Writing nonfiction: “What’s Left?” February 2021

Rule #1: If an idea cannot be expressed in language that a reasonably attentive seventh-grader can understand, someone’s jiving someone else.
Neil Postman, Charles Weingartner, The Soft Revolution, 1971

I wrote an essay in the early 1970s called “Polarity Thinking vs Integrative Thinking.” It was a highfalutin pseudo-philosophical screed that proposed going beyond the politics of Left and Right from a libertarian perspective, following along the lines of Left and Right: A Journal of Libertarian Thought run by Karl Hess and Murray Rothbard from 1965 to 1968. I’m a writer who was into self-publishing what eventually became known as fanzines—zines for short—a subculture of small format hand-made xeroxed or printed magazines published in limited quantities about whatever the creators found interesting. I think this essay first appeared in something I created called ELF: A Journal of Creative, Practical Anarchy. I even ran a crossover libertarian study group in Santa Cruz for a time with a couple of anarchist capitalists and me and a fellow left anarchist. Fortunately, the “integrative thinking” of my libertarian if clueless “third positionism” was blissfully short-lived. I realized that having anything to do with rightwing anarchists was bullshit as I reaffirmed my commitment to revolutionary leftwing anarchism.

But that essay had a life of its own and it was eventually reprinted by a right libertarian zine called Against The Wall. The publisher of Against The Wall sent me a copy of his zine with my writing prominently displayed, accompanied with a letter effusively praising it as brilliant and groundbreaking. I wrote him back disparaging all rightwing libertarians as crypto-fascists. What I didn’t tell him was that I could barely understand what I had written because it was so egregiously convoluted. The essay was written at a deliberately high and abstract level, and I was embarrassed because I was also being too clever by half. I was talking for the sake of hearing myself talk and reveling at being oh so smart. If you google the essay’s title, it comes up under my name as part of the Libertarian Microfiche/Peace Plans project.

My zine’s name—ELF—was short for Education Liberation Front because I was into pro-Summerhill/Skool Abolition/student liberation politics at the time. Postman and Weingartner, from which I cribbed Rule #1, were definitely on the liberal/progressive/social democratic end of a politics that was characterized by Jerry Farber’s collection of essays entitled The Student as Nigger. The sentiment for simplicity behind Rule #1 accorded well with other philosophical principles for intelligibility—like Occam’s Razor (“entities should not be multiplied without necessity”)—that I admired as a writer, but which back then I rarely practiced. About the same time, I took to carrying around the slim volume The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, Rule #17 of which famously declared “avoid needless words.” Known as “the little book,” Strunk and White’s manual for writers is a paean to brevity, but there is a difference between brevity and intelligibility. Making an idea simple often requires using more words to make the meaning clear, whereas brevity can sometimes make a notion’s significance more obscure.

I must admit I’ve never been an adherent to the cult of brevity. Years ago, I settled on a maximum length of 1,500 words for my columns, an arbitrary upper limit I struggle with even though I no longer write for Maximum Rocknroll. But I now always strive for legibility and simplicity in my political writing. Before I dig into how I write my post-MRR columns, let’s spend more time considering the importance of clarity. Having hung around the Left all my adult life, I’m appalled by the confounding complexity and deliberate obscurantism often practiced in these circles. I remember debating a Frankfurt School acolyte in the late 1980s. When I brought up Rule #1 he defended the need for his highly abstruse Hegelian argumentation. At the time I equated simplicity with an anarchistic desire for unmediated relationships in general, but he was having none of that. “Unmediated relationships are fascist,” he declared. Which, in turn, reminded me of the 1970 film The Revolutionary in which Jon Voight played a hapless youngster named “A.”

