The populist myth: “What’s Left?” February 2020 (MRR #441)

When the axe entered the forest, the trees said: “The handle is one of us.”

—Turkish proverb

I remember a brief carefree idyll when I was fourteen. I lived with my family in Ventura, California, went to Balboa Junior High, and had teenager jobs the occasional evening, weekend or summer. But I spent all my spare time at the beach swimming, surfing and skateboarding. When I enrolled in Buena High School the head gym teacher, Mason Parrish, put all the incoming sophomores through a battery of athletic tests to determine in which sports we might excel. Parrish coached the football team, and was in the process of building Buena’s swim and water polo teams to win multiple national awards, compete in the 1968-72 Olympic trials, and field numerous Junior Olympic Champions. I was a natural in the water, so Coach Parrish recruited me immediately for swimming and water polo.

Parrish was an old school, conservative high school gym coach who began and ended every game with a Christian prayer. He required loyalty from his athletes in school and expected us to practice routines, lift weights, and train regularly outside of class on our own time. All I wanted was to have fun, swim, and go to the beach. Parrish started me in a few swimming competitions and played me in a couple of water polo games. But when he realized I lacked the dedication and drive to give him the full commitment he demanded, he benched me for the duration of the semester. Parrish was openly disappointed, my gung-ho teammates disdained me, and I still had to show up for team practice and events. I was developing, maturing and acquiring new, formative interests in my adolescent life. But my love for swimming was irreparably damaged.

I kept to an honors academic track and joined the chess and science clubs. My passion for writing became all-consuming as I got involved with creative writing classes and the literary magazine. And my extracurricular interests in the 1960s hippie and New Left youth rebellions blossomed. I grew my hair long, started listening to rocknroll and going to concerts, declared myself a pacifist anarchist, tried to join a moribund SDS, organized an insignificant student walkout for the national anti-Vietnam war Moratorium, and published three issues of an underground newspaper. I went from being a jock to a hippie who still hadn’t smoked marijuana and a burgeoning Leftist moving rapidly further left. Much to my surprise, I was awarded a letter jacket at the Buena High School graduation ceremony thanks to my initial involvement in sports. A fellow swimmer approached me afterwards, pointed to the jacket, and said with a sneer: “You don’t deserve that.”

I too thought I hadn’t deserved my letterman jacket and felt I’d acquired my high school letter by mistake. So let’s talk about populism and how it doesn’t deserve to be considered revolutionary. That, in fact, populism is a misleading, dangerous concept. By the simplest definition, populism is about being for the people and against society’s elites. John B. Judis correctly divides populism into the straightforward leftwing dyadic populism of “the people vs the elite” and the triadic rightwing populism that champions “the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants.” (The Populist Explosion) What Judis doesn’t consider is that populism is also divided into “populism from below” (social movements and popular uprisings) versus “populism from above” (elitist demagoguery). This produces a foursquare political compass with examples of a demagogic populist Left (Huey Long), a demagogic populist Right (Donald Trump), a democratic populist Left (Occupy Wall Street) and a democratic populist Right (Tea Party). Elitist demagoguery of populist movements and rebellions is a clear danger in any form of populism. But also, because populist movements and rebellions are often ideologically and socially undifferentiated, it’s easy for populism to move back and forth from political Left to Right, even to attempt to combine elements of both Left and Right into a single “of the people, by the people, for the people” movement.

My critiques of the alt-right, neo-fascism, neo-nazism, and Third Positionism are by default criticisms of rightwing populism because of their lack of ideological coherence and tendency to scapegoat innocent social groups like Jews or black people. I won’t address Judis’s discussion that populism is “fascism lite” or an early warning sign of capitalism in crisis. To make my Leftist disagreements with populism clear, I’ll instead focus on leftwing populism.

“Leftwing populism is historically different from socialist or social democratic movements,” Judis writes. “It is not a politics of class conflict, and it doesn’t necessarily seek the abolition of capitalism. It is also different from a progressive or liberal politics that seek to reconcile the interests of opposing classes and groups. It assumes a basic antagonism between the people and an elite at the heart of its politics.”

The key concept here is social class. What defines a social class according to Marx is its relationship to the means of production. The capitalist class owns the means of production and purchases the labor power of others while workers own only their labor power which they sell for wages to the capitalist class. The working class thus starts out as a “class in itself” but becomes a “class for itself” through self-activity and self-organization to achieve its self-emancipation. Ultimately, the working class seeks to abolish itself as a class by abolishing all of class society.

Marxists have formulated two distinct concepts of how the working class might move from being a “class in itself” to a “class for itself”—class consciousness versus class composition. I’ll spend an entire future column on the differences between them. Suffice to say that without notions of social class, class struggle or the working class becoming a “class for itself”—that is without a class analysis—all that remains is leftwing populism. Working class organizers often practice a multi-class coalition politics to win power. That’s far different from leftwing populism that lacks class analysis and class politics. Leftwing populism is like a body without a spine, or a ship without a rudder—a decidedly less than useful politics often fraught not just with demagoguery but conspiracy thinking. Leftwing populism and revolutionary working class movements can both arise spontaneously from society’s base and overthrow society’s ruling elites through broad popular uprisings, much as did the Spanish 1936 anarchist revolution and the Philippine 1986 Peoples Power Revolution. Both can give rise to similar forms of self-organization (popular assemblies) and an extra-parliamentary opposition that quickly becomes parliamentary rule. But whereas revolutionary proletarian movements seek to overthrow capitalism and build a new society, leftwing populism is satisfied with merely overturning the current government and calling that a revolution. Leftwing populism is thus a revolution of half measures and incomplete reforms.

Judis argues that “[p]opulism is an American creation that spread later to Latin America and Europe.” But he spends too much time pointing to the American winner-take-all political system and various triggering economic downturns as causes for why American populism is rarely working class oriented. The reasons the United States never took to socialism have been frequently debated and sometimes contested. With the decline of the revolutionary workers movement internationally over the past five decades however, leftwing populism has taken its place or been supplanted by a rightwing populism that flirts with fascism.

Both the populist anti-globalization and Occupy Wall Street movements were majority leftwing with small but troubling conspiracy-prone rightwing minorities. The former produced a genuinely revolutionary moment in the 1999 Seattle insurrection while the latter manufactured the ludicrous 2011 two month slumber party in Zuccotti Square. Populism can also consciously mix leftwing and rightwing elements, as with Beppe Grillo’s Italian Five Star Movement which combined calls for direct democracy with expelling all illegal immigrants. But more often it’s simply impossible to determine where the balance of forces lie in any given populist uprising. The French yellow vests/gilets jaunes movement has been judged majority rightwing/minority leftwing whereas the Hong Kong protest movement is considered overwhelmingly liberal and pro-Western. Yet it’s not hard to find ardent Trotskyist socialists who defend the gilets jaunes and fervent Crimethinc anarchists who extoll successors to the Umbrella Revolution. Finally, it’s one thing to proclaim a given populist movement or uprising leftwing or rightwing from afar; entirely another thing to throw one’s lot as a leftwing populist (or a working class radical) in with an otherwise rightwing populist uprising. It’s probably little different from a working class recomposing itself to survive in an overwhelmingly decomposing global capitalism.

Marxists associated with the Krisis Group consider the workers movement so deeply embedded and compromised with capitalism as to be unsalvageable. They propose political struggle without classes, a populism with class analysis, a leftwing populism by default. That still leaves a leftwing populism subject to demagoguery, conspiracism, and half-assed revolutionism. In other words, a piss poor Leftist politics by any measure.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics by John B. Judis
Class Consciousness or Class Composition? by Salar Mohandesi
Marxism and the Critique of Value ed. by Larsen, Nilges, Robinson, and Brown

Background of hammer and sickle on old wooden floor

Tim Yohannan. ¡Presente!: “What’s Left?” May 2019, MRR #432

[E]verything that was in opposition was good…
Michael Baumann, How It All Began, 1975

No one who likes swing can become a Nazi.
Arvid (Frank Whaley), Swing Kids, 1993

It was Movie Night at Maximum Rocknroll at the old Clipper Street headquarters circa 1994. The featured movie was Thomas Carter’s 1993 film Swing Kids. It was Tim and me and maybe one other person. I think Tim actually made Jiffy Pop popcorn and I had my ubiquitous six pack. The plot was simple; as the Nazi Party rises to power in pre-WWII Germany a tight countercultural scene of young kids grow their hair long, wear British fashion and use Harlem slang as they listen to banned American swing music, hold underground dances and street fight the Hitler Youth. Two rebellious young men take different paths—one into the Hitler Youth, the other into the Swing Kids and eventually jail.

The parallels to the mid-1990s were clear, with the rise of the Right politically and the explosion of punk’s second hardcore wave in the streets. After the closing credits rolled and Tim popped out the VHS tape he made the connections explicit. “Punk is like swing was in Nazi Germany. It’s the core of a revolutionary youth culture with rebellious kids resisting fascism in the streets.”

