How Sweet It Isn’t: “What’s Left?” November 2017, MRR #414

It’s called “sweetening.”

It’s a certain type of background music and ambient sound for films and TV shows meant to enhance mood and emotion. It’s also called juicing, but it’s intended to be subtle, behind the scenes, muted. Sweetening is not supposed to be too obvious. For instance, when a live audience is recorded anywhere, a laugh track/canned heat track is frequently blended into the live audience track to amplify its effect, whether of laughter, clapping, booing, whatever.

The term has its origin in old-time radio, when sound effects like horses galloping, doors opening and closing, characters walking, gunshots, etc. were used to paint visual detail in a non-visual medium. Again, it’s not all dramatic sound effects. In films and TV shows, it’s not the sound of violent explosions or roaring monsters. The sweetening is in the sense of foreboding portended in the background music, or in the subsonic infrasound used to generate apprehension in the audience prior to some climactic scene. So while “sweetening” comes off good and positive, it might as well be called “shadowing” or “darkening,” depending on what effect the sound is intended to enhance.

As for political sweetening, two recent examples come to mind. The Tea Party ended up sweetening the Republican Party from the right, as did Bernie Sander’s “political revolution” the Democratic Party from the left. Both movements started as popular revolts against their respective party establishments and their mainstream politics, both helped rewrite their respective party platforms, and both moved the politics of those parties respectively to the right and left. Both threatened to break away to form independent third party efforts, both were blamed for the potential demise of their respective political parties, but both ultimately succumbed to political opportunism, cooptation, and marginalization. Or at least the Tea Party succumbed and wound up faking a hard-times protest movement, spawning affiliated get-rich-quick cottage industries, and successfully rebranding the GOP. Bernie’s “political revolution” has blended nicely into the much broader anti-Trump protest movement, so it remains vibrant and very much in the streets. Ideally, this popular resistance needs to avoid opportunism, cooptation, and marginalization, but that’s very difficult to do if the Tea Party is any indication.

What doesn’t count as political sweetening was Occupy Wall Street. OWS doesn’t count for much at all now, despite initially being praised by authors, artists, celebrities, politicians, and pundits as the greatest thing since sliced bread. I’ve never hidden my disdain for OWS. It may have personally changed lives like the bad brown acid circulating at a mediocre rock concert, but it was just a flash in the pan that changed little politically. So unless the inane consensus hand signals and annoying human microphone are included, no innovation of any consequence arose from OWS. That also covers the communizing “occupy everything, demand nothing” campus activism that emerged among protesting California students in 2011.

OWS ran with the franchise activism common nowadays, where an indistinct idea was widely disseminated and then taken up by local activists who made it their own through locally flavored community actions. The movement’s core idea, embodied in its name, was so nebulous in fact that it produced both the anarcho/ultraleft, black bloc, streetfighting Occupy Oakland, California, and the virulently antisemitic, conspiracy-theorist, ultraright Occupy Tallinn, Estonia, with every political combination in between. So while the majority of OWS-affiliated actions tended leftwing, liberal, and even anarchist, there was considerable involvement by rightwing, conservative, and even fascist elements. In this way, OWS displayed troubling Left/Right crossover politics similar to the anti-globalization movement which preceded it. This was not by chance but by design, given the decentralized, all-are-welcome nature of the movement’s organizing message. This was complemented by the ambiguous categories employed by OWS, most prominent being “the 99%” versus “the 1%.” This promoted an uncritical populism that studiously avoided any class-based analysis, but it denied any identity-based analysis as well, instead encouraging an amorphous, dumbed-down, Hardt/Negri-style notion of “the multitude.”

When finance capital comes to the fore, capitalism itself is in decline. Capitalism has abandoned industrial production for financial circulation, meaning that its profit-making comes not from surplus value transformed into capital but from mere exchange. For OWS then to focus its vague critique of capitalism on Wall Street and finance capital was to target a decaying economic system as if it were still robust, misinterpreting capitalism’s retreat as a faux advance. To see the enemy as attacking rather than as withdrawing was a delusion that badly skewed the tactics and strategy required to take on and defeat that enemy. If nothing else, this falsely portrayed finance capital as stronger and more powerful than it actually is, reinforcing the rightwing trope that “international bankers” rule the world. Excuse me, “banksters.” From this, it’s a half-step to the “international Jewish conspiracy for world domination” that is the ultra-right’s favorite meme.

