pt. 2: Third World Third Positionism: “What’s Left?” October 2019 (MRR #437)

I had a favorite t-shirt in the 1980s, one I owned several of and wore frequently. It was red with a stylized black silkscreened image of Alberto Korda’s famous photo of Ernesto “Che” Guevara printed above his popular quote: “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by feelings of great love.” Korda’s image of Che with military beret and solemn expression was taken during a Cuban state funeral; handsome, heroic, and seemingly immortal. I wore the t-shirt around the UC San Diego campus without incident or even much notice, but I liked pushing the envelope by wearing it all around the very conservative city of San Diego.

While wearing the shirt and eating my customary grease-, carb- and meat-heavy breakfast washed down with several bottles of Negra Modelo beer outside Harry’s Coffee Shop in La Jolla circa 1985, I noticed a young man glaring at me. Harry’s was a local favorite, so I assumed he was a surfer because of his shaggy haircut, Quiksilver Hawaiian shirt, colorful boardshorts, and leather huarache sandals. He frowned at me over a decimated plate of food next to which rested a russet guampa, a hollow calabash gourd lipped with silver from which a silver bombilla straw protruded. A waitress poured more hot water into his maté gourd before bussing his dishes and leaving the check.

“You realize Che was not Cuban,” the man said after taking a sip, his Spanish accent patrician.

“He was Argentinian,” I said. “But Castro’s revolutionary government granted Che Cuban citizenship ‘by birth’ in 1959.”

“Bravo.” He raised the guampa in mock salute. “Not many yanquis, especially gabacho izquierdistas, know much about Guevara’s background.”

I nodded, then continued demolishing my breakfast. He counted out his money to pay for the meal and stood, cradling his gourd.

“I presume though you think Che is Third World. He certainly has been made into a symbol for Third World leftist revolution. But Argentina is not a Third World country, ethnically speaking. Argentina was settled by Spanish, Italian, and German migrants who completely wiped out the native indiano populations. There was no race mixing. The Argentine population is almost pure European. Che Guevara was as white as you or I, so it is laughable to consider him Third World.”

I’ve mentioned Ernesto “Che” Guevara in relation to fellow Argentinian Juan Perón and his Third Positionist justicialismo ideology. Third Positionism—the myth of a politics that is neither left nor right—has one source in the Third World after the second World War but another source in the First World before the first World War. Extreme Left movements first converged with ultranationalist authoritarian extreme Right movements between the revolutionary syndicalists influenced by Georges Sorel and the Action Française of Charles Maurras in the early 20th century. This matured in Italy during and after the first World War with the ultranationalist, irredentist activities of Gabriele D’Annunzio which culminated in his seizure of the city of Fiume, as well as in the evolution of Benito Mussolini from the far-left wing of the Italian Socialist Party to the first Fascist seizure of power in 1922. The 1922 March on Rome shifted the development of Fascist Third Positionism from Italy to Germany with the proliferation of rightwing antisemitic organizations and movements alternate to the Nazis like Conservative Revolutionism, Strasserism, National Bolshevism, and the like. Even Ernst Röhm’s tenure in the NSDAP’s Sturmabteilung (SA) constituted Third Positionism in its claim to be the vanguard of the “National Socialist revolution,” with Röhm calling for an overtly anti-capitalist “second revolution.” When Hitler assassinated Röhm and Gregor Strasser on the “Night of the Long Knives” in 1934, orthodox Nazism was consolidated and the move to Third Positionism was curtailed during the second World War.

Cross contamination was inevitable given the violent antagonism between Marxism and Fascism. Taking on Marxism’s class based schema, Italian nationalist Enrico Corradini developed the concept of the “proletarian nation” in 1910 which transposed the class struggle to the struggle between nations. D’Annunzio, Mussolini, and the Strasser brothers among others defended this notion. But it gained little traction until the defeat of classical Fascism in Italy and Germany, the instigation of the Cold War between the Soviet bloc’s “socialism in one country” and the American-led “free world,” and the upsurge of anti-colonial struggles in the Third World after the end of the second World War. Third World anti-imperialism didn’t just take the form of socialist struggles for national liberation, or even the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) of underdeveloped and developing nations not formally aligned with either of the two Cold War superpowers. It often took a reactionary anti-imperialist turn that talked about going beyond Left and Right. In a phrase, it was Third World Third Positionism where proletarian nations struggled internationally against bourgeois nations.

I discussed Juan Perón at length and mentioned Bolivia’s National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) in passing in a past column. Of the MNR’s reactionary anti-imperialism Loren Goldner had this to say:
In the case of Bolivia, the multi-class nationalism epitomized by MNR intellectual Carlos Montenegro, with its problematic of the “nation” versus the “foreign,” combined in practice with the corporatist models attempted by 1936-1940 “military socialism” and the 1943-1946 Villaroel regime, and influenced to different degrees by Mussolini’s Italy, the Primo de Rivera dictatorship in Spain, Nazi Germany, Vargas’s Brazil, Peron’s Argentina and the Mexico of Cardenas. Though the standing bourgeois army in Bolivia (in contrast to these other experiences) simply dissolved and had to be rebuilt (as it quickly was), theoretical disarmament set the stage for the practical disarmament of the worker militias. (“Anti-Capitalism or Anti-Imperialism? Interwar Authoritarian and Fascist Sources of A Reactionary Ideology: The Case of the Bolivian MNR”)
Goldner clearly defines a Latin American Third World Third Positionist bloc.

