The populist myth: “What’s Left?” February 2020 (MRR #441)

When the axe entered the forest, the trees said: “The handle is one of us.”

—Turkish proverb

I remember a brief carefree idyll when I was fourteen. I lived with my family in Ventura, California, went to Balboa Junior High, and had teenager jobs the occasional evening, weekend or summer. But I spent all my spare time at the beach swimming, surfing and skateboarding. When I enrolled in Buena High School the head gym teacher, Mason Parrish, put all the incoming sophomores through a battery of athletic tests to determine in which sports we might excel. Parrish coached the football team, and was in the process of building Buena’s swim and water polo teams to win multiple national awards, compete in the 1968-72 Olympic trials, and field numerous Junior Olympic Champions. I was a natural in the water, so Coach Parrish recruited me immediately for swimming and water polo.

Parrish was an old school, conservative high school gym coach who began and ended every game with a Christian prayer. He required loyalty from his athletes in school and expected us to practice routines, lift weights, and train regularly outside of class on our own time. All I wanted was to have fun, swim, and go to the beach. Parrish started me in a few swimming competitions and played me in a couple of water polo games. But when he realized I lacked the dedication and drive to give him the full commitment he demanded, he benched me for the duration of the semester. Parrish was openly disappointed, my gung-ho teammates disdained me, and I still had to show up for team practice and events. I was developing, maturing and acquiring new, formative interests in my adolescent life. But my love for swimming was irreparably damaged.

I kept to an honors academic track and joined the chess and science clubs. My passion for writing became all-consuming as I got involved with creative writing classes and the literary magazine. And my extracurricular interests in the 1960s hippie and New Left youth rebellions blossomed. I grew my hair long, started listening to rocknroll and going to concerts, declared myself a pacifist anarchist, tried to join a moribund SDS, organized an insignificant student walkout for the national anti-Vietnam war Moratorium, and published three issues of an underground newspaper. I went from being a jock to a hippie who still hadn’t smoked marijuana and a burgeoning Leftist moving rapidly further left. Much to my surprise, I was awarded a letter jacket at the Buena High School graduation ceremony thanks to my initial involvement in sports. A fellow swimmer approached me afterwards, pointed to the jacket, and said with a sneer: “You don’t deserve that.”

I too thought I hadn’t deserved my letterman jacket and felt I’d acquired my high school letter by mistake. So let’s talk about populism and how it doesn’t deserve to be considered revolutionary. That, in fact, populism is a misleading, dangerous concept. By the simplest definition, populism is about being for the people and against society’s elites. John B. Judis correctly divides populism into the straightforward leftwing dyadic populism of “the people vs the elite” and the triadic rightwing populism that champions “the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants.” (The Populist Explosion) What Judis doesn’t consider is that populism is also divided into “populism from below” (social movements and popular uprisings) versus “populism from above” (elitist demagoguery). This produces a foursquare political compass with examples of a demagogic populist Left (Huey Long), a demagogic populist Right (Donald Trump), a democratic populist Left (Occupy Wall Street) and a democratic populist Right (Tea Party). Elitist demagoguery of populist movements and rebellions is a clear danger in any form of populism. But also, because populist movements and rebellions are often ideologically and socially undifferentiated, it’s easy for populism to move back and forth from political Left to Right, even to attempt to combine elements of both Left and Right into a single “of the people, by the people, for the people” movement.

My critiques of the alt-right, neo-fascism, neo-nazism, and Third Positionism are by default criticisms of rightwing populism because of their lack of ideological coherence and tendency to scapegoat innocent social groups like Jews or black people. I won’t address Judis’s discussion that populism is “fascism lite” or an early warning sign of capitalism in crisis. To make my Leftist disagreements with populism clear, I’ll instead focus on leftwing populism.

“Leftwing populism is historically different from socialist or social democratic movements,” Judis writes. “It is not a politics of class conflict, and it doesn’t necessarily seek the abolition of capitalism. It is also different from a progressive or liberal politics that seek to reconcile the interests of opposing classes and groups. It assumes a basic antagonism between the people and an elite at the heart of its politics.”

