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.

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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.

A critique of Fourth Worldism

No more Negative Ned. Instead of critiquing Leftist practice and politics as I often do, I’m writing about something positive and hopeful this essay. To develop some PMA. I wrote a stupider version of this critique many years ago, from which I split off my July 17, 2017, piece called “San Cristobal and Zomia, an exercise in fantasy.” And like that essay, this commentary is not an official MRR column. It’s not Hooligan canon, but apocrypha.

***

Lenin formulated his theory of imperialism in 1900 which differentiates the world capitalist economy into the capitalist national centers of European empire and their exploited colonial periphery. In a Marxist anti-imperialist context, French social scientist Alfred Sauvy coined the term Third World in 1952 as an analog to the Third Estate of the French Revolution. Also jumping off from Leninist anti-imperialism, Mao propounded his Three Worlds Theory by 1974 in which the First World is the developed capitalist nations, the Second World is the socialist nations posing as an international alternative, and the Third World is the orthodox category of undeveloped, underdeveloped and developing  nations. Starting in 1974, Immanuel Wallerstein charted the differentiation of the present world capitalist economy via the consolidation of nation-states and national economies into the fully developed core region, an undeveloped, underdeveloped and developing exploited periphery, and a semi-peripheral region in between. These tripartite schemas imply a fourth geographic tier, a Fourth World in Maoism and an outer periphery in the case of Wallerstein encompassing the marginal territories and peoples incapable of consolidating viable nation-states and national economies.

The left communist critique of Third World national liberation struggles—socialist or not—is that they substitute group identity for class struggle, to the benefit of entrenched local elites. The unity and emancipation of the national, racial, or ethnic group in question is elevated above the unity and emancipation of the international working class, to the advantage of that group’s ruling class and the preservation of capital. State power replaces workers power, national self-determination replaces class self-emancipation, and anti-imperialism replaces anti-capitalism.

I grew familiar with this International Communist Current-based critique during the Vietnam War. While I was impressed with the argument’s uncompromising purity I was also troubled by its lack of nuance and flexibility. Yes, the Vietnamese Communist Party was relentlessly centralizing, eventually purging and absorbing the broader, more populist Viet Cong. In the name of national unity, Communist Vietnam regularly suppressed and liquidated political dissidents (Trotskyists, anarchists), ethnic minorities (Hmong, Montagnards), and religious groups (Catholics, Buddhists). And both the NLF and NVA thought nothing of sacrificing vast numbers of Vietnamese civilians to achieve their military goals. But this was in the face of the United States, the world’s greatest military and economic superpower, which was more than willing to bomb Vietnam back to the stone age, slaughter millions of Vietnamese, pave the country over and convert it into a parking lot for capital, all in the name of “liberal democracy.” Some respect was due the Vietnamese people for their audacity and courage.

The Leninist Third World and Maoist Three Worlds of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s has since transmogrified into a neo-Marxist dependency analysis of Global North versus Global South. From Old Left to New Left, and particularly through the anti-Vietnam War movements and the New Communist Movement, support for national self-determination became a movement unto itself called Third Worldism. Comprised of developing nations emerging from the decolonization wave after the second World War, Third Worldism sought independence from and neutrality between the US/USSR superpower rivalry, a Nonaligned Movement intent not just on international political unity but also a vanguard role for autonomous socialism. In turn, the overlapping politics of Leninist Third World, Maoist Three Worlds, and non-aligned Third Worldism entered American anarchism after 1968, so much so that by the founding of Love and Rage circa 1989, national liberation struggles were critically embraced by a growing number of left anarchists. By 1996 and L&R’s demise, they had pioneered an uncritical acceptance of Chiapas, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), and what would become the next wave of Third World national liberation struggles.

Alternately, embracing a schematic “quadrium quid” (fourth something) has given rise to a socialism that seeks to defend “indigenous peoples, stateless ethnicities and localist/autonomist political models—the ‘Fourth World’” against the ravages of capitalism and the nation-state. [Bill Weinberg, CounterVortex] This category includes hunter-gatherer, nomadic, pastoral, and certain subsistence farming peoples living outside the modern industrial system, various sub-populations excluded socially from the present international order, and minority populations residing in First World countries with Third World living standards. Socialist Fourth Worldism champions “secular, progressive anti-imperialist forces” around the globe and therefore supports libertarian socialist national liberation struggles, indigenous secessionist movements, and non-state resistance movements for local autonomy all fighting against the current world order.

