“I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts” – George Orwell
“A cult is a religion without political power.” – Tom Wolfe
Sitting in a Mexican bar, eating a shrimp taco and drinking local beers, I chat with a friend who is also a Marxist in the vague sense of the term – you know the fellow. The one who reads Endnotes and can speak of subsumption of labor power but has not belonged to a union for ages. The last few years have been a blur for me, as an expat teacher working in high schools and universities in Mexico and Korea. Since leaving Macon, Georgia, in my late 20s, I have moved all over the world and talked to “the left” in several countries. In Georgia, I had been trying to “make a difference” as a good left-liberal in the non-unionized educational world of the Southern United States: I taught vocational college classes, and high school to poor and learning-challenged students. I made the tests, visited the poor parts of the city, worked with the local anti-war groups even though they were mostly libertarians and, after three years and economic recession, got nowhere. I gave up and left. Now I am here teaching semi-privileged kids in the desert, the sun beating down and the beer cold.
In was from this vantage point that I recalled having recently read the editor of a certain leftist publication talking about the toxicity of the American Dream. From my standpoint here, it is not even toxic. It not even wrong in my case. There is no American Dream for me. My story offers no representation of the tensions of the US working class, and even though I am a wage laborer, when I see poor people going to farm the cactus on rancheros or pouring concrete for quickly constructed buildings, I realize that my place in the working world is one of a subsumed and abstract domination.
Yes it is still a form of domination, but I have the corpulence to show that it is not too bad in the grand scheme of things. This is not to appeal to the nobility of a romantic notion of poverty or of non-US life, or to posit like some many romantics that the “working man” knows something that I don’t — I am sure she does actually, but class is not the only indicator of people’s particular delusions. The appeal to the essence of “the worker” from a transhistorical point of view as having an essence beyond capitalism or the 20th century does not get one very far. The material concerns of a Soviet munitions factory and the material concerns of a Starsbuck’s employ are both similar and yet worlds apart from one another. The kind of work they do limiting their milieus in very different ways. The kind of culture they inhabit shaping their discourses, family and the even the way they fuck being almost alien to people in other milieus–it as if class is a foreign country, not only to other classes, but to other parts of itself. Yet they were both in a situation of similar exploitation in the relationship to surplus value in the pure Marxist sense. This sort of logic makes the actual politics, disorder, and divisions working class of the United States, or indeed anywhere, harder to parse. Is the American dream toxic to the worker, to the average person, to the ever-elusive “middle class?” I do not think the answer is simple nor is it “vulgarly ideological” (as in a form of false consciousness, that patronizing canard that can be used to avoid the debate on any issue).
The “American” dream, instead, is not so much American as it is the dream of people to have their needs met with mutual responsibility and mutual respect. It is that simple. That may not manifest universally in all cultures and at all times the same way, but history and culture rhyme here. I could wax into the abstract lyricism of value-form theory and the labor theory of value, I could, but if you are reading North Star, you have probably heard that before. The hard question is why would a socialist be using such language?
Here is a point where we must fragment. Before I can answer that question, I must go beyond the self-absorbed and abstract. Before I can get beyond the self-absorbed or the coldly abstract, I need to ask why I consider myself a Marxian thinker and what that may mean now.
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Pop the Left
I have what can be seen as confession: Despite many years of protesting, I woke up and realized I was a leftist, and I had never really wanted to be one. I did not even really know exactly what “leftist” meant other than a vague distrust of both conservatism as manifested in the spirit of the 1990s and an even more nebulous distrust of Democrats and Keynesian liberals. I did not have the vocabulary to articulate this. Not a dirty socialist or principled left communist, but a conference-attending, Zizek-reading, learning-primary-source-languages-to dig-into-archival documents, signing-manifestos-after-getting-a-humanities-degree leftist. While advocating socialist principles, I would go through the normal leftist turns: the battle for Seattle, anti-war protesting, working with women’s shelters in the semi-rural South, working with students abroad, and even the peripherals of being a teacher, professor, and artist. I was a cliché. I suppose, like many “leftists,” I took the consolation of never becoming a Democrat, although I have been worse. Around 2006 or so, in my mid-twenties, after learning that it was illegal in my state for graduate students and public school teachers to unionize, and after years of workerist garbage, I got my degree, left university life, and felt disillusioned. Also a stereotype.