The key concept here is social class. What defines a social class according to Marx is its relationship to the means of production. The capitalist class owns the means of production and purchases the labor power of others while workers own only their labor power which they sell for wages to the capitalist class. The working class thus starts out as a “class in itself” but becomes a “class for itself” through self-activity and self-organization to achieve its self-emancipation. Ultimately, the working class seeks to abolish itself as a class by abolishing all of class society.

Marxists have formulated two distinct concepts of how the working class might move from being a “class in itself” to a “class for itself”—class consciousness versus class composition. I’ll spend an entire future column on the differences between them. Suffice to say that without notions of social class, class struggle or the working class becoming a “class for itself”—that is without a class analysis—all that remains is leftwing populism. Working class organizers often practice a multi-class coalition politics to win power. That’s far different from leftwing populism that lacks class analysis and class politics. Leftwing populism is like a body without a spine, or a ship without a rudder—a decidedly less than useful politics often fraught not just with demagoguery but conspiracy thinking. Leftwing populism and revolutionary working class movements can both arise spontaneously from society’s base and overthrow society’s ruling elites through broad popular uprisings, much as did the Spanish 1936 anarchist revolution and the Philippine 1986 Peoples Power Revolution. Both can give rise to similar forms of self-organization (popular assemblies) and an extra-parliamentary opposition that quickly becomes parliamentary rule. But whereas revolutionary proletarian movements seek to overthrow capitalism and build a new society, leftwing populism is satisfied with merely overturning the current government and calling that a revolution. Leftwing populism is thus a revolution of half measures and incomplete reforms.

Judis argues that “[p]opulism is an American creation that spread later to Latin America and Europe.” But he spends too much time pointing to the American winner-take-all political system and various triggering economic downturns as causes for why American populism is rarely working class oriented. The reasons the United States never took to socialism have been frequently debated and sometimes contested. With the decline of the revolutionary workers movement internationally over the past five decades however, leftwing populism has taken its place or been supplanted by a rightwing populism that flirts with fascism.

Both the populist anti-globalization and Occupy Wall Street movements were majority leftwing with small but troubling conspiracy-prone rightwing minorities. The former produced a genuinely revolutionary moment in the 1999 Seattle insurrection while the latter manufactured the ludicrous 2011 two month slumber party in Zuccotti Square. Populism can also consciously mix leftwing and rightwing elements, as with Beppe Grillo’s Italian Five Star Movement which combined calls for direct democracy with expelling all illegal immigrants. But more often it’s simply impossible to determine where the balance of forces lie in any given populist uprising. The French yellow vests/gilets jaunes movement has been judged majority rightwing/minority leftwing whereas the Hong Kong protest movement is considered overwhelmingly liberal and pro-Western. Yet it’s not hard to find ardent Trotskyist socialists who defend the gilets jaunes and fervent Crimethinc anarchists who extoll successors to the Umbrella Revolution. Finally, it’s one thing to proclaim a given populist movement or uprising leftwing or rightwing from afar; entirely another thing to throw one’s lot as a leftwing populist (or a working class radical) in with an otherwise rightwing populist uprising. It’s probably little different from a working class recomposing itself to survive in an overwhelmingly decomposing global capitalism.

Marxists associated with the Krisis Group consider the workers movement so deeply embedded and compromised with capitalism as to be unsalvageable. They propose political struggle without classes, a populism with class analysis, a leftwing populism by default. That still leaves a leftwing populism subject to demagoguery, conspiracism, and half-assed revolutionism. In other words, a piss poor Leftist politics by any measure.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics by John B. Judis
Class Consciousness or Class Composition? by Salar Mohandesi
Marxism and the Critique of Value ed. by Larsen, Nilges, Robinson, and Brown

Background of hammer and sickle on old wooden floor

Switchovers and crossovers: “What’s Left?” July 2018, MRR #422

Every elementary schoolchild knows that, after 1492, two food staples common to the “New World” were introduced into the “Old World” via the trans-Atlantic exchange inaugurated by Columbus. I’m talking about potatoes and corn, or maize. What’s not so well known is that maize was substantially undigestible, that potatoes contained low level toxins, and that native Americans processed both heavily in order to make them palatable. Plant breeding and hybridization techniques since 1492 have resulted in far more edible varieties of both maize and potatoes, at the cost of the diversity of the original plant populations.

