Third Party and Skinhead Spoilers: “What’s Left?” May 2016, MRR #396

[My original intro for this column is below. Clearly, shit has happened. No more contested GOP convention. It’s between Clinton and Trump. Marx help us!]

[Covering the primary elections is like trying to nail jell-o to the wall, an almost impossible task. Last column I predicted that evangelical voters will go for Rubio, Cruz or Bush and largely pass over Trump. I was wrong. Evangelicals are flocking to Trump, against their church leadership and their professed Biblical morality. More surprises to come, I’m sure.]

I’m the first to admit that living in the Bay Area, between freewheeling San Francisco and the Peoples Republic of Berkeley and post-Occupy Oakland, my politics don’t really stand out. And living in California, with its Democratic Party hegemony and progressive social bent, means that my politics are also often an indulgence, me being able to honor a picket line when the union movement is essentially dead, or vote for Bernie Sanders while not affecting Hillary’s inexorable win one iota.

So, on viewing the 2016 elections from my Left Coast perspective I tend to oversimplify matters, and maybe dumb down certain aspects of American politics. Like in emphasizing the chaos in the Republican camp versus the dull inevitability on the Democratic side, I gloss over the relentless shift of those politics to the right in the last 45 odd years, something I’ve emphasized in previous columns. Even with the ongoing melee in the GOP, Republicans are on track to elect a significant majority of conservative state governments. That’s because, although there are more registered Democrats than Republicans nationwide, Republicans vote more consistently. So while both parties turn out in force for national elections, Republicans also vote heavily in mid-term elections while Democrats don’t. Thus Republicans choose more of the state governors and legislatures which then control the process of redistricting in each state, which then further skews state-level elections toward the Republicans. If the GOP retains its hold of either the House or the Senate, and perhaps both, about the only thing the Democrats will control outright is the presidency. Hillary’s seemingly unstoppable bid to be the next president is not merely a triumph of the lesser of two evils, but a potential right-of-center Democratic Party victory that fulfills Bill Clinton’s New Democrat turn towards neoliberalism. Obama was never the “great black hope” of American progressives so much as a middle-of-the-road Democrat treading water while the rightwing tide steadily rises. Hell, Bernie Sanders ain’t even all that progressive when it comes to gun control or Black Lives Matter or Israel or military interventionism.

Gloating over the collapse of the Republicans then does not mean celebrating a Democratic victory. And there’s no joy to be found in third party politics, whether in alternative ones like the Greens or Libertarians, mildly leftist ones like the Peace and Freedom or the Socialist Party, or even vanguardist ones like the Workers World Party or Party for Socialism and Liberation. America’s 50%+1 winner-take-all electoral system virtually ensures that only two political parties dominate the political process by favoring the middle-of-the-road, thus marginalizing all other electoral contenders. Third parties do persist, but they have little to no chance of directly influencing politics let alone gaining power. Or, they do so well that they actually replace one of the two main parties, as when the Republican Party replaced the Whig Party to face off against the Democratic Party. But breaking the two-party monopoly with a more European, parliamentary system isn’t in the cards.

What third parties are good for is fucking with the two parties currently alternating in power. Third parties hope to move the main party with which they identify further to the political extreme—left or right—as when George Wallace ran as an American Independent Party candidate in 1968 hoping to capture the white working-class Democratic vote that Trump now garners so effortlessly. But Wallace didn’t make much of a difference in Nixon’s landslide victory of that year. Instead, third parties are often the spoilers in a heated two-party contest, as when Ross Perot’s Reform Party cost Bush Senior a second term in 1992 against Bill Clinton, or Ralph Nader’s campaign as the Green Party presidential candidate in 2000 cost Al Gore the White House against Bush Junior.

Sometimes, just the threat of an independent third party run can cause political turmoil as when Donald Trump—whose ongoing campaigns virtually guarantees that the Republican National Convention will be a contested one—threatened to mount a third a party breakaway effort upon rumors the GOP establishment intended to broker the convention to favor a predetermined outcome. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is currently exploring a third party presidential run if Trump wins the Republican primary and Sanders wins the Democratic endorsement. Being a moderate Democrat-become-Republican-become-Independent, Bloomberg is a socially liberal (pro-abortion, gay marriage and gun control), fiscally conservative (small government, lower taxes) politician, meaning he doesn’t have a chance to be nominated by either party in the best of circumstances.

There is something to be said for the more, the merrier. Certainly, the chaos of a split or contested GOP convention, with the potential for third party splintering, all but hands Hillary the presidency. But she can still lose. If Trump manages to secure the nomination on the first vote, there is a chance he can defeat Clinton. Paradoxically, Hillary’s juggernaut is built around a weak candidacy, one which lots of people dislike even as they grudgingly support her. And if Trump manages the impossible and unites the shattered GOP behind a convention nomination, it’s time to start practicing the Roman salute.

I commented at the beginning of this column that my voting for Bernie in California won’t impact Hillary’s campaign in the least. California holds its primaries in June, meaning that by the time I actually vote, the Democratic Party nomination will be pretty much sown up. That’s on top of having to register as a Democrat to vote for Bernie in the first place. Used to be any registered California voter could vote in any qualified political party’s primary without restriction, whether or not said voter was a member of said party. Then, the state’s two party Democratic/Republican duopoly passed legislation to restrict party primary voting to registered party members only, with the consequence that third party supporters had to decide between belonging to their party of choice or participating in the Democratic/Republican party primaries. Third party memberships plummeted state-wide as a result of these semi-closed primaries and many third parties, like the Peace and Freedom Party to which I belonged almost from its inception, now constantly struggle just to qualify for the ballot. In turn, parasitic vanguard parties like the aforementioned Party for Socialism and Liberation or their sectarian front groups like the ANSWER Coalition, unable themselves to qualify for the general elections, take over vulnerable third parties like the Peace and Freedom in order to field their own leadership as political candidates.

