The Left and Their Fetishes: “What’s Left?” April 2017, MRR #407

ONE

The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism by weapons, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses. Theory is capable of gripping the masses as soon as it demonstrates ad hominem, and it demonstrates ad hominem as soon as it becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter. But for man the root is man himself.

Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843

I claim to be a skeptic, an atheist, a supporter of science and rationality, yet I got my contradictions. One of these is that I collect “charms.” I pick up trinkets from places, events, actions, and people that start out as souvenirs but eventually become fetish objects. Invested memories transubstantiate into spirit power with time. I used to carry around a kind of personal medicine bundle of charms that grew larger and more uncomfortable until I realized my habit was absurd and a bit obsessive. I retired the bundle a while back, but I didn’t ever throw it away. And I usually have one or two tiny personal charms on me as I go about my day.

Segue into this month’s topic—the Left and their fetishes—as we transition from discussing the elections to leftist politics. I’m using the British possessive pronoun “their” instead of the American “its” to emphasize not only the multitude of fetishes but the plurality of American Lefts.

Broadly speaking, the Left in this country falls into democratic, Leninist, and libertarian categories. Each of these categories can then be further subdivided. The democratic Left falls into subcategories like the Democratic Party’s left wing, electoral third parties, independent liberals and progressives, non-Marxist socialists, democratic socialists, and social democrats. Similarly, the Leninist Left comes in Marxist-Leninist, Stalinist, Hoxhaist, Trotskyist, and Maoist subcategories. We can dig deeper into each of these subcategories until we drill down to the level of singular organizations.

As for the libertarian Left, what I often call the left of the Left, it too breaks down into various subcategories of left anarchism (mutualism, collectivism, syndicalism, communism) and the ultraleft (council communism and left communism). Setting aside this rudimentary deconstruction, I still think the libertarian Left possesses the potential to bring its components into dialogue with each other to theoretically transcend the overall Left’s historic limitations. Add Autonomism, neo- or post-Leninism, insurrectionism, and communization to expand the political discourse in this potent melange and I’m hoping that some grand, revolutionary synthesis on the left of the Left will emerge that cuts across all three categories of the Left—democratic, Leninist, and libertarian. By the way, these three happen to be the three overarching fetishes on the American Left.

Here, we’re not talking about fetish as an object with power, but as an idea with power, an idea embedded in social history that is also embodied in social relations and structures. It’s about a Left devoted to democracy, or a Left centered on scientific socialism, or a Left championing individual and social liberation. I passed through several political phases on my journey through the left of the Left and I entertained various narrower organizing ideas along the way—non-violence as an anarcho-pacifist, the power of the people or the power of revolt as a left anarchist, the working class as a left communist—before I distanced myself from the ultraleft due to my growing skepticism. Orthodox Leftists have their own parallel set of fetish ideas; the unions, the proletariat, the vanguard party, history, socialist struggles for national liberation, etc. The two idées fixes that dominated the Left historically have been the working class and identity nationalism, with various workers’ revolts, movements, and regimes vying with numerous ethnically/racially based national liberation struggles for preeminence.

What’s behind the fetishizing of these Leftist tropes is the notion of agency, that something will act as a unifying basis for initiating revolution, changing society, and making history. That a revolutionary proletariat or that socialist struggles for national liberation will be central to this process. In the US, this means either pursuing the illusion of working class unity or the fantasy of a rainbow coalition of identity movements to affect any such change. Never mind that class runs against ethnic/racial groupings, and that nationalism ignores class divisions, so that class struggles and national struggles invariably obstruct each other, making true cross-organizing difficult if not impossible. Both the working class and ethnic/racial identity nationalism are each fragmenting, the former under the pressure of capitalism and the latter under the influence of tribalism.

Me, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Marxist idea of the working class first becoming a “class in itself” and then a “class for itself” capable of self-activity, self-organization, and self-emancipation through world proletarian revolution. But while I think that organized labor will be an important element of any potential basis for social power, that’s a far cry from believing that a united working class will bring about social revolution. I’m not even sure that effective social power in the face of state and capital is feasible these days. I might also be naïve as hell to think that it’s possible to create a grand, revolutionary synthesis on the left of the Left. What I do know is that, even to create such a potential, we need to suspend all our cherished Leftist fetishes.
Easier said than done.

