Boutique capitalism: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, June 2021

I’d gotten high on marijuana, hashish, LSD, MDA, cocaine, amphetamine, barbiturates, heroin, jimson weed, nitrous oxide, peyote, mescaline and psilocybin by 1972 living in Ventura, California. But I still hadn’t gotten drunk. I didn’t start drinking alcohol with any frequency until late 1974, over a year after I turned 21 and had already moved to Santa Cruz to attend UCSC. But in the spring of 1972 I didn’t like booze. I didn’t like people who drank instead of getting stoned, and I hated loud bar scenes. So I was jealous and miffed when a friend regaled me with the news that “Hey, I was drinking at John’s At The Beach and John Lennon just showed up, jumped on stage and played ‘Norwegian Wood’.” And I was seriously annoyed to learn that Lennon returned two days later to play another brief set, this time backed by a few local musicians.

John’s At The Beach was a local restaurant on Seaward Avenue that offered surf-and-turf dining and a separate full bar with tap beer and live folk music all in a bohemian ambiance. John Lennon—under heavy scrutiny by the Nixon administration as well as by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI—showed up both times accompanied by Yoko Ono. I’d heard the rumors that John and Yoko were secretly hanging out in nearby Ojai to consult with Jiddu Krishnamurti. They’d been spotted eating dinner at the Ranch House restaurant in Meiners Oak and walking around in the secluded, toney East End neighborhood. Krishnamurti had lived in Ojai on and off, but he’d long disassociated himself from the Theosophical Society which had groomed him to be their next “World Teacher.” And Krishnamurti had been in Europe at the time so the gossip was false.

Today, Ojai is an upscale residential city, a bedroom community for professionals commuting to Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, and a retirement spot friendly to creatives and the spiritually minded. Long a tourist destination, Ojai has an ordinance prohibiting chain stores to encourage local small businesses and retain the city’s unique small-town flavor. Organic agriculture, farmers markets and eco-friendly art are promoted. Opportunities for hiking, camping, tennis and golf abound. With a history of cattle ranches and fruit orchards, cannabis cultivation was and is a major part of the local economy, augmented by legal marijuana sales. Ojai is often described as quaint and charming, but also as exclusive and very, very white.

Tucked away in the Western Transverse Mountain Ranges, the Ojai Valley was home to the Native American Ventureño Chumash before Rancho Ojai was established as a Mexican land grant. Once a part of the United States and initially named Nordhoff, the town’s climate gained a reputation for healthy air quality, becoming a popular wintering location for wealthy Easterners and Midwesterners. But Ojai’s repute as a spiritual center is longstanding. The Matilija Canyon hot springs were touted for their mystical healing powers and were the basis for several resort spas. The Theosophical Society established the Krotona Institute in 1926, which was initially home base for Krishnamurti before he broke with the Society in 1929. Artist, sculptor and ceramicist Beatrice Wood settled in Ojai in 1948 to be near Krishnamurti and was part of the burgeoning artists and writers colony there. Being a hippie haven in the ‘60s and ‘70s added to Ojai’s standing as a creative and spiritual locus. The city continues to call itself “Shangri-La,” alluding to the region’s idyllic health and spirituality-focused natural environment while referencing the 1937 film adaptation of James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon about an isolated, mystical sanctuary.

I liked Ojai. I had friends and dope dealers who lived in Ojai. I regularly attended the Ojai Music Festival and I once hiked into the Sespe Wilderness in the Los Padres National Forest for a mescaline-fueled adventure. I also visited Krotona for occasional lectures and events. The Theosophical Society was founded by Madame H.P. Blavatsky, considered an occult philosopher or a charlatan depending on one’s point of view. Theosophy is a wacky set of ideas, based on the teachings of Blavatsky, who believed in Atlantis and Lemuria, and who claimed to have discovered a secret, universal esoteric core of wisdom to all of humanity’s major and minor religions. In turn, Theosophy styles itself a synthesis of religion, philosophy, science and metaphysics. Theosophy was mystical, New Agey horseshit before mystical, New Agey horseshit existed. In the case of Ojai as a spiritual center, this horseshit was footnoted by conjuring up a sacred geography of Ley lines, vortices, the world grid of powerful energy meridians organized in a symmetrical pattern across the planet, even the big dragon and other mystical animals supposedly traced by Xuan Kong Feng Shui along the California coast from Point Conception to the Ventura headlands.