Another Third World Third Positionist bloc emerged in the Middle East, determined by the rise of pan-Arab nationalism. Reacting to Western imperialism and Zionist colonialism, the pan-Arabic nationalist response was unsteady and uneven between the two world wars, going so far as to court “the enemy of my enemy” in the case of Haj Amin al-Husseini’s collaboration with Nazi Germany in Mandatory Palestine. Reactionary Arab anti-imperialism after the second World War—as exemplified by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, various Ba’athist parties and regimes in Syria and Iraq, and the short-lived Egyptian/Syrian United Arab Republic—was explicitly national-socialist. Arab Third Positionism took inspiration from European Fascism, suppressed socialist and communist unions and parties while seeking Soviet aid, adopted corporatist economic models, promoted modernization and state nationalization of foreign and domestic assets, and engaged in “military socialism.” This reached a pinnacle in the Libya of Muammar Gaddafi, whose Green Book rejected representative democracy and promised a third path between capitalism and communism. Gaddafi’s Jamhariyah system embodied the true “state of the masses” funded by Libya’s oil reserves. Combine Arab Third Positionism with a virulent anti-Zionist opposition to Israel that readily spilled over into anti-Jewish anti-semitism and you have the closest approximation to orthodox Nazism to date.

I don’t have space to discuss the leftist ethnic nationalism of Labor Zionism’s “socialism for one people” in Palestine or Nyerere’s ujamaa socialism in Tanzania, nor of Third World Third Positionism in sub-Saharan Africa (Idi Amin’s Uganda) or Asia (the Juche regime in North Korea). Maoism’s repurposing of the concept of “proletarian nation” is also beyond our scope. The defining characteristic of Third World ultranationalist resistance to capitalist neo-colonialism and Western imperialism is not racial identity, but rather a reactionary Third Positionist anti-imperialism that seeks to substitute a struggle between nations internationally for the classic Marxist international class struggle.

White “First World” adherents to Third Positionism, in turn, have adopted a Third Worldist view of international affairs. This has meant overt solidarity with Third Positionist Third World regimes and movements on the grounds they constitute non-white racial nationalist resistance to Western multiculturalism, multiracialism and Zionism. Decrying the creep of non-white cultural influences into white Western nations from the colonies and vice-versa, First World Third Positionists nevertheless consider their Third World counterparts kindred spirits to white nationalist movements in the developed West. The European Nouvelle Droite has cultivated ties with Islamist groups, and US Third Positionists have sought common cause with the Nation of Islam and other Black Nationalist groups over anti-semitism and racial separatism. That doyen of ultraright high idiocy, Troy Southgate, fleshed out Third Positionism from his faux guerrilla National Revolutionary Faction to National Anarchism, his bastard ideology of decentralized racial/ethnic tribal autonomy. The move from white power and white supremacy to white nationalism and a white ethnostate, in fact, has Third Positionist ethno-pluralist ramifications in implying that non-whites can pursue racial/ethnic separatism and nationalism as well. The loosely-organized far right populist Posse Comitatus movement has even proposed extending white ethnonationalism down to the county level.

Despite the Third Positionist claim to “go beyond Left and Right,” it’s wise to remember Upton Sinclair’s sentiment that: “Fascism is capitalism plus murder.”

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Rob Miller, Tau Cross and the spiritualism of fools: “What’s Left?” August 2019 (MRR #435)

Music in the 60s tended to be godawful serious. The folk protest music was self-righteous and the rock and roll was full of itself. I’ve had a decent sense of humor about most things, including music, and thanks to my rather broadminded parents I was introduced early to Spike Jones and Tom Lehrer. When I transitioned to all that hippie music I appreciated the satire of Phil Ochs and The Smothers Brothers and the sarcasm of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention and of course Captain Beefheart. And I enjoyed the music of various outliers, the surreal humor of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (“Yeah! Digging General de Gaulle on accordion./Rather wild, General!/Thank you, sir.”) and the playful Americana of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. When I heard that vocalist and guitarist Jim Kweskin had joined the Lyman Family, the LSD cult of banjo and harmonica player Mel Lyman, I was taken aback.

I mean, the 60s counterculture was full of cults centered around charismatic asshole men, from Charles Manson’s Family to the Process Church, Steve Gaskin’s The Farm, and David Berg’s Children of God. The New Left was little better, spawning the likes of Lyndon LaRouche, Donald DeFreeze’s Symbionese Liberation Army, Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple, and Marlene Dixon’s Democratic Workers Party, one of the rare political cults lead by a woman. And let’s mention Synanon, the Élan School and Scientology simply in passing. For all the talk about spiritual or political liberation back in the day, the first kneejerk response by people seeking their own liberation was often to join an authoritarian mind-control cult. So no, I wasn’t really surprised that Kweskin was part of the Fort Hill Community in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. Mel Lyman had been called the East Coast Charles Manson by Rolling Stone in 1971. I was seriously disappointed however, and I just couldn’t listen to his music anymore.

So I get it.

You’re listening to your favorite band’s cryptic lyrics in your favorite song that really rocks and you’re slamming to it when somebody tells you, hey, they’re a bunch of Nazis or Christians or Krishnas or whatever. Suddenly, instantly, you experience the band and their music in a whole new light. You can never listen to them the same way ever again, or listen to them ever again for that matter. No doubt that happened to Tau Cross fans upon learning that frontman and former Amebix bassist Rob Miller was an admirer of noted Holocaust denier Gerard Menuhin. Tau Cross’s record label, Relapse Records, is refusing to release the band’s latest album, “Messengers of Deception,” or work with Rob Miller anymore due to that association. Rennie Jaffe says in his Relapse Records statement: “Suddenly the lyrics and themes of the new record were cast in a new light, for me. I spoke with Rob Miller, […] and while he denied being a Holocaust denier, I cannot comfortably work on or sell a record that dabbles in ideologies such as these.”