Both maize and potatoes are considered species complex (superspecies, species aggregate) which, biologically, means a group of closely related species that are so similar in appearance to the point that the boundaries between them are frequently unclear. In fact, the original maize and potato superspecies each contained hundreds, if not thousands of related individual species that could potentially hybridize. One species of maize or potato might not be able to easily cross breed with another species of maize or potato at the far range of their respective genetic spectrums, but that spectrum did allow for gradual, continuous hybridization along the way.

Now, think of the political Left and Right as separate species complex. I’m well aware of the dangers of comparing social phenomena with biological realities. The Nazis were adept at such false comparisons, for example defining the Jews as a biological race and then attributing everything from their physical appearance to their demographic dispersal and communitarian organization to that faux race. I’m using species complex to describe politics not as an analogy but as a metaphor, even as that concept provocatively conveys the political fluidity that individuals within the Left and Right can demonstrate.

On the Left, Victor Serge started as a youngster sympathetic to socialism who became a radical left anarchist before joining the Bolshevik party after the Russian 1917 Revolution. Eventually Serge affiliated with left Trotskyism in opposition to Stalinism, but at every stage he remained highly critical of the Left to which he subscribed. More recently, ex-MMA fighter and anarcho-communist darling Jeff Monson became a Russian citizen and joined the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. Moving in the other direction, there is the example of Murray Bookchin. He started out as a Stalinist by virtue of his upbringing, gravitated toward Trotskyism by joining the Socialist Workers Party, and finally developed into an ardent anarchist communist whose pamphlet “Listen, Marxist!” (part of his collection of essays Post-Scarcity Anarchism) became a rallying cry for a whole generation of post-New Left anarchists.

Because the Left is based much more on program and ideology than the Right, political movement within the Left seems more rational. No less sectarian mind you, but there’s the unifying sense that “we’re all part of the Left.” In John Sayles’ well-known short story “At The Anarchist Convention,” when the building manager threatens to call the police to evict the Convention because they refuse to move to a smaller room, “[n]obody bickers, nobody stalls or debates or splinters.” They stand together, “arms linked, the lame held up out of their wheelchairs, the deaf joining from memory […] in ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’.” However, such moments of revolutionary solidarity are short-lived, with the Bolsheviks organizing their Cheka two months after the October Revolution and the German SDP resorting to the Freikorps soon after the 1918 sailors and workers soviet revolution.

On the Right, much has been made of “The Insidious Libertarian-to-Alt-Right Pipeline” described by Matt Lewis in The Daily Beast. Michael Brendan Dougherty calls it “The Libertarianism-to-Fascism Pipeline” in the National Review, but the notion is similar. (This is a veritable four-lane freeway compared to the local road between alt.lite and alt.right.) Not only is libertarianism a unique gateway drug to neo-Nazism, there’s an easy exchange between the two that is belied by their seeming ideological incompatibilities. That exchange might even be considered a conscious—if secret—strategy of the Right generally, as revealed by J.P. Nash in his review of Jim Goad’s Shit Magnet: “If I had to describe my political philosophy, I would say: ‘Libertarianism now, fascism later.’ We need to preserve our civil liberties now in order to take them away from the morons later, when we create a healthy White society: an organic state with no parties, no elections, no demagoguery, and no politicians—a society where the best rule for the good of all—a society that takes eugenic measures to drain the Goad end of the gene pool forever—a society where the degrading filth of Judeo-Afro-Homo-Chomo-Pomo popular culture is rolled up by a giant dung beetle and plopped into the bottomless pit of oblivion.”

