Tales of Capitalism: “What’s Left?” January 2016, MRR #392

Tales of Capitalism

Pascal Rigo is a baker and an entrepreneur, a French citizen who moved to the United States and became an American. After opening a bakery in Los Angeles, he moved to San Francisco and started a French-based bakery called La Boulangerie on Pine Street. The concept as well as the food was a success with locals when Rigo opened a café/restaurant nearby called La Boulange, then another and another, until he had a small chain of 23 food establishments around the Bay Area (and one in LA). As his empire grew, Rigo partnered with other restaurateurs and investors to start up or buy out local restaurants, coffee houses, even another confection-oriented baking chain.

Now, having vacationed in Paris a number of times, I’d grade his La Boulange effort a C+/B-. The Franco-American fair was decent, meaning above average for the Bay Area and below average for Paris. Rigo had managed to capture a semblance of the Parisian sidewalk café experience without succumbing to the excesses of Bay Area coffee house laptop culture, with many of his stores becoming popular neighborhood hangouts. But as his economic empire grew, a less benign side to La Boulange surfaced. Rigo managed to sidestep or finesse most of the City’s rules against chain store proliferation as a local chain with a lot of clout. Yet toward the end of La Boulange’s rapid expansion, plans for prospective stores met with increasing neighborhood resistance, as when West Portal residents unsuccessfully opposed the closing of a local grocery store to make way for yet another La Boulange. As the La Boulange chain grew, baking shifted from the Pine Street bakery to a South San Francisco factory, which meant standardizing the product and reducing its quality.

There was grumbling in the Bay Area over the chain’s precipitous growth, but Rigo’s business success generated national corporate interest. Starbucks bought out the La Boulange chain for $100 million, gave Rigo a VP position, and integrated a selection of Rigo’s bakery items into Starbucks coffee shops, all announced on June 4, 2012. That meant more local grumbling, even some anger and fear, as quality continued to decline and Starbucks’ intentions became clear. It was an old-style faux friendly corporate takeover strategy where the corporation taking over strips away all the important assets from the taken over corporation before discarding what remains. Starbucks had all of Rigo’s recipes, so they claimed they could no longer afford to operate a parallel chain of restaurants and announced Starbucks was closing the entire La Boulange chain by the end of September, 2015.

Hundreds of people lost their jobs as a consequence of Starbucks’ corporate shell game, and in the end nothing could be done. Capitalism does not respond well to the hard power of the working class expressed in labor agitation, organizing and strikes. The soft consumer power of “voting with your dollars” through economic campaigns, targeted shopping and boycotts often gets a more conciliatory response.

The Bay Area’s angry reaction to Starbucks’ move filled the newspapers, blogosphere and airwaves for weeks after the announcement, causing the coffee giant concern for its reputation, its customer base and above all its bottom line. And Rigo, always the savvy businessman, saw a golden opportunity. He and Starbucks negotiated a deal by which Rigo agreed to take back his original Pine Street bakery and five of the most popular La Boulange store locations as La Boulangerie de San Francisco on September 25, 2015, thereby preventing tech money from installing chic high-end restaurants in their place, diffusing any potential consumer revolt for Starbucks, and making Rigo into a local hero of sorts.

***

This modest tale of capitalism is not intended to elevate some element of capitalism (markets, value, wage labor, the commodity, valorization) to centrality, even though I’m fond of chapter one of the first volume of Marx’s Capital. Nor will I argue over whether capitalism is an open system (per conventional Marxism) or a closed system (a la Marxist Value Theory), even though I consider a closed model to be an abomination before the big G (Gödel). Nor am I saying that small-scale capitalism is preferable to corporate capitalism or that government regulation should favor the former over the later. We live in a capitalist society within a capitalist world order, and continuous economic expansion is the only abiding reality of capitalism. The consequences of capitalist growth-without-end are increasing social misery, economic inequality and ecological destruction. Small-scale mom-and-pop or individual entrepreneurial capitalism inevitably becomes large-scale corporate and monopolistic capitalism. Yet there is a popular preference—whether ill-advised or enlightened—for small shopkeeper capitalism over large corporate capitalism as being somehow fairer, more equitable and less environmentally damaging. I myself enjoy a lively farmer’s market, in San Francisco or Paris, to the sterility of a supermarket any day anywhere, despite my economic fatalism. So, here are a few recommendations for socially responsible capitalist products or small-scale capitalist businesses to patronize:

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (movie): This favorable yet even-handed history of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s by documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson is a treat not just for nostalgic scenes of Oakland and cameo appearances by 60s celebrities. It’s also a powerful if cursory discussion of the triumphs and failures of the Party in general and individual Party members in particular which concludes with a searing indictment of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI, and their state-sponsored Cointelpro campaign to disrupt and destroy the Panthers. Fred Hampton’s assassination by Chicago police was only one of many government “liquidations” of Black radicals intended to prevent the rise of a “Negro messiah.” This might still be playing in movie theaters when this column hits print, but it will be available in DVD/streaming/download formats soon enough. (theblackpanthers.com)

Jacobin (magazine): The latest attempt to found “a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture.” Available in print edition or pdf download, Jacobin began with charting the death of liberalism and continues to offer quasi-radical socialist alternatives. Despite the bloodthirsty extremism implied by its name in honor of the Jacobin Clubs of the French 1789 Revolution and their unremitting reign of revolutionary terror, the magazine’s solutions rarely go beyond the social democratic let alone democratic socialist. The layout and graphics are surprisingly stodgy and there is no letters section, lively or otherwise. Their business model, in shunning advertising for a solid subscription base intended to fund the magazine, is sound and theoretically sustaining. I’m a subscriber. (Jacobin, 388 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11217/jacobinmag.com)

Arizmendi Bakery (worker-owned cooperative): A market economy based on producer and consumer cooperatives has been touted as a variation on capitalism, perhaps an alternative to capitalism, that avoids the excesses of capitalism proper. I’ve never found this analysis compelling, but I do enjoy a delicious chocolate thingy from Arizmendi Bakery. This is a thriving chain of six worker-run coop bakeries, plus the East Bay Cheese Board, that keeps the ideals of a coop economy alive. And just try asking an Arizmendi worker where to find the tip jar. Inspired by the Bay Area’s OG coop Rainbow Grocery, Arizmendi belongs to the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives (NoBAWC) which has some thirty member workers cooperatives. (arizmendi.coop, nobawk.org)

The Green Arcade (bookstore): An individually owned and operated bookstore in downtown San Francisco, this narrow space is crammed floor-to-ceiling with progressive-to-radical books, periodicals, pamphlets, calendars, and ephemera. Despite its location in the City’s bleak Hub neighborhood, the questionable viability of books and bookstores, and the vagaries of leftist politics generally, The Green Arcade has been open for seven years now. It sponsors community and political events, often in the McRosky Mattress Company building across the street. And it offers to locate hard-to-find items for customers as well as other bookstore services like gift cards and online ordering. Sweet. (The Green Arcade, 1680 Market Street @Gough, San Francisco CA 94102, (415) 431-6800/thegreenarcade.com)

Again, this is not offered as part of any comprehensive, radical critique of capitalism, but as suggestions for capitalist businesses and products that can make our lives a bit less harassed and a tad more enjoyable. For any true critique of capitalism, I still recommend starting with volume one of Marx’s Capital.

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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.

The RCP is all wet: “What’s Left?” May 2009, MRR #312

I hadn’t planned to write a column this month.

I like to lie low in March. This is anarchy time in the Bay Area, with the Anarchist Book Fair and BASTARD Conference both happening in the middle of the month. I’ve called the latter masturbatory self-indulgence, and the former an ineffectual lifestyle zoo. Other remarks I’ve made in conjunction with these criticisms have elicited long-winded letters from the circle A pro-snitch brigade that took up way too much space in this magazine awhile back. These days, I feel it’s the better part of valor not to stir things up.