So, I’m a reluctant Democrat. Even with a somewhat more progressive candidate like Bernie to vote for, I’m disinclined to give much more to the electoral process than my vote. Which is why I’m more than a bit irritated by all the bandwagon Sandernistas out there braying 24/7 about how Hillary is Satan incarnate and we all need to support Bernie unconditionally. I did my time promoting my share of Establishment politicians, everything from campaigning for George McGovern to phone-banking for Barack Obama. I’ll give Sanders my vote come June, but all that crap about Bernie being the resurrected Eugene V. Debs and his democratic socialism being a classless utopia and his presidential candidacy being the fulfillment of the American dream is so childish as to be embarrassing. What’s more, I’ll also vote for Clinton in November solely to prevent a lunatic Republican from winning, without hope or guilt.

Returning to my oft-repeated observation that American politics has moved steadily to the right in my lifetime, let me exaggerate to make my point. There’s this documentary—“Riot on the Dance Floor”—of the Trenton, New Jersey punk club, City Gardens, and Randy Now, the mailman who ran it. I think it’s still in the Kickstarter stage of funding, but there’s a 6-7 minute YouTube clip freely available. A much younger Jon Stewart is briefly interviewed by phone because he was a bartender at the Gardens in the mid-1980s, but the really interesting footage that accompanies his voice-over is of the extremely violent pit in the Gardens’ shows. There’s a particularly striking scene of what I call the skinhead wave, a human wall of mostly shirtless baldies that gathers at the back of the hall and then rushes en masse toward the stage, trampling everyone in its path until it crashes up against the people at the stage. Those who were a part of this skinhead wave, they were only a small minority of the visible crowds, yet they dominated that show with their violent antics. I experienced the skinhead wave when I lived in San Diego during the 80s at some of the larger venues, but I think it was mostly a phenomenon of larger scenes like LA, or the East Coast.

The conservative shift in American politics over the last half century is like a slow-motion skinhead wave. Initiated by right-wing individuals who are a definite minority but who sweep all before them with their aggressive attacks, ultimately hoping to crush liberals and progressives against the stage of history, this turn to the right in the country’s politics is deliberate and orchestrated. Just voting for Bernie Sanders won’t accomplish much. And quoting Joe Hill’s last words “Don’t Mourn, Organize!” doesn’t get us much further. It’s a tired platitude, and actually, Joe’s last words were “I don’t want to be caught dead in Utah.” If Trump is elected, it’s a sentiment that many may apply to the whole US of A.

Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, part 1: “What’s Left?” March 2016, MRR #394

VIDAL (loftily): As far as I’m concerned, the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself. Failing that—
SMITH (moderator): Let’s, let’s not call names—
VIDAL: Failing that, I can only say that—
BUCKLEY (teeth bared, snarling): Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddam face, and you’ll stay plastered—

Best of Enemies (film) 2015
transcript from ABC News coverage, 8/28/68

It was a case of the seven-second delay, or lack thereof. ABC News hired William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal to debate the 1968 presidential nominating conventions in real time on live TV as a way of classing up its coverage. The argument got heated, epithets were exchanged, and the above infamous interchange was broadcast uncensored because no profanity delay was in place.

My columns covering the current state of American electoral politics have a built-in delay, not to prevent obscenity, but as a consequence of this magazine’s print cycle. Prompted by the film Best of Enemies, I’m writing this column in December for an early January deadline in MRR #394, March 2016. I lay out the columns section, including my own, by the end of January, which is the last moment I can make changes to the text. By the time issue #394 gets into your grubby little hands, this column will be over a month out of date, and maybe closer to three. So much for up-to-the-minute electoral coverage and timely political analysis.

The seven-second delay has become ever more ubiquitous, even as the internet has done an end run around censorship in all mainstream media. By tacit agreement, every major and most minor media outlets quickly censored the broadcast, print, and digital images of the Bataclan’s blood soaked dance floor after the terrorist attack of 11-13-15. Yet it’s easy to find the original uncensored picture online. In 1968, when Buckley and Vidal exchanged their insults, they were seriously upstaged by the rancorous floor fights within the Democratic National Convention as well as the carnage of Chicago police run riot outside the Convention. ABC News allowing Buckley to drop the “q-bomb” on live TV was the least of the network’s problems, what with journalists getting beaten up by cops in the streets of Chicago and their contentious, often lurid visuals making the news on TV and in daily papers. By contrast, the well-oiled Republican National Convention earlier in August nominated Richard Nixon on a strict law-and-order platform. The GOP’s appearance of firmness, reasonableness and stability in the face of Chicago’s chaos helped earn Nixon his landslide victory.

Today, we’re faced with the reverse.

The Democratic National Convention (July 25-28) looks to be a snooze, with Hillary the foregone nominee and Bernie promising not to buck the party process. The Republican National Convention (July 18-21) has all the makings of a good old donnybrook, a full-fledged political melee, thanks to Trump’s candidacy. There’s talk of a split convention with a nasty floor fight over who to nominate. The old-white-male GOP establishment is thinking about brokering the convention, with Trump and Carson threatening to jump ship. Simply put, the Republicans are clusterfucked.

