Some thoughts for today:

Honest people you disagree with are better than self-deluding friends.

Facebook is really, really shallow.  The more people share a post than even click on it to read it in the past two years.  It is very almost pure posturing at this point.

Russel Jacoby’s Dialect of Defeat, which I don’t entirely agree with on all points, is a damning good book. The sad part is that what is says was true 34 years ago, as the book is almost literally the same age as I am.  While I will review it later, I am going to give you a quote because its relevant to me lately:

The profound complicity of orthodox Marxism in bourgeois industrialization is exposed by an absence. In the Marxist tradition a search- ing critique of the “secondary” characteristics of capitalism is lacking. Secondary refers to those features that stand once removed from the primary economic organization of wages, working conditions, imperialism, and the market. It refers to a series of relations, such as urbanism, mass media, psychological life, and leisure. These are not necessarily second in importance, but are second in that they cannot exist apart from the basic political-economic organization of society.

In recent decades these areas have increasingly drawn the attention of Marxists, but earlier Marxists ignored them. The few analyses of- fered have been pedestrian and predictable. The secondary features have been disposed of by concepts taken from the basic dictionary of Marxism: superstructure, relations of production, accumulation, and so on. If none of these concepts have been wrong, none have grasped the specificity of the phenomenon.

The usual explanation for the banality of Marxism refers to the ills of “vulgar” Marxism. Vulgar Marxism is vulgar in its economic reduc- tionism; everything lacks substance and reality beyond an economic base. This does not suffice as an explanation for the lameness of Marx- ism. Not only vulgar Marxism but its vulgar critique needs to be surmounted.

The vulgar critique of vulgar Marxism glosses over the complicity between the Marxists and the secondary features of capitalism. This was the reason for blindness. They did not perceive these features as fundamentally changing; hence there was no reason for scrutiny. The Marxists would inherit the cities and the mass newspapers; only the signs and headlines would be changed. Rockefeller Plaza would become Leninplatz. The basic rapport with industrial life paralyzed the critique.This can be stated in the obverse more emphatically: The most compelling and illuminating analyses of the secondary processes derive from a conservative, sometimes reactionary, tradition. This runs from Nietzsche and Spengler to contemporary – and surely lesser – critics, such as Jacques Ellul and Ivan Illich. This is hardly a coherent tradi-tion, and it is radically flawed in more than one respect. Yet the analyses that are proferred are unmatched – and unassimilated – by Marxists. — Russel Jacoby, Dialectic of Defeat, Comfortism Marxism.

Relevant because I also think this uncritical acceptance of productive forces has been a serious problem for Marxist beyond any of the problems of “actually existing socialist” but manifested by it.  See what happened to the ecological spaces of central Asia for real life evidence of that.  Yet to merely go into “conservation” mode is cop-out–you can’t ask a system to place nice because it doesn’t have agency in the first the place.

Advertisements

The Romance of Primal: A critique and response to Kevin Tucker’s “The Suffocating Void”

“Thinking must stand beyond all anthropology and psychology if it wants to be equipped for the question of who man is; for as soon as, and wherever, one ‘asks’ about humanity in the anthropological manner, and everything is linked back to humanity (be it as the individual ‘subject’ or as ‘people,’ it makes no difference in this fundamental realm), a decision about humanity has already been reached, and every possibility of interrogating the essence of humanity on the basis of completely different connections (to the essence of being) has been excluded. Even all doctrines of humanity (e.g. the Christian-Jewish doctrine) that define man immediately on the basis of his relation to a ‘God’ are anthropological which is why, in non-Christian anthropology and in those that would like to be it and cannot, it is precisely /Christian anthropology and its body of doctrine that must play an essential role, if only in its mere reversal.” – Martin Heidegger

The ecological thought understands that there never was an authentic world. This doesn’t mean that we can do what we like with where we live, however. Thinking big means realizing that there is always more than our point of view. There is indeed an environment, yet when we examine it, we find it is made of strange strangers. Our awareness of them isn’t always euphoric or charming or benevolent. Environmental awareness might have something intrinsically uncanny about it, as if we were seeing something we shouldn’t be seeing, as if we realized we were caught in something.” -Timothy Morton. The Ecological Thought

I rarely harp on primitivists even though I am both not one and also hostile to many of the positive politics of primitivists, in so much that they have positive politics.  I have, however, felt many of the general critiques of primitivism conflate varieties of ecological thinking and argue from consequences first, thus avoiding any substance to the primitivist critique.   A Heideggerian-inspired primitivist, a deep ecologist, a prepper, a tribalist, a hunter-gatherer, et al, do not necessarily share premises either.  A primitivistically-inclined friend of mine asked to read Tucker’s The Sufffocating Void and asked me respond, adding the caveat, “I sometimes wonder if primitivism has a tendency to be asceticism for the middle class.”   I am not entirely sure that is what is going on in Kevin Tucker’s case, but Tucker’s essay had me thinking about what exactly what constitutes my issues with this brand of primitivism. I have always been hesitant to debate the “natural,” particularly when using the natural as a normative value and not merely a descriptor. I have, in the past, critiqued John Zerzan for seeming going back and forth being seeing collapse as a descriptive inevitability and a normative value.  This leads to some problems philosophically that then thus have profound implications for the success or failure of any such project. Tucker is not Zerzan, but Zerzan’s critique has often been based on a vision of a life that resists reification, even the point of giving up language. Yet, like most anti-philosophy, Zerzan’s critique of reification in human life cannot resist all sorts of reifications itself: one recounts the intellectual neologistic bromides of post-Heideggerian post-structuralist thinkers who attacked the conceptual logic of philosophy… which is a different form of that same logic of attempted escape.

