An Essay on Frustration

A juxtaposition pregnant with political meaning:  one week after the Windsor Downtown Mission bought the building that currently houses the central library, (yes, you read that correctly), anarchists in Hamilton smashed shop windows as a performative protest against gentrification.   Two sets of dispossessed people (or people representing, or claiming to represent, the dispossessed), two opposed solutions, equally ineffective.

Only in Windsor could a massive expansion of the homeless shelter be interpreted as a good thing.  So desperate is the city for any type of “development” downtown that any transaction is heralded as “good news ” story.  I guess this move is “transformative,”  to use the lingo.  Addresses are being exchanged, (although, laughably, lamentably, no one knows where the library will end up).  But is there any other city in North America where the homeless shelter has more money than the central branch of the public library, enough, in fact, to buy the building out from under them?

This absurdity is the outcome of the privatization of poverty relief on the one hand and the fiscal starvation of public institutions on the other.  The two processes are completely intertwined:  as public investment dwindles, private charities have to assume a greater  role in poverty relief and the provision of formerly public social services.  Since they are private operations, they adopt the same growth model as businesses in the productive economy, seeking to grow and expand their operations.   Corporate sponsored foodbanks advertise on television, boasting about how much more money they raise year over year.  Private charities like the Downtown Mission raise enough money that they can become players in the real estate market.  But what is never said is that the growth of foodbanks or missions means that the problems they are supposed to solve:  homelessness and hunger, are getting worse.  However, once the growth model of the capitalist economy has colonized social service provision, bigger operations appear to be better operations.  The poor continue to suffer.

So, is there a “revolutionary”  solution?  Presumably the belief that there is underlies the protest of the self-styled “Ungovernables” who smashed up chic shop windows in Hamilton last week. Their protest against gentrification was reminiscent of attacks last year in St. Henri, a storied working class district of Montreal.

“Locke St was downtown’s first gentrified street, its ‘success story’ as Mayor Fred [Eisenberger] might say, the surrounding neighbourhoods the first to see the rent hikes that have since come to dominate so many of our lives,” the post read. “Turning the tables and finally counterattacking Saturday night helped me to shake off some of the fear and frustration that build up when you’re trapped in a hopeless situation.”

While they might work as therapy, I want to say that, politically, such attacks are useless, so I will say it:  rampaging down the street smashing windows is politically useless.

In fact, I want to say they are worse than useless, so I will say it:  they are worse than useless.  First, while the justification for the event came with the usual adolescent male  braggadocio about confronting the cops, the political reality is that spectacle-politics of this sort only strengthens the police.  Once a group has been labelled “violent”  the gloves can come off the next round.  Worse, it generates far more community opposition than it does support, and therefore for political pressure on the police to “crack down,”  (by cracking heads if there is a repeat performance).

By increasing support for repression,  groups like the Ungovernables ensure their own destruction and political irrelevance.  Either they can never appear again, or, if they do, they risk arrest.  But they will not become martyrs that inspire the masses to greater acts of revolutionary heroism, they will be forgotten in provincial jail while workers in Hamilton worry about how NAFTA negotiations will affect the steel industry.

Thus the real problems with revolutionary anger:  it  is inchoate and destructive, has no constructive economic or political agenda, and is moralistic (believing that truth lies only with good-souled militants willing to risk their own asses).  Groups motivated by anger alone have nothing to say that the vast majority of people have shown any inclination to listen to for more than half a century.  Yet, if the structural problems that the Ungovernables expose are at all tractable, the solution will require mass political efforts to build a different economy, one based-upon a value system that prioritises the satisfaction of fundamental needs.

It is true, on the other hand, that spontaneous attacks on gentrified streets remind us of the suffering that is a hidden but pervasive reality in the cool capitalist city.   It is true, as the expanding Windsor Mission proves, that there are vast unmet needs.  But these needs are only going to be met when collectively produced wealth is appropriated by the community and used to satisfy those needs.  In the short term, the fight has to be for expanded and democratized public services, fully funded through a progressive income tax system.  The idea that homelessness is some impossible problem to solve, when the materials and the know-how to build homes exists, is just an obvious political excuse to not do what is easily done.  There is a lack of affordable housing because governments do not build it.  If they were to return to building it they would not have to repeat the mistakes of the past:  soulless housing projects that warehouse the poor in self-contained ghettos.  “Public housing”  is not logically exclusive of imaginative architecture and sound urban planning.

In the longer term, beyond a re-vivified public sector, we need a left that affirms the value of creative labour and works to open up access to the beautiful as well as the necessary.  Marx warned long ago about the politics of envy and levelling.  His was a socialism of good things, art and music as well as a roof over one’s head, roses as well as bread.   One can understand a militant frustration with a world where libraries are displaced by a homeless shelter which is incapable of solving the structural causes whose effects it tries to manage.  But there is no short cut to solution, and only political argument and movement building can hope to one day solve them.


Readings: Susan Haack: The Real Question: Can Philosophy be Saved?

Eminent philosopher Susan Haack posed this question in the October/November (2017) issue of Free Inquiry. The article was her response to the editor of the journal (Tom Flynn), who worried that a new religious sensibility was invading philosophy, undermining the “strict scientific naturalism”  that he believes essential, both to good philosophy and social and political progress.  Wisely and wittily, Haack dissents.  Her response exposes the difference between “strict scientific naturalism” and philosophy, eloquently vindicates the independence of philosophy from science, and shows that religious sentiment is not the main threat to the future of philosophy.  Instead, a dogmatic belief that science can solve all problems, combined with institutional pressures that valorize quantitative inputs (money) and outputs (splashy, headline-grabbing research) are conspiring to undermine properly philosophical virtues and values.  Her argument welcomes scientific insights while gently reminds of its limits as a model for philosophy, but only goes part way to comprehending the socio-economic causes of the institutional pressures she identifies.

Haack is not anti-science, but she rightly distinguishes between scientific and philosophical knowledge.  The key difference is that science is a method for accumulating knowledge of empirical regularities, while philosophy contains an irreducible normative moment.  “Evolutionary psychology, for example, might tell us a good deal about the origin of moral sentiments … but it couldn’t tell us whether, or, if so, why, these sentiments, … could constitute the basis of ethics … Neuroscience might tell us a good deal about what goes on in the brain when someone forms a new belief … but it couldn’t tell us what believing something involves.”(43).   Natural science takes things like beliefs and norms as empirical facts, and explains (perhaps) the physical causes that brought them into being.  But it cannot say whether a given norm is a good norm, or what justifies our holding one belief as true.  It cannot because philosophical problems are second order problems not resolvable by describing causal processes of coming  to be, but involve standards which are not physical artifacts but structures of meaning and evaluation.

The real issue then is that philosophy studies the natural and social worlds of material elements, facts, and causal interactions as meaningful entities, events, and relationships.  It does not require supernatural explanations to explain meaning, but it must insist that meaning is irreducible in explanation to underlying physical elements and forces.  Haack does not put the point in exactly these terms, but her defense of a properly philosophical standpoint against “scientism”  on the one hand and religion on the other clearly implies my interpretation.  “Our editor is by no means alone in supposing that, if we reject supernaturalism, we must conclude that there is “nothing but matter and energy and their interactions,” and that this means that philosophy must look to the sciences for answers.  Even if we can articulate an interpretation in which this “nothing-but”  thesis is true, the conclusion that the sciences can resolve philosophical questions doesn’t follow.  Indeed, reasoning as if it did follow exactly parallels the reasoning of religious people who, asking rhetorically, “can science explain everything”  take for granted that, if the answer is “no,” then religion must fill in the gaps, and it is no less faulty.”(42)    Philosophy thus occupies a middle space between scientific naturalism and religious dogmatism.

