I’m on Deck Five, near my quarters. I’ve been attacked by an Andorian. Security…”

Freud says that the sensation of the uncanny arises when what is familiar is made to appear unfamiliar, and what I experienced when Rosko fought like Kirk was precisely that unfamiliarity of the familiar. It was the perfection of the repetition that unsettled me and made Star Trek seem strange again.

Here’s an experiment: Try repeating the same word over and over again like a mantra. Take any word. Better yet, try the word Spock.

Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock. Spock…

After awhile the word, the sound of it (or the look of it on the page or screen), will separate from it’s meaning, and all that you’ll be left with is an empty shell. If you say the word Spock often enough all you’ll be left with is the detritus of the name. Spock himself will disappear. Through repetition Spock can cease to be Spock. Through repetition Spock can become something mysterious and unknown. Spock can become uncanny.

To really understand what a fetish is and how the fetish relies on a repetition watch episode seven of the original Star Trek series. It was entitled What Are Little Girls Made Of and on the show the Enterprise sets off to rescue a man named Doctor Korby. Korby was lost during an off world expedition to the ruins on the planet Exo 3, and when the Enterprise arrives Kirk discovers that Korby is living underground with a bunch of life like replicants. Korby learned the secret of the underground ruins and used the ancient technology there to fashion himself friends and servants. After Kirk arrives Korby tries to convince him that these android doubles represent a step toward immortality. These doubles are a triumph, another victory for human reason, another step forward toward enlightenment and away from bodily corruption, but as events unfold Korby reveals himself to be a villain. He has one of his androids, a giant named Ruk left over from the days of the Old Ones, murder several red shirts. Worse he duplicates Kirk and attempts to take over the Enterprise.

Typical, isn’t it?

Eventually we come to know that Korby himself is an android. The real Korby duplicated himself right before he died, and when the duplicate Korby is revealed as an android the effect is uncanny. Korby is a machine, and when this is revealed he becomes pathetic. Nurse Chapel, Korby’s former lover, recoils.

korbyKIRK: You were a man with respect for all things alive. How can I explain the change in you? If I was to tell Earth I was in your hands, to tell them what has become of you (Kirk jumps Korby and traps his arm in a door. The skin tears to reveal electronics.)
KORBY: It’s still me, Christine. Roger. I’m in here. You can’t imagine how it was. I was frozen, dying. My legs were gone. I was, I had only my brain between life and death. This can be repaired easier than another man can set a broken finger. I’m still the same as I was before, Christine, perhaps even better.
CHAPEL: Are you, Roger?

It’s a creepy scene. It’s not just that we come to see this new Korby as a robot, but that we can’t stop ourselves from seeing him as also human. The revelation of Korby’s double fundamentally undermines the integrity of the original.

If a fetish is going to keep working it’s creepiness and inauthenticity has to be denied, if not unknown.
We have to pretend to be authentic in order to keep pretending, and to do that we have to find someone who is innocent, somebody who is authentic, who will believe in our fetish for us. That’s what Barthes was looking for in his essay on the Death of the Author, while in the Star Trek episode the dirty job fell to Kirk:

KIRK: In here, Spock.
SPOCK: Captain, are you all right? Nurse? Where’s Doctor Korby?
KIRK: Doctor Korby was never here.

But, Korby was there. It’s just that he’d turned himself into a robot. That’s a pretty messed up thing to do, of course, but it is also perfectly normal. It turns out that beaming a robot is the only way to become human.

Another French Marxist, a nut job named Louis Althusser, explained how this works in his essay Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. He wrote:

althusser“Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.”

Notice that he’s doubling up on fantasy in that line. Althusser wrote that an ideology is not just some imaginary myth a person believes, but rather it’s the myth people believe explains why they believe in myths. An ideology is not some false picture of the world but our false picture about our false picture.

Take the notion of God. An ideology isn’t the belief in God but the explanation of this belief. The obvious one about God is that we believe in him because he’s up there in heaven, and while he’s pretty much inscrutable he’s giving us some basic ideas and helping us to believe in him. However, another ideology about God wouldn’t take God to be really up there at all. An atheist ideology would explain God to us by suggesting that we’ve been manipulated by a caste of ancient priests, kings, or authors. It’s these rulers who foisted a believe in God on us, and they did it in order to control us. Why? Because they’re bastards.

