De-Identity Theft: “What’s Left?” January 2017, MRR #404

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When hungry, eat. When thirsty, drink. When tired, sleep.

― Attributed variously to Baizhang (720-814), Tanxia Tianran (736-824), Huihai (788), Linji (867), or Bankei (1622-1693)

I am against imperialism, be it French, British, US or Chinese. I am not an ‘anti-imperialist’, since that is a political position supporting national liberation movements opposed to imperialist powers.

I am (and so is the proletariat) against fascism, be it in the form of Hitler or Le Pen. I am not an ‘anti-fascist’, since this is a political position regarding the fascist state or threat as a first and foremost enemy to be destroyed at all costs, i.e. siding with bourgeois democrats as a lesser evil, and postponing revolution until fascism is disposed of.

—Gilles Dauvé

I’m going to start a new philosophical movement while I wait to learn whether this country elected the corporatist-globalist-multiculturalist or the nativist-isolationist-populist to be president. It’s like waiting to hear whether the terminal diagnosis is heart failure or cancer. Or the COD is death by firing squad or death by lethal injection. Either way, it’s not good. As for my philosophical movement, I think I’ll call it de-identity.

The germ for my de-identity philosophy started when I took a writing workshop from Cary Tennis who used the Amherst Writers & Artists method developed by Pat Schneider. The AWA appropriated writer William Stafford’s aphorism—“A writer is someone who writes”—and built it into a writing methodology that emphasizes spontaneous writing techniques employed in a group process unencumbered by criticism or deadlines. The whole experience was a little too hippie-dippy-new-agey for my tastes and not at all conducive to honing the craft of writing. So I was glad when Cary developed the idea of the Finishing School, which helped me finish rewriting my second novel.

The phrase “a writer is someone who writes” remains troublesome for me however, not the least because it’s a tautology that means little and tells us less. A dancer is someone who dances. A policeman is someone who polices. A bricklayer is someone who lays bricks. These statements are not just self-evident, they are redundant. Am I a writer if all I do is write a grocery list every morning? If I write the orders for the execution of prisoners on death row? If I write nonsensical word salad screeds because I’m schizophrenic? And how long do I remain a writer once I stop writing? Five minutes? Twenty-four hours? Or once I earn the appellation, is it good for life? This all sounds rather hazy even as the phrase seems vaguely self-congratulatory.

Yes I can be harsh on the AWA’s inspiration and methodology even as I acknowledge that it works for some people to encourage them to write. I have similar reservations for the process and declarations of AA, including their signature “I’m so-and-so and I’m an alcoholic” statement, even while I grant that AA does work for some people to keep them sober. If nothing else, the placebo effect is quite real even though any “cure” remains elusive. My concern is with the identitarian claims that such statements foster and whether they hinder or help the efforts of those who make them. I think that the attempt to fix one’s identity—“I am a writer” or “I am an alcoholic”—in order to fix one’s problems—“I can’t write” or “I drink too much”—ultimately does more harm than good. Rather than face their declining writing abilities, Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide. Certainly, creative individuals like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams were tired and depressed from constantly dealing with their self-admitted addictions and may have committed suicide as a consequence. Issues of declining health and mental problems combined with issues of addiction and creative obsession complicated matters for all four of these individuals, but this but doesn’t negate the point I’m hoping to make.

In line with Gilles Dauvé’s above distinction between opposing imperialism and being an anti-imperialist, or opposing fascism and being an anti-fascist, I rarely call myself an anarchist, a left communist, or even an anti-authoritarian these days. I support most, if not all the positions associated with these political identities at the same time that I reject the inclusive wingnuttery of anarchism, the vulgar dogmatism of left communism, and the kneejerk sectarianism of both. A similar attitude informs my comments in a previous column that sometimes a vote is just a vote. I’ve voted in the Peace and Freedom Party primaries much of my adult life, which doesn’t make me a leftover 60s Leftist. I voted for Barack Obama for president both times around, which doesn’t make me a Democrat. And I voted for Bernie Sanders, which doesn’t make me a democratic-socialist.

