Thoughts on Memorial Day*

By Don M.

I’ve seen a ton of Facebook posts about “thanking veterans for their service.” As a veteran let me just be very straightforward and honest with you. We didn’t “serve our country;” we don’t actually serve our brothers & sisters or our neighbors. We serve the interests of capital. We never risked our lives or spent months on deployment away from our family and friends so they can have this abstract concept called “freedom.” We served big oil, big coal, and all the other big capital interests who don’t know a thing about sacrifice. These people will never have to deal with the loss of a loved one or the physical and/or psychological scars that those who “serve,” and their families, have to deal with for the rest of their lives. The most patriotic thing someone can do is to tell truth to power and dedicate oneself to building power to overthrow these sociopathic a-holes.

I served with some of the most real and genuine people I’ve ever met. You’ll never see solidarity like the kind of solidarity you experience when your life depends on the person next to you. But most of us didn’t join for that; we joined because we were poor and didn’t have many other options.

*This letter appeared in the July/August edition of the Industrial Worker, #1747.

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The Barren Marriage Between Labor and the Democracy: On the Recall Elections in Wisconsin

They ain’t called the ‘graveyard of social movements’ for nothing. A year and a half after the largest, most spontaneous, and most energetic mobilization of U.S. organized labor in decades, the Democrats and their hapless allies in the union leadership managed to fully divert all that energy and all that dynamism into a resounding and demoralizing defeat. Contrary to ridiculously inaccurate early estimates, the electoral contest between current governor and knight of reaction, Scott Walker, and his insipid Democratic challenger, Tom Barrett, was not even close, with most putting Walker at %53 of the final vote, and Barrett at %46. The flip side of this coin, of course, is that it will inevitably be spun as a major symbolic victory for the Right, who will indeed probably see Walker’s victory as an open invitation to freely pursue their union-busting agenda: having won in Wisconsin, where can’t they win?

For anyone who had the fortune to experience the solidarity and the palpable radicalism in the air in Madison last winter, the election, as a coda to that amazing moment, can only be taken as a bitter disappointment. For many, I suspect, the results of the recall will have only confirmed what had long seemed probable: namely that the inhabitants of the rural Wisconsin hinterlands, unemployed, indebted, yet conservative, will vote for the same guy they voted for in 2010, which will tip the scales in Walker’s favor despite the extraordinary amounts of human time and energy poured into the recall campaign over the past year. What reason have such people to vote against the person they originally voted for, especially given the fact that his opponent, Barrett, did not even attempt to progressively re-frame the austerity/budget debate in a way that might substantially influence public opinion? If the Democrats are just as willing as Republicans to denounce the trade unions as just another “special interest,” in order to then lose important elections by a huge margin, then what the hell is organized labor doing funnelling their already-scarce monetary and human resources into their campaign coffers? Is electing this mope, who can’t even bring himself to mount a principled defense of labor, what hundreds of thousands of progressive supporters rallied for last winter and spring?

It’s an old story on the American left: the Democratic party kills collective power and systematically betrays the unions, or what’s left of them, anyway. Scores of talented and dedicated organizers who worked tirelessly over the last 1.5 years will doubtless be struck with a feeling of futility, and then, of a certain exhaustion. This is understandable after something like this, but is all the more distressing given the inevitable response from the forces of reaction, which assuredly will come swiftly. They may wait until after November, but you can be certain that the neoliberals are taking this as a blank check for savage union-busting, having successfully seized the beachhead in Wisconsin. Once again, “democratic institutions” collude with organized power in the quashing of economic justice, deluded centrist liberals will continue to delude themselves, and the lesson for the U.S. left remains the same: independent organization, divorced from the Democrats, is the only credible path for any meaningful social change today.

The Mass Spectacle and the Specter of the Left: NATO in Chicago

So if you were walking around in the center of Chicago a week or so ago, you might have been stopped by police, or had your progress impeded by them. This is because there happened to be, in Chicago at that time, the leadership of a certain international, unaccountable arm of the military-industrial complex with global reach and vast war-making resources meeting to discuss what vulnerable group of poor people will  be serviced next with the Predator drone prix-fixe, to wit: you happen to live in a territory with some of those pesky Muslim malcontents, so you are, in principle, entitled to a Hellfire missile in the face. While these shining benefactors of humanity were meeting, Mayor Emanuel and the City of Chicago spent millions of dollars of public money to outfit and train an army of riot police for the noble task of shielding NATO and the state from that dreaded public enemy, the democratic protest march.

In the event, the demonstration was impressive and energetic, the mayor and the police had their chance to “look good” for the global ruling class, and some elements of the protest clashed with the riot cops in a prolonged and violent standoff at the march’s end. This ensured the predictable series of images in media channels: the confrontation between demonstrator and police; the beaten and bloodied demonstrator; and the orderly columns of rationalized state violence, fully anonymous and fully ready to brain those who might stray away from the state-permitted protest zone. The corporate media never fails to drive the argument home for the benefit of the broader public: to confront the state is to get one’s face smashed, so don’t join these yahoos because it’s bad for your health!

