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

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

There’s no Left left.
riffing on Gertrude Stein

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to Machiavellian realpolitik.

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.

San Cristobal and Zomia, an exercise in fantasy

This is a non-canonical “Lefty” Hooligan column not available in Maximum Rocknroll.

I fly into Yupanqui International on an early Friday morning in late summer. The sleek, three-kilometer-high airport is on the outskirts of San Cristóbal’s mountainous capital city Túpac Amaru. Two signs greet those exiting the main terminal, crisp black and white banners on Avenida Revolución that read: “¡Tierra, Trabajo y Libertad! Por Eso Luchamos” and “Señores Capitalistas y Imperialistas ¡No Les Tenemos Absolutamente Ningun Miedo!”

The city itself is remarkably free of revolutionary sloganeering and iconography. My rucksack, bedroll, and tent attract no interest as I wander the busy streets thronged with people, bicycles and electric vehicles. Members of the Workers Militia lounge in their camouflage uniforms outside an ice cream shop enjoying sugar cones. Children play and young parents stroll with babies in carriages as the elderly enjoy board games and lawn sports in a fragrant queñua-lined park. Patrons wait for matinee movies in the multiplex’s cafe across from an already crowded farmers market sharing the fountain plaza with cueca dancers practicing their moves and painters hoping to catch the morning light beneath the orange and purple façade of a high-rise nuevo pueblo.

The nuevo pueblos, longhouses and kanchas lining Boulevard Rafael Guillén are boldly colored and decorated with vivid murals, a lively mix of work and residence. Bien comunal warehouses, the community’s shared cornucopia, are painted harlequin green. The city streets are an enterprising assortment of small stores and businesses, gardens and orchards, schools and libraries, workshops and factories run by individuals, families, coops, collectives, syndicates, councils and communes, all of which ply their trade, craft and wares with pleasantly low key advertising. Necessities are free and plentiful, everything else is priced by a mutualist market. I buy a couple of fried bean-and-cheese papusas from a street vendor and fish out my cellphone. The capital has robust communal wifi, letting me plan my next steps online as I snack.

I need permits and visas for a trip into neighboring Zomia, or so I think, and I visit the US Embassy first. More specifically, the US Interests Section at the Spanish Embassy, since America has never officially recognized San Cristóbal. San Cristóbal maintains a Swiss-like neutrality, an aversion to foreign entanglements despite its role in mediating the international cordon sanitaire around Zomia. I spend the better part of the morning paying fees, filling out Section paperwork and talking to government clerks just to get permission to leave the civilized sector. And not so much permission as a waiver of liability.

There’s no direct way to travel into Zomia. A combination of no-fly zone, naval blockade and international economic embargo discourages airplanes, ships, trains and buses from traversing the territory. Visitors must first travel to an adjacent country, then physically cross the border into Zomia, usually on foot. Private cars are discouraged although not prohibited, while coop jitneys can be rented into the interior. Because I’m traveling in a nation not recognized diplomatically by the US and making application for unauthorized travel into outlaw tribal areas, the US Interests Section issues a red exit stamp for my American passport that denies any government culpability for my travel plans.

Just covering their asses.

The clerk at San Cristóbal’s Interior Ministry three blocks away gives my passport a dismissive glance, but I insist she ink it with the country’s routine exit stamp. Now I’m covering my ass.

Back on the street, I drink a café con crema at a sidewalk bar while a small troupe of theatrical performers entertain passers-by. A flock of green parakeets spins overhead. I notice a bookstore on the corner, Librería José Martí, with a helpful city map taped to the front window. A tile, stone and glass mosaic above the front door lintel features a pointillist portrait of the shop’s namesake flanked by those of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. New, used and antiquarian books, magazines, newspapers, comic books, pamphlets, posters, leaflets and vinyl records in Spanish; there’s also a tourist area next to an English-language section near the front. Free books are piled in a large wooden bin by the door and a shelf offers sundry stationary items; mostly pens, paper and postcards. A squat, monkish old man sits behind the counter engrossed in a leather bound book.

“Buenos dias,” I say. “Habla inglés?”

“I attended UC Berkeley as an undergraduate,” the man smiles. “Go Bears.”

“Do you have any maps of Zomia?”

“All the outland maps, what I have, are on the bottom rack.”

He returns to his reading as I browse. I’d researched maps of Zomia while still in the States, but hadn’t found anything useful or portable. Google Maps on my cellphone is less than useless, with large areas around San Cristóbal left blank or only rudimentarily labeled. I find nothing apart from an accordian map of this part of the continent, also empty of details when it comes to Zomia. Instead, I buy a well-worn Modern Library paperback compilation of B. Traven’s novels in English, a current issue of the Weekly Guardian, and a half dozen postcards depicting the life, architecture and scenery of San Cristóbal.

There’s an express coop bus at the downtown station that takes me to Béjar, a popular eco-sustainable ski resort on the border. I eat an early supper of hunter’s stew and hearty bread in the collective-run Cienfuegos chalet lodge high above the frontier village of El Dorado, in the snowy borderlands past the Almagro Pass, at the juncture of various gerrymandered national boundaries. The panoramic dining room view is spectacular; the sun brilliant, the deep blue sky laced with thin clouds, the broken mountains limned with snow and ice. Lichen-lined petroglyphs and shadowed cliff-dwelling ruins cascade down the opposite canyon walls. I dash off the six postcards, then savor the last bite of a cuchuflí dipped in chocolate before heading to the Bar del Papa. Papa’s Bar. Legend has it that Ernest Hemingway stayed at the lodge while hunting big game and drinking everybody under the table at the bar. Over a decade later, Neruda is said to have passed through during his first exile, around the same time that two young Argentinian medical students downed a few cervezas, their 1939 Norton motorcycle parked at the lodge.

Émigrés haunt the bar’s lounge, like the dissolute aristo from next door Punklandia holding court at a table in a dark corner and lamenting the demise of his country’s ancien régime. A morose exile from “punker than thou” purges in his native land, he has rows of hair implants along his scalp like a doll’s head. In turn, the sexagenarian is surrounded by a small fawning entourage of twenty-somethings who call him crown prince and dauphin, and talk endlessly of helping him regain his rightful patrimony and restoring past titles and glories. The one with the hair transplants keeps fiddling with himself beneath the table, so I avoid shaking his hand when introduced to him in passing.

The bar itself is mobbed with rowdy drunks from neighboring Anarchistan. At first I take them for carousing workers, but soon enough determine from their shenanigans that they’re partying, upper-middle-class college kids. They’re mostly posturing hipsters; “beautiful losers” looking for “the next big thing” but morbidly incapable of enjoying themselves while having a good time. Anarchistan is infamous for its back biting, infighting, and outright sectarianism. A turf war between post-left and identity factions erupts at a local potlatch festival. A hyper-PC vigilante carrying out the unwritten tribal law that “snitches get stitches” punches the guest of a minor post-left @ chieftain, causing an equally minor scandal. Anarchistan militias thwart infiltration and subversion attempts from bordering national-anarchist fortress kingdom Illios. An antifa faction calls out a post-left faction for not being sufficiently, correctly anti-fascist. A post-left @ egoist happily collaborates with a neofascist publisher in neighboring neo-nazi Kekistan, causing a minor furor. Or so I hear, Anarchistan not being my preferred destination to visit.

My goal remains Zomia, and I have five hours of useful daylight left. I finish my last Xingu non-alcoholic beer and climb down to the collection of wooden buildings clustered about the brick-and-mortar jitney station and El Dorado canton courthouse on the snow-clad plateau; a border village with no real border to control. Passports and customs are handled by the same clerk who sells jitney tickets, porters the luggage and runs the outpost mail room. I hand him the postcards, and he rifles through my other papers and paperwork, clearly perplexed.

“You want to purchase a ticket for Zomia?” he says. “To travel to Zomia? But that’s impossible. Zomia doesn’t exist!”

And that’s where I’ll leave it. Zomia doesn’t exist.

Punk rock and the left of the Left, these are self-identified, self-activated and self-organized milieus. Zomia is by contrast a name for an entirely invented concept, an analytical category that is a product of imaginative history and anthropology. Willem van Schendel, a historian at the University of Amsterdam, coined the term Zomia in 2002 to refer to the southeast Asian massif, a mountainous region covering the Indochinese Peninsula well into southwestern China. He proposed a socio-cultural distinction based not on nationality or national boundaries, race or ethnicity, religion or politics, but on geography where the main difference is between fiercely independent tribal and often minority ethnic peoples in sparsely populated upland regions spread out over several nations versus dominant, densely populated lowland regions firmly in control of their respective national states. The word zomi means highlander in Burmese, and the highlands is where Zomia theoretically exists, where small autonomous groups of people can maintain ethnic and tribal identities and cultures distinct for centuries and generations from the surrounding dominant national societies.

