This is the modern world: “What’s Left?” September 2020

SFMOMA. Photo by Henrik Kam

I’m old.

I’m 68 years old. My dad died of a heart attack at 67 on December 16, 1993, not quite two months after his wife—my mom—died of lung cancer at 64. I look at this two ways. He lived just one month and two days after his 67th birthday. As of today I’ve lived a year plus two months and change longer than he did when he died almost 27 years ago. I’m now 13+ months past my own 67th birthday. So I’m feeling reassured.

I’m also considered old Left by “the kids” these days. That’s despite having developed my politics during the period of the New Left—the time of SDS, the New Communist Movement, a resurgent rank-and-file labor movement, and a revived anarchism. Which is doubly ironic because we in the New Left called the Left of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s—the Stalinist CP-USA and its loyal opposition the Trotskyist SWP—the Old Left. Frankly, I’m darned uncomfortable with and a bit distrustful of the current youthful Left based not on class but on non-class identities embraced by the “new” populist postmodernism. So I’m pissed off that I’m now considered a sad old Leftist anachronism.

Finally, I feel old in a metaphysical sense. To understand this, let’s start with a curious pair of books: Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904) and The Education of Henry Adams (1907), both written by Henry Adams. My parents had a two-volume Time Life “great books” series paperback edition of The Education of Henry Adams that I discovered in their library one rainy weekend and read in one sitting. Editions of Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres were harder to come by, but I discovered a Doubleday Anchor paperback in a used book store years later to round out my own education of Henry Adams.

Henry Adams

Henry Brooks Adams (1838-1918) was the scion of Boston brahmins, member of the famous Adams family which included the 2nd and 6th US presidents, and an American historian who produced a nine volume study of Jefferson’s and Madison’s presidential administrations. He was also a man of letters, writing two novels to boot, whose life straddled the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. He was obsessed with the erosion of faith by science, convinced that a world of order and unity was disintegrating into chaos around him. Adams distilled the history of western civilization down to the metaphor of the Virgin and the dynamo in these two books. His first book, subtitled A Study in 13th Century Unity, was a historical and philosophical meditation on the 12th century Norman construction of the Mont-Saint-Michel cathedral and the 13th century cult of the Virgin at Chartres. For Adams, Europe in the century from 1150 to 1250 was “the point in history when man held the highest idea of himself as a unit in a unified universe.”

That old order, the Ancien régime, the Europe of the Middle Ages was manorialism and feudalism, chivalry and serfdom, the Holy Roman Empire and the Crusades; of nobility, clergy and peasantry unified in Christian holy war against infidel Islam according to Adams. He admired the infusion of religious ideals throughout European economic, political and military institutions in this age when philosophy, theology and the arts were all informed by faith. In Mont-Saint-Michel he symbolized this organic unity of reason and intuition, science and religion in the statue of the Virgin Mary in Chartres cathedral. In turn he saw in the scholasticism of St. Thomas Aquinas, with its emphasis on human reason, the beginning of the destruction of this coherent, totalizing world view.

For Adams, the humanism of the Renaissance, the individual faith of the Reformation, the universal reason of the Enlightenment, the liberté, égalité, fraternité and démocratie of the French revolution, the modern era’s nation-states and national capitalist economies all furthered the disintegration of this organic unity, replacing the singularity of faith with the fragmenting logic of science. In The Education, Adams described this historical transition as “evolving the universe from a thought” to “evolving thought from the universe.” The movement from religious spiritualism to scientific materialism produced “Multiplicity, Diversity, Complexity, Anarchy, Chaos,” with no way to prevent the proliferation of conflicting, contradictory thoughts from scientific observation of the universe. Adams symbolized this atomizing scientific world view in the mechanistic force of the dynamo he saw at the 1900 Great Exposition in Paris. He subtitled his two volume philosophical and autobiographical reflection on the woeful inadequacy of his “education” for the modern world A Study of 20th Century Multiplicity.

