I am current in Mexico City, then heading to Puebla and then north to some more diverse parts of central Mexico. I will finish some writing and some podcasts when I return.
Slate Star Codex has been the number one referrer to my site for a while, and I had not read the article I was cited in. Weirdly, Scott Alexander used my article as an example of a trend to condemning male nerds about their entitlement. What makes that particularly weird is that the post was literally about the thin line between sexual anxiety and both perceived and real entitlement. Alexander changed the title of my post from The Spectre of the Bro: On Male Entitlement, Geeks, Creeps, and Sex to On Male Entitlement: Geeks, Creeps, and Sex.
There is a difference in meaning between colon and the comma, and this is one of the few times where that nuance, has import. The Geek and Creep is a line where it is nearly impossible to tell if one is dealing with sexual anxiety or predation. Sexual anxiety is not entitlement, it’s desperation and alienation, but I was describing that line when it is nearly impossible to make a rational calculus for someone to tell if you are or aren’t being predator.
Now, the funny thing is that I am sympathetic to Alexander’s position in the post. I don’t talk about Ur-feminism because as Alexander himself notes, feminists–like most identitarians–are not consistently on a side as an identity position can be a coherent politics in opposition to something, but how one defines and limits that identity has very profound implications for what counts as an attack, as Alexander demonstrates, on most cultural and political-economic issues, feminists are on both sides of it. Given that I spent a lot of my criticism of the left on exactly the same points at Alexander does, but since I have been involved, I know the history of its intellectual development, being seeming linked to that is frustrating.
This was frustrating because frankly I am being linked as a precursor to a On Nerd Entitlement by Laurie Penny. Laurie Penny, or Penny Red, is almost the embodiment of what I was complaining about in If Everything is Problematic… It’s not that even thought that Laurie Penny was particularly hateful this time either, but things were bogged down in categories masquerading for concrete analysis. Compared to some of Penny’s other writings, I agree with Alexander’s friend, it was relatively compassionate.
The confusing categories with concrete analysis is something Scott Alexander finds frustrating. In fact, my problems with privilege are deeper than Alexanders but also rooted in a historical distrust in way privilege is used to justify present social conditions. Alexander thinks they are dishonest argumentation tactics, motte-and-baily tactics, and in some ways they are. Scott Alexander, like many in the rationalist community, approaches these things as if they were arguments that trans-historically emerged and were just used as rationalizations to when arguments. (I talk about kinds of rationalities for the reasons Alexander hints at in the piece as I am not a “critic of rationality” nor I am member of the “rationalist community” because from what I know about both logics [note the plural] and neurology, there is no Ur-form of rationality, but its silly to say that because there is a single thing called rationality, there isn’t “rationality” en toto ) However, I think the categories are more than just rationalizations to shut-up because the hurt the people who use them too, and their historical development is really where the problem is. I will quote in entirety by prior to pieces on this:
Privilege theory. I have said this many times before, privilege theory was created as a pedagogical tool. W.E. DuBois first used privilege to describe the subtle forms of cultural capital (a term coined a half-century later) that was accorded whites above and beyond economic dominance. This came from a complex of legal counts and what Marxist would call primitive accumulation. It was a short hand for talking the following. This is how I explain “racism without racists” to my students: “Let’s imagine there is a group of people that is allowed any kind of work they can procure, and another group limited to certain kinds of work or outright enslaved. This goes one for 200 to 500 years. Then one day, the slaves are freed, the serfs are unbound from the land, the restrictions lifted, whatever. You and the group that could do anything they wanted, but the first group has 200 years of gathering stuff, and the second group has none. Who is going to dominate the society?” My students always reply, regardless of their–generally inherited–political leanings, “the first group.” “Now let’s imagine the oppressed group is obviously different in some way, skin color, gender, sex, language etc. Are you not going to assume that any one in those characters has less money and treat them accordingly?” Some say, “No.. well.. urm… maybe a little bit.” Some say, “yes.”
This is what privilege was describing. Cultural capital + primitive accumulation. (This gets vulgarized into “power + privilege = racism,” an equation that some sociologists may accept but confuses things since it seems to conflate all kinds of racism as one thing, which I think is actually damaging to the original point as explicit and even implicit psychological racism would be implied in the above). This is a material reality. The original examples in that famous “invisible knapsack” essay, but it was removed from this material context. Now, the person who reintroduced privilege theory as a pedagogical tool was probably Peggy MacIntosh in the late 1980s in a book called “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies.” Now while many of the ideas I have issues with theories from sociologists, which we shall see later, MacIntosh was an education professor and former teacher. This was a pedagogical framework taken from DuBois and applied as an educational example for how sociological realities can complicate education and social justice work.
Now, MacIntosh, however, began to see remove this from its context in political economic and move into the more abstract level of discourse. Here, in my personal opinion, is where the mystification of privilege began. What do I mean by mystification? It means taking something that has material correspondence and making it more and more abstract. Furthermore, as a pedagogical example, this makes perfect sense, but as a theoretical apparatus, it is purely negative. Privileges are things can be fixed by granting them to everyone, thus making it not a privilege, or removing them from everyone, thus reducing people to a lowest common denominator approach to social condition described. One can see this in the hashtag #crimingwhilewhite, it is very unclear if the goal that everyone should receive that respect or if white people should just be randomly shot. No one would say the latter except maybe as a form of misplaced–in the sense that would be arbitrary beyond race who is affected–revenge. Yet the examples are easily read that way. Stupid white guy aims a gun at the cops, why didn’t the cops just off him. It is important to note, that if one is poor the cops generally still do, but if your odds of surviving are significantly better of surviving if white, then (most) asian, and if you are black or Native American, you’re basically dead. Furthermore, this is true with little difference in regards to the race of the police officer in question from most of the research I have seen.
