San Cristobal and Zomia, an exercise in fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just covering their asses.

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

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

“Buenos dias,” I say. “Habla inglés?”

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

“Do you have any maps of Zomia?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Tankies, but no Tankies: “What’s Left?” June 2017, MRR #409


My friend’s a tankie.

A tankie is someone who supported the old Soviet Union when it was around, and still supports existing “socialist” states like China and Vietnam, their client states like Nepal and North Korea, or their affiliate states like Serbia and Syria. Tankies are usually Communist Party Stalinist hardliners, apologists, fellow travelers, or sympathizers. They back the military interventions of Soviet-style states, defend such regimes from charges of human rights violations, and desire to create similar political systems in countries like Britain and the United States.

It’s more accurate to say an acquaintance I knew from way back when wants to “friend” me on FB, and I’m not sure I want to accept the request because he’s a tankie.

My friend Garrett was originally a fellow New Leftie when we met at Ventura Community College in 1970. He was a member of New American Movement, an organization founded to succeed Students for a Democratic Society. NAM was structurally decentralized, politically quasi-Leninist, equal parts democratic socialist and socialist feminist, with a special interest in Antonio Gramsci. Garrett was an assistant professor who, when the voting age was reduced to 18, organized a bunch of us under-21 antiwar youngsters to run for Ventura city council and school board.

When I went off to UCSC as an undergraduate junior transfer in 1972, Garrett got a teaching gig at UCB. I visited him a few times in Berkeley while he was an associate professor. It was the height of ideological battles and street fights between Revolutionary Union Maoists, Draperite Trotskyists, Black Panther Party cadre, et al, in Berkeley from 1972 to 1975. Ostensibly, Garrett taught courses on neo-Marxism—covering thinkers like Lukács, Marcuse, Gorz, and Kołakowski—but he was a hardcore Trotskyist by then. I didn’t know which of the 57 varieties of Trot he subscribed to by the time I moved with my girlfriend down to San Diego to attend graduate school at UCSD in 1976. But when I visited Berkeley in 1979 after that girlfriend and I broke up Garrett had gone off the deep end. He’d been relieved of his professorship under mysterious circumstances, lived in a loose Psychic Institute house in south Berkeley, avidly followed Lyndon LaRouche’s US Labor Party, and was obsessed with Joseph Newman’s perpetual motion machines. I was told a particularly bad acid trip accounted for the changes. Garrett sent me a copy of the headline from the Spartacist League’s party paper in the summer of 1980, soon after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which read: “Hail Red Army!”

I had almost no contact with Garrett for the next thirty-seven years. I moved to the Bay Area in 1991 and briefly glimpsed a bedraggled Garrett walking along the sidewalk while I drank coffee at the old Cody’s Bookstore glassed-in cafe sometime around 1993. I asked after him whenever I came across Trotskyists—SWP, ISO, BT—tabling at events, but most had no idea who I was talking about and those who did avoided my eyes. One day in early 2002 I ran into a familiar face from Ventura’s anti-war movement, a woman named Carlin, who said Garrett had moved to Chicago, where he was now a day trader. And that’s how matters stood until I got Garrett’s friend request on my FB profile fifteen years later.

I could only suss out so much from Garrett’s FB wall without actually confirming his friend request. His profile picture was conservative enough—his bearded visage in a suit and tie—but his cover photo was of a pro-Russian poster from East Ukraine done in a Soviet socialist realist style with armed partisan soldiers circa 1918, 1941, and 2014 captioned in cyrillic which translated into “The fate of the Russian people, to repeat the feats of fathers: defend their native land.” There was a pro-China post calling the Dalai Lama a CIA agent, and a pro-Russian post supporting Assad as Syria’s only chance for peace. A meme proclaimed “Hands Off North Korea” with a smiling, waving image of Kim Jong Un, while another meme featured a slideshow of neoconservative talking heads under the banner “Children of Satan.” There was a link to a video decrying Israeli war crimes against the Palestinians, and another to a weird video featuring Putin and Trump dancing to The Beatles “Back in the USSR.” His FB info confirmed that he resided in Chicago and dabbled in stock market trading, and when I googled him I learned that Garrett had once been arrested and spent time in prison. But I learned nothing about the charges, the sentence, or the time served, only that he had made several failed attempts to void the conviction through habeas corpus filings.