When it comes to the “natural,” the problem is doubly there.   We can argue about what the natural is, but then we presume necessarily what we must prove in our conception of natural.  The criterion itself is where the differences emerge, and expressing that criterion is where the values are assumed.  In this, one can be attempting to fight reification with seeming more concrete language that is, however, more nebulous than the technical jargon it seeks to replace.  “Natural” is doubly problematic in so much that, from most common language use, it implies something that humans are necessarily alienated from and a continuous product of.    I am not even sure Tucker would disagree with me that this conception of nature is, at best, “problematic.”  The tension in that conception,  however, creates a space for projecting on “the natural” any lack which to fix. It is a nebulous term. Tucker’s essay is full of both the extremely concrete and the very nebulous, and thus kind of conceptual problem starts to come into play.

This is mostly because Tucker is a very, very good writer of polemics and a fairly sound thinker.  Tucker’s take-down of Derrick Jensen’s alternating concessions to the “mainstream left” as well as his militancy against very specific things is probably one of the best critiques of Jensen written–mostly because Tucker starts from a point of consistency to which Jensen’s claims to have fidelity and the destruction flows from that point forward. No one knows the weaknesses of your position more than the position who almost shares it and is more consistent with to what prompts that position.  However, like Marx, a man whom I almost certain Tucker would not like to be compared, the clear thinking and the tendency for effective polemic can conflict.  That conflict is where the more subtle problems are hidden.

What Tucker sees in modern social media is another revolution, but like prior revolutions of the means of production, Tucker sees more human domestication:

Like the Agricultural Revolution, Industrial Revolution, and the Green Revolution before it, the Interface Revolution propels civilization beyond the boundaries and limitations of earlier systems. The firewalls of Jericho have been breached. Progress innovated, the processes integrated.

For the programmers, this is no small feat. This is the dream of every domesticator: people lining up and fighting for the latest technology, fighting for a place in line, paying top dollar for devices with built in tracking and data mining software and willing to remain in debt to sustain the terms of our bondage. Never mind that the world is suffocating under piles of waste, choking down makeshift mines for rare and difficult to extract metals, while workers are forced to sign anti-suicide clauses, villages are displaced, and sustained low budget warfare are both form and function; the expectation isn’t just that all of this will be ignored, but that you, the consumer, will be back for more next year. Or sooner.

In this description of the situation, Tucker is not wrong, but the focus on resistance and on the idea of domestication creates a problem.  Like Camatte, the left communist who saw the subsuming of everyday life in capital as so complete and so dangerous, the only possibility to go to something like community was no longer communism, but into the wild. Re-wilding was a form of strategic retreat.  However, Camatte could not do this.  Furthermore, as Zerzan showed on his writings on Adorno, the various forms of reason thrown up by the Enlightenment were almost all heading towards instrumental reason.  Not abstract logic, not universal teleology of mankind, not linguistic or emotional reasoning, but the brutal reasoning that lends itself towards a singular goal with unique and total abandon–the goal generally be a fetish of wealth above and beyond any human need.  Zerzan pointed out that Adorno could not escape the logic of Enlightenment himself, and Zerzan, for all his protests about reification, cannot escape the reification of nature.  For Tucker then, the very notion of volunteeristic re-wilding becomes necessary, but that itself remains vague and abstract.  This is the very tendency that Tucker needs to criticize because this is where a real limit to his thought may be.

To be fair, Tucker is most definitely aware of this tension in his writing.  The irony that he must use those very technologies he sees as related to domestication to get his message out about writing is not lost on him.  Nor is it fair to just call him a hypocrite: the Marxist must sell pay for food and earn wages, the conservative will receive the social benefits he does not want to fund, and the liberal will turn illiberal the movement their projects are threatened.   Even the diehard materialists with a vision of absolute freedom knows they cannot escape their context alone, by their sheer will, or they already would have.

This makes Tucker’s slip into moralism also a slip into borderline conspiracy:

The unprecedented nature of this has led two industry proponents to applaud the near universal acceptance of mobile phones as the most quickly adopted consumer technology in the history of the world. Gloating in their sickening book, Networked, authors Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman state: “the Mobile Revolution has allowed [Information and Community Technologies] to become body appendages allowing people to access friends and information at will, wherever they go.” The key being “always accessible”, but, in true form, they see “the possibility of a continued presence and pervasive awareness of others in the network”[10] positively.

The architects of civilization have long understood that the power of the domestication process lies in its ability to be internalized. The mythos of Progress requires daily affirmation. The programmers, however, realized that affirmation could become integrated.

Progress is a myth in an absolute form. Progress, to be meaningful, is a term relative to another term.  Yet in its fetishization we realize its weakness: it can be separated from that context and treated as a noun.  Everything can be deemed “progress” if there is no referent or standard, and what progress actually refers to a secularized teleology.   Nature too is a myth and by the same logic of fetishized abstraction. There are things in the world that are inhuman, there are systems beyond any individual or society or species, and these systems have logics that can be disruptive but are rarely ever intentional–even by those that create them. This is where the vision of nature as what humans lack becomes a limit to seeing what we and the inhuman are. The mythos of progress doesn’t not require daily supplication:  it just requires you to need the tools to communicate in the context given to you.  To deny that is to call for aesthetics and aseticism in the face of a society that you cannot cut yourself totally off from without being alienated from the very social necessities to which one is trying to return:

Tucker says,

To assume such a process needs daily affirmation is to see it as religious.  This attributes to it more agency than it has, and so to the individual fighting against voluntarily.  To go back to Tucker’s argument:

What you see when you step into public places are faces illuminated by backlit devices. Groups of teens walking together and each lost in their own virtual presence. 1.3 million car accidents in the US during 2011 were caused by drivers distracted with their cell phones.[11] You will see people constantly swiping their screens to look for updates, feeds, messages, or just blindly glancing out of habit at their phones, most seemingly with no recognition of what they are doing.

The conclusion of the Megamachine, the necessary step to furthering the goals of Progress, was to eliminate barriers. To make it so we treat phones as an appendage, while the Programmers dream of making them one.

To make us complicit.

To make us comply without even noticing it.