Personally, I was never a fan of Amebix or the sound they pioneered in punk. Too sludgy, too speedy, and way too metal for my taste. I hear Tau Cross is more of the same. Still, I empathize with what fans of Tau Cross are going through. It’s not productive to ask why Miller’s fellow bandmates didn’t know about his scummy beliefs while they worked and socialized so closely with him. Clearly, Miller kept his rightwing, conspiratorial, Holocaust denialism a secret and cloaked its expression in obscure, enigmatic song lyrics. More productive would be to examine how Miller arrived at this alt-right idiocy from his original anarcho-punk orientation in Amebix. I’ll be using Miller’s own words, past and present, for reference.

Nothing in punk or anarchism guarantees critical thinking, so we can find a number of non-rational thought processes dominant in their anarcho-punk hybrid. Some animal rights, veganist and pacifist beliefs found in the anarcho-punk milieu have an unchallenged “spiritual” component. Throughout his career, Rob Miller professed an interest in mythology and mysticism, contending in a 2010 interview with PunkNews that: “I think at the end of the day, Amebix is primarily a spiritually influenced band. The great thrust or message of an esoteric nature, and that is open to interpretation too.” From a fascination with Celtic paganism, Holy Grail romances, Enochian stories and “the archetypal form of the sun/fertility god,” Miller has become enamored with an equally mythological subject—Holocaust denialism—as evident in his latest, stereotypically alt-right screeds in defense of his association with Menuhin. Miller’s occult blather about the “lens of the Gnostic heresy” alludes to an often-used dichotomy between spiritual truth and religious falsehood. Coincidentally, it’s also a dichotomy common to occultists from the Thule Society that presaged Hitler and Nazism to Julius Evola who was on the far right in Mussolini’s Fascist Italy. (A list of Miller’s spiritualist interests actually reads like an Evolan esotericist bibliography.) Miller talks about seeking “the Truth” with a capital T, and labels any affirmation of the historical evidence for the Holocaust a “Religious obedience.” Even the band name and symbol Tau Cross—in referencing the Roman execution cross associated with St. Anthony of Egypt which was later adopted by St. Francis—has esoteric meanings related to the incantatory “I am the Alpha and the Omega” and the End of Days. Miller calls it a sigil because—no surprise!—he believes in chaos magic. (Or kaos magick for the initiated.) Thus we return to Miller’s annoying mystical preoccupations.

For country music and punk rock, it’s all about three chords and the truth. But that’s not the kind of “Truth” Miller means. There is commonly perceived reality, what “99 percent of people” believe in, the perfect prisoners who are “both the guards and the snitches” with “no walls, no guard, no wire, no yard.” Then there is the Truth which can only be had through study, research and “trying to refine the material and ideas to some kind of overarching theory” as only great minds like Rob Miller are capable of. “I have spent my life seeking answers, immersing myself in the forbidden, the occult, the Taboo, the places where there are still clues to how we got here, and how we can get back out.” Miller considers himself a “Free man,” part of an illuminated cognizanti, “the very few men and women who have reached out on their own initiative,” an elite initiatory 1% that accords with Ernst Jünger’s concept of The Anarch rather than any crust punk anarchy or anarchism. Miller’s Truth is the reality behind reality, which is completely divorced from fact. Miller certainly plays fast and loose with the facts, from the fudged ratings of Menuhin’s book on Amazon and Goodreads to his lie that people in Germany have been executed for denying the Holocaust and the denialist bullshit that the Holocaust never happened. In also raising his “9/11 research,” Miller firmly positions himself as a believer in conspiracy theories in general. That’s a hallmark of conspiracism, the insistence that facts don’t matter. More precisely, it’s the circular logic that any evidence against the conspiracy in question, including an absence of evidence for it, are actually evidence for the conspiracy’s truth. Thus the conspiracy becomes a matter of faith rather than of proof. Once again we touch on Miller’s crap spiritualism.

By mentioning the apologist propaganda video “Europa: The Last Battle” and decrying the “virtue signalling and outrage” over a “book they have never read”—not to mention slagging the “vague ‘Patriarchy’” and the “compromised media”— Miller demonstrates that he’s drunk the alt-right’s Koolaid (or alternately, been “red pilled” in the alt-right’s parlance). And much like the alt-right, he contends that Relapse Records is engaged in “suppression of speech” by refusing to release the band’s latest album or work with him anymore. As Axl Rosenberg points out on MetalSucks, no one is denying Rob Miller his free speech. No government broke down Miller’s front door, arrested him, or threw him in jail for his album or his beliefs. Miller’s relationship with Relapse Records was strictly business, and Relapse decided not to work with him any longer. That’s their fucking right.

As I’ve indicated, Miller’s conspiracist and Holocaust denialist beliefs are counterfactual, much as is his posturing as a victim. I feel sorry for his fellow bandmates who worked so long with such a duplicitous asshole and for the band’s fans who deserve better than the steaming pile of neo-nazi bullshit that are Miller’s lyrics. Rob Miller’s preoccupation with esoteric spiritualism and occultism was evident from his days in the Amebix. With few exceptions (OTO communist Jack Parsons), such an obsession traditionally has been the province of the far Right, where occultism, conspiracism and Holocaust denialism comfortably cohabit. It’s little wonder then that Miller has gone from one to the other so easily, or that he now defends those moves with the language of the alt-right. Much like crust punk’s alternate moniker “stenchcore,” Rob Miller and his vile connection to Gerard Menuhin stinks.

pt. 1: Perónismo and Third Positionism: “What’s Left?” July 2019 (MRR #434)

When faced with two bad choices, choose the third.

It’s the proverb I try to live by. Most prefer the lesser-of-two-evils approach to things. I prefer tertium quid every time.

Tertium quid started with Plato, who first used the term (triton ti) around 360 bce. In ancient Greek philosophy, it meant something that escapes classification in either of two mutually or more exclusive and theoretically exhaustive categories. What’s left after such a supposedly rigorous, exhaustive division is tertium quid. The third what. The third something.