His criminal past was no problem. His tankie tendencies were.

We acquire our friends throughout our life, from where we live and work to begin with, but then from communities of shared interest and activity. The former are friends by circumstance, and the latter friends by choice, or so we tell ourselves. The fact is it’s far more complicated. For much of my life I made friends at work, school, or where I lived, allowing the context of my life at the moment to determine who my friends were. As a consequence I made friends who were frequently racist, sexist, homophobic, or completely lacking in political sensibilities, if not outright conservative. But when I consciously engaged in political association and activity, I also let the circumstance of my politics determine who I befriended. So while I made much of belonging to anarchist affinity groups where I shared political theory and practice with people I considered friends, ultimately my political engagements determined who I associated with and befriended. Such people might share my politics, and might not be overtly racist, sexist, homophobic, or what have you, but they were often cruel or stupid or angry or lacking in empathy. Indeed, given that the political fringes are overwhelmingly populated by individuals who are socially lacking and psychologically damaged, my pool of potential friends had serious problems from the beginning.

Because of our propensity to make friends based on the context we find ourselves in, that old aphorism about “choosing one’s friends wisely” seldom applies, especially when we realize that we rarely know anybody very well and that people are constantly changing. I might not consciously decide to befriend the rabid Maoist whose bloodthirsty calls to “liquidate the bourgeoisie” or “eliminate the Zionist entity” irk me no end, but I might also start to admire and have affinity for him as we work together politically. And stories of political adversaries who become fast friends despite, or perhaps because of their battles with each other are legion. The mechanisms of how we become friends might be somewhat capricious, but surely we can decide whether to remain friends once we’ve become buddy-buddy?

Let’s take an extreme example to make the resulting conflicts obvious.

I once had a passing acquaintance with crypto-fascist Boyd Rice. My loose affinity group of anarchist friends in San Diego put out four issues of a single sheet broadside style 11×17 @ zine called “yada, yada, yada” circa 1979. One of the issues was called the “dada yada” because its theme was surrealism and dadaism, and it involved one of our group, Sven, collaborating with Boyd Rice and Steve Hitchcock to produce. The rest of our affinity didn’t contribute to or much approve of the project, although I did meet Boyd and attended a performance of an early version of his band NON with him playing rotoguitar. I was disturbed by the fascist imagery and symbolism so prominent in the industrial subculture of the day, in which Boyd seemed to revel. But when I argued with Sven against his association with Boyd, he argued back that you should never end a friendship simply over political differences. This was before Boyd Rice augmented his fascist flirtations with a virulently racist social Darwinism and an involvement in Anton LeVey’s Church of Satan. Whenever people ask me whether Boyd and I were ever friends, I assure them I wasn’t.

I should have realized that the position that one’s personal affection for an individual trumps whatever political conflicts exist is just a roundabout way of saying “hate the sin, but not the sinner.” And when we fail to point out the sin to the sinner, we are in danger of becoming complicit in defending the sinner’s sin by being silent about it. Few of us are brave or honest enough to tell our friends exactly what we think of them, often because we don’t want to lose their friendship, go out on an emotional limb, or do something personally uncomfortable. So we do a disservice to those victims of racism or fascism when we make excuses for our friends, when we treat their racism or fascism as merely “points of view” rather than aspects of their behavior with real consequences for real people.

But aren’t we all human beings? None of us are wholly good or purely evil. Individual humans are multifaceted and complex, with good and bad qualities which are frequently combined so deeply together that it’s almost impossible to characterize any one individual as just one thing. Therefore we should give people, especially our racist or fascist friends, the benefit of the doubt because “they are human and have feelings too” and none of them are “bad people.” Actually, we should be glad they’re human because we want them to suffer when we take away their power to act on their racism and fascism. We want them to suffer because change means suffering. But if we’re not willing to confront our racist and fascist friends, if we’re unwilling to challenge the power behind their racist or fascist behavior no matter how casual or flip, perhaps it’s time to stop being their friends.

I was familiar with anarchist/libertarian crossover politics, but the Boyd Rice incident was the first time I encountered Left/Right crossover politics as part of punk, itself rife with “transgressive” countercultural crossovers. I hadn’t been aware of the original dada/surrealist crossover, with Evola and Dali trending ultraright and Buñuel and Breton trending ultraleft. Left/Right crossover politics seem to be the idiocy de jour however, with everything from National Anarchism to Steve Bannon calling himself a Leninist. I’m afraid that Garrett’s pro-Assad, pro-Kim Jong Un, pro-Putin tankie politics have much the same flavor, an implicit Red/Brown crossover with allusions to LaRouche and blood libel.