The conclusion of the Megamachine?  You will notice the continuing poetic metaphor.  The agency attributed to ideas.  The moral terminology as a call-to-action.  What does this actually get the primitivist?  The idea that the human has not been changed by 5000 years of agriculture despite the dominance of hunter-gatherer societies prior seems to be flatly contradicted by human development of its society. To say this is a megamachine that aims to make us all complicit is a dangerous metaphor.  The machine doesn’t care about you.   It also doesn’t care about your complicity.  The programmers may be embarking on cybernetic social engineering, but they are probably just trying to make a product for which they can make money.    Like most domestication, if it becomes intentional, it is for practical reasons, and generally it seems to begin by some kind of accident.  The majority of social life is reactive to the conditions in which we live, and to dream that is imposed upon us or that it requires anyone to have agency over it can lead to very moralistic tactics that doesn’t realize the problems at hand.

If anything, this moralistic element in Tucker’s writing actually mitigates the true nature of damage done to all things non-human and also thus to the human being as well.  IF there is an agent, we can reverse the trend. We can fight it off.  However, if it the result of systems that developed from unintended consequences, then the chance we would ever understand enough to reverse it becomes less likely.

There is much that is right about Tucker’s argument, and he is right on the facts about around social media involvement: declines in the ability of self-control and executive function, an increased sense of depression, and inflated sense of status competition between relative peers, constantly performing a personality in a “discourse community” which warps one’s sense of self.  He’s right.  That is the result of this technology, but where I think he is wrong is here:

Progress remains. Mythos adapt.

Except it doesn’t. Concepts don’t do anything.  This is to attribute for more power to ideas than is warranted, and this is where my friend’s fears that this can all lapse into a kind of moralism against the dross of current capitalist life starts to ring true.  If we take people as animals in complex systems that are given to collapse and whose effectiveness at abstraction makes them dangerous to themselves, we must also assume that this do not emerge as an conspiracy or some kind of alien element to “nature.” It happened.

Archeological evidence from early agricultural settlements show that the spirit of relative egalitarianism does remain in the beginnings of the establishment of a settled culture, but it never remains that way.  Agriculture was not a conspiracy, it was probably a response to over-foraging or to some other notion of society.   Nomadic cultures are not hunter-gatherers necessarily either, but even there we can see similar patterns.   Progress isn’t the cause.  It was what we call the call the cause.  The cause is responses to inhuman and the unintended consequences thereof.

I doubt Tucker would even disagree with me on any of this, but a belief in the sacrosanct individual may be the issue.  I actually can’t speak for Tucker on this nor do I actually deny the individual per se.  But I do deny that the individual is sui generis and can escape a context not of one’s singular making by an act of will.  Perhaps it is a my historicism, but such volunteerism seems dangerously optimistic about what humans are.

But again, we can come down too hard on Tucker’s argument because the one intentionality I think he is absolutely right about was the purpose of social media.  Lately, I saw a post about “never let limits stop your dreams: uber is the largest taxi company and owns no cars, facebook is the largest media provider and creates no content, AIRBNB is the largest hotel service and owns no buildings.”   This inspirational message misses the point–all of these were attempts to disrupt the economy and lower overhead, but it necessarily had to do so weakening any labor.  AirBnB is probably the least offensive on this front as it generally is just a aggregating service, but no so for facebook and uber.  I don’t think, however, this was an attempt break individuals explicitly, but it requires such breaking.   The purpose was to profit on someone’s labor without even providing the means of production: it is the means of access that matters.

This, however, follows from profit imperatives as much as any conspiracy: the intentionality was probably not malicious. Or, at least, not more malicious that any attempt at profit.  It’s effects, however, will be wage suppression and labor precariousness.  These companies are aware of that now and must continue to do it to exist, but I highly doubt their intentional intentions were that systemically thought through.  One thing I noticed when I did work in the business world is that it is very good at analysis as long as that analysis doesn’t require a system understanding more than a year or two out in any direction and with “externalities” more than one or two sectors removed from their own.

Tucker asserts, “We chose to take part in this inexplicably vast social experiment and database without seeing it as a choice” I found his essay on what amounts to a database that is just as embedded in that world as any facebook post, just as likely to be monitored by the NSA, just as likely to be traceable from google.

Time’s arrow is not a choice.

Tucker then ends with the nebulous we and they that most polemics end in:

The problems that surround us, the emptiness of Modernity, the thing that has us looking at screens instead of into eyes is a distraction. It is life automated. As you shudder away from that frightening noise, the clutter, the crowds, the moment you look up mindlessly from your phone; you are confronted with all of this.

And it is too much.

It is suffocating. It is an endless nothingness, a weight on the lungs, a turning in the stomach, an unidentified repulsion.

The temptation is to look away. That is why we don’t even have the words to address this plague, to address how the hardwired matrix became an invisible leash. We aren’t confronting it. And the programmers, the domesticators of Modernity, are counting on the fact that we are losing the very ability to even situate or reconcile our loss and context.

They are counting on our inability to recognize the world around us.

No, frankly, “they” aren’t.  “They” are counting on the fact that even if you do recognize the world around you, once the arrow is shot, you can’t reverse it without other unforeseen consequences.  This does not mean we should just passively accept whatever is thrown our way but to pretend that one’s, essentially, consumer choices matter that much is to not realize where exactly one is that. The idea that getting off facebook will break a social conspiracy:  that’s more than just volunteerism, that’s pretending to be in a situation one is not actually in.

“They” don’t even need “us” that much anymore.  “They” can find a market elsewhere.  “They” may even develop robots that renders most of the human population irrelevant to production or consumption.  Furthermore, the problem is deeper than these dystopic visions.  As the aforemetioned friend pointed out to me in a different context,

Assuming that most hunter-gatherer cultures had about 10,000 years of experience (if not more including our evolutionary past) to practice and figure out how to survive in a given terrain, I think prepper-primmo rewilders are pretty deluded if they think they can suddenly just prosper in that situation. You can take two issues as examples: bird song and selected burning. Kalahari Bushmen and many other “primitive” people could go into a landscape and know pretty much what was going on by listening to the birds, since the birds signal to each other when a predator or intruder is in the vicinity, etc. That, and tracking, which is one part actually looking at tracks, and one part listening to the patterns of bird song to see which way the prey went. And as for burning, that was a managing of landscape that even surpasses much of current wild land science. Once those ways of life ended, they were done. You simply can’t replicate them. Like that Aboriginal tribe that had an absolute sense of cardinal direction. Primmo-prepper-permaculturalists would do best to not be deluded about their efforts. Survival in that sort of doomsday scenario would be pure luck, and it might be the lucky who get killed off right away.