That said, I must wholeheartedly praise the actions of the Modesto Anarcho Crew who physically drove out the Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party from the March 14-15, 2009 Anarchist Book Fair. They’ve also laid down a class-based challenge to the anarchist movement that’s simply brilliant. To quote Crudo of MAC:

I also fail to see how calling ourselves a crew is alienating to other people. Realistically at this point, many of us have no interest in trying to justify our actions to a movement that continues to disappoint and alienate us from it. Our homes become foreclosed on and you fix bikes. We lose hours and jobs and you try and get us to read zines about steampunk. We try and articulate our ideas and break out of activism and are called out for “alienating” people. We take action and are scolded.

It seems that the unwanted children of capital just can’t win under anarchism’s rules. That’s fine, we play by our own.

“the left has labeled us hooligans – we intend to be much worse.”

It’s column deadline, too late for my usual lengthy exposition, so I might have more to say about these things in the future. For now, let me just tell MAC, the next time you all are in San Francisco (and provided you aren’t straightedge), I’ll buy your drinks at the bar. I suggest the Toronado for the brews, but it’s your choice.

Now, if only local anarchists would step it up with regard to Bay Area’s National Anarchists…

Lifesavers for a new life: “What’s Left?” March 2009, MRR #310

I moved to Oakland from San Diego in 1991. In my initial exploration of the Bay Area, I discovered two invaluable resources I relied on for many years to come. The first was an 8.5×11 piece of paper, printed both sides, in very small type, called the Bay Area Progressive Calendar. Produced by Ken Cheetham, it detailed every progressive event brought to its attention and offered, by mail, a directory of local progressive groups and organizations. Incredibly cool. I first encountered the Progressive Calendar in the free literature zone at the old Cody’s Bookstore on Telegraph, and I made a point of seeking out this valuable little ecumenical leftie calendar.

The second was The List. In the day, it was an 8.5×11 piece of paper, folded widthwise, printed in colorful, incredibly small type, as a smart little four pager produced by Steve Koepke listing all the punk, hardcore, ska, rocakabilly, yada, yada, yada shows in the immediate Bay Area. Incredibly cool. I came upon The List at MRR HQ on Clipper Street, as a shitworker typing, scanning, and laying out the magazine’s now extinct Classifieds Section. I regularly attended shows back then, so I kept a copy of The List handy.

My memory is a bit fuzzy, so I can’t recall if these were weekly or monthly publications, or something in between. Both the Progressive Calendar and The List augmented their street presence with mailed subscriptions and, when it became common, emailed information. And both eventually dropped their physical distribution altogether to bookstores, record shops, political events, shows, and other venues. The Bay Area Progressive Directory and adjunct Calendar are now entirely web based, and can be found at bapd.org. The List still can be had via snail mail by writing The List, P.O. Box 2451, Richmond, CA 94802. You can also get it through email by writing to skoepke@stevelist.com. This information is obtainable online at calweb.com/~skoepke/, and several www versions of The List are available, most notably at foopee.com/punk/the-list/ and kzsu.stanford.edu/~calendar/orig_list.html.

The Progressive Calendar and The List were my lifelines when I moved to Oakland. They helped me get established and oriented, meet people, find things to do, and make the Bay Area my home. They required that I make an effort to go out and about to initially find them, and to subsequently keep track of them. Hunting down a copy of the Progressive Calendar or The List got me out of my tiny apartment to experience the weather, other people, the Bay Area in all its disappointing glory, and the real world. Eventually, I subscribed to both by mail, and I still occasionally refer to them online. What I miss though is that street presence, their physicality, the ability to walk into my local bookshop or record store and find them in with all the other free literature.

It’s the disappearance of a physical geography implied by the evolution of the Progressive Calendar and The List that most upsets me. Now, it’s all about an amorphous digital geography, which I found troublesome. Those who champion cyberspace and tout the virtues of the virtual would call me old fashioned, and point out how much more accessible and available both the Progressive Calendar and The List are, now that they’re online. No doubt, these are some of the same folks who defend CDs over vinyl, and MP3s over CDs.

Personally, I never could tell much of a difference between music on vinyl versus CDs. But I can hear the difference between MP3s and these previous media. The digital revolution is turning the music I like to listen to into low quality crap, much as it’s converting physical community into that sorry-assed excuse for human interaction called the online community. Anyone who has attended a real, live record swap, book fair, concert, or farmers market and then dares to compare them to the shadowy, flame-ridden, cowardly and anonymous, so-called community of your average online chatroom or forum deserves the lobotomy that prolonged internet exposure all but guarantees.