My Ventura days were my first experience with the confluence of eco-friendly artisanal localism, hippie counterculturism, and New Age spirituality that I call boutique capitalism. I ran into another scenic artsy-craftsy town similar to Ojai when I moved to Northern California and visited Carmel-by-the-Sea. Similar picturesque touristy enclaves exist in Taos, Marfa, Sitka, Beaufort, Galena, Edgartown, Stowe and St. Augustine. They all proclaim themselves ecologically-minded, artist-friendly, local-centric communities that try so hard at being unique they’ve become an alternate cookie-cutter mold for what’s oh-so-precious.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the ’60s counterculture I belonged to, in part because the hippie milieu was riven with contradictions. Communitarian and communalist sentiments warred with an individualism reminiscent of the Wild West, with communes intent on going back to the land populated by people wearing buckskins and preaching “do your own thing.” Decentralized organic food coops gave rise to global corporations like Whole Foods while the back-to-the-land/environmental/wilderness movements produced private companies like Patagonia. Stewart Brand started the Whole Earth Catalog, the quintessential resource for back-to-the-land communal living, before endorsing a high-tech libertarian capitalism that has become the foundation of Silicon Valley. When John Lichfield argued that the rebellious youth of the ’60s “had lost politically but they had won culturally and maybe even spiritually,” it’s actually the rightwing libertarian currents that triumphed.

Finally, the New Age spiritualism I thoroughly despise was also a contradictory phenomenon. There were the guru/disciple communalist cults but there’s also an overpowering emphasis on the spiritual authority of the self, an “unmediated individualism” that sees the individual’s experiences as the primary source of spiritual authority. This is all wrapped in a vision of cyclical time that emphasizes discrete recurring historical ages, with our current age a time of spiritual decline and degeneracy. Such a belief is descended from the parafascist Traditionalism of René Guénon and Julius Evola that was cousin to Blavatsky’s Theosophy. In turn, the New Age has produced new gospels of prosperity and such oxymorons as “spiritual capitalism” and “conscious capitalism.”

These elements combine into a boutique capitalism that is in a highly coevolved relationship with what might be called “normie capitalism”—the dog-eat-dog capitalism of never-ending growth and ever centralizing power and wealth. The tourism and goodwill that such hip, cool enclaves depend on requires the excess wealth generated by the larger capitalist society. But if by some fluke boutique capitalism became the norm, that small-scale, individualist, conscious capitalism would inevitably evolve into some new version of corporate monopoly capitalism. That’s because of the exigencies of totalizing, self-perpetuating class dynamics generated around private property and the profit motive inherent in capitalism.

In other words, decentralized competitive capitalism develops into centralized anti-competitive capitalism by virtue of its internal logic. And efforts to curtail capitalism have invariably failed—from traditions of the commons, church anti-usury edicts and feudal reciprocity to the social democratic welfare state or the one-party rule and state nationalization of modern Communism. Cool boutique capitalism’s attempts to restrain that overarching violent, avaricious capitalism is also doomed to failure. Promoting boutique capitalism as some kind of alternative may assuage one’s conscience, but capitalism is the only and inescapable game in town.

As for John Lennon, the ex-Beatle who wrote “Working Class Hero,” “Power to the People” and “Imagine” was an abusive, rich, popstar asshole who hung out with other wealthy celebreties and occasionally went slumming. And all the drugs I took in the ’60s? Alcohol was the only one that truly kicked my ass and and took control. My 35+ years addiction to it required a year of therapy and ongoing vigilance to maintain my sobriety. It’s been said that, if you remember the ’60s you weren’t there. I was there and I remember.

