Hope is the mother of fools: “What’s Left?” August 2020

Train Tracks

Hope is the mother of fools.
—Polish proverb

Despite the madness of war, we lived for a world that would be different. For a better world to come when all this is over. And perhaps even our being here is a step towards that world. Do you really think that, without the hope that such a world is possible, that the rights of man will be restored again, we could stand the concentration camp even for one day? It is that very hope that makes people go without a murmur to the gas chambers, keeps them from risking a revolt, paralyses them into numb inactivity. It is hope that breaks down family ties, makes mothers renounce their children, or wives sell their bodies for bread, or husbands kill. It is hope that compels man to hold on to one more day of life, because that day may be the day of liberation. Ah, and not even the hope for a different, better world, but simply for life, a life of peace and rest. Never before in the history of mankind has hope been stronger than man, but never also has it done so much harm as it has in this war, in this concentration camp. We were never taught how to give up hope, and this is why today we perish in gas chambers.
—Tadeusz Borowski, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen

 

There are two common ideas as to why revolutions happen. The first, more traditional one is that when people are driven to the wall, when they are on the brink of starvation, when they lose all hope, they revolt. The second theory popularized in the 1950s, and first formalized by James C. Davies in his J-curve hypothesis, was called “the revolution of rising expectations.” It refers to circumstances in which the rise in prosperity, opportunity and freedom gives people hope they can improve life for themselves, their families and their communities, and so they revolt. Two apparently opposing reasons why people start revolutions—classic hopeless immiseration, modern hopeful expectations—except that as far back as the 1800s Alexis de Tocqueville observed that bastions of the French Revolution were in regions where living standards had been improving.

De Tocqueville was a French aristocrat, historian and political scientist who analyzed the 1776 American and 1789 French revolutions, but didn’t comment on the geographical dismemberment of Poland during the same period. Perpetrated by Russia, Prussia and Austria, the three territorial divisions of Poland (1772, 1793, 1795) ultimately resulted in Poland ceasing to exist as a sovereign state. Which is ironic because the Alexis de Tocqueville Center for Political and Legal Thought was founded in 2007 at the University of Łódź in Poland. The Polish people have had a fraught relationship with both hope and revolution. Not as fatalistic as their Russian slavic counterparts, the Poles are often quite politically pessimistic and yet incredibly rebellious, staging numerous protests and uprisings, from the country’s dismemberment to the present.* Since the Polish right turn under the Law and Justice party after 2016, Poles have taken to the streets against reactionary judicial reforms, restrictions on abortion, and for women’s rights. In turn, ultraconservative far-right elements have countered with protests against the restitution of Jewish property, immigration, and  COVID-19 business lockdowns.

You might say we Poles are simply revolting.

Jacek Malczewski, Vicious Circle, 1897

I’m proud of my rebellious Polish heritage. Yet I’m the first to acknowledge that Polish protests and revolts have frequently been tinged with a persistent antisemitism. Given my recent analysis centering utopianism as a key tool for Leftist reform and revolution, I’m specifically interested in formulating an argument for “revolution without hope.”

William Morris’s book News from Nowhere has been considered a utopia without utopianism, as was Leszek Kołakowski’s essay “The Concept of the Left.” Karl Marx formulated the notion of communism as a classless, stateless, borderless global human community, yet he refused to indulge in elaborating the details of his communist utopia, unlike the utopian socialists before him who were all too eager to blueprint their utopian schemes. Two Leftist survivors of the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, Václav Havel and Adam Michnik, debated the need for an “existential revolution.” A concept of the power of the powerlessness that was not “merely philosophical, merely social, merely technological, or even merely political,” the idea of an existential revolution was meant to avoid the dictatorship of party politics and external proposals for change, but which instead had an “intrinsic locus” rooted in the particulars and totality of “human existence.” Thus it was utopian, and clearly doomed.

