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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Campism: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, November 2022

“This is utter nonsense.”

The gray-haired bespectacled man gestured angrily. It was July 21, 1989 and I was standing behind the Neither East Nor West literature table at the “Without Borders” anarchist conference/festival in San Francisco’s Mission High School. I was hanging out with the THRUSH girls and Bob McGlynn as the pissed-off individual continued to point at our table’s banner.

“Neither East Nor West, huh? That sounds an awful lot like the slogan of the Italian Fascist MSI. Neither Left nor Right.”

“We’re anarchists, not fascists,” Bob said.

“Anarchists, fascists, it’s all the same.” The man delivered his verbal coup. “If you’re not for the international socialist revolution you’re for reactionary capitalist imperialism.”

I’ve recently written a couple of columns exposing the idiocy that is Fascist Third Positionism.[1] Let’s now talk about campism and legitimate efforts to transcend it. In order to discuss international politics, let’s start with an analogy.

Continue reading

Antiwar: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, May 2022

“Peace is not simply the absence of violence or war”—a truism I grew up with in the 1960s. When I first got politics in 1968 I called myself an anarchist-pacifist and affiliated with the American Friends Service Committee, War Resisters League, and similar organizations which promoted the concept that in order to achieve a social order based on peace, one had to use nonviolent methods. I flirted with the eastern religious concept of ahimsa and the western religious notion of turning the other cheek, as well as more formalized nonviolent practices like Gandhi’s satyagraha.  But soon the contradictions of pacifism, specifically the argument that nonviolence doesn’t save lives or guarantee peace in the short or long run, dissuaded me from remaining a pacifist. Besides, I didn’t have the integrity or discipline to practice any form of nonviolence. And while I rejected the pacifist notion that nonviolent ends require nonviolent means, I incorporated the whole “means-and-ends” argument into my anti-authoritarian politics at the time.

So I opposed the Vietnam War, not so much out of principle but out of self interest. I was subject to the draft and I didn’t want to be conscripted and shipped off to die in a rice paddy in Southeast Asia. Thus I wasn’t part of the peace movement so much as I participated in the antiwar movement. I’ll briefly discuss one small aspect of the anti-Vietnam War movement’s wide and convoluted history—the attempt to build and sustain a single, overarching antiwar organization in the US. The broadest umbrella coalition of people, organizations and issues seeking to end America’s intervention in Southeast Asia was the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (the Mobe). Continue reading

Party of one: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, April 2022

Four independent workers’ soviets operated concurrently in Moscow during the Russian 1905 Revolution. Proud Soviet historians were always quick to point out that the one aligned with the Bolsheviks operated a bomb-making operation out of Maxim Gorky’s apartment. Meanwhile, the more famous 1905 St. Petersburg workers’ and soldiers’ soviet, precursor to the 1917 Petrograd soviet, had puzzling gaps in its official Soviet history until the anarchist historian Voline published The Unknown Revolution, 1917-1921 in 1947. In it he revealed that the soviet met in his St. Petersburg apartment.

Aside from the usual disputes over primary and secondary evidence or what constitutes historical fact, and before any arguments over what a particular history signifies, there are always the missing parts of history. What I mean is the things that happened and affected the course of history but that never got recorded in the historical record and thus were subsequently forgotten. The 1905 St. Petersburg workers’ and soldiers’ soviet met in Voline’s apartment and contributed to the development of soviet power whether or not that fact was entered into the historical record prior to 1947. So yes, if a tree falls in the forest, it makes a sound. Continue reading

Anti-imperialism: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, September 2021

I am against imperialism, be it French, British, US or Chinese. I am not an “anti-imperialist,” since that is a political position supporting national liberation movements opposed to imperialist powers.
—Gilles Dauvé

Mark Twain was an anti-imperialist, a member of the American Anti-Imperialist League (1898-1920) which opposed US annexation of the Philippines. For the League, just republican government was based on the principle of the “consent of the governed” as embodied in the Declaration of Independence, Washington’s Farewell Address, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The imperialism of US territorial expansion thus violated the classical liberal precepts of self-government and non-intervention as put forward by British writers like John A. Hobson. Twain’s dark sarcasm and claims of America’s liberatory intent notwithstanding, he was neither so generous nor as damning regarding the US continental expansion of Manifest Destiny that expropriated the native peoples. The raison d’être of this type of anti-imperialism was simple; empire was bad and needed to be morally opposed.

Continue reading

Alternate socialism: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, July 2021

I received a letter yesterday from my leftist penpal via the Multiverse Postal Service. We’ve been discussing the origins of the Cold War in our respective parallel universes. I quote from his lengthy missive below:

We both agree that the similar contours of our side-by-side worlds were consolidated after the disastrous Afghan war. But we each have differing timelines for the historical sequence of events starting from the February 1917 Russian Revolution that produced our present realities in our alternate universes.

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

Corporatist realities and conservative fantasies: “What’s Left?” February 2009, MRR #309

The debate on the Left, in the days when the Soviet Union still existed, frequently boiled down to those who championed socialism in the abstract versus those who defended “real existing socialism.” Abstract socialism refers to any type of socialism that, with brief revolutionary exceptions, hasn’t actually been tried out in the real world. Anarchism, left communism, syndicalism, council communism, De Leonism, autonomism, democratic socialism, utopian socialism, communalism, libertarian socialism—plus the scores of variations within each category—comprise the broad, inchoate field of socialism in the abstract. Real existing socialism is much simpler, consisting of a few shopworn social democratic and a half dozen Leninist regimes, some of which continue to function to this day.