Friedrich Nietzsche

When the Virgin was central, man was at his pinnacle of unity with the universe. Yet when the dynamo of human achievement replaced faith, man was eventually subordinated to mere mechanical forces. The primary paradox embodied in Adams’ Virgin/dynamo metaphor has been described by others in different ways. Friedrich Nietzsche decried the “collective degeneration of man” into the “perfect herd animal” of our democratic era when, under corrupt “modern ideas,” human beings behave “too humanely.” He maintained in Beyond Good and Evil that: “[e]very elevation of the type ‘man’ has hitherto been the work of an aristocratic society—and so it will always be: a society which believes in a long scale of rank and differences of worth between man and man and needs slavery in some sense or other.” In his Revolt Against the Modern World, Julius Evola praised Medieval Europe for “its objectivity, its virile spirit, its hierarchical structure, its proud antihumanistic simplicity so often permeated by the sense of the sacred” which made man heroic. When the humanism of the Renaissance supposedly “emancipated itself from the ‘darkness of the Middle Ages’ […] [c]ivilization, even as an ideal, ceased to have a unitary axis.” Degeneration and decadence inevitably followed, marked by “restlessness, dissatisfaction, resentment, the need to go further and faster, and the inability to possess one’s life in simplicity, independence, and balance” in which man was “made more and more insufficient to himself and powerless.”

So I understand it. I get the lure of traditionalism in its organic, anti-individualist, communalist aspects, even though I’m firmly rooted in modernity, a contented child of the modern world. Which is why I’m leery of postmodernism. I’m appalled by the collapse of Leftist class politics to identitarianism and populism. I hoped that the nation-state would be transcended by a stateless, classless, global human community, not disintegrate into ultraviolent tribalism. I’m an abject atheist now terrified that the world’s religions are splintering between ultra-orthodoxy and neopagan revival. And I’m horrified that, throughout all of this, capitalism will still prevail.

On the one hand, I think that “things fall apart; the center cannot hold” once the orthodoxy of a tradition is rejected. I see this in the history of the Catholic faith I rejected, and in the Marxist faith I’ve acquired that Doris Lessing has argued “could not prevent itself from dividing and subdividing, like all the other religions, into smaller and smaller chapels, sects and creeds.” On the other hand, I think that capitalism has a totalizing, globalizing impulse that is built on cycles, each of which engenders a Leftist reaction that attempts to supersede capitalism. The Left that arose out of industrial capitalism nearly succeeded in smashing that system. I don’t see the same potential arising out of the postmodern Left.

Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson

There is little scholarly disagreement that Friedrich Nietzsche is at the heart of postmodernism in centering an “incredulity toward metanarratives.” I consider the revival of this “radical conservative” and “aristocratic individualist” philosopher—much admired by Fascists—to be generally troublesome for a postmodernism that claims to be Leftist. Postmodernism becomes highly problematic when it attempts to rehabilitate philosophers like Martin Heidegger who enthusiastically if opportunistically joined the Nazi party, only to think better of his decision later. Thus far we have an intentionally fragmentary, pluralist, vaguely leftist populism. Once we reinstate overt Nazis like Carl Schmitt and recruit parafascist Traditionalists like Julius Evola, we arrive at the European Nouvelle Droite of Alain de Benoist. He championed a Traditionalist identitarian “Europe of a thousand flags” comprised of separate tribal ethnies. This is rightwing populism pure and simple.

“I believe that the emergence of postmodernism is closely related to the emergence of this new moment of late, consumer or multinational capitalism,” writes Fredric Jameson in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. “I believe also that its formal features in many ways express the deeper logic of that particular social system. I will only be able, however, to show this for one major theme: namely the disappearance of a sense of history, the way in which our entire contemporary social system has little by little begun to lose its capacity to retain its own past, has begun to live in a perpetual present and in a perpetual change that obliterates traditions of the kind which all earlier social formations have had in one way or another to preserve.”

I’m not just old, I’m crotchety. Postmodernism obliterates not just tradition, but history. I am, and we are, nothing without history.

