Time: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, April 2023

“We will sell no wine before its time,” Orson Welles proclaimed in sonorous tones in his famous Paul Masson California wine commercials from 1978 to 1981. The motto and those ads became an oft-parodied media trope in the late twentieth century, a meme before memes were invented, when bootleg outtakes of an apparently drunk Welles circulated widely, gaining a second comedic life for the advertising campaign.

Historians sometimes have difficulty in determining how to categorize and periodize historical events. The mere chronicling of short-term, discreet historical events known as evental history—histoire événementielle in the French Annales School—needs to be superseded by the study of long-term historical trends, structures, and collectivities (the longue durée), the broad evolution of economies, societies and civilizations. Once established, the historical long haul—the histoire totale—can then be subdivided into convenient medium-length combinations of events; decades and centuries when more thoroughgoing socio-economic-cultural changes can be studied. Thus the much-vaunted or maligned 1960s becomes the “long 1960s” (1955-1975) as the significant history before and after the actual chronological decade of the 1960s are incorporated. The “long 1940s” spans roughly from 1933 to 1955, and the “long 1970s” overlaps with the “long 1960s” from 1965 to 1981. Periodizing such “long” decades are above all flexible and frequently conjoined, with historians often debating when to start and end a particular period, and what to include in or exclude from their study.

As the Orson Welles/Paul Masson slogan implies, the proper demarcation of time for an historical study is crucial, with the discipline of history preferring more natural historical periods to the simplistic use of standard calendar definitions. The “long eighteenth century” thus spans from the English Glorious Revolution (1688) to the Battle of Waterloo (1815), with some historians extending the period to 1660-1830 in order to encompass broader socio-economic trends. The “long nineteenth century” begins with the French Revolution in 1789 and ends with the start of the first World War in 1914. But the “short twentieth century” starts in 1914 with the first World War and ends in 1991 with the dissolution of the old Soviet Union, and might be subtitled “the rise and fall of Soviet Communism.” Here again natural historical periodicity is key, even as historians argue over the specific dates in question.

Take for example the Italian Years of Lead from 1968 to 1988, a 20-year period of political and social unrest highlighted by the birth and reign of terror, respectively, of the far left Red Brigades and the far right Armed Revolutionary Nuclei. This was in the context of popular workerist/autonomist organizations and movements to the left of the Italian Communist Party and much smaller neo-fascist groupuscules to the right of the Italian Social Movement party. Within the context of the “short twentieth century” and Soviet Communism’s beginnings and demise was the era of Joseph Stalin’s rule from 1922 to 1952. Of all the Communist dictators—Mao, Tito, Castro, Sung, etc—Stalin was easily the most brutal and bloody, presiding over millions of corpses created by forced agricultural collectivization and economic industrialization, a Ukrainian famine, several mass political purges, and numerous political show trials and executions.

[As for the historian-explicated “long decades” and “long centuries” cited above, the self-defined, self-perpetuating dynasties of West and East have them beat. China was ruled by the Shang (16th-11th century bce), Zhou (1046-221 bce), Han (202 bce-220 ce), Song (960-1279 ce) and Ming (1368-1644 ce) dynasties. Europe had the Houses of Romanov (1613-1917), Oldenburg (1101-1917), and Habsburg (1020-1918), not to mention the British (1066-present) and Dutch (13th century-present) monarchies. These capitalist “long duration” periods and, less so, the feudal dynastic spans are the meat and potatoes of my history-based nonfiction inquiries as well as some of my fiction work.]

I write nonfiction essays and fiction books, specifically speculative, near-future, and science fiction. But I’m seventy years old. I have a limited time left on this planet and, in a way, my life is my own personal periodization. I anticipate having only one more novel in me to write.

This next and perhaps final novel is a departure from my usual fiction efforts. I’m switching from the future to the past, specifically 1968. Nineteen sixty-eight was the year I got leftist politics and so this novel attempts to encapsulate my experiences with that year and the 1960s in general. I’ll also hope to elucidate certain “truths” of the era while keeping the process lively and entertaining. My protagonist, who I’ve made a white Western European cis male to avoid claims of cultural appropriation, has a story of political intrigue and mayhem as a National Autonomous University of Mexico student set in Mexico City prior to the 1968 Olympic Games. When the Mexican State gunned down an unknown number of protesting students in Tlatelolco Square. Prior to Mexico’s momentous student uprising, this protagonist travels the Western world to highlight other aspects of the effervescent 1960s. The plot is further drenched with action and politic, fascists and Situationists, and sex, drugs and rocknroll.