Tim loved punk, no doubt about it, but he was also on a mission. He not only wanted to cover the scene and its music, he wanted to push the politics of punk to the fore. And that link between punk music, the scene, its politics, and the fight against the Right is crucial to understanding both Tim Yo and his project, MRR. Tim considered MRR a lynchpin between punk music and the punk scene on the one hand and the Left’s fight against reactionary politics on the other hand.

Tim was a friend. We both loved punk rock but whereas I had eclectic tastes ranging from pop to noise Tim insisted on only the rawest, most aggressive three chord rock’n’roll. We didn’t hang out together at shows although we were sometimes at the same shows. We were both politically on the Left although he was a mellowing Marxist-Leninist and I was an aspiring libertarian Marxist. Tim had a loud raucous belly laugh, could hit a fly ball over the fence, and was dedicated to the punk scene like nobody’s business. But he was also rigid, authoritarian, and sometimes an unmitigated asshole. In fact, when Tim was dying of non-Hodgkins lymphoma and preparing MRR’s transition team to take over, he advised us never to shy away from being an asshole when it was warranted. Meaning, we needed to stand firm about making the tough decisions—firing idiot shitworkers, refusing connections with sketchy bands and labels, cutting out cancerous corporate influences—whenever necessary. Tim and I were friends, but we weren’t ever “besties.” And I was never part of the coterie of friends who played Risk at the MRR house. Tim had modified the rules to make the game more ruthless, and there was no better metaphor than that long-running Risk game for Tim’s aspirations to punk rock world domination.

This tribute to Tim is also about the print edition of MRR. But MRR, which began publishing as a zine in 1982, started much earlier as a radio show in 1973. Both the early years of the radio show and the beginnings of the magazine involved a quadrumvirate of pioneering punkers—Tim Yo, Ruth Schwartz, Jeff Bale, and Jello Biafra—who changed punk rock in the Bay Area and internationally. Never the sharpest shōnen knife in the punk rock drawer, Jello fully deserved losing the Dead Kennedys back catalog for ripping off his band. Now a para-alt-rightwinger, Jeff Bale dropped racial epithets when his vintage sports car was vandalized by black kids. A millionaire hipster capitalist, Ruth Schwartz abandoned her faux conscious capitalist ethics when confronted with unionizing efforts by workers at Mordam Records. Having known and worked with them all, the only one I truly trusted was Tim Yo who, despite his personal flaws and political problems, was forthright, genuine, and completely dedicated to the scene. Tim helped me get the job at Mordam and in turn I fed him inside information about the distributor. When Tim moved to drop Mordam as MRR’s distributor, I gave Tim detailed backroom distribution and sales information ahead of the move, and provided him with lists of the distributors and sub-distributors Mordam dealt with. My punk loyalty was to Tim and MRR, first and foremost.

Tim’s influence on punk rock was epic and wide ranging. Tim and MRR arguably coined the term DIY—do it yourself—as well as defined the anti-corporate, bottom-up, decentralized nature of punk rock with regular scene reports and calls to “support your local scene,” two crucial characteristics of punk. Punk projects that Tim initiated—from the radio show to Gilman Street—are still going strong today. He made “no major labels” the magazine’s rallying cry. And Tim was an adamant anti-fascist, insisting that the magazine and affiliated projects have absolutely no truck with Nazis. He routinely confronted Nazis when the entire Gilman Street community shut down punk shows in response to Nazi skins in the pit. The vagaries of print media notwithstanding, MRR kept publishing for 16 years under Tim’s direction and 20 years after his death, quite a feat for an all-volunteer not-for-profit punk zine. Tim’s insistence that punk rock get back to basics with his 1994 purge of MRR’s record collection and music coverage forced punk to return to three chords and the truth, the basis for the music’s original greatness that fostered a revival of the genre.

Ultimately, the connections Tim fostered through MRR between punk music, the youthful punk scene, its leftist politics, and the fight against the Right and fascism influenced me the most. It’s facile to argue that because the young are rebellious by nature there can be no particular political philosophy innate to any form of rock’n’roll. The young are considered rebels without a cause and therefore without a clue. “Just don’t fucking tell me what to do!” is supposedly their mantra. But while the young are often individually rebellious for the sheer sake of rebelliousness, with all opposition considered good, there were definite political trends brought about by concrete material circumstances. As social phenomena, the rebellious hippie counterculture of the 1960s and the defiant punk subculture beginning in the 1970s were viscerally anti-authoritarian, which stimulated interest in and a revival of anarchism each time. No similar interest in conservative politics emerged, putting the lie to the claim that “conservatives are the new punk.” Fascism remained anathema irrespective of these youthful rebellions.

It’s equally facile to contend that because Tim witnessed the ’60s radical youth counterculture firsthand and was rumored to have been in the Revolutionary Communist Party in the ’70s he intended MRR to be a punk rock Bolshevik Party. As I pointed out above regarding MRR’s origins, Tim worked with a collection of fellow punks who differed wildly from him politically. MRR was frequently criticized as narrow-minded, politically correct, and elitist, but it never attempted to be a political vanguard for punk. The magazine’s shitworkers and columnists were diverse and their politics, while generally left wing, were eclectic. Tim had strong opinions and politics, but he was never a punk rock Stalin.

I was making links between punk and politics before I moved to the Bay Area. Joining MRR and working with Tim not only deepened those links, it changed my life. Not miraculously, but nevertheless significantly. My musical experience broadened dramatically as a result of hanging out at the MRR house. The anti-statist and anti-authoritarian components to my left libertarian politics grew more sophisticated, thanks in large part to Tim making me a columnist. I was always a writer, but I became a published author with a literary and internet presence during my tenure as “Lefty” Hooligan. I’ll continue writing and probably do some version of my monthly “What’s Left?” column online until they pry my cold dead hands from my keyboard. As of this writing, the future of MRR as a punk project remains to be determined. It began as a radio show, so it looks to continue as a radio show for the foreseeable future. The record reviews and other punk related reviews should be going up online shortly. And slowly, painfully, the full archive of MRR’s print era, the magazine in all its glory, will eventually be posted online. “Long live Maximum Rocknroll” is a reality, and the project will go mostly digital to survive.

There’s a long tradition on the Latin American Left of using the word ¡Presente! (Here! Present!) to invoke the memory of those comrades who died in the struggle for a better world. So this is only fitting:

Tim Yohannan. ¡Presente!

 

 

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

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

Fuck shit up!
—hardcore punk catchphrase

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Political upsurge vs ideological decay: “What’s Left?” August 2018, MRR #423

Metaphors are powerful. Metaphors are poetry disguised as prose. People who use metaphors claim they’re a shortcut to truth and meaning.

Last month I used the biological metaphor of species complex to tease out additional structure and definition of the usual Left/Right political compass. In the process I promised to cover various social contexts in given historical periods that illustrate increased Left/Right political conversions and crossovers but instead managed to drop yet another metaphor by using Mao’s metaphor with politics and war. From the 1960s war on poverty and the 1970s war on drugs to the 21st century wars on terrorism and the truth, the metaphor of war has been much used and abused. Instead, I’ll use another metaphor from Mao to “put politics in command” in coming to terms with political change, conversion, and crossover socially and historically. In the process, I will renege on my previous promise by severely limiting the scope of this inquiry to the rise of and interplay between the New Left and the New Right.

Karl Marx wrote “[c]onstant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones” in arguing that the French 1789 Revolution was the first bourgeois revolution of the capitalist era. The notion that capitalism was born of revolution and continues through constant revolution—economically, politically, and socially—has been challenged by Ellen Meiksins Wood and Robert Brenner who trace its origins back to the “peaceful” agriculture revolution of England in the 1700s. Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein, in turn, trace the kernel of capitalism all the way back to 1250 and the Mediterranean Venetian/Genoese commercial empires. But while capitalism’s genesis and initial features are in dispute, the constantly replicating, ever expanding, relentlessly revolutionizing reality of capitalism—from its embryonic beginnings to the present world capitalist system—is not.

Today, we live in an all-encompassing capitalist world. But socialism in one form or another arose to oppose capitalism roughly from 1820 onwards, with the concerted Communist challenge lasting from 1917 to 1991. The division of the world into two contending camps—capitalist vs socialist—was problematic all along. The left of the Left argued that social democracy was only state liberalism, that Leninism was merely state capitalism, and that both were not actual alternatives to capitalism. Further, a non-aligned movement of countries arose after the second World War to challenge the notion of a bipolar either/or world based on two competing power blocs. By the 1960s the rise of the New Left joined divisions on the Left, splits within socialism, and non-capitalist/non-Marxist options vying for recognition.

The seemingly intractable Cold War standoff between “the Free World” (which wasn’t free) and “the Communist Bloc” (which wasn’t communist) allowed a New Left to effloresce worldwide. In the United States, white college students of liberal, radical, and sometimes Marxist political bent formed organizations like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The New Left was directly powered by the motors of the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, and ran in dual-engine-mode alongside the hippie youth counterculture throughout the 1960s. It had no unified intent—whether criticizing orthodox Marxist and labor union movements, furthering and revitalizing the Left’s historic goals, or creating an entirely novel, unique Left—but its vitality and energy generated a plethora of corollary social movements, from the Black, women’s and gay movements to various Third World solidarity movements and the ecology movement. Anarchism revived from the dead, Trotskyism came in from the fringes, and Maoism found prominence via the New Communist Movement. 