On an unrelated note, I did a column awhile back on political syncretism in general, and the rise of national anarchism on the fascist right in particular. Spencer Sunshine has written a comprehensive article on the latter, called “Rebranding Fascism,” for The Public Eye Magazine, available at publiceye.org/magazine/v23n4/rebranding_fascism.html. A rather anemic debate on the article took place on infoshop.org (news.infoshop.org/article.php?story=20081220225130728), which has only reinforced my disdain for modern anarchism. Anarchists no longer have the cajones to defend their politics from such vile interlopers, and thus anarchism fully deserves to be relegated to the dustbin of history.

National anarchists have established a nominal presence in the Bay Area, and they’ve already publicly attended an all-too-conventional, ANSWER-sponsored anti-AIPAC protest in San Francisco on December 11, 2008. Presumably, they also participated clandestinely in the anti-authoritarian bloc called by UA of the Bay for the equally stodgy January 10, 2009 ANSWER demo protesting Israel’s actions in Gaza. At least the national anarchists advertised the call on their website. No one can tell what kind of anarchist you are, whether anarchist at all, if you’re dressed all in black and wearing a black bandana over your face. Australian national anarchists who’ve jumped into Leftist demos explain that “we cover our faces to protect us from the persecution of the other political groups.” Meaning, they dress anarchist in order to avoid getting their asses kicked by Leftists, and other anarchists. And rumor has it that black bloc participants in the anti-globalization protests in Genoa, Italy on August 23, 2001 weren’t all anarchists or autonomists. Aside from the usual quota of police agent provocateurs, a number of young Italian fascists swelled the ranks of the black bloc, in the guise of national autonomists.

I’m looking forward to the day when a group of national anarchists openly try to join a regular local anarcho event, such as the ho-hum December 20, 2008 SF march in solidarity with Greek anarchists and the New School occupation. I bet that such an attempt will produce general consternation and confusion, not to mention much hand wringing. But in the end the regular anarchists will wimp out and let the national anarchists join in. Unchallenged. Any takers?

For someone who has just decried the pernicious effects of the digital over the real, I sure use a lot of internet sources.

UPDATE FOR 2014:

Most of the links mentioned in this column have held up quite well over the years. Can’t say the same for the postal addresses. Even more digital versions of The List can be found by simply googling.

For the love of cities: “What’s Left?” July 2008, MRR #302

I strained my neck the first time I visited New York City. Walking around Manhattan, craning my head looking up at the surrounding skyscrapers in the mid-80s, I was properly awed by the city’s architectural display of power. And, I was reminded of John Lennon’s reply to the question of why he chose to live in New York. It’s the center of the empire.

But the empire ain’t what it used to be.

The 5-12-08 edition of Newsweek excerpted a long piece from free market fundamentalist Fareed Zakaria’s new book The Post American World in which he argues that the world “has shifted from anti-Americanism to post-Americanism” with “the rise of the rest,” meaning the growing economic prosperity of countries like Russia, China and India. This has not meant challenging the United States militarily, but rather the claim that the rest of the world has “moved on, and [is] now far more interested in other, more dynamic parts of the globe.” What Zakaria is talking about is economic, social and cultural dynamism, not military might. “America remains the global superpower today, but it is an enfeebled one.” In New York, the imperial city par excellence, this shift is perhaps best symbolized by the destruction of the World Trade Center, at one time the world’s tallest buildings. As Zakaria points out, “[t]he world’s tallest building is in Taipei, and will soon be in Dubai.”

In watching The Visitor, a current movie set in Manhattan partly about the human consequences of US immigration policy, I was impressed with how damned good New York’s skyline looks without the twin towers, as seen from the Staten Island ferry. I admit to sharing the prejudice of many of my New York friends who considered the World Trade Center a blight on Manhattan. Not to say that I reveled in its destruction, nor should my anti-WTC remarks be construed as any kind of anti-urbanism. I’m a city person. I love city living, and I think that cities are potentially one of the most brilliant expressions of human activity. There is a character and life to any world-class city that is memorable. There is a grace and, dare I say, virility to the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building that was completely lacking in the twin towers. The World Trade Center was brutal and ugly. New York City looks so much better without it.