Fourth Worldism has its problems, like Third Worldism, starting with its uncomfortable proximity to Fascism. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy proclaimed solidarity with “proletarian nations” against “bourgeois nations,” post war neo-fascism defended a “third way” beyond capitalism and Marxism, and Keith Preston’s white nationalist fascism calls itself pan-secessionism. The negative territory where Third World and Fourth World overlap brings to mind Robert Kaplan’s dystopian realpolitik in his essay The Coming Anarchy, which he subtitled ““how scarcity, crime, overpopulation, tribalism, and disease are rapidly destroying the social fabric of our planet” and which augers the rapid disintegration of existing nation-states. Gone are dreams of world revolution and socialist internationalism, replaced by the nightmare of ever-increasing fragmentation and powerlessness in the face of world capitalism. Or as Nicole Aschoff paraphrased in Jacobin #19 when critiquing “the small-scale, community-based models pushed by many international NGOs, who increasingly work hand-in-glove with multinational corporations and project the interests of Northern governments,” small is not necessarily beautiful.

Third World national liberation struggles also have fraught relationships with imperialism. Returning to Vietnam, the country was a client state of the Soviet Union, practices an Indochinese-wide imperialism, and often views its highland Fourth World peoples as threats. And Fourth World struggles have sometimes been allied with imperialism in response to repressive national liberation struggles—Montagnards in Vietnam, Hmong in Laos, Miskito in Nicaragua, ronda compesina in Peru, etc. Even contradictions between the EZLN and the Lacandons in Chiapas represent this conflict.

I’m dubious that a Maoist Third World will eventually rise up, surround, and overwhelm the capitalist First World in a town vs country struggle analogy, much less the possibility of some decentralized people’s war of global liberation against what Subcomandante Marcos (Rafael Sebastián Guillén Vicente/Subcomandante Galeano) called neoliberalism’s and globalization’s Fourth World War: It is not only in the mountains of southeastern Mexico that neoliberalism is being resisted. In other regions of Mexico, in Latin America, in the United States and in Canada, in the Europe of the Maastricht Treaty, in Africa, in Asia, and in Oceania, pockets of resistance are multiplying. Each has its own history, its specificities, its similarities, its demands, its struggles, its successes. If humanity wants to survive and improve, its only hope resides in these pockets made up of the excluded, the left-for-dead, the ‘disposable.’ But there is a positive territory where Third and Fourth Worlds overlap. Marcos comes out of the Latin American politics of indigenismo with an indigenous Marxism—an indigenous politics of the poor and working class—although he himself realizes that any Fourth World liberation will be piecemeal, if it happens at all. In my estimation such a liberation movement is, at best, a desperate rear-guard action hoping for mere survival in a world where capitalism threatens extinction and the nation-state portends annihilation. The EZLN’s practice of horizontal autonomy, mutual aid, indigenous Mayan leadership, women’s independence, and mandar obedeciendo in Chiapas are exemplary and inspirational, but remain largely curtailed.

The EZLN originated from the Ejército Insurgente Mexicano (Mexican Insurgent Army) and César Germán Yáñez Muñoz’s Fuerzas de Liberación Nacional (Forces of National Liberation) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Both the EIM and the FLN were orthodox Marxist-Leninist guerrilla forces of a decidedly Guevaraist bent that experienced ideological and organizational changes as they skirmished unsuccessfully against the Mexican state. The EZLN’s theory and practice evolved from decades of struggle—both social and armed—with Marcos being the Zapatista’s most prominent but by no means its sole leader. The situation of Kurdish Rojava is related but different, starting with Abdullah Öcalan’s Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). The PKK was rabidly Marxist-Leninist to the point of Stalinism/Maoism, with Öcalan creating a cult of personality around himself that would have made Stalin envious. Indeed, Stalin and Öcalan both favored the adoring nickname “uncle.” Öcalan and the PKK have been accused of engaging in intense ideological conflict, and at times open warfare against Kurdish tribal, right-wing, moderate, and Marxist elements. In becoming a paramilitary group, the PKK not only spearheaded integrating women into its guerrilla forces, it pioneered the use of female suicide bombers. As a founding member of the ultra-Maoist Revolutionary Internationalist Movement (RIM) the PKK advocated for a scorched earth “people’s war” strategy that rivaled Peru’s Shining Path/Sendero Luminoso in its violence.

The de facto autonomous region of Rojava in northern Syria is comprised of three self-governing Kurdish cantons (Afrin, Jazira, and Kobanî); defended in large part by the PKK-affiliated People’s Defense Units (YPG/J); and conferred by fiat with democratic confederalist politics by Chairman Öcalan. Democratic confederalism is the contrasting paradigm of the oppressed people. Democratic confederalism is a non-state social paradigm. It is not controlled by a state. At the same time, democratic confederalism is the cultural organizational blueprint of a democratic nation. Democratic confederalism is based on grassroots participation. Its decision making processes lie with the communities. Higher levels only serve the coordination and implementation of the will of the communities that send their delegates to the general assemblies. Originally derived from Murray Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism, democratic confederalism may have been bestowed upon Rojava by democratic centralist diktat. But Rojava and the YPG/J remain intimately entwined with the political fights between a myriad Kurdish parties, not to mention the overall nationalist struggle for a greater Kurdistan.

