Proletarian: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, August 2022

I sat at Nati’s Restaurant in Ocean Beach for a late brunch on a Sunday afternoon. It was 1986. I was on my third Negra Modelo when the waitress served up my heaping plate of Machaca con Huevos with dolloped sour cream, refried beans, Spanish rice, escabeche, pico de gallo, and a stack of corn tortillas. I had high tolerances in those days so I wasn’t even buzzed as I dripped Tapatío hot sauce on my aromatic food.

I had a few drinking routines when I was gainfully employed and living in San Diego. Weekdays after working as a typesetter I bought 16-oz cans of Schlitz malt liquor and drank in the privacy my Pacific Beach apartment. I occasionally went to shows on Friday and Saturday nights. Whether at bars like the Casbah or Spirit Club, or larger venues like the Pacific Palisades or Adams Avenue Theater, I drank my crap malt liquor before the show in my parked car. I didn’t want to be buying expensive, watered-down drinks at some punk dive bar. I’d do a little day drinking some Saturdays and Sundays starting at Nati’s before hitting the Pacific Shore Lounge, then the Beachcomber in Mission Beach and ending up at the West End or the Silver Fox in Pacific Beach at night. The idea was cheap drinks and happy hours, and if I got too wasted by the time I got round to Pacific Beach I could always park my car and walk home.

As usual Nati’s was full, with a line out the door. I’d just started eating when the deuce next to me opened up and Mark Johnson sat down. Mark was 40, a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party who ran the RCP’s youth wing, the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade (RCYB). Mark and the RCYB were hoping to recruit “rebellious youth” into the party’s ranks, with the RCYB recently targeting punks. I was a punk and a left anarchist transitioning into Marxism at the time, known for my broadside Point-Blank and regularly publishing the monthly punk zine San Diego’s Daily Impulse. But I was older than the average punk, though not as old as Mark. We’d run into each other at various local punk shows and political events, among them the RCP’s brief-lived No Business As Usual front organization. And he’d tabled at my 1984 Balboa Park Anarchy Picnic and my 1985 Mariner’s Point Hardcore Picnic. Ours was not a friendly rivalry but an open political antagonism. When the Hardcore Picnic turned into a full-blown riot provoked by the SDPD Mark at first said I was responsible for the mayhem, then proceeded to fundraise on behalf of those arrested. Since I’d sponsored the picnic, I got the lawyer and organized the successful legal defense. So when I hit him up for that money to help with our expenses he handed it over, minus a not insignificant “service charge.”

“No surprise finding your petty bourgeois utopian anarchist ass here in OB’s remnant hippie-dippie countercultural enclave,” he said after ordering.

“This from the man whose shitty vanguard party had its vulgar Leninist origins in the ‘60s Bay Area,” I replied between mouthfuls. “And I’m working class. A prole. A bonafide wage slave. I own nothing but my labor.”

“It takes more than exchanging your labor power for wages to call yourself working class.” Mark switched into pure Maoist mode. “Or claiming you own no other means of production. You gotta have the correct class background, correct class aspirations, and correct class stance to qualify as a proletarian.”

I knew the basics of Marxist class analysis though not its nuances, so I kept quiet. I paid for my meal as Mark’s Carne Asada con Huevos arrived and I left without another word. I’d been bested by a Mao cultist so the exchange stayed with me.

According to Marx, class is a social relationship between the workers and those who own the means of production and extract surplus value from their labor, the bourgeoisie. Also called the capitalist class, it rules society but it’s a small social group compared to the much larger working class. Anyone who sells their labor for wages is a worker, but in Marx’s day there were other social classes in the mix. There were vestigial classes from the waning feudal social order—various formations of aristocracy and peasantry. And in the newly emerging capitalist social order there was the small-holding petit bourgeoisie and the lumpenproletariat criminal underclass. Finally, there were déclassé elements like the intelligentsia.  But for Marx two trends in this schema were considered paramount; that the ever-expanding working class was transforming into an ever more powerful industrial proletariat thanks to economic industrialization, and that eventually all of society would polarize into just two contending social classes—the proletariat versus the bourgeoisie—that would engage in open class warfare.