Post Plato, what was considered tertium quid might be residue, sui generis, ambiguous, composite or transcendent depending on one’s philosophical inclinations. I encountered the concept indirectly via hoary Catholic theology when I briefly met a young heretical Catholic Worker named Alvin in 1969. Inspired by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, Alvin was a voluntary celibate who wanted to start a Catholic Worker commune in the Ventura County area. Which was why he was camped out in his VW microbus in the Ventura Unitarian Church’s foothill parking lot, where everything progressive and left-wing eventually wound up in those days. But Alvin was a little too radical even for the Catholic Worker. He was a fan of Paolo Freire and Latin American liberation theology, and he wanted to return to what he saw as the gospel of the early Christian church, with its emphasis on voluntary poverty, communalism, helping the poor, and liberating the oppressed. The latter required solidarity with armed struggles for socialist national liberation according to Alvin. But he was also knee-deep in the Church’s anachronistic fourth century Christological debates, specifically his championing of Apollinarism over Arianism. Both were discredited heretical doctrines, with Apollinaris of Laodicea speaking of Jesus as something neither human nor divine, but a mixture of the two natures, and therefore a “third something.” It was the first time I heard the term tertium quid. Not surprisingly, Alvin grew more personally frustrated being celibate in a time of aggressive hippie “free love,” until one day he suddenly disappeared. A quarter century later I visited San Francisco and ran into him in the Castro wearing the habit of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

Last column I described an informal left-wing “third something” I hoped was developing between anarchism and Marxism IRL with the EZLN in Chiapas and the SDF/YPG in Kurdish Rojava. Now, let’s consider a formal right-wing “third something” that disingenuously claims to be “neither Left nor Right.” In other words, Fascism. Fascist ideology was, according to Ze’ev Sternhill, “[A] variety of socialism which, while rejecting Marxism, remained revolutionary. This form of socialism was also, by definition, anti-liberal and anti-bourgeois, and its opposition to historical materialism made it the natural ally of radical nationalism.” (Neither Right Nor Left: Fascist Ideology in France) An Israeli, Sternhell was critical of Zionism as a member of the Peace Now movement. Sternhell’s thesis that Fascism arose in France out of the revolutionary syndicalism of Georges Sorel—which had gained popularity among the working classes in part because of their sociological composition—was criticized for underemphasizing the traditional conservative nature of the French Right and overemphasizing that Fascism was born of a single ideology.

You might say Fascism is revolutionary in form, but reactionary in content. Certainly, much Fascism has emphasized some variation of Sternhell’s argument that it is neither Right nor Left, capitalist nor socialist, pro-American nor pro-Communist, etc. Fascism is notoriously syncretic, polymorphous and hard to pin down, ranging from Traditionalism to fundamentalism, corporatism and Nazism, all held together by a virulent ultra-nationalism. It has nothing to do with the Third Way centrism of the likes of Tony Blair’s social democrats and Bill Clinton’s New Democrats however. It is instead an extremist third way often labeled Third Positionism, with historical roots in Strasserism, National Bolshevism, and other red-brown alliances brought up-to-date with the likes of the Nouvelle Droite, national-anarchism, and various currents in the American alt-right. To understand how slippery and dangerous Third Positionism is, consider the example of Perónismo.

Juan Perón rose to power as part of a military coup d’état against a conservative civilian president in 1943. A colonel serving in a military government with a portfolio in the Department of Labor, Perón promoted a wide range of labor reforms for unionized workers—wage increases, collective bargaining and arbitration, social insurance, social welfare benefits—which made him wildly popular among Argentina’s working classes. With Perón’s other government positions, this support allowed him to win and hold the presidency from 1946 to 1952. So great was Perón’s hold on Argentine politics he served as president intermittently thereafter, from 1952 to 1956 and 1973 to 1974. He carefully crafted a cult of personality in office and in exile which has severely skewed those politics ever since.

Perón epitomized the sort of strong man politics known in Latin America as caudillismo which was imported from Europe and fits nicely within a broader context of military rule defined by coup and junta. With a populist twist. As the strong man leading a strong state, the caudillo acts to rescue capitalism from crisis, bail out and discipline the comprador bourgeoisie, and brutally suppress the rebellious working classes.

In Perón’s case, he instead championed Argentina’s descamisados, the “shirtless ones,” the working classes which he bought off with money and social reforms like a Workers’ Bill of Rights, all while promoting economic industrialization and nationalization. Perón came to exercise increasing control over the leadership and direction of the assorted trade unions, as he did over universities and newspapers. Socialist and communist resistance to Perónismo was smashed. The state became the foremost arbiter of Argentine life and Perón became the personal arbiter of the Argentine state. This was justicialismo which Perón considered a “third ideological position aimed to liberate us from [individualist] capitalism without making us fall into the oppressing claws of [communist] collectivism.” He also encouraged Argentina’s economic and political independence from the United States and challenged America’s hemispheric domination under the Monroe Doctrine. Finally, Perón attempted from 1944 onward to steer a neutral international course between what the French fascist Robert Brasillach called the two poetries of the twentieth century—Communism and Fascism—as well as between the Cold War’s “Free World” and Soviet bloc.

This is the bare essentials of what Perón called justicialismo domestically and the Third Position internationally, twin aspects of Perónismo. But it was clear from the start which side of the Left/Right divide Perón favored. While the Soviet Union sent aid and advisors to Cuba in the 1960s, Perón’s Argentina protected Nazi war criminals. To be fair, Perón granted immediate full diplomatic recognition to Castro’s Cuba and never fomented anti-semitism or attacked Argentina’s large Jewish community. Perónismo became an ideology unto itself well before Perón died and Evita was overthrown in a military coup backed by elements of the Argentine bourgeoisie and the CIA.