Forming, changing, revising, or reversing one’s politics in those heady days when political boundaries were rapidly expanding and highly fluid—or non-existent—was common, and often meant rapid-fire crossovers or conversions. Last column I mentioned Murray Bookchin who started out as a Stalinist, became a Trotskyist, and ended up an influential anarchist communist. More telling was the political journey of Karl Hess. As Barry Goldwater’s speech writer in 1964, he was widely credited for the famous Goldwater line, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Eventually he became a left anarchist, joined SDS and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), championed back-to-the-land and intentional urban communities, and promoted appropriate technologies and left-right libertarian unity.

The New Left reached its pinnacle in 1968, which Mark Kurlansky rightly called “the year that rocked the world.” “To some, 1968 was the year of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Yet it was also the year of the Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy assassinations; the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; Prague Spring; the antiwar movement and the Tet Offensive; Black Power; the generation gap; avant-garde theater; the upsurge of the women’s movement; and the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union.” To this add the student/worker uprising in Paris of May/June, 1968. But 1968 simultaneously witnessed the failure of the New Left, starting with the collapse of SDS itself. For all the hype that Paris 1968 was a near-revolution inspired by the Situationists, Mouvement Communiste points out that for the most part French workers passed on the rioting to sit passively watching their TVs in a vindication of the persuasive Madison Avenue power of the Spectacle.

The recuperative powers of capitalism proved far greater. The cultural and political upheavals of the 1960s were often profoundly individualistic, even libertine, something that capitalism easily coopted. This was something more than that 1968’s rebellious youth “had lost politically but they had won culturally and maybe even spiritually.” (John Lichfield; “Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!: Paris, May 1968,” The Independent, 9/23/08) “[S]ince 1968, the West had grown not only more prosperous but more sybaritic and self-absorbed” as a consequence of the New Left’s cultural successes. “The ‘bourgeois triumphalism’ of the Thatcher (and Blair) era, the greed is good ethos and our materialistic individualism might just have had their roots 40 years back.” (Geoffrey Wheatcroft; “It was fun, but 1968’s legacy was mixed,” Guardian Weekly, 9/5/08) The year 1968 may have changed the world, but after “the revolution that wasn’t,” most everybody went back to their normal lives and conventional jobs.

Finally comes the power of out-and-out reaction, starting with Nixon and culminating with the neoliberalism of Reagan and Thatcher. It’s not by coincidence that the neofascist Ordre Noveau and the New Right Groupement de recherche et d’études pour la civilisation européenne (GRECE) emerged in France in 1968. The latter, founded by Alain de Benoist, demonstrated what Kevin Coogan wrote in Dreamer of the Day that: “periods of ideological decay often breed strange new variants, such as the ‘Red-Brown alliance’ in the former Soviet Union, which do not easily fit into conventional political-science categories of ‘left’ and ‘right’.” And make no mistake, the 1970s and 1980s were a period of profound ideological decay.

The Right retrenched and regrouped after 1968, not only halting the surge of the Left—both Old and New—but eventually gaining unquestioned ascendence while presiding over the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the dispersal of the political Left, and the contraction of the labor movement. The European New Right (nouvelle droite/ENR) was minuscule compared to the rest of the Right however, and it certainly was microscopic compared to the New Left to which de Benoist grandiosely juxtoposed his efforts. While the 1960s were a worldwide political and cultural phenomenon, de Benoist fantasized about the “metapolitics” of “culture wars” and “right-wing Gramscianism.” To Fascism’s organic hierarchies, militarism, anti-egalitarianism, and elitism, de Benoist tacked on a faux revolutionary élan, “the right to difference,” and a Europe of a hundred ethnic flags, then called it all groundbreaking. It was his claim to a sui generis fascism-by-euphemism in the ENR that succeeded in seducing the by-then jaded American New Left academic journal Telos.

Telos started publishing in May, 1968, and was committed to non-conformist critical political theory, analyzing all manner of neo-Marxist, anarchist, New Left, and Frankfurt School debates. But by the early 1990s, with the sorry state of “real existing socialism” and the disappointments engendered by its failures—or worse—its successes, coupled to the Left’s need for intellectual schema plus its desire for the “next big thing” in the form of new political paradigms, the disillusioned neo-Marxists and anarchists of Telos jumped at the chance of engaging with the ENR in debating de Benoist’s bright shiny bullshit. The discussion was initiated enthusiastically by the ENR and fueled by an American anti-intellectual populism, resulting in an ENR-Telos rapprochement by 1999. Telos became the most prominent crossover to the dark side, switching from once vigorous New Left to ever necrotic New Right.

In times of radical social change, political change is vibrant and vital. In times of reactionary social decay, political change is deformed and grotesque.

[This analysis of the ENR-Telos political dance owes much to Tamir Bar-on’s Where have all the fascists gone?]

Protest vs Violence vs Terrorism: “What’s Left?” February 2018, MRR #417

“Today on the Galloping Gourmet we will be preparing smoke bomb flambeau.”

Scott stood over the grimy stove in the shotgun shack off Ventura Avenue holding a beer in one hand and a saucepan in the other. He had that rakish, Graham Kerr attitude down, although his hippy hair and attire belied his bon vivant pose. Tom and I stood over a tiny formica table piled with a large sack of granulated sugar, an equally large smoked glass bottle of sodium nitrate, several boxes of “strike anywhere” matches, more pots, pans, and bowls, and a copy of Abbey Hoffman’s Steal This Book open to the section on “People’s Chemistry.” Scott directed our work with a wave of the pan and a swig of beer.

“First, thoroughly mix together six parts saltpeter, otherwise known as potassium nitrate, with four parts sugar. Sodium nitrate may be used in a pinch. Then pour the mixture into a medium pan and place it over a very low flame. Heat it slowly and carefully until it starts to melt and blend into a plastic like substance.”

Scott was gay, although that word wasn’t in common use in January, 1971. He’d walked around one of Jake and Connie’s raging parties wearing a colorful paisley cravat. When people commented “nice ascot” to him, he’d smile, wink, swivel his hips, and reply “why, thank you.” Scott had been the one to suggest lining the pan with aluminum foil so the concoction could be removed intact. And as the materials for our smoke bomb liquified and turned brown under my attention, Scott said over my shoulder: “Subtle, a little bittersweet, not blowsy and extrovert. Perfect.”

Tom had been breaking the tops off wooden matches which we intended to embed into the substance once it gelled but was still pliable. That way our smoke bomb wouldn’t require a fuse but could be set off simply by striking it against some hard surface. We intended to detonate the device inside a public meeting of the Ventura City Council as they feinted discussing whether to ratify the People’s Peace Treaty. Negotiated between the North Vietnamese and representatives of the American peace movement, the People’s Peace Treaty didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of being ratified, let alone acted upon by either the city of Ventura or the United States government. It was a propaganda instrument and a device for mobilizing anti-war support. Our smoke bomb was intended to protest the farce of disingenuously discussing peace while bombing the hell out of the Vietnamese people. However, as Tom and I wedged match heads into the hardening mass, our efforts were a little too close set. One match scraped another, a spark flew, and the whole thing ignited. Scott grabbed the exploding pan, ran into the backyard, and held the fireworks at arms length as a mushroom smoke cloud roared skyward.

We were greatly impressed by the volume of smoke from our inadvertent test run, and we had enough ingredients left to whip up another batch. But we never got a chance to use our second bomb because the city council meeting was guarded by police who frisked everyone as they entered. Our plans had been leaked, perhaps because we’d done our planning out in the open, in the office of the local Unitarian Church with the minister typing out the church newsletter in the same room. When a member of the congregation entered, heard what we were talking about, and asked the minister what the hell we were planning, the minister said, without looking up from his typing: “I hear nothing, I see nothing, I know nothing!”

I’ve told this story a couple of times before in this column. But unlike a former columnist who was fired in part because he kept repeating his columns almost verbatim, I’ve taken pains to make this retelling original, lively, and interesting. I’m trying to make two points with it, the first being the difference between truth and fact. This story is entirely true but only partially factual, and to illustrate that issue, consider the story of Charles Drew. A black American physician and surgeon before the second World War who isolated plasma from blood, he was involved in a fatal automobile accident in North Carolina in 1950. The myth is that Drew died as a result of having been refused a blood transfusion due to the color of his skin when, in fact, the accident was so severe he didn’t survive. The myth about Drew’s death was not factual, but it was true with respect to race relations in the South during that time.

My story above was not factual in that Scott was not in my original telling. I substituted him because I recently learned that the person upon whom the character Scott is based died. The story however is true, and so the problematic relationship between truth and fact remains. Despite the common meaning of a fact as logic itself, we never have a fact, only evidence for a fact, and that evidence implies a truth. And truth is never self-evident, but can lead via suggestion and inspiration to the facts. Yet facts, like data or statistics, can lie much as the truth, as myth or story, can lie. So, it’s complicated, much more so in this post-truth era.

