Where Did They All Go? : What Actually Happened to the 70s radicals

“The kids of today must defend themselves against the 70s/it is not reality, it is someone else´s sentimentality/it will not work for us.” – Eddie Veder

It is sad that I rarely ever see a discussion of “What actually happened to the radicals of the 1970s after Thatcher and Reagan?” Max Elbaum’s 2006 book Revolution in the Air is about the only book that goes into it from the Marxist perspective, although the books on what could be seen as the glorious (counter-)revolutions of 1979 do cover the ultimate lost of the era.   What I hinted at earlier is the same generation of 1968/69 was leading us to Reagan has been under-explored in any serious manner–if the Joan Didion´s defection to Goldwater and then her counter-defection to the Democrats after Bush is indicative of the zeitgeist of boomers, we still have to account for what happened not only to the hippies, but the various Marxist and Marxist Leninist groups which emerged in the US.

Max Elbaum´s interview with MR is helpful is a bit too pat on its explanation of why the left seemed to dissolve, particularly the ML left until 2007-8.   The Marxist left in the US during the late 60s and early 70s was easily 20 times the size it is even now after Occupy.  Ironically, it was not a Marxist who put me onto Elbaum´s book, but a paleo-conservative who asked me a simple question. The paraphrase goes something like, “where did they all go in the states?  It is not like Iran and the revolution that they just aided liquidated the communist, so tell me? What happened? Look at this book at Max Elbaum, it is a real narrative of decline.”

Today, the same friend sent me a message and a blog post from the American Conservative,

Militant black revolutionary groups like The Black Panthers may have been a source of hope to some, but it’s willfully ignorant to write longingly about the lost “strategy and tactics” of The Panthers and others. Remember those calls to kill white police officers and violence between rival revolutionary groups? Yeah, those were the good ole days.

Mann goes on to review Michael C. Dawson’s Blacks In and Out of the Left, which traces how the white left co-opted or suppressed Black revolutionary groups. This may be true, but I think it’s unfair to suggest that this was motivated by self-interest alone. Some on the left were genuinely concerned about the “tactics” of such movements and about the narrowness of their Marxist vision.

And what about that vision? Mann claims that the leftist concern regarding “unity” was a red herring. Revolutionary groups, if supported, could have created a far more unified and diverse and international leftist movement in the United States than we have now. All white male elites had to do was jettison their self-serving liberalism and sign on the Marxist line!

Now, I am not going to claim this is far because, while TAC is probably one of the few “conservative” publications worth reading that has any mainstream readership, it is still written from a particular point of view and is not interested in the same qusetion.  The question is still interesting, let look at Mann´s article:

Given the creativity, tactical brilliance, broad appeal, courage, and moral vision of the thousands of independent black cultural, women’s, and social service collectives, how can we explain the decline of black-led radical organizations? Having participated in such organizations for almost five decades and studied the history of revolutionary movements my whole life, I see three major reasons.

First, we should not take for granted how difficult it is to build and sustain any revolutionary organization. Contradictions among members and constituent groups make voluntary unity difficult to maintain. The larger an organization is, the greater the diversity in race, class, sexual orientation, and personality and the more internal contradictions.

Second, since the 1960s, the U.S. government has increasingly refused to concede even the smallest demands of working people and the poor. Social welfare programs are being shut down, unions are being broken, and civil rights, voting rights, and labor laws are being reversed. While in theory this can also generate a revolutionary response, and sometimes does, it can also discourage people as they begin to see revolution as a lost cause.

Third—and, in my view, the primary reason for the decline—is the brutal suppression of social movements by the state. The history is unequivocal: it is when black people garner mass support within their own communities and achieve a high level of unity with revolutionaries of all races that the heavy hammer of the white power structure comes down the hardest. Marcus Garvey, the brilliant leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, was convicted in 1925 on a spurious charge of federal mail fraud, spent two years in prison, was deported to Jamaica, and was never able to rebuild his organization from exile. Claudia Jones, a great feminist and internationalist leader in the U.S. Communist Party during the 1930s, was deported to England where she played a major role in black politics but died in poverty. Paul Robeson said that black people would not fight in a war against the Soviet Union; as a result he was under constant police surveillance, denied his passport and therefore his livelihood as a globally renowned singer, and driven to a nervous breakdown from which he never recovered. W.E.B. DuBois was also denied his passport and prosecuted as “an unregistered agent of a foreign power.” He eventually left the United States to live and die in Ghana. Martin Luther King, Jr. was under constant police wiretapping; J. Edgar Hoover’s explicit plan was to drive him, as well, to a nervous breakdown. These prominent leaders were among thousands of dedicated freedom fighters who were beaten, tortured, and imprisoned.

How brutal was the suppression of the movement?  It is hard to say since all states use passports and enemy agent tactics to maintain power, including liberal and leftist ones.  Still, it seems very clear that suppression movement was real, extra-legal, and beyond standard US jurisprudence.  But it idiotic to NOT expect the state to do that? The Tzarist state did much worse against the Bolsheviks for example.  The general monopoly on power and violence is part of the very definition of the nation state, and exceptions to that are definitely part of the function state power.  It would be naive in the extreme to blame the state for the death of a moment which should have been aware that the state was enemy number 1.  That was, at minimum, the case in period of Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton.

The murder of Newton is particularly vivid, but most of the female leadership of the Panthers is still with us: where they somehow not as dangerous?  I heard Greg Proops´s make a joke that, “all the Panther men ended up dead or in prison, and all the Panther women ended up professors.”   Proops´s was making a point about the intelligence of women but did go into the whole detail.   It is true that even conservatives at TAC actually seem to admired how much the Panthers build infrastructure for their communities on their own, but few talk about how Newton was betrayed by informants who had criminal records and where those easily exploited and targeted by the police.   That is no excuse for the police murder of Newton, and to be certain it was a murder, but again for revolutionary groups this seems particularly problematic.

In this way, this analysis of the state seems to want to have the cake and eat it too: the revolution without causalities in creation.  Such liberal naivete is deadly to all sides involved, most particularly the revolutionaries. Still, I have a hard time believing that serious revolutionaries could bend so quick if they actually were serious. In this I am not talking the Panther´s leadership, who did put their action where their mouth was in setting up counter-institutions and other means of para-state social welfare that one generally sees in religious groups and political parties (think Hamas or the revolutionary guard of Iran).  I am talking about the people around such groups.

If the milieu was ever disciplined, why was the violence that it should have expected so shocking to it?  Since, particularly among white activists, there were no such pogroms and imprisonment and harassed did not even reach 1950s levels, why was the die-off so quick and seeming so permanent.

If the “Marxian” left were more serious about its talk of revolution, it would seem to me like it would vitally want to answer these questions without cliche and with real numbers and statistics.   Few groups seem to have done this as both 1979 and 1989 have made funding from foreign powers for such research pretty much nil.

Furthermore, this brings me to Mann´s first paragraph:

Since the March on Washington fifty years ago, the condition of black people has deteriorated; today they are subject to injustices ranging from mass unemployment to mass incarceration. Yet gone is the rhetoric of militant hope, black liberation, and economic equality generated by the Third World revolutions five decades ago. It is difficult even to draw on the lessons and legacies of these revolutions, for the state suppression of radical organizations in the 1960s has extended into the suppression of their history. As Mumia Abu Jamal explained, young black people are suffering from “menticide,” deprived of their tradition, its strategy and tactics, and the hope it provides.