A college student under the tutelage of a liberal professor (Lionel Murton), “A” is disillusioned when the students are easily arrested during a slapstick campus protest. He then joins a Marxist cell of factory workers lead by union leader Despard (Robert Duvall) for endless meetings and leafletting in anticipation of militant labor picketing and strikes. “A” is committed, but he doesn’t seem to accomplish much, and he certainly isn’t having much fun. Then he meets Leonard (Seymour Cassel), a wild quasi-Yippie revolutionist his own age who looks like Freewheelin’ Frank of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Together, they liberate a pawn shop and give away its merchandise before Leonard sets “A” up with a bomb to carry out on old-school anarchist attentat to assassinate some class enemy. When Leonard first hears of “A”s insipid experiences and resounding disappointment with the Marxist workers cadre he asks: “What? You don’t speak dialectics?” Then Leonard quacks like Donald Duck, and they both laugh.

The movie was an overly simplistic illustration of the differences between political action and direct action, and between Marxism and anarchism. Back then I was transitioning from the latter to the former, while today I maintain a commitment in my writing to the simplicity and direct expression of anarchism while I hope to engage meaningfully in the subtleties of Marxism. I have a default format for my columns, which often entails starting with some personal anecdote or recollection before delving into heavy-duty political subjects. This present column has a little more of the personal and a little less of the political, but the formula remains tried-and-true. I rely on a clear premise and conclusion, evidence, research, and logical argumentation using cause and effect and creative comparisons.

The Elements of Style is intended to provide classic precepts for good writing applicable to both nonfiction and fiction work. While rules such as #17’s insistence on brevity are applicable to both forms of writing, in my experience the use and feel of injunctions like “avoid needless words” differ markedly between nonfiction and fiction writing. There are also elements in fiction like plot, character development and dialogue that have no direct comparison with elements in nonfiction. I do both kinds of writing, and I find fiction writing far more difficult than nonfiction writing. Some readers may contend that my nonfiction work is every bit a fiction, and not because my personal remembrances border on memoir which is borderline between the two.

I also try to maintain a balance between current events and historical analysis and the related dichotomy between being au courant and timeless. The distinction here is not merely the difference between the individual and the collective, between what is individually compelling versus what is socially significant. I participated in several countercultural movements—from 60s rocknroll to 70s punk—that turned out to change the culture, society and arguably the world. Yet who hears much about raga rock these days. It’s a style of music I was briefly fascinated with after the Byrds did their March 28, 1966, “raga rock” press conference during which Roger McGuinn played a sitar to debut the release of their song “Eight Miles High.” He subsequently tuned his Rickenbacker 12-string guitar to sound like one. Nothing ever really dies musically—or for that matter counterculturally or politically—and raga rock has recently experienced a revival of sorts. But there’s a reason why it’s called someone’s personal “taste” in music.

I recently wrote a column about the antagonisms between modern historical time versus traditional and rightwing cyclical time. Arguably, the discussion of what is currently newsworthy and historically important is this column’s bread-and-butter. In that previous piece I make a distinction between the linear chronicling of unique events and facts (histoire événementielle) and the longue durée of gradually developing social, economic and cultural patterns and structures which I consider history proper. What isn’t obvious is how I sift one from the other or, alternately, how I weave one into the other. Both are very much behind-the-scenes processes that rely on my subjective tastes and my objective judgments, with the distinction between subjective and objective sometimes being hard to draw.

In the days when Maximum Rocknroll had columns, there was a kind of end notes “arms race,” when several columnists developed them as standalone vignettes. A couple of prominent MRR columnists even claimed to have invented the magazine’s end notes feature. End notes were like a literary selfie, a capsule summary of who the columnist was, what they were into and what they’ve accomplished. I frequently boiled mine down to a rote few lines advertising my book and my interests which I labeled Personal Propaganda. In this post-MRR reality, I try to end each column with a select bibliography, a reading list focused on the column’s subject.

That’s “Lefty” Hooligan 101.