I think I’ll pass on Garrett’s friend request.

Sectarianism or The Truth Will Set You Free: “What’s Left?” May 2017, MRR #408


It’s a classic picture; an iconic, grainy, black-and-white photo of Fidel Castro addressing an unseen crowd, flanked by Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. Three handsome Latin men in the ultimate romantic revolutionary photo op. Within ten months of the Cuban revolution’s triumph in January, 1959, Cienfuegos died under somewhat mysterious circumstances amid rumors that Castro had him eliminated because he was too popular. And nearly nine years later, Che was hunted down and killed in the jungles of Bolivia under CIA direction, having been reluctant to return to Cuba after Castro made public Guevara’s secret “farewell letter” surrounded by rumors of a falling out between the two.

With Fidel’s death in November of last year, the top three leaders of the Cuban Revolution are now all dead. Fidel continued to smoke Cuban cigars and drink Cuban rum until a few months before his demise at 90 years of age. Supporters of the Cuban revolution considered this symbolic of the resiliency of the socialist project while its enemies of its doddering senility. But this isn’t yet another case of Schrödinger’s cats and quantum simultaneity. Marxism and the Left are definitely on the ropes. This month I’ll discuss the first of a handful of principal issues troubling the Left, without much hope of transcending any of them.

SECTARIANISM
OR THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE

Sectarianism figures as the most overt and persistent problem on the Left. The term originally refers to religious conflicts where it was important to establish that you had a direct line to the almighty, and therefore a need to refute, persecute, or even kill anyone who disputed your claim. The idea here is that you and your group of fellow believers have the truth and those who disagree should be subject to everything from scorn and contempt to terror and death because they’re wrong. The claim to religious truth covers not just major differences like the nature of god (one indivisible vs three-in-one vs multiple, transcendent vs imminent) but also to minor matters like whether to make the sign of the cross with two vs three fingers or to baptize by dunking an individual’s head first vs feet first.

But religion certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on claims to the truth. Politics rivals religion in the acrimony it often generates, and ranks with money and sex as one of the top four topics that shouldn’t be discussed in polite company. Political sectarians certainly parallel their religious counterparts in emphasizing the absolute truth of their principles over all others, making every minor disagreement into the basis for fundamental differences, seeing the deadliest of enemies in their closest rivals, putting purity of dogma over tactical advantage, refusing to compromise or alter their aims, and proclaiming their pride at being against the stream. To be fair, real differences do exist between groups and within organizations. Anarchists and Marxists differ fundamentally on the nature and use of state power (dominant autonomous institution to be smashed vs instrumentality of class rule to be seized). Social democrats and Leninists disagree essentially on the organization and role of the political party (mass democratic party vs vanguard party). Given such fundamental differences, political conflicts and opposition are bound to occur when a common action or program is undertaken. But it’s important to define those differences that actually make a difference instead of always seeing fundamental differences where none exist.

On the Left, Marxism exacerbates the problem of sectarianism because of what Frederich Engels called the “theoretical expression of the proletarian movement, scientific Socialism.” It is unclear whether Karl Marx himself had such a rigid understanding of his doctrine. While he concurred with Engels in differentiating his socialism from the utopianism of prior socialist thinkers, Marx was by no means as crude or mechanistic in its application to the world of his day. What’s more, Marx valued the correctness of his doctrine’s methodology far more than he did the correctness of its conclusions. Science is based on statements of fact like “1 + 1 = 2,” and so to claim that “1 + 1 = 3” for instance is not just wrong, it’s unscientific. If socialism is a scientific doctrine, then statements by Marxist organization A that “the Assad regime in Syria is objectively anti-imperialist” are considered scientific fact. But what if Marxist organization B proclaims that “the Assad regime in Syria is objectively counterrevolutionary?” Just as 1 + 1 cannot be simultaneously 2 and 3, Assad’s regime in Syria cannot be simultaneously objectively anti-imperialist and counterrevolutionary. Since both Marxist organizations A and B each claim to rely on scientific socialism to arrive at their contradictory conclusions, at least one of these statements must be objectively false.