If Trump is nominated, he will lose to Hillary. Most observers agree that the Republicans will lose big time, on a par with Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat in 1964. If Trump loses the nomination and bolts the Republican Party with an independent presidential candidacy, the GOP will split, and both the party and Trump will lose. This is the Ross Perot Third Party scenario, and it holds to a lesser degree for Carson. The only way that the Republicans have even a chance of winning against Hillary would be if Trump loses the nomination, gracefully accepts the GOP’s decision and throws his full weight behind the party’s nomination. Not fucking likely. Any way you look at it, the Republicans will be bruised and bloodied at the very least, but more likely irreparably splintered into warring factions. In turn, the GOP’s efforts to remain viable are seriously threatened because the unity and respectability of the conservative movement underlying it has completely unraveled.

Tim Yohannan marshaled MRR’s shitworkers into keeping this magazine running after he was diagnosed with terminal non-Hodgkins lymphoma. No, Tim never promised Mykel Board a columnist position in perpetuity, and yes, he wanted to give MRR to George Tabb who turned it down because he couldn’t figure out how to move the magazine to New York City. For Tim Yo, the single most important characteristic of someone capable of running MRR was being an asshole when required, with the ability to make the hard decisions—like firing columnist Jeff Bale or refusing ads from Caroline Records because of their major label involvement or even pulling out of Mordam Records because Mordam was no longer punk enough—and to take the heat for making them.

But there are assholes, and then there are assholes.

Gavin McInnis argues that “Trump is crass and rude and irrational [and an asshole], but that’s what we need. We need hate. We need fear mongering.” Trump supporters are more than willing to see the GOP crash and burn in order for Trump to win. “The Republicans are pussies,” according to McInnis, and if they can’t get behind a Trump nomination, they deserve to lose. It’s not because clowns like McIinnis have no skin in the political game as a new Canadian immigrant recently turned American citizen. Younger Republicans and youthful conservatives are simply no longer willing to abide by Buckley’s dictum to: “Nominate the most conservative candidate who is electable,” or Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment that: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” They’re prepared to hold onto their conservative principles and make their point come hell or high water, even if it means trashing their fellow Republicans, wrecking the GOP, and destroying the conservative movement.

In supporting a conservative asshole like Trump, a younger generation of 30-to-40-something conservatives is ignoring the legacy of yet another conservative asshole, William F. Buckley, Jr. National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg praised Buckley for employing “intellectual ruthlessness and relentless personal charm to keep that which is good about libertarianism, what we have come to call ‘social conservatism,’ and what was necessary about anti-Communism in the movement. This meant throwing friends and allies off the bus from time to time. The Randians, the Rothbardian anarchists and isolationists, the Birchers, the anti-Semites, the me-too Republicans: all of these groups in various combinations were purged from the movement and masthead, sometimes painfully, sometimes easily, but always with the ideal of keeping the cause honest and pointed north to the ideal in his compass.” (NR Online, 10-27-05) Buckley relentlessly purged the conservative movement with the excuse of ridding it of anti-Semites and wingnut conspiracy theorists. According to Paul Gottfried however, Buckley’s “victims became ‘wing nuts’ by virtue of having been purged and slandered. The purges were not a passing or merely ancillary aspect of conservatism; they were a defining characteristic of a movement, whose function was to stake out ground where the Left had been the moment before.” Gottfried calls this Buckley’s “Great Purge” in service of building, maintaining and defending a respectable “Conservatism, Inc.”

But the GOP’s many tendencies and factions were never purged and the conservative movement was never purified. After arch-conservatives took control of the 1964 Republican National Convention to nominate Goldwater for his disastrous presidential run, Goldwater’s conservative base was decimated. Moderate-to-liberal Republicans like Nixon and Rockefeller gained ascendency, but the GOP’s conservative wing did not evaporate. Instead, these conservatives went underground and grassroots, organizing from the base up until they elected Reagan in 1980 for eight years of neoliberal dominance. Moderate Republicans are now endangered, and the liberal ones extinct. Today, conservative tendencies and factions abound; not just Randians, Rothbardian anarchists and isolationists, Birchers, anti-Semites, and me-too Republicans, but also Tea Partiers and neoliberals, white nationalists and supremacists, New Rightists, AltRightists and neo-reactionaries, evangelicals, paleoconservatives, neoconservatives and social conservatives, lone wolves and conspiracy nuts, libertarians and Establishment Republicans, yada, yada, yada. Is it any wonder that Trump’s candidacy has prompted the GOP to come apart at the seams and the conservative movement to descend into internecine warfare?

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a bad thing, the GOP going down in flames. Hilarious, in fact. I just wish there was some equivalent, serious opposition in the Democratic Party and the wider progressive movement to the juggernaut that is Hillary, Inc. Of course, Bernie will make a valiant primary effort at the Democratic National Convention, but he will lose and just as valiantly accede to the party’s nominee. Maybe Black Lives Matter will stage some level of protest inside or outside the convention, but I don’t see mass leftie protests targeting the Democrats anytime soon. And much as I like an acrimonious, bare-knuckled, equal brawl, that’s not likely to happen either. My prediction at this point in the print cycle is that Ted Cruz will be nominated by the Republicans, but Trump will only grudgingly step aside. With the GOP at less than full strength, Hillary will win the presidency.

Great! Four more years of Republican whining and right-of-center Democratic gloating and nothing ever getting done. If the GOP survives, that is. American politics are so fucking lame and unsurprising. A Public Policy Poll recently asked: “Would you support or oppose bombing Agrabah?” Of the Republicans who responded 57% were not sure, 13% opposed it, and 30% said they supported it. When it came to Democrats 55% were not sure, 36% opposed bombing Agrabah, and 19% said they supported it. Agrabah is the mythical kingdom in the 1992 Disney movie Aladdin.

