The libertarian fantasy: “What’s Left?” January 2020 (MRR #440)

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

John Rogers
Kung Fu Monkey — Ephemera, blog post, 3-19-09

The idea of expanding the traditional one-dimensional Left-Right political spectrum into a two-dimensional political map is an old one. Beginning in the 1950s, several double-axis models were proposed: Authoritarian-Democratic/Radical-Conservative (Eysenck), Left-Right/Ideological Rigidity (Greenberg & Jonas), Traditionalist-Secular/Self Expressionist-Survivalist (Inglehart), Liberty-Control/Irrationalism-Rationalism (Pournelle), and Kratos-Akrateia/Archy-Anarchy (Mitchell). The American libertarian David Nolan proposed his two axis diamond-shaped Nolan Chart in 1969 based on economic freedom and political freedom, which everybody knows about but nobody uses outside of libertarian circles. Which brings is to the problem of libertarianism.

A basic two-axis political model was promulgated concurrently by Bryson and McDill (Rampart Journal of Individualist Thought, 1968), and Meltzer and Christie (The Floodgates of Anarchy, 1970); an economic Left-Right/political Authoritarian-Libertarian foursquare arrangement that has since become a boilerplate for the political compass used by the website of the same name. In turn, the political compass format has become a widespread internet meme. The top left square represents the authoritarian left, the top right square the authoritarian right, the bottom left square the libertarian left and the bottom right square the libertarian right. Each square embraces numerous political thinkers, leaders, organizations, and parties, but only three of these squares actually represent real existing political systems. There have been authoritarian left societies like Communist China, authoritarian right societies like Franco’s Spain, and for brief periods of time various libertarian left anarchist and socialist societies. But there have never been any libertarian right societies. No real existing hidden Rocky Mountain Mulligan’s Valley redoubts. Ever.

This lack of a “Galt’s Gulch” in a Colorado mountain valley somewhere, past or present, is the necessary starting point for critiquing the absurdity that is libertarianism. For the moment, forget that a right wing politics obsessed with property rights has unashamedly stolen the terms “libertarianism” and “anarchism” from the Left to use in defining themselves. Right libertarianism is all theory and no practice, with no “in real life” to get in the way of its bullshit abstractions. It’s no accident that Milton Friedman’s Chicago School monetarist economics was first implemented in Chile by the fascist Pinochet government. Right libertarian economics are not anchored to any corresponding social reality, never have been and never will be. It exists only as pure fiction, in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged or Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and nowhere else.

This lack of social grounding to the economic theories of right wing libertarianism, and in particular anarchist capitalism, accounts for assholes like Murray Rothbard and his loathsome politics. Rothbard disagreed with Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick, Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, just about anybody who claimed a similar laissez-faire economics because, when there’s no social reality to back up your economic theories, every faux detail of your pretend system becomes crucial to defend. It’s like Medieval Scholasticism arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Rothbard quickly abandoned any pretense of defending liberty (and “libertarianism”) in calling himself an anarchist capitalist, and more specifically a property rights anarchist as private property was the only right he assiduously defended. Along the way, he made it clear he despised women, people of color, and LGBQTI+ people in particular and any form of civil rights in general. He criticized “the cult of science” and defended holocaust denialism, sought to gut civil liberties and proposed a retributive “eye for an eye” criminal justice system, justified the torture of criminal suspects and railed against free market open borders, ad nauseam. His consistent antiwar stance and his nominal defense of children’s rights notwithstanding, Rothbard’s politics were so thoroughly reactionary that it’s little wonder there’s a hazy continuum, no, a slippery slope between right wing libertarianism and far right fascist politics.

Matt Lewis described this as “The Insidious Libertarian-to-Alt-Right Pipeline” in The Daily Beast when he wrote:
A friend of mine who is libertarian suggests that other libertarians never liked [Christopher] Cantwell, and that he was simply using libertarianism “as a shield for expressing a lot of disturbing viewpoints.” Despite the negative stereotypes, casting yourself as libertarian still has some cache[sic]. Celebrities like Bill Maher and Vince Vaughn have identified with the label—which seems to be a way of expressing some conservative viewpoints while still supporting the decriminalization of marijuana and distancing yourself from social conservatism. Libertarians won’t continue to enjoy this status if the alt-right is allowed to tarnish their philosophy, too.
And conservative pundit Michael Brendan Dougherty calls it “The Libertarianism-to-Fascism Pipeline” in the National Review in defending his fellow conservatives by claiming:
If libertarians have a pipeline for kooks, it is probably because they have some non-mainstream views. But if you have perfectly acceptable views, you probably have a pipeline for grifters. Conservatives have a mix of mainstream views and non- mainstream views. Consequently we are always fending off kooks on one side while being preyed upon by grifters on the other.
My explanation is far simpler. If you’re not grounded in social reality, if you have no “real existing” social system upon which to base your theories, you have nothing to prevent yourself from drifting into reactionary absurdity, if not outright genocidal fascism.

(Mainstream conservatives have long decried libertarianism [meaning the Libertarian Party] as “unwitting enablers of socialism,” defenders of “open borders” against sensible immigration policies, supporters of “unpleasant, unaffordable housing,” and opponents of “vital enabling infrastructure.” [Edward Ring, American Greatness, 10–2-19] Their argument is that the Libertarian Party unwittingly tilts “the political balance in favor of the progressive agenda across a host of important national issues.” It’s far better to realize that libertarian economics are a joke because they don’t work without the backing of statist politics.)