Aside from the quantum physics fringe, science just doesn’t work that way. Neither political formulation may be right, but someone certainly must be wrong; a sentiment that fuels the sectarian urge.

For Engels, the term scientific essentially meant dialectic. There is much debate about whether Marx subscribed wholeheartedly to Hegelian dialectics, or if his methodology was more complex. Whatever the case, subsequent Marxists like Lenin, Trotsky, and Mao considered Marxism to be fundamentally dialectical. And Mao entertained an open notion of dialectics where contradictions endlessly self-generated until certain contradictions were considered eternal. “Does ‘one divide into two’ or ‘two fuse into one?’ This question is a subject of debate in China and now here. This debate is a struggle between two conceptions of the world. One believes in struggle, the other in unity. The two sides have drawn a clear line between them and their arguments are diametrically opposed. Thus, you can see why one divides into two.” (Free translation from the Red Flag, Peking, September 21, 1964) This is also a conception of the world as endless split and schism, of sectarianism run amok. Little wonder that the Maoist New Communist Movement in the United States at its height in the 1970s rivaled Trotskyism for ever-proliferating, constantly infighting groupuscules. It’s no coincidence that Monty Python’s film “Life of Brian,” with its clever skit of the People’s Front of Judea vs the Judean People’s Front, came out in 1979.

The “one divide into two” quote came from a pamphlet called “The Anti-Mass: Methods of Organization for Collectives” which first appeared in 1970-71. It was called a “moldy soup of McLuhanism, anarchism, William Burroughs, Maoism, and ‘situationism’.” The real Situationists of “Contradiction” called out the fake “situationists” of “Anti-Mass” for taking “a firm, principled position within the spectacle, titillating jaded movement post-graduates with neo-Maoist homilies and Madison Avenue salesmanship.”

And so it went. Trotskyism, Maoism, and Situationism were perhaps the most sectarian tendencies on the Left, but Leftist sectarianism was by no means confined to them. With the defeat of the labor movement and the collapse of Leninist regimes in the twentieth century, we’ve come to a crisis of Marxism specifically and of the Left in general.

Increasingly marginalized revolutionaries sought to break with the senescent Left after 1991 and proffered innovations to its theory and politics in order to salvage what they could of Marxism. In the twenty-first century, this has amounted to rearguard discussions of insurrectionism, communization, Agamben, and social war. To quote Benjamin Noys, the “mixing-up of insurrectionist anarchism, the communist ultra-left, post-autonomists, anti-political currents, groups like the Invisible Committee, as well as more explicitly ‘communizing’ currents, such as Théorie Communiste” is what can be called today’s Social War tendency. In retreat and lacking agency, visions narrow. Revolution becomes insurrection. Communism becomes communizing. The amorphous eclecticism of the Social War tendency offers not “a fresh new perspective for Marxist politics but a repeat of Kropotkinist and Sorelian critiques of Marxism with more theoretical sophistication” according to Donald Parkinson. In other words, more bad politics. And part of that bad politics is sectarianism. Witness the incessant political bickering between Tiqqun, Gilles Dauvé, and Théorie Communiste for starters, which no doubt sounds much more elegant in French.

Doris Lessing wrote in her introduction to “The Golden Notebook”: “I think it is possible that Marxism was the first attempt, for our time, outside the formal religions, at a world-mind, a world ethic. It went wrong, could not prevent itself from dividing and sub-dividing, like all the other religions, into smaller and smaller chapels, sects and creeds. But it was an attempt.” Perhaps sectarianism on the Left is inevitable as Lessing suggests. It can be contained and controlled however, something that is necessary to promote solidarity.

As a postscript, it is claimed that opportunism is the opposite of sectarianism because opportunists readily adapt their principles to circumstances, minimize the significance of internal disputes, consider even enemies as “the lesser evil,” place tactical advantage over adherence to principles, willingly compromise, and gladly follow the mainstream. Whereas sectarians adamantly insist on their uniqueness, purity, and autonomy, opportunists willingly give up all three. Sectarianism insists on an uncompromising identity while opportunism readily dissolves itself into the greater movement. So while sectarians remain a constant pain-in-the-ass as long as they exist, opportunists happily sell out and fade away. Thus the problem of sectarianism persists while the problem of opportunism takes care of itself by simply evaporating.