Defining a political identity based on voting, or even electoral politics, is ludicrous because that’s not all I do. To expand on a bumper sticker type of mentality, I vote but I also sign petitions, write letters, demonstrate, protest, commit civil disobedience, and riot. Pointing out the broad range of my political involvements is one way of de-indentifying with any one particular political activity, but it doesn’t actually decontextualize me and my politics. Quite the opposite. If I sum up all my individual political tactics into a personal political whole, I arrive at an overall political strategy, that being of an independent-minded, left-of-liberal kind of person. What I’m after instead is what I alluded to above in discussing writing. I’m trying to be overly literal with the phrase “a writer is someone who writes.”

I am a writer only when I write. I am a reader only when I read. I am a critic only when I criticize. I am a voter only when I vote. You get the idea.

It’s one of the flip sides of the Zen saying at the top of this column. And it has some interesting implications. A tongue-in-cheek Zen aphorisms I like is “don’t just do something, sit there” which flips a common saying. When I sit zazen, my intent is to be mindful, to be here now, to be in the moment. So if I’m doing nothing, I’m being nothing. At the moment I sit, my intention is to have no ego. My intention is to have no identity.

And I bet you thought I was going to rail against identity politics.

MY PREDICTIONS

I’m one for four on my electoral predictions, the same odds according to Nate Silver that the Cubs had of winning the World Series or that Trump had of winning the election. Or, more precisely, one for three, with one that doesn’t count. I predicted that Trump and Clinton would win their respective primaries, but I was wrong about everything else. There were no riots at the RNC, indeed there was much more action outside on the streets and inside on the convention floor at the DNC. I certainly was wrong when I thought Clinton would squeak by Trump to win the presidency. And it really doesn’t matter how Gary Johnson did as he was incidental to November 8th’s outcome.

The big news is that Clinton might have won the popular vote, which is still to be determined, but lost to Trump in the electoral vote. I’ll wait until next column to do a more thorough analysis, but for now, a couple of points. Michael Moore early on predicted that the anger and alienation felt by America’s white working class, especially in the midwestern Rust Belt, was so intense that Trump was likely to win if the Democrats didn’t take them into account and do something dramatic. And Nate Silver, whose prediction metrics based on crunching poll numbers, had Clinton leading Trump at around three points just before the elections, with the caveat that three points is well within the margin of error. So while Silver said: “In an extremely narrow sense, I’m not that surprised by the outcome,” he also said: “But in a broader sense? It’s the most shocking political development of my lifetime.” I echo his sentiments.

Now I need to practice some of that detachment I try to cultivate sitting zazen.

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Third Party and Skinhead Spoilers: “What’s Left?” May 2016, MRR #396

[My original intro for this column is below. Clearly, shit has happened. No more contested GOP convention. It’s between Clinton and Trump. Marx help us!]

[Covering the primary elections is like trying to nail jell-o to the wall, an almost impossible task. Last column I predicted that evangelical voters will go for Rubio, Cruz or Bush and largely pass over Trump. I was wrong. Evangelicals are flocking to Trump, against their church leadership and their professed Biblical morality. More surprises to come, I’m sure.]

I’m the first to admit that living in the Bay Area, between freewheeling San Francisco and the Peoples Republic of Berkeley and post-Occupy Oakland, my politics don’t really stand out. And living in California, with its Democratic Party hegemony and progressive social bent, means that my politics are also often an indulgence, me being able to honor a picket line when the union movement is essentially dead, or vote for Bernie Sanders while not affecting Hillary’s inexorable win one iota.