Personal recollections
The Soft Revolution: A Student Handbook for Turning Schools Around by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner
The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White

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The terror of history: “What’s Left?” November 2020

About paranoia […] There is nothing remarkable […] it is nothing less than the onset, the leading edge, of the discovery that everything is connected […] If there is something comforting – religious, if you want – about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.
—Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

I graduated with a BA in history from UCSC in 1974. That summer I went off for a 6-month program sponsored by the university to live on Kibbutz Mizra in Israel with my Jewish girlfriend. We packed a large duffel bag full of paperback books in preparation for our excursion, one of them being Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.

I devoured Pynchon’s 760-page epic and absorbed his dichotomy between paranoia and anti-paranoia. Paranoia is the sense that everything is connected, has meaning, and is part of some larger pattern. Anti-paranoia is the sense that nothing is connected to anything, has no meaning, and is patternless. That basic duality has informed everything from my psychedelic drug experiences to my study of everything—history, politics, economics, society, spirituality.

As a lover of history who fancies myself an amateur historian, I consider history the best tool to study those other subjects. History is not just the linear chronicling of unique events and facts (histoire événementielle). There is some level of pattern to be found in history. Civilizations, empires and nations rise and fall. War is a persistent pastime for humans. “Who benefits?” (cui bono) is always a good question to ask of any set of historical evidence or events. But to argue that “history repeats itself,” or that history demonstrates an ever-ascending line of progress, or that it’s possible to draw “universal truths” from comparing similar historical events that occurred at different times, in different places, under different socio-economic circumstances, to different groups of people, is fallacious.

Then there are the long-term, nearly permanent or slowly evolving historical structures mapped out by Karl Marx as modes of production and by Fernand Braudel as the longue durée. I tend to view these analyses as descriptive rather than prescriptive; as describing what happened rather than what must happen. One of these structures is the nation-state. In The State, Franz Oppenheimer argued that the modern nation-state is a historical structure of relatively recent origins, a product of conquest. The feudal state based on landed territorial empires was politically amalgamated with the maritime state based on coastal commercial city-states.

Immanuel Wallerstein’s World Systems Theory describes a more complex development for the nation-state. As integrated territories and homogenous populations were achieved over centuries independent states and economies were consolidated. Centralized governments with extensive bureaucracies and large mercenary armies were attained by ruling elites—the local bourgeoisie. These nation-states regulated the domestic economy and controlled international commerce in order to extract surpluses, eventually industrializing their economies and democratizing their societies.

The Left has targeted the nation-state for complete destruction since the First International, with the anarchist project to abolish the state and the Marxist project to abolish the nation. Lenin put up obstacles to abolishing the nation-state by championing the right of oppressed peoples to national self-determination and insisting that the communist withering away of the state be preceded by a strengthening of state power under socialism. Marxism-Leninism has subsequently devolved into the dictatorship of the vanguard party and socialist struggles for national liberation, completely reversing the First International’s liberatory intent.

Given this betrayal, my propensity is always to look for Leftist non-state and non-national alternatives. Hence me calling myself an anti-state communist, and my interest in the EZLN in Chiapas and the YPG/SDF in Rojava. And it’s why I’ve studied how dispersed peoples like the Jews have managed to survive for millennia partially or entirely without a national state. The Jewish diaspora has existed since the Babylonian Exile in 597 bce and was complemented by influential cultural centers in Babylon, Palestine, Spain and Poland. This core/periphery historical dynamic was not merely central to Jewish survival but it’s also partly why Marxist-Leninist types have denied the Jewish people the right to the national self-determination they insist on for other marginalized peoples.

But history is not the only way to organize time. Traditional pre-modern societies have frequently used repeating cycles of ages and concepts like the eternal return to structure temporal reality.