In other words, not only is time’s arrow going to go in ways we can  predict or control, the idea that there is a wildness just waiting to come out instantly upon the removal of “civilization” is frankly something that we don’t have evidence for.  We have changed.  Even assume that the stuff of human beings are relatively consistent over time because of minimal  natural selection pressures, historical pressures and sexual selection would have altered our genome.   Even as individuals, we may not be completely determined by our environments in consistently predictable ways, but we do exist in context with that environment and our skills sets come from essentially practical needs. Even when those conditions are of our own making, we often have no idea the full impact.

So here Tucker ends:

To see this world the way our bodies feel it and our minds know it, there is no other option but the annihilation of civilization. We have guides. We have instincts.

We have our wildness.

So before we are lost in a sea of unending, constant nothingness: to take the first step, we must first look up. Breathe deep.

And fight back.

Nothingness can only be expressed in symbols.  Our “wildness” is not some static species being that will emerge, and even if it was, turning your computer off may help your depression, but its not going to do a damn thing about world as whole.  This is the danger of the conflation of between the normative and descriptive: It is just obvious that you like me, that you know what I know, that we have the same instincts.

The rub, though, is if we did all feel this instictively, our current state of development never would happened.  To fight back, one must never give into a Mythos even if it is fight another mythos.  This moralism deludes an individual as much as the computer and the market.   It sees some parts of life as practical, but creates a state of exception for the rest of it.  It zeros in on one part of our becoming to the exclusion of other parts of our becoming.

You cannot pour new wine into old wine skins.  When the wine expands, the skin explodes and you lose both.  That is the danger of reification that even the primitivists seem unable to escape, but unlike Tucker, I don’t see this as personal failing of will.  I see it as a consequence of what we have become.    We will adapt or die: progress is just a conceptual apparatus, it didn’t cause any of this, and I suspect our belief in it was a rationalization without much real consequence.

Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives (BBC Books, 2005) by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira

Terry Jones’ love of history is well-known, and this book, which seemed to be based on a BBC series of the same name, goes more deeply and detailedly in the richness of late medieval history in English than one would expect.  Written with Alan Ereira, parts of pieces of Jones’ comedic voice remains in the the text.  Separated into the medieval roles, Jones uses these roles to construct a counter-narrative to many of the stereotypes around medieval history through focusing in on specific instances and highlighting specific anecdotes to clarify the his major points.

It is clearly organized, and the focus on specific anecdotes are useful, but definitely feel more cinematic than scholarly. However, there are reasons why Jones’ did this that are beyond limits based on the BBC series: Jones has a bone to pick with much of the historigraphy around the Renaissance.  As he said in an interview “…And I’m sick to death of that ridiculous assumption that that before the Renaissance human beings had no sense of individuality.”  Jones aims to illustrate that this is clearly a misunderstanding of self-conception of humanity in the medieval period. The anecdotes persalize things on an individual level.  Furthermore, Jones’ is good a pointing out that our conceptions of the medieval period are often more based on Victorian misconceptions and projecting violence of the Renaissance and the early modern period back unto medieval period.

The book is particularly good on the selective criterion for understanding the Plantagent kings as well as omissions from the king’s list like Louis the first and last, who was ruler during the first Baron’s War.  It also is particularly strong in the areas about popular medieval conceptions of women.   A close reading of Chaucer would have confirmed a lot of what Jones is saying, but he and Ereira do a particularly good job of finding both historical and literary sources to make their point here.   A weak point may be on medieval medicine where Jones seems to think that treatments developed in the medieval period that ther roots of some modern treatments were more effective than they were. He does not mention how dangerous a lot of the medical precedures used by Galen are, and then he justifies it by morality rates in modern hospitals due to infection.  The two cases aren’t really good analogies for severeal reasons: Most of which having to do with the fact we understand what hospital morality is so high, but medieval doctors didn’t understand why so many of their leeched patiences died anyway.

While Ian Mortimer’s “Time Travellers Guide to Medieval England” show be paired with this as it is much more substantive and should probably be read with this book, Jones light take on history is still substantive enough for the non-specialist to learn significant amounts and for the specialist to be fairly amused.

Bob Black’s Anarchy After Leftism (C.A.L Press, 1996)

Reading Bob Black’s Anarchy after Leftism, I am struck by how relevant his critique of Bookchin is almost 20 years hence, and his description of why certain forms of primitivisms should be taken seriously, and yet how wrong his prediction of the death or dwindling of certain kinds of anarchist leftism, which have seen several cycles of death and rebirth whereas most of the non-primitivism post-leftists outside of CrimethInc have disappeared or at least retreated from polemics. Indeed many of the critiques Black makes of leftism have been made by people who he has a distinctive distaste for: Marxists. That said, I feel we should focus on why someone should read this book now, and what is right about Black’s argument with Bookchin.  There are some flaws and omissions in this book, which I do think we should address, but overall this book is more import than its polemic against Murray Bookchin’s Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism.

