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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WWTYD? Memory & History: “What’s Left?” March 2017, MRR #406

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WWTYD?

An MRR alumnus lettered this acronym on a black button over a copy of Tim Yo’s old column header; a skinny menacing Yohannan brandishing a rolling pin and spatula beneath the name “Tim Yo Mama.” What Would Tim Yo Do? The button was an instant success on FB, with commenters waxing nostalgic about Tim, sharing stories about the old days, recalling his meticulous if quirky attention to detail, remembering what outstanding things he said and how he belly laughed. It was a fun thread about a joke button, until I googled and posted another reference to “What Would Tim Yo Do,” this one from an online pop rock radio show called “All Kindsa Girls.”
When it comes to unyielding doctrine the MRR crowd give religious fundamentalists a run for their money.  I have no doubt that on a daily basis young punks around the world were asking themselves- WWTYD (What Would Tim Yo Do).  And not just regarding music- it was politics, clothes, consumer products- you name it, Tim and his people had a strong opinion about it.  And God help you if your favorite band got signed or even got a distribution deal with a major label  because then you could expect a sh*tstorm of hate to rain down on them in the pages of Maximum Rocknroll.  The Clash were on a freaking major label for God’s sake! [#150, 6-16-16]
Needless to say I was harshing everybody’s mellow, so it was taken down soon after I posted it.

This is a grim portrayal of Tim Yo and the MRR gang which likened us to a humorless fundamentalist religious sect bent on denouncing anyone or anything we deemed not punk enough. Yes, Tim and the rest of us volunteering at the magazine were certainly extremely opinionated and more than willing to use the pages of MRR to promote those opinions as the truth, especially when it came to what we thought was or was not punk. There was a fair amount of consensus, but there was never a party line about what constituted punk rock, major label involvement, appropriate scene activity, and what not. Tim had a great sense of humor and working with my fellow shitworkers at MRR HQ was nothing if not memorable. Then why are there two so widely differing descriptions of the same experience?

These are personal memories which are subjective by definition and therefore not accurate. Amassing numerous individual memories into a collective memory doesn’t necessarily improve their accuracy. Collective German memory of the second World War differed markedly depending on whether the Germans in question were Christian or Jewish, and was demonstrably inaccurate even concerning fundamental facts of record within and between these two groups. Whether individual or collective, memory must first be documented, then combined with primary and secondary sources in prescribed ways to constitute evidence for the events of history. Historical evidence is more accurate because of this process, but such evidence is not fact, and certainly not truth. Consider the interminable debates still raging around the Nazi Holocaust as to who and how many were killed, by what means where, even whether it happened at all, to determine the veracity of recorded history and its methods.

But first, when I use the word history I mean written history, not some Marxist abstraction with agency. We can argue endlessly about whether or not history demonstrates causality, pattern, or meaning; what it isn’t is capital “H” History with a life of its own. People make their own history, to paraphrase Marx, but not under circumstances of their own choosing. This brings me to my second point. History is clearly distinct from the current post-fact/post-truth thinking that says simply believing in something makes it so. Simply believing that crime in the US is exploding or that all Muslims are out to kill us or that America actually won the Vietnam war or that climate change is a hoax doesn’t make them facts, or true. And jumping off the top of a skyscraper while thinking you can fly doesn’t negate the reality of gravity. Finally, history is not some vast conspiracy where everything and everyone is connected and some cabal runs the show from behind the scenes. According to obsessed conspiracy theorists, history is governed more by design and the will of secret elites than it is by causality, pattern, and meaning. While history records many conspiracies as determined by the evidence, history doesn’t equal conspiracy.

So, what will history make of, and blame for Hillary Clinton’s electoral defeat? Bernie Sanders and angry BernieBros, Jill Stein’s third-party swing-state votes, the Clinton email Russian/Wikileaks hack, FBI Comey’s interference, last minute GOP-instigated voter restrictions, persistent sexism and the rising alt.right’s racism, the fake news smokescreen? The reasons are myriad, yet ultimately secondary. Clinton’s overconfident, complacent, and strategically bumbling campaign combined with the Democratic Party’s arrogant, top-down, corporate campaign management guaranteed her electoral defeat. Yes, Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million even as she lost the electoral college vote. But it’s bullshit to claim “he’s not my president” or “I want my country back.” That’s how the game of electoral politics is played in the United States, for better or worse. Instead of being sore losers, we need to transition from discussing the elections to where to go from here. Or “what is to be done,” to use a tired old leftist trope, since part of what we need to do is reevaluate the Left and leftist politics.