Regardless of the sycophantic tripe peddled by most of the corporately owned media – most notably the wretched Sun Times and the Tribune, the latter owned by the insane Sam Zell – the sheer size and dynamism of the demonstration would have impressed itself upon anyone who saw it first-hand. Strolling about Grant Park before the march, I was again struck by the amazing diversity in style and culture that is constitutive of mass-left politics today. Bucking the city’s prolonged campaign to arouse fear surrounding crazed anarchists planning to blow things up, along with a relentless hyping of the city’s militarization of the police force, dozens of different community groups, political and activist organizations, cultural affinity groups, and trade unions came together in a common opposition to the NATO war-machine. At a given moment, one could do any of the following:

  • Join in a political debate with Second International Marxists;
  • Talk with “libertarians” about the need to reform the tax code, and how achieving socialist transformation is pointless because the U.S. is already “socialist;”
  • Dance a lot;
  • Give Maoism another chance;
  • Talk with native Palestinians about life in the Occupied Territories;
  • Join an artists’ collective in making signs, puppets, and other visual paraphernalia;
  • Chill with members of Occupy Wall Street
  • Discuss the need for a General Strike with radicals from the Nurses’ Union, the I.B.E.W., or the C.T.U.;
  • Don a hood and bandanna with Black Bloc anarchists, in preparation for an inevitable confrontation with the state;
  • Have a conversation with Hindu peace activists;
  • Talk LGBT justice with the radical queer coalition;
  • Hang out with some sweet clowns;
  • Participate in a Human Micropoem;
  • Eat some really good, vegan-friendly, free hot-dogs.

…and so on and so forth.

They don’t want to give you a free hot-dog.

This patchwork of diverse viewpoints, languages, and ideologies comes together to create quite a spectacle. A first-time protester might understandably come off a bit bewildered. Why are these guys here arguing that we should defend North Korea as a “deformed workers’ state”? Who is Bradley Manning? And what do clowns have to do with radical politics?

Speaking broadly, what more or less serves to bring such a wide array of social elements together is a common opposition to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which is an example of what Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe call an “empty signifier.” It is a symbol that can mean many different things to different forces of opposition – e.g, NATO is an expression of the warmongering military-industrial complex, the military arm of an unaccountable global oligarchy, the handmaiden of the system of global capitalism, the vanguard of neo-colonialism, the anti-democracy, and a symbol of patriarchal, racist-chauvinist hierarchy, to name only a few examples. The common opposition to NATO as a multivalent symbol constructs ‘negative solidarity,’ or solidarity among groups based upon common opposition to what they are against, to what they are not. Thus to oppose NATO it is sufficient that one be anti-racist, or anti-fascist, or anti-state, or anti-patriarchy, or anti-Federal Reserve, or anti-capitalist, or anti-injustice, or anti-war, or anti-heteronormative, anti-imperialist, or any combination of these. U.S. mass-left political action today collects a vast array of different attitudes, viewpoints, and ideologies on the basis of a shared opposition, of a deep hostility toward some institution, figure, policy, etc. Importantly, though, the reasons among the various elements for that opposition, and the social and political vision that animates them, can be and often are in conflict with one another. What does the libertarian have to say to the syndicalist? What the Trotskyist to the Stalinist? This particular form of mass politics does not require agreement on the deeper level of vision and definitions of contested concepts, like justice, freedom,  the meaning of socialism, and so on; it merely requires a sense, however vague, that something is wrong with the present system and that the occasion for protest is somehow related to it. The buy-in isn’t too steep, ultimately.

That this is the way mass-left mobilization works today is no coincidence, of course. With the gradual dissolution of the social infrastructure of what used to be called the Old Left over the last 30 years, the classical reference point of organized radical consciousness – the ‘point of production, ‘as they used to say – has increasingly become sidelined, integrated into a larger web of struggles that cast a wider net around what counts as social justice. This is unquestionably a major achievement. But such an expansive view has come at a cost. The terra firma of the older forms of praxis, which was located at the economic point of production because that was widely understood to be the source of general immiseration, has been to a certain degree lost – or more accurately, obscured. The old vision has become but one among many. As a result, the old link between radical theory and practice has become attenuated, which is a precondition for the contemporary splintering of the idea of “resistance” into countless fragments: resistance can be articulated as street performances, throwing bricks at cops, mass-marching, canvassing for electoral candidates, consuming ethically, holding a concert, dancing in the streets, culture-jamming, and of course shop-organizing – the list goes on. Opposition to a sedately imperialist, predatory liberalism, it would seem, has taken on the very pluralistic qualities that the latter ideology holds so dear.

What would the conditions have to be for something like general agreement around tactics and strategy to materialize? I would tentatively suggest that what’s happening in Quebec right now, and what happened in Oakland 6 months ago, both have something to do with the answer, as increasing numbers of organizers, activists, and community leaders are realizing that the future of radical struggle lies in combining the social pluralism of contemporary protest with direct intervention in the productive forces – that is, in combining negative solidarity with the mass-strike.