TWO

Frederick Engels wrote in the introduction to Marx’s 1895 essay “The Class Struggles in France” that, in the wake of the 1848 uprisings across Europe, “the street fight with barricades … was to a considerable extent obsolete.” In the struggle between popular insurrection and military counter-insurgency, the military almost invariably wins because “the superiority of better equipment and training, of unified leadership, of the planned employment of the military forces and of discipline makes itself felt.” “Even in the classic time of street fighting, therefore, the barricade produced more of a moral than a material effect,” according to Engels, who concluded: “Does that mean that in the future the street fight will play no further role? Certainly not. It only means that the conditions since 1848 have become far more unfavorable for civil fights, far more favorable for the military. A future street fight can therefore only be victorious when this unfavorable situation is compensated by other factors.”

One such relatively recent street fight that proved surprisingly successful were the 1999 Seattle WTO protests, the inspiring Battle of Seattle [N30]. The WTO Ministerial Conference of November 30-December 1, 1999, witnessed a fortuitous confluence of elements that temporarily prevented the conference from starting, shut down the city of Seattle, and initiated the beginning of the worldwide anti-globalization movement. The first was the sheer number of demonstrators, which was estimated at a minimum of 50,000. Second was the broad array of organizations: labor unions like the AFL-CIO, NGOs like Global Exchange, environmental groups like Greenpeace, religious groups like Jubilee 2000, and black bloc anarchists. Third was their alignment in various networks and coalitions, from the overarching green-blue teamsters-and-turtles alliance to the nonviolent Direct Action Network (DAN). The fourth significant element was the diversity of tactics employed, from old style mass marches and rallies through innocuous teach-ins, street celebrations, and more strident nonviolent direct action blockades and lockdowns of street intersections, to the minuscule black bloc rampage of 100 to 200 individuals memorialized by yours truly in my blog header picture. Finally, there was the element of surprise.

DAN activists took control of key intersections in the pre-dawn hours, before the Seattle Police Department (SPD) mobilized. By 9 am, when the marches, rallies, teach-ins, celebrations, and black bloc riot started in earnest, the nonviolent direct-action intersection lockdowns had effectively shut down the city streets. WTO delegates were unable to get from their hotels to the convention center, and the SPD were effectively cut in two, with a police cordon around the convention center isolated from the rest of the city and the SPD by the massed demonstrators. Unable even to respond to the black bloc riot, the SPD grew increasingly frustrated and eventually fired pepper spray, tear gas canisters, and stun grenades to unsuccessfully try to reopen various blocked intersections. The WTO’s opening ceremonies were cancelled, the mayor of Seattle declared a state of emergency, a curfew, and a 50-block “no-protest zone,” and the SPD took the rest of the day into the evening to clear the city streets. The next day, December 1, the governor of Washington mobilized two National Guard battalions as well as other police agencies to secure Seattle’s no-protest zone and permit the WTO to meet, despite ongoing protests and riots. In all, over 500 people were arrested on various charges.

Compare this to the protests on Inauguration Day, 2017. It can be argued that the number of protesters and the breadth of protesting organizations were even greater than in the Battle of Seattle. Organized into three distinct protesting coalitions by the Workers World Party, the ANSWER Coalition, and the anarchist/ultraleft Disrupt J20 network, the tactics employed by the protesters were perhaps not as diverse. Mass marches and rallies occurred around the capitol blocking traffic and shutting down streets. Nonviolent direct action attempted to blockade buildings and lockdown intersections, and numerous efforts were made to obstruct the checkpoints meant to screen Inauguration attendees with tickets. And the black bloc, now numbering over 500, did their usual roaming smashy-smashy. All of this was to no avail as the DC PD held the strategic high ground by controlling the city streets from the get go. The National Guard was never mobilized and the city was never shut down. Only about 200 people were arrested, with those arrested now facing harsh felony riot charges.

I did black bloc actions in San Francisco on Columbus Day, 1992, and during the 2003 Gulf War protests, where I escaped getting kettled and arrested by the SFPD. I also followed with great interest the running street battles between the black bloc and OPD during Occupy Oakland. But I’m 64 years old, and the black bloc street fighting tactic is a young person’s game. What’s more, and while frequently extremely disruptive, the cat-and-mouse of street fighting cannot be compared to any form of urban guerrilla warfare. At its best, black bloc successes are very restricted. They might give their participants a sense of elation and teach them maneuverability, teamwork, and flexibility on the fly—both physical and tactical—but they cannot overwhelm and defeat a better armed, better trained, more organized, and more disciplined police force without other favorable factors such as the element of surprise. Thus Engels was correct, and we’re not even talking about confronting the National Guard or the US Army. Nor are we considering police and military forces willing to open fire on peaceful protesters as is often the case in autocratic Third World countries. So while I have a soft spot for the black bloc, I think the tactic has limited usefulness.

Next month, I get down and dirty with my analysis of the Left’s numerous problems.