A similar distinction can be drawn between political systems in the abstract and real existing political systems. Political science, as it is taught in most universities, is an example of politics in the abstract, and academe is the perfect setting within which to discuss democracy, libertarianism, capitalism, socialism, fascism, communism, anarchism; all sorts of abstract political systems that have rarely, if ever, existed. In reality, all present-day political systems are but variations on a single theme, that theme being the corporate state.

This is an incidental insight that can be gleaned from a reading of The Contours of American History by William Appleman Williams. An inspiration for the New Left in the 1960s, Williams was a “hard revisionist” who argued that expansion and empire were essential to the American economy, and that the US was primarily responsible for the Cold War. He wasn’t so much a Marxist as he was an anti-imperialist populist, along the lines of Mark Twain, who found common cause with old school, isolationist conservatives like Herbert Hoover, and who valued American regionalism and small community.

In Contours, Williams contended that the worldwide crisis that began with the first world war, and culminated in the second, gave rise to a near universal form of governance that can be called the corporate state. Strictly speaking, the corporate state is a creature of Italian fascism, of Ugo Spirito, Sergio Panunzio and Giovanni Gentile, who posited that an authoritarian ruling party could use the state to mediate between various powerful social interests, most notably the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, by incorporating them into social governance. The triumph of Bolshevism in Russia after 1917 produced a corporate state skewed to the left, with the working class allied with, and disciplined by a totalitarian Soviet state. Mussolini’s march on Rome in 1922 established a corporate state tilted to the right, with the capitalist class allied with, and disciplined by an authoritarian Fascist state.

Bolshevism and fascism vied for influence in the United States after 1929, when social conditions during the Great Depression proved ripe for radical organizing. The labor movement in general, and the Communist Party in particular, were gaining strength and social revolution, not to mention socialism, was a distinct possibility. Roosevelt’s response, in the form of the New Deal, created a corporate state in which a democratic state regulated capital, the full partner, and labor, the junior partner, in what amounted to a tripartite governance of American society. Very little effort is required to fit most countries today into one or another corporatist model.

The clear relevance of the corporate state idea in explaining much of current nationalist politics comes at a time when theories of corporatism have lost favor among academics. The multiplication of powers and interests in a society that makes it unmanageable by any corporate state; the explosion of racial, ethnic, even regional forms of tribalism; the spread of neo-liberal, free trade economics around the world through rampant globalization; the weakening of the nation-state as a viable unit in the world capitalist economy; these have all been cited to mitigate the importance of the corporate state as a way to understand how much of the world is run on the level of nation-states. The political realities of the corporate state, however, have not evaporated simply because political science professors are no longer interested in talking about them.

Take the 11/27/08 column, “Socialist Republic,” by paleoconservative Patrick Buchanan. After noting that both George Bush and Barack Obama have learned the same interventionist lessons from studying the Great Depression, Buchanan sarcastically comments that “We are all Keynesians now.”

Consider what we are about to do. Bush in 2008 spent 21 percent of GDP. States, counties and cities spent another 12 percent. Thus, one third of GDP is spent by government at all levels. Obama and Co. propose to raise that by another 10 percent of GDP. We may soon be north of 40 percent of gross domestic product controlled and spent by government.

That is Eurosocialism.

Actually, it’s good, old American corporatism.

Another paleoconservative, Paul Edward Gottfried, points out in his book, Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right, that American conservatives have failed to tackle, let alone defeat the behemoth of the modern administrative state. That’s because conservative Republicans, no less than their liberal Democratic counterparts, accept as given the corporatist fundamentals of the New Deal (Social Security, unemployment insurance, government intervention in the economy) as well as certain additions made to it by Johnson’s Great Society (Medicare, food stamps, civil rights legislation). Not even the doyen of small-government conservative Republicanism, Ronald Reagan, managed to dent America’s administrative state. Indeed, the Federal government and the deficits accrued by it grew precipitously during the Reagan years.

The corporate state is real existing politics, whereas paleoconservatism is politics in the abstract. We’re likely to witness intense internecine conflict on the Right in the next few years as conservatives try to figure out “what went wrong” in 2008. Few will defend the real existing big government conservatism of George Bush as they fight over the mantle of small-government Goldwater/Reagan conservatism in the abstract. Yet, much as anarchism went down to defeat time and again against Leninist communism in the real world, I suspect that, in practice, small government paleoconservatism will be routed by big government conservatism every time. Well, perhaps not in the platform of the Republican party, but certainly in actual governance.

The administrative state, the corporate state, is inescapable. Nor would the capitalist class wish to get rid of it, even if they could. I once joked that, if the Libertarian party’s dream was realized tomorrow, and the state was abolished in order to achieve a pure laissez-faire capitalism, the corporations would purchase and install a new government the day after. Capitalists realize the need for a strong, regulatory state, if for no other reason than to bail them out when they fuck up. Then there’s the military, handy for enforcing capital’s interests overseas, and the police, equally useful in quelling riot, rebellion and revolution at home. Labor’s participation in the corporate state, as well as the social programs engendered by that participation, might be up for question or attack. America’s corporate state is not.

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