So, on viewing the 2016 elections from my Left Coast perspective I tend to oversimplify matters, and maybe dumb down certain aspects of American politics. Like in emphasizing the chaos in the Republican camp versus the dull inevitability on the Democratic side, I gloss over the relentless shift of those politics to the right in the last 45 odd years, something I’ve emphasized in previous columns. Even with the ongoing melee in the GOP, Republicans are on track to elect a significant majority of conservative state governments. That’s because, although there are more registered Democrats than Republicans nationwide, Republicans vote more consistently. So while both parties turn out in force for national elections, Republicans also vote heavily in mid-term elections while Democrats don’t. Thus Republicans choose more of the state governors and legislatures which then control the process of redistricting in each state, which then further skews state-level elections toward the Republicans. If the GOP retains its hold of either the House or the Senate, and perhaps both, about the only thing the Democrats will control outright is the presidency. Hillary’s seemingly unstoppable bid to be the next president is not merely a triumph of the lesser of two evils, but a potential right-of-center Democratic Party victory that fulfills Bill Clinton’s New Democrat turn towards neoliberalism. Obama was never the “great black hope” of American progressives so much as a middle-of-the-road Democrat treading water while the rightwing tide steadily rises. Hell, Bernie Sanders ain’t even all that progressive when it comes to gun control or Black Lives Matter or Israel or military interventionism.

Gloating over the collapse of the Republicans then does not mean celebrating a Democratic victory. And there’s no joy to be found in third party politics, whether in alternative ones like the Greens or Libertarians, mildly leftist ones like the Peace and Freedom or the Socialist Party, or even vanguardist ones like the Workers World Party or Party for Socialism and Liberation. America’s 50%+1 winner-take-all electoral system virtually ensures that only two political parties dominate the political process by favoring the middle-of-the-road, thus marginalizing all other electoral contenders. Third parties do persist, but they have little to no chance of directly influencing politics let alone gaining power. Or, they do so well that they actually replace one of the two main parties, as when the Republican Party replaced the Whig Party to face off against the Democratic Party. But breaking the two-party monopoly with a more European, parliamentary system isn’t in the cards.

What third parties are good for is fucking with the two parties currently alternating in power. Third parties hope to move the main party with which they identify further to the political extreme—left or right—as when George Wallace ran as an American Independent Party candidate in 1968 hoping to capture the white working-class Democratic vote that Trump now garners so effortlessly. But Wallace didn’t make much of a difference in Nixon’s landslide victory of that year. Instead, third parties are often the spoilers in a heated two-party contest, as when Ross Perot’s Reform Party cost Bush Senior a second term in 1992 against Bill Clinton, or Ralph Nader’s campaign as the Green Party presidential candidate in 2000 cost Al Gore the White House against Bush Junior.

Sometimes, just the threat of an independent third party run can cause political turmoil as when Donald Trump—whose ongoing campaigns virtually guarantees that the Republican National Convention will be a contested one—threatened to mount a third a party breakaway effort upon rumors the GOP establishment intended to broker the convention to favor a predetermined outcome. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is currently exploring a third party presidential run if Trump wins the Republican primary and Sanders wins the Democratic endorsement. Being a moderate Democrat-become-Republican-become-Independent, Bloomberg is a socially liberal (pro-abortion, gay marriage and gun control), fiscally conservative (small government, lower taxes) politician, meaning he doesn’t have a chance to be nominated by either party in the best of circumstances.

There is something to be said for the more, the merrier. Certainly, the chaos of a split or contested GOP convention, with the potential for third party splintering, all but hands Hillary the presidency. But she can still lose. If Trump manages to secure the nomination on the first vote, there is a chance he can defeat Clinton. Paradoxically, Hillary’s juggernaut is built around a weak candidacy, one which lots of people dislike even as they grudgingly support her. And if Trump manages the impossible and unites the shattered GOP behind a convention nomination, it’s time to start practicing the Roman salute.