For a while, I have wondered what “the left” actually meant as the Jacobins and Girondins fade into the cold background texts of a history class or a poorly-read and half-digested Trotskyist pamphlet. Now that there is no Soviet Union, Marxists often argue for Keynesian policies, anarchists support Keynesian labor policies, and picking the correct side in a nationalist conflict is deemed a point of subcultural pride. I even joined a group that claimed “the left was dead” and offered to do a pedagogical autopsy. After a year and I woke up with a Hegelian hangover, a headache from all the Adorno, too many Sparticist League pamphlets, and a typological map legend of historical teleology – let’s call it a bum deal.
One supposes after the founding of the 26th Fourth International and the daily debates about Kronstadt, one would ask: what’s all this for, exactly? The industrial machine marches on its daily grind, the working class is the grist for the mill, and the temperature keeps getting hotter. What’s a communist to do when looking at a decade when a “communist” country like China barely has socialized medicine, Trotsky still lies on the floor, a pickaxe in the head, Lenin statutes stand rusting in scrap yard in Ulan Bator, and around 80% of the working class in the US is not unionized? Like rock-and-roll, the “left” isn’t dead, but damn do parts of it deserve to be.
It would be easy to refer to Gramsci’s quote about the “left” being stillborn, but a new one cannot be born. The secret, however, is this: there’s not a lot left in the concept of left. The fact is that the concept is broad enough that includes everyone from left-liberal Democrats to libertarians to primitivists to Marxists-Leninists to just Marxists or just Leninists. The litany of theorists and statesmen with “ist” added to their name only rivals the number of half-described alternatives to capitalism that also are made into the by an “ist.” Whether it’s the remnants of May 1968, or the Prague Spring, or the national liberation movements, most of what we see in the left now is the resurgence of a sub-militarized graduate school program in creative anachronisms. Even now, neo-liberalism is leading to eliminationism in higher education, and the modest goal of the long march through academe will be soon over as the student loan bubble bursts. This isn’t the graduate students’ fault entirely either. The left isn’t even dead: in many ways, what we would call a left is a language game increasingly disconnected from the materials of history, or a Sunday-morning quarterbacking of the various forces of geopolitics as if we could easily understand all the context of cultures and their various means of production that are somewhat different from our own. Syria? Pick a side – are you watching CNN or Russia Today? Imperialism? Whose? Want to talk about Occupy? Want to talk about gendered labor? It’s all there, and yet what can the left do about it?
The point of “popping the left”, a phrase I’m stealing from a podcast I co-host with Douglas Lain, is not to be anti-leftist. To be anti-leftist is to focus on the “left” — Marxist, Trotskyist, Situationist, labor Zionist, anti-imperialist, anarcho-syndicalist — and to reflect a myopia that not only blurs but also corrodes. The billion points of light or a thousand flowers which spend more time gossiping about each other and writing 16 point strategy broadsheets on how to best organize Cadres after Occupy or how to make an American Syriza or to talk about how evil tankies, Trots, greens, and infantile leftists actually are. To constantly denounce “the left” makes about as much sense as to complain constantly about advertising: the pathologies that exist in the left milieu aren’t just the product of that milieu, they are also a product of the society that produces that milieu.
The point of “popping the left” is to see beyond oneself into the wider world and to ask questions of the who, when, and why of history. The answers may be ugly. We have to accept that. The notes for Das Kapital indicate some pretty ugly things, the notes for Society of Spectacle contain some unflattering things, and most of the treatises explaining why the 1970s went down in the flames of Thatcher, neoliberalism, and the soap opera Dallas are almost too numerous to name.
In the 1970s and 1980s, revolution was in the air, but it was not the revolution most people thought. In this we need a critique and a positive political orientation: to be a Marxian thinker is to ask the right questions of the system of abstract domination that does exist in almost all of modernity. It means many other things too, but those are mine fields, where one should not cavalierly run, since the past is still active and, as it was in a few places I traveled in East Asia, still waiting to explode.
A Guiding Light Is Not a Map
So what is one to do? If you look from old Germans, from Marx to Engels, to the new Frenchmen, from Badiou to Deleuze, the “left” has been much better at analysis than it has been at prediction. If we take two adjacent steps towards the dead Gramsci, or for that matter, most of the corpses of the Italian Communist past from Amadeo Bordiga to Palmiro Togliatti, we see accurate analysis of particular time and yet horribly bad predictions or judgments about the flow of history. Gramsci’s critique of hard economism did not help him see through Stalin’s Taylorism, Bordiga’s critiques of the vanguard party and of the form of democracy did not enable his internationalist variant to get off the ground, and the legacy of Togliatti goes up in the flames that have made the PCI largely irrelevant and while of its former members have denatured and devolved into a conservative force. Then there is the open secret that the PSI had both maximalist and reformist wings that were not that far apart – one led to Benito Mussolini, and the other to a reformist party that the fascists were able to dust off without much sweat.
