I wish I could remember. Read the rest of this entry »
I’ve been saying this a lot lately in various settings for various reasons. We live in a fucked up pyramid shaped society, made out of fucked up pyramid shaped institutions, and shit rolls down hill. When a bucket of shit lands on you, it’s hard not to turn and dump it on someone below you. Not doing so is really hard and sometimes may be impossible. Trying not to do so is hard and requires moral character. People who don’t try not to do so eventually start to tell themselves stories about their actions and who they are, so they can feel better about their decisions, and truly fucked up people begin to enjoy dumping shit on the people below them. Creating a new society that’s not pyramid shaped will require overturning a lot of the smaller institutions of our society, and will also require cultivating different individual moral and collective cultural impulses. That cultivation has to happen as part of the processes of social remaking we want, and has to be part of the ongoing efforts at this remaking now.
Notes for what I hope will later become a more finished libcom blog post.
I’m having trouble starting this blog post, I always have trouble starting the ones that involve more of a risk. The more I know what to say, the easier it is to say it. The less I know what to say, the harder it is.
I have several things on my mind as I start this blog post.
1) Something an older comrade said to me back when I was excited about a small marxist group called the Johnson-Forest Tendency: “I think the reason a lot of us found them exciting is that they were a kind of ongoing seminar in marxist thought, one that didn’t happen in a university setting. That intellectual dynamism is attractive.” I think that’s definitely part of it.
2) A remark Joseph Kay made at some point in the libcom forums, namely that maybe the internet is facilitating conversation in a way that means some of the activities that are often associated with political organizations – correspondence among radicals, collective discussion, and providing access to political writing – can happen outside of those organizations now to a higher degree.
3) A remark in an article by Adam Weaver and Scott Nappalos about movement institutions that generate writing (I generally disagree with the article in that it claims formal political organizations are necessary, but I like that bit about setting up different sorts of initiatives.
4) A metaphor that I got from some old Maoist. There’s organization building and there’s movement building. Or to put it another way, there’s work aimed at a specific organism and there’s work aimed at the social ecosystem.
5) Another metaphor: marketplace of ideas. The metaphor is about advocating for ideas in order to win people over. That’s an imperfect metaphor to be sure but it’s a start. I’m interested in how people move to become a certain kind of consumer – how do people come to want to read and to actually read some of the sorts of writing that are around on the left – and how people move from consumer to producer – how do people come to be more active participants.
6) The recent issue of Viewpoint on workers’ inquiry. I’m skeptical about some of that workers inquiry and militant research stuff at this point, but the element of collective intellectual work by movement people is appealing.
7) Some remarks by Engels about trying to do historical inquiry, and particularly inquiry into recent/current events, and how that’s difficult! (I quote these here: http://crashcourse666.wordpress.com/2013/11/29/did-engels-introduce/) And this quote from Lenin, “that which constitutes the very gist, the living soul, of Marxism [is] a concrete analysis of a concrete situation.” https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/jun/12.htm (Lenin’s quotable, despite his bad politics.) Particularly in light of Perry Anderson’s book Considerations on Western Marxism, which I read sometime last year and really enjoyed (notes here: http://crashcourse666.wordpress.com/2013/07/31/does-anderson-consider/). It could be described in part as a sort of how many marxists lost that ‘living soul’. (And how much of marxism became a kind of giant baby – great big head, speech very hard to understand, arms and legs uncoordinated, and both captivated by observing the relatively obvious and furious at its inability to move effectively. On the soul thing… what’s the name for a thing that moves without a soul? Zombie? Capitalist?) Of course that ‘living soul’ has to relate to a lot of other elements, including more abstract and narrowly theoretical concerns. I’m thinking here of a quote from E.P. Thompson, something to the effect of history doesn’t apply theory, it reconstructs it. Anyway, that ‘living soul’ should be there and I think is under-represented today – and it’s really hard to actually do!