YIPpie turned communist Abbie Hoffman wrote a book called Revolution for the Hell of It! that was said to have earned him a 5-year prison term at the “Chicago 8” conspiracy trial. That sentence was subsequently overturned by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, but the flippant notion that we make revolution for the sheer hell of it, on a whim, is a degeneration of the idea that revolution is natural or a right. Or as Maoists opine: “It is right to rebel!” What I’m exploring instead is a realistic utopianism, a revolution without hope or despair and therefore without entitlement or expectations.

Hope and its twin, despair, are to be avoided. Both involve expectations of the future, either desire or distress, that run counter to the hear-and-now of the revolutionary moment. Of course, realizing a revolution involves tactics and strategy—planning in other words. But the revolutionary act is the ultimate zen moment when the catchphrase “be here now” reigns supreme. The lead-up to revolution invokes organization and Lenin, but the revolution itself summons spontaneity and Luxemburg. This also means not dwelling on the past—on past slights, injuries and grievances—nor seeking to avenge, revenge or retaliate for past wrongs. Misery and pleasure tend to be immediate feelings exacerbated by memories of the past and expectations for the future. Attempting to live in the here-and-now does not eliminate either misery or pleasure. So we are still faced with what exactly causes revolutions and on what to base a revolutionary response, whether misery or pleasure.

Chemnitz Karl Marx Monument

I tend to side with pleasure and the famous misquotation of Emma Goldman’s that “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” Goldman never said those words, but rather lived them. I also tend not to believe that deliberately maximizing popular immiseration, social chaos, capitalist oppression and state repression will hasten the coming of any revolution, which is accelerationism. I have some sympathy for the strategy of indirectly pushing the capitalist mode of production to its limits in order to bring about a revolution. Tangential accelerationism, if you will.

For Marx, an economic mode of production was comprised of interacting forces of production and relations of production. Forces of production encompass means of labor (tools, machinery, land, infrastructure, etc) and human labor power. Relations of production entail voluntary and involuntary social relationships formed during the process of production as well as the official and de facto power relationships that both undergird and are the result of the division of profits from society’s total labor. If either one outstrips the other, there is a heightened potential for revolution. Or as Marx argued: “At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.” (“Preface to the Critique of Political Economy,” 1859)

When aggressive working class struggles push for more free time and more money for less actual work, as with the old IWW campaign for an eight hour work day and forty hour work week or the modern demand for eight hours of pay for four hours of work, this forces the capitalist mode of production toward its limits. Class struggle heightens the contradictions in the relations of production which, in turn, speeds up the development of the forces of production. The working class has no control over what technologies or infrastructures are introduced by capitalism, but it does have some control over how organized and militant the labor movement is in fighting capitalism. Creating a combative labor movement and a revolutionary working class has the advantage of not only indirectly hastening development of the forces of production but of directly confronting and potentially overthrowing the capitalist ruling class.

A win-win.

The caveat? Fully developing the forces of production means eliminating economic scarcity. If workers achieve a successful revolution before this happens, what results is a generalized sharing out of scarcity. A socialism of scarcity instead of abundance.

Paul Klee, Angelus novus/Walter Benjamin

*(Polish unrest: 1789, 1806, 1830-31, 1846, 1848-49, 1863-64, 1905-07, 1918, 1923, 1937, 1944-47, 1956, 1968, 1970-71, 1976, 1980-81, 1982, 1988, 1998, 2015, 2016-17)

SOURCES:
Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the Revolution by Alexis de Tocqueville
News from Nowhere by William Morris
Collected Works of Karl Marx (50 volumes) International Publishers
The Arcades Project and Illuminations by Walter Benjamin
“The Concept of the Left” by Leszek Kołakowski
This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski
Revolution for the Hell of It! by Abbie Hoffman
When Men Revolt and Why – A Reader in Political Violence and Revolution edited by James C. Davies
Oxford University Press series on revolutions and rebellions
God’s Playground: A History of Poland (2 volumes) by Norman Davies

 

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Utopia: reform or revolution, pt. 2: “What’s Left?” July 2020 (MRR #446)

It is our utopias that make the world tolerable to us.
—Lewis Mumford, 1922

Be realistic, demand the impossible.
—graffito, Paris 1968

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.
—Audre Lorde, 1984

Audre Lorde’s famous quote about the master’s tools is this column’s starting point. First, are we talking about tools in general or the master’s tools?