Spencer Sunshine has written a detailed survey called “20 On The Right In Occupy” through the Political Research Associates think tank which provides thumbnail summaries of anti-Federal Reserve, antisemitic, white nationalist, fascist, and neo-Nazi individuals and groups involved in OWS. These strange right and left bedfellows in OWS are not so odd once we realize that antisemitism is also on the rise on the Left. Case in point, the post-Situ Adbusters Magazine from which the original OWS call came. From Kalle Lasn’s Adbuster article discussing fifty influential neoconservatives under the title “Why Won’t Anyone Say They Are Jewish?” to Adbuster tweets that took up the alt.right’s outing of twitter users as Jewish by surrounding their names with parentheses, Left/Right crossover politics abound. Not that Adbuster’s leftist politics aren’t sketchy in so many other ways, what with their support of Israeli antisemite Gilad Atzmon and Italian conspiracy theorist Beppe Grillo. They do act as a political transition to the hard Left’s anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist ideologies, which too easily and too often become outright Left antisemitism.

Back to my point earlier, there are people who are not at all happy that Bernie’s “political revolution” has blended nicely into the much broader anti-Trump protest movement. These folks are the mainstream Democratic Party establishment liberals who blame Sanders and his “BernieBros” for Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Salon executive editor Andrew O’Hehir had a wonderfully sarcastic takedown of their status quo recalcitrance awhile back:

But another running theme in Democratic Party apologetics informs all that, which is the ingrained desire to blame the left-wing resistance for anything that goes wrong — and to insist that it isn’t actually the left at all but sort of, kind of, the right. Hence Wolcott’s argument that the DudeBros and ‘purity progressives’ of the ‘alt-left’ are in some undisclosed manner closely related to the rebranded white supremacists of the alt-right. Or maybe it’s just that he doesn’t like either of them.

To return to our central premise: The DudeBros ruined everything. Their workings are malicious, and marvelous. They are simultaneously clueless, puritanical and all-powerful. In between Ultimate Frisbee tournaments and Vampire Weekend marathons, they elected Donald Trump, wiped out the Democratic Party between the coasts, rioted against Milo Yiannopoulos in Berkeley and/or defected to the alt-right en masse. They develop apps whose functions remain mysterious, and that most of us don’t know how to use. Unforgivably, they made the Phish reunion possible, and now it will never stop.

Hence, conflating “terrorist” James Hodgkinson with “crazy” Jeremy Christian, or antifa “alt-left” with fascist alt-right.

The Democratic Party establishment wants the anti-Trump resistance to be a leftwing Tea Party, the energy, individuals, and organizations of which the party can exploit to win future elections, while ultimately domesticating, coopting, and marginalizing that resistance. They want the Left’s resistance to be the Democratic Party’s sweetening. This is exactly what we don’t want to happen if we want the anti-Trump resistance not to suffer the same fate as the Tea Party.

Of course, it’s much more complicated than “Bernie or Bust” versus the Democratic Party. Politics to the left of the Democratic Party also includes progressives, democratic socialists and social democrats, Leninists, and the black bloc anarcho/ultraleft. But it’s never been an equal playing field with the Democratic Party vis-à-vis the rest of the American Left. The Democrats are the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Even decimated, at their lowest point in fifty years, the Democrats continue to wield vast power and influence. Which is why we need to prevent the vilification of the black bloc or the BernieBros or Jill Stein’s Greens or anyone else as a convenient scapegoat for the Democratic Party’s mistakes and woes. I’m not so naïve as to think what we need is a united or popular front; some mystical kumbaya circle jerk of leftist unity. But we don’t need the Democratic Party and its liberals running the show either.

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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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