Ah, but before we can go forward, we need to sum up where we’ve been, or so the mainstream Marxist Left would have it. Summing up? The Left is endlessly summing up everything from the Russian Revolution onward and coming to fractious, diametrically opposed positions. Such summing up often paralyzes people into ceaseless rumination, keeping them stuck in thinking rather than in having them act. It would be far better to take people where they’re at, with whatever backgrounds and beliefs they have at that moment, and start them acting together. There’s much Marxist thinking (György Lukács, Martin Glaberman, Antonio Gramsci, et al) that “action precedes consciousness.”

As I write, mobilizations are under way for “no peaceful transition” to “stand up to Trump” and “make it ungovernable” on January 20, Inauguration Day. It would be nice if such protests could shut down Washington DC as was done in Seattle, 1999, around the WTO. I’ll be sure to cover events of that day next column. Just for comparison, in May of 1971, the May Day Tribe organized three days of mass protests and civil disobedience in the capitol against the Vietnam War intended to shut down the US government. Over 35,000 protesters participated, facing off against 10,000 federal troops, 5,100 Metropolitan Police, 2,000 DC National Guard and President Nixon’s internal security forces implementing combined civil disorder emergency measures. The protesters engaged in a variety of creative tactics (such as launching tethered helium-filled balloons to ward off low-flying helicopters), but the use of mass civil disobedience was stymied when troops secured major intersections and bridges ahead of time while the police roamed through the city firing tear gas and making mass arrests. In response to the police sweeps, protesters resorted to hit-and-run tactics throughout the city, disrupting traffic and causing chaos in the streets. Politicians were harassed and federal workers, who were not given the day off, had to maneuver through police lines and protest roadblocks. In all 12,614 people were arrested, including construction workers who came out to support Nixon, making it the largest mass arrest in U.S. history. Neither Washington DC nor the US government were shut down.

A friend who participated in the 1971 May Days was tear gassed, almost run down by a motorcycle cop while walking on the sidewalk, and ultimately arrested for civil disobedience. The DC jails were filled to overflowing, so he was housed in a fenced-in emergency detention center next to the DC Stadium (now RFK Stadium) and denied food, water, and toilets while in custody. He eventually had all his charges dropped as did all but 79 of his fellow arrestees. Thousands of protesters pursued a class action suit through the ACLU. In the end, the US Congress admitted the arrests were grossly illegal and agreed to pay financial compensation to those arrested as part of a settlement that set an historic precedent by acknowledging US citizens’ constitutional right of free assembly were violated by the government. My friend received a small check for his troubles over a decade and a half later.

Unlike May, 1971, when protesters had only DC residents and workers to contend with, Inauguration Day 2017 is anticipated to have 2 to 3 million people in attendance. The government’s police and military powers have been greatly expanded since Nixon’s day, as have urban disorder contingency measures, and the forces of law and order will be under Obama’s control until Trump takes the oath of office. I have no doubt that a willingness to protest Trump can fill the streets of DC, but not if those protests are dispersed and divided. So I predict that the protests will be contained, Trump will be inaugurated without incident, and the US government will not be shut down. I don’t think it’s likely that the independent @/ultraleft actions in Mcpherson Square Park, Workers World Party protest in Union Station, and ANSWER Coalition demonstration in Freedom Plaza will get out of control, let alone merge their separate events and run amok through the city, reprise Seattle 1999 in the nation’s capitol, or declare a Columbia Commune. If protests intended to go beyond run-of-the-mill 60s mass marches and demonstrations into mass nonviolent disruption couldn’t break the government in 1971, it’s unlikely that protest-as-usual and limited, targeted civil disobedience or even some streetfighting can do so now.

We’ll talk about how to go beyond ineffective protest into effective direct action, but I’ll first evaluate the present-day American Left in the next column or two.

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.

Potentia Habet Terminos Non: “What’s Left?” November 2016, MRR #402

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I don’t recollect the TV commercial in question, but everything is available via YouTube nowadays. I do remember the controversy surrounding it. A cute, freckled, blonde-haired little girl is in a field of flowers picking the petals off a daisy, counting them out as she goes. When she picks the last petal, a countdown begins, she looks up, and the camera dives deep into her eye. A thermonuclear explosion goes off against the black background as a snippet of Barry Goldwater’s speech plays laying out his perceived choice before god between love and annihilation. Then the final verbal message, the stakes are too high, plays over a title card plea to elect Lyndon Johnson president in 1964. It was the first time I was aware of someone warning against potential Republican fascism, and that only obliquely in a vague, entirely faux “liberty or death” sort of way.