Both the ostensibly libertarian socialist political systems of Chiapas and Rojava champion women’s liberation, bottom-up autonomy, and assembly-style popular democracy. The EZLN’s socialism developed organically and gradually while the YPG/J’s was imposed almost overnight by decree. And whereas the EZLN/Chiapas struggle remains localized and contained, thus tending toward anarchism, the YPG/Rojava struggle continues to extend regionally and nationally, thus tending toward the nation-state. Both the EZLN and currently the PKK/YPG unequivocally reject Leninism, though neither are explicitly anarchist. The putative synthesis of Third World with Fourth World, of anarchism with libertarian Marxism being pioneered in Chiapas and Rojava are admirable and potentially far reaching. Whether they are capable of winning remains to be seen.

Defending the left of the Left: “What’s Left?” June 2018, MRR #421

Dans une société qui a aboli toute aventure, la seule aventure qui reste est celle d’abolir la société.

graffito, Paris, 1968

By the time I turned sixteen, I knew. But I’d suspected it all my life. I won’t claim I was “born this way,” although I’ve had overwhelming urges as long as I can remember. At the time, in 1968, the status quo was being challenged everywhere. So better blatant than latent I always said.

I’m an ultraleftist.

I had a bad attitude toward authority long before I declared myself a radical at sixteen in 1968, when the whole world was exploding politically, culturally, and socially. I’ve told the story of finding my politics, and of evolving from anarchism through left communism to my current left of the Left agnosticism, way too often. In addition to my visceral anti-authoritarianism, I was sympathetic to the underdog, empathetic toward the oppressed, angry over injustice, and always itching for a fight. I identified with the Left, but I felt the conventional Left was insufficiently aggressive and too ready to compromise. I can’t count the times I’ve been called too radical, far Left, hard Left, infantile Left, or ultraleft, and seriously advised to tone down or back off my politics. I’ve had liberal Democrats wave Orwell’s Animal Farm and Trotskyists brandish Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, all the while screaming insults at me. I’ve been called a communist by the liberals and, most telling, an adventurist and objective counterrevolutionary by the Trots.

Lenin’s polemic is occasionally translated as Ultraleftism: An Infantile Disease, hence the common epithet. His vitriol in 1920 was reserved for the Dutch and German Left (the Council Communists) and the Italian Left (followers of Bordiga) for rejecting any participation in reformist working class politics. To the claim by ultras that the uprising of workers’ and soldiers’ Soviets had made parliamentarianism obsolete, Lenin wrote that parliament can still “be used as a platform for revolutionary socialist propaganda.” To the call by ultras to abandon reformist trade unionism for immaculate revolutionary unions, Lenin argued that revolutionaries should remain in the unions to expose the opportunism and social chauvinism of their leaders while converting their reformist fellow workers to revolutionary politics. To the demand by ultras for “no compromise” in theory and practice, Lenin insisted that revolutionaries needed to know “how to retreat properly” and therefore how to effectively compromise in order to survive. These “mistakes” by ultraleftism invariably lead to adventurism according to Lenin, producing reckless or impetuous actions, methods, or policies, especially in political or international undertakings.

Yet what makes parliamentarianism obsolete, what exposes trade unionism as reformist, and what reveals itself as uncompromising is the revolutionary situation itself. The revolutionary moment—from mass uprising to social revolution—is in practice ultraleft. It is invariably spontaneous, politically variegated and broad-based; frequently expressed through similar organizational forms like autonomous collectives, councils and communes; and everywhere surprising and outflanking the powers-that-be and the vanguard parties that hoped to suppress or control it. The historical high points to this ultraleftism are numerous, if often brief—the Paris Commune, 1871; Russia, 1905; Mexico, 1910-19; Russia, 1917-21; Ukraine, 1918-21; Germany, 1918-19, Bavaria, 1918-19; Northern Italy, 1918-21; Kronstadt, 1921; Shanghai, 1927; Spain, 1936-39; Germany, 1953; Hungary 1956; Shanghai, 1967; France, 1968; Czechoslovakia, 1968; Poland, 1970-71; Portugal, 1974; Angola, 1974; Poland, 1980-81; Argentina, 2001-02. From Luxemburg’s The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions to Mattick’s Anti-Bolshevik Communism and Dauvé’s Eclipse and Re-emergence of the Communist Movement, this revolutionary situation, this ultraleftism in practice has been exalted as the sine qua non of socialism. Equally obvious is that historically, the nemesis of this ultraleftism has been the Leninist vanguard party.

The Collected Works of V.I. Lenin runs to fifty-four volumes and roughly thirty-five thousand pages of political writings, studies, polemics, notes, and letters in the original Russian. Yet, with the exception of his explicitly philosophical work Materialism and Empirio-criticism, Lenin wrote almost exclusively about Bolshevik party politics and practice. From One Step Forward, Two Steps Back where he outlined the circumstances which resulted in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party’s split between a Bolshevik (“majority”) faction led by himself and a Menshevik (“minority”) faction led by Martov, to The State and Revolution, his greatest contribution to political theory which arose from arguments with fellow Bolshevik Bukharin, Lenin related everything he wrote back to the Bolsheviks. Lenin was obsessed with defining the vanguard party’s “scientifically correct” theory and practice, strategy and tactics, even process and procedure. For Lenin, the Bolshevik party was “the way and the truth and the life,” and no one came to The Socialist Revolution except through the Bolshevik party.

