Rojava and the ghost of Kropotkin: “What’s Left?” April 2019, MRR #431

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
Karl Marx
The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852

There’s no Left left.
riffing on Gertrude Stein

 

Does history repeat? Are we living through a rerun of the interwar period (1918-1939) with a repeat of the wealth-crazed Roaring Twenties, the dark rise of Fascism, the growing international crisis, and the imminent threat to progressive politics if not all of civilization as we know it? Karl Marx was using the debacle of Louis Bonaparte rhetorically to elicit historical comparisons, bitterly mocking the political situation of his time after the dismal defeat of the 1848 revolutionary wave. Dialectics kept him from falling into the aphoristic thinking of liberal historiography a la Santayana. In reviewing the current state of affairs, I’m tempted to sidestep Marx’s biting humor to acknowledge that history often happens first as tragedy and second as even greater tragedy.

“There are a thousand differences between what happened in Spain in 1936 and what is happening in Rojava, the three largely Kurdish provinces of northern Syria, today.” So wrote anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber in a 10-8-14 Guardian opinion piece in fleshing out the general parallels so far sited between the two time periods. Besides noting the striking similarities between libertarian socialist politics in liberated territories then and now and alluding to the resemblance between the International Brigades of 1936 and the International Freedom Battalion today, Graeber concludes: “If there is a parallel today to Franco’s superficially devout, murderous Falangists, who would it be but Isis?” In further praising the “remarkable democratic experiment” being conducted by the Kurds in the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, otherwise known as Rojava, he reformulates the fascist enemy in a 2-23-18 Guardian opinion piece:

Today, this democratic experiment is the object of an entirely unprovoked attack by Islamist militias including Isis and al-Qaida veterans, and members of Turkish death squads such as the notorious Grey Wolves, backed by the Turkish army’s tanks, F16 fighters, and helicopter gunships. […] The religious extremists who surround the current Turkish government know perfectly well that Rojava doesn’t threaten them militarily. It threatens them by providing an alternative vision of what life in the region could be like.

I’ll discuss the parallels and distinctions between libertarian socialist politics then and now in a future column. The international situation and disposition of forces today are radically different from what they were in 1936. Liberal parliamentary democracy seemed to be on the ropes back in the interwar period, steadily losing ground to Fascism on the Right and Communism on the Left. Modern decolonization movements in the form of socialist struggles for national liberation hadn’t yet begun. The Soviet Union was touted as a revolutionary socialist society positioning itself as humanity’s bright utopian future around which progressives, social democrats and even anarchists rallied, confirming a world in which “[b]ourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism” according to Rosa Luxemburg. Today there is no “socialist world” and “real existing socialism” is confined to a handful of Soviet-style relic states. A decolonized Third World continues to fragment. Social democracy and progressive politics generally are losing ground to rightwing populism in liberal parliamentary democracies, part of the rightward trend worldwide toward conservatism, traditionalism, authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism, fascism, neo-nazi totalitarianism, etc. There is no “transition to Socialism,” merely the threat from various forms of Barbarism.

The centuries-long legacy of European imperialism and subsequent Third World decolonization left the Kurds and their national aspirations stateless, divided between four artificially constructed Middle Eastern nation-states and among a dozen surrounding ethnic/religious communities. With the Cold War overlay and global contention between the Soviet bloc and the “Free World,” the Kurds had a brief few decades when they sought to choose between socialism or barbarism instead of competing imperialisms. Virtually every Kurdish political formation claimed to be socialist at minimum or Marxist-Leninist in full, with several dozen conflicting Kurdish political parties divided territorially, ideologically, and by tribe/clan, thus generating a highly fractious nationalist politics. I don’t have the space to discuss this complexity other than to note that when Soviet-style Communism collapsed internationally between 1989 and 1991, the US was left the victor and sole superpower. The Kurds reoriented themselves to seeking alliances with and aid from the US, which has repeatedly proven to be a mistake.

The US has blatantly used the Kurds and their nationalist ambitions for short-term American imperialist gain time and again, betraying them without a second thought whenever it was convenient. Through the CIA, the Nixon Administration fomented a Kurdish rebellion in northern Iraq against Saddam Hussein as a favor to the shah of Iran in 1975 which Henry Kissinger then betrayed. In 1991, George H.W. Bush personally encouraged the southern Shia and northern Kurds of Iraq to revolt against Saddam Hussein, only to balk at militarily aiding those rebellions, leaving the Shiite and Kurdish insurgents to be brutally crushed by the Ba’athist dictatorship. Kurdish autonomy and the Kurdistan Regional Government that emerged thereafter were more honored in the breach than the observance by the US, establishing a de facto Kurdish independence after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That autonomy was compromised after the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 as the central Iraqi government, backed by Iran, rolled back agreements on power sharing, oil production, and territorial control with the Kurds. The 2011 collapse of Syria into civil war, and the subsequent rise of IS with its 2014 Northern Iraq offensive were followed by the battles for Kirkuk and Mosul, the consolidation of Kurdish power in northern Syria, and the Kurdish defeat of IS in both Iraq and Syria. The US aided this Kurdish military resurgence, but now Trump and the US threaten to betray America’s Kurdish allies once again by a precipitous withdrawal of troops from Syria.

The Kurds see the US as the political and military guarantor of Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq, and now in northern Syria, where Rojava is carrying out a profound libertarian socialist experiment in self-government. But the US is a notoriously unreliable partner, first and foremost because America always pursues its own imperialist interests in the region. Second, the US consistently promotes the interests of regional client states like Israel and Egypt and regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The US being the principal imperialist power remaining in the world means that support for the Kurds and Rojava is a complicated affair, especially for the left of the Left.

“Syria In Brief” is an internet project [syriainbrief.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/leftist-groups-on-the-syrian-civil-war/] which summarizes the position of some fifty-four western Leftist groups, all of which “support secularism and socialism […] and oppose intervention by Western powers, but their attitudes towards the Assad regime, the Kurdish PYD/YPG-led Rojava, the vast and multi-colored opposition,” Russian intervention, “and the so-called Islamic State vary greatly.” For the anti-imperialist Leninist Left disparagingly called “Tankies,” those politics are rigid, vulgar and formulaic. Imperialism is categorically bad and US imperialism is particularly bad, so the Butcher of Damascus Assad and his Russian allies are to be supported at all costs. Thus Tankie anti-imperialism means defending the client Syrian state of the former “real existing socialist” state of Russia without fail. By contrast, virtually all of the left communist and left anarchist groups listed—as well as assorted independent Leninists, Trotskyists and Maoists—support the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria/Rojava, the PYD/YPG/SDF, and their libertarian socialist experiment on the ground. Many also critically or partially support the Free Syrian Army in particular and the Syrian opposition generally.