The whole world was exploding in 1968, or so it seemed. Paris, France and Prague, Czechoslovakia experienced a short-lived revolutionary spring; the guerrilla Tet Offensive raged throughout South Vietnam; the Mexican army brutally massacred students in Mexico City; Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated and riots erupted across the US; Robert Kennedy was also gunned down; a police riot at the Democratic National Convention brought Richard Nixon to power—these were but a few of the events that politicized me. I became an anarchist and went from a pious pacifism to wanting to join a rapidly radicalizing SDS, which by that time was tearing itself apart thanks to New Left sectarianism. My precipitous political development had me believing that Nixon—the law-and-order candidate—would round up all the hippies into labor camps, shoot black people on sight, and usher in a red-white-and-blue fascism. With the ratification of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18, I immediately registered to vote Peace and Freedom Party. In 1972, I voted for the People’s Party’s presidential candidate Benjamin Spock in the primaries and George McGovern in the national election.

Living in San Diego by 1980, I was a full-on lefty anarcho making a transition to commie ultraleftism. Ronald Reagan was running for president. As California’s governor, Reagan had said in reference to quelling riotous student protesters: “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.” No wonder me and my fellow lefties, and many liberals to boot, thought that Reagan would call “action” on a Hollywood version of fascism for the country when he got elected. Reagan liked to start and finish his various political campaigns in San Diego for superstitious good luck, so I was part of the protest at the Chargers/Padres sports stadium that hoped to “welcome” the newly elected President Reagan into office. My girlfriend got into a scuffle with a cop and I spent the rest of the evening bailing her out of jail. In hindsight, Hinkley did a far better job in welcoming Reagan to the presidency, but the left of the Left was fully prepared for some Weimar-style street fighting. It was bullets, not ballots, or so we thought.

These Republican campaigns helped move American politics inexorably to the right, but they did not bring about a homegrown fascism. Indeed, the Democratic campaigns of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and even Barack Obama also contributed in their own ways to the rightwing drift of US politics without actually inaugurating fascism proper. So now we’re being told by various liberals and progressives that Donald Trump represents more than your ordinary everyday run-of-the-mill rightwing, authoritarian, racist, nationalist politics; that he actually steps over the line into fascism proper, capital “F” Fascism if you will; and that we have no choice but to do everything in our power to elect Hillary Clinton, up to and including what Bill Maher recently suggested by warning: “Every cause has to take a back seat to defeating Trump. He’s like an infection, you don’t fool around with it. […] There’s no room for boutique issues in an armageddon election.”

Bullshit!

An article in The Economist entitled “Past and future Trumps” (7-16-16) argues that Republican Trump fits the strongman type, much like the dictatorial caudillos of Latin America, but with an Anglo American emphasis on nativism, isolationism, and populism. This election pits him against Democrat Clinton who is a corporatist, globalist, and multiculturalist, and it behooves us to remember that the Democrats and Republicans are two sides of the same coin. Or as Gore Vidal once quipped: “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat.” There actually might be more than a dime’s worth of difference between the Democrats and Republicans this election, to paraphrase George Wallace, but both are rightwing parties bent on taking the US further to the right, one in a free-trade globalist direction and the other in a protectionist nationalist way.

So, which is it? Are the Democrats and Republicans fundamentally the same? Or are there differences that make a difference between the two parties? Is Trump your usual rightwing Republican asshole? Or is he a fascist-in-the-making, a crypto-fascist, an ordinary fascist, or a formal Fascist? Perhaps I should make up my mind.

In keeping with the Wayback Machine theme this column started with, we of the 60s persuasion tended to call anything even remotely rightwing, authoritarian, racist, or nationalist “fascist” all the time. Our rather indiscriminate use of the epithet to broadly tar our political opponents tended to degrade the English language, not to mention any political discourse so that the term eventually became meaningless. It also obscured some real important political distinctions. Take black men for instance. Compared to white men, their unemployment rates are over twice as high, their incomes are less than one sixth, and their incarceration rates are nearly six and a half times as much. Could they justifiably claim they already live under some form of fascism, whether capital “F” or not, especially when compared to their white counterparts?