The hope still exists. While there has been real rumbling lately outside of the black agenda report, about if Obama was good for America. A Real Clear Politics article from August 2013 is clear on this:

Buried in a New York Times story about the economy was this arresting statistic: Median family income for black Americans has declined a whopping 10.9 percent during the Obama administration. It has declined for other groups as well — 3.6 percent for non-Hispanic whites and 4.5 percent for Hispanics – but the figure for blacks is huge. This decline does not include losses suffered during the financial crisis and the recession that followed, but it instead measures declines since June 2009, when the recession officially ended.

That’s not the only bad news for African-Americans. The poverty rate for blacks is now 25.8 percent. The black labor force participation rate, which rose throughout the 1980s and 1990s, has declined for the past decade and quite sharply under Obama to 61.4 percent. The black unemployment rate, according to Pew Research, stands at 13.4 percent. Among black, male, high school dropouts, PBS’ Paul Salmon reports, the unemployment rate is a staggering 95 percent.

Ignoring the apologia for Reagan, it is interesting how much this articles echoes points made by the Black Agenda report (see these articles from 2013 alone) but with a far less radical edge.  Yet even the B.A.R. has been largely disheartened by the disconnect between the polls in the black community around Obama and that community’s material well-being.  An article by Glen Ford discussed how long it took for Obama to lose even slight numbers in the black community:

There could be no possible reason for such a disconnect from reality than the ascension of Barack Obama to the White House. We wrote extensively about the phenomena in Black Agenda Report, beginning with an article titled “Living a Black Fantasy: The Obama Delirium Effect,” in which we concluded that “ObamaL’aid is a mind altering substance, a hallucinogen…that makes Black people see progress when they are actually facing disaster.”

Four years later, the Pew poll shows that a portion of Black folks have snapped out of the delirium, and now see the world, and their actual position in it, more clearly. But, many more have not yet faced the fact that Obama is a servant of Wall Street who offers Blacks nothing but his own physical presence in the White House.

Of course, within the 26 percent who still think that Blacks are in a better situation, are a few folks who really have made personal progress in the worst of times. The rest, however, are still trippin’.

Obama’s approval rating among Blacks dropped dramatically this year, too, from 93 percent in April, to 88 percent in June, down to 78 percent in July – no doubt heavily influenced by the unfolding Trayvon Martin saga. The general trend should be slowly downward, punctuated by events, for the next three and a half years – as people are forced to confront the facts of the disaster that has befallen Black America. But some Black folks will never kick the ObamaL’aid, until the inevitable forced withdrawal. And then begins the Great Hangover – a mass Black psychological downer that will be as intense as the delirious highs of 2008 and 2009.

So hope springs eternal, just not militant hope one supposes.   Will we be asking where the liberals have gone in 20 years?  Will we be asking about Occupy?  And by that time will someone know what happened to all those 1970s radicals: how many of them voted for Reagan?  How many didn’t vote at all?  They had to go somewhere.  They were not all Huey P. Newton, or even Huey P. Long .

The Press as the Half-Rotted Guillotine: Jacobin and the Flirtation of Liberal Media


Kind of looks like a printing press?

 Das Bedenklichste in unserer bedenklichen Zeit ist, dass wir noch nicht denken. – Heidegger

A few observations really just applies to Marxists and ex-Marxists who follow this trends in liberal and left “criticism”, but I have noticed that Salon and Slate are increasingly running modified Jacobin articles.  Which indicates two things: the liberal technocrats (Slate), the left liberal activist press (the sad remnant of Salon) are turning to an ever more mainstreamed semi-Marxism.   This indicates that in the US both ends are actually running on low-steam in terms of a way to understand the current situation.  Why is this an indication of failure rather than success?  While the young have more sympathetic pew polls towards the word socialism, the actual implications of it are beyond most of what one sees in the pages of Jacobin and are actively feared by people in the sphere of influence around Slate, but they realize that the Bloomberg-loving technocratic liberals are running out of Cass Sunstein-esque ideas.

I predict that indicates of electoral bad news for the liberal press, despite Democratic gloating that the demographic shift will always favor them because the GOP´s role as the party of aging white dudes. Despite this and the unpopularity of the GOP, there seems to be little leadership or new thought emerging within the liberal base itself.  The fact that Occupy began under a Democratic president who have overseen both the expansion of executive power and an inability to do much with the economic structure either.   Still one is noticing less and less Keynes and more weak-tea Marx class analysis.

If you want an example of what I am talking about, you can look at ´s article modified from an article in Jacobin and published on Slate. The thesis is that the “Do What you Love, Love what you do” is simple: “Elites embrace the ´do what you love´ mantra. But it devalues work and hurts workers.  Now this is undoubtedly bad advice, such bad advice that in Hamlet, Shakespeare has  Polonius spoke the Elizabethan version of this deepity to the Hamlet as a sign of Polonius´s vapidity.  (Ironically, being quoted as advice in High School commence speeches and politicians who do not have an eye for subtle satire).  Tokumitsu, however, does not say within the realm of bad advice:

there’s little doubt that “do what you love” (DWYL) is now the unofficial work mantra for our time. The problem with DWYL, however, is that it leads not to salvation but to the devaluation of actual work—and more importantly, the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers.

Ignoring the hyperbole (and thus lessening of importance of) the rhetoric around “dehumanization,” which should be spared for more meaningful symbolic violence than DWYL, the discussion of the value of work is interesting.   DWYL is linked by Tokumitsu to the spreading of internships, low and unpaid, and to the increasingly poor treatment of Universities. This, frankly, has some legitimate points but as “analysis” it has some real problems that will illustrate by larger point here.  It seems to me that if DWYL is a product of the fact that celebrities cannot be honest and liked when they give advice, and that the conditions of the old OECD economies workforce are declining for variety of reasons.   In short, the focus on ideology and not the conditions producing the ideology have the cause and effect almost exactly backwards: these platitudes are a function of people’s relationship to work at various levels, NOT the cause of that relationship.   The implication of an unconscious neo-liberal devaluation is a straight form of idealism in this front.    Which is why it seems to me that this analysis, a miasma of liberal focus on ideas and Marxist focus on class would be appealing to both post-Occupy Marxists and Obama-admin unpopular technocratic liberals but is actually a sign of bad news for both.

But there are a few good ideas in this, such as

“There are many factors that keep Ph.D.s providing such high-skilled labor for such low wages, including path dependency and the sunk costs of earning a Ph.D., but one of the strongest is how pervasively the DWYL doctrine is embedded in academia. Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.”