Privilege becomes seen as a monolithic, or even intersecting force. Instead of describing a complex socio-economic development that overlays with implicit bias and historical hatred–but can actually exist apart from the latter–it is seen as the cause itself. Furthermore, one tends to argue with individuals and focus that rage when the problems exist in a structure. Realizing one’s privilege does not undo it. Sensitivity to privilege does not unto it. It’s a metaphor for a material reality.
Auguries: Dias De Los Muertos
The patina of brown feathers scatter
across the old lienzo charro, replacing
horses which cars have rendered
long irrelevant. I throw the sugared
bread of the dead for them to pick
apart. The altars and their marigolds
are heaped into trash. The old world
tampering away. I can’t hold but find
the sugar skulls funny, and brings
a giggle. A lover once, between
frustrated kisses and a bad film
about demonology wryly said:
You are the kind of man who
finds decapitation by a power
line humorous. At least from
a distance. Something has
to feed the crows. Breaking a bough,
a toddler climbs at a tree,
in my broken Spanish, I offer
her some of bread as she watches
me break down the day
into bits for the birds. She bends
down to my hand and takes some.
As I walk home, I think of catrinas
kissing as the paint fossilizes
into the rigid morrow,
passion becomes rattling love.
The dust in my hair, desert dry
skin. Memory. Black-brown
feathers. What happened to her?
Upon All Things, Rock
-for Robinson Jeffers
Fiat iustitia, ruat caelum.
The desert chafes into the scars
of a ranchero, baked into the bricks
and cactus, with agave and joshua
trees brimming along the edges
of the highway. Here, stitched
into wishes and half-dreams,
the road – it gashes into the sand,
and hawk flits down into the ash,
wing-broken and heat-drenched.
Plenty of men die here, so hard
to mourn a hawk, and in this
war or next, there will be bleached
bones. I have no gun for the hawk,
although it would be blessing. The
Federales drive past, no bullet for
the bird. I take a stone, let my hand
burn for the penitence of mercy,
and drop as the hawk hunts the last
minutes. We get into the pick-up,
vinyl seat heated to magma point:
stones are justice in the desert,
bleak words akin to prayers.
Two Above Originally Published at Australian Latino Press
Nightmare (Re)Canto #1
’We do NOT know the past in chronological sequence. It maybe convenient to lay it out anesthetized on the table with dates pasted on here and there, but what we know we know by ripples and spirals eddying out from us and from our own time.’’ – Ezra Pound, Guide to Kulchur
“Amor, che a nullo amato amar perdona,
Mi prese del costui piacer sì forte,
Che, come vedi, ancor non m’abbandona…”- Dante Aligheri, Inferno
The dreams that come are not our own;
since most hymns are murder ballads,
reminding us the cost of sacrifices: Resistenza
leave the bodies of Germans for flies
in the Via Triumphale, Garibaldi brigades
breaking themselves against the cobble
stones in the return machine gun rattle,
from the blood springs the ladder
for descend into the forests of limbo, twisted
by proxy to hell and history. All this history
has no past.The sky opens like a split,
bloated belly. Changeling, the circles have
collapsed in on themselves, Clara Petacci
hangs in the trees as decoration. Virgil has no
commentary. We should cast away these memories
ephemerally imposing themselves in half-reflected
radiance. Confusion in tense. The gnashing
of teeth. We can walk on the skulls of bishops
and poets who scribbled in cages in Pisan, awaiting
trial for treason. The hallow light is on the film
charred by burning stones, but images remain
and the world of man paralyzed from the visions
to explain the past: Obviously, an unknown country.
So is the present, Changeling. We both know.
This. Stars racings. Breaking down as the forest
grows ever higher. Tangled in the light of a past
dreams, ambivalent men flee into the valley
of broken and dead. This animal life. Pulses.
No place in dreams. The partisans march pass
the noble pagans. Riffles rusting near the river
Styx. No boatman coming. No boat calls. Nothing.
Coheres. Flags are made red. With the bleeding.
Changeling, let us avoid the Via Roma. The fire.
Decomposes even the language. To speak of what.
We see. We must forfeit our tongues. Only fire
can speak our nightmare. No chant to recant or redeem.
Originally Published at The Thing in Itself Journal
According to the Hebrews
all men are named from mud,
gargled forth in painful sculpting
formed of under-kilned clay.
Half-made, flesh slumping
like a toothpaste tube squeezed
in the center. Dirt to dust,
all things considered, isn’t
too bad in the end: the body
breaks, beloved, and in the
breaking scatters out
in headwinds until the name
stains not only the crafting
aprons but also the fire
of the forger.
Moving my books out of baggage
a brown hair from my wife
brushes my hand. Fissure
and erasure. Trace of small
moment, even the hair
without the scent, dialectic
pull of the memory. Loss.
Once there was a love
story. Once a beginning,
middle, end. Here absence
stalls and sputters. Trace
of keratin, cutting of crown,
moving her here, a bleak
scar across a page and palm.