The name Zomia has gained currency over the past fifteen years, and the geographic reach of the concept has expanded to include the Himalayan and Hindu-Kush massifs. From the Hmong hill people of mountainous China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, this idea of a greater Zomia is enthusiastically embraced by academics, and even considered applicable to all highland regions everywhere like some international Appalachia archetype. There are glaring contradictions to the much broadened model however. The principle inconsistency is in the centralized, theocratic kingdoms (Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan) in control of the Himalayan highlands, often for centuries. Strong expansionist imperial states are not incompatible with the independent mountainous tribal highlands that are central to the concept of Zomia, as the pre-Spanish Andean Inka splendidly illustrated.

Which brings me to James C. Scott’s 2009 work in The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Zomia is made a metaphor for the struggle of all subaltern peoples for their autonomy and identity against the dominant societies in which they reside:
All identities, without exception, have been socially constructed: the Han, the Burman, the American, the Danish, all of them. […] To the degree that the identity is stigmatized by the larger state or society, it is likely to become for many a resistant and defiant identity. Here invented identities combine with self-making of a heroic kind, in which such identifications become a badge of honor.
For Scott, this is a conscious process not only of resistance but of an affirmation of the primitive and the local over the modern and the national. Scott posits a counter-narrative against ethnic assimilation into modern society in which such subordinated people become conscious refugees against modernity itself:
[Mountain tribes] seen from the valley kingdoms as ‘our living ancestors,’ ‘what we were like before we discovered wet-rice cultivation, Buddhism, and civilization’ [are by contrast] best understood as runaway, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects in the valleys — slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare.
Scott makes absolutely clear that: [l]acking a comprehensive anarchist worldview and philosophy, and in any case wary of nomothetic ways of seeing, I am making a case for a sort of anarchist squint. What I aim to show is that if you put on anarchist glasses and look at the history of popular movements, revolutions, ordinary politics, and the state from that angle, certain insights will appear that are obscured from almost any other angle. It will also become apparent that anarchist principles are active in the aspirations and political action of people who have never heard of anarchism or anarchist philosophy. (Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play, 2012)

What Scott is arguing is that Zomia is not a conscious example of anarchism in action but rather of a variegated, anarchic social and historical experience involving peoples who have not been completely absorbed by overarching nation-states, even while that experience is coming to an end. Anarchy by geographic default, not anarchism by political design, as I’ve argued in other contexts, and a default anarchy that is quickly disappearing. The anarchy of the Zomia metaphor is upbeat but doomed.

San Cristóbal is a fictive country from my first novel End Time. Not so fictive are Anarchistan, Illios, Kekistan, and Punklandia, and my crude analogies should not be lost on the readers. The fiction of San Cristóbal and its environs is neither more nor less fanciful than the academic invention of Zomia, a name which works pretty well on its own.

Party like it’s the 1960s: “What’s Left?” July 2017, MRR #410

“Welcome to our humble abode,” Jake greeted us at the front door with a bow, doffing his dented black top hat with a flourish.

I was with a gaggle of fellow peaceniks from the Action Committee for Peace and Justice in Ventura. We were visiting Jake and Connie’s home, a rented two-bedroom bungalow in Ojai. It was a balmy summer night in 1970.

I turned 18 in a month and was required to register for the draft, having graduated from high school. As a peace activist in good standing, an anarchist pacifist with plans to pursue a Conscientious Objector deferment, I was freaked out. I’d also just started smoking marijuana or, more precisely, I’d just started feeling the effects after having inhaled for several weeks before. I wanted some smoke to calm my nerves.

“Hey Jake,” I said to the tall, skinny UCSB student wearing a tie-dyed vest. “Do you know where I can score some grass?”

“Connie can give you a referral,” he laughed, then tossed a thumb over his shoulder. “She’s somewhere back there.”

The party was wall-to-wall, with people also crowded into the rambling backyard. Sixties rock music blared, at the moment “Buffalo Springfield.” Most in attendance wore some sort of head gear, as hats were one of the party’s themes. Long hair and marijuana smoke abounded, as did tobacco smoke and denim apparel. I was tempted to ask any of the individuals passing around joints to pass one my way, but I was shy. Besides, I was interested in quantity, an ounce at least, and I didn’t want to get fucked up before negotiating the purchase. I found Connie, a zaftig woman who also attended UCSB, in the tiny kitchen pouring shots of tequila and arranging them on a serving tray. She wore a colorful Spanish peasant dress and an incongruous brown fedora. I declined when she offered me a shot, as I hadn’t yet started drinking alcohol.

“Anybody you know selling any grass?” I asked.

“Nigel’s got weed, acid, mescaline, coke, crosses, reds, anything you want.” She smiled and downed some tequila. “He’s around somewhere. Black bowler hat.”

Just then, a pair of scruffy males in their thirties I knew all too well from various anti-war meetings barged into the kitchen, arguing and exchanging insults. One wore a teal Mao cap with a Peoples Liberation Army star, the other a dark gray Bolshevik cap a la Lenin with a Red Army star. As they upped the volume of their row, Connie rolled her eyes at me, and hastily exited the kitchen carrying the tray of tequila glasses.

“You’re a fucking moron, Roger,” the Bolshie cap bellowed. “The NLF is the legitimate armed guerrilla force of the Vietnamese people in the south. I’m no fan of people waving the VietCong flag at demonstrations, but that’s the proper flag for Vietnam’s revolution.”

“That’s a nationalist rag, not a righteous working class banner, numbnuts,” the Mao cap retorted in kind. “I’m surprised, truly shocked in fact Bill, that you can renege on your professed proletarian internationalist principles so easily and surrender to bourgeois nationalism.”

Roger followed the Progressive Labor Party line on Vietnam, and Bill the Socialist Workers Party line. They had been good friends in 1965 when they’d both been affiliated with the US-Soviet Friendship Committee. Roger had been married to Susan, a social democrat, and Susan had an affair with Bill before coming out as lesbian. A fistfight followed, and acrimony persisted. Roger drifted into Maoism, Bill into Trotskyism. They were now bitter enemies, always attacking each other at meetings, denouncing each other to acquaintances, each fantasizing how to get even with the other. As I eased out the kitchen door before the shouting match came to blows, I realized I was learning a valuable political lesson:

THE PERSONAL IS ALWAYS POLITICAL

The first outstanding example of personal enmity becoming political antagonism, indeed the archetype for this aphorism, was Trotsky versus Stalin. Both members of Lenin’s Bolshevik party, they had an abiding personal dislike for each other, apparently due to personality differences. Trotsky considered Stalin lugubrious, provincial, crude, and plodding, while Stalin thought Trotsky arrogant, Westernized, bohemian, and elitist. With the death of Lenin, a power struggle erupted between the two within the party which took on ideological overtones. Trotsky opposed the bureaucratization of the Soviet state, promoted permanent revolution, and insisted on the rapid, forced industrialization of the country while Stalin was a master of bureaucratic manipulation, defended socialism in one country, and stood behind Lenin’s mixed economic NEP program. Stalin outmaneuvered Trotsky for control of the party, expelled him from Russia, and eventually had Trotsky assassinated in Mexico.

On rarer occasions, honest political differences breed personal hostilities. We come to profound political conflicts often assuming that our opponents are detestable human beings when they’re not much different from ourselves.

I threaded through the boisterous crowd in the combined dining and living rooms as Pete Seeger boomed over the stereo system. No bowler hat in sight, but I did notice a couple of sexagenarians I knew sharing beers on a couch nearby. Frank, an Industrial Workers of the World member from the 1920s, wore a blue striped railroad engineer’s cap, and Farley, in the Socialist Labor Party since the 1930s, had on a modest tan cowboy hat. I heard snippets of their conversation—the Palmer Raids, the split between the IWW and the WIIU, the death of Haywood and De Leon—but I didn’t stop to chat. Both organizations had been moribund by 1960, but were experiencing a revitalization thanks to the 60s youthful counterculture/New Left. I even had a little red IWW membership book at the time, more out of nostalgia then anything else. The IWW continued to experience membership and organizing ups and downs, whereas for the SLP the spike in activity was only temporary before it finally became a shell of its former self, bringing me to my second political metaphor of the evening:

THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD

The Left is littered with zombie organizations which refuse to die. Occasionally, groups merge, and even more rarely, cease to exist altogether. But defunct political organizations, like the defunct political ideas that spawned them, tend to persist. Just as De Leonism and syndicalism can still be found somewhere, if only on life support, so can the various iterations of Trotskyism and Schactmanism, the numerous Maoist strains of the New Communist Movement, classical anarchism and left communism, ad nauseam. Well, many of them anyway. I mean, there are still beatniks, hippies, and goths around for fucks sake. It seems that once something arises, it keeps on trucking along until a wooden stake is forcefully driven through its heart to kill it off, and then not even.

