Going “Full Lenin” on Free Speech: “What’s Left?” August 2016, MRR #399

Full Lenin

Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.

Porfirio Diaz, president of Mexico

America’s founding myth is that we rose up against tyranny and oppression, fought a justified revolution for our freedoms, built a vibrant entrepreneurial economy, and established a democratic republic based on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to become a light unto humanity, a beacon of hope for the world. To use the crude vernacular, “we pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps.” But that’s not such a grand accomplishment in the 18th century, what with muzzle-loading flintlock musket technologies on a continent isolated by nearly four thousand miles of ocean and up to three months of travel from far more powerful nations in Europe. When the historical facts about the origins of the United States are transformed into ahistorical truisms, we have a problem.

The idea that marginal English colonists—in a hemisphere substantially depopulated of natives by disease, on the periphery of a mercantilist empire transitioning from absolutism to parliamentarianism, subject to benign neglect for decades—would succeed in forming a frontier republic based on a footnote to British liberal Enlightenment politics is not surprising. What is surprising is that such a one-off political experiment could be replicated anywhere else in the world. And, in fact, it hasn’t. Even when the Allies defeated the Axis powers, reduced Germany, Japan and Italy to rubble, and forcefully remolded those nations into Western liberal democracies, they remained substantially different from the American ideal—still very traditional with far fewer freedoms and far more governmental regulation. So if the US experience cannot be repeated within the rubric of Western liberalism, what makes anybody think it can be reproduced outside that context?

Various neocon war criminals for one, but more generally the American political punditry. All of these “talking heads” believed that a country like Iraq for instance could pull itself up by its bootstraps to emulate Western liberal democracies steeped in Enlightenment values after decades of war and civil war, scores of despotic tyranny, and centuries of colonial imperialism. A quixotic pipe dream at best, and cynical bullshit at worst. The measures taken by the US—no-fly-zones, blockades, embargoes—to affect regime change against Saddam Hussein and bring about some sort of military coup or “peoples power” uprising ultimately failed, requiring the American military invasion the consequences of which we are still living with today. We’re well aware how the Iraqi effort to pull itself up by its bootstraps worked out, aren’t we. Can you say Islamic State? I knew you could.

Historically, similar sanctions regimes have rarely, if ever, succeeded in democratizing or Americanizing their intended targets. As one recent NYT headline puts it, Venezuela would rather experience “hunger, blackouts and government shutdowns” than kowtow to Yanqui imperialism. Iran remained defiant against US/UN sanctions for over 35 years until sanctions relief in 2016. Cuba held out for over 50 years against the US economic embargo before the Obama administration began normalizing diplomatic relations with the island nation. Sanctions put in place by the Nixon administration against Allende’s Chile succeeded not in democratizing that country but in fomenting a fascist coup under Pinochet. By themselves, sanctions have failed time and again to achieve their stated goals of democratic regime change, leaving intact their implied goals of disrupting, destabilizing and destroying their targets however.

Go back to the OG sanctions regime, the French cordon sanitaire. Lieutenant Commander Stanley F. Gilchrist wrote in his essay “The Cordon Sanitaire—Is It Useful? Is It Practical?”: As early as the 17th century, the French term, cordon sanitaire (sanitary zone), was used to describe the establishment of a perimeter around an area infected with contagious disease to effect a quarantine. Gradually its usage spread to connote military perimeters enclosing safe areas. Later, the system of alliances instituted by France in post-World War I Europe that stretched from Finland to the Balkans was also referred to as a cordon sanitaire. It completely ringed Germany and sealed off Russia from Western Europe, thereby isolating the two politically “diseased” nations of Europe. Germany saw the rise of Hitler and National Socialism, initiating the second World War in Europe despite the cordon sanitaire. And Russia remained Bolshevik for nearly 75 years, expanding into an international Communist bloc that ruled 1/5 of the world’s land surface and 1/3 of the world’s population despite various sanctions regimes to contain it.

Pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps doesn’t work, but sanctions that force one to Westernize don’t really work either. Something more subtle is required to turn recalcitrant nations onto the correct, American-approved path. Perhaps a little backroom US political or economic pressure, or maybe the market exigencies of the world capitalist economy, can “persuade” the country in question to become more open to American guidance and Western influence. Brazil’s left-wing government is in the midst of a right-wing, legalistic coup in all but name. The right has won election outright in Argentina hoping to regain access to international capital markets, appease foreign creditors, and solve the country’s debt default. Under American pressure, Japan is moving to the right as Prime Minister Abe reforms the country’s defense policy to allow greater Japanese military action abroad, even the acquisition of nuclear weapons, while engaging in historical revisionism regarding Japan’s role during the second World War. Even in Venezuela under American sanctions, where the Left still controls the presidency but has lost control of parliament, the US continues to encourage a deliberate, massive disruption of the economy by domestic right-wing forces.

So what’s a decent sovereign country supposed to do—“so far from God, so close to the United States?” Aside from greeting their American liberators with “sweets and flowers” that is. Most of those nations wishing to remain independent of the US and the West tend to be leftist in political orientation, although theocratic Iran and fascist Myanmar run counter to this.

Ian Welsh has written a provocative essay on his blog with the self-explanatory title “Seven Rules for Running a Real Left-Wing Government,” lessons that are applicable across the political spectrum. His section headers are equally clear and incendiary, and I’ve made notes in parentheses where appropriate. “It’s not you, it’s […] the world system.” “Don’t run your economy on resources.” “Your first act must be a media law” (to control the media). “Take control of the banking sector.” “Who is your administrative class” (and is it reliable)? “Take control of distribution and utilities.” “Reduce your vulnerability to the world trade system.” “Be satisfied with what you can grow and make.” “Obey the laws of purges” (as Machiavelli first described).

“Break your enemy’s power,” Welsh concludes. “If you’re any sort of left-winger worth your salt, you ethically do not believe in huge concentrations of power and money in the hands of a few people anyway. Act on your beliefs. And if they’ve committed a pile of crimes (and they almost always have), use those crimes against them. Then remember the world system is set up expressly to stop what you are doing. You’re tackling the dragon, and most people who do that get eaten. We tell the stories of the dragonslayers because they are so few. So, know the odds are against you, and be willing to do what is required to improve them. If you aren’t, stay home.”

The horror! The denial of free expression! The violation of human rights! The suppression of private property and profit!

When I first called myself an anarchist some forty-eight years ago, I believed that free expression was an absolute that could be scrupulously maintained while carrying out a spontaneous revolution for individual human liberation against the power of private property and profit. Nowadays, I think that the power of private property and profit needs to be severely curtailed if not communized, that the goal is social revolution based on organized social power, and that there’s no such things as absolute freedom of expression. Recently, a chuckle-headed free speech absolutist I sometimes ridicule in this column agreed with this in a back-handed way. He has cried censorship in the denial of free speech by government, corporate, social, even market forces, yet he himself draws the line on HIS facebook page where he reserves the right to censor free speech. As if declaring your power to censor your personal digital squat at the sufferance of Zuckerberg’s whims, FB’s changing rules and corporate ownership, and government oversight means shit. But by drawing even such a puny reverse line-in-the-sand he acknowledges that there are lines to be drawn and defended. And that freedom of speech is not absolute.

Free speech doesn’t really exist when you’re willing to engage in civilized debate with fascists, only to be stomped in an alley afterwards by the boneheads. And freedom of speech can’t really exist for right-wing opposition in leftist societies when the US Sixth Fleet is anchored offshore. I find no shame in defending yourself, your community, even your country from fascists, be they actual nazi skinheads or Yanqui imperialists. You know my opinions on fighting fascists. Don’t assume I’m going all Third World national liberation struggle on you now. I have no love for the nation-state, even in its revolutionary/leftist guise. But I no longer blithely repeat ultraleft platitudes about “no war but the class war” and the need for “world revolution” to dismiss the problematics of nationalism and uneven development. I take cautious inspiration from indications that the Left’s long deadlock and current crisis might be transcended. Independent political currents are emerging that are fostering a dialogue between anarchism and Marxism. Hybrid social experiments are coming to the fore in Chiapas and Rojava, with bright promise and deep imperfections. And efforts to constitute genuine social power are being attempted by partial, flawed insurrectionary and communizing tendencies.

I’m pessimistically optimistic about the future of the Left.

