Thank the Gods The Universe Was Not Written By Aaron Sorkin

Today I was sitting in my apartment in Cairo, and avoiding large chunks of boomer media, not waxing nostalgic about aught television problems waxing nostalgic about the 90s which themselves were waxing nostalgic about the 80s, when I heard a skid making fun of Aaron Sorkin’s masterclass on scriptwriting.  First I thought “Don’t you have some ELL lessons to be writing” and then I thought “couldn’t you be writing agitprop against some small newspaper put out by a communist group” and then I thought “why does anyone care about some boomer who doesn’t seem to understand technology, the more world, or the way people talk”?

The levels of meta were building up faster than a meme about David Foster Wallace writing about an Adult Swim adaption of a John Barth novel.  What are you saying, you know, the life, the universe, and everything would have been better if we didn’t vote Reagan in and thus start the apocalypse of petite bourgousie smugness and whining about the failure of the sixties that inevitably resulted.

Or make up some bullshit about alienation and a girlfriend about some social media figure?

Also, what do you mean stilted and overly to the point dialogue?

Surely, this demiurgic impulse could help us make the world more like Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Newsroom because we are all boomer polymaths whose social liberal inclinations could have saved the world from neoliberalism, social media, and millennials as the universal solvent.

Surely, most of the DNC agrees with the Sorkin-demiurge, and Trump is a celebrity, whose fashion taste is appalling. I mean seriously, fascists used to be well-dressed, have better uniforms, and could make shit-kickers look good.  Let’s blame that on Reaganites too–and spray tans, and probably social media.

Because the one thing we learned from 70s–possibly from reading Baudrillard while smoking pot in film school in 1987–is that politics is discourse man, and smugness creates the universe.

If we only give liberal idealism the good ol’ college try. Or something…

Adventures in (not really) travel blogging.. or why I don’t try to write a popular blog

Over the past six years I have lived in different countries and kept private journals, wrote poetry about moving, learned tons of trivia about communists uprisings, Korean peasant revolts, and the long relationship between NAFTA, the PRI, and the cartel wars in Mexico.  I have learned about the absolute perils of Japanese cyber-bidets, the myriad ways a bathroom may not work, and how to avoid falling until the wet floor in a Turkish squad toilet. One learns to walk in ways that one doesn’t accidentally telegraph either pick pocket me, I am totally too daft to know” or “I am a creepy American or European sex tourist, and I am totally not fighting my obvious balding and weird post-Christian guilt in the areas of some ‘exotic’ sex worker I am boring into an early grave.”   (Side note: Both are generally achieved by traveling with a partner).

Everyone writes about traveling, some people blog about traveling, and before my partner was diagnosed with cancer, we used to watch hours of these things to get tips and make fun of bad advice.  Or to mock make-shift half-assed anthropologists who mistake a few tourist insights into “deep knowledge’ of the culture.  Of course, I always sound like I too have “deep knowledge” of the culture, but this is mainly from pretending to know some of the language and drinking (coffee or alcohol depending on where) with locals. In fact, if one wants to learn a language, meet cool people, and have allies so you don’t deny–learning backgammon or Goh or chess and drink with locals.  Eat the local food, and deal with the cholera later.  (Honestly, you probably won’t have to deal with cholera, but then again, I did nearly die of typhoid once, and have taken month long courses of antibiotics from over-zealous love of street food).

It’s the call to prayer here, which you learn to enjoy in the middle east.  It’s more melodious than sand, and has more rhythm than the local hustling and bustling in the streets, gesturing, and engaging in the street theatre of negotiation. You’ll probably learn how to be earnestly OVER dismissive or defensive of your home culture–particularly if that culture speaks English as the first language.  You will bore your friends with you endless prattling about “real <insert place here>” and fail to realize that traditions you learned are probably only two generations old anyway, and the local folk wisdom is probably, as Hobshawm used to tell us, invented tradition anyway.

Although you really can see where that guy got Trotsky in the head with a pickaxe in Mexico City.  It’s generally less busy than Frida Kahlo’s house after that Julie Taymore movie anyway.