As for Frank and Farley, while I subscribed to the New Age platitude that the elderly needed to be valued and their wisdom cherished, to be honest I had little time for historical sentimentality. I was part of the New Left, with an emphasis on the new. The future of politics belonged to us, the youth of 1970, and I certainly didn’t anticipate getting old before we made The Revolution. So I averted my gaze and skirted their conversation, looking for my man.

I looked out over the backyard as people awkwardly tried to dance to Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun.” Jake and Connie had arranged lit tiki torches around the yard’s perimeter, so the grotesque shadows of partygoers contorted across the unkempt lawn. A gibbous moon silvered the night air. I returned to searching for my dealer, just not in the hosts’ bedroom which had been commandeered by three couples intent on an impromptu free love orgy. The other bedroom had been converted into a combination trips/meditation/sewing room/office, which is where I finally found the man with the bowler hat holding court. With his English accent, coal-black eye shadow, and silver nobbed cane, Nigel anticipated the droogies of “Clockwork Orange” by a scant year.

“Spectacle, spectacle, all is spectacle,” he patronizingly addressed my friend Thomas, a fellow anarchist who wore a dark gray whoopee cap like the cartoon character Jughead.

“Is smashing the state mere spectacle?” Thomas asked. “Is a spontaneous peoples revolution against the government so easily dismissed?

“Your sad sub-anarchism suffers from the mystics of nonorganization,” Nigel said with a condescending smirk. “It’s spontaneism denies the power of the revolutionary proletariat and plays into capitalism’s rigged game. What is needed are moments of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of a unitary ambiance and a game of events. What is needed is the revolution of everyday life.”

Nigel talked a good Situationist game. With two slim, styling Carnaby Street girls fawning over him, I admitted he impressed me. Associated with King Mob and the Angry Brigade in England, he was an ambassador’s son with diplomatic immunity, which was how he kept himself and his drug dealing business from getting busted. The raw noise of the MC5’s “Kick Out The Jams” blasted through the party as I shopped in Nigel’s briefcase drugstore emporium, sampled some seed-heavy Columbian Gold, purchased an ounce, and rolled a couple of joints to share around. As I and everybody in the room got high, or higher, I still hadn’t learned the lesson of:

LOOKING FOR THE NEXT BIG THING

The Situationists were revolutionary raconteurs and carny hustlers, a theater troupe that held one successful Paris performance in May-June of 1968 but hadn’t been active since. To me however, they were the next big thing. They certainly wowed impressionable young Leftists, anarchists in particular, with their panache and pizzazz. Situationist and post-Situ wannabes continue to proliferate to this day, but the real legacy of the Situationist International was a virulent sectarianism. Split after split reduced the SI to two remaining members by 1972, when the organization dissolved itself. I was impressed by the Situ-inspired Dutch Provos, but my real inspirations back in the day were the more wide-ranging, broadbased San Francisco Diggers and Dutch Kabouters. The search for the next big thing on the Left continues to the present, with insurrectionary anarchists and communizing ultraleftists still playing that game.

I was tripping when my Ventura friends collected me for the ride home. An owl swooped down silently to snag a mouse in the front yard as we climbed into a brightly painted VW minibus, it’s owner and driver none to sober herself. Me, I wore a soft gray British flat workers cloth cap, a newsboy cap with a snap button brim. As we meandered along Highway 33—soon to be immortalized in the godawful song “Ventura Highway” by the schlocky soft rock band America—I dreamed about becoming a political columnist for a famous future rocknroll magazine in an as yet unborn youth counterculture. Naw, that can’t happen I thought, and fell asleep.

DISCLAIMER:
This is a piece of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Belated Schrödingerized Election Analysis: “What’s Left?” February 2017, MRR #405

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[I finish a column by the 5th of the first month. My column is laid out in InDesign and sent off to the printer digitally at the end of that first month. The print issue of the magazine is delivered to MRR HQ by the first week of the second month in this process, with a date of the third month on the cover. At a minimum, there’s a month and half delay between when I finish my column and when the issue in question hits the newsstands at the beginning of the third month.]

I started my self-publishing career writing, typing, and mimeographing an underground newspaper with a group of friends during my high school senior year—spring of 1970. We were a ragtag handful of students, more New Left than counterculture, with sympathies for anarchism, Third Worldism, Maoism, and guerrillaism. About the only thing we agreed on was our admiration for and desire to join Students for a Democratic Society, which was ironic because SDS had already crashed-and-burned due to sectarian infighting.

John McConnell, the principal, was a John Bircher who took the opportunity of our first issue to convene an evening presentation in the HS auditorium open to the public on “The Dangers of Communism in Our Schools,” and he used SDS and our newspaper as clear-and-present examples. Of course we were flattered, so we did an adulatory, pro-SDS article in our next issue superimposed on a raised fist graphic, which promptly got us busted not because we published it but because we distributed it on campus. McConnell called me and my parents into his school office where he proceeded to lecture my somewhat bewildered mom and dad about how I was hanging out with the wrong crowd, consorting with seditious characters, and flirting with the red menace. Both my parents, Polish refugees who’d experienced the horrors of the second World War first hand, told him that they had left Europe to get away from people like him and then walked out of the meeting.

Of course, mom and dad argued with me all the way home and through the night against my infantile leftism, naive utopianism, and abstract idealism that the USA to which we’d immigrated was a pretty sweet place to live. In particular I remember from that back-and-forth my dad pointing out that despite all my radical ideas from books and revolutionary examples from history about helping to liberate humanity, I didn’t really do much on a daily basis to make many other individual human lives much better. I remember my parents preparing thoughtful, compact “care packages” to be mailed to our relatives in Poland “behind the Iron Curtain.” Care, Inc, as a refugee relief agency started from the humanitarian disaster that was Europe after the second World War. I still lived at home, so my dad garnished a portion of my spending money for the next year to contribute to Care for African Famine Relief.

It was to teach me a lesson, that an abstract love of humanity should not come detached from loving real live human beings.

I spent the column before last (MRR #402) detailing how various pendulum swings into oppressive conservatism under the GOP resulted in increased misery but not overt fascism as a way of saying that if and when Trump wins it’s not the end of the world. No doubt we’re in for some heavy-duty repression. But Jon Stewart recently quipped regarding Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon as White House strategist: “You know, somebody was saying, ‘There might be an anti-Semite that is working in the White House.’ I was like, have you listened to the Nixon tapes? Like, forget about advising the president – the president. Like, have you read LBJ? Do you know our history?” What I learned from such previous political hard times is that it helps to do what you love to do, plus do a little bit of good in this world, in order to keep your sanity during the present shitstorm. My writing always comforts me, and while charity, mutual aid, or solidarity won’t save the world, it can help individuals—including myself—feel better and maybe even survive. I’m currently looking for somewhere to volunteer, but in the meantime let’s talk about how it all went south.

It felt like a Schrödinger’s cat election from the get go. For you quantum geeks, that’s when it’s yes or no or yes and no at the same time. Take the notion that the United States is a democracy. Out of the total population of the country as of 2016, approximately 28.6% were ineligible to vote due to age, court order, or felony record, and 29.9% of the remaining population simply didn’t vote. That means only 41.5% of the population actually voted, a clear case of minority rule. If we then realize that 19.8% voted for Clinton, 19.5% voted for Trump, and 2.2% voted for third party candidates, that means less than one fifth of the total population decided who would be president this last election. So, is the US a democracy? Yes, no, or maybe yes and no at the same time. Throw in the decidedly undemocratic results of the electoral college and we have to ask if Trump actually won the election? Yes according to the electoral college tally which Trump won by 74 votes and no according to the popular vote which Clinton won by some 2 million votes, further Schrödingerizing the elections.

