Street fighting spirit: “What’s Left?” April 2011, MRR #335

Ev’rywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy
‘Cause summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy
But what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band
‘Cause in sleepy London town
There’s just no place for a street fighting man
No

Written about British Pakistani New Leftie Tariq Ali, this tongue-in-cheek Rolling Stones ditty remains a rousing anthem to a familiar type of political testosterone. I remember that, during the 1970 Isla Vista riots, a local record store hoisted massive speakers onto their roof and blasted “Street Fighting Man” full blast as students battled police in the winding streets of that soporific beach town. Covered by folks as diverse as Rod Stewart and the Ramones, the version done by Zack de la Rocha and Rage Against the Machine embodies the bombast, if not the fury, intended by the Stones.

An acquaintance once commented that politics is a young man’s game. From the Paris riots of 1968, which inspired my initial interest in politics, to the current Cairo riots, young people dominated the streets. And by young people, I mean young men. For while the 60s saw a considerable uptick of female participation in what, at the time, we all considered to be revolutionary activity, the campus occupations and street fighting were still a man’s world. Similarly, reports from Tahrir Square at the beginning of the anti-Mubarak uprising described a surprising sexual equality in the numbers participating in the occupation. But when Mubarak’s supporters, with the help of the secret police, assaulted the protesters with horses and camels, and then laid siege to the square with rocks, molotovs and guns, the complexion of the protest quickly changed to mostly male. Excuse me, but since I don’t give a flying fuck about what’s politically correct, I’m not beyond crediting biology for differences in strength, and testosterone for increased levels of aggression to account for the dominance of young men in street politics.

Hey! Think the time is right for a palace revolution
But where I live the game to play is compromise solution
Well, then what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band
‘Cause in sleepy London town
There’s no place for a street fighting man
No

Street politics is the crucial referent here. To be young, able to hurl abuse and more at the cops, then to outmaneuver and outrun their fat, riot-gear-encumbered asses; that’s what’s thrilling about being a street fighting man. It’s what, approaching 60, with bad feet and a bum knee, I can appreciate only vicariously, or as ever-receding personal memories. I mean, it’s not like I can’t participate in politics per se. Much like war, in which old men make the decisions while young men do the fighting and dying, politics entails the young in the streets and the old in the smoke-filled back rooms. But politics without the streets—the politics of meetings, deal making and compromise—was always an absolute bore to my way of thinking. So, that leaves me on the sidelines, taking in the only politics that truly matter—street politics—as a spectator sport.

Whether as a spectator or as a participant, being a partisan of those who take to the streets to fight the powers that be can produce a skewed view of things. Siding with rioters against the police is like being a Mets or a Red Sox fan in that you’re bound to be on the losing side most of the time. For every Cairo, there are ten thousand Tehrans. Yet such persistent defeat never seems to dampen an irrational optimism among sympathizers whenever and wherever rioting breaks out. I’m in a radical reading group whose ultra left members invariably go into paroxysms of adulation every time a bunch of students go on a rampage, break windows, block traffic, burn dumpsters, and generally make a nuisance of themselves. This exercise in youthful excess, in turn, has been elevated to the absurd heights of a revolutionary strategy by the current crop of insurrectionary anarchists and left communists. Oddly however, Glenn Beck seems to be the only one serious about a specter of permanent insurrection, seeing in Egypt the hand of the Invisible Committee and “the beginning of ‘the coming insurrection.’”

Such surprisingly naïve enthusiasm, and sadly infantile rebellion, is far better than the opportunistic instrumentalism of much of the Leninist Left. When not considered cannon fodder for the party and the revolution, street politics are judged progressive so long as they strike a blow against US hegemony, and insurgents, whatever their political persuasion, are defined either as “objectively anti-imperialist” or in terms of “the enemy of one’s enemy is one’s friend.” Thus, Leninists of various stripes defended the Islamic students who took American embassy personnel hostage in Iran from 1979 to 1981 as radical, even as those students pledged their undying loyalty to Ayatollah Khomeini and his Shiite revolution.

Hey! Said my name is called disturbance
I’ll shout and scream, I’ll kill the king, I’ll rail at all his servants
Well, what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band
‘Cause in sleepy London town
There’s no place for a street fighting man
No

Leave it to Leninism to squeeze all the juice, all the insurrectionary spirit, out of street politics. If the Left were honest, they would take Bakunin’s infamous remark that “the destructive urge is a creative urge” and admit that the destructive urge is sufficient unto itself. There is something absolutely elemental about the whirlwind of destruction unleashed by taking to the streets, and taking them away from the powers that be, even momentarily. We’re not talking about simple hormones here, but about something deeper, Freudian, archetypal; something that transcends human biology to reach what is essential to life. The desire to reduce illusions to ashes, power to shambles, civilization to smoking ruin must be seen in the light of the sheer aesthetic joy in the conflagration itself. It is the stuff of the demiurge, which in Christian mythology goes by the names Satan and Lucifer. Or, as it goes in the Bhagavad-Gita: “I am become Shiva, destroyer of worlds,” which Robert Oppenheimer paraphrased upon witnessing humanity’s detonation of the first atomic bomb. I’ve communed with this deity of destruction perhaps a dozen times in my life thanks to my involvement in radical street politics. An intoxicating experience each time. Which is why this armchair stuff is such a drag.