Second, my story is meant to illustrate the relationship between protest, violence, and terrorism. One of my favorite quotes is from pacifist Marianne Williamson who said: “Birth is violent, whether it be the birth of a child or the birth of an idea.” I’m tempted to say that all life involves violence, beginning with one form of life devouring another form of life in order to survive. Non-violent crime is a misnomer because it usually involves some form of “property crime” resulting in damage to another person’s property, often in addition to emotional harm to the family and loved ones of the non-violent criminal. And the practice of non-violence, from Gandhi to Martin Luther King, has invariably resulted in extreme violence visited by the part of the powers-that-be and sometimes the general public against those same non-violent protesters.

We certainly believed in the ’60s that while harming living beings was violence, property destruction was not. Yet back when we were planning to smoke bomb our city council as a form of protest we realized that we were engaged in a certain low level of violence, and that violent protest wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. The first smoke bomb went off with a huge chemical discharge of heat and flame, so our tiny group was rightly concerned that anyone sitting near the device when we set it off might be injured, even as we thought nothing of the panic our bomb might cause in the meeting attendees. Many in the Ventura police and city council would have considered what we wanted to do not just violence, but terrorism. The tendency to treat all protest, not just violent protest, as a form of terrorism has only grown since. From the Right’s misplaced efforts to have antifa—which is an organizing strategy against fascism—declared a domestic terrorist organization, to the government’s heavy handed efforts to prosecute the J20 anti-inauguration protesters with multiple felonies involving decades in prison if convicted speaks to the rightwing effort to see all forms of protest and violence, especially on the Left, as political terrorism.

Political terrorism, whether domestic or international, is the use of violence to achieve certain political results, whether frightening a population or cowing a leadership into doing the terrorists’ bidding, softening up the terrorized for a takeover. Terrorism is never terror for terror’s sake. Despite not considering our protest overtly violent, let alone terrorist, we were trying to make a political point, no matter how misguided. And politics has everything to do with how protest, violence, and terrorism are defined as well as acted upon. I wrote last column that the “right” to free speech is a fight for power, pure and simple. So is what is considered protest, violence, and terrorism, and how we deal with them. Right now the government and the Right are trying to criminalize most protest and call it domestic terrorism. We need to make our protests against the government and the Right as widespread and creative as possible.

And we’re itching for that fight.

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.

Fashion Statement or Counterculture: “What’s Left?” July 2016, MRR #398

FashionStatement
I attended a “Faces of Death” party in San Diego between 1980 and 1982. I don’t remember the exact date as I was drinking heavily at the time, and some details are pretty much a blur from those days. “Faces of Death” was a film compilation of various explicit on-camera death scenes—half of them fake—which led to a movie series, and then a horror genre. I’d heard that Boyd Rice organized the party, not around a video showing but in honor of the suicide of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis. The living room had a shrine set up, with black and red altar cloths and lit tapered black candles featuring a framed picture of Ian alongside one of Adolf Hitler. Boyd hadn’t yet transitioned into full-on racist fascism, so this was him being transgressive and oh-so-naughty. The soundtrack for the evening, besides Joy Division, included Throbbing Gristle, Boyd’s band Non, Cabaret Voltaire, and others.

I found the whole party morose and boring, and left soon after arriving, no doubt in search of more alcohol. But all the future dark tribes, from Industrial to Goth, were present in embryo. I’ve told this story many times before. What’s brought it to mind now was Genesis P-Orridge posting on his FB page a slick conspiracy video-remastering of the hoax “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” using the Rothschild family. I’m FB friends with several anti-fascists, and the reaction was intense. One individual in particular, someone whom I’d been corresponding with back and forth since before FB when he was commenting on my political blog, stated that he was distressed over what Genesis had done because he really liked both Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. In the FB exchange, I realized I harbored prejudices born of that experience some 35 years prior, that a “certain kind of music” invariably leads to fascism.

I should have known better. In my Hit List review of Craig O’Hara’s book “The Philosophy of Punk” I’d argued against his idea that punk is inherently anarchist by contending that no type of politics is innate to punk as a genre of music. Aside from a visceral rebellion often characteristic of youth, it’s really all just about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. I also didn’t learn from my about-face on country western music, when I came to appreciate Hank William’s Sr. and not to categorize the entire musical genre as “redneck.” And yet, country western music is consistently associated with conservative politics, punk rock with anarchism, and industrial/goth music with fascism. How can we account for these persistent connections without labeling them innate or inherent?

Which brings us to the relationship between music and politics. I’m sick and tired of writing about the elections anyway and besides, the Democratic and Republican National Conventions are playing out even as this issue is being sold on newsstands.

“If the right kind of beat makes you tap your foot,” Frank Zappa once said, provocatively. “[W]hat kind of beat makes you curl your fist and strike?” Zappa was ardently anti-censorship, so this bit of hyperbole was meant to highlight the complex relationship between music and other forms of human behavior, not to nail it down. However, I will attempt to do just that by mediating the links between music and politics through the lens of counterculture. Let’s begin with the mother of all countercultures, the hippie counterculture. Forgive me if what follows is painted in broad strokes. The making of that counterculture, to paraphrase Theodore Roszak, involved the merging of a genre of music influenced by folk, blues and rock with various unconventional lifestyles from the Romantics, Bohemians and the Beats, all in opposition to the prevailing Establishment culture of the day. Rock music and bohemian hipster lifestyles overlapped, and the counterculture was born from their interaction on this common ground.

Characterizing the hippie counterculture as all about “peace and love” is simplistic but fair, even as it misses the communalism underlying that social movement. Plenty of hippies like Stewart Brand had a philosophical hankering for capitalist libertarianism, and many others went on to become successful entrepreneurs. But the 60s were all about communalism—about crash pads, coops and communes—and as such the counterculture countered competitive American individualism. Hippie communalism was central to a naïve back-to-the-land movement, which laid the basis for today’s concerns with vegetarianism and organic agriculture. This conscious collectivism accounts for the incipient anarcho-leftism of much of the hippie counterculture, and it also explains the New Age fascism evident in other aspects. And to call the politics of the hippies collectivist is vague at best.

The 60s counterculture encompassed millions of young people around the world and by the Death of Hippie (dated 1967, 1968 or 1969, depending) there were already inklings of a smaller counter-counterculture in the making. Proto-punk music was emerging, and there was a growing disdain for the hippie “peace and love” mentality as too idealistic and impractical. Anger and aggression replaced those hippie sentiments—expressed in sayings like “search and destroy” and “fuck shit up”—and hippie communalism mutated into punk collectivism (squats, punk houses, venue collectives, etc.). DIY became the byword of punk action and the whole package, while not explicitly anarchist, tended toward the politically anarchic.

Also in reaction to the hippie counterculture, but somewhat later in time and still smaller in numbers, the industrial/goth/dark counter-counterculture took shape. There were distinct types of music and kinds of collectivism (Throbbing Gristle came out of the COUM Transmissions art collective and Laibach is part of the NSK art collective), but the doom and gloom of this scene was augmented by an intense obsession with all that is transgressive. And my argument paralleling punk rock is that while there was nothing in the industrial/goth/dark music scene that was inherently fascist, the fascination with being “oh so naughty” and transgressive also accounts for the tendency toward fascist imagery and even politics in the music.

This oversimplified history is not prescriptive, but descriptive. I’m trying to explain political trends without arguing that certain politics are innate to certain musical genres. Hippie peace and love was far different from punk anger and aggression or industrial/goth doom and gloom. But, apart from youthful rebellion and a desire to épater la bourgeoisie, these countercultures and counter-countercultures had at least three things in common: communal structures, DIY motivations, and transgressive impulses. Hippie communalism was intensely DIY, with the Whole Earth Catalog epitomizing the era. But hippie transgression was unashamedly hedonistic. I would contend that this counterculture went the furthest toward parrying the prevailing culture and creating a viable, wholistic alternative society that escaped simple left-or-right politics. In reacting against bourgeois society and the hippie counterculture, punk and industrial/goth further narrowed their respective cultural arenas, and further fragmented the wider society into numerous contending, jostling subcultures. Punk was violently transgressive, but its DIY emphasis was central, implying anarchistic politics. And industrial/goth was as DIY as punk, but it was the fascination with transgressive naughtiness that accounts for that counter-counterculture’s infatuation with fascist symbolism, which often spilled over into actual fascism.

Of course, it can be argued that whether it’s culture, counterculture, or counter-counterculture, the Western context for all of this is bourgeois individualism. From the libertinism and “do your own thing” of the 60s, the emphasis has been on the individual through punk and industrial/goth, various forms of communalism notwithstanding. Even to say that “it’s only rock and roll” is to acknowledge the primacy of this socio-political context for the cultural rebellions from the 60s onward.