Humans are sometimes defined as tool-making animals. There are a number of creatures that use tools but only a select few (bees, crows, apes) that actually fabricate tools from component parts. When we go from picking up a rock to bash someone over the head (tool using) to chipping that same rock into a cutting edge to knife someone (tool making) we move from the natural to the artificial. Natural objects are neutral while artificial, human-made objects are not neutral. The use and development of basic tools is the simplest form of technology which, by definition, is also not neutral. Not only are tools and technology enmeshed with the basic values of the social system in which they are embedded, they reflect the basic needs and desires of the human organism that fashioned them. But they are not inherently good or bad, and the knife the murderer uses to kill is the same tool a surgeon uses to save lives. Primitivists, in arguing that tools and technologies are inherently bad, are actually arguing they are separable from human society and biology, an ahistorical argument in the extreme.

I won’t go down primitivism’s infinite regress rabbit-hole of what was humanity’s technological “original sin”—whether industrialization, the invention of agriculture or the development of language and rational thought. Suffice it to say that if tools and technologies are not inherently good or evil, then it’s possible to create liberating, non-exploitive technologies as well as corresponding emancipatory societies. This becomes a discussion of means versus ends—of the use of liberating, non-exploitive means in order to achieve liberating, non-exploitive ends. Pacifists immediately latched onto this turn of logic to contend that in order to create a nonviolent society that values human life we need to use nonviolent means that respect human life. In the process, they equate the violence of uprising, insurrection and revolution by the oppressed with the violence of corporate exploitation, police states and death squads by the oppressor. But I’m not a pacifist. Violence may not be a neutral tool, but it isn’t inherently evil. It is not automatically part of the master’s tools.

So finally, we arrive at the distinction between the master’s tools and the tools owned by the master. We cannot use the whip, slavery and social hierarchy (clearly the master’s tools) to create a free, cooperative, egalitarian world. But certainly we can expropriate the tools owned and used by the master—the hammers and plows of social cooperation and solidarity—to create our emancipatory world. The question about the tools and technologies we employ becomes: do they actually demolish the house, or do they just change who lives there?

So we return to the subject of reform versus revolution of last month’s column, with my introduction of André Gorz’s concept of “non-reformist reformism” as a way to bridge the two strategies. Right off, I was leery of that bridge strategy because I see capitalism as almost infinitely malleable, capable of coopting nearly anything thrown up against it. Only occasionally does capitalism have to resort to outright repression and terror to maintain itself. It was once argued that a universal basic minimum income (UBI) was such a radical proposal that capitalism would no longer remain capitalism if it were adopted. That UBI was intended to be a structural reform so thoroughgoing that capitalism would be utterly transformed by it. But now even some conservatives argue for UBI because the idea would allow the welfare state to eliminate virtually all social welfare programs, pare down the functions of government to a bare minimum and force the poor to go it alone. Rutger Bregman, in “Nixon’s Basic Income Plan” (Jacobin, 5/5/16) regarding the criticism of the British Speenhamland plan in Karl Polanyi’s 1944 book The Great Transformation, describes Polanyi’s take on basic income schemes as “‘the pauperization of the masses,’ who ‘almost lost their human shape.’ Basic income did not introduce a floor, he contended, but a ceiling.”