#Konymania and the Bourgeois Political Imagination

By the standard temporal cycles of the Twitterverse, this post on the Kony/Invisible Children controversy arrives a bit late, perhaps, but even if this is already old news the whole affair, it must be said, is pretty remarkable, and it seems to me to raise issues that haven’t yet been addressed in the various diatribes floating about the internets.

On the surface it might look like an unusual occasion for controversy. Who is Joseph Kony? What is Invisible Children, and why has that organization come in for such withering criticism (see here, here, and/or here)? Is their ostensive purpose not to expose atrocities in order to generate a concerned public around them, which could then presumably serve as a basis for some kind of further activism? Isn’t Joseph Kony all around a pretty major piece of shit? And aren’t the guys behind Invisible Children some pretty serious dudes (see below)? What gives?

Sure, he is a piece of shit. Despicable, even. And the dudely credentials of the guys behind the documentary are not in question. But as the myriad critics of #Kony2012 have made abundantly clear, the video’s story and its main rhetorical message – that in backward parts of the world really evil individuals do really evil things, like kidnap and employ child soldiers, and its up to the morally-righteous and aware American public to do something about it – participate in a very well-established tradition of racist and imperialist narratives that have been shaping the Western colonial imagination for centuries. It doesn’t help that they seem to be blissfully unaware of this (though, to their credit, they have posted a “response” to the most substantive objections). Probably the most original perspective brought to bear thus far on the matter is Richard Seymour’s, who draws attention to the potentially massive propaganda power of this kind of sentimentally and morally motivated viral media, of which the current fad is doubtless doing much to demonstrate to the stewards of U.S. imperial interests. If cultural phenomena like Bieber-Fever can be enlisted in the viral generation of pro-intervention sentiment among the public, then we have on our hands what is only the latest, but perhaps the most promising, vehicle for the targeted co-optation of social media apparatuses in campaigns of manufactured consent. This would be another example of how Adorno and Horkheimer’s classic analysis of the Culture Industry, usually dismissed among contemporary theorists as being “cynical” or “too pessimistic,” remains as relevant as ever.

Throughout all this, the Invisible Children crew haven’t found many defenders (pictures like this don’t help.) To date I’ve only been able to locate one piece, an op-ed penned by the NYT’s generally sedate Roger Cohen, that makes a considered judgment in favor of the embattled, would-be humanitarians. Yes, they crassly reduce a complex geopolitical history into an infantile, good vs. evil scenario; yes, the presentational style of their documentary insults the intelligence of the viewer in a variety of ways; and yes, there are apparently wildly egregious factual errors in the report of the documentary itself. Despite all of it, for Cohen, it is better that the documentary emerged – warts and all – than if it had not, as tens of millions of people are at least now conscious, who were not before, that such a crisis exists. Notwithstanding its own unremarkable simplicity, Cohen’s argument unwittingly strikes at the core of the issue, in the context of which he marshals a solid, traditional middle-class ideal – the value of practical action over inert criticism – in the service of defending what is a quintessentially middle-class form of activism:

“On balance I back Russell [the leader of Invisible Children] over his armchair critics. He’s put his boots on the ground and he’s doing something. Gross simplification of Africa is nothing new. It’s the poor, disease-ravaged, war-torn continent where every complicated war is about control of diamonds, right? The reduction of Uganda’s many problems to Kony abusing children is not much different from the reduction of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo to a fight for mineral riches. So, Russell works in a well-established genre, even if he pushes it.”

Cohen supports Russell and the Invisible Children crew on a twofold basis: one, at least they’re doing something, misconceived though it may be in some ways, and two, they are doing it in a way that is legible for an influential and expansive mass-public – namely, the bourgeois hosts of the predominantly (though not entirely) Protestant, white American middle class. These social strata are taught in great numbers to ‘look outward’ from American society at those who are less fortunate than ourselves, at those who are hapless victims of circumstances beyond their control and are in need of ‘our help;’ this occurs through the lenses of both religious and secular education, whether we are told about the American providence to spread the ‘good news’ of God’s word, or the ‘good news’ of liberal democratic freedoms to other less fortunate parts of the world. In either case, critical attention tends to be diverted from understanding extant forms of social domination closer to home, such as authoritarian, stultifying work conditions, urban and often racially-motivated police brutality, and the chronic social disaster that is the American working poor, a class which has been steadily growing for some time but, judging from extant news coverage, would not even seem to exist. Cohen is right to point out that, all things considered, at least the Invisible Children documentarians are attempting to actually do something about an egregious injustice, and in a way that ‘makes sense’ for a very large constituency; unfortunately, the practical consequences, for the great majority of sympathetic citizens in the United States, amount to buying a rather silly “action kit” consisting of a couple of bracelets for $30. Needless to say, the meager, consumeristic nature of the activism itself does much to temper the argument that the Invisible Children crew deserve credit for merely “doing something.”

