Punk politics, personal politics and post-political politics: “What’s Left?” December 2019 (MRR #439)

The guy who helped the most in the campaign was like one of the big anarchists in San Diego.
Bob Beyerle, interview, MRR #102

“Hello, I’m with the Bob Beyerle for Mayor Campaign,” I say to the over sixty-year-old Latino man standing hesitantly in the front door of his house. “I’d like to talk to you about the horrible job Chula Vista’s City Council is doing. Not only are they subsidizing the construction of a bayfront yacht club, a luxury fourteen hundred room hotel, fourteen hundred condominiums and twenty-eight hundred exclusive housing units in a bayside tourist mecca, they’re rapidly expanding the city east of Interstate 805 with gated, guarded upscale housing developments like Eastlake, Rancho del Rey and Otay Ranch. Meanwhile, the city west of 805 is deteriorating. Eastlake is using a million gallons of water for a scenic lake that you’re not even allowed to use unless you live in this exclusive community while the rest of us are forced to live with between 20% and 50% water cutbacks. The City Council is catering to the wealthy when what we need is more funding for public services and new affordable housing developments with parks, schools, and emergency services. Bob Beyerle is for controlled growth and the environment, promoting local business and curtailing big business, and encouraging citizen involvement. Please vote Bob Beyerle for mayor on election day.”

I’m average height but the man barely reaches my shoulder. His more diminutive wife hovers behind him, clearly concerned. Both are suspicious as I hand them some campaign literature. Bob and I are precinct walking for his mayoral campaign in a sweltering May afternoon in 1991. I’m wearing a bright orange “Pedro Loves You” t-shirt while Bob Beyerle (aka Bob Barley of Vinyl Communications fame), wearing a sports coat and dress shirt, is talking local politics a few houses down the block. As the front man for the punk band Neighborhood Watch whose signature song is “We Fuck Sheep,” Bob goes on to do press interviews, candidate forums and house parties.Bob’s campaign also puts on a fundraiser at La Bella Pizza Garden featuring Jello Biafra. My personal first impressions of Biafra are operatic; diva, prima donna, bürgerlich. Better to call his 1979 San Francisco mayoral campaign a publicity stunt, with its prank platform demanding that businessmen wear clown suits within city limits and paying the unemployed to panhandle in wealthy neighborhoods. Biafra gripes that some of his proposals—to ban cars citywide, legalize squatting in vacant tax-delinquent buildings, and force cops to run for election in the neighborhoods they patrol—were serious. But then, Jello is always the consummate showman who never walked a precinct in his life. Biafra’s politics are a joke because he’s a dilettante whereas Beyerle’s politics are punk because he’s the real deal. Both lost their respective mayoral campaigns but placed in the middle of their crowded fields.

I’ve been called a class traitor, a scab, a rat, a collaborator, an undercover cop by many of my comrades on the left of the Left—left anarchism and communism specifically—once they learn that I vote and engage in electoral politics. Electoral politics is a politics for fools they contend as they spout the usual slogans: “Don’t vote! It only encourages them!”, “If voting changed things, it would be illegal!”, “Vote for nobody!” and “Freedom isn’t on the ballot!” Funny thing is, I’ve always voted, even when I was a stone revolutionary anarchist. I never thought it was an issue as voting takes all of ten minutes, and a single ten minute act once or twice a year doesn’t legitimize the entire bourgeois corporate state apparatus. To assert otherwise is either mysticism or moralism. As for electoral politics, I considered it neither the only valid be-all-end-all nor the ultimate bamboozling evil. Rather, it’s harm reduction for mitigating the worst and making piecemeal of the best in politics. I’ve always lived by the sentiment “I vote, and I riot.”When the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971, I ran for Ventura School Board on a Summerhill/Free School platform alongside a democratic socialist City Council slate, both organized by a member of the New American Movement. None of us won any elected positions in the 1972 city elections, but our leftwing programs and political campaigns did eventually push the City of Ventura to build a municipal bus system. And just two years before, in 1970, I traveled to the student ghetto of Isla Vista next to UCSB for three riots in which a Bank of America branch was burned to the ground. I’ve had a personal politics that endorses and attempts to combine parliamentary and revolutionary components, a political strategy built on integrating multiple tactics.

Which is not the same thing as diversity of tactics.

I devote most of my time to politics outside of the electoral/parliamentary realm, which I define broadly. That can range from writing to rioting, although at my age I don’t do much of the latter. As for the much narrower electoral/parliamentary arena, I prefer to engage in local over national politics, and with issues and propositions over personalities and candidates. And I try to make connections—be they principled or personal, through practice or theory—between the various aspects of my politics.
Diversity of tactics by contrast acknowledges the validity of different tactics but refuses to make linkages let alone work out common ground between them. Perhaps the most famous example of diversity of tactics involves the St. Paul’s Principles:
1. Our solidarity will be based on respect for a diversity of tactics and the plans of other groups.
2.
The actions and tactics used will be organized to maintain a separation of time or space.
3.
Any debates or criticisms will stay internal to the movement, avoiding any public or media denunciations of fellow activists and events.
4.
We oppose any state repression of dissent, including surveillance, infiltration, disruption and violence. We agree not to assist law enforcement actions against activists and others.