Some context is necessary for both why one would want to approach a polemic against Murray Bookchin and my own background in this debate.   In 1996, I was still running ‘zines in a small town in Georgia in High School, having been politicized as a teen largely in the vein of Chomsky and Jello Biafra, I had been folllowing the debates in anarchism without truly understanding them.  I feel about the two polemics and was turned off by the tone and ad hominems of both; however, the urgency and seemingly scientific of Bookchin appealed to me.  I realized, however, that Bookchin’s developments were problematic overtime, and when I re-read him, the moralism overshadowed the talk of technological developments. Furthermore, while post-leftism in the main did not impress me, Bob Black’s arguments are stronger than I originally thought. Now, however, we have Ursula K. Le Guin writing prefaces to new editions of Bookchin’s work and experiments in Kurdistan by former Stalinist who have been attracted to Bookchin. Ironically, getting endorsements from the larger anarchist community post-Occupy, often somewhat uncritically.  Such developments are not new in anarchism, which has as strained relationship to both Marxism and nationalism–often actding repealed and attracted.  Platformists still predominantly use Maxist political economy, and anarchists from Bakunin to Shin Chae-ho have found racial nationalism harder to drop than the state. Bookchin definitely did not fall into the later, but grativated towards a highly managerial municipalism based off of technology and “direct” democracy.

While often hilarious, Black’s digs are sometimes irrelevant or personal, however, he does illustrate that the “development” of Bookchin’s thought had put him in direct contradiction with his earlier writings, and often in a way that mimicked that Marxists that Bookchin made his reputation criticizing.  Now, Black can get lost chopping down trees and missing the forest in his glee on exposing inconsistencies in defense of his friends, but polemics from the 1970s conflicting with polemics from the 1990s of a man who is now dead over a decade can seem boring.  Like many of Marx’s polemics agianst the other Hegelians, it is interesting for notes on both thinkers developments, but not directly relevant to anything currently. It does, however, make one wonder why so few people called Bookchin to account to explain his developments. An honest person may change his or her mind, but never without a proper accounting.

Black’s points, however, depart and develop at a larger critique of “leftism” from a point of view that acknowledges leftism was important in the development of anarchist thought. Now, I increasingly recoil from reifications of the political spectrum, but let’s assume here that Black is linking leftism to both liberal and socialist tendencies which are hostile to egoism.  This is not entirely new, as Situationists even defined their socialist in terms of selfish interests and not on any moral grounds of collective benefit and self-sacrifice.  Not only did they defend it, they laid at an argument which Black recapitulates:”someone who is in your movement not from selfish reasons cannot be trusted not to change their minds and randomly flutter from one ideology to another.  Black, however, implies that class or identity positions alone due not ensure that interest even if there is real oppression and/or expliotation aimed at that identity.

Black’s other strong criticisms are not so much a defense of primitivism–which Black distances himself from without explicitly critiquing–but his pointing out that many of the assumptions of technological futurists and urbanists have a horrible track record. The prediction of labor saving technology to release us from labor has seemingly always increased labor.   Black points out that it did lessen the responsibilities of toil, even in the case of domestic work. Instead of compensating women for their domestic labor, the labor-saving technologies led to being expected to both both domestic and wage labor.  Black, who makes more than a few swipes at feminism which can make you wince a bit, does point out that he suspected that first forms of class oppression were actually sex-based and came from agricultural labor.  Black points out that he expected this trend to continue, and the entire structure of the economy since 1996 seems to vindicate him on this point.  Yes, perhaps, there COULD be a way around capitalist technology being used this way, but it does not follow that it necessarily will.  Black points out that most of the readings of hunter gather societies given in Bookchin actually don’t match many anthropologists studies of them, and that many of the statistical arguments were misleading and speculative.

Black’s critique of communitarian municipalism and (semi) direct democracy are more developed elsewhere, but they are key here too.  Black points out how exclusive and arbitrary Athenian democracy could be even by “progressive” standards.  There is little new there, but his points about the development of familial dominance even in the Swiss Cantons as well as their abilities to be socially restrictive are key.  Like many communists pointed out about syndicalism, involving more people in the production may mitigate some of the problems of work hierarchies, it by no means undoes it.   The same logic applies to direct democracy and federated states.

Now, there are a few points that Black doesn’t address which are telling. He doesn’t give his critique of primitivism nor does he acknowledge how far John Zerzan would take his arguments. (To be fair to Black, I actually can’t remember if Zerzan had attacked all abstract thought as civilizational reification by 1996). He does not address that there are three ways to read primitivism:  Primitivism as a necessity after an inevitable collapse (descriptive), primitivism as a vision to brought about by violence (normative), and primitivism as voluntary re-wilding (volunteeristic).  The later was the view of Jacque Camatte, but Zerzan seems to shift between normative and descriptive through the year. Furthermore, Zerzan has recently made polemics against Sternite anarchism which do seem to render his claim as normative.   Black then does not address the claims that normative primitivsim would require both a massive population die-off and a violence that would likely destory any foragable environs.  This is a pretty big lapse, but it would only apply to one reading of primitivism.  Bookchin slams all the arguments under mysticism as well, so its not really a point for Bookchin here entirely either. Furthermore, my classification schema is not used by primitivists themselves in any formal sense.

Lastly, one gets a feeling that Black was premature to announce the dominance of post-left trends in Leftism at the end.  Who can blame someone from aspirational predicting as Marxists, anarchists,  and other socialists have done this aspirationally since 1848. The social and historical context changed, making Black’s criticisms relevant again but, at least for now, leaving a lot of post-left anarchy in low print number books and the internet archive.  This is not Black’s fault, although Black did not write many books for many, many years after this polemic.  He has recently returned to Bookchin himself writing a 400-page analysis of Bookchin’s entire oeuvre.  Furthermore, most of the writing on this has gone in the minutiae of anarchist gossip: recriminations and denouncements far beyond what either Black or Bookchin engaged in litter the reviews.   While parts of this book are flawed, it is a very provocative book in a way that is smarter than it seems.  Leftists, Bookchinites, and even various kinds of Marxists would do well to deal with its arguments (and not the personalities that produced the debate.)

On post-new left vocabulary… or, “if becoming an ally isn’t about you” then why is it stated personally?

Changing words don’t change the mind, they reflect changes in the mind.  Don’t like Sapir-whorf tendencies confuse that. With that in mind, you should read a break down on vocabulary of left-wing activists.  Steve Darcy, recently wrote a very insightful essay on The Rise of the Post-New Left Political Vocabulary.  Every reactionary likes to talk about how narcissistic the “young people” are, but what does notices in an ever increasing subjectivism in the activist vocabulary from the 1980s forward.