I published an anarcho-punk zine called San Diego’s Daily Impulse from 1985 through 1989, which I distributed free at shows and to record stores. As part of that zine, I and a small group of friends put on an Anarchy Picnic in May, 1985. Several hundred people gathered to share food and beverage, acoustic music, and activities like frisbee and hacky-sack around literature tables, chalk, and sheets of butcher paper sprinkled with crayons and paint in Balboa Park. It was clear at the Anarchy Picnic that divisions like hippie, punk and goth were ephemeral, that tastes in music and fashion were not rigid, and that people mixed-and-matched scenes and countercultures as they desired. In the midst of this sunny picnic, with all the fun and frivolity, a couple strolled into the park wearing full Nazi Sturmabteilung uniforms, complete with prominent swastika armbands. The man was an SA-Gruppenführer, the woman his she-wolf of the SA, and together they walked a pair of Dobermans. They feigned being haughty and aloof, but it was clear that they pranced and preened over being so naughty and transgressive in their Nazi regalia.

No surprise, the Anarchy Picnickers ignored them.

Of countercultures and temper tantrums: “What’s Left?” August 2015, MRR #387

Mildred: Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?
Johnny: Whadda you got?

Marlon Brando and Peggy Maley, “The Wild One”

They had lost politically but they had won culturally and maybe even spiritually.

John Lichfield (writing of the 60s generation)
“Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!: Paris, May 1968”
The Independent, 9/23/08

If I had to describe my political philosophy, I would say: “Libertarianism now, fascism later.”

J.P. Nash

She was a child of Beatniks who came of age in the mid-1960s and lived in San Francisco. There, she was a part of the hippie counterculture, danced with Sufi Sam’s dervish troupe in Precita Park, attended the 1967 Human Be-In/Gathering of the Tribes in Golden Gate Park, and belonged to the Diggers. After the “Death of Hippie” event in the Haight-Ashbury, as well as a series of high-profile drug busts, she moved to a commune in Olema in 1969.

He was a red diaper baby born of Communist Party members and lived in Berkeley. There, he participated in the burgeoning New Left, attended UC Berkeley on a Vietnam War student deferment, helped organize the takeover of Provo Park, and was a member of Students for a Democratic Society. After the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, and the “Bloody Thursday” riot in Berkeley’s Peoples Park, he joined the Weatherman faction in 1969.

They met, fell in love, and married sometime at the end of 1970, beginning of 1971. Maybe it was at Vortex I, or during the Chicano Moratorium, or doing gestalt therapy at Esalen. Or perhaps it was at a Renaissance Pleasure Faire, or during the trial of the Chicago 8, or sitting in on classes at Black Mountain College. The exact date and place were never clear as she was hitchhiking around the country and he had gone underground after the Greenwich Village townhouse debacle. Besides, it was the 60s, or the second half of that decade anyway. If you remembered the 60s, you weren’t there. They stayed together a couple of years, even had a couple of kids. But they couldn’t make it work. She was indelibly eccentric and individualistic, New Agey spiritual and profoundly anti-political. He was rabidly political and atheistic, consensus-prone and surprisingly conventional. They got together on and off over the next decade or two, had a couple more kids, but finally decided to call it quits and finalize their divorce at the end of the twentieth century. True to form, they couldn’t agree when to do that, she insisting that it be at the end of 1999 and he at the end of 2000.

As the 1970s dragged into the 1980s, and then the 1990s, they lived their separate lives. She watched as most of what she believed in during her counterculture days entered the mainstream. Not only had sex, drugs, and rocknroll become commonplace, but so had a quirky entrepreneurial individualism and appreciation for alternative lifestyles. She eventually moved to Portland as an apprentice pastry chef, where she now owns a regional mini-chain of successful artisanal bio-organic paleo-grained brick oven bakeries, writes a popular food blog, and lives comfortably in the Pearl District. He watched as the Left he fought for retreated from the streets, ultimately to retrench in its final academic bastion. Not only had revolutionary politics and Marxism given way to identity politics and French postmodernism, but the Left’s scant successes had quickly dead-ended in political correctness. He eventually resurfaced with a teaching career in New York City, where he is now a tenured Sociology professor at NYU, lectures and writes on social movements, and lives comfortably in Park Slope.

And here’s where I walk away from my all-to-obvious analogy. My initial point is that pundits who proclaim that those who fomented the 1960s “lost politically, but won culturally” commit the most basic error of constructing a straw man out of the notion that there was one, unitary “60s generation.” There were two main currents to the 60s—the hippie counterculture and the Left/social movements—that share the coincidence of their proximate births and participant demographics, but little else. These two currents frequently interacted and occasionally merged, but ultimately they remained discrete, and experienced different fates. The hippies won culturally, and the New Leftists lost politically.

The conflation of different aspects of the 1960s is often not just an error of punditry, its a tactic of conservative Kulturkampf. Conservatives have long attempted to fabricate an imaginary, monolithic enemy-from-within, responsible for the decline of America and the corruption of its moral fiber since the 60s. The hedonistic hippie counterculture was in complete cahoots with a New Left become New Communist Movement, which was secretly in league with the Great Society welfare state, Democratic Party permissive liberalism, a mainstream media monopoly, corrupt socialistic unions, ad nauseam; thus inventing one sweeping, victorious anti-American juggernaut that every right-minded, freedom-loving, patriotic citizen needed to oppose by any means necessary. Culture wars have been the party line ever since the Reagan presidency. During that time conservatives moved American politics steadily, inexorably, to the right under an ideological variation known as neoliberalism, itself a supposed revival of 19th century classical Manchester liberalism. Because let’s make no mistake here, whether the counterculture won and the Left lost in the short run, capitalism wins out in the long run. The individualistic “do your own thing” hippies fit in perfectly with America’s self-reliant pioneer individualism and besides, everybody wanted to make money after the 60s.

I decided not to get cute and extend my original analogy to follow the children of my fantasy hippie/New Left couple by describing which one became a Wall Street broker versus which one became a punk rocker and so on. Most who went through the 60s as active participants, as well as their offspring, got jobs and became productive members of society, so what I’m interested in are those who rebelled against all that, even against the 60s, even for rebellion’s sake, oftentimes forming their own countercultures in the process. Rarely did such counter countercultural rebellions lump both “parents” into a single target however. Heavy Metal as a counterculture maintains a direct line of descent from the 60s counterculture, which makes its rebelliousness all rather conventional, even traditional. Punk rock rebellion was against “all that hippie shit” and created its own counterculture based on “do it yourself” and “fuck shit up.” But because punk was basically apolitical, it was easily swayed by politics, left or right, ultimately to descend into peace punks vs skinheads by the 80s.

There were those who had nothing against sex, drugs, and rocknroll, but who thought all that hippie “peace and love” was naïve bullshit. What chafed them unduly were the demands for political correctness which originated in academia, echoed around government and the media, and were blithely parroted by Gen X kids. These young white dudes, and they were mostly young white males, were angry about the influence of the PC Left in America. Inspired by the zine Answer Me! produced by Jim and Debbie Goad from 1991 to 1994, they created a rabid if limited anti-PC counterculture which, according to Spin Magazine, quickly transcended pissed off, working class whiteboy Jim Goad and his “fuck you and your feelings too” zine. There was the Unpop art movement, various publishing companies like Feral House, even an Angry White Male tour which featured Jim Goad, Mike Diana, Shane Bugbee, the Boone Bros., Skitzo, and King Velveeda. Lots of young angry white boys were plenty pissed that they now had to consider the perspectives of women, blacks, gays, and other minorities, and they believed their misogynist, racist, homophobic, frequently humorous invective was not “punching down” but rather “punching up” because, you know, liberalism and the Left were really in control.

Aside from Goad, the usual suspects in this post-60s contrarian counterculture included Boyd Rice, Brian Clark, Shaun Partridge, Adam Parfrey, Lorin Partridge, Nick Bougas/A. Wyatt Mann, Michael Moynihan, Larry Wessel, et al. As is invariably the case, antagonisms and rifts eventually split up these anti-PC counter countercultural bad boys, since they had really little in common other than their hatred of the Left, liberalism, and PC politics. Some drifted off into business-as-usual conservatism, others became neofascists, but most just wanted to make a buck. Their immediate heir was Vice Media, which at its inception as a magazine combined muckraking journalism with frat boy humor and soft porn skin mag aesthetics. What Lizzie Widdicombe described in “The Bad-Boy Brand” for the New Yorker as Vice’s early combination of “investigative reporting with a sensibility that is adolescent, male, and proudly boorish” has since been moderated for the sake of maximizing profit and moving into the mainstream. That leaves folks like Gavin McInnes—big Goad fan and ex-Vice cofounder fired for being unwilling to go along with the program—to continue the good fight ranting against the Left, liberals, and political correctness today.