The military junta that took over in 1976 as the National Reorganization Process was anti-Perónist, instigating a vicious “dirty war” from 1974 to 1983 in which the military, security forces, and right-wing death squads kidnapped, tortured, murdered and “disappeared” students, trade unionists, artists, writers, journalists, militants, left-wing activists and guerrillas numbering some 30,000. The guerrilla component was comprised not only of Marxist-Leninist groups like the People’s Revolutionary Army/ERP and the Liberation Armed Forces/FAL, but also a highly splintered Perónist guerrilla insurgency ranging from Leninist/Perónist hybrids like the Revolutionary Armed Forces/FAR, through left-wing groups like the Perónist Armed Forces/FAP and the Catholic Perónist Montonero Movement/MPM (Montoneros), to the outright antisemitic, fascist Tacuara Nationalist Movement/MNT modeled after the Spanish Falange. (As the MRNT under Joe Baxter, Tacuara renounced anti-semitism and became progressively Marxist.) Most presidents since the military junta relinquished power have been Perónist, including Menem and Kirchner.

Perón said “[o]ur Third Position is not a central position. It is an ideological position which is in the center, on the right, or on the left, according to specific circumstances.” In exile eventually in Franco’s Spain, Perón met secretly with various leftists in Madrid like Salvador Allende and Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Of Che, Perón said: “an immature utopian—but one of us—I am happy for it to be so because he is giving the yankees a real headache.” Yet, in his final days in power in Argentina, Perón also cordially met and negotiated with Pinochet. Perón’s red-brown alliances of convenience internationally and his domestic worker-oriented populism caused headaches for the Left both in Latin America and worldwide. It still does as an exemplar of generic Third Positionism, what with the global upsurge of the alt-right and its claims to go “beyond Left and Right.”

It might be argued that Perónismo is socialism with Argentine characteristics—Perón being a precursor to left-wing military rule like Bolivia’s National Revolutionary Movement or Portugal’s Carnation Revolution—and that the Argentine military junta were the real fascists. But it was clearly charismatic national fascism versus faceless client-state fascism. When faced with two bad fascist choices, choose actual socialism.

Rojava and the ghost of Kropotkin: “What’s Left?” April 2019, MRR #431

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
Karl Marx
The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852

There’s no Left left.
riffing on Gertrude Stein

 

Does history repeat? Are we living through a rerun of the interwar period (1918-1939) with a repeat of the wealth-crazed Roaring Twenties, the dark rise of Fascism, the growing international crisis, and the imminent threat to progressive politics if not all of civilization as we know it? Karl Marx was using the debacle of Louis Bonaparte rhetorically to elicit historical comparisons, bitterly mocking the political situation of his time after the dismal defeat of the 1848 revolutionary wave. Dialectics kept him from falling into the aphoristic thinking of liberal historiography a la Santayana. In reviewing the current state of affairs, I’m tempted to sidestep Marx’s biting humor to acknowledge that history often happens first as tragedy and second as even greater tragedy.

“There are a thousand differences between what happened in Spain in 1936 and what is happening in Rojava, the three largely Kurdish provinces of northern Syria, today.” So wrote anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber in a 10-8-14 Guardian opinion piece in fleshing out the general parallels so far sited between the two time periods. Besides noting the striking similarities between libertarian socialist politics in liberated territories then and now and alluding to the resemblance between the International Brigades of 1936 and the International Freedom Battalion today, Graeber concludes: “If there is a parallel today to Franco’s superficially devout, murderous Falangists, who would it be but Isis?” In further praising the “remarkable democratic experiment” being conducted by the Kurds in the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, otherwise known as Rojava, he reformulates the fascist enemy in a 2-23-18 Guardian opinion piece:

Today, this democratic experiment is the object of an entirely unprovoked attack by Islamist militias including Isis and al-Qaida veterans, and members of Turkish death squads such as the notorious Grey Wolves, backed by the Turkish army’s tanks, F16 fighters, and helicopter gunships. […] The religious extremists who surround the current Turkish government know perfectly well that Rojava doesn’t threaten them militarily. It threatens them by providing an alternative vision of what life in the region could be like.

I’ll discuss the parallels and distinctions between libertarian socialist politics then and now in a future column. The international situation and disposition of forces today are radically different from what they were in 1936. Liberal parliamentary democracy seemed to be on the ropes back in the interwar period, steadily losing ground to Fascism on the Right and Communism on the Left. Modern decolonization movements in the form of socialist struggles for national liberation hadn’t yet begun. The Soviet Union was touted as a revolutionary socialist society positioning itself as humanity’s bright utopian future around which progressives, social democrats and even anarchists rallied, confirming a world in which “[b]ourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism” according to Rosa Luxemburg. Today there is no “socialist world” and “real existing socialism” is confined to a handful of Soviet-style relic states. A decolonized Third World continues to fragment. Social democracy and progressive politics generally are losing ground to rightwing populism in liberal parliamentary democracies, part of the rightward trend worldwide toward conservatism, traditionalism, authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism, fascism, neo-nazi totalitarianism, etc. There is no “transition to Socialism,” merely the threat from various forms of Barbarism.

The centuries-long legacy of European imperialism and subsequent Third World decolonization left the Kurds and their national aspirations stateless, divided between four artificially constructed Middle Eastern nation-states and among a dozen surrounding ethnic/religious communities. With the Cold War overlay and global contention between the Soviet bloc and the “Free World,” the Kurds had a brief few decades when they sought to choose between socialism or barbarism instead of competing imperialisms. Virtually every Kurdish political formation claimed to be socialist at minimum or Marxist-Leninist in full, with several dozen conflicting Kurdish political parties divided territorially, ideologically, and by tribe/clan, thus generating a highly fractious nationalist politics. I don’t have the space to discuss this complexity other than to note that when Soviet-style Communism collapsed internationally between 1989 and 1991, the US was left the victor and sole superpower. The Kurds reoriented themselves to seeking alliances with and aid from the US, which has repeatedly proven to be a mistake.