While she does not attempt it here, it should be obvious to anyone that thinks even for  a moment that there is no way to make the “nothing-but” thesis true.  Human beings are real, and their bodies are obviously made up of matter and energy, but our social labour creates things which are obviously real, yet not “matter and energy.”  Consider any institution.  It is not the set of buildings in which it is housed, but the rules that define its operation.  Parliament could move across the street, my university could relocate to downtown Windsor, without ceasing to be parliament or the University of Windsor.  The things that house and populate the institution are matter and energy, the institution is a set of rules and the possibilties for action those rules alone create.  “Prime Minister”  or “Professor of Philosophy” are not products of the interaction of matter and energy, but of the rules that define Parliament and the University of Windsor.  No mere state of matter and energy can explain either their existence or their powers.

And they do have powers.  As Professor of Philosophy I can teach courses and evaluate students; the Prime Minister leads the party entitled to pass the laws that govern the country.  Those laws materially affect citizens lives in decisive ways, but they are the product of institutional power, which derives from the power of social organization and social labour more generally. Neither can usefully be understood as a state of matter and energy.

Of course, in a way which is totally  banal and totally abstract, Prime Ministers and Professors, Parliaments and Universities, depend upon the material universe.  But surely neither scientific nor philosophical explanation can rest content with mere slogans.  Both require explanations that deploy concepts adequate to the object to be explained (as Aristotle long ago argued).  Human realities require concepts that can grasp the instituted, symbolic, and meaningful nature of social  life and experience.  If there really is nothing but matter and energy, why do the authors who announce this truth from the mountain tops sign their given name, even though human names are not part of the physical fabric of matter and energy?  It is because they want the social rewards that come from authorship; they want to be known as the person who cast out the darkness from their fellow citizens lives.  In other words, they want recognition for having done something good, but the good they do (if it is in fact good)  is not explicable by physics.  Their whole argument is a performative contradiction, presupposing the truth and efficacy of values that their explicit argument denies.

So how have the worshipers of science become ascendant?  Not due to the intrinsic superiority of their arguments, or for any actual “progress”  in the solution of philosophical problems, but owing to extrinsic institutional pressures, which are themselves responses to extrinsic socio-economic and political pressures.  Here, Haack’s argument is limited to effects, not causes.  She attributes the ubiquity of scientistic philosophy to institutional changes.  “Some of the problems  are the result of changes in the management of universities affecting the whole academy:  the burgeoning bureaucracy, the ever-increasing stress on “productivity,” the ever-spreading culture of grants-and-research-projects, the ever-growing reliance on hopelessly flawed surrogates measures of the quality of intellectual work, the obsession with “prestige”  and so on.”(p.40)  These are all real problems in the contemporary university. Teaching and research are now subject to assessment by a variety of “impact factors”  that all circle around the idea that both are products to be consumed: by students, other researchers, or, ideally, businesses who turn intellectual work into a priced economy.

What Haack does not do (at least in this essay)  is connect these institutional changes to socio-economic and political pressures.  Universities have never been the ivory towers they are mocked for being:  they have always reflected the contradictions of the society in which they exist.  Nevertheless, it is true that the direct role that political power and socio-economic pressure to produce commodifiable research have intensified in recent years.  Governments (like that of Ontario)  have forced universities to sign “mandate agreements”  aligning their academic mission with government policy.  Funding agencies (like the Social Science and Humanities Research Council)  increasingly demand that researchers justify their research in terms of “knowledge mobilisation”  a monstrously ugly bureaucratic term whose meaning is not entirely clear but prioritises the immediately useful over social critique and interest-based work whose short-term extra-disciplinary implications are not clear.  Enveloping all is the ultimate dogmatic conflation of the good for human life with the good for the owners of money-capital.

These social and political pressures create an institutional environment where  professional schools, better positioned to prove their “worth” by manufacturing “job ready”  students, produce advice and support to business, and create marketable commodities attract the lion share of the funding (for jobs, for graduate programs, for infrastructure).  Philosophy can no longer defend itself successfully by invoking traditional scholarly virtues, and so it tries to adapt.

Haack is absolutely right to remind everyone of the importance of those virtues.  “In an environment like this, an environment of perverse incentives that reward, not the truly serious, but the clever and quick-witted, the flashy, the skillful self-promoter, and the well-connected, it is no wonder that the very virtues that good intellectual work and perhaps especially good philosophical work, requires– patience, intellectual honesty. realism, courage, humility, independent judgement, etc.– are rapidly eroding.”(40)  Once those virtues are gone, they will never return because they must be cultivated, and they cannot be cultivated in a younger generation if they are absent in the older generation.

But they also require institutional protections like job security, academic freedom, and tenure– all institutional safeguards which are being rapidly and deliberately destroyed.  The intellectual virtues alone cannot save these institutional protections, only political action can.  And there are not enough professors anywhere to save these protections on our own.  The future of philosophy, along with all other real intellectual and creative work, depends on building political alliances with people outside the academy, which in turn depends on explaining the social, not money-value, of tenure, academic freedom and so on.  To people outside the academy, many precariously employed and working poor, these unique features of academic labour appear to be baroque luxuries of a privileged and not very hard working caste.  As difficult as it is to defend philosophy within the academy, it is even more difficult– especially in an age of rising right-wing populist assaults on “elites”–  to defend the academy outside its walls.  We had best put our heads together to find a way.

Moralism and Moral Criticism

I wish there were a God and It would appear as soon as any politician offered “thoughts and prayers”  to the victims and survivors of a tragedy whose causes the politician had the power to address.  It would say:  “I do not actually “look”  like anything. “Made in my image”  means you have the power to solve your own problems.  No one wants or needs your hypocritical prayers, so stop pontificating and address the causes.  Oh, and by the way, you served the wrong master in life.  You will be going to hell.”

I would gladly spend eternity burning with the likes of Marco Rubio if only I could see his face when he was confronted with his hypocrisy.  Alas, we are all fated for death, oblivion, and the atomic recycling yard.

That there will be no final judgement does not mean that we should not render moral judgement while on earth, but this poses the problem of what “moral” judgement means, what its basis is, and what its goals are.  The danger is that moral judgement collapses into moralism, because moralism leaves the social causes of preventable harm unaddressed.

Let us call “moralism”  any position which, a) assumes, without argument, that there is right and wrong, b) that individuals have a responsibility to internalize the rules that define right and wrong, c) that all social problems result from a failure to internalize these rules, and, d) since, according to b), it is the individual’s responsibility to internalize the  rules of right and wrong, there are no real social problems, but only individual failures.

People with something to hide always assume a moralistic posture. Moralism  is a smokescreen behind which to hide one’s own complicity with the pattern of causes that lead to the atrocity.  An “evil” character is invented to draw attention away from the real causes.  Let me keep picking on Marco Rubio to illustrate my point.  In order to hide the fact that he is major recipient of funding from the National Rifle Association, (NRA), Rubio argued (as everyone beholden to the gun industry and lobby in the US argues after every mass shooting) that gun laws would not have prevented the atrocity, because “the bad guys”  don’t obey laws.