Everything apart pulls back
together. Gently tucking
the hair into my pocket,
I become ellipses
as if I can reconstruct
specters from loss.
The Above Two Originally Published in Ann Arbor Review
Limitations: Tone to Tone
Much has been said on thunderous silence:
the gradual unmooring of the voice you hear,
long half-drowned in the inky past, and if the
scream you have choked back, kicked open
your lips and drank the greenish air. There
is more to say on nothing than can be said:
someone is feeding sparrows, someone is
becoming the small world, and sparrows
fly to become nations, and nations become
noise, and noise, the parataxis. Like a
hawk, voice wants to ride a mechanical
horse into the heaven, break the harmony
of the planets, and place the notes in new
order, place the notes into a chorus only
silence hears. The silence knows how
to rumble the bones, how to cut to the
quick, how to feed sparrows, to end
the end chirping, how to unsing
the national anthems, how to take
away the hymn of a land that was
never ours in the first place.
Originally published at Union Station Magazine.
I often talk to a friend about love,
my love of her, of ropes, of cedars
waning into the slush of unfroze
snow, the way air impacts the trees
leaves them winter-thin and wispy
like a cool emptiness. There is a
code flashing against the night,
brown-throated wrens hum against
the wind. Gray sky fragments
in the lovers’ orbits, and I talk
to my friend about all these
things, chilling myself into a
happier glow. It is the wind
off of icing junipers to denotes
the demarcation between
myself and others. If I talked
too much of love, I’d freeze
along the beachhead. If I drew
too many conclusions, I think
life was a wet spot in drying
sheets. The wind ululates
against the window. There
is nothing more to say.
Originally Published at Full of Crows
There are no birds in this poem:
no poets were damaged in its
creation, although that would
be no great loss. If your lover
malfunctions, make sure there
is no fire in the nether cavity,
or you may need to reboot.
If your heart is broken, try
suede or clean, oiled
full grain thigh-highs.
When you wake in tangled
bedding from dreams
of bog-bursts and lost
lovers submerged and
glossy like black birds.
When you make love in
the back of an old hearse,
you will be bitten, new
pain will open and drip
unto the floorboard. When
you fall for your friends, they
will love you anyway but
you’ll need air for the fresh
flora in your lungs. For love
pains, take ibuprofen but
don’t call in the morning.
Notice that there are no
swallows or magpies in
the poem. Wonder why.
Originally Published at Jet Fuel Review
You, lover, once laughed
as I struggled against
the ropes, but ties
that bind, hollow
out with hemp burns
that kiss the small
of the thigh, leaves
no word, no thoughts,
the spent waste that
renders me rags.
to the syntax
of yearning. True,
the weight makes
me breathe easier,
the heft removes
the heft of empty
skies. If my love
have lifted me
with her skinny
fist with that rope
to the center of sky,
I would fly-mercurial
and bound, open
like the hinge to
heart and swoop
out the viscera
into the bliss
Opening my eyes,
our love turned
the stars into
shards of our
by the friction
and the entwining
and the algae retracts,
rodents leave the
safety of pines
outside of our bed.
The ocean itself
as rain falls on
our breathe white
against cold of
Originally Published at Deuce Coupe.
Pornography is boring
Like watching someone
Chew steak for twenty
Minutes. Lacking all
Context: the smell
Of cherry blossoms
And sweat, the years
Of watching someone
Read Milton and not
Become a misogynist,
The flannel nightgowns
Or their lack.
To speak of bodies, to ask
we to come to bed with us
After a Fellini film or
Complaining about Spielberg
Or in the pauses between
Breaths. Loving more
Than the pulse, the twitch
Of flesh. Consciousness
Between people is too
Bright. Gibbous light.
What we wanted from
Two or three, what we
Want from one. Glacier
Slow and churning
Like salt slush between
A tow line.
To speak of love, to ask
Of every cliché that it lingers
Into strangeness like filming
A crystal wine glass until
It looks like mountains
Of barren, jagged
Originally Published at JMWW, Summer 2009
A little over ten years ago, when I was particularly depoliticized after becoming very frustrated with the anti-war movement,a few liberals banded together to form Air America, the left-liberal alternative to conservative talk radio. Alternet, a prime offender, was only six years old and its definition of “alternative media” was mostly opinion pieces it commissioned itself as well as things articles from Altmuslim.com, Texas Civil Rights Review, Find Law, The Black Commentator. This, however, was shifting as Altnernet was getting major backers such as Nathan Cummings Foundation, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. The content was more analytic and less given to list-forms, but more and more the content seemed related to the what the other progressive magazines. At the time I would have thought that Alternet was a descented of the radical ‘zine culture from the 1990s, aggregated often in the print magazine which I believed was called Alternative Press News (as to not confuse it with the music magazine of almost the same name) as well as Factsheet 5.