Now I’ve always worked, exchanging my labor for wages, when I wasn’t actively avoiding work. The abolition of work has always been a focus of mine. Thanks in part to a family inheritance, I’m now comfortably retired from wage labor.

My mother was from a Polish middle class family and my father from minor Polish aristocracy. They raised me middle class in a bourgeois European cultural sense. As a refugee from the second World War, dad joined the US Army. He became a US citizen, qualified for GI benefits, got a college degree, and bought a house. He moved from blue collar to white collar, ultimately becoming an upper management Federal government civil servant and elevating his family into the middle class.

I have always stood with the working class and its revolutionary aspirations, but now like any respectable Marxist I’m for the proletariat abolishing itself as a class through its self-emancipation. Whether I’m truly working class is complicated.

One thing I’m not is a Maoist who believes that “proletarian consciousness” is some kind of Leftist panacea. Somewhat akin to the class consciousness of E.P. Thompson and György Lukács—in which the subjective proletarian mindset arises out of protracted historical class struggles—proletarian consciousness is more likely to result from prolonged criticism/self-criticism party “struggle sessions.” And this bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the “conversion experience” of various religions. Acquiring proletarian consciousness is more important, and supersedes, all other markers of class—class background, class reality, class aspiration, and class stance—in the Maoist scheme of things. During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, student Red Guards vied to become “more proletarian than thou,” summarily dismissing and denouncing each other, even industrial workers as not sufficiently proletarian. Pitched street battles were fought and lives lost over who did or did not have the correct proletarian consciousness.

I consider myself vaguely middle class nowadays, given how uneven my proletarian qualifications are. There’s all sorts of ways classical Marxist class analysis has been muddied by late stage capitalism. This ranges from the insignificant difference-without-a-distinction between wage labor and salaried labor to the more consequential growth of the white collar work that shades into the substantial managerial strata required by the state and corporate capitalism. Also needing a mention is the use of corporate stock ownership to differentiate between ownership versus control of the means of production. Then there’s the reality that individuals can occupy multiple social classes either serially or contiguously, personally identify with numerous classes, have family ties in different social classes, or take on momentary leadership roles that push class boundaries. Finally, there are the realities of post-Fordism; flexible production using flexible machines or systems and a flexible workforce, high-tech economies of scope, massive economic inequalities, decline of unions and collective bargaining, all within a post-welfare state and vast concentrations of speculative finance capital.

I’ve been discussing how to define the working class and what makes one proletariat as I examine my own sense of class. My intention is to eventually develop a comprehensive analysis of class along several lines of inquiry threaded through the usual, somewhat eclectic subjects I explore monthly. First, how is the concept of the working class relevant to the Left and society today and can the proletariat be the basis for constructing a genuine liberatory socialist society? Second, is it feasible for a relational class identity to be combined with the particularist/essentialist identity politics of race, ethnoculture, sex, and gender into a multifaceted socialist movement? Third, what is to be done with the concept of class under socialism, specifically with regard to notions of the nomenklatura (Michael Voslenski), the “New Class” (Milovan Đilas), and bureaucratic collectivism (Max Shachtman)? Fourth, can the concept and functionality of the working class be superseded by diffuse left-leaning populist movements (eg. Global Justice Movement, Occupy Wall Street)? Fifth, can the concept and functionality of the capitalist ruling class be replaced by notions of “globalist elites” (eg, European Union, United Nations)? Finally, is it time to question the working class as either obsolete (André Gorz) or a blind alley (Krisis Group) and how might we engage in struggle without classes?

I’m also interested in what “immaterial labor” and a “postindustrial society” mean? Is there such a thing as the precariat, a social class formed by individuals with no job security or no prospect for regular employment, and how does that differ from the lumpenproletariat? My proletarian self-education continues.