This is why I don’t travel write very often: people got pulled into the exoticism and think you are showing them the truth: the Ur-form of local authenticity, which you better not get too close to for fear of cultural appropriation call-outs when you return to states.  People will think you are being helpful by telling people where a kahab house is just off the beaten path of the Egyptian market in Istanbul saved you a few lira, and you got bahlava way cheaper.  Of course, by the time the viewers get there, your video has gone viral and the prices are jacked up.

Or that time you helped destroy the local economy of a small village in Guatemala by overtipping taxi drivers and making service industry pay more than being a local doctor, leading to the precipitous in locals receiving medical training.

So travel, write about it, and love it.  But don’t pretend to be offering anyone some insider knowledge, because if it works, you may be undoing the very thing you love and if it doesn’t, you may just be a jackass, overcoming a cocaine problem, and writing about food in future countries snidely.


Concerns about “Toward a communist electoral strategy.”

Donald Parkinson’s recent polemic and call for an electoral strategy for communist politics, Toward a communist electoral strategy.  strikes a delicate balance in the abstentionism and electoralism debates since the Second International, but still leaves many questions for those of us agnostic on the historical value of electoralism in its congressional or parliamentary modes somewhat unsatisfied.  In my response to Parkinson’s call, I wish to highlight some points of concern, skepticism, and differing historical interpretation that should be addressed by anyone seeking a mass party and a minimum program for such a party.

While Parkinson is entirely correct his highlighting that Marx did fully support the tactical participation in elections in 1850 and his provisional support of for elements of the Erfurt program of 1891 (a program that was not fully articulated until after his death) indicates that Marx never supported abstentions from elections.  However, it should be noted that the tone of Marx’s writings on parliamentary participation seems to have moderate between 1850’s address to the communist league and his (originally unpublished) writings in The Critique of the Gotha Program in 1875.  This seems particularly evident in Section IV of the Critique:

It is by no means the aim of the workers, who have got rid of the narrow mentality of humble subjects, to set the state free. In the German Empire, the “state” is almost as “free” as in Russia. Freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it; and today, too, the forms of state are more free or less free to the extent that they restrict the “freedom of the state”.

The German Workers’ party — at least if it adopts the program — shows that its socialist ideas are not even skin-deep; in that, instead of treating existing society (and this holds good for any future one) as the basis of the existing state (or of the future state in the case of future society), it treats the state rather as an independent entity that possesses its own intellectual, ethical, and libertarian bases.

And what of the riotous misuse which the program makes of the words “present-day state”, “present-day society”, and of the still more riotous misconception it creates in regard to the state to which it addresses its demands?

“Present-day society” is capitalist society, which exists in all civilized countries, more or less free from medieval admixture, more or less modified by the particular historical development of each country, more or less developed. On the other hand, the “present-day state” changes with a country’s frontier. It is different in the Prusso-German Empire from what it is in Switzerland, and different in England from what it is in the United States. The “present-day state” is therefore a fiction.

Nevertheless, the different states of the different civilized countries, in spite or their motley diversity of form, all have this in common: that they are based on modern bourgeois society, only one more or less capitalistically developed. They have, therefore, also certain essential characteristics in common. In this sense, it is possible to speak of tthe “present-day state” in contrast with the future, in which its present root, bourgeois society, will have died off.

While by no means advocating the abstentionism one often sees in both “anti-Revisionist” and Left-communist polemics, particularly after the World Wars, there is a skepticism about the scope and limitations of participation in myriad bourgeois democracies would actually encourage.    In many ways, it seems clear that Marx sees the democratic republic as a pre-condition but not an answer to the issue of dictatorship of the proletariat:

Its political demands contain nothing beyond the old democratic litany familiar to all: universal suffrage, direct legislation, popular rights, a people’s militia, etc. They are a mere echo of the bourgeois People’s party, of the League of Peace and Freedom. They are all demands which, insofar as they are not exaggerated in fantastic presentation, have already been realized. Only the state to which they belong does not lie within the borders of the German Empire, but in Switzerland, the United States, etc. This sort of “state of the future” is a present-day state, although existing outside the “framework” of the German Empire.