I won’t regale you with my sad slapstick attempt as an anarchist to work with libertarians over forty years ago. I’d rather approach the utter lack of social reality behind right wing libertarianism from a different angle, that being the discrepancy between the ideal and the real. As a dyed-in-the-wool Leftist, I’ve long espoused the ideal of a stateless, classless, global human community based on to each according to need, from each according to ability. Formulated by Karl Marx, the Leninist version of this ideal realized Marx’s “lower stage of communism” as a one party totalitarian state socialism of breadlines, secret police and gulags. The anarchist version, as realized in the anarchist regions of Spain during the 1936-39 civil war, witnessed the burning of monasteries and nunneries, pistolero justice, and the CNT/FAI eventually joining the Republican government according to Paul Preston. Kenan Malik well illustrated the discrepancy between the ideal and the real in the Kurdish libertarian socialist experiment in Rojava when he wrote:
Influenced by the American environmentalist and libertarian socialist Murray Bookchin, [Abdullah Öcalan] has rejected the idea of a separate Kurdish nation state, arguing instead for “direct democracy without a state” and for the centrality of women’s rights in any social change. […] There is a danger of romanticising the Rojava revolution. There have been credible allegations of ethnic cleansing and of the silencing of dissent. A report from Chatham House, the international affairs thinktank, suggests that, for all the talk of decentralisation, the PYD still ensures it retains access to power. [Guardian Weekly, 10-27-19]

Mussolini said of Fascism: “The keystone of the Fascist doctrine is its conception of the State, of its essence, its functions, and its aims. For Fascism the State is absolute, individuals and groups relative.” But in the case of both Italian Fascism and Nazi Germany, the centralizing and totalitarian drives of Fascism were never actually fully realized. In both regimes, for instance, the church as a social institution was never completely subordinated to the state. Lastly, one can only wonder with horror about the society that would emerge from an economic theory that promotes the complete privatization of all social and governmental services (licensing, standards, police, courts, money coinage, etc) and the conversion of all social relationships into property relationships. However, I think a terrifying inkling can be gleaned from an Ann Coulter MSNBC commentary when she said: “My libertarian friends are probably getting a little upset now but I think that’s because they never appreciate the benefits of local fascism.”

Libertarian—laissez-faire—free market economics have long been a tool used by governments of various stripes: conservative, fascist, liberal, even socialist. But a fully realized libertarian society—a stateless society based on “pure” capitalism—has never existed and never will. Now that that’s settled, let’s talk about something really crucial; whether or not to support Aragorn II, son of Arathorn II and Gilraen, King of Gondor, for the throne.

SOURCES:
Know Your Enemy:
Radical Libertarianism: A Right Wing Alternative and It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand by Jerome Tuccille
Critiques:
Capital: A Critique of Political Economy and Grundrisse by Karl Marx
The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump by Corey Robin
“The Question Libertarians Just Can’t Answer” and “Why Libertarians Apologize For Autocracy” by Michael Lind
“Critiques of Libertarianism” by Mike Huben
“Libertarianism, Capitalism and Socialism” by Richard D. Wolff, Economic Update (12-12-19)

Punk politics, personal politics and post-political politics: “What’s Left?” December 2019 (MRR #439)

The guy who helped the most in the campaign was like one of the big anarchists in San Diego.
Bob Beyerle, interview, MRR #102

“Hello, I’m with the Bob Beyerle for Mayor Campaign,” I say to the over sixty-year-old Latino man standing hesitantly in the front door of his house. “I’d like to talk to you about the horrible job Chula Vista’s City Council is doing. Not only are they subsidizing the construction of a bayfront yacht club, a luxury fourteen hundred room hotel, fourteen hundred condominiums and twenty-eight hundred exclusive housing units in a bayside tourist mecca, they’re rapidly expanding the city east of Interstate 805 with gated, guarded upscale housing developments like Eastlake, Rancho del Rey and Otay Ranch. Meanwhile, the city west of 805 is deteriorating. Eastlake is using a million gallons of water for a scenic lake that you’re not even allowed to use unless you live in this exclusive community while the rest of us are forced to live with between 20% and 50% water cutbacks. The City Council is catering to the wealthy when what we need is more funding for public services and new affordable housing developments with parks, schools, and emergency services. Bob Beyerle is for controlled growth and the environment, promoting local business and curtailing big business, and encouraging citizen involvement. Please vote Bob Beyerle for mayor on election day.”

I’m average height but the man barely reaches my shoulder. His more diminutive wife hovers behind him, clearly concerned. Both are suspicious as I hand them some campaign literature. Bob and I are precinct walking for his mayoral campaign in a sweltering May afternoon in 1991. I’m wearing a bright orange “Pedro Loves You” t-shirt while Bob Beyerle (aka Bob Barley of Vinyl Communications fame), wearing a sports coat and dress shirt, is talking local politics a few houses down the block. As the front man for the punk band Neighborhood Watch whose signature song is “We Fuck Sheep,” Bob goes on to do press interviews, candidate forums and house parties.Bob’s campaign also puts on a fundraiser at La Bella Pizza Garden featuring Jello Biafra. My personal first impressions of Biafra are operatic; diva, prima donna, bürgerlich. Better to call his 1979 San Francisco mayoral campaign a publicity stunt, with its prank platform demanding that businessmen wear clown suits within city limits and paying the unemployed to panhandle in wealthy neighborhoods. Biafra gripes that some of his proposals—to ban cars citywide, legalize squatting in vacant tax-delinquent buildings, and force cops to run for election in the neighborhoods they patrol—were serious. But then, Jello is always the consummate showman who never walked a precinct in his life. Biafra’s politics are a joke because he’s a dilettante whereas Beyerle’s politics are punk because he’s the real deal. Both lost their respective mayoral campaigns but placed in the middle of their crowded fields.