One strategic possibility for left politics in coming years would be to concentrate on devising strategies for better harnessing middle-class moral fervor in the service of traditional left goals, for channeling that energy in the direction of more immediately accessible practical contexts for action. In principle, at least, it should be possible to pitch radicalising propositions like workplace democracy, participatory/community forms of economic organization, and extra-electoral struggle at a level and in a form that would be legible to the moral imagination of large sections of the progressive middle-class; this has already been happening to a notable extent in the context of #Occupy, whose populist rhetoric taps into a tried-and-true tradition of reform in the U.S. However, to win large constituencies over to the more radical propositions of the left program, it might be necessary to rethink the way we pitch our ideas at the popular level, perhaps striking an ideal balance between what Max Horkheimer called the “critical attitude,” and the more readily legible, culturally-specific forms of political and social argument that find expression in something like #StopKony2012, but in a less proto-imperialist, simplistic, and sentimental format.

This idea will be unpacked in a less schematic way in future posts.

Marcuse on the One-Dimensional Society

A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization, a token of technical progress. Indeed, what could be more rational than the suppression of individuality in the mechanization of socially necessary but painful performances; the concentration of individual enterprises in more effective, more productive corporations; the regulation of free competition among unequally equipped economic subjects; the curtailment of prerogatives and national sovereignties which impede the international organization of resources. That this technological order also involves a political and intellectual coordination may be a regrettable and yet promising development…

Today political power asserts itself through its power over the machine process and over the technical organization of the apparatus. The government of advanced and advancing industrial societies can maintain and secure itself only when it succeeds in mobilizing, organizing, and exploiting the technical, scientific, and mechanical productivity available to industrial civilization. And this productivity mobilizes society as a whole, above and beyond any particular individual or group interests…

The brute fact that the machine’s physical (only physical?) power surpasses that of the individual, and of any particular group of individuals, makes the machine the most effective political instrument in any society whose basic organization is that of the machine process. But the political trend may be reversed; essentially the power of the machine is only the stored-up and projected power of man. To the extent to which the work world is conceived of as a machine and mechanized accordingly, it becomes the potential basis of a new freedom for man. Contemporary industrial civilization demonstrates that it has reached the stage at which “the free society” can no longer be adequately defined in the traditional terms of economic, political, and intellectual liberties, not because these liberties have become insignificant, but because they are too significant to be confined within the traditional forms. New modes of realization are needed, corresponding to the new capabilities of society. Such new modes can be indicated only in negative terms because they would amount to the negation of the prevailing modes. Thus economic freedom would mean freedom from the economy—from being controlled by economic forces and relationships; freedom from the daily struggle for existence, from earning a living. Political freedom would mean liberation of the individuals from politics over which they have no effective control. Similarly, intellectual freedom would mean the restoration of individual thought now absorbed by mass communication and indoctrination, abolition of “public opinion” together with its makers. The unrealistic sound of these propositions is indicative, not of their utopian character, but of the strength of the forces which prevent their realization. The most effective and enduring form of warfare against liberation is the implanting of material and intellectual needs that perpetuate obsolete forms of the struggle for existence.

Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man

Is Our Children Learning? The Poverty of Educational Social Science

This piece on the social science of education first appeared on Pink Scare over a year ago. I re-publish it knowing that the national debate over public education reform has largely been eclipsed by more recent events. Despite its diminished visibility, though, education reform is very much still on the agenda, especially when the demand for fiscal austerity in cash-strapped municipalities is producing increasingly aggressive, retrograde measures on the part of city governments. When combined with an entrepreneurial class harboring a deep interest in transforming education into a for-profit institution, the stage is set for the introduction of an educational model based upon public subsidy and private gain – that is, one that is very accommodating to styles of primitive accumulation under contemporary capitalism. Chicago is currently a kind of experimental laboratory of sorts for this project.

NB: For those interested, Eric Triantifillou has an excellent and related piece on the political economy of Chicago charter schools that appeared in AREA magazine a couple years ago – highly recommended.

***

Like many other public institutions in modern western society, the educational system seems to be in a state of perpetual crisis. The lack of qualified or effective teachers, students who — for whatever reason — are often unmotivated and distracted, and the chronic lack of capital endemic to all public services are perhaps the primary factors contributing to this situation, though if one were so inclined it would be easy to break down these three main elements into a myriad of smaller and more contextually embedded factors, each of which varying in its negative effects depending on the specific social context in consideration.

And why is this the case? Political and cultural elites rail constantly about the degraded state of public education, and they never cease to be utterly shocked when the latest statistical data emerges inevitably showing a decisive academic achievement gap between American and, say, Chinese youth per capita. This nationalized achievement gap becomes more and more disconcerting for globalization’s most fervent supporters, for instance, whose anxiety about the future of America’s cultural capital fuels what Perry Anderson has referred to in a recent essay as “Sinomania.” In this rapidly escalating global economic arms race, so to speak, the ability of the American educational system to crank out the ideal economic subject— industrious, enterprising, and, most of all, unquestioning of the social validity of market logic— assumes paramount importance.

Enter the social scientific study of educational practices and institutions. The question informing the academic study and training of educational professionals has always been a perplexing one, not unknown to Plato 2500 years ago, which is simply this: how is one to educate the educators? A recent article by Elizabeth Green in the New York Times magazine tells a story about an individual, a Doug Lemov of the northeast’s Uncommon Schools charter school system, whose professional career has been devoted largely to theorizing and implementing novel pedagogical ideas. Lemov, who graduated from Harvard Business school and believes in “putting his faith in market forces,”unreservedly subscribes to the idea that in contexts riddled by pervasive racial achievement gaps, the “smarter” path to boosting student performance is “to improve the quality of the teachers who are already teaching.” Now, to return to our cardinal question, how does this man propose to educate the educators?