But one thing has been forgotten. Since the German Workers’ party expressly declares that it acts within “the present-day national state”, hence within its own state, the Prusso-German Empire — its demands would indeed be otherwise largely meaningless, since one only demands what one has not got — it should not have forgotten the chief thing, namely, that all those pretty little gewgaws rest on the recognition of the so-called sovereignty of the people and hence are appropriate only in a democratic republic.

Since one has not the courage — and wisely so, for the circumstances demand caution — to demand the democratic republic, as the French workers’ programs under Louis Philippe and under Louis Napoleon did, one should not have resorted, either, to the subterfuge, neither “honest” [1] nor decent, of demanding things which have meaning only in a democratic republic from a state which is nothing but a police-guarded military despotism, embellished with parliamentary forms, alloyed with a feudal admixture, already influenced by the bourgeoisie, and bureaucratically carpentered, and then to assure this state into the bargain that one imagines one will be able to force such things upon it “by legal means”.

Even vulgar democracy, which sees the millennium in the democratic republic, and has no suspicion that it is precisely in this last form of state of bourgeois society that the class struggle has to be fought out to a conclusion — even it towers mountains above this kind of democratism, which keeps within the limits of what is permitted by the police and not permitted by logic.

Marx’s suspicion of vulgar Democracy remains clear even if the exact nature of his tone and critique appear slightly ambivalent to the modern reader.   it is clear that democracy is not the goal of the Marxist struggle, but would such participation in elections would be the basis for it.

However, it is also clear, while Marx pragmatically understands the dangers of calling for a properly Democratic republic would be, and that this cannot be the limit of a communist vision.

This is to say that Marx seems to be moderating his tone towards electoralism from 1850.  Furthermore, even before the an address, Marx seemed to express similar skepticism about the nature of participation in bourgeois state. In 1843, in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, he asserts:

As we have seen, the state exists merely as political state. The totality of the political state is the legislature. To participate in the legislature is thus to participate in the political state and to prove and actualise one’s existence as member of the political state, as member of the state. That all as individuals want to participate integrally in the legislature is nothing but the will of all to be actual (active) members of the state, or to give themselves a political existence, or to prove their existence as political and to effect it as such. We have further seen that the Estates are civil society as legislature, that they are its political existence. The fact, therefore, that civil society invades the sphere of legislative power en masse, and where possible totally, that actual civil society wishes to substitute itself for the fictional civil society of the legislature, is nothing but the drive of civil society to give itself political existence, or to make political existence its actual existence. The drive of civil society to transform itself into political society, or to make political society into the actual society, shows itself as the drive for the most fully possible universal participation in legislative power.

Indeed Marx’s later writings on the topic mirror the skepticism of his earlier writings.  Electoralism then is a a tactic, not an end.  Parkinson not only admits a similar ambivalence but spells out a similar argument about the illegitimacy of contemporary politics. However, Parkinson’s answers still do not engage entirely on what this would mean:

The first clarification to make is that we would not come to power unless we had the mandate to operate our full minimum program and essentially smash the bourgeois state and create the dictatorship of the proletariat. The party would be a party in opposition and would not form coalition governments with bourgeois parties. Unlike other organizations like Syriza, who act as if they cannot accomplish anything until they are in power, a properly Marxist party would remain in opposition and not form a government until conditions for revolution are ripe.

In short, Parkinson advocates for participation in liberal, i.e bourgeois, democracy tactically, but always in opposition and as a pre-cursor for preparing the conditions for revolution.  Yet, it remains unclear what any of this entails beyond rhetoric echoing Marx’s assertions and skepticism but not entirely updating them historically.  This greatly complicates many of Parkinson’s key points:

“A mass party will have to engage large amounts of workers through “extra-parliamentary” means before it will even stand a chance winning in an electoral campaign. Building class unions, solidarity networks, unemployed councils, mutual aid societies, gun clubs, sports teams, etc. is not to be rejected in favor of electoral action.”