I’ve talked about Leninism’s delusion of “scientific socialism” as well as its quasi-religious illusions in a previous column on sectarianism (MRR #408). Now I’d like to point out a simple fact, so simple that it should be couched as an aphorism: “One person’s moderate is another person’s ultraleftist.” Liberals consider socialists too far to the left while socialists label communists hard Left. As mentioned above, Lenin himself coined the slur infantile Leftist for Bordiga and the Councilists he considered left-wing communists. In turn, Stalinists disparage both Trotskyists and Maoists as ultraleft, while Trotskyists and Maoists trade this insult between and among themselves. And everybody denounces anarchists as too far left.

Which is how anti-fascist protests and violence are deemed by most on the Left today. Black bloc tactics and antifa strategies in particular have become the subject of scorn and condemnation by the usual suspects; Adam Proctor of Dead Pundits Society and Democratic Socialists of America, Connor Kilpatrick of Jacobin, Sherry Wolf and Derek Wright of the International Socialist Organization, and Left academics from Freddie deBoer to Noam Chomsky. Whether rehashing Lenin’s tired old insults or bemoaning how black bloc tactics and antifa strategies hurt the Left, embolden the Right, and give the state an excuse to suppress political activity, this is clearly a battle to be fought in the streets as well as in academia and on social media. This piling on of the Left onto the left of the Left, in turn, has permitted a bizarre entryism into leftwing politics for former Leftists who have secretly become right wingers.

In “Invasion of the Entryists,” George Monbiot describes one such clandestine shift from Left to Right in excruciating detail. The ultra-sectarian British Trotskyist splinter groupuscule, the Revolutionary Communist Party, went from physically attacking competing oppositionist groups and movements in order to destroy them to founding a journal, Living Marxism, that covertly embraced pro-corporate libertarian rightwing politics. LM eventually became Sp!ked, which still retains its crypto-Libertarianism under the guise of so-called libertarian Marxism. The Sp!ked cadre (Brendan O’Neill, James Heartfield, Michael Fitzpatrick, Patrick West, Frank Furedi, et al), their fronts (among them the Institute of Ideas think tank), and their fellow travelers (Lee Fang of The Intercept, pop journalist Angela Nagle) continue to infiltrate rightwing politics into the Left with constant warnings against the ultraleft, without much opposition or even awareness.

My solution to sorting out who’s ultraleft is to promote a diversity of tactics on the Left and let the success of their respective practices be our guide. Beginning with Malcolm X (“Our people have made the mistake of confusing the methods with the objectives. As long as we agree on objectives, we should never fall out with each other just because we believe in different methods or tactics or strategy to reach a common goal.”) and concluding with Howard Zinn (“Each situation in the world is unique and requires unique combinations of tactics. I insist only that the question is so open, so complex, that it would be foolish to rule out at the start, for all times and conditions, all of the vast range of possible tactics beyond strict nonviolence.”) a diversity of tactics is essential. The mass insurrections and social revolutions extolled above are historical examples of a diversity of tactics in practice, as are the suffragist, labor, civil rights, and anti-Vietnam war movements. Arguments over diversity of tactics, begun in 1999 during the anti-WTO battle of Seattle and continuing through Occupy Wall Street, need to transcend the Leftist debating society and take matters into the streets.

Or as we say in punk rock, see you in the pit!

Communizing Moments: “What’s Left?” May 2018, MRR #420

Enjoy only 2 cosmetics, enough sleep & Dr. Bronner’s ‘Magic Soap’ to clean body-mind-soul-spirit instantly uniting One! All-One! Absolute cleanliness is Godliness! […] For who else but God gave man this sensuous passion, Love that can spark mere dust to life! Revealing beauty in our Eternal Father’s fashion, poetry, uniting All-One, all brave, all life! Who else but God! Who else!

snippets from label for 32 oz. bottle of
“Dr. Bronner’s Supermild 18-in-1 Baby-Castile Soap”

We wanted to communalize our politics, our friendships, our minds. We were five anarchists who, having read Murray Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism, decided we were an affinity group that wanted to take matters to the next level. We drove into Los Padres National Park and hiked a day into the Sespe Wilderness. Our plan was to camp, fast for three days, and then drop mescaline together. It was 1971, and even back then real mescaline was rare. It was probably LSD. It wasn’t just the times; we were a little nuts.