As a revolt against modernity and thus in continuous reaction to the Left, the Right is fundamentally non-rational in its blind appeal to authority, whether that be tradition, belief, divinity, scripture, law, the state, leadership, or charisma. Whether or not the Right’s authoritarian and libertarian wings are in collusion, the Right’s appeal to authority is what Richard Wolin calls the seduction of unreason that disguises its schismatic nature, producing a sectarianism that often puts the Left to shame. For instance, when Martin Luther replaced the centralized authority of the papacy with the decentralizing authority of scripture, what followed was Reformation, Counterreformation, some ten million dead, and eventually almost 50,000 Protestant denominations. And the Right is by no means united in what constitutes proper authority.

But what about individuals who seem to jump between far Left and far Right? Returning to the original biological metaphor, what about movement not within (intra) species no matter how broadly defined, but between (inter) species? Isn’t the latter much more dramatic than the former?

In my classical anarchist days, as a member of the Social Revolutionary Anarchist Federation, I was appalled by the story of “Red” Warthan who became an anarchist in response to Federal gun restrictions but turned Nazi skinhead when he was attacked and beaten up by a crowd of black kids. Perry Warthan is now in prison convicted of murdering a fellow skinhead in his gang for being a suspected police informant. Many a New Leftist turned conservative, among them David Horowitz and Ronald Radosh. A canard of the neoconservative movement is that most started as Trotskyists like Irving Kristol and Jeane Kirkpatrick. Not true, although many like Daniel Moynihan and William Bennett began politics as liberals. Today, Andrew Anglin has a similar political arc, going from being an antiracist vegan Leftist to a Holocaust-embracing, neo-Nazi alt.rightist who is currently underground evading subpoenas in a civil suit caused by his vicious trolling. Jason Kessler, one of the organizers behind the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” riot, also began political life as a Democratic supporter of Obama and a participant in Occupy Wall Street. But supposedly such is the “natural” progression of things, in a more extreme form, from the quote attributed variously to Churchill, Clemenceau, or Lloyd George that: “Any man who is not a socialist at age twenty has no heart. Any man who is still a socialist at age forty has no head.”

There are numerous individuals who’ve made a similar if opposite journey from Right to Left, from fascism to liberalism or the Left. Ex-skinheads Timothy Zaal, Christian Picciolini, and T.J. Leyden have told stories of leaving violently racist skinhead gangs to become more tolerant, accepting, liberal, even Leftist. Much less dramatically, GOP stalwarts like Kevin Phillips, David Brock, Michael Lind, and Bruce Bartlett have proclaimed they can no longer support their former conservative agendas and have become moderate, even liberal Democrats. Karl Hess, Joan Didion, Garry Wills, and Elizabeth Warren also come to mind. All this flipping from Left to Right and visa versa can produce a kind of political whiplash that is disconcerting and can make anyone doubt the genuineness of such conversions.

Certainly such inter-political switchovers are sensational, far more dramatic than the slower intra-political evolution we’re usually familiar with. But politics is not biology, and our metaphor is just that, a metaphor. Left and Right are not separate species incapable of cross breeding, even as individuals are perfectly capable of politically crossing over and as movements are capable of cross-pollinating. And of sometimes creating monsters.

In a way it’s misdirected to focus on individuals and their personal reasons for changing politics. A similar caution can be made of political movements. There are social contexts and “the times” when such political conversions occur with greater frequency, specifically during spontaneous grassroots political upheavals and more calculated instances of ideological battle. The Right likes to call those latter moments “culture wars” or even more disingenuously, “metapolitics.” Mao put the lie to this succinctly when he said “politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed.”

I’ll conclude this discussion of Left/Right political conversions—whether intra or inter—next column by detailing various illustrative social contexts that enhance or inhibit such political crossovers.

How Sweet It Isn’t: “What’s Left?” November 2017, MRR #414

It’s called “sweetening.”