(Copy editing by K Raketz.)

Socialist In Name Only: “What’s Left?” October 2015, MRR #389

I press the hermitically sealed white envelope to my forehead and say: “The Republican Party.” I rip the #10 at one end, blow open the envelope, extract a card and read: “The greatest spectator sport of 2015/16.”

It doesn’t take an Amazing Kreskin, or Johnny Carson’s Carnac the Magnificent, to predict that the real entertainment, the real show in American politics in the next year will be the GOP. I believe the Republicans are in the process of self-destructing, flying apart, having a nervous breakdown, with the real possibility that they will split up into warring factions during the next presidential election. Used to be that the GOP would target the Democratic Party with their vitriol, calling them Loonie Lefties, barking moonbats, or simply just the Democrat Party while forswearing to “never speak ill of a fellow Republican.” Now, having limited their ideological base by driving out most moderate Rockefeller Republicans, conservative Republicans reserve their harshest epithets for each other, escalating from Republican In Name Only (RINO), through the self-evident Squish, to the racially charged cuckservative.

A portmanteau of cuckold and conservative used by rightwing traditionalists, identitarians and neoreactionaries, cuckservative unfavorably compares mainstream Republican conservatives to a porn fetish in which old white males watch as their “wives/girlfriends” [read: America] have sex with young, often black men. Already torn by the division between Establishment Republicans and Tea Party types, the GOP has something like seventeen official presidential candidates and dozens of factions ranging from libertarians through evangelicals to white supremacists each vying to be “more conservative than thou.” The GOP has always had not-so-silent white racists and reactionaries on its fringes. What is clear from the use of cuckservative is that the loudmouthed mainstream candidacy of Donald Trump has given them new life. Only Trump also threatens to mount a third party campaign for the presidency if he is not nominated. Like Ross Perot before him, this may very well splinter the Republicans beyond repair as well as lose them the election.

[Trump has since toned down the circus by promising not to bolt the Republican party if he is not nominated.]

Now, I spend all of fifteen minutes every two years voting. That’s the extent of my involvement with electoral politics. I don’t support particular political candidates or parties or issues or campaigns. So my main interest is in being entertained by this country’s periodic Democratic/Republican donnybrooks. I like a good, old-fashioned name-calling session; a real, bare-knuckled insult fest with graphic mudslinging and ad hominem attacks. But while the Republicans have gotten off to a rollicking start, the Democrats are staid and sadly conventional by comparison.

Aside from prosaic insults like racist, sexist, reactionary or fascist, Democrats have rarely anything more colorful than rightwing wingnut as an aspersion against their Republican rivals. As for internal conflicts, the old disparagements of Dixiecrat or Blue Dog Democrat for conservative Democrats has settled down to the all-inclusive DINO, for Democrat In Name Only, even as the entire Democratic Party has moved decidedly to the right since the heyday of JFK/LBJ liberalism. And when a self-avowed socialist candidate like Bernie Sanders takes on Hillary Clinton’s establishment Democratic Party campaign from the left, he is summarily dismissed as a Socialist In Name Only, or SINO.

Fredrik deBoer, a writer for Jacobin Magazine, frets about the love-hate relationship between his fellow socialists and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in a recent Politico essay. At one end of the range, he quotes Bruce A. Dixon that: “Bernie Sanders is this election’s Democratic sheepdog. … Sheepdogs are herders, and the sheepdog candidate is charged with herding activists and voters back into the Democratic fold who might otherwise drift leftward and outside of the Democratic party.” At the other end of the range, he quotes Bhaskar Sunkara who sidesteps the issue of Bernie’s socialist credentials by contending that “Sanders is moving the discussion to the left, and mobilizing an absurdly high number of people” and then answers the question of whether Sanders can win: “Yes, definitely. Just not the primary or the presidency. Barry Goldwater didn’t win until a couple decades after he ran.” This ambivalence toward the Sanders campaign is emblematic of the Left in general and of how, when asked to constitute a firing squad, the Left often forms a circle, guns aimed inward.

Gerard Di Trolio, also a writer for Jacobin, argues that the Socialist International and its member social democratic parties are SINO. Me and my left commie pals, we tolerate our anarcho cousins, but we regularly call out both social democrats and Leninists as SINO. I’m sure they return the favor every chance they get, when they’re not putting each other down as SINO. And, on the truism that we are frequently most antagonistic toward those we are closest to ideologically, ultraleftists denounce fellow ultraleftists, anarchists denounce fellow anarchists, social democrats denounce fellow social democrats, and Leninists denounce fellow Leninists as SINO, all on the basis of a fraction of a degree of separation in ideology between them. Call it sectarianism, or call it human nature, but the SINO insult is alive and kicking on the Left. As I write this column, members of Black Lives Matter in Seattle shut down a Bernie Sanders rally, later stating: “The problem with Sanders’, and with white Seattle progressives in general, is that they are utterly and totally useless (when not outright harmful) in terms of the fight for Black lives. … White progressive Seattle and Bernie Sanders cannot call themselves liberals while they participate in the racist system that claims Black lives. Bernie Sanders will not continue to call himself a man of the people [read: Socialist], while ignoring the plight of Black people.”