One of our company had to hike right back out due to medical issues, but the rest of us stayed bivouacked in a grove of shady trees near an icy mountain creek while we drank only water and avoided doing much else. The collective psychedelic trip was typical. Ego death. Oneness with all things. Direct communication with the collective unconsciousness and group mind. Seeing without eyes, talking without speech, traveling without the body. Becoming one with the transcendent. Oh yes, and lots of brilliant colors and mystical patterns. I never hallucinated independent visuals, but the drug made the unmediated kairos pushy, fiery, as if electricity raced through my veins. Much of what I felt was familiar thanks to a non-drug spiritual experience I’d had a couple years before. After what we considered were profound revelations culminating in collective consciousness, we broke our fast with Dinty Moore Beef Stew over a sparkling campfire in a percolating night. The next morning, we hiked back out.

Experimenting with drug-induced group mind was all the rage in the day, from the Trips Festivals of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters to the Weather Underground’s acid fueled criticism sessions. But the unmediated all-one spiritual experience of various New Age religions and communalist cults was just as prominent. Harvard professor, LSD guru, and psychedelic pioneer Richard Alpert believed it was possible to achieve the psychedelic moment without drugs, through spiritual means, and he wrote a famous book Be Here Now as Baba Ram Dass about the possibility of staying all-one all the time without the benefit of LSD. Even Dr. Bronner promoted the All-One mystical experience through his magic castile soap.

Beat poet and anarchist Kenneth Rexroth wrote a book, Communalism: From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century, which circulated in manuscript form before being published in 1974. In it he laid out various examples of the libertarian communal tradition. For the pre-modern era he covered the neolithic village, early religious communities like the Essenes and early Church monasticism, the beginnings of open class warfare in various rural rebellions and peasant wars, and the apocalyptic/millenarian/quasi-communist religious movements of Münster, the Anabaptists, and the Diggers. The Russian peasant commune, early American utopian communes, and the beginnings of overt anarchist and communist political experiments completed his survey of the modern era. Rexroth nicely linked up the spiritual and political roots of communalism, and it wouldn’t take much to extend his analysis to the insurrectionary/communizing politics of today’s anarchist/left communist milieu.

This will be yet another essay critiquing Leftist practice and politics, except what I’ll be talking about are the promises and problems of what might be called the propitious communizing moment. Whether the experience is political, spiritual, or drug-induced, this is one polarity of the human experience that has been around for a long time, perhaps as long as there have been humans. I hate to use words like “trans-historical” or “human nature” because, first and last, humans are social beings. And to argue that such unmediated communizing moments are merely the product of human biochemistry is misdirected because all human experience is biochemically based. But what of the insistence that any such experience be made universal, all-encompassing, and 24/7?

Perhaps my most disturbing moment came when I once scored weed from a hippie house where the goal was to remain dosed on acid morning, noon, and night. They kept a bottle of non-chlorinated mineral water laced with LSD in the refrigerator and everyone drank from it throughout the day. The memory of the tranced-out zombie residents haunts me still. I remember both Ken Kesey and Wavy Gravy talking about the gaping holes in their memories where data and recollection simply disappeared from prolonged acid use, a black hole, a dark star, the “smokin’ holes where my memory used to be” in “the train wreck of the mind.”

I occasionally sit zazen at the San Francisco Soto Zen Center. Communally organized and hierarchically structured, the goal is to remain present here and now at all times even while profound incidents of immanence and transcendence are considered rare. Everyday mindfulness as opposed to perpetual nirvana. That the highly organized communalism of such spiritual institutions often degenerates into kool-aid cults organized by and around crazed gurus bent on mass murder or collective suicide is not at all surprising.

Which brings us back to politics. The demand in the the ’60s was not only for permanent revolution but REVOLUTION NOW. Raoul Vaneigem and the Situationists talked of the “revolution of everyday life” and Daniel Cohn-Bendit argued that “the reason to be a revolutionary in our time is that it’s a better way to live.” The manifesto for libertarian communism however was Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism. And his post-scarcity, post industrial, post Marxist anarchist communism was nothing if not utopian. He proposed decentralized, autonomous communes where divisions between theory and practice, freedom and necessity, individual and collective, town and country, industry and agriculture, nature and humanity, technology and ecology are merged into a revolutionary synthesis, an unmediated totality, a political all-one. From the decentralized communism of self-contained communes, Bookchin’s social ecology eventually broke with post-scarcity anarchism for a more practical, communalist libertarian muncipalism based on democratic citizens’ assemblies in towns, cities, and urban neighborhoods linked by regional democratic confederalism. That in turn has become the basis for the revolutionary Kurdish politics in Rojava.