Michael Moore warned early on that unless the Democrats paid attention to the blue collar, rust belt, American white working class savaged by neoliberalism and deindustrialization, Trump would win them and the election. Nate Silver remained the most conservative pollster throughout the run up to the election, predicting at one point that Clinton had a 60% chance of winning when other polls gave her a 90+% of winning, but also warning that Clinton’s lead remained within 3 percentage points of Trump in his polling algorithms which was well within his “margin of error.” I myself predicted that Clinton’s victory over Trump would be uncomfortably narrow. But then I read that Nate Silver gave both the Cubs and Trump one in four odds of winning, so when the Cubs won the World Series I feared we were in for an upset. For the most part, Trump duplicated Romney’s 2012 election results numerically and demographically, with Romney’s hold on 27 million white male voters shifting from more educated to less educated when it came to Trump in 2016. By contrast, Clinton couldn’t maintain the numbers or the demographics of the Obama coalition’s electoral victories. Her campaign saw a decline of some four million Democratic voters, and lost support among women and minorities and Democratic firewall states, especially the Big Blue Wall rust belt states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. It was Clinton’s election to lose, and she did just that.

Yet she also won the popular vote by 2 million votes, which is why I consider this electoral prediction of mine a Schrödinger one.

It was Clinton’s overconfidence that did her in. She was already an unpopular candidate and her hubris generated a corresponding complacency among her followers. She even repeated the same mistake she made in her 2008 run against Obama by not vigorously campaigning in the rust belt states she needed to win to maintain the Democratic Party’s Big Blue Wall in 2016. (Sanders also campaigned energetically in the rust belt states while Clinton kept flying out to California to sequester herself in the private homes of ultra-wealthy donors.) The canard perpetuated by her campaign—that Trump exploited the racism and sexism of the old white male working class to win—was particularly heinous. Trump’s most vociferous supporters were indeed older, white, and male, but they were predominantly small business owners and professionals, not the working class still loyal to a Democratic Party committed to free trade and stripping the country of its industrial base at the expense of American workers. Of the dwindling white working class, poorer rural white workers swung toward Trump while solidly blue collar urban white workers actually swung toward Clinton. Thus the American white working class continued to vote for Clinton and the Democrats, when they bothered to vote at all, despite being betrayed by the anti-worker policies of the Democratic Party. Clinton may have won the popular vote, but she played a lousy strategic game and lost the electoral college. The Republicans continue to control both the US Senate (51/48) and US House of Representatives (240/194). Combine this with Republican control over 33 State governorships and 32 State legislatures (up from 21 governors and 23 legislatures in 2009), and Trump’s promise to nominate conservative Supreme Court justices—what we have is a Republican clean sweep.

Of course, it’s never so monolithic or cut-and-dried. Because of the winner-take-all nature of US electoral politics, the appearance of overwhelming GOP control is belied by Republican fractiousness, and a persistent factionalism only increased by Trump’s own surprising victory. Combine this with the lack of governing experience in Trump’s transition team and I predict that, by the time Trump gets the hang of how to run things in Washington, the 2018 midterm elections will hand the US Senate back to the Democrats. Given the Democrats’ dismal performance to date, I’m tempted to say “Fuck the Democratic Party!” But I’m not at all sure whether the Democratic Party should be abolished, ignored, embraced, reformed, or rebuilt from the bottom up. Nor do I have my old ultraleft confidence that bourgeois political parties or even revolutionary parties have no role to play in bringing about social change, let alone social revolution. The whole issue of electoral politics is highly problematic from a number of perspectives, so I think it best to put aside the Democratic Party in discussing what is to be done in the wake of Trump’s win and the Republican Party’s victories.

What I am certain about is that an active and engaged mass social base is needed in order to take the next step, whether that is forming a progressive, labor, or revolutionary party; building an extra-parliamentary opposition; or attempting radical reforms or even social revolution. The two necessary components to an effective, vibrant mass social base are lively autonomous social movements and independent street politics based on direct action. And crucial to any mass social base with agency in my estimation will be an organized and organizing working class committed to direct action in the streets. Combine these two components, and true social power begins. I can endlessly debate the need for extra-parliamentary politics; what is absolutely necessary are broad, non-parliamentary social movements in the streets.

In order to challenge, combat, and eventually overthrow our society’s reactionary, autarchic government, we need to cultivate an independent, autonomous, rebellious social base. Maximize the potential for self-activity and self-organization at the base and you maximize the possibility for self-emancipatory politics to arise. In History and Class Consciousness, Georg Lukacs argued that action precedes consciousness. Or to flip Funkadelic’s famous album title: “Move your ass and your mind will follow.”

Breathing Together: “What’s Left?” November 2015, MRR #390

With the outbreak of isms, like socialism, anarchism, imperialism or communism, sunspots start to multiply on the face of the golden orb. God refuses to enlighten the Reds! Scientists forecast an increase in sunspots due to the arrival of the beatniks and pacifists from certain countries such as Italy, France and Scandinavia!

Police Chief [played by Pierre Dux]
Z, directed by Costa-Gavras

I was into the Thor Heyerdahl/Kon-Tiki saga when I was as a kid in the 1950s and early 1960s. For those interested, Heyerdahl was a Norwegian adventurer with an Indiana Jones flair who, as a sailor, fought the Nazi occupation of Norway during the second World War. After the war, with a background in science—ethnography, biology, and geography—and as a proponent of cultural diffusionism to account for the spread of human civilizations, Heyerdahl famously built a large raft out of balsa reeds from Peru’s Lake Titicaca and sailed it from the western coast of South America to the French Polynesian island atoll of Raroia in 1947. His idea behind the Kon-Tiki raft and expedition was to demonstrate that ancient peoples could have made long, arduous sea voyages, using the primitive technologies of their day and creating contacts between diverse, widely separated cultures. The subject of a number of documentary books and films as well as re-creations, not to mention a variety of fictionalized depictions, Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki experiment did demonstrate one thing quite clearly:

Just because something can be done doesn’t mean that it was done.

There is little support in the scientific community for Heyerdahl’s theory that cultural ideas let alone trade goods, let alone people, made the journey from pre-Columbian South America to Polynesia. Anthropologists in particular are dubious about the notion that ancestors of the Incas colonized the Polynesian islands. His various projects were exciting, spectacular, and attention-grabbing, which tended to confuse the issue between what could have happened, and what did happen. It’s a variant of the false scenario fallacy, and its common.

Right-wing videographer and “journalist” James O’Keefe made a name for himself by selectively editing videos he secretly filmed in order to supposedly demonstrate that certain public individuals and organizations were knowingly promoting falsehoods, if not engaged in out-and-out fraud and crime. More recently, O’Keefe is involved in a cottage industry that tries to prove that various bad things can happen, without demonstrating that said bad things actually did happen. So, he demonstrates that voter fraud is quite easy to commit, or that someone dressed as Osama bin Laden can easily sneak across the US/Mexico border, without actually proving that rampant voter fraud or al-Qaeda infiltration have ever occurred. Critics of left-wing film maker Michael Moore have accused him of doing much the same thing with films like Fahrenheit 9/11, in which selective editing, humorous juxtaposition, and bald inference are used to suggest that the Bush Jr administration knew more than they were letting on about the lead-up, commission, and aftermath of the 9/11 Twin Tower terrorist attacks.

Showing that something can be done, without proving that it was actually done, is the stock-in-trade of conspiracy theorists everywhere. Take the Apollo moon landings. It’s quite easy to lay out how such lunar expeditions and landings could have been faked, without really confirming that the landings were actually falsified. Again, harking back to my youth in the 1960s, I spent way too much time worrying about who assassinated JFK—all the theories from the KGB and the Cubans to the Mafia and the CIA—without coming to any sound conclusions as to who actually did the deed. I’m certain that there’s more to the Kennedy assassination then what has been revealed, although I’m also certain I’ll never ever know the whole truth. There are left-wing and right-wing conspiracy theories, but by and large conspiracy theories transcend left-right political categories in pursuing their flights of paranoia. In addition, conspiracy theories often prove interchangeable with regard to their underlying structure and raison d’être, with that infamous international conspiracy for world domination trope easily substituting any number of key conspirators, from the Jews to the Freemasons, the Illuminati, Bolshevik communism, international bankers, the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderberg Group, the international bourgeoisie, alien reptilian overlords, etc, etc, etc.