Yet many of these activities require changes in law not to be the kind of adventurism that Parkinson is warning us against.  This also, honestly, does not deal with the limitations on class unions, mutual aid societies and the credential and regulatory limitations on creating them within a legal space nor how such illegalism could be reconciled with the necessary requirements to build a mass party through electoral means.  None of these preconditions and social institutions of dual power currently exist, and so seeming working towards a electoral strategy to create them seems, at minimum, highly premature but also leads a myriad of contradictions that did not exist for either pre-1914 social Democrats or Bolsheviks. They actually did operate in an illegaism framework but also when the notion of a political party was massively different than has ever existed in the United States or in Anglosphere in general.  There is little history for such political parties, and thus new meanings for what would do would require massive education and institutional pull on the electorate.

This catch-22 means that the mass party in a  electoral system would need mass support before it could tactically use elections to get mass support.  Is abstentionism really such a tactical mistake in such a stage? The discussion of Marx above hardly makes that clear.  If one does accept this: means of preventing careerism, executive focus, and shallow political engagement as encouraged by Anglosphere’s notion of the party system where parties are primarily voter sorting mechanism without much other function than raising money for that purpose, such mechanisms much be more clearly laid out before a communist election strategy could begin in ernest.

When Parkinson asserts

While it is true aspects of 2nd international Marxism incorrectly comprehended the capitalist state and perhaps overemphasized the importance of electoral action, one could say the opposite plagues the current left which mostly fetishizes direct action. It is only “action in the streets” that vitalizes and gives consciousness to the working class; when it participates in electoral campaigns it is inert and doesn’t recognize the sham nature of the elections.

I remain skeptical here. While I will admit most forms of direct action over-fetishized and even habitual. Protesting were shows of mass force to build a fighting force more than asking politicians to be moral.  Small scale vandalism was much more disruptive to capital in the past when it sabotaged production, but most massive production is out of the reach of average anarchist to reach and subdue.  These are all true, it remains to be seen if these options are the primary ones.  The binary Parkinson posits is seemingly contradicted by the emphasis on building para-state class institutions priorly to engaging in democracy and organizational building.  In short, I certainly agree with Parkinson that: “Elections as a tactic have benefits, as does direct action. Today the left acts as if one must pick and choose between the two, yet this was not the case for Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, and Lenin. All saw the need for both the ballot and the bullet to win power.” However, this seems to be focusing on two ends of a binary, neither of which  has the mass support or the institutional work has been currently done.  The catch-22 for such work seems to be almost intractable starting from either/or or both to the question of “direct action vs. electoralism” whereas the question of how to build institutions to make such a choice even viable remains unaddressed directly.

Furthermore when Parkinson asserts:

“Bourgeois elections are of course not a reliable means of determining legitimacy, but they can give the party an idea of where and how much it garners popular support. So elections can not only serve as way to win support, but also to measure it. “

This seems dubious in that large swathes of the electorate are fundamentally depoliticized and abstentionist now without any prompting on the part of any party. There are many ways to determine legitimacy which could be counted by participation in the very para-state institutions that Parkinson’s rightly sees as been essential prior to the creation of the electoral party. There are other means to take note of legitimacy and many which show much more investment in an actual socialist politics.

This is not say that cadre creation or Facebook “Likes” replaces or substitutes for eletoralism in taking account of the public and working class view, but that none of them alone answer the problem and the focus, again, seems odd given the current state of the Marxian left as both Parkinson and myself largely agree.  Hence the focus on electoralism seems premature and binary against “new Left” direct action seems also to exclude a middle that Parkinson has already admitted was necessary in the course of his call for such a strategy.