The argument studiously ignores the statistical evidence that the harder that it is to acquire guns, the less the bad guys have guns, and the less likely homicide by gun violence is.  But that is not the real problem.  The real problem is that the moralist failures to ask the crucial question:  how does someone become a “bad guy”  in the first place?  And why do “bad guys”  feel the need to deal with whatever problem plagues them by killing someone (either a specific person thought to be responsible for the problem,  or random strangers).

Moralists, even self-professed “Christians”  like Rubio, who would otherwise eschew scientific explanations, typically cherry pick psychological science to help them answer the question.  In the hands of the moralist, the function of psychology is to take the focus away from social patterns and structures and locate the gaze firmly on the character of the individual.  Hence responsibility for all problems can be laid at the feet of bad individuals who failed to internalize the rules of right behaviour, and responsibility for all atrocities can be laid at the feet of bad individuals who failed to internalize the rules of right behaviour because they are mentally ill (“sick,” as The Donald might say).  The mental illness is not invoked to exonerate the person, but only to explain the greater scope of violence and depth of depravity.

Magic shows have persisted even into the age of quantum mechanics because human beings are easily distractable.  While your attention is diverted, the magician performs the trick.  Even if you know what is happening, it hard not to be led to the conclusion the performer wants to lead you toward.  Moralists are like magicians:  they divert our attention from the real problems.  They are successful not because they are talented performers (although some are), but because social and cultural patterns that have persisted over decades or centuries develop their own momentum, and are profoundly difficult to change.  My revolutionary friends are no doubt lamenting right now:  that is the very principle of conservatism!  It is, and it is not.  I do not (like the conservative) value long standing practices just because they are of long standing. I am simply noting a universal fact of history.  True revolutions are very rare, they arise only where it is impossible to live in the old way any longer, and even then older mindsets and patterns of behaviour persist for long periods after the revolutionary event (or, like Orthodox religion in Russia, return after long periods of repression).

The point is not that nothing can ever really be changed.  Clearly, long established patterns can change, and for the better, as I will argue below.  But changing them requires long persistent effort.  In a world with multiple demands on our time, where economic pressures force most people to have to worry about work and saving, and where the next crisis is just a mouse click away, mobilizing significant numbers of people for significant amounts of time against deeply ingrained beliefs and patterns of action is very difficult.  As commentators in the US have been saying, if Sandy Hook did not change gun culture, nothing will.

They do not say that to support gun culture, but to acknowledge how profoundly it marks a large proportion of the US population.  So, while Rubio and others are obviously nothing more than paid apologists for gun manufacturers and sellers, his moralistic distraction will probably work.

If it is going to fail, then the sort of political,mobilizations that the student survivors have launched will have to attract huge numbers.  Moral criticism is an essential part of the mobilization.

There are two essential differences between moralism and moral critique.  First, moral criticism explains individual character and motives by reference to a social value system and a structure of political, economic, and cultural power.  Second, it de-legitimates the ruling value system by exposing the ways in which it systematically harms people, typically, by subordinating the satisfaction of their needs to the goal of its own perpetuation.  Whereas moralism distracts us from the causes, moral criticisms exposes the complicity of the moralist with the ruling value system.  Moral criticism thus always leads to demands for fundamental change.  Moralism, by contrast, is an attempt to prevent change.

In comparison with moralism, moral criticism sound positively amoral.  It talks about  dollars and cents, points out the economic interests that benefit from the ruling values, and unmasks hypocrisy and cynicism.  It leaves exalted talk of God and evil for Church.  It gets its hands dirty, and does not worry about souls.  It is true that guns do not kill people, people kill people, but when they kill people with guns, they are using a product whose combined sales reach into the billions of dollars.  How long would manufacturers care about gun rights if there were no money to be made?  And if there were no money to be made, there would be no money to spend to buy congress members, and thus no gun lobby, and no NRA.

Of course, that picture is far too simplistic.  There is a gun culture, and a deeply ingrained ethos of “Kill Thy Enemy” in America.  But:  (and people outside of America forget this fact too often):  a majority of Americans do not own guns.  They are as appalled by gun violence as everyone else, and feel hurt and embarrassed when they have to answer questions from their friends in other countries about “what is wrong with Americans?”  Gun culture is real, but it does not drive the bus.  Money drives the bus.  If no one could buy a machine gun for personal use, machines guns for personal use would (eventually) disappear.  Canada is very far from the peaceful society it portrays itself as being, but one would have a very hard time getting an automatic weapon to unload on concert goers from a hotel window.

So moral criticism gets down to social causes.  Instead of pontificating, it aids mobilization by exposing the problem.  All social problems may be understood, morally, in terms of harm and damage:  to either or both of life-conditions and living things.  Mass shootings provide a vivid illustration:  death is the end of all possible life-value for the person who dies.  Death as the natural end of life is inevitable, and not a harm when it comes at the end of a fulfilling life of personally enriching experience and contribution to the community.  Death prior to that point, as the consequence of preventable disease or random violence, is an irreparable harm, since the person cannot be brought back to life. Unlike the case of willing self-sacrifice, they did not chose their own death so as to save more life.  Hence, an actually moral ruling value system would prioritize the protection of health and life over the social causes of disease and random violence.

That means, concretely, curtailing the “rights” of organizations that cause the harm.  Inevitably, regulation will be denounced as a violation of freedom.  But it is actually a gain for freedom.  Freedom presupposes life:  early death is an absolute negation of the freedom of the dead person.  Having a right to consume a potentially deadly commodity is a limit on one way of acting in freedom, which– unlike death– does not preclude another way of actingIf you can’t swing your sword, you can beat it into a plowshare, and become an organic farmer.

“But I want to shoot guns, fuck organic farming,”  my AR-15 toting friend rejoins. Relax, friend, it is just an example. The deeper point is that changing the social rules we live by can force people to change, but the changes are good if the outcomes better protect and enable life.  When I was a kid in the 1970’s in Northern Ontario, drinking and driving was commonplace, not taken seriously, a real part of the culture.  People joked about how pissed they were driving home the night before.  Tougher enforcement and public campaigns have changed the culture, and drinking and driving is much rarer, and not something anyone would brag about.  No one, including people who used to drink and drive, would argue that the old situation was better just because people used to laugh about it.

Because we are free, we can change ourselves.  Democratically deciding to change the rules we live by is an act of freedom.  Moral criticism participates in this act of freedom by taking its stand on the principle that right is that which protects and enables life, and that legal rights and cultures both have to answer to this higher court.  It thus exposes the causes of socially pervasive harms, rather than masks them, as the hypocritical moralist does.

The (Politically) Repugnant Conclusion

In Reasons and Persons, Derek Parfit famously explored problems of identity, the temporality of obligation, and, in that light, the happiness of future generations. The “repugnant conclusion” concerns possible human futures.  If we adopt a crude utilitarian summing of average happiness, then the “best”  future for humanity could be one in which there is a huge number of mostly miserable people. So long as those people prefer their rubbish lives to death, the addition of an enormous number of small tokens of happiness could lead to a greater sum of happiness than a future of a much smaller number of ordinarily happy people.  Arithmetically considered, the sum of the value of the happiness of a huge number of mostly but not totally miserable people could exceed the more complete happiness of a smaller number of people, and so, without countervailing argument, it would seem to follow that the best future for humanity is a world overflowing with wretched but not yet suicidal people.  “In each of these lives there is very little happiness.  But, if the numbers are large enough, this is the outcome with the greatest total sum of happiness.”(p. 388). The conclusion is repugnant for obvious reasons.