I’ve been called a class traitor, a scab, a rat, a collaborator, an undercover cop by many of my comrades on the left of the Left—left anarchism and communism specifically—once they learn that I vote and engage in electoral politics. Electoral politics is a politics for fools they contend as they spout the usual slogans: “Don’t vote! It only encourages them!”, “If voting changed things, it would be illegal!”, “Vote for nobody!” and “Freedom isn’t on the ballot!” Funny thing is, I’ve always voted, even when I was a stone revolutionary anarchist. I never thought it was an issue as voting takes all of ten minutes, and a single ten minute act once or twice a year doesn’t legitimize the entire bourgeois corporate state apparatus. To assert otherwise is either mysticism or moralism. As for electoral politics, I considered it neither the only valid be-all-end-all nor the ultimate bamboozling evil. Rather, it’s harm reduction for mitigating the worst and making piecemeal of the best in politics. I’ve always lived by the sentiment “I vote, and I riot.”When the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971, I ran for Ventura School Board on a Summerhill/Free School platform alongside a democratic socialist City Council slate, both organized by a member of the New American Movement. None of us won any elected positions in the 1972 city elections, but our leftwing programs and political campaigns did eventually push the City of Ventura to build a municipal bus system. And just two years before, in 1970, I traveled to the student ghetto of Isla Vista next to UCSB for three riots in which a Bank of America branch was burned to the ground. I’ve had a personal politics that endorses and attempts to combine parliamentary and revolutionary components, a political strategy built on integrating multiple tactics.

Which is not the same thing as diversity of tactics.

I devote most of my time to politics outside of the electoral/parliamentary realm, which I define broadly. That can range from writing to rioting, although at my age I don’t do much of the latter. As for the much narrower electoral/parliamentary arena, I prefer to engage in local over national politics, and with issues and propositions over personalities and candidates. And I try to make connections—be they principled or personal, through practice or theory—between the various aspects of my politics.
Diversity of tactics by contrast acknowledges the validity of different tactics but refuses to make linkages let alone work out common ground between them. Perhaps the most famous example of diversity of tactics involves the St. Paul’s Principles:
1. Our solidarity will be based on respect for a diversity of tactics and the plans of other groups.
2.
The actions and tactics used will be organized to maintain a separation of time or space.
3.
Any debates or criticisms will stay internal to the movement, avoiding any public or media denunciations of fellow activists and events.
4.
We oppose any state repression of dissent, including surveillance, infiltration, disruption and violence. We agree not to assist law enforcement actions against activists and others.

Adopted prior to the 2008 Republican National Convention, the agreement allowed different groups with different protest tactics (conventional street protest, guerrilla theater, civil disobedience, black bloc, etc) to act side-by-side without denouncing each other as counterrevolutionary reformists or ultraleft adventurists. But it also didn’t allow the individuals or groups in question to get together to potentially synthesize their diverse tactics into a common strategy. An atomized diversity of tactics became the strategy, and an ineffectual one at that. The 2008 RNC was not shut down, and the movement opposed to the 2008 RNC grew no more unified, stronger or effective. It was a live and let live strategy that was simultaneously a political devolution. At best, diversity of tactics is a stopgap, never a solution.I was thrilled to learn about Italian Autonomy in 1984. My politics were evolving from left anarchism to left communism as I studied more Marx. I devoured Autonomedia’s volume Autonomia and enshrined Sylvere Lotringer’s formulation of “Autonomy at the base”:

In biology, an autonomous organism is an element that functions in­dependently of other parts. Political autonomy is the desire to allow differences to deepen at the base without trying to synthesize them from above, to stress similar attitudes without imposing a “general line,” to allow parts to co-exist side by side, in their singularity.

Little did I know at the time that most Marxists, including many Autonomists, considered that the “desire to allow differences to deepen at the base without trying to synthesize them from above” was not Autonomy’s singular strength but its profound weakness. It’s like realizing you’re a profound asshole, but then deciding to call that your singular virtue.

I’ve since realized that “to stress similar attitudes without imposing a ‘general line’” rarely results in bridging ideological divides, moving forward politically, or successfully working together to accomplish things. Used to be, a political party or a trade union or some similarly organized (hierarchical, centralized) association could be depended on to step in and finagle the unity and commonality people desired. But since the goal is to come up with alternate ways of organizing ourselves—presumably non-hierarchical, decentralized, and anti-authoritarian—it’d be nice to come up with a new way to overcome our differences to achieve tactical, strategic and theoretical unity to defeat our enemies and attain our goal of a liberated society. However, having once spent two days virtually nonstop trying and failing to achieve consensus in an organization over whether to codify a two-thirds versus three-quarters alternative voting structure once consensus breaks down, I don’t have high hopes in this regard.I don’t have solutions to the problems posed here. Which means I feel another series coming on, perhaps with discussions of democracy or frontism or populism. This whole subject is really quite broad.

SOURCES:
(1) Personal recollections
(2) “He Didn’t Kiss Babies, and He Didn’t Kiss Asses,” interview with Bob Beyerle, Maximum RocknRoll #102, November 1991
(3) Sells Like Teen Spirit: Music, Youth Culture and Social Crisis by Ryan Moore
(4) Autonomia: Post-Political Politics ed. by Lotringer & Marazzi, Semiotext(e)

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

Let’s talk about dysfunctional relationships.