I commented at the beginning of this column that my voting for Bernie in California won’t impact Hillary’s campaign in the least. California holds its primaries in June, meaning that by the time I actually vote, the Democratic Party nomination will be pretty much sown up. That’s on top of having to register as a Democrat to vote for Bernie in the first place. Used to be any registered California voter could vote in any qualified political party’s primary without restriction, whether or not said voter was a member of said party. Then, the state’s two party Democratic/Republican duopoly passed legislation to restrict party primary voting to registered party members only, with the consequence that third party supporters had to decide between belonging to their party of choice or participating in the Democratic/Republican party primaries. Third party memberships plummeted state-wide as a result of these semi-closed primaries and many third parties, like the Peace and Freedom Party to which I belonged almost from its inception, now constantly struggle just to qualify for the ballot. In turn, parasitic vanguard parties like the aforementioned Party for Socialism and Liberation or their sectarian front groups like the ANSWER Coalition, unable themselves to qualify for the general elections, take over vulnerable third parties like the Peace and Freedom in order to field their own leadership as political candidates.

So, I’m a reluctant Democrat. Even with a somewhat more progressive candidate like Bernie to vote for, I’m disinclined to give much more to the electoral process than my vote. Which is why I’m more than a bit irritated by all the bandwagon Sandernistas out there braying 24/7 about how Hillary is Satan incarnate and we all need to support Bernie unconditionally. I did my time promoting my share of Establishment politicians, everything from campaigning for George McGovern to phone-banking for Barack Obama. I’ll give Sanders my vote come June, but all that crap about Bernie being the resurrected Eugene V. Debs and his democratic socialism being a classless utopia and his presidential candidacy being the fulfillment of the American dream is so childish as to be embarrassing. What’s more, I’ll also vote for Clinton in November solely to prevent a lunatic Republican from winning, without hope or guilt.

Returning to my oft-repeated observation that American politics has moved steadily to the right in my lifetime, let me exaggerate to make my point. There’s this documentary—“Riot on the Dance Floor”—of the Trenton, New Jersey punk club, City Gardens, and Randy Now, the mailman who ran it. I think it’s still in the Kickstarter stage of funding, but there’s a 6-7 minute YouTube clip freely available. A much younger Jon Stewart is briefly interviewed by phone because he was a bartender at the Gardens in the mid-1980s, but the really interesting footage that accompanies his voice-over is of the extremely violent pit in the Gardens’ shows. There’s a particularly striking scene of what I call the skinhead wave, a human wall of mostly shirtless baldies that gathers at the back of the hall and then rushes en masse toward the stage, trampling everyone in its path until it crashes up against the people at the stage. Those who were a part of this skinhead wave, they were only a small minority of the visible crowds, yet they dominated that show with their violent antics. I experienced the skinhead wave when I lived in San Diego during the 80s at some of the larger venues, but I think it was mostly a phenomenon of larger scenes like LA, or the East Coast.

The conservative shift in American politics over the last half century is like a slow-motion skinhead wave. Initiated by right-wing individuals who are a definite minority but who sweep all before them with their aggressive attacks, ultimately hoping to crush liberals and progressives against the stage of history, this turn to the right in the country’s politics is deliberate and orchestrated. Just voting for Bernie Sanders won’t accomplish much. And quoting Joe Hill’s last words “Don’t Mourn, Organize!” doesn’t get us much further. It’s a tired platitude, and actually, Joe’s last words were “I don’t want to be caught dead in Utah.” If Trump is elected, it’s a sentiment that many may apply to the whole US of A.

Stranger in a strange land: “What’s Left?” October 2009, MRR #317

And Moses was content to dwell with the man: and he gave Moses Zipporah his daughter. And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.

Exodus 2:21-22

I’m riding on a bus, or sitting in a library, or sipping tea in a coffee shop, or even relaxing in a chair at home, and I’m tired. I didn’t get enough sleep the night before, so pretty soon I’m nodding off. My head slumps, my mouth drops open, I start to snore. Everything goes black. It lasts only a moment, though for all I know I’m out for hours. Suddenly, with a start, I’m awake again. I don’t know where I am or what I’m doing. The sense of disorientation is profound. Sometimes, it feels as if I’ve been transported to an alien world. Sometimes, I can’t even understand what the people around me are saying.