Furthermore, some of the specifics Parkinson does lay out still seem to require much, much more institutional development to achieve: “For example, electoral reps can be required to donate a certain percentage of their salary to the party and be subject to recall by a popular vote. Electoral reps can also be given party-imposed term limits more strident that those enforced by the bourgeois state.” This can only be effective if both class interests are unified and clear and the party itself has internal institutional mechanism to hold itself accountable in imposing said will. Also direct democracy has historically been subject to the whims of media reaction even within the working class since its experiments in the 1950s with ballot propositions and canton regulation. There is no reason to believe that without significant institutional and educational work, such appeals to direct democracy being a limit on a political class developing would themselves be representative of class will.

The ambivalence towards electoralism seems to have emerged particularly in the second international but was clear even prior.  While I agree with Parkinson (as well as Engels and Lenin before him) that abstentionism and outright illegalism would probably be counter-productive, I do not see that any marxist group has begun to address the key para-institutional concerns that would enable us to clarify our understandings of both political processes and the nature of the working class as it currently exists. In such a position, any talk of electoralism risks merely tailing opposition parties willing to form a government in a parliamentary context.



Review: Theory as History by Jarius Banaji (Brill, 2011)

While I do not always agree with Banaji, particularly of his dismissal of the English agrarian capital thesis and the Brenner/Woods reading as an “orthodoxy,” his discussions of Egypt, the late medieval Islamic trade development, the problems with the “Asiatic modes of production” and “tributary mode of production” as well as historical blind spots in general Marxist, and, ironically given their third world focus, specifically Maoist misreadings of past. Banaji’s strength is his knowledge of periods before capitalism and the complications of “transitions,” and he is particularly convincing in contrasting Mexico with Egypt in the 19th and 20th centuries. I do think, however, that Banaji focuses intensely on moods of production but is deliberately somewhat loose with what counts as capitalism outright, and his criterion seemed a little vaguer than that of Woods/Brenner.

Parts of this book seem clearly targeted at the Maoist argument that “survivals of pre-capitalist relations of production” mean that the prime revolutionary class is the peasantry against the assertions of earlier Stalinists and other forms of communism about the working class. Banaji, as Mike MacNair already has said in his review of the book, “argues that the whole ‘traditional Marxist’ scheme of differences between modes of production which are defined by the mode of exploitation – slavery in classical antiquity, serfdom under feudalism, wage labour under capitalism – is to be rejected.” Banaji does this because there are proto-capitalist elements and profound misunderstanding of Asian and late antique economies in most Marxist schemas, and that the schema is both too theoretically simple. This argument is the thread that keeps these otherwise unrelated scholarly essays together. I also think that Banaji’s looser definition of capitalism frustrates all kinds of other Marxists particularly when looking at over-generalizations in other modes of production.

Interestingly, while there is no “pure” agrarian capitalism according to Banaji, he does prove that there was significant wage labor in both pre-modern and third world agriculture earlier than most Marxists conceive. This is significant as it draws out the horizon of the origins out beyond England. However, where I disagree with Banaji is that wage-relationships and focus on reinvestment did NOT characterize Mediterranean interface of Catholic Christendom, Byzantium and the Dar al-Islam. Banaji does prove that Brenner/Woods may have been under-stating the development of elements of capital, but he his only focusing on one part of Brenner/Woods two part definition. That said, this does complicate the development of capitalism quite clearly.

Furthermore, Banaji seems to reject teleologies as such. He seems to conflate the ideas that = that capital developmental would have a purposive and long-run developments that were emergent from their own logic, and would have a systemic teleological pattern to the idea of a teleology of history itself. To my mind, this is reading Hegelian and German idealist assumptions about what a teleology is back into the entirety of history. This means that Banaji seems to reject a clear emergence point for capitalism and a developmental logic, partly because of Marx’s “Here be Dragons” elements of Asiatic production.

This is not to dismiss Banaji. This is an important book, and while not necessarily easy for lay-readers in either medieval economic history or inter-Marxist debates, it is a vital read. It also calls for Marxists to look at non-European societies and do more significant comparative work before making big claims about history. The strongest chapters are the ones dealing with conceptions of “free” and “unfree” labor in the modern political economy as well as ones critiquing a lack of historiography in Marxist circles around antiquity and around non-European developmental modes.