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

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

But the dysfunctional relationship I’m most intrigued with and continue to be involved in is that of the Left. The Left emerged during the French Revolution and experienced its first major defeat during the European-wide uprisings of 1848. In response to the failed revolutions of 1848, various tendencies of the European Left organized the International Workingmen’s Association (First International, or IWA) in 1864, intended to unite the proletariat and its class struggle through a representative body of diverse left-wing socialist, communist, syndicalist and anarchist organizations, political parties, and labor unions. The IWA quickly polarized between the followers of Karl Marx with his parliamentary focus and those of Michael Bakunin who promoted “direct economical struggle against capitalism, without interfering in the political parliamentary agitation.” Despite their increasing antagonism the experience of the insurrectionary 1871 Paris Commune tended to bring the Left’s various factions together. But Marx declared the Commune “essentially a working class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor” while Bakunin considered it “a bold and outspoken negation of the State.” These fundamental differences eventually split the IWA’s contentious 8-year gig into two competing organizations by 1872: the Marxist red First International (which disbanded in 1876), and the anarchist black First International which continues to this day. Bismarck remarked of this ur-Left that “[c]rowned heads, wealth and privilege may well tremble should ever again the Black and Red unite!”

The next time Black and Red united in the streets was during the Russian Revolution, a touchstone for the Left to this day. But the Russian Revolution was actually two revolutionary events. The inchoate, anarchic mass uprising of March 8, 1917 (February Revolution) toppled the feudal Czarist ancien regime while the disciplined, thoroughly planned insurrection of November 8, 1917 (October Revolution) overthrew the liberal bourgeois Kerensky government, with 245 days in between. The broad February Revolution is embraced by all manner of Leftists, from anarchists to Stalinists, whereas the narrow October Revolution is praised mostly by Leninist party types or Bolshevik wannabes. Instead of contending that February was one step away from anarchy while October was all putsch and coup d’etat, a more judicious evaluation was offered by Rosa Luxemburg, who acknowledged the revolution’s myriad problems while writing: “In Russia, the problem [of the realization of socialism] could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to ‘Bolshevism.’”

It’s no secret I think anarchism suffers from initial problems that produce related problems down the road. The anarchist misunderstanding of power generally and of state power in particular means that, while spontaneous popular uprisings can and do occur to topple rulers and regimes, anarchism has never been able to consolidate a liberatory society out of those moments. The 1936-39 Spanish civil war proved to be anarchism’s greatest failure, a debacle that liquidated anarchism in Spain and marginalized it internationally, stunting its revolutionary capacity for decades and haunting it to the present. Anarchistic societies exist by default, as in the case of the anthropological category of Zomia where highland peoples and cultures manage to hold onto a de facto anarchy through geographic isolation. I consider anarchism’s glorious string of revolutionary defeats a “beautiful loser” syndrome where anarchists insist time and again on proudly snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

In turn, Leninism’s historic string of successes reinforces the same issue in mirror form. Lenin’s formulation of the need for a vanguard party of professional revolutionaries to “make the revolution” has resulted in substitutionism in which the Leninist party substitutes for the working class in power, the party’s central committee substitutes for the party, and eventually the all-powerful party chairman substitutes for the central committee. There’s a direct line from Marx through Lenin to Stalin; not the only line that has been or can be drawn from Marx, but certainly one of the most prominent. Equally, the Leninist vanguard party has never been able to consolidate a truly socialist society out of decades of one-party rule, in which the self-activity and self-organization of the working class as a class fails to materialize. The succession of Leninism by Trotskyism, Stalinism, Maoism, Hoxhaism, et al has gotten us no closer to the classless, stateless society originally envisioned by Marx.

During revolutionary situations anarchists refuse to take power expecting the people to spontaneously rise up while Leninists seize power in the name of the people. Each hope to usher in a liberated socialist society but never succeed. What is unique in the political conflicts between anarchism versus Leninism is belied by the common dynamic that both socialist tendencies share, namely the complex relationship between cadre organization and mass organization, or between revolutionary organization and mass social movement underlying the problem of realizing socialism. In Marxism and the Russian Anarchists and other analyses, Anthony D’Agostino acknowledges not only the centrality of the dynamic to both anarchism and Leninism but contends that these two divergent socialist tendencies developed analogous political solutions. Despite their differing class compositions, Lenin’s faction of the RSDLP and Bakunin’s International Brotherhood/Alliance of Social Democracy had a strikingly similar relationship to mass working class organizing, and notable parallels can be drawn between the role of the Bolshevik vanguard party within the Russian workers’ movement and that of the Spanish FAI within the mass syndicalist CNT. “There will always be enragés and then again Jacobins,” yet the dialectical problem of cadre vs mass organization within the problem of realizing socialism resulted in one-party dictatorship when given a Bolshevik tweak and in revolutionary failure when given an anarchist tweak.

After three quarters of a century Leninism went down for a substantial defeat with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact by 1991, whereas anarchism has experienced resurrection and resurgence since the 60s yet still has never triumphed. What this means is there are various new opportunities to get the band (e.g. the ur-Left First International) back together and reformulate anarchism anew with Marxism. Starting with pioneers like ex-FAIista and Spanish Civil War veteran Abraham Guillén who called himself an anarchist-Marxist in fashioning his urban guerrilla strategy we have the usual suspects (council communism, left communism, Situationism, and autonomism) hoping to square the Leftist circle. Following the collapse of Love & Rage, the now-defunct Bring The Ruckus project explicitly called for combining cadre and mass organizations as “neither the vanguard nor the network” in a clear New Abolitionism. Insurrectionary communization has advanced through Tiqqun, Endnotes, Gilles Dauvé, and Théorie Comuniste as neo-anarchist and neo-Leninist experiments—like hypothetical quantum particles—keep popping in and out of existence. Finally, old-school Marxist-Leninist parties have taken new directions; from the Mexican Guevaraist FLN adopting indigenismo and “mandar obedeciendo” to emerge as the EZLN, to the Kurdish PKK embracing Murray Bookchin’s municipalist confederalism to sponsor the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’s YPG/SDF.