The romanticism about education and “what it is for” has always bothered me. Education is not for work, true since the University structure predates the expansion of the University as a work treating mechanism. The problem is that the modern University does not exist without the expansion of University for job training, without a church to support it, the University is a very expensive training mechanism.  To go deeper, one can look at Louis Menand´s analysis of how the modern University got funded and expanded in the first place (you can read another Slate article actually on Menand´s thesis), the funding of University in America was a direct subsidy by the government in the cold war, which did two things, making the university larger through an “artificial” injection of money but remaining its pre-modern structure in form, but then also professionalizing the Professoriate that made it accountable to structures beyond itself.  It is an ironic unintended outcome of tenure reform:  paired that with the expansive administration needed to handle this.  At the same time, more students having degrees meant more students needing them for jobs that did not require them prior. As the cold war money dried up and military increasingly looked to private contractors for its research (as well as less interest in the US for research in fundamentals), the need to make this cheaper occurred and thus the expansion of adjuncts and research graduates.  Ironically, the research graduates are paying for their education by eliminating a role for pure teaching professors and thus their education hurts their employment outcome.  The DWYL as a means of getting people to do “rewarding work” without getting rewarded is an a symptom of that fact, not the cause.  The fact that 41 percent of American faculty are adjunct professors has to do that structure of universities and the life-styles they are set to inquire are not subject to diminishing input costs like technological innovations, and other attempts to fix that such as the adoption of MOOCs don´t seem to have efficacy even from a technocratic capitalist point of view.   (Forbes does go into what MOOCs are actually good for, which is basically cheapening vocational and professional continuing education, but not as a replace for Unis).   When you combine Menand´s thesis with David Blacker´s work on “the falling rate of education,” which asserts that technocratization and increased “efficiency” has led government policy makers and the corporations whose taxes fund turning to an eliminatist mode, thus  the system failure of a pre-modern institution like the University, while not entirely inevitable, is nearly so.

Tokumitsu also asserts DWYL is at root of a lot of intern abuses:

It should be no surprise that unpaid interns abound in fields that are highly socially desirable, including fashion, media, and the arts. These industries have long been accustomed to masses of employees willing to work for social currency instead of actual wages, all in the name of love. Excluded from these opportunities, of course, is the overwhelming majority of the population: those who need to work for wages. This exclusion not only calcifies economic and professional immobility, but it also insulates these industries from the full diversity of voices society has to offer.

Now, this trend in publishing is directly tied to the rise of the internet.  It is not just interns, but sites like HuffPo and Alternet which rely on volunteer work and reprinting, not even intern-work.   Beyond this, liberal media outlets, like Slate, are actually prime offenders in this regard.   Vice has outed this in liberal and let publications like Mother Jones, Democracy Now!, Slate, Salon, etc.  While more leftist publications, including one I used to edit for, like The North Star, Znet, Counterpunch, etc work on passion and volunteer labor.   It is not that when I worked at the North Star do not want to pay the writers–the editors were volunteers too–but with no funding outside of individual donations, there was no fair and consistent way to do so.  It is important to note that academic journals have generally worked on this model because of publication market for that is too tiny and profits can only be maintained by institutional fees.  This has led the great academic paywall, but nevertheless, this is how capitalism works.

The idea that this is mostly about attitudes and ideologies, at least superficial ones like “DWYL,” completely misses the point. This is beyond other critiques like the fact the polemic is set-up as a simple binary, that there are workerist and post-work assumptions at conflict within the rhetoric Jacobin uses in general (workerist in that workers are to be valued somehow has having unique humanity, and post-work as work is seen as inherently alienating. The later one may agree with actually, but then again aristocratic types have agreed with Marxists on that one point since nearly forever).

The larger point is this mirrors both the 1970s in the USA, and the 1970s and 1990s in Europe.  If history rhymes, the GOP may be fading, but some new forms of thinking will probably emerge in direct response to the twin problems of Obama and Occupy seeming still-birth.   Also the decadence in the GOP and the Tea Party is unlikely to last forever… if Americans remembered there history a much longer period of conservative exile actually led to electoral victories after years and years of political stagnation and stagflation.  The fact that such analysis is passing itself off as both Marxist and liberal indicates to this writer that we should have a bit of fatalism on the success of all this left-wing/liberal flirting.   It has been a sign of soft political collapse several times before in the last 120 years more than a sign of the success of ideas.  Indeed, one cannot be an even a soft economic determinist and rest so much on the cliches of Steve Jobs.

Organs, bodies, and political theology: A response to Charley Earp

In Charley Earp´s Killing the Capitalist God: Gospel Communism and the Death of God, there is a lot to parse.  The idea that a new conception of God represents a mode of capitalism seems to confuse modern Protestant pietism with an “capitalist God” seems to be a rebranding of liberal Protestant conception.   We, however, should probably not jump to that point without first looking at some of Charley´s assertions:

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.

This should be read closely:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

—Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Nietzsche is speaking in parable about value, but it is important to look at the even deeper context in Thus Sprach Zarathustra

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market-place, and cried incessantly: “I am looking for God! I am looking for God!”
As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter. Have you lost him, then? said one. Did he lose his way like a child? said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? or emigrated? Thus they shouted and laughed. The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances.

“Where has God gone?” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us – for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto.”

Here the madman fell silent and again regarded his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern to the ground, and it broke and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time has not come yet. The tremendous event is still on its way, still travelling – it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the distant stars – and yet they have done it themselves.”

It has been further related that on that same day the madman entered divers churches and there sang a requiem. Led out and quietened, he is said to have retorted each time: “what are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God?”

Charley does not go into this and what is the profounder point, instead he shifts to the a claim:

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.

Whether or not this is true for “modern society” in its religious justifications or theological self-conceptions is hard to know, the subjective nature of Protestant Pietism in US culture and the post-Christianity of most of Europe makes this much more obscured, but it is important to remind the Madman approached the crowd in the market and the crowd does not recognize what it has done.   Nietzsche´s parable makes a point: the overarching system of value that dominated culture has been replaced by a specter of market value which does not even realize what it has killed and continues in obliviousness to the profundity of the shift in values.

It can only be for those who profess belief that no longer live by for whom God is dead.  This, however, is not just atheism.  However, the secular humanist who does not deal or address the cultural origins of his or her values in a Christian development ( as opposed to a Confucian or post-Islamic one) is in the same shape as the pietist Christian who does not recognize that the practice of his or her life is outside of the Christian traditions that developed prior  to such a point as to render God looking like themselves more than the other way around still would haul around such a divine corpus.

For those who never had such a value system, what is dead can never die. Nietzsche would go onto to say at this point one could create a new values system, but only if one is aware that situation in both a material and ideological sense.  Political economy of Jesus–in so much that it ever existed–is not our political economy, nor can it be.  Something recognized partly in the apocalyptic view of the Christian tradition:  giving to the poor was because there was no need for the law to continue when the world was ending.

The turn to make Jesus like a modern socialist is just another re-branding. Looking at Rosa Luxemburg’s assertion that:

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.

The see the Christians as a proletarian class or for common property is one that we find little evidence for. Monastic Christianity seems to be a third century development and the demand upon the apostles seems to have been not common property, but the abandonment of property all together.  The spread of Christianity en masse is more clearly tied to the first Nicene council and perhaps the Christian persecution in an Empire whose third century almost destroyed it.  (It is important to remember that Judaism in an now nonexistent evangelical form was popular and spreading in Rome prior to Bar Kochba rebellion and that Christianity, whose sayings seem a syntheses of Cynicism and Hillel could have easily been seen to slowly spread in that context with the persecutions as, perhaps an ironically, an advertisement for the religion´s existence).  Whether Luxemburg reading is due to a lack of actual historical context or motivated reading is impossible to say, but we do know better now.

In this I find Charley´s last point to be easily used or read as cynical:

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.