Parfit’s thought experiment came to mind recently while I was reading a report from the Brookings Institute.  The report showed that while there has been job growth under Trump, almost none of it has occurred in those districts that voted Trump.  Of most significance:  the (de) industrial districts of the mid-West, those districts to which Trump promised renewed investment and a revitalization of manufacturing have seen no or negative job growth.  Technologically and culturally dynamic major urban areas, especially on the coasts, i.e., those parts of the country that were overwhelmingly Democrat, have been home to all the jobs.

The spin will be:  that’s creative capitalism for you.  Venture capital follows young, hip, tech-savvy entrepreneurs to the big city cauldrons of innovation.   While that picture is not completely untrue, it also masks the other side of the high-tech economy:  precarious or low paid labour in bars, cafes, call centres; low-paid back-breaking labour cleaning, maintaining, and repairing the built environment on which high tech industries depend.  Dynamic population growth sends housing costs soaring at the same time as older problems of inadequate or expensive public transit, lack of access to health care, and class and race divides in access to education persist.

Nevertheless, the economic and cultural dynamics are clear:  the old industrial cities of the American mid-West are not going to regain their power as the workshops of the world.  Even if it is a complete myth that cities are full of nothing but upwardly mobile, well-educated, tolerant, multi-cultural youth, there is an element of that story which is true.  And it is the element of truth that gave rise to my “politically repugnant conclusion.”

The Politically Repugnant Conclusion:  a significant fraction of the American working class will become permanently alienated from the emerging culture of diverse and dynamic urban life and turn backward and inward, shielding themselves emotionally from economic forces they cannot control with xenophobic and racist ideologies, and blindly supporting right-wing movements even when it is objectively clear that those movements have neither the power nor interest to restore the economic basis of the former heartlands of American industry.

There is a corollary:  Left-wing politics will be increasingly dominated by the interests of young urban professionals.  It will embrace a politics of diversity, and cultural, economic, and technological dynamism, and be forced to see the nostalgic fraction of the working class as the enemy, and permanently turn its back on them.

The first part of the corollary is not repugnant:  if left wing politics is rooted in the historical materialist premise that human beings make their own history, it has to change as that history changes.   Thus, any left politics with a future is going to have to find a language and a program that speaks to contemporary cultural and technological realities. Those of us who grew up without smartphones might not need them to manage our social lives, but young people who have never seen a curly, tangled phone cord do.  A workerist politics of nostalgia (a grossly caricatured and dishonestly expressed version of which was central to Trump’s appeal to a large fraction of white mid-Western workers) is not going to work.

But think through the repugnant political conclusion to see what might conceivably happen. Well-educated young people flock to the major cities.  Urban culture valorizes multicultural spaces over ethnic uniformity, sexual and gender fluidity over fixed sex and gender roles, the self-organizing communities of cyber-space over rigid family structures, “the melting into air”  over “all that is solid.”  The left, to the extent that it wants to articulate a progressive agenda, will have to re-invent itself around the demands that elevate the social and legal conditions for fluidity, self-organization, mobility, and diversity over the demands for social protection for obsolete ways of life.  And that will mean saying “farewell” to a large fraction of the working class in a way quite different than that intend by Andre Gorz.

We can already see this process at work in documents like the LEAP Manifesto and Srnicek and Williams’ Inventing the Future.  The LEAP manifesto asks us to imagine a post-carbon economy in which environmental integrity takes priority over profits, while Srnicek and William’s warn the left that lingering traces of technophobic nostalgia will condemn it to irrelevance.  They argue instead that the left must see the computing and robotics revolutions as material conditions for a new emancipatory vision centred on:  free time, play, diversity, and democratic self-governance.

I have been critical of aspects of Srnicek and William’s argument elsewhere, but I agree with them that the left can only look forward, not back. Hence the repugnant conclusion: Unless a language to counter the appeal of Trumpite populism can be found, the chasm between  the values of younger workers (and even those in precarious employment share the values of fluidity, diversity, and playfulness) and that fraction of older workers who believe the snake oil being sold to them by Trump, will only widen.   The danger is that everyone will fall into it– except the capitalists who can only benefit from intra-working class conflict.

A Note on Indiscretion

In the ever widening circle of judgement about sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, and sexual assault, it seems to me that a useful moral distinction has dropped out of our social vocabulary:  the indiscretion.  Unlike the violence of sexual assault,  the indiscretion is not criminal.  Unlike sexual harassment and misconduct, it violates informal, not formal codes of conduct.  Unlike both, therefore, it is not a fit subject for public declamation, censure, and punishment.  Its solution has been effective in restoring social connections for millennia:  the sincere apology. The sincere apology must be distinguished from the public apology to whole world, which is always an exercise in public relations.  An apology is not meant to restore a public reputation, but to acknowledge a wrong to the person(s) who was/were wronged.

Sexual violence remains an all too prevalent danger for women.  Sexual harassment likewise.  These are public, political problems that have to be dealt with through the criminal justice system in the worst cases, and through formal censure, education, and demonstrated personal transformation in the less serious.  The criminal justice system has numerous problems, of that there is no doubt, but there is no better existing alternative.  (For an example of what can go wrong when ‘revolutionary’ alternatives are tried, review the abominable way in which the Socialist Workers’ Party in the United Kingdom tried to handle rape allegations against a leading male member.  It shatteringly failed the young female comrade who made the allegations and effectively destroyed the party).

However, not every unasked for and unanticipated sexual advance is assault or harassment.  Some are unproblematically accepted; others are awkwardly received, or ambivalently accepted, or rejected.  I would argue that these define the field of indiscretions.   They should rightly be classed as private and interpersonal.  Yes, the personal is political, but it does not follow that everything personal is political.  Unless we are willing to descend (as it appears we may be)  into a moral totalitarianism in which every tiny little bone from every skeleton in everyone’s closet can be exhumed by anyone at any time– which will prove a social catastrophe  for everyone- we should all insist upon, and respect in others, a space in which indiscretions can be privately dealt with.

Isn’t this just an excuse for men to get away with bad sexual behaviour?  No, because there is no hard and fast scientific definition of the different categories of sexual misconduct.  It is always up to the object of the advance to decide how problematic it is.  The philosophical issue seems to me to make sure that the moral vocabulary is available that allows a distinction to be made, by women who have been victims, between cases that require formal response and those that can be handled by private discussion and apology.  Where there is any question of criminal behaviour, the solution is not an internet trial, but a real investigation and appropriately rendered judgement.   Legal rights are not the whole solution to social problems, but do we really want to return to a world in which moral condemnation based on hearsay takes the place of formally constituted investigations and  procedures?  We should know all too well what happens when groups of people appoint themselves judge, jury, and executioner.  The results have never been pretty or progressive.

I suppose a person who has never thought, said, or done anything untoward is a logical possibility.  I do not think I have ever met one, and I know I do not want to live in a world that thinks that it is possible to eradicate indiscretions.  The only way to do that would be to eliminate all spontaneity from sexual interactions:  anything unplanned can be unwanted, so unless everything has to be planned in advance, it is impossible to avoid behaviors that might turn out to be indiscretions.