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Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, part 1: “What’s Left?” March 2016, MRR #394

VIDAL (loftily): As far as I’m concerned, the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself. Failing that—
SMITH (moderator): Let’s, let’s not call names—
VIDAL: Failing that, I can only say that—
BUCKLEY (teeth bared, snarling): Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddam face, and you’ll stay plastered—

Best of Enemies (film) 2015
transcript from ABC News coverage, 8/28/68

It was a case of the seven-second delay, or lack thereof. ABC News hired William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal to debate the 1968 presidential nominating conventions in real time on live TV as a way of classing up its coverage. The argument got heated, epithets were exchanged, and the above infamous interchange was broadcast uncensored because no profanity delay was in place.

My columns covering the current state of American electoral politics have a built-in delay, not to prevent obscenity, but as a consequence of this magazine’s print cycle. Prompted by the film Best of Enemies, I’m writing this column in December for an early January deadline in MRR #394, March 2016. I lay out the columns section, including my own, by the end of January, which is the last moment I can make changes to the text. By the time issue #394 gets into your grubby little hands, this column will be over a month out of date, and maybe closer to three. So much for up-to-the-minute electoral coverage and timely political analysis.

The seven-second delay has become ever more ubiquitous, even as the internet has done an end run around censorship in all mainstream media. By tacit agreement, every major and most minor media outlets quickly censored the broadcast, print, and digital images of the Bataclan’s blood soaked dance floor after the terrorist attack of 11-13-15. Yet it’s easy to find the original uncensored picture online. In 1968, when Buckley and Vidal exchanged their insults, they were seriously upstaged by the rancorous floor fights within the Democratic National Convention as well as the carnage of Chicago police run riot outside the Convention. ABC News allowing Buckley to drop the “q-bomb” on live TV was the least of the network’s problems, what with journalists getting beaten up by cops in the streets of Chicago and their contentious, often lurid visuals making the news on TV and in daily papers. By contrast, the well-oiled Republican National Convention earlier in August nominated Richard Nixon on a strict law-and-order platform. The GOP’s appearance of firmness, reasonableness and stability in the face of Chicago’s chaos helped earn Nixon his landslide victory.

Today, we’re faced with the reverse.

The Democratic National Convention (July 25-28) looks to be a snooze, with Hillary the foregone nominee and Bernie promising not to buck the party process. The Republican National Convention (July 18-21) has all the makings of a good old donnybrook, a full-fledged political melee, thanks to Trump’s candidacy. There’s talk of a split convention with a nasty floor fight over who to nominate. The old-white-male GOP establishment is thinking about brokering the convention, with Trump and Carson threatening to jump ship. Simply put, the Republicans are clusterfucked.

If Trump is nominated, he will lose to Hillary. Most observers agree that the Republicans will lose big time, on a par with Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat in 1964. If Trump loses the nomination and bolts the Republican Party with an independent presidential candidacy, the GOP will split, and both the party and Trump will lose. This is the Ross Perot Third Party scenario, and it holds to a lesser degree for Carson. The only way that the Republicans have even a chance of winning against Hillary would be if Trump loses the nomination, gracefully accepts the GOP’s decision and throws his full weight behind the party’s nomination. Not fucking likely. Any way you look at it, the Republicans will be bruised and bloodied at the very least, but more likely irreparably splintered into warring factions. In turn, the GOP’s efforts to remain viable are seriously threatened because the unity and respectability of the conservative movement underlying it has completely unraveled.

Tim Yohannan marshaled MRR’s shitworkers into keeping this magazine running after he was diagnosed with terminal non-Hodgkins lymphoma. No, Tim never promised Mykel Board a columnist position in perpetuity, and yes, he wanted to give MRR to George Tabb who turned it down because he couldn’t figure out how to move the magazine to New York City. For Tim Yo, the single most important characteristic of someone capable of running MRR was being an asshole when required, with the ability to make the hard decisions—like firing columnist Jeff Bale or refusing ads from Caroline Records because of their major label involvement or even pulling out of Mordam Records because Mordam was no longer punk enough—and to take the heat for making them.

But there are assholes, and then there are assholes.