8) An ongoing conversation with some small handfuls of friends and the occasional online discussion at libcom and on Facebook, about what we’ve called ‘militant reformism’ and more broadly some concerns about how to understand the present political moment and what are some plausible short term futures. In a nutshell, some friends and I think that reformist organizations are capable of acting in surprisingly democratic and militant ways, and that it’s possible that capitalism could be renewed economically and politically, and both will pose challenges to anticapitalists. If things play out in the way we think is possible (and the point isn’t to predict the future so much as to say that some comrades have ruled out some possibilities too quickly), it will proceed like this: a phase where austerity and repression are the dominant ideas and practices (during this phase calls for reform will not get much traction outside the far left and some nondominant parts of the capitalist class and their ideologues and politicians, that nondominant status in turn will encourage greater legitimacy for these ideas in the far left; these ideas may also get some traction in fighting organizations/movements); a phase of experimentation at the local/municipal/county/state-or-province level (during this phase reformist ideas will get more traction in official institution), tied to greater legitimacy for experiments on different perspectives tided to various constituencies (industries, political affiliations/ideologies, etc); a phase of greater openness to these perspectives at the federal level and the level of the capitalist class as a whole. We haven’t talked about it this way much but I’m beginning to think this is a process of how the capitalist class becomes once again a conscious political subject moving a programmatic agenda and how the state gets more organized programmatically. Or alternatively, this is a matter of how specific class fractions and their affiliated individual ideologues and politicians, fractions which are currently not dominant, come to contest the current dominant perspective and leadership. All of this relates to narrowly economic matters but isn’t reducible to them.
9) Aufheben’s recent article Reclaim the State Debate. In the article Aufheben calls for radical thinking that tries to feedback into practice rather than theory for it’s own sake, and suggests that this is unlikely to happen via academic writing. The Aufheben article is also about something on my mind a lot lately, namely how to understand the capitalist state.
10) What this adds up to: I’m hesitant to tell anyone what to do but I’d like to see more sustained conversation in some kind of collective way on these themes and how they might inform practice, if we can see practical takeaways currently (other than propagandizing). This is because I care about the substance but also because I care about the format – how can a diffuse cloud of us get better at deciding to take on issues and thinking through them collectively? I can imagine this could proceed in a few ways. One is sort of top down or abstract to concrete or from reading outward: basically read some stuff, theoretical, historical, and relevant contemporary material, on the state and the state-capital relationship, and discuss it – and try to write stuff that gets the ideas out in circulation among people who won’t or haven’t yet read the material. Another is to begin from the bottom up or from the concrete and experiential into writing: asking questions like how do we encounter the state and capital in our lives and experiences, in doing political activity and otherwise, and writing on that. Connected to both is looking at current developments to try and track the current life of the institutions and society we live under.
Sometimes I stop liking books, or at least I think I do. Usually what this really means is there’s too much dumb life stuff going on, but that means I usually forget the real problem and think it’s just that I don’t like books. As I start to come out of that, I often still have a chip on my shoulder about books, until the next time I read one I enjoyed. (And sometimes when this happens I’ll re-read If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler.)
The most recent books I remember enjoying:
The Lovecraft Middleschool series.
Irvine Welsh’s Skagboys.
Lemony Snicket’s All The Wrong Questions series.
Catherynne Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.
Lovecraft Middleschool is fun. I enjoyed reading Lovecraft when I was younger, and I hated middleschool, so it’s a good combo. There’s no fireworks at the level of the prose, but the stories move forward and the sense of creepy scariness is just right.
Skagboys is the prequel to Trainspotting. I’ve read almost all of Welsh’s books. Trainspotting and Skagboys are the best, and of the two I’m not sure which is better. The book is powerful, empathetic, and very sad. I love that it opens with the Battle of Orgreaves during the miners strike, something I’ve only just learned anything about. The book has a good arc too in terms of how it portrays the heroin use as addiction becomes more and more the center of the characters’ lives. The early bits make it seem fun, or at least make it make sense to someone who isn’t a heroin user, and that makes the hellish later bits more compelling and the characters easier to empathize with.