I thought in the haze of the anti-war movement that Alternet were just a more grown up, and less radical version of the radical zines out of the punk and hardcore movements from the 1990s. Many of those zines had confused politics as well, often alternating wildly between a left-liberal, a Marxist, and various kinds of anarchist perspectives often within the context of a magazine surrounded by music reviews of bands it was nearly impossible to actually listen to, concert reviews, and obscure films. The high point of this was the middle-to-late 1990s, and as a kid in that mileau, I discovered Chomsky and Gutter punks, Mumia Abu Jamal and Crass, ‘Z magazine and ReSearch Publications, Urban Primitives and just flat out Primtivists, skateboarding and the Murray Bookchin and Bob Black debates. I did a zine as well as it enabled me to interview Kathy Acker and the Voodoo Glow Skull. The whole affair was a strange and heady brew that, if I knew what I knew now, I would have seen was a) becoming a commodified part of pop culture despite it’s situationist inspired roots and aesthetics. In fact, while Alternet was publishing articles by advocacy organizations and the was truly in oppositional mode to the zeitgeist of the Bush years, it somewhat cynically linking itself to a culture that the internet had killed and who was beginning to be seen as a possible base for progressive politics: after all, they were good consumers.
I guess in a way, I mirrored this shift. I began to listen to AirAmerica and DemocracyNow, although I was highly disaffected and was sometimes just hate listening to the former. I also read The American Conserative, Orion, Utne, Socialist Review. I noticed a lot of my disaffected friends and former lovers in the punk and zine movement become religious in the late 1990s and early 2000s, often apocalyptically so. One became a dharma-punk, two became Orthodox Christians because as they said “there is nothing more counter-culture than Father Seraphim Rose,” and quite a few became pentecostals. During that period and after the battle for Seattle, I just drifted. I was involved in anti-war activism, but increasingly from a right-wing perspective. I moved from writing about politics and music in zines, then to sexuality and music in e-mail distributed “e-zines,” then I started doing aesthetic writing for literary magazines. By 2003, most of my writing was either for an livejournal that was highly personal, and I was not even writing articles about poetry anymore. I would not resume public writing until 2007 or so, publishing poetry and then maintaining a blog. As the 2000s mulled on, a lot of my religious friends moved slowly either into progressive forms of the religion or became new atheists. I moved into the “skeptic’s movement” and started thinking a lot about teaching myths.
That site had fragmented and fizzled out, but its branding was useful. Alternative media was always a way liberal and left magazines could easily brand themselves, and from Moveon.org to DailyKos, it was used as a contrast to the mainstream. What I didn’t realize is the fragmentation and disaffection of a lot of who came out of politicized punk and ‘zine culture, which its anarchist overtones, were seen as prime targets for various political groups.
My cohort is interesting. We were born in the transition years were no one can figure out if we are Generation X or Millenials. It’s funny thinking about Situationists talking about spectacle in the late 1960s, when they would live to see that spectacle absord and re-market their counter-cultural apparatus. The story of the “Alternative” as a brand is that story. Coming out the cold war mileau and when there was much more centralized press markets even in the capitalist world, ‘zines now no longer seem like an alternative, but a business plan for internet markets. To put it in terms of generational politics, cynicism of Generation X gives way to the cynical marketing to the hopes of millenials to be more like boomers. It is key to remember, however, that generational politcs may be the lowest form of politics.
What does that have to do with the Drudgification of liberal punditry? The radical chic and the anger as a means to push relatively mild political critiques. In short, what is really more like an angry lecture session from someone working at the Brookings Institute is pasted off as an “alternative” to the mainstream. Radical politics as sloganized policy reports and identity monitoring but the substance of a Democratic-aligned think tank brief.
What did liberals learn about partisan media? AirAmerica’s rise and fall is interesting. It did court in the usual left-liberal moralism, but not in the buzzfeed, clickbait way and not with the addiction to rage and negative comparisons. In short, liberals learned how to use the radical branding, but with the kind of outrage identity reinforcement that conservative talk radio uses. What amazes me about this is how “Reality has a left slant” becomes justification for selectively misleading with statics as opposed to just outright spin doctoring. If one reads World Net Daily and one reads Alternet, Politicususa, AddictingInfo, or even the liberal sections of Gawker media, then generalization is thus: in the US, Republicans lie by repetation, whereas left-liberals lie with statistics and identity derailing.
Gawker and the revitalization of the Salon.com are key points here. Salon.com was a normal magazine housing essays from people like Camile Pagalia and mostly focusing on the literary community and culture. It was one of the first magazines to attempt to monetize via paywall and it nearly destroyed the site. The editor, however, started moving Salon more into the Drudge model: deliberately aping conservative outrage style to liberal politics. Indeed, David Talbot said he was deliberately aping the tabloid style. It was effective. Salon was profitable again after years of decline, and articles like “Why is Belly Dancing Racist,” spread like wildfire. Generally amongst the group educated enough to be exposed to ideas like cultural appropriation, but not knowing that anthropologically, authentic cultures were largely an imposed myth themselves. (One should have actually read “The Invention of Tradition” by Eric Hobshawm and learned about George Lipsitz’s “strategic anti-essentialism” instead of naively or cynical talking about those categories in a context that made it look any cultural blending was “essentially” a racist attempt to erase an identity). If the comments on Salon’s articles are an indication, even most of the audience didn’t buy it, but they rage shared the articles anyway, thus increasing ad revenue.