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The once and future Left: “What’s Left?” June 2019 (MRR #433)

Let’s talk about dysfunctional relationships.

We love them from a distance, even going so far as to make movies about them. From Richard Burton’s and Elizabeth Taylor’s tortuous on-again off-again love affair that fans believed underlaid the ferocious film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, to punk rock’s murder/suicide darlings Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen who were the subject of the eponymous biopic Sid and Nancy, we’re fascinated by such emotional human train wrecks. Richard Kruspe of the sketchy brutalist band Rammstein commented that being in a band is “like a relationship. It’s a marriage without sex.” Vin Diesel’s movie xXx featured a clip of Rammstein playing “Feuer frei!” Dysfunctional musicians in dysfunctional bands is a tired old trope.

The history of larger human institutions is equally fraught with social dysfunction. “If measured by the number of lives it destroyed,” wrote author Elizabeth Gilbert, “Then you can’t find a worse alliance than the marriage between the Nazi Party and the Catholic Church, sealed with the Reichskonkordat treaty in 1933. Like many abused wives, the Church initially thought it would be protected by its powerful husband (from Communism, in this case), but instead became complicit in unthinkable psychopathy.” Today, the European Union is often criticized as a marriage of convenience that has since gone awry. “This one has sabotaged the siesta, those gorgeous lire, French-baked baguettes,” author Stacy Schiff comments. “Down this road lies a Starbucks on every Slovenian corner.” The battle over Brexit continues to remind both Britain and the continent of how unsatisfactory the European Union has become. Continue reading

Western Civilization and Its Discontents: “What’s Left?” December 2015, MRR #391


Mistah Kurtz—he dead…

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 1902

We need only glance at the awesome population figures predicted for the year 2000, i.e., twenty-eight years from now: seven billion people, only nine hundred million of whom will be white.

Jean Raspail, author of The Camp of Saints, 1972

I’ll put it bluntly: Nothing you love will survive without white people.

Jared Taylor, “An Open Letter to Cuckservatives,” American Renaissance, July 2015

Let’s take two people: Bill Maher and Gavin McInnes. Both are writers, actors, political commentators, media personalities, and comedians of a sort. That’s what they do for a living however, and there the similarities end. These two individuals couldn’t be more different when it comes to what they believe.

Bill Maher calls himself a liberal, albeit one with a libertarian streak, an advocate of decriminalizing if not legalizing most “soft” drugs and prostitution, a pro-choice, pro-feminist, gay-friendly atheist who is anti-racist and against US military interventionism abroad. Gavin McInnes considers himself a conservative with libertarian tendencies, an opponent of legalizing “adult vices” like drugs and prostitution, a pro-life, anti-feminist Catholic with assorted issues about the usual suspects—gays, trans-folk, blacks, illegal immigrants—who likes his wars necessary and just. Funny thing is, despite these obvious political disagreements, Maher and McInnes both agree on a political tenet so fundamental as to constitute a common worldview, the need to defend Western civilization.

Catch Maher’s tirades on Real Time with Bill Maher, or McInnes’s rants on Red Eye and TheRebelMedia, and they sound remarkably alike. Muslims suck. Liberals are brain-dead or self-hating idiots and need to wake up. The West is ashamed or oblivious and needs to cultivate some brass. We’re at war. We need to defend Western civilization, the West, our way of life from those goddamned Mooslims!

This umbrella sentiment—defend Western civilization—held by mainstream left-right-and-center, as well as certain elements on the fringes, relies upon volatile, highly emotional symbols. The Muslim hordes are once again at the gates of Vienna and Poitiers, symbolically speaking. And, there is a search for the next 9/11 to wake us all up. 11/M—the Madrid train bombings of 3/11/05—was the next 9/11, and 7/7—the London bombings of 7/7/05—was the next 9/11. Now, the Paris shootings of 1/8/15 (and 11/13/15) have been equated with 9/11, and the hope was that the events in Paris would act as a rallying point around which the West could marshal its resolve.

