By any other name: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, August 2021

I picked up an archaic paper flyer pinned to an obsolete cork board in the now-defunct Market Street branch of FLAX Art Supplies. The handbill advertised a web designer and mobile app developer—Daniel Goodwyn—who offered to teach virtually any platform or software. I wanted to learn social media to prepare for self-publishing my novel 1% Free, so I called. He was cheap. We arranged to meet at Philz Coffee on 24th Street.

“I only drink Philz coffee,” Daniel said.

We met six or seven times at the end of 2015, beginning of 2016. Daniel was an evangelical Christian favorable to fundamentalism, but he wore his religious beliefs close to the vest. He didn’t proselytize. Instead, he would produce his worn King James Bible from his backpack before starting each lesson. I pulled out my Handbook of Denominations by Mead, Hill and Atwood our third meeting and we were off discussing Christianity between social media tutoring. We talked dispensationalism, cessationism, and biblical inerrancy. He’d attended 24/7 worship and prayer events, and would soon do web design for the messianic Jews for Jesus organization. Continue reading

Trump’s workers’ party debunked: “What’s Left?” January 2021

It pisses me off.

In 2015 Breitbart ran a story by Lisa De Pasquale entitled “Political Punks” that détourned the famous 1976 Ramones record cover by superimposing the heads of rightwingers Greg Gutfeld, Clint Eastwood, Ann Coulter and Gavin McInnes over the four original band members.

Blasphemy! Continue reading

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. Continue reading

pt. 2: Third World Third Positionism: “What’s Left?” October 2019 (MRR #437)

I had a favorite t-shirt in the 1980s, one I owned several of and wore frequently. It was red with a stylized black silkscreened image of Alberto Korda’s famous photo of Ernesto “Che” Guevara printed above his popular quote: “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by feelings of great love.” Korda’s image of Che with military beret and solemn expression was taken during a Cuban state funeral; handsome, heroic, and seemingly immortal. I wore the t-shirt around the UC San Diego campus without incident or even much notice, but I liked pushing the envelope by wearing it all around the very conservative city of San Diego.

While wearing the shirt and eating my customary grease-, carb- and meat-heavy breakfast washed down with several bottles of Negra Modelo beer outside Harry’s Coffee Shop in La Jolla circa 1985, I noticed a young man glaring at me. Harry’s was a local favorite, so I assumed he was a surfer because of his shaggy haircut, Quiksilver Hawaiian shirt, colorful boardshorts, and leather huarache sandals. He frowned at me over a decimated plate of food next to which rested a russet guampa, a hollow calabash gourd lipped with silver from which a silver bombilla straw protruded. A waitress poured more hot water into his maté gourd before bussing his dishes and leaving the check. Continue reading

American fascist exceptionalism?: “What’s Left?” September 2019 (MRR #436)

If you can’t tell the difference between glorification and ridicule—does it matter?

—Spencer Sunshine

I read recently that San Francisco’s Financial District, called “Wall Street West,” is being downgraded. The district is both downsizing economically and shrinking physically. Financial services are moving online and it’s just too damned expensive for employees in downtown banking and financial companies to live in the city anymore, thanks to the booming tech industry’s gentrifying impact on San Francisco. I remember back fondly to Sunday, February 16, 2003, when a quarter of a million people protesting Junior Bush’s invasion of Iraq shut down the Financial District and briefly the Bay Bridge. Mass anti-war protests continued to disrupt “business as usual” in Wall Street West for weeks to come.

I’d forged my leftist politics and love for street action during the ’70s, but America’s steady rightward reaction and the sudden international collapse of the Soviet bloc over the next two decades depressed the hell out of me. The resurgence of Left activism with the Iraq War was quite heartening. I wanted to be in the thick of those demonstrations despite having fractured the big toe and one of the sesamoid bones in my right foot in an accident several months before. I was hobbling around in great pain but nevertheless elated to be experiencing popular street politics once again, exhilarated to be roaming the city with a small group of friends demonstrating, blockading traffic, participating in impromptu sit-ins, engaging in general vandalism and mayhem, etc. I had my black bloc gear in hand, but I was in no shape to participate in those tactics. Continue reading

pt. 1: Perónismo and Third Positionism: “What’s Left?” July 2019 (MRR #434)

When faced with two bad choices, choose the third.

It’s the proverb I try to live by. Most prefer the lesser-of-two-evils approach to things. I prefer tertium quid every time.