I often write about the Left’s glaring problems like sectarianism or dogmatism. Those issues notwithstanding, the Left needs a proper dynamic between cadre and mass, revolutionary organization and social movement, in order to advance toward common ground and a socialist society. Whether the right dynamic can be achieved theoretically, and whether any of the current contenders can achieve it, remains to be seen.

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.

Rightward and downward: “What’s Left?” December 2018, MRR #427

My wife, my friends, everybody I know is pissed that I’m not more pissed off about that horrible, horrible man Donald Trump. That I seem pretty sanguine about the hurricane of political, social, and human destruction Trump and the GOP have wrought in such a short period of time or the damage they will continue to inflict for decades to come through, for instance, the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. So, why am I not more freaked out about Trump?

The answer is that, in my lifetime, I’ve seen this nation’s relatively liberal politics go consistently downhill and rightward to the present. I first became aware of American politics writ large when I was 8 years old, when John F. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960. My parents had been Democrats and Adlai Stevenson supporters, so my frame of reference started from a liberal “Golden Age,” the “one brief shining moment” that was the myth of JFK and Camelot. But unlike many people who believe the fifty-eight years that followed have witnessed ups and downs, good times and bad, pendulum swings left and right, and are therefore upset, desperate, and obsessed with the rise of Trump, I see those years all of a piece, a steady right wing devolution as we go straight to hell in a handbasket.

The relatively lean, muscular structure of the American state prior to 1929 permitted the nation to create an empire—by conquering the native populations, expanding its rule from coast to coast under Manifest Destiny, and asserting its power across the western hemisphere under the Monroe Doctrine. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in confronting the challenges first of the Great Depression and then the second World War, radically transformed American government in riding a wave of socialist/communist militancy. FDR crafted the modern warfare/welfare/corporatist state that attempted to democratically sidestep the excesses of Soviet Communism and European Fascism while outflanking the Old Left’s upsurge domestically. Considered the height of American Liberalism, the New Deal has been disingenuously celebrated by that same Old Left even after a smooth political transition to the rabid anti-communism of the Eisenhower era. The guns-and-butter Kennedy/Johnson years continued the anti-communist military intervention and domestic social welfare expansion permitted by First World economic affluence, as New Left* activism and organizing surged. It must be remembered that Nixon arguably was the last liberal president.

These two prolonged separate Leftist periods were when progressive coalitions mobilized to move the Democratic party and American politics dramatically to the left. Four briefer, distinct occasions when ultra-conservative coalitions mobilized to purposefully move the Republican party and American politics profoundly to the right need also be noted: McCarthyism and the era of “Father Knows Best” morality; the prefiguring Goldwater presidential campaign; the rise of the New Right presaging Reagan’s presidential bid in a new age of austerity; and the Tea Party movement that anticipated the rise of Donald Trump and independent Trumpism. Yet Democratic party governance after 1975 was not a reversal or even a holding pattern so much as a more gradual rightward descent: Carter with economic deregulation and Cold War escalation; Clinton in slashing welfare and promoting free trade; and Obama as the drone-bombing-deporter-in-chief and TPP champion.

I’ve summarized this country’s inexorable political slide to the right over the last half century. The changeover from Keynesian affluence to neoliberal austerity however hints at something more fundamental underlying American politics whether you see those politics as a swinging pendulum or, like me, as a steady flush down the porcelain highway. American capitalism made the switch from making profits out of industrial productivity to financial speculation somewhere around 1975, accounting for both the decline of the 60s New Leftist surge and the defeat of the 70s labor upsurge. In commercial capitalism profit is extracted almost exclusively from circulation, from trade, from the buying and selling of commodities. Under industrial capitalism profit is extracted not just from circulation but also from the labor process in which factory workers are paid less than the value they produce from their labor—from surplus value. Surplus value is then used to construct more factories and to hire more workers for wages in an ever-expanding cycle of profit-making.

But capitalism suffers from a tendency for the rate of profit to fall (in the interpretation of Marx I favor), which not only results in the boom-and-bust economic cycle we’re all familiar with but also in an increasing inability to sustain industrial production. In my lifetime we’ve seen industrial production become so unprofitable that US industrial labor has been outsourced and factories moved to the Third World, resulting in America’s overall deindustrialization and conversion to a service economy. More and more, capitalism in the US is based on extracting profit from financial transactions and speculation, a far less profitable form of capitalism then even the trade in commodities of commercial capitalism. Capitalism worldwide also suffers from the same declining rate of profit, meaning that in China, Vietnam, and other Third World nations industrial production is contracting, meaning that industrial capitalism is slumping internationally and being replaced by finance capitalism. Finance capitalism is not merely a capitalism in decline, it is capitalism heading for the mother of all crises.

Some students of the 1929 Great Depression have contended that, in liberal democracies, deep economic depressions as suffered by the interwar US are conducive to the growth of socialist movements whereas runaway inflations as experienced by Weimar Germany are favorable to the rise of fascist movements. During depressions, people who have no money or work are screwed but for those who do, money has value, work has meaning, and society has integrity, giving the edge to socialism which values labor. During inflations, it doesn’t matter whether people have money or work because money has no value, work has no meaning, and society is crumbling, giving the advantage to fascism which values power.