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Of countercultures and temper tantrums: “What’s Left?” August 2015, MRR #387

Mildred: Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?
Johnny: Whadda you got?

Marlon Brando and Peggy Maley, “The Wild One”

They had lost politically but they had won culturally and maybe even spiritually.

John Lichfield (writing of the 60s generation)
“Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!: Paris, May 1968”
The Independent, 9/23/08

If I had to describe my political philosophy, I would say: “Libertarianism now, fascism later.”

J.P. Nash

She was a child of Beatniks who came of age in the mid-1960s and lived in San Francisco. There, she was a part of the hippie counterculture, danced with Sufi Sam’s dervish troupe in Precita Park, attended the 1967 Human Be-In/Gathering of the Tribes in Golden Gate Park, and belonged to the Diggers. After the “Death of Hippie” event in the Haight-Ashbury, as well as a series of high-profile drug busts, she moved to a commune in Olema in 1969.

He was a red diaper baby born of Communist Party members and lived in Berkeley. There, he participated in the burgeoning New Left, attended UC Berkeley on a Vietnam War student deferment, helped organize the takeover of Provo Park, and was a member of Students for a Democratic Society. After the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, and the “Bloody Thursday” riot in Berkeley’s Peoples Park, he joined the Weatherman faction in 1969.

They met, fell in love, and married sometime at the end of 1970, beginning of 1971. Maybe it was at Vortex I, or during the Chicano Moratorium, or doing gestalt therapy at Esalen. Or perhaps it was at a Renaissance Pleasure Faire, or during the trial of the Chicago 8, or sitting in on classes at Black Mountain College. The exact date and place were never clear as she was hitchhiking around the country and he had gone underground after the Greenwich Village townhouse debacle. Besides, it was the 60s, or the second half of that decade anyway. If you remembered the 60s, you weren’t there. They stayed together a couple of years, even had a couple of kids. But they couldn’t make it work. She was indelibly eccentric and individualistic, New Agey spiritual and profoundly anti-political. He was rabidly political and atheistic, consensus-prone and surprisingly conventional. They got together on and off over the next decade or two, had a couple more kids, but finally decided to call it quits and finalize their divorce at the end of the twentieth century. True to form, they couldn’t agree when to do that, she insisting that it be at the end of 1999 and he at the end of 2000.

As the 1970s dragged into the 1980s, and then the 1990s, they lived their separate lives. She watched as most of what she believed in during her counterculture days entered the mainstream. Not only had sex, drugs, and rocknroll become commonplace, but so had a quirky entrepreneurial individualism and appreciation for alternative lifestyles. She eventually moved to Portland as an apprentice pastry chef, where she now owns a regional mini-chain of successful artisanal bio-organic paleo-grained brick oven bakeries, writes a popular food blog, and lives comfortably in the Pearl District. He watched as the Left he fought for retreated from the streets, ultimately to retrench in its final academic bastion. Not only had revolutionary politics and Marxism given way to identity politics and French postmodernism, but the Left’s scant successes had quickly dead-ended in political correctness. He eventually resurfaced with a teaching career in New York City, where he is now a tenured Sociology professor at NYU, lectures and writes on social movements, and lives comfortably in Park Slope.

And here’s where I walk away from my all-to-obvious analogy. My initial point is that pundits who proclaim that those who fomented the 1960s “lost politically, but won culturally” commit the most basic error of constructing a straw man out of the notion that there was one, unitary “60s generation.” There were two main currents to the 60s—the hippie counterculture and the Left/social movements—that share the coincidence of their proximate births and participant demographics, but little else. These two currents frequently interacted and occasionally merged, but ultimately they remained discrete, and experienced different fates. The hippies won culturally, and the New Leftists lost politically.

The conflation of different aspects of the 1960s is often not just an error of punditry, its a tactic of conservative Kulturkampf. Conservatives have long attempted to fabricate an imaginary, monolithic enemy-from-within, responsible for the decline of America and the corruption of its moral fiber since the 60s. The hedonistic hippie counterculture was in complete cahoots with a New Left become New Communist Movement, which was secretly in league with the Great Society welfare state, Democratic Party permissive liberalism, a mainstream media monopoly, corrupt socialistic unions, ad nauseam; thus inventing one sweeping, victorious anti-American juggernaut that every right-minded, freedom-loving, patriotic citizen needed to oppose by any means necessary. Culture wars have been the party line ever since the Reagan presidency. During that time conservatives moved American politics steadily, inexorably, to the right under an ideological variation known as neoliberalism, itself a supposed revival of 19th century classical Manchester liberalism. Because let’s make no mistake here, whether the counterculture won and the Left lost in the short run, capitalism wins out in the long run. The individualistic “do your own thing” hippies fit in perfectly with America’s self-reliant pioneer individualism and besides, everybody wanted to make money after the 60s.