A Fool and His Vote Are Soon Parted: “What’s Left?” October 2016, MRR #401

the-fool
Because of you Bernie is going to have to campaign for Hillary every day until election day and he shouldn’t have to do that. One, because he hates her. It’s just unlike you he’s adult enough to pretend he doesn’t

― Seth Meyers, “Hey,” Late Night Show

I was “Clean for Gene” in 1968 even before I could vote. I canvassed for George McGovern in 1972. In 1996, I voted for Ralph Nader on the Green Party and attended a couple of rallies, but not much else. Same with Bernie Sanders in 2016. I put up his poster and voted for him, but that was about it. Over the decades, I’ve gradually distanced myself from the electoral mania that seems de rigueur for such progressive/third party efforts. This time around I’m definitely feeling my age and getting quite vexed over those Sandernistas for reinventing the wheel of naïveté under the guise of youthful idealism.

By Sandernistas, I’m not referring to those third party stalwarts or vanguardists who jumped onto the Bernie bandwagon, only to return to their respective political folds once Bernie lost. I criticized them and their sectarianism in MRR #397 after tackling the viability of independent third party politics in general in MRR #396. Sandernistas are those young, politically unaffiliated, OWS types who were swept up in the frenzy of Bernie’s “political revolution,” but who now feel bitterly betrayed by his defeat and capitulation to Clinton and the Democratic Party. Those other progressives, social democrats, and Leninists might all be delusional about the importance and promise of their respective third parties, pre-party formations, or social movements, but they cannot be considered naïve by any means in that they fully understand that the electoral system is rigged and that American politics-as-usual are a dead end.

Not so the Sandernistas, who are credulous in three important ways, the first being their belief that genuine revolution can be won electorally through the Democratic Party. Personally, I don’t think significant social change can be had outside of taking to the streets, but I’d be happy if a dual role were possible for electoral politics and street action simultaneously, with a vibrant social movement mediating between the two. The youngsters inspired by Bernie’s call for an electoral revolution are idealistic to a fault, in that they think they can storm the bastion of capitalist power that is the Democratic Party without firing a shot.

Which brings me to the gullibility of Bernie’s followers when they proclaimed they were shocked, shocked they tell us, over the Wikileaks dump of DNC emails revealing that prominent party Democrats had it in for the Sanders campaign. “But they’re not playing fair,” they wailed, as if playing fair has anything to do with politics, or for that matter life. I fully expected the Sandernistas to demand that Debbie Wasserman Schultz be given a “time out” for her anti-Sanders partisanship. I mean, this is the party of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who won election in 1948 by stuffing ballot box 13 with votes from deceased Texans.

Finally, there’s the overwhelming personal sense of betrayal that many Sanders followers expressed when Bernie lost the primary and endorsed Clinton. Seth Meyers commented that “Look, I know you’re ‘Bernie or Bust’ but the results are in. ‘Bust’ won,” but his sarcasm fell on deaf ears. The weeping and gnashing of teeth continues, and it’s as if Hillary or Bernie or the Democratic Party personally slapped them in the face or ran over their dog. I mean, get over yourselves and take Joe Hill’s advice “don’t mourn, organize” to heart. But that would be too much work and way too adult, so I stand by my conclusion that they are naïve beyond belief.

For those of you who felt that a political revolution in the Democratic Party was possible, that you were being treated unfairly by the Democrats, and that Bernie’s primary defeat and subsequent endorsement of Clinton were bitter betrayals, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you. It’s a beautiful suspension bridge painted orange, and it even produces its own income. But I really don’t have the time to further disabuse the Sandernistas of all their other misconceptions, which are legion. The idea that all you have to do is occupy a park or a square OWS-style and voilà, instant movement, is ludicrous. Or the Manichaean good-vs-evil notion that the struggle is between political purity and choosing between the lesser of two evils, which is also bullshit. Even contrasting idealism with pragmatism is a false dichotomy in that it ignores the need to think strategically and dialectically. My pet peeve has been the canard that if I vote for Hillary, or for that matter Trump, I’ve completely sold out and legitimized the entire capitalist-statist-racist-patriarchal-fascist-imperialist system under which we live. Part of the simplistic belief that voting is the be-all-and-end-all to all politics, it’s also part of the idiocy that one vote, my vote, changes everything. To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, sometimes a vote is just a vote.