Some differentiation is thus in order, and we’ll start by defining fascism. Fascism began coalescing as a distinct rightwing politics during the first World War, gained ground in various European political movements in the interwar years before taking power in Italy and Germany, cohered like-minded regimes and political movements around a political/military alliance, finally to fight and lose the second World War. Not only do I consider fascism as encompassing both Italian Fascism and German Nazism, I think its military defeat in 1945 means that what we’re dealing with today is a neo-Fascist/neo-Nazi movement substantially changed by that defeat and by fascism’s propensity for political synchronicity, yet one still committed to a fascist minimum, a generic fascist core ideology. In the bewildering academic tangle that is Fascist Studies, I side with Roger Griffin who argues that:
[F]ascism is best defined as a revolutionary form of nationalism, one that sets out to be a political, social and ethical revolution, welding the ‘people’ into a dynamic national community under new elites infused with heroic values. The core myth that inspires this project is that only a populist, trans-class movement of purifying, cathartic national rebirth (palingenesis) can stem the tide of decadence.

So while Trump’s alt.right fanboys definitely are fascists, as are many of his good-ol-boy back slapping paleoconservative followers, Trump himself is not a fascist. And no quantity of “Make America Great” made-in-China red baseball caps can make his clownish, blowhard politics into some kind of revolutionary palingenetic nationalism. He’s a demagogic schoolyard bully along the lines of Huey Long, but a more up-to-date comparison might be to Silvio Berlusconi. That’s not to say his campaign does not give aid-and-comfort to American fascists, or reinforce some of the more reactionary aspects of US politics, and therefore should be defeated. Yet the liberal/progressive scare mongering that we are on the eve of goose stepping into a Donald Trump presidency is way overblown.

Ah, but wasn’t Juan Perón one of those Latin American caudillos who promulgated a variation of fascism and aligned himself with the Axis powers during the second World War? And didn’t Gilles Dauvé argue, writing as Jean Barrot in “Fascism/Anti-Fascism,” that “Fascism was a particular episode in the evolution of Capital towards totalitarianism, an evolution in which democracy has played and still plays a role as counter-revolutionary as that of fascism,” and thus that fascism and democracy are but two faces of the capitalist state? Couldn’t US democracy turn on a dime and become fascism?

Yes, and no. Dauvé’s overly simplistic and somewhat dogmatic analysis posits a unitary capitalist state run by a unified capitalist ruling class where fascism is one of that state’s and class’s unified responses to a capitalism in crisis when democracy no longer works. (Another implication of Dauvé’s opposition to antifascism—that we don’t need to combat fascism—is belied by a like-minded ultraleft that never held back from fighting fascists.) This vulgar, mechanistic, ultraleft interpretation of Marx’s famous quote that “[t]he executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” does Marxism no favors.

We can agree that fascism is a special case of generic rightwing politics, and that American politics are of a piece left and right, without clearly grasping the relationship of one to the other. I suggest a little less Hegelian dialectics and a little more Heisenbergian simultaneity, in particular the latter’s uncertainty principle in which light is defined as simultaneously a wave and a particle. The idea that two contradictory things can also constitute a kind of unity doesn’t sit well with the more linearly-minded among us. Light is both particle and wave. A singular American party politics is both rightwing and leftwing, Republican and Democratic. Fascism is both a part of generic rightwing politics and sui generis. This duality also applies to behavior, in that we can simultaneously hold that US electoral politics are irredeemably corrupt while voting for the lesser of two evils, or realize that the capitalist ruling class has democratic and fascist faces in power while fighting that fascism in the streets. Two things can be fundamentally the same and yet crucially different.

Personally, I square this circle by not investing too much in the analysis or the actions in any particular case. Yes, US winner-take-all, ideologically narrow party politics are shit, but I don’t endorse third party nonsense or pie-in-the-sky calls for world revolution. Nor do I make a big deal of voting for the lesser of two evils, whether that’s Clinton over Trump or Sanders over Clinton. And make no mistake, Bernie is still the lesser of two evils. Yes, the bourgeoisie has democratic and fascist options when dealing with a capitalism in crisis, but I don’t deny that black people face a more fascistic existence in this country than do white people. Nor do I denigrate those who would fight fascists in the streets even though I don’t agree that the fight against fascism must be the be-all-and-end-all to our politics.

This is part of the centuries-old debate on the Left pitting reform against revolution. I never subscribed to the notion, popular in the 60s, that “the revolution” will happen sooner if we eschew liberal reforms or if reactionary politicians are elected. Nor do I buy into the myth that winning a string of incremental reforms brings us any closer to social revolution, let alone socialism, even while I acknowledge that incremental reforms do make a difference in the lives of ordinary people. The point is to be engaged in social change—whether incremental or revolutionary—without attachment, in the spirit of “When you are hungry, eat; when you are tired, sleep.” More on that next column.