A similar dynamic can be seen in the transition from industrial capitalism to finance capitalism in liberal democracies. In industrial capitalist societies, work and capital are intrinsically productive and so leftist movements and ideologies are widespread. Government spending and services grow, welfare programs and economic regulation expand, and the public realm and labor unions are endorsed. In finance capitalist societies, work and capital are mostly unproductive and so rightist movements and ideologies are prevalent. The economy is deregulated and financialized, the welfare state is rolled back, labor unions are crushed, the public realm is privatized, and government spending and services are cut back. About all they have in common is an aggressive, interventionist foreign policy. Marxists consider industrial capitalism in terms of constant vs variable capital while consigning finance capitalism to the category of fictitious capital.

Whether Keynesian or neoliberal, democratic or authoritarian, the state serves as the monopoly of legitimate violence, the bulwark for the existing social order, and the lynchpin for the nation and economy. The state functions the same whether under affluent industrial capitalism or austere finance capitalism, so why does society exhibit leftist unrest in the former and rightist agitation in the latter? A staid principle developed in the 1950s was that of the revolution of rising expectations in which “rising expectations embodied the twentieth century’s ‘real’ revolution insofar as it represented for the vast majority of the world’s population a break from centuries of stagnation, fatalism, and exploitation.” The growing affluence from 1945 to 1975 caused expectations to rise in the population at large all over the world, which in turn lead to civil unrest, insurgencies, and revolutions according to the theory. But did persistent austerity after 1975 cause the opposite: widespread social reaction, stagnation, and obedience? The results are dubious either way the theory cuts. The inconclusive empirical evidence, methodological constraints, and conceptual criticisms of the whole revolution of rising expectations thesis makes it useless.

I’m of the Marxist mindset that the social superstructure follows the economic base much as form follows function in the principle enunciated by modernist architecture and industrial design. It also means, in a Gramscian sense, that social superstructure can gain autonomy to act back on the economic base, but the starting point is crucial. We make our own history, but we don’t make it as we please; we don’t make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

I just snuck in another Marx quote.

*New Left in this case does not refer to the politics that grew up around organizations like Students for a Democratic Society but to Leftist organizing and movements that flourished from the Civil Rights movement beginning in 1955 to the collapse of the anti-Vietnam war movement in 1975.

SIGNIFICANT DATE RANGES: Old Left: 1930-50; New Left: 1955-75; Keynesian industrial affluence: 1945-75; neoliberal finance austerity: 1975 onward; McCarthyism/Eisenhower era: 1950-1960; Goldwater campaign: 1963-64; New Right: 1980-88; Tea Party/independent Trumpism: 2009 onward.

Coded conspiracism: “What’s Left?” November 2018, MRR #426


I don’t like words that hide the truth. I don’t like words that conceal reality. I don’t like euphemisms, or euphemistic language. And American English is loaded with euphemisms. Cause Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent the kind of a soft language to protect themselves from it, and it gets worse with every generation.

George Carlin, “Euphemisms”

Sometimes a globalist is just a globalist.

paraphrase of fake Sigmund Freud quote

I grew up in the 1950s, in a “more innocent time.” It was a time when people didn’t curse, not openly that is. When I hit my thumb with a hammer in shop class, instead of shouting “Jesus Fucking Christ!,” I was told to say “Jiminy Cricket!” I envied my Polish-born dad who could let loose a string of Polish expletives whenever he injured himself.

It was actually a more euphemistic time, when great pains were taken to soften and hide reality in the name of politeness and gentility. As the rest of the Carlin routine sadly if humorously illustrates, the WWI term “shell shock” had been transformed into the WWII term “battle fatigue” and was in the process of becoming “operational exhaustion” during the Korean War. I would witness its transmutation yet again into “post-traumatic stress disorder” during the Vietnam War.

Euphemisms substitute mild, indirect, or deliberately vague words for ones considered offensive, harsh, or too blunt for the listener’s own good and the audience’s sensibilities. We use plenty of them today, from passed away or departed for died, and correctional facility instead of jail, to differently-abled or handicapped instead of disabled, and ethnic cleansing for genocide. They’re not to be confused with code words, where a word or phrase has a very specific meaning to a very specific audience, while remaining innocuous to the uninitiated. Code words are used a lot in dog-whistle politics, a relatively new term where words and phrases that are intended to mean one thing to the general population are deliberately used to convey different, additional, or more specific meanings for targeted specific demographics. Terms like “family values” and “pro-family” are intended to be innocuous to the public while conveying homophobic and misogynistic meanings to those in the know. Code words also conceal reality.

In Ventura in the 1960s I knew the town character, a slightly lopsided silver-haired old man named Quince. Quince liked to attend civic events and city functions dressed in what appeared to be a WWII uniform, although upon closer examination he’d incorporated elements of WWI, Civil War, and even Revolutionary War uniforms into the mix. On Saturdays he hung out on the sidewalk in front of the post office with a card table of mostly John Birch Society literature. He was big into the perils of the International Communist Conspiracy, but among the literature was a booklet entitled “Banking and Currency and The Money Trust” by Charles A. Lindbergh.

I knew that Lindbergh had been the first to fly solo across the Atlantic in a single engine monoplane called The Spirit of St. Louis and was nicknamed Lucky Lindy. When Quince saw me thumbing through the small volume he sidled up to me and spoke in a low voice.

“Congressman Lindbergh was one of the first to warn against the cabal of international bankers such as Morgan, Rockefeller, and Rothschild who instituted the Federal Reserve System in 1913 giving them control of interest rates, the stock market, and the capacity to create money out of thin air. He called those international bankers the ‘Money Trust’ and denounced the Federal Reserve Bank’s control over the American republic’s economy, causing inflation, the continuous decline of the dollar, and skyrocketing national debt ever since.”