By creating an exhaustive taxonomy of effective pedagogical techniques, of course. “Lemov’s Taxonomy,” a 300 + page treatise which evidently entertains “hundreds of underground fans” among the community of educational professionals, contains over 40 teaching techniques supposedly universal in their applicability, no matter the context. Any aspiring teacher can flip through Lemov’s tome and learn the basic skills underlying successful teaching for any possible setting, no matter the time, place, socioeconomic makeup, or whatever other demographic variable one may wish to bring up. Based upon hundreds of hours of fastidious classroom observation and documentation, Lemov’s work represents the distilled essence and final result of a comprehensively designed institutional experiment, combining the insights of dozens of the country’s most effective teachers and educational researchers into a set of resources available for any would-be public educator.

And such is the logic of the social sciences in action: human beings are observed behaving, interacting, acting out, and otherwise existing in a variety of more or less ‘controlled’ settings; observations are made in relation to these phenomena; and, by drawing on commonalities across diverse experimental settings, a set of inductive inferences are made to arrive at generalizations about what ‘works’ for the already given purposes of human life — in this case, improved performance on standardized tests, among other modes of school ranking. It is this underlying, broadly positivist orientation, though, that contributes significantly to the persistent failure by professionals to actually grasp the root of the problem in modern public education.

For instance, the very method of educational social science forecloses certain avenues of inquiry. The constitution of each individual student as a ‘subject’ of the experiment, that is, as an individual participating in the controlled and closed environment of the classroom, relies on the erasure of the very histories of experience that have shaped and formed the ‘subjects’ under scrutiny. The assumption is simple: in order to test for what pedagogical techniques work best, one must control for certain external variables — in this case, the individual social histories of the students. While the assumption has always been that this provides a more science-like approach to understanding human behavior, it is premised upon the abstraction from particular historical and social contexts necessary to constitute the analytic elements of the experiment.

These assumptions can only underlie a research program which forbids itself from asking questions regarding the structure of society as a whole. And as long as this continues to be the status quo, the social scientific study of education, “Lemov’s Taxonomy” included, is doomed to repeat the failures of the past. The argument could be put like this: as long as educational researchers do not know how to ask the question of why the racial achievement gap never seems to get better, they will never sufficiently understand how to improve it. Without taking a step back and thinking through the ways in which the situation of the controlled experiment is itself an effect of a larger structural cause, so to speak, the diagnoses and remedies offered by educational social science will be limited to only grazing the surface of this problem.

It is no surprise, then, that so “few properties of teachers can be shown to directly affect student learning.”

The subjectivity and individual histories of students, especially in America’s urban centers, are conditioned and shaped by the economic and cultural contexts of a liberal capitalist social formation, and any idea that they could be adequately viewed as abstract test subjects apart from the kinds of sociality that this engenders is myopic, to say the least, and hopelessly misguided, to say the most. Working and lower-class neighborhoods in American cities generate particular forms of subjectivity based upon the ways that commerce, violence, and social identities circulate within an overall economy unique to those contexts; these social contexts, in turn, are the product of a specific way of economically organizing society in which capital inevitably tends to flow one way (upward) on the social ladder. Naturally, this leads to systemic social dynamics that both restrict and enable certain forms of social agency — notably, for this context, with regard to public institutions. It is, of course, the most basic methodological prerogative of modern social science to isolate itself from all such considerations, in order to emulate the controlled experimental environment of the natural sciences. This makes the experiment manageable to design and run, but it also effectively renders it blind to the possibility of addressing itself to the actual causes of the problems it seeks to redress.

Now, obviously this is not meant as a polemic against the social sciences per se, which obviously has many useful and beneficial roles to play in modern society. Nor is it meant to register surprise at the fact that someone like Lemov, a no-doubt proud graduate of Harvard business school, should be fundamentally blind to the ways that capitalist societies form subjects at a structural level, as well as how such considerations might impinge upon the explanatory value of his theories. But it needs to be recognized how the methods of the social sciences may be more appropriate for certain subjects as opposed to others, and relatedly, how it may serve to systematically obscure the path to answering the questions that it presumes to address. It may be hard to imagine such a disciplinary shake-up, but it may be that only under such a condition could we genuinely ask, and get a satisfactory response to, the question, “is our children learning?”