Okay, so, I’ve been a tad disingenuous by about ten minutes with regard to my involvement in electoral politics this year. I got our Bernie Sanders for President poster hanging up. Cool “power to the people” red-white-and-blue glossy placard that can be seen from the street. A neighbor asked about it and, this being San Francisco, he now has his own Bernie poster on display. No doubt I will be criticized for even minimally supporting a long-shot presidential candidate residing as I do in a blue state like California where Democrats dominate and where I can afford to waste my vote making a statement. It’s not like supporting Bernie Sanders in a red state like Texas, where my sign could get my house egged or worse, or campaigning for him in a swing state like Florida where my vote might cause another Gore/Bush/Nader meltdown. Of course, there is always the argument that, in running, Bernie Sanders helps to move Hillary Clinton to the left in that Sanders himself has no intention of bolting the Democratic Party. But deBoer hopes that the “Sanders campaign [could] potentially do more than pull the inevitable nominee to the left, and actually make a run at the nomination.” And, of course, there’s that snowball’s chance in hell that Bernie might actually win, not just the nomination but the presidency.

That’s my purely pragmatic take on American electoral politics. I’ll get to commenting in future columns on American electoral politics generally, how European politics compare, theoretical discussions of electoral participation and the like, while the crazy season for the 2016 elections cranks up.

Class war, not race war: “What’s Left?” September 2013, MRR #364

I wanna war, between the rich and the poor
I wanna fight and know what I’m fighting for
In a class war, class war, class war, class war
This war, that war, class war, last war

The Dils, “Class War”

I’m a twenty-first-century New Yorker and therefore have little time to contemplate race. It’s not that racism doesn’t exist. Lots of people in New York, and elsewhere, hate because of color and gender, religion and national origin. It’s just that I rarely worry about those things because there’s a real world underneath all that nonsense; a world that demands my attention almost every moment of every day.
Racism is a luxury in a world where resources are scarce, where economic competition is an armed sport, in a world where even the atmosphere is plotting against you. In an arena like that racism is more a halftime entertainment, a favorite sitcom when the day is done.

Leonid McGill, lead character
Walter Mosley, All I Did was Shoot My Man

Who knew, in 1979, when I was pogo-ing to “Class War” by the Dils, that the Kinman brothers would go on to front a drowsy little cowpunk band called Rank and File. An oft-quoted criticism of that latter effort was that it was “music to fall asleep in the saddle by.” It was even rumored that one of the Kinmans (Tony or Chip) had, horror of horrors, become a Republican.

As an aside, can anyone remember the pogo?

I’m unable to authenticate the turn to the conservative side by either of the Kinmans. Not that conservative punks are non-existent, but they are rather a rare breed. Johnny Ramone and Lee Ving come immediately to mind, followed by Bobby Steele, Dave Smalley, and Joe Escalante. There’s a prominent right-wing libertarian streak to some punk rock, as can be seen in the band Antiseen. And, for fuck’s sake, Iggy Pop once voted for Ronald Reagan.

Left-wing punks are more numerous by far. Just look through the pages of this magazine over the years for the umpteen bands proclaiming anarchism, and the somewhat fewer ones who claim socialist or communist politics. To list all the leftist punk bands would be daunting indeed, but this is not to say that punk as such is left-wing by nature. Punk is overwhelmingly apolitical, invested in nothing more than sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. A time-worn mantra by now, repeated for some sixty years by generation after generation, youth counterculture after counterculture, iteration after iteration of rock musicians and their fans. Generalize this understanding of rock music to society at large, however, and the analogy quickly breaks down.

America has a halfway decent history of class struggle, given the relative youth of this country. Objective circumstances have driven the American people, large parts of it, onto the proletarian side of genuine, protracted class struggles until recently. Such was the case, off and on, during the Great Depression and thereafter, from 1929 up through 1950. Much more rarely, subjective consciousness within the American people reached the stage of what could be called “class consciousness,” when folks believed that “a better world is possible.” There were a few general strikes—St. Louis 1877; New Orleans 1892; Seattle and Winnipeg 1919; San Francisco and Minneapolis 1934; Lancaster, Stamford, Rochester, Oakland 1946—during which the working class, very briefly, moved beyond class struggle into open class warfare, and ultimately, into potential proletarian revolution. But class struggle of any sort has become almost non-existent since the 1970s.

To my mind, the American public has become a passive lot since then. Political pundits like to claim that the American public is innately predisposed to their particular political point of view. Glenn Beck has argued that the American people are basically conservative, unless they’re bamboozled by the liberal mainstream media and that socialistic Democratic Party. Michael Moore has contended that the American people are essentially progressive, except when they’re being tricked by the fascistic GOP and their Wall Street overlords. I’m of the opinion that Americans, most Americans these days, are just trying to get by. When they’re not busy surviving, folks in this country are interested in being entertained, by what the ancient Romans called “bread and circuses,” which is the very old school equivalent of “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.” Both objective and subjective experiences of class struggle are the exception, rather than the rule today. For the most part, as Americans, we just want to be entertained.

That leaves politics in this country in a very sorry state indeed. The official mythology is well known. There are two official political parties; the Democratic and the Republican Parties. The Democratic Party stands for American workers, women, and racial and ethnic minorities; promotes big government when it comes to regulating business and certain types of social engineering; defends civil liberties and individual morality; seeks to tax the rich and expand the welfare state for those less fortunate; and crusades for a strong military. The Republican Party represents those of middle income as well as big business; advocates limited government through economic and social deregulation; supports traditional civic and moral values; pushes to reduce taxes on the wealthy and to dismantle the welfare state; and demands a strong national defense. But, as former Alabama governor George Wallace was fond of saying, “[t]here’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Republicans and the Democrats.” Whether we consider the Democrats and Republicans as two parties each representing the interests of capital, or in fact just a single party of the capitalist ruling class, the Democrats representing its left face and the Republicans representing its right; the reality is that this country is really, really fucked up.