Now this Drudgification works, but it also has effects. Now, I hate both the US parties fairly deeply although I do hate one slightly more than the other, but the echo chamber and identify-reification in outrage clickbait has an effect. If articles like the one I read on Alternet today about are an example, they really do lead to have a distorted world view. If you read ) things That Many Americans Don’t Grasp Compared to the Rest of The World, you would come away with three completely misleading assumptions; 1) that the majority of the planet functioned like the Northern Europe (it doesn’t), 2) that Northern Europe was hyper-progressive (huh, mass far right movements in Europe right now that are getting into the EU parliament, what are you talking about)? 3) and only a remenant of left-liberals know the truth, but we need go vote to make it happen. Drudge and World News Daily both do these in the their right-wing incarnation, but ironically from all the complaints of the Georg Lakoff’s of the world about liberals not getting framing, they seem to know how to use social media well and how to make money off it. However, drinking ones own koolaid seems to be the natural results of this, when Nate Silver predicted the 2014 mid-terms, the left-liberal “alternative media” turned on him in the exact same way the right-wing partisan media had mocked him just two years before. Anecdotally, most of the progressives I know just INSISTED as a fact that the population was agreement with them (even while they were mocking that entire population as ignorant). This may be psychologically fulfilling, but it is absolutely disasterious for understanding the flow of parliamentary politics–which are non-arbitrary but often not nearly as substantively political as most people like to tell themselves. What is an alternative to the mainstream when there isn’t much of one left? As I have said in a podcast before, Vox has more value on the market than the Washington Post right now.
Now, part of me might lament this delusive turn, if I didn’t want something completely new to emerge anyway. Increasingly, I am not sure we shouldn’t just let this go down its natural course, which will probably depoliticize over time too as market pressures change.
(On an unrelated note: this article about zines by Jaun Conatz is a trip down memory lane.)
Tom O’Brien, friend of my blog and podcast, recently interviewed Dr. Paul Cockshott, reader at Glasglow University, mathematician, computer scientist, co-author of Towards a New Socialism, and a Marxist who has been in several Marxist-Leninist parties, including the old CPGB and the old Marxist-Leninist party, the CBOI. (The current CPGB is a different organ in that the pre-1991 party which Dr. Cockshott was involved, but both the GPGB.) The critique of representative Democracy, particularly in its first-past-the-post form, is valid and interesting, but the framing it against Athenian Democracy and the Greek cantons is misleading.
Section 1: On Claims about Democracy: Direct, Athenian, Soviet, etc.
So let’s begin with the historical framing around the Greeks, Dr. Cockshott talks about how the representative where from drawn from the population at random in Athenian democracy, and that Aristotle would have called representative republicanism an aristocracy. There are several misleading things in these assertions: 1) Only the council of five hundred and some several positions were decided upon by lottery, but positions of tactical importance were elected by general assemblies. Generals, for example, were not randomly given their post. The Greeks did not believe every cook could govern either, nor was there a classless society. 2) The 500 only partly set the tone and the agenda for the Assembly of 6000, The Boule, a council established by Salon, had representatives of the various ancient tribes and communities. While the The Boule was selected by lot, being elgiable for the lot, severe limitations to the class and community composition of this group were maintained. 3) As Bob Black showed in his work in Anarchy After Leftism, the records we have the assembly rarely if ever record evidence of votes consisting of more than 3000 participating. This is despite in the early days coercion being used to fill the assembly, and then after reforms, pay was used as an incentive. So even with socially enforced participation, the actual participation in governance seems to have been up to half its possible size 4) Even the 60,000 possibly citizens of Attica who could have been chosen for the Assembly of 6000, this number still excludes the vast majority of the population: convicts, slaves, children, women, foreign residents, public debtors, etc. 5) The complication and time involved in the such a direct democracy was only possible through the citizens being relatively removed from the major of labor for accumulation. The whole complicated system is way more than parliamentary drawn randomly by democracy:
6) Even before the imposition of autocracy on Athens, the courts served as a power check. 30 jurors could overturn or invalidate laws before proposal, and this effectively gave the court system the ability to override decisions of the assembly. While the relatively aristocratic citizens served in all these capacities and only in a few offices were citizens limited, they were limits. 7) As I mentioned before Generals and other positions of tactical importance were elected representatively, not by lot. What needs to be further taken into account is that Generals could only come from the archons, and archons could only come from the formally aristocratic upper-classes. In addition to being from the aristocratic class and being formally able to serve as Generals, archons could also effectively veto the Assembly in the role as advisor. This sort of action seems closely related to the Roman role of consel or the US role of President. This ability was stripped increasingly from the archons over time, but their formal rule and class survived all the way into the Byzantine period. (For more on these complications, I suggest reading John Rothchild’s Introduction to Athenian Democracy as well as Bob Black’s Debunking Democracy)
To draw that this Athens was a direct democracy decided on by assemblies chosen by lot is a over-simplification that obscures way more than it helps. Furthermore, this leads to Dr. Cockshott’s assertion about how Aristotle would have understood our representative democracy as an aristocracy. This is not entirely the case, Aristotle would have seen our system as a olgiarchy, which is a rule by the few. An aristocracy for Aristotle was a better way of ruling a medium-sized polity according to Aristotle’s politics as stated in both the Politics and the Nicomachean Ethics. Aristocracies, be that by class rule or by representative rule, would have a tendency to degenerate into olgiarchy. Now, there is a tendency to see olgiarchy purely as rule of the rich, but this is an imposition: it is rule of the few so that wealth and/or power and this would degenerate overtime. Aristotle does comment that the olgiarchy’s confuse the wealth with merit, but again this is not referring to some kind of merchant class. This distinction is important as, in Aristotle’s view, it was any for a polis as well as an aristocracy to degenerate into either a olgiarchy or a democracy.