A reporter once asked Gandhi: “What do you think about Western civilization?” Gandhi replied: “I think it would be a good idea.” So while I broach the subject in this column, I can only scratch its surface. Consider for instance just the distinctions between Maher and McInnes among the myriad “defenders of the West.” For McInnes, Islamic culture is backward, violent, inbred, not civilized, requiring a culture war or a religious war to protect “our entire civilization.” For Maher, all religion is a bad idea, but Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas, necessitating a war against them by those holding liberal Western values and ideas to preserve “our way of life.” But what the hell is “Western civilization” anyway?

If we use strict political categories and define Western civilization as that aggregate of liberal democratic nation-states that purport to be based on and supportive of Western (e.g., Enlightenment) values, this is entirely ephemeral. Liberal democracies often become authoritarian or totalitarian regimes with alarming consequences (Italy in the 1920s, Germany in the 1930s, Czechoslovakia in the 1940s), and those nations touted as “the Switzerland of X” (Uruguay in South America, Uganda or Rwanda in Africa, Singapore in Asia) are anything but upon closer examination. Maher and McInnes are proud citizens of liberal Western-style democracies even as they consider liberal democracy the Achilles heel of those countries. And despite their professed libertarianism, when push comes to shove, Maher and McInnes often advocate very illiberal, undemocratic means such as racial profiling to combat the perceived threat of Islamic extremism.

If we defer to what we learned in our primary and secondary education, Western civilization is based on some combination of our Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian traditions. Right off the bat, atheists like Maher would take issue with any form of religion counting positively toward the heritage of the West. For the classic liberalism that Maher claims, the Enlightenment legacy of reason, science, and skepticism constitute the best of what the West has to offer. For McInnes, he accepts the whole vague social/cultural package defined as Western civilization, having converted from atheism to Catholicism and from anarchism to conservatism. Certain white power types would take offense at inclusion of the Jews in any affirmative evaluation of the West, since the Jews and Judaism are evil incarnate. This leads the ultra-right to efforts to redefine Christianity without its Judaic core, as in Christian Identity, or to abandon Christianity altogether for some amalgam of European paganism or out-and-out atheism. As for the Greco-Roman part of the equation, and again aside from the Enlightenment emphasis on these roots as the classical West’s cultural and philosophical beginnings, there are many contenders for more-European-than-thou sources. The Celts and Germanic peoples—the latter a part of some mythic Aryan race—to pan-Slavism and Eurasianism—which seeks to shift the focus of European civilization from west to east, and to a Greater Russian geopolitical dominance that rejects Western European values—are all contenders for the origins of Western Civilization.

So, which values are real, true Western values? Is Western civilization at its core pagan Celto-Germanic tribalism, or Talmudic Judaism, or Greek city-states, or Roman imperialism, or crusading Medieval Christianity, or Enlightenment modernism, or Slavic orthodoxies, or Russian Mongol corporatism? Aside from broad and banal generalizations, can anything uniquely Western be discerned in the music, literature, dance, painting, and architecture subsumed under the label Western culture? Can Western and Eastern be convincingly separated? Are the rule of law, secularism, science, and technology what distinguishes Western civilization? Can any combination of the above stand for the whole, or must we be satisfied with an undifferentiated, cumulative understanding of Western civilization? Or is Western civilization like pornography, something that cannot be clearly defined, but we know it when we see it?