FOOTNOTE:

[Fascism is] a genuinely revolutionary, trans-class form of anti-liberal, and in the last analysis, anti-conservative nationalism. As such it is an ideology deeply bound up with modernization and modernity, one which has assumed a considerable variety of external forms to adapt itself to the particular historical and national context in which it appears, and has drawn a wide range of cultural and intellectual currents, both left and right, anti-modern and pro-modern, to articulate itself as a body of ideas, slogans, and doctrine. In the inter-war period it manifested itself primarily in the form of an elite-led “armed party” which attempted, mostly unsuccessfully, to generate a populist mass movement through a liturgical style of politics and a programme of radical policies which promised to overcome a threat posed by international socialism, to end the degeneration affecting the nation under liberalism, and to bring about a radical renewal of its social, political and cultural life as part of what was widely imagined to be the new era being inaugurated in Western civilization. The core mobilizing myth of fascism which conditions its ideology, propaganda, style of politics and actions is the vision of the nation’s imminent rebirth from decadence. (Roger Griffin, “The palingenetic core of generic fascist ideology”)

“Democracy is so overrated:” “What’s Left?” September 2016, MRR #400

democracy-the-majority-against-the-minority
Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.

― Winston S. Churchill

If a majority voted for you to jump off a bridge—would you?

— CrimethInc., “From Democracy to Freedom”

I set the table by covering it with a dark cloth and placing a lit candelabra on it. I position my Ouija board and planchette on the table in front of the chair before I sit down. I’m ready to prognosticate.

As I write this column, it’s the first week of July and both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions are happening later in the month. I predict Hillary will win the DNC and Trump the RNC. Neither party or electoral base is exactly keen on their respective nominees, but the “Bernie or Bust” or “Never Trump” crowds won’t prevail. Further, I predict that Hillary will win against Trump, but it will be a close election, uncomfortably so. My final and last prediction is that the surprising surge in votes for the Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson will be to the Trump campaign what Ralph Nader was to Al Gore. Oh yeah, and there will be rioting in Cleveland in 2016 to rival Chicago 1968.

That’s four predictions, four pretty obvious political forecasts on which you as the reader can score me, starting with the August issue and running through the November elections. Also, there’s four months to fill commenting on the elections, tap dancing on air if you will. Because by the time my comments on what’s happening right now, at this moment, reach your eyes they’re already past their prime. Outdated. And as I’ve hinted at above, I’m not a soothsayer by any means.

One of my major annoyances with American politics is its unrelenting pettiness. Hardcore Republicans for instance purposefully call their opponents the Democrat Party, not the Democratic Party. Their rationale is that the Democratic Party is far from democratic in operation and intent, but it’s clear when Republicans use Democrat Party in partisan debates they’re really intending to needle and provoke their opponents. It’s such elementary schoolyard antics; the wannabe tough kid insisting on calling another kid surnamed Wankel “Wanker” all the time. Far from entertaining the rest of us with clever puns, this mean-spirited sparring is debasing our language and degrading our political discourse.

The deepening clusterfuck that is Brexit follows closely behind in terms of politically humbling experiences. Who would have thought that Britain’s two main political parties—the Tories and Labor—as well as the political geography encompassed by the names Great Britain and United Kingdom would be destroyed by a simple non-binding referendum of whether or not Britain should leave the European Union? As David Van Reybrouck commented in The Guardian: “Never before has such a drastic decision been taken through so primitive a procedure – a one-round referendum based on a simple majority. Never before has the fate of a country – of an entire continent, in fact – been changed by the single swing of such a blunt axe, wielded by disenchanted and poorly informed citizens.” (“Why Elections are Bad for Democracy,” 6-29-16) As the political edifice of the United Kingdom continues to crumble, threatening the EU in the process, the efficacy of elections and liberal democracy are in serious doubt.

Let’s start with the word democracy. The term comes from the ancient Athenian practice of the adult males of the city-state (the demos) gathering in assembly to directly vote on all civic matters and leadership. Right away we understand the qualified nature of the word because the right to vote did not apply to women, children or slaves, a limitation shared by that other classical political system from which the West draws its inspiration: the practice of the Roman republic. The complex property-based system in ancient Rome (collective voting for magistrates and tribunes) provided for an indirect, representative form of government where the franchise continued to expand as Rome itself grew, encompassing allies and conquered peoples, until the original republic mutated into an empire ruled by Caesars. The more geographically prescribed scope of Athenian democracy did not prevent that city-state from acquiring an empire however, nor from devolving into oligarchy under decades of war.