Tertium quid started with Plato, who first used the term (triton ti) around 360 bce. In ancient Greek philosophy, it meant something that escapes classification in either of two mutually or more exclusive and theoretically exhaustive categories. What’s left after such a supposedly rigorous, exhaustive division is tertium quid. The third what. The third something.

Post Plato, what was considered tertium quid might be residue, sui generis, ambiguous, composite or transcendent depending on one’s philosophical inclinations. I encountered the concept indirectly via hoary Catholic theology when I briefly met a young heretical Catholic Worker named Alvin in 1969. Inspired by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, Alvin was a voluntary celibate who wanted to start a Catholic Worker commune in the Ventura County area. Which was why he was camped out in his VW microbus in the Ventura Unitarian Church’s foothill parking lot, where everything progressive and left-wing eventually wound up in those days. But Alvin was a little too radical even for the Catholic Worker. He was a fan of Paolo Freire and Latin American liberation theology, and he wanted to return to what he saw as the gospel of the early Christian church, with its emphasis on voluntary poverty, communalism, helping the poor, and liberating the oppressed. The latter required solidarity with armed struggles for socialist national liberation according to Alvin. But he was also knee-deep in the Church’s anachronistic fourth century Christological debates, specifically his championing of Apollinarism over Arianism. Both were discredited heretical doctrines, with Apollinaris of Laodicea speaking of Jesus as something neither human nor divine, but a mixture of the two natures, and therefore a “third something.” It was the first time I heard the term tertium quid. Not surprisingly, Alvin grew more personally frustrated being celibate in a time of aggressive hippie “free love,” until one day he suddenly disappeared. A quarter century later I visited San Francisco and ran into him in the Castro wearing the habit of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Continue reading

Crisis on the Right: “What’s Left?” August 2017, MRR #411

This is my overlong analysis of the crisis of the Left and the crisis on the Right . I owe the tripartite analysis of the modern American Right to Political Research Associates, which does excellent work dissecting the Right through investigative reports, articles, and activist resource kits.

———

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”

Yet 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.”

Kevin Coogan, Dreamer of the Day

I’m ass deep into analyzing the crisis of the Left. There are three components to this crisis, beginning with the defeat of organized labor by ascendant neoliberalism in the industrialized west (Reagan busting the PATCO unions in 1981, Thatcher defeating striking coal miners in 1984-85). Next came the collapse of real existing socialist regimes with the disintegration of the Soviet bloc in 1989-91. These two events mark the decline of Marxism broadly and Leninism more narrowly as the third component of this ongoing crisis. The present growth of anarchism and left communism and the breeding of “strange new variants” like insurrectionism and communization I consider a mixed blessing because this actually demonstrates the Left’s weakness. The relationship between the resurgence of the anti-authoritarian Left and the decline of the rest of the Left, in turn, reflects a broader relationship between the politics of Left and Right, with the “ideological decay” of the Right hinting at something broader.

If the crisis of the Left is also a crisis on the Right, perhaps I need to use the word interregnum. The sentiment of the Yeats poem, borne by the mystic, cryptofascist Irish nationalist in his reactionary politics, conveys the sense of a violent interruption between old and new orders. An old order loses its grip, but before a new order manages to establish itself there is a period of social chaos and disintegration when things “do not easily fit into conventional political-science categories of ‘left’ and ‘right’.” An interregnum, by definition, is a big deal.

The Latin term interregnum originated with the English civil war to designate the period from the execution of Charles I in 1649 to the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. Cromwell’s dictatorship is sometimes considered a prequel to the bourgeois revolutions that ushered in the modern world. Most of the history I tend to fixate on—the French 1789 Revolution, the Russian 1917 Revolution, the German 1918-19 workers’ revolt ushering in the Weimar Republic, the Spanish 1936-39 civil war, etc.—also indicate relatively short-lived, national interregnums. But interregnums can also be long and slow moving, involving a much wider geographic scope.

The Papal Schism that split the western church between three contending popes from 1378 to 1417 damaged the Catholic church’s reputation and authority. Along with issues of priestly celibacy, the marketing of relics, and most importantly the selling of indulgences, the Protestant Reformation was all but inevitable. From Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses in 1517 through the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, Europe experienced scores of religious wars predicated on dynastic conflicts and as many as 20 million deaths due to religious violence, not to mention a continental reshaping of European social, political, and economic realities that eventually gave rise to the modern nation-state system. That’s over a century-long, diffuse, continental interregnum. Alternately, the series of national interregnums from the beginning of the first World War in 1914 to the end of the second World War in 1945 might be threaded together into a single, grand, worldwide interregnum. A global interregnum

I’m paleo when it comes to my Marxism. Interregnums fit nicely into a history propelled by class struggle and revolution. As for modes of production and stages of history, I’m both less and more orthodox. Less because I don’t think historical modes of production prior to capitalism were comprehensive, and more because once the capitalist mode of production arose it eventually became socially and globally all-embracing. And I’m definitely old school in contending that the French revolutionary interregnum of 1789 ushered in the modern world, starting with the riotous sans culotte and culminating in Napoleon’s more disciplined conscripts sweeping across continental Europe.