But how to square the circle and support the Kurds without endorsing US imperialism? The short answer is that it can’t be done. An open letter in the New York Review of Books from the Emergency Committee for Rojava on 4-23-18 called for the defense of Rojava by demanding the US government:

  • impose economic and political sanctions on Turkey’s leadership;
  • embargo sales and delivery of weapons from NATO countries to Turkey;
  • insist upon Rojava’s representation in Syrian peace negotiations;
  • continue military support for the SDF.

David Graeber signed the letter, along with Noam Chomsky, Debbie Bookchin and scores of others. Much as the anarchist Peter Kropotkin provisionally supported the Allied cause in the first World War by signing the Manifesto of the Sixteen, the left of the Left today cannot easily back the Kurds of Rojava without tacitly supporting American imperialism. But the crude support for Assad, the Syrian government, and their Russian backers by “sundry ersatz progressives” and “fatuous self-styled ‘anti-imperialists’” means supporting “the genocide and democracide now being planned over in Ankara” and complicity with “the torture, abductions, killings and ethnic cleansing of Kurds that will follow,” according to Anna-Sara Malmgren and Robert Hockett (Haaretz, 2-2-19).

Welcome to Machiavellian realpolitik.

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Crossing the line: “What’s Left?” March 2019, MRR #430

[The Motherfuckers are] a street gang with analysis.
—Osha Neumann

Fuck shit up!
—hardcore punk catchphrase

Conservatives are the new punk.
—alt-right-lite catchphrase

When I read Michael “Bommi” Baumann’s political memoir Wie Alles Anfing/How It All Began in 1979, about his experiences as a West German urban guerrilla, I took to heart his slogan: “Words cannot save us! Words don’t break chains! The deed alone makes us free! Destroy what destroys you!” The feeling behind his words resonated with the aggressive, direct action-oriented anarchism I’d developed since 1968, but by the late ‘80s I’d abbreviated those sentiments into the phrase “fuck shit up.” Fuck shit up was a hardcore punk war cry. Bands from Useless Pieces of Shit to Blatz wrote songs with the saying in the title and the lyrics. There’s no more punk an expression than “fuck shit up,” which is abbreviated FSU in graffiti.

An organization of punks arose in the Boston area in the early ’90s also called Fuck Shit Up/FSU, started by Elgin James. James was a mixed-race orphan raised by peace-and-love hippie foster parents who preached pacifism but subjected Elgin to a harmful home environment of alcohol and drug abuse. He reacted to his parents by becoming straightedge and rejecting their pacifism for the Black Power philosophy of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and the Black Panther Party, ultimately embracing the aggressive ideals of hardcore punk rock. Running afoul of the law, confined briefly to juvenile hall, Elgin enrolled to study pre-law but suffered brain damage from an injury incurred during a gang fight. He slowly, painfully recovered his mental and physical abilities through intense physical therapy, but remained destitute and homeless until he moved to Boston. There, he became the singer for the hardcore band Wrecking Crew in 1991 and joined a multi-racial crew of working class punk kids to form FSU, with Fuck Shit Up also coming to mean Friends Stand United and Forever Stand United.

Ostensibly aggro, straightedge and anti-racist, Boston FSU’s core stance was undying loyalty to one’s crew of friends defended by righteous violence. Boston FSU started by claiming to purge white power skinhead gangs from shows and the scene, then quickly moved on to taking out drug dealers. Going “right after the heart of the enemy, money,” FSU robbed drug dealers, then gave half of their take to local charities and straightedge bands while keeping the remainder for themselves. FSU started an “arms for hostages” scheme to trade handguns for pit bulls used in dog fighting rings with inner city gangs. Boston FSU’s reputation grew. Soon FSU chapters sprung up across the country. In 1992, I remember FSU being listed in Anti-Racist Action zines as a premier straightedge, anti-racist, hardcore punk organization and therefore legitimate allies in the fight against white supremacy.

That didn’t last. Many Boston punks considered FSU thugs and their claim to rid the scene of nazi skins bogus. FSU also targeted bouncers, scene outsiders, and civilians with what the group considered justified violence. “Fuck nazis and dope dealers” escalated to “fuck anybody who isn’t us.” Ideologies grew more extreme, with hardline supplanting straightedge. Members died and chapters splintered. A number of FSU members eventually joined the Outlaws and Mongols motorcycle gangs. Violence linked to FSU in Salt Lake City—including a mob attack, McDonald’s arson, and mink farm bombing—culminated in a gang-related murder in 1998, leading the FBI to declare FSU a street gang by 2009. Elgin James put out a hit on a supposed neo-Nazi and then attempted to extort money from the individual in 2005, which lead to his arrest by the FBI in 2009 and imprisonment in 2011/12.

So when does a crew become a gang? When FSU fell apart, James and surviving founding members formed the Foundation Fund to set up scholarships at local universities to honor dead FSU members and reflect “hardcore punk culture” and ideals. But FSU had crossed the line from scene crew to street gang long before.

Now consider another example of the use of violence in turning a crew into a gang.

Breitbart published an article entitled “Political Punks” in 2015 that featured a détourned image of the classic Ramones picture, the four band members posed against a brick wall with their faces switched up for Greg Gutfeld, Clint Eastwood, Ann Coulter, and Gavin McInnes. One of the first uses of the spurious meme, the cliché that “conservatives are the new punk” has become a mantra for McInnes and his ilk ever since.

McInnes was born in Britain of Scottish parents who migrated to Canada when he was a child. He played in the Ottawa punk band Anal Chinook and founded Vice with Shane Smith and Suroosh Alvi in Montreal in 1994, exhibiting from the beginning his propensity for provocation, rightwing culture jamming, and countercultural cooptation. McInnes almost single handedly manufactured the gentrifying, mostly white, male and young hipster subculture. He was bought out by his two Vice partners in 2008 and, fancying himself a comedian, writer, actor and businessman, he attempted various marginal commercial ventures. But by 2012 his increasingly right wing trajectory was apparent. He peddled transphobia, founded his own news commentary internet show and advertising company, and became a regular contributor for Rebel Media, Infowars, and Fox News. He wrote for more overt paleoconservative/white supremacist media like TakiMag, American Renaissance, and VDARE. And McInnes founded the Proud Boys (PB) in 2016 just prior to being employed by CRTV in 2017.