This final point is particularly salient with the virtual demise of American labor struggles after 1980, and the rise of neoliberalism across the political spectrum after that date. Class struggle, let alone class war, has all but dropped out of the American political lexicon, if not its social reality. Democrats are circumspect about using the terms class, let alone class war, when talking about taxing the rich or aiding the poor, preferring euphemisms such as fairness and compassion. Republicans accuse Democrats of class warfare if they so much as hint at increasing taxes on the wealthy or opposing cuts to so-called entitlements, all the while engaging in actual class war against America’s poor, workers and its middle classes at the behest of society’s wealthy. Yet increasingly, both Democrats and Republicans share a common politics of downsizing government, dismantling the welfare state, demolishing what unions that are left, deregulating the corporate economy, privatizing anything that is public or social, and globalizing the influence of capitalism and America’s military. Truth be told, the class war in this country is all but over. The American ruling class has won. We, the rest of us, have lost.

Little wonder then that we, in this country, are obsessed with race, not with class. Even when America’s class war was going full force historically, race was a particularly pernicious problem. These days, in the wake of the Zimmerman trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin, the American people, and the Democratic and Republican Parties, are both fascinated with, and in denial of the importance of race in this country. This preoccupation with race wreaks havoc on the fringes of society and politics. On the far right, white supremacists look forward to racial holy war, all the while talking vaguely of America’s working people. And an “angry white male” who is a regularly featured columnist for TakiMag extolls the working class nature of such terms as “redneck,” all the while claiming that every black person he knows is as dumb as a bag of rocks.

The befuddlement on the American left over class and race is even more profound. The fossil Communist Party which believes that all issues—race, sex, gender—must be subsumed to that of class, and those anarchos who proclaim “no war but the class war,” have all been relegated to the dustbin of history. But what analysis to replace class with? Those Trotskyist and Maoist remnants of Marxism-Leninism that try to jostle race with class into some sort of new configuration are playing second fiddle to those anarchos who seek to give equal weight to class, race, sex, and gender, who consider being working class as just another form of identity politics, or who tend to elevate the problem of white skin privilege over everything else. That is, of course, when those anarchos aren’t fucking shit up for the sake of it, in nihilistic insurrection über alles.

Myself, I tend to favor a class struggle analysis, whether its hardcore as in the Dils lyrics, or more nuanced, as in the Walter Mosley passage quoted above. Unfortunately, my uncertainty only grows as I grow older. That’s the case not just regarding class struggle, or the relationship between class and race, but with virtually everything else.

Right-of-center sellouts: “What’s Left?” October 2011, MRR #341

Needless to say, politics suck.

Yet, in the wake of the recent debt ceiling Congressional debacle, nearly all of my liberal friends, and even some of my radical comrades, are making excuses. Obama made strategic blunders in negotiating with the GOP. Or, the president is congenitally weak due to his innate desire for consensus and compromise. Or, the office Obama occupies is constitutionally powerless, toothless, incapable of standing up to Congress in the debt ceiling negotiations.

Bullshit.

I agree with Glenn Greenwald who, on 8-1-11 on Salon (salon.com), commented: “The evidence is overwhelming that Obama has long wanted exactly what he got: these severe domestic budget cuts and even ones well beyond these, including Social Security and Medicare, which he is likely to get with the Super-Committee created by this bill.” Obama isn’t a progressive. He isn’t a liberal. He isn’t even a moderate. Obama is a right-of-center asswipe bent on destroying this country’s working classes, poor, and people of color. Drew Westen only scratched the surface when he took Obama to task in his article “What Happened to Obama?” in the 8-6-11 issue of the New York Times for abandoning the Democratic Party’s tradition of reform as advanced by Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt.

People forget history. They also forget some basic truths about American politics. The Democrats and Republicans are the two faces of a single ruling class. Each party acts when the other cannot. The party in power initiates the action that the party in opposition finds politically inexpedient. The Democrats were labeled soft on Communism, so the Republican Nixon opened relations with Red China. The Republicans were considered hostile to the poor, so the Democrat Clinton gutted federal welfare programs. It’s a symbiotic relationship, and Obama should be understood in this context.

The anti-political opposition to this status quo fares little better.
The tactical and strategic depth of the present day antiauthoritarian milieu is nonexistent. As a recent joke has it, two anarchists are hiding behind a dumpster, manufacturing Molotov cocktails. One anarchist turns to the other and says: “What exactly are we going to target with these Mollies?” The second anarchist retorts: “What are you, some kind of intellectual?”

Then there’s the recent crop of insurrectionists, a motley mix of anti-statist communists and insurrectionary anarchists who take their lead from the Invisible Committee’s The Coming Insurrection, and who throw around slogans like “Occupy Everything, Demand Nothing” and “We Are The Crisis.” When radical autonomist feminist Marxist Silvia Federici was asked about the role of feminism in recent insurrectionary and occupationist actions, she commented: “The problem, I believe, is when these actions become an end in themselves, carried out, as ‘We are the crisis’ states, ‘for no reason.’ For in this case, in the absence of any articulated objective, what comes to the foreground tends to be the glorification of risk-taking.”

Loren Goldner, in describing why 60s radicals rarely returned to their Leninist, Maoist and Guevaraist origins once they got a taste of ultraleft politics, quipped: “Once you have played grand master chess, you rarely go back to checkers.” If American politics amounts to a game of checkers then, by analogy, today’s anarchists and communists haven’t even mastered tic tac toe.

Stranger in a strange land: “What’s Left?” October 2009, MRR #317

And Moses was content to dwell with the man: and he gave Moses Zipporah his daughter. And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.