For America’s founding political elite steeped in Enlightenment liberalism, there was a sharp distinction between a democracy and a republic. Pure democracy always ran the risk of despotism and imperialism, of mob rule where “51% of the people could vote to take away the tooth brushes of the other 49%” as a John Bircher once told me. By contrast, republicanism intended to contain such problems with territorially small, constitutionally-limited, mixed representative government, which was a central principle of Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. Hamilton, Jay, and Madison further argued in the Federalist Papers that the necessary limitations of a small constitutional republic could be transcended by the judicious application of legal checks-and-balances within a physically expanding domain of ever-multiplying, contending factions. Thanks to this political reformulation, the spread of the American republic across the continent and beyond was never in contradiction to or in conflict with oligarchy or empire.

But these political distinctions have been muddled and mongrelized to the point where we now think that democracy and republicanism are just the names of two different political parties, not two distinct political systems. We are told constantly “we live in a democracy,” we pledge allegiance “to the Republic for which it stands,” and we believe like Candide’s Professor Pangloss that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Rather than remain befuddled however, let’s simplify matters by saying that the West’s ideal is for representative democracy in the context of a national state.

“[I]n an election, you may cast your vote, but you are also casting it away for the next few years.” David Van Reybrouck of The Guardian writes. “This system of delegation to an elected representative may have been necessary in the past – when communication was slow and information was limited – but it is completely out of touch with the way citizens interact with each other today.” We tend to fetishize elections, according to Reybrouck, while demonizing the subject of that voting, resulting in an almost universal distrust of governments, political parties, and politicians while increasing calls for a strong leader “who does not have to bother with parliament and elections.” He concludes that “Democracy is not the problem. Voting is the problem.”

Oh, really?

Representative democracy, from Roman republicanism to Western liberalism, doesn’t seem to be the solution for nationalist extremism, capitalist exploitation, oligarchic despotism, colonial conquest, or imperialist appropriation. If we switch out the word nationalist for patriotic and capitalist for commercial this is true for direct democracy, from ancient Greece to the cantons of Switzerland. Ah, but what we need is more democracy; real democracy, radical democracy, participatory democracy. We need decentralized, participatory decision-making with easily recallable elected representatives, rights for minorities, rotating offices, ad hoc organizing, impermanent institutions, even consensus process.

“And how do you insure democratic control of industry?” Marvin Garson once asked rhetorically, spelling out a kind of radical democratic ultra-leftism called Council Communism. “Why, by setting up workers’ councils in each industry which operate with full respect for all the normal democratic procedures—especially the right to establish caucuses and factions, and the right to strike. The economy, in short, will be run the way a government is SUPPOSED to be run; it will be like a gigantic New Left convention—impeccably democratic and a stone drag.” (“Going Beyond Democracy,” 1968)

Such a tedious scenario is in no way enlivened by the absurdity of consensus process, which is nothing more than tyranny by the minority if not the individual, as CrimethInc well grasps as the myth of unanimous rule in its provocative essay “From Democracy to Freedom.” The group also understands that democracy is institutionalizing governance and state-production by its very nature. But CrimethInc’s attempt to substitute autonomy for democracy and to insist on the permanence of the revolutionary moment is pure sophistry. “Thousands of us flood into the streets, finding each other in new formations that offer an unfamiliar and exhilarating sense of agency. Suddenly everything intersects: words and deeds, ideas and sensations, personal stories and world events. Certainty—finally, we feel at home—and uncertainty: finally, an open horizon. Together, we discover ourselves capable of things we never imagined.” This is Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution on MDMA, and much like some fantasy of permanent orgasm this raises the question: what do we do after the revolution when we once again have to make mundane decisions. Do we make decisions by lottery or drawing straws, by rotating onerous tasks or making each individual boss-for-a-day, even by adapting Reybrouck’s concept of sortition in which a representative sampling of the population makes decisions for the whole? Let me return to Marvin Garson again.

“Every industry has its own inchoate underground of people who take pride in doing good work, who aren’t in it just for the money, who get angry when their employers make them sacrifice quality for the sake of profit. Let that underground get together and suddenly a real alternative to corporate capitalism will exist. […] Perhaps it’s impossible to run a steel mill or an electric power plant in a free and creative way. In that case, run it automatically.”

I’ve made the argument that, even at its best, democracy is a stone drag by quoting Garson before. By next column, I should have plenty to say about the dueling circuses of the RNC and DNC.

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.

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.