“There is no such thing as a non-reformist reform,” writes Robin Hahnel in Economic Justice and Democracy. “[A]ny reform can be fought for in ways that diminish the chances of further gains and limit progressive change in other areas, or fought for in ways that make further progress more likely and facilitate other progressive changes as well. But if reforms are successful they will make capitalism less harmful to some extent. There is no way around this, and even if there were such a thing as a non-reformist reform, it would not change this fact. However, the fact that every reform success makes capitalism less harmful does not mean successful reforms necessarily prolong the life of capitalism — although it might, and this is something anti-capitalists must simply learn to accept. But if winning a reform further empowers the reformers, and whets their appetite for more democracy, more economic justice, and more environmental protection than capitalism can provide, it can hasten the fall of capitalism.”

Whether the tools of reform, non-reformist reform, or revolution can constitute an effective technology for radical social change to transform capitalism into socialism, the solution might not be in relying on tools and technologies so much as on changing what we expect from them. Consider the early work of Polish neo-Marxist philosopher Leszek Kołakowski. Before Kołakowski “outgrew” his Marxism to become a historian of ideas increasingly preoccupied with religion, he wrote the provocative essay “The Concept of the Left” which contended that “[s]ocial revolutions are a compromise between utopia and historical reality.” Using an extended analogy to the notion that every human product is necessarily “a compromise between the material and the tool,” he contended:
Utopia always remains a phenomenon of the world of thought; even when backed by the power of a social movement and, more importantly, even when it enters its consciousness, it is inadequate, going far beyond the movement’s potentials. It is, in a way, “pathological” (in a loose sense of the word, for Utopian consciousness is in fact a natural social phenomenon). It is a warped attempt to impose upon a historically realistic movement goals that are beyond history.
However […] the Left cannot do without a utopia. The Left gives forth utopias just as the pancreas discharges insulin – by virtue of an innate law. Utopia is the striving for changes which “realistically” cannot be brought about by immediate action, which lie beyond the foreseeable future and defy planning. Still, utopia is a tool of action upon reality and of planning social activity. 

Reform and non-reformist reform, no less than revolution, are a compromise between utopia and historical reality. This doesn’t mean foolishly believing that a socialist utopia is just around the corner when even incremental reforms are attempted and achieved. Rather, it means the Left needs to maintain the vision of socialism even when pursuing minor social reforms. Perspective is crucial throughout.

Reform, non-reformist reform, and revolution are all tools in technologies of radical social change. And, leaving aside the issue of effectiveness, tools and technologies are always a compromise between our dismal historical reality and a socialist utopia, much as are their results on the ground. When we talk about the EZLN in Chiapas or the YPG/J in Rojava, we’re talking about Third World social movements employing technologies of radical social change that are each comprised of crafted, interacting clusters of tools—indigenismo, “mandar obedeciendo,” and women’s liberation in the case of the former and democratic confederalism, “direct democracy without a state,” and women’s liberation in the case of the latter. What keeps these bundles of tools unified and on track—and their ongoing regional social experiments liberating, non-exploitive and humane—is in part their commitment to a socialist utopia.

Any concept in this discussion can be a tool working on historical reality at one moment, and then the compromise between a different tool and historical reality at another moment. Sorry if this is confusing, but we’re talking dialectics here. To solely debate the tools and technologies of social change is to be in danger of instrumentalism. To just focus on the promise of some future socialism is to be in danger of utopianism. Only by combining the two can we create an effective, viable Left capable of advancing a radical social movement. But can that be done in the North American First World? That’s the sixty-four-dollar question.This concludes my examination of reform versus revolution.