If the political is ephemeral and the social/cultural is vague, the biological seems to offer certainty. Western civilization is the product of white people, and white people are the source of all that is good in the world. Hence the current popularity of DNA ancestry analysis that attempts to associate certain DNA markers with geographic locations as when, for instance, the distribution of the maternal haplogroup H is correlated overwhelmingly with the European subcontinent. From there it’s a small step to equate such analyses with a genetic causation for ersatz races and their behaviors, bringing us back to the “scientific” racism and eugenics of two centuries prior. Maher clearly detests and denounces such racialized definitions of Western civilization and resists taking this step. But McInnes shamelessly flirts with them. According to McInnes, sub-Saharan Africa had no written languages before white people arrived. Our advanced technologies were all invented by white people, and our material superiority is all due to the hard work of white people. “I love being white and I think it’s something to be very proud of. […] I don’t want our culture diluted. We need to close the borders now and let everyone assimilate to a Western, white, English-speaking way of life.” (NYT, 9/28/03) McInnes even denies that black people had much to do with creating rock and roll, he’s so dead set on affirming that “white is right.”

When he’s not playing the contrarian, McInnes is responding in part to increased anger and frustration on the ultra-right as white racists feel increasingly besieged. The issue here is power. When white people held uncontested social power, white racists gloried in being white supremacists, fully backing the superiority and domination of white people over all others. When that power was challenged in the slightest degree and Enlightenment values such as equality threatened to emerge, white racists became the voice of the “embattled white minority” and fancied themselves white nationalists seeking to secede as a separate white nation. Countering the biological explanation for Western civilization does not merely require invoking the statistical truism that correlation is not causation, that the correlation of genetic factors with geographic location is not the cause of a so-called race’s achievements and failures. What also is required is countering a logical fallacy that confuses the repeatability and predictability of hard science with the lack of either in history.

That the past 10,000 years of human history and 2 million years of human evolution have led us to a world where capitalism, the nation state, white supremacy and patriarchy reign supreme tells us only so much. We cannot repeat history over and over, like a scientific experiment, to see whether or not we get the same results. Science depends on predicting future experimental results from successful past experimental results. But despite some historians seeing patterns in history, any ability to predict the future based on a study of the past has remained elusive. A particularly virulent configuration of wealth and power won the game we call history this time around, but since we can’t ever play the game again there’s no way to know whether that win was a fluke due to luck or a certainty due to merit.

Marx committed this fallacy himself in seeking to formulate a scientific socialism based on historical materialism. But there you go, another dead white European male whose ideas and the movements he inspired are very much a part of Western civilization. Again, whatever the fuck that means. Maybe the only way to make sense of Western civilization nowadays is how Joseph Conrad did it by counterposing Europe to The Other, in his case Africa, as a “foil to Europe, a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest” as Chinua Achebe once commented.

Maher, McInnes and other defenders of the West against radical Islam consistently contend that what Islam needs today is its own Reformation or Enlightenment. Seriously? Consider that from 1517 (the start of the Protestant Reformation) to roughly 1650 (an arbitrary start for the Enlightenment) between 10 and 30 million people perished across Europe in various conflicts related to the clash between Protestantism and Catholicism. In less than 150 years, on a subcontinent of roughly 4 million square miles and 70-80 million people, something like 20 million people died in Reformation, Counterreformation, the Thirty Years War, indeed scores of major wars and upheavals. This doesn’t include the “New World” that Europe was exploring, conquering and colonizing at the time. The period in Europe from the Reformation to the Enlightenment was truly a slaughterhouse, yet a comparable social transformation is being urged onto the Islamic world as a great idea.

Or maybe, perversely, it’s already happening. Perhaps Islam is undergoing it’s equivalent of the Reformation and Enlightenment right now. But to soberly compare 16th/17th century Christian fratricide to the modern Middle East—to the sectarian, ethnic, national and class conflicts engulfing vast swaths of a region with some 7 million square miles and half a billion people for the past 2 to 3 decades—we need to realize that we’re are all in for some nasty shit. The exponential expansion in firepower from Medieval Europe to the Middle East today alone should give us pause.

Our brave defenders of Western civilization have a hard time seeing what’s under their noses, much less the future.

(Copy editing by K Raketz.)

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