Historian David Hackett Wallace once identified an informal historical fallacy he called the furtive fallacy, which “is the erroneous idea that facts of special significance are dark and dirty things and that history itself is a story of causes mostly insidious and results mostly invidious. It begins with the premise the reality is a sordid, secret thing; and that history happens on the back stairs a little after midnight, or else in a smoke-filled room, or a perfumed boudoir, or an executive penthouse or somewhere in the inner sanctum of the Vatican, or the Kremlin, or the Reich Chancellery, or the Pentagon. […] In an extreme form, the furtive fallacy is not merely an intellectual error but a mental illness which is commonly called paranoia.” (Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought) The idea that certain historical events or facts are necessarily sinister, and part of some secret conspiracy, is contested by former MRR columnist and ex-shitworker Jeff Bale who argued that historians frequently underestimate the influence in politics of secret societies, vanguard parties, intelligence agencies, underground cabals, etc. due to the very nature and organizational methods of such clandestine groupings. Thus, groups like the P-2 Masonic Lodge and al-Qaeda on the right and Lenin’s Bolshevik Party and the guerrilla VietMinh on the left actually did engage in conspiracies to one degree or another.

In the realm of conspiracy, resolving the distinction between what can be done and what was done often muddles matters. (A related topic, the often violent rupture between how conspiracy theorists view reality, and reality itself, is beyond the scope of this column.) In particular, determining the perimeters of what was done is a sometimes a daunting task. Consider the Bolsheviks once again. The Bolshevik Party was a straight-up, clandestine vanguard party of professional revolutionaries, and so conspiracy was part of its MO. The Bolsheviks participated in the 1905 as well as the February 1917 Russian Revolutions, and actively, secretly organized the armed Red Guard putsch central to the October 1917 Revolution. It is even well documented that a member of the Bolshevik central committee, a number of high-ranking party members, and a fair percentage of the rank-and-file membership had been secretly agents of the Okhrana, the Czarist secret police, in a conspiracy within a conspiracy. But I am not convinced, from the historical evidence, that the Bolsheviks were inadvertent double agents of Czarism, or that they engineered the Russian Revolution from the get-go, or that they were pulling the strings to an international Communist conspiracy as far back as 1789. And to argue that the Bolsheviks were part of some worldwide Jewish conspiracy masterminded by the Elders of Zion is sheer lunacy.

Me, I tend to fall on the anti-conspiracy side of things whenever analyzing history or current events. Back in the day, when my friends and I were 60s New Leftie wannabe revolutionaries trying to figure out our politics but still barely scraping together the change for our next lid of bad weed, we joked that our checks from Moscow seemed interminably delayed in the mail. Indeed, the international Communist conspiracy has been a central hysterical trope on the right in one form or another, serviceable in all sorts of situations, gradations and permutations. Decades later, when I got to know some ex-Maoist types who’d been around the fractious New Communist Movement in the 70s, I learned that the joke for them was their checks from Beijing never seemed to arrive. Nowadays, the rightwing canard is that progressives and Leftists in this country are being funded, and hence controlled, by George Soros.

That’s Central Committee General Secretary Comrade Soros to you.

In a less flippant take, a common lefty conspiracy theory has it that the CIA imported heroin in the 1970s and that the FBI manufactured crack in the 1980s in order to specifically crush the Black Power/Black Liberation movements and to more generally suppress Black people in America. I don’t doubt that the proliferation of heroin and crack did, in fact, accomplish these things, but more as an afterthought rather than as a purposeful conspiracy. I think that the international drug trade is powered by a number of players with a variety of motives; everything from the good old-fashioned profit motive to drugs-for-arms type geopolitics, with plenty of opportunity and opportunism to go around.

And yes, there are conspiracies all the time in capitalism, everything from knowingly manufacturing and selling dangerous products to lobbyists secretly buying the votes of politicians. But by and large capitalists are pretty up-front about what they intend to do with their wealth and power. They organize quite openly in business associations and political parties, proudly found schools of economics and think tanks, and put forth their plans for running state and economy freely in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. When neoliberalism came to power in the late 1970s/early 1980s, the elections of Thatcher in England and Reagan in the United States were preceded by a neoliberal onslaught of propaganda and activism openly calling for, among other things, deregulating and financializing the economy, rolling back the welfare state, crushing organized labor, and privatizing the public realm. Neoliberalism proceeded to do just that with the election of the Republican president Reagan, coming to fruition under the Democratic president Clinton with the ratification of NAFTA and the abolition of welfare. There has been little hidden, or clandestine, or conspiratorial about the capitalist ruling class’s open class warfare against the rest of society carried out under neoliberalism.

Acknowledging the existence of a social class with common interests based on ownership of the economic means of production, even recognizing that the social class in question attempts to run things through owning most of society’s wealth and property, is not the same as tossing around dubious conspiracy theories. But I’ll leave the basic Marxism 101 for a future column. I’ll conclude with a quote from Zbigniew Brzeziński, that: “History is much more the product of chaos than of conspiracy.”

(Copy editing by K Raketz.)

The Problem of Agency: “What’s Left?” February 2015, MRR #381

I’m sick of the blood and I’m sick of the bleeding,
The effort it takes just to keep on dreaming

Of better days, and better ways

Of living.

Michael Timmins, Cowboy Junkies
“Fairytale,” The Wilderness: The Nomad Series

“A new world is possible” was the slogan that emerged from the era of anti-globalization protests, which in turn evolved into an endless series of social forums that continue to this day. Airy and tentative compared to the insurrectionist communizing nihilism that followed, this sentiment is the lite version of a prefiguring politics that goes back at least as far as the 1905 Industrial Workers of the World constitution which called for “building a new world in the shell of the old.” Indeed, it can be argued that “[s]ocial revolutions are a compromise between utopia and historical reality. The tool of the revolution is utopia, and the material is the social reality on which one wants to impose a new form. And the tool must to some degree fit the substance if the results are not to become ludicrous.” So wrote the young, still Marxist Leszek Kolakowski in his essay “The Concept of the Left.” Thus, I intend to define who and what is trying to make a new world possible, and how successful such efforts have been to date.

I’ve always considered myself on the side of those who would create a new and better world. And I have more than a passing interest in the claimed existence of The Historical Agent (THA—also called the revolutionary agent/subject, or the social agent/subject), the radical social grouping with the human agency to affect revolutionary social change not just in the past but in our lifetime. Walter Benjamin proposed a similar messianic understanding of history, a sense of messianic time or a weak messianic power he associated with Marxist historical materialism and couched in cryptic, poetic terms in “The Concept of History” which ends with the statement that “[f]or every second of time was the strait gate through which Messiah might enter.” Unfortunately the four broad terms usually synonymous or often conflated with THA—The Workers Movement, Socialism, The Left, and The Movement—each tries yet fails to be sufficiently all inclusive.*

The modern workers movement which congealed out of Medieval artisan and peasant strata can be said to have its origins in the practice of English Chartism at the beginning of the 19th century, and in Marx’s theoretical efforts to define such workers as a social class based on their relationship to the means of production. The economic labor unions and political workers parties of this emerging working class, not to mention the labor syndicates and workers councils that combined economic and political power, spread widely well into the 20th century, extending working class culture and consciousness internationally. Efforts to make The Workers Movement either less Marxist (by describing workers as simply “everyone who works for a living”) or more Marxist (through Leninist notions of the “industrial proletariat” or Maoist concepts of “proletarian consciousness”) must now give way to discussions of post industrial workers, marginal or precarious workers, or the abolition of the working class altogether.

Socialism refers to political theory and practice, as well as organizations, movements and regimes based upon social ownership of the means of production and cooperative management of economy and society. Socialism as such goes back to the 18th, if not the 17th centuries, centered primarily in Europe. With roots in millenarian and utopian traditions, socialism diversified through the 19th and 20th centuries, though it can be generally categorized as either working class or non-working class based. In a 21st century rife with capitalist triumphalism, socialism has become a curse.

Born from an accident of seating arrangements in the National Constituent Assembly after the 1789 French Revolution, The Left means the politics and activity that arose from 1848 onward. Centered in Europe, it comprised Marxism (and eventually Leninism), anarchism, syndicalism, unaffiliated socialisms, even types of political democracy and liberalism. The Left’s configuration dramatically changed after 1945. First, there was massive proliferation as Leninism of Stalinism, Maoism and Third Worldism. Second, there was the consolidation and attenuation of Marxist social democracy. Third, there was the virtual extinction of anarchism/ultraleftism before its youthful resurgence. Fourth, there was the purposeful non-alignment of other forms of socialism. And fifth, there was the rise and fall of democratic liberalism. With the exception of anarchism/ultraleftism, these political forms experienced a contraction and retrenchment on or before the 1989-91 collapse of the Soviet bloc.