Let whomever is without indiscretion cast the first meme.

The Use and Abuse of Ethics

Ethics should be the most comprehensive field of philosophical inquiry.  The term derives from the Greek ethos, which can be translated as “way of life.”  Since the human way of life involves necessary interactions with nature and society, demands both physical and symbolic activity, physical and emotional relationships, and decisions about self and social governance, the ethical problematic involves everything, from ecological considerations, to the place of science in our relationship to nature, to economics, problems of gender and sexuality, race, political organization,religion and spirituality, art, interpretation and meaning, and individual existential crises about the meaning (or lack thereof) of their own existence.  Moreover, since the only way to understand ways of life is to study them, and to study them we have to look to history, ethics makes clear the diversity of forms of life.  But within that diversity, it also discloses (if we know how to look for them) certain commonalities, core natural and social needs which, though they may be satisfied differently, are shared, baseline human realities.

However, unity amidst diversity is a problem I will explore another day.  I want to focus on two ways in which “ethics”  is bastardized and its politically radical implications stifled today.  In standard usage, ethics does not refer to a holistic form of life, but professional rules and standards.  Hence, ethical behaviour is reduced to rule following within a strictly delimited professional domain.  “Unethical”  behaviour, by contrast, is reduced to transgressions of these standards, and is often synonymous with being “unprofessional.”  When it refers to more than just unprofessional behaviour, unethical action is still typically confined to an individual violation of another individual’s legitimate expectations of treatment, given the rules that define the professional “code of ethics.”

Of course, professional standards are important and have their place, especially in a world where professions are defined by often complex bodies of knowledge.  In cases of law or medicine, for example, those who need a lawyer or doctor but are not fully versed in the complexity of the legal system or scientific medicine rely upon their lawyer and doctor to be honest with them, to have their best interest at heart, and to provide them with the information they need to make informed decisions.  So there is no question of simply doing away with professional standards and codes of conduct.

Nevertheless, this restricted use of ethics emphasizes its repressive aspect.  Ethical codes are primarily invoked when they are violated:  they are mostly lists of what not to do (even if they are phrased in affirmative rather than negative language).  Ethics, in the sense of ethos, however, is not primarily about what not to do, but how people live.  Ethical philosophy is thus life-affirmative:  it studies the way people actually live, in the comprehensive sense of “live”  given above.

At the same time, ethics is not anthropology.  It is not a dispassionate study of different ways of life interested in the details for their own sake, or for the sake of discovering deeper patterns, but a critical inquiry into the normative problem of how we ought to live.  Diversity may seem to rule out an answer to that question.  An unthinking cultural relativism might conclude:  everyone ought to live in  accordance with the standards of the culture into which they are born–  bad news for women born into sexist cultures or racialized subaltern groups born into racist cultures.

I think that there are not terribly difficult ways to avoid the problem of cultural relativism without imperialistically ignoring difference.  Societies claim not only to be, but to be good. All claims to goodness demand some attempt to legitimate available positions and opportunities, their openness or closure, as in the interests of the members of society.  Ancient slave societies did not say that they were unjust because slaves had no choice about where they worked; they claimed to be just because those who were slaves were constructed as subhuman instruments who could no nothing more than work for a master.  Had slaves never revolted, perhaps this argument (familiar from Aristotle’s Politics) would have worked.  But the so-called slaves themselves eventually did rebel (most famously in Rome, led by Spartacus)  thus proving, by their self-activity, that the philosophical justification of slavery as good was really ideological justification for slave holding.

This example shows us the general way in which ethics can be critical without being perniciously ethnocentric.  All societies justify themselves by intrinsic standards of legitimacy, but these justifications can also be found wanting by subaltern groups within them.  Over time, we see a general pattern of struggle emerge across eras and cultures:  people who are constructed as not having a certain need (say, women, for education)  eventually re-interpret themselves and reject that construction.  Once a group recongises deprivation of a core need as a harm, they realise that they have been oppressed, and begin to fight back against the oppressive structures and their justifying ideologies. Conservative elements will of course respond that the demands are unnatural abominations, but these are transparent attempts to hold on to their own power.    The demand for change is a demand to open space for individual activity, not wholesale destruction of the culture (its language, art, etc).

These struggles are of course political and economic, but they are not about institutions in the abstract, but how people live, and how they might live differently, and better.  Hence, they are ethical struggles par excellence.  Normative inquiry into  the problem of how we ought to live is thus essential to social change and ethics, properly conceived, is thus also critical.

Here again threats loom.  Case in point:  Israeli philosophy professor Asa Kasher who has authored a proposed new code of academic conduct for Israeli universities. This code of conduct is a pretty clear effort to squelch dissent on Israeli campuses and to prevent, in particular, the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement from gaining any traction there.  Specifically, it is part of a wave of anti-BDS measures designed clearly to criminalize dissent and opposition to Israeli colonialism and apartheid.  For good measure, Kasher has also recently argued  that Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi should stay in prison for fear she might slap soldiers again. Tamimi had the temerity to slap a fully armed thug invading her home!  But more generically, it is part of a wave of “civility codes”  that institutions, from corporations to universities, are trying to impose on workers. These codes are always justfied in apple pie terms:  the need for respectful workplaces, etc.  In reality, they are thinly veiled efforts to increase management power to control dissent and opposition.

Kasher is thus only an extreme example of the danger that seemingly benign or even progressive ethical codes, codes of conduct, anti-bullying protocals, etc., can have.  Since these codes have to be administered, they invariably give more power to the authorities:  the very groups who preside over deeply unjust societies.  Historically, however, most struggles against oppression:  against slavery, against patriarchy, against exploitation, have been struggles for self-determination, against the bosses, the police, the authorities; struggles not for more repressive enforcement of the rules, but for different rules, whose willing internalization creates different people, who can govern themselves and establish mutually affirmative, respectful relationships with others always treated as moral equals.

But we live in a fearful age that lacks imagination and confidence, an age in which too many people want to be told what to do rather than decide collectively how to live together as free individuals, an age in which too many people are afraid of the unanticipated encounter, an age which too often confuses moralistic rigidity with social criticism.  As the example of Kasher shows, people who think they are struggling for freedom and justice best be careful of what they wish for, if they wish liberation can be achieved by repressive behaviour codes imposed from above.

As ye suppress, so shall ye be suppressed in turn.

Misunderstanding and Mystifying Democracy

The New Year:  a time to turn our backs on the mistakes of the past and look with hopeful spirit to the future.  But of course, we kid ourselves.  No celebration of an arbitrary point along our unending orbit will change us.  The clock will strike 12:01, and we will have another drink, light another cigarette, eat more empty carbs, and lose our temper when we get home drunk.  But it is all good:  reason to endure the next 365 days so that we can promise ourselves to be better the next year.

And the political mirrors the personal.  The holiday season is a time to note lessons learned, opportunities missed, and above all, to renew the faith in the sustaining illusions of the liberal-democratic world.

No political system mistakes fictive idea for social reality better than liberal-democracy. Consequently, no system’s propagandists have a greater capacity for poetic pomposity.  Liberal pundits are particularly susceptible to bathetic sentiments at this time of year.