What The Monkees were to music the PB are to politics—a cleverly constructed and recruited group designed to appeal to a carefully targeted demographic. And like hipsterism before, the PB were mostly concocted by Gavin McInnes, whose leadership has been equal parts deflection and “balls out” bullshit. He has constantly declared the PB multiracial and gay friendly, yet its membership remains overwhelmingly young, white, and hetero. From its retro rightwing ideology (anti-feminist pro-family, free enterprise small government, anti-Muslim “Western chauvinism”) to its goofy ritualism (Disneyesque name, Broadway themed anthem, five cereal faux beatdown initiation) and pseudo-Masonic trappings (pledging, graduated system of “degrees,” Fred Perry “uniforms”) the PB as a fraternal organization boils down to drinking and fighting, in McInnes’s own words. And despite simply wanting to enjoy a drink with “his boys” and a little spurious charity work, McInnes is all about the fighting, having declared “I want violence, I want punching in the face. I’m disappointed in Trump supporters for not punching enough.” He amended the PB with a “fourth degree initiation” where “We don’t start fights […] but we will finish them.”

What this has meant in practice publicly is overt provocation, intentional aggression, and targeted violence by the PB. At New York University, in Berkeley, California, in Portland, Oregon, and mostly recently at the New York Metropolitan Republican Club, the PB have squared off against antifa in alliance with assorted white supremacist (Identity Evropa, 211 Boot Boys) and patriotic militia (Oath Keepers, III Percenters) groups. Acting as “founder, not fuhrer,” McInnes proclaimed after Charlottesville that the PB can’t have white supremacist alt-right members while at the same time declaring that white supremacy doesn’t exist. This leaves the PB free to associate and openly work with the racist alt-right as a rightwing alt-lite ally. The PB may have started as a joke, but it’s far from a goof that simply got out of hand. McInnes deliberately fanned the PB’s violent rhetoric, hyperbolic claims, and collusion with white supremacy. In turn, this allowed McInnes to transform the burgeoning PB from a contrived crew to an ersatz gang specializing in bodyguard muscle, anti-antifa vigilantism, and general rightwing mayhem. The Monkees, after all, were quite popular and had a decent following even when they were purely corporate tools.

I viewed the brutal Boston Beatdown videos and realized that six or seven charismatic individuals besides Elgin James were behind FSU’s power and draw. When I saw Gavin McInnes’s rambling, incoherent video distancing himself from the PB and the “Proud Boys 9” “for their own good” now that the FBI unofficially consider them extremists I could feel the palpable fear of a RICO anti-organized crime indictment looming over McInnes’s resignation action. McInnes had become the clownish ex-hipster Mussolini of a suburban gang without analysis. Now that an “Elders Chapter” and Chairman Enrique Tarrio are officially the boss of this so-called “Western chauvinist” fraternity few think the PB will remain the leading alt-right-lite organization tasked as GOP enforcers and anti-antifa vigilantes. Some are predicting sectarian battles and splits. Others believe the PB will gradually fade into obscurity. But the PB might yet linger. To Mao’s famous dictum “if you don’t hit it, it won’t fall” I’d like to add the anarchist caveat:

“If it doesn’t fall, you didn’t hit it hard enough!”

Originally this column featured a Skarhead picture to obliquely reference a wider discussion about crews in punk and hardcore from https://dukecityhardcorepunk.wordpress.com/2017/12/19/crews-in-the-punk-and-hardcore-scene/. I got crap for it so I replaced it and other pictures with ones from Boston Beatdown.

Promoting Maximum Rocknroll: “What’s Left?” February 2019, MRR #429

In retrospect, this is my saddest column. I wrote it when MRR was in crisis, but when I still had hope the print edition of the magazine could be salvaged. I wanted to do my part to drum up support for it, but subsequent developments proved me wrong.

***

Whenever I’m out and about wearing my gang colors (read: my MRR t-shirt) and aside from comments like “cool shirt” I get questions. “Are they still around?” (Yep, 37 years and counting.) “Where can I get a copy?” (Order a copy online or buy one in select stores.) And, very rarely: “How can I help MRR out?” Here’s my rather lengthy answer to that last question.

GIVE MONEY

Money is the most and least important way you can help MRR. Most important because, as the song goes, “money makes the world go ‘round.” Money is crucial to the production of the magazine and the survival of the overall project. But it’s also the least important element because people frequently give money without doing anything else, often to assuage their guilt for not doing anything else. We’re still glad to take your cash, and there are several ways to give it to us. NO STRINGS ATTACHED: Just give us the money. In the old days, punks would send MRR cash in the mail. Of course, it was in payment for subscriptions or records or what have you, but the result was that Tim Yo had lots of spare cash to use without reporting it to the Feds. Those days are long gone and we don’t recommend you send us money via the post. But if you don’t need your donation to be tax deductible, then just send us a check or money order. Sorry, MRR doesn’t do BitCoin. TAX DEDUCTIBLE DONATIONS: MRR is a not-for-profit, not a nonprofit. You can’t give us money directly if you want it to be tax deductible. Fortunately, we partner with a great little nonprofit, San Francisco All-Ages Art & Music Project (SFAAAMP), which is a legit 501(c)(3). You can send your donation to SFAAAMP, c/o John Downing, 3653 24th Street, Ste. 2, San Francisco, CA 94110. Make sure to mark it for MRR.

MRR is also happy to exchange product for money. It’s called commerce, and there are several ways you can purchase stuff from us. BUY SINGLE ISSUES: We can sell you single issues or multiples of any single issue—current or back issue—so long as it’s still in stock. They make great gifts for friends and family. There are deals for 6 back issues, and you can download PDFs of the current issue and select back issues online. SUBSCRIBE: This is the best way to get your copy of the magazine. Subscriptions are available for 6 and 12 months respectively. Not only do you get it for a discounted price, subscribing gives us a steady dependable income we can count on for the duration of your subscription. Gift subscriptions for friends and family are also awesome. OTHER PRODUCTS: MRR offers records and comps, as well as lots of great t-shirts, for you to buy. We give away free buttons and stickers when you purchase stuff from us. ADVERTISE: If you have something punk related (music, zine, book, etc.) advertise it in the pages of MRR. Our rates are cheap. Depending on what you do, we can do an ad exchange. ROUND UP: A 6 month subscription sent to anywhere in the US costs $26.00. Why not round up to an even $30? Most of our styling t-shirts go for $15 apiece. Why not round up to $20? That’s the idea. DO A BENEFIT: You can organize your own benefit for MRR in your local scene, or have your band play a show to benefit MRR. You can even sell MRR at local shows and we’ll send you a bundle.