Finally, The Movement covers Leftist politics and practice, as well as organizations and movements within the United States from the mid-1960s on. This was when the Marxist-Leninist old Left was superseded by a New Left rapidly differentiating into New Communist Movement and other kinds of Third World politics, an evanescent anarchism/ultraleftism also quickly diversifying, proliferating forms of non-affiliated socialism and liberalism, and a plethora of social movements such as Women’s Liberation, Gay Liberation, Black (brown/red/yellow) Liberation, etc. In turn, the “crisis of socialism” that has riven The Movement since 1991 has produced a near universal turn toward identity politics and postmodern Leftism.

It’s not enough to consider whether THA is an adequate analytical category, a viable classification comprised of the intersection between The Workers Movement, Socialism, The Left, and The Movement. “The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer,” Walter Benjamin said, “he comes as the subduer of Antichrist.” Four overlapping Venn Diagram shapes cannot magically yield a clearly defined collective human entity with historical agency within the convergence of these four nebulous social movements. There is still no precise historical delineation of who or what is responsible for the meager successes and overwhelming failures that I identify with as a socialist, a Leftist, a member of the working class, or a part of The Movement.

Until the 1917 Russian Revolution, history was one of three painful steps forward and two excruciating steps back. The period of world wide social upheaval bracketed by the first and second World Wars produced a sudden revolutionary surge from 1945 through 1985. “Real existing Socialism” (Soviet and Chinese style Communism, the so-called Second World) dominated a fifth of the earth’s land surface and a third of the world’s human population. Social democracy and social movements contested ground in the First World. And socialist struggles for national liberation and socialist national non-alignment proliferated in the Third World.

There were indications that all was not well however, especially in the West. I have argued for Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s somewhat pessimistic evaluation of the 1968 Generation’s impact (“It was fun, but 1968’s legacy was mixed,” Guardian Weekly, 9/5/08) in a previous column. In covering much the same ground (“Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!: Paris, May 1968,” The Independent, 9/23/08), John Lichfield reposted the overly simplistic formulation that 1968’s rebellious youth “had lost politically but they had won culturally and maybe even spiritually.” Timothy Brennan spends many an essay in his book Wars of Position contending that the poststructural, postmodern Left, especially in Western universities, had embarked by 1975 on a “war against left Hegelian thought” that successfully buried Marxism, its “dialectical thinking and the political energies—including the anti-colonial energies—that grew out of it” by the mid ‘80s.

These setbacks were minor however compared to the watershed collapse of “real existing Socialism” between 1989 and 1991. Kenan Malik summarized the consequences that followed this turning point in his 1998 essay “Race, Pluralism and the Meaning of Difference”:
The social changes that have swept the world over the past decade have intensified this sense of pessimism. The end of the Cold War, the collapse of the left, the fragmentation of the postwar order, the defeat of most liberation movements in the third world and the demise of social movements in the West, have all transformed political consciousness. In particular, they have thrown into question the possibility of social transformation.
The Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union disintegrated, the power of the organized working class dramatically declined, all fronts from anti-colonial to social justice struggles experienced profound retreat, labor and social democratic parties and regimes were neoliberalized. Any one of these historical events is immensely complicated and deserving of deep historical analysis. Yet, collectively, they have been naively hailed by Establishment pundits as the results of the world wide triumph of capitalism, an end to the bipolar world order under neoliberalism’s Pax Americana, even “the end of history.”

I don’t have the space to disabuse my readers of this jejune myth of capitalism’s unequivocal victory and socialism’s undeniable defeat. But I do have the time to shatter the delusion, promulgated principally by anarchists, that with the near universal decline and defeat of the “authoritarian Left” their time has come, and that the future is anti-authoritarian. Clearly, forms of anarchism, neo-anarchism, libertarian Marxism and even leaderless Leninism are some of the fastest growing political tendencies on the Left over the last two or so decades. Yet those who wish to understand how things change, historically and socially, need to heed the conclusions arrived at by Max Boot in his comprehensive historical overview of guerrilla warfare entitled Invisible Armies:
Anarchists did not defeat anyone. By the late 1930s their movements had been all but extinguished. In the more democratic states, better policing allowed terrorists to be arrested while more liberal labor laws made it possible for workers to peacefully redress their grievances through unions. In the Soviet Union, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany, anarchists were repressed with brute force. The biggest challenge was posed by Nestor Makhno’s fifteen thousand anarchist guerrillas in Ukraine during the Russian Civil War, but they were finally “liquidated” by the Red Army in 1921. In Spain anarchists were targeted both by Franco’s Fascists and by their Marxists “comrades” during the 1936-39 civil war—as brilliantly and bitterly recounted by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia. Everywhere anarchists were pushed into irrelevance by Moscow’s successful drive to establish communism as the dominant doctrine of the left. […] Based on their record as of 2012, Islamist groups were considerably more successful in seizing power than the anarchists but considerably less successful than the liberal nationalists of the nineteenth century or the communists of the twentieth century. (“Bomb Throwers: Propaganda by the Deed” and “God’s Killers: Down and Out?”)

It should be obvious with the end of the Cold War that matters are far more complicated than a superficial battle between, and facile triumph of, good over evil. Equally obvious is that the concept of THA remains a slippery one, resonant with messianic intent, and hence one not easily pinned down by its successes or failures. Finally, I hope I’ve made it obvious that anarchism’s history is one of unmitigated defeat, and that anarchism by itself lacks the historical agency to do jack shit.

*[A discussion of agency is a consideration of human subjectivity. In contrast, emphasizing the objective to the point of denying the subject has a long tradition in Marxism, beginning with vulgar Marxism which contended that inevitable economic crises caused by predetermined historical circumstances would bring about the certain downfall of capitalism, whether or not humans had anything to do with it. Louis Althusser formulated a Marxist Structuralism in which ideological and material structures define the human subject out of existence. Thus, history becomes “a process without a subject” according to Althusser. Finally, the current Marxist school broadly subsumed under the rubric Krisis, or the Critique of Value, argues that capitalism is a single interconnected system of capital and labor components bound together by the valorization of capital, which transforms into the valorization of value and which will inevitably collapse due to crisis. Labor has no historical agency, but is merely an abstract historical category. History might harbor many revolutionary subjects, but the working class as a class cannot be one. Workers cannot constitute a revolutionary social class.]

Spain Rodriguez, RIP: “What’s Left?” February 2013, MRR #357

The funny pages. That’s what we called the comics section of the newspaper in our family when I was growing up. Especially the full color Sunday comics.

My dad would spread out the Sunday comics on the living room floor and read them to my sister and me. Peanuts, Blondie, Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates, Gasoline Alley. My parents claimed that I learned to read well before attending school by listening to my dad read the comics and following along in the paper. I gained an abiding love of all forms of graphic material from this early childhood experience. And my parents were happy to let me read anything and everything, so long as I read. I might have a copy of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago next to a stack of Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp Tarzan paperbacks and a pile of Magnus, Robot Fighter, 4000 AD comics, drawn by Russ Manning, on my cluttered desk. That’s when I was in sixth grade.

By high school, and in addition to my homework, my dad was giving me Romain Gary novels and Lawrence Ferlinghetti poetry to read. I was devouring everything science fiction, from Robert Heinlein to Andre Norton. I was also delving into pacifist literature, lots of Thoreau, Gandhi, MLK, plus the political classics of left anarchism. Then there were the underground newspapers of the day. The LA Free Press, The Oracle, and The Berkeley Barb. Last, but by no means least, there were the underground comics. Initiated by R. Crumb’s Zap Comix #1, the stable of underground artists I followed included S. Clay Wilson, Robert Williams, and Spain Rodriguez.

Which brings me to this column’s jumping off point. Manuel “Spain” Rodriguez died this November 28, 2012, at 72. The year 2012 has been a rough one for me. I turned 60, and being conscious of my age made me aware of mortality in general. I noted how many musicians died halfway through 2012 in a previous column. Well, it seems to me that an inordinate number of people I grew up reading, listening to, watching, and otherwise paying attention to have died in the past year, Spain Rodriguez among them. I was an original fan of Spain’s proletarian Trashman (Agent of the Sixth International) comic superhero, and I placed an advanced order for his graphic biography Che once I learned Spain was working on it.

