Town v. country: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, February 2023

I’m a city boy. I call myself a flâneur, an individual who strolls city streets for personal freedom, independence, and enjoyment. I’ve lived in cities pretty much all my life and the very brief periods I resided in the countryside drove me bats.

It was love at first sight when I visited New York City in autumn, 1988. People I befriended living in San Diego invited me to holiday in the City and I returned nearly every year thereafter for a decade. That initial trip I was a total tourist. I got a crick in my neck the first day from walking around, looking up and marveling at all the tall buildings. I’d leave the collective household’s Park Slope brownstone where I was staying, maybe stop by the nearby Food Coop for some breakfast, then catch early morning subway rides into Manhattan neighborhoods. Graffiti was everywhere, and the subway cars were rolling works of underground art. I hit the main sightseeing spots.[A] I spent afternoons in St. Mark’s Comics and the Strand just browsing. Missing Foundation’s overturned martini glass tag was ubiquitous on the Lower East Side. Because I was a drunk, a 16-oz can of cheap malt liquor and a couple of hot dogs or slices of pizza from street food stands were all I needed.[1]

Most of my friends had day jobs—bike messengers, temps, low-level secretarial or warehouse grunts—as well as office workers, librarians and academics. I’d arrange to meet them after work at the Cube at St. Marks Place where we regrouped for more food, drinks, and partying. We’d go out for inexpensive ethnic dinners where it was always BYO. And we’d end most evenings talking politics, either socially over more food and drinks or at meetings of Neither East Nor West, Anarchist Black Cross or the Libertarian Book Club.  Several of my friends had “red-eye” radio shows on WBAI, so we would sometimes stumble home at 2-3-4 in the morning. The sidewalks were crowded curb-to-wall with people, pedestrians on the streets all hours of the day and night. There was always something happening. Anything you wanted to do or transact, legal or illegal, was available if you only looked hard enough or had enough money.

I also experienced New York during the late Koch, Dinkins and early Giuliani years when city cops were fat, and stop-and-frisk, “zero tolerance” and “broken windows” policing were at their height. Enforcing “quality of life” violations meant racial profiling, rousting the homeless, and harassing nonconformists. Punk was raging as was hip-hop. The Tompkins Square Park riots of unruly countercultural teens and the homeless occurred in the summer of 1988, resulting in 35 injured and 9 arrested, with over 100 complaints lodged against the police. The New York Times called it a “police riot.”

New York had a reputation for filth, vermin, noise, crime, corruption, homelessness, disorder, brutal cops and racial antagonisms. But it was also known as the capital of the world, the city that never sleeps, and the city of dreams. Some 80+ ethnicities spoke over 200 languages, serving up 35 different global cuisines, worshipping in 150 different religious denominations, residing and conducting business in 278 neighborhoods in 5 boroughs. As the line goes, “there are 8 million stories in the Naked City,” only it’s closer to nine million now. I admired the direct, no nonsense, practical attitude of New Yorkers, their irritated impatience embodied in the term “New York minute,” their borough-distinctive street accents, their raised middle finger stance toward the world. I always returned from my NYC vacations reinvigorated and renewed. Yet I could see how living permanently there and experiencing the City’s monumental indifference and relentless grind could wear on a person’s body, mind, and spirit.

Karl Hess once argued that Ireland had an anarchist society for centuries, how its cities of tens of thousands of people operated without a government and avoided crime without a police force, and how the English took hundreds of years to conquer the Irish because they had no national government to surrender for them. When I remember back to my New York City experiences I sometimes think it’s just the opposite, that it’s a city with lots of police and government but which is fundamentally ungovernable. I’ve lived in West Coast cities[B] and visited various world-class cities[C] sometimes for extended periods. Nothing, no city can compare with New York. But maybe it’s useful to find alternatives to city life. Perhaps socialism can provide different options to the typical urban experience.

Murray Bookchin gained notice for his 1969 pamphlet Listen, Marxist! which presented a left-anarchist critique of Marxism using orthodox Marxist categories (means of production vs relations of production, proletariat vs bourgeoisie, objective vs subjective forces, etc.) Bookchin was a Trotskyist whose acquired anarchism retained a flavor of vulgar Marxism thanks to that stodgy vocabulary. He would eventually develop politically beyond these origins in the 1980s and 1990s but his 1971 book, a collection of essays entitled Post-Scarcity Anarchism (P-SA), still had that crude feel. P-SA proposed a utopia of small decentralized communities founded on communal property that integrated town and country, industry and agriculture, manual and intellectual labor, individualism and collectivism, etc.[2] Federations of such integral communes constituted an idealized stateless, anarchist-communist society of abundance where all social, economic and political contradictions would be resolved.