Or, taking a different point of view, an ideology might explain our belief in God by blaming the world itself. Life on Earth is filled to the brim with toothaches, irritable bowels, plagues, killer bees, and people like Justin Bieber. Living in world like this one requires people imagine a God in heaven. Who wouldn’t fantasize about God when faced with the plague? There are no atheists in foxholes. And no one remains Godless after they’ve been made to watch reality television programs like The Biggest Loser or Jersey Shore. The reality of living in and off this kind of filth and debris pushes us into a God delusion.

But Althusser wanted to get past all of these explanations. He wrote that ideologies are simply necessary. Ideologies are fantasies that support our relationships with each other and these false pictures give us our very identities.

Think of it like this:

An ideology is a picture we take of the world and then pretend is real. We do this by ignoring the camera we took the picture with and all of the other mechanisms and relationships that had to exist in order for that camera to land in our hands.

A 1972 a documentary advertisement or promotional film for Eastman Kodak and polaroid spelled it out.


“Since 1942 Edward Lamb and Polaroid have pursued a single concept, one single thread, the removal of the barrier between the photographer and his subject.”

This idea that a photograph could be taken without “any barriers between the photographer and his subject” is the idea behind every BLA, every robot, there is. It is also the goal of James Kirk in episode after episode. He lands on a planet, discovers that there is a barrier between the people on the surface and the society they’re living in, and sets off to kill or remove the barrier.

SPOCK: This is a soulless society, Captain. It has no spirit, no spark. All is indeed peace and tranquillity. The peace of the factory, the tranquillity of the machine. All parts working in unison.
KIRK: And when something unexplained happens, their routine is disrupted.
SPOCK: Until new orders are received. The question is, who gives those orders?
KIRK: Landru.
SPOCK: There is no Landru, Captain, not in the human sense.
KIRK: You’re thinking the same thing I am. Mister Spock, the plug must be pulled.
SPOCK: Sir?
KIRK: Landru must die.
SPOCK: Captain, our Prime Directive of non-interference.
KIRK: That refers to a living, growing culture. Do you think this one is?

People_festival_2In the episode Return of the Archons Kirk and his crew discover that the citizens of planet Beta are mindless automatons. They are perfectly pleasant, if a bit placid, most of the time, but occasionally, on the instruction of an invisible voice, they erupt into a riot. Kirk arrives a few minutes before one of these cathartic festivals and witnesses the smiling denizens of Beta transform into shrieking hysterics who beat and fuck each other in the streets.

The trouble is that the people of planet Beta are under the control of a figure named Landru, and Landru is a computer. Kirk is nearly assimilated into this “body” but manages to kill the computer instead. Kirk demonstrates to Landru that the computer itelf is a contradiction. The computer is working against its own programming simply by following the program. Landru’s effort to create a sustainable and harmoniously balanced society has created a stagnant society instead, and Kirk puts it to Landru that Landru should destroy itself because the computer’s efforts toward harmony creates disharmony. Landru follows the logic and self-destructs.

However, once Landru is destroyed a new order, a new mechanism, has to be established if life on Beta can continue. Kirk calls in the Federation to establish a new world order for the colonists. He destroys one barrier and then quickly erects a new one, and all the while he assures the colonists that they will love this new barrier because they’ll find it isn’t a barrier at all.

port5Paradoxically, Kirk both understands the paradox and doesn’t. There is no real and natural life. The people of Beta will always need a Polaroid Camera, a computer like Landru, or a show like Star Trek, if they want to be able to leave their parents basement and manage to kiss a girl.

Communist Philosophy is For Everybody

My philosophy desires affirmation. I want to fight for, I want to know what I have for the Good and to put it to work. I refuse to be content with the “least evil.” It is very fashionable right now to be modest, not to think big. Grandeur is considered a metaphysical evil. Me, I am for grandeur, I am for heroism. I am for the affirmation of the thought and the deed.

Badiou, Alain. “On Evil: An Interview with Alain Badiou.” in: Cabinet. Issue 5, Winter 2001/2002.

Philosophy is not the professional product of philosophers, nor an esoteric discipline of the ivory tower. It is a general human potential that is necessary for our fulfillment as persons. The importance of such a universalistic conception of philosophy was driven home to me as I listened to Bruno Bosteels level criticisms at Alain Badiou’s conception of the importance of philosophy to the rebirth of the idea of Communism in our world. (These comments are taken from a panel on Badiou at last year’s Left Forum.)