In such decontextualized readings of Christianity that do not accept the limitations of the various Christian traditions, we have only the vapors and folklore of Christianity draped crudely over the ethics that were birthed from Christian Humanist thinking but does remain in context that one could adjudicate what is or is not heresy.  Both post-Christian readings could be equally valid in absent of the original culture, but then Nietzsche´s question looms: If one accepts this plasticity, why not create something entirely new?

As for my opinion of what one could do with such a Christianity, I feel similarly to how I feel about its popular opposite in feel good pietism of Rick Warren or Joel Olsteen.  A Christian tradition so hollowed out will just reflect the popular opinions in the culture, which admittedly have some Christian origins but are manifestly different from the original tradition, like a kidney and heart removed from a body.  Materially, they are unlikely to be put back in the original body since it is now “dead” from the original, and to be transplanted to a new body without suppressing the very immune system of that body, the foreign organs will likely be rejected if they are the organs of a parent.  Heiddegger was insightful here when looking at attempts at Folklore to serve “revive the folk”,

‘This way of being embedded in a people, situated in a people, this original participation in the knowledge of a people, cannot be taught; at most it can be awakened from its slumber. One poor means of doing this is folklore. It is a peculiar mishmash of objects that have been often taken from the customs of a particular people. But it often investigates customs, mores, or magic which no longer have anything to do with a specific people in its historical Being. It investigates forces that are work everywhere among primitive and magical human beings. So folklore is not suited to ask about what specifically belongs to a people; often it even does the very opposite. This is why it is a misunderstanding and an error to believe that one can awaken the consciousness of of the Volk with the help of folklore. We must above all guard ourselves against being overly impressed by the world “folk.”‘

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?

RIghts and Wrongs: A Crisis of Liberal Jurisprudence as a failure Political (a)theology

“All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development – in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent god became the omnipotent lawgiver – but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts. The exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology. Only by being aware of this analogy can we appreciate the manner in which the philosophical ideas of the state developed in the last centuries.”  – Carl Schmitt, Political Theology

“At the foundation of moral thinking lie beliefs in statements the truth of which no further reason can be given.”  - Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

“You right to free speech does not mean a right to heard” – anonymous facebook commenter

We start with three presumptions here:  secular logic is the dominant mode of jurisprudence in modern liberal democracy, that the problem of non-contradiction should lead to either rejecting or synthesizing evidence within an apparently contradictory situation.  Then, however, we shall add three complications:  the idea that for material reasons logic of prior theological thinking haunts secular logic, that values are axiomatic, and that the individual is not “self-created” and thus sui generis on one’s own accord.   Can such situations be logically reconciled without appealing to some authority beyond itself to accord universality to the claim?  What would the implications of this these correlates actually be?

The look at one case to explore this, let us look at one particular problem in jurisprudence: human rights.

From Whence It Came

Two documents are foundational for the modern conception of human rights for those in the Anglo-American sphere of influence: the Declaration of Independence, which functions as a statement of principle for US government but is not a legal document in any de jure sense, and the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The key statement as a definition of most functioning premises involving human rights comes from the Preamble, which can be seen as a document of secular liberalism as opposed to Deist or Christian Humanist liberalism of moderate parts of the Enlightenment.   We will come back to that in a minute though.   Let’s look at statement I mentioned:

“The ideal of free human beings enjoying civil and political freedom and freedom from fear and want can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his civil and political rights, as well as his social, economic and cultural rights.”—International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, 1966

One can already see problems of vagueness and under-determination: what are political and civil rights beyond the context of either legislative or common law?   What are social, economic, and cultural?  How can they be enjoyed in all cases if some of those rights objectively conflict?   Who arbitrates?   Etc.   To make matters more complicated, UN charter was clarified this to include to concepts of classical liberal philosophy:

“All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and related. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis.”—Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, World Conference on Human Rights, 1993

All human rights are 1) universal (and by implication unalienable), meaning that they should be consistently applicable in all times at all places without conflict because they are 2) indivisible and interdependent, meaning that justly or logically broken down into parts or only partly maintained, which leads to three “must be treated . . . in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis.    Now, this logic DOES have  a precedent before either the declaration of the rights of man in France, or the declaration of independence, or the U.N. charter of human rights.   This precedent, however, is far more problematic for secular jurisprudence than it seems.

In terms of pure categories, let’s take a simple problem:  A left-liberal-leaning close friend of mine posted an article on her wall, Does Free Speech Mean That Women Are Obliged To Endure Harassment?  A quick read of the article highlights what is at hand,

The plantiffs in the lawsuit are arguing that their free speech rights entitle them to get in someone’s face and harass them. There’s a lot of tap-dancing around the issue, both in terms of minimizing what anti-choice harassers do at clinics and by trying to equate consensual interactions with non-consensual interactions. They’re doing this first by putting a couple of elderly women at the front of the case and hoping to exploit sexist, patronizing stereotypes about how old women are “harmless” to sell the case. They’re also trying to make it seem like an abortion clinic is simply a platform to “debate” the issue between various sides, instead of a medical center where some people are there to help the patients and some people are there to hurt them.

We cannot ignore nor condemn the motivated language of the post. We, however, should address it.   One, this article, like most political articles, takes the lazy and obviously propagandistic way priming the reading instead of dealing with the jurisprudence at hand.  The problem is not its lack of pretense of objectivity, but the problem does not even pretend to argue with a strong form of the opponents argument.  What is bothersome about this is also not really “fairness” but that it leads to weaken thinking that does not even pretend to deal with logic, however motivated that logic by be.  Two, the psychologization actually avoids the issue the article says its about which is the logic of human rights and the problems of jurisprudence around it.    It’s a distraction from the argument however righteous the actual cause of the argument is.   The actual argument of the brief gets to a key problem:

The law bars everyone from entering or staying in fixed buffer zones around entrances to reproductive health care facilities. There are exceptions for people going into or coming out of the building, people using the sidewalk to get somewhere else, law enforcement officials and the like, and clinic employees.

That last exemption, for clinic employees, tilts the scales in favor of their point of view, said Mark L. Rienzi, a lawyer for Ms. McCullen and other protesters.

“The government does not have the ability to decide,” he said, “that its public sidewalks are open for speakers on one side but not speakers on the other side.”

If we accept the definition of “human rights” as interrelated, individual, and equally valid as the UN charter dictates that we should, it is logically inconsistent to declare that exceptions can be made even with some extreme mitigating heuristic like possible prior intention to harm.  Still if we allow for free speech in this case, which frankly by liberal jurisprudence, we have we have a conflict which, by the logic of human rights enumerations and jurisprudence as accepted by all signatories to the UN charter of human rights, should not be able to happen.  How do we “arbitrate” this case?