The first bourgeois revolution in France coincided with a wide variety of interrelated historical processes and cultural phenomena—from the Enlightenment and scientific revolution to modern warfare and the rise of industrial capitalism—to mark the watershed between pre-modern and modern eras. It also introduced our modern-day distinctions between Left and Right through the representative seating at the 1789 National Assembly. Here’s a standard high school PolySci description: “In a narrow sense, the political spectrum summarizes different attitudes towards the economy and the role of the state: left-wing views support intervention and collectivism; and right-wing ones favor the market and individualism. However, this distinction supposedly reflects deeper, if imperfectly defined, ideological or value differences. Ideas such as freedom, equality, fraternity, rights, progress, reform and internationalism are generally seen to have a left-wing character, while notions such as authority, hierarchy, order, duty, tradition, reaction and nationalism are generally seen as having a right-wing character.” [Andrew Heywood, Key Concepts in Politics and International Relations] The Left’s stress on reason and program in accepting modernity makes for greater structure and coherence compared to the eclectic, muddy stance of the non-rational, instinctual Right in the rejection of modernity. But it all does come down to an embrace of, versus a revolt against, the modern world.

And here we encounter a contradiction central to the Right. For in order to revolt against the modern world, the Right must simultaneously embrace it. Moderate conservatives like Edmund Burke who were terrified by the French Revolution were dragged kicking and screaming into modernity, accepting the economics of Adam Smith and the private property of Locke while demanding that tradition put the breaks on changes wrought by capitalism. Reactionaries like Joseph de Maistre advocated for “throne and altar” in a restored ancien regime—a Counter Enlightenment counterrevolutionary—yet he still admired Napoleon. The Left went full-bore into mass politics, vanguard parties, technological innovation, and heavy industrialization with the Bolshevik turn after 1917, yet another national interregnum. From Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome through Hitler’s 1933 acceptance of the German chancellorship, the extreme Fascist right responded by producing an anti-liberal, anti-conservative, anti-capitalist, anti-Marxist revolutionary mass politics to reindustrialize central Europe around a vanguardist, ultranationalist, palingenetic core. The Right has always been in reaction to the Left because of this central contradiction, and there are scholars of Fascist Studies who claim that Fascism was actually a synthesis of revolutionary Left and Right.

Lacking a feudal past, a universal church, and monarchist and aristocratic traditions, the Right in the United States remained confined to moderate conservative factions in the prominent pre-civil war electoral parties—Federalists, Democratic-Republicans, Whigs, and Jacksonian Democrats. It’s been argued that the American Right actually started as a form of European liberalism. At its most immoderate, early American conservatism demonstrated strong nativist and isolationist tendencies, as with the American “Know Nothing” Party. The country’s Protestant citizenry was subject to populist Great Awakenings, rightwing fundamentalist movements, and heretical cults like Mormonism. And, of course, the prevailing assumption across the board was that the United States was a white man’s nation, owned and run by white people. Southern slave society came closest to offering a European-style Right based on aristocracy and tradition. The struggle over slavery that lead to the civil war also drove conservative elements of the southern Democratic Party into the extremism of the Ku Klux Klan’s white supremacist militia terrorism after the civil war, while much of the GOP drifted into an isolationist, laissez-faire Old Right.

Along with a revival in rightwing religious movements like Christian evangelicalism and pentecostalism, the United States witnessed its own fascist movement paralleling European Fascism between the world wars. Based on a reborn, white supremacist, mass KKK that was also anti-Catholic, antisemitic, and populist, it included the antisemitic ravings of Father Coughlin, Charles Lindbergh’s America First movement and sympathies for Nazi Germany, Pelley’s Silver Shirts and Christian Party, even the more demagogic leftist populism of Huey Long. The threat of an American Fascism was very real in the 1920s and 30s.