Fred Jameson, portrait by Mark Staff Brandl

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche
Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres and The Education of Henry Adams (2 volumes) by Henry Adams
Revolt Against the Modern World by Julius Evola
Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism by Fredric Jameson
Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique by Alex Callinicos
The Illusions of Postmodernism by Terry Eagleton
The Sokal Hoax ed. by editors of Lingua Franca
Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont
The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism ed. by Stuart Sim
The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism by Richard Wolin

 

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I’m against it!: “What’s Left?” January 2019, MRR #428

I’m against it.

Groucho Marx as Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff
“I’m Against It,” Horse Feathers

I’m against it.

The Ramones, “I’m Against It,” Road to Ruin

I’m against it.

Capitalism that is. I’m against capitalism because it prioritizes profit over human need, exploits workers, engenders economic instability through overproduction and underconsumption, promotes social inequalities, degrades human community, destroys the environment, and encourages short term thinking at the expense of longterm planning. There is a vastly better alternative to capitalism in the form of socialism.

My antagonism toward capitalism is a standard, rational form of opposition. “A” is bad while “B” is good, so here is why I oppose “A.” I’ll call this vanilla opposition.

Then there’s contrarianism. It’s the opposition of that Beatles song “Hello Goodbye” the lyrics of which proclaim: “You say ‘Yes,’ but I say ‘No’.” It’s a reflexive, unconscious form of opposition. It’s actually a very punk form of opposition. In Anarchy Comics #3, published in 1981, Paul Mavrides and Jay Kinney penned the comic “No Exit” about hardcore punk rocker and visceral anarchist Jean-Paul Sartre, Jr., who gets transported 3000 years into the future when anarchism has finally prevailed and where “There’s no more war, oppression, sexism, racism, ageism, shapeism, sizeism!” Needless to say, J-P doesn’t react well. At one point he freaks and starts to “fuck shit up.” J-P’s future hosts admonish him: “Really J-P! There’s no need for this alienated behavior!! Since all property belongs to everyone, you’re only hurting yourself!!” To which J-P responds: “Yeah? Well, if it’s all mine too, I can wreck it if I want to, right?”

Such is the essence of this form of opposition, which I’ll call reactive opposition. MRR once had a columnist who specialized in this type of opposition and routinely played Devil’s Advocate in the pages of the magazine. If Tim Yo or other MRR coordinators insisted there be no racism, sexism, or homophobia this columnist would go out of his way to defend sex with children or call gays “homos.” I hung out with him a couple of times and whenever people reacted angrily to his antics a sly smile would cross his face. Ultimately, he was fired when his column was rejected for calling women who had survived sexual assault “cry babies” suffering from “survivoritis” in letting themselves remain victims. Ironically, he whined he was a victim of MRR’s anti-free speech PC attitude. In this era of Trump and Kavanaugh, he’s on Facebook writing post-MRR columns in which he regularly defends Trump and the horrors of Trumpism. As a dutiful contrarian, of course.

Finally, there’s what I call dark opposition. Dark opposition stems from the seductive charms of the transgressive. The English Puritan John Milton wrote an epic poem intended to exalt his Christian faith by retelling the Genesis story of the fall of man. Called Paradise Lost, its main problem was that the figure of Satan, as evil incarnate, came off as way too charismatic and downright noble. So attractive was Milton’s portrait of the devil that Paradise Lost was a best seller in its day while his sequel of the story of that goody two-shoes Jesus, Paradise Regained, was a flop. Every modern rebel, whether adolescent or political, identifies with Satan when he declared “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” I’ll spend the rest of my time discussing dark opposition based on the appeal of transgression, or what in Star Wars lingo is called the “power of the dark side.”

BBC-TV did a movie, Longford, about the 1960s moors murders and the English aristocrat and prison reformer who became involved with one of Britain’s most notorious criminals, child-killer Myra Hindley. Hindley gets one of the film’s better lines when her character says “Evil can be a spiritual experience too.” The draw of transgressive evil is never to be underestimated. Numerous books have been written on the subject and several youthful subcultures have actively embraced the dark side of things, the most prominent being Goth.