Now my harsh criticism towards this article may lead you to think that I am on the side of the abortion protestors.  I am not, but I do realize the profundity of the problems at hand.  I actually do not sympathize with the “anti-choose” argument here, and I do see that there are limits on free speech as a de jure and de facto condition of law.  There is still a problem, however, given the definition established for human rights becomes incoherent here very quickly. Let’s look at the article:

Except that the front of the clinic is not a debate platform where everyone gets to stand up and make their arguments about abortion for an audience to decide. It’s a clinic. Both sides are not the same and not equal. For one thing, clinic workers aren’t “speakers” for any side. They’re not trying to persuade women. On the contrary, the evidence actually shows that abortion clinic workers by and large are not invested in the final outcome of a woman’s decision and are only there to help a woman get the ends she has determined for herself are the best. If a woman comes in and, after talking to the doctor and getting an ultrasound, decides to change her mind (exceedingly rare, by the way), then that’s fine. Anti-choicers would love to pretend that women coming into clinics are just confused and that there’s “two sides”—one pushing for abortion and one pushing against—that need to be heard out. That’s simply put, a lie. The “two sides” are people who are there to help women make the best decisions for themselves and people who are there because they wish to harass women whose personal medical decisions they disagree with. If a bunch of people felt entitled to, say, get up in men’s faces and scream at them as they entered a heart clinic in order to get their cholesterol measured, this would not be even remotely confusing.

The claim that the other side is not speech true, but the two-sided argument actually is not as relevant as it appears.  The motivators and fallacies of the “anti-choicer” may be relevant morally, but they are not relevant legally.  Particularly when “rights” are stated by UN charter to be both unalienable and equal.  There is no way to arbitrate without violating the very principle that established the rights in the first place.

Is Good Ol’ Isaiah to Rescue?

“It follows that a frontier must be drawn between the area of private life and that of public authority. Where it is to be drawn is a matter of argument, indeed of haggling. Men are largely interdependent, and no man’s activity is so completely private as never to obstruct the lives of others in any way. ‘Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows’; the liberty of some must depend on the restraint of others.” – Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty

One particularly attempt interlocutor may assert that the protesting women and doctors have a negative right to be free from harassment.  This seems justifiable and true.  Ignoring the U.N. charter for a second, let’s accept this divisibility in human rights.  Obviously the court should place the onus on the those claim a positive right to harass.

Again we have a problem:  no one considers the right to speech a positive right, and outside of rulings that have been contested primarily by libertarians and liberals, few people consider public property to have such speech codes baring explicit, not implicit, threats of violence.  So the protestors are also claiming a negative right in their own view: the right to speak out on public property and sidewalks.

Berlin’s distinction’s oft loved by libertarians and conservatives actually don’t help either case.  The clarity of what is a positive right and what is a negative right in cases where interests are directly conflicted on the very grounds of rights itself: the category is harder to parse.   Berlin himself said, “Freedom for wolves means death to sheep.”

“You have a Right to Speech, but not to be heard,” Or You don’t actually have a right to speech

We should return to genealogy in a moment, but we should look at some of the lay-responses first.  I saw three primary arguments: “You have the right to speech, but not the right to be heard.”  Well, actually, silencing is a denial of speech and to return someone inaudible is, de facto, the denial of speech as its primary purpose.  If one reads the NY Times article, and not the Raw Story diatribe, then one can see that many abortion supporters recognized the problems in jurisprudence this kind of thinking creates:

Floyd Abrams, a First Amendment lawyer, said the Massachusetts law was no better than the one upheld in 2000.

“The protections of the First Amendment do not evaporate the closer one comes to an abortion clinic,” he wrote in an email. “Access must be protected; so must speech.”

The 2000 decision was decided by a 6-to-3 vote, with Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in the majority. They have been replaced by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., and their votes may alter the balance.

Many feminists would rightly say, however, the ability to have access is not the only issue. Harassment is.  I saw many people saying that the issue is one of consequences of actions: but such as free speech zone is not about consequences of actions that have happened, it’s pre-emptive. The same legal logic as a pre-emptive strike.  There are laws that cover violence, direct threats to violence, and physical obstruction.  The responsibility for future events is generally covered by other principles in law.

One of my friends called the freedom of speech, “supposed.” Which is just patently false in context of US law, but also highly selective when it comes to rights.   The problem is of course someone is realizing that all this is problem and putting their values first.   The thing is the concept of “rights” doesn’t all that.  It doesn’t move that way.  It is universal concept, or it is just the arbitration of the various competing interests in a society.

Look at the Genealogy, Behold Lex Naturalis.

Thinking in terms of rights when people have abandoned natural law as a teleos leads to all sorts of logical and legal absurdity and contradiction. Until most people who say that, I do not think that is an argument for “natural law” but the fear of abandoning notions of human rights when as a culture and a jurisprudence the logic that originally underpinned those rights has long been abandoned has led to the mess of the legal system we have now. The origin of the concept of human rights was not originally “dignity” which seems like a debased rationalization since dignity is a hyper-vague concept itself.  It was that natural law established by a deity developed that certain things were innately unalienable and to violate them was a violation of the divine will as manifested in the law of nature.   Even Locke grounds his conceptions of property and human right in this notion explicitly.  Governments, for Locke, were a contract to better protect and enshrine the natural rights which were logical outgrowths of natural law, which itself was an outgrowth of a both teleological and theological principles.  The indivisibility is predicated not on logic, but divine consistency and the idea of a moral universe.

In the early days of development of liberal jurisprudence, even Deists and Freethinkers more or less accepted this logic. If they did not, they paid lip-service to it.  One can see in the phrase in the US constitution that “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them”.  This not only pulled from Locke, but also from Hugo Grotius who based all international law on divine and natural law, which in Grotius’s view ensured things like Protestantly-modified version of Catholic just war theory and freedom of the seas (and presumably the air).   These liberal enumerations of rights probably had material impetus in the collapse of the English Civil War, the beginning of mercantile development, and the increasingly decadence and irrelevance of the aristocratic class to the production of society.   That said, the specifically Christian assumptions and slant to these values didn’t go away:  the formal legal equity being based on partly on the necessary of economics (and limited to the upcoming classes as well as the old regime), but also on ideas one finds in the Pauline epistles, which would literally be nonsensical to most polities which where based on both political philosophies and theologies which had no such universalism presumptions.

As these principles were secularized, even thinkers such as J.S. Mill realized the problem:  without an absolute grounding, the indivisibility and universality of the claims would immediately fall apart if they conflicted, and Mill first proposed that was the function of the legislator, and then embraced and refined a utilitarian calculus.  Still lingering, however, in the claims of utility was that the value which underpinned utility remained a teleos: was that value pleasure, harm reduction, happiness, the ability to fulfill pluralistic ideas like that of G.E. Moore, what it preference satisfaction?  Did that group include the community? The nation? The “race”?  The whole of humanity? All mammals with large brains?  All mammals?  All sentient life?

Not only did this not solve a problem of irreconcilable goals, it just hid the communal definition and the teleos (or meta-ethics to use more modern language) in equations about hedons and dolors.

Still the universal declaration of rights continued and expanded in the liberal polities, even while the “left” increasingly abandoned the conception.   As concepts such as “species being” and “de-alienation” faded away into “iron laws of value” favored the “collectivist” side of the Marxist dialectic as expressed in the Theses on Feuerbach, the idea of a centrally planned new man through the mechanism of the party apparatus replaced the idea of human capacity to change its social relations through mass action of workers in their individual and collective best interest.  This idea may have been abandoned for sound historical reasons.   Regardless, the idea of sociological processes and necessary for states of exception to remove the need for such exceptions increasingly have become part of the logic of liberal polity.