Darcy’s warns us not to over romanticize the New Left (and the 1970s Marxist-Leninists that I wrote about earlier), but that there is a loss in the individuation and damage mitigation in the current activist vocabulary.  I have mentioned that the history of privilege pedagogy, as used by DuBois and then 1980s education activists, to privilege theory several times, so I will spare you.  That said, I don’t think Darcy is hard enough on the vocabulary shift because the assumption are more problematic. While the “new left” vocabulary had a tendency to render systems as abstractions as to be seem like no one has any agency in the area, the post-new left emphases individual agency to the point even when it is trying not to do so.

The example I always here is “becoming an ally isn’t about you” which is not true.  Allies are persons, and it is personal. It may not be about that person’s individual feelings–after all, it’s not an “ally” who decides if they are actually an “ally,” it is about personal attitudes, feelings, and listening.

Furthermore, the epistemological assumptions of the post-new left vocabulary often downplay the effects and the scale of the problem. Sure, “privilege” is systemic.  But stand-point theory assumed in most discussions of privilege theory assumes that oppression actually breeds unique insights into its own undoing.  This article, Politicising Subject Sensitive Invariantism, which is admittedly thin in Oxford analytic philosophical technical jargon, is actually helpful on this point:

One interesting consequence of this line of thought is that different strands of standpoint theory start to come apart. One claim made by standpoint theorists, as we have seen, is that socially loaded propositions are higher stakes for the socially powerless. Another is that the oppressed have privileged access to social reality – partly in virtue of the sorts of interests that they have, but also because, say, of work they do or more routine confrontations with threats of violence or coercion. A third claim is that the oppressed occupy a privileged epistemic position with respect to these socially loaded propositions. The first two thoughts are typically used to motivate the third. But for the subject sensitive invariantist, epistemic privilege will become detached from privileged access.

I want to finish by saying something about how this line of thought interacts with deeper questions about the proper methodology and ends of politically oriented philosophy. You might think that any position that unravels the claims of standpoint theory in the fashion envisaged here is  politically pernicious. It’s difficult to think that there’s nothing to this worry: the supposed ignorance and epistemic defectiveness the powerless does figure prominently in stories told by apologists for inequitable distributions of power. So whilst it should be obvious why it might be dialectically desirable to find insight, knowledge, and rationality hidden away in the situations of the oppressed; the reactionary possibilities of such a discourse should also be clear. Just think of all those insights afforded by your inferiority! The social historian Walter Johnson identifies the project of writing history in such a way as ‘to give the slaves back their agency’ as ‘therapy rather than politics’:

‘If we…seek to discharge our debt simply by ‘giving them back our agency’ as paid in the coin of a better history…we are using our work to make ourselves feel better and more righteous rather than to make the world better or more righteous.’

We might doubt that the job of politically oriented philosophy (or politically oriented intellectual activity in general) is to recover or reconstruct the virtues – moral or epistemic – of the oppressed.Theory tailored to fit certain dialectical aims doesn’t just risk being co-opted by its traditional adversaries. It can end up obscuring quite how bad things are.

In short, the vocabularies do illustrate problems in both ways of thinking.  I have said, somewhat unfairly, is that nationalistic left-liberals and Maoists had tendencies that both envisioned a mass popular front against oppression and Maoism, but ended up creating a confusing morass of activist vocabulary as the world moved on and the departments ex-judicially executing black kids got more racially diverse. It’s not just that the two vocabularies illustrate contradictions between the periodizations of left-wing world views, phrases like “becoming an ally isn’t about you” indicate profound contradictions within post-new left framework itself.

Heavy Radicals (Zero Press, 2015) by Aaron J. Leonard and Conor A. Gallager

The book ends with an warning that I think we should begin with here:  neither to dismiss the FBI nor attribute powers to them that blames them for the dissolution or irrelevance of the 1960’s left-wing movements in the US. Many reviewers of this book will probably see in it how the FBI was able to destroy a principled Marxist-Leninist group as well as the US new left.  Other reviewers will see it as an anti-communist track replete with the normal tropes of such literature.   I found Leonard’s and Gallager’s work here riveting, but I see neither narrative being entirely true from the information presented in this book, or when paired with other books, such as Max Elbaum’s Revolution In the Air, Muhammad Ahmad‘s We Will Return in the Whirlwind, and Kirkpatrick Sale’s Rise and Development of the Students for a Democratic Society.   Indeed while Hoover’s FBI definitely seemed like a threat to even the US’s own notions of liberty, it is important to remember that the Cheka, Stasi, Gestapo, and even CIA used much, much more lethal tactics in dealing with dissent groups in the past, and communists coming out of the second red scare, such as Liebel Bergman, would have known that.  COINTELPRO was massive, efficient, unethical, and probably illegal, but it was not as ruthless of other opponents of various lefts were even in the time period discussed.

This book is important and a very quick read–in some ways, despite itself.  While, as a friend says, the RU/RCP is often ignored because it is see as annoying or past its prime, this book shows you that it was important in ways that many people involved with organizations in which it played a formative role no longer want to deal with.  You get a sense of the intersection to RU, in particular, had with history with figures like Alan Dershowitz, Rudy Guilliani, James Burnham, and Robert Scheer all playing bit parts prosecuting, defending, or inspiring members of the group.  Heavy Radicals is sympathetic to the RU/RCP in ways that even most of the left are not.  RCP’s descent into cultishness during the late 1980s in its attempt to built a vulgar personality cult around Bob Avakian has been a joke by left-wing activists and even other Maoists since the 1990s.  This book focuses on the 1960s and 1970s, culiminating in the split between Liebel Bergman and Bob Avakian, which may have, but has no direct evidence of being, caused by the FBI. Indeed, while the FBI played often played a key role in accelerating frictions within the group, there most of the friction occurred in response to political developments within the Soviet Union and the PRC as well as in the context of fall-out in the SDS-WMO.