With the defeat of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy at the end of the global interregnum, in large part thanks to the Soviet Red Army, it was assumed that Fascism had been liquidated once and for all. The United States assumed for itself the sole superpower and the center of empire, capable of imposing a Pax Americana over the world, except for an obstreperous Soviet Union. Some form of Cold War anti-communism became a mainstay of mainstream American politics. It should be remembered that Joseph McCarthy started out a Democrat and ended up a Republican. McCarthyism, the John Birch Society, and Barry Goldwater’s faction of the Republican Party were all radically anti-communist.

But the Right in the United States remained fractious. It included the antisemitic white supremacism of the Klan, George Wallace and the Dixiecrat revolt, the beginnings of the patriot/militia movement in DePugh’s Minutemen and Beach’s Posse Comitatus, the paleoconservatism of Russell Kirk and Paul Gottfried, embryonic conspiracy theorizing a la Bircher anti-fluoridation paranoia, Ayn Rand’s atheist Objectivism, the first inklings of Murray Rothbard’s AnCap libertarianism, and the like. In contrast to the rightwing alliance between Christian evangelicals and Catholic bishops on everything from school prayer to abortion, serious theological divisions emerged in Reconstructionism, Dominionism, and Christian Nationalism alongside religious cults like Children of God, Unification Church, Fundamentalist LDS, Church Universal and Triumphant, etc. As the Right so often mirrors the Left, American conservatism tried to force a contrapuntal unity against the perceived “international communist conspiracy for world domination.”

William F. Buckley founded the National Review Magazine in 1955 in an explicit effort to demarcate a proper American conservatism and to keep it properly policed through vicious polemics and purges of racists, antisemites, and conspiracy wingnuts. He wanted an official American conservative movement that overlapped with the Republican Party, a pro-business/anti-union conservative movement dedicated to a disciplined, uncompromising, good-vs-evil crusade against communism. Buckley thought of this as standing athwart history, yelling stop, in his version of revolting against modernity, but he discovered that policing the Right was like herding cats. It’s been argued that Buckley’s National Review conservative movement was a facade; that the Right didn’t grow less diverse or more unified under Buckley’s shepherding. Yet what ultimately vanquished Buckley and the conservative movement was the crisis of the Left that bubbled up during the 1980s, culminating in the Soviet bloc’s sudden collapse from 1989 to 1991. The United States won the Cold War and truly became the sole superpower and center of empire. Yet things fell apart and the center could not hold as another global interregnum took shape.

I argue that the crisis of the Left produced a corresponding crisis on the Right, a proliferation of “strange new variants” on the Right. The Reagan/Thatcher neoliberal rebranding of official conservatism primed the crisis, alongside the direct mail Viguerie New Right and imported rightwing countercultural currents like Skinheads. All sectors of the Right subsequently proliferated, from the Secular Right (Libertarianism, Neoconservatism) through the Religious Right (soft and hard Dominionism) to the Xenophobic Right. The latter witnessed the most explosive growth through populist movements (armed citizen militias, Sovereign Citizens, patriot groups) and white nationalist ultraright movements (Christian Identity, Creativity Movement, National Socialist Movement, National Alliance).

The most visible aspects of the growing Right—the Tea Party Movement and now the Alt.Right—are just the tip of the rightwing iceberg. Whereas the Secular Right remains committed to a pluralist civil society, the Xenophobic Right is hardline anti-democratic, with the dividing line between conservative and hard Right falling somewhere in the Religious Right. The confusing variety on the Right can barely be contained by this conceptual triad, unlike the Left’s greater structure and coherence which falls easily into antiauthoritarian, democratic/parliamentary, and Leninist categories.

The changes to global capitalism that underpinned the rise of this current global interregnum must wait until a future column. I’ll conclude by quoting Tom Robinson: “If Left is Right, then Right is Wrong. You better decide which side you’re on.”

Socialism, American style: “What’s Left?” September 2012, MRR #352

American socialism.

Now there’s an oxymoron, if there ever was one. So, would it come as a surprise to learn that socialism is alive and well in this, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where individualism and competition are valued above all else? I’m not talking here about the US labor movement, the struggle for the 8-hour day and the 40-hour week, the IWW and the CIO, the Grange and Populist movements, the extensive agricultural cooperatives, the popular unrest of the 1890s, the 1930s and the 1960s, and the like. That’s the past. What I’m talking about is real, existing socialism, in the here and now, some of it among the most cherished and honored institutions this country has to offer.