This brings a view Dr. Cockshott implies but is only stated explicitly elsewhere. In explaining elements of the manifesto to a group of Socialistiskt Forum, Dr. Cockshott’s Aristotlean assumptions show up again in explicating the following passage from the Communist Manifesto:
“The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat. […]
“We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy.”
He argues the following,
Now, we have to ask what is meant by that, “winning the battle for democracy”, and I think there’s been a historical re-writing of what is meant by that, where people have forgotten a part of the original meaning.
The language in which Marx and Engels wrote is steeped in classical terminology. You cannot understand the way Marx wrote except by realising that he was a classical scholar. He knew his ancient Greek and Roman sources. The term proletariat is a Latin term, the term democracy is a Greek term, and the meaning that the word democracy has now, in common bourgeois usage, is quite different from the meaning that the word democracy had 160 years ago. 160 years ago the general view of what democracy meant was that it was mob rule. If you look at the sources on which this is based, if you look at the Greek sources, what does Aristotle define democracy as? He says democracy is not rule of the majority. Democracy is rule of the poor. Aristotle says it’s just a coincidence in one sense that because the poor are everywhere numerous and the rich are few, democracy is also rule of the majority. But the essence of democracy is that it is rule by the poor. And in the original sense of democracy, the sense that the ancient Greeks used, the sense that Marx was familiar with – it’s meaning is much closer to Lenin’s term, or the later Marxist term, ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.
Now, priorly, Dr. Cockshott argued that the proletariat was a political identity whereas the working class was an economic one. It is based on his reading of another passage in the Manifesto:
“The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.”
Dr. Cockshott argues the working class is constituted as a political identity transform the proletariat, which cannot exist as a class except in political activity. How does this tie into Dr. Cockshott’s particular reading of Aristotle? There are a couple of issues here to disentagle both in terms of Aristotlean theory, in terms of classical categories, and in terms of communist theory. Now, I have always thought overconcluding from the Manifesto, which uses terms that Marx does not use elsewhere, was theoretically programmatic. When Dr. Cockshott asserts that democracy was “rule by the poor,” he is vastly simplifying the meaning. It true that both the various semi-feudal and merchantilist regimes feared democracy 160 years in the past, but what Aristotle mean by “rule by the mob (demos)” is not simply rule by the poor. He was not referring to peasants, slaves, or the proletariat. These classes were excluded from the polity anyway. The poor for Aristotle were those who both lacked in property AND in virtue, and thus would damage themselves in persuites of liberty or equality against what Aristotle saw as the telos of the city state, which is a social harmony and productivity that would include all free born citizens.
So while Dr. Cockshott’s correct that Aristotle as well as most early, moderate liberals saw the democracy as mob rule, dangerous not only to the elites and/or the yeoman and merchant middle classes, it is not useful to see Aristotle’s definition and Marx’s definition as similar as if there was some kind of transhistorical polity to which Marx and Engels were appealing. This, I think leads to a misreading of several elements of the manifesto. Proletarian, itself, is not a position like working class. Working class is a function within the larger economy, it overlaps with the proletariat in total. However, the proletariat comes from a Latin context, proletarii meaning anyout without property of any kind as even plebians generally owned property. What makes the working class the proletarii is not political will as Dr. Cockshott is arguing, but the fact the only interests they can have is political interests for being without property, the proleteriat has no economic interest. This is not a volunteeristic subsumption to some polity, but a practical statement: “The poleteriat have nothing to lose but their chains.” Furthermore, the working class as the proletariat had a particular power that other groups outside property prior do them did not have: the ability to stop production.
Now, I think we avoid the property relationship to proleteriat as well as the productive relationship to the working class for a reasons that should make dyed-in-wool Orthodox Marxists (of any stripe) uncomfortable: the working class in the developed world, where the majority of the world’s production is located (even if the raw materials for that production are not), has property and thus has economic interests, not just political ones. It should also make third-worldists more uncomfortable than it does as the peasants and surplus population of the third world do not really have the power to stop production in the world system and if they are developed enough to do so, they start replicating the conditions priorly in the developed parts of capital. China’s economic development or less fits exactly along this lines. (There are reasons why many in the Left communist mileau called Mao a bourgoios revolutionary despite the fact he did try to collectivize the surplus value generated). Attempts to make this merely a volunteeristic political project ot which a class can embrace a political identity on their own will ignores these problems as implies classes can have agency as a whole, and are driven largely by practical concerns. Furthermore, attempt to redefine this purely in terms of consciousness and not material interest to attempt to psychologize an obvious practical problem.