I started the book maybe ten years before, dropped it, and returned to it a year ago. I’ve been writing it ever since. I’ve never been prolific but I have been consistent. The historical research is daunting. But I intend to get a rough draft out and to various editors in three to four years. Given my mortality, it’s now a race against time. Lately, I’ve been remembering my residual  Christianity that counts us lucky at eighty years but admonishes that no one knows the hour. I’ve outlived my parents and I’ve had a few serious illnesses. I’m healthy now but I’m also in a hurry.

My rush is being impeded by several factors. I’ve already mentioned the research I’m doing for the book. I’m slowly, painfully reading through the miniature library I’ve accumulated to backdrop the story. The plot comes first, and even if the writing goes more slowly then is my usual pace the story can be altered as I dig up and apply the historical details. Currently I’m reading through Elena Poniatowska’s stunning Massacre in Mexico with its haunting oral micro-histories. More serious is the fact that I don’t speak Spanish. My main character—pretty much all my characters in Mexico—speak Spanish so my lack is a definite disability. I have to do an impossible task, write an authentic story of a time and place without knowing the language that authenticates it. I am hoping to learn some basic Spanish. I constantly rewrite what I write, but since I’m not very good about editing my own writing I always need to hire an editor for beta reading, proofreading, copy editing, line editing, substantive editing, mechanical editing, and developmental editing. If and when I finish this novel I’ll need to hire an editor who speaks Spanish.

Finally, the sheer complexity of this story threatens to sink my efforts. When I first conceived the idea for this book I sketched out four plot lines: (1) the protagonist’s story prior to the October 2, 1968, Tlatelolco massacre in  Mexico; (2) his travels around the US and Western Europe earlier in 1968; (3) his back story growing up; and (4) a parallel plot about a UC Berkeley researcher who encounters evidence of a centuries-old entity that embodies the essence of revolution. The researcher chases down this revolutionary demiurge through photographic evidence during key historical uprisings—Paris Commune, 1871; Russian Revolution, 1917; German Spartacist uprising, 1918; Shanghai Commune, 1927; Spanish Revolution, 1936; Hungary, 1956; Cuban Revolution, 1959—to interact with the novel’s protagonist and witness Tlatelolco.

One of the plots of Paco Ignacio Taibo’s detective novel An Easy Thing is the search for Emiliano Zapata, the folk hero and a leader of the Mexican Revolution—very much alive and rumored to be hiding in a cave outside Mexico City. This element of magic realism aligns well with the science fiction/fantasy bent of the novel’s fourth plot line. But because of my desire to base the novel firmly in the history of 1968 and of the Tlatelolco massacre I abandoned the fantasy element early on.  Even without this however the story’s intricacies are discouraging. Do I switch back and forth between plot elements or do I lay out each plot discreetly from beginning to end? The former threatens to muddy the plot with convoluted flashbacks and flash forwards while the latter simplifies things to the point of trivializing the reading experience.

So what’s left is whether I have the time to finish this project. Emerson’s aphorism that it’s not the destination but the journey only goes so far in assuaging my anxieties. Running out of time is up there with losing my memory or suffering a debilitating accident or disease which prevents me from completing the book. All high level fears for me. But all I can do is write the next sentence, the next paragraph, the next page until I’ve written the book. Or I have nothing left to write.

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Capitalism In Crisis or Without End: “What’s Left?” September 2017, MRR #412

This is the conclusion to my overlong analysis last column of the crisis of the Left and the crisis on the Right (Party like it’s the 1960s: “What’s Left?” July 2017, MRR #410).

Our story so far:

Interregnums are instances of revolutionary class conflict, either regional and diffuse (Great Peasants’ War, 1524-25; English Glorious Revolution, 1688) or more consolidated and national (French 1789 Revolution, Russian 1917 Revolution, Spanish 1936-39 civil war). Related regional interregnums were strung together into a broad, territorial interregnum (religious conflicts/wars across continental Europe, 1517-1648), while associated national interregnums were linked into a global interregnum (WWI through WWII, 1914-1945).