The four ages cycle of decay and rebirth in Hinduism is the best known, comprised of the Satya, Treta, Dvapara and Kali Yugas. Comparable to the four ages in Greek/Roman mythology (Golden, Silver, Bronze, Iron), cyclical time is what Frederich Nietzsche called the “eternal recurrence.” “Everything has returned. […] [A]ll things will return. […] [F]or mankind this is always the hour of Noon.” This radical reactionary’s promotion of what he considered simultaneously to be humanity’s heaviest burden and a love of one’s own fate (amor fati) illustrates a key distinction between antiquity and modernity, what historian of religion Mircea Eliade called the concept of the “eternal return.” The desire and capacity to return to a mythical golden age is the theme of his flawed, simplistic study The Myth of the Eternal Return. Eliade covered not just cyclical time but the power of origins, the distinction between the sacred and profane and the importance of sacred time, the use of myth and ritual to become contemporaneous with a past golden age, and the terror of history. While in his 20’s, Mircea Eliade was sympathetic with, though not a member of, Corneliu Codreanu’s fascist Christian Legion of the Archangel Michael—the bloody, brutal Romanian Iron Guard that the Nazis considered too extreme. He distanced himself from overt rightwing involvements even as he maintained close friendships with parafascist Traditionalists like Julius Evola who advocated for similar notions of cyclical time and the eternal return.

“In our day, when historical pressure no longer allows any escape, how can man tolerate the catastrophes and horrors of history—from collective deportations and massacres to atomic bombings—if beyond them he can glimpse no sign, no transhistorical meaning; if they are only the blind play of economic, social, or political forces, or, even worse, only the result of the ‘liberties’ that a minority takes and exercises directly on the stage of universal history?” Mircea Eliade wrote in The Myth of the Eternal Return of the terror of history. “We know how, in the past, humanity has been able to endure the sufferings we have enumerated: they were regarded as a punishment inflicted by God, the syndrome of the decline of the ‘age,’ and so on. And it was possible to accept them precisely because they had a metahistorical meaning […] Every hero repeated the archetypal gesture, every war rehearsed the struggle between good and evil, every fresh social injustice was identified with the sufferings of the Saviour (or, for example, in the pre-Christian world, with the passion of a divine messenger or vegetation god), each new massacre repeated the glorious end of the martyrs. […] By virtue of this view, tens of millions of men were able, for century after century, to endure great historical pressures without despairing, without committing suicide or falling into that spiritual aridity that always brings with it a relativistic or nihilistic view of history.”

Nietzsche may have coined the expression “historical sickness” (historische Krankheit) in critiquing the study of history, preferring the idea of genealogy to express the power of origins and relations. To be fair, an acceptance of cyclical time is not always an embrace. Buddhism expresses a terror of the eternal return in seeking to end the cycle of rebirth and reincarnation, which is the cyclical time of ages writ personal. The Sacred cannot exist within time according to Buddhism which seeks a transcendence of both the ego and the cosmic. And even within the profane time understood as history—that supposedly linear march of facts and events devoid of any inherent meaning or sacrality—there is the tendency to see cycles. Certain schools of Marxism contend that the ultimate goal of a stateless, nationless, classless communism is humanity’s original primitive communism taken to a higher level, implying that history is not cyclical so much as an upward spiral.

Braudel and the Annales School to which he belonged actually divided historical time into individual time, social time and geographical time. Individual time is the courte durée history of “individuals with names,” the superficial linear histoire événementielle chronicling of events, facts, politics and people that is without deep significance, pattern or meaning. Social time is the longue durée of gradually developing social, economic and cultural patterns and structures. Geographical time is the imperceptibly evolving repetitive cycles of the natural environment. These three types of historical time are to be contrasted with the cyclical time of traditional societies and rightwing politics which is rigidly patterned, drenched in fixed meaning, and eternally repeating. In Pynchon’s dichotomy, individual time is anti-paranoia whereas cyclical time is paranoia. Everything in between is history proper.

And the abolition of the nation-state remains on the agenda.

Notes on the Eternal Recurrence by Frederich Nietzsche
Capital by Karl Marx
The State by Franz Oppenheimer
The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II by Fernand Braudel
The Myth of the Eternal Return by Mircea Eliade
The Modern World-System by Immanuel Wallerstein
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon




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