I’ve pointed out before that I live and vote in California, a state that Clinton is sure to win come November. So whether I vote for Hillary or Trump or write in Bernie Sanders is irrelevant. I could write in Mickey Mouse or self-righteously abstain from voting entirely and it will make no difference. Of course, there’s so much more to electoral politics, third parties, movement building, or fomenting revolution. I’m just sick and tired of political naïveté masquerading as youthful idealism or worse, serious revolutionary activity.

Now, get the fuck off my lawn!

***

There is another approach to Bernie’s “political revolution,” aside from the cynical opportunism of third party/vanguardist hacks and the naïve enthusiasm of the youthful Sandernistas. My peeps, the ultraleft, push the political form of the revolutionary organization that does not strive to be either a mass-based, quasi-democratic, parliamentary bourgeois party or a professional, democratic-centralist Marxist-Leninist vanguard party. Ostensibly a cadre party as “hard as steel, clear as glass,” the ultraleft revolutionary organization leads by example, intervening at pivotal historical moments or in crucial social movements to clarify social and political contradictions in order to push the working class into actualizing itself as a class, and eventually into social revolution. Luxemburg, Bordiga and the original Council Communists saw Lenin and the Bolsheviks as fulfilling that role during the Russian 1917 revolution up through at least the October Revolution, although some subsequent ultraleftists have not been as kind to either Communist icon. In my humble analysis, that’s not what Lenin or the Bolshevik party actually did, and no ultraleft cadre party organization has managed to win a successful social revolution using this strategy. Certainly no one intervened in the Sanders campaign to show the Sandernistas the error of their ways. Hence my cantankerousness.

***

For those of you keeping score, it’s 2 to 1. I was correct that Donald Trump would win the Republican nomination and that the “Dump Trump/Never Trump” movement would not succeed. Similarly, I was right that Hillary Clinton would get the Democratic nomination and that the “Bernie or Bust” movement would be all bark but not much bite. And that they were, loudly, inside and outside the DNC in Philadelphia. Their activities did help Bernie to negotiate a slightly more leftist party platform while not actually playing much havoc with the convention proper. There was far more raucous protest and disruption at the Democratic convention however than at the Republican one, which brings me to my prediction that Cleveland 2016 would make Chicago 1968 look like a pink tea. I was wrong. Aside from acrimonious behind-the-scenes politicking in the RNC’s rules committee and Ted Cruz’s reviled non-endorsement speech on stage, the convention itself was remarkably disciplined and on-point. The streets of Cleveland were low-key and often empty, with nary a riot in sight. Some of that had to do with so many of us predicting, with a certain amount of glee and bloodlust, just the opposite and thus scaring the bejeesus out of the public. But I think there’s a deeper reason here. The young and the restless realized where the center of action was and gravitated toward where history was being made. Nothing could be done inside or outside the RNC to change things. Not so the DNC where there was at least the perception that protest might change the course of history. That’s why there was more shit happening in Philadelphia where even the Green Party’s Jill Stein hoped to woo disaffected Sandernistas.

***

I finished my second novel. It’s all edited, rewritten, and copy edited. Now, it’s in the hands my book designer, and ultimately, IngramSpark.

It’s called 1% Free, and it’s near-future speculative fiction/science fiction political thriller with a dash of noir. Aside from the genre tropes, it’s also dystopian and utopian fiction, but I’ll let you figure out which is which. It’s 2042, and America’s second civil war rages. Besides the collapse of the United States into racialized warfare, there are revolutionary social movements that combine red, black, and green politics; wild-assed youth countercultures; and meditations on science, cartography, technology, and extinction. There’s also a lot of prognostication via fictionalization, much like my first novel End Time in which I predicted the rise of Zapatistas in southern Mexico. The accuracy and desirability of the future I predict is also up to you to decide.

I have a book launch for 1% Free at 6 pm on Thursday, November 3 at the Book Passage bookstore at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. I’m putting together some swag now.

What shape is your firing squad?: “What’s Left?” June 2016, MRR #397

Circular Firing Squad red rosettes
(Visuals are crucial in social media. As this is a blog, and because these columns will be reposted on Facebook and beyond, I will be adding graphic content on the top of each column from now on to enhance their dissemination.)

