Columns

MRR #441 • February 2020

What’s Left?

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 rock’n’roll 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

No More Bad Future

On Winter Solstice day 2019, I walked out to see some Neolithic dolmen. I stroked the grey-green mosses covering the giant balanced boulders. These chamber entrances feature so heavily in the Welsh landscape that they are rarely properly signposted. Hundreds of bodies, tools, and offerings would once have lain within the above-ground chambers they were built in front of, but the rocks from the chamber walls have been long since returned to the ground around them, leaving only a suspiciously bumpy rich green turf beyond these enormous, lumbering doorways to nowhere. The contact points between each boulder set on top of the other have become fused and eroded in such uncanny spots in the six thousands of years since their makers finished the magical feat of ancient engineering that was required to assemble them. Each gravity-defying constituent part seemed to offer an ask and answer at once. How do I stay up? I always have. I imagined the ancestral bones and who took them from here, long before the archaeologists first scrambled. I thought about collective burial.

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Two months ago there was a General Election. Many people, myself included, hit the streets of constituencies around the country, to canvas and get people on board to vote for more living and less dying. The manifesto was of course, relatively tepid social democracy, but containing promises that would stop more people dying from cold, hunger, violence and suicide, it felt like a reset button, a chance to reroute. This meant an alliance with the kind of big P politics my whole adult life has been about transcending or at least side-eyeing. Reassuringly, many of the most industrious among the dedicated campaigners were communists and other assorted over-thinkers approaching this stoically, either through invigoration at the left leadership or just because it was time. Here was a way to steer the big bus a few inches back from the cliff edge, motivated by the nightmare of a burning planet, already a reality in plenty of places, motivated by the piles of wet mattresses and bedding on every high street and the people underneath them. In light of this equation, for many it was all or nothing for a full six weeks. Stranger things have happened, stranger things may still. That is how several thousand leftists found themselves canvassing for the same party that facilitated the murder of one million plus Iraqis, inspired by a man who stayed inside it even while it betrayed his deepest convictions. There is a lesson in their somewhere. The low thrum of possibility, shared hope between absolute stranger, was a motivating force amongst people who in any other context had far more separating them than they had in common. Is there anything more intoxicating than the opportunity to affix yourself to a larger notion? Even for just a moment. From my position as a relative outsider to the agitation of the last few year’s since Momentum’s ascent, it was surprisingly self-organised, hundreds of strangers working away at it, forging bonds over a given task, no leadership from above, just a lit spark and a website that told you where people were needed. We were ejected from a Shopping Mall. I got too excited and started trying to register sixteen year olds to vote.

Later that evening, hungry for achievement, we registered a Singaporean international student in a marginal/swing district. She hadn’t known she could vote. I marvelled at the long list of countries of origin for ‘commonwealth’ citizens eligible through quirk of colonialism. It is there in everything, of course, history is present. On a Saturday where the foundations of my world (unrelated) had come unstuck, I took solace on a train to Crawley full of strangers all wearing red. We travelled in accidental convoy to a suburban new town built after the War to house the bombed out and create dignity for the working classes still in slums. Our assigned role was to hand deliver Christmas cards to ‘undecided’ voters from the local candidate. An elderly woman chased Charlotte out from her garden to theatrically throw the card in the bin, announcing with some glee that we were wasting our time because she and her neighbours wouldn’t vote for Corbyn, “..not for all the tea in China.” The hope felt so good that this barely punctured. The possibility of failure seemed too enormous to sit with. In the end, the day came, twelve hours of grey rain. I watched in sad horror at the collective WhatsApp grief of so many people who had put in every waking moment, undone by reality. On Day one, the recriminations came in hard and fast. Humbled by a leave/remain binary, humbled by the controlling interests of the media, humbled by the weakness of that which we know to be true: that another way is possible. We have all lost our minds, to be sure, but if this proves anything it’s that we’ve left them in different places and must, it seems, take different routes to relocate them. The nightmare continues.

In the days following the defeat, people took to the internet, as people in shock often do, to talk about the ‘what next?’ Unsurprisingly, many brought up the need to organise and create space in communities to build the world we want to see, the world we had hoped this reshuffle of the economy and society might precipitate. Most people I know who campaigned for Labour, of course, already do plenty of this. Pre-figurative politics can be very seductive. Why not just do it all now? Etc. If you find the notion of organising any way romantic, it’s likely you talk more than you do. Which is fair enough, we all need a little romance, just check its not yourself you’re admiring. All this talk of community was especially galling in my moment of deep cynicism. I had finally extricated myself completely from the burning embers of a space I’d initiated seven years prior, after realising on balance that it was literally going to kill me if I didn’t. A building cannot break your heart. The huge stones we once raised may be still standing, just, but up close they’re eroded to almost nothing. Immoveable boulders revealed as dust clouds. An entrance without a chamber. Why? Ancient curses, you already know ’em: machismo, lies, theft, politics held only puddle-deep, and in a more modern mode: that toxic strain of liberalism especially beloved by those adept at using woke language to disguise a stunningly deep commitment only to personal gain. Unexamined chauvinism is more than a puss-filled pimple upon the rump of any shared future, it’s the most rapacious cancer, turning any sniff of nascent solidarity into its own obituary.

My maxim had long been: make yourself, above all else, an instrument of a project, you will feel alive for as long if you can escape the isolation by connecting with others seeking the same goal as you. Is there anything more intoxicating than the opportunity to affix yourself to a larger notion? I do still believe this, but there are life-saving caveats. I recently holed up in a barn away from the sharp light and endless fallout of much bigger these failings, endings, protracted doubts, I reread the entirety of Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters to try and rebuild a few of my defences. She says in this #1 “I have just realised that the stakes are myself […] this flesh is all I have to offer / to make the play with / this immediate head, what it comes up with, my move / as we slither over this go board, stepping always (we hope) between the lines.”

In the end, I couldn’t make it past the wall of angry men and one day I won’t blame myself. I can hope there’s some future for the space, new green shoots for someone else to plant and harvest, because there’s definitely a beautiful past. I’ll remember grasping at the freedom feeling real early in the morning, pasting propaganda in the toilets, snogging down the fire exit, negotiating the cops away while higher than God. Hours of deviant karaoke. Learning without realising I was. I hold even the most punishing five am piss puddle clean memory up with not a small amount of tenderness. I think back on what The Work really was, acting as hope propellant in the face of naysayers, once it was happening, too beyond building drywall or infinite circular meetings. I realise it was the simple, repeated act of knocking love into every nervy stranger freak who showed up to volunteer. The unmeasured, unspoken, unaudited work of being just really fucking kind is the work that is going hold the world together. If we make it.

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I recently played a last gig with Efialtis. I managed to play in a Greek group for five years without managing to string a sentence together, shameful malaka. Mentira from Barcelona played a wild set of skronky almost industrial noise, bass and drum machine fury swayed into motion as Laura’s enormous heart seemed to burst out of itself, commanding: Punch the Air and Accept Yourself. In the post-set silence where mere mortals might go through the motions to scramble out from under the awkward attention, Laura gazed widely at the room and delivered some words on punk’s purpose, the humble rally to resist alienation in the face of all the bullshit, of the dull, safe normalcy of the “hey how’s it going yeah good you yeah busy cool we should hang you sometime yeah cool seeya” carousel of 30+ year old punk social relations. She performed in front of a blown-up paper print out of a dead friend tacked to the wall. His eyes looked out over the crowd. What else is there? We played ourselves goodbye and I felt my whole self snap back into the muscle memory I didn’t know was fading. The full force movement is the drummer’s gift. To play is to dance.

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