The Precarious Liberality

Taking a break from poetry month drafts, Benjamin at Marmalade opines Thankless Task of Being a Liberal.  It is a pretty thankless task because it is both omnipresent and consistently denied.  Benjamin comes up with three questions:

This is how the liberal dream slowly fades away. Liberals forget what was so great about the dream in the first place. Were we ever so naive to believe in it? With experience, we learn of the hollow rhetoric of politicians. Yet every once in a while the old inspiration hits us and for that moment we believe something else might be possible.

Yet even then, it’s challenging for us liberals to say what liberalism is or could be about. If we no longer had any excuses for failure, what would we do? If we fought hard for our principles and won that fight, what would the world look like? If the liberal vision were unleashed, what could be accomplished?

What is liberalism? And what would happen if we liberals took it seriously? If liberals don’t fight for liberalism, who will? Then again, if most liberals fought hard and fought to win, would they still be liberals? What if, instead, liberalism isn’t what it appears to be?

Why are there so few liberals at the bloody frontlines of the battle for justice and freedom, so few liberals in ghettos, prisons and refugee camps? Why does liberalism usually only attract those living comfortable lives? Why is it so often that the first thing liberals are willing to sacrifice is their own liberalism?

Part of what makes this complicated is that liberalism as we understand it is not just an economic ideology with roots in Lockean, Humean, and even Kantian branches of the European Enlightenment. Even between those three thinkers, one has radically different conceptions of both the justification for “liberty and equality” in both contexts and manifestation. Locke roots it in property and the improvement of land–Locke coming out of the agrarian capitalism of early Modern English state and Protestant reformations/revolutions that led to landowners being increasingly in charge of the company. In Locke you have both the justification for liberal self-ownership but also the justification for chattel slavery and colonial forms of Imperial expansion.

Still Liberalism is much larger than this and in its dominance of the ideological much more promiscuous. Part of the problem with calling anything in modern North America or Europe “liberal” is that an element of it legitimately sticks and can be traced to a liberal movement in 16th and 17th century. After all, even anti-liberal leftists like Mao and Engels fundamentally began in liberal circles first. Marx in Hegelian circles, and thus he too is a capital of idealist mutation of the Enlightenment. Modern conservatism, as even DeMaistre observed, were impossible with the revolutions at the ned of the religious wars of the 15th and 16th century. Indeed, DeMaistre viewed the French revolution as a teleological necessary to birth a reaction to it. Illiberalism itself, in the post-European and European world, is born as a reaction against the dominance of liberalism.

Yet the definition has shifted and morphed, and differentiated within itself to the point where, while not non-cognitive, it is very hard to say what liberalism is. Even an illiberal like myself still comes out of that fundamental framework just like I also come out of assumptions around Christian culture in specific and Abrahamic culture in general. These assumptions have been wedded to capitalism but are slightly tangential to it and are only tied because of the particular contingencies of history.

In the the scandal is the liberal mind may not be its defeat or decline, it is more than in its dominance in a time of capitalism, it not longer has a coherent identity. The scandal of the liberal mind isn’t one. It is thus useful primarily as slur. Something to try to differentiate oneself from, and yet in the case in Europe and US, a conservative is just a liberal from a different age more often than not.

Poetry, Egypt, And Other Stuff I write elsewhere about…

I have not been blogging as much lately for a few pronounced reasons:  my job is demanding a lot of me lately, which is fine, but I also edit a literary journal, am working a few volumes of poetry, frankly trying to market that poetry while being out of the literary world of the States, read manuscripts for Zero books, and sometimes reviewing for Hong Kong Review of Books.

I am not going away; simply don’t have time for as much work here.  Furthermore, this blog has a low readership compared to my other blogs.  I don’t do as many interviews for it explicitly.

More will be coming soon as I started writing a post about my travels in Turkey and Egypt, but didn’t want to sound like an entitled expatriate pontificating on cultures that I live around but don’t necessarily comprehend all that well.