Leonard and Gallager’s use FIOA documents constructs not just a coherent history of FBI’s interaction, it also creates a much more specific history of RU-RCP that has been provided by either Steve Hamilton or Bob Avakian’s writing. Casually, Leonard and Gallager will sometimes point out that Avakian’s memoirs are vague or self-aggrendizing at key moments as well as play down key figures such as Bergman and Hamilton.  Leonard and Gallager point out the twists and turns on RCP’s dealing with the left-wing national question, trying to catch up with the twists and turns of Mao on three worlds theory–including the forgotten but standard CCP interreptation post-Lin Biao’s death that the Second World, not the First World was the greater imperailist threat.  The RU opposed the Progressive Labor Party’s stance against the Black Panther Party’s nationalism and even was able to wrestle semi-official recognization by CCP from them, but then came to the nearly identical conclusion from reading Marx and from watching the dissolution of BPP itself just a few years later.

This is not to say that FBI was not deeply integrated into the organization that even militarily-trained informants saw as extremely disciplined.  The discipline, as Leonard and Galager note, didn’t seem to stop informants from getting into the central committee from the earliest days. If anything, the lack of transparency within the organization and its centralism actually may infiltration more effective.  Indeed, we know most of the internal debates and history of the 1960s RU because of FBI informants at all levels of the organization.   It was not, however, the FBI that was the most dangerous external threat to the group ultimately.  Local police informants in the late 1970s and 1980s as well as private security organizations with ties to the John Birch Society were much more active in their dealings with RCP.  Indeed, the dead of a cadre in 1980 was either prompted by street gangs with local police involved or, at minimum, the police used informants to encourage the group into a dangerous situation.  In addition, the Klan and Neo-Nazis had a direct body count on organization.

What Leonard and Gallager make clear, however, is that group’s real threat was history itself. It’s volunteerism seemed lead to more desperate situations in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  A group that had tried to join and organize the working class found out that “what could be done in Richmond California in 1968, could not be done in West Virginia in 1978.”  Avakian’s rhetoric became more strident, not less, during these periods.  When the cadres in the factories got into monogamous marriages, had children, drank beer, and listened to country music, many felt the discipline of the party was not helpful.  When several of the organizers were killed by the Klan in the late 1970s, the attempt to integrate with working class was more or less abandoned. The party then aimed to be a mass base and to abandon the force on the working class, which it saw as increasingly reactionary (a position it had criticized the SDS for maintaining in the late 1960s).   Yet it was this attempt that led to the cult of personality around Avakian and an adoption of shock-tactics that did exactly what the RU had said the would (and did) bring down the Weathermen: stunts that involved symbolic destruction of property and counter-violence against police. It was this that led to Avakian being a wanted man and exiling himself to France.

I give these details because this book is about more than the FBI’s war on America’s Maoists.  It is about the impossibility of those Maoists to move with shifts of history while under-said attack.  Particularly after the Bergman and Avakian split, which seemed inevitable in the differing Maoist intereptation of the end of the cultural revolution, the group struggled to find and keep its way.  It was not just the RCP that was damaged by this even. It had the same effect on Maoists that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and then Stalin-FDR partnership had had on the first generation of communists a generation prior, which the fall-out of had led to defections from the CPUSA to RU by Bergman and many cohorts in the first place.  The FBI, however, was there to continually pour gasoline on the fire.

The authors tone on the book seems conflicted.  In quoting people like Mike Ely, who left RCP to form Kasama and who has heavily criticized the organization, one sees a critical edge.  Although Ely was important to organizing of coal miners in West Virginia, Ely ultimately left in frustration with the RCP’s inability to change its stance on religion and homosexuality in time with the rest of the left, or even many communist states themselves.   Leonard and Galllager allude to this “communist puritanism” a few times, but don’t go into the controversies it caused with the remenants of the organization. To be fair, this happened after the period discussed. The RCP still exists, Revolution Books is still open, and you can find BAsic publications all over Berkeley.  Yet, Bob Avakian is not a name that invokes a mass base, and indeed, in many ways, that development obscures the role the RU played in many organizations more than has spread any inevitable revolution. Indeed, Leonard and Gallager admit that even it height of its influence, it has at most 2000 members.  What they did, however, was influence the leadership of much larger organizations, and they did this most effectively when they only had around 300 cadres.  Still these numbers do not a mass organization make.

The dual roles of watching a group that seemed unable to deal with historical changes and the deceptive tactics of the FBI as well as outright deadly influence of local police involvement (through selective neglect, at minimum) is why this book is important.  It is also why the history of the RCP is important even if its ideology seems to have not survived its contact with history with any coherence left.  This book is important: for what it says about post-New Left Marxist-Leninists, for what it says abou tthe FBI, and for what it doesn’t say about them.  It is critical, but fair. Sympathetic, but honest.  Still, though, I think it paints a less rosy picture of the post-68/69 socialists and communist movements than I think the authors intend.  It should be read with that in mind and cross-referenced with the other histories of the California and NY post-69 US communists.

Properly Materialist Reading?

Three topics that I generally avoid: Jacobin magazine, Paul Mason, and Sam Kriss.  I have criticized Jacobin magazine over and over again. For it’s strange mixture of criticizing liberalism while embracing a liberal form of social democracy while also publishing defenses of Soviet communism that are tantamount to pleading for a return to the old Stalinist popular front or basically just “Tu quo que” as a political ideology. Even it’s just of “the left” is the from those inspired by Rousseau’s populist as by any consistent socialist theoretical apparatus:  Jacobins were liberalism at it’s most bloody-minded and self-inconsistent, but sometimes it felt like one was actually reading  a paper that would be better named Girondin or Late Comintern.  I find Jacobin to be worth reading, but symptomatic.  In fact it has to be to survive as a magazine in a capitalist market: the way to succeed in a market is to give people what they want and thus Jacobin must play to the pathologies that leftists have.  Few people want their pathologies removed, but catered to.