It’s a certain type of background music and ambient sound for films and TV shows meant to enhance mood and emotion. It’s also called juicing, but it’s intended to be subtle, behind the scenes, muted. Sweetening is not supposed to be too obvious. For instance, when a live audience is recorded anywhere, a laugh track/canned heat track is frequently blended into the live audience track to amplify its effect, whether of laughter, clapping, booing, whatever.

The term has its origin in old-time radio, when sound effects like horses galloping, doors opening and closing, characters walking, gunshots, etc. were used to paint visual detail in a non-visual medium. Again, it’s not all dramatic sound effects. In films and TV shows, it’s not the sound of violent explosions or roaring monsters. The sweetening is in the sense of foreboding portended in the background music, or in the subsonic infrasound used to generate apprehension in the audience prior to some climactic scene. So while “sweetening” comes off good and positive, it might as well be called “shadowing” or “darkening,” depending on what effect the sound is intended to enhance.

As for political sweetening, two recent examples come to mind. The Tea Party ended up sweetening the Republican Party from the right, as did Bernie Sander’s “political revolution” the Democratic Party from the left. Both movements started as popular revolts against their respective party establishments and their mainstream politics, both helped rewrite their respective party platforms, and both moved the politics of those parties respectively to the right and left. Both threatened to break away to form independent third party efforts, both were blamed for the potential demise of their respective political parties, but both ultimately succumbed to political opportunism, cooptation, and marginalization. Or at least the Tea Party succumbed and wound up faking a hard-times protest movement, spawning affiliated get-rich-quick cottage industries, and successfully rebranding the GOP. Bernie’s “political revolution” has blended nicely into the much broader anti-Trump protest movement, so it remains vibrant and very much in the streets. Ideally, this popular resistance needs to avoid opportunism, cooptation, and marginalization, but that’s very difficult to do if the Tea Party is any indication.

What doesn’t count as political sweetening was Occupy Wall Street. OWS doesn’t count for much at all now, despite initially being praised by authors, artists, celebrities, politicians, and pundits as the greatest thing since sliced bread. I’ve never hidden my disdain for OWS. It may have personally changed lives like the bad brown acid circulating at a mediocre rock concert, but it was just a flash in the pan that changed little politically. So unless the inane consensus hand signals and annoying human microphone are included, no innovation of any consequence arose from OWS. That also covers the communizing “occupy everything, demand nothing” campus activism that emerged among protesting California students in 2011.

OWS ran with the franchise activism common nowadays, where an indistinct idea was widely disseminated and then taken up by local activists who made it their own through locally flavored community actions. The movement’s core idea, embodied in its name, was so nebulous in fact that it produced both the anarcho/ultraleft, black bloc, streetfighting Occupy Oakland, California, and the virulently antisemitic, conspiracy-theorist, ultraright Occupy Tallinn, Estonia, with every political combination in between. So while the majority of OWS-affiliated actions tended leftwing, liberal, and even anarchist, there was considerable involvement by rightwing, conservative, and even fascist elements. In this way, OWS displayed troubling Left/Right crossover politics similar to the anti-globalization movement which preceded it. This was not by chance but by design, given the decentralized, all-are-welcome nature of the movement’s organizing message. This was complemented by the ambiguous categories employed by OWS, most prominent being “the 99%” versus “the 1%.” This promoted an uncritical populism that studiously avoided any class-based analysis, but it denied any identity-based analysis as well, instead encouraging an amorphous, dumbed-down, Hardt/Negri-style notion of “the multitude.”

When finance capital comes to the fore, capitalism itself is in decline. Capitalism has abandoned industrial production for financial circulation, meaning that its profit-making comes not from surplus value transformed into capital but from mere exchange. For OWS then to focus its vague critique of capitalism on Wall Street and finance capital was to target a decaying economic system as if it were still robust, misinterpreting capitalism’s retreat as a faux advance. To see the enemy as attacking rather than as withdrawing was a delusion that badly skewed the tactics and strategy required to take on and defeat that enemy. If nothing else, this falsely portrayed finance capital as stronger and more powerful than it actually is, reinforcing the rightwing trope that “international bankers” rule the world. Excuse me, “banksters.” From this, it’s a half-step to the “international Jewish conspiracy for world domination” that is the ultra-right’s favorite meme.

