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.

Anarchism by Fools: “What’s Left?” February 2014, MRR #369

Part Two: Anarchism of-by-for Fools

I think it was Bill Clinton that once said that if you thought the ’50s were great, you’re probably a Republican, and if you thought the ’60s were great, you’re probably a Democrat.

Bill Maher, “Bill Maher Isn’t Sorry,” Politico (11-21-13)

And if you thought the ‘70s were great, you’re probably a libertarian. Libertarianism is just anarchy for rich people. Libertarians are big business fucks who don’t want to smash the state, but instead lobby the government for more tax cuts.

The number of prominent entrepreneurs, politicians and entertainers who openly declare themselves to be libertarian is legion. Mark Ames has done an excellent exposé regarding how libertarianism became the house philosophy for capitalism [“When Congress Busted Milton Friedman (And Libertarianism was Created by Big Business Lobbyists),” NSFWCORP, 11-16-12], and Bruce Gibney has revealed how libertarianism has infested the tech industry (“Silicon Valley’s Libertarian Problem,” Inc., 8-13-12). Science fiction has long speculated about the consequences of a free market capitalism run amok, from the cyberpunk of William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash to mainstream SF like Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and oddities like Max Barry’s Jennifer Government.

Flipping from science fiction to history, it needs to be made clear that the use, or rather abuse of the term libertarianism in America has almost nothing to do with the use of the term libertarianism historically. Of European political origin, and synonymous with social anarchism, historic libertarianism belonged to the broad category of socialism, and for the most part was leftist in orientation. It was extremely hostile to and ardently opposed to the classical liberalism of the Manchester School of Economics. Classical liberalism propounded a limited state assigned the narrow task of strictly protecting life, liberty and property while a laissez-faire capitalist economy was allowed unfettered activity, regulated only by the invisible hand of the market. Social anarchism in the European context was the majoritarian collectivist, mutualist, syndicalist and communist anarchism advocated by Bakunin, Proudhon, Rocker and Kropotkin in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. It was challenged by the minority individualist anarchism of Mackay and Stirner. Yet even then this minority tendency was highly critical of capitalism and bourgeois individualism. Nevertheless, noted anarcho-communist Albert Meltzer raised objection that “Individualism (applying to the capitalist and not the worker) has become a right-wing doctrine […] the ‘Individualist Anarchist’ approach that differs radically from revolutionary anarchism in the first line of descent. It is sometimes too readily conceded that ‘this is, after all, anarchism’.”

The rugged individualism and self-reliant frontier ethic of American society proved inimical to social anarchism and nurturing to individualist anarchism. The waves of revolutionary anarchist immigrants to this country, while responsible for extensive labor unrest and the founding of May 1st as International Workers Day, tended to de-radicalize and assimilate quickly. The anarchist individualism of Josiah Warren, Benjamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner fit right into and bolstered the American conservative mainstream, even as it remained critical of the capitalism of its day. Yet it took American conservatism’s confrontation with the ebullient, if somewhat crazed politics and counterculture of the 1960s, to separate out the individualist, pro-capitalist and limited government strains of the conservative movement proper into a bona fide anti-statist, radically individualistic quasi-anarchist capitalist movement by 1969. Anarchist capitalists like Murray Rothbard, and former Goldwater speechwriter Karl Hess (before he moved to the anarchist left), actually attempted to forge alliances with compatible New Left individuals and organizations between 1965 and 1968. Jerome Tuccille’s pair of books, It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand and Radical Libertarianism, detail this history for anyone interested.

Bona fide means genuine, but the existence of American capitalist libertarianism doesn’t absolve it from being full of shit, despite having multiplied and broadened in the last fifty odd years. Today, the American libertarian spectrum includes those with libertarian tendencies like quirky liberal Bill Maher and eccentric conservative Clint Eastwood, the mainstream of corporate libertarianism described above and the Libertarian Party proper, and the pure libertarianism of anarcho-capitalist economist Murray Rothbard and free market anarchist, 3D gun printer Cody Wilson. To quote an old saying, “the dose makes the poison” (or as Tom Waits sings: “She always had that little drop of poison.”) There is plenty of evidence that toxins like arsenic or radioactive iodine, in tiny amounts, are not just harmless, but might actually be healthy (See Henry I. Miller’s “Can Tiny Amounts of Poison Actually Be Good For You?”, Forbes, 12-20-11). In science, its called hormesis. Just so with capitalist libertarianism. A little bit, in the form of Bill Maher, can be bracing, invigorating and healthy. Too much, as with corporate libertarianism, can be sickening, and the pure libertarianism of anarchist capitalism are out-and-out deadly.

The reason I extended Bill Maher’s quote above is because the 1950s didn’t actually end until 1965, and the 60s in truth spanned from roughly 1965 to 1975. Similarly, the 70s actually covered from 1975 until 1985. I attempted, with a couple of left anarchist friends, to explore some form of left-right association with an equally small group of anarchist capitalists around 1975, a story I’ve told many times before. Big mistake. Aside from constantly babbling about their secret stashes of gold and silver bullion, those free market anarchists were all talk and no action. All they pontificated about were the blessings of capitalism without a state, until I shot back that, if the US government was overthrown today, US corporations would buy and install another government tomorrow, because American capitalism needs a state to protect it, regulate it, keep it safe and healthy. Free market capitalism is a myth, because capitalism requires government. Unfortunately, corporate capitalism in this country has already bought off the government lock, stock and barrel, even as a strand of corporate capitalism advocates a privatizing, deregulatory, anti-tax libertarianism that is fundamentally unhealthy for our body politic, what Rothbard in 1994 called “Big Government libertarianism.”

The 70s were also formative to the rise of capitalist libertarianism, in part because of the anti-Keynesian turn to the right produced by the election of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States. This quasi-libertarian variant came to be known as neoliberalism, which combined domestic privatization, deregulation, financialization, rolling back organized labor, and dismantling the welfare state with an aggressive, interventionist foreign policy. In its neoconservative permutation, it preached a democratic imperialism spread internationally by military power. Most recently, the Tea Party movement has distinguished itself from both establishment Republicans and orthodox conservatives with a virulent strain of libertarianism. While libertarian-like tendencies seem to be proliferating like a plague, attempts to build alliances between rightwing libertarians and congruent left libertarians have never amounted to shit. From the demise of the Radical Libertarian Alliance to the recent hard times experienced by Lou Rockwell’s Antiwar.com, time and again the idea of libertarian left and right working together have amounted to delusion and derangement.

As you might have noticed, this discussion of American style capitalist libertarianism has veered toward ill health and affliction, from the explicit analogy with poison to the implicit comparison with pathology. Well, let’s take the metaphor a step further. Matt Taibbi, in his Rolling Stone article “The Great American Bubble Machine” (7-9-9) described the role of Goldman Sachs in crashing the economy and bringing about the Great Recession. “The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” Classical liberalism, capitalist libertarianism, corporate libertarianism, anarchist capitalism, neoliberalism, Tea Party libertarianism; they are all structural capitalist modifications encompassed by this vampiric theme, first explored by Karl Marx in volume one of Capital:
As capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital. But capital has one single life impulse, the tendency to create value and surplus-value, to make its constant factor, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus-labor. Capital is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.

Time for a wooden stake, beheading, and fiery cremation.

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.