“Didn’t Congress and President Wilson create the Federal Reserve?” I asked, having been a precocious history buff in my adolescence.

“There were sinister powers behind the Federal Reserve Act.” Quince talked as if he were revealing a dangerous secret. “Lucky Lindy was a great American hero, but even he had to be circumspect about revealing the true evil force behind the greedy power grab by those international bankers.”

Quince glanced about, reached into his coat, and surreptitiously pulled out a plain covered pamphlet that read “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem” by Henry Ford.

That was my first experience of a euphemism colliding with a code word. The modern conspiracy theory about who REALLY rules the world was ancient even back then, with the Illuminati, Freemasons, international bankers, New World Order, and alien shapeshifting lizards now prominent among the covert cliques identified as secretly running the world from behind the scenes. But conspiracy wingnuts purporting to expose those truly responsible for the clandestine system of global domination almost invariably circle back to their OG suspects, “the Jews.”


The promising anti-globalization movement of the 1990s and early 2000s was susceptible to rightwing antisemitic tendencies from its inception which then developed into “soft” antisemitic organizations like AdBusters. AdBusters went on to initiate the Occupy Wall Street movement which, while largely leftwing, attracted rightwing elements that blamed the Federal Reserve, international “banksters,” and the Jews for all that was wrong with the world. On the Right, the terms “international bankers” and “Zionists” have frequently gone beyond euphemism to become code words for Jews. The current use by Trump nationalists and their supporters of “globalists” and “cosmopolitan elites” to characterize their opponents employs code words that imply that the Jews are behind it all. Those on the Right who now rail against “cultural Marxism” never mention that their original Nazi trope blamed the Jews for being behind the evils of both Communism and capitalism. Again, the current meme of “cultural Marxism” goes beyond euphemism and even code words into “snarl words” that tar anyone with progressive politics as a secret Communist while implying that the Jews are covertly responsible for all the world’s ills.

Euphemisms are intended to soften the impact of difficult ideas. Code words disguise the meaning of those same problematic ideas for the general public while specifically targeting a select audience for incitement. Snarl words are derogatory terms that always attack and can never be used in neutral or positive ways. But what about words that hide something that is always kept in plain sight? Words that simultaneously conceal and reinforce concepts with which we are all too familiar?

“Capitalism” and “capitalist” are just such words. Nobody denies that capitalism and capitalists rule the world. There is no conspiracy, no clandestine cabal, no secret government bent on world domination. Capitalism is as natural as the air we breathe, according to capitalists, because humans are individualistic, selfish, and greedy by nature. Their “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange” is also part of human nature and gives rise to capitalism naturally. The ascendance of a powerful stratum of capitalists is also natural. If capitalism is the natural order of things, then capitalists gain power and rule naturally, rightfully due to merit and not by force or conspiracy.

Capitalists comprise a social class and constitute a ruling elite however, according to Marx. And capitalists go about their activities mostly in the open. They form associations openly, from the Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers to the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund. They make their plans openly—in the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times—with no conspiracy necessary. And they carry out their plans, create their organizations, and govern openly with the consent of the people who freely exercise their right to vote as citizens of a democracy. Conspiracies do occur. The secret US war in Laos and Cambodia, the Watergate break-in, and the Arthur Andersen-associated scandals in the 1970s were all conspiracies. But by and large, capitalism and capitalists operate in the open.

This is all to disguise that there is a capitalist ruling class; that capitalism functions through exploitation, appropriation, and outright violence; that in a democracy politicians are bought and paid for by the capitalist ruling class; that the state is the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence; and that “[t]he executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” Capitalists are the original globalists. The current talk about “nationalists” vs “globalists” is actually about the power struggle between two factions of capitalists for control within the international bourgeoisie. It’s all about misdirection, so I call such words sleight-of-hand words.

Capitalism as an economic system has been around for a little over 750 years and did not achieve global dominance until 1989-91. Hominids have been around for about six millions years, modern humans for around 300,000 years, human behavioral modernity for around 50,000 years, and human civilization for about 6,000 years. Most human societies prior to capitalism were communal, hunter/gatherer, and tribal. That’s another reason why capitalism is neither natural nor a product of human nature.

Godless recovery: “What’s Left?” October 2018, MRR #425


The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.

Søren Kierkegaard

Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void – it is shining.

John Lennon, “Tomorrow Never Knows”

I stopped drinking on January 1, 2010. I did so under the guidance of Kaiser’s Chemical Dependency Recovery Program. Right off, I went to meetings—physiology of addiction classes, AA meetings, LifeRing meetings, harm reduction meetings, and appointments with counselors, therapists, doctors, and psychiatrists. But once my body started to detox after 30 days, I got depressed. Real depressed. Clinically depressed. I did cognitive behavioral therapy for another eight months until I felt comfortable enough to call myself sober.

I was an atheist when I was a drunk, and I remain an atheist now that I’m sober. I crafted my sobriety out of various elements from the above list of recovery programs, not out of convenience but from what felt true. And the idea of a “higher power” never felt true. I could admit I had no power over my drinking, and I could surrender to my powerlessness. Just not TO anything or anyone. I was able to surrender to an impersonal universe, to my situation, to existence itself. I was able to say “I give up.” And that worked, without having to invoke a deity or “higher power” or any object/subject to which to surrender.

Actually, the act of surrendering works, with or without a “higher power.” The psychology behind this was clearly described by Gregory Bateson in his essay “The Cybernetics of ‘Self’: A Theory of Alcoholism.” Our Enlightenment definition of “self” equates to the conscious mind, which we believe controls us, our body, through our will power. But it is absurd to argue that consciousness—a part of the mind that functions through ten percent of the brain, generously speaking—can possibly comprehend let alone control the remaining ninety percent of the mind/brain, not to mention the rest of the human body, and thus constitutes the true “self” capable of controlling the whole individual.