Gavin McInnis argues that “Trump is crass and rude and irrational [and an asshole], but that’s what we need. We need hate. We need fear mongering.” Trump supporters are more than willing to see the GOP crash and burn in order for Trump to win. “The Republicans are pussies,” according to McInnis, and if they can’t get behind a Trump nomination, they deserve to lose. It’s not because clowns like McIinnis have no skin in the political game as a new Canadian immigrant recently turned American citizen. Younger Republicans and youthful conservatives are simply no longer willing to abide by Buckley’s dictum to: “Nominate the most conservative candidate who is electable,” or Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment that: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” They’re prepared to hold onto their conservative principles and make their point come hell or high water, even if it means trashing their fellow Republicans, wrecking the GOP, and destroying the conservative movement.

In supporting a conservative asshole like Trump, a younger generation of 30-to-40-something conservatives is ignoring the legacy of yet another conservative asshole, William F. Buckley, Jr. National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg praised Buckley for employing “intellectual ruthlessness and relentless personal charm to keep that which is good about libertarianism, what we have come to call ‘social conservatism,’ and what was necessary about anti-Communism in the movement. This meant throwing friends and allies off the bus from time to time. The Randians, the Rothbardian anarchists and isolationists, the Birchers, the anti-Semites, the me-too Republicans: all of these groups in various combinations were purged from the movement and masthead, sometimes painfully, sometimes easily, but always with the ideal of keeping the cause honest and pointed north to the ideal in his compass.” (NR Online, 10-27-05) Buckley relentlessly purged the conservative movement with the excuse of ridding it of anti-Semites and wingnut conspiracy theorists. According to Paul Gottfried however, Buckley’s “victims became ‘wing nuts’ by virtue of having been purged and slandered. The purges were not a passing or merely ancillary aspect of conservatism; they were a defining characteristic of a movement, whose function was to stake out ground where the Left had been the moment before.” Gottfried calls this Buckley’s “Great Purge” in service of building, maintaining and defending a respectable “Conservatism, Inc.”

But the GOP’s many tendencies and factions were never purged and the conservative movement was never purified. After arch-conservatives took control of the 1964 Republican National Convention to nominate Goldwater for his disastrous presidential run, Goldwater’s conservative base was decimated. Moderate-to-liberal Republicans like Nixon and Rockefeller gained ascendency, but the GOP’s conservative wing did not evaporate. Instead, these conservatives went underground and grassroots, organizing from the base up until they elected Reagan in 1980 for eight years of neoliberal dominance. Moderate Republicans are now endangered, and the liberal ones extinct. Today, conservative tendencies and factions abound; not just Randians, Rothbardian anarchists and isolationists, Birchers, anti-Semites, and me-too Republicans, but also Tea Partiers and neoliberals, white nationalists and supremacists, New Rightists, AltRightists and neo-reactionaries, evangelicals, paleoconservatives, neoconservatives and social conservatives, lone wolves and conspiracy nuts, libertarians and Establishment Republicans, yada, yada, yada. Is it any wonder that Trump’s candidacy has prompted the GOP to come apart at the seams and the conservative movement to descend into internecine warfare?

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a bad thing, the GOP going down in flames. Hilarious, in fact. I just wish there was some equivalent, serious opposition in the Democratic Party and the wider progressive movement to the juggernaut that is Hillary, Inc. Of course, Bernie will make a valiant primary effort at the Democratic National Convention, but he will lose and just as valiantly accede to the party’s nominee. Maybe Black Lives Matter will stage some level of protest inside or outside the convention, but I don’t see mass leftie protests targeting the Democrats anytime soon. And much as I like an acrimonious, bare-knuckled, equal brawl, that’s not likely to happen either. My prediction at this point in the print cycle is that Ted Cruz will be nominated by the Republicans, but Trump will only grudgingly step aside. With the GOP at less than full strength, Hillary will win the presidency.

Great! Four more years of Republican whining and right-of-center Democratic gloating and nothing ever getting done. If the GOP survives, that is. American politics are so fucking lame and unsurprising. A Public Policy Poll recently asked: “Would you support or oppose bombing Agrabah?” Of the Republicans who responded 57% were not sure, 13% opposed it, and 30% said they supported it. When it came to Democrats 55% were not sure, 36% opposed bombing Agrabah, and 19% said they supported it. Agrabah is the mythical kingdom in the 1992 Disney movie Aladdin.

(Copy editing by K Raketz.)

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