Lastly, to say “… in the original sense of democracy, the sense that the ancient Greeks used, the sense that Marx was familiar with – it’s meaning is much closer to Lenin’s term, or the later Marxist term, ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’” is to be profoundingly misleading in this context, and again the classical definitions help make it clear. Dictatorships were when the separations of the state were suspended and focused into one or two executives to transition the polity out of crisis. It was a suspension of any form of democracy. The dictator of a class is not “mob rule,” it is subsumption of all various classes–including other surpressed and exploited classes like peasants, slaves, petit bourgeois, etc. (Although one could argue that slaves mean the criterion for proleteriat, lacking economic interests, and working class, alienated from their labor and crucial to the production of commodities. The difference between a slave and a worker being primarily a difference between oppressive coercion and expliotation. The slave is oppressed through violences and denied the ability to the sell their labor through direct violence, the worker is coerced by inability to produce the necessitates of their existence and thus in employment alienated from the full value of their labor. The difference between slaves and workers politically may have been the due to the European focus of Marx.) Marx states this clearly in a letter to Joseph Weydemeyer
Long before me, bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this struggle between the classes, as had bourgeois economists their economic anatomy. My own contribution was (1) to show that the existence of classes is merely bound up with certain historical phases in the development of production; (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; [and] (3) that this dictatorship, itself, constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society
Now, the dictatorship of the proletariat predates Marxist usage of the term. Joseph Weydemeyer coined the phrase referring specifically periods of the Roman Republic which civil power was suspended, modeling the prior call off of Cromwell’s dictatorship of the New Model army and the Committee of Public Safety’s dictatorship. Marx started using the term a few months after. In both Weydemeyer and Marx, this is intended to be temporary, however, as other classes are liquidated or subsumed into the proletariat, and the proletariat itself abolishes by removing the class distinctions in society and abandoning their prior identities as workers. This is NOT mob rule.
In On Authority, Engels stated that,
A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists. Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois?
While Engels and Lenin limited the dictatorship of proletariat to the elimination of the bourgeoisie, but this binary view of class is misleading. Particularly in the areas were their were communist Revolutions, it seems that world war and not the mobilization of capitalist production enabled the revolutions to actually take place. Classes within the Tsarist Empire contained elements not even described in Marx and the same in China. Jarius Banaji has criticized attempts to impose the framework of capitalist development to developments in Asia and North Africa prior to early modern imperialism. This is not without important because it implies that the aim of revolutions were not against the bourgeois or the bourgeois and the late Feudal classes, but the proletariat against the all of society. In practice, both Stalin (and Trotsky had he had his way) spent a good bit of time eliminating peasant classes–sometimes by subsuming them through collectivization, sometimes by simple elimation.
Dr. Cockshott’s conceptions ignore this, and seems to tie Soviet Democracy as opposed by Marx more explicitly back to a romanticized version of direct democracy . In the interview with O’Brien, none of this is seen as linked. This is not rule of the masses of poor as implied by Dr. Cockshott, an assumption that seems to show up with his interview with Tom O’Brien. That conception is predominantly Maoist. Dr. Cockshott does not argue like a Maoist in his work anymore, but his assumption do not seem to have completely separated from the assumptions of the parties he belonged to in the 1970s. Furthermore, this does lead to some strange omissions when Dr. Cockshott discusses the democracy of the Soviets.
Here Dr. Cockshott does make many interesting points, and very sound points as well as problematic ones. Dr. Cockshott obvious expertise in maths and logistics do help here. The layers of voting used in the Soviet Union, even more than in capitalist democracies, the various layers of confederated cabinets would concretize single party rule as each level of voting would compound a single party’s power. However, Dr. Cockshott implies that the limiting of the various parties and even factions within the single party did not emerge into the 1930s. This is misleading. To understand exactly how this is misleading, one must turn from the mathematical model and to the details in the history.
The Soviets and the election of levels had begun in piecemeal form starting 1905, when the Bolsheviks had barely the support of a few hundred. Lenin focused on the Soviets deliberately as the bolsheviks had majority control in the Soviets a year or two in World War 1. However, prior to that time Lenin had been worried about the Narodnik elements in the Soviet system and their ability to log-roll in Soviet’s “Athenian-style” system. Lenin had originally supported the All-Russian Constituent Assembly, saying in his Theses on the Assembly, “The demand for the convocation of a Constituent Assembly was a perfectly legitimate part of the programme of revolutionary Social-Democracy, because in a bourgeois republic the Constituent Assembly represents the highest form of democracy.” Now this contradicted his prior call for “All power to the Soviets”, but was more consistent with his fears of populist and trade unionist reformism. However, when the Bolsheviks could not hold the Assembly but lost it to other Socialist parties (explicitly . At that point, Lenin suspended his constitutional powers This compounded the voting scheme. Dr. Cockshott says this may have been based on Marx’s description of the Proudhonist organization of the Paris commune, and it may have been justified this way. However, the movement of forces that led to the focusing on layers of Soviet’s makes it seem much more intentional.
Particularly when you compare this to the Erfurt program, which Dr. Cockshott quotes himself in his talk to Socialistiskt Forum,
“The sovereignty of the people, i.e., the concentration of supreme state power entirely in the hands of a legislative assembly, consisting of the representatives of the people and constituting a single chamber.
“Universal, equal, and direct suffrage for all citizens, men and women, who have reached the age of twenty, in the elections to the legislative assembly and to the various bodies of local self-government; secret ballot; the right of every voter to be elected to any representative institution; biennial parliaments; salaries to be paid to the people’s representatives.”
This is not a confederated council organization, in which a party selects the only viable candidates as well as points separately most of the state apparatus. In addition, not only does Lenin dissolve the other parties, he dissolves tendencies and factions within the larger Bolshevik party “temporarily” during the Russian Civil War and this is maintained far beyond his death. Given the party’s control over much of the state apparatus, but 1921, the confederated Soviet structure can not be the sole or even primary blame for the total centralization of power despite the compounding.