Now, I have read Kriss for a long time, and even advocated publishing his response to Mark Fisher at the North Star when I worked there several years ago.  Kriss is a strong stylist and a very engagingly bitter writer.  These are traits I envy and respect.  He is also a very strong critic with analytic eye, but one who has a tendency towards taking the textual and metaphorical to nearly obscure conclusions. Furthermore, Kriss is a perfect writer for the left at this point because he is almost gleefully mean-spirited.  Another bitter voice critiquing disaffected leftist.  This is something that leftists seem to particularly enjoy as it speaks the the frustration that everyone seems to see.

His take-down of Paul Mason’s recent silliness on Game of Thrones is worth the read and one of Jacobin’s better pieces. In the kind of Marxism that is safe for the Guardian,  Mason concludes this,

If you apply historical materialism to Westeros, the plot of season five and six becomes possible to predict. What happened with feudalism, when kings found themselves in hock to bankers, is that – at first – they tried to sort it out with naked power. The real-life Edward III had his Italian bankers locked up in the Tower of London until they waived his debts.

But eventually the power of commerce began to squash the power of kings. Feudalism gave way to a capitalism based on merchants, bankers, colonial plunder and the slave trade. Paper money emerged, as did a complex banking system for assuaging problems like your gold mine running dry.

But for this to happen you need the rule of law. You need the power of kings to become subject to constitutional right, and a moral code imposed on business, trade and family life. But that won’t happen in Westeros, where the elite lifestyle is synonymous with rape, pillage, arbitrary killing, torture and recreational sex.

What is happening here is Mason is applying a stage-developmental model–one that has a vaguely Trotskyist or even Bernstein-esque feel–to a fictional texts in a fantasy universe, and it falls flat.   I was developing a response to this myself when I read Kriss and laughed out loud approvingly when I read Kriss’s summation:

Mason’s “Can Marxist theory predict the end of ‘Game of Thrones’?” misunderstands both fantasy and Marxism, most of all because it fails to grasp this important point. Part of its failure also has to do with its overreaching ambition — in the space of a short essay, Mason tries to forecast the future plotlines of Game of Thrones, account for the fall of feudalism and the rise of capitalism, and explain why people living under capitalist economies enjoy fantasy stories set amid medieval decay.

Any one of these could quite comfortably provide enough material for an entire book; muddled together in just over a thousand words, they end up crossing over each other into near incoherence. (Of course, given the mess he’s made of all three concepts, this response will also have to do much the same thing.)

Mason’s central argument is that the debt and ruination suffered by Westeros during the War of the Five Kings provides a fantasy analog to our own history’s late medieval crisis (also, confusingly, to the current crisis in the eurozone). The realm is ripe for a bourgeois revolution — as he puts it, “Westeros needs capitalists” — but, because of the limitations of the high fantasy genre, this can never happen. The social system in these fictions can decay, but it never actually collapses. Instead, fantasy feudalism will pant through its crisis by finding new land and resources across the Sunset Sea to the West.

Furthermore, Kriss’s reading of what Game of Thrones is actually doing far more developed than Mason’s stagism. Creditors isn’t what created capitalism–as debt and markets predate that and are consistent to non-capitalist forms of social organization.  It is the abstraction of value and its alienation from labor that is crucial, and so Mason’s stage theory seems both reductive and to miss the point. I would not call it non-Marxist exactly as the number of Marxist states and arguments that deviated on these same points is, well, the history of Marxism.  It is, however, not particularly helpful.

Kriss understands the double critique of Game of Thrones, which is itself deconstruction of the high fantasy genre.  Martin’s critique of feudal fantasy is crystalized by Kriss here:

Except Game of Thrones constantly undermines this idea: its kings aren’t just cruel and stupid but powerless, trying to bat away rapacious financiers and ghoulish monsters with both flapping, ineffectual hands. It’s a strange detour into the language of desire and latency, a kind of Žižekian maneuver that seems to indicate an argument that’s run up against its own limits.

But then Kriss says this:

It can also give us hope for the future. A properly materialist reading of Game of Thrones can only conclude that, as a matter of historical necessity, in the fifth season the White Walkers will burst through the Wall, the dragons will break free from their petulant queen and her cloying white-savior complex, strange sea monsters will turn the Braavosi banking houses into heaps of rubble with a sweep of their vast tentacles, and all will unite with the smallfolk of the land to dethrone all the bickering pretenders, melt the Iron Throne into tractor parts, and build a new and better society.

What?  This is the best “materialist” reading.?   It is a matter of necessity that this happens?  It is a proper materialist reading?   A call to turn the piece into socialist realist agitprop is the only proper materialist reading of the text.  Something that neither makes sense in the terms of the fantasy world given NOR made since when socialist realists critique it.  This is the kind of propaganda that screams that “you will be left in the dustbin of history” with its shoe on the UN table only to be have dissolved as a state within only a generation hence.

Like most of the American and British left, Jacobin is a magazine that is primarily good at commenting of the political phenomena and cultural epi-phenomenas of political economic, but very bad at actually analyzing things on their own terms or even a consistent set of political terms. Indeed, the endings of these kinds of article often end with, as a friend T’ai Chu-Richardson says, “it actually gets close to the awful commie-rag trope of ending every single article with the equivalent of ‘anyhow, capitalism delenda est.'”  Yes, we know, but how the hell is a “proper materialist reading” going to do that other than to insist blindly on yet more “hope.”  That is what Sam Kriss serves up, strong on critique and complete bullshit on the answer: Necessity will give us hope. It’s the fire we need.  The same complete bullshit the left have served up and failed with for a 150-years.

If we all believe in fairies… I mean dragons… I mean historical necessity.

Is critique all we actually have?  Because both Mason’s materialist reading and Kriss’ answer to Mason’s failing don’t get you much else outside of fantasies: either stages or volunteerism as the subject of historical necessity.  Perhaps its good that most of the left just snipes at each other or writes about politics of television shows now.  That kind of analysis of real political movements gets people killed.