The deeper the contradiction with reality, the sweeter the melody sung to the idea. One in particular caught my ear.  As his country sinks ever more undeniably into a plutocratic police state, David Brooks composed “The Glory of Democracy”  and shared it with a grateful world longing- as always-  for America to show us the way.

He channels the spirit of Thomas Mann’s The Coming Victory of Democracy (published in 1938, two years after the world’s “democracies” sat out the fight against fascism in  Spain and paved the way for Hitler’s aggression and the Second World War).  Mann was a great novelist but shows himself to be a bad historian.  He argues that democracy is premised on “the infinite dignity of individual men and women,” but ignores the fact that, to the extent it exists in any form, it was the product of the struggle, not of individuals, but groups (workers, women, the oppressed of the colonized world), i.e., those thought barely human by the aristocrats and bourgeoisie.  Their fights were for more basic needs:  control over the resources upon which their lives depended and their traditional lands, time away from merciless toil in Blake’s “satanic mills,” homes that were not overcrowded and disease riddled death traps.  They fought with collective political power.

Mann makes an all too banal mistake for such an eminent artist, confusing the liberal principle of individuality with the democratic value of collective self-determination.  The individuality that Mann champions, if it is to be more than the private conceit of the wealthy and educated, must be a social achievement.  The fundamental condition of democracy, (rule of the people, which always meant, going back to Plato, rule of the most numerous, the poor), is control over the lands, waters, productive enterprises, and social wealth those enterprises produce.  Yet this collective control over life-sustaining and enabling natural and social conditions is exactly what liberal individualists from John Locke to Friedrich Hayek and on into the 21st century have railed against as totalitarian.  

From the struggle in ancient Athens of small farmers and labourers against the traditional aristocracy, to the Diggers in the English revolution, to the sans cullottes in the French, from the African-American soldiers in the American Civil War to the militants of the Viet Cong and ZANU-PF, from Women’s Liberation fighters, Queer revolutionaries, Black Power Militants, to indigenous Idle No More activists, the struggle for democracy has been lead by people whom the educated and elite regarded as beneath dignity, a generic mass fit only to work and reproduce.  Their dignity was an achievement, born of collective struggle, for social control over the institutions that decided whether they could access what they needed to live or not.  Democracy does indeed involve the dignity of individuals, but as an achievement of collective power directed against the ruling elite’s base:  their control over what everyone needs to survive.

Without that collective control, “the individual’s daily struggle to to be better and nobler” is nothing more than ideological fodder for capitalist self-help manuals.  Democracy does not do away with those struggles, it makes their successful resolution possible by ensuring that everyone has access to the material means without which self-realization is impossible.  But individual self-realization grows out of democratic self-determination, and democratic self-determination depends upon collective control of the resource bases our lives depend upon, the enterprises that  transform those resources into life-serving goods, and the political institutions that determine the laws and policies under which we live together.   Unpacked, that is what Marx meant when he argued that “the individual is the social being.”  And– since it undercuts their power at its base–  it is exactly what the ruling elites and their platitudes about individuality do not want to hear (or, if they are forced to hear it, denounce it as “the road to serfdom”).

Herbert Marcuse was much closer to truth of today in 1972 when, in response to the Nixon catastrophe, he wrote “The Historical Fate of Bourgeois Democracy.”  Cutting straight through the platitudes about individual dignity and the triumph of the human spirit, Marcuse reveals the dark truth:  at best, “democracy” is little more than mobilization of the masses against their own economic interests, and at worst, turning their primal instincts towards cheerleading the violent destruction of racially demonized others, at home and abroad.  He is talking about Nixon, but he could be talking about Trump today:  “In free elections with universal suffrage, the people have elected (not for the first time!)  a warfare government, engaged for long years in a war which is but a series of crimes against humanity,– a government of the representatives of the big corporations …. propped up by a Congress that has reduced itself to a yes-machine, … a government that’ was elected with a considerable labor vote.” (p.168, Collected Papers, Vol 2).  If we substitute the War on Terror for the Viet Nam War, the vote for Trump was a vote for the exact same policies and values as the vote for Nixon.

America remains a deeply divided society, split into an conservative faction driven by nostalgia for a mythical time when Blacks and women knew their places and workers did what they were told for fear of opening the door to the communist threat, and a diverse, progressive, mildly socially democratic, tolerant but self-satisfied and smug, cosmopolitan-liberal, educated urban group.  The later is more internally divided than the former, which explains why, at the level of policy, the conservative faction has advanced its interests much more successfully since Nixon’s time.  As in 1972, the radical left is not a meaningful part of the conversation.  It tails social movements but cannot find the words and policies it needs to make itself relevant again. At just the moment where a credible radical alternative is needed, we have nothing to say that anyone wants to hear.

And thus the world slides towards the authoritarian nightmare Marcuse worried about 50 years ago.  The coming victory of democracy is no more guaranteed now than it was in 1938.

Lessons From History IV: Nicos Poulantzas’ Final Interview

On October 12th, 1979, the journal of the Italian Communist Party, Rinascita, published what would turn out to be the final published words of Greek-French Marxist theorist Nicos Poulantzas.  He initially came to prominence as a defender (along with Louis Althusser) of a deeply problematic structuralist interpretation of Marxism.  This final interview is interesting, in 2017, the year of the100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, because it shows him to be re-thinking one of the pillars of his earlier theory:  that the state is nothing more than a programmed function of capitalist society, whose necessary and sole task is to protect capitalist class interests.

In the interview, he discusses the relationship between state and society and claims that Marxism must re-think the role that the existing institutions of liberal democracy will have to play in the transition to, and the political life of, a future socialist world.  In particular, he argues that twentieth, (now twenty-first), century Marxists have to jettison the vanguardism of Lenin’s understanding of the worker’s party.

In Marx there exist elements that are completely contradictory with respect to Lenin’s theories. Despite the criticisms of the formal character of liberties, there was always a preoccupation with the institutions of representative democracy that is difficult to find in Lenin.

This contrast between Marx and Lenin on the (at least instrumental) value of formal political rights anticipates the defense of Marx as a deeply democratic thinker decades later by August H. Nimtz Jr., (in Marx and Engels:  Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough).  Nimtz proves, by paying close attention to Marx and Engels’ political writings, that they did not regard “bourgeois democratic rights” as nothing but ideological camouflage for class violence, but as vital tools for working class  political organizationForty years on from Poulantzas’ remarks, in an era where people’s thoughts have been liberated from their heads and can be broadcast at will to the world through social media, it is even more important that the Left come to terms with political pluralism and civil and political rights.

Whatever merits Lenin’s version of democratic centralism had (and it has one that I will discuss below), the core of his revolutionary theory: the need for one working class party that will rule unchallenged, proved a disaster.  Yes, the revolution was undone by the severe depredations caused by the Civil War, foreign opposition, and, above all, the failures of other European Revolutions, but the belief that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” meant “dictatorship by the one party of the proletariat”  cannot be absolved of  all guilt for the catastrophe of Stalinism.  Neither one single mind, nor any disciplined collection of minds, can understand every nuance that needs to be understood by those charged with governing a complex society.  There needs to be political argument between competing interpretations of policy and programme, and those interpretations require organization outside of a single party.