I decided not to get cute and extend my original analogy to follow the children of my fantasy hippie/New Left couple by describing which one became a Wall Street broker versus which one became a punk rocker and so on. Most who went through the 60s as active participants, as well as their offspring, got jobs and became productive members of society, so what I’m interested in are those who rebelled against all that, even against the 60s, even for rebellion’s sake, oftentimes forming their own countercultures in the process. Rarely did such counter countercultural rebellions lump both “parents” into a single target however. Heavy Metal as a counterculture maintains a direct line of descent from the 60s counterculture, which makes its rebelliousness all rather conventional, even traditional. Punk rock rebellion was against “all that hippie shit” and created its own counterculture based on “do it yourself” and “fuck shit up.” But because punk was basically apolitical, it was easily swayed by politics, left or right, ultimately to descend into peace punks vs skinheads by the 80s.

There were those who had nothing against sex, drugs, and rocknroll, but who thought all that hippie “peace and love” was naïve bullshit. What chafed them unduly were the demands for political correctness which originated in academia, echoed around government and the media, and were blithely parroted by Gen X kids. These young white dudes, and they were mostly young white males, were angry about the influence of the PC Left in America. Inspired by the zine Answer Me! produced by Jim and Debbie Goad from 1991 to 1994, they created a rabid if limited anti-PC counterculture which, according to Spin Magazine, quickly transcended pissed off, working class whiteboy Jim Goad and his “fuck you and your feelings too” zine. There was the Unpop art movement, various publishing companies like Feral House, even an Angry White Male tour which featured Jim Goad, Mike Diana, Shane Bugbee, the Boone Bros., Skitzo, and King Velveeda. Lots of young angry white boys were plenty pissed that they now had to consider the perspectives of women, blacks, gays, and other minorities, and they believed their misogynist, racist, homophobic, frequently humorous invective was not “punching down” but rather “punching up” because, you know, liberalism and the Left were really in control.

Aside from Goad, the usual suspects in this post-60s contrarian counterculture included Boyd Rice, Brian Clark, Shaun Partridge, Adam Parfrey, Lorin Partridge, Nick Bougas/A. Wyatt Mann, Michael Moynihan, Larry Wessel, et al. As is invariably the case, antagonisms and rifts eventually split up these anti-PC counter countercultural bad boys, since they had really little in common other than their hatred of the Left, liberalism, and PC politics. Some drifted off into business-as-usual conservatism, others became neofascists, but most just wanted to make a buck. Their immediate heir was Vice Media, which at its inception as a magazine combined muckraking journalism with frat boy humor and soft porn skin mag aesthetics. What Lizzie Widdicombe described in “The Bad-Boy Brand” for the New Yorker as Vice’s early combination of “investigative reporting with a sensibility that is adolescent, male, and proudly boorish” has since been moderated for the sake of maximizing profit and moving into the mainstream. That leaves folks like Gavin McInnes—big Goad fan and ex-Vice cofounder fired for being unwilling to go along with the program—to continue the good fight ranting against the Left, liberals, and political correctness today.

One thing I find interesting is that right-wing libertarianism seems to be the default politics for those individuals intent on winning the culture wars while still snorting coke and watching porn. Goad might best be described as paleo-libertarian, while both Vice and McInnes are self-proclaimed libertarian. I think that claiming an absolute right to freedom of expression, aside from triggering such knee-jerk libertarianism, is invariably used as an excuse for their juvenile, rude, malicious, thuggish behavior. Once past hating on the Left, without their libertarian label of convenience, and no longer young, these angry white male morons would just be your run-of-the-mill GOP conservative good ol’ boys, maybe with a smidgen of neo-Nazi wingnut thrown in to keep things interesting. Said another way, scratch a Vice-like libertarian and you might just uncover a fascist.

Ethan A. Russell wrote: “In retrospect people often seem embarrassed by that time—the late sixties into the seventies—as if suddenly confronted with some lunatic member of your family, once revered, now disgraced.” (Dear Mr. Fantasy: Diary of a Decade: Our Time and Rock and Roll) Having experienced much of the 60s as a late hippie and New Leftist, I’m neither embarrassed by my life then nor do I revere that complicated decade now. I do think that efforts to frame things in terms of a singular “60s generation” are misinformed and flawed at best, and at worst help to construct a demonic hollow man out of the 60s as a conservative culture wars ploy. The Angry White Male shtick—with Goad for real and with McInnes as pose—will be around as long as political correctness persists. But that’s so, so boring.

(Copy editing by K Raketz.)

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