It’s June. I’ve been on Facebook six months now. You’d think someone who was an IT guy would be all over that, and I must admit the whole Zuckerberg = Satan equation had a lot to do with me not getting on Facebook sooner. After all I email, I blog, I surf the worldwide intrawebz. It was inevitable I would make a pact with the devil sooner or later.

The Facebook shit is a part of my social media strategy to publicize my second novel when I publish it, but it has been pretty interesting in its own right. I’m still figuring out the “Friends” thing, so I clicked on someone’s profile who had a mutual friend, as Facebook so kindly pointed out. His profile came up with “Friends 3,316 (1 mutual)” and I clicked through, wondering how anyone could accumulate so many digital acquaintances. Turns out, 3,000 of them were Bernie Sanders supporters, most of whom had incorporated the Bernie meme into their profile picture, often with their selfie plus words like “Feel The Bern,” “Not Me, Us,” “I Am A Democratic Socialist,” “Bernie or Bust,” or just “Bernie.” Sometimes, the profile picture was a soulful photo or graphic portrait of Bernie in unabashed adulation. I’d stumbled upon a secret cell of Sandernistas, only they were just a bunch of Facebook “friends.”

The Democratic National Convention is next month, and Hillary’s coronation is assured. Bernie doesn’t have the delegates and he’s pledged not to resist Clinton’s nomination. I can’t help wondering what anger or soul-searching is in progress among those “friends” on Facebook, and how many will remain friends come August, or November.

Before Bernie’s candidacy maxxed out short of the nomination, his presidential run deeply divided the Left. So, what else is new? The Left gets deeply divided over what to order from the deli, so Bill Scher’s 2-4-16 story in Politico Magazine (“Why Socialists Can’t Wait for Bernie to Lose”) is somewhat predictable and cliched. In that old joke about what kind of firing squad the Left would form, the punchline being a circle guns pointed inward, there’s already disagreement over whether to make the firing squad a triangle or square instead. Bernie calling himself a democratic socialist has not only raised the word and a discussion of socialism to the fore in the American public, it motivated actual democratic socialists to support and campaign for him. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has endorsed Bernie and is actively campaigning/canvassing for him. Same with Socialist Alternative (SA). In the parlance of the Left, both are pre-party formations or activist organizations, not political parties or mass organizations.

My coverage of Jacobin Magazine’s range of opinions on Bernie’s campaign covers the thoughtful, non-dogmatic Left—from Bernie’s “moving the discussion to the left, and mobilizing an absurdly high number of people” to contending that he is “this election’s Democratic sheepdog […] charged with herding activists and voters back into the Democratic fold who might otherwise drift leftward and outside of the Democratic party.” (MRR#389) Then we have the leftover Left, the serious third party electoralists and dogmatists, the sectarians and vanguardists, the wreckers and splitters. That last phrase was what Communist Party members used to call Socialist Workers Party Trotskyists, before the CP turned social democratic and Trotskyism splintered into oblivion. The CP has even given Bernie its reticent support by not running its own slate of candidates in 2016. So, what about the leftover Left?

Let’s recap Scher’s dissection of Jill Stein and the Green Party of the United States, but not without pointing out that this fully electoral, national Green Party (henceforth GP) is not associated with the non-electoral Greens/Green Party USA or the meta-electoral Association of State Green Parties (which encourages the formation of independent Green parties on the state level). Right away, you can see why I put the green party phenomenon into the leftover Left category as none of these different entities get along or have a chance of winning crap. Because anyone can become a member of the GP, and because those members then determine who runs under the party imprimatur, the GP has occasionally become the pawn of lefty vanguard parties like the Workers World Party or the Party for Socialism and Liberation who run their leadership as GP candidates. My old Peace and Freedom Party is chronically exploited for its reputation and ballot access by such Leninist relics.

“Do you root for Bernie as an almost unique chance to get millions of people to think seriously about socialist ideals, or against him for planting a false flag of revolution? And if you expect him to lose in the end—which, to be fair, most socialists do—should you ride the train as far as it goes, or get off it now and throw your energy into the real revolution?” Such are the dilemmas dividing the Left as Scher sees it, who then argues “[i]n many ways the split is most acute around the Green Party.”