The US has blatantly used the Kurds and their nationalist ambitions for short-term American imperialist gain time and again, betraying them without a second thought whenever it was convenient. Through the CIA, the Nixon Administration fomented a Kurdish rebellion in northern Iraq against Saddam Hussein as a favor to the shah of Iran in 1975 which Henry Kissinger then betrayed. In 1991, George H.W. Bush personally encouraged the southern Shia and northern Kurds of Iraq to revolt against Saddam Hussein, only to balk at militarily aiding those rebellions, leaving the Shiite and Kurdish insurgents to be brutally crushed by the Ba’athist dictatorship. Kurdish autonomy and the Kurdistan Regional Government that emerged thereafter were more honored in the breach than the observance by the US, establishing a de facto Kurdish independence after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That autonomy was compromised after the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 as the central Iraqi government, backed by Iran, rolled back agreements on power sharing, oil production, and territorial control with the Kurds. The 2011 collapse of Syria into civil war, and the subsequent rise of IS with its 2014 Northern Iraq offensive were followed by the battles for Kirkuk and Mosul, the consolidation of Kurdish power in northern Syria, and the Kurdish defeat of IS in both Iraq and Syria. The US aided this Kurdish military resurgence, but now Trump and the US threaten to betray America’s Kurdish allies once again by a precipitous withdrawal of troops from Syria.

The Kurds see the US as the political and military guarantor of Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq, and now in northern Syria, where Rojava is carrying out a profound libertarian socialist experiment in self-government. But the US is a notoriously unreliable partner, first and foremost because America always pursues its own imperialist interests in the region. Second, the US consistently promotes the interests of regional client states like Israel and Egypt and regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The US being the principal imperialist power remaining in the world means that support for the Kurds and Rojava is a complicated affair, especially for the left of the Left.

“Syria In Brief” is an internet project [syriainbrief.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/leftist-groups-on-the-syrian-civil-war/] which summarizes the position of some fifty-four western Leftist groups, all of which “support secularism and socialism […] and oppose intervention by Western powers, but their attitudes towards the Assad regime, the Kurdish PYD/YPG-led Rojava, the vast and multi-colored opposition,” Russian intervention, “and the so-called Islamic State vary greatly.” For the anti-imperialist Leninist Left disparagingly called “Tankies,” those politics are rigid, vulgar and formulaic. Imperialism is categorically bad and US imperialism is particularly bad, so the Butcher of Damascus Assad and his Russian allies are to be supported at all costs. Thus Tankie anti-imperialism means defending the client Syrian state of the former “real existing socialist” state of Russia without fail. By contrast, virtually all of the left communist and left anarchist groups listed—as well as assorted independent Leninists, Trotskyists and Maoists—support the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria/Rojava, the PYD/YPG/SDF, and their libertarian socialist experiment on the ground. Many also critically or partially support the Free Syrian Army in particular and the Syrian opposition generally.

But how to square the circle and support the Kurds without endorsing US imperialism? The short answer is that it can’t be done. An open letter in the New York Review of Books from the Emergency Committee for Rojava on 4-23-18 called for the defense of Rojava by demanding the US government:

  • impose economic and political sanctions on Turkey’s leadership;
  • embargo sales and delivery of weapons from NATO countries to Turkey;
  • insist upon Rojava’s representation in Syrian peace negotiations;
  • continue military support for the SDF.

David Graeber signed the letter, along with Noam Chomsky, Debbie Bookchin and scores of others. Much as the anarchist Peter Kropotkin provisionally supported the Allied cause in the first World War by signing the Manifesto of the Sixteen, the left of the Left today cannot easily back the Kurds of Rojava without tacitly supporting American imperialism. But the crude support for Assad, the Syrian government, and their Russian backers by “sundry ersatz progressives” and “fatuous self-styled ‘anti-imperialists’” means supporting “the genocide and democracide now being planned over in Ankara” and complicity with “the torture, abductions, killings and ethnic cleansing of Kurds that will follow,” according to Anna-Sara Malmgren and Robert Hockett (Haaretz, 2-2-19).

Welcome to Machiavellian realpolitik.

Communizing Moments: “What’s Left?” May 2018, MRR #420

Enjoy only 2 cosmetics, enough sleep & Dr. Bronner’s ‘Magic Soap’ to clean body-mind-soul-spirit instantly uniting One! All-One! Absolute cleanliness is Godliness! […] For who else but God gave man this sensuous passion, Love that can spark mere dust to life! Revealing beauty in our Eternal Father’s fashion, poetry, uniting All-One, all brave, all life! Who else but God! Who else!

snippets from label for 32 oz. bottle of
“Dr. Bronner’s Supermild 18-in-1 Baby-Castile Soap”

We wanted to communalize our politics, our friendships, our minds. We were five anarchists who, having read Murray Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism, decided we were an affinity group that wanted to take matters to the next level. We drove into Los Padres National Park and hiked a day into the Sespe Wilderness. Our plan was to camp, fast for three days, and then drop mescaline together. It was 1971, and even back then real mescaline was rare. It was probably LSD. It wasn’t just the times; we were a little nuts.

One of our company had to hike right back out due to medical issues, but the rest of us stayed bivouacked in a grove of shady trees near an icy mountain creek while we drank only water and avoided doing much else. The collective psychedelic trip was typical. Ego death. Oneness with all things. Direct communication with the collective unconsciousness and group mind. Seeing without eyes, talking without speech, traveling without the body. Becoming one with the transcendent. Oh yes, and lots of brilliant colors and mystical patterns. I never hallucinated independent visuals, but the drug made the unmediated kairos pushy, fiery, as if electricity raced through my veins. Much of what I felt was familiar thanks to a non-drug spiritual experience I’d had a couple years before. After what we considered were profound revelations culminating in collective consciousness, we broke our fast with Dinty Moore Beef Stew over a sparkling campfire in a percolating night. The next morning, we hiked back out.