LEND SUPPORT

            There are lots of ways to support MRR non-monetarily. Whenever you find the magazine at your local record shop or bookstore, make sure to tell them how glad you are to find MRR there. If your favorite record shop or bookstore doesn’t carry us, ask them to do so. See if your local library will carry us. MRR is on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Like us, follow us, comment on and repost our stuff on your social media. Mention and review us on websites, blogs, podcasts, and everywhere possible on the internet. Do the same in the remaining analog media like print magazines, newspapers, and books. If you do a zine, mention us, review us, and put up a free MRR ad. Patronize the businesses who distribute the magazine and patronize our advertisers. Make sure they know you like us. Attend MRR PRESENTS shows and events. Listen to and follow Maximum RocknRoll Radio online and on your local radio station. If your radio station doesn’t carry the radio show, ask them to do so. Tell the bands, labels, authors, zine publishers, etc. you like that you saw them in the pages of MRR. And send us your music, zines, books, comics, etc. so we can review your stuff in the magazine.

VOLUNTEER YOURSELF

            There are shitworkers, reviewers, columnists, and coordinators listed on MRR’s first two Top Ten pages, but we’re all volunteers. I like to divide the volunteers into two basic categories: IN IT FOR THE GLORY and BEHIND THE SCENES. In It For The Glory are volunteers who want to see their names in print reviewing records, demos, books, zines and movies, doing interviews, recording radio shows, listing top tens, and writing columns. Behind The Scenes are volunteers who do things for MRR without wanting credit in the magazine. That includes picking up the mail, distributing the magazine locally, to subscribers and internationally, green taping and filing records, cleaning up the office, tabling at events, putting on shows or other events, coordinating various departments of the magazine, and coordinating the entire magazine. Of course, volunteers can be in both categories. I used to be listed as a shitworker under “George Impulse” and as a columnist under “Lefty Hooligan” until the coordinators made me decide how I wanted to be credited. Being the glory hound that I am, I opted for columnist. All MRR’s volunteer positions are open to anyone who wants to step up, provided you have a commitment to the magazine and punk rock. In It For The Glory volunteers should also be informative, entertaining, and provocative in whatever they write or record for MRR. At their most basic, Behind The Scenes volunteers can just show up and do their job. Those Behind The Scenes volunteers who coordinate specific departments or who coordinate the whole enterprise need to be vetted by MRR as a whole because they are responsible for running and producing the magazine. In general, volunteers should be consistent and dependable because nobody likes a flake. But any punk can and should volunteer for MRR if you want to support us.

SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SCENE

I’ve always been into weird, edgy bands—Deviants, 13th Floor Elevator, The Up, MC5—so getting into punk wasn’t a stretch when I lived in San Diego. I can’t remember whether I saw The Ramones at San Diego State University in December, 1978, or October, 1979, as my first ever punk rock show. I was a heavy drinker in those days, so things are hazy. I was a regular at San Diego’s Skeleton and Zebra Clubs. I did a two-sided broadside called Point-Blank (subtitled an anarchist no wave monthly) in 1984 and a regular zine called San Diego’s Daily Impulse (an anti-authoritarian news journal that went from bimonthly to quarterly and then to monthly) from 1985 through 1989. I regularly tabled at shows and progressive events, and organized two Anarchy Picnics at Balboa Park and one Hardcore Picnic at Mariner’s Point that turned into a full blown riot. I put on several benefit shows and helped set up various anarchist affinity groups and anti-authoritarian organizations, including the short-lived Borderlands Anti-Authoritarian Community and a chapter of Anti-Racist Action.

Such was my local punk street cred when I moved to the Bay Area in 1991. I immediately got involved with MRR. Not exactly the Bible of punk rock despite Tim Yo’s tongue-in-cheek issue touting that status, MRR was a leading international magazine of punk rock that made a point of covering local punk scenes. It still is and does, despite the general decline of print media and punk music. So, by all means, support your local scene. But if you do a zine or play in a band or put on shows or record a podcast or whatever else you do in your local scene, send it to MRR. We’d love to cover it. By supporting your local punk rock scene you can support MRR.

I’m against it!: “What’s Left?” January 2019, MRR #428

I’m against it.

Groucho Marx as Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff
“I’m Against It,” Horse Feathers

I’m against it.

The Ramones, “I’m Against It,” Road to Ruin

I’m against it.

Capitalism that is. I’m against capitalism because it prioritizes profit over human need, exploits workers, engenders economic instability through overproduction and underconsumption, promotes social inequalities, degrades human community, destroys the environment, and encourages short term thinking at the expense of longterm planning. There is a vastly better alternative to capitalism in the form of socialism.

My antagonism toward capitalism is a standard, rational form of opposition. “A” is bad while “B” is good, so here is why I oppose “A.” I’ll call this vanilla opposition.

Then there’s contrarianism. It’s the opposition of that Beatles song “Hello Goodbye” the lyrics of which proclaim: “You say ‘Yes,’ but I say ‘No’.” It’s a reflexive, unconscious form of opposition. It’s actually a very punk form of opposition. In Anarchy Comics #3, published in 1981, Paul Mavrides and Jay Kinney penned the comic “No Exit” about hardcore punk rocker and visceral anarchist Jean-Paul Sartre, Jr., who gets transported 3000 years into the future when anarchism has finally prevailed and where “There’s no more war, oppression, sexism, racism, ageism, shapeism, sizeism!” Needless to say, J-P doesn’t react well. At one point he freaks and starts to “fuck shit up.” J-P’s future hosts admonish him: “Really J-P! There’s no need for this alienated behavior!! Since all property belongs to everyone, you’re only hurting yourself!!” To which J-P responds: “Yeah? Well, if it’s all mine too, I can wreck it if I want to, right?”

Such is the essence of this form of opposition, which I’ll call reactive opposition. MRR once had a columnist who specialized in this type of opposition and routinely played Devil’s Advocate in the pages of the magazine. If Tim Yo or other MRR coordinators insisted there be no racism, sexism, or homophobia this columnist would go out of his way to defend sex with children or call gays “homos.” I hung out with him a couple of times and whenever people reacted angrily to his antics a sly smile would cross his face. Ultimately, he was fired when his column was rejected for calling women who had survived sexual assault “cry babies” suffering from “survivoritis” in letting themselves remain victims. Ironically, he whined he was a victim of MRR’s anti-free speech PC attitude. In this era of Trump and Kavanaugh, he’s on Facebook writing post-MRR columns in which he regularly defends Trump and the horrors of Trumpism. As a dutiful contrarian, of course.

Finally, there’s what I call dark opposition. Dark opposition stems from the seductive charms of the transgressive. The English Puritan John Milton wrote an epic poem intended to exalt his Christian faith by retelling the Genesis story of the fall of man. Called Paradise Lost, its main problem was that the figure of Satan, as evil incarnate, came off as way too charismatic and downright noble. So attractive was Milton’s portrait of the devil that Paradise Lost was a best seller in its day while his sequel of the story of that goody two-shoes Jesus, Paradise Regained, was a flop. Every modern rebel, whether adolescent or political, identifies with Satan when he declared “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” I’ll spend the rest of my time discussing dark opposition based on the appeal of transgression, or what in Star Wars lingo is called the “power of the dark side.”