Little wonder then that the fictitious Cartesian duality of mind versus matter causes problems. In the case of alcoholics the disastrous assertion that “I can resist drinking and stay sober through sheer will power” can generate a dangerous alcoholic pride that in turn engenders suicidal risk taking. To repeat myself, it is ludicrous to argue that consciousness, which comprises considerably less than one percent of the individual, can control to any significant degree the rest of the individual. The act of surrender then is more than an acknowledgment of this lack of self-control and will power. “Philosophically viewed, this first step is not a surrender,” Bateson wrote. “It is simply a change in epistemology, a change in how to know about the personality-in-the-world. And, notably, the change is from an incorrect to a more correct epistemology.”

Giving up the illusion of will power and self-control allows the individual to begin the process of recovery. That means embracing the act of surrender, of no longer resisting, of giving up. It doesn’t mean believing in god, or a “higher power,” or some external authority. The Black Panther Party pioneered a type of drug rehabilitation in which the heroin addict would “exchange the needle for the gun,” thereby substituting the revolution for god. Unfortunately, when the guns fail or the revolution is inevitably delayed, relapse is more than likely. Surrendering to something external means there’s still something out there to rebel against. Just to surrender however—to give up the “self”—is to start finding yourself.

In rejecting this dichotomy between mind and matter, Gregory Bateson had a simple definition of what constitutes a single unit of mind based on the biology of the human brain. (1) A brain cell, a single neuron, is autonomous, capable of processing blood sugars into the energy needed to sustain itself and electrically fire. (2) The neuron operates on the basis of difference, the fundamental difference being firing or not firing, on or off, yes or no. (3) The neuron is connected via synapses with other neurons into circular or more complex firing patterns to form neural circuitry. Voila, mind! We have thought at its most elemental. From there we can take thought to the biological level (the body with its myriad cells), the social level (comparing how neurons operate in the brain to how humans operate in a social network), and the level of human consciousness (where neural circuitry evolves feedback loops to monitor other neural circuitry).

This model of human consciousness—of a limited self-awareness feedback loop monitoring the vast and immensely complex circuitry of the human brain and body—means that we are aware of only a very small part of our mental and biological totality. “From an evolutionary perspective, consciousness may have evolved as a sort of gate-keeper/librarian/manager/search-engine metaprogram to help organize and harness our vast mental capacity,” according to author J.D. Moyer. “If there’s a lot more ‘in there’ than we’re capable of perceiving/utilizing with our tiny spotlight of consciousness, how do we get at the rest of it? How do we ‘unlock’ the ideas, solutions, connections, emotional strength, and otherwise untapped capacity of our subconscious (or superconscious) minds? […] How do we communicate with our own brains, thereby become a bit more conscious and a bit more free?”


Queue up a couple of mental practices that I’m loathe to call spiritual. Zen is as close to atheism as a religion gets and from my limited experience sitting zazen I’ve benefitted from simple mindfulness, dhyāna (observing the breath), and shikantaza (observing the mind) meditation. I’ve mentioned I’m a recovering Catholic so part of what I’ve tried to recover is what good can be found in my upbringing. Marx called religion not just “the opiate of the masses” but also “the heart of a heartless world.” There’s something to be said for stripping god from prayer and making prayer into a deep form of talking to yourself. Paying attention to your mind and engaging in a conversation with it are the essence of a greater self-awareness.

Meditation, especially of the Soto Zen variety, is well understood. The same can’t be said of atheist prayer. How can something like prayer, which purports to be a form of communication, work when what is being communicated with (e.g. god) doesn’t exist? Against the original Cartesian fallacy—Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”—Bateson disciple Anthony Wilden proposed we use “We communicate, therefore we are” to account for both human individuality and sociality. If our individual and social identity is the product of communicating with others, then the “other” is crucial to that process. According to Lev Vygotsky, talking with our parents becomes talking with the “other,” which becomes “self-talk” and eventually “inner speech.” And while inner speech no longer resembles spoken language, it means that human thought evolves socially. Inner speech is learned through communication with others. What starts out as a communal conversation between people remains a social experience even internally because of our tendency to externalize our internal realities as a constructed “other.” As a constructed externality, a fictive “other,” it is intended to recreate our primal communal conversations so essential to our identity. We use this illusion of the “other” to talk to ourselves, for our conscious mind to interact with the non-conscious mind, for “me” to converse with “all-that-is-not-me” through prayer.

Prayer facilitated through a constructed “other”—whether a personal yet parental “god” or a more democratic pantheistic spirituality or even an impersonal, aloof universe—lets us feel less isolated, alone, and lonely. Prayer allows the conscious mind to query the non-conscious mind for guidance, inspiration, forgiveness, solutions to problems, improvements to life, and the fulfillment of emotional needs. Prayer permits us to express thanks and experience gratitude, letting us feel greater personal well being while sometimes “having our prayers answered” by the non-conscious mind in the form of innovative ideas and remedies, emotional fortitude and resiliency, and greater individual and social connectedness. Prayer without a god, without any spirituality is not an oxymoron.

The symmetry of denying the existence of a god while constructing an externalized “other” doesn’t mean slipping into a Cartesian solipsism, into denying the existence of the real world. Me, I surrender without a god to maintain my sobriety. But I also forego the need for constructed externalities. I frequently talk out loud, talk to myself, ask myself how I might help, how I might do better, or be better. According to Philip K. Dick: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” I have no doubt that reality exists, albeit without a god or a spiritual dimension.

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