Quoting Bosteels: “the place of philosophy in Badiou’s own work causes greater problems for the implementation of the Communist hypothesis …. the task of the formulation of the Communist idea, he attributes that to philosophy …. it is the philosopher’s task to help this type of mediation by working out the very nature of the Communist Idea. And in the absence of this work of the philosopher, Badiou seems to claim even that the masses might once again be disoriented.”

Bosteels quoting Badiou: “In fact, what we are ascribed as a philosophical task – we could say even a duty – is to help a new modality of existence of the hypothesis to come into being, absent which, the people appear once again disoriented and confused. Lacking the idea, the popular masses’ confusion is inescapable.”

Bosteels finds this assertion problematic and tied up with what he takes to be a drift by Badiou into “speculative leftism” a philosophical abstraction that abandons the messy engagement with history considered crucial in left-wing politics ever since Marx declared the supremacy of praxis over theoria. And Bosteels suspects that when Badiou assigns a grand duty to philosophy for the renewing of the idea of Communism he is harkening back to a Platonic vision of the hegemony of the philosopher-kings.  I believe that it is very likely that Bosteels has mistaken Badiou’s intent. I read Badiou as not calling for philosophers to undertake the revisioning of Communism, but for the Communists in movement to cease their engagement in forms of Communist politics that have become saturated and instead, turn to philosophy. In other words, turn to a democratic philosophical engagement that takes as its aim rebirthing the idea of Communism.

My interpretation of Badiou can be confirmed by reading Badiou’s own contribution to the Idea of Communism conference in 2009. This essay entitled simply, The Idea of Communism, nowhere contains the word “philosopher.” In fact, it only uses “philosophy” when it appears in citations of his books that contain the word philosophy in the title. If Badiou were proposing that philosophers understood as a distinct class of intellectual experts should dominate the restitution of the idea of Communism, why does this essay never use the term?

That Badiou is rather asserting the duty of philosophizing about Communism for all in the Communist movement is borne out in this passage, “What is at issue is the possibility for an individual, defined as a mere human animal, and clearly distinct from any Subject, to decide to become part of a political truth procedure. To become, in a nutshell, a militant of this truth.” Badiou’s proposal is that Communists become militant partisans of the truth procedure that recreates the idea of Communism for a new sequence of human emancipatory struggles using philosophical means.

Perhaps Bosteels might find even this democratic and lateral interpretation of Badiou’s program troubling. After all, didn’t Marx himself say that “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it?” Of course, the simple response to this worry is to cite Adorno, who said that the moment for philosophy’s overcoming had passed, referring to the deformation of Communism in the Stalinist era. We must take up philosophy anew when the structures of praxis we rely upon have become futile repetitions of failure.

Batman, and persistence silliness of much popular culture criticism.

*Spoilers beneath the cut*

Why is so much lefty pop culture criticism both repetitive and generally bad criticism: take the criticism of Batman, it is not like the Dark Knight was more “subversive” than the Dark Night Rises, Batman in that movie keeps an allegory about problematic executive power only to justify its use while pretending to condemn it.  It is also not like Batman was ever a particularly “lefty” source material. This is not anything but obvious.   There are interesting things to be said about the Nolan Batman, particularly that it is sort of a mess artistically, and that it has conflicting messages:  this review, while somewhat in the same tone as a lot of the silly articles I have seen from lefty publications, discusses it a little better.    It admits the function of much of the culture industry is anyway: to reflect back at us what we already think we know.

Expecting a piece of popular culture to be beyond the cultural limitations of the current is silly:  Batman has always been about the contradictions of the wealthy “crime fighter” is explicitly fascistic, like the lefty origins of Superman who morphs from an alien hero for the poor in the earliest comics to its nearly fascistic manifestation during the Second World War until the 1970s.  The politics morph with the culture because that’s what adolescents  fantasies reflect for purely “objective” commercial reasons.  This point has been made by comic book writers themselves from Neil Gaiman to Alan Moore as early as the late 70s.  At this point, pointing out that comic books have a hero-worshiping, almost fascistic, element is, well, a “duh” statement.

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