I understood early on that daily psychedelic use was not advisable, but it took me longer to realize I preferred workaday mindfulness to everlasting nirvana, or practical libertarian municipalism to utopian post-scarcity anarchism. I would rather my propitious, unmediated communizing moments be less awe-inspiring and all-encompassing. I’ve mentioned the tendency in such spiritual experiences to degrade into authoritarian cults of personality with a propensity for murder and mayhem. Consider that the politics in question also have an affinity with fascism’s unmediated collectivism. To the old Soviet precept about the politicization of aesthetics, where art is subordinated to politics a la socialist realism, Walter Benjamin contended that the key element to Fascist regimes is the aestheticization of politics. Life and politics are conceived of as innately artistic, to be structured as an art form, and thus imbued with eternal spectacle. In turn, Fascism’s utopian fantasies are of an unmediated poetic space where direct communication is the howl of the dog that goes silent. Life, politics, and art can only be redeemed from fascist degeneration, according to Benjamin, by making them truly dialectical, a concrete form of praxis.

Enemy Of My Enemy: “What’s Left?” March 2018, MRR #418

Comrade.

The word conjures up images of Lenin and Stalin in heroic poses, May Day parades and the Red Army marching, red stars and red flags on proud display, the usual Cold War Soviet iconography. But the original word in Russian—tovarisch—simply means “friend.” A century of anti-Communist hysteria has turned it into an ironic epithet, an evocation of Satan, and a “tell” for fellow travelers. A mirror process among Leftists has turned it into a term of endearment, a signifier of solidarity, and a way to differentiate regular friends from people who have one’s back.

So, who do I consider my comrades?

I have a half dozen close personal friends, my wife included, who I would qualify with the term comrade. Most of them share my generally Leftist politics, and beyond these individuals I reserve the term for political people, groups, organizations, and tendencies on the left of the Left. In this category is much of the anarchist/ultraleft anti-authoritarian milieu that I regularly take to task in this column. I consider these comments comradely criticisms, for the most part, focused on problematic Leftist practice like sectarianism, looking for the next big thing, viewing the enemy of one’s enemy as one’s friends, etc. Embedded in these critiques of practice however have been criticisms of equally troublesome Leftist political theory. Two abiding, yet equally thorny Leftist political stances I dealt with in MRR #415 were anti-imperialism and anti-fascism, which have been “standard issue” on the orthodox Left since the 1930s but which have become part of the warp and woof of that anti-authoritarian milieu only since the 1960s.

Ideally then, I should offer comradely criticism to the anarchist/ultraleft while much more harshly critiquing the mainstream Left. As I consider politics further to the right—from progressives and liberals to moderates and conservatives, and ultimately to reactionaries and fascists—I should move away from criticism altogether into an unapologetic attack mode. Unfortunately, it’s frequently the case that I’ve reserved my greatest vitriol for the people I’m closest to politically. I’ve defined individuals and groups as my enemy with barely one degree of separation between their politics and mine, and I’ve sadly embraced the ancient proverb of statecraft that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” a time or two myself.

Perhaps the most famous example of considering the enemy of one’s enemy as one’s friend was the Sino-Soviet Split circa 1960. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) slavishly followed the Soviet Union’s lead from its founding in 1921 through the beginning of civil war with Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang party (KMT) in 1927 to Mao’s rise to leadership of the CCP during the Long March from 1934-35. After Japan’s invasion of China in 1937, Mao increasingly disobeyed Stalin’s instructions regarding the tactics and strategy the Soviet Union insisted the CCP follow during the second World War. Stalin wanted Mao to engage in more conventional military campaigns in the field while fighting against the occupying Japanese or engaging the KMT in civil war, even going so far as to advise that Mao form a joint anti-Japanese “united front” with Chiang. Mao did neither, instead continuing his guerrilla war on all fronts while remaining holed up in liberated, “sovietized” Yunnan province.

After WWII and the CCP’s seizure of power, Mao heeded the ideological line of his Soviet patrons and followed the Soviet model of centralized economic development, which emphasized building heavy industry while deferring consumer goods production. But Mao was already skeptical of Marxist-Leninist ideology where factory workers were exalted and peasants were denounced as reactionary. Mao eventually argued that traditional Leninism was rooted in industrialized European society and so could not be applied to Asian peasant societies, requiring instead the forging of a unique Chinese road to socialism, a socialism with Chinese characteristics adapted to Chinese conditions. Stalin’s Soviet Union was thus hell-bent on creating an industrial working class on a mountain of Russian corpses whereas Mao’s PRC extolled the peasantry on a comparable mountain of Chinese corpses.

Stalin pushed forced collectivization of Soviet agriculture and heavy industrialization of the economy, developed a cult of personality, and insisted on international Communist unity ideologically, politically, economically, and militarily in a direct confrontation against the capitalist West. When he died in 1953 (as what Mao characterized as “the only leader of our party”), Sino-Soviet relations enjoyed a brief “golden age” of increased political and economic cooperation and international collaboration until Khrushchev’s “secret speech” in 1956. In that speech Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s cult of personality and excessive state terror in a bid to de-Stalinize the Communist Party and Soviet society. In the process he announced a new policy of “peaceful co-existence” with the capitalist West. The suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising made clear how the USSR under Khrushchev intended to deal with any deviation from the new Soviet line.