The French 1789 Revolution gave rise to our modern Left-Right political landscape and modernity itself. The Right is both a revolt against the modern world and a reaction to the Left. In Europe, the moderate Right and reactionary Right were joined by a Fascist Right, while in the United States various radical and new Rights emerged. But in the face of international socialism and communism after WW2, an effort was made by Buckley and the National Review to define, unify, and defend an official conservative movement.

When the Left in the 1980s experienced a crisis due to the defeat of organized labor, the collapse of real existing socialist regimes, and the decline of Marxism, the Right underwent a corresponding crisis. More fractious than the Left due to its non-programmatic, non-rational nature, the Right exploded, particularly in patriot and populist terms. The secular, religious, and xenophobic Right can barely contain the proliferation of groups and ideologies, unlike the Left which neatly divides into antiauthoritarian, parliamentary, and Leninist types.

Because the Right is invariably a reaction to the Left, when things fell apart and the center on the Left could not hold, mere anarchy was loosed both on the Right and the Left. The crisis of the Left was matched by a crisis on the Right—with mindless proliferation, sectarian infighting, and growing Red/Brown crossover on the Right—which in turn marked the beginning of another global interregnum. But what is the cause of this crisis on Left and Right, and of the global interregnum? Is it the fabled Marxist final crisis of capitalism?

First, I need to backtrack.

I called myself paleo, more or less orthodox, and old school in my Marxism when it comes to class struggle, modes of production, and the origins of modernity. Yet I’m also hep, au currant, and with it when it comes to updating my Marxist political economy with a little world systems theory (Braudel, Wallerstein, Arrighi). Capitalism started to develop in embryonic form as a world system of exploitation and appropriation as early as 1450, and went through two cycles of capital accumulation (the Genoese and Dutch cycles) prior to the British cycle which acted as a context for the French 1789 Revolution and Europe’s industrial takeoff. So not only is it correct to call the English civil war (1642-51) a prequel to the bourgeois revolutions that ushered in the modern world, it’s clear that the Renaissance prefigured the Enlightenment, and that the modernity of Machiavelli and Hobbes presaged the modernity of Locke and Rousseau. The extensive trading networks, market relations, and commercial expansion of capitalism prior to 1750 did not possess capital’s “relentless and systematic development of the productive forces” that the industrialization of the British cycle initiated, as Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Woods noted. Whether we call the period from 1450 to 1750 pre-capitalism or proto-capitalism or market capitalism, we need to distinguish it from modern capitalism proper after 1750. Hence the use of the French 1789 Revolution as a convenient benchmark for the advent of modern industrial capitalism, modernity, and modern Left-Right politics.

The Marxist-influenced world systems school argues that each cycle of capital accumulation responsible for the rise of the current world economy is comprised of commercial, production, and financial phases. The commercial phase is characterized by making profit from trade and commerce—simple circulation and exchange. The production phase is distinguished by making profit from the whole process of industrialization—building factories to produce commodities, hiring workers, paying them less than what the commodities are sold for, and then valorizing the resultant surplus value into capital. The final financial phase is typified by making profit from investing in everything else that makes money—trade, commerce, manufacturing, factory production, services—which is just one step removed from simple exchange and circulation once again. What is most profitable in this three-phase cycle schema is the production phase because that’s where infrastructure is produced, the working class is reproduced, and capital is fully valorized. The commercial and financial phases are merely making money off of circulating money, and the financial phase in particular is seen as capitalism in decline.

This tripartite model is problematic and weakest when it comes to the pre-industrial Genoese and Dutch cycles, and only comes into its own with the British and American cycles. What’s more, its best to take this theory as descriptive rather than prescriptive. The center for world capitalist market power shifted from Genoa, through the Netherlands and Britain, to the United States, where it is predicted to shift again, probably to Asia, since American-centered capitalism is financializing and thus in decline. But will that shift occur? Or are we in the End Time, the final crisis of capitalism?

This model works admirably well in describing what happened when American-based capitalism changed from production to finance, which can be pinned down roughly to 1973. The Keynesianism of the Kennedy/Johnson era transitioned to the neoliberalism of the Thatcher/Reagan era when the political and cultural unrest, growth in social programs and expansion of the welfare state, and strong organized labor and strong middle class of the 1960s gave way to the rollback of government regulations, the welfare state, the public realm, and unions of the 1980s. The neoliberal trend began when the rank-and-file labor rebellions and wildcat strikes of the 1970s were routed, then was formalized with the defeat of organized labor by Reagan’s breaking the PATCO unions and Thatcher’s trouncing the striking miners, and was finally enshrined with the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Marxism appears to be bankrupt. This is, of course, the beginning of my crisis of the Left and on the Right, and my global interregnum. But why did it happen?