Last night I finished the second book in All The Wrong Questions. I spent most of the first book comparing it to the Series of Unfortunate Events, which I liked a great deal, and being annoyed at the ways that this series is just different. This second book I took on its own terms and really enjoyed it. I like the quirkiness, but it’s the sense of mystery and bleakness that is most apparent, and that’s highly compelling. The main characters are way less cartoonish and much more human. The mystery is interesting too.
Yesterday I also read about half of The Girl who Circumnavigated… I had started it before, and told my daughter about it. She got really into the idea, so we read some of it earlier in the day, and some more at bedtime. It’s a fun book with a strong female lead, and I like how it’s a mix of silly, magical, and eerie. I also have warm feelings because of all the cuddling I got from my kid while we read it.
At the end of 2011 I started blogging at libcom.
It’s funny that I started that two years ago. I think my sense of time has changed as I’ve gotten older, because it seems like that was both longer ago and not as long ago. Weird. Anyway, two years. Neat.
I write Blog 1578:
I am proud to say that Blog 1578 is easily one of the 2000 best blogs at libcom.
“I found myself lost, beyond all paths, in a lonely faraway place made gloomy (…) by a blinding sun.” That’s from a novel by Luigi Pirandello. (I found this quoted in a book on Italo Calvino, I don’t know if the Pirandello’s been translated or not.) I thought of this after reading a bit from With Sober Senses, which said “Hegel argued that ‘the owl of Minerva’, that is knowledge and understanding, only takes flight at dusk….that is after the events and the changes have happened. Frankly that isn’t much use for those of us caught in the thick of it. It is thus necessary to attempt read in the present the tendencies of the future and paint outlines of where we think things are going so we can intervene and perhaps break open the possibilities for the formation of emancipatory politics.” I like that. It seems to me there’s a kind of certainty that’s possible retroactively, and simply not possible in the present moment. After the fact we have access to kinds of evidence, and we have the time to reflect, that we don’t have during the fact, so to speak. That doesn’t mean only thinking after the fact, don’t wait till dusk, it means thinking in the sunlight, think during the fact, even though that thinking will have limitations and be more speculative or probabilistic/hypothesis. This also reminds me of a metaphor in some writings by Soren Kiergegaard, where he talks about living on 70,000 fathoms of water. As I (mis?)remember it, people are exposed and life is fundamentally uncertain. Many people reach for ways to cover up that uncertainty intellectually, flinching from that truth of human existence, when instead the point is to recognize that uncertainty and to move on. That’s primarily an ethical or subjective matter rather than a theoretical one – it’s a matter of learning to live with something and learning to best respond to it, rather than a narrowly philosophical problem. It’s something to live with rather than a problem to solve. I think a lot of people turn to religion or churches to deal with this. Kierkegaard as I remember it wants religious people to be religious in spite of this uncertainty but doesn’t want them to use their religion to avoid or hide from this condition (I may be remembering the Kierkegaard wrong, but that’s not the bit I’m particularly interest in, it’s the image/metaphor I’m interested in mainly). I think often some versions of marxism are also this kind of church for people. I’ve been reading a bit recently where Michael Heinrich and Ingo Elbe talk about the growth of what they call ‘world-view marxism,’ the idea that marxism is an all-encompassing philosphical system or outlook which people can take up. That arose historically as part of what I think of as the church-ification of marxism (one such dominant church was the SPD in Germany and the other was under the Bolsheviks in Russia). I think it is a kind of ethical failing to flinch in the face of that uncertainty that comes with living on top of 70,000 fathoms of water, and that flinching is part of what some people do with their marxism, seeking a kind of certainty – wanting dusk-like understanding of circumstances while standing in the sun at noon – and pretending they have it.
A friend quoted a bit from a work by Gilles Dauve. The quote’s wrong. Read the rest of this entry »