Exodus 2:21-22

I’m riding on a bus, or sitting in a library, or sipping tea in a coffee shop, or even relaxing in a chair at home, and I’m tired. I didn’t get enough sleep the night before, so pretty soon I’m nodding off. My head slumps, my mouth drops open, I start to snore. Everything goes black. It lasts only a moment, though for all I know I’m out for hours. Suddenly, with a start, I’m awake again. I don’t know where I am or what I’m doing. The sense of disorientation is profound. Sometimes, it feels as if I’ve been transported to an alien world. Sometimes, I can’t even understand what the people around me are saying.

For an instant, I’m utterly bewildered.

That sense of complete estrangement, of being a stranger in a strange land, is how I’ve been feeling lately. The Left in this country is rallying around a president who makes sweetheart deals with Wall Street and Big Pharma, asserts executive power and privilege against Congress, regularly withholds information from the public on grounds of national security, and steadily escalates US military involvement in a foreign quagmire, while the Right protests and riots in the streets. It’s enough to give this aging commie vertigo.

For the record, I don’t give a flying fuck about Obama.

I won’t spill any ink debunking the significance of Barack Obama’s electoral victory in particular, or of the increase in Democratic party clout generally. Nor will I waste my time trying to disabuse people of the belief that some kind of revolution happened last November 8. The next few years are bound to deeply disappoint a lot of young people, bleeding-heart liberals, and aging ‘60s lefties who’ve come to consider Obama as God’s gift to progressive politics. But, maybe not. I know way too many progressive types who look fondly back to the Clinton years, despite the fact that Bill Clinton gutted welfare, pushed through NAFTA’s ratification, and initiated the policy of regime change against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. For all of Obama’s criticisms of Bush, there are numerous ways in which our current president’s policies are a mere continuation of his predecessors, as Michael Hirsh has so ably pointed out in his 7-31-09 Newsweek article “Barack W. Bush.” I’ve done a number of columns in the past about how there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Democrats and the Republicans, and I could do many more columns about how Obama is the nothing more than the ever-so-slightly-to-the-left-of-center face of the American ruling class.

What’s far more interesting to me is that such a modest shift in political emphasis within the American bourgeoisie would cause such a monumental tumult, as well as the disconcerting Left-Right reversal mentioned above. The Left bitches about Obama’s betrayals, yet falls into line behind the Democrats when push comes to shove. The Right claims the mantle of populist rebellion, yet gets its marching orders from its corporate Republican enablers. When the SEIU and AFL-CIO announced that they would counter the presence of the birthers, tea bag partiers and other fringe rightists at the August congressional town hall meetings devoted to discussing health care reform, I had visions of Weimar Germany, of Communists and Nazis battling each other in the streets. Then I remembered how well that turned out for the working people of Germany, not to mention for the Left, the Jews, Gypsies, and gays, let alone for the Poles, Russians, French and much of the rest of Europe. I have no doubt who would win in any scenario where there’s actual street fighting between Left and Right in this country. Concentration camp stripes do not become me.

One small incident did help restore my sense of sanity in the topsy-turvy political landscape of the past several months. On July 20, members of Crimethinc Ex-Workers Collective (CWC) attempted to hold a Convergence in Pittsburgh. A group of Anarchist People of Color (APOC) converged as well and unceremoniously evicted the CWC folk five days later, condemning them for white supremacy in the anarchist movement, and gentrification of the surrounding impoverished neighborhood. Folks critical of APOC have used terms ranging from misguided and wrong to idiotic and racist to agent provocateurish and COINTELPRO in describing their actions.

By the way, I don’t give a flying fuck about Crimethinc or APOC either. Plug those two names into Google, and spend the next umpteen wasted hours reading the utter crap from both sides, and everything in between, about the incident. Don’t expect me to reprise the sorry facts here. The capacity for the anarchist movement to tear itself to shreds, to give sectarianism a good name, to make itself look the fool, is limitless. That’s reassuring. It’s what I’ve come to expect, given past practice.

I’m no longer a stranger in a strange land. I’m right at home.

I hear that APOC has denounced Food Not Bombs as white supremacist, and that the National Anarchists are using this anarcho-debacle to try to recruit disaffected white anarchists into their ranks. These shenanigans reaffirm that modern anarchism has become a pathetic joke. At a time when conventional politics seem to have turned upside down, it’s good to know that something like anarchism’s propensity for self-humiliation and self-destruction remains a constant upon which I can depend.

Goldwater Reconsidered: “What’s Left?” February 2007, MRR #285

It’s one of the most famous television commercials in history. Called the “Daisy Girl” ad, it opens with a little girl in a sun-drenched field, picking the petals off a daisy. As she counts the petals, the voice over segues into a launch countdown. The girl fades into a nuclear explosion, and the ad ends with a pitch to vote for Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The Daisy Girl ad was instrumental in defeating Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential elections. Johnson portrayed Goldwater as a dangerous extremist, and used Goldwater’s support for the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam to put the fear of global nuclear holocaust into the American electorate. Johnson won a landslide victory, and Goldwater’s faction of the Republican Party was thoroughly crushed.

Goldwater’s was the conservative wing of the GOP. Conservative on all counts. His was the original small government, free market, anti-communist, isolationist conservatism we associate today with paleoconservatives like Patrick Buchanan. Goldwater sought to roll back both the New Deal and federal involvement in the civil rights movement which ended legal segregation, guaranteed blacks the right to vote, and attempted to halt racial discrimination in housing, education, and employment. Goldwater’s free market economics was trumped by a patriotic nationalism that sought to protect American industry from unfair foreign competition, much as his isolationist, anti-interventionist foreign policy was trumped by a virulent anticommunism that sought to forcibly role back the Soviet bloc, with nuclear weapons if necessary.