Speaking of world-class cities, lately I’ve been jonesing for Paris, more so than New York. I’ve visited New York over a half dozen times, the last trip five years ago, so the city feels like an old friend I haven’t seen in a while. I was in Paris three years ago, and only for my second time. That city has the feel of a still mysterious lover.

City of love, city of light, Paris is hauntingly beautiful. I’m attracted to the millennia of history captured in its layered architecture, the vitality of both its public spaces (parks, concourses, squares) and its public life (open-air markets, frequent holidays, political demonstrations), the generous slice of western civilization contained within its museums, libraries and universities, and the sensuousness of daily existence—the appreciation for food, wine, leisure, beauty, sexuality—among many other things. Paris seems capable of passively defeating those who would change it for the worse, from outright enemies like the Nazis who were unwilling to burn down the city in retreat, to the French themselves like that American wannabe Sarkozy who tried to repeal the 35-hour work week and make the French work harder. The meteoric fall of Sarkozy’s popularity, along with his reform plans, is particularly gratifying.

This doesn’t mean that the “Spirit of 68” is alive and well in Paris. A 4-19-08 BBC broadcast of From Our Own Correspondent entitled “Visiting the Ghosts of Paris 1968,” has the following observation: “The students had specific grievances in 1968 as well, notably against the rigidly hierarchical way the universities were organized – but they went on to believe they could change France, if not the world. A teacher highlighted the difference for me: ‘This generation doesn’t want to change society. They just want to be able to get a job good enough to pay the rent and that’s why they’re worried about the quality of their education’.” I admit I was enamored with the city’s revolutionary mystique, fostered from 1789 through the 1871 Commune to May-June 1968. I made sure to visit the Butte-aux-Cailles district that, with the Latin Quarter, was the location of some of the fiercest fighting between students and police during 1968. It was also one of the strongholds of the Paris Commune, and I bought a commemorative t-shirt from an office/library/social center there dedicated to preserving the Commune’s memory. As of 2005, the Butte-aux-Cailles was being rapidly gentrified, with little resistance from anybody.

Regrettably, circumstances prevent me from vacationing in either New York or Paris any time soon, so I’m enjoying my own world-class city, San Francisco. Often referred to as “the Paris of the West,” San Francisco does have a certain charm, with its Victorian and Edwardian architecture. Parts of it have the appearance of a lazy Mediterranean town, delicate whitewashed residences interspersed with trees covering the city’s famous hills. Yet I thought my hometown looked shoddy and rundown both times I returned from Paris. There’s an elegance and cosmopolitanism to Paris that makes San Francisco seem downright parochial, an impression accentuated by the city’s relatively low urban density when compared to Paris, and especially to New York. I’ve had visitors from New York tell me that San Francisco isn’t really a city, but more like an urban town. They walked among the modest skyscrapers of the downtown financial district, sniffed condescendingly, and explained that San Francisco couldn’t possibly be serious about the business of being a big city without more tall buildings.

Unfortunately, that’s going to change, and soon.

The current 550-foot height limit in the city was a reaction to the building boom of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that saw the rise of the 779-foot Bank of America Building, and the iconic Transamerica Pyramid at 853 feet. In particular, the controversy surrounding the construction of the Pyramid produced a proposition to limit buildings to six stories in 1971 that was defeated, and a “compromise” 1972 urban design plan that capped downtown building heights at 700 feet. The subsequent rise of the financial district further fueled anti-height sentiment that culminated in the mid-80s with the success of Proposition K (1984), which prohibited towers from casting new shadows on existing city parks; another “compromise” urban design plan (1985), which capped downtown building heights at 550 feet but raised previously low heights south of Market; and voter approval of Proposition M (1986); which restricted new office buildings for ten years.