P-SA created a stir among anarchists in the 1970s and not merely because it repurposed Marxist ideas and terminology to defend left-anarchism. Anarchist study groups based on the book emerged, while criticisms arose from classical anarchists of various stripes. P-SA’s pro-technology bent, in particular, elicited negative reactions in Luddite and primitivist circles. As a left-anarchist I realized Bookchin’s integral commune sounded a lot like the Israeli kibbutz I lived in for six months in 1974.

I consider Israel a settler-colonial apartheid state that failed primarily because Labor Zionism practiced an exclusionary “socialism for one people,” placing ethnic identity over class identity. At the same time I consider the Jewish socialism that established Israel to be one of the more autonomous, communitarian, emancipatory forms of socialism I’ve experienced. I consider both true.

Kibbutz Mizra was established by the Hashomer Hatzair socialist-Zionist youth movement in the Jezreel Valley under the slogan “from commune to communism.” The commune members practiced “from each according to ability, to each according to need” where, for their community labor, they received free housing, food, clothing, education, entertainment, even a monthly stipend to purchase luxuries at the general store. Property was held in common and children were raised collectively. Mizra was a small town communal farm on 1915 acres of land purchased from an absentee Arab feudal landowner whose Arab peasant tenants had been evicted by the Jewish National Fund. Located between the Arab cities of Nazareth and Afula, it had maybe a thousand adults and children and a mixed economy of agriculture (crops, orchards, eggs, chickens, dairy) and industry (meat processing plant, hydraulics machinery factory). Kibbutzim were in the vanguard of the Zionist colonization and economic development of Palestine (Hebrew land, labor, products). They were also on the frontlines of defending the Jewish Yishuv via the Hagana and Palmach (Hebrew defense).

To say life on the kibbutz was bucolic was an understatement. I worked, ate, read, hung out and slept. There was occasional communal TV or a movie available, and we took weekend trips to tourist destinations[D]. But otherwise my stay was uneventful to say the least. Commune life was excruciatingly boring. I started down my long, sordid years of alcoholism living at Mizra because I had to stop smoking marijuana when I arrived and so I purchased bottled wine from the kibbutz store to get high every day.

Jewish socialism shared the idyll of creating the “New Man” with the broader socialist/communist movements of its day. It’s the notion that, come the revolution, the free association of producers would construct a global society without a state, social classes, hierarchies or private ownership of the means of production through a fully developed communism to produce a new humanity. In P-SA Bookchin used the terms “the rounded man, the total man.” This utopian individual is described as cooperative, selfless, virtuous, hard working and comradely. Hardly a portrayal of your average New Yorker, let alone your typical Israeli kibbutznik.

The concept that the new socialist individual is the product of the new socialist society is standard-operating-procedure. Leftists contend that human nature changes depending on lifestyle (hunter-gatherer nomadism, agricultural sedentism, urban civilization) or stages of production (primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism). I consider humans to be social beings by nature, but the broader nature-versus-nurture debate over humanity’s essence remains unresolved in my mind.

The kibbutz movement, like the hippie back-to-the-land movement, was a conscious rejection of urban life. But there’s truth to the WWI song lyric that “how ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” I experienced a triumphant yet tedious rural socialism in Kibbutz Mizra, then a chaotic yet dynamic urban capitalism in New York City. Much as I favored enlightened communalism theoretically, in practice I enjoyed privatized decadence more.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections

FOOTNOTES:
[1] “The liver is a muscle! It must be exercised!” (b)ob McGlynn
[2] “Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.” (Communist Manifesto, 1848) “The first great division of labour in society is the separation of town and country.” (Friedrich Engels, Anti-Dühring, 1877) “Also characteristic of civilization is the establishment of a permanent opposition between town and country as basis of the whole social division of labour.” (Friedrich Engels,The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, 1884)

THE LISTS:
[A] Museums galore, Times Square, Central Park, Empire State and Chrysler Buildings, Brooklyn Bridge, Fifth Avenue, Grand Central Station, New York Public Library, etc.
[B] Ventura, San Bernardino, Santa Cruz, San Diego, Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco
[C] Jerusalem, Athens, Vienna, Warsaw, Kraków, Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, London, Bristol
[D] Jerusalem, Haifa, Baha’i Gardens Nazareth, Akko, Sachne pools, Eilat, Lake Kinnereth, Beit She’an, Dead Sea, the Sinai, Mar Saba Monastery, etc.