SOURCES:
The Story of Utopias by Lewis Mumford
Sister Outsider, Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde
Strategy for Labor: A Radical Proposal by André Gorz
“Nixon’s Basic Income Plan” by Rutger Bregman
The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time by Karl Polanyi
Economic Justice and Democracy: From Competition to Cooperation by Robin Hahnel
“The Concept of the Left” by Leszek Kołakowski

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Writing and self-isolating in a time of plague: “What’s Left?” May 2020 (MRR #444)

The terrifying thing about an outbreak that requires people not to leave their homes for 90 days is it means the only ones to survive will be freelance writers.
—Sam Adams, senior editor, Slate Magazine

I dropped out of graduate school at UCSD in 1979 after a traumatic breakup with a lover. I spent the next two plus years drunk twenty-four/seven, even spending nine months homeless living in and around the UCSD campus. Friends helped me reconstruct my life, find a place to live and get a job. And from that point on until my retirement I was gainfully employed.

Almost.

I hated working for someone else. Even my best jobs never went past six years, and on average they lasted only two. I always made sure to stay employed long enough to qualify for unemployment benefits and then to get terminated in such a way as to collect said benefits. That was six months of paid writing time as I saw it, and occasionally during economic downturns I managed to double that. I’m a writer, have been since I was twelve, and I did much of my writing after hours, after either school or work. Being on unemployment was like being on a paid writer’s holiday.

It’s in the nature of a writer to self-isolate. I tended to spend days blending into weeks sitting at home alone writing while on unemployment living in San Diego and the Bay Area. Computers and word processing software have been a boon to writing. I’ve always owned a Mac, starting with a modified Mac Plus in 1985. After the laptop was invented I would of course take the one I owned to write in cafes and coffee shops. I still do. But even now I prefer writing in libraries because of the peace and quiet. Staying holed up in my residence writing—self-quarantining if you will—has always been second nature to me.

Of course that meant also drinking alone while writing when I drank alcohol. Being a day drunk went with the territory, so much so that when I retired I had to make rules for myself limiting my drinking to after five in the afternoon. The alcoholic writer is a common trope. Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Bukowski, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, Edgar Allen Poe, Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, Raymond Chandler, Hunter S. Thompson; the list of alcoholic writers I admire is long. “Taking the cure” has often meant suffering from writer’s block and other writing problems as a consequence. Fortunately, I never had that problem when I stopped drinking.

Writing in a time of plague is a tricky business however. It’s becoming common to compare COVID-19 not just to various flu-like diseases but also to the AIDS/HIV pandemic. “There’s no sense in comparing the two viruses — the novel coronavirus and HIV. They are not alike, not in speed or reach or genome.” (Ryan Kost, “They survived one plague. Now HIV/AIDS survivors face down the coronavirus,” SF Chronicle) Whereas COVID-19 is transmitted through airborne and physical human contact and has a 1-3% mortality rate, for instance, AIDS is sexually transmitted and had an 11% mortality rate at its height. About the only thing they have in common is the fear they’ve generated. As a member of the queer-friendly community back in 1980, I remember the whispered anxiety that a new “gay cancer” was making the rounds. Gay bashing has always been a reality for the LGBTQI+ community, exacerbated by the public’s fear of AIDS. The community response has ranged from staid volunteer self-defense organizations like the Castro Community on Patrol to the far more militant Bash Back! movement. Now people are freaking out if someone even coughs or sneezes nearby. Asian/Chinese bashing caused by COVID-19 fears is coming to rival the gay-bashing related to fear of AIDS. US combat veterans have started patrolling San Francisco’s Chinatown in response. I bear the vaccine mark of the polio virus from the 1950s fear of poliomyelitis. As with polio, good solid science halted the spread of HIV and, with luck, it will do so against COVID-19.

Another thing these disparate diseases have in common is the loneliness and isolation engendered by catching the illness. Being confined or quarantined as a consequence of having a potentially life-threatening disease can be almost as deadly as the illness itself. So can the fear of being infected. I and everyone I know are sheltering-in-place due to COVID-19 and after a month-plus cabin fever has already set in. Gay men have told me about going through all this before, only far worse. The social isolation, the fear of losing one’s friends and employment, being condemned and ostracized, the fear of death. Gregory Fowler has described this poignantly: “I had straight and sadly some gay friends who would not eat out in restaurants if a gay person worked there or wouldn’t invite their gay brother over for Sunday dinner. At its worse, there were weeks when we would hear of the death of 2, 3, 4… friends and acquaintances, all the time living in fear of our own death. This didn’t go on for a few weeks or a few months, but for year after year after year, it became embedded into our daily existence and our constant fight for survival, all the while watching our friends die as the government stood by and did nothing!”