Not even Stalinist dictatorship, the imprisonment and execution of millions, could destroy opposition.  It lay dormant, until ultimately exploding in 1989.  The lesson is:  it is impossible, in modern conditions, where people expect to think for themselves, that all  will arrive at the same conclusion.  There will be different interpretations of core political values and the wisdom of different policy options, and the only way to resolve those differences is through full and free debate between different possibilities.  Thus, any viable democratic socialist project needs competition between political visions. This argument has been a staple of liberal democratic critique of Marxism, and, in that respect, the liberals were right.

Even Gramsci, widely lauded for injecting a more fulsome understanding of democracy into revolutionary socialism, remained trapped, according to Poulantzas, within a Leninist worldview.  He failed to think through the real value of multi-party systems and constitutionalism (Rechtstaat):

Gramsci did not have a positive theory of the exercise of power, of the institutions of representative democracy in the transition to democratic socialism. Missing are a theory of a plurality of parties [pluripartidismo] and of the Rechtsstaat [del estado de derecho].

In the twenty-first century, the two most exciting attempts to renew democratic socialism, Bolivia and Venezuela, abandoned the language of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the practice of Leninist vanguardism in favour of constitutionalism (especially the radically democratic institution of the constituent assembly to write new constitutions).  Unfortunately, they have not successfully maintained a steady course towards socialist transformation. The problems that the Venezuelan government has faced, especially since the death of Chavez, reveal a paradox of political pluralism that complicates the picture Poulantzas was beginning to paint.

The real strength of Lenin’s idea of democratic centralism is that it insisted upon disciplined political unity.  After full and free debate (in the party) everyone was required to publicly endorse the decision chosen.  Such a demand is not undemocratic, because everyone was allowed to have their say and to choose whether to be a member of the party.  If you were allowed to make your arguments, but your side lost, and you were free to leave but chose to stay, then you were (in a curiously Kantian way)  the author of the collective act.  You could have refused to acknowledge its legitimacy by leaving, but you chose to stay, knowing you will have to publicly support it, which is equivalent to having chosen the option you did not prefer.  Since the transition to a new society will be rife with conflict, the party that is leading the transition will have to be internally unified if it is to prevail, and its prevailing is the key to securing the natural and social conditions of the robustly democratic socialist society that the majority of people are fighting for (in a revolutionary or transitional situation).

That is the theory.  Subsequent history has shown that the reality is different:  all the differences, even within the socialist camp, cannot be housed under a single party with unified leadership.  The unity at the top will prevent full and free debate in the party ranks below (not to mention all the people outside the party who still have an interest in future law and policy). There is no spontaneous virtue within the working class, or any other social group, that ensures that every decision it makes will be right and just, simply because of the class (or any other) identity it shares:

Indeed, it seems to me that the categories of Marxism tend to consider the problem of the relationship between the working class and political democracy as “naturally” settled. I wonder, is there not a relation between Lenin’s underlying underestimation of the importance of formal democracy and a theory that takes for granted the “spontaneously” democratic role of the working class?

It is about understanding, as experience teaches, that no class by itself, by its very nature, is destined to be a guarantor of freedom without the intervention of a conscious project to that end. It is necessary to know how to look, without illusions and hesitation, into the stratifications, the divisions, the internal complexities that characterize the working class. It needs democracy and democratic institutions not only to defend itself against its enemies, but also to “defend itself” at the moment it assumes political power. Understanding this is important in order not to underestimate, as some Marxists did, the immense work of invention necessary for the elaboration of a democratic political theory of the transition to socialism.

The only way multiple parties can be avoided is through police action to destroy them, but that sort of action destroys democracy in the name of a democracy to come, which (we know now, and Poulantzas could see in 1979) will never arrive.

However– and here is the paradox that Venezuela  above all has revealed– a gradual transition, which pays compensation for re-appropriated collective property, that allows independent, even outright oppositional  political organizations, risks being undone at any moment by organized counter-thrusts.  If socialists ‘liquidate the class enemy,’  then they militarize the struggle and indefinitely postpone democracy (but not totalitarian rule).  If, on the other hand, they try to preserve political pluralism, they in effect keep their class enemies alive to fight another day, ensuring that whatever steps towards socialism they make, through legislation and the creation of new institutions of popular power, will be precarious  and subject to legislative roll back should the government change.

There is no theoretical solution to this problem, but only a choice to be made.  Unless the socialist left can build consistent support for its ideas, realize those ideas in institutions of popular self-government that extend into economic life, and defeat, by superior results and arguments, class enemies, it will never achieve its goals.  Any sort of militarized conflict will lead to mutually destructive civil war (as in Syria).  Socialists have to win by political organization and argument, democratic struggle, international solidarity, and demonstrable  achievements.  Such success is imaginable only over the long term- and, in spite of the danger of reaction and roll-back– gradually.

The interview also touches on a problem which perhaps resonates differently in 2017 than in 1979, but is perhaps also more important now.  It concerns what Poulantzas calls the “pan-politicization”  of society. When he made this argument in 1979, his concern was that critics were treating capitalism as CAPITALISM, an omnipotent, omniverous system that ruled out any space for free activity and self-organized experimentation.

I ask myself more and more often if it is fair to say there is a political defect in our society. Are we sure we will not fall into “pan-politicism”, one of the biggest ideological illusions inherited from the history of these recent years? At its heart, perhaps, the problem consists in recognizing that not everything is political, that there are limits to the politics of “politicization”. It is necessary to adapt to thinking that spaces of freedom may exist for new collective projects, for the expression of new subjectivities that escape politics–or better, certain limits of politics.

He implies that capitalism might not be as monolithically oppressive as critics suggest.  Capitalism is a contradictory system, and social contradictions are spaces of possibility.   Capitalism commodifies life-necessities, it is true, but their life-value exist independently of commodification, and this potentially available for non-commodified appropriation and use.  Expanded civil rights and legal flexibility allow for experimentation and self-organization (co-ops, community run spaces, self-help groups, skill exchanges…).  His point seems to be that as we work against capitalism, we should not miss opportunities to live differently within it.  Not every argument needs to end with:  “if you want x, you have to overthrow capitalism.”

This point remains relevant today even as changed political conditions reveal a new dimension probably not intended by Poulantzas.  The cultural politics of outrage and censorship strikes me as a new form of over-politicization which threatens to suffocate the emancipatory vision of socialism.   All past history is marred by structures of hierarchy and oppression.  It therefore follows that traces of oppressive and hierarchical thinking can be found everywhere, from the crassest popular culture to the highest of high art.  It does not follow, as too many left wing guardians of virtue think, that art works that bear the traces of this oppression consciously endorse it, and that therefore public display should be banned because it supposedly reinforces it.

Instead of learning to read art critically, with an eye and ear for nuance, with the ability to detect contradiction, tension, and irony, instead of understanding art as invention, not description, and, above all to recognize the liberatory potential expressed by aesthetic form (whatever the ‘literal’ content appears to be), too much of the left– especially on university campuses-  is dominated by a philistine and censorious sensibility.  We need to leave banning art to right wing religious fanatics and the cops.  We need to remember that historically it is gays and lesbians, radicals, and iconoclasts–  Wilde, Marx, Joyce– who suffered most at the hands of a conservative state, and radicals who fought for freedom of speech and expression (the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in the 1960’s, or Toronto’s flagship LGBTQ Glad Day Bookstore, in the 1970’s and 80’s for example). The Left must stand on the side of iconoclasm, free thought and expression, appreciation for the artistic exploration of the dark side of the human character, and of beauty as a socialist value.  Socialists above all should understand that life is not always nice and safe and pretty, and defend the right of artists to spread discomfort and challenge polite sensibility.

