“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.
(orginally posted here)