These modest successes signaled the eventual demise of organized popular opposition to downtown development forces. As is frequently the case with grassroots social movements, widespread interest and support could not be sustained, the ordinary people who participated went back to their very busy lives, and organizational and institutional gains languished in the wake of relatively incremental victories. What’s more, capitalists are often capable of long range strategic planning and great patience, despite their impatience for immediate profits. In the case of San Francisco, downtown interests also waited out their progressive opposition.

The waters were tested in 2003 when the Planning Department rezoned Rincon Hill to allow almost a dozen towers to be built over 35 stories to increase downtown residential density. The 641-foot One Rincon building is scheduled to open this year, with two more on the way. City officials approved a redevelopment district around the Transbay Terminal in 2005 that permitted six residential towers of 35 to 55 stories on land once covered by freeway ramps. These towers will rise from public land sold to raise money for rebuilding the terminal. “The notion of extra-tall towers also is the culmination of efforts since the 1980s to shift the focus of downtown development – taking growth pressure off neighborhoods such as Chinatown and North Beach and steering it south of Market Street.” This, according to a 4-27-08 article in the San Francisco Chronicle entitled “Reaching for the sky South of Market.” In 2006, Planning Director Dean Macris came out in favor of extremely tall towers in the Transbay Terminal area. A year later, the winner of the Planning Department’s proposal competition for the Transbay site, Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects and the Hines development firm, recommended a 1,200-foot tower. And in May of this year, the Planning Department proposed new zoning in the terminal area that would once and for all overturn the 550-foot building limit.

One Rincon Tower did generate a measure of concern and complaint, but nothing compared to the opposition provoked by the Transamerica Pyramid. “The anti-height fervor downtown quieted in the 1990s,” the Chronicle article states. “[A]nd there’s been little controversy about the towers erected during the past decade along Mission Street.” This is due, not merely to the ability of capitalists to wait out their opponents, or the inability of those opponents to build a lasting resistance movement, but also to the changing demographics of San Francisco in the intervening years. Much like Manhattan, San Francisco has become home to the well-to-do and rich, with poor folk shunted to the margins, and middle class families no longer able to afford to live in the city. A demographic with little interest—class interest, that is—in fighting the Manhattanization of San Francisco.

Me, I’d like to see San Francisco shed its roll up the sidewalks at 11 pm provincialism. But I would rather see the city emulate Paris than New York. For one, this is earthquake country, with a big shaker due any time now. Do you want to be a thousand feet in the air when the ground starts to really rock and roll? For another, the proposed skyline, particularly with the Transit District towers (see sfgov.org/site/uploadedfiles/planning/City_Design_Group/CDG_transit_center.htm) looks more like Blade Runner than Manhattan. They make the old World Trade Center look positively enchanting.

Josh Wolf: “What’s Left?” June 2007, MRR #289

But to live outside the law, you must be honest.

-Bob Dylan, “Absolutely Sweet Marie”

I recently viewed Josh Wolf’s controversial, unedited video of an anti-G8 anarchist riot in San Francisco posted on his website. My first thought was, Josh spent 226 days in jail in civil contempt of a federal grand jury for this piece of crap? What a waste.

I’ll briefly recap what this is all about, for those of you who have been living in a cave for the past couple of years.

In solidarity with worldwide protests against the G8 summit held in St. Petersburg, Russia, Anarchist Action called for an anti-G8 demonstration in San Francisco’s Mission district on July 8, 2005. Around 200 anarchists, most of them wearing masks, started marching down both lanes of Mission Street from the 16th Street BART station a little before 9 pm. The SFPD responded with fully equipped riot police, fleets of cop cars and paddy wagons, and repeated announcements that the demo was illegal.

All hell broke loose when the cops attempted to force the demonstrators onto the sidewalks. The crowd, which had swelled to nearly 300, broke into smaller groups that ran in every direction. The anarchists dragged newspaper boxes into the street to block traffic, trashed the KFC, BofA, Wells Fargo, Skechers, Shoe Biz, and a Shell gas station, burned flags, set off smoke bombs and firecrackers, lit garbage cans on fire, and played cat-and-mouse with the cops by regrouping and splitting up in different parts of the Mission well into the night. In turn, the police confiscated the demo’s sound equipment, made numerous attempts to force people onto the sidewalks, arrested several people, tackled, beat up and clubbed down several more people, fired teargas, and repeatedly drove their police cars at demonstrators and into the crowd.

