Thursday, June 18, 2015

Follow what leader?

As I've been covering discontents with our current social, political, educational, and economic systems, I range across the spectrum when finding material to comment upon and share here. What I was thinking as I scanned hundreds of entries at LibCom last night for some reading material was how often stolid prose and stodgy statements stood in for entertaining as well as instructive texts. On a forum about recommendations for working-class literature, one comrade's dictum stood out. "the novel is anti-working-class." Perfect. At least I learned about Arundhati Roy's novel, too. Some remembered such gems as James Plunkett's depiction of the great Dublin lockout and strikes, Strumpet City, as well as the usual (not to be diminished by that) Orwellian allegories, Marge Piercy's feminist futures, Kim Stanley Robinson's trilogy on Martian terraforming, Jack London (whom at least lefties still read), John Dos Passos, and even the depressing Studs Lonigan. Like JDP and James T. Farrell, Victor Serge was cited (much more) but with a proviso as to the unsanctioned ideological drift (to a right-wing or Jeffersonian populism in the American duo or an insufficiently early denial of Stalinism in the Russian instance. Every committed cadre condemns everyone else as "sheeple."

I wound up only downloading the George Woodcock pamphlet from the depths of WWII, "The Tyranny of the Clock." It is exactly what you'd expect. Like a lot of protest prose, it charts the predicament we are in, challenges the status quo, and then leaves you mulling over... what's next?

So, I opened my FB feed to find the reliable Liam O'Rourke in his Irish Republican Education Forum adding a bit of levity. "The Marxist-Leninist Theory of Humor" is credited to McLaughlin, Tom. "The Marxist-Leninist Theory of Humor," Catalyst, no. 9, 1977, pp. 99-102. I cite two paragraphs to wit:

          Socialist Seriousness.
Under Socialism there will be no classes and consequently no class conflict. Humor will cease to reflect any objective reality and will wither away. Consequently, those who engage in humor after being admonished by Party members will be clearly identifiable as saboteurs. It will be necessary to root out these weeds from the collective farm of Socialism. However, such saboteurs may prove skillful in hiding themselves. It will thus prove necessary for skilled Party members to ferret them out by engaging in humorous dialogue. If, for instance, a suspected saboteur is found to be cognizant of the answers to riddles, or if he replies to the Party member's encouragement by telling jokes, then such a person must be subject to Revolutionary Justice. It is suggested that the death sentence would be appropriate. This should be administered while the criminal is heavily dosed with helium (laughing gas), so that his "laughing death" may prove a suitable object of horror and negative reinforcement to the broad masses of workers and peasants.
Humor will of course continue to be necessary in relations between socialist and imperialist countries as the class struggle continues on the international stage.
This article spoofs the dead hand of Marxian promulgation in similar terms. It made me smile. I presume despite his familiarity with Freirean anti-authoritarian schooling in New Mexico, the director and star of Billy Jack did not write this. I like that he shares the same name, all the same.

So did a post under it directing me to "Flakes Alive!" in The Baffler. DSA member Amber Frost (a name worth a chuckle at least to me) reports on the Left Forum, which evolved from a Socialist Scholars Conference that twice, in the '60s and '80s, flamed up and flared out. Similar combustibility erupted at this NYC gathering. Apparently anyone can pay their fee and get their slot on a panel (and I thought 15-20 minute conference papers were enough). So, 400 events and 1300 speakers result. 

Frost laments the "tankers" (the pro-Man of Steel gang), the truthers (9/11 is apparently a racist hoax against Muslims--whose racial component eludes me, as any reader of Malcolm X's epiphany on his flight to Mecca might agree), and the perpetually aggrieved "marginalistas." She confesses: "there is something truly dispiriting about not being able to distinguish self-identified radicals from the parodies of us imagined by the right wing." Hearing Middlemarch on endless audiobook, I heard the phrase "self-cherishing anxiety"--this sums up the eternal grievances of a conspiratorial mind.

Studying Peter Marshall's massive Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism last year, I was struck by how prescient parts (and not other parts that were pro-feudal and quietist) of the Tao were as to those of us who can't buckle under, and how despite perhaps placid surfaces, betray restlessness at injustice, top-down imposition of inequity, and relentless push for profits, not peace.

There's a lot of reinvention of anti-statist and anti-corporate strategies. But it reminds me of start-ups competing for the venture capitalist's nod in and on Silicon Valley. Lots of young folks burning out while the older, seasoned pros sit back, often tenured and satisfied rather than D.I.Y. and hungry. New generations arrive ready for action, and as cannon fodder for the alliances and collectives, they give freely of their energy until the struggle becomes too much to continue when children arrive and insurance must be paid. This is "impossiblism" as some radicals phrase it: the idea that prefigurative ways of living cannot be sustained now, and the mentality that capitalism forces dissenters to give in.

As I have stated last week, even the Bernie Sanders campaign, I fear, will only deliver a protest vote to Hillary after he has (temporarily and cynically for her) tapped her to lean a bit left of center to swing a few states. Where else will voters for a semi-, if co-opted, democratic socialist turn anyhow? Where can those of us nagging ourselves and you for a more just, equal, society turn, if not to leaders? That is the question and answer of anarchism. In a world where fending for ourselves with reliance on the kindness of supporters rather than strangers wrangles out small niches for survival, this possibility beckons. Weighed down by bills, taxes, responsibilities, how many can embrace it?

Syriza encounters immense difficulties as academics try to run Greece; the Greens regularly march on to little notice at the back of the progressive parade, and the bipartisan fat-cat network bloats and boasts. If Occupy was crushed by Democratic Party indifference, GOP mockery, and the security state collusion which both parties insist upon, what traction does an alternative challenge sustain? Over and over, it's lessons that repeat. Their repetition must speak to our idealism, and our naivete.

"Like a fifteen-year-old who’s recently discovered punk rock, the nouveau “Social Justice Warrior” crowd frequently presumes an undue sense of ownership over incredibly basic, nearly ancient ideas." Frost here may sympathize with me. Many act as if they invented some concept, and like academics or concertgoers at "festival seating" or us on airplanes, they fight over very small expanses of space.

Her whole essay is worth the time. Certainly as my recent train of thought continues, I concur with Terry Eagleton's weariness. In a 2012 interview with the Oxonian Review after Occupy and as Greece revolted against austerity, he noted the advantage of a downturn. "Not deserting politics but trying to add a depth to it, and also, in doing so, breaking with the holy trinity of class, race, and gender. Vital topics though they are, they’ve become such tram-lines on which the cultural left has been moving."

Frost also calls for momentum. She concludes by reminding us, however, that forums may not be it, or more fringe squabbles and academic blather. "It’s quite possible the left is at a pivotal moment in political history: these days, Americans actually like the sound of socialism, and the potential for building a new base is incredibly encouraging. But as much as we should be looking to expand, so, too, must we refine our project. The marginalistas distract, disrupt and deter future comrades. So it’s high time we get a little exclusive: tankies, truthers and tofu may supply a steady stream of battle-tested conference anecdotage, but they’re not going to move us any closer to building a better world."

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