I won’t attempt to summarize his rich, varied life, from working in foundries and riding as a biker with the Vultures motorcycle gang, through all of his 1960s adventures, to being a devoted family man, a husband and father in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood producing comic books, graphic novels, and posters for various projects and causes. You can get those details by googling him and checking out wikipedia. David Talbot’s obituary on Salon is particularly enlightening. Instead, I’d like to focus on Spain’s leftist politics. A son of anarchist and socialist immigrants, Spain said that “[w]hen I was a kid I kinda didn’t like rich people … I just kinda had a bad attitude.” So, when he commented that “[m]y hopes are that mankind will build a more just society,” or when he announced on his website “Fight the Oppressor!” his sentiments were more visceral than cerebral.

“I had been interested in politics and history when I was in high school but, you know, it was more instinctual and more aesthetic and it slowly evolved. There’s a party, and they’re probably still around, the Socialist Labor Party, and they would have these get-togethers, and I would get involved in that. So, you know, I developed a Socialist outlook. As a matter of fact, me and Walter Bowart [editor of East Village Other] would get into these intense discussions on those issues. So once I did Trashman, I already had that kind of Marxist outlook.” Clearly, Spain understood ideology, but he was no ideologue. He drew a two page comic detailing the history of the Ukrainian anarchist Nestor Makhno (Toward Revolutionary Art, 1976), published Che: A Graphic Biography about Marxist-Leninist Ernesto “Che” Guevara in 2009, and was working on a graphic history of the 2004 San Francisco hotel workers strike by the conventional Unite Here labor union when he died. All were essentially laudatory works, even as each was historically accurate and critically honest.

It would be incorrect to characterize Spain as a naïve artist type, a “useful idiot.” Mistakenly attributed to Lenin, the term “useful idiot” signified individuals who advocated for a cause whose goals they did not understand. Spain’s Nestor Makhno mentioned the democratic structure of Makhno’s guerrilla army “in theory,” but noted that Makhno and his inner command ran the army with a tight-fisted discipline. Spain also described how Trotsky ordered the arrest of anarchists, and how the Bolsheviks first allied with Makhno’s army, then ambushed, imprisoned and killed its leadership. Spain’s graphic biography of Che praised Guevara’s contributions to Cuba’s liberation as well as the strategy and tactics of guerrilla warfare, while extolling Che’s personal charisma and courage under fire. Spain made no bones about Guevara’s “over-centralized decision-making” (read Stalinist idiocy) in running Cuba’s economy however, or the man’s problematic dealings with African guerrilla soldiers under his command in the Congo. And, if anything, Spain’s comics glorified the violence that he knew was inevitable in any revolutionary situation. Spain Rodriguez was a genuinely non-sectarian class war radical—exultant yet unromantic about socialism’s victories, unswervingly honest yet unapologetic toward its crimes—who had “faith in the revolution.”

Long time readers of this column know that I have been divisive, tendentious and sectarian in defense of my particular political “truth.” I spent last column describing the sectarian squabbling of various Occupy Oakland factions in excruciating detail. The main spokesman for an “insignificant groupuscule” I mentioned in passing has smugly and arrogantly contended that: “OO began its decomposition right around the end of the first week of the encampment. […] The ability of cliques to abuse the GA process began within that first week, culminating in the ultimately unsuccessful – but still demoralizing guilt-mongering of the Decolonize proposal several weeks later. The first betrayal by the union hierarchs occurred during that first week as well; a continued courting of those same creeps throughout the life of OO assured its death. Some of the Move-In Day organizers definitely finished off the edge of contestation that had been present throughout, resulting in a pathetic May Day and an even more absurd Oct 25 commemoration.” Imagine being so angry and bitter in the midst of what was such an inspiring quasi-revolutionary upheaval. Contrast this with Spain Rodriguez, driving around San Francisco in his 70s, no doubt dealing with the prostate cancer that would eventually kill him, saying: “I’ve seen changes in my lifetime. I’ve seen many cool scenes. I have hope cool scenes will keep on coming. I have faith in the revolution.”

The insistence on absolute purity, the unwillingness to accept anything less than 100% and consequent willingness to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, the determination to always “lose with style” as Boots Riley has decried, what I’ve called the beautiful loser syndrome made manifest by political purists on the left, is ridiculous. In turn, I’d like to apologize for my cantankerous, ultra-partisan politics of the past, although I can’t say I won’t indulge in such stupidity in the future. Rest In Peace, Spain. Thanks for all the great comics.

The real barbarians!: “What’s Left?” July 2011, MRR #338

“U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!”

Crowds chant in front of the White House, at Ground Zero in New York City, in various sports arenas around the country in response to the news that US military Special Forces have found and killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 1, 2011. They are exuberant, and joyful. Yet there is a frenzy to their celebration, even a touch of desperation, a gloating that masks a sense of helplessness and impotence.

I don’t hold to the bullshit that all human life is precious, that each and every individual death diminishes us. Nor do I believe that it isn’t right to rejoice at the death of another human being, no matter how heinous or criminal that person’s actions have been. There are plenty of folks I would give three hearty cheers to see strung up, beginning with war criminal Henry Kissinger, and running through any number of Wall Street CEOs. Yet there is something rather pathetic about the jubilation displayed by Americans over the announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death, beginning with the contemptible assertion that “justice was done” with the Al Qaeda leader’s assassination.

Even the most rudimentary form of justice would have required bin Laden’s capture and trial, instead of his summary execution, which many in the Obama administration concede was planned from the start of the operation. Thus, those who castigate the US government and American people for engaging in vengeance rather than justice are correct, even while their moral outrage is misplaced. Justice is a cornerstone of the mythology underpinning democratic republics, whereas vengeance historically is the stock in trade of empires.

When Julius Caesar attempted to wrap up Rome’s conquest of Gaul, a number of Gallic leaders rose in revolt against the Roman Empire, among them Ambiorix, Commius, and Vercingetorix. Vercingetorix is perhaps the best known of the Gauls to resist the Romans, and the French have made him over into a minor proto-nationalist hero. Aside from uniting most of the Gallic tribes against Rome, he engaged the Roman legions with conventional military tactics and strategy, and harassed them with what we now call asymmetrical warfare (e.g. guerrilla warfare), retreating to natural fortifications whenever possible. But Vercingetorix was not a nice guy. He ruled with an iron discipline, and enforced his will by murdering his opposition and taking hostages to guarantee compliance. In order to prevent Caesar’s armies from gathering supplies and living off the land, Vercingetorix adopted a scorched earth strategy, particularly in retreat, in which his forces burned Gallic villages and towns.

Vercingetorix surrendered to Julius Caesar after the battle of Alesia in 52 bce. Due to the Roman civil war however, Caesar did not deal immediately with the rebel leader. Instead, Vercingetorix was imprisoned in the Tullianum in Rome before being publicly displayed through the streets in a celebration of Caesar’s triumph in the Gallic War in 46 bce, and then strangled in prison in 45 bce. Thus, this quintessential act of personal and martial vengeance also symbolically marked Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire.

Contrast this with the killing of Osama bin Laden, a half-assed act of vengeance by a desultory American empire. The United States couldn’t afford to capture and publicly try the Al Qaeda leader, for fear that this might provoke adverse reactions from Muslims around the world. The Obama administration was scared of even releasing pictures of bin Laden’s dead body, afraid that such an act would incite retaliation from Islamic extremists. Behind a smokescreen declaring that “justice was served” and that “bin Laden got what he deserved,” there was a sense of anxiety and panic unbecoming a great power. Oh, for the days when empire bestrode the globe like a colossus. Whatever one thinks of the ancient Roman empire, or say, the more recently deceased British empire, at least they suffered from the sin of hubris, not of chickenshit cowardice. Better the arrogance of raw power than the disingenuousness of euphemism and platitude.

History and Empire: “What’s Left?” August 2007, MRR #291

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

-George Santayana

Let’s hope that nobody actually believes that if we don’t learn from history, we’re doomed to repeat it.

First off, and by definition, history is the chronicling of that which is unique. The battle of Hastings, in 1066, is a unique event, signifying the Norman conquest of England, another unique event. Analogies can be drawn, comparisons can be made, patterns can be discerned, but in the final analysis, the battle of Hastings in 1066 is a unique historical event.