BBC-TV did a movie, Longford, about the 1960s moors murders and the English aristocrat and prison reformer who became involved with one of Britain’s most notorious criminals, child-killer Myra Hindley. Hindley gets one of the film’s better lines when her character says “Evil can be a spiritual experience too.” The draw of transgressive evil is never to be underestimated. Numerous books have been written on the subject and several youthful subcultures have actively embraced the dark side of things, the most prominent being Goth.

But the appeal of the left-hand path goes back all the way to Vedic Vāmācāra practice and Tantrism which eventually entered Western spirituality through Madame Blavatsky, Theosophy, and Aleister Crowley. The latter couched it in terms of the occult and ceremonial magic where the right-hand path equated to benevolent white magic while the left-hand path meant malevolent black magic. Magick if you will. This distinction is common with occultists, among them parafascist Julius Evola who emphasized that those pursuing the right-hand path worked selflessly for the glorification of the divine while those on the left-hand path worked egocentrically for the glorification of the self. After the second World War, esoteric Nazism and Hitler worship emerged in various forms of völkisch spirituality in neo-völkisch movements, pioneered by such individuals as Savitri Devi, Robert Charroux, and Miguel Serrano. This is paralleled in the revival of anti-modern elements of tribalism, paganism, Traditionalism, and mysticism in everything from right wing politics (Alain de Benoist’s Nouvelle Droite) to music (industrial, black metal, neo-folk), terms often preceded with the combining form neo- (as in neo-tribal, neo-pagan, etc.) This is part of an opposition to modernism, of a revolt against the modern world.

Rarely has this amounted to a conscious embrace of the power of evil however. More often, and especially among the young, this has meant flirting with the devil, being naughty, getting an adrenaline rush, emotional thrill, or sexual charge from teasing the dark side. Sometimes it’s conveyed as a conscious provocation, the deliberate use of highly charged language and symbols to outrage those who are invariably labeled “squares.” This is the calculated method of musicians and bands like Boyd Rice and Death in June in the industrial and neo-folk genres who dress fash and talk fash but never actually claim fascism as an up front affiliation. In the end, a small percentage consider their embrace of the left-hand and the right-wing a positive good. That’s the stance of most involved in the ultranationalist Patriot movement because isn’t patriotism a good thing after all? Robert Anton LeVey defined his Satanism as a Nietzschean übermensch philosophy in opposition to the prevailing Christian herd mentality of society at large. And the virulently anti-semitic, Hitler-worshipping murderers of the neo-nazi Atomwaffen Division death squad believe that a new, expanded Holocaust—in which not just Jews and Leftists, but the immoral, degenerate and weak will be exterminated—is a positive, healthy social good.

These diehard characters are downright proud of their badass transgressive Nazi selves, unlike assclown Gavin McInnes and his ilk on the ultra-right who, when called out for throwing a Roman salute or reveling in racial slurs, disguise their dark shit with their disingenuous reactive crap. “Can’t you take a joke?” is their common refrain. Occasionally those who are in dark opposition are actively aided by those who are in reactive opposition. The Elbo Room, a long-standing San Francisco dive bar, recently closed its doors due to lease/landlord issues. In December, 2015, the Elbo Room gained notoriety by proudly hosting a show for the band Death in June and co-owner Matt Shapiro said: Death In June is not a Nazi band, nor a group that preaches hate. While they use controversial imagery and have songs with subject matter that some may find challenging, they are definitely not Nazis, nor hateful. I come from many generations of Jews. Do you think I could look my mother in the eye after booking a Nazi act? Shapiro wasn’t dissembling, he actually believes DiJ aren’t fascist, let alone Nazi or white supremacist. He called out the police against protesters he falsely claimed were wielding knives. “These folks were menacing and looking for trouble.” We have to take Shapiro’s word that DiJ are not fascist and that protesters threatened violence in this prime example of reactive opposition. Had it been the former MRR columnist mentioned above, he would have defended DiJ because they are fascists, in deference to his free speech absolutism. How punk.

Not.

Luis Buñuel once said: “Sex without sin is like an egg without salt,” implying a measured application of transgression to life. I’ll be the first to admit my vanilla opposition is neither aggro enough nor sexy enough for most rebels-in-waiting. Yet reactive opposition and dark opposition are so fraught with problems I’ve barely scratched the surface here. I’ll readily admit having started out in reactive opposition in my youth and I’m sure some would argue that my present vanilla opposition is a sorry climb down from those heady days. But I’m quite proud never to have entertained any dark oppositional tendencies beyond faking Nazi mannerisms with a tiny group of friends taking German in high school. Now that Kavanaugh has been confirmed to the Supreme Court, I can sincerely call that a “youthful indiscretion.”

Rightward and downward: “What’s Left?” December 2018, MRR #427

My wife, my friends, everybody I know is pissed that I’m not more pissed off about that horrible, horrible man Donald Trump. That I seem pretty sanguine about the hurricane of political, social, and human destruction Trump and the GOP have wrought in such a short period of time or the damage they will continue to inflict for decades to come through, for instance, the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. So, why am I not more freaked out about Trump?

The answer is that, in my lifetime, I’ve seen this nation’s relatively liberal politics go consistently downhill and rightward to the present. I first became aware of American politics writ large when I was 8 years old, when John F. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960. My parents had been Democrats and Adlai Stevenson supporters, so my frame of reference started from a liberal “Golden Age,” the “one brief shining moment” that was the myth of JFK and Camelot. But unlike many people who believe the fifty-eight years that followed have witnessed ups and downs, good times and bad, pendulum swings left and right, and are therefore upset, desperate, and obsessed with the rise of Trump, I see those years all of a piece, a steady right wing devolution as we go straight to hell in a handbasket.

The relatively lean, muscular structure of the American state prior to 1929 permitted the nation to create an empire—by conquering the native populations, expanding its rule from coast to coast under Manifest Destiny, and asserting its power across the western hemisphere under the Monroe Doctrine. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in confronting the challenges first of the Great Depression and then the second World War, radically transformed American government in riding a wave of socialist/communist militancy. FDR crafted the modern warfare/welfare/corporatist state that attempted to democratically sidestep the excesses of Soviet Communism and European Fascism while outflanking the Old Left’s upsurge domestically. Considered the height of American Liberalism, the New Deal has been disingenuously celebrated by that same Old Left even after a smooth political transition to the rabid anti-communism of the Eisenhower era. The guns-and-butter Kennedy/Johnson years continued the anti-communist military intervention and domestic social welfare expansion permitted by First World economic affluence, as New Left* activism and organizing surged. It must be remembered that Nixon arguably was the last liberal president.