One thing I find interesting is that right-wing libertarianism seems to be the default politics for those individuals intent on winning the culture wars while still snorting coke and watching porn. Goad might best be described as paleo-libertarian, while both Vice and McInnes are self-proclaimed libertarian. I think that claiming an absolute right to freedom of expression, aside from triggering such knee-jerk libertarianism, is invariably used as an excuse for their juvenile, rude, malicious, thuggish behavior. Once past hating on the Left, without their libertarian label of convenience, and no longer young, these angry white male morons would just be your run-of-the-mill GOP conservative good ol’ boys, maybe with a smidgen of neo-Nazi wingnut thrown in to keep things interesting. Said another way, scratch a Vice-like libertarian and you might just uncover a fascist.

Ethan A. Russell wrote: “In retrospect people often seem embarrassed by that time—the late sixties into the seventies—as if suddenly confronted with some lunatic member of your family, once revered, now disgraced.” (Dear Mr. Fantasy: Diary of a Decade: Our Time and Rock and Roll) Having experienced much of the 60s as a late hippie and New Leftist, I’m neither embarrassed by my life then nor do I revere that complicated decade now. I do think that efforts to frame things in terms of a singular “60s generation” are misinformed and flawed at best, and at worst help to construct a demonic hollow man out of the 60s as a conservative culture wars ploy. The Angry White Male shtick—with Goad for real and with McInnes as pose—will be around as long as political correctness persists. But that’s so, so boring.

(Copy editing by K Raketz.)

Season of the Witch redux: “What’s Left?” July 2013, MRR #362

If I knew I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.

Originally, Mickey Mantle
and often repeated by Wavy Gravy, Peter Coyote, et al

And who should I say is calling?

Leonard Cohen, “Who by Fire”

I’ve just read Season of the Witch by David Talbot. In large part, Talbot’s style might be called nonfiction picaresque. Season of the Witch is a portrait of San Francisco, of the city’s outlaw social elements that became mainstream over two decades. For all of Talbot’s attempts to be hip and groovy, in deference to his subject matter, he often comes across as glib and pretentious. Had the book been a thousand pages, over twice its published length, still it would have been far from comprehensive or inclusive. Nor could Talbot have managed otherwise, despite his intent. Nevertheless, the work’s omissions are sometimes glaring. I snickered long and hard at the credulous psychedelic spirituality that the hippie counterculture trumpeted back in the day. Yet to fail to mention, even in passing, either Stephen Levine or the San Francisco Oracle, the newspaper that he helped to found, is negligent in the extreme. Most sobering is to go through the book’s index and realize that, no matter how abbreviated the history presented, the roster of obituaries is daunting.

Talbot’s book is a case history of “live fast, die young”—death by drugs, violence, crime, war, disease, accident, natural or human made disaster, and rarely, old age. Season of the Witch follows the decline and fall of the counterculture with a litany of death and destruction. Corpses mounted throughout the two decades from 1965 to 1985: the FBI decimation of the Black Panther Party through Cointelpro operations, the violent spasms of New Left urban guerrilla warfare via the Symbionese Liberation Army and New World Liberation Front, the terror of the Zodiac serial murders, the racial butchery of the Zebra killings, the horrific Peoples Temple mass suicide, the assassination of Moscone and Milk that inaugurated the AIDS pandemic. It is sometimes difficult to remember, first and foremost, that the era was epitomized by efforts at liberation, from the hippie effort to free one’s mind to women’s liberation, black liberation, chicano liberation, Asian liberation, gay liberation. I have a dog in this fight, no less than the producers and readers of this magazine, in criticizing Talbot’s almost complete exclusion of punk at the end of the 70s and beginning of the 80s from this compendium. (Jello Biafra and The Dead Kennedys are mentioned in passing) However, punk hasn’t been immune from premature death and wanton destruction either. Or, to quote Talbot: “There was always a brutal toughness in the beat and hippie” and punk “cultures, a shrugging awareness that casualties were inevitable when you challenged life’s limits. […] It takes a reckless kind of soul to tear down monuments and torch bridges, to shake the dead grip of the past. But by the end of the sixties, the revolution was entering its Jacobin phase, and the wreckage was growing wanton. If the revolution liberated the human imagination, it also unleashed humanity’s demons.”

Actually, I consider myself a late hippie and an early punk, having grown up at the tail end of the one counterculture and almost too old for the start of the other. I admired the Diggers; those “heavy hippies” like Emmett Grogan, Peter Coyote, and Peter Berg who sneered at the counterculture for believing that peace and love were sufficient, who helped conduct the brief-lived Free City experiment, and who resorted to arming themselves to defend their community, their politics and themselves. Of course, there was plenty to criticize about them as well, which takes us beyond a jejune book report of Season of the Witch. The Diggers free communalism was a precursor to the communization efforts and debates of Tiqqun/Invisible Committee on the one hand, and End Notes/Théorie Communiste on the other hand. Yet the insurrectionary anarchism and left communism of this current milieu suffers from the same problem that plagued the Diggers’ 60s hip anarchism, that of an inability to sustain itself over time, against the assaults of state and capital. At least Makhno managed to field a guerrilla anarchist army in the Ukraine capable of defeating Russia’s counterrevolutionary White Armies as well as of giving the Bolsheviks a run for their money. And Spain’s anarchists attempted a true social revolution on the ground while defending the Spanish Republic from Franco’s fascist hordes. Post 1950s anarchism, and its left communist sidekick with avant-garde delusions, have always been fugacious, unable to sustain a capacity for self-organization, self-activity and self-discipline, incapable of standing the tests of history and power. But this was so last column.

More to the point, both Peter Coyote and Emmett Grogan were strung out on heroin by 1969, a habit that in Grogan’s case killed him on a NYC subway car on April 1, 1978. The tendency to cite and mourn for those famous and influential who died too young, so conspicuous in Season of the Witch, is my inclination as well. There were untold unknown dead from the excesses of the Haight in particular and of the hippie counterculture in general. A well-respected columnist in the pages of this magazine on occasion writes an obituary of a well-known punk rocker who has met his untimely end. But who grieves for the numerous nameless punks who have also lived fast and died young, without amounting to anything in the process? Neil Young’s lyric that “[i]t’s better to burn out/than to fade away/than it is to rust” doesn’t speak to the anonymity and universality of death as most of us experience it. And for those who have survived their youth, despite all their excesses, there are the lingering aches and pains, injuries and traumas, damages and diseases to remind them each and every day. Whether or not they regretted their youthful indiscretions is beside the point. Coming to terms with their mortality in light of their experiences is. Complications arise when they don’t die, when they continue to grow old and continue to harm themselves.

I raged through my youthful excesses, then settled into decades of slow, measured, incremental drug abuse. I’ve stopped, but the destruction to my body and brain are irreparable, no matter what science currently says about neuroplasticity, or the capacity of human physiology to heal itself. As I said last column, there’s nothing with regard to socialism even remotely on the horizon that is capable of reversing humanity’s or the planet’s downhill slide into slow-motion apocalypse. Without the potentiality for socialist politics to materially change things, only two possibilities remain. On the one hand, taking political action amounts to symbolic acts and gestures, of which I’m not a big fan. On the other hand, engaging in political action is an expression of personal commitment or individual desire, or simply because, as Daniel Cohn-Bendit once put it, it’s a better way to live. That leaves little of the political that is not solely personal. In turn, I’m left with the three things that Siddhartha Gautama described as inevitable; old age, sickness, and death. And that’s if I’m extremely lucky. Old age, sickness, death; three aspects of life that are undeniably personal, but at the same time universal, experienced by every human being sooner or later.

Between the eternal Buddhist verities concerning human experience and the universalities of leftist politics downgraded to the merely personal, there is much that I still enjoy. The love for my wife, the affection for friends, my writing, compelling music, literature, film, art and food, New York and Paris in the fall, mindful meditation, scintillating company, a good laugh. Yet the movement of my life over the past six decades has been a process of telescoping down, of reverting from the macro to the micro, of focusing from the big picture to the mundane. David Talbot’s Season of the Witch starts in 1965 with a generation attempting the promethean, the creation of a counterculture as the first step toward achieving a revolutionary, universal consciousness. It ends in 1985 with one subculture of another generation coming to terms with its own inevitable mortality through the widespread death of many of its members in the AIDS pandemic. Talbot does his best to couch his history as some sort of ultimate triumph of the human spirit, some sort of “deliverance” attained through perseverance and despite tremendous odds. Nevertheless, Season of the Witch is a profoundly pessimistic chronicle, of a constriction of human hope and possibility. This demoralized narrowing of vision, of focus, of scope is what speaks to me at this point in my life.

That’s more than enough doom and gloom.

Conservative book ends: “What’s Left?” November 2010, MRR #330

I recently noticed that my life seems to be book ended. That’s not a pleasant revelation. For one, it means I’m approaching the end of it. My life, that is. I’m pushing 60, and the fact that the beginning and ending to my life are coming to resemble each other is overshadowed by the realization that “[s]eventy is the sum of our years, or eighty, if we are strong; Most of them are sorrow and toil; they pass quickly, we are all but gone.” (Psalm 90:10)

Sorry to get all Biblical on your ass. It was the mythology I was raised on, and I seem to be returning to it in my dotage. I told you this wasn’t pleasant. Equally unpleasant is the content to the alpha and omega of my life.