Saying that historical events are unique does not make them discrete. Of course cause-and-effect, developmental trends, even evolving patterns can be found in the historical record. Seeing connection and meaning in historical events should be a descriptive rather than a prescriptive exercise, however. Not every revolution becomes a tyranny, and not every democracy becomes a dictatorship. And while it is possible to learn from history, both the lessons and their application are far subtler than Santayana’s aphorism would indicate. Indeed, it is often an obsessive effort to learn from the past that hamstrings those who would make history in the present.

There is the old adage that the American military is always fighting the last war this time around. Thus, the Pentagon was attempting to wage a conventional, WWII-type or Korean-style war in Vietnam, against an enemy who relied heavily on unconventional guerrilla methods. The inability of the US to come to terms in a timely manner with the new type of warfare that Vietnam represented is credited with helping to defeat America’s military intervention in Southeast Asia.

Chalk it up to neoconservative hubris as to why Junior Bush’s administration wasn’t at all concerned with learning lessons from Vietnam before they invaded Iraq. Delusions that US troops would be greeted as liberators, that regime change and free markets would be sufficient to rebuild Iraq into a shining example of freedom and democracy, and that a free, democratic Iraq would bring peace and stability to the region were the blinders that kept US policymakers from anticipating that the US invasion would eventually be met with popular resistance.

Called unconventional, guerrilla, low intensity, or asymmetrical warfare, it’s a venerable military strategy by no means limited to Vietnam. The American colonists used a version of it as part of their overall military strategy to win independence from Britain. It’s a myth that this kind of military strategy guarantees victory to those who employ it. America quelled just such a popular insurrection in the Philippines from 1899 to 1913, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Filipinos in the process. The US and UK helped defeat a Communist-led, Yugoslav-supported partisan insurgency in Greece after the second World War, with a considerably smaller death toll thanks to Stalin’s failure to support the guerrillas. Military juntas in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil suppressed varying degrees of domestic resistance, rebellion, and revolution with “dirty wars” in the 1970s that disappeared, tortured, and murdered tens of thousands of their respective citizens. Had the US anticipated the possibility of guerrilla resistance, and the need for a counterinsurgency strategy from the get go, the Pentagon would not have invaded Iraq with minimum military force and minimum contingency planning.

The lack of historical depth exhibited by the neocons actually can be put at the feet of a general American historical amnesia. One would be hard pressed to find a thorough philosophy of history espoused by any of the rightist tendencies in this country, which for the most part are homegrown and quite parochial. Those folks who like to wear Nazi uniforms and give the Roman salute have an alien feel to them, their whole shtick imported from Europe. It is in Europe that we can perceive a cyclical view of history, a la Oswald Spengler, that’s embraced by the right, in which history repeats, not out of ignorance, but from design. The American Left also gets its sense of history from Europe, in particular from European Marxism with its progressive stage schema of history. Even anarchists, long on a critique of state power, derive their economics and historical philosophy largely from Karl Marx. And it was Marx, in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, who said: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”

The Left has a particularly slavish devotion to learning from history, to endlessly breaking down and summing up the lessons of the past. Walk into the general meeting of any ecumenical Leftist organization, say Bay Area United Against War or the Peace and Freedom Party. Find an opportunity to ask the people at the meeting what they think of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Then sit back and watch the shit fly. Or, to quote Loren Goldner:

What I really wanted to write you about is my inability, 90 years on, to shake free of the Russian Revolution. Symptoms: in Ulsan (South Korea) in December, the worker group there asked me to speak on the differences between Rosa and Lenin, which I did (not terribly well, and with a very mediocre interpreter). In no time we were deep into a two-hour discussion of what happened in Russia in the 20’s (the agrarian question). And this was not some cadaverous nostalgia piece as might be served up at a Spartacist League meeting, but with intense back-and-forth and questions and furious note-taking. The point is that no matter where you start out, somehow the question of “what went wrong in Russia” comes front and center. (“Left Communism and Trotskyism: A Roundtable,” 2007)

Goldner’s rather sad observation, that the Russian Revolution is still a pivotal question for the Left, speaks to something in the culture of the Left itself. For Maoists, who pretty much accept the Bolshevik role in the 1917 Revolution as sacrosanct, the issue shifts to debating Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China. For the Bolsheviks themselves, questions about the lessons to be learned from the French 1789 Revolution, as amended by the 1871 Paris Commune, were paramount.

Trotsky’s claim that Stalin’s consolidation of power marked the Russian Revolution’s Thermidor notwithstanding, Lenin and the Bolsheviks helped insure that 1917 was not a repeat of 1789. In turn, Mao and the Chinese Communist Party were two of many reasons why the Chinese revolutionary experience was not a rerun of the Russian. Thus historical debate on the Left advances, even though the Left’s obsessive historical framework is never superceded. If only this were the case when it comes to discussions about the analogy between the United States and the Roman Empire.

“President and emperor, America and Rome: the matchup is by now so familiar, so natural, that you just can’t help yourself.” So says Cullen Murphy in an excerpt from his recent book in Vanity Fair. (“The Sack of Washington,” June 2007). He goes on to contend that some parallels between America and Rome do hold up, “though maybe not the ones that have been most in the public eye. Think less about decadence, less about military might-and think more about the parochial way these two societies view the outside world, and more about the slow decay of homegrown institutions. Think less about threats from unwelcome barbarians, and more about the powerful dynamics of a multi-ethnic society. Think less about the ability of a superpower to influence everything on earth, and more about how everything on earth affects a superpower. One core similarity is almost always overlooked-it has to do with ‘privatization,’ which sometimes means ‘corruption,’ though it’s actually a far broader phenomenon.”

Murphy’s nuanced comments do not directly address the question haunting many who compare America to Rome. Has America stopped being a republic and instead become a full-blown empire? Between the polar opposite positions of America as a reluctant defender of freedom and democracy worldwide, and America as an imperial enterprise from its colonial origins, arguments have been advanced that the US became an empire when it assumed Manifest Destiny, asserted the Monroe Doctrine, won the Spanish-American War, entered the first World War, or emerged from the second World War. This is similar to the argument on the Left as to when the Russian Revolution went bad. It’s also a misguided concern based on a false distinction.

America’s founding Federalist fathers were also obsessed with the example of Rome, of a freedom-loving republic degenerating into an autocratic empire. As they saw things, a central dilemma was the one posed by Montesquieu, an Enlightenment political philosopher who claimed that “it is natural to a republic to have only a small territory, otherwise it cannot long subsist.” The greater the territory governed, the less republican the government, with empire being the logical outcome of government over a wide territory. Two consequences followed if Montesquieu’s principle was rigorously adhered to, according to the Federalists. First, the new nation of the United States would have to break up into much smaller units in order to preserve their republican form of government, resulting in “an infinity of little, jealous, clashing tumultuous commonwealths” according to Alexander Hamilton. Second, each of these tiny, relatively homogeneous republics would be dominated by one or two factions, read special interests, whose particular interests were not necessarily the same as the interests of the community as a whole.

In Federalist Paper number ten, an essay that should be familiar to anyone who has studied US history in high school, James Madison advanced a novel solution to this dilemma. He astutely argued that “the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.” Conflict between factions was the most important threat to liberty, property, and stability in a republic, for which the cure was not direct democracy. Direct democracy would simply result in a dictatorship by the majority in which, to paraphrase the old John Birch Society, 51% of the people could vote to take away the toothbrushes of the other 49%.

Madison advanced the idea of a republican government of elected representatives that would eventually involve a constitutional system of separated powers, guaranteed rights, and checks-and-balances. His point in paper number ten however is that a representative republic will be able to cover a much larger territory and still remain a republic. More territory means more people, and thus a greater quantity and variety of factions under a single government. He assumed that the competition between a large number of factions with disparate interests would prevent any one faction from attaining a majority and ruling unilaterally. He also assumed that the future United States would continue to expand to the west.

Federalist Paper number ten makes the question of whether America has transitioned from a republic to an empire a la Rome entirely superfluous. Madison and other Federalists intended all along to create a hybrid, a republican empire. What we have in the United States, from the beginning then, is the fusion of a republic (representative democracy, constitutionally backed rule of law and guaranteed rights) with an empire (a penchant for territorial expansion, and for projecting power beyond its borders). No doubt the Federalists saw their solution to Montesquieu’s problem as offering the best of both worlds, republican government with expansive ambitions. Today, we can see that this sewing together of republic and empire in the United States has produced a Frankenstein monster, a monstrous hybrid that seeks nothing less than the end of history, as when Francis Fukuyama wrote:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. (Summer 1989, The National Interest)

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