These two prolonged separate Leftist periods were when progressive coalitions mobilized to move the Democratic party and American politics dramatically to the left. Four briefer, distinct occasions when ultra-conservative coalitions mobilized to purposefully move the Republican party and American politics profoundly to the right need also be noted: McCarthyism and the era of “Father Knows Best” morality; the prefiguring Goldwater presidential campaign; the rise of the New Right presaging Reagan’s presidential bid in a new age of austerity; and the Tea Party movement that anticipated the rise of Donald Trump and independent Trumpism. Yet Democratic party governance after 1975 was not a reversal or even a holding pattern so much as a more gradual rightward descent: Carter with economic deregulation and Cold War escalation; Clinton in slashing welfare and promoting free trade; and Obama as the drone-bombing-deporter-in-chief and TPP champion.

I’ve summarized this country’s inexorable political slide to the right over the last half century. The changeover from Keynesian affluence to neoliberal austerity however hints at something more fundamental underlying American politics whether you see those politics as a swinging pendulum or, like me, as a steady flush down the porcelain highway. American capitalism made the switch from making profits out of industrial productivity to financial speculation somewhere around 1975, accounting for both the decline of the 60s New Leftist surge and the defeat of the 70s labor upsurge. In commercial capitalism profit is extracted almost exclusively from circulation, from trade, from the buying and selling of commodities. Under industrial capitalism profit is extracted not just from circulation but also from the labor process in which factory workers are paid less than the value they produce from their labor—from surplus value. Surplus value is then used to construct more factories and to hire more workers for wages in an ever-expanding cycle of profit-making.

But capitalism suffers from a tendency for the rate of profit to fall (in the interpretation of Marx I favor), which not only results in the boom-and-bust economic cycle we’re all familiar with but also in an increasing inability to sustain industrial production. In my lifetime we’ve seen industrial production become so unprofitable that US industrial labor has been outsourced and factories moved to the Third World, resulting in America’s overall deindustrialization and conversion to a service economy. More and more, capitalism in the US is based on extracting profit from financial transactions and speculation, a far less profitable form of capitalism then even the trade in commodities of commercial capitalism. Capitalism worldwide also suffers from the same declining rate of profit, meaning that in China, Vietnam, and other Third World nations industrial production is contracting, meaning that industrial capitalism is slumping internationally and being replaced by finance capitalism. Finance capitalism is not merely a capitalism in decline, it is capitalism heading for the mother of all crises.

Some students of the 1929 Great Depression have contended that, in liberal democracies, deep economic depressions as suffered by the interwar US are conducive to the growth of socialist movements whereas runaway inflations as experienced by Weimar Germany are favorable to the rise of fascist movements. During depressions, people who have no money or work are screwed but for those who do, money has value, work has meaning, and society has integrity, giving the edge to socialism which values labor. During inflations, it doesn’t matter whether people have money or work because money has no value, work has no meaning, and society is crumbling, giving the advantage to fascism which values power.

A similar dynamic can be seen in the transition from industrial capitalism to finance capitalism in liberal democracies. In industrial capitalist societies, work and capital are intrinsically productive and so leftist movements and ideologies are widespread. Government spending and services grow, welfare programs and economic regulation expand, and the public realm and labor unions are endorsed. In finance capitalist societies, work and capital are mostly unproductive and so rightist movements and ideologies are prevalent. The economy is deregulated and financialized, the welfare state is rolled back, labor unions are crushed, the public realm is privatized, and government spending and services are cut back. About all they have in common is an aggressive, interventionist foreign policy. Marxists consider industrial capitalism in terms of constant vs variable capital while consigning finance capitalism to the category of fictitious capital.

Whether Keynesian or neoliberal, democratic or authoritarian, the state serves as the monopoly of legitimate violence, the bulwark for the existing social order, and the lynchpin for the nation and economy. The state functions the same whether under affluent industrial capitalism or austere finance capitalism, so why does society exhibit leftist unrest in the former and rightist agitation in the latter? A staid principle developed in the 1950s was that of the revolution of rising expectations in which “rising expectations embodied the twentieth century’s ‘real’ revolution insofar as it represented for the vast majority of the world’s population a break from centuries of stagnation, fatalism, and exploitation.” The growing affluence from 1945 to 1975 caused expectations to rise in the population at large all over the world, which in turn lead to civil unrest, insurgencies, and revolutions according to the theory. But did persistent austerity after 1975 cause the opposite: widespread social reaction, stagnation, and obedience? The results are dubious either way the theory cuts. The inconclusive empirical evidence, methodological constraints, and conceptual criticisms of the whole revolution of rising expectations thesis makes it useless.

I’m of the Marxist mindset that the social superstructure follows the economic base much as form follows function in the principle enunciated by modernist architecture and industrial design. It also means, in a Gramscian sense, that social superstructure can gain autonomy to act back on the economic base, but the starting point is crucial. We make our own history, but we don’t make it as we please; we don’t make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

I just snuck in another Marx quote.

*New Left in this case does not refer to the politics that grew up around organizations like Students for a Democratic Society but to Leftist organizing and movements that flourished from the Civil Rights movement beginning in 1955 to the collapse of the anti-Vietnam war movement in 1975.

SIGNIFICANT DATE RANGES: Old Left: 1930-50; New Left: 1955-75; Keynesian industrial affluence: 1945-75; neoliberal finance austerity: 1975 onward; McCarthyism/Eisenhower era: 1950-1960; Goldwater campaign: 1963-64; New Right: 1980-88; Tea Party/independent Trumpism: 2009 onward.

Coded conspiracism: “What’s Left?” November 2018, MRR #426


I don’t like words that hide the truth. I don’t like words that conceal reality. I don’t like euphemisms, or euphemistic language. And American English is loaded with euphemisms. Cause Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent the kind of a soft language to protect themselves from it, and it gets worse with every generation.

George Carlin, “Euphemisms”

Sometimes a globalist is just a globalist.

paraphrase of fake Sigmund Freud quote

I grew up in the 1950s, in a “more innocent time.” It was a time when people didn’t curse, not openly that is. When I hit my thumb with a hammer in shop class, instead of shouting “Jesus Fucking Christ!,” I was told to say “Jiminy Cricket!” I envied my Polish-born dad who could let loose a string of Polish expletives whenever he injured himself.

It was actually a more euphemistic time, when great pains were taken to soften and hide reality in the name of politeness and gentility. As the rest of the Carlin routine sadly if humorously illustrates, the WWI term “shell shock” had been transformed into the WWII term “battle fatigue” and was in the process of becoming “operational exhaustion” during the Korean War. I would witness its transmutation yet again into “post-traumatic stress disorder” during the Vietnam War.