But the appeal of the left-hand path goes back all the way to Vedic Vāmācāra practice and Tantrism which eventually entered Western spirituality through Madame Blavatsky, Theosophy, and Aleister Crowley. The latter couched it in terms of the occult and ceremonial magic where the right-hand path equated to benevolent white magic while the left-hand path meant malevolent black magic. Magick if you will. This distinction is common with occultists, among them parafascist Julius Evola who emphasized that those pursuing the right-hand path worked selflessly for the glorification of the divine while those on the left-hand path worked egocentrically for the glorification of the self. After the second World War, esoteric Nazism and Hitler worship emerged in various forms of völkisch spirituality in neo-völkisch movements, pioneered by such individuals as Savitri Devi, Robert Charroux, and Miguel Serrano. This is paralleled in the revival of anti-modern elements of tribalism, paganism, Traditionalism, and mysticism in everything from right wing politics (Alain de Benoist’s Nouvelle Droite) to music (industrial, black metal, neo-folk), terms often preceded with the combining form neo- (as in neo-tribal, neo-pagan, etc.) This is part of an opposition to modernism, of a revolt against the modern world.

Rarely has this amounted to a conscious embrace of the power of evil however. More often, and especially among the young, this has meant flirting with the devil, being naughty, getting an adrenaline rush, emotional thrill, or sexual charge from teasing the dark side. Sometimes it’s conveyed as a conscious provocation, the deliberate use of highly charged language and symbols to outrage those who are invariably labeled “squares.” This is the calculated method of musicians and bands like Boyd Rice and Death in June in the industrial and neo-folk genres who dress fash and talk fash but never actually claim fascism as an up front affiliation. In the end, a small percentage consider their embrace of the left-hand and the right-wing a positive good. That’s the stance of most involved in the ultranationalist Patriot movement because isn’t patriotism a good thing after all? Robert Anton LeVey defined his Satanism as a Nietzschean übermensch philosophy in opposition to the prevailing Christian herd mentality of society at large. And the virulently anti-semitic, Hitler-worshipping murderers of the neo-nazi Atomwaffen Division death squad believe that a new, expanded Holocaust—in which not just Jews and Leftists, but the immoral, degenerate and weak will be exterminated—is a positive, healthy social good.

These diehard characters are downright proud of their badass transgressive Nazi selves, unlike assclown Gavin McInnes and his ilk on the ultra-right who, when called out for throwing a Roman salute or reveling in racial slurs, disguise their dark shit with their disingenuous reactive crap. “Can’t you take a joke?” is their common refrain. Occasionally those who are in dark opposition are actively aided by those who are in reactive opposition. The Elbo Room, a long-standing San Francisco dive bar, recently closed its doors due to lease/landlord issues. In December, 2015, the Elbo Room gained notoriety by proudly hosting a show for the band Death in June and co-owner Matt Shapiro said: Death In June is not a Nazi band, nor a group that preaches hate. While they use controversial imagery and have songs with subject matter that some may find challenging, they are definitely not Nazis, nor hateful. I come from many generations of Jews. Do you think I could look my mother in the eye after booking a Nazi act? Shapiro wasn’t dissembling, he actually believes DiJ aren’t fascist, let alone Nazi or white supremacist. He called out the police against protesters he falsely claimed were wielding knives. “These folks were menacing and looking for trouble.” We have to take Shapiro’s word that DiJ are not fascist and that protesters threatened violence in this prime example of reactive opposition. Had it been the former MRR columnist mentioned above, he would have defended DiJ because they are fascists, in deference to his free speech absolutism. How punk.

Not.

Luis Buñuel once said: “Sex without sin is like an egg without salt,” implying a measured application of transgression to life. I’ll be the first to admit my vanilla opposition is neither aggro enough nor sexy enough for most rebels-in-waiting. Yet reactive opposition and dark opposition are so fraught with problems I’ve barely scratched the surface here. I’ll readily admit having started out in reactive opposition in my youth and I’m sure some would argue that my present vanilla opposition is a sorry climb down from those heady days. But I’m quite proud never to have entertained any dark oppositional tendencies beyond faking Nazi mannerisms with a tiny group of friends taking German in high school. Now that Kavanaugh has been confirmed to the Supreme Court, I can sincerely call that a “youthful indiscretion.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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