Adopted prior to the 2008 Republican National Convention, the agreement allowed different groups with different protest tactics (conventional street protest, guerrilla theater, civil disobedience, black bloc, etc) to act side-by-side without denouncing each other as counterrevolutionary reformists or ultraleft adventurists. But it also didn’t allow the individuals or groups in question to get together to potentially synthesize their diverse tactics into a common strategy. An atomized diversity of tactics became the strategy, and an ineffectual one at that. The 2008 RNC was not shut down, and the movement opposed to the 2008 RNC grew no more unified, stronger or effective. It was a live and let live strategy that was simultaneously a political devolution. At best, diversity of tactics is a stopgap, never a solution.I was thrilled to learn about Italian Autonomy in 1984. My politics were evolving from left anarchism to left communism as I studied more Marx. I devoured Autonomedia’s volume Autonomia and enshrined Sylvere Lotringer’s formulation of “Autonomy at the base”:

In biology, an autonomous organism is an element that functions in­dependently of other parts. Political autonomy is the desire to allow differences to deepen at the base without trying to synthesize them from above, to stress similar attitudes without imposing a “general line,” to allow parts to co-exist side by side, in their singularity.

Little did I know at the time that most Marxists, including many Autonomists, considered that the “desire to allow differences to deepen at the base without trying to synthesize them from above” was not Autonomy’s singular strength but its profound weakness. It’s like realizing you’re a profound asshole, but then deciding to call that your singular virtue.

I’ve since realized that “to stress similar attitudes without imposing a ‘general line’” rarely results in bridging ideological divides, moving forward politically, or successfully working together to accomplish things. Used to be, a political party or a trade union or some similarly organized (hierarchical, centralized) association could be depended on to step in and finagle the unity and commonality people desired. But since the goal is to come up with alternate ways of organizing ourselves—presumably non-hierarchical, decentralized, and anti-authoritarian—it’d be nice to come up with a new way to overcome our differences to achieve tactical, strategic and theoretical unity to defeat our enemies and attain our goal of a liberated society. However, having once spent two days virtually nonstop trying and failing to achieve consensus in an organization over whether to codify a two-thirds versus three-quarters alternative voting structure once consensus breaks down, I don’t have high hopes in this regard.I don’t have solutions to the problems posed here. Which means I feel another series coming on, perhaps with discussions of democracy or frontism or populism. This whole subject is really quite broad.

SOURCES:
(1) Personal recollections
(2) “He Didn’t Kiss Babies, and He Didn’t Kiss Asses,” interview with Bob Beyerle, Maximum RocknRoll #102, November 1991
(3) Sells Like Teen Spirit: Music, Youth Culture and Social Crisis by Ryan Moore
(4) Autonomia: Post-Political Politics ed. by Lotringer & Marazzi, Semiotext(e)

Socialist In Name Only: “What’s Left?” October 2015, MRR #389

I press the hermitically sealed white envelope to my forehead and say: “The Republican Party.” I rip the #10 at one end, blow open the envelope, extract a card and read: “The greatest spectator sport of 2015/16.”

It doesn’t take an Amazing Kreskin, or Johnny Carson’s Carnac the Magnificent, to predict that the real entertainment, the real show in American politics in the next year will be the GOP. I believe the Republicans are in the process of self-destructing, flying apart, having a nervous breakdown, with the real possibility that they will split up into warring factions during the next presidential election. Used to be that the GOP would target the Democratic Party with their vitriol, calling them Loonie Lefties, barking moonbats, or simply just the Democrat Party while forswearing to “never speak ill of a fellow Republican.” Now, having limited their ideological base by driving out most moderate Rockefeller Republicans, conservative Republicans reserve their harshest epithets for each other, escalating from Republican In Name Only (RINO), through the self-evident Squish, to the racially charged cuckservative.

A portmanteau of cuckold and conservative used by rightwing traditionalists, identitarians and neoreactionaries, cuckservative unfavorably compares mainstream Republican conservatives to a porn fetish in which old white males watch as their “wives/girlfriends” [read: America] have sex with young, often black men. Already torn by the division between Establishment Republicans and Tea Party types, the GOP has something like seventeen official presidential candidates and dozens of factions ranging from libertarians through evangelicals to white supremacists each vying to be “more conservative than thou.” The GOP has always had not-so-silent white racists and reactionaries on its fringes. What is clear from the use of cuckservative is that the loudmouthed mainstream candidacy of Donald Trump has given them new life. Only Trump also threatens to mount a third party campaign for the presidency if he is not nominated. Like Ross Perot before him, this may very well splinter the Republicans beyond repair as well as lose them the election.