Let’s begin with American capitalism, of the corporate variety. Starting with William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man, published in 1956, there have been numerous exposés—nonfiction and fiction—contending that the American ethic of rugged individualism has been supplanted by a collectivist ethic that values teamwork, commitment, loyalty, risk aversion, and conformity. Amplify this with corporate hierarchies and the complete lack of civil liberties in the workplace. Then, combine this with a phrase that has become common since the 2007 financial meltdown, that American capitalism “privatizes profits and socializes losses” where banks and large corporations benefit from runaway profits but manage to fob off their losses onto the US taxpayer and society at large via government subsidies and bailouts, and you get a condition of state socialism for the rich and cutthroat capitalism for the rest of the population.

Of course, this description is also synonymous with corporatism, which is a polite term for fascism. Even if Israeli historian Ze’ev Sternhell’s assertion that fascism amounts to a combination of ultra-nationalism with non-Marxist socialism is accepted, the notion that America’s system of capitalism represents some type of socialism is a stretch. And thanks to Occupy Wall Street, a growing number of people disdain corporate capitalism altogether. There is a couple of examples of American socialism that are much more positive and far more popular.

Football, for instance. No, not soccer, which is played by most of the world. American football, which nobody else on the planet plays. Football, the quintessential American sport. The National Football League has 32 member football teams, and guarantees a rigorous profit sharing, an equal division of revenues from TV, ticket sales, merchandising, etc. Comedian Bill Maher argues that the NFL “put[s] all of it in a big commie pot and split[s] it 32 ways,” and contends that the NFL “literally shares the wealth.” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell admits that the League “combines socialism and capitalism” in a system “that has worked quite well for us.” Then you have the Green Bay Packers, a football team owned by the community of Green Bay, Wisconsin. A publicly-owned non-profit, the Packers are literally owned by their fans. Their bylaws state that the Packers are “a community project, intended to promote community welfare.” It’s the epitome of communitarian socialism in the quasi-socialist National Football League which, by the way, has legally banned any more Green Bay Packers-type ownership structures. But this community ownership scheme guarantees low ticket prices, sold-out games, fierce fan loyalty, and the Packers’ permanent residence in Green Bay.

For yet another example of good ole American socialism, we go big. Imagine an institution with 1.5 million members, with both the individual participants and the institution as a whole under strict government control. A combination of training, discipline and education creates an institutional culture that has a clear sense of both rigorous hierarchy and spirited camaraderie, a collectivist society in which cooperation, teamwork, conformity, obedience and loyalty are emphasized, and where the social unit takes care of its own. It is a thoroughly racially integrated institution that prides itself on providing equal opportunity and social mobility for all its members. Education and training are available at virtually every stage and age, with career education available for constant improvement, and a system of colleges and universities that are top notch. Housing is socialized, with the lowest ranks living and eating communally. Transport is socialized, as is medicine. Cheap, single-payer health insurance is available for all, and there is lifelong coverage for retirees. Excellent childcare is provided for working parents. And the difference in pay between the lowest and highest ranking members of this institution is only 10 times, quite a contrast to the 300-plus gap between CEO and lowest paid worker in the private sector.

What is this stunning example of socialism in practice right here and now in these United States of America? Why, the US military, of course. Retired four-star general and former supreme allied commander of NATO forces in Europe, Wesley Clark, once said: “It’s the purest application of socialism there is … It’s a really fair system, and a lot of thought has been put into it, and people respond to it really well.” He also said that the country could learn from the military’s sense of mission, and from its emphasis on long-term strategic thinking.

Be all you can be. It’s not just a job. It’s an adventure! The Few. The Proud. Indeed! The irony here is that this quintessential embodiment of state based socialism is, simultaneously, a conservative bastion of anti-socialism.

I had a junior professor in sociology when I was an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, Wally Goldfrank, who told me that being drafted into the US Army was the best thing that ever happened to him. This was at the tail end of the Vietnam War, when the US military was considered a horror and an abomination, an institution that killed babies, perpetrated genocide, and promoted imperialism. Yet, for an upper middle class Jewish boy from Brooklyn, it was Wally’s first encounter with people of different races, in particular, black and brown folks. He considered the Army a profoundly democratic and democratizing experience. Now, at the time I attended UCSC, Wally was a full-on Maoist, an admirer of Red China, Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the People’s Liberation Army. So, there was some affinity between his politics and his evaluation of his military service.

There you have it. Three examples of American socialism. First, a dubious, quasi-fascist, corporatist socialism (Wall Street’s corporate capitalism). Then, a communitarian socialism (the NFL’s community-owned Green Bay Packers). And finally, a state socialism (the US government run military). No need to disingenuously excoriate President Obama or the Democratic Party as evil socialists. There is plenty of American socialism to go around.