Such comparisons are not one-to-one. Daniel DeLeon’s IWW may have echoed the concerns of the Bordiga’s internationalism, but he was not from the same historical moment as Bordiga. The CPUSA often acted as an offshoot of an ideologically rancid Comintern headed by Uncle Joe, but there are almost no streets named for its members unlike the way the luminaries of Italian communism haunt the streets of Italy. Marxists in the States, honestly, never even really got that far—whether it was from Eugene Debs’ inability to coherently deal with the Bolsheviks, the cynical way the Comintern often liquidated slightly dissident American Marxists feeding into the cold war, or the crushing of the labor movement in the eastern mountain regions and the South through cynical and careful use of race and religious politics. The problematic and uneven history of the revolution in the US… Or maybe Cannon was just too much of a drunk to get the American working class together? Or maybe the boomers too self-righteous and half-reactionary to build on the promise of the sixties, or unable to see beyond the subsumption of parts of the working class in the states? Or maybe the long march through the universities? Or maybe the “return to the factories” mentality of the 1970s as the factories themselves became automated? Or maybe it was just a historical limit, which is a Marxist way of saying it was objectively shit luck.
Breaking the myopia means breaking with many things we have held to in the past: the obsession with buzzwords and slogans ranging from “democracy” to “the personal is political” to even “privilege”—whose benefits as concepts may have been emptied out from misunderstanding, appropriation and overuse.
Before one can talk about what Occupy could have done and may do, one must have to power to face unpleasant facts about similar pre-figurative movements in the past. Before one can talk about revitalizing the labor movement, one must look at why the labor movement lost so much of working class’s own trust. Before one can look at subsumption of the working class, one must look at classical failures of production: the increase of profits of individuals stock-holders but the lose of net-profits per item unit for the company, the way unions have been unable to coup with the technology and labor pressure, the fields that are easily exported. One must face the truth of hard and unpleasant facts. Yet not to be overcome with bleakness: one needs a light.
A guiding light is not a map or a program or a set of vocabulary words and rubrics to apply to complicated historical movements. Materialism means dealing with what is here, historical means looking with one eye to the past and another to the possibility of a radically different future.
This brings us to The North Star—which is part of the “ruthless criticism of everything existing” including the “ruthless criticism of ruthless criticism.” For Frederick Douglass, the metaphor of the North Star was clear: In a world without a compass, it guided one north to safety of the Canadian border outside of the slave states. I was born in the geographical and ideological successor state of Confederacy, so that seems very real to me in many ways.
The ideological legacy of the name is hard to clarify: The North Star Compass and the North Star Network, both socialists groups with very different agendas, adopted different readings of Douglass’s metaphor. The North Star Compass was guided as much by a poem by T. Yakubovskaya and a return to the USSR after its fall. The North Star Network, which game in the 1980s when a Marxist group founded by Peter Camejo in the 1980s that integrated former members of the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyist group, and the Line of March, a Maoist one. While I respect some of Camejo’s vision, his own relationship with the Green Party and gubernatorial elections do put some of his strategy of left-wing unity in doubt. My own leanings are more distrustful of such a formal notion of democracy and more cautious about speaking about unity or regroupment. Unity is not our problem. The reasons for disunity are not as simple as lack of will, and until that is dealt with, all other talk of regroupment is meaningless. We have hard problems.
Still, it is the willingness to be inclusive even in our radical skepticism that enables us to see ourselves as related to North Star Network, but even in that the name is but a guiding light – an orientation around who should be included in the debate and whose analysis should be given a chance and a voice.
Returning to myself, as I am now an editor of a magazine whose primary audience are two countries in which I do not live at the moment: Our aim is to pop the illusions and myopia of socialist/Marxist movements, which may be the most acute in English-speaking North America, and to put people into respectful but critically ruthless debate, to try to look at society with new eyes. We do not have a program because we are not at that point, and we may not be before the historical situation changes so much as to make that way of talking seem hopelessly anachronistic. We don’t know the answers, but we do know how to go about the questions–dialectically, critically, analytically, and honestly.
So as I write this finishing my beer, I am left with a quote by Marx in The German Ideology: “The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.” The axiom here is that to change the world, we must deal with it as it is. We may use a North Star for guidance; we must also face highly unpleasant truths. With the sun beginning to blur my computer screen and my beer bottle now warm, I can see a star begin to manifest on the horizon—but let’s not pretend it is anything more than a vague and hazy outline.