Anarchist and Marxian Paths to Praxis

As 2011 draws to an end we mark the conclusion of a momentous year of progressive social upheaval the world over. The revival of spontaneous popular/mass political mobilizations has erupted across Western and Southern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and – thanks to the tenacious efforts of #Occupy – even the United States, to name only the most visible flashpoints. The mass social movement as a political force seems to have returned with a vengeance, and, perhaps most importantly, all of its manifestations heretofore – #Occupy, The Arab Spring, the student movement in the U.K, the Spanish indignados, the Greek resistance to draconian neoliberal austerity, and many others – have shared at least one core element: an uncompromising rejection of the increasingly hollowed-out shell of liberal institutions and the feckless, parliamentary cretinism with which it is apparently indissociable. As was discussed in the previous post, this space of collective political invention has emerged against the historical horizon of a conjunctural crisis of world-capitalism – more specifically, the collapse of what is arguably the core dynamic of value-creation under neoliberal structures of accumulation. Since the steady growth of profits, or in other words the creation, expansion, and realization of value, is the one thing that cannot change and must be held as a fixed factor within capitalist society, the burden of shouldering the costs of the crisis ineluctably alights upon those who do not own capital – that is to say, the vast majority of people alive today. The resulting squeeze upon basic standards of living has the capacity to catalyze very different movements across the globe, as great swaths of humanity become seriously disillusioned with the status quo, for quite various reasons, and elements of the radical left see an opportunity for mass political education the likes of which haven’t been seen for a generation or more.

For the first time in perhaps half a century, a political space, a scene of practice has opened up that has injected renewed vigor into theoretical debates on the left over the forms of social praxis most conducive to an historically effective radical politics. In the U.S. front, this has been nowhere more evident than in the popular assemblies of the Occupy movement, specifically designed as they are to allow the most voices to be heard while institutionalizing procedures that can fairly be called directly democratic. While the rapid spread and spontaneous formation of the basic political forms of #Occupy across the United States (not to mention other countries) has been truly remarkable, the movement remains at the germinal stage, with many observers – sympathetic and hostile alike – chattering on about whether or not it is a harbinger of things to come, an effervescent but aimless burst of pent-up populist resentment, or the opening salvo in what probably will be a protracted ideological war-of-position for the duration of the world crisis. Those who have participated in it know that it is here to stay, with the only questions being how and whither, but this does not change the urgency of hashing out differences between competing political positions that have done so much to fragment the left throughout the history of anti-capitalist organization. I offer the following remarks on Anarchism and Marxism towards a reconciliation of two of the most important, but often the most antagonistic, forces in the radical socialist camp. While a discussion like this remains at the level of theory, and it is of course true that real differences between competing organizational visions can ultimately be mediated and effectively synthesized only within practical contexts, nevertheless the times are such that a clear articulation of vision is more important than any other time in recent memory, and it is in this spirit that I offer the following remarks. Some of the most elemental disagreements between Marxian and Anarchist political theory can be drawn out through a close look at what two of their respective classical paragons – Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin – thought of each other’s ideas, at least insofar as this can be found in their explicit writings on the subject. While I obviously cannot hope to do justice to the immense complexity of the historical relationship between these two revolutionary traditions within the confines of a single post, it will serve to lay a basis for opening a discussion on the topic.

In his notes on Bakunin[1] we have Marx right away confronting some of the key objections to the Marxist line as it was being argued circa 1874. Bakunin argues that Marx’s revolutionary program already contains in nuce an incipient form of social domination [2], to which Marx’s rejoinder is rich enough to reproduce and subsequently unpack in order to set up a theoretical comparison:

[The proletariat as ruling class] means, that as long as the other classes, and in particular the capitalist class, still exist, and as long as the proletariat is still struggling with it (because, with the proletariat’s conquest of governmental power its enemies and the old organization of society have not yet disappeared), it must use coercive means, hence governmental means; it is still a class and the economic conditions on which the class struggle and the existence of classes depend, have not yet disappeared and must be removed by force, or transformed and their process of transformation speeded up [sic] by force…A radical social revolution is tied to certain historical conditions of economic development; these are its prerequisites. It is therefore only possible where, with capitalist production, the industrial proletariat occupies at least a significant position among the mass of the people…Will, not economic conditions, is the foundation of [Bakunin’s] social revolution.

Several issues emerge here as the crux of disagreement: the status of economic and historical analysis within revolutionary theory; the question of the precise nature of the state, and its role within the revolutionary program; and attitudes towards authority, how it emerges, is reconstituted, or is transformed in the course of revolutionary practice, to name only a few central points of contention. Without too much simplification these are arguably still the core issues that divide many anarchists and marxists to this day, notwithstanding all that has changed since the time of Marx and Bakunin.

Marx essentially accuses Bakunin of two major and related oversights: one, a kind of ‘voluntarist’ stance on political insurrection that pays no attention to economic and historical circumstances, and two, the lack of a historically and socially grounded critical theory – à la Capital –  that could adequately illuminate those circumstances. For Marx, the possibility of revolution is inextricably linked to a critical theory of society, one that not only can purportedly account for the historical preconditions of a radical social revolution, but that is also meant to serve as a practical force in the path of struggle leading up to that revolution. From Marx’s perspective, Bakunin and the anarchists’ revolutionary campaign is all heart and no brains, so to speak; in its unrelenting focus on the church and the state as the two fundamental institutions of oppression it remains stuck at a level of analysis that Marx takes himself – along with the socialist movement as a whole – to have already surpassed [3]. The critique of capitalism as a system of social relationships has to form the intellectual bedrock of any viable and enduring socialist movement.