For an instant, I’m utterly bewildered.

That sense of complete estrangement, of being a stranger in a strange land, is how I’ve been feeling lately. The Left in this country is rallying around a president who makes sweetheart deals with Wall Street and Big Pharma, asserts executive power and privilege against Congress, regularly withholds information from the public on grounds of national security, and steadily escalates US military involvement in a foreign quagmire, while the Right protests and riots in the streets. It’s enough to give this aging commie vertigo.

For the record, I don’t give a flying fuck about Obama.

I won’t spill any ink debunking the significance of Barack Obama’s electoral victory in particular, or of the increase in Democratic party clout generally. Nor will I waste my time trying to disabuse people of the belief that some kind of revolution happened last November 8. The next few years are bound to deeply disappoint a lot of young people, bleeding-heart liberals, and aging ‘60s lefties who’ve come to consider Obama as God’s gift to progressive politics. But, maybe not. I know way too many progressive types who look fondly back to the Clinton years, despite the fact that Bill Clinton gutted welfare, pushed through NAFTA’s ratification, and initiated the policy of regime change against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. For all of Obama’s criticisms of Bush, there are numerous ways in which our current president’s policies are a mere continuation of his predecessors, as Michael Hirsh has so ably pointed out in his 7-31-09 Newsweek article “Barack W. Bush.” I’ve done a number of columns in the past about how there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Democrats and the Republicans, and I could do many more columns about how Obama is the nothing more than the ever-so-slightly-to-the-left-of-center face of the American ruling class.

What’s far more interesting to me is that such a modest shift in political emphasis within the American bourgeoisie would cause such a monumental tumult, as well as the disconcerting Left-Right reversal mentioned above. The Left bitches about Obama’s betrayals, yet falls into line behind the Democrats when push comes to shove. The Right claims the mantle of populist rebellion, yet gets its marching orders from its corporate Republican enablers. When the SEIU and AFL-CIO announced that they would counter the presence of the birthers, tea bag partiers and other fringe rightists at the August congressional town hall meetings devoted to discussing health care reform, I had visions of Weimar Germany, of Communists and Nazis battling each other in the streets. Then I remembered how well that turned out for the working people of Germany, not to mention for the Left, the Jews, Gypsies, and gays, let alone for the Poles, Russians, French and much of the rest of Europe. I have no doubt who would win in any scenario where there’s actual street fighting between Left and Right in this country. Concentration camp stripes do not become me.

One small incident did help restore my sense of sanity in the topsy-turvy political landscape of the past several months. On July 20, members of Crimethinc Ex-Workers Collective (CWC) attempted to hold a Convergence in Pittsburgh. A group of Anarchist People of Color (APOC) converged as well and unceremoniously evicted the CWC folk five days later, condemning them for white supremacy in the anarchist movement, and gentrification of the surrounding impoverished neighborhood. Folks critical of APOC have used terms ranging from misguided and wrong to idiotic and racist to agent provocateurish and COINTELPRO in describing their actions.

By the way, I don’t give a flying fuck about Crimethinc or APOC either. Plug those two names into Google, and spend the next umpteen wasted hours reading the utter crap from both sides, and everything in between, about the incident. Don’t expect me to reprise the sorry facts here. The capacity for the anarchist movement to tear itself to shreds, to give sectarianism a good name, to make itself look the fool, is limitless. That’s reassuring. It’s what I’ve come to expect, given past practice.

I’m no longer a stranger in a strange land. I’m right at home.

I hear that APOC has denounced Food Not Bombs as white supremacist, and that the National Anarchists are using this anarcho-debacle to try to recruit disaffected white anarchists into their ranks. These shenanigans reaffirm that modern anarchism has become a pathetic joke. At a time when conventional politics seem to have turned upside down, it’s good to know that something like anarchism’s propensity for self-humiliation and self-destruction remains a constant upon which I can depend.

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