Euphemisms substitute mild, indirect, or deliberately vague words for ones considered offensive, harsh, or too blunt for the listener’s own good and the audience’s sensibilities. We use plenty of them today, from passed away or departed for died, and correctional facility instead of jail, to differently-abled or handicapped instead of disabled, and ethnic cleansing for genocide. They’re not to be confused with code words, where a word or phrase has a very specific meaning to a very specific audience, while remaining innocuous to the uninitiated. Code words are used a lot in dog-whistle politics, a relatively new term where words and phrases that are intended to mean one thing to the general population are deliberately used to convey different, additional, or more specific meanings for targeted specific demographics. Terms like “family values” and “pro-family” are intended to be innocuous to the public while conveying homophobic and misogynistic meanings to those in the know. Code words also conceal reality.

In Ventura in the 1960s I knew the town character, a slightly lopsided silver-haired old man named Quince. Quince liked to attend civic events and city functions dressed in what appeared to be a WWII uniform, although upon closer examination he’d incorporated elements of WWI, Civil War, and even Revolutionary War uniforms into the mix. On Saturdays he hung out on the sidewalk in front of the post office with a card table of mostly John Birch Society literature. He was big into the perils of the International Communist Conspiracy, but among the literature was a booklet entitled “Banking and Currency and The Money Trust” by Charles A. Lindbergh.

I knew that Lindbergh had been the first to fly solo across the Atlantic in a single engine monoplane called The Spirit of St. Louis and was nicknamed Lucky Lindy. When Quince saw me thumbing through the small volume he sidled up to me and spoke in a low voice.

“Congressman Lindbergh was one of the first to warn against the cabal of international bankers such as Morgan, Rockefeller, and Rothschild who instituted the Federal Reserve System in 1913 giving them control of interest rates, the stock market, and the capacity to create money out of thin air. He called those international bankers the ‘Money Trust’ and denounced the Federal Reserve Bank’s control over the American republic’s economy, causing inflation, the continuous decline of the dollar, and skyrocketing national debt ever since.”

“Didn’t Congress and President Wilson create the Federal Reserve?” I asked, having been a precocious history buff in my adolescence.

“There were sinister powers behind the Federal Reserve Act.” Quince talked as if he were revealing a dangerous secret. “Lucky Lindy was a great American hero, but even he had to be circumspect about revealing the true evil force behind the greedy power grab by those international bankers.”

Quince glanced about, reached into his coat, and surreptitiously pulled out a plain covered pamphlet that read “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem” by Henry Ford.

That was my first experience of a euphemism colliding with a code word. The modern conspiracy theory about who REALLY rules the world was ancient even back then, with the Illuminati, Freemasons, international bankers, New World Order, and alien shapeshifting lizards now prominent among the covert cliques identified as secretly running the world from behind the scenes. But conspiracy wingnuts purporting to expose those truly responsible for the clandestine system of global domination almost invariably circle back to their OG suspects, “the Jews.”


The promising anti-globalization movement of the 1990s and early 2000s was susceptible to rightwing antisemitic tendencies from its inception which then developed into “soft” antisemitic organizations like AdBusters. AdBusters went on to initiate the Occupy Wall Street movement which, while largely leftwing, attracted rightwing elements that blamed the Federal Reserve, international “banksters,” and the Jews for all that was wrong with the world. On the Right, the terms “international bankers” and “Zionists” have frequently gone beyond euphemism to become code words for Jews. The current use by Trump nationalists and their supporters of “globalists” and “cosmopolitan elites” to characterize their opponents employs code words that imply that the Jews are behind it all. Those on the Right who now rail against “cultural Marxism” never mention that their original Nazi trope blamed the Jews for being behind the evils of both Communism and capitalism. Again, the current meme of “cultural Marxism” goes beyond euphemism and even code words into “snarl words” that tar anyone with progressive politics as a secret Communist while implying that the Jews are covertly responsible for all the world’s ills.

Euphemisms are intended to soften the impact of difficult ideas. Code words disguise the meaning of those same problematic ideas for the general public while specifically targeting a select audience for incitement. Snarl words are derogatory terms that always attack and can never be used in neutral or positive ways. But what about words that hide something that is always kept in plain sight? Words that simultaneously conceal and reinforce concepts with which we are all too familiar?

“Capitalism” and “capitalist” are just such words. Nobody denies that capitalism and capitalists rule the world. There is no conspiracy, no clandestine cabal, no secret government bent on world domination. Capitalism is as natural as the air we breathe, according to capitalists, because humans are individualistic, selfish, and greedy by nature. Their “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange” is also part of human nature and gives rise to capitalism naturally. The ascendance of a powerful stratum of capitalists is also natural. If capitalism is the natural order of things, then capitalists gain power and rule naturally, rightfully due to merit and not by force or conspiracy.

Capitalists comprise a social class and constitute a ruling elite however, according to Marx. And capitalists go about their activities mostly in the open. They form associations openly, from the Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers to the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund. They make their plans openly—in the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times—with no conspiracy necessary. And they carry out their plans, create their organizations, and govern openly with the consent of the people who freely exercise their right to vote as citizens of a democracy. Conspiracies do occur. The secret US war in Laos and Cambodia, the Watergate break-in, and the Arthur Andersen-associated scandals in the 1970s were all conspiracies. But by and large, capitalism and capitalists operate in the open.

This is all to disguise that there is a capitalist ruling class; that capitalism functions through exploitation, appropriation, and outright violence; that in a democracy politicians are bought and paid for by the capitalist ruling class; that the state is the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence; and that “[t]he executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” Capitalists are the original globalists. The current talk about “nationalists” vs “globalists” is actually about the power struggle between two factions of capitalists for control within the international bourgeoisie. It’s all about misdirection, so I call such words sleight-of-hand words.

Capitalism as an economic system has been around for a little over 750 years and did not achieve global dominance until 1989-91. Hominids have been around for about six millions years, modern humans for around 300,000 years, human behavioral modernity for around 50,000 years, and human civilization for about 6,000 years. Most human societies prior to capitalism were communal, hunter/gatherer, and tribal. That’s another reason why capitalism is neither natural nor a product of human nature.

Godless recovery: “What’s Left?” October 2018, MRR #425


The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.

Søren Kierkegaard

Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void – it is shining.

John Lennon, “Tomorrow Never Knows”

I stopped drinking on January 1, 2010. I did so under the guidance of Kaiser’s Chemical Dependency Recovery Program. Right off, I went to meetings—physiology of addiction classes, AA meetings, LifeRing meetings, harm reduction meetings, and appointments with counselors, therapists, doctors, and psychiatrists. But once my body started to detox after 30 days, I got depressed. Real depressed. Clinically depressed. I did cognitive behavioral therapy for another eight months until I felt comfortable enough to call myself sober.