These ideas, as well as Schmitt’s now all somehow co-existed as explanations for rights and their exceptions (since the concept can’t be applied consistently).   The sociological context and the idea of specific consciousness adding the list of possible suspensions to avoid the realization that outside of its original context, this line of thinking turns arbitration into the arbitrary battle for cultural and material hegemony.  As one says in the both Raw Story and NYT articles, “The only thing that has changed is the make-up of the court.”  In such contradiction, how could anything else happen?

Of what one cannot speak:

The universal nature of human rights and freedoms is beyond question.

—2005 World Summit, paragraph 121

Have I had this debate much?  The answer is no.  Many of the people who inspired this post and my others like it have simply refused to engage.  It’s not a conversation they want to have for a variety of reasons, some of which can’t be known to me.  What I have learned is that the limits of what one can speak about is the limit of one’s self conception. If this cannot be questioned or discussed, it may not be because the person has no argument–one should not assume that. It may be that it is too crucial of an idea to risk the argument for.  In other words, it remains a taboo which question results in the pain of cognitive dissonance and terror management at the fear of losing one’s identity.

I will leave one with several quotes that seem to contradict, but I don’t think actually do at all:

“A humanitarian God cannot be demonstrated from the world we know: today you can be compelled to admit this much. But what conclusions can you draw? ‘He cannot be demonstrated to us’: epistemological skepticism. You are all afraid of the conclusion: ‘from the world we know, a very different god would be demonstrable, one who at any rate is not humanitarian’ – and, in short, you hold fast to your God and devise for him a world we do not know.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche

“There is no way to understand the character of the taboo rules, except as a survival from some previous more elaborate cultural background. We know also and as a consequence that any theory which makes the taboo rules … intelligible just as they are without any reference to their history is necessarily a false theory… why should we think about [the theories of] analytic moral philosophers such as Moore, Ross, Prichard, Stevenson, Hare and the rest in any different way? … Why should we think about our modern use of good, right and obligatory in any different way from that in which we think about late eighteenth-century Polynesian uses of taboo?”
― Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory

“The concept of humanity is an especially useful ideological instrument of imperialist expansion, and in its ethical-humanitarian form it is a specific vehicle of economic imperialism. Here one is reminded of a somewhat modified expression of Proudhon’s: whoever invokes humanity wants to cheat. To confiscate the word humanity, to invoke and monopolize such a term probably has certain incalculable effects, such as denying the enemy the quality of being human and declaring him to be an outlaw of humanity; and a war can thereby be driven to the most extreme inhumanity.” ― Carl Schmitt

“Kant was right; morality did in the eighteenth century, as a matter of historical fact, presuppose something very like the teleological scheme of God, freedom and happiness as the final crown of virtue which Kant propounds. Detach morality from that framework and you will no longer have morality; or, at the very least, you will have radically transformed its character.” ― Alasdair MacIntyre
The chief defect of all hitherto-existing materialism…is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradiction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism—which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such – Karl Marx
“Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man’s ideas, views and conceptions, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life?” – Karl Marx
The simple slogan “to be real is to be admitted by an accepted theory” is too liberal to justify the introduction of theoretical entities unless supplemented by other considerations. In addition to that slogan, a specifiable further consideration must be satisfied. Given an appropriately holistic view of science, an ontological commitment made by an admitted theory in a given field might well be rejected if it leads us in the direction of a less unified global conceptual scheme. -  W.V. Quine

The anti-primitive

An apology to gutter-punks, or: How I learned to stop worrying and love anarcho-primitivism

I’ve been intending to write this essay for months, but things always got in the way. And now that I have elected to use some time to write it, I am somewhat at a loss. So to begin, I thought I will cite a recent review in the New Yorker of a history of the demise of the passenger pigeon.

In their wake, passenger pigeons left behind denuded fields and ravaged woods; descriptions conjure up those First World War photographs of amputated trees in no man’s land. “They would roost in one place until they broke all the limbs off the trees,” one old-timer recalled, “then they would move to Joining timber & treat it likewise, then fire would break out in the old Roost and Destroy the remainder of the timber.” Their droppings, which coated branches and lay a foot thick on the ground, like snow, proved toxic to the understory and fatal to the trees…If anything, the passenger pigeon is a bracing corrective to notions of a natural world detached from its fecund terrors. The bird’s propensity for eating everything and taking over earth and sky makes it seem, frankly, a little like us. As Greenberg notes, “a widely held view is that this species could not sustain itself without a giant population,” so that decline itself became a cause of further decline. In other words, passenger pigeons lived by collaboration on a giant scale, and may have died by it. Yet what Greenberg sees is not the clash of two irreconcilable species with gargantuan needs but a story of victimizers and victims.

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Puer natus est nobis

One of the iron laws that I have found out concerning being a parent is that children love the outdoors. Well, at least mine do. Any parent in an intemperate climate where it can get too hot or too cold knows well how much more difficult the day goes when the children are unable to be outside. “Cabin fever” often results in children bouncing off the walls, gratuitously antagonizing each other, and trying the parents’ wits in a seemingly endless test of wills. And they sleep badly. No matter how difficult it might be, one almost inevitably has to prepare the children to go outside, if only for a little while. Once outdoors, they tend to calm down, or unleash pent up energies in far more constructive ways.

I am rather sure that this very concrete reality in my current life has influenced the trajectory of the little intellectual life that I am now allotted. To be direct, my tendency to take the “anti-civ” critique more seriously than the average person may be due to my parenting of very young children. A lot of it has to do with guilt. I live a very, very white-bread middle class life in a U.S. suburb. On the other hand, I am beginning to realize that most of my inherent parental sense when it comes to discipline has to do with curbing my children’s wants and needs in order to conform to a society in which I believe very little. Sit still, comb your hair, don’t scream, don’t make a mess, don’t hit your sister… it is just one continuous monitoring against things that children naturally do in order to make them do the opposite.
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Occultation, or Why I quit editorial commitee of the North Star

“Do not say ‘I will study when I have the time’, for perhaps you will never have time.” (2:5) – Pirkei Avot

“Do not say something that cannot be understood, thinking it will be understood later.” (2:5) – Pirkei Avot

I. Of Ornithorhynchidae and Astronomy, or Remembrance of Things (Very Recently) Past

For those of you who do not know, I have been an editor for the North Star in some capacity for ten months.   When this project expanded and contracted like a supernova, Pham Binh and Ben Campbell asked me on to the editorial staff of the North Star for the first of four attempts at a redesign and relaunch.  I was to play a quiet role, and was explicitly asked to bring more cultural and theoretical bend to the very practically-minded editors already on staff.  As this was happening, my disillusionment with my association with Platypus Affiliated Society was growing stronger.   I entered P.A.S. in the heat of Occupy Seoul and in the sphere of Occupy Wall Street.  I shared its skepticism of the “left” as it was constituted–in fact. Disgust with the left had driven me fairly deeply right in my early 20s–I was linked to anti-war movement libertarian and paleo-conservative wing and had even been so foolish as to sign the Euston Manifesto as a “third-campist” against both the neo-conservatives war-mongers and those who thought that supporting regressed regimes was a kind of national liberation. I still standby that impulse; however, I was naive as to the motives of the other signatories–many of whom developed either quite reactionary politics or became neo-conservatives themselves.