[Trump has since toned down the circus by promising not to bolt the Republican party if he is not nominated.]

Now, I spend all of fifteen minutes every two years voting. That’s the extent of my involvement with electoral politics. I don’t support particular political candidates or parties or issues or campaigns. So my main interest is in being entertained by this country’s periodic Democratic/Republican donnybrooks. I like a good, old-fashioned name-calling session; a real, bare-knuckled insult fest with graphic mudslinging and ad hominem attacks. But while the Republicans have gotten off to a rollicking start, the Democrats are staid and sadly conventional by comparison.

Aside from prosaic insults like racist, sexist, reactionary or fascist, Democrats have rarely anything more colorful than rightwing wingnut as an aspersion against their Republican rivals. As for internal conflicts, the old disparagements of Dixiecrat or Blue Dog Democrat for conservative Democrats has settled down to the all-inclusive DINO, for Democrat In Name Only, even as the entire Democratic Party has moved decidedly to the right since the heyday of JFK/LBJ liberalism. And when a self-avowed socialist candidate like Bernie Sanders takes on Hillary Clinton’s establishment Democratic Party campaign from the left, he is summarily dismissed as a Socialist In Name Only, or SINO.

Fredrik deBoer, a writer for Jacobin Magazine, frets about the love-hate relationship between his fellow socialists and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in a recent Politico essay. At one end of the range, he quotes Bruce A. Dixon that: “Bernie Sanders is this election’s Democratic sheepdog. … Sheepdogs are herders, and the sheepdog candidate is charged with herding activists and voters back into the Democratic fold who might otherwise drift leftward and outside of the Democratic party.” At the other end of the range, he quotes Bhaskar Sunkara who sidesteps the issue of Bernie’s socialist credentials by contending that “Sanders is moving the discussion to the left, and mobilizing an absurdly high number of people” and then answers the question of whether Sanders can win: “Yes, definitely. Just not the primary or the presidency. Barry Goldwater didn’t win until a couple decades after he ran.” This ambivalence toward the Sanders campaign is emblematic of the Left in general and of how, when asked to constitute a firing squad, the Left often forms a circle, guns aimed inward.

Gerard Di Trolio, also a writer for Jacobin, argues that the Socialist International and its member social democratic parties are SINO. Me and my left commie pals, we tolerate our anarcho cousins, but we regularly call out both social democrats and Leninists as SINO. I’m sure they return the favor every chance they get, when they’re not putting each other down as SINO. And, on the truism that we are frequently most antagonistic toward those we are closest to ideologically, ultraleftists denounce fellow ultraleftists, anarchists denounce fellow anarchists, social democrats denounce fellow social democrats, and Leninists denounce fellow Leninists as SINO, all on the basis of a fraction of a degree of separation in ideology between them. Call it sectarianism, or call it human nature, but the SINO insult is alive and kicking on the Left. As I write this column, members of Black Lives Matter in Seattle shut down a Bernie Sanders rally, later stating: “The problem with Sanders’, and with white Seattle progressives in general, is that they are utterly and totally useless (when not outright harmful) in terms of the fight for Black lives. … White progressive Seattle and Bernie Sanders cannot call themselves liberals while they participate in the racist system that claims Black lives. Bernie Sanders will not continue to call himself a man of the people [read: Socialist], while ignoring the plight of Black people.”

Okay, so, I’ve been a tad disingenuous by about ten minutes with regard to my involvement in electoral politics this year. I got our Bernie Sanders for President poster hanging up. Cool “power to the people” red-white-and-blue glossy placard that can be seen from the street. A neighbor asked about it and, this being San Francisco, he now has his own Bernie poster on display. No doubt I will be criticized for even minimally supporting a long-shot presidential candidate residing as I do in a blue state like California where Democrats dominate and where I can afford to waste my vote making a statement. It’s not like supporting Bernie Sanders in a red state like Texas, where my sign could get my house egged or worse, or campaigning for him in a swing state like Florida where my vote might cause another Gore/Bush/Nader meltdown. Of course, there is always the argument that, in running, Bernie Sanders helps to move Hillary Clinton to the left in that Sanders himself has no intention of bolting the Democratic Party. But deBoer hopes that the “Sanders campaign [could] potentially do more than pull the inevitable nominee to the left, and actually make a run at the nomination.” And, of course, there’s that snowball’s chance in hell that Bernie might actually win, not just the nomination but the presidency.

That’s my purely pragmatic take on American electoral politics. I’ll get to commenting in future columns on American electoral politics generally, how European politics compare, theoretical discussions of electoral participation and the like, while the crazy season for the 2016 elections cranks up.

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