POSTSCRIPT: The ’60s era was marked by small, socially conscious cities like Berkeley, Ann Arbor and Madison. They were student hubs for New Left protest that saw liberal city councils elected and were disparaged with the prefix “the People’s Republic of…”. That time also saw the evolution of Murray Bookchin’s post-scarcity anarchist communism into a libertarian socialist municipalism that has since taken root in Kurdish Rojava. Whether boutique capitalism can be transformed into a revolutionary municipalism may be the subject of a future column.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
“John Lennon’s Ojai Weeks” by Mark Lewis (Ojaihub)
“Seeing Ojai Through the Dragon’s Eyes” by Lee Ann Manley (Ojaihub)
“Ojai, California” on Wikipedia
California’s utopian colonies by Robert V. Hine
“Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!: Paris, May 1968” by John Lichfield (Guardian Weekly)
Capital v.1-3 by Karl Marx
Post-Scarcity Anarchism and The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism by Murray Bookchin

 

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“Democracy is so overrated:” “What’s Left?” September 2016, MRR #400

democracy-the-majority-against-the-minority
Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.

― Winston S. Churchill

If a majority voted for you to jump off a bridge—would you?

— CrimethInc., “From Democracy to Freedom”

I set the table by covering it with a dark cloth and placing a lit candelabra on it. I position my Ouija board and planchette on the table in front of the chair before I sit down. I’m ready to prognosticate.

As I write this column, it’s the first week of July and both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions are happening later in the month. I predict Hillary will win the DNC and Trump the RNC. Neither party or electoral base is exactly keen on their respective nominees, but the “Bernie or Bust” or “Never Trump” crowds won’t prevail. Further, I predict that Hillary will win against Trump, but it will be a close election, uncomfortably so. My final and last prediction is that the surprising surge in votes for the Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson will be to the Trump campaign what Ralph Nader was to Al Gore. Oh yeah, and there will be rioting in Cleveland in 2016 to rival Chicago 1968.

That’s four predictions, four pretty obvious political forecasts on which you as the reader can score me, starting with the August issue and running through the November elections. Also, there’s four months to fill commenting on the elections, tap dancing on air if you will. Because by the time my comments on what’s happening right now, at this moment, reach your eyes they’re already past their prime. Outdated. And as I’ve hinted at above, I’m not a soothsayer by any means.

One of my major annoyances with American politics is its unrelenting pettiness. Hardcore Republicans for instance purposefully call their opponents the Democrat Party, not the Democratic Party. Their rationale is that the Democratic Party is far from democratic in operation and intent, but it’s clear when Republicans use Democrat Party in partisan debates they’re really intending to needle and provoke their opponents. It’s such elementary schoolyard antics; the wannabe tough kid insisting on calling another kid surnamed Wankel “Wanker” all the time. Far from entertaining the rest of us with clever puns, this mean-spirited sparring is debasing our language and degrading our political discourse.

The deepening clusterfuck that is Brexit follows closely behind in terms of politically humbling experiences. Who would have thought that Britain’s two main political parties—the Tories and Labor—as well as the political geography encompassed by the names Great Britain and United Kingdom would be destroyed by a simple non-binding referendum of whether or not Britain should leave the European Union? As David Van Reybrouck commented in The Guardian: “Never before has such a drastic decision been taken through so primitive a procedure – a one-round referendum based on a simple majority. Never before has the fate of a country – of an entire continent, in fact – been changed by the single swing of such a blunt axe, wielded by disenchanted and poorly informed citizens.” (“Why Elections are Bad for Democracy,” 6-29-16) As the political edifice of the United Kingdom continues to crumble, threatening the EU in the process, the efficacy of elections and liberal democracy are in serious doubt.

Let’s start with the word democracy. The term comes from the ancient Athenian practice of the adult males of the city-state (the demos) gathering in assembly to directly vote on all civic matters and leadership. Right away we understand the qualified nature of the word because the right to vote did not apply to women, children or slaves, a limitation shared by that other classical political system from which the West draws its inspiration: the practice of the Roman republic. The complex property-based system in ancient Rome (collective voting for magistrates and tribunes) provided for an indirect, representative form of government where the franchise continued to expand as Rome itself grew, encompassing allies and conquered peoples, until the original republic mutated into an empire ruled by Caesars. The more geographically prescribed scope of Athenian democracy did not prevent that city-state from acquiring an empire however, nor from devolving into oligarchy under decades of war.