Nonetheless, my frustration with P.A.S.’s highly idiosyncratic reading of Lenin, Trotsky, and Frankfurt school as a practicable politics as well as the highly doctrinaire attitude within the organization chaffed me.   Ben Campbell had reacted to what he saw as the bad faith of P.A.S.–a interpretation with which I actually did not quite agree. We split from the org at the moment we tried to reform and balance the committee.  At the same time, several other members did too, and a few were asked to leave. This got conflated with the leaking of some of the content from the P.A.S. message board and a call for a boycott of P.A.S. by Ben and several other leftists. I was torn…I do not generally support anything but extremely targeted boycotts for any reason, nor did I feel that P.A.S. had been dishonest to non-members about its mission.  Indeed, I felt like the issue was one of flattery. People did not want to believe that P.A.S.’s mission to “host the conversation” to make the left “aware of its own deadness” was exactly what it sounded like. In retrospect, that mission seems like reification upon reification. Ben, Binh, Ismael Diablada, Stephen H. myself, and several new editors (including two female editors who did not stay on), Matthijs Krul, and Dario Cankovic set out to “host the conversation” in a more open and less theoretically rigid manner. Indeed, we all disagreed about key political issues: I was a third-campist on Syria against Binh’s support of the rebels, I disagreed with Dario C. on democracy and on secularism and Ben C. on the relationship between Marxism and science.  The idea between Ben C. and I was that this was going to be just as plural internally as the conversation external to the site’s organization.

The North Star, however, was defined against Occupy’s failure on Binh’s end and P.A.S. mission statement on the other.  The new editorial collective quickly set about trying to recruit feminist writers and writers of color, writers from different religious background, and writers from various tradition. This, frankly, was an unapologetic failure. Many complained about Ben’s apparent focus on P.A.S., which was not actually as focal as the internet impression would lead you to believe. Sadly Ben’s work redesigning the North Star was not shown to the public. There was also much rancor over Binh’s increasing support of NATO action in Syria, which was viewed as a apologetic for “imperialism.” Political tensions emerged between Binh and Ben as well as the rest editorial board all the while brewing a distrust of the political tradition the name of the magazine linked us too. Only Binh looked to the original Peter Camejo North Star project as a major inspiration. After a showing at Left Forum and a successful series of panels for the relaunch, Ben C. quit after a disagreement with Binh and from personal pressures that was not clear to me. The relaunch editorial staff was never put in place, so the five editor structure with various sub-editors–came into being.  We established a relationship with the Philly Socialists, which was never formalized.  Tensions over both feminism and Syria alienated the two female editors. The fact they were never credited for their work didn’t help matters either.

In addition, Binh seemed to have felt disappointed with the new staff whom he viewed as largely absentee after Ben C.’s leaving.  He worked primarily with myself and on his own to put out the North Star, which also felt very much like his blog. Various authors with ties to a certain Louis Proyect’s Marxmail began to be in regular rotation, many of whom advocated a focus on class to the exclusion of all other forms of identity politics, a willingness to adopt and capitulate on certain GOP talking points because they were “working class concerns,” and an increased reliance on NATO for liberation. The editorial staff, even those still actively doing interviews and writing for Binh, was not always aware of what was being published and why. With Ben C.’s leaving most of the work done for the original relaunch was shuttled in the confusion. The North Star feel into a routine that even Binh was not entirely comfortable seeing happen.
Then Binh’s personal life attacked. Despite rumors to the contrary, Binh’s personal life had made it difficult for him to keep on doing what he was doing and he needed to take care of it. Out of respect for him, I won’t go into the details, but suffice to say it was serious. As a result of these events, Binh asked Pavel,a friend of mine who I brought on in the failed relaunch, and me to deal with some issues of audience expansion, minor web-site redesign, and fixing an increasingly kluged back-end of the site. Binh eventually would ask us to take the lead as co-managing editors, which evolved to “co-editor-and-chiefs.”

Pavel and I quickly set about to the relaunch and re-structuring of the site…again.  This time our site redesign was much more limited. The true focus of our attetion was the re-organizing of the people that we had inherited from Ben C. days who had not left during the confusion.  We Condensed the back-end of the site from a panel of five editors and ten contributing and associate editors to six devoted editors.  The leadership of Philly Socialists left the advisory panel on the magazine quietly to focus on US politics, and increasingly by Ben and Binh’s own doing, the editorship of the site had moved from New York City to people living in South Korea/Mexico, the UK, and Canada. In fact, of the six currently existing editors, only two still lived in the US and only four had been born there. I also rewrote the mission statement to minimize the relationship to Peter Camejo and to emphasis the diverse nature of the project.

Soon after Binh’s departure, Proyect wrote his first denouncement of me: mostly having to to do with my past in P.A.S. It was clear from the writing that he knew none of the details of my involvement. He was also critical of some of the writing’s on this blog, particularly writings NOT initiated by me in the first place.  Now there are plenty of things I’ve said and done you can attack me on, but Proyect didn’t even bother to touch them. Fiction is more entertaining than fact apparently. To make matters worse, we discovered that Proyect had bankrolled the beginning of the site, selected Binh to run it, and still viewed himself as having some controlling stake in both the name of the North Star and the legacy of Camejo. The majority of the editorial committee had known almost nothing about this until just before Binh was slated to leave, and we had definitely not been informed when Ben C. and Binh had first came up with the idea for the relaunch. Tensions mounted between Proyect and the site as a whole and some heavy-handed things were done on both sides. The editorial committee opinion was split.  During this time, I formally abstained from most of the decisions involving Proyect since I was personally attacked. Nevertheless, the attacks continued: I was “over-theoretical,” too interested in politics, a secret neo-conservative, a Leninist, Pavel and I couped Binh, I didn’t put my opinions in public, etc.  Most of this came from people who were functioning on misunderstandings based on Proyect’s hit piece, misinformation about the nature of Binh’s leaving which remained cryptic, and guessing as to who Pavel and the other editors were since many of us used a nom de plumes.

II. A Tale of Two Uniteds

Increasingly the North Star expanded into UK politics. Two editors were living there and British left seemed more active than the US left after the degeneration of Occupy. While all the editors discussed expanding into general North American and Latin American politics, the reader interest was not there.  Despite many of Binh’s fans decrying the death of the site, the numbers of readers went up by 1/3 to 1/2 depending on the day and the Facebook likes increased 100%.  To maintain this growth, we monitored the articles to which the readers responded. As Pavel, Dario, Matthijs, and myself largely wrote on issues larger or outside the US and moved the site away from Binh’s relationship on Syria, the readership changed. It responded to economic writings, writings on foreign politics, and theoretical issues. We had become a podcast syndication problem under Binh and Ben, but increasingly the readers did not view or listen to the podcasts.

Despite the growth during this time, I found that I was tired of having my character attacked on half-information. I made the decision to focus on my literary publishing, my relocation to Mexico, my partner, and both of our ill-health. I resigned as editor-n-chief giving the role totally to Pavel, but stayed on for content generation, and trying to get some of the authors who had said they were interested in turning in work to actually do so. Our first two months of good numbers started to slack with increasing interest in writing on Latin American or left history.

The readership was increasingly based in the UK and NYC, the editors felt that we needed to cater to that and subtly push new ideas and debates into that context, but our readership was returning to that of the Binh and Ben days of site.  This ends the first three phases of the magazine and brings us up to last month.