I was an atheist when I was a drunk, and I remain an atheist now that I’m sober. I crafted my sobriety out of various elements from the above list of recovery programs, not out of convenience but from what felt true. And the idea of a “higher power” never felt true. I could admit I had no power over my drinking, and I could surrender to my powerlessness. Just not TO anything or anyone. I was able to surrender to an impersonal universe, to my situation, to existence itself. I was able to say “I give up.” And that worked, without having to invoke a deity or “higher power” or any object/subject to which to surrender.

Actually, the act of surrendering works, with or without a “higher power.” The psychology behind this was clearly described by Gregory Bateson in his essay “The Cybernetics of ‘Self’: A Theory of Alcoholism.” Our Enlightenment definition of “self” equates to the conscious mind, which we believe controls us, our body, through our will power. But it is absurd to argue that consciousness—a part of the mind that functions through ten percent of the brain, generously speaking—can possibly comprehend let alone control the remaining ninety percent of the mind/brain, not to mention the rest of the human body, and thus constitutes the true “self” capable of controlling the whole individual.

Little wonder then that the fictitious Cartesian duality of mind versus matter causes problems. In the case of alcoholics the disastrous assertion that “I can resist drinking and stay sober through sheer will power” can generate a dangerous alcoholic pride that in turn engenders suicidal risk taking. To repeat myself, it is ludicrous to argue that consciousness, which comprises considerably less than one percent of the individual, can control to any significant degree the rest of the individual. The act of surrender then is more than an acknowledgment of this lack of self-control and will power. “Philosophically viewed, this first step is not a surrender,” Bateson wrote. “It is simply a change in epistemology, a change in how to know about the personality-in-the-world. And, notably, the change is from an incorrect to a more correct epistemology.”

Giving up the illusion of will power and self-control allows the individual to begin the process of recovery. That means embracing the act of surrender, of no longer resisting, of giving up. It doesn’t mean believing in god, or a “higher power,” or some external authority. The Black Panther Party pioneered a type of drug rehabilitation in which the heroin addict would “exchange the needle for the gun,” thereby substituting the revolution for god. Unfortunately, when the guns fail or the revolution is inevitably delayed, relapse is more than likely. Surrendering to something external means there’s still something out there to rebel against. Just to surrender however—to give up the “self”—is to start finding yourself.

In rejecting this dichotomy between mind and matter, Gregory Bateson had a simple definition of what constitutes a single unit of mind based on the biology of the human brain. (1) A brain cell, a single neuron, is autonomous, capable of processing blood sugars into the energy needed to sustain itself and electrically fire. (2) The neuron operates on the basis of difference, the fundamental difference being firing or not firing, on or off, yes or no. (3) The neuron is connected via synapses with other neurons into circular or more complex firing patterns to form neural circuitry. Voila, mind! We have thought at its most elemental. From there we can take thought to the biological level (the body with its myriad cells), the social level (comparing how neurons operate in the brain to how humans operate in a social network), and the level of human consciousness (where neural circuitry evolves feedback loops to monitor other neural circuitry).

This model of human consciousness—of a limited self-awareness feedback loop monitoring the vast and immensely complex circuitry of the human brain and body—means that we are aware of only a very small part of our mental and biological totality. “From an evolutionary perspective, consciousness may have evolved as a sort of gate-keeper/librarian/manager/search-engine metaprogram to help organize and harness our vast mental capacity,” according to author J.D. Moyer. “If there’s a lot more ‘in there’ than we’re capable of perceiving/utilizing with our tiny spotlight of consciousness, how do we get at the rest of it? How do we ‘unlock’ the ideas, solutions, connections, emotional strength, and otherwise untapped capacity of our subconscious (or superconscious) minds? […] How do we communicate with our own brains, thereby become a bit more conscious and a bit more free?”


Queue up a couple of mental practices that I’m loathe to call spiritual. Zen is as close to atheism as a religion gets and from my limited experience sitting zazen I’ve benefitted from simple mindfulness, dhyāna (observing the breath), and shikantaza (observing the mind) meditation. I’ve mentioned I’m a recovering Catholic so part of what I’ve tried to recover is what good can be found in my upbringing. Marx called religion not just “the opiate of the masses” but also “the heart of a heartless world.” There’s something to be said for stripping god from prayer and making prayer into a deep form of talking to yourself. Paying attention to your mind and engaging in a conversation with it are the essence of a greater self-awareness.

Meditation, especially of the Soto Zen variety, is well understood. The same can’t be said of atheist prayer. How can something like prayer, which purports to be a form of communication, work when what is being communicated with (e.g. god) doesn’t exist? Against the original Cartesian fallacy—Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”—Bateson disciple Anthony Wilden proposed we use “We communicate, therefore we are” to account for both human individuality and sociality. If our individual and social identity is the product of communicating with others, then the “other” is crucial to that process. According to Lev Vygotsky, talking with our parents becomes talking with the “other,” which becomes “self-talk” and eventually “inner speech.” And while inner speech no longer resembles spoken language, it means that human thought evolves socially. Inner speech is learned through communication with others. What starts out as a communal conversation between people remains a social experience even internally because of our tendency to externalize our internal realities as a constructed “other.” As a constructed externality, a fictive “other,” it is intended to recreate our primal communal conversations so essential to our identity. We use this illusion of the “other” to talk to ourselves, for our conscious mind to interact with the non-conscious mind, for “me” to converse with “all-that-is-not-me” through prayer.

Prayer facilitated through a constructed “other”—whether a personal yet parental “god” or a more democratic pantheistic spirituality or even an impersonal, aloof universe—lets us feel less isolated, alone, and lonely. Prayer allows the conscious mind to query the non-conscious mind for guidance, inspiration, forgiveness, solutions to problems, improvements to life, and the fulfillment of emotional needs. Prayer permits us to express thanks and experience gratitude, letting us feel greater personal well being while sometimes “having our prayers answered” by the non-conscious mind in the form of innovative ideas and remedies, emotional fortitude and resiliency, and greater individual and social connectedness. Prayer without a god, without any spirituality is not an oxymoron.

The symmetry of denying the existence of a god while constructing an externalized “other” doesn’t mean slipping into a Cartesian solipsism, into denying the existence of the real world. Me, I surrender without a god to maintain my sobriety. But I also forego the need for constructed externalities. I frequently talk out loud, talk to myself, ask myself how I might help, how I might do better, or be better. According to Philip K. Dick: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” I have no doubt that reality exists, albeit without a god or a spiritual dimension.

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