Reality Check

On December 6th, U.S. President Trump did what the U.S. Congress voted to do in 1995:  recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and begin the process of moving the Embassy there from Tel Aviv.   The move was in keeping with the dominant trends of his presidency thus far:  it kept a campaign promise, but was an old idea he embraced as his creation; it was odiously reactionary, but more style than substance, and it left all the details about implementation open.

The reaction to Trump’s announcement is also in keeping with the pattern that has developed:  loud verbal condemnations matched by no practical actions.  Hypocritical leaders from Europe and the Arab Middle East condemned the move as the death of the “peace process,” when any sentient being knows that the peace process been dead for two decades.  Israel will not seriously bargain unless threatened by forces it cannot resist or defeat.  The vaunted “Arab Street” is not such a force, nor are heroic Palestinian youth (both forces seem exhausted after decades of struggle with little concrete achievement to show for it).  The Palestinians have affirmed their dignity by  their willingness to fight for what is right, but their valour has meant nothing to the leaders of the world.  European leaders sometimes say the right things about illegal Israeli settlements, but they have never taken any real measures to end them.  If they were serious about their platitudes, they could support meaningful sanctions, but no major politician in Europe or North America has ever even mentioned the word.  Arab leaders are perhaps worst of all:  the loudest in voice to condemn Israel, the most silent when it comes to concrete action to build a global movement against Israeli colonialism.  Palestinians have been, since 1967, mostly on their own in a fight where they need real allies.

Trump is an obnoxious, narcissistic, right-wing pandering slave of money and media exposure, but he also does what he says.  Widely vilified for constructing his own reality, he also lays bare the reality of this world.  Most other politicians pretend that things like human rights, social justice, equality, and diplomatic politesse  matter.  They do not.  The world is governed by money and political-military power, and Trump makes this clear, all too clear.  Perhaps that is the deep reason why he is so loathed by liberals (in the American sense).  His tweets are lasers cutting through decades of moralizing sediments to expose the bedrock of violence that really drives global capitalism.

They hate this exposure because it brings to light the emptiness of their words:  they ruled over the same system and supported the same substantive policies as Trump, but they couched that support in puffery about human rights and social inclusion.  Trump knows that the hymns sung to human rights are all bullshit and refuses to sing along.  Mariam Barghouti, writing for Al Jazeera makes this point clearly.

Today, we see both the international community and Arab leaders ignoring Palestinian cries for justice once again. This is evident in the dominating discourse of global and as well as Arab leaders – It revolves around the fear of another uprising, instability, and protest. There is no genuine address, in most the speeches and proclamations, to the roots of the travesty bestowed upon the Palestinian people in the form of a violent occupation.

Trump’s crime is that he lets the cat out of the bag:  European and Arab leaders really do not care about Palestinians.  More deeply and generally, they all abide by the principle that the world is ruled by those who have won the wars.  Social justice for them, as for Trump, is for each side to behave as it is in truth:  the winners rule by virtue of winning, the losers are ruled by virtue of losing.  The world has always thus been governed, but usually the rulers put clothes on this naked truth.  But the clothes do not make the man in this case:  the man underneath is a violent brute and he always ruled with an iron fist.

No immediate good will come out of Trump’s announcement. Even though he did little more than recognize a de facto political truth, the recognition is yet another humiliation for the Palestinians.  The have endured worse and continued to fight.  There is no doubt that they will endure this slap in the face and fight anew.  But over the longer term, there is perhaps some value to Trump’s political realism.   Writing one year ago, just after the Trump election, Palestinian journalist Ramzy Baroud mused that Trump might prove better in the long run for Palestinians than liberals just because he is so overt in his support for Israel:

The US has served as an enabler to Israel’s political and military belligerence, while pacifying the Palestinians and the Arabs with empty promises, with threats at times, with handouts and with mere words. The so-called “moderate Palestinians”, the likes of Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority, were duly pacified, indeed, for they won the trappings of “power”, coupled with US political validation, while allowing Israel to conquer whatever remained of Palestine. But that era is, indeed, over. While the US will continue to enable Israel’s intransigence, a Trump Presidency is likely to witness a complete departure from the Washingtonian doublespeak.  Bad will no longer be good, wrong is not right, and warmongering is not peacemaking. In fact, Trump is set to expose American foreign policy for what it truly is, and has been for decades. His presidency is likely to give all parties a stark choice regarding where they stand on peace, justice and human rights.

Thus far, events have proven Baroud absolutely correct.  In order to win, one must not only know who the enemy is, but what they really think.  Attempts to build meaningful support  for Palestinian liberation through cultivating ties with Western governments have failed.  Just as in the case of apartheid in South Africa, mainstream politicians can smell the money over the pile of stinking bodies, and they always follow their nose. Unless something unexpected and unforseeable at present happens in the West, the liberation of Palestine will have to be the work of Palestinians and solidarity movements built outside of and against existing governments.

Writing one hundred and fifty years ago, Marx and Engels argued that capitalism undermines all the religious and superstitious beliefs that former ruling classes employed to justify their rule.  No one can any longer believe that the king is king by the grace of god or that the ruling class is possessed of superior blood.  Money and violence rule, and the observable everyday dynamics of the world prove it to anyone who can stand to look:

Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

Trump forces us all to look with sober senses at the real situation and our relations with one another.  He is, unabashedly, the ideal expression of the real relationship between economic and political power in capitalism.  Puffed up by the trappings of his position, he is, manifestly, a servant of money-power.  This deep truth needs to be the basis of opposition to him and the forces that created him.

Readings: John Brown: New Work

John Brown:  New Work

Olga Korper Gallery

17 Morrow Avenue, Toronto

Field of Forces

a) My Hand …

Writes me into being,

Not straightaway and all at once,

but in loops and curls.

The body of the man hides

the imagination of the child;

in old age,

the reminiscence

restores strength

to the failing body.


At the end,

one is suspended

between the light and the dark.

Endings are awful,

but human.


b) Public Service Announcement

We your benefactors have heard you,

and we have taken care:

to prevent the unexpected,

to exile the unanticipated,

to organize experience

predictably, in advance,

to anticipate the possible,

and organize it

in the interest of your happiness.


All this we have done for you.

c) The Other’s Hand

The eye

that makes the observation

is connected

to the hand

that takes the notes,

that compiles the data,

that discloses the pattern,

from which you are a deviation.


The mind

prescribes the remedy,

the hand

writes the prescription,

which restores the natural order,

by curing the affliction.


The mind

imagines the numbers,

the hand

writes the code,

that drives the apparatus

of security and surveillance,

of comfort and control.


In love for you our hands are joined

to write the rules and regulations


divide in from out,

like from unlike,

known from unknown,

us from them,

citizen from refugee,

the desired from the shunned.


Within this architecture of security

an obligatory good

has been elaborated

by us, for you.

d) Being There

Anxiety:  to vibrate out of phase

with the promised sleep

of pacified happiness.

No network application

can still the mind

that has felt

the impermanence

at the very heart

of things.


Where you are now

you cannot stay.

Being here

is a moment

of the nowhere

you will someday be,


All Photos © 2017 Olga Korper Gallery.