I grew up in Eisenhower’s America. Conservative, God-fearing, patriotic to the point of McCarthyite/HUAC witch-hunts. I experienced the rise of political liberalism—in Kennedy’s election and Johnson’s augmentation of the welfare state via the Great Society—as relatively progressive, paralleling as it did the racial and social liberalization of American society. Today, however, liberalism in every form is in full retreat. And conservatism is triumphant, marked by a resurgence of God, country and witch-hunts.

In the 1960s, the John Birch Society expressed the conspiratorial fringe of American conservatism. Everything from water fluoridation to the United Nations was considered part and parcel of the international Communist conspiracy to destroy America. Even President Eisenhower was declared a willing tool of the Communists. Yet the John Birch Society did break with those conspiracy-mongers on the right who posited that Jews, blacks, Catholics, Masons, et al were behind some vast anti-American conspiracy by accepting individuals from such groups into their membership. Today, the great purveyor of wingnut conspiracy theories, with his chalkboard flowcharts of hidden influence and money, is Fox News commentator Glenn Beck. Progressives and their secret socialist agendas are plotting to destroy this country according to Beck. And, like the John Birch Society, Glenn Beck is cited for liberating the realm of conspiracy theory from its anti-Semitic, racist, anti-Masonic, and ultra-Protestant promoters.

The final capstone to this tale of “forward into the past” is that the recent census is predicted to show that poverty in this country has risen to levels not seen since 1965.

I often lament that the political, social, and cultural movements of 60s and 70s didn’t revolutionize this country, or the world, sufficiently to make a revival of the right impossible. My personal investment in that bygone era motivates me to figure out why that was the case. A while back, I spent a whole column discussing Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s brilliant opinion piece, entitled “It was fun, but 1968’s legacy was mixed,” in the 9/5/08 Guardian Weekly. Wheatcroft dismisses the tired trope that “the right has won politically and the left has won culturally,” and then proceeds to systematically debunk various other myths born of 1968. His conclusion? That the 1960s cultural upheavals were profoundly individualistic, even libertine, and that “since 1968, the West had grown not only more prosperous but more sybaritic and self-absorbed” as a consequence of the Left’s cultural successes. “The ‘bourgeois triumphalism’ of the Thatcher (and Blair) era, the greed is good ethos and our materialistic individualism might just have had their roots 40 years back.”

Recently, I read Keith Abbott’s poignant memoir of Richard Brautigan, Downstream From Trout Fishing In America, in which he comments: “One thing that tends to be overlooked about the hippie scene was it was pro-American, but with a distinctly western vision of America, one where individualism and delight in all the senses demanded an anarchistic freedom for their personal lives. Most important, this western vision issued the refugees of the Haight a license to start their lives over. This notion concealed an innate right-wing bias too, one which emerged later in the various communes and their ingrown sexism and fascism.” The argument has been made that the political New Left was significantly different from the profoundly apolitical hippie counterculture of the 1960s. Yet apparently both shared a commitment to an intense, American-style individualism that made a recoup by the right not merely possible, but inevitable.

The anarchic and anarchistic aspects to the Western youth revolts of the period were paralleled by anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles, as well as by the social democratic and Leninist political movements that supported those struggles. Wheatcroft’s and Abbott’s critiques hardly explain the devolution of Western Communism into EuroCommunism or Social Democracy into neoliberalism, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, or the transformation of Third World national liberation into national capitalism. We’re talking here about a retreat of the 60s across the board before global capitalism. I think the seeds to the rise of the right can be found in all of those 60s struggles and movements that a triumphant right now so vehemently denounces. Yet accounting for the failures of those struggles and movements will be more complex than simply blaming individualism and libertinism.

Nostalgia for the 60s: “What’s Left?” September 2008, MRR #304

I was having flashbacks.

I laid out the columns for MRR #302 at the end of May. As I sat in front of a computer in the Mother Ship—MRR HQ—the soundtrack playing was ‘60s rock’n’roll, protopunk, garage, psychedelia, whatever you want to call it. The Seeds, 13th Floor Elevators, Them, on vinyl of course. Yet, other than myself, no one listening had been born when that music was first produced.

Intellectually, I understand the impact that Sky Saxon, Roky Erickson, Van Morrison and their break-out bands had on the music that followed, up to the present day. Emotionally, however, I was asking myself, why the hell does anybody listen to this crap? That’s because the music threatened to invoke nostalgia. I’m no fan of nostalgia, even on the best of days.

For me, nostalgia is pitiable emotion conjured up by less than accurate memory. I’m particularly repelled by nostalgia for the “good old days” of the 1960s because, in my opinion having lived through the decade, very little was changed by the unrest and ferment of those years. Recently, I listened to a Brecht Forum panel discussion on Obama and the Left put on by the Nation Magazine and broadcast on NPR. I couldn’t help shaking my head, and chuckling out loud. For all our pipe dreams of revolution and overthrowing the Establishment in the ‘60s, in America today the Left is a joke. I recognize that we were delusional at the time, but it still makes me sad, and not a little angry, to realize how pathetically insignificant the Left, not to mention the left of the Left, is at present. And how out-and-out reactionary this society remains.

Which is weird because conservatives in this country believe exactly the opposite, that the Left won what they call the Culture Wars of the 1960s. For them, the remnants of LBJ’s Great Society welfare state and the much curtailed countercultural hedonism of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll are signs that the Antichrist triumphed some forty years ago, which conservatives have been assiduously fighting to overturn ever since. The Right has successfully used affirmative action, feminism, liberal media, abortion, gay rights, school prayer, et al, to distract people from the reality that corporate capitalism is fast reducing the United States to a Third World banana republic.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft summarized popular attitudes to that contentious decade in a Guardian Weekly opinion piece (“It was fun, but 1968’s legacy was mixed,” 9/5/08) when he wrote:

[André Glucksmann] now sees les événements de mai as “a monument, either sublime or detested, that we want to commemorate or bury,” which is one way of putting it. Another is that 40 years ago were sown the seeds of the story since, when “the right has won politically and the left has won culturally.” Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but not for long.

Wheatcroft proceeds to systematically demolish the myths of 1968, beginning by comparing Paris 1968 to Europe in 1848, using the analogy of sexual orgasm followed by post-coital depression. “Even at the time, as Paris was brought to a halt by rebellious kids, there was an awful lot of play-acting.” He quotes the French Communist Party’s analysis of those events as “street party, not revolution,” and favorably mentions AJP Taylor’s comment about 1848: “it’s a sure sign of political backwardness when any movement is led by students.”

The list of ‘60s veterans who have become part of the establishment, even right-wingers, is disheartening, and not at all “amusing, if unkind” as Wheatcroft puts it. But he is particularly cogent when he discusses the political consequences of 1968:

The copains believed they would bring down Charles de Gaulle, but they didn’t. When he did resign the next year, he was succeeded by Georges Pompidou, and the Elysée palace has been occupied by the right for 26 of the past 40 years. Likewise, British youths jeered at Harold Wilson, who was duly replaced two years later by Edward Heath, and the Tories were in power for 22 of the next 27 years.

Across the Atlantic, 1968 saw assassination, riot and antiwar protest; the year ended with Richard Nixon’s election, and Republicans have been in the White House for 28 of the 40 years since. It’s true that the US eventually left Vietnam; that country now has an explosive capitalist economy—not quite what those who chanted “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, We will fight and we will win!” had in mind.

Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and the collapse of Soviet Bloc Communism heralded the political and economic victory of the Right, as foreshadowed in 1968. Yet, with respect to the cultural (“or emotional or sexual”) victory of the Left, Wheatcroft contends that “even there, the story is ambiguous.” For, as he points out, the 1960s cultural upheavals were profoundly individualistic, even libertine, and that “since 1968, the West had grown not only more prosperous but more sybaritic and self-absorbed” as a consequence of the Left’s cultural successes. “The ‘bourgeois triumphalism’ of the Thatcher (and Blair) era, the greed is good ethos and our materialistic individualism might just have had their roots 40 years back.” I consider myself a proxy soixante-huitard, yet I heartily agree with Wheatcroft’s rather bleak assessment of the legacy of 1968. I’m even inclined to second Eric Hobsbawm’s comment that “the revolution is puritan,” by which “[h]e meant that the sex-drugs-and-rock hedonism of the 1960s was not only not the same thing as changing the foundations of society, it might be actively inimical to doing so.”

Damn, I’m getting old.

This analysis doesn’t take into account that the rebellions of the 1960s had two disparate sources; the hippie counterculture and the student New Left. Hippies were often proudly anti-political, whereas New Leftists frequently dismissed the counterculture as escapist. Wheatcroft is essentially saying that while the counterculture nominally won, the New Left was resoundingly defeated. Another way to look at this period is to see both counterculture and New Left going down to defeat, with the ruling elite of the day then selectively recuperating elements from each camp in order to stave off future rebellion. Had these two aspects of the ‘60s truly triumphed to any degree, we might have seen a creative fusion that could have shaped a stunningly libertarian socialism to shame Stalin’s gulags and Mao’s reeducation camps. But this is the stuff of science fiction and alternative history, not of thoughtful analysis.