Mao’s immediate response to the Soviet Union’s new direction under Khrushchev was to launch The Great Leap Forward in 1958. Small agricultural collectives were merged into huge People’s Communes which practiced Lysenko-inspired farming techniques, undertook massive infrastructure projects, and attempted decentralized backyard iron smelting and steel production. The results were disastrous. The Chinese economy was reduced to shambles and a massive famine killed between 20 and 45 million Chinese in four years. Mao was temporarily eclipsed in the CCP’s leadership, but his growing animosity toward Khrushchev’s Soviet Union and its peaceful coexistence stance became the party line.

The PRC denounced the USSR as “traitorous revisionists,” “social-imperialists,” and “capitalist roaders” and was in turn called “ultraleft adventurists,” “crypto-Trotskyites,” “nationalists,” and “anti-Marxist deviationists.’ By the time of the Rumanian Communist Party Congress of 1960, only the Albanian CP sided with China while most other CPs remained loyal to the Soviet Union. The PRC and the USSR then formally broke relations in 1962, took opposing sides on a variety of international issues (Vietnam, India, Indonesia, the Cultural Revolution, Taiwan, the Cuban missile crisis, Cambodia, nuclear disarmament, etc.), and fought a brief border war in 1968-69. As national liberation struggles raged around the globe, they all too frequently became civil wars with the PRC and the USSR supporting rival factions. This was exemplified when, in Angola, the Soviets backed the Leninist MPLA while China backed the pro-American reactionary UNITA. But the crowning example of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” remains the PRC’s rapprochement with the United States between 1971-72, culminating in Nixon shaking hands with Mao in Beijing in 1972.

I’ve related the story of Tim Yohannan’s December 1993 Great Purge of Jeff Bale specifically and Maximum Rocknroll generally several times before, most recently in issue #299 and #375. Consider it now in light of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” No need to repeat myself here other than to say I deliberately exposed Larry Livermore’s bogus pretensions to democratic socialism and provoked him into becoming my enemy. As Larry publicly ruminated in the pages of MRR about whether to quit as a columnist over Tim’s firing of Jeff I wrote Larry a letter calling him a weak, waffling liberal whose absence from the magazine would not be missed and please not to let the punk rock door hit his sorry ass on the way out. Larry compared me to his oft-used literary device, Spike Anarky, to argue that I represented the worst of the hardcore Left while he tendered his resignation to MRR. From that day on I used my column to belittle, criticize, attack, and denounce him and his politics every chance I got. I even wrote a fake MRR Larry Livermore column about him meeting Spike Anarky who, like him, had sold out his punk rock soul.

I didn’t stop there however. I looked for allies—potential friends that were the enemy of my enemy—to wreak some havoc, everything from encouraging the acrimony between Larry Livermore and David Hayes to fantasizing about coaxing a few crusties I knew to fuck Larry’s shit up; all to no avail. Definitely mean-spirited and perhaps a bit obsessive, I have neither excuse nor guilt. I still think Larry is a dick and a sellout, but I stopped wasting time and energy on the asswipe decades ago. It took me awhile longer to curtail my knee jerk reactions and realize that the enemy of my enemy is often equally as fucked up. Next time, I’ll detail a more elaborate example of the proverb as I illustrate yet one more problem of questionable Leftist behavior.

Travels with Synesthesia: “What’s Left?” October 2017, MRR #413

I stood on an outdoor train platform surrounded by snow in my fever dream. The sky was black, speckled with white, either stars or snow. The ground was white flecked with black, and as I looked more closely at the snowy ground I grew distraught. It was like looking at white skin dotted with black pores, only the skin was like a sheet of greasy virginal Crisco and the black pits were putrefaction personified. I was deeply disturbed by the dual view, the juxtaposition of silky white as seen from a distance and black rot seen up close, and this ugly double vision had a smell, like burned hair.

It was a nightmare actually, the product of a bad case of measles when I was seven years old. When I startled from the terror of that dream, the combined view persisted well into my wakefulness and I had to shake myself, blink a number of times and crane my head back and forth, to finally dispel the affect. The fever produced a couple repeats of the nightmare while I was sick, but it was more upsetting when the night terrors returned when I was no longer ill. For a few years afterwards I had the horrible dream intermittently, complete with the frightening double vision and associated smell that continued after the dream woke me. I had to get out of bed each time and move around my room to make the hallucination dissipate.

It was my first experience of synesthesia. The twisted visual dream was intertwined with the smell, two senses linked together as one, the visual creating the olfactory. I was so freaked out about the double vision thing and preoccupied with preventing future nightmares that I didn’t notice the connection until well after I had managed to suppress the dream’s reoccurrence. I accidentally singed my hair as a fourteen-year-old adolescent pyromaniac playing with freelance rocket making and the stench immediately triggered a brief episode of double nightmare vision.