Conservative book ends: “What’s Left?” November 2010, MRR #330

I recently noticed that my life seems to be book ended. That’s not a pleasant revelation. For one, it means I’m approaching the end of it. My life, that is. I’m pushing 60, and the fact that the beginning and ending to my life are coming to resemble each other is overshadowed by the realization that “[s]eventy is the sum of our years, or eighty, if we are strong; Most of them are sorrow and toil; they pass quickly, we are all but gone.” (Psalm 90:10)

Sorry to get all Biblical on your ass. It was the mythology I was raised on, and I seem to be returning to it in my dotage. I told you this wasn’t pleasant. Equally unpleasant is the content to the alpha and omega of my life.

I grew up in Eisenhower’s America. Conservative, God-fearing, patriotic to the point of McCarthyite/HUAC witch-hunts. I experienced the rise of political liberalism—in Kennedy’s election and Johnson’s augmentation of the welfare state via the Great Society—as relatively progressive, paralleling as it did the racial and social liberalization of American society. Today, however, liberalism in every form is in full retreat. And conservatism is triumphant, marked by a resurgence of God, country and witch-hunts.

In the 1960s, the John Birch Society expressed the conspiratorial fringe of American conservatism. Everything from water fluoridation to the United Nations was considered part and parcel of the international Communist conspiracy to destroy America. Even President Eisenhower was declared a willing tool of the Communists. Yet the John Birch Society did break with those conspiracy-mongers on the right who posited that Jews, blacks, Catholics, Masons, et al were behind some vast anti-American conspiracy by accepting individuals from such groups into their membership. Today, the great purveyor of wingnut conspiracy theories, with his chalkboard flowcharts of hidden influence and money, is Fox News commentator Glenn Beck. Progressives and their secret socialist agendas are plotting to destroy this country according to Beck. And, like the John Birch Society, Glenn Beck is cited for liberating the realm of conspiracy theory from its anti-Semitic, racist, anti-Masonic, and ultra-Protestant promoters.

The final capstone to this tale of “forward into the past” is that the recent census is predicted to show that poverty in this country has risen to levels not seen since 1965.

I often lament that the political, social, and cultural movements of 60s and 70s didn’t revolutionize this country, or the world, sufficiently to make a revival of the right impossible. My personal investment in that bygone era motivates me to figure out why that was the case. A while back, I spent a whole column discussing Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s brilliant opinion piece, entitled “It was fun, but 1968’s legacy was mixed,” in the 9/5/08 Guardian Weekly. Wheatcroft dismisses the tired trope that “the right has won politically and the left has won culturally,” and then proceeds to systematically debunk various other myths born of 1968. His conclusion? That the 1960s cultural upheavals were profoundly individualistic, even libertine, and that “since 1968, the West had grown not only more prosperous but more sybaritic and self-absorbed” as a consequence of the Left’s cultural successes. “The ‘bourgeois triumphalism’ of the Thatcher (and Blair) era, the greed is good ethos and our materialistic individualism might just have had their roots 40 years back.”

Recently, I read Keith Abbott’s poignant memoir of Richard Brautigan, Downstream From Trout Fishing In America, in which he comments: “One thing that tends to be overlooked about the hippie scene was it was pro-American, but with a distinctly western vision of America, one where individualism and delight in all the senses demanded an anarchistic freedom for their personal lives. Most important, this western vision issued the refugees of the Haight a license to start their lives over. This notion concealed an innate right-wing bias too, one which emerged later in the various communes and their ingrown sexism and fascism.” The argument has been made that the political New Left was significantly different from the profoundly apolitical hippie counterculture of the 1960s. Yet apparently both shared a commitment to an intense, American-style individualism that made a recoup by the right not merely possible, but inevitable.

The anarchic and anarchistic aspects to the Western youth revolts of the period were paralleled by anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles, as well as by the social democratic and Leninist political movements that supported those struggles. Wheatcroft’s and Abbott’s critiques hardly explain the devolution of Western Communism into EuroCommunism or Social Democracy into neoliberalism, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, or the transformation of Third World national liberation into national capitalism. We’re talking here about a retreat of the 60s across the board before global capitalism. I think the seeds to the rise of the right can be found in all of those 60s struggles and movements that a triumphant right now so vehemently denounces. Yet accounting for the failures of those struggles and movements will be more complex than simply blaming individualism and libertinism.

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