The short, Marxist answer is that the change from Keynesianism to neoliberalism, from affluence to austerity, from production to finance, is due to a tendency for the rate of profit to fall. If I had to choose between the lively polemics and exhortations of the 1848 Manuscripts, Communist Manifesto, and Critique of the Gotha Program versus the dry scientific analysis of Capital’s three volumes, I would choose the former every time. That’s because my mathematical chops are seriously lacking, even though I think there are insights to be had in Marxist economic statistics, formulas, and models. One such outstanding Marxist economist was Henryk Grossman whose work The Law of Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System attempted to formulate mathematical laws of capital accumulation, how it operates and why it falls short. The tendency for the rate of profit to fall (mainly due to the changing organic composition of capital) can be offset by capitalism’s creative destruction (state austerity, economic depression, war).

In the grand scheme of things then, when capitalist production became less and less profitable the economy transitioned to finance capitalism. Neoliberalism as the ideology of finance capitalism is all about deregulating and financializing the economy, rolling back the welfare state, crushing organized labor, and privatizing the public realm to reverse the falling rate of profit, and as such it’s a rightwing ideology of capitalist decline and crisis. Will this be capitalism’s final crisis as originally predicted by Marx himself, or simply the shift of capitalist power in a world economy to Asia as currently predicted by world systems theory? I can’t say, since I’m being descriptive and not prescriptive. But is capitalism-without-end really possible, or are we quickly reaching the planet’s carrying capacity for cancerous economic growth? That’s a question that will have to wait for a future column.

NOTE: Financial capitalism is a whole system, to include the state and most corporations, not merely the international banking system. This must be made clear in a time of Left/Right Red/Brown crossover politics. I’m particularly leery of talk about “international bankers” or that not-so-clever portmanteau “banksters” because it so easily slips into teleological conspiracy theory and “international jewish” idiocy.

FOOTNOTE: After La Méditerranée, Braudel’s most famous work is Civilisation Matérielle, Économie et Capitalisme, XVe-XVIIIe (Capitalism and Material Life, 1400-1800). The first volume was published in 1967, and was translated to English in 1973. The last of the three-volume work appeared in 1979.[9] The work is a broad-scale history of the pre-industrial modern world, presented in the minute detail demanded by the methodological school called cliometrics, and focusing on how regular people made economies work. Like all Braudel’s major works, the book mixed traditional economic material with thick description of the social impact of economic events on various facets of everyday life, including food, fashion, and other social customs. The third volume, subtitled “The Perspective of the World”, was strongly influenced by the work of German scholars like Werner Sombart. In this volume, Braudel traced the impact of the centers of Western capitalism on the rest of the world. Braudel wrote the series both as a way of explanation for the modern way and partly as a refutation of the Marxist view of history.[10]

Braudel discussed the idea of long-term cycles in the capitalist economy that he saw developing in Europe in the 12th century. Particular cities, and later nation-states, follow each other sequentially as centers of these cycles: Venice and Genoa in the 13th through the 15th centuries (1250–1510); Antwerp in the 16th century (1500–1569); Amsterdam in the 16th through 18th centuries (1570–1733); and London (and England) in the 18th and 19th centuries (1733–1896). He used the word “structures” to denote a variety of social structures, such as organized behaviours, attitudes, and conventions, as well as physical structures and infrastructures. He argued that the structures established in Europe during the Middle Ages contributed to the successes of present-day European-based cultures. He attributed much of this to the long-standing independence of city-states, which, though later subjugated by larger geographic states, were not always completely suppressed—probably for reasons of utility.

Braudel argued that capitalists have typically been monopolists and not, as is usually assumed, entrepreneurs operating in competitive markets. He argued that capitalists did not specialize and did not use free markets, thus diverging from both liberal (Adam Smith) and Marxian interpretations. In Braudel’s view, the state in capitalist countries has served as a guarantor of monopolists rather than a protector of competition, as it is usually portrayed. He asserted that capitalists have had power and cunning on their side as they have arrayed themselves against the majority of the population.[11]

It should be noted that an agrarian structure is a long-term structure in the Braudelian understanding of the concept. On a larger scale the agrarian structure is more dependent on the regional, social, cultural and historical factors than on the state’s undertaken activities.[12]