My second instance of synesthesia happened after I turned 18. I had just registered for the Vietnam draft, enrolled at Ventura Junior College in anticipation of transferring as a junior to UC Santa Cruz, and started hanging out with some high school friends now attending college who were part of Campus Crusade for Christ. They gently badgered me to attend prayer circles and bible studies, triggering my latent Catholic guilt feelings about everything from masturbation to experimenting with drugs. One Saturday afternoon, as I walked through the lemon and avocado groves near my home in deep, troubled contemplation, I was visited by god.

At least that’s how it felt at that moment. Everything around me became brilliant, clear, and sparkling. I felt immersed in everything around me, and simultaneously elevated above it all. I had a sense of personal calm, but not of peace. And there was a burning firewood and slightly fruity smell. I had the sensation of being in the presence of something vast and powerful and absolutely frightening, something with which I was in communion, something that was about to change my life. For the first time I understood the meaning of the word awe, a feeling of reverence and respect mixed with fear and trembling. It was not in any way a pleasant sensation. I was simultaneously overwhelmed, exalted, and terrified.

Thus began my brief stint as a born-again Christian, where being touched by god was inextricably linked to the smell of the burning bush. It quickly evaporated into my longstanding atheism as I ultimately tried to explain away my experience. The smell, well I was in the middle of a lemon grove so maybe there was some brush burning nearby. I eventually started taking psychedelics and noticed the similarity between those chemical experiences and my spiritual one, including lots of drug-induced synesthesia. But to call my mystical experience biochemically based doesn’t say much as all our experiences are ultimately biochemical in origin. Only when I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Living with a Wild God much later did I reconcile myself to the possibility there are still mysteries to the universe to which I’m not privy.

I may never have been touched by god but I have been hammered by the migraine devil, a surefire cause for my synesthesia nowadays. I started getting migraines when I was around 43. They were rare, and both classic—with prodrome, aura, and excruciating headache—and intense, incapacitating me for 8 hours minimum. I became dissociative to the point of verbal and mental incoherence until I just went to sleep for the rest of the day, to wake sometime later with a horrific migraine hangover. Over the years, my migraines increased in frequency and decreased in severity, so that I now get one every month or so, each just a little bit of an aura and no appreciable, immediate headache. I have tried botox treatments and now do a micro-dose of an anti-convulsant drug.

A recent migraine started with sensitivity to light, then a dizzying head rush when I stood up, quickly converting to a sparkly scotoma complete with scintillating lights and jagged black-and-white anasazi lines, all sharply bordered into a blindspot that slowly floated across my vision. I had errands to run, but I took the time to let the brief aura dissipate. It did not automatically turn into a headache, but the disassociation started on the drive down the hill to a nearby commercial neighborhood. Everything appeared simultaneously vaguely familiar and utterly strange. I seemed to be in a Tyrolean Alpine village, odd and quaint, at the bottom of a deep, dark mountain ravine. And the crisp air was saturated with the odor of burnt metal.

The Greek prefix syn- means united, with, together, at the same time. Thanks to my migraines, I experience low level hallucinations and synesthesia intermittently, where my senses run together. Nothing like my childhood fever dreams or my adolescent altered states of consciousness, yet still a departure from reality. Even without the outright instances of synesthesia, I grasped that my sense of smell was somehow linked to my other senses, as when the shape of the trees in Golden Gate Park seemed connected to the park’s loamy smell, triggering vivid childhood memories from when I lived with my parents in San Francisco between the ages of three and six years old.

I realized early on that the real world wasn’t what it seemed to be, and might actually be much more than it seemed. I certainly didn’t arrive at the absurd belief that we create our own reality or that mind is the only reality, and I’m particularly disdainful of the post-truth assertion that simply believing something makes it so. Climate change, like gravity, is real, whether we believe in it or not. But it would be too facile to claim that my ability to juggle different points of view comes from these experiences of altered reality I’ve had throughout my life. I haven’t become any less tolerant of fascism simply because I can understand fascist ideology or comprehend where a fascist is coming from.

I also don’t doubt that my unconscious capacity to synthesize sensory input in part accounts for my artistic and literary creativity. But as a conscious basis for originality, synthesis is overrated. Both Alice Yaeger Kaplan and Kevin Coogan cited the French fascist Robert Brasillach who wrote that Communism and Fascism would one day be seen as “the two poetries” of the twentieth century. We now seem to be inundated by attempts to synthesize leftwing and rightwing ideologies in efforts to “go beyond” Left and Right. These calls to transcend the orthodox Left/Right political model almost all come from the Right, it must be noted. Current Left/Right crossover politics should also be pointed out for having originated in nightmare with the goal of ever greater nightmare. The separate totalitarian horrors of Communism and Fascism only anticipate greater horrors in some terrifying synthesis to come. This political combination is entirely voluntary. My fever dreams and migraines are not something I wish to relive, and even my spiritual experience was unpleasant. Plus, they were not of my choosing.

But enough about the sick joke that equates poetry with indiscriminate terror and mass murder.

 

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