Experimenting with drug-induced group mind was all the rage in the day, from the Trips Festivals of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters to the Weather Underground’s acid fueled criticism sessions. But the unmediated all-one spiritual experience of various New Age religions and communalist cults was just as prominent. Harvard professor, LSD guru, and psychedelic pioneer Richard Alpert believed it was possible to achieve the psychedelic moment without drugs, through spiritual means, and he wrote a famous book Be Here Now as Baba Ram Dass about the possibility of staying all-one all the time without the benefit of LSD. Even Dr. Bronner promoted the All-One mystical experience through his magic castile soap.

Beat poet and anarchist Kenneth Rexroth wrote a book, Communalism: From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century, which circulated in manuscript form before being published in 1974. In it he laid out various examples of the libertarian communal tradition. For the pre-modern era he covered the neolithic village, early religious communities like the Essenes and early Church monasticism, the beginnings of open class warfare in various rural rebellions and peasant wars, and the apocalyptic/millenarian/quasi-communist religious movements of Münster, the Anabaptists, and the Diggers. The Russian peasant commune, early American utopian communes, and the beginnings of overt anarchist and communist political experiments completed his survey of the modern era. Rexroth nicely linked up the spiritual and political roots of communalism, and it wouldn’t take much to extend his analysis to the insurrectionary/communizing politics of today’s anarchist/left communist milieu.

This will be yet another essay critiquing Leftist practice and politics, except what I’ll be talking about are the promises and problems of what might be called the propitious communizing moment. Whether the experience is political, spiritual, or drug-induced, this is one polarity of the human experience that has been around for a long time, perhaps as long as there have been humans. I hate to use words like “trans-historical” or “human nature” because, first and last, humans are social beings. And to argue that such unmediated communizing moments are merely the product of human biochemistry is misdirected because all human experience is biochemically based. But what of the insistence that any such experience be made universal, all-encompassing, and 24/7?

Perhaps my most disturbing moment came when I once scored weed from a hippie house where the goal was to remain dosed on acid morning, noon, and night. They kept a bottle of non-chlorinated mineral water laced with LSD in the refrigerator and everyone drank from it throughout the day. The memory of the tranced-out zombie residents haunts me still. I remember both Ken Kesey and Wavy Gravy talking about the gaping holes in their memories where data and recollection simply disappeared from prolonged acid use, a black hole, a dark star, the “smokin’ holes where my memory used to be” in “the train wreck of the mind.”

I occasionally sit zazen at the San Francisco Soto Zen Center. Communally organized and hierarchically structured, the goal is to remain present here and now at all times even while profound incidents of immanence and transcendence are considered rare. Everyday mindfulness as opposed to perpetual nirvana. That the highly organized communalism of such spiritual institutions often degenerates into kool-aid cults organized by and around crazed gurus bent on mass murder or collective suicide is not at all surprising.

Which brings us back to politics. The demand in the the ’60s was not only for permanent revolution but REVOLUTION NOW. Raoul Vaneigem and the Situationists talked of the “revolution of everyday life” and Daniel Cohn-Bendit argued that “the reason to be a revolutionary in our time is that it’s a better way to live.” The manifesto for libertarian communism however was Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism. And his post-scarcity, post industrial, post Marxist anarchist communism was nothing if not utopian. He proposed decentralized, autonomous communes where divisions between theory and practice, freedom and necessity, individual and collective, town and country, industry and agriculture, nature and humanity, technology and ecology are merged into a revolutionary synthesis, an unmediated totality, a political all-one. From the decentralized communism of self-contained communes, Bookchin’s social ecology eventually broke with post-scarcity anarchism for a more practical, communalist libertarian muncipalism based on democratic citizens’ assemblies in towns, cities, and urban neighborhoods linked by regional democratic confederalism. That in turn has become the basis for the revolutionary Kurdish politics in Rojava.

I understood early on that daily psychedelic use was not advisable, but it took me longer to realize I preferred workaday mindfulness to everlasting nirvana, or practical libertarian municipalism to utopian post-scarcity anarchism. I would rather my propitious, unmediated communizing moments be less awe-inspiring and all-encompassing. I’ve mentioned the tendency in such spiritual experiences to degrade into authoritarian cults of personality with a propensity for murder and mayhem. Consider that the politics in question also have an affinity with fascism’s unmediated collectivism. To the old Soviet precept about the politicization of aesthetics, where art is subordinated to politics a la socialist realism, Walter Benjamin contended that the key element to Fascist regimes is the aestheticization of politics. Life and politics are conceived of as innately artistic, to be structured as an art form, and thus imbued with eternal spectacle. In turn, Fascism’s utopian fantasies are of an unmediated poetic space where direct communication is the howl of the dog that goes silent. Life, politics, and art can only be redeemed from fascist degeneration, according to Benjamin, by making them truly dialectical, a concrete form of praxis.

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.

Travels with Synesthesia: “What’s Left?” October 2017, MRR #413

I stood on an outdoor train platform surrounded by snow in my fever dream. The sky was black, speckled with white, either stars or snow. The ground was white flecked with black, and as I looked more closely at the snowy ground I grew distraught. It was like looking at white skin dotted with black pores, only the skin was like a sheet of greasy virginal Crisco and the black pits were putrefaction personified. I was deeply disturbed by the dual view, the juxtaposition of silky white as seen from a distance and black rot seen up close, and this ugly double vision had a smell, like burned hair.