The dilemma of whether to “build the party” or to “build the movement,” identified by Scher with respect to Stein’s Green Party candidacy, has been around at least as long as Lenin’s “What is to be Done?” Lenin himself came down heavily for building the socialist party, and that building the socialist party was building the socialist movement for Lenin. After the party, the priority is for a party newspaper to announce, propagandize and recruit for the party, but I’m not doing Lenin 101 here. As a footnote, Lenin’s electoral strategy was entirely utilitarian, subservient to the needs of the party to seize state power by any means necessary.

But what was footnote has become scripture for many socialists, who then split hairs and fracture organizations. As a consequence “there are plenty of parties: the Socialist Party USA, Peace and Freedom, Socialism and Liberation, Socialist Equality, Socialist Workers and Workers World” to name but a few. All agree the party is paramount, but what is the party’s strategy? Is it solely parliamentary, devoted to educating the masses and hopefully winning elections, like the Socialist Party? Or is it proudly revolutionary, eschewing any electoral involvement for politics in the streets and hell bent on seizing power, like the Revolutionary Communist Party? Is it conveniently electoral, seeking to move the Democratic Party to the left in the process and quietly deferring to the Democrats over the Republicans as the lesser evil, like many third party supporters of Bernie Sanders? Or is it opportunistic, switching between strategies as the times dictate, and occasionally running their leadership as candidates in surrogate parties, like the Party of Socialism and Liberation?

Stein’s GP is independently electoral and one of a half dozen third parties in the electoral popular front called LeftElect, which includes “Socialist Party USA presidential nominee Mimi Soltysik. (Other socialist candidates already announced are Gloria La Riva of the Party of Socialism and Liberation and Monica Moorehead of the Workers World Party. The Peace and Freedom Party, another LeftElect participant, is deciding whether to endorse Stein, La Riva, Moorehead or a fourth candidate now running as an independent.)” Scher gets it that the fight for ballot access in our electoral system is all consuming, and that whether to run one’s own candidates or support a progressive Democratic candidate like Sanders is a life-and-death decision for most electoral third parties. Ralph Nader’s high profile run for president in 1996 and 2000 on the GP ticket no doubt helped that party with recognition and recruitment, until it didn’t and the Bush/Gore Florida hanging chads controversy overshadowed everything else. Stein herself expects Bernie to lose, giving her GP an opportunity to enlist “soon-to-be disgruntled Sanders voters.” As Sher quotes Stein in conclusion: “‘let this be a learning experience, the teachable moment’ for Sanders backers, so they will discover that ‘political revolutions that start in the Democratic Party, unfortunately, they die in the Democratic Party’.”

Which brings me full circle to the hordes of disappointed Bernie supporters come July. I registered Peace and Freedom Party in 1971 when the voting age was lowered to 18. Somehow, I never got the memo from Anarchist Central not to vote because it only encourages and I’ve been voting ever since. On the heels of the electoral tumult in 1968, when Robert Kennedy was assassinated and Eugene McCarthy’s loss, I colluded with fellow anarchists and a cadre of New American Movement lefties to run for city council and board of education in Ventura on an anarcho/democratic socialist ticket. We lost resoundingly, but we did get a county-wide bus system out of the deal by moving all the other candidates to the left. Then Nixon defeated McGovern in the landslide 1972 elections. I’d campaigned for McGovern, handed out literature, even did some precinct walking. I was distressed over McGovern’s loss and angry that Nixon’s win portended impending fascism, but I also became acutely aware of the limitations to the electoral process through these experiences.

I never took American elections seriously again, or more precisely, I finally put them into perspective. Voting and elections do change things, but only incrementally, and are worth only an incidental amount of my attention. The notion that any voting or electoral participation at all legitimizes the entire bourgeois corporate-state edifice is as much sophistry and mythology as is the official American ideology that voting and elections make a real difference. I continued to register Peace and Freedom Party until changes to the California electoral process forced me to choose between being a member of that party and participating in the Democratic Party primaries. Now, I get a ballot by mail every two years, fill it out in under ten minutes and put in the post, then be done with electoral politics for another two years.

It’s not difficult to predict that chaos will reign both inside and outside the RNC in Cleveland come July. Much harder is to predict what will happen in and around the DNC in Philadelphia. Bernie’s supporters certainly will push their quasi-socialist agenda and protest when they’re shot down, but will they start floor fights and fist fights, walk out of the convention, defect to one or another third party, or riot in the streets? Or will they bite their lips, hold their noses, and in the end vote for Hillary?

My crystal ball is clouding up.

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.