For America’s founding political elite steeped in Enlightenment liberalism, there was a sharp distinction between a democracy and a republic. Pure democracy always ran the risk of despotism and imperialism, of mob rule where “51% of the people could vote to take away the tooth brushes of the other 49%” as a John Bircher once told me. By contrast, republicanism intended to contain such problems with territorially small, constitutionally-limited, mixed representative government, which was a central principle of Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. Hamilton, Jay, and Madison further argued in the Federalist Papers that the necessary limitations of a small constitutional republic could be transcended by the judicious application of legal checks-and-balances within a physically expanding domain of ever-multiplying, contending factions. Thanks to this political reformulation, the spread of the American republic across the continent and beyond was never in contradiction to or in conflict with oligarchy or empire.

But these political distinctions have been muddled and mongrelized to the point where we now think that democracy and republicanism are just the names of two different political parties, not two distinct political systems. We are told constantly “we live in a democracy,” we pledge allegiance “to the Republic for which it stands,” and we believe like Candide’s Professor Pangloss that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Rather than remain befuddled however, let’s simplify matters by saying that the West’s ideal is for representative democracy in the context of a national state.

“[I]n an election, you may cast your vote, but you are also casting it away for the next few years.” David Van Reybrouck of The Guardian writes. “This system of delegation to an elected representative may have been necessary in the past – when communication was slow and information was limited – but it is completely out of touch with the way citizens interact with each other today.” We tend to fetishize elections, according to Reybrouck, while demonizing the subject of that voting, resulting in an almost universal distrust of governments, political parties, and politicians while increasing calls for a strong leader “who does not have to bother with parliament and elections.” He concludes that “Democracy is not the problem. Voting is the problem.”

Oh, really?

Representative democracy, from Roman republicanism to Western liberalism, doesn’t seem to be the solution for nationalist extremism, capitalist exploitation, oligarchic despotism, colonial conquest, or imperialist appropriation. If we switch out the word nationalist for patriotic and capitalist for commercial this is true for direct democracy, from ancient Greece to the cantons of Switzerland. Ah, but what we need is more democracy; real democracy, radical democracy, participatory democracy. We need decentralized, participatory decision-making with easily recallable elected representatives, rights for minorities, rotating offices, ad hoc organizing, impermanent institutions, even consensus process.

“And how do you insure democratic control of industry?” Marvin Garson once asked rhetorically, spelling out a kind of radical democratic ultra-leftism called Council Communism. “Why, by setting up workers’ councils in each industry which operate with full respect for all the normal democratic procedures—especially the right to establish caucuses and factions, and the right to strike. The economy, in short, will be run the way a government is SUPPOSED to be run; it will be like a gigantic New Left convention—impeccably democratic and a stone drag.” (“Going Beyond Democracy,” 1968)

Such a tedious scenario is in no way enlivened by the absurdity of consensus process, which is nothing more than tyranny by the minority if not the individual, as CrimethInc well grasps as the myth of unanimous rule in its provocative essay “From Democracy to Freedom.” The group also understands that democracy is institutionalizing governance and state-production by its very nature. But CrimethInc’s attempt to substitute autonomy for democracy and to insist on the permanence of the revolutionary moment is pure sophistry. “Thousands of us flood into the streets, finding each other in new formations that offer an unfamiliar and exhilarating sense of agency. Suddenly everything intersects: words and deeds, ideas and sensations, personal stories and world events. Certainty—finally, we feel at home—and uncertainty: finally, an open horizon. Together, we discover ourselves capable of things we never imagined.” This is Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution on MDMA, and much like some fantasy of permanent orgasm this raises the question: what do we do after the revolution when we once again have to make mundane decisions. Do we make decisions by lottery or drawing straws, by rotating onerous tasks or making each individual boss-for-a-day, even by adapting Reybrouck’s concept of sortition in which a representative sampling of the population makes decisions for the whole? Let me return to Marvin Garson again.

“Every industry has its own inchoate underground of people who take pride in doing good work, who aren’t in it just for the money, who get angry when their employers make them sacrifice quality for the sake of profit. Let that underground get together and suddenly a real alternative to corporate capitalism will exist. […] Perhaps it’s impossible to run a steel mill or an electric power plant in a free and creative way. In that case, run it automatically.”

I’ve made the argument that, even at its best, democracy is a stone drag by quoting Garson before. By next column, I should have plenty to say about the dueling circuses of the RNC and DNC.

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