While I actually do think most of the points Dr. Cockshott makes about contemporary democracy is valid, I think a romanticization of Athenian (and Swiss canton) democracy as well as very particular selectivity to what counts the history of centralization was. Dr. Cockshott implies that when the party no longer appointed candidates after the liberalization of the 1950s, the same rules applied as in capitalist democracy favoring an increasing centralization of power. This may be true, but Soviet machines prior to that in which the Bolsheviks ran had similar cliques and stacking as was seen in the US before the turn towards primaries–perhaps ironically just slightly after the Soviet shift in appointments. Meaning charisma and connections mattered as much as competence, and in the Soviet case, often one liquidated one’s opposition.
(Part 2 on Calculation problem, the nature of Soviet socialism, and the limits to using capitalist methodologies in socialist contexts will come soon when I discuss the second half of Tom O’Brien and Dr. Paul Cockshott’s conversation as well some of the assertions of Dr. Cockshotts Towards a New Socialism).
I have been listening to a podcast on Terrance Hayes and Wallace Stevens.
I may write a poem in response or inspired by both as I struggled in my younger poetry to deal with the problematic influence of Wallace Stevens and the “politically questionable” inspiration of Ezra Pound. To love but not forgive is a maxim spreads out over all kinds of poetry, art, and politics I engage in.
In that regard, I have been writing several poems in a long chain. It’s called Eros, Errato, Erosion and it consists of three chains. I am always very hesitant to over-share my poetry on my blog as it removes it from other circulation. However, parts of the first chain have already been published at Former People.
Although you can hardly avoid it,
it’s hard to be human. Always slipping
in and out of the perpetual intermission
between lonely longing and the scum
at the bottom of the sink. You expect
that you will not die of grief as you sob
and masturbate, but nothing’s certain.
Your memory akin to blurred pixels,
or soil sorting into ever neater strata
of forgotten debris. You’re always
claiming the highroad as it washes
away: feetstuck in drying mud
and pressing downward, inward,
where lunch dates aren’t forgotten
and men can stare at sunflowers
without miasmas of useless hours.
Sitting in the park, black birds
Pick apart a flattened sparrow,
Tuffs of feathers tower out
Of the beginnings of visible
Bone. I can’t help but
Remember. This narrative Intrusion
Does not go unnoticed. Memory
Likes verse and birds acting oracle
To other dead birds. The move
Is obvious because memory
Fades like a firefly larvae
Growing fat on fruit on
Before the crab apples fall
To the ground. I am forgetting
The point but the birds continue
Eating. I think this poem is for
A woman who lives far away. Too
Far to be a one night stand, wayward
Flesh missed mostly in letters. I read
Somewhere that poetry was the remnant
Of courtship rites. We learned to speak
First to lie, then to forget, but we learned
To rhyme to remember, and share a bed
With another woman or man of the tribe.
That is what they say, but I don’t know:
The crows glutted and call to me:
They don’t want to share, just want
Me to know. They didn’t kill the sparrow
But ate it anyway. There are mountains
In the distance of the park, sitting like
Gossips in the Mexican dessert just beyond
The city. The peaks remind me of
Driving through Colorado but mountains
Are more dried from the sun here and
Stare more blankly in their bland.
There so much that runs together:
Like mixed soil: sand, silt, and rot.
To the woman, I hope she is sitting
Somewhere thinking about birds.
Thinking about past lovers, and
And the awkwardness of words.
Many the distance will erode like
Desert abrading the mountains.
To be beautiful is to learn
to fight with an open fist:
make-up is a war-paint.
Pecans darken in wet
fall grass,and we can
make out the ghosts
with dyed-red hair,
whose breath smelled
of bourbon. There is
no audience here, a love
of landscape moves beyond
her face. The countryside
wrinkles and unwrinkles
in the grasslands. Outside
renunciation, I am dregs
of absolute being. Ugliness
is skin deep, beauty is the
of delusion.Good geometry
can change your life: forever
joined, forever apart like a
nut split and the shell discarded.
In the end it rains men and women–
Unforsaken, insolent, naked.
Wet dreams about Mary Poppins
erupt and burst in boyhood, Julie
Andrews face guiding me to rituals
of dull caprice. The rest of this I hid:
you don’t understand. Comedic my
self-control: sometimes I say too much.
Let the is speak for itself: times when I
was with you, I was really not myself
but I didn’t want the truth, with each
new scenario, we kept the joking coming.
Chosen for and chosen by the elect
clamoring for some new heaven, erected
like cars rutting on summer asphalt. Between
the birthmark and the stain, you became
so many people. Mary Poppins sugared
spoons no longer have the erotic tinge:
you who you wish to control the pain,
the gout in your metaphors, the shattered
tooth leaving splinters. For unburdening,
I will not kneel and grotesque, I will undress
watching my hairs gray, shadowing the wounds.
We will not certify our pains: I have longed for
you, desire gone away. Feel the yammering
at the mouth, it is your turn beloved ghost,
there are emotions to be overwritten and songs
to be unsung. Another woman will sleep with me,
and probably another with you. I have said it
all, and wall between our past and our fading
abrades against the sand. But what a hope,
neither starved nor cold. The autumn cherry
blossoms fall in romantic decadence, we
deliberately muddy the imaging. The pollen
chokes the sky green and yellow, you pull another
gray hair out my stubble. In that moment, we touched
and in nothing could be said. Age, my mask,
it’s your turn. I hear Julie Andrew’s whispers.