During this melee, two significant incidents occurred. A demonstrator bashed a cop’s head in with a skateboard, fracturing his skull. And, by accident or intent, a cop car was briefly set on fire. Or, at least, an attempt was made, which was all the excuse the Federal government needed. Called in when the SFPD contacted the Joint Terrorism Task Force and the FBI to investigate the assault on the cop, the Feds used the fact that the SFPD gets Federal funds to help pay for its vehicles to supercede the local DA’s Office and empanel a Federal grand jury to investigate the attempted arson, thus federalizing the case. This being the proverbial elephant’s nose in the tent, it was assumed that the grand jury would go on to investigate who might have perpetrated the assault on a police officer, and who might have instigated the riot.

Josh Wolf attended the anti-G8 demo both as an anarchist and a frequent local IndyMedia news contributor. Needless to say, he knew many of the other demonstrators. Josh recorded some twenty minutes of that night’s donnybrook. He posted a short clip on IndyBay right after the event, followed by a longer, edited clip. He also sold a clip of the demo to local KRON TV news, which broadcast it. The grand jury subpoenaed Josh to testify and to hand over the outtakes, thinking that he might have recorded either the downing of the cop or the cop car’s ignition, and seeking to use Josh’s testimony to identify participants. Josh refused and was cited and jailed for civil contempt on August 1, 2006.

Wolf was defended by the National Lawyers Guild, which contended that, as a journalist, freedom of the press protected Josh from testifying against the people he was reporting on, as well as from having to hand over the unpublished segments of his digital video recording to the government. Josh always insisted that there was nothing incriminating on the rest of the dvr, and offered to have it reviewed in the privacy of a judge’s chambers. US District Judge William Alsup didn’t buy the NLG’s arguments, nor did he accept Josh’s offer, and thus began Wolf’s jailhouse saga, which ended only when a deal was struck. Josh agreed to make his recording of the demo available in its entirety, which he did first by posting it on his website and then by turning it over to the court. The Feds in turn agreed not to demand that Josh testify before the grand jury and name names.

The video recording is grainy, jerky, and murky after dark. Neither the downed cop, nor the alleged attempted arson on the cop car is depicted. Lesser crimes-marking up a city bus advertisement with graffiti, damaging property and obstructing traffic by dragging those chained-together news racks into the streets, setting off pyrotechnics-are shown, though it’s next to impossible to determine who’s doing the minor mayhem. Identifiable, unmasked folks are in attendance at the staging area, when the demo gets under way, and after the demo turns to riot, but this dvr couldn’t be used to indict anyone for anything.

My initial negative reaction to seeing the video however wasn’t because it is unremarkable, poorly shot footage of people either just standing around or endlessly marching around. I wondered why the fuck Josh Wolf was willing to spend so much time in jail defending a bunch of yahoo anarchist dilettantes whose idea of class struggle and class solidarity was to trash one of San Francisco’s solidly working class, ethnically diverse neighborhoods. When tens of thousands of demonstrators shut down San Francisco’s financial district at the start of the 2003 Iraq war-now that was an appropriate target and a righteous action. Anarchist rioting in the Mission was merely a Mickey Mouse stunt.

I say this having called myself an anarchist for fifteen years from 1969 to 1984, having participated in my first riot in 1971, and having donned the street fighting uniform of the black bloc for anti-Columbus Day protests in San Francisco in 1992. Longtime readers of this column know I took part in shutting down the financial district on March 20, 2003, with a small group of friends, without wearing a mask. Earlier in the day the rampaging Black Bloc had been lead by the nose into an SFPD trap that resulted in some 200 arrests. I’d realized long before then to be leery of the whole breakaway/black block/anarcho scatter mob approach as it often proved too reactive, easily manipulated, not very creative, and lacking in strategic intelligence.