In the 1964 primaries, Goldwater’s Republican faction trounced the GOP’s other major faction, the liberal wing led by Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller’s Republicans basically accepted the New Deal, government economic intervention, the welfare state, and federal support for civil rights, though perhaps not as fervently as the New Deal liberal wing of the Democratic Party led by Johnson. The Democratic Party also had a second main wing, a conservative faction, a gaggle of pro-segregation, populist, states rights southern Democrats led by George Wallace. All four groups were anti-communist, of course, with the Republican Party more zealously so.

[The claim that the United States is a democracy with two distinct political parties can be challenged on the basis of this political line-up alone. Despite American politics having moved decidedly to the right since 1964, one would be hard pressed today to separate out two ideologically distinct political parties based on the likes of Junior Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Clinton, and Zell Miller, each politician representative of a major political tendency in their respective political parties.]

The GOP’s liberal wing gained ascendancy after Goldwater’s defeat, contributing to Richard Nixon’s presidential victory in 1968. And, given the rightward shift in US politics over the last three decades, it’s accurate to describe Nixon as America’s last liberal president. He continued to push through civil rights legislation, ignobly ended the Vietnam War, recognized Red China, and implemented wage-and-price controls to combat economic stagflation, all of which were anathema to the Republican Party’s conservative faction. Decimated by Goldwater’s rout, GOP conservatives made a crucial strategic decision to return to their base-churches, communities, civic organizations-and rebuild their power, with the goal of eventually retaking the leadership of their party.

School boards were often the first steppingstone for these conservatives in retaking the Republican Party, followed by municipal and state governments. Formulating an ideological and programmatic consistency-admirably accomplished by the New Right and evangelical Christianity-was also critical, as was establishing effective party discipline. Moderate and liberal Republicans were labeled RINOs (Republicans In Name Only), attacked by conservative Republicans as vehemently as Democrats, subjected to political dirty tricks during Republican primaries, denied funding and support from party institutions, and shorn of power and influence once in office. In addition, Southern Democrats, long disenchanted with their party for its championing of desegregation, civil rights, and affirmative action, and denied a third-party alternative with the defeat of George Wallace’s American Independent Party, deserted the Democratic Party in droves to become conservative Republicans. The conservative wing of the GOP first tasted national victory with the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980, thanks in part to support from working-class “Reagan Democrats.” Conservatism’s triumphant comeback was sealed with the capture of Congress in 1994 under Newt Gingrich and the “Contract for America.” The Republican Party’s conservative wing has maintained its dominance in national politics every since.

[An interesting sidebar to this discussion comes from realizing that the very recent rise to national prominence of Republican neoconservatives is actually not a part of this conservative Republican “revolution.” Neocons are often nowhere near as socially, politically, or economically conservative as their properly conservative brethren, and they’ve junked traditional conservative isolationism for an aggressive democratic imperialism that has the Republican Party aping the Democrats in initiating major military campaigns around the globe. Riding the coattails of the conservative GOP’s rise to power, the neocons should be considered usurpers, not inheritors, as folks like Patrick Buchanan make clear.]

This brief analysis of how Goldwater’s conservative faction of the Republican Party went from abject defeat to sweeping victory is why I don’t hold much hope in things significantly changing, now that the Democratic Party has narrowly seized control of Congress. The Democrats, especially moderate and liberal Democrats, did not learn the vital lesson from their defeats in 1980 and 1994 that long-term success requires they return to their social base to rebuild their political power. As a consequence, the Democratic Party lacks effective organization, forceful party discipline, a unifying program, and an inspirational vision to challenge Republican hegemony. Democrats won by default in 2006. Put another way, the Democratic Party did not win, the Republican Party lost. The Iraq debacle, a string of ethical and moral scandals, a lackluster economy, and hemorrhaging federal spending eroded the Republican conservative base to a degree. More important, these issues drove independent voters en masse into the arms of the Democratic Party. Without anything substantive to hold them there however, it’s not a matter of if, but when, the Democrats once more find themselves out of power.

Regular readers of my column know that this isn’t my main beef with those who are ecstatic over the Democrats gaining majorities in the House and Senate. Even if the Democrats somehow, despite the odds, retain control of Congress for the next six years, and even if the Democrats miraculously manage to win the presidency in 2008, nothing much will change, because there isn’t a rat’s ass worth of difference between the Democratic and Republican parties. All the differences between the four factions of the two parties I outlined above would fit nicely into a single European political party, with room to spare, in a system of parliamentary democracy that frequently includes significant participation by fascists, communists, monarchists, and greens. Democrats got us involved in the first and second World Wars, not to mention Korea and Vietnam. And much as it took a Republican president-Nixon-to normalize relations with Communist China, it took a Democratic president-Clinton-to gut LBJ’s Great Society welfare state. I predict that when Medicare and Social Security go under the axe, it’s a Democratic president who will be doing the chopping.

That Barry Goldwater wouldn’t exactly be welcome in today’s conservative GOP is an enlightening footnote here. Goldwater hated the influence of religious extremism in politics, supported racial desegregation, considered abortion a matter of personal choice, favored the legalization of marijuana, and didn’t have a problem with homosexuality. Karl Hess, in his autobiography Mostly On The Edge, understood that Barry Goldwater was as much the father of modern day American right-wing libertarianism as he was of GOP conservatism. In the end a self-reliant communitarian anarchist, Hess started as Goldwater’s speechwriter, credited for penning the famous quote: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

A sentiment that’s anathema to today’s GOP.

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