The anarchist typically sees much of this talk of economic preconditions, coercion, correct theory and so on as rather suspect within the context of trying to imagine and enact radical social transformation. From this standpoint it is deeply problematic to predicate a revolutionary program upon some privileged theoretical or intellectual basis, as it would seem to open up a possibility for the distinction between a cadre of the knowing elite and the more or less benighted masses. Within the debates between classical anarchism and marxism this concern was not unrelated to the question of the state, and particularly whether or not it could be really supposed that seizure of state power and economic centralization could be seen as merely a means to the given end of class dissolution. Anarchists charged and still charge marxists with a grievous miscalculation on this score, arguing that Marx’s predilection to scientific socialism – oriented as it was toward illuminating the theoretical conditions for revolution – effectively diverted his attention from concrete questions of organizational structure and practical politics that are integral to the revolutionary project [4]. The critique has always been that, no matter how theoretically sophisticated, one cannot hope to occupy an institutional complex that is as deeply authoritarian in structure as the modern state apparatus, with surrounding class antagonisms still intact, and really expect its eventual self-cancellation. Rather, authoritarian and hierarchical relationships must be remade from below, starting at the level of everyday human experience, in a process wherein an organizational ethics informed by a shared assumption of equality reshapes the ways in which people interact, imagine collective existence, coordinate social production, and generally get things done [5]. The anarchist sees revolutionary possibility in the everyday social relationships through which people engage each other, in the potentially radically democratic content of interactions in which people treat each other not as superiors or inferiors, but as equals and ends in themselves.

This subject of the ethics of organizational praxis is one key element among others that anarchism can contribute to the reconstruction of a mass-left politics today.  Conversely, within this project the strengths of marxian social theory and political analysis cannot be ignored; these include not only the elaboration of a social theory that can potentially explain and help people to make sense of their world, but also the role that a theory of the deep-structure of capitalism can play in potentially orienting mass-movements and bringing a common goal into focus, thus maximizing the possibility for radical change. By continually encouraging a systemic, historical critique of the social formation within the context of directly-democratic social forms, marxian theory can contribute to a remediation of ‘common sense’ in which ideas like economic democracy and a de-stratified society are no longer abstract, utopian notions but actually live options within everyday consciousness and lived experience.

It is a sign of the interesting historical moment in which we find ourselves that such discussions are losing their status as “merely academic” for more and more people. Anyone who has participated in an Occupy assembly is aware of the myriad diversity of  viewpoints that can be brought to bear in any given meeting, and how difficult it can seem to articulate a sharp political vision when the twin imperatives of direct democratic organization and radically open participation must be maintained. Additionally, as with any movement in the United States aiming at mass inclusion, it must openly acknowledge and reflect on the classed, raced, and gendered aspects of its social constituency, though increasing numbers of talented organizers across the country are starting to do just that in order to overcome them. A huge step in addressing the obstacles to rekindling a popular capacity to imagine radical change has been initiated, in practical form, in the still developing popular assemblies, if for no other reason than showing people directly that they can organize and act in an effort to determine the basic conditions of their own existence. But at present the question of the theoretical content and the shape – if any – that a unified vision will assume for the movement is still largely up for grabs.

Notes
[1] See Marx’s notes on Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy on marxists.org: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1874/04/bakunin-notes.htm.

[2] Bakunin: “We have already stated our deep opposition to the theory of Lassalle and Marx, which recommends to the     workers… the foundation of a people’s state…the proletariat organized as ruling class…if the proletariat becomes the ruling class, over whom will it rule? It means that there will still remain another proletariat, which will be subject to this new domination, this new state,” http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1874/04/bakunin-notes.htm

[3] Marx’s frustration at this seemingly regressive step in left-socialist Continental thought and practice in the last quarter of the 19th century also appears very explicitly in Critique of the Gotha Programme.

[4] I must leave aside the immense question of the political party in Marx, as well as its lasting impact as an aspect of revolutionary consciousness largely as a result of Lenin’s writings and the legacy of 1917. Obviously Marx and Engels saw a doctrinally-sound Communist Party as the definitive vehicle of working-class revolutionary consciousness, but as Marx never lived to see an actual “communist” revolution take place, we can only conjecture about what he would have made of something like the Bolshevik Revolution.

[5] This entails what Murray Bookchin would call “the physiology of freedom – of freedom as the process of communizing… [this is] those subjective dimensions that link the remaking of society to the remaking of the psyche.” Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2004) x.

Preliminary Notes on the Discourses of the Crisis

A crisis occurs sometimes lasting for decades. This exceptional duration means that incurable structural contradictions have revealed themselves and that despite this the political forces which are struggling to conserve and defend the existing structure itself are making every effort to cure them within certain limits and to overcome them. These incessant and persistent efforts (since no social formation will concede that it has been superseded) form the terrain of the conjunctural, and it is upon this terrain that the opposition organizes.