It was a nightmare actually, the product of a bad case of measles when I was seven years old. When I startled from the terror of that dream, the combined view persisted well into my wakefulness and I had to shake myself, blink a number of times and crane my head back and forth, to finally dispel the affect. The fever produced a couple repeats of the nightmare while I was sick, but it was more upsetting when the night terrors returned when I was no longer ill. For a few years afterwards I had the horrible dream intermittently, complete with the frightening double vision and associated smell that continued after the dream woke me. I had to get out of bed each time and move around my room to make the hallucination dissipate.

It was my first experience of synesthesia. The twisted visual dream was intertwined with the smell, two senses linked together as one, the visual creating the olfactory. I was so freaked out about the double vision thing and preoccupied with preventing future nightmares that I didn’t notice the connection until well after I had managed to suppress the dream’s reoccurrence. I accidentally singed my hair as a fourteen-year-old adolescent pyromaniac playing with freelance rocket making and the stench immediately triggered a brief episode of double nightmare vision.

My second instance of synesthesia happened after I turned 18. I had just registered for the Vietnam draft, enrolled at Ventura Junior College in anticipation of transferring as a junior to UC Santa Cruz, and started hanging out with some high school friends now attending college who were part of Campus Crusade for Christ. They gently badgered me to attend prayer circles and bible studies, triggering my latent Catholic guilt feelings about everything from masturbation to experimenting with drugs. One Saturday afternoon, as I walked through the lemon and avocado groves near my home in deep, troubled contemplation, I was visited by god.

At least that’s how it felt at that moment. Everything around me became brilliant, clear, and sparkling. I felt immersed in everything around me, and simultaneously elevated above it all. I had a sense of personal calm, but not of peace. And there was a burning firewood and slightly fruity smell. I had the sensation of being in the presence of something vast and powerful and absolutely frightening, something with which I was in communion, something that was about to change my life. For the first time I understood the meaning of the word awe, a feeling of reverence and respect mixed with fear and trembling. It was not in any way a pleasant sensation. I was simultaneously overwhelmed, exalted, and terrified.

Thus began my brief stint as a born-again Christian, where being touched by god was inextricably linked to the smell of the burning bush. It quickly evaporated into my longstanding atheism as I ultimately tried to explain away my experience. The smell, well I was in the middle of a lemon grove so maybe there was some brush burning nearby. I eventually started taking psychedelics and noticed the similarity between those chemical experiences and my spiritual one, including lots of drug-induced synesthesia. But to call my mystical experience biochemically based doesn’t say much as all our experiences are ultimately biochemical in origin. Only when I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Living with a Wild God much later did I reconcile myself to the possibility there are still mysteries to the universe to which I’m not privy.

I may never have been touched by god but I have been hammered by the migraine devil, a surefire cause for my synesthesia nowadays. I started getting migraines when I was around 43. They were rare, and both classic—with prodrome, aura, and excruciating headache—and intense, incapacitating me for 8 hours minimum. I became dissociative to the point of verbal and mental incoherence until I just went to sleep for the rest of the day, to wake sometime later with a horrific migraine hangover. Over the years, my migraines increased in frequency and decreased in severity, so that I now get one every month or so, each just a little bit of an aura and no appreciable, immediate headache. I have tried botox treatments and now do a micro-dose of an anti-convulsant drug.

A recent migraine started with sensitivity to light, then a dizzying head rush when I stood up, quickly converting to a sparkly scotoma complete with scintillating lights and jagged black-and-white anasazi lines, all sharply bordered into a blindspot that slowly floated across my vision. I had errands to run, but I took the time to let the brief aura dissipate. It did not automatically turn into a headache, but the disassociation started on the drive down the hill to a nearby commercial neighborhood. Everything appeared simultaneously vaguely familiar and utterly strange. I seemed to be in a Tyrolean Alpine village, odd and quaint, at the bottom of a deep, dark mountain ravine. And the crisp air was saturated with the odor of burnt metal.

The Greek prefix syn- means united, with, together, at the same time. Thanks to my migraines, I experience low level hallucinations and synesthesia intermittently, where my senses run together. Nothing like my childhood fever dreams or my adolescent altered states of consciousness, yet still a departure from reality. Even without the outright instances of synesthesia, I grasped that my sense of smell was somehow linked to my other senses, as when the shape of the trees in Golden Gate Park seemed connected to the park’s loamy smell, triggering vivid childhood memories from when I lived with my parents in San Francisco between the ages of three and six years old.

I realized early on that the real world wasn’t what it seemed to be, and might actually be much more than it seemed. I certainly didn’t arrive at the absurd belief that we create our own reality or that mind is the only reality, and I’m particularly disdainful of the post-truth assertion that simply believing something makes it so. Climate change, like gravity, is real, whether we believe in it or not. But it would be too facile to claim that my ability to juggle different points of view comes from these experiences of altered reality I’ve had throughout my life. I haven’t become any less tolerant of fascism simply because I can understand fascist ideology or comprehend where a fascist is coming from.

I also don’t doubt that my unconscious capacity to synthesize sensory input in part accounts for my artistic and literary creativity. But as a conscious basis for originality, synthesis is overrated. Both Alice Yaeger Kaplan and Kevin Coogan cited the French fascist Robert Brasillach who wrote that Communism and Fascism would one day be seen as “the two poetries” of the twentieth century. We now seem to be inundated by attempts to synthesize leftwing and rightwing ideologies in efforts to “go beyond” Left and Right. These calls to transcend the orthodox Left/Right political model almost all come from the Right, it must be noted. Current Left/Right crossover politics should also be pointed out for having originated in nightmare with the goal of ever greater nightmare. The separate totalitarian horrors of Communism and Fascism only anticipate greater horrors in some terrifying synthesis to come. This political combination is entirely voluntary. My fever dreams and migraines are not something I wish to relive, and even my spiritual experience was unpleasant. Plus, they were not of my choosing.

But enough about the sick joke that equates poetry with indiscriminate terror and mass murder.

 

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