Spencer Sunshine has written a detailed survey called “20 On The Right In Occupy” through the Political Research Associates think tank which provides thumbnail summaries of anti-Federal Reserve, antisemitic, white nationalist, fascist, and neo-Nazi individuals and groups involved in OWS. These strange right and left bedfellows in OWS are not so odd once we realize that antisemitism is also on the rise on the Left. Case in point, the post-Situ Adbusters Magazine from which the original OWS call came. From Kalle Lasn’s Adbuster article discussing fifty influential neoconservatives under the title “Why Won’t Anyone Say They Are Jewish?” to Adbuster tweets that took up the alt.right’s outing of twitter users as Jewish by surrounding their names with parentheses, Left/Right crossover politics abound. Not that Adbuster’s leftist politics aren’t sketchy in so many other ways, what with their support of Israeli antisemite Gilad Atzmon and Italian conspiracy theorist Beppe Grillo. They do act as a political transition to the hard Left’s anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist ideologies, which too easily and too often become outright Left antisemitism.

Back to my point earlier, there are people who are not at all happy that Bernie’s “political revolution” has blended nicely into the much broader anti-Trump protest movement. These folks are the mainstream Democratic Party establishment liberals who blame Sanders and his “BernieBros” for Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Salon executive editor Andrew O’Hehir had a wonderfully sarcastic takedown of their status quo recalcitrance awhile back:

But another running theme in Democratic Party apologetics informs all that, which is the ingrained desire to blame the left-wing resistance for anything that goes wrong — and to insist that it isn’t actually the left at all but sort of, kind of, the right. Hence Wolcott’s argument that the DudeBros and ‘purity progressives’ of the ‘alt-left’ are in some undisclosed manner closely related to the rebranded white supremacists of the alt-right. Or maybe it’s just that he doesn’t like either of them.

To return to our central premise: The DudeBros ruined everything. Their workings are malicious, and marvelous. They are simultaneously clueless, puritanical and all-powerful. In between Ultimate Frisbee tournaments and Vampire Weekend marathons, they elected Donald Trump, wiped out the Democratic Party between the coasts, rioted against Milo Yiannopoulos in Berkeley and/or defected to the alt-right en masse. They develop apps whose functions remain mysterious, and that most of us don’t know how to use. Unforgivably, they made the Phish reunion possible, and now it will never stop.

Hence, conflating “terrorist” James Hodgkinson with “crazy” Jeremy Christian, or antifa “alt-left” with fascist alt-right.

The Democratic Party establishment wants the anti-Trump resistance to be a leftwing Tea Party, the energy, individuals, and organizations of which the party can exploit to win future elections, while ultimately domesticating, coopting, and marginalizing that resistance. They want the Left’s resistance to be the Democratic Party’s sweetening. This is exactly what we don’t want to happen if we want the anti-Trump resistance not to suffer the same fate as the Tea Party.

Of course, it’s much more complicated than “Bernie or Bust” versus the Democratic Party. Politics to the left of the Democratic Party also includes progressives, democratic socialists and social democrats, Leninists, and the black bloc anarcho/ultraleft. But it’s never been an equal playing field with the Democratic Party vis-à-vis the rest of the American Left. The Democrats are the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Even decimated, at their lowest point in fifty years, the Democrats continue to wield vast power and influence. Which is why we need to prevent the vilification of the black bloc or the BernieBros or Jill Stein’s Greens or anyone else as a convenient scapegoat for the Democratic Party’s mistakes and woes. I’m not so naïve as to think what we need is a united or popular front; some mystical kumbaya circle jerk of leftist unity. But we don’t need the Democratic Party and its liberals running the show either.

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