Gramsci, Prison Notebooks*

How might we theorize the discursive limits of the public debate over the latest implosion of the capitalist world-system? As Gramsci suggests, the appearance of structural crisis can be taken as a definite sign that certain contradictory aspects at the deepest levels of capitalist society have come to a head, resulting in an abrupt drying-up of capital liquidity, the widespread destruction of value and assets, and a general state of economic chaos and uncertainty that engulfs public discourse indefinitely. For some, such a seemingly blatant manifestation of system irrationality prompts the observation that it must be met with an equally systemic policy response at the national level; some argue that it merely represents a particularly steep slump in the normal capitalist business cycle, to be corrected again with due time – and without undue political interference; and some rail against the degenerate state of the prevailing culture, alleging its responsibility for the recent unpleasantness, and place virtue and moral regeneration at the center of any reformist vision. This period of greatly heightened ideological struggle, in tandem with the cascading effects of social and economic dislocation at basically every level of society, form the outlines of the historical ‘conjuncture,’ in which the everyday conflict over the dominant public meaning of widely-shared concepts, values, and ideals – indeed, sometimes over what can even count as “public” – is ratcheted up to a new level of intensity, as various social forces vie with one another to determine what shape will be taken by the unfolding judgment of history.

In the fall of 2008, after the abrupt, serial evaporation of a handful of absurdly over-leveraged investment banks and the ensuing panic in world markets, a discourse fairly quickly emerged in the U.S. media identifying the arcane instruments of a post-Bretton Woods form of finance capital as the main culprit. Dominant media channels did a pretty decent job analyzing and producing informed commentary on the world of financial derivatives, credit-default swaps, and other esoteric mechanisms for what essentially amounts to the creation and dissemination of fictitious capital, and, hence, fictitious value. It didn’t take too long for liberal and center-left commentators to begin arguing that these elements were just one piece of a much larger puzzle, which had to do with a massive speculative bubble in housing markets, which was itself based on massively over-inflated (false) housing prices, which were run up in a global credit market nourished by a larger historical trend of stagnant real wages and metastasizing household and state debt, which was itself a product of financial liberalization as a response to the long world crisis of the 1970s, which was caused by….

In other words, there was for a short time – let’s say, for sake of argument, from October 2008 to the end of summer, 2009 – some fairly serious reflection going on about the root causes of the crisis within a wide range of media channels, as public intellectual figures like Paul Krugman, Dean Baker, and Joseph Stiglitz argued the case for a correspondingly thorough policy response that would hopefully strike at those causes, and restore the conditions for renewed accumulation and growth. There was a fairly widespread call, in other words, for a systemic response to what clearly appeared to be a crisis of the system.

It didn’t take long, however, for a powerful counter-systemic discourse to set in. This shift largely parallels the time it took for a shell-shocked conservative political establishment, reeling from the double whammy of the economic crisis and a decisive defeat in the November general elections, to re-emerge with a powerful narrative that centered upon a particular explanation of the crisis based upon the morality and nationalistic virtue of “the American people.” Crucially, a key precondition of their success in this endeavor – which arguably was registered in the electoral results of the mid-term elections in 2010 – was a discursive reconstitution of the crisis that went beyond arid, center-left economic explanations to recast it as a much broader and deeper cultural phenomenon. This discourse subjugated the definition of the crisis as socially and economically produced to a deeper one that tapped into the fears and anxieties of broad swathes of the American electorate, for whom recent economic events were a mere manifestation of a more serious malaise rooted in a corrupted national ethos. From this standpoint, the ‘activist,’ overweening government of the Obama administration was simply driven by the machinations of a morally corrupt and ethically debased political cadre determined to fleece the middle-classes for pure, venal personal gain. From here, it was only a short step to the reconsolidation of the default neoliberal discursive stasis, premised upon an axiomatic faith in the idea that any government action is bad, by presumption, unless it can be shown to leave things as they are – that is, to leave untouched the foundational social relationships upon which economic life is organized.

The overall point is to illuminate one way in which enduring aspects of political hegemony in U.S. public culture have been operative in the discursive construction of the current crisis. While of course the discourse of reaction did not emerge ex nihilo, preformed and intentional in its activation of far-reaching paths of circulation and identification, it was assembled over time as conservative journalists, Tea-Party activists, Republicans, and – importantly – myriad lesser known bloggers and commentators struggled to give voice to inchoate feelings of dread and despair following the events of the fall of 2008. This was perhaps most iconically performed in Rick Santelli’s famous rant, the following February, in the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, broadcasted on CNBC and quickly circulated at a viral rate throughout the conservative and far-right online community. This was the context in which the re-conjuration of “the people” took place, eventually replacing rationalized discourses of supply, demand, regulation, and economic stimulus with a static discourse of Being, grounded in the enduring images of the American middle-class as responsible, individualistic, and hard-working, which was itself premised upon the negation – abstract but terribly efficacious – of any form of explanation grounded in a concept of the social whole. Society, as Margaret Thatcher explained to us, does not exist – it is pure non-Being. This lived ‘reality,’ this common-sense, was merely reasserted, albeit with a difference, by the the establishment backlash following the inaugural meltdown of the neoliberal regime of accumulation.

*This quotation appears at the beginning of Gopal Balakrishnan’s essay “Speculations on the Stationary State,” New Left Review 59.