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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. Continue reading

Boutique capitalism: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, June 2021

I’d gotten high on marijuana, hashish, LSD, MDA, cocaine, amphetamine, barbiturates, heroin, jimson weed, nitrous oxide, peyote, mescaline and psilocybin by 1972 living in Ventura, California. But I still hadn’t gotten drunk. I didn’t start drinking alcohol with any frequency until late 1974, over a year after I turned 21 and had already moved to Santa Cruz to attend UCSC. But in the spring of 1972 I didn’t like booze. I didn’t like people who drank instead of getting stoned, and I hated loud bar scenes. So I was jealous and miffed when a friend regaled me with the news that “Hey, I was drinking at John’s At The Beach and John Lennon just showed up, jumped on stage and played ‘Norwegian Wood’.” And I was seriously annoyed to learn that Lennon returned two days later to play another brief set, this time backed by a few local musicians. Continue reading

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

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

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

This is the modern world: “What’s Left?” September 2020

SFMOMA. Photo by Henrik Kam

I’m old.

I’m 68 years old. My dad died of a heart attack at 67 on December 16, 1993, not quite two months after his wife—my mom—died of lung cancer at 64. I look at this two ways. He lived just one month and two days after his 67th birthday. As of today I’ve lived a year plus two months and change longer than he did when he died almost 27 years ago. I’m now 13+ months past my own 67th birthday. So I’m feeling reassured.

I’m also considered old Left by “the kids” these days. That’s despite having developed my politics during the period of the New Left—the time of SDS, the New Communist Movement, a resurgent rank-and-file labor movement, and a revived anarchism. Which is doubly ironic because we in the New Left called the Left of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s—the Stalinist CP-USA and its loyal opposition the Trotskyist SWP—the Old Left. Frankly, I’m darned uncomfortable with and a bit distrustful of the current youthful Left based not on class but on non-class identities embraced by the “new” populist postmodernism. So I’m pissed off that I’m now considered a sad old Leftist anachronism. Continue reading

The take off that didn’t: non-canonical codicil to MRR #443

I’m a proponent of world systems theory as developed by Immanuel Wallerstein (Wallerstein, Amin, Arrighi, Frank et al). This theory is based on the analysis of longue durée commercial/industrial/financial “secular cycles” by Fernand Braudel who posited interlinked Venetian/Genoese (1250-1627), Dutch (1500-1733), British (1733-1896), and American (1850-present) cycles in the rise of the modern world capitalist economy. The so-called first Industrial Revolution (1750-1914) can be positioned firmly within the context of these cycles as a period of dynamic, sustained economic growth that Walt Rostow characterized as the “take-off” stage of world capitalism. Rostow’s analysis of the Industrial Revolution’s origins, in turn, reads remarkably similar to economic developments associated with the ebullient High Middle Ages (HMA; 1000-1300) when “urban life reemerged, long-distance commerce revived, business and manufacturing innovated, manorial agriculture matured, and population burgeoned, doubling or tripling” according to David Routt. So why didn’t European protocapitalism “take off” in a prequel economic explosion during the HMA?

One reason, of course, was the Great Famine (1315-17) and the magna pestilencia of the Black Death (1347-53) which together wiped out between one quarter and three quarters of Europe’s population. But I would argue that the worsening relationship between Christian Europe and the Jewish diaspora dating from the collapse of the western Roman Empire (300-476) through the Late Middle Ages (LMA; 1300-1500) was also a factor. Continue reading

Pattern recognition and antisemitism: “What’s Left?” April 2020 (MRR #443)

Fight or flight.

This is the instinctual response our Pleistocene predecessors supposedly evolved when threatened with physical danger, attack or threats to survival while roaming the African savannas. It often involves an acute physiological reaction which Jeff Hester describes thusly: “Suddenly your heart starts to pound. Your breathing speeds up and you feel a knot in your stomach. Your mouth goes dry. You stop hearing things. You have tunnel vision, and your sense of pain diminishes. Energy-rich blood rushes to your muscles, preparing them for action. There is anxiety, tension, and perhaps even panic.” Hester argues that such instantaneous, visceral reactions to the possibility of being mauled by a cheetah or gored by a wildebeest are no longer necessary, even counterproductive given the not-so-mortal threats of twenty-first century life, which instead require thoughtful, measured responses. What isn’t acknowledged here is that fight or flight is sometimes pattern recognition become automatic, perhaps innate, and certainly unthinking. Continue reading

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