The AIDS and COVID-19 crises are not comparable in so many ways. Coronavirus sheltering-in-place is inconvenient, disruptive and sometimes risky, but it’s not stigmatizing. The response to both require comparable strategies, namely mutual aid and revolution. I’m running out of space and revolution is a fraught term, so I’ll discuss mutual aid now and defer revolution for a future column.

I’ve known members of the Radical Faeries, a group of gay men “which blends counter-cultural values, queer consciousness and spirituality.” (Rory Carroll, “Hold the applause for Facebook’s rainbow-colored profiles, activists say,” The Guardian) Founded by former Communist Party member Harry Hay, the Radical Faeries grew into a loose international network that owned rural land and urban buildings designated sanctuaries for communal living, hosted occasional tribal gatherings, and took care of their own. That meant providing companionship, nursing and hospice for its members who had contracted AIDS. When Harry Hay died in 2002, the Radical Faeries took care of his partner, John Burnside, until he too died in 2008. I did volunteer work at Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS) for several years. PAWS started as a free food and medicine delivery service for people with AIDS confined to their homes because “no one should have to make the difficult choice of caring for themselves or caring for their beloved pets.” PAWS has since expanded their free comprehensive support services “to pets of seniors and individuals living with disability or illness,” providing a pet food bank, free and subsidized veterinary services with partnering veterinarians, and pet care services like dog walking and in-home cat sitting. I drove around San Francisco delivering supplies before I eventually did shifts at the PAWS pet food bank.

Well before Peter Kropotkin wrote: “[p]racticing mutual aid is the surest means for giving each other and to all the greatest safety, the best guarantee of existence and progress, bodily, intellectual and moral” in his book Mutual Aid, the practice of human sociability and solidarity have been key to our survival. Long a feature of immigrant communities in the US, mutual aid societies reflect the “sentiment that members of a community that might be overlooked by government efforts may be more successfully reached by people in their circles. Some leftist activists also see mutual aid as part of the work of building the bonds needed for mass movements and a more cooperative democratic society.” (Abigail Savitch-Lew, “Mutual Aid Movement Playing Huge Role in COVID-19 Crisis.” CityLimits) But whether viewed as an immediate, ad hoc solution to problems better left to government, as a way to shame the government into doing its jobs or as the tip of the anarchist spear critiquing the State as an unnecessary, harmful and violent institution, mutual aid was a feature of both the AIDS crisis and today’s COVID-19 pandemic. It’s Going Down, a website “for anarchist, anti-fascist, autonomous anti-capitalist and anti-colonial movements,” features a separate “COVID-19 Mutual Aid” page with hundreds of listing in almost every state in the country.

Shopping and grocery delivery, supply and clothing runs, pharmacy prescription pickups, food preparation, free money—the list of activities and resources covered by mutual aid programs and groups can be long. But providing mutual aid is no substitute for the radical social change required to make such piecemeal efforts obsolete by transforming the whole of society into one based in part on mutual aid. I think the postmodern “resistance of everyday life” is wholly inadequate to the task, but the concept of revolution has fallen into disfavor. So we’ll unpack revolution next time.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution by Peter Kropotkin
Anarchy in Action by Colin Ward
From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967 by David T. Beito
The Fire in Moonlight: Stories from the Radical Faeries 1971-2010 ed. By Thompson, Young, Neely
Radically Gay: Gay Liberation in the Words of Its Founder by Harry Hay
The Trouble with Harry Hay: Founder of the Modern Gay Movement by Stuart Timmons