Young anarchos in this country have appropriated the tactics of the black bloc from Europe’s autonomen without grasping the strategy behind them. This is typical, as when anarchism embraces Situationism’s libertarian forms (detournement, constructed situation, derive) without any understanding of Situationism’s Marxist content. It’s the reason why anarchists can claim to be in solidarity with working people while trashing their working class neighborhood.

I don’t really want this to turn into yet another anti-anarchist screed. In returning the focus to Josh Wolf though, I’m not at all concerned with the question of whether or not he qualifies as a bono fide journalist. I’m a bit more interested in efforts to challenge the Federal government’s dubious claim of standing in the case. Ultimately, the legal niceties of Josh Wolf’s predicament bore me.

I think what’s important in all of this is the deal Josh struck to release the full, unedited recording of the demonstration in exchange for a promise by the Feds not to call him to testify before the grand jury and identify demonstration participants. I have a facility for identifying human voices by their pitch, cadence and timbre, and I can often recognize a singer within a few notes of a song I’ve never heard. Even though I haven’t been around the Bay Area anarcho scene in years, as I watched the tinny video on Josh’s website, I was able to pick out three people I knew immediately based on their voices. All three wore masks throughout the recording. Josh, as an active participant in the local anarchist milieu, could have easily fingered scores of people who were involved in the riot in testimony before the grand jury, or spent several more months in jail on contempt charges for refusing to do so.

Yet releasing the dvr wasn’t risk free. Clearly, the Feds were on a fishing expedition here. Given the time, a zealous prosecutor, or a Federal government truly bent on a witch-hunt, could have given the recording the full CSI treatment. No doubt, others would have been subpoenaed. Obviously, Josh Wolf was between a rock and a hard place on this one.

The US Attorney’s Office spun the deal Josh made by falsely claiming that Wolf had complied with the original subpoena, a gross distortion picked up by the SF Chronicle when it reported on 4-4-07 that Josh had been freed only after giving up and turning over the video. Finally, a Chronicle op-ed piece on 4-9-07 by Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, claimed that the Feds made a mistake in going after Josh for evidence he never had, that Josh made a mistake in going to jail over material that was not evidence, that indeed the whole thing was a “huge misunderstanding.”

Contrary to the US Attorney’s Office and the Chronicle, Josh didn’t comply with the original subpoena, nor did he give up. He did manage to force the government to back off from making him name names, essentially running out the clock on the investigation. The Federal grand jury is set to expire next month, in July, without having accomplished much other than keep Josh Wolf in jail. Josh made about as principled a decision as was possible, given the circumstances.

Notice I’m not discussing whether Josh “did the right thing.” In 1968, when everybody was carrying around that godawful tome Atlas Shrugged by second-rate writer Ayn Rand, I was reading Nietzsche’s snazzy, slim volume Beyond Good and Evil. I agree with the critique of morality, though I don’t use it to justify a sophomoric nihilism that Nietzsche himself rejected. As any good Marxist well knows, activity precedes consciousness, but once consciousness arises, it influences activity. It is possible to derive and practice principled behaviors from a theoretical understanding of reality. It is then possible to learn from the successes and failures of those behaviors to modify one’s original understanding of the world.

It’s called praxis.

A couple of years ago, the BASTARD conference presented self-admitted police snitch Bob Black conducting a workshop. A number of folks had principled objections to Bob Black’s presence-from concerns about personal and collective security to the argument that, if the state is the enemy, than a police informant is a state collaborator. These protestations were dismissed as moralistic by the conference organizers. The puerile nihilism of the BASTARDs aside, I would contend that anarchism in general fails to grasp the importance of principled praxis. Along with failing to see the forest for the trees, this flaw also contributed to anarchists wreaking havoc in a working class neighborhood in the name of working class solidarity.

It’s nice to know that at least one anarchist is capable of principled behavior.

There I go again, disrespecting anarchism. Not so long ago, I was praising to high heaven the role of anarchism in Seattle 1999 and the subsequent anti-globalization movement. This column’s header is a tongue-in-cheek tribute to that historical moment. Anarchism has a very long history of losing it at the moment of greatest influence, of self-destructing with success at hand, of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. I guess I’m pissed that I witnessed yet another episode in that sad tradition.

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