As I write this column the San Francisco Mime Troupe begins a new season of free theater in the city’s parks. The current production, called “Red State,” has as one of its themes that the US economy is becoming so bad that the Right can no longer bamboozle the American public with social and moral issues. The sleight-of-hand trickery that stirred up people with the red flags of gay marriage, teenage abortion, reverse discrimination against whites, and welfare mothers on crack so that they voted, and acted, against their economic interests, is no longer working. Economic issues are once more coming to the fore, and overshadowing the rabidly repressive social agenda of the conservative movement. We should comprehend and encourage this potential, instead of futilely pining for the “good old days” of the ‘60s.

Religion Reconsidered: “What’s Left?” March 2008, MRR #298

One of my many contradictions, from a Marxist perspective, is that I’m a wimpy, waffling agnostic, not a hardcore, commie atheist. The reason I’m an agnostic instead of an atheist has nothing to do with finding flaws in atheism’s arguments against the existence of God, or with finding redeeming features in the horror show that is religion. I’m undecided about whether or not God exists because, throughout my life, I’ve had personal experiences that might be described as spiritual, mystical, even religious.

I’ve had these experiences since I was a kid, long before the psychedelic drug use of my hippie days. A momentary, overwhelming sensation that I was a part of everything, and that everything was a part of me. A fleeting, all pervasive feeling that I had suddenly risen high above this mundane, everyday existence. The inexplicable awareness that I had briefly stumbled upon some greater reality, the true, scintillating reality behind this dingy, decaying façade that was life. I’ve had these experiences well after I stopped doing psychedelics. As for the psychedelics-acid, mescaline, psilocybin-they produced quasi-mystical experiences forcefully driven, selectively amplified, and seriously distorted by the chemicals in question.

I was loosely raised Catholic, though I don’t associate my childhood spiritual incidents with Roman Catholicism. My parents wanted me to get the sacraments up to Confirmation, just in case the Big Guy was Catholic. I was on my own after that, and I never bothered to go back to church. I’ve never tried to cultivate these mystical moments by pursuing a spiritual practice or, Marx forbid, an organized religion either. I simply experienced them, marveling at many of them, enduring the rest, and getting something out of them all. Of course, I’ve come to my own understanding of what Tom Wolfe, in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, referred to as the kairos, the how and why and what-for of this “time out of time,” this “most propitious moment.”

The how is simple enough. The actual experience, no doubt, is biochemically based, a natural, internal analog to the psychedelic drugs I experimented with during the early 1970s. That said, establishing such a cause-and-effect doesn’t reduce the spiritual event to a biochemical phantom, nor does it relegate the whole episode to some mechanical, materially determined process. To grasp why this is the case, we need to delve into a little bit of Marxism, in particular, Marx’s notion of dialectical materialism.

For Marx, the economic base of society gives rise to a superstructure comprised of society’s legal and political structures, as well as of the “higher ideologies of the art, religion and philosophy of bourgeois society,” as Karl Korsch described it in Marxism and Philosophy. Yet, just because the social superstructure is a product of the economic base does not make it any less real. “[Marx and Engels] always treated ideologies-including philosophy-as concrete realities and not as empty fantasies.” “[I]t is essential for modern dialectical materialism to grasp philosophies and other ideological systems in theory as realities, and to treat them in practice as such.” What’s more, society’s political and ideological superstructure achieves a measure of autonomy to act back upon the economic base to change it, creating a dialectical relationship between the two that defines “bourgeois society as a totality.” Or as Marx himself put it in the Introduction to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: “Theory itself becomes a material force once it takes hold on the masses. Theory is capable of taking hold on the masses … once it becomes radical.”

This clearly distinguishes dialectical materialism from the crude materialism of Newtonian science, in which one billiard ball hits another in a simple linear chain of causality. I’d argue that dialectical materialism is much more akin to the systems and information theories pioneered by Gregory Bateson in the areas of psychology, biology and ecology. But how does dialectical materialism relate to my discussion of personal spiritual experiences?

In contending that mystical moments have a biochemical basis, similar to the endorphin high produced by vigorous exercise, I’m not refuting the reality of these events. No doubt, all individual thought and feeling can be traced back to biochemistry, yet it cannot be denied that these thoughts and feelings frequently have material effects and consequences in that we act on them. In the same way, human interest in and pursuit of spiritual experience spurs activities intended to reproduce and refine those experiences, generating on the one hand spiritual practices like yoga, meditation, chanting, and ecstatic dancing, and on the other hand the practices, institutions and ideologies of organized religion.

This isn’t to repudiate the fact that society’s economic base leaves profound marks on spiritual practice and organized religion, only to assert that the initial impulse for both resides elsewhere. Nor would I be surprised to learn that millennia of spiritual and religious activity, in turn, have acted upon this biochemical substrate to distill and shape it, and that the two have coevolved over time. The great Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages, like Notre Dame or Chartre, can be appreciated, in part, as finely tuned machinery incorporating a variety of spiritual technologies designed to induce mystical experiences in the participating individuals. While the triggers for spiritual episodes are often social and cultural then, their impetus is transhistorical, imbedded in that problematic realm known as human nature. The instances of spontaneous, unbidden spiritual awakening, some resulting in the founding of entirely new religions, bear this out. The capacity for mystical experience seems to be hardwired to some degree into most of us, perhaps as a peculiar expression of the wider human pursuit of altered states through drug use, artistic endeavor, SM, asceticism, exercise and sport. The question is, why? What function does it serve?

Marx posited a kind of human nature in asserting that we are social beings, a concept covered by the hotly debated term species being. You can be sure that human sociality and spirituality are keenly related within the context of species being. That there is overlap between spirituality, sexuality and power also goes without saying. The spiritual experience is often described as fiery, capable of reducing all that is false to ash. In its crucible is forged the certainty of individual belief and the unity so necessary for social cohesion. I’m not sure what Marx thought about individual spiritual practice, but his views on the rituals, churches, traditions, theologies and holy wars of organized religion are well known:

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.

Gotta love those dialectics. That religion in bourgeois society serves to delude, comfort and pacify the masses doesn’t tell us much more about the function of the more elemental mystical moment however. Aside from acting as a kind of experiential superglue for personal belief and social unity, there’s another aspect to spiritual episodes that’s worth discussing.

First, let’s talk a little bit about consciousness. Human consciousness arises from a very small number of neural circuits in the brain that monitor the rest of the mind, and the body. Given that consciousness relies on a small percentage of gray matter to function, it cannot possibly be all encompassing, and the scope of human awareness is thus severely limited. With regard to sensory perception, for instance, we are flooded with sensory information all the time, yet our conscious mind is only aware of a small fraction of that information. As an example, our clothing is in constant contact with the skin under it, stimulating our sense of touch over a wide area of our body. We’re not conscious of everywhere our clothing touches our skin though. We feel our clothes only in certain places, particularly when they impinge or restrict us. Therefore, the sensory input from the rest of our skin in contact with our clothes is filtered out of our awareness. Aside from purely biological filters, there are also cultural, social and personal filters that further restrict this torrential sensory flow.

We receive, and process, vast amounts of sensory data on many levels other than the conscious. Aldous Huxley proposed, in The Doors of Perception, that psychedelic drugs temporarily knock out these filters so that we experience heightened sensory impressions, even forms of synesthesia. Whether or not this is the case, the overwhelming influx of sense perception that comes in under the radar of consciousness does have other interesting side effects.

Sometimes, bits and pieces of this unconscious sense data percolate up into an individual’s awareness. The result is a hunch, an intuitive feeling, which cannot be pinned down to anything obvious. When patterns begin to emerge through this process, something quite innocuous can trigger a sudden, epiphanal moment. Then we say “everything fell into place,” “the scales fell from my eyes,” “all was revealed,” and “I saw things as they truly were.”

I’m intentionally using quasi-religious phrasing here in anticipation of my next point. There is a certain category of spiritual experience known as “the road to Damascus” moment, when the mystical episode bowls over the individual and literally changes his or her life. Paul, of the New Testament, had a profound religious awakening on his way to Damascus, and went from being a Jewish persecutor of Christians to a Christian believer. Paul’s personal sense of his place in the scheme of things radically shifted in an instant. Perhaps this kind of spiritual experience is like a hunch on steroids.

What I’m postulating is that certain life-changing mystical incidents act on the deepest levels of human perception, our sense of ourselves and of our place in the universe. None of my spiritual experiences were ever that profound, though I always learned something from them. That all such spiritual moments come permeated with a sense of the supernatural Other, what we interpret as the sacred and the divine and call God, is what gives me pause. Ultimately, it’s why I can’t declare myself an atheist.

BBC-TV did a movie, Longford, about the English aristocrat and prison reformer who became involved with one of Britain’s most notorious criminals, child-killer Myra Hindley. Hindley gets one of the film’s better lines, the implications of which would fill another column. I’ll close on the character Myra’s words. “Evil can be a spiritual experience too.”

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