III. Vampires, WASPs, and Bears… Oh my. .

After the numbers dropped down for a while, Pavel decided to contact some people who had committed to possibly writing something for the North Star. Finally, Mark Fisher, whom Pavel had been working with privately, delivered a piece. I read it and immediately took issue with its universalization of a particularly British notion of class – which renders class as a largely identity-based movement – as well as not advancing an understanding of the conditions that case overlap between race, gender, sexuality, and economic class. That said, I generally agreed with his critique of privilege and by proxy standpoint epistemology. Then came the slew of articles from people who had responded, seeming to largely pick up on the popularity of the piece. Critiques of the North Star editorial staff as largely male (true), largely white (more-or-less true), and straight (completely false–more than half the staff is queer-identified) emerged from twitter, and even within the editorial staff, rumblings about Mark Fisher as a semi-fascist tied to the “neo-reactionary” Nick Land began to be uttered.

After a week of this, and feeling like people were actively misreading what had been done, Pavel resigned earlier than he had originally planned. Two weeks later, I resigned from all responsibilities and cut all ties with the site after I felt like I was trying to say things that were either inchoate and hard to understand, In absence of a moment to make these ideas have some enacted clarity, I felt like the debate that would emerge would just calcify already existing tendencies in socialist politics.

IV. My Four Theses Nailed to Nothing, Or Talmudic Commentary in Dissent

The above history is honest as I remember it, but biased and chipped.  While my resignation was not done out of any ill-will or strong ideological split, there are four major points where I feel unreconciled with the dominant ideological strains of the North Star. I think it will helpt to first state the mission of the North Star which Pavel and I primarily wrote:

A guidepost is not a program or a strategy: it is an orientation. We are oriented towards a politics that leads beyond what is understood as contemporary capitalism. Emerging out of various strains of activists and theoretical traditions—most of which are rooted in socialism or critiques of capitalism—we aim for a new politics. We believe that the traditional leninist, leftcom and anarchist notions of occupation and revolution may not be applicable (if they ever were). We also believe that tactics of reform and harm reduction as part of an electoral path towards socialism have not succeeded in combating the spread of the deleterious effects of global capitalism. We are guiding ourselves towards new understandings and strategies while looking at the socialist/communist past both in its glorious successes and dismal failures.

1. Democracy is a non-cognitive word

In both its earliest days and currently, the North Star has had a mild obsession with the idea of democracy despite the over-ripeness of the word. While many readers of North Star are of many different ideological stripes, the various trends do share a love of “democracy” albeit often only conceived of in the vaguest terms.  Is it democracy of only working class?  Of the people?  Direct democracy?  Councils?  Economic Democracy?   The focus on Democracy waxes and wanes – the waning particularly occurring during Pavel and my co-editorship. In general I find such talk to be literally meaningless. Marxian notions of democracy are very different from Republican or Parliamentary notions, and acknowledge that a state of emergency would have to temporarily place the working class in a state of exception in which democracy only applied to itself.  That is not Leninism, but Marx as stated in both the Critique of the Gotha Program and Reflections on the War in France.  One may critique this and distrust this as even I do, but the focus on democracy as a battle cry for socialism is weak tea politics and horribly confused.   Orwell was right when in “Politics and the English Language” he declared the word to be all but meaningless.  Furthermore, this is not in line with the mission of the North Star as redefining democracy is not discussed except as a vague tactic for mass involvement in socialist politics, or as a the goal of unifying “economic democracy” with “political democracy.”   These words seem to say something, but I suspect they don’t.

2. In absence of a historical movement, all that can happen is ideological policing

The death nail in the coffin of socialist thought is its calcification into textual platitudes.  David Graeber, a man who I otherwise completely disagree with, once stated that you can tell that Marxism has suffered since its ideological tendencies have moved through being named for revolutionaries, then heads-of-state, then obscure philosophy professors.  The debates between the identity-political thinkers and the class-based thinkers will retrench into the basic status quo fights of the last forty years.  The moments in which these ideas were forced beyond a impasse where in active movements of 1968, 1969, and perhaps for a flash the anti-globalization movement in 1998 and in Occupy however misguided each of these attempts ultimately were. In times when there is a return back to the parliamentary or activist norms, many more ideological litmus tests emerge. One can see the North Star’s comment section, even when heavily moderated, for how nasty this can become.

3. Dialogue between tendencies is not actually meaningful if no tendency is willing to change

In this case, the debates between factions of socialists or feminists or what have you will tend to lead to dogmatic accusation and counter-accusation with no getting beyond the impasse.  The willingness to change often comes from action in the world, and so this seems like a very tired row to hoe. Furthermore, the focus on “the left” itself is myopic, and this had been the theme of every piece of non-interview writing I did for the North Star.

4.  When you are not heard, you should do and not talk

Which brings me to “Occultation” which is the focusing on things I can do: My critiques on Pop the Left and on Disloyal are generally understood, but I do not feel like my criticism has been so well-understood on North Star.  The editorial staff there, including those who are still on board, have been supportive and comradely, but in general, most of what I have said has been misunderstood. This is partly my fault, and partly a function of trying to something that pushes beyond the current conceptions of “left” and “right” in a way that requires some strong self-criticism. Increasingly, I find that writing about specifically theological and cultural problems as well as the arts gets my political points across better. Furthermore, I have decided that my free time should be spent on my active pursuits: the creation of my literary art, doing education work here in Mexico on literacy and ethics, volunteering for feminist education, and going back to helping victims of sexual and domestic violence. I also have to deal with my own diseases, quite literally, and do the study of history, poetry, and Jewish philosophy that I value. I wish the current editors well and think that they may have a bright future as a socialist publication, but I am leaving that behind until a time where the ideals I believe in are more clearly understood through both clearer articulation and frustration with limited options, not only of contemporary mainstream politics but with the options that view themselves as radical.  To paraphrase both the Talmudic Rabbis and Wittgenstein: on what one cannot speak, one should silently enact.

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:






Martial Systems (institutional use of coercion)



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.

Pseudo-religious notes on poverty and work

Given that I am no longer taken to accepting religious explanations for anything, I have wondered sometimes why I give priority in my thought to the poor, the uneducated, the outcast, and the downtrodden. After all, if one is going to be a “true materialist”, would it not be better to give precedence to those who are thriving, materially speaking? This would be a good indication why being a materialist isn’t necessarily a good thing. But then you have to realize that you are dealing with a loaded term. To explain this better, perhaps it is better to go with an analogy.

Say you are tricked into going on a blind date. The other person you meet ends up being attractive, charming, a good conversationalist, and so on. However, there are little ticks, little hints in the conversation that lead you into thinking that there is more to this person than the façade is letting on. Perhaps you dig into the person’s history some more, maybe only through just “googling” that person’s name. What if the person ends up being a convicted rapist? What if the person ends up being abusive, a sociopath, or otherwise dysfunctional? What if you drive by that person’s house and you realize that she or he is a hoarder, or is already married, and so on and so forth? In other words, in ordinary life, we are taught not to let façades fool us. Just because a person might put their best foot forward in a controlled situation, this does